Nick's Notes

Publish and be damned

In the last few days information has been in the forefront of the news in the UK and US for different reasons. In the UK the public consultation on what is known as ‘Leveson II’ comes to an end very shortly. This is about enacting one of Sir Brian Leveson’s proposals from his inquiry a few years back which would require newspapers to sign up with an independent regulator which holds a Royal Charter.

There are three perceived problems with this:
1) Royal Charter means nothing of the sort these days – it is essentially the Government that will approve regulators;
2) the only one that exists is funded by Max Mosely who has his own reasons for wishing to curtail the freedom of the press to report entirely true stories about people in the limelight;
3) the legislation allows all costs of litigation to be charged to the newspaper if it isn’t signed up to one of these regulators.

Some people see this as an outrageous assault on press freedom, and bringing the press under Government control for the first time in some 600 years. Others think it a suitable control to prevent some of the worst excesses of tabloid journalism. The ‘real’ answer is, as so often, in the middle – although I would point out that the phone-hacking scandal that triggered the inquiry was using illegal means, and so doesn’t require another law to make it so.

Undoubtedly a theoretically malign future Government could use this legislation to control press freedom; equally it is possible to see a way for an ‘honest’ newspaper to be bankrupted by having to bear all the costs of litigious celebrities who wish to hide details of their latest infidelities from their adoring public. But would this even work in curtailing people’s ability to know what is going on? No. These days whenever a super injunction becomes known spending about 5 minutes with a search engine (preferably not a European based one – where they have to accommodate the so-called right to forget) will get you the full details. And the nonsense is that using rather than will be sufficient. One politically gossipy website run by Paul Staines under the name Guido Fawkes is already based in Ireland so outside the UK court’s jurisdiction, and it would take very little to move outside Europe to avoid these risks completely.

In the US the story inevitably involves President Donald Trump, ‘fake news’, the Russians, and CNN. It’s too lengthy and convoluted to repeat here – google it – but in essence CNN, a very respected journalistic organisation was accused by the President of pedaling fake news and he refused to allow it to ask a question at a recent press conference which was covering ‘intelligence’ reports of some less than seemly goings on in Moscow, allegedly involving him.

Fake news is becoming a big issue. Russia admitted to setting up a news agency in the UK before the referendum last year, and feeding in stories which were not based on fact. Indeed many anti-EU stories appear to be false or based on largely inaccurate reading of the facts – remember the EU requiring straight bananas anyone? Facebook has been accused of editing out news with which its editors do not agree and publishing stories with little validity – in fairness it now says these approaches have been changed. ‘Post-truth’ has reached the Oxford English Dictionary (as it’s word of 2016, no less) – and is defined as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less important in shaping public opinion than emotional or personal beliefs. As the online Urban Dictionary (surely a reliable source) comments: Post-truth relies solely on personal beliefs and ignores any facts that may conflict with those personal beliefs.

There has long been a saying that you shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. A few years ago Professor Jeff Sampler spoke at one of our conferences. Amongst the many things he said was “Fools and gurus sound the same – so how do you tell them apart?” A great question, even in those far off, perhaps innocent days, when the assumption was that people weren’t trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Now, we are on the edge of video being faked – not by selective editing, but by creating the pixels from scratch. Already dead actors have completed their part in movies they were working on when they died. How long before entirely realistic video could be constructed of a world leader apparently doing something they did not do ‘in reality’ – for good or for evil.

A recent report concluded that social media reinforces prejudice. Because people self-select like minded people to follow they no longer hear much in the way of genuine debate from well-meaning individuals who have a different opinion, for good honestly held reasons. And search engines, using all the info they track about you help to reinforce that by using their perspective on your world view, to bring you results that fit what you normally see. Taken to extremes, this leads to other nonsense where university students wish to be ‘protected’ for anything that doesn’t fit their comfortable world, and may shock them. Safe space policy results, and further reduction in debate.

Freedom of speech is a foundational pillar of western democracy. It is not an optional extra, but it has to be protected by a commonly held view of what is acceptable. And when ‘real news’ breaks, there are so many people around with phones taking pictures and posting them we know something is happening. The problem is when it happens behind closed doors.

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