Thursday, 29 November 2012

Leveson? Believe it or not, papers have enough to contend with...

So Leveson has written his report, and as I write controversy is erupting about whether we should have a state-regulated press - but the reality is the press was never free.

As much as I love papers - the reason I have gone back into journalism - the fact remains that the explosive investigations you see in telly like State Of Play hardly happen. At least not in the way most people in the industry would want.

Why? Because reporters don’t have the legal protection, or the resources, to expose wrongdoing on a huge scale, or on a regular basis.

There is no enshrined protection for free speech in the UK, and the newspapers themselves are on many occasions fighting against market and financial pressures from the outset.

Anyone who thinks there is free speech in the UK is wrong - and you only have to think about what free speech really is to realise that. We often imagine free speech is something noble, like being Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and every time you exercise free speech it is some tub-thumping rally-raising speech which borrows deftly from Henry V. Actually it means we allow racists, homophobes, and all sorts of unsavoury types to say what they want. This is touted but not supported. For instance we have no real written constitution, and what we do have, the European Convention, reads like the morals of Spiderman - as written by a council employee:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary. (my use of bold)

With great half-arsed power comes great responsibility indeed. In fact for free speech to abide, we need to let scummers have their say, safe in the knowledge we can say something back. But instead we have introduced a raft of laws against “inciting” hatred. The law seems to decide that people are not intelligent enough to have their own common sense, and that for some reason we cannot take whatever a loony says with a pinch of salt – when on the contrary most of us do.

In America, the freedom of speech is protected by their constitution’s First Amendment. This specifically includes the press, putting off people who might want to hammer newspapers in court without a damn good reason. The claimant has to prove that the newspaper was both malicious and reckless in compiling its report. This means the doors are opened for stronger investigation by reporters, and fosters an image of reporting synonymous with prestigious accolades such as the Pulitzer Prize. And unlike the famed ‘libel tourism’ which takes place on our shores – because the laws are so stringent, the rewards largely uncapped and the onus entirely upon the defendant - in America, even if you win, you have to pay your lawyers.
Now I’m not saying this is some sort of utopia. Court cases have had to be re-scheduled and lawsuits have raged as a result. Roy Greenslade put together an attack on the American press in his blog on the Guardian website to illustrate this very point. He looked at how a paper in South Carolina, The State, seemed to point the finger of blame at a man before a trail had even gone ahead. However, a reply from an American reader said the example he used was a rare exception, rather than a rule for US papers.

Contrast this with the press in the UK. There isn’t the support in law, and libel lawsuits are rife as I mentioned. In fact, libel tourism means an American can take out lawsuits because an article, okay in his own country, has landed on our shores. Now I’m not saying that we should do away with the Defamation Act and the Contempt of Court Act – I think they have their merits for obvious reasons - but it means papers have more than enough to contend with. If the law does its job we shouldn’t have to worry.

This on its own would be fine, but the “chilling effect” of the law, and the power of the markets, can make things even more difficult for some of our country’s newsdesks. The centrepiece to Guardian reporter Nick Davies’ book, Flat Earth News, lays bare the unwritten rules which often constrain the nationals. Given half a chance, any right minded desk will break those rules where they can, and every day most of them will try to. It is fair to say that every day there will be some that succeed, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore this undue pressure. Why? Because it comes from Joe public – and I count myself in that number too. People eager to slam the press if they get it wrong, and happy to buy only what they want to read. I’ve certainly been guilty of those two things throughout this whole enquiry - jumping on the bandwagon, and reading the reports I want to believe – but this is the effect it has; the unwritten rules:

1) Run cheap stories – stories which are quick to churn out and safe in the sense they won’t cripple the paper with a lawsuit.

2) Select safe facts. Papers are often put off if an “official” source denies facts, even if it was a report of men, women and children being herded into a room and being shot by American troops in Iraq.

3) Avoid the electric fence – in other words don’t upset those with the power to disrupt media.... such as the law.

4) Select safe ideas which don’t offend popular opinion.

5) Always give both sides of the story; even if what the other side says is nonsense and clearly flies in the face of the facts.

6) Give them what they want – even if it is putting Beckham higher in the run of news than deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan

7) The bias against truth – there is not the taste for stories which have a mundane basis, and require sifting various facts. Often pieces are hooked around big events, and photo-friendly stories, rather than careful nit-picking through the facts to deliver a strong overview.

8) Give them what they want to believe in – keep up the revenues. Did your paper come out too strong against the Iraq war? Circulation suffering? Better reverse that position then, like the Daily Mirror.
9) Go with the moral panic. Enough said.

10) Ninja turtle syndrome. The argument is succinct. Ninja Turtles are rubbish. But if everyone has one you don’t want to be left out – the same often applies to news stories.

Now people and papers do fight their way through the gaps. They expose wrongdoing time and again, but not on the same regularity as any reporter, editor or proprietor would want deep down. The relationship can work as it is – the paper watches the parliament and the law, the law watches the papers and parliament, and parliament is free to publicly criticise the law and the papers. But, as the inquiry has shown, no two should be too close to one another.

If the law and Parliament drive the news agenda, next time your paper is delivered, it might not come in a plastic cover, but a straightjacket.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Can Fox News make you thick and thin at the same time?

It seemed like any other afternoon. But Andrea Tantaros shocked a nation when she became the week’s second news anchor to be struck down by NAFS.

Tantaros, co-host of Fox News show The Five made a light comment amid the gentle right-wing repartee. Amongst the usual casual fare, this time about the poor living off food stamps, she said:  “I should try it because, do you know how fabulous I'd look? I mean, the camera adds ten pounds. It really does. I would be looking great.”

But as the condition known as NAFS set in, it prevents her from justifying her alarming comment. Instead, it sounds as if she has decided food stamps are a new slimming plan for masochists. NAFS, or News Anchor Forgetfulness Syndrome (geddit?) freezes neurons like a snowman’s knackers - right at the moment a person should explain comments... comments which, on their own, sound like something uttered by things in your most shiver-soaked nightmares.

The reaction? What do you expect? Twitter, to begin with, lit up with the ferocity of a Hammer film lynch mob. Women’s site Jezebel said she deserved the heartless demon-lady award, saying of Tantaros “she giggled. She fucking giggled at the thought of slumming it that hard.”

Luckily, this cruel bout of NAFS later released its grip on Tantaros’ mind, and she used Twitter to explain what she was saying: “Food stamps were sold as a fitness plan to "look great" by our liberal, dense government - remember?”

She is actually right – bizarrely enough, there is an obscure radio advert which says someone looks great because they have been on the food stamps plan. Some might needlessly complicate the matter – saying perhaps she should have well, you know, made reference to the largely unnoticed advert to explain what she meant. Or maybe that there is a difference between “looking great” and losing weight. Thankfully, as the argument raged on, her very adult use of capitals on Twitter meant everyone could just SHUT UP.

Unfortunately NAFS affected another Foxreporter the same week. In this case, one brave news anchor forgot to reveal hitherto unknown information – this time to justify a seemingly sexist comment.

Brian Kilmeade said to a caller, when they asked how Fox assembled its news team, that they opened a Victoria's Secret catalogue, and then checked if they could talk and went to college.

NAFS stopped Kilmeade from explaining himself, halting his many quick-witted neurons from justifying what he said. What people didn’t know was that a fellow anchor, Kimberly Guilfoyle, actually was a Victoria’s Secret model years ago. Luckily, this small missing piece of information somehow found its way into the papers in the next couple of days. Some might say it was coincidence, and that reporters happened to look into something on the back of Kilmeade’s bonkers comment – that perhaps he knew nothing about Guilfoyle. Some might say we don’t need to know anything like this about Guilfoyle herself, and that the past is the past. Even more might say was that even if Kilmeade was armed with this information, and explained it on air, what he said was sexist. I would say that these jelly-legged girly-men don’t appreciate the important house-style of Fox punditry, or appreciate how NAF is triggered.

NAFS - the cause

So how does my not-at-all fictional NAFS come about? I think it is from the ongoing stresses Fox presenters tirelessly endure, to bring people the best in 24-hour punditry. Punditry means you have to have some sort of opinion, and at Fox it may well mean you have to run this in line with a memo sent down by Fox management, who clearly want the best for their media teams, and to guide them in the kindest way that they can. The writer of Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, highlights one which said everyone had to refer to the “political courage and practical cunning” of the Bush administration throughout one particular day. I’m sure that, caught in amongst all these news stories you have to report on, this particular insight is easy to forget. But the memo is a great way of getting people to remember what’s important. And fun too: like a news version of Balls of Steel.

And an additional stress will have been caused by the mean and nasty things being said about everyone at Fox News. All these “studies” by “academics” and their “facts.” In one of these, the University of Maryland ran a survey on the channel’s viewers to find out the effects of the channel on its audience back in 2004. It said that 67 per cent of respondents thought Saddam Hussein had ties with Al Quaeda – as opposed to 56 per cent at CBS, 49 at NBC, and 16 per cent who just listened to NPR (formerly National Public Radio). Thirty-three percent of Fox viewers had thought Iraq had WMD, when just 11 percent of radio listeners thought this was the case. Meanwhile 35 per cent of Fox fans thought the world wanted the USA to have its war with Iraq, as opposed to 5 per cent NPR.

Equally, they need to deal with mixed and totally unfair attacks on their channel which actually say it makes people thick. These allegations followed two tests of people’s knowledge conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University. Although researcher Prof. Dan Cassino stepped in to rebuff some interpretations of his findings, many of which had said that Fox News makes people stupid, his mincing of words, well, make it worse:
“Overall, Fox viewers were not better or worse than the average respondent at answering the questions. That said, and all salient variables being geekily controlled for, there was not merely a zero effect but a negative effect of Fox News on viewers' ability to answer the questions; meaning that Fox viewers would have done better had they been using almost any other news source, or no news source at all. Results for the similarly partisan MSNBC were... well, similar.”(my italics)

Quickly Fox responded. “Considering FDU's undergraduate school is ranked as one of the worst in the country, we suggest the school invest in improving its weak academic program instead of spending money on frivolous polling – their student body does not deserve to be so ill-informed.” Yay Fox! You hit that professor – and about 12,000 students who had nothing to do with the research – where it hurts. And well done on striking back using a sound, reasoned argument.

But things have more recently been made worse by a self professed “mole” called Joe Muto, who had hidden amongst the rank and file at Fox, and stepped forward with his own shocking “opinion”. I’m sure some might say he was on some sort of Democratic mission to destroy the channel, drunk on West Wing box sets. “The people at Fox are not stupid,” he said to the Huffington Post. “They know when they have Dick Morris or one of these other pundits on predicting a landslide victory for Romney, the people behind the scenes know that it's all bluster. They know that this is sort of an entertainment. They know that a lot of these people are just hucksters ... we producers know that this is all a farce. The reason we don't step in and give a reality check to our audience is because that's terrible for ratings.”

Nonsense. How could I possibly share conclusions with this man? I mean, like I told that survey, Romney won... didn’t he?