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.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder