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