About Me

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

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.
Read more

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.
Read more

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.
Read more

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.
Read more

"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?

Read more

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.
Read more

Rod Liddle in the Spectator wittily points up the BBC's unspoken cultural and political assumptions.
Read more

"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.
Read more

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.
Read more

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.)
Read more

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.
Read more

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?
Read more

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.
Read more

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.)
Read more

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.
Read more

(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.
Read more

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.
Read more

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.
Read more

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.
Read more