Monday, November 28, 2011

Libel tourism and the death of free speech

A great deal has been written, by individuals much more eloquent than me, about the way in which UK courts allow plaintiffs from other countries to sue for libel over here if there is even a tiny chance of the supposedly libellous statement being read in this country. The advantage for the litigious of coming to Britain is that our laws are much more favourable to them.

Fortunately, there is now some momentum for libel reform, which should make the British courts less attractive to those who would prefer to stifle free speech, but there are still risks for those posting on the internet from companies who make all sorts of threats to the uninitiated.

Only recently, a representative of the Bursynski Clinic, an American institution offering controversial treatment for cancer has threatened to sue several prominent bloggers for supposed inaccuracies in their stories.

The treatment involves chemicals extracted from urine that have only been claimed to be effective by Dr Bursynski himself. For a variety of reasons, that other blogs have covered in detail, but which relate to an agreement with the Texan authorities to limit the scope of his treatments, Dr Bursynski can only administer his treatment as part of a clinical trial. Unfortunately, the good Doctor has taken it upon himself to launch a number of trials and to charge patients for participating in them. Doubly unfortunate is that respected bodies have examined the trial protocols and found them to be lacking, i.e. the results they produce cannot be proven conclusive - so they're a waste of time in developing a cure. Dr Bursynski and his employees, meanwhile, earn a good living from conducting these trials on the credulous and the desperate.

Science is all about rigour and proper experimental protocols. If Dr Bursynski wants to be taken seriously, then he should use accepted methodology and not charge patients for the privilege of being his guinea pigs. He also needs to come clean as to the true effectiveness of the treatments he is promoting.

Otherwise, his urine-based treatment might just be seen as taking the piss.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Murdoch Most Foul is merely the first.

If you live in Britain, you'll have found it hard to miss the stories about journalists working for News International hacking mobile phone voicemails and bribing police officers in order to obtain scoops. The focus has been fully on the Murdoch family, the titles they own and their employees but, logically, isn't it likely that other news organisations have been up to the same tricks?

The BBC programme Newsnight ran a story last night that claimed Trinity Mirror Group journalists were up to many of the same illegal activities in pursuit of stories and that Piers Morgan (for it is he) presided over a culture where such behaviour was rife and well-known.

Statistics from the office of the Information Commissioner also show that of the recorded offences where newspapers obtained personal information to which they weren't entitled, the Mirror were the worst culprits, followed closely by Associated Newspapers - publishers of the Daily Mail, with News International a long way behind. Even the holier-than-thou Guardian Media Group appears on the list, though for context, it should be pointed out that the Mirror was involved in around 16 times as many recorded incidents.

So why the focus on Murdoch and News International? Possibly because he has long been a bĂȘte
noire of the UK newspaper establishment, with his Antipodean roots and penchant for dumbing down and sexing up the newspaper titles he buys. There is also the issue of his influence on politicians that derives from the mass market appeal of the Sun and (formerly) the News of the World, wherein Murdoch can act as king-maker by swaying his readers' opinions to support the party that he wants to win.

Despite the enormity of the story, one organisation has been very quiet: the Press Complaints Commission - the self-regulatory body for the press. Could this be anything to do with the fact that the Mirror's Tina Weaver is a Commission member and Associated Newspapers' Paul Dacre is Chairman of the Editors' Code of Practice Committee? Does it make sense for the body which is supposed to reign in the excesses of the press to contain senior figures from the companies involved?

The PCC as a regulator is already a joke. Aside from rejecting complaints that are made by people who are not directly affected by the article about which they are complaining, the complaints that are upheld are accompanied by laughably lenient sanctions. Newspapers, when forced to print an apology or correction, will routinely bury it at the bottom of an inside page in as small a box as possible.

But even this is too much for some. Express Newspapers owned by Richard Desmond - another wholly unsuitable newspaper owner, has declined to pay their PCC subscriptions and so has, effectively, opted out of PCC control. So, unless they do something so serious as to involve the courts, the Daily and Sunday Express, the Daily Star and Star on Sunday are outside of regulatory control.

And even if the offended party wants to take a newspaper to court, they may be unable to afford it. In the past, lawyers acting on behalf of the newspapers have threatened plaintiffs by suggesting that the newspaper would seek punitively high costs, and may counter-sue for damages in the event of the defendant losing. Often, the threat is accompanied by a derisory offer of an out-of-court settlement conditional upon the defendant signing a gagging order. Such bully-boy tactics have seen the newspapers operate largely unchecked for many years.

But a free press is vital in any democracy, so the suggestions of some politicians to introduce censorship laws must be resisted at all costs. What is needed is the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press to be enshrined in law, but for it to be regulated by an independent apolitical body that has real power to apply appropriate and meaningful sanctions when illegal and/or unethical behaviour is proven.

The new body shouldn't concern itself with who owns the newspapers, however. Labour leader Ed Milliband recently called for the larger newspaper groups to be split up to reduce the power of a few owners. What he seems to have failed to realise is that increasing plurality of ownership also increases production costs, as the economies of scale open to larger media operations are removed when those operations are split up. This would lead to a fight against ever-decreasing margins and an even more rabid grab for circulation numbers - leading inevitably to more lurid and sensationalistic journalism, and even more pressure to deliver exclusives, raising further the temptation to step outside the law to get the story.

Now is the time for journalists to remember that with such great power comes great responsibility and that the public deserves better.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Valentine's Day: The Day British Politics was Massacred

They have a colourful phrase in American TV circles: "jumping the shark". It identifies when a series has gone past its best and begun a downhill slide. The saying originates from the episode of 'Happy Days' in which Fonzie jumps his motorbike over a tank containing a deadly shark, which is seen as the point when the series finally became unwatchable.

On Valentine's Day 2010, British politics jumped its own shark when ITV broadcast Piers Morgan's interview with Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Regardless of one's opinion of the participants, the premise and execution of the interview proves that the political process in this country has descended into the realms of the soap opera, or worse, pantomime.

Ignoring such hard-hitting questions as "how did you propose to your wife" and "are you a member of the mile-high club", the main story from the interview was that Gordon Brown was deeply upset by the death of his child. Just to ram the point home, the director cut away to close-ups of Sarah Brown, who is sitting in the audience.

I have the greatest sympathy for the Browns, just as I have for any parent whose child dies, but to go on TV and to agree to answer questions on the subject just to make political capital is, frankly, abhorrent.

Rumour has it that Conservative leader David Cameron is also in talks with ITV regarding a similar interview. Cameron, too, has suffered the tragic loss of a child. His son Ivan had cerebral palsy and epilepsy, which caused him significant disability until his death last year at the age of six.

It's horrifying to think that the leaders of the two main political parties are engaged in some form of oneupmanship over the personal tragedies they have suffered, in order to win the sympathy vote ahead of the proper polls.

Where have the great statesmen gone? Where are the leaders who can rise above such venal behaviour and present a set of coherent policies to take the country out of recession?

Perhaps the sharks ate them.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A view to a kill

It's funny how a recession can lead to the most blatant of liberties being taken in the name of protecting/creating jobs.

The Staffordshire Sentinel newspaper recently reported on the case of the residents of Birchall Avenue in Sandyford whose life has been blighted by the building of a giant warehouse near their homes, which blocks off the far-reaching views they once had.

The culprit is Churchill China, a pottery manufacturer that I worked for a long time ago. The company claims that the new development will provide up to - wait for it - 20 new jobs. This is obviously sufficient justification for the local council to allow the erection of a 25 metre-high grey and blue monstrosity that makes no attempt to blend into its surroundings.

Planning rules apparently state that there is no entitlement to a view merely to daylight, so the 20 metre gap between the warehouses and surrounding gardens is the absolute minimum to let the light in and bugger the view. Some residents are claiming that the combination of the warehouse and the inevitable additional noise it will produce have devalued their houses by as much as £20,000 but the management at Churchill couldn't care less it seems.

While I'm all for business success in these straitened times, I can't help but wonder if the jobs supposedly being created are actually jobs displaced from another location due to Churchill's consolidation of their operations onto one site. If so, then Churchill has behaved shabbily and should have the good grace to make goodwill payments to the affected homeowners.

How likely is that? Somewhere between slim and none, and Slim just rode outta town.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dreams of Beating the Credit Crunch

It may be a sweeping generalisation to say that most people dream of financial independence without the need to be a wage slave, but certainly my experience is that many of my friends and acquaintances are seeking that elusive windfall. Whether it's a lottery win, coming up on the football pools or benefiting from the bequest of a distant and long-forgotten relative, a lot of idle thought goes into what we'd do with the money.

But once you've got past the nice house, the flash car and the luxury holidays - and even if you share the money out with family and friends, few of us look at the long-term implications of living a moneyed lifestyle.

A few weeks ago (as I write this) the EuroMillions lottery jackpot nudged £100 million following a series of rollover weeks. That's almost enough to buy a bank these days, which points to another problem - where is the safest place for your money?

Even the most profligate spender would have a problem frittering such a vast amount away - unless they are employed by HM Government - but how do you protect your millions from being used up?

There's no point putting it in the bank, as they're all going bust at the moment, so your money would most likely end up paying for the severance packages of the board of directors. Property used to be a safe place to invest, but in the current climate you stand a better than even chance of losing a lot of money. Classic cars aren't worth what they used to be and the prices are volatile; the same goes for art and pretty much anything else collectable. And as for shares, the FTSE and Dow Jones are in the news every day as some minor panic wipes billions of the value of major companies.

The two places that people are being advised to invest in are gold, and National Savings. The Post Office account was once the choice of many savers and it appears now that its day has come again, though given the losses sustained by the organisation in recent years, and the fact that there are no branches left outside large towns, it may not be as safe or convenient as you need. As for buying gold, I would always worry that someone with a cunning plan and access to the sewers that run so conveniently directly under the vault would have-it-away with my stash, and that's ignoring the fact that the vault storing my gold would most likely be in a bank, bringing us back to my earlier objection.

Then, there's the envy of others to consider. Many of us are familiar with the fact that there is a sub-strata of society that has no regard for the well-being or the property of others and will do everything in their power to relieve people of their money and possessions, including the threat (and execution) of violence against the person. Just how big a target would the owners of £100 million be? To what lengths would criminals go in order to steal valuables from them? How much would effective security cost, and would it seem like living in a prison of your own making, albeit a luxurious one?

So, what have we learned? No matter how much money you have, there's always a reason to worry that you don't have enough. Does that mean riches can't make you happy? Maybe, but at least you'll be comfortably miserable.

Monday, November 13, 2006

It must be true, because I say it is

Sometimes the most trivial things wind me up. I think it's to do with my age.

Take today, for example. Among other subjects, I often photograph models. They are always female, and they are occasionally underdressed.

Now, I harbour a secret desire to one day make decent money from my photographic hobby, and so always ensure that I've got the necessary forms completed that would allow me to legally sell the images at some unspecified point in the future.

So this guy gets onto one of the web forums and tells everyone that the laws are changing in the US, requiring photographers to keep much more detailed records of their models - and that we could e-mail him for the form we need.

His basis for this statement was that an unnamed friend of his, who deals with the US market on a daily basis, had told him. Given that complying with the change in the law would make for a lot of extra paperwork, I felt justified in asking for corroboration.

The individual concerned obviously felt aggrieved at having his expertise on the matter questioned, because the post in reply was a little, shall we say, off-hand. Of course, I'm bound to give my side of the story, as it is my blog, but I felt the response was inappropriate & said so.

Perhaps I should have let sleeping dogs lie, but as I said at the beginning, the ease with which I get wound up is directly proportional to my advancing age, so I responded. Unfortunately, it's now developed into something of a flame war, with him accusing me of a public attack on him. I actually remarked, responding to the tone of his post, that he'd got out of bed on the wrong side this morning. I wouldn't personally see that as the most wounding insult one could deliver, but go figure.

Anyway, I decided to investigate further and the only sources of information I can find, that I would regard as definitive, point to the legislative change being less draconian than the original post I read had led me to believe.

Consequently, I've learned two important lessons today:
1. Don't bother to ask people for help or clarification when they post things, you'll only start an argument.
2. Instead, seek independent corroboration of the facts from a reputable source.

Unless, of course, I'm the person with the information in point 1 above, in which case: it must be true because I say it is.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Racist jokes

Pretty much every joke, with the exception of the ones you can tell your seven-year-old, could upset someone, and racist jokes appear to have the greatest potential.

Most 'racist' jokes rely on stereotypes for their humour; so the Irish lack intelligence, the Jews and the Scots are tight-fisted, the Italians and French cowardly. Blacks are criminals (with an extra portion in the trouser department), the Australians are sexist sheep molesters, while the US is full of dense gung-ho rednecks who have no idea that a world exists outside their own borders.

Other jokes of the genre mock the appearance of whichever race is the butt of the joke; so the broad noses & full lips of black people are singled out, as is the east Asian eye shape, the veils of Muslim women and so on.

One may cringe at such jokes, but throughout the world there remains a large number of people - in every country - prepared to laugh at this type of humour. Obviously, the targets change depending on the location of the joke teller, and local prejudices, but the jokes are essentially the same. And all of them rely on one thing: the fact that the audience understands the prejudice upon which the joke is based.

But are they offensive, or so ridiculous as to be laughable?

I tried a joke on a friend of mine, who happens to be black. It went like this:

A black woman goes to the doctor & asks for his help.
"It's my husband," she says. "Whenever we're out for a stroll, or going around the shops, he insists on running everywhere. He just refuses to slow down."
"That's easy to fix," replies the doctor, "simply wash his clothes in Ariel. That's guaranteed to stop coloureds running."

My friend's reaction was to laugh heartily at the joke; she wasn't in the least bit offended. My friend is a very confident person and proud of her West Indian heritage, and she found the joke amusing.

OK, I'll admit it wasn't that strong a joke, merely being a pun on the use of what is now deemed an unacceptable term for describing black people, but my point is, who decides what is & isn't offensive?

Is there a mass movement of blonde women against blonde jokes? Are lawyers suing comedians over being described as unprincipled money-grabbers? Are the rednecks reaching into the backs of their pick-ups, moving the beer cooler out of the way & grabbing their shotguns?

Or are we too sensitive about one type of joke? While it tends to perpetuate a stereotype, is there real harm in a racist joke? Are there acceptable targets (such as the French - who, after all, are a nationality, not a race)?

The vast majority of jokes have a butt, a target to be disparaged, but should we bother to take that belittling seriously? Are we giving more credence to the impact of such comments than they deserve, or are we merely preventing the escalation of the feelings expressed in joke form into true racial hatred?

I'm sure that in Hitler's Germany there were plenty of jokes told about the Jews before and during the war (notwithstanding the sterotype that the Germans are a humourless race), but were these one of many catalysts for the atrocities that followed, or merely reflective of the social situation of the time?

I don't profess to know the answers to any of this, except to say I believe it to be a matter for each individual's conscience. Comedians tread a fine line when they hold up a mirror to society, showing us our true selves through what we laugh at. If we laugh at 'offensive' jokes, we have to accept that that is who we are, and political correctness will do nothing except make us suppress that side of ourselves. Should we suppress it, or address it?

I can only say that, whatever the subject of a joke, if it's funny I can't promise I won't laugh at it.