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Exchange on publishing emails without permission

 
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David Edwards
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Joined: 26 Jan 2004
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Post Post subject: Exchange on publishing emails without permission Reply with quote

[Exchange with Terence Blacker, Independent columnist]

I note that the emails between us - emails I assumed were private - are now up on your website. I have no particular problem with that - it's a useful little lesson, in fact - but I would point out the irony of your taking a sniffy high moral tone about media ethics while behaving yourself in a way that is, shall we say, rather less than honest.

Terence


Hi Terence

Many thanks. It’s remarkable that you would describe my emails to you as taking a “sniffy high moral tone about media ethics”. I sent you evidence of grave problems relating to freedom of speech in the corporate media. The subject could hardly be more serious or urgent, and yet you view my emails as merely condescending and pious. I’m trying to raise concerns that many professional journalists are very reluctant to discuss.

On the question of honesty, the moral and legal issues surrounding the publishing of emails without permission are not as clear cut as you suggest. On the moral argument, it‘s certainly not an absolute principle that it should never be done. If I emailed you privately that I was planning to commit a terrorist atrocity, I’m sure you would not hesitate to make the information public. You would be right to do so. You might ask what on earth this has to do with the publishing of emails from corporate journalists. Reviewing British media performance in the Guardian in July 2004, George Monbiot wrote that "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”. (Monbiot, ‘Our lies led us into war,’ The Guardian, July 20, 2004)

This is no joke. The British media really are complicit in terrible crimes against people and planet. In our exchanges, we discussed the relationship between truth-telling and corporate power. The fact is that media corporations are hierarchical, in fact totalitarian, organisations. Control resides entirely at the top - there’s no democracy, no sharing of power. It is actually one of the wonders of the modern world that a collection of private media corporations can combine together to persuade the public to wage war on a country like Iraq, while the public has essentially no ability to challenge that private propaganda. Media power, although immense, is almost completely unaccountable.

Unsurprisingly, given these power relations, journalists are often unwilling to talk openly and honestly. But it is vital that the media be challenged, that we try to wheedle answers out of journalists and editors and open these issues up for public discussion. For example, it was the moral duty of all citizens to try and stick a spanner in the media’s propaganda works ahead of the invasion of Iraq. We strongly reject violent resistance, even in efforts to stop actions that resulted in the deaths of 1 million Iraqi people, but publishing emails without permission is morally permissible in this context. The legal question is different (see below), but morally it can often be justified.

A few journalists (very few, actually) express disapproval when their email exchanges are made public. But are they not commentators in the public domain? Are the topics under discussion of such delicacy that they should be shielded from the population? We suspect that journalistic umbrage is mostly down to their recognition that they tend to believe one thing and say something else; or perhaps they are aware that their views cannot withstand scrutiny.

Why did you assume the emails were “private” when you were writing to me, an anonymous member of the public? By emailing your comments to other anonymous members of the public I was simply repeating your own action. If I was not unknown to you, if you knew about Media Lens’s media analysis (which, judging by your replies, I doubt), you could have asked me not to use the exchanges as you’d have known I’d likely use them in an article. That’s what Alain de Botton did, and I respected his request.

If there had been anything privately or professionally harmful or embarrassing to you in those emails, I wouldn’t have used them. Journalists sometimes express strong criticism of their editors and so on in their emails to us - it’s obvious these views could cause them harm, so we don’t use them. You were commenting on media-related issues, the kind of thing you write about all the time. I couldn’t conceive of any reason why, as a journalist, you would object to me using the exchanges. I’m glad you didn’t think it was a problem that I did.

Senior media lawyers who very kindly support our cause free of charge tell us that there is a strong argument for publishing correspondence from journalists without permission when it is in the public interest. A professor of international law told us that newspapers have “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”.

A lawyer friend contacted Nick Bohm at the Foundation for Information Policy Research on our behalf about these issues. Bohm commented:

“Traditionally it was always said that a communication didn't attract the protection of the law of confidence unless it was made in the context of an established confidential relationship.”

With regards to emails, Bohm commented:

“Where correspondence is not marked as confidential, and is not made in the context of a confidential relationship, I find it hard to see how anyone could think it attracted the protection of the doctrine.”

Lawyer Alexander Korff told 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 sent us the opinion of a barrister friend who indicated his view of the strength of a case threatened against us on email copyright: "Tell them to #### off.”

Nevertheless, we have always deleted emails from our message board or archived articles when asked.

So I don’t agree that the moral (or legal) issues are as black and white as you suggest. I certainly don’t think it was dishonest to use your comments. Again, a key point I would make is that we are not living in a free society; we are living in a society dominated by corporate power. The corporate media system operates as the de facto propaganda arm. It is the moral responsibility of all of us to try to challenge that power, to restrain its greed and violence through non-violent means.

Best wishes

David
Wed Sep 30, 2009 1:28 pm
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Williamtheb



Joined: 21 Aug 2009
Posts: 57

Post Post subject: Accountability Reply with quote

It is indicative of the sinister nature of much (if not all now) of the corporate media that they don't consider themselves accountable to anyone. Privacy is everbody's right not the privilege of a few.
Thu Oct 01, 2009 12:57 pm
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