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

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.

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.

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…

Does the Lynn Barber libel case ban reviewers from being “spiteful”?

There’s been a bit of a wailing and a gnashing of teeth on the interwebs today about the libel decision handed down yesterday by Justice Tugendhat which found against the Telegraph and Lynn Barber, over a review Barber wrote in 2008 of Dr Sarah Thornton’s book ‘Seven Days in the Art World’. Possibly because of how the case is being reported – for example, the BBC’s report begins with the line “An author has won £65,000 in libel damages over a “spiteful” book review that was written by a journalist for a broadsheet newspaper” – lots of writers appear under the impression that the libel damages (and £65,000 isn’t really that much for a libel case) have been awarded because the judge found that the review was just too nasty.

Obviously, this would be profoundly worrying for anybody in the business of reviewing things, where spitefulness is sometimes, regretfully, a necessary literary tool. And because the judgment itself is a) very long, and b) mostly quite boring, very few people seem to have read the full thing – which would reveal that their concerns are unfounded. In fact, the judgment appears to be entirely fair, and moreover it casts the actions of Lynn Barber and (to a lesser extent) the Telegraph in a very unflattering light.

Mostly to save me trying to make the same point over and over again on Twitter, here’s the three major misconceptions about the case:

1) A review being “spiteful” now places you at risk of a libel action

No, it doesn’t. The libel decision has very little to do with the tone of Barber’s piece, and a lot to do with the fact that it made several highly defamatory – and entirely false – allegations about Dr. Thornton’s work. Tugendhat J is crystal clear about this in paragraph 76 (highlighting mine):

A reviewer is entitled to be spiteful, so long as she is honest, but if she is spiteful, the court may more readily conclude that misstatements of fact are not honest, since spite or ill will is a motive for dishonesty.”

Good news, reviewers! You can carry on being as spiteful and vitriolic and snarky and pissy as you ever were. The one caveat there (as we’ll see in a bit) is that if you do make some entirely false claims in your review, and if the tone of your piece is extremely spiteful, you might find it a bit harder to claim in court that you made an honest mistake, and that you weren’t attempting to damage the reputation of the person whose work you’re reviewing.

2) All Lynn Barber is guilty of is being forgetful

Nope. Not only does the judge conclude that it’s unlikely Lynn Barber was actually forgetful, but it doesn’t really matter: the crucial question isn’t whether she forgot a key fact, but that she apparently didn’t care (and never bothered to check) whether what she wrote was true or not. Which, when you’re making an extremely damaging claim, is really not on.

The libel claim, which made up for the majority of the damages (there was also a secondary claim of malicious falsehood), was over Barber’s claim that Thornton had falsely said she had interviewed Barber for the book (about her experiences of being a Turner Prize judge). As it happens, Thornton had interviewed Barber for the book; Barber’s claim that she hadn’t (“I gave her an interview? Surely I would have noticed?”) was completely untrue.

In her defence, Barber said she’d simply forgotten that the interview had happened. Indeed, she noted that she’s written before about how poor her memory is, for example in her memoir ‘An Education’. That would seem to be a reasonable thing to say in her defence – but Tugendhat considered this, and found it a poor excuse on two eminently reasonable grounds.

First (and treading carefully here) he found reason to doubt that Barber’s memory was quite as bad as she made out. Not only did he find that her descriptions of her poor memory in An Education to actually be examples of perfectly ordinary memory (in parargraph 92 of the judgment he goes through her examples one by one, dismissing each with a deliciously blunt “That is normal”), but he specifically suggests that she only introduces the idea of poor memory as “a literary device to warn the reader that the memoir does not purport to be completely accurate”.

Moreover, Tugendhat suggests that Barber’s supposed bad memory appears, on the basis of her evidence, to be selective at best – for example, being able to remember clearly an email in the afternoon of one day that supports her case, but not another email that same evening that hinders her case (paragraphs 84 and 85).

In summation, the judge writes: “Ms Barber wrote in her witness statement in a number of places that she has a notoriously bad memory. In reading the documents and in listening to her oral evidence, I did not see any sign that that was true. On the contrary, her memory of events in 2006, as recounted in the Review, and her memory of events when she gave evidence, seemed to me to be normal or in some respect better than might be expected. I do not accept the accuracy of her statement that her memory is bad.

And regardless, he secondly notes that it makes very little difference to the judgment whether her memory really is that bad – because if she knew she had a bad memory, then relying on her memory to make as damaging and defamatory claim as sayng that a book’s author lied without checking if it was true is enough to turn the case against her. The defence admitted that Barber had in fact made a mention of having done the interview in her diary (paragraph 28); it would have been the work of minutes to check the facts. Tugendhat writes (paragraph 127): “It is with some hesitation that I reached the conclusion that Ms Barber knew the interview allegation was false at the time she wrote the Review. I have had no hesitation in reaching the alternative conclusion that (if she did not know it was false) she was reckless, that is indifferent as to whether it was true or false.

3) It was an honest mistake

On the basis of the judgment… er, not so much. In fact, the judgment really is quite brutal about Lynn Barber’s actions, and also shows the Telegraph’s response to an entirely reasonable complaint in a fairly bad light. As noted, Tugendhat repeatedly says that Barber was “indifferent” to whether the claims she had made were true or false (paragraphs 121 through to 127). He says (paragraph 106) that “I found nothing in her demeanour which suggested to me that she cared one way or another whether the interview allegation was true or false. She manifested no sign of caring at all.” That’s a pretty damning indictment of any journalist – a profession in which, you’d hope, caring about whether things are true would be a pretty central character trait.

Furthermore, Barber didn’t respond to emails from Thornton, shortly after the review was published, pointing out the mistake (paragraphs 35, 102); the Telegraph took four months to remove the review from their website, and a further six months to issue an apology (paragraph 187), none of which suggests much in the way of good faith in their approach to the issue. Then the Telegraph, in their first full response to Dr Thornton’s complaints, chose to use the the quite baffling (to me) argument that the 35-40 minute interview hadn’t actually been an interview, because it hadn’t yielded much useful information (paragraph 55, given shortest possible shrift in paragraphs 94 and 95).

I think that for most journalists this will come as quite a surprise: the idea that slightly rubbish interviews retrospectively stop having been interviews at all. I mean, I was quite excited when I got to interview Matt Smith – he’s The Doctor, for goodness sake – even if it was just a 15 minute phoner where he straight-batted everything right back at me. Turns out that, according to the Telegraph’s legal team, I never interviewed him at all, which is definitley some sort of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey shenanigans about which I’m not very happy.

It gets worse for Barber – in papragraph 96, Tugendhat bluntly states that, in her evidence, “she told what is certainly a lie.” As he notes a while later (parargraph 107) “it is a very serious matter for a judge to find that a witness has lied” – but he’s in no doubt that she did, based on what she wrote in her original review.

—–

In summary: the judge found that Lynn Barber lied in her evidence, didn’t care whether the allegations she made were true or false (when it was easy for her to have checked and found out that they were false), and both she and the Telegraph were slow and obstructive in their response to Dr Thornton’s complaint. The only area where the ‘spitefulness’ (or otherwise) of the review comes into play is that it’s indicative of Barber’s “state of mind” (see paragraph 76, the only time in the entire judgment where spite is mentioned) when writing it; it’s a factor that harms her particular defence, not a cause of action in itself. Spite as a journalistic method lives to fight another day.

While many journalists may be worried about this judgment based on some stray headlines, in actual fact it’s a result that all good journalists should be able to support – even though many of us, myself included, have enjoyed and admired Lynn Barber’s work for many years. Because ultimately it’s about the basics of journalism, our version of “first, do no harm” – “First, don’t say something that isn’t true.”

Twitter versus the Telegraph: you can’t stop the lulz

A fair amount of amusement online today, as the Telegraph decided to embed a Twitterfall in the sidebar of their dedicated page for Wednesday’s budget, showing tweets with budget-related keywords. Of course, it was only a matter of time before someone tested out what they could get onto the page… in this case, it seems to have been my internet pal Joe, who asked the pertinent question:

Telegraph Twitterfall

Very quickly, people caught on, and soon enough the Telegraph’s budget page had a sidebar filled with people making jokes, insulting the Telegraph, doing swears and dropping in various bits of absurdist nonsense (my personal favourite being this.)

Within an hour or so, the Telegraph twigged, and took the Twitterfall down. The general consensus seemed to be that it was an embarrassing cock-up on the Telegraph’s part, a failed attempt to be down with the kids. That side of things was summed up quite well by Josh Millard (aka cortex) in a now-deleted MetaFilter thread:

Totally unmoderated and unfiltered streams of publicly-authored/-editable info is not something you endorse if you’re in the business of presenting filtered and moderated info. It’s not rocket science; this is basic stuff.

Put someone on a queue and approve the interesting/appropriate tweets only. Drop an authentication barrier on your wiki. Give yourself the tools to actually identify and highlight the good and mitigate the crap, from day one, if you want to harness a reactive, self-aware firehose like this.

But, while Josh knows a metric crapload more about moderating web content than me – he’s one of MetaFilter’s superb mods – I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Certainly, the Telegraph didn’t fully think it through, but I don’t believe their core problem was one of lack of moderation, but one of inaccurate expectations. Joe put it very well in a series of follow-up tweets (here stripped out of the Twitter format and tarted up a little):

The system/concept works as it should. We are the boneheads. No one at the Telegraph should be in trouble for this. (And by boneheads, I mean glorious, wonderful boneheads.) With every important event in man’s history, there is always someone standing at the back throwing peanuts. Today we are the peanut gallery. Tomorrow we may be the ones on stage. Or, to put it another way: You can’t stop the LULZ.

Sorry Daily Telegraph. I think if you’d ridden that out for another hour, it would actually have been useful. Lessons for co-opters of Social Media: 1) You don’t own the message anymore 2) If people are using it for LULZ then ITS WORKING.

For me, the Telegraph’s major error in this case was that they put the thing up two days before the budget is actually going to be announced. The amount of natural real-time discussion of the budget was therefore minimal; in the absence of anybody saying anything else, it was possible to hijack what was displayed on the Telegraph site almost by accident – this wasn’t a co-ordinated attack in any sense, just a few people idly goofing around. I suspect that the Telegraph had considered and accepted the possibility that someone would say “big shitty balls” on their page; what they didn’t realise was that, absent anything else to discuss, the balls would dominate entirely.

It’s as if Newsnight, in the middle of a piece on Bolivian land reform, suddenly announced “and now we’re going over live to the saloon bar of The Dog & Duck to see what their opinion is” – except the patrons of The Dog & Duck hadn’t been discussing Bolivian land reform, and weren’t told anything about Newsnight’s plans until the moment that they blinkingly realised they were on national television. What would you expect? You might get lucky, and someone who’d read the papers might mutter something about Evo Morales’ significance as the country’s first indigenous leader. But most likely there’d be a bemused pause, followed by nervous laughter, followed by someone shouting “wankers!” and Terry getting his knob out.

That doesn’t mean that nobody in a pub ever has anything insightful to say. It doesn’t mean that broadcasting from a pub is always a terrible idea. It just means that you need to better understand the nuances and uses of real-time conversations, and the locations they take place in. Without a pre-existing conversation, all you have is a silence begging to be filled. You’re practically asking Terry to start waving his bits around.

UPDATE: Yay, it’s back! They seem to be filtering things more carefully this time, although it’s not clear exactly how stringent they’re being, or what method they’re using (and they’re not telling…) Kudos to the Telegraph for sticking with it.

The seismologist who wasn’t

So, all over the news today were reports like this:

An Italian scientist who predicted a serious earthquake in central Italy but was dismissed as a scaremonger said: “The authorities have these deaths on their conscience.”

Seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani had warned “a big one” was on the way and even toured the region in a van with loudspeakers warning people, as late as last week.

But he was reported to the police by authorities for “needlessly spreading panic” and also dismissed by L’Aquila’s mayor and other civic officials.

All very Roy Scheider facing off against complacent local bureaucrats in Jaws. It was being tweeted all over the place and burning up the social news sites for most of today. A great, rabble-rousing story about an underdog hero whose warnings were ignored. Every story referred to Giuliani as a seismologist and a scientist.

Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica released the following press release this morning (this is a Google Translated version of the cached press release; their website, with the original, is currently down for some reason.)

Referring to press reports about the earthquake that struck last night, the Abruzzo region, the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica states:

1. Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica’s mission and purpose of the study of phenomena that occur in space and in the universe and not from earthquakes or other phenomena related to geophysics;

2nd Mr. Gioacchino Giampaolo Giuliani is a non-graduate technical assistant at the Institute of Space Physics Interplanetario of Turin, which is one of the twenty INAF structures;

3rd Mr. Giuliani is working as technical assistant at the National Laboratory of Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) for the Gran Sasso of IFSI-INAF, within the framework of cooperation in your multipartner LVD (Large Volume Detector) for the detection of neutrinos produced by gravitational stellar collapse;

4th the activities of Mr. Giuliani compared the alleged possibility of forecasting earthquakes are not a search INAF, but are conducted by Giuliani himself for personal purposes outside of the service for the institute.

It would appear Gioacchino Giuliani is not a seismologist; he does not even, it seems, have any academic science qualifications at all. He is a lab assistant at an astrophysics institute, and he does earthquake prediction as a hobby, using the notoriously vague and unproven radon method – his prediction was actually that an earthquake would hit a town fifty miles away a week earlier (the sort of details you need to actually be right about if you’re going to start evacuating places).

This story came, as far as I can tell, not from some tabloid, but from Reuters, who were the ones who inaccurately spread the description of him as a “seismologist”; even now, in their newly updated, toned-down story, published many hours after the INAF released their statement, they still call Giuliani a “scientist”, and inaccurately say that he works at the National Insitute of Physics (not Astrophysics, which would give you more of a clue that he’s maybe not a specialist). Reuters are a trusted voice; when they write a story, it spreads around the world. This is, quite frankly, shoddy work on their part.

Wired UK: some first thoughts

I got my sleek, pleasingly-textured and slightly oddly-smelling copy of the new Wired UK through the post yesterday. This made me happy, because… well, we’ve got our own Wired again. It’s a national pride thing, right? Now we can all collectively exorcise Danny O’Brien’s traumatic memories of the previous one. And, for the first time since Select magazine died along with Britpop and New Scientist went shit, there’s a magazine that feels like it’s actually sort-of targeted at me. Well, a more highly-paid version of me, at least.

Anyway, here are some quickly jotted down first impressions. I will probably change my mind about most of this over the next few days.

The design is certainly very pretty; the photography bold and colourful. Perhaps it’s a little over-designed – sometimes, the pretty-making interferes with the flow of information on the page; the text gets a little lost, your eyes aren’t quite sure where to look. But that could just be an early lack of familiarity with the magazine’s rhythm.

But certainly, I’d like to see it be more text-heavy. Currently, too often the copy gets relegated to a stray paragraph which is overwhelmed by the images – which doesn’t give me much confidence in reading something that seems like an afterthought. More text! A paragraph is not enough! But I think that might be me trying to hold back an unstoppable tide of contemporary magazine design, brandishing nothing more than an unread copy of the New York Review of Books. (Unread, of course, because it’s intimidatingly text-heavy.)
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21 signs I don’t want your online marketing pitch

Sloshing round the internet for the past few days has been the amusing ’20 signs’ memette. It was kicked off by Jeffrey Zeldman’s excellent 20 signs you don’t want that web design project. That inspired Chris to put together his hilarious 20 signs you don’t want that social media project, which, in turn, inspired Suw’s 20 signs you don’t want that internal social media project. This got me thinking about it from the other end of things, as a journalist on the recieving end of clueless online marketing approaches.

Most of these are taken from real life, either from my experience or that of others. A few are based on real life, but exaggerated, while one or two are just made up because I thought they’d be funny. There’s a bit of crossover with Chris’s list – in fact, several more of his could have made it on here perfectly happily – but I tried to steer it away from the general territory of “you just have a godawful web strategy”, which would apply to both. I also hasten to point out that this isn’t some big anti-PR rant, just a little bit of mild poking. Some of my best friends work in online marketing, you know.

You’ll notice, as well, that I had to go one better than everyone else, and do 21.

  1. You start your pitch with the words “this story is perfect for you”. Unless your story is about robots fighting giant squid in outer space with lasers (and then having sex), I fear you have not yet achieved perfection. Sorry.
  2. Not only is your pitch nothing to do with any area I write about, it’s nothing to do with any area that anybody in the entire publication writes about. Yes, I wish we regularly ran coverage of developments in scanning electron microscopy. Regrettably, though, at this stage that remains a pipe dream.
  3. Your new video uses exactly the same idea as the one you sent me three months ago, for a completely different product.
  4. Pitch includes the phrases “the new Facebook” or “Facebook for X” (where X is some niche group that nobody cares about, not even the people in the group).
  5. You tell me that your video has been getting “quite a bit of attention on YouTube”. When I click through, it has 239 views.
  6. You refer to your video as “viral” when it hasn’t even been made publicly available yet.
  7. You refer to a single RealAudio file as a “podcast”.
  8. You seem to be emailing me an enormous video file. Although I am a little unclear on this, it appears that you want me to upload it to YouTube for you.
  9. I am required to download a piece of proprietary software nobody has ever heard of just to watch or listen the thing you have done, whatever the fuck it is.
  10. Hasselhoff.
  11. You have spelled the name of the product you are writing about incorrectly in the email title.
  12. Email title is in all caps and takes up four lines in Lotus Fucking Notes.
  13. You are directing my attention to a blog/Twitter account that is just a copied-and-pasted regurgitation of your press releases.
  14. Pitch includes the words “according to a survey conducted by [name of client]“. I know, I know. It is entirely our fault for having faithfully printed those stories every single time in the past. But please, please, let’s stop it. Now.
  15. Your website is a single Flash entity that takes an hour to load, contains no permalinks, and has content that isn’t embeddable or shareable in any way apart from a link pointing to the root URL.
  16. Your website is a single Flash entity that invites me to create my own unique content, but once I’ve created that content the only way I can discover the permalink for the results is by using the “Share this with your friends” button and putting in my own email address.
  17. And you rather pointedly don’t say what you’ll do with all those email addresses you’re gathering.
  18. You have phoned me to tell me about something you’ve put on the web. After about three minutes, we make the astonishing discovery that it’s hard to send links in a voice conversation. “Yes, it’s YouTube dot com slash watch question mark v equals upper-case U lower case p three upper case X…”
  19. Pitch initially came from an anonymous Hotmail account, from someone claiming to be a regular member of the public who just happened to make a funny video, which by complete coincidence just happens to raise awareness of your client. Upon closer examination, email’s originating IP address is the same as your office. You hideous, incompetent, ethics-free, spamming cock.*
  20. Pitch does not appear to be about anything. Leaves the impression that you are just lonely and wanted a chat.
  21. Because I once posted a funny video about an owl, now you think I’m the Owl Correspondent.

*Oh yes, I’ll be writing more about this one. Quite a bit more.

The grapes of Rath

Ben Goldacre writes:

It’s just been publicly announced that the vitamin pill magnate Matthias Rath has pulled out of his gruelling legal case against me and the Guardian. He bought full page adverts denouncing Aids drugs while promoting his vitamin pills in South Africa, a country where hundreds of thousands die every year from Aids under an HIV denialist president and the population is ripe for miracle cures. I said his actions were highly worrying, in no uncertain terms. I believe I was right to do so.

This libel case has drawn on for over a year, with the writ hanging both in my toilet, and over my head… For the duration of the case I have also been silenced on the serious issues that Rath’s activities raise, the chapter on his work was pulled from my book, and I have been unable to comment on his further movements around the world.

This will now change…

A couple of points need to be raised here. Firstly, Ben officially joins the pantheon of the greats for the line “This libel case has drawn on for over a year, with the writ hanging both in my toilet, and over my head”; secondly, you have to go and read the Guardian’s coverage of the case, because – significantly, and very positively, I think – they’re giving this biiiig coverage, the sort of coverage they’d give to defeating a junior government minister in a libel action, or something of the sort. Not quite “a liar and a cheat” territory, but getting close. They clearly care, in a way that I wasn’t entirely sure the Guardian did care. Good on them.

The third point is more simple, and has been better expressed by other, wiser men before me: