SubScribe: March 2013 Google+

Friday, 29 March 2013

Why we need working-class hacks

Journalism isn't an outpost of Eton and Oxbridge

Copy boy grows up in Glasgow's inky world of teleprinters and Linotypes, moves south to take his place in the vanguard of a technological revolution and rises to become editor of the most famous paper in the world. Oh yes, and on the way, he joins the Royal Marines and becomes a champion boxer.
What a film! The credits roll with our hero rolling up his sleeves to read the galley proofs, alone in a vast room lit only by a brass banker's lamp with a green glass shade. 
Except that this isn't a movie; it's real life, and the story doesn't end there. Our editor is sacked after five years and moves to another great newspaper group, swapping one overpowering proprietor for another. By the age of 57 he has edited five newspapers and moved into the managing director's corner office. A decade later he is firmly part of the Establishment, a millionaire equally at ease at Royal Ascot and point-to-point; with a wee dram or a bottle of Dom Perignon.
It couldn't happen today.

Charlie Wilson is one of the great characters of late 20th and early 21st century journalism - a man with a silver tongue in a foul mouth. But if he were starting his career today, he'd be lucky to get through the door.
Our trade has taken to calling itself a profession and as such, it has room only for graduates - and graduates with a bit of money behind them. We have turned into a world inhabited by the white middle classes. Is this a good thing?
Today's twentysomething Wilson would have gone to university and almost certainly have  been enterprising enough to finance himself, but then what? Would his news instincts have been honed or diluted? Would his doggedness be enough to win a slot on a decent paper from which to launch his career? Probably. But I wouldn't bet on the chances of others of his generation who were just a step behind him.

More than 85 per cent of  journalists under 40 have a university degree, and many have a postgraduate qualification as well. When they emerge with a mortar board and £15,000 of debt, they can expect to work for nothing for months, according to a survey published last week by the NCTJ. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 65 per cent of new entrants have a parent who is a professional, a manager or a director. How else could they afford to join our happy band? Only 3 per cent come from a family of shop-floor or other unskilled workers. As Alan Milburn's report on social mobility last year remarked: 'Journalism has shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other profession.'

Social exclusivity is not what we need in a journalist; we need the rough diamonds and the smooth talkers, the chancers and the charmers - and from all ethnic groups. We cannot populate our newsrooms entirely with people from a cosseted world where everyone has good hair and calls their parents Mummy and Daddy. They must go down a bundle at the dockyard or outside the sink school with rocketing fifth-form pregnancy rates.
We used to be a trade of great diversity and mixed talents, but we're in danger of becoming homogeneous. It is to be applauded that national newspapers now offer graduate training schemes and they are effective in creating journalistic high-flyers,  but demand for places is such that papers can be very picky. For the past twenty years or so, graduate berths at The Times, for example, have gone overwhelmingly to those who studied at Oxbridge. 
So we have Eton and Oxford in Downing Street, Eton and Oxford at City Hall, Eton and Cambridge in Lambeth Palace, and now Eton (in the case of Boris and a handful of others) and Oxbridge in the fourth estate. It's all a bit too cosy for my taste.
Don't get me wrong: young journalists fresh from Oxbridge are delightful, confident, assertive, free-thinking, obviously talented and a real asset; but we should beware of shutting the door on natural talent that hasn't had the benefit of nurture. The survey report points out that the growing demand for a postgraduate qualification is reinforcing the elitism, since financial assistance for such courses is not widely available. Couple that with the trend for unpaid internships and the surprisingly low average pay, and it's easy to see how a journalistic career is being pulled out of reach of the ordinary working class. Milburn says that efforts to address this have been fragmented and lacking in vigour: 'Journalism, with a few honourable exceptions, does not seem to be taking the issue of fair access seriously.'
It is also alarming that there are proportionately far fewer non-white journalists than in the general population; 95 per cent of our workforce is white.

We do not live in the Victorian age of paternalism. It is perhaps to be expected that employers, especially those with shareholders to answer to, will seek to get more work from fewer people where possible. This has become more urgent in the recent years of recession, which came just as the internet age was turning the thumbscrews on the newspaper industry. Advertising was falling, raw material prices rising, and on top of all that, publishers found that they had to offer their products not just in print and on the web, but in tablet, android and mobile forms as well. Multi-tasking was the order of the day because there was no money to hire extra staff. Indeed, staff had to be cut and wage costs had to be driven down.

Most of us will be familiar with the executive's sympathetic face that somehow manages to kill the joy of promotion. 'We'd love to pay you more, but we're all under budget constraints at the moment...but when the belt is loosened, you'll be the first in the queue..' But the belt never is loosened. The older, more highly paid reporters, feature writers, subs, picture staff and middle-benchers are gently levered out of the door, to be replaced by eager underlings willing to work for tens of thousands less.

The NCTJ survey found that the average (median) salary of a journalist in Britain last year was £27,500, compared with £26,664 for employees across all occupations. This was a 22% increase on the average in 2002, compared with a 26% rise for workers as a whole. Taking the rate of inflation over that period, everyone lost in real terms.
It is important to point out that these findings do not  tally with last year's official UK reward statistics, which put journalism at 99th in a league table of 400 occupations, with an average salary of £35,213. The discrepancy probably arises from the different samples - the national survey is based on pay-as-you-earn tax receipts, the NCTJ figures from a self-selected group of 1,067 workers who filled in an online questionnaire.

My instinct is to put my faith in the 'official' statistics, largely on the basis that people who answer questionnaires tend to be those with a point to make. The respondents to the journalism survey were, however, reassuringly diverse, both in age and in their fields of work: 30% were local paper reporters and writers, 10% from the nationals, 18% from magazines, 15% were in broadcasting, 8% worked online and the remainder worked in books, PR and other peripheral areas. The presence of such a good sprinkling of Fleet Street workers might have been expected to raise the average salary figures, but it seems not.
Just under half of the respondents earned between £25,000 and £40,000, 21% were paid between £40,000 and £75,000, with only 3% earning more. At the other end of the scale, 22% earned less than £25,000, and 3% less than £5,000. 
Those with more experience commanded the greater salaries, as you'd expect. So where is the attraction to the brightest but less well-off graduates, those without access to a bank of mum and dad? Especially when you take the dreaded internships into account. The NCTJ found that 95% of those who had started work in the past three years had previously been an intern or undertaken some work experience. This usually lasted between three and twelve weeks, but for some it went on for a year, and it was almost universally unpaid - with the vast majority not even having their expenses covered. 
Pitch that against the £29,000 being offered to graduates by the country's  top 100 employers this year, and the £45,000 for freshers in the legal, financial and energy industries and we seem like poor relations. 
Our industry has pushed the self-destruct button so carelessly and so often that there will be little public sympathy for journalists complaining that they are overworked or underpaid, but we are moving towards the point where we are. We have seen the redundancies across the national and regional press, how 'local' newspapers are being edited from 50 miles away, while town centre offices are run by a trainee and a cat. 
Most of Fleet Street has combined its weekday and Sunday operations, so that everyone has to be available at all hours, every day of the week. Remember those days when night workers - mostly subs - had the concession of a four-day week because of the unsocial hours? Long gone. We're all in the same boat now, every news organisation must function 24 hours a day, requiring extra flexibility and extra skills from its dwindling news staff, whose pay is being forced down with every 'exit programme'.
Is this what our Oxbridge high-flyers signed up for?  Of course not. They tend to go bounding off to features or leaders or the comment pages, or to radio and television, and to the greater things for which they were born. As teenagers they were marked out as the opinion formers of the future and that is their destiny - some even become cabinet ministers or the mayor of London.

And so we have developed a two-tier journalistic society. The Morlocks on minimal pay churn out material for print, web, tablet so fast they have no time to check a fact or polish a caption. These are not just subs, but news editors, reporters, photographers, picture desk staff.
Then there are the Eloi, the picture byline classes who have access to people of influence and the freedom and expense accounts to take them to lunch. They have time to think before they write, so they can choose every word with precision, and still be away in time for the opera (or soap opera). 
The super-elite of this bunch, the best of whom are not Oxbridge educated and - horrors! - may even not have been to university, can earn ten times as much as the Morlocks downstairs. This is justified because these are the star names that bring in the readers; you can always get another general reporter or downtable sub, but if Matthew D'Ancona, Jeremy Clarkson, Polly Toynbee, Charlie Brooker, Matthew Parris or Caitlin Moran jump ship, readers may do too.
What is being forgotten is that readers may also say goodbye to a paper blighted by misspellings, factual errors and bad grammar - or maybe such concerns are not regarded as sufficiently important to ease the load or raise the status of those charged with producing the news pages.
It's worth remembering that it was the unattractive Morlocks toiling in the dark, not the beautiful  Eloi dancing in the sun, who had survival sussed.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Death of a teacher

Littlejohn may not have killed Lucy Meadows, but he didn't add to her life

It's more than a year since I last stepped foot in the office. The thought of returning terrifies me - the questioning, the people who won't know what to say, the fact of being a stranger there after 30 years' service. Most of all, vain and shallow as it is, I'm embarrassed about my appearance.
But one day I'll go in, it'll work out one way or another and I'll come out the other side. After all, it's just stage fright.

Lucy Meadows must have gone through the same emotions magnified a thousandfold at the start of the school term in January. Goodness knows what sort of a Christmas and New Year she must have had. But we may well soon learn - from a coroner's court - and it won't be a comfortable experience.
Miss Meadows, 32, had taught at a primary school in Accrington for three years. Until December she had been known as Nathan Upton, husband of a school governor and father of a little boy. At the end of term the children were told, class by class, that Mr Upton would return to school after Christmas as Miss Meadows. At the same time parents were informed in a newsletter listing a series of staff changes.
The school emphasised its support for Miss Meadows, who responded to local media interest with a statement thanking the school and governors, adding: ‘I’d now ask for my privacy to be respected so that I can continue with my job, which I’m committed to and which I enjoy very much.’

New year, new start, new life. If only...

Lucy Meadows was found dead at her home on Tuesday, and Twitter is alive with recriminations about the press, which is being blamed for her apparent suicide.

It didn't take long for Miss Meadows's privacy to be disrespected and for the story to reach  the Mail and the Sun. Both wrote of the 'shock' for pupils and made much of the low-key manner in which the school had broken the news to parents - would it have done better to have made it a big headline, or to call a public meeting perhaps? Both papers carried  a picture of a solitary outraged parent who talked about his son being worried that he'd wake up with a girl's brain. Anonymous children were said to be confused; one said Mr Upton was popular, others commented on his pink fingernails, long purple hair and sparkly headbands. 
Yes, pink fingernails, long purple hair and sparkly headbands. Seems to me that the popular Mr Upton had been laying the ground quietly and carefully. Someone had done a rather charming crayon drawing of him (top), which was posted on the school website; the children clearly accepted him as he was and the school trusted them to accept Miss Meadows as she would be.

Was this a story at all? Tens of thousands of people in Britain have gender dysphoria - the sense of being a man in a woman's body or vice versa. Thousands seek medical help  and about 300 a year take the ultimate step of a 'sex change' operation, more properly described as gender reassignment. So it's unusual, but not that strange. We've come a long way since April Ashley.
Or you'd have hoped we had.
Does the fact that Miss Meadows was a teacher - and of primary school children - make it more newsworthy? Is there something intrinsically shocking about someone trying to achieve their natural identity? Would we write a news story about Miss X the Year 4 teacher who came out as gay over the school holidays?
Is it, perhaps, a local newspaper story, but not one for the nationals?

These are the sorts of questions the former Essex Chronicle editor Alan Geere wrestled with last July when a teacher at a high-achieving Chelmsford secondary school made  the same transition as Miss Meadows. The story started exactly as the one in Accrington: a letter to parents informing them that Mr X would be returning as Miss Y. The letter praised the teacher's courage and pointed parents to a website where they could learn more about the process. In his blog, Mr Geere wrote about his lonely hour trying to decide whether to publish. 

I sought out m’learned friend - not really a privacy issue if you don’t name him – and a couple of editor chums, who said they would run with it, both with tasteful provisos.
My biggest concern was not the legal, or even ethical, position but what would the 100,000 or so readers of the Essex Chronicle make of it. 
But, having found references to the letter on Twitter, spoken to pupils and got a response from the head, I ran this story, which I think shows the school in a very positive light and shows us to be a responsible local newspaper.

Mr Geere also tweeted the question 'would you run this story?' But in spite of posing it three times, he appears to have received no replies.  After the event, there were only two comments on the paper's website, one taking issue with the photograph used with the story, the other asserting that the paper had got it totally wrong.
My view, for what it's worth, is that the story should have been a top single on an early right-hand page. To splash on it suggests sensationalism, regardless of how sensitively handled or positive the text is. 
Remember, this was a nationally renowned school, not a tiny church school with 169 pupils, which may, depending on your view, make it more or less newsworthy.

Supposing, for the sake of argument, that both are legitimate news stories, the next question is are they a valid area for comment? Twitter's fury  has been directed at the Mail's Richard Littlejohn for weighing in the day after his paper ran the news report.

Nathan Upton is now in the early stages of gender reassignment treatment. He issued a statement which read: ‘This has been a long and difficult journey for me and it was certainly not an easy decision to make.’
So that’s all right, then. From now on, kiddies, Mr Upton will be known as Miss Lucy Meadows.
What are you staring at, Johnny? Move along, nothing to see here. Get on with your spelling test. Today’s word is ‘transitioning’...
Has anyone stopped for a moment to think of the devastating effect all this is having on those who really matter? Children as young as seven aren’t equipped to compute this kind of information.
The school shouldn’t be allowed to elevate its ‘commitment to diversity and equality’ above its duty of care to its pupils and their parents. It should be protecting pupils from some of the more, er, challenging realities of adult life, not forcing them down their throats....
Nathan Upton is entitled to his gender reassignment surgery, but he isn’t entitled to project his personal problems on to impressionable young children.
By insisting on returning to St Mary Magdalen’s, he is putting his own selfish needs ahead of the well-being of the children he has taught for the past few years.
It would have been easy for him to disappear quietly at Christmas, have the operation and then return to work as ‘Miss Meadows’ at another school on the other side of town in September. No-one would have been any the wiser.
But if he cares so little for the sensibilities of the children he is paid to teach, he’s not only trapped in the wrong body, he’s in the wrong job.

The Mail has taken the column down from its website, and the outpouring of disgust on Twitter, spurred on by Alastair Campbell, has resulted in 30,000 signatures on a petition calling for Littlejohn to be sacked. There will be a vigil outside the Mail offices on Monday evening.

Littlejohn is hired, at great expense, to air controversial opinions - as are many others across Fleet Street. There are dozens of such columnists; it's their job to write what their bosses might describe as unpalatable truths. A strident tone and an apparent absolute conviction of their rightness seem to be the prerequisites, They also have to have thick skins, since at least half the population will probably find their words offensive.
Long-sightedness should also be a requirement. Such columnists have a duty to look ahead to the 'collateral damage' that might be caused by their words and to pick their targets carefully. Editors and features editors need to exercise the control that goes with their titles to make sure that star writers don't attack the vulnerable.
People in the public eye through their own choice - politicians, broadcasters, professional celebrities - may be seen as fair game. A dedicated young teacher who just wants to be left alone as she goes through an intensely difficult phase is not.

We can't blame the Littlejohn column for Miss Meadows's death; we don't know enough about her circumstances. She may have been struggling with the medical side of the transition;  she may have been missing her family - Ruth Upton had moved out of their home; maybe there had, after all, been problems with colleagues or pupils at school adjusting to the 'new' teacher. We do know that Miss Meadows had been upset by press intrusion in January, and it is pretty certain is that Littlejohn's acerbic commentary didn't make matters better.

Helen Belcher, director of TransMedia Watch, said that Miss Meadows had endured  "a huge amount of monstering and harassment by the press when she was very vulnerable.That level of press attention could not have helped her mental state one bit."
The pestering prompted Miss Meadows to seek advice from the trans community. Jane Fae, who produced some of the facts at the foot of this blog, writes in the New Statesman today that she had seen emails sent by Miss Meadows in January in which she talks of her good luck in having a supportive head. But the stress of her situation is also visible. She talks of the press offering other parents money for a picture of her.
The Guardian quotes the emails in more detail"I became pretty good at avoiding the press before Christmas. I live about a three-minute walk from school so they were parked outside my house as well as school. I'm just glad they didn't realise I also have a back door. I was usually in school before the press arrived and stayed until late so I could avoid them going home." Another said 'I just want to be me'.

I don't think that Miss Meadows's personal life was newsworthy and certainly not  a suitable topic for comment, but  just suppose for a moment that it was. If you want to write on any subject, surely the first task is to gather some facts and talk to some experts, rather than simply spout off on the basis of an agency rewrite from your own paper. Is Littlejohn right to assume that the children would find this transition harder to cope with than the teachers? I'd surmise that, far from being 'unable to compute', young children would be better equipped to deal with such a change. They are adaptable and accepting and have not been weighed down with the burdens of prejudice or experience. Littlejohn says that many of them still believe in Father Christmas. If they can accept that a man can fly around on a sleigh pulled by reindeer and deliver presents to every child in a single night, they can probably believe that a man can become a woman. And not judge.

A few years back I worked closely with a gently spoken man, let's call him P, who was separated from his wife. We would chat in the small hours about wine, motorbikes, cars, but  mostly about our children - he missed his very young son and daughter who lived in Scotland. Over the months, P started to grow his hair very long, eventually tying it back in a ponytail, I thought nothing of it, other that to envy its lustre.
Then an email came from the boss class saying that P had something called gender dysphoria and would henceforth be dressing as a woman and be known as Katherine. 
Unbeknown to most of us, Kathy had been dressing as a woman outside of the office for a while. She had now made the decision to make the journey to surgery and beyond - and that meant she had to live as a woman for two years before she would be considered for the operation.
This, I suspect, is the stage that Miss Meadows had reached at Christmas. It isn't as simple as Littlejohn suggests; you don't just pop off to hospital as a man and come out a woman. There are many drugs to take before and after. Doctors have to be as confident as they can be that you are completely sure that you want to change gender, and one of the tests is how you cope with life in the new guise. How do you tell your parents, your wife, your husband, your children? How hard is it to make that first visit to the GP, to go through all those specialists, counsellors, clinics? What kind of mental tortures must you have suffered that you are prepared to jump through all these hoops? 

No wonder 34 per cent of transgender women and men attempt suicide.

So, Mr Littlejohn, Miss Meadows was being 'selfish and insensitive' was she? Much better to hide away in shame, like some Victorian maiden with child, and then start a new life 'on the other side of town'.
Kathy tells me: 'As the parent of two loving, secure, sociable, confident children who are happy at their schools and academically at the top of their years, I refute Littlejohn's assertions. My children and their classmates apparently were equipped to compute this. The only person who isn't is Littlejohn.
'There were a couple of parents who were unpleasant to me - but nothing worse than turning their backs  when I entered the playground. But eventually they got bored with it.' Her son suffered some bullying at primary school - mostly, she thinks, because of prejudice against a well-spoken English boy rather than his parent's gender -  but has had no such problems at secondary school. Her daughter, who attended the same primary school, had no issues at all. 

Newspapers and their columnists should not underestimate the levels of tolerance and understanding in this country, especially among children, who are much more resilient than they are often given credit for. But mostly, they should let people out of the public eye live their lives in peace. If we haven't learnt that much from the hacking saga, Leveson, and the clamour for press regulation, then we have learnt nothing. 
Columns like Littlejohn's and the vitriol that pours daily from the Mail do nothing to advance the case for a free press. From that point of view, this couldn't have happened at a worse time. If we end up shackled, everyone will suffer. We all need to look to ourselves and wise up.

 Sometimes we get it right

The press may have been culpable in the case of Lucy Meadows, but here is a happier story from Essex.
Roger  was open about his gender dysphoria when he went to work in a general store in Clacton  in 2006. He explained to everyone the long processes he would have to go through before he could undergo surgery, including the need to live for two years as a woman.
The staff all rooted for him and threw a farewell party for Roger one Friday and greeted Lizi with welcome gifts the following Monday.
Lizi went on to have her operation in 2010 and there was a double celebration at the store a year later when her gender was legally recognised with a new birth certificate. Lizi was 63 and the change meant she could retire immediately, rather than wait to 65 as Roger would have done.
Colleagues gave her a rousing send-off, which was reported in the local Gazette -  a joyous story that was entirely positive and balanced.
You can read it here.

Some facts

  • 300,000 - 500,000 people in Britain have experienced some degree of gender variance
  • 60,000 - 90,000 of these want 'a complete role adaptation'
  • 10,000 of these have approached a health professional
  • 6,000 of these have undertaken transition to a new gender role
  • 80% of transgender people were born male
  • The average age for transition surgery is 42

More people are 'coming out', so that the number of people receiving medical help, has doubled in recent years. This is attributed to
  • Greater general knowledge and understanding of transsexualism
  • Increased NHS provision
  • Helplines, local support groups and web-based forums that allow people with gender dysphoria to meet and gain confidence
  • Anti-discrimination legislation
  • 'Somewhat more respectful press coverage.

Even so,
  • 34% of transgender people have attempted suicide at least once
  • 19% have suffered verbal abuse
  • 10% have faced threatening behaviour
  • 5% have suffered physical abuse
  • 2% have suffered sexual abuse

A Twitter campaign in January elicited a thousand complaints about the healthcare offered to transgender people, the GMC is expected to look in detail at 39 allegations of abuse. The trans activist Helen Belcher reported to a healthcare conference on Monday that:
  • 98 documents were presented to the GMC last month
  • 15 may have to be set aside for technical reasons, but those being investigated include
  • 10 cases of sex abuse or inappropriate intimate examinations
  • 19 patients who say they were refused medical treatment
  • 1 patient who alleges a coercive threat of withdrawal of treatment
  • 4 allegations of inappropriate or damaging treatment

  • 63% of people who suffered alleged abuse did not complain at all because they did not trust the system to give them fair treatment
  • 21% had had previous complaints dismissed
  • 39% of complaints related to GPs
  • 17% related to mental health services
  • 22% related to gender specialist services
Newspapers tend to write about the 'average' cost of transgender treatment, and of 'sex changes on the NHS'. Costs vary from case to case, but include
  • For the vast majority of  MtF (male to female) people who seek treatment but not surgery, the cost over a lifetime is unlikely to be more than £1,000
  • For those who go on to surgery, the cost over 20 years will be about £2,500 for hormone and endocrine intervention, and
  • The surgery itself will cost about £11,000
  • For FtM people the cost of hormone treatment over 20 years is about £15,000
  • Full gender reassignment costs about £50,000 - but most FtM people do not undergo this surgery
  • Case management for both men and women costs between £1,000 and £3,000
  • The Revenue will recoup about £2,000 from prescription charges in England

Gender Variance in the UK, Gires, 2009

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The morning after the night before

Ouch, my head hurts. Let's see if I can sit up. Argh, that's even worse. Perhaps I can snooze for a few minutes more. lAh, that pillow is so cosy. Mmmmm.
Now what's that bloody noise? Oh lord, is that the time? OK Dave, this is it. Go for it.
Must say, Sam's snoring a bit, I'll give her a little prod. 
Hang on, I don't recall her wearing Wallace and Gromit boxers before. 
Jeeeeezus!  What are YOU doing in my bed? 

What happened? Why can't I remember?

My, what a hangover. 

Ah now it's coming clearer. It was a good party, there were pizzas and coffee and chocolate digestives and coffee and fruit salad and coffee and KitKats and yet more coffee. It was intimate and chummy and everyone hugged each other and agreed we'd achieved great things. Not that I know this at first hand.  I was tucked up here at home by then and Ollie was holding the fort. He had some civil service flunky to keep him company. But I do remember being there later when it was time to move on from Ed's place to the  big bash downstairs. Don't think there was much hugging it's all gone hazy again.

Oh God, what have I done?

Right Dave, remember what you learnt at Eton: self-esteem, peer down your nose and talk 'frankly' and everyone will trust you. There's nothing to worry about, we only knocked a little stone out of the 300-year-old edifice that is British press freedom. Oh don't fuss. It's right down near the bottom where nobody will notice. It won't really weaken the structure.  If it looks as though it's going to wobble, a little statutory underpinning should do the trick.

Funny, now I think about it, some of the chaps at the second do weren't so keen on our little plan. There was a bit of a frisson that we'd gone to Ed's at all and some grumbling that those Hacked Off fellows had been let in. Probably was a bit strange on reflection that the press johnnies didn't have anyone there. Still, Becks has other things on her mind these days. Do hope she didn't put her eleven mil in a Cypriot bank. 
Anyway, the Hacked Off crew didn't come on to the much smarter after-party, though someone saw that cove Mosley up in the gallery and took exception. But never mind, in the end we sorted it didn't you? Oh yes, we sorted it.

On the road from democracy to oligarchy, today is a milestone...awful, awful, awful

So it may only be a toenail in the door of regulation, but it could end up the first nail in the coffin. Bland press self-censorship is on the way

The state is now licensing journalism

When both benches agree we invariably make our worst's like the Ministry of Truth

But aren't these people supposed to be on our side?

An elegant solution

The last chance saloon is closing

There, that's better. Oh, they're the opposition, are they?  Quite so, as I said,  best to have consensus, that way it'll all be done and dusted so much more quickly. Didn't want to hang around. Needed to get the show on the road, prove that I'm  decisive  -  like Ken Baker with those dangerous dogs that time. Nothing like a bit of rushed law-making, especially if you can finalise it at 2.30am.

What's this? Some chap saying he doesn't want to discuss a document he hasn't seen? Good job little Bercow was there to find him a copy of the draft. Wonder if there's one I could look at?

Anyway, Cleggers should be happy now. What's that? He says it was chaotic and it was my fault? Oh he's not still going on about me taking my ball home on Thursday night, is he? I did NOT have a hissy fit. It was a tactical manoeuvre and it worked, didn't it. Did we get the charter through or not? And you can say it as much as you like and so can Ed and so can Cleggers, there is NO statutory underpinning (yet). You see, they'll see it my way tomorrow.

Someone says the Spectator isn't going to join my new press club. Bit spoilsporty of them. And JK Rowling's having a go, saying I've betrayed phone-hacking victims. How can that be? Her chums were at Ed's little soiree weren't they; they got what they wanted didn't they? How come everyone is so grumpy?

Maybe it's because they don't understand the stuff about who's going to play and who isn't, how we're going to keep as many people who know anything about journalism as possible away from the new club. We won't let their bosses in either - well it's only fair. If MPs can't play even after they've left the Commons, why should editors with newspapers to run? And as for the publishers? Look, do you think I've just sailed up the Thames on a water biscuit? I've got into enough trouble inviting them for a Pimms and a round of croquet at Chequers. They already have to sneak in the back door if they come to No 10, I'm not about to start giving them a seat at the most public dinner party I've ever thrown.

Strange this confusion, though, and even more about who should join our new club.  I thought we made it quite clear. We'll do all the press and Hello! magazine, but we'll leave Decanter and Angling Times to freewheel. Bloggers will have to take their chances, yes I know we said news-based websites, but we can't be more specific at this stage. You can't expect me to differentiate between them; I have secretaries to read that stuff.

Oh now the local rags are getting sniffy? Well if they want to play with the big'll be too expensive and not worth their while to join and it's not fair because Leveson said they were goodies and beyond reproach? Well they don't really matter. I'm sure the proper press will see sense and be grateful that everything is going to be put on a proper footing without any state interference. 

They don't trust it? And they don't like the money bit?  But half of them were behind us last week when we were scribbling it all down on the back of that pensions advice envelope. Can you get that phone please Sam? What's my view on the Newspaper Society,  Mail, Express, Telegraph, Sun and Times taking high-level legal advice?  That it's sour grapes because they weren't invited to Ed's party. They need to get over themselves. The Guardian said the idea seemed ok  - ish. So did the FT the other day. No I didn't hear Barber on WATO and I don't follow him on Twitter. Too much emphasis on statutory underpinning? Can you get all that in 140 characters?

Right that's it. My head hurts. If the Telegraph thinks the papers should get together to form their own club instead of joining ours, then good luck to them is all I can say. You try to help out and all people do is moan. We spent £4m staging the Leveson show and have wasted hours and hours trying to turn his script into something we can take on tour and now they throw it all back in our faces. Ungrateful sods.
Still it's Budget Day tomorrow and everyone will be so busy jeering Georgie Porgie that they'll have forgotten all about this little local difficulty.

Come on Phydeau, time for your walk...

Monday, 18 March 2013

Press regulation: history, hysteria and hyperbole

Oh dear, oh dear. What a bugger's muddle we've all got into over press regulation v press freedom. The hacking victims want retribution, the media barons want influence, the politicians want to be seen as principled - and as winners. Meanwhile the journalists just want to get on with their jobs and the readers just want their crosswords, football results and some interesting 'news'.

An awful lot of nonsense has been written and spoken since the Guardian blew the phone-hacking scandal wide open in 2011 with its report that Milly Dowler's voicemail had been intercepted and deleted. We have had a £4m public inquiry, the closure of the country's best-selling newspaper, and seen police banging on suburban doors at dawn to arrest journalists who could more sensibly have been asked to attend the local copshop at a given time. The public money that has been spent on the demonising of the press is mind-boggling. 

We have now reached such a pitch that the three party leaders were  huddled together until the early hours arguing the toss over how the press should be reined in without using any reins or other restraining device. Come the dawn a deal had been done and everyone claimed to have won. This afternoon Mr Cameron told MPs that a royal charter would be approved by the Privy Council in May to establish a new regime to replace the supine Press Complaints Commission.  The new regulator would be able to impose £1m fines for bad practice,  and recalcitrant publishers that  refused to join in would be punished for their temerity with exemplary damages if they dared to argue a case in the courts.
All this was outlined in a three-hour emergency debate.
An emergency debate? We aren't going to war, we aren't joining the euro or leaving the EU, we haven't conceded the Falklands or Gibraltar. This is Budget week, for heaven's sake. The economy is in the mire, people are seeing their jobs vanish and their living standards fall. No one feels safe enough to spend what money they have - and if they have any to save, they'll be hard pushed to find somewhere to put it where it will still be worth as much this time next year. Of course the biggest emergency facing the country today is to decide whether a new press regulator should have the power to request or to direct a newspaper to publish a correction or apology in a particular position on a particular page. And of course it's so urgent that a solution has to be cooked up in a Westminster office at 2am with four anti-tabloid campaigners in attendance and not a newspaper editor in sight.

If the politicians have lost their sense of perspective, then so have the newspapers. And the prize for greatest misjudgment of the moment goes to The Sun for today's front page, which has absolutely nothing to do with what interests or concerns its readers and everything to do with what concerns its own interests. For the Sun, sister paper of the newspaper that prompted the whole Leveson circus, to portray itself as a Churchillian vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen  is to invite mockery.  Inside, you can almost see the steam coming out of Trevor Kavanagh's ears as he fulminates over the prospect of any interference in the freedom of the press. Kavanagh has written a fair bit of sense about the police's Operation Weeting and the hacking scandal in general, but to state, as he does today, that Britain will soon have the world's most heavily regulated newspapers is plainly bonkers.

The Mail, too, got all historical on us with a spread on all the public-spirited investigations that could never have been undertaken had the regulation being proposed today been in effect over the past 300 years. 

Now I happen to think that a free press is an essential element of a free democracy. You may describe today's compromise as the 'dab of statute' recommended by Leveson, but it's a dab too far.

To regulate a specific group of society that has no greater rights or freedoms than any individual within that society has to be wrong. To do so in such a manner that two-thirds of MPs can in future meddle still further and tighten the rules is deplorable.

Today's MPs may believe they are tying the hands of tomorrow's legislators, but they don't know what holes the next batch will find themselves in - or what super-whizzy scissors may by then have been invented to allow them to loosen or remove their bonds.
Once this charter is established with even a whiff of parliamentary input/control/oversight, then there will never be any return to true unfettered journalism, only tougher constraints down the road. 

So why, then, do I balk at the Mail and the Sun? Because there is no point in publishing this hysterical hyperbole today, all it will do is turn the reader off. The displays came too late to have any impact on the events of this afternoon and the bombastic tone will not engage the reader or inspire reasoned debate. The papers are just posturing.
So are the politicians. Outside of the Guardian, nobody cared much about journalists listening in to telephone conversations or voicemail until Milly Dowler's name was mentioned. Then all hell let loose. Down at the pub, in the queue at Tesco, at the bus-stop, everyone suddenly came over all righteous and started tut-tutting and declaiming 'Something must be done. It shouldn't be allowed..' 
As the full sordid tale emerged, politicians and vested interests leapt on the speeding bandwagon: Cameron had foolishly appointed a former News of the World editor as his communications chief; he had jolly country suppers with Rebekah Brooks. If he was to have any credibility at all, he had to bow to Ed Miliband's demands for a public inquiry. 
Whatever goes wrong in almost any sphere in this country you can depend on the Leader of the Opposition to call for a public inquiry. Generally these demands are brushed aside, but when they are successful, the result is invariably a long-winded and expensive investigation that rarely produces anything good or useful. (See previous blog post An Expensive Hiding to Nothing).
The Dowlers were hawked all over the shop: tea at No 10, meetings with Murdoch, and finally press conferences with Brian Cathcart's 'victims' group Hacked Off, whose most prominent members are Hugh Grant, J.K.Rowling and Kate and Gerry McCann. An interesting quartet.

Before 1994, few had heard of Hugh Grant. Then he was cast as a tongue-tied charmer in an engaging romcom. The film turned out to be a success, but our leading man seemed to  suffer a lack of confidence when it was released - to the extent that when it came to the premiere, he cast himself as an accessory to a pair of boobs, a sliver of black fabric and a collection of safety pins. Elizabeth Hurley and Versace left no one in any doubt about their objective that night: to reserve the following morning's front pages. It was calculated marketing, and there is no way that Grant was not a party to it. As a novice film star, he needed the press and the press obliged.
The country took Grant to its heart in the way that only sloppy Brits can - by mistaking the actor for the floppy-haired affable posh boy  he played. Grant and the film companies were equally happy to capitalise on  Four Weddings in similar films with a similar persona. Sadly, life offscreen wasn't quite the same. There was the Divine Brown fiasco (which he faced with refreshing candour and aplomb), the strange on-offness of the Hurley relationship, the dalliance with Jemima Khan and the brief affair that led to the birth of his daughter. None of this was of any business of anyone's but his. Except...
As the face of Hacked Off, Grant accepts that the public has a right to know if an MP espousing 'family values' is cheating on his wife or if a vicar has his hands in the collection pouch, but he feels that as a celebrity he is entitled to a private life and apparently that he should appear in the newspapers only when he wants to promote a film, which he does grudgingly.  But surely, if you make your living pretending to be an honourable Englishman and all-round good egg, it's not unreasonable for your audience to be told that actually you may not be.
Grant's assertions to Leveson that his phone had been hacked by the Mail on Sunday were rejected by the newspaper and described as "pure speculation" by the inquiry's counsel Robert Jay. Nor could he find offer any justification for linking a newspaper description of his flat with a break-in a short while before. Hardly concrete evidence of journalistic wrongdoing.
Yet Grant now has the ear of the Opposition, has been in regular contact with Harriet Harman, as she confirmed today, and felt it his right and duty to telephone members of the Shadow Cabinet over the weekend to urge them to push for firm regulation of the press. This is apparently quite OK. If, on the other hand, newspaper proprietors or editors put their case to  politicians of any colour that is special pleading.

J.K. Rowling has had more positive publicity than anyone could want: she is the woman who single-handedly persuaded a generation to return to books and an outstanding beacon for the under-privileged. Rowling's talent and business acumen have made her a billionaire and she has been listed as the 78th most powerful woman in the world. She shrewdly held on to the rights to her creation and oversees all marketing and merchandise; when she grants a newspaper interview, the contract is so watertight that the journalist concerned loses virtually all control of his or her words. 
She also told Leveson bout her suffering the hands of the press. One day her five-year-old brought home a batch of letters from school which turned out to include one from a journalist. There was no suggestion that anyone approached the child in person. Did she seriously think that some grubby hack had crept into the infants' cloakroom, found the child's satchel and snuck the note into it? Is it not far more likely that said journalist had asked a secretary or a teacher or a dinner lady to pass on the note? In which case, would Rowling's anger have been more reasonably directed at the school?

And then there were the McCanns, the couple who left their three children, aged three and one, untended in their holiday flat as they went out with friends to a bar 50, 70 or 100m away. When Madeleine vanished, every news organisation was on the parents' side; whenever they spoke, their words were reported in the hope of finding the child. Everyone held back from publishing  the thought that immediately jumped into every parent's head: 'What were they thinking of? I'd never leave my children alone'. None of us would want to be in their shoes, so the compassion overtook the disapproval: 'They must be feeling so guilty, so distraught....' The couple did  - and still do - everything they could to keep Madeleine's case in the limelight, and who can blame them? But if newspapers report every inch of progress in a police of investigation, are they not also obliged to record the less palatable events, such as the McCanns being seen as suspects?

So these are the spokespeople for the hacking victims, the group that wants to shackle the press. Ooh, sorry, the word shackle reminds me that I've forgotten someone: Max Mosley, Formula 1 boss and partaker in sado-masochistic orgies with prostitutes, who apparently doesn't mind talking about his sex life,so long as you don't suggest any Nazi overtones (he's sensitive about his surname and its connotations).

Hacked Off declared itself satisfied today with the deal announced in the Commons,  even though the restrictions are not as tough as Grant would have liked. Well hurrah! It's such a relief that these self-appointed guardians of people's freedoms, these people who have played the press so skilfully to their own advantage, are happy. Never mind the real victims - of thalidomide, of hospitals' incompetence, of systematic sexual and mental abuse, of carehome neglect  - who have achieved justice as a result of the dogged efforts of a free press, people who acknowledge  the importance of the newspaper campaigns and who want to make sure that others benefit in the future. 

We don't care for mob rule in this country. Courts listen to the victims of crime in considering an offender's sentence, but they do not consult the man whose house was burgled or the woman whose bag was snatched. We don't operate a blood money system whereby an offender can buy a lighter punishment with a donation to the victim's family.  And, in spite of the constant clamour, we have not reinstituted the death penalty. We don't heed the baying of the crowd because we put reason before emotion. Yet on this issue, our political leaders have kow-towed to  populism and paid more attention to indignance and ignorance  than to intelligence and insight.

Journalists are not professionals who have to produce certificates and  register with authorities to practice, they are tradesmen. Those who want to work on newspapers or magazines are well advised to take a college course, but  plenty are happy to set up their own websites or blogs  without any formal training or experience.  It's a bit like a  bricklayer who hasn't been taught how to  build a pier or do a herringbone pattern. He won't get a job on a building site, but there's nothing to stop him advertising his services on a card in the newsagent's. 
A journalist has no more right to go snooping into people's affairs than our bricklayer. Both are  bound by exactly the same laws of the land, including laws that forbid phone-hacking and protect people from being libelled or harassed. We don't need new rules especially for journalists - the whole point is that their rights and responsibilities are identical to those of every other citizen. 

Newspapers are struggling in this digital age, readerships are ageing;  sales and profits are falling, so that their journalists have to offer their efforts not simply on paper, but on the web, on tablets, on smartphones. Staffs are being slashed and quality is becoming harder to maintain. At the same time our amateur bloggers and tweeters can set their own agendas and devote the time and patience required to focus on particular issues unhindered by editor's demands, deadlines, print costs or Mr Cameron's royal charter. The Guardian and FT have spoken openly about abandoning print, and there are few who would bet on the traditional newspaper surviving beyond the next decade. The Mail and the FT have talked of moving their web operations to unregulated America. Others are likely to follow if they find restrictions in Britain unpalatable. None of this will help to improve the quality of our press.

News of the World reporters were unquestionably wrong to intercept people's telephones - as were those from all the other papers that indulged in the practice but have so far managed to keep their heads below the parapet. There are plenty of examples of despicable behaviour of which we should be ashamed. But newspapers are also capable of self-restraint: they respect news blackouts to protect kidnap victims;  they shy away from publishing offensive material, whether words or photographs, that are general currency on the internet. And of course, as we see from the MPs' expenses scandal, the expose of child sex grooming, the Mail's bravery over Stephen Lawrence, they can also do great good. People may like to imagine evil cigar-munching proprietors urging their minions on to ever more dastardly deeds to sell more papers, but in reality reporters just want to be first with a story and to serve their readers.

The proliferation of celebrity magazines and the TV schedules full of programmes such as Embarrassing Bodies, Through the Keyhole, You've Been Framed and Snog Marry, Avoid? suggest that privacy and intrusion don't worry the average Brit too much. The  Fool Britannia  television programme, described as a hidden camera show in which Dom Joly unleashes a host of pranks on unsuspecting members of the public has an audience of 2.5m. Indeed, it seems that we have become a nation of voyeurs with the ambition of becoming the watched rather than the watcher - no humiliation is too great if it means we can be on television. If we can't curb our appetite for this trash, it is no surprise that our 'caterers' will go to ever greater lengths to find titbits to satisfy us. We get the press and television that we want and deserve.
If we also want our newspapers - in whatever format - to expose wrong-doing, to call politicians to account, to focus on serious issues, we need to allow them to do their job with freedom and responsibility. If the price is the discomfiture of a few celebs, then so be it.

Let's go back to Milly Dowler for a moment. We know now that the reporter did not delete her voicemail messages, as at first suggested; we also know that the reporter told the police in 2002 - almost a decade before the scandal erupted - that he had hacked into her phone. In the furore of 2011, nobody would dare defend the hacking practice, but did anyone seriously believe the reporter's objective was to hinder the police inquiry or to dig dirt? It's a pound to a penny that he was hoping to pick up some little clue that would put him on the trail of the missing child and, with luck, bring the biggest scoop of all: 'We find Milly safe and well'. Would he have been the villain then - or the hero? Look at MPs' expenses. James Harding at The Times declined to buy the discs because it would have been handling stolen goods; The Telegraph said 'yes please.' One editor was feted with plaudits and gongs, the other lost his job. 

The Guardian's pursuit of Murdoch over the past three decades finally bore fruit with the hacking story. It exposed dreadful practices, bungling cover-ups and managerial incompetence. But from the moment the Dowler story was published, the cacophony of axes grinding has been drowning out common sense.
Today the 'something must be done' brigade won.
And the rest of us lost. 

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.