Saturday, 29 September 2007

Istanbul.


It is not the image I had of Turkey. More Barcelona with minarets. Perhaps it isn’t Turkey at all.

The problem is this. Since I started pontificating on this whole Corporate Social Responsibility lark - in particular (my bit, this) the social responsibilities of the media - I’ve been getting interesting and puzzling invitations from all kinds of places.

Kyiv in July. Tbilisi in November. Istanbul in September. I suppose I have an attraction that someone who knows what he’s talking doesn't have. I’m free.

They work you hard and so in less than 24 hours in Istanbul, it’s one lecture, one televised panel, five press interviews and a TV appearance.

I’m asked, among other things, about the portrayal of Turkey in the European press … that was what the lecture was about. I’m not very kind about it. The press, that is. And though I’m no expert on Turkey, I do try to understand the British media for a living and think I can spot a bizarre portrayal when I come across one.

This account by Yasemin Sim Esmen captures some of it.

I exonerate the BBC (as well as the FT and Economist and even some of the quality inside pages … though they are exactly that: inside pages. Often a long way inside). As far as the press is concerned, it’s hard to find coverage that isn’t refracted through the EU/Islam/culture clash prism – even the quality press isn’t always as careful as it could be.

Criticising the UK press portrayal, incidentally, doesn’t mean supporting the Erdogan view of the world … nor even the longer term Turkish take on history. Intriguingly missing from that Turkish Daily News account is a chunky discussion we had about Article 301.

That’s the article of the Turkish legal code that was used to prosecute Orhan Pamuk and a clutch of journalists. One of the (must-be-reformed) weaknesses of the Turkish judicial system is that more or less anyone can prosecute more or less anyone under 301. And they do just that – usually hard-line secularist/nationalists trying to imprison liberal journalists and intellectuals.

“So what’s the responsibility of the Turkish press as far as 301 is concerned?” was the question.

“Well, it’s got to go” was my answer. “And it’s a test of the Turkish press and broadcasters whether they can be the agents of the debate that gets rid of it … a debate they’ll have to reflect in an open, transparent fashion.”

Etc. I see it’s not in the TDN article.

It was pretty clear from my 48 hours in Istanbul – most of it stuck in traffic – that it and probably the Mediterranean seaboard could walk into the EU tomorrow. But as everyone I met made clear, it’s the vast eastern part of the country stretching down to Iraq and Syria that’s the problem.

And that was my message about the western press coverage of Turkey. For the moment, more Brits favour Turkish EU entry than oppose it. But my hunch is that if or when it ever became a close prospect, the western European press would kick and gouge and bite like crazy to make sure it was as difficult as could be.

Monday, 30 July 2007

In France

I am in France for three weeks and it is very different here.
The local weekly (paid-for) paper has gone through traumas over the past few years. Resolutely off-line, it’s tried every possible way of re-configuring its local offices to offer, first, a single paper for the whole region; then, a complex web of micro-papers which were flops because they were too micro; then a micro with a macro fold-in; and now, back to a single paper for the whole region.
The problem they had with the micro-papers was that there just isn’t enough news. No, really.
It’s even a bit of a problem with the single, regional edition.
Top headline this week? A picture lead on “the dead wife of the Lord of Crequy, who died in the war (crusades, that is), Dame Brunhilde haunts the chateau by night (that’s a pun, incidentally, on a dramatic production coming up at Fressin castle called ‘Nuits de Chateau”) whenever danger menaces the fortress.”
Inside. Barn fires – one of them deliberate. Car crashes – no-one hurt. One obituary.
And this, under the headline “Dog beaten up”:
“After passers-by raised the alarm, a 22 year old man was arrested on Saturday morning for beating up his dog and throwing it from the four-metre high sea wall. The dog – an American Staffordshire - did not seem to have been injured.
The man is being charged with cruelty and also for failing to muzzle the dog – the dog was not wearing a muzzle even though it is considered as belonging to a dangerous breed, category two.”
It’s about as bad as it gets in the summer. In the winter, he might have shot it.
Elsewise, all the news is good. A couple who have welcomed a child from Darfur into their home gets an inside page to itself. Painters and artists are inspired by or hang their work in trees. Artois medievality is celebrated on all sides, Victor Hugo here and there.
There are births marriages and deaths; theatrical and musical productions where the audience rather than the performers is the picture feature.
Mayors, departmental, regional and national government are invisible; the CRS a welcome buffer between the seaside town rowdies (many of them British stag and hen parties) and ‘us’; the courts seem never to over or under sentence.
And in spite of the pictographic weather forecast predicting brilliant sunshine, the sun has not returned and it is raining, raining, raining.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

In the mirror

Something bugs me about this - but I'm not sure what.
It's the Mirror's account of its reporters' bungled attempt to 'test security' at a rail depot. I first heard the story in a late night news bulletin on the BBC on Tuesday evening ... and was, uncharitably, puzzled not to see the cock-up reported in the Mirror the following day.
Roy Greenslade has this account of the Mirror's reasons for not reporting on its own reporters ham-fisted debacle.
When they did get their backsides in gear, the account was a cross between pusilanimous and whining.
"The Government wants us to trust them over 56-days' detention. The disquieting experience of these two Mirror journalists raises hugely worrying questions
..."
bleats the intro.
Hang on - the Mirror incompetents were in the jug for a few hours. Fifty six days? What's that got to do with it?
Plus; "worrying questions" would have been raised in my mind if they hadn't been shaken down pretty thoroughly - in fact, I wonder if 12 hours was enough.
I suppose the thing that both worries and bugs me is the unquestioned assertion that planting something dicky with wires on a train is, in fact, a "legitimate assignment" for a journalist.
On the one hand, it has to be right that the media tests the assertions of authority, that they're doing all they can to make us safe. On the other, it's - frankly - not that oozing in enterprise to skulk around a train yard with a box of tricks ... or, for that matter, to smuggle something nasty onto a plane knowing that, except in the most knuckle-headed foul up, you'll get away with it.
And I suppose the thing that bugs me is when it does end in a knuckle-headed foul-up ... isn't the only legitimate response to say - 'yup, this time we lost'. If you're testing security and the security works, then - I would have thought - you say so.
To flick it round as the Mirror did to argue that holding a couple of buffoons for a few hours to check out their story, that going to their houses to check that story stacks up is somehow oppressive is, at the very least, perverse.
Yes - of course checking those assurances about our security is legit; but, please, when you've shown that guys who plant stuff on trains get caught ... say so. End.
What's that line about 'if you can't take a joke you shouldn't sign up ...'?

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Not chicken in Kiev

Apologies. Crap half-pun. With a trace of meaning.
Just spent half a week in the Ukraine capital with the UN there trying to explain Corporate Social Responsibility ... with a bit of journalism ethics on the side.
CSR is one of those things that you either get or you don't - and, no, it's not a typically lefty, BBC type thing aimed, at best, at taking the edge off raw capitalism, at worst, returning the globe to a tankie-style planned economy. It's rooted in business and profit; why are energy companies amongst the biggest CSR fans? Because they want to be still making profits in fifty years' time.
In Ukraine, as in most other places - including this sceptical blast from the Economist (login required, but you can get it free) - CSR is confused with philanthropy; supporting the arts or buying a local orphanage. It isn't - as the fons et origo of global CSR the UN Global Compact makes clear; at root, it's about respecting the law, fellow humans and the environment. Which lets the sceptics in from both sides; either it's chucking profit away on the feckless or the aesthetic or it's no more than the law prescribes.
The Global Compact is far from ideal; its 'precautionary approach' to the environment is bonkers, effectively legitimising as it does even the daftest allegedly (untested) eco-plan ... so long as it's done in the name of environmental protection.
But the worst thing about it by far is its failure to pay even lip service to the role of the press, the media, journalism as either watchdog or platform to debate the merits of the whole idea.
Which was my theme ... so I witter on about that; and press freedom; and media ethics. And I point out that Ukraine has only one choice about CSR; fast or slow. Access to western capital, markets etc depend on it.
There's a forest of hands. 'What do you do in the UK when a businessman pays your editor to spike your story?' Or 'What do you do about TV owners who tell their newsrooms not to report certain stories?' Or 'What's the point in signing up to the CSR agenda if media companies refuse to report it even exists?'
Ok. Slow dawning. Wrong starting point. Like other dilettantes, I assume the Orange Revolution has licked the land of the Cossacks into some sort of recognisable shape ... decent by EU standards, that is.
On the face of it, Ukraine's media and journalists are free ... constrained by the constitution, the legal code (which is extensive) but most of all the raw power of the oligarchs. There is something brutal in the air, which you kinda catch from the muscle bound, smoke-fugged, shaved-heads driving the cabs and dooring the pubs, or the ads for prostitutes and 'try before you buy' brides on the tourist office givewayws. But here in a five star hotel in central Kyiv a couple of hundred journalists spend a day and a half railing against it, asking for help with a way through. A way through that doesn't go the Georgiy Gongadze way. And then the journos from Moscow, Tbilisi and Almaty pitch in. Judged by their tales, Ukraine is not that badly off.
I've never had the thugs come round so I don't know what I'd do if they did. Nothing heroic, I'm sure.
So I lecture them on accuracy, the journalism of verification, independence and impartiality. And then go to the airport to catch up on Queengate.

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Out of the Lobby?

SKY Political Editor Adam Boulton has kept a diary of his week for the UKPG online
In it, an intriguing defence of the Lobby. He would, obviously, defend it since he’s been a member for 25 years and is this year’s chairman.

He writes:
“In spite of its sinister reputation, the Lobby is not an old boys’ network in
which politicians and hacks conspire to “keep it under their hats”. We rarely
hear secrets and, if we do, the public is informed pretty soon afterwards.”
But that misses the point. The real concern non-journalists have about the Lobby isn’t that it’s an ‘old boys’ network’ – though that’s exactly what it is (with the 21st century substitution of ‘boys and girls’ for just ‘boys’).

Nor that its members conspire with politicians to keep things “under their hats” – journalistic competition, the proliferation of news sources, the pressures of a 24 hour news cycle and politicians’ annoying tendency to speak to journalists outside the Lobby mean that that particular cosiness is no longer sustainable. Though cosy the relationship certainly remains.

There are two main reasons ordinary voters – or at least those who take any interest at all in national politics – find the Lobby system wanting.

First, that even with developments such as the PM’s monthly on-camera newsconferences and attributions to PMOS, the Lobby remains an interpretive animal. We were not there, we cannot tell how well the Lobby journalist has done his/her job.

To use Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lecture formula, Lobby reporting is a form of non-assessable communication … and the drift is very definitely in the direction of preferring the assessable. Joe and Jane Voter want to see/hear for themselves.

Second, the Lobby is the embodiment of Westminster’s inaccessiblity to the ordinary voter. Six hundred years ago, when they used to burn heretics and witches, the clergy opposed the translation of the Bible from Latin (which priests had to gloss and interpret) into English (which the laity could read and understand for itself). The Lobby is as reluctant now to let go of its role as the – metaphorical – denouncer of heretics and burner of witches.

The formula: “the minster said this … but what he really meant was this …” is such a familiar formula in political coverage, we journalists don’t even question it. Nor have we questioned sufficiently often and self-critically what it’s done to the concept of political truth-telling.

The sense that national politics is another world conducting its business in an alien tongue with a mendacious vocabulary is one of the (many) reasons why potential voters remain just that. Potential and not actual.

Adam’s defence continues:
“In practice, it is the main interface between political journalists, the
Government and parliamentary institutions.”
Really? I have no numbers on this but I suspect the average voter’s knowledge of what politicians are doing in his/her name derives more from interviews (press as well as broadcasting), speeches, appearances, articles written by politicians themselves and non-Lobby journalists than it does from the Lobby.

Direct, unmediated and assessable communication ought to be a good thing … except that it’s routinely glossed by Lobby journalists with the confident nose-tap of one-who-really-knows.

The reality is, the clarity of an interview on Andrew Marr’s show or The World at One is subsequently fuzzed by the Lobby journalist’s translation – a translation as often as not ‘tweaked’ after a quiet word with a special advisor.

Adam notes that political bloggers Iain Dale (**update - Iain Dale denies he wants admission to the Lobby; see his comment **) and Guido Fawkes, among others, now want admission to the Lobby. But, he asks:
“Do they want to operate as journalists or gossip columnists?”
Good question – I wonder whether Lobby journalists ever ask it of themselves.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Charity

At the Charity Communications conference - the second such devised by AskCharity, Media Trust, and the Institute of Fundraising. Once again, I am sweeping up after Alistair Campbell.
The conference is an important venture. The place where charities and the media meet is rarely straightforward and full of misunderstandings. Journalists see many charities and their (unpaid) media volunteers as little more than providers of case studies to illustrate the stories they've already decided to tell. The charities see the media as an occasional ally but more frequent obstacle in getting the purity of their messages across to the public ... from whom, of course, they need cash.
I'm sad not to have heard Alistair ... but he needs no intermediary.

Three things: case studies, expectations of the media, the impact of social networking.

I'm a heretic on case studies. The conventional wisdom is that case studies are essential. The unquestioned assumption has it that most people only engage with a big idea through a personal narrative. Compelling character and narrative = engagement = impact.
And that's the problem. Compelling characters and narratives tend to be atypical. News is the atypical - 'plane crashes' is news, 'plane lands' isn't. But it's the landing not the crashing plane that tells the story of planes.
The best case studies tell only their own story. Just like good pictures .... which is fine if the case or the picture is the story. It usually isn't.
Journalist Victoria Wright told how it usually is. She contributed to a BBC documentary 'What are you staring at'. The programme needed someone with facial disfigurement to criticse plastic surgery; Victoria didn't do that ... at least, not in the bits of the interview that never made the cut. In the edit, she said enough that seemed critical for that to 'become' her view. She was a case study cut to fit the frame.
Katie Weitz of First Features - 'Earn BIG BUCKS by telling YOUR story' - thought the answer was copy approval ... and claimed editors were usually amenable to the idea. Um ... no editor I've ever met, but then I've led a sheltered life.

Expectations are difficult. By definition, everyone working for a charity believes in what they're doing ... and not all can always see that their beliefs and priorities aren't universal. The only realistic advice - have no expectation of the media. Journalism is about explaining the world as it is - or at least, as journalists see it.
Peter Gilheany of Geronimo Communications put it uncomfortably - charities are businesses. They're in the business of selling and marketing. One questioner believed the answer was to appeal to journalists as human beings. Another that journalism should 'help'.

Then the obvious question; 'will blogging and social networking be the end of journalism'. I guess something of Alistair in the question - the dream of unmediated communication. Aka, control.
Of course not, is the right answer. It's the one everyone gives.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Mirror cracked

The scientologists have done us a service. Their rebuttal campaign aimed at John Sweeney’s Panorama investigation is a foretaste – a particularly well-funded and well-produced foretaste – of the feedback firestorm beginning to engulf all of Big Journalism.
Good.
Journalists and audiences should get used to the new world.
The story so far. The latest Panorama (which you can click here to watch) began life as a John Sweeney investigation into Scientology. It’s not the first time Panorama have been here; they looked at the religion in 1987. Many of John Sweeney’s allegations were familiar, though his evidence was more up to date and more compelling.
But the film turned into a report on a report on a report. Panorama put a reporter, producer and crew into the field; the scientologists did the same… Panorama looking at Scientology’s methods and mores, Scientology looking at John Sweeney’s methods and mores.The result; a Panorama film that told the story of a Panorama reporter’s reaction to the scientologists’ mirror. And a little bit about the scientologists too.
In the end, (depending on your point of view) either John Sweeney cracked or, as he explained it in the programme, he asserted his authority, leaning heavily on a prior thespian persona in “Oh What a Lovely War” (Joan Littlewood, you have much to answer for). Either way, he shouted a lot and links to the clip of 'the moment', posted to YouTube by a scientologist blogger, spread through e-mail networks faster than Staph A on a lukewarm Petri dish.
And the scientologist onslaught was multimedia; they handed out copies of their counter-film to BBC staff on Monday morning and posted it on an elegant and well-designed website which broadened the attack onto the BBC in general.Good.This is how it is now and will be more so in days to come. And it's not a bad thing for Big Journalism. OK, so not everyone in journalism's many audiences has the resources, time, commitment and Tom Cruise/John Travolta on the books. But almost everyone has a mobile phone, a digital camera, the ability to record audio, blog, join networks... do much more to just tell the editor what they think of the journalism they use or experience.
And if you doubt the power of the audience... look what happened to Eason Jordan, Dan Rather and Judith Miller. It's uncomfortable... IF you're used to the old one-to-many lecture that journalism used to be. But the reason it's to be welcomed is that it will improve journalism; perhaps even raise our trust in what journalists tell us.After all, if the argument for investigative journalism is that things done in the light are done with more integrity and accountability than things done in the dark... then the argument for investigating journalism - for audiences and those journalism puts in the news to investigate journalism - is unanswerable. Journalism that has integrity and honesty in the first place has nothing to fear.
Postscript: as we know, 'nothing is ever finished, it's just the latest version'. Within hours of the 'Sweeney moment' being posted to YouTube this 'tweaked' version joined it.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

After spin

So far, Gordon Brown and his new website have been remarkably successful in shaping the way his campaign has been reported. Today, his top line is:
NHS an immediate priority
Gordon Brown today announces that the NHS will be an immediate priority, saying “we will do better”.
And sure enough, that's the line most journalists seem to be focusing on - a result, especially since that was the focus of 'interesting' Gordon on Today this morning. The focus of 'dour' Gordon was much more significant, though, and promises interesting, if not immediately amusing, times.

This;
"I think we're going to have to have a better constitution. In other words, we're going to have to look at how the executive and all those who hold power should be held properly accountable to the people of this country. And I do want to conduct a debate in the country about how we can go forward with a better constitution for the future ..."
He cited - not for the first time - things like a new ministerial code and the right of Parliament to vote on peace or war ... both of which he's edged towards in previous briefings ... here, or here last September. It's linked to the notion that his time in office could be distinguished by a new approach both to government accountability and to the media. Perhaps even restoring the latter to a player in the former.

OK ... so Arctic Monkeys this isn't. One difference - it matters.

Charlie Beckett at POLIS has this extended post, his line that:
"It is one of the most majestic ironies of the New Labour years that the administration credited with the invention of spin is now threatened by a tidal wave of media hostility. Can Gordon Brown get his head back above water?"
Part of Gordon's problem, he diagnoses, is that he can't rely on everyone having a short memory:
"Brownites such as media consultant Scarlett McGwire claim he is man of integrity who will sweep the corridors of Whitehall clean of spin. Er… hang on a minute.
Brown’s original press man Charlie Whelan was one of the most ebullient exponents of the craft. He was often cavalier with veracity in the face of political danger ...
Our foremost chronicler of spin, Nick Jones, has described Brown as the greatest leaker of them all. Why should Brown change the habits of the last decade when he gets the top job?"
He concludes:
"The potential is there for a revived political culture. Can Gordon contribute?"
One former practitioner, John Williams who for half a dozen years was press secretary at the Foreign Office and before that a political correspondent on the Evening Standard, thinks at the very least he has a chance.

In a blog for the BBC College of Journalism - sadly, I can't link; it's still on an intranet site - John Williams writes;
"One of the first changes Gordon Brown should make is to end the culture of spin.
This is easily said. It is less easily defined. And it’s harder still to draft a programme for improvement."
In spite of the difficulty of a definition that separates presentation from spin, John Williams proposes these two criteria;
"over-statement that gives a false impression; uncheckable sources using anonymity in an underhand way. "
But that might not be all. he goes on;
"It would be good to have a debate on what else spin consists of, or if this definition is far too gentle."
His remedies?

"One: restore parliament as the place where government policy is first announced.
No more trailing in the Sundays or – sorry, BBC – in broadcast interviews. It would make an enormous difference to our political-media culture if we started tuning in to Commons statements and debates expecting to hear something important for the first time.

Two: reform political sourcing. Make clear to the media who are the two or three people genuinely close to each minister, authorised to speak on their behalf: say the press secretary, special advisor and perhaps parliamentary private secretary. Ministerial sources should be named. This could work only with media co-operation, but the media has an interest in more soundly-based news that the public can trust because it knows where it’s coming from. ‘A source authorised to speak on behalf of…’ is a formula I once used to tighten up Robin Cook’s media relations and it worked. It would be wonderful to see a newspaper report based on ‘a source not authorised, nor very close to, but freelancing for his/her own purposes.’

Three: Establish a respected, independent statistical service whose figures would have to be referred to, with footnotes, whenever a politician wants to give figures to back up an argument."

But there are problems. As Martin Moore posted a few days ago;
"it's not obvious there are many journalists out there still interested in the 'serious business of politics'. And those that are need to be convinced not just that Brown is telling the truth, but that he is willing to put up with people not liking his policies - i.e. engaging in a genuine debate, rather than trying to squash or square dissent."
I.e. there's no evidence that the the political press will drop the habits of spin ... because it's not in their interest to do it, culturally or competitively. Plus, it's difficult to envisage a day that the written press would adopt the 'on the record' default of the broadcasters - the stories are better with unnamed sources ... they're also less trusted, but hey ... memories are short and tomorrow's another day. The weird calculus that places the unnamed, interested source way ahead of the named, interested source is hard to shift.

But at the risk of seeming like a one string fiddle player, we either have to learn to live without a press that explains people to power and power to people - and the democratic deficit that inevitably accompanies it - or we have to change it. The demoticisation of publishing helps (if only by embarrassing the political press by contrasting with its villagey chumminess) ... but only so far.

What would take it much further would be a serious politician of any party who applied himself or herself to the task of remaking the links between the conversations people have and the politics they determine. And sure, that means kicking spin - as John Williams defines it - into touch; but it also means finding a way of weighing those conversations and producing politics and ideologies steered by that weight.

Parties and their annoying, troublesome constitutions used to do that. What's the new thing?

Friday, 4 May 2007

Frontline postscript

Thursday's World Press Freedom Day discussion at the frontline club was humbling for anyone - like me - who's spent their professional lives in the relative comfort of the UK media. You could say that fretting about how the anglo-saxon world's politicians and political journalists are trying to grab the blogosphere for themselves is kinda missing the point. Ethan Zuckermann and Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah brought to the discussion accounts of bloggers (and journalists) intimidated, imprisoned, closed down, unplugged.
The simple truth that the web enables more people to speak more freely to a bigger audience than ever before has got to be A Good Thing and I can't think of a single argument against it - not even when blogging is at its most uncivil or social networking at its most irreverent.
But the web's value as a medium through which the (potentially amplified) civic conversation takes place doesn't automatically make it the answer to our broken politics' prayers. Worse, the danger is that both politicians and political journalists - in the anglo-saxon world at any rate - are tending to make the parts of the web they occupy resemble all that was wrong about politics and political journalism in the first place.
Suw Charman argued - and I don't disagree with her at all - that many bloggers here in the UK post about real-world political experiences and issues, the ambulance service, the NHS and so on; that blogging constitutes an alert, engaged, bothered conversation. Kevin Anderson adds the thought that this is a reflection of the way in which most people "relate to governance and policy differently than politician and journalists."
Exactly - that's the precise point of the disconnect; the exact place the wires have been cut. Martin Moore takes this one step further and asks whether these conversations - including those involving councillors and candidates and activists - shouldn't "feed directly into politics at a local level"?
But that's the point - they don't. Neither locally nor nationally. And one of the reasons they don't is the way in which our politics and political press have co-evolved over the past quarter century; that co-evolution has neutered ideology, stunted political debate and replaced it with a hand-book of standard scenes that have litle to do with the connection of conversation with action and everything to do with tomorrow's headline.
Soooo ... blogging, good; social networking, good; civic conversation, good. But is the web the the tool that will mend what's broken? No.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Political blogging

It seemed a good idea at the time. Now I'm not so sure. Next Thursday, I'm at the frontline club with Ben Hammersley - one of my favourite gurus and blogger - and Richard Gizbert - of the al Jazeera 'Listening Post'. Blogger Ethan Zuckermann - co-founder of Global Voices and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah will join by phone.

We'll be talking about political blogging. An uneven contest, especially since I'm the - alleged - sceptic in the line-up. And even more especially since I'm not in the least sceptical about blogging ... whatever that would mean.

What I am sceptical about is that blogging or any other form of social networking can fix what's bust about our politics and our political journalism. In fact, it's more likely to make them both worse.

Each new alliance of social media and politics has one or more of these claims made about it;
Each of which is fine in itself. But while all of these contribute to the civic conversation, they aren't the problem. I can see little evidence that blogging or any other form of social networking increases the trust - still at floor level - that voters have in politicians or in those who report their doings to them. I can't see how a blogging politician is any closer to his/her constituency than one who holds surgeries, makes speeches at prize-givings and knocks on the occasional door.

From what I see of the successful political blogs - let's take Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes for instance - they replicate the inward looking, metropolitan chumminess of the Westminster village that many in the audience find repellent in both politics and political journalism. Similarly, I'm left wondering what it is or might be that Benedict Brogan, say, or Daniel Hannan (political journalists both, politician the latter) might say in their blogs that they might not say in their columns, leaders or - in Daniel Hannan's case - addresses to the European Parliament.
It's inevitable, too, that - as Joe Trippi told Jeff Jarvis - politics on social networking sites will become dominated by 'makaka moment' videos ... accentuating rather than countering a similar trend in political reporting.

Crucially, though, no form of social networking bridges the gap that has to be bridged. And that's the one that used to be filled by party organisation that joined the civic conversation to political action - formally in the case of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, informally in the case of the Conservatives. It's fine to have a robust and energetic civic conversation ... but a conversation is exactly what it says it is; talk.

I can see how blogging enables that conversation; I can't see how ideologies are derived from it nor how political judgement and action are derived except in a nervy, fractured obedience to some assessment of 'the public mood'. Which is precisely the problem in the three way relationship between people, politicians and political journalism.

Let's see how Thursday goes.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Is the British press the worst in the west?

As almost everyone predicted, the stories of the 15 marines - or at least those who sold/were allowed to sell their stories - morphed instantly into a commentary on the British press.

Unseasonally, Martin Moore at the Media Standards Trust, likened the whole affair to a pantomime before pondering just what it was that the Press Complaints Commission were up to in their reported offer of help. As Martin points out:
"The PCC, as it repeatedly states, reacts to complaints – it does not pre-empt them. This was one of the reasons it gave last year for not taking action against the 305 journalists exposed by the Information Commission for illegally gathering personal private information (and breaking clause 10 of the code)."
Charlie Beckett, over at the LSE's POLIS, wants us to "lighten up and save (our) moral outrage for something truly horrible." While Professor Adrian Monck at City University found himself "thinking about the moral problems of military service".

Melanie Phillips - who writes for the Daily Mail, one of the losers in the bidding war - thought the whole affair was a debacle of the first order – "a grim parable of the degraded state to which Britain has now descended and an alarming portent for the free world in its fight to survive." So, no sign of sour grapes there then ... though you are left wondering what she might have written if the Mail had got one or more of the marines to talk.

Andrew Grant Adamson at Wordblog is bemused at the world in which military personnel are allowed - enabled - to break their code of omerta .... but not parents, desperate to tell the story of their "nightmare" at the hands of a family court.

But it was Polly Toynbee's column - and blog at the Guardian's comment is free - that really piled the ordure on the head of the British press.

"Our press, the worst in the west, demoralises us all"

... ran the headline. And after trotting through the various tabloid hypocrisies, her column/blog concludes:
"What is so squalid about these newspapers is their use of figleaf sermons to cover their real business, done with corrupting chequebook, threat, intimidation, invasion of privacy, paparazzi aggression and vicious cruelty.
Labour should use this disgrace to reign in chequebook tell-all by public servants, from those at the top such as Christopher Meyer to those at the bottom such as these sailors. It's time to look again at privacy legislation, a quid pro quo for the Freedom of Information Act the press abuses with petty assaults on government.
The media is in danger of making government by any party impossible."
The real meat, though, is in the comments - long, but worth spending some time on ... if only for the way in which the debate ("if X agrees with Y that Polly's motivations are Z ... then though I agree with her I have to disagree ...") slides though meta-debate into a form of rhetorical calculus that's, possibly, beyond mathematical expression.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

In defence of the "citizen journalist"

Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust has posted a plea – “please stop calling us ‘citizen journalists’”

Martin’s argument is of the Holy Roman Empire variety – neither citizens (in the overtly active sense of the word) nor journalists.
“How many bloggers / vloggers etc. would even call themselves journalists let alone citizen journalists?”he asks.

“What we're really talking about is a bunch of different phenomenon lumped together as 'citizen journalism'. There's the virtual stringers - people who happen to be somewhere that news is happening and record it (like at the 7/7 bombings). People who just reflect on or react to the news (like this blog). And people who write / photograph / video things which they don't consider 'news' but publish online and then gets picked up by others who consider it newsworthy. Maybe we should call them 'virtual stringers', 'demablogs', and plain old 'bloggers' until we develop a new vocabulary.”

Whether bloggers can ever call themselves journalists – in the sense of going out there and getting stories, standing them up, checking them etc … as opposed to happening to be there when stories happen or having ripe and robust views on something happening somewhere else – is a question Robert Niles takes on over at the Online Journalism Review.

“Are blogs a parasitic medium” bluntly. And Robert Niles goes on:
“I hear the frustration behind the comment. You bust your rear to get stories in the paper, then watch bloggers grab traffic talking about your work. All the while your bosses are laying off other reporters, citing circulation declines, as analysts talk about newspapers losing audience to the Web. It's not hard to understand why many newspaper journalists would come to view blogs as parasites, sucking the life from their newsrooms.
Still, the charge riles me every time I hear it.”


Robert Niles’ posting – written while “riled” – nonetheless seems aimed at whittling out a consensus … though some of the bloggers he consults use words like “baloney” while also pointing out that there are blogs that address topics the mainstream media ignore; that even derivative blogs “animate” the stories they reference; and anyway, there’s nothing new about journalists referencing each others’ work so why shouldn’t bloggers.

Oh and Lisa Stone, co-founder of BlogHer.org makes the obvious observation that:
"An opinion editorialist doesn't have to break news herself to provide amazing, fresh perspective on world events -- whether she's published on the New York Times Op-Ed page or on her own blog.”

Robert Niles’ consensual tendencies can be read here; The silliest, and most destructive, debate in journalism in which he pleads:
“Let's quit arguing the merits of "mainstream" versus "citizen" journalism and instead work together on "better" journalism.”

And there’s something of that in buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis who posted this unremittingly optimistic account – most of which, for what it’s worth, I happen to agree with – of a term teaching journalists (first filed for Guardian Media on Monday.)

On the key question, the BBC has more or less dumped the term “citizen journalism”, preferring however reluctantly “user generated content.”

But the phrase “citizen journalism” seems to contain something really rather subtle that Martin Moore’s – and others’ – rejection of it misses ... though it’s certainly the case that “citizen journalism” means/meant something different depending on where you used it from.

For Big Journalism, it had a patronising tang that almost equated to “less than a … journalist”. For citizen journalists, though, it emphasised the truth of both citizenship and journalism (ok, I know we’re all subjects and not citizens in the UK … but rest-up for a moment); that you needed to be qualified for neither and that journalists were citizens, citizens journalists.

Oh… and that the rights and responsibilities of both were identical. Try the phrase “non-citizen journalist”. Doesn’t quite work, does it?

OK – vloggers/bloggers/networkers/shares are a pretty diverse group; they’re also – the few studies that there are suggest – a pretty parasitic lot. But Lisa Stone is right – so are journalists.

Whatever we call them/us, the people formerly known as citizen journalists have never just dumped a load of raw newsgathering into the news stream. They’ve also established a pretty high level of media critique that means any and every form of journalism is now forced to look over its shoulder at the strident cries of foul from those who formerly fumed (quietly) in the audience.

Which is where Robert Niles’ ‘destructive debate’ posting comes in. Whatever you call them, “citizen journalists” are an essential component of better journalism.

And hurrah for that. I still like the term “citizen journalist” – not that it describes what anyone does. But for the simple existential reason that it describes what they are.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Hell, apparently ...

… hath no fury like a conspiracist scorned.

The series producer of The Conspiracy Files, Mike Rudin acknowledged in his BBC Editors’ blog on 22 February that “it had to happen”. And it has.

Sites hosting 9/11 conspiracy theories – like this one – must by now be threatening pornography’s premier position on the web, if the scale of the blogging around The Conspiracy Files’ 9/11 programme is anything to go by. They’ve even camped on David Cameron’s website.

Blogger Mark Belam – a former BBC IT specialist – neatly brings the story up to date -- in brief, the new twist in the 9/11 conspiracy theory is that the BBC was in on it.

Evidence? A Jane Standley 2-way on BBC World – which didn’t ‘come to light’ until 26 February 2007 – in which, the conspiracists say, she and anchor Phillip Hayton announced that a building on the World Trade Centre site – the Salomon Brothers Building or WTC7 – had collapsed before it actually had.

Indeed, the conspiracists say, the Salomon Brothers building can be seen in the background, still standing as Jane Standley was reporting its collapse … and continued to stand for a further 23 minutes.

This, conspiracy sites like this one, say is a “smoking gun” – proof that 9/11 was a Bush administration inside job, planned and executed meticulously even down to the preparation of press-releases setting out the intended sequence of events. By pre-empting the collapse of WTC7, the conspiracists say, the BBC blew the gaffe, showing at the same time that it was part of the conspiracy.

Adding to the conspiracy theory is the fact that the BBC hasn’t kept time-coded tapes of World output on that day.

News 24 tapes, which do have a time code, have been kept and extracts have now been posted on YouTube. Therse show that the news of the Salomon Brothers building collapse was reported on News 24 at 1655 New York time – a full 12 minutes before BBC World reported the same event and 25 minutes before the actual collapse.

I have a hunch – no more than that – that this might be where BBC World got the story from.

Poor quality grabs and recordings of BBC World output for the period in question – between 1657 and 1720 New York Time – have been posted on YouTube (though in line with all good conspiracy theories, Google have been accused of pulling them … which just isn’t true as you can see here, here, here ... etc; over forty posts in all. Though presumably, today’s announcement of a new partnership between BBC World and YouTube is more grist to the conspiracists’ mill)

By the end of February, the BBC’s inside knowledge was accepted as fact both on conspiracy websites but also in the responses on the BBC Editors’ blog and as random posts on other blogging sites about journalism and the BBC.

Doubtless BBC World Head of News, Richard Porter, knew he was on a hiding for nothing when he set out – about as frankly and openly as it gets – what was really happening in the BBC World newsroom and bureaux on that day; 209 responses and rising.

Unfortunately, saying “we’re not part of a conspiracy” as Richard Porter does, is proof positive of the opposite in the eyes of any conspiracist.

Which puts me well and truly in the frame. I was responsible for special 9/11 programmes on that day (I was Editor of WATO and PM then) and if there was a conspiracy that the BBC was part of, they’d forgotten to tell me.

I was in Canary Wharf when the attacks happened/conspiracy got under way – maybe I had been told but got the wrong high buildings on the wrong continent – and was first alerted by ever more agitated voicemail messages from my deputy.

Bit of a serious oversight, don’t you think? If we were all working to a script, the first thing you’d make sure of was that a) the people who mattered knew what it was and b) they didn’t go off it – and as every broadcast journalist knows from the event coverage that we do rehearse, no amount of preparation prevents the actual day being what is known in the trade as a “kick-bollock scramble”. Technical term.

Things go wrong in newsrooms. Journalists make mistakes. It happens. We’re not proud of it – but journalism, on a day like 9/11 is a rough, blunt, messy trade. Rumour gets hardened into fact before it vanishes without trace. Live and continuous news shares its verification processes with its audience, live and on-screen. Reporting a rumour as fact - often taken from wire services who are 99.99% reliable or from eye-witnesses whose view and understanding of events was, it turns out, less than perfect - isn't ideal ... but it would be a fool who thought it could always be wholly avoided on a day like 9/11.

The alternative explanation Рthat someone told journalists the script in advance Рis utterly risible. Leading a team of BBC journalists, any journalists, is Рto use the clich̩ Рan exercise in herding cats. Their personal and professional pride resides in their wilful, cussed, cantankerous determination to find ways of not doing what their editor wants. Of proving him/her wrong.

As an Editor, I’m always hugely disappointed if at least one person in the team doesn’t tell me to push off with my rubbish ideas. I wouldn’t want it any other way nor to work with any journalist who could be told what to say. I never have. It’s BBC journalism’s greatest strength and protection against the thought control that the conspiracists assume in any organisation they don’t understand.

But here’s another unexplained mystery the conspiracists should be having a go at.

If you look back at the footage of the News 24 live coverage of 9/11, round about 1403 UK time – 0903 New York time – you can see the second plane approaching the towers. It’s a clear steady, shot … though a distant one. And yet, the female studio anchor can be heard saying that the approaching aircraft is a rescue helicopter.

I’d always thought she’d just made a mistake – though mistaking an inbound Boeing 767 for a helicopter isn’t that easy – under the pressure of trying to keep both a live 2-way going and live commentary on the pictures coming in, while reading the wires, sorting scripts and taking studio directions from the gallery.

But now I realise that a shady operative from BBC Conspiracy Central had, in fact, accidentally handed her a script from the pile marked Second Hour instead of the one marked First Hour.

An easy mistake to make and the real smoking gun that has now blown open this conspiracy which, apparently, involved thousands of people worldwide … not one of whom, curiously, has swapped their story for the, doubtless, millions of pounds/dollars that would be on offer for it

Monday, 12 February 2007

Whose side are THEY on?

Is journalism – including BBC journalism – ‘on the side of’ civil liberties? Or at least, on the side of free speech?
A question worth putting after the Sun twice asked last week “whose side are these guys on?” ... meaning, the BBC. Their question was first prompted by a 10 o’clock News report on the Birmingham terror arrests that reminded viewers – Forest Gate? Jean Charles de Menezes? – "this is an intelligence-led operation. Intelligence can be wrong".
And secondly by the appearance of one of the men arrested - and after seven days released - on Radio 4's Today programme. In that second editorial, the Sun mused:"It sometimes seems the BBC would prefer terrorists to succeed than for an innocent man to be briefly held without charge. In their politically correct bubble, intelligence is always flawed and anti-terror action is inevitably heavy-handed. So the release of two suspects held over the alleged plot to behead a British Muslim soldier was a gift from heaven."
Over at the Mail, the former Sun commentator Richard ‘you couldn’t make it up’ Littlejohn (sadly, his two employers of choice have done just that) mused similarly, objecting to Abu Bakr's freedom to say on Today that Britain was ‘a police state for Muslims’.
Littlejohn’s' logic was tortured – mind, it was in the same column in which he appeared to support, or certainly not condemn, bomb attacks on government offices ... so long as not too many people weren’t too badly hurt.
I quote:“Be honest, until you heard that a woman had been injured, how many of you suppressed a cheer at the news someone had sent a letter bomb to the company which runs London's congestion charge? …Even after we learnt that two men were treated for blast injuries, I'll bet that there were still plenty of motorists who thought: serves the bastards right. “
Two things made Abu Bakr a bit ‘dodge’ apparently; one, that he seemed ‘very well briefed’ and two – and this bangs him to rights, squire – he was represented by one of Britain’s best known civil liberties lawyers. He should have made it a fair fight and engaged a copyright lawyer.
Littlejohn is, of course, wrong footed by the inconvenience that, in the eyes of the law if not a Mail columnist, Abu Bakr is as innocent as anyone … perhaps even more innocent than someone with an ambiguous stance on blowing up government offices.
It would, he argues, have been ok to interview Abu Bakr if the BBC had a record of interviewing, let’s say, the (innocent) associates of gangsters.
Or perhaps the BBC and the police were taken in by a plot to inflame Muslim opinion which “doesn’t take very much inflaming at the best of times”. That’ll be unlike the level headed people who send letter bombs to the DVLA, then.
BBC Head of TV News, Peter Horrocks, wrote in Monday’s BBC Editors’ Blog – in response to the Sun’s first attack – that it’s “not the BBC’s job to take sides”.
Sort of.
If journalism is about anything it is about free speech. Even without the constitutional protection here that free speech has in the US, few would question the right of Sun leader writers and Mail columnists to speak freely. If predictably.
It’s the same right that allows the pub bigot to void his spleen in the snug … or an innocent bookshop employee like Abu Bakr to tell Today whether he thinks he and his fellow Muslims enjoy the same civil liberties that, say, Richard Littlejohn enjoys. However offensively well-briefed he seems about his arrest(?!).
The Mail and the Sun are in that great tradition of punchy, gobby, misguided, opinionated, rabble-rousing journalism in this country – and long may it survive. Long may they keep their right to be wrong.
But they couldn’t do that without the rights of the individual to speak, to be treated fairly and according to the law and to be free to live a life unburdened by prejudice (‘Muslim opinion doesn’t take much inflaming at the best of times.”)
There’ll always be forces pressing to take those liberties away; there’s always a new ‘crisis’ that means this age is different from all that went before, the pieces will always be in flux …
But when journalists write leaders and columns against freedom of speech … you really do have to wonder whose side they’re on.