Posts tagged ‘UK’

Brian Leveson – media personality 2012

The 2012 Woolly Days media person of the year is Brian Leveson. Leveson is a jurist not a journalist but his impact on journalism and the world of media this year has been profound.
The year 2012 will not go down as a great year for the world’s media. While the world’s business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption sees it barrelling down a path towards a 4 degree increase in temperature by 2100, the focus of most media attention is ever increasingly the deeply superficial.
Commercial media have always fulfilled two purposes: to make money and to inform but it is the profit imperative which is winning clearly at the moment. The large multi-national conglomerates that own media stock look no further than the bottom line when it comes to meeting deadlines. Issues like news values and ethics are a poor second if there is no payback. Meanwhile shareholder disquiet of falling ratings or circulations can be managed quarter to quarter by cost cutting and doing more with less.  There is as a result according to Michael Mandel, a “shift in journalistic employment to non-traditional industries, an increased in the self-employed, a delayering of journalism, and perhaps lower pay.”
Brian Leveson admitted as much on his recent visit to Melbourne. The closure of a large number of newspapers has reduced the extent to which local government, health, education and the courts can be held to account. “Society will be less well served as a result”, he said. Yet Leveson was aware that even if journalism jobs are becoming diffused and of less value, the media they serve remain powerful players as editorialists, chroniclers, sensemakers, muckrakers and watchdogs.
Their contract with the public to perform these roles is based on trust. The one to many broadcast model of television and the major papers ensured they always had the microphone to drown dissent. The internet and web2.0 changed all that and disapproval can amplify virally if compelling enough. The web further undermining the media’s privileged modus operandi by allowing a multiplicity of blog voices harvesting free online content often with more sagacity and insight than the journalists. Social media has forced big media to become more humble in their dealings with the public they profess to “serve”.
There remains pockets of strong resistance, with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp leading the counter-assault. This old fashioned News and Entertainment Empire (one of the few not owned by a non-news company) remains convinced it does not need to answer its critics. China is a rare failure but In the US, Fox News is highly successful while his 2011 plan to buy the 60.9 percent of British cable company BSkyB it did not own was just a whisker away from being successful when undone by fine journalism.
Revelations by the Guardian journalist Nick Davies and his editor Alan Rusbridger brought the sordid hacking affair to light. The shadowy practices not only showed the need for profit greatly exceeded all other motives but described the contempt News had for its own audience. With the weight of evidence growing Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Justice Leveson in June 2011 to investigate the culture, practices and ethics of the British press as well as the dealings between the press, politicians and the police.
As testimony followed testimony, it was clear much was rotten in Murdoch’s hamlet.  It wasn’t just the attitude that privacy was for paedo’s as former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan espoused, it was the scene of serious crime. As November 2012, there had been 90 arrests on charges of interception of mobile phone messages, payment to public officials, data intrusion. The Inquiry would expose potentially corrupt dealings between senior members of the media, political parties and the police.
In nearly nine months of oral hearings, almost all available to transcript or watch online, involving 337 witnesses and 300 statements, the Inquiry became “the most public and most concentrated look at the press” Britain had ever seen. It enormous resonance not only in Britain but wherever British legal, ethical and press traditions operate, such as Australia. The numerous celebrities who portrayed themselves as “fair game” to an uncaring media, added to the notoriety of the charges. Australian media were quick to distance themselves from the phone hacking but there but for the grace of god go they at any lengths for a story.
With such a wide ranging brief, Leveson’s Inquiry had important things to say about plurality of ownership, privacy laws, and regulation of the press, all of which got the media companies quivering in their boots. Leveson was at pains to stress his inquiry was not an attack on press freedom. However, he said, with rights come responsibilities and all too often the press has simply ignored them. Neither the press or the press council ever launched investigations into allegations of serious misdoings such as breaches of data protection or trade in private and confidential information. Indeed when the phone hacking issue was raised, police executing a warrant were driven off the News of the World premises while the Press Complaints Commission criticised the Guardian for publishing the results of their investigations into the cover-up.
In November 2012 Leveson released his findings in a 2000 page report and 48-page executive summary.   Leveson proposed an independent replacement for the Press Complaints Commission which he said had no regulatory powers. It would have a dual role of promoting high standards of journalism while protecting the role of the individual. The new body would not include serving editors or politicians and it could impose fines and direct the appearance of corrections.
Leveson said participation needed to be universal for the body to be properly funded and succeed in its purpose. Those that declined to be involved would forfeit the right to the in-built arbitration process and therefore could not claim costs of any civil action even if they won because they had refused the cheaper route to justice. Leveson said such a body would not regulate the press.  He did not advocate prior restraint (a point of honour with the British press since Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644). He acknowledged how the important role media plays in society “as a critical witness of events” and accepted that media and journalists have several necessary privileges under the law as “one of the true safeguards of our democracy”. Leveson said his legislation would in fact enshrine “for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press”.
However, the media did not see it that way.  Every newspaper in Britain except the Guardian rushed to denounce Leveson’s key recommendation. Biggest selling paper The Sun said it was “deeply alarmed” by the prospect of “State control of newspapers.” “Such a law could allow State officials to walk into papers like The Sun and censor stories,” it said. The Express also worried about political aprons: “To put politicians in ultimate regulatory control of newspapers and then expect them never to seek to use that power to constrain criticism or scrutiny is to place in them a degree of trust they frankly do not deserve.”
Prime Minister David Cameron – himself implicated by the evidence of the over-close relationship between press and politics – plumped for the press over Leveson. He expressed his reservations over the legislation for the independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body.  “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land,” Cameron said. “We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”
High profile hacking victims such as JK Rowling expressed dismay at Cameron’s speech. “”Having taken David Cameron’s assurances in good faith at the outset of the inquiry he set up, I am merely one among many who feel duped and angry in its wake,” she said. The Hacked Off coalition gained 100,000 signatures calling on the government to comply with Leveson’s findings. Cameron’s coalition partners the Lib Dems are among them, so the matter rolls on, awaiting further political arbitration in the new year.
If Cameron didn’t reckon for the public outcry, then Leveson certainly did. He predicted the victims and the public would not accept the outcome “if the industry did not grasp the opportunity”. Following seven inquiries into the British press in 70 years, it “did not make sense to contemplate an eighth.” Whether short-term interest will prevail is a moot point, as is the longevity of the media’s powers of influence. What is not in doubt is that Brian Leveson has done us all a favour by pointing a strong light on its problems. Maybe then, the media can return to the problems that affect the rest of us.
Previous Woolly Days media personalities of the year
2009 Mark Scott
2010 Julian Assange
2011 Nick Davies and Alan Rusbridger

December 29, 2012 at 1:49 am 1 comment

Australia’s own Oranges and Sunshine victims remain forgotten

 I saw the Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine last week. The film tells the moving story of the forced migration of children from the UK, a paternalistic government program from the 1940s to the 1960s that saw 130,000 children removed to Commonwealth countries, mostly to Australia. The British Government kept the program hidden for years as did the Australian Government to the Forgotten Generation – almost half a million children from the UK and at home that were taken away from their families and brought up in institutional religious environments where they were abused and treated as slave labour.

The film was especially poignant to me because I had met a member of that generation and told his story in our newspaper. The man’s name is John Walsh who was born in Perth, WA on 27 March 1931. John was the eldest of seven children born in the 1930s who all were forcibly taken away from their parents.
When war broke out in 1939, John’s father joined the WA 2/11 battalion and he embarked for service overseas in 1940. They arrived in the Middle East on May 18. The 2/11th trained in Palestine and Egypt. They were mostly captured by the Germans in Crete and sent to Germany as prisoners of war from April 1941 to November 1945. And as John puts it, while his father and many others like him were serving their country overseas, the WA government destroyed their wives and families and sent the mothers into a life of hell and an early grave.

John said the politicians in power from 1939 accused all those working class and Aboriginal mothers of neglecting their children. The all powerful Child Welfare took control of the children and told all the mothers they could not see their children until they turned 21. In March 1940 the Walsh family was split up. Four brothers John, Billy, Terry and George were sent to Castledare while sisters Theresa, Anne and baby brother Barry were sent to St Josephs Subiaco. After 4 days, a Mr Young from Child Welfare came to Castledare and asked John to collect his young sister and brother who were in a bad way fretting.

“I had to look after my young sister and brother for about six months. It wasn’t easy with me being about 8 and ½ years of age,” John said. Both of them had to sleep with John out on a veranda and the mattress was soaked every day so John had to put the mattress out in the sun every morning. After six months Mr Young returned to take the two youngest back to St Josephs Subiaco.

Life was tough in Castledare. John said they never got much to eat. “People would see the bruises on us but you never did say anything for there were a lot of abuses going on and no one would believe you anyway,” he said. “This Christian Brother Murphy whose nickname was Spud was bad. Of course the people wouldn’t believe you, Catholics could do no wrong. You just had to shut your mouth and hope the truth would someday come out.”

In December 1941 eldest boys John and Billy were sent to Clontarf orphanage. They had to move again in February 1942 when the Air Force took over Clontarf and 238 children (200 Australian and 38 English) were sent to Tardun St Mary’s College in three groups by train. This was in the northern wheatbelt of WA one and a half hours east of Geraldton. As John remembers “we were sent into a life of hell from 1942 to 1945.”

At Tardun there was nowhere to sleep so farm machinery was pulled out of the shed to make room for living quarters. They had to wash in horse troughs and worked from daylight to dark to put in a new wing on the old building. “The food they gave you was full of maggots and no way could we eat it,” John said. “We would steal the molasses and boil it up with wheat. We also caught a lot of galahs and other wildlife. We picked up a lot of quondongs off the trees in the bush and also ate a lot of bush fruit. I found out later they were like antibiotics and probably saved us from getting sick.”

Tardun orphanage was so far out the sticks, the children were out of sight and out of mind. An English boy Charles Brunard,13, was killed by a truck running over him. John was one of those boys on that truck and said Brother Thomas was the driver. “The radiator was boiling over and Brunard was copping all the boiling water as he was sitting on the left-hand guard”. But a normal death certificate was issued. A boy called Kevin Glasheen also died of a fractured skull. Other boys were told to shut their mouths or they would get the same treatment.

The boys also had no warm clothes for the winter. In this life of hell, John remembers Brother Beedon, a short baldy red faced man who wore glasses, who was never happy unless he was belting someone with a strap. “It was a long strap always on the bare bum,” John said. “He was always sexually abusing someone”.

In 1945 the Air Force gave Clontarf back to the Christian Brothers and John returned there. “Those Christian Brothers were paedophiles so we found out; the life of hell was starting out all over again,” he said. No one dared speak out about what was going on. Sexual abuse, floggings, red siphon hose wrapped around your waist, a special strap made for cutting down on leg muscles. The life of hell went on until the children turned 14 and were sent to work on farms.

On 1 August 1947, John was put on a train at Perth to get off at the Serpentine railway station. He waited at Serpentine station for the farmer to pick him up but he was four hours late. When he turned up in a horse and buggy, he went into town to go to a dance. The horse took them home as the boss was drunk. John got five shillings a week with Child Welfare claiming the other two pounds a week. He worked seven days a week between 12 and 15 hours a day and stayed there for six months.

The milk truck helped get him away. John found one of his mother’s friends and her son got him a job at Plaistowes sweet factory in West Perth. “I was there for three weeks before the Child Welfare found me,” John said. “But the Plaistowes brothers and three foremen would not let them touch me. I was 17 years old at the time and still a ward of state until I turned 21.”

John never saw his father again. When the men returned home in 1946 they could not find their families and got no help from the WA Government. John spent most of the rest of his life seeking his family as well as justice. On 1 January 1975 the WA Government destroyed all the files of all the forgotten children. In the 1980s, as Oranges and Sunshine testifies, the UK children came under the spotlight and there were several Senate investigations. But the Australian born victims were ignored. After years of contacting politicians without success, the WA Government finally offered John $45,000 last year, a figure he reluctantly accepted as the best deal he would ever get. He remains bitter about the treatment the Government meted out to the families.

“If the politicians and Child Welfare had paid assistance money these abuses would never have happened,” he said.“They abandoned us and turned a blind eye. It was their responsibility to what went on in these orphanages.” John said the politicians in power at the time thought the religious institutions could do no wrong, so they never went looking for it. “The politicians who were in the Senate in the making of an apology and calling us the forgotten Australians were wrong – we were the hidden Australians,” John said.

September 1, 2011 at 10:23 pm Leave a comment

Arms dealer BAE pleads guilty to hiding bribes

A British Magistrates Court heard on Tuesday how Europe’s largest defence company wilfully failed to keep proper accounting records of payments. The notorious BAE Systems is the largest arms manufacturer in Europe and the fourth biggest in the world with annual military sales of $15 billion. In a Magistrates Court hearing in London BAE lawyer David Perry said the company would enter a guilty plea at a higher court next month in a plea deal with the Serious Fraud Office.
(Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)
The indictment charges BAE is charged with knowingly not keeping proper records that explain payments that relate to two contracts. The statement of offence against BAE read “between 01 Jan 1999 and 31 Dec 2005 BAE knowingly…failed to keep accounting records which were sufficient to show and explain payments made pursuant to (a) a contract between Red Diamond Trading Limited and Envers Trading Corporation, (b) a further contract between British Aerospace (Operations) Limited and Merlin International Limited.”

After the guilty plea, District Judge Caroline Tubbs said sentencing should be approved by a higher court. She sent the case to Southwark Crown Court. The next hearing will take place on December 20. At this unprecedented hearing a judge will be asked to confirm the final settlement. However, many believe the timing of the Crown Court hearing is deliberately close to Christmas in order to bury the bad news.

The legalese around the trial charge did not state the dodgy accounting was hiding bribes to procure the sale of a military radar system to Tanzania. BAE covertly channelled bribes through the Panama-registered Envers from its company, Red Diamond, to secure a contract in 1999 to supply Tanzania with a military radar system costing $40 million. However BAE avoided more serious charges after it struck an agreement with the SFO in February.

The deal
splits jurisdiction with the US Department of Justice over the company’s misdeeds. The SFO got Tanzania and the DoJ got the rest. As a result BAE agreed to plead guilty in the Crown Court to an offence under section 221 of the Companies Act 1985 of failing to keep reasonably accurate accounting records in relation to its activities in Tanzania. The company had to pay $50 million comprising a financial order to be determined by a Crown Court judge with the balance paid as an ex gratia payment for the benefit of the people of Tanzania.

In return the SFO will drop all investigations into BAE deals in South Africa, the Czech Republic and Romania as well as Tanzania. An NGO called The Corner House have expressed deep concern the plea bargain means SFO has agreed to fetter its future prosecutorial discretion. “If further evidence came to light that was sufficient to mount a prosecution against individuals that necessitated making allegations concerning BAE’s conduct, the SFO would not be able to bring such a prosecution as it has undertaken not to do so,” said The Corner House.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade has also been implacable foes of BAE. They have joined The Corner House in trying to bring to the Court’s attention over the plea bargain’s apparent undertaking never to prosecute any individual in future if doing so involves alleging BAE Systems was guilty of corruption. CAAT’s Kaye Stearman said the new hearing date is so close to Christmas that “in the hackneyed phrase, this will be a good day to bury bad news.” “Yet there is still much about this whole sorry saga that the public deserves to know,” she said.

CAAT are responsible for much of what we do know about BAE’s arms dealings. They scored a major victory over BAE in 2007 after the High Court ordered the weapons dealer to produce a sworn affidavit divulging how it obtained a confidential and legally privileged document from CAAT. In 2003 the Sunday Times revealed how BAE paid a company to carry out an elaborate spying operation on its critics and infiltrate CAAT.

The 2007 affidavit followed the failed police investigation a year earlier of BAE’s illegal activities in Saudi Arabia. BAE chair Dick Evans had easy access to PM Tony Blair and the government bought pressure on the SFO to drop the corruption investigation into BAE’s Saudi arms in December 2006. Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the relationship between BAE and the government was too close. “In my time I came to learn that the Chairman of British Aerospace appeared to have the key to the garden door to Number 10,” he wrote. “Certainly I never once knew Number 10 to come up with any decision that would be incommoding to British Aerospace”.

November 25, 2010 at 11:31 pm Leave a comment

British banks complicit in Nigerian corruption

A new report from a British non-government corporate watchdog has exposed how British banks have accepted millions of dollars in bribes from corrupt Nigerian politicians. The report called “International Thief Thief: How British Banks are complicit in Nigerian corruption”(PDF) has exposed rotten practices in the banking industry. Global Witness named five major banks Barclays, NatWest, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Switzerland’s UBS in the 40-page report it said have failed to adequately investigate the source of tens of millions of dollars taken from two Nigerian governors accused of corruption.

Robert Palmer, a campaigner at Global Witness said banks were are quick to penalise ordinary customers for minor infractions but seem to be less concerned about dirty money passing through their accounts. “Large scale corruption is simply not possible without a bank willing to process payments from dodgy sources, or hold accounts for corrupt politicians,” he said. 

Global Witness admitted the five banks might not have broken the law but said British banking regulator the Financial Services Authority must do more to close loopholes to prevent money laundering through British banks. “The FSA needs to do much more to prevent banks from facilitating corruption,” the report said. “As yet, no British bank has been publicly fined or even named by the regulators for taking corrupt funds, whether willingly or through negligence… in stark contrast to the United States, where banks have been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for handling dirty money.” While HSBC claimed it had “rigorous and robust” measures in place to stop such abuses, a spokesman refused to talk about individual customers hiding behind the bank’s confidentiality policies.

Global Witness’s findings were based on court documents from successful cases the Nigerian government brought in London against two former state governors Diepreye Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa state and Joshua Dariye of Plateau state. Alamieyeseigha was jailed in Nigeria after pleading guilty to embezzlement and money laundering charges after being caught with $1.6m in cash at his London home. Dariye was arrested in 2004 in London after buying properties worth millions of dollars though he was on $63,500 a year salary.

Global Witness found that Barclays, HSBC, RBS, NatWest and UBS held accounts for both men. They said they “funnelled dirty money into the UK, spending their ill-gotten gains on sustaining a luxury lifestyle, in stark contrast to the poverty of ordinary Nigerians.” Global Witness said banks which were propped up by taxpayer’s money were getting away with practices that undermine aid programs. “This is not just illogical, it is immoral,” they said. “Our financial system is morally complicit in Nigerian corruption.” The banks have form: nearly all of them had previously fallen foul of the FSA in 2001 by reportedly helping the former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha funnel nearly a billion pounds through the UK.

Nigeria ranks 130 out of 180 nations in Transparency International’s list of countries perceived as most transparent in 2009. It has a population of 150 million people many of whom survive on $2 a day yet the country is one of the world’s top champagne importers and its wealthiest residents are among the continent’s richest. Al Jazeera quoted Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency who estimated that corruption and mismanagement swallows up about 40 per cent of the country’s annual oil income. “Without access to the international financial system, it would be much harder for corrupt politicians from the developing world to loot their treasuries or accept bribes,” Global Witness said in its report. 

October 12, 2010 at 11:15 pm Leave a comment

A Journey into Tony Blair’s Brutopia

In his new autobiography Tony Blair tells the story of a passenger jet that breached closed British airspace in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A senior RAF commander was following the plane which was out of contact and heading towards London. The commander was awaiting instruction from Downing St to shoot it down. As recounted in “A Journey” (published yesterday) Blair said he talked with his advisors for several minutes “trying desperately to get an instinct as to whether this was threat or mishap”. When the deadline came, Blair decided to wait. “Moments later the plane regained contact. It had been a technical error,” Blair wrote. “I needed to sit down and thank God for that one.”

In this story, Blair’s desperation for a sign of “instinct” is almost as telling a factor about his make-up as is his gratitude to “God” for the way it eventually passed without incident. Blair is ultimate proof of John Gray’s suggestion in Black Mass modern politics is merely a chapter in the history of religion. While Blair initially recoiled with desperate horror against the possibility of making a preemptive strike against someone who may or may not be a threat, such decisions grew a lot easier for him in the years that followed. 9/11 was a watershed moment for Blair, as much as it was for the Bush administration as it marked a time when Gray said foreign policy was shaped by Utopian thinking.

Blair always had a strong dash of neo-liberalism to go with his strong powers of faith. He came to the Labour leadership in 1994 when the party had been out of office for 15 years. He inherited Margaret Thatcher’s total belief in the power of the markets. John Gray said Thatcher’s aim of destroying socialism in Britain assisted Blair in his political rise. By dismantling the Labour settlement that had served Britain since the end of World War II, she removed the chief reason for the existence of the Conservative Party. Without an enemy, it lacked identity. Blair’s “New Labour” easily stepped into its shoes and deprived them of relevance for a decade.

As the 1997 British election proved, strategy and organisation were more important than policy. Once he won that election, Blair carried on Thatcher’s privatisation agenda moving it into the justice system and prison service while also making the NHS and schools subject to market forces. In his early international dealings he advocated a “doctrine of international community” which reflected the “end of history” thesis that infected much 1990s intellectual thought. It was destroyed with the towers on 11 September 2001 and exposed Blair’s more naked belief in the power of good intentions to triumph regardless of flaw in the execution.

Like Bush, Blair saw his destiny as the unfolding of providential design. The neocons in the White House made it abundantly clear to him on a Camp David visit in April 2002 the Afghan War would be a sideshow and Iraq was the real target. The Foreign Office knew the case for war was a thin one; Saddam was little threat and had no weapons to speak of. Yet by the time of the 23 July Downing Street Memo, he accepted the advice of MI6 war was inevitable and “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”.

He cautioned Bush to seek UN support but in January 2003 Bush told him plainly the US was invading with or without a resolution. Bush offered Blair the opportunity to pull out given the strong anti-war rhetoric in the UK but Blair pledged his support. Blair actively covered up any intelligence that contradicted the official line Iraq was a major threat that had to be stopped. The March 2002 Iraq Options paper produced by the Cabinet Office and the February 2003 Defence Intelligence Staff document both said there was no justification for invasion. All they succeeded in doing was to get Blair to shift the case to arguments about WMD where as Grey said “intelligence could be more easily manipulated”.

Blair wasn’t interested in the facts. Armed with his dogged Utopian belief in the ineluctable nature of progress, he screened out inconvenient data. Blair was only interested in faith-based intelligence that supported his moral imperative. As the disasters unfolded in the aftermath of invasion such as Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, Blair kept silent. Again Gray: “deception is justified if it advances human progress…Blair’s untruths are not true lies. They are prophetic glimpses of the future course of history and they carry the hazards of all such revelations.”

Blair’s militant faith in human progress brought him eventually to the political abyss. His was a true enlightenment view of unending human progress. In his ten years as Prime Minister his overriding concern was the shaping of public opinion to support his beliefs and his lies became an integral feature of government function. Despite winning three elections, he was remembered only as a lackey of the Bush administration. Both practiced missionary politics and saw their goal as the salvation of humankind.

The difference was Bush could do faith better than Blair in a country with a lot more millenarian tendencies than the UK. An American Lt Col in Fallujah could get away with saying the war was “battle against Satan”; a British General in Basrah could not. But in the end both Britain and the US have now left the country. Iraq turned out not to be a Utopian project after all.

September 2, 2010 at 11:08 pm Leave a comment

BBC strategic review is useful template for the ABC

The BBC Strategy Review of March 2010 (pdf) is an important read not only for those interested in the future of Britain’s premier broadcaster but also for those who follow the fortunes of its antipodean cousin the ABC. Given the tagline “getting the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers” the 79-page document is the BBC Trust’s attempt to steer a course for the public-funded organisation in the likely event of a Conservative win in the forthcoming election and a corresponding serious reduction in government expenditure.
(photo: The Guardian)

The Trust said its reference points were the audience and the market. Its says its audience is proud of the BBC and willing to pay for a strong and independent voice that delivers original and high quality content. The market meanwhile is more ambiguous. It wants the BBC to fulfil its public service charter but questions where the boundaries lie with private enterprise and also its genuineness in its proposals for partnerships.

The Trust said the time was right to look at its future direction and possibilities of expansion in the framework of four key questions. These were: Is its portfolio of services still appropriate in the digital age? Has its near 7 x 24 expansion caused a dilution in quality and distinctiveness? What is the best distribution model for content? And finally how should it react to the problems of commercial media? These questions in turn raised five lines of enquiry the Trust put to BBC management. These were: How can the BBC best maintain quality and distinctiveness? Where could it narrow focus and scale? What will a fully digital BBC look like? Can the BBC better define the public space it provides? And finally how can the BBC create the most value from its scale.

The response from BBC management called “Putting Quality First” is in the same document. The Director-General’s vision was to create “a BBC focused on quality content and enduring values, keeping open a public space for all”. This would be achieved by five central principles: putting quality first, doing fewer things better, guaranteeing access, getting better value from the licence fee, and setting new boundaries.

The BBC mission is worth repeating because it has relevance also in the Australian context. It says, “[the mission] is constant and enduring: to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. It strives to fulfill this mission not to further any political or commercial interest, but because the British public believes that universal access to ideas and cultural experiences of merit and ambition is a good in itself. The BBC is a part of public space because the public themselves have put it there.”

The BBC is part of an independence public space that include other media, public institutions, libraries, museums, parks, universities, monuments and voluntary bodies. And while the digital age should be a “golden age” for public space, fragmentation of audiences is destroying business models causing public space to diminish. The BBC say their role is to be a main guarantor of public space and its technological underpinning and should also be a catalyst and connector within that space.

Its mantra, says management, should be putting quality first. It will have five content priorities: world-class journalism, inspiring knowledge, music and culture, ambitious local drama and comedy, outstanding children’s content, and events that bring communities and the nation together. That means changing £600m of priorities a year (a fifth of the BBC’s cost base) over the next four years and committing to 90 percent of licence fees on high quality content (though it will be interesting to see how ‘high quality’ will be defined and measured).

This also means doing more with less. Spending on the BBC’s website will decrease by a quarter each year to 2013 and its number of sections will be halved. There will also be more external links with the intention of doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites. Other services to be closed will be Radio 6 Music, Asian Network and teen offerings BBC Switch and Blast! In order to guarantee access, BBC management want to make internet-connected television a reality, continue free access to news and also to open its archives and program library and work with its partners such as the British Library and BFI to bring their public archives to a wider audience.

To pay for all this, the BBC is proposing to reduce costs, reduce senior management numbers, freeze pay and suspend bonuses. They will also reduce spend on overseas content, cap sports rights spending, defer to commercial radio and other broadcasters in area in areas of popular music and serving teenagers and to not go more hyperlocal than they already are.

Opponents of public broadcasting here in Australia such as Mark Day have seized on this report as a rationale for trimming down, if not totally removing the ABC from the media landscape. While this goes too far, the BBC Trust document does ask some very good questions and opens up a debate on public broadcasting and its platforms and contents we do need to have in Australia. Particularly as there is no licence fee, it behooves us to question the direction the ABC is headed (and also ask where SBS fits into the picture). All too often media policy here is reactive. As we stand on the cusp of the death of the analogue age, we could do worse than examine the BBC document. It is a template for honest and mature discussion into what we might want from “our ABC” in the coming years.

March 11, 2010 at 9:34 pm Leave a comment

Mad Monckton and the media

Christopher Monckton’s mad-stare eyes should be a giveaway. As they rotate maniacally on high spin cycle, they present to the world a mirror of a tortured soul hell-bent on washing peculiarly dirty demons in public. Monckton is on a mission to show he is right and thousands of scientists are wrong. And the public and media hacks he is speaking to on his current Australian tour are desperate to hear what the “Lord” has to say.

It is no accident that those who flock to hear Monckton are white, elderly and wealthy. They like their life as it is and don’t want any inconvenient truths disturbing their repose. Nor will they be around long enough to face up to the consequences. Monckton’s shtick is a grab-bag of half-truths, innuendo and hints of world government that his troubled audience lap up. The trouble about climate change is once you know it to be true; you are compelled to act on it. Hence the importance of the soothing balm telling people “don’t worry, it doesn’t exist and there is no reason to change what you are currently doing”. Monckton is an expert in this field of reassurance towards inertia. The 3rd viscount Monckton of Benchley in Kent is a slick audience operator imbued with the confidence that comes with his deep upper-class pedigree and a colourful history of his own showmanship to back it up.

Appropriately for such a quixotic character, Christopher Walter Monckton was born on St Valentine’s Day in 1952, the first son of Major-General Gilbert Walter Riversdale Monckton 2nd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, CB, OBE, MC, MA, DL. Christopher’s grandfather was a lawyer and politician born plain old Walter Monckton but was wealthy enough to be educated at Harrow and Oxford. After advising Edward VIII in the abdication crisis, and putting out propaganda for Churchill in the war, he was elected to Westminster as a Tory MP in 1951. After serving as a senior government minister for six years he blundered by opposing Eden on Suez and was put out to pasture. His reward was the viscountcy Monckton of Benchley which he held till his death in 1965.

His war hero son Gilbert inherited the honour which entitled him to a seat in the House of Lords. There he spoke up for rural and military interests and left the Tory Party when they started cutting back on military spending. When he lost his lifetime seat in Tony Blair’s constitutional reforms during the Hunting Bill, his manifesto for election to the House supported the muzzling of cats to stop the torture of mice. But Gilbert failed to live up to the mad peer stereotype other than occasionally flaunting his habit of wearing Arab dress and preparing his own brew of Arab coffee.

When Gilbert died in 2006, eldest son Christopher became the 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. Like both his forebears he was educated at Harrow but follow his father to Cambridge. Also like his father Christopher failed in his bid to be elected to the House of Lords and did not pick up a single vote in the 2007 by-election he contested. But this was not his first brush with politics. After he left Cambridge in 1974 with an MA he became a journalist and joined the pro-Conservative think tank the Centre for Policy Studies. His paper on the privatisation of council housing attracted the attention of the Thatcher Government and he worked for the Downing St policy unit for four years.

In 1986 he returned to journalism, first at Today then at the Evening Standard. In 1999 Monckton became briefly prominent for his board game called the Eternity Puzzle. 209 irregularly shaped pieces were required to fill the 12-sided puzzle and Monckton offered a prize of £1m to solve it. Although Monckton said he had to sell his £1.5m Aberdeenshire mansion to the eventual winners, he more than recouped this amount thanks to his clever marketing of the game and its reward.

Since he got his peerage in 2006, Monckton has been most closely associated with pushing the line about a global warming conspiracy. He took issue with the Stern Report, the IPCC and the British Labour government all of whom he accused of “creating world government”. He claimed the changes in temperature preceded the changes in CO2 levels and said the UN ignored the medieval warm period. He said the Antarctic has cooled and gained ice-mass in the past 30 years. He said the sun caused what little global warming there was. Although there was not a single peer-reviewed scientific paper that backed any of this up, newspapers like the Daily Telegraph lapped it up and gave Monckton credibility and a wider audience.

Monckton is slowly getting the gravitas he has craved despite having a head full of crackpot ideas. Among these is that upon reading Rachel Carson’s A Silent Spring Jackie Kennedy forced her then husband President John F Kennedy to ban DDT which Monckton said “caused the death of 40 million people”. He also got away with telling many hopelessly underprepared Australian journalists he won a Nobel Peace in 2007, a lie he later laughed off as a joke.

But Monckton has turned himself into a walking joke. He revels in the role of poster boy for the far right which cannot accept the truth of global warming because that would mean accepting political opponents were correct. Monckton and his coterie are on an apparent roll. A pessimistic George Monbiot wrote in November: “There is no point in denying it: we’re losing. Climate change denial is spreading like a contagious disease.” But as his Australian trip is proving, Monckton’s contagion is limited to fellow-travellers among the media and the self-funded retirees. Not a single scientist has emerged to back him up. As even the conservative pro-farmer Fairfax publication The Land has realised, he is only preaching to the converted.

February 3, 2010 at 10:34 pm Leave a comment

Lockerbie anguish continues as Al-Megrahi protests innocence

While many in Britain and America have condemned the celebratory nature of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi’s Libyan return, they conveniently overlook the fact he was unlikely to be the Lockerbie bomber. The Scottish government released the 57 year old cancer suffering al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds last week after serving eight years of his life sentence. But dying or not, al-Megrahi says he is still intent on proving his innocence. “If there is justice in the UK I would be acquitted or the verdict would be quashed because it was unsafe,” he said this weekend. “There was a miscarriage of justice.”

Al-Megrahi has a good point; justice has always taken a back seat to politics in the Lockerbie bombing. Pan Am flight 103 blew up over the small Scottish town a few nights before Christmas 1988 en route from London to New York. 270 people died – 243 passengers, 16 crew and 11 residents on the ground. Scotland claimed jurisdiction for the crime as the plane was destroyed in Scottish airspace.

The initial suspect was a Syrian group with the unwieldy title of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC). The PFLP-GC had a motive by acting for Iran in revenge for the American attack on an Iranian Airlines passenger plane a few months earlier. Two years before Lockerbie, the group’s Syrian leader Ahmed Jibril had publicly warned there would be “no safety for any traveller on an Israeli or US airliner”. Although PFLP-GC subsequently denied responsibility for Lockerbie, the early years of piecing together evidence focussed firmly on the Syria-Iran link.

But by 1990 Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Neighbouring Iran and Syria were now suddenly proxy-allies whom the west could not afford to alienate. The Lockerbie case refocussed on the “Malta connection” and later that year the US and British governments issued indictments of murder against two Libyan men Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah. In 1991 the pair were back in Libya and the US and the UK requested their extradition. Libya refused as it had no extradition treaty with either country. Libya arrested the pair but a local prosecution went nowhere as US/UK refused to hand over their evidence. The UN then made an unprecedented move to impose sanctions for not comply with the extradition request. The sanctions lasted six years.

After years of negotiation the UK agreed to Libyan demands for it to take place in a neutral country due to concerns of safety and a fair trial. The trial began in May 2000 in the Netherlands under Scottish law and three Scottish judges. The key evidence was the brown Samsonsite suitcase which contained the bomb hidden in a radio/cassette player. The clothing in the suitcase was purchased at a shop in Malta and the store owner swore that a Libyan he could not identify bought them. Al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was in Malta on the day of the purchase and stayed near the shop. He was unable to offer the court a reason for his stay on the island. This evidence plus his connections to airport security and the Swiss company that built the timer in the explosive device was enough to convict him. Al-Megrahi was given a life sentence.

The second defendant Fhimah was an acquaintance of al-Megrahi and an Air Malta employee. They both arrived in Malta on the same flight two days before the bombing. The prosecution argued Fhimah knew how to get unaccompanied baggage onto a plane but the court found no evidence to show he had assisted al-Megrahi and acquitted him. But with Fhimah’s acquittal part of the case against al-Megrahi collapsed too. How did he get the bomb out of Malta?

Also, as part of their defence under Scottish law, the pair accused the Syrian-backed PFLP-GC of carrying out the attack. A German police officer testified that PFLP-GC had the means and intention of attacking an airline but the timers and cassette player used were not consistent with other PFLP-GC attacks. A Jordanian agent Marwan Khreesat who had infiltrated the group said he had never seen radio cassette players with twin speakers converted into explosive devices. On the basis of the German and Jordanian evidence the court concluded the PFLP-GC did not make the bomb.

The UN appointed five observers to watch the trial. Of these only one, Professor Köchler from Innsbruck University, published his findings. Köchler concluded the trial was unfair based on two points of objection. He noted the extraordinary length of detention (though this had been requested by the defence to prepare its case) and said the “presence of foreigners” at the prosecution and defence tables hampered the judges’ ability to find the truth and introduced a political element to the case (though there was no evidence that the judges were swayed by the “foreigners”).

Al-Megrahi appealed against the sentence based on the strength of the evidence linking him to the fatal suitcase. There was also the startling evidence that emerged in September 2001 when a former security guard at Heathrow named Ray Manley said in a sworn affidavit he had told anti-terror police one of Pan Am’s luggage rooms had been broken into on the night of the bombing. This evidence cast complete doubt on the whole Malta connection. But for many years Scotland fought the appeal process.

The Scottish law professor who negotiated the Netherlands trial says many people believe there was overt political pressure placed upon the judges. Robert Black says it was probably necessary to reach a conclusion that was satisfactory to the British and American governments. “I think that consciously or subconsciously, these judges appreciated that if neither of the two Libyan accused were convicted in this trial, this would be an enormous embarrassment to the prosecution system in Scotland,” he said.

But by 2003, Libya was no longer a public enemy. Gaddafy told the Americans about his weapons capability. The west lifted international sanctions against Libya after it admitted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2005 and paid about $2.7bn in compensation to the victims’ families. Libya has since got that money back and much more in oil revenues. As The Times points out, al-Megrahi’s freedom is a further product of the effort to bring Libya out of dangerous isolation. “This is as much to America’s advantage as Britain’s, but Washington has too much baggage to be openly involved,” said The Times. And 20 years on, everyone is happy except the families of the Lockerbie victims who are still no closer to knowing who killed their loved ones.

August 23, 2009 at 10:15 pm Leave a comment

How Sky caved in to Joe from Twitter

(Photo by Joe Neale @Joe – used with permission).

As Londoner Joe Neale has just found out, News Corp wants to charge for content on the Internet while not being averse to using other people’s content for nothing.

Joe’s story began two weeks ago on 5 August with events that seemed to have nothing to do with him. On that day two police officers from Kennington police station in London were patrolling near Waterloo station when they stopped to question a man on a bicycle. As the officers approached him, the man dumped the bike and ran away. As he did so, he fired shots at the officers leaving two of them injured in the vicinity of Southwark tube station. It was Joe Neale’s fate to be walking past the tube station at the time. He snapped a picture of the crime scene (see photo above) which he immediately loaded to Twitpic with the caption “Holy crap police man shot at Southwark tube station!”

Neale had to rush to meetings so did not immediately notice that others were paying close attention to his picture. The shooting of two policemen in London is meat and drink for NewsCorp’s Sky News and they were quick to publish and article about it. They found Neale’s Twitpic and used it to illustrate the story. Sky captioned the photo with the credit “Joe from Twitter”.

But it turns out that Joe is not just anyone from Twitter. Neale is the original @joe on Twitter with 20,000 followers and is the head of End User Programmes at software licencing company Symbian. Sky could have found all this out by looking at his Twitter page. There they would also have found out he is a former Murdoch employee. Neale’s previous job was MySpace UK Content Manager. This meant he knew who to talk to in News Corp.

Friends of Neale told him that Sky was using his picture. His first reaction was one of delighted amazement. Neale sent a couple of tweets to Jon Gripton, News Editor of Sky News Online saying he was “really pleased” Sky had used the photo. He asked them to change the attribution from “Joe from Twitter” to “Joe Neale”. Gripton responded after 5 hours saying “Will do Joe – give me a minute to talk to the team”. Gripton also requested Neale to follow him in Twitter so that he could send him a direct message (DM). Neale appreciated the response and asked jokingly “how many beers” the picture was worth. A day later the pair were following each other but Neale complained he still had not yet gotten an email response.

Sky changed the attribution but were in no mood to divulge how many beers they though it might have been worth. But Neale was no longer joking and found out for himself. He checked the terms of service of Twitpic which specifically said “All images uploaded are copyright © their respective owners”. He sent Sky several emails but got no response. But after two weeks of silence from Sky, Neale hit back using the power of social media. Two days ago, on Wednesday 19 August, Neale published the content of the email on Twitter using the #skypic hashtag. Part of the email read as follows:

My photo was used without permission on the sky news website on the 5th of August 2009, and was taken from my Twitter feed without my permission(I have 20000+ mainly UK based followers including a large section of press/media folk).

Neale went on to tell Sky the conditions he demanded for using the photo without permission. It would be £300 for the initial use on the front of the site and then charged at five percent for each of the two weeks it was used by the site (note: Neale’s picture has now been removed from the Sky report of the shooting linked above in the first paragraph).

To hammer home the point, he sent out further tweets using the tag #skypic, which read: “Newscorp use your photos without permission but have plans to charge for reading their content” or “Newscorp vs citizen journo”. Neale’s network got involved and put out 200 retweets of #skypic.

After 24 hours, Sky caved in yesterday and promised to pay £330.75. The promise came in an email they sent Neale which read: “I’m sorry my colleagues didn’t get back to you as soon as you would have liked. We always acknowledged your copyright, & I’ve forwarded on your invoice for payment – here it is attached with the relevant SY number inserted in case you’ll need that if you need to chase it up. Just be aware that payment should take approx one month to get through the system.”

The game is not over till the cheque is in Neale’s bank but for now the score is Citizen Journo 1, Newscorp 0.

August 21, 2009 at 3:38 am Leave a comment

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