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Briefings, leaks and contempt of court

For the second time in a couple of months the issue of the flouting of contempt of court laws which are designed to to restrict publicity which could damage defendants’ chances of a fair trial has come up. First there was the naming and pictures of two men arrested in connection with the Ipswich murders (one was charged and the other released) and now a lot of detail about the Birmingham terrorist arrests.

Peter Wilby in Media Guardian writes:

The biggest press scandal of our time is not intrusion on royal privacy – which has just led to a reporter’s imprisonment – but the newspapers’ consistent and brazen disregard for the contempt laws. The police and the government, far from taking steps to apply those laws, have colluded in what amounts to a complete revision of British legal conventions.

He deals exclusively with the Birmingham case and briefings about a plot to kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier. What online readers will miss it a picture of A Birmingham Mail bill with the caption: “Local heroes… the Birminghma Mail has steered clear of the excecesses of the nationals.”

I can’t find a reference to this in the copy: perhaps it was cut. But it did remind me of events in Ipswich. While the national press and broadcasters were using pictures of suspects and interviews the Evening Star was very careful about what it wrote and the pictures used.

Nigel Pickup, the editor, wrote in his blog that there were questions of identity which meant that the use of pictures could lead to a charge of contempt of court. He explained the constraints to his readers.

There is nothing new in this divergence of approach between the national and regional media. The regionals are a part of their communities while the nationals are outsiders.

In my years as a local reporter I remember that when a major story brought the press pack to town it was always a fraught period. You could find yourself apparently scooped by a story which had no verifiable sources and and could not be confirmed for a follow-up.

There was also the danger of holding back on real angles because you had to work with the same contacts in the future. On the whole I think we achieved the right balance for the community as the Evening Star has done in Ipswich and the Mail seems to have done in Birmingham.

Another point arises from Wilby’s column. He says that only the Guardian and the Mirror raised concerns about “police leaking to the media”. But on February 3, a news story, also in the Guardian, started:

Police investigating the alleged plot to abduct and behead a Muslim soldier expressed growing anger yesterday at a series of leaks and briefings which they say are hampering their inquiry.

In a later paragraph it said:

The Ministry of Defence said that it had no idea who was responsible for the briefings, while Home Office officials insisted no briefing had been offered by its press office, but a spokeswoman added: “I can only speak for what has been done on the record by the press office.”

In a further paragraph, a police federation official was quoted saying: “The police force is asking the question, where did it all come from? There may be political reasons for it, such as what was going on at the Home Office and at Downing Street.”

With complaints from political sources about leaks from the loans-for-peerages inquiry as well, these waters look very murky indeed.

Dacre’s attack turned against him

The knife with which Paul Dacre, the Mail’s editor-in-chief, attacked the “subsidariat” — loss-making media — is neatly turned against him by Peter Preston in today’s Observer.

In his Cudlipp lecture Dacre attacked the BBC, the Guardian, The Times and the Independent, saying: “Subsidised papers are, by definition, unable to survive in the free market”

Preston writes:

But pause! Is that a shiver of apprehension running down Kensington High Street? He couldn’t really have been talking about the Evening Standard he edits-in-chief, could he? Losses, when last disclosed: £18m – though the resourceful (departing) MD has taken £14m and then £12m swings at its cost base over the past couple of years, which might have produced a smile if circulation, down 18.1 per cent in a year (and only 209,000 of it paid for) hadn’t kept falling along with those costs; a familiar litany of decline.

He is writing in the context of the London free evenings battle between Dacre’s Associated and News International. One set of questions is about Associated’s subsidy of the Standard and the other is for News International. He asks:

What’s the strategy here? Is it to tear into Daily Mail cash reserves (on behalf of the Sun) and do Associated damage? Is it to slug out a victory that kills the Standard and London Lite, leaving thelondonpaper as a monopoly asset with a possibly golden future? Is it to start a paid-for London evening of Murdoch’s own, or broker some kind of merger? Or just to swamp Westminster in waste paper?

With neither free paper producing anything like enough advertising to turn a profit, it looks like an increasingly futile and damaging battle.

Cool stuff from Guardian trend spotters

Is it ironic take on modern living? An early sign of spring’s nest-building urge? A showcase for the most bizarre ideas to have crossed the features desk? Or the shortlist for the winner of an office competition to come up with nuttiest idea? Whatever. The Guardian Guide to Craft is the funniest thing to drop out of the Saturday plastic bag of mags and leaflets for a very long time. A must read.

It offers readers the chance to find out how to make cool stuff at a fraction of what it would cost in the shops.

Where are these shops? I want to find the ones that sell:

  1. Coat hanger wine racks made from a pole and the wire hangers that come from dry cleaners,
  2. Cut-out cardboard coffee tables,
  3. Mittens made from old sweaters,
  4. Faux fur rugs created from old T-shirts,
  5. High rise bird boxes for sparrows and
  6. Clothes peg doormats.

There are more DIY ideas in the guide.

Craft is apparently the second in a new monthly series of guides to modern living. I can wait to find out what else is on trend in Clerkenwell before it reaches us here in Suffolk.

What is the carbon footprint of the internet?

Adam Tinworth looks at a shelf of magazines published by his employer and wonders if the “slow death of the published magazine at the hands of the internet might not be a good thing, at least in terms of the environment.”

His thought was prompted by a report that deforestation is responsible for more global warming than air travel. But then he wonders if all the energy needed to sustain online communication could be more damaging than print publishing.

Good question. What is the carbon footprint of the internet?

Later: Martin Stabe has also posted on this. He has some interesting information on the printing industry and gives the carbon emissions for one copy of the Daily Mirror as 174g of CO2.

So you want to be a journalist…

Sans Serif has 12-and-a-half rules to be a good journalist. They are good advice to aspiring journalists and I think I have followed most of them, but the half rule, if possible marry outside the profession, is plain wrong, in my experience.

I married a reporter from a rival paper many years ago and don’t think anyone else would have put up with the irregular hours and sudden changes of plans. Only another journalists is likely to believe you when you telephone from a party to say you will be late because you are doing an interview and will have to write it up afterwards.

Via Howard Owens who, like me, broke the half rule and and is glad he did.

Royal phone-hack ‘inquiry’ is not enough

The complacency of the Press Complaints Council in not thoroughly probing the use of phone-hacking by newspaper journalists is breathtaking. In the wake of the jailing of News of the World royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, and the resignation of editor, Andy Coulson, a full investigation was needed to give credibility to the self-regulation system.

Instead, editors are to be asked about their controls to prevent intrusive fishing expeditions and how they ensure staff understand the code of practice and the law. Quite rightly they want to preserve journalistic public interest exemptions.

But without a thorough investigation it will be more difficult to convince legislators and the public that tougher laws are not needed. As Roy Greenslade (once editor of the Mirror) says in a robust post, the PCC is “is simply averting its gaze by holding this so-called ‘review'”.

Contrast this with the views of another former editor, Peter Wilby, (ex-Indy) who seemed to be in denial when he wrote about the NoW in Monday’s Media Guardian under the heading “Would Goodman be in such trouble if he’d found a decent story?” He wrote: “The public doesn’t have a compelling need to know that William has a bad knee or Middleton has taken a trip to the supermarket. But equally, I don’t see why it shouldn’t know.”

And now Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the PCC, faces a grilling from MPs at the the Commons’ Media Select Committee who want to look at whether self-regulation of the press is working (see Press Gazette).

In saying that the PCC review would be “forward looking” rather thank raking over who did what and when, he is offering the politicians, some of whom have an interest in curbing the press, ammunition.

We need to know what happened at the NoW and how widespread similar practices are before the public and MPs can be assured that the Press has put its house in order.

Sir Christopher will need all his diplomatic skills if he is to overcome the scepticism of the committee’s Conservative chairman, John Whittingdale.

US schools make more use of BBC than of local media

More evidence of the success of the BBC’s news web site comes in an American report which found “the classroom use of of non-US websites, such as the BBC’s, even exceeds the use of local TV or newspaper sites.”

The report from the Harvard-based Carnegie-Knight Task Force on the Future of Journalism Education, finds use of the Internet is threatening the economic viability of local media and the contribution they make to local democracy.

From outside the US, my spin on this research is rather different: there are welcome signs that young people in the world’s only super-power are starting to lift their eyes to look at the world as well as their own back yards.

The task force which includes the deans of the leading US journalism schools, finds a decline in the use of local media in social studies, civics and government classes.

National news organisations such as CNN and the New York Times were cited by 66% of teachers as being frequently used. Non-US organisations such as the BBC were frequently used by 21% of teachers while only 15% said the same of local newspapers and 6% of local TV.

The report says the use of the internet in classrooms is certain to widen, and teachers have switched from hundreds of local news outlets to a smaller number of national ones.

The challenge for local media, says the report, is: “As students learn in the classroom to rely on websites such as cnn.com and bbc.com.uk, they will become accustomed to using these sites outside the classroom, thereby contributing to a permanent movement of audience away from local news outlets.”

While I believe strongly in the importance of local media, this underlines the value of the BBC to the UK. One its tasks, enshrined in its charter, is: “Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK.”