Feb 122013

Questions, questions, questions.  In latterday society, it seems you’re OK as long as you keep any you have to yourself.  What 21st century society appears to require of us – above all – is certainty, application and action.

I’m the first to admit my skills at headlining posts are bordering on the non-existent.  And I freely admit I’m the first to admire the poetry which English tabloids – in particular those tabloids from Mr Rupert Murdoch’s stable – inevitably exhibit with respect to this very particular art.  So it was with great interest that I learned today of this piece of wisdom in relation to the writing of headlines, especially headlines as questions (many thanks to David for the heads-up!):

Betteridge’s law of headlines is an adage that states, “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” The name refers to Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist who primarily covers topics relating to Apple,[1] although the general concept is much older.[2] The observation has also been called “Davis’ law[3][4] or just the “journalistic principle.”[5]

Wikipedia goes on to state (the bold is mine):

Betteridge explained the concept in a February 2009 article, regarding a TechCrunch article with the headline “Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?”:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bollocks, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.[6]

Andrew Marr also gets in on the act with these revealing words on how short-of-time journalists skimming for useful data tend not to look beyond the initial wrapper because of the punctuation mark used (again, the bold is mine):

Five years before Betteridge’s article, a similar observation was made by UK journalist Andrew Marr in his 2004 book My Trade. It was among Marr’s suggestions for how a reader should approach a newspaper if they really wish to know what is going on:

If the headline asks a question, try answering ‘no.’ Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means ‘don’t bother reading this bit’.[7]

I have to say this looks like it might explain quite a great deal of my current experience with blogging.  Whilst I easily get 10,000 spam comments a month, the real and productive reactions rarely show themselves.  Is, then, my tendency to ask more questions than provide authoritarian answers frightening away the readership engagement in droves?

Are we really saying there is no market for places which postulate instead of declaim?

Must we really give in to the fearsome dictatorship of authority-seekers?

And does the very fact that I ask so many questions really mean I’m actually writing a load of absolute bollocks?

Sep 282012

I had a bit of a Twitter chat today with a Guardian journalist on the subject of the Guardian and its recent levels of political commitment.  I’m not going to quote each exchange but will, instead, summarise my thesis – a thesis which, in the event, was roundly rejected.

It’s not the first time I’ve suggested this might be the case, but on other occasions I’ve been rather more rambling.  So here’s the short version to bring us all up-to-date.

I compared the trajectory of the newspaper with Rupert Murdoch’s own as publisher.  I suggested that at the beginning of the latter’s professional career, he tended to chase the money more than engineer a particular political point of view.  If I am right in this assumption, his could then fairly be described as a hollow empire – because there was little it did which actually tied its different publications into one particular political mindset or another.

His downfall at the hands of the last decade or two could arguably be said to have come as a result of sliding – much as Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (more here) before him – precisely into that dialectic battle of the committed publisher.  In many instances (though not all, even so: we have, for example, the sharply right-wing Weekly Standard in the US alongside the cuddly but generally subversive TV output of the Simpsons family virtually everywhere), his output now befits that of the charismatic leadership where nothing really needs to be said any longer for people to know which line to peddle.  And so it is possible for a man, who in a huge media empire is clearly unable to be everywhere, to be at the heart of a publication’s daily production cycle.

From simply creator of wealth to kingmaker of the political right.  That is the trajectory of Murdoch.

The Guardian then?  It was easy, at least as I remember it when an adolescent reader, to know who the Guardian stood up for.  As I’ve recently observed, it wasn’t the most concise or focussed of papers – at least in my memory – which is why I actually preferred it: the people who wrote for it, even in the news and sports sections, didn’t homogenise their attitudes but – rather – seemed to share them because they were morally right.  There was a sense of working-life wisdom which its pages seemed to exude.

Rose-tinted spectacles?  Clearly.

But I think, quite at the margin of the contained emotion in the above paragraph, and its corresponding potential to be read as foolish, my thesis still deserves a hearing: Manchester’s Guardian, rooted in the North of England, had quite a different take from the Guardian which slowly evolved after that retreat.  And if Murdoch has moved along the scale from simple pursuit of wealth creation to a far more complex pursuit of political commitment, which simultaneously and more directly shapes society in the UK even as it also serves to benefit his financial interests and connections, then I would sadly sustain that the Guardian has moved in the opposite direction.

From a clear commitment to the voice of the poorer sections of society to a page-impression-chasing relativism which, while to its credit still ensures the poor do have a voice, even so does also drown that voice out in a myriad of other voices – a myriad which, in any case, already owns a far more powerful visibility elsewhere.

It was once the fate of Murdoch to simply chase the money, before he had the power and resources to lose the undeniable focus and ability his early days as editor obviously demonstrated.

It is now the Guardian‘s turn to look for solutions to an admittedly worrying and challenging publishing environment.  And whilst I can understand the reasons for wishing to chase page impressions so vigorously, or find alternative sources of reliable funding, I’m still not clear that as an institution the paper really knows what such a process has done, is doing and will do to its soul.

Sep 142012

Yes, I know.  It’s pretty hackneyed to say so.  It’s a cliché – yet, even so, a truth.

Is that why publishing empires like Murdoch’s have grown to such a size?  He has, after all, specialised in giving people what they allegedly want.  And perhaps, for some decades, what people have wanted is precisely not the truth.  The truth consists in the following:

  1. Those in charge will always remain in charge.
  2. Those in charge are not those best suited to rule.
  3. Those in charge will always try and make your life more miserable.
  4. Those in charge are there to win every bloody battle.
  5. Those in charge are there to win every bloodless battle.
  6. Those in charge are bloody, full stop.
  7. Those in charge are greedy and money-grabbing.
  8. Those in charge are always lying.
  9. Those in charge feather their nests at our expense.
  10. Those in charge are permanent cuckoos in the nests of democracy.

Mind you, one truth that Murdoch does sell runs as follows:

  1. Given the chance, we’d all love to be like those in charge.

Or so, at least, I used to believe.  But I do truly think things are changing.  My last post kind of reaches, in a nakedly rambling sort of way, a quite precise conclusion:

I don’t know about the civilisation you live in – but it seems to me that something really dirty is about to unspool out of the civilisation I habitually inhabit.

It’s probably a consequence of all that social media honesty.  If you start doing it for fun in your everyday life, how can you avoid not ending up doing it for real in your work?  We’re all, little by little, acquiring whistleblowing instincts, aren’t we?  Even those people in the middle levels of organisations, who generally find their job is to filter away reality from both the public and workforce’s gaze.

Who said Facebook and Twitter couldn’t conquer the world?  Maybe what’s really happening here is that these environments are actually retraining us all in the twin, unassailable and universal virtues of honesty and good faith!

With truth becoming a natural instinct again, perhaps there really is a chance for hope on the horizon.

Perhaps we are seeing a changing of the guard in the publishing world.  Murdoch’s penchant for avoiding the truth in his papers, that hackneyed clichéd boring truth which no wage slave on a daily basis would be able to survive, is being undermined by the amateur realities we generally honestly transmit in our social media communications.  And even when you avoid your truth in such communications, it’s eventually clear to the gathered audience what you’re really about – as well as where that truth is to be found.  So whether you tell the truth or not, the multi-directional nature of social media makes it impossible to convincingly sustain for any length of time a posture which does not approximate to reality.

Think of the tabloid empires throughout history and how they managed to support establishment inexactitudes.  Think of phonehacking and the police; think of certain MPs’ outrageous privileges; think of Hillsborough and maybe the miners too; think of Iraq and other points of intellectually brutalised conflict, wiped out in a tide of impositional politics.

The age of editing reality – without a productive and immediate comeback from those who might know differently – is coming to an end.

In a sense, therefore, so is traditional newspaper publishing.

The future lies once more in the hackneyed and clichéd realities that fairly paint our world as it actually is – instead of as the powerful would have it be shaped.

Thank goodness it’s Friday, eh?  Thank goodness it’s Friday.

May 192012

Last year Facebook denied it was going to charge for user access.  In this way, in the piece of semi-private real estate – a virtual parallel universe – it has succeeded in carving out of the open web, it continued to mimic the ground rules of the latter.  This year, however, this all begins to crumble.  And it does so as Facebook is launched on the stock market with an initial valuation of $104 billionAs the BBC reported a couple of weeks ago:

Facebook has started testing a system that lets users pay to highlight or promote posts.

By paying a small fee users can ensure that information they post on the social network is more visible to friends, family and colleagues.

In this, of course, Facebook’s own walled garden also mimics what the monetisers have been doing to the open web itself.  Whilst access in a world of almost totally free publishing is multifarious – all you need is a broadband connection and the most humble sort of Internet device – visibility is quite a different matter.  In order to get your site at the top of Google’s search rankings, you don’t need just to provide good content: you also need to pay any broad range of intermediaries, from SEO optimists to Google’s own AdWords system, in order to get any chance of being seen by the public you’re after.

In fact, in this sense it’s not all that different from newspaper classifieds of yore: the newspaper editors put before us the news and features they judged through “human algorithms” to be of value – and then the very same companies charged us to advertise our wares in order that through their algorithms (ie their newspapers) we acquired the necessary visibility.

Facebook isn’t social media any more.  With its stock market launch and its now frantic and imperious need to monetise its “news”, Facebook is the 21st century rewriting of what a newspaper once used to be.

A final question, then, to be getting on with: now all you Facebook data is ultimately owned and administered by shareholders, does this make you less or more likely to want to continue playing their game?  As I pointed out not long ago now in relation to how the knowledge economy which was going to benefit us all has been hijacked by supposedly social media:

Let’s just rewind and see how it could’ve been: a society where brains, applied to ideas, developed and implemented technologies on a massive scale – technologies which became cheap enough for everyone to remove drudgery from their ordinary lives and so release the human mind for much better things.

What do we have instead?  Poorly paid – or even unpaid – worker bees (that’s you and me on Twitter and Facebook) inputting data for the software code of such a social web to generate outputs which fascinate companies and allow them to better identify their markets.

Yes.  We are now generating the data for corporations which not only make money out of us directly through advertising (Facebook and Twitter) but also sell our personal details to other organisations (food and consumer-durable manufacturers for example) in order that they may better sell their products to us.  We are now an outsourced part of this latter group of companies’ marketing departments.  Instead of costly opinion polls and focus groups, all they have to do is pay a modicum amount of money to examine Twitter’s firehose (its full complement of content to which the rest of us cannot have access beyond about a maximum of seven days of search) and thus use our freely inputted data to better sell us their products.

Facebook has been amazingly clever – setting us all a trap as clever as that which Twitter has extended.  It has made out that its alternative to the open worldwide web provides us with facilities and guarantees that web could never provide – and then it has proceeded to hand over our collected wisdoms to about as private a set of individuals (ie the anonymous shareholders of a massive transnational corporation) as you could possibly expect to find.

A privacy for some, an absolute absence of intimacy for others.

And even as we admire their astuteness, the serious monetisation – the maximisation of profit which becoming a stockmarket-quoted corporation inevitably attaches to any organisation – has only just begun.

We are now all part of a massive virtual Murdoch-like publication, in fact – where, for the benefit of distant investors and their managerialist classes, any and every intimacy reaches the light of an all-too-public day.

Whilst Murdoch’s News of the World ceased publishing last year, in Facebook’s reconversion of what a global tabloid should now look like, his spirit will live on – mark my words; and with a vengeance.


May 012012

As the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee publishes a damning report today, Tom Watson provides a measured, contained and – as far as I can see – objective assessment of what’s really gone on over the past couple of years, whilst Parliament has tried to get to the bottom of the Murdoch phone-hacking case.  I agree with what, as an interested observer, I have read, heard and been able to cross-reference with respect to the case; with respect to the rest, I am happy to take his word for it.

Even so, I also find myself agreeing with Louise Mensch, one of the Tory Party members of the Committee, who found herself unable to vote for part of the report’s conclusions; in particular with respect to the following assertion: that Mr Rupert Murdoch was unfit to run a major international company.  As the BBC inform us:

A Conservative member of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee said its phone-hacking report would lose credibility for its line over Rupert Murdoch being unfit to run an international company.

Louise Mensch said no MPs from her party could support the report – looking into allegations around the former News of the World newspaper – which would now be seen as “partisan”.

She’s absolutely right about the partisan nature of the vote, of course: the fact that – after all the sewage which has flowed under the tumbling media bridge – four Tory MPs can still band together along party lines and, by withholding their condemnation, let it be understood that the owners of News International have demonstrated all the tenets of good capitalism, is just about as revealing as any such vote ever could become.

When David Cameron saw nothing improper in Mr Hunt’s behaviours, he was implicitly – and simply – recognising that under similar circumstances he would have been happy to do exactly the same.

Louise Mensch and her Conservative colleagues now find themselves in precisely the same place.

I do hope they know what they’re doing and why.

In the very near future, I think they’re jolly well going to need to.

Apr 242012

Today’s events at the Leveson inquiry, with James Murdoch as the star turn, seem as I write to indicate the consequences of “charismatic authority” – a concept already nailed by Harold Evans as characterising Rupert Murdoch’s rule at the helm of News Corporation in the following way:

How much Rupert Murdoch knew and when he knew it may not be pinned down because he exercises what the sociologist Max Weber defined as “charismatic authority” where policy derives from how the leader is perceived by others rather than by instructions or traditions. The concept of charismatic authority as applied to the Murdoch empire may be best understood – as a concept, I emphasise, and not a personal comparison – in the use made of Weber’s definition by Sir Ian Kershaw, historian of the Third Reich. Kershaw argues that Hitler was not much absorbed by the day-to-day details of Nazi Germany’s domestic policy, but was nonetheless a dominant dictator. Kershaw explains the paradox by adopting the phrase of a Prussian civil servant who said the bureaucrats were always “working towards the Fuhrer”. They were forever attempting to win favour by guessing what the boss wanted or might applaud but might well not have asked for. Similarly, in all Murdoch’s far-flung enterprises, the question is not whether this or that is a good idea, but “What will Rupert think?”. He doesn’t have to give direct orders. His executives act like courtiers, working towards what they perceive to be his wishes or might be construed as his wishes. A few examples from the Times follow. They act this way out of of fear, certainly, because executions are so brutal but the fear also reflects a more rational appreciation of the fact that his “wild” gambles so often turn out to be triumphs lesser mortals could not even imagine.

It would appear to be a perfectly convenient example of an implementation of perverse Chinese walls of some kind – and whether intentional or accidental the kind of thing that would in other circumstances allow CEOs the world over to earn the salaries and bonuses their boards sanctioned on their behalf without running the risks of ultimate responsibility for everything that happened on their turfs and under their command.

Find it difficult to believe that all the above might take place in a modern business environment of clear rights and responsibilities?  Take these pieces of information from today’s questioning:

Here’s a tweet from FT media editor Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson.

Jay sounding incredulous that James left underlings to offer £350,000 Gordon Taylor settlement without his authority #leveson

— A Edgecliffe-Johnson (@Edgecliffe) April 24, 2012

And then there’s this exchange:

In a key exchange, Jay puts to Murdoch that there was either a cover up or a failure of governance.

Jay says:

There are two possibilities here. Either you were told of the evidence that linked others at the News of the World to Mulcaire and this was in effect a cover up, or you weren’t told and you didn’t read the emails properly and there was failure of governance at the company do you accept that?

Murdoch maintains that Myler and Crone gave him “sufficient information” to settle the Gordon Taylor case at a higher figure, but not sufficient information “to go and turn over a whole lot of stones”.

He adds: “I was given repeated assurances newsroom had been investigated, that there was no evidence. I’ve been very consistent about it.”

See what I mean?

Quite a bit more than just curious.

And perhaps quite a bit more than just revealing too.

Apr 202012

I take it that Norman refers to the Guardian, when he says:

In a far off land, the question has arisen whether a certain newspaper is a conduit for anti-Semitism. Some think so, and others think not.

I’ll play a short substitution game with the next two paragraphs in his piece, which in their original version describe the state of play in relation to the media treatment of Jews.  The originals can be found here.  My version below:

Those who think so point out that the newspaper in question provides space in its pages for the opinions of people on record as hating socialists; space also for those justifying the elimination of socialism from British politics; and space also for writers who deploy well-known anti-socialist themes even while professing that they have nothing whatever against socialism but are merely critics of Labour.

Those who think the paper in question is not a conduit for anti-socialism argue that it can’t be because it has socialists writing for it; and allows space in its pages for people who explicitly condemn anti-socialism; and is a liberal paper with a record of opposing extremism. Some say, as well, that it is the function of such a paper to be open to different points of view, and therefore it is not surprising if, as well as material of the latter kind, this newspaper allows room for material of the former kind.

Norman then goes on to show that the paper in question is actually partial in the causes it takes up and espouses or, alternatively, aims to criticise.

To be honest, I’m inclined to believe that if he feels this way about the Guardian with respect to Jews (if, indeed, it is that paper which is the object of his unhappiness), then – equally – socialists across the country who inhabit that political state which is Labour might feel just as maltreated by the Guardian‘s amoral tendency to “free” comment.

They don’t support our literal extermination – but they do perhaps support our figurative disarming, where this for example is clearly not the case with respect to the Liberal Democrats or even the Tories.

Which is why it does occur to me that in much the same way as Thatcher lived on in Blair, and in much the same way as Blair’s legislation has facilitated Cameron’s destruction of the Welfare State, so the Guardian‘s proud talking-shop which is Comment is Free has more than a little of that vacuous and morally empty hole which is said to have occupied Murdoch’s empire.

“We do what we do because, essentially, it sells news.”  I imagine these words, of course – I’m hardly privy to the private thoughts of Mr Murdoch.  But in the Guardian‘s trajectory, in its allegedly partial attachment to certain causes – and in its resistance to others – we have the makings of an argument which suggests that our favourite liberal paper has so grown up in the shadow of Murdoch that it has replicated, on the left, whether intentionally or by accident, even his empty soul.

Along with everything this might imply.

Which brings me to my initial question: does Murdoch’s legacy live on in the alleged amorality of the Guardian‘s Comment is Free?

Mar 272012

This is a hacking and tracking century, I’m afraid.  We are losing our moral compass – and fast.  Two stories which draw my attention today and provide evidence for these unhappy assertions.

First, these serious hacking allegations:

Part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire employed computer hacking to undermine the business of its chief TV rival in Britain, according to evidence due to be broadcast by BBC1’s Panorama programme on Monday.

The alleged objective of such hacking?  Well, this I’m sad to say:

The witnesses allege a software company NDS, owned by News Corp, cracked the smart card codes of rival company ONdigital. ONdigital, owned by the ITV companies Granada and Carlton, eventually went under amid a welter of counterfeiting by pirates, leaving the immensely lucrative pay-TV field clear for Sky.

If true in any way whatsoever, there are two conclusions we might be inclined to arrive at:

  1. that Murdoch’s closely knit hub of business organisations shows indications of rampantly corrupting and maverick behaviours; or
  2. that Murdoch’s closely knit hub of business organisations simply acts as most of its competitors around it are also inclined to act – the only difference being, in this case, that it has had the misfortune to be caught out;

Personally, and quite unhappily, I am of a mind to conclude the latter.  Why?  Well, in part because of this story which came my way via Richard Murphy on Twitter yesterday (well worth the long read it provides in full):

Major advertisers and corporations have been quietly tracking the online movements of those visiting “Occupy Wall Street” related sites for months. They have have used this data to create detailed portraits of the lives and interests of potential protestors. This data is then sold in unregulated markets and retained indefinitely in databases that may be subject to secret government subpoena. […]

Couple that kind of tale with others like this one – where we discover that Android apps share, in some cases without user permission, personal details and mobile-phone content with advertisers across the globe – and we must surely end up accepting that if the allegations about Murdoch-connected companies are even moderately true, then his is not the face of unacceptable business practice but rather the ever-broadening underbelly of business and political activity everywhere.

Murdoch is not the problem any more.  Murdoch is just one more example of very many.  Our socioeconomic societies and models are crumbling before our very eyes.  In a context such as this, the most recent cash for Cameron scandal is not the cause of our sadness but the symptom of a much wider malaise.

We are corrupt, folks.  That is what Western civilisation now stands for.

We had a chance after the Berlin Wall and 9/11 to take an honourable path.  Instead, we decided to squander all that moral credit.  This, then, is how we lost everything we could’ve gained.  This is how the West which was won was lost in a decade.

Feb 272012

With recent evidence mounting up that governments are using corporations to do their dirty work, it does make me wonder – and want to infer – whether this weekend’s big technology news is an indication of a far wider malaise.  The fact that Facebook feels able to happily admit that it’s been spying on smartphone users’ text messages in order to harvest data to allow it to launch its own messaging facility does make me think that perhaps governments are already doing this; and, behind the scenes, this is simply a given which makers and shakers have long been aware of.

A given they are now even comfortable with.

The worst of the story isn’t however just that.  The worst is contained in this paragraph:

It claimed that some apps even allow companies to intercept phone calls – while others, such as YouTube, are capable of remotely accessing and operating users’ smartphone cameras to take photographs or videos at any time.

Hardly a surprise, therefore, when a Sunday Times survey of smartphone-user behaviours throws up the fact that almost three-quarters of those questioned never or rarely check out the terms and conditions before installing a program.

So whilst these institutions continue to reap the benefit of intercepting your text messages and phonecalls and taking control of your photos and videos, they are actually doing it with your explicit permission.

Three observations which strike me here: first, isn’t it ironic that it is Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times which – in the week before important revelations are expected at the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking and media abuse – manages to pull together a report on how these huge technology companies (his sworn enemies in those battles on intellectual property and Internet freedoms that are SOPA, PIPA and ACTA) are potentially abusing their own dominant market positions to trick innocent users into giving up considerable swathes of their privacy?

Which, of course, and despite the conflict of interest, doesn’t mean the report isn’t absolutely right to say what it does.

The second observation?  Just imagine it was a government which, say, launched a friendly Direct.gov.uk single-point-of-access app whose terms and conditions allowed it to gather the kind of data and have the kind of control over your phone which Facebook has chirrupingly acknowledged and Google’s YouTube has surreptitiously acquired.

Just imagine, then, the hullabaloo that would be raised.  The furore the newspapers would generate in their attacks on the ever-encroaching police state.

Remember what I said about governments getting corporations to do their dirty work?  In the light of this and other recent stories, it really wouldn’t surprise me if both had long ago been involved hand-in-glove …

And lastly?  Well.  It doesn’t half make me shiver to realise that whilst morally unacceptable – and possibly illegal – phone-hacking and voicemail interception was the flavour of the past decade at some British newspapers, our favourite smartphone newspaper apps may one day – if, indeed, this is not already the case – allow their proprietors to legally follow our movements; track our texts; listen in to our calls; and write stories on our activities.

These phones are bloody self-financing, for goodness sake – with all the data we are giving up for nothing.  These companies talk about how difficult it is for them to make money on the web – and then they submit us all to the indignity of things like the above.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.  Perhaps this is the awful consequence of forcing unwieldy corporations to monetise their content in any which way but via direct payments.  Or, alternatively, a result of the aforementioned companies being entirely unable to move with the times.

A point worth debating further?  Maybe for another post.

Maybe, indeed.

The truth of the matter is, and the way it’s now going, we shouldn’t just be getting the content and devices for free …

We shouldn’t just have an inalienable right to be able to chatter, click and browse for zilch …

We should actually be remunerated for reading and using this stuff.  Because long-term, and I mean this seriously, we’re not going to be paying for the rest of lives but – rather (the difference is subtle but profound) – with the rest of our lives.

And that’s a thought that really doesn’t bear thinking about.

Now does it?

Feb 012012

This story – whilst an old one from May 2008 – came my way via my favourite tweeting gasman, Gary Robinson, on Twitter this morning:

Two pest controllers were called to coax a 4ft (1.2m) orange snake into a bag after it was found by a tenant in her house boiler.

When Lee Marshall, 40, spoke to an “almost hysterical” young woman from Southsea, Portsmouth, claiming she had seen a snake he thought she was joking.

But he and a colleague discovered the creature slithering inside a boiler.

Coincidentally – and also via Twitter, but this time via my favourite MP, Tom Watson – we get a report from the Independent, as well as a related .pdf file held on Parliament’s web servers, about the subject of Rupert Murdoch’s News International phone-hacking scandal.  In the incident under question, the Independent seems to imply a key email might have been held back from shareholders last year in order to ensure control would not be lost of BSkyB.  This, then, is what the Independent has to say of the very same year as our snake in the gas story – but this time a month later in June 2008:

A key email which cast significant doubt on James Murdoch’s repeated assertions that he was never told about the true extent of phone hacking at the News of the World was kept from public disclosure last year while the media heir faced a shareholder revolt over his leadership of BSkyB.

And this:

Had the email sent by Mr Myler in June 2008, which talked of a “nightmare scenario” of further phone hacking claimants, been made public around the time of its discovery by a “reviewer” in a crate of material recovered from the offices of the closed NOTW it is likely to have significantly heightened the pressure on Mr Murdoch.

Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and phone hacking victim who attended the AGM, said: “Had this information been available at the time of the AGM, I am sure more shareholders would have said ‘sorry James Murdoch but thank you very much and goodbye’.”

Meanwhile, what we presume is the full sad and sorry behind-the-scenes story – what apparently caused this key email to be “lost in review” – is contained in this recent letter (.pdf file) to the Parliamentary Committee investigating the hacking scandal.  Well worth your time.

Just a couple of final observations to wrap up. 

People get paid to not do their job like this, you know.  Or, on the other hand, to do it all too well.

Though I’m sure neither of the above has happened in this particular case.

When one can choose between rank conspiracy and rank incompetence, 99 percent of what happens in this world is due to rank incompetence.

Isn’t it?

Jan 182012

Compare and contrast the following two positions.  First, from Rupert Murdoch’s editors at the Times and Sunday Times, giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry:

The editors of the News International-owned Times and Sunday Times have told the Leveson inquiry they were implacably opposed to any form of statutory regulation of newspapers because of the “chilling effect” it may have on the press.

The editor of the Sunday Times even goes so far as to say:

[…] he would have “very serious doubts about some sort of statutory body that’s been set up by parliament” because he thinks further down the line “politicians would be tempted to intervene”.

So statutory regulation, for Mr Murdoch’s editors – and presumably Mr Murdoch himself – is quite out of order.

I agree too.

However, Mr Murdoch – himself – doesn’t seem to entirely agree with himself.  At least, not in a slightly different context.  Witness this story from last year on the subject of his very personal support in favour of far-reaching legislation – SOPA and PIPA – to control what is published, where and how on the worldwide web:

News Corp. honcho Rupert Murdoch threw his weight behind Congress’ attempt to restrict the Internet, personally lobbying leaders on Capitol Hill Wednesday for two measures that purport to combat piracy.

The implications of SOPA and PIPA – if you’re not entirely aware – are summarised at EFF’s site here:

In addition to going after websites allegedly directly involved in copyright infringement, a proposal in SOPA will allow the government to target sites that simply provide information that could help users get around the bills’ censorship mechanisms. Such a provision would not only amount to an unconstitutional prior restraint against protected speech, but would severely damage online innovation. And contrary to claims by SOPA’s supporters, this provision—at least what’s been proposed so far—applies to all websites, even those in the U.S.

As First Amendment expert Marvin Ammori points out, “The language is pretty vague, but it appears all these companies must monitor their sites for anti-circumvention so they are not subject to court actions ‘enjoining’ them from continuing to provide ‘such product or service.’” That means social media sites like Facebook or YouTube—basically any site with user generated content—would have to police their own sites, forcing huge liability costs onto countless Internet companies. This is exactly why venture capitalists have said en masse they won’t invest in online startups if PIPA and SOPA pass. Websites would be forced to block anything from a user post about browser add-ons like DeSopa, to a simple list of IP addresses of already-blocked sites.

Perhaps worse, EFF has detailed how this provision would also decimate the open source software community. Anyone who writes or distributes Virtual Private Network, proxy, privacy or anonymization software would be negatively affected. This includes organizations that are funded by the State Department to create circumvention software to help democratic activists get around authoritarian regimes’ online censorship mechanisms. Ironically, SOPA would not only institute the same practices as these regimes, but would essentially outlaw the tools used by activists to circumvent censorship in countries like Iran and China as well.

So.  On the one hand, in Britain, in the context of the printed press, Mr Murdoch is right about state regulation.  Such regulation would inevitably lead, at some time in the future, to governments and individual politicians spreading out from such legislative “beachheads” – as they took lazy intellectual and strategic advantage of the opportunities thus presented.

On the other hand, however, as his adventures in MySpace and other online ventures have indicated, his knowledge and intuitive understanding of the ways of the worldwide web leave much to be desired:

Many questions and jokes about My Space.simple answer – we screwed up in every way possible, learned lots of valuable expensive lessons.

And, unfortunately, the primary lesson he seems to have learned is that whilst the package that is politicians, governments and state regulation is indisputably bad – phone-hacking, Leveson and bizarre print media behaviours notwithstanding – it would seem that he thinks the package that is private businesspeople, content corporations, the Internet and the once again aforementioned thorny state regulation – in the form of massively invasive new laws which give a potentially total control to put the shutters down on freedom of speech everywhere – is actually really rather a jolly good idea.

That is to say, whilst it’s bad to pass laws politicians and governments might be tempted to use for their own benefit in an industry which is dying, it’s fine to pass laws businesspeople and corporations are aiming to use for their own benefit in an industry which is on the point of flourishing like no other.

Talk about pork-barrel politics.  These businesspeople appear to have absolutely no shame whatsoever.

Jan 012012

How do you know when someone really is who they claim to be?  This account, for example – the image below is from Twitter today – certainly begs the question:

Several thoughts come to my mind on discovering this feed.  Firstly, when Twitter says it’s verified someone’s account, does that mean what’s tweeted is done by the person it has confirmed the account belongs to or, alternatively, simply on the authority of that person?  Secondly, if only the latter, then what is the point of verifying anything?

To be honest, I am inclined to believe one of the virtues of social media is that medium-term it doesn’t matter whether verification is used or not – the truth and reality behind the persons or group of people actually responsible for the tweeting will eventually emerge.

As you can see from the image, for the first few tweets we had the standard Twitter avatar of an egg accompanying some pretty banal and inconsequential words.  And then coincidentally, the first tweet which includes Mr Murdoch’s face is the first one which begins to ring true:

Maybe Brits have too many holidays for broke country!

Cheeky, mischievous, impish … insensitive, inappropriate, unacceptable in public society.  Depending on your point of view, this is much more like the real Murdoch than any verification system by Twitter could prove.

Mark my words.  Murdoch will be buying up Twitter very shortly.

Just in time to see it all collapse under its all-too-obvious software-engineering and business-model shortcomings?

Or, alternatively, just in time to properly invest in a tool which – in the burgeoning field of social networks – still maintains the virtue of relative conceptual simplicity and brevity of content?

Will this in fact mark Murdoch’s successful leap into the 21st century as he gains first-hand experience of what the social-media nexus is really all about?  Or will he make the same mistakes in this venture as – over the past decade or so – he has made in his wider publishing empire? 

That is to say, surround himself by cleverly persuasive yes-men and women – who tell him what he prefers to hear – instead of getting properly involved in the day-to-day dirty dirty of his businesses.

From the tenor of his first few tweets, I fear – or perhaps hope – the latter will be the case.

But never underestimate an old hand’s ability to learn by doing it himself.

Corporate structures tend to distance geniuses from the environments they first flourished in.

Murdoch was – and perhaps still is – a genius in publishing.

And Twitter – at its very best – is the most concise and genius-generating form of interactive publishing the world has seen.

Don’t write him off.

At least, not yet.

The Real Rupert Murdoch – given the chance to reveal itself once more in public – may yet manage to charm us; even despite ourselves.

And so I end up following him, quite despite myself.

Quite despite his cruelty.

Quite despite his dictatorial instincts.

Quite despite the impact he had on British politics.

And precisely because I have been trained as an editor – and cannot fail to admit all the above are signs he could still be a good one. 

Even where this also makes him a perfectly noxious influence.

Dec 292011

What would New Labour have looked like if the News of the World had closed in 1997 – instead of collapsing ignominiously in 2011?

This thought comes to mind on the back of a comment of mine which came out of an exchange with Brian at the foot of a previous post:

Yes. That’s true. That the debate [on neoliberalism] wasn’t conducted *was* a serious failing of Blair and New Labour. But Murdoch still ruled the roost. A thought experiment then. What would New Labour’s regime have looked like if the News of the World had collapsed in 1997 instead of 2011? Think that one through and perhaps contextualising Blair might be easier for us all.

Just imagine what might have happened if Blair – suddenly released from his obligations to the man who had helped crown him – could have moved Labour forward in exactly the way he must only have ever dreamt about.

This was before tuition fees had splintered Labour’s faithful; before Iraq had broken the back of the patient church that still constituted the Party, even in 2003; before a whole host of concessions to the rancid right of British politics had distorted and fatally damaged his ability to perceive the real opportunities for a moral democracy.

For it is the strangest matter that the more moral become the discourses of those who would lead nations, the more violent and militaristic become the realities they proceed to deliver.

But let’s imagine that Murdoch & Co were vanquished as now: temporarily at least, without too much room to regroup.  Blair could have created a government of an easy three terms – not doing God; not doing triangulation; not doing the Daily Mail or the Sun.  Just being what became him most naturally: listening to the wider people and reinterpreting their discourse for the good of a wider voting constituency.

Politics has always produced leaders who know how to crystallise and exemplify the desires of a generation.  And where this has not happened, we have had lost generations thrashing about wildly.  It would seem, right now, that we are awaiting that moment again.  And the generation we form a part of has a grand opportunity to remake the future – with or without the help of the commentariat.  As already pointed out:

[…] what if a politician was wise enough to propose pulling – first of all – the wool over the eyes of the commentariat itself?  That is to say: let’s imagine that Miliband, in this case, intended not to give too many gobbets of psychological stroking in the direction of self-important observers – observers who had become so used to being seen as astonishing crystal-ball gazers, by virtue of a privileged connection and control over the people we actually wanted to vote into power, that they found it absolutely impossible to contemplate that any politician might wish to play a different more solidly democratic game and at the same time be half-competent.

And so they interpret, supposedly on our behalf but surely far more in their own rank interests, that Ed Miliband can’t communicate; Ed Miliband doesn’t know how to fight; Ed Miliband is in hock to big trades union interests; and Ed Miliband is plain and simply the wrong man.

Plain and simply the wrong man not because he’s wrong for us, the voting public, but – rather – because he’s very wrong for the commentariat.

You know what I think?  I think most politicians and commentators in modern politics are actually jealous of Ed Miliband.  That he has got so far without owing anything to the media of one sort or another must really frustrate them in their own carefully marketed strait-jackets of thought. 

Which is why I do say: “Ed, you still have my vote.  The power you can take advantage of, channel and mould is as yet largely untested, untried and unseen.  But if you manage your opportunities well and effectively from now on in, if you manage to see them exactly for what they are before the rest of us are able to even sense their wisdom, you will be marking out a new territory: a new territory which will change British politics forever.

“It’s now your only alternative. 

“It’s now our only option.

“So understand it for what it is – and take it whilst you still can.”

Nov 122011

I read this story from the Mail today almost as soon as it was published.  I thought it might be wise to wait and see.  Even after everything that has happened, and even after everything we’ve all written, I did wonder if this was just one accusation too far.  James Murdoch and his NLP-like ways of disconcerting his verbal opposition, his carefully open body language, his convincingly couched appeals for reasonableness to those others sidelined in attendance as awful accusations were declaimed by Tom Watson, as well as Murdoch’s oh so appealing naivete in the face of a dreadfully suspicious world, all still continued to make me wonder if he – and by extension the Murdochs in general – were truly as bad as they are painted.

But the news continues to dribble out.  First from that Mail story I link to above:

The latest twist in the case emerged 24 hours after Mr Murdoch – the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch – was grilled for two and a half hours on Thursday by a House of Commons select committee.

In a bruising second appearance before the Culture Committee, he insisted he had not learned until recently that the practice of illegally eavesdropping on private phone messages went beyond a single ‘rogue reporter’.

Then Andrew Neil tweets that:

Source close to R Murdoch tells me emails uncovered by police in India (see today’s Daily Mail) potentially ‘devastating’ for James M down.

Only for Tom Watson to confirm this incredible piece of information barely an hour and a half ago:

“Every Single Member Of The Committee Investigating [Phone Hacking] Were Followed By Private Eyes” http://t.co/TJKBnBZW 6 months ago!

Meanwhile, my attention is drawn to this similarly ongoing story – and it occurred to me a thought experiment really might not come amiss.  It describes how alleged abusive behaviours at a Catholic school were being investigated by the Church itself – an exercise which in the words of one observer was akin to putting “Dracula in charge of a blood bank”.  In a more recent report on the outcome of an external investigation into these selfsame accusations, we get this text:

The report’s key recommendation was that Ealing abbey monks lose control of St Benedict’s. It listed 21 abuse cases since 1970 with Carlile saying the form of governance was “wholly outdated and demonstrably unacceptable”.

The report said: “In a school where there has been abuse, mostly – but not exclusively – as a result of the activities of the monastic community, any semblance of a conflict of interest, of lack of independent scrutiny, must be removed.”

“Primary fault lies with the abusers, in the abject failure of personal responsibility, in breach of their sacred vows … and in breach of all professional standards and of the criminal law.

“Secondary fault can be shared by the monastic community, in its lengthy and culpable failure to deal with what at times must have been evident behaviour placing children at risk; and what at all times was a failure to recognise the sinful temptations that might attract some with monastic vocations.”

Historic fault also lay with the trustees and the school for their failure to understand and prepare for the possibility of abuse with training and solid procedures for “unpalatable eventualities”.

In his criticism of school governance, Carlile wrote that the existing structure lacked “independence, transparency, accountability and diversity, and is drawn from too narrow a group of people”.

So let’s rewrite that just a little – and see how it might pan out as template for – say – a massive global news-gathering corporation called Miljenko’s News:

The report’s key recommendation was that the Miljenko and his inner circle lose control of Miljenko’s News. It listed thousands of phone- and computer-hacking cases since 1999 with the report’s author saying the form of governance was “wholly outdated and demonstrably unacceptable”.

The report said: “In a corporation where there has been abuse, mostly – but not exclusively – as a result of the activities of its editorial community, any semblance of a conflict of interest, of lack of independent scrutiny, must be removed.”

“Primary fault lies with the abusers, in the abject failure of personal responsibility, in breach of their legal responsibilities … and in breach of all professional standards and of the criminal law.

“Secondary fault can be shared by its board and top management, in its lengthy and culpable failure to deal with what at times must have been evident behaviour placing the public and democratic discourse at risk; and what at all times was a failure to recognise the awful temptations that might attract some with corporate vocations.”

Historic fault also lay with with the shareholders – especially the institutional ones – for their failure to understand and prepare for the possibility of abuse with training and solid procedures for “unpalatable eventualities”.

In his criticism of corporate governance, the report’s author wrote that the existing structure lacked “independence, transparency, accountability and diversity, and is drawn from too narrow a group of people”.

For two things occur to me, you see.  What surprises me, first, given that the original version of our thought experiment tonight describes how a corporate body like the Catholic Church would allegedly appear to have been consistently allowing the abuse of children since 1970, is that this story is not grabbing the headlines this weekend as much as Mr Murdoch’s also alleged – and perhaps ethically analogous – disregard for what is admittedly an utterly different set of public and private mores.

Just remember the litany however.  Thousands of alleged cases of phone-hacking, uninvestigated by the British police for almost a decade; families like that of Milly Dowler absolutely led down the garden path of cruelly raised hopes; a body politic pulverised by Murdoch Sr’s total control over its democracy; and now, if Watson and Greenslade are to be believed, a surveillance of lawyers and MPs which continued well into 2011.

Whilst it was supposed News International was cooperating with the authorities.

Talk of Dracula being in charge of the blood bank.


What surprises me more, however, and after all, is that if such a report as the one we read above can be written on an institution as mighty as the Catholic Church, especially in the uncompromising tone we clearly can detect and note, why – then – cannot we do the same in relation to News International? 

And sooner rather than later?

Murdochs, monks and dirty habits.

There’s no getting away from them.

Closed environments, shuttered communities, organisations where money is no object.

And there was once a man called Jesus all people would probably have been proud to have in their belief systems.

Just as there was once a Murdoch called Keith all journalists would probably have been proud to have in their profession.

How the mighty fall.

And how very far.

Sep 262011

There’s a very good post out there which defends bankers from the public excoriation they have been suffering of late.  

It’s so very good that I almost end up excusing the bankers myself for the terrible travails they have visited upon us.  I remember being in Edinburgh one September, sitting outside a fish and chip shop, having a conversation with a very kind man – who also happened to be a banker.  And I nodded and agreed as he gently argued that we’d have to keep our heads down for a while – until all this “crisis stuff” blew over.  Things like bringing in the snacks from the local upmarket supermarket instead of getting in the usual high-class caterers to the do the job.  A bit more video-conferencing, a bit less flight-and-hotels.

Keep our heads down, as he suggested.

A question of patience and time, really.

Now I haven’t read all of the comments (over three hundred) of the very good piece out there which has provoked me to put electronic pen to virtual paper today – but I did read all the OP and I can understand the underlying thesis at work.  And it’s an honourable stance – and fairly argued.

And since it almost convinced me, I’m inclined to believe it might almost convince you.  So here’s a bit of an inside story just to remind us.
I worked for one of the partly bailed-out banks until very recently.  I occupied an extremely humble data-processing role which prior to becoming really data-processing involved me working in account opening, where I got paid just as little and was always on tenterhooks in the expectation of being regraded (not).  In this previous account opening role (please bear with me – I’m getting there), I not only opened accounts but also filtered the applications for problems of an anti-money laundering nature – applications which incidentally came via relationship managers.  The RM helpline we ran provided clear evidence of the pressures these ladies and gentlemen were under to open accounts for people who didn’t always deserve the service.  More importantly, and although I cannot vouch myself for the truth of the next bit, people I trust told me they knew for certain that RMs were allowing customers to open high-interest deposit accounts with ourselves with funds obtained from overdraft facilities the customers had with ourselves.

I know, I know, I know.  This is damn small beer.  A deposit initiative, dysfunctional behaviours due to inappropriate targets – all signs of a system’s partial collapse.  Not necessarily a description of an entire sector’s attitudes, behaviours and demeanours.  So it is that the bankers, myself as a humble back-office worker, management and unions – none of us was responsible for anything that happened here.  And yet, little by little, the sum of our non-existent responsibilities added up to a crisis no one cared to predict, no one cares to own and no one will care to sit down properly and work out how to resolve.

In truth, we could argue that the reason no one owns any of this – and perhaps, quite reasonably, it is fair and just to accept that no one in fact does – is because of the tendency big business has to divide all process into very small discrete elements of action.  No one, then, under such a regime, even towards the top of the pyramid, knows what’s going on anywhere.  From the Murdochs to the Goodwins to you and I and the cat’s mother … we’re all either at the mercy of, or working out how to take advantage of, a systemic division of responsibilities – designed in the first instance to protect large corporations from the negative impacts of the frequent movement of personnel but, effectively now, and perhaps also in the future, serving to break down all kinds of significant threads of communication which might have otherwise been able to avoid the crisis under discussion.

I just remember what it was like to be that humble back-office worker.  And I remember what it was like to feel ashamed of my sector.  Now I’m out of it all, all that remains is the shame I feel for not having flagged some of this up when I could’ve done.  But if I had, I expect I would’ve been out of my job even sooner.

Or alternatively – when told to give over – I’d have decided to give over.

To flag up something wrong in an environment which accepts so much as a given, you have to be really strong.

And most of us aren’t.

Sep 192011

I’m inclined simply to link to this feature article by Harold Evans from last night’s online edition and today’s paper version of the Guardian.  Link to it – and then allow you (I guess – I hope) to fume.  But I have to do more.  I can’t just leave it at that.

This, on Murdoch’s performance at the recent hearing before MPs on the question of phone-hacking, for example:

Observers in the Portcullis room were divided on the efficacy of Murdoch’s testimony. Some thought his answers revealed a doddery, amnesiac, jetlagged octogenarian. He cupped his ear occasionally to ask for a question to be repeated; at one moment he referred to the prime minister, David Cameron, when he meant Alastair Campbell, former prime minister Tony Blair’s press adviser. Others saw the testimony as a guileful imitation of “junior”, the ageing mentor to Tony, the capo in the Sopranos, who feigned slippered incompetence to escape retribution. I thought, on the contrary, that Murdoch was a good witness, more direct than his son James, who unnervingly sported a buzz cut reminiscent of Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. His father was as taciturn as James was loquacious. Murdoch père paused to run each answer through his shrewd mental calculations of the legal implications of his own words, occasionally smiting the tabletop in front in a kind of brutal authoritarian emphasis that began to make his wife Wendi Deng distinctly nervous. She leant forward to restrain the militancy.

And then we have a rather more direct description of exactly how Murdoch is – even now – able to impose without having to take ownership for his “actions”:

How much Rupert Murdoch knew and when he knew it may not be pinned down because he exercises what the sociologist Max Weber defined as “charismatic authority” where policy derives from how the leader is perceived by others rather than by instructions or traditions. The concept of charismatic authority as applied to the Murdoch empire may be best understood – as a concept, I emphasise, and not a personal comparison – in the use made of Weber’s definition by Sir Ian Kershaw, historian of the Third Reich. Kershaw argues that Hitler was not much absorbed by the day-to-day details of Nazi Germany’s domestic policy, but was nonetheless a dominant dictator. Kershaw explains the paradox by adopting the phrase of a Prussian civil servant who said the bureaucrats were always “working towards the Fuhrer”. They were forever attempting to win favour by guessing what the boss wanted or might applaud but might well not have asked for. Similarly, in all Murdoch’s far-flung enterprises, the question is not whether this or that is a good idea, but “What will Rupert think?”. […]

A couple of more comparisons before I finish with the reality that genuinely shocks me today.  On the one hand, on Robert Maxwell – at one point Murdoch’s direct competitor:

Maxwell was the meat axe, a muddler, a volatile sentimentalist, a bully and a crook.

Then, on the other hand, a thumbnail sketch of dear old Rupert:

Murdoch is the stiletto, a man of method, a cold-eyed manipulator.

And, finally, this story, as News International proposes to draw a line under its behaviours – and thus, paradoxically, perpetuate them – through its tried and tested method of buying off injured parties with wads of dosh:

Milly Dowler’s family have been offered a multimillion-pound settlement by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, in an attempt to settle the phone-hacking case that led to closure of the News of the World and the resignation of the company’s chief executive, Rebekah Brooks.

It is understood that News International has made a settlement offer estimated by sources at more than £2m, a figure that includes a donation to charity. But the publisher and media group has not reached agreement with the Dowler family, whose lawyers were thought to be seeking a settlement figure of closer to £3.5m.

So that’s all right then. 

Isn’t it?

But how can we possibly contextualise this?  Well, we could do it on the basis of annual turnover.  The BBC reports $32.7 billion in the year to June 2010 (the profit report here).  What does the figure mentioned above of £3.5 million really represent, then, to a man like Rupert Murdoch?  You know what I mean: for sorting out the pain and grief to the Dowler family, as far as this may be possible – and as a consequence of a set of behaviours his empire might arguably appear to have been built on.

How about – and as I’m feeling generous tonight – rounding up to a princely sum of 0.02 percent?  I think I got that right – maths was never my strong suit, mind.  So I’m happy to be corrected by anyone who’d like to doublecheck.

But let’s just say – for argument’s sake – that I am actually right.  We then have a figure for compensation for this massively high-profile case – a case which, remember, has led to the closure of Murdoch’s best-selling newspaper – of 0.02 percent of annual turnover

And yes, that’s the turnover of just one piddling year!

Whilst the phone-hacking and the competitive advantages it brought his newspaper empire have apparently been going on for at least a decade.

Now if you didn’t have that money, that’d be curtains for this company.  But since the spare cash is apparently lying around, and the will to pay it out is similarly prevalent, it looks like Mr Murdoch – “the stiletto, the man of method, a cold-eyed manipulator” if there ever was one – will get his own way yet again. 

Even in the case of Milly Dowler.

Even in such horrifying circumstances.

Even after everything that’s happened in the past six months.

So do his shareholders really have nothing more to say on this matter?