Well, it was only a matter of time.
The tedious, long-running, press-bashing, minor-celeb tufty hunt that is the Leveson Inquiry has finally wrought a backlash.
And leading the charge are the lefty-libertarians at spiked, which has launched The Counter-Leveson Inquiry.
In his article announcing the launch, spiked editor (and Telegraph blogger) Brendan O’Neill notes that ones re-opening the inquiry on Monday, Lord Leveson mention he found ‘publicly expressed concerns’ about the inquiry ‘troubling’.
The most remarkable thing about Leveson’s admission to feeling troubled by public criticisms is that, sadly, there has been very little public criticism of his showtrial of the tabloids. You could count on one hand, or at a stretch two hands, the number of journalists and politicians who have dared to question the right of one judge to marshal celebrities and coppers to the cause of redefining the ethics of the press.
Quite so. There has been the usual drooling over the attacks on the Murdoch tabloids by the more totalitarian-inclined of our “liberal” lickspittle media – The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC etc – but the rest of the mainstream media has generally cowered in the corner, with only the Mail‘s Paul Dacre putting up any semblance of a fight in what is really a kangaroo court.
And it is a kangaroo court. Witnesses line up and grab their allotted 15 minutes of fame – or, the case of faded celebrities and failed politicians, to grab another 15 minutes of celebrity – making whatever allegations fits their agenda of vengeance, outrage, paranoia and shamelessness. There is no forensic cross-examination of these allegations such as would occur in a court of law, either criminal, where the criteria is beyond reasonable count, or civil, where the criteria is the balance of probabilities.
Instead, they are met with gentle questions eliciting their feelings, impressions and thoughts more appropriate for a student counselling session than a formal, quasi-judicial inquiry. For many of the witnesses, this is true nirvana: not only do have a spotlight of a softer, more flattering hue cast upon them, they get a free ego-massage thrown in too.
One troubling aspect of the Levenson inquiry that O’Neill doesn’t comment on in his article – strangely, since it’s one of his hobby-horses – is that by almost solely attacking the tabloids, this is really just another extended prole-bash. The tabloids cater for a sizeable readership who loves celeb gossip; some of the tabs catered to this demand by nefarious means, by illicit phone-hacking or paying cops for tip-offs of celeb shenanigans etc. Of that there’s no doubt.
But hang on: during the Leveson recess, we had the unedifying sight of the usual suspects – the aforementioned Guardian, Independent, BBC etc – drooling over “hacked” documents “proving” that the right-wing US Heartland Institute, which takes a robust anti-man-made global warming line, along with many other activities, was plotting to use the untold millions it gets from Big Oil to foil pro-climate changee scientists by “dissuading teachers from teaching science”.
The fact the central “strategy” document was a crudely cobbled-together fake and that the genuine documents – which were blandly routine meeting reports that hardly showed Heartland wallowing around in Big Oil bucks like Scrooge McDuck – had been obtained by fraud by pro-climate change activist, Peter Gleick, who has since confessed to the phishing, though not to the faking.
That they had tacitly supported and thereby endorsed illegal activities because it suited their news agenda in this instance did not seem to faze then usual suspects. Indeed, the Guardian even ran an extraordinary piece by The Ethics of Climate Change author James Garvey in which he said:
Was Gleick right to lie to expose Heartland and maybe stop it from causing further delay to action on climate change? If his lie has good effects overall – if those who take Heartland’s money to push scepticism are dismissed as shills, if donors pull funding after being exposed in the press – then perhaps on balance he did the right thing. It could go the other way too – maybe he’s undermined confidence in climate scientists. It depends on how this plays out.
So: the ends justifies the means, eh? But only if it’s the Guardian’s ends, it would seem. It certainly doesn’t apply to those filthy red-tops’ ends. Some may call that moral relativism. I call it rank hypocrisy.
But don’t expect such high-minded shenanigans to get even a mention at Leveson. It’s the tabloids which are in the firing line, and while it’s them, the usual suspects will happily cheer the inquiry on.
But O’Neill is surely right to note that whether they are active cheerleaders or cowering curs, mainstream journalists are oblivious to the bonfire which is being built under their feet:
It is alarming that, in a country where the poet John Milton demanded freedom of the press more than 350 years ago, and where many other writers and activists subsequently fought tooth-and-catapult to expel state forces from the worlds of writing and publishing, so many should now acquiesce to an inquiry which gives a judge and his chums the power to tell the media what its morals should be.
O’Neill ends his call to arms with another fiery quote from Milton which I urge you to check out for yourself. Because whatever you might think of their views on other topics (which I myself have a love/hate relationship with), on this issue, the spiked gang is definitely on the side of the angels.
In a judgment which will warm every sub’s cockles, the Court of Appeal yesterday confirmed an earlier ruling that headlines are “separate literary works” that, for purposes of copyright etc, should be considered independent of the story they sit on.
The court threw out an appeal by news parasite Meltwater, which provided a paid-for headline-scraping service to clients in the PR industry. The original action against the company had been brought by all the main Fleet Street newspaper groups, except News International, under the aegis of the Newspaper Licensing Agency, who successfully argued last year that Meltwater required a Web Database Licence (WDL) to aggregate and sell the list of spider-grabbed headlines, and that its customers required a Web End User Licence (WEUL) to use that information for commercial purposes.
Meltwater and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA), a conglomeration of Meltwater subscribers, appealed against the original ruling by Proudman J. Meltwater at first contended it did not need a WDL to carry on its business, though it later relented and got one. One of the conditions of the WDL requires that the holding company’s customers each need a WEUL. The PRCA argued that no, they didn’t. Mrs Justice Proudman found against them, saying:
“The headlines are often striking and substantial, both in terms of content and in terms of length. They are not usually written by the journalists who write the underlying articles but by editorial staff whose specific functions include the composition of headlines. The ability to compose a headline is a valuable and discrete skill and courses exist to teach it. Headlines require skill in order to fulfil the objective of capturing the reader’s attention and inducing them to read the article. Thus a headline frequently has some emotional or sentimental ‘hook’, it may contain a pun, it may summarise the content of the article to which it relates. The process of final selection of a headline is separate from the selection of the article. Often a number of options will be proposed and the decision will be taken by a senior editor. Occasionally the article will be tailored to fit the headline.”
She also noted:
“…headlines involve considerable skill in devising and they are specifically designed to entice by informing the reader of the content of the article in an entertaining manner.”
These views were yesterday upheld by the Chancellor of the High Court, Sir Andrew Morritt, with Lord Justice Jackson and Lord Justice Evans. Rejecting the PRCA’s argument that Meltwater customers fell into the category of those exempt from needing a WEUL – a group exempt for purposes of criticism – they said no such exemption applied, because Meltwater made no attempt to analyse or interpret the headlines it sent out.
The copies created on the end-user’s computer are the consequence of the end-user opening the email containing Meltwater News, searching the Meltwater website or accessing the Publisher’s website by clicking on the link provided by Meltwater.
The Lord Chancellor went on to praise Proudman J’s “clear, careful and comprehensive judgment”. Hear-hear!
It’s certainly cheering to know we subs have friends in high places in the judiciary. Just wish we had more of them in the newsrooms.
The full ruling is here. Note the ruling only applies to commercial users. It doesn’t apply to us impecunious amateur bloggers.
I’ve been amazed by the response to the NOTW hacking scandal and the media’s reply to it.
Apparently there is nothing worse in this world than hacking into the mobile phone of a murdered schoolgirl. Well, maybe I’m not alone in thinking there could be worse things, such as those where people die not from madmen, but stupidity implemented by government and reinforced by an unthinking media, not just on people who live in faraway countries of which we know nothing. Nor the horrible means of death of young schoolgirls in counties which our own common sense (a sense not common, it seems, with our governing nor media classes) tells us is actually pretty uncommon.
But what I mean is the avoidable, commonplace and equally shocking deaths in places we know where our loved ones, our relatives, our neighbours are. And whose deaths are routinely ignored by a stupid, press-release government and a media whose ignorance borders on the mendacious.
Well, it’s time to be a bit callous here but it needs to be said: Milly Dowler was dead, and as much as you may complain about the NOTW’s actions thence, it didn’t make a lot of difference. She was still dead when the NOTW did what it did. And the police weren’t that much closer to finding her killer when the NOTW did what it did. The police hadn’t actually done a lot, though the NOTW had. Sherlock Holmes would understand, even if the editor of the Observer does not.
What I do think makes a lot of difference is the following story, covered by everyone. You may remember it. What I think is interesting is how quickly the usual suspect news outlets have dropped it. I’ve done a google to see where they might have followed it up:
The BBC. Nope.
The Guardian. Whaddyathink?
The Independent. Uh-uh.
Well, I guess in the wonderful Cameroonie world in which we now live, the hacking of a mobile phone of a tragic young murder victim is more important than the deaths of our grandmothers from lack of water – lack of water! – in our state-funded NHS hospitals. But of course you can’t fault our wonderful NHS.
Nor any drop to drink, indeed.
For some years, I’ve argued that the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square should be occupied by a statue of a great man, Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian civil engineer who single-mindedly cleared central London of its slums, created the embankments and Battersea (and other) parks and rid London of the great pestilence of cholera forever. The capital still relies on his sewers today. And they still work.
But increasingly, I’ve come to the conclusion – a difficult one for a New Zealander – that the honoured place should go to an Australian: Rupert Murdoch. For he is the only one who has carried the robust free speech traditions of Cobbett, Horne Tooke, Hazlett, Paine, Johnson and Coleridge into the 21st-century – and willingly paid for it, often to his cost – when the panty-waisted likes of Rusbridger (minor), Toynbee, Thompson, Hari, Snow, Kelner et al stood around saying “oooh, let’s play nice!”, so politically correct they shit where they stand lest they befoul minority toilet bowls.
Don’t get me wrong: Murdoch has his faults. He really needs to see “man made” global warming for the expensive, anti-scientific scam it is, for instance. But on many matters – many of them important, such as freedom of speech – he is on the side of angels.
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:
The Torygruff takes another tack, going for a deep, tightly cropped headshot, but none too successfully:
(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 Pythia of Journalism has a revealing post comparing various national papers’ “audience” divided into print, web and “social media” (for which read: Twitter).
It contains this infograffiti, taken – inevitably – from the media blog de nous jours, The Media Blog:
Pythia, using all the accumulated knowledge of grub street back stabbing and opportunistic job-hopping that today secures you a sinecure as “Professor of Journalism” at City University London, opines thusly:
As Sturgeon readily concedes, it’s only a snapshot. But it is revealing all the same. Note, for example, the Daily Mail’s enormous reach in print and online compared to a relatively small social media (Facebook and Twitter) following. The Guardian, by contrast, has almost as many social media fans and followers as it has daily visitors to its website. Its reach is, arguably, more penetrating.
But that’s by the by. Let’s look at another of Pythia’s points, which is that the Guardian’s reach is, arguably, more penetrating. In what way could the Guardian’s obsession with Twitter be more arguably penetrating?
Oddly, I think I found the answer in Sam Leith’s Arts Column in yesterday’s…well, Guardian 2, actually:
My current favourite fact about human civilisation is that fully 3% of all activity on Twitter consists of conversations about [Justin] Bieber. That is, 3% of an entire communicative medium – on which any and every idea in human history can potentially be discussed – is spent on talking about Bieber.
Could it be that a lot of the Guardian’s arguably penetrating social media reach is really just twittering about an 18-year-old Canadian pop singer with backwards-facing hair? Does a good 3% of that dark blue block next to the Guardian in the graph above actually comprise furrow-browed Guardianistas earnestly tweeting each other about the recent egging of Justin Bieber in a Sydney concert hall?
I do not pretend to know. But if so, the Guardian must stop this arguably more penetrating obsession.
UPDATE: More on the Guardian’s twitter obsession. Apparently, according to Frédéric Filloux, news coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden showed how news organisations “have mastered social media such as Twitter”.
Quite apart from ignoring the fairly mundane fact that however you get the news – via Twitter, Facebook, heard it from a bloke in the pub or messenger pigeon – you still have to do the routine, basic journalistic work of verification and actually writing it up into readable prose, Filloux unwittingly betrays the extent to which media organisations are in awe of shiny new media while forgetting those first principles.
For instance, he links to this startling piece of infograffiti (I use that phrase to indicate that, like graffiti, it gives more pleasure to the perpetrator than the hapless viewer). It purports to show how news of the terrorist’s death was spread via Twitter:
Wasn’t that interesting? Well actually, no. It is, in the useful phrase of P J O’Rourke, informationally subtractive: you know less about the subject after looking at it than you did before.
I’m going to alert Peter Sands to this particularly egregious example of the infograffitist’s art, as he has a good blog posting on this sort of nonsense.
An interesting photo from Friday’s Metro London edition:
Funny how a much admired/despised Sun front page about a long ago dispute in a territory of which we know very little should still resonate so many years on and so many thousands of miles away.