Sunday, July 25, 2010

Establishing the facts on animal experiment labs

I often hear people say that it is the job of a newspaper to be fair and balanced, but of course it's not except when it comes to matters of opinion. When it is a matter of fact, it is the job of a newspaper to ascertain the truth and report it.

Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News illustrates it with this question: if a council sends two men to mow a meadow and they return with one of them saying they mowed it and the other saying they didn't, what should the newspaper report? If it was fair and balanced, the article might start like this: A row broke out today over whether or not two men had mowed a meadow ... But, of course, that's not how the story should go at all - the newspaper should seek out the truth and put it before its readers. In this case, it is fairly simple to go and check whether or not the meadow has been mowed.

It's not always that easy. Take the row going on over the work by Leicester University to replace the fairly dated facilities that it has for carrying out experiments on animals.

Vivisection is a controversial subject at any time and, unsurprisingly, there is a campaign to stop the building. You can see the website of Stop the Leicester Lab here.

It seems to me that the question of whether or not there should be animal experiments at the university is one of opinion and our coverage should be fair and balanced, allowing both sides of the argument to put their case.

However, within that argument there are some facts and part of what we should try to do is establish the truth about the various claims and counter-claims.

One of the key arguments going on is over the sort of experiments that are carried out in the labs. The campaigners say that the university experiments on dogs and primates. Indeed, their website shows pictures of beagles being operated on. The university, on the other hand, says this is simply not true.

It is often difficult to establish the truth in situations like this because the discussion around vivisection is always carried out with an underlying threat of violence. To be fair to the Stop the Leicester Lab, their website is clear in its call for non-violent protest: 'We ask that supporters hold demonstrations outside their local office and politely contact those listed in complaint of their involvement in increasing animal experimentation and abuse.' However, the history of violence in similar cases elsewhere in the country is enough to mean that the university and those who work there are nervous about publicity.

Despite this, the University of Leicester has allowed one of our reporters to see for himself exactly what goes on in the labs. There were no preconditions put on our visit and our reporter was told that he could choose where he wanted to go and could look wherever he chose.

You can see his report here.

The outcome is that we could find no evidence whatsoever of experiments being carried out on dogs or primates. This, combined with the licence conditions and the statements of the university, leads us to believe that no such experiments are carried out.

This is not a comment on whether or not vivisection is right - but the argument should be based on fact, not exaggeration and scare tactics.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How should I view the way Leicester Mercury journalists use social media sites?

The Leicester Mercury - in common with all good regional papers - commits itself to work within the guidelines set by the Press Complaints Commission. Our staff know this and we have written a requirement to abide by the code into any new contracts for some years now.

However, it's not quite clear how the PCC code relates to our online work and particularly to the use of social media sites by our journalists. Up until now, I have talked to individual reporters about their usage, but thought it might be useful to put my thoughts down in writing and ask the journalists what they thought.

I also thought it would be good to hear what other people think so here's what I sent to our staff:
This is how I view the way journalists at the Leicester Mercury use Twitter and other social media sites, including blogs.

I separate it into two categories:

1 Personal usage: where a member of staff uses any social media site in a personal capacity (ie where they do not mention the Leicester Mercury in their profile nor mention work in anything other than a passing reference) I do not believe that I have a part to play in overseeing that content. In the same way that I would expect them not to bring the company into disrepute in their personal lives, I would expect them to take that into consideration when writing in a personal capacity.

2 Professional usage: I believe that any use of social media sites (including Twitter) in a professional capacity (ie where the member of staff links their usage directly to their job) should be treated in the same way as a column of the newspaper. As a columnist, the journalist gets far more freedom and is able to express an opinion. However, as a columnist their work is subject to my editing. I reserve the right to edit their posts. In practice, I never see their posts until after they have been published, but staff know that I am reviewing them and, therefore, I believe, they take this into consideration before publication. I have not had to intervene in any posts so far. I regularly read all staff blogs and have a ‘list’ of Mercury journalists set up on Twitter and I review their posts every day.

It follows from this that I would be happy for the professional usage to fall within the PCC’s remit.
So, what do you think?

Monday, May 03, 2010

Accusation of bias is an insult to our integrity

As the dust finally settles on the General Election, there's something I'd really like to get off my chest.

This was the eighth General Election since I first became a journalist in 1978. The Conservatives won the first four, Labour the next three - I'll leave you to decide who's won this one. I've seen the majorities swing violently from the Thatcher years when the Tories had a majority of 144 to the emergence of New Labour and the 179 majority of the first Blair government in 1997.

However, the one thing that hasn't changed during all that time is the complaints by the activists of the major parties that we are biased against them and in favour of their opponents. Some journalists will say that the only way that they know they are doing a fair job is that they receive complaints from all parties that they are biased against them. I'm not sure that I buy that, but I can see where they are coming from.

We've said more than once in the Mercury that we do not support any particular party and seek to be impartial in our coverage, but there are clearly those who don't believe us. One particular Conservative constituency party accuses us of bias, suggesting it might be because their opponent apparently once bought some print off us. Give me strength! I have no idea whatsoever whether or not the opponent ever bought print off us, but I do know that it is totally irrelevant to our coverage.

Oddly, at the same time as our bias against the Tory party, some thought we were equally unfair towards Labour. Take this comment left for me online by Labour Councillor Colin Hall, the man who is about to be made Lord Mayor of Leicester:
"In Leicester, as in Nuremberg, obeying orders is no excuse. You've had a shocker this week, as election results will show."
He doesn't elaborate, but I assume he believes that I take my political orders from the Daily Mail, the national newspaper of our parent company.

He's wrong. In fact, we're fiercely proud of our editorial independence at the Leicester Mercury and only one person sets our editorial policies and that's me. Of course, I have a boss. In fact, I have two.

The first is Lord Rothermere, chairman of our ultimate holding company, DMGT, the other is Michael Pelosi, managing director of Northcliffe, the company which runs the Mercury, and the man who appointed me and who has the power to fire me. However, in the 32 years since I first joined Northcliffe, I have never heard of any occasion on which either of them has in any way tried to influence the editorial policy of any of our regional papers. I can state categorically that neither of them has even so much as mentioned editorial policy to me.

You might be surprised to hear that my contract says nothing at all about how I should edit the paper, it simply says that I am the editor. I also don't have a job description.

I haved searched around looking for some written basis for my belief that I alone have the authority - and responsibility - to set the editorial policies of the paper. There's not much, but every now and then our company gives evidence to parliamentary committees and that makes interesting reading.

Here, for example, is what the Monopolies and Mergers Commission reported that Northcliffe said in 1994 when it was seeking to buy the Nottingham Post:
Northcliffe said that for all of its titles the respective editor determined editorial policy

Northcliffe expected the following of its editors:

to report local events in the principal town and the surrounding area as comprehensively and impartially as possible, trying always to be fair to different points of view;

to cover differing political points of view as impartially as possible and certainly without commitment to any political party;

to adhere to the code of conduct of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), to publicise the newspaper's support for this body regularly and always to report any adverse findings against the title by the PCC;

to be ready to publish, where necessary, corrections and apologies without reluctance if such publication is appropriate;

to make the letter columns accessible to those who disagree with editorial comment which the newspaper may have published, again recognizing its importance in the life of a local community;

to produce a newspaper which, while meeting the requirements above, is stimulating and entertaining, avoids being merely bland and appeals to the majority of the local people, not just leaders within the community;

and to be prepared to campaign vigorously for what he or she identifies as the interest of the principal town and county which the title serves.
Although there is little written about the authority of the editor, in practice, the editor does make the decisions to such an extent that other parts of the company often think that we are a pain in the backside.

I guess that's just a very long winded way of saying that if you don't like what you see in the Mercury, don't bother looking for a conspiracy theory, just pick up the phone and tell me that I got it wrong!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Northcliffe update shows improving situation

The Leicester Mercury's ultimate parent company, Daily Mail and General Trust, today released a trading update covering the first five months of the current financial year (which runs from October to September).

You can read the full statement here, but the general situation does appear to be getting better and this is the summary of what it says about Northcliffe, the company which runs the regional newspapers, including the Mercury:
For Northcliffe Media, underlying UK revenues for the period were 9% lower than last year with advertising revenues down 10%. Advertising trends have continued to improve: for the quarter to March so far they were 5% lower, with recruitment revenues 14% lower, but property revenues 4% above last year. Circulation revenues fell by 7% compared to last year for the five month period.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Just in case you didn't know ...

You may have thought that the annual move to British summertime was a quaint little local tradition, but in fact the country has no choice over the matter ... it's the result of an EC directive.

The 9th EC Directive on Summer Time, to be precise.

Here's the press release that I received yesterday from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills
Summertime begins

Summer time will start on Sunday 28 March at 1.00am GMT throughout European Union Member States. The clocks go forward an hour. This means that at 1.00am (GMT) the UK will move to 2.00am British Summer Time (BST).

Notes to Editors

1. The 9th EC Directive on summer time harmonised, for an indefinite period, the dates on which summer time begins and ends across member states as the last Sundays in March and October respectively. Under the Directive, summer time begins and ends at 1.00am GMT in each Member State. Amendments to the Summer Time Act to implement the Directive came into force on 11 March 2002.

2. Time zones are the responsibility of individual Member States and vary across the EU. The UK is not planning to move to Central European Time.
So now you know ...

Why on earth would council want to ban Twitter?

The Mercury has long campaigned for openness in council affairs and, in recent months, has had a number of very public spats with the city council in an effort to make its decisions more transparent. The Bowstring Bridge example springs to mind.

As such, I welcome the early comments of the new council leader, Coun Veejay Patel, who has vowed to make the authority less secretive.

Coun Patel has been in power for less than 48 hours and it is clearly going to take time to change a culture which is based on years of belief that the public only has a right to know that which the council wants it to know.

We wish Coun Patel well in his campaign.

The size of the task facing him is highlighted by our article in today's Mercury which details plans by Labour’s chief whip, Coun Barbara Potter, to ban the use of social media sites, Twitter in particular, during council meetings.

Twitter allows people to post short messages onto the internet almost instantaneously and is being used by councillors, journalists and members of the public to give an almost live feed of what is going on in council meetings.

It’s not clear how the council could legally ban its use, but more importantly, it is difficult to see why it would want to.

Live video streaming of Thursday night’s council meeting was watched by far more people than ever turn up to the council chamber and this was almost entirely due to the chatter on Twitter about the meeting.

More than 40 people clicked on the link I put on Twitter that evening and I know that many of them stayed to watch at least part of the meeting because I could see the discussion on Twitter. Even last night, people were still talking about the live stream.

One councillor told me that he thought there were about 15 people in the public gallery on the night and that that was more than usual.

So, why on earth would Coun Potter want to ban the use of something which increases public interest in council meetings? It doesn't make any noise or interupt the meeting. People will probably, wrongly, assume she has something to hide!

*This post is based on the opinion I wrote for today's Mercury.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

PCC rules against Leicester Mercury

The Press Complaints Commission has ruled that the Leicester Mercury breached the code of conduct by publishing a picture of children without the permission of their parents.

It is the first time in 16 years of editing newspapers and websites that I have been found guilty of breaking the code. The ruling concerns a photograph of children being comforted in the street by a kneeling policeman after a bus crash in Leicester. We ran it on the front page under a headline which said: The tender arm of the law.

To be clear, the decision to run the picture was one that I took personally after discussing it with senior staff and considering the code of conduct carefully . The relevant clause of the code is aimed at protecting the welfare of children and I felt that the fact that the children concerned did not come from Leicester and would not be recognised by anybody meant that its publication would not adversely affect their welfare.

However, the Commission did not agree and I accept its ruling. We are running the adjudication in tomorrow's paper and I have apologised to the girl, her family and our readers for my error of judgement.

Here's the wording of the Commission's finding:
A woman complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined “Tender arm of the law”, published in the Leicester Mercury on 12 December 2009, contained a photograph of her daughter which was published without consent in breach of Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The complaint was upheld.

The article reported that a bus full of primary school children on a day trip had crashed into a low railway bridge. The complainant objected to the inclusion in the coverage of a photograph of her daughter, together with numerous other children, being comforted by a policeman at the scene of the accident. Her daughter had been pictured in a clear state of distress and the complainant had not been asked for her consent for the photograph to appear. The child had been further upset by the publication of the image.

The newspaper said that this was a serious accident in which there was a legitimate public interest. The children depicted in the photograph had not been injured and were all safe from further harm. The decision to publish the photograph had not been taken lightly: its main concern was the possible impact any use of the picture would have had on the children. The photograph had been taken on the street and had been unaccompanied by any private details of the children involved. It would also not have had an impact on the welfare of the children as it had appeared only in Leicester, outside their local area. It said that they would not have been embarrassed or distressed by the coverage.


Newspapers are entitled to publish stories and pictures of serious road accidents, which take place in public and often have wide-reaching consequences. In this case, it was not in doubt that the bus crash – which involved more than fifty schoolchildren – was a serious incident which raised important questions in regard to public health and safety. The Commission did not wish to interfere unnecessarily with the newspaper’s right to report the matter, which it generally had done in a sensitive manner.

However, it was clear that the complainant had not given her consent for the newspaper to either take or publish the photograph which showed her daughter in a state of distress. The subject matter of the close-up photograph certainly related to her welfare.

There may be occasions where the scale and gravity of the circumstances can mean that pictures of children can be published in the public interest without consent. In the specific circumstances of this case, the Commission did not consider that there was a sufficient public interest to justify the publication of the image. It accepted that the newspaper had thought carefully about whether to use the photograph, but the Commission considered that it was just the wrong side of the line on this occasion. The complaint was therefore upheld.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Changes to Mercury website comments system

We have finally got round to changing the way we allow comments to be added to our main website,

It is something which I have previously proposed both on thisisleicestershire and here on my blog, but have backed away from for various reasons. Until now, we have allowed anybody to comment on stories without asking them to register or give us any details. To help us keep an eye on what people said, we have restricted the times at which comments could be left to normal office hours.

Now, however, we have introduced a system that forces people to register with the site before they can leave a comment. We hope that forcing people to register will encourage them to join in constructive conversation rather than the abusive slanging matches which so often seem to dominate the 'discussion.' In return, we will leave the commenting functionality enabled 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Following the advice given by our lawyers, Foot Anstey, we will no longer moderate the comments in any way, but have introduced an easy way for readers to report abuse which we will then check and act on if appropriate.

Unsurprisingly, the change was not met with universal approval and a number of users immediately set about proving that it was still possible to cheat the system by, for example, registering multiple accounts or changing their displayed user name to impersonate someone else. We know the system is not perfect, but I believe that the changes will help. We'll see.

At the same time as we introduced the changes, we highlighted our terms and conditions and the way in which we expected people to use the site.

One user, Daniel, wasn't happy.
Just looking at the house rules:-

You must not make or encourage comments which are:
  • defamatory, false or misleading;
  • insulting, threatening or abusive;
  • obscene or of a sexual nature;
  • offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic or discriminatory against any religions or other groups
If you enforced this then no-one would have an opinion on anything! and if they did it wouldnt stay on the comments page.

Freedom of speech!, i'm not so sure. It seems you can only post something if its politically correct but what if you dont actually believe in the ridiculous P.C world we live in are you less of a human who shouldn't be allowed to have your say. The L.M is clearly stating 'have an opinion as long as no one else disagrees with it, or happens to find it offensive' well I am sorry but so what if someone happens to find a post offensive thats their business, isn't the whole point of having your opinion known is that its YOUR opinion.
That seems a bit of an odd objection to me: if you look at the rules in reverse, how would people feel if we said it was ok to make comments that were any of the things listed - it's ok to be racist, defamatory or obscene, for example?

Of course, somebody always complains about a restriction of their freedom of speech whenever you have rules that prevent them writing whatever they want. I believe strongly in freedom of speech and would not seek to prevent you saying whatever you want ... but that doesn't mean that I think you should be allowed to do that on our website. We provide our website for the information and enjoyment of our readers, but it is our website and I think it is reasonable for us to set the rules.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

BNP: should they be allowed to advertise?

Newspapers and online news organisations face an interesting decision as we prepare for the general election: should the BNP be allowed to advertise in our publications?

It's a question which polarises opinion.

Take this from Hackney TUC:
The presence of a BNP advert (which will also be a recruitment tool) in a Hackney paper will be an insult to the people of Hackney who have a strong tradition of resisting the BNP and their ilk. It will be an insult to black people, to Jews, to people with disabilities, to trade unionists, to gays and lesbians, to faith leaders, to women and to anyone who opposes their politics of hatred. In fact, there can be hardly anyone in Hackney who will not be repulsed by the thought of the BNP seeking to establish a visible presence in Hackney.
And this from media pundit Roy Greenslade:

Journalists should support freedom of expression and accept that it means reading and hearing material that they find offensive. Better that we do that than play into the BNP's hands by censoring it.

Think about it for a moment. If a liberal society is prepared to stifle freedom of speech then it provides fascist parties with a justification for their illiberal policies.

Hackney TUC is 'outraged' that their local paper, the Hackney Gazette, has decided to publish adverts from the BNP:
We want to approach every newsagent in Hackney and ask them to send a fax to the publisher protesting at the plan to give advertising space to the BNP and cancelling their order for this week’s paper unless it drops the BNP advert.

We need to approach the regular advertisers (principally estate agents) and ask them to use their economic influence with the Gazette to pressurise for the adverts to be dropped.

We need some volunteer ‘community leaders’ to seek to meet with the paper on Monday or Tuesday to put our case.

Please send email’s of (polite) protest to the publisher
According to Greenslade, the newspaper owners, Archant, say that to refuse such ads "might be playing into the hands of those intolerant and anti-democratic forces that people condemn. It is for the electorate to cast judgement, not us."

My own views are perhaps closest to those expressed by former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby who argues that certain issues constitute a 'special case':
Anything to do with race ... falls into a special category. Racism (including Islamophobia) is peculiarly repugnant because it attacks people at the core of their identity, an identity that cannot easily be altered or hidden as political opinions can.

Some black or Jewish people will be genuinely frightened — as opposed to merely indignant — if they see an ad for the BNP or Irving’s books in their favourite paper. Their friends, they may feel, have deserted them. People who wish them serious harm are being given respectability.

That is what makes such ads so difficult for editors to call. The most central principles for any liberal society — freedom of speech and opposition to racism — come into direct conflict. At least, as an ex-editor, I don’t have to make such decisions any more.
However, I am still an editor and do have to make such decisions. I have already warned our ad director how I feel about this, but what do you think? Would I be right to ban such ads from the BNP?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Anger over council 'ban' on tweeting by bloggers

A Guardian blog has today reported that a council has effectively banned bloggers from tweeting from council meetings in a move which it says is 'part of its commitment to increasing involvement in the democratic process. '

Ok, to be fair, I have twisted what the council actually said. Very slightly.

The council concerned is Tameside in the north-west and it was questioned by Sarah Hartley, the editor of Guardian Local, about whether or not it allowed people to tweet during council meetings. The council's response included this sentence:
Following requests the Council has authorised the Manchester Evening News, Tameside Advertiser and Tameside Reporter to use twitter in each of the Council meetings they have requested to do so, as duly accredited representatives of the press, as defined in the Local Government Act 1972.
and this:
As you can see the Council allows the use of ‘twitter’ during Council meetings by duly accredited representatives of the press as part of its commitment to increasing involvement in the democratic process.
According to Sarah, at least one blogger has been thrown out of the council building for attempting to tweet when he was not 'authorised.'

Every fibre in my body shudders at the thought that a council is going to 'authorise' who can report and the fact that someone wants to use Twitter as the platform is completely irrelevant in my opinion. What's worse, I'm not sure the council has the legal right to ban someone from tweeting in the public gallery - although this may be debatable and certainly Sarah says she thinks the council acted legally.

According to Tameside it ' follows the legislation governing the conduct of Council meetings and in particular the recording and transmitting of meetings which are set out in Section 100 (A)(7) of the Local Government Act 1972 .'

And this is what the Act says:
Nothing in this section shall require a principal council to permit the taking of photographs of any proceedings, or the use of any means to enable persons not present to see or hear any proceedings (whether at the time or later), or the making of any oral report on any proceedings as they take place.
So what exactly in that paragraph says anything about Twitter? It says the council can decide whether or not anyone can take photographs or use anything that allows people outside the council chamber to see or hear the proceedings. It also says that a council doesn't have to allow anyone to make an 'oral report' of proceedings while they are taking place.

But Twitter doesn't do any of those things. It quite obviously does not allow anyone to see or hear the proceedings and it doesn't involve the making of an oral report. That's not all that surprising given that the Act dates from 1972, long before the Internet was around, let alone Twitter.

So that's my first objection to this: it doesn't look legal to me. I also had a chat this evening with a media lawyer who said he couldn't see how the clause could be used to ban someone from tweeting a meeting.

But just as bad is that the fact that even if the council could argue that somehow the paragraph did relate to Twitter - or blogging for that matter - it would only give it the right to ban it. It doesn't say it should ban anything, just that it can. Why would any council want to?

Of course, Tameside says it doesn't want to - it sees Twitter as a way of underlining its ' commitment to increasing involvement in the democratic process.'

That's great. I'm all in favour of using anything possible to increase coverage of council decisions.

But how on earth can anyone argue that they support increased involvement in the democratic process and, in the same breath, say they will only allow 'duly accredited' members of the press to report on proceedings?

I'm sorry, but I don't want to be 'duly accredited'. I don't want any special priveleges and I don't want community journalists obstructed in any way: the more the better in my view.

We've been working for some time with Citizens' Eye and the community news hubs in Leicester as I believe we all have a role to play in local democracy. To be fair to Leicester City Council they appear to be happy to help the community journalists as they look to build on local coverage, but if it was ever to come to it, I would be happy to join the fight to protect the rights of others to report.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Amplified Leicester: an introduction

I've really enjoyed being on the fringes of this project, watching a diverse group of people from across Leicester come together to use social media tools to explore their views of each other and the city. A number of mini-projects are now under-way which will, well, amplify Amplified.

I'm looking forward to the showcase on April 15th - you can find out more and book a place at the showcase by visiting Amplified's blog here.

Obnoxious followers of my blog

I noticed today that my blog was being followed by someone using the name Gerry McCann and a photograph of Maddy in their profile.

The actual name being used was the fairly suspicious looking Gérry MCcann Operación Task Máfia Organizadas so I clicked on the user profile and found a few hundred words of Spanish (or was it Portuguese?) - two moments later and Google translate confirmed what I feared: this is an obnoxious person with lots of horrible things to say about the McCanns. I put the name into Google and found that this has been added to a lot of blogs and websites.

Blogger makes it fairly easy to block followers.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Government plays fast and loose with my personal data ... again!

If there's one thing in life that really drives me mad it's public bodies who treat our information as if it is theirs.

Usually this takes the form of them refusing to give out information - you can find plenty of examples elsewhere on this blog - but it also happens when they happily pass out our personal data willy nilly as if it belongs to them. It happened to me again today.

A few months ago I wrote about a Government department that sent out my home address to a car parking company which falsely claimed that my wife had breached some imagined contract. After a simple phone call, the supermarket which employed the car parking company admitted that the 'fine' was not aimed at customers like my wife and withdrew it. What annoyed me was the fact that I have to give my details to the Government by law, but they then decide to pass them on to a third party.

At the time I wrote to the Information Commissioner, the man charged with making sure that companies and public bodies do not misuse personal information. His office responded saying that they had decided that it was in the public interest for the DVLA to pass on personal data to all sorts of parking companies otherwise the only way for those companies to 'police' their land would be to use clamps ... and that would be worse for the drivers. Ah, so it's for our own good. Nanny knows best.

Of course, it's nonsense. This is not about controlling parking, it's about making money. If that's not the case, why are companies charging people £80 for parking? The unintended consequence of this decision is that every mean-minded money grabbing company has now decided that it needs to control parking on its land so badly that they employ third parties whose sole aim in life is to send out as many £80 parking charges as possible since that's the only way they make money.

In my wife's case, she took more than two hours to do the shopping at Morrisions because she chose to sit with a friend in their cafe and have lunch before heading off to the aisles. When she rang the manager of the local store he told her that they didn't intend to penalise customers like her and that not only would he cancel that charge, but should she ever get another in the future, all she had to do was ring and he'd cancel that too.

Right, so the supermarket doesn't want to charge my wife, but the DVLA is happy to send out our address?

Now it's happened again. This time the DVLA has sent my name and address to some idiotic car parking company which claims I spent five hours parked in a motorway service station car park. I didn't, but that doesn't seem to matter to the DVLA, they've sent my personal details out.

To make matters worse, the DVLA gave out my work details so the car park company wrote to my office telling them I had spent five hours in a motorway service station! As it happens, I was on a day off, but suppose I had been a rep on the road? How would I have explained that?

So why did I get one of these ludicrous £80 (£50 if I pay it quickly) charges? Well, I drove up to Newcastle to watch my daughter play football, stopped at Wetherby service station (yes, Moto, you are the guilty party) on the way up for 10 minutes and then, five hours later on the way back, stopped again for 20 minutes. The pathetic systems of the company Moto pays to 'police' the parking, CP Plus Ltd, can't differentiate between someone who stops for five hours and someone who calls in twice in five hours.

So twice in a couple of months, the DVLA has handed over my personal information to companies who had no right to receive it, one which can't differentiate between customers and non-customers and the other which has such useless systems in place that it really has no idea how long I parked for.

I'll be writing to the Information Commissioner again ... but don't hold your breath. In the meantime, I'll also be sending a request under the Freedom of Information Act to find out just how many times the DVLA has sent out personal details to car parking companies: I'm willing to bet that it has grown exponentially over recent years as more and more companies see it as a way of making money ...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

New police chief promises 'safest' city

The new commander of police in Leicester city centre, Chief Superintendent Rob Nixon, says he has introduced a new 'back to basics' approach for police in the city.

In an email sent out on Saturday, Chief Supt Nixon said he was working with his officers and staff to make Leicester the safest city in the country. Here's the text of his email:
Good afternoon

The purpose of this email is to formally introduce myself as the City Area BCU Commander. I am aware that Chris Garnham wrote to you and informed you of the changes in December. Having now been in post since 4th January, I have been overwhelmed by the support and commitment displayed and very much look forward to working with you in taking the City forward during 2010.

In an attempt to simplify the message to the Police Officers and Police Staff working in the City, we have introduced a back to basics approach which I have included below for your information.

During 2010 we will work together as a team to make Leicester the safest city in the country, where people have confidence in their local police. We will do this by:

* First rate response to those who need our help, getting it right first time
* Highly visible and accessible neighbourhood policing, tackling crime and anti-social behaviour with partners, on issues which matters most to the community
* Identifying and protecting the vulnerable, communities and people alike
* Preventing and detecting crime through hunting down and locking up criminals
* Acting with integrity, honesty and professionalism, valuing and supporting one another

I have fantastic memories of working in the City previously and encourage partnership working at all levels. I am sure that over the coming months our paths will cross and I look forward to working with you.


Rob Nixon
Chief Superintendent
City BCU Commander

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Don't you just love Google ads?

We're always a bit nervous on newspapers about Google's automated process that tries to match ads to the content on our website pages because too often it throws up inappropriate ads.

Perhaps most infamous were the ads for Samsonite suitcases after the suitcase bomb attacks on airliners or, seen more frequently, adverts for new cars against articles about car crashes.

However, I had to laugh when reading the blog of our Leicester City writer, Rob Tanner, this morning. He was writing about the sackings of various football managers, sparked by the dismissal of Gary Megson at Bolton and the subsequent appointment of Owen Coyle. There was a whole list of managers who had lost their jobs and the Google computers were working flat out to come up with the right ads.

The first one was:
Re train as a plumber: Huge shortage, Earn up to £50,747. No exp needed.
I guess that was aimed at Gary Megson, but I wonder if £50k a week is really enough for a Premiership manager?

The second one read:
Cash for cars in Bolton: We buy any car. From £50-£100,000. As seen on TV.
Obviously Megson will need to sell his expensive Merc so that he can buy the van he'll need for his new job!

And finally:
Football Stats: I'll do all the boring analysis so you can just pick up the cash ..
My first thought was that this was aimed at Mr Coyle who presumably would be able to sit back and relax as Bolton soar to the top of the league ... unfortunately it turns out to be a betting scam - 'pay me a few quid and I'll send you an email every Friday with betting tips that can't fail etc etc.'

Friday, January 01, 2010

UGC ruling comfort for bloggers

A landmark High Court judgement in early December offers some level of comfort to those bloggers who worry about being sued for comments left on their websites by visitors.

Our solicitors - Foot Anstey - issued a briefing note to editors shortly before Christmas and partner Tony Jaffa has agreed that I can use the briefing on this blog in case it is of help to anyone out there in the blogosphere.

The case concerned a lawyer, Imran Karim, who sued Newsquest Media Group - one of the other big publishers of regional newspapers in the UK - over an article headlined: 'Crooked solicitors spent client money on a Rolex, loose women and drink'.

Mr Karim was not happy. And he didn't like some of the comments posted by users of the newspapers' websites.

The newspaper group applied to the High Court to have the case thrown out on the grounds that Mr Karim had no chance of winning and Mr Justice Eady agreed and gave a summary judgement in favour of Newsquest.

I'm not going to go into why the article itself was ok - it was protected as a report of legal proceedings - as that is something for another day, but the interesting thing for bloggers was the decision that the newspaper was not responsible for comments left on its websites by users.

Here's what Tony says:
By his judgement, Mr Justice Eady has confirmed that web publishers who are unaware of defamatory UGC posts on their websites, have a defence to a claim for libel damages if they act quickly to remove such UGC posts as soon as they are notified that a post is the subject of a complaint.

The judgement also confirms that publishers do not need to pre-moderate or edit UGC posts on their websites to have a defence to a claim for libel damages.
And, here's the really important bit:
In fact, in purely legal terms, publishers will be better off not pre-moderating UGC at all.
The ruling is based on the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002, Regulation 19, sometimes known as the hosting defence. Here's that regulation:


19. Where an information society service is provided which consists of the storage of information provided by a recipient of the service, the service provider (if he otherwise would) shall not be liable for damages or for any other pecuniary remedy or for any criminal sanction as a result of that storage where -

(a) the service provider -

(i) does not have actual knowledge of unlawful activity or information and, where a claim for damages is made, is not aware of facts or circumstances from which it would have been apparent to the service provider that the activity or information was unlawful; or

(ii) upon obtaining such knowledge or awareness, acts expeditiously to remove or to disable access to the information, and

(b) the recipient of the service was not acting under the authority or the control of the service provider.

According to Tony Jaffa the judge held:
1 the users of publishers' and newspapers' websites are recipients of an 'information society service';

2 UGC facilities on such websites are bulletin boards;

3 web publishers have no knowledge of, or control over, UGC prior to becoming aware, or being notified, of any contentious posts;

4 therefore, publishers have no liability if posts are removed as soon as a complaint is received.
So, you can sleep a little more easily now! Although, of course, there are a number of caveats and if you have lots of controversial comments on your blog, it would be worth reading both Tony's briefing and the judgement in full ... or even taking legal advice (I'm sure Tony would give you a good price if you told him you knew me!)

I just want to add two further comments. Tony hints at the first when he says that in 'purely legal terms' it might be best to avoid pre-moderation. The issue this throws up, of course, is the fact that you have a reputation to protect and if you don't pre-moderate you may well find all sorts of rubbish appearing on your site, undermining your own good name. This is a difficult one for publishers and it probably comes down to your own confidence in pre-moderating, along with the level of comments, both in terms of quantity and quality. I think lots of bloggers do moderate comments on their sites and I must admit, I tend to come down in favour of moderation on this blog.

The other point that I'd like to make is that this sort of ruling often has unintentional side effects - for example, it would be easy to see why people might remove comments from their sites as soon as they receive any complaint about them so that they can say they acted quickly, allowing them to use the hosting defence. But we sometimes receive complaints - particularly from Leicester City Council - about comments on our sites which they don't like. Of course, the fact that they don't like them, doesn't make them libellous and I usually refuse to remove them ... this ruling may increase pressure to remove comments before too much thought is given to the merit of the complaint.

Finally, I'd like to say well done to Newsquest for fighting this battle. In these difficult times, it often easier to give in than to challenge those who attempt to use the law to control the press. If companies like my own, Northcliffe, and Newsquest don't stand up to be counted, it's unlikely that anybody else will. So, thanks, to whoever made the decision at Newsquest.