Discussing Social Media Censorship on BBC Hereford & Worcester

The lastest person to be prosecuted forgiving offence on social media is eighteen year old Sam Busby, from Worcester.  Like Matthew Woods, he posted jokes about missing schoolgirl April Jones on Facebook.

Last week I went on the BBC Radio Worcester Breakfast show to make the case that while abhorrent, the prosecution was a step too far.  You can listen to my contribution via the embedded player below, or listen on the PodoMatic website. Continue reading “Discussing Social Media Censorship on BBC Hereford & Worcester”

We Need To Scrutinise Executives' Contracts Before They Resign In Shame

The BBC’s Director General has resigned after only 54 days in post. Now there is concern that his £450,000 ‘Golden Handshake’ is disproportionate.

These controversies are not new. The payouts to bankers like Sir Fred Goodwin are well known, as is the money paid to Amnesty International’s outgoing Secretary General Irene Khan. Continue reading “We Need To Scrutinise Executives' Contracts Before They Resign In Shame”

Neck and Neck in the Polls?

This week, the BBC reports on the US Presidential this week have been consistently reporting the race “neck-and-neck”. This assertion is grounded on opinion polls: the latest BBC report trumpets an ABC News poll which places both candidates on 48% of the vote.

The problem is, one poll does not tell the whole story. Each polling outlet has a slightly different methodology which skews the results. For example, some poll only ‘likely voters’ and some ask everyone; some pollsters call cell-phones, while others use only landlines.

As a foreign media outlet, the BBC is not covering the race with the granularity of the domestic US media.

Rather than report the result of one poll, The corporation would do better to report on the polling averages between polling outfits, and the trend-lines of generated by each pollster over a given period. Both these macro views look better for President Barack Obama, whose polling in the last fortnight has been improving. More importantly, State Level polling shows the President ahead in battleground states like Ohio. Poll analysis site Five Thirty Eight (hosted by the New York Times) models the election on this basis, and is currently putting the chances of an Obama win at 85%.

This does not mean that Obama is coasting towards a second term. Governor Mitt Romney could still win. But given the totality of the polls, President Obama can be said to have the advantage. The situation does not really warrant the metaphor “neck-and-neck” which suggests either horse is equally likely to win. In the betting markets, Barack Obama is the clear favourite. He hasn’t won, but he is ahead.

So why does the BBC cherry-pick a single poll as its headline? Simples: “neck-and-neck” is a more sensational headline than “Obama ahead”. And the more sensational headline will deliver more viewers on Election Night.

The Tale of Two September 11s

The Free Word Centre has a couple of big bookcases at one end of its central space.  Last week, I was surprised to discover on the shelves a copy of the The Blog Digest 2007, which was edited by Justin Mckeating and features a couple of contributions by me.  It naturally drags to the surface those old thoughts about the nature of blogging and why someone does it.  Back in 2006, when we put together that book, ‘meta-blogging’ (i.e. philosophising about the nature of this new activity) was all the rage.  Nowadays? Not-so-much.   Back then, it felt as of blogging was its own thing, a distinct community with its own round-up.  Now, it is simply another way to take part in a global conversation.  Long-form Twitter.  Before, bloggers and journalists were considered different creatures.  Now, blogging is how journalists do their thing, and it’s never clear whether any given piece you might read online has also made its way into the printed edition of the paper or magazine.

I know why I started blogging: catharsis.  I was spending far too much of 2005 writing angry letters to newspapers, and submitting contributions to the BBC Have Your Say website.  The comments I made were on pretty much the same topics as the things I discuss on this blog even now: free expression, human rights, belief, foreign policy, the nature of democracy, gay rights, and the evolving internet technology.  It was a natural wish to be able publish without waiting for some editorial intern to deem my contribution as relevant!

I think my motivation for maintaining the blog has subtly changed since I began, seven years ago this month.  There is much less anger and frustration, less need to blurt out a rebuttal of some hideous, shoddy political argument. There are two reasons for this change.  The first is that politics has moved on: the insidious, divisive ideology pushed by President George W. Bush (and shockingly enabled by Tony Blair) has thankfully waned.  The second is that now I actually work in human rights campaigning, well within the London political ‘mix’ and with a tangible route to make a difference on the issues I care about.  The personal blog is no longer the only way I participate in the political process.  As a result, it becomes less urgent.

I am grateful that anyone stops by to read these pages, as I know many of my friends and a few strangers sometimes do.  But I know I have no right to expect anyone to continue reading.  With that in mind, I perceive a tendency to write as if I am taking notes, diarising (weblogging in other words) as a personal project.  I write as much for the future me as for the present you, the present them.  I often see the writing as a sort of insurance for the future, a partial brain-backup or a resource that an aged, dementia-addled version of myself can use to pass the time when I no longer go outside.

That, and a record for the progeny.  For the past few years, as I’ve mellowed, I have often thought of myself as writing for hypothetical children!  I am grateful to those among my own ancestors who wrote something for me, and it is not unreasonable to expect my descendants to read through the blog!  I hope they get a feel for this point in human history, and a sense of my ideals.   And if I seek to persuade anyone with my writing, it is them.

In a certain sense, therefore, this blog can be seen as shaped by two events, which took place exactly a decade apart.  The first is the infamous terror attack of September 11th 2001, which was the spark that ignited two wars and provoked the policies that so angered me.

The second event was the birth of my daughter on 11th September 2011 – one year ago today.  She cannot read yet, but now, at last, I know who I am writing for.

How the BBC Could Help Increase Participation in Sports

Fleet Half Marathon
Fleet Half Marathon 2010. Photo by yrstrly on Flickr.

One thing that should be analysed when thinking about success of the Olympics is the broadcast. We should remember that for most people, the entire Olympic experience was mediated by the BBC. I think there is general agreement that they did excellent job – at least, a much better performance than during the Jubilee celebrations! This is obviously because it plays to the BBC’s strengths, reporting breaking news as it happened. Listening to the Olympic coverage on Radio 5 Live was not that different from listening to their usual Saturday afternoon coverage of Football League matches – and I mean that as a conpliment. That broadcast team in particular are already very experienced at juggling several outside broadcast units and reporters on location.

The corporation also did a good job at explaining the rules of many of the obscure sports to novice viewers.

Let us not forget that the BBC did have help from the Olympic Broadcast Service. This is a group of international broadcasters who together deliver the actual Olympic coverage (i.e. making sure we see people cross the line, not making sure Clare Balding interviews them afterwards).  Apparently the BBC was directly responsible for the rowing coverage, but the athletics was actually project managed by the Finnish broadcasters!

All this coverage was enhanced by some fantastic advances in digital technology. There were under water cameras in the swimming pool, boom cameras sweeping over action in the stadia, and cameras on wires tracking the action from above. There were ultra slow motion replays too, all of which led to an immersive experience.

So, what should we learn from all this? Well, obviously we can hope that TV sports coverage will improve across the board. Many of the clever techniques used during the Olympics should be deployed in other, domestic coverage.

But that is not what interests me. I am more interested in how the BBC (as by far the biggest broadcaster in the UK) can help to facilitate grassroots sport. If we accept the premise that much of the enthusiasm for previously obscure sports has come due to increase broadcast exposure, then the BBC could give those same sports a permanent structural boost by simply devoting more coverage to them all year round.

They can do this in two ways: first they can simply send cameras and reporters to cover major sporting events (they may need to do this anyway, to fill the airtime gaps left in the schedules as Premiership football and other highly popular sporting events are snapped up by Sky, Setanta, and ESPN).

Second, they can also do this by improving their online presence, to allow greater crowd sourcing and audience reporting of sporting events. This would enable them to provide coverage of regional and local sports – not just athletics and gymnastics, but non-league football and youth football as well. This will link the broadcaster’s output with communities and the localities that BBC is meant to serve, and should also inspire greater participation, and more people coming out to spectate. In this way, the Olympic spirit that the BBC generated over the past two weeks may be bottled and disseminated to local sports fields and even schools. Continue reading “How the BBC Could Help Increase Participation in Sports”

The Colour Palette of Children's Programmes

Baby Jake

The colour palette for children’s TV is very green, isn’t it?

There are two reasons for this.  One, many of the shows are set outside, which encourages kids to play outside too.  It is a shame that this is not a given, but there we go.

Second, many of the programmes mix live action with animation.  The easiest way to insert a person into a make-believe world, or bring an imaginary character into the real-world, is to use green-screen technology.  If there is lots of grass in the set (imaginary or otherwise) it makes the job of the CGI teams easier, and it makes the resulting product better.  It’s interesting that this technical requirement should mean that more programmes for kids are set outside.

In The Night Garden
In The Night Garden

Continue reading “The Colour Palette of Children's Programmes”

Religious Activism and the Language of Political Correctness

Veronica Connolly says she is being “persecuted for being a Christian” after refusing to pay her TV licence in protest at the BBC’s decision to show Jerry Springer The Opera.

Rubbish. Mrs Connolly is using the language of political correctness to claim victimisation, when she is actually engaging in a deliberate act of civil disobedience. She is being prosecuted for the act of not paying for her licence. The authorities are not deliberately going after her because of the underlying beliefs.

Stewart Lee’s show is challenging and satirical and surely not for everyone, but the BBC’s public service remit means it should be showing controversial programmes and films. If the corporation sought to avoid offending anyone its output would become stale and anodyne.

If you don’t like a particular show then don’t watch it.

This issue does raise questions about the license fee, which is really a form of tax. If you don’t agree with the behaviour or the programming of, say, BSkyB (linked as it is to Rupert Murdoch) you can always choose the Virgin TV package instead. And if you can’t stand Richard Branson then you can withdraw from taking that service and just take the FreeView Channels, or pay for LoveFiLM and Netflix, or go and look at YouTube. But there is no way to ‘opt out’ of funding the BBC because anyone with a TV must pay the licence fee.

Of course – There’s no way of ‘opting out’ of British war-mongering or ill-advised spending decisions either. That’s the point of the system of taxes and democracy – you change the spending decisions indirectly, by participating in the political process.

The issue of the licence fee is that, in the 21st century, we tend to think that we have some kind of choice over the media we consume. We can get films, TV series and and music via the Internet, and can ‘unbundle’ the articles in a newspaper so we can read the sports sections without buying the political sections (or vice versa). The bundled, all or nothing approach of the licence fee – which is a special sort of tax, whatever the nomenclature – seems a little at odds with the rest of the media ecosystem. As a fan of the BBC, this vexes me.

I do also have some sympathy with the argument put forward by Mrs Connolly’s lawyer, who says that a TV set is no longer a luxury but a “primary organ of communication”. Indeed. Might our right to receive and impart information include the right to access a TV and the Internet?

Radio Interviews

A welcome side-effect of the new English PEN website is an increase in inquiries from journalists. There have been a couple of free speech moments in the past couple of weeks – Günter Grass, and China at the London Book Fair – and as such the media have been in touch with us. I was asked to speak on the radio on a couple of occasions.

Discussing Günter Grass on BBC World Have Your Say:

Discussing China at the London Book Fair on Monocle 24:

I also spoke to 2ser Radio in Sydney but haven’t heard the audio yet. (Update: here).

Its excruciating to hear all the “ahs” and “ums” and “you know” and “sort of” that pepper what feels, at the time, like normal fluent speech. The second clip is better than the first, which is because I had longer to prepare.

The audio is hosted on PodOmatic, which I’ve only just discovered. It is free to sign-up and has easy integration with iTunes. I would use AudioBoo but it limits the length of the audio clips to 3 minutes.

How the Depiction of Technology in #Sherlock Captures the Zeitgeist

In a paywalled Times article this time last week, Hugo Rifkind highlighted our loss of the communal Christmas TV moment. EastEnders can never achieve the dizzy ratings heights of the 1980s, Eric and Ernie are dead, and even the numbers for Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas message are in decline. Rifkind blames the spread of new viewing technologies as the cause of this: A plethora of channels; asynchronous viewing options like Sky+, TiVo, and iPlayer; and the alternatives presented by DVDs and YouTube.

It is interesting that despite this decline, new technology can provide a facsimile of the old, communal TV viewing experience. Instead of discussing an episode over the water-cooler or at the school gates the following morning, we all have a ‘second screen’ and discuss it in real time over Twitter. This is not a particularly original observation, but I mention it because it is Twitter that tells me just how universally popular is Sherlock, the second series of which began last weekend, with Episode 2 to be aired later this evening.

Hilariously, given the above paragraph, I did not actually watch the first episode ‘live’ – instead I caught up later in the week via iPlayer. That doesn’t detract from how popular the show seems to be, at least among the connected Twitterati.

There are plenty of explanations for the success. The writing is excellent and funny. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch exudes an autistic confidence that is true to Conan Doyle’s original character. Mysteries and puzzles are always the most popular stories (c.f. the perennial dominance of detective stories over Lit Fic) and the Sherlock series adheres to the rules of a good detective story, presenting all the clues to the audience as they are presented to the sleuth himself.

However, I think it is the representation of technology, and the visual choices inspired by technology, which make the thing feel so contemporary. Holmes receives text messages and interacts with Lestrade on a mobile phone. Dr Watson has a blog, and the villainess of Series 2, Ep. 1 had her own Twitter account (both of which, as is obligatory these days, also exist in the real world and keep up the conceit). However, it is not just that the characters use technology that makes the show interesting, but how the director integrates that into the visual style. Sherlock employs the popular technique of overlaying motion graphics onto the action. It is method made easy by new digital editing tools (see the opening scene of Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell for an ostentatious example of the genre, as is Fifty Nine Productions’ work in Two Boys at the ENO). In Sherlock, the subtle use of this style makes the technology seem fully integrated into the way the characters view the world. The text messages flow past and through Sherlock, he barely has to look at his handset. I think it mirrors the way most of us live, with our eyes flitting between the screen and reality so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how exactly a particular piece of information came to us. It certainly represents the way a large audience segment are experiencing the show. Are they watching Sherlock, or are they watching #Sherlock? Both.

BBC Accused of Selective Editing

During Tuesday’s edition of Newsnight, hosted by Gavin Esler, one of the studio interviewees accused the BBC of selective editing.

The prgramme can be viewed online via the BBC iPlayer (available until 16th August).  In a debate about why young people have joined the riots in London, student Yohanes Scarlett said:

First of all, I would like to say, earlier, during your newsclip here, you had a recording of a gentleman with a bandana across his face and sunglasses on, and I would like to point out right now right from the beginning that the BBC have cut out his original statement.  I was there.  He gave an original statement which he wanted the people to hear. It has been cut out, this is a misrepresentation.

Scarlett’s speech begins at about 15 mins 35 seconds on the iPlayer recording.  The clip he referred to is at 7 mins 23 seconds.

Chairing the discussion, Gavin Esler immediately asked Yohanes Scarlett what the chap with the bandana said, but Scarlett said he couldn’t remember it by heart and was reluctant to paraphrase.  He went to to say that the BBC should play the full clip.  “Perhaps we will” replied Esler.

@Magic_Torch: @robertsharp59 @BBCNewsnight Just because they were accused it doesn’t mean it was true #justsaying

There is probably a simple reason why the interview was cut.  Reporters have a strict time slot and the subject Liz MacKean was reporting on was very broad.  However, it was an edit which a Newsnight interviewee – someone credible enough to be invited into the studio to talk specifically about the concerns of urban youths – thought was an unwarranted.

@Eastmad: @robertsharp59 @GavinEsler agreed – selective editing of people who you know don’t have much of a voice is egregious

Youths without a voice causing violence; youths causing violence because they have no polical voice.  This context is important.  This is not simply a case of a politician complaining about selective editing (which actually happens very rarely). Politicians have ample opportunity to clarify and expand upon what they say to broadcast journalists, and they are trained to talk in soundbites anyway.  This is not true of the underclass, the submerged.

So fairly or unfairly, the BBC’s reporting has been called into question.  If rebutting this criticism was in any way difficult, then maybe it would be appropriate for the BBC to shrug off Yohanes Scarlett’s comment, and the news cycle would move on.  But in the age of YouTube and iPlayer, there is really no excuse for uploading Liz MacKean’s entire interview with the masked youth.  It only takes a few minutes, and will give those who want it a deeper insight in the psyche of those causing chaos on our streets.

Of course, there are legitimate concerns about giving crimminals a platform, but in the case of the Newsnight package, I think that ship sailed when the anonymous looter was invited to give an interview in the first place.  And it was only last week that I outlined my view on whether to censor the words of criminals: we are best served when the ideas of wrongdoers are openly discussed and rebutted.  And it is in the BBC’s best interests to prove to their critics, over and over again if necessary, what responsible reporting looks like.

Update 12th August 2011

I’ve just received this response via e-mail from Newsnight’s Deputy Editor, Liz Gibbons:

With reference to your tweets about why we didn’t put the full interview and statement of the man who claimed to have some involvement with rioting on Newsnight on Tuesday night – it is standard televisual journalistic practice to choose clips from interviews in filmed pieces, rather than run interviews in full. This individual asked to make a statement to camera, but also agreed to do an interview in which our reporter was able to ask him some robust questions about why he thought it was justifiable to loot. I am sure you understand that it would be odd for the BBC to allow a statement from someone justifying criminal behaviour to be aired unchallenged, without us asking the individual some robust questions which the public would expect us to ask. We gave this individual no undertaking or promise of any kind that we would run his interview in full or that we would air his statement at all.

I have spoken to the reporter about the content of the statement that the individual made to camera and I am content that there was nothing he said in that pre-prepared statement that was not reflected in the subsequent interview exchange that was aired on the programme. Nor did he claim to represent any group, or organisation, or offer any insight beyond that which was reflected in the interview about why people were committing acts of violent disorder and criminality. You may have noted that Yohannes Scarlett who appeared in the studio, and was present when this interview was filmed, couldn’t actually recall what this individual even said in his pre-prepared statement.

I hope that allays your concerns.