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Press campaigns for Christmas are an insult to other faiths

It is a deep insult to people of faiths other than Christian to suggest that that they might be offended by the celebration of Christmas. Yet this is exactly what a large section of the British press is doing.

It is all dressed up as a campaign against “political correctness” as in the Sun’s “Kick ’em in the baubles” campaign. If the stories were true there would be justification. But they are mostly untrue.

A year ago I looked at a couple of these stories in East Anglia and could only find distortion. Today, in the Guardian’s G2 section, Oliver Burkeman, examines the campaigns which have grown to hysterical levels this year. He debunks the myths:

Luton does not have a festival called Luminos. It does not use any alternative name for Christmas. When it did, once, five years ago, hold something called Luminos one weekend in late November, the event didn’t even replace the council’s own Christmas celebrations, let alone forbid anyone else from doing anything. Similarly, Christmas is not called Winterval in Birmingham. The Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children never banned a Christmas CD for mentioning Jesus. And Chester council’s “un-Christian” Christmas card says – as cards have done for decades – “Season’s Greetings”.

There is a tiny grain of truth in some of these stories but they can generally be traced back to low level, and undoubtedly thick, apparatchiks. But that does not mean district and city councils up-and-down the country and 75% of businesses (said to have banned Christmas decorations in the workplace) have been overtaken by politically correct madness.

For more than a decade I have taught journalism to young people of all faiths and none. They wish each other happy Eid, happy Diwali, happy Hanukkah and happy Christmas. They even send their tutors Christmas cards.

There is a very unpleasant cynicism in this campaign against political correctness. It creates a false impression of divisions between British people and, at the present time, fosters Islamophobia.

The Daily Mail had the splash headline “Campaign for a real Christmas”. The strap line disavows religious intolerance saying: “Christian and Muslim leaders unite to save festive season from political correctness.”

And the fourth paragraph which provided justification for the campaign read: “Notorious local authority attempts to stamp out Christmas include Birmingham’s decision to name its seasonal celebrations ‘Winterval’ and Luton’s attempt to change Christmas into a Harry Potter festival by renaming its festive lights ‘Luminos’.”

Unless that paragraph is true, there is nothing to campaign about. And it is not. For Christ’s sake, remember Christmas is about peace and goodwill to all men. And thank God that most British people are a lot more sensible that some newspapers.

Sun hacks’ away day at at Romford Asda

A nice little story in Media Guardian about Sun hacks working for a day in the Romford branch of Asda, so that they could get to know their readers better. Obviously, they get less chance to meet anyone admitting to reading the Sun in their more usual haunts, like Waitrose.

Among the seven stacking shelves and making pizzas were sports editor, Steve Wareing, head of editorial development, Rob Dalton, and news editor, Chris Stevens.

The Guardian describes this exercise as a “job swap”, and that is a nice thought. On the return match the greeter from the Romford store must be the news editor, the checkout girl will run the business page and the lad from fresh fruit can take over the picture desk.

WSJ to leave routine news to the web

While other newspapers have been arguing about web first policies for news, the Wall Street Journal has been planning to go a step further: news on the web only.

The announcement of the redesign which will hit the news-stands on January 2 reveals a paper which will cut the news content substantially. The paper itself will be about a sixth smaller, saving on print costs.

In a letter to readers L Gordon Crovirz, the publisher, wrote that the changes would provide:

Much more of the exclusive coverage you expect from the Journal, including what the news means, not just what happened the day before; a more convenient print Journal, in a handier format and with improved navigation; and better alignment between the print Journal and the Wall Street Journal Online so that you can use both versions for what each does best.

The idea is that the routine news is best provided via the web and the printed edition should have differentiated “only-in-the-Journal” content providing much more focus on “what the rush of news really means”.

The goal is to move to 80% of exclusive news although this seems to include analysis, explanation and prediction. Just 20% will be devoted to the traditional mainstay of reporting; what happened yesterday.

And to provide a “better fit” the online WSJ (800,000 subscribers) will concentrate on “what is happening now” while leaving “what it means” to the paper.

Jack Shafer at Slate has been acidic in his comment, writing:

It’s the rare amputee who describes himself as better off without his two big toes than with them, but that’s what Wall Street Journal Publisher L. Gordon Crovitz attempts…

He points out that the loss of 3 inches in width is the same as other US papers have done to cut costs and continues:

Instead of leveling with his readers about the reasons behind his paper’s new slim profile—to save money—Crovitz insults their intelligence by claiming the change is for the “convenience” of readers. Calling it an “easier-to-handle size,” he repeats the testimony of one reader who, upon seeing a prototype of the smaller Journal, said, “I fly First Class, but when I’m reading the Journal now I knock over my neighbor’s orange juice. That won’t happen anymore.”

I would not know about the un-neighbourly habits of businessmen flying first class, but it is an interesting development. Making the assumption that readers will get breaking news from the web but want explanation and comment on more comfortably read paper makes a lot of sense.

But whether it is a viable business model, even for a paper as different as the WSJ, we will only see next year.

Yahoo and Reuters solicit ‘citizen journalist’ pix and vid

From today sending a picture to Yahoo News could lead to world wide distribution to mainstream media by Reuters. Stills and video can be submitted to You Witness pages at both Yahoo and the news agency.

Material will be uploaded to Flickr from where Yahoo will select material to be used in its news service and by Reuters for commercial syndication. According to the Reuters news story, ways of paying contributors are still being worked out.

“We are looking at the possibility of creating photo wires and archives to allow people to be compensated for their work and for the images they are able to capture,” said Chris Ahearn, president of Reuters Media.

While the Yahoo submission page provides tips for “citizen journalists” it does not look as if the phrase is part of the agreement. The term is avoided in the Reuters report, with an intro talking about turning “spectators into on-the-spot journalists”.

Scott Moore, head of news and information at Yahoo, says: “”There is already a lot of quality amateur journalism being created by our users. Yahoo needed a more efficient process for soliciting and publishing user- contributed photos and video.”

Ahearn says: “We have been seeking to increase the number and range of voices that can be active in our service,”This is another step in that direction.”

While Reuters points out that contributed pictures from the public have long been used, You Witness is clearly a big development. They two organisations are looking at ways to extend the project to text.

Whatever the contributors are called this is clearly an important step in the development of wider participation in the media.

Press Gazette returns

The Press Gazette is to be resurected as a print publication after losing only one edition. An annoucement on the site suggests that no sale to the title has been finally agreed. It reads:

After being off the newsstand last week Press Gazette will be back this Friday following an approach from a new buyer.

The website’s breaking news service has been suspended for the present while staff concentrate on the relaunch issue.

Intrusion brings investigative reporting into disrepute

Media reaction to the threat of jail hanging over Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s royal reporter, has been equivocal. The routine condemnation, combined with a “but for the grace of god” fear, continues in the first Monday media pages since Goodman and a private detective pleaded guilty to listening into the voice mail the two princes.

Polly Toynbee has been an exception with an absolute and clear condemnation. She wrote in Friday’s Guardian:

By pleading guilty Goodman may go down for a couple of years, but he stopped anything coming out in court…. But the criminal’s fence is also usually arrested for handling stolen goods. Could there be any more obvious case than the publication in broad daylight of the proceeds of this crime?

Yet no inspector has called to feel the collar of Rupert Murdoch [News of the World owner]. The media mogul is not hiding from arrest across the Atlantic, though anyone who has worked for him knows the degree to which he controls all that happens. Not even the offending News of the World editor has felt the hot breath of the law…. The best measure would have been to lock him up – and his owner too.

For those who have not been following the story, Goodman was obtaining royal and celebrity tittle-tattle, including such significant results of his investigative journalism as Prince William consulting a doctor about a knee injury. Goodman is due to appear in court again in January when he could be jailed.

In the Independent’s On the Press column Stephen Glover, former editor of the Independent on Sunday, asks himself: “Why is it that I cannot get very worked up about the case of Clive Goodman, the News of the World’s disgraced sleuth?” Part of his answer is this:

Is it also possible that, while of course in no way defending the practices of Mr Goodman, I am influenced by an old-fashioned belief that journalists partly exist to ferret out important information?

Over at the Guardian, in its equivalent column, Ian Reeves, editor of the Press Gazette until it folded, feel banging-up Goodman would be a “crazy use of one of the few remaining prison cells”. He writes:

Yet if information commissioner Richard Thomas has his way, there would be plenty more hacks following him down the steps into clink. Thomas grabbed the opportunity to reiterate his regular call for prison sentences for journalists who access other people’s personal data. This is a dangerous road to go down if we want to ensure our press remains as free and robust as it needs to be in the face of ever-increasing governmental and corporate information-management. We already have a worrying amount of legislation that hampers legitimate investigative inquiries.

Fear of Goodman’s jailing setting a precedent is behind the equivocation. The differentiation of “in the public interest” and “of interest to the public” is always going to be a tough one. Some cases will always need to be fought in the courts.

But trust in the media now depends on the stables being cleaned: gossip should not hide behind the need for the media to expose corruption.

The real problem is that the investigative reporting techniques used for celeb stories are relatively cheap and the rewards, n terms of maintaining circulation, are substantial. Investigative reporting which exposes corruption is a lengthy and expensive process which is harder to justify especially when months of work may produce nothing.

There is little purpose in sending Goodman to jail which would do little to remove the pressure on reporters to come up with exclusive royal and celeb stories. Those who create the pressures were not in court this time. It they had been, the best solution would have been a big fine — big enough to remove the perception that the paper’s owners benefit from unnecessary intrusion.

David Leigh, the Guardian’s top investigative reporter, who admits to having used some questionable methods, has the most realistic assessment:

Thomas [the information commissioner] says there is a public interest defence available under the Data Protection Act and honest journalists have nothing to fear. We shall have to see about that. Personally, I am resigned to seeing the tabloid cockroaches doused with a spot of legal insecticide. Driven by greedy and cynical proprietors, and making no distinction between gossipy intrusions and genuine public interest investigations, they are bringing our trade into disrepute.

Ex-editors on implications of two princes bugging case

Two former editors, Bill Hagerty (The People) and Peter Preston (the Guardian) today look at the implications of the admission by The News of the World’s royal reporter, Andy Coulson, that he bugged the two princes.

Hagerty in The Independent writes:

“Is disregard for the law more prevalent as the war of diminishing circulations demands even fiercer competition between newspapers? I don’t think so: most editors play by the rules, and only reporters and photographers with more balls than brains do not recoil at the thought of having their collars felt.”

While Preston, in The Observer, writes:

So, as the court door slams shut, the PCC really does have new work to do. The commission isn’t proactive by constitution or inclination (and usually right to play umpire, not opening bowler). But the Goodman case is a stinker and leaves a foul smell right along Fleet Street.

Police seize reporter’s phone records

Suffolk Police’s seizure of a reporter’s mobile phone records are a concern for every journalist in the country. It took the East Anglian Daily Times seven months to extract details of the records obtained by the police.

It all began when reporter Mark Bulstrode asked the police about the reopening of an historic investigation that was not public knowledge. The paper agreed to a police request not to publish the story.

Almost as worrying as the actual seizing of the records is the way the police attempted to cover-up afterwards. When a request was made by Bulstrode under the Freedom of Information Act, Suffolk Police refused to say whether or not they held the records.

It was only after the request was resubmitted, and the force told them that the Information Commissioner had been contacted, that the documents were released — seven months after the initial request.

The full story is on the EADT’s website. The paper’s editor, Terry Hunt, says he will be making a formal complain to the Chief Constable.

The police have the right to obtain phone records if they believe a offence has been committed. They say the action was not directed at the EADT but at establishing where any officer was unlawfully disclosing information. An officer has since been given “words of advice” so it would seem there was no crime.

It looks as if they were going on a fishing trip. Whatever the background, this affair can only weaken trust between the police force and the regional morning newspaper (and other journalists in the area). And that is not in the interests of people living in Suffolk who pay for the police through their council tax. I am one of them and my concern is that the police should fight crime and actually do something when local youths are creating a disturbance on the corner on Saturday night.