Saturday, 31 July 2010
Thursday, 15 July 2010
It is often claimed that investigative journalism is dead, or at least on its last legs – the victim of cutbacks in resources and investment by the news industry.
But from what I saw and heard at the July summer school organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), truth-seeking and holding authority to account is not only alive and well, but safe in the hands of a new breed of “information activists”.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (right) believes the future depends upon networks of hackers and whistleblowers working to expose corruption and human rights abuses wherever they are found. Assange’s presentation was added to the schedule at the eleventh hour, possibly because he is constantly on the move to avoid spooks who would like to shut his network down.
Assange describes Wikileaks as an “uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking”. This aim has been achieved with remarkable success given its skeleton staff and total reliance for its funding upon individual donations. Launched in 2007, during its short life it has exposed more scandals than some newspapers in their entire lifetime.
It came of age this year with the release of an incriminating video that shows the crew of US helicopter gloating after an attack on civilians in Baghdad in July 2007 that left, amongst the carnage, two Reuters personnel dead and many others – including children – injured.
Also this year Wikileaks stepped in to publish the leaked “Minton Report” that exposed the danger posed by toxic waste dumped by oil firm Trafigura on unsuspecting residents of the Ivory Coast – leading 10,000 people to fall ill. Despite the clear public interest in this story, Britain’s media was gagged by a super injunction, granted by a judge, which not only banned reporting of the story but also banned reporting of the injunction itself!
It took the intervention of a friendly MP (and former Observer journalist) Paul Farrelly, who tabled a question in the Commons using Parliamentary privilege, before the British public were allowed to read the facts. Farrelly and David Leigh, investigations editor for The Guardian, pointed out in their presentation that whilst the gagging order was in place in the UK, people in other European countries had free access to the facts.
Leigh said the Trafigura debacle demonstrated how new methods such as cross-border co-operation between journalists and new media such as Wikileaks and Twitter, combined with older methods such as Parliamentary privilege, were creating new opportunities for breaking stories that overcame legal censorship.
For his part, Assange was skeptical about the ability of the journalistic establishment to force disclosure in the public interest. In an interview with The Guardian’s Stephen Moss, he says journalists have been letting big business and vested interests off the hook for far too long.
This was a theme that emerged from other presentations during the three-day event, organised by City University in central London, which is a key unmissable event in my annual calendar.
In his Bad Science talk, Dr Ben Goldacre exposed the reliance of lazy journalists on the opinions of maverick “experts” in science and health scare stories such as that surrounding MMR vaccine. “One person’s word is not enough as you can always find an ‘expert’ who will back up claims that have no scientific validity,” he said. The key message was rely on what the scientific consensus says and not the views of individual “experts”.
This rule applies equally to the global warming controversy, the subject of a talk by Spinwatch blogger Andy Rowell. He pointed that 97-98% of qualified scientific researchers support the view that climate change is man-made. Yet the coverage given to the marginal views of so-called sceptics and climate change deniers is out of all proportion to their numbers and credibility. This falls into trap laid by the denial campaign whose key tenet is identical to that used by the tobacco industry in its attempts to persuade us that smoking is good for us – “Doubt is our product.”
On the final day Andrew Jennings, who runs the transparency in sport website, lambasted hacks in the national press for their failure to expose greed and corruption that is endemic in the football gravy-train.Holding authority to account, he said, is the only justification for being a journalist. But many establishment sports writers are only interested in sucking up to managers who feed them safe stories and access to players. This is in effect sports churnalism, not journalism as he recognises it.
The final word must go to Paris-based investigative reporter Mark Hunter – one of the most popular speakers. He told delegates their whole purpose in being journalists in the first place was not just to report news “but it is to change the world – don’t deny yourself that.”
Monday, 5 July 2010
Within the next 18 months the Ministry of Defence will complete their disclosure programme of UFO-related documents.
But some UFOlogists continue to demand they “come clean on all levels”. They believe there are more secret documents being held back that contain evidence of alien visitations.
I can reveal the only documents MoD intends to permanently conceal from the public concern their secret dealings not with aliens, but with a former member of their own staff – Nick Pope.
Nick was responsible for UFO reports and associated public correspondence for three years (1991-94) during his career at the Ministry. According to the MoD this was actually a small part of his responsibilities.
Yet Nick describes himself as the man “who used to run the British Government’s UFO Project”, a claim that I will return to later. In 1996, after leaving Sec(AS)2, the branch responsible for UFOs, but whilst still employed by the MoD, he wrote a book that flatly rejected his department’s official line that UFOs were of “no defence significance”.
The cover blurb for Open Skies Closed Minds says he became “a firm believer in the reality of UFOs” during his posting and, based upon the cases he investigated, “warns that extraterrestrial spacecraft are visiting Earth and that something should be done about it urgently.” Pope resigned from the MoD in November 2006 to pursue a career as “author, journalist and TV personality.”
Early in 2007 I made a Freedom of Information Act request to see the internal paperwork covering the period when Nick first publicly emerged as “a UFO believer”.
The request asked for:
“copies of MoD papers, records or other information relating to internal discussion, policy and/or briefings in response to public statements made to the media and via the release of Open Skies, Closed Minds by Nick Pope during the period 1995-96.”
Taking the MoD’s new policy of openness at face value I argued that here was an opportunity to reveal how they handled Nick’s conversion to “UFO believer”. After all, they have stated that by opening their files “we may also help to counter the maze of rumour and frequently ill informed speculation that surrounds the role of the MoD in the UFO phenomena.”
But it seems openness only goes so far. It took two years to obtain a sensible answer from the MoD and even then they refused to release seven documents that contain information relevant to my FOIA request.
After two appeals and a further year waiting for a judgement from the Information Commissioner he has now ruled “the MoD was correct to refuse the information requested.” Click here to read the full decision notice, posted on the Commissioner's website.
In his judgement the Commissioner, Christopher Graham, admits “this is a finely balanced case and [Dr Clarke has] provided well reasoned arguments to support [his] case” for disclosure in the public interest.
But the fine balance appears to have been tipped by Nick Pope who, the notice reveals, personally intervened to block the release of these documents.
Early in 2009 I asked Nick for his consent for the disclosure of these papers in the public interest. In an email dated 27 March 2009 I pointed out that “from your own point of view, surely the perception will be, if this paperwork is [removed] from the public record it will continue to imply that someone is trying to hide something.” I added that “if you don’t want this to emerge…this will imply you have something to hide.”
I pointed out my request was specifically for “internal comment on your Press interviews in 1996 and MoD’s discussion of what line to take” and not for access to his private correspondence with his employers over the clearance of his manuscript (with one exception that concerns a specific letter which he had quoted from in the public domain).
Some of the documents I requested form part of the Sec(AS) UFO files that are being prepared for release to The National Archives. So on 30 July I asked Nick, via email:
“Do you have any objections to the release of internal discussions within MoD surrounding the release of your book that are included in the UFO files that are part of the ongoing TNA releases?”
His response took me by surprise, given his public support for the Disclosure campaign. Nick is on record as saying:
"I believe that governments and the military, and indeed private researchers, politicians - whoever - should place everything in the public domain on this issue. Governments can't, I think, have it both ways...I, in support of that aim, believe that there should be a full disclosure of all information on UFOs held by governments all around the world."
Despite this very public commitment to openness, not only did he refuse to give consent for the release of these documents, he went on to recite a list of legislation that he claimed prevented their disclosure. He invoked a number of FOIA exemptions, the Data Protection Act, the MoD’s common law duty of confidentiality and for good measure Article 8 of the Human Rights Act – ‘the right to privacy’.
All of these exemptions could have been overturned if Nick had given consent for the release. How ironic that here was someone who has spent the last 15 years talking about his role as 'head of the British Government's UFO Project' to any and every media organisation that would listen. Now suddenly he was desperate to protect his 'privacy'.
And it is now apparent that my decision to approach Nick openly led him to contact his former employers to register his objection to the release of the documents.
In his judgement the Information Commissioner reveals that MoD informed him on 6 January 2010 that Nick Pope “has written to the MoD and asked for the information not to be released into the public domain.”
Given the “fine balance” on disclosure, Nick’s direct intervention had provided “a contributing factor to support the withholding of the information.”
As Col Arnold Moulder has noted in SUNlite (September 2009), Article 8 of the HRA is a favourite resort of celebrities who delight in self-publicity, but then invoke ‘the right to privacy’ when the press start to probe too deeply into their ‘private affairs.’
In this case, I asked the Commissioner to consider: “whether Mr Pope has any reasonable expectation of privacy in regard to his statements to the media, given his career as a media pundit and self-declared ‘former head of the MoD’s UFO Project.’”
For the record, the MoD have made it clear: "there is and never has been any such thing as a UFO Project". What's more, spokesperson Linda Unwin, in an article published by the MoD's own in-house magazine Focus (2006), said: 'There is no UFO project.' As Linda was the MoD's UFO desk officer from 2003-2007 she would have known if such a 'project' existed!
In his judgement the Commissioner says the more senior a civil servant is the more likely that information – even that covered by exemptions – will be released. I argued that Pope’s claim that he was the man “who used to run the British Government’s UFO Project” implied seniority, real or imagined.
Taking all this into account, the Commissioner concludes that Nick Pope “was not at any time a senior civil servant” and says his actual role [Executive Officer during 1991-94] and substantive junior management grade during his time at MoD was already public knowledge. Therefore there was nothing further that would be added to that knowledge by the release of the documents.
The Commissioner admits that “although interviews given and articles written by [Nick Pope] are very obviously in the public domain this does not itself mean that the individual will have an expectation that all correspondence and comments made about these statements will be made public…the information withheld appears to be of a private nature and this is not altered by the fact that its creation came about because of a number of public acts.”
Under the heading “Consequences of Disclosure” he notes my suggestion that because Nick has courted media interest and has placed himself in the public eye his expectation of privacy should be reduced. I argued that the purpose of the Data Protection Act was to protect private lives of individuals and cited the Information Commissioner’s own guidance that “where information requested is about people acting in a work or official capacity then it should be released.” But he concludes:
“Although [Nick Pope] has spoken publicly about his time at the MoD [he] has not spoken publicly about the contents of the information the MoD is seeking to withhold. The Commissioner believes that if the information were to be released it has the potential to cause some element of harm or distress to the individual concerned.”
This raises an obvious question: what information do these documents contain that Nick Pope is so keen to conceal?
An indication of their tone and content is given in section 17 of the disclosure notice which says "several of the documents...contain expressions of opinion about the individual". Expressions of opinion are exempt from disclosure under Section 40(2) of the FOIA as they constitute personal data as defined by the Data Protection Act.
If for example, Nick's boss - the head of the MoD's Air Staff Secretariat - had written that he believed Nick was exaggerating when he described his role in press interviews, as an expression of opinion about a named individual this would be exempt from release.
Later the Commissioner says the with-held information “relates to aspects of how [Nick Pope] was undertaking his public role”.
Responding to my suggestion that the documents could be edited to remove sensitive material, the Commissioner says if this was done “the documents would either make no sense to the reader or the subject matter and tone of the documents would be so obvious that the redactions would serve little purpose.”
Fortunately, we know a little about the contents of the seven documents with-held because in 2008 MoD helpfully supplied me an itemised list of the contents. This reveals:
Document 1 is a file copy of a letter sent to Nick Pope by the MoD after he submitted his manuscript for clearance. Although he now invokes his “right to privacy” to protect the contents, in 1996 he was happy to quote from this document in an interview for UFO Magazine (UK) and the International UFO Reporter (Vol 21/3). In this interview he claims there was a faction at MoD that “certainly didn’t want the book to appear” and he received a letter that said it was “completely unacceptable to MoD and quite beyond any suitable amendment”. We will never know how accurate this claim actually is, as we are only allowed to hear Nick's version of the sequence of events leading to the clearance of his book.
Document 2 is a file note dated February 1995 which contains “staff management discussion in response to a letter received from Mr Pope notifying MoD of his private activities.”
Document 3 is a loose minute dated 10 February 1996 “addressed to Mr Pope following his notification of his private activities.”
Document 4 is “a record of the line management steps taken following Mr Pope’s notification of his private activities" that “contains personal information about Mr Pope’s staff management.”
Document 5 is an internal memo written on 2 July 1995 following publication of an interview with Nick Pope published by the Mail on Sunday (‘ET lives, says man from the Ministry’). This document “contains free and frank advice” about Mr Pope’s “private media activities” and the steps taken to ensure that MoD regulations were not breached – including direction to line managers.
Document 6 is a file note dated 21 August 1995 on a BBC Newsnight item that mentioned Nick Pope’s book. This covers “media handling following mention of Mr Pope by name as both an MoD employee and ‘a believer’ in UFOs.” This document contains “free and frank advice” by MoD managers which the public are not allowed to read.
Document 7 is a file note dated October 1995 “following a Yorkshire TV enquiry”. It records “how the enquiry was handled given that Mr Pope was acting in a private capacity when supportive of the Operation Right To Know campaign”, which ironically demanded the release of secret UFO documents held by the MoD! Again, this contains “free and frank advice” from his bosses that we – the taxpayer who foots the bill for all this – are not allowed to read.
An indication of the “subject matter and tone” of the documents being withheld can be judged from an example that slipped past the official censor and was sent to me in response to a separate FOIA request during 2007 (see copy inset right).
Written by a RAF officer working for the Defence Intelligence Staff, it is titled “[Nick Pope]: recent media appearances and interviews” and was sent to his successor as UFO desk officer, Kerry Philpott, on 24 April 1996, shortly before Nick's book was published. In the minute the officer raises concerns about the media’s description of Nick as a “senior MoD official” and notes “he seems to have accepted the title willingly”. He adds that MoD needs to “approach the matter VERY delicately” and says: “I am not attempting to ban a book I have not read [but] I believe it will be based on supposition and technical ignorance.”
He adds: “The truth seldom sells books!”
Given Nick Pope's claim that he used "to run the British Government's UFO Project", a project the MoD claims did not exist, I continue to believe there is a clear public interest in the release of these documents.
The Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice for journalists defines the public interest as including "preventing the public from being misled by the action or statement of an individual or organisation."
This decision by the Information Commissioner effectively means the public will never get to read what Nick Pope’s bosses at the MoD really thought about his effectiveness as ‘head of' the MoD’s [non-existent] 'UFO Project.’
As one commentator has noted, this leaves us with “the rather delicious spectacle of a former MoD clerk, once well inside the military-UFO loop and with a habit of accusing the Ministry of neglecting the alien threat, assiduously orchestrating a cover-up of information.”
Given Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge while in opposition “to release all UFO documents” if he was elected, this would appear to be a prime example where disclosure really would benefit open government and public knowledge.