Category Archives: murdoch

Is Hack an irregular verb?

I suspect that “Hack” is an irregular verb.
·         I investigate,
·         You hire private eyes (in the public interest of course),
·         He hacks.
Journalists are very keen to say – We abide by the code – We do not hack – We do not do this sort of thing.
I like most of the journalists that I know. They are people who find the world deeply interesting. They try to make sense of it and they try to convey what they see to other people.  All of these things are admirable.
I deeply dislike anything in the way of a witch hunt, and I do not like that at present many journalists will feel threatened by the crisis that is hitting their profession. It is of course nothing like as bad for the majority of them as it was for the MPs when their turn of being in an unwelcome spotlight came two years ago. The journalists have the advantage that they can tell things their way, and a pretty good chance of making themselves heard, a privilege that was completely unavailable to the MPs who were attacked without mercy by the press.
However I do not accept the comfortable view held by many journalists, that the state of journalism is fine, there are just a few bad apples, criminals who should bear the full penalty of the law.
If we look at what the some elements of the press produces, sensationalism, speculation, exaggeration, celebrity focused gossip, the prejudging of people accused of a crime, the details of murders, tragedies, scandals, the demonization of individuals and of different sectors of the community,  then we are forced to see that all is not well.
If we look at the many burning issues that the papers raise but do not really help us to grasp: the future of pensions, jobs for young people, the state of our care services, tax avoidance,  fuel poverty  to name a few, it is right to expect that the press could do so much more.
If we look at the way in which papers drive a wedge between people who we elect to try and solve these problems for us then we could wish for a different and more productive ways for the press to promote better communication.
It is not all well. The press needs to see this. It needs to accept that this is a moment where a change is both possible and necessary.
The press would be happier if the focus remains on the extreme horror of the Milly Dowler case. This would be a wasted opportunity.
I have spent much of the last 6 months sitting listening to hearings of the Stafford Hospital inquiry. The common perception , which has been fostered by some rather seriously flawed reporting, is that Stafford is unique, and that therefore other hospitals do not have much to learn from the matter. This is a shame. Most of what we are finding by close scrutiny of the Stafford Hospital case actually shows that the problems that did exist here were not spotted because they are not in any way as extreme as they have been portrayed. There were a series of individual problems which are on the spectrum which takes in the whole of the NHS. The NHS has a lot to learn, but because the press has not yet been able to see this clearly the NHS does not yet recognise this.
There is an analogy with the News of the world and the press. There are aspects of what was happening with the NOTW and NI which are pretty unusual, and perhaps unique, in particular the behaviours for which Vince Cable has just coined the phrase “heavy lobbying”, and the uncomfortably close relationship with the MET, but there are other aspects of questionable ways of getting a story, or failures to check accuracy which we can find throughout the press.  The behaviour is not an aberration, but something on the edge of a broad spectrum of behaviour which is common to many other papers and journalists too.
So what is to be done about it?
If we stay with the perception of isolated extreme behaviour the temptation is to go after the individual journalists that went too far, and throw the book at them, sackings, trials, prison sentences.  But if it is part of a spectrum, part of a culture in which bad practice thrives and the best practice struggles, then a different approach is needed.  The curing of this widespread insidious infection has to come from within the body of the journalistic profession. Journalists have to play an active part in the healing process.
A number of people are suggesting some form of amnesty for journalists; a window of opportunity for them to come forward and declare the things that they feel have been wrong, an opportunity to openly analyse and to assist with the process of devising good rules, good monitoring processes and imagining a better press.
The urging for this amnesty is coming from a range of different people, who may have different, and perhaps conflicting reasons for suggesting it. I suggest it because I value openness and I hate witch hunts, it is possible that other people are suggesting it to deflect attention from the Murdoch press and to spread blame more widely.  I am not sure if an amnesty is something that journalists would welcome, or if it should be done. I would like to hear other people’s views on this.  
The ground rules that have governed the press are the “editor’s code” this is what it says. It is a code that is devised by editors, and it is there to help protect editors. If their journalists infringe the code then that is cause for dismissal. If they remain within the code then this is protection from being sued by people who object to their coverage. This is all good for the interests of the editors and proprietors.
Does this code serve the public well? Does it serve the interests of principled good journalists who want to follow the highest standards of the profession?  How could or should it be improved?
All of this will come under close scrutiny as the Leverson inquiry takes shape. I want to see journalists working with the public to devise rules that are for the good of the public as a whole.
Going after the journalists who can be seen to have done wrong is something that will appeal to the “sleuth” in many journalists, and it could run and run. Personally I do not see this as a productive process. A great deal of real harm has been done to many people by the press over many years. Maybe now what we need is not so much retribution as a truth and reconciliation process.
What do other people think about an amnesty where journalists can own up to bad practice, followed by a period of generous and prominent apologies to those have been harmed over the years?  This should be coupled by the full co-operation of the journalists in the devising of a code where the primary purpose is to protect the public, to foster the public good, and to protect journalists from undue pressure.
Let me know what you think about this. Does there need to be a wider survey to canvass opinion?
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Cops, Robbers and Scoop.

I’ve  found myself thinking back to childhood, the games that were played in the playground, and some of the board games we used to play in the family.
The boys lived in a vivid imaginative world, cops, robbers, Indians, sleuths.  When it rained and we played indoors, there were a handful of board games, Monopoly, cheat, and we also had scoop, a competitive game about journalists getting their story.
The people who are the top of the journalistic profession now were brought up with the same influences. I have been thinking to about some of the impulses that have driven the creation the kind of press we have now.
The industry is driven by powerful individuals – and their character is reflected in the papers they produce.
Amongst the snippets of information about Rupert Murdoch that have emerged there are a few inconsequential matters that stood out for me.  There was the tree house, which is where his father apparently insisted he should sleep during part of his childhood, to “toughen him up”.
We have had the fascinating glimpse back 40 years to one of Murdochs early stories covering the fugitive Ronnie Biggs in Australia, where Murdoch, who had obviously developed his links with the police very early in his career persuaded the police to verify the finger print on documents sent to him by Ronnie Biggs. This was of great help to Murdoch in publishing a verified story, and apparently of help in funding Biggs to remain on the run, but apparently of no great help to the police in catching their man!
One of Murdoch’s contacts testifies to his genuine interest in his papers, and the detailed questions he would ask people about how they got their stories. He apparently took real pleasure in the process of journalism. – did he enjoy the games and stratagems used to “land” a story?
There is also a moment during Murdoch’s evidence to the select committee, when he talked about his father. A lot of people wondered why on earth he was doing this, a plea for sympathy, the ramblings of an old man- but to my mind it was central. I believe that this is a man who is still at the age of 80 trying to live up to his father’s expectations, and who had been confronted with the very uncomfortable realisation that after having “succeeded” in building an empire which met his father’s expectations, that the quality of what he had done had been weighed and found wanting.
It is of course ridiculous to suppose that Rupert Murdoch could or would have had any idea of the criminal activities being carried out in his name, but he does have a responsibility for the culture of the titles that he owns, the culture that produced this behaviour,  and for the apparently ramshackle nature of corporate governance within these organisations.
I think it is also ridiculous to suppose that phone hacking occurred only within the News of the World, or that phone hacking is necessarily the most serious abuse that exists within the press.
What I am pretty certain that we do have, and here I am back to the excitable boys in the playground, is a culture that puts far too strong an emphasis on “sleuthing”, and finding out what is hidden. Journalism – is perhaps seen by many as fairly dull stuff, involving a lot of very boring and hard work, but “investigative journalism” is all together much more exciting.
Operation Motorman shows us that there were many papers involved in the use of private investigators . The BBC Radio 4 programme “the report” indicates that if papers are outsourcing fact finding to people who are not under the direct control of the paper, then you can quite quickly get to a point where just about anything goes.
More recently we have had all the interest in MPs expenses, where it was the idea that things were being hidden that kept the interest of the press alive in the very dull details of what all bit a handful of MPs were actually being paid. That all began with stolen information being shared with a newspaper. All justified in the name of public interest of course. It is certainly not a bad idea to challenge the key institutions of our country, but I think that most people would now say that the press did in many cases get this entirely out of proportion, and that they certainly did so to political effect.
 There has been Wikileaks with all the excitement that that entailed.
There was the huge fuss surrounding the “climategate emails”, which we now hear may have involved Neil Wallis, Andy Coulson’s deputy editor at News of the World. This was important. The leaking of hidden emails gave an interest and odd credibility to the idea of a conspiracy to exaggerate the threat of global warming, and it did so at the crucial moment to destabilise the Copenhagen conference.  So this had the ingredients of hidden information, being using in a misleading way, which confused people, and this had a political effect.
In the case that I am close to, I have a ring side seat to watch the process of journalists “getting” a story.   The Stafford Hospital story is interesting in that it does involve two completely separate elements that became merged through the press.
The press chose to champion the campaign of a small group of people who had found themselves deeply frustrated by the complaints process at the hospital and throughout the NHS. They had every right to do this. They then got caught up in the distinctly messy business of a set of mortality figures which were leaked to the press because they had been deliberately excluded from the Health care commission report on the hospital.  Like anything that is “hidden” this immediately excited undue attention.

If the press had chosen to print this leaked information with clear acknowledgements that it was leaked and clear explanations of why it was hidden, this would have treated readers with respect, and allowed them to make their own judgement. No paper has adequately done this.  The nationals for the most part do not even know the doubtful source of the material. All the press throughout the country has simply accepted this seriously flawed and misleading information at face value, and it has been used for political purposes.  The widely criticised “reforms” to the NHS have been “sold” with reference to the public perception of Stafford created by the press coverage.

The Inquiry was convened  to try and deal with the inconsistency, to explore how it could be possible for very large numbers of people to have died in the way these figures indicated, whilst no one saw anything out of the ordinary. What we have seen is that there are many indications that Stafford suffered problems that are real but widespread.  We have also seen quite a few indications that the boring nuts and bolts of corporate governance is not fine tuned enough to pick up some of the basic problems of patient care, and needs to be strengthened in Stafford and throughout the NHS.       
Occasionally there has been a little glimmer of excitement for the press. There was for instance the evidence of Professor Jarman, which showed his anger at what he perceived to be the “gaming” of his system by the West midlands hospitals. I watched with interest the excitement of the press pack picking up this story. It was the evening headlines on the BBC and next day in the press. Unfortunately no one was in the press gallery the following day when the Counsel put a rather different interpretation and infinitely more plausible explanation of events, and when the Chairman of the Inquiry indicated his serious displeasure that the press continued to trot out the misleading mortality figures.
After so many months of an inquiry there is very little that is “hidden” about Stafford, apart from the fact that the story is still not being told in a well rounded way by the press.  The real story that we can now see if we choose to look has I am afraid very little of the excitement of the story that the press and media believed existed. The decision of the press not to openly tell the full story is or course a very interesting “hidden” story in its own right!
The press interest is still focused on one witness that they want to see produced, A witness who is unlikely ever to appear.
With the Phone hacking and Murdoch story – there is so much that remains hidden that people will remain deeply interested. There are bin bags full of unread notes, potentially thousands of victims, and the archive of “smoking gun” emails at the wonderfully named Harbottle and Lewis lawyers.  There is all the jigsaw of who knew what and when and who can be blamed, alongside a fair bit of understandable political anger about decades of dirty tricks. There is the human story of people who want to settle scores.
This is what will hold peoples interest, but the really important matters here are what happens as a result of all of this. We will get to see what went wrong with corporate governance? What needs to be done to ensure that individual newspaper proprietors do not exert too much influence? What needs to be done to ensure the ethics and quality of reporting? How do you ensure that the links between politicians and the press is not a malign influence on both?
Of course journalists will always get caught up in the excitement of the stories they tell, this is in the nature of the profession, and papers are in part entertainment, but it would be really good if in the wake of the Hacking scandal that papers begin to redefine their role.  Will papers continue to focus on what is good for their proprietors and the proprietor’s friends, or will some papers see it as their job to look at the interests of the community as a whole? Could papers act to allow a wide range of voices to be effectively heard, or will the proprietors still wish to be selective? Will there be papers in ten years time, and if so what will they look like?
Leverson will I hope require the press to do the boring stuff of looking at their own corporate governance and their own standards.
We are entering into a world where there will be many shadowy companies delivering many of the services which used once upon a time to be public. There is a major job here for good journalists all over the country to be the eyes and ears of the public and tell us more about what is happening within these companies. Some of it might even involve a bit of sleuthing!   

Is there more to this cosy circle of friends ?

I was munching my toast on Sunday morning wondering who this high profile resignation was to be from…  tweeting away… having a little giggle at some of the funnier tweets…  getting concerned about some other developments I was reading about…  nothing unusual there then !!  No announcement this morning ! Then around lunchtime the news broke that Rebekah Brooks had been arrested. It was pointed out fairly quickly that the arrest was by appoinment..  and of course all the usual questions were asked and opinions given!

The statement from Rebekah’s spokesperson soon arrived… who would that be ?  A little bit of digging around soon revealed that the spokesperson was from Bell Pottinger… Aha ! A name I recognise well.  Being interested in human rights and what’s happening in Bahrain, for example, I know that Bell Pottinger represent that government.  Protesters are also aware of who is representing their govt…   they have held up placards ‘You can’t spin the unspinnable’ !  Things got dangerous to the extent that Bell Pottinger had to close the office..   Lord Astor became involved according to Bell Pottinger but the UK Govt refuted that he’d praised the dialogue referred to http://is.gd/9DroZ0  Lord Astor is UK under-secretary at the MoD and he’s also Sam Cameron’s stepfather…  So it might have been a bit embarrassing if, indeed, he had been involved… don’t you think ? http://is.gd/rzWEZW.  If you’re wondering who Rachel Whetstone is – wife of Steve Hilton. Just click on her name! And here’s a bit more http://is.gd/sYJSYO from 2010.

Bell Pottinger was, of course the firm whose internship was auctioned by the Conservatives at their Black & White party. As well as in the daily news it also received criticism from within the PR industry http://is.gd/Ez2ZXE.  Via auction, the internship was being offered to the highest bidder rather than on merit, giving opportunity only to the wealthy.  And here’s a little bit of info about Lord Bell the man in charge  http://is.gd/ppdcaL

Going back in history Tim Bell was brought in to help the troubled Lord Black to defuse the crisis at Hollinger which owned the Daily Telegraph http://is.gd/xsRaWx  So he’s used to helping out media moguls…  Black is now serving a jail sentence…  http://is.gd/dWMBMj

And of course there’s the whole saga surrounding Mrs. Duffy…  who I’m sure you’ll remember. But Bell Pottinger ?  Hmm…  read on…  you might find a few more names that you’re familiar with too  http://is.gd/0Vs34Y

Oh and if you want to know how Bell Pottinger sell themselves http://www.bell-pottinger.co.uk/

Wonder what they can do for Rebekah?  When she leaves the Police Station maybe Rebekah will take herself off to Champneys – she’ll be in good company as her husband Charlie Brooks introduced the kriotherapy chamber there…  http://is.gd/2mZGpM.  What’s that ?  Well it’s something like a big ice cube..  I think… http://is.gd/ZRGhHK.

Oh but hang on hasn’t Champneys already been in the news today…  http://is.gd/JdVmBr  
As I write this blog, Sir Paul Stephenson has resigned from his post as Police Commissioner. How many more will bite the dust coming out of the murky world surrounding News International?

And if Rebekah doesn’t fancy Champneys ? She might just fly off somewhere for lunch ! http://is.gd/EXz1pp

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The Exploitation of grief.

It already seems a long time ago since we first heard about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. What has brought down the Murdoch empire is that we finally saw clearly that we were dealing with people who simply do not abide by any normal rules, who saw it as their right to satisfy the interest of the public at any cost.
I would like to suggest that what we saw here is the extreme edge of a spectrum of intrusion and exploitation. Maybe we need to think a little about the way we have become desensitised to the public “ownership” if grief.
Most journalists learn their trade in the local press. What they are trained to look for is something unusual happening to the ordinary people that make up their small world.
Accidents, crime, what the coroner said, and the occasional murder are all occasions when ordinary people become of fleeting interest to the press.
Sometimes it goes further, sometimes there will be an individual prepared to answer the question “how does it feel”, opening up a window into the mind of an ordinary person coping with some big emotion.
When it comes to murder our interest and the interest of the press become much stronger.   The families of a high profile murder victim become for a time at least public property. 
This is nothing new. The penny dreadful of the Victorian period relied on murders as their stock in trade, but now the reporting of high profile murders, especially of young women or children has acquired its own predictable ritual.
The bereaved know the rules of this. They play their part.
There are the press conferences, with the fraught and tearful appeals to the public for information on missing persons. Here the police and the relatives genuinely need to attract the maximum press interest. It has a purpose.
There is the finding of the body, with helicopter views of the tented area, and statements from representatives of the bereaved family.
There are appeals for information, police press conferences on the progress of the murder hunt, the announcement of the interviews with suspects, arrests, charges. There are opportunities at every turn for the reactions of the bereaved.  Often the press are warned off from overt unwanted attention.  The editors code gives clear guidelines to protect the bereaved. This is why the hacking of mobile phones was such a powerful tool for the press. At the time when the public were  hooked by a story and wanted to know everything then hacking  provided a window into the hearts of the bereaved without their knowledge or consent.
And then there are the funerals, with photographers with long lenses, there to capture the mourners and the coffins, interviews with family, friends and anyone else with a story to tell.
Then we have the trial. Different families behave differently. For some they need to be there, to have the opportunity to look at the face of the accused, to understand this person who has impacted upon their lives so cruelly.  Others keep a distance, remain away.
The trial is the show piece for the press. This is the opportunity to report some of the worst aspects of human behaviour. It is nothing new. This is the foundation of the tabloid press.
The verdict, is the time when families are expected to give a reaction, to show their response to the “justice” delivered in their case.
 For most families, this can if they choose be the end of the ordeal by the press. They are then free to grieve quietly in their own way. How much of all this process is in the “public interest” is difficult to judge, but we do know that it is something that the public will find of consuming interest. It all sells many newspapers.
For some of the bereaved there are special reasons why this is just a beginning of a new phase.
It is a completely natural instinct to feel that if you have suffered something so terrible, especially if it was in some way avoidable, that it is a duty to use the experience, and to try to ensure that no one else has to suffer in the same way. In high profile cases, the bereaved will already have built a close relationship with the press. Often this is a perfectly genuine warm indentification between someone who has suffered something extraordinary and someone who has tried their best to tell the story in the most truthful way. The bereaved will often develop the feeling that the press are the only people who really understand what they have suffered.  Prolonging the story, may be something that both the press and the victim actively want.  It is a way of converting grief into action, and it is a way of giving the public something they find interesting.  In the occasions where there is a campaign which comes out of a tragedy, the families need and actively seek the public response, and the strong outpouring of sympathy will ensure that politicians may well be forced to bow to this emotion.
We have seem Sarah’s Law, which was so strongly advocated by Rebekah Brooks, (but is criticised by many community organisations). We have seen the vetting laws brought in for all people in regular contact with children, following the murders of the two girls in Soham. (but this law is criticised by many people for stifling community involvement and volunteering). We are seeing on the front page of the Sunday Mail today an appeal for Claires law.  There must be many more examples.
We saw the Dowler family raising vocal concerns about their exposure to prurient interest by the court and the press, and now we have the extraordinary spectacle of the Dowler family, fighting the shocking exploitation of their grief, becoming the symbolic face of the hacking crisis and the worst possible form of press intrusion. In the process they are accidentally bringing down an empire, that exercised power by corrupt practice, prurient intrusion and fear.
The major changes to the regulation of the press that will follow the hacking scandal would never have happened without the Dowler murder.  This is now a once in a lifetime opportunity to understand and rebalance the relationship between the press and the people. It is an opportunity we must take.  Finding the right code to protect those in grief from exploitation must form a part of this exercise.

The Murdoch summer parties.

Max Hastings on Andrew Marr Sunday 17th July painted a fascinating picture of the Murdoch summer party of 2010.
On the terrace, supping the Murdoch champagne the invited guests mingled.  In this sunny privileged world introductions were made, alliances confirmed, opportunities were opened.
Twenty yards away in the centre of the lawn Rupert Murdoch stands with David Cameron, and one at a time selected guests are summoned into the presence and introduced by Rupert Murdoch to David Cameron.
We have a world where dancing to the tune of the wishes of Rupert Murdoch could open doors, and where he controlled access to those who are nominally in power.
There was an inner golden circle, and there was a wider circle of those who are allowed to bask in the rays of the sun.
Who was it that attended these famous parties, the rich, the famous, the expensively educated, the well connected, the beautiful, the ambitious?  
Who were specifically excluded from this privilege, and how did this affect them?
What did this mean to the many millions of us who have no place here.  We, if considered at all were there to buy the papers, to buy the products they promote, to buy opinions shaped in the way the proprietor chooses and to buy  a government  when required to do so.
I have found myself writing this in the past tense.  This particular golden world is already a piece of history. People are already writing the screen plays for the films that will capture these past moments,   but the desire that produced these sparkling parties and that kept people dancing willingly to these tunes is still with us.
The anger that many people feel now comes from knowing that the press which many believed to be “of the people”  had its interests elsewhere. This was a corrupted press that had abandoned an honest commitment to tell the truth, to show us what is there, to challenge the powerful. This was a  press that aimed to be at the very heart of power.
The challenge for the future is to build a press that does not seek to divide us, but can genuinely serve the needs of the many, not of the few.