Newsnotes 2002 08

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M. Williams

Journalists – spies for God

Stamp on e-mail


Journalists – spies for God

The media’s ‘Right to be Nosy’ is so important that journalists must protect sources even when the source undoubtedly lied.  This is the message we are getting from the long-running ‘Interbrew’ dispute.

What happened is that a Belgian brewer called Interbrew had been pondering the idea of taking over a company called South African Breweries.  Internal documents were doctored and then leaked to the press, with the haze idea  falsely presented as a definite plan.  “The source suspected of doctoring the documents had even taken the trouble to attach a false timetable for the impending deal.”  (Independent, 12 July 2002, Robert Verkaik.)

I’ve not heard it suggested that Interbrew had done anything wrong, nothing against the normal rules.  There was no ‘public interest’ in leaking a legitimate commercial secret.  And secret for good reason, for when the news broke, shares in South African Breweries went up while those in Interbrew went down.

The strong suspicion is that was all a planned fraud.  I have no liking for judges, but I can’t dispute the conclusion “There is no public interest in dissemination of falsehood.”  Myself, I see no right to leak confidential data when there is no wrongdoing is one thing.   But what the press have been upholding has been a virtual a right to commit fraud, just so long as newspapers are involved.

Jeremy Warner, writing in the Independent (12th July 2002) mentions an earlier case when “Department of Trade and Industry inspectors were investigating alleged instances of insider dealing in the City.  It was their contention that I was being used to get information into the public domain, causing share prices to rise or fall, and enabling an insider-dealing ring to make money.

“My contention then, backed by this newspaper, was that whether or not this was true, there was a legitimate case for publishing what were good, exclusive stories.  “Further, that to disclose the sources, which in fact were many and varied, would have discouraged the free flow of information… because sources would know they were liable to be disclosed.”

And so what.  Unless some serious misdeed is being exposed, why should people be allowed to break their word and betray their colleagues at work?  Yet loud complaints from the press have led to Interbrew backing down and letting the matter be handled by the official financial regulators, who have an astonishingly bad record for catching rich miscreants.  Victory for freedom?  It’s enough to make a cat laugh!

What, indeed, has been the net effect of ‘investigative journalism’.  The ‘spies for God’ got Maudling, who had been foolish but not really wicked.  This meant one less substantial Liberal-Tory when it came time to replace Edward Heath, which gave Thatcher her opening.

News only gets circulated if the major newspapers want it.  Being run as businesses, dependent on advertising, they are much closer to the views of the business community than to the society as a whole.  The press has a bias to rich and well-connected.  Even some considerable power, a means of control over politicians with a bisexual past that might or might not be made public.

Stamp on e-mail

E-mail is a wonderful thing, but any user will be plagued by an unbelievable amount of ‘spam’.  Unwanted messages sent out in the hope that maybe one in ten thousand may hit a useful target.  It’s worse than junk mail, because at least junk mail pays a stamp and helps keep the public mail service in being.  One pushy person can waste the time of ten thousand recipients at very little cost to themselves.

I think it needs regulation, and in fact a stamp.  Say 10p per recipient, with companies own internal e-mail exempt, you could write to 20 friends for the price of a beer.  It would be a user choice, you could refuse ‘unstamped’ e-mail except from people you knew.

The idea of a stamp on e-mail was floated last year as a joke, and caused horror among the net-libertarians.  The failure of the real world to act according to their beliefs has only made them more determined to create the world of their choice without any state rules and regulation.

It is a truth well understood by all Californians that people left alone will behave exactly like the better sort of Californian.  This from a territory which the US government seized from Mexico by superior use of armed force—though the quiet and almost defenceless Native Californians were mostly exterminated informally, hunted and killed by white settlers without the need for the US Army to help out.

That’s Libertarian Freedom.  Not vulgar freedom, people doing what they like, quite possibly stupid or self-destructive or quite unlike what you hoped they would do.  No, this is Reinvented freedom.  When a rule or regulation interferes with your own chosen life-style, it’s TYRANNY!  When it’s only someone else’s chosen life-style, it’s bureaucracy.  When it stops something you want stopped, one must be pragmatic in an imperfect world.


The long-running dispute that began with a clumsy partition still threatens war.  But war over what?

India wants no more of Kashmir, nor any part of undisputed Pakistan. They might be attracted by the thought of a quick cheap war, but (M) had made it clear he would escalate if this was tried, even to the extent of using nuclear weapons.

India’s presence in Kashmir depends on a single key road, quite close to the border.  Supposing Pakistan used a nuclear bomb to cut it?

Pakistan would like to take Indian Kashmir and avenge their defeat over Bangladesh. But it seems agreed that they are unlikely to win a conventional war.

The prospect of war seems to suit both the rival governments, it encourages patriotism.  But an actual war, with the certainty that either side would use nuclear weapons if they faced defeat from conventional forces?  It makes no sense.

[The crisis did indeed fade away again.]

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