Monthly Archives: October 2009

Hip about time

This week’s Net Report went live today. Unedited copy below, or read the edited version here.

An early scene in Easy Rider strobes the shot of a wristwatch being thrown on the ground – discarded, unnecessary. “I’m hip about time” Captain America muses later in the film. By contrast, in the forty years since the making of this movie, the news media have clung closer and closer to time, to the extent that now even stories about time itself – and in particular, the merits of British Summer Time – appear on the radio and in newspapers as regular as clockwork.

Strangely, in the commercial world of news reporting – which is essentially the communication of the unexpected to the uninformed – predictable events have a market value. “News planning” allows busy editorial teams to fashion a proportion of their content ahead of time, leaving more resources free to cope with unforeseen events on the day a broadcast or broadsheet goes out. As news media resources diminish, so we have seen a steady growth in “anniversary” news, its most galloping form being the commemorative orgy that was last year’s awarding-winning Radio 4 series “1968: Myth, or Reality?” and this year’s series on the events of 1989. One imagines producers are already scheming what to celebrate next year – is it too early to commemorate the Millennium? Did anything cool happen in 1910? Helpfully for any rookie producer or editor, the Wikipedia community maintain a record of prominent anniversaries – listing at least twenty for every day of the calendar year.

Beyond Wikipedians, however, the internet does not care for calendar news, to the extent that it appears largely to have forgotten its own 40th birthday. Reports commemorating 40 years since the first message was sent over a telephone line between two computers have been echoed to a limited degree around the blogosphere. And the Guardian’s “People’s history of the internet” looks like it has had some success in crowd-sourcing a history of the last forty years in technology. But this online activity is still driven by offline media.

Perhaps it is no surprise. To justify our attention, news media must present the world around us as an unfolding narrative, a sequence of discrete events upon which only it has the power to report. The web, by contrast, is multi-linear, a cacophony of conversations about events past, present and future into which we can choose to dip at any time. On the web, it seems, we are just a little more hip about time.

New rules rule, okay?

This week’s Net Report went live today. Unedited copy below, or read the final version here.

Online this month, we have mostly been playing by our own rules.

On the evening of Monday 12 October, “#Trafigura” began trending on Twitter. The rules (in this case, England’s increasingly worrying libel laws) were preventing the Guardian from reporting the doings of Parliament. The Guardian was concerned that this broke another set of rules, namely “privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights”. Picking up where Carter Ruck had forced the web’s favourite newspaper to leave off, Twitterers began to spread the censored news themselves.

By noon the next day information that Trafigura had sought to suppress had conformed to another rule – the Streisand effect, sending thousands of users who would most likely have ignored a Guardian exposé on the subject of toxic dumping in Nigeria to a damning report that had been hosted on the whilstleblowing website Wikileaks since 13 September. Wrote one user “Thank you Twitter for alerting me to Trafigura. Would have completely missed this otherwise.

If the UK’s media pundits saw any similarity between this victory for free speech and last year’s outing on Facebook and other social networking sites of Baby P’s full name, also against the will of the courts, they didn’t mention it. And if Twitter’s owners felt any nerves about stretching their toes across the Atlantic to dip them in the cess pool that is English libel law, they didn’t show it. Where the rules don’t work, it seems fine to rely on instinct and the largesse of US corporations to help us break them.

Later in the week key UK Twitterers channelled an army of complainants to online advertisers whose products appeared next to an ill-judged and possibly homophobic piece by Jan Moir on the death of Steven Gately. Rather than go to the editor with their complaints, they played by another set of rules: they went for the newspaper’s bottom line. Soon, Marks & Spencer, Nestle, Kodak and National Express had pulled their advertising and Twitter had claimed another victory.

So far, so good. But as to whether these are the foundations upon which we wish to build a new set of rules for a new age, I’m not so sure. I can’t help wondering how far we will travel hand in hand with corporate conscience down the road marked digital free speech, before one of us chooses to pull away.

Smashing the Lens

This week’s Net Report went live today. Unedited copy below. Read the final version here.

“Well that’s what happens when you have three Weetabix for your breakfast”. So said the Sky News anchor as the camera cut back to her from Adam Boulton’s interview with the Prime Minister at Party Conference last month. Angry with Boulton’s “filtering” of his precious policy initiatives through the lens of the Sun’s decision to take its backing away from Labour, Brown had given his interlocutor a decidedly cold sign off. The clip exists in many forms online, including one which shows Brown flouncing off – to Boulton’s protests – after the shot has cut back to studio. Each has attracted tens of thousands of viewers.

But aren’t we all a little sick of it? Even before they’ve had their Weetabix, Today programme listeners have digested several rounds of linguistic shadow-boxing as presenters try and shoehorn the statements made by their Westminster guests into this week’s media agenda. It would seem that the benchmark of a successful interview is if its subject is left flailing for words on political ground his handlers have briefed him to avoid – no matter how consequential that ground be to the real issue. The increasing trend of bringing on a BBC editor after the eight o’clock politics interview to tell us all what just happened is surely indicative of a widening communication gap.

The day of David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference, Newsnight opened with an eye-watering interpretive line-up. After an authored report, two Westminster heavies weighed in, followed by Newsnight’s own panel of experts. In total, they played under 4 minutes of the actual speech. Online, these orchestrated analytical spectaculars are far less popular than the raw footage they dissect. A search for each of the party leaders in YouTube reveals that the occasional gaff (Brown’s flounce, Cameron’s Twitter “twat-gate“), mixed with long-form footage from Parliament and Conference, are the most popular. Like middle-class mothers, it seems we prefer picking over the raw ingredients of our politics to accepting the pre-packaged, sugar- (and spite-) laced alternative.

It is fashionable to condemn internet culture for shortening our attention spans and deepening our prejudices. But is it possible that the increased availability of political speeches – online and unmediated – might be a good thing for our democracy? Parliamentarians take note: there may not be anyone in the galleries, but that doesn’t mean we’re not watching you.

The Net Office: The view from the ground

The latest Net Office spot went live on the New Statesman website this morning. Here’s my unedited copy – to read the NS version, click here.

Traditional reporting of natural disasters tends to concentrate on body counts. Body counts focus the mind. By using a universal system – numbers – they help people far removed from a disaster to understand the scale of what has happened. Body counts bridge the empathy gap – imagine the impact of 1 untimely death one mile from your home, then scale it to 10,000 deaths 10,000 miles away.

In the last few weeks, several body counts have competed for our attention. Does the body count resulting from the Tsunami that struck the Pacific islands of Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga (176 confirmed dead) make this spectacle of woe any less appalling than the earthquake that hit Sumatra the following day (1,000 confirmed dead, 3,000 missing in Padang alone)? Or should we convert the body count to a percentage of population? And what of the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Ketsana in the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos? Death tolls may be lower, but hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.

On the web, human tragedy trumps scale. “First, this is my house”, a young Peace Corps blogger based in American Samoa captions a photo of what is now a pile of wood and metal. This was your house. This was your village. This – a photo uploaded to Flickr of a dead woman lying face down in the mud at what was a busy traffic interchange in Manila – could have been your sister. A chaos of video clips swells up, each showing random scenes of destruction set to audio that already sounds like it’s coming from underwater. Of course, those that have lost the most fail to broadcast the tragedy they suffer. Here, the British Red Cross picks up the pieces (British Red Cross Flickr stream).

On Twitter, our tears mingle freely with the flood, in 140 characters or less. But it is the messages closest to the scene which stand out the most: “Tweeps, if you’d like to volunteer for Padang, please contact me, departing at 8 AM tomorrow. Doctors and paramedics preferred.” A video uploaded to YouTube shows surfers converting their boards into rafts to help get food to those cut off by Ketsana. Hope – as Voltaire knew – is what natural disasters lack in their immensity and what we, on the human scale, contribute best.

Greeting your public

This week’s Net Report went live on the New Statesman’s website this morning. I note that Ben Goldacre posts the unedited copy of his weekly Bad Science column to his blog. This seems like a fair enough convention, so I propose to follow it, too. You can read the edited version here.

PR exists to convince the majority at the wrong end of the celebrity power law that the minority at the other end deserve to be there, satisfying our – objectively, ludicrous – desire that someone who can jump high, sing in tune, or paint also has both acceptably bland political views and great hair. Thus does PR perpetuate an aspirational culture that decouples man’s interests from his fellow man. So hurrah for the internet, which promises to destroy PR doom by putting celebrities directly in touch with their fans.

But there are still rules of engagement. Monty Python – so geek-chic they have a computer programming language named after them – get it right. Last year, bored with low-quality rip-offs of their videos appearing on the net without permission, they released their most popular clips free-to-view on their own YouTube channel, the only way they saw of taking the power back, short of “coming after you in ways too horrible to tell”. This mixture of generosity and contempt has continued to win nerd hearts, Eric Idle’s latest offering “Eric Idle responds to your fatuous comments” (96,474 views so far) earning nothing but praise, despite mocking its intended audience without relent. Perhaps in this era of participation for all, it’s only right for the audience to be the punchline?

Lily Allen got it right in the early days, too. When she blogged about feeling ashamed of her weight in 2007, she won enough sympathy for most people to later forgive her ignoring our advice and going a bit Atkins anyway. But – oops – then she tried politics. And not just any politics, the internet’s own electric fence issue: copyright infringement. In her new blog, idontwanttochangetheworld.blogspot.com, she defended the government’s plans to disconnect persistent filesharers from the internet. But if she was looking for New England, what she found was neither green nor pleasant.

Quicker than you can say High Court Injunction, the internet hordes had descended, pointing to two mp3 mixes of other people’s songs on offer – without permission – from another of her sites. With both blog and infringing mixes since taken down, it looks like the web has found its own Baroness Scotland. And in a sweet bit of creative destruction, the star of the piece is emerging as musician Dan Bull, whose Letter to Lily Allen (162,895 views so far) would surely make Christmas number 1, if only EMI would license the backing track.