Category Archives: regulation

Gagging orders old and new

The Minister giveth, and the Minister taketh away. Last week health secretary Jeremy Hunt ‘banned‘ gagging clauses in NHS contracts – even though they’d already been banned in 1999.

A week later his equivalent in the Ministry of Justice Chris Grayling was issuing a rather less generous directive, gagging probation officers from making any comments “in criticism or designed to undermine the justice secretary’s policy or actions”.

And in the police force Operation Elveden ‘crossed a Rubicon‘ as it expanded its scope to include police officers who had leaked information without payment – in other words, speaking to a journalist. (Outside of the operation itself, officers who have spoken to journalists were reported to have found themselves subject to disciplinary investigation, and two suspended.)

Tomorrow I chair a panel on whistleblowing, social media and accountability at an event on reporting the new health system. The last year has seen a raft of guidance on using social media in the NHS, including documents from NHS Employers and from the Royal College of General Practitioners to name just two. These are welcome – but I am sceptical they will have any more impact than that 1999 law.

More broadly, I am concerned about the ability to have an open public debate when sources feel they cannot express any opinion that is ‘off-message’, and journalists cannot protect their sources.

Doubtless a lack of trust in journalists is a factor, but also the desire for control exercised by PR departments and spin doctors documented by Heather Brooke. I know of one NHS trust, for example, which emailed all employees banning them from commenting publicly on a hospital docusoap.

PR is one thing, but many public sector employees are feeling co-opted into a media management campaign they neither support nor believe to be in the best interests of public health, justice, safety, or service.

The NHS is just the most visible example of how public institutions can confuse their own interest with the public interest. Disciplinary policies can set this out particularly barely. This one from United Lincolnshire Hospitals gives examples of “gross misconduct” that include:

“using social networking sites or similar, where employees in their own time using personal computer equipment can be identified as NHS employees and make comments relating to the Trust or the wider NHS which bring the Trust into disrepute.”

You hear the same conflation of institutional interest with pubic interest in statements from the Ministry of Justice:

“If you associate yourself with London Probation Trust through the publication of details about your role as an employee, or Board member, you must not make or endorse any postings or tweet that may bring LPT, the secretary of state for justice or officials acting on his behalf into disrepute.”

Even retweeting such sentiments from others would, apparently, be taken as “incitement or approval” and lead to possible disciplinary action.

Defenders argue that “There are channels for people to express their views”. Presumably a quiet corner of a blacked-out room. The experiences of health workers and whistleblowers are not promising in this regard.

We are living through the first flushes of a new form of public life where the newfound ability to distribute information is tempered by the growing awareness that anything we say (or the connections we make even in private) may be used against us.

As institutions seek to control their employees’ social expression, journalists will have to work harder to establish trust, to protect sources, and establish private channels of communication. A 1999 West Wing episode saw it coming:

A guest post on dealing with whistleblowers written by a Staffordshire whistleblower is here on Help Me Investigate.

Online security for journalists: never assume you’re secure

image from xkcd

image from xkcd

With news last week of the New York Times and Washington Post being hacked recently, The Muckraker‘s Lyra McKee looks at internet security.

“They were able to hack into the computer and remotely access my Facebook account, printing out a transcript of a private conversation. Then they told me who I’d been talking to over the past week and who was on my contacts list. They’d hacked into my phone. When they first told me they could hack into computers and phones, I didn’t believe them. So they showed me.”

I was sitting at the kitchen table of one of Northern Ireland’s few investigative journalists. He was shaken.

In thirty years of reporting, Colin (not his real name) has seen things that would leave the average person traumatized. A confidante of IRA terrorists, he has shaken hands with assassins and invited them into his home for a chat over a cup of tea – as he had done with me that night.

A few weeks previous, during one visit from a source, the subject of hacking had come up. Continue reading

Review: Internet law for journalists

Cleland Thom: Internet Law for Journalists

Most writing on law is like a gas: it expands to fill the space given to it. But a new ebook by journalism trainer Cleland Thom bucks the trend, and it’s all the better for it.

Internet Law for Journalists, Bloggers, Students, Social Media Users … is as impressively succinct as its title is long. The book provides a tour through the expanding range of laws you need to consider when you publish online, illustrated with copious and simple examples, along with guidance for what you should do to avoid being added to the list. Continue reading

The Leveson sting: extra costs even if you win a case?

Leveson report

The thing that struck me most as the media scrambled to report the publication of the Leveson Report was this: no one had really read it.

I mean, of course, really read it. All of it. Some had read one section; others had read another. Some had even read the executive summary.

But none had read – and digested – all of it.

It was impossible to. Even journalists reviewing the final Harry Potter novel had a whole night to stay up reading it.

And that had wizards. Continue reading

7 laws journalists now need to know – from database rights to hate speech

Law books image by Mr T in DC

Image by Mr T in DC

When you start publishing online you move from the well-thumbed areas of defamation and libel, contempt of court and privilege and privacy to a whole new world of laws and licences.

This is a place where laws you never knew existed can be applied to your work – while other ones can come in surprisingly useful. Here are the key ones:

Continue reading

Schofield’s list, the mob and a very modern moral panic

Someone, somewhere right now will be writing a thesis, dissertation or journal paper about the very modern moral panic playing out across the UK media.

What began as a story about allegations of sexual abuse by TV and radio celebrity Jimmy Savile turned into a story about that story being covered up, into how the abuse could take place (at the BBC too, in the 1970s, but also in hospitals and schools), then into wider allegations of a paedophile ring involving politicians.

Continue reading

Hurricane Sandy: how does the media serve the public interest?

This tweet from Daniel Bentley deserves a post all on its own:

 

While some news organisations take down paywalls and others help sort hoax images from the genuine article, what role should ‘common carriers’ like Instagram play? Any at all?

Does Google think your product review is linkspam?

Be prepared... by Mark Lindner

Image by Mark Lindner on Flickr

Google’s guidance on linking has just been updated to include free gifts among the factors that might count against a webpage’s ranking.

The guidance on link schemes now includes “sending someone a ‘free’ product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link” as an example of “link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results” Continue reading