Social media and protest in Egypt and England

Until last night it was, if not unthinkable, unsayable to draw parallels between what is happening in Egypt, with events in England. During a Tonight programme focusing on Egypt, but considering the history of revolution, Jeremy Paxman said it was perhaps “inappropriate” to bring in the protests against cuts in this country.

Yet they did, in a report by Paul Mason. A common factor, he suggested, was young people with a university education and facing unemployment. They were reacting to a broken pledge that if they became well educated they would be better off than their parents. (It seems seems this segment, or something like it, was originally planned for last Friday. Look at Paul Mason’s blog for more on this.)

The British link has to be seen in context of the whole programme discussing Egypt and the record of revolutions. It included historians Simon Sebag-Montefiore and Simon Schama. You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer for some time.

While the pattern of revolution may not change much, one thing is different now. That is the horizontal nature of protest, loose coalitions of people without obvious leaders.

These two factors: youth alienated over education and jobs, and horizontal organisation through social media has been clearly seen in the tuition fees protests in England.

The library protests, while polite and peaceful, show unmistakable signs of horizontal organisation through social media with the use of email, twitter (#savelibraries), Facebook and blogs.  No obvious leaders have emerged either nationally or locally here in Suffolk, but there is cohesion and common purpose.

British governments have long been terrified of losing control of the streets. They have adopted gradual change to avoid revolution, probably since the Civl War, three-and-a-half centuries ago.

There was no domino-effect here from the French Revolution, Chartism in the 19th century did not turn into a revolution, nor did the General Strike in 1926. Margaret Thatcher fell after poll tax riots 20 years ago. John Major then replaced poll tax with council tax.

In the 19th century Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police with control of the streets of the capital as one of the principal reasons. He also adopted gradualism when he switched from opposition to Catholic emancipation to getting it through parliament when he realised the old policy was untenable.

No one is seriously predicting a revolution in England except for some Marxist and Trotskyist survivors from another age. Yet, I feel sure that in Downing Street developments are being watched carefully and a Plan B is being prepared whether or not they will admit it. Gradualism (that means concessions) may yet rule if protests become loud enough.

Guardian injuction: Judge says he considered Human Rights Act

The Guardian is still forbidden by the terms of the existing injunction, granted by a vacation duty judge, Mr Justice Maddison, to give further information about the Minton report, or its contents. So, the ability to report Parliament is a small victory.

For any journalist reading the terms of that super-gagging order is frightening. It should be for anyone who is interested in freedom. I was glad to see that the Guardian’s leader today mention John Wilkes who has been a hero of mine since I first heard about him in a school history lesson.

I knew most of what to expect in the injunction and what really shocks me is that Mr Justice Maddison states that he considered the provisions of section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Clause 4 of this section reads:

The court must have particular regard to the importance of the Convention right to freedom of expression and, where the proceedings relate to material which the respondent claims, or which appears to the court, to be journalistic, literary or artistic material (or to conduct connected with such material), to—

(a) the extent to which—

(i) the material has, or is about to, become available to the public; or

(ii) it is, or would be, in the public interest for the material to be published;

The injunction is on a Norwegian site. Essential reading, as is the Minton report, available through Wikileaks from mirror sites around the world. Most of its content seems familiar but look at the date: so soon after the dumping of the toxic waste.

The cat is really out of the bag so far as this story is concerned. It is time for Trafigura to instruct Carter-Ruck to apply for the whole injunction to be lifted.

Out of the mouth of a reader…

Mary C Rush is upset by the slimming-down of her local newspaper, the Mansfield News-Journal in Ohio and has written to the editor with a question:

Just who is it that is responsible for placing the contents of newspapers on the Internet every day? It’s enough to boggle one’s mind how this occurs.

Why can’t newspapers have this practice discontinued, and then they can go back to the old-fashioned way of publishing their paper and regain their subscribers and advertisers?

Naive or tongue-in-cheek, I don’t know which. But she is really not that far from some of the big names in the industry.

Robert Thomson, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, told The Australian that companies such as Google were “parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet”. He said:

…consumers must understand why they were paying a premium for content.

It’s certainly true that readers have been socialised — wrongly I believe — that much content should be free.

And there is no doubt that’s in the interest of aggregators like Google who have profited from that mistaken perception. And they have little incentive to recognise the value they are trading on that’s created by others.

Google argues they drive traffic to sites, but the whole Google sensibility is inimical to traditional brand loyalty.

Google encourages promiscuity — and shamelessly so — and therefore a significant proportion of their users don’t necessarily associate that content with the creator.
Therefore revenue that should be associated with the creator is not garnered.

Last week Thomson’s boss, News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch, said: “People reading news for free on the web, that’s got to change.” As Roy Greenslade says: “Clearly, News Corp is launching a propaganda offensive against Google. Not that it is the first mainstream media organisation to do that.”

Mary C Rush is right in saying, in effect, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The Mansfield News-Journal is not going to close down its web  operation but if it brought in more money her beloved paper would be healthier.

As she says: “If newspapers are forced to stop publishing, there won’t be any information to be placed on the Internet.”

Taxpayers finance community website

Stephen Glover in the Independent yesterday was rightly concerned by the growth of free newspapers produced by councils. “State newspapers are rivalling the free press — right under your nose,” was the headline.

I am just as concerned with a council run website. But the arguments are similar to those of Glover:

Just when many local newspapers are fighting to stay alive, and the shares of some of their owners such as Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press are reaching new lows, this development threatens to finish off the weakest among them. Councils who publish their own propaganda rags are taking no risk, since local council taxpayers are effectively putting up the capital. If their giveaways don’t attract much advertising, and go on losing moderate amounts of money, that is hardly going to matter to them.

This is surely an abuse of state power, albeit on so small a scale that it has barely provoked any criticism, though The Newspaper Society, which represents regional and local newspapers, is up in arms. If the Government were to start producing publications to rival the national press, there would be an outcry; when the same thing happens on a local level it is deemed acceptable behaviour.

One Suffolk website is a partnership of the county and district councils, the police and a health authority and is Government funded. The about us page says:

onesuffolk is primarily a website providing local government services through the internet. However, a section of the site will be dedicated to the community, enabling parish councils, community and voluntary organisations to participate by contributing information about their particular area. We need everyone to be involved in contributing to what will be an innovative and exciting development!

The first purpose, providing local government services through the internet, is unobjectionable. That would be rather like Directgov which carries the tag line “Public services all in one place”.

But One Suffolk is nothing like that. Five items are highlighted on the front page:

  1. A review of a touring company production of “We didn’t mean to go to sea” by Arthur Ransome,
  2. A story about a new arts association in Hadleigh,
  3. The monthly village feature, this month on Levington,
  4. A plug for the free websites offered to local clubs and organisations by One Suffolk,
  5. And a reminder that smells, abandoned cars and noisy neighbours can be reported through the site.

The last one is an example of the site meeting its objective of providing local government services. There are also “traffic alerts” but those all turn out to be information about where mobile traffic cameras are to be positioned. To find out about road works there is a link to Suffolk County Council where the latest information is dated July 11.

Finding out about many local government services is not easy. There are no obvious links from the front page, but a menu link to business provides options such as licensing, planning and abnormal loads. Clicking on planning eventually produces a search of the site for all stories with “planning” in them. There are no links to the planning departments of the various councils, let alone a combined database of applications.

There is very little evidence that One Suffolk is doing much to achieve the purpose of providing local government services. It is more like the plaything of some people who can set up a community news site without taking any risk.
That would not matter so much if getting traffic was not crucial to the future of independent local media.

While councils have a duty to make their services known to tax payers, it is not their purpose to provide theatre reviews and village features at the tax payers expense. That is the role of newspapers, parish magazines and independent community websites who do it without dipping into the public purse.

BBC local web video could boost local news diversity

Peter Preston in his Observer media column today writes about the BBC’s plans for local on-demand web sites with up to 20 minutes a day of video and the opposition from the regional newspaper giants. “It is,” he says, “a baroque row.” Not sure about the adjective but I see what he is getting at.

He writes of “hyper-local internet video sites which conflict directly with the sites that Johnston and Trinity (among others) are creating as their own escape paths to a digital future”.

That is surely a part of it but it seems to me to be more about preserving the monopolies the big groups have built up over the years by buying daily and weekly newspapers across the land. The comments of David Newell, director of the Newspaper Society, the owner’s union, quoted in Hold the Front Page, bear this out:

The BBC should not spend public money duplicating local news services already provided by existing local media companies. This was acknowledged by the BBC when it withdrew its plans for ultra-local television last year.

The BBC’s 60 local websites already compete head-to-head with regional newspaper websites and its expansion plans, combined with its cross-promotional power, threaten to steal away audiences and undermine the ability of publishers to pursue their own digital development strategies, which are so important to the future of local media in the UK.

Nationally newspapers have competed with the BBC since the start of news on the web. The result is that we have some of the best news websites in the world. A little more competition in the regions would be welcome.

Peter Preston uses the term “hyper-local” while others have used “ultra-local”. The BBC itself uses an unadorned “local” for its plan to set up sites in 60 areas across the UK. They would serve, on average, populations of 1 million each.

The one they are planning for Suffolk, where I live, would be aimed at a population approaching 700,000. It is an area over much of which Archant has a virtual monopoly of print news. The BBC would aim at an area roughly the same as the circulation area of Archant’s East Anglian Daily Times.

The way the cost of the service is being presented in newspapers is typified by Preston’s phrase: “Ofcom letting the BBC spend £68m of licence fee money.” This is for a period of three years, and spending would reach £23 million in 2011/12. As journalists we play with phrases for emotion power. From my perspective, the sites would cost an average of £350,000 a year, the cost of a modest family home.

It is worth going back to the source material and looking at BBC’s proposal. Done properly, the scheme could help make local independent news websites more viable. Most of the local content would be made available for embedding (with BBC branding) in both commercial and not-for-profit sites to supplement their own coverage. The BBC also says it would link to coverage by other local news providers.

For anyone who is thinking of news sites which are really ultra-local this is promising. But I do feel their proposal to spend about £800,000 a year by 2012/3 on buying video news from external providers is not nearly enough. It works out at little more than an average £13,ooo freelance budget for each site: the price of a modest family car.

A tale of two Contempt of Court Act orders

Last week a district judge in Norwich barred the press from printing the addresses of two police sergeants accused of failing to take proper care of a man who was rushed to hospital after a spell in the cells.

The Eastern Daily Press argued in the magistrates court that the order was contrary to legislation and case law and should not be used to protect the “comfort or feelings” of defendants. The judge disagreed, saying there was a serious risk that members of the criminal community would target the officers and their families.

The accepted use of the Contempt of Court Act to protect the victims of blackmail was mentioned in the EDP report. A few days later the Sunday Times reported that two men had been charged with blackmail and the target was a member of the royal family.

I wondered whether giving that fact would lead to a jigsaw identification. Very quickly another piece was put into puzzle with reports, sourced to Buckingham Palace, that the target was a junior member of the family who did not undertake official royal duties.

Inevitably the name of the member of the royal family was quickly on blogs and then in newspapers outside the UK. And, being just a Google search away, effectively published in this country.

Even if the royal connection was kept secret when the case came to trial it is difficult to imagine that it and the name of the victim would not have eventually come to light.

While I feel the increasing use of the Contempt of Court Act, as in Norwich, to restrict publication of court details is undermining the principle of open justice, I have always believed it is wrong to publish the names of blackmail victims.

The Crown Prosecution Service puts the case for secrecy in blackmail cases clearly:

Although rare, blackmail is one of the ugliest and most vicious of offences. Its victims are vulnerable because in order to bring the blackmailer to justice they must themselves make public the secrets the blackmailer is threatening to expose.

The Crown Prosecution Service will not hesitate to prosecute blackmail cases and we will always seek to protect the anonymity of blackmail victims. We recognise that victims may be reluctant to come forward and give evidence against a blackmailer unless such protection is granted.

As in rape cases the protection of the identity of the victim makes it more likely that criminals will be brought before the courts.

If the future is "conversation" let's start here

After reading the comments on Jay Rosen’s post attacking Michael Skube’s Los Angeles Times piece on blogging, I went out and bought a copy of The Cult of the Amateur.

It was probably only a few of the 339 comments that motivated me but they gave an overall impression of a bunch of people who simply hated traditional media. This was one comment: “There’s a war on for the minds of America, and the blogs are winning. The trad media is terrified, because they know it. Their pedestal has been kicked out from under them, and they just can’t stand that.”

And another: “YouTube is doing to TV news what blogs are doing to pundits. In a year or two CNN will be as parasitic upon the internet as we have even been upon the MSM.”

Most of the comments were responding to Rosen’s call for examples of blogs doing original reporting. Of course they do. But there was an overall tone suggesting it was about a battle between bloggers and traditional media. The commenters were not company I would care to keep.

Skube’s piece was a polemic emphasising and generalising to make its point. I was undermined by inaccuracy. Yet why did it being about an outpouring of vitriol?

It was clearly written to be provocative but concluded with a point that needs debating:

The more important the story, the more incidental our opinions become. Something larger is needed: the patient sifting of fact, the acknowledgment that assertion is not evidence and, as the best writers understand, the depiction of real life. Reasoned argument, as well as top-of-the-head comment on the blogosphere, will follow soon enough, and it should. But what lodges in the memory, and sometimes knifes us in the heart, is the fidelity with which a writer observes and tells. The word has lost its luster, but we once called that reporting.

Rosen has since responded in the LA Times.

Andrew Keen’s argument in The Cult of the Amateur is not so very different. In essence it is that our cultural values are being overturned. He puts it like this:

What happens, you might ask, when ignorance meets egotism meets bad taste meets mob rule?
The monkeys take over. Say good-bye to today’s experts and cultural gatekeepers — our reporters, news anchors, editors, music companies, and Hollywood movie studios. In today’s cult of the amateur, the monkeys are running the show. Wither their infinite typewriters, they are authoring the future. And we may not like how it reads.

Keen, unlike Skube, cannot be accused of not knowing or understanding the web. He has his own blog, has been involved in web start-ups and commentated widely on culture, media and technology. His central argument comes across in an interview on the Colbert Report:
He has sparked a serious debate including a fascinating exchange between himself and Emily Bell, editor in chief of Guardian Unlimited, which nicely demonstrates how the web can facilitate the development of argument and counter argument.

Jeff Howe put a strong argument for not ignoring Keen saying his arguments will “sound mightily persuasive to a significant constituency who do believe the Internet is primarily a repository of porn, spam and corrosive amateurism. Failing to recognize that the choir to which Keen preaches might just be larger than our own congregation is an arrogant, and potentially irreversible blunder.”

I read The Cult of the Amateur with growing frustration, feeling Keen wanted to put the genie back in the bottle. The chapter headed “Solutions” suggested he might have some answers. On newspapers his best shot is to comment that Guardian Unlimited has “managed to achieve some measure of economic success by effectively balancing its costs with its online advertising sales”.

That does not answer the shortfall caused when the loss of print sales and advertising revenue does not match the income from online advertising, which is doesn’t. Howard Owens is another who has engaged in the debate, in a series of three posts. In the third post he says:

The media train is hurtling forward, but journalists are not driving. Even the biggest traditional media companies are not at the wheel. In fact, there is nobody making sure we stay on the rails. The train is propelled by collective action — the action of ambitious entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and investors, technology researchers and engineers, computer programmers and amateur hackers and curious and demanding audiences, as well as some of us in the media, with our constant demands for new, different and better. All of these swirling forces create the turbulence that keeps the train on its collusion course with our collective destiny.

And I have no idea what that is, or if we’ll ever really get there.

Scary stuff, to be sure, but that’s the reality of the situation.

So it’s adapt or die.

That just about sums up our knowledge at the moment. It also takes me back to my starting point which is that there are a lot of people, confused and worried about the uncertain future of journalism who need to be a part of the discussion. Calling on Skube to retire or accusing Keen of Stalinism is not likely to make them feel there is a debate worth joining.

I hope there will be all opinions present when Andrew Keen takes part in a discussion moderated by Richard Sambrook at the Frontline Club in London on September 6. I would be there is I wasn’t flying to Spain that evening,

Jay Rosen flails at blog critic

If any of those people who believe bloggers are a complete waste of time and that blogs are no more than rants from corner bar stools, happen across this post, they should should read the following. It will confirm their opinion:

My advice? Retire.

Commentary on Blogs: All the noise that fits by Michael Skube in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 19, 2007.

Retire, man. I’m serious. You’re an embarrassment to my profession, to the university where you teach, and to the craft of reporting you claim to defend. It is time for you to quit, as you’ve clearly called it quits on learning— and reporting. Ring this guy up and ask him to go bass fishing or something. You’re not doing anyone any good— you’re just insulting your own bio. And when you’re done lecturing us on “the patient fact-finding of reporters,” tell the godforsaken LA Times they’re going to have to run a correction. The Post hasn’t won a Pulitzer for its reporting on Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Jeez.

The author is Jay Rosen, also a journalism academic, and one of the people who has done most to develop ideas about the ways blogs can facilitate pro-am journalism.

He argues his points well, although sometimes at too great a length, thoughtfully and influentially. Suddenly we get this example of everything the critics of blogging light on. So what made him take-off on this ill-tempered, inelegant post which does no service to his cause?

Michael Skube, who teaches journalism at Elon University in North Carolina, wrote an op ed piece headed “Blogs: all the noise that fits” in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. The second paragraph read:

Bloggers now are everywhere among us, and no one asks if we don’t need more full-throated advocacy on the Internet. The blogosphere is the loudest corner of the Internet, noisy with disputation, manifesto-like postings and an unbecoming hatred of enemies real and imagined.

Rosen has provide ample evidence to support the final phrase.

Skube makes his case about blogs and presents his view strongly, writing:

One gets the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more. The opinions are occasionally informed, often tiresomely cranky and never in doubt. Skepticism, restraint, a willingness to suspect judgment and to put oneself in the background — these would not seem to be a blogger’s trademarks.

Overstated, yes. But but there is nothing in the opinion that we do not hear everyday. A blog is like a piece of paper, you can write anything on it: some of it may be journalism, most of will not be.

Skube’s article does contain errors. The Washington Post did not win a Pulitzer for reporting on the Walter Reed hospital. That mistake remains unexplained.

He used the name of Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo in a paragraph about bloggers who are “insistent partisans in political debate”. In an email to Marshall, Skube explained: “Your name was inserted late by an editor who perhaps thought I needed to cite more examples …”

Some sloppy journalism has been happening at the LA Times but it does not justify the contentless diatribe launched by Rosen. He does debate a disservice.

Do great white lies matter?

So the picture that seemed to confirm a great white shark off the Cornish coast at Newquay was a hoax. It was all part of the silly season gift that began when a man on holiday at St Ives filmed a shark, claimed to be a man-eating great white. The Sun made a lot of it and, with varying degrees of scepticism, so did the rest of the media.

The Guardian today gets a bite at the space-filling cherry by devoting a whole page to the revelation that the picture of a great white from Newquay, further up the coast, was actually taken off Cape Town, South Africa.

The revelation came from the Newquay Voice which had had interviewed the man who had provided the picture to their rival, the Newquay Guardian. Kevin Keeble said: “I took the picture while I was on a fishing trip in Cape Town and just sent it in as a joke. I didn’t expect anyone to be daft enough to take it seriously.”

The tourist industry is happy that the story (BBC) has put Cornwall on the map and newspapers have filled the open spaces of August newsprint. As a reporter I tend to shrug at such silly season stories on the grounds that they are entertaining, few people really believe them, and they do no harm.

But do they diminish trust? Turn the page in the Guardian and we learn in an interview with Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, that it would conduct research into the public’s expectations.

He says: “Do people have different expectations from a piece of fiction to the news or a documentary? I think they do. And what do you do in that grey area in the middle where you’ve got mockumentaries and fictionalised history and so on. What are the standards that should prevail there?”

Few newspapers would welcome being so publicly under the microscope as the BBC is from its own regulator.

Get a Second Life!

Can someone tell me the commercial, or even, potentially commercial value of MSM setting up in Second Life? Back in October last year Reuters opened a Second Life bureau staffed by reporter Adam Pasick.

Now, reports, the Telegraph has moved in to build a recreation of the garden it sponsored at the Chelsea Flower Show. And  Sky News has built a version of its newsroom there. The BBC is to broadcast the Money Programme in Second Life.

It can’t be cheap to set up like this in Second Life with its six million registered residents, mostly absentee virtual home owners. And how many of these people are British? How many of those will be driven to do something which will earn the real world sponsors money, like buying the paper, taking out a Sky subscription or just seeing the paid-for ads on a website.

The whole thing looks like one of those "What about Second Life? We should so something there," ideas. Perhaps editors just want boast to their contemporaries: "I am bigger than you in Second Life."

Maybe I am missing something.

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