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.