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‘Tory Britain, no longer aspires to be a leading Western power’ — a view from overseas

Anne Applebaum in her perceptive Washington Post column last week wrote: “Johnson, Osborne and many British Conservatives are now quite comfortable with the idea of Britain, or possibly just England, as the Dubai of the North Atlantic, the Singapore of the Western Hemisphere: a small trading nation…” The headline was: “New cabinet may signal Britain’s retreat as a Western power.”

This morning comes the news that ARM, the  British company which leads the world with its chip designs at the heart of connected world — the internet of things — which is developing very fast, is to be taken-over by Japanese Softbank business for £24 billion.

Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent wrote:

It’s hard to exaggerate just how important ARM is to the UK tech sector – and the shock many are feeling this morning at the news that it is about to lose its independence.

Its brilliance was to realise that if chips were about to come with everything, you didn’t have to make them – designing them was the key.

The British Government is to nod through the takeover, with Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, telling the Financial Times: “Just three weeks after the referendum decision, it shows that Britain has lost none of its allure to international investors.”

That is one way of spinning the story but it is not necessarily the way it is seen in other parts of the world.

Anne Applebaum is based in London and has written widely for serious British publications. Her Washington Post column provides a chilling insight into how the United Kingdom is being portrayed in the District of Columbia and, no doubt in many other capitals. It is a column which should be read in full but here is an extract:

… May’s choices also suggest a more profound change, visible for some time but only just now swimming into focus: Britain, or at least Tory Britain, no longer aspires to be a leading Western power. Surely May knows that Johnson is a hated figure in Brussels. Surely she guessed that the reaction to his appointment would be laughter in Washington. But she doesn’t care because — like the leaders of all small countries without aspirations to international leadership — her concerns are more parochial. She doesn’t need a foreign secretary who is taken seriously in foreign capitals.

Nor was she bothered by the further implications of the choice. Johnson has been a brilliant cheerleader for Britain in the past — a great ambassador for London — and some people now hope he will continue in that role. But in his recent columns and conversations, he has also made it clear that Britain’s traditional alliances — with the United States, with Europe — mean little to him. Instead, he has flirted with Putinism, praised Bashar al-Assad and gone on trade junkets to China. Johnson’s admiration for rich foreign dictators echoes the views of many leading Tories, even George Osborne, the just-retired chancellor of the exchequer. Johnson, Osborne and many British Conservatives are now quite comfortable with the idea of Britain, or possibly just England, as the Dubai of the North Atlantic, the Singapore of the Western Hemisphere: a small trading nation, an offshore home for Russian, Chinese, Malaysian and Nigerian money, a place comfortable with oligarchs of all kinds — even with Americans, as long as they have cash — and very distant from old Thatcherite ideals about democracy and rule of law.

Social media and protest in Egypt and England

Until last night it was, if not unthinkable, unsayable to draw parallels between what is happening in Egypt, with events in England. During a Tonight programme focusing on Egypt, but considering the history of revolution, Jeremy Paxman said it was perhaps “inappropriate” to bring in the protests against cuts in this country.

Yet they did, in a report by Paul Mason. A common factor, he suggested, was young people with a university education and facing unemployment. They were reacting to a broken pledge that if they became well educated they would be better off than their parents. (It seems seems this segment, or something like it, was originally planned for last Friday. Look at Paul Mason’s blog for more on this.)

The British link has to be seen in context of the whole programme discussing Egypt and the record of revolutions. It included historians Simon Sebag-Montefiore and Simon Schama. You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer for some time.

While the pattern of revolution may not change much, one thing is different now. That is the horizontal nature of protest, loose coalitions of people without obvious leaders.

These two factors: youth alienated over education and jobs, and horizontal organisation through social media has been clearly seen in the tuition fees protests in England.

The library protests, while polite and peaceful, show unmistakable signs of horizontal organisation through social media with the use of email, twitter (#savelibraries), Facebook and blogs.  No obvious leaders have emerged either nationally or locally here in Suffolk, but there is cohesion and common purpose.

British governments have long been terrified of losing control of the streets. They have adopted gradual change to avoid revolution, probably since the Civl War, three-and-a-half centuries ago.

There was no domino-effect here from the French Revolution, Chartism in the 19th century did not turn into a revolution, nor did the General Strike in 1926. Margaret Thatcher fell after poll tax riots 20 years ago. John Major then replaced poll tax with council tax.

In the 19th century Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police with control of the streets of the capital as one of the principal reasons. He also adopted gradualism when he switched from opposition to Catholic emancipation to getting it through parliament when he realised the old policy was untenable.

No one is seriously predicting a revolution in England except for some Marxist and Trotskyist survivors from another age. Yet, I feel sure that in Downing Street developments are being watched carefully and a Plan B is being prepared whether or not they will admit it. Gradualism (that means concessions) may yet rule if protests become loud enough.

Fight between Google and MSM approaches

Roy Greenslade has picked up on Telegraph editor Will Lewis’s opening address at the 6th International Newsroom Summit and thinks it implies that the Telegraph group is going to follow other mainstream publishers into battle against Google.

According to ifra, Lewis called on newspapers to welcome transformation as a friend. The traditional business model would be replaced and he warned news organisations making the digital transition must both invest in training and be alert to attempts to cannibalise their material. He continued:

Our ability to protect that content is under consistent attack from those such as Google and Yahoo, who wish to access it for free. These companies are seeking to build a business model on the back of our own investment without recognition; all media companies need to be on guard for this. Success in the digital age, as we have seen in our own company, is going to require massive investment; [we need] effective legal protection for our content in such a way that allows us to invest for the future.

It would seem to be an obvious step for publishers to follow those who have reached agreements with the secretive Google company. It is difficult to build a picture of what is happening but Lewis’s speech follows one earlier this month by Samuel Zell, new owner of the huge Tribune group in the US .

In a speech (Washington Post) at Stanford Law School he said newspapers could not economically sustain the practice of allowing their articles, photos and other content to be used free by other Internet news aggregators.

He asked the question: “If all of the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be?” and provided his own answer: “Not very.”

Associated Press has an agreement with Google and a copyright case brought by Agence France-Presse was settled recently. In Belgium cases have either resulted in settlement or a finding against Google.

As Greenslade points out these are piecemeal agreements and, “Globally, publishers and news agencies need to get together to reach a sensible, comprehensive, macro agreement with Google and Yahoo.”

It will certainly be a big fight. As Business Week pointed out recently: “Google is ground zero in a battle among traditional media and tech industry leaders and startups alike for the hearts and minds of the world’s consumers—or at least their eyeballs and wallets. ”

The rights and wrongs of cyber-doorstepping

Every big story that affects a community has brought complaints of press intrusion by reporters who descend on the place or use the phone searching for accounts and opinions. It has always been so and is again with the Virginia Tech killings.

Yet there is a difference: the internet. Not only are people blogging and putting personal accounts and pictures on social media sites, but the numbers of reporters looking for a piece of the story is multiplied.

What we will never know is how many people complain about intrusion and how many welcome the chance to tell the world of their experiences. Some reporters behave insensitively pushing people who clearly do not want to talk.

The new issue is the use of blog and social media material and the cyber-doorstepping that goes with it. Once you had to be there, camped outside a house but now now anyone can do it.

Papers and broadcasters covering an overseas story had to wait for whatever their own staff and agencies could provide. If it was big enough a fireman would be flown in.

One of the people looking for new information from a computer terminal in the UK was the BBC’s Robin Hamman. He has reflected sensitively on what he did both on his own blog and in comments made to Media Guardian which devotes two pages to the debate today:

BBC new media journalist Robin Hamman discovered a blog entry, claiming to be an eyewitness account, and was asked to verify its accuracy. He chose to approach the author by instant message, but as the day wore on many journalists – including one from the Guardian – simply added comments saying “talk to me, please, here’s my number”.

The onslaught angered many other surfers, who saw the torrent of media requests as invasive. The reaction made Hamman reconsider his objectives. “My approach was, I think, professional and sensitive,” he said. “But now, after seeing the way the press descended upon him, I wonder if I should have made that approach, primarily for confirmation purposes, at all.”

The Media Guardian spread asks: “Were reporters were right to solicit information from students’ web pages? Patrick Barkham answers “Yes” in the first part of the web story followed by Jeff Jarvis saying “No”.

Barkham, a Guardian feature writer, justifies the approaches writing:

In terms of invasiveness, asking questions on a blog is the equivalent of a reporter approaching a group of people having a conversation on a street by the site of a tragedy. A blog is not a private home; posting questions or invitations to talk further is not as intrusive as knocking on a victim’s door.

Many bloggers don’t realise that the fundamental reason for asking questions on blogs, or on streets, is to better establish the authenticity of eyewitness accounts. There are plenty of fantasists and hoaxers in the real world and online. Sometimes witnesses agree to talk to us; at other times we retreat in the face of these familiar “vulture” jibes.

And he concludes:

To those bloggers, I’m sorry: big media is here to stay online – for as long as audiences want information created by the rigorous questioning and testing for truth undertaken by responsible professional journalists.

Jarvis, who is a journalism professor at New York’s City University as well as a Guardian columnist and blogger, believes the journalistic wish to verify will become increasingly impractical in the new architecture of news where anyone can publish. He writes:

Increasingly, they will share what they know on their own sites – often intending not to publish to the world but simply to inform their family and friends. Because this is on the public web, we get to listen in; we learn more.

Yet it’s doubtful that these witnesses will want to – or should have to – field challenges from scores of reporters, each exercising his journalistic duty to vet, or his business reflex to negotiate exclusives.

He continues:

It will become increasingly difficult to vet every story, link, or source. And it’s rather anachronistic to believe that the press can verify and edit all news, when the public can and does go around the press to find sources directly – via links and searches – on the web.

He advocates linking to blog posts which have not been vetted. I find the Jarvis approach disturbing. It is consistent with his belief that readers will become media literate enough to find their own way though large volumes of unmediated material.

Last week when I challenged his view that exclusives were no longer important, he responded that I was “looking at this from the perspective of the journalist rather than the readers.” On the verification of material from blogs I also take the perspective of a journalist. It is that while some readers may wish to plough though unchecked raw material, most still want news which has been vetted by a trusted media organisation. To start linking to web sites with the warning “We have no idea whether this person even exists or whether what they say is true” would only confuse the readers and viewers and undermine trust.

Where do you get your news?

Coverage of events like the Virginia Tech shootings, the London transport bombings and hurricane Katrina would not be complete without a rush to predict the end of news as we know.

Robin Hamman at his Cybersoc blog put it like this yesterday:

The past few days have pointed to a future where audiences are likely to look first to blogs and other forms of participatory media for first hand accounts of emerging stories before turning to the mainstream media. Of course mainstream media will still have a role to play – confirming those stories, providing thoroughly researched facts, and gathering comment from credible sources.

Dan Gillmor
, author of We the Media, did not switch on his TV until the evening on the day of the shootings in Blacksburg. Instead he “used the online media — including the major news sites — to get the latest information, sifting it, making judgments about credibility and reliability as I read and watched and listened. That, too, is the future in many cases.”

He points out that the “citizen media” component is not new and writes of the home movie footage of the shooting of President Kennedy which became an essential part of the historical record. He continues:

In 1963, one man with a camera captured the event on film. In a very few years, a similar situation would be captured by thousands of people — all holding high-resolution video cameras — and all of those cameras would be connected to high-speed digital networks.

That is different.

Gillmor says, “We will still need journalists to help sort things out” and concludes:

We used to say that journalists write the first draft of history. Not so, not any longer. The people on the ground at these events write the first draft. This is not a worrisome change, not if we are appropriately skeptical and to find sources we trust. We will need to retool media literacy for the new age, too.

Giving everyone with an internet connection access to much of the raw material of news is new and changes things. It opens up traditional journalism to more, valuable scrutiny and challenge.

But I find it difficult to believe that the mass of people will turn first to blogs, YouTube and Flickr as first sources of news. This takes me back to Pew Research’s latest report on what What Americans Know (figures below are taken from the questionnaire) released this week.

One of the options in the question about sources of news, was “Read online blogs where people discuss events in the news”. The figure asnwering “yes” was 11%. Only listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show scored lower(8%). By contrast 55% read a daily newspaper, 46% watched nightly network news and 39% CNN.

I doubt very much whether people en masse will ever choose to go to unmediated material as their first source of news. It is simply too time consuming and too difficult to make sense of it.

The work of journalists covering any big story is essentially to find, aggregate and select. It is work that requires a team of people, reporters, photographers, news editors, copy tasters… It is not just the reporters on the ground but those in the office who hit the phones trying to find eye witnesses, experts, officials, friends, relatives and anyone else who might contribute to the story.

Added to that mix we now have blogs, YouTube and flickr which produce dramatic stories and pictures. They help to build up the overall picture. Unlike the traditional reporter’s interviews everyone has direct access to the material.

Mainstream media’s websites are also soliciting videos, stills and personal experiences of major events. This “participatory media” is certainly changing the way journalists go about assembling the story.

But that does not mean it is going to take over. Journalists have always had to try to make sense out of the noise of conflicting information, multitudes of sources and confusion. Now there are more sources and that makes the job tougher yet.

It was hard enough when the volume of material was restricted by the capacity of the teleprinter feeds. Then electronic transmission to desktop computers increased the volume and now the internet produces even more material to be read.

Dan Gillmor as a journalist, has the experience to sift information and make judgments on credibility and reliability: most people do not. Neither do they have the time.

Guardian staff discuss 24/7 working

Roy Greenslade has been along to one of the staff meetings Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is holding to talk about proposals to introduce 24/7 working at the paper.

It is a fascinating glimpse of the paper’s open culture and deserves to be read in full. The basis of the debate was laid down by Rusbridger who said: “The print-on-paper model [for newspapers] isn’t making money and isn’t going to make money. It’s no longer sustainable. Though the future is unknowable, we are taking an educated guess about what we should be doing and where we should be going.”

A fantasy on communiction

I have a fantasy that human communications had developed differently — the oral tradition had advanced early with telephones, radio and then video so strongly that no one had seen the need to invent writing.

Then the internet was created with all voice commands. It worked pretty well with voice messages and comments allowing a high degree of interactivity.

Then some nerds came up with a set of characters which they claimed could appear on a a screen and represent sounds visually. They said that not only did it at least double the speed of human communication but it also improved comprehension because of the instant replay facility.

At first they were derided. Who would bother to learn this crazy technology. And their second invention, a keyboard to create text, was even madder.

But a group of advocates gathered around them promoting writing as the most important technology in this history of mankind. The adding of a text facility to phones introduced writing to a whole generation of school kids. Their teachers tutted about the way oral communication was being damaged.

But driven by children and nerds it became the fastest growing technology in history. Internet sites at which youngsters communicated by text were a phenomenon. Parents, worried about what their children were saying, learned to write.

Watching this, news sites began adding text to their sites alongside video and podcasts….

Just a fantasy. But sometimes we seem to be in danger of forgetting the wonder of writing.

On the internet 1980 is pre-history

It often seems that history began some time in the early 1990s. While the internet has given us unprecedented free access to information, it is not good for the facts and opinion that give us the longer perspective.

From the desktop, the 1980s seems like the dark ages. So it is disturbing that libraries are under threat from cost-cutting. The Guardian reports today that the British Library, the greatest of the British deposit libraries, is threatened by government imposed cuts which could lead to charges.

The county and city libraries have long suffered from financial cuts and the need to make themselves “popular” as well as a lack of investment in storage. The result is that they throw out old books.

This is akin to bulldozing castles and ancient houses: it diminishes our ability to understand the past and how it affects the present.

‘Saddam video is not citizen journalism’

The mobile phone video of the execution of Saddam Hussein is being treated as a defining moment in the development of citizen journalism. In the Independent on Sunday today, Tim Luckhurst writes that “for new-media enthusiasts, the fact that amateur film from a mobile telephone set the global news agenda shows citizen journalism has come of age.”

The video has clearly changed perceptions of the execution which was first seen in the sanitised official version. We know nothing yet about the intentions of the person who took it. We don’t know if he intended it to enter the public domain and, if he did, whether the purpose was to advance the cause of some sect or to provide additional information to the public. I have seen no evidence whatsoever of any journalistic intention.

We cannot accept that any picture, video or account of an event that comes into the public domain is journalism, citizen or otherwise, without stripping all meaning from the word.

What has changed is the means by which material such as the execution video can come into the public domain and immediately by-pass the mainstream media. Its widespread distribution also challenges the role of the press and broadcasters as arbiters of taste and decency.

That raises big enough issues without muddying the water with talk about citizen journalism.

Pausing for thought about media development

This year there has been almost a frenzy as mainstream media websites bring on the latest technology with video, podcasts, more blogs with talk of social media, conversations and communities.

Could this rush be a mistake. Two items in yesterday’s Guardian suggest it might be. First on the business pages, Richard Wray reports that the Upload 2007 conference on social networking has been cancelled because there was not enough interest to make it viable. He wrote:

Fashions change fast on the internet and the latest “new new” thing – online social networks – has already become passé if the surprise cancellation of a conference early next year is any indication.

In Media Guardian, Kim Fletcher reviews the year for newspapers, writing that while a digital strategy might not guarantee success, not having one is to look like a failure. But the race may not go to the first. He writes:

There is still time to get involved, for Associated is proving that you can build an audience even if you start late. The success of the expanded Mail website suggests that there is no overwhelming advantage in being first mover. The Mail’s online audience is growing fast, and management calculates that it can catch up with any rival initiative that is shown to work. It is not a bold or imaginative strategy, but promises a safe return at low risk.

There is a lot to be said for that approach. By watching the “beta phase” for new ideas in journalism many of the mistakes can be avoided. As I have remarked before there are some terrible newspaper blogs out there and others have made similar comments about some of the video newspapers have been putting up.

The Christmas holiday is a good time to pause and think about where we are heading as the inevitable development of MSM websites and media convergence continues at a bewildering pace.