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Close the Pontius Pilate loophole

CLOSE THE PONTIUS PILATE LOOPHOLE

…It seems odd to use an award-winning film to teach students how not to do something. Yet I have told students to watch All the President's Men to see how not to take notes and how not to treat a notebook.

 

There is a scene where Robert Redford is on the phone, conducting an interview, but his note-taking is poor and untidy. I'm sure this was Redford's dramatic interpretation rather than Bob Woodward's journalistic practice.

I was reminded of it when I caught the last half-hour of the movie at a special screening at Glasgow Film Theatre yesterday. Organised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFoIS), sponsored by UNISONScotland and supported by the NUJ, it marked International Right to Know Day.

It was aimed at drawing attention to the debate on freedom of information taking place in and outside the Scottish Parliament. Representing the NUJ in the discussion afterwards with Dr David Goldberg and Stephen Low of UNISONScotland, I decided to tackle head-on one of the most pressing aspects of freedom of information in Scotland.

Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew warned publicly this month of a loss of rights through the delivery of public services by "arm's-length organisations". These are the organisations set up by public bodies, mainly local authorities, to deliver public services in the name of greater efficiency.

I quoted what Carl Bernstein told the Asian Chronicle last year in an interview about All the President's Me: "All presidents, all institutions, all individuals try to [control the message], but I think they spend more time on it now."

One of the ways they do that is to try to manipulate the language. These new arms-length organisations are not arms-length to the people affected by them.

My daughter received a bill from a housing association for work that had not been done. Luckily she was able to prove with pictures that the work had not been carried out. How many other people were affected? We shall never know because we are not allowed to find out.

We know of some of them because of the work of people like Mike Dailly at Govan Law Centre, and the reporting of the Evening Times in Glasgow. Pensioners and other people on low incomes were hit by large, unexpected and often unexplained bills.

These are not arms-length organisations, they are Pontius Pilate organisations, set up so that public bodies can wash their hands of their responsibility to be accountable.

First Minister Alex Salmond said last week: "Once we get the present Freedom of Information legislation through this Parliament to make it more robust in this term, I'm extremely sympathetic to the Freedom of Information Commissioner's request to extend it to arm's-length bodies set up by local authorities."

Why wait? And why have legislation that will need to be amended when somebody invents a new kind of arm's-length body?

The solution is to legislate so that all "emanations of the state", to use a phrase well-known in European law - in other words, all bodies that carry out a public function - are subject to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act.

They can have the same kind of protections and defences that other public bodies have, but they will not be able to keep their whole operation out of the light.

This might seem far removed from All the President's Men, a story summarised by Jason Robards as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee: "Nothing's riding on this except the first amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of this country."

 


Answering the questions of Wikileaks

 

ANSWERING THE QUESTIONS OF WIKILEAKS

...So now we have a Scottish view of the Assange case.

To London it is a breach of bail conditions. To Stockholm it is an investigation into sexual offences. To Washington it is a breach of national security. To Quito, it is the right to offer political asylum in its embassy.

To George Galloway, however, it is a case of  "bad sexual etiquette".

Let's hope he never writes a 'Scottish Joy of Sex'. Or perhaps, after the success of E.L. James's books, he might write 'Fifty Shades of Galloway'.

He did tweet later: "It's about WikiLeaks, stupid."

That much is true. Julian Assange, along with his ability to command attention, attract supporters and repel critics, has raised almost as many questions as answers. Underlying them all, and pre-dating the issues of arrest, extradition and bail-jumping, is what WikiLeaks is.

Is it a news organisation? Is he a journalist? Is what they do journalism?

In the interests of freedom of expression, journalism - unlike law or medicine - is an inclusive profession... if it is a profession at all. We do not have the right to 'strike off' those who fail to live up to our professional standards, one of the definitions of a profession.

Similarly, anyone can call him or herself a 'journalist' and what they do 'journalism'. Others may or may not agree.

Daily Mail columnists may have a field day attacking Assange but WikiLeaks passes a test laid down by the paper's founder. "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising," said Lord Northcliffe.

Assange himself was already a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the Australian trade union which since 1992 has incorporated the Australian Journalists Association, when he was made an honorary member last year.


Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told Der Spiegel last year: "He is a journalist, a new kind of journalist." Spectator columnist Alex Massie wrote that Assange is a journalist, or at least a newsman. And Assange himself told The Guardian he is primarily "a publisher and editor-in-chief who organises and directs other  journalists".


So if WikiLeaks is a news organisation, and Assange is a journalist, surely what they do must be journalism? Certainly when Assange was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism last year, the judges said WikiLeaks' goal of transparency was "in the oldest and finest tradition of  journalism."


There is, though, a difference in the approach between WiliLeaks and conventional media, one that is not explained by the technological limits of newspapers and broadcasters. After all, conventional media outlets can have servers supporting large websites too.


Assange and The Guardian fell out after co-operating on the publication of the Afghanistan war logs, partly precipitated by disagreements over the redaction of the names of informants.


The real difference in approach, though, was in the amount of explanation and interpretation provided by The Guardian, and the New York Times and Der Spiegel who worked with them. This is clearly a key function of journalism, which is more than the channelling of facts but includes conveying the significance of those facts.


This leads to its own problems: for even where we agree on the facts we might disagree on what they mean. It may even lead to an unconscious self-censorship: now that technological limits on space are largely removed, why don't we simply publish everything?


However, it does mean that journalism is more than dumping documents on the Internet. Being a journalist requires exercising editorial judgement.


Francis Shennan is a lecturer in Media Law at the Universities of Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde, and director of MediaFaculty.com.

 

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