About Me

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I'm a journalist, ex-national papers, now working in what we call "new" media.

A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Express about the practice of outsourcing jobs, especially to India. Back then, the focus was largely on call-centre jobs but it seemed to me that once the principle was established, it would be bound to spread to other areas and that, unless there were strong physical and geographical reasons why your job had to be done in the UK, it was at risk of outsourcing, I ended the piece asking "Is your job safe? Is mine?"

I mention this now because just last week, AOL, where I worked until August, told its editorial staff that many of their jobs are to be outsourced to India. As I understand it, dozens of UK web editorial people will be made redundant and the AOL UK sites will be managed in Bangalore (I think the same is happening to AOL France and Germany). Grim news for my former colleagues, who have endured a series of 'restructures' over the years, and a bit of a first, as far as I am aware. I've never heard of editorial/journalism jobs being outsourced in this way and it will be interesting to see what effect it has on the quality of what's on offer at AOL.
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I walked down Atlantic Road at dusk this evening. They were hosing down the market but the fishmongers and greengrocers that open on to the street were still doing brisk business. There was music from a car parked outside the hairdressers, the smell of frying food and, as ever, the sound of sirens. The lights from the shops and station seemed perfect against the darkening evening sky. The Portuguese deli that does the best taramasalata I've tasted was just closing. I've lived in or around Brixton for the best part of 20 years and, even though I'm only moving up the road, I do believe I'm going to miss it.
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When I was a financial journalist, Northern Rock had a reputation for being a little, well, sharp. The deals they offered to savers and borrowers looked attractive but it generally paid to look below the surface. On one occasion, I recall, they shifted many thousands of customers out of one account into another that paid less interest, without any warning at all. Here's a contemporary account from the Telegraph.

Over the years, in other words, Northern Rock has run the reserves of customer goodwill dangerously low. So even though most experts agree that savers' funds are not at risk in the current credit crisis, customers see little reason to trust the Rock and are withdrawing their funds in droves.

Banks used to be viewed as solid, rather staid, but entirely reliable institutions. These days they are regarded (quite correctly) as rapacious, profit-driven and untrustworthy. No wonder the Rock's customers are rushing to get at their cash. Whatever the experts say, if I was a customer, I'd be doing the same.

I predict that within a year, the Northern Rock's assets will have been sold and the brand, tainted beyond repair, will have disappeared from Britain's high streets. And you have to say it serves them right.

UPDATE: Robert Peston's blog on the BBC explains the obstacles to a sale of Northern Rock. One way or another, though, I still reckon it will happen.
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The Madeleine McCann story has become a news phenomenon, holding the interest of the public day after day after day. Even when there is little to report, stories about the McCanns top the most-read lists of online news sites. And when, as over the last few days, there are genuine developments, the Madeleine story is, news-wise, the only game in town. I hope someone at Hitwise or Nielsen produces some analysis of the Madeleine effect on news websites.

It's the same story with newspapers, of course. Here, courtesy of Mailwatch are a few recent front pages from the Daily Mail and the Express.

The 'quality press' has gone to town on the story, too, filling page after page with speculation and, that traditional standby of the broadsheet, articles that hypocritically decry the nation's obsession with the story, while simultaneously fuelling it.

Taken in the round, the media coverage of the case is not a terribly attractive spectacle and it's left many journalists feeling uncomfortable. I was talking to the head of one of the biggest online news organisations a few days ago and he told me that he wasn't at all keen on the blanket coverage of the McCann story and had been trying to scale it back, but the extraordinary level of interest in the story made it impossible.

It feels like a cycle of exploitation; the McCanns using the media for publicity, the media using the story to boost audiences, the public getting some sort of emotional fix out of the rawness and mystery of the tale and its thriller-like narrative drive. I sense it is going to continue at this pitch for a good while yet.
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Interesting and detailed post on Mediashift about jobs in journalism. Its key m essage, that print jobs are falling away and being replaced by jobs online, should be familiar to anyone working in journalism in the UK.

I've said before that if I was coming out of college now, I would be looking for a job in online journalism, rather than print or TV, not just because there is more work, and more prospects, but because the work is more interesting and challenging. However, it still seems to me that the majority of young journalists would still sooner try to get one of the few, precarious jobs available in newspapers. When I interview for online journalists, quality candidates are still hard to find.

I think it may be changing, though. Recently, I've noticed a small but increasing number of young journalists, just out of college, whose first career choice is to work online and have the skills and enthusiasm needed for success. It's also noticeable how many of my former colleagues in print ask me about the possibility of transferring to the Web.
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Whatever happened to the Desperate Bicycles? Their Smokescreen single was one of the first, possibly the first, DIY single of the punk era and made a virtue of its cheapness and independence, explaining on the sleeve how simple it was to make and declaiming in the lyrics "It was cheap, it was easy, go out and do it yourself." Others, such as the Buzzcocks and Scritti Politti (in those days a fearsomely ideological left-wing group), followed suit.

The idea that you could just go out and create your own stuff - records, clothes, magazines, art - was the key message of the punk era. Back in the Seventies, the world was brought to us through large corporations; by the Eighties, a whole generation had realised that it was possible to reach out directly to the public, by making your own records, setting up your own fashion label, gallery, film company, business... That, more than anything else was the legacy of punk, and it persists to this day.

Why do I mention this now? Because, even though the Desperate Bicycles and their ilk helped us to throw off the mental shackles of believing that we would never be more than consumers of the products of giant companies, they were never really able to reach a huge audience. They could press a few hundred copies of a single and get it played on John Peel but it could never go further (without the help of a giant corporate record label, of course).

Now, the internet has given musicians, writers, artists access to a limitless audience, effectively completing the revolution started by punk. By way of illustration, Rhodri Marsden, a journalist and musician, has accepted the challenge to create and promote a single on the web. I think it may be for an article in the Independent.

It's called Those Rules You Made and you can read more about it on his blog, which is funny and worth reading in any event. The video, shot for five-hundred quid or so, is apparently the second-most watched on Youtube, so his plan seems to be working.

There's a nice circularity to all this in that Rhodri Marsden is a member of the latest (non-political but tuneful) incarnation of Scritti Politti. I wish him luck, though I prefer the Desperate Bicycles.

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The Daily Mirror has been caught trying to place a journalist in a salaried job at Tory Party HQ. It seems that the paper's Emily Miller got close to gaining a job at the heart of the Conservatives' organisation but was rumbled during the reference-checking process, in part because officials checked the IP address on the machine that she used to mail her application and found it was a Mirror computer (who knew Tories were so computer-literate?).

If Ms Miller had been offered the job she would have been privy to all sorts of Tory party secrets and could have provided a stream of scoops to the Mirror (in practice, I suspect that, in a small organisation like Tory HQ, the source of the leaks would have been rapidly identified).

Anyway, much outrage from the Tories. Iain Dale, who broke the story, believes the party should break off diplomatic relations with the paper, while some of his commenters go further and, even allowing for party bias, clearly think this goes beyond the pale. On the other hand, libertarian Tory blogger Guido Fawkes thinks the Mirror's stunt was fair game.

One Iain Dale commenter remarks "imagine if BP did this to shell " - and clearly, if they did, it would be regarded as a highly serious case of industrial espionage.

So is the Mirror case any different? The paper would undoubtedly argue that what they have done is legitimate journalistic enterprise and point to other cases in which journalists have gone undercover to get stories.

I find myself rather torn on all this. It's good to see a tabloid newspaper investing time and ingenuity in trying to get serious political stories, rather than tales about celebrities and Big Brother contestants.

However, the question the Mirror will face is 'what is the public interest in the subterfuge?' - particularly if the journalist is shown to have broken the law (it can be a criminal offence to get a job by lying materially on your cv, for example). Was the paper trying to expose wrongdoing or bring to light some buried scandal that could not be exposed through any other means? So if the Mirror could say, for example, that it was on the track of a story about high-level political corruption, it may be able to claim public interest. If, on the other hand, it was simply on a fishing expedition for stories that might embarrass the Tories, it won't have that defence.

The closest recent parallel that I can think of is the case of the Cabinet Office, Claire Newell and the Sunday Times, which seems to have tailed off without a prosecution or an investigation by the Press Complaints Commission. Though there seems to have been no sanction applied in that case, it doesn't mean that what went on was legitimate. Organisations often think it is better to let these stories die naturally, rather than keep them alive through official complaints. Who knows what the Tories will do in this case, but if they do complain to the PCC, the Mirror may have a difficult job defending itself.

UPDATE In Media Guardian, Roy Greenslade, a former Mirror editor, takes a dim view of his old paper's antics. As he points out, it is the second time in a month that a Mirror stunt has been exposed. Perhaps Mirror journalists need a refresher course in investigative journalism?
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I got a call yesterday from a harassed BBC radio producer asking me to appear on a show which I used to be invited on regularly but haven't heard from for years. "Well, it's August" he explained "and everybody else is on holiday or busy". Funnily enough, I was busy too.
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Thinking about poor old Tony Wilson made me muse a bit on whether the 'underground' exists any more. In the punk era, there was an active and thriving national music scene that barely found its way into the mainstream media. Newspapers wrote about punk bands only to excoriate them for being anti-social, rude about the Queen etc; on the radio, you heard them only on John Peel and television, with the improbable exception of Wilson's Granada Reports, ignored them entirely.

Even the records were hard to come by. Some, like the Buzzcocks' epochal Spiral Scratch, were released in small numbers on independent labels; a few, most notably God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols, were banned by many shops. The majority were simply not stocked. As a teenager, I would have to travel 20 miles to Liverpool or 50 to Manchester to have any chance of tracking down a release by the Stooges, the Velvet Underground or the New York Dolls, which were between five and ten years old. Many of these trips ended in failure since the majority of records that were more than a couple of years old were likely to have been deleted.

As a result, the music I and others like me loved developed as a subculture, untouched by the mainstream media and its scarcity made it even more precious to us.

Nowadays, as soon as a band seems to be reaching any sort of critical mass with a young audience, it is pounced on by record labels, newspapers, radio and television. The Arctic Monkeys were the subject of fawning articles in the Guardian before they had released a record and as soon as a single came out, their music was unavoidable on the radio, on TV, even as incidental music for BBC2 programme trails. Impossible to imagine Boredom by the Buzzcocks being used in an advert or as television backing music in the late Seventies. That stuff stayed squarely in its own subcultural back yard.

Now, of course, the media is now full of people in their 30s and 40s, who are much more aware of this sort of stuff than were their equivalents in the Seventies. They (we...) want to be seen to be in touch and trendy and we are fully aware of the importance of appealing to vital 'young demographic'. So we seize on anything that looks young, new and relevant and devour it.

There is more media too; more print space and airtime to fill and, in the era of the internet and MP3s, it's easier and cheaper for bands to get their music to a wide audience. Pop music is much more curated than it was 3o years ago, its history and archives preserved and combed through for forgotten gems. It is infinitely easier to get a copy of Metallic KO by the Stooges (it's available in "Deluxe edition with metallic foil and 12 page booklet", apparently)
today than it was for me in 1977, less than five years after its release.

I wonder what this means to the young. On the one hand, it means that bands like the Arctic Monkeys can reach a lot of people quickly and make a lot of money. On the other, might it mean that they quickly become over exposed and stripped of meaning. And have today's teenagers lost something significant because they have to share their music and culture with 40-year-old men like me? Or have some of them, at least, retreated to an underground and subculture that is unreachable by the middle aged, for now at least?
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Tony Wilson has died of cancer aged just 57. He was a big figure in my youth because, as presenter of the ITV local news in the north-west, he gave slots to bands such as the Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols. It doesn't seem like such a big thing now, but back in the 70s, you didn't see bands of any sort on TV outside Top of The Pops and the Old Grey Whistle Test; punk bands were at the time treated with hatred, fear and contempt by the mainstream media, and even on the radio could only be heard on John Peel. So the sight of the Pistols performing Anarchy in the UK or the Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto, playing Boredom, on ITV at 6.20 - live, not miming- was exciting, even shocking.

At the same time Wilson began putting bands on at the Russell club in Hulme, Manchester, which he renamed the Factory. I remember queuing outside to see Iggy, when Wilson arrived in a chauffer-driven car, straight from the ITV studios, still wearing his grey newsreader's suit, canvas artist's bag over his shoulder. "Don't worry, you'll all get in" he called out to the queue swept into the club.

"Wanker", various people muttered. There was always this thing about Wilson, that he was seen as cocky, too big for his own boots (the nickname "Mr Manchester" was certainly double-edged in that respect) but, despite that, people acknowledged his real enthusiasm for the music he promoted, on Granada Reports, at the Factory Club, on his So it Goes TV show, through Factory Records, which gave us Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and a number of other worthy but less remembered acts (Section 25, Crawling Chaos, Crispy Ambulance). Then he went on to open the Hacienda, the first British superclub, that dragged a generation from the gloomy introspection of new wave into the world of dance music and ecstasy.

Meanwhile, he continued his TV career, somewhere along the line adopting the name Anthony H Wilson. I once went up to Manchester to appear on a debate programme, whose name escapes me, that went out live at 11 on a Friday night. We were discussing deaths on the road at a time when there was a general moral panic about joyriding. There was me, a politician, someone who'd lost a relative in a road accident, a road safety campaigner sitting in front of a pissed-up audience, high on tabloid moralising. We all said our pieces, then Wilson went to a member of the audience for a comment - a middle-aged Liverpudlian who said "What the police should do with joyriders is drag them out of their cars and shoot them there and then". The audience cheered ecstatically. Wilson clearly loved the controversy, energy and rage of it all: it was a great wind-up, just as it was when he provoked gloomy, raincoat-wearing new wavers (such as myself) by saying that Ian Curtis's suicide was the best thing that could have happened for Joy Division and Factory (or words to that effect).

There was an item about Wilson on Newsnight Review a few weeks ago, which had the feel of an obituary to it, during which he talked about his serious illness. So, in a sense, it's not a surprise that he's dead, even though it is a shock. Mr Manchester, RIP.

Here's a short tribute from Paul Morley.

And here's an interesting fact from James concerning Tony Wilson and Iggy's Lust For Life cover photo.

And here's an TV interview with Wilson, looking back at the early days of Factory, with some great footage of Joy Division.

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The BBC has taken to littering its news programmes with phrases such as 'The BBC has learned...' and 'The BBC understands....' to indicate that its journalists have the inside scoop and have broken a story. This is something that has been borrowed from newspapers and its recent prevalence seems to date from this memo stemming from the BBC's failure at the last Royal Television Society awards. More exclusives is the mantra.

At the same time, BBC news seems to have been co-opted into the promotional process for certain of its documentaries. Stories emanating from Panorama, in particular, seem to be given undue prominence in the news running order, most notably on the BBC website.

These two trends come together today with the story about Thaksin Shinawatra, the new owner of Manchester City football club, being accused of human rights abuses. The substance of the allegations is not new; the BBC has advanced the story only to the extent that an organisation called Human Rights Watch has complained to the Premier League about Shinawatra. If a newspaper wants to freshen up an old story, it is standard practice to get a pressure group to make a public fuss about the issue; possibly that is what the BBC has done here. If so, is it stepping into the grey area that marks the unclear divide between reporting the news and becoming involved in the creation of the news - and is that a comfortable place for the BBC to be?

In any case, the story is being used to promote an interesting-sounding Radio 5 documentary on the takeover of British clubs by possibly unsuitable foreign tycoons. Would the Human Rights Watch letter have been given the same prominence had it not allowed BBC News to puff the Radio 5 programme? If the answer is no, what does this tell us about the objectivity of the BBC's news agenda?
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Can someone stop Nick Robinson using the phrase 'mood music'? He said it at least twice this morning on the Today programme, reporting on the Brown-Bush summit. Where did this stupid phrase come from and why has it become a BBC buzzword?
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I don't know Danny Cohen, the whizzkid controller of BBC3, so I have no idea if the amusing Secret Blog of a TV Controller is an accurate spoof or not. However, Media Guardian, ever respectful of the feelings of powerful TV executives, today reports that it is 'nasty', 'spiteful' and 'devoid of wit' and gives Cohen ample opportunity to insist, unconvincingly, that he pays little attention to it (if that's true, he is practically unique in broadcasting). Its interview/profile of Cohen is so sycophantic that you can almost hear the author's desperate attempts to ingratiate himself.

So much so that BBC3's decision to make a programme about single mothers and call it 'Pramface Mansions' passes almost unremarked in the piece, beyond a glancing reference to its 'insulting' title. The term 'pramface' is, of course, a deeply unpleasant sex- and class-based piece of abuse but nowhere in the interview is Cohen called to account for the use of the term.

In Media Guardian land, channel controllers' sensitivities must be protected (after all they might aid one's own progression into TV), but the lower orders are evidently fair game.

Media Guardian and its journalists spend their lives writing admiringly about these people that they've lost any sense of objectivity: they don't realise how craven they've become.
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So a couple of Daily Mirror journalists are caught smuggling a fake bomb on to a train, 'to test security' - or, more truthfully, to generate a cheap splash. The Mirror is bleating because they were arrested under terrorism legislation, had their houses searched etc.

Papers have been pulling stunts like this for years, claiming that they're helping to expose security loopholes, and patting themselves on the back for their 'investigative journalism'. In reality, they prove little or nothing - we all know that you can't have 100% security - and simply put added pressure on the police. It's pointless stunt journalism with no public interest justification and the Mirror can't complain if its reporters are charged. Ideally its editor, Richard Wallace, should be too.

Roy Greenslade is right.
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the latest story on the toils of RDF, bringing with it some good news for beleaguered Stephen Lambert, the creator of the misleading 'Queen hissy fit' trailer. But read it closely and with a cynical eye and an interesting sequence of events emerges.

Here's the Media Guardian take:

RDF's share-price slumped by 16.7% on Friday to 192p, after announcements by both the BBC and ITV that they would suspend commissions from the firm until the outcome of an independent inquiry into the affair in the autumn.

This followed a plunge of 8.4% on Thursday.

The news of Mr Lambert's admission and his offer of resignation came after the markets had closed on Friday.

In early trading today, the firm's share price was up 0.96% on Friday's close of 210p.

Mr Lambert's admission of responsibility over the row followed his buying up of 12,747 extra shares in the firm on Thursday, taking his personal stake to 2,629,714, or 6.78%.

And here's how events seem to have unfolded:

1. RDF share price slumps
2. Stephen Lambert buys 12,747 shares
3. Stephen Lambert makes stabilising announcement
4. RDF share price rallies

So Mr Lambert bought a whack of shares immediately before making an announcement that caused the share price to rise. Now I'm not sufficiently expert to know if any rules have been broken and I'm sure he was simply trying to show his faith in the company, rather than engaging in any insider-ish shenanigans but if the the RDF share price recovers to its pre-scandal level, his purchase could net him a quick six grand. Not even beer money to a multi-millionaire, but still, better to avoid even the hint of controversy, isn't it?
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Peter Fincham, the controller of BBC1, looked pretty shifty on Newsnight tonight, as he tried to explain the Queen and Leibowitz cock-up, blustering, rambling and several times holding his hands in front of him in a protective/defensive gesture.

"As controller, I take responsibility," he said, as if he was bravely shouldering the blame for something that was not really his fault. In fact, it was he who fronted the press conference at which the mielading sequence was shown. I'm told by BBC friends that Fincham is not well liked at the corporation - though this may be because he's an incomer at an institution that values long service above pretty much all else.

Fincham vouchsafed that he did not think he should resign over the balls-up, though I suspect that had the offending sequence been broadcast, rather than just shown to journalists, he would be clearing his desk.

The BBC seems to me to have done a pretty good job of covering this issue fairly and appropriately. Gavin Esler was quite firm with Fincham - but you couldn't help wishing that it had been Paxman in the chair.
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Above is one of images that have run on the bbc.co.uk home page today promoting some vulgar and catchpenny-sounding programme called Fight for Life. As you can see it is some sort of giant baby or foetus, rendered for some reason in blue and semi-transparent so that you can see its bones, internal organs and so on. I've show it small: on the site itself, it runs across the full width of the page: a real monster.

The other baby, which was on the site this morning, was brown and its massive face was seemingly pressed against the monitor, like a fishy alien thing. The pictures are about four times the size of the normal bbc.co.uk promo and the overall effect is highly disquieting. Has a madman taken over the bbc home page? What is going on?
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Here's an interesting post from Inksniffer, aka John Duncan, once managing editor of the Observer. He's delved into the thorny and opaque world of web stats and come up with some interesting conclusions.

His contention is that Internet metrics substantially exaggerate the importance of the newspaper web audience. His arithmetic, which seems unimpeachable, demonstrates that, for example, the Guardian, generally hailed as the great success of newspaper websites, has around 270,000 daily readers, compared with the 310,000 or so that buy the paper each day. Other sites, we may assume, are doing less well. This is in stark contrast to the audience claimed for newspaper websites, which are routinely denominated in the millions.

Why the discrepancy? Essentially, as John explains, because the web's currency of choice is monthly unique users, which in turn is probably because, in their infancy, internet companies needed to make their audiences look as large as possible. We're now hooked on these large numbers and unable to scale down to anything more realistic.

John uses his analysis to argue that newspapers are not doing anything like as badly as people claim and this is where I part company with him. Newspapers are in serious trouble and the fact that their websites are not performing as well as they would like us to believe doesn't change that unpalatable fact.

The biggest online sources of news are not newspaper sites at all but the BBC (streets ahead of the competition) and then the likes of Yahoo!, Google, MSN, AOL, Sky (with the Guardian somewhere in the mix). These are the places where an increasing part of the public gets its news, rather than from newspapers, or even their websites.
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Does Salman Rushdie deserve a knighthood for his writing? Probably not - or at least no more than several other unknighted authors. Rushdie is an important writer, though not to everyone's taste, and his early work such as Midnight's Children and Shame is his best. His later work is pretty ordinary.

But think back to 1988 and the publication of The Satanic Verses and the fatwa that was announced against Rushdie. Remeber how a succession of weaselly appeasers such as Douglas Hurd (though he was far from the only example) went out of their way to try to mollify the extremists, book-burners and would-be assassins, rather than standing up to them and bringing them before the courts. Hurd and his sort tried to distance themselves from the Satanic Verses and the Foreign Office brought pressure to stop the book being published in paperback. Meanwhile Rushdie went in fear for his life, for years.

I think the K should be viewed as an apology to Rushdie for leaving him high and dry when the fatwa was announced and a belated acknowledgement that freedom of speech and artistic expression matter.
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Not much to say about the latest catastrophic newspaper circulation figures except that the decline is turning rapidly into a collapse. Which will be the first paper to cease publication?
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Last night I attended a Media Society dinner in honour of Jon Snow. It was an altogether pleasant occasion, rather like a memorial service except that the subject was bouncing around being jocular, instead of lying in a box. The food was pretty good too. Peter Snow was the compere and short speeches were made by the likes of Helena Kennedy, Alan Rusbridger and the great Charles Wheeler.

There were a few digs at the Mail on Sunday, coupled with heartfelt tributes to Snow's honour and loyalty. However, to judge from Madame Arcati's blog, the Precious Williams story may have further to run.

Rusbridger's speech was quite amusing. Rather than relate anecdotes from Snow's career, he went on to Facebook and found all the nice things young people have to say about "J to the Snow", as he is apparently known. There is even a discussion group called "Philip Schofield and Jon Snow: TV's silver foxes".

Word of Rusbridger's interest has clearly got around, since Jemima Kiss mentions en passant that lots of people at the Guardian are signing up for Facebook today, presumably hoping to be poked by the editor.
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Credit to Iain Dale for being first to the news that Andy Coulson is the Tories' new spin-doctor. In general, I think journalists overvalue the importance of being first to a story (it matters a lot to them, but not that much to their readers) but you'd expect either a lobby correspondent or a News International employee to be first to the draw on this one.
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Interesting report from Comscore showing that the majority of traffic on British newspaper websites comes from abroad.

The Daily Mail gets 69 per cent of its users from overseas, the FT 85 per cent, the Independent 73 per cent and the Guardian 58 per cent.

It's encouraging news for British journalism that it has resonance around the world. As Comscore points out, some of this traffic doubtless comes from expats. No doubt, holidaymakers in internet cafes account for a chunk, too. I suspect a fair amount comes from the US, where there seems to be a market for British-style journalism, as opposed to the sometimes staid US equivalent. It would be interesting to know what proportion comes from the Indian subcontinent, too. And what sort of content appeals to these different audiences?

However, I suspect the papers won't be altogether pleased that these figures have come to light. The UK advertisers that make up the bulk of their business probably think they are buying a largely domestic audience. A page view in Calcutta or Chicago may be to them a page view wasted.

The challenge for the newspaper sites is to target their advertising effectively. As far as I can see, most papers are still showing UK ads to their overseas users and I'm not sure how interested a British building society, say, is likely to be in advertising to people in other countries. The Guardian seems to be showing US ads to US users, though I'm not sure how successful it is at selling this audience - there seem to be a lot of house ads on the service.
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Bonnington Square is a rather special part of south London, with an extraordinary atmosphere and a rare community spirit. I'm spending a fair amount of time wandering round there as I am trying to buy a house in the area, so far without any success.

Anyway, Bonnington Square and Vauxhall Grove that runs off it are lovely. In Vauxhall Grove sits the Bonnington Cafe, a charming vegetarian cafe. I had a nice, cheap lunch there with a friend the other Sunday and, though I'm not a veggie, will surely eat there again.

The people who run and cook at the Bonnington have no pretensions to be Gordon Ramsey - they are volunteers and enthusiasts and this is a little place serving the local community. So it was slightly odd of the Observer to send its restaurant critic, Jay Rayner, to review the place.

To be fair to Rayner, he is a Brixton resident and does review local places from time to time - it was through one of his pieces that I discovered the marvellous Gallery, a fantastic Portuguese restaurant in Brixton Hill. But sending him to review the Bonnington was a little like sending a theatre critic to write about a school play, or the chief football writer to report on a Sunday League game - all the more so since Rayner is no fan of vegetarian cooking.

So, predictably enough, Rayner hated the Bonnington and wrote what was pretty much a hatchet job over a page in today's Observer. That's his right, of course, but you wonder what the point of the exercise was, when he's clearly more at home in the Dorchester.

UPDATE: Jay Rayner has added a comment below arguing, reasonably enough, that I was unfair to say he hated the Bonnington. "Liked the place, hated the food" may have been a fairer summary.

And here's a view on the Bonnington and Jay Rayner's review from another blogger.
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The Portuguese police investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann say they have no grounds to arrest or charge Robert Murat. This has not deterred the British press from their dogged pursuit of the man who they have nominated as "prime suspect" in the case.

Today the Sunday Express reports on its front page that Murat has refused to take a lie detector test. The inference many will draw is that he is refusing to co-operate with an aspect of the police investigation. However, buried deep in the story, is the salient fact that it was the Sunday Express itself that was proposing to carry out the test.

It was, in other words, a newspaper stunt and the Express must have known Murat would refuse to participate. Who can blame him? Apart from anything else, lie detector tests are notoriously unreliable, especially, perhaps, those carried out by British newspapers with an agenda.

Still, it is all grist to the Express's mill. "What do YOU think?" the paper asks at the end of the story, "Does this prove he's guilty?".

This really is the worst of British journalism. Papers can make just about anybody look bad, if they put their mind to it, by a mixture of inference, 'nudge, nudge' suggestion and selective use of facts.

It doesn't matter that much to papers like the Sunday Express whether Murat is innocent or guilty, or whether the investigation proceeds smoothly and successfully - they can and do wring headlines out of xenophobic attacks on the alleged incompetence of the Portuguese police.

Whatever the police say, the papers will not let go of Murat until another suspect comes into view. It was, after all, a newspaper that reported him to the police in the first place. The unthinkable alternative would be to admit that they have nothing new to tell us about the investigation. Their obsessive and disproportionate interest in Murat, together with their amateur sleuthing, can not be helping the investigation and may well be hindering it (as has, it is said, the massive reward on offer). But the sad fact is that the papers couldn't care less.
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"Hansen sweated on Lineker in 1986 but now they just want to talk a good game"
is the headline from a piece in the sports section of today's Guardian. It made me think about this phrase "sweating on", which is generally used as a synonym for "being in a state of uncertainty and apprehension about" as in "City sweat on Weaver's fitness" or, I suppose, "Mourinho sweats on Terry's groin".

It's quite new, I think - at least, I've only noticed it in the last few years. And it is exclusively confined to the sports pages. You never hear "Brown sweats on Blair's endorsement", for example.

It's a phrase that is useful for headline writers, especially on tabloid newspapers where space tends to be highly limited and was certainly coined for that purpose. You never hear anybody saying it, just as you never hear anyone using "rapped" to mean criticised as in "Brown rapped over pensions fiasco".

But like rapped in this context, "sweating on" has moved beyond tabloid headlines and you now see it quite regularly in copy and in broadsheets, where there is no need for brevity in the headline, as in today's Guardian example. How long before we start seeing it in political stories?

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Nothing seems to motivate MPs like self-interest - look at the pension arrangements they have awarded themselves, if you don't believe me. More evidence came today in a vote on a grubby little private members' bill to exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act, put forward by veteran Tory David McLean (who has refused to appear on radio or TV to debate the issue). The bill was passed by 96 votes to 25 and now proceeds to the House of Lords.

There are simply no good arguments in favour of the measure. Some MPs claim that their correspondence with constituents needs safeguarding, but this is already ensured by the Freedom of Information Act. It seems that MPs voting for the bill simply want to avoid being scrutinised too closely by the media over issues such as expenses.

Freedom of information should apply to everyone; indeed our elected representatives should be subject to more scrutiny than most. David McLean's bill, and all those who voted for it, are simply a disgrace.
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Rod Liddle in the Spectator wittily points up the BBC's unspoken cultural and political assumptions.
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"It was deplorable that the woman hostage should be shown smoking. This sends completely the wrong message to our young people," Patricia Hewitt was quoted as saying about the television coverage of the Marines captured in Iraq. It is a quotation that seems to sum up a kind of New Labour health-faddist bossiness and has been trotted out repeatedly since - by Simon Hoggart in the Guardian, by Jonah Goldberg in the National Review, by countless blogs and websites and today by Fergus Kelly in the Daily Express (not online, as far as I can see).

Hewitt has been ridiculed for weeks over this remark, being described as 'humourless', 'purse-lipped' a health fascist and worse. The trouble is, she didn't actually utter the words for which she is being pilloried, or anything like them. they were invented by Daily Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker as an April Fool hoax. Here's his grudging apology to Ms Hewitt. Maybe journalists should check their sources slightly more assiduously.
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Robert Murat, the Englishman currently under investigation over Madeleine McCann's abduction was dobbed in by a Sunday Mirror journalist, on grounds that seem vague, at best.

"He was very vague about his background. When I asked him he wouldn't give his surname or tell me where he lived. He wouldn't give me a phone number and he was vague about what he did for a living."

Time will tell whether or not the Mirror's suspicions were correct but I'm uncomfortable with journalists intervening in stories that they are working on. On the one hand, like any of us, they want to help the police and bring the investigation to a happy conclusion. On the other, they have an interest in moving the story on and creating headlines. Did this play a part in the Mirror's decision to report Murat to the police?

UPDATE: It was, of course, the Sunday Mirror that effectively fingered Tom Stephens in the Ipswich prostitute murders case. He turned out to be innocent but was given a few nasty days as prime suspect. I think reporters should stick to reporting and let the police do the sleuthing.
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Jane Garvey and Peter Allen lift the lid on the mood at Broadcasting House when Tony Blair was first elected ten years ago. Inevitably this has been grist to the mill of those who claim that the BBC is institutionally biased to the Left.

For what it's worth, I think that's a highly simplistic view.

1. Hard though it is to remember, the mood around the country was pretty euphoric, the morning of Blair's election. It would be surprising if that wasn't shared by a fair number of BBC journalists.

2. I listen to and watch a fair amount of BBC coverage and it seems to me overwhelmingly fair. Sometimes individual reporters allow their personal views to intrude - Michael Buerk in Africa, Feargal Keane passim - and I would sooner they didn't. However, the mood these days is clearly for more engaged, personalised reporting. On the whole, people don't object to Buerk, Keane and so on, but they do complain when people reporting on, say, the Middle East or the US are seen to be less than impartial. But these cases - and they do happen - look to me like individual lapses, rather than a systematic policy of bias by the BBC.

3. Most of us see only a fraction of the BBC's output and we should be wary of drawing absolute conclusions based on what we see.

4. However, BBC journalists tend to be young, metropolitan, university educated so, unsurprisingly, they have more liberal views than the population as a whole. It seems to me that there are a series of shared assumptions on, for example, multiculturalism, that haven't been subjected to sufficiently rigorous scrutiny. It feels a lot easier for a Guardian journalist to get airtime on Radio 4 than it is for someone from the Mail even though that paper has five times the Graun's circulation.

My sense is that in the last year or so, the BBC has begun to face up to some of these issues - some of it's reporting on immigration, for example, has been a lot more multi-faceted than previously.

6. Even defining 'impartiality' as regards, say, Israel-Palestine is a thankless job. Trying to hold a line that is recognised by all as impartial is even harder. It seems to me that the BBC does a pretty good job, most of the time.

(Incidentally, Peter Allen and Jane Garvey are great and nobody who listens to their show at all regularly could plausibly accuse them of bias.)
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Following the coverage of the Madeleine McCann case, it is hard to feel very proud of British press. There is something nauseating about the endless speculation, the conflicting theories, pored over by the press with unseemly relish. The stories about paedophile gangs are particularly distasteful, given that they seem to be little more than poorly-sourced speculation.

Almost as unpleasant are the reports speculating on what the McCanns are going through and how much they are suffering. What purpose is served by this vampiric intrusion into other people's pain? "We share your pain" was yesterday's headline in the Sun: but you don't really, do you? It's a small point but the Sun, the Express, the Times, Telegraph and other papers, continue to refer to "Maddy", even though the family have asked that she be called Madeleine. No doubt "Maddy" makes for easier headline-writing, but even so...

Still, it's easy to blame the press but they are simply satisfying public demand. Take a look, for example, at these comments on a Guardian blog on the subject, full of lip-smacking grief-junkies poring obsessively over the details of the story and clearly getting some kind of vicarious thrill out of the whole thing. At least Sun readers have the good sense and taste to confine themselves to expressions of sympathy and support.
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A few years ago I wrote a piece in the Spectator, arguing that individuals should have the right to sell their kidneys, if they wanted to. There is a long waiting list for these organs, so why not offer incentives to individuals to donate?

Since that time, the government has passed the Human Tissue Act 2004, making it unambiguously illegal for anyone to sell one of their organs and this week came the first successful prosecution under the act.

Someone who donates a kidney to a relative, friend or stranger is praised; yet someone who does the same thing for money is treated as a criminal. Why? And how does this help anyone languishing on a dialysis machine?
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Here's the latest newspaper ABC circulation figures, as reported in Media Guardian. The accompanying story is headlined "Sales of all quality dailies down", a statement clearly borne out by the figures in the table, which shows, inter alia, the FT down 1.76 per cent month on month.

Yet here's Press Gazette's take on the ABC figures, as far as they affect the Financial Times - circulation up for the sixth consecutive month, apparently. The story also has the Daily Telegraph posting a 0.31 per cent decline month on month, while the Guardian's figures show it up 0.29 per cent.

I've noticed this sort of discrepancy before - the Independent media section seems to publish different figures from Media Guardian. I guess they have to do with the way bulks are counted or something of that sort. I suspect also that the FT was on to the phone to Press Gazette as soon as the ABCs came out, putting its positive spin on the figures.

Anyhow, whichever version you choose to believe, the overall picture for national papers is bleak. Circulation declines show no signs of levelling off: on the contrary, they are falling more steeply and quickly with each passing month.
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I wasn't a reporter for very long, thankfully, since I wasn't very good at it but I've worked with a few people who really were. What they all had in common was being highly organised, obsessive about reading every document they could get their hands on, tenacious in following up leads and good at building rapport with useful contacts.

These are not skills that are necessarily valued in modern journalism, which focusses increasingly on commentary rather than on story-getting. Investigative journalism is viewed as taking up a great deal of time and resource to produce stories that don't necessarily interest that many people and can end up getting you sued. Just about the only place that it is practised on a regular basis is in the pages of Private Eye (which most people buy anyway for the humour and gossip).

So well done Andrew Marr, who today announced that he is to launch an award for those tenacious reporters who obsessively dig out stories and break exclusives (as opposed to getting them handed on a plate through buy-ups). He is considering naming it after the late Anthony Bevins, political editor of the Independent and then the Express. I worked on the same paper as Tony for a while, though I didn't know him at all well, and he was legendary for his skill at uncovering political scandal by methodically working through the documents (reports, answers to parliamentary questions) that others wouldn't bother to read. (He was also the only journalist to leave the Express on point of principle, without another job to go to, after it was taken over by Richard Desmond.)
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The long-running scrap between Gina Ford, a parenting expert, and the website Mumsnet has finally come to a close. In brief, a group of people on the Mumsnet messageboards took agains Ford and posted a variety of disobliging comments about her. The comments could be read, apparently, as suggesting Ford has 'unpleasant or unhygienic' personal habits or that she 'straps babies to missiles and fires them into South Lebanon'.

A few thoughts on this:

1 Many users believe the internet is a kind of ungoverned space where the normal laws of libel do not apply. As this case shows, it isn't.

2 Internet companies generally rely on 'notice and takedown' to deal with potentialy defamatory comments on messageboards. In other words, if an aggrieved person complains about a posting, they'll take it down as soon as it is brought to their attention and the matter is considered closed. In fact, there is no real case law that supports this rule. In principle, a company could take down a defamatory comment and still be sued, because people would have read it and the complainant would have suffered damage to his reputation.

3 In any case, notice and takedown is a very weak defence of the principle of free speech since, in practice, I suspect a site will always remove comments that are complained about, even if they are true. This gives crooks a powerful tool with which to suppress even fair comment and investigation.

I predict that before long we will see a rash of cases on internet libel, centering on messageboards, forums and blogs.
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(1) "Sit down with"
People used to have meetings but nowadays they "sit down with" each other. "I need to sit down with you to understand...." is the contemporary version of "can we have a meeting about....". The phrase is supposed to invest the mundane activity of sitting in a conference room discussing performance figures with the ceremony and import of an international summit (see below). Whenever I hear the phrase used, it makes me think of warring Red Indian tribes getting together to smoke the pipe of peace.

(2) "Retreat"
First there were "awaydays", but an event named after a cheap British Rail fare is nowhere near self-regarding enough for today's business community. Then there were "offsites", but even that is a bit too, well, functional. So now, if you and your department want to go to a Holiday Inn for a meeting, you should call it either a "summit" (though this evocation of international diplomacy can sound hubristic unless most of the attendees are senior managers or above) or, the very latest term, a "retreat". Because you're deeply spiritual people, obviously.
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On, then off again. Reports on Friday that Microsoft was seriously thinking about buying Yahoo! lasted a single day before being fully and authoritatively denied. However, that day was enough to see Yahoo! shares soar by 15 per cent or so, with billions of dollars changing hands. The New York Post claimed the 'credit' for the 'scoop'.

Now this could simply be a case of a journalist taking a flyer on a rumour but it has at least the smell of someone, somewhere pumping the Yahoo! share price in order to make a fast killing. There should be some sort of investigation here to see if the market was indeed rigged and if any journalists or PRs (the source of many business stories) were complicit.

As it happens, there are some grounds for believing that a Yahoo!-Microsoft merger of some sort could happen. They are treading on each others' toes in many areas, which is allowing Google to steal a march on both. On the other hand, giant mergers of this sort often fail to deliver the value that seems to be there on paper and there are egos in both businesses that might not want to be subsumed into a greater whole.
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Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, has attracted a fair amount of comment for the generous salary he is paid, and for the £175,000 bonus he received at a time when his paper is, frankly, struggling. The suggestion is that he is becoming a bit grand, rather too much the sort of fat cat that his paper likes to criticise.

Now I notice that the Guardian is advertising for an 'assistant PA to the editor', Mr Rusbridger apparently requiring not one, but two, secretaries, a level of staffing that I have previously only observed in the chief executives of very large companies - and even then it looked rather like an ego-driven indulgence, rather than a necessity.
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The fact that Lord Browne is gay is not a matter of public interest and normally a newspaper would have no justification for revealing the fact. However, Lord Browne has been accused of lavishing BP shareholders' funds on his Canadian lover (allegations that he denies) and in order for this tale (which is clearly in the public interest) to be told, his sexuality had to be revealed.

There are often calls for a privacy law, which would prevent newspapers from publishing details about individuals' private lives but this case shows how problematic such a law could be and how the rich and powerful could use it to suppress investigation into questions of legitimate public interest.

UPDATE: I understand there is still an injunction preventing publication of the details of how Lord Browne met his lover, yet Robert Peston has revealed the details on his BBC blog, as has the Guardian. Brave, foolhardy or simply an oversight?

FURTHER UPDATE: Stephen Pollard is correct. Lord Browne should be prosecuted for perjury.
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Harry's Place is absolutely one of my favourite blogs. Its team of writers are generally informed, humane, intelligent and realistic (personal favourites Brownie and David T). The debate in its comments boxes is sometimes amusing and often informative, featuring points of views from around the world. I look at it most days and comment there from time to time.

However, when the topic is Israel/Palestine, the comments boxes are routinely taken over by the vilest nutcases. Take this thread for example, in which David T urges readers to sign a petition to free Alan Johnston. An uncontroversial request, you might think but a core of commenters use the opportunity to blacken Johnston's reputation ("Fuck him. He chose to hang out with terrorists and saw it as his job to misrepresent them to the world" is a choice example), to complain about BBC bias, to bicker about Israel and Palestine and to speculate unwholesomely about whether Johnston is alive or dead. Depressing, really.
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Football clubs, like newspapers and restaurants, tend to be run as dictatorsships with a single dominant figure (the editor, the proprietor, the manager, the chariman, the chef, the owner) telling everybody else what to do and succeeding or failing based on his judgement. Kelvin Mackenzie's Sun and Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest were two examples of the same phenomenon - a driven, charismatic boss who wasnt afraid to take decisions and seemed to get things right a lot of the time.

But for every Clough or Mackenzie there has been a host of failures -men who thought they knew what they were doing but led their clubs or papers disastrously down the wrong road. I've worked for a few editors like that, men and women who were forced by the whole history and psychology of newspapers to manage by hunch, but whose hunches were wrong. As a Manchester City fan, I've observed countless managers and chairmen behave the same way.

There is another way, less glamorous, but more reliable. Use statistics, research and data to guide your decisions. Most of the business world functions like this, but football and the press have largely avoided it. I've just been reading Michael Lewis's Moneyball, in which he tells the story of how a poorly funded baseball side punched way above its weight by using statistics to identify high-performing players who had been missed by the traditional scouting system, which relied on the hunches and prejudices of former players.

I witnessed the same sort of thing when I moved from papers to online. Suddenly we knew a very great deal about what our audience was doing, what it liked to read and what it was not interested in. No way could any online site I've worked on (with audiences far bigger than any national newspaper) justify paying hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to a star columnist. Yet newspapers do this as a matter of routine, because hunch and print tradition tell them it is the right thing to do.

It's probably too late to save newspapers from the consequences of decades of accumulated wrong decisions. It may not be too late for football clubs such as Man City. I've been interested to read reports of Ray Ranson's attempted takeover of the club. Ranson says he has a new model for running football, which doesn't involve the great dictatorial manager figure. He doesn't go into detail but, as he is involved in Prozone, which provides very detailed data on players and their performance, I strongly suspect he is in the Moneyball/internet camp and I hope his bid is successful.
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The redesigned FT print edition looks nice enough. It turns out to be the work of my old boss Richard Addis. It is hardly revolutionary though, which is presumably why, in an interview with Roy Greenslade, Lionel Barber, the FT's editor, refers to it as a 'refresh'.

Barber also mentions that one of his goals was to make the FT appear 'sharper', which immediately took me back to my newspaper days. Whenever we redesigned, refreshed or revamped the paper, or introduced a new section or a new columnist and were looking for a way to puff this to the readers, we inevitably hit on the word 'sharp'.

Why? I think because 'sharpness' in newspapers sounds utterly desirable but is almost entirely indefinable. Is the FT now 'sharper' than the Guardian or the Times? Who can say?

The truth is that the success of newspaper redesigns and relaunches is very hard to judge. Sales may go up - or, these days, a decline may be arrested - but it is very hard to attribute this to any one factor. Is it the redesign, the giveaway DVD, the Princess Diana exclusive? Are readers looking at the revamped product for longer or in more depth? Research may give a clue, but it is impossible to be sure.

In the absence of any objective measures of success, newspaper redesigns and relaunches tend to be judged as successes or failures by acclaim within the paper itself and the small world of the media. What do other editors and designers think of it? Will it pick up a gong at one of the many newspaper awards ceremonies? Loudly proclaiming your new paper to be 'sharp' may just help to influence opinions in your favour. Best of all, it is a claim that nobody can authoritatively rebut.

Contrast this with the online world, in which new designs, new launches and so on are subjected to ruthlessly objective scrutiny. How many people visit your site, how many pages do they visit, how long do they stay? A site redesign will be given clear goals - to increase page views per user, for example - and will be judged a success or failure accordingly. The question of whether or not it is 'sharp' will not enter the equation.
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Thought-provoking piece by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times about the pitfalls of blogging. The key insight is that the more anonymous we are to each other, the less considerate we are likely to be. Many bloggers simply refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem with the tone of much online debate; I think they're wrong, for the reasons set out in Appleyard's piece.

The dominant convention on the web is for users to adopt pseudonyms, so much so that it is actually quite rare to see someone posting under their real name. Why is this? Partly, I suspect, because the web was initially, and still is to some degree, a male-dominated phenomenon and blokes like nicknames (think of rappers, graffiti artists, sportsmen, musicians such as Sting and Bono). Another factor is the desire to create a different identity from the quotidien, workaday self. Nor should we forget people who need to be anonymous because they are blogging critically about repressive regimes or, simply, about their employers.

Newspapers rarely print anonymous or pseudonymous pieces and there is a reason for this. In readers' eyes, anonymity (unless for clearly understood reasons such as personal safety) detracts from the authority of the article. Also, the more I read articles by Bryan Appleyard or any other journalist, the more I understand his view of the world, his principles and prejudices, so the the more I get out of each piece I read. From the other side of the fence, most journalists are keen, for reasons of ego and career progression, to see their names - their real names - in print as frequently, and is as large type, as possible.

So I think Appleyard is right. What's true of print should be true online. The only way the Web is going to develop into a mature medium is if most people, most of the time, are prepared to acknowledge and take responsibility for what they write.
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The call for the NUJ boycott of Israel has become worldwide news and has, in some quarters, been seen as a manifestation of media bias against Israel and Jews generally. I think this is wrong, not least because only 66 members of a union of 40,000 voted for the motion. Granted they were delegates who spoke for their branches but I suspect in few cases had members specifically discussed this motion.

The NUJ itself has issued a statement on the vote and it is pretty clear that the leadership is embarrassed and frustrated by the motion and is virtually begging members to overturn it.

Leigh in the comments on my earlier post argues passionately and coherently in favour of the ban. I still disagree with him. Yes, the NUJ passed motions condemning China and Russia but there was no call for a boycott of their goods. This isn't a trivial distinction - it's quite right for a journalists' union to note and condemn breaches of press freedom. Calling for a boycott is something quite different (and even Israel's opponents acknowledge that it has a free and vigorous press).

Israel has done things that deserve criticism but I don't believe that Leigh's comparison with apartheid South Africa holds water. If the NUJ really thinks it should be in the business of boycotts, there are many, many countries more deserving of this treatment than Israel.

Personally, though, I think that, whatever we may think of a particular regime, journalists have a duty to engage with it and tell the truth about it, rather than turning our backs.

Leigh also argues that unions that take strong 'stands on international issues are more likely to defend members vigorously. I'm not convinced. The Israel motion has distracted attention from the good work the NUJ has been doing on low pay, contract work and so on. That hasn't helped underpaid, hard-pressed journalists.
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Martin Stabe links to Paul Bradshaw who reports that the NUJ is to investigate profits in the new-media sector, with a view to ensuring that journalists get a fair slice of the cake.

The money generated from internet advertising is going up in leaps and bounds. Yet, as Martin says, some publishers continue to plead that it is hard to make money out of the weband use this as an excuse to underpay journalists.

However, I think this is starting to change. Having spent the last few months recruiting web journalists, I've been struck by how few there are with experience and talent and how many businesses are pursuing them. I think this is going to start pushing salaries up quite sharply.

In print journalism it is precisely the opposite story. There is a massive oversupply of eager young graduates desperate for a job and employers are learning, even on national titles, that they can use this pool of talent to hold wages down.

If I was a young journalist looking for my first or second job, I'd certainly be looking online.
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So here's my union, the NUJ, voting to boycott Israel. A few thoughts:

1. How feeble and irrelevant. What difference will it make to anything?

2. The motion was passed on a vote of 66 to 54 out of a union of some 40,000 people. Democratic?

2. Why does a journalists' union need to have a foreign policy? How is it going to help low-paid journalists, or help deal with the transition from print to new media - the two issues that, quite rightly, are key planks of NUJ policy?

3. If the union does need a foreign policy, why is it singling out Israel for criticism while, as far as I can tell, having nothing to say about China, Sudan, Egypt, Iran, Cuba, Russia or any other regime where human rights are trampled underfoot? I'm generally resistant to the view that anti-semitism is alive and well in Left-wing politics, but sometimes I wonder.

3. Why do I bother belonging to a union that feels the need for this sort of pathetic, student-union posturing?

Ironically, as the NUJ is voting to boycott Israel, the Palestinian journalists' union has been boycotting its own government and presidency in protest at its failure to act to free Alan Johnston, the kidnapped BBC journalist.


The NUJ has spoken up strongly on the Alan Johnston case but the minority who voted to boycott Israel might want to consider the difference between the Palestinian journalists' act of principled solidarity and their own pissy political posturing.

Some reaction

Israel Matzav: Britain's National Union of Journalists votes to boycott Israel
Toby Harnden
Martin Stabe
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Tonight on the News at Ten, an item on CCTV cameras soundtracked to "Stars of CCTV" by Hard-Fi. When did the BBC start doing this? Why?
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In the circles in which I move the prevailing view is that tabloid journalists are dimwitted and amoral, while those working on broadsheets are clever and sophisticated, and those who work on the Guardian are the cleverest and most sophisticated of all, as well as being highly moral, too. All a bit irritating, to me at least, since I worked on a tabloid for a few years - and I've met a fair few Guardian journalists so I know what they're really like.

Anyway, in this interview Piers Morgan does his bit to redress the matter, making Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger look foolish and morally rather compromised, and all that without really touching on the Marina Hyde issue.

Oh, and has losing weight improved Alan Rusbridger's sex life? As with most of the questions put to Rusbridger, we will never know the answer.

Oddly, I can see nothing about any of this in Media Guardian.

*Yes, I know the Guardian isn't a broadsheet any more.
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The BBC is running an old picture of Patrick Moore on its front page today. This is what he looked like. I remember watching him in the Sixties but I don't recall him looking so fiercely impressive.

Looking at the picture I was reminded of another figure from my TV youth, Lord Charles (that's him on the left).

Could they possibly be related?
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Tonight's BBC News at 10 had a report on the legacy of the slave trade in Britain by Clive Myrie. Every so often during the report there was a bit of atmospheric jazzy saxophone and some bluesy piano, as if we were watching a feature film or a drama series. Backing music on the news? I know the BBC is trying to be more accessible but isn't it all a bit, well, dumb?

I mean, where do you stop? A blast of gangsta rap when Huw Edwards reports on a black-on-black shooting? The theme from Top Gun, when our boys go into action in Iraq? Money, Money, Money when Robert Peston comments on the Budget?
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BBC AND 9/11

I don't believe the many 9/11 conspiracy theories that float about the Web. However, this video is truly startling

It shows BBC coverage of 9/11 with a reporter announcing that the Salomon Brothers building at Ground Zero had collapsed. Thing is, the building is clearly visible over her shoulder as she speaks. Even odder is that the transmission is cut after a few minutes - apparently this was the moment that the building really did fall.

The theory that underpins this is that the building was brought down in a controlled explosion, that the BBC was warned in advance and somehow broadcast the news before it happened. It's part of a greater theory that says that 9/11 was a conspiracy on the part of the US government to make us go to war in Iraq or something.

Anyway, the noise about this video has reached such a level that the BBC has been forced to respond on its editors blog, first in this piece by Richard Porter, head of BBC World news. I have to say that, even to a confirmed anti-conspiracist like myself, he was not entirely convincing.

"Our reporter Jane Standley was in New York on the day of the attacks, and like everyone who was there, has the events seared on her mind. I've spoken to her today and unsurprisingly, she doesn't remember minute-by-minute what she said or did - like everybody else that day she was trying to make sense of what she was seeing; what she was being told; and what was being told to her by colleagues in London who were monitoring feeds and wires services.

We no longer have the original tapes of our 9/11 coverage (for reasons of cock-up, not conspiracy). So if someone has got a recording of our output, I'd love to get hold of it. We do have the tapes for our sister channel News 24, but they don't help clear up the issue one way or another."

So he had a second go. And this time, to me at least, he was a great deal more convincing, painting a picture of confusion, rumour, and a sort of chinese whispers in which a report that a building may be about to collapse became a statement that it had already fallen. I was working in a newspaper newsroom on 9/11 and I vividly recall the shock and confusion of the day and the difficulty of making sense of it all - and we weren't having to report in real time. So I'm inclined to trust the BBC's account, though I don't for a minute suppose that it will silence the conspiracists.
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Roy Greenslade reports on an interesting debate about comments on blogs and articles.

"During my City University lecture on Monday I was extolling the joys of participation between journalists and readers in the new digital environment when several hands went up. The students were amazed at my largely benign view of the opportunity the net has provided for people to post comments on newspaper websites.

A couple of them who had worked for the online sections at The Guardian and The Times reported that hundreds of commenters sent in abusive messages that they found revolting. Aside from the vulgar stuff, they also thought many of the contributions wholly inappropriate, offering nothing of value, whether to the paper or to the audience. Many simply abused other commenters, trading increasingly infantile tit-for-tat insults for hours on end."

All true, of course. Even sensible, serious blogs such as the excellent Harry's Place can get swamped by commenters who are gratuitously rude, obsessed with single issues (eg Israel, the Muslims) to the point of tedium and simply won't shut up.

It is tedious and depressing and, as Greenslade points out, creates a significant problem for site owners.

"Now Shane Richmond, communities editor with telegraph.co.uk, has touched on the same problem. He was recently warned about the burden faced by the BBC in moderating millions of comments every day. So, he asks, why moderate at all? First reason: the legal risk of unmoderated comments. He explains: "As a publisher we are legally responsible for what appears on our site. We can argue that we don't read the posts, or that we always remove things when a complaint is made or publish a disclaimer denying responsibility for the content of the posts but, though those may mitigate against damages, we can't dictate our own liability."

But he concedes that "moderation is a burden, and a costly one." Then again, the costs of non moderating could, potentially, be higher still in the case of defamation. He quotes Jeff Jarvis, who has argued: "Libels laws are outmoded and increasingly dangerous, for they threaten to chill and silence the voice of the public."

But he also quotes media lawyer David Price who says: "You are liable for what is being published, so the only responsible thing to do is read the comments before they are published.""

There is a divergence of views about this among online publishers, some of whom have received legal advice that 'notice and takedown' is sufficient to remove any legal liability. I guess the courts will decide at some point. But premoderation, as advocated by David Price, can be costly and time-consuming; it also has a deadening effect on the speed and spontaneity of online debate.

Greenslade has a sensible suggestion - make commenters post using their real names. I've never really understood the online tradition of using a pseudonym and I'm sure anonymity contributes to the abuse and triviality that infests so many comments boxes.

My hope is that this is simply a phase that a relatively new medium is going through and that over time, the stupid and offensive comments will start to melt away. My fear is of a series of expensive lawsuits for large online publishers, that will make them think twice about the point of having comments boxes at all. The ability to debate with other users is one of the internet's great virtues, and something that sets it apart from other media; let's not chuck it away.
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Andrew Turnbull, the former senior civil servant who gave Gordon Brown a kicking in the FT today, is embarrassed. Not surprising, really, since he has in the past deplored civil servants who make critical comments about politicians, yet he now finds himself all over the news for accusing Gordon Brown of "Stalinism". What he meant was"Gordon is a bit of a control freak" rather than "Gordon killed millions of his political enemies": for some reason Stalinism seems to be an acceptable term in the lexicon of political criticism and is tossed around quite lightly by people who would never dream of accusing someone of fascism or being like Hitler.

Anyway, Turnbull's defence/excuse is that he thought he was speaking "off the record" but this is a dangerous game, as he has discovered. For one thing, there is confusion about what "off the record" actually means. Does it signify that your quotes will be published but attributed to, say, "a senior former civil servant", "a former colleague of the Chancellor" or "a source close to the Treasury" or similar - sometimes described as an 'unattributed quote'? Or does it mean that the quotes will not be published but the views you have expressed will find their way into the piece in the form of a sentence such as: "Some who have worked closely with the Chancellor argue that he has control-freak tendencies, with some even going so far as to accuse him of "Stalinism""? Or does it mean that the views will simply form part of the writer's own thinking in sentences such as "In some of Brown's decisions, it is possible to detect a kind of arrogance or disdain for the views of others" - the sort of thing that is sometimes described as 'background'?
The point is that journalist and subject may have completely different ideas about how "off-the-record" comments may be used. Confusion sometimes arises, too, when interviewees try to specify that some parts of an interview are off the record and others on.

In any case, "off the record" depends on trust between interviewer and interviewee. A journalist presented with a juicy quote off the record may simply decide that the story is too good to pass on and publish the quote, fully attributed. I've no idea if that is what happened in the Turnbull/FT case but I have known other instances. In the recent case of the murders of Ipswich prostitutes, the BBC discovered that it had recorded an interview with one of the main suspects. Though this seemed to have been recorded for background, rather than broadcast, the BBC took the view, once the man had been arrested, that it should put the interview on air, which added to the speculation about the man involved (who subsequently was not charged).

So going off the record, like going off piste, is a tricky business and it is for this reason that media trainers and PR people often drum into interviewees that "there is no such thing as off the record" - in other words, don't trust journalists. Good advice.

However, what the Turnbull incident also highlights is how mealy-mouthed, dull and politically correct are the pronouncements of just about everyone in public life nowadays. Having been on both sides of the fence, as a journalist and as a spokesman, I know how company PR people launder every statement to rinse it of any controversy. So when you get a genuine, unspun, reaction from a senior figure such as Turnbull, saying what he really thinks, it is refreshing but, sadly, very, very rare.
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The Government has announced that the digital TV switchover will begin in October, whereupon old-style analogue sets will become redundant. It also re-iterates that the taxpayer will cough up so that people over 75 get digital boxes fitted for free. Why, though? Free electricity, water, gas or even food, I could understand but TV is hardly a necessity to life or a basic human right. Why should the government hand it out free of charge?
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In September 2005 the Guardian was proudly trumpeting that its circulation was over 400,000 for the first time in two or three years, following its shift to the Berliner, small-size format.

Nearly a year and a half later official circulation figures, published today, reveal that the paper's sale has fallen to 364,491 - a drop of 10 per cent since the Berliner relaunch, leaving the paper barely 100,000 a head of the Independent, its far less well resourced rival.

The Guardian sunk £80m into the Berliner format, the brainchild of its editor Alan Rusbridger, and hopes were high that this would kickstart sales. Clearly it has failed and losses at the group are running at £50m a year.

Its internet operation, Guardianunlimited, is doing well in terms of traffic and audience but is still some way from breaking even and it is doubtless playing its part in chipping away at the paper's readership. A loyal buyer of the Guardian is in commercial terms worth about ten users of the website, so each Guardian buyer who deserts the paper for the net is costing the Guardian Media Group dear.

Little wonder that the Guardian has decided that drastic action is necessary, with redundancies threatened. This will be a big shock to Guardian journalists who, rather like civil servants, have put up with relatively poor pay in return for job security and perks such as a nine-day fortnight. The Guardian is pitching all this as a bold advance into the digital age, but it looks more like old-fashioned downsizing to me.
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Tory back-bencher Patrick Mercer speaks his brains on racism in the army. What's astonishing is how blithely unaware he was that 95 per cent of the population would find his words repugnant.

No doubt the Tories are knee-deep in spin doctors and media training but some things you simply can't change.

Update (1) commenter Daniel Pendike has taken umbrage at my 95% figure: having read some of the comment on blogs, messageboards about the Mercer case, I'm inclined to believe that he may be right

Update (2) A friend has pointed out to me that Patrick Mercer and I attended the same school, at around the same time, although he is older than I am. I don't remember him but there were a lot of self-confident posh boys there who joined the Officer Training Corps. I wonder if Col Mercer was among them?
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Transfer rumour stories are a staple of sports pages yet, as any fan knows, the ratio of fact to speculation is tiny. Most fans take these tales with a large pinch of salt and enjoy them simply as tittle-tattle and rumour. Newspapers tend to treat them in the same light and don't always require very high standards of proof for a "Player X is considering joining Club Y" tale.

In fact, though, a story claiming that someone is secretly negotiating to breach the terms of their contract of employment (which is basically what a lot of these tales amount to) could be highly defamatory.

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard has just won damages against a sports website that falsely alleged that he was considering a move to Real Madrid. It's the first such case that I am aware of. I've no idea how much checking the reporter who wrote the story did but, if other players follow Gerrard's lead, sports pages could become speculation-free zones.

As a fan, I think that would be a shame. But I can see Gerrard's point of view in all this. Why should anyone have to sit by while journalists write untrue stories effectively labelling them as disloyal?
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The BBC reports that the Attorney-General has obtained an injunction against BBC News, preventing it from broadcasting a story about the cash-for-honours enquiry. What is the story? Nick Robinson, the BBC political editor, cannot say, for fear of going to jail.

Guido Fawkes, an assiduous cheerleader for Deputy Chief Constable Yates, who has led the enquiry, claims it has to do with an incriminating email - the 'smoking gun'.

Blogger prisonlawinsideout claims, on what authority I do not know, that the email incriminates Ruth Turner. On the other hand, Iain Dale, who claims to know the identity of the person in question, has tagged his post 'Lord Levy' - leading some commenters to draw certain conclusions.

I have only two observations on all this.

1 However much the A-G seeks to keep the story, whatever it is, quiet, he will fail. It will be all over the Web in a week.

2 The verb from injunction is not 'injunct'; it is 'enjoin'. So the BBC has not been injuncted, it has been enjoined.
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