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.”

The most interesting things about the DoJ’s Twitter subpoena aren’t about Twitter

Twitter subpoenaOne of the more interesting things about the subpoena served on Twitter by the US Department of Justice, demanding information about the accounts of various people connected to WikiLeaks (which Twitter commendably fought to have unsealed, so they could warn the users and give them a chance to challenge it before handing over any data) is that significant parts of it don’t seem to apply to Twitter at all.

It’s always possible that the DoJ’s subpoena is just incompetently written, or that the DoJ has little understanding of how Twitter works (it certainly seems sloppily put together; Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp’s name is spelled wrong; the request specifies a combination of real names and Twitter usernames for no apparent reason; Gonggrijp and Icelandic MP Brigitta Jonsdottir are both named twice, under their real names and usernames.) But it also raises the possibility that it’s a boilerplate request, giving some credence to the widely-floated theory that Twitter isn’t the only recipient of such a subpoena.

The first section asks for, among other account information:

6. means and source of payment for such service (including any credit card or bank account number) and billing records

Twitter, of course, is a free service, so it makes no sense for the DoJ to ask for this non-existent information. Google & Facebook, who WikiLeaks have publicly suggested may have also been subpoena’d, also don’t charge for their basic services (Google of course do offer paid-for Apps for Business accounts) – does this suggest that other sites and services, which do offer paid-for individual accounts, have been targeted?

The second section then asks for:

1. records of user activity for any connections made to or from the Account, including the date, time, length and method of connections, data transfer volume, user name and source and destination Internet Protocol address(es)
2. non-content information associated with the contents of any communication or file stored by or for the account(s), such as the source and destination email addresses and IP addresses

Some people seem to be interpreting “any connections made to or from the Account” as a demand for information on people who follow the Twitter account, but I’m not sure that’s correct – surely that would have been more clearly specified if that was the case? (And would a court have allowed such a wide-ranging request?) And other parts of this section, once again, don’t seem to apply to Twitter at all – “data transfer volume”, “file stored by or for the account”. These make a lot more sense if they’re actually talking about online file storage and sharing – services something like Dropbox, YouSendIt, and so on. (And “destination email addresses” suggests email providers are also likely on the DoJ’s radar.)

As far as I can tell, in Twitter’s case the only non-public information that the DoJ could get from this request would be IP addresses, phone numbers and a record of who users sent direct messages to (from my non-expert reading, this wouldn’t give them the actual content of the DMs – it’s “non-content information” they want). Potentially useful for investigators, certainly, but not exactly smoking gun stuff. Given the nature of the case revolves quite heavily around the transfer of files – something Twitter doesn’t do at all – we should probably be asking email and cloud storage companies what their policies are complying with legal demands for user data.

Briefly to note

That Paul Krugman, announced today as the winner of the made-up Nobel Prize for Economics, appears to be a massive sci-fi geek who loves Charlie Stross, once wrote a paper called “The Theory of Interstellar Trade”, and corrects his own employers on the finer points of Doctor Who lore. Apparently he only decided to become an economist when it turned out that psychohistory wasn’t actually a real discipline.

I’m counting this one as a win. Also, the economics stuff, I suppose.

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:

The Thing List 2007: A Year in Non-Categorised Stuff

Thing List 2007

After a hiatus last year, when I forgot to do it, here’s the 2007 instalment of this blog’s ongoing project to fight the crude pigeon-holing tendencies shown by other end-of-year lists. No longer shall Neon Bible be relegated to the “best albums” parade, just because it was, in fact, an album. If Gordon Ramsay’s refurbished gastropub in Limehouse wants to compete for Best Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, rather than best restaurant, then it is free to do so. We not not bracket, compartmentalise, or divide. We celebrate unity through diversity.

So, here you go – here are the 19 best things of 2007:

Cunt at Glastonbury

19. The Arcade Fire at Glastonbury
Was it such a borderline epiphanic experience in spite of the drug-addled hippy with a poor sense of personal space who kept on trying to walk through my back during the entire set – or was it, in part at least, because of him? No. It was nothing to do with him. But thankyou anyway, kind sir.

18. Tony Blair fucked off
And for a precious, golden few days, it seemed like good sense, quiet competence and a dignified sense of principle might be restored to our government. Of course, not so much. But it was nice while it lasted. A clear winner of Vegetarian Restaurant of the Year.

17. The finger-tapping, eye-staring thing that The Rock does in Southland Tales to indicate that he’s going mad which is a bit like someone doing a Stan Laurel impersonation except they’ve never actually seen footage of Stan Laurel and have in fact just read about him on Wikipedia
Majestic.

Continue reading

Typeface of doom

Continuing the theme of picking out only the least relevant, most trivial details from the Mother Of All Data Cock-Ups for attention, I would like to point out that the emails (PDF) released today give us a vital insight into how such a catastrophic failure could have happened. Not, as others have surely noted, the fact that the requirements of the Data Protection Act are never mentioned by any party; nor that the contracting-out of services in government has gone so far that not even the most basic action can be taken without a third party being necessary, and the absurd cost implications associated with it; nor even that nobody in an organisation devoted solely to handling data appears to have any understanding or ability whatsoever when it comes to actually handling data that their own system has given them.

No. The most salient fact is this:

ONE OF THE KEY PEOPLE RESPONSIBLE USES COMIC SANS AS THEIR DEFAULT EMAIL FONT.

Child Benefit email with Comic Sans

I’ve warned you about those people, and did you listen? Did you listen, you crazy fools? No!

Updated to add: In a more-serious-but-still-highly-amusing note, Ben Laurie points out that the redactions in the PDF aren’t actually good enough to conceal the names of the individuals involved, if anybody really wanted to find out who they were. Nice to know that HMRC are as incompetent at protecting their own ID data as they are with other people’s…

Who benefits?

I’ll leave it to other, wiser heads to debate the serious ramifications of the hilarious “all your data are in the post” cock-up by BRMC HMRC that was revealed today. What I want to know is – how on earth did the Open Rights Group manage to arrange for this news to break on the day that they launched their big fundraising drive?

Good work, Becky, Michael, Suw, Danny, et al! But, um… could you give back the disks with everybody’s bank details on now, please?