Thursday, 21 June 2012

Potentially the best episode of Leveson yet

Forget Murdoch, forget Cameron, forget even momentarily the revolving door of celebrities. Next week's Leveson Inqury session promises to be one of the most fascinating yet.

The journalist who reported that Lord Justice Leveson himself had threated to quit over Michael Gove's apparent attack on the Inquiry is expected to give evidence.

Part of this seems a little sinister: A Judge currently holding inquiry into press having the power to summon a reporter who wrote an unfavourable story to answer for his insolence seems a bit heavy-handed.

But then when you actually read what the report says, you have to wonder whether this threat to quit actually happened, and how the reporter will bat away accusations of spin.

Reading the story rather than the headlines, we see it is based on an unnamed Government insider saying they got the 'clear impression' Leveson was 'ready to resign' unless Gove stopped attacking the Inquiry. 

Needless to say a you can get an impression that someone is ready to quit without them saying just that. Particularly if you are an unattributed source for a story. 

Matters are complicated the very next unnamed source, who says there was a call made by Leveson to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, but no threat to quit. Who to believe?

I doubt there would be any question of revealing sources' identities, nor should there be.

But given that it report centres on a call made by Leveson himself to the Government, at least one party to that conversation will presumably be willing to give an account of it.

If this differs significantly from the Mail on Sunday, it will be fascinating to see how it pans out.

Hopefully a note was kept of the Leveson-Heywood phone conversation, otherwise it will be a case of accepting one person's word over another.

But assume for one moment that no threat was made, the report would be a text book example of how paper can report something inaccurate while giving the impression that it was.

In the headline, the phrase 'Threat to Quit' is in inverted commas, so it is being presented as a claim not fact.

The first line is that Leveson "threatened to quit after he was publicly criticised by a Cabinet Minister, senior Government sources claimed last night [emphasis added]."

Again it is not being claimed that Leveson threatened to quit. Just that an unnamed source said he did.

Then we get the quote, which, as I said above, talks of an having an impression Leveson was 'ready to quit' not that he had explicitly threatened to quit.

Finally we get the other quote denying the threat was made.

So really the newspaper is just reporting a rumour of significant interest, but also including a denial of that rumour. Who could argue with that, or even say it was untrue?

The point is that it gives an impression that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Again assuming no threat was made, we get a story that gives the overwhelming impression that one was made, but without explicitly saying reporting that.

It's hardly a novel tactic, and certainly not the most heinous crime in newspaper history.

But now Leveson is the subject of a story and the author is being asked to account for it, it wil be intriguing to hear the explanation.

And yes, if there really was a threat to quit, I'm here for your derision.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The chilling atmosphere created by Leveson

With all the fuss about Lord Justice Leveson's reported 'threat to quit'** over Michael Gove's comments, it is worth looking again at the words that prompted this response.

The remarks in question were made by the Education Secretary in a speech to the press gallery earlier this year, when Mr Gove warned of "a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression which emanates from !he debate around Leveson."

This idea that free expression could be stifled by the mere debating of Leveson rather than the imposition of his eventual recommendations, seemed a novel one at the time, but only with this latest row did I decide to look into what Gove meant.

Free speech has become the motherhood and apple pie of the Leveson inquiry - with no one declaring themselves to be opposed to it, and being seen as being against it is undesirable to say the least.

So it seems important we get some examples of this "chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression"?

After all, if the Leveson Inquiry, which I generally take to be a good thing, is said to have an impact which I generally take to be a bad thing, I would like to know more.

So too did the Inquiry. When they asked Mr Gove to expand on the remarks and give evidence. Mr Gove responded:

"In the conversations I have had with journalists and others in the last few months I have been struck by their feelings that there is a desire on the part of influential figures, politicians, lawyers and celebrities to use the debate around this Inquiry to inhibit free speech and journalistic investigation.
"I have been struck by the concerns expressed by journalists on a range of titles that such publicly expressed external pressure is all in favour of greater restraints on, or regulation of, the press, while the voices strongly in favour of press freedom have been restricted to journalists whose arguments could easily be presented as simple self-interest. For the benefit of the Inquiry I enclose an account of the relevant passages of my speech which I believe to be accurate."

But the notes from his speech offer no further evidence, nor was this specific point addressed in these terms during his appearance before the Inquiry.

So to be exact, the chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression is at present being demonstrated by journalists, well, expressing their view that the evidence given to the inquiry has been somewhat one-sided.

Not quite what I thought Michael Gove meant, however valid such views may be.

In fairness to Mr Gove he states in his evidence that his Press Gallery speech was done without notes so dwelling on his exact formulation of words could be overdoing it.

Yet since so many reports picked up this "chilling" line, one would presume if he had been misinterpreted, he would have said so by now.

One day there will be a debate about whether Leveson's eventual proposals threaten the free expression of views, but needless to say that debate will only kick off in earnest when we have those recommendations.

Only then will we be able to assess whether it is a case of chilling, deep-freezing or even microwaving freedom of speech.

**Blog post hopefully to follow on this point.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Mail on Sunday corrections: Quantity not quality

There I was, all set to write a quick follow up post to last week's piece on the Daily Mail corrections column, looking instead at the Mail on Sunday.

Given the figures I found, it would have said something along the lines of, 'Less marked decline in corrections, therefore perhaps less bad than Daily Mail. etc. etc'.

Then came yesterday's corrections.

In one we are asked to believe that by reporting how a freelance worker supposed mentioned a willingness to work nude on her CV, that they didn't mean to give the impression this women was willing to work nude.

Then we are asked to believe that reporters 'forgot' to mention that the reporters won an iPad, and iPod Nano and some flowers on the website rather than just a fishbowl as reported. (See Tabloid Watch for more)

Neither is credible, and it just goes to show that printing corrections is one thing, expressing sincere remorse that indicates lessons have been learnt is another.

But since I went to the trouble of totting up the figures, (again using this record of the corrections) and making the graphs, I may as well publish them.

Compared to the Mail, we can see not only that the decline is less steep, but also that there have been several weeks where the Sunday paper prints more corrections in a week than its Monday to Friday sister paper.

The only thing that stands out from the Mail on Sunday figures is that the weeks when no corrections are published have become a bit more frequent.

As I said about the Daily Mail, this could be because the paper is raising standards but, on the strength of what we saw yesterday,  I have my doubts...

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Most insincere newspaper correction ever?

Much has already been said about the slightly odd correction in this week's Mail on Sunday.

The paper apologises for wrongly claiming that a budding broadcaster, Stephanie O'Keeffe, struggled to read prepared scripts on shifts at Radio 5Live.

Regret is also expressed that the paper gave a misleading impression about the nature of Ms O'Keeffe's CV.

"Our report could also have been taken to suggest that Ms O’Keeffe obtained her BBC work by submitting a CV that contained her vital statistics and expressed a willingness to work nude.

"That was not our intention and we are sorry for any misunderstanding or embarrassment these errors may have caused."

The MoS may have taken down the article. But one of the benefits of people rehashing content all over the internet is that it is still available here.

Regarding the CV, the original piece stated: "But Ms O'Keeffe - whose CV includes skills as a model, lists her chest and waist measurements as 32in and 23in and even specifies that she is willing to perform nude - lasted only two shifts at radio station 5Live."
and continues:

"Ms O'Keeffe will not be returning to 5Live any time soon - but she will not be forgotten by colleagues.

"Her online CV, which features pictures of herself, has been circulated among staff after some of them downloaded it."

How exactly could the phrase "...and even specifies that she is willing to perform nude" not be intended to give the impression to readers as that this person was signifying to potential employers a willingness to undertake such work?

Does the paper takes its readers for fools? Oh.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The slow death of the Daily Mail's correction column

The Daily Mail's correction column is being killed off, or so the initial evidence suggests.

When announced to much fanfare by Paul Dacre back in October during the initial Leveson inquiry seminars, few knew quite what to make of the column.

Was this a sign that the paper had turned a corner, taking on the critics of its frequent lapses in accuracy? Or was this all for show, an attempt to give a thin veneer of credibility to largely unchanged practices?

We may not have the answer to that particular question, but the corrections column has been around long enough to assess how much it actually gets used. Below is the number of corrections printed per week in the Daily Mail, (as totted up using this site) since the launch of the corrections column until the end of May.

Since Christmas, a paper running six editions a week, has only printed more than five corrections across those six issues once. While the first week was characterised by a glut of corrections, the second week and all those since have been somewhat less candid by comparison.

To put it another way, in November - the first full month of the column - there were 12 editions without a corrections column. In April there were 19, and in May there were 20.

This in itself does not mean that the paper has abandoned any commitment to corrections. After all the paper could just simply be making less fewer mistakes, suggesting that the existence of the column has prompted the paper to raise its game.

Short of going through and factchecking every last line of the paper we don't really have much way of telling this. However it is worth noting that there has been no consistent decline (or increase) in the number of resolved complaints against the Daily Mail via the PCC.

Here is a graph of resolved complaints about the Daily Mail under Clause 1 of the PCC code, which deals with accuracy.

Yes complaints dropped off in February and March, but began to rise again in April and May, leaving us with no clear trend over the months in question - not that there are any particularly strong conclusions trying to measure newspaper accuracy this way.

Of course all this needs to be properly researched by someone who isn't doing it in their spare time. As it stands it raises important questions about how committed the publisher is to higher standards, which in turn has resonance with the issues currently being addressed by Lord Justice Leveson.

If any reforming zeal and commitment to higher standards displayed by a paper like the Mail shows signs of dissipating a few months down the line, can anything ever be done to make this passing enthusiasm a permanent feature of the press?

This is not to completely dismiss the Mail corrections column. The Sun, The Times, The Express, and so on don't have regular them, and The Guardian's is much further back in the paper.

While there is something laudable about having the column, the evidence that the Mail is committed to it as anything other than window dressing is so far lacking.


For some reason I can't work out how to upload the spreadsheet I worked on as a link in blogger.

If you know how please leave a comment explaining it. Also if you want a copy of what is a very crude spreadsheet, get in touch on Twitter.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

What is it with the Daily Mail and gay marriage polls?

Once again the Daily Mail has skewed its reporting of gay marriage polling.

On Friday the paper covered a survey commissioned by Catholic Voice canvassing the LGBT members of society for their views on gay marriage.

The headline claimed that just over a quarter of respondents said they would marry should the law be changed.

As covered on The Guardian's Reality Check & Full Fact, what the question actually asked was whether those surveyed would marry their current partner if the system changes. (see table 2 on page 3 of the report.)

The headline therefore is almost as silly as asking straight people if they think they will marry their current partner, and then presenting the findings as support for the institution of marriage in general.

This is just the latest in a series of headlines that have put a spin on what poll findings tell us about support for gay marriage..

Last year the paper claimed cobbled together a story claiming most Britons opposed gay marriage when a) the stats were from 2006 and b) the for/against split was 46% in favour 45% against.

After a complaint, the paper published a correction.

But in a similar vein the Press Complaints Commission received a complaint about another dodgy headline on the subject.

A headline in the paper claimed that another survey showed "most Britons" opposed gay marriage, when the percentage was 47 per cent.

Thankfully the Mail is free to take whatever view it likes on the issue of gay marriage, whether I or you agree with them is immaterial.

But taking a clear view on an issue and consistently putting an unsupportable spin on poll findings on the subject  is a different thing all together.

Is it too much to ask that whatever the post-Leveson regulation landscape looks like, publishers, while free to take sides, will at least have to do this within the hardly-constricting confines of the facts? 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Comedy: The collective noun of error

It may seem churlish to hone in on the Guardian's corrections column once again, particularly as I have previously said the paper is one of the best at making amends for mistakes.

However, this one I could not resist for pure amusement value coming as it did from a review of a performance of Shakespeare's 'Comedy of Errors'.
"The Comedy of Errors – review was corrected because, owing to an error in the Globe programme, the original wrongly named the actor playing Arsalan of Kabul. The programme incorrectly named Ghulamnabi Tanha, when it should have said Shakoor Shamshad."

It is not the only Bard-related balls-up this week. In fact this was the third day in a row Shakespeare has popped up in the column, featuring as he did on Wednesday and Thursday

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Is The Sun re-writing Health & Safety history?

Ah yes, The Sun. Today the paper backed Employment Minister Chris Grayling in his new drive to help bust Health and Safety myths. Couldn't agree more, etc.

But isn't this  the same publication which reported the story of 25 Firemen who apparently refused to save a seagull from a pond on account of "barmy health and safety rules" when the very myth buster they plug today said H&S was not a factor?

Why yes, yes it could.

I know the point they are trying to get across today is that Health and Safety nonsense does happen, it's just not the fault of regulations, but some anonymous and unquoted getalifes that use health safety as a justification for pretty much anything.

But to take such a position after publishing stories like the one above, when they specifically blamed the rules seems a bit of a retreat on the paper's part. (There could well be plenty more. Send me them and I'll add them in).

There is a subtle shift from 'It's the regulations fault' to 'It's the interpreters of the regulations fault', in the way all of the examples in the piece are cited.

Of course it's never good simply to be a whiner. The fact that The Sun not only ran a news piece and its main leader on this must count for something. 

After all, the Daily Mail which originally splashed on the seagull/fire brigade story, didn't find room for any 'mythbusting' at all.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The millions still to be spent investigating hacking allegations

It was hardly the box office stuff of recent weeks, but back in March London Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse appeared in front of the Leveson Inquiry.

You might remember the coverage of the session centred on the revelation that more was being spent on investigating claims of hacking (Approx £40 million) than the Met spends in one year on child abuse work (Approx £36 million, apparently)

Predictably this prompted 'More spent on hacking than child abuse' type headlines (more on those later), but curious about the £40 million figure I decided to take a closer look.

After a Freedom of Information request, the Met has now disclosed how much it spent on hacking in the last two financial years, and how much it estimates it will spend on the investigations in the years ahead.

Here are the figures broken down by financial year for spending on Operations Weeting, Elveden, Tuleta and Appleton.*

What this shows is that the investigations won't be slowing down any time soon, with costs in 20/13/14 exceeding those of 2010/11 and 2011/12 combined.

But also worth noting here is the misleading impression created by the reporting of Kit Malthouse's figures.

If we accept the £36 million figure (sorry no FOI on that one folks) then it is obvious that even in the most expensive year of investigations the spend was still less than half as much as Mr Malthouse claimed went on child abuse work.

This is of course not to say that this makes the hacking investigation any more crucial/efficient/justifiable/etc. After all, judging the necessity of the spend of a police investigation in terms of its cost relative to child abuse work does not seem the soundest basis for policing decisions.

What it does show is once again, how easily newspapers can either get the wrong of the stick, or offer it to their readers, sometimes on purpose.

At least now there is more evidence, a correction will no doubt be forthcoming.

*Operation Weeting - police investigation into allegations of phone hacking by the News of the
Operation Elveden - police investigation, supervised by the IPCC, into e-mails received from
News International that allegedly show payments being made to police by the News of the World.
Operation Tuleta - a police investigation into hacking in general terms and so far involved
consideration of hard drives, and other documentation seized in historic operations.
Operation Appleton - The MPS response to the Leveson Inquiry.

(Summaries cribbed from here)