Archive for February, 2008

Run! My Wardrobe is shaking!

I was wholly unconcerned with yesterday’s earthquake. I didn’t actually know there’d been an earthquake until I got into work. After surfing a few sites I was tempted to follow everybody’s lead and let the world know how little I’d been affected by the event, as so many other of my fellow Britons felt compelled to do. (“Nothing happened! I must email a news organisation right away!”)

The quake has been brilliant and worrying in a way. Brilliant because it’s brought out the best in dry humour. Worrying because of the number of people who thought it was a) terrorism or b) more serious than one of those rather big quakes where a lot of people die.

Thankfully two of my favourite blogs were on hand to make dry comments. Firstly, Matthew:

“Certainly in the Further East thousands die every year on account of these blasted tectonic plates having a rub, so I’m not going to start trivialising anything. But when the worst damage is a bunch of chimneys falling over and a gaggle of smokers assembling outside in their dressing gowns to say, ‘Ooh, reet wobbler that, Dave,’ it really shows how unendingly ridiculous we are as a nation; or then again perhaps how well-equipped we are to deal with such things. Also it’s a good study of what it’d be like if you were cut off from civilisation, zombie holocaust style, because it seems you only accept it was an earthquake when there’s enough of a consensus going on about you. That is, before you turn on the news and see the geologists waffling on. But you’ve got to wonder what’d happen if there was a properly awful event and the media and phone networks collapsed – if you literally had your local community and nothing else – and no expertise either.

I think I’d be the bastard who’d start making up fibs about what’d caused it, see.”

Secondly, Andrew Collins:

“Not having listened to the radio yesterday morning or seen the news on the internet, I was oblivious to the destruction that had been wrought across Britain. I walked into the London Underground, my curiosity piqued by the Standard‘s sensational coverage, and found that on the electronic update screens every single Tube line was advertising “good service”. An earthquake had hit London and not a single Tube line was showing “minor delays”? What kind of rubbish earthquake was this? Had we called in Charlton Heston and George Kennedy for nothing?”

Finally, the BBC’s Have Your say site is hilarious on this topic. Not intentionally, but there’s a large number of people who worryingly think this event is bigger than Jesus and The Beatles combined.

The PCC & social nets

The only surprising aspect to the PCC’s announcementthat it’s looking into how newspapers get information from person profiles on Facebook was the length of time it’s taken for such an announcement.

It’s an issue that was bound to crop up sooner or later, and is also an area that has got no less grey since previous bloggings.

If it makes users of Facebook, MySpace, Bebo et al more aware of the potential consequences of putting personal information up online, then that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re still happy to share that information, then fine.

However, it’s difficult to see exactly how the PCC would police this if they did write it into a code of conduct. The suggestion seems to be the levels of privacy applied to the individual profile but that would still turn the grey area and even deeper shade of grey. Exactly what point is the privacy setting considered too private for journalists?

If the information is available online, then the journalist has as much right as anybody else to access it. There’s good stories, angles, and information to be had if you’re a reporter who can master searching on social nets and sites like Technorati.

The bigger question is probably not so much accessing it but how the information’s presented. The largest problem I have with lifting information from a social net is the accuracy of it. As I’ve said before, it’s a useful tool and can give excellent background, but I’d be dubious about using it as the only source, or even the main source, for a story.

It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here. As Roy Greenslade writes:

“I can understand why the PCC is carrying out the research, but I wonder whether any editor will sign up to any restriction on his/her paper’s right to seek out information that people have themselves uploaded.”

Gary elsewhere

At Soccerlens – why Oxford United fans have more reason than most to look fondly on the 80s, and why they’re really not doing all that well at the moment.

Iraqi Employees: Fine Words, Shabby Deeds

Dan Hardie takes the Iraqi employees campaign into the public arena once again:

“Do you like reading fine words? Here is the Prime Minister on the subject of Iraqi ex-employees of the British Government, speaking in the House of Commons on October 9th, 2007: ‘I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of our civilian and locally employed staff in Iraq, many of whom have worked in extremely difficult circumstances, exposing themselves and their families to danger. I am pleased therefore to announce today a new policy which more fully recognises the contribution made by our local Iraqi staff, who work for our armed forces and civilian missions in what we know are uniquely difficult circumstances.’

Fine words. What about deeds?

A small number of Iraqis – fewer than a dozen, according to people close to the operation who are in contact with me- were removed from Iraq in the early autumn of 2007. Since the Prime Minister’s admirable declaration of October, how many Iraqi ex-employees have been evacuated from Iraq? According to all the Iraqis that I am in contact with: none.

Here are the words of an Iraqi employee in Iraq, emailing me, today: ‘I am still in Iraq…I hear nothing from your Governmet yet!’

Here is what this man was told on February 3 by a conscientious British Civil Servant, out in Iraq to arrange the evacuation of Iraqi ex-employees and clearly shocked by the lack of progress: ‘I’m sorry that everything is taking so long to complete. Please note that we are waiting to hear what happens next from London and I can assure you all that I will personally contact you as soon as I receive instructions from London to confirm the next arrangements.’

Here is why he is hiding: ‘They (the militia) keep asking my relatives and my family’s neighbors about me and they keep moving in my family’s street and keep their eyes on our home… they told them: anyone know anything about A__ he should tell us immediately and also they said: we will never give up until we catch A__ .

And here is what the Right Honourable Bob Ainsworth, Minister of State for Defence, wrote to David Lidington, MP, about this same man on 16th January: ‘Mr Hardie expresses concern over the handling of a claim for assistance by a former employee of British Forces, Mr A_ … Mr A_ is eligible for the assistance scheme, and we have passed his details on to the Border and Immigration Agency who will take forward his request for resettlement in the UK via the Gateway programme. Assuming that there are no problems with Mr A__’s immigration checks he should be able to leave Iraq by the end of January…’ I added the emphasis, and I can also say that I have it in writing from the MoD that there were no problems with Mr A__’s immigration checks.

The Border and Immigration Agency is the Home Office Agency handling the last phase of the operation to resettle Iraqi ex-employees. And it is the BIA, according to every source of information that I have, that is delaying the evacuation of the Iraqis.

It is also supposed to be the Home Office that is co-ordinating the provision of housing to those Iraqis who do get resettled in the UK. In the House of Lords last month there was a debate on Iraq at the request of Lord Fowler, whom I had briefed on Iraqi ex-employees. Lord Chidgey, later backed by the Earl of Sandwich, asked a very pertinent question of the Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch Brown, and he did not get a good answer: ‘…on the resettlement of Iraqis at risk under the Gateway Protection Programme, the Minister will be aware that its success is dependent on a sufficient number of local authorities participating. There is considerable concern that this is not the case at present. Will he advise what steps the Government are taking to ensure that local authorities will come forward?’

There are many operational and logistical difficulties in the way of an operation: I know that. But the Government has known about these people for at least six months, and has been publicly committed to helping them for over four months. That is enough time to plan for the difficulties- far more time than you usually get in a war….”

There’s more at Dan’s blog. Read. Then Write to your MP. I’ve moved constituencies, so it’s a good reminder to let my elected representative know.

I will remember, I WILL remember (repeat ad infinitum)

The uttered phrase “It’s Mother’s Day this Sunday” is one that usually sends me into blind panic. I have trouble enough remembering my birthday and those of immediate friends and family so expecting me to remember a day that changes on an annual basis is a tad unfair, I’ve always thought.

Anyway, this year I’ve remembered. Five days in advance, no less! I was thrown into my customary panic last Thursday when my gym, of all places, advertised a special Mother’s Day offer. I’ve no idea what this offer entails (Bring your mother and get a free pilates class? Bring ten mothers and get a discarded exercise bike?) as The Fear descended on me at that point and I spent my entire session on the treadmill, weights, cycle, and rower repeating the title of this post. I got some strange looks, but given my propensity my play air guitar or sing along to songs without realising it, this was a distinctly normal couple of hours for those I share exercise space with.

I was mildly annoyed with my gym for spreading unnecessary hysteria among twenty-something males when I got home and discovered I was about to order a last-minute present a week too early, but as it’d at least planted the day in my brain I knew I had to be grateful. I then did something I hardly ever do and wrote down The Thought as it occurred to me so I didn’t forget.

It’s a habit I must get into more often as today I ACTUALLY remembered and, after a secondary panic that I was buying something wholly unsuitable, I briefly felt all of 3 minutes incredibly smug with myself. I say briefly because I know without writing The Thought that Sunday is Mother’s Day I will forget and will head off to watch football, or simply watch a triple bill of Monk on the Hallmark Channel and utterly forget to call home. I’m that rubbish.

So the is The Thought being written down. It’s purpose is threefold. Firstly, to serve the simple purpose of reminding me to ring home whenever I log in on Sunday. Secondly to install the panic in other twentysomething men ahead of the weekend and give them enough time to sort out, at least, a card or even write down The Thought of their own.

Finally, it serves as a public chastising for yours truly to be infinitely less rubbish when it comes to birthdays, family anniversaries, keeping in contact in general, and other assorted events that my brain has carefully filed away, only to resurrect five days after the event. Much like the free train ticket for the journey mid-February I applied for that eventually arrived in the post this morning.

So, in the spirit of me, on most occasions, being a right dozy little sod, I’m opening up the comments for anybody who’s birthday I’ve forgotten to chastise and shame me into being a generally less rubbish person. Future people I’ve yet to encounter may also use the opportunity to gently chide. It doesn’t matter if I don’t know you (well) yet – I WILL forget your birthday and the drink we arranged last Wednesday on at least one occasion.

And for that I apologise.

Adapting to web 2.0 for traditional media brands

Today’s post will loosely pull together three very good pieces on Web 2.0 and the media and draw some probably spurious conclusions that will be nowhere near as good as those in the original posts. Probably.

Firstly, Paul Bradshaw’s extended piece on how local news is changing[1], which nicely sums up the challenges facing all media, but especially local media. There’s an especially pertinent point when he mentions Google’s Super Tuesday election mashup with Twitter and YouTube.

News, and news innovations, are no longer the sole preserve of traditional media companies and anybody going into the traditional end of the media, be it print or broadcast, needs to recognise the landscape has changed. The online startups and established brands may not always get their experiments right but it’ll only take one of them to hit upon an easy and popular idea and the whole industry could be playing catch up.

It doesn’t hurt to experiment with mapping, mashups, wikis, widgets, vodcasts, podcasts and, yes, even online video content and bulletins. The important part is remember not to do them for the sake of being able to do them, but thinking about how this will resonate with regular users of the website as well as drawing in new users and strengthening the brand online.

Getting it right isn’t an easy science and not every experiment will work. But in any media, be a national magazine or broadcaster, or a local paper or radio station, it’s vital to have somebody on board who is naturally interested in keeping track of Web 2.0 developments, like the Google/Twitter/YouTube mashup, and going: “Hey. We could adapt this for our readership.”

All of which brings me nicely to Roy Greenslade’s response to Bradshaw’s post, who also emphasises the need for investment and experimentation. His conclusions are spot on:

“Journalism is being reborn online and it requires total dedication.

It’s the failure of owners to recognise this fact that is holding back development. I applaud all the regional groups that have spent money on new kit. I am less willing to cheer them for viewing investment in kit as a substitute for investment in human beings. In this transitory stage, with papers being published on separate platforms, more staff are required.

If we want reporters to be innovative, to push the boundaries by finding new ways of engaging online audiences, then they must be given the time and space to experiment. Unless owners catch on, they may find people drifting off to non-newspaper websites.”

Finally, a slight tangent [2] from teacher Will Patterson aka J. Arthur McNumpty on teaching blogging in schools, but one that I’ll misappropriate towards journalistic endeavours.

Patterson’s main points – that blogging is a difficult thing to teach and there’s a danger of turning it into a chore; a weekly exercise – could just as easily be applied to teaching blogging to journalists or journalists-in-training.

There’s no question that journalism courses or training should include a significant element on utilising online journalism but it shouldn’t be taught as a series of tick boxes.

Most places I’ve worked, I’ve been an evangelist for blogging, encouraging colleagues to get online and get blogging. Similarly, during my postgraduate training we were required to set up a blog and update it at least every week.

The same problem quickly became apparent in both my evangelising and on the course. You got those who, for want of a better word, ‘got’ blogging and started posting on a regular basis. You got those who didn’t see the point and ended up posting nothing at all. And you got those who kind of understood that it was something they needed to know about but weren’t quite sure what to do with it, so ended up posting in a very formal structure, ticking all the boxes that were required but not saying anything very much and, ultimately and through no real fault of their own, not creating particularly interesting content. Many probably got fed up and joined the not bothered category.

Conclusion: You can take a journalist to a keyboard but you can’t make them blog.

I’m not going to pull out some wonder-solution to teaching blogging, or at least understanding blogging, because I’m not entirely sure how I’d go about it myself. Blogging’s partly about finding your own voice and in formalised settings its not always easy to do this.

The only way that immediately springs to mind, is a bit of coaxing towards storytelling behind the story by tapping into the enthusiasm for what the would-be-blogger was originally employed to do – journalism.

Some of the best posts I’ve seen have been from infrequent bloggers who’ve been out to a story or event and want to share what they’ve been to or seen, but are restricted by space in their traditional outlet. Hence turning to blogging to add depth and context to the story from a personal perspective – a little like an online version of From Our Own Correspondent.

If you’ve got somebody who’s genuinely excited by an aspect of their work, then employers should give them the online means to do this – it works much better than the formal: “This is a blog and this is how to blog.” It’s still probably nowhere near the best way to push media people into the Web 2.0 world, but it’s as good a starting point as any.

[1] A shorter version can be found at journalism.co.uk

[2] Via this week’s Britblog Roundup.

The girl in the tight top always gets it first (Coffee and PC: The Best Bits 7)

Very few parts of the story below have been embellished. Proof, if any were needed, that taking a First Great Western Train into deepest Somerset is far scarier than anything the mind can conjure up.

Understandably, I wasn’t in a mood for sleeping after that journey. Hence the blog post.

****

I’ve lost track of time but know the train can’t be far from Bristol as it’s started to get dark. I sigh and toss the Sunday Mirror onto the empty seat next to me. As per usual, there’s no real news in it I’m interested in and not for the first time in my life I wonder why I’ve brought the publication to keep me company on the lengthy journey home. I sigh again and reach for the free Celebs magazine that accompanies the Mirror, and it’s at this point that the train slows down to a snail’s pace. Even for a train arriving at a station, the speed appears disproportionately slow. I strain my head around. In the gloom I can see a large terminus that definitely resembles Temple Meads. I sink back in my seat in the knowledge I still have nearly one hundred minutes left on my journey.

The two carriages limp almost apologetically into the station and suddenly there’s a mad rush as the vast majority of my carriage head for the doors, and then all is quiet. A little too quiet, there’s no noise from the train. I look around the carriage. Two seats behind me is a slightly chunky Afro-Caribbean man with curly hair and a think pencil moustache. Two seats in front of me is a small, timid Chinese woman. There are a couple of people further down the carriage and, at the end of it the conductor is pacing in a somewhat agitated manner.

I look out of the window. This doesn’t feel right. I’ve made enough stops and changes in Temple Meads to know the station reasonably well and this is not a part of the station I recognise at all. It seems we’ve been shunted to a very out-of-the-way platform among the sheds, far away from the other commuters. Without the noise of trains, the carriage is eerily silent. Perhaps there’s been a change to our direct train and we were meant to change trains. I look around the carriage. The few of us still onboard seem to be thinking similar thoughts. My eye catches the Afro-Carribean’s. “We’re not meant to get off here, are we?” as asks.

“I don’t know.” The unnatural quietness and lack of activity doesn’t seem right so I head to the end of the carriage to the stressed-looking conductor.

“This train hasn’t terminated here, has it?”

He turns to look at me, surprised somebody’s talking to him.

“No, no. Um. We’ve just got to attach another, um, carriage. No, we will move.”

I go back to my seat. “Yeah, we’ll be moving on,” I say to the Afro-Caribbean. He nods.

Three more people have got on, which is strange. I didn’t hear or see the doors open during my brief conversation with the conductor. I settle back down in my seat and stare out the window. All of a sudden the stressed conductor runs past my window, looking like he can’t wait to be shot of this rather creepy platform. I can’t see where he’s heading to as it’s now even gloomier, but there doesn’t appear to be another platform near. All of a sudden the train lurches silently away from the platform, before stopping a few metres away. I turn and look back. I can’t see the station any more from our position marooned on an old railway siding. Perhaps it’s just me but the carriage appears to have got colder. I pull my jacket around me and turn my attention back to the magazine.

Several minutes later the engines rev, then stop, like the driver’s trying to start a car. This isn’t fun. It’s getting late, I’m tired, I’ve booked a taxi to meet me at my stop, and I’d like to get home at a reasonable hour. The engine fires once more, then goes silent. Suddenly we lurch silently again and we’re back on our way.

At Bath Spa, the Afro-Caribbean and the Chinese woman get off, and a very fat ginger-haired woman wearing a floral dress too small for her figure gets on, along with a couple of teenagers. The train starts off again, still eerily silent for a moving vehicle.

At this stage I lose track of the journey as the train stops at several minor stations, as I’m buried in a crossword. My attention’s suddenly distracted as one of the girls that boarded at Bath gets up. She turns to what I assume is her boyfriend and pouts, pulling a pose that makes me wonder if she’s trained as a dancer. “Fine,” she says coyishly, “I’ll go over here if you don’t want my company.” Her boyfriend says nothing, grins and starts rolling a cigarette. As he brings the paper to his lips, without warning, the lights go out in our carriage, save for a flickering one in the middle, and the train begins to slow. It’s pitch black outside. Involuntarily I raise my head to look at the lights, as if my gaze will turn them on. It doesn’t. Everybody looks around unsure of what to do. The flickering light is both irritating and unsettling. Suddenly the train lurches forward as it speeds up, and the girl almost loses her footing.

The carriage behind ours is fully lit, but nobody seems to want to move into it. It’s as if there’s some unknown force behind the door that’s keeping people from picking up their bags and moving seats. If anything the glow from the second carriage is even more unsettling than the flickering light. I’m not normally afraid of the dark, but I’m slightly unnerved. The lack of noise isn’t helping either, but I try to put any thoughts out of my mind as stupid. Although none of the passengers in the carriage have spoken, the unease in the air is clear.

We pull into Westbury and stop again. We’re sitting for a good few minutes when suddenly there’s an almighty roar as the engine revs up, and the lights come on again. The engine dies and the lights go off again. The carriage behind ours still has its lights on though. The engine revs again, but no lights this time. Suddenly a different conductor leaps into the carriage from the platform. “Get out!” He shouts, with urgency in his voice. “Get out of this carriage! Move! Move into the carriage behind.” I’ve no idea why he’s so agitated. Perhaps he’s running late and wants to get home, but it’s not doing anything to ease the nervousness.

We gingerly move into the second carriage. It’s empty except for one of those old, slightly frazzled alcoholic men you get at train and bus stations. His face is flushed red, he’s wearing an army camouflage jacket, and has a greying pony tail. He looks up with ravaged eyes as my group enters the carriage, then moves down in his seat.

I select a new seat. From my position I can see the possible ballet dancer girl nervously jigging her foot up and down. I can’t see her boyfriend – he’s obscured by the seat. There’s another massive lurch and the train moves again. The guard comes through and locks the door into the darkened carriage, then hurries back down the train without a word.

We stop at two more rural stations. I’ve no idea where we are now, as it’s impossible to make out anything outside the window. Then, without warning the lights snap off in our carriage and the train grinds to a halt. I sit bolt upright, and look around. It’s really difficult to see anything other than outlines. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a sudden movement, and I wheel around in my seat. There’s nothing there. I turn back. This is not pleasant. I think about getting up to look for the guard, but I don’t feel capable of getting out of my seat. Some strain of my brain keeps telling me it would be a very bad idea to get up, and as long as I stay in my seat I’m safe. Then, as abruptly as they went off, the lights come on again. I look around, everything seems normal, although the fat ginger woman is slumped against the window. Is she asleep? I don’t know, but I don’t remember her being asleep before the lights went off. He face starts to slide down the window somewhat. Am I being paranoid here? I look around the carriage. Everyone else is looking uneasy still, but no more so than before. The ballet dancer is still jiggling her leg. Then I realise I can’t see the old alcoholic guy. Perhaps he got off when I wasn’t looking. I turn quickly to see behind me, in case he’s there. He’s not. We’ve been stationary for several minutes.

Then, again, we lurch forward and are off again, only this time we’re gathering a momentum of speed we’ve not had before. The noise comes back all of a sudden and it’s deafening. I try to relax back into my seat, but it proves impossible. I’m somewhat on edge.

Then, without warning, we stop again. Only there are lights outside, and I realise it’s my stop. I pick up my bag and get up, pausing to look at the fat woman. She’s still slumped against the window and has slipped a bit further down. I have an urge to poke her with a stick to see if she moves, but decide I’d be better getting off.

I step onto the platform and the air of menace that was present on the train vanishes. Two people get on the train and, as I cross the bridge and the train lurches forward once more, I wonder to myself what their journey will be like.


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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com