On June 28 and July 3, Media Lens received repeated threats of both legal and police action from Alastair Brett, legal manager of News International’s Times Newspapers.
Noam Chomsky described the threat, pithily, as “pretty sick.” (Email, June 28, 2008) David Miller, professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde and founder member of Spinwatch, commented:
“The response from the Times is an absolutely outrageous attempt to bully and censor you. It is not – unfortunately – surprising though, as the Murdoch empire is determined to attempt to snuff out those voices which try to bear witness to the truths of our age. Those that unmask naked power will be targeted by the Murdoch empire and its hench people. Maddox is the latest in a long line and is evidently a well networked member of the political elite – being a governor of the shadowy Ditchley Foundation. It is simply laughable that sending emails to complain about her distorted coverage constitutes harassment. Frankly, the drumbeat for war with Iran, to which she adds her voice, is much more like harassment, but of a whole nation. Its consequences are already more deadly serious for the people of Iran than any amount of emails from Medialens readers.” (Email, July 8, 2008)
Brett claimed Times journalist Bronwen Maddox had been subject to “vexatious and threatening” emails from Media Lens readers, which constituted “harassment”. If this did not stop, Brett told us, he would notify the police who might wish to investigate the matter with a view to bringing a criminal prosecution. As former New Statesman editor, Peter Wilby, noted in his Guardian article on the Times threat, this was no joke – prosecution for criminal harassment “can lead to six months’ imprisonment or, if a court order is breached, up to five years”.
Maddox claimed to have received “dozens of emails, many abusive or threatening”. (Ibid)
Beginning with our very first media alert, published seven years ago yesterday, we have always advised our readers to treat journalists with respect:
“The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.”
As usual, many emails were copied or forwarded to us. We saw precisely one that could conceivably be described as “vexatious and threatening”. The email read:
“You have know [sic] idea who you are dealing with here. But I do like to help. I suggest that you read this [an inaccessible Facebook website entry] very, very carefully and fully. You have until 4pm Monday to respond to my original email or I will deem you to be fired.”
This was also the only email offered up as evidence to Wilby for his Guardian piece. Unprompted by us, the offending emailer had earlier written to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, informing one executive:
“If you take more than 1 working day to reply to this email without a reason that I consider acceptable you can consider yourself fired.”
He also wrote to around 40 senior UK editors and journalists in June describing Media Lens as “a pack of absolute tossers”.
Ironically, we have been subject to far worse abuse than Maddox and Brett, and at the hands of mainstream journalists. Before becoming editor of the Independent, the former Observer editor, Roger Alton, asked one of our readers:
“Have you just been told to write in by those c*nts at medialens?” (Email forwarded, June 1, 2006 – original uncensored. Changed here to avoid triggering spam filters)
An online Observer article by Peter Beaumont described Media Lens as “a curious willy-waving exercise… Think a train spotters’ club run by Uncle Joe Stalin.” (Beaumont, ‘Microscope on Medialens,’ June 18, 2006)
We have always found these insults more chucklesome than vexatious. Chomsky was once asked for his reaction to the abuse he receives:
“Man: ‘Noam… You’ve been called a neo-Nazi, your books have been burned, you’ve been called anti-Israeli – don’t you get a bit upset by the way that your views are always distorted by the media and by intellectuals?’
“Noam: ‘No why should I? I get called anything, I’m accused of everything you can think of: being a Communist propagandist, a Nazi propagandist, a pawn of freedom of speech, an anti-Semite, liar, whatever you want. Actually, I think that’s all a good sign. I mean, if you are a dissident, typically you are ignored. If you can’t be ignored, and you can’t be answered, you’re vilified – that’s obvious: no institution is going to help people undermine it. So I would only regard the kind of things you’re talking about as signs of progress.’” (Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, The New Press, 2002, pp.204-5)
Questions Of Copyright
Brett also claimed that we would be acting unlawfully by publishing an email from Maddox without permission. We sought advice and one legal expert told us:
“The Times has no case over the confidentiality of email correspondence. Email correspondence, in itself, is not considered confidential – unless the precise contents of an email are confidential.”
Another suggested that the law is less clear and that the Times might carry out its threat. Another reminded us:
“Added weight to your cause is that the statements expressed and reproduced on your site represent important ‘political commentary’ (as opposed to artistic or commercial commentary). Political commentary is the most heavily protected type of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (via the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK).”
Another lawyer cited a barrister friend who nutshelled his view of the credibility of the Times’s case: “Tell them to f*ck off.”
Douwe Korff, Professor of International Law at London Metropolitan University and an expert on the European Convention on Human Rights, commented:
“I find the stance of the Times appalling in moral terms and flimsy at best in law. Their legal position, if endorsed by the courts, would severely limit freedom of the press over issues of major public concern. Is that what they want? I have little doubt their arguments would be kicked out by the UK courts if they pursued them here; they would certainly not be upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This is simply an attempt by a heavy-weight corporation to brow-beat a small freelance news operation that dares to be critical of its editorial line. It is quite scandalous. The Times should be ashamed of itself.” (Email to Media Lens, July 8, 2008)
Having minimal resources for fighting a court case, either in terms of time or money, we decided to delete Maddox’s email from our media alert, ‘Selling The Fireball’, as demanded. You can see the amended version here
We also published a message on our website emphasising the need for respectful communication with journalists. Coincidentally, we had previously discussed the issue at length in ’Compassionate Media Activism,’ an interview with former Buddhist monk, Matthew Bain, published this week on the new Elephant Skin website.
The happy result of this episode is that a number of high-powered legal minds have offered us their services free of charge should the need arise in future.
Peter Wilby wrote about the Times’ threat in the Guardian:
“We journalists are accustomed to dishing it out, but have the thinnest of skins. At the merest hint of criticism, we are apt to turn to our lawyers. One reason for this professional sensitivity, I suppose, is that journalists are insecure egotists who like to occupy the high moral ground. Criticism assaults their sense of self-worth and, since their colleagues and potential employers are assiduous consumers of print, it may damage their future prospects.”
Wilby quoted from the banned email, perhaps thereby indicating his own feelings on the matter. But his piece was ’balanced’. He criticised us for not providing a link to Maddox’s original article, for not urging readers to always read journalists’ work before writing, and for not making clear to Maddox who we were when we wrote to her. He contrasted these “failings” with the Times’s “professional sensitivities”, which he suggested were over-developed.
There was something missing from Wilby’s article, however: the human catastrophe that provides the moral backdrop to the entire debate. George Monbiot alluded to it in 2004 when he wrote: “the falsehoods reproduced by the media before the invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to see how Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job.”
Like the rest of the British media, the Times played a vital role in selling the public a pack of outrageous government lies that presented a totally non-existent and obviously risible ‘threat’ as somehow serious, plausible, and even (god help us!) urgent.
Many of the most sophisticated philosophies of human culture contend that rational understanding is the result, not just of wisdom, but also of compassion. This is certainly true of the current discussion. Brett’s complaints that our actions caused distress to one of his journalists, and Wilby’s ’balanced’ response, can seem almost reasonable, until we focus our minds and hearts (if we are able) on a single overwhelming fact. In significant part as a result of the actions of the British media, more than one million human beings are now lying dead in Iraq. In fact, the entire country has been subject to unrelenting destruction and slaughter by two decades of Western policy rooted in selfish greed. All of this has been buried in official propaganda, media silence and compromised ’balance’ – it barely exists for the public.
And of course there is more and worse. Almost unbelievably, the media’s Iran focus 2008 is near-identical to the media’s Iraq focus 2002-2003. It is entirely possible that hundreds of thousands of people will soon be lying dead in Iran as a result of sanctions and war, just across the border from Iraq.
The point is that we are unable to perceive the obscenity of the media silence surrounding this mass slaughter if we are unable to perceive the truth of those one million Iraqi deaths. And we cannot experience the truth of those deaths unless we have some compassion for our victims.
To understand what we have done to the Iraqi people, to feel something of their torment, casts the media silence in a very different light. It transforms, utterly, the actions of people like us trying to break that silence, as it does the actions of those who seek to stop us on the grounds that emailing journalists is “not proper behaviour” and makes “a mess of their inboxes”. (Brett)
In truth, the steps we have suggested are pitiful in their timidity. We have always seen media activism as a small, energising contribution intended to inspire much wider, much more profound, political organisation and activism.
What we have done to Iraq is not a video game; it is not a Hollywood invention. We really have destroyed an entire nation and brought misery to millions. About that, this whole country should not be writing a few emails; it should be in uproar.