Tory MPs “egregious behaviour” in pressurising judges to hide their lobbying for convicted sex offender colleague

Charles Elphicke , former MP and sex offender

If ever there was a case of one rule for the well connected and another for ordinary plebs, the exposure of this ruling out today by the House of Commons Standards Committee is a great example.

It centres round the conviction of Charles Elphicke, the former Tory MP for Dover,  of three counts of sexual assault on two women in July last year and sentenced in last September to two years in prison. He is currently appealing the case.

The MPs had given glowing character references for Mr Elphicke in the hope of mitigating his sentence and became alarmed when newspapers wanted the judge involved in the case to release the names of everybody who had given character references for him.

So instead of publicly objecting the MPs decided to write on Commons notepaper to Dame Kathryn Thirwall, Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales, and Dame Victoria Sharp, President of the Queen’s Bench Division, copied to Mrs Justice Whipple. Mrs Justice Whipple had heard the trial of a former Member, Charlie Elphicke, and was to hear and decide on an application to release the pre-sentencing character references.

Natalie Elphicke MP – organised the letter for her husband

The five Tory MPs were Mrs Natalie Elphicke, the former MP’s wife; Sir Roger Gale, former Cabinet minister, Theresa Villiers, Adam Holloway and Colonel Bob Stewart. Natalie Elphicke organised the letter.

The MPs said  to disclose the references would be a “radical change to judicial practice” which “could have the [sic] chilling effect and harm the criminal justice system”. 

They got a stiff reply from the Private Secretary to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales November to the letter stating that “It is improper to seek to influence the decision of a judge in a matter of which he or she is seized in this way. [ … ] It is all the more regrettable when representatives of the legislature, writing as such on House of Commons notepaper, seek to influence a judge in a private letter and do so without regard for the separation of powers or the independence of the judiciary”.

Their names- along with life peer Lord Freud- became public when Mrs Justice Whipple released them in a court ruling.

Theresa Villiers MP – as a barrister should have been aware it was an improper act

The Standards Committee ruled today that what the MPs” by acting as they did risked giving the impression that elected politicians can bring influence to bear on the judiciary, out of public view and in a way not open to others. Such egregious behaviour is corrosive to the rule of law and, if allowed to continue unchecked, could undermine public trust in the independence of judges.”

The committee recommends that three of the MPs Mrs Natalie Elphicke, Sir Roger Gale, and Theresa Villiers be suspended from the House for one sitting day, and should apologise to the House by means of a letter to the Committee.

Sir Roger Gale -Unrepentant ” I would do it again”. Pic credit: Twitter

The other two MPs, Bob Stewart and Adam Holloway – who decided to sign the letter after glancing at it for 20 seconds- should apologise to the House of Commons in a personal statement.

The committee recommends all five Members should also apologise to the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales by letter copied to the Committee. The terms of all the apologies (both by letter and by personal statement) should be agreed in advance by Mr Speaker and the Chair of the Committee.

Four of the five MPs have been contrite about bringing Parliament into disrepute after being summoned by the committee – but Sir Roger Gale has refused to apologise and said he would do it again. He told the committee: “I would find a different way of doing it, but would I do it again—would I seek to achieve the same effect? Yes, I would”.

The report points out that Theresa Villiers is an experienced Member of the House, a trained barrister, and a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. “We would have expected a Member of her seniority and experience, with legal expertise, to have been particularly aware that her actions in this case were an attempt improperly to interfere in judicial proceedings.”

Earlier this year Lord Freud was ordered by the Lords Commissioner for Standards to apologise and make a statement. A report was published on my blog here.

What are journalists telling you about immigrants, asylum seekers and the new arrivals from Hong Kong

Migration Pic credit: Ethical Journalist Network

Migration has always been a controversial issue – even though today’s United Kingdom along with the United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world.

Next Wednesday the Ethical Journalist Network – which aims to improve standards in journalism -is hosting a free top level webinar with outstanding speakers on how the journalists themselves report this issue.

Since most people form their views on migration from newspapers, TV, radio and increasingly from social media, how issues are reported and reflected across the media have never been more important.

If you are interested in the issue or just curious about how the make up of the country is changing post Brexit this webinar is where you can find out what you are being told or what is not being told about today’s migration issues.

It will cover the issue of the arrival of new people to the UK from Hong Kong -probably one of the largest groups of people to come here since the Ugandan Asians were driven out of their country and Afro-Caribbean people were invited to work in Britain from the West Indies.

It will contrast this with the treatment of people who flee across the Channel to the UK- and are now to be housed in substandard conditions and face being exiled to camps abroad under a new Nationality Bill put forward by Priti Patel, the home secretary.

It will also look at the hostile environment that led to the Windrush scandal which could be repeated when European Union people who did not get settled status here are forcibly deported, denied work and health care.

Chair and Speakers

The event will be chaired by Rizwana Hamid, Director of the Centre for Media Monitoring and EJN UK Committee member.

The speakers are:

Amelia Gentleman is a multi-award-winning journalist who spent six months working on the Windrush scandal for The Guardian which had led to the illegal deportation of Afro Caribbean people who had settled here for decades. She is the author of The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment which details the scandal and the effects it had on people’s lives.

Jamal Osman is a  Somali-born award-winning journalist, broadcaster and filmmaker. He is the Africa Correspondent for Channel Four News and has written articles for The Guardian and reported for Al-Jazeera English. His scoops include interviews with Somali pirates, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group, Al-Shabab, and an exposure of the illegal trade in UN food aid.

Marzia Rango is the data innovation and capacity building co-ordinator at the International Organisation for Migration in Berlin and is currently managing a project focusing on migration across the Mediterranean to Central Europe. She will be able to give an overall picture of the scale of migration.

Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch and co-founder and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission. He is a human rights activist and a journalist who has written extensively on the plight of people in Hong Kong where democracy is being suppressed by the Chinese authorities.

Chantal da Silva is a freelance journalist who helped expose the appalling conditions asylum seekers face in Napier Barracks despite attempts by the Home Office to hide what was happening. She works for numerous publications including the Independent, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Channel 4 and many other TV channels. She focuses on immigration rights.

You can register here at the EJN website or directly at Eventbrite here.

Cedaw People’s Tribunal: Muslim women, migrants and domestic violence victims lives destroyed by no legal aid

Successive governments’ decision to cut drastically the legal aid budget has caused enormous damage to diverse women and girls groups according to witnesses who gave evidence today to the CEDAW People’s Tribunal.

They cover the plight of Muslim women who are forced to seek divorces at Sharia Courts because they cannot afford to go to a civil court, migrants denied access to legal aid and married women fleeing domestic violence going to family courts over the custody of children and divorce settlements. The tribunal is looking at how the Un Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination can be put into UK law.

Legal aid ban putting Muslim women at the mercy of patriarchal fundamentalism

Pragna Patel founder and director of Southall Black Sisters (SBS)
[SBS is, a multi-award-winning women’s organisation founded in 1979 to address the needs of black and minority women experiencing gender violence.
It successfully campaigned for the release of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a landmark case in which an Asian woman was convicted of the murder of her violent husband. The case reformed homicide law, creating greater awareness within and outside minority communities.]

A damning indictment of the drastic effect of legal aid cuts which had created formidable barriers for all women – but especially black and ethnic minority women – was made by Pragna Patel.

She was particularly critical of the plight of Muslim women fleeing a marriage and unable to access the civil courts because of the lack of legal aid. Instead decisions were taken by unofficial religious courts dominated by conservative patriarchal fundamentalists. ” The woman has no status there, no right to keep her children, no property rights and no inheritance rights. This completely contravenes human rights.”

She cited a case of one woman who has only had a religious marriage – which had never been followed by a civil marriage. As a result when she went to a civil court to get her rights – the court could not rule on the marriage as it has never been legally recognised. The case has gone to the Law Commission but it has so far not ruled on it.

She also attacked the funding system – having won a judicial review against Ealing Council – when it withdrew funding. She said most of the money was now given to ” generic services ” based on getting results set by targets rather than specialist services offering long term support to people.

“Domestic abuse perpetrator given custody of children at his former wife’s expense”

Dr Charlotte Proudman – barrister at Goldsmith Chambers

Dr Proudman highlighted the lack of legal aid holding back women to defend their rights in family courts after quitting their marriage over domestic abuse. She said there was an inequality of arms when they had to appear as a litigant-in-person because they could not afford to pay a barrister. She also said the courts had the discretion on who should pay and where the children should reside in cases – leaving in one instance a woman who had left her husband because of domestic abuse having to pay for her children to be looked after by her abuser – her husband.

She was highly critical of the lack of training for barristers and judges on handling domestic abuse cases – and the failure of the government after the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act to specify what training will be given. She also said that many of the lawyers eyes glazed over when they the issues of women’s rights and certainly CEDAW were mentioned.

She also thought that judiciary was dominated by elite men -” male, pale and stale” – educated at private schools and Oxbridge. She said most of the women were also from the same elite -privately educated and with Oxbridge degrees – meaning neither knew much about the life of the people who came before their courts. She came from a working class background and had gone to a state comprehensive school.

Equality Act has left people working in silos

Esua Jane Goldsmith

Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith, from Anona Development Consultancy on International Developments on Human Rights. Esuantsiwa  was one of the first black VSO volunteers, serving as a teacher in Tanzania 1977-79. Esua was a leading figure in the UN process for women, attending the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing 1995, as a member of the UK Government Delegation representing Development INGOs. She was founder and Chair of the Beijing Forum which co-ordinated the input of UK development NGOs.  She was the first black woman Chair of the Fawcett Society, Chair and Co-founder of the Gender and Development Network

Esua has highly critical and disappointed by the failure of the 2010 Equality Act. She had great hopes that the Equality and Human Rights Commission by putting all the equality issues together would be a big improvement. But instead she said it was still working in silos and relying on individual litigation.

She thought putting CEDAW into domestic law would create a much more holistic approach bringing together business, politicians, civil society, ngos and the women’s sector together by breaking down barriers.

She was scathing about the lack of progress of BAME women in Parliament – 35 out of 650 MPs. She also attacked the way white males trolled and pursued prominent black women like Diane Abbot, just because they were powerful people.

Dramatic rise in on line sexual abuse during the pandemic

Kelly Johnson – researcher

Dr Kelly’s areas of research/expertise include domestic and sexual violence, policing, and more broadly violence against women and girls; including Rape Crisis. She has particular research experience in the policing of domestic abuse, image-based sexual abuse (including ‘cyberflashing’, so-called ‘revenge porn’ and ‘upskirting’) and feminist theory.

An alarming picture of the rise in ” revenge porn” during the pandemic leading to sexual violence against was women during the pandemic left the police unable to have the resources to act to control it, Dr Kelly told the tribunal. She said this caused “significant and devastating harm for women”. Black and ethnic minority men were disproportionately involved and many of the attacks were misogynistic with a sense of male entitlement that they could do what they wanted.

When sexual violence followed this the police were not always able to cope – with basic resources like police cars in short supply – so they couldn’t get out to see people. Perpetrators were getting away scot free and were also using on line dating sites.

She called for long lasting cultural changes including much better education of young boys, teaching them the need for consent.

Media stereotyping of women puts pressure on women politicians at national and local level

Sofia Collignon -politics researcher

Sofia is Co Investigator in the ESCR-funded Representative Audit of Britain project, part of Parliamentary Candidates UK and principal investigator in the Survey of Local Candidates in England. Fields of expertise: Gender equality, Participation, Policy design and delivery

The media were criticised for stereotyping women politicians and putting extra strain on women in public life. Some times they were the victims of a campaign of disinformation or not given the opportunity to reply. She called on journalists to be more accurate and carefujl in their reporting of women ;politicians and local councillors.

She said that though there were more women MPs -originally from a low base – an analysis of candidates standing for Parliament showed they were often given unwinnable seats so never got elected. She praised three countries -Sweden, New Zealand and Mexico – for giving women politicians a pro active role. Mexico was particularly praised for having a gender equal role which saw a massive increase in the number of women politicians.

She thought Parliamentary candidates should have compulsory training in equal rights before they stood for Parliament – as part of an initiative to bring CEDAW into domestic law.

The secret UK world of polygamous marriages

Yasmin has worked for more than 30 years predominantly on violence against women, race, faith and gender, and human rights.  She has acted as an expert witness in legal cases providing expert reports on faith based abuse and Muslim marriage practices including polygamy and temporary marriage.  Yasmin is chief Executive Officer at JUNO WOMEN’S AID (formerly Women’s Aid Integrated Services).

An extraordinary picture of the unknown scale of polygamous marriages in the UK was given to the tribunal by Yasmin Rehman.

She said nobody knows the scale of the marriages and the government is blind to the problem. It is hidden because Imans often give secret ceremonies for Muslim men who have one civil marriage to marry other women. There is also a ban on sex outside marriage for Moslems, she said, – which is why there are some additional marriages. Other polygamous marriages avoid bigamy laws – as UK men with a wife and family at home, marry another woman in countries where polygamous marriages are allowed.

She said the religious practice was harmful to women who are given a subordinate role – but the real problem was the clash between the freedom of practices allowed by religion with gender and equality issues. Worse there was some evidence that women were trafficked into the UK for forced polygamous marriages.

” The issue is seen to be in the too difficult box which is why there is not a single politician who is prepared to take the issue up.”

She said only one politician – the former Tory Chancellor, Sajid Javid – had raised part of the issue – but only over children being forced to marry an older man.

Other witnesses

Baljit Banga, executive director of Imkaam, a UK based black feminist umbrella organisation, gave a detailed run down on what was wrong with the Domestic Abuse Act and why there is a need for a much better alternative and Dr Annette Lawson, chair of the national Women’s Commission, abolished in 2010 on why there is a need for some successor funded body to pull all women’s groups together to implement CEDAW.

The hearings are now over and the next stage is to draw up a report.

Ex MP loses claim for striking out defence and summary judgement in defamation case over child sex abuse allegations

Esther Baker

In the latest move in a long running saga over the reporting of child sex abuse allegations made by Esther Baker to journalists, former Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemming lost a case for a summary judgement giving him aggravated damages against journalist, Sonia Poulton. The case will now go to a full trial.

Hemming was also unable to strike out most of her defence and the judge ruled that a counterclaim by her for damages for harassment and injunctive relief, pursuant to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 could go ahead. The latter counter claim was also against Sam Collingwood Smith and Darren Laverty, whom the judge said with the MP ” have been in some communication with one another, and have to some extent supported and assisted one another in various activities, not least litigation.”

The judge also allowed Sonia Poulton to amend her defence when the case goes to a full trial. There is a separate case for damages being pursued by Darren Laverty.

The full judgement can be read here. It includes the history of a previous case between John Hemming and Esther Baker and the circumstances that surrounded a film interview Sonia Poulton gave which went on YouTube.

Why author Andrew Lownie’s fight to stop the Cabinet Office keeping secret Lord Mountbatten’s diaries must be supported

Lord Mountbatten: Pic credit: Allan Warren and Wikipewdia

The Cabinet Office under Michael Gove is getting an appalling reputation for its handling of Freedom of Information requests. It is already facing court action from Open Democracy after being accused of blacklisting journalists making requests and setting up – totally against the spirit of the legislation – a clearing house to handle requests from journalists and advise other departments how to handle them. Under the FOI Act you don’t even have to disclose your own identity to get information – it is a public right.

But now it has plumbed new depths in trying to censor important historic documents years after the death of Lord Mountbatten, one of the country’s most interesting and controversial figures. And it is hoping to make it impossible for the author of his biography, Andrew Lownie, to challenge the Cabinet Office by making it too expensive for him.

The diaries of Lord Mountbatten were purchased by Southampton University for £2.8 million – with £2 million from the taxpayer – as part of a huge archive covering both Lord Mountbatten and Lord Palmerston. The archives is known as the Broadlands archive, named after his famous home.

Andrew Lownie has written an excellent biography, The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves, published two years ago. It explores the lives of both Mountbatten and his wife Edwina. It was his research for this book that led him to the Broadlands archives, and he has been attempting to gain access to the diaries and documents from 1935 onwards.

So far using the Freedom of Information Act he has spent four years successfully fighting the Cabinet Office and Southampton University to get the censored part of the diaries released. He has won every step of the way and the Information Commissioner has ordered them to be released.

Cabinet Office employing two QCs at vast expense to fight the disclosure

But now the Cabinet Office and Southampton University are going to a tribunal to stop the release of the diaries and have employed, at vast taxpayer’s expense two QC’s to argue why these documents should not see the public light of day.

Andrew Lownie has launched a crowdfunder appeal to raise £50,000 to defend himself against these two QCs.

 The documents could shed light on the royal family and the independence and partition of India. Lord Mountbatten was the uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, confidant of Edward VIII (Duke of Windsor) and the last Viceroy of India, while Lady Mountbatten had a close relationship with the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Guardian took up the issue and suddenly the Cabinet Office decided to release the diaries up to 1934 but no further. This means that some of the most interesting episodes that also included Lord Mountbatten’s controversial war record in the Navy and the extraordinary coup attempt against Harold Wilson, and possibly his version of the advice he gave to Prince Charles, our future king, when he was a young man, remain secret.

Andrew Lownie deserves enormous support to take on the Cabinet Office which must, rather than Southampton University, be behind this censorship of these documents. They belong to the nation, not Michael Gove or the Royal Family.

Support Andrew Lownie’s appeal

I suggest you get on to his crowdfunder page here and donate if you can. I have also written an earlier review of his book on this blog.

The link is: https://davidhencke.com/2019/11/18/book-review-the-mountbattens-their-lives-and-loves/

Facebook “not evil incarnate” says oversight board member Alan Rusbridger in a heated debate over the power of the organisation

Journalists fiercely debated the power and influence of Facebook following a controversial decision – now revoked – to remove news coverage from Australia on its site in a bitter dispute with the Australian government. The webinar was organised by the Ethical Journalist Network. For those interested in their work which support journalists striving to provide ethical coverage of issues and create more trust in journalism you can go to the website to see other issues. Here is a report from a member of the committee. Above is a video of the event.

By Matt Walsh  the head of the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University and a UK Committee member of the Ethical Journalism Network.

“I’m probably prepared to cut Facebook and the other companies more slack because I think that there are valuable things that they’re doing. I don’t see them as evil incarnate.”

That was the view of one of the members of the Facebook Oversight Board, Alan Rusbridger, during last week’s Ethical Journalism Network debate on social media, journalism and regulation.

The former Guardian newspaper editor-in-chief was responding to the investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who accused Facebook of being a bad actor who is exploiting the good intentions of people who are sat on the board.

Facebook tried everything to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny- Carole Cadwalladr

“Facebook has tried everything to avoid Parliamentary accountability,” she warns.

“That slipperiness, that evasiveness and refusal to answer to lawmakers puts it into a special case. It’s not acting in good faith.”

The Facebook Oversight board was set-up to review controversial decisions made by the company about content on its platform. To date, it has published reviews of seven cases.

The debate, which took place on Zoom, was chaired by the deputy director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Meera Selva.

Also on the panel was Jillian York, author of ‘Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism’ and director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

York warned that many of the solutions to digital regulation are overly focussed on the United States and Europe.

Westerners making up rules for the rest of the world- Jillian York

“Westerners are making up rules for the rest of world and doing so quite badly,” she said. “A lot of these tendencies are nationalistic and will have negative impacts on people in other countries.”

Reacting to news that Facebook had stopped users in Australia from sharing links to news sites, Carole Cadwalladr was damning in her assessment.

“It’s mob behaviour,” she said “They’ve stopped carrying evidence-based journalism to an entire country during a global pandemic that is marked by toxic mis- and disinformation.”

Cadwalladr also accused Rusbridger of being silenced on the issue.

Rusbridger denied the accusation and warned that there are huge problems of trust for traditional news publishers.

Somebody has to protect freedom of information- Alan Rusbridger

He said of the oversight board’s work: “Somebody has to come in and work out how to protect freedom of information globally, to the highest possible standards, and to try and enforce the highest standards of human rights. And I think that’s an honourable thing to be trying to do.”

York said that while she welcomed some of the early decisions of the board, “there’s isn’t really case law around these issues. The Oversight Board has made some really good decisions. But those decisions are not going to trickle down.”

Responding to claims that self-regulation of social media is ineffective Rusbridger said: “I’m not sure the Facebook board will look like self-regulation in five years’ time because it will have completely de-anchored itself from Facebook. It will have more of a feeling of independent regulation rather than self-regulation. It may not work but I think you just have to give it time.”

The Tories who tried to pressurise judges to keep secret their character references for a sexual offender ex MP

Lord Freud :” failed to act on his personal honour”. Pic credit: gov.uk

This week a peer and former Tory government minister Lord Freud was ordered to apologise to the House of Lords for breaching the code of conduct by “failing to act on his personal honour.”

The peer was among the signatories to two letters sent to two senior judges, Lady Justice Thirlwall and Dame Victoria Sharp and to Lady Justice Whipple, seeking to persuade her not to publish his name giving a good character reference to the ex MP who is now a convicted sex offender.

Charlie Elphicke Ex MP Now in jail

The MP was Charlie Elphicke, Tory and later Independent MP for Dover until 2019. He was convicted of three counts of sexual assault on two women in July last year and sentenced in September to two years in prison. He is currently appealing the case.

In November last year three newspapers, The Guardian, the Times and the Daily Mail, sought permission from Lady Justice Whipple to publish the character references from prominent people who were supporting him.

Dame Victoria Sharp pic cap : Judiciary.uk web site

This led four other Tory MPs and the peer to write to two senior judges to persuade them to intervene in the case. The Lords Commissioner for Standards,Lucy Scott-Moncrieff , ruled this week in Lord Freud’s case was “was intended to persuade Lady Justice Thirlwall and Dame Victoria Sharp to intervene.”

She added: “Similarly, the letter to Mrs Justice Whipple was written in terms intended to influence her thinking.”

Former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers

MPs say intervention ” a point of principle”

The MPs action became public when Col Stewart asked for a ruling from Jacob Rees Mogg, leader of the House, – but he kept away from committing himself to intervene. The MPs claimed their action was on a point of principle to stop all character references being released but were shot down by the Lord Chief Justice’s office saying it was “improper” to seek to influence the decision of a judge who would ultimately rule on the basis of evidence and argument in court.

Now the Lords Commissioner for Standards has described the letters as ” emotive” and ruled: “I believe doing so in private correspondence to senior judges in terms designed to influence the trial judge must also be considered outside the standards of conduct expected of individual members.”

Existence of inquiry into MPs a secret

This leaves the question of the conduct of the MPs. They come under the Commons Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone. Under the rules of the House of Commons since 2018 it has been decided that no information on whether a complaint has been laid against an MP will be published until a final report is made. So officially it remains a secret whether there is any investigation. However the Guardian has reported that Helen Jones, the Labour MP for Warrington, North until the last election when the Tories won the seat, has put in a complaint.

It would be egregious if Lord Freud , who appears from the Lords report to have been encouraged by the MPs to write and complain, took the entire blame for this. It also, in my view, would encourage MPs to try and influence the judiciary without facing any penalty. And it smacks of the new chumocracy – one rule to protect the powerful and influential and another for Joe Bloggs.

The MPs of course say they are acting for the public who will be frightened to give character witnesses for convicted criminals if they are to be published.

Mrs Justice Whipple’s deft ruling

But this was shot down by Mrs Justice Whipple in a very deftly worded judgement. She distinguished between the ordinary Joe and public figures in releasing the names and references. Only those who had a public role in society were revealed – keeping to the right to know principle of public interest. As a result we also now know that Jonathan Aitken, a prominent former MP once jailed for perjury and now a vicar provided one . As did prominent local Roman Catholic priest, Father Jeff Cridland; Neil Wiggins, a community non executive director of the Port of Dover; and David Foley, chief executive of the Thanet and East Kent Chamber of Commerce. But we don’t know about 21 private individuals who are not prominent in public life.

Let’s see if anything comes from the sphinx like Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on this one.

How journalists and bloggers can counter Covid 19 misinformation during the pandemic

The Ethical Journalist Network held a thought provoking webinar this week where experts gave top tips for journalists in writing up stories, read by millions of people, about the latest scientific and factual developments in the current world wide pandemic. As a member of the EJN UK committee myself I am reproducing the report written by Ali May, a fellow member of the committee. As he says it is an issue of life and death.

If you click on the headline it will take you to the EJN website where you see the original article ( reproduced below), learn more about the charity and read about other key issues journalists cover. Here is the full recording of the session chaired by investigative journalist James Ball.

A complete recording of the panel for those who want to delve into the issues.

EJN panel shares expert tips for journalists on tackling Covid-19 misinformation

By Ali May, EJN UK Committee member

As vaccines effective against the novel Coronavirus begin their global rollout, tackling misinformation, disinformation and earning public confidence could not be more starkly an issue of life and death.

This was the theme of a panel for the Ethical Journalism Network chaired by EJN trustee and Bureau of Investigative Journalism global editor James Ball, in which experts explored the role of journalists in tackling disinformation, the communicating of public health messages, and online fact-checking during this key phase of response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

What should journalists do to tackle misinformation, where are such myths coming from, and how can reporters avoid inadvertently becoming vectors for health misinformation? Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Kate Wilkinson, Nina Jankowicz, Anjana Ahuja and Marianna Spring joined Ball to share their insights.

A wave of misinformation about Coronavirus on social media has evolved over the past year, observed BBC Specialist Reporter Marianna Spring who covers disinformation and social media.

“At the beginning, it was lots of panicked viral WhatsApp messages, voice notes, lots of really understandable concern about what was going on about lockdowns, about how you could cure or prevent Coronavirus and while it was often spread quite innocently, its impact could often be really quite bad, giving people bad health advice, advice at a time when they most need good advice and resulting in direct harm. And as the pandemic went on, you started to see the human cost of that misinformation,” she said.

The same sentiment was reflected in comments by Nina Jankowicz, the author of How to Lose the Information War.

“Disinformation is not just silly memes on the internet. It’s not just fringe groups, talking about fringy things, but it has offline harm. And I think over the last year, we have seen case after case after case of that harm being borne out in real life.”

She pointed at the case of Ukrainians evacuated from Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic whose return caused riots in the country, with their bus attacked.

In such a tricky environment, the importance of fact-checking has become vital. And it comes in different forms, depending on the context. Fact-checking sometimes needs to play a diplomatic role, according to Kate Wilkinson, deputy chief editor at Africa Check.

“You sometimes have to act as a bit of a bridge between what’s happening on the ground, and what the scientific community thinks is worthy of their time and attention,” she said, “What can be difficult though, is when you go to an expert, a scientist, or a doctor who is understandably under quite a lot of pressure and stress, and you take what they consider to be quite ridiculous concepts or ideas, and you want half an hour of their time to actually unpack it. So, you can explain accurately why that can’t be the case, you sometimes get a mismatch between what the public is really fervently believing and what the experts or the scientists believe is worth their time or worth debunking.”

Editorial judgement becomes much more important at times of crisis. In the middle of a global pandemic, journalists have to make “a nuanced judgment about where the balance of evidence lies,” said science journalist Anjana Ahuja, a contributing writer for the Financial Times.

“Deciding what to platform is important,” she said, “There’s no point me putting up something quite frivolous just to knock it down, because that actually just circulates the idea further.”

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, author of the Art of Statistics, said there was reason to be optimistic, caused by the side effects of the pandemic.

“The relationship between the media and experts has matured,” he said, “experts have become, hopefully, better at expressing uncertainty, about inadequacy of explaining that the evidence isn’t good enough to be confident either way.”

He hoped that journalists will “realise that science is a hotly disputed area, that basically, there’s a lot of uncertainty, there are groups with different opinions that never been aired in public.”

Tips for journalists, shared by the panellists:

  • Get in there first. Counter the misinformation before people hear it on WhatsApp.
  • Don’t try to use tricks to be trusted. Demonstrate trustworthiness on a purely ethical basis.
  • Think carefully about what issues are worth legitimising by covering, and how issues might need to be reframed. In the case of climate change, Ahuja says ‘I decided to reframe it in my writing as climate emergency or crisis. Because it suggests that with climate change there is no question. The extent is how much do we need to worry about it? It’s happening.’
  • Meet people where they are in a language that they understand.
  • Approach people and the issues they hold strongly with empathy. Disinformation and conspiracy theories online can have a significant impact on people. Understanding the legitimate concerns and fears often explain why they’ve sought out those conspiracies, or where they have been preyed upon or conned into believing them. Separate those who are victims or casualties of online falsehoods and conspiracies from those often very small number of committed activists or bad actors who are deliberately looking to exploit that nervousness or that concern.

How a leading expert on home working is stymied by the government’s “litany” of failures to deliver broadband

John Howkins. You can find him at johnhowkins.com

MPs condemn multiple failures on planned broadband provision

John Howkins is well known in the creative industry as an innovator, author and an international speaker. His books – particularly relevant in the present pandemic – highlight a new way to look at work based at home. His latest book ” Invisible Work” concentrates on how people in work can adapt to the new age of artificial intelligence rather than be made redundant by it.

His world centres on publishing, TV, film, digital media and streaming – all the new technologies brought to us by the huge growth of the new digital age.

Supreme Irony

It is therefore a supreme irony that his opportunity to engage in this age of isolation has been wrecked by a Conservative government breaking its manifesto promise to bring broadband to everyone. The failed manifesto pledge – only a year after it was made – is highlighted today in a new report from the all party House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

For Mr Howkins’ problem is that he lives in rural Norfolk near Attleborough in the Parliamentary constituency of Mid Norfolk represented by Tory MP George Freeman – a tech enthusiast who has written pamphlets on how technology can save the NHS. But as yet has done nothing to help his constituents get the broadband they need.

Mr Howkins like millions of others living rural Britain has no proper broadband that can download videos in seconds or easily stream Netflix or the BBC I Player. And today MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee tell you why.

On November 20 last year Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, unceremoniously dumped the promise to all voters to get fast broadband by 2025 – and substituted a promise for 85 per cent coverage – dumping most rural parts of the UK ( and many Tory voters) in the process. Cynics might suggest the Tories only made this pledge because Jeremy Corbyn, for Labour, had promised a universal free broadband service – saying it should be a basic utility in the 21st century like water or electricity.

Ministry admits target unachievable

The MPs report concludes that not only in ministers’ words ““clear that Government’s 2019 election pledge to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband connectivity by 2025 was unachievable”  but that even this lower target will be missed.

There is supposed to be £5 billion of our money put aside to bring this about but the report reveals that the Department for Culture ,Media and Sport, has yet to allocate 75 percent of this money one year into government for the contracts to do this.

It also warns : PAC is “increasingly concerned that those in rural areas may have to pay more, and may reach gigabit broadband speeds late” and is not convinced that “if and when rural users finally do get gigabit broadband, they will enjoy the same choice of service provider and the same protections as their urban counterparts”.

The scoreboard of failures by the ministry is appalling Mps found:

  • failure to make meaningful progress to tackle the barriers faced by operators in maximising gigabit connectivity by 2025,
  • failure to demonstrate it has learnt lessons from the superfast programme for the detailed design of the gigabit programme,
  • failure to demonstrate how its centralised procurement model will retain the people, skills and knowledge in local authorities that were critical to success in the superfast programme,
  • failure to give any reassurance that local authorities will get additional funding to retain their expert resources at a time when local government finances are under severe pressure from the pandemic,
  • failure to make any meaningful progress in delivering the policy and legislative changes deemed essential by industry to achieve rapid roll-out,
  • failure “yet again” to prioritise consumers in rural areas

Well done culture secretary Oliver Dowden ( NOT )!

Meg Hillier: chair of the Public Accounts Committee

Meg Hillier MP, Labour Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “With the grim announcement that the country and economy will be locked down for months, the Government’s promises on digital connectivity are more important than ever. But due to a litany of planning and implementation failures at DCMS, those promises are slipping farther and farther out of reach – even worse news for the “rural excluded” who face years trying to recover with substandard internet connectivity.  

“For the foreseeable future, ever more of our lives is moving online, whether we like it or not. Government cannot allow digital inequality to continue to compound and exacerbate the economic inequality that has been so harshly exposed in the Covid19 pandemic. It needs to be clear about timelines in each area so that businesses and individuals can plan for their digital future.”

As for Mr Howkins, his submission to MPs said: ” My current supplier is BT. I have an upload speed of a maximum of 0.3MB and a download speed of 3.0 MB.  BT engineers have visited three times in the past few months and have been unable to improve on these speeds. Several neighbours are in the same position.

“It is therefore difficult to carry on business at present. Our ability to receive even a moderately sized data file is limited. It is impossible to upload a video file of any significant size. Interactive usage (banking) often fails. This week, I led presentations in China and Chile. My own internet link was worse than anyone else’s”

… “The suppliers celebrate their gigabit services but do nothing for those, like me, who would be delighted to have a much lower rate, say 10MB down and 2-3 up.

Regulatory failure

” It is a regulatory failure in the UK that broadband providers are evaluated according to national averages rather than the meeting of local need. So they benefit much more by providing 1GB to a one location, even if it is seldom used, than by providing an increase of 10MB to 10 locations. And providing 1GB to one location is treated as the equivalent to providing 10MB to 100 locations.”

” The pandemic has shown up the extent of the government’s failure.  Although offices will re-open to some extent, the numbers working from home will increase.

I find it extraordinary in 2020 that the UK does not have universal service for broadband as it has for other utilities. Yes, broadband is a utility. “

He told me that he had been reduced to finding a friend who had better connections to do a lot of his work. His only alternative would be to use a local library which had restricted opening times.

He must be one among millions who have this problem and the UK is far behind other European countries.

” I’d be happy if we could reach the standards available in Romania”, he said.

My blog in 2020: The year total visitors passed over 2 million

Welcoming the New Year in London

Happy New Year. Since this blog was launched at the very end of 2009 it has had over 2.8 million hits and over 2 million visitors – a remarkable achievement – even if I say it myself – for a single handed effort.

The number of blogs on my site also topped over 1000 – 1072 – to be exact. Last year my blog got 511,721 hits – that is fewer than the 1,041,000 the previous year – but still the second highest figure since it started.

BackTo60 campaign

I am extremely grateful that so many people are interested enough to read my news and views on current issues and also to the women following the BackTo60 campaign who have had a dispiriting year after losing their Court of Appeal case for compensation for raising their state pension age from 60 to 66. They are also having to wait for a very long time to find out whether the Supreme Court will hear their cases – far too long in my opinion. If it goes to the Supreme Court I shall be reporting it.

Like last year the majority of most read stories were about that campaign. The most read story of all last year was the revelation – from a reader using a Freedom of Information request – that 4.6 million men over 60 had their national insurance contributions paid by the state if they did not register for the dole to keep the unemployment figures down. This had over 64,000 hits and when the Department for Work and Pensions revised this figure to a staggering 9.8 million that had another 34,600 hits – bringing interest in both stories to nearly 100,000.

Coverage of BackTo60’s Court of Appeal hearing was the second highest at 58,860 – which is a pretty high figure for a court case.

Also an old story on how the government has saved paying out £271 billion to the National Insurance Fund which could have paid for higher pensions and also stopped the need to raise the pension age for women had another 22,000 hits. Originally written in the summer of 2018 this enduring blog has now had 311,000 hits altogether.

Boris Johnson announcing the Brexit deal in Parliament. Pic credit: @UK Parliament_Jessica Taylor

Outside other highly read blogs on the pensions campaign the most read blog was one on how Boris Johnson and other Cabinet Ministers were moving towards an elective dictatorship by devolving power to themselves rather than Parliament under new Brexit laws. That had 35,554 hits.

Byline Times

This year there has been a subtle change in coverage on my blog of stories I write for Byline Times. Last year I tended to provide a short summary of the story on my blog. This year most of my Byline Times stories appear by themselves and are not automatically repeated on my blog. They get even wider coverage on Byline Times so those who want to see them and follow me on Twitter do get tweets telling them about the story. Or you could take out a subscription to Byline Times and get a monthly print newspaper.

Ending discrimination against women

There will be new developments next year. I will be blogging about the People’s Tribunal run by John Cooper, QC, the human rights lawyer, to end all forms of discrimination against women. This is a movement which wants to get the UK Parliament to put into domestic law the UN Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women. The UK ratified it under Margaret Thatcher but nothing has been done since.

It comes as Elizabeth Truss, the equalities minister, appears to want to reverse progress what she calls “identity politics” so I foresee fresh battles over this issue. And I am curious to see how the Equality and Human Rights Commission is going to handle this.

Dr Usha Prasad

I shall also be taking up some individual cases of injustice. The recent blog on the plight of Epsom and St Helier University Health Trust’s only woman cardiologist just one example – where a health trust is pursuing an individual and where they are whistleblowing issues.

I shall continue to keep an eye on political issues -particularly as incompetence, the chumocracy and corruption are on the rise in the UK and plan to write about it on Byline Times and this blog.

I have started again reporting on child sexual abuse again and plan more articles.

2021 promises to be a challenging year – the first post Brexit year- and I feel more than ready to meet it.

New Year fireworks in Dubai where my daughter and grandchildren are living. She is a science teacher there.