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One lone paper?

by ceebs Wed May 29th, 2013 at 11:05:02 PM EST

Earlier I was reading the Jack of Kent blog on The law and culture of phone hacking which raises some interesting points. He points out that it was not only a failure of the individuals involved, but also a failure of the editorial and management levels of the papers, who were insufficiently risk averse, and also a failure of the legal staff at the papers who failed to appropriately advise both management and staff because they had been left behind by the changes in underlying technology, and had become stranded out on an arm of legal expertise covering libel and defamation, where their jobs had come to need knowledge of technology law.

Personally I think it is a tempting argument, but slightly misses what I think was the real problem. And that is that journalists are generally drawn from too narrow a section of the knowledge base, and so having skills based on journalism and writing we have newspapers produced from a narrow social viewpoint, We just do not have enough scientists or geographers or people with social work or policing skills working as reporters, so we have too few questions asked. The same reasons we get poor medical coverage in the mid market tabloids with their seemingly daily causes of/cures for cancer. Or the pitiful "unbiased" climate change reporting that leads people to think that the science isn't basically settled.

If we see the problem as occurring this way then as the organisations shrink then this is a problem that will only get worse. Fewer journalists mean an ever shrinking width of questions, and that will result in more and more people turning away from newspapers, In a readership death spiral.

To see if I could back either of these views up I went for a trawl amongst the output of the News International tabloids and came across something quite amusing instead.


On 27 September 2004 somebody had a letter published on the Agony Aunt page of the Sun:

Dear Deidre
I AM terrified that I may have broken the law -all because I was jealous of my husband's lover.
<snip>
I know her well and I am ashamed to say I used personal details to go into her e-mail account and change her password. She must now be blocked out of it. I know it was stupid -I just didn't think.

So far so average advice column panic. But then Deidre replies:
What you did was technically an offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

Now unless Deidre is running a legal business on the side to make up for the starvation wages she has no doubt received in the last 30 years from Rupert. You can assume that the first line of text here will have come indirectly from the legal brains in the back office at the Sun. And even then, Editorial will have checked with them. Last thing you want is to be sued because your agony aunt is handing out dodgy legal advice. So unlike the Times lawyer who denied any knowledge of the Computer Misuse Act in front of Lord Leveson, when Mr Brett was being asked to consider the situation that had lead to the blogger Nightjack's identity being revealed

            18       I hadn't become -- I was not even aware of the Computer
            19       Misuse Act at that stage.  All I knew was that clearly
            20       illegal accessing of somebody's computer and an email
            21       was clearly a breach of some statute which was clearly
            22       not acceptable.  It was clearly criminal, but it might
            23       have a defence.


It appears that the Sun's lawyers were fully aware of the computer misuse act and its implications in accessing peoples email accounts. And perhaps we should take Rupert at his word when he says "if you want to know what I'm thinking, look in the Sun". Does that extend to only thinking breaking the law a "technicality"?

The second sentence of Deidre's reply is however even more revealing:

Chances are she will just phone her provider thinking something is wrong with her account and it will be sorted without getting you involved.

And that is a statement that leaves you with the questions, Who at the Sun knows about the practicalities of hacking email accounts? And what happens afterwards with peoples accounts when you have done it? It isn't just the sort of reply you would get from ringing your companies IT people up, they may know how an account could have its password put back, but without having practically done this several times, in similar circumstances it's not something that could be talked about with confidence to an Agony Aunt with a question. User psychology in these situations is something you can only get to understand through experience, not something that can be plucked out of the air by the guy who repairs your laptop when you've spilled coffee into it.

The other option of course is that News of the World staff were using her as a shoulder to cry on, and admitting everything to the Agony Aunt. A thought that no doubt would have a whole group of former senior staff sweating.

The one lone reporter defence has long since fallen by the wayside. But when even the sister papers Agony Aunt is writing in a way that suggests that knowledge and experience of hacking is more widespread, should we be dumping the "one rogue paper" defence also?

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What you did was technically an offence

i.e. for the agony aunt, it's like exceeding the speed limit -- everyone does it, the important thing is not to get caught.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 07:11:52 AM EST
I understand the arguments a lot of people make about speed limit laws, that they set a general standard of acceptable behavior even though in practice a lot of people break them regularly.

However, I am still opposed to any set of laws that criminalizes common behavior, that everyone knows is common, and that everyone knows everyone breaks.  It really encourages a culture of lawlessness, of contempt for the authorities, and the "it's fine if I get away with it" mentality.  It gets people used to breaking the law as an everyday occurrence, and it makes everyone a criminal.

by Zwackus on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 07:35:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's worse than that. It also opens up an avenue of arbitrary persecution by the police, of any group or individual that offends their personal or collective prejudices. Loitering in public places. Drug laws. etc.

I have no problem with speed laws (even though I sometimes break them), as long as they are not used as a means of targeted harassment.

(But my actual point was that tampering with someone's email is a criminal act, whoever does it. If you think such a law should not exist because it can't be enforced, I disagree.)

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 09:41:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Speed limit laws can perfectly well be enforced consistently, by having automated speed traps dotting the highways and byways. Drivers are just prissy whiners who object to paying idiot tax.

(Yes, yes, there is a surveillance argument here - but as someone who commutes by rail and therefore has his picture taken both coming and going every day... cry me a fucking river.)

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 12:10:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When speed laws come anywhere close to matching up with the natural and.safe speed to drive on a particular road, yeah, they can be regularly enforced.  The mass of drivers on any stretch of road make a pretty decent collective judgement on this point, based on the capability of their cars and the contour of the road.  But often enough, that mass judgement has little or no thing to do with the posted speed limits, and it is quite commonly well in excess of those limits,

For example, the speed limit on elevated toll highways in Japan is 80 kph, or about 50 mph.  Nobody on the road ever comes anywhere close to respecting this limit.  It's ridiculous.

Lone dude speeding along the road?  Screw them.  Everybody on the road being a criminal every day is a problem,

by Zwackus on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 09:27:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In which case, how many people disobeying a law is enough?

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 10:58:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The mass of drivers on any stretch of road make a pretty decent collective judgement

I disagree: masses of drivers can make the wrong judgement, too. I remember reading of court cases against driver who were involved in fatal accidents at highway construction sites where this was an issue. That is, the velocity was a factor in losing control or not recognising a danger in time, but the drivers didn't go faster than everyone else.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 08:03:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There should be special signs in place for road work, and with freeways equipped with message signs, as in Los Angeles, the speed limits could be modulated according to weather conditions. That said, the situation was so bad in Los Angeles that, during periods of light traffic, even marked police cars traveled at 75 mph, along with ~95% of the traffic. In fact the danger of precipitating an accident by traveling at 55 or 60 was probably greater than the danger of getting a ticket for going 75, as 95% were doing.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 11:18:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It may be that Americans, with our overbuilt roads and low population densities, feel this problem much more acutely.
by Zwackus on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 09:03:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So, visibly the 80 km/h limit is absurd, and visibly they do little about enforcement because of the backlash it would generate.

They could fix this overnight. Set the limit to, say, 120 km/h (carefully modulated spatially and temporally according to objective conditions), and enforce it with speed cameras.

In France 20 years ago, roads were a jungle. These days, the limits are respected, by and large. People actually drive slower, and more safely. Rigorous, automated enforcement. 20 years ago, it was relatively easy to get a speeding fine binned, as long as you had connections. This is no longer the case.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 11:28:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So, visibly the 80 km/h limit is absurd

Well, I wonder. What is the noise level for residents living next to those elevated highways at 120 km/h vs. 80 km/h? What is the frequency of accidents involving cars falling off those elevated highways? Who pays the bill for bridge column maintenance/repair?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 03:05:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Freeway noise has been a problem from the opening of the first freeway. Paul S. Venekassen, for whom I worked in the early 70s, recommended 3m(?) high sound barriers made of concrete panels. They provide an 11dB or greater reduction in Sound Pressure Level towards the start of the noise path into residential neighborhoods. By now such panels have been installed along most of the urban freeways adjacent to residential neighborhoods. If the reading were 90 dB on the freeway shoulder that would translate into 79 dB on the neighborhood side, falling away at approximately 6dB per doubling of distance. But even two or three miles away from a freeway the noise will often be audible on quiet evenings. Then there are airplanes, helicopters, ambulances and police sirens in addition to street traffic. Cities are noisy places. Part of why I moved close to the middle of nowhere, only to find I still have the occasional siren and helicopter.

There are now available commercial concrete sound blocks that have a slot opening that is to be oriented towards the source and a cavity that can be filled with absorbent material. This forms a Helmholtz resonator with a very broad Q. Were such materials used in sound barriers considerable further reductions would be possible. What is absorbed is neither  transmitted, reflected nor refracted over the barrier.    

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 06:14:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I imagine the problem is magnified for these elevated highways in Japan: sound can travel further unhindered, residential areas are everywhere and more dense than in the USA.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 06:23:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
1 - that's the speed through empty countryside, as well as urban area.

2 - there are already sound walls.

3 - sound pollution is not recognized as an actionable form of damage in Japan.  Residents can go to hell as far as the road authorities are concerned.

by Zwackus on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 06:44:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The other way is to stop selling cars whose performance characteristics are far greater than the law allows one to drive them.

On American highways, in good weather and traffic conditions, its quite often perfectly safe to drive at 80 mph, sometimes even faster.  So people do, if their cars allow them.  Not all cars can.  My old Toyota Spacio felt very unsafe at much more than 65 mph or so, because it felt like it was about to roll over at any minute.

But the situation would have been much worse if I drove a K Car, or economy car.  They have legally mandated narrow wheelbases, and low maximum engine size, and they are really not supposed to drive on the highways because they just can't handle it.

If, regardless of road and weather condition, you've decided that a maximum speed of 50 is desirable for whatever public policy reason, the you can save everybody a world of agony by legally restricting the performance capabilities of cars so that 55 is about the fastest the car will go.

by Zwackus on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 09:09:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Caltrops would also slow the traffic down.

Just a thought.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sat Jun 1st, 2013 at 08:39:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In my observation the notion that police speed controls are inconsistent and a pointless harrassment of drivers is often connected to and explained with real or imagined police corruption (policemen pocketing a reduced fine). But consider the public transport comparison.

In Budapest, you can board most mass transit vehicles without controls (though there are now plans to change that), and the traffic company employs human controllers to reduce fare dodging (which is endemic). The controllers 'enjoy' the same low respect traffic police do, which is not unrelated to controller practices to try to maximise the number of caught 'customers', like standing at subway exits (rather than entries) and focus on the first days of the month (when most people have to buy their new monthly card and many forget to do so in time). Now, that may be a nasty attitude, but is it really an excuse for fare dodgers?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 08:21:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have a friend who was chief of security of the Lyon public transport system a few years ago. The metro (four lines) used to be open-access. He introduced barriers at all stations (except one), and merged the controllers with the security service. The aim was both to improve fare collection, and reduce insecurity. I was rather reserved about it, but I have to admit it has worked really well.

One problem was that ticket controllers were subject to intimidation, and had to call for back-up, which always arrived too late. Now they travel in groups, and are ready for trouble. As a result, there is rarely any trouble.

There's still a certain amount of fare-dodging, mostly young men who jump the barriers, but there's a fair risk of being caught, so it's not really worth it economically (it's sort of a reverse lottery : if you buy your ticket regularly, you win in the end).

Moral of the story : collection and enforcement should be as automatic as possible, to reduce arbitrariness and/or corruption by controllers, and reduce resentment which tends to boost cheating.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 10:09:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
When I first saw/read of barriers on metros elsewhere, my instinctive objection was that, if they are to be effective, they reduce passenger flow. (Where I should note that the only metro lines I rode on with traffic levels at or above Budapest's Lines 2 and 3 were in Paris.) But, I have to admit that if it works on the Moscow Metro, it should work anywhere.

Working in groups is standard for ticket controllers here, too. But even so, harassment is standard, too. For a fictionalised dystopian portrayal of the world of ticket controllers (inspired by and entirely filmed underground on the Budapest metro), check out the film Kontroll.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 03:14:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But how does the Moscow system work? When I was in St. Petersburg, the system did not usually have a barrier, but had a sensor that blocked you if you did not pay. This seems to increase passenger flow, but may require a legal system that makes it hard to sue in case of injury,

As to passenger flow, the magnetic card system in NY definitely reduces traffic flow. I've seen it reduce traffic flow to zero in rush hour, when they don't work properly.

And what about buses? Does the driver have to check everybody boarding, restricting entrance to only one door?

by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 04:38:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's the same system in Moscow.

The restriction to a single door has been introduced on lower-frequency bus lines in the outer districts of Budapest, and it definitely reduces passenger flow...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 06:21:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In Denmark, the gripe isn't about inconsistent speeding enforcement - it's about too consistent enforcement.

Because of course everybody knows that the speed limits are only there to annoy drivers. And everybody knows that automated and consistent enforcement of speed limits is just a way to tax already overtaxed drivers. Concealed automatic speed cameras are subject to particular hate, as they don't even give the driver an "honest chance" to escape enforcement by breaking when he sees a van standing in the roadside and then going right back to speeding once past the next curve.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 12:24:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Over here in the U.S. of A. there is a distinction between civil and criminal law. Speeding and jaywalking and brawling in the street are civil offences, while criminal law is for more serious offenses. So "everybody" gets traffic tickets (except old geezers and fuel-economiizing nut-jobs), but it is a pretty big deal to be involved in a criminal case.

The question is whether these Internet-enabled activities are properly designated as civil or criminal offenses. One suspects that too many of them are put into the latter category...

by asdf on Sat Jun 1st, 2013 at 10:13:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You mean that few people are charged with a criminal offense. Lots more are guilty, since in many parts of the US, including NY, adultery is still a criminal offense...
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Sun Jun 2nd, 2013 at 07:59:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Long before all this blew up Piers Morgan explained how it worked. At tabloids all reporters are under pressure to come up with stories and scoop the position. A reporter who regularly delivers stories which get star billing will be promoted, one who fails, or has problems with some of the skullduggery involved, is really in the wrong business and won't last.

It's a cut-throat business and only the sewer rats prosper. So, if a technique comes along which can deliver high grade gossip then they're gonna be all over it. In fact, if you're not up for it you might as well pack up and leave. Nobody cares if it's legal, papers have been treading on legal toes to get stories since they broke the news about Adam and Eve. nobody cares about morals or ethics. (morals hang on walls and ethics is a county north east of london - bad jokes). they care about paychecks. Tabloid journalism is a muck raking business and those who prosper in it revel in that.

i imagine that phone hacking was just part of the game. those involved were already too debased, too far from mainstream decency, to care whose sensibilities they trod upon. Until they hacked a dead girl's phone.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 02:03:30 PM EST
Well to quote one Newspaperman I talked to "I joined to change the world, but it just continually got worse and worse, especially after Diana died. it was like they just doubled down on the crap attitude"

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Thu May 30th, 2013 at 02:24:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I actually don't have a problem with journalists breaking the law to get news. I even think it's essential that they should be prepared to take that risk. i.e. they must be prepared to face prosecution for it.

I have a problem with the type of "news" they break the law for.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Fri May 31st, 2013 at 09:55:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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