Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Using illegal phone hacks to find a story ...

Nick Davies, a freelance reporter and author of Flat Earth News, is not always the most popular of journalists amongst his peers. His book claims to take "the lid off newspapers and broadcasters, exposing the mechanics of falsehood, distortion and propaganda; naming names and telling the stories behind stories."

His latest article will presumably see him removed from even more journalists' Christmas card lists! Writing on the today, Davies says that Murdoch-owned papers have paid out £1-million to gag what he calls 'phone-hacking victims'. He says the money was paid to settle legal cases that threatened to reveal evidence of journalists' repeated involvement in the use of criminal methods to get stories.
"The payments secured secrecy over out-of-court settlements in three cases that threatened to expose evidence of Murdoch journalists using private investigators who illegally hacked into the mobile phone messages of numerous public figures and to gain unlawful access to confidential personal data including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills. Cabinet ministers, MPs, actors and sports stars were all targets of the private investigators.

Today, the Guardian reveals details of the suppressed evidence which may open the door to hundreds more legal actions by victims of News Group, the Murdoch company that publishes the News of the World and the Sun, as well as provoking police inquiries into reporters who were involved and the senior executives responsible for them."
It is a detailed and sensational story and I'm not in a position to comment on its veracity, but it does have the hallmarks of a well-researched and accurate account.

There's no doubt that the level of trust in journalists has eroded over recent years and, if it wasn't for the scandalous behaviour of some Members of Parliament, it's possible that no profession - no, not even estate agents - would come below journalists in a league table of 'trustworthiness'. In turn, this makes people question what we write more and more - see for example my post earlier this week on the reaction of readers to our article on swine flu in Leicester. Clearly articles like the one by Nick Davies don't help and few people are likely to spend much time wondering whether or not they should tar all journalists with the same brush any more than they would worry about generalising a claim that 'all MPs are on the take.'

I only really want to say one thing about the Nick Davies article and that is this: no journalist at the Leicester Mercury uses illegal methods to find stories.

How can I be so sure? If you get a moment, read media pundit Roy Greenslade's comments on Davies' revelations:

"In my years on popular papers - as an editor and a senior executive on the Daily Mirror, The Sun and the Daily Star - it was inconceivable that any journalist could have produced an exclusive story without revealing its provenance.

It was the first question an executive asked of a reporter? How did you get it? And when the executive, be it news editor, features editor, assistant editor, whoever, presented that story at a conference, any editor worth his/her salt would ask the same."


Sunday, July 05, 2009

You can't always shoot the messenger!

Our story last week about the sudden increase in suspected cases of swine flu elicited a surprisingly vigorous response from a number of readers.

What our article stated was that public health officials (two of whom were named) had said that they felt the 20 confirmed cases of swine flu in Leicester were just the tip of the iceberg and that they thought the real number was 'in the hundreds' ... and that it was no longer possible to contain the spread of the virus.

It stated quite clearly that three schools had a small number of confirmed cases: Moat Community College had three, Lancaster School had four, and City of Leicester College had one. However, the officials went on to tell us that 15% of pupils at Lancaster and Moat were off with suspected cases.

The key to this is that the number of suspected cases had grown so rapidly across the city that the health authority had taken the decision NOT to test for the virus any more, but to tell doctors to make their diagnosis via a telephone interview with the patient.

Within 24 hours, the Government used very similar language to announce nationally that the virus could no longer by contained and that we could expect to see as many as 100,000 new cases a day by August. The whole country moved to 'diagnose by phone' method.

Despite this, our readers were not happy.

The very first comment on our story online came from an anonymous person calling themselves a teacher at Moat Community College: "I do not know where the papers have got their information from but 15% of our students are NOT off with Swine Flu, Thanks to this in the paper the students in Moat are very stressed out, thank you leicester mercury, but your input was not needed the students do not need to worry, there is no problem and no need for this report."

We then had this from Joanne: "my daughter is at c.o.l school i have just rang them to send her home but the school is promised my there is no cases of swine flu at the school.and very annoyed this storey has been printed."

And this: "
I am a student at the city of leicester college, however i want to be kept anonymous. These falose allegations are rediculous and are worrying some people at our school. We have fath in our headteacher and we know she would keep us safe. She wouldnt open the school if she knew we were in danger. The person who apparently has the virus hasn't been diagnosed but however, is being tested.

After reading this i am glad i did not pick media as one of my gcse's. I woukld hate to be a lying journalist, scaring people into thinking things that are not true."

Finally, Chris Bell from Chochrane in Canada waded in with: "
Yet again journalistic panic mongering. an obligation to inform the public or an attempt to create hysteria? me thinks the latter"

We have no interest in creating hysteria and I find it difficult to follow an argument that says we shouldn't report the fact that health officials believe the number of swine flu cases has jumped so dramatically and that they now believe the virus can no longer be contained, or, for that matter, the fact that they believe that these schools have a high number of cases.

The health authority came to us with the statements because they felt the public at large needed to know - they recognise that the Leicester Mercury is still the best way to get a message out quickly. Dr Philip Monk of the Health Protection Agency said:
“It is important people realise we now have swine flu in Leicester. People should not panic, but they should be sensible and take precautions, such as good hygiene. There is evidence swine flu is spreading, particularly at Moat Community College and Lancaster School, where there are high absentee rates of pupils that have the flu. This is more widespread than we thought."

We didn't make it up and we carried the message that people shouldn't panic but should take sensible precautions several times in the article.

[The final irony came in our own newsroom where a senior member of our staff started a discussion about whether or not we were over-stating the case ... just a few hours later he was on the phone to his doctor who confirmed he had swine flu! Oh, and he has a direct connection with Lancaster Boys ...] UPDATE: It turns out that our senior staff member does NOT have swine flu! Final proof for the doubters that we have just made the whole thing up!