Mark Kent

Mark Kent

British Ambassador to Argentina

Part of World Press Freedom Day

10th October 2014

Media should be responsible as well as free

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I  have on many occasions made the point that a free media is an important part of a functioning society – it can help free flow of information and ideas, to educate its audience, to hold those in power to account in areas such as exposing corruption scandals. But in each society there is a balance to be struck between the public interest in a story, and the right of the individual to privacy and fair treatment. A responsible media must behave professionally and ethically and do its utmost to report accurately.

This is an issue which confronts every country. In the United Kingdom in 2012 there was an enquiry led by Lord Leveson into the culture, practice and ethics of the press. It looked at the relationship between the press and the public and phone hacking  and other potentially illegal behaviour. It examined the relationship between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest. It considered the relationship between press and politicians , and recommendations for a more effective policy and regulation that supports the integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical standards. You can find details of the report (in English) here.

I’m afraid that some of these issues appear in Thailand, and have emerged again after the tragic murders on Koh Tao of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller. I and other ambassadors have on several occasions had to plead with the media to respect the privacy of tourists and their families.

In particular it is very distressing to see pictures of the passports of those who have lost their lives posted on media and social media. These contain personal information and add no value to any news story. Personal information and details of victims of crime or accidents should not be passed to the media, nor published by them. It is especially upsetting if families learn details via the media before they have been informed themselves – the police and authorities must be responsible to ensure this is respected. Nor does anyone gain from seeing graphic pictures. We can only imagine how distressing this is for the families of those who have lost their loved ones here in Thailand. And families should be left to grieve at a time of emotional distress, rather than be subject to media harassment. Equally media should not act in a way which could be prejudicial to the right to a fair trial of those accused. These are questions of ethics and respect. But they will also help strengthen the media in Thailand, and maintain its reputation as a hospitable destination for foreigners. We will be discussing these issues with Thai media associations over the coming weeks.

We would very much welcome if they could agree on a voluntary code to regulate conduct.

13 comments on “Media should be responsible as well as free

  1. Howdy! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could get a captcha plugin for my comment form? I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having problems finding one? Thanks a lot!

  2. Mark. Your remarks here were brought to my attention by Sue Jones the mother of Kirsty Jones who was murdered and raped in Chiang Mai and who still does not know the killer. With reference to your remarks on the press. This is more pertinent.

    From UK Press Gazette this week

    The jury in the trial of two tabloid journalists accused of paying a prison officer for stories has been warned that convicting them would deal a blow to democracy, a free press and the public’s right to know.

    Tom Savage of the Daily Star Sunday and a former News of the World journalist who cannot be named for legal reasons stand accused of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office by paying a prison officer for stories about the treatment in prison of killer Jon Venables.

    They deny the charge as do former prison officer Scott Chapman and his ex-partner Lynn Gaffney.

    Summing up the defence case for the News of the World journalist, John Butterfield QC said: “A key part of a democracy is a free press, because people in power don’t knowing what they’re up to. They don’t like us being able to have an opinion. And if we’re going to get to know it sometimes has to involve what would otherwise be some pretty shady business.

    “If there’s any form of whistleblowing going on it is justifiable for money to change hands. Because it is necessary and appropriate to reimburse the whistleblower against the possibility they might be sacked for revealing bad practice.”

    He said that the subject matter involved in the stories was “massively important” and so in the public interest.

    “In short, there is a huge contrast when it comes to the prosecution position about public interest and our own…They call it a crime. We call it democracy.”

    He said the actions of journalists like the accused enable “the mass of people to have some insight into faceless institutions which would quite prefer to do things in secret away from any possible scrutiny”.

    He said: “These arrangements are how the press get their foot in the door so we the public can peer in through that door. Doors the establishment would prefer to stay firmly closed.

    “Some people, somewhere have got to get their hands dirty for that to happen. And rewarding with money those who take a risk to reveal things in the public interest is of course going to be part of that.

    “It’s a necessary weapon for a free press to have in its armoury.”

    Butterfield said that this is now a democracy operates, adding: “If a jury in this country could be persuaded that amounts to a criminal offence then I say plainly it would be a sad and a scary day.”

    Contrasting the case of the prosecution with that of the defence, he said: “They call it a crime. We call it an open society.”

    Butterfield said it was “absurd” to suggest that Venables had been “demonised” by the press coverage which arose from the leaks: “This is a man who is himself responsible for being regarded as a demon. It’s not what newspapers write about him.”

    Venables was one of the two 10-year-old boys who killed toddler James Bulger.

    Butterfield also spoke about the suggestion that Woodhill Prison had “suffered” as a result of the disclosures.

    “What are we supposed to think – that it would make people less likely to want to go there. I’ve got news for the prosecution, the prisoners don’t want to be there in the first place.”

    Looking at the wider principles at stake, Butterfield said: “The issues this prosecution would seek to trample over are as serious as it gets in a democratic country.

    “It is after all extraordinary and troubling in a supposedly free society to have journalists on trial for articles written in good faith the course of their job. Here not just one, but two.

    “Because we need journalists to be brave. At times we need them to be pushing at the edges.

    “You don’t have to take it from me. Ask the children of Rotherham.

    “The scandal of child abuse utterly ignored by the authorities until a campaigning journalist opened it up to the light.”

    He said that the ability to pay public officials is a legitimate part of the normal business of journalism when it touches on serious issues.

    And he noted that the MPs’ expenses scandal was exposed after a public official was paid to disclose the data.

    He said: “If that had not happened the chances are we’d never have known that an MP claimed public money to pay for us to clean out his moat…

    “Or that another made a similar claim for the upkeep of a duck island in his gardens.

    “We’d never have had, you may think, half a dozen leading politicians convicted of criminal offences as we have subsequently seen.

    “On the contrary, they’d still merrily have their noses in the trough.”

    He said: “Don’t bank on ever getting to hear about matters like that again if a prosecution like this one is to be successful. If there is something that the powers that be don’t want you to know they are going to say it is confidential.

    “Journalists are obliged to pry into matters that are confidential. It is part of their normal and legitimate business.

    “Indeed, it might be appropriate for journalists quite deliberately to break the law in the public interest. It seems there is a desire to clip the wings of journalists.

    “But if the forces of the state can muzzle the press, there is a lot else which is precious which falls silent as well. The potential consequences of a conviction are as profound as it gets in a free society.”

    Butterfield also asked why the “foot soldiers” were being prosecuted rather than the “officer class”.

    He said: “It is not the foot soldiers who have the power to authorise payments.”

  3. Since losing my daughter in Thailand back in 2000 I have had many dealings with the press.It is not just the press that need pulling into line but also the Thai police as they are the ones that usually let the press know when a crime has been commited.Therefore the press are first are first on the scene.
    If it had not been for the press then an innocent male from the Karen tribe would have been found guilty of her murder.
    On many occasions I found out more from the press than I did from the FCO or the embassy .
    I agree that there needs to be controlling of what the press are privy to and what they are allowed to publish ,but certain things should not be in the press until the families are informed,but then maybe the FCO needs to up its game and get in there first.If the press and media know then how come they don,t.

  4. Thank you for your comments. A number of you mention the murders of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller in Koh Tao. We continue to work for a fair and transparent investigation and legal process on this case and for the families to receive accurate and timely information. Much of this is not public but we will update when we are able.

    As for remarks attributed to me, mentioned by Mr Michaud, I can confirm that I made no such comment and the quote attributed to me was untrue.

    We agree that the authorities have a role in working responsibly with the media. FCO Minister Hugo Swire made this clear in his meeting last week with the Thai Acting Ambassador in London (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/fco-minister-summons-thai-charge-daffaires-to-foreign-office)

  5. Dear Mr Kent
    As my representative in Thailand I must state I am appalled by remarks attributed to you in the media, in particular that you described the police investigation into the murders on Kao Tao as ‘exemplary’. I sincerely hope you did not use such a word to describe the RTP’s actions, as it is quite clear to anyone that that is not the case.
    While I appreciate you are a diplomat and are therefore expected to be diplomatic, there comes a point when you need to be speaking in the strongest terms possible. Far too many cases like this have been swept under the table in the past and it is high time we as a nation spoke out. You must surely be aware that Thai’s do not respect foreigners in general and particularly those that beat about the bush as you have done. Straight talking is the only thing they will react to, especially if they consider they are losing face.
    The fact that the current PM of Thailand has made several apparently false statements recently in the local press, such as the one claiming the Thai rep in London was not summoned to explain things. Why are you allowing them to walk all over us?
    I do not expect you to be rude but it is high time you spoke out and make it perfectly clear what many of your compatriot’s think of this farce of an investigation. As of last night 88,000 people have signed the online petition demanding a proper investigation of this case so you need to speak out.
    Yours sincerely
    Allan Michaud

  6. As a long time resident of Thailand and a once upon a time proud to be British citizen, I would just like to know what exactly is the function of the British Embassy in Thailand. It is certainly not here to look after the interests of ordinary British Nationals and bearing in mind the moribund state of British Industry and the Thai penchant for counterfeiting goods,
    it can’t be trade , What gives?

  7. Re. David an Hannah

    A devastatingly tragic time for the families of two attractive and bright youngsters who had absolutely everything to live for. As a father myself, my heart goes out to them and I hope desperately that they can in some way come to terms with this senseless loss.

    I am not only overwhelmed with sadness but also with a tremendous feeling of anger. Thailand is a country that I elect to spend a considerable amount of time in and I genuinely love the Thai people and this marvellous country.

    At the moment I am struggling to come to terms with how a system so despicably corrupt can be allowed continue to predominate, even to the obvious detriment of virtually everyone in Thailand.

    I believe these youngsters perished as a direct result of the despotic control and Mafia type tyranny metastatically spreading through many of the popular tourist destinations along with the direct involvement or tacit -read paid- approval of the Police.

    Beyond all else I hope that justice can prevail and the families of the both David and Hannah can find some comfort from that.

    A line needs to be drawn here and the Thia authorities need to show the rest of the world that it takes the deaths of their visiting citizens seriously.

  8. There is a balance to be had here. Whilst there exists a right to privacy it is tempered by the rights of society as well. For instance using privacy to hide tax evasion or other criminal activity is not acceptable as it harms society as a whole.

    With regard to recent events in Thailand especially, society has a right to SEE that Justice is being done. Society elects representatives to manage their society and expects a level of transparency from the civil servants whose jobs exist solely to benefit their society.

    If the Justice system appears wanting then it should be exposed so that society can have faith in the system since it relies on trust and faith to be effective as a deterrent to crime and injustice. Unfortunately with regard to the Foreign Office there is an ethic of secrecy and lack of transparency under the excuse of diplomacy. Many times necessary but also many time not necessary.

    I agree the media should have ethics in its reporting and irrelevant details such as passport pictures are unnecessary to publish. I am not so sure preventing publication of graphic pictures is a service to society since perhaps the true horror of the crime should be exposed. I completely understand that this can cause distress to the families of those victims but they do not need to actively seek out those images. Therefore perhaps control of release is the answer, meaning that those images should be released but not in a way that they could be seen without actively looking for them. This would prevent accidental exposure to those grieving.

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  9. Sir,

    I agree with the sentiment. However consider the fact that if you were seen to be more visible and addressing the great concerns of the people in the UK who have family inThailand you would not be experiencing this ground swell of social media demanding truth, and yes, maybe in their own armature way trying to get yo the TRUTH.
    You Sir are an instrument of the people. Get working for them. Demand justice And transparency for the victims and the poor victimised people of Burma.

    Sincerely

    Mike

  10. There is real concern that the two suspects in this case may have been framed and that wrongful convictions could follow, which would not be in the interests of justice or the victims’ families. While concerns remain about the police investigation, it is vital that intense media coverage continues to help avoid a miscarriage of justice.

Comments are closed.

About Mark Kent

Mark Kent graduated in Law from the University of Oxford. He gained a Master’s degree in European Law and Economics from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, and has…

Mark Kent graduated in Law from the University of Oxford. He gained a
Master’s degree in European Law and Economics from the Université Libre
de Bruxelles in Belgium, and has a postgraduate qualification in
Business Administration from the Open University. He has studied Thai at
Chiang Mai University, Khon Kaen University and Chulalongkorn
University.

Mark Kent joined the FCO in 1987 and has spent most of his career
working with the emerging powers of South East Asia and Latin America,
and with the European Union. He is a Fellow of the Institute of
Leadership and Management and has language qualifications in Thai,
Vietnamese, Spanish, Dutch, French and Portuguese.

Mark Kent took up his appointment in August 2012.