Archive for December 2011
Earlier this week, Liberal Conspiracy reported on plans by David Hunt, the new head of the Press Complaints Commission, to “invite political bloggers to volunteer for regulation by the PCC’s replacement. Blogs who promise to abide by the new code will get a ‘kitemark’ of approval.”
This follows a Guardian interview last month in which Hunt appeared to argue that inaccurate reporting by bloggers posed a “greater challenge” than the (now well publicised) excesses of the tabloid press.
This seemed like a surprising thing to say given the shocking details that have been emerging from the Leveson inquiry, and my initial reaction was very much in line with that of the “Broken Barnet” blog.
But I was also curious to find out more about the motivation and rationale behind the idea, and the extent to which it has (or hasn’t) been properly thought through.
So I’ve written to David Hunt, C/O his office in the House of Lords, with a series of questions. If I get any kind of response I’ll be posting it here.
Dear David Hunt,
I was intrigued by reports that you are hoping to introduce a “kitemarking” scheme for bloggers. As a writer who has a blog and closely follows a number of others, I have some questions about this idea that I’m hoping you might be able to answer?
1. Despite the recent growth of the internet, many more people still read books than read blogs. Some of the things that are written in books are inaccurate and misleading. Thousands of new books are published in the UK each year. Yet other than the law of libel – which is equally applicable to blogs – there is currently no formal mechanism for challenging inaccuracies published in books. In order to be consistent, will the Press Complaints Commission therefore be seeking to “kitemark” books – or book publishers? If not, why single out blogs and blogging?
2. It has been suggested that you believe inaccurate reporting by bloggers to pose a “greater challenge” than inaccurate coverage by the tabloid press. Can you provide some specific examples of inaccurate reporting by bloggers that you believe might substantiate this claim?
3. In 2010 I reported the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over an article in which it made a series of false claims downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. [see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/27/asbestos-press-watchdog-pcc]. The newspaper eventually agreed to print a correction. Can you provide an example of a similarly toxic false health claim made by a blogger?
4. Can you provide an example of a blog whose reporting is consistently less accurate than, for example, that of the Daily Mail?
5. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all organisations that publish a blog (eg. Cancer Research UK [http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/] or Topshop [http://insideout.topshop.com/]) or only to individual blogs that are deemed “political”?
6. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to political blogs published by Members of Parliament – for example Nadine Dorries MP [http://blog.dorries.org/] and Tom Watson MP? [http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/]
7. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all blogs read in the UK (ie. including US-based blogs such as BoingBoing [http://boingboing.net], and the US edition of the Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=US]) or only to blogs written by people living in the UK?
8. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to publicly visible postings and “groups” on Facebook, and to postings on microblogging sites such as Twitter?
9. Many political blogs are highly critical of the habits and standards of commercial newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun and Daily Telegraph. Given that the Press Complaints Commission would receive the bulk of its funding from such sources even under the alternative arrangements you are proposing, would this not create a serious conflict of interest, undermining the credibility of any attempt by the PCC to “regulate” political bloggers?
10. Many political blogs are highly critical of the Conservative Party and its donors, and of the wider political establishment in which the three main political parties operate. Given that both you and your predecessor are Conservative members of the House of Lords, does this not also create a serious conflict of interest, and undermine the perceived neutrality and objectivity of any PCC “kitemarking” scheme for political bloggers?
I will be publishing these questions on my blog. If you are able to respond then I would be happy to include your answers in full. You would also be welcome to add a comment to the blogpost itself, which can be found at https://richardwilsonauthor.wordpress.com.
This is a guest post by Rwanda Nkunda. You can find more of their work via the blog “Cry for freedom in Rwanda”.
Tony Blair is on an official visit to Rwanda. This is probably the seventh visit since his departure from Downing Street in 2007.
The visits are part of his Africa Governance Initiative; although, he is also an official adviser to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. As noted by the Independent, the two share a close but bizarre relationship in which Mr. Blair functions as Mr. Kagame’s “cheerleader-in-chief”.
How the former leader of one of the world’s most powerful democracies became the publicist for a notorious “predator of the press” is a subject that remains closely guarded. The many explanations that emerge are wild guesses that tend to be borderline conspiracy theories–the sort that blames the western world for all evil in this world.
My focus here is less on how the two became involved with each other, but more on the substantive outcome of what we might consider to be Mr. Blair’s advice.
What is becoming a bit more apparent is that Mr. Kagame seeks to use Mr. Blair as a cover up for his past and present failures. Indeed, the relationship seeks to extend credibility and legitimacy to a brutal dictatorship; which frequently uses murder as a political tactic?. As such, Mr. Blair has become the benign face that promises enticing reforms while Mr. Kagame continues with business as usual.
The precise nature of the relationship seems very unclear. What we know is that Mr. Blair is frequently shuttled around the world in Mr. Kagame’s private jets and gets celebrity treatment whenever in Kigali. For a man who was once one of the most powerful figures in the world, the appetite to feel important or regain a glorious past might be the weakness that Mr. Kagame is exploiting.
To be sure, the regime has the capacity to dismiss some of the killings that the opposition attributes to Mr. Kagame. However the capacity to do so does not depend on Mr. Kagame’s innocence or lack thereof. It is simply that, when Kagame’s critics get murdered, there is little that gets done in terms of investigations. Moreover, and naturally, the regime never admits responsibility for such crimes.
It is deemed more convenient for them to deny and deceive, hoping that the “naïve” westerners will fall prey to their antics and continue to pump aid money. Yet, despite the many human rights concerns that have been raised, including massive irregularities in the 2010 presidential elections, Britain has doubled aid money to Rwanda to become the country’s leading donor.
The whitewashing does not always seem to work in the regime’s favor. In fact, if recent media reports are any indication of western perception, Mr. Kagame is slowly being revealed for what he is. For many of us though, the truth has always been clear. The nature of the killings that target opposition members has always left Mr. Kagame’s fingerprints showing.
The fact that Mr. Kagame tolerates no dissent has never been a secret. The Economist has for instance argued that Mr. Kagame “allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe”. What is rather more surprising is that many people around the world appear too quick to forget that Mr. Kagame is essentially a military dictator. Otherwise, the world would be holding him to a much higher standard, if it remembered his questionable military past.
President Kagame’s speeches, at least those delivered in Kinyarwanda, are often filled with vile and threatening language. There is nothing inspiring about them. His diction is that of a man without patience who is always seeking to bully his way. He regularly refers to opposition figures as “human waste” and promises to crush them without mercy.
When such killings do happen, it is little wonder that the opposition identifies Mr. Kagame as the prime suspect. Indeed, Rwandans have a proverb that says, “akaba ku mutima gasesekarira kumunwa” translating into (“that which is at the heart reveals through the mouth”). As we saw with the recent events in Libya, what a president says can inspire or destroy a nation!
Even if Mr. Kagame refutes all the allegations, his past is heavily tainted with greater crimes. Rwanda has invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo three times and has supported rogue militias including the CNDP whose leaders Laurent Nkunda and Bosco Ntaganda are wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. Moreover, various United Nations have accused Mr. Kagame of pillaging and stealing DRC’s mineral wealth.
As if the crimes above were not enough, Mr. Kagame has also been accused of committing a possible genocide against members of the rival Hutu ethnic group between 1996 and 1997. This is important because genocide is the crime of crimes. Moreover, Mr. Kagame often rides on his high horse claiming that he ended the Rwandan genocide. As such, if these crimes are referred to the ICC, the usual moral card that Kagame plays against the west might not count anymore. The evidence behind these allegations is very strong, hence the very reason why Rwandans believe that Kagame is a mass murderer.
In the meantime, Mr. Blair and Kagame seem to be winning. Mr. Blair seems to have won over the bulk?of British’s political class, whether conservatives or liberals, on Mr. Kagame’s side.
Since 2007, conservatives have been sending their MPs to Rwanda through project Umubano for volunteer work. While their good intentions are commendable it begs the question of whether the British parliamentarians would be comfortable to extend such missions to other oppressive countries such as Burma, North Korea or Zimbabwe. Doing so in Rwanda, sends the wrong message and weakens the resolve of those who are struggling to plant democracy.
Ultimately, as it seems, “crushing” independent voices is Mr. Kagame’s biggest fantasy. The question that needs asking is, should Britain be helping him to achieve this macabre goal?
The scheme was launched earlier this evening when “Love and Garbage” became the first to achieve this coveted status:
This official kitemark confirms that this blog has passed the stringent tests of self-regulation imposed by the independent regulator (namely a guarantee that when asked I will forget whether or not any of the things I have written on here are questionable, unethical, or immoral – and if they don’t ask if stuff I write is illegal or has been obtained in an illegal way I won’t have to answer that question). Let this assurance guarantee to you, my dear reader, that everything you read on here is of a quality at least as high as that you see in national newspapers.
Be assured that my chairing of the loveandgarbage Code of conduct committee where I assess if the loveandgarbage blog has breached any ethical moral or legal issues is a guarantee that I, and the licensing body, takes self-regulation very seriously indeed.
I’m delighted to be following “Love and Garbage”‘s lead, and to assure my readers that I will be following this code almost as assiduously as he will.
GAKALCOB Kitemarking complaints procedure:
Should you believe that any aspect of this blog breaches the GAKALCOB Kitemarking Code, you may first complain to me, in writing, via the postal address given at the bottom of the page. Should you not receive a response within 365 working days, or should you wish to appeal my automated-rejection of your complaint, you may complain to the GAKALCOB regulator at the following address:
Lord Hunt of Wirral
House of Lords,
London, SW1A 0PW
Your call is important to us. Please continue to hold. Calls may be monitored for training purposes. Resistance is futile.
– ‘Lord’ Bell in 2008, after taking on a contract to buff the image of the Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenka
– ‘Lord’ Bell in 2011, after his company was caught by undercover reporters bragging about its influence over the UK government, and its use of “dark arts” to bury bad coverage.
Bell Pottinger cuts health information on skin cancer, replaces it with details of their client’s “telemedicine solution”
One of the more prolific accounts identified in Wikipedia’s subsequent investigation is IP address 126.96.36.199, and its list of edits makes interesting reading. The person or people behind this account were particularly busy with the Wikipedia entry on Melanoma (a type of cancer that most commonly appears on the skin). Their first edit, on September 2nd this year, was to add the following text:
A recent telemedicine solution has been developed that allows people to screen moles online in under 24 hours – reducing the burden of needless anxiety on those with benign lesions, and unnecessary consultations with healthcare professionals. The service was launched in September 2010 by a company called Moletest and uses a unique ‘computational vision’ to assess photographic images of lesions (melanocytic nevus) against known case results – providing a ‘traffic light’ based evaluation where green is a ‘normal’ lesion, amber a ‘borderline’ lesion with potentially unpredictable biological behaviour, and red a potentially ‘cancerous’ one. The process is overseen by a panel of professional dermatolagists and has the potential to revolutionalise melanoma screening and detection, in the same way that smear testing did for cervical cancer in women.
It turns out that the company Moletest is or was a client of “De Facto Communications”, which describes itself as “Part of Bell Pottinger Health – the healthcare and pharmaceutical arm of the UK’s No.1 PR group” .
But in this case they went one step further – actually removing a whole tranche of text that gave details of how people concerned about a possible skin cancer might check themselves for symptoms. Here’s what they cut:
A basic reference chart used for consumers to spot suspicious moles is found in the mnemonic A-B-C-D, used by institutions such as the American Academy of Dermatology and the National Cancer Institute. The letters stand for Asymmetry, Border, Color, and Diameter. Sometimes, the letter E (for Elevation or Evolving) is added. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, if a mole starts changing in size, color, shape or, especially, if the border of a mole develops ragged edges or becomes larger than a pencil eraser, it would be an appropriate time to consult with a physician. Other warning signs include a mole, even if smaller than a pencil eraser, that is different than the others and begins to crust over, bleed, itch, or becomes inflamed. The changes may indicate developing melanomas. The matter can become clinically complicated because mole removal depends on which types of cancer, if any, come into suspicion.
A recent and novel method of melanoma detection is the “Ugly Duckling Sign” It is simple, easy to teach, and highly effective in detecting melanoma. Simply, correlation of common characteristics of a person’s skin lesion is made. Lesions which greatly deviate from the common characteristics are labeled as an “Ugly Duckling”, and further professional exam is required. The “Little Red Riding Hood” sign, suggests that individuals with fair skin and light colored hair might have difficult-to-diagnose melanomas. Extra care and caution should be rendered when examining such individuals as they might have multiple melanomas and severely dysplastic nevi. A dermatoscope must be used to detect “ugly ducklings”, as many melanomas in these individuals resemble non-melanomas or are considered to be “wolves in sheep clothing”. These fair skinned individuals often have lightly pigmented or amelanotic melanomas which will not present easy-to-observe color changes and variation in colors. The borders of these amelanotic melanomas are often indistinct, making visual identification without a dermatoscope very difficult.
People with a personal or family history of skin cancer or of dysplastic nevus syndrome (multiple atypical moles) should see a dermatologist at least once a year to be sure they are not developing melanoma.
The changes to both entries were cancelled just over an hour later by an eagle-eyed Wikipedia editor – the site’s editing rules stipulate that “Wikipedia is not …a vehicle for propaganda, advertising and showcasing”.
But it nonetheless seem striking that anyone would think it was a good idea to delete a fairly detailed account of how people might check for potential skin cancer symptoms and replace it with a puffy advertorial for a company that charges for online screening.
Bell Pottinger really do seem to be in a class of their own…
It turns out that long before they started shilling for the Belarus dictatorship and writing speeches for Sri Lankan war criminals, Bell Pottinger were paid apologists for the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, lobbying hard to help the General evade justice after he was arrested in the UK on torture charges in 1998.
From The New Internationalist
Business people associated with Chile’s Augusto Pinochet Foundation are bankrolling the campaign in defense of Pinochet. Bell Pottinger, the public-relations firm headed by longtime Conservative PR guru Sir Tim Bell, worked under a $310,000 contract with the Chilean Reconciliation Movement, a pro-Pinochet organization operating in Britain…
Bell Pottinger has sent 14 postcards, in the name of the Chilean Reconciliation Movement, to 5,000 British ‘opinion makers’ (including the heads of the top 2,000 corporations, the members of the Houses of Commons and Lords, and the major news media). The buzzword of ‘reconciliation’ appears frequently, and several of the cards argue that Chileans are entitled to and have in their majority chosen reconciliation over ‘recrimination’ and revenge. But the content of the postcards is hardly conciliatory. Clanging relentlessly through the campaign is the claim that in 1973 the elected Chilean Government was raising paramilitary forces in order to establish a communist dictatorship – this is their justification for the military’s violent seizure of power and dictatorial rule.
Tim Bell’s public-relations expertise was also employed for a televised meeting between Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher in the house where the ex-dictator is confined. The meeting was arranged by Robin Harris, a senior advisor to Thatcher. Harris has also produced and sent to over 5,000 UK ‘opinion formers’ (the same 5,000 as the postcards, perhaps?) a paper entitled ‘A Tale of Two Chileans: Pinochet and Allende’. Harris’s paper rehearses the same accusation as the postcards – President Allende had planned a ‘self-coup’ with dictatorial aims. Over half of the paper’s footnotes cite a document produced by the dictatorship with CIA assistance shortly after the military coup. Harris also promises shortly an appendix detailing ‘Plan Z,’ the fictitious plot under which Allende and his associates were to eliminate an extensive list of enemies including prominent members of the armed forces.
The apologists of the dictatorship accuse the Left of crimes in fact perpetrated by the Right. On the lurid accusations of ‘Plan Z’, there were two current or former commanders-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces assassinated during the 1970s, but they were not assassinated by the Popular Unity. General Rene Schneider was murdered in 1970 during a failed kidnapping by right-wing military conspirators who planned to blame the crime on the Left in hopes of scuttling Allende’s victory at the polls. General Carlos Prats was assassinated in 1974, after his exile to Argentina, by agents of the military dictatorship. Both were despised by the Right for their ‘constitutionalist’ scruples…
The current campaign is not the first project in which the public-relations industry has served Pinochet and company. In fact, the military dictatorship directly employed numerous PR firms to polish its image over its 17 years. Starting in 1974, a US organization called the American-Chilean Council began work with the aim, in its own words, ‘to expose the misinformation, gross exaggerations and downright lies [about the Chilean dictatorship] being fed to the American public through the Left/liberal establishment’. Four years later the American-Chilean Council was revealed, in a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department, to be working in the pay of the dictatorship, basically as a front for the public relations firm of Marvin Liebman Inc…
Culture Media and Sports Committee: Further written evidence from Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian
…On 27 June 2008, Bell Pottinger sent a threatening message to the Guardian. They had previously sent similar threats and complaints to AP, whose agency dispatch had been published on-line by the Guardian. The message ended:
“Please note that in view of the gravity of these matters and of the allegations which have been published, I am copying Trafigura’s solicitors, Carter-Ruck, into this email.”
The letter demanded changes to the Guardian’s website to include this information:
“The Probo Koala … left Amsterdam with the full knowledge and clear approval of the Dutch authorities.” It also stated that the disposal company in Amsterdam had asked for extra fees “without any credible justification” and that “ship’s slops are commonly produced within the oil industry. To label Trafigura’s slops as ‘toxic waste’ in no way accurately reflects their true composition.”
On 16 September 2008, Trafigura posted a statement on their website claiming:
“Trafigura is in no way responsible for the sickness suffered by people in Abidjan … The discharge of slops from cargo vessels is a routine procedure that is undertaken all over the world.”
The company knew this was a misleading and false statement.
On 22 September 2008, the Guardian’s East Africa correspondent, Xan Rice, asked Trafigura some questions, in view of the then impending trial of local Ivoirian waste contractors.
Trafigura refused to answer, a refusal coupled with another pointed referral to libel solicitors. Bell Pottinger wrote: “I am copying this email to Carter-Ruck”.
Xan Rice’s article was not published by the Guardian.
The Ivoirian trial convicted local individuals for toxic dumping, Trafigura subsequently abandoned some of their lines of defence in the English litigation they originally claimed they had no duty of care, and could not have foreseen what the local dumpers might do. Trafigura now agreed instead, to pay anyone who could prove the toxic waste had made them ill. They continued to deny publicly that such a thing was possible.
Xan Rice again asked some factual questions. On 14 November 2008, Bell Pottinger responded “Please note that I am copying this correspondence to Carter-Ruck and to the Guardian’s legal department”. They added: “Any suggestion, even implicit, that Trafigura … should have stood trial in Ivory Coast would be completely unfounded and libellous … We insist that you refer in detail to the contents of the attached summary”.
They claimed to be sueing for libel the senior partner of Leigh Day who was bringing the English lawsuit. They added that further Leigh Day statements “are the subject of a complaint in Malicious Falsehood”[sic]. In fact, the libel proceedings against Martyn Day had been stayed, and no malicious falsehood proceedings had been – or were ever – issued.
A closely-typed six-page statement was attached. In it the company claimed to have “independent expert evidence” of the non-toxicity of the waste, but refused to disclose it. Trafigura repeated the false claim that the waste was merely “a mixture of gasoline, water and caustic soda”.
No Guardian article, once again, was published.
On 3 December 2008, less than 3 weeks later, Trafigura formally admitted to the High Court the true composition of the waste in its document “Likely chemical composition of the slops”, [detailed above].
On 5 December 2008, Trafigura formally admitted their waste came from Merox-style chemical processing attempts, and not from routine tank-rinsing.
On 29 April 2009, Carter-Ruck wrote to a Dutch paper: “Trafigura has been obliged to engage my firm to bring complaints against Volkskrant … It is indeed the case that we have on Trafigura’s behalf, written to a number of other media outlets around the world in respect of their coverage of this matter”. Bell Pottinger also confirmed contact with journalists who published or broadcast stories that did not accurately reflect Trafigura’s position, but added: “We completely disagree with your description of Trafigura’s involvement in an ‘aggressive media campaign’.”
On 13 May 2009, Bell Pottinger, in concert with Carter-Ruck, issued a statement to the BBC repeating two assertions known to be false.
They said the Leigh Day statement “is currently the subject of a malicious falsehood complaint made by Trafigura”. They also claimed once more: “The Probo Koala’s slops were a mixture of gasoline, water and caustic soda”.