Why Leveson is right to allow anonymous witnesses

Sometimes, anonymity is necessary in the public interest. That does not justify the tabloid's prurie

The decision to allow anonymous sources to contribute to the Leveson inquiry could be seen as a victory -- or a bit of a bear trap.

It's deliciously hypocritical of the Daily Mail to use the "Yuman Rites* Act" it has so often pilloried in the past to attempt to stop others from using the kind of anonymous sources it wouldn't think twice about using.

I remember when "friends" of the newsreader Carol Barnes happily stuck the boot into her when she was about to die, as reported by the Mail, or when a "friend" of missing woman Claudia Lawrence decided to tell all to the Mail (rather than the police) about the alleged nature of her acquaintance's private life (and more particularly sex life).

It's not just the Mail, of course, and it would be wrong to portray this use of anonymous "friends" to just those titles, when there are many others who use this kind of tactic all the time. The veneer of public interest in a dying (or dead) celebrity, or the sex life of a missing person, is very thin indeed, although the authors of these pieces attempt to justify why we're being told about these secrets when the subject doesn't have the ability to respond to them.

But we all know what it's really about: it's about feeding the readers' morbid or prurient curiosity and hoping to get or retain readers off the back of it. That's all there is to it. No-one has ever really benefited from finding any of this information out. Have people benefited financially from revealing it? That is a mystery. Perhaps people do it out of the goodness of their hearts because they really want the wider public to know.

Anonymous sources do have their place in journalism. Without them, whistleblowers would not be able to tell their side of events and bring items of genuine public interest to the fore. It's in most workers' contracts, private or public, that if you tell the media what's going on in your workplace, you can be kicked out -- and that means a lot can be concealed.

I think there's a justification for paying sources as well, if what they reveal could not be brought into the public arena in any other way. After all, it makes sense to compensate some people who have an awful lot to lose if it is found out that they are behind a particular story.

There's a time and a place when these things are right, and necessary -- but also a time and a place when they're impossible to justify. When people's lives get wrecked, when untruths are told and the victim is unable to respond because they're missing or dead, when there's no reason for publishing other than "because we can". Is that the price we must pay for those occasions when anonymity provides a genuine scoop for a story of real public interest?

There's also a time when sources are as dodgy as hell, and it doesn't do any particular harm -- for example, when an "onlooker" comments on a story for a red-top with a quote so pitch-perfect that you could be forgiven for thinking it had been written by the journalist who put the story together and merely attributed to the eyewitness. If that doesn't really do any damage, is it the worst crime in the world, especially when readers are aware of the likelihood of the spectacularly articulate "onlooker" existing?

There could be a concern that an inquiry which is investigating, among other things, the use of anonymous or paid sources, might open itself to accusations of hypocrisy by using, er, anonymous sources. But I don't think that's such a problem, and I'm glad that we will be hearing from anonymous contributors about the culture of what goes on in newsrooms up and down the country. It's worth taking that evidence with the same amount of cynicism we might usually reserve for anonymous sources in newspapers -- which in my case is quite a lot.

* The silly phonetic spelling of such subjects as "Yuman Rites" and "Elf 'n' Safety" is a trope often used by the Mail's own star columnist, Richard Littlejohn, in order to emphasise the ribtickling nature of such subjects. Perhaps my favourite example of Littlejohnian phonetic silliness is when he decided that the inherent let-wing bias of the BBC would see Israelis thought of as "Izza-ra-ay-lees". You know, Izza-ra-ay-lees. The pronunciation that no-one has ever used, ever.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.