Leveson's sheriffs will have no jurisdiction in the web's Wild West
Media Studies: Many blogs exist in the shadows of anonymity, where political agendas can easily be disguised
Ian Burrell is Assistant Editor and Media Editor at The Independent, i paper and Independent on Sunday. He covers news from the whole media sector from television, press, radio and advertising to technology. His weekly column on the media appears every Monday in The Independent and i paper. He also writes on media, music and culture, including long-form pieces for The Independent’s Saturday magazine and the Independent on Sunday’s magazine, New Review. He is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4’s What The Papers Say and a specialist commentator to Monocle 24 radio. He has contributed to most major broadcast outlets including BBC television and radio, CNN, Sky News, Al Jazeera and LBC. He has also written on media for GQ magazine. Ian has been reporting on the media industry for The Independent for more than a decade. Previously he was the newspaper’s Home Affairs Editor. He worked at The Sunday Times for five years, including as a member of the investigative Insight team, covering stories on political funding, industrial espionage and the arms industry. Previously he worked in ITV for London Weekend Television, on a weekly current affairs programme presented by Danny Baker. Ian trained at the Birmingham Post & Mail and was Regional Reporter of the Year in Press Gazette’s national awards.
Monday 18 March 2013
It remains to be seen whether Lord Justice Leveson will ever publicly express a view on the press regulator that eventually emerges from the sorry saga of political showboating and interminable negotiations that have followed his report.
But there's one thing we can be sure of: the new watchdog will be out of date before it even starts. We are in a digital news world now and have been for years. It makes no more sense to restrict press regulation to the established newspaper brands than it would to tell the broadcast regulator Ofcom to focus only on the old terrestrial channels and ignore the hundreds of other networks that now reside on the electronic programme guide.
So when we hear press reform groups like Hacked Off express fear that the resistance of newspaper publishers to proposed new sanctions could mean that we will be back here again in 20 years, they are partly right. Not because the tabloid press will make a cyclical return to the notorious Last Chance Saloon identified by David Mellor in 1991 – but because even greater swathes of the news and information media will be operating in a digital Wild West where the saloons are everywhere and the regulating sheriffs have no jurisdiction.
While we do not yet have the blogging culture that exists in America we can nonetheless boast a wide spectrum of political analysts, style gurus, sporting commentators, musical taste-makers and parenting experts operating outside traditional news media.
In a speech in Melbourne, made after the publication of his report, Lord Leveson did talk of the impact of the blogosphere. "In order to steal a march on bloggers and tweeters, [professional journalists] might be tempted to cut corners, to break or at least bend the law to obtain information for stories or to infringe privacy improperly to the same end."
Not only was this an admission by Leveson that there was a rather important omission in his report – namely the Internet – it was also missing the point about the impact of these "bloggers and tweeters".
That point is not that they encourage dirty tricks in the race to a scoop. It is that many of them operate in the shadows of anonymity, where commercial and even political agendas can easily be disguised.
I was reminded of this recently when blogger Josh Trevino admitted he had spent years writing pieces to suit the agenda of the Malaysian government, which paid him more than £250,000 for his vitriolic attacks on its opponents. Six months ago, I wrote here how Trevino had been hired by The Guardian as a right-wing American voice for its website – but was then dropped when it learned he had not declared his Malaysian business interests or that he ran a website called Malaysia Matters.
Now he has made a US Justice Department declaration that he was in the pay of Malaysia while writing pieces for such well-known outlets as the Huffington Post and National Review.
Trevino has also declared his interest with the controversial London-based television/PR company FBC Media, which is at the centre of a scandal that has been under investigation by Ofcom for 18 months.
FBC, which did PR work for many governments including that of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, made programmes for the BBC and other broadcasters about Malaysia. The BBC broadcast a global apology for its actions. FBC boasted in its literature of providing "special blogging that should provide a blanket of positive messaging".
So in a media world where the lines between editorial and advertising have never been harder to detect, how many more bloggers out there are working for a hidden paymaster?
It has recently been brought to my attention how easy it is for public relations firms to round up whole battalions of lifestyle bloggers with no apparent experience in professional journalism and feed them video clips, which appear like harmless fun, but have a deeper political significance. The amateur bloggers are encouraged to share the material with other like-minded blogs and offered free "press trips", unaware that their presence may have a political purpose.
Fashion blogs are offered giveaways for readers in return for using agreed copy. Numerous websites encourage bloggers to make money by composing (presumably favourable) product reviews.
In essence, such writers become an adjunct to the corporate marketing department. For young PRs, who increasingly do not read newspapers, such bloggers are crucial allies in spreading brand messages across social media.
This is not to say that there are no bloggers operating with the highest editorial integrity or that there are no traditional news organisations that receive daily deliveries of free music and clothing and gadgets that journalists are encouraged to write about. It's just that traditional news organisations have built their reputations over decades, sometimes centuries, of publishing history. In the new world they will find themselves liable to £1m fines while some bloggers masquerade as objective commentators, just inside the law but outside of regulation.
Some old regional news brands are today staffed by one or two writers, equivalent to a blog site. And in the new world they could find themselves liable to crippling financial penalties and debilitating complaints from pressure groups, things which the blogger need not be concerned about. All of which suggests that, as the news media continues to splinter, the subject of press regulation must soon be visited again.
Channel 4 hoping Grand National bet pays off
Next month's Grand National is a big moment for Channel 4 as it seeks to establish itself as the new television home of horse racing. The challenge is almost as daunting as Becher's Brook itself after the BBC signed off last year with a peak audience of 10.89 million, the largest for many years. Industry sources tell me Channel 4 would be happy to reach 7 million for a broadcast led by Clare Balding.
Just as it did with the Paralympics, Channel 4 is putting everything behind the event, with a £1.5m marketing budget and plans for cross-promotion throughout its schedules. Expect an Aintree-themed Come Dine With Me and some horse riding stunts from the chat show host Alan Carr. The broadcaster's in-house team, 4Creative, have produced a spectacular trailer, which premieres this Thursday, showing 10 horses and riders racing through the streets of Liverpool and jumping garden fences.
But perhaps the most sensitive issue for a broadcaster like Channel 4 is the prospect of horse fatalities – two runners were killed at last year's National. Conscious of its strong track record in current affairs, the network is promising to properly inform viewers while using discretion in the images shown.
Another triumph for Norfolk
Lord Ahmed's comments on Pakistani television – in which he allegedly claimed that owners of newspapers and television stations formed part of a Jewish conspiracy – was another triumph for Andrew Norfolk, the chief investigative reporter on The Times.
Many thought Norfolk deserved to win at the British Press Awards, which took place earlier this month, for his dogged pursuit of groups of men who have systematically groomed and sexually exploited teenage girls in the north of England.
He began looking at the subject in 2003 and, having fought off accusations that he had an agenda because the majority of the men were British Pakistanis, has forced the authorities to recognise the problem and take action. At least Norfolk's work was recognised with the Paul Foot Award for investigative and campaigning journalism last month.
The alleged claims of the Labour peer – who had been jailed for dangerous driving – seem to be a depressingly familiar attempt to explain personal wrongdoing by denigrating the media, and perhaps also serve as a timely reminder of why politicians and those in power remain fearful of the press.
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