Oh dear, Andrew Marr…

I don’t tend to respond to this sort of thing, but this one pressed several of my buttons.

The so-called “citizen journalists” will never offer a real replacement to newspapers and television news, he told Cheltenham Literature Festival.

He said: “Most citizen journalism strikes me as nothing to do with journalism at all.

A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting. They are very angry people.”


First point – the irony of Marr insulting people due to the appearance of physical features attached to their heads is hard to ignore.

Second – I’m no particular fan of journalism as a profession, especially given all the bleating about it that goes on in the mainstream media. Journalists write stuff down. There really isn’t that much that’s special about it. Lots of people can do it, and they are doing so. Get over it.

Thirdly, bloggers are angry ranters, are they? Has Marr read any of the columns that appear in newspapers every day of the week? Is he entirely unaware of the filth peddled by the likes of Jan Moir on a regular basis?

Finally, and the bit that really gets my goat: the lazy assumption that people who like computers are weird, scabby losers that hang out in their bedrooms all day long. I’ve said it before, but the fact that wearing ignorance of technology as a badge of honour is still acceptable these days is a disgrace, and it’s the sort of tosh that Marr is trotting out here that only encourages it.

“Angry rant” over.

Moronic reporting of non issues

Take a look at this story, excitingly titled on the BBC News site “Council Twitter users face rebuke“.

Councillors in Cornwall could face being reported to the authority’s standards committee for using social networking sites.

The trouble is, no they’re not.

Later in the article:

It follows claims that a number of councillors used Twitter during a meeting and mocked other members.

If a councillor is found to breach the code of conduct for inappropriate comments, they could be suspended.

So this is about councillors saying naughty things, and not about them using Twitter, or whatever.

Another example of the easy fixation on technology as being the story, when it isn’t. The story is behaviour: people and the relationships they have with others.

We really don’t need anymore Twitter scare stories, it isn’t productive and it helps nobody.

Are video games art?

John Lanchester is quickly becoming my favourite contributor to the London Review of Books. So much of his writing is both accessible and informative. This issue he looks at computer games:

From the economic point of view, this was the year video games overtook music and video, combined, in the UK. The industries’ respective share of the take is forecast to be £4.64 billion and £4.46 billion. (For purposes of comparison, UK book publishers’ total turnover in 2007 was £4.1 billion.) As a rule, economic shifts of this kind take a while to register on the cultural seismometer; and indeed, from the broader cultural point of view, video games barely exist. The newspapers cover the movies extensively, and while it isn’t necessary to feel that they do all that great a job of it, there’s no denying that they have a try. Video games by contrast are consigned to the nerdy margins of the papers, and are pretty much invisible in broadcast media. Video-game fans return the favour: they constitute the demographic group least likely to pay attention to newspapers and are increasingly uninterested in the ‘MSM’, or mainstream media.

Rewriting the rules

John Naughton‘s Observer column on ten years of blogging is a delightful read:

This openness to immediate criticism and/or rebuttal is another revolutionary aspect of blogging. What we are seeing, wrote Clay Shirky some years ago (available online at http://bit.ly/fkxik), is nothing less than the ‘mass amateurisation of publishing’. What’s happening is a radical shift from the old ecosystem in which publications (newspapers, magazines and books) are filtered and edited before being published, into a world in which anything can be (and is) published.

All that remains is for English departments in universities to start studying blogging styles, for example the way in which accomplished online writers use hyperlinks. If you read the work of established bloggers or contributors to slick online publications such as Salon or Slate what you see is a move from having hyperlinks clumsily embedded in a document to the use of links to provide an ironic counterpoint to the main line of the piece. It’s all very, er, postmodern. But what do you expect? It is 2008.

Theo Tait on Gordon Burn

Nice, longish essay in the LRB this issue, by Theo Tait on Gordon Burn’s Born Yesterday which I have written about now and again.

A more unified and organised book would have excluded many of Born Yesterday’s highlights: the brilliant description, for example, of Kate Middleton being hit simultaneously by a paparazzi ambush and a hailstorm, outside Tesco Local on the King’s Road: ‘It was like Kate Middleton’s appearance on the street was the cue for special effects to turn the rain machine on, for the music to be brought up high and the smokers, taciturn and sullen to that point, to become animated into a jostling crowd scene.’ Quoting selectively doesn’t do justice to a bravura five-page passage that works by its accretion of big ideas and weird local detail. The writing is often relentless and incantatory, but it is also sharp-eyed and full of vivid particularity. Here is David Beckham appealing on TV for information about Madeleine, ‘holding up a picture captioned with the single word desaparecida’: ‘the broad diamond-encrusted ring, the buffed pearl-cuticled nails, the big fuck-off watch’. It’s good to see the British novel, or whatever Born Yesterday is, showing a bit of experimental swagger. From time to time, I even found myself excitedly wondering whether Gordon Burn hadn’t written a sort of Waste Land for the rolling news era.

Nick Davies at Wolfson College

John Naughton links to an event taking place in Cambridge on 19th May:

Nick Davies, a well-known and award-winning investigative journalist, has recently published Flat Earth News, a controversial and highly-critical analysis of the British news media in which he argues that the business of truth has been “slowly subverted by the mass production of ignorance”. The book examines national news stories which, Davies argues, “turn out to be pseudo events manufactured by the PR industry and the global news stories which prove to be fiction generated by a new machinery of international propaganda.” With the help of researchers from Cardiff University, who ran a detailed analysis of the contents and sources for our daily news, Davies found that “most reporters most of the time are not allowed to dig up stories or check their facts”, leading him to describe UK journalism as “a profession corrupted at the core”. In the book, he also presents a new model for understanding news.

I’ll be there – anyone else?

The real value of Flickr

Having an iPhone has really liberated me in term of the way that I use Flickr. This would be true of any phone with decent internet connectivity, and indeed there are plenty of handsets out there with better camera functionality than the iPhone. But the ability to easily take a picture and upload it to Flickr via email in a matter of seconds is fantastic – like this, which I took in Chipping Norton yesterday:

Church at chipping norton

This has led me to have a bit of a wonder about Flickr and where the value of it lies. One thing Flickr does brilliantly is to create a community of photographers, from amateurs through to seasoned professionals, who discuss one another’s photos and chat about lenses, resolutions and whatnot.

But Flickr has another community too – people out on the streets with cameraphones, who don’t really care about the angles of the shots they are taking, wh just want to capture the moment and share it online. Such users can easily find themselves at the forefront of important events, thrust into the role of citizen journalist.

These two communities exist side-by-side rather well, despite the fact that they are using the same service for quite different purposes. Which is more important to Flickr, I wonder – and which to society?

Flat Earth News

Flat Earth NewsI am currently reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, which focuses on journalism and news and how the profession is failing in its duty to protect and disseminate the truth. This isn’t, Davies claims, because of a some moral failing on the part of journalists, nor out of commercial pressure, or indeed interference from proprietors. Instead, Davies points the finger at the way in which stories are promulgated across the media as a result of a lack of fact checking and a desire to cover breaking news regardless of whether or not it is actually verifiable.

The first example Davies provides is that of the millennium bug. Before the turn of the century, significant numbers of column inches were dedicated to describing the disasters and calamities that would befall society if nothing were done about it. But in truth, the actual number of systems affected by the bug were minimal:

…the problem would only occur in computers which had internal clocks (most desktop computers do, but most ’embedded’ systems, on which big organisations rely, don’t), but only if those clocks calculated time by using a calendar rather than by simply measuring the gap between two dates, and only if those calendars used only two digits to register the years, rather than four, and only if the computer was being used for programs which had to calculate time across the boundary between 1999 and 2000.

Needless to say, there weren’t many such systems around, and at the dawn of the new millennium, there were no planes falling from the sky, nor riots destroying our streets. The story had spread because the actual likely dangers were exaggerated by the various sources that the journalists were relying on, and those sources were not necessarily acting in a malicious way. Firstly, the IT security experts exaggerated the risk so that people would listen to them and take the issue seriously. From this, parties with an interest in the issue added to the noise: office managers seeking upgrades to their systems used the millennium bug as an excuse; governments overreacted so a not to appear as taking the nation’s security lightly. Then the third wave of opinion started to be voiced: those who had no clue what they were talking about at all.

This cacophony is self perpetuating, until some point where the truth becomes self-evident, and in this case that point was 1 January 2000, when nothing happened. Davies gives other examples too: the rumours around Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and the furore surrounding the prescription of heroin by British doctors. In the latter case, this can be seen to have had some serious consequences for society.

I’m interested in seeing what Davies comes up with in terms of explanations as to why journalists appear to be so compliant with this. Reviews of the book mentioned issues such as the demands of time and resources leading to a over-reliance on wire copy and a reluctance to fact-check. The rolling 24/7 news agenda must have some bearing on this with news TV channels demanding constant big stories and breaking updates and this is also true now of print journalists who provide content for news websites as well as for the print editions.

Does the use of social media tools by citizen journalists help or hinder the journalist profession in it’s pursuit of the truth? In many ways the influence is a negative one – bloggers have no requirement to meet any kind of professional standards and can publish more or less what they like – there is no Blogging Complaints Commission for example. This means that stories can get some air before they reach the traditional news media, giving them a life that they might not otherwise have got.

But that’s just one side of the coin. Citizen journalists can also get the truth out quicker, even when the mainstream media is pushing a different line. And while the authors of blogs might not necessarily always write the truth, it’s far harder for the majority of folk to falsify photographic or video social reporting (ok, so there is always Photoshop, and the equivalents for video editing, but the numbers of people who can produce convincing falsification are few and far between).

I mentioned in a previous post that perhaps a role for the professional journalist in the networked society might be in turning the fragments produced by the social reporters, the citizen journalists, into cohesive wholes, by taking a perspective a bit wider than the folk in the street with their camera phones who are providing the building blocks of the truth that in turn provide the journalists with the authenticity their stories need.

There is a Flat Earth News site with further information, extracts etc. It runs on Drupal!

Update: Just found this Guardian podcast featuring an interview with Davies. Well worth a listen.

BBC blogging

Interesting re-post of an article that appeared in the BBC’s in-house magazine Ariel by Rory Cellan-Jones on the issues around the launch of the various blogs written by BBC journalists:

It strikes me the initial concerns were twofold – that nobody would be interested in our blogs so they would be a waste of a correspondent’s effort, and that they would threaten our impartiality. But the blogs have attracted plenty of readers – Robert Peston’s Peston’s Picks gets a million page views a month – and they’ve done that without descending to the opinionated, loudmouthed knockabout which was previously seen as the prerequisite for success in this arena.

What blogging does allow a broadcaster to do is to cover stories that would never make it onto the airwaves, and, in my case, to engage with a different and very knowledgeable audience. Mind you, that’s bound to be a minority audience and the danger is they become a distraction from the job of reaching the mass of licence-fee payers. Alf Hermida suggests that the BBC bloggers need to do even more to have a conversation with these people – I think there are risks in getting too involved.

Are these issues peculiar to the BBC, I wonder, or indeed peculiar to journalism?

It’s Eeeasy

John Naughton’s Observer column is required reading. Today he casts his eye on the Asus Eee PC:

Besides, the limitations of Mark I ought not to blind us to its significance – which is the cruel way it highlights the baroque complexity of conventional computing machines with their bloated operating systems, security problems, flaky hard drives, overheating processors and overweight chassis. Some day, our great-grandchildren will marvel that the industry once standardised on software that required its users to press the ‘Start’ button when they wished to stop their machine. Especially when all we really needed was a life-support system for a browser.