Free! to the South West


My local area has its own experiment with the Free! model. Bristol 24-7 is a free-to-read online news portal, set up and operated by Chris Brown, and he’s just reported his first run-in with his print media rivals:

In a nutshell, [The Bristol Evening Post] insisted that I could not rewrite its content and publish it on my site, even with a credit in the first paragraph and a link back to the original source on its website. A particularly amusing complaint considering newspapers up and down the country have passed off re-writes as their own for years.

If you came into Paperhouse before May this year, then you know that I’ve had my concerns about the newsgathering and reporting techniques of, not the BEP specifically, but its sister papers in the region, so I’ve got a bit of sympathy with Brown’s dig here. Meanwhile, the Evening Post’s attempt to defend itself from competition by preventing other websites from summarising and linking to its contents (a technique that’s recently been given a speculative legal outing in the States) is simply asinine, entirely missing the operation of the link economy online and stretching copyright to the point of smashing discussion. Brown:

My reply to them was that if they really felt they had no need of free publicity from sites such as mine, which aims to provide people with a full range of news from ALL sources, then that was fine. I would in future take their own stories on myself, adding new angles and better balance of the issues, but would have no obligation to credit them as the original source. The fact is though is that I will continue to do that anyway, because I feel it is more honest and gives readers the chance to decide for themselves on the validity of what they are being presented.

Their attitude was not surprising, but goes to the heart of why the business of producing news is suffering so much in the internet age. My opinion is: you cannot ‘own’ news. […]

And yet – news isn’t just a thing awaiting discovery, out there where anyone can see it. It takes time, skill, funds and resources to make a good story – fixed costs that can’t be digitised out of existence – and as Brown rises to his Free! theme, it starts to sound as though he’s thought through every expense involved in news production and distribution, apart from the actual journalism:

On Wednesday, I went to listen to Chris Anderson from Wired magazine in the US speak at a Festival of Ideas evening at @Bristol. The main point I took was that in the old economy of producing “stuff” – material goods – the costs inevitably rose year on year. But in the digital age the same pattern is repeating in reverse, the cost of producing digital material and content is falling year on year.

What this means for journalists – and the people who still, I believe, want to read the news of what is happening in their community – is that the ability and costs to spread this news is falling closer and closer to zero. And this takes the power of “ownership” out of the hands of traditional news suppliers. We do not have to rely on them to find out what is happening in our city.

That is how it should be. News was never meant to be owned in a democracy. It is about what happens to us and the people around us. And we are free to share it as far and wide as we can.

Like Phil Chamberlain, I appreciate that Bristol 24-7 hasn’t launched itself on a slurry on unpaid interns. But for all the inspiring talk of democracy and freedom, what it actually seems able to offer is a long way short of the sort of detailed scrutiny that could earn those terms – and unless it begins to see “new angles and better balance of the issues” as essential parts of reporting rather than the optional extras that let you carry off someone else’s story, it’s hard to feel hopeful for the 24-7 vision of the future.

© Sarah Ditum 2009


Newswipe, episode 4 on iPlayer (until 15 April 2009)

This week, Charlie does the reporting of the G20 protests, which during the live feeds actually comes out pretty balanced. Buffoonish (there’s a quote in there from Tony Benn, asking Sky News why they weren’t broadcasting the speeches so viewers could understand what people were actually, you know, protesting about), but giving an even hand to the aggressive flare-ups and the largely peaceful majority. In the bulletin reports, the standout images of bleeding heads and breaking glass took precedence and gave the impression that over-heated predictions of rioting had been realised. But this mass coverage did nothing in the way of explaining events overall, or capturing the biggest story of the day:

And here’s the irony: at a public event granted absolute saturation coverage, with all the press photographers, live feed images, Skycopters, preposterous Skyboats and all, the news had missed perhaps the most important image of the day. In the end, it took some old-fashioned investigative reporting and member of the public to bring this image to the nation’s attention: some disturbing footage of a man being pushed over by the police. Shortly after, he died of a heart attack.

(That was Wednesday. As of yesterday, we know that Ian Tomlinson’s death was a bit more complicated than that, and there are two other similar cases now being looked at by the IPCC.) I like Truman Capote’s crack about the beat poets – that they were typing, not writing. And 24-hour news coverage is just broadcasting, not reporting.

Broken bloggers

The big blogger story of the weekend isn’t interesting because it shows that online communications are crucial to UK politics (obviously they are), or because it shows a freakishly self-destructive willingness in Labour staffers to experiment with badly-handled smear tactics (although it’s astonishing that this was done so badly), or because it showed how itchy the media are for a good story to stick it to Labour (that’s four days now that the news has been preoccupied with not just a smear but a meta-smear).

Anyway, the thing that’s interesting about the story, which is actually a pretty petty, depressing and self-involved bit of Westminster toss – and anyway, was anyone actually thinking of voting Labour even before this came out? I’m considering moving into Vince Cable’s constituency as I can’t think of anyone else I could bear to stick an X on. The thing, anyway, that stops this stupid story from being totally, irredeemably nothingish is that between themselves, Draper and Guido have pretty much consummated what Adam Curtis said about blogging in this interview with The Register:

First of all, the people who do blogging, for example, are self-selecting. Quite frankly it’s quite clear that what bloggers are is bullies. The internet has removed a lot of constraints on them. You know what they’re like: they’re deeply emotional, they’re bullies, and they often don’t get out enough. And they are parasitic upon already existing sources of information – they do little research of their own.

What then happens is this idea of the ‘hive mind’, instead of leading to a new plurality or a new richness, leads to a growing simplicity. The bloggers from one side act to try to force mainstream media one way, the others try to force it the other way. So what the mainstream media ends up doing is it nervously tries to steer a course between these polarised extremes.

So you end up with a rigid, simplified view of the world, which is negotiated by mainstream media in response to the bullying extremities. Far from being “the wisdom of crowds”, it’s the stupidity of crowds. Collectively what we are doing is creating a more simplified world.

Discrediting Nadine Dorries shouldn’t require unsubstantiated slurs. It should be sufficient to say that she’s incompetent with evidence, ideologially driven and weirdly prickly about democracy. But that’s the opportunity cost of this sort of politics: there’s no place to discuss ideas or policy or capability, only insult and counter-insult. Fucking blogosphere.


Newswipe, episode 3 on iPlayer (until 15 April 2009)

This one felt a little looser and less urgent than the first two: maybe the madness of Fox News is too astonishing on its own to leave room for the sharp analysis Brooker built up around citizen journalism and rolling news. Even so, Brooker gives the smartest take on how the news is put together and consumed, and this week the end-of-the-half-hour highlight was an Adam Curtis short film.

It reprises several themes from Curtis’ previous documentaries about the problems inherent in using television journalism as a way of interpreting the world. Audiences and journalists have deserted the disection of complex political and social issues because that’s, well, a bit dull – and embraced instead an emotive interpretation, championing innocent and heroic individuals in the face of monolithic and impersonal ‘systems’. By Curtis’s reckoning, this trope was born in the 1960s counterculture, came of age in the 80s with Live Aid, flourished in the 90s as a replacement for the east-vs-west certainties of the Cold War, and then foundered painfully on the complexities of the Rwandan genocide:

This simple battle between good and evil couldn’t last. But it finally cracked back where is first began, in Africa. In 1994 the Hutus massacred millions of Tutsis in Rwanda. In the wake of the massacre, millions of refugees flooded into the Cogo. Western aid workers and television crews also flooded in, to help the ‘innocent’ victims. But they soon discovered that many of them weren’t innocent at all – they were the ‘evil’ Hutus who killed millions of the Tutsis.

Then, the Tutsis invaded the camps to get their revenge. But instead of behaving like good victims, they too carried out terrible massacres, and a horrific war began in which four-and-a-half million people died, and everyone was evil – even the children.

And that had a terrible effect on television news. Because when there weren’t any good or innocent people to support any longer, the kind of news reporting invented in the 90s made no sense. Because the news had given up reporting them as political struggles, it meant there was now no way to understand why these terrible events were happening, and instead, political conflicts around the world – from Darfur to Gaza – were now portrayed to us as simple illustrations of the mindless cruelty of the human race about which nothing could be done and to which the only response is to say, “oh dear”.

Obviously, this is a rangy thesis to carry off in six-and-a-bit minutes. Curtis manages it because, well, he’s Adam Curtis and no one turns out a well-constructed video essay like he does – and because the broad generalisation feels broadly right. Political causes that can’t be explained with three brightly coloured arrows don’t make it onto the television, and the consequently rootless portrayal of struggle and suffering doesn’t inspire any sense that systems can be altered or lives saved: what’s left is a grisly parade of disasters and no idea of what to do about them.



Newswipe, episode 2 on iPlayer (until 8 April 2009)

This week, Charlie Brooker found something interesting to say about a topic I’d given up: I was as sad about Jade Goody as I would be about anyone I was peripherally aware of going through something agonisingly tragic, I wasn’t perplexed by the coverage (she invited it, it sold), and while it made me a bit uncomfortable, it didn’t send me into giddy horrors at the unimaginable depravity of everyone else.

Brooker, obviously, goes a bit better than my dillentante blogging:

Throughout the depressing blanket coverage, Jade was repeatedly referred to as a “star of reality TV”, which she was – although it’s more accurate to say she was a star of reality TV and news. After all, in her final weeks, taken accumulatively, she made far more appearances on the front pages and in news broadcasts than on her Living TV specials. […] In the end, Jade Goody died on the biggest reality show going: not Big Brother or some Living TV special, but the news. After all, with its jaunty titles and its easy hate figures, its selective storytelling and its stupid viewer votes, it’s a hairsbreadth from being a multi-platform I’m A Celebrity spin-off.

Brooker’s always been sharp on the idea that reality TV viewers (including him) are responding to the editing and not the actual people. But the with factual TV adopting the narrative and editorial structures of reality TV’s semi-fiction, viewers respond to real events – like the death of a young mother-of-two – as if they were the fabrications of the editing suite. Which they sort of are.

A story like the Jade one is a grotesque feedback loop: the editors follow the story because they presume the readers are interested, the publicity drives interest and becomes a story in itself, and viewers and readers respond with extremes of emotion, from vomitously sympathetic to gorily inhumane, while interest in analysis or investigation is driven out by the perpetual gush of feeling. And that’s how the news gets made.

Self-destruction and self-regulation

Earlier this week, I was blogging about the reporting of suicide. This weekend, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column is a much more thorough treatment of the same subject. On the 20 November last year, many UK newspapers carried a story taken from the Press Association about a death by suicide. Complaints were lodged with the PCC against 14 of these papers; 12 complaints were upheld; one of the reports found against was in the Telegraph, and this is the one Goldacre writes about:

“Man cut off own head with chainsaw” was the headline: “A man cut off his head with a chainsaw because he did not want to leave his repossessed home.” What followed this headline was not a news story: far from it. What the Telegraph published was a horrific, comprehensive, explicit, and detailed instruction manual.

In fact this information was so appallingly technical and instructive that after some discussion we have decided that the Guardian will not print it, even in the context of a critique. It gives truly staggering details on exactly what to buy, how to rig it up, how to use it, and even how to make things more comfortable while waiting for death to come.

I’ve read the article: if I was contemplating suicide and looking for a method, I now know everything necessary to copy this example. By the PCC’s own guidelines, it should never have been published. According to the PCC’s judgement, I shouldn’t be able to read it now:

[The Telegraph] suspended the article from its website following the contact from the PCC.

Which is funny, because I took this screengrab today (handbook bits blacked out):

Screengrab 28 March 2009

So, to review this cascade of twattery: the PCC has guidelines on how suicide should be reported. These guidelines were ignored in 12 cases. The PCC was especially critical of the manner in which the Telegraph‘s online article breached the code, and “expected that the situation would not be repeated”. Two months later, the material is still there and still extravagently explicit. Excellent self regulation there. Fearsome and authoritative as ever.

In the comments thread on the Bad Science blog, this was quickly dragged into freedom of speech bickering. “Freedom speech is not a zero sum game”, said one exasperated commentator: “Free speech and freedom of information is not freedom to shout about it.” This story could have been a news-in-brief. It could have excluded all the detailed instruction derived from the coroner’s report. It could have followed The Samaritans’ simple guidelines for reporting suicide in the least damaging way possible.

Not only did it fail on every particular, but the online article goes on to make things astonishingly worse. Have a look on the left at the “related articles” box: if death-by-chainsaw doesn’t appeal, a thoughtful Telegraph sub (or handy algorithm) has picked out five more power-tool and self-destruction related stories. How about making an exit via wild herbs? Hanging? Seriously, your suicide method could be just a click away, and the Telegraph‘s editorial policy is apparently to make sure you’ve got every detail you need to clinch your own fatality.



Newswipe, episode 1 on iPlayer (until 1 April 2009)

I got a Private Eye subscription for Christmas. The biggest perk of being an Eye subscriber is having cancellation as the ultimate threat if they do something I really dislike, so obviously ever since January I’ve been looking out for something to inspire a tart letter and a stopped direct debit. And handily,  it turns out that I do think the Eye is flagging a bit.

They didn’t feature anything about the Dunblane story in the last issue. It looked like they swiped the Glen Jenvey story from Bloggerheads without crediting it (unforgiveable really when the Ad Nauseum column makes so much play of calling out advertisers who thieve from Youtube). They did a parody of Steven Fry’s lift tweets that misunderstood the @ tags, and consequently totally overlooked the usefulness of Twitter as a tool for spreading information. As a media watchdog they look badly outpaced by the internet, the takedown of churnalism in Flat Earth News was more comprehensive than the Eye‘s fortnightly digs, and however doggedly they refuse to do a proper online version, the classified pages definitely look less packed than they used to.

I’m not cancelling my sub yet, but I’m only holding out until Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe becomes a rolling service. Last night’s show was purgingly funny and properly revelatory – especially the big finish about reporting mass murders. It’s sickening to see Dr Park Dietz’s comments juxtaposed with the news footage that explicitly ignores his advice. Don’t cut the story as a drama. Don’t cast the killer as an anti-hero. Don’t give blanket coverage to massacres… oh no, they already did.

The degree to which new reporting ignores its own role in making stories while asking “why?”  is obscene: newspapers did exactly the same over the Bridgend suicides, grimly demanding an explanation for all the deaths while they made front-page heroes of the deceased and publicised the methods used. (“Look, all your friends are doing it, and we’ll even show you how!”) There’s actually a set of guidelines in place for reporting suicides that should prevent that sort of covert incitement – and good luck to you getting some compensation out of the PCC for the loss of a loved one. These stories are the definition of self-sustaining flat earth news, and you’d hope that when people are actually dying the media would notice that it’s doing something wrong.