Lifestyles of the Censored and Redacted

Some of you may recall the time Jack Straw found himself embroiled in an unusual tabloid newspaper scandal. He had taken his son – William Straw – to a police station to ‘shop him in’ for selling cannabis. A court ruling blocked newspapers in England and Wales from reporting the story. The press in Scotland could report the story without any problem, though this meant national broadcasters could not review the Scottish papers for fear of breaking the law. With the Internet very different to how it is today, such a story limped on, impeded by the strength of the legal system blocking an industry’s ability to print the news.

Fast-forward to today, and the Straw incident seems to much innocent and forgiving. We now live in the age of the “super injunction” whilst the so-called “hyper injunction” is already in use in some jurisdictions. The two well known early examples involve John Terry, and the Guardian newspapers remarkable Trafigura story. In both cases, media outlets were initially unable to report what had been blocked, or why it had been blocked, or who was involved on either side of the case. The Guardian’s front page at the time resembled a Kafka post-it note. “Somebody rang, can’t say who, or why, or their number, or for whom they’d called.”

The details from the legal document are worth summarising here –

Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, produced an extraordinary legal document, whereby they persuaded a judge to not just suppress a confidential and potentially embarrassing document, but also to deny anyone even mentioning the existence of the court proceedings and court order.

This week, Conservative MP and author Louise Bagshawe found herself brought into the latest injunction farce, during recording of the BBC programme Have I Got News For You. During the “odd one out” round (featuring Person A, Person B, Person C, and Person D), Bagshawe mentioned a footballer “whose name definitely does not rhyme with….” and the sound was cut. (Memories of the “Are you a friend of Peter Mandleson” episodes, of course).

In these very contemporary cases, the injunctions have only just managed to hold. Bloggers and tweeters have navigated themselves around the blocks like speed-skaters. It took only a number of Google searches to find the name of Trafigura (though remember that the legal block had initially forbid even Hansard from printing related questions, wrapping ties around freedoms within and beyond Parliament). The current injunction relating to “a family-man footballer whose name rhymes with such-and-such” is all the more bewildering because the person with whom he shaked up can have her name and face and womanly bits flashed all over the tabloids (Imogen Thomas, and no, I hadn’t heard of her either) whilst the footballer has the ”freedom” to live in anonymity.

Keyboard warriors have been tip-toeing around the legal injunctions in an act of defiance ever since they were first used. Identifying the footballer (well, footballers) is not difficult at all, just as identifying Trafigura was child’s play. This does not mean the courts are powerless against the First Twitter Corps. To coin a phrase, there’s many things we don’t know we don’t know.

The mood music is not melodic. The press is losing its fight against institutions and companies who can afford not to care. We tend to question the “might of the press” and rightly criticise the tabloid media’s moral high-ground and grandstanding. It’s easy to mock the morals of the redtops – chain up the pedos and look at this cheeky up-skirt pap shot. How far away from the press do we stand in the fight between privacy and press freedom? Can any celebrity – usually men – demand and expect privacy on their own terms?

We feed and fear the beast, the core problem in this entire issue. Investigative journalism still brings in the stories for the quality presses and tabloids alike – the “he is shagging her” breadcrumbs may make the headlines for being under injunctions, chances are the real scandals will never be uncovered. Beyond the locked doors and along the corridors sings the silent truths hidden and locked away. Our press may not always be moral, but they are free; injunctions of the strength, breadth and depth as we see today are compromising that freedom. Lawyers over-riding Parliament is one thing (and is sometimes greeted with pleasure and applause). But journalists?

It is very dangerous for the might of a lawyers hand to flatten both Parliament and the Press. It is not uncomfortable ground to inhabit – the whistle blowers and freedom-fighters and investigators at the heart of truth as much as Parliamentarians. This is much more than “[][][][][][][][][][] and [][][][][][][][][] have conducted a private affair.” At the core of this is covering up as much light as corporations can afford (and that’s a lit, enough to exhaust Professor Brian Cox of all his superlatives and metaphor). Choosing sides in arguments is not always easy. It’s difficult when the only right and moral choice includes tabloid journalists and Members of Parliament. Enemies closer and all that…

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i whirl

Ten years ago, as a mere pup in media studies tutorials, the perceived wisdom passed down through my scrawled handwriting was “Newspaper industry in bit of a bind, internet threat not serious enough to change things around”.

This was the year 2000, within touching distance of Diana’s death but prior to 11th September 2001, when the Internet’s news coverage grew in depth and stature, a development which has continued largely to the detriment of the printed word. At the turn of the century, Internet news coverage was rudimentary, basically computer versions of the printed editions without the foresight (or frankly the bandwidth) to allow readers to comment and feedback. Without blogging, Facebook or Twitter, the news agenda was considered safe from virtual attack, with the world wide web considered largely benign, as much a companion as the radio.

Following the conclusion of my studying years, the relationship between newspapers and the on-line world has drastically altered. All but one broadsheet has changed shape, Rupert Murdock now locates his newspapers’ on-line content behind paywalls, while the Evening Standard is now a freesheet. Amongst the shapeshifting broadsheets in the UK is The Independent, famously regarded by Tony Blair as a ‘viewspaper’ for its sidestep away from mainstream current affairs in favour of one-story front pages and increased commentary. Certainly distinctive – the front page is meant to resemble a computer desktop – the Indie would divide more opinion were it enjoying comfortable readership figures. It ain’t. Sales have been plummeting for years. Lord only knows what the former Prime Minister makes of what the Indie has done now…

Today saw the launch of i – should that be “i”? Or i? I notice housestyles across the web cannot agree – the new 20p-daily for busy people who need to be tempted back into ‘quality’ journalism. For the same coverprice as a redtop, i is a similar digest model as those compendium Guardians or weekly Telegraphs available to ex-pats on the Costas. Except the latter probably would not splash “Is Bert Gay?” on the front page of the launch issue….

On the whole, i seems to have been well received on its first day. I gave up with the Independent many moons ago, finding its tone to have become increasingly preachy and most of the commentators indistinct. i features a piece on Obama by Johann Hari, who has reverted to the intelligent young thing who impressed before turning into the very worst kind of rent-a-quote reactionary. The new take on TV listings – ranking suggestions by genre – uses the lack of space very well, and I suspect many a student household will welcome bookmark recipes for reasonable cost. Sport coverage, for a weekday, seems reasonable although the test will come on Monday. Will the PoliticsHome style ‘matrix’ manage with a full weekend of football to review? Should the decision be made to provide only pencil sketch articles on the big games to show the distinctive move away from traditional newspaper ‘norms’, I would be impressed all the more….though would obviously have to find my fix of sporting headlines elsewhere.

i has already made its mark on the timeline of newspaper history. Although newspapers still make and break the news agenda – when was the last time you watched a ‘review of the morning blogs’ on breakfast television? – sites such as Guido Fawkes, Huffington Post and The Daily Beast have proven tails can threaten to wag their respective dogs. i therefore has to be considered a remarkable gamble, launching a print newspaper in a climate seemingly set against the market even existing in 2020. There are too many safe and familiar choices – oh look, Su Doku hasn’t died – and yet its approach and agenda appear interesting and relevant. The proof, of course, is within all those exceptions which prove rules. “Commutersheets” like Metro are free; how i copes amongst the platform market in 12 months time will be the guide to how long there is left amongst the business model as a whole.

Tomorrow is the biggest test of the tiny life of i; how many curious readers from today will part with their coffee machine money tomorrow? It seems to have Twitter largely on its side, the reviews have been pretty positive, and even my office kinda liked it….So here’s to i lasting at least until at least the new year, ten years on from the event which altered media completely, one tiny British newspaper possibly changing the industry in its own little way…

Complexity of Freedom

Historical author and my former Media Studies comrade Faye Booth sent me a hum-dinger of a question the other day. What differences could I find between the recent spate of Facebook groups created to applaud murderer Raoul Moat, and the Jan Moir article questioning the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gatley.

At first glance, the question seemed particularly easy to answer. Rough draft paragraphs were drawn up, Blogger booted up, and my typing fingers prepared to drift and dance across the keyboard. That is until the question and its consequential matters of interest drifted into my mind as I contemplated the issues from all sides. At the very core of the question is the concept of “freedom of speech”, which stumped me with its paradoxical characteristics. “Freedom of speech” is tangible and concrete, certain and abstract. To my slight personal horror, I could not speak up for the Raoul Moat “Legend” groups without doing the same for Jan Moir.

Moir wrote, in an article published in the Daily Mail one day before Gatley’s funeral, a piece littered with innuendo and inaccuracies. Her piece implied that his natural death was nothing of the sort, suggesting that his “lifestyle” (with trademark Daily Mail inverted commas) was responsible for him dying. “Otherwise” healthy young men, she wrote, doubtlessly enjoying using the word “otherwise”, do not walk up stairs to bed without coming back downstairs again.

The piece caused a furore on-line and eventually across the country. Record numbers of people wrote to the Press Complaints Commission, which ultimately vindicated Moir. Her opinions were almost universally panned; it was an article which jeered and sneered, presuming the coroner’s report and insulting the fans of a man who had not yet been buried. Although the Daily Mail allowed comments on the piece, the tone was generally negative. At the time of the PCC response, I blogged an article criticising the manner in which newspapers are governed.

During the search for gunman Raoul Moat, the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook filled with comments and opinions. Some were sarcastic and ironic, cheering the man who was successfully evading the Northumberland Constabulary after killing one man and seriously injuring his former girlfriend and a police officer. Inevitably, comments on-line were not always in the best of taste. His letter-writing and success at evading the police hunt created a number of jokes, with internet memes created placing Moat in a Halo-style game and a 1980s style text-based computer programme. .

Facebook users did their bit by creating the now infamous group “RIP Moat – You Legend”. Whether entirely serious or not, the group nevertheless attracted comments from people who either genuinely expressed condolences or wanted to attack the police. Comments such as “Fuck da police, gd on ya Moaty” and “No police ever gonna gun u down” were amongst the earliest postings. Former MP George Galloway on BBC Question Time suggested these comments were indicative of a constituency of white, working class Britons who had no respect of authorities. I agree to an extent; the “Legend” groups and others like it show there is a large gap between the commentariat’s assumption of ‘respect’ and reality in the country.

Faye’s question asked me to explain how the Moir article stood against the concept of ‘freedom of speech’ while the Moat groups were acceptable using the ‘freedom’ defence. Nobody on any side of the political spectrum stands on a platform promising restrictions on ‘freedom of speech’. It is one of the most important, vital elements of our democracy. Moir, a journalist of some repute, has every right to publish an opinion piece just as anyone can create a provocative or controversial Facebook group. But why did Moir’s article cause so much negative comment while the Legend group was defended as ‘right’ in a democracy?

Is it an internet thing? Whenever censorship of the ‘net is suggested, the on-line community flares up in protest. Any hint of a Facebook group being ordered closed gets the instant reaction of outrage and horror. If the “Legend” groups began as articles in a magazine, would the support have been any less vocal? Had the groups been called something else – just “The Raoul Moat Group” ? – would the media and politicians gone into such overdrive?

Moir’s article was almost universally derided, and in my opinion rightly so. However in the context of the Moat groups, the derision seems somehow different. Is hindsight reminding us that the Voltaire principle of ‘freedom of speech’ doesn’t always fit when really scrutinised? Is the difference merely content – Moir insulted homosexuals while the Moat groups are almost too preposterous to be taken seriously?

Walking around these past few days considering the question has resulted in no clear conclusions. I wanted to continue sticking up two fingers against Moir, only now to stand up for the Moat groups as an example of acceptable opinion giving forces me to do the same for Moir. She was wrong, and admitted as much in a guarded apology. The Moat groups are in bad-taste, I have no doubt about that. I just cannot feel comfortable agreeing with the suggestion that the Moat groups have to be taken down when we live in a country where expression of opinions is a birth-right.

As an open-minded soul on the centre-left of politics, I stand against prejudice and censorship. So where does that put me on this question? Faye…I don’t know.