Finding what’s lost, via the media

November 25, 2012

Nice piece in the Boston Globe about the search for a runaway child. It makes the point that the parents used social media cleverly, and hence new media was key to success. But they didn’t succeed until the story hit TV (old media) and then a whistleblower called the cops (old fashioned source).

In fact this is interesting I think precisely because the three techniques all worked together. The parents have produced  a guide to using social media to find runaways and set up a nonprofit, “Find Your Missing Child,” which seems like a great idea. Its interesting to compare also with the old technique of putting ads on milk cartons. Anyone know if there are any data on relative success rates? What works? Any evidence?


Gernika, news reporting and intervention

September 13, 2012

20120913-122458.jpg
A trip to Spain has made
me think a lot about the Spanish civil war and news reporting, and especially the bombing of Gernika in 1937 by German and Italian aircraft on behalf of the rebel military, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. The incident was rapidly reported, in particular by Times correspondent George Steer. It is a classic case study for war reporting. Several books cover it in detail. Some issues that it raises:

1. Coverage. The civil war and in particular the northern theatre was regarded as a news priority by British media. The Times, Express and Reuters all had correspondents on the ground; they were having dinner together in Bilbao when they heard the news, and drove to Gernika immediately. French and US media had less coverage and relied on syndication, pickups of other stories or more distant correspondents. What makes media cover something (or not)? Economics? Audience? Story?
2. Reporting. There was good detailed reporting from Steer and others. The correspondents were present and quickly. Steer want back the following day and his report reflects that in its detail and focus. It is worth reading in full. What makes for good, readable, immediate coverage? Why is the person on the spot so crucial? What will replace them?
3. Editorial judgement. There was pressure on the Times editor – which was resisted – to tone down, censor or remove coverage. Dawson was very much inclined towards appeasement but on this he couldn’t be moved. What makes editors act independently? What supports this and what doesn’t?
4. Fog of war. There were other incorrect reports, and use of the incident for propaganda. These muddied the waters and helped critics use misreporting to deny the incident. How do you deal with incorrect reports, especially when it isn’t easy to verify them? Does it matter if some early details were wrong? Does correcting them undermine the story?
5. Response. The response of the (Francoist) rebel military was direct denial of the attack. They claimed the republicans had done it themselves. This story still has credence in some circles. How do governments react to atrocities and humanitarian scandals? How can people stand up against this?
6. Impact. The news coverage had great popular results. It spread to all media and was a spark to wider anger about the fascists and the war. What makes a story like this work? Victims? Nature of atrocity? Immediacy and reporting?
7. Channels of distribution. “Follows” and syndication led to wider dissemination Of the story. In particular, Steer’s report went to the New York Times and to L’Humanite in Paris, the communist paper. How do stories get to readers/viewers? Are there more or fewer channels now? More or less noise?
8. “Memes“. Picasso read l’Humanite and it inspired him to paint the atrocity as part of an existing contract with the Spanish government. It thus triggered a much wider critical conversation. What makes a story part of a wider discussion? Why did this one work? Pure coincidence?
9. Objectivity. Steer had direct conversations with the Basque government and was clearly aligned with them personally. He also had direct conversations with policymakers in London. Later in his career he worked for British military intelligence in an early form of psyops. But was his reporting nonetheless objective? Is objectivity the same as neutrality?
10. Intervention. There was no decisive intervention in favour of the Spanish Republican government despite the reporting. Britain, France and the US had grave doubts about the Republicans and there was sympathy for the fascists in conservtive and Catholic circles. Under what circumstances does reporting of an atrocity in a civil conflict lead to external intervention? When doesn’t it?

Several books on this; and several academic studies. Other questions that could be asked. But: comments? Questions? Suggestions? I am going to produce a longer version of this.


The Man Who Saved The Independent

July 1, 2011

"We may be a crap team, but we have a good time."

Simon Kelner’s retirement seems as good a moment as any to come out of temporary blogtirement, and to say: I love the man, and he saved the Independent, and I don’t care who hears me say that. This will not be universally popular with friends who loathe him and who he fired or abused or drove to distraction.

Kelner took over the Independent at a time of despair and decline. Ownership and management by Mirror Group Newspapers had been a disaster for the paper, and frequent changes of editor left it critically weak. Simon did more than fulfill the minimalist goal of keeping it alive; he gave it back some some swagger, even if that was precisely what some like least about it.

Let us not forget the paper’s Time of Troubles. There were five editors of the Independent during the short period (1995-8) I was deputy foreign editor and then foreign editor: Ian Hargreaves, Charlie Wilson, Andrew Marr, Rosie Boycott, and Andrew Marr again (briefly). Even if each of them had been brilliant editors the result would have been chaos. They weren’t.

Marr, the newsroom’s candidate and fabulous writer and broadcaster, was a catastrophe (he says so in his excellent book, My Trade). Wilson loathed the paper, its journalists and its readers, though he was a good news editor with a good sense of what sold. Hargreaves was insightful and thoughtful and gathered a star team around him, but the timing wasn’t right, the resources weren’t there and management never backed him. Boycott was terrific – a hand grenade thrower and very charismatic – but very shortlived, and probably a better weekly editor than a daily.

Simon knew the paper well: he had been deputy sports editor at the creation in 1986. When I returned to London in the 1990s from Brussels, I was warned against him by a foreign correspondent of Levantine instincts: he would “destroy the paper,” this guy said. In fact I found him entertaining, funny, insightful, news-focussed and hard-working. He bought me lots of drinks, which helped, and gave me a lift home, so I would forgive him a lot for that. He left and went to the Mail, working on features, but we continued to have the occasional drink or twelve. When I was appointed Washington bureau chief in 2008, I went to see him at the Mail to say goodbye. He wasn’t around, and I was little disappointed to miss him; he called me on my way to the airport to tell me he was the new editor of the paper, and my new boss.

Why was Simon a good editor? For a start, unlike all of those above, he had the confidence of the owners. He and Tony O’Reilly, the sports-loving proprietor, would spend long and happy hours on the golf course or at the race track. Journalists disparage this, seeing proprietors in the model established by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop – the odious, dim, overbearing Lord Copper. O’Reilly is smart, affable and happy to mix it with his associates and his ownership of the paper was overwhelmingly positive; Simon and he worked mostly hand in glove.

Secondly, Simon was able to reinvigorate the paper, within narrow resources. It became more populist, which was good: the original team, led by the saintly Andreas Whittam-Smith, had aimed high, for a market that was too small to be sustainable. Simon took a small chunk of a larger market, the upper mid-market left-of-centre. And with the shift to tabloid, he made an advantage of a necessity: changing format saved money and repositioned the paper. He had little cash and few staff, but the result was readable and more agile– the paper had become stuffy and fearful in the 1990s. First the tabloid, then the i (the short short version of the paper) helped destuff it and to give it back some swagger, a quality Simon has in bucketloads.

Thirdly, Simon injected the paper with a new set of values. The founding fathers of the paper (Whittam-Smith, Steven Glover and Mathew Symonds) were ex-Telegraph, Oxbridge, establishment figures. This was a revolution from above, not below. 

Simon has a distance and a perspective that helped him steer the paper in a different direction. he is non-metropolitan – he comes from the north somewhere (does it really matter where? Ah, the tyranny of facts. Manchester, I think). He is non-Oxbridge. He comes from bits of journalism that most national editors only ever see in news conference or at the Christmas party: sports and features. Sports, let it be remembered, was one of the glories of The Independent, and to those who don’t read the sports pages in newspapers: you are missing one of the few areas of news where the facts really matter and readers will tear you to shreds if you get them wrong, and where good writing still matters. As for features: the Mail does them really well, and they sell papers. Most readers will spend more time over a coffee with the feature sections than the hardbitten hacks in Home or Foreign News would find conscionable, and even they will probably read the magazine in the toilet, not that long dreary piece on transport policy.

The staff didn’t always appreciate having new values injected into them, and Simon didn’t always wield the needle as gently as he might as slid it into their collective buttocks. Swagger can sometimes edge into arrogance and disdain, in the paper and in person. Other things Simon didn’t do. He didn’t confront digital, and the paper has been slow to catch up. He had little patience with those who sought to question what he was doing or to second guess him, and that led some to leave or be fired when they might have stayed. The paper as it stands lacks some authority because the emphasis has been on innovation, change, youth and flash. There is a cost to this, as the Johann Hari saga shows – a star columnist who stole quotes from others’ stories and used them unattributed. This is an editorial failure and should be acknowledged as such.

But: when I think of the writers the paper still has, whether or not I agree with their views, it is clear that Simon has also kept the paper’s sense of itself, to a remarkable degree, and its insight. On the foreign side of the paper, which I follow most closely: John Lichfield, Rupert Cornwell, David Usborne, Robert Fisk, Andrew Buncombe, Patrick Cockburn, Mary Dejevsky… but also younger writers like Guy Adams, Daniel Howden, or the current foreign editor, Archie Bland.

Why is he going? He has done it for longer than he wanted; he has been ill and would probably like to have a nice time again. He told me when he was appointed he would do it for a decade – and that was 1998. He came back after Roger Alton stumbled under the weight of the paper’s many challenges. The Independent has now reinvented itself and is re-entering a happier time (the end of Labour, the return of the Conservatives and the odd role of the Liberals is good for the paper, and it has some buzz again). He didn’t get on with the new proprietors as well as the old, I think. I doubt the Hari affair had much to do with it, though maybe it cemented his view he wanted to move on and the owners’ view that they needed someone new – someone with more conventional experience (Cambridge, Business Editor), more gravitas, less hair. And so we have Chris Blackhurst, the paper’s tenth editor, I believe (Andreas, Ian, Charlie, Andrew, Rosie, Andrew, Simon, Roger Alton, Simon, Chris).

I won’t romanticize it (too far). The paper has lost money, writers, advertisers, authority and the lives of many of those who work there are tough and unrelenting. Many good people are no longer there simply because of lack of cash or flashes of spite (or both). Simon can be egoistic, short-sighted, obscurantist (oh, look it up), bad-tempered, vain and that’s on a good day. But there wouldn’t be any paper without him; it would have died in about 2000. He is the second-greatest editor of the paper after Andreas and he is The Man Who Saved The Independent (TMWSTI).


I Could Do That (ICDT) 27-9-10

September 27, 2010

A selection of jobs that might suit ex-journalists. Intended to spark thoughts, new directions and inquiries.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change wants an editor (and reading their job ad, my goodness you know it’s true). Based in Bonn, which is a very pleasant place indeed to live; and doing something interesting and worthwhile. http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1028400/editor/

Editorial Director for the medical communications division of a PR agency. Involves writing, editing, managing a load of medical content. Would suit medical writer with a degree in science, and some experience outside journalism. http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1029172/editorial-director/

Editorial Director for the financial services arm of a business information firm. With responsibility for the collection, reporting and quality of data and content on a new database. They want an experienced financial journalist, though the base salary is £35k…. http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1029172/editorial-director/

Corporate Communications Manager (Speech Writing), Trade Body, London, £40k. Involves speeches, blogs, PR. Hard to say much more without knowing their client, but a good springboard job if you know the industry (whatever that is). Comes via Stopgap, an agency – if they had said who the trade body was, it would be easier to know who should apply for it. http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1025893/corporate-communications-manager-speech-writing/

Communications Specialist, Islamic Relief, Alexandria VA. Islamic Relief is seeking a qualified individual who will be reporting to the Communications Manager in the Buena Park, California office.  Would suit a journalist with about three years experience; an interesting org. Job opportunity found on http://www.nedsjotw.com/blog.

Vice President for Marketing and Communications, Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), New York, NY. JAFI is works on all manner of issues relating to the Jewish diaspora and Israel. Vice President for Marketing and Communications is a fairly senior position. Job opportunity found on http://www.nedsjotw.com/blog.

Director, External Relations and Communications Department, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine. UNRWA is the United Nations agency responsible for the protection, care and human development of Palestine refugees . This is a pretty senior job, with a salary over $100k; based in Jerusalem. Job opportunity found on http://www.nedsjotw.com/blog.

Communications Director, International Center for Transitional Justice, NY, NY. The International Center for Transitional Justice helps countries and societies pursuing accountability for past mass atrocity or human rights abuse. This is a fascinating job; think I will have ths one for myself, actually. Job opportunity found on http://www.nedsjotw.com/blog.

Journalists for Human Rights, a Canadian –based media development organization, seems to have a bunch of jobs of various sorts, many involving media internships in Africa. Looks an interesting organization. http://www.jhr.ca/en/contact_hp.php#

Senior Communications Manager, Witness, Brooklyn, New York. WITNESS uses video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. It captures the stories of human rights atrocities on video and putting them at the forefront of human rights campaigns. Nive job. Might have a look at this one too, though my experience of video is mainly down to Simpson DVDs. Job opportunity found on http://www.nedsjotw.com/blog.


Can non-profit journalism save the day?

September 20, 2010

The non-profit sector and the media continue to flirt with each other, and even have the occasional offspring. This morning, the Guardian launched its website on global development, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development. Madeleine Bunting introduced the new baby on the oped page and the web. It is interesting because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, and indeed they are credited on the site’s home page. The peg is the UN summit on Global Development in New York, though the partnership is longer lasting and more substantial.

“It is the first time the Guardian has developed a partnership with a major charitable foundation to fund a strand of its core journalism,” says Bunting. “Part of the agreement includes safeguarding the Guardian’s editorial independence. Both organisations are committed to making achievement of the UN goals a central strand of the new site. But alongside the challenge of working in a partnership with a foundation, the site has set itself a big ambition of curating a global conversation about development.”

Beyond editorial independence, a second (and related) issue is that not everyone agrees about development: its importance, how it is funded, what results are possible or desirable. There are lots of different audiences, and as Bunting says: “The problem about these different audiences is that while they often have much knowledge of the subject, they don’t much like talking to each other. Part of the challenge on the new site will be to host all these conversations – all of which are crucial to the debate in their very different ways. Will that mean that everyone gets cross at some point or another with the site? Probably.”

Non-profits have an agenda, a way of working and resolving conflicts, and they have  financial interests. It will be interesting to see how the new experiments work out. How easy will the site and its funders be with controversy? And with mistakes? And with conflict? All of these things are somewhat inevitable in reporting. The cultural issues will be significant if the new journalism is to mean more than just taking a handout.

My own brief experience in non-profits is that there are massive opportunities for both sides in teaming up, or working alongside each other, or even in replacing each other from time to time. Non-profits are starting to make interesting moves into the field; journalism is starting to look for other funding .

There are many different models. ProPublica is essentially a news venture that focuses on developing public interest stories and finances them through foundation grants and individual donations. It aims to get its stories into mainstream publications and media where possible. FreePress puts more of a political and social message around non-profit and low-profit ventures. The Guardian is featuring journalism funded by the non-profit sector, but not guided by it. National Public Radio (often forgotten) is a hybrid of public and private funding. Human Rights Watch produces its own media, more or less, and hired a bunch of journos.

Not surprisingly, this flirtation between non-profits and journos has excited a lot of policy wonkery. Duke University’s Sanford School looked at the options in this series of papers, based on a conference. This conference at UW Madison examined some of the ethical issues, including who was an acceptable backer. And the Nieman Journalism Lab has looked at what makes non-profit journalism legit, and proposed some standards. This blog covers the issues.

Despite the anguished ethical debates, conflict of interest is only part of the issue: it is at least as much a question of conflict of cultures, and this will be hard to bridge, as Mary Walton explains in the American Journalism Review. “Says Laura Frank, who is navigating the new channels as head of a startup, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, “People think, ‘Oh, wow. You don’t have to deal with advertisers,’ but it’s kind of the same thing. Foundations are used to funding something and having control over it. You have to explain to them that there is a firewall: ‘What you’re funding is the act of journalism for the benefit of society.’ “

There are a couple of bigger questions for the non-profits and foundations, too – like: why fund journalism? “I have in my wallet three million dollars,” said Jack Shafer, media critic of Slate, at a symposium on investigative reporting quoted in the AJR piece.  “The opera wants it, the ballet wants it, the museum wants it, the YMCA, poor kids in Africa want it.” Why give it to journalists? Or journalism? Or news? Or media?  Can they get more by handing over money, or internalizing the resources and doing it themselves? What bang for their buck do they get?

Newsosaur, a blogger who writes on the news and business, is completely unconvinced. It would require far, far more money than the charitable sector is capable of providing to pay for all current newsgathering, he says. “So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.” To be fair, no-one is saying that everything will go this way, but he has a point.

The trend can only continue; I have some (non-rhetorical) questions about this:

  1. Is this a good use of money (Can’t they get a proper job)? Why does journalism deserve charitable status or money? What are the non-profits getting out of it that they couldn’t through other means?  Why pour money into activities and people that apparently weren’t capable of generating it themselves?
  2. Will this produce good journalism (Up to a point, Lady Bountiful)? Does the institutional culture of journalism work with a foundation culture? Will people still pick fights, dig dirt, kick against the pricks? Or will it tend towards the worst aspects of non-profits and trade journalism: inward looking, clubby, self-satisfied? Does the need to sell and be read actually have a role to play 9and can these be decoupled)?
  3. What about competition (Mr Gates)? What impact will this have on other media that remains revenue-focussed? Will it price some of it out of the market? Will there still be a role for competition in the coverage of, say, development through (for example) the New Internationalist (a workers co-op, btw). Does it make sense to have competition in any case?
  4. Does this only work for some things? Does this decouple investigative and public interest journalism from the city beat, sports, financial, community reporting, politics etc? One of the advantages of the old model was that everyone competed for space and shared resources; is that over? Does public interest journalism now exist in a subsidized, gilded ghetto?
  5. What happens to the stuff that gets left out? We accept that not all new business models will cover everything. So: if some stuff can be paid for (business, sport and celebrity); and some can be locally  or crowd-sourced (community news, reviews etc); and some gets paid for by non-profits, what falls through the cracks? What can’t be covered by money, vanity, love and charity? And does it matter? Reporting on mental health? Local government?

I Could Do That (ICDT) 20-9-10 Updated

September 20, 2010

Some media  job opportunities from this morning’s Guardian Media Section and Ned’s Job of The Week:

Press Officer at Clarence House, working with HRH Prince of Wales. Paddy Haverson, head of comms, is probably one of the nicest people in the world; this would be a really interesting job, whether you are a republican or royalist.  http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1027147/press-officer-clarence-house/

Writer for Bluefrog, a specialist marketing agency working for the charitable sector. You won’t retire wealthy (20-30k) but a good niche and if you’ve just banked a couple of years salary in redundo, an interesting opportunity. http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1027161/writer/

WorldView Project Director. A UK scheme to improve UK understanding and awareness of the developing world via the mainstream broadcast media. Would suit TV person with a bleeding heart. Not a bad whack either for the non-profit sector; linked to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/job/1027424/worldview-project-director/

Advisor Media Relations and Special Events, Pan American Health Organization, Washington, DC. I had never heard of this lot before; would suit communicative, healthy, Spanish speaking Washingtonian. Got this from Ned’s JOTW.  http://www.comminit.com/en/node/323369/ads

Senior Specialist – Public Relations, ABA, WASHINGTON, DC. Working with the criminal justice section, so a few years doing the courts would help. . Got this from Ned’s JOTW. https://www5.recruitingcenter.net/Clients/abanet/PublicJobs/controller.cfm?jbaction=JobProfile&Job_Id=10422&esid=az

Director of Alumni Affairs, Office of the Dean, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. “The Director of Alumni Affairs is responsible for all alumni programming designed to engage the alumni of the McDonough School of Business (MSB) with the school in meaningful ways.” (Someone else looks after the meaningless ones?). Wouldn’t hurt to be a Georgetown alum oneself I would have thought.   Got this from Ned’s JOTW. http://www12.georgetown.edu/hr/employment_services/joblist/jobs.cfm

Content Writer and Editor, Contract Position, Christensen Fund, San Francisco, California. The Christensen Fund (www.christensenfund.org) is a fifty-year old foundation in Northern California with a long history of funding the arts, environmental conservation, and education — locally and internationally. Lots of writing and editing. Got this from Ned’s JOTW. http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/jobs/job_item.jhtml?id=308200023

Director of Public Relations, Demand Media, Santa Monica, California. Demand Media is one of the new content factories, churning out articles that meet the demands of the online ad industry. Smart model; and interesting to work for the people that were supposedly responsible for putting journalism out of business…  Got this from Ned’s JOTW. http://jobs.prweekjobs.com/careers/jobsearch/detail/jobId/29776879

Associate Editor, Ford Foundation, New York, New York. Relatively junior job, for someone with 3-5 yrs experience as a reporter/writer. Someone more senior might still be interested as part of a process of converting out of media, though. Ford Foundation unlikely to run out of money any time soon. Got this from Ned’s JOTW. http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/jobs/job_item.jhtml?id=307800020


Watching the Detectives

September 9, 2010

There are really only three ways of getting information: look it up, ask someone or steal it. The third option is often referred to by euphemism; yet increasingly the grey areas that used to exist in this regard are gone, even if practitioners are finding that hard to handle.

The current News of the World scandal in the UK – over illegal efforts by journalists to break into the voicemails of public figures, and the failure of the police to investigate it – is a reminder of the reality and prevalence of information obtained by deception, and the problems around it.

Journalists, policemen, spies and investigators all know this, and all engage in all three methods to some extent. All know two dirty secrets: that the first two methods, legal and slightly dull, account for the vast majority of information that they get, despite the mystique surrounding their professions. They demand hard work and diligence. And: what remains, the covert acquisition of information by nefarious means, is far from glamorous, often illegal, unreliable, and not neccessarily worth the risk involved. Yet they often stick with old, trusted techniques, however lazy or dangerous or illegal. Sometimes, they can generate information no other method would, and sometimes that is worth the risk.

It isn’t always illegal to obtain all information by deception; it can’t be, as the statute couldn’t be drawn up that broadly. It is, however, illegal to deceive some people in some ways for some reasons (telling a bank official you are someone else, to get their bank statement or their money for example. But it varies widely and by country. It is hard to prove. And the exceptions are significant.

All four professions tend to believe that they are justified in taking information: the public good justifies it in their minds and indeed often in law. That seems to be one of the main issues with the NoW. It sees itself as a crusader for truth against elites, and so may well not have seen much wrong with cracking the voicemails of the rich and powerful.

Several things are wrong with this. Firstly, the relevant UK law – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – includes no public good defence. Secondly, it is hard to see that all the stories that resulted from phone hacking are in the public good. Most are low gossip. And if you think that the judgement of an elitist, then consider: who judges the public good here?

Another defence: “stealing” is seen as somewhat relative. If I break in to your house and take a necklace, that’s stealing. If you leave your front door open and I pop in and take a look at your diary, is that stealing? If I don’t deprive you of the thing, and don’t break anything to get in? Am I stealing if I overhear your conversation? Find a letter you dropped? Read a document you forgot to delete on a public computer?

Cracking a voicemail involves accessing the system with the right number and knowing the PIN code. The message is still there, and using someone else’s PIN – well, is that illegal?

Yup. The statute is relatively clear. Read the law.

Indeed, much of what used to be routine in the investigative world is indeed now illegal. Getting bank account data and mobile phone bills is illegal, in most developed countries. People go to prison and pay fines. Bribing officials or policemen to get information is also mostly illegal. Getting hold of peoples’ rubbish and using what you find – letters, phone bills – is harder since people have got wise and shred their mail. This encourages people to use quick, cheap, reliable tricks. And they fall in love with these, since they have an air of mystique, secrecy, intrigue.

The world of private detectives, journalists, intelligence officers and so on has turned to electronic information because it’s easy, people are careless, the law isn’t always clear, it’s often hard to prove wrongdoing, and the other avenues are tough.

Each believes they have the right. They work together very closely and the best in each profession respects the others. And each tends to believe that what it does is in the public interest.

That is one of the critical points. What precisely is the public interest? Who defines it? Anyone? The Met? The NoW? The reader? The courts?

The reality of the NoW case is that the paper seems to have been very aggressive in using available techniques against all possible targets, with poor judgement about when and why. It had the resources, the editorial backing and the management space. In this case, however, this wasn’t jusitified from an editorial, legal, or risk management viewpoint and probably wouldn’t even have got them decent stories. Voicemail is a blunt instrument.

The activities of the paper’s investigative journalists are stories of legend: but no-one is talking about clipping the wings of legitimate inquiry. This was low-end stuff, not the undercover work of the paper’s star reporters.

Why wasn’t it thoroughly investigated? Because it would have been hard, because there would have been an attitude of “worse things happen in the jungle,” because none of those charged with investigating will have seen it as wholly their job, because some will have seen it as a victimless crime. The evidence and investigation (despite what the TV leads you to believe) will have been tough to piece together. Who accessed this voicemail? From where? How? And should the police let everyone know they might have been hacked? How would they know?

So – some will see this episode as a serious breach of the law by politically motivated people that felt they could act with impunity and worked in cahoots with the police. Others will regard it as an inevitable product of new challenges around electronic security and privacy. A third group will see it as journalism on the edge (for good or ill).

There is some of all of these, but in the end this was a professional failure at every level. This was poor investigative technique deployed to gather poor stories by lazy journalists who couldn’t be bothered to do real investigative work: develop sources, dig dirt, and get smart.

There’ll be more of this. Corporate, political, commercial interests will play happily with the people that do this work because they love it, and believe it right to expose the private lives of public figures. They always have done and they always will. We should make better laws and police them better, because the existing system doesn’t work. Meawhile. buy a shredder, don’t use email for difficult stuff, and don’t leave voicemails.


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