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Phone hacking and phoney hacks

July 29, 2011 Leave a comment

From Rod Liddle, in the latest Spectator:

I felt, as we all rounded with glee upon the MPs two years ago, that sooner or later [journalists] would cop it, a feeling of foreboding compounded by my trade’s astonishingly sanctimonious outrage that we were having a privacy law imposed upon us by judges.

Read the whole thing: it’s rather fine.

The Indy’s magical monarchist moment

May 18, 2011 1 comment

Her Maj’s historic (© all newspapers, airwaves, bandwidth) to Ireland dominates the front pages of the heavies today, but one particularly stood out from the newspaper rack I passed this morning.

Most went for the traditional “beautiful handbag and smiling hat” pictures. The Times:

Front page The Times

The Guardian:

Queen in Ireland The Guardian

The Torygruff takes another tack, going for a deep, tightly cropped headshot, but none too successfully:

Queen in Ireland The Telegraph

(Instead of looking out of the page, if she had been facing the other way, toward the lead story on les travails de Huhne, it might explain what she’s laughing at.)

But best of all for its unusual, striking treatment and its witty pairing one historic event with another is The Independent:

The Queen in Ireland The Independent
Excellent treatment, though maybe the headline should have read ‘One small step for a Ma’am’
I’m not sure how this will play with the Indy’s kneejerk anti-monarchist readers, but from a purely page design point of view, its the equivalent of the Crown Jewels.
 
The tabs mostly ignored the event, apart from the Mirror, which had this laboured and baffling sidebar pun:
The Queen in Ireland Daily Mirror

Yer wot?

Contempt charges: ‘Twas ever thus

May 15, 2011 2 comments

I’m not going to comment directly on the news that the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, has brought contempt of court charges against the Sun and Daily Mirror over their Joanna Yeates coverage, since the matter is now clearly sub judice, other than to raise a quizzical eyebrow that a certain national daily newspaper we might all have expected to be included has not been. But the matter is now firmly one for m’lud.

Instead, I wish to turn to a particular instance of journalistic history. By happy coincidence and through the auspices of the Raynes Park Public Library, I happen to be reading Judith Flanders’ rather good The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. I’m currently engrossed in Chapter Two, Trial by Newspaper, in which she outlines a particularly juicy and sensational murder, that of William Weare, on or about October 24, 1823 (so it actually preceded the Victorian age by 14 years).

Briefly, the facts of the case were that the victim, who claimed to be a solicitor who lived in Lyon’s Inn (once an Inn of Chancery), but who seems to have earned his living through more rakishly Regency occupations such as waitering, billiards-making, gambling and promoting crooked fights, fell in with John Thurtell, a failed mercenary (during the Napoleonic Wars), failed cloth merchant, failed publican and failed gambler, but who considered himself a “man of the fancy” – ie, a prizefight promoter. A star-cross’d bout, as Shakespeare might have said if he were a man of that particular fancy.

Weare arranged to go for a weekend’s shooting with Thurtell and his friend Joseph Hunt at Gill’s Hill, now part of Radlett, Hertfordshire, staying in the cottage of William Probert, a spirit merchant who seems to have run a lucrative sideline supplying dodgy credit. It was later alleged that Thurtell was the perpetrator of a murderous conspiracy involving Hunt and Probert to kill Weare and relieve him of the enormous wealth (about £2000) he was rumoured to habitually carry about with him.

The weekend seems to have run with all the smoothness of a Ben Travis farce – Thurtell arrived before Hunt, whom Probert had dropped off at an inn to await Thurtell, who was waiting for Hunt at the cottage etc – but it ended in tragedy for Weare, who was shot in the face, then bludgeoned to death before having his throat slit, being stuffed in a sack and dumped in a nearby pond. This was not the end of his indignities: the perpetrators later recovered the body and then dumped it in a pond in Elstree. The proceeds were rather less than the expected £2000 windfall – about £15, plus a few trinkets.

Disposing of Weare's body woodcut

The "perps" either disposing of, or retrieving, Weare's body. Or both. Or something. Pic from The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders, pub. HarperPress

The police – in the form of the Bow Street Runners – arrested Thurtell, Hunt and Probert. Hunt quickly grassed, and fingered Thurtell as the main man. You can read the rest of the case in Flanders’ book, or, if you must, on Wikipedia, but what I’m interested in is one particular newspaper’s coverage of the case at this stage: ie, after arrest, but before trial.

This newspaper, says Flanders, ran a “stream of vitriolic – and completely unsubstantiated – stories” about Thurtell. On November 6, for example, it said: “Thurtell is reported to have been with Wellington’s troops at the siege of San Sebastian, where he lurked behind the lines to murder and rob a fallen officer.” According to the newspaper, Thurtell boasted:

I thought by the look of him that he was a nob, and must have some blunt [money] about him; so I tucked my sword in his ribs, and settled him; and found a hundred and forty doubloons in his pocket!

Readers commented that 140 doubloons would be more than a soldier could easily carry from a battlefield. At this remove it’s hard to tell, since at the time “doubloon” seems to have referred to any gold coin of Spanish origin. But it’s interesting that the newspaper’s readers were prepared at this stage to call it up on what they judged to be over-excitement in what was clearly an excitable age.

Not that it stopped this particular paper: it also reported that an airgun in the shape of a walking stick had been found in Thurtell’s lodgings. Nothing more was ever heard of this cunning device, but no matter: the paper later reported that a James Wood, supposedly Thurtell’s rival for the fair hand of Miss Caroline Noyes, the sister of Probert’s wife, had been evilly lured into a trap in a tenement where he was attacked with a pair of dumbbells – and, wouldn’t you know it – such dumbbells had been found in that building.

As if that were not proof enough, the paper reported that Probert had testified (note that this is still before the trial) that Thurtell “had picked out  17 persons of substance that he intended to rob and murder, and that [Weare] was one of them.” The other 16 obviously had a lucky escape “from the late horrid conspiracy”, the paper noted.

Another who had a lucky escape was one Sparks, who had declined to go into business with Thurtell, thus evading by the skin of his teeth “a horrible doom, which otherwise, in all probability, awaited him”.

As far as this paper was concerned, it was all done and dusted when a week later, and still to come to trial, it pronounced Thurtell, Hunt and Probert as “the guilty culprits.”

The question of the day is: which newspaper is this?

Clue: It’s not the Sun, nor the Daily Mirror, nor the other paper I hinted at previously. None of them were around at the time.

Award yourself a fluffy toy if you guessed it was this.

FOOTNOTE: The Weare murder trial inspired many a rhyme, something that is sadly lacking today. One such was:

They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.

William McGonagall eat your heart out.

The Thurtell case is also memorable for the testimony of Mrs Probert who, when asked “Was supper postponed?”, replied “No, it was pork.”

Injunctions: The Good, The Bad & The Super

April 27, 2011 2 comments
Redacted Times page about super-injunctions

Yeah, we get the joke, Harding: But where's the Caitlin Moran commentary?

The traditional media silly season has kicked off a bit earlier this year. Rather than waiting for the traditional starting gunshot that is Parliament dissolving, packing its buckets and spades and heading off for the hols, the media is indulging itself in a frenzy of increasingly hyperactivity over Wills ‘n’ Kate, Cam ‘n’ Clegg (uncunningly disguised as the AV referendum) and the Greatest Threat to Western Civilisation As We Know It Since The Last One, the super-injunction.

Of course, after Kate has made an honest man of Wills this week, and the country decides on AV next week, that more or less leaves the latter to run and run. And, as they say in Hollywood, it sure got legs. The trouble is, one leg points one way, to which the other is directly opposed.

With the childish hyperbole that is increasingly the norm among today’s kidult university-educated journalists (even on the increasingly lightweight “heavies”), all injunctions are “super”, even when they’re not, some are even “hyper”, even though there has only ever been one hyper-injunction (a word made up by Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming) and that had nothing to do with privacy or the media per se, and the media has closed ranks to fulminate against, in words of Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail, “Amoral judges, shameless celebrities and a Britain that’s coming close to a police state”, with that ever-favourite judicial bugbear, Eady J, coming in for special attention (such as here in the Telegraph and here  in the Indy). In short, Their Honours are accused of making up privacy law as they go along, without recourse to any legislation enacted by Parliament. Those bewigged bench-entrenched bastards.

Whew. There are several aspects of media law swirling around here, some relating to privacy law and others to defamation law and a few relating to both which, either through ignorance or intent, the national media are conflating into one.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to at least pick apart some of these threads and make an attempt to sort them all out.

And while doing so, it’s also worthwhile to adopt the adage of that wise old bird Confucius: “Above all, call each thing by its correct name.”

Read more…

Japan’s earthquake causes massive media meltdown

March 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? There’s nothing like an increasingly, hysterically ramped-up nuclear Thermageddon to get the blood going and cut one’s coat to suit one’s cloth.

That’s until the bubble of hysteria bursts, and the so-called “facts” you have been ramping your story up with all week collapses under the weight of their unbelievability and your own lack of verification in that cold hard world which we call the Planet Earth. Whereof nuclear meltdown? Wherefore art thou The War Game? Thank God – or Allah, or Yahweh, or Squawking Dawkins, or whoever  you believe in – that good ole Mad Dog’s arrived to deliver the goods! We meeja types can look the other way and tell everyone else: never mind that – LOOK AT THIS!

The attention of supposedly grown-up, adult media outlets has shifted from something which most desk-jockey journalists know nothing about (nuclear physics) to something which most desk-jockey journalists know less about (war), but which clearly provides more exciting footage they can ooh and aah over. And, in the way desk jockeys who today pass themselves off as journalists (and vice-versa) do, they will deliberate, cogitate and digest. Though there’s likely to be little of  the former, less of the middle and even scarce of the latter.

So that’s all right, then. Except it isn’t. Because I suspect what we’ve seen over the last week with coverage in Japan, we’re going to see with Libya – in spades (and more probably in Spads).

There are certain types of people who see opportunity in a fog of uncertainty. But they do not see the chance to enlighten, inform, explain, to shine the cold, hard light on the fog and reveal the truth. Rather, they see the fog as a cover to disseminate rumour, unfounded “facts”, their own beliefs and suppositions and anything else which will grab popular opinion, to expand and confound the miasma and – let’s face it- achieve a hidden motive.

In wartime, we call such people “black propagandists”. Their job is to spread misinformation, purportedly from a reliable source, but which serves another hidden cause. The hidden motive is, of course, to disinform and demoralise the enemy so as to easier victory for the propagandists’ side.

In peacetime, we call such people “24-hour rolling-news journalists”. Their job is to spread anything which on the face of it may count as information, purportedly from reliable sources, but which always has a hidden cause. These causes are increased sales (for newspapers), increased viewers/listeners (for TV and radio) and increased website hits (for web-based newsites, which in most cases include both the former media). Unlike black propagandists, they do not seek to intentionally mislead. But nor do they have anything to do with the truth as an end in itself.

With the Japanese earthquake, the media rubbish started early. That’s OK: it was a massively disruptive natural event, most obviously to those who endured it, but also to those of us who have assumed the task of conveying that event to others. There is chaos, lack of normal communications, trying to co-ordinate pictures, words etc. Plus there’s always the very real possibility that your on-the-spot reporters not where they reckon they are.

So I can – almost – forgive the BBC for captioning this picture – included in an online  photo-series called “Japan earthquake: A week in pictures “- as Sendai, the city “that was home to several million people”:

Um, Sendai? Up to a point, Auntie Beeb

Almost, except it’s not.  Sendai was home to about a million people and indeed still is, since apart from its coastal areas, it remained largely unscathed by the quake. Unlike our own dear small coast town of Minami Sanriku, pop. 19,170, 50 miles away, which this picture actually depicts and which, lying just 55 miles west of the quake’s epicentre, received the full force of the ensuing tsunami. The Telegraph got it right:

Minami Sanriku: Not to be confused with anywhere else (unless you're taxpayer funded and couldn't care less)

OK, so far so good. But this is Japan, right? Land of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and , er, things like the Emperor, the tea ceremony and Godzilla. They must know something about everything nuclear. And if they’re panicking, well – what are we waiting for?

Well, either this:

or this:

I do not know “British mum” Keeley Fujiyama, but I wonder if she is closely related to my old Sun mate “Del Keyboard”. (A keen mountaineering amateur photographer, he always reckoned there wasn’t a Fuji he couldn’t mount.) She said: “On Tuesday, the radiation levels in Tokyo were ten times above normal and people started to panic.”

Except they weren’t. On Tuesday,the radiation levels in Tokyo were less than were emanating from the bananas in the combined plastic bags on the editorial floor of Wapping Towers. Stay in Tokyo would be my advice, love.

But apparently if our doughty British mum “Keeley Fujiyama” had stayed in Tokyo, she would have been lonely.

The “Tokyo Ghost Town” then became the big story. With this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1367309/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-Tokyo-ghost-town.html#comments

and this

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8387051/Japan-nuclear-plant-Just-48-hours-to-avoid-another-Chernobyl.html

and this:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8389415/Japan-nuclear-plant-exposed-to-the-elements-nuclear-fuel-in-meltdown.html

One doesn’t have to have much beyond third form science to read this stuff and think: “Hang on on, this doesn’t make sense, but I’m not sure why but I want to find out. It’s not like I’m Stephen Fry and have to suck up to that nice chap from D:Ream to get some sort of contract to make people think I know something, do I? Or do I?””

The Independent, meanwhile, leavened its boilerplate “Thousands flee Tokyo” story with an intriguing non-factoid:

Some have heard that the Emperor has abandoned the city for Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, though there is no evidence that it is true.

The Indy’s intrepid David McNeil, reporting from “the spooked metropolis”, endeavours to use all his journalistic wiles to get to the bottom of this:

“That’s not what concerns me,” said Yutaka Aoki, a taxi driver who works the area around Shibuya Station.

Well, maybe he was more worried about the perigee “super” full moon, as reported by the Sun:

Sun headline Dis supermoon cause quake?

Sun grasses up Moon: Man cheesed off

Now look: it was possible to find real, grown-up, scientific news about Fukushima, though you had look hard to find it in the mainstream media (such as this article in the Guardian). Even on March 13 – two days after the initial disaster – The Australian Age was reporting this.

But mostly, if you wanted fact-based, non-sensational, balanced news about what was happening at Fukushima, you had to go outside the MSM, and on to websites such as The Register, World Nuclear News and ANS Nuclear Cafe, and bloggers who knew what they were talking about, such as The Captain’s Journal, with its excellent primer.

The point is, these alarmist MSM reports do have an effect, far beyond the temporary lift in sales or viewing figures. While wild talk of “meltdowns” – near or otherwise – and “radioactive plumes” may have little effect on the home populations in the UK and the US (other than scaring the bejaysus out of them), they do have a knock-on effect on those folks who really close to the heart of the action, ie, Japan.

It’s a little-considered consequence that was picked up by Mariko Sanchanta in this excellent article in WSJ:

Many Japanese are going about their daily lives and routines as normal. In sharp contrast, many foreigners have left after being deluged with phone calls from relatives pleading them to leave Japan after watching and reading media reports in their home country.

Sanchanta points out that part of the disparity between what was going on in the Japanese media and the rest of the world’s hyperventilation might be due to subtleties lost in translation:

Contributing to the perception gap is the difficulty translating certain nuclear terms that have different meanings in Japanese and English. Top Japanese government spokesman Yukio Edano kept using the Japanese word “yo-yu,” in reference to the fuel rods in nuclear reactors, which means the rods are melting. However, many journalists translated this term as “meltdown”, which has much different implications and stirs up strong emotions.

Typically, the Pythia of Journalism has cast his gimlet eye over both Japan and Libya and managed to get things completely wrong.

There are several things to say about the momentous coverage of two momentous stories this past week. That while ordinary people have fled Japan’s danger areas and Libya‘s battlezones, journalists – sometimes at real peril to themselves – have tried to go to the heart of the crises.

No, Mr Preston: “ordinary” people did not flee Japan’s “danger areas” unless they had to – in fact it seems most of them stayed put – and journalists transparently were not at the heart of Tokyo, nor in Fukushima, nor in Minami Sanriku, nor, I strongly suspect, will they be so much in Tripoli. I suspect “ordinary” people will be. “Ordinary” people are usually the ones caught up in these sorts of things, aren’t they, and they don’t have the bulwark of tax-evasive media company expenses to soften the blow or get them the hell out of there.

But isn’t that the tea-time bell, Mr Preston? After you’ve had a cup of tea and a nice slice of Battenberg, we’ll have a chat about this marvellous thing called the interwebs and cut’n’paste and quoting anyone no matter who they are, what they know or whom they represent and calling them an “expert” and vomiting them out into 24 hour rolling news reports. That’ll be nice, won’t it, Mr Preston? Best have a lie-down first, though. May I plump up that cushion for you?

But while I’m doing that, maybe you might like to ruminate on these words from Lewis Page at The Register, who strikes a welcome note of Hominem te memento in his reflection on exactly how your battlezone journalists covered the Japanese nuke story:

Personal bootnote

As one who earns his living in the media these days, I can only apologise on behalf of my profession for the unbelievable levels of fear and misinformation purveyed this week. I have never been so ashamed to call myself a journalist.

After the last week, I know just how he feels. That’s been the real meltdown.

No doubt written by that renowned journalist “Insert Name Here”

March 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Sky News has this as the front page of today’s first edition of the Mirror (March 10). Can anyone confirm this was what actually appeared?

Mirror front page with big typo

Subprime subhead

A bit of joined-up thinking lacking there, lads

August 5, 2010 Leave a comment

The Mirror had a good splash today (August 5) with the Bambi killer story, but I’m not sure that starburst price on the right sent out quite the message that was intended from the newsagents’ shelves:

Mirror front page

I glanced at it and thought: “That’s odd – why are they trumpeting that they’ve nearly doubled in price?” The penny (or rather, 40 pennies) dropped when I took a closer look, but how many others would have bothered? Just asking.

Categories: The Mirror