Tim Dawson

Journalism old and new – note new email address: tim@tim-dawson.com

Fruit Of The Zoom

07 June 2021 by timdawsn

I was sceptical that a gathering over video could replicate an actual trades union conference. How happy I was then, to find my fears misplaced. A version of what follows appeared in the June 2021 edition of NUJ Informed.

The portents were ominous. It was Thursday afternoon and a score of delegates logged on for a ‘technology familiarisation session’. Could video conferencing possibly deliver a rumbustious delegate meeting of over 200 journalists?

From the apparently swirling darkness of Walthamstow, the top of the head of London Freelance veteran Jenny Vaughan loomed on screen. “This is worse than my wildest nightmares” she cried, in a wail that might have been the disapproving ghost of Delegate Meetings past.  With scarcely ten per cent of the anticipated participants online, and Zoom sceptics ascendant, our conference seemed fatally glitched.

As the handful of staff and SOC members departed Headland House that evening, a menacing black cloud hung over Kings Cross. NUJ democracy had survived Hitler, the High Courts and Rupert Murdoch, but now, it seemed, insufficient bandwidth would lay us low.

The following morning, general secretary Michelle Stanistreet opened our gathering. Her’s was an upbeat account of our union’s recent work and coming prospects delivered with the poker-face composure of a seasoned negotiator. Could the optimism she willed into life overcome the crushing pessimism of the previous evening? We were about to find out.

Without the mental parentheses of long rail journeys or flights, joining a delegate meeting from newsroom, kitchen or bedroom was an unfamiliar jolt. But as Friday morning wore on, and attention fixed on the issues at hand, an unanticipated miracle seemingly overcame us. For all the frustrations of down-the-line democracy, it felt less and less like a technological aberration and increasingly like an NUJ delegate meeting. 

But could a Zoom gathering ever match the emotional intensity of a seaside hall brimful with disputatious trades unionists on the cusp a big vote? Amazingly, as delegates found their feet, and the order papers lumbered towards the vote on subscriptions, it began to seem as though it might. 

The Executive previewed the big vote all day, weaving into every contribution the need to raise revenues. When finally the debate came, it was impossible not to feel awe that all over Britain and Ireland, not to mention many European capitals, we were connected with each other in the serious-minded consideration of our union’s future. 

The scale of the affirmative vote – 82 per cent in favour – was as large as has ever been achieved for such a motion. Who knows whether we will ever again want or need another online DM? The conduct of that debate, however, and the scale of approval, was definitive proof that NUJ democracy thrives, whether delivered at a seaside gathering or over fibre-optic cable.   

Like any large meeting, our get-together was rich in unintended revelation. We met the industrial firebrands who surround themselves with floral chintz. There were kitchens that looked more like Police safe houses than homesteads. And our assistant general secretary demonstrated how combining bald head, green screen and headphones creates the illusion of a halo. Doubtless he would claim this as confirmation that trades unionists are always on the side of the angels.

Cavaldoro, Jones and Lister conducting DM

Like any slick broadcast operation, on-screen effortlessness was the product of frenetic industry beyond the camera’s gaze. Creating this required a select handful to work from well-spaced desks around our Headland House headquarters. The NUJ’s training suite served as the operation’s heart. 

A glance round the door with DM in full flow provides little sense of what those assembled are enacting – but the scene is not without occasional drama.

For most of Friday and Saturday just six people occupy this large, airy office that accommodates 30 in normal use. All are so focussed on their computer’s cameras that interlopers pass among them without eye contact or acknowledgement. 

NUJ President Sian Jones

President Sian Jones occupies the middle seat, projecting the sunny, unflappable charm of a children’s tv host. As a raft of worthy motions are dispatched en bloc, however, a tremor disturbs this apparently well-oiled machine. 

Standing Order Committee’s Debbie Cavaldoro sits in one corner, hard-wired to the Zoom Q&A feed, through which over 200 participants interact with conference’s top table. She looks up from her monitor, face whitening slightly. Two hundred miles away, a delegate combing the rules claims to have spotted a procedural irregularity.

Cavaldoro signals to Donnacha DeLong, whose workstation is opposite the President. Without disturbing his tumbling locks he lifts both hands above his head, as though in prayer, and then draws them slowly apart.

It is unlikely that delegates notice, but Jones, sitting opposite, shifts slightly on her seat and delivers some well-practiced reminders about how democracy works in this unfamiliar medium. 

Séamus Dooley

Assistant General Secretary Séamus Dooley breaks from a delicate composite negotiation to thumb through the rule book. Moments pass and higher counsel is required. He departs at pace to general secretary Michelle Stanistreet’s office across the corridor. DeLong continues his slow, clapping-in-reverse action.

Steering committee’s John Lister is now invited to share a word from his desk to one side of Jones. His focus locks on the tiny camera before him, and he conducts delegates though the coming order paper. With silvery curls and steel-rimmed spectacles, he exudes the authority of a weekend news anchor. Had Dooley not returned at a trot, it would be easy to imagine Lister moving on to the day’s football results.

Jones returns to screen to let delegates know that a serious point of order had been raised and that the best person to provide an answer would be co-host Lister – at that moment engaged in urgent conflab with Dooley.

He has been off screen for scarcely ten seconds, but when Lister returns, it is to refer to a standing order so dusty that it may not have been cited before in our union’s 114-year history.  Obscure it might be, but our forbears saw fit to set it in stone, and Lister has the numbered clause seemingly committed to memory. Was it for this feat alone that he was awarded his PhD, delegates might well have wondered?

Now DeLong’s hands returns to pounding his keyboard. Cavaldoro sits back, and Jones invites a delegate to unmute themselves and propose the next motion. The training suite regains its efficient hum and encouraging smiles – for a few moments, at least.

And so it continued for two days, mediating discord between the Black Members’ Council and the Socialist Workers’ Party, recommitting us to fighting for higher wages for media workers, and finding common ground in our attitude to the heart-breaking developments in Palestine.

At the meetings’ close, the Q&A system was nearly overwhelmed with congratulatory messages. The President deservedly won particularly fulsome praise, but there was a tide of satisfaction with the entire meeting.

Who knows what the future holds? My take away from two days wired to my screen was this. When the NUJ comes together with good spirit and determination, there is no limit to what we can achieve, however novel are the challenges or daunting the prospects.

Friday night social – review

Should anything be off-limits for a confessional stand up? Listening to Mark Thomas, deliver a DM-social-via-Zoom gig, it was hard not to wonder. So luridly did he paint his mother that a call fo social services would be in order, were he not a middle-aged man who voluntarily spent lock down at the maternal hearth.

She farts in his face, banters about oedipal sex, and likens Thomas’ culinary efforts to liquid faeces. One might feel sympathy for the south Londoner did he not earn his crust by the public laundering of his mother’s soiled laundry. On this evening’s evidence, they deserve one another.

Jonny and the Baptists were a joyful antidote to the gags wrought from trauma. The singing, joshing, goofing duo harmonised their way through plans to make black pudding from the Queen’s blood, mocking the Abrahamic myth, and commissioning the murder of huntsmen. But theirs was a gleeful confection of nonsense, enlivened through palpable delight in each other’s company. Broadcasting from an Airbnb in Folkestone, they had me pining for a seaside evening enjoying their entire set.

The real novelty of this charity fundraiser, however, was a bold attempt at participatory television – the ‘NUJ Does Gogglebox’. The audience of activists appeared periodically on a gallery screen beamed from viewers’ living rooms. It was an experiment that advertised the idiosyncrasy of our union’s membership, if nothing else.

A pair of Easter Island statues stood sentinel, craggy features unmoved by the mirth. One suit-and-tied gay blade took in proceedings before a roaring fire, while an emigre activist clearly keeps on his trilby, even while at home.  This was an audience enjoying a downtime drink and putting up its feet; one or two even appeared to be enthusiasts for ‘rolling their own’. Most remarked upon was the wizened member who wore just a vest and seemed unable to settle in his seat.

All provided an insight into the rich human tapestry that makes up our union. On the evidence of this outing, however, it would be unwise to rely on a commission from Chanel Four to save the union’s finances.

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English customs reveal Dutch lorry driver’s hidden depths

04 June 2021 by timdawsn

Reporting for Dutch tv station Omroep Flevoland, I chronicled lorry driver Jelle Post’s, successful bid to explain away the £25 million worth of cocaine and ketamine that found amongst his cargo in July 2020. In Dutch law, the surname of a criminal suspect who is on trail is not used in the media. The convention is to use simply their last initial, as I do in these reports.

Photo: the bags of drugs recovered from the cargo of flowers that Jelle Post was transporting. Photo: UK Border Force

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The Letraset Insurectionary

09 February 2021 by timdawsn

Review of David King Designer Activist Visual Historian, by Rick Poynor

Like many1970s teenagers, a postal order dispatched to Finsbury Park, London initiated my engagement with politics. I received by return several sheets of lapel stickers, a poster and some leaflets. All bore a five-point star enclosing the words ‘ROCK AGAINST RACISM’.

As important as the politics and music was this material’s visual impact. There were John Heartfield-esque collages juxtaposing British fascist leaders with Hitler. Margaret Thatcher’s head appeared severed with a sickle, and missiles reigned on piles of skeletons. Taut slogans in Franklin Gothic Bold appeared at attention-grabbing angles.

As Rick Poynor’s ‘David King Designer Activist Visual Historian’, establishes, the graphic identity of the 70s and 80s left was largely the work of this one designer – who died in 2016. As well as Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League (he designed both logos), The Anti Apartheid Movement, CND, several international solidarity campaigns and various left newspapers all owed their identity to King. His work for the NUJ has never been bettered – as well as the posters, King designed the NUJ posters based on classic film stills that still hang in our offices.

Agitprop was only one side of King, however. From 1965 to 1975 as designer The Sunday Times Magazine, he pioneered an approach to words and pictures that is imitated yet. He designed book covers, album sleeves and was an internationally recognised curator of early Soviet graphics.

Poynor’s beautifully-produced monograph is the summation such a body of work deserves – as well as an evocative transport to the days when the off-set litho appeared to be history’s locomotive.

David King Designer Activist Visual Historian, by Rick Poynor. Yale University Press £30.

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Remembering Harry Evans

05 February 2021 by timdawsn

I danced a jig when Sir Harry Evans (who died in September 2020) responded to my speculative email. Anticipating little chance of acknowledgement, I nonetheless agonised over how best to address a Knight. Formalities, it turned out, were needless. “I will do it – Harry,” came his reply. 

So it was that a hero whose image I had burnished for more than 40 years agreed to visit the NUJ’s headquarters for an interview in front of an audience. Now all I had to do was coral my enthusiasm and locate my inner chat-show host.  

As a child I loved Evan’s Sunday Times – starting with the colour magazine and progressing to the main paper. Its combination of campaigning journalism, horizon-expanding features, and zeitgeisty morsals brightened immeasurably an otherwise bleak day in 1970s Yorkshire.

Harry Evans with Tim Dawson, photo: Frances Rafferty

It was as a volunteer column-filler on my student newspaper that I became his disciple, however. Fancying I might one day make a living as a reporter, I devoured his five-volume manual on creating newspapers Editing And Design – particularly Newsman’s English and Pictures On A Page. Even now, as I contract sentences and process photographs, he speaks in my mind. “Keep sentences simple”. “Deploy the active voice”. “Close cropping accentuates drama”.

Not only a master of the craft, Evans also shaped my broader understanding of the media. Good Times Bad Times is his painful dissection of life serving Rupert Murdoch who took over the Times titles in 1981. A year later Evans departed. Editorial freedom was an anathema to Murdoch, he said at the time. 

By the time he and I exchanged emails, Evans was a naturalised American, and had lived in Manhattan for  over 30 years. My hopes of persuading him to spend a night under the spotlights in London rested on the scantest hunch. He intervened, reasonably regularly, in UK debates about press freedom. And in his autobiography, My Paper Chase, he warmly recounted NUJ meetings in 1940s Manchester. 

Harry Evans and Tim Dawson, photo Frances Rafferty

I need not have worried. As we finalising details of our event, Evans wrote to me: “Just looked up to the corkboard above the keyboard and see pinned there a thick blue NUJ card (Manchester branch) signed by H.J. Bradley and sent to me when I was traveling in the US in 1956. As of that date, it testifies I was up to date with my dues…”

He resigned his membership upon taking up his first editorship, as was normal, but his emotional attachment to the union clearly ran deep.

By the time of our event, he was a few months shy of 90. Never a tall man, the craggy gent who emerged from a taxi in Acton Street had the frame of a fledgling sparrow. The energy, enthusiasm and intellect he radiated seemed in inverse proportion to his physique, however. The interview questions over which I had fretted, were quickly rendered superfluous. Before the audience, he told stories, advised, buying xanax online, dissected current media malaise, and frequently had his audience in hooting with laughter. 

Former colleagues from both The Times and Darlington’s Northern Echo (his first editorship) had travelled to be in the audience. He recognised them all and was quick to swap anecdotes and praise their talents.

The formal event over, we repaired to the Chapel Bar upstairs, where Evans held court for another couple of hours. His publishers gave us trade prices on two boxes of his latest book Do I Make Myself Clear (he has written nearly 30). Every one of them sold and were signed by the author resulting in nearly £1,000 raised for NUJ Extra.

Eventually, I called a taxi and escorted him to the door. His eyes still sparkled, and as the taxi drew up he surprised me with a bear hug of enormous power. It nearly upended us both. Night air closed in as his tail lights rounded Grays Inn Road, but I was electrified. 

With my eyes closed, I can still feel his arms around me just as I hear his injunctions when I write. Ninety two and still on top form is a great way to bow out. His legacy – radiating inspiration – will resonate long into the future.

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Saved by suicide – Assange, self harm and free speech

05 February 2021 by timdawsn

I observed Julian Assange’s extradition hearings in February and September 2020 on behalf of the International Federation of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists. I was also the only reporter whose daily coverage of the court case appeared in a print newspaper. Collected below are some of the longer pieces I wrote about the case.

The Judge’s ruling – 4 January 2021

As Judge Vanessa Baraitser started to deliver her ruling in the Old Bailey’s number two court yesterday, nothing felt right. 

Proceedings started late. Julian Assange slumped in the dock, surrounded by bullet-proof glass, his clothes flapping slightly around his diminished frame. The ‘Don’t Extradite Assange’ campaign had decided against a rally outside the court building because of the risk of spreading covid. The very air tasted sour.

As Baraitser intoned her summary judgement, the atmosphere deteriorated. She dismissed the defence case unequivocally, point by point. The protection of those accused of political offences implied by the US/UK Extradition Treaty was worthless in this case. Assange is accused of actions that would be offences in the UK, she told the court. His actions could not be compared to those of an investigative journalist and by dumping data he had adversely affected scores of US contacts.

She declined to consider the uncontested evidence that CIA contacts bugged the Ecuadorian Embassy to snoop on Assange’s meetings with lawyers. And she found ample evidence that a fair trial would be available, once the Wikileaks founder arrived in Virginia.

By now, Assange appeared to be deflating in the dock before our eyes. One sensed a great weight pressing on the usually ebullient shoulders of Edward Fitzgerald QC, who leads Assange’s legal team.

Baraitser’s cautious delivery continued as she reached her conclusion, providing no prompt of a change in her direction of travel.

In September the extradition hearing spent a week considering medical evidence relating to Assange. Much of it was harrowing and, unlike all the other expert statements, written copies were not released to the media – despite formal protests.

Baraitser, however, accepted most of the doctors’ and psychiatrists’ conclusions. Assange has a personal and family history of suicide attempts, he suffers deep, long-term depression. He also has Autism spectrum disorders. These have been managed with some success in HMP Belmarsh, the judge told the court. 

Then she turned to conditions in the US ‘supermax’ prison, ADX Colorado, where it is generally accepted Assange would have been sent, if he had been sentenced by a US court. 

“Faced with the conditions of near total isolation… I am satisfied the procedures described by the US will not prevent Mr Assange from finding a way to commit suicide and for this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge”,

The air in court felt suddenly lighter. A broad smile flashed across Assange’s face, and the handful of Wikileaks staff in court were animated anew.

Clair Dobbin, the barrister representing the US government, was quick to her feet, insisting that an appeal against the ruling would be immediately forthcoming. Her interjections are always highly controlled, but anger apparently underscored her words. Edward Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had rediscovered his Tiggerish bounce. He requested his client’s immediate release.

That may happen on Wednesday. The court hearing will reconvene at Westminster Magistrates (its real home). Fitzgerald promises to make a case featuring both the deteriorating conditions at Belmarsh and a considerable package of measures to reassure the court that Assange would not abscond.

This is a stunning victory for free speech, common sense and humanity. Assange heard the news from the same dock where the ‘Guilford Four’ were wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975. It would be refreshing to think that yesterday’s judgement showcases a new era when British justice can be rightly praised for its compassion, fairness and honesty.

A little restraint with the champagne is required, however, as the response from the National Union of Journalists makes clear. “The judge rejected the defence case that the charges against Assange related to actions identical to those undertaken daily by most investigative journalists”, commented General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet. “In doing so, she leaves open the door for a future US administration to confect a similar indictment against a journalist.”

It is a prudent caution. Of course, it is hard to imagine a similar circumstances prevailing – the most extensive and damaging national security leaks in history, an ex-CIA director running US foreign policy, and a president whose grasp on reality is tenuous at best.

As became clear during the extradition hearing, however, this conjunction appeared against a backdrop that is increasingly challenging for those who report defence and security issues. Several witnesses described US administrations ‘going into overdrive’ to classify more and more information. Rising levels of hostility to the media have been fuelled by administrations of both stripes increasing enthusiasm for chasing down and denigrating leakers who were clearly honestly intentioned. It makes it hard to believe that Assange will be the last person the US tries to prosecute for acts of journalism.

Assange departed the dock yesterday, wreathed in smiles, having caught a quick chat through the security glass with his partner Stella Morris. He faces challenges too – not least adjusting to freedoms that he has not enjoyed for a decade. 

His defence made much of his appreciation of transparency,  methodical checking, and concern for the welfare of others. If he chooses to return to public life at some point, my hope would be that he makes these his guiding principles.

The medical evidence – 18 September 2020

Unusual accord in the well of court closed the third September week of Julian Assange’s extradition hearings. The prosecution and defence teams at the Old Bailey’s court ten united to plead to safeguard the privacy of the Wikileaks founder.

The hearings, which will decide whether Assange is sent to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act, commenced in February. Since the start of September, after a six-month interregnum, the court has been hearing from expert witnesses. Most of these have been called by Assange’s defence team. All have prepared lengthy written submissions to the court. Each expert’s personal appearance (mostly by video link) is to allow for cross examination where their assertions are contested.

As each witness commences giving evidence, the court issues their written statements to media. These are vital to understand how the case will be decided. Most are broader in scope than the verbal testimony and some of the evidence is highly technical.

Last week was mostly occupied with medical evidence.  This could be Assange’s best hope of avoiding extradition. In 2018 the Court of Appeal ruled that computer hacker Lauri Love should not be extradited to the United States to face charges because doing so would be: “oppressive by reason of his physical and mental condition”. The judges added: “We accept that the evidence shows that the fact of extradition would bring on severe depression and that Mr Love would probably be determined to commit suicide, here or in America.”

With this in mind, team Assange called the doctors. Four psychiatrists and one physician gave lengthy assessments of Assange’s physical and mental health, drawing on minutely recorded events while he was in ‘healthcare’ at Belmarsh, as well as his personal and family history. At times it made deeply uncomfortable listening. It is uncontested that Assange has suffered from bouts of depression since childhood, exhibits autism spectrum disorder traits, and at times ruminates obsessively about suicide. Some assessments were a good deal more worrying. Assange attempted suicide once long before Wikileaks, and has attempted to gather the means to take his own life since he was detained in Belmarsh.

As we heard the details of this, those of us reporting in court exchanged concerned glances.  And when proceedings paused, we had a quick confirmatory chat to remind ourselves of the many well-established guidelines for reporting suicide. Where it is relevant, suicide attempts can be reported, but details about methods of self-harm should be excluded.

Several reporters requested copies of the statements by medical experts from the Clerk of Court. They would not be made public, came the prompt response. Just as quickly, Henry Vaughan from PA Media (the Press Association, as was) put in an application for the release of these documents (see below).

Assange’ s privacy and editorial ethics

A couple of days later, Judge Baraitser invited verbal statements. Edward Fitzgerald QC, Assange’s senior barrister told the court that release of the statements would be a needless intrusion into his client’s privacy. Emily Pennink, another PA court reporter, made a very creditable appeal, telling the judge that: we all worked to strict editorial codes; that we believed that if the statement were important to the court the media needed to properly understand their contents to explain the case; and that keeping them secret is inconsistent with open justice. She stressed that our intention was never to compound the stress and anxiety on Assange through our application, but to be in the best possible position to explain how the case was being conducted.

The judge then asked if there were specific elements of the statements that the media felt they needed to see? She allowed a couple of hours for those of us reporters present to assemble a further written statement.

The challenge was obvious. How could we journalists pinpoint the important elements of documents none had seen? We put our heads together and came up with a list of questions based on components of the verbal evidence suggestive of further important details in the written evidence. Our attempt is also below. 

The public justice principle

The relevant case law covering instances of this kind requires a judgement on the nature of the documents in question. Justice should be public, both to promote public understanding of the workings of the law, and to allow scrutiny of the work of the courts. This is known as the ‘public justice principle’.

The presumption is that material laid before the courts is public, but there is no public right to such material.Where parties resist publication of statements before the court, those applying for access must show that disclosure will advance the open justice principle. 

Judge Baraitser’s ruling, when it came was no surprise. “The Press Association  has not established good reason why the disclosure of the reports will advance the purposes of open justice. If I am wrong about this then the countervailing factors, in this case Mr Assange’s private life, in my view prevents disclosure.”

That skirmish is over. 

There is, however, a broader issue that requires enduring vigilance. In the not-so-distant past all statements made to a court were read out. This allowed them to be reported, save where restrictions are imposed. The advent of lengthy written statements, publication of which is resisted, creates fresh scope for justice in the shadows.

It is also questionable whether inviting requests for release of specific elements of statement to which the applicant has no access is consistent with natural justice?  A better solution would be to allow a representative journalist to see all papers in a supervised environment within the court. Such review could form the basis of a meaningful application for disclosure.

At very least reporters who witness material being withheld from the media should gird themselves to make similar applications. Secrecy is habit forming. Unless the media forces courts to justify keeping material from the media, the danger is that it becomes the default. It might not be the radical approach to transparency that Assange himself pioneered, but it is no less vital.

Pentagon Papers leaker likens Assange’s actions to his own – 11 September 2021

In 3 May 1972, Daniel Ellsberg spoke at a peace rally in Washington DC. It was a year since he had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and the Washington Post revealing that successive Presidents had lied about US involvement in Vietnam.

What Ellsberg – who was played by Matthew Rhys in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film The Post – didn’t know, as he stepped up to the microphone on the steps of the Capitol Building, was the the crowd had been infiltrated by CIA ‘assets’. Their instructions were to “break both his legs”, or even kill him.  President Nixon had personally acquiesced to the planned assault during a meeting with Henry Kissinger.

The attack, however, was aborted as the speakers took to the rostrum. It was not, though, to be the last of the Nixon administration’s dirty tricks to ‘get’ the former Marine, whose whistleblowing did much to bring the Vietnam war to an end. 

At the time of the speech, he was already facing charges under the Espionage Act with a 115 years jail term. When his trial started in January 1973 he was forbidden from explaining his motivations for leaking to the court – despite having revealed for the first time the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia and the gravest lies by a succession of Presidents. And one of Nixon’s senior staff members had secretly offered trial judge Matthew Byrne the top job in the FBI if Ellsberg was convicted.

By chance, his trial ran concurrently with the Senate Watergate Committee, however. Day by day, the hearings in Washington brought the various conspiracies against Ellsberg to light. Eventually Judge Byrne felt he had to intervene. “The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case” he ruled. Ellsberg was acquitted ‘with prejudice’ meaning that he could never be tried for those offences again.

It is easy to see why Ellsberg, now 89, sees parallels between his own case and that of Julian Assange. “Wikileaks provided the first unauthorised disclosure of such magnitude for 40 years”, he believes. “I observe the closest of similarities to the position I faced. The (US Government) intended to crush (me) in part in revenge for my act of exposing them but in part to crush all such future exposure of the truth.” 

In his evidence to the Wikileaks founder’s ongoing extradition hearing, Ellsberg said: “I have followed closely the impact of (Wikileak’s revelations) and consider them to be amongst the most important, truthful revelations of hidden criminal state behaviour that have been made public in US history.  I view the WikiLeaks publications of 2010 and 2011 to be of comparable importance (to the Pentagon Papers).”

Ellsberg worked with Assange at the hight of the Wikileaks. They met several times and Ellsberg held one of the encrypted backup copies of leaked US military files on behalf of Wikileaks.

“I have also spoken to (Assange) privately over many hours. During 2010 and 2011, at a time when some of the published material had not yet seen the light of day, I was able to observe (Julian’s) approach. It was the exact opposite of reckless publication and nor would he wilfully expose others to harm.

“WikiLeaks could have published the entirety of the material on receipt. Instead I was able to observe but also to discuss with him the unprecedented steps he initiated, of engaging with conventional media partners, (to maximise) the impact of publication (so) it might (best) affect US government policy and its alteration.”

Cross-examined for the US government by James Lewis QC, it was put to him that there was a critical difference between himself and Assange. Ellsberg had purposefully kept secret four of the 47 volume of the Pentagon Papers because he did not wish to jeopardise efforts for a negotiated peace in Vietnam.

Ellsberg dismissed out of hand the frequently made assertion that “the Pentagon Papers were good and Wikileaks bad”, robustly stating his view that the government’s behaviour was the same in both cases. If anything, Assange took a more sophisticated approach to redaction than he had been able to, he says. 

“For years I was vilified in many quarters”, he told the court. “Only since the Wikileaks revelations have I been praised as some kind of foil to Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden”.

He says, however, that Assange uncovered a dark change in US military behaviour. “The most shocking aspect of the Wikileaks’ revelations is that corruption, torture and assassination have become so common that they are not even classified top secret. When I was an officer in the field, or when I was compiling the Pentagon Papers, incidents of this kind would have been given the highest possible classification. Today, they have become so normalised that they are in files to which literally thousands of people have access.”

Ellsberg has always maintained that his actions were those of a patriot. “The oath of office that I took was to defend the constitution of the United States”, he says, making clear that he considers his actions to be true to that commitment.

Nonetheless, he still feels a weight of responsibility for not acting earlier, he says.  “I have long regretted not releasing the documents in August 1964, and it is a heavy burden for me to bear. Had I done so that terrible war might well have been averted altogether.”

His whistleblowing did presage a change of direction in US policy, but not before nearly 400,000 military personnel and as many as four million civilians had been killed.

Wikileaks Afghan and Iraq revelations came far more quickly after those conflicts and, according to other expert witnesses to the hearing. They caused a similar sea change in public perceptions of those wars.  Ellsberg suggests that the Afghan War Logs exposed the ‘Vietnamistan’ of that conflict in which a military stalemate led to the civilian population no longer been recognised as human beings, resulting in crimes against humanity and mass killings of the worst kind.

Today Ellsberg lives in northern California with his second wife Patricia Marx. His devotion to working for a better world is undimmed. Three years ago he published his third book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions Of A Nuclear War Planner, about his working life before the the Pentagon Papers. He remains a director of the Free Press Foundation, of which he is co-founder, and retains academic affiliations with two universities.

He also remains in no doubt that he and Assange are brothers in arms. “The prosecution he faces (is) clearly focussed, fairly and squarely, at the centre of political movements of which I regard myself as part and which much of my life has spent committed to pursuing.”

Assange’s persecution is a threat to all journalism – 18 September 2020

It took some time to warm up, but the courtroom duel between James Lewis QC and Professor Mark Feldstein of Maryland University laid bare some fundamental issues for journalists. Both were appearing at the Old Bailey, London: Lewis making the case for the US government that Julian Assange should be extradited; Feldstein, called as an expert witness to explain how journalists work.

Lewis has been at the bar for more than 30 years, and promotes his services with the strapline: “a charming man with a mega brain”.

By way of trying to demolish the testimony and reputation of his opponent, he deployed a classic barrister’s technique. He asked a series of apparently simple questions that led the witness into a trap from which there is no escape without undermining their own evidence. Or at least, that was clearly his hope.

Lewis: “Is it your view Professor, that journalists are above the law”.

Feldstein: “No, sir, it is not”.

Lewis: “And is it your view that a journalist should be allowed to hack someone’s computer to unearth private matters, or burgle their home?”

Feldstein: “No it is not my view”.

Lewis: “So if a journalist helps someone to burgle a home or hack a computer to obtain information, can we agree that they have clearly broken the law?”

Feldstein, after a pause: “It depends on the details, that is where it gets a bit squishy.”

Whether that was quite the denouement Lewis hoped for was unclear, but from Feldstein’s earlier evidence, it was clear how fundamental this point is to reporting. Feldstein described how, during his own distinguished career as a journalist he had frequently been in receipt of leaked material. He said that helping a source to remove material undetected and disguising their part in doing so was ‘standard operating procedure for journalists’ and something he taught his own journalism students.

A moment or two later, the advocate tried a similar manoeuvre.

Lewis: “Will you agree with me Professor, that there are some secrets that a state is entitled to keep? – troop movements in time or war and the nuclear codes, for example?”

Feldstein: “Of course”.

Lewis: “So if someone tries to steal details of troop movements during war, or the nuclear codes, or material that could put people at risk, if is reasonable to consider that a crime”.

The video link over which Feldstein was speaking left this point slightly lost – although Lewis’ rhetorical sleight of hand was clear. The first two instances are unequivocal cases, the third a significantly more conjectural catch all. 

Feldstein came back strongly. “If you criminalise news gathering, you are criminalising journalism. It is a moral duty for journalists to protect sources. Many have gone to jail to protect that principle.” The professor went on to say that he thought the US government could, with this case, be trying to create precedents that would allow it to pursue other members of the news media.

This point is the one on which this entire case hangs. The acts for which extradition and prosecution are sought are clearly ones that might have been committed by any investigative journalist. Whether or not you consider Assange to be a journalist, or indeed, if his unredacted publication of leaks was ‘responsible’, are peripheral issues.

Other evidence from Feldstein highlighted what a risk this might be, given the frequency of US administrations considered prosecuting leak-receiving journalists. Richard Nixon hoped to silence Jack Adamson (even considering having him killed), for example and Obama desperately searched for means to get Assange into court.

The previous witness, distinguished human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, clearly illustrated what might be lost if obtaining leaks were criminalised. He described a US system of government that had, since 9/11, sought to classify almost every piece of information in its possession. 

His example of how absurd this could be was fascinating. “When I first went to see a British man in Guantanamo Bay he gave me 30 pages on the torture that he had suffered. All of this material was immediately classified on the basis that revealing torture was a threat to (US) national security”.

Stafford Smith argued that the ‘US obsession’ with secrecy post 9/11 meant that much that was classified was simply material that was embarrassing, or provided evidence of bad decision making.

The clear implication was that if being in receipt of classified material without authorisation was criminalised, there would be little to report in the future.

Stafford Smith also vividly illustrated the broader importance of journalism. Revelations from Wikileaks helped end a US assignation programme that had targeted journalists among others, he said. They also provided the basis for ending drone strikes in Pakistan. And he had personally used material leaked by Assange to secure the release of innocents incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay.  

The challenge for Assange’s legal team over the three weeks scheduled for the hearing, is to persuade both the judge, and the public more generally, of this case. The witness list looks encouraging. Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg is cited, as is distinguished journalist Patrick Cockburn and Noam Chomsky.

Whether they will be sufficient to persuade the judge, Vanessa Baraitser, remains to be seen. Few decisions to date have gone with the defence. They asked for Assange to sit with them in court, rather than in the bullet-proof dock, and were refused. They sought to have the fresh charges levelled over the summer struck out, and found her unsympathetic. And their request for a three month adjournment to prepare to answer the new charges was also denied. 

What is in no doubt, however, is that if Assange is extradited, he will face charges that could result in 175 years in prison. These would be served in solitary confinement and with little access to family, friends or lawyers. 

Notwithstanding the personal effect on Assange of such an outcome, this would surely give journalists real pause for thought if they are ever offered classified US information in the future.

Wikileaks exposed tortuous trail – 5 September 2020

Lawyers for the US government wrangled for days to prevent Julian Assange’s extradition proceedings hearing Khaled El-Masri’s evidence. When eventually his story was laid before the court last week, it was obvious why.

The German shop worker suffered horrific treatment at the hands of the Macedonian police and the CIA. He was secretly held captive for months, tortured and then dumped on a roadside in a country he had never visited. It took a determined investigative journalist, the Wikileaks revelations, and nine years to establish the facts. 

Once they had, however, the Grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that El-Masri had been “severely beaten, shackled, sodomised, hooded and subjected to total sensory deprivation, carried out by state officials of Macedonia”. The court held that the facts of his case were established beyond reasonable doubt.

The United States, however, has resisted all attempts to hold it to account for the five months during which the CIA tortured El-Masri in secret. The International Criminal Court in the Hague is investigating the case, which could come to trial later this year. In response, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has denounced the ICC and issued sanctions against its senior officials for “illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction”.

El-Masri grew up in Lebanon. During 1980s civil war, when he was in his 20s, he was granted political asylum in Germany where he became citizen, set up home in Ulm, married, and started a family. 

In 2003, he took a short holiday in Skopje, Macedonia – possibly after a row with his wife. As he started his coach journey home, however, he was detained by Macedonian police who mistook him for an al-Queda suspect with a very similar name and German connections.

The Macedonian police held him incommunicado for 23 days before handing him over to the CIA. Its operatives stripped, blindfolded and drugged him before strapping him spread-eagled to the floor of a plane and flying him to Afghanistan.

“I was continuously interrogated, held in a cold concrete cell with only a dirty, thin blanket and a bucket to use for a toilet. I was humiliated, stripped naked and threatened,” he told the court in his statement. It would later transpire that he was in one of the CIA’s ‘black sites’ known as the Salt Pit.

Eventually he went on hunger strike. After 34 days without food he was strapped to a chair and forcibly fed through his nose. 

After four months of inhumane treatment, it appears the Americans had realised their mistake. On 28th May El-Masri was again blindfolded and handcuffed and taken to a plane where he was strapped to a seat. He was flown to Albania, although he did not know it at the time. 

“I was put in the back of a vehicle and driven up and down mountainous roads. Eventually the vehicle stopped, I was brought from the back of the car and the handcuffs removed. The men gave me my suitcase and my passport and told me to walk down the road without turning back”.

He imagined that he was about to be shot in the back, and was surprised as he rounded a corner to meet a group of armed men. They asked for his passport and demanded to know why he was in Albania without a visa. 

By some miracle he managed to return to Germany, but his ordeal was by no means over. After so long without word, his wife had returned to Lebanon, assuming her husband had abandoned her. And persuading anyone of what had happened to him during his five-month absence would prove challenging.

Among the investigative journalists that El-Masri contacted was John Goetz, then working for NDR, the German state broadcaster. “When we first met, very few people believed Mr El-Masri’s story,” Goetz told the court last week. “Macedonia itself denied all knowledge of the detention, and the United States provided no information.”

Goetz started meticulously checking flight records to corroborate El-Masri’s account. Eventually these led not only the actual flights, but to the names of the 13 CIA operatives who had held him prisoner. 

“I myself knocked on doors in different countries and eventually in the US where I discovered the agents and questioned them about their role”, Goetz said at the Old Bailey.

In January 2007 the Munich prosecutor issued arrest warrants for 13 people wanted in connection with El-Masri’s abduction. For reasons that were, at the time, incomprehensible, the German government chose not to request extradition of those individuals.

“When the diplomatic cables (obtained by Wikileaks) first came to light ‘El-Masri’ was the first thing that I typed in”, said Goetz. What they revealed with the intense pressure that US diplomats had exerted on German chancellor Angela Merkel. “There will be serious repercussions for German/American relations if (the warrants are issued)”, she was warned by US diplomats.

American justice proved equally illusive. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the US government on behalf of El-Masri. When he and his lawyer arrived to testify, they were denied entry to the US, however. Their statements were eventually heard by video link, but the judge dismissed the case on the grounds that it would: “present a grave risk of injury to national security”.

Whether El-Masri’s story and its cover up persuades Judge Baraitser to refuse Assange’s extradition is for the future. The ICC’s deliberations too are for another day. 

In no doubt, however, is El-Masri’s gratitude to Wikileaks. “Those cables made public in September 2011 made it clear why over the intervening years my suffering had been able to be denied and ignored and steps that should have been taken against those responsible sidelined”.


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Unfettered reporting threatened – what Assange extradition hearings reveal

04 October 2020 by timdawsn

Julian Assange’s extradition hearing took its last evidence at the Old Bailey, London yesterday. Closing submissions will be made in writing and Judge Baraitser’s ruling will be handed down on 4 January at The Old Bailey.

Until 23 May 2019 journalists quite reasonably held opinions about Julian Assange and his legal tussles that were every bit as multitudinous as those of the public at large.

These might include the view that he is an irresponsible narcissist; that he is tainted by the Swedish sexual assault allegations; or, that he is a seer whose revelations have unmasked the shocking truths of modern warfare.

By the middle of spring last year, the Metropolitan Police had arrested Assange and he had been jailed for skipping bail in 2012. The US government had requested his extradition on a single charge of computer hacking. If convicted, he might serve five years in prison.

Then in May last year, in the upmarket Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, the pursuit of Julian Assange took a new and deeply troubling twist. A grand jury returned a second, superseding indictment that included 18 charges, 17 of them for violations of the Espionage Act.

Assange himself now faced a potential sentence with a release date more than a century beyond his most optimistic lifespan. It was in the detail of the charges, however, that a critical juncture for media freedom stood out.

The indictment includes charges that Assange had:

“unlawfully obtaining and disclosed classified documents related to the national defense”; “actively solicited United States classified information, including by publishing a list of ‘Most Wanted Leaks’ that sought, among other things, classified documents”; “engaged in real-time discussions regarding (Chelsea) Manning’s transmission of classified records”;  and, “actively encouraged Manning to provide more information and agreed to crack a password”.

What this amounts to is cultivating a source to provide information – the most basic and universal journalistic activity. Jameel Jaffer, professor of Law and Journalism at Columbia University, put it bluntly in his evidence to Assange’s extradition hearing.

“The indictment is mainly a description of Assange engaging in core journalistic activities. These are activities that the government’s apparent theory of liability would criminalise”.

Whether or not you consider Assange a journalist, as some had agonised over, is rendered irrelevant. He is being prosecuted for activities that a great many journalists undertake every day of their working lives.

Nor is concern about such a precedent merely rhetorical. Following the ‘9/11’ attack in 2001 successive US administrations have become increasingly aggressive about secrecy.

The quantity of government documents that are classified has increased exponentially. Paul Feldstein, a former ABC investigative reporter and now professor of history at the university of Maryland told the court that:

“over-classification of government records is widely acknowledged as rampant to the point of absurdity. Every government study of the issue over the last six decades has found widespread classification of information that the government had no basis to conceal”.

Nor is the greater proportion of official documents being marked ‘secret’ the only change. Tougher sanctions for at least some government employees who leaked classified documents are also evident post 9/11. More whistleblowers were prosecuted under the Espionage Act during the Obama administrations than under any previous presidency. The current Whitehouse incumbent looks set to trump that record.

Of course such prosecutions are highly selective. The more senior the leaker, it seems, the greater the chance of lenient treatment. Jaffer told the court:

“Five years ago the government considered filing Espionage Act charges against General David Petraeus”, 

“(It had) concluded that he shared classified information, including code words for secret intelligence programs and the identities of covert agents. The government ultimately allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanour charge of mishandling sensitive material.”

Not so lucky Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner and a clutch of other relatively junior workers handed long jail sentences for Espionage Act violations. All of these prosecuted whistleblowers, however, were government employees who chose to share restricted material with non-security-cleared outsiders. Pursuing a foreign publisher of leaked information is wholly new territory.

The theoretical possibility of the Espionage Act being used against journalists and publishers is not new – but its deployment for this purpose is unprecedented.

The Espionage Act – a First World War knee-jerk statute – deploys terms that are unusually broad and vague. It provides not only for the prosecution of the unauthorised publishers of classified information, but also all subsequent publishers. Anyone repeating contents from a story in the public domain that is based on classified document could, theoretically, be in the firing line. “It’s a loaded gun pointed at the head of the press” said legal scholars Harold Edgar and Benno Schmidt Jr.

“Various administrations have considered prosecuting journalists under the Espionage Act”, said Trevor Timm director of the San Francisco-based Freedom Of The Press Foundation. “In each case, prosecutors have accepted that it would be unconstitutional”.

Assange’s case is groundbreaking – it is the first to be pursued this way against a publisher. Most disturbing of all, it would create a precedent that US administrations could deploy against journalists anywhere in the world if their stories relied upon information gleaned from classified documents.

Of course, no one believes that if Assange is successfully prosecuted, the US will initiate actions against every reporter who relies for a story on leaked or classified documents. The US government would have neither the time nor the resources, and anyway frequently leaks material deliberately in pursuit of its own ends. A legal menace selectively deployed, however, is the more deadly.

Any journalist in receipt of classified information might reflect that, in all probability, they could rely on the leaked material with impunity. But certitude there would be not. Any story that happened to rub the US administration up the wrong way might provoke an indictment similar to the one currently levelled against Assange.

By then, of course, Assange may well have disappeared into the ‘supermax prison’ ADX Colorado for a term and in conditions that would make a medieval jailer blush. The public might well forget his name – but Assange’s head on a spike will cast a darkening shadow over any reporter offered a classified document. Whistleblowers will be advised to shut up and knuckle down while beneficial sunlight will fall on fewer and fewer of the actions taken in the name of the public. It is a fate to be feared by any journalist who cares about the trade we ply.

I attended the hearings as an observer on behalf of the NUJ and the IFJ. I am the only reporter whose daily coverage appeared in a printed newspaper.

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Spring a leak: Assange’s case takes centre stage

07 September 2020 by timdawsn

Originally published in the Morning Star 7 September 2020

DURING an impasse in Julian Assange’s extradition hearing in February, I found myself sharing a bench in the court’s public area with three track-suited men in their early 20s. Another case being heard that day had brought them to Belmarsh. They were frenetically boisterous — perhaps a reaction to an alien environment.

Outside the court, chants from upward of 100 demonstrators intensified. “Don’t extradite Assange,” they chorused, accompanied by vuvuzelas and air horns. Ordinary conversation inside the building was momentarily drowned out.

“What’s that about?” asked one of the lads of his mates. He peered through the window at the banners and placards. The trio agreed that they had no idea.

It is illustrative of the challenge facing those of us campaigning for the extradition charges against the Wikileaks founder to be dropped.

Assange’s bombshell revelations were a decade ago. Few, if any, young adults have first-hand memory of the outrage of the “collateral murder” video, or the devastating revelations of the Afghan and Iraq war logs.

The resumption of proceedings today provides the opportunity for Assange’s legal team to imprint those outrages on the national consciousness. February’s hearings involved relatively arcane arguments over important, if sometimes baffling, legal principles. The coming three weeks will be dominated by witnesses called by Assange’s lawyers.

Whether these make the Australian’s case a touchstone issue remains to be seen. For the man in the dock, however, the stakes could scarcely be higher.

Between 2006 and 2010 Wikileaks published, or co-published with The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel, the most extraordinary catalogue of classified US military material. Its breadth was dizzying and included the involvement of US military in avoidable civilian deaths, the deliberate abuse of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and the secret use of drone strikes in Yemen.

By 2010, US authorities appear to have decided that Wikileaks must be stopped. Chelsea Manning, the US soldier who had disclosed nearly 750,000 classified records to Assange, was arrested. The Wikileaks founder, meanwhile, was accused of sexual assault in Sweden. Believing that the Swedish accusations, which he has always denied, were a pretext for his extradition to the US, in 2012 Assange sought sanctuary in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

There he remained until 2019 when Ecuador allowed British police to enter the embassy and arrest him. Assange was initially jailed for breaching bail conditions seven years earlier. During this sentence, Swedish authorities discontinued their investigation of the sexual assault accusations.

An extradition request was subsequently filed by the US and it is to this that Westminster Magistrates, sitting at the Central Criminal Court, will return today.

The US wishes to prosecute Assange on 18 charges mostly arising from the Espionage Act. If convicted, these could result in a sentence of up to 175 years in prison, probably in solitary confinement with very limited access to family, friends or lawyers.

Unusually, over the summer, the US submitted a “superseding indictment” — fine tuning their case for extradition.

There is much that is troubling about the entire application. If allowed, it would legitimise the application of the US to prosecute foreign nationals whose writing or publication angered the State Department. It would allow for deportation on political grounds. And it would sanction extradition of a subject assessed to have been tortured and who is psychologically fragile.

Potential implications go well beyond the personal, of course. The general secretary of the National Union of Journalists Michelle Stanistreet has described the deportation request as “one of the gravest threats to free expression in my lifetime.”

Assange’s case against deportation will focus on the legal tests that the application fails.

During his time in the Ecuadorian embassy, for example, it is known that Assange was extensively bugged, including during meetings with his lawyers. The court will hear from former employees of UC Global, the Spanish company that installed the bugs. A key question will be to whom the footage from the secret camera was supplied. Some contend that the company was contracted by US security forces. Assange’s lawyers will argue that a fair trail in the US is impossible when a basic right like confidential access to lawyers has been violated.

The court will also hear from mental health experts, such as Michael Kopelman, the Emeritus Processor of Neuropsychiatry at Kings College London. Based on examinations undertaken in Belmarsh prison where Assange is held, he will report on the potentially devastating psychological impact of extradition. His evidence was considered key to computer scientist Lauri Love’s successful appeal against extradition to the US in 2018.

Outside court “team Assange” is also playing a more sophisticated game than has sometimes been the case. The exposure offered by his partner Stella Morris and their children is steadily humanising a central character who has often been harshly portrayed.

Until the intervention of Covid, the Don’t Extradite Assange Campaign boasted that each of its protests was bigger than the last. Without the pandemic a major rally would have filled Methodist Central Hall over the weekend. Its “Zoom” substitution was a bloodless proxy, albeit with interventions from Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg and Alice Walker.

Whether any of this persuades Judge Venessa Baraitser that Assange’s extradition would be unlawful is for the future. The hearings, slated for three weeks, could be extended. Baraitser’s decision will take longer still.

When the decision does come, if his plight is understood by the more distracted citizenry, then it will be no small victory. Indeed, while triumph in the court of public opinion delivers no cell-door key, it potentially serves a cause far beyond judicial reach.

Image: Tim Dawson

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Lockdown justice and the dial-in press bench

01 September 2020 by timdawsn

Originally published in the August 2020 edition of NUJ Informed.

When HM Courts and Tribunals Service wanted a poster boy for their revised approach to media relations, the Evening Standard’s Tristan Kirk stepped up. Speaking in a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) video he hoped that new guidelines would “smooth out that relationship between journalists and court staff ”.

Lockdown, alas, has strained such cordiality. In early August (2020) Tristan Kirk tweeted about the shortcomings of arrangements to accommodate the media at high-profile hearings, concluding with a blunt: “This isn’t good enough @ HMCTSgovuk”.

Such frustration is indicative of just how challenging Covid has made the open administration of justice.

Kirk is not the only reporter to have become exasperated. Early in lockdown, telephone access was arranged to allow reporters access to Julian Assange’s case management hearings. The audio quality one day was so poor that following proceedings was impossible. On another, those dialling in heard nothing because the switch on the feed was not pressed.

What issues have arisen must, of course, be judged against the extraordinary backdrop. Courts are used to their procedures evolving over decades. Covid changed all that. Within a week in March, the conventional administration of justice in England, and other jurisdictions, was suspended and largely unfamiliar new procedures forced into the spotlight.

New rules were hastily enacted to allow video access to court hearings. Fewer than 1,000 cases were heard using audio or video technology in the last week of March, when the lockdown began; by mid- April it was more than 3,000 a week.

Throughout this, the needs of journalists were part of the planning, according to a MoJ spokesperson: “Working closely with journalists, we have also issued new guidance to court staff on how to help during the pandemic, and set up a national helpline to directly access support if needed.” Before lockdown was eased, even criminal cases were allowing journalists to dial in.

The complications have not just been technical ones, however. To know which hearings to apply for dial in access for, court lists are necessary. Magistrates, in particular, have not always been good at issuing these. Access details for one of the Assange hearings were widely shared on the internet, with the result that thousands dialled in, rendering the proceedings inaudible.

Experienced court reporter James Doleman, for example, thinks that telephone and video access to courts should be retained. “It is always better
to be in court, if that is possible, but particularly for shorter hearings, calling in makes a massive difference, often avoiding a round trip of hundreds of miles for a twenty-minute hearing.”

Charlotte Tobbit of the Press Gazette was able to dial in to Belfast High Court for the judgment in the No Stone Unturned case from England. She said: “It was easy to hear the judge in the courtroom and others who spoke briefly from remote locations. My worry was over how to get the written judgment afterwards and indeed the issue of disclosure of documents is trickier than if you are in a courtroom and able to go up to the relevant party.

“My experience at a magistrates’ court was mixed. I was impressed with how helpful court staff were by phone and email in terms of providing access and then the names of the people who spoke during the hearing afterwards. But it was incredibly difficult to hear everything that went on in the courtroom an other remote observers have found this elsewhere.

“If sound issues can be ironed out and the ability to dial-in does continue for a long time then this could be excellent. But there needs to be consistency across the courts.”

Dial-in and video-link access also poses a more profound question. If it is available for members of the press, should it also be available to others with an interest in court proceedings – the families of victims of crime, for example. Some argue that open justice would be better served if all proceedings were publicly streamed. For the moment that is almost certainly a step too far for UK courts, but as technology improves, it is a prospect that will be raised with growing insistance.

At the instigation of the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland, NUJ representative will shortly meet MoJ officials to discuss how these, and other issues might be progressed.

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Reporting fictions: a novel start for journalists

12 June 2020 by timdawsn

In the rat-infested basement of The Public Benefit Boot Company in Leeds City Market, Harry Proctor was sacked. His boss had caught him reading a novel. The tattered pages had already worked their magic, however. It was 1932 and Proctor, a now unemployed fifteen-year-old, was in thrall to the promise of Fleet Street. 

Seven years later, he joined the staff of the Mirror. Within a decade he was arguably London’s most celebrated reporter.  “Tell Harry Proctor about it” became a nationally-known catch phrase, such was his fame in the 1950s.

The book for which Proctor forsook his role as bootseller’s dogsbody was Phillip Gibbs’ Street Of Adventure, published in 1909. Re-reading this antique text begs a question. Are there novels yet that might prepare a young person for the life of a reporter?

Phillip Gibbs

Surprisingly, Gibbs’ century-old potboiler has enduring qualities. The Fleet Street of roaring presses, proud compositors, and companionable drinking holes is long gone. But for all the evolution of newspapers, much is unchanged. The toil of finding and processing stories is recognisable, even if the deployment of shoe leather has become rather more metaphorical than it was in the 1900s.

It was a rackety trade back then, in Gibbs’ account. Every job was insecure, ‘weekend warriors’ undermined freelance earnings, and the intensity of work burnt out most practitioners in the end. “What we want is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Poor Pressman”, one of the reporters suggests. Funnily enough, 200 miles to the north, the National Union Of Journalists had just been formed to perform just that function.

Street Of Adventure owes much of its narrative to the actual story of the Tribune, a Liberal-party supporting daily. It launched in 1906 in a blaze of glory, only to sink two years later, behind a mountain of debt. In Gibb’s telling, an innocent, Frank Lutterell, joins its reporting staff, only be to blooded on assignment, brought low by the ceaseless graft, and seduced by the charms of a colleague.

Gibbs – a truly prolific journalist who covered both world wars and penned nearly 80 books – is at his best on newspaper culture. The hive effort necessary for the daily production of a newspaper is recognisably evoked, likewise the curious occupational demarkations, and the sometimes extreme personalities that people every newsroom.

He is at his most poignant on the experience of working on a title as it closes – something I have experienced twice. He perfectly captures a sensation akin to bereavement, followed by conflicted choices, friendly leg ups, and the steady dissolution of a family.

Denise Mina’s Field Of Blood (2005), set at the end of the hot-metal era, is clearly based on the Glasgow Herald of the early 1980s. Paddy Meehan is a teenage copygirl, who aspires to become a journalist. To achieve this she must endure the sectarian, bullying, macho culture, where the newspaper’s staff spend as much time in the adjacent bar as they do at their typewriters. It is an as unflinchingly bleak as it is depressingly accurate.

Some of the narrative furniture is now a thing of the past. Glasgow’s papers no longer dispatch nightly ‘calls cars’ to harvest stories from the city’s streets during the hours of darkness, and ranks of newsroom messengers have joined the roll call of historical occupations.

Like Gibbs, however, Mina captures much of the unchanging essentials of newspaper life – reverence for story-getting, appreciation of clear writing, and competing ambitions in a competitive trade.

Mina’s description of working-class, Catholic Glasgow in that era has a particularly authentic quality. Sectarianism certainly hasn’t disappeared, although is probably less naked today.

The texture Mina brings to Meehan’s character is as compelling as the setting. She battles with her weight, and a family for whom white-collar occupations are a mystery. Her determination to be a reporter, however, is unflinching. 

The unsolved child murder around which the plot turns is of a kind that few journalists will ever report, much less play a part in solving. It makes a gripping tale, nonetheless, in a way that rewriting press releases never could.

Holly Watt’s entirely contemporary To The Lions (2019) stretches the possibilities of news gathering even further. Her hero, Casey Benedict, works in the investigations department of the Post, a London-based national that has many elements recognisable from The Sunday Times, where Watt started her own career.

Her sketch of contemporary news room is rich in well-observed detail – the competition between papers, the foul-mouthed aggression of some news editors, and the thrilling randomness of assignments. She is also good on an experience common to many reporters of rubbing shoulders  with the privileged and powerful at work, while enduring poverty and borderline chaos at home.

The plot, involving door-stepping in Geneva and a stake out in an abandoned palace in Libya is fabulous, as befits a thrilling page-turner. Verisimilitude is delivered through her closely observed descriptions of the opportunistic, chancy and nerve-jangling process of extracting stories from wary or unsuspecting subjects. Helicopter-supported, undercover assignments are relatively few in the British press. The cunning, charm and occasional trickery required to obtain information has common elements whether you dealing with international gangsters or municipal officials.

If there is a canon of novels rooted in journalism, then Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938) stands at its head. Loosely based on the author’s experience covering Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, it is a knock-about comedy designed as a caution against fake news. Protagonist William Boot is accidentally dispatched to cover a conflict about which he knows nothing. By way of mischief and misadventure, Waugh’s narrative enduringly crystallises numerous archetypes and tropes. Among these: “up to a point, Lord Copper” meaning “you are talking rubbish, but are too powerful for my to be able to say so”, and “funeral for a camel” denoting an outlandishly ambitious expenses claim. Both can occasionally be heard in newsrooms yet.

Michael Frayn’s Towards The End Of The Morning owes much to his time at The Observer of the early 1960s. His characters are responsible for a page towards the back of the book that includes crosswords, nature notes, moral entreaties by eminent clerics, and ‘In Years Gone By’. The novel is an affectionate and funny dissection of middle class mores, but has more to say about mid-career anxiety than the process of journalism.

A few days immersed in fiction would certainly provide aspirant journalists with sufficient news-gathering tips to more than justify the effort. It is the harshness of a career in newspapers that is the real recurring theme of all these titles, however.

Neophyte news gatherers are generally dazzled by their own ambition and the imagined glamour of the industry they are joining. If nothing else, a few hours with their noses in any of these books should persuade them that, for most people, a media career is entirely without the security and certainty associated with most professions.

No one better demonstrates this than Harry Proctor, alas. Shortly before he died, at the age of 48, he penned his own memoir, namechecking his original inspiration. Street Of Disillusion is a flawed book, full of bragging, contradictions and long-forgotten tabloid triumphs. The tragedy of Proctor’s burn out, however, is palpable. Journalism took him from a rat-infested basement, to the company of royals, and pretty much back again.

Proctor rightly insists that there is nothing more engrossing, demanding or fulfilling than reporting. If following his lead is your goal, however, all these books represent sound preparation for the known unknowns.  Worthwhile too is the lesson that, just occasionally, fiction provides the most effective means of getting to the facts.

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