Archive for June, 2009

Michael Jackson, bent spoons and football

Yes, it really has been a fortnight since the last blog post. Apologies – I’m not neglecting this place, it’s just the starting a new job thing is obviously taking up a fair bit of my time. Plus it’s sunny outside, there were family visits and a day of cricket to be watched as well. None of which make for convenient blogging time.

Anyway, in the meantime Michael Jackson passed away. He was actually, for a brief period of time, a director of Exeter City FC. Along with Darth Vader. I really wish I was making this up, but I’m not. I’ve told the whole bizarre and somewhat depressing tale over at Soccerlens.

Plus, over at twofootedtackle.com, we also did a slimmed down summer podcast. Listen and laugh at our woeful Confederations Cup predictions and marvel that nothing has happened on the transfer front in a week. That’s so not news it’s almost news.

Franchising and football

I find the whole thing fascinating: how the MLS currently operates, why the MK Dons (aka Franchise FC) are so hated. And the rest. So I did me a Soccerlens post on the subject.

The comments are also really interesting and informative, and I inadvertently upset Dagenham fans, which, reading back, is fairly obvious why.

NightJacking anonymity

Earlier today, Mr Justice Eady [1] ruled that the author of the NightJack blog could not stay anonymous. This will probably mean nothing to most people, but could be a significant case law ruling when it coming to blogging and, potentially, whistleblowing.

If you’ve never heard of NightJack, he’s a policeman who blogged anonymously and candidly about his job. It was an eye-opener and a great read that made you emphasise with hiss job. The blog won an Orwell Award for the quality of it’s writing.

That blog is no more and the author has been disciplined after The Times ‘outed’ NightJack. One of their reporters worked out the bloggers identity, the blogger took out an injunction, the Times challenged that injunction and today’s ruling is the end result. Bloggers cannot expect anonymity.

The Times says of the ruling: “Today newspaper lawyers were celebrating one of the rarer Eady rulings in their favour.” I’d beg to differ. It leaves me with a slightly sick feeling in my stomach and a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.

Let’s go, if I may, on a slight tangent before getting back to the case in hand. Generally speaking, for both blogging an the internet, I think moving away from anonymity is a good thing. We’re moving to an era, especially with social media, where identity is more open and the internet is all the better for it. It cuts down on trolling for a start.

I’m also a big fan of openness and accountability. If somebody asked me about starting a blog, I’d suggest they do it under their own name, or at least made it clear who they were. It clears up any misunderstandings from the off – setting out your stall so people know who you are.

Let’s also be clear, when we’re talking about anonymity, we’re not talking about identities created around blogging here. NightJack was very different to the likes of Devil’s Kitchen, Chicken Yoghurt, Doctor Vee, Bloggerheads or many of the other well-known bloggers. They have their online identity which sites alongside their real name. Anybody can find out who they are in a matter of seconds – their pen names are their blogging personas.

Moving onto the judgement, I can see why Mr Justice Eady came to his eventual judgement. It’s still a bit of a mess but can be fitted into the letter of the law, by and large (although, and this is one of the wonders of the vagueries of the English legal system, you could easily have seen him ruling the other way).

But the judgement: the reasoning, the logic and the whole lead-up to this just doesn’t feel right. As Paul Bradshaw says:

“… this is a ruling that has enormous implications for whistleblowers and people blogging ‘on the ground’. That’s someone else’s ‘public interest’.

And that last element is the saddest for me.”

Let’s leave aside the judgement itself for a minute (the judge can only really rule what’s in front of him) and look to The Times and their role in unmasking NightJack. This is the part that leaves me uneasiest of all.

Their journalist pieced together who NightJack was and then went to publish. And the question I have is why? [2]

NightJack is a public servant, true, but in the grand scheme of things he really isn’t that important. Certainly, going to all this effort to unmask him seems a little, well, excessive.

He’s a blogger. A well-read blogger, yes, and an award-winning one. But is it really in the public’s interest, as opposed to being merely interesting to the public, to know who he is? If he were a Chief Constable, a high-ranking BBC employee, an MP or a civil servant, I could understand this. But a Detective Constable in Lancashire? It’s hardly a high-level scoop is it? Or, indeed, a high-profile and significant victory for openness, as they portray the judgement.

[The other thing that sits uneasy with me here is The Times have previous in this area when they unmasked Girl With A One Track Mind for no other reason, seemingly, than they could. That, more than NightJack, seemed like a particularly pointless act for the sake of a story].

Justin McKeating makes a very good point with regard to The Times’ victory today: that of anonymous sources for journalists. They may not be bloggers, but you can see where Justin’s coming from – the principle is very similar (and apologies for copying a large chunk of his text here, but it helps place his argument in context:

Would I be wrong in thinking that anonymous sources, insiders and friends are conducting the business of democracy in the media with the willing collusion of journalists? If nothing else, it’s in direct contravention of the ‘different type of politics’ promised to us by Gordon Brown – a politics promising a ‘more open and honest dialogue‘.
It would seem to me that some kind of public interest challenge in the courts is in order. Imagine the story in The Times…
Thousands of ’sources’, ‘insiders’ and ‘friends’ churn out opinions daily — secure in the protection afforded to them by the cloak of anonymity lent to them by obsequious journalists.
From today, however, they can no longer be sure that their identity can be kept secret, after a landmark ruling by Mr Justice Eady.
The judge, who is known for establishing case law with his judgments on privacy, has struck a blow in favour of openness, ruling that democracy is “essentially a public rather than a private activity”.
What could be more in the public interest than that?

 

Would I be wrong in thinking that anonymous sources, insiders and friends are conducting the business of democracy in the media with the willing collusion of journalists? If nothing else, it’s in direct contravention of the ‘different type of politics’ promised to us by Gordon Brown – a politics promising a ‘more open and honest dialogue‘.

It would seem to me that some kind of public interest challenge in the courts is in order. Imagine the story in The Times…

Thousands of ’sources’, ‘insiders’ and ‘friends’ churn out opinions daily — secure in the protection afforded to them by the cloak of anonymity lent to them by obsequious journalists.

From today, however, they can no longer be sure that their identity can be kept secret, after a landmark ruling by Mr Justice Eady.

The judge, who is known for establishing case law with his judgments on privacy, has struck a blow in favour of openness, ruling that democracy is “essentially a public rather than a private activity”.

What could be more in the public interest than that?

This comes back to Paul Bradshaw’s earlier point about whistleblowers and ‘on the ground’ bloggers.

When it comes to the majority of bloggers, it probably doesn’t matter too much whether they’re anonymous or not. It’d be nice if we knew who they were, as I said earlier, but, at the end of the day, most of the time it’s not really a huge issue.

But those bloggers who write detailed and informative posts about their profession are much rarer and are worth treasuring. Blogs like NightJack, PC Bloggs, Dr Crippen and The Magistrate’s Blogs are essential reads.

They are candid and often eye-opening and enables you to get a better idea of the problems facing our police force, judiciary and NHS. They lift the lid, often a very small lid, on the inner workings of these professions. If anything, they give the public a remarkable insight into the inner workings. And to my mind, this is largely a good thing, as Tom Reynolds points out:

 

“What bloggers do is humanise and explain their section of the world – public sector bodies do well to have bloggers writing within them, after all these are the people who careabout what they do, about what improvements should be made and about where the faults come from. They highlight these things in the hopes that, in bringing this information into the public consciousness, they can effect a change that they would otherwise be powerless to bring about.

Anonymity provides a protection against vindictiveness from management who would rather do nothing than repeat the party-line, or lie, that everything is perfect, there is no cause for concern. Having seen management do, essentially illegal things, in order to persecute and victimise staff – anonymity is a way of protecting your mortgage payments.”

 

You can understand why they are anonymous [3]. The blogs probably contravene the terms of their employment. Yet, in their own small ways, they are important for the public to read, more so than the person writing them (in all honesty, the writer of NightJack could have been any Detective Constable). [4]

There are very few bloggers for whom anonymity is a near-necessity, and if it stops others coming forward to give their insights then the internet will be poorer for it. And for what purpose. One article that doesn’t really amount to much.

Not everybody will agree with this. David MacLean makes some very good points as to why NightJack shouldn’t remain anonymous, although even he calls The Times’ decision to publish “a tough one”.

In the grand scheme of things, The Times’ unmasking story by itself really isn’t overly big. The legacy of if could well be.

 

[1] A name familiar to anybody who’s studied media law.

[2] Anton Vowl asks the same question.

[3] Not all are. Tom Reynolds from Random Acts of Reality, who has some fairly strong words about this case, and Suzi Brent from Nee Naw are more public examples. But I’d wager they’ve had some awkward conversations with their line managers at some point.

[4] One of The Times’ arguments was NightJack was committing Contempt of Court with his posts, and there is an argument here. Certainly if the blog had collapsed a trial there would be little argument against naming the author. That said, the internet is a hideously grey area when it comes to contempt. A reasonable amount of time on Google would probably produce enough to piece together extra information on any significant trial covered in either the national or local press. You’d probably have to do a fair bit of work to piece together events from a trial and link them back to the blog, and the level of threat the blog posed to a fair trial… possibly minimal. It doesn’t make it right, but I’d be surprised if anything NightJack wrote would have led to a trial being abandoned.

Getting to know my community

How quickly times change. When I first started doing work experience and then freelancing for assorted journalistic outlets nearly a decade ago, the only thing the newsroom used the web for on any kind of regular basis was Google.

When I took over editorship of our student paper, we had a website but no content. When I left, we had a different website with the building blocks for content. We also had an editorial blog, hosted on a basic Blogger.com template [1]. This was seen as quite novel at the time.

When I did my professional BJTC qualification, I was one of only two people who blogged regularly. One of our regular assignments was to blog about journalism and the stories behind the stories. Many of the course were a little baffled and confused by this. This, they said, wasn’t journalism.

When I was a fully fledged reporter, the web was seen as both a curiosity and vaguely important, but we’d be buggered if we could work out exactly what to do with it. What we did know was when we got it right, we got one hell of a lot of traffic and comments. This didn’t happen often. Meanwhile, I was using Google Alerts, Technorati and other such tools to find stories. This was seen as something of a curiosity.

When I took the decision to move into PR, the debate on whether blogs should be treated the same as other media outlets was in its infancy still. Twitter was something only a couple of us geeks in the corner were spending time on, while everybody else looked on somewhat quizzically.

Now, as I prepare to move into yet another new role, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds and what I’ll be looking back on in a few years time and go “isn’t that funny.”

In just under ten days time I officially become part of the communities team at ITV.com, driving online engagement and facilitating conversations and other such things. I’ll be working with another ex-journo, Ben Ayers.

So what does this have to do with journalism? If you’d described my new role to the 18-year-old me, eagerly applying for work experience with local newspapers and radio stations, I’d have probably looked at you slightly funny before probably telling you this was nothing to do with journalism whatsoever [2]. In fact, I’d probably have had no clue what the hell you were on about.

But times change. Journalists are now bloggers, podcasters, video editors, and more as well as being reporters. And, yes, they’re working within online communities, be it facilitating conversation, engaging in the comments, posting blogged responses to the community and the like.

You could probably argue journalists have always done this, but there’s never been as much of a two way conversation, bar letters to the editor, or the odd chance to accost the journalist on their patch. Communities, though, have always been at the heart of journalism.

And the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. I’ve been addressed in emails as a football journalist, due to my writing for Soccerlens and podcasting for twofootedtackle, both of which are done in my spare time [3]. I’d call myself a football blogger and podcaster, but break it down and it’s very similar to what many traditional media outlets do.

Other boundaries are being broken. Not too long ago I was chatting to Joanna Geary, then of the Birmingham Post now of the Times, about getting the news about, well, the news out there. Journalists, she mentioned, were increasingly doing their own PR on the web to get people reading their stories. That’s not a million miles away from a communities editor.

When I first started in journalism, I did so because I wanted to make a difference. Granted, my career may not have gone the same way as Woodward and Bernstein, but I still repeat and hold onto that. I’d like to think I’m still making a difference these days, just in a different way.

[1] While it would have been nice to have kept this going for posterity, it got deleted the year after due to a small misunderstanding with some cartoons. You may be familiar with this.

[2] Although the web-loving part of me would have probably been reasonably impressed.

[3] I may still be a rarity though – a journalism trained blogger who does this sort of stuff for fun.

Obligatory occasional Ebbsfleet article

Ever since MyFootballClub announced they were taking over Ebbsfleet United, I’ve kept tabs on the situation at Stonebridge Road.

Now that they’ve hit a crunch time in their history, with rival clubs bidding for their star players, I thought it was about time for another Soccerlens piece on them.

Moving somewhere

“Yah?”

“Yah. And Clementine knows somebody who can get us on the Mahiki guest list.”

“Yah?”

“Yah.”

Welcome to the neighbourhood.

I have moved. Or, rather, a couple of months ago I moved. This was the first conversation I heard in my new area, spoken by a couple of 17-year-olds on a bus. It is, I think it is safe to say, sufficiently more upmarket than the delights of Tooting, where I was previously residing.

There, I walked to the tube station and looked smart. Here, I wear the same clothes and look like a hobo. I walk past two schools on my way to the station. I’m sure anxious mothers are already ringing the police about the scruffy looking man who walks past at a set time every day [1]. As opposed to scruffy men driving by in their 4x4s. That’s quite alright.

I quite like it around here.

This isn’t to do with any kind of aspirational stuff about moving to a better area and polishing my driveway every day in the hope of getting an invite to the country club. And if, in the unlikely event I have a daughter any time soon, I’m certainly not bloody well naming her Clementine.

No, this is more to do with the general niceness of the area and the house, which I’ve managed to find myself renting through good fortune and I love to bits the people who’ve made this possible.

The area has a lot of green bits and pieces. This is important to me. I grew up in Devon. I’m used to see cows outside my bedroom window. Trees were a given, not an optional extra. Tooting wasn’t big on trees, although we did have some fox cubs living in our back garden, which were cute. A pain, but cute.

So, the new place has trees. And also grass. Never underestimate the importance of grass. Just as a rug ties a room together, so grass ties a neighbourhood together. So, yes, trees and grass and plenty of wildlife roaming around.

There are also rather quaint churches and long bits of grass and trees for people to walk on, all of which seems somewhat of a novelty in London. There’s even a village green where the local pub team play cricket every Sunday. Cricket! On a village green! That’s probably even better than my Devon village has managed for a while.

Then there’s the house itself, which is lovely and has a garden, which also has grass and is big enough to plant things around the side of the grass. For a while now, I’ve been wanting a garden to plant stuff in. Ok, so the house at Tooting had one, but you had to negotiate the fox piss and the garden itself was a little, well, untended.

So, now I have a garden, and I’ve planted stuff in this garden (in addition to the other stuff already planted), and I’ve now found I’ve become one of those people who actually welcome rain in the summer because it’ll do the garden good.

Not that my attempts at becoming the next Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are overly spectacular. I think the birds ate my lettuces. I’ve managed to kill half the beans. I’m not sure if my parsnips are alive or not. But the onions are very happy, and the leeks are coming on nicely, and I think I should get a decent amount of potatoes. If nothing else, I should be able to make a nice stock come the autumn.

I’m also planning on getting more adventurous. There’s already parsley and chives, so I may well create a herb section. And I have squash seeds ready to bring on. I quite like the idea of being able to pick my meal out of the garden.

Oh, bugger it. I clearly am moving towards the aspirational end. I’m still not calling my bloody daughter Clementine though.

I quite like it here. In fact, scratch that. Despite not having a 4×4, a posh accent, or snappy Paul Smith suits, I really like it here. Even if all the 17-year-olds can get onto the Mahiki guest list. They can have their minor royals. I’m quite happy with my vegetable patch.

[1] There are a lot of young families in the area and the mothers are, well, a tad overprotected. The other day, while walking to work, I hear a scream a little way in front of me, as a mother caught up with her errant child who had wandered off ahead of her. “Don’t you ever go off out of my sight like that again,” she admonished. “You saw what happened to that little girl on the news [I presume this was Madeline McCann]. Anybody could take you, that man over there could take you.”

Thanks for that. I just happen to wear jeans and T-shirts or the like each day rather than suits, and now I’m a child-snatcher. I appreciate the mother’s point, I’d rather she picked somebody else to make it with.


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