A comment on David Cameron’s social media remarks

Earlier today, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband both spoke in the House of Commons about the English riots. While browsing a timeline of the remarks, I was struck by something Cameron said: The government and the police were reviewing the “role of social media” in organizing the riots. At about 1 p.m., the Telegraph reported that Cameron went on to clarify, saying that sites like Twitter “could be closed down during periods of disorder.”

That general line of thinking set off my squick alarm. In the U.S., at least, speech that deliberately incites rioting or lawbreaking isn’t protected. On that note, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to A) single out social media and B) set a precedent of police and government interference in social media platforms. One night Twitter may be shut down to prevent rioting, but what else could a shut-down prevent? Who gets to decide what constitutes a “period of disorder”?

The Register took a similar tack, and wondered why Cameron wasn’t also chastising news stations for round-the-clock helicopter coverage. Such coverage, The Register suggested, gave as much of an idea as to which areas were unprotected as Twitter did.

Two years ago during the Tehran protests, Twitter was one of the only ways to get information into or out of Iran. It also played a large role in the recent Arab Spring uprisings. At its core, Twitter can be used by the disenfranchised to spread information and share their experiences. It has, I believe, a legitimate democratic underpinning, which is why I also believe that a short-sighted knee-jerk decision to shut it down in the face of yob rule is well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, if not overly authoritarian.

No one wants to see looting, rioting or property damage, but rather than simply cut off social media, the police would be wiser to adapt and use social media to infiltrate planned outbreaks. Eliminating all information would make law enforcement blind and deaf, too.

I see Cameron’s point, and I understand that much of it is the product of legitimate anger and frustration over the past few days, but if ever there was a “be careful what you (they?) wish for” moment, this is it.

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A note on News of the World

Last week, it broke that News of the World, a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, had allegedly hacked the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. As the week progressed, more allegations came out. The hacking victims now allegedly included military families and July 7 attack victims, and there were whispers of possible police corruption. The scandal broke at a bad time for Murdoch, as he prepared to bid for a heavier share of BSkyB, a deal that now looks likely to fall through. Andy Coulson, Prime Minister David Cameron’s former communications director, is embroiled in the controversy, as is Rebekah Brooks, former NOTW editor. NOTW itself has formally stopped publishing.

Plenty of people, including members of Parliament and media rivals, have trashed NOTW for its legal and ethical violations. But in throwing the tabloid (I won’t call it a newspaper) under the bus, I think we’ve missed a real opportunity to evaluate NOTW’s actions and have a debate about how this actually affects the public’s trust in journalists.

Before it was closed, NOTW beat out the Guardian, Telepgraph and Independent in readership — a “red top” gossip sheet had a bigger audience share than Britain’s big three national (and respectable) newspapers. In this sense, NOTW’s tragedy (in terms of what it wrought, not its ultimate demise) is also a readership tragedy. What they peddled, sold well. Does the public have at least some ownership in this debacle, given its appetite for salaciousness?

Given the rabid nature of British tabloids, I perceive that it’s difficult here for journalists to command and maintain trust and respect. Many newspapers, if not most, have outright political leanings, which, to their credit, they make no attempt to hide. Even the BBC isn’t without controversy, whether it’s down to salaries or coverage. I imagine that it’d be frustrating for a legitimate journalist in Britain now, constantly being suspected of hacking, political hit jobs, bias, graft and who knows what else. The many may be tarred by the actions of a few. News International also represents, to many, a corporate infestation in the media. Of course all media is corporate in some sense, but  as Murdoch (who is not a British citizen) attempts to buy more and more information properties, the public and the government have legitimate concerns about his outsized influence in politics and culture.

The NOTW’s greatest crime, in the end, may be its devastating blow to the nation’s journalism profession and its integrity.