Posts Tagged ‘Press freedom’
Earlier this week, Liberal Conspiracy reported on plans by David Hunt, the new head of the Press Complaints Commission, to “invite political bloggers to volunteer for regulation by the PCC’s replacement. Blogs who promise to abide by the new code will get a ‘kitemark’ of approval.”
This follows a Guardian interview last month in which Hunt appeared to argue that inaccurate reporting by bloggers posed a “greater challenge” than the (now well publicised) excesses of the tabloid press.
This seemed like a surprising thing to say given the shocking details that have been emerging from the Leveson inquiry, and my initial reaction was very much in line with that of the “Broken Barnet” blog.
But I was also curious to find out more about the motivation and rationale behind the idea, and the extent to which it has (or hasn’t) been properly thought through.
So I’ve written to David Hunt, C/O his office in the House of Lords, with a series of questions. If I get any kind of response I’ll be posting it here.
Dear David Hunt,
I was intrigued by reports that you are hoping to introduce a “kitemarking” scheme for bloggers. As a writer who has a blog and closely follows a number of others, I have some questions about this idea that I’m hoping you might be able to answer?
1. Despite the recent growth of the internet, many more people still read books than read blogs. Some of the things that are written in books are inaccurate and misleading. Thousands of new books are published in the UK each year. Yet other than the law of libel – which is equally applicable to blogs – there is currently no formal mechanism for challenging inaccuracies published in books. In order to be consistent, will the Press Complaints Commission therefore be seeking to “kitemark” books – or book publishers? If not, why single out blogs and blogging?
2. It has been suggested that you believe inaccurate reporting by bloggers to pose a “greater challenge” than inaccurate coverage by the tabloid press. Can you provide some specific examples of inaccurate reporting by bloggers that you believe might substantiate this claim?
3. In 2010 I reported the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over an article in which it made a series of false claims downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. [see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/27/asbestos-press-watchdog-pcc]. The newspaper eventually agreed to print a correction. Can you provide an example of a similarly toxic false health claim made by a blogger?
4. Can you provide an example of a blog whose reporting is consistently less accurate than, for example, that of the Daily Mail?
5. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all organisations that publish a blog (eg. Cancer Research UK [http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/] or Topshop [http://insideout.topshop.com/]) or only to individual blogs that are deemed “political”?
6. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to political blogs published by Members of Parliament – for example Nadine Dorries MP [http://blog.dorries.org/] and Tom Watson MP? [http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/]
7. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all blogs read in the UK (ie. including US-based blogs such as BoingBoing [http://boingboing.net], and the US edition of the Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=US]) or only to blogs written by people living in the UK?
8. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to publicly visible postings and “groups” on Facebook, and to postings on microblogging sites such as Twitter?
9. Many political blogs are highly critical of the habits and standards of commercial newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun and Daily Telegraph. Given that the Press Complaints Commission would receive the bulk of its funding from such sources even under the alternative arrangements you are proposing, would this not create a serious conflict of interest, undermining the credibility of any attempt by the PCC to “regulate” political bloggers?
10. Many political blogs are highly critical of the Conservative Party and its donors, and of the wider political establishment in which the three main political parties operate. Given that both you and your predecessor are Conservative members of the House of Lords, does this not also create a serious conflict of interest, and undermine the perceived neutrality and objectivity of any PCC “kitemarking” scheme for political bloggers?
I will be publishing these questions on my blog. If you are able to respond then I would be happy to include your answers in full. You would also be welcome to add a comment to the blogpost itself, which can be found at http://richardwilsonauthor.wordpress.com.
From The Guardian
The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights.
Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.
The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.
The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.
From Parliament.uk, “Questions for Oral or Written Answer beginning on Tuesday 13 October 2009″
N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.
UPDATE – pleased to see that the mighty Guido Fawkes had the same idea. Injunction scuppered…
UPDATE 3 – Big thumbs up to The Spectator for, I think, being the first mainstream UK media to break ranks and fully report what’s been going on. If only they were this good the whole time – for any Spectator staff who are reading, can I request more of the defending-democracy stuff and less of the pseudo-debating AIDS-denialism? I hope Lord Fowler knows what you’re letting him in for!
Now that the government’s extraordinary judicial harassment of journalist Sally Murrer has finally been stopped, Ms Murrer is free to speak openly about the case for the first time. In an article in today’s Mail on Sunday, Murrer describes in detail the personal toll that her 19-month ordeal has taken.
The startling political implications of the case are further highlighted by Nick Cohen in the Observer. Though sympathetic, Cohen describes as a “conspiracy theory” Murrer’s belief that she was targeted because of her close friendship with Mark Kearney, the police whistleblower in the Sadiq Khan case, who was (unsuccessfully) prosecuted with her.
This description seems somewhat harsh. Sally Murrer is the only journalist in the entire country to have been singled out in this way, simply for doing what local journalists do all the time – taking news tip-offs from local police sources. But unlike other local newspaper journalists, one of Sally Murrer’s friends – and sources – happens to be the man at the centre of a high profile police scandal that caused the government enormous embarrassment – a man whose son and former business associate were also targeted for prosecution in the same case. It surely isn’t wildly speculative to suppose that these two facts might have had some connection…
Just one day after the shadow Home Office minister Damian Green was arrested by nine counter-terrorism officers on suspicion of “aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” – an arcane charge stemming from his publishing embarrassing revelations from a government whistleblower, news was released that the local journalist Sally Murrer had been fully cleared of a similar charge, in a costly court case which has been dragging on since May 2007.
The case against Murrer fell apart earlier this week, after a judge ruled that the key evidence presented by police had been gathered illegally. A press gagging order had been in place until today, while the prosecution made up their minds over whether or not to appeal. Murrer’s car and phone conversations with her police officer friend Mark Kearney had been secretly bugged over a period of weeks, before she was arrested, strip searched, and told that she could go to prison for life simply for having heard information deemed “sensitive”.
It later emerged that Mark Kearney was at the centre of the scandal surrounding the bugging by Thames Valley Police of the Labour MP Sadiq Khan. Kearney had been put under pressure to co-operate with the secret surveillance of Khan, and had raised concerns that the practice was unethical, if not illegal, shortly before his fellow police officers began investigating his contact with Murrer.
“They tried to discredit the whistleblower and the journalist they thought he was going to blow the whistle to and destroy the story that way”, Murrer told the Press Gazette earlier this year. “It seems like a huge hammer to smash a very small nut and I think this could be one of the biggest cover-ups this country has ever seen. They were trying to ruin him, destroying me in the process.”
The police also arrested Kearney’s son, Harry, a serving soldier, on similar charges. Quoted in the Times, Kearney suggested that:
“To get at me the police have tried to bring my son down as well – we used to call it hostage taking, arresting a suspect’s family to make him crack. But the Army have stood by him.”
Speaking after her court victory, Murrer told the Press Gazette that she was too emotionally exhausted to feel triumphant, and that after her 18-month ordeal she was unsure whether she had the confidence to continue her work as a journalist.
From the Committee to Protect Journalists
By Joel Simon/Executive Director
Alexis Sinduhije founded Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) in 2001 to bridge Burundi’s ethnic divide. Divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups have sparked widespread and lingering violence throughout the country.
Breaking from the past, Sinduhije hired former fighters from both ethnic groups at RPA and trained them to be serious and responsible journalists.
In 1994, CPJ honored Sinduhije with an International Press Freedom Award. During the week he spent with us, we got to know a man of deep principle whose quiet demeanor belies his fierce determination and courage. RPA remains one of the most popular and critical radio stations in Burundi, but government harassment forced Sinduhije into hiding twice in 2006. In 2007, Sinduhije launched his candidacy for president for the country’s 2010 elections.
On November 3, he was arrested and charged under an arcane anti-conspiracy law barring meetings of more than three people.
As I told The Washington Post, we recognize that Sinduhije’s recent arrest has nothing to do with his journalism. Yet we worry about our friend and colleague and are outraged by his unjust treatment.
Named one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people, Sinduhije has been a voice of reason and common sense in Burundi. The government may be trying desperately to silence him, but his voice must be heard.
Jean-Claude, an ardent critic of corruption and human rights abuse in his country, was arrested in September 2008, and charged with “defamation”, simply for questioning President Nkurunziza’s expenditure at the Beijing Olympics.
Amnesty International has taken up the case, listing Jean-Claude as “a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.”
I’ve just set up an online petition to raise the profile of the case, and press for Jean-Claude’s release:
The UK Trade Unions Congress has endorsed a motion by the National Union of Journalists expressing ‘grave concern’ over the erosion of civil liberties in the UK, and the effect that this is having on freedom of expression.
“The terrorising of journalists isn’t just done by shadowy men in balaclavas, but also by governments and organisations who use the apparatus of the law or state authorities to suppress and distort the information they do not want the public to know and to terrorise the journalists involved through injunctions, threats to imprisonment and financial ruin,” NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear told the conference.
Dear cited the case of Sally Murrer, who is currently on trial for allegedly receiving information from a police officer that he had not been authorised to disclose, and the treatment by police of press photographers in a raid on the “Climate Camp” protest earlier this year.
“Journalists’ material and their sources are increasingly targeted by those who wish to pull a cloak of secrecy over their actions.”, Dear told the conference.
In a similar vein, Craig Murray reports being pressured to making swingeing changes to the text of his new book, “The Orangemen of Togo” (great title!) after Tim Spicer, formerly of the mercenary company Sandline, and now head of the quids-in Iraq ’security contractor’ Aegis, hired infamous libel firm Schillings, and brought a legal injunction to delay publication.
Murray says that he’s been told, among a range of other changes, that:
- I must refer to Sandline as a “Private Military Company” and portray their activities in Africa as supporting legitimate government against rebels
- I must portray Western action in Iraq as “peace-keeping”
- I must say Shell were involved in corruption in Nigeria “inadvertently”
A few years ago, The Center for Public Integrity did an incisive exposé on Spicer, the origins of the euphemistic term ‘Private Military Company’, and the shady role of such organisations in conflicts as far afield as Sierra Leone, and Papua New Guinea. It’s sobering to think that someone with this sort of history is now in charge one of the largest contracts awarded to any western firm currently operating in Iraq.
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I take a look at the disasters that can happen when freedom of expression starts to break down, and at Craig Murray’s role in exposing UK government wrongdoing after leaving his post as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan.
I’ve just heard that the Burundian journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu has been arrested on charges of “defaming” the country’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza. Jean-Claude, the director of the ‘Netpress’ news agency has been tireless in exposing human rights abuses and corruption in Burundi, and I am endebted to him for his support while I was writing my last book.
This arrest was triggered by a Netpress report that Burundi’s President spent $100,000 on his official visit to the Beijing Olympics - a particularly sensitive issue in a country where income tends to average about $100 a year.
Reporters Sans Frontieres has taken up the case, calling for Jean-Claude’s immediate release. According to RSF:
His latest arrest comes at a time of growing hostility among the president’s supporters towards human rights organisations and certain local journalists and privately-owned media, which a pro-government website recently accused of being “children of the dictatorship” concerned solely with “defending what they have gained.”
The Burundi government’s ongoing harrassment of its critics seems to contrast sharply with uncritical-verging-on-hagiographic media reports in the East African press of Nkurunziza’s presidency and his supposed emphasis on ‘forgiveness’.
Bugs, strip-searches and gagging orders – The bizarre story of Her Majesty versus Sally Murrer… (and some even more bizarre claims from Private Eye)
The press freedom organisation Reporters Sans Frontieres doesn’t usually have too much to say about abuses against media workers here in Britain, but their latest report details some worrying cases – none stranger than the ongoing trial of the Milton Keynes local journalist Sally Murrer.
In May last year, Murrer was arrested by eight police officers, strip-searched and charged with “aiding and abetting misconduct in public office”. She was then accused of paying police officers to supply her with information for stories she could then sell on to the national press, a charge which she firmly denies. The police told her that she had been under surveillance for weeks, and played her recordings of telephone conversations she had had with her friend Mark Kearney, a Thames Valley police officer, which they said proved the case. Murrer was told that they already had enough information to send her to prison for life, and that the police need only show that she had heard information deemed ‘sensitive’ in order to convict her. Kearney and a former police officer Derek Webb (now a private investigator), have also been charged in the same case.
Then in February this year, it was revealed that Mark Kearney had been involved in the secret bugging of the Labour MP and lawyer, Sadiq Khan, during his visits to a childhood friend, Babar Ahmad, who has been detained without charge for several years, pending extradition to the United States (where he is accused of involvement in terrorism). Kearney claims that he repeatedly raised ethical and legal concerns about the work he had been asked to do. He and Murrer believe that the case being brought against him – and Murrer – was a somewhat clumsy attempt to prevent him from blowing the whistle.
Now the print edition of the magazine Private Eye reports an even more bizarre twist. The Eye claims that the detective-turned-private-investigator Derek Webb had been carrying out surveillance operations for the tabloid press against a number of high-profile public figures suspected of having affairs. These reportedly include two un-named (due to the usual legal gagging orders) cabinet ministers, together with the infamous former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, and the director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald - the man in charge of the department overseeing the case against Webb, Kearney and Murrer. The police seized Derek Webb’s diaries (in which he details his surveillance work) as evidence to be used in the case case against him. Now the crown prosecution service has reportedly declined requests by Webb’s defence team for access to the diaries, claiming that it no longer has them…