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Publish and be…. censored?

March 9, 2010 Leave a comment

A few months ago I noted the start of the ‘new’ blogs section on the Al Jazeera English website, and the utter lack of imagination that had been put into them, not least by the correspondents, who seemed to think that describing the tedium of their journey to their latest interview was a suitable substitute for in-depth analysis and investigative reporting.

Since then I have been watching with a growing sense of despondency the accumulation of lazy, pointless hackery which only serves to bolster the ego of the correspondent (as they weren’t bolstered enough by useless managers and acquiescent editors) and leave the audience wanting, especially while the excellent Focus section of the same site dwindled and atrophied.

Fortunately there have been some rare exceptions, including one excellent posting in February from Jane Dutton about her visit to Eritrea to interview the country’s president – now, you can follow the link if you like, but as of today, it goes to an Error 404 page, as it seems the article has been removed from the Al Jazeera website.

The posting, when it existed, was the perfect example of how to use blogs and first person narrative to get behind the story, and give the audience more understanding about the context of a piece – in this case using a blog written after the fact to get around the government minders and reporting restrictions so often imposed on journalists by dictatorial regimes.

Now though, it has been removed, the blogger has been censored and the truth has been lost, probably on the orders of some invertebrate, obsequious lickspittle of a manager who knows nothing about news and journalism, and cares even less about his audience.

A quick Google search explained why – Qatar is doing business with this secretive and brutal African regime for its own ends, and the Eritrean president is lapping up their money and their largesse, while his people are trapped in their own country, and will be shot if they try to leave – no wonder the emir of Qatar wanted the truth about Eritrea suppressed, and since he pays for Al Jazeera, he calls the shots.

So much for Al Jazeera’s code of ethics, and its claim to be editorially independent, impartial and objective.

Fortunately as well as being spineless and brown-nosed, Al Jazeera’s managers are also remarkably stupid, as the article had been published long enough to be cached by Google and many other search engines; however in the interests of freedom of information, here is the article in full:

Eritrea’s president declares me ‘insane’ – by Jane Dutton

We hadn’t even arrived in Eritrea when I started to get a sense of the man I had been sent to interview. Our flight from Dubai airport was delayed. Nobody told us for how long or why. Four hours later, when the plane finally arrived, we found out the president had decided to borrow it for the morning, on a whim.

We were on our way to one of Africa’s most secretive regimes.

Granted a rare interview with the Eritrean president, Isaias Afewerki, a man constantly ranked in the top 10 of the world’s worst dictators and accused of helping turn the Horn of Africa into one of the most volatile regions on the planet.

Our plane – Eritrea’s only carrier – was one of the few international flights that still fly into the country: a desolate place blighted by years of war with Ethiopia and Yemen, and increasing political isolation.

At the airport we were met by unfamiliar silence – no network connections, no SIM cards, no blackberry! And Rafael, our minder. Rafael is a man of contradictions: even his backcomb appears to grow forward.

“Let me tell you the truth,” he would say every couple of hours, immediately followed by anything but. He also ominously warned that he could keep a watch on our every movement if he chose to do so, at our hotel, on the job.

Our interview was scheduled for Saturday and we were told it would take two hours to get to the city of Massawa, the president’s new bunker retreat on the coast. He is reported to spend more time there after an attempted assassination last year.

The roads are manned by checkpoints. The population’s every move seems to be watched and noted in this country. And it probably is. Eritreans need a visa to leave and there is very little chance of them ever getting one. But that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands escaping every year.

The UN estimates that 63,000 sought asylum abroad in 2009. Around 1,800 brave the shoot-to-kill police orders to cross over into Sudan every month. The majority say they are fleeing the permanent military service and repressive nature of the regime.

After several shouting bouts with Rafael, we finally get to Massawa, an exotic port city built by the Turks in the 14th century – a fascinating place with narrow alleyways and looming mosques. It is supposed to be the hottest place on earth. And I would concur.

I noticed then it wasn’t just the capital that was surprisingly clean – everywhere we went in Eritrea was immaculate. The streets are shiny bright, the hotels are spick and span, even the food is safe.

Our interview was delayed by a day and instead we were corralled into watching Massawa’s 20-year celebrations of liberation from Ethiopia. We decided to shoot a promo for our interview while we were there. People were out in that sweltering weather to see their long-time leader, carefully controlled by police.

What amazed us was that the police had no qualms about beating women and children with sticks a few feet away from where we were shooting. A truly shocking scene. And our cameras were still rolling.

The next day we were all set up and ready at our interview location in time for the planned dawn o’clock interview. We guessed the president would keep us waiting, and he did. Six hours later he arrived. We were all drenched with sweat and jangled with angst by the time he sat down.

Was he going to throw us out of the country for asking the questions we wanted asked? Why is he helping Iran supply weapons to Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi fighters in Yemen? Why does he order the police to shoot-to-kill anyone escaping from the country? Why is there no free press or free speech? Why were all of his political opponents whisked away never to be seen again? How come he refuses to let aid agencies feed the two-thirds of his country who are starving?

This was a man who came in on a promise of liberating his people 20 years ago. Every question I asked was met with a blank stare, a flat denial, cold laughter and finally allegations that we were making it all up. And he told me personally I am simply “insane”.

Back in the car and back on the winding roads, climbing thousands of feet to the cooler capital of Asmara. You can smell coffee percolating through the streets: thick, lovely and freshly brewed – the legacy of Italy’s colonial rule under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime.

All the buildings boast a beautiful jaded art deco influence, and the streets are full of old men cycling with their hats doffed to one side alongside colourful Fiats from the 1960s. We ended the day with a piece to camera from the tank graveyard on the outskirts of the city. Thousands of armoured vehicles dismantled and stacked heading for the trash heap.

They were used in the 30-year battle against Ethiopia. And although that was two decades ago, Eritrea remains on a permanent war footing. The majority of the population is conscripted – whether it be in the army, in the hotel bar, as a street cleaner or our ever present minder Rafael. They remain braced for an Ethiopian attack that may never come.

Hull Daily Mail reaps its whirlwind

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

According to a friend who lived in Hull it was known universally as the Dull Daily Mail – the newspaper that served the readers of Hull and East Yorkshire was never known for its journalistic prowess and from all accounts spent most of its time rehashing the day’s breakfast headlines from BBC Radio Humberside.

In the last 24 hours though the Hull Daily Mail has put itself right on the map as the local paper that completely lost the plot, embedded its foot firmly in its mouth and reaped a whirlwind of 21st century feedback that will serve as an object lesson in social media that will be repeated by journalism teachers around the world for years to come.

A few days ago the HDM led its tatty tabloid edition with an exposé of a local website producer, Paul Smith, who also happened to be the mind behind a hyper-local news site HU17.net, which covers the town of Beverley and surrounding areas.

Much to the HDM’s disgust, Mr Smith had, in the past, built the infrastructure for various porn websites, so they mounted an ‘elaborate’ sting operation involving a reporter posing as an escort (complete with fake Facebook site), and lined up various clueless local councillors to heap on the moral approbium, then produced an article which stayed just the right side of the defamation laws but still managed to suggest the Mr Smith was responsible for the content of hundreds of porn sites, and using inneundo even suggested paedophilia!

Hull Daily Mail - Classified Ads example

Hull Daily Mail

Of course they failed to point out a few salient facts, like the fact that Mr Smith’s site was a direct competitor to their monopolistic presence, was a better and more popular website than theirs (those in the know say the HDM’s coverage of Beverley was always woeful and doesn’t seem to have improved much), and that the HDM is financed by large number of ads, many of which offer escort and massage services (see the screenshot to the right).

They also only just managed to point out that Mr Smith’s business is entirely legal, and while I leave it up to you to judge the morality, it is a fact that one of the few business sectors making a resounding profit out of the interwebs these days is the pornography industry, so they, along with the online bookies, tend to pay website builders pretty well compared to most other clients.

Mr Smith’s response to the ‘sting’ operation was to pose for a picture and invite the hapless reporter in for a cup of tea so they could see for themselves the purely business relationship he had with the website owners in question, and he himself posted a rebuttal on his own website outlining the facts for his readers.

What the HDM didn’t point out was that there is a world of difference between building the infrastructure for a website and providing the content, they also failed to make any inquiries about domain name ownership, which would have shown that website contractors usually own the domain names on behalf of their clients because the clients don’t usully have the experience or training to secure and manage these themselves.

So that fact that Mr Smith “owned” these websites was, in their view, proof positive of their case, and of course, they’re not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and the HDM has, in its zeal, posted some follow-ups to their story which, of course, they claim are all in the public interest. So, no self-interest there then.

Aside from the fact that this is a deeply distasteful article and a great example of truly appalling journalism, what’s been interesting is the huge backlash that the HDM has reaped from the online community, where hundreds of posts have appeared in the last 24-48 hours supporting Mr Smith.

Even on the HDM’s own site comments have been suspended after hundreds of people took them to task for running the article, only a handful were on their side; John Meehan, the HDM’s editor, then tried to defend his mistake with weasel words and sophistry … and then made things worse by suggesting that those whose criticised the HDM were “misinformed”, and claimed the comments facility was still open (it’s not).

Whatever your views on the story itself, this is a perfect example of the fights to come, as the old media press barons struggle to hold onto their readership and their incomes in the face of growing competition from smaller, leaner and more agile publishers who know their community way better than the press barons’ lackeys could ever do.

The bottom line is that in this age of media literacy and instant interactivity, misguided old farts like John Meehan (and his head-in-the-sand overseers at DMGT) insult the intelligence of their audience at their own peril.

Further coverage at Journalism.co.uk, Virtual Review and Journopig, who pull out some of the unnecessary and unsupported paedophile-innuendo running through the story.

Interestingly The Register also provide coverage, although if I were them, I’d check their headline with a good libel lawyer.

Total waste of time

June 17, 2009 Leave a comment

There’s revolution formenting in Iran and outrage among the people of Britain, so what does our beleaguered and spineless Government go and do? It releases Lord Carter’s report on Digital Britain, yes, all 245 pages of it.

The introduction started thus:

On 26 August 1768, when Captain James Cook set sail for Australia, it took 2 years and 320 days before he returned to describe what he found there.

and that’s where I gave up, because that told me everything I needed to know about Lord Carter’s report.

First of all, Captain James Cook did not set sail for Australia (which at that time was almost unknown, and the bits that were known of had been named New Holland by the Dutch), the Admiralty (at the behest of the Royal Society) ordered him to travel to the Pacific so that astronomer Charles Green could observe and record the transit of Venus across the sun.

It was only when this part of the voyage was complete that Cook opened sealed orders instructing him to search for the southern continent of Terra Australis, which the Royal Society were convinced was somewhere in the southern Pacific, and that the voyage to Tahiti would be an inconspicuous cover for a voyage of colonial expansion.

So off he went, eventually visiting and mapping New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia, and claiming them for the British Empire.

He got back to England in 1771 but it was months before accounts of his voyage were published, and the Royal Society weren’t happy because the land mass Cook found (known today as Australia) didn’t meet their expectations, so they sent Cook off again in 1772 to search for Terra Australis, which Cook found – we know it today as Antarctica.

So here we have a modern day report on the state of Digital Britain which contains, in the very first sentence, a dumbed down statement of remarkable inaccuracy, and which was confirmed as such in seconds with a Google search.

In the time is has taken for this report to be drawn up, the world has already changed, politicians have been discredited, the credibility of government is in tatters and anyone who’s ever used the interwebs knows that any government attempt to stop downloading simply won’t stop people getting hold of free content.

It’s also interesting about the “basic level” of broadband being described at 2mbps, on which even YouTube struggles, and this also conveniently ignores another ignaminious bit of British history.

The newly formed British Telecom had a plan to run optical fibre to every home in Britain in the early 1980s; the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher decided instead to privatise BT to raise money for tax cuts and to pay-off government debt, so the whole project was cancelled, and 20 years on we’re still paying for the lack of investment.

Lord Carter has wasted a massive opportunity to announce some real changes, instead what we have is the same tired old debate about top slicing the licence fee to shore up failing businesses and a stealth tax on landline telephones – which guarantees to penalise the poor and the elderly and force them to pay for services they don’t use.

How ironic then that Lord Carter evokes the name of the great Captain Cook to launch such a pitiful report – in the 18th Century Cook risked life and limb several times for the glory of his country, advancing science and understanding and making history.

Meanwhile here in the 21st Century Lord Carter spinelessly fleeces the poor, ignores the country, dithers and disappoints and all of this while trying to re-write history.

It’s all just too pathetic for words.

Categories: Internet, Politics Tags: , ,

Bloggers vs Journalists – the gloves come off

June 8, 2009 1 comment

If I had a penny for every article I had read about the pros and cons of blogging and its effect on mainstream journalism, I would be a very rich man – I would probably have enough to be a full-time blogger, rather than writing my posts in my own time.

With so many blogs, some of which are becoming professional concerns, it was inevitable that the war of words between bloggers and journalists was never going to end, especially now that so many lazy mainstream journalists have learnt to feed off the blogs.

So it was with some interest that I read an article on TechCrunch this morning entitled “The Morality and Effectiveness of Process Journalism“, which came about as a result of this piece of angst-riddled insecurity from The New York Times.

I’m not going to go into the details of this particular example of “handbags at dawn”, although from the exhibits presented by both the plaintiff and the defence I can say that Mr Darlin of the NYT probably wouldn’t last five minutes in any newsroom run by me.

From where I’m sitting, TechCrunch reported a rumour as exactly that and published it with more caveats than a dossier on WMD:

Today, though, rumors popped up that Apple may be looking to buy Twitter. “Apple is in late stage negotiations to buy Twitter and is hoping to announce it at WWDC in June,” said a normally reliable source this evening, adding that the purchase price would be $700 million in cash. The trouble is we’ve checked with other sources who claim to know nothing about any Apple negotiations. If these discussions are happening, Twitter is keeping them very quiet indeed. We would have passed on reporting this rumor at all, but other press is now picking it up.

If only many mainstream journalists were as assiduous about highlighting so-called facts which are, in reality, rumours.

Eniment journalist and blogger Jeff Jarvis has also written about this, which he describes as Product vs Process journalism: The myth of perfection vs beta culture; I totally agree with his sentiments – the idea that a story is, once written, an entity which cannot be changed is a product of the old way of producing news, where you had a single product, be it a TV programme or a newspaper edition, into which the “finished” story was placed.

OK, stories might move over a period of time, and one only has to watch All the Presidents’ Men to see how that worked, but even then, the story presented in each edition is a complete, rounded item, drafted, edited, honed until it is as good as it could be.

Only with the advent of 24-hour news and, later, new media have we been able to see news as a constantly evolving activity, from ‘Breaking News’ to the retrospective documentary, a story moves, grows, evolves like a living being, often with just as much complexity, and to characterise a story only in terms of locked off “editions” makes about as much sense in the interweb age as carbon paper.

It’s also interesting to note that this was written for the NYT‘s Business section, and we all know how much esteem they’re held in after the recent meltdown in the world’s economy.

So what is the moral of this incompetant piece of naval gazing by the NYT? As Jeff Jarvis so eloquently puts it:

The problem with this tiresome, never-ending alleged war of blogs vs. MSM … is that it blinds each tribe from learning from the other. Yes, there are standards worth saluting from classical journalism. But there are also new methods and opportunities to be learned online. No one owns journalists or its methods or standards.

The upshot of this is that these days it doesn’t really matter what hacks like Damon Darlin churn out, if they get it wrong, they can be called out within minutes and the facts of what was really said and what was missed can be blogged and published for all to see faster than you can say “libel writ”.

And you know what? Mainstream journalists could do the same, if only they’d get their heads of the sand and their mindsets out of the past.

 (PS: As an aside I was also pleased to see Jeff agreeing with my thoughts about Google Wave.)

If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about

June 2, 2009 Leave a comment

I was going to entitle this post “When Social Media goes bad”, but decided against it because in this case, Social Media was very much the winner.

A few day’s ago The Guardian invited a London herbal remedy company, Neal’s Yard Remedies, to answer questions from readers, having already had successful discussions about other subjects, such as Fairtrade and food in a series of articles called “You ask, they answer”.

Only in this case, someone didn’t read the script – I urge you to go and read the ensuing comments thread, it’s funny, intelligent and challenging, and unfortunately for the company concerned, fairly unforgiving.

NYR ended up declining the invitation to answer any of the questions raised, much to the disgust of many of the contributors, some of whom are now demanding a follow up, but the best we’ve had so far is a lame article about the PR implications including an interview with Max Clifford.

More interesting is what this says about the power of Social Media, as well as not responding to the questions, many posters noted the company were removing comments from their own website and Facebook pages.

Not only that, but bloggers and tweeters have jumped on the story and it’s already going viral, making the PR situation for the company ever more difficult.

One also wonders whether business and political leaders would act in such a stupid and arrogant way if they had been forced to face this kind of fact-checking by their workers or their customers – would GM be going to the wall today if they had faced closer corporate and public scrutiny in the last decade? 

It’s going to be interesting to see where this one goes…

Download dirge

June 1, 2009 Leave a comment

Tiresome repetition of the bleeding obvious award today goes to the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property (SABIP) who are wasting hundreds of column inches in the newspapers with their claims about digital piracy in a new study.

The 85-page coffee-table leveller, with the snappy title Copycats? Digital Consumers in the Online Age, estimates that seven million people in the UK are involved in illegal downloading of music, movies, software and games, although they fail to provide much in the way of explanation about how they arrive at their conclusions regarding numbers.

Certainly when it comes to working out what the annual worth of downloaded material, they introduce the same specious statistical methods used by opponents of Jerry Spinger: The Opera that I commented on some years ago.* (I would link but those kind people at Google have responded to my attempt to reclaim my old Blogger blog by taking it down completely) 

The authors say that UCL researchers found 1.3 million users sharing content on a single P2P network at noon on a specific day.

They then use some very unsubtle mathematics to arrive at a remarkable conclusion”

If each “peer” from this network (not the largest) downloaded one file per day the resulting number of downloads (music, film, television, e-books, software and games were all available) would be 4.73 billion items per year. This amounts to around £12 billion in content being consumed annually – for free.

Ooooooo look at that BIG number – something that’s sure to be seized upon by ignorant journalists and even more ignorant politicians everywhere, giving the politicos a nice little bandwagon to jump on to try and divert attention away from the expenses scandal which continues to claim careers at Westminster.

The fact that they have arrived at this number by a statistical sleight of hand, and that the real figure is probably only a fraction of that, has nothing to do with it – as the hacks say: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.

Now in the interests of fairness, the UCL team did also look at other research and spoke to people in the entertainment industry and regulators, though they don’t look as if they’ve spoken to anyone who lives in the real world.

The problem is that the ignorant politicians will simply tell the ISPs to crackdown on file-sharing, even though the ISPs are, quite understandably, reluctant to become the policemen of the web.

The other issue that these dimwits choose to ignore is the cause of piracy – the backward and intransigent way in which the content creators fail to engage with their audience, preferring to treat everyone like criminals rather than providing them with good service.

That’s on top of the way in which content producers in the UK have been over-charging for their products for many years.

The newspaper industry is already reaping the whirwind of its digital denial, while the music industry only survived thanks to the intervention of Apple’s i-Tunes.

Television companies, Hollywood movie producers and book publishers are all desperately trying to avoid the on-coming train crash with the interwebs – one which they will surely lose unless they ignore specious reports from vested interest groups like SABIP and get their collective heads out of the sand.

[* The original post pointed out that opponents of Jerry Springer: The Opera being shown on the BBC claimed there were thousands of expletives used in the production, but that in reality there were much fewer; the protestors had arrived at their claim by taking the actual number of expletives used, and multiplied them by the number of people on-stage using that expletive, again producing a BIG number that the useless saps at The Daily Mail jumped on with avengeance as part of it’s ridiculous vendetta against the BBC]

Shatner shenanigans

May 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Have to take my hat off to the bloggers over at The Guardian, in this case Chris Michael who has written a wonderful retrospective on William Shatner.

I’m not going to add anything, just go read the piece yourself and do make sure you follow the links to enjoy some vintage Shatner – his evisceration of the young director during a recording session is a perfect example of how to completely take someone apart, and ensure they love you for it afterwards – I wonder who the poor sap on the other side of the glass was, and what happened to his career afterwards.

I also wonder what Jarvis Cocker thinks of the fact that Shatner’s interpretation of Pulp’s Common People will probably be the one everyone remembers, even though the original was brilliant.

Anyway, stop reading here and go over there and I’m sure you’ll agree with their conclusion:

William Shatner may be a living joke, but his dignity, not to say his genius, is that he’s the one telling it.

Encore!