Monday, 1 April 2013

Mrs Angry gets Hacked Off: a creative collaboration

Mrs Angry, taking a bullet for Rupert Murdoch ...

Mrs Angry is of course a seriously minded, highly focused citizen journalist, and one who is not given to indulgence in satire, caricature, ribaldry, or any other form of ill conceived attempt at humorous writing. 

She eschews all temptation to allow her blog to become, in short, a mere excuse for impertinence, and lack or respect for those in power, with large sums of money at their disposal should they wish to pursue ill advised libel cases in the High Court, for example. 

And she feels that any subject matter which touches on issues of public interest, or might require a certain amount of investigative enquiries should be pursued only if there is no chance of offending any of the subjects of such investigations. 

Or at least - this is how Mrs Angry may be required to behave in future. It may prove to be something of a struggle.

The other week, appalled by some of the findings in the judgement of the #daftarrest libel case, Mrs Angry announced her retirement from blogging. This was what we bloggers call 'a joke', in fact, but it caused a pleasing amount of dismay in some quarters, and a predictable degree of celebration in others. 

Shortly after this announcement, however, it became clear that retirement might indeed be the only dignified reaction to the latest challenge to the wider blogosphere - the impact of the new Charter about to be agreed by Parliament in the wake of the Leveson report, and the proposals which were intended to regulate the tabloid press, but by default will also apply to those who write and publish on the internet: bloggers, and the publishers of hyperlocal websites.

Last Thursday Mrs Angry was invited to a meeting at the intriguingly named 'Centre for Creative Collaboration' in oh, somewhere near Kings Cross (Mrs Angry got lost) in order to discuss the impending Charter and the implications for bloggers, a meeting facilitated by a group calling itself the  'Media Reform Coalition'.

Media Reform Coalition has links to Goldsmiths, at the University of London, and states that its aims are:

"... to coordinate the most effective contribution by civil society groups, academics and media campaigners to debates over media regulation, ownership and democracy in the context of the phone hacking crisis and proposed communications legislation."

Also attending the meeting, in order to explain the current confusion over the draft proposals for the Charter, was the Chair of Hacked Off, Hugh Tomlinson QC, a barrister with a great deal of expertise in matters of defamation, media, information and privacy law, who has represented several high profile celebrities, such as the Beckhams, Ryan Giggs, Sir Fred Goodwin - and is known as a 'super-injunction' specialist. He has also represented the FOI campaigners who fought to reveal MPs expenses. 

Hello: said Mrs Angry, on arrival, to the entry phone: Here I am: my name is Mrs Angry, and I have come to collaborate creatively ...

In fact, that proved to be an inaccurate representation of the afternoon's debate, as although collaboration was encouraged, creative thinking was not really welcomed. 

It was clear from the start that the view of Media Reform and Hugh Tomlinson was that the Charter and its regulatory proposals are A Good Thing for everyone, mainstream press and online media, and that such a view was unassailable. Regulation is necessary, and a new regulatory body - or bodies - they were not sure, and bloggers should be grateful for the new restrictions of the Charter, as they were not so much restrictions, as protections. Don't look at the stick, we were told, look at the carrot. 

Bloggers may have to abide by the agreed terms of the Charter, or they may not -no, they were not sure - but even if they do, or do not, the new regulatory body may, or may not - no, they were not sure - offer support to bloggers who may be threatened with the terrible prospect of exemplary damages in a libel case. Mr Tomlinson, rather confusingly, admitted that exemplary damages in libel cases were almost never awarded, anway.

Representing the wide reach of the British blogosphere were legal blogger Carl Gardner, who is broadly supportive of the Charter, and James Hatt, the editor of the excellent SEI website, (and with whom Mrs Angry has participated on a panel at last year's Netroots' convention), who listened carefully to the debate, but clearly had reservations about the scope of the new proposals. Barry White, from the NUJ and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom was also present,and had the presence of mind and good manners to laugh at Mrs Angry's jokes. (No one else did).

Mrs Angry expressed her view from the outset that she felt she could not be expected to endorse the Charter, even if she were not predisposed to reject any attempt to impose regulation of what should be the right to freedom of expression for two reasons: first of all, all of us are already subject to the law, the libel laws, a point recently demonstrated by the Caebrwyn case, and secondly, the draft proposals refer to a Code of Conduct that has not yet been created. 

Such objections were not well received, or at least were received with surprise. That the Charter was something to be supported was clearly a position that should not be challenged, and those that do are necessarily playing into the hands of the tabloid press, and the repellant practices by some which have brought us to this sorry pass.

No one doubts the need to prevent any continuation of the cynical, exploitative excesses of the Murdoch press, and other unscrupulous exemplars of gutter journalism, but the means to control these practices have always been in place. The fact that prosecutions did not ensue, or that the PCC failed to act with any authority are, arguably at least, failures of process, not justification for the imposition of a regulated press.

Why should the blogosphere be subject to control and punishment when the excesses that led to Leveson were almost certainly the fault of these failures to deal with the activities of mainstream journalism - and from a fawning, sick making political indulgence of press barons?

In an interview with Roy Greenslade in November 2011 here : in the aftermath of the hacking scandal, only days after James Murdoch's evidence to the MPs committee, (in the seat next to Mrs Angry, pictured above), and just as the Leveson Inquiry was about to get into full swing, Lord Hunt, the then newly appointed Chair of the PCC made a truly astonishing claim in response to the following point about press reform: 

"But, I counter, surely the major problems occur because of the tabloids? "No," he replies, "I think the greater challenge is with the bloggers, whether it's Guido Fawkes or whoever." 


Shortly afterwards, Lord Hunt gave an interview to David Hencke, as reported here: 
Lord Hunt professes himself to be an admirer of journalists like Hencke whose investigative skills are not tainted by the practices of the tabloid press, and yet, of course, the provisions of the new regulatory body would seem likely to risk creating a restriction of the investigation of issues in the public interest, and to remove those in power, or with influence, further from the reach of perfectly legitimate scrutiny.

Of course there is now a significant overlap between journalism and blogging, something else that the would be reformists appear unable fully to understand.

At the Media Reform meeting it was claimed that investigative journalists were not concerned about this possibility. Mrs Angry referred to a letter the previous weekend, published in the Guardian signed by a number of bloggers and journalists whose concerns over the 'botched draft' regulation proposals: look at the names -here - again, neither the Media Reform people, nor the man from Hacked Off were aware of this letter.

In his interview with Exaro, Lord Hunt had further interesting observations to make regarding the blogosphere:

" ... it is like the Wild West out there. We need to appoint a sheriff.”

 It was reported that:

"Hunt wants to scrap the PCC and replace it with a new body which will be an effective regulator of the press - and other areas too such as the blogosphere and the internet:

"His initial plan for online media is to invite bloggers who write on current affairs to volunteer to be regulated by the replacement body for the PCC.

They would be able to carry a ‘Kitemark’, showing that they abide by the new body’s code of practice. They would lose the ‘Kitemark’ if complaints against them were repeatedly upheld. But this regulatory oversight would mean bloggers having to pay a fee to the new body, which would be funded by the publications that it regulates.  

Hunt said: “I want accuracy to be the new gold standard for blogs. Once they have agreed to be accurate, everything would follow from that. I would like to see a ‘Kitemark’ on the best blogs so the public can trust what they read in them."

Oh: hang on - that sounds not awfully far away from what we are being threatened/cajoled with now, does it? Hunt of course has had an 'advisory role' in the drawing up of the new charter, although to what extent is unclear.

And funnily enough this 'Wild West' term popped up recently in the Independent in an article by Ian Burrell, again critical of bloggers, but rather oddly trying to portray them as driven by covert political or commercial agendas, and working for secret paymasters ...

It would seem that many of those commenting on and deciding on the future of regulation of the online press have no clear grasp of the reality of this form of media. At the Media Reform meeting, references were made to 'blogging organisations'. Mrs Angry, unable to suppress her laughter, suggested that the collective noun for a group of us would be a 'disagreement' of bloggers, that there appeared to be a failure to understand the culture of blogging, that it is by very nature anarchic, and organic, and unlikely to want to be regulated.

And regulated by whom, and at whose behest?

Andrew Gilligan is not necessarily a journalist whom you might expect to find quoted in this blog, but his article in Saturday's Telegraph here posed some interesting points about those who are behind the drive for press regulation, and raised important questions specifically about the role of 'Hacked Off'. Although Gilligan's own agenda requires a conclusion that Hacked Off is part of, oh dear, a conspiracy 'to claim the country for the authoritarian Left', he is right to  ask:

"Who are Hacked Off? And how did Brian Cathcart and a small group of even more obscure allies come from nowhere to write perhaps the most important constitutional change yet of the 21st century?"

This was a concern that was increasingly worrying Mrs Angry: that an unaccountable lobbying group clearly holds such influence with those drawing up the Charter proposals, although Hugh Tomlinson denied this, and pointed to the undoubted influence wielded by the press owners who object so vehemently to any imposition of a new type of regulation.

Oh, and aha: Gilligan's article has some interesting things to say about the links between Goldsmiths, and Media Reform, and Hacked Off ...

Looking at the Media Reform website, here it claims to have 'been meeting with bloggers and legal advisors to determine where they stand in relation to the new regulatory proposals'. Mrs Angry notes with amusement that a comment asks for a list of the 'bloggers' and 'advisors' and that the only names are those who attended the meeting last week, including herself. She will be leaving a link to this post on the blog.

It was agreed in this very limited discussion that there should be a wider consultation with bloggers: let us hope that this does indeed come to pass, even at this late stage, when the Charter and its implications are all but determined.

At Thursday's meeting Mrs Angry was asked, with some amazement, by some of those around the table, why do you not want to join a regulating body, and enjoy the protections this will give you?

Mrs Angry tried to explain that she was just not a joiner-upper, and that she thought that this was fairly typical of bloggers: that the nature of blogging demanded a certain independence of mind. To persuade us that the Charter would be to our advantage would require less talk of a regulator, and an urgent rebranding of the proposals as a protection of the rights to freedom of speech. A difficult leap to make, one would think.

Those of us who blog about and comment on politics, national or local, are, perhaps, doing so in the latest evolution of a tradition that is innate in British culture: using satire, caricature, invective, rhetoric: blogging is, or can be at its best, the twenty-first century equivalent of a Grub Street pamphlet, or a Gillray cartoon: it is punk journalism, Rude Britannia, two fingers up at the establishment, anarchy in the UK.

The art of being most effective, and acting most responsibly when dealing with the issues at hand, is knowing where to draw the line. Defining where that line is, in Mrs Angry's view, should be a matter of discretion, and not legislation.


The new edition of Private Eye has an entire page -  Page 8 - see here:

dedicated to a review of the role played by 'Hacked Off' in the drawing up of the Charter, and in particular the input of Hugh Tomlinson, described as 'the sultan of superinjunctions', and now the 'prince of press regulation'. The article lays bare the total mess that has ensued from the rushed move to legislation, and the difficulties in trying to undo the tangle of contradictory definitions that this has created.


Media Reform Coalition has now produced an online survey here:

which Mrs Angry would suggest all bloggers consider carefully, having read the accompanying, rather complex document, which is meant to clarify the options being proposed. That it is so complex is of course a reflection of the confusion caused by such hurried legislation. It seems this is the only opportunity for consultation that we will be given, anyway.


Mr Mustard said...

Yes, we are an independently minded bunch, bloggers, mostly without income and generally making naughty signs in the direction of Authority and so unlikely to be able to pay to join something which we don't want to join as we are not "clubbable" people.

At least if we get sued and lose everything we can contact Phoenix Rainbow and join the latest squat.

Cneifiwr said...

Interesting and disturbing. When you think of the public face of Hacked Off - the Hugh Grants, McCanns and others - not one has been hacked or hounded by a blogger. There are plenty of establishment figures whose activities have been exposed to the odd glint of sunlight in blogs who have good reason for wanting to shut us all up of course.

It's good to see Private Eye leading the way here. Whenever we are told that regulation is for our own good and protection, bloggers of all political persuasions should join Lord Gnome with a resounding F*** off.

On a personal note, I thought the photo was stunning and regal (shades of Country Life's totty of the month), but I still don't fancy joining the Honourable Mrs A and Mr Mustard in a squat or a 21st century remake of Huis Clos.

Mrs Angry said...

Country Life's totty of the month?? Oh Cneifiwr: if only I had worn my pearls, like Margaret Duchess of Argyll ... does your knees in, though ...

But yes, all this drama about bloggers, and the real villains of the piece continue unabated.

Mrs Angry said...

Now then: why would a certain Murdoch owned newspaper be calling in, in pursuit of a certain member of Hacked Off? Interesting.