06
Sep 13

What the comments on my views on online comments have taught me

Yesterday’s post about the rising indifference to online comments provoked replies which undermined one of my assertions: that early hopes of intelligent conversation made possible by easier digital access have evaporated in the face of the everyday experience of insult, aggression and irrelevance.

With only a handful of exceptions, the comments have been useful and to the point. A few pointed out, as I ought to have, that other have been there before me. Here’s one example from Helen Lewis of the New Statesman; in a tweet-exchange with others reacting, she said that the NS had switched its comments system to Disqus with good effect.

One thing I ought to straighten out. I was not arguing that online comments should be withdrawn or stopped. No such thing is going to occur. What I was suggesting is that the simple technique of opening comments has not delivered the results hoped for. That has two great attractions: it’s “open” in a simple, inclusive way and requires only minimal moderation to remove unacceptable material.

So I was hinting that I think this is going to evolve. This is exactly the point which Mike Masnick (of Techdirt) drove home: his site asks users to vote on comments and give prominence to those which come out on top. He sees no connection between anonymity and talking rubbish.

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13
Jul 12

Press freedom in Ecuador: it’s not getting any better, but worse

Press freedom in Ecuador: its not getting any better, but worseSo far as Ecuador has had any recent coverage at all in the European media, it’s been about Julian Assange and his sudden flit to the Ecuadorean embassy in London to ask for political asylum. This may have served to distract from the latest extraordinary episode in President Rafael Correa’s war against the country’s news media (that’s the Prez above).

To judge by Google Analytics, very few of even my most faithful readers bother with my occasional posts about Ecuador. Even though I’m not an expert, I will keep recording developments when I can. It’s a living example of a truth often forgotten in the pampered, plural, media-saturated lands of Europe and America. It’s perfectly possible for progress in press freedom to be stopped and go backwards, particularly if the government concerned can be confident that few people are watching or care at all.

This is what Ecuador’s President Correa seems to believe. I’ll allow that he may have some reason to complain of his coverage. He’s one of the continent’s new group of radical presidents and the established centres of power, news media included, are not all sympathetic. But mounting a full scale assault on media freedoms with the aim of trying to insulate his government and office from scrutiny is a policy with two tiny, but nevertheless significant, weaknesses: it’s undemocratic and it won’t work.

Here’s the latest absurdity, as reported by the Global Post: a law designed to prevent news coverage having any political effect at all.


06
Feb 12

India and Hong Kong: two new editors to watch

I normally rely on Twitter to keep me up to date on developments in journalism round the world but, reliable as this normally is as a quick check on what’s happening, I missed two watershed moments in the east. One retirement and one appointment.

India and Hong Kong: two new editors to watch

N.Ram

The retirement was of the editor of The Hindu who had always styled himself N. Ram. Narasimhan Ram is 67, so his retirement was hardly a surprise. But he has been so closely identified with The Hindu’s stubborn qualities for so long that it would be natural if readers worried about the future direction of the paper. Dubious as I am about much of its political philosophy (Ram, like many of his generation, flirted with communism when young), The Hindu stands out as a newspaper which cares about quality. I was in India last year when the newspaper began publishing the American diplomatic cables passed to Wikileaks. I can’t share Ram’s reverential attitude to Julian Assange, but his paper’s handling of the Wikileaks material was exemplary both for its journalistic care and political impact. Those disclosures still reverberate in Delhi today.

But The Hindu’s business is under pressure: while India is one of the largest countries in the world where newspaper circulations are still rising, those are not the circulations of the English-language titles but of the Indian-language papers. Business pressures have been part of the complex intrigue which has been played out at the group’s headquarters in Chennai (for a flavour of the passions aroused see here and here). I can’t pretend to explain the ins and outs of this internecine family/corporate struggle. So I hope that Ram has handed over to successors who will preserve his legacy. The Hindu is an important benchmark of what Indian journalists can achieve in print.

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26
Oct 11

Julian Assange’s odd autobiography

Here’s my review in the Times Literary Supplement of Julian Assange’s recent autobiography, an odd but fascinating book. It may be that the passions once stirred by any non-reverential mention of the Wikileaks founder have died down. But I fear that the man who once, enraged by something I had written about his hero, called me a “supercilious weasel” may start up again.


03
May 11

About blogging, this much I now know

This blog is just over a year old and so that – and a refreshed design – seems the right moment to round up what I’ve learnt so far. What you learn about blogging when you do it is not necessarily the same as what you read on the subject. This is what I’ve found about what works and what doesn’t.

  • Few blogs are instant hits. Virtually everyone who publishes their own work – that’s now a colossal number of people – nurtures a secret dream that their words will be found to be so dazzling, so wise and so eloquent that thousands will circulate these posts among themselves and fame will be instant. This gradually gives way to a much older and more solid truth: stamina, patience and the long haul matter in this, just as in most things. This blog has gradually grown a loyal core of readers who keep coming. But boy is it slow.
  • I have written just under 200 posts in a bit over a year. Call that 400 days and I find I’m posting on average every other day.
  • You’re a prisoner of your past: my background (see here) is in print journalism. I write in that mode, for good or ill. I am conditioned not to write too carelessly or too hastily. Does this occasionally inhibit me from pushing out a quick post? Maybe.
  • My largest contributor of incoming traffic so far is Twitter. (I’ve only just set up a Facebook site for blogposts).
  • One of the best things about blogs are links, making a post not only an opinion but text with the evidence for the argument in the background and opportunities for the reader to wander through the links to somewhere quite different. I’ve even suggested that more journalists should use links more frequently as footnotes (see here). But I’ve got to admit that putting in the links is painfully time-consuming. I haven’t timed it precisely, but I reckon that linkage usually takes at least half as much time again as the writing.
  • People talk a lot about “engagement” as the quality which readers look for in a blog. Experience tells me that by far the most effective form of engagement is aggressive disagreement. Some of the largest hits I’ve had have been for posts with strong criticism, needling or disapproval: Lee Bollinger’s dotty ideas about an American BBC, the first and fluffy set of figures from The Times on online subscribers (now superseded by better ones) and almost anything disobliging about Julian Assange. Say what you like about the man from Wikileaks but he has fans who spring to his defence with passion. (It was one of them who called me a “supercilious weasel”). People find reasonableness, common sense and – worst of all – the ability to see both sides of a question simply dull. So bash someone hard and watch the hits climb.
  • Best of all, bash an Australian. Don’t ask me why a verbal walloping for anyone from that blameless and lovely country should be such a powerful blogosphere boost, but it is. The single largest number of hits this blog has ever had in a day followed a post casting some doubts on Assange and Wikileaks (and that was before Assange had gone supernova with the US warlogs and diplomatic cables). The name of Rupert Murdoch is of course likewise catnip.
  • I’ve read that short posts fare better than long ones and posting at the weekend boosts traffic. My experience contradicts both. I see no correlation at all between the hit rate of a post and length. Hardly surprising in that this is a blog about professional and not personal things, but traffic falls at the weekend.
  • I am addicted to Google Analytics, distracted and fascinated by the traffic level wiggling across the days and months. The world map is even better. I know a few of my fans outside Britain (hello to Chris and Katherine, my faithful readers in Cairo) and can see where talks and lectures of mine have created clusters of readers. But the rest is a mystery. Taking a quick look at the last three months and readers in 94 countries…even a tiny number of blog visitors in Sudan, Kazakhstan and Algeria are a surprise. Why am I more popular in Poland than Morocco? But thank you to every single visitor anyway.

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24
Mar 11

What next for Wikileaks?

Did you think that Wikileaks was last year’s drama? Think again. In the next few weeks, there’s going to be a lot of Wikileaks about. Julian Assange’s own book is due for publication at the end of the first week in April. Whatever else may be said of Assange, his ability to detonate high explosive in public life is beyond dispute.

For those reading this blog in Britain or the US, it’s worth remembering that the gradual disclosure of the US diplomatic cables continues piece by piece around the world. I was in India last week, where Wikileaks’ editing-and-publication deal is with The Hindu and the open disclosures from a set of just over 5000 cables set off a storm. Among other things a member of the staff of the American embassy in Delhi reported being shown cash which he was told was to be used to bribe members of parliament to support the government in a close vote in 2008.

Fascination with the spectacle or with the implications of Wikileaks runs as strongly as ever. Is this what journalism is going to be like in the future? Does Wikileaks signal that in the digital era relations between government and the governed will be changed? These were the kind of questions kicked around at a seminar convened by Polis director Charlie Beckett at the LSE last night, when I lectured on Wikileaks at the Xavier Institute of Communication in Mumbai (slides here) and in a draft paper by Yochai Benkler of Harvard’s Berkman Centre. A few points to watch:

  • Wikileaks holds a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables. With only a few (but significant) exceptions, a relatively small number have been published under the supervision of established media, who staff have redacted sensitive names. One person with good knowledge of Wikileaks estimates that something above 5000 have now been released. Perhaps, he speculated, the total published via major media outlets might be 15,000 in all. There’s only a certain number of newspapers and magazines in the world with the staff and the interest to go through and “redact” such bulky material.
  • All of which begs the question about what happens to the remaining 235,000 cables, many of which may contain sensitive names and details (of US informants, for example). This is apparently under discussion inside Wikileaks, with voices in favour of complete, unredacted release and voices against.
  • Quite apart from very likely getting people killed, the unedited release of such a cache would provoke a completely new kind of reaction. That assumption is based on the US reaction to the limited and relatively careful release so far: a wide array of government opinions (Benkler is very good on the dissenting opinions of Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who quietly insisted that the damage to the US was being hyped; Gates has of course announced his retirement and has nothing to lose), private-sector attempts to harm Wikileaks and political figures calling for Assange to be either prosecuted or killed. Would the American government unplug the internet? Could it? The consensus on the second is a resounding “Yes”.
  • Wikileaks has now spawned many imitators, local and global. Will they go commercial and become more like exsting media operations? Or will such sites, whose key asset is their digital indestructibility and ability to hide a source, act as a leaking route of last resort, a compliment and accompaniement to more conventional media?
  • There seemed to be general agreement that governments would now bolt the stable door. Documents of the kind that Wikileaks has surfaced would be harder to extract and seen by fewer people on the inside in the first place. The ship of state may have sprung a leak, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be patched.
  • That’s all fine in liberal societies to the west of here, said one Indian student in Mumbai. But is it right for Wikileaks to be tolerated by open societies when those societies are up against aggressive, ruthless closed societies? I began on a pompous answer about how liberal societies have to take risks that closed societies don’t, stopped and asked him if he had any particular closed society in mind. China, he said firmly.

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12
Feb 11

Wikileaks and Assange: two books

I’ve reviewed the first two books of what will be a literary cascade on Wikileaks in today’s Times (£): the account of Julian Assange’s collaboration with The Guardian by David Leigh and Luke Harding and the inside account from Daniel Domscheit-Berg of his time as Assange’s lieutenant.

The former is largely devoted to the clinching and subsequent collapse of the cooperation between Assange and The Guardian. Domscheit-Berg’s book, driven mostly by pique, is a lengthy complaint about Assange’s dictatorial methods. Both books include useful background on the early origins of Wikileaks. Both books underline that Wikileaks is Julian Assange, no more and no less.

I have discovered that writing blogposts (or reviews) about Julian Assange puts you in the line of fire from his passionate devotees if not from Assange himself. I’ve already been called a “supercilious weasel” and there’s probably worse to come. So if you’re new to this blog you’ll find earlier posts by entering “Assange” in the search box to the right of this post, including my reflections on his two appearances at City University last year. The first of those, much the more intriguing of the two, was before the major leaks of 2010 began.

A few offcuts from the books that couldn’t be squeezed into the review: Continue reading →


03
Jan 11

A micro-manifesto on press freedom for David Cameron

The excellent Times columnist Bill Emmott suggests today that people should stop looking to America for the defence of important human freedoms. President Obama and the US are mired in too many difficulties and bad policies to be able to do that right now. Britain’s David Cameron, Emmott says (£), should step up to the challenge.

He starts with freedom of expression:

“So the task of promoting Western values can and should fall to Britain, for 2011 will offer the opportunity to strengthen our democratic credentials.

The most quixotic, but still satisfying, way would be for David Cameron’s Government to speak out strongly against Hungary’s new media law, for if EU treaties truly were statements of principle Hungary ought now to be expelled. That would also require Italy, with its media firmly under the thumb of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, to be kicked out, which is why it won’t happen. But it would be good for the Government and British pride to stand up in Europe for the freedom of the press.

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