2012 in review: The New Statesman on... the media

From Leveson to the scandals at the BBC, no-one in the media has escaped this year unscathed.

Welcome to the fourth instalment of the New Statesman's 12 Days of Blog-mas. (Christmas Eve's round up, of our best writing on religion, is here.)

At the beginning of the year, it looked like it would unfold much like the one before. Phone hacking, and the fallout from it, were still very much in the headlines, and the Leveson inquiry looked like it would keep the focus on the tabloid press. But by December, it appeared that last year's hunted were this year's hunters, as the BBC came under fire for a series of journalistic failings. Here are a selection of our best pieces - click the headlines to open them in a new window.

Alan Rusbridger: the quiet evangelist

Alan Rusbridger can claim to be the Guardian’s greatest editor. But Peter Wilby asked whether he will also be its last, in this in-depth examination of the paper and the man.

“It’s better journalism,” Rusbridger says, “if, as well as Michael Billington [the Guardian’s theatre critic], you can harness the views and judgements of 800 other people in the audience at the same time. Is the same true of science, foreign, investigative reporting? The answer, I think, is always yes.
Mutuality, he suggests, could be the model for journalism’s future. “If you build a complete paywall around your content, you’re saying you’re not interested in that sort of journalism . . . When you’ve been to a digital conference in New York, you come away thinking that newspapers are lucky to be in this game at all.”

BBC Television Centre: the fairness was what made the magic

The sell-off of TV Centre was confirmed this year, and the majority of staff have already left for different offices. Alan White looks back at the continued attraction the building had for generations of viewers.

As a child growing up in the sticks, I remember the opening credits of Wogan's chat show, "Live from Shepherd's Bush"; the opening picture of TVC, perhaps illuminated by searchlights, as if The Shepherd's Bush was a huge donut-shaped slab, there simply to accommodate Terry and his immaculately-coiffured hair. I remember the mischievous insurgent Kenny Everett attempting to scale the side of Terry's fortress, though I can't remember the context for this sketch. I remember all those intriguing little occasions when the shroud would be ripped away - Children In Need skits where the cameras would pan out of the studio and follow our stars down the corridors. And I remember, of course, the Blue Peter garden.

O Mother, where art thou?

Mother Jones, a small bimonthly American news magazine, shows that public-service journalism can survive even in the 21st century USA. You may not have heard of it, but you'll have heard the fall-out from one of its scoops, when Mitt Romney was secretly recorded telling reporters that 47 per cent of the country was "dependent" on Obama. Helen Lewis looks at what other publications can learn from its model.

So what is Mother Jones? Founded in 1976 and named after a trade unionist and opponent of child labour, it is a bimonthly title dedicated to unfashionable causes and undercover investigations. In March this year, its reporter Mac McClelland wrote “I was a warehouse wage slave”, about an online-shipping company that sounded suspiciously like Amazon (it was not identified in her piece). The conditions experienced by the temporary workers were brutal: 12-hour stretches running around a cold, cavernous warehouse, with every trip meticulously timed through a hand-held scanner; lunch breaks of “29 minutes and 59 seconds”; limited access to the overcrowded toilets and constant reminders that “there’s 16 other people who want your job”.

The silence of Jimmy Savile’s lambs

As news of Savile's crimes surfaced, the writer and former England rugby international Brian Moore wrote that he wasn’t at all surprised the DJ’s victims didn’t speak up earlier. He argued that as long as victims live in fear of not being listened to, they won’t talk.

I and many of Savile’s victims did not tell because we did not think we would be believed. What we victims need is not just an immediate person being sympathetic and taking a statement. We need to know that a proper investigation will be made if we make a complaint; to know that the Crown Prosecution Service will be robust and that every effort will be made to secure a conviction. So harrowing is the telling of our stories that we have to have utmost faith that as much as possible will be done to rectify the wrong and to help us bear the extra stress of an investigation and trial.

A sense of perspective on the BBC

In the midst of the crisis at the BBC, following the Savile revelations and false accusations of Lord McAlpine, Joan Bakewell wrote to defend the corporation as a flawed, human institution, like any other.

The BBC now needs a large dose of courage that enables it to look boldly on its structural failings and put some hefty remedies in place. It has a decades-long history of fine programmes that have made legends of its stars, educated the public, spawned heaps of imitators and won a unique reputation throughout the broadcasting world. It now needs to be left alone to regret, to mourn and to repair itself.

Leader: Leveson, the press and transparency

Before the Leveson inquiry reported, the press was largely united in supporting a stronger system of regulation - but one put together internally, without the interference of government. How strange, then, that after Lord Leveson made his pronouncements, many of that same group attended a private meeting with the Prime Minister to decide on a united response. We smelled a rat.

The explicit purpose of the discussions is to give newspapers an opportunity to devise some new form of self-regulation that will come close enough to what Lord Justice Leveson proposes without requiring a bill in parliament. Another way of describing the same goal is that the editors (and/or their paymasters) have been invited to come up with something lenient enough for their own satisfaction, yet that looks sufficiently rigorous to give Mr Cameron political cover to say that the spirit of Leveson is preserved. In other words, it has all the makings of the kind of cosy establishment stitch-up that has allowed journalistic malpractice to flourish for so long.

 

Alan Rusbriger, editor of the Guardian. Photo: Muir Vidler/New Statesman

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.