Category Archives: The Net Report

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,, 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.

The Net Office – new spot in the NS

My new weekly spot at the New Statesman went live today.

It’s called “The Net Office” and it’s an attempt to skim the surface of social media looking for stories that move the web, but don’t necessarily make it onto the mainstream news agenda. Working a week ahead of publication, in an age where more and more journalists do most of their reporting from their desks, will make this a tough proposition. But the fact that most mainstream media outlets continue to work within quite a narrow news cycle driven mainly by Westminster gossip, wire stories and forward planning calendars should make it a little easier. Easier still if readers feel kind enough to submit potential Net Report items “for:becky_hogge” on

First up is a story about how difficult it is to find genuine public outrage at the sight of Ronnie Biggs on a mobility scooter:

It’s a scandal that has attracted coverage across the tabloids, accompanied by the sort of angry editorialising that the British middle classes seem to enjoy with their kippers and cornflakes. The Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, released from prison on compassionate grounds in August as his health continued to deteriorate, has been spotted using a mobility scooter to pop down the shops with his son in London. The world is outraged.

Except that the world doesn’t seem very outraged at all. The family of the train’s driver, Jack Mills, who died from injuries sustained in the robbery, has long campaigned against Biggs’s release, and is clearly angry at any evidence that he is enjoying life outside jail. And the leader of Aslef, the union for train drivers and operators, told the Mirror that the photo showed “Mr Biggs has confounded the medical profession as much as he has the British legal system”. This may be true, but it doesn’t compare with the worldwide anger and diplomatic damage that accompanied last month’s release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

The Biggs photo may be a gift to tabloid editors, but the scandal seems hardly to have touched the blogosphere or the Twitterverse. There are no Facebook groups protesting Biggs’s access to the streets of London, or YouTube mash-ups of him on his scooter.

Check on Twitter and all you’ll find is the Sun promoting its own story among two or three retweets; there’s not a single mention in the world of blogs. Even the febrile right-wing political bloggers, who usually seize on any evidence of Labour weakness, have nothing.

Read the rest here.