24.12.03

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Media Beak wishes its readers the very best for the festive season. MB will be having a break but will return with all the top stories and news for the New Year.

Please e-mail your news, views and festive (or other) gossip to the Media Beak.

Data Protection in the Dock

Pressure is being put on the Government to review Data Protection regulation following the atrocious interpretation of the rules that allowed vital information on Ian Huntley to be deleted and caused the tragic death of two pensioners after their gas was cut off.

Whether British Gas used the Data Protection Act provisions as a cynical excuse or whether Humberside Police did not understand how to interpret data protection guidelines, something radical needs to change.

Why is it that we still get cold-called, spammed and inundated with unsolicited communication on the one hand but cannot seem to make intelligent use of crucial data on the other? It would appear that the data protection guidelines are not properly understood or being properly implemented where it counts.

The protection of our personal data should be to protect our civil liberties, privacy and safety. In interpreting the provisions of the Data Protection Act and its accompanying guidelines one should have regard to the intent behind the letter of the law. Humberside Police and British Gas seem to have got that one tragically wrong. So whether it be through a revision to legislation - which the Government this week said it was reluctant to do - or some serious schooling in how to apply existing law, the need for some swift action is compelling.

Norwegian Court acquits man for calling policeman 'an asshole'

As Nettavisen reports, a County Court in Norway has freed a man who had been accused of causing police terror by finishing an irate phone call with the words "I think you are an asshole. Have a nice evening".

The Court said that the police should be able to take this kind of criticism it being "publicly known that the description asshole has been used in public on a high political level without it having any legal consequences"

So if you want to libel politicians in Norway then if you use an established slur such as 'asshole' then you should be ok in court.

Was Washington Sniper spared death because its Christmas?

A divided jury decided to spare the life of 18 year old Washington Sniper Lee Boyd Malvo.

Malvo had indiscriminately slain his series of victims in the Washington area when he was just 17. Having been found guilty of terrorism, weapons and murder charges Malvo could have faced a death penalty - the trial had been brought in Virginia, one of the few states that allows the execution of those under 18 when they committed their crimes.

After deliberating for two days the divided jury could only escape deadlock by sparing the sniper who was sentenced to life without parole.

So did the fact it was Christmas sway the verdict? Malvo's defence attorney certainly thought so while State Prosecutor Robert Horan commented it was not ideal trying people in the run up to Christmas as it was sure to play a part.

So while we worry about the press influencing jurors in this country, over in the US it seems that decisions may vary depending on what time of year it is.

Racist Rap to be released

Following the controversy surrounding Eminem's teenage rage lyrics which contained racist remarks towards black women, a New York Federal Judge has sanctioned limited excerpts of the offending lyrics.

Music magazine 'The Source' wanted to distribute CD's containing the previously unreleased rap tracks. Eminem had - not surprisingly - tried to prevent The Source from releasing the CD's. Meanwhile some further tracks found there way onto eBay.

Eminem's legal counsel had claimed that releasing the tracks would amount to copyright infringement (this is an interesting example of copyright being used to protect an artist's right not to release material that could prejudice the artist's reputation).

However, the Judge ruled that limited reproduction - up to 20 seconds - could amount to 'fair use' and so The Source would be allowed to use excerpts for the purpose of criticism.

To read more click here

17.12.03

Attorney General investigates Soham press coverage - should he be patronising the public and censuring fair comment?

Huntley was found guilty by the jury in the Soham murder trial because they found that the prosecution had - based on the evidence provided to the court - proved Huntley's guilt beyond all reasonable doubt. They did not return their verdict because of what any of the papers may have said or broadcasters aired.

The defence had already played the unfair trial card at the start of the case and presented all the press cuttings they could get their hands on. The trial judge correctly took note of this and did impose restrictions on the media during the trial and gave the jury very clear directions and cautions about being influcenced by media coverage.

It was Huntley and Carr who were on trial for what they - and in particular Huntley - had done, not the media for their coverage of this grotesque crime. So in deciding to investigate what he called 'frankly unacceptable' press coverage of the Soham trial is the Attorney General siding with the defence team's view that there was a risk of the trial being unfair? To do so would be patronising the public in general and jury in particular. We all read newspapers and watch television but that does not mean that we base our entire thought processes and beliefs on what we read, watch or hear.

The public are to a large extent capable of making up their own minds - especially if they have a trial judge to give them clear directions. Is the Attorney General suggesting or afraid that the average member of the public or a jury is that malleable that they will be biased by all they read, see or hear? If he feels juries cannot be trusted to operate fairly because of the information and news available to them in their open and democratic society then shouldn't he be examining the merits of jury trials rather than seeking to censure the media or the news it delivers?

Last year, during the police investigations in the Soham murder, the media were asked to provide their full co-operation and divulge notes and information collated and relating to Huntley and Carr. So why should it be acceptable for the media to inform the police but not the public? Had more been known about the string of allegations surrounding Huntley then perhaps people would have been alerted to the potential dangers harboured in his character. The official bodies or authorities (who Home Secretary David Blunkett has now ordered an investigation into) did know about Huntley but that knowledge was not put to much use.

There is a valid case to be made for the media being given more freedom to report on matters such as this - the newspaper headlines that so upset the Attorney General certainly have greater impact than buried social services or police files!

Further comment can be found at Guardian Online

GUILTY! - as Huntley is sent down for Soham murders a string of previous allegations emerges - should these have been reported on?

An 11-1 majority verdict proclaimed Ian Huntley's guilt for the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.
As Mr Jusitce Moses sentences Huntley to two life terms, a string of previous allegations against the remorseless murderer have emerged - or can now be revealed.
Home Secretary David Blunkett was quick off the mark to order an inquiry into how Huntley got a job as a school caretaker.
All this provides little solace to the parents and friends of Holly and Jessica and begs the question of whether it is necessary or indeed right to prevent or restrict the reporting of information or allegations about a person that may have alerted an unsuspecting public or the relevant authorities to the closet criminal lurking in their midst.

11.12.03

Media Regulation review

Concern has been expressed that the liberalisation of cross-media ownership that the Communications Act was meant to bring about may still be subject to regulatory restrictions.

Making a final stand before being subsumed into Ofcom at the end of December, the Radio Authority blocked a move by Midland News Association to expand into radio through the acquisition of Telford FM. Under the old regime this may have been expected but with the provisions of the Communications Act and Ofcom in sight, it gives cause for concern.

The idea behind the Act was to open up the market and allow for more cross-media ownership. With the recent ITV merger as a backdrop one may have thought that some healthy consolidation and buy-outs would be on the cards. Not so for Midland News whose move on Telford FM was blocked on public interest grounds. Under the Communications Act a public interest test should not automatically be applied to such deals. In conservative mode the Radio Authority decided it did not want to be the first to interpret the Communications Act and stuck by the old public interest test stating that granting Midland News permission to diversify into radio would act against the public interest in the region.

This sends a sour note across the airwaves for other aspirational media moguls. Perhaps Ofcom will take a more robust approach.

8.12.03

Milk free Manning warns Peta over passing off

Comedian Bernard Manning has failed to see the funny side of a poster campaign run by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) which uses a picture of a cigar puffing Manning alongside the caption "(Lactose) Intolerant? The white stuff ain't the right stuff"

Peta is campaigning against all those (evil) health hazards it claims are associated with dairy products. According to the Manchester Evening News Manning doesn't even drink milk and had not given his permission to use his picture.

Peta says it doesn't see anything wrong with its campaign. It remains to be seen if Manning will bother to sue or just let Peta off with its passing off.

AG applies Fade effect to let Blunkett off the hook

A week after telling news editors what was and was not contempt of court the Attorney General has decided that Home Secretary David Blunkett's comments on the arrest of terror suspect Sajid Badat did not create a substantial risk of prejudice.

Blunkett's robust rapport raised the question of whether his remarks could prejudge and prejudice pending proceedings and as such amount to contempt.

Lord Goldsmith concluded that Blunkett's comments did not amount to contempt. How so?

The AG used two of the very issues he warned the media about overstepping namely, the serious risk of prejudice and the likely time to elapse before a trial - known as the Fade factor.

So for all those news editors looking for practical guidance on what the AG warned them about, we now have some - if you are a terror suspect, then there seems to be less serious risk of serious prejudice and if the trial is not likely to be for a while yet then the Fade factor can apply.

This is not the first time Blunkett has not seemed too bothered about contempt. He has previously said that a particular pop group's lyrics promoted gun culture while one of their number was awaiting trial on firearms charges.

3.12.03

Mirror non grata

Buckingham Palace is seeking its revenge on the Mirror. Still reeling from the paper's exposee the Palace has banished the Mirror from its guest list.

From press releases to invites to cover the recent OBE awards, if you're from the Mirror you won't be getting them - and as the paper's reporter Jane Kerr found out, don't even think about trying to get in to the palace. (Unless you are applying for a job as a footman!)

Censoring Sensationalism - Attorney General talks tough on Court Reporting

As yet more suspects are arrested under protection of terrorism legislation and the Soham murder trial gets to hear Ian Huntley’s version of events, the media have been reminded of their responsibilities in reporting such matters.

Addressing editors at a Newspaper Society conference, top Government lawyer Lord Goldsmith fired a warning shot at those producing the nation’s front pages. With some 70 complaints being investigated by his department this year, the Attorney General said he had “a good deal of concern” about the balance being struck in the reporting of court cases.

While the public has a right to be informed about the administration of justice and the press is entitled to certain freedoms in relation to the manner in which it fulfils its role in informing the public, Lord Goldsmith’s cause for concern lies with a third and competing right – that of a defendant to have a fair trial.

No matter how serious the crime, whether someone is charged with planning to bomb innocent people or having murdered young children the law prescribes that they should be entitled to a fair trial. No matter how repulsed the public is about such crimes or how convinced they may be of a suspect’s guilt, such repulsion or conviction should not be fuelled by the manner in which the media reports the facts of these cases to its public. The law should be left to deal with those that are charged with breaking it and to do so properly, it requires that its work is not compromised by juries becoming prejudiced or witnesses tainted through the media’s treatment of the crime, the case or the criminal.

This poses problems for the interaction between the pubic, the media and the law. A satellite viewing, internet connected public demands more from its 24-7 media. Headline news does not satisfy the appetites of readers, viewers and listeners who want ‘exclusives’, ‘full coverage’, ‘behind the scenes reports’ and pictures beamed live and direct into their homes and workplaces. If we can watch live footage of a missile flying towards a target thousands of miles away, why shouldn’t we be able to know more about the crimes committed closer to home?

For its part the media is both commercially and consumer driven towards giving the public what it wants. But unlike video-on-demand the reporting of court cases is not freely for sale and should not be used to provide free fodder for tomorrow’s front pages. It is this latter point that Lord Goldsmith thinks the media needs reminding about.

He referred to some recent reporting as “frankly unacceptable” and justified his cautioning of editors in the wake of the Grosvenor House rape allegations on the basis that printing pictures of the accused where their identity was in question may have materially prejudiced the victim’s identification of her attackers. A valid point in law but does not address the fact that the alleged attackers had already openly told their version of events to the press, had their girlfriends vouch for their character and could be readily identified from their football team pictures on numerous web sites. Meanwhile the victim herself instructs a leading PR agent to tell her story to the media.

The law as it stands and is provided for in the 1981 Contempt of Court Act does not adequately provide for an increasing public desire to tell their stories to the press. The media is caught in the middle. On the one hand there is a public who want to know and have a desire to tell while on the other, there are laws that are designed to prevent certain things being known or told. What responsible journalism demands is getting the balance right in this increasingly difficult equation. The public’s desire for news and the media’s ability to deliver it are exceeding the law’s prescribed boundaries for regulating this information exchange. This can be seen beyond the confines of the courtroom but applies equally to other contentious areas such as privacy and breach of confidentiality to which the Queen’s recent upset at The Mirror bore testimony.

To return to Lord Goldsmith’s concerns about responsible reporting, he acknowledged the media had a difficult job to do in getting the balance right. Existing laws may not adequately provide for increasing demands for free expression but they remain a necessary constraint to ensure the integrity of the administration of justice remains in tact and the conduct of fair trials is not compromised.

Preventing trial by media should not prevent the media from reporting on trials. So to the extent Lord Goldsmith may be seen to be seeking to censure sensationalist court reports, his reason for doing so is to address the imbalance between what the public has a right to know and the courts are willing to tell. The media is caught in the middle but in delivering his 9-point guidelines, Lord Goldsmith has still left the balancing act to the media. That has to be better than issuing even tougher legislation. Responsible reporting will ensure things remain this way.


Lord Goldsmith’s guidance cautioned editors about contempt in relation to the following 9 points:
1. Reports that assume guilt of defendant

2. Reports that assume outcome of preliminary hearings

3. Reports that contain information that may hamper police investigation (photographs and ID parades)

4. Reports that contain detailed accounts of circumstances leading to criminal charges in question

5. Statements based on assertions of fact presented in advance of evidence

6. Material that would be inadmissible in a criminal case but could stick in the mind of a juror

7. Reports containing details of other proceedings in which defendant or witness has been involved

8. Reports containing information or comments about witnesses that may undermine their evidence

9. Reports which breach an order









2.12.03

China frees Stainless Steel Mouse

Chinese authorities have freed Liu Di, otherwise known by her internet name of the 'Stainless Steel Mouse' and 2 further online writers. All three had been arrested and imprisoned over a year ago for alleged subversion after posting satirical and other criticism of the Chinese state on their web pages.

China, not known for its tolerant approach to freedom of expression has come under repeated criticism by human rights groups for its severe treatment of those who seek to satirise the state.