Archive for January 2012
A state-funded South London primary school which has repeatedly been praised by Education Secretary Michael Gove has admitted incurring over £387,000 in legal costs since 2008.
The bulk of the costs, disclosed by Durand Academy under the Freedom of Information Act*, relate to a libel case against Jeff Newell, the father of a former teacher at the school, over comments he had made about the school’s headteacher and senior management team. Durand records legal fees of £244,675 in relation to this libel case.
The school states that “Mr Newell made a full and unreserved apology. All costs that could be recouped, given Mr Newell’s financial situation, were paid to Durand”. Details of the amount covered by Mr Newell are not given.
The latest FOI disclosure comes on top of an admission by Durand Academy last year that it had paid nearly £200,000 to a PR firm, “Political Lobbying and Media Relations”.
The new figures do not include the as-yet-undisclosed amount that Durand has spent funding an ongoing libel complaint against Lambeth Council and its chief auditor over three emails which raised concerns about the school’s management. Index on Censorship last year estimated that this case may already have cost over £100,000.
But Durand does disclose the legal fees totalling £81,876 that it spent persuading the Department for Education to grant it FMSiS financial best practice accreditation**. According to court documents from the Lambeth libel case, the school employed the law firm Carter Ruck to represent them in this effort. Durand also hired Carter Ruck in the Jeff Newell libel case, and the ongoing case against Lambeth council.
In a landmark ruling in the early 1990s, the House of Lords determined that there was “no public interest favouring the right of organs of government, whether central or local, to sue for libel… to admit such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech”.
As a public body, Durand Academy therefore cannot sue for libel in its own right. Yet individual staff and governors can take action over allegations made about the school, so long as they can make the case that they were personally defamed within the discussion. Durand is one of a number of public authorities who have chosen to fund such personal libel actions by their employees in recent years.
(*See here for my original FOI request, made in June 2011, with a chaser message sent in November. The school’s disclosure follows a complaint to the Information Commission the following month after Durand continued to ignore the request.)
(**The remaining disclosed legal costs were: £28,340 incurred in relation to a 2008-09 hearing at the General Teaching Council, £19,163 on planning/property, and £13,487 spent on converting the school to an Academy.)
Judiciary kept in the dark as Burundi opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije is “investigated” by Tanzania’s Foreign Ministry
This doesn’t seem to augur well for the prospects of a fair trial…
From Tanzania Daily News
The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Eliezer Feleshi, on Wednesday said he had not yet received the file from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation concerning the case against the Burundian opposition party leader, Alexis Sinduhije, in order to open a case in court.
“The case is not yet mature, because, if it was, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have sent the file to us to open the case.
“The DPP is not concerned with investigative affairs, this case is currently being handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Mr Felishi told the ‘Daily News’ yesterday over the phone.
Speaking to this newspaper, Sinduhije’s counsel, Habas Nyange, said that he was not aware of the fate of his client. “I am just like you journalists, I have been coming to Kisutu Resident Magistrates’ Court waiting for my client but to no avail.
“I cannot talk to my client properly as I can only talk to him more freely once he is taken to court yet I’m not being informed when he will be brought to court – so he could even be brought to court without my knowledge and then remanded, it is a very difficult situation,” complained Nyange.
“we have done absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever” – #BellPottinger chief Tim Bell on the #Wikipedia editing scandal
The FT has an amusing report about this week’s meeting between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and staff of Bell Pottinger, the shamed lobbying firm that was caught “factory-farming” the online encyclopedia on an industrial scale.
Despite his firm being exposed using multiple fake identities to whitewash embarrassing information about its clients, Chairman Tim Bell (who also happens to be a Conservative member of the House of Lords), is said to have insisted that “As far as I am concerned, we have done absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever”.
Echoing fellow Tory Lord and Press Complaints Commission Chair David Hunt, Tim Bell reportedly bemoaned the lack of a “regulatory body” for people to complain to about online content that they were unhappy with.
Bell’s ethical stance is certainly interesting. While he sees nothing wrong with his colleagues’ misleading behaviour on Wikipedia, he was reportedly outraged when the Bureau of Investigative journalism used subterfuge to expose his company’s dubious business practices, condemning the deception as “underhand, unethical and improper” – and reporting the journalists concerned to David Hunt’s Press Complaints Commission.
Back in 2008, however, Bell was insisting that “I don’t see any reason why I or my company should follow some arbitrary set of ethical values”.
Permission To Speak: Conservative Lord suggests that government “may end up regulating” the blogosphere
Last month Liberal Conspiracy reported on plans by David Hunt, a Conservative Member of the House of Lords, and the new head of the Press Complaints Commission, to “invite political bloggers to volunteer for regulation by the PCC’s replacement”.
Hunt was also reported to have said that bloggers posed a “greater challenge” than the tabloid press, and that “At the moment, it is like the Wild West out there. We need to appoint a sheriff.”
Here’s what I asked:
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’m pleased to say that I’ve now received a reply. It came, somewhat incongruously, on paper, through the post (I will be responding in detail via my 50-mile-long network of Semaphore towers), so this is lovingly hand-typed from the original:
Dear Mr Wilson,
Thank you for your letter dated 19th December. I am pleased that you were interested in my recent interview.
As you will have seen from my reported comments any future plan for online media would be to invite bloggers who write on current affairs to volunteer to be regulated by the new system of self-regulation. This logically follows because such blogs are news-like and similar in content to newspapers and magazines.
All media and publications will make mistakes on accuracy from time to time. The important thing is that content is regulated by an agreed code of practice and that errors can be corrected speedily and with due prominence.
With regard to my reported comment that bloggers were a “greater challenge”. This was a passing remark made in an interview which has been amplified. I was not discussing standards in blogs, but rather the structural issue that they represent an area of free speech, which government may want to regulate, or may end up regulating. The point I was making was that work needs to be done to stave off statutory regulation for everyone, including blogs. This is the challenge.
Demonstrating adherence to such a set of standards and to an effective self-regulatory system would of course mean that publications could convey to their readers that they could trust what they read and would mean that readers could recognise the intentions of the editors of that publication whether in print or online. That is why I suggested some kind of “kitemark” would convey a gold standard for those publications that carried it.
I hope the above information helps you understand the voluntary nature of the system I have suggested. Of course the key to the success of such a proposal is designing a new regulatory regime that is seen to be effective and which publishers will want to be part of and buy into.
The Right Hon The Lord Hunt of Wirral MBE
Readers will note that David Hunt has sidestepped a number of my questions but let’s focus on what he does say. Hunt’s starting point seems to be that there is a substantial danger that the UK government may decide to impose compulsory regulation on bloggers – and that creating a voluntary scheme of “self-regulation”, run by the Press Complaints Commission (or whatever replaces it), might therefore be an effective way of heading this off.
Now I don’t doubt that a large section of the UK political establishment would love to start imposing further controls on what we say and do online – although it is sobering to see this being discussed as a serious possibility by a Conservative member of the House of Lords. But the idea that the best way to prevent this is to start accepting “voluntary” regulation of bloggers seems self-defeating.
It’s worth remembering that UK bloggers have never operated in a regulation-free-zone. Bloggers can be – and have been – sued for libel if they write something about somebody that that person finds objectionable. We can, in principle, be sued for breaches of privacy or copyright infringement, arrested for contempt of court if we ignore a gagging order, or subject to police action under lackadaisically-drafted “harrassment” laws. We are subject to the Cancer Act, and the Advertising Standards Agency.
So any new regulations the government decided to impose would be additional to these limits.
A better starting point, it seems to me, would be to insist that the UK government has no business trying to “regulate” the blogosphere beyond the constraints that already exist. Rather than simply accepting the regulation of political speech as a grim inevitability, and then voluntarily embracing PCC oversight in the hope of retaining some measure of liberty, it would surely make more sense to turn the tables and demand that our politicians adhere to the “standards” we expect of them – one of these being a clear understanding on their part that our freedom of speech is not up for negotiation.
My latest piece for the New Humanist
A growing number of activists are calling for science to play a larger role in policy. But will it work? Richard Wilson asks the experts
In the latter days of the last Labour government, then Home Office minister Vernon Coaker introduced a law designed to enable the prosecution of those who paid for sexual services. The government had published a lengthy report, “Tackling Demand for Prostitution”, arguing that evidence showed such a change could reduce the violence and exploitation suffered by commercial sex workers.
In the House, Liberal Democrat science spokesman Dr Evan Harris raised concerns that the evidence in the report had not yet been published – and could therefore not be properly scrutinised. Harris cited the fact that the Royal College of Nursing had expressed concern that further criminalisation could actually be counterproductive, driving victims of sexual exploitation further underground, and away from where they might seek help. There was, Harris argued, a need to examine more thoroughly the evidence on which the proposed legislation was based. “We are looking at publishing the evidence,” replied the Minister, but “in the end, you pick the evidence which backs your argument.”
To those familiar with the scientific method this cherry-picking of data to support a preconceived hypothesis is a hallmark of quackery. Watching the debate, “mouth agape”, was Harris’s Parliamentary researcher, and biology graduate, Imran Khan. Khan was astonished that a government minister could think about, or talk about, scientific evidence in this way. He is now Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a lobby group for science and technology education, and cites this tale as a textbook example of “policy-based evidence-making” – when evidence is chosen only to support or defend an already decided policy. Khan is one of a growing cadre of scientifically literate activists who see it as their job to root out this kind of back-to-front thinking, and to promote instead “evidence-based policy-making”, where rigorous, reputable and, crucially, publicly available evidence plays more than merely a fig leaf role in public policy. These include prominent public figures like Khan’s old boss Harris, who writes the Political Science blog for the Guardian, science writer and scourge of the chiropractors Simon Singh, and the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist Dr Ben Goldacre.