Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Speech to political and parliamentary correspondents, Bakhu, Azerbaijan. 20.9.2006 

British political journalism is livelier, more sensational -- and potentially more dangerous for politicians and governments -- than in most other European countries. The main reason is that the British newspapers are very political in what they say and extremely powerful when it comes to deciding what is news and influencing their readers. The press does often dictate the political agenda and there is no doubt that if the Prime Minister of the day is unpopular and has lost the support of the main newspapers, then that can sometimes be enough to ensure that the government of the day is defeated.

Unlike much of Europe, Britain does not tend to have coalition governments; our elections tend to be clear cut, either the party in power is defeated or re-elected. Only very rarely do we have what we call a hung Parliament where no party has an overall majority. Our newspapers thrive in this volatile environment and the newspapers often change sides: one year they might support the government, the next the Opposition and this can be very significant because our newspapers have far larger circulations than comparable newspapers in the rest of Europe. We have seven newspapers which sell more than a million copies a day. Our nearest neighbouring country is France which like Britain has a population of around 60 million people, but it does not have a single newspaper selling a million copies, the biggest sale is only half a million.

European-wide regulations to provide for the erasure of personal details stored online will not provide an absolute right to be forgotten.  This was the clear warning of speakers at a conference on policy priorities for social media.

Facebook’s European director of policy Richard Allan told the Westminster eForum (10.7.2013) that although Facebook users had the right to delete their own profile it was not possible to erase all associated material held about an individual by other data controllers.

Lawyers representing social media companies urged the European Union to be much clearer in how it was proposing to enforce “a right to be forgotten”. 

Hazel Grant, a commercial lawyer and partner in Bristows, said the European proposal for a right of erasure of data when consent was withdrawn could not provide an absolute right to be forgotten.  The data controller concerned would have an obligation to inform third parties and ask them to erase data unless the cost was disproportionate but there was no guarantee that could be done.

“If the European Union wants to introduce a right to be forgotten it needs to be much clearer...It cannot be delivered entirely because a complete right to be forgotten would destroy history...Business needs to know how this will work”.

WikiLeaks’ practice of releasing leaked American military and diplomatic data exclusively through selected media partners was roundly criticised at the annual conference of investigative journalists held by the Norwegian SKUP foundation. 

Any journalist who in the past might have experienced a buzz on receiving a leaked document sent through the post in a plain envelope can only marvel at the prospect of having access to the vast treasure trove of confidential information made available by the whistle blowing website WikiLeaks.  A leaker of yesteryear could hardly have assembled, let alone handed over, the great mass of documents which can now be compressed into a single compact disc and then disseminated online. 

Access by journalists to the Facebook profiles of people who have died and the republication of Tweets which were exchanged between friends are two of the issues currently being considered by the Press Complaints Commission.Facebook allows subscribers to delete content pages and even remove their whole account but the company has yet to decide what policy should be adopted over access to profiles on the death of a subscriber.