The Spark Barry White on campaigns, news, events & reviews Mon, 30 Mar 2020 12:28:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Assange denied bail Mon, 30 Mar 2020 12:18:02 +0000 Continue reading Assange denied bail ]]> Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has had his application for bail denied and has been sent back to HMP Belmarsh in London. His application was rejected by District Judge Vanessa Baraitser at a hearing in Westminster Magistrates Court on 25 March. His lawyers argued that the application for bail was to avoid contracting coronavirus, which is beginning to sweep through prisons. The high security prison is no longer accepting visitors and more than 100 of its staff are self-isolating.

Speaking in Parliament on 24 March, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the virus posed an “acute” risk in prisons, many of which are overcrowded. Some 3,500 prison staff – about 10% of the workforce – were off work because they were ill or self-isolating, a committee of MPs was told.

The decision not to release Assange was strongly condemned by Doctors4Assange, a group of more than 100 doctors, who released the following statement: ‘Doctors4Assange strongly condemns Wednesday’s decision by UK District Judge Vanessa Baraitser to deny bail to Julian Assange. Despite our prior unequivocal statement that Mr Assange is at increased risk of serious illness and death were he to contract coronavirus, and the evidence of medical experts Baraitser dismissed the risk, citing UK guidelines for prisons in responding to the global pandemic: “I have no reason not to trust this advice as both evidence-based and reliable and appropriate”. Notably, however, Baraitser did not address the increased risk to Mr Assange relative to the general UK prison population, let alone prisoners at HMP Belmarsh where Assange is incarcerated. Nor did she address the rapidly emerging medical and legal consensus that vulnerable and low-risk prisoners should be released, immediately.’

They continued: ‘Adding their legal voices to these medical and human rights authorities, the day after Mr Assange’s bail hearing, three professors in law and criminology recommended “granting bail to unsentenced prisoners to stop the spread of coronavirus” see:

Julian Assange is just such an unsentenced prisoner with significant health vulnerability. He is being held on remand, with no custodial sentence or UK charge in place, let alone conviction.

Doctors4Assange are additionally concerned that keeping Assange in Belmarsh not only increases his risk of contracting coronavirus, it will increase his isolation and his inability to prepare his defence for his upcoming extradition hearing, in violation of his human right to prepare a defence. Mr Assange’s lawyers have been increasingly restricted from visiting him as prisons lockdown visitation to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

These two factors are already major contributors to Mr Assange’s psychological torture, and we are alarmed that the combination of Baraitser’s decision, together with increasingly stringent prison restrictions in response to the pandemic, will intensify that very torture. This further increases his vulnerability to coronavirus’.

Assange’s extradition case was adjourned until 7 April.

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Profit from pain… Thu, 26 Mar 2020 13:59:26 +0000 Continue reading Profit from pain… ]]> In the middle of the worst public health crisis in our lifetimes comes some familiar news. There are always some who make a profit out of public adversity. So step forward Bill Ackman a hedge fund manager who according to The Guardian (26 March) has claimed his firm made $2.6bn (£2.2bn) betting that the coronavirus outbreak would cause a market crash. And this barely a week after telling US companies: “Hell is coming”. It seems that he took advantage of bond market turmoil to make almost 100 times his original outlay of $27m on bets on market movements. Meanwhile in the UK some 5 million self-employed workers are still awaiting to hear what kind of financial support they will get. After much delay, a government announcement is expected sometime today.

But it’s not just hedge fund managers who are making massive financial windfalls. A few days earlier the General Medical Council (GMC) raised concerns that some doctors were “exploiting patients’ vulnerability” and making hundreds of thousands of pounds selling private coronavirus tests to people worried that they may have been infected with the virus. The GMC said no doctor should try to “profit from the fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic”.

The warning followed reports that Dr Mark Ali, who runs a clinic called the Private Harley Street Clinic, made a £1.7m profit selling £2.5m worth of tests in less than a week. The Sunday Times claimed that Ali boasted to a reporter that he had “done quite well actually” selling 6,664 tests for £375 each. According to press reports, the tests Ali sold were bought via a third party from testing centre Randox Laboratories, which sells the tests for £120. The tests have not been approved by Public Health England. Ali denied saying he had made £1.7m profit and when approached by the Guardian, he declined to state how much he had made. It is understood that he claimed he had been misquoted.

Days before Monday’s ‘lock down’ government announcement it was reported that wealthy families desperate to escape the coronavirus crisis in London were fleeing the capital for the country – with some offering up to £50,000-a-month for a rural sanctuary. British estate agents reported that they have been flooded with requests from the super-rich searching for mansions with bunkers, Cotswolds manor houses and uninhabited Caribbean islands to buy.

The story was highlighted in the Financial Times (Shortcuts: self-isolating in style 21/22 March) which reported that clients seeking such retreats have been prepared to double their usual holiday budgets with one booking for a nine bedroom house in the Home Counties fetching £50,000 per week for a three months tenure! It also reported that the Landmark Trust, a charity offering holidays in historic buildings had reported an increase in demand and had taken bookings for the Martello tower, a fort in Aldeburgh, Suffolk with walls more than two metres thick and the China Tower, also known as the Bicton Belvedere, an octagonal castellated Gothic tower built in 1839 and located on the Rolle Estate above the Otter estuary near Sidmouth in Devonshire. The charity emphasises that it has enhanced cleaning at its properties, including the use of virucidal disinfectants. So that’s good to know!

Meanwhile soon to be a back bencher again, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted on 24 March that people are waiting for hours on the #UniversalCredit helpline or placed up to 78,000th in an online queue. Cuts of nearly 50,000 staff from the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) since 2010 have created a failing system even before this crisis. People need financial security if they’re expected to stay home.

Enough said.





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Not another inquiry! Sun, 16 Feb 2020 16:26:37 +0000 Continue reading Not another inquiry! ]]> Last week I sent out an email to contacts telling them about a new Government inquiry into the future of journalism. Chaired by Lord Gilbert of Panteg, chair of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Select Committee, it will investigate how the production and consumption of journalism is changing, how journalists can be supported to adapt to those changes and how the profession can become more trusted by—and representative of—the general population. Within hours I received a reply from a long standing friend of mine, Mike Jempson, who has run a media reform organisation for decades. Mike has in fact been ‘in journalism’ for some 50 years, and has been director of journalism for the ethics charity MediaWise for almost a quarter of a century. He commented in an exasperated tone: “How many more times are there going to be inquiries and the like? Since 1947 they have got us nowhere! The baleful hegemony of the owners remains the same.”

Good point and having just had the Government’s response to the Cairncross Inquiry (see my blogs  about it of 9 February 2020 and 20 February 2019) quite understandable, but it is worth reading the background paper which accompanies this call for evidence (which has to be in by 25 March 2020 and see:

Here are some of the more interesting points raised by the background paper about the nature of present day journalism. It points out that: “While over 70,000 people are employed as journalists in the UK, many others engage in journalistic activities—including in related professions. Social media give individuals greater freedom to publish news and analysis themselves and make it easier for politicians to speak directly to voters.

However, this freedom can come at the expense of the external accountability and fact-checking which mediation through journalism can provide and citizen journalists may not have received the same professional and legal training. Established news brands face considerable competition from alternative sources of news and analysis online. The average national newspaper circulation has more than halved since 2010 and, as news is increasingly broken online, newspapers can rely more comment and analysis.”

Turning to publishers, it points out that they are seeking new ways to engage readers, including through journalists’ use of social media and the creation of innovative digital content. Broadcast journalism it continues “faces similar challenges as audiences decline: only half of 16–24 year-olds watch TV news compared with 94 per cent of over-65s. Journalists must learn new skills and present their work in new ways as more people get their news in a digital form.”

“In a survey by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, 70 percent of journalists reported that the intensity of their work had increased. Eighty-five per cent of journalists reported a need for an increased range of skills in the profession while around two-thirds felt that they personally needed more training. The areas in which training was most desired were the use of analytics, video editing, photo-shop, up-dated media law and data journalism.”

Some of us may also need help to adapt to the changing news media, the paper continues. “In response to a recommendation by Dame Frances Cairncross, the Government has undertaken to publish a media literacy strategy by the summer. Journalists must hold the trust of the audiences they serve in the face of scrutiny and competition on social media and other platforms as well as increased polarisation. Trust in the news fell by 11 percentage points between 2015 and 2019.”

This lack of trust in news also reflects in the lack of trust in journalists (which I have pointed to in earlier blogs). For instance A YouGov poll found that only 18 per cent of people trusted journalists to tell the truth.

As the NUJ has often pointed out, the paper reminds us that journalism, as a trade/profession, is not representative of the UK population it serves. “Only 11 per cent of journalists are from working-class backgrounds and only six per cent are not white. White university graduates from middle-class backgrounds dominate national news desks, which are based in major cities. Sixty-five per cent of journalists are employed in London and the south east, compared with 29 per cent of employees across the whole economy. Aspiring journalists without independent means face particular financial barriers. The National Council for the Training of Journalists found that 87 per cent of journalists had done work experience before going into the profession, for an average of eight weeks. Only six per cent were paid, while 21 per cent received expenses and 74 per cent were unpaid. The Sutton Trust estimates that it costs a young person at least £1,000 to do a month of unpaid work experience in London. These barriers can persist throughout a journalist’s career due to precarity of work, particularly among freelancers.”

The Sun (i.e. Murdoch) was quick to respond to the news of the inquiry saying that touched as they were by the House of Lords’ concern over journalism’s future, they wondered if they have ANY self-awareness. It continued: “Public trust in journalists has fallen,” says one peer. “The profession is not representative of the population. Excuse us? A Press read by millions is supposedly out of touch. But not unelected peers who, after failing to thwart a democratic vote, consoled themselves with an inflation-busting pay rise. Is there an institution more reviled or disconnected than the Lords itself?”

I have yet to find more sober assessments from other sections of the media, but to develop the point made by Mike at the start of this piece, if there were an award for the most parliamentary and other inquiries which failed to challenge the media landscape status quo, the plethora of handwringing investigations into the future of journalism and the press over the last seventy years would run off with the cup! Media ownership concentration is up, the power of the media owners is still feared by most politicians and remains unchallenged, despite the ‘phone hacking and related scandals of recent years.

But having said that let’s remember that journalists themselves can stand up for the trade they represent. The recent solidarity shown by lobby journalists who refused to co-operate with the changes to the way lobbying briefings were to be carried out by No.10 to reduce government accountability, shows backbone. But No 10’s grip on news management extends to limiting access to photographers. The NUJ’s Photographers’ Council has joined colleagues in condemning Downing Street’s recent attempts to control images of major state events, by excluding press photographers and issuing state-approved photographs of the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile in case you had forgotten, Lord Gilbert wants our comments to his inquiry by 25 March and there will be public sessions from March to June 2020 to hear verbal evidence. His report will be published in the summer. As for the Government, they have agreed to respond in writing to select committee reports, but no timescale is set down.

And having mentioned accountability, the government inspired attacks on the BBC is just another way of reducing their accountability to us. These are but the curtain raiser in what will be a long fight with the BBC. The BBC has its faults which must be addressed, but Johnson and his friends are out to marginalise public service broadcasting and see it replaced by a Fox News equivalent, as favoured by Dominic Cummings Boris Johnson’s most powerful adviser. Cummings was the director of the New Frontiers Foundation when it called in 2004 for a campaign to target the BBC and the creation of a Fox News equivalent that would not be constrained by impartiality rules. I don’t think he has changed his mind!

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Government finally responds to the Cairncross Review Sun, 09 Feb 2020 18:15:38 +0000 Continue reading Government finally responds to the Cairncross Review ]]> Almost a year after it was published, the government has finally responded the recommendations of Dame Frances Cairncross’s review into the sustainability of the UK news industry (see my 20 February 2019 blog at: ) . Whilst accepting most of the recommendations, it rejected the proposal to create an Institute for Public Interest News as part of proposals to support the news industry. In a statement Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan indicated that the Government was not taking forward the recommendation for the establishment of an Institute for Public Interest News as it did  not wish to have a role in defining what is ‘public interest’ news as this risked interference with the freedom of the press.

It also rejected proposals to extend charitable status to many struggling local news outlets, saying it would not be appropriate because they would be banned from supporting political parties, stopped from being for-profit, and much journalism does not work “only for the public benefit”

In a statement released at the same time Baroness Morgan said: “At the heart of any thriving democracy is a free and vibrant press.

“Its role in holding power to account and keeping the public informed of local, national and international issues is vital, and yet in this country its future is under threat.”

The government is now committed to review how online advertising is regulated and is seeking views on the problems, as well as the benefits, that the rise of online advertising has brought for people and businesses, including news publishers. This work will complement and supplement other relating reviews, including work by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) a non-ministerial government department, responsible for strengthening business competition and preventing and reducing anti-competitive activities; the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The call for evidence runs for 8 weeks between 27 January and 23 March (see: ).

Resulting from its response, the Government has

  • Committed to take forward work on the recommendation to create codes of conduct to rebalance and redefine the relationships between news publishers and online platforms, in alignment with wider work on digital regulation. This would help ensure journalists in the UK are fairly treated and rewarded for their content.
  • Confirmed that the world-leading proposals for a new regulatory framework set out in the Online Harms White Paper should lead to platforms doing more to help people identify the reliability and trustworthiness of online news sources. (In response to the call for online platforms’ efforts to improve users’ news experiences to be placed under regulatory supervision.)
  • Progressed work on developing a new online media literacy strategy, with plans to publish this in the summer.
  • Established the £2 million pilot Future News Fund, run by Nesta (in response to the recommendation for a new fund focused on innovations to improve the supply of public-interest news, to be run by an independent body). The fund will invest in new technological prototypes, start-ups and innovative business models to explore new ways of sustaining the press in a changing landscape.
  • The Treasury will consider the case for a range of potential tax incentives to support the news publishing industry this year, including policy options on VAT, notwithstanding recent litigation in this area. The Government has also announced formally today that it is extending the £1,500 business rates discount for office space occupied by local newspapers in England for an additional five years, until 31 March 2025, as part of its efforts to support local and regional journalism.

Henry Faure Walker, chair of the industry lobby group News Media Association, said he was “disappointed at the lack of clear financial commitment by the government to implement the recommendations”, warning that the new innovation fund appears to be bypassing traditional local news publishers.

He concluded that: “Without swift and significant market intervention now, the flow of independent, high-quality local news and information which is essential for the functioning of our democracy can no longer be guaranteed.”

Meanwhile the NUJ condemned the government’s response to the Cairncross Review recommendations as a wasted opportunity to address the crisis facing local journalism.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The Cairncross Review demonstrated the stark challenges facing journalism, and the NUJ welcomed its recommendations as a unique opportunity to address the deepening crisis and take action to stem the damage being done to our democracy. This tardy response from the government, jettisoning an Institute for Public Interest News on spurious grounds, fails to acknowledge the scale of the crisis in the media industry and demonstrates a lack of vision when it comes to implementing meaningful solutions.

Refusing to open up charitable status as a business model is also short-sighted – whilst it may not suit the needs of some major publishers, it would have provided an opportunity for many smaller and new entries into the industry who are committed to the provision of quality public interest news. The response fails to address the need to bolster diverse and sustainable journalism in the UK. Calling for the BBC to fork out even more from the licence fee we pay for our public service broadcaster is not a solution to the problems the industry faces – this ‘more of the same’ approach is simply not going to cut it.”

The full NUJ response may be found at:


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“Assange, Snowden, Manning and Harrison are the resistance fighters of the 21st century” Wed, 05 Feb 2020 11:19:00 +0000 Continue reading “Assange, Snowden, Manning and Harrison are the resistance fighters of the 21st century” ]]> Free Assange demonstration in London
Free Assange demonstration in London
Citizens, journalists, artists, human rights organisations and journalists’ unions gathered on January 29th in Brussels to call on the Belgian government to do its utmost to protect Julian Assange and impede his extradition to the United States.

The International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ and EFJ) joined the two Belgian civil society organisations, Carta Academica and Belgium4Assange, in two public actions organised in Brussels to defend freedom of expression, freedom of the press and our right to know in general, and Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Sarah Harrison and Edward Snowden in particular.

Over 120 personalities, artists, activists and journalists and a dozen organisations, including the International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ and EFJ), signed a joint petition to the Belgian authorities to urge action on Julian Assange’s case. The text asks the Belgian government to recognise Julian Assange as a political prisoner, send observers to his trial, grant him international protection and do its utmost to impede his extradition to the US.

“This text calls on the Belgian government to recognise Julian Assange as a political prisoner, to send observers to his trial, to grant him international protection and to do everything possible to prevent his extradition to the United States,” said Vincent Engel, representative of Carta Academica, at the Palais des Académies.

The event also served as a ceremony to grant an Academic Honoris Causa title to four whistleblowers for their contributions to citizens’ right to know by denouncing crimes and state secrets. This honorary title was granted to Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Sarah Harisson and Julian Assange, whose father, John Shipton received it on his behalf.

“We are receiving lots of support from all over the world, also in Europe. Recently, the Council of Europe voted unanimously against Julian’s extradition and calling for his immediate release. All these actions are very important. Thank you all for all the efforts you are doing, especially to the IFJ”, John Shipton said after receiving the title.

IFJ General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger, also sent an official request to the Commune of Brussels –the local council of the city- to provide Julian Assange with the Brussels’ honorary citizenship. The request was rapidly accepted by its mayor.

“I solemnly asked today the commune of Brussels and its mayor to recognise Julian Assange as an honorary citizen of Brussels. Assange’s father, John Shipton, said he will be delighted to come to the Grand Place, in the heart of Europe, to receive the title on behalf of Julian. I am at the disposal of the Mayor of Brussels to organise everything”, said Anthony Bellanger.

“I am very happy today to celebrate with you these modern-day heroes who have sacrificed themselves to defend the citizens’ right to know,” said Edwy Plenel, founder and president of Mediapart.

“Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Sarah Harrisson are the resistance fighters of the 21st century. They sacrificed their freedom and lives for telling the truth,” added Anthony Bellanger, standing on the fourth chair of Davide Dormino’s sculpture, “Anything to say”, at Place de la Monnaie in Brussels, renamed Place Julian-Assange for the occasion.

Meanwhile UK journalist Roy Greenslade writing in The Guardian on 2 February points out that Assange has been charged with 17 counts under the US Espionage Act of 1917, each of which carries a 10-year sentence, and one of “conspiracy to commit computer intrusion”, which carries a five-year maximum sentence. He could therefore be jailed for 175 years. The article goes on to argue that the aim of the charges is to halt whistleblowers and stop journalists giving them a platform.

He concludes: “I would like to see Britain’s editors – national, regional and local – get to grips with this case in advance of the first hearing, due to start on 24 February, and then to issue a considered statement, probably through the Society of Editors, opposing Assange’s extradition. At the same time, they need to alert their readers and pressure politicians, in order to highlight the injustice of this prosecution and why it is so important. They don’t have to change their minds about the man’s character. They just need to stick to the principle.

I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to see a parallel between the Assange case and the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s, in which a Jewish artillery captain in the French army was falsely convicted of spying. At least Dreyfus was eventually released from Devil’s Island. If the US gets its hands on Assange, there will be precious little hope of escape.

It is sobering to note that Manning, whose original sentence was commuted, is now in jail because she refuses to testify against Assange. She, too, is a hero of press freedom.”

Speaking at a London rally on 4 February in defence of Julian, NUJ national executive member Tim Dawson said that the judicial instruments being used against Julian Assange are a monstrous attack on press freedom,

Unless journalists wake up to this threat and focus on the grievous harm that his successful prosecution represents, the ability of any of us to report will be seriously damaged, he said. The rally, called by the Don’t Extradite Julian Assange Campaign, was held in anticipation of Assange extradition hearings, expected to start at Woolwich Crown Court on Monday 24 February.

An audience estimated at 600 also heard from Jen Robinson, Assange’s barrister, John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, and Kristinn Hrafnsson, and Wikileaks editor-in-chief.

Tim Dawson said:

“Debating whether Assange is, or is not, really a journalist is irrelevant at this moment. So are judgements on his past behaviour or character. The legal devices being deployed to try and take him to the US are unprecedented and terrifying for anyone whose journalism touches on state security, defence or espionage. If Assange is sent from here to start a prison sentence that could be as long as 175 years, then no journalist is safe.”

Sources: EFJ web site:

Roy Greenslade:

NUJ website:

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International journalist statement in defence of Julian Assange Sat, 04 Jan 2020 18:28:02 +0000 Continue reading International journalist statement in defence of Julian Assange ]]> The following statement was published on the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) web site on 2 January 2020.

“Julian Assange, publisher of Wikileaks, is currently detained in Belmarsh high-security prison in the United Kingdom. He faces extradition to the United States and criminal prosecution under the US Espionage Act. He has been charged for publishing the Afghanistan and Iraq war diaries and US embassy cables, important documents that many journalists around the world used and helped to publicise. The “War Diaries” provided evidence that the US Government misled the public about activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and committed war crimes.

“We believe that the arbitrary detention and criminal prosecution of Julian Assange set an extremely dangerous precedent for journalists, media actors and freedom of the press,” said EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez. The European Federation of Journalists submitted today an alert to the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists and other Media Actors, in order to denounce the continued arbitrary detention and psychological torture of Julian Assange.

Many jurists, politicians, journalists and academics consider that the arrest of Julian Assange constitutes an attack on freedom of the press and international law: his arrest by police in the UK, after the Ecuadorian Government decided to stop granting him asylum in their London embassy, and his prosecution in the United States for publishing leaked documents of public interest set a dangerous precedent for journalists, whistleblowers, and other media actors that the US may wish to pursue in the future.

Julian Assange was arrested by the British police on 11 April 2019. Later that day, he was found guilty of breaching the UK Bail Act. On 1 May 2019, he was sentenced to 50 weeks in prison in the United Kingdom. On the same day, the United States government unsealed an indictment against Assange for alleged computer intrusion, related to a series of leaks provided by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. On 23 May 2019, the United States government further charged Assange with violating the Espionage Act of 1917.

In reaction to the latest charges of violating the US Espionage Act, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Michelle Stanistreet, said: “Such a move poses a huge threat, one that could criminalise the critical work of investigative journalists and their ability to protect their sources. It is the latest unacceptable act from an administration determined to treat journalists as enemies of the people.”

The EFJ shares, together with the IFJ, the concerns expressed by the “Speak Up for Assange” campaign, launched on 6 December 2019: “This case stands at the heart of the principle of free speech. If the US government can prosecute Mr Assange for publishing classified documents, it may clear the way for governments to prosecute journalists anywhere, an alarming precedent for freedom of the press worldwide. Also, the use of espionage charges against people publishing materials provided by whistleblowers is a first and should alarm every journalist and publisher. In a democracy, journalists can reveal war crimes and cases of torture and abuse without having to go to jail. It is the very role of the press in a democracy. If governments can use espionage laws against journalists and publishers, they are deprived of their most important and traditional defense – of acting in the public interest – which does not apply under the Espionage Act.”

After examining Assange in prison on 9 May 2019, United Nations special rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Nils Melzer concluded, “in addition to physical ailments, Mr Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma.”

In a letter sent on 29 October 2019 to the UK government, Melzer wrote: “I found that the UK had contributed decisively to producing the observed medical symptoms, most notably through its participation, over the course of almost a decade, in Mr Assange’s arbitrary confinement, his judicial persecution, as well as his sustained and unrestrained public mobbing, intimidation and defamation. (…) British officials have contributed to Mr Assange’s psychological torture or ill-treatment, whether through perpetration, or through attempt, complicity or other forms of participation. (…) Recurring and serious violations of Mr Assange’s due process rights by UK authorities have rendered both his criminal conviction and sentencing for bail violation and the US extradition proceedings inherently arbitrary. (…) Mr Assange’s state of health has further deteriorated and has recently entered a down-ward spiral which may well put his life in danger. (…) The detention regime currently imposed on Mr Assange appears to be unnecessary, disproportionate, and discriminatory and to perpetuate his exposure to psychological torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

In November 2019, Melzer recommended that Mr Assange’s extradition to US be barred and that he be promptly released.

The EFJ calls on journalists and people in journalism-related roles to sign the international journalist statement in defence of Julian Assange.”

Meanwhile the President of Mexico has expressed his solidarity with Julian Assange, saying he hopes the Australian WikiLeaks founder will soon be pardoned and freed.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said liberating Assange would be a “just cause.” Lopez Obrador expressed his solidarity with Assange and said he hoped the former hacker and activist is “forgiven and released.”

The Mexican president told a press conference in his country on 3 January 2020, that cables published by WikiLeaks demonstrated the workings of the global system and its “authoritarian” nature.

“I hope that this is taken into consideration and he is freed and he is no longer tortured,” he said.

“There are cables that came to light from when we were in opposition and they spoke about our struggle and I can corroborate that they are true, that is to say what is in them was accurate, they revealed illegal relationships, illegitimate acts, violations of sovereignty, contrary to democracy, against freedoms, this is what is in there.

“So I express my solidarity and my wish that he is pardoned and that it is considered, that he is liberated he could offer an apology.

“Liberating him will be a very just cause for human rights; it will be an act of humility on the part of the authority that has to decide on the liberty of this journalist.”

It was reported recently in the Mail Online that on Christmas Eve Julian Assange phoned a friend to alert the world that his life is in danger inside London’s high security Belmarsh prison. Vaughan Smith, a freelance video news journalist who gave refuge to Assange in 2010 at his home in Ellingham Hall, Norfolk, when he was legally fighting against attempts to extradite him to Sweden, tweeted that Assange called his family on 24 December. Smith wrote: “He told my wife and I how he was slowly dying in Belmarsh where, though only on remand, he is kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and is often sedated.

There are concerns that Julian could die in prison, and it is shameful that calls for explanations about his detention, his solitary confinement and poor health have gone unanswered by the authorities.





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Media reform – are the parties up to the challenge? Sat, 07 Dec 2019 17:52:27 +0000 Continue reading Media reform – are the parties up to the challenge? ]]> The central role the media has played in the General Election Campaign is undeniable. So is the pro Conservative party dominance of much of the national press together with its anti-Labour party bias. Social media has again offered alternative platforms for the parties and people to get their messages across. Since the last election we have seen increasing consolidation of media ownership, the latest takeover being announced at the end of November when JPIMedia sold the i newspaper and website for a reported £49.6m to the billionaire Lord Rothermere’s  Daily Mail and General Trust, which owns the Mail on Sunday and MailOnline. Meanwhile press baron David Montgomery is in talks to buy JPIMedia which owns dozens of major local British newspapers.

So what new policies do the parties offer to counter these concerns and make our media ‘fit for purpose’?

The Conservative Party’s manifesto does not say much, generally happy with the status quo, and the support they get from the majority of the press, but what it says is significant. On free TV licences for the over 75s, it states that: “We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.” The BBC has said it will continue to provide TV licences to over 75s who claim means-tested pension credit.

On the press: “…we will repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which seeks to coerce the press” and: We will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry”. This is not new. After the last election the May government said it would repeal section 40 and scrap Leveson2, but these proposals were not implemented. The government did not have the numbers to pass the necessary legislation.

The Section 40 decision is heavily criticised by Natalie Fenton of the Media Reform Coalition who says; “Section 40…is key to persuading the press to join a recognised regulator through a system of carrots and sticks – if a news publisher joins a recognised regulator then access to low cost arbitration becomes mandatory. This removes the threat of potentially huge losses for both ordinary citizens who may be the victims of illegal journalistic behaviour and for publishers who may be threatened by a wealthy litigant who doesn’t like what they have printed.”

However, Section 40 has been criticised by a number of press freedom organisations as well as the media owners. Tim Gopsill editor of the CPBF’s Free Press writing on Leveson in its final issue (215, Summer 2018) stated that: “…we have ended up with demure and pointless Press Recognition Panel (PRP) and above all the absurd injustice of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act under which the redress that people might attain from a publication would depend on which regulator the offender happens to be affiliated to…” Index on Censorship describes Section 40 “as a direct threat to press freedom and must be scrapped…”

Labour has six main pledges including supporting public service broadcasting and local newspapers and media outlets; action to address monopolistic hold tech giants have on advertising revenues and to safeguard a healthy plurality of media ownership.

They also promised to provide free “full-fibre” broadband for every home and business. As an article in the Guardian’s Society ( ‘Labour’s broadband plan could radically change young people’s life chances’ Sandra Leaton Gray 3 December) points out: “… This manifesto commitment goes well beyond flinging an election freebie at voters largely able to pay for subscriptions themselves. … speed and access are not the only problems. When young people do access the internet, which is most likely to be through a mobile phone, they see different things: those in deprived areas are bombarded with burger and betting advertisements, while young people in more affluent areas are shown advertisements for university open days and sports equipment. … Sneaky algorithms assess how far you live from a telephone exchange or mobile phone mast, whether you are accessing the internet by phone, copper or fibre broadband, the geolocation of your IP address, and even the monetary value and age of the device you are using. …The way to change this grubby commercial practice is to standardise provision.”

The article also reminds us that:” We see parents in deprived areas paying a small fortune for subscriptions offering a few miserly kilobytes of decrepit and creaking copper broadband…” This is happening not only in rural areas, but in urban/city internet cold spots. The proposal aims to bring about high quality provision for all.

The Liberal Democrats also offer six main pledges including the introduction of a Leveson compliant regulator and holding Leveson2, while the Green Party offer four, which include the need to: “safeguard a healthy plurality of media ownership”. Both the Scottish and Welsh national parties want devolution of media policy to their parliaments.

All but the Conservative Party have made attempts to address some of the long standing policy concerns highlighted by media reformers, but need to go much further if we are to have a media that serves our 21st century democracy. Urgent reform is needed to reclaim the media in the interest of the public.

For details of manifesto media policies see:

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The Tory manifesto – an Executive ‘power grab’ – we have been warned Tue, 26 Nov 2019 17:18:29 +0000 Continue reading The Tory manifesto – an Executive ‘power grab’ – we have been warned ]]>  

If elected on 12 December, will a new Tory government unleash an attack on some of the democratic traditions we have taken for granted for many years? After all, during the last parliament there were frequent attacks on MPs’ attempts to hold the government to account over Brexit because, as representatives of the people, they wanted to have a final say on the proposed withdrawal deal and taking ‘no deal’ off the table. A case of the Commons ‘taking back control’ you might say.

The Commons elected only two years earlier, reflected the close division in the UK over leaving the EU, so it was no surprise after the election when the government having failed to seek a cross party approach to leaving, acted in the way they did. But it was not just the Commons that sought to take back control, to exercise Parliamentary sovereignty, the courts were also involved. That’s not the way the right wing press saw it over the past three years. Accusations of ‘Enemies of the People’ and ‘The House of Fools’(Daily Mail), ‘EU Dirty Rats’(Sun) and ‘Parliament surrenders to the EU’ (Daily Express) were flung at those who had the nerve to hold the government to account.

In September 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of giving MPs a say over triggering Article 50 – the legal mechanism taking the UK out of the EU. The May Government did not want parliament to have such a say. Two years later Gina Miller was back in court, this time over the decision of Prime Minister Johnson to recommend the Queen to suspend parliament. The Supreme Court found in her favour, ruling that the decision to suspend Parliament was unlawful. Meanwhile Boris Johnson went on record as describing parliament as a “nuisance” and a threat to his policy of taking Britain out of the EU by his deadline of 31 October.

Fast forward to the publication of the Conservative manifesto for the general election, page 48 which reads:

“After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.”

Fair enough? Not according to Sean O’Grady writing in the On-line Independent on 25 November. He warns: “I think they’re going to scrap the remaining practical rights and prerogatives of the House of Commons in an act of spite.” Referring to the parliamentary procedures used by the Commons to take back control over the order of business of the house and making ministers accountable for their actions he warns that a: … “Johnson administration, if elected, is going to stop all that malarkey. They will also – it is more or less explicit – interfere in the judiciary and restrict the powers of the Supreme Court to rule on issues such as the prorogation of parliament. There has been talk – not in this manifesto admittedly – of making the judges politically accountable, by being ratified via hearings by parliament, in the way they are in the United States. They have not forgiven Lady Hale and her colleagues for their ruling that the suspension of parliament in the autumn was unlawful, null and void. Neither would I be surprised if they pack the Lords with new and obedient Tory peers.”

The manifesto also says that: “The failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit – the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum – has opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people. If the Brexit chaos continues, with a second referendum and a second Scottish referendum too, they will lose faith even further.” And how will these changes be brought about? The manifesto continues: “In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”.

The problems go wider than this. No doubt the commission would undertake a public consultation which it would consider, but it would be foolish to deny serious public concerns about parliament’s disconnection with many sections of the public and its failure to speak up for many of those it represents. The expenses scandal that erupted over ten years ago and shook the political system to its foundation lives long in the public memory. And as Chris McLaughin editor-at-large pointed out in the summer edition of Tribune: “Nine years ago, a two year inquiry by a specially appointed speaker’s conference on Parliamentary Representation concluded that: ‘at present few people think that MPs understand, or share, the life experiences of the people they represent’, That report lamented the ‘under representation of groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, LGBT communities, as well as the decline in people voting in elections…”

If they do form a government post 12 December, will the Tories’ new commission take seriously and review the recommendations made in 2010 by the Speaker’s Conference or will they use it to strengthen the powers of the executive over parliament and maybe even the courts and further curtail our civil liberties in the interests of ‘effective government’?

After all it was only in April that the Hansard Society’s audit of political engagement reported that the UK public was increasingly disenchanted with MPs and government and ever more willing to welcome the idea of authoritarian leaders who would ignore parliament. Almost three-quarters of those asked said the system of governance needed significant improvement, and other attitudes emerged that “challenge core tenets of our democracy”, the audit’s authors stated. The study, compiled annually by the democracy charity, found that when people were asked whether “Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules”, 54% agreed and only 23% said no.

These findings taken with Johnson’s record and the proposals set out in their manifesto should sound alarm bells.


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Election 2019 – Future of the Media – what the parties say Sat, 23 Nov 2019 16:10:04 +0000 Continue reading Election 2019 – Future of the Media – what the parties say ]]> With less than three weeks to go before the general election on 12 December all the main parties, have published their election manifestos. Below are their proposals on the future of the media which I have taken from their manifestos (or ‘Contract with the People’ in the case of the Brexit Party).  Any additional points I may have missed welcome.

Brexit Party

Scrap the licence fee by phasing out the BBC licence fee, which is currently £154.50 a year for most people.

Conservative and Unionist Party

We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.

Through the Cultural Investment Fund… we will also support activities, traditions and events that bring communities together. We will support local and regional newspapers, as vital pillars of communities and local democracy, including by extending their business rates relief.

We will champion freedom of expression and tolerance, both in the UK and overseas. } To support free speech, we will repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2014, which seeks to coerce the press.

We will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry.

We will continue our campaigns to promote international media freedom

Green Party

Protect the BBC, reinstate free TV licences for over-75-year-olds and tighten the rules on media ownership so no individual or company owns more than 20% of a media market. To further challenge the control of our media by big tech and unaccountable billionaires, the Green Party will ensure that a suitable independent regulator is better able to safeguard a healthy plurality of media ownership, to undertake regular plurality reviews and to trigger remedies where necessary. The recommendations of the 2012 Leveson Report will be implemented, to hold the UK press to high ethical standards.

Support, through new grants, the growth of a wider range of civic-minded local news publishers. Local newspapers in the UK are an important part of our democracy and culture yet many are closing or struggling to survive.

Introduce a Digital Bill of Rights that establishes the UK as a leading voice on standards for the rule of law and democracy in digital spaces and ensure independent regulation of social media providers. This legislation will safeguard elections by responding to the challenges of foreign interference, social media and declining confidence in democracy.

Introduce a public interest defence for breaching the Official Secrets Act, alongside better protection and support for whistle-blowers in the public and private sectors.

Labour Party

A Labour government will ensure a healthy future for all our public service broadcasters, including BBC Alba and S4C. We will protect free TV licences for over-75s.

A free and fair press is vital to protecting democracy and holding the powerful to account.

We will address misconduct and the unresolved failures of corporate governance raised by the second stage of the abandoned Leveson Inquiry. We will take steps to ensure that Ofcom is better able to safeguard a healthy plurality of media ownership and to put in place clearer rules on who is fit and proper to own or run TV and radio stations. We will take action to address the monopolistic hold the tech giants have on advertising revenues and will support vital local newspapers and media outlets.

We will consult media-sector workers and trade unions to establish an inquiry into the ‘fake news’ undermining trust in media, democracy and public debate, and on a legal right of public interest defence for journalists.

Lib Dems

A well-functioning democracy should have a high standard of public debate in which: citizens are supported, educated and empowered to distinguish between facts and lies; there is a pluralistic media environment where journalists have the resources they need to find the truth and to hold the powerful to account; civility in public discourse is protected; election procedures and rules are upheld robustly and quickly. However, these foundations of our democratic way of life are under threat. Liberal Democrats are the only party forward-looking enough to do what it takes to foster high quality public debate. We will:

Mandate the provision of televised leaders’ debates in general elections, based on rules produced by Ofcom.

Introduce a Leveson-compliant regulator to be given oversight of both privacy and quality, diversity and choice in both print and online media and proceed with Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry.

Expect the BBC both to provide impartial news and information, and to take a leading role in increasing media literacy and educating all generations in tackling the impact of fake news.

Strengthen and expand the lobbying register and ban MPs from accepting paid lobbying work.

Review the need for any election safeguarding legislation that is needed to respond to emerging challenges of the internet age, such as foreign interference in elections.

Protect the independence of the BBC and set up a BBC Licence Fee Commission, maintain Channel 4 in public ownership and protect the funding and editorial independence of Welsh language broadcasters.

Scotland and Wales

Plaid Cymru

Plaid Cymru is seeking the devolution of broadcasting so that we can create a level playing field with every other UK nation and give Wales the power to decide its own media and broadcasting policy. In government we will promote a Welsh media that represents the people of Wales and what matters to them.

Scottish National Party

We continue to believe that responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland should transfer from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. In the meantime we welcome the creation of a new BBC Scotland TV channel and its associated investment. We will continue to push for greater authority and funding to be moved from BBC network to BBC Scotland. We will also continue to push for a fairer share of the TV licence fee raised in Scotland being spent in Scotland.

We welcome the proposals for the relocation of Channel 4 out with London (sic), and SNP MPs will make a strong case for as many functions of the Channel 4 operation as possible to be based in Scotland.

As the UK government consults on proposals to reduce the requirement for local content on radio, SNP MPs will seek to protect local news and other content provided by local commercial radio stations, recognising the valuable contribution they make to informing and entertaining listeners.

We remain committed to a vibrant, free press and we will work with other parties, in Scotland and at Westminster, to ensure it is supported.

We will make the case for the Scottish Parliament to have the power to decide which sporting events in Scotland are included in the list of those that are free to view in Scotland. We will demand that the UK government reinstates its funding for Gaelic broadcast

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Urgent action needed to support public service broadcasting says Lords Committee Thu, 07 Nov 2019 15:59:59 +0000 Continue reading Urgent action needed to support public service broadcasting says Lords Committee ]]> Just hours before Parliament was dissolved at one minute past midnight on 6 November, the House of Lords’ Communications and Digital Committee published a report calling for urgent action to safeguard the future of public service broadcasting. The report – ‘Public service broadcasting: as vital as ever ‘ – points to the current threats and calls for urgent measures to safeguard the future of broadcasting as a vital part of UK society and democracy. It warns that public service broadcasters (PSBs) need to be better supported to ensure that they can continue to produce high-quality drama and documentaries which reflect and examine UK culture. In return, the broadcasters need to adapt to ensure that they serve and reflect all audiences.

The committee also raises concerns about the integrity of the licence fee as the guarantor of the BBC’s financial independence, describing how it has been undermined by a succession of settlements which were carried out behind closed doors. It condemns the decision to hand over responsibility to the BBC for free licences for the over-75s, saying: “The BBC should not have been offered, or accepted, responsibility for over-75s’ licences.” The committee calls for a new, independent and transparent process for setting the licence fee and recommends the establishment of a new body called the BBC Funding Commission to help set the licence fee.

In its background introduction the report reminds us that “twenty years ago most people relied on five free-to-air terrestrial channels provided by public service broadcasters (PSBs) with a statutory public service remit. The output of commercial broadcasters was available to only a minority of viewers who subscribed to Sky or cable services. Since then choice has increased dramatically. In 1998 the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Bureau (an independent body which monitors viewing figures) reported on 57 channels, while in 2018 it reported on 342 (at the time of writing this was the most recent year for which figures were available). Television was generally watched at the time of broadcast—recording on VHS was the exception. The introduction of technology such as the digital video recorder (such as TiVo) and internet-enabled catch-up services has enabled viewers to watch TV when it suits them. For some, especially many young people, watching so-called ‘linear’ TV in real-time is now the exception rather than the norm. Viewers also watch content on a range of devices including smartphones, laptops and tablets.”

Faced with a revolution in technology, the unprecedented competition from Netflix, Amazon Prime and other subscription video on demand services and subsequent changes in viewing behaviour, the report includes the following recommendations:

  • Listed sports events: The committee recommends a modest increase in the number of listed sports events, which must be shown free to air. This could include The Ashes and The Open Golf Championship.

  • TV production: The UK production sector is a national success story, but it is at risk of reaching full capacity and overheating. The committee recommends changes to High-End TV tax relief and the Apprenticeship Levy, as well as a review of the Terms of Trade between PSBs and independent producers to determine whether they should still apply to larger companies (see para 125 – 132 of the Report).

  • Regulation and funding: The Government should support PSBs in the new technological environment, and think very carefully before imposing any further regulatory or financial burdens on them. The committee does not support a levy on subscription video on demand services at the moment.

The report’s summary sets out thirty three paragraph recommendations and the report itself has been welcomed by the NUJ. Commenting, General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “This report raises clear alarm bells about the future of public service broadcasting in the UK and the perils it currently faces. Given the current parlous levels of public discourse, and political divisions that exist, quality well-resourced journalism is needed more than ever and public service broadcasting is vital. The NUJ agrees that urgent action is needed to address the challenges public service broadcasting faces and this should be prioritised by the incoming government after the general election.”

Among those giving evidence to the committee were Professor Des Freedman and Dr.Tom Mills from the Media Reform Coalition. Their evidence can be found at:

BECTU (Prospect) the broadcasting union also gave evidence at:

The full report is at:

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