In which I do data journalism about Eurovision

Eurovision InfographicI did some actual proper data journalism for my employers at MSN on the Eurovision Song Contest. The main result of it all was this massive infographic about voting patterns and stuff, which is basically excellent – the below is an extra, UK-only add on that I did at the last minute…

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Is the UK unfairly treated by the voting public of Eurovision? Is Britain hampered by simply having better taste than our European cousins? Or is it possible – just possible – that we actually perform badly because our songs just aren’t that good? Well, there’s a fairly simple way to test whether the UK’s Eurovision entries are unfairly overlooked by a European public who care more about regional politics than quality songs: look at whether or not the British public thought the songs were good enough to bother buying them.

If you do that over the past fifteen years (since phone voting was introduced to Eurovision), there’s quite a clear pattern that emerges: the UK’s performance in Eurovision does seem to track the songs’ performance in the UK charts. Rather than being treated unfairly by the Eurovision voters, we seem to broadly agree with them – when Europe thinks a song is an improvement on last year’s, more of us also buy it. And when we don’t bother shelling out our hard earned money for the track, the people of Europe can’t be bothered to vote for it either.

There are a couple of years where the trends diverge (1999 and 2007) and a stretch of years in the mid-2000s where all our Eurovision entries were reliable Top Twenty chart entries while underperforming in the contest – but whether you look at the number of points we get or our final ranking, the pattern mostly holds up.

And it’s worth noting that in the past 15 years, we’ve never had a Eurovision entry that made it higher than number 5 in the UK charts (Scooch in 2007 had that distinction), while poor Josh Dubovie in 2010 only limped into the chart at 179. Sweden’s winner last year, by contrast, was a huge number one hit all across Europe, and reached number 3 in the UK. The lesson’s fairly clear – the UK doesn’t really get a raw deal in Eurovision. If we want to do better with Europe’s voters, a good start is entering a song that we like.
Eurovision UK position

Eurovision UK points

Cabinetmakers

I don’t know if this is my favourite thing Roger Ebert ever wrote (he was far too good at waspish put-downs of the latest misbegotten turkey, and it’s hard to resist a kicking being delivered with calm efficiency by a master of the trade), but it’s a simple reflection on storytelling so precisely correct and expressed with such humanity that I keep coming back to it, referring to it repeatedly, even in contexts nothing to do with film.

It’s from his review of Brokeback Mountain, a film that I liked plenty as I watched it in the screening – admiring Heath Ledger’s performance, feeling sad in all the right places – but which then crept up and gut-punched me fifteen minutes after I’d left the cinema, leaving me wiping away tears in the street. The bold text is mine.

“Brokeback Mountain” could tell its story and not necessarily be a great movie. It could be a melodrama. It could be a “gay cowboy movie.” But the filmmakers have focused so intently and with such feeling on Jack and Ennis that the movie is as observant as work by Bergman. Strange but true: The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.

The fact that this is itself a very specific observation that flows into a general truth is, of course, delightful. The man was a hell of a writer, but he was an even better watcher. Which is a rare skill in itself.

You can’t regulate people into being nice

This is a horrible, horrible front page. It’s the kind of thing that provokes either blind rage or despairing sighs, that’s so wilfully stupid and cruel it single-handedly seems to undo a hundred other acts of good journalism from everywhere else. It will provoke outrage, and probably petitions, and maybe letters to advertisers and boycotts.

But it’s not something that would be solved by better press regulation.

Daily Mail Mick Philpott front page

Plenty of people seem to think that it would be – that it’s an example of why the British press needs to be reined in, why Leveson was so urgently needed, and so on. But the simple truth is that unless you’re willing to go full Turkmenistan with your press regulation, you’ll struggle to come up with any form of code that this abhorrent drivel would actually breach.

Where does it overstep the regulatory mark? Inaccuracy? As far as I can tell, there isn’t anything untruthful here, just cherry-picked facts plus an opinion. Intrusion into grief? This is no more intrusive than any other front page reporting on the case (all of which included willingly-given statements from the families involved). Using that specific picture? Plenty of other news outlets used the same image responsibly – and in any case, would blaming these deaths on the welfare state have been any less poisonous had it just used a picture of Philpott alone?

So, what then? Attacking the children, the victims of crime? As much as it’s easy enough to read in the sneering implications of the Mail’s tone – “Look at them all,” it seems to say, “worthless Kyle-spawned scroungers-in-waiting. No great loss.” – nothing on the page actually says that. If you’re going to start regulating newspapers on the basis of what people think they’re implying, just remember how many people see undisguised anti-semitism dripping from virtually every report the Guardian does on Israel (insert your own example of unfair over-interpretation here). Humans are at actually pretty dreadful at correctly intuiting others’ thoughts and intentions; “We all know what you really meant” is a terrifying standard to be held up to.

Fundamentally, the question is: who are you protecting from harm? Is it a third party group – other people who recieve social security? That’d be a tough case to make, given they’re never mentioned on the front page (the welfare state is; its beneficiaries are not). Yes, this comes in the context of widespread misinformation about and demonisation of those on benefits, and no doubt some readers will come away from it with an unfairly worsened opinion of benefits recipients as a class, both of which have negative effects in the real world. But you can’t punish publications on the basis of what happens beyond the page. People could come away from reading The Times thinking that Hugo Rifkind is sending them coded messages (HI HUGO), but that doesn’t mean they or their actions are his responsibility; meanwhile the context argument is fundamentally no different to “you can’t say things like that when there’s a war on terror going on”, and other such nonsense.

Ultimately, it’s the system that the Mail is (crazily, unfairly) criticising here. So… is that what you’re planning to regulate out of existence? Stories which suggest that specific reprehensible acts are symptomatic of social and economic systems that (in the publication’s opinion) enable and reward the worst forms of behaviour from sociopathic individuals and, more broadly, cause a degree of moral degredation in identifiable groups of the wider population? Congratulations, you’ve just written the Bankers, Oligarchs & Capitalism (Protection From Criticism) Act 2013.

Seriously, if you’ve got a plan for how you can regulate away front pages like this without also taking out plenty of legitimate and valuable journalism, tell us what it is. I’d be genuinely interested to hear, even if I probably wouldn’t agree with it. But remember that a plan based on “I don’t like this, but I do like the other stuff” is not a very good plan, because it probably won’t be you who ends up making that decision. And realise that when journalists pointed out that press regulation is really, really hard to get right and still won’t solve all your problems, stuff like this is exactly what we meant.

Grumpy Leveson run-on-sentence swearblogging

Censor Cat

So. Yes. In the least shocking news since the religious affiliation of the new Pope, it turns out that the great British press regulation debate had delivered us an incoherent, ill-considered bollockstorm of jauntily medieval pseudo-legislation, hashed out in the shit-Twitter hours of the night by a group of self-interested bastards whose level of sleep-deprived derangement would be terrifying even if they weren’t already partly composed of Oliver Letwin.

Reaction to this has veered between the triumphal and the self-immolating, but if there’s one clear message from the whole pissabout that everybody agrees on, it’s this: if there’s anything about it you don’t like, it’s definitely somebody else’s fault.

The most blameless of the blameless, of course, was my team: the great British press, as we took time out of our busy schedule of calling for sick filth to be banned to adopt our rightful mantle as crusaders for freedom of speech. No opportunity was lost to remind a grateful nation that we are consistently extremely brave and Fearless – god we love that word – and that we boldly speak truth to power; a self-description only slightly undermined by the fact that we’re currently acting like a bunch of screeching hysterics who have night terrors about being oppressed by Nick Clegg, and that our deeply courageous attitude towards taking responsibility for the manifold sins dredged up by Leveson is to claim that a big kid did it and ran away.

And our political class clearly must have done a likewise excellent job, judging by the way they’ve all been tripping over each other taking multiple laps of honour. In an age of pragmatism politics, it was nice to see an issue that came down to timeless points of principle; there was definitely a principle in there somewhere, and our political leaders made sure we all saw them chasing after it with the forthright determination of kittens chasing a laser pointer around the Ming vase section of the British Museum.

You could, in fairness, have seen it coming a mile off; two miles with a telephoto lens. Lines were being frantically drawn in the sand since before the Lord Justice had even decided a font for his report, or Mr. Jay had slipped his jewel-encrusted fighting thesaurus from its holster, and everybody’s fervour and commitment to apocalyptic hyperbole only increased once the bloody thing actually came out. It reached a point where the two sides didn’t even seem to inhabit a shared reality; you began to wonder if Leveson had secretly put out two entirely contradictory versions of his report, for the lulz.

On one side, the Nothing Less Than Full Implementation of Leveson crowd, a position that sounded terribly reasonable until you thought about it a bit and realised that it was stark staring batshit. The Leveson report is over a thousand pages long. If I was asked to write a report over a thousand pages long, and then read it back two weeks later, I wouldn’t agree with 10% of what I wrote, minimum. I mean, it wouldn’t even have to be a report on something complicated like press regulation. I could be writing a thousand page report on what kind of crisps I like, I’d still start disagreeing with myself about McCoy’s, and fretting over whether Monster Munch were covered by my definition of “crisps”. The idea that somebody who isn’t even me would agree with 100% of it quickly ploughs through the realm of the implausible, and heads into you’re-wearing-my-clothes, oh-shit-have-you-made-a-shrine-to-me-in-your-bedroom creepiness.

On the other side, we had those who would soberly nod in agreement that, well, yes, everybody accepts that the PCC wasn’t fit for purpose and needed to be replaced – just, you know, not with anything that anybody actually suggested. No, not that. Definitely not that. Not that either.

They were adamant that they would stand up to the grave threat of Leveson-crazed politicians trying to censor the press – ignoring the fact that none of the things that were really, properly dangerous about it had anything to do with politicians actually trying to censor the press. Exemplary damages; Leveson’s data protection and Pace proposals; the fact that right from the off the whole process regarded the internet rather like the pre-monolith apes in 2001 regarded bones: these things don’t do their damage with the quiet stroke of the censor’s pen, but with the drunk, horny elephant of not thinking things through properly. But talking about those wasn’t as much fun as taking a righteous stand against incipient dictatorship, because sweet Christ, journalists (and by “journalists” you understand I mostly mean “columnists”) do love portraying themselves as the noble heroes of their own epic narratives.

Eventually, the whole thing reached peak twat with Labour’s hijacking of the (thankfully now reprieved, although not yet revived) libel reform legislation – an issue of clear and urgent public interest, with a consensus across the political spectrum, worked into carefully-considered law with due scrutiny and consideration of evidence. For three years, imperfect as it was, libel reform had been a rare example of how our political system should work; at the last minute, it just became another example of how our political system does work.

Press regulation was another opportunity to do it right; a delicate balancing act, prone to awkward incentives and unintended consequences, where both the devils and the angels would lie in the details. There were sensible, moderate voices that could have been listened to. But nope. Instead we got the traditional binary battle of who could shout loudest and stupidest, one tribe dismissing anyone raising concerns as an agent of the great demon Murdoch, the other tribe photoshopping pig snouts onto actor’s faces and calling their opponents Mussolini. At every possible moment, too many of us – pro-Leveson, anti-Leveson, pricks like me who were too diffident to pipe up until it was too late – chose the path of maximum fuckwittery.

Sometimes, our systems work close to how we’d wish, and we get the good legislation we deserve. Other times, despite our efforts, something breaks, and we get crappy laws that we don’t deserve. And then there’s times like this – when, if we honestly look at ourselves in the chill grey light of morning, we’ll realise that the half-arsed, retrograde, solve-nothing governance we’ve ended up with is pretty much exactly what we deserve.

“Freeloaders”

I had an unnerving experience while reading Caitlin Moran’s Times column today about the internet and free culture – namely, I thought she was wrong. Now, obviously, Caitlin Moran isn’t allowed to be wrong about things. It upsets the natural order; it’s like the world has been thrown off its axis. Up is down, black is white, cats are marrying dogs, Toploader were a good band. And so on.

The thrust of the article is the pretty widespread belief that the internet has, in effect, deranged us: it’s led us to expect everything for free, to the point where we refuse to pay for the art and the journalism we used to pay for; and that by letting ourselves become freeloaders, we’re screwing ourselves and our future, because the only people who’ll be left doing art and journalism will be those from wealthy enough backgrounds that they don’t need to worry about being paid. Because, as she says,

…there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no such thing as a free internet. I liked the old system we used to have – where, if you wanted something, you paid for it.

Now: I am a huge, huge fan of people who create things earning a living from it. I am also a huge, huge fan of giving my money to people who create things I like, or to the corporations that enable them to create – as evidenced by the fact that I’ve spent most of today trying to do just that, even though ITUNES IS A COMPLETE DICK that keeps moaning on about “unkown errors” when ALL I WANT TO DO IS WATCH THE AVENGERS. If I’d pirated it, I’d be on the post-credits sequence by now, but I won’t do that because I believe Joss Whedon deserves nice things in his life. And, crucially, I’m not alone in this – the claim that the internet is busily laying waste the creative industries doesn’t really hold true.

In the article, Caitlin says that “the music industry has shrunk 40 per cent since 1999″, which is something of a zombie statistic. As far as I can tell, it’s traced back to a mis-labeled chart from a report by analysts Bain & Co (Mitt Romney’s old stomping ground). Actually, that’s not the global music industry turnover – it’s the US recorded music industry turnover (as the corrected report now makes clear). Yes, revenues from recorded music alone have declined by about that much, in the US and the UK alike, albeit from a historically unnatural peak – but the music industry as a whole is actually doing pretty bloody well. The industry has only collapsed if you only look at one single form of revenue stream, for the large record companies that were traditionally the gatekeepers for the whole music industry, but aren’t any more.

The idea that, because of the internet, people just want stuff for free and won’t pay for it is simply wrong; as Mike Masnick’s The Sky Is Rising study points out, US household expenditure on entertainment grew by 15% as a proportion of income between 2000 and 2008. The number of actual transactions in the recorded music industry has almost doubled since 2000. People are buying cheaper recorded music, certainly, but it’s hardly evidence that the population has developed a sudden allergy to the act of paying. Despite piracy, the film industry is growing – worldwide box office rose from $26billion in 2006 to $32billion in 2010. Despite piracy, the games industry is exploding – the amount we’ve spent on gaming around the world has more than tripled in the past decade . We haven’t turned into a society of cheapskates – we’re sluicing our money at an ever-increasing rate towards creators.

That’s not to suggest everything’s peachy. Some particular businesses and business models (often based on a historically temporary and somewhat artificial scarcity) have been screwed hard by the newly negligible costs of replicating and transmitting information, and that’s been traumatic for large numbers of people affected by it. But blaming it on people becoming “freeloaders” is not just over-simplifying the issue, it’s untrue and unfair.

The idea that the internet is a big, confusing magnet messing with our moral compass also comes up when she discusses punishing pirates – but again, I’m not sure it’s a fair charge:

When the Government proposed prosecuting illegal downloading, and punishing it with internet disconnection, a lobbying group called FAC (Featured Artists Coalition) campaigned against it – “It would reduce the civil liberties of every one of us in the country.”

But how? How is not having access to the internet, because you have committed a crime there, any different to not having access to, say, a library, because you committed a crime there? The internet isn’t a necessity. It’s wholly thrilling and brilliant and useful – most of the time, I’d rather spend an afternoon there than, say, Bath – but it’s not a right to be able to use it.

Because, for pedantic starters, it isn’t a crime. Because the internet is increasingly central not just to where we have fun, but to where we do all the tedious, necessary bits of our lives – it’s where we work, we bank, we pay our bills, we stay informed. It’s where we live. Because the level of intrusion and surveillance of everybody’s private actions in order to detect supposed pirates, and the knock-on effect for other individuals and businesses, was out of proportion to the problem. Because the standard of proof, and the quality of evidence, involved in “convicting” people for it would not have met any of the standards we demand for just punishment to be served. Because this was an actual policy, not a metaphor, and policy-by-metaphor is a terrible idea. Those who opposed it, by-and-large, weren’t objecting to the metaphor; they were objecting to the actual details of what it meant in the real world, because those are the bits that actually cause harm.

A lot of the article echoes something that Moran said during her book launch at the Bloomsbury Theatre a week or so ago, about her support for The Times’ paywall – helpfully transcribed by my friend Kat. Now, personally, I’m happy to pay The Times a fair amount every month to scramble over their wall, and I have done from the start (after all, that’s how I read the article in the first place). I’m also glad that different news organisations are experimenting with different approaches to not going massively bankrupt. Try ALL the business models!

Moreover, I’m a journalist, and I very much like getting paid for being a journalist. But the thing is, I’ve never once worked for an organisation that actually charged for its journalism – and yet they still paid me, and they still made money (well, mostly). The news industry’s problems are far more complex than “people stopped paying” and “going free online was a bad idea”, and there’s no simple connection between whether you charge for online content and whether you pay your journalists properly. Much like the discussion of the music industry, it seems to elevate a particular business model to the level of a moral absolute – not simply that it’s wrong to take things for free, but it’s also wrong to give things away for free, even if that’s part of your plan to make money.

And it’s that underlying idea – that not charging for some stuff devalues everything – that brings me back to the part of the article which most niggled away at me. Not so much because it’s factually wrong, but because it seems to express an attitude towards culture that makes me feel itchy:

We think that, as soon as something is on the internet, it turns into something else – that it’s not quite real. Things, somehow, don’t count on the internet.

Take, for instance, a song. When is a song not a song? When it’s on the internet. If a song is on a CD, or vinyl, in a shop, we would not hesitate for a moment to pay for it. Put the selfsame song on the internet, though, and millions of people would be steadfast in their conviction that you can simply take it without paying. It’s still exactly the same song you’d pay for on vinyl – written by the same people, who spent the same hours and same money recording it – but press a button, and it’s yours.

I sort of see the point, but it’s a deeply weird way of expressing it: the idea that things are only things if you have paid for them. It yokes together economic value and cultural value and objecthood and claims that they’re all one and the same thing. More importantly, as an example of how the internet makes us lose our minds and act in uniquely strange and immoral ways, it’s completely off target, because there’s nothing unusual or new about the internet in this respect. We’ve always had songs that we haven’t paid for, and we’ve never thought of them as un-songs because of it. The folk song passed down the generations from mother to daughter: not a song? The nagging chorus drifting over from a neighbour’s radio: not a song? The pissed-up pub closing time singalong of a chart hit from back in the day: not a song? The tune in my head that reminds me of that night when I first met that person: not a song? The things people danced to in fields in the early 90s, because someone had turned up with a soundsystem and someone else had turned up with loads of drugs: you know, I’m pretty sure they were songs. The world is full of songs; they’re in the air, all around us, inside us, and I bloody well am steadfast in my conviction that I can simply take them without paying. Because not everything is a transaction, and a world where everything is turned into a transaction is a smaller and greyer and more bitter world than we deserve.

Why we killed Sexy A-Levels: a tale of po-faced introspection and over-analysing jokes and generally feeling a bit uncomfortable with stuff

(For the past few years, some friends and I have run a silly blog called Sexy A-Levels, collating and mocking the pictures used in the British press of attractive young girls jumping in the air to celebrate their A-Level exam results. It’s basically the only kind of picture most papers illustrate these stories with, because non-attractive girls and all boys apparently don’t take exams. Anyway, it’s become quite popular and sort of A Thing on Twitter, and so naturally we decided to stop doing it. Here’s a slightly extended version of the post explaining why, cross-posted here merely for the sake of posterity and completeness and personal archiving and shit. A rewritten and partly expanded version of the below was also published in The Independent’s blogs. Most of these words were written by @JoeTheDough, gentleman of the internet; all the boring bits are my additions.)

Tomorrow, students across England, Wales & Northern Ireland get their A-Level results (Scotland got their results last week, because Scotland). This is our moment. Our Christmas and Chanukah and DFS Sale and Flying Ant Day all rolled into one. Naturally, we’ve been getting asked what we’ve got in store for the site this year. And the answer is… well, we’re basically done here, kids. For all the funtimes it’s provided, we’re stopping. And a nation weeps.

Reasons? HERE ARE REASONS:

1) Our weapons are useless. In the 3 years (4 years? Jesus) we’ve been doing this, we couldn’t help noticing that most media outlets remain totally unchanged in their skeevy coverage. Also, some of them have started being knowing and arch in their skeeviness, because this is clearly a great British tradition to rank alongside the rude seaside postcard. “Look! We’re being ironically appalling. Aren’t we adorable?” Our failure to overturn the entrenched patriarchal edifice of the entire corporate media via the medium of a joke Tumblr is profoundly disheartening to us, in ways we cannot fully express through GIFs.
2) Twitter kind of has it covered. The hashtag #sexyalevels does the job just fine, and over the years has basically come to feel like it’s actually the best way to do this thing.
3) You guys knew this was a joke, right? (Part I) People send us emails and lose their tempers about this. And we kind of get why. And – eh – they’re kind of right. Is there such a thing as “glorifying through contempt”? Because there should be. And this is starting to feel like it.
4) You guys knew this was a joke, right? (Part II) People also link to the site saying things like “lovely knockers on here”, and oh god.
5) This thing has become a feedback loop. Cf. “We’re being ironically appalling”. As Chris Cook noted in the FT last year, this isn’t just something that newspapers do in isolation. The news agencies only submit the kind of pictures they think news publishers want; the photographers only take pictures they think their agencies are looking for; and the more publicity-savvy schools only pick and choose their most “beyootiful girls” to pimp out to the snappers. So it goes, right? Nobody is shocked, shocked by this stuff. But it’s sort of begun to feel like giving it a name and making it a big jolly media in-joke is only reinforcing that – what originated as a piss-take starts to feel like it’s become a pro bono branding exercise for the whole sweaty-palmed business.
6) We are all fabulously important people now. Seriously you guys. We’re like the 1% now and this does not look good on golf club applications.
7) Feminism, amirite? We’re dicking about here, of course, but at the heart of this one-joke website is the tiniest, most serious core of fundamental truth: This weird institutional boner that Fleet Street has for a particular type of soft, young female flesh is something we all pay a subtle psychic toll for. Now you’d be right to point out the psychic toll we pay is vastly smaller than that which we pay for all the other sexist bullshit in the world, and also there’s WARS, but that’s not really the point. It feels all enabley.
8) Dude, aren’t you like, old? Yeah. We are old, old men. One of us – we’re not saying who* – is 36. He has a wife and a son and he moderates a website that collates pictures of 18 year old girls for a joke that even its creators struggle to justify. As the great man once said, it’s no way to run a fucking ballroom.

OK. That’s us nailed to our crosses. And yes, OBVIOUSLY it’s absurdly po-faced and over-the-top to post something like this on a website like this – but, well, there you go. We’re out.

That said, if someone else wants to take up the reins, we’d be happy to let you. Hit us up.

Many thanks for all the links, tweets and submissions over the years. Also, please follow us on our new website, nothingbutgifsoftomdaleysarse.tumblr.com.

@JoeTheDough, @qwghlm and @flashboy

Mic Drop

*It’s Joe.

You know when couples do that adorable/annoying thing where they say the same thing at the same time and then start laughing? That is now all of us

(Inspired by @orbyn‘s piece here.)

The Budget: how will it affect fictional people?

We take a look at the made-up winners and losers under the new budget:

Susan and Barry Hopkins, professional married couple, Ludlow
Susan and Barry are each in work – Barry as a quantity surveyor, Susan as an administrator – and they have three children, a fixed-rate mortgage and a car that really needs to be repaired. Under the budget, they will lose £204 per year, which sadly will pale into insignificance compared to the debts Barry has got into with a Triad gang.

Doris Heppelthwaite, retired, Swansea
Doris is a 67-year-old former nurse who lives in a small, run-down maisonette and keeps three cats. In cold winters, she struggles to both heat her home and feed herself and her cats, and the Chancellor’s raid on pensioners’ income tax allowance would be expected to hit her especially hard. Fortunately, however, the losses from that will be more than offset by her discovery of an enchanted kettle that grants her the magical power to predict the derivatives market, so that’s all right then.

Plonko Sadface, entertainer, Cramlington
Plonko is a 34-year-old self-employed clown from the North-East who makes approximately £19,500 a year from his work in local shopping centres and with educational charities, and who is terrified of sex. He will lose out to the tune of £117 a year under the budget, but the tears he cries that slowly dissolve the tears painted on his face are not over the budget, but over Arthur, and that night five years ago when he could have said something, should have said something, but instead stood silent and petrified, and now they can never be together.

Lord Henry Dashington, industrialist aristocrat, Hampshire
Lord Dashington owns a series of failing manufacturing businesses, which he inherited after his father mysteriously vanished in the Congo, that have been hit hard by both the recession and his apparently dissolute lifestyle. But secretly, Lord Dashington is actually Britain’s greatest crime fighter – taking on the world’s most evil villains from his hi-tech base at Dash Hall, helped by his plucky niece Felicity and autistic savant butler Gerald. The budget’s moves on corporation tax, the 50p income tax rate and the decision to not implement a mansion tax will be of significant help to Lord Dashington – saving him enough money that he will be able to confront his greatest foe yet, the infamous Red Glove and his dreaded Six Fingers Gang, in the thrilling Adventure of the Bamboo Fish. Hurrah!

Jeremy Dysart, businessman, Fort William
Jeremy owns a local fish & chip shop, is an enthusiastic scuba diver and golfer, smokes 20 cigarettes a day, enjoys online gambling and collecting antique Toby jugs, and is an old school classmate of Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. He will be hit unusually hard by the budget, thanks to its raising of duty on cigarettes and the introduction of a new gaming duty; its imposition of taxes on scuba gear, golf clubs and “jugs or other receptacles that have faces”; its introduction of a “wedgie levy” on 39-year-old men in the Lochaber region; and the unexpected canceling of tax credits for anybody whose name rhymes with “eyes fart”. It is understood that the Lib Dem team under Danny Alexander fought particularly hard for these measures.

Rhahlgur, George Osborne’s former brood nurse
Vast and silent, she lies deep and cold in the darkness.

She is patient, as all her kind are; for a thousand years she has waited here, alone in the void, drawing her faint glimmers of sustenance from the baleful dull-red glow of a long-dead star.

All she has had, for aeons, are her memories. She can still recall the day that George Osborne and his countless nameless siblings clawed their way through her flesh and tasted life for the first time. Then they were things of teeth and scales; she remembers the cold flash of talons and the wordless screeching of a thousand thousand writhing children. That was in the time before they discovered the Dance of Forms, and played their way among the stars, wearing the flesh of lesser beings. Those were the good days.

She will not be affected by the budget, for she is a horror older than time itself, and she was not in the 50p tax band.

Of late, she has grown used to waiting; biding her time since she sent George Osborne and his terrible multitude of brothers howling across the wastes of space, seeking new sustenance. She knows that soon he will sing the song; the old nightmare song that summons his kin from across the stars, and that on the day that dread song is sung they shall be together again, as they were always intended to be, and that the ancient stars will burn anew, and the suffering will be reborn, and – at last – they shall feast once more.

Five things Sky News can do to make their new Twitter rules less silly (Please retweet)

Sky News Fail Whale
Sky News has, by common acclaim, just shot itself painfully in the foot by effectively banning its staff from using Twitter in most of the important ways that Twitter is used. As reported by The Guardian’s Josh Halliday, the new rules say, in short: Do not retweet any non-Sky News account – not journalists from rival organisations, and not members of the public; do not tweet news without passing it to the news-desk first; and do not tweet about topics that aren’t part of your beat or a story you are working on. In other words… er, don’t use Twitter.

(It’s worth noting that Josh tweeted virtually all the key details of his story in advance of it being published – presumably without running his tweets past Alan Rusbridger first – and yet still managed to file and publish quicker than anyone else. And in doing so, you have to suspect, made it far more likely the Guardian’s story would become the canonical telling of the tale once it was published.)

The reaction of Twitter users to this has been neatly Storified by Elena Zak – a concise summary would probably be “WT actual F?”. It’s reminiscent of the kerfuffle that broke out last year when Associated Press told its reporters not to tweet breaking news, because they were scooping the wire. While I broadly agree with the slightly incredulous reaction of Anthony De Rosa from their rivals Reuters, you could at least see AP’s point – they have clients who pay a lot of money for the privilege of getting AP’s scoops first, and getting them accurately. If they can just follow AP’s staffers on Twitter, bang goes the business model.

Like AP, but in different ways, Sky News is all about the scoops and the breaking news – far more so, even, than directly competing news channels. For such a prominent channel, it has relatively few viewers – around 0.6% of total viewing, less than Channel 4+1, CBBC, Dave or Yesterday, for example. But what it does have is a high percentage of viewers in lots of important places. Anywhere where breaking news is vital (like, say, every newsroom in the country) is likely to have Sky News on its TVs. With the best will in the world, they’re not there for its analysis or its coverage of under-reported topics – they’re there to find out about news a few minutes ahead of anywhere else. The old joke that you watch Sky News to find out what’s breaking, and then turn over to the BBC to find out if it’s actually true, is terribly unfair to the journalists behind Sky’s editorial and fact-checking processes – but it is also a fairly accurate description of how a lot of people behave.

So it’s not entirely unreasonable that Sky might want to control its journalists’ Twitter output in some way. At the time of writing, neither Sky nor any of their journalists have commented on the new rules, so there’s still a lot of ambiguity over how they will be applied. With that in mind, here’s five things I think Sky News could do that would downgrade its approach from “brain-fryingly incomprehensible” to “mildly baffling”:

1. Clarify what accounts will be affected
The Guardian story says that the new rules apply to “professional accounts” – and thus, presumably, not to personal accounts (and it’s hard to see how Sky could expect to police that). But Sky really need to clarify this further; on Twitter, that distinction isn’t a black-and-white issue. Does it just mean to accounts that explicitly have the Sky branding – e.g. with “Sky” in the username, or the Sky logo in the avatar or background? Does it mean anybody who openly identifies themselves as a Sky News employee? Does it mean anybody who could be identified as a Sky News employee, even if they don’t explicitly say it? This matters – Sky’s Neal Mann, aka @fieldproducer, is a big figure in the UK journotwittosphere, to the extent that a hefty proportion of the reactions to this news were essentially wondering if a Neal Mann-shaped hole had just been left in the wall of Sky’s HQ. His account falls into the second category – it’s clearly a part professional, part personal account, where he explicitly identifies himself as a Sky employee, but without any Sky branding. Does he have to follow the rules? What about the large percentage of Sky staffers who are freelancers (as sometime Sky freelancer Dave Lee asked)?

I expect Sky will clarify the rules to say that it only applies to explicitly Sky-branded accounts (and that Sky reporters will be given a chance to change their accounts to remove the Sky branding if they wish to carry on tweeting as before). Anything else would be needlessly draconian, and would completely miss the positive effect that staff personal accounts have on humanising an organisation.

2. Have it only apply to breaking news
Given that the rationale for this move has to lie with the importance of both getting scoops, and fact-checking news, Sky would do well to explicitly restrict it to that area. There’s a fair argument for making sure that news coming from Sky-branded Twitter accounts has gone through the same editorial checks that news coming from any other Sky-branded news platform would do. Likewise, it makes a certain kind of sense to stop reporters on official Sky accounts from straying into news areas that aren’t their beat, just as you wouldn’t expect your chief football writer to file a 1200-word review of the Lana Del Rey album* in lieu of a match report from the Reebok Stadium. But it makes no sense to apply it to anything else – if a Sky News journalist wants to retweet another journalist’s interesting analysis, or a good joke, or a link to the genuinely brilliant Rats In Hats Tumblr, then why on earth stop them? Once again, humanising = good.

3. Get serious about giving credit
Regrettably, Sky already has a bit of a dodgy reputation when it comes to crediting the work of other journalists, thanks to their habit of having ticker items (and, indeed, tweets) prominently ascribe news that was already broken by someone else to “Sky sources”. In their defence, they say people have misunderstood what they mean by this: it’s not that they’re claiming to have broken the news, just that they’re saying they have independently confirmed it with their own sources. Which is fine, as far as it goes, even if it doesn’t quite match up to how many other organisations use that form of words. But the “no retweets of rivals journalists” policy pushes it into a territory where, once again, it might start to look like an organisation that’s trying to mislead its audience about how many stories it breaks compared to its rivals. It may seem like a small thing – journalists fretting over bruised egos at not getting credit, added to the Twitterati’s mad obsession with getting a tweet out seconds before someone else – but if they want to avoid accusations of dishonesty, Sky will need to work out robust and transparent ways of clearly acknowledging that a scoop isn’t theirs.

4. Acknowledge that exceptions must be allowed
During the UK riots in August last year, Sky News’s journalists were extremely prominent on Twitter, helping to report, fact-check and amplify useful (indeed, potentially life-saving) information. They were outstanding, and I suspect they did a huge amount to improve the reputation of the station in the minds of a lot of people. The Guardian’s Reading The Riots analysis of how Twitter was used during the unrest showed how professional journalists – both breaking news and retweeting others – played an important role in stopping false rumours from spreading and getting good information to those who needed it (it’s worth noting that at least four Sky News journalists, as well as a several centrally-controlled Sky accounts, were among the most retweeted users during that time). There are times when the public service aspect of journalism – even in news organisations that don’t have an explicit public service remit – has to take precedence over everything else. And there are times when a story gets too large, and too important, for any organisation to pretend its coverage can be comprehensive. These rules would utterly crush the potential for them to do that again.

5. Trust your journalists
Ultimately, a lot of this kind of palaver – micro-managing your employees’ social media accounts – comes down to how much you trust your staff. If you don’t think you can trust them not to tweet unverified information, or to produce interesting output related to their beat, then these kind of rules make sense. If you don’t think they can understand the norms and practises of social media, then you don’t let them try (it’s notable that Mann, Sky’s Digital News Editor and one of the UK’s top experts on the intersection of news and social media, said that he “didn’t take part in the discussions” that led to the policy). But I honestly don’t think Sky’s journalists are deserving of that lack of trust, and I don’t think this will magically make them better reporters, or Sky a better news channel. I think Sky’s staff are smart, talented and professional, and Sky should be celebrating that fact, rather than trying to hide them away behind a mountain of managerial dictats.

If Sky clarify those points and apply the guidelines as liberally as possible, then the new policy might at least make some sort of coherent sense – even if many would still see it as narrow-minded, short-sighted and rather Cnutish. But if they go in the opposite direction… well, that sound you hear is a thousand social media gurus preparing ten thousand slides for a hundred thousand presentations with Sky as their number one example of “old media not getting it”. And I think that’s a fate we all want to avoid.

*Though why you’d need 1200 words to say “it’s crap”, I’m not sure.

Update: Oh dear. Now the BBC’s getting roughly the same stick that Sky got, prompted by another Guardian story titled “Don’t break stories on Twitter, BBC journalists told”. I think this criticism is likely mistaken, though. It’s based around this blogpost written by Chris Hamilton, BBC News’ s social media editor, clearly in response to the Sky brouhaha. The key line that everyone seems to be picking up on is the final one:

“…we’ve been clear that our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible – and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.”

But in interpreting this, everybody seems to be completely ignoring the directly preceding line:

“We’re fortunate to have a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts.”

I’m honestly not sure how you go from “the BBC have developed technology specifically to allow their reporters to break news on Twitter while keeping the newsdesk informed” to “don’t break stories on Twitter, BBC journalists told” – it doesn’t seem to me like there’s any ambiguity there. It’s just flat-out misleading. Chris Hamilton made this clear himself, in a slightly world-weary tweet:

Of course, there’s still an argument to be made that even simultaneously filing to Twitter and your newsdesk is now unnecessarily restrictive. But I think of all news organisations, the BBC is clearly the one where keeping your colleagues updated through centrally controlled mechanisms is of the most obvious importance. Even on large national newspapers, you can reasonably use Twitter as an ad hoc internal comms tool – teams are small enough for pretty much everybody to follow each other, and you only need to co-ordinate news awareness across a relatively limited number of platforms. The BBC, meanwhile, has several national TV stations, a global TV station, quite a few national radio stations, 48 regional and local radio stations, a global radio station broadcasting in 27 languages to several hundred million listeners, a website available in 32 different language editions… all run by a constantly shifting workforce thousands of staffers, casuals and freelancers. Oh, and a statutory duty to not mislead people. When news breaks, you really need to be able to let everybody know in a predictable and controllable way…

A baby is an analogy that does not work

This video, “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work”, is getting passed around a lot right now. From the description: “Technology codes our minds, changes our OS. Apple products have done this extensively. The video shows how magazines are now useless and impossible to understand, for digital natives. It shows real life clip of a 1-year old, growing among touch screens and print. And how the latter becomes irrelevant. Medium is message. Humble tribute to Steve Jobs, by the most important person : a baby.”

To which, might I humbly point out: IT’S A BABY. I’m not sure it tells us much about the nature of user interfaces because IT’S A BABY and it DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT MAGAZINES ARE. It also doesn’t understand what an iPad is, or what a user interface is, because it’s a one year old baby and it doesn’t even understand what itself is. Babies aren’t “digital natives” (and by the way oh god stop calling your daughter that), because they aren’t even themselves-natives yet. I know it was kind of cute when Clay Shirky said that thing about the four-year-old looking for the mouse on a television and videos of babies always seem really meaningful and stuff, but ultimately what we’re dealing with here is a thought process that’s going “OOH LOOK SHINY THING want milk now OOH LOOK SHINY THING let’s see if I can break it WANT MILK also I have done a poo.” Babies don’t offer much insight into the functionality of information transmission mediums because fundamentally, brilliant as they are in many ways, BABIES ARE IDIOTS. In fact, if you’ve ever tried to give a baby a present of any kind, you’ll realise that to them an iPad is a broken Box That The iPad Came In, because it’s harder to make it part of a tower you can knock over and Daddy gets nervous when you try. At the most basic level, to a baby, everything that isn’t Mum is broken. An iPad is a Mum that doesn’t work. A Samsung Galaxy Tab is a Mum that doesn’t work. A magazine is a Mum that doesn’t work. Dad is a Mum that doesn’t work. Because, as I might have mentioned, it’s a BABY.

Also the video actually seems to show that the baby can’t operate the iPad at all in a meaningful way, but giggles when shiny thing does whooshy bright light stuff, while she’s already getting the hang of the page-turning interface of the magazines pretty well.

Billionaire’s Shortbread recipe from NomNomNom ’11

Billionaire's Shortbread

So the other weekend, I took part along with m’colleague Chris in NomNomNom ’11 – a kind of Mastercheffy cooking contest for bloggers. It was, as always, huge fun (also as always, I didn’t win.) I was hoping to write up my full experience, but unfortunately I find myself in a field in Derbyshire with only my phone to blog from. As such, this is a bit truncated… but it does give you probably the most requested recipe I cooked on the day, for Billionaire’s Shortbread.

Billionaire’s Shortbread is like Millionaire’s Shortbread, except MUCH MORE CLASSY. By which I mean it’s got peanuts in it, and is decorated with gold dust. Peanuts, of course, are noted for their exclusivity and connotations of a luxury jet-set lifestyle. Note: the alternative name for this recipe, which it was given on the day, is “Posh Snickers”.

Billionaire’s Shortbread

For the shortbread
Ingredients:
250g Plain Flour
75g Caster Sugar
185g Butter

Mix the ingredients up in a big bowl until you’re got a nice, smooth, malleable gloop that – assuming you’ve measured all the things right – should be substantial enough that you can pick it up and shape it without it trying to escape.

Stick this into a pre-greased cake tin, or similar receptacle – you’ll want something roughly a foot square. Ish. Slap it about a bit until it’s roughly flat and evenly distributed across the tin. Whack this into an oven pre-heated to 180°C for around twenty minutes (until the surface starts to turn golden), then once it’s done, allow it to cool and harden. Because you’re probably impatient, “allow it to cool” means “stick it in the fridge”.

For those of you who like to keep up with such things, this is what’s technically known as a “buttery biscuit base”.

For the peanut butter layer
Ingredients:
A jar of crunchy peanut butter

Scoop about half the peanut butter into a bowl, and stick it in the microwave on a medium heat until it’s a bit runnier than it normally is.

Once your buttery biscuit base is cool and solid enough that you can do things to it, slop your slightly melty peanut butter all over it and spread it out evenly.

This is definitely the easiest step of the recipe, which given that the rest are also very easy is saying something. Also, you’ve got half a jar of peanut butter left over. Bonus.

For the caramel layer
Ingredients:
40g Butter
50g Light Muscavado Sugar
400g Condensed Milk
1 tsp Cornflour
Large handful of salted peanuts

First, pummel the crap out of your peanuts with a pestle & mortar (or other peanut-destroying device), until your large handful of peanuts becomes a large handful of small peanut fragments. Retain your fragments in a bowl for later.

Splodge the butter, sugar and condensed milk into a saucepan, and stir constantly over a medium heat for some time until it starts to thicken. At this point, carry on stirring over a medium heat for longer than you might think. Basically, the point is it needs to be really rather thick – if it’s too runny, it’ll RUIN EVERYTHING. Once you’re convinced it’s really quite thick (little bits will probably have started caramelising), stir in the cornflour for added thickening, then stir in the peanut fragments.

Spread all this lot over your buttery biscuit base and peanut layer, then “allow it to cool” (stick it in the fridge) again.

For the chocolate layer
Ingredients:
150g Milk Chocolate
50g Dark Chocolate
Gold Dust (edible type)

Obvious bit: once your caramel later has solidified a bit, melt the chocolate in a bowl in the microwave. If you do this cleverly and just stir it gently, the milk and dark chocolate should make a pretty swirly pattern. Put your melty swirly chocolate over the caramel and spread until it’s even.

Then comes the pointless but fun  tarting-up section. Get a small amount of edible gold dust, and using a very fine sieve, scatter it lightly over the chocolate.

(Edible gold dust note: you know how the phrase “it’s like gold dust” normally denotes that something is very rare and extremely expensive? Turns out you can get small pots of it in Waitrose for under four quid.)

Allow to cool (FRIDGE) again, then serve (ideally) when the chocolate is mostly solid but still slightly gooey. If you’ve done it right, it should have roughly the density of a neutron star, and should be able to give a horse diabetes at fifty paces.