Towards Better Democracy

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Who Defends the Blogger? – Who Dropped the Ball on the Blogger in Australia?


Editorial Courage

Somebody dropped the ball with regard to a blog in Australia today and I wonder if anyone else heard it. It is a pity my blog is little read because the topic affects every blogger.

Let’s stroll away from the immediate topic to give it some context. In almost any story of outstanding courage shown by a single individual, there are human elements, which, rightly or wrongly, get edited out of the story. Many stories have been hung on the quotation from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a 1962 American Western film directed by John Ford and starring James Stewart and John Wayne: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Here are a couple of examples. The first is from the blog Stones and Paste, December 5, 2008, which hangs its post around the quotation just given. The post concerns William C. Ayers, retired professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was a co-founder of the Weather Underground. Ayers had been characterized as an “unrepentant domestic terrorist” in the run-up to the election of Obama as President of the United Sates. The post centers on Ayers’ opinion piece in the New York Times, The Real Bill Ayers, published on the same day as the blog post. In the opinion piece, Ayers defends himself against the slight or smear.

I personally have to admire the NYT for publishing the piece. Talk about nailing your colours to the mast!

The second example shows all of the grist and gristle which is at the heart of the wonderful quote from the John Ford film. Should you take the trouble to follow the link, I urge you to read the comments which append the post. The story the post quotes is the stuff of a film. The comments that follow the post are the exquisite subplots of a very good novel.

The title of the post PBS airs documentary on gay Idaho Falls reporter is on the blog AfterElton and was posted by Dennis Ayers, Managing Editor, on September 14, 2007.

Two things are worth noting as a peripheral to the post. Notice the comment entitled Newspaper involved hiding the facts? posted by “Jimmy” on September 27, 2007, in which Jimmy points to how an earlier comment had been has been edited and gives extracts from the original posted comment. The comment he refers to, by Beechwood45789, is dated September 28, 2007. Notice the dates.

The second peripheral item to notice is the comment by Beechwood45789 in that post of September 28, 2007, “I realize now — with regret — that nothing on the Web can be undone.”

In reading this post you may come to wonder is that is true.

It will be clear that my concern for the moment  is editorial courage or the lack thereof.

In recent times, the single greatest act of editorial courage in my mind lies at the heart of the decision to publish the 12 Islamic cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005, and the decision to stand by their publication during and after the furor their publication created.

No good stone-story should be left unturned and this one has, no surprise, an underside. Having agreed to publish the book, The Cartoons that Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen, in 2009, Yale University Press decided to, just prior to publication, remove the offending cartoons and some other pictures of Mohammad. A statement by John Donatich, Director of Yale University Press, supporting the removal of the cartoons, was issued on September 9, 2009. The statement itself makes interesting reading.

Who Dropped the Ball on the Blogger in Australia?

My concern is of smaller import than that just cited but of greater potential impact.

I say of greater potential impact because what happened earlier today in Australia has impact upon every blogger worldwide. How many are there of us? I am guessing, which is all everyone else does: 120 million? 240 million? Some figure in-between? My contention is that each one of us is affected by what happened this morning.

One last comment for now. In recounting the following, the temptation is to over-egg what is necessary to say. I shall do my best to avoid that temptation.

In a twice or thrice weekly round of the world’s aviation press, I usually begin with Ben Sandlinds blog at Crickey.com: Plane Talking.This morning was no exception. Two of his posts are cause for concern.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner ZA002 after the fire posted November 21, 2010 at 8.46 pm and Boeing versus blogger posted November 22, 2010 at 10.54 am.

Here is a screen shot of the second post since it serves to speak to both posts.

 

 

The post opens with a letter which says:

Dear Mr Sandilands

Photographs – 787Flight Test

Last night photographs from an internal Boeing report about a 787 flight test incident were posted on Crickey.com, specifically at the following link:

http://blogs.crickey.com.au/planetalking/

We request that these photographs be removed from the website immediately, as they contain Boeing proprietary information.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Yours faithfully

signed

Allison Bone
Communication Director
Australia/NZ

Ben Sandilands says, “Plane Talking has removed two images of the fire damage inside the the second Dreamliner test and certification aircraft, ZA002, from the preceding article at the request of Boeing. “

He then goes on to relate that similar images had been removed at Boeing request from the Seattle Times website and two online industry websites.

Note that Mr Sandilands has deliberately cropped the Boeing letter so that company letterhead and date of the letter are removed. One can only surmise as to why this was done.

Boeing’s website is here. Note that Boeing has a massive presence in Australia; I count 16 locations. And Allison Bone is indeed their Communication Director for Australia and New Zealand.

What action could Boeing have taken had Mr Sandilands demurred from agreeing to Boeing’s request?

They could have sent the inevitable lawyer’s letter. Alternatively, or in addition, they could have barred Mr Sandilands from all of Boeing’s locations and exhibitions stands worldwide. How much this would have affected Mr Sandilands in conducting his business is difficult to know. Not much I would have thought. Given his length of time in the businesses, more than 40 years, his contacts likely weave far over Boeing’s head.

The merit of a lawsuit, supposing that was the path that this incident took, is difficult to assess. A picture of fire damaged equipment does not sound like it would give much away of proprietary value. Much more likely, given Boeing’s long history of attempting to spin, suppress and lie about every single setback associated with the design, manufacture, and flight testing of the 787, which Mr Sandilands, bless his heart, has recorded on his website in all its technicolour splendorous glory, suggests that “proprietary information” is simply a ruse to suppress or control the publication of details of the on-board fire.

It is impossible to think well of Boeing’s action.

As some point, long before the history of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is written, Boeing will, in continuance of this behaviour, cross a bridge too far and will have its comeuppance. The schadenfreude of certain members of the aviation business and of Boeing watchers will echo to the moon. I doubt that the sage and sober Ben Sandilands I know from his exemplary reporting will join them.

Who defends the blogger?

I do not know what Mr Sandilands’ relationship to Crickey.com and its owners is. If he is a contractor, then he has no more rights as a blogger than have you and I. If he is employed direct, then the question arises of the courage of the editorial team at, and owners of, Crikey.com. After all, Crikey.com describes itself as an online newspaper. If the latter is the case, then Crikey.com falls into the same category as the Seattle Times (the error page results from Plane Talking‘s link).

We have already addressed editorial courage, or lack thereof, earlier in this discussion. No more for now need be said.

If Ben Sandilands’ is an independent contractor to Crikey.com, then he is placed no differently from any other blogger. He had little choice but to capitulate.

The capitulation is indeed painful to witness. And one feels appropriately for Mr Sandilands.

But there is a much more important question to be asked.

How many incidents like this will it take before we have a blogger’s bill of rights? When the heavy hand of the powers-that-be see how easy it is to silence any irritation, of whatever kind, caused by a blogger, where will it end? How bad does it have to get?

Better to plan now. Better to open the dialogue, somehow, somewhere, as to what is needed, and how best what is needed can be met. Better to address the lava of the volcano before it leaves the crater than wait until it arrives at your front door.

We now come back to the question I asked in the first place:

Who defends the blogger?

Postscript: Anybody notice a strange coincidence? My two opening stories on editorial courage shared a last name: Bill Ayers and Dennis Ayers. Tennis anyone?

Filed under: Current Events, , , ,

2 Responses

  1. CM says:

    Hi Malcolm and thanks for the well reasoned post!

    Every freedom-loving person cares deeply for the independence of the press. It is why in this world of corporate media, independent bloggers like yourself and Ben Sandiland are critically important in fulfilling a free society’s need for unbiased reporting.

    However, if there’s something which is frequently lost in the blogosphere, it’s the recognition that simply possessing information (in this case a photo) does not constitute ownership or a right to publish it.

    Every journalist knows, the value of making any information public must always be weighed against any potential for harm caused by publishing that information. The fundamental ethics of journalism demands this.

    Your assertion is that Ben caved in under threat of legal action. That may be true, but he certainly does not state that is the case in his post. What I do know is that in the case of the Seattle Times, this was not the case at all. The ST writes:

    “Senior Boeing executives told The Times that the photos reveal specific innovations in the electrical panel’s design that could benefit competitors. At their request, the Times decided not to publish the photos, but only to describe what they show.”

    It seems the Seattle Times exercised ethical journalism, weighing the need of the public to see the photos versus the harm to Boeing of exposing several key design innovations of the 787 structure and power panels. For all I know, Ben was provided a similar explanation for why he should pull the photos from his website, and he in turn exercised similar ethics and restraint.

    I applaud you and other bloggers for the independent nature of your journalism. However, if your interest is to be an independent journalist, you must accept with that role all the responsibilities of an ETHICAL journalist, not just the responsibilities which suit you.

    Cheers!

    CM

    • CM,

      Thank you for your comments and your support. Speaking personally, I have applied, and will continue to apply, to all my posts the highest standards of which I am capable. That includes accepting all the responsibilities of the role. I recognize them and embrace them. With freedom, of whatever kind, come, in equal measure, rights and responsibilities. The one cannot be exercised without the acceptance of the other. Of course, I cannot speak for other bloggers, nor would I wish to.

      Nowhere have I seen any contention that the photograph was improperly obtained. Boeing do not appear to making that assertion. When you speak of the right to publish, this is fundamental to journalism and at the heart of freedom of speech. You are surely correct: Possession does not necessarily constitute right to publish. A number of factors will be weighed by any responsible editor at the base of which is public right to know versus likely harm to be caused. There is no reason that the photograph (actually two photographs) could not have had the offending P100 proprietary areas pixilated without in the least damaging the newsworthiness of them and they very likely would still be in place.

      That would be to accept Boeing’s story in good faith. And I frankly don’t. The public record on the delays associated is littered, as I say in the post, “with Boeing’s long history of attempting to spin, suppress and lie about every single setback” associated with Boeing’s 787. Had this letter from Boeing to Mr Sandilands been an isolated occurrence, they would be absolutely granted the benefit of the doubt and none of us, yourself included, would be making this fuss. The fact, that in many people’s view, myself included, this incident is one more egregious attempt to pull the wool over peoples eyes, their shareholders included, makes Boeing posturing decidedly objectionable.

      I do not make the “assertion is that Ben (Sandilands) caved in under threat of legal action.” What I said was,” What action could Boeing have taken had Mr Sandilands demurred from agreeing to Boeing’s request? They could have sent the inevitable lawyer’s letter.” The emphasis on could has been added.

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