The bully barons of the British press fight to remain unaccountable

Of course, true to form, only hours after I published my previous post, three British press groups threatened to boycott any new self-regulatory body which might be underpinned by statue, the Guardian reported. Classy. As Alex Andreou at the New Statesman wrote, this really is a toddlers’ tantrum.

Much of the press seems to be belly-down on the supermarket floor, punching the linoleum, kicking out and screaming WAAH WAAH BUT I DON’T WANT TO BE REGULATED.

The three groups, News International (aka Hackers ‘R Us), Daily Mail owner Associated Newspapers and the Telegraph Media Group all portrayed themselves as the defenders of freedom of the press and democratic liberty. It should be pointed out, that when Operation Motorman looked into the use of private investigators by the the press and other industries, including the financial and insurance industries, topping the league table by a country mile was the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail says that every one of its 1218 requests from private investigators was legal. I would prefer if a proper investigation determined that rather than take it on the self-interested word of Mail man Paul Dacre.

The Guardian quoted a source close on these efforts who said:

We wouldn’t join the regulator. It would challenge the government to go for full state licensing. This is definitely under active consideration: to stand up against the politicians and for the media and say ‘we’ll go it alone and what are you going to do about it?’ They will just end up fighting for years and newspapers might rediscover a common purpose around press freedom and become a beacon of liberty. This is definitely a fallback position.

Lord Black, a Conservative peer and executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, said any regulator underpinned by statute would be constantly challenged by law. Translation: We’ll unleash our dogs of law.

This isn’t about the freedom of the press. This is about press corporations that want freedom from accountability. This is not about liberty, unless it is the liberty to continue to live outside the laws, ethics and standards of a democratic society.

Journalists, editors and publishers are citizens.We are not above nor outside the law. These three press groups are not defending press freedom, a freedom that exists to support and be balanced by other rights in a democratic society. They are rather fighting for their own self interest . They are not fighting to hold power to account but rather are fighting to hold onto their own power. Shameful.

British journalists need to take responsibility for press reform

With respect to proposals over to reform the British press in the wake of ever widening allegations of phone hacking, computer hacking and utterly unethical behaviour, we’re seeing Greener’s Law in operation:

Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.

The British press have been spilling a lot of ink and pushing a lot of pixels in an attempt to avoid any change to the status quo. If the press was covering any other industry fighting so vociferously against a new regulatory regime, journalists and columnists would accuse them of special pleading and double standards. In a brilliant piece piercing some of the puffery of the press, Alex Andreou, writing for the New Statesman, put it this way:

The lack of self-reflection is truly staggering. The Leveson process is not something which was done to us. Nobody woke up one morning and thought “I know what I’ll do today – curtail the freedom of the press.” This is something entirely caused by the industry being, on the whole, out of control; engaging in occasionally illegal and often unethical practices. Take responsibility.

The response from journalists? Lord Justice Leveson put it best:

Not only are the press powerful lobbyists in their own interests, but they wield a powerful megaphone with considerable influence.

The press in the UK doesn’t want any interference by the government in what they do, which I support up to a point, but the press has talking a lot of nonsense about the proposals for reform and self-regulation for months.

With all of the spin in the press, it’s important to review what Leveson actually proposed. To quote a BBC explainer, Leveson recommended:

• Newspapers should continue to be self-regulated – and the government should have no power over what they publish
• There had to be a new press standards body created by the industry, with a new code of conduct
• That body should be backed by legislation, which would create a means to ensure the regulation was independent and effective
• The arrangement would provide the public with confidence that their complaints would be seriously dealt with – and ensure the press are protected from interference

Not to gloss over some of the finer points of the just announced proposals, but the main difference now appears to be whether the new self-regulatory body will be backed by regulation or a Royal Charter. I would like to know what happened to Leveson’s recommendation that in addition to the new self-regulation body, a new law “should also place an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press”. That would be a great addition to the proposals.

What has been troubling to me is that instead of reaffirming their commitment to professionalism, fair play and living within the law, too much of British journalistic commentary about the proposed reforms has been over the top, invoking the name of Stalin, Mussolini and other dark dictators. Anti-hacking campaigners are accused of bullying politicians simply by meeting them. Really? As if press barons never met with politicians? Indeed, as the FT recently said, all of the closed door meetings between powerful editors and politicians gave the impression that the press had something to hide.

A democracy cannot have an institution, governmental or otherwise, that operates with no accountability. Commercial press barons would say that their audiences hold to them account with the power of the pound, but commercial success is not equivalent to or a substitute for accountability.

The scope of this press corruption scandal continues to grow with hundreds of more revelations about not only Rupert Murdoch’s papers but also now at Trinity Mirror. At some point, voices within the press need to stop playing hardball defence and start getting to grips with how to respond affirmatively. I’m a journalist who has worked for the BBC and then the Guardian for most of my career, and I have been waiting for British journalists to stand up and categorically condemn the behaviour and commit to renewed professionalism. Certainly, some have, but mostly, I just saw reflexive grandstanding about the essential democratic role of the press. True, freedom of the press is essential to democracy, and the role that we play in supporting free societies it is one of the reasons why I’m proud to be a journalist.

However, we cannot turn a blind eye to how corrupt and corrupting certain parts of the British press became. Operation Motorman showed how widespread the problem was. However, the best way to put distance between the vast majority of journalists and these criminals within our midst is to stand up for our professional standards and ethics. The press cannot hold power to account if its own power is unaccountable. We cannot protect democracy while allowing a criminal class to grow within our midst. Our efforts at self-regulation cannot be taken seriously if the serial abuse is so obvious to everyone outside of our professional tribe, yet denied by so many people within it.

It was cheering this week to see Charles Blackhurst of The Independent, Lionel Barber of the Financial Times and Alan Rushbridger of The Guardian join together and call for a sensible compromise on press reform and regulation. According to Roy Greenslade in The Guardian:

All three editorials suggest that statutory underpinning will not inhibit press freedom. It doesn’t amount to statutory control of the press, says the Guardian. It need not impinge on press freedom, says the FT.

This is long overdue, but it should not just be left to editors to take this stand. If we really want to defend the freedom of the press that we enjoy in the UK, we have to stand up against the almost comically criminal hacks and stand up for professionalism, ethics and standards. The wretched excesses of parts of the press have been tolerated for too long, but now, a total lack of ethics and criminality by a not insignificant number of hacks is threatening freedom of all journalists. It’s not a joke anymore. It is threatening the precious freedoms we enjoy.

Leveson: Freedom of expression and the press are different rights

Professor Chris Frost, the Head of Journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, has testified before the Leveson inquiry “in in his role as Chairman of the National Union of Journalists Ethics Council, alongside NUJ General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet”, and I think he raised a point that is important not only with respect to the press corruption scandal in Britain but also in a lot of other debates that we’re currently having in terms of rights and responsibilities in democratic societies. I’ve heard a number of times recently people confuse freedom of the press with freedom of speech or of expression. These are different rights. 

Frost drew a distinction, and I think an important one, between freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Just as important in terms of making distinctions between these freedoms, he also speaks about limits with respect to these freedoms. 

Clearly other people have other freedoms which may come into conflict.  The obvious ones are reputation, privacy, fair trial and so on, all as mentioned in the Human Rights Act, and clearly journalists need to balance their – and indeed everybody needs to – balance their right to freedom of expression against those other rights.

This becomes particularly important for the media, which is in a particular position of power, so that whereas the kind of freedom of expression you and I enjoy when talking to other people can have a little more licence, when it’s driven by a media which is talking potentially to millions, there needs to be much more concern about the rights of others, such as privacy and so on.

The difference between the rights of the individual to expression and the rights of journalists as members of the press and media are different. The individual right of expression versus the institutional right of freedom of the press have a different relationship to the democratic process. I’ve made the point before that the press, the Fourth Estate, is an institution with power. It needs this power to hold other institutions and other holders of power to account. However, power corrupts, and in the case of the British tabloids, in particular, they not only became corrupt but also had a corrupting influence on public officials. When other institutions, whether they are in government or in the private sphere, we call for reform.

Recent attacks on the process of the Leveson inquiry by powerful interests of the press worry me. The British press is in need of reform, not to protect the powerful from being held to account but to protect ordinary British citizens whose reputations have been smeared and whose right to privacy has been trampled by an unaccountable tabloid press. Leveson is about stamping out corruption in an important democratic institution, the press. It is not an attack on freedom of speech. 

A healthy debate about ‘he-said-she-said’ journalism

I credit the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane with starting a good debate about fact-checking in journalism, and I like Bernard Keane’s of Australia’s Crikey with a pretty level-headed summary of what Brisbane said:

Brisbane’s point was that op-ed columnists have the freedom to challenge such assertions, and that the Times has been running a sidebar to presidential nomination stories that fact-checks claims by candidates, but such analysis was not currently part of the straight reportage of the Times, and he wanted to know whether it should be.

Fact-checking rather just parroting what politicians say has been on the rise in American journalism. has been running was launched 2003 by Brooks Jackson who did a similar features CNN, and Politifact won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for its web-based fact-checking operation. Even the Associated Press has had fact-checking projects running for years. As Brisbane says and also New York Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, fact checking and truth telling is a part of the Times’ journalism.

Jay Rosen has long been criticising what US political coverage calling it the Church of the Savvy with its “view from nowhere”, and Brisbane’s column really got under his skin. Jay writes:

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

I would ask: Whose side is the press supposed to be on? I’ve always assumed my readers. Sure, it’s our job as journalists to call out political, corporate or other figures when they peddle falsehoods, and I don’t accept an objectivity that cannot distinguish between what is false and true. I also think it’s important to put points of view in perspective, rather than think that absolute balance should be a goal of journalism. That requires not only editorial decisions but judgement calls. However, I’ll be honest. I don’t see it as my job as a journalist to take sides. I’ll call bullshit on any side, and my independence is core to my identity as a journalist. My university had the largest fraternity and sorority system, and I used to say that I belonged to Gamma Delta Iota – God Damned Independent.  I’m still that way. I respected my colleagues at the BBC who had the ability to hold everyone’s feet to the fire, regardless of party. That’s not a view from nowhere, that’s about accountability, including my own.

As for Jay’s issues with objectivity, the idea has a lot of detractors these days, and it’s constantly been under attack since the day I left j-school. Objectivity does not mean false balance. Giving bullshit peddlers equal time is not objectivity. Radical relativism, or false equivalence as James Fallows refers to it, where everyone’s views or narrative is valid or reported without challenge isn’t objectivity. However, I still check my biases because as my journalism professor, the late, great Bob Reid, bellowed at us:

Check your biases, because your biases will determine the questions you don’t ask!

It’s still burned into my mind.

I’m not as het up as Jay about this. As James Fallows says:

So I think Brisbane deserves credit rather than ridicule for raising this question. Let’s hope that within the Times, and elsewhere, it’s one more reason to focus attention on the difficult daily choices facing journalists trained to be “fair” and “objective” in the new political-infosphere terrain. (And, yes, I realize that these choices are difficult — there’s a whole book on the topic!)

I also see it as an opportunity for journalists to outline their professional values and rebut some of the caricatures that people hold of us.

This is a healthy discussion, and as Keane at Crikey says, this isn’t just about views on objectivity, balance or false equivalence, this is also about resources. I hope he pardons me for the extended quote, but this is important:

The complicating factor when criticising he-said-she-said, however, is resources. Should a radio reporter, rushing to air coverage of a press conference, instead devote an hour to researching every claim made by the politician at the microphone? More to the point, what would her producer say? What about an audience now accustomed to instantaneous coverage of everything? In an era of ever-more constrained media resources, time spent fact-checking is now at a premium. People love to bag journalists, especially on social media, and it’s frequently merited, but what’s missed is that journalists are placed under ever greater pressure from editors and producers to meet ever faster deadlines, in an ever greater number of formats, with fewer and fewer resources.

Yup. Everyone working in journalism knows this right now. We’re under greater and greater pressure to produce more and more as there are fewer and fewer of us.

I’ve only linked to and quoted a few of the posts on this topic. Jay has lots more links on his post. The Atlantic has more. Missed out in that round-up is Clay Shirky’s piece today in the Guardian. James Fallows’ post is worth reading in full. Politicians have stepped up their game in ways that the US press has yet to find an effective response to. Although journalists’ favourite passtime is navel-gazing, this has brought up some important questions. It’s a good discussion to have in an election year.

Many journalists see numbers as ‘research rather than journalism’

That’s a paraphrase from my former colleague and good friend, Simon Rogers, the editor The Guardian’s Datablog. Simon is a true champion of best practise using data in journalism, and here is what he had to say to Chris Elliot, The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor:

First, I think there’s a cultural challenge. Many journalists are arty types who traditionally have thought of anything to do with numbers as ‘research’, rather than journalism. That’s combined with an unwillingness to ask difficult questions about data, or read the notes that get attached to spreadsheets [that journalists receive]. This doesn’t apply to everyone – the specialists know all about this.

I applaud Simon for his frankness. As Suw and I talk about frequently, many of the issues that we deal with in our work are relate to culture. I wrote recently how journalists’ identity is often a barrier to the adoption of technology, and in some ways, technology and statistics are lumped into the same bucket by a number of journalists (unless you’re a stats-junkie sports journalist).

Chris also interviews Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science column in The Guardian, for his column about statistics. Ben hits on one of the issues that drives me nuts about my profession, statistics inflation. Sure, we can shout to the hills about a 200%  CORRECTION 100% (thanks Vincent) increase in the number of children who have been killed by albino elephants in zoos, but if that dramatic increase is from one child to two children, it’s not really a story. As a journalist, I can spot statistics abuse from a mile off, and I tend to think that many readers can too. Big percentages are always a tip off, especially if the reporter obscures or leaves out the actual figures entirely. Ben also raiss the issue of dealing with relative risk.

Another issue raised in the article is basic innumeracy in journalism. It’s shocking to see how often journalists conflate mean with median or use mean when it’s actually not representative or skewed by outliers. Mean is a simple average whereas median is a the middle value in a set of values. Depending on your set of numbers, mean and median can diverge by quite a lot. It’s not a hard and fast rule that one is better than the other. It’s worth checking the distribution of values first to decide which one is more representative of the data, and reasonable people can disagree about which one is more representative as Chris Elliot points out in the piece. The problem is that too few journalists know the difference.

There is a comment on the article from a biological scientist that is worth reading:

May I just ask why Journalists don’t have to study a minimum level of statistics before they are employed?

Don’t you people have to have some common level of understanding of the world you live in before you describe it.

And the:-

“who traditionally have thought of anything to do with numbers as ‘research’, rather than journalism.”

I take (that) means (sic) your writers value writing more than they value understanding what they write about.

I can see why journalists score as well as they do on respect polls.

I’m a biological scientist, I have have had (sic) to study statistics and ethics as part of my training.

I have to take and pass courses on toxins/hazards, clinical ethics, animal ethics and quite a few other courses, every year.

If I were to treat choice of mean, medium or mode as a matter of personal choice I would be torn apart by my referees.

With the number of choices that people have for information, we journalists need to step up our game. We do need to do more to understand the world we live, ask tougher questions and be more serious about the flood of numbers that inundate us everyday. Again, as a journalist, I know when a reporter has written around a hole in their reporting, relating to numbers or not. It’s pretty easy to spot. (I’ve had to do it myself.) It’s foolish to think that our readers can be duped so easily.