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Beware the home-grown urban myth

Reading in the Guardian yesterday that BBC Radio 4 Today presenter Ed Stourton was the 27th Baron of Mowbray was one of those “I didn’t know that but it’s not surprising” moments. It turns out that he is not. The title belongs to another Edward Stourton.

Rightly the paper apologises in its corrections and clarifications column today. Also rightly it makes no excuses, but it is one of those mistakes which any journalist could make. The 26th Baron died last month and the obituaries recorded the death of the head of one of the country’s leading Roman Catholic families. He had been educated at Ampleforth and was succeeded by his son Edward.

Now the BBC’s Edward Stourton is obviously well-born, he attended Ampleforth and has written a biography of Pope John Paul. He is also about the same age as the man who actually has the title.

It is easy to imagine that a gossip got their facts wrong and the story spread rapidly among journalists. So it is really a question of: “Beware the home-grown urban myth.”

New Year visit to the Press Gazette

It must be a tough time producing the Press Gazette which was closed, rescued and moved to new offices with a depleted staff. On top of that most of London seems to have been on holiday for the past fortnight.

But the headline today on my newsreader, Journalism facing massive new privacy curb, attracted attention. The PG home page summary read: “Legal experts have warned that journalism will have to change profoundly this year as a result of a recent Appeal Court case. Read More”

Ah! It must be a follow-up comment on the Loreena McKennitt decision last month. Interesting enough to try to “Read more” but it was a lie. There was just a blurb among several for this week’s contents and an invitation to subscribe.

Well, I have had a free ride for long enough. I am one of those who used Press Gazette online and read copies when I found one in the office, so perhaps it was time to take up the invitation to subscribe.

The digital edition on line is one of those electronic replicas which I find useless except when I want to examine the print presentation of a story. Not worth £57.50 a year to me. If I was offered access to all content and the archives for £1 a week, it would have been much more interesting.

The possibility of subscribing to the print issue was not available. That link led to a a subscription company page which said: “Sorry, but this magazine is not available on this website.”

I understand the need for the new owners to get some more money coming in. Let’s hope what we are seeing is a holding operation while some fresh ideas are developed.

Five tests to avoid blog failure

The best thing that can be said about The Independent’s entry into newspaper blogging is that they are wasting very little time on it. Martin Stabe took a look just after Christmas and reached the conclusion that the paper’s “cringeworthy effort at blogging” needed sorting out. He was almost too kind.

You might have expected someone in Marsh Wall would have noticed his comments and made at least some effort to add a few posts. But no. The latest post, in the comedy section, is dated December 21 and promises a round-up of Christmas gigs after December 25. It tells us a review of Ricky Gervais is on the main site and, then, fails to give a link to it.

If this was some sort of subversive blogging joke it might be ok, but it is not. The home page of each blog has a blurb proclaiming that the paper is, “Proudly Independent by name and nature…”

It is particularly sick at the top of the Sony Technology Blog which would look as if the content was dictated by the sponsor were it better written. Each post has the same intro: “Welcome to Sony’s technology blog – the best way to keep up with the fast-paced developments in the digital age.”

I can only hope that the most recent post, on December 18, is accurate and it is the “third and last posting”. That would be merciful. The Environment blog has not been updated since they asked readers, on November 3, what they should be covering.

Maybe the editors took a look at the comments which centred on whether global warming was written in the bible and decided enough was enough.

All this brings me my five tests for a newspaper blog:

  1. Does it do anything which cannot better be done in another section of the site?
  2. Does it develop the paper’s interaction with the readers?
  3. Does it gain a valuable audience? (A particular niche, readers who are new to the paper etc.)
  4. Can you give the blogger sufficient time to blog successfully?
  5. Have you chosen a writer or writers who have the aptitude to blog successfully?

The tests are far from exhaustive but they should at least help editors to give the topic some thought before launching into anything like The Independent’s blog failure.

Millions are watching Saddam die. Should they?

Mobile phone video of Saddam Hussein’s execution has brought to the fore on the first day on 2007 the debate about how far availability on the internet should influence what is shown by mainstream media.

Writing in the Guardian about coverage of the execution on CNN and Fox News, Dan Glaister said :

But neither could keep up with the news. And the debate about the niceties of showing the stark images of death had already been taken out of the western media’s hands.

Like so much footage shot on the ubiquitous mobile phone, from acts of police brutality to misbehaving politicians, the raw information had circumvented the traditional instruments of control.

Most broadcasters have used some footage from the video which does not show the actual moment of death but has two shots of the dead Saddam with the noose still around his neck (one of them was used across the Guardian’s front page). The BBC showed the build-up but not the aftermath.

These arguments of taste have been rehearsed previously with videos of terrorist assasinations which have been shown in edited form by middle-eastern and western TV stations. The unedited versions have been available on small sites and needed some effort to find them.

This time the unedited version is available on huge new media sites which are effectively in competition with mainstream media. And it has been pulling in a huge audience.

A few minutes ago Google video was saying the camera phone video had been watched 884,657 times, Revver’s count was 182,115 and on You Tube it was restricted to registered users. The Anwarweb.net site from which many copies seem to have come was closed because of excess use of bandwidth. Saddam and his hanging was number 1,2, 3 and 6 on Technorati’s “most searched for” list.

This puts the self-censorship on the grounds of taste, which has long been a part of MSM, under extreme pressure. If people are going to get content from Google and others, why should it not also be available from traditional newspapers and broadcasters?

The counter argument is one of brand identity and trust. MSM is defined by editorial judgements which include whether it is right to show something which is likely to be offensive to some of the audience. There is also the question of appropriateness of material within the context of the whole story.

Google, YouTube and Revver provide no context and there lies another danger. How many are seeking out this video because they feel they are being deprived of an important part of the story and how many just want to watch a snuff movie?

Looking for a British site showing this video I came across a most unpleasant page called “beheading videos”. Part of a “disclaimer” reads: “We have not made this page to shock, but to inform you. Our main stream media networks are just the governments bitches. 90 percent of people believe all the shit in the papers. But an awful lot of stuff goes unreported. The videos/links are provided for informational purposes. To further discussion about thier authenticity (or the lack there of). We firmly believe that people should have the right to see the world as it is. Some places have censored these videos. We feel this hinders our ability to maintain a free society. We are behind our troops 100%, but Tony Blair must think we are a buntch of cunts.” An animated graphic repeated down both sides of the page is of a severed head from which blood is exploding.

This page is hidden — I found it via a Technorati link — behind a site devoted to magic mushrooms and cannabis. The caption to the video says: “Saddam Hussein’s neck appears to of snapped nice.”

When I find a nutty fringe site like this I usually remember there have always been such people around and pass on: when I find one putting out the same content as YouTube I get very worried.

2006 death toll of journalists highest for 14 years

The killing of journalists and their assistants because of the work they were doing reached 113 (81 of them journalists) last year. More than half of them were in Iraq where 139 journalists have been killed since fighting began in 2003.

Last year’s figures from Reporters sans Frontiers were the worst since 1994 when 103 journalists were killed, half of them in Rwanda.

The victims are largely working in their own countries. Of those killed in Iraq, 90% were Iraqis.

Mexico overtook Colombia last year to be the second most dangerous country with nine journalists killed because they were investigating drugs trafficking or reporting on violent social unrest.

The RSF end of year report which also covers attacks and censorship makes grim reading.