The Mexican media pledge

The sheer numbers of participants reveals an apparent consensus.

Back in March, owners, editors and journalists from over 40 media groups including over 700 television channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines, gathered to sign a voluntary agreement setting up a series of guidelines in order to cover the ongoing war against organised crime in the country.

Throughout a very formal event at Mexico City's National Anthropology Museum, press officials lined up to sign this unique pledge. The gathering was broadcast live on national television.

The pact -- the Informative Violence Coverage Agreement -- sets out to establish mechanisms to ensure a better protection for Mexican journalists, preserve the anonymity of all victims involved in issues revolving around crime and prevent media outlets becoming involuntary "propaganda instruments" for criminals, mainly by refusing to question or interview them.

The sheer numbers of participants reveals an apparent consensus. It received thumbs up from conservative Mexican President, Felipe Calderón, known to be a regular critic of the coverage of violence by the Mexican media, which he accused last autumn of solely focusing on the "bad" aspects of the country.

Some parts of the agreement should be welcome. Its principal breakthrough came from the decisions that every signing outlet would have to establish a protocol aimed at protecting the lives of journalists. Measures include not sending staff members to recent crime scenes and other dangerous areas, or not signing articles likely to jeopardise their author's integrity.

Many have also praised the initiative to regulate the publication of crude or graphic images depicting murder scenes.

However, one of the stated goals of the pledge has created a controversy which has led some of the country's major newspapers in the country to opt out: it wishes to create "common editorial criteria" which all signing parties should apply when covering violence related stories.

The six-page document then details a series of criteria -- in ten bullet points -- which include: "taking a stand against" organised crime, "explicitly attributing responsibilities", be it to government human rights abuse or to criminal actions, "not interfering in the struggle against delinquency" and "giving information in its right dimension and context".

These arguments did not convince La Jornada, a centre-left daily printed in Mexico City and one of the country's most influential national papers. It published an unsigned, critical editorial soon after the pledge was signed, calling it "an unacceptable renunciation of editorial independence", an attempt at imposing "a sectoral model of uniformity". The editorial went on to criticise the pledge's will to take a clear stance against organised criminal created a "prejudice" which would likely be done "in detriment of the information inherent to the facts".

Speaking to the New Statesman, José Luis Ruiz, editor for Mexico City's El Universal -- a major national, daily paper that agreed to sign the agreement -- praised the pledge's objectives and denies it is in any way intended to standardise the news industry:

"This engagement is aimed at keeping the news central [...], it does not force anyone to adopt one particular type of conduct [...] and we still have a total and absolute freedom when it comes to choosing what content we wish to publish".

Ruiz also argued that the current dangers encountered by his fellow journalists made such an initiative necessary. He argues that criminals "threaten" his colleagues, "sometimes giving them tacit orders as to what they should or should not talk or write about".

The Agreement constitutes the second attempt in a year by outlets of the Mexican media to act against organised crime. Last August, the Human Rights Commission of the northern state of Chihuahua issued a protocol for local journalists. The state's initiative sparked heavy criticism by suggesting the latter should "avoid incisive questions" when facing dangerous situations.

The war on drug cartels and violent gangs has made Mexico one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked the country 136th out of 178 in its 2010 Press Freedom Index, describing the country's situation as "dire". At least 65 journalists have been killed since the year 2000, according to the Mexican Human Rights commission, and several more have been kidnapped. Most of these events take place in the northern states bordering the US where the main trade routes for drugs and weapons are found.

Just weeks ago, two journalists -- one of which was a 20 year old -- were found dead in the north-eastern state of Nuevo León.

Photo: Getty
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The “lunatic” incident showed us the real Owen Smith: and it ain't pretty

Forget the slur - what really matters is what it says about his empty promises, says David Wearing. 

Owen Smith has embarrassed himself again. Having previously called for Labour to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”, advocated negotiations with ISIS, and described himself as “normal” with “a wife and three children” while competing with a gay woman to stand for the Labour leadership, you might expect him to have learnt the value of expressing himself more carefully. But no. Not a bit of it.

At a rally on Tuesday evening, Smith described Jeremy Corbyn as a “lunatic” with no “coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain”. It’s an interesting choice of words from someone who needs to win over tens of thousands of Corbyn’s supporters if he is to avoid a crushing defeat in this summer’s Labour leadership election. Indeed, we may look back on this as the final nail in the coffin of Smith’s campaign.

Let’s be honest. Most of us at some stage have used casual language like this (“lunatic”, “insane”), to describe those whose rationality we don’t share or understand. I’ll admit to having done so myself. But it is wrong. It perpetuates a stigma around mental illness and damages peoples’ chances of getting the care and support they need from society. We should all cut it out, especially those of us who aspire to high public office.

Beyond this, however, Smith has driven a coach and horses through the central premise of his own campaign. Throughout the summer he has presented himself as substantively agreeing with Corbyn on almost all domestic and economic issues, and only seeking to pursue that agenda more effectively and professionally. He has set out a range of policies - including a £200bn “British New Deal”, workplace rights and more redistributive taxation - that constitute an overt appeal to the social democratic, progressive values of the hundreds of thousands who joined the party to support Corbyn and secure a clean break with the neoliberalism of New Labour.

But it is simply not credible to simultaneously say “I agree with Jeremy” and that Jeremy is a “lunatic”. No one uses the word "lunatic" to describe someone whose politics they basically share. No one says “your diagnosis of the country’s ills is incoherent, and that’s the substantive agenda I want to take forward”. Smith’s remarks indicate that, deep down, he shares the incredulity expressed by so many of his colleagues that anyone would want to abandon the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron “centre ground” of deregulation, privatisation, corporate-empowerment and widening inequality. After all, Corbyn’s narrative only appears incoherent to those who regard the post-1979 status quo as self-evidently the best of all possible worlds - give or take a few policy tweaks - rather than the very essence of “what’s wrong with Britain”.

This incident will confirm the suspicion of many Labour members that, if he did win the leadership, Smith would dilute or ditch most of the policies he has used to try and win their votes. Those fears are well founded. Take as one illustrative example the issue of immigration, where Smith has shown one face to the party while suggesting that he would show quite another to the country, as party leader.

At leadership hustings, Smith presents an enlightened, pro-immigration, anti-xenophobic stance, but in a Newsnight interview last month we saw something rather different.  When asked if there were “too many immigrants” in the UK, he replied that “it depends where you are”, giving official comfort to the post-Brexit “pack your bags” brigade. He asserted that EU migration “definitely caused downward pressure on wages” despite academic studies having repeatedly shown that this is false, and that EU migration is of clear overall benefit to the economy.

Then, calling for an “honest” discussion on immigration, Smith noted that his wife is a school teacher and that schools in their local area are under pressure from “significant numbers into South Wales of people fleeing the Middle East”. In fact, a grand total of 78 people have been resettled in the whole of Wales under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. In the local authority encompassing Smith’s constituency of Pontypridd, the total number is zero.

This suggests, not someone who shares members’ values, but one who probably regards the leader’s pro-immigration stance as “lunatic”, and would prefer a return to the days when Labour erected the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention camp, rejected the vast majority of asylum applications from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and when Tom Watson put out an election leaflet reading “Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers”.

Smith’s problem is that his mask keeps slipping. And every time it does, the choice before Labour members comes into sharper focus. On the one hand, they have a man who lacks many of the managerial and communication skills for party leadership, but who shares their values and who they can trust to fight for their agenda until a credible successor can be found. Against him stands a man they may not be able to trust, who may not share their values, and whose claims of professional competence grow more threadbare by the day. It’s a poor choice to be faced with, but Smith is at least making it easier for them.