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Updated: May 11, 2014 23:05 IST

To unpublish or not to unpublish

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A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
The Hindu
A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Last week, news ombudsmen from across the world met at Hamburg in Germany for our annual deliberations and the topic was of both professional and general interest: “Secrets, standards, corruption and cover-ups: staying transparent in a murky world.” I am going to skip the details of three interesting subjects that were discussed at the conference as I have touched upon them in my earlier columns: the fallout of The Guardian’s decision to take up the Edward Snowden revelations, press intrusion and abuse leading to the Leveson Inquiry, and the state of the media in Turkey today.

The inevitability of digital platforms is that a problem arising in one part of the world becomes a global problem within a short span of time. The request to “unpublish” from the web archive is one of the new issues in front of news ombudsmen across the world. I have been receiving at least a couple of requests a month. There are arguments both for and against the takedown. Technology is not purely a boon but comes with its own attendant problems.

Recognising this complex reality, The Guardian has a dedicated section called “Internet privacy — the right to be forgotten” to discuss the issues involved in a dispassionate manner. The primary argument here is: “The internet has a long memory. But what if the pictures, data and personal information that it can pull up about you appear unfair, one-sided or just plain wrong? More and more people are claiming they have a “right to be forgotten” and are even trying to delete themselves from the web. The issue appears poised to generate legal, technological and moral wranglings for years to come.”

The session on unpublishing led by David Jordan, Director, Editorial Policy and Standards, British Broadcasting Corporation, managed to capture some of the real challenges in dealing with the request for removing content from the web archive. The principles for web archiving of media organisations, according to David Jordan, are: material published online will be part of a permanently accessible archive; the archive of online content is a matter of public record and its existence is in the public interest; material will not normally be removed or we risk erasing the past and altering history, and online content — whether part of a catch-up service or a permanent archive — should only be removed or amended in exceptional circumstances.

Risks after removal

Before removing any online content, Mr. Jordan alerted us that we must consider the potential harm such an action can do to the public interest, and the integrity of the archive or catch-up service. He said: “There is a risk, with removal, that we simply create suspicion about what else is missing and fuel conspiracy theories about its absence. We also need to consider the risk that information we remove may take on a life of its own and become distorted in the retelling. In the absence of the original content, it will be harder to refute inaccurate accounts of our content.”

Some of the participants also raised the question of the Internet cache that keeps some of the content widely in circulation and that in these cases, removal from one site may simply be ineffective. The questions that came up for discussion were: can things be done which fall short of removal? Should the public record always be sacrosanct? Do we have a duty to ensure that the public record is complete — e.g., an accurate report of arrest and charge/trial but no report of acquittal? Can steps short of removal solve the problem without compromising the record?

Two cases

Mr. Jordan, among other things, discussed two specific cases that may interest the readers of this newspaper. The first is a case of a law student charged in connection with a prank about a bomb threat in a public place. All charges against the law student were dropped well before the case went to trial. His lawyer said he was simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” A year later, the student requests that reports of the charges be removed from the online archive. He is job hunting and concerned that because searches of his name in Google pull up those articles he will be stigmatised.

The second, is a request from an Iranian political activist about his interview to the BBC. “I gave two interviews to the BBC website and my name is printed there. As you may know, political relations between Iran and the U.K. is tremendously worsening and the Iranian administration has passed a law that makes interviews with foreign media illegal and there could be severe consequences for any violation. Currently, I reside in the U.S. but I plan to visit Iran pretty soon and these interviews may be really troublesome. I would like to know if there is any possibility that my name and photo can be modified to anonymous due to security reasons.”

“The longtail of news: To unpublish or not to unpublish,” a paper by Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star, examines how news organisations throughout North America are responding to requests to unpublish news content. I propose to create a template for The Hindu in consultation with the Editor-in-Chief and the Editor over the next few months for unpublishing.

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