Robin Brown

Doing journalism. Teaching journalism.

Archive for June, 2009

What would I look like if I were a zombie?

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Probably a bit like this.

Rob Zombie

Although I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to zombies – I prefer them to shuffle, moan and be vaguely pitiful like Romero’s – the truth is they’re much more frightening when they’re running at you screaming.

Robin Brown zombie

Anyway, this zombie make-up is by Helen Quinn of Liverpool Community College, and allowed me to menace some chihuahuas belonging to someone from Hollyoaks while dressed as a zombie.

Written by Robin Brown

June 28th, 2009 at 9:59 pm

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The trouble with ‘Most viewed’ widgets

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The news depresses me. But not in the way you might think.

Certainly there is no shortage of terrible things in the world, but it’s the way the public interacts with news that gets me down.

Rather like the way iPods and Spotify can’t fail to homogenise music in the sense that people are less likely to take a punt on a new CD by a band they’ve barely heard, there’s a feature of news reporting on the internet that propels inane, unpleasant or freakish stories to the top of the tree.

The ‘Most commented’, ‘Most read’ or ‘Most emailed’ bars on news pages drive your viewers towards the most valuable or interesting pages on your site and are baited for the casual WILFer. The more people click the higher they get. Things snowball.

This is human nature – the equivalent of sneaking a News of the World (for the tits and gossip) in between the sheets of your weekly Observer (for the sense of moral superiority and cleansing earnestness).

There’s nothing wrong with this, and it’s something that journalists and editors realise at an early age –you’ll rarely go wrong appealing to baser instincts; morbid curiosity, prejudices, sex, ephemera and crass humour.

So any journalist worth his or her salt recognises this phenomenon and knows how to work it to his or her advantage. Many are the times I’ve spotted a trending topic and dashed off articles accordingly, and there’s even a Google Maps ‘Map of Mayhem’ mash-up on MotorTorque to pander to the ‘bizarre’ aspect of motoring.

My ‘Skoda Goose Smash Terror of IT Manager’ header is one I’m hugely proud of, and it did tens of thousands of hits – viral and search-engine based – in a day because it plays to so many aspects of people’s need for a quick hit of rubbish. It stayed at the top of the ‘Most viewed’ bar for ages, until I had it manually removed.

Various social aggregator sites, most notably Fark, cater exclusively for this kind of news, reflecting and driving its popularity.

But I’ve noticed recently that the ‘Most viewed’ bar is a troubling phenomenon. On my Yahoo homepage and the BBC’s site recently two stories lingered at the top: the former regarding the number of lovers the missing chef Claudia Lawrence is alleged to have had; and another involving a woman trampled to death by a herd of cows. The latter was also at the top of the ‘Most emailed’ widget on the BBC.

It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the circumstances in which people clicked on – or emailed – these stories, and I find it equally distasteful, disturbing and depressing.

The media is inevitably complicit in these kind of stories (especially those of the strange deaths variety) being so popular and I’ve rolled my eyes more than once at BBC Online’s headlines as they’re so clearly designed to attract this kind of slightly sick attention.

I’ve also noticed than in the case of certain celebrity deaths, sites won’t name the celeb in question in the header, forcing you to click if you want to know who’s snuffed it.

The Grauniad’s problematic Comment Is Free section has turned a kind of lefty bear-baiting into an art form, and it’s increasingly hard to believe it isn’t just designed to piss off its easily-angered community and inspire floods of user-generated content.

To an extent that’s the game these days, and it takes no mean skill in doing well, but the BBC especially rather demeans itself by slyly promoting these stories, once again repeating the bums-on-seats mistakes that is totally at odds with its remit. Entertain, educate and inform? Hardly.

I’m dubious about the news value of the apparently-comical death of the woman killed by the cows, and I’d be surprised to see it afforded any time on the air. As such it’s fairly obvious why stories like this are making it onto the Beeb’s website – hits, pure and simple.

The Beeb certainly isn’t alone in this, in fact pretty much every news site out there will do something similar. But it’s empty traffic, the value of which – monetary or otherwise – is nebulous at best. More to the point it’s fairly unpleasant; death repackaged as entertainment. The sort of thing you expect from Red Tops, not serious news sources.

This might all come off as rather pompous and antediluvian – twas ever thus after all – but the idea that somewhere an online editor is attempting to work the maximum possible traffic from the death of someone’s mother, while someone else is emailing that story to a friend with an accompanying snarky one-liner is pretty sickening, whichever way you look at it.

Written by Robin Brown

June 24th, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Michael Schumacher is NOT The Stig

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There was a lot of hoopla over the weekend over the identity of The Stig – Top Gear’s boiler-suited tame racing driver – after Jeremy Clarkson let it slip that his identity would be revealed in tonight’s new episode, the first of the latest series.

It was such a naked publicity stunt that I didn’t take much interest in it, but dashed of a quick piece from memory for the MotorTorque Blog, secure in the knowledge that there’d be plenty of search engine queries on the subject.

In the post I explained that the Stig would undoubtedly remove his helmet to reveal either Damon Hill or Michael Schumacher.

Clarkson would tease whether the F1 driver was, in fact, The Stig but it would evident to anyone with half a brain that thrashing a Honda Civic Type R around the Top Gear racetrack would not have been high on Schuey’s list of priorities as he was winning the last of his F1 titles.

This hasn’t stopped most news outlets reporting the news as if it were fact, regardless of the fact that it’s patently obvious that Schumacher has never been the Stig, apart from his exercise in hooning around the test track in a Ferrari FXX in a neat and rather blatant bit of product placement (Mike went on to reveal his love of the Abarth 500 and Fiat Croma) for both Fiat and Bacardi.

The news reporting riles me, as it’s so weak and lazy as to be insulting. It smacks of churnalism – the modern phenomenon of simply rewriting coverage from other news outlets, or press releases.

I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of churnalism, as almost every journalist in the land has to swallow their pride and dash off some rubbish based on online articles or PR bumph, but this instance is such a naked piece of headline-grabbing will-this-do? crap, which is actually untrue, that it’s quite insulting.

Needless to say the search engines are currently awash with ‘Michael Schumacher IS the Stig!’ headlines from news portals that have simply recycled each other’s reports, or cut’n’pasted Press Association articles.

Schumacher Stig

It’s annoying for smaller sites when larger sites can wield their page rank to monopolise search engines with dross like this – inaccurate dross at that – but it’s even more useless for users, who find the SERPS full of the same article loosely rewritten.

Clarkson, Schumacher, Bacardi and Fiat must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Schumacher is The Stig reports:

The Guardian:

The mystery surrounding who is Top Gear’s mysterious test driver, the Stig, was solved tonight after Michael Schumacher revealed himself as the show’s secret driver.


Michael Schumacher revealed himself as Top Gear’s mysterious test driver the Stig.

Channel 4:

Michael Schumacher has revealed himself as Top Gear’s mysterious test driver the Stig.

The former Formula One driver took off the Stig’s famous white helmet during an interview with presenter Jeremy Clarkson after the studio audience urged him to reveal his true identity.

Written by Robin Brown

June 22nd, 2009 at 12:22 am

Twitter excoriates Daily Mail Online

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It goes without saying that the Daily Mail is one of the world’s worst newspapers, but its website is something else entirely.

I have a grudging respect for the team behind the website, as its a slick operation that is as attractive as it is sticky.

My admiration for its content is muted, however, by the fact that it’s responsible for some of the worst hate-filled bile on the internet – although I’ve been told by journalist friends that many Mail journalists hate themselves for the rubbish they have to put out.

This mainly comes from the reader comments, but they’re stoked up by the content and the way it rather subtly plays to its readers’ worst fears and excesses.

The Mail Online’s polls are particularly notorious, constituting absurdly loaded xenophobic or daft Little Englander questions and generally beyond anything any web parody could muster. Here’s a random sample:

Should we give up more power to the EU?
Should immigrants be forced to respect British culture?
Should wheelie bins be scrapped?
Should Prince Charles keep his opinions to himself?
Will Brown’s Iraq inquiry just end in a whitewash?

The Twitter community is fairly diametrically opposed to the Mail’s political outlook, and I’d say it’s generally left-leaning and progressive.

As such the order of the day on Twitter at the moment is supporting democracy in Iran and slating Sarah Palin.

Brilliantly, the Twitter community has also harnessed its own mischievous spirit and predilection for railing against intolerance by mounting a campaign to deliberately skew the Mail Online’s latest polls – its most odious yet.

Daily Mail Online Twitter poll

This particular poll is actually titled ‘Should the NHS allow gipsies to jump the queue’. Normally any such poll should be a red rag to a bull for the Mail’s readership, but the Twitterati are currently responsible for a 93 per cent vote in favour of ‘gipsies’ jumping the NHS queue.

I suppose there’s probably some kind of serious point to be made on this, but I prefer to simply point and laugh.

EDIT: A bit of digging reveals the original article the poll is based on, written by Richard Littlejohn, which contains the following charming sentence:

The actual numbers of proper raggle-taggle, Romany gipsies in Britain is minute.

Most of these ‘travellers’ are Irish tinkers, itinerant scrap-metal merchants, scruffy hippies left over from the 1983 Glastonbury Festival, or dubious waifs and strays from Eastern Europe doing a bit of freelance begging.

It’s not hard to predict the conclusion Mail readers were likely to come to.

Predictably the Mail has taken the poll in question down, but with any luck the severity of the bumming will make the Mail wary about posting such absurd polls in the future.

Then again, maybe not eh?

Stupid Daily Mail muslim poll

Written by Robin Brown

June 19th, 2009 at 3:13 pm


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I’ve had a fairly bizarre episode involving this number recently, involving a number of silent calls and distorted automated answerphone messages, purporting to be from Natwest Bank and asking me to call a number I’ve never heard of.

Obviously this sounds like a scam, and I duly wrote it off as such. But the calls persisted, so I searched online for the number, finding nothing but message boards full of people trying to find out more information on the number.

Some messages reported it as a scam while others said it actually was Natwest’s fraud department. Paranoid, I wondered whether the latter were placed there by scammers desperate to make it look genuine.

So I searched Natwest’s site, including my online bank account. No answer there. In the end, figuring that the worst I could lose was a couple of quid, I phoned the number to hear the same voice talking me through the process.

Every now and then the voice of what sounded like a drunken American would say “Mr Robin Brown”. Eventually I was asked to confirm my date of birth. At this point I hung up.

Baffled by the messages I phone my local branch, where I was told that it was very unlikely that my bank would be leaving such messages. Still, the helpful chap on the other end of the line checked my file.

Surprise, surprise it actually was Natwest’s Fraud department, wanting to know if I’d recently bought a new computer. In the meantime they’d frozen my bank account, so it’s a good job I wasn’t stranded in the Orkneys with only my debit card for help like on that advert.

I was impressed by the speed and efficiency of the actions of the bank, but I was also baffled by the enigmatic way the bank had tried to contact me.

A call from my local branch would have made most sense, where a cagey exchange of personal detail confirmations suffices on most occasions. Even a note on my online banking page would have made more sense.

As it was I spent a dinner hour puzzling over whether my bank was trying to contact me over some dodgy account transactions or whether an African scammer was trying to play for a mug.

Written by Robin Brown

June 14th, 2009 at 10:04 pm

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Boris Johnson’s brushes with death

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What with his so-called near-death experience a fortnight ago, and this stumble which could oh-so easily have led to a watery grave, Boris Johnson must be wondering if he has recently escaped some kind of Final Destination-style appointment with the Grim Reaper.

Whereas I’d intended to make some sort of serious point about Johnson’s experience as a London cyclist – ie. a damn dangerous one – this clumsy plunge into a river while encouraging volunteering in the capital is simply funny.

Even the Beeb’s usually sober reporting manages to make Boris sound like the huge oaf he really is:

The Mayor of London Boris Johnson has fallen into a river while launching a drive to urge Londoners to volunteer.

While helping to clear up the River Pool in Lewisham, south-east London, he tripped and fell in, getting wet up to around his chest, then stumbled away.

Ken must be stroking his newts in pleasure.

Boris Johnson’s ‘near-death’ river experience

Boris Johnson’s ‘near-death’ cycling experience

Written by Robin Brown

June 4th, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Posted in Media,People

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