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Subs – please check

12 Oct

HMS Ambush on sea trials. © Crown copyright 2012

*

“We have been regularly referring to the value of the Aus-French submarine deal as $90bn,” writes an astute member of the Tribune’s night shift to colleagues. “But this is 90bn AUSTRALIAN dollars, not US dollars.”

That is an excellent point. “This makes sense for an Australian audience but is confusing for everyone else. Lots of writers and subs are referring back to Aus pieces for their info and copying this sum into stories for a US, UK and global audience. Non-Australia folk: please be on the alert for this (and for similar Australian stories of global import). Australia folk: if a story is very much global, would you consider using the notation A$? Anyway, something for discussion.”

It certainly is something for discussion: this blog has wrestled for years with the problems of anglophone news organisations trying to bestride the globe while remaining part of a national dialogue. The Aukus submarines deal, agreed between Australia, the UK and the US, looks like a perfect anglosphere news story – after all, these are the three countries where forward-looking British papers such as the Tribune now have newsrooms. But although that means the coverage has been panoramic, the small but essential details are proving as troublesome as ever.

Some newsdesks did fall into the trap. Eastern Eye converted the “$90bn” that France stands to lose from the cancellation of its own submarine deal with Australia into “£66bn”:

But that is the sterling equivalent of 90 billion US dollars, not Australian; the correct figure for A$ is about £48bn.

The Tribune does not appear to have gone that far, but by saying “$90bn” in several pieces without context we may have been giving the impression – it’s easily done – that we were speaking of the world’s reserve currency when we were not. And in this article in the Mail, focusing on the Biden angle and with a US political writer leading the bylines,

the $90bn figure also stands unqualified.*

Interestingly, the same article gives comparative costings of various submarine types further down,

and those figures are not in US dollars either. A Virginia-class boat seems to cost about US$3.4bn (which is about A$4.5bn) and a new HMS Astute would set you back about £1.4bn-£1.6bn, which is not as much as $2.6bn in US currency. It would seem that the costs in this US-focused article are being given consistently in Australian dollars, but without ever saying so.

Why would you not specify? Perhaps because, as we have discussed so often, journalists at the Tribune and similar organisations are often encouraged not to. Our purpose in expanding across the anglosphere is to provide local coverage in underserved markets, to bed in as a homegrown news source. So we write in different flavours of English depending on which continent we’re on, and speak of weights and measures as locals would. In which case, as the night sub’s email suggests, adopting international terminology for a national currency is something that very much needs to be “considered” before it is enforced. Too much globalist perspective, too much wire-service neutrality, betrays you as an outsider.

This causes a slight problem when local stories meant for one country’s consumption become visible on another country’s homepage. But it causes even greater problems when the three jurisdictions you cover collide in the same global story. Because then, whose worldview wins?

*“Advanced” warning – I know, I know.

Weather outlook

3 Aug

Any of the Tribune’s three world-girdling newsrooms could have produced this alarming story on heat deaths:

Some stories are local, which is why we set up English-speaking operations in the US and Australia, but some stories are global, and the climate crisis affects everyone. In the end, it was Australia who wrote up the report for all three of us, and it duly found its way into the print subs’ queue for the newspaper in London.

Which was fine, except that, in this globally relevant story, the first person quoted …

was Australian, and the second person quoted …

… was Australian, and the next part of the story …

… concerned a study in which Australia had done notably badly (whereas the UK and the US had only done moderately badly), and the broadening out of the theme …

… took us into the kind of Australian domestic shorthand that I suspect may never have been encountered in the Tribune’s home news pages before.

It’s not hard to guess what the Australian Medical Association is, but the Hesta Super Fund is more recondite: a huge pension fund of a specifically Australian type called a “super fund” that once (but no longer) restricted its membership to employees in the health service. That explanation almost leaves UK readers none the wiser than the name: It’s sort of a “health body”, but not quite, and seems to be politically engaged in a way that no major pension fund in the UK ever is. In the end, I glossed it as something like “major health-focused pension fund”, but I’m not sure that enlightened many readers on the Tube.

We have come across this problem in a minor way before, when a developing international story gets handed off between newsrooms: the weights, measures and currencies start to fluctuate, and views change about what the reader can be assumed to know. But this is a slightly bigger problem. We don’t yet have reporters with a contact book big enough to provide region-specific quotes and examples for three different continents. Nor do we have the resources (usually) to write up a story three times in all three jurisdictions. So you end up with a story flavoured with the sources, agenda and analysis of one particular newsroom, and the other two have to make do with what’s supplied.

As we have discussed more than once, the UK’s anglophone news organisations are anxious to ensure Australian readers don’t feel their domestic news has been written by outsiders. But what we haven’t considered so far is the possibility that British readers might be getting that feeling instead.

We the people

22 Jun

Apologies if you’re having lunch, but something has come up in the world of anglophone news. From the Mail’s UK homepage a couple of weeks ago:

The issue is not the shock value of this report from Daily Mail Australia, unpleasant though it is. Nor is it a lack of geographical specificity, something about which this blog has previously complained: the country of origin is clear. The issue comes at the end of the headline when the international mask slips and the sub-editor refers to “our” waterways.

At the Tribune, the audience team don’t like us saying “our” in the furniture. They have an eye to the global visibility of the website and want things to be accessible to all English-speakers. You can see their point: directly addressing a community to which some readers do not belong has an exclusionary effect. But at the same time, this kind of assumed familiarity becomes hard to avoid when one of your international newsrooms is writing a home news story for its home audience – all the more so when it is under instructions to cater to its home audience first, and not the mothership in London.

And the problem is not confined to accidentally identifying yourself as part of a community. Should you be making local jokes and allusions in headlines, like Guardian Australia does here?

Or do you take the International Herald Tribune approach and retreat from all signals of national identity? (For readers outside New South Wales, I should explain that the Big Banana here is not, as you might think, Russell Crowe: it refers to Coffs Harbour itself, which prospered in the banana trade and now has a large theme park of that name.)

And you’d need to be very local to New South Wales, I think, to grasp this headline first time:

The key is to know that the state police force has a squad known as the “fixated persons unit”, which investigates potentially violent lone-wolf offenders. Even with that information, you might find that a nine-word noun phrase is going it a bit for a headline: the verb-seeking reader does tend to fasten on “fixated” as a likely candidate and get confused.

Friendlyjordies itself is a YouTube channel that satirises Australian politics: not really a name to conjure with, then, across the anglosphere. But if you’re already in for “fixated persons unit”, you’re probably in for that too. And how else could you really put it? “Arrest of member of Australian satirical political YouTube channel by anti-terrorist New South Wales police unit… “? You solve the problem of alienating audiences, but then you run out of space. Localisms can be essential for compression and communication – but then, just as surely as if you’d said “we”, you’ve circumscribed the size of the audience you’re talking to.

Ever the optimist

30 Mar

It could have been worse. Your giant container ship may have got humiliatingly jammed across the Suez canal, displaying your company name in huge letters to the world as it wrecks global trade, but at least it’s got a nice name. Ever Given. Whoever it was at Evergreen Marine Corp who decided on that poetic prefix – many of the company’s ships are called the Ever Something – may have done their employer a bit of a favour.

Ever given, never withheld. It’s enigmatic enough to work as the name of a deserted starship in an epic videogame; its hint at romantic surrender also makes it a possibility for Mills & Boon. It has the same non-specific but appealing aesthetic as the title of the film The Beat That My Heart Skipped. That bears almost no literal relevance to the thriller it belongs to, but it works superbly nonetheless – as it would for almost anything, from a romantic comedy to a baffling 90s arthouse pic in which nothing happens.

Evergreen’s naming policy has produced other winners too. Ever Lambent is a phrase Keats might have written. The Ever Gentle sounds immediately disarming. The resonance of “always” or “forever” is vague, but intriguing. Many people are predisposed to like the sea anyway; just as Nato reporting names add excitement to a military aviation story, you do wonder if a good ship name helps, just a little, to take the edge off negative coverage when something goes wrong.

Is that fanciful? Well, consider what might have happened if Prince Jefri of Brunei had got into difficulties in his custom-built superyacht, the Tits, or how Gary Hart’s presidential ambitions foundered after a dalliance with a woman on the good ship Monkey Business. And perhaps Evergreen itself has also dodged a bullet: it’s easy to imagine the po-faced excoriations of multilateralism that would have ensued if this had happened to the Ever Liberal. And think how unbearable Twitter might have been if the vessel that had got wedged in the entrance to a narrow passage had been the Ever Uranus.

Photograph: kees torn via Wikipedia

Get your rebuttal in first

5 Jan

It doesn’t happen all the time. But every now and then, the BBC launches a major news investigation on its website, and then stops it after three paragraphs. Like this:

That piece is approaching 3,000 words long, peppered with graphs and in-depth analysis boxes, but the rebuttal comes so high up in the story that you’re inclined to stop reading there and then. And the same is true here:

In that piece, the contradiction comes after 75 words, even though there are another 900 to read below it. And in this article, the government response comes so quickly it’s almost the first line of the story.

It’s not easy being the BBC. Like all Ofcom-regulated broadcasters, it has to be scrupulously impartial; doubly so, because it is funded via public levy by the grace of the government. The news division also gets thrust into the unenviable role of refereeing the endless Fleet Street culture war, by choosing to follow up (or not) on newspaper allegations of racism, illegal immigration, tax evasion, “waste”, and a hundred other started hares. It has also had to walk an impossible line down the middle of Brexit, and has now endured three consecutive governments that have more or less openly threatened its status and future. As a result of all these pressures, current and historical, its style guide is agonisingly neutral, its correspondents are intensely scrutinised for bias, and it draws its conclusions more slowly than any other major news provider.*

This is quite a successful approach to adopt when reporting on allegations made by third parties, as is the case with the third story mentioned above. Report the accusation, report the rebuttal (straightaway, in this case), fill in readers on the background. What’s the truth? There is no need to decide: just hand back to the studio.

The trouble is, the first two pieces are not allegations made by third parties: they’re allegations made by the BBC itself. The first is an online special under the general banner of the news division, the second is a companion piece to an edition of Panorama.

Yet it’s as though the he-said-she-said impartiality has become so ingrained that it is introduced even to a self-generated exposé – just as the corporation sometimes quotes its own correspondents as though they worked for someone else. But if you’ve done an original investigation, you ether believe in it or you don’t. You can’t distance yourself from your own allegations. Investigations aren’t “balanced”: they seek the truth on a particular issue and draw definite conclusions. Otherwise, what’s the point?

*For example, two days after the Nashville bombing, the BBC’s headline was “Nashville explosion ‘probably suicide bombing'”. The Mail’s headline the same day was: “Mother, 29, given TWO free homes worth $409K by ‘Nashville bomber’, 63, says she had no idea he signed property over to her a month ago – as feds probe if he blew himself up at AT&T building because he feared 5G is spying on Americans”.

Making a meal of it

18 Aug

Tabloids like a joke even when there isn’t really a story. But even when there is a story, of course there still has to be a joke.

So – unlike a previous occasion in which the Star led with a story about a hamster so that it could reprise a famous headline – here the Sun reports an actual news item. A chief executive of McDonald’s, who departed with a payoff after having an affair with a colleague, is now being sued for his severance package by the company for other alleged dalliances, denied at the time. There’s money, there’s sex, there’s burgers – it’s news. And what’s the headline? MUCKY D’S!*

Or at least, that’s the main headline. But if you look further down the piece, there’s a decorative red and yellow box, scattered with fast-food clip art, that is, in effect, a menu of alternative headlines. It’s not a fact box, or a timeline, or a related story, or additional information of any kind: just a collection of sub-editorial gags that didn’t make it to the top of the page.

So we have Bacon Double Sleazeburger (fair), Happy Ending Meal (yikes), Sausage McStuffin (yikes), Thrillet-o-Fish (weak), Quarter Hounder With Cheese (what?) Supersize Lies (alleged), Sweet Curry Saucy (weak), Bit on the Side Salad (fair), Spicy McRub (what?), Robinsons Fruity Shoot (weak) and Cheesy Bacon Flat Bed (weak, and requires prior knowledge of the existence of the Cheesy Bacon Flatbread).

Obviously, this never happens on broadsheets, where one nuanced headline on the deteriorating political situation in Belarus is usually enough. Not that a little levity to intrigue the reader is a bad thing; Arthur Christiansen might have approved of that. But when handfuls of extra jokes are being thrown in to the bag like sachets of tomato ketchup, you do wonder anew whether redtop readers are buying the paper for the news or the comedy.

*For transatlantic readers: in Britain, McDonald’s is often referred to as Maccy D’s, so via a simple change in vowel sound one arrives at … oh, you’ve  got it.

The Christiansen Method

21 Jul

‘I did not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals’: Christiansen on screen. (BFI)

Thinking further about Arthur Christiansen’s wooden yet commanding presence in The Day The Earth Caught Fire reminded me of a thought that frequently occurs to this blog: that journalists are only famous to other journalists, and even then not always for long.

He was editor of the Daily Express from 1933 to 1957, hailed as one of the great press innovators and a genius of presentation, but I wonder how many people in Britain today remember who he is. I had only barely heard of him until I saw him on screen, and even at the Tribune he is never mentioned as a guiding light in the way that others such as CP Scott and Harold Evans are. (Of course that may be because the Tribune is a broadsheet that only looks up to broadsheet figures; I’m sure he is venerated to this day at the Express).

In his glowing but not uncritical account of Christiansen in How Journalism Works (1964), Roy Nash writes:

Time may well prove him to have been the greatest of all creators of the commercially successful popular newspaper image. Night after night, for nearly a quarter of a century, he designed an ingeniously eye-catching paper so compelling in appearance that it had to be read … He and his work almost totally dominated Fleet Street, conditioned and moulded its life, and only now are the rivals of his Daily Express trying to free themselves from his powerful influence.

But, Nash adds, his drive to “capture the reader’s interest … and lead it along by the hand” had unforeseen consequences:

Reporting in the Christiansen manner called for great skill in writing and especially in sub-editing. Sub-editing was, in fact, for the first time raised to a high professional level. But the technique had its dangerous traps into which the unwary fell. The logical step in trying to present every story in a totally simplified fashion was to assume that most news was, inherently, composed of simple black and white elements …

This led to something that Christiansen had neither intended nor wanted; a return to embroidered reporting. News tended, in the Fleet Street phrase, to be “hardened”. Events that were compounded of the indecisive greys and off-whites of news were turned into apparently clear-cut blacks and whites. Selected aspects of many of the highly complex problems that Britain faced immediately after the war were reduced to ludicrous levels and treated with alarming irresponsibility.

The Express was still broadsheet-sized at the time Christiansen edited it, but what Nash is describing here sounds like, in effect, the birth of the modern tabloid: a combination of vividness, exaggeration and jumping to conclusions that one associates more these days with the likes of Paul Dacre and Kelvin MacKenzie.

As editor, Christiansen used to write a daily bulletin to his staff, and the former Express journalist Geoffrey Mather has collected many of the most engaging quotes from them on his website. They’re fascinating. And they do, as Nash suggests, hint at a journalist of a somewhat different type to Dacre and MacKenzie: one constantly struggling, not always successfully, to reconcile the instinct to excite with the desire to be high-minded. (At one stage, for example, he writes: “Watch out for loaded stories. There is a tendency for reporters to write copy which, sentence for sentence, seems innocuous, but which adds up in detail to the dangerous business of creating a prejudicial atmosphere.” Well, quite.)

Some of his observations are resonant aphorisms for modern journalists that might stand alongside words from Scott or Evans. Some of them are rather less so: dated quibbles about grammar or now-baffling social niceties. And many of them involve discussions of people and scandals that are now – like the journalists who wrote about them – almost completely forgotten:

Yesterday in a story about a broken romance we referred to the the girl’s occupation as that of bottler in a lemonade factory. We used to have a rule that we did not refer to the occupations of people in lowly stations when romance or broken romance was involved. It is a good rule and should be revived. (3 March 1953)

In the early editions at any rate there were too many stories about things and not enough stories about people. Significant news predominated – and while that is fine, you will never get people to digest significant news if there is nothing else on the diet sheet. Contrast is the heart and soul of a newspaper. (Even the Manchester Guardian, on a day pregnant with heavy news, found space on its front page to say that goats are to be replaced by sheep on the Malayan rubber estates.) (17 March 1953)

Many, many stories in the Daily Express today are of violent character. Maybe a leavening of more “thoughtful” news is necessary. I do not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals, for example. We should always seek to balance so-called shock tactics with an appeal to the thoughtful reader. (8 August 1952)

All my journalistic thinking is based on making the news so inviting to people that they read involuntarily news which normally would not interest them. That is why I rejoice when headlines such as “Four Mr Europes woo Miss Britain” are written on a story from the Strasbourg conference. It is the hope that such novel presentation will at least open the door. (27 November 1951)

With the arrival of June weather we should try to make the paper suit the optimism of the masses. Never forget that the Daily Express is noted for its tonic effect. And while on this subject, it might be well to restate the three-fold rule for our paper:

1. Never set the police on anybody.
2. Never cry down the pleasures of the people.
3. Remember our own habits and frailties when disposed to be critical of others. (4 June 1951)

I get queasy about salacious reporting. All the papers are going in for it, and in the case of the Indian doctor it was quite shocking for a family man to have to read so much detail. Surely we can take a decision to print as little salacious matter as is necessary to prove the case for the prosecution or the defence – and no more. A typical example last week was the phrase in the doctor case that there was “intimacy in a car on two occasions on the back seat”. It is the phrase “on the back seat” which leaves little to the imagination. (5 March 1951)

It is the journalistic fashion to concentrate on the first paragraphs of stories. I believe in that. But I believe just as emphatically in the perfection of the last paragraph. (5 February 1953)

Many more here.

 

 

Batwoman or bane?

14 Apr

REVEALED! Shady Chinese lab was performing experiments on BATS! REVEALED! Heroic Chinese lab sequenced virus genome and was GAGGED! Oh no, hang on, they’re the same institution! Aaaaah!

It’s hard to know what to make of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from the Mail on Sunday’s coverage this weekend, especially when these two stories are right next to each other on the homepage at time of writing (and, indeed, appended to each other as footnotes). Are the staff disgusting Frankensteins playing fast and loose with nature, or courageous boffins trying to save the world?

In the scary story:

The Chinese laboratory at the center of scrutiny over a potential coronavirus leak has been using U.S. government money to carry out research on bats from the caves which scientists believe are the original source of the deadly outbreak.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan which were funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government …

The revelation that the Wuhan Institute was experimenting on bats from the area already known to be the source of COVID-19 – and doing so with American money – has sparked further fears that the lab, and not the market, is the original outbreak source.

US Congressman Matt Gaetz said: ‘I’m disgusted to learn that for years the US government has been funding dangerous and cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute, which may have contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, and research at other labs in China that have virtually no oversight from US authorities.’

The $37million Wuhan Institute of Virology, the most advanced laboratory of its type on the Chinese mainland, is based twenty miles from the now infamous wildlife market that was thought to be the location of the original transfer of the virus from animals to humans.

According to documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday, scientists there experimented on bats as part of a project funded by the US National Institutes of Health, which continues to licence the Wuhan laboratory to receive American money for experiments. …

The news that COVID-19 bats were under research there means that a leak from the Wuhan laboratory can no longer be completely ruled out …

American biosecurity expert Professor Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, New Jersey, said that while the evidence suggests COVID-19 was not created in one of the Wuhan laboratories, it could easily have escaped from there while it was being analyzed.

Prof Ebright said he has seen evidence that scientists at the Centre for Disease Control and the Institute of Virology studied the viruses with only ‘level 2’ security – rather than the recommended level 4 – which ‘provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers’.

In the heartwarming story:

… Shi Zhengli [is] known as China’s ‘Bat Woman’ after years spent on difficult virus-hunting expeditions in dank caves that have led to a series of important scientific discoveries.

The virologist was called back to her highsecurity laboratory in Wuhan at the end of last year after a mysterious new respiratory condition in the city was identified as a novel coronavirus – and within three days she completed its gene sequencing …

Shi is a specialist in emerging diseases and has earned global acclaim for work investigating links between bats and coronaviruses, aided by expeditions to collect samples and swabs in the fetid cave networks of southern China.

She was a key part of the team that traced SARS to horseshoe bats through civets, a cat-like creature often eaten in China …

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, based ten miles from the wildlife market blamed as the source of Covid-19, developed a £30million high-security laboratory after the SARS outbreak with French assistance.

It was the first laboratory in China with P4 status – denoting highest global biosafety levels – and contains the largest virus bank in Asia.

It was this fact that sparked now discounted conspiracy theories that Covid-19 was man-made.

Shi, the laboratory’s deputy director, admits that when summoned back from a conference to investigate the new disease, she wondered at first if a coronavirus could have escaped from her unit.

She has warned about the danger of epidemics from bat-borne viruses. But she says she did not expect such an outbreak in Wuhan, in the centre of China, since her studies suggested subtropical areas in the south had the highest risk of such ‘zoonotic’ transmission to humans.

Shi told the respected science journal Scientific American last month of her relief when, having checked back through disposal records, none of the genome sequences matched their virus samples.

‘That really took a load off my mind. I had not slept a wink for days,’ she said. …

Shi has worked alongside many of the world’s top experts on infectious diseases. ‘She is a superb scientist and very nice person,’ said James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory, a high-security biocontainment centre in Texas.

‘She has been very open and collaborative for the decade I’ve worked with her.’

The fact that Shi’s superiors at the lab may have hushed up her conclusions is not contradicted by anything in the other story, and the wider narrative of Beijing’s bad faith in relation to the outbreak is not affected by either. But this seems to be essentially the same set of facts cooked two ways: one flavoured with angry, shoot-from-the-hip congressmen and conspiracy theories, the other with a personable heroine and glowing character references. An instructive reminder that journalism is not just about what you find out, but also who you then approach for comment.

Another day, another dollar

21 Jan

Stories of the disastrous Australian bushfires are winging around the globe, and donors, including celebrity donors, are responding worldwide. But while the multinational anglophone news services – the Mail, the Guardian, the BBC  –  are in prime position to spread the word of the millions being pledged, they are having trouble, not for the first time, deciding exactly what kind of millions they are.

We have previously seen how a libel settlement awarded in Australian dollars was reported around the world, even in the US, as being simply in “dollars”. But this time, it’s not the media that is being vague about currency – it seems to be the celebrity donors themselves.

Elton John announced simply that he would be donating “$1m” to firefighters, speaking live on stage at a concert in Sydney. Chris Hemsworth made the same non-specific announcement in a video on social media. John is a Briton with ties to both the US and Australia, but particularly the former; Hemsworth an Australian who works in Hollywood but now chooses to live in his home country. What denomination of currency does each of them think in when they are speaking off the cuff? What kind of dollars do they mean?

Other celebrities have joined in. The singers Kylie Minogue (Australian, famous in Australia and Britain, somewhat less so in America) and Pink (American, lives in America, popular around the world) both pledged “$500,000”. If one were to guess – and it would only be a guess – one might surmise that Minogue meant Australian dollars and Pink United States dollars. But if so, that creates considerable unease about allowing the sentence “The pop star Pink said she would donate $500,000, which is the same amount Kylie Minogue pledged.” Is it actually the same amount?

The Daily Mirror, which professes less global ambition than some of its British rivals, feels confident enough to convert Minogue’s pledge into pounds on the assumption that she meant Australian dollars: £265k (as opposed to something like £380k if she had meant US).

But they haven’t done the same for Hemsworth, her fellow Australian, who broadcast his pledge at home in Australia but was equally non-specific.

Of course, in a crisis of this magnitude, when aid is urgently needed, this is a detail that should only worry sub-editors. Or perhaps sub-editors and international hard rockers with an eye for detail:

Thanks, Metallica.

 

Reports without borders

29 Oct

One hesitates to think of the Daily Mail being subject to even less regulatory scrutiny than it currently is, but you can understand why the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) has come to the following conclusion:

IPSO’s jurisdiction regarding material published by a global digital publisher is limited to content covering events in the UK, save where the content can be viewed in the UK and:

1. The content covers events outside the UK and:

a. Principally concerns a UK national or resident who is directly and personally affected by the alleged breach of the Code; or

b. In respect of the accuracy of the content, where the coverage concerns UK nationals, residents or institutions.

Or

2. The content is based on material published in a UK print edition of a title within the global digital publisher’s group.

This might read like something of a let-off for the British media organisations that Ipso regulates. The Guardian’s former investigations editor David Leigh – now on the board of Ipso’s regulatory rival, Impress – certainly appears unimpressed by it, tweeting a link to the news with the observation: “IPSO gives Mail Online exemption from ethics regulation”. And certainly it marks the end of Ipso’s previous approach, which was to award itself discretion to investigate stories by the foreign operations of UK papers when it chose to. But will this new proposal simply function as an exemption? I think there’s more to it than that.

All this has arisen in the wake of a row between the Mail and Ipso about an article published in 2015 making claims about a “bromance” between the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, and the actor Tom Cruise. Miscavige complained about the article to Ipso in the UK on the grounds of accuracy and won. But the Mail declined to accept Ipso’s jurisdiction in the matter because, it said, the piece was almost exclusively about American people, events and locations; it had been commissioned and written in its US office; and it complied with American law. Apparently seeing some justification in the Mail’s position, Ipso launched a review into the extent of its remit with regard to international news, and published the proposed form of words quoted above in 2017; they were finally approved by its membership last month.

For the last few years, this blog has taken an interest in the rapid expansion of British media groups – notably the Guardian, Mail and BBC – into other English-speaking countries and the emergence of a nascent Anglosphere news agenda in which stories from the UK, north America and Australasia become mixed together and served to all three markets. This expansion has by and large outstripped the ability of the courts or press regulators to keep up: they remain constrained by national boundaries while news organisations are going global. (The Snowden revelations about the British secret service, for example, were published in the US, where the UK’s Official Secrets Act could not prevent them emerging.)

Ipso’s self-imposed rule change might be seen as simply an acknowledgment of this humbling reality, and an immediate victory for the Mail. But it also contains within it the seeds of a strategy that, in the long term, could revive regulators’ potency.

Ipso can only regulate those organisations that agree to be bound by its rules, of course. But as a general principle, this new approach – in effect, basing regulatory jurisdiction on the nationality of the subject of a story, rather than the nationality of the organisation writing it – is a strong one. If similar rules were to apply to every news outlet in every country (admittedly a big if), they could greatly clarify the confusion over global regulatory coverage.

Take the example of Rebel Wilson, the Australian comedy actor – a transnational figure who lives and works in Hollywood and is known across the Anglosphere. In 2017 she sued an Australian magazine in Australia for defamation and won a landmark A$4.5m (later reduced on appeal), a victory that was news in every English-speaking jurisdiction. Under the new rules, an article about the case by the Mail’s bureau in Sydney would be covered by the Australian Press Council on the grounds that Wilson was an Australian with a suit in the Australian courts. Even if the Mail’s US office were to write and publish some follow-up coverage with a Hollywood angle, the content would still of course be visible in Australia and be about an Australian citizen, so the APC would remain the active regulator. But, for the same reason, Miscavige would be unable to approach a sympathetic Ipso in the UK, and be forced to test his case against the First Amendment in his native US.

By the application of a universal, easy-to-understand rule – articles visible in a country about a citizen of that country will be adjudicated by the regulator of that country, regardless of the nationality of the newspaper in question – regulators would have a mechanism to attach media groups much more firmly to a particular regime, including more restrictive regimes like the British one. Publishing stories for UK consumption about nefarious British institutions via an American affiliate would become more perilous for UK media groups, although they would get better protection in certain cases from “complaints tourism”.

There would be some anomalies: who would have jurisdiction, for example, if Guardian US published a contentious story visible in Britain about a US-UK dual citizen committing misdeeds in New York? And we are probably a long way from national media watchdogs agreeing a reciprocal set of jurisdictional rules with each other. But this proposal is more than just a feeble “exemption” for misbehaving journalists; rather, for the regulators, it’s the first glimpse of a strategy that might get them back into a globalised game.