Tim Dawson

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

Category Archives for: The practice of journalism

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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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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Legend dependent: only the titled achieve immortality

15 December 2019 by timdawsn

First published in Amateur Photographer 14 December 2019

A friend of mine has been an enthusiastic photographer for nearly 40 years. The knack of composition has always eluded him, however. In his street scenes, tarmac occupies most of the frame. Groups of friends appear without their heads. He even captures picturesque country views obscured by unrelated foreground detail.

Back in the day, I often saw him with a camera – indeed, he went through a fascinating range of exotica – a Russian twin lens reflex, a half-frame rangefinder and a Chineses Leica copy among them. Back then, I only occasionally saw his pictures – and was grateful never to have been pressed to an ‘evening with slides’.

In the past few years, however, he has been regularly posting his archival work on Facebook. What is striking is that far from showing off the sorry products of a pursuit for which he lacked aptitude, he is unveiling, little by little, an extraordinary trove of historic records.

Most of his subjects are in and around the outer London borough where he lives. But his images’ technical shortcomings are now more than made up for in the quality of his captioning. A snap of a long-forgotten pub includes the name of the landlord at the time of the picture, the names of a couple of regulars, the date of its demolition and a note of what was built in its place.

Sometimes a bus appears inadvertently in his frame. He notes how the route of the ’53′ has changed, records a personal incident experienced while queuing to board and often includes and account of how the service evolved post-privatisation.

Even the unfortunately-cropped human groups (most appear to have been taken on licensed premises), might lack their heads, but their names, occupations and subsequent life stories are there in the captions.

It would be easy to think that these rolls and rolls of film that my fiend is slowly digitising, would be even more compelling, where he more conventionally photographically competent. Actually, his pictures’ apparently random quality, allied with compelling captions, give them a unique integrity. Little by little they reveal the evolution of an otherwise undocumented everyday.

Professional photographers have recently started talking about the ‘four ‘c’s’ that should always be included in a file’s metadata – credit, contact, copyright ownership and caption. The first three can be dealt with automatically ‘in camera’. Time, skill and effort are required for the forth.

The ubiquity of digital image making and the seemingly universal human desire to capture moments means that the quantity of photographs taken is today is unprecedented. In the 1980s when my friend’s photographic odyssey began, humankind captured approximately 25 billion photos a year . Today it is more than a million million

How many will be captioned? Perhaps fewer than 40 years ago – certainly a dramatically smaller proportion. That mattes if you want your pictures to survive your memory of their subjects. Without captions, buy xanax, your exposures quickly become the digital equivalent of dust.

It is possible that technology will eventually solve even this. Software that automatically recognises places and faces in digital files is already being used for surveillance.

Until that arrives in the consumer market, however, captioning is the photographic practice least changed since the era of Daguerre and Fox Talbot. A picture might well be worth 1,000 words, but it often requires a simple sentence to unlock that value. And as well as the benefits for posterity, a fresh moment of reflection on your own work, as you flesh out the metadata, might just prompt beneficial reflection on how you are documenting the world around you.

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Head hunt: how the search for Elvis signals a threat to journalism

02 December 2019 by timdawsn

Article originally published in the December 2019 editor of NUJ Informed.

Each September, Porthcawl is alive with white jumpsuits, improbable sideburns and gyroscopic hips as 40,000 Elvis impersonators descend on the Welsh resort. “Arrests are very rare, the whole event is like a huge Elvis party,” says Peter Phillips organiser of the 20-year-old annual event. Even Cliff Richard fans enjoy a warm welcome, he adds. 

For the past three years, however, as the “Elvises” have encouraged the jailhouse to rock, South Wales Police (SWP) officers have discreetly filmed revellers and utilised facial-recognition software to sift the resulting feed for ‘undesirables’.

And while combing the tribute acts for terrorists probably risks no more than ridicule, the potential threat to journalism of the unregulated use of such technology is all too real. 

“As soon as it became possible to use phone data to identify individuals, police forces started using them to search for journalists’ sources,” says NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet. “The cases of Mark Bulstrode, Tom Newton-Dunn and Sally Murrer are but a few of many instances. Today, facial recognition is almost entirely without legal regulation. I would be amazed if journalists have not already been targeted.” 

Stanistreet is not alone in raising concerns.

Paul Wiles, the government’s Biometrics Commissioner says: “We desperately need fresh legislation that regulates use of these second-generation biometric identification, and those rules need to enshrine journalistic rights to protect sources.”

His counterpart the Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Palmer is similarly worried. “The first court case [relating to the use of facial recognition by the SWP] is now subject to appeal. It will ask is whether there is a legal framework to use that technology in the first place. The court has said that it could be decided on a case-by-case basis, but the common law can be quite fluid.” 

Whatever the outcome of the current election, the issue may struggle to gain traction. Against this backdrop, a multi-party campaign calls on UK police forces and private security companies to immediately stop using live facial recognition for public surveillance. Supported by MPs (at the time of writing) David Davis, Diane Abbot, Jo Swinson and Caroline Lucas, it is also endorsed by numerous civil liberties groups, academics and lawyers. 

The clamour for regulation has been joined by the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham. “The absence of a statutory code that speaks to the specific challenges posed by LFR will increase the likelihood of legal failures and undermine public confidence in its use,” she has written. “[My] key recommendation is [for the] government to introduce a statutory and binding code of practice on the deployment of live facial recognition.”

Notwithstanding these concerns, SWP’s “facial recognition vans” have become a familiar sight at sporting events, concerts and demonstrations in Cardiff. And the Welsh experience is not unusual.

In Leicestershire similar kit was used to check fans at a heavy metal festival against a Europol database. Meanwhile the Metropolitan police surveilled the crowds on Remembrance Sunday to try to weed out stalkers and people with mental health issues.

In London the private landlords of the development behind King’s Cross station were given access to the Met Police facial recognition database to scan shoppers’ faces. This scheme was abandoned after a public outcry

Similar technology is also thought to be in use in the Irish Republic. The Garda Síochána’s Modernisation and Renewal Programme 2016-2021 specifically committed to its use. 

SWP makes a robust defence of the use of automated facial recognition, both in public and it court. Chief Inspector Jason Herbert, Operations Manager for Bridgend says: “Facial recognition software helps detect risk more efficiently than standard CCTV. Officers on the ground can also identify early opportunities to prevent crime and reduce anti-social behaviour. We are very aware of concerns about privacy and we have built checks and balances into our methodology to reassure the public.” 

SWP says that it is searching for individuals on a “watch list” drawn up specifically for each event. At the 2017 Elvisfest, for example, there were 472 names on the list. All were either “suspected of crimes in South Wales, or had outstanding arrest warrants”, says Deputy Chief Constable Richard Lewis. 

The compiling and sign off for this list is made wherever possible by the most senior officer on the ground at the event (in police jargon, the Silver Commander). According to SWP’s own operational manual, however, there is no systematic process for review or inspection of that list by more senior officers, or anyone else. 

The NUJ will campaign for proper regulation, including safeguards for journalism, of facial recognition technology (as well as other second- generation biometrics such as voice and iris recognition). As soon as a new NUJ all- party Parliamentary Group has convened, this will be on its agenda. Members can raise the absence of regulation with candidates in the general election. 

In the meantime, however, an academic evaluation of SWP’s experience with facial recognition provides some pointers for journalists who wish to avoid their encounters being the subject of CCTV scrutiny and facial recognition. 

The researchers found that the system used by British police forces, NeoFace, manufactured by NEC, had some clear shortcomings. Low light forces the camera’s sensors to use higher ISO settings (increasing their sensitivity), and produces images too grainy for effective analysis. Hats with brims, scarves and sunglasses also reduced the system’s capacity for recognition. 

The efficaciousness of self-adhesive side burns, quiff wigs and rhinestone belts as disguise were not specifically considered by the academics. It is worth noting, however, that in 2019 SWP deployed two facial recognition vans for both days of the Porthcawl Elvisfest, and managed to identify not one person from their watch lists, nor did they make any arrests. Perhaps had the constables concentrated on the music instead of their surveillance screens they could have enjoyed themselves rather more and avoided the very trap warned of by the King himself – suspicious minds. 

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Global transmission: London booms as world tv hub

05 August 2019 by timdawsn

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 edition of NUJ Informed

Walking into the Chinese state broadcaster’s gleaming studios, Mick Hodgkin passes a galaxy of other media outlets. The offices of Yanga! (serving African markets), Aparat Media (TV content producer), Arab News, and Iran International are all close by.

Elsewhere on Chiswick Park’s sparkling new, university-style campus are the Discovery Network, Walt Disney and Paramount Pictures. Settling down to continue work preparing for China Global Television Network’s (CGTN) planned London launch, programme editor Mick Hodgkin is among hundreds, possibly thousands, of media staff now working in this west London enclave.

It is but one of the international TV hubs that have made the English capital possibly the world’s most significant global broadcasting centre. “Britain has always had a strong international broadcast sector,” says Simon Spanswick, chief executive of the UK-based Association of International Broadcasters.

“The rise of streamed broadcast content and a more general migration from radio to TV, allied with the falling entry costs to produce television, have brought a host of new entrants to the sector in the pastfew years.” He cites some of the factors drawing broadcasters to the UK (he believes that nearly 1,500 are now based here): Heathrow; a flexible and highly-skilled broadcast workforce; multitudinous established international communities; and the desirability of London life.

Most significant, however, according to Simon Spanswick, is Ofcom. “It is widely perceived to be the strongest and most transparent regulator whose work, unlike some regulators elsewhere in Europe, is not politicised.”

The UK represents 21 per cent of the European TV market output, according to a 2018 report by the European Audiovisual Observatory, with 1,203 TV channels of the 3,005 in the EU based in the UK.

Ofcom currently has 893 licences in issue that can be used to broadcast on cable and satellite; for digital terrestrial TV they have issued 135 licences.

Mick Hodgkin’s career trajectory gives some sense of how skills networks are key to this burgeoning sector. “I started at Reuters TV, spent nine years at Chanel Four News, and spent order tramadol with no prescription several years atAl Jazeera.”

Estimates of how many journalists CGTN is planning to hire vary from 150 to 350. There is no question, however, that state-funded broadcasters, such as Al Jazeera, Press TV and Al Araby, provide the bulk of the new employment. They are not alone, however. They have been joined by scores of much smaller operators, many of them dissidents, who choose to make programmes in London for broadcast to audiences elsewhere in the world.

Jobs created by this sector are welcome, they also provide an NUJ organising opportunity. Recognition at Al Jazeera’s London centre in 2013 was followed in 2018 by a 6 per cent pay increase and
3 per cent the following year. Constructive talks about NUJ recognition at Al Araby, where about 400 people (not all journalists) are thought to work, are in progress.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, is optimistic about opportunities in this burgeoning sector: “It is London’s talent pool that is drawing broadcasters here. We have shown what a difference NUJ organisation can make to those staffing these stations, so I am confident that, in time, we will have a string of recognition agreements in this area.

“We will also be ensuring that NUJ members don’t find themselves pressured to let standards slip.”

Her concerns are well founded – broadcasters controlled by repressive regimes can be unedifying. A string of Ofcom judgements shows how standards can slip.

Press TV’s licence was revoked in 2012 after it broadcast an interview with a Chanel 4 journalist conducted “under duress”. RT, the Russian-government-controlled channel, has been the subject of several regulatory investigations for lack of impartiality and several stations have been sanctioned for broadcasting jihadi content.

Troubling as these are, this regulatory attention is assurance that there is some check on standards and, for those who have experienced the decline of much of the UK’s traditional media, it is comforting to think that at least one part of our industry is enjoying a boom.

The illustration is The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

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Chief constable shoots the messenger as gun men roam free

13 December 2018 by timdawsn

Picture Northern Ireland’s most senior police officer, George Hamilton, settling down to watch the film No Stone Unturned. It must have left him worried, angry and possibly betrayed. It certainly landed a big decision in his lap.

The documentary feature, made by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, and originally a BBC co-production, forensically unpicks 1994’s Loughinisland massacre and the woeful response of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The bones of the story are well known. On 18 June 1994 Italy’s footballers faced the Republic of Ireland in the World Cup. Deep in the Northern Ireland’s countryside, drinkers in Heights Bar, Loughinisland, were enjoying the match when masked men burst in and sprayed the bar with automatic gun fire. Six people died.

Disgust was widespread, not least as Loyalist and Republican paramilitary ceasefires came within months of the shooting. Police and politicians promised justice would be swift and proportionate.

In the days following the shooting, developments apparently went the way of the law enforcers. The getaway car, rich in forensic evidence, turned up in a nearby field. By a bridge close by, the automatic rifle was found. And within the community, most people knew the names of the killers within a month. They lived scarcely five miles from the crime scene.

But convictions, there were none. Months became years, and then decades. The bereaved families showed a remarkable dignity in their mourning, but eventually, and quite rightly, they started to ask questions. Why had nothing happened?

Twenty three years after the killings, Gibney’s film provided quite a lot of the answers. Based on a secret document compiled by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, it names the four Ulster Volunteer Force members who are the chief suspects the atrocity.

It unpicks the police investigation which by turns was deliberately slow footed, woefully incompetent and orchestrated in collusion with the killers.

It shows how the police destroyed evidence and, in one particularly shocking exposé, suggests that a Detective Constable pressured the gang’s leader to eliminate a personal enemy.

As the narrative unfolded, George Hamilton could jump in one of two ways. The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s chief constable could have opened a new investigation to catch the killers and bring to justice the RUC officers whose bungling had landed this on his plate. Or he could pursue the journalists who had shone light on a shameful episode in the history of the force he joined at the age of eighteen.

He chose the latter course. It was a terrible misjudgement that will, in time, bring further dishonour to policing in Northern Ireland and may yet bring his career to a premature end.

Very early one August morning, a massive detachment of his officers, bristling with guns, burst unannounced into the Belfast homes of producer Trevor Birney and reporter Barry McCaffrey.

Both had worked on No Stone Unturned. As the journalists’ families and neighbours looked on in horror, officers removed phones, memory sticks and computers and took the arrested men for questioning.

For fourteen hours, Birney and McCaffrey were held and interrogated. Eventually they were bailed, since which time their bail has been renewed until March 2018. They are accused of theft, handling stolen goods, data protection crimes and offences under the Official Secrets Act.

Such an assault on press freedom is an outrage in itself. But in a manner reminiscent of the original Loughinisland investigations, as many questions are thrown up as answers.

Initially the PSNI buy phentermine 37.5 mg said that it was acting on a complaint of the theft of documents by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. That body has since made clear that it made no such complaint.

The searches and subsequent investigation is apparently being carried out on behalf of Durham Constabulary which says that it is carrying out an ‘independent investigation’. Of what Durham’s investigation is independent is not clear – certainly not PSNI, whose officers were present at all the interviews.

Then there is the timescale. The film makers told the PSNI that they intended to name the chief suspects in their film six months before its release.

It was a deliberate move intended to allow the police to act if they thought that lives might be put at risk by such a public revelation. Injuncting the film, so that it could not be shown, would have been straightforward at that time.

The police did nothing. Nor did they act when the film was released in November 2017. It was a box office success in Ireland north and south, but the journalists were not troubled until August 2018.

Birney and McCaffrey are traumatised by the experience. They can’t leave Northern Ireland without giving the police prior notice, reams of data wholly unconnected with the film has been removed from their computer server, some highly sensitive, and theirs and their families’ property has not been returned.

They have, however, been buoyed by the support they have received. The NUJ quickly came to their side, of course. We have organised screenings of the film and support meetings in London, Manchester, Belfast and Dublin. More are planned.

In Westminster last week Birney and McCaffrey received a warm welcome from Labour’s Northern Ireland front bench, who promised to lend their support to the case. Other parliamentarians followed.

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that their treatment was ‘outrageous’, and undertook to intervene on their behalf. Former deputy prime minister Lord John Prescott gave them a sympathetic ear, as did MPs from the SNP and Sinn Féin.

Many asked if there is some back story that explains the Police behaviour. The best hypothesis is this. There is a political hiatus in Northern Ireland.

As a result, efforts to deal with ‘legacy issues’ arising from ‘the troubles’, have foundered – save in one area. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has continued to do its work investigating complaints, current and historical, about the conduct of the police.

Those who are emotionally connected to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the force that the PSNI replaced), have felt a spotlight on their past actions, that other communities have been inadvertently spared.

That might be an explanation, but it is no excuse. The best thing that could now happen is for George Hamilton to admit his mistake, drop the case and get on with pursuing the killers. If that does not happen, then the more people who register their concern about this case, the better.

Birney and McCaffrey are clear. This is a deliberate attempt to discourage investigative journalism – particularly when it concerns difficult subjects from the past. Whatever your feelings about the police, or the politics of Northern Ireland, or the conduct of the media, democracy is a risk if we don’t make our protests as noisily as possible.

While I was with Trevor and Barry, I made this short film of them talking about their case.

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BMW security let down by guards

07 April 2017 by timdawsn

Article first appeared in Amateur Photographer 8 April 2017

WITH A COUPLE OF HOURS between meetings one afternoon last summer, I walked the perimeter of BMW’s Oxford plant. My hope was to take a photograph that somehow conveyed the idea of a contemporary car factory.

Amateur Photographer pageIt was not easy. A fence surrounds the facility. Anonymous modern sheds form one side. On another, dozens of resting workers sat on low walls – but without a car in sight.

Only at the back the plant did the scene in my picture present itself. It still was not quite what I had imagined, but there were plenty of cars, as well as shiny chimneys hinting at a modern production line within. I took a few shots through a wire fence, experimenting with exposure and composition.

Before I noticed it there was a security guard at my side.

“You can’t take pictures here, I’m afraid?” he said – courteous but insistent.

Surely I was within my rights while I am on a public road, I replied?

“This is not a public road, it is owned by BMW and for that reason, I am asking you to leave”, came his response.

I accepted his word and left. When I got home, however, I called Oxfordshire County Council to check the veracity of the guard’s assertion. It confirmed my hunch: Transport Way, Cowley is a public road.

The problem on which I had stumbled is one that bedevils photographers professional and amateur – attempts to prohibit taking pictures where it is actually perfectly legal.

Nick McGowan-Lowe, a press photographer who sits on the NUJ’s national executive confirms that my experience is widespread. “Blurring boundaries between public and private space, increasing use of security guards and paranoia about social media is making all kinds of photography https://ordersomapill.com more and more difficult”, he says.

Part of the solution is is to know our legal rights. There is a good summary in the FAQ section at epuk.org and another on this site. Professionals, particularly those interested in publishable, “candid” shots of celebrities, face a complex legal framework. For those with simpler aspirations it is much easier: in general, when in a public place you can use a camera without legal impediment. Even if you are asked to move on, no one has the right to summarily insist to see or delete your pictures.

Courteous insistence on our rights and careful documentation where third parties try to erode our liberties are the best antidotes to over-enthusiastic security staff, in my experience.

These are freedoms that could be compromised in other ways, of course. A few months ago Amateur Photographer reported that Apple is experimenting with technology to disable cameras in its own devices in discreet locations. Other reports suggest that mobile phone manufacturers are close to being able to change device settings automatically to stop phones ringing in cinemas, for example. It is easy to see how the more connected cameras become, the more their control might be excised remotely, particularly to prevent pictures being taken at concerts, of celebrities or, indeed, around the back of car factories.

Perhaps film photography’s renaissance will reach new heights as chemical exposure is deployed to outwit camera-disabling networks?

Meantime, six months after my trip to Oxford, I received a reply from BMW staff acknowledging that the road in question is indeed public and apologising for their over-zealous security. As a goodwill gesture they have offered me a free trip around the inside of their car plant – on the strict understanding that I take no photographs.

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