Did Press Get It Right Over Westminster Terror Attack Coverage?

 

As the immediacy of the Westminster terrorist attack starts to fade, and before we get entirely preoccupied with the forthcoming election, I wonder if an opportunity has been taken to reflect on how the fast-moving and deeply disturbing events of 23 March were covered by the media, and the press in particular.

I am clearly not alone in this.  The Guardian’s Vicky Frost wrote round to all of that newspaper’s “members” to solicit views.  As she rightly  wrote:  “Lots of things have to happen very quickly: we need to understand what’s happening and blog it live; monitor sources, competitors and social media to see what new facts are emerging; get reporters on the ground … begin assessing pictures and video as they come in; and of course decide what we should include in our coverage.”

Asking your readers if they thought your editorial decision making was correct is a welcome dollop of humility in a world of amour-propre.  It is also an explicit recognition of the power, still, in newspapers to set the news agenda rather than simply report on it.

The Guardian was following its own Simon Jenkins, who wrote on the morning after the attack that media hype had exaggerated the event to such an extent that they had become “an accomplice after the fact” and in effect constituted “an open invitation to every crazed malcontent to try it again.”

There is a historical resonance to this starving of the oxygen of publicity, as a former PM said about the IRA leadership.  The apartheid regime in South Arica used to simply ban references to/by people they didn’t like.

To be clear, Jenkins was not advocating state censorship, but he was calling for much greater self-restraint and a higher calibre of editorial control than currently exits. So was he right?  How should Guardian readers reply to Vicky Frost’s invitation?

I think that there are four areas of debate.

First, the exaggerated over-exposure.

I simply don’t agree.  There was no glamorisation.  This was a major news story.  It was a shock but surely not a surprise. And the shock-waves rippled far and wide. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen or it was somehow routine.

And in  this age of instant digital, multi-platform news,  in a physical space where these is a huge concentration of  journalists and  individuals  who are intensely media-savvy,  you have  perfect, potent combination  of  an arresting news story,  lots of news space to fill,  and lots of people who are adept at filling it.

Second, publishing pictures of people in distress

The decision to publish was proportionate.  We should be slow to hide the grief, destruction and violence of terrorism and the response (sometimes heroic) to it.

Third, publishing a picture of the attacker either dead or near-death

This is the trickiest one.  It is an exciting image which was widely circulated.  I suppose one argument is whether or not he had any legitimate expectation of privacy.  This generally disappears when one starts murdering passers-by and police officers.

Another argument would be the clear ethic identity of the attacker.  But was revealing this pejorative or discriminatory?  I don’t think so.

Fourth, why so much overage of what happened in Westminster, when events in the UK or abroad of equal or greater gravity are marginalised.  I refer you back to my first point.   And newspapers are almost universally preoccupied with what is happening closest to home.

So in a nutshell, I think the Guardian got it right, and Simon Jenkins’ argument is well and sincerely made but has no traction in this specific situation.

But there is no doubt that our self-regulated newspaper industry needs to raise its game. Desperately. To deliberately mislead or allow a partisan editorial stance to infuse news coverage is one thing – and partly actionable under the Editor’s Code – but entrenched xenophobia, racism and sexism is profoundly unhelpful was well as ethically wrong and potentially illegal.  We are scarily not so far from the infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” headline and article, and the more recent “remoaners and sabboteurs” splash looks disturbingly like an invitation to lynch-mobbery.

We all need to be very careful indeed what we wish for.

MacKenzie and Sun Equally Culpable For Horrendous Barkley Own-Goal

Ross Barkley celebrates Everton’s second goal against Burnley on Saturday

In my six years of adjudicating on complaints against the press,1 I am struggling to think of a case as bad as Kelvin MacKenzie’s assault on footballer Ross Barkley last Friday.

This has nothing to do with the ability of journalists to be offensive or controversial. Both are the price of our relatively free press. But from a regulatory point of view, MacKenzie’s article scrapped well below the bottom of the barrel.

I’m not going to reprise his rant – why recirculate and give fresh impetus to such bile?  But the piece was inaccurate, and so misleading.  It failed to differentiate opinion from fact.  And it used a “protected characteristic” in way that was pejorative and gratuitous.  All these things cross the red lines of the self-regulatory Editors’ Code.

But there are two things in addition  that take us to a new level. First,  the timing.  The article was published on the eve of the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, when 96 supporters from Liverpool lost their lives at the afore-mentioned stadum.  Either MacKenzie was aware of the date and ploughed on regardless.  Or he wasn’t which given his own personal involvement in mis-reporting the event in question is a profound act of self-serving amnesia.  Irrespective of the explanation, it is spectacularly insensitive.

And second, how did the article get from MacKenzie’s keyboard into the Sun?  Who proofed it? Who subbed it?  Who found the images and who laid out the page?  Again, two possible explanations:  Either MacKenzie, as a former editor and long-established figure, was given “carte blanche” to do as he pleased.  Or the editorial control was utterly lacking.  Either way, the failure of effective editorial oversight is truly shocking.  That is surely a question of standards that must be addressed.

The failure of editorial oversight is not just about the specific article, it is about the Sun’s standing and sales.  Other commentators have already speculated that commercially this episode could prove counter-productive in an almost existential sense. I am not so sure, but I do know that writing-off a whole region of the UK is a curious way to try to increase influence and revenue.

What was going on in the editor’s office of the Sun last Thursday night?  Was it some inexperienced southerner who has no idea of what this means on Merseyside and the North West generally? Was it someone who had the experience and knowledge but thought the notoriety would be somehow worth it?

I was at Goodison Park on Saturday and I have to say how wrong you can be. You could feel the resilience and unity of the capacity crowd over Hillsborough and Barkley. (And just by the way, referee Clattenberg was also wrong to book Barkley for his post-goal celebrations.  After the week he had been through, greater humanity should have been shown.)

However, there are two positives than we can take from this sorry mess.  The first is that People Power can and does work.  The public and business boycott of the Sun on Merseyside, now more widespread than ever, hits the company harder than can be quantified.  And second, that the ‘paper themselves suspended McKenzie shows that the reconfiguration of   how press complaints are investigated –so that they have a primary hard-wired responsibility to own and act on complaints – is having some effect.

But what we surely need is a proactive culture rather than a reactive remedy.  This was serious error of both judgement and procedure by the Sun.  With freedom comes responsibility. They need to stop up the bottle and leave the last-chance saloon, dispense with Kelvin MacKenzie – and to programme their IT systems to delete any copy containing the words “Football” and “Merseyside”

 

 

1 I was a Press Complaints Commissioner 2008-2014

New Asylum Seekers Scandal: A Comprehensive Political Stitch-Up

Misleading images: Not all migrants are asylum seekers

 

In these days of the unthinkable being normalised, it was still shocking to see the results of a new survey on where and how asylum seekers to the UK are dispersed. In case you missed it the stand-out points are:

  • Most refugees are sent to the poorest parts of the country
  • Labour-controlled local authorities house more than 20 times more of these people than Conservative ones
  • There is no extra funding for this
  • Councils volunteer to house asylum seekers but then “get very little control over how it works

There was strongly worded reaction from many commentators and politicians.  The unfairness is self-evident, and the impact on housing, education, social services and social cohesion were all name-checked.

But hang on.  Yes, hats off to the Guardian for splashing this on their front page, and to Yvette Cooper, chair of the Commons Home Affairs committee for calling for a complete review of the system. But I am sure I cannot be alone in thinking that this is nowhere near enough.

This car crash of issues and policies is not merely a political spectacle affecting others. This directly and dangerously affects almost every one. The fact that even the Sun précised the Guardian’s article should ring bells here.

Yes – no critical comment in the Sun, but a stock picture straight out of the “Oh God, they’re going to swamp us” portfolio.  So we are straight in at the heart of the big toxic migration debate, including the asylum seekers we are talking about here.  This group – around 39,000 – are the people who are waiting for their application to be processed.  The total number of migrants is of course much larger.  And sadly I bet not many people will differentiate.  So there is a massive scaling-up – all migrants are perceived as caught up in this unfair distribution, so many more people are going to feel they are or will be affected by already scarce resources being spread ever more thinly.

Where does this lead us?  Middlesboro’s apparent and accidental flirtation with red doors for the accommodation of all asylum seekers was quickly remedied. But the stigma and misunderstanding  cannot always be controlled. In the wake of the attack in Croydon on Reker Ahmed, Aditya Chakrabortty eloquently poses the key question: “If Theresa May really wants to protect refugees why does she fuel such hatred?”

This impact on social cohesion is one of the fall-outs from the flawed asylum dispersal policy in a sensitised/traumatised Britain. Another is potentially on our politics.

This is a hypothesis that has yet to be tested, but the uneven burden of the cost of accommodating asylum seekers could well impact on elections in those council areas most affected. It’s not rocket science to anticipate that stretched-to-breaking-point resources will encourage a xenophobic “blame game” to the detriment of incumbent local politicians.  The correlation between low average household incomes, Labour-led councils and asylum seeker population is strong.

The third stand-out element in this mess are the policy decisions that led us to this point.  Cooper is dead right to say this is so bust it can’t be fixed without revisiting these. In 2012 the contracts for housing asylum seekers were privatized, with predictable and disastrous profits-before-people consequences. So arguably we have another illustration of a sell-off that has not benefited service users or the general public (And a well-deserved plug here for the excellent work of We Own It in making the case for public ownership)

Take these three elements together (and I readily acknowledge each merits a book of their own) and just look at who benefits from such an incoherent, unfair, damaging scenario.  I would argue that it is political chicanery of the highest order.

More than 20 years ago, the Conservative leader of Westminster Council scraped the bottom of the barrel with a breathtaking vote-rigging policy. With no pun intended, is Theresa May just about to trump that?

 

Young Core Workers Set To Save UK Unions?

We are on the brink of the biggest shake up of the UK trade union scene in a generation. New work  lead by the TUC in collaboration  with the Good Innovation agency seems set to break through the  deeply entrenched disconnect between younger workers  and organisations  that  despite not enjoying  the  influence of years past,  still have over 6 million  paying members.

But the outlook is stark.  Overall trade union density is down to a quarter of the workforce. The numbers of employees whose terms and conditions are union-negotiated has fallen in parallel to around 30% across the economy as a whole. And in areas where employment is expected to rise – and which have a high number if young workers – density levels can be as low as 5%

The TUC term these people as “young core workers” – they are characterised by being aged 21–30, predominantly working, full- or part- time in the private sector,  they’re not in full-time education and earn  low to average wages. They are disproportionately represented in the hospitality, social care and customer services sectors.

The challenge, to a certain extent, is as it has always been:  Get the membership/engagement offer right for this group and you then have a proven tool that will be transformational.  What’s different this time is the power and energy behind the initiative.

Some very significant research has already taken place, involving a survey population from these target areas.  As a result   it  has been possible to identify  two key  dimensions  that  characterise  the employment experience of  these YCWs – how important do they regard  their job,  and are they more  preoccupied  by  the present or the future?

This leads to four generic worker types described in the table below:

YCW

These four types sit under some challenges that seem to be on the radar of all YCWs,  namely Realisation  (they don’t  perceive that  bad,  even illegal treatment at work  is  problematic, Trust (sharing  information or concerns  is  seen as a weakness to be seized upon  by  fellow workers) and Futility (the belief  that any attempt to  effect change will end in failure).

Conceptually, the next stage is to identify a successful series of engagement strategies.  We know already that this is possible – look at Unite’s Sports Direct campaign, or the GMB work in respect of Uber.  But the YCW strategy is an upscaling of these victories on a wider, larger, deeper scale. Something those driving the report – including a specially convened “President’s Group” of senior representatives from TUC affiliates – must recognise cannot be accomplished within the existing spheres of influence of individual trade unions.

The breadth of and foundation for of the YCW project is ground-breaking: This is more, much more than a “we can’t change anything but we’re going to try anyway” throw of the dice. The early response from young trade unionists is determined. But there is a necessity for habitually territorial unions to break out of the Balkanised industrial landscape created in the post war years.  What was once comfortable has been increasingly unfit for purpose for many years.

Of course, this won’t solve all our problems in one hit, but the exciting, tantalising, real prospect of this project is the formation of new collaborative, cross union structures to deliver success in what everyone in the movement knows is an existential challenge.