Press v Politicians

A full-page apology ad published in British ne...

A full-page apology ad published in British newspapers by News International.  (14 July 2011). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Newspaper journalists and politicians are amongst the most skilled selectors of competing truths on the planet.  So it’s no surprise that we’re seeing quite a few shameless examples as the end game of the UK’s press regulation reformation approaches.  Here are a few of them:

“This will end three hundred years of press freedom in Britain”

This statement suggests press freedom is a binary condition — “You either have a free press or you don’t,” claims Boris Johnson.  But journalists are already subject to plenty of restrictions: they are not allowed to write falsehoods about us, bribe our policemen or hack our phones, and they are punished in the courts if they do.  Preventing them from hounding grief-stricken members of society and forcing them to acknowledge complaints merely curtails their freedom a few degrees more.  Crucially, nothing in the proposed system of regulation would limit their freedom to express truth or opinion — however unpalatable to government.

“We want to stand up for ordinary people against the press barons”

Very noble and true up to a point, but it paints a misleading picture of the Press.  Most of the local and specialist newspapers and magazines that will be subject to the new rules are not owned or run by anything approximating a “baron”.

“Under the Royal Charter, politicians will be able to impose new regulations on journalists any time two thirds of parliamentarians agree (as they might well if we criticise their expenses again).”

Quite true, but it implies that this is some chilling new state of affairs.  For hundreds of years, the government has been in a position to impose new regulations on the Press (or anyone else) with a simple majority in Parliament.  If anything, with this higher legislative hurdle, it will be harder for politicians to regulate the Press in the future.

“The new Press regulator will be voluntary”

Voluntary in the same way that cooperation with the Mafia is voluntary.  It is true that newspapers don’t have to sign up to the proposed regime, but if they don’t they will be liable for all costs in any libel action against them, even if they win the case.  This probably won’t worry the “press barons”, but it will be very painful for smaller newspapers who have been wrongly sued.  Politicians talk about “incentives” to join the new regime — others might talk about “an offer they can’t refuse”.

“This remains a charter written by politicians, imposed by politicians and controlled by politicians”

Well, yes, but who else can create and implement a statute but our elected representatives?  Isn’t that what they’re for?  This truth neatly ignores the fact that the Royal Charter will establish an independent regulator, with members chosen by an Appointments Committee devoid of serving MPs (and editors).  The body with the real power will have no politicians anywhere near it.  And the new code of conduct imposed on editors will be drawn up not by politicians but by the newspapers themselves.  MPs might determine the architecture of the new regime, but it will be policed by independents according to rules devised by the Press.



“Charity millions ‘going to Syrian terror groups'” claims Telegraph in data-free shock

Disasters Emergency Committee - give with conf...

Disasters Emergency Committee – give with confidence (Photo credit: HowardLake)

The Telegraph, a respectable British national newspaper, has today run an alarmist headline on its front page suggesting that several million pounds donated to Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC, whose members include the British Red Cross and Oxfam) for humanitarian relief in Syria have instead gone to terrorists.  Can it possibly be true?

Let’s first deal with those weaselly inverted commas in the headline.  These are conventionally used by journalists to indicate that a claim has been made by someone else; the newspaper is only reporting what has been said.  Yet nowhere in the article is anyone reported to have uttered the words “going to Syrian terror groups” — those quote marks are being abused.  More importantly, no one mentions “millions” of pounds.  The people quoted in the article speak of “some” money going to extremist groups (William Shawcross, chairman of the Charity Commission),  “stuff” being “diverted” (Peter Clarke, former head of anti-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police) and “some charitable aid” being “diverted to terrorists in Syria” (Robert Halfon MP).  No one, other than the Telegraph apparently, feels able to quantify the amount of cash being mislaid.

It is surely inevitable that in the chaos of the Syrian civil war some charitable funds will go astray.  Who honestly believes that doesn’t happen even in peaceful places like Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan (all of which have Islamic militant groups ready to scoop up errant cash)?  It could be a few thousand pounds.  It could be tens of thousands.  Who knows?  Certainly not the Telegraph.  The “millions” of their headline derives from the £20 million the DEC has heroically raised in its Syria Crisis Appeal.  But as far as we can tell from all the statements reported, none of the experts are suggesting the share ending up in the wrong hands is anywhere near that large.  In fact most of them talk of risks and possibilities rather than known facts:

There is a risk that funds raised in the name of ‘charity’ generally or under the name of a specific charity are misused to support terrorist activities, with or without the charity’s knowledge

individuals supporting terrorist activity might also claim to work for a charity and trade on its name and legitimacy to gain access to a region or community

It is perfectly feasible for charities to be established as a sort of cover

You can think of a host of different ways in which people giving money with the best possible intentions could find that it has been misappropriated

Informed speculation possibly, but speculation nonetheless.  Not one word directly quoted justifies the Telegraph headline.

The problem is that such headlines are bound to put people off giving money to reputable charities helping desperate Syrian civilians.  Yet we can’t accuse the Telegraph of any falsehood.  Their headline might be true.  We simply don’t know.  All we do know is that they have presented no evidence for it, and none of the experts they quote said anything like it.  Such sensationalist truth-bending tactics are to be expected from the tabloids — the Daily Mail is guilty of almost exactly the same misrepresentation — but the Telegraph ought to know better.

Donate to DEC’s Syria Appeal here