When to muzzle your Press

Deer and foxI was inspired to write this, if that’s the word, on reading Fleet Street Fox on the Leveson Report: The devil is in the detail, published yesterday in the Press Gazette.

It’s a fine example of a rant as you will ever find from an MP explaining with tendentious authority why the general public have absolutely no right to know about their Parliamentary expenses and how it will ruin a free democracy if this is allowed: you would think this was an investigative journalist who sees censorship on the cards, not a fox demanding the right to be unmuzzled in the henhouse.

But the devil is in the detail, and the detail of Leveson is the bit which will muzzle the Press as effectively as Hannibal Lecter strapped to a luggage trolley.

Leveson wants this backed up by law which is plain wrong, because there’s no bill ever passed by Parliament that wasn’t tinkered with later. Hacked Off and other campaigners may feel the suggested law is fine, but it’s the law it may mutate into which is why it should never happen.

So, we can’t have laws in the UK, because however nice a law looks when it’s proposed, Parliament may change it into something unspeakable, so all laws are wrong. We should instead trust to the kindness and gentility of the likes of David Grigson.

Okay. That’s nice, Fox. We should live in a lawless society because we can’t trust Parliament.

Let me answer a simpler question.

When is muzzling the Press appropriate and can you recommend a certain kind?

By and large, muzzles are used to keep the Press from biting or causing injury. There are two types of muzzles: prohibitive (also referred to as the “tyrant’s muzzle”) and regulatory.

Prohibitive muzzles ban the Press in advance of publishing something. Methods used include but are not limited to the threat of a libel suit, D Notices, and superinjunctions. They are not available to the general public except in specific instances enforced by legislation: in general an individual must be either very rich or very powerful to obtain one.

The prohibitive muzzle keeps the Press in an almost completely closed position. Since their design restricts the Press from panting, prohibitive muzzles should not be used in hot weather for more than very short periods. Prohibitive muzzles are, however, in frequent use long-term on large sections of the Press by that section’s owner with consequent damage to the health of the Press.

Rupert Murdoch Indeed, almost as dismaying as Ailes’ and Murdoch’s disdain for an independent and truly free and honest press, and as remarkable as the obsequious eagerness of their messenger to convey their extraordinary presidential draft and promise of on-air Fox support to Petraeus, has been the ho-hum response to the story by the American press and the country’s political establishment, whether out of fear of Murdoch, Ailes and Fox – or, perhaps, lack of surprise at Murdoch’s, Ailes’ and Fox’s contempt for decent journalistic values or a transparent electoral process. Carl Bernstein: Why the US media ignored Murdoch’s brazen bid to hijack the presidency

The regulatory muzzle resembles a tribunal that may be summoned after the Press has published. It is best constructed of independent appointees, not dependent on any branch of the Press for their income. Unlike the prohibitive muzzle, the regulatory muzzle allows the Press to publish what they wish so long as it is in accordance with the law: it allows individuals who could not afford an expensive prohibitive muzzle to protect themselves somewhat against injury. However, a Press that is wearing a regulatory muzzle can still cause harm by publishing (called “muzzle punching”) – they may simply be called to account afterwards for the damage they have done.

Fleet Street Fox: No explanation of why 30,000 print journalists need to be curtailed when only a few dozen face charges. No talk of reform to 13th century defamation. No suggestion for formal ethics training – I learned my ethics from chief reporters on local papers, something which works only if they’re ethical themselves.

I think this is what made me angriest: the presumption of the print journalist that providing no charges have been brought – since the most vulnerable people usually cannot afford to defend themselves against the Press, a situation Leveson would change – then nothing has been done wrong and no muzzle needs to be applied except for the accustomed prohibitory muzzle preventing a journalist from biting someone rich enough to cause trouble. Well, sometimes. After all, phone hacking is just one of those things.

Piers Morgan - CNN[Piers Morgan] was asked during his evidence to the Leveson inquiry about an interview he gave Press Gazette in 2007 when he said that phone hacking was an “investigative practice that everyone knows was going on at almost every paper in Fleet Street for years”.

In his testimony, Morgan, who now hosts a chatshow on CNN in New York, downplayed the comment as “passing on rumours that I’d heard” and said that there was no phone hacking at the Daily Mirror under his editorship from 1995 to 2004.

“Overall, Mr Morgan’s attempt to push back from his own bullish statement to the Press Gazette was utterly unpersuasive,” said Leveson in his report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press, published on Thursday. “This was not, in any sense at all, a convincing answer.”

Four civil claims against the publisher [Trinity Mirror] accuse the newspapers of a “breach of confidence and misuse of private information” relating to the “interception and/or misuse of mobile-phone voicemail messages and/or the interception of telephone accounts”. Phone-hacking allegations hit Trinity Mirror shares, The Guardian, 23rd October 2012

But then this isn’t just about what’s criminal. It’s also about the Press practice of being deliberately hurtful to people who have become “news” – and Fleet Street Fox, though she can do drippy sentiment with the best of them, is straightforwardly, journalistically callous when writing in the Press Gazette:

Hard to ask, publicly, if even without phone-hacking when Milly’s voicemails deleted themselves automatically Sally might not have had the same mistaken belief her daughter was safe.

So when is muzzling appropriate? Sometimes the Press snaps when having nails clipped, being brushed, or being vaccinated. A prohibitory muzzle is a good idea with the Press when it is likely to bite a child or the victim of sexual assault. Prohibitory muzzles may also be used during training sessions for behavior modification. For example, if a trainer is working with the Press and the Press has handling issues, a muzzle is used in order to ensure the trainer’s safety.

There were instances throughout the Leveson inquiry of people hurt by the Press fever for getting a “story” no matter how trivial, so long as it sells: Fox complains much of the evidence was “dated”, but pretends to ignore the fresher blood, the recent instances since the Leveson Report was published of the Press biting: for example, a little girl going to school on her first day as a girl (she’s trans) gets bitten the next day by two unmuzzled journalists who don’t see a reason not to hurt her: she’s trans, that makes her a “story”, not a person.

Scottish Sun - Transphobic headline against teenage girl No charges will be brought against Jack Royston and Gordon Tait, reporters for the Scottish Sun (see left). So why do they need to be curtailed? They only decided that they were going to bite a little girl, because she’s trans and her parents are accepting and supportive. Her mother’s furious and hurt, but if you’re a journalist why would you care about the hurt feelings of a teenage girl or the anger of her mother: neither one is rich or powerful enough to bring charges against you, so you can’t see a need to be muzzled to prevent you from biting them. Is that right?

Fox bringing rabbit to foxcubsA recommended brand has horizontal slats through which slices of hot dog or other food can be passed. The design is useful for classical conditioning–pairing something delightful (slices of hot dog) with something the Press does not necessarily love (being handled)–to modify behavior.

Regardless of which type of muzzle is used, the Press should be acclimated to it before use. This can easily be accomplished by pairing food with the muzzle. For the prohibitory muzzle, stick a small treat through the bottom and let the Press place their snout into the muzzle to take the treat. The Press in the UK are so accustomed by now to the prohibitory muzzle that they rarely if ever bark about being muzzled.

For the regulatory muzzle, which the Press are less accustomed to, offer the protection of the tribunal against expensive libel suits, make clear the Press will not be prevented from publishing what they see fit, and let the Press take the treat.

Important: Muzzling an aggressive Press can be a good management solution in a particular situation, but a muzzle should not be used as a substitute for behavior modification. If your Press has aggression issues, contact a knowledgeable trainer for assistance. The National Union of Journalists is a good place to start. (It’s important to note that what Leveson proposed was a regulatory body that was to ensure that the Press lived up to its own code of ethics.)

Here is what has happened. A whole industry has been roundly condemned by an official public inquiry, with the judge declaring that ‘on too many occasions’ responsibilities had been ignored and concluding: ‘This has damaged the public interest, caused real hardship and, also on occasion, wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people . . .’ The judge also made a series of carefully thought-out recommendations for change.

In addition, the inquiry addressed the relationship between the tainted industry and politicians, finding that relationships were ‘too close’ and expressing concern about contacts behind closed doors. The judge said:

It is, however, the responsibility of the politicians to ensure that the decisions that are taken are seen to be based on the public interest as a whole. This means the extent to which they are lobbied … should be open and transparent; and that the public should therefore have a basic understanding of the process. … . A good start would be for those steps towards greater transparency to be taken in relation to … lobbying about this Report.

Chris Riddell on Rupert Murdoch's hand-in-glove relationship So the industry stands condemned and the politicians are warned to keep their distance from it.

Now imagine that four days after the publication of this worrying report the representatives of the wrongdoers were invited for morning coffee with the prime minister at Downing Street, to be told that he did not intend to implement key recommendations of the inquiry.

How would the press have reported that?

How would Fleet Street Fox react to the news that people working in the industry condemned by a judge-led enquiry for bad practice weres shrugging off the evidence with “only a few dozen face charges” and claiming that this means the thirty thousand employees who haven’t been charged don’t need any regulatory body and the judge doesn’t understand how the industry works?

In effect, the argument by many journalists – including Fox – is that those of us belonging to the plebs who can be hurt and defamed by the Press with impunity, should accept that savaging as the price of an unmuzzled Press, which thus gives journalists who actually do real investigatory work that hurts the powerful – at the Guardian or at Private Eye – the freedom to continue the hunt?

But then consider that the Guardian and Private Eye are not among the papers squealing against the Leveson inquiry, nor are investigative journalists who do proper work in the public interest, complaining that this will muzzle them. Only the papers who make a living from attacking and humiliating the powerless are complaining about this regulatory muzzle.

“Peter [Cook] was brilliant in court,” Hislop recalls. “He always turned up when there was trouble. During the Maxwell case [in which Robert Maxwell sued the magazine over its now-legitimate suggestion that he looked like a criminal], he sat in the back of the courtroom during the cross-examination and just waved his chequebook at Maxwell. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s the sort of proprietor you need.’ Maxwell didn’t react, of course. He found nothing funny — particularly not us.”

Having lost the case and seen Private Eye having to part with £250,000, Hislop continued the ‘chequebook’ riff outside the court, telling reporters, “I’ve just given a fat cheque to a fat Czech.” Private Eye: The First 50 Years

Private Eye called Robert Maxwell a crook when no one else would do it. (And he was. You can’t libel the dead, so it’s safe to point out now that he stole £440m from the funds which were to provide pensions for employees of Maxwell Communications Corporation and Mirror Group Newspapers.) Yet Ian Hislop is not found ranting at length about how if Leveson is implemented it will muzzle the free Press.

Indeed, it’s a curious thing; the journalists least likely to submit to a prohibitory muzzle, are the least likely to object to a regulatory muzzle: and contrariwise.

Leaving you with this thought: foxes are beautiful animals, skilled predators, hunters who survive. But a fox ranting about how you should let her continue to have unmuzzled access to the chicken-run?

Maybe not.

Fox killing chickens

Leveson has announced his recommendations. The victims of press abuses want them implemented. Let the Government know that you support the victims. Sign the petition now. 147242 now: 200,000 by 2013?

(A large part of the text of this blogpost is borrowed directly from an excellent article on dog training by Nicole Wilde, published in Dogtime on 31st March 2011. It will obviously be clear to all my readers that this was done with satiric and parodic intent, but as we are all friends here, I just thought I’d mention it.)

2 Comments

Filed under Corruption, Elections, Feng Shui Kitten Fixes Stuff, Justice

2 responses to “When to muzzle your Press

  1. Tychy

    I don’t take pleasure in correcting you, but Ian Hislop has had quite a bit to say about Leveson muzzling the press. One of the latest Eyes makes the claim that a newspaper which does not subscribe to industry regulation will be fined by the libel courts EVEN IF it wins the case.

    The only acceptable “muzzle” for the press is a common law that applies to everybody – a law that journalists will be brave enough to break if the story is worth it. Or perhaps our country could move forward to the unimaginable progressive radicalism of the eighteenth century, with our own First Amendment (though we’d need a constitution first).

    • I don’t take pleasure in correcting you, but Ian Hislop has had quite a bit to say about Leveson muzzling the press. One of the latest Eyes makes the claim that a newspaper which does not subscribe to industry regulation will be fined by the libel courts EVEN IF it wins the case.

      I don’t buy Eye regularly: I was not aware of that. Pleasure to be corrected by better information.

      Leveson proposed as the carrot for getting newspapers to join the industry regulator, the promise of a low-cost tribunal to settle cases quickly. As the stick, Leveson proposed that a newspaper that did not opt to join the industry regulator, should be assumed to have chosen to go the expensive libel route, and should therefore have to bear the costs of its own libel case even if it wins.

      This may be what Eye was referring to.

      The only acceptable “muzzle” for the press is a common law that applies to everybody – a law that journalists will be brave enough to break if the story is worth it.

      The problem with that argument is that this is what we have right now – and it obviously doesn’t work at all. Journalists who work for big-budget newspapers don’t need to worry about libel costs when dissing ordinary people who can’t afford a libel lawyer. People rich enough to afford a good libel lawyer know they won’t get exposed in the press because if they do, they will sue.

      Reforming the UK’s libel law system could work, but mostly what people want when they’re defamed by the media is not the money, but a clear and public acknowledgement that the press got it wrong and is sorry to have done so – and to get that as soon as possible. That is the last thing that most of the corporate press want to permit the ordinary person, and it’s exactly what the Leveson ruling was aimed at getting us.

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