The press cannot regulate itself

The main mass circulation UK newspapers have set up IPSO to regulate themselves. Everyone else wants something independent of the newspapers to regulate the industry. The main alternative proposal is Impress, supported by Max Mosley and the Rowntree Trust.

The newspapers say that if anyone else controls them it could mean the end of press freedom – something crucial to a functioning democracy.

But they should not pretend that they can regulate themselves. The conflict of interest is obvious and fatal. It is to the credit of the Financial Times, Independent and Guardian that they will not join IPSO. However the Financial times and Guardian are trying to regulate themselves directly through a private complaints system. That doesn’t really help.

If the press want any kind of public respect, the onus is on them either to join Impress – or come up with something better.


How transparent is it possible to be?

Vodafone is trying to put pressure on the government to allow it to disclose requests for wiretaps. Vodafone aims to follow in the footsteps of Google which has been issuing ‘transparency reports’ for a few years.

As the Guardian reports, UK regulations make even the disclosure of the existence of warrants an offence. The current Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has cover-up built-in. Neither those requesting a warrant nor those subject to them (like Vodafone) are permitted to disclose even the existence of a request, let alone its contents.

Vodafone is to be commended for taking this stance. It is nice to hear about lobbying for the good. Their intention, apparently, is to include an analysis of information requests in their sustainability report. Crucially this would include disclosing whatever they legally can, and saying what it is that they cannot say. I would recommend going ahead with that: if the UK section turns out to say ‘nothing can be disclosed about government requests for information in the UK’ then we will at least know where the problem is…

However it is odd that there is currently no mention of this new approach on Vodafone’s website. Why is there no official announcement from Vodafone? Perhaps old habits die hard.


Shredding Reputations

How should the media be regulated?

The painful accounts of intrusion into private lives by the newspapers that the Leveson Inquiry has revealed should provoke some government reaction. Is there a danger that ‘good’ journalism will be regulated away in some fashion in the name of protecting privacy? Will some instances of bad behaviour by those who should know better be missed if privacy is protected? Probably. But it seems a price worth paying. And of course most ‘good journalism’ does not involve exposing salacious details of people’s lives.

I believe transparency is a good thing – but only until it does harm. The harrassment that goes with exposing private lives to the public very rarely has any justification, except to those who profit from it.

The key to any useful regulation of the media is to distinguish properly between what the public is interested in and what is in the public interest. The former should always be trumped by privacy; sometimes the latter should not.


Transparently in Trouble

The current controversies about transparency, privacy and free speech raise very many issues:

  • the difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in
  • the relative access to justice of the rich and of the poor
  • the right roles of parliament and the courts
  • the balancing of privacy against freedom of expression
  • the awkwardness of laws designed for concentrated, national means of expression (newspapers) being applied to the internationally distributed technologies of the internet (Twitter).

Yet what all of these debates should take account of is the difference between the rights enjoyed by companies and those enjoyed by real people. There should be no presumption that a case for protecting the privacy of individuals is also a case for companies to be able to enjoy the same protection. Yet currently companies enjoy human rights, including privacy, in the same way as do people.

The injustice this can lead to was well illustrated by Trafigura. That company successfully, at first, sought to conceal information on its dumping of toxic wastes through a super-injunction (in which not only the underlying facts, but also the existence of the injunction itself is concealed). This kind of use of the law is merely an instrument of reputation management. It should never be allowed to trump the public interest.


Feeding Frenzy

The IDS of Sussex University has just released a report that addresses the world’s need for food. Yet the headlines say the the world needs GM and new technologies. What is going on?

The report was produced for the UK government’s BIS. It points out that the reasons for hunger today are complex, including political factors as much as technology. This is consistent with the FAO view that the world is producing as much food as is currently needed – but that it is not being distributed.

However the press have reported the claim that without GM, all is lost. This is not true and it is not what the reports says. So why has this happened? Is it mis-briefing by those with an interest in GM? Is it the poverty of the imagination of the media?


Guardian Sustainable Business Site

The Guardian today launches its sustainable business website. See @GuardianSustBiz

Should be a good resource for all things business and sustainable, including useful summaries of individual companies’ performance and positioning on sustainability.

I am on its Advisory Board.


Public Boundaries, Private Need?

Should the BBC voluntarily limit itself and commit to doing less to ‘get out of the way’ of the private sector?

That rather presumes that whatever the private sector can do, it should do. So after the BBC: the NHS, the universities, and the rest of the public sector?

We currently have no way, as a society, of agreeing what the proper boundary between the public and private spheres should be.  It would be wise to get that right before assuming that whatever the private sector asks for, it should get.


Global Warming: Fact and Friction

How many errors does it take to discredit something? The two errors found per thousand pages is not a bad rate. There are very few other documents, from any source, that achieve anything as low as that.

Of course it’s not just in the numbers but also in the overall judgment. Here we need cogent argument and a balanced approach to risk. And media organisations in particular need to question themselves very carefully over what they say and the reactions they generate.


Racial antiVenom

The Question Time program with Nick Griffin attracted over 8m viewers – the highest ever for any episode. What a pity that the quality of discussion seemed to be the lowest ever.

Nick Griffin and the BNP attract so much venom and raise so many issues, that especially at the start of the program, most of the great and the good on the panel could not actually marshall their arguments properly. Instead they resorted to slurring Griffin’s character which simply generated sympathy for him.

The BBC is apparently not ruling out inviting Griffin onto the programme again. If they do they will need a far more capable chair than David Dimbleby. But I fear he may be the best there is.


The enemy is unwelcome publicity

The official UK guidance on leaks relating to defence matters appears to be that transparency is a bad thing. Alarmingly, what seems to matter most is not just undermining government policy but also simply causing embarrassment to the government.

Of course there are clearly things which are better left unsaid (although most of those are even better left undone). However isn’t the relationship between signficance and embarrassment just the reverse: what embarrases is usually exactly what should be made public?