05
Jul 11

Phone-hacking goes platinum

I’m not surprised that David Cameron has abandoned his non-committal language about phone-hacking by newspaper reporters. The moment yesterday when the story broke that reporters on the News of the World had hacked into the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler and, by deleting message in the phone’s mailbox, have given her parents and police the false hope that she was still alive marks a watershed in the miserable saga of phone interception by journalists. This is more than “a new low”.

Yesterday was the last possible moment that anyone could, with a straight face, claim that this was a limited infraction with minor consequences being blown out of proportion. Until yesterday the story was of huge interest to journalists, policemen and MPs. The drip-drip revelations in The Guardian were not only intriguing, they were significant. But they hadn’t grabbed any really widespread attention.

Campaigners on the issue claimed that this was because major news media managed to mostly ignore the subject; some editors were presumed to be nervous about possible revelations in their own newsroom. This may have been a factor, but the basic explanation was much simpler. To be a marmalade-dropper, a story needs – among other things – an element of surprise, an assumption upended. Stories which showed that red-top reporters behaved badly and broke the law don’t upset anyone’s picture of the world. And into the bargain, the victims of phone-hacking were celebrities. Most people ration their sympathy where red-carpet people are concerned.

Not so the bereaved and much-abused Dowler family. That reporters seem to have been so cruelly indifferent to a family whose 13-year-old daughter had gone missing moves the story into new, mass territory. The essence of the story is emotive and straightforward to grasp and convey. This will be true in spades if it turns out that anyone in the families of the Soham murder victims was treated in the same way.

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04
Feb 11

A different angle on the proposed News Corp takeover of BSkyB

At a seminar on media plurality held in City University today, two knowledgeable commentators aired opinions on the vexed issue of News Corp’s bid to own 100% of BSkyB that were so different from the usual lines of argument that they deserve a wider hearing.

David Elstein, who has worked for most British broadcasting channels (including BSkyB), pointed out that the debate over the takeover was now entirely confined to Sky News, the least valuable part of the company and losing somewhere between £30m and £50m a year. The BSkyB board, he said, had already made clear that it was prepared to sacrifice – to sell or to close – the news division in order to get the rest of the deal through. In those circumstances, Elstein suggested, Rupert Murdoch could happily allow Ofcom, the regulator, to appoint the team of news executives at Sky News and make several other similar concessions to erect barriers against his interference in news. In that case, Murdoch would have no more or less influence on the editorial output than he does now, but would have secured the profit stream from the company at that relatively small price.

Elstein went one stage further and reminded his audience that news organisations are not the same as broadcasters: Independent Television News, for example, doesn’t broadcast but supplies other broadcasters. Sky News could find itself in the same position as a contract supplier of news, perhaps in Britain and certainly in continental Europe.

This got me thinking. People have talked about the possible closure of Sky News, particularly if a deal stops the cross-subsidy from BSkyB. But tens of millions of pounds have also been invested in the Sky News website. The site is one of the best of its kind in the world – often giving the larger BBC a run for its money – with a sizeable team of its own journalists, including video reporters. The chances of this being shut down, even if Sky News wasn’t broadcasting any more, are small. Almost certainly zero.

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26
Nov 10

Making eloquent mischief: Mencken, Murdoch and Dannythefink

Do you ever reach the end of the week gasping to read something counter-intuitive, counter to the trend or just mischevously subversive? I do. Writing stuff which takes you places that you don’t expect to go is one of journalism’s contributions to making better sense of the world and stuff.

Here are the pieces I read this week and which made me sit up.
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23
Nov 10

Berners-Lee vs Murdoch & Jobs

All seem agreed that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is set to launch an iPad-only digital “newspaper” in alliance with Apple very soon. There’s been no denial of obviously well-sourced indications about the price (99 cents or 62p a week), the editorial formula (“a tabloid sensibility with a broadsheet intelligence”) or the likely editor (Jesse Angelo of the New York Post).

No one should complain about Murdoch’s willingness to experiment. He may have come late to the web and he has made some mistakes. But he is laudably unsentimental about dumping an error once it’s clear that it is wrong. He cans the project and moves on to something else.

So I look forward to seeing this tryout. Murdoch plus Steve Jobs is a market-moving alliance by any measure. Their attempt to break the mould will test in an interesting fashion what is becoming a pivotal issue about the new public space which the web is creating.

The odd thing about the iPad-only project (apparently named the “Daily”) is that it sounds very much as if it goes directly against the grain of the web. It is perhaps the most ambitious attempt yet made to reproduce the conditions of print in a digital environment. The content won’t be on the web, only on the iPad. You can only get it by paying one way. Presumably, the content won’t link to much, or anything, else.

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14
Nov 10

A reply to Alan Rusbridger on convergence, plurality and regulation

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, has asked important questions about plurality and the news media in a recent longform blogppost. To make much sense of this post below you need to read Rusbridger first; this is an an attempt to reply to the issues he’s raised.

Rusbridger sees a media mixed economy now divided into three parts: the printed press (light, much-criticised self-regulation), public service broadcasting (heavily regulated) and social or new media (unregulated).

I agree that this three-way mixture manages to be, to a remarkable if accidental degree, all things to all people. A combination of regulated journalism with the wilder flights and fancies of both print and the web balances reliability with disclosure, provocation and an array of voices. It’s not anarchy, nor is it over-controlled and the range of possibilities is wide.

“Can regulation of itself help protect this delicate balance?” Rusbridger asks. This seems a very Japanese way of looking at it. A number of opposing forces fight themselves to a standstill; regulation then freezes the status quo. Never mind how we got here, we are where we are; let’s preserve what we have. Nothing dishonourable in that approach; it’s use has averted many a disaster. But might it not be better still to go back to first principles?

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