Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Blogging and Media

BBC News has been very active of late in looking at the new phenomena of "citizen media", where bloggers are engaged, politically, in wanting to film scrutiny meetings in the same way as the "accredited media":

Political bloggers in Jersey are calling for permission to film more States scrutiny meetings so they can put video content on the internet. Currently the bloggers who write online diaries about current events can only film if they give notice, but permission can be denied.  Accredited professional media organisations are allowed to film at Scrutiny meetings without notice. Bloggers now want equal access and the States is expected to debate the issue. (1)

A whole Talkback on Sunday was devoted to this matter, with contributions from Ben Shenton, Montfort Tadier, Roy le Hérissier, a UK academic who has studied the subject, and a blogger who rang in.

Senator Shenton made a clear distinction between the amateur and the "professional journalist". He seemed to assume that the journalist would be working for an organisation, be it the BBC, Channel Television, or the Jersey Evening Post. I am not sure his distinction could cope well with the existence of the freelance journalist, who may or may not have journalism as the main source of income, but may nevertheless be engaged on reporting projects of their own, which they intend to sell on to an organisation.

If we consider accountability to be an issue, the freelancer has not  accountability until he sells or publishes his work. In general, it is expected that the editor of the commissioning paper or broadcast will then take responsibility for publishing the article, and the paper or television channel would be the one sued for defamation, and have cover under professional indemnity insurance. However, a recent high profile case - that of the science writer Simon Singh - has shown that this is not necessarily
the case. Singh wrote a piece critical of the British Chiropractic Association in the Guardian, and the Association took the unusual step of suing him. That this landmark case could take place demonstrates beyond any doubt that even if a freelance writer supplies material subject to professional editorial control, they may still face claims for liability.

When it comes to recording scrutiny meetings, these operate under very much the same kind of model as the "select committee" in the UK Parliament. Briefly, this is as follows:

A select committee is a committee made up of a small number of parliamentary members appointed to deal with particular areas or issues originating in the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy. Select Committees exist in the British Parliament, as well as in other parliaments based on the Westminster model, such as those in Australia and New Zealand.(2)

Evidence given in scrutiny meetings, like that to select committees, is transcribed and can be read online. The recent (and excellent) report by Ben Shenton into the currency failure over the incinerator is a case in point. Various rules apply on evidence, and these are the ones in place in Australia:

A transcript of the evidence will be provided to you. To assist the committee and Hansard, please quote the full title of any document you refer to during the course of this hearing for the record and please be aware of the microphone and speak into it. I remind you that your transcript will become a matter for the public record. If for some reason you wish to make a confidential statement during today's proceedings, you should request that the evidence be taken in closed session. If the committee grants your request, any public and media in attendance will be excluded from the hearing. Please note that until such time as the transcript of your public evidence is finalised, it should not be made public. I advise you that premature publication or disclosure of public evidence may constitute a contempt of Parliament and may mean that the material published or disclosed is not subject to parliamentary privilege. (3)

It would certainly seem that there is a conflict between this and the recording, for immediate televising or online dissemination. After all, if the individual supplying evidence is bound to silence until the evidence is finalised, how can the media - either professional or private - report on it before that? Surely that would be allowing them significantly more freedom that the person supplying evidence, which is clearly unfair. Equally, if the reporting was allowed, and was edited, the individual would be prevented from putting the record straight if they thought the editing gave an unfair presentation.

With the UK, most people are aware of live satellite channels, and other channels which present archive footage of select committee. But it is also streamed and archived via the parliament TV website (, and can be reviewed for 12 months:

Video and Audio carries live and archived coverage of all UK Parliament proceedings taking place in public, including debates and committee meetings of both Houses. The material is then available from an on-demand archive for 12 months. The site has links to order papers and background papers and also carries videos explaining how Parliament works. As many as 18 live streams are available simultaneously. Coverage of debates in the chambers of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, Sittings in Westminster Hall and up to four committees at a time receive full audio-visual coverage. Other committees meeting in public are currently covered in audio-only but from October 2006 we are exploring the potential of automated webcameras. Picture size and both picture and sound quality generally have also been increased.(4)

This is the preferred suggestion of Roy Le Hérissier, and has the advantage that the sound feed can be taken directly from the audio system, and modern technology has advanced so rapidly that the cost is much reduced. Indeed, viewers can also obtain can "tape, CD and DVD recordings of proceedings at modest cost."

Returning to "Citizen Media", most jurisdictions do have a distinction between members of the general public, and journalists by membership of a "press gallery", which gives members certain rights over the ordinary citizen. This does not mean that "Citizen Media" cannot film, but they have to obtain specific permission, rather than having it as an automatic right. In Australia, for example:

Photographers and filmmakers, who are not members of the Press Gallery, wishing to use public or private areas of Parliament House may do so only with the explicit approval of the Presiding Officers.  They should apply in the first instance to the Visitor Services office of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS). (5)

In Canada, the Press Gallery has been significantly opened up over the last decade, and this has led to a wider news coverage:

Membership in the Press Gallery was further expanded in the mid-1900s to include magazine publishers, television and radio broadcasters, and freelance journalists. Today, the Parliamentary Press Gallery is no longer a close-knit group of newspaper publishers, editors, and reporters. It is a much more open and loose association, consisting of a wide variety of journalists and media organizations. This, in turn, has brought greater political neutrality and diversity to the news and information content that Canadians receive about the federal Parliament.(6)

It should be noted that membership of the press gallery does not mean that the news is somehow wholly impartial and "objective". Everyone has a "viewpoint", as is well known to today's historians, and that applies just as much to contemporary issues:

Press Gallery journalists are not immune to their own political views when interpreting and/or analyzing federal political actors and events. Press Gallery journalists, and their media organizations, also make important decisions about which stories to publish or broadcast, and how to frame those stories. These choices can have important impacts on how the public perceives a given issue or political news item.(6)

The problem of who to admit to the press gallery can be difficult. In Canada, for example, despite the widening of the membership, there have still be instances where it can be seen to function as a "closed club". This can be seen in the case of the publisher of National Capital News, who was excluded from being a fully approved member of the Press Gallery.

The author is publisher of the National Capital News, a newspaper founded in 1982. The author applied for membership in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, a private association that administers the accreditation for access to the precincts of Parliament. He was provided with a temporary pass that gave only limited privileges. Repeated requests for equal access on the same terms as other reporters and publishers were denied. (7)

It is interesting to notice in passing, that there is a "temporary pass" which needs renewal, but which gives some rights of reporting and access. If this was introduced in Jersey for "citizen media", it would answer some of the criticisms that they are not "professionals", and it would also ensure that they stuck to a code of conduct in order that it was renewed.

The Press Gallery knows several categories of membership, the most relevant being the active and temporary membership. Active membership allows access to all media facilities of Parliament for as long as the member meets the criteria, that is for as long as he or she works for a regularly published newspaper...To those who do not meet these criteria the Press Gallery grants temporary membership which is granted for a defined period and provides access to substantially all of the media facilities of Parliament. (7)

It can be seen from the Canadian case that problems can arise, and in the complaint of the author in question, "things got out of control and the Press Gallery began using favouritism on the one hand and coercion and blackmail on the other, and as a result the author was denied access and has no recourse. (7)

This then came up under a committee review of his human rights, and the main principles that it came up with for accreditation was that it should be specific, fair, reasonable and transparent:

The Committee agrees that the protection of Parliamentary procedure can be seen as a legitimate goal of public order and an accreditation system can thus be a justified means of achieving this goal. However, since the accreditation system operates as a restriction of article 19 rights, its operation and application must be shown as necessary and proportionate to the goal in question and not arbitrary. The Committee does not accept that this is a matter exclusively for the State to determine. The relevant criteria for the accreditation scheme should be specific, fair and reasonable, and their application should be transparent. (7)

Turning back to the UK, one MP is running his own video blog, so the issue is one which is also beginning to make an impact on the UK Government as well. Here is an interesting comment on this:

Halton MP Garth Turner, who is not shy with words, has been running a fairly popular vid-blog (video blog) for his constituents along with his text blog. The vid-blog is called MPtv. The two times I've chosen to watch it, it's been really interesting, timely and gave me the information I wanted. Now it appears someone in the Parliamentary Press Gallery has taken exception to the concept. I suppose the Gallery doesn't want every Tom, Dick, Harry, Jacque and Pierre with a blog and video camera romping around Parliament Hill and press conferences. But then again, every Tom, Dick, Harry, Jacque and Pierre probably doesn't care to romp around Parliament Hill and blog about it.(8)

The commentator notes that the MP in question has been reprimanded by the Speaker's office, but also notes that the phenomenon is becoming much more widespread. It is not just in Jersey that the time has come to think carefully about
this new media approach:

Decisions are being made about the role of bloggers in the news and information gathering service, most aren't paid, it's a labour of love. I have a problem with the Press Gallery sticking their nose into his presence, if he was breaking rules or behaving inappropriately, fine. He gets the proverbial slap on the wrist from the Speaker's office. As for officials of the Press Gallery - lighten up.(9)

The crux of the problem as the writer sees it has "everything to do with not being a reporter and not being bound to their code of ethics."(9)

What code of ethics does guide journalists? A succinct summary might be:

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect. Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know. Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other. (10)

The writer of this comment is a "credentialed blogger". What that means is made clear in his own description of himself:

Steven Taylor is a 'credentialed blogger' which basically means he is a Conservative Party member who blogs. When he is in Ottawa he has been cleared by Press Gallery staff to go into the Parliament buildings, hang out, watch the House and do interviews. Bloggers being given access as media is a big deal.(11)

In conclusion, after this survey, what recommendations could be made regarding "citizen media"? I suggest the following would be a good start:

1) States proceedings themselves should be streamed and archived, much as the UK Parliament has done. While it is not going to appear on TV, more and more broadcast media is being played out or available via broadband connections - as with the BBC Player - so the public are growing increasingly used to having this available.

2) Scrutiny meetings should permit a limited number of professional journalists and a limited number of "citizen media" in order not to appear intimidatory, with the latter on a lottery basis for fairness. The Citizen Media people would be provided with a temporary and renewable press pass for any session they wished to attend, dependent upon their good behaviour. A code of conduct should be drawn up for all media to conform to. The permission to film would not depend on three days notice, but on having a pass for a session (with the caveat that there would be a restricted number of temporary passes).

3) If a pass was refused, the reasons given would be stated clearly and made public - transparency would be the key factor.

4) Part of the code of practice would also ensure that neither the professional media nor the citizen media should "doorstep" anyone giving evidence to scrutiny, or States members or officials, that is, ask them questions outside without first asking them politely if they want to answer questions. A polite refusal should be sufficient to prevent further questions.


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