Archive for category Media

Press support, democracy and well resourced media.

Following on from James calling attention to the plight of National Collective and the need for diverse media voices, a link to a post by myself on the Edinburgh based Green media project POST, and a possible solution to Scotland’s democratic deficit. 

I am National Collective

Today sees the first threatened legal actions of the independence referendum campaign, with the following notice going up on National Collective’s Facebook page – their main site being down altogether. Update: you can donate to them here.

On the 9th April 2013, Lawyers-Collyer & Bristow acting on behalf of Vitol and multimillionaire and principal donor to ‘Better Together’ – Ian Taylor threatened legal action against the ‘National Collective’ claiming that it was grossly defamatory.

Aamer Anwar, Solicitor acting on our behalf stated:

“National Collective have instructed my firm to act on their behalf, they state that they will not be bullied or silenced and state that their website is offline only as a temporary measure for a few days. A detailed and robust response will be issued early next week along with further questions for the ‘Better Together Campaign’ .”

There will be no further comment until early next week.

If you wish to be advised of any further updates please contact our solicitors Aamer Anwar & Co., on 0141 429 7090 or at

This follows the breaking by National Collective of the story of Mr Taylor’s previous entanglements, as reported by the Guardian here and the Record here.

This is a major mistake by Mr Taylor, and, if they supported his action, by Better Together. First, all National Collective appear to have done is compiled publicly available information to paint a picture of his interests. I am obviously not a lawyer, but good luck with basing a court case on that.

Second, as one wag put it on Twitter, here’s the McStreisand Effect. However much an airing this dirty laundry has already had, it’s going to get ten times more if this legal action is real (and at least a couple of times more even if they decide not to proceed).

Third, when you’re trying to win hearts and minds, as I assume the Yoonyonisht Conshpirashy still are, then clamping down on free speech is probably not the right way to go about it. It’s like a TV or radio debate – if one side starts shouting, the neutrals will assume they’ve lost the argument as well as their rag. Doubly so with what looks like attempted censorship on this scale. Incidentally, there are rumours of equivalent legal action against both Wings Scotland and “Berthan Pete” – although I believe their shared bullying manner undermines the Yes campaign, that same right of free speech applies to them.


I am National Collective

Some carrots and sticks for the media

8340743611_3d8f22e6e9_zAs a society, our substantial problems with the news media include these two. For one, large chunks of them have behaved irresponsibly and illegally with regard to phone hacking and other offences.

For another, they’re dying off, especially the broadsheets. The Scotsman and the Herald and their Sunday sister titles are now not even being treated as national titles anymore, at their own request.

The year-on-year figures are atrocious: by December last the Scotsman was down to just over 32,000, and almost twelve months ago the Sunday Herald was barely at 26,000 – not even half of one percent of Scots bought a copy. Less than 5% bought the Record. I won’t be forgiven if I don’t point out that the P&J is somewhat bucking the trend (and the i), but there’s not much comfort there.

The reasons for the decline are well understood, in broad terms, and the consequences of dwindling readership are bleaker than might be assumed. Dwindling numbers of titles will be even worse, should that start happening nationally. I made some arguments about the causes and the consequences back in 2009: #1, #2.

The London tabs in particular are facing the first of two further sticks: existing court cases. That reflects the fact that newspapers are already regulated, in many senses, or at least circumscribed by law. Nothing that happens today could have stopped hacking, for instance, which entailed existing criminal acts for which jail terms are in some cases being served. Nor, as far as I can see, would it have brought longer sentences for such acts. Bribery of public officials, like the plod we also see going down in small numbers: that’s obviously also already an offence by both parties and should be enforced properly.

The second stick was actually two rods aimed at a broader target than just the miscreants: the Leveson/McCluskey proposals. To no-one’s great surprise, the latter of those rods has just been dropped by the SNP as quickly as they picked it up, not that that will resolve the political problems they face over media regulation.

As for Leveson, it’s a secondary question whether the system is voluntary or compulsory, by royal charter or statutory underpinning. The question should be will it deliver on the public interest here?

And putting the public interest first might point us in a different direction. The public have a legitimate interest in a whole number of “services” provided by newspapers, including those which provide the reasons for readers choosing to buy an individual paper (including entertainment and the reinforcement of readers’ own prejudices). Some of those interests are essentially only enough to justify individual purchases, but some of the “services” are genuinely socially beneficial, notably investigations.

Bare facts are free and easy to find. Analysis is freely available too, and sometimes better than the papers. For all that Lesley Riddoch, Iain McWhirter, Euan McColm, Alan Cochrane etc are first class, whether or not you agree with them, plenty of newspaper comment falls below the level set by bloggers like Kate Higgins, Peat Worrier or (for a bit of Westminster insight) former Labour spad Damian McBride.

But investigative work by the media generally is largely still with the papers, much as the quantity and quality could be much improved. And the benefits of the work that does get done are felt whether or not you buy a copy. You may never have bought a Telegraph in your life, but I am grateful to them for the comprehensive way they shed light on the casual greed and corruption of the MPs’ expenses system. God knows what the overall effect of Rob Edwards’ work is, closer to home, but you can bet it includes a cleaner Scottish environment and officials more afraid to act in secrecy and attempt to deceive the public. Free speech is both right in principle and an essential part of civic society’s autoimmune system.

So let’s start with a carrot. It’s not impossible to devise a kind of support system for a responsible media that might help protect both journalists’ jobs and that public interest in their work. The Norwegians have one system of both direct support and tax breaks, designed to protect their cities’ second papers from competition (h/t @thesocialforest). The French have supports too, briefly set out here.

It wouldn’t be beyond the wit of our legislators to devise a system that might work, although the Norway system costs more than £100m per annum, which would be a hard sell even with any self-interested media support that might be forthcoming.

You could set a rate for sold copies of papers plus a rate for page views – both have to be relatively accurately audited already to meet the needs of advertisers, so policing that shouldn’t be too hard. Freesheets are harder, admittedly. You could also make it proportional to each newspaper’s original non-paid-for content. You could make the funds available only for specific purposes or with specific conditions – the aim is to see journalism kept afloat, not the owner’s yacht.

It’s a big carrot, and I’d combine it with a very different and more limited stick, again guided by the public interest. There is such an interest in the good behaviour of the media, and it extends beyond that which can be constrained by the courts. Notably, we should be able to expect accuracy. Where a court (or even a semi-Leveson arbitration setup) finds that a paper has made a clear factual error to someone’s detriment, they should be required to print (and display online) the correction on the same page. Same page online means linked to just as prominently as the original piece, and for the same duration, on the front page (if appropriate) or whichever section pages the original featured on.

Another carrot to retain and enhance is the legally distinct status journalists enjoy – for example, qualified privilege, as discussed here. There are probably additional protections of this sort that could be considered, given again the public interest in papers being able to “publish and be damned” – with the caveat above about factual accuracy.

These moves might be combined in various ways: commit to correcting factual errors in that way and get the subsidy, for example. However, there is another problem of under-regulation, too, one which is being studiously ignored. Media ownership remains concentrated in the hands of a narrow elite of rich conservative men, with the odd honourable exception, and the print media continues to be used to promote the interests of rich conservative men. Even in these days of dwindling circulation, this matters. Papers do continue to set the agenda, amplified in many cases by social media.

This has to end. This form of ownership may even contribute to declining circulation – although many people enjoy reading papers which continually argue against their readers’ economic and political interests, others do not. The opportunities for that same elite to bend the laws in their favour are greater, yet the nature of the ownership class militates against their journalistic employees investigating them or their editorial employees running those stories – just think how long Robert Maxwell got away with it. What’s more, it’s the newsroom front-line that’s doing time for hacking and corruption offences: why not make owners accountable for criminal acts at their titles, too?

And it’s still extremely hard for newcomers to get into the sector. We need a return to tougher quotas for media ownership. It’s a problem that’s interrelated with hacking, as this great piece by Justin Schlosberg sets out. That won’t necessarily do more than divide the papers amongst a wider set of rich conservative men, so, more radically, Dave Boyle’s ideas on cooperative media ownership probably deserve proper consideration (declaration: he’s a mate).

So, in short, here’s a different model of media regulation and support, driven by the public’s legitimate interest in papers’ operations: support by circulation, compulsory fair corrections, protection for journalists’ legitimate investigative and reporting activities, and moves to tackle the distorting problem of papers being treated as rich men’s playthings.

Much of this, especially on ownership, would be seriously popular too, at least until the editorial special pleading began. The status quo looks like managed decline, at best, and these ideas may seem absurd. Let me have others, if you think that, or tell me why you think the survival of the papers doesn’t matter, wrong-headed as I’m convinced that is.

Leveson – a nightmare scenario for the SNP

A few months ago, First Minister Alex Salmond made the decision that the Scottish Government would decide how the Leveson proposals would be implemented in Scotland. No doubt with half an eye on the independence referendum, the opportunity to build a Scottish solution to a UK problem was simply too good to miss.
Today, given the Prime Minister has abandoned Leveson discussions with Labour and the Lib Dems, there will be a vote on Monday on whether Leveson will be underpinned by significant statutory legislation, as Miliband and Clegg prefer, or whether the press will get their own way with a Royal Charter, under Cameron’s proposals. The vote is expected to be very tight and the SNP may well hold a balance of power that it does not want.
Going by Evening Standard Paul Waugh’s calculations:
For a Royal Charter:
315 votes – Con + DUP + Ind
For statutory legislation:
314 votes – Lab + LD + Plaid + Green + SDLP + Alliance + Respect
As a matter of principle, the SNP does not vote on devolved matters, which Leveson patently is. However, if the six SNP MPs abstain on Monday, as they did for similar principles on the Equal Marriage vote a few months ago, then they will likely be handing David Cameron an important victory and opening the Nationalists up to charges of being Tartan Tories and helping ‘Salmond’s best buddy’ Rupert Murdoch.
It’s a bit of a nightmare lose-lose scenario, and the least worst solution is probably to vote alongside Labour and the Lib Dems, not to mention the McCanns.

The unbearable lightness of being petitioned.

Slavoj Zizek lecturing in Liverpool

Slavoj Zizek: Taking stock from the Eastern bloc

Another email into my inbox from one of several campaigning groups, asking me to lend me name to an undoubtedly worthy cause. The mechanisms of such campaigns are fairly familiar – an issue is located and a campaign started to make those who hold power realise that it is in their own interests to listen. It is a strange manifestation of a vaguely democratic mode of thinking with its basis in the idea of a benign but uninformed leader, or if you are more cynical, of a government desperately sensitive about the ability of single issues to define or destabilise.

It is similar to what Slavoj Zizek has called the humanisation of capitalism in his thinking on the way which society is required to ‘highlight’ certain issues through consumerism, the support of charity and the construction of individual everyday people as a moral guide in the behaviour of governments, corporations and institutions. It relies very heavily on the centrist addiction to general social doxa and public opinion which has come to define contemporary British politics, evidenced by the protestations of senior politicians that they are ‘listening’.

It must be said that dogma is just as dangerous as the apparent contemporary  lack thereof (though one might argue that centrism is a kind of dogma in itself). As Milan Kundera writes on the nature of mass protest in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”

The heart of Kundera’s argument is that any movement reliant on the orchestration of thousands of people shouting in union has closed its mind to the possibilities of dialogue, nuance, and independent thought. It is not desirable to live in a society in which problems are solved by shouting loudly – by protest instead of construction – even if we might happen to loosely agree with what is being espoused.

The same might be said for the process of governance by headline and petition. Pressuring politicians into making the decisions we might wish them to make implies a sense of resignation, or perhaps a lack of self-confidence, when it comes to thinking and speaking for ourselves.

To sign a petition asking the Prime Minister for clemency in one area or another is, on a purely functional level, a good thing. Demonstrably so in fact. The well-orchestrated campaign to save woodland in England and Wales proved that there is indeed a point in letter writing, and that governments do indeed care about what voters think, albeit perhaps only as a means of self preservation.

But to look at the genesis of these petitions is to understand how the spread and cultivation of political campaigns work. There are very few people who see politics as a distinct part of their identity, though they are generally good and fair-minded, and would indeed probably find their views in line with a particular political party when asked. By inviting people to lend their support to various worthy causes they become not instigators but respondents.

Furthermore, the petition-writing masses who operate on an issue by issue basis cannot fundamentally change the way in which a society works. This is why we have elections, and this is also why certain quarters are so terrified by the idea of the British parliament operating a system of fair elections. You might call it the illusion of empowerment. We are invited to approve or reject someone else’s ideas, but rarely are we asked by ourselves to produce a blueprint for the future.

Like Zizek’s analysis of the pitfalls of ethical consumerism, causing a bad government to make one fewer bad decision is as transformative as buying a cup of rainforest alliance coffee from a company which dodges billions in tax, and comes no closer to giving people the agency which should be their democratic right.

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