A note on a correction

Yesterday the Guardian published a piece I wrote criticising SlutWalk London’s decision to issue a statement opposing the extradition of Julian Assange. It was explicitly not intended to rehash the legal issues; nevertheless, anything mentioning Assange tends to bring out the amateur lawyer in everyone. The piece originally contained this phrase:

rape charges in Sweden

At some point yesterday, this was amended to:

rape allegations in Sweden

A correction note was added, saying that Assange has not been charged. Had I been able to revise the text myself at this stage, my preferred formulation would have been neither of these, but instead this:

rape allegations in Sweden (allegations that the England and Wales High Court has said “there can be no doubt” he would have been charged with already in the UK)

I very much regret not including the quote from the High Court judgement in the piece, because as it stands, it does not accurately reflect the progression of the case.

Through multiple appeals, the allegations against Assange have been found to be serious and substantial enough to support extradition. To say “there are no charges”, as Assange supporters repeatedly do, is a strict translation of Swedish legal terms that misrepresents the nature of the case to anyone whose understanding of the law is based on the England and Wales system.

Those who know what they think about the Assange case are unlikely to be swayed by any commentators at this stage – which is why it’s so extraordinary that SlutWalk London chose to take sides on such a poisonous issue. However, I’m sorry that my piece has now contributed to that misrepresentation.

[The Guardian] Do It Yourself And Save

Look at that! A couple of spiffy little guides to household self-sufficiency that will save you a tidy few pennies. And I’m a contributor, offering some indispensable guidance on the contents of your repairs kit. Go on, treat yourself to a nice crisp Guardian/Observer double at the weekend. They’ll have probably paid for themselves within seven days if you follow all their frugal advice.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; image © The Guardian.

Running rings round Carter-Ruck

rusbridger statusDid the Guardian game Trafigura and Carter-Ruck? Because if they did – and did it with the assistance of one MP, a clutch of bloggers, and Twitterers of every political conviction – then they did it brilliantly.

Pretty much all of the information that Carter-Ruck sought to smother is now better known than it ever would have been from a normal below-the-fold Guardian front page story. The injunction on mentioning the parliamentary question on the Minton Report has been lifted, and gagging orders have gone from being a  pernicious journalistic niggle to a lead item. It has given the Guardian a compelling unfolding story, attracted virtually universal positive coverage for the paper, and opened the way for a widely-supported campaign against abuses of the legal system.

Jack of Kent says of the initial report of the case in the Guardian, “I thought it a carefully worded article, almost like a crossword clue.” In other words, anyone who had the interest and the inclination could match the information in the parliamentary record with the information provided by the Guardian, and work out which question they weren’t allowed to report on. Plenty figured it out, and by the time I caught up with the story, Richard Wilson (like several other bloggers) had published the question on his own blog.

The question came from Paul Farrelly – who is, I learnt via Aaronovitch Watch, a former Observer employee. The Legal News column in the most recent Private Eye mentions that “one MP hopes to break the conspiracy of silence, under parliamentary privilege, when the Commons reassembles.” If that “one MP” is Farrelly, then he probably figured beforehand (maybe in concert with his former colleagues, and maybe not) that a gag could be just as productive as a publishable answer in exposing Trafigura and Carter-Ruck.

From the time the Guardian published its first non-coverage of the parliamentary question on its website, the paper played the whole thing perfectly. Editor Alan Rusbridger was active on Twitter, along with most other Guardian hacks, following the hashtag activity and encouraging supporters to tweet and retweet on the names and links that made the story.

Was it the Twitter wot won it? It’s impossible to know how the case would have  been decided without a tweet campaign, and perhaps the original injunction would have been overturned on appeal anyway. Still, it seems likely that the presence of #trafigura and #carter-ruck in Twitter’s trending topics would have been taken as evidence that the injunction was both useless and counter-productive. Print media brought the information and supplied the authority to stand it up; social media ensured that the coverage didn’t freeze in legal chill.

Trafigura and Carter-Ruck are the perfect opposition for a cause like this, because they’re easy to pick out as villains and there’s little collateral damage. If similar activity lead to, say, the widespread revelation of Maxine Carr’s new identity or the naming of defendants in a case of child abuse with living victims, I’d think the outcome much less peachy. But the UK legal system is currently being gamed into submission by organisations who don’t just have something to hide, but also want to hide that they’re hiding anything. This time, the Guardian outplayed them.

** EDIT Updated at 23:41, 13 October to clarify status of injunction on Minton Report. **

** Update 19 October 2009 ** The Guardian’s investigations editor, David Leigh, has tweeted a link to this post, describing it as “interesting” – which I’m hoping can be taken to mean “not hideously wrong”.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

[Comment is Free] A crafty way to educate children

If you’ve had a look at my Writing page, then you’ve probably noticed that I have a bit of a thing for crafts. And now Comment is Free at the Guardian has provided me with a platform to declare my love of making stuff, and my hope that more schools will give their pupils the opportunity to learn practical skills:

The idea that an education should train your hands as well as your head has been consistently chipped away at over the last 30 years. Up until 1975, UK secondary schools offered pupils training in home economics and textiles (for the girls) and woodwork and metalwork (for the boys). The Sex Discrimination Act banned gender-specific classes and helped to undermine the stringent channelling of children into “domestic” or “labouring” futures, but it also – as Joanna Turney explains in a recent book – forced schools to compress craft education into nothing more than a set of “taster classes”.

To find out what I think about craft and class, the domestic in drag, and how compulsory metalwork can be a progressive force (YES IT CAN) – read the rest of the article…

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Jon Snow: bring in privacy law, finish off the tabs

Channel  4 news anchor Jon Snow comes out in favour of privacy restrictions on reporting in this Guardian interview with Ann Widdecombe. And strongly in favour, too, even disallowing the public interest defence in cases of hypocrisy:

AW Would you welcome a privacy act, Jon Snow?

JS I would welcome a privacy act, yes.

AW We have the scoop! Jon Snow says, “Bring in a privacy act.”

JS I believe that the tabloid media, in particular, have so intruded into the private lives of public people that they have brought it upon themselves that there should indeed be a privacy act.

AW I think that is absolutely right. I think…

JS Damn me, Ann Widdecombe, I didn’t think we’d have to sit here and agree.

AW And I consider that quite a coup, to have got Jon Snow to agree with me that we need to curtail the rights of the media. Thank you, Jon Snow…

JS I am totally opposed to, and would go to the gallows to prevent, censorship. But needless intrusion into the private lives of anybody…

AW Let me ask you this. Let’s imagine a politician – I don’t care whether it’s male or female, Jon, but let’s imagine a politician. You’ve got a politician who has never made any pronouncements about morality, who has a mistress. Is that the public’s business?

JS Not at all.

AW You’ve just put a lot of the tabloids out of business.

JS Well, they’re going out of business anyway, so that won’t mean much…

The Guardian, “Politicians interview pundits: Ann Widdecombe and Jon Snow”

I think the hypocrisy exemption is valid, if only because in those cases the private behaviour becomes the counter-argument to the political statements of the public figure (it’s possible that this is only a sop to my own prurience). But I approve very much of what I see as the logical extension of Snow’s statement: the hope for a culture where private, consensual actions are off-limits for both the state and the press.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

[Comment is Free] Men and women? Both from Earth

I have a new post up at the Guardian’s Comment is Free section. Why is evolutionary psychology so popular with headline writers?

Evolutionary psychology promises big answers – and best of all for headline-writers, the big answers all have to do with sex. In its academic form, it’s an effort to interpret human behaviour in the light of our genetic heritage – data from psychological and behavioural studies, archaeological and anthropological data can all be thrown into the big narrative of how humans bred their way out of the caves and into the cities. The information it draws on is, or should be, empirically established observations. The stories evolutionary psychology tells with that information are speculative.

For more about why the Telegraph thinks you need to keep your eye on your big-chinned lady, and why this misrepresentation depresses me so utterly, read the rest of the article…

Into the money-making tent

tents crop

Simon Jenkins thinks that newspapers need to get into the festival business if they’re to continue. Alright, he doesn’t really think that: he’s arguing that newspapers can charge readers for the privilege of belonging to a brand (and he seems to be speaking for a chunk of his newspaper’s policy, as Liberal Conspiracy reports that the Guardian is looking into some sort of freemium members club).

That’s one side of the extra value that could entice readers to pay for their news. The other side is convenience – and on the Monday Note blog, Frédéric Filloux gives a quick breakdown of why news on your phone could be a service worth paying for. Mobile is the perfect vehicle for the micropayments some proprietors are itching to charge, because users are accustomed to paying a monthly bill already: whatever tiny fee the newspaper settles on per issue, or per article, could be gently folded into the direct debit at no extra hassle to the reader.

It’s not clear yet what the Sunday Times is going to offer their customers in terms of either convenience or community when they begin their paywall experiment. And, as this Radio 4 profile on James Murdoch points out in passing, the current chief executive of News Corp doesn’t have a sterling background in online: “He’s reputed to have persuaded Rupert to invest in a number of internet ventures which resulted in significant financial losses.”

It’s not enough to just decide that people should pay: you have to convince them that they’re getting something superior for their money. When we know what the Sunday Times is planning on charging for, we’ll have a better idea of whether it’s worth it – but whatever they offer, it will surely have to be something better than their current website with a moat dug around it.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by frozenchipmunk, used under Creative Commons.