Category Archives: The Net Report

RATM for Chirstmas Number 1

This week’s Net Office went live this morning. Original copy here, final copy over on the NS website.

The Mirror is reporting today that RATM are 60,000 ahead of McElderry, but that CD sales may close that gap. I don’t mind saying that I haven’t been this excited by the charts since Blur vs Oasis.

And so, the decade ends with a clash of ideologies. In the blue corner, we have the individual, coiffed, tanned and flossed, battling against what life throws at him, relishing each challenge without questioning the system that created the obstacles he must overcome. In the red corner huddle the united masses, dreadlocked and disaffected, aware of the complex elites that govern their lives and ready to overthrow them through the simple act of violent rebellion. The fight for Christmas number one has never been so exciting.

Before Joe McElderry had been announced as X factor winner last Sunday, members of the 700,000-strong Facebook group “Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No. 1!” were already purchasing downloads of the US alt-metal outfit’s 1993 single “Killing in the Name”. Their aim? To boot McElderry’s disinfected country ballad “The Climb” off its almost guaranteed number one spot, in favour of a track whose lyrics contain the word “fuck” 17 times. If each of the 700,000 Facebook group members defy the economics of collective action and download the track this week, their victory is almost assured.

The Titanomachia of old and new media is compelling. Simon Cowell has branded the RATM campaign “cynical”. In reality it is anything but.

“Killing in the Name” was released back when the recording industry still seemed authentic – at least to the middle class kids who made up most of RATM’s fans then, and probably most of the Facebook group now. Yes, RATM are signed to Sony. But in 1993 Sony and the like hadn’t yet commenced their war against the internet – and by extension against all young people. It’s a war that is right now culminating in Westminster, as legislators debate a Bill with shady provisions for punitive action against illicit filesharers, that gives the Secretary of State carte blanche to devise enforcement measures in favour of record labels. What the RATM Facebook action recognises is that the music is ours, as well as theirs – that years after a track has been produced, hundreds of thousands of people can still be moved by it to take action, however trivial that action might seem.

So if you fancy your hope a little subversive this Christmas, join the Facebook group and get downloading. And as you’re pogo jumping to some of the best guitar riffs of the nineties, remember, the devil doesn’t have to have all the best tunes.

Climate emails

My column went live at the New Statesman yesterday. Unedited draft here, final version here.

What does a journalist do when a metric conspiracy-load of private emails between scientists land on his desk which he has neither the time to read, nor the skills to dissect? As the Climate Research Unit hacked emails story has developed, we’ve seen several different answers to this question.

On Today last Monday John Humphreys and Ed Miliband, having both agreed with each other that neither of them was a scientist, proceeded to strip down to their metaphorical loin cloths and dance around the totem they had built together out of “the science”. The previous Saturday, Simon Heffer in the Telegraph had précised his denialist contribution to the debate with “I have not so much as an O-level in physics or chemistry”. The polemic was illustrated with a picture of a green-haired climate protester screwing her face to camera, sardonically captioned “the voice of reason”. Thus did it perpetrate that most common of crimes against the Enlightenment: confusing ideology with reality.

Like the scientific method – itself more cybernetic than democratic – the hacked emails debacle is very much an internet story. More, it is a story of the public web, whose high incidence of “flat-earthers”, sceptics and chat room mavericks has apparently helped dissuade the CRU from hitherto publishing their data and workings, versus the private web, across which those same scientists bounced email after email, amassing a decade-large corpus that would make Cardinal Richelieu giddy. Whoever sent the whole thing to Wikileaks less than a month before the Copenhagen negotiations knew what they were doing. The mainstream media mostly enjoys telling stories. Twists in the tale are likely to be evaluated less on merit and more on where they take the narrative.

The constant questioning and debate that indicate healthy scientific discourse look entirely different to a media obsessed with the U-turn, that nasty little concept that distils every public debate into something slightly less sophisticated than a football match. But whatever comes out of Copenhagen this week, it will be the beginning of science’s involvement in the public discourse, and not the end. For society to survive, we will have to make good choices, and they will be choices about science and technology. Totems, ideology and story-telling will not be useful. If the public is to have any kind of scrutiny over these choices, the media need to get used to an altogether different type of refereeing.

9/11 pager messages

This week’s column now live at the New Statesman. Unedited copy below, final version here.

If extraterrestrial life were to swing by, the first impression they got of our blue-green planet might well be cacophony. Last month’s Wikileaks release of pager messages sent on September 11 2001 is one testament to this. Over half a million messages, intercepted in New York and Washington DC for the 24 hours surrounding the World Trade Centre attacks, were released by Wikileaks, broadcast in a kind of sync with the day they documented. The 12MB file of text messages can still be downloaded from the Wikileaks website. They are credible and their provenance is undisclosed.

The messages paint a surprising, if chilling, picture. They are sent by both machines and humans, almost in equal proportion. Computers running major parts of the globe’s financial infrastructure deliver warnings about their faltering connectivity (“08:46:46 Market data inconsistent…Cantor API problem Trading system offline”). Humans deliver messages to employers and loved ones. Some call in sick (“06:50:48 THIS IS MIKE. I HAVE TO TAKE MY SON TO THE DOCTOR… ”), others send saucy greetings (“06:31:26 Got my zebra thongs on!!!”), a few talk about bagels, furniture deliveries. Those that have heard the news, send messages of panic – “10:07:46 Don’t leave the building… Please be careful. Love you – Tiffany”. The panic intensifies: “10:35:50 PLEASE PRAY…”

In the background, heard quietly but consistently, the Twin Towers fall. policemen and members of the secret services send messages to each other as the situation escalates: “08:50:50 BOMB DETINATED (sic) IN WORLD TRADE CTR. PLS GET BACK TO MIKE BRADY W/A QUICK ASSESSMENT OF YOUR AREAS AND CONTACT US IF ANYTHING IS NEEDED”; “09:21:44 US bombers are in the air in-route to Clasified (sic) targets waiting for strike orders.”; “10:24:31 TWINKLE AND TURQ (codenames for George Bush’s daughters) ARE ACCOUNTED FOR AND SAFE”.

Humans with their artefacts, crashing about to save themselves or else causing this destruction in the first place. The messages we and our machines sent that day are a new kind of news – raw data news, or sousveillance news, perhaps. Like spies, the community news portal Reddit dissected the raw material (, sifting through the data by hand, and devising scripts to extract word frequencies (“please” came out top) or the pager numbers of all the Secret Service agents. Can we expect this window to open on all future news events? Perhaps not. But on this particular one, it bears a powerful aspect.

X Factor

This week’s Net Office spot went live today. Read it raw here, or edited here.

Just who or what is to blame for the X Factor? Step up, the worldwide web. Not only is the sixth series sponsored by a broadband company, TalkTalk, but the format is clearly a desperate bid for survival by the last producers afloat in the little boat Broadcasting, cast off from the cruise ship Mass Media as it lies sunk against a great, unanticipated iceberg of new technology. X Factor and the many shows like it which now litter our schedules employ every trick last century’s one-to-many medium has over this century’s network of ends.

First, there are the stars. But even Simon Cowell tweets now. More, it is the spectacle, the occasion. The web is not made for occasions – you don’t pop corn to surf the net. Then, there is the voting. This is the fantasy interactivity of the TV executive – no messy comment pages, no trolls and flamers – this is a National Verdict. Bash our codes into your keypad, take part, you decide. But the only real choice on offer is the one to consent to this gaudy homogeneity in the first place.

Not always. The TV talent show is a franchise – another archaic channel through which the money of old media still flows – and the “Got Talent” franchise, for example, has sold to nearly 30 countries. One is Ukraine. The winning performance of the first series of Ukraine’s Got Talent has been posted to YouTube, and has attracted over 8 million viewers since the competition concluded this Summer. 8 million is the web’s version of a mass audience. At least for a video of something that isn’t a cat.

Kseniya Simonova is a performance artist who works with sand. That is, she is a sand artist. She won Ukraine’s Got Talent with a piece depicting the experience of Ukraine during the Second World War, when one in four of the population lost their lives. To a specially-commissioned soundtrack, Simonova stands at a giant light-box-table, an image of which is simultaneously being projected onto an immense screen behind her. Wearing a customarily daring outfit, she deftly weaves a succession of emotive scenes from the sand that lies scattered in front of her. The result is strangely breath-taking. If, during the run up to the X Factor final you require a little reassurance as to the delicacy of the human soul, watch it here.


This week’s Net Office spot went live today. Raw copy below. Edited version here.

“The thing is that people are complex. People lead complicated lives”. So said research scientist Dr Brooke Magnanti, when she came out in the pages of The Times as blogger Belle du Jour earlier this month. The identity of the ex-London call girl who has been blogging pseudonymously since 2003 and whose exploits have been turned into a hit TV series, has been described as one of the best kept literary secrets of the century. But if there’s one profession that should know about discretion, about the need for human beings to keep different parts of the lives tucked away in distinct compartments, it is the world’s oldest.

Identity is the biggest fault line between old and new media. Offline, the truth is not the truth until someone stands by it. Even if that someone is “a source close to the actress”, the audience is unlikely to suspend their disbelief unless there is a clear and identifiable trail leading to a named personage with whom we presume the buck to stop. Thus the fairly modern concept of the media whore, several examples of which – Rowan Pelling, Toby Young – were initially and mistakenly fingered as the elusive Belle. A good broadcast journalist will have several of these lined up in his little black book, ready to be called upon to express a point of view whenever tomorrow’s news cycle demands it. The contrast – Fox News’ “some people say” – leaves us intuitively uncomfortable.

Online, the story is different. Though we might pay brief attention when a previously pseudonymous blogger is outed by the mainstream press – the Times has the form here, the obvious case being the police blogger Nightjack – finding out the “true” identity of our favourite bloggers appears to please journalists more than it does readers. Online, we swap accountability for context. Any tale of the realities of a life – be that driving ambulances in London, working on the crime frontline, or servicing the sexual needs of rich city types – will make its own reputation, will stand or fall on its intrinsic plausibility. With Belle, most of us had nothing to compare it to anyway – broadcast journalists don’t have many high-class call girls willing to go on record should the need for a spokesperson from that community arise. And for that, we should probably be thankful that the cloak of the web allowed Belle to speak so clearly for so long.


This week’s Net Office spot went live today. Read the raw copy here, or go to the Statesman for the final version.

Even media types need holidays sometimes. But what do you do when your loyal readership demand their daily dose of desire or doom despite your destination dictating otherwise? One failsafe, is the top 100. It doesn’t matter what – movie soundtracks, lawn dressings, sausages – a list of favourites from back through the ages is easy to compile in advance, leaving you free to enjoy your break and your audience none the wiser.

The list is an online stalwart, too. It’s common knowledge among successful bloggers that the best way to get people to read your opinion on something is to break it down into numbered, headlined paragraphs and call it a list. Look up the most popular pages sent to social bookmarking site on any given day, and you’ll find at least half a dozen lists. These, though, are for slightly more specialised tastes: top ten Internet Explorer rendering tips, 9 reasons to switch to Haskell.

Eclectic Method goes Phish” is an altogether different proposition. Already viewed over 23,000 times on video-sharing website Vimeo, this 4 minute mashup consists of no less than 99 different tracks. It was commissioned for the opening of a special Hallowe’en concert at Festival 8 in Indio, California for cult jam band Phish, the University of Vermont’s greatest export (not counting Ben Afleck) and the true heirs of the Grateful Dead.

To promote the gig, Phish drew up an online list of their top 99 albums of all time, to drive speculation as to what record the band would play as their “musical costume” for the event – a Phish tradition dating back 15 years. During the countdown to the event, one by one each album was axed, until only one remained. On the night, after they opened with Eclectic Method’s video, they covered the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street in its entirety.

The video exists online not only as a testimony to the event, but to digital media’s power to turn the old into something new. Engaging and rhythmic, it plays like the life of Phil Spector flashing before his eyes, as Bowie cuts to Cohen, and images of Kiss, Metallica and The Clash strobe over a baseline provided by the Beastie Boys. As we reach the end of another decade, let’s hope the editors of our weekend supplements are watching. Because reminiscing doesn’t get much better than this.

Revenge of the Nerds

This week’s Net Office went live today. You can read the raw copy here, or go to the NS for the finished version:

At the beginning of the speech that was eventually to get him sacked, Professor David Nutt defines a drug as “an exogenous substance, something that comes from outside a person, goes into them and produces physiological changes”. By the time his well-balanced observations into the pressures that affect drug policy in the UK had been ingested, digested and disseminated by the mainstream news media, it too had undergone various physiological changes, emerging as a highly politicised attack. One can’t help wondering whether the Home Secretary re-read the speech before issuing Nutt with his marching orders.

Ministers tend to justify down-playing the scientific evidence on drug harm by the need for drug policy to “send a signal” to young people. So it’s worth asking over which network they think they’re broadcasting. The mainstream media play ball, being over 200 times more likely – according to evidence cited by Nutt – to report a death from taking ecstasy than a death from taking Paracetemol. But compared to politicians, both scientists and young people are more at home online, the former being early adopters and the latter digital natives. So how did the Government’s actions play out on the web? What signals did the sacking of David Nutt send?

The week the story broke, the US-based community news portal Reddit registered it as two of its three most popular news threads in World Politics, with support for Nutt or condemnation of the Government featuring heavily in the more than 1,500 comments each thread attracted. The story also hit the front page of Fark, a satirical community news site known to attract 4 million visitors a month. Meanwhile, on Facebook, a group demanding the reinstatement of Professor Nutt and more evidence-based drug laws was set up by Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, and attracted over 6,000 members in one weekend.

The right of reply, combined with the ease with which hypertext and search allow readers to verify facts using primary sources, means that even if “signals” do work offline, they don’t work online. If the Government really do wish to target the young, they’ll need to think up better ideas than sacking their expert dissenters. To give Nutt the last word: “The internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell [kids] the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source.”

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.