Preaching to the Press

Is the British press unintentionally aiding efforts to implement state-backed press regulation?

Last October, IMPRESS became the first Royal Charter-backed press regulator in Britain after its application was approved by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), the government-funded body set up in the wake of the 2012 Leveson Report to oversee press regulation.

The decision to approve IMPRESS has proven controversial with the British press, with speculation about its motives and sources of funding.

What the press thinks of IMPRESS (source)

One controversial area of concern is the involvement of motor racing tycoon Max Mosley, son of notorious wartime fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley.

British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley (source)

In 2008, the younger Mosley – who currently funds IMPRESS via two charitieswon a court case against disgraced British tabloid the News of the World (now defunct) after it reported about his participation in what it termed a “sick Nazi orgy” with prostitutes.

2008-news-of-the-world-max-mosley-story

Sleazy 2008 report by News of the World (source)

Critics claim Mosley has a vendetta against the popular press, and is bankrolling IMPRESS using his father’s money to serve a personal agenda – accusations he has repeatedly denied, albeit unconvincingly.

Another primary area of concern is Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, under which publishers who are not a member of an approved regulator could soon face “exemplary” damages – for instance having to pay their opponent’s costs in libel and privacy cases, regardless of who wins.

Critics argue Section 40 could undermine a “vibrant local press” by “blackmailing” publishers into joining, otherwise face “draconian” sanctions.

These are fair and principled criticisms, and the British press is right to be concerned that state-backed regulation presents a threat to freedom of the press. However, critics would be wise to listen to and acknowledge pro-regulation arguments – if not to reconcile their aims with those of Leveson, then to save their own neck.

Lord Justice Leveson (source)

Take for example The Sun, one of several British tabloids to come under close scrutiny during the 2011 Leveson Inquiry. A fierce opponent of state-backed press regulation, it casually dismisses pro-regulation campaigners like Hacked Off as “leftie plotters.”

the-sun-2012-leftie-plotters-headline

The Sun’s gratuitous “leftie plotters” headline (source)

Are supporters of Leveson likely to find this sort of language persuasive? Or is The Sun merely preaching to the converted?

Another recent example, by way of the Daily Telegraph, perfectly illustrates the way in which the British press is carelessly sowing the seeds of its own destruction. As reported on this blog, last month the Telegraph published a sensationalist article about Steve McNought, whose Bristol-based publishing company Arkbound was recently approved by IMPRESS.

The January 21, 2017 article, “Armed robber turned publisher wins approval from state-approved Press regulator funded by Max Mosley” by the Sunday Telegraph’s chief reporter Robert Mendick, focused on McNought’s criminal past, namely a series of armed robberies he committed in 2007-08 for which he received a 12-year prison sentence.

the-telegraph-january-21-2017-article

The Telegraph’s January 21, 2017 article (source)

The details of McNought’s US crime spree would make for a compelling episode of True Crimes, but that’s not what the Telegraph intended; as McNought told me in a comment on this blog, the article was a clear attempt to undermine Impress, using me as a tool to do so, in the most nasty and underhand way.”

In other words, the Telegraph fulfilled the worst expectations of its critics, betraying the principles of ethical journalism – if not the “full spirit” of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) code of practice to which it supposedly subscribes. To boot, McNought says he is considering legal action against the Telegraph for allegedly falsely reporting about his crimes and infringing his privacy.

The “draconian” Section 40 is presently awaiting a final signature from Culture Secretary Karen Bradley. Question: Is the British press willing to risk its hard-won freedoms for the sake of a few cheap shots at its political opponents?

Let’s hope not.

See also: “Crime and Regulation,” my January 24, 2017 item re: Steve McNought’s full response to the Telegraph’s article about his criminal past.

And: “The Case for Regulation,” my October 31, 2016 item re: Members of IMPRESS answer criticism that state-backed regulation could undermine a “vibrant local press.”

And: “UnIMPRESSed,” my October 27, 2016 item re: Two publications are no longer applying to join IMPRESS – with another on the fence.

Crime and Regulation

IMPRESS-approved magazine publisher issues legal challenge against the Daily Telegraph after it published article about his criminal past

Last week, the Daily Telegraph published an article about Steve McNought, whose Bristol-based publishing company Arkbound was recently approved by official UK press regulator, IMPRESS.

The January 21, 2017 article, “Armed robber turned publisher wins approval from state-approved Press regulator funded by Max Mosley” by the Sunday Telegraph’s chief reporter Robert Mendick, focused on McNought’s criminal past, namely a series of armed robberies he committed in 2007-08 for which he received a 12-year prison sentence.

McNought, then known as Stephen Jackley, was released from prison in 2015 with the help of the Prince’s Trust. He changed his name by deed poll later that year.

Arkbound Director Steve McNought in 2016 (photograph by Tom Jackson)

In October last year, I corresponded with McNought for an item I wrote about press regulation, of which he offered a strong defence.

Today, I asked him to comment on the Telegraph’s article. Here is his response.

“The Telegraph’s coverage is a clear attempt to undermine Impress, using me as a tool to do so, in the most nasty and underhand way. Aside from the factual inaccuracies, the article completely disregards my recent work – which includes getting personal commendations from Prince Charles, winning a series of awards, and being part of several respectable initiatives. The article implies that anyone with a criminal background cannot be a journalist, yet throughout history some of the greatest journalists have come from disadvantaged backgrounds that sometimes involved criminal conduct during their youth. Given that the Telegraph itself is run by people with not exactly ‘whiter than white’ backgrounds (any simple investigation will reveal the full details), and that it has been subject to numerous libel proceedings, with a proven political bias, their stance is deeply hypocritical. It is an ethos that implies no-one deserves second chances, and should never be allowed to move forward, no matter what positive steps they make.

“I have been informed that several people and organisations have written to The Telegraph in criticism of this article, though I doubt any remedial or corrective action will be taken. The libelous aspects of this article are currently subject to legal challenge.”

See also: “The Case for Regulation,” my October 31, 2016 item re: Members of official UK press regulator IMPRESS answer criticism that state-backed regulation could undermine a “vibrant local press.”

Hates Speech

Former BBC Wales Head of Public Affairs Leighton Andrews calls for European regulation of Facebook and Google

Leighton Andrews, the former Head of Public Affairs for BBC Wales, has called for European law makers to regulate U.S. Internet giants Facebook and Google.

Former Head of Public Affairs for BBC Wales, Leighton Andrews (source)

In two similarly worded articles on Open Democracy UK and Medium, Andrews argued that Facebook and Google are media companies, and should therefore be subject to stringent rules regarding antitrust issues, content, branding and “hate speech.”

Via “Europe should regulate Facebook and Google” by Leighton Andrews, Medium, December 9, 2016.

As well as their dominance of advertising, the two ‘titans’…have become the dominant news distributors as well. 44% of US adults get their news via Facebook according to the Pew Research Centre having taken over as the top news referrer from Google in 2015 according to the traffic analytics site parse.ly. At least originating news organisations get to keep their branding in the Google News app: in the Facebook News Feed, as Alex Hern pointed out in the Guardian, there’s no branding difference between fake news sites and established and respected news outlets…meaning that fake news can vie with real news for top spots.

Via “We need European regulation of Facebook and Google” by Leighton Andrews, Open Democracy UK, December 12, 2016.

What is needed is the necessary strategic alliance between other media companies, civil society organisations and academic specialists to drive an agenda forward to address the powers of internet intermediaries, in terms of content rules, competition issues and their dominance of the advertising markets which as we have seen has had the effect of undermining the newspaper industry in particular…

…Moving forward, there needs to be a coordinated and sustainable lobby at a European level, involving media organisations, advertisers, civic society organisations, and academic specialists interested in media policy to create the space for legislative action

– In defence of facts on digital advertising metrics
– In defence of facts in news reporting and/or attribution
– In defence of the rule of law (for example German hate speech laws)

Assuming Brexit goes ahead, and the UK does want a relationship akin to the EEA, then it’s likely it will have to adhere in practice to EU Media laws. EU legislation may be our last, best hope for effective action. There’s a thing.

I’ll leave it to the experts to debate the merits of antitrust regulation, but I can’t sit still for Andrews’ arguments in favour of controlling content, branding and “hate speech.”

Unlike the U.S., the EU famously doesn’t have a strong constitutional guarantee regarding freedom of speech or of the press. Consequently, countries within Europe have implemented a number of vague laws targeting political speech under the pretext of national security, racial and religious tolerance, and even women’s rights.

“Hate speech” is an especially meaningless term which has nevertheless been adopted by many European countries to punish unpopular speech. Just this month, Dutch politician and prominent Eurosceptic Geert Wilders was found guilty of hate speech by a Dutch court after he called for “fewer Moroccans” in the country.

Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders (source)

While you might not agree with Wilders’ comments or sympathise with his worldview, the point is that the legal concept of “hate speech” is sufficiently vague to encompass all kinds of political speech, not just unpopular words and ideas.

The arbitrary nature of hate speech laws and other, equally vague speech laws have proven controversial in some EU member states.

There was outrage earlier this year when – at the whim of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – Germany agreed to prosecute prominent German satirist Jan Böhmermann, who had ridiculed the Turkish despot on national televisionAfter all, what kind of democracy prosecutes its satirists?

Yet the decision should not have come as a surprise. Germany has long placed limits on “insulting” speech, in agreement with the various rulings handed down by the European Court of Human Rights.

As Hamburg international media law expert Dr. Ralph Oliver Graef told The Intercept in April: “If you agree that hate speech at a certain level is punishable, then you have to be open to the idea that some things are not allowed to be said, even about a dictator.”

German satirist Jan Böhmermann on the cover of Der Spiegel (source)

Not wishing to succumb to the logical fallacy of the slippery slope, it’s easy to see where regulation of the media – and of speech in general – might lead. Just look to Turkey, where journalists are routinely prosecuted for reporting unfavourably about the government, and satirists are no longer free to openly ridicule those in power.

Is this what we want for our media or for our own hard-won freedoms? Personally, I’m with Welsh YouTuber Bill Hilton, who tweeted this response to Andrews’ Medium article:

leighton-andrews-bill-hilton-exchange

Error 451

WordPress censors critical blog post about Armenian Olympic Committee President and rumoured Sochi crime lord Ruben “Robson” Tatulyan following complaint from Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor

This is part three of a series of posts about WordPress, the San Francisco-based blogging platform which earlier this year said that – absent a U.S. court order – it chooses to ignore outside requests to censor content, but now complies with takedown demands from Russian and Turkish authorities.

In October, Russia’s state media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, sent a complaint to WordPress demanding that it censor a critical blog post about Ruben “Robson” Tatulyan, President of the National Olympic Committee of Armenia and rumoured Sochi crime lord.

roskomnadzors-october-31-2016-complaint-to-wordpress-about-ruben-tatulyan

Roskomnadzor’s October 31, 2016 complaint to WordPress (source)

The offending blog post, which Roskomnadzor claims violates Tatulyan’s privacy “rights and freedoms,” describes an incident at Sochi International Airport earlier this year, when Tatulyan and his entourage – driving vehicles carrying Armenian embassy number plates – brazenly violated numerous traffic regulations.

According to Russian news reports, Tatulyan boasted to security staff about supposedly having acquired ambassadorship in Armenia, before speeding away in the wrong lane through the airport’s car park and ramming an automatic barrier.

A video of the incident, as captured on CCTV:

Tatulyan is not listed as holding office at the Armenian embassy in Russia, although several Russian news reports – including the targeted WordPress post – have alluded to his possible involvement in Russia’s criminal underworld.

One popular online publication, Crime Russia (itself the target of multiple takedown requests from Roskomnadzor), even alleges that Tatulyan is “shadow ruler” of all crime syndicates in Sochi, succeeding the notorious Russian mafia boss Aslan Usoyan aka Grandpa Hassan, who was assassinated in 2013.

Roskomnadzor’s complaint to WordPress does not try to refute these claims, instead citing a dubious Russian law restricting the publication of “personal data” in an effort to censor the offending blog post.

roskomnadzors-october-31-2016-complaint-to-wordpress-via-the-lumen-database

According to the Lumen Database, WordPress has partially enforced Roskomnadzor’s complaint (source)

Via my blog last month, WordPress recently changed its policy about how it responds to takedown requests.

Although the blogging platform has built a strong reputation on its principled support for free speech, it now says it complies with censorship demands in order to ensure access to the bulk of WordPress.com for users within authoritarian countries, who would otherwise face more severe punishment from their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

The change in policy goes back to March of last year, when a ban on a single blog post led Turkish ISPs to censor all of WordPress in Turkey.

Via this March 20, 2015 tweet, WordPress initially seemed intent on fighting the block…

wordpress-2015-response-to-turkey-censorship

…reaffirming its free speech bonafides via this January 28, 2016 Automattic entry, in which a spokesperson for WordPress stated that, without a U.S. court order, the company “refused to take action in response to the takedown demands from Turkey.”

Under our legal guidelines, we require a U.S. court order before proceeding with the removal of content from WordPress.com. To this point, we have refused to take action in response to the takedown demands from Turkey. After we receive notice of an order, Turkish ISPs, who are bound to obey the court orders, move to block the sites named in an order, making it unavailable to all visitors from Turkey without any further explanation.

However, last month WordPress admitted to having censored a Turkish political blog after receiving a complaint from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Per this undated Automattic entry, WordPress also recently started implementing blocks on request of Russian authorities, with the stated aim of “protecting all of the other 79 million WordPress.com sites.”

Today, when we receive a takedown demand from RSOC [Roskomnadzor], we review it and will often end up suspending the site in question because of a violation of our Terms of Service (for selling drugs or containing pornography, for example). In cases where the site does not violate our terms, we try to take the most limited and transparent actions available: blocking content so that it is unavailable only in Russia, and blocking only the content specified in the takedown demand (rather than the entire site). We take this action with the goal of protecting all of the other 79 million WordPress.com sites.

It’s possible to find out if WordPress has geo-blocked content in Russia by entering certain URLs – such as the one mentioned in the Roskomnadzor complaint – into a Russian proxy.

If WordPress has blocked the URL in question, you’ll see the following message, a nod to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451:

unavailable-for-legal-reasons-wordpress

A list of WordPress blogs currently geo-blocked in Russia is available by clicking here.

See also: “Erdoğan Strikes Again,” my November 27, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of Turkish political blog following court order by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

And: “WordPress Yields to Putin,” my December 3, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of “Putin-Hitler” mock photo on request of Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor.

The Case for Regulation

Members of UK official press regulator IMPRESS answer criticism that state-backed regulation could undermine a “vibrant local press”

Last week, I blogged about IMPRESS, which recently gained recognition as the first official press regulatory body in the UK.

The decision was made by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), the government-funded body set up in the wake of the 2012 Leveson Report to oversee press regulation.

Under Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which has been passed by Parliament but is awaiting a final signature from Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, publishers who are not a member of an approved regulator could face “exemplary” damages – for instance, having to pay their opponent’s costs in libel and privacy cases.

Critics argue that Section 40 could undermine a “vibrant local press” by “blackmailing” publishers into joining, otherwise face “draconian” sanctions.

I asked members of IMPRESS about the above criticisms. Here are their responses.


Stephen Rodgers – author at The Week in
I think the only people who would talk about ‘state backed press regulation undermining vibrant, local press’ are members of a cosy club who resisted Leveson, rejected its findings and continue to regulate themselves while using the word ‘independent.’

I went through the membership process for IMPRESS and found nothing to concern me or make me think I would have to change the way I operate. In fact, I think it actually offers more protection for small organisations like mine.

I can fully understand why the nationals are throwing their toys out of the pram. Nobody has ever dared to stand up to them in the past and I really hope the government does proceed with Section 40. Given that most governments still run scared of the press, somehow I don’t imagine it is going to happen though.

Martin Childs – Business Partner, Shropshire Live
We acknowledge that for their own reasons mainstream publishers may be critical of IMPRESS, but as a small independent publisher here is our reason for joining.

Being a trusted news source for our community was our top priority and it is important for us to be regulated in some way and have some support.

We were not forced to join, neither is any publication under the current rules, but we saw the benefit it could bring to a publication like ours and importantly it was a good sign for our readers to know that we can be a trusted source of local news.

It is open to any UK regulator organisation to be apply to be recognised under the Royal Charter and IMPRESS is the first to do that, so we were proud to be a member.

The Leveson inquiry was a long and detailed investigation and concluded on the ways the UK Press could be improved, making several recommendations that we think should be followed. We believe we have high ethical editorial content and recognise the importance of following certain standards as publishing content in press or online has great responsibility.

By joining IMPRESS it gives us the confidence to pursue stories knowing we have the help and backing of an independent regulator who can offer an arbitration scheme should any breach occur.

By having local press regulated it produces a higher level of quality news and journalism which can only be a good thing for all!

Spokesperson for The Ferret
The Ferret signed up because we think the media needs independent regulation to ensure public trust and we took into account the views of the National Union of Journalists who also backed Impress.

We lack the financial resources of many media so adopting Impress as our regulator offers us low-cost arbitration and potential legal protection, which is vital for our sustainability. We are committed to conducting investigations in the public interest and to publishing journalism of a high standard that is both accurate and fair. If we do receive any complaints in the future then Impress should help us to resolve them fairly and cost effectively.

Daniel Ionescu – Managing Editor, The Lincolnite
Stonebow Media are proud to be one of the founding members of IMPRESS with our three market leading publications in Lincolnshire – The Lincolnite, Lincolnshire Reporter and Lincolnshire Business. We reach more than half a million people every month, more than any traditional publisher in our patch.

Critics of IMPRESS appear to be intentionally misleading. Indeed, with Section 40, publishers not part of an approved regulator would have to pay all the costs, even if they win the case. With IMPRESS, that would not be the case.

In particular that is because before any case would go to court, it would have to go through a mediation process via IMPRESS. This mediation process is capped at £3,500, which is considerably lower than solicitors’ cost, and within the financial means of most local publishers (most of which are part of national chains).

As is the case now, anyone attempting to sue a publication without attempting mediation, risks having their case thrown out. With Section 40 and under IMPRESS, it would be even more likely to stop at the mediation process. Even IPSO has a similar process in place.

Also, let’s not forget the Leveson inquiry was about national publications misbehaving on an industrial scale over a long period of time. Local/regional publications have not been singled out, but as a matter of fact, actually praised for their practices.

If any local publishers are concerned about the implementation of Section 40, they should join IMPRESS and benefit from full protection and independent mediation, should that be required.

James Cracknell – Editor, Waltham Forest Echo
Trust in British journalism has collapsed after of a series of high-profile scandals (phone-hacking, Hillsborough etc) and an astonishing dedication to masking the truth that is still displayed on a daily basis by several major publications (The Sun, Daily Express etc).
The need to establish a new press regulator is the direct result of this collapse in trust.

The need to make that regulator become “state backed” as you call it is also the direct result of this collapse in trust. In an ideal world, a “state backed” regulator would not be necessary, but the failings of the PCC and now IPSO, which remains just another stooge of the major publishers, means that an alternative such as IMPRESS is needed.

How else can trust be restored? Even in the EU referendum this year, it became clear that the media was failing the public by publishing lies on their front pages. Your question regarding Section 40 should not be levelled against IMPRESS; they did not write that law. As the editor of a local paper that is a member of IMPRESS I feel reassured, not undermined.

Steve McNought – Director, Arkbound
The background to IMPRESS should be considered [in context]: how the UK media [had] no Leveson-compliant regulator; how the UK has one of the most concentrated media in the world, with little diversity and ownership by three main companies; the history of inaccuracies and even illegal activity by some mainstream press; poor enforcement of the Editors Code of Conduct by IPSO; insipid and ongoing connections with mass media owners and the Government; misrepresentation of disadvantaged groups and current issues; blatant party-political propaganda by some publications (not marked as opinion)….. and so on.

By developing a consistent, Leveson-compliant framework, IMPRESS has the capacity to infuse greater public confidence, proper accountability and diversity in the media – tackling the above problems. I’m not saying IMPRESS is flawless – I’ve raised concerns and criticisms with them myself – but I believe they are a much needed step forward.

It seems to me that references to ‘blackmailing’ and ‘draconian sanctions’ are misplaced and inaccurate. One could frame the ‘regulation’ of IPSO and the [non]enforcement of the Editors Code of Conduct – to the great detriment of individuals, disadvantaged groups and society as a whole – in a far worse light.

…I believe there is a strong case for a properly regulated media, in line with the Leveson Report and recommendations thereof. Most democratic nations have some form of enforceable code of conduct for the press, which helps uphold accuracy and deters the inappropriate promotion of powerful private interests (as has become the modus operandi of the UK’s media). It is not a question of organisations being forced to comply, but of them not breaking a code of conduct that exists to protect (not undermine) media freedom and its public interest connotations.

It is about re-asserting good journalism values  – taking media back as a tool for information, education and enlightenment. Those principles originate from the Renaissance Printing Press that resulted in a new age of progress, something that (arguably) has never been emulated since. Like all tools, without some kind of oversight or regulatory framework, such a mechanism of good can be used for less laudable purposes. To any informed and impartial mind, a glance through the UK’s tabloids (and many of the purportedly better publications) is proof of that. I could quote a few examples but this email would soon end up becoming the length of a book.