(expanded 22 April 2016)
Whittingdale and the media
Much has been written about whether it was right for the crowdfunding publishing platform Byline to have carried a piece at the start of April that revealed that the Minister for Culture, John Whittingdale, had previously been in a relationship with a woman who at the time was involved in the sex industry as a dominatrix. Whittingdale was and is a divorcé, and by his own account he was unaware of her profession; and it is not alleged that Whittingdale paid for her companionship.
The justification given for running the story was that several newspapers had devoted resources into researching Whittingdale’s relationship, but had then chosen not to run the story. Was this because the relationship was an intrusive “non-story”, or because newspapers preferred to keep the story in reserve as leverage over a man whose brief includes press regulation?
Follow-up articles on Byline by John Cusick, formerly of the Independent, include information that may be relevant here. Apparently, Geordie Greig, the editor of the Mail on Sunday, had shown great enthusiasm for the story, and it was only dropped at the very last minute; meanwhile Amol Rajan, editor of the Independent, changed his mind on running the story the day after attending a Society of Editors conference alongside Whittingdale. At the time, he promised Cusick an explanation, which was not forthcoming.
It is also perhaps noteworthy that after the story broke, the Mail on Sunday then published five pages about Whittingdale’s love life, including an account by another girlfriend, described by the paper as a former “porn star” (“glamour model” would probably have been a better term), and details of “an intimate relationship with the daughter of a USSR military officer”. It is reasonable to suspect that the paper already had at least some of this material before Byline published, and that there was some reason for holding it back that no longer existed once the Byline articles had appeared.
Thus it does look like Whittingale was perhaps afforded a courtesy, for whatever reason, although I’m sceptical that the dynamic was as crude as a “Sword of Damocles over James Whittingdale” (as suggested by Chris Bryant) or that the non-reporting was a “cover-up”.
Byline has now in turn come under scrutiny. The site is run by two young entrepreneurs, who I met in London last year, and its senior advisor is Peter Jukes, who crowd-funded his reporting on Twitter of the phone-hacking trials. I have had friendly exchanges with Peter since that time, in large part because we were both trolled at various times by Dennis Rice, the former Investigations Editor at the Mail on Sunday who was attempting to intimidate various people via his aptly named and industry approved @tabloidtroll sockpuppet account (see below for more on this).
Peter is not a member of the press reform campaigning group Hacked Off, but the organisation has been supportive of his efforts and Peter shares Hacked Off’s concerns about the UK press. It is no secret that there is an overlap of interest: for instance, Peter’s latest book is published by Martin Hickman’s Canbury Press, and Martin co-wrote Dial M for Murdoch with Tom Watson.
Hacked Off has found the Byline Whittingdale articles to be of interest (“vital questions must be answered”), taking the view that they show that Whittingdale was “potentially exposed to improper pressure from newspaper companies which had it in their power to embarrass him or worse” . From this has grown the suggestion that Hacked Off and/or Watson were somehow behind the Byline articles.
Certainly, Watson knew the story back in 2013; according to Robert Peston (who rejects the cover-up suggestion as “nuts”):
The Sunday People was the first newspaper to be offered the story at the end of 2013.
It approached Tom Watson – the Labour MP, now deputy leader of the Labour party, then a colleague of Mr Whittingdale on the Culture committee – for his advice on whether it should publish.
He told them he did not see there was a public-interest reason to run the story on Mr Whittingdale’s affair, since he was a single man, this was his private life, and the People had no evidence that Mr Whittingdale had paid for sex.
That was before Whittingdale became Culture Minister; however, Byline‘s first article, by Nick Mutch, is clearly derived from his own sources, and there is no need to postulate Watson passing it along surreptitiously more than two years later. The Guido Fawkes smear site – famous for honeytrapping an MP into texting an image of his penis – tried to make the best of it, referring vaguely to “Watson’s fingerprints” on the story.
Then came a piece in the Telegraph by Andrew Gilligan; it included the following:
Mr Jukes says that Byline.com is liberating journalism from being a “tool” of “wealthy, tax-shy billionaires” to becoming an agent of “democracy.” He claims the site is “crowdfunded” by small donations from readers.
…However, Companies House records show that almost all the site’s £540,000 funding in fact comes from three billionaires, including £160,000 from Eric Li, a Shanghai businessman who has said dictatorship works better than democracy and has called for more constraints on journalists in China.
Until 2014 Mr Li wrote regularly for The 4th Media,* a website promoting anti-Western conspiracy theories and supporting authoritarian regimes. He has said that the West “seems incapable of becoming less democratic even when its survival may depend on such a shift.”
Byline.com has promoted and defended a number of other conspiracy theories for which there is little evidence. These include the now discredited claims of a “Westminster child sex abuse ring” involving prominent establishment figures.
The site shares a number of journalists, including Mr Jukes, with Exaro, the “investigative website” that first published false sex abuse claims against the late Lord Brittan, the former defence chief Lord Bramall and the former Tory MP Harvey Proctor.
[*This phrase has since been amended to “Articles by Mr Li are published on 4th Media” – see next section for more on this]
Overlap with Exaro, it seems to me, is regrettable: I’ve written plenty about how and why Exaro got it wrong on “Westminster VIP paedos”, and I believe the site in its reporting of “Nick’s” fantastical allegations was not just flawed but also at times dishonest. But the subject hardly looms large on the Byline website; there are just a few commentary articles by David Hencke, who also writes for Exaro. When Gilligan was writing about Exaro’s Westminster claims in 2014, his own view was that “the conspiracy element cannot be wholly dismissed”, and the mainstream media were happy to refer to “investigative website Exaro” and “campaigning MP Tom Watson” until mid-2015.
Note on Eric Li and The 4th Media
Following the Telegraph article, the Paul Staines crew followed up with a short article headlined “Byline Funder on Anti-Semitic Conspiracy site”. Guido Fawkes took Gilligan’s claim that Li writes for the site (an assertion from which the Telegraph has now retreated) at face value, and highlighted material (by other authors) on the site about “Jewish banksters” and 9/11 as a “false flag” as such.
As noted above, the Telegraph has now retreated from the assertion that “Mr Li wrote regularly for The 4th Media”, instead merely stating that “Articles by Mr Li are published on 4th Media”. This is because it has been shown that The 4th Media consists largely (perhaps totally) of items cut-and-pasted from other websites. The items by Li – who usually styles himself as Eric X. Li – in fact all come from mainstream media sources, such as the Huffington Post and the Washington Post.
The Guido Fawkes site states that “Eric Li’s articles and lectures were published and cross-posted by The 4th Media ‘with permission'”, although no link is provided to prove this. The site carries 12 items by Li, published between 2012 and 2014. Only one of these has a “reprinted by permission” notice, stating “Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online”. However, that particular notification has simply been pasted wholesale from an earlier reprint of the same article in the South China Morning Post.
Similarly, an article by Arundhati Roy that was reprinted by Alternet with a “Reprinted here with permission” notice has been cut and pasted by The 4th Media, complete with the exact same notice. Perhaps Roy is now also a scandalous association for anyone to have.
There are around 100 people listed as The 4th Media‘s supposed “columnists” alongside Li, including Roy, Antonio Negri, Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Fidel Castro, Chris Hedges and Glenn Greenwald. The site also carries material ripped off from the Daily Mail, the Spectator (an article by Peter Hitchens), and… erm… the Daily Telegraph. Clearly, The 4th Media pirates whatever material takes its fancy, including any copyright notice that may have been in the source.
Here’s Li’s Huffington Post profile:
Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist in Shanghai. He serves on the board of directors of China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and is vice chairman of its publishing arm CEIBS Publishing Group. Mr. Li is a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute.
Further, the photo of Li used by Guido Fawkes shows Li giving a talk. This was actually a TED Talk, although the author is careful not to mention it. Perhaps this means Byline, through Li, is also linked to… erm, one of best-known and respected global ideas brands?
Given that Li has a respectable mainstream profile that Gilligan and Fawkes have avoided mentioning, and that The 4th Media engages in widespread bootlegging from many high-profile authors, it seems to me very likely that The 4th Media has simply re-used his content at its own initiative and without in fact asking for permission – despite the “with permission” notice that appears on one article, which was simply carried across from a reprint elsewhere.
A further note: The 4th Media website is published by the China April Media Group (sometimes misspelt as the China April Meida Group), based in Beijing. I can’t find any references linking Li, who is based in Shanghai, to this organisation. Further, Li does not feature on a critical profile of the site by Kremlin Trolls (which shows that the site is actually run by a certain Rev. Kiyul Chung).
Meanwhile, the quote from Li on democracy that Gilligan uses can be seen in context here, from a 2012 op-ed in the New York Times provocatively titled “Why China’s Political Model is Superior”. He writes:
China is on a different path. Its leaders are prepared to allow greater popular participation in political decisions if and when it is conducive to economic development and favorable to the country’s national interests, as they have done in the past 10 years.
However, China’s leaders would not hesitate to curtail those freedoms if the conditions and the needs of the nation changed. The 1980s were a time of expanding popular participation in the country’s politics that helped loosen the ideological shackles of the destructive Cultural Revolution. But it went too far and led to a vast rebellion at Tiananmen Square.
That uprising was decisively put down on June 4, 1989. The Chinese nation paid a heavy price for that violent event, but the alternatives would have been far worse.
The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed him in January, introducing him as a “provocateur”. He doesn’t sound like someone I would warm to, and his description of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests as having gone “too far” is obnoxious. Many countries have transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy without strife, including the Chinese example of Taiwan. And real threats to civil order have been neutralised without resorting to the kind of carnage and repression that was seen at Tiananmen Square.
However, it should also be remembered that civil wars and revolutions brought great suffering to China during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Li is hardly the only person to regard China’s continuing stability as being the most important priority. I suspect his views are commonplace among successful businessmen living in mainland China.
Should Byline be concerned? Perhaps, but let he who has never done business with mainland China cast the first stone. Li is a tech investor – he has no editorial role at Byline. By contrast, the Telegraph has a sponsorship deal with the China Daily, described by the Atlantic as “the state-controlled English-language voice of the Chinese government to the outside world”. There has also been some controversy over the years in relation to News International’s extensive Chinese interests.
And as for his views on what Gilligan describes as “more constraints on journalists in China”, here’s a quote from an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs:
Complementing the party’s own antigraft efforts is the increasing independence of media outlets, both state- and privately owned. News organizations have already exposed cases of official corruption and disseminated their findings on the Internet. The CCP has responded by pursuing some of the cases that the media have brought to light. Of course, this system is not perfect, and some media outlets are themselves corrupt. Illicit payments to journalists and fabricated stories are commonplace. If these problems are not corrected quickly, Chinese media will lose what little credibility they have gained.
Accordingly, the next administration might develop more sophisticated political regulations and legal constraints on journalists to provide space for the sector to mature. Officials have already discussed instituting a press law that would protect legitimate, factual reporting and penalize acts of libel and misrepresentation. Some might view the initiative as the government reining in journalists, but the larger impact would be to make the media more credible in the eyes of the Chinese public. Journalists who take bribes or invent rumors to attract readers can hardly check government corruption.
Make of that what you will, but it clearly is not what Gilligan wishes readers to infer when he plucked out the word “constraints”.
[UPDATE (24 April): In a late intervention, Louise Mensch has highlighted Gilligan’s “dictatorship works better than democracy” summary of Li’s position, and presented it as if it were a direct quote from Li. She has also extrapolated wildly from the Guido Fawkes post to accuse Li of being an “anti Semite”; when it came to her attention that this false claim may be actionable, her response was merely that “you can’t defame a man who says dictatorship beats democracy”.]
The line being pushed by Guido Fawkes is that Byline is a “conspiracy website”. The articles proposing that Whittingdale may have been given special consideration by the press may prove to be a misjudgment (although Private Eye magazine thinks there may be something to it), but this is hardly David Icke territory. The fact Guido Fawkes has to find material on another site and make a tenuous link to bolster its claim speaks for itself.
But the wider point is that Byline is a publishing platform: articles are not commissioned, and a quick survey shows that the site showcases the work of career journalists, who are crowdfunded to produce material that otherwise might not get published.
As with any other news source, it will be as good as the material it presents, and I’d be surprised if it never publishes a dud. Gilligan’s attack piece wants to paint Byline as being something akin to Infowars, but the fact he resorts to a bogus funding/investment controversy rather than a rounded assessment of the site’s content shows bad faith.
There are also other errors in Gillian’s article, discussed by Zelo Street.
Dennis Rice has in the last day or so emailed Peter, hinting that he may have been contacted by journalists. He wrote:
Dear Mr Jukes,
I do hope you haven’t been injured in the self irony overload from your whining about the Sunday Telegraph not asking you to comment prior to publication.
I had the same experience when you made up a story about how I was part of a Fleet Street Conspiracy of two (I had last worked on Fleet St eight in 2008 and the other person you named was Louise Mensch, an author and then MP who has at that point never written for Fleet Street)
In order to do this you moved a tweet I had posted in January 2014 – in response to your attacking my family’s hacking and privacy – forward four months to pretend it had been made in response to a book which I had zero interest in, and everyone I knew had zero interest in (a situation which continues to this day).
When this became clear to the UK Press Gazette they pulled the excerpt and unsurprisingly IPSO found in my favour.
…Meantime rest assured that if anyone contacts me about you I will (a) provide any and all information I have on your rank hypocrisy and distortions; and (b) do it for free.
At the risk of raking over old ground: yes, an aggressive Tweet that Rice published in January 2014 was mistakenly moved forward by several months, due to a late RT by someone else; but Rice was making exactly the same threats during the summer of 2014 as he was in January, albeit under his sockpuppet account name. In fact, IPSO rejected most of Rice’s complaint, and all it did was confirm that the publisher, Press Gazette, had been right to run a correction.
Second, Peter did not attack Rice’s “family’s hacking and privacy” – a particularly obnoxious element to Rice’s bullying is the way he comes up with these bogus self-justifications.
Full details on all this here.
Meanwhile, it should be recalled that Rice had previously attempted to smear Peter by claiming he had lied about his financial circumstances in order to get crowd-funding, but Peter was able to show that the allegation was false. Even the Fawkes team – who had been contacted about it – conceded that the claim had been “a mistake”. Full details here.
In any event, there does not seem to be much evidence that journalists have used anything Rice may have told them; perhaps this is because of some genuine information on this website pertaining to Rice and the subjects of “rank hypocrisy and distortions”.