Oct 15

Corbyn, the law of unintended consequences and fixed terms

A modest political reflection prompted by the Labour Party conference which ended yesterday. I’m beginning to think that David Cameron, the UK’s Conservative prime minister, and Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats were in coalition with Cameron 2010-15, laid a trap which is only now closing. The effect of an obscure piece of legislation which fixes a five-year term for each elected parliament, passed by the Cameron-Clegg coalition in 2011, is poised to do terrible things to the Labour Party, which remains in opposition.

The Labour Party has elected, under new rules which give ordinary members much greater power, a bearded man of the left who has no experience of running anything. Jeremy Corbyn is going to spend the next few months at least fighting battles inside his own party over policies on everything from Saudi Arabia to nuclear power stations. Only yesterday his declaration that he would never, as Prime Minister, allow the use of nuclear weapons was contradicted from the party’s conference rostrum by his newly-appointed defence spokesman.

Labour is in this spectacular mess because its grassroots members rebelled against the party’s hierarchy and culture. But its members and their leaders are comforting themselves that they have time to sort all this out before it really begins to matter. Even if it takes a couple of years for the left and right of the party to agree, you can hear themselves saying to eachother, the election will still be three years away. Andy Burnham, one of the leadership candidates Corbyn defeated, can be heard saying just that in this convoluted and defensive interview.

I don’t think politics works like that. An extended interval of incoherence will register with voters, even if followed by a better-led approach in years or months just before an election. Labour’s rank and file, at a loss to know what to do with Corbyn at the helm, are taking refuge in an illusion.

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Jun 15

A few quick takeaways on the Reuters Institute Digital News report

The annual state-of-digital-news report from Oxford’s Reuters Institute, released today, confirmed several known trends: the advance of mobile and video, the decline of print and the sturdiness of television news. Underneath the (unsurprising) headlines were several items worth noting.

1.  The multinational survey finds large differences in trust levels. In Finland, 68% of respondents agree that they “can trust most news most of the time”; that figure falls to 32% in the US. Presenting these figures, the report’s main author Nic Newman said that the higher trust numbers tended to be in countries with public service broadcasters who are required by law to be impartial. This is the conventional explanation given for this finding and there must be some truth in it.

But I think there’s a deeper thing at work. The four countries at the bottom of this table are France, Italy, Spain and the US. Whatever else may separate them, all these are countries where the crisis of the elites has been very marked: a significant proportion of the electorate reject the explanations and accounts of what is happening given by the political class. Trust in the news media, or lack of it, is inextricably bound up with the credibility of the political elite.

2.  The fast growth and strength of digital-born global players. The Huffington Post, one of the big winners in the whole survey, is one of the most accessed news and opinion sites in the US and operates in 14 countries, often in the local language. In the league table of digital-born brands, it is beaten by Yahoo (used by 18%) – but this figure is skewed by large traffic in Japan, where Yahoo has a relatively small stake. Huffington Post is next at 10%, followed by Buzzfeed at 4%.

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Apr 15

Andy Mitchell and Facebook’s weird state of denial about news

Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of news and global media partnerships, arrived at the (superb) international journalism festival in Perugia last week to speak about news on Facebook. Thirty per cent of American adults get their news via Facebook (27% in the UK); 88% of millennials in the US do so (71% in Italy). Each month, 1.4bn people use Facebook. That makes Mitchell one of the most – if not the most – powerful news distributors on the planet.

And what Mitchell had to say was straightforward in most ways (full video here) and extremely odd in one important omission.

Facebook wants to improve the “experience” (this word cropped up a lot) of people getting their news on mobile to improve. Links to clunky news sites load slowly and Facebook is talking to major sites (such as the New York Times and Buzzfeed) about embedding their journalism directly in Facebook. Every statistic underlines how much people like getting their news on Facebook.

This was all fascinating, but there wasn’t any mention of how Facebook sees and handles its role as a news gatekeeper, influencing both the detail and flow of what people see. The issue didn’t come up right till the end when a Scandinavian questioner asked Mitchell about instances of Facebook cutting out material from the news linked from his organisation and an Italian student followed up. Mitchell batted both questions away without addressing either directly.

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Mar 15

Little rays of sunshine…journalism in Spain and voting registration

As an antidote to grim March weather, here are two stories to lighten gloom. Struggling to keep up with new media, older people burble that digital social networks carry nothing but trolls and trivia. Many (older) journalists remain sternly pessimistic that their work can survive its bumpy transition to new technologies whose users seem so little interested in serious news and opinion.

At a supper last week organised by Tech City Insider, I had the good luck to sit next to a bearded, energetic man called Michael Sani. He began life as an actor and teacher and founded one of the campaigns trying to improve the falling voter registration rate among young people.

The campaign is called Bite the Ballot and early this year it organised a week-long registration drive. There wasn’t much choice that promoting the apparently-boring cause of registering to vote had to be done on social networks. Besides being the natural online conversation of the 18-24 age group that Sani and his volunteers were aiming at, getting people to relay your message by making it go viral is cheap. Which was good because bitetheballot didn’t have much money.

Long story short: 441,000 new voters were registered in that week. That set a world record for the numbers of voters (as a proportion of the potential electorate) put on the list in a week, outstripping America’s Rock the Vote drive in 2004. New voters registering had a 72% completion rate doing the 5-page form, which might also be a record. The campaign projected pictures onto Big Ben, went to community centres, worked Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat…and spent a grand total of £200.

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Jan 15

Greece: the signal that the era of manager-politicians has ended

Blair_ClintonThat headline does not refer to the fact that there is now going to be a tense negotiation between Greece and the powers of the eurozone and, most probably, currency turbulence in Europe. The election which has brought Syriza to power in Athens marks something a little broader: the end of a political phase, a change of mood.

Political periods are not always defined, however much paid-up members of political tribes (or parties) might wish it, by elections and changes of government. We are currently living through a moment of change which is proving hard for political journalists to capture because the people they most frequently talk to are politicians. And it is politicians who neither sense nor understand the shift of feeling about politics.

Those who have tried to describe this have often said that there is a revolt against elites under way. Who could argue that Syriza’s rapid rise in Greece (and the equally extraordinary collapse of Pasok, the once-dominant Greek socialist party) has been driven by resentment of a political class seen as indifferent, corrupt and out of touch? And of course established parties everywhere suffer because living standards have been hit.

But the target of this anger is also a political style: the managerial leader. The end of the Cold War dissolved a framework of political belief based around the rivalry between collective solutions (socialism, communism etc) and those of more liberal, laissez-faire kinds (liberalism, conservatism etc). Politicians then emerged who, confusingly, picked policies from either side. They paid due deference to ideas and principles, but their appeal was not based on them. They found political labels old-fashioned and restricting.

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Jan 15

In praise of the cartoonist: solitary, studious and searing

I wrote a short ode to cartoonists for The Conversation UK today and you can see it here.

Jan 15

In which Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook discovers…depth

The founder of the planet’s largest social network, Mark Zuckerberg, has been thinking about books and, fortunately, he likes them:

I’ve found reading books very intellectually fulfilling. Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today. I’m looking forward to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.


I have to admit I laughed when I first read this (how old do you need to be to get this?). But Zuckerberg was saying that books had depth and that intellectual depth was a value he looked for in media. And that instinct is right on a trend I wanted to highlight.

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