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While sailors sell their stories, parents are barred from telling of “nightmare”

While sailors and marines are given the freedom to sell their stories of being seized by Iranian forces, a couple are barred by the law from telling the full story of the court hearing in which they were cleared of harming their baby son.

The contrast of these two stories goes to the heart of the relationship between the media and government.

Controversially, the military gave the 15 who were held by the Iran permission to sell interviews to the media. The one woman, Faye Turney has been paid a reputed £100,000 to talk to the Sun and ITV. The paper this morning headlines it: Faye my ordeal, with three sub-heads — I feared being raped by Iranians, Stripped to knickers in dingy cell, and The truth behind our TV smiles.

This plays to an image of Iran which serves the Government’s present policy. Peter Wilby in Media Guardian today comments:

The press is always willing, as it was over the capture of the sailors, to criticise a British government for putting its service personnel in harm’s way and for not responding with sufficient resolve when they get into trouble. But it treats foreigners, particularly Muslims, as always in the wrong. The Iranian regime may be as evil, aggressive and oppressive as the US and British governments want us to believe, though I find the case that it poses a signifi cant threat to anybody even less convincing than the case made in 2003 against Saddam (remind me when Iran last invaded another country). All I ask from the press is a little scepticism, a bit of inquiring journalism and an occasional attempt to test out the idea that Iran’s rulers are just normal, blundering politicians making it up as they go along. It’s not much to ask. Is it?

There are other wider questions about the press paying for interviews and the way in which the very fact of money changing hands is most likely to ensure that the seller provides the quotes the customer wants.

At the same time Jake and Victoria Ward are desperate to tell the story of their 18-month “nightmare” before they were cleared of harming their baby son William who they had taken him to a GP with a swollen leg which turned out to be fractured.

The Guardian reports that Cambridgeshire County Council, for whom they both worked, took proceedings against them. They were both suspended from their jobs during a 14-month investigation by the police.

Then a county court judge ruled that the council had not crossed the first threshold for taking a baby into care. “There is no cogent evidence that these parents injured their son,” said county court judge Isobel Plumstead.

Because family court cases are heard behind closed doors even these details would not be publishable if a high court judge had not given permission for the BBC to broadcast a video diary of the family’s fight to establish their innocence.

But the doctors, social workers and police have their anonymity preserved, unless another court rules otherwise and Mr and Mrs Ward are barred from discussing aspects of the case not mentioned in the judgments.

Their solicitor, Sarah Harman, told the Guardian the couple would keep fighting for their right to tell it.

There can be no question here of protecting the identity of the family and the idea of open justice demands that the full story should be known. Mr and Mrs Ward (there is no suggestion that they are asking for money to tell it) should have the freedom to tell their story.

Yet they are barred from talking fully to the press while the 15 sailors and marines are given the green light to talk for as much money as they can get.

In November last year the Newspaper Society warned that while it welcomed Government suggestions to improve access to family courts it regarded proposed reporting restrictions “as a step backwards and a serious erosion of the principle of open justice”.

Openness seems too often in England today to depend upon whether it serves the interests of government and its officials.

Do all victims of crime need support?

Marcel Berlins argues in his Guardian column today with his usual power against the £15 surcharge on fines introduced on April 1 to help pay for better services to victims of crime.

My own experience makes me wonder whether the money already going to support victims could be better used. When my bicycle was stolen from the car park of the flats where I live when working in London, the first official response was a letter from Tower Hamlets Victim Support offering me counselling.

I would have put it down to isolated idiocy but for the fact that a few months later my wife reported the theft of a plant pot and contents from the front of our house in Suffolk. She received a letter from Suffolk Victim Support offering counselling.

Polar bears work media magic

Journalists have long know that baby animals pull in the readers and viewers. But what is so special about polar bears? Today the story of Knut, hand-reared in Berlin Zoo, has the world gripped. Fortunes are being made from soft toys and Bloomberg reports that the zoo’s shares have doubled in value. Knut has even made the the cover of Vanity Fair in a montage with Leonardo DiCaprio.

It all seems a bit of a replay of the birth of polar bear cub Brumas in London Zoo in November 1949. In 1950 the zoo’s visitors went up by a half to three million. They have never reached that figure again.

Doubts on claim that online users read more

Only yesterday did I catch up with the latest Eyetrack study from the Poynter Institute and I started to write a post about it. I took the quick news reporter in a hurry approach read the key findings and wrote:

The idea that online readers of news have the attention span of a gnat is dubunked by the latest EyeTrack study from the Poynter Institute. They found that a much larger percentage of the text of a story was read online than in print.

The figures, presented to the American Association of Newspaper Editors last week found on average 77% was read online, 62% in broadsheets and 57% in tabloids.

But something was niggling. I stopped writing and pondered. The EyeTrack07 results are surprising and I felt I needed to know more about the methodology and the material used. It seemed to be one of those studies that should be treated guardedly until the results were replicated by other researchers.

What other factors could there be? One small point was my surprise that about 4% of hits on individual Worldblog posts have been on the “print this post” links I added recently. The number has surprised me and suggested a higher proportion of people than I had expected were uncomfortable with reading on screen.

With far more insight, Neil Sanderson had raised a question about the study on Monday, writing:

It would be helpful to know how the online stories compared in length to those in broadsheet and tabloid papers. It is possible that they were shorter, due to the online practice of chunking content – breaking it into more digestible pieces. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of online stories that were longer than their print counterparts. This can happen when a story originating in a newspaper is enhanced and updated for the online edition where space is virtually unlimited.

He also posted his reservations as a comment on the Poynter site and they brought this response from Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the institute:

Good question. During some editing/deeper digging this week, we have found that short stories were more frequent in online and that likely had some influence on the overall result.

However if you back short stories out and analyze results only for medium and long stories, those are read, once selected, as thoroughly online as in print.

In his blog Sanderson comments:

So, rather than saying that online readers read more, Poynter is now saying they read as thoroughly as in print. That’s a big difference.

And describing stories as “medium” or “long” really doesn’t solve the problem. The percentage of each story read ought to be judged against the length (word count) of each story. The story-length issue isn’t just important for comparing online versus print reading patterns, but also for comparing broadsheet versus tabloid.

So it looks as if the Poynter people themselves fell into trap of going for the quick headline and having to pull back later. There is, I think, a lot of importance and value in this new study but it is probably better to wait for the more considered analysis later in the year.

TalkTalk about about bad service

Listening to the on-hold music at Onetel TalkTalk’s call centre for 45 minutes without any response left me ready to take the advice of the refrain which was along the lines of, “We have to get together because the revolution is coming.” After three days without broadband, it can’t come quickly enough.

Who is prepared to join me in forcing Charles Dunstone (chief exectuive of Carphone Warehouse which owns Ontel TalkTalk) into the tumbrel and pulling it to the guillotine?

Their phone line has been giving pre-recorded assurances that broadband services were working normally and it was not until late on Saturday that I was able to get through to a human who admitted there was a problem.

At another point during the weekend there was an announcement that no one was available and please call back during office hours. Is that office hours in India or the UK?

This morning I was told the problem continued and they hoped, but could not promise, it would be resolved today. I had already been told that the connection at my London flat was working so I had no alternative but to come to town earlier than planned.

I started using Onetel when it was owned by Centrica and had no difficulties. After the take-over by Carphone Warehouse things seemed to running more or less as they had been. I extended the services I buy from them sticking to Onetel because it was cheaper than the “free” TalkTalk broadband. But as Onetel has become increasingly integrated into TalkTalk the quality of service has declined.

Charles Dunstone seems to be just about as committed to blogging as he is to customer service. At the start his blog promises all the latest updates on the free broadband service. The most recent entry was on December 23.

By comparison leaving customers without internet access for three days with no explanation must seem to him to be pretty good. I will be moving my two broadband/phone lines and two mobiles to another supplier as soon as I can.