Robin Brown

Doing journalism. Teaching journalism.

Archive for March, 2010

How the Huffington Post helped Rupert Murdoch

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The Huffington Post was number one in The Observer’s 50 Most Powerful Blogs at the weekend, alongside plenty of other aggregators.

The Post, says the article, ‘hoovered up traffic’ and ‘made the first generation of bloggers look like two-bit prospectors panning for nuggets in shallow creeks before the big mining operations moved in’.

This is, undoubtedly, true and a pretty decent simile to describe the awesome site’s Death Star-like entry into the blogosphere.

But the Huffington Post isn’t just a big mining operation – it’s a strip-mine operation that decimates the blogging landscape by using the value of whatever it republishes, vaguely repackaging it and leaving a credit-plus-link behind.

Huff Post editors will argue that those links and that traffic are of value to the original site, but really the Post’s aggregation model is the online equivalent of harvesting a village’s annual crop and leaving behind an IOU. The Observer article continues:

In the era pre-Huffington, big media companies ignored the web, or feared it; post-Huffington they started to treat it as just another marketplace, open to exploitation.

That much is true. Huffington, and other mega-blogs like Gawker, opened the door for aggregators that use work done by other people to generate cash, traffic and engagement.

But Huffington and others like it have gone beyond aggregation as it used to be understood; it scrapes, albeit using a human hand as opposed to a bot, taking much more than a header and abstract. Was the effort that went into your blog post or article really worth that hard-to-find link back from the aggregator?

In its wake, other mass meta-aggregators such as Mahalo have followed, blurring the definition of ‘fair use’. It’s a tough one to call, but it’s easy to make apocalyptic predictions about where this sort of thing ends. What else is left when everything has been mined of its value?

Ironically, The Huffington Post was set up to take on the right-wing US blogs and news corporations; to provide a ‘liberal’ point of view and media beast to rebalance the landscape.

But by introducing the slash-and-burn aggregation model to publishing content, it’s allowed corporate behemoths to enter the mass aggregation game, with revenue-generation as the first and last priority.

And, greatest irony of all, Mahalo – a great black hole of aggregation – is backed by none other than News Corp; the greatest enemy of mass aggregation in the world.

So, when you’re confronted with SERPs results consisting of content scraped by Mahalo, earning plenty of cash for Rupert Murdoch into the bargain, remember to thank The Huffington Post.

Written by Robin Brown

March 30th, 2010 at 1:27 pm

The trouble with Foursquare

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I’m fairly dubious about claims that GPS-based social networking show-off app Foursquare could lead burglars to empty houses, prompting insurance claims for thousands of iMacs, X-Boxes and Garage Band kit as nerds around the country fall prey to social media criminals.

The idea that any of the smackheads who lurk at the road at the end of my street might be checking out my Crunked Badge status before jemmying open the back door and making off with my collection of Doctor Who DVDs strikes me as fairly remote.

But there is a significant downside to Foursquare that no-one has really discussed. It’s the fact that my heavy drinking has been exposed to me in terrifyingly irrefutable binary data.

What all of those dots and code and pixels add up to is the fact that I have a significant drinking problem*, my check-ins forming an accusatory dot-to-dot around Liverpool like interconnecting veins on a discolored liver.

In under a month I’ve checked in at at least twelve different pubs, bars and clubs, more than once in many instances. And I’ve been unable to check in on several occasions due to lack of iPhone, lack of reception, or – bafflingly – lack of the kind of social media twattery that compels me to start fiddling about with my phone the second I enter a building.

This adds up to a very sorry state of affairs, from the perspective of anyone viewing my life through lens of my Foursquare status updates.

Where are the check-ins of the galleries, theatres, cafes, parks and restaurants I’ve visited? Why did I not check in at those places? I’m just glad I didn’t check in at the off-licenses I’ve visited over the last month.

All of this does raise the possibility of new apps that use a FourSquare API to pretty much create a kind of location-based tapestry of your life – which could reveal all sorts of unsavoury information if you allow your phone to merrily pass on your location to all and sundry.

All of a sudden those unexplained visits to a house on the other side of town could start looking suspicious; that day spent at a rival business could need some explaining; the repeat trips to the bookies; those lonely late-night visits to a brothel, a late-night garage or a crack den…

The possibilities are endless. There’s probably a pleasant upside to these tools, but it’s not immediately clear what they are. As it is, I’m probably lucky to escape looking only like a rather hapless boozehound.

• You can find Robin on Foursquare here

* I’d like to make it clear that, as far as I’m concerned, I have no such drinking problem. Then again, I would say that wouldn’t I?

Written by Robin Brown

March 26th, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Posted in Media

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The fall and fall of Question Time

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I tend to watch Question Time after a few pints down the pub, as I suspect most do.

I’ve started to wonder, recently, whether the programme is actually pitched at a demographic of half-pissed pub goers who may happen to come across BBC1’s flagship discussion programme while channel hopping.

The reason why is there’s been a steady flow of genuinely awful pantomime dames and villains on recently on QT, who make it genuinely hard to watch.

There’s always been a wild card element to the QT panel – an Ian Hislop here or a Mark Steel there – but recently we’ve had Nick Griffin, Carol Vorderman, Kelvin Mackenzie and David Starkey, all so odious that I’ve not been able to sit through it for more than ten minutes.

I generally head over to Twitter to see if it’s just me going stark raving bonkers, but the Twittersphere seems to be in agreement (although that’s a demographic that, in all likelihood, is pretty similar to my own).

While Starkey is a renowned historian, he’s also a renowned nutcase but I can see the logic in getting him on. But Mackenzie? He’s just a fat horrible twat. And Vorderman? A celebrity debt-pushing adder upper? And that’s before I get to Griffin. Who’s next? Eugene Terre’Blanche?

I’m putting this down to the desire for an outspoken right-wing professional splutterrer to articulate the voice of the fabled common man, but really it just makes the whole thing unwatchable.

Seeing politicians trying to score points off one another is one thing. Seeing the latest right-wing rent-a-gob frothing, ranting and generally being oafish just exposes the pointlessness of the whole thing, especially with the increasingly fogeyish Dimbleby failing to preside over the whole sorry mess.

Below are my favourite Starkey reactions from Twitter, where the pompous old hobbit briefly became a trending topic earlier tonight. Keep a look out for Jim Davidson this time next week.

My favourite David Starkey reactions
 on Twitter

@jonboy79 [David Starkey has] spent so long studying the lives of pompous priggish royals that he has become one, by some sort of historical osmosis

@heppy: If David Starkey didn’t exist he’d have been invented by The League Of Gentlemen

@NinaGleams: RT @zofiewonkenobi David Starkey looks like an evil doormouse

@marcusbrig David Starkey is so utterly vile that I feel weepy, tired and unwell everytime he speaks

@Bethemediauk David Starkey is a pompous, overbearing, stuck up old tosspot. Which overshadow the rare ocassions when he actually has a point

@DCPlod It’s not just America that has crazy conservatives: David Starkey on BBC Question Time said 25% of British children are feral

@samdbarratt David Starkey is properly bonkers, too much. Next week a panel of Farrage, K McKenzie and Street-Porter? 

@Ruaridhnicoll Could David Starkey look any more like a Hogarthian nightmare? I can smell the corruption from here

@Scalded_Bollock I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say David Starkey is absolutely batshit.

@Drattigan Hello. My name is David Starkey, the Toad of Toad Hall

@dooobeee David Starkey, YOU ARE NOT AN ECONOMIST! listen to the 60 leading economists and IMF! 

@Julie4GS: David Starkey needs to be catapulted back into the seventeenth century where he belongs. Shut up you antiquated old

@Joemuggs Is David Starkey a ludicrous, clumsy prank designed to discredit Conservatism?

n.b. these represent a snapshot of about five minutes of tweeting. There was a whole hour to choose from.

Written by Robin Brown

March 19th, 2010 at 12:12 am

When the public interest and media interest coincide

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It was with no sense of satisfaction today that I scanned the morning’s front pages to a sea of blurry Jon Venables shots, but it was proof that the tabloids are scenting blood over the man’s return to prison.

The Mirror reports that Venables has been returned to prison for fighting at work and that he has been struggling with drug use for some time – shamefully for a Labour paper relegating the death of Michael Foot to a masthead boxout – and apparently breaking the worldwide injunction that prohibits any reporting on Venables or Robert Thompson.

The details, vague though they are, are clearly sufficient to allow dozens of people to confidently guess Venables’ assumed identity – which obviously poses significant problems for Venables, the probation service, the police, prisons, the Ministry of Justice and dozens of other auxiliary services.

This is presumably why Jack Straw was so determined not to allow this to come to light. At best, Venables requires a whole new identity and cover story somewhere else in the country, or spends the rest of his life in prison with a round-the-clock guard. Or, more simply, someone murders him.

I’ve been considering how the public interest has been served by these revelations coming to light. In what way are we enlightened, I wonder. What’s the benefit to society in these details being brought to light?

It’s fascinating trying to watch the newspapers maintain some sort of moral high ground on this issue while exploiting the grief of Denise Fergus to sell some more papers.

In today’s Sun, we’re told of the ‘Bulger Case Outrage’? What ‘outrage’ is that exactly? The manufactured outrage of tabloid editors denied the opportunity to make another meal of a genuine human tragedy?

It’s an unfortunate – or is fortunate? – coincidence that the outing of criminals as part of serving the greater good dovetails so smoothly with the media imperative to sell copy.

Who’s to say what the real reason behind the Venables muck-raking is? Every newspaper editor will point to the former, explain that it is a duty of the media to reassure society. Whichever way you paint it I can’t see the moral justification in the howls of anger over the government’s refusal to cave in to the papers.

But it won’t stop here – this story has legs now, and we all like to know how a story ends. I’ll save you the bother of actually buying these papers.

In a few days time, following a tidal wave on unrelenting pressure from the papers, reflected and intensified by other mainstream media, spread far and wide by social media, which will in turn be re-reported by the tabloids, people will start coming forward with stories to sell.

Some time next week one of the papers – probably the Sun – will get recent pictures of Venables and decide, on balance, that the legal risk is worth taking, arguing that to do so is in the public interest. Then the rest will follow suit.

The public interest will have been served. Paper sales and website traffic will increase accordingly. Some hack will win a self-congratulatory ‘Scoop of the Year’ award.

It remains to be seen what happens to Venables. At best, a life of looking over his shoulder. At worst… well, we know the worst.

I genuinely wonder if, at any point, those in the media demanding to know these details have ever thought beyond the scope of ‘public interest’ and considered the high stakes of this game. That convenient public interest defence can cover a multitude of sins.

Written by Robin Brown

March 4th, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Crowdsourcing win! Media encourages public to out Jon Venables

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The media is baying for details about exactly why Jon Venables has been locked up again, several years after he was released from prison, where he served nine years with Robert Thompson for the murder of James Bulger.

I don’t have any connection to the sorry affair, apart from reading the challenging As if – a superb account of the case by Blake Morrison – and living in Liverpool.

But I do feel a deep ambivalence about attitudes towards the case, especially those pursued by the media.

This has been reignited today with the news that Venables has been returned to prison for unspecified breaches of his parole licence. The media is barred from reporting what Venables has done and may not even seek to discover why, such is the blackout on information relating to the two boys’ new identities.

Various figures in the media are outraged that they cannot report these details, arguing that it is in the public interest to make them known.

I’m unclear on exactly why they believe this to be the case, beyond the principle of the matter. There are some important questions to be asked about the unprecedented nature of the anonymity afforded to the two, but I don’t think this is the best time to ask them.

It seems likely that the case will generate a lot of publicity, which media outlets tend to like. Further, it seems not unreasonable to suggest that the reasons many editors want the Venables details made public are rather less high-minded one that the principle of publicity as part of the judicial process.

To my mind any further details that are released about Venables, even down to exactly why he’s been banged up, make it more likely that he is IDed. When that happens, it’s only a matter of time before Venables is attacked, and possibly killed.

The alternative is that the probation services, police, judiciary and Home Office go through the process of creating a whole new identity for Venables.

I don’t think either of these options are in the public interest, and I don’t believe the notional trade-off – that public interest is satisfied – is worth it on balance.

Nevertheless, the media has blown its top and adopted its usual ‘pressure grows’ and ‘speculation is rife’ echo-chamber reporting on the issue in an effort to get at the details.

But it’s adopted a new technique too. The media is, in no uncertain terms, banned from going anywhere near the case so, in the case of Sky, appears to be actively encouraging the public to do its work for them.

Now, how long before a fellow inmate guesses who’s next to him in the dinner queue and fronts him up?

And whips out a mobile phone and takes a snap and makes a call and…you get the picture, or at least the Sun will.

Or somebody nicks the custody photograph, like they did with Fred West, and flogs it?

Venables was supposedly banged up again sometime in the past 10 days, along with around a thousand new prisoners.

Shouldn’t be difficult to identify a 27-year-old with a hint of a Scouse accent and a chip on his shoulder.

It could earn you more than your next armed robbery. And no risk of getting shot.

So there you have it – get a snap of Venables to the Sun and you could be rich. If you’re at a loss as to how to do this look at what happened with Fred West, or whip out your camera phone should you come across a new cellmate with a scouse accent in his late 20s.

It’s hard to have much sympathy for Venables given his track record, maybe he’s brought this on himself.

But ultimately the equation is a simple one. The more details about Venables that come to light, the more likely it is someone sticks a knife in him. I don’t see how that’s in the pubic interest either.

Written by Robin Brown

March 3rd, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Everyone hates Kelvin

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There’s unreasoning hate and there’s reasoning hate. I have an unreasoning hatred of lots of people, who are probably very nice people. If I ever met them I’d probably be nice to them

But there are a dozen reasons to genuinely hate Kevin Mackenzie, even if it’s just his horrible pudgy face.

I was reminded of this fact last night when watching Mackenzie’s love-in with Paxo and a couple of other media twonks.

Dawn Airey, as it goes, nearly hit on a good point, but the whole thing was overwhelmed by Mackenzie’s depressing luv-a-duck brand of obnoxious ‘straight talk’, which Paxman dutifully chuckled at.

If the whole thing moved the debate on the BBC’s modern role in a multi-platform media age I missed it, and after sitting through Mark Thompson’s execrable performance I was forced to endure this shouting gobshite trotting out his predictable News International line that we’re apparently supposed to think is funny.

Anyway, since I was on Twitter at the time I turned to the Omnipithium (i prefer Omnipithium to Twitterverse) to see what the consensus was.

Admittedly social media types are not largely representative of the general public, but in this case I’d largely like to believe that it was. I don’t think I’ve missed any out in the hour-or-so’s worth of comments, lest anyone accuse me of being selective.

What it shows is that there are genuine reasons to hate Kelvin, but you don’t really need one.

Written by Robin Brown

March 3rd, 2010 at 9:22 am

Bums on seats – 6Music’s threatened demise shows the BBC doesn’t know what it’s for any more

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The BBC has been worrying me for a while now, like a once-treasured friend who’s getting mixed up in some bad stuff.

For Strictly Ballroom Come Celebrity RollerBlading see crack. For the Lonely Planet purchase see scratch cards. Megamillions for Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton is a maxed-out credit card.

But, now an again, there’s flashes of the old friend you remember. The Winter Olympics, Life, Doctor Who, Newswipe, Adam and Joe on 6Music.

The BBC is schizophrenic, it simply doesn’t know what it’s supposed to do any more, so it does everything. It knows it needs to lead the UK’s digital revolution, but doesn’t understand where its public sector remit ends and commercialisation begins; it knows it needs to cater for mass audiences, but doesn’t know where to draw the line; it knows it needs to maximise revenues, but doesn’t grasp that it can’t do this to the detriment of other publishing businesses.

The BBC has expanded without thought or reason. It seems unlikely that any one person can realistically control its growth or expansion into virgin territories. 20 years ago it constituted two national TV stations and four national radio stations. Now, who knows?

I’ve lost count of the radio stations, and the television stations. The website’s size is staggering and awesome. To navigate it at random must be like wandering around Television Centre’s bowels, a surprise around every door.

The Beeb’s commercial activities worry me, because they undermine its remit and provide fodder for its many enemies – ideological and commercial – to attack with. And with some justification.

Semi-automomous franchises like Top Gear bemuse me. They worry commercial outfits. It’s easy to see why.

Despite the drip-drip of attacks – from GMG, News International, Associated Press, Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – the Beeb still has a huge amount of authority and place in the affections of the British people.

That means it can wield an enormous amount of commercial power, simply because of who it is – and with great power comes great responsibility. The Beeb does not always use it wisely.

So the BBC creates enemies for itself in the search of a quick buck, or a land grab of publishing territory. This is unnecessary, but it’s also creating a great big stick for others to beat it with.

Step forward the Conservative Party, who will not blink twice at humbling the BBC in return for Rupert Murdoch’s backing for a few years; an old enemy vanquished and some press loyalty for a term or two.

Against this backdrop, the BBC has panicked. Services need to be cut and hair shirts worn. A few cosmetic changes should suffice in the run-up to an election. Sell a few bits of real estate, pension off Ross and Brand, and bin off a couple of minority radio stations.

Except, hang on, those minority radio stations are exactly what the BBC is supposed to be about. Catering for minority interests? All that Reithian gubbins?

I’ve never listened to the Asian Network, but I do listen to 6Music, and used to have it one 24/7 before Leslie Douglas did her level best to ruin it for being too interesting.

The fact that I listen to one and not the other is of no importance though, they both deserve equal consideration, because they go to the heart of what the BBC should be about.

That is not a nostalgic plea, it’s simple political expediency. For the BBC to stake a claim to £3.5bn of the public’s money every year it needs to demonstrate that it fulfils a need that cannot be satisfied by commercial broadcasters.

That is clearly not the case with BBC1, BBC3, Radio1 or, arguably, 5 Live. But it clearly is the case with 6Music. Where else can one hear alternative music of any quality?

Not from any commercial broadcasters that I can think of – they inevitably run out of cash and have to move back to the mainstream, because no local double glazing fitter in his right mind wants to advertise in between Asian Dub Foundation and Grizzly Bear.

There is an inherent risk in the BBC positioning itself as a minority pursuit, it can be pared back to arty-farty stuff with no compunction by an unfriendly government in that case – as Frank Field recently suggested. A slow death, for sure.

The Beeb must walk a fine balancing act: for every Strictly Come Dancing there must be a new Adam Curtis documentary; for every Family Guy a Mad Men; for every Newsbeat a Newswipe.

But to strip the BBC of 6Music would be to leave it fatally unbalanced, and shorn of one of the fig leaves that conceal its humiliated public sector remit.

It is a radio station of unparalleled quality in terms of many of its DJs and music. It’s one of the really good bits of that fading friend, the reason you retain a fundamental respect and love for them; the flash of brilliance set against the ugly backdrop.

Because to tolerate Horne and Corden you need an Adam and Joe.

• The image is a new version of the Berk and Hair image I did for MyToryTombstone. They adapted it for 6Music, so it seemed fitting to use it here

Written by Robin Brown

March 1st, 2010 at 11:02 pm

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