Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Press Freedom and Leveson

Blog 38
February 2013

James Watson
Friends and contributors

 A new look: The Watsonworks blog has been re-designed by
the Ed’s daughter Francesca in the interests of simplicity, clarity
and taste. Its particular virtue is that website and blog are linked;
how is beyond me, but it’s certainly convenient and a bit of a marvel

Thanks go to the redesigner for her fortitude and forebearance.

Leveson: which tree are we talking about?
Quote of the Month
Notes in Passing: Battling Birgitte
Poems of Place (17) Return to Greece
The Baslow Letters (Cont.)
Picture of the Month

 Leveson: which tree are we talking about?
The article on the Leveson Report in Blog 37 prompted some interesting correspondence on aspects of press freedom and the proposals to rein in that freedom with a supervising body with legal teeth. Emails have been edited.

Dear Ed.,
Your article, rightly in many ways, argues that press freedom is a treasure to be valued – but above all other values? Surely that freedom needs to be balanced by responsibility, and yes, putting a value, a benchmark, on principles such as objectivity and balance.
We are not living in the 19th century when the press was subjected to strict laws of censorship. Freedom of expression is what we’ve got, in the main and, considering the Internet, the diversity of means of expression eludes most efforts at censorship.
Our main point is that your article ignores the personal and family suffering caused when a rampant press, feasting on juicy headlines, makes the lives of victims, be they royalty, celebrities or members of the public suddenly in the eye of news, a misery.
In such circumstances, surely the individual has a right to seek redress without having to have recourse to expensive lawyers? Such an institution as Leveson proposes deserves to be more seriously considered than it is in your article.
Ron & Ann Murray.

Dear Watsonworks,
You too lightly dismiss the case made by the National Union of Journalists for an ‘anti-bullying’ agreement. Some of the stories of management bullying of reporting staff seem to me to demand action. Evidence to Leveson about the pressure Murdoch’s papers exert on staff to turn news into sensation is frightening. It threatens professional integrity and if it’s allowed to continue will reduce journalism to an adjunct of the criminal class.
Elaine Bennett

Dear JimBlog,
I’m all for freedom of expression. It’s a good principle at any time, whether it’s in parliament, in the media, in schools or on Facebook or Twitter. But does it mean unlimited freedom? Forget the case, often cited, of shouting ‘Fire!’ in a packed cinema, but what about the PC constraints that occur when religion is the topic of the moment? We should be free, as you seem to suggest, to express our opinions, or critiques, of what others hold dear – yes? But we should also be aware of the consequences of such free speech. Sometimes these result in riots, sometimes death (of the innocent as well as the guilty). Then where do you stand as far as free speech is concerned?
Yours, Alan Marsh.

Dear Ed.,
The press knows it’s dying. It realises that fewer people than ever before read newspapers, and that a generation has grown up, and is growing up, for whom the press is an irrelevance. Sensation is all it’s got to hang on to. Bullying editors are themselves as vulnerable to pressure as football managers. If Leveson has his way, it’ll just be another kiss of death for the press.
Sincerely, JRC.

Dear Jim,
I agree that there is already a vast amount of legislation designed to curtail freedom of expression, not just in relation to the press but in terms of what we as individuals can say or write. Cameron makes a good point that, while current authorities might handle new legislation curtailing press with moderation and good sense, it is no guarantee that tolerance will prevail in future.
Helen Arnold.

To Watsonworksblog 37
Is a million quid, of whatever Leveson and his inquiry has cost the taxpayer, worth the fuss? It’s not going to happen. The pressures of media corporations, in particular Murdoch’s empire, are too great for governments of any hue to attempt to curtail them. Every government is desperate for a supportive press (It was the Sun ‘what won it!’). In 12 months’ time Leveson will be mentioned on a TV quiz show and nobody will be able to remember who he was and what he was up to.
Never fear – Rupe will be back, and with a vengeance.

 To Watsonworksblog,
It amazes me to hear protests about the press and politicians, the press and the police etc. How else can a reporter get the facts of a story unless he or she persuades by one means or another those with vital information to divulge it? Okay, draw the line at paying for information. There’s already a law about that anyway. It’s still in my view vital that reporters protect their sources otherwise those sources will shut their mouths for ever. Yet there are those who argue for punitive laws to force journalists to betray their contacts. In other words, transparency would risk reducing news content to official handouts.
Ben Chamberlin.

Thanks all!

 A response to respondents
We’d probably all agree that freedom of expression is never guaranteed; that to today it is not only curtailed by laws but by cultural pressures. In the final week of January Murdoch put aside his commitment to free speech when Gerald Scarfe’s Sunday Times cartoon portraying the Israeli premier plastering a wall with cement mixed with Palestinian blood and body parts. This he found ‘grotesque and offensive’ and apologised, as of course did the acting editor of the paper. Scarfe regretted the timing of the cartoon on Holocaust Day.
      What is the message here? The accusation is that the cartoon, by attacking Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, was unfairly (and tastelessly) drawing parallels with the Holocaust, which makes it anti-Semitic, in consequence deserving to be censored. Comparisons may be odious but they are unavoidable. The slaughter of the Jewish people during the 2nd World War has no parallel in terms of scale, but surely the lessons learnt have implications for present and future. In this context it is justifiable to ask, have not the Palestinians a lengthy history of repression at the hands of Israel?
      As for the government’s proposal to create a press watchdog backed by royal charter, a justifiable thumbs-down was offered by Kate and Gerry McCann on the Andrew Marr show. Such a proposal was, in Kate’s view, ‘a compromise of a compromise’. The government claims that it wants as hands-off approach; nothing could be more hands-on than a royal charter.

 Quote of the month
The British press has proved time and time again over the past decades that it is incapable of regulating itself, and after recent revelations about the lengths to which tabloid newspapers will go just to sell copies, one thing is blatantly obvious: not that the freedom of the press needs to be curbed, nor that it needs to be balanced with other rights, such as the right to privacy, but that the press itself is anything but free…

As well as freedom of the press from the state, we also need freedom of the press from the market. The state remains a potential threat, of course, but corporations now have unprecedented and unaccountable power. The battle for liberty and democracy has moved on, and the definition of press freedom needs to move with it. The problem is that while the free market is the best guarantee of freedom from the state, freedom from the market can be achieved only by some intervention from the state.
Simon Dawes, ‘Protecting Press Freedom From the Market: The UK Press After the Leveson Report’, Truthout, 25 January 2013.

 Notes in passing: Battling Birgitte
The Danish political drama, Borgen, is a reminder that government by coalition is a slippery business. Within hours of an initiative being driven into shape there is fallout, backsliding, promises of cooperation put into reverse. One minute the PM, Birgitte Nyborg, is flying, the next plummeting to earth like Icarus.
      The TV series is also a reminder of global recession. There are cuts in Copenhagan, the retirement age is being ratcheted up, there’s controversy over tax handouts for private health.
What a relief, then, for Birgitte to get on a plane to Africa to fulfil the calling of statesperson rather than politician being hunted from pillar to post by Denmark’s equivalent of the tabloid press and some double-dealing colleagues and allies. Given a head of diplomatic skill and sleepless labour on the part of her staff, Birgitte pulls off a remarkable peace deal.
      The parallel with UK prime ministers cannot be accidental. Our own leaders love being abroad – anywhere but among the whingeing, ungovernable Brits. They feel their wings; no doubt command respect: this sort of thing is what they came into politics for. The difference is that Borgen is fiction. Being honest fiction it will not sustain Birgitte’s image as a canny politician for long.
      Of course TV drama of this kind speeds things up, accentuates and possibly exaggerates the stress, not the least the strain brought about by a job that mercilessly abuses personal and family life. Even when Birgitte finds time for her children, scarcely a moment goes by when she is not interrupted by calls on her mobile.
      If the writers and production team of Borgen were sat down in a phone-less room, with the doors locked against the outside world, it’s arguable that a rare coalition of agreement might emerge that modern communications technology was turning politicians into robots, responsive to routines but incapable of finding the time, the inclination or the clarity to think things through. In short, sailing by the seats of their pants in a climate of instant decision-making and interpersonal squabbling.
 This lesson for politicians is constantly implied yet more overtly moralising on the part of Borgen’s production team is the collision between the public and the personal. Birgitte learns there’s a 50 week national health waiting list for treatment of her seriously ill daughter.
 She goes private, prompts a storm of accusations from the tabloid press, but then does a very singular thing. She does not resign as PM in order to care for her daughter; she steps aside for her deputy, with every intention of returning to her post when her daughter’s health improves – a solution as wise as it is rare. News has it that in the next series that wisdom rarely prevails over conflict for very long.

Poems of Place (17)


As for the Acropolis,
I wondered whether I was suffering
From a case of seen-it-before;
Though the Parthenon stirred me
Despite the scaffolding, the crowds
And the hint of drizzle in the air.
     Yet to be frank
     I didn’t feel a poem coming on.

As for the Archeology Museum
I experienced nothing but delight
Whether I gazed on Cycladic or Classical Severe,
Votive reliefs in Boetian stone
Or the Lady of Kalimnos fished from the sea.
      Yet to be completely honest,
      I didn’t feel a poem coming on.

As for Delphi, mystic sanctuary,
I had better expectations, for here
Some of my own history lay
In pieces like the treasures of Attica
Amidst the radiance of flowers.

In lieu of a poem coming on
I issued a heartfelt invitation
To one among those myriad spirits
That wait beneath the temple stones
For the Oracle to keep its promises,
To meet me again under the olives
Stroll beside me once more
Circling with me hand in hand
The Tholos of Athene, just like then,
Help me write a better line
Than any I can compose alone.

Or if you prefer, considering the day too hot,
Let’s rest beneath these stupendous rocks,
Watch the lizard bask on marble steps,
And live again the moment when
A donkey’s hooves tapped out our evening walk
And an old lady gave you a sprig of rosemary,
Bid us ‘Kalispera’, leaving us a poem
As lasting as these monuments to hope.

The Baslow Letters (cont)
Readers have been enquiring by phone and email about the availability of tickets for the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Grand Arts Festival to be held in August. Though initially a modest enterprise, the organising committee’s ambition to give the festival an international feel has had a number of confirmations from some notable celebrities that they will be willing to contribute their talents, at a modest fee plus complimentary tickets for friends and family. Among such notables is the artist Billy Blake who has been in touch with Planning Committee Secretary Ned Baslow about scenery painting for Mig Cervantes’ epic musical, The Visions of Don Quixote.

Dear Mr. Blake,
I am very sorry to hear of the trouble you’ve been having with the management of the British Museum with regard to your Nebuchadnezzar painting (the one with him scrabbling crazily and shamelessly on all fours, with his hair growing out of all parts), and that it has proved bad for business.
      That the British Museum should be reluctant to, in their words, ‘rush in’ to altering the title of the painting before it can do further damage to Nebuchadnezzar’s image leaves me and my wife Betty (who’s presently doing an Open University degree in the arts) breathless at their pig-headed bureaucracy, but I can say with confidence that such disrespect for genius is not a characteristic to be associated with the Wickerstaff-cum-Fairhaven International Festival of the Arts.
     As our chairman Councillor Gilbert Stokoe OBE (Lord Gilbert as we affectionately call him), has said, ‘Our mission is to raise up artists of all kinds presently down on their luck’. To this end we have engaged the musical talents of the composer W.A. Mozart, of Eine Kleine Nacht Music fame who at this moment is putting Senior Cervantes’ epic story, Don Quixote to music, with the support of Spexsaver’s Opticians (midland branch).
     Which brings us to the good news that the festival committee is happy to consider your ideas for a backdrop of windmills, preferably white and any sketches you may have to hand of ruined castles and the squalid interior of inns etc.
  Naturally Lord Gilbert has insisted that your designs  ‘be kept within the bounds of decorum’ considering that our audience will be made up of the elderly, the young and impressionable as well as the fox-hunting fraternity. The main thing is to avoid depressing images, in particular no reference should be made to the current parlous state of Spain.
   As soon as you confirm this offer, I will send further details, including the  measurements of the stage at St. Olaf’s. This is rather on the cramped side though it can look bigger than it is with a careful application of perspective.
Yours etc.
Ned Baslow,
Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Panto and Light Opera Society
In association with the Wickerstaff Indoor Bowls Club
In association with Gilbert Stokoe Enterprises
Sponsors: Cradle to the Grave Fish and Chip Restaurant; Parthenon
Greek Takeaway; St. Olaf’s Mixed Voice Choir; The Lord Cromwell Bowls and
 Darts Club, Fernhaven Sewing, Tapestry & Church Cushion Society etc.

Email the Editor: Watsonworks@hotmail.co.uk

Picture of the Month
Derry: where are they now?