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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era