I was given a free copy of The Times on my train journey from Hereford to Birmingham City University this morning. I’d decided not to buy my usual daily copy in a rather futile protest against the continuing employment of Rebekah Brooks (I suspect she’s getting her own back by not reading this).
I am glad, though, that I did take one because it allowed me to read the rather self-serving leader piece about the role of illegal activity in journalism. “News International,” says The Times, “is paying a high price for its hacking scandal. There will now be broader questions about journalistic techniques.”
The leader writer goes on to explain that ‘some of the greatest journalistic exposes in history were achieved using methods that could now be, and sometimes at the time were, challenged by the police ot taken to court.’ The article’s examples are the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation, Clive Ponting’s whistle blowing over the sinking of the Argentine ship the Belgrano, the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about MPs’ expenses and the Guardian’s publication of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables which led to US soldier Bradley Manning facing criminal charges.
All these did involve newsgathering techniques that might be seen on one level as questionable but in each case there is a clear public interest in the publication of the material that was gained. The same cannot be said of much of the information collected by hacking the ‘phones of the Dowler family, or the families of service personnel killed in Afghanistan. Each revelation in the scandal in which the Murdoch empire is now mired seems to plumb new depths. What possible public interest could there be in revealing details of Gordon Brown’s son’s illness?
The Times piece rightly says, “Embarking on an investigation, journalists need to ensure that the methods they use can be justified by the motivation and the outome.” It might have added that in circumstances where journalists are tempted to stray, editors must show stong leadership and be ready to take responsibility. Today’s leader doesn’t say that so it’s a shame that Rebekah is more likely to read The Times than this.
Interesting piece in The Times on Monday about some jurors using Facebook to run polls on whether the accused in trials they are hearing are guilty or not. Rather puts a new spin on ‘throwing the book’ at someone. In a letter the next day Frances Quinn, author of the excellent ‘Law for Journalists’ pointed out that this was worrying evidence that jurors are making up their minds before hearing all the evidence. She went on to say that judges needed to ensure jurors understood clearly the nature of their duty, especuially as Contempt of Court carries the possibility of a prison sentence.
I’d like to add a couple of thoughts. First, the day the Quinn letter appeared I was in court with my latest batch of postgrad broadcast journalism students. Many of them opted to sit in on a murder trial, assuming it would be exciting. What they heard was lots of police evidence (and some cross examination) about pictures of the scene of the alleged crime. In the end even the judge ventured to suggest the jury had probably had enough and must be wondering if they were taking part in some kind of ‘spot the difference’ competition. To their credit the jury members stayed awake throughout – though I’m not sure I could say the same about the students! It underlined how much the system demands of jurors but God forbid we ever reach a stage where we believe it would be better to do without them.
Secondly, the whole business of Facebook polls, jurors doing online research and even Tweeting about ongoing cases, serves as further evidence that in the area of Contempt in particular the law is now well outpaced by social media. We saw it over super injunctions and we see it here. Judges have always adopted the view that juries are smart enough to put from their minds anything they might have read or heard about an offence – or even an alleged offender – in the pre-trial period. What weight, though, does that have in the light of the latest revelations about what some of the twelve good people and true might be up to?
If Tweeters and now jurors are flouting the law on Contempt how much longer can we justify the mainstream media being bound by it. I’m happy to stick to reporting restrictions whiledoing so ensures a fair trial on – and only on – the evidence heard by the jury. If they’re not taking the job seriously we may as well have a free for all. Back in 2006, in another Times piece, Magnus Linklater suggested that the Contempt of Court Act was ‘The law that was abolishing itself’. Who’d argue with that view now?
Well maybe not so young but I am going East, flying out on Saturday for my fourth trip to India in the last 13 months. I’ll be running some broadcast news production workshops in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. I’m really looking forward to it, largely because India is such an interesting place in terms of media and journalism…..as well as all the other things that make it such a fascinating country.
It’s a nation where the print media is strong and papers like The Hindu have added extra editions in the last year. There are countless television stations and lots of speculation that the Government will allow radio stations to carry news. Mobile ‘phone penetration is good but growth in PC ownership is slow. All that means India has the opportunity to ‘manage’ the growth of electronic media in a way that didn’t happen in the west where the explosion online swept away circulation. How the future pans out in India will be well worth watching even if it may be too late for us to mlearn from it!
The other delight is the way young journalists and journalism students at places like the Asian College of Journalism, Anna University (Chennai) and Christ University (Bangalore) see their role in the world’s biggest democracy.
I’m looking forward to working with more of them in the next week or so