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Obtaining facts by a hoax

The question has recently arisen as to whether it is ever right for a journalist to hoax a person into divulging certain facts or opinions that said person might not otherwise divulge. This week, the English Football Association told England soccer coach Sven Goran Eriksson that his contract would end immediately after the World Cup tournament in July, following comments Eriksson made to a News of the World journalist posing as someone else, the “fake Sheikh”.

Now, in the increasingly trivial world of British public life, all this might be of interest only to those who follow team sports. I know that a good many readers of this site probably do not give a damn about sporting contests but who might be troubled about the News of the World’s antics in this case. That newspaper conned a man into giving an interview. It deliberately misled Eriksson, who divulged some not-terribly-interesting facts about members of the England team and about his ambitions in the future. (Try to suppress your yawns, Ed).

Even so, some might argue that if the News of the World was trying to nail a terrorist suspect, say, that such subterfuge might be okay. Well, maybe. But what this latest episode has done is to further reduce the already-low reputation of the press, sow further paranoia about the media’s activities and hence give further ammunition to those in power who want to shackle the media. And all for a pathetic story about a venal Swede with an eye for the main chance and the ladies. How terribly British.

This writer seems to agree that there has not been nearly enough anger about what the NotW did. I hope that newspaper is made to suffer for its actions, although I suspect nothing much will be done. Had that paper been a business conning trade secrets from a rival, criminal charges might now be on the cards.

75 comments to Obtaining facts by a hoax

  • Ted

    There’s always going to be demagogues, their print equivalents and their misguided followers. It cannot be stopped in a free society, no matter how unethical the practice. Sven is naive, as are his advisors: other managers are far more circumspect and would not have gone along with this charade.

    However that’s not to say that the media cannot be reined in. In the UK the media have far too much power and have effectivcely muzzled any opposition. That can change, if anyone in power has the guts – they’d have mass support. I actually think the power of the media among normal people is grossly overestimated.

    First step is to remove their power of self-regulation. Next step is to set up an external regulator composed on people outside the media. Third step is to give that regulator real powers of penalty, for instance power to cease circulation for periods of time. Fourth step is to encourage the courts to start handing out massive fines. Fifth step is for people to stop bloody well talking to them !

    The NOTW story would have been heavily vetted by solicitors and they would have made a comparison between possible libel/breach of confidence damages, versus forecast revenues. At the moment the latter wins hands down, so it’s no surprise they went to print.

    Ultimately the behaviour of these parasites is always determined by hip pocket. There is nothing else these low life, useless people understand. They will be spending large amounts right now on the breach of confidence claim – which is still to be played out, so watch this space. Also, dont forget the massive impact of blogs such as this one on print media.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Ted, good points in the main. I am not sure that external government regulation is the answer at all, in fact I suspect we could end up with a supine media of the sort that exists in France, for example.

    I am not entirely sure what can be done to stop this sort of scam, unless the victims turn nasty. (I wonder if some hoax could be done on the editors of these tabloids. It would be richly deserved).

    Quite how blogs affect this is difficult to say. As far as I can see they are another channel for this sort of thing, and offer an alternative to people unhappy with MSM fare.

  • James

    The “British Football Association”? Who they?

  • John Steele

    This is what passes for ethics in “journalism” these days — what does anyone expect.

  • Julian Taylor

    I fail to see quite why they should penalise poor Sven for being duped by the NOTW. If what he said is true, and judging by the way he has been backed up by so many other managers in the leagues, there does not seem to be any reason to doubt it – then surely the aptly named FA should follow through and investigate the allegations? Or are they firing him because, like the parrot in that Telegraph story last week, he spoke the truth and they don’t like it? Either way it does not bode too well for England’s chances in Berlin this year if the manager is going to get fired regardless of whether he wins or loses.

  • Verity

    Julian Taylor – What a great title for a book: The Parrot in The Telegraph.

    What is doubly funny is, we all knew which parrot Julian Taylor was talking about and what he did to get evicted. (Maybe someone could get him a gig on Big Brother House!)

    As to the rest, so what? Erickson was naive or foolishly egotistical. He got fooled. For this, these robust British libertarians think we should start having outside regulators for the press? Give me a break!

    The British press is traditionally robust and rowdy. Leave it alone. Anyone who has dealings with them is on his own. If Erickson has a smart enough lawyer, he can probably find grounds for damages. Otherwise he has to pay the penalty of living in a country with an unregulated press. Erickson will survive.

    Please, no regulatory authorities, panels, advisory committees or quangoes.

  • arcdhitecture im archtecture

  • Verity

    This comment by Ted chilled my blood: “First step is to remove their power of self-regulation. Next step is to set up an external regulator composed on people outside the media. Third step is to give that regulator real powers of penalty, for instance power to cease circulation for periods of time. Fourth step is to encourage the courts to start handing out massive fines.”

    I’m sure the Muslims in Denmark, and just about everywhere else in the West, would love such a law. No more cartoons of Mohammed, that’s for sure.

  • Ted

    Verity

    No intention to chill your blood. Just trying to protect Erickson and individuals whose lives are made miserable by a media that is out of order.

    Rand never sanctioned the abuse of individuals (Erickson) by looters and their partners (FA and the media). In this case, they choose to pursue him when he has done nothing wrong (except being naive). He has rationally followed his own self-interest : why are you supporting his enemies?

  • Patrick B

    Though I hold no brief for their views whatsoever, wasn’t the secret taping of BNP meetings by the BBC, and releasing it to the police, who then prosecuted officials of that party, just as much a despicable abuse as the Sven thing? “Free speech” is not a conditional, it is absolute (and don’t throw shouting “Fire” in a theatre at me: “Fire” isn’t an opinion).

  • Verity

    Ted: I don’t know enough about the story to know who his enemies are, never mind support them. The FA means sweet Fanny Adams to me.

    I am supporting the freedom of the press. It must be unalloyed. Erickson was, in your word, “naive”. Well, boo hoooo! Cry me a river. These international football managers are so well known for the delicacy of their feelings. So to save this “naive” man from the consequences of his own actions, we should impose a regulator, with the ability to impose “massive fines” on the British press? I don’t think so.

    There is always the option pursuing them with a civil suit, and Erickson must surely have enough money to retain the best legal minds.

    He’s an adult, for god’s sake.

  • Verity

    Yes, Patrick – I believe freedom of the press is unconditional. If they step beyond the bounds of truth, they get sued for libel and some of the damages their pursuers get awarded (in a CIVIL court) are immense enough to keep them alert to infringements.

    By and large, the tabloids only take the gloves off in cases where people are big enough to take care of themselves. I don’t know the details of this story and I don’t care. But we must not put shackles of any kind on the press – other than those recourses already available in civil law.

  • RAB

    Can’t see what the fuss is myself.
    Sven made some vainglorious and stupid comments.
    He works in a vainglorious and stupid industry.
    So what.
    Up and down our motorways are delegations of commercial travellers in every good under the sun, relaxing, in a motel bar, stabbing their boss and their fellow workers in the back, and chortling to their new found friends that the could be headhunted for a “signing on fee”. S’life.
    And what the fuck has any of this to do with the Govt!!?

  • Verity

    RAB’s correct. This is all part of the rough and tumble of life. Sven chose to talk because, for whatever motive, it suited him. Just as, as RAB points out, salesmen sit in bars and express their grievances about their employers to the man sitting on the next barstool who nods sympathetically and grunts a sympathetic “Aah shit”, while awaiting his turn.

    You’d sacrifice British freedom of the press to save a 50 year-old football manager from embarrassment? Guys! Calm down!

  • rosignol

    Though I hold no brief for their views whatsoever, wasn’t the secret taping of BNP meetings by the BBC, and releasing it to the police, who then prosecuted officials of that party, just as much a despicable abuse as the Sven thing?

    Far more so, IMO.

    Sven was foolish and indiscreet, and may lose his job over it, but he’ll find another one. The man is an adu|t- legally, at least- he can take care of himself.

    The BNP may hold despicable opinions on some matters, but I object to prosecuting anyone for an opinion. What should be of interest to the courts is the actions taken, not the views expressed.

  • Exguru

    Shackle the press? Why should anyone want to do that? The press is so unreliable and its power is waning so fast there would be no advantage to shackling it.

  • RobtE

    Forgetting about Sven for a moment, how about ordinary citizens, i.e., non-politicians, and their right to privacy and a peaceable life?

    The freedom of the press can be neither unalloyed nor unconditional, nor was ever meant to be. It depends on what the press is reporting on. Freedom to criticise the government of the day and its policies? Yes, absolutely. Freedom to criticise individual politicians when their private lives are in conflict with the policies they advocate imposing on others? Yes, quite probably. But freedom to invade the lives and the privacy of an ordinary citizen (and I’m not thinking here of Sven) when that citizen happens to get caught up in whatever passing spasm is gripping the headlines at the moment? No. If the purpose of a regulator is to protect those people, then bring it on.

  • Ted

    RobtE

    Of course the freedom of the press is not unconditional. The problem is that the constraint of civil law has been undermined by the massive revenues generated by paper sales. Verity – you say the civil law is the only check on press freedom. So when the law doesn’t work and the media can effectively ignore it, what do you propose to make available to ordinary citizens like you or I, who become the victim of media stings or just plain falsehoods?

  • hm

    Sorry, but I really don’t see the point of this post.

    If the NotW can dupe this guy into recklessly divulging “secrets” and sell lots of newspapers by doing so, who am I to tell them to stop?

    And what’s all this talk about “regulation”? Are you guys sure you are on the right site?

  • rosignol

    The condition that qualifies freedom of the press in the US* is that so long as what was published is factual, the subject of the reporting has little legal recourse (they can file a case, of course, but the plaintiff will lose unless what was published is proven to be false).

    This may not be the ideal situation, but the solutions to this problem tend to be worse than what they purport to solve.

    *I am aware that things work differently elsewhere. That is Not My Problem.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    hm defends the ability of papers to dupe people into giving interviews. Well, imagine that such a hoax was played on you and you said things that ended up hurting your career. I doubt you would take quite such a blase attitude.

    You say you “don’t see the point of this post”. You must be a bit slow on the uptake: this post is about the immorality of using fraud to entice facts out of someone. The fact that Eriksson was reckless does not alter the fact that he was defrauded and quite possibly entitled to legal redress under the existing law.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Verity, just to point out that I certainly do not want to the see the press shackled. My point is that what the paper did was wrong under the existing Common Law prohibitions against fraud. Betraying something said in confidence is not the same as defending freedom of speech. Imagine you said something potentially unflattering about a business rival and it got leaked to the media.

    The end of getting a story does not always justify the means.

  • Ted

    Just to add to Jonathan’s points, Verity : my argument is that the existing common law is not an effective constraint on certain media outlets, as they are in a position to afford any civil penalties coming their way. In other words, while we would get done for fraud and, in criminal cases, entrapment, the media can get away with it. That’s not right.

    Publish and be damned is fine by me. If Erikson had been caught with a real sheik discussing trade secrets, go ahead and print. However that’s not what happened here. The facts were invented or influenced by the paper itself.

    Take the Abu Ghraib scandal in the USA and compare it to the Daily Mail’s fake scandal about UK soldiers pissing on Iraqis. The former was a real situation and was discovered by media and then reported. The latter was invented by media and then reported. The Erikkson scandal falls into this latter category and is therefore not acceptable.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    There are those cases where a paper tries to expose a genuinley serious issue, such as slack airline security, by impersonating an airport worker, for example, or by exposing a fraudster by pretending to be a customer. The difficulty, always, is that evidence obtained by such entrapment techniques is usually useless in a court of law. I recall a recent BBC programme where a guy did just this to expose corruption in the horse racing business. None of the information he gleaned was admissible.

  • Tim Sturm

    Freedom of speech is one of the most basic, bedrock human rights, and “freedom of the press” is merely an application of freedom of speech.

    The culture of the press is is constrained by market forces, i.e. by a little thing called freedom – remember that? In a free society you change the culture by persuasion, not by the brute force of government regulation.

    Common Law is perfectly adequate to handle any issues of fraud and privacy.

    The calls for “external regulation”,”penalties”, “massive fines” and so on are outrageous, especially when Ayn Rand’s name is thrown in. She would not have supported such views in a million years.

  • llamas

    What Verity says.

    I know little about the case, so let me see whether I have it straight :

    The News of the Screws tricked the England football manager into saying some indiscreet things about football players by dressing someone up as an Arab sheik?

    Who in the hell gives a rat’s ass?

    I know that football (soccer) now has a position in British life somewhere more important than Parliamentary proceedings and the rule of law, but for heaven’s sake – get real! An inconsequential manager of a team of overgrown juveniles playing a children’s ball game says some uncomplimentary things about those juveniles because he’s not smart enough to keep his opinions to himself when talking to strangers – and the press should be muzzled because of it?

    As I’ve remarked before, freedom of the press is like pregnancy – you can’t have just a little bit of it. If you’re prepared to even consider – even consider – the concept of allowing state regulation of the press so that unimportant people saying meaningless things about trivial nonentities can be spared embarrassment – well, words fail me. You might as well simply turn the keys to the newspaper offices over to the Home Secretary, put all the reporters on the Government payroll, and resign yourselves to the fact that the only differentiator between newspapers will be the quality of their crosswords.

    If Sven Whatever-his-name-is is unhappy that what he said was reported, or if UK soccer fans are unhappy that it cost him his job – That’s Just Tough. The well-being of the UK football team, or their relative chances of success with or without this person at the helm, are, it seems to me, just about the most trivial and meaningless reasons that it is possible to imagine to justify allowing the State to regulate what newpapers may print or how they may find it out. I am frankly stunned that anyone in the UK even has the cojones to make this suggestion, and it’s a sad indicator of just how cheap the most basic liberties have become – the you’re prepared to trade them away because someone messed with your soccer team. For shame.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Tim, you are right. I think the Common Law is adequate to the task.

  • gravid

    I agree wholeheartedly with RAB.
    What’s all this freedom of the press nonsense though? They all rely on advertising money and so if a major advertiser doesn’t like a story it get’s pulled. Thats if the journalistic internal censor doesn’t stop the thought straight away for fear of retribution from above. I don’t see a free press anywhere in print.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    llamas, of course the issues involved surrounding the England football job are trivial in themselves, as I said in the post (did you actually read it?), but the issue of defrauding a man into betraying matters of confidence is not trivial at all. Or maybe you think that deceiving people and betraying confidences is nothing to worry about?

  • Julian Taylor

    Wasn’t the point of the NOTW article to expose the corruption between club managers and footballer’s agents? The fact that they ‘interviewed’ Sven Eriksson, was presumably to add some weight to their story which, once it broke, certainly produced a number of managers prepared to admit on live TV that they accepted that that kind of bribery was the norm in their business. I find it peculiar that the FA should regard his actions as wrong and, exactly as Jonathan writes above, this reeks of the same covering up that the Jockey Club recently did after a journalist investigation into major corruption in the horse racing industry.

    I might not like or read the News Of The World, nor approve of their methods of obtaining a story, but I’m not going to criticize the intent of their reportage and certainly not the good, if any, that may result from the exposure given.

  • llamas

    Johnathan Pearce wrote:

    ‘Or maybe you think that deceiving people and betraying confidences is nothing to worry about?’

    Not at all.

    But there’s an old aphorism that says ‘If you want to keep a secret – don’t tell anyone.’

    How has Sven WEHNI been ‘defrauded’, defined as ‘A deception deliberately practiced in order to secure unfair or unlawful gain’? What unlawful gain did the NOTW obtain from him? They made him look like a fool who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and exposed opinions which he would sooner have kept to himself. But if he wanted his opinions to be kept to himself, he should have – kept them to himself.

    As to ‘betraying confidences’ – my eye. What he was unwise enough to talk about were not business confidences, but his personal opinions about the personal traits of soccer players. As I understand it, he was promised confidentiality about the business matters he went to discuss – not about his private opinions. What was done to him was no different than the exposure of ‘pillow talk’ that occurs in the UK press every day, yet I don’t see anyone calling for ‘massive fines’ over that.

    And, of course, he did what he did in a foreign country, and not subject to UK law.

    There’s no question that what the NOTW did was underhanded, lacking in class, and reprehensible. And it’s symptomatic of something rather sick in UK society that they were prepared to go to these lengths about something so trivial. But journalism is a mucky business – ‘rowdy’, as Verity has it – and it needs some of that in order to be free. If the NOTW had done what they did to expose a Cabinet minister leaking secrets – would anyone be baying for regulation then? No, they would not, but you can’t separate the two because one is trivial and the other is not. One of the pitfalls of a free press is that you must take the trivial along with the serious.

    And you would think that Sven WEHNI would have more smarts than that – the ‘fake Arab sheik’ sting is so old, it has whiskers on it. Let me guess – the fake sheik had on Elvis sunglasses, djellabah and a gold bournouse? I refuse to believe unconditionally that he is the innocent victim in this – knowing a little about how Grub Street operates, I still strongly suspect that the whole thing is a set-up.

    llater,

    llamas

  • RobtE

    To talk about ‘freedom of the press’ or ‘freedom of speech’ in the abstract is meaningless. Freedom of the press to do what? Freedom of speech to say what? Both freedoms are already constrained under civil law – the mere existence of the mechanism for bringing libel/slander suits to court is a recognition by the state that the freedom isn’t absolute.

    The question is about the methods the press use to gather the stuff they sell, as well as whether the existing civil suit penalties are adequate to prevent the abuse of individuals’ human rights. If the pockets of the media are deep that they can essentially write off any such civil penalties as a business expense, then the individual requires the help and the protection of the state. That’s what the state is for.

  • Verity

    RobtE – Sven Erickson’s human rights?

    He was flattered and tricked into revealing something or other that he shouldn’t have revealed. Are you saying the government should legislate away common law in order to protect silly, vain people from running off at the mouth?

    I agree that the NoTW is scum. So what?

    Freedom of the press is one of the few things we have left and it must be unconditional. Unregulated. Allowed to print whatever it likes, bearing in mind that it will be sued if it prints lies or libel.

    As to these “ordinary people” who get caught up in events, they are free to call the police and complain that they are being harrassed and being impeded from going about their peaceful business.

    I read through the posts above, including, shockingly, yours, Jonathan, with a sense of disbelief. This is a libertarian blog that wants the government out of everything … except the press? Are you mad? They’re the last defence we’ve got.

    Long may they muckrake! Long may they pay for information from sleazy people! Long may they expose wrongdoing and foolishness.

    I am even more astounded that all these libertarians who really do believe in freedom of speech at all costs can lose their grip on reality because football is involved. I have never encountered a more infantile thread on Samizdata.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Verity, I am NOT in favour of shackling the media, only in favour of the media being subject to the same laws of the land as anyone else, as enshrined in the Common Law restrictions on fraud and deception. Since when has support for freedom of speech meant support for tricking people into divulging potentially damaging facts about themselves?

    “Long may they pay for information from sleazy people.” So the ends justify the means, do they?

  • hm

    Jonathan, in respect of not getting the point, I should have clarified that while I do get the gist of what you are saying I have absolutely no clue what this piece is doing on Samizdata.

    In the end, this is about the free operation of markets. If people don’t like what the NotW does, they won’t buy it. And I’d bet my house that the last two editions sold very very well.

    And no, if if I go and spill the beans on anyone or anything and get found out — by whatever means — I will only have myself to blame.

    However, since you agree with Tim, I can safely say that we all agree: Ultimately, Sven only has himself to blame.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    But there’s an old aphorism that says ‘If you want to keep a secret – don’t tell anyone.’

    Very clever and totally misses the point – again. On that basis, businessmen and women would find it impossible to discuss plans with close friends and colleagues without fear of such persons blabbing their mouths off.

    And the rest of your post is purest sophistry. So what if the outcome of Sven’s comments is not the same as some other kind of betrayal of confidence? So what that he was naive? So what that he is a rather vain and silly man who probably should be out of the job anway?

    It is the PRINCIPLE of betraying trust, the shabbiness of it, that sticks in the throat.

    And the umpteenth time, I am not asking for the press to be regulated by the state. I am merely stating that what this newspaper did was wrong.

  • Johnathan

    him, the reason why this piece was on Samizdata is because betrayal of trust and the crappy ethics of our media is something worth talking about.

  • llamas

    Johnathan Pearce –

    I think we are talking past each other.

    To be sure, businessmen can discuss business secrets with each other – so long as they have a clear agreement as to confidentiality. This is typically in the form of a non-disclosure agreement, which binds both parties to confidentiality, and is actionable if breached.

    If businessmen discuss plans with colleagues, they’re all working for the same outfit and are bound to keep the outfit’s plans confidential.

    If you discuss your business plans with a close friend, with no confidentiality agreement in place, and your close friend then discloses your plans to others – you have no recourse. You should have been more careful who you talked to.

    None of this applies, of course, to Sven WEHNI, who was flattered or lubricated into blabbing his personal opinions on matters entirely unconnected with the business he was trying to do.

    I agree that the way that this was done ‘sticks in the throat’. I already said as much – did you read all I wrote? But does that mean that the NOTW should be sanctioned by the state for doing it? I submit that they should not – because journalism is often all about exposing things, that some would prefer to be left secret. If the NOTW had used a hoax like this to expose racist opinions expressed in private by cabinet ministers (for example), would you be calling for them to be sanctioned? I submit that you would not, yet the cases are more-or-less identical – and if you want a free press, you have to accept that these methods are acceptable for the trivial as well as for the significant.

    And – once again – noone has yet shown me any way in which the NOTW ‘defrauded’ anyone, or indeed, where they broke any law at all, common or otherwise.

    As to the bleating about ‘human rights’ and the portrayal of this silly man as ‘victim’ – give me a bleeding break. So now the state is to be used to protect silly people from the consequences of their ill-judged actions?

    Like Verity, the expressions being put forth here are just stunning to me. I can’t get my mind around them. I thought this was a place that was concerned with the reduction of state influence and the importance of the rights and responsibilities of the individual. It would seem that I was somewhat-mistaken.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Johnathan Pearce

    llamas, you may be “stunned” that I am concerned about a newspaper used a hoax to get a man to say certain things. Well, life is full of surprises. Just because this is a libertarian blog it does not mean that I regard the means by which people obtain news should be off-limits for discussion and debate.

  • hm

    Sorry, I didn’t realise the posts on this site had started inquiring into purely moralistic issues.

  • Verity

    Johnathan, the press is subject to the same Common Law that you are subject to. Someone has to make a complaint – and I doubt that this foolish, vain man is going to do that.
    Your “So the ends justify the means, do they?” is a Sixth Form sophistry and you know it.

    The NoTW tricked Sven Erickson into saying some things he shouldn’t have said. For this offence crime humanity, there are people above, including some Samizdata regulars, calling for greater press regulation. Someone, Ted, I think, even said he wanted a regulator with draconian powers to suspend publication for certain lengths of time!

    Well, I think we have just discovered a new medical condition. Football makes people’s brains rot and I don’t just mean Sven’s.

  • Steve P

    Following the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989, The Sun printed a front-page article alleging that some fans had verbally and physically abused rescue workers and urinated on the dead. In response, the Liverpool FC supporters’ club urged it’s members, along with the people of Liverpool, to boycott the paper. It didn’t take long for The Sun to issue a grovelling apology. This is how to make newspapers behave; hit ‘em where it hurts, in their profit margins.

  • Kevin B

    It’s a bunch of Jocks at the NoW trying to stymie England’s chances at the World Cup. They do it every time, (Venables, Hoddle, Keegan etc.). and if they can’t find something they make it up.

    I have little time for Sven as a manager or a man, but I hope he can get substantial damages from the bastards.

    As for press freedom: Well with freedom comes responsibility but the only way of enforcing responsibility in this case is financial, and if they don’t pay a big enough price in the courts or in sales and revenue, then they’ll keep on doing it.

  • llamas

    Johnathan Pearce wrote:

    ‘Just because this is a libertarian blog it does not mean that I regard the means by which people obtain news should be off-limits for discussion and debate.’

    Never said any such thing.

    Look, I think we can agree that the means by which the NOTW obtained this story were reprehensible, low-class, offensive and in generally-poor taste, and we would all be rather unhappy if they did the same thing to us, as individuals. It was a dirty trick to play. Let’s all agree on that, and move on. Because that’s not the issue.

    The issue is – should the state have the power to sanction them for doing what they did? Many commenters here are suggesting that they should have that power – I accept that you, yourself, are not suggesting that, necessarily. That’s what I find ‘stunning’.

    Once again – can anyone name, with chapter and verse, what UK law they may have broken, whether statute or common? Has some law been passed against telling lies to induce someone to merely say what they think, and I didn’t hear about it? Lying, after all, is not a crime, unless done for unlawful advantage. And a good thing, too. And I don’t see what unlawful advantage the NOTW has obtained over Sven WEHNI – he apparently doesn’t deny saying what he said, so there’s no libel issue involved. They neither picked his pocket, not broke his leg. All they did was provide a venue where he made himself look like a two-faced, opportunistic hypocrite, and they told him some lies in doing so.

    Massive fines? Publication bans? Someone, please, come up with any justification, in law or morals, for such state sanctions.

    llater,

    llamas

  • llamas

    Kevin B. wrote:

    ‘It’s a bunch of Jocks at the NoW trying to stymie England’s chances at the World Cup. They do it every time, (Venables, Hoddle, Keegan etc.). and if they can’t find something they make it up.’

    I’m sorry – has ‘trying to stymie England’s chances at the World Cup’ now been made a criminal offence? Some form of treason, perhaps? Something along the lines of ‘offensive to the dignity of the Reich’? Are newspapers now required by law to support the English soccer team?

    ‘I have little time for Sven as a manager or a man, but I hope he can get substantial damages from the bastards.’

    For what? For reporting what he said and has not denied?

    FYI, it is this sort of response that I just can’t get my mind around. It’s a children’s schoolyard ball game, a pleasant-enough Saturday afternoon diversion. It’s being treated as though the future of the nation rides on it. This is surreal.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Verity

    Kevin says, “I have little time for Sven as a manager or a man, but I hope he can get substantial damages from the bastards.”

    Kevin, I don’t know how familiar you are with the law, but would you care to let us know on what basis he would get any damages, substantial or otherwise, at all?

  • Verity

    Why not just demand that the commissioning editor be arrested and held without trial? That’ll teach the bastard to think up (legal) ideas to sell papers!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Why not just demand that the commissioning editor be arrested and held without trial? That’ll teach the bastard to think up (legal) ideas to sell papers!

    Don’t be a clot. I don’t think this affair strictly counts as a crime, though it may bring the News of the Screws on the wrong side of the civil law.

    Someone has to make a complaint – and I doubt that this foolish, vain man is going to do that.

    He has made a complaint. The latest stories suggest he will. We shall see.

    Llamas, I am not quite sure exactly how or whether SGE should seek redress for this sort of thing, but I would not rule it out in principle.

    Verity, as ought to be clear from my post, this is not about football per se, a sport which many people here care little for. As I said the issues raised go wider than that, which is why I wrote about it.

    I could go on to cite examples of genuinely praiseworthy undercover reporting, where a guy puts his life in danger to report on gangs, or extreme religious/political movements/corruption, etc. These are legitimate examples of such undercover journalism. But this sort of thing is nothing more than betraying a casual trust. It poisons our life. No wonder the calibre of folk in the public realm is so bad.

  • llamas

    I just got back from lunch with another expat Brit, and we talked about this case. We agreed that the reaction is – well, asinine, actually.

    And then he said something that struck home. He said

    ‘You don’t understand. Many decisions about state action, or inaction, in the UK are now made entirely based upon public opinion and political popularity. The law, or contract, or tradition – none of these things matter anymore – if public opinion or political expediency requires a certain outcome, that is the outcome that there will be.’

    And he gave as his example the case of the UK League Against Cruel Sports, which was recently the target of a well-organized campaign by hunting supporters which placed them – technically – in bankruptcy. Briefly put, the LACS gave out a ‘freepost’ address for donations, and this required them – contractually – to pay for all mail delivered to that address. Pro-hunting activists deluged this address with a huge volume of mail, all of it expensive to deliver and some of it quite inventive. And the LACS found itself with a bill from the Royal Mail somewheres north (it is reported) of a half a million pounds sterling. They had not the means to pay this bill, nor anything like it.

    But the LACS is favoured by the Government, and by public opinion. So – hey presto – their bill was simply forgiven by the Royal Mail – a state agency. A private organization, whose aims are favoured by the government, is thus held harmless from the actions of its private opponents, all of which were entirely legal.

    As my lunch companion said, this case will be the same. If public opinion demands that the NOTW be hauled into court and made to pay massive fines for the offence of revealing flaws and hypocrisy in the sacred temple of English soccer – then hauled and fined they will be.

    llater,

    llamas

  • RAB

    Well one does hope that TNOTW tries something similar with the Brazilian and German managers just before the first match of the world Cup, just for balance like!
    But I think they may be too spry, unlike Sven.
    If the press get it wrong they can be sued successfully.
    Galloway will be evicted from BB tonight with a nice bonus of £150,000 from the Telegraph. Personally I think the Telegraph got it right. So go on George sue me!
    I have personally been involved in a reverse sting on a newspaper that accused a friend of mine of being an arms dealer linked to the Contras, when in fact he was just a jobbing journalist.
    If you want the whole hilarious story then knock three times or otherwise come round the back…. We’re always open!

  • Kevin B

    would you care to let us know on what basis he would get any damages, substantial or otherwise, at all

    Verity, I work from home and I have Sky Sports News on in the background and they reported that Sven was suing the NotW. I can’t remember ,what grounds he was using but I’m sure they reported it.

    A quick search of the beeb didn’t turn anything up, and since I’m really busy with a report, (Business Objects ..spit.. rather than Word), I haven’t got time to look around.

    Mymain point is that it is financial pressure that will stop abuses by the press, rather than legislative.

  • Verity

    llamas – I don’t agree with your friend. There are still judges who would throw this out of court, and barristers who would refuse to take the brief because it is idiotic.

    If Sven is now talking about legal action, it is because a bunch of outraged barroom lawyers like many of those above – not you, Johnathan; I know you have been arguing a different point – has encouraged him to to so, and being rather vacuous and trusting, he is now being carried along by that idea.

    Given that everyone he sleeps with hies herself off to the red tops and pours out the details, I don’t think this imitation Saudi prince or his editor have a lot to worry about.

  • Kevin B

    I’m sorry – has ‘trying to stymie England’s chances at the World Cup’ now been made a criminal offence? Some form of treason, perhaps? Something along the lines of ‘offensive to the dignity of the Reich’? Are newspapers now required by law to support the English soccer team?

    Bollocks. (The contempt this comment deserves in the context of my post.)

    FYI, it is this sort of response that I just can’t get my mind around. It’s a children’s schoolyard ball game, a pleasant-enough Saturday afternoon diversion. It’s being treated as though the future of the nation rides on it. This is surreal.

    If you really can’t understand mankinds passion for sport perhaps you should refrain from commenting.

  • llamas

    Kevin B. wrote:

    ‘I’m sorry – has ‘trying to stymie England’s chances at the World Cup’ now been made a criminal offence? Some form of treason, perhaps? Something along the lines of ‘offensive to the dignity of the Reich’? Are newspapers now required by law to support the English soccer team?
    Bollocks. (The contempt this comment deserves in the context of my post.)

    FYI, it is this sort of response that I just can’t get my mind around. It’s a children’s schoolyard ball game, a pleasant-enough Saturday afternoon diversion. It’s being treated as though the future of the nation rides on it. This is surreal.

    If you really can’t understand mankinds passion for sport perhaps you should refrain from commenting.’

    As I said. Surreal.

    A newspaper reports things that reflect poorly on your favourite sport and/or your favourite team. And that newspaper should be punished with heavy damages, the bastards.

    According to you.

    An anonymous poster on the Internet pokes fun at your reaction – and that poster should ‘refrain from commenting’.

    According to you.

    I fully understand ‘mankind’s passion for sport’ – I’m quite passionate about the sports I indulge myself in. But I’m not so passionate that I think that anyone who says anything bad about them should be punished and/or silenced – as you do. That’s not passion. That’s monomania.

    I really don’t have to add anything more – you make my case for me. Thank you. Please, by all means, keep it up.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Verity

    Kevin B writes: “If you really can’t understand mankinds passion for sport perhaps you should refrain from commenting.”

    Excuse me? We have to prequalify in order to comment on Samizdata? Since when? What, in effect you are saying is, if we don’t share your personal “passion for sport”, we should refrain from commenting on a current events?

  • RobtE

    Verity may well be right that Sven is a vain and silly man. I don’t know him and don’t care about him, qua England manager, or his role in the national religion. But however deserving he may be of his comeuppance, that doesn’t necessarily exonerate the media anymore than contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff in a tort necessarily exonerates the defendant.

    But Sven’s personality and history makes this a too-fraught example. Something less equivocable is needed. After the July 7th bombings in London, when the identities of the bombers had been discovered, their families were besieged by the international media. In fact, it wasn’t just their families. Anyone connected to the bombers, whether by accident of blood or mere geography, was door-stepped, harassed for a point of view, and effectively had their lives made a misery until the media circus had their fill and moved on to their next spasm of righteous indignation. This is by no means an isolated example.

    Verity is also quite right that there are civil remedies that could be taken. But I cannot see that that alone is an argument against the creation of criminal penalties as well. If I assaulted someone physically he could, in the UK, instigate a civil prosecution against me. But the state could also, on his behalf, charge me under the criminal law. Why is my violation of someone’s right to be safe in his person different from his right privacy and to a peaceable life? That’s the primary purpose of the state – to protect our human rights, however vain and silly we might be.

  • Kevin B

    Verity/Llamas

    Please comment away on the legal, societal or libertarian aspects of the story, but when you,(llamas), make silly remarks about “schoolyard ganes’ it betrays an condescending attitude that rather boils my blood.

    Millions of people in this country would like to see the England team do well and while few of them would like to see ‘trying to stymie the England team made some kind if criminal offence’, perhaps some will cease buying the NotW.

    Put the story in the context of some sporting or political event or personality close to your heart then try to imagine your reaction to a similar set up.

    I have, in each of my comments, made the point that the remedy is for the offended party to take his greivance to the civil court and for those in the greater population who feel that the methods or motives of the newspaper are suspect, to apply what financial pressure they can.

    Please fell free to comment on that aspect of the post.

  • Verity

    RobtE – again, you are eluding the point. The man blabbed – out of vanity, a grievance, too much to drink – who knows? But he blabbed. You cannot legislate against vanity and stupidity.

    You write: “But however deserving he may be of his comeuppance,”. Don’t put words in my mouth. I don’t even know whether what he blabbed about is worthy of a “comeuppance” or just a reprimand. I never implied that he may deserve a “comeuppance”, not knowing what his offence is.

    You write, re the intense media focus on the families and friends of the mass murderers on London Transport that they got doorstepped before the media “moved on to their next spasm of righteous indignation.” You cannot be seriously implying that the British interest in the mass murderers and maimers on London Transport was “righteous indignation”!

    KevinB – Readers of the NoTW like scandal. They are not going to punish the paper for tricking silly Sven by ceasing to buy it.

    You say: “Put the story in the context of some sporting or political event or personality close to your heart then try to imagine your reaction to a similar set up.” I wouldn’t give a monkey’s if someone had been fooled by a fake Saudi prince! How dim do you have to be?

    Sven can make a further fool of himself by going to court to try to get some recompense for being such an idiot, but I don’t know what grounds he could possibly proceed on.

  • RobtE

    Verity –

    I’m not eluding the point, at least not intentionally. As I said, I agree with you completely in that he may be a silly and vain man. I don’t know that that is the case, because I don’t know him personally, but from what I have read and heard in the meeja, I strongly suspect that you are quite right about him. But the Sven case is a difficult one, involving, as it apparently did, contributary blame on his part. That’s why I’ve tried, twice, to take a wider view.

    As for the London bombers’ families et al., I certainly do make a distinction between what’s in the public interest and what is of interest to the public. The latter is mere prurience and is not, I cannot bring myself to believe, protected by the notion of the freedom of the press.

    Look, when it comes to criticism of the gov’t., then the freedom of the press is absolute, as I’ve said above. But that’s not all that the press is about. They’re businesses, trying to gain market share to maintain advertising revenue (or in the case of the BBC, the licence tax). Prurience sells, full stop. Do you really mean to say that the media should be free to do whatever advances their self-interests and the devil take the hindmost, regardless of what civil rights might be infringed? From all that you’ve written on this site in the past, I cannot believe that that’s what you’re saying. Have I misunderstood?

  • Verity

    The media are our last line of defence. Yes, they should be unregulated. We already have plenty of laws to protect the public, and those can, where appropriate, be applied. People have recourse to the libel courts if the papers print something that is not true. Obviously newspaper proprietors have teams of attorneys who scrutinise scams like Fake Saudi Prince No 18.

    If they do things in bad taste, well, that’s life. What would you do? Send the Taste Police round for a chat with the editor?

    Freedom of the press is paramount. The first thing any putatitive dictator does is start telling the press what they’re allowed to print.

    We have our sturdy English Common Law. That’s enough. No regulators. No quangoes. No committees. No government advisors. Nada. Rien. Zilch. Zero.

    Long live the British press – the freest in the world!

  • RobtE

    Freedom of the press is paramount.
    No, no, a thousand times no. The freedom of the individual is paramount. Hell, the freedom of me, as an individual, to live my life as I choose, to engage voluntarily with whomsoever I choose provided I do not abrogate the freedom of others, is paramount. If the press infringe on that right then they must be held accountable.

    The first thing any putatitive dictator does is start telling the press what they’re allowed to print.

    Half right. The first any putative dictator does is start telling the press what they’re allowed to print about the government. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

  • Verity

    RobtE. “The first any putative dictator does is start telling the press what they’re allowed to print about the government.

    The first thing is disallowing news about decadent Western fashion. (Remember the USSR and the hunger for news about jeans?) It disallows good economic news from other countries. Cuba, anyone? It disallows news about free religion. Saud Arabia and cohorts, anyone? It disallows news about the leader’s health. N Korea, anyone? Or the leader’s wife’s shopping habits. Mugabe, anyone?

    I cannot understand why you think absolute freedom of the press militates against individual freedom. It protects the freedom of the individual. We have our good, sturdy, tested and true Common Law. If newspapers step over the line, the barristers will be lined up for briefs.

  • Verity

    Not only is this article utterly excellent but reminds me that often some of the best writers – probably among the top five – in newspapers are the senior sports writers. One always thinks they must be brain dead to be writing about sport, yet time after time they prove to be among the most brilliant practitioners of the art of newspaper writing.

    Read Found Guilty of Swedishness. It’s superb – and it doesn’t whine on about the law. (Link)

  • llamas

    Verity has my end.

    Only to add that all of this Shock! Horror! about the less-delightful antics of the press are just The Price You Have To Pay for a free press – distasteful as it may be.

    Because you can’t distinguish between ‘doorstepping’ a lying Cabinet minister, and ‘doorstepping’ some no-account sports star – or even ‘doorstepping’ the innocent victim of some horrible tragedy. Once you let someone – anyone – start to decide what’s ‘good doorstepping’ and what isn’t – it’s all over. As Verity described.

    The UK press does this because it works – you’ll note that the US press doesn’t do this too much, because a) the readers/viewers don’t care for it too much when it’s done to innocents or those in the face of great tragedy and b) anyone with any experience at all of the press knows better than to let themselves be ‘doorstepped’, so it’s a futile exercise. Don Henley’s song ‘Dirty Laundry’ pretty much sums up the US attitude to this sort of thing.

    If UK readers dislike this and similar exercises in attack journalism, in part at least, I hate to say it, but you need to look inside yourselves and ask why it is that you, or your countrymen, continue to buy the newspapers that do it. The US, which has a wonderfully free press, simply does not have any daily newspapers which come close to the traditions and habits of the UK red-tops. The closest we get is the ‘National Enquirer’, a weekly which concerns itself mostly with celebrity gossip but which sometimes does serious stories – and does them very well, sometimes. President Clinton’s fall from grace was lubricated, in part, by reporting in the National Enquirer, every word of which turned out to be true even though it seemed fantastic at the time. Maybe not surprising, since I understand that the National Enquirer is largely staffed by expats from Fleet Street. And they, generally, don’t ‘doorstep’, because it doesn’t help a bit. They simply buy many of their stories and pictures, which is more-effective and probably cheaper anyway. They’re quite open about it.

    25 years ago, Ronnie Barker (MHRIP) got off the ultimate shot at ‘The Sun’ in his TV series ‘Porridge’. Everyone then knew what it was, and why. And yet, 25 years on, it’s still selling like hotcakes. Why is that?

    llater,

    llamas

  • Tim Sturm

    RobtE

    You seem to be confusing the word freedom with anarchy. When Verity, or at least I, refer to freedom of the press, we mean freedom within the constraints of not impinging on the freedom of others. That should go without saying, because that is what freedom means.

    You have no need to distinguish between “freedom of the press” and “freedom of the individual”. They are one and the same, since the press is simply made up of individuals.

    Verity is utterly correct to say “freedom of the press is paramount”, because it is. The restrictions of common law are implicit in that statement, and she and I several others acknowledged them explicitly anyway. Had we said “anarchy of the press is paramount”, then your criticisms would have some value. But no one has said that.

    Your comments about the press seeking money are disturbing. Of course they are trying to gain advertising revenue. So what? Capitalism gives people the freedom to make moral choices (or not), it doesn’t legislate to take that choice away altogether.

  • Verity

    I have been surprised on this thread to realise how thin is the veneer in Britain, even among supposed libertarians, of respect for freedom for all. Freedom as long as it suits me. If one of my heroes trips up on one of our traditional freedoms, we should curtail it, because all these bastards want to do is make money, anyway. The thieving liars! We should have a regulator with real teeth. Someone who can suspend publication for a certain period of time and cause them to lose money. That would make them more careful of what they publish in the future!

    Some of the thoughts expressed here are not only juvenile, but rather alarming. I recommend that none of these people ever move to Denmark or Norway where they are standing steadfast in the face of intense bullying, trade embargoes and death threats from Islamic birdbrains.

  • Johnathan

    I don’t think anyone above, apart from Ted and one or two others, is arguing for regulation of the media beyond what already obtains through the Common Law. Anyway, we cannot all be ideologically consistent 100 pct of the time, and many commenters here of course are not libertarians in a strict sense anyway. Vive le difference!

  • RobtE

    Tim Sturm –

    You seem to be confusing the word freedom with anarchy.

    Not at all. I have no fundamental objection to the objections you’ve made, other than that they appear to me to be objections to things I was not saying.

    We both agree that freedom of both speech and the press are not unlimited. You said it’s limited by “the constraints of not impinging on the freedom of others.” That’s not different when I said up-thread that to talk about freedom of the press in the abstract is meaningless unless one defines what that freedom is a freedom to do. In other words, it’s a question about where the limits are set, defining the point at the freedom of others are in fact impinged. My contention is that the location of that point depends on the subject of the press’s activities. If it is the government then the press should be given the widest possible scope of action. But when it is ordinary private citizens, such as the families of the London bombers, then that scope should be more limited.

    As for regulation, I cannot see how, if the press infringes on the freedom of others, the introduction of criminal sanctions, in addition to the possible civil ones, is in anyway inherently anti-libertarian, any more than the existence of criminal sanctions in cases of physical assalt in addition to civil prosecutions is.

    As for the business about making money, I assume that’s a criticism of my 20:52 post. I’ve re-read it, and again the objection seems to be to a point I was not making.

  • Verity

    My contention is that the location of that point depends on the subject of the press’s activities. If it is the government then the press should be given the widest possible scope of action. But when it is ordinary private citizens, such as the families of the London bombers, then that scope should be more limited.

    No. No. No. Freedom of expression cannot be conditional. It must be absolute. As I have said 29,000 times, we have our Common Law. If I write that you were forbidden from keeping a dog as you had had abused dogs removed from your home (just an imaginary example!) and that is not true, you can sue the hell out of me and the newspaper that printed it without checking the facts. When you win your case, which you will, the paper will be obliged to pay you damages determined by the court, and to print a prominent retraction and apology.

    Our existing laws are safeguard enough against abuse. If Erickson has grounds for a civil action, I am sure he will bring one. I doubt that he has, though. The NoTW’s lawyers will have been consulted in advance. Obviously, they gave the green light. We cannot disallow printing things about people just because it may hurt their feelings or make them look ridiculous.

  • RobtE

    Verity –

    If by ‘unconditional’ you mean, as Tim Sturm says, within the bounds of not infringing the civil rights of others, then there is no disagreement between us, and I apologise for having misunderstood your point.

    I do, however, still have doubts about where exactly the line that constitutes infringement actually lies. And I believe that private citizens, i.e., not politicians and not those who have intentionally put themselves in the public eye, but those who have simply been caught up in the swirl of events, have a right to their own lives and to their privacy. I don’t believe that being made to look silly, a la Sven, constitutes infringement. Those caught up in the post-7/7 media frenzy, however, I’m not so sure about.

  • Verity

    RobtE – As I have said in every post I have written on this subject that the press has to act within our Common Law. Otherwise they are punished by eye-watering libel suits. Indeed, so rigorous are the libel laws that people like the unlamented Robert Maxwell used the threat of libel as intimidation. There are other infringements that are actionable, too.

    I spelled out my position clearly from my first post.

    As to those caught up in the “post-7/7 media frenzy” – surely an inadequate way of describing the British interest in the circumstances surrounding a murderous terrorist attack on our own country – I have no problem with the families of the mass murderers and maimers being doorstepped. Academically speaking, I would describe their predicament as tough shit.

  • RobtE

    I have no problem with the families of the mass murderers and maimers being doorstepped. Academically speaking, I would describe their predicament as tough shit.

    And that, in a nutshell, is the disagreement.

  • Verity

    They can call the police and ask for protection. They can order the press off their doorsteps. If they don’t know how to do this, I don’t think we’re going to change our rules of free speech to accommodate their ignorance.

    No special cases. None.

  • Tim Sturm

    I do, however, still have doubts about where exactly the line that constitutes infringement actually lies.

    As a Common Law advocate I don’t think I should have any say in where that line is. That is a matter for the judiciary, not for politicians or the man on the street to decide.

    As political advocates there is nothing for us to say beyond the fact that there should be absolute freedom of the press within the bounds of Common Law.

  • Verity

    Exactly, Tim Sturm.