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

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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RUDE AND POINTLESS COMMENTS

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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ON OR OFF THE RECORD?

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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TV ON THE RATES

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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TROUBLE AT T'GUARDIAN

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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NEW TORIES?

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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TITTLE-TATTLE, BRIAN
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 HAS NOT BEEN INJUNCTED

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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