ICE blogs

November 1, 2015

Concerns over EU move to curtail freedom of expression

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 6:39 pm

Proposals to be considered next month by the European Parliament requiring privately owned companies to act as censors of content ruled to be extremist have been condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists as posing serious threats to freedom of expression.

The proposals appeared in a resolution adopted on October 20 by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the Parliament and due to be submitted for a plenary vote in November.

These developments in the EU tie in with similar initiatives in the UK, which risk undermining press freedom in the name of fighting terrorism. British police used special powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 in August to seize the laptop of Secunder Kermani, a reporter for BBC Two’s flagship news show Newsnight, The laptop carried communication between the BBC journalist and a man in Syria who publicly identified himself as an Islamic State member.

Ian Katz, editor of Newsnight, commented: ‘We are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest.’

According to Michelle Stanistreet, general-secretary of the National Union of Journalists: ‘There are serious questions to be answered about why the order obtained by the police warranted the seizing of a journalist’s laptop – which may well have contained confidential information on other sources and other stories too. Using journalists as tools of the police in this way has a chilling effect on press freedom and hampers the ability of journalists to protect their sources and do their jobs properly and with integrity.’

And Joe McNamee, director of Brussels-based network European Digital Rights, warned: ‘If a journalist is searching on criminality or corruption, there is a chance that he/she will attract attention.’

The CPJ highlighted in its recent report on the EU and press freedom (see https://www.cpj.org/reports/2015/09/press-freedom-at-risk-europe.php) how the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters has scooped up emails to and from journalists working for some of the country’s leading media organisations. In 2013, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations on the NSA, the Guardian was forced to destroy hard drives containing information related to the investigative report after the government threatened legal action. Also David Miranda, a Brazilian national and partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained at Heathrow airport while travelling between Berlin and Rio. The High Court ruled the detention legal and proportionate, a view Miranda is due to challenge at the Court of Appeal next month.

• See https://www.cpj.org/blog/2015/10/as-police-seize-newsnight-laptop-concerns-at-reach.php

September 24, 2015

Ethics of political communication under the spotlight

Filed under: News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, conferences — news_editor @ 2:54 pm

In the wake of the recent General Election, the ethics of political communication are to be examined at the Institute of Communication Ethics’ annual conference, on 23 October 2015, at the Frontline Club, London W2.

The conference’s keynoters include Michael Cockerell, presenter of the BBC’s acclaimed Inside the Commons series earlier this year, on how political communication has changed in his four decades in television, and Professor Ivor Gaber, of the University of Sussex, on ‘Social media and the election: Public forum or private echo chamber?’ Other speakers include Nick Jones, Joy Johnson, Mick Temple and Garry Whannel.

Titled ‘Fever, fakery and fatigue: Political communication in the 21st century’, the conference is expected to draw professionals, academics, students and media activists from a range of disciplines: journalism, public relations, political communication, media sociology, surveillance studies.

- Registration forms are available from f.thompson287@gmail.com or f.thompson@yorksj.ac.uk. Return to Dr Fiona Thomspon, 69 Glenview Road, Nab Wood, Shipley, West Yorkshire BD18 4AR.The delegate rate for the conference is:£60.00 (£5.00 for registered students). The cost includes a sandwich lunch. Payment can be made in two ways: cheque payable to ‘Institute of Communication Ethics’ and sent to Dr Fiona THomspon, 69 Glenview Road, Nab Wood, Shipley, West Yorkshire BD18 4AR. Or via bank transfer: HSBC, sort code: 40-28-15; account no: 71321536; account name: The Institute of Communication Ethics Limited. For international transactions: International bank ac number – GB95MIDL40281571321536. Branch identifier code MIDLGB2138D.

August 26, 2015

Treason case against journalists in Germany collapses

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, human rights — news_editor @ 5:13 pm

Treason case against journalists in Germany collapses

Richard Lance Keeble

Germany’s chief federal prosecutor, Harald Range, has been ordered by Justice Minister Heiko Maas to withdraw as an independent expert from the investigation of two journalists working for the news website Netzpolitik over the alleged disclosure of state secrets.

According to Jean-Paul Martoz, of the Committee to Protect Journalists: ‘This dramatic epilogue of a story that gripped Germany and mobilised the public is a major victory for press freedom, investigative journalism, and privacy rights. It stands in stark contrast to developments in other European countries, particularly France and the UK where increased surveillance powers have not been met with similar resistance.’

Markus Beckedahl and André Meister, the co-founders of the website, had been accused of high treason for quoting from classified intelligence reports in articles posted on 25 February and 15 April outlining the secret services’ proposals to expand surveillance, particularly of social media users. Opposition politicians, fellow journalists and even members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the junior partner in the governing coalition, immediately protested. People took to the streets and sent money to Netzpolitik. And on Friday 31 July, the federal prosecutor suspended the treason inquiry, pending an internal assessment on how to proceed.

The case follows revelations in May that the German foreign intelligence service, Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), had cooperated extensively with the US National Security Agency (NSA) in its surveillance activities.

‘The threat of being charged with treason has a clear general chilling effect on journalists engaged in investigative reporting,’ the OSCE Representative for Media Freedom, Dunja Mijatovic, said in a letter to Germany’s foreign minister. ‘In cases of possible violations of confidentiality or state secrets regulations, authorities should refrain from trailing the media, whose job it is to investigate and report about issues of public importance,’ she wrote.

• See https://cpj.org/blog/2015/08/germany-scores-against-the-surveillance-state.php.

August 1, 2015

Pentagon reserves right to treat journalists as spies

Filed under: News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, human rights — news_editor @ 9:05 am

Richard Lance Keeble

Journalists may be treated as ‘unprivileged belligerents’ - a category which includes suspected spies, saboteurs, and guerrillas - according to the Pentagon’s first Law of War Manual.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists: ‘This broad and poorly defined category gives US military commanders across all services the purported right to at least detain journalists without charge, and without any apparent need to show evidence or bring a suspect to trial. The Obama administration’s Defense Department appears to have taken the ill-defined practices begun under the Bush administration during the war on terror and codified them to formally govern the way US military forces treat journalists covering conflicts.’

Prisoners of war are protected internationally with rights that include being treated humanely, having their status as prisoners reported to a neutral body such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and being held with the expectation of release once hostilities end. ‘Unprivileged belligerents’, however, like ‘spies, saboteurs and other persons engaging in similar acts behind enemy lines’, according to the Law of War Manual, may be subject to domestic penalties which can include, for instance, the death penalty for those found guilty of spying.

The manual has received little press coverage, but Russia Today quoted Chris Chambers, a Georgetown University undergraduate communications professor, saying that the manual gave US military forces ‘licence to attack’ journalists. At 1,180 pages long and with 6,196 footnotes, the manual includes vague and contradictory language about when and how the category of ‘unprivileged belligerents’ may be applied to journalists. The Law of War manual is the Defense Department’s most ambitious endeavour of its kind to date. Yet its authority already seems in doubt.
The last paragraph in the preface written by the lead author and top Pentagon lawyer, Stephen W. Preston, states that, while the manual represents the views of the Defense Department, it does not necessarily represent the view of the government. Weeks after the document was released, Preston, who previously served as general counsel to the CIA, resigned.

The US military has taken action against journalists before. Bilal Hussein, whose photograph of insurgents firing on US soldiers in Fallujah in 2004 helped earn Associated Press photographers, including Hussein, the Pulitzer Prize, was detained by marines in 2006 and held for two years. The US military never explained the detention of Hussein, who gained the CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2008.

Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was detained in December 2001 by Pakistani forces along the Afghan-Pakistani border while covering a US-led assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan. US military forces accused him of being a financial courier for armed groups and assisting al-Qaeda and other ‘extremists’, but never provided evidence to support the claims. Al-Haj, now head of the human rights and public liberties department at Al-Jazeera, was held for six years at the US military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Before his release, US military officials tried to compel him to agree to spy on Al-Jazeera as a condition of his release, according to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has also expressed serious concerns over moves by German authorities to open an investigation into the critical German news website Netzpolitik. Two of the website’s bloggers, Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister, as well as an unidentified third party, have been accused of treason, In February and April, Netzpolitik reported on plans to expand Germany’s domestic surveillance of online communications.

Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme coordinator, commented: ‘These are grave allegations with potentially serious implications, not only for Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister, but also for German media covering national security issues. CPJ is monitoring these developments with great concern.’

Treason charges in Germany carry 15 years in prison, unless a judge chooses a harsher sentence. The last time treason allegations were made against the German press was in 1962, when the editor of Der Spiegel was accused after the magazine published documents about the German military.

• See https://www.cpj.org/blog/2015/07/in-times-of-war-pentagon-reserves-right-to-treat-j.php and https://cpj.org/2015/07/germany-investigating-news-website-journalists-for.php

July 29, 2015

History of Chadian dictator: Missing from the media

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, politics, conflict — news_editor @ 11:16 am

Richard Lance Keeble

So finally, Hissene Habre, the former dictator of Chad, is being tried for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture during his rule from 1982-1990. A few news items focused on the scuffles which broke out at the trial last week in Dakar, Senegal - and the adjournment of the case until September. Yet the history of the attempts to bring Habré to justice has gone largely unreported in the Western corporate media.

Formerly part of French Equatorial Africa, Chad gained its independence in 1960 and since then has been gripped by civil war. In a rare instance of coverage on 21 May 1992, the London-based Guardian carried four short paragraphs reporting how 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or been executed during the tyranny of Habré. A justice ministry report concluded that Habré had committed genocide against the Chadian people.

First, in a case inspired by the one against Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, several human rights organisations, led by Human Rights Watch, filed a suit against Habré in Senegal (his refuge since 1990). They argued that he could be tried anywhere for crimes against humanity and that former heads of state were not immune. However, on 21 March 2001, the Senegal Court of Cassation threw out the case. And so human rights campaigners turned their attention to Belgium where one of the victims of Habré’s torture lived.

Following threats from the United States in June 2003 that Belgium risked losing its status as host to Nato’s headquarters, a historic law of 1993, which allowed victims to file complaints in Belgium for atrocities committed abroad, was repealed. A new law, adopted in August 2003, allowed for the continuation of the case against Habré – much to the delight of human rights campaigners. But then attention switched back to Senegal. Here, under pressure from the International Court of Justice and victim campaign groups, a special tribunal was set up to investigate the allegations – the Extraordinary African Chambers. Finally, in February 2015, a panel of four judges announced there was enough evidence to put the former dictator on trial after carrying out a 19-month pre-trial investigation, mainly in Chad, interviewing 2,500 witnesses and victims, analysing documents from Habré’s secret police and visiting mass graves.

While coverage of Chad has been largely missing from the Western media, so too was the massive, secret war waged by the United States and Britain from bases in Chad against Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar Gaddafi. British involvement in a 1996 plot to assassinate Gaddafi was reported as an isolated event – following revelations by David Shayler. Yet it is best seen as part of a wide-ranging and long-standing strategy of the US, French and UK secret states to remove Gaddafi which culminated in his brutal ousting during the Nato-led uprising in 2011.

Grabbing power by removing King Idris in a 1969 coup, Gaddafi (who, intriguingly, had followed a military training course in England in 1966) soon became the target of covert operations – many of them launched from Chad – by the French, Americans, Israelis and British.

Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of M16, records how in 1971 a British plan to invade Libya, release political prisoners and restore the monarchy ended in an embarrassing flop. Nine years later, the head of the French secret service, Alain de Gaigneronde de Marolles, resigned after a French-led plan ended in disaster when a rebellion by Libyan troops in Tobruk was quickly suppressed.

Then, in 1982, away from the glare of the media, Habré, with the backing of the CIA and French troops, overthrew the Chadian government of Goukouni Wedeye. Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), in his semi-official history of the CIA, reveals that the Chad covert operation was the first undertaken by the new CIA chief William Casey and that, throughout the decade, Libya ranked as high as the Soviet Union as the bête noir of the White House. A report from Amnesty International, Chad: The Habré Legacy, of October 2001, recorded massive military and financial support for the dictator by the US Congress. It added: “None of the documents presented to Congress and consulted by AI covering the period 1984 to 1989 make any reference to human rights violations.”

US official records indicate that funds for the Chad-based covert war against Libya also came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Iraq. The Saudis, for instance, gave $7million to an opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (also backed by French intelligence and the CIA). However, a plan to assassinate Gaddafi and seize power on 8 May 1984 was crushed. In the following year, the US asked Egypt to invade Libya and overthrow Gaddafi but President Mubarak refused. By the end of 1985, the Washington Post had exposed the plan after congressional leaders opposing it wrote in protest to President Reagan.

Frustrated in its covert attempts to topple Gaddafi, the US government’s strategy suddenly shifted. For 11 minutes in the early morning of 14 April 1986, 30 US air force and navy bombers struck Tripoli and Benghazi in a raid code-named El Dorado Canyon.

The US/UK mainstream media were ecstatic. Yet the main purpose of the raid was to kill the Libyan president – dubbed a “mad dog” by Reagan. In the event, the first bomb to drop on Tripoli hit Gaddafi’s home killing Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months – while his eight other children and wife Safiya were all hospitalised, some with serious injuries. The president escaped.

Reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media after the 1986 assault. But away from the glare of publicity, the CIA launched its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gaddafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s. And as concerns grew in M16 that Gaddafi was aiming to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya.

Then in 1990, with the crisis in the Gulf developing, French troops helped oust Habré in a secret operation and install Idriss Déby as the new President of Chad. The French government had tired of Habré’s genocidal policies while George Bush senior’s administration decided not to frustrate France in exchange for co-operation in its attack on Iraq.

Yet, even under Déby, abuses of civil rights by government forces have continued. As Amnesty International’s latest report on Chad comments: “Serious human rights violations continued to take place with almost total impunity. The rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly were frequently violated. Human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists were victims of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and detention. People, including protesters, were killed by members of the security services during demonstrations.”

Amnesty, in fact, argues that Déby should also be on trial in Dakar. It commented: “Chad’s current president has not been indicted by the Extraordinary African Chambers, but served as Chief of Staff of the army under Habré’s administration. Research undertaken by Amnesty International suggests that troops under his command may have committed mass killings in southern Chad in 1984.”

Chad is currently a key country in US plans for covert military intervention in North Africa. Earlier this year, in March, Chadian forces, including the Special Anti-Terrorist Group (SATG) which has received extensive training and equipment from the US military, invaded northern Nigeria and seized the towns of Malam Fatouri and Damasak, according to an Associated Press report. The Déby regime plays a major role in the US-funded Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and is helping to coordinate the African Union (AU) multi-national force of some 8,700 troops called for by the AU in January.

Chadian troops fought alongside Western forces during the 2013 French-led invasion of Mali, and the Chadian government has since approved the permanent stationing of thousands of French troops in its capital, N’Djamena.

• Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism at Lincoln University. He has written and edited 30 books including Secret State, Silent Press (John Libbey; 1997), a study of the US/UK press coverage of the 1991 Gulf conflict.

July 3, 2015

Timely book on the BBC

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 7:09 am

John Mair reviews This new noise: The extraordinary birth and troubled life of the BBC by Charlotte Higgins, Faber/Guardian Books

The BBC is never out of the news; too often it is making it rather than reporting it. This year and next are crunch years for the corporation with licence fee renewal (or not) and royal charter renewal set in the next eighteen months. The BBC could enter 2017 a shadow of its former self cut to the bone by the ultimate government paymasters and its services thrown overboard like so much ballast to make the reduced sums add up. DG Tony Hall and Trust chair Rona Fairhead have a monumental task on their hands to square many circles of finance, regulation, reach and range. Charlotte Higgins’s book is timely as, to declare an interest, so will be my (and Professors Richard Tait and Keeble’s) edited collection, The BBC today: Future uncertain, to be published by Abramis, of Bury St Edmunds, in September.

Higgins is the chief arts writer on the Guardian and was given a ‘sabbatical’ by editor Alan Rusbridger to write a series of long reads (a very welcome Guardian innovation) for the newspaper on the BBC. He asked her to ‘get under the skin’ of the corporation. The result was thousands of words which she has pulled together for this book. It is a good read as you would expect from a seasoned feature writer. I read it in one sitting. Like Jean Seaton’s recent ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ – the official history of the BBC 1974-1987, published by Profile, of London – it is based on themes and people. Like Seaton, it is possibly over-reliant on one major source; Seaton’s was Patricia Hodgson (member of the BBC Trust, 2006-2011, and currently deputy chair of Ofcom) and Higgins’ (Lord) Tony Hall and his mentor, former DG (Lord) John Birt.

They shine through the copy. Silent are the longest and shortest serving director generals of recent times: Mark Thompson and George Entwistle .Silent too is Greg Dyke, the most flamboyant and popular DG of the last thirty years. More’s the pity that Higgins did not seek, or if she tried did not get, their take on this great national institution. The BBC is always up there with the monarchy and the NHS as cornerstones of modern British life but for how much longer?

Did Higgins get ‘down and dirty’ and ‘under the skin’ enough to talk to a sufficient range of programme makers? It is their creative genius that the BBC is all about at the end of the day. Not managers, not politicians, not technology but brilliant programme making. When I was at the BBC as a producer during the 1980s, I met some who were close to genius but too many close to being jobsworth. One value that held them all together was a belief in the quality of their work and in the institution. Many had a love/hate relationship with the corporation. They loved it when it was good to/for them, hated it when not. Creativity is very hard to manage.

Is there, too, in the book much reflection of the views of those called within the BBC ‘The Thought Police of Oxford Circus!’ namely those at the epicentre who try to manage the corporation and is there not enough of the radicals and refuseniks? For half a century, Lime Grove Studios, off the Goldhawk Road in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, provided a home for them and for current affairs. They were the intellectual gladiators of the BBC. They pushed the limits. They were the ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ in Dennis Thatcher’s words. They caused trouble and got the BBC into hot water with the powerful time after time after time. Programmes on Harold Wilson (Yesterday’s Men, in 1971), Ireland/the IRA (Tonight on INLA, 1979, inter alia), Maggie’s militant tendency (of January 1984), the sinking of the Argentinian light cruiser, the Belgrano, during the Falklands conflict in 1982, and more caused controversy. Quite rightly as this is a basic function of good journalism. The ‘Thought Police’ hated Lime Grove and when John Birt became DG in 1992 he simply smashed the building to bits (it is now social housing) and neutered current affairs by rolling it into the news machine where it still rests. Higgins does not reflect the Lime Grove free spirit much apart from passing references to the original ‘queen’ of Lime Grove, Grace Wyndham Goldie, the legendary head of talks at the BBC.

Did Higgins get ‘under the skin’ enough to tell the tales of the sheer waste of licence fee payers’ money? You can search but you will find little mention of recent BBC causes célèbres: the £100 million (the entire licence fees of the City of Glasgow) wasted on the dream of the Digital Media Initiative, the ‘filling of the boots’ of the BBC ‘officer class’ like Mark Byford, Deputy Director General/head of BBC journalism 2004-2011, with huge pay-offs, sometimes even when they continued to work for the corporation. They led to a public and parliamentary stink. Those two stains rest on the otherwise successful eight year reign of Thompson as DG.

Higgins is simply not good on the negative. She gets seduced by the great and the good and their offices. I hated the ‘I sat in his ornate office in New Broadcasting House/Portcullis House’ trope. Good for colour in a single feature but rather repetitive when used to introduce each individual voice. That said, she did meet a variety of individuals face to face and reported what they said. The best form of original journalism mixing past and present and some analysis. That came out in her original Guardian pieces as it does in the book even if there are too many officers in their office in the cast and not enough privates and lance corporals on the broadcasting front line. She was also seduced by the canon of Radio Four and the BBC arts output. The latter the refuge of the chattering classes and not the average licence payer. Did she actually go and see any programmes being made or broadcast? Shiny floor shows such as Strictly come dancing?

So what of the future? Very very stormy times lie ahead for the BBC. Higgins talks of the ‘enemies at the gate’. The enemies are now firmly inside the citadel. In parliament, there is a growing groundswell which is becoming a cacophony. The motion to decriminalise the evasion of the licence fee went from an early day motion from two ‘Tory Taliban’ backbenchers to official Coalition (and worse Labour Party ) policy in five weeks last year. It has to date cost the BBC £150 million in avoided licence fees. That was a portent of things to come for the corporation. The national press, now nakedly right wing and Tory in 90 per cent of titles, are firmly BBC bashers. Barely a day goes by without the Daily Mail finding a ‘storm over BBC’ story, whether true or false.

Whilst the public continues to consume the BBC in millions across many platforms, many have been seduced away by the Murdoch millions and their expensively bought sports rights. One startling statistic: the income of Sky TV in the UK is now double that of the BBC. How much longer the BBC can continue to collect the ‘worse than the poll tax’ of the licence fee (the words of John Whittingdale, the new secretary of state for culture) is increasingly being open to question. The bets are on this being the last licence fee.

The past offers bad examples. Mark Thompson was shown into a darkened room in 2010 by then-culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and given a ‘take it or leave it’ ultimatum on the level of licence fee the government demanded: in effect, a 16 per cent cut in income over the following five years. Thompson was firmly held by his metaphorical ‘short and curlies’ and forced to agree to this over a protracted period of…just six days. Usually these negotiations take two years. Thompson had little alternative but to assent only managing to hold the £500m. over-75’s free licence at bay. That is now firmly back in play. I know about the negotiations. Mark told me over a pint in our local pub.

This time round the ‘negotiations’ could be even shorter with a Conservative government and a secretary of state who, whilst knowledgeable about the BBC, has plenty of right-wing form. Tony Hall and Rona Fairhead are in for a rocky ride. The clouds on their and the corporation’s horizon look very dark indeed.

Higgins has written a good and lucid book about the corporation. One only hopes it does not prove to be an epistle to the end of an era and of the BBC.

John Mair is chair of ICE. He is a former BBC current affairs producer who has now edited fourteen ‘hackademic’ books on media matters,
the majority with Richard Lance Keeble

June 19, 2015

Syria heads survey of journalists fleeing into exile

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, conflict, human rights — news_editor @ 8:04 am

Syria is the leading country from which reporters are forced to flee, according to a major new survey of 452 journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Eritrea and Somalia also sent dozens of journalists into exile over the last five years.

María Salazar-Ferro, coordinator of CPJ’s Journalist Assistance Programme, commented: ‘Global attention has focused on the abductions and murders of international journalists in Syria, but even as the environment has deteriorated for foreign correspondents, local media have suffered tremendous losses. Facing the same or greater risks as international correspondents, but without an easy path out of the country, Syrian journalists have been forced to leave their jobs and are driven into hiding or across borders, often without family or possessions.’

The CPJ has helped 101 Syrian journalists go into exile since the conflict escalated in spring 2011. The CPJs report, Exiled: When the most dangerous place for journalists is your country, uses interactive maps to follow the journeys of four Syrian journalists who were harassed, threatened, detained or attacked by the Assad regime or militant groups such as Islamic State – or both – before deciding to flee.

Countries with the highest number of exiled journalists fare poorly in other indicators of press freedom. Syria has been the most deadly country for journalists for three consecutive years, with at least 83 killed in direct relation to their work since 2011. More than 90 journalists have been abducted, and about 20 are still missing, many of whom are believed to be held by Islamic State. Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan joined Syria in the ranks of deadliest places for journalists in 2014. Ethiopia, Iran and Eritrea are among the ten most censored countries worldwide.

• See https://cpj.org/reports/2015/06/exiled-when-most-dangerous-place-for-journalists-is-your-country-world-refugee-day.php

June 6, 2015

Ethics of political communication under the spotlight

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, conferences — news_editor @ 5:17 pm

In the wake of the recent General Election, the ethics of political communication are to be examined at the Institute of Communication Ethics’ annual conference, on 23 October 2015, at the Frontline Club, London W2.

The conference’s keynoters include Michael Cockerell, presenter of the BBC’s acclaimed Inside the Commons series earlier this year, on how political communication has changed in his four decades in television, and Professor Ivor Gaber, of the University of Sussex, on ‘Social media and the election: Public forum or private echo chamber?’

Titled ‘Fever, fakery and fatigue: Political communication in the 21st century’, the conference is expected to draw professionals, academics, students and media activists from a range of disciplines: journalism, public relations, political communication, media sociology, surveillance studies.

• Abstracts of 200 words for presentations are invited. Please send by 1 July 2015 to Fiona Thompson, ICE Executive Group, at f.thompson287@gmail.com or f.thompson@yorksj.ac.uk.

May 19, 2015

Site leads the way on citizen journalism

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 11:31 am

The-Latest.com is rapidly emerging as an innovative, important citizen journalism website. Not content with carrying regular scoops and original features on national and international issues – often ignored by the mainstream media – it recently joined up with the BBC to produce a documentary on the thousands of men and women who came to Britain from the Caribbean colonies to fight Hitler. In fighting for king and empire: Britain’s Caribbean heroes was screened to acclaim on BBC4 on 13 May as part of a series marking the 70th anniversary of VE Day.

Co-produced by The-Latest’s Marc Wadsworth and Deborah Hobson, the film exposed the colour bar enforced by the British military until political protests forced a change in policy.

The one-hour documentary followed the production of Divided by race, united in war and peace by The-Latest.com, which has been screened by the South African Broadcasting Corporation and at South Africa’s Tri-Continental Film Festival, the Samosa Film Festival in Kenya and recently at the prestigious MipDoc event at Cannes, France. It also forms part of an educational schools project, supported by the Historical Association, that has been well-received by trade unions, students and teachers.

The-Latest.com also boasts a Facebook citizen journalism group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/6539928013/) with more than 3,500 members making it one of the largest independent, English language groups of its kind.

Marc Wadsworth the editor of The-Latest.com, commented: ‘The big growth in support for our website and its Facebook group shows the thirst that exists for “news from the bottom up” citizen journalism. It’s clear the public are cheesed off with the corporate-owned big media that serves the interests of the rich and powerful 1 per cent in Britain’s broken democracy. We are proud to be a strong alternative voice for the marginalised and unheard.’

• See http://the-latest.com/bbc-film-recognise-britains-caribbean-heroes#sthash.0UVxvJIe.dpufn and http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/may/11/unsung-heroes-of-the-caribbean-who-fought-for-britain-against-hitler

• The BBC documentary is available for viewing at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05v08b7/fighting-for-king-and-empire-britains-caribbean-heroes

• Organisations interested in screening Divided by race, united in war and peace can contact editor@the-latest.com.

May 7, 2015

On the ethics of celebrity interviewing

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 1:08 pm

The recent interview of the global superstar, Robert Downey Jr, by the Channel 4 News presenter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy – when Downey stormed out in a huff – raises many questions about the ethics of celebrity interviewing. For instance, what is in the public interest? Should journalists agree to restrict their questioning to certain topics? Should they be allowed to dredge up misdemeanours from the past? Here, the former BBC journalist and now communications consultant, Barnie Choudhury, considers the many sides of these complex issues

Walk outing: A confession
Walking out of interviews is nothing new. The best and most famous names have done it. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, did so on CNN in November 2010. Few of us will forget the Bee Gees walking out after ten minutes of Clive Anderson’s rapier wit on his BBC1 talk show in 1996 with the infamous words: ‘You’re a tosser, pal.’ My favourite, though, is the then-defence secretary, Sir John Nott, who took umbrage in 1987 at being described as ‘a transient, here today, gone tomorrow politician’ by the late Sir Robin Day.

I, too, am a serial offender when it comes to interviewees walking out. Sourav Ganguly, the Indian cricket captain, walked away when I asked why he was always so sulky and rude. It was fitting, really, for he snubbed me at Lords, the home of cricket, in 2002. Then there was the former police minister, John Denham, who walked past me stony-faced after speaking at a National Black Police Association conference in November 2002 in Nottingham. It was memorable only because as I walked with him asking questions to no responses, we came to the exit to find it locked. It was then he unleashed his tirade. ‘You give journalists a bad name. You doorstep us and when we don’t answer you make us look bad. I’ll be speaking to your boss.’ To give him his due, the Leicester East MP did not walk out when he was surrounded by a media scrum in the run-up to the 2001 General Election. But he never did answer the simple question I put to him (‘Mr Vaz, how are you?’) after his return from collapsing during a television interview weeks earlier.

Questions: What is fair?
So what is fair? Downey’s walkout after being probed on his former drug habit and time spent in prison on 22 April 2015 does raise three fundamental questions:
a. Was Guru-Murthy’s line of questioning in the public interest?
b. When does the statute of limitations run out on past crimes and misdemeanours?
c. When is it acceptable to agree questions in advance?

The Information Commissioner’s Office defines public interest as ‘the public good, not what is of interest to the public, and not the private interests of the requester’. If you accept this definition, then the test is fairly clear: offending social mores is clearly not in the public interest. The case of the former Formula 1 racing boss, Max Mosley, was not. He was photographed at a ‘Nazi sex orgy’ and the court quite rightly (in July 2008) decided the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World had invaded his privacy. It was not in the public interest because he did not commit a crime, nor was he in public office where he could influence or be influenced. I make the distinction of public office because recent history shows how a sex scandal can damage the careers those in power. In September 2014, Brooks Newmark, the Conservative Minister for Civil Society, resigned after being found sending explicit photographs of himself to women over the internet.

The public interest test is important because an erosion of ethical values could lead to the introduction of strict privacy laws. The former Daily Mirror editor and now Professor of Journalism at City University London, Roy Greenslade, believes that privacy laws will inhibit journalism and he is probably right.

Dredging up the past: Is a ‘statute of limitations’ needed?
So when is it OK to dredge up the past? In the UK, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) means that with the exception of immigration transgressions, most crimes have a shelf life. Can we argue that after a while, those in the public limelight, who have served time or admit to committing crimes, should be allowed the freedom not to talk about their past? A statute of limitations, if you like. It is unlikely that a journalist will agree when it comes to celebrities, politicians and public officials. Downey obviously did not want to talk about anything except his new film. But some celebrities will. Four years after going to jail, the pop star, George Michael, spoke about his ‘horrific’ time’ there. So it depends on the situation, the relevance and the star. We should never underestimate timing in a celebrity’s life. Stars with fading careers, desperate for publicity will probably answer any question because they need attention and the money. At the same time, those who have cultivated a brand or have more to lose and are more guarded with their comments. What appear to be innocuous questions may lead to a revelation which creates bad headlines. The interview by the BBC broadcaster Simon Mayo with actor Naomi Watts springs to mind. Watts had portrayed the late Princess Diana in a film but for some reason Mayo contends she cut the interview short in September 2013 – and we will never know why.

Journalism works on the principle that reporters ask questions, no matter how uncomfortable, and expect an answer, unless there is a legal reason not to do so. Equally, an interviewee has the right not to answer.

Rules of the game: The PR side
Interviewing today has become a game and you need to follow the rules. I should know, it is my job to protect clients from making a gaffe. I would not allow any client of mine to face a grilling alone and neither would I permit them anywhere near a journalist without a fully prepared strategy, which will include a mock interview. I make sure I know the line of questioning so there are no surprises and then plan for the worst, just in case. I hone the messages to perfect sound bites. Paradoxically, I also acknowledge that the prevalence of spin doctors, media trainers and communications experts make it increasingly difficult to get authentic answers.

Today, politicians and VIPs will have press officers to intervene just in case carefully laid plans are swept aside. If your client messes up, you, the spin doctor, are at fault. Politicians and VIPs will not answer difficult questions. Instead they will have been trained to ‘reframe the question’ to give the message they want to get over. Indeed, politicians and VIPs are afraid to tell unpalatable truths because the consequences could wipe out shares, guarantee ridicule and cost careers. Who can forget the PR disaster that was Tony Hayward, the former Chief Executive of BP? He was the boss during the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – and who admitted his company were ‘not prepared’ to deal with the fallout. Hayward may have wanted ‘his life back’ but it was an inappropriate comment, especially when people had died and your company was responsible for a major environmental disaster.

No self-respecting journalist will reveal what questions they will be asking. Doing that means only staged answers are given and we may as well return to the early days of television when interviewers asked: ‘Is there anything you’d like to tell the nation Prime Minister?’ Staged or planted questioning is a deception and journalists disrespect their readers and viewers by engaging in that. Why should the public trust journalists ever again if they made such deals? Yet we know it happens. I am told that the pressure to get that scoop, that access, to be in the know, means some journalists will even send the copy, including the headline, to the subject in advance. My fear is that the more journalists give away, the less the public will be able to trust what they read or see.

The responsibility – easily lost amidst the din of the 24/7 news cycle
By his own admission, Sir John Nott’s encounter with Sir Robin Day delayed his eventual slide into obscurity. He took Sir Robin’s comment and made it the title of his memoirs. What is perhaps regrettable is that, according to Nott, Sir Robin felt he had let down his profession when, in fact, he had simply done his job. Indeed, journalists need to remember their profession holds decision-makers to account for reporters are in the privileged position of probing those the public may never get to meet. It is a huge responsibility often lost in the din of the 24/7 hour news cycle, PR and spin.

Notes
• Barnie Choudhury, a former BBC network correspondent, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Council for England, Director of Communications (Interim) at the University of East London, Associate at the National Police College and crisis communications consultant.

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