The Guardian’s ‘moderation,’ again – and reader-commenters on newspaper sites correcting the unbalanced coverage of mass surveillance

Nikki de Saint Phalle’s one-tonne L’Ange Protecteur (Guardian Angel): could there be a more perfect emblem of The Guardian’s institutional persona? photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Nikki de Saint Phalle’s one-tonne L’Ange Protecteur (Guardian Angel): could there be a more perfect emblem of The Guardian’s institutional persona?
photograph: Wikimedia Commons

No, we do not dislike The Guardian at post-Gutenberg. It is a newspaper that meets a vital need. With its unstinting support of every vulnerable or marginalised social group – immigrants, same-sex lovers, the transgendered, disabled and poor – it is the only internationally famous old media name backed by a supremely feminine sensibility. It is a sort of zaftig, mammoth-breasted Ur-Mother angel, in spite of being led by a male editor, Alan Rusbridger. We arrived at this thought indirectly, after a male critic of p-G inexplicably characterised as ‘homophilic’** the excellent ProPublica site that has been The Guardian’s co-publisher (with The NY  Times) of Glenn Greenwald’s reports on mass surveillance by governments.

Yes, in our post on that subject last week, we were indeed criticising The Guardian – but only for the reason we have in the past, on many occasions. (See ‘Good Guardian, bad Guardian …’) It censors reader comments in the Comment-is-Free section of its web site. Not, as you’d expect a priori, contributions by readers swearing or resorting to scatology, personal attacks or childish insults – most of which are allowed, to support the appearance of encouraging free speech and debate.

All over the net, there are groups of people complaining that The Guardian shuts down too many sharp, well-informed commenters who persistently disagree with certain of its cherished political positions and beliefs, or conventional wisdom that, in its view, should not be challenged. Type such strings as ‘comment moderation censorship Guardian’ into any good search engine from time to time, and you will find intelligent folk who write clearly and grammatically but are opposed to vaccinating children; do not believe that global warming is an actual phenomenon; or support Israel and have some objection to Palestinians.

Whatever the demerits of those stances might be, we believe that to support its boasts about fostering free expression, The Guardian should leave the job of opposing or condemning them to other reader-commenters.Its heavy-handed Mother Knows Best interventions are dismaying enough in these cases, but disgraceful when it deletes comments by — and sometimes bans — writers of posts that expose weaknesses in the research or arguments of its reporters and writers. (See ‘Should ordinary citizens be shut out of the debate about the media’s future?’)  As we said last week, the most disturbing instances of such censorship virtually shut down reader commentary on the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, practices and behaviour. (See: ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?‘)

Interference with comments on the Leveson Inquiry on other newspaper sites, too, could partially account for the public’s low opinion of the press. The latest post on INFORRM (International Forum for Responsible Media) notes:

The [...] anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, which publishes a Global Corruption Barometer every year [...] asked 114,000 people in 107 countries which of 12 institutions in their countries they considered most corrupt.

Only in Britain, Egypt and Australia did the media top the table of perceived corruption. In Britain 69 per cent of respondents said the media were the most corrupt, up from 39 per cent three years ago.

Anyone scrolling through the archive for this blog can see that p-G is politically neutral. So there is only a vanishingly small risk of being identified with raving on the political right when we say that most of the press coverage of the understandable rage about mass surveillance by governments is so one-sided that a space alien might conclude, first, that ‘special intelligence’ from spying is devoid of all value; secondly, that the west no longer has any enemies that need watching.

We are just as alarmed by the deadly possibilities of government spying – by our own or hostile foreign authorities — being used to control us. Stores of information, once they are gathered, can acquire new owners. Unfortunately, good intelligence is one key to strong defence. The library for books dedicated to this subject would be immense. When we tried looking up the role of spies in Spanish conquests of the Americas, a dim memory, possibly from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, we stumbled on a fascinating account by Zhenja La Rosa of human beings actually kidnapped as military intelligence tools.  Extract from ‘Language and Empire’:

The Spanish presence in America got its authority from language acts, such as that of taking possession and naming; it derived part of its military advantage through the control of interpreters, and therefore, of information; … Columbus […] initiated the practice of kidnapping natives to serve as interpreters for the Spanish conquistadors. Interpreters were an indispensable instrument in the military conquest of the Americas. […] As stated in Columbus’s record of the first encounter with the natives in the Caribbean, one of the first things Columbus did was “take” six of them in order to teach them Spanish. [...] Greenblatt comments that: ‘The radically unequal distribution of power that lies at the heart of almost all language learning in the New World is most perfectly realized in the explorers’ preferred method for dealing with the language problem… From the very first day in 1492, the principal means chosen by the Europeans to establish linguistic contact was kidnapping.’

Nasty, indeed. … We recommend reading the only objective consideration of mass surveillance we have so far found in old media  – in a Canadian magazine, Maclean’s, posing the essential question: how and where do we draw the line on surveillance?

… Otherwise, in our usual haunts, we have found only reader-commenters supplying the essential balance to press coverage on this subject. A sample:

(from a reader of The Economist):

CA-Oxonian

Aug 15th, 16:09

Obama’s problem is purely political: if he reduces in any way the current measures and if some terrorist incident occurs that claims the lives of US citizens, then as sure as night follows day the Republicans will crucify him for sacrificing American lives on the altar of “liberal” values. Although there may be no plausible connection between an actual terrorist incident and the extraordinary intrusions of the NSA, such a link would undoubtedly be made by political opponents. So to keep himself safe (if not the rest of us) Obama will maintain the Bush-era over-reach and in the spirit of McCarthyism yet more of the Constitution’s supposedly guaranteed freedoms will be lost. But who cares so long as iStuff is available, movies on demand are cheap, and McDonalds continues to churn out its gut-busting fare?

** post-Gutenberg made a curious mistake in transcribing this single word from our lively critic’s email. He actually used the word ‘homophily’ — and, in the comments section below, explains that ‘homophilic’ means something else altogether.  Read our brief exchange for proof of how much we enjoyed what we learnt from our inadvertent sloppiness. … The error makes no difference to what we say about The Guardian. Thanks to A. A. for sparking a conscious realisation of where on the gender spectrum we have always placed the newspaper.

 

How Lord Justice #Leveson let down everyone who cares about the practice of journalism ‘without fear or favour’

Partisan press = blinkered view + distorted facts photograph: postgutenberg@gmail.com

Partisan press = blinkered vision + distorted facts
Reichenau Island, 2011, by postgutenberg@gmail.com

A few days ago, The New York Times columnist David Brooks, arguing from first principles, made the case against a partisan press incontrovertibly. Like all the best essayists, he did this by also constructing the best possible case for the opposing side, listing all the disadvantages of detachment.

That was not long after a Leeds scholar, Paul Wragg – speaking at a workshop of Oxford’s Foundation for Law, Justice and Society on the 12th of April –  expressed his dismay at Lord Justice Leveson’s failure, in his report, to explain or justify adequately his support of press partisanship. This, said Wragg, was inconsistent with the judge’s own repeated reminders of his mission — to find ways to stop the  ‘real harm caused to real people’ resulting from the ‘cultural indifference to individual privacy and dignity’ on the part of the British press.

This blog’s worst fears for the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and behaviour were expressed in a headline last May:

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th estate?

We had not quite given up hope before our earlier blog entry on the same subject, in February, when we had begun to sense — but not believe — the drift of the judge’s sentiments on partisanship, from his remarks during the hearings:

Leveson hearings: can a “blind and unreasoning” or partisan press censoring citizen-journalists be good for democracy?

We are dismayed by the proof that our pessimism was so fully justified. At the Inquiry’s inception, a speech by the Lord Chief Justice – who selected Leveson LJ for the job – had given us every reason to hope for a diametrically opposite outcome:

Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?

Everyone should have a chance to weigh what David Brooks said about the virtues of detachment – of non-partisan journalism:

… The detached writer also starts with a worldview. If you don’t have a philosophic worldview, your essays won’t even rise to the status of being wrong. They won’t be anything.

But the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. She is progressive but not Democratic, conservative but not Republican. She fears the team mentality will blinker her views. She wants to remain mentally independent because she sees politics as a competition between partial truths, and she wants the liberty to find the proper balance between them, issue by issue.

The detached writer believes that writing is more like teaching than activism. Her essays are generally not about winning short-term influence. (Realistically, how many times can an outside writer shape the short-term strategies of the insider politicians?) She would rather have an impact upstream, shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think. She sometimes gets passionate about her views, but she distrusts her passions. She takes notes with emotion, but aims to write with a regulated sobriety.

There are trade-offs, no matter what spot on the continuum you ultimately choose. The engaged writer enjoys a tight community and a powerful sense of commitment. The detached writer enjoys more freedom and objectivity. The engaged writer emphasizes loyalty, while the detached writer emphasizes honesty. At his worst, the engaged writer slips into rabid extremism and simple-minded brutalism. At her worst, the detached writer slips into a sanguine, pox-on-all-your-houses complacency and an unearned sense of superiority. The engaged writer might become predictable. The detached writer might become irrelevant, ignored at both ends.

These days most writers land on the engaged side of the continuum. Look at most think tanks. They used to look like detached quasi universities; now some are more like rapid response teams for their partisan masters. If you ever want to get a political appointment, you have to be engaged, working on political campaigns and serving the team.

But I would still urge you to slide over toward the detached side of the scale. First, there is the matter of mental hygiene. You may think you can become a political partisan without becoming rigid and stale, and we all know people who achieve this, but the risk is high.

Engaged writers gravitate toward topics where they can do the most damage to the other side. These are topics where the battle lines are clearly drawn, not topics where there is a great deal of uncertainty. Engaged writers develop a talent for muzzle velocity, not curiosity. Just as in life, our manners end up dictating our morals. So, in writing our prose, styles end up shaping our mentalities. If you write in a way that suggests combative certitude, you may gradually smother the inner chaos that will be the source of lifelong freshness and creativity.

Also, detached writers have more realistic goals. Detached writers generally understand that they are not going to succeed in telling people what to think. It is enough to prod people to think …

[ … Read the whole column here … ]

How Swiss audience inclusion and a certain sort of nudity might be the key to success for post-Gutenberg media

Diccon Bewes, a member of Swissinfo.ch's five-man Public Council

Diccon Bewes, a member of Swissinfo.ch’s five-man Public Council

Swiss Watching NEW ED

Naked hiking is alarmingly popular, even in winter … Public nudity is not a trauma in Switzerland. Many Swiss bathing areas have FKK (Freikörper-kultur or free body culture; that is, nudist) sections … It’s still not on the German scale, where you never know when the next naked person might appear. Have a picnic in the wrong section of Munich’s English Garden and you’ll never eat another Scotch egg.

Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and MoneyDiccon Bewes, (2010)

The dispenser of advice on hazardous unclothing, Diccon Bewes, has written the wittiest, most elegantly informative and indispensable manual on today’s Switzerland for English-speaking foreigners. His whirling outline of Swiss history at the start of his book is spliced into an account of a winding walk chosen for historical associations, which gives a reader mnemonic imagery for its highlights. Bewes knows better than to frighten the Swiss, restraining what the glowing review in the Zurich paper Tages-Anzeiger called ‘typically black English humour.’

Yet encoded in his skipping prose is the style of such unforgettable thought-capsules, in 1066 and All That — the unsurpassed (1930) parody of history text-books – as, ‘[King] Alfred noticed that the Danes had very long ships, so he built a great many more much longer ones, thus cleverly founding the British Navy.’ This is specially admirable in a practical guide so astute at gauging what outsiders need to know to survive in a place where English is missing even from multilingual train announcements and museum placards, that every new visitor touching down on a Swiss tarmac could use a Bewes-on-CH (Confoederatio Helvetica) mobile app spun off from Swiss Watching.

Our overview of the visible talents of Diccon Bewes is not offered from any interest in boosting Swiss tourism, or encouraging expatriation to the Alps. He has caught our attention for an entirely unrelated reason. What we outside CH most need from him is a detailed, step-by-step education by an insider in how the Swiss make extreme democracy work, or what Beppe Grillo and the Occupy movements must do to realise their dreams. Specifically, it is media of the Gutenberg era baffled by — and resisting the transition to — post-Gutenberg inclusiveness who most need his assistance. As we have said before –

Techno-optimists are sure that our egalitarian internet that brought you to this blog will flatten power structures in organisations, both online and offline, and usher in an age of extreme democracy. Cynics say that they are wrong. Whisper to them tentatively about, for instance, reorganising the media to make readers and viewers part-owners and managers, and they will roar at you, “Ridiculous! Disastrous! It could never work!’

You must then reply in calming tones, ‘True, if you do it like California, but not if you copy Switzerland.’

So, how exactly do you copy CH? Few English-speakers have either Bewes’s hands-on experience of working with Swiss colleagues inside Switzerland – his home for the last eight years – or gift for cross-cultural explanation, backed by a degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

What would make his counsel particularly valuable to future-focused media people is his experience as the English-language specialist on the five-man Publikumsrat or Public Council of Swissinfo.ch – the internet adjunct of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) founded in 1999 that specialises in news about, and of special interest to the Swiss, and crisply-written features that illuminate foreigners. All this, every day, is translated into ten languages.

The style of government that makes Switzerland the world’s most democratic democracy is replicated in organisations of every size and kind in CH – including its many businesses run as cooperatives, two of which make the list of the world’s top twenty-five in sales.

The Publikumsrat gives Swissinfo’s editors and journalists detailed feedback on their choice of subjects as well as on the way these are tackled. It makes suggestions for new topics. It also defends Swissinfo from its detractors.  More than once, in the last ten years, it has led  campaigns to protect it from accountants wielding budget-slashing axes – inspiring ‘Save Swissinfo!’ petitions from as far away as New South Wales, in Australia.

Post-Gutenberg has been browsing on the Swissinfo site for three years. The experience of reading there has been hugely surprising – nothing like the teasing love-letter to CH that Swiss Watching’s tone suggests, but equipping Swiss-bashers with ammunition. Its coverage of the most embarrassing, even humiliating, topics for the Swiss is frank enough to suggest that, more than a mere pastime, nude hiking in glacial cold could be a metaphor for … well, the naked honesty in the conversational style of the Schweizerdeutsch, the German-speaking Swiss who dominate the population. In our experience, they express themselves freely and with graphic precision on almost any subject, even chatting to strangers (unless these are identified as journalists, a reviled profession in CH), as long as they respect basic standards for civility and friendliness.

Part of the reason why Swissinfo’s coverage of topics is startlingly direct is that there is no room for subtle and idiomatic expression in any text that has to scan as well, in the language of its composition, as in its Portuguese, Chinese and Russian versions. Of course, this is also true of the work of the BBC World Service – but the unflinching Schweizer style does seem to make for extra-bluntness.

Readers of this blog can wander over to Swissinfo.ch and see for themselves. We have been stunned by some reports there on the Nazi Gold scandal – in part of which Swiss banks were accused of conspiring to deny descendants of Holocaust victims access to their families’ Swiss bank accounts, or about academic studies blaming lax gun control policies for Switzerland ranking, with America, at the top of the statistics for gun-related suicides. Far from any cover-up, there is a relentless succession of articles quoting critics of gun ownership. This is especially brave in a country in which every referendum on the subject shows the Swiss refusing to be weaned off weapons ownership. (We cannot conceive of a cowardly Swissinfo blackout of news about press reform, if this had the attention of Swiss government leaders.)

Forthrightness – and audience involvement, through the Publikumusrat — could make Swissinfo a model for news coverage in the UK and US, where, as one poll after another shows, public trust in the media has never been lower.

Until recently, the point of having Swissinfo was to help Swiss nationals living abroad stay sufficiently well-informed to make the best possible decisions when they vote remotely in referendums and elections. This part of its charter is no longer as important as demystifying Switzerland for foreigners, because free online editions of so many Swiss newspapers give Swiss expatriates the facts they need.

But doing a good job of serving Swiss voters abroad meant that the information the site supplied had to be politically neutral, or carefully balanced across the spectrum of political opinions. That this approach has not changed, even after Swissinfo’s staff and budget were each cut back last year by roughly a third, only adds to the attractions of the site – since, as this blog has underlined in the past, the reading public prefers to be served news undistorted by politics.

The British press ignores this preference. Both during and since the Leveson hearings on press ethics, one editor after another insisted – invoking  time-hallowed tradition as frantically as the Catholic Church fighting for respect, in recent weeks —  that political slanting has always been part of its lifeblood.

Though mockers of the Occupy movements keep insisting that extreme democracy could never be either practical or realistic, Switzerland, the über-democracy, is proof to the contrary. With its tiny population of not quite 8 million, CH can boast of being not just one of the world’s richest countries but the one at the very top of economists’ table for individual wealth – per (adult) capita.

Here is some food for meditation from Swiss Watching’s chapter titled ‘Ask the audience’:

Walking through the centre of Bern means running the gauntlet of clipboard-thrusting pen holders wanting your name. These aren’t charity muggers desperate for your cash … And the papers are not futile petitions that will be delivered to the government without any prospect of anyone taking notice. This is not Britain. This is Switzerland, where the people have power, and they use it. Collecting signatures is the first step towards a referendum, the basic tool of the direct democracy system. Don’t like a government decision? Then collect names to change it. Want to create a new law? Then collect names to initiate it. Hate minarets? Then collect signatures to ban them [ … ]

For outsiders, it’s hard to imagine how a country can function if every law and government action is subject to a government vote. For the Swiss, it’s hard to understand how any country can be run without just that. […] The Swiss people can initiate legislation or destroy it; they can force the government into new policies or reject decisions it’s already made. No one person or party ever has complete control – the people do. Forget China and North Korea; if any country deserves to be called a People’s Republic, it is Switzerland.

Swisscellany 300 dpi for web

Which is worse: fantasy presented as fact by a high-ranking veteran journalist — or by film-makers not in the documentary business?

Third view of 'The Mysterious Baths,' Giorgio De Chirico (see the last two posts)Photograph by MIL22

Third view of ‘The Mysterious Baths,’ Giorgio De Chirico (see the last two posts)
Photograph by MIL22

Surrealism. Surely, the art movement for our time.

What other tradition in image-making supplies better backdrops for recent events in — say, the dance between media and human life?

On that subject, we are making quick notes about what we know we will find impossible to believe without them, at some future date:

Item 1: a well-known columnist and ex-editor, Simon Jenkins, howls in outrage about facts twisted to heighten the drama in two feature films inspired by recent history.

His opinion on the subject matters. He has been chosen as a special adviser on decisions related to future press regulation, the focus of governmental negotiations with newspapers in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. This is an appointment that, for reasons deducible below, amounts to giving the machine-wrecking Ned Ludd of Luddite fame a job as factory foreman.

Simon says, about two new films, Argo, whose subject is the escape of U.S. diplomats from Iran in 1979, and Zero Dark Five, a dramatisation of the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden:

Makers of films captioned as “true stories” claim either that fabrications do not matter as they are “just making movies”, or that they are justified in a higher cause. Yet they can hardly be both. Cinema in my view is the defining cultural form of the age. It deserves to be taken seriously, and therefore to be criticised for shortcomings. If the most celebrated of “docudramas”, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, could go to lengths to authenticate its storyline, why should not any film claiming truth to history?

This is an intrinsically odd objection. The tradition of pretending to tell the truth in the service of art goes back as far as the book considered by some authorities to be the first novel, in the West, Don Quixote (originally, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha; 1605). Miguel de Cervantes, the author, pretended to be merely the translator of an actual historical record of Quixote’s adventures by a Moorish scribe, Cide Hamete Benengeli. The exhausting true title of the book most of us know as Robinson Crusoe (1719) is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was delivered by Pirates.

A delightful essay about Daniel Defoe’s winking invention of Crusoe — unrelated to the subject of this blog — appeared in The Wall Street Journal a few days ago. It describes critics complaining about Defoe ‘going too far in in creating the novel’s solid sense of actuality’. But that is irrelevant to its status in posterity. The essayist, Danny Heitman, is hardly isolated in declaring that ‘the book’s most abiding message is its affirmation of literature itself.’

Item 2: the same journalist, Simon Jenkins, foists a bizarre reality-distortion field on readers every time he writes about internet culture and our increasingly computer-permeated lives.

Against ever-longer odds, he strains to persuade us in elegant prose that we are well on our way to post-digital life. Is he joking? Apparently not, as he goes to pains to present curious factoids for substantiation — for instance, these:

A mild sensation was created this summer by the revelation that Google, Apple and Yahoo executives were sending their children to California’s Waldorf schools, where computers are banned. The masters of the e-universe appear convinced that computers “reduce attention spans and inhibit creative thinking, movement and human interaction”. Classes have reverted to using blackboards, chalk, pens, paper, books and even teachers.

Post-digital is not anti-digital. It extends digital into the beyond. The web becomes not a destination in itself but a route map to somewhere real.

Really? How many children were involved in this trend supposedly sweeping Silicon Valley? An inconsequential sub-fraction — according to one blogger’s good humoured evisceration of the non-evidence in an excellent post on Papyrus News about the rather less overblown report in The New York Times on which Simon was apparently leaning:

The article [mentions] four Silicon Valley firms: Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett Packard. Between them, those firms have tens of thousands of employees, with tens of thousands of children. A total of 294 children go to the Waldorf School (not all of whose parents work in high-tech industries). Does that mean that 99% of employees in high-tech firms believe that computers do have a role in education?

Nowhere are classrooms ‘reverting’ to chalk and blackboards. In the very week in which Simon wrote his screed, the most-discussed news in education was the explosion in disembodied learning through online courses offered by universities like Stanford and internet tutoring in maths and science for school children.

Nor has he yet produced a single convincing argument or anything resembling a fact to support his prediction of a transition to ‘post-digital’ existence — now mentioned by him in at least three columns.

In 2009, he announced – and was congratulated by several naive commenters for his revelation — that there was a reason why ‘the ghost of Gutenberg’ was about to ‘die laughing.’ And why was that? According to Simon, a new venture was downloading text from the internet and selling on the streets of San Francisco a publication called The Printed Blog. Lo! he crowed triumphantly, ‘[F]or the Jeremiahs who tell me that I and my medium are doomed to litter the fish-shop gutter, I have news. . .’.

If nothing was heard of this thundering victory before he wrote his column or since, it is because there never was any such publishing exercise in San Francisco. You might imagine that either he or his editors should have discovered that themselves — simply by checking, a basic act in journalism — for the column grandly titled ‘Old is new. Even Gutenberg’s ghost has returned to live in Silicon Valley.’ (N.B.: a detail: San Francisco is not and never has been considered a part of the cradle of high technology.)

Yet, last weekend, there was Simon himself playing scolding schoolmaster,

Fiction may be free and facts expensive, but film-makers are not short of researchers. Commentators may be accused of choosing facts to prove their opinions – plague the thought – but that is different from falsification. Nor do they excuse lies as higher truth. The licence to report carries responsibilities.

Well. Erm … yes.

Item 3: a judge cites the fictional spy James Bond’s wide renown to justify a real-life decision unfavourable to chiefly female petitioners treated by undercover police as sexual prey. Some of these policemen had children by the women, even five-year relationships with them, then disappeared without a trace.

In a column last week, Jonathan Freedland recorded with fully-warranted fury that

Mr Justice Tugendhat […] ruled on whether a case brought by 10 women and one man duped into fraudulent relationships by undercover police officers should be heard in open court or in a secret tribunal.

The decision hinged on whether the law governing agents of the state allows them to form sexual relationships with those they spy upon. The good judge believes that when MPs wrote the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) in 2000, permitting undercover police to form “personal or other” relationships, they must have meant it to include sexual relationships. After all, the legislators were bound to have had one particular secret agent in mind. “James Bond is the most famous fictional example of a member of the intelligence services who used relationships with women,” Tugendhat declared, lending “credence to the view that the intelligence and police services have for many years deployed both men and women officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature”.

[…]

Those involved tell of deep and genuine attachments, the men integrated into their lives as partners, living together, travelling together, attending family gatherings, sitting at a parent’s bedside, even attending a funeral.

[…]

[T]his was the hacking of people’s lives, burrowing into the most intimate spaces of the heart in order to do a job, all authorised by the police. It is state-sanctioned emotional abuse …

Such horror was nearly as hard to believe as Simon Jenkins’s assertions that print was on its way to re-capturing eyeballs lost to screens, or that computers were on their way out of education — only it was actually inflicted on real people.

Item 4: a teacher of the storyteller’s art complained in The New York Times, a fortnight ago, that most of his students were no longer capable of constructing narrative fiction that made sense of the world.

That will hardly surprise any reader who has reached this paragraph of our post. The teacher, Steve Almond — whose splendid essay deserves to be read in full said, in part:

About 10 years ago, in creative-writing classes I was teaching, I began to encounter a particular species of student story. The hero was an unshaven man who woke in a strange room with no idea where he was or why. Invariably, something traumatic had happened to him, though he didn’t know exactly what. The rest of the story sought to reconstruct his arrival in these dire circumstances, via scenes that had been chronologically mutilated for maximum profundity.

My standard reaction to such pieces was to jot earnestly flummoxed queries in the margins like “Where are we?” and “Is it possible I’m missing a page?”

[…]

The underlying … question is whether the story of our species — the greater human narrative — has simply become too enormous, too confused and terrifying, for us to grapple with. This might explain why so many of us now rely on a cacophony of unreliable narrators to shape our view of the world and ourselves …

… So, to summarise these jottings in reverse order: people whose job is to tell stories have given up on trying to make sense; judges justify police mistreatment of citizens, citing figments of a novelist’s imagination as proof of societal sanction for it; a journalist prone to presenting wild invention as fact admonishes spinners of screen fantasies for not doing what is supposed to be his job — strict adherence to the truth.

There is an ancient Hindu conception of the world as all-maya — which means, illusion.

There was a time, not long ago, when it was hard to understand.

Forget #Leveson. Journalism’s future is about being held to account by us, not judges or statutes

Pop Art tribute by the surrealist Giorgio De Chirico from another another angle (see last week's post)Photograph by MIL22

Pop Art tribute by the surrealist Giorgio De Chirico from another another angle (see last week’s post)
Photograph by MIL22

Lord Justice Leveson believes — or must now pretend that he does, for political reasons we explained in a recent post:

[B]loggers and tweeters … have no real reputation for accuracy or reliability but are, in many ways, no more than electronic versions of pub gossip […O]n the other hand, the established media and established journalists … have a powerful reputation for accuracy …

 – lecture at Melbourne University, 12 December 2012

… and …

The internet … does not trade in gossip. It simply publishes it online, […I]t does so without, as yet, any general standards of behaviour, such as those to which the media is held.

 speech at the University of Technology in Sydney, 7 December 2012

The truth is that without thoughtful, diligent bloggers — and other agents of free speech — this trenchant perception from nine decades ago would still apply with full force:

[J]ournalism is supposed to tell us what is happening. It actually serves up a mixture of true facts, false facts, and comment … ‘The high mission of the Press.’ Poor Press! As if it were in a position to have a mission! It is we who have a mission to it.To cure a man through the newspapers or through propaganda of any sort is impossible: you merely alter the symptoms of his disease. We shall be purged only by purging our minds of confusion. The papers trick us not so much by their lies as by their exploitation of our weakness.

– E. M. Forster, 1925

Here is the concluding sentence of an exposé of serious misreporting by the press of an important government reaction to Lord Justice Leveson’s report — a warning by the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, about just one of the judge’s recommendations, in a favourable overall assessment of them:

Unfortunately, the press has once again, sacrificed balanced and accurate reporting of facts in order to promote its own political agenda.

Of course that would hardly surprise Forster, a subtle and deep social observer (whose perspicacity we have alluded to before, in the very different context of the British Raj in India). The blog post from which we clipped that grim conclusion is reproduced below with the kind permission of Hugh Tomlinson at the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) – which, as far as we can tell, is run not by members of the media but lawyers with a social conscience.  Its subject is the distorted newspaper reports of the Information Commissioner’s reservation about Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion on ‘subject access’ — that the subjects of news stories be permitted to examine the information about them in the files of journalists (with the 1998 Data Protection Act as his context). This is an eminently reasonable objection: opening journalists’ records to their subjects would make it it impossible to protect vital confidential sources. … But that is no excuse for the comprehensive misrepresentation by the press of what the Commissioner said about the Leveson report — as the INFORRM post explains in the fine and somewhat technical details it must, to justify its condemnation beyond any possible defence.

Independent voices like INFORRM’s are exactly what Forster wanted — members of the public, us, purging press lies from society’s store of critical information, without fear or favour, and treating upmarket broadsheets like The Guardian no differently from downmarket tabloids like the Daily Mail, when they are guilty of the same offences against the truth.

News: Leveson Recommendations – the Information Commissioner responds and the Press misreports

9.01.2013

The Information Commissioner has published his response to the Leveson Report.   His response was overwhelming positive, agreeing with the large majority of recommendations including, in particular, the recommendations about tougher sentencing for data protection offences.  This would not, however, have been clear to readers of the British press.  Newspaper reports of the response concentrated on one sentence of the 20 page document dealing with one part of one recommendation.

The Recommendation in question was number 49 – concerning the removal of the right of subject access from the “journalistic exemption” in section 32 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (a recommendation qualified by reference to the need to ensure the protection of journalist’s sources was not affected).  The Information Commissioner commented (on page 11 of the Response) that

“The area of subject access is particularly problematic in that there are legitimate concerns about the ‘chilling effect’ Lord Justice Leveson’s proposal might have on investigative journalism. This area will need very careful consideration. This again is a matter of balance of interests and is ultimately a matter for Parliament”.

This comment was transformed into the “Daily Mail” headline, “How investigative journalism ‘could be harmed by Leveson’, says Information Commissioner”.  The words “could be harmed” do not, in fact appear in the Information Commissioner’s response. The opening paragraph of the “Daily Mail” story is wholly misleading

“Key proposals in the Leveson Report could harm investigative journalism, the Information Commissioner warned yesterday”.

The Commissioner gave no such warning and did not cast doubt on “key proposals” – but rather, raised a question about one small part of one proposal.  The “Daily Telegraph” had the headline “Leveson could have “chilling effect” on journalism, Information Commissioner warns”.  No such warning was given.

The Guardian did not do much better with the headline “Leveson data protection plans ‘could have chilling effect on journalism‘.  Again, the words “could have a chilling effect” do not appear in the response.  The “Guardian” also, wrongly, states that the Commissioner said he would “actively oppose” changes to the role of the ICO in relation to the press.  What was, in fact, said was that the ICO was “not actively seeking” a wider role.

None of the newspapers mentioned the fact that the Information Commissioner had welcomed the overwhelming majority of the recommendations – and in particular, the one relating to section 55 (which, as Julian Petley’s recent series of posts have shown, the press has been campaigning against for many years, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).

The Daily Mail and Guardian stories have been tweeted on several occasions and the disinformation is spreading.  In order to assist our readers who do not have time to read the full response we will endeavour to provide a more balanced and accurate account.

The relevant recommendations fall into three areas: ones directed to the Ministry of Justice concerning the press and data protection, ones made to the Information Commissioner directly and ones with data protection implications generally.

First, there are those directed to the Ministry of Justice (Recommendations 48 to 57). These concern various amendments to Data Protection legislation in relating to the press.  As a general point, the Commissioner says that

“Taken as a whole package, Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on reforming the DPA would, if implemented, move the ICO closer to becoming a mainstream statutory regulator of the press. The significance of the proposed changes should not be underestimated. It is clearly for the Government and Parliament to consider what role the ICO should ultimately play in regulating the press“.

The Commissioner makes it clear that the ICO is not actively seeking such a role but that, ultimately, this is involves “public policy decisions” for the Government and Parliament to make (p.9).

In relation to the specific recommendations under this head

Recommendation 48 – amendment of the exemption in section 32: The Commissioner says that this has merits but the key is creating the right balance which is a matter for Parliament.

Recommendation 49 – narrowing of the scope of the section 32 exemption:  The Commissioner says this requires careful consideration and, as already mentioned, that there are “legitimate concerns” about the chilling effect of the proposal in relation to “subject access”.  It is noteworthy that he does not add any example or analysis or express a view as to whether these concerns can properly be met in amended legislation.

Recommendation 50 – right to compensation to cover pure distress – The Commissioner strongly supports this recommendation.

Recommendation 51 – repeal of certain procedural provisions in the DPA – The Commissioner supports this recommendation

Recommendation 52 – provision relating to “balance” of freedom of expression and data protection regime.  The Commissioner sees no difficulty with this but questions whether it is necessary.

Recommendation 53 – provision to have regard to a recognised system of regulation.  The Commissioner, again, sees no difficulty with this but suggests that it reflects existing policy and practice.

Recommendation 54- bringing into force amendments to section 55 of DPA (custodial sentences and enhanced public interest defences).  The Commissioner hopes that “there will be no further delay in implementing this recommendation”

Recommendation 55 – extension of ICO prosecuting powers -The Commissioner agrees that there is some benefit in an express power to prosecute for related offences although believes that its powers should not be extended to cover all crimes in which personal data is processed unlawfully.

Recommendation 56 – a new duty to consult with CPS -  The Commissioner has no difficulty with this recommendation but wonders whether it is necessary to introduce a formal duty.

Recommendation 57 – reconstitution of ICO as an Information Commission -  The Commissioner agrees that the opportunity should be taken to consider this option but mentions a number of alternative models.

The Leveson Report makes then makes nine recommendations “to the Information Commissioner” (Recommendations 58 to 66).  These recommendations are all substantially accepted.

Finally, there are three recommendations that impact on the work of the ICO (Recommendations 67, 69 and 70).  The Commissioner “welcomes” or “agrees with” all these recommendations.

In short, the balance sheet is that of the 22 recommendations relevant to the ICO, 17 are agreed with, welcomed or strongly supported.  In relation to the others, the Commissioner believes that some require further consideration or should be accepted in part and that some (those relating to the journalistic exemption) require careful consideration by Parliament.  None of the recommendations are said to be “harmful”.

So, a more accurate headline would have been “Information Commissioner welcomes Leveson Data Protection Recommendations”.  There could be no proper complaint if newspapers had reported the Information Commissioner’s response and then added their own comments.  Unfortunately, the press has once again, sacrificed balanced and accurate reporting of facts in order to promote its own political agenda.

How high ambition hobbled Lord Justice Leveson’s chance to be a shining model for guiding media evolution and put new muscles on democracy

MIL22 + p-G leggitrice

Comrades across time: a scholarly girl of the 19th c. and a debater-netizen at a university today. (See our last two posts)
Sculpture by Pietro Magni, 1861, Villa Reale, Milano
Photomontage: MIL22 and post-Gutenberg

In social situations I try and leave telling people I am a lawyer to the end. I would much rather they see me first as an innovator, explorer, change agent, problem solver or entrepreneur.

– excerpt from article by Geoff Wild in the Law Gazette, selected for Private Eye‘s ‘Pseuds Corner,’ 14 December 2012

Why has Lord Justice Leveson turned against free speech on the net, after wisely refraining from doing any such thing during his hearings on press ethics and practices? His report and the aftermath of its publication, subjects of our last two entries in this blog, confirmed our grimmest expectations. The header of a post in May actually read:

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

Though honest, incisive journalists and editors of the highest rank justified — at the Leveson hearings — the public’s perception of the dangers of a fact-bending partisan press, the Leveson report said:

We want the news in the press to be true and accurate; we do not want to be misled or lied to. But we want, or are content for, it to be presented in a partisan way. We want a measure of balance and context, but we also want a perspective. We want the truth, but we understand that there are many versions of the truth, and incompleteness in all versions. […] [‘F]act’ and ‘comment’ […]  are by no means distinct and watertight categories. The very act of describing a fact is to comment on it. All forms of recording are selective.

As we interpret that, hair standing on end, the judge now fully supports newspapers and proprietors of the likes of Rupert Murdoch in their wish to protect their power base  – no matter what damage partisanship does to the presentation of the truth. In our May post in this spot, quoting the Leveson testimony of Alastair Campbell, the famously Machiavellian political adviser to Tony Blair who deeply regrets his own manipulations, we explained:

Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality,  as it actually does, at present – the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.

Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in […] ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.

And then, just as we feared in early summer, in remarks made earlier this month, the judge has disappointed everyone who understands the internet as our best hope of accelerating and refining democracy — the steady trend across centuries, in the world’s free societies, towards making one human being more fully the equal of another in, above all, the right to unfettered expression.

Where did he go wrong?

It is clear that this happened at the very beginning.

The judge’s big mistake was in announcing at the start of his excavation into press misbehaviour that he did not want his recommendations for improvement to gather ‘dust on an academic’s shelf’ — along with the reports of several failed 20th-century attempts at tackling the job he was handed by David Cameron in 2011.

If Lord Justice Leveson only knew that he stood no chance of being a force for the good if he showed how much he cared about putting his ideas into practice.

This is because turning his conclusions into policy is the work of politicians. A politician sees getting re-elected as his or her most important duty. Politicians still believe that the support of the famous names in the newspaper business is crucial to winning elections – in spite of the internet’s destruction of the financial viability of these mouthpieces and readers’ growing reliance on other, net-based sources of information.

If only #Leveson LJ — who so impressed many of us watching the hearings with his intellectual rigour, meticulousness, and scrupulous disinterestedness — could have realised that in revealing that his supreme aim was to make his mark on history, he had fallen into the role of the hapless innocent in fairy tales who blindly promises the evil wizard his first-born child tomorrow, in exchange for magic that lets him slay dragons today.

During Tony Blair’s testimony at the hearings in late May, the judge implored the ex-prime minister to help him make his dream come true. What this lofty witness said proved that politicians fear falling out with powerful old print media to an unimaginable degree — as France 24 reported:

‘With any of these big media groups, you fall out with them and you watch out, because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens,’ Blair, looking tanned and smart in a navy suit and white shirt, told the Leveson inquiry.

‘My view is that that is what creates this situation in which these media people get a power in the system that is unhealthy and which I felt, throughout my time, uncomfortable with. I took the strategic decision to manage this and not confront it but the power of it is indisputable.’

What should the judge have concluded, from that remarkable, quaking confession of intimidation? That committing himself to being steered by politicians would mean losing his ability to offer wise, objective counsel about rules for fair combat in the evolutionary struggle between fading old media and their digital successors.

Which is how the Leveson Inquiry shows every sign of sinking ever-deeper into the muck of political bargaining and infighting in which politicians — now the main actors — will use every delaying tactic they can think of to ensure that the Inquiry’s clear demonstration of what needs to be repaired, discarded and replaced in British media comes to naught.

But then, isn’t the point of the Law to ensure that the behaviour of people and institutions conforms to rules and standards wrought from yesterday’s ideas? In that sense, lawyers and judges are innately, unavoidably, conservative — preoccupied with conserving the values of the past until forced to do otherwise.

So of course Lord Justice Leveson’s speeches in Australia earlier this month amounted to threatening the internet, or mass communication’s future, to please his new friends — the fogeys of the old print press.

Forget the debates now droning on about choices for self-regulation by the press, with or without statutory support. The judge has become the chief protector and champion of that same institution he seemed bent on purging, sanitising, and returning to the marvellous ideal of an incorruptible and deeply moral 4th Estate, mere months ago.

Will sic transit gloria do, for a Christmas message?

Quick screen grabs: the internet generation reacts to #Leveson LJ lecturing about laws on the way for online life

SUPER sceptical blonde student Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.06.54

Watching Lord Justice Leveson speak to a predominantly middle-aged audience at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advanced Journalism four hours ago, post-Gutenbergers were struck by the extraordinary scepticism and disengagement on the few young and youthful faces among his listeners. The yawning gap in perspective is unsurprising. How could someone who has never blogged, tweeted, or commented on articles online understand the power and glory of communicating on the web? How could he be expected to do more than issue grim warnings about freedom’s end?

We rushed to take some fast-and-dirty screen shots.

In a future post — before the new year, time thieves permitting — this blog should have rather more to say about the judge’s speech.

tweet tries boring int into submission Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.59.18

sceptics, 2, young, small scr Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23.58.52

lev S sceptical pink Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23

sceptical or sleeping aud members Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.11.29
sceptical yng mn wmn Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23.40.14
sceptical blonde girl (b) Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.06.51
LJL warning Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23.42.19

tweet lev pedestrian + BLOGGERS NOT NECESS A DANGER Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 01.02.11

Lord Justice Leveson in Australia, fear of ‘mob rule’ on the internet — and a case of wobbly telepathy?

Barbarians on the net? A blogger, even a putative 'troll,' could easily be a civilised, cerebral girl like this one'La leggitrice' -- Photograph by MIL22

Barbarians on the net? A blogger, even a putative ‘troll,’ could easily be a civilised, cerebral girl like this one
‘La leggitrice’ — Photograph by MIL22

Zounds. The original header for this entry, first published a day and a half ago, was:

‘Congratulations, #Leveson LJ, for leaving the blogosphere and online publishing alone — and for declining to succumb to neurotic fear of the “mob”‘

We linked to an announcement of Lord Justice Leveson’s speaking engagement in Sydney, at a symposium held there today. And … guess what we have just found on Google? A BBC News report, still warm from the oven, with this fragment from his speech: ‘Laws are needed to prevent “mob rule” on the internet and “trial by Twitter”, Lord Justice Justice Leveson has said … .’ This is the first record we at post-Gutenberg have ever heard or seen of him mentioning ‘mob’ in the same sentence as ‘internet’, even though we would hardly be surprised if he did so in some exchange in his Inquiry. Might telepathy explain this astonishing development — or (but, no, surely not) did an aide to Leveson LJ draw his attention to re-tweets about this post by the two most constructive blogs on the Inquiry, Hacked Off and INFORRM (the International Forum for Responsible Media)? 

If it was indeed a telepathic connection, it was a bit spotty, because, according to the BBC bulletin, the judge is every bit as worried as the rest of the Establishment about the lawlessness of the net. What we said in our post (below) is still perfectly accurate. He deserves high praise for not warping the evolution of the internet as a radically democratic medium with poorly conceived and premature rules for online publishing. He could have used his Inquiry to do the wrong thing and copy King Canute commanding the sea to roll back — as so many newspaper proprietors and obtuse columnists had hoped he would. 

He did not.

We should note, here, that post-Gutenberg is as keen as anyone else on the arrival of the day on which we finally have a wise and far-sighted set of rules for online life — not least because we care passionately about protecting artists’ and writers’ right to eat, through reasonable copyright enforcement. (See ‘Might audience jealousy of artists explain why copyright is being officially destroyed on the internet?‘)

As for our apparent anticipation of the Inquiry leader’s interest in the topic of ‘mob rule,’ we hope that he reads all the way to the end of this post. 

Quel wheeze. 

Many journalists are worried about the impact of the Leveson report. […] What I’m worried about is about how Leveson will empower the people who lurk below the line […] How will Leveson empower these people? […] The scum below the line will mobilise and use the regulatory system to complain online, and en masse. Plenty of people already dedicate their time to making the lives of journalists a misery …

Columnist ranting in The Telegraph about reader comments on newspaper websites

Like certain unwitting colonisers from the Northern Hemisphere in the late 1700s, the eponymous judge leading the Leveson Inquiry into press behaviour and standards has gone to Australia. Never mind if he is a willing transportee serving the aims of H. M.’s government, whereas so many English who travelled the same route two centuries earlier were not. In the hostile unease in today’s Establishment that Lord Justice Leveson went to pains to pacify in his report published last Thursday, there are echoes from the past — from Establishment debates and anxieties that inspired the founding of the penal colony Down Under.

Judging by what we at post-Gutenberg have been able to read of the Leveson report, so far — in a true annus horribilis leaving us scarcely any time for blogging — his execution of the judiciary’s task of restoring calm and order to society has been thorough and careful.

But especially commendable is this: he did not let the hysteria of the ruling class — especially the segment of it that the press represents — force him into any unwise, premature attempt to draft rules for the blogosphere, or indeed any online publishing competing with old print media.

Lord Justice Leveson appears to understand perfectly that it is too soon to check or discipline a medium so new that it still has slippery fragments of afterbirth clinging to it, and will not be mature enough to be teachable for a while. ‘If we wish to compress something,‘ — for instance, constrain online publishing — ‘we must first let it fully expand,‘ was the advice we ourselves relayed from a sage of long ago, in answering the Inquiry’s request for public comment and suggestions.

The traditional press, railing at the Leveson report, sounds like online publishing’s envious, vengeful sibling, demanding that a parent impose equal punishment on all offspring regardless of culpability. Why must newspapers face new controls and rules, with or without statutory underpinning, when the Inquiry made no such recommendations for, eg., bloggers? Under the headline, ‘Leveson angers press over internet control,’ The Financial Times recorded this fury:

Lord Justice Leveson has angered UK newspaper bosses …

In an editorial on Friday, The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship tabloid, wrote “an over-regulated press in parallel with an unregulated internet spells chaos and will be the nail in the coffin for the newspaper industry”.

Yet again, newspaper reporting on the Inquiry has been wickedly selective. Leveson LJ notes in his findings that ‘the work of very many bloggers and websites … should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional’ — but scarcely anyone in old print media was brave enough to record that statement.

Only Private Eye and a few blogs like this one have been drawing attention to such omissions and distortions over the eighteen months of the Inquiry. How has the traditional press been getting away with this crime against honest journalism?

Irrational fear of ‘the mob’ is the answer we suggest. In the past, this sanctioned rank injustice actually codified in law. Robert Hughes’ references, in his magisterial history, The Fatal Shore, include the habit in Georgian England of referring to the masses beneath the elite as ‘the mobbish class of persons’. You could easily substitute ‘bloggers’ or ‘the internet’ for ‘mob’ where he notes,

The ‘mob,’ as the urban proletariat was called, had become an object of terror and contempt, but little was known about it. It was seen as a malign fluid, a sort of magma that would burst through any crack in law and custom, … easily inflamed…

and especially, here:

The ‘mob’ was Georgian society’s id — the sump of forbidden thoughts and proscribed actions …

The irrational terror meant that no one in any position of responsibility went to the trouble of doing any research into the factual basis for the elite’s misconceptions of the proletariat. The actual rise in crime that followed the population explosion that in turn followed the Industrial Revolution was vastly exaggerated, and used to justify ever more unjust laws that especially victimised the poor:

One could be hanged for burning a house or hut, a standing rick of corn, or an insignificant pile of straw; for poaching a rabbit, for breaking down ‘the head or mound’ of a fishpond, or even cutting down an ornamental shrub; or for appearing on a high-road with a sooty face.

What made all this particularly dire was that there was, increasingly, no competing authority to keep the judiciary in check. Eighteenth-century England, Hughes observes, witnessed

the growth of the Rule of Law … into a supreme ideology, a form of religion which, it has since been argued, began to replace the waning moral power of the Church of England.

That is even truer today, in an officially secular society in which the upper crust is free to speak of religion with spitting contempt. We should be all the more grateful to Lord Justice Leveson for his resistance to Establishment pressure to recommend legal controls and disciplinary action for the expression of thoughts and ideas, and dissemination of facts, on the internet.

Perhaps, in his time in the Antipodes, he can congratulate himself on his moderation as he is reminded, simply by being there — haunted in his dreams, perhaps, by the clanking chains of convicts — of the excesses of his predecessors in judicial robes:

The belief in a swelling wave of crime was one of the great social facts of Georgian England. It shaped the laws, and the colonisation of Australia was the partial result.

On the threshold of ♯Leveson’s d-day, The Guardian shuts reader-citizens out of the debate


Citoyens
 should be king in a democracy, but are being denied free speech on press regulation — by the press.
Photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

In the autumn of last year, in the prelude to formal hearings for the Leveson Inquiry, Baron Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, said:

It is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right. It is the right of the community as a whole. It is, if you like, our right, the right of every citizen.

Reporting on the curious omission by newspapers of any mention of that warning to the press, post-Gutenberg asked:

Why … is no one in the British media mentioning the prohibition by a leading newspaper of free discussion – by ordinary citizens – of the future of the press, on three separate occasions last week?

On the last Sunday before d-day — the 29th of November, when Lord Justice Leveson is due to deliver his report – The Guardian belatedly opened to comment by readers two vital contributions to the press regulation debate from Observer writers. Reader commenting had been barred for most of the day after these pieces were posted in the (ahem) Comment-is-free section of the web site shared by these newspapers but administered by The Guardian (which bought its rival several years ago).

That must have been quite a fight behind the scenes, before The Guardian relented and, by mid-morning on the 25th, let justice and common sense prevail.

Read the excerpts from these opinions The Guardian found so threatening, and be amazed. Better yet, follow our links, read the rest – especially the few reader comments permitted before commenting was once again closed, after less than half a day – and be astounded by the usual categorisation of The Guardian as a ‘liberal’ newspaper.

(i)

– from the Will Hutton column, ‘Why I, as a journalist and ex-editor, believe it is time to regulate the press’ [24 November 2012]:

The precious freedom of speech of an individual is different from the freedom of speech of a media corporation with its capacity to manipulate the opinions of millions, which is why it must take place within the law and within a framework of accountability. Freedom is not only menaced by the state; it is also menaced by private media barons and their servants, …

An avalanche of highly spun journalism to serve partisan interests has become habitual. The public realm has become degraded. The trade and craft of journalism has been abused; the journalists who work in newsrooms, where standards are routinely sidelined, need protecting.

(ii)

– from an editorial in The Observer, ‘Leveson report: do we need a new law to rein in the press?’ [24 November 2012]:

The press – as anachronistic as that term now sounds in a digital age – have not, on the whole, been a great advert for plurality in the last month. In that time, they have fixed Leveson in their cross hairs and unleashed a ferocious ordnance in his direction.

[…]

There are reasonable, cogent arguments to be made about regulation or the lack thereof. There is a proper debate that we need to have post-Leveson, one characterised less by tribalism and more by reason.

As we wondered, last November:

[The] question no one in the media apparently wants to face is, will the public grant professional journalists a continuation of special privileges in the digital age if they no longer adhere to the traditions of fairness, neutrality and dedication to the truth that won them those privileges in the 18th century? Earlier this month, this blog mentioned the media’s refusal to acknowledge – or indeed discuss at all – the public’s dismay about an increasingly partisan press.

There are other alarming silences …

Now you see them, now you don’t …

The Leveson Inquiry: rumours and batty arguments abounding, and a cautionary tale from Australia

We know that Lord Justice Leveson is pondering mightily; we hope that he is still pondering well
Photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Google reminder: it’s the birthday of Auguste Rodin, the original Thinker’s sculptor

If the rumbling from the leaks-and-rumours mill is right, Lord Justice Leveson is going to recommend, in his report expected any day now, that the press needs statutory regulation.

Tant pis – if true.

As we have argued in a series of posts (for instance, this one), the transition to post-Gutenberg publishing makes all such rule-making pointless – the 21st-century equivalent of rewriting the regulations for monks hunched in scriptoria when the clattering, new-fangled presses of Johannes Gutenberg had already doomed to virtual irrelevance not just hand-lettered manuscripts but religious authority over human life.

If the editors of any leading newspaper are convinced, as we are, that the best way to keep journalism honest is to open the doors wide to online competitors, they are being awfully quiet about it.

In the ever less exciting wait for Leveson LJ to part the kimono on his conclusions and recommendations, the arguments being used to oppose the rumours we find so disappointing grow curiouser and curiouser.  Even The Observer appeared to have noticed this, in a column at the weekend, but when we read below the sniffy standfirst — ‘In an exploding digital age, arguments about press regulation are simply becoming silly’ — we found that Peter Preston  did not mention the decidedly odd shape of one missile launched at ♯Leveson (a Lunchtime O’Booze-grade weapon?) by another newspaper. This was in an unsigned editorial — ‘Telegraph View’:

One argument often advanced in its favour is that since the broadcast media are controlled by a statutory body, why should the press be different? The answer is that if people don’t like a newspaper, they need not buy it, whereas TV programmes are beamed directly into most people’s homes whether they want them or not. This distinction has long been recognised in law. To seek to bring the press under statutory regulation will impair freedom of speech and the liberties of the subject, however much MPs try to gild the lily.

What?… spluttered post-Gutenberg, all but choking on an apricot-and-almond brekky bar, during an unexpected visit to the Southern Hemisphere. No on-off buttons on British tv sets, then.

A quick check online confirmed that the real reason why broadcasting media are regulated but newspapers are not, is rather different – as Eve Solomon records in her excellent UNESCO paper on the subject:

[W]hat is the overriding rationale, the reason for regulating broadcasting as distinct from other media, say newspapers and magazines, or the internet?  The main justification argued by governments is that broadcasting uses spectrum, and spectrum is a public resource, allocated to nations  in accordance with complex international agreements.  As such, it is a scarce resource: there is only so much spectrum available for broadcasting use in each country. And therefore, because it is a scarce resource, it is valuable. Even though digital broadcasting is increasing the number of radio and television channels which are  available, there is still not an infinite supply. It is therefore reasonable for the State, as the owner of spectrum, to place obligations on broadcasters who use that resource.

The mechanism used for placing obligations on broadcasters is generally through licensing.

And the reason why the Telegraph editorialists do not know this is — ? Hmm. We can only guess. Perhaps they do, but the trauma of anticipating statutory regulation has befuddled their brains.

Australia shows exactly what is likely to happen in Britain if the scriptorium –- sorry, we mean, conventional press, is handed new rules for proper behaviour, and threatened with legal consignment to a grim and sunless naughty corner:

‘Light touch’ media reform could still spark fight

[The Australian, 8 October 2012]

AS the Gillard government finalises its overhaul of media laws, division between ministers and Julia Gillard has led to a watered-down set of proposals …

There has been no cabinet deliberation on a submission dealing with media reform; nor has there been any discussion as part of the regular strategy sessions within cabinet on substantive proposals.

[…]

While the Finkelstein inquiry proposed a statutory-based and government-funded industry super-regulator to be known as the News Media Council, the government is likely to reject this proposal. A senior government source describes the proposal for a media regulator as “all but dead”. …

… In other words, fight or no fight, the Finkelstein Inquiry seems most likely to be written off as a complete waste of time. It would be sad indeed to see ♯Leveson come to an equally sorry end.

#Leveson, as anticipated by Elie Wiesel, 83 – in his turn, trailing fellow-activist Zhou Youguang, 106, in the blogosphere

‘Giant pawn’ MIL22

Earlier this month, a post-Gutenberg entry on the Leveson Inquiry had the honour of being put in the Twitter ‘favourites’ queue of Hans Peter Lehofer – an administrative law judge and former head of the Austrian Communications Authority, which decides the rules for broadcasting in that country.

No, we did not interpret our inclusion in his list as a gold star of approval. He almost certainly uses the ‘favourites’ button on the glorified e-notice-board the way we do – as an online bookmark. Never mind if, exactly like us — making the same point to #Leveson the other day — he doubts that merely passing laws affecting the way the press works can guarantee our getting what we need, which is ‘broadcasting’ representative of society as a whole.

What did please us is that Herr Lehofer’s interest bears out our forecast in May that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on press regulation would influence the debate about media policy around the world. Austria is lucky to have such a curious and progressive rule-maker. Anyone in Britain worrying about bloggers and citizen-journalists being treated as mere pawns in the chess game the Inquiry is being forced to play with politicians in the final weeks before it delivers its report is bound to be heartened by this judge’s grasp of the size of the leap in thinking about media that we need from the judiciary. He has a blog of his own, and also blogs collaboratively on more than one site.

Gerard Hogan, another intelligently au courant judge — a specialist in constitutional law at Ireland’s High Court — recently accorded the blogosphere a right traditionally reserved for professional journalists. In what the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) reckons as ‘the first Irish judgment to consider the position of bloggers,’ the court allowed Mike Garde, the blogger-director of an Irish organisation helping people brainwashed by cults, to protect his sources of information.

Hogan J’s judgment read, in part:

Part of the problem here is that the traditional distinction between journalists and laypeople has broken down in recent decades … Mr. Garde’s activities fall squarely within the “education of public opinion” envisaged by Article 40.6.1. A person who blogs on an internet site can just as readily constitute an “organ of public opinion” … [T]here is a high constitutional value in ensuring that his right to voice these views in relation to the actions of religious cults is protected.

How much longer, we wonder, will it take Elie Wiesel – twice quoted on this blog in recent weeks, and cited yet again, below – to join the unmediated conversations in the blogosphere? He has used every other medium in his extraordinary record of ‘bearing witness’ to the murder, torture and terrorisation of European Jews in World War II – after surviving Auschwitz, where he was dispatched as a 15 year-old.

His age today, which is 83, hardly explains his failure to start a blog. Last spring, The New York Times ran an inspiring profile of a Chinese human rights activist, 105 at the time, using a blog to broadcast his thoughts. This astonishing Zhou Youguang – still blogging at 106, if the net is to be believed — is the inventor of the Pinyin or ‘Romanised’ system for converting Chinese sounds into the English alphabet. For his transmissions on the net,

Mr. Zhou … uses a typewriter that converts Pinyin into characters to deliver ever-more pointed critiques of the party in essays and on his as-yet-uncensored blog.

The explanation for the deep hooks sunk into post-Gutenberg’s brain by Elie Wiesel’s short 2010 novel, The Sonderberg Case, is the startling correspondence between this author’s reflections on the role of the press in society, and the actual debate over the Leveson Inquiry. He also uses the trial at the heart of his story to weigh the relative worth of the work of lawyers and journalists – most engagingly.

Our final excerpt from the book is about a fight at a dinner party in New York. It seems uncannily prescient about the precise arguments being used in real life by the media’s old guard – here presented by the main character, Yedidyah, a journalist, and the hostess, Emilie, his only ally – as opposed to those of the public, on whose behalf Yedidyah’s wife Alika, an actress, spars victoriously.

There seems no doubt whatsoever about which side the author is on:

We talk about journalism. Is it useful to a democratic society? Honest or corrupt like everything else? A reliable source of information, a necessary tool for forming an opinion? Emilie and I stand up for the media, primarily because they represent an indispensable element in protecting individual and collective liberties. Alika is our most violent opponent. I’ve rarely seen her as fierce in her opinions. For her, even the best daily papers disgrace their readers. And she goes on to quote and appropriate the remark of a big British press baron concerning a well-known magazine. ‘It isn’t what it used to be … and actually it never was.’ And this applies to all publications, she tries to convince us, with no exceptions. Alex agrees with her. So do their guests. Emilie and I valiantly stand up to them. Alika flares up.

‘How can the two of you stick up for all those miserable newspapers and weeklies? I’m prepared to think you don’t read them! Even the cultural pages are over-politicized. As for the literary supplements, what do they tell us except ‘long live the buddy-buddy network’? What kind of moral rectitude is that? And what about the right to truth?’

[…]

Calm and resolute, Emilie pursues her counterattack and cites the facts: Can we really suspect such and such a writer, at such and such a newspaper, of dishonesty? And can we honestly question the integrity of such and such a professor, who writes in such and such a journal?’

Without the slightest compunction, Alika answers with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘Yes we can. And we should.’

‘In other words,’ Emilie says, ‘they’re all guilty until proven innocent, is that it?’

‘No,’ Alika concedes. ‘I wouldn’t go that far. But I maintain that as a reader, I have the right to wonder about their conception of ethics.’

… Happy birthday, tomorrow, Elie Wiesel.

Why attack ♯Leveson, our best chance to save real journalism?

The coercion which the police state exercises on thought and art is indeed appalling. Yet the damage done may, in the final analysis, be no greater than that caused by the absolutism of the mass market. … The censorship which profit imposes on the media is as destructive, perhaps more so than that of political despotism.

George Steiner, My Unwritten Books, 2008

That Fleet Street editors are once again ganging up to attack the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and practices — concentrating their salvos, this time, on its as-yet-unpublished first report and recommendations – could turn out to be a great good thing.

Their aggression is inviting attention. It is giving everyone who cares about getting reliable news and facts undistorted by hidden agendas and special interests — for instance, the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) — a chance to remind the 4th Estate that public opinion is firmly on the Inquiry’s side.

But, …

as the INFORRM blog warned, last week,

… there is an important case to be fought in the court of public opinion over the next couple of months. A careful eye needs to be kept on press attempts to distort and manipulate the arguments to support the self-interest of its proprietors.

The self-interest to which it refers is, of course, the profit motive. That is true despite the longstanding tradition in which most of those proprietors have supported newspapers losing money decade after decade, as if red ink were simply natural for them, as intrinsic as spots for leopards or nuclear scent for polecats. Hardly anyone needs to be told, any more, that the reason why these proprietors have long competed ferociously for the privilege of owning papers is because of the fantastic levers they are for piling up profits in other spheres, and buying political influence.

We have quoted those words of George Steiner in this post’s epigraph before and we will quote them again – as often as necessary. That is, until it becomes common-or-garden wisdom that, just as the Wikipedia has brought us closer to the ideal of what an encyclopaedia can be, we need to refine forms of collaborative journalism. It has to be universally understood that journalism at its best has to be divorced from the profit motive. Just as the excellence of the Wikipedia has no connection whatsoever to improving any corporate ‘bottom line,’ there is no reason why journalism has to be directly or indirectly wedded to it any more.

The reason why no leader at the head of any prominent newspaper has risen to post-Gutenberg’s challenge – ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders‘ – is because they are  beholden to the old system of organising the dissemination of facts. They are well-paid indentured servants of the profit motive, enshrined as the ‘advertising-based business model’ for running papers.

The best possible outcome of the Leveson Inquiry is not in the least complicated. It would be an evolutionary restructuring of journalism to restore as its fundamental and only raisons d’être:

the quest for truth

and

forcing transparency in the exercise of political power.

It is this parallel with the Wikipedia that matters. The co-ownership of media and various forms of collaborative operation, in the practice of journalism, are simply the most logical means to that end.

Until we reach it, passages like this — from The Sonderberg Case, an Elie Wiesel novella about the harm that Nazism inflicted on the Nazis’ own descendants – will seem depressingly unattainable:

Actually, I had discovered journalism well before working in the field. My uncle Meir, early on, considered it the finest profession … He ranked the committed journalist as the equal of writers and philosophers.

Quiet levity at ♯Leveson, and some thoughts on the film version of the Inquiry for Robert Redford’s scriptwriter

Leveson’s subtle cerebral swordsman, Robert Jay QC:
is he Hollywood material?

Robert Redford in 1976, playing
the Watergate reporter-hero
Bob Woodward.
Photograph: collectorsshangri-la.com

Nowhere in the commentary about the winding down last week of Part 1 of the Leveson Inquiry into press practices have we seen the lines we expected some old print publication or other to throw in for leavening. Only in the blogosphere have we found mentions, in this context, of …

You cannot hope to bribe or twist

The honest British journalist

But seeing what the man will do

Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

There are minor variations of those four lines in circulation. They are the wittiest and best-loved summing-up in verse of the British tradition of journalism – at its best, still the world’s finest, in our opinion, which might have been influenced by sprinkling with  baptismal water in this branch of the craft. Long before then, the poem was on a page of a school poetry textbook to which some of us, at post-Gutenberg, often turned for relief from galumphing deconstructions of poems unfortunate enough to have been put on the syllabus.

Will Robert Redford find a way to include Humbert Wolfe’s 1920s quatrain in his script — if there is any substance in the speculation about him giving Leveson and the phone hacking scandal the Hollywood treatment? A Redford film about the Inquiry — showing us what an outsider makes of the Icelandic saga it has become — could be a treat. A clip from a BBC interview with the actor-director in April is irresistible. His tone becomes wondering, almost awed, answering a question about his impressions on a first visit to London for 30 years:

I come here and I watch the Leveson Inquiry. And whatever’s going on — I’m sure there’s some savage stuff going on — but it’s done in such a dignified, calm, graceful way that I think, gee! this is really fascinating. Somebody’s killing somebody, here, but you’d never know it.

Italian-born Humbert Wolfe
wrote the most famous poem
about British journalism.
Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

The poet Humbert Wolfe also had a stranger’s acute powers of observation. He was born in Milan. His mother started life as Consuela Terraccini. His pen strokes captured the journalism and journalists of his adopted country while he worked at a day job in its civil service.

But even if one of Redford’s most famous roles was in All the President’s Men (1976) — playing the Woodward half of Watergate’s heroic ‘Woodstein’ partnership at The Washington Post – it is not the British press but the lawyers and gracious conventions of British law in action that captivated him. At a press conference on the same trip, a reporter asked if he was watching the proceedings and ‘hoping for the return of proper investigative journalism’ – following his complaints elsewhere about the increasing ‘triviality of media’. He replied:

I’ve been very impressed with the dignity and elegance with which the process has gone forward. People take their time speaking. And in my country, things have become so accelerated and … so hyped up. … It’s sad for me to see because it blurs this more important part, which is, where are we going to find the truth? The democratisation of the internet has actually made truth harder to find — along with its positives.

Somehow, that vital qualification of his disappointment with democracy on the net was dropped from the Independent’s report of his remarks, with no indication of any omission. That paper, like the other broadsheets, never stops copying King Canute straining to command the sea to roll backwards – in its case, the evil digital sea of change obliging the 4th Estate to share its megaphone with new rivals.

Actually, Lord Justice Leveson and his chief counsel for the hearings, Robert Jay, have often struck post-Gutenberg as a brilliant pairing. In their uncannily well-coordinated forensic interrogation, they function like a legal Woodstein – even if not technically working as partners but in their distinct and separate roles. The background to their bravura performance could be an engaging part of the story, whenever Redford or someone else digs into it.

Admittedly, that is most likely to be a someone else – since the cinema only rarely conveys intellectual, as opposed to emotional, subtlety and complexity. Just as nearly every film ever made about the lives of artists and writers has failed to illuminate the mechanisms of their creativity, let alone uncover its secrets, there seems little chance of the cinema tackling judicial tactics and strategising of the highest sophistication.

Unless the presiding judge or some other senior member of the Inquiry’s legal team writes a completely frank account of its hidden dramas, there is just as little hope of our learning any details of the hearings’ behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – the pressure from vengeful old 4th Estate tigers distraught about the prospect of their de-clawing; the wily manipulations of politicians. We can only discern their effects – in, for instance, the ever more drawn and tired face and hoarse voice of Leveson LJ, in the concluding weeks of Part 1.

Would a Redford film explain the sort of thing keeping us hugely amused at post-Gutenberg? – the private joke we read into the judge thanking ‘the press who have reported on the inquiry, for keeping everybody informed,’ which made broadsheet headlines. Taking what he said strictly at face value (Lord Justice Leveson ends Inquiry by thanking journalists), those news reports missed his point entirely. To grasp what Leveson LJ was actually saying, you would have to know about this exchange between him and the admirably non-partisan Peter Oborne, chief political commentator at The Telegraph — and by far the most enlightening and accurate senior journalist testifying at the Inquiry:

P.O. : … [T]he reason why rival newspaper groups were unwilling to report phone hacking […] It’s only my views as an informed spectator, that … there was a reluctance of one newspaper group to embarrass another.

LJL : … If that is so, is that inevitable?

P.O. : I don’t know if it’s inevitable or not, but it has been a very, very — it has been a feature … [A]nd I think it’s been weakened a little bit, or even quite a lot, by blogs, and Private Eye has played a fantastically important cleansing function in the last 30 or 40 years. […M]aterial which has not found its way into mainstream publications has found its way into Private Eye.

LJL : Private Eye has also been publishing during the course of this Inquiry what the newspapers don’t publish. In other words, they’ve gone through a number of stories and said, “Actually, it’s rather interesting that this story appeared in this paper but it didn’t cover another aspect.”

Had the judge not been teasing huffy 4th-Estaters for their selective and misleading reporting on his hearings, he would have thanked all reporters and commenters – including bloggers, whose legitimacy and importance he has scrupulously underlined.

On that subject, we have a message for Robert Redford.  It is only because of the internet’s democratisation of the media that post-Gutenberg learnt that he acknowledged the constructive aspects of the rise of the net, even as he blamed it for the growing scarcity of good traditional journalism. As we have already noted in this entry, The Independent only printed the portion of his remarks that suits its agenda. But, thanks not only to a BBC video but a YouTube clip from his London press conference, we could all watch him speak his unedited thoughts and interpret them for ourselves.

And that is just one more tiny scrap confirming that expand and include; don’t compress and exclude should be the principle directing anyone powerful who has a say in shaping the media’s future – for reasons we recently explained here.

♯Leveson must protect citizens’ rights to comment alongside a 4th Estate incapable of self-regulation: see Private Eye No. 1317

‘f&f’
Photograph by MIL22

One after another, members of the 4th Estate have been parroting some version of the same frightful cliché – don’t throw out the baby with the bath water! – as they warn Lord Justice Leveson about the risks of imposing any form of regulation on the press.  Google offers roughly 21,200 search results for the terms ‘baby + bathwater + Leveson’.

You might suppose that someone would have the wit to find a new metaphor after this year’s revelations about decades of collusion between politicians and the largest 4th Estate empire by far, the one run by Rupert Murdoch – disclosures that have shown us that the wretched baby is being bathed skinless to divert attention from its reeking, putrid condition.

Last week, in another part of this site, we posted a mention of an important study by a London School of Economics researcher about comment moderation policies on the websites of newspapers. We found it only by accident, on the day we wrote the post. For reasons obvious from five minutes spent reading the study’s findings, no newspaper has given it any publicity whatsoever. We hope that the Leveson Inquiry’s team of investigators has copies of the LSE researcher Sanna Trygg’s paper, ‘Is Comment Free? Ethical, editorial and political problems of moderating online news‘, which underlined in various ways these observations:

In the past, ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ media have been considered as the main public forum for free speech, critique and discussion. Today, readers are also invited to participate in the debate directly online. The main platform for this is the comment field attached to news articles published online.

[…]

Comment fields on newspaper websites offer great potential for participation in democratic dialogue. […] It is important to continue to strive for real engagement between people with different viewpoints, even when those views are marginal. The danger remains that people will not learn by having their views challenged.

[…]

Readers’ participation is still not a priority in the newspapers organization. [Comment] [m]oderation is being performed on the terms of the newspaper and is a product of a relatively narrow policy. This issue matters if it drives people away from ‘reasonable’ moderated discourse. […] It is a central problem for the creation of a truly networked journalism or Fifth Estate.

Trygg — whose work experience includes a stint as web editor for Skånska Dagbladet, a newspaper in her Swedish homeland – was pessimistic about the likelihood that the Inquiry will address the most vital media-related issue that needs resolving. That is not simply to note the 4th Estate’s replacement by the 5th , but firmly discourage today’s still-dominant print media from suppressing the voices of citizens who disagree with its positions and expose its flaws in newspaper comments sections. She surmised:

At present it does not seem likely that Leveson will deal with news website moderation directly, but surely it should be considered in any investigation into newspaper editorial practices and their contribution to British public life?

As we keep saying here, there is only one widely circulated print publication in Britain writing ‘without fear or favour,’ the way a real newspaper should – and as only bloggers and other unmediated writers publishing on the net do. In late June, Private Eye supplied a detailed contradiction of misleading testimony by David Cameron at the Leveson hearings that the rest of the 4th Estate either ignored or mentioned glancingly.

The Eye’s evisceration of that testimony referred to Jeremy Hunt, a culture-minister-in-waiting who in 2010 had boosted his party’s chances of winning the election by securing the support of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun – through spouting, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, all the positions on media policy that Rupert’s son James had outlined a few days earlier in delivering the annual, high-profile MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

“THERE was no overt deal for support, there was no covert deal, there were no nods and winks,” David Cameron told Leveson, dismissing the suggestion that the Tories agreed to back the Murdochs’ commercial interests in return for the support of the Sun before the 2010 general election. Hmm…

As the Eye pointed out before Cameron gave his evidence, there was, however, an uncanny resemblance between James Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture on 28 August 2009 and an article that the then shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote in the Sun three weeks later on 19 September – just before the paper switched its support to the Tories.

Hunt echo

In the MacTaggart, Murdoch complained about a “land grab” by the BBC, claiming that “the scale and scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling”. Hunt echoed that in his Sun article, warning that “something is going wrong at the broadcaster”.

Murdoch declared: “Rather than concentrating on areas where the market is not delivering, the BBC seeks to compete head-on for audiences with commercial providers.” Or, as Hunt wrote three weeks later: “The BBC needs to focus on what it does best – great family entertainment and programmes the market will not provide.”

Murdoch rant

Murdoch complained that “the BBC’s income is guaranteed and growing”. Ditto Hunt: “We should not be having inflationary rises in the licence fee.” Murdoch then ranted about the “particularly egregious” expansion of the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. Lo and behold, Hunt argued: “It’s time to rein in the activities of its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.”

Murdoch’s fury extended to the BBC Trust. “You need deep pockets, sheer bloody-mindedness and an army of lawyers just to make the BBC Trust sit up and pay attention,” he fumed. Hunt promptly “pledged to replace” the BBC Trust “with a truly independent body”.

Perish the thought that any of this might amount to evidence of a mating dance between the Tories and the Murdochs.

We hope that the Leveson Inquiry will do all it can to ease the way for more media of every sort to fill crucial gaps in mainstream reporting as only the Eye does, at present.

Appearing before the Inquiry last Tuesday, Lord Hunt (no relation to Jeremy), the present head of the press-run Press Complaints Commission all but universally acknowledged to have failed at the job of self-policing, failed to melt Lord Justice Leveson’s heart when he begged for a second chance for his organisation. Every month brings fresh evidence of the hopelessness of any claim that the press is capable of regulating itself.

Two such scraps on our minds at post-Gutenberg today:

• Last summer, even with the whole world transfixed by emerging details about phone hacking by Murdoch’s minions, the media tycoon announced his intention of mucking out his corporation’s stable with an internal investigation that struck critics as woefully unconvincing. It was led by Joel Klein, a New York lawyer and education expert, freshly hired by News Corp.. The New York Times noted earlier this year:

Shareholder groups have expressed concerns about Mr. Klein’s independence in leading the investigation. His compensation package at News Corporation was more than $4.5 million last year, according to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“His salary was a huge bump, so he’s clearly beholden to Murdoch and should not be running an internal investigation,” said Michael Pryce-Jones, a spokesman for the CtW Investment Group, a shareholder advocacy group based in Washington that works with pension funds for large labor unions.

Last month, Joel Klein handed over that smelly job for a head groom to another senior News Corp executive – but that was someone hired at his behest, and his having been entrusted at all with the sanitising task did not inspire confidence in the likelihood that Britain’s heftiest media conglomerate is capable of putting the public interest above considerations of narrow commercial advantage.

• Newspapers ignore complaints about the suppression of citizens’ comments about their policies and behaviour  — even censoring, with peerless irony, a post about an opinion piece by the chief executive of Index on Censorship, a British watchdog group chiefly concerned with spotlighting censorship outside Britain.

One reason for starting this post-Gutenberg blog last September was to draw attention to comments censored by newspapers. Obviously thinking on closely parallel lines, Sanna Trygg suggested in her paper, published in January:

[W]e would argue that in the long run it is worth newspapers continuing to push for more transparent moderation … For example, would it be worthwhile making records of deleted comments public? Since no publicly available records exists, all we know is that comments are being deleted, but not which ones and why.

The latest tactic by old print media worthies determined to neutralise the Leveson Inquiry is to claim that neither the presiding judge nor any of the lawyers assisting him – all educated at élite institutions — are capable of looking after the interests of ‘Joe Public,’ since none of them are part of the tabloid-reading majority of customers for Britain’s newspapers.

This will be seen as a particularly ill-judged attempt to ensure the unchallenged reign of the 4th Estate if the Inquiry acts on what Lord Justice Leveson plainly understands well, which is that ordinary citizens are best served by any newspaper that gives its readers a chance to freely express their opinions.

A source quoted by Sanna Trygg encapsulated why this is exactly what members of the public need:

Research by the Swedish survey Institute Sifo in 2011, showed that workers, unemployed and less educated people think that reader comments in themselves are more important than civil servants, self-­‐employed, private employees and highly skilled:

“A qualified guess is that people with higher education and status in society feel that they already have the opportunity to be heard. For people with lower status are comment fields however, an important platform to make their voices heard.” 
Sofia Mirjamsdotter (Swedish journalist, blogger and social media expert.)

Advice for Lord Justice Leveson from Lao Tse: how to shape the afterlife of the 4th Estate and assist the birth of its successor

[ On 10 July 2012, The Independent, a ‘liberal’ London newspaper, declined to publish a comment on press reform linked to this post. That polite comment is here. ]

Niklaus Manuel’s ‘Dance of Death’ (‘Totentanz’, 1516-1519) was a hugely popular theme as Gutenberg presses proliferated and the Renaissance was in full sway. It could have symbolised a coming-to-terms not just with death but the dying of old ways.

Presiding over an Inquiry whose conclusions will shape the afterlife of the British press – doomed to extinction by digital media and the new voices of the 5th Estate – Lord Justice Leveson keeps reminding us of the contradiction in the difficult job he has been given. What mechanisms can he recommend to the government for the enforcement of ethical behaviour by the 4th Estate without ‘imperilling the freedom of expression or our free press’? – as he put it during Tony Blair’s testimony in late May.

Post-Gutenberg would like to recommend a fragment of ancient Chinese philosophy as a frame for thinking about a solution to his quandary. Lao Tse reportedly said, in the 6th century BCE,

If we wish to compress something, we must first let it fully expand.

Lao Tse

Rule-making can be seen as a sort of compression – in the sense of limiting, constraining and controlling. It is too soon for anyone, even the admirably wise men at the summit of Britain’s judiciary today, to draft rules for media being turned inside-out by the digital revolution. As perspicacious witnesses have pointed out, any new regulations that minutely specify what the 4th Estate can and cannot do must inevitably pronounce on who should be considered a journalist. How can that be done when the profession’s boundaries are being obliterated by the arrival of the 5th Estate?

It would be disastrous if the Inquiry were to lead to any blocking or impeding of this successor to the 4th Estate. What the arrival of the 5th Estate means for the press is that it has to share the megaphone it has so far had all to itself.  This succession is directly in line with the evolution and improvement of democracy – something that people everywhere want dearly, a yearning that events like the Arab Spring have dramatised.

To watch the Leveson hearings is to see the presiding judge agonise over too many details that an unimpeded 5th Estate will soon make irrelevant or outdated. They take up too much of his time, even when he understandably declines to deal with them in an Inquiry being criticised for taking on too much. As Dan Sabbagh noted in a good summing-up in The Guardian last week,

Leveson has so far showed little apparent desire to get into the question of the ownership structures of newspapers: when invited … to set a cross-media ownership limit that would force a Murdoch sale of the Sun or the Times, Leveson fought shy, “because that involves all sorts of competition issues which would require quite detailed analysis”.

Instead, Leveson went elsewhere to debate some practical solutions. The judge has been surprisingly consistent in the views he has espoused, taking the approach of testing out ideas periodically with witnesses he likes. Leveson is clearly sceptical of the PCC [Press Complaints Commission], telling Financial Times editor Lionel Barber in January that the body was not “really a regulator” but a “complaints mechanism” – and that it needed to be supplemented by another body, a new kind of court, “some sort of arbitral system” to cover libel and privacy claims – an imagined body that the judge said would be designed to be low cost – or to use a phrase he repeated many times “not make extra work for lawyers”. Its nearest analogue would be the industrial tribunals, or the arbitration system used in the construction industry. 

Post-Gutenberg likes the way the judge is thinking about  a replacement for the defunct and essentially toothless Press Complaints  Commission. We would also be happy to see the criminalisation of a small set of completely unacceptable infractions, such as extraordinary invasions of privacy by phone hacking and other underhand means.

But instead of pointless brain-cudgelling about precisely what percentage of which communication medium newspaper conglomerates like Rupert Murdoch’s should be allowed to own, Lord Justice Leveson’s highest priority should be to open the way to the largest number of competitors for the 4th Estate.

In other words, expand, don’t compress should be the principle guiding his recommendations to the government in September.

Check bad behaviour on the part of today’s media elite by maximising  opportunities for the outsiders of the 5th Estate to offer alternative presentations of facts and unfamiliar opinions, and to challenge and expose the biases and mistakes of every sort of media, new and old.

There is no shortage of good ideas for the democratic licensing of access to sensitive information by both professional and non-professional disseminators of facts. In a post a few months ago  on the blog of the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM), Hugh Tomlinson QC made an excellent suggestion about ‘benefits for public interest journalism of creating a category of “accredited journalists”’.  These would be …

… a sub-category of those writing for publication [who] should be given specific privileges to assist them in their work. […] [P]rivileges should not be granted to journalists simply because they are employed to write or because they work for a media organisation.  Neither should the privileges be granted to any “citizen journalist” who claims to be writing public interest stories. Rather, the privileges should be made available to those who pass through a gateway policed by a voluntary independent regulatory body and sign up to an enforceable code of responsibility. [post-G’s ital.]

There are new ways of organising and financing journalism that could use Lord Justice Leveson’s support – even if that only means he will be careful not to hobble the reorganisation of the media as, for instance, a set of cooperatives in which readers and viewers could be offered the chance to become co-owners. In recent months, proposals for setting up and running these have been increasingly detailed and specific. (See, for instance, the mention of Paul Smalera’s suggestions in ‘Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media …’.)

The mere existence of the Leveson Inquiry has already had salutary effects. To give a small but critical example, the moderation of comments in The Guardian’s popular comments sections has become far less trigger-happy. Commenters are not being censored quite so reflexively for opinions or factual posts that conflict with that newspaper’s views and political positions, or criticise its friends. Last weekend, it was heartening to see a post about the Inquiry itself opened for comments after months of prohibition on grounds that made no sense – and to be able to read contributions to the debate about Ian Jack’s illuminating comparison of Leveson with an earlier government investigation of press practices.

As for the Leveson hearings, per se, their radical transparency — with a presiding judge confident enough to muse aloud and react spontaneously to testimony —  goes far beyond what many of us could even have imagined as a model of open government. (The best demonstration came an hour after this post: here). American lawyer friends looking on in awe tell us that nothing in the US system would permit Americans to copy the form of these proceedings.

Most amazing has been the discovery that the conduct of the Inquiry is characteristic of an exceptionally progressive judiciary. Utterly unlike the notoriously slow-moving and stodgy legal system wickedly satirised in Dickens’s creation, Jarndyce and Jarndyce — a court case that grinds on for generations – Britain’s top judges are not just acknowledging the implications of new communications media and adjusting to them, but doing so faster than the professionally nimble 4th Estate.

Post-Gutenberg only recently came across a news report from the spring of last year about a speech in Israel by the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Igor Judge, who put Sir Brian Leveson in charge of this indescribably gratifying investigation into press culture and practices. He explained that in Malta, where he was born, one of his grandfathers owned and edited a tiny newspaper. His sympathy for the press’s problems is, in a sense, inbred. But he favours the transparency and inclusion that are more the defining characteristics of the 5th than the 4th Estate – even for keeping his own legal system honest:

His “fervent hope” was that new technology would make it easier for the media to be “present” in court, reporting the proceedings, and “the present trend of fewer and fewer reporters in every court would come to an end”.

In an apparent reference to “virtual” courts based on video-conferencing, Judge insisted that justice should be done “in a public forum to which the public, or the media, has access”.

He continued: “Technology must not lead to justice done in secret, or some form of hole-in-the-corner justice.

Post-Gutenberg wishes to offer just more one scrap of advice to Lord Justice Leveson – who has invited everyone, however obscure, to contribute thoughts to his hearings: please do not allow political partisanship by the press to be conflated with press freedom. As we observed in a recent post in this spot, sanctioning political one-sidedness means licensing powerful media owners to be king-makers, with all the compromising wheeling and dealing that goes with that. It means condoning the skewed reporting of the facts so essential to the functioning of a genuinely democratic government.

With a fully licensed 5th Estate in full cry, media conglomerates trying to run Britain, with lots of help from British prime ministers – or what the Economist appears to dismiss nonchalantly as the inevitable ‘proprietor problem’ –  should be shown their proper place. And where would that be? If not oblivion, then as far below the salt as possible.

The Leveson hearings are showing the world how beautiful transparent and open government would be

‘Quasi-judicial’: Jeremy Hunt, the minister responsible for culture and sport, awaits his turn at the Leveson Inquiry beside a former prime minister.
Detail from an anticipatory sketch by Martin Rowson for The Guardian, 26 May 2012

Strange times, these …

An incisive cartoonist can grasp the meaning of ‘quasi-judicial’ clearly enough to depict it with diagrammatic accuracy. Yet a British government minister charged with impartiality – the one with oversight of culture, no less – implied in evidence at the Leveson Inquiry that this aspect of a critical part of his job was really, really hard to understand. So difficult, indeed, that he saw only belatedly that there was something wrong with lobbying his cabinet colleagues to look favourably on a $16 billion bid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. – the phone hacking champion – to take over the TV broadcasting giant BSkyB.

You might think that a cabinet minister should be capable of a less unconvincing defence, but you would be wrong. It was pathetic to watch Jeremy Hunt claim, last week,

This was probably the first time that I heard the phrase quasi-judicial or had some kind of exposure to what the implications of quasi-judicial meant, […] Obviously I did become extremely familiar with what quasi-judicial                  meant.

Two days before Hunt’s testimony, Michael Gove, another cabinet minister appearing before Leveson – the one in charge of education – defended Murdoch, his good friend and former employer, in ringing oratorical tones. He described him as ‘a great man’.  This eye-popping characterisation undoubtedly led others, not just sceptical post-Gutenbergers, to spend a few minutes learning more about such a faithful acolyte of the Digger’s. It took mere seconds to find the Telegraph columnist Tom Chivers, obviously beside himself with glee, telling his readers last June:

So here’s a thing. Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove – the man charged with the schooling of our nation’s children …  in an interview with The Times, said: … “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.”

Newton’s laws of thermodynamics! That’s Newton (died 1727, expounded the laws of motion in 1687) and the laws of thermodynamics (expounded between 1847 and 1851 by William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin).

And in a letter to the editor of a newspaper, that remark earned Gove six of the best from a cane that whistled as it descended:

I see that Michael Gove thinks that “what [students] need is a rooting in … Newton’s laws of thermodynamics” (Report, 18 June). As a science teacher, what I need is a secretary of state who knows the difference between motion and hot air.

Ben Littlewood

London

The Politicalscrapbook blog awarded him a dunce’s cap. No one looking on as he tried repeatedly — and dismally failed — to score points off Lord Justice Leveson could have doubted that the error fit the man. Neither he nor Jeremy Hunt seem to realise that even the dimmest members of the public find it impossible to comprehend members of government making excuses or pontificating without using search engines to check for factual accuracy and, or, plausibility, before they open their mouths. … Well, for goodness’ sake, they have aides to do such heavy lifting for them.

Both inexcusable ignorance and arrogance are harder for anyone to get away with now that encyclopaedias have morphed into the free and weightless Wikipedia. The Leveson hearings have let everyone observe human beings at the pinnacle of executive power being courteously but persistently grilled for hours on end. They been allowing us to compare the words of witnesses with body language and the most fleeting facial twitches.

The longer the Inquiry continues, the more new expectations it will create.

Who, after being riveted by judicial interrogations of the high and mighty, month after month, will be willing to put up with less than perfectly transparent and open government?

On Twitter, expressing a private opinion, Adrian Monck – who runs Communications for the World Economic Forum in Geneva – tweeted, after Hunt’s appearance, and in close sympathy with this blog:

RT @amonck: #Leveson should remain as a standing committee on British public life

— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) May 31, 2012

It is difficult to imagine living without it.

Blogging shakes off its bastard status as the Leveson Inquiry legitimises non-professional, post-print media

Cartoon by an unknown artist at an exhibition, King’s Cross, London, 24 March 2012
Photograph by Katy Stoddard

A journalist giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry on 23 May answered questions from the lead counsel, Robert Jay, QC, about his written submission – until the Bench intervened: 

Q.  … Can I ask you … about the arrangements or the negotiations with politicians which you say can become very convoluted. …

A. … I do find it easier not to have politicians as personal friends.  …

Q.  In the context of the symbiotic relationship you go on to describe?

A.  Yes.  I mean, it is like ticks and sheep, isn’t it?  One can’t exist without the other.

Q.  …  You might become parti pris or become just a little too understanding.  It’s obviously those vices which you carefully eschew.  Is that fair?

A.  Yeah, I mean I don’t want to set myself up as some sort of absolute prig here.  … I find it easier and cleaner to have a disconnection, that’s all … [A]nd the only justification, I think, for our existence, is that we act on behalf of the citizen.  We don’t act on behalf of the powerful or the vested interest.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON:  Nobody will think you’re a prig, Mr Paxman, having just compared yourself to a tick.

Jeremy Paxman at the Leveson hearings

In 1999, after Jerri FitzGerald – the only doctor in a 41-person team on a research expedition to the South Pole – discovered a lump in her breast, she ‘performed a biopsy on herself with the help of non-medical staff, who practised using needles on a raw chicken.’

Everyone expecting courageous, detached professionalism in another sphere from newspapers covering the Leveson Inquiry into press standards and practices has been sorely disappointed. The most important story emerging from the hearings – confirmation of judicial sanction for members of the public who choose to blog, and for an unprecedented range of sources of information for voters seeking to make good voting decisions – is being concealed through a nearly exclusive focus on the implications for David Cameron’s government of sensational revelations from the phone hacking scandal.

All reporting on the Leveson proceedings by the press has been highly selective. Readers have even been deprived of such fun as the judge’s gentle takedown of the BBC’s best-known inquisitor on politics – the suave and debonair TV journalist Jeremy Paxman – recorded in our epigraph.

Reporting by traditional media about the changed status of blogging is non-existent, scant or distorted – sometimes gravely. Andrew Marr, one of the most respected political commentators in Britain, had this exchange with the Inquiry’s chief interrogator, Robert Jay:

Q.  …  [A]n article from The Guardian,  11 October 2010, … reports you as dismissing bloggers as “inadequate, pimpled and single” and citizen journalism as “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night”. … Is that comment about … the tone and quality of some of the online debate, or is it a more fundamental criticism of bloggers as being detrimental to the good name of journalism?

A.  …[I]t’s partly a symptom of my deadly weakness for a vivid phrase.  It was a comment really aimed at the enormous amount of anger and vituperation that seemed to me to be swilling around parts of the Internet, most of it anonymous.  I was probably a bit out of date even if I was saying that. Now, you know, you look around and a lot of the most influential highly respected political commentators aren’t newspaper journalists, actually, they are bloggers.

In The Guardian, Dan Sabbagh supplied a master-class in biased reporting in a news story radically watering down Marr’s testimony about the value of political commentary by bloggers:

Lord Justice Leveson has queried whether bloggers would have to be brought in a revised system of press regulation, as he heard evidence from Andrew Marr about the growing power of political websites.

The BBC journalist and politics show presenter said that ConservativeHome and other sites are “now as influential as any newspaper” and any new system of regulation proposed by the judge “would have to include those alongside newspapers”.

Whereas the Sabbagh report had the judge merely reflecting ‘rhetorically’ on ‘the boundaries of regulation’ – meaning the degree to which bloggers would be treated as part of the 4th Estate – anyone paying close attention would have heard Lord Justice Leveson agonise about a ‘nightmarish’ task of a very different sort. What he said was clearly predicated on bloggers and citizen journalists not being be excluded from any new system of press regulation. His dilemma, he explained, lay in deciding exactly who should be required to redress complaints about journalistic misbehaviour in that new system – that is, wrongdoing not just by those traditionally considered journalists but by anyone practising journalism.

The judge must wrestle with the distinction within the blogosphere between those whose writing amounts to comments for the sake of commenting, versus ‘those that are in the course of — if you like, a trade or business.’ Or, as he later rephrased that division, bloggers and other newcomers who are ‘simply commenting and those who are doing more and getting towards the business end of journalism.’

It is money changing hands for commentary that is, for him, the key point of difference between traditional and non-traditional journalists – not levels of expertise, or indeed any intrinsic entitlement to comment.

Andrew Marr at the Leveson hearings

In another fascinating interlude in that day’s testimony, Andrew Marr noted – earlier – that a special category of political blogger had appeared on the scene:

I think what the world of the influential political blogger has done is introduced a new player into the system who isn’t the full-time professional journalist with a press card working at Westminster under an editor and isn’t a politician, but is somewhere between the two.  A lot of these people are card carrying party members.  […]  They have particularly strong contacts with their side.  And therefore you can’t treat them as old-fashioned journalists under old-fashioned journalistic codes …

Then, with commendable honesty, he added that newspapers had begun to employ these professionally partisan political bloggers – if not mentioning what post-Gutenberg has in recent posts about the ‘old-fashioned’ press now claiming partisanship as a basic right of a free press.  Paid political bloggers, he said, are

an  influential new thing.  I mean, even a lot of the papers are picking people up and using them as commentators now. I think the old distinction between a political player and would-be professional journalist is breaking down, and any system which is built upon the old system will quickly look out of date as well.

On Dan Sabbagh’s keyboard, that testimony was conspicuously tweaked, like the rest of his report – and made no mention of newspapers bringing spin-doctors into the fold:

Marr said that political bloggers were often “card-carrying party members” often with “strong contacts with their side”, which meant that they could not be treated as “old-fashioned journalists” but were nevertheless increasingly significant.

What a good thing it is that no member of the Inquiry’s outstanding legal team misses a beat.

There was, for instance, the moment when Marr told the presiding judge that the ‘buy-in from the editors and the journalists who are going to be part of it,’ would be critical to the success of any new system of regulation introduced.’ He emphasised that ‘you need them to be plugged in … enthusiastically and willingly so.’

This conversational minuet ensued:

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON:  In relation to buy-in, of course, if I’m going to recommend any system, it has to be a system that everybody has to buy into.

A.  Yes.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON:  It will only have a chance of working if it works for the press, it works for the public as well.

A.  Mm.

… Not for ages has anything in public life offered the satisfaction of seeing right being done to remotely the same degree.

The lost wisdom of co-ops: a conversation about the key to future creative freedom for artists and inventors of every stripe

All artists now want to work on terms they co-determine.
Photograph by MIL22.

Post-Gutenberg will occasionally be letting visitors eavesdrop on discussions between our colleagues – starting with the pseudonymous and gender-free Escargot and Mustrun, who are not quite ready to divulge any personal details, except in warning about their tendency to be over-earnest, humourless, and on occasion, dull. Not the best qualifications for bloggers, we agree, but we make do with what we have – or rather, who.

Mustrun: I see that on Sunday we linked to The Observer — to a sharp John Naughton column about the Facebook hype falling flat on Wall Street. Someone here dropped into a comment there a link to our Valentine’s Day post about snubbing Facebook and re-inventing social networking sites as co-ops.

Escargot: So that’s why our traffic numbers have gone zooming into outer space. We’re not used to thundering herds of visitors shattering the monastic silence in these parts.

Mustrun: Right. Co-op promoters are the slave trade-killers of tomorrow.

Escargot: Trying to be aphoristic again, are we? Don’t. That one’s as clear as mud.

Mustrun: Just saying. All the clever people were sure for over two millennia that slavery would always be with us. Anyone trying to abolish it was written off as a lunatic or idealistic fool.

Escargot: Oh. Quite. Last week that lovely Leveson Inquiry judge, more owly than we are, was asking eminent witnesses to suggest how to make the British press behave in the future, and be less hopeless at holding politicians to account. No one mentioned redesigning media organisations as co-ops, but it’s surely a solution whose day has come. Not to mention dead relevant.

Mustrun: You’re thinking of the Harvard journalism lab experiment? Something to do with an Indian tree that looks like a multi-limbed goddess on steroids?

Escargot: The Banyan Project, yes. It’s been building a prototype for doing online journalism as a cooperative enterprise, focusing on local news. The man behind it, Tom Stites, has exactly the right idea. We’ve quoted him on post-Gutenberg before.

Mustrun: We have? Well, you know me. Any subject not mentioned in a post header, or that I didn’t write about myself, does not register.

Escargot: [sighing inaudibly] So as usual, you want me to urp up what he said, to fill you in?

Mustrun: Leopard, spots; all in the hard-wiring – yes? … If you would, please, Scargo.

Escargot: [reads through imperceptibly gritted teeth] ‘A significant source of co-ops’ strength is the trustworthiness inherent in their democratic and accountable structure. … This is also an era of rampant mistrust of journalism, so co-op news sites’ trustworthiness has the potential to add value to what they publish. Further, the co-op form allows, or rather demands, that news coverage decisions arise from what a community’s people need … The web is inherently collaborative — just as co-ops are — and at the local level this creates the potential for civic synergy — ’.

Mustrun: Translation: co-ops and the internet were made for each other. Spot-on, in that long-winded Murrican way. He might add that it’s strange but true that large parts of the internet sit on top of ‘peer-to-peer computing’. But this Justice Leveson, … how is he supposed to go from applauding a fine example like Banyan – assuming he does any such thing – to persuading the media to try out co-ops? He’s hardly going to order them to alter what we’re supposed to call their ‘business model’.

Escargot: Right. Britain is not a dictatorship. But he might recommend that the government offer old or new media organisations tax breaks for setting up co-ops – in the oldies’ case, by reinventing themselves, or parts of their operations, as co-operative outfits.

Mustrun: You think journos would sign on? Remember that the majority so detest the idea of any change that they can’t even bring themselves to report that Nick Davies — the journo hero of the phone hacking saga — told Leveson that the press cannot be trusted to regulate itself.

Escargot: Mmmm. Some of them will sign on, certainly. More will as the idea loses its strangeness, I suspect. There are editors and journalists who’d leap at the chance co-ops could give them to set rules and policies collaboratively. Mainly, I suspect, the craft-focused ones — hoping, like artists and writers everywhere, that this net revolution really will get rid of hierarchies and gatekeepers.

You saw the Tom Friedman column celebrating some of that on the New York Times site yesterday – yes?… But then of course, many journos live not so much for the craft as for the clubbiness in the profession. And sort of think of themselves as football teams – the women just as much as the men.

Mustrun: Clipped Friedman for skimming, later. Journos are petrified of more democratic media organisations, especially of any plan that involves making room for outsiders — for more varied contributors and voices. I’m always asked the same nervous-Nellie question about posts on here like ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …’. It’s this: will working in a media co-op mean that trained journalists get paid the same as bloggers and citizen-journalists?

Escargot: Oh, I’m asked that. All the time. No matter how many times we explain that the way a co-op works will depend on the particular set of rules its owner-members agree on, the journos and media managers revert to projecting their most paranoid fears onto any mention of  co-operatives.

Mustrun: Someone ought to re-publish that superb Tom Lester article about co-ops in the disintegrating copy of Management Today you once disinterred from our archive. It’d make a terrific contribution to the new e-publishing collections of long-form journalism – with an introduction setting it in context, of course, and updated facts. Remind me of the year it was published?

Escargot: Imagine you proposing anything in long form, Musto. The owner of the world’s most attenuated attention span. The Lester piece — the cover date for the magazine says February 1979 — deserves every last gram of your praise.

Mustrun: Even text-grazers like me have to stop for a real meal, now and then. What he pulled off in that article is amazing. His subject was the failure of the Kirkby Co-operative in a depressed manufacturing town near Liverpool. Yet by the end of his dissection of how Kirkby was done in by badly-designed rules, you somehow feel hugely optimistic about a well-designed co-op’s chances of succeeding.

Escargot: Yes, yes, and yes. The piece partly answers the question of how journalists might be paid in relation to bloggers – not that we existed, then — by explaining the rules for profit-sharing in one of the world’s biggest and most brilliant co-ops. Mondragon, in the Basque country of northern Spain.

Mustrun: ‘Mondragon’ sounds like something in Lord of the Rings. Lester uses its exotic history — it was started by a Catholic priest in the desperate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War — to create a riveting context for a step-by-explanation of exactly how an individual could join a co-op and help run it.

Escargot: [ swipes over to scanned copy of the article in a tablet computer ] The ratios may have changed, but in 1979, Lester said that at least 30 per cent of a Mondragon co-op’s profits had to be put away in the collective reserve funds. Then, ‘the other 70 per cent is divided up among the members of the co-op according to a points system reflecting job status.’ … And of course, every member could help to decide the status of one job in relation to another.

Mustrun: But in addition to practical, nitty-gritty details like that, he tells about some of the lunacy that seemed to go hand-in-hand with the passionate idealism behind co-ops of the past.

Escargot: Mmmm. ‘No shortage of idealism,’ he says about Mondragon, ‘…but mixed with hard-headed realism.’

Mustrun: Yes, but noisy idealism has been the biggest enemy of co-ops. Makes sensible people mistrustful.

Escargot: Quite. If only people who believe in them and have the right skills – extroverts, unlike us – would just get on with setting them up with no fuss. The way, for instance, Tim Berners-Lee quietly invented this World Wide Web. What could be more idealistic than a way of communicating as powerful as this one, connecting the whole planet –  but given away, free? A scientist silently beavers away in a lab in Geneva and without any self-advertisement, no speechifying whatsoever, changes the world.

Mustrun: Well, I really must, … you know …

Escargot: Right. Off you go, then.

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

Lord Justice Leveson interrogating Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief.

Why is this blog keeping a close eye on the progress of the Leveson Inquiry? Not because of minutiae about Rupert Murdoch and his henchwoman Rebekah Brooks jumping in and out of bed with British prime ministers, metaphorically speaking – as important as those shenanigans are to grasping the extent to which the governing of Britian has been infested by parasitical media magnates.

Under his Inquiry’s terms of reference, Lord Justice Leveson will have to make recommendations about the future of press regulation in Britain. These are bound to influence the debate about policy in other parts of the world. The expectation about the effect of his prescriptions that we at post-Gutenberg find most exciting is in this advice the judge has received:

…[I]f you do get the regulatory framework right for print journalism, I think that will have a profound effect on the way the Internet develops. […] What I think is happening is that we’re going to end up in a position where there has to be a redefinition essentially of what a journalist is.  … [I]t would be absurd to expect you to have regulation for every single person who is on Facebook and Twitter because then you’re not far off from saying we have to regulate the content of text messaging and so forth. [...] So I think there has to be a definition of what a journalist is, what a media organisation is, and [though] this is where I have some sympathy for the print industry, it’s not just about the print industry.

That was part of yesterday’s testimony by Alastair Campbell, the much-reviled political strategist and press adviser to Tony Blair. Further justifying this blog’s praise for his contribution at an earlier hearing a few months ago,  Campbell has proved to be incontestably the clearest and best-informed thinker among those assisting the Inquiry.

Lord Justice Leveson’s obvious grasp of the most subtle aspects of what Campbell told him was particularly welcome after undercurrents at last week’s hearings suggested that perhaps David Cameron’s government – even though it commissioned this Inquiry – had been warning the judiciary, off-stage, about excessive zealousness.

The presiding judge’s unfailing good humour had up to then been as striking as his scrupulously fair treatment of all witnesses. But a newspaper quoted him as having said, last Thursday, with unprecedented irritability, that he was impatient to reach the end of the hearings and get back to ‘productive judicial work’. As this followed his rejection, the week before, of the government’s request for privileged ‘core participant’ status in the proceedings, it seems most likely that friction between the executive and judicial overseers of our democracy played some part in darkening his mood.

There were other apparent reactions to unpleasant, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – as in the somewhat tortured and meandering summing-up by the chief interrogator, Counsel Robert Jay, of the chief issues raised by the hearings. Formally addressing the Lord Chief Justice, he delivered a sort of pre-mastication of findings from witness testimony to date. In this, he partly echoed quixotic attempts by the media to justify a partisan press – of which the most bizarre has been an argument offered by The Economist, dissected in an earlier post on this blog.

‘The fearlessness and vibrancy of our press is something of which we should be enormously proud,’ Counsel Jay, usually a model of calm rationality, said in a rare rhetorical passage. He also said:

Newspapers are entitled to be partisan in a democracy, to campaign in favour of causes, policies and political parties; and were the State to legislate otherwise that would be undemocratic, as well as, under our current settlement, an abrogation of human rights.

This paean clashed with his clear understanding – obvious from his thinly veiled outrage, in one interrogation after another – of the damage done by partisanship.  On Friday, grilling Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, he sought to underline that the payoff for newspapers, for pushing the agenda of their chosen political parties, is the ability to influence policy — and that this seriously undermines democracy. A New York Times report spotlighted his repeated insistence to Brooks that

…. media executives and editors were ‘unelected forces’ influencing policy by exercising power over governments …

Post-Gutenberg wondered, watching a video feed from Leveson:  since when has the concept of press partisanship been warped by being treated as an essential component of press freedom?  Not everyone is taken in by this Orwellian obfuscation. Gus O’Donnell – a Whitehall mandarin who has served three governments as cabinet secretary –  testified just before Alastair Campbell yesterday. In his written statement submitted to the Inquiry in advance, he said unequivocally,

Newspapers can and do actively support political parties, meaning it can be difficult to obtain objective information from them …

… then, in his live testimony, added:

 … [I]t’s in their strong interests for politicians to talk to newspaper editors and proprietors to try and explain their policies, try and explain why that newspaper should support them.  That’s been going on and continues to go on and that’s the structure we have.  And as long as you have newspapers which are allowed to strongly support and come out very overtly in favour of political parties, that relationship is going to continue.

Where I would like to see a change, perhaps, is […] if you contrast the newspapers, say, in the United States with the United Kingdom, you’ll find in the United States newspapers in general tend to separate out opinion and news much more.  So you’ll get a page of opinion, which basically says, “We strongly     support this politician or this set of policies”, in a very kind of almost propaganda-ish way, and then you’ll get the news columns, which tend to be pretty straight.

I think if you looked at our newspapers, where they differ is that you’ll find that you get all the opinion in the same way but in the news stories. [my ital.]

… Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality,  as it actually does, at present – the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.

Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in what O’Donnell characterised earlier in the day as ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.

Alastair Campbell noted:

Because Murdoch’s the biggest figure and because the phone hacking has led to this Inquiry, there’s been a huge amount of focus on him, but this goes right across the media panoply.  I mean, I was in charge of Tony Blair’s  media operation and we had strategies for all of these papers and we had approaches out to all of these papers.

Let us hope that Lord Justice Leveson, when he sits down to write his report, proposes a regulatory framework that puts an end to the toxic mutual manipulation that goes with press partisanship. Let us hope that he can resist the huge pressure being brought to bear on him to stop citizen journalists and other outsiders from breaking up the exclusionary symbiosis of old media and government.

One thoughtful witness after another has recommended greater transparency and accountability in press dealings with the government and politicians. Excellent and essential ideas, yes. But the Lord Justice should, in addition, do all he can to let the new technologies at our disposal open the way to many more disseminators of facts, and to challengers of media warping or omitting inconvenient facts.

New voices must be heard from – in whatever framework he advocates — on equal terms with today’s media powerhouses, even as the lights dim in these institutions, and they bow before the force of the onrushing 5th Estate.

Memo to Walter Bagehot, ex-editor, The Economist: did you really mean to defend a partisan press, the most insidious enemy of democracy?

We cannot let the reign of the 4th Estate end in nothing but frayed and faded ideals. Composition by Tricia Meynell. http://www.triciameynell.com

Walter Bagehot

6 May 2012

to: ghost of W. Bagehot, Esq., editor, The Economist, 1860-77

from: post-Gutenberg, a 21st-century blog

Sir: this blog is not in the habit of addressing spectres. We are not even sure we believe in ghosts. But if that isn’t a phantom you writing the column titled ‘Bagehot’, and the ‘Bagehot’s Notebook’ blog for your old paper in St. James’s Street, then someone is spouting a stunningly unpersuasive argument in your name.

Let us assume that you do exist. This somehow seems friendlier in the age of social media – and we are thrilled by the possibility of a ghost going to the trouble of broadcasting his opinions.

Are spectral attention spans long or short? We cannot decide, so will make our response easy to scan.

Please refer to your post ten days ago: ‘Are British newspapers a menace to democracy?‘:

• Partisanship in the 4th Estate. Why do you defend a partisan press when impartiality has been the noblest aspiration of the 4th Estate – and its American equivalent? See this list of principles in The Elements of Journalism, quoted here a few weeks ago:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

[…]

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. …

And, as the judge presiding over the Leveson Inquiry explained as its purpose, at the start of the proceedings,

…[A]ny failure of the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry therefore may be one simple question – who guards the guardians?

• Democracies need unbiased facts. Have you forgotten that a democracy is virtually pointless without disseminators of facts who can give voters the truth – the chance to get as close as possible to factual completeness — to help them make the best decisions in elections and referendums? That is why – as you know — the 4th Estate has long been granted such special privileges as access to lofty authorities, the right to protect sources of information, etc..

You seem to be under the illusion that whether the press is good or bad for democracy turns on how the media direct and manipulate their audiences’ opinions about voting choices — rather than on the reliability of the facts about the world that they serve up.

• If there is any justification for a partisan press, you haven’t supplied it. You said, about journalism that takes sides:

Newspaper campaigns clearly influence policy-making. […]  But arguably their greatest day-to-day influence is indirect. […] Britain is an outlier [...] In lots of European countries politics encompasses angry extremes, with the hard-right and far-left attracting hefty votes. By contrast, newspapers in such countries are often small-circulation, centrist, and prim. Britain does things the other way round. Partly because of first-past-the-post voting, the big parties cluster at the political centre. The brass-band blare of dissent comes from a fiercely partisan press. 

About that, one commenter (not anyone we know) expressed the essence of our reaction at post-Gutenberg:

Konker

April 27th, 06:13

Bagehot repeats the old trope that British newspapers are extreme and therefore its politics is moderate whereas in Europe politics is extreme because the media is moderate. Does anyone seriously buy this argument. That the nature of the press determines the nature of politics. And that politics is opposite to the press. And that you can only have extreme and vicious press or moderate centrist press. What a piece of nonsense.

If Konker is mistaken and that isn’t nonsense, then – to justify such an exotic argument – why not cite a respected political scientist? Or offer your readers a hyper-link to a table with statistics for European voting patterns? Link to a book or study that supports those statements?

When you say, ‘lots of European countries’ — with surpassing vagueness — which ones are you referring to? To the best of our knowledge, the largest, France and Germany, have big political parties clustered at the centre. Just like Britain. So? … Walter! The outlines of your life mention your pride in writing about politics and economics with scientific precision. Science = substantiation. Since you know how to blog, you can surely use these tools that think with strings of 1s and 0s to share evidence with us? You could put a URL or two into your texts — yes?

Sorry, this argument sounds like something you might say at the merry end of an evening at your club. (Spectres don’t haunt those, do you?)

• The preferences and political agenda of even a free press are not the most important forces in a democracy. It is the will of the people that matters most. Even press freedom is about the people, and not the press – as the Lord Chief Justice said in a speech he gave just before the formal proceedings of the Leveson Inquiry began (words to which the press largely played deaf). He quoted a famous statement in 1762 by the reformer and political agitator, John Wilkes:

“The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country”.

We embrace that statement. The significance of what John Wilkes said was not, as those connected with the media sometimes suggest, that the statement is upholding the liberty of the press. [...] It is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent.

We speak of ‘media’ because they represent channels for expressing the opinions and feelings of the people. Newspapers are not goads, nor licensed wielders of carrots and sticks. Read Paul Johnson on the rise of democracy in 19th-century Europe. ‘Towards the end of the 1820s, the world moved a decisive stage nearer the democratic age,’ he has written, listing among the chief factors and trends behind that, the spread of literacy, and ‘huge increase in the number and circulation of newspapers.’ In Britain, it was not just newspapers through which public sentiment was expressed:

… [T]he demand for fundamental reform was growing again. One reliable index of political intensity is the number of political prints produced, which can be gauged from the vast stocks held in the British Library. Artists and print sellers mirrored middle-class opinion …

• Your own readers do not want a partisan press. If the results of this poll running on your own site since last July can be trusted, 73 per cent of 2,686 of them have voted ‘Yes’ in reply to: ‘Some commentators welcome the rise of a partisan press […S]hould respectable news organisations strive to be fair and balanced?’

• Partisan reporters on politics cannot do their jobs properly. You end your reflection on whether British newspapers undermine democracy by saying,

Journalists and politicians can never be truly friends. Lowly reporters and MPs always knew this: given a big enough story, each will turn on the other.

Really? If that were true, why did staff journalists on the Whitehall beat fail to get this century’s biggest scoops in politics — and leave the job to outsiders, the freelances Heather Brooke and Nick Davies, as this blog recorded last week.

… There’s a beard-scratcher for you, old bean!

—————————————————————————————————————

[ More on this subject: 

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

http://post-gutenberg.com/2012/05/15/2311/ ]

Murdoch’s end shows why the 4th Estate needs competition, power-sharing, and watchdogs as astute as Lord Justice Leveson — on permanent duty

Rupert the piteously wronged: it should not have taken 30 years to see him flushed down the sewer of history

Questions that came to mind, watching segments of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony last week at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press:

Why did it take over three decades — the lifespan of some loyal readers here — for the outing of Rupert Murdoch as the most pernicious influence on British journalism for at least a century?

Max Hastings, who was for some years the editor of The Daily Telegraph – but has voted for both Labour and the Tories, in different elections — is almost the last man standing at the profession’s summit who deserves deepest respect. His account of competing with Murdoch and his newspapers in a memoir published ten years ago, Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers, reveals why the man went unchallenged for so long, and offered a deft portrait of him:

… Murdoch, as always when I encountered him, cut a curiously joyless figure. He appeared to have no life beyond his business, no cultural or aesthetic interests. [… He] will leave this planet having added precious little to the store of decency, culture, humanity …

[…]

One of the most sensitive issues for many British newspapers is that of how they treat their rivals in print. There is a shameless, self-serving compact between companies, that the personal embarrassments of newspaper owners are not reported by competitors. Anyone who attempts to write about Rupert Murdoch’s or his family’s domestic arrangements for another publication is likely to receive  a call (or, more likely, his editor or managing director will do so) from one of the great tycoon’s senior stooges at News International, drawing attention to the proprietors’ pact, and warning without much subtlety about the inevitability of retaliation if the convention is breached. The preposterous Barclay brothers ruthlessly assert their right to be spared personal publicity of any kind, even about the fortress they have constructed in the Channel Islands, and even though they have chosen to become newspaper owners.

It always seems pretty rich, that titles which derive most of their income from laying bare the private lives of others should show no embarrassment about protecting their own proprietors from scrutiny, through what amounts to a system of social nuclear deterrence.

All that being known on Fleet Street, why are none of the newspaper chieftains conceding, as they analyse the implications of Murdoch’s toppling, that he and they were all in the same club? … Why are none of them explaining the wider consequences of that to their readers? … For instance, that staffers on their papers were as entangled with politicians as Murdoch and his lieutenants were – so much so, that the two most important scoops of the last decade about power in Britain came not from staffers but freelance journalists?

As far as I can tell, there has been just one noble exception to this selective blindness. An Observer columnist, Henry Porter, wrote at the weekend:

The point of regulations and institutions is to defend the relatively fragile democratic process from people like Murdoch. The fact that none of the safeguards worked and we came within a whisker of allowing his near total dominance of the marketplace further erodes our faith in the political class to act in the interests of the public. Let’s not forget that it was largely accident, and the dedication of a very few journalists, that exposed the cover-up, of which Murdoch now claims, with eye-watering hypocrisy, that he was a victim.

Actually, it was one dogged and intuitive reporter – Nick Davies, working as an outside contributor to a broadsheet newspaper, who was able to capitalise on the ‘accident’ that exposed the extent of phone hacking by Murdoch’s minions.

Why did staff journalists anywhere fail to publish that ugliness hidden in plain sight, or break the political horror story of 2009, the MPs’ expenses scandal – the revelations about members of parliament misusing allowances and expense accounts to pay for pornography and cleaning their castle moats, among other fraudulent acts?

This scoop was also the triumph of a freelance journalist, Heather Brooke – operating outside the cosy club in which the country’s leading parliamentary correspondents wined and cuddled politicians.

The inescapable conclusion?

The club walls need tearing down. It is time for the long reign of 4th Estate journalism to give way to the 5th Estate, in which new rules and conventions will allow for the full participation of outsiders, including citizen-journalists.

Like everyone else who cares about making democracy work, David Puttnam, a genuinely idealistic politician and activist who is also a hugely successful film producer – of Chariots of Fire, for one – perceives a clear need for media reform:

In the House of Lords and elsewhere, I have repeatedly called for a comprehensive cross-media impact study – so far to no avail. At the end of his session with Lord Justice Leveson, Rupert Murdoch described the digital landscape, which we have now entered, as one in which tablets and GPS-enabled smartphones are displacing newsprint. The potential of this technology to engender even greater competitive diversity in an intelligently regulated democracy ought to be very welcome. It should result in a broadening of the lens through which we see the world, not a narrowing of it.

But that requires a clear regulatory framework that encourages, in fact enables, media plurality to flourish. We cannot, for example, legislate for good journalism, but we can legislate for the conditions under which the very best journalism is nurtured and sustained.

There were some hostile early reactions to the Leveson Inquiry from the 4th Estate — when it was not ignoring it altogether — like this bit of ludicrous exaggeration by the Guardian columnist and former editor of two newspapers, Simon Jenkins: ‘As with a military occupation, the longer Leveson’s tanks stay on Fleet Street’s lawn, the less benign they seem.’  But lately, some leaders there have apparently begun to hope that the judiciary’s interest in their doings might be used to protect them from being overrun by the 5th Estate.

A Guardian editorial last week adopted a surprising new tone:

The other revealing moment in Murdoch’s testimony last week was when he launched into an incoherent rant about – and against – the internet. […] As Murdoch rambled, waving his arms despairingly and pounding the table, it was difficult to determine what point he was trying to make, other than the unfairness of governments regulating newspapers while the wild west web remains untamed. Was it just that he senses his powers ebbing away, flowing towards the new masters of the digital universe – the Sergey Brins, Larry Pages and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world?

Will they turn out to be any better than the media moguls who preceded them? And who will play Lord Justice Leveson’s role if they don’t?

As this blog pointed out, when newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were doing their best to ignore the judicial probe, the two-man team of Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay has been giving us an astonishing demonstration of judicial skill and insight. This is British justice at its dazzling best.

David Cameron would do well to put these same men at the head of the organisation that replaces the disgraced Press Complaints Commission – at least, for the first few years of its existence.

Above all, let us hope that in his recommendations at the Inquiry’s end, this Lord Justice spotlights the need for the media to adapt for the future, in a reinvention guided by maximising inclusiveness and transparency – through, for instance, co-ownership. See:

(for an explanation of why the old order has to give way to the new: )

Good Guardian, bad Guardian, and two more censored comments

http://post-gutenberg.com/2011/11/15/good-guardian-bad-guardian-and-two-more-censored-comments/

Also:

Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media

http://post-gutenberg.com/2012/02/21/why-a-keiretsu-cooperative-is-a-gentle-transition-for-old-media-and-how-about-saying-an-exaltation-of-bloggers/

Co-owning media is on the horizon — and press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry shows why we need this

http://post-gutenberg.com/2011/12/06/co-owning-media-with-audiences-is-on-the-horizon-and-press-coverage-of-the-leveson-inquiry-shows-why-we-need-this/

Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?

http://post-gutenberg.com/2011/11/07/why-is-the-guardian-censoring-discussion-of-press-restructuring-and-ignoring-the-top-judges-support-for-citizen-journalism/

Now, net-shunning Private Eye outranks even The Economist as Britain’s most popular current affairs magazine

Ian Hislop, who has been Private Eye's editor since 1986

Private Eye cover, 12 April 2008

All hail Private Eye, whose circulation grew by more than ten per cent last year, when so many famous names linked to old media were — are — howling about print meeting its doom.

All hail Private Eye, not least because, as far as I can tell, no one in mainstream media has, on this occasion. There have been no laurel wreaths from its rivals, no adulatory editorials or delving into the reasons for its astonishing success since the Audit Bureau of Circulations released the latest figures in mid-February – although the media section of one broadsheet did carry brief news items on the subject.

All hail Private Eye because, in spite of its (affectionate) marginalisation as a ‘satirical magazine,’ it looks as if it could be becoming Britons’ most reliable source of printed information about what is happening in the UK — or close to that. The trade publication Media Week anointed it ‘the leading news and current affairs magazine by issue in the country, nearly 18,000 copies ahead of The Economist,’ with the minor qualifier that ‘its rival title is published weekly.’ (That qualifier is probably meaningless, since I reckon that most subscribers would be delighted to buy it once a week.)

There is no reason to disagree with the Eye’s managing director, Sheila Molnar, who explained two years ago that ‘People always turn to us in times of trouble because they trust us. With the MPs’ expenses row and the banks, people trust Private Eye and what they read in it.’

Though the Eye has no digital edition and is virtually ignoring the internet, its pages are saturated with the fearless, irreverent, outsider ethos of the web and blogging world – most obvious in its ‘Street of Shame’ column. There, as its editor Ian Hislop told Lord Justice Leveson in January at the official Inquiry into press culture and standards, his writers concentrate on the foibles of the 4th Estate — on

… stories about

journalists misbehaving. It tends to be anything from

making up stories, drunkenness, stealing stories from

each other, printing things that are totally and utterly

untrue, promoting each other for reasons that aren’t

terribly ethical, sucking up to their proprietors, being

told what to do by their proprietors, running stories

because their proprietors insist on it, marshalling the

facts towards a conclusion that they’ve already decided

on.

Private Eye’s robustness confirms these suspicions at post-Gutenberg about the secrets of media thriving in the transition to the 5th Estate – in its case, with only token contributions to its operating budget from advertisers, which is why it cannot afford to give away its contents on the net:

It is strictly non-partisan

The political left, right and centre are all flayed with equal relish. As noted here last month, highly-placed apologists for a worrying shift in 4th Estate practices feel that there is nothing wrong with abandoning political neutrality – but a reader poll on the site of The Economist shows that this is, overwhelmingly, the very opposite of what the public wants.

It is – without fear or favour – supplying the uncomfortable, true facts indispensable to government by the people, or what we call democracy

It might just as well be called The Whistleblower Wire. It tackles malfeasance as no other publication does, across a staggering breadth of public life. A small sample: ‘Called to Ordure’ (parliamentary proceedings); ‘Medicine Balls’ (mainly, the National Health Service); ‘Signal Failures’ (the railway network); ‘The Agri Brigade’ (farming and food policies); ‘Rotten Boroughs’ (local government); ‘Music and Musicians’; ‘Keeping the Lights On’ (the law and lawyers); ‘Books and Bookmen’ (cronyism in book publishing).

It relies on its readers for its peerless investigative reporting

… and did so long before the internet came along with its promise of building reader ‘communities’.  As Ian Hislop said in his Leveson evidence, his magazine

operates as a sort of club where people not only buy the

magazine, they write a lot of it, which is the principle

we work on. Broadly, the sources come from people

inside their professions, so the medical column, the

column about energy, the pieces in the back, a lot of

those are given by people directly involved.

None of its content is influenced by advertising

As it does not run on the advertising-centred business model for publishing — unlike virtually every other great name in print journalism — it has no need to court or bow to corporate panjandrums and satraps, and its articles are not distorted by their manipulations.

Its success underlines the undesirability of concentrated media ownership, as it has the extreme editorial independence only possible when a publication is not beholden to any single media mogul or proprietor trading favours, buying influence, or vulnerable to manipulation or blackmail

In some ways, Private Eye can be seen as an early prototype of the ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ a model for post-Gutenberg publishing  in which sites are co-owned with clubs of reader-contributors. Its Wikipedia entry lists no fewer than seventeen shareholders, and says that the magazine has never disclosed exactly who has contributed what to its capitalization and upkeep.

What is an instance of this magazine’s uniqueness and indispensability? The other day, when all the broadsheets reported that the education secretary, Michael Gove, had condemned the Leveson Inquiry for its ‘chilling effect’ on the media, they failed to explain why he was complaining so bitterly about an investigation initiated by his own leader, David Cameron, and in the same tirade, lauding Rupert’s Murdoch’s launch of the Sun on Sunday. They also offered not a single example of what noble journalism the Inquiry has supposedly been inhibiting — just as he failed to do.

Mystification over all that was beginning to make me feel mildly unhinged when the latest Eye arrived. There I discovered that the education secretary is married to  — well, well, well, a journalist on the Times. And who owns the Times? Let us say, a certain Australian-born media mogul.

And, returning briefly to the subject of ownership … As diligent use of both inductive and deductive logic has yet to yield incontrovertible proof of his existence, I must reluctantly dismiss as speculation all hints to the effect that Private Eye does in fact have a proprietor — a reclusive individual writing occasionally under the rubric, ‘A Message From Lord Gnome’. The same goes for any suggestion that he is simply too shy or coy to (a) scotch rumours that his life’s ambition is to be more elusive than the putative Higgs boson particle, and (b), admit that he has no help from ghostwriters in recording his sublime meditations, as on the subject of the recent fate of bankers:

[W]here, we must ask, will this witchhunt end? Which other leading figures in the economic life of our country will be next to be hunted down, to be publicly humiliated, as their names are execrated across the land?

Should ordinary citizens be denied a say in the media’s future — as in, ‘For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments’?

Are cover-ups and the suppression of debate growing more frequent in the world's proudest democracies? Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

This is no ordinary elephant in the living room, the one the media are pretending not to see. She is pirouetting on stiletto heels in the shortest skirt ever sewn, displaying elephantine slabs of thigh. Still they behave as if she is invisible.

Recent events in England – which gave the rest of the world the model of a free press – are sending shivers up the spine of anyone who cares about democracy, from Calcutta to San Francisco and beyond. This is because of the eerie, silent void where you might expect round-the-clock media coverage of the media’s strategies for preserving their freedom and independence — on their terms.

Any attention paid to this struggle by the British press has focused on the tabloid phone hacking scandal, and just that part of a far wider judicial investigation of professional standards and practices, the Leveson Inquiry ordered by the prime minister.

Shameful and appalling as the hacking sagas are, they matter far less than the pachyderm in the parlour – on a par with the news earlier this month of Google being forced by the government of India, the world’s largest democracy, to cooperate with censoring web pages after ‘weeks of intense government pressure for 22 Internet giants to remove photographs, videos or text considered “anti-religious” or “anti-social”’.

That question no one in the media apparently wants to face is, will the public grant professional journalists a continuation of special privileges in the digital age if they no longer adhere to the traditions of fairness, neutrality and dedication to the truth that won them those privileges in the 18th century? Earlier this month, this blog mentioned the media’s refusal to acknowledge – or indeed discuss at all – the public’s dismay about an increasingly partisan press.

There are other alarming silences. Why, for instance, is no one in the British media mentioning the prohibition by a leading newspaper of free discussion – by ordinary citizens – of the future of the press, on three separate occasions last week?

In each case, a member of the Establishment – one high-ranking politician and two journalists – addressed the jubilation in the British press about Rupert Murdoch redux; many journalists only care about their belief that he is saving jobs in journalism. The media mogul who should have been fatally wounded by the hacking scandal is throwing his octogenarian energy into engineering a comeback with a new paper, the Sun on Sunday. None of these writers spared Murdoch the lash. Two of them delivered blistering warnings about the dangers of condoning this latest power-grab and about the perils, for British democracy, of concentrating media ownership in a few hands — especially, his.

Nothing in their excoriations suggested that they feared any legal retribution from Murdoch or his empire, News International. And yet each of these articles appeared on the portion of a newspaper site titled Comment is Free, advertised as a debating forum open to all, with an announcement that, For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments’.

In that case, why were the Murdoch bashings put on this part of the newspaper’s site at all?

Could the real message behind blocking readers’ reactions be that the newspaper’s editors believe that only they and their colleagues have a right to discuss the redesign of the ‘media landscape’ – even though most British citizens still rely on the press to give them the facts a democracy needs to make decisions that affect its collective wellbeing?

This blog has recorded the same newspaper’s censorship of readers’ posts about media reform in its Comment is Free section (see the entries on 7 November and 15 November). The paper gives no sign of having absorbed the salutary reminder by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, last year that

[i]t is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right. It is the right of the community as a whole. It is, if you like, our right, the right of every citizen.

Here are opinions that the Guardian refused to allow its readers to discuss on its site – without any explanation that made sense (Kafka-esque, for real?):

Item 1: extracts from an article titled, ‘We must fashion a new media landscape,’ by Norman Fowler, a former chairman of the House of Lords communications committee.

… Murdoch remains the traditional proprietor. From his New York headquarters he will continue to have his say in the politics of the United Kingdom – and make no mistake, there will be politicians who will play along with this. […] So we are back to where some of us began. Last summer we were within days of the culture secretary waving through the Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB and claiming that phone hacking was an entirely separate and irrelevant issue. That fate has been avoided, but the challenge remains to devise a system where nobody – Murdoch or anybody else – has a disproportionate share of the British media. […W]hat is a disproportionate share of the media market? Four newspapers controlling almost 40% of national press circulation and total control of a major television company would have put Murdoch the wrong side of the line. […] Any new rules on share of voice cannot be directed exclusively at News International. The BBC must come within the net as too must the other media giants like Google.

[…]

• For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments

Item 2: extracts from an article titled. ‘If the Sun on Sunday soars Rupert Murdoch will also rise again,’ by Polly Toynbee.

[P]ractitioners are hired to do their masters’ bidding, even when that can mean spreading disinformation and disregarding evidence. The seventh Sun will offer jobs to those willing to put their pens to abusing migrants, travellers, trade unionists, single mothers, women, the unemployed, public sector staff, young people, Europe, foreigners or anyone to the left of John Redwood. Even the disabled are now being harassed as scroungers to win public support for benefit cuts reducing the already poor to penury.

[...]

Clouds of opposition are gathering around the Leveson press inquiry. Its remit grows, destination unknown. The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, along with many others, are right to demand that it leads to new laws to reset limits on media ownership by any one organisation, which Margaret Thatcher abolished for Murdoch’s sake. If the Sun on Sunday soars, [Murdoch] will be back owning some 40% of press readership, plus Sky (to whom the BBC is wrongly obliged to pay £10m a year).

The Sun and its owner’s influence on British politics have been underestimated in the history of the last decades … […]

For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments @commentisfree

Item 3: extracts from an opinion piece titled, ‘Rupert Murdoch’s Sun on Sunday sets on his empire,’ by Michael Wolff.

Curiously, he used […] the arrests of senior Sun staffers on suspicion of bribing the British police – as the crisis that justified the new Sun. The immediate launch of the paper, just days after he arrived in London, would be a way to stabilize an impending civil war in Wapping, he insisted – even as his own investigators continued to turn over evidence to the police. It would be a way, too, to shift attention from the negative to the positive, from retreat to advance.

[…]

Of course, all the investigations continue, the law suits mount, the US Justice Department is at attention, and, next week, public television in the US is promising an explosive new documentary on the Murdoch scandals, which will, in a sense for the first time, bring the story in all its details to the US.

[…]

• For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments

There is no doubt that the Guardian is furious with Lord Justice Leveson, who asked at the official commencement of his Inquiry, ‘Who guards the guardians?’ Last week, the news that British judges would be rating British lawyers for their performance in court gave the newspaper a chance to play tit-for-tat in an editorial that remarked, ‘Advocates might reasonably ask who is judging the judges’.

No one watching the Leveson hearings could fail to be struck by this judge’s open-mindedness, or by the deference and respect he shows witnesses. He comes across as genuine when he asks for their opinions of what should be done about the media’s failed self-regulation – and is frank about not knowing how to resolve the dilemma that follows from the all-but-universal dislike of proposals for statutory control.

He seems keenly aware of the media’s annoyance with interference with what they see as their business – and sympathetic. But from the odd remark he has let drop about the importance of allowing free discussion – for instance, that statements made on social networks such as Twitter must be counted as mere chat, and not held to the same standards as professional reporting – it seems unlikely that he would disagree with Albert Einstein about the undesirability of letting a wealthy or powerful few control the dissemination of facts and opinions for the many.

It feels not a little odd to be quoting the great physicist’s essay, ‘Why Socialism?’ for the second time this month. But there is a rather stunning parallel between present events and his noting, in 1949, that ‘Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo …’.

This was the most vital point he wanted to impress on his readers:

[U]nder existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Now, as I was saying, about that elephant

Leveson hearings: can a ‘blind and unreasoning’ or partisan press censoring citizen-journalists be good for democracy?

'Censor' was a Roman invention, but 'censorship' was virtually co-invented with the Gutenberg press -- Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

[ Addendum, 23 February:

Although The Guardian has unquestionably deleted courteous posts about proposals for press reform and media evolution from the Comment-is-free section of its site, as recorded on this blog on 7 November and 15 November, I might owe that newspaper an apology for suggesting in the entry below that its moderators broke links to post-gutenberg.com posted on its site in January. Please see the footnote** for details.  ]

A remarkable statement went unnoticed by the few commentators on a morning of superb theatre at the Leveson hearings on press practices, culture and ethics in Britain on 31 January.

As noted earlier on this blog, press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry has been scant. It has focused on tabloid phone-hacking and emphasised paeans to press freedom by well-known witnesses, but under-reported criticism of the media (for instance, the excoriating but mostly well-founded testimony of the former journalist and prime ministerial communications adviser Alastair Campbell.)

Giving evidence last week, Christopher Meyer, the former chairman of the Press Complaints Commission – a body roundly criticised for being too close to newspaper editors to handle accusations against them objectively — said in a fleeting aside that the press is free to be partisan in a democracy. He said that as if stating a self-evident truth, accepted as such. I could not find any record of his remark in the transcript of the proceedings, but there was this exchange between the ex-chairman and his surgically incisive interrogator, Robert Jay QC.

Q: … I think the point you’re making there is that the press is free to comment and be partisan and it’s not the role of the PCC in a democracy to seek to curb that democratic activity?

A:  Yeah, that’s fair enough.

That could stand as a marker for the extent of the shift from the last century’s ideal of a neutral press to one in which the media openly take sides – or, as The Economist put it last July, are becoming ‘more opinionated, polarised and partisan’.  Not the faintest note of doubt intruded on the former PCC chairman’s declaration or confirmation of his position on partisanship, even though media bias is not what the public wants, if we can take as representative the 73 per cent of 2,700-odd Economist readers who have so far voted ‘yes’ in answer to the question, ‘Should news organisations always remain impartial?’. Bias has rightly been worrying experts like this political scientist, who asked in 2010 on ‘a plain blog about politics‘:

Will we have a robust, vigorous, and almost completely partisan press?  Will there still be a place for neutrality?  How will this play out for state and local politics?  What kinds of norms will the partisan press develop?

Some of us who have noticed the British and American press grow more aggressively one-sided in recent years cannot help wondering whether that has meant getting fewer of the objective reports and facts that a democracy needs to make good decisions about policies and politicians.

Partisanship is disturbing in itself, when you consider the dictionary definition of ‘partisan’ as ‘adherent, esp. a blind or unreasoning adherent’ (Chambers, 2006).  How can it be consistent with this classic list of guidelines for journalists doing their ‘duty of providing the people with the information they need to be free and self-governing’ – from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

2. Its first loyalty is to the citizens.

3. Its essence is discipline of verification.

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

7. It must strive to make the significant interesting, and relevant.

8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Some of us have noticed ways in which partisan has begun to mean punitive – as in censoring healthy disagreement and opposition.

If we accept that a newspaper has the right to push a particular agenda at us, does that give it the right to stifle dissent about that agenda – from, for instance, citizen journalists, which all of us become when we react to articles in the comments sections of the online press? Moderators at online sites attached to famously liberal and left-wing mastheads unhesitatingly delete comments that challenge the biases of those newspapers, even when phrased cautiously and politely. (See ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’)

There is proof that I am not alone in wondering about this in the Wikipedia entry for ‘Media democracy’ – a concept that elicited a curious response from an editor at the New York Times, mentioned in this spot last month.

The concept of “democratizing the media” has no real meaning within the terms of political discourse in Western society. In fact, the phrase has a paradoxical or even vaguely subversive ring to it. Citizen participation would be considered an infringement on freedom of the press, a blow struck against the independence of the media that would distort the mission they have undertaken to inform the public without fear or favor… this is because the general public must be reduced to its traditional apathy and obedience, and frightened away from the arena of political debate and action.

Addressing the Alpach Technology Forum in Germany last August, William Dutton, the outgoing director of the Oxford Internet Institute, identified ‘Journalists and the Mass Media – imitating, co-opting, competing,’ as one collective enemy of  the 5th Estate, which includes citizen-journalists. (See ‘The Future of the Internet for Networked Individuals of the Fifth Estate’.)

If not for Justice Leveson and his supremely necessary investigation, I might have been depressed by the results that came up when I typed into search boxes the once-hallowed phrase, ‘Without fear or favour’. It encapsulated a consensus among the most admirable practitioners of journalism about the importance of rising above partisanship.  When I used the English spelling of the word ‘favour’, the first Google results page brought up scarcely any links to sites unconnected with Africa, New Zealand, Australia or Malaysia. With American spelling, dropping the ‘u’, the first page of findings did supply links to sites related to the U. S., but too few of them led to anyone expressing the outrage about the increasingly hollow sound of those words that I had hoped to see.

A press that no longer sees neutrality as essential to democracy in the west would explain why some of us have been given our first visceral impressions of what samizdat resistance under the old Soviet Union felt like, as commenters repeatedly censored – improbably enough – by The Guardian, a standard-bearer for liberalism.

Since I published these posts deleted by that paper on this blog on 7 November and 15 November, interference with my comments appears to have turned covert.

In the last two weeks, every link to this site posted in comments there has been broken either by Guardian moderators or by some profoundly mysterious line of rogue code in the newspaper’s software. (Anyone curious enough to run a paranoia test can search on  ‘CheryllBarron’ beneath Peter Guillam’s contribution, ‘The capitalism debate is anaemic – it must dig deeper‘.  Compare the results from pasting the URLs I have posted there into your own browser with clicking on the same URLs on the Guardian page – which only leads to variations of ‘Oops! Page not  found’.)

‘Censor’ is a word that came to us from the Roman Empire – although it mainly alluded to a lofty being entrusted with conducting the census and guarding public morality. ‘Censorship’ was a novelty that the Gutenberg press spawned. As the historian John Hale has explained,

It was in Germany, where printing was pioneered, that censorship was first introduced. In 1475 the University of Cologne, jealous of the freelance expression of ideas, obtained from the Pope the right to grant licences for the publication of books and to punish those who published or read unauthorized ones.

[…]

By [1515] the flood of books and the realization that a new, less instructed and more excitable audience for them was being reached, moved a number of European secular authorities to insist on manuscripts being submitted to them before printing.

Who could have predicted a punitive partisan press being allowed – so far – to get away with silencing democratic opposition in our own media revolution, five centuries later?

______________________

** Links to post-gutenberg.com yielding a ‘not found’ notice

Since I reported on what appeared to be a novel form of censorship, I have discovered the identical problem on this WordPress site. Something has been – inconsistently – inserting an extra ‘http’into texts of mine where there should be only one in each URL, with results like this (the unwanted duplicate is highlighted in bold):

‘<a href=”http://http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/”><span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>

This curious repetition disables the link. A technical support specialist at WordPress has so far been unable to trace the trouble to its source – or explain it.

Until the investigation is concluded, I feel I owe The Guardian the benefit of the doubt – and an apology for an unjust accusation.

I hope to know more soon.

Approaching the keiretsu-cooperative: Nick Clegg, Jaron Lanier, and a bold move at Ladies’ Home Journal

… Now and then, as in this week’s entry, post-gutenberg.com will spotlight signs that the keiretsu-cooperative — a structure for co-owning media — is an idea whose time has come …

Ladies' Home Journal: Art Deco cover, 1922

Media maidens venturing boldly into the future

That the Ladies’ Home Journal – an American magazine founded in 1883 – was still being published at all came as a bigger shock than reading about its plan for avoiding extinction. It is a title I have only ever seen mentioned in biographies of writers and political history, but it apparently has a circulation of over three million. A headline caught my eye:  ‘A New Ladies’ Home Journal Written Mostly by Readers’.

Aha! I thought, could that signal an evolutionary leap in the treatment of  ‘user-generated content’? Had I stumbled on the experiment in co-owned media that is long overdue, for some of us – as a first stage of true media reform?

No it is not, but that could conceivably be the next stage of the LHJ  plan. From its March issue onwards, the magazine is to be filled with articles by amateurs paid at professional rates, whose facts will be checked by the editors. The publisher, Diane Malloy, explained that

research showed the magazine’s readers wanted more of their voices reflected in the content and to feel as if they belonged to a community.

If the LHJ  were to go on to give readers a stake in the magazine, that would ensure far more passionate commitment and loyalty to their community.

Nick Clegg

A speech for the ages by Nick Clegg

Co-owned media got an indirect vote of confidence from Nick Clegg, Britain’s deputy prime minister,  in a 16 January speech more thoughtful than any set of utterances by a politician I have seen for a long time. What he proposed, addressing business leaders in the City of London– no less – is the most intelligent solution to the widening social inequality on which the Occupy movement has focused our attention. Somehow, that clear implication of what he said went largely unreported in media coverage of the event.

[W]e … need a better distribution of power within our economy.

… [I]t’s not just shareholder power that matters. Ultimately investors seek profits … Some enlightened shareholders might see the benefits of a well-rewarded workforce, but the people best placed to look after the interests of staff are staff. And that is what, so far, has been missing from this debate: ordinary people.

[W]e don’t believe our problem is too much capitalism: we think it’s that too few people have capital. We need more individuals to have a real stake in their firms. 

Readers of this blog will know how closely aligned his conclusions are with ideas expressed here – in ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders’, and ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon, and press coverage of the Leveson enquiry shows why we need this.’

In a speech last July,  the P. M.’ s deputy took a stand against the unhealthy concentration of power in the media:

[D]iversity of ownership is an indelible liberal principle because a corporate media monopoly threatens a free press almost as much as a state monopoly does.

Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier comes to the right conclusion about paying for content — or rather, paying whom

A super-geek he may be, down to his last dreadlock, but Jaron Lanier inspects the classic positions and tenets of the geekocracy with a coolly objective eye. He advocates compensating the ‘ordinary people’ Nick Clegg mentioned, not — so far — as stakeholders, but as suppliers of ‘content’ that media moguls and their giant corporations, like Facebook, are exploiting shamelessly. He asked in the New York Times last week:

What if ordinary users routinely earned micropayments for their contributions? If all content were valued instead of only mogul content, perhaps an information economy would elevate success for all. But under the current terms of debate that idea can barely be whispered.

Obviously, the editors at the Ladies’ Home Journal – paying their readers the same fees for content as professionals – are shouting, not  whispering, their understanding of the way media reform will now proceed.

Oxford Street branch of the John Lewis Partnership, 1936

An instructive poll for the Guardian

It was astonishing to see the results of a poll on the Guardian site related to the Clegg co-ownership proposal. Eighty-seven per cent of the poll-takers voted ‘yes’ in answer to a question referring to Britain’s most famous employee-owned company: ‘Would you like to live in a John Lewis style economy?’ That surely added up to endorsing a recommendation of  such a structure for ownership of the Guardian itself, or some part of it — even if proposals made in the online paper’s comments section for experimentally co-owning bits of it with readers  were censored more than once last year.  Ahem.

Nick Clegg and his personal think tank appeared to have anticipated precisely such — erm, discouragement, when he suggested in the same speech,

… giving employees a new, universal “Right to Request” shares. Imagine: an automatic opportunity for every employee to seek to enter into a share scheme, enjoying the tax benefits that come with it, taking what for many people might seem out of their reach, and turning it into a routine decision …

In other words, no one would be censored or punished simply for asking an employer for a stake in a company… Still, well done, Gruan, for conducting that poll.  Soon, you might almost be as brave as the Ladies’ Home Journal.

Google, bowing to social media, is letting down tomorrow’s Samuel Becketts

Before Google redesigned its search system, good but obscure blog posts often made happy landings. -- Bottle, message and photograph by Jay Little, scuttlefish.com

 [ part II:  part I is here ]

At a celebration in 2010 of the life of the late Norman Macrae, a notoriously wild visionary and deputy editor of The Economist, I learnt that he once tried to promote a nasal spray as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. I was reminded of his quixotic mission when a flurry of offers to turn introverts into extroverts for the age of networking came up in search results for the title of last week’s post in this spot — about shy people and social media. These services would have seemed pointless before a Google announcement on the 10th. No longer. It is clear that the all-powerful search engine cannot now serve as the greatest boon and crutch, ever, for the socially averse.

Let me illustrate what Google was able to do for introverted writers – before it made its big mistake – by looking at problems in the career of Samuel Beckett. As I mentioned last week, I have been reading his letters , so addictive that they outrank all my other choices for entertainment, even with a wireless broadband link to the net. Having his words and defiant wit for company has helped to blunt the edge of my dismay about the reshaping of the online experience.

Gatekeepers at the pinnacle of publishing would have punched the ‘dislike’ button on Samuel Beckett’s submissions of his early work incessantly — had some version of today’s read-and-react tools existed in the late 1920s and ‘30s. Most improbable about those rejection slip years is that he was supremely well-connected at the time, serving for a while as the research assistant of his good friend, James Joyce. Among his rejectors were Leonard and Virginia Wolf, publishing under their imprint, the Hogarth Press. On 18 August 1932,  Beckett complained,

This month of creeping and crawling and solicitation has yielded nothing but glib Cockney regrets. The book came back from the Hogarth Press, and the poems, with merely the formal rejection slip. Nothing from L. W. He was out of London… I have good reason to believe that the MS never left London and that in all probability he never saw it. But he must have got my letter. Or perhaps it is his turn for the asylum. Anyhow tant piss. I then brought it to Grayson and Cape. It came back yesterday from Cape. Their readers’ report did not encourage them to make me an offer for publication rights. … So far no reply from Grayson. I saw Rupert Grayson when I went round, the ‘author son of Sir Henry’. And a  proper pudding he appeared.

You can sense him fending off despair with exalted rage and nastiness to entertain his friend Thomas McGreevy. I have quoted a mere fraction of the rejections he endured in that particular month. Because his years out in the cold did not go on forever, his anger reads like high comedy. That would be impossible for the epistolary record of, say, Vincent van Gogh’s failure, which had no end in his lifetime.

‘[W]hat is striking about Beckett before the years of “fame,” is how wary he was of the public dimension of the arts, even as he was attempting to gain this dimension for himself and his work,’ notes the introduction to Volume I of the Cambridge University Press edition of his correspondence. In his dealings with publishers, ‘his wariness turns into a disdain or hostility which is all the more notable in that his principal interlocutors at publishing houses tend to be intelligent, patient, learned, supportive, and gentlemanly.’

Yes, yes, …  and as the editors of these letters point out, those gatekeepers were ‘almost unimaginable in the cut and thrust of today’s trade publishing world.’ But they were useless as advisors. On 18 October 1932, Beckett reported, as usual, in prose abounding in impish linguistic play:

The Grayson Bros. were stimulated by my multicuspid stinker to return my MS, ‘circumscribed appeal … Gratuitous “strength”’ What is that? I replied soliciting favour of readers’ reports. Reply to the effect that there was no written record of condemnation, that … my book had been read by 3 most distinguished readers and discussed verbally with the Fratellaci [a play in Italian on the name of the publisher, Grayson]; that their advice to me frankly and without the least desire to wound was to lay aside A Dream of Fair to Middling Women altogether, forget it ever happened, be a good boy in future and compose what I was well-fitted to compose – a best-seller.

Just think of all the wasted time and emotional energy in his struggle. The predictability with which tickets for Beckett’s plays sell out around the globe today – even when the actors are not especially well-known – has proved that the young Samuel did contain the seeds of a Nobel prize winner whose work would indeed find the huge audiences equivalent to those of a bestselling book. But for that, no thanks are owed to the gentlemanly early judges.

They were rejecting writing in which the voice – or voices, themes, perspective and preoccupations – were original; far ahead of their time. It did not conform to the prevailing standards of literary merit. The range of taste on which those standards were founded was constrained by the smallness of the circle of  tastemakers — publishers, editors and other assessors of manuscripts who were mostly men of strikingly similar social backgrounds and education. So when they concurred in judging his work as having ‘circumscribed appeal,’ they were a bit like spaniels chasing their own tails.

And there you have a metaphor for the way print publishing has worked – with rare exceptions – for hundreds of years, until the coming of … search engines!  Suddenly, we could all revel in being able to read opinions and reviews of, and reactions to, texts and works of art from continents away, and from readers as different as possible from people we know well – thanks to the unprecedentedly objective and dispassionate sifting of texts by the information-seeking software we call search technology.

This detachment from the sources of information has been a surpassing agent of democracy – for all art and all knowledge.  ‘The internet enables far wider participation in front-line science,’ observes the astrophysicist Martin Rees, until recently, president of Britain’s most illustrious scientists’ club, the Royal Society, in a new book  about the net’s effects. ‘It levels the playing field between researchers in major centres and those in relative isolation, hitherto handicapped by inefficient communication.’

We got used to postings on blogs like this one — virtually undiscoverable before Google’s refinements of search technology — becoming like messages in bottles finding their way to surprising numbers of welcoming and sympathetic shores. For many of us, unbiased search engines have been so vital to our ability to do our work and reach others with similar interests and obsessions that the internet might almost be Google, as far as we are concerned.

I never met a more ardent fan of the old Google than myself.

But that has gone the way of most passionate love affairs. Last week, the New York Times described how Google has begun to link search results to social networking on services like Facebook and Twitter:

For instance, for most users, a search for “chikoo” would show links about and photos of an Indian fruit. But for friends of Mr. Singhal, it would also show photos and posts about his dog, Chikoo. A search for a sports team would show, in addition to the usual links, conversations about the team among a user’s friends on Google Plus.

When people search for a name, Google will highlight people who are friends with the searcher on Google Plus, or prominent people. And in searches for general topics, like “cooking,” Google will show Google Plus profiles of celebrity chefs on the right side of search results.

One dire effect of Google’s reliance on social media for search results will be to replicate and magnify the old gatekeepers’ spaniel silliness – which works much like the ‘confirmation bias,’ or people’s tendency to prefer and emphasise facts that support their beliefs and prejudices, spurning alternatives that might be closer to the truth.

Before Google tweaked its search system to elevate the conventional and familiar – and socially conformist – above the new, challenging and foreign, a web site’s obscurity or relative isolation would not necessarily bar it from appearing near the top of search results. That was because Google’s search system was designed to favour intellectual substance, and dependable statements of fact – based on the quality of a site’s links to other repositories of knowledge, opinions, and records of fact or effort.  Of course search technology could hardly rank or anticipate literary merit, but anything a contemporary Sam Beckett posted on the web would have had a decent chance of appearing with, at least,  some noteworthy answers to the huge range of possible search enquiries. There was hope for their reaching a far wider variety of judges than members of the old spaniel club.

Now, we must conclude from what we are told about the change in Google’s search techniques that an obscure Beckett of the wilderness years would have to dedicate a large and ever-growing portion of each day to chasing celebrity-status, and to building purely social connections – with the numbers of these mattering more than their quality – to be noticed and read at all.

As noted on this blog last week, relentless self-promotion and hobnobbing are unreasonable requirements of people temperamentally disinclined to socialising – the ones we call introverts. If they do not act against their instincts, the coordinates for their work – no matter how useful or admirable it might be – are condemned to fall steadily from public view. Just as in the bad old days, to them that already hath a lot – fame, attention, praise – more shall be given.

I am not sure what is more distressing about Google’s move – its coerciveness (Get busy on social media, or else!) or the narrowing of everyone’s frame of reference that it implies.

How can it be anything other than a colossal misuse of the world wide web, the supreme tool for broadening intellectual horizons – to make everyone more parochial, narrow, tribal, and inclined to pander to the lowest common denominator?

That strikes me as something like using a jumbo jet to pop in at the grocer’s and buy a bag of apples exactly like the ones you already have growing on the tree in your own back yard , then boiling them to pulp — but with a celebrity endorsement.

Will 2012 be the year of a great leap forward into media’s future — even at The New York Times?

Back to the future 1: barn-raising

Back to the future 2: the work of quilting bees -- Steven Heller

My new year will begin not with a resolution but a hope.

It has been a bit lonely, trying to persuade other people intimately acquainted with mainstream media to discuss specific proposals for media reform. But three short essays published in the last month – to which I am about to post links – show that I am in good company in suspecting that co-owning media with readers and viewers could be the most realistic route into the future. It is no longer quixotic to hope that the most rigid opponents of reform will give alternatives to the status quo a friendlier reception.

With any luck, I will soon be able to drop the subject of media restructuring from this blog because powerful media people persistently refusing to discuss it have, at last, picked up the torch.

My personal high-water mark for the media establishment’s resistance to the new dates from the spring of 2010, when I emailed a question to an editor near the top of The New York Times.

The press has been critical to the success of democracy as a form of government; how is it responding to its own democratisation, and how far would it be prepared to go on that road — voluntarily? If you could recommend the right person at the paper for these questions, I’d be immensely grateful.

Zzzzzzzzzing! … the editor’s reply came fast enough to set heads spinning:

I don’t know that anyone would have a specific opinion on this, at least not one that represented the Times in general. You might look to see if an editorial has ever been written about it. If not, I suspect your question doesn’t have an answer.  [my ital.]

No search engine brings up any such NYT editorial. What that response was surely supposed to impress on me was that ‘our’ never having addressed the question meant that it was inherently unanswerable.

Which is patently untrue – but that was then, and I cannot believe that anyone with a senior role in running the newspaper would respond so loftily today. The subject of co-owned institutions is not apparently off-limits for the editors there, as it is for large numbers of their fellow-citizens. Nor do they automatically dismiss it as ‘socialism’, very nearly a term of abuse in much of the U. S. — a fact that has always struck me as a bit odd about a country that is not only the home of capitalism and Ayn Rand’s woolgathering about the ‘virtues of selfishness,’ but of cherished memories of communal barn-raising and quilting bees.

On 14 December, the NYT  gave Gar Alperovitz, the author of America Beyond Capitalism, the chance to tell us, in ‘Worker-Owners of America, Unite!’:

[M]ore and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid system, something different from both traditional capitalism and socialism, without anyone even noticing.

Some 130 million Americans, for example, now participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private-sector unions.

Out in the blogosphere, these posts were waiting to be discovered:

In a 9 December entry on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Tom Stites, the president and founder of the Banyan Project — which is building a model for web journalism as a reader-owned cooperative focusing on local news — asked: ‘Might the new web journalism model be neither for-profit nor nonprofit?’ He said, in part:

In this era of rampant deceptive business practices,[…] a significant source of co-ops’ strength is the trustworthiness inherent in their democratic and accountable structure.

This is also an era of rampant mistrust of journalism, so co-op news sites’ trustworthiness has the potential to add value to what they publish. Further, the co-op form allows, or rather demands, that news coverage decisions arise from the what a community’s people need rather than from today’s dominant approaches […] The web is inherently collaborative — just as co-ops are — and at the local level this creates the potential for civic synergy that could add still more value to co-op community journalism.

On 19 December, Jeff Jarvis, a new media expert, suggested that The New York Times should consider using a ‘reverse pay meter’.

As I ponder the future of The New York Times, it occurred to me that its pay meter could be exactly reversed. I’ll also tell you why this wouldn’t work in a minute. But in any case, this is a way to illustrate how how media are valuing our readers/users/customers opposite how we should, rewarding the freeriders and taxing—and perhaps turning away—the valuable users.

[...]

Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. […] But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.

»  You see ads, you get credit.

»  You click: more credit.

»  You come back often and read many pages: credit.

»  You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.

[ … and several other suggestions along these lines …]

He said in closing:

Readers bring value to sites if the sites are smart enough to have the mechanisms to recognize, exploit, and reward that value, which comes in many forms…

Regular visitors to post-Gutenberg.com will have noticed a striking overlap between the essence of the Stites and Jarvis schemes and the proposal for a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ as the ideal structure for media of the future. (New readers will want to see: The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing.)

May this most welcome parallelism lead to actual change — soon.

In the meanwhile,  Happy New Year!

Co-owning media is on the horizon — and press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry shows why we need this

Panda drummer: who can speak?

Blindly they saw themselves and deaf they heard –

But who can speak of this?

        –Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds, 12th c.  A.D.

                 Persian trans. by Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi, 1984

A stranger, someone astute and entrepreneurial, emailed me about a comment posted in a discussion about the future of journalism on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Lab. ‘I think you’re on the right track with your focus on the business-model issue,’ he said.

He was referring to an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. I set out a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites – suggesting that this might be an ownership structure for the future.

The essence of the idea was that every subscription would also be a share or financial stake in prospective profits. It would be an inducement for each reader or viewer to help bring many more visitors to a site. It would both help the site owner to attract more advertising and – implicitly – reduce dependence on advertising, if the concept of subscription-stakes caught on and went viral.

‘I tried an experiment along the lines of the one you are proposing,’ my correspondent continued. ‘It was a tremendous success … as far as it went.’

I shall call this correspondent ‘A’, as he does not want more recognition for what he did than his fellow-experimenters. The link to wallets and handbags for their plan was so clear that it had venture capitalists salivating. The idea was to monetise a publication and online forum on building for professionals and amateurs – an offshoot of the Journal of Light Construction (JLC), a magazine now 24 years old that is also the marquee name for a popular trade show. You can tell that it is thoroughly up-to-the-minute from the table of contents, where the offerings can range from ‘Pouring Complicated Slab Foundations’ to ‘Promoting Yourself With YouTube’.

The Journal of Light Construction

The forum on the magazine’s website is divided by specialisations. Each section has its own moderator – and in an innovation I have seen nowhere else, the specialist’s name is posted prominently beside the category. When the combined on- and off-line components of JLC were on their way to becoming a publicly traded company roughly ten years ago, ‘A’ and his confederates introduced the possibility of making JLC’s contributors and employees co-owners. I do not yet know whether readers would also have been invited to become stakeholders. If ‘A’ sheds any light on that question after he reads this, I will include what he says here with any other details of the adventure and corrections of this account.

For the moment, it is enough to say that the idea of co-ownership so appalled the lead investment banker working on the public offering that the whole plan was scuppered. The points ‘A’ most wanted to impress on me were these:

Ownership can be transferred at any time. The trick is to have something worth transferring first. … There could be NGO funding possibilities from which a larger community trust with cooperative member ownership could emerge…

And that, strangely enough, is very close to the proposal for a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’.  A publishing enterprise with a thriving community of reader-commenters could easily progress to sharing ownership of the commenting sites where readers already supply most of what there is to read or watch.

It would ask that many newspapers make just one more leap forward after this change announced by the New York Times last week, but already in place for some time on other digital news sites:

We have started using an improved comment section. It will put readers’ responses on the same page as the article, provide threading of comments so readers can respond directly to one another, and allow them to share their comments and those of others, to Twitter and Facebook.

To understand why readers want more than that, I recommend an excellent paper, ‘Gutenberg and the social media revolution,’ by a new media consultant, Richard Stacy**, which puts all these developments in their historical context, then offers a clear-sighted vision of the way ahead. Serendipity led me to it last week, when it came up with some Google links to my own site. His conclusion:

It is unlikely that power and influence in the world that is now forming will lie in the control of channel.  Instead it will be vested in forms of community, which will have a tendency to exclude any forms of institutional interference, control or ownership.

He also said,

It is not that people are going to reject institutionalised trust, but the task of sustaining institutionalised trust is going to become much harder in the world of transparency brought about by social media.

I would welcome anything that reversed my own fast-diminishing trust in mainstream, 21st-century journalism’s ability to live up to the ideals of the Fourth Estate – of which the highest are impartiality and rigorous self-scrutiny. To my dismay, most of  the British media – not just the tabloids – have failed to report every important criticism of the media made in the hearings for the Leveson Inquiry, except for the sensational details of the phone hacking scandal.

Giving evidence last week, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s political adviser and communications director – that is, chief ‘spin doctor’ – did draw attention to some problems of the very greatest importance:

The. principle of the freedom of the press is always worth fighting for. The quality of that freedom however is questionable when the quality of so much journalism is so low, and when so few people – just a handful of men until now seemingly unaccountable to anyone but themselves and to anything but their own commercial and political interests – have so much say over the tone and nature of public discourse, and so much responsibility for the decline in standards. It is also worth fighting therefore – politicians, journalists and public alike – to change the press we have.

What he said before that at considerable length – about the collapse in standards – was not addressed in any press report of the Inquiry I have seen.  A former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, said in his 2002 memoir about his career that it is the job of a political press officer ‘to act as a purveyor of half-truths to the nation’s journalists, but it is the business of the journalists to seek out the missing 50%.’

At least half of what Alastair Campbell said is true and his critique deserves intense scrutiny and wide discussion by the press – in public. It dovetailed perfectly with the testimony in the same week by Nick Davies, the freelance writer for The Guardian who broke the phone hacking story and pursued it with ferocious determination. He said unequivocally that the press can no longer be trusted to regulate itself.

Is a thorough airing of such opinions possible with today’s media ownership structure? Is it possible when the authority to disseminate the information people need in a democracy — to make decisions for the common good — is concentrated in so few hands?

Surely we need a new ‘business model’ – of which the keirestu-cooperative could be a very rough first draft – not just to accommodate readers in their wish to share the stage, but to protect our form of government?

______________________________________________________

** who has already posted a magnificent response to this piece on his own site. I shall be replying in next week’s blog entry – underlining some of his points and clarifying aspects of the keiretsu-cooperative that have been imperfectly transmitted (mea culpa). I will put that up sooner than next Tuesday if I can interrupt what I am writing off-line.