Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Birthdays, bicyles, translators and philosphers: the Women's Euros 2017

I'm currently in Holland with a group of students covering the Women's 2017 Euros for various newspaper and web outlets.  Here are some random thoughts on how it's going.

Not so many happy returns …

England players Toni Duggan and Karen Carney are celebrating their birthdays during the tournament.

That strikes me as quite unusual.  All things being equal, you would think that with 23 players in the squad, roughly speaking, two players would have their birthdays each month.  But all things are not equal.  Elite players are usually born between September and April.

It’s a well-studied phenomenon in men’s sport.  And it’s all to do with when you start school.  In the UK, children start school in the year they turn five, so if you are born on September 1st, you will be five on the day you start school.  On the other hand, if you are born on August 30th, you will be just a few days over four when you start.

As people get older, that 12 months won’t make much difference, but during your first year, the September children have been alive 25% more than the August children – this almost inevitably means that they are bigger, faster, stronger.  So, when the very first sports teams are being picked, they tend to be selected … and, of course, that means that they get the extra coaching, play more football, and develop even further ahead of their younger classmates.

It’s often argued that you need 10,000 hours practice to be exceptional at anything and it is really easy to see how the September children get further and further ahead of their August classmates.
The end result is that when elite teams go to tournaments, most of the players were born in the winter months and nobody celebrates their birthday while they are away.

As women’s football has become more organised and professional over recent years, the winter birthday rule has started to show.  While seven of the current squad have their birthdays during June, July, and August, don’t expect that to be the case in future tournaments.

So, the squad should probably enjoy their strikers’ birthdays as there aren’t likely to be many similar occasions in the future … but probably worth avoiding reminding Carney that she’s 30 this week and not many outfield players get to go to tournaments once they are 34 … so this could well be her last Euros finals!

Relax, it’s only football:

Managers and players are well known for their monosyllabic responses at Press conferences, but every now and then, we are treated to a nice turn of phrase or some homespun philosophy.

Who can forget Eric Cantona talking about seagulls, trawlers, and sardines? To this day, it’s probable that not even King Eric knows exactly what he meant. At least we all understood Brian Clough when he said that if God had wanted football to be played in the air, he would have put grass in the clouds.

Icelandic coach Freyr Alexandersson has entertained us both on the touchline and in the press conferences.

The 34-year-old has jumped around his technical area, wearing his heart on his sleeve.  To be fair, his team has lost both opening games by a single goal … and in both games they should probably have had a penalty.  Unsurprisingly, he has let his feelings be known to the fourth official.

Entertaining - coach Freyr Alexandersson
However, when he’s come to the post-match press conference, he has been calm and entertaining, putting the game into perspective.  

Asked how he would deal with the players psychologically after their first round defeat to France, he said they would be sad and frustrated for a few hours. “But when we wake up in the morning, the coffee will still be hot, and the grass will still be green.”

After losing again in their second round match with Switzerland, I asked Freyr whether he still thought the grass would be green, and the coffee hot.  “Yes, it will.  I might need a double, or even a triple, espresso, but this is only football.  There are people who are in far worse situations in their lives than us.”

Try telling that to the famous Bill Shankly who once said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that..”

Lost in translation:

It is quite a possible that any number of the foreign coaches have been expressing deep philosophical thoughts, but the English journalists just wouldn’t know.

Under Uefa rules, all press conferences are conducted in two languages – that of the coach or player speaking, and English.  So, if a coach responds to a question in her native tongue, a translator turns it into English for the rest of the press.

But do they?

It’s noticeable that the players and coaches speak for much longer than the translators.  So much so that I timed the difference when the Spanish coach was speaking at the post-match conference after his team had beaten neighbours Portugal 2-0.

Invited to make an opening statement, Jorge Vilda spoke for about 70 seconds, the translator reduced it to just 12 seconds of English.  His first three answers to questions from the press were slashed from 45 seconds to nine, from 26 to six, and from 20 to 10.

Spanish coach Jorge Vilda, player of the match Amanda
Sampero and their censorious translator.

It got worse for player of the match Amanda Sampero, her final answer was cut from 47 seconds to just six!

I caught up with the translator – who turned out to be the Spanish team’s press officer – and asked, as nicely as I could, what she was doing.  “I only translate the important words,” she said.

“In Spanish, the coach could talk for an hour and a half without saying anything.”

“Isn’t it the job of the journalists to decide what is important,” I asked. “Yes, but you can choose that from what I say.”

Presumably, that means we would hear nothing from her about the coffee drinking habits of her coach and we’d be left with the monosyllabic musings on groin strains and hamstrings.

What’s in a name?

It was difficult not to feel sorry for Icelandic substitute Elin Jensen.

It was bad enough that she came on late in the game and gave away the penalty which presented France with a 1-0 win.  But I’m guessing that she was already feeling a little isolated by the peculiarities of the Icelandic naming conventions.

So many daughters: the teamsheet for Iceland
Every single one of the starting 11 had a name which ended ‘dottir’.

Oddly, Icelanders do not have surnames, or family names.  Children are given a last name which is the first name of their father with the word ‘dottir’ or ‘son’ added.  So captain Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir, is the daughter of Gunnar.

To make it even more confusing, when naming a child, Icelandic parents have to pick a name from an official list of 1,853 approved names for girls.  Given that there are relatively few approved men’s names, it is not unusual for women to share both their first and last names with other women … which is why so many use their middle names!

Anyone who wants to use names not on the list has to ask the permission of the Icelandic Naming Committee, which will say no for various reasons, including because the name would be embarrassing for the child (so presumably no Daffodils, Bears, or Brooklyns!)

Which brings us back to substitute Elin Jensen – she’s one of only two players in the 23-strong squad whose name does not fit with the conventions.  

Why is that? Well thanks to the wonder of Twitter, I can tell you.  I put out an appeal for information and just half an hour later, an Icelandic academic, Magnús Árni Skjöld Magnússon – son of Magnus to you and me – had written to explain:

“It is quite simple really. Some Icelanders have traditional family names, either because they have "foreign" parents, grandparents or ancestors and others because they or their ancestors have adopted Icelandic family names, based on either patronyms (like Jensen, Stephensen etc.) or place names (Blöndal, Barðdal, Nordal etc) or something else. These two look like they are of Danish origin,” he said.

So, there we go.  It’s all clear.  I think.

Utrecht – best in the world

We are staying in a fantastic city: Utrecht.  It is undeniably beautiful with the old wharfs on the canals and the city centre parks.

But what makes it truly amazing is the city’s aim to become the ‘most bike friendly city in the world’.  

They are doing this by giving cyclists precedence over all other forms of transport.  

Cycle lanes are everywhere – in many places there will be two very wide cycle lanes, leaving space for only one narrow lane for cars travelling in both directions.  As a car driver, you have to give way to cyclists pretty much all the time.  I've been caught out more than once by a cyclist pulling out in front of me with no warning. 

The end result is that cycling really does dominate the city.  Here’s nine facts you might not know about Utrecht:
  • ·        The two busiest bicycle routes of the Netherlands are situated in Utrecht
  • ·        33,000 cyclists go along the busiest bicycle route in the city centre every day
  • ·        125,000 cyclists go through the city centre every day
  • ·        Cyclists get speed advice as they go along telling them what pace to go to avoid red traffic lights
  • ·        96% of the households in Utrecht has 1 or more bicycles; 50% 3 or more
  • ·        59% go to the city centre by bicycle
  • ·        43% of all journeys shorter than 7.5 kilometres are made by bicycle
  • ·        Bicycle parking places near Utrecht Central Station: 12,000 today; 33,000 by 2020
  • ·        Utrecht is building the largest bicycle park in the world (12,500 bicycles)
Which is all great … except that I’m driving a massive great mini-bus which barely fits down most of the roads!

Monday, April 03, 2017

Suicide reporting: know the facts, save a life

One person kills themselves every 90 minutes in England.

There is compelling evidence that irresponsible reporting of suicides by media leads to extra deaths. Get it wrong and people die.   

When I was editor of regional newspapers, I don’t think I knew this.  I was vaguely aware of evidence that linked the reporting of suicide to imitative deaths in a cluster of suicides in South Wales.

However, there is now no doubt and there is no excuse for not knowing.  The increasing evidence has led to changes in the Editors’ Code of Practice which now explicitly states that ‘to prevent simulative acts, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used.’

The Samaritans have worked tirelessly in recent years to build a detailed set of guidelines for reporters on how best to cover suicide.  They also offer a full media advisory service, which includes both media training and pre-publication advice.

However, they find it difficult to get their message out to reporters working in local and regional media.

So, having heard the compelling evidence, I am working with Lorna Fraser, media adviser at The Samaritans, and IPSO, the main press regulator in the UK, to put on a workshop to explain the guidelines and the code rules.

It is aimed at regional and local journalists – and anyone who teaches young journalists – and is free to attend.  The workshop is being run by the Journalism department at the University of Derby.

It is open to Journalists working for newspapers, or working as freelances.  Academics who teach student Journalists are also welcome.

It is on Monday, April 24th, at 11am and will last about 90 minutes.  It will be held at the University of Derby’s main Kedleston Road campus – there is free parking, a frequent bus service from Derby train station, and a free lunch.

The workshop will include a presentation by Lorna, and Prof David Gunnell, of Bristol University, on the evidence which demonstrates the importance of journalists getting it right.  There will also be a Q&A session with a panel including the main speakers and somebody from IPSO.

We already have about 30 regional newspaper editors signed up for the workshop.

To join them, and receive more details, please go to the University’s website.  Sign up today.  Save a life.

  • If you are affected by any of the issues raised by this article, please contact The Samaritans any time of night or day:  Call 116 123 from any phone.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

State regulation scheme threatens future of local press

A blind hatred of parts of the national press could be about to destroy one of the pillars of local democracy in this country – the local press.

Nobody doubts the important role played by local newspapers in holding local councils to account and underpinning the fundamental human right to fair and open justice.  At the end of his 18-month enquiry into the ethics and behaviour of the press, Lord Leveson had nothing but praise for regional newspapers:

“… I must make a special point about Britain’s regional newspapers. In one sense, they are less affected by the global availability of the biggest news stories but their contribution to local life is truly without parallel.  

“… Many are no longer financially viable and they are all under enormous pressure as they strive to re-write the business model necessary for survival. Yet their demise would be a huge setback for communities … and would be a real loss for our democracy.

“…Although accuracy and similar complaints are made against local newspapers, the criticisms of culture, practices and ethics of the press that have been raised in this Inquiry do not affect them: on the contrary, they have been much praised.”

State regulation scheme

Despite this, urged on by anti-press lobbyists, the Government used the Leveson enquiry to introduce a state regulation scheme which threatens to destroy many local newspapers.  Hidden behind the pretence of voluntary self-regulation, the Government is actually attempting to force local newspapers to join a regime which would threaten their very existence. 

Newspapers which refuse to join up will face punitive costs even when they have done nothing wrong.  Complainants will be given a free pass to take newspapers to court because the newspaper will have to pay not only their own legal costs, but also those of the complainant – even if the newspaper wins the case.

This, of course, tilts the scales of justice so far in the complainant’s favour that it is absurd.  Why wouldn’t they go to court?  They have absolutely nothing to lose, even if their case is wafer thin.

The alternative for newspapers is to join a regulator approved under the state scheme, which insists on an arbitration process which allows complainants to ‘sue’ local newspapers.  Again, there is no cost to the complainant, but the newspaper – even if it wins – must pay for the process. 

The threat these alternatives pose to local newspapers is very real.  Mike Sassi, Editor of the Nottingham Post, recently wrote that the likely result of this attack on a free press would almost certainly lead to a situation where local papers could not risk writing anything controversial for fear of having to pay out.

Insulting to local newspaper editors

Those blinded by their hate of some national newspapers, choose to scoff at the fears of local newspapers.  The Chair of Hacked Off, Hugh Tomlinson, QC, responded by insulting Sassi – and all other local newspaper editors – by dismissing their claims, implying they could not possibly believe what they were saying – they were simply ‘dancing to the tune of their masters’.

Revealing a complete lack of understanding of the situation faced by almost all local newspapers, Tomlinson said the costs of the state regulation scheme’s arbitration system would be tiny.  Almost 200 local papers have closed in the UK since 2005, and many of those left make very little profit. Tindle Newspapers, for example, runs about 220 local newspapers, which, last year, made an average of less than £10,000 profit per paper.  Leveson himself said that many local newspapers were no longer financially viable.

An arbitration case for a local newspaper could cost as much £3,500, even if it wins.  If the case has little merit and is dismissed at an early stage, the newspaper will still end up paying out, not the full £3,500, but quite possibly £2,000.  Given again that there is no risk to the complainant, it is not unreasonable to assume newspapers will face a number of claims every year.  Two or three cases a year would be enough to wipe out the profits at a Tindle newspaper.  

And if you think it won’t happen, spend five minutes reading this article by Martin Trepte, editor of the independently-owned Maidenhead Advertiser.  In December, his paper was threatened with libel by a convicted sex offender who did not like the details of his court case appearing in print.  The paper’s lawyers simply dismissed the complaint.  Their advice will not have been free, but it probably cost no more than £100.  In future, papers like the Maidenhead Advertiser face one of two choices: sign up to the state regulatory regime, under which this case with no merit will almost certainly be dismissed, but not before racking up a £2,000 bill to be paid by the paper; or stay outside the state scheme, and risk an even more expensive court case, in which they are forced to pay huge court costs, both theirs and the complainant’s, even if the court finds the newspaper did nothing wrong.

Convicted heroin dealer

It’s a no-win situation.  Oh, and it was not the only complaint Trepte dealt with that week.  He also received a threat from a convicted heroin dealer who did not like the fact that his court case was on the newspaper’s website.  Again, the paper dealt with the complaint, but in future, it would be faced with a bill of, at best, a few thousand pounds … despite the fact that it had done absolutely nothing wrong. 

Tomlinson, in his attack on Sassi, tries to dismiss this by saying: “If people bring bad complaints (whether in the courts or in an arbitration scheme) they will be struck out and they will have to pay the costs.”

This is simply untrue. 

The regulations of Impress, the only regulator approved as part of the state regulation scheme, say clearly:

“An IMPRESS decision to offer access to its arbitration scheme will be based on an administrative assessment of whether a claim is covered by the scheme. For the avoidance of doubt, it will not be based on an assessment of the merits of a claim. “ (My emphasis)

So, when the convicted sex offender seeks redress for libel, Impress does not care whether there is any merit in the claim, only that libel is covered by the scheme.

And there is nothing in the arbitration scheme which allows the costs to be passed back to the complainant.  Indeed, the arbitration scheme specifically says the claimant will not be liable for any costs, and that the publisher will pay the costs even if the claim is “struck out, dismissed at a preliminary stage, or resolved.”

So, in a single week, this small independent newspaper would have faced bills of a few thousand pounds whether it joined the state scheme, or refused to be bullied into giving up its rights.  You might – like Hugh Tomlinson – think a few thousand pounds is neither here nor there, but the Maidenhead Advertiser belongs to a company which made about £100,000 operating profit last year.  Its revenues were down 7.5% on the year before, and it cut its staff by about 10% to cope with the reductions.

Punitive legislation

How can it be right that newspapers like the Maidenhead Advertiser – and the rest of the 1,000 local and regional newspapers - can face such punitive legislation?  The simple answer to that is that it can’t be right. 

And let’s remind ourselves of what we are talking about here.  Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, recognised in many places, including the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), and the UK’s Human Rights Act.  Here’s what the ECHR says:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society.”

The law is clear – governments can interfere with the right to free speech only when it is necessary, and there is plenty of case law to show that any such interference must be proportionate.  In plain language, this means that governments cannot use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, if a nutcracker will do.

Despicable behaviour

So, what nut is the Government trying to crack here?  What the Leveson enquiry uncovered was despicable behaviour by a group of national newspapers.  It was clear that these newspapers had broken the law … and the law was dealing with them.  Despite this, the Government, along with opposition parties, met up with anti-press lobbyists, and hastily drew up a regime which clearly interferes with the right of all newspapers to freedom of expression.

There is nothing proportionate about the solution.  About 1,000 local newspapers are having their right to freedom of expression interfered with, despite the fact that they did nothing wrong and have not displayed any behaviour that suggests that laws are needed to regulate them.  The laws risk denying these newspapers their right to freedom of expression because they will either have to stop writing about anything controversial or risk being put out of business.

It is not just the newspapers, the owners, and journalists whose rights are being interfered with.  The ECHR specifically says the right is to receive information as well as impart it.  Every day, millions of people choose to receive their information from local newspapers and their websites.  The importance of this information is recognised by everyone – including Leveson himself.

It is fairly obvious that the issue that Leveson sought to resolve was the behaviour of some parts of the national press – we have to assume that the Government was trying to do the same thing.  Everyone is agreed that the behaviour of the local press was not the issue. 

By law, any move to undermine the fundamental rights enshrined in the ECHR must be proportionate.

Less intrusive measures

Generally, it is accepted that there are four criteria that must be met for an action to be proportionate.  Perhaps the key one is:

·        Whether a less intrusive measure could have been used without unacceptably compromising the achievement of the objective

So, why did the Government cast its net so widely, catching 1,000 innocent newspapers in a regulatory regime in an effort to control so few? 

It was not as if the politicians and anti-press lobbyists who drew up the state’s role in press regulation thought they could not limit the new rules to certain sectors of the news industry.
They specifically decided the new rules should not apply to everyone.  The new regime covers only ‘relevant publishers’, defined as a ‘person or organisation’ which:

·        Publishes news related material, and
·        Publishes material in the course of a business, and
·        Produces material written by different authors, and
·        Produces material which is subject to editorial control

It is not exactly clear who is covered, but it is clear that all local newspapers are included.  No attempt was made to limit the rules to those newspapers castigated by Leveson.  It would have taken almost no effort at all to add another line to the definition of ‘relevant publishers’, limiting the new rules to ‘publications whose primary audience is national’, or something similar.

I personally* don’t agree with the state playing any role in laws or regulations drawn up specifically to limit the freedom of speech of newspapers, but, given the background to the new rules, I do not see how it can possibly be argued that they are proportionate.  And, if the new rules are not proportionate, they are also not legal. 

Leveson spent 18 months looking at the ethics of newspapers and concluded that the vast majority had done nothing wrong.  Despite this, the Government, has brought down a huge sledgehammer which is likely to destroy completely innocent local newspapers, denying both the newspapers and their readers the fundamental right to express and receive information and opinions.

It is simply not right. 

*I am a board member of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the independent regulator for the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK.  However, the views expressed above are my own – I have not discussed them with IPSO.  To read IPSO’s view, see here.

*The Government is currently consulting on whether or not to introduce the laws which would seek to force newspapers to join the state regulation scheme – the post above will form the basis of my response to the consultation.  If you would like to make your views known, visit the Government’s consultation page.