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October 30, 2007

Cameras in court

It’s against the law to make a recording of something that happens in court.

These numpties didn’t appear to get the memo.

What’s really stupid about the recording – which could land the camera-owner themselves in court – is that it doesn’t even show anything.

It makes you wonder what it’d be like if British courts allowed proper cameras in. The nightmare situation is something like the O.J. Simpson trial or Louise Woodward.

And I can just imagine news channels broadcasting images from court 24/7. I can’t think of anything more dull.

Having said that, I wonder if still images of defendants would be good. Perhaps they could only be released at the end of a case, and reflect their reaction to the guilty/not guilty verdict. It’d give the media something to salivate over for a while, without really putting witnesses etc. in the spotlight.

Some courts have allowed live transcripts to be provided at the end of big cases – perhaps that too should become possible for any case.

The video on YouTube might be the first breach of the contempt laws so far, but when everyone’s got a cameraphone, you can bet it probably won’t be the last. And next time, they might actually know what they’re doing.

September 25, 2007

Foot in Mouth

I spent most of yesterday next to a field waiting to see if a herd of cattle had foot and mouth.

I kept a safe distance from the herd in question as a) I didn’t want to help spread the disease and b) cows are scary buggers.

Not everyone followed this idea though. I never thought I’d see a member of the Great British paparazzi running down a hill to snatch a close-up of a cow. But I did.

Unfortunately for the dippy girl, she was spotted by a farmer and did a quick run back up the hill towards her car, expensive camera in tow.

Despite being a fellow hack, I did kind of hope she’d be gently maimed by the farmer’s shotgun. The stupid woman deserved it.

June 27, 2007

Not the best day to launch an exciting new product.

BBC iPlayer That, there on the right, is possibly the most highly anticipated bit of technology this year. Screw the iPhone. That, there, is the BBC iPlayer, and it’s going online a month today. It’s about to make every VCR completely redundant.

It looks like the ad slogan will be “Make the unmissable unmissable”, which is pretty good.

Shame they picked today to announce the date though.

June 12, 2007

Blair: Media is 'a feral beast'

Alastair Campbell The media is threatening politicians’ “capacity to take the right decisions for the country”. Modern media means that reports are “driven by impact”. The relationship between the media and politics has been “damaged”.

Blair’s back in cuckoo land. His first statement assumes that politicians always know what the right decisions are. The second one is a joke when you consider how the Alastair Campbells of this world have timed announcements for maximum impact. And finally, politicians are equally to blame for the damaged relationship.

Contrary to popular belief, there wasn’t a snap change overnight in May 1997. The Thatcher era expanded the divide between reporters and the reported. But 24-hour news did make a difference. It led to constant analysis of decisions, so that the cooling-down period offered by the newspapers’ life-cycle was destroyed. The new diversity of media sources also made a difference. There is now an outlet for every viewpoint, however extreme or forthright.

But the preferential treatment and spinning dealt out by New Labour put unbearable pressure on the always difficult relationship between journalists and politicians.

It’s right that journalism should ask challenging questions of the powerful. In its perfect form, journalism is the voice of the people, although in practice it only sometimes achieves that aim. But Tony Blair and co took these challenges as a personal slight.

It is the way in which modern politicians react to the modern media which has damaged the relationship between the two.

June 11, 2007

I'm a Journalist, Get Me Out of Here!!!

A reality TV show in the States is to give a swimwear model a job as a TV journalist and see how she gets on. She’ll start by anchoring the main news bulletin tonight.

[Insert predictable joke about Natasha Kaplinsky]

Locals are up in arms about the affront to their local broadcaster’s integrity. But then this is a news station that apparently has “Stormy the Weather Dog” every day. I think the integrity boat has set sail.

Perhaps the show will reveal how hard it is to be a journalist. I might even give it the benefit of the doubt if it was a British show. But I’ve seen loads of American TV shows before. They’re going to make the locals look stupid, the job look easy, and the swimwear model look like Ed Murrow.

But if you’ve seen local TV news in the States before, you’ll realise that not even a bikini-clad model can dumb down the news.

Only some people will find this funny, but the model’s name is Lauren Jones. I kid you not.

May 10, 2007

'This is the greatest nation on earth'

Britain I can tell you what a number of newspaper op-ed pieces will ask over the next few days: Is this the greatest nation on earth?

Tony Blair says it is. And he says we know it, and the rest of the world knows it too. It’s a grand statement, unlike anything he’s ever really said before. And unlike anything most of us have said before.

You wonder if he’s been caught up in the euphoria of leaving one of politics’ great offices, knowing there’s more chance of him getting a Sainthood than becoming UN Secretary General.

But you also find yourself wondering if he’s right. We’re not a nation for posturing. “We’re best” almost seems to be an unfashionable, American motto, but it’s not a notion the British are very comfortable with. A Kiwi colleague of mine laughed when he heard Blair say it. No-one in the room defended our PM. But no-one vocally disagreed with him either.

New Zealand and Canada are two countries who always seem to be in with a shout of being a ‘nicer’ nation than Britain. Given the cultural and language similarities, many of us have probably thought for at least ten seconds about moving there for a while.

And you can hardly blame many of them for thinking they’re better than us. Just look at Johnny Foreigner – our ambassador in T-shirt and shorts, wearing sandals with socks on, and drinking a can of Stella in countries where they actually brew their own lager.

Weakening our claim for ‘best nation’ status is our lack of nationalism. The Union Jack has been hijacked by racists, our cultural institutions seem to acknowledge their continental equivalents are superior, and few of us seem to know what it means to be British.

It’s ironic that Blair believes we’re the best, when if most people were asked, they’d probably say it was he who had made it worse. But outside of politics, is there much that is completely and deep-seatedly wrong?

We are, perhaps, the most upwardly mobile nation on the Earth, and yet few of us try to leave, to try bigger and better things than Britain alone can offer. Is that lack of imagination or satisfaction with what we’ve got?

It’s unnaturally patriotic for most Britons to suggest, but is it true? Is ours the greatest nation on earth?

I’m not sure. But I know I wouldn’t want to leave.

Hmm… I wonder

Writing about web page

At 9.12am, I wonder to myself: “I wonder if the Guardian will use today to change the ten-year old look of their website…”

At 9.13am, I wonder to myself if I’m psychic.

May 08, 2007

The news after Virginia

At 7.15am, Seung-Hui Cho walked into Emily Hilscher’s room and shot her and another student dead with a semi-automatic handgun. He then walked across the Virginia Tech campus to post a parcel to the New York offices of NBC, post-marked 9.01am. Inside was his ‘multimedia manifesto’. He then murdered another thirty people, before killing himself.

Even during the most appalling atrocity, the perpetrator found time to contribute to news bulletins around the world and make himself a star. Even after they asked ethical questions of the material – Should we show it? When should we show it? – most news organisations showed the tape. Even while dead, the killer took the credit, and offended the victims’ families even more.

It’s probable no-one has questioned the benefits of the modern news more than those families.

Cho’s video was a clear sign of the times. Broadcasters now compete for user-generated material, each keen to better reflect their audiences and imbue a sense of belonging with one outlet rather than another.

Not all of the material broadcasters use is sent to them directly. During the Virginia shootings, broadcasters relied on social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube for first-hand accounts of what was happening.

Media commentator Jeff Jarvis believes that the role of the journalist in the event of breaking news is to ‘link’ between reports, some of them from newswires, many from the public. But does this require more skill or less? Jarvis suggests that in time, citizen journalists will be capable of broadcasting live to the internet. Under what circumstances would broadcasters use this material live?

These changes set the scene for rolling news channels to become news aggregators. As the number of potential news feeds grows to include every person on every street, the role of the traditional broadcaster might be little more than to choose between them, rather like the now-unpopular concept of users choosing ‘alternate angles’ on a DVD. Bulletins, in turn, might become the place for a ‘best of’ compilation of the day’s best bits, with senior journalists behaving as ‘analysts’ of the day’s events rather than ‘reporters’. The appointment of Roger Harribin as BBC News’ Environment Analyst symbolises the trend.

Many traditions continue though. Hundreds of satellite trucks rolled into the Virginia Tech campus, transporting news anchors to the heart of the story. As much as the public wants to see every angle, every nugget of information, from every source, they also want it packaged together by someone that they trust.

But where does all of this leave the investigative story? The citizen journalist doesn’t have the resources to investigate the news in any depth, and is less likely to check their facts properly. Political blogger Guido Fawkes has found this out the hard way after suggesting the BBC’s political editor was one of his sources, when he was anything but.

CNN has been most explicit in its wooing of potential citizen journalists. Its ‘i-Report’ project has received hundreds of videos and photos from viewers who want to be on the cable news channel. The project’s TV trailer boasts of how you can say “I-Report for CNN”.

Many students at Virginia Tech did just that, sending in many of the most iconic images of the media ‘event’. But in the days that followed the tragedy, families and friends grew increasingly tired of the media’s gaze. Psychologists spooled through every frame of Cho’s words, and the relative anonymity of the internet was invaded as the media sought to ‘cover’ people’s emotions.

But it seems there are lines that still can’t be crossed.

Viewers expect quality as well as quantity. Few would be comfortable with the intrusion that the media’s stare brings, and audiences seem to rebel against invasion of privacy almost as often as the victims of it. And surveys of viewers’ opinions often suggest they want more foreign affairs, suggesting that they tune in to learn about the unknown rather than to hear about the mundane. It is up to editors to mediate between what people say they want, and what they actually expect.

When participatory politics is little more than a concept in a textbook, participatory media should be a good thing for society. Except neither broadcasters nor viewers quite know the parameters of this dialogue yet. Only through events such as the Virginia shootings is this new relationship being tested to its limits. And based on the evidence from Virginia Tech, broadcasters need to proceed with great caution. An unfortunate slip, and they could easily lose the trust of the audiences they pursue.

April 10, 2007

NY Times outdoing the broadcasters at their own game?

In a piece of video-journalism entitled ‘Anatomy of a Firefight’ C.J. Chivers of the New York Times shows up the typical 2007 television news bulletin for what it is: Froth.

Alastair Leithead, the BBC’s correspondent based in Kabul, has occasionally been given free rein to show what the war in Afghanistan is really about, most notably in a brilliant Panorama programme. But not regularly. And not properly within one of the BBC’s main news bulletins. These programmes, with the infrequent exception of the 10 O’clock News, only really treat Afghanistan as a news story when it affects the fortunes of British politicians and troops.

And yet on a daily basis there are fascinating stories coming out of the country, such as this day-in-the-life piece done by a newspaper journalist for the New York Times. I’ve seen C.J. Chivers’ work before, and it’s really good, both as a video and a written feature. It’s the sort of thing which television viewers should see much more often in Britain, but won’t while the bulletins remain so formulaic, nervous and ‘safe’.

By Tyler Hicks of the NY Times. Members of an Afghan squad and a Dutch platoon took fire from the Taliban insurgents in Uruzgan Province, an isolated area of Afghanistan.

March 26, 2007

Don't work with children or animals… or politicians.

Phew… They say you shouldn’t work with kids or animals in television, but I’d recommend avoiding politicians too. It’s not that they run around uncontrollably or piss on the studio floor, but they’re a bit of a chain around your neck. What would have been a fairly flexible deadline is suddenly made precise by having a few demanding egos in the room.

We’ve been recording a Question Time programme with participants from Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems and Plaid, and things started going badly when the Labour person pulled out about six hours before filming. Three hours of phoning later and we had a stand-in.

We were running predictably late, and started filming at the last possible moment. One candidate was having a nervous relationship with their wrist-watch. As soon as we were done with filming the main take, they got up, even though we needed them to sit and film a couple of inserts. Nope, not gonna happen, it seems. Politician has somewhere else to be.

Later it turned out that they could just about hear our talkback system, meaning anything I was saying in the gallery was getting through to them. Er… right. That’s the presenter’s prompts? The questions being read in advance? The lines of attack? And presumably it included the derogatory comments from the gallery as well then?

Live telly. Pain. In. The. Arse.

March 07, 2007

Dodgy phone–ins are more widespread than you think

Q. Name an item typically found in a woman’s handbag?
A. Rawl plugs, a balaclava and a rubber band!

This is the public face of the dodgy phone-in competition. You pay £1 per call and get to beat your head against a wall while attempting to win £50 or the £50,000 jackpot! The jackpot will probably be won if your birthday happens to be February 29th.

But the scam of dodgy phone-ins and competitions goes much further than recent revelations have suggested. Daily, radio stations are hosting competitions where the winner’s already been decided. Phone-ins that have been recorded the previous week. And contributors who are little more than actors.

Proof is hard to come by, and relies on anecdotes of people who have won competitions weeks before they were broadcast – and weeks before people were asked to call in and ‘play’.

It’s just as prevalent at the BBC as in the commercial world, even though they can’t make money from phone lines. Well-known radio shows use fake guests, play competitions that were won the week before and make ‘real-life’ features which are completely faked. Shows are often pre-recorded, yet they’ll still ask for your e-mails and then read out manufactured ones.

I can’t prove this, and it seems no-one else can either. The contempt of producers towards their audience will continue, and only an industry ‘supergrass’ will ever be able to do anything about it.

But when you get asked to phone in to a radio or TV show, ask yourself first whether you trust the people making the programme. Because worryingly often, you shouldn’t.

March 05, 2007

Politics, 1921–style

How times have changed (or not):

[Winston Churchill] then, and subsequently, delivered himself of a number of well-phrased and semi-contradictory aphorisms. “The British government is the greatest Moslem state in the world,” he said at the time, “and it is well disposed to the Arabs and cherishes their friendship.” Then, three months later, he told a Manchester cotton audience: “In Africa, the population is docile and the country fruitful; in Mesopotamia and the Middle East the country is arid, and the population ferocious.”1

You could get away with a lot before broadcast news was invented. It makes you wonder whether, under relatively constant scrutiny, Blair et al are doomed to fail.

1. Churchill by Roy Jenkins, p.360

February 20, 2007

OFCOM: Capitalism at its stoopidest


They lurve ‘market forces’. They like auctioning off radio spectrum to the highest bidder and “letting the market decide”. It doesn’t quite work like that, of course. If Rupert Murdoch wanted to launch an unprofitable right-wing opinion station, he could. And he could outbid anyone. But OFCOM wouldn’t care that much, because “the market” would have decided.

Well now they’ve outshone themselves.

They want to auction off the spectrum currently used by those nasty socialist theatre performers and broadcasters. They tend not to make a profit, so rather than bleed them dry, OFCOM’s just going to make life really hard for them.

You see, radio microphones use the spectrum inbetween other channels. They don’t take up much space, but OFCOM doesn’t mind that, because they’re just worried that the commies are getting away with something for free.

They’d quite like to auction that small bit of space off to mobile phone companies or broadcasters. Even though it would make virtually every theatre production in the country practically unworkable.

They’ve already said they won’t ring-fence any space for High Definition TV services on Freeview. Instead we’ll have to pay – you guessed it – Rupert Murdoch for the privilege of shiny picture quality on our TV sets.

OFCOM’s policy on “letting the market decide” is complete madness. Hopefully even they’ll see sense on this one and realise that theatre companies aren’t going to pay millions of pounds for a tiny bit of the radio spectrum.

January 05, 2007

Music takes one step forward, two steps back

From this Sunday, ‘old’ tracks will be eligible for the Official Singles Chart, meaning a return to the Top 10 for tracks released over six months ago.

Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars was released in August 2006, but is still going strong online. In fact, with the ‘new rules’ it’s expected to return to the Top 10 this Sunday.

If the rules had been in place before Christmas, Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas (Is You) would have been in the Top 10, as would an ancient Proclaimers track.

So let’s get this straight a minute…

The charts have been lying to us all this time! What was in the charts has only been what was deemed (by someone) ‘new’ music.

When was it decided Snow Patrol was no longer new? (Stop sniggering at the back!).

January 03, 2007

Fixing politics, and journalism at the same time

In the leafy autumn of 2004, Boris Johnson found himself at the eye of a storm. The Conservative Vice-Chairman was sacked for lying about his personal life. Now in recent years it has not been an unusual story for politicians to be caught with their trousers down. But Johnson had a safety net in the form of the profession that had brought him down. As Editor of the Spectator magazine, he was both victim and potential attacker.

Boris JohnsonMr Johnson is, thankfully, a special case in British politics. But the relationship between predator and prey is a timelessly complex one, often involving a little subterfuge, deception, and a politics all of its own. The press spit scorn at those who are supposed to run the country, and the politicians fight back with a flurry of spin and bluster. And while sometimes fun for those involved, many argue it has turned off people who aren’t in on the joke.

The 2004 Phillis Report was supposed to provide cures to politics’ ills. It recommended the end of the closed lobby system and drew a line under the years of ‘spin’. But three years after its publication, the report seems to have had little effect. Its critics say it underestimated the usefulness of the system’s faults.

The former Political Editor of the Evening Standard, Charles Reiss, contributed to the report. But he believes the existing system served the purposes of both politicians and journalists, and so was unlikely to change.

“Off-the-record information is a part of journalism in every country you care to name. It’s certainly true in America. Although [American journalism] is praised in some respects, you will often find sensitive stories attributed to a ‘senior Administration official’.”

Reiss agrees with the report’s findings: that ‘nasty’ politics has brought about atrocious levels of public trust in both politics and the media. Research for the report suggests that Members of Parliament are trusted by just 19% of the public, while Journalists are trusted by 13%.

But he disagrees with its recommendations. While Phillis proposed changes to systems – such as the closed lobby – Reiss thinks a change in culture is the only way to improve things. The Andrew Neil school of “why is this bastard lying to me” journalism isn’t sufficient for painting a true picture of government, he says.

When it was released, others rounded on the report’s proposals. David Miller of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom said it “sounded the death knell for government information as a public service”. He said the report was full of praise for “PR-speak”, ripped page-for-page from the corporate world.

The former BBC correspondent Nicholas Jones said it “presented a lifeline” to the beleaguered Prime Minister and put upon him no real pressure to treat the media fairly.

Nicholas JonesThere have been changes. Even the online political rebel, Guido Fawkes, can now attend the briefings given by the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman. And Tony Blair himself gives a televised briefing once a month, laying himself open to Westminster’s finest.

And yet the levels of trust in the process have remained low. According to MORI, who monitor trust in public institutions on an annual basis, politicians are trusted by the same number of people now as during the darkest days of Tony Blair’s government. Journalists’ ratings have also stayed the same.

The amount of trust in British politics is almost identical to that in every other major country. But the 2005 Harris Interactive poll showed journalists were much less respected here than they are elsewhere. In Spain and France, three in five people trust reporters. In Germany, the figure is two in five. In Britain however, it is just one in five. So perhaps the breakdown of trust is the result of bad journalism?

The Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, thinks so.

“Journalists are driven by deadline dynamics, by getting things out on time. If you’re turning out a fast-paced, attractive newspaper, there’s going to be hyperbole and exaggeration, and I’m afraid people are quite properly going to say ‘this is very amusing, but I don’t believe a word of it’.”

Charles Reiss admits that journalists work on a “razor’s edge”. Stories have to be taken as far as they can legitimately go without crossing the line and entering into speculation and guesswork. Clearly it doesn’t always work and mistakes are made. But it seems the razor isn’t sharp enough to tempt journalists back from the edge.

So while Phillis has – with limited success – addressed how politicians can earn the public’s trust again, a similar investigation may be required in order to foster better reporting by political journalists.

Perhaps the uniquely-qualified Boris Johnson should chair it.

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