Robin Brown

Journo. Editor. Tutor. Dour northerner.

Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

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

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

British Steel, Corus and Teesside – the humbling of a region

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This weekend has pretty much seen the end of steel production on Teesside, with the news that the the Teesside Cast Products Redcar steelworks’ blast furnace is to be mothballed.

Mothballing is pretty much a death knell for a blast furnace, as they’re pretty difficult to start up gain once they’re taken off-line.

I have a personal connection as my Dad worked at Redcar – owned by British Steel, then as joint-venture privatised Corus, subsequently purchased by Tata – for nigh on 30 years. Before that, his father worked for Dorman Long.

Across the bay from Redcar is Hartlepool, my home town, and on a clear day the blast furnace makes for a stunning vista – steam billowing from the furnace.

Ridley Scott also thought so, he recalled the flashes of flame from burn-off and visual glow of industry of the steelworks when working on the visuals for Blade Runner, which is my favourite film as it goes.

At night the blast furnace looks faintly hellish – a pulsing red eye in the sky – but to me it was always the place where my Dad worked. And to many others in Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton, Billingham and Redcar.

Seeing the steelworks appear on the horizon always makes me feel like I’m home when approaching Teesside, along with the other industrial architecture of the region: the power station, the Transporter and ICI.

And sorting through some washing today, I looked a little harder at the British Steel towel that I still use in the kitchen.

Steel has flowed out of the north-east’s ports for 150 years, including to make the Sydney Harbour bridge.

But over the years the region’s heavy industry has taken a battering. No longer is the Tees a steel river, and all the traditional industries of the north-east have suffered.

Shipbuilding, coal and now steel. The area has been brought to its knees over the years, with only call centres to replace them. For every direct job lost at Redcar, three or four will be lost in the supply chain.

While Redcar seemed to hover on the verge of closure for many years, this latest development seems like the real deal.

The blow is particularly unfair given that a consortium had agreed to buy steel from the plant for ten years, only to pull out with no apology, apparently unfettered by an agreements, contracts or obligations.

Unions don’t believe Corus is taking the issue of the plant’s mothballing seriously, and is ignoring bids from potential buyers. The government insists it is powerless to act, though steel workers may look askance at the government’s support of the car industry.

In return, car industry bods may be looking with interest at the Corus situation, to see how parent company Tata deals with the fallout. Tata bought Jaguar Land Rover from Ford two years ago amid fears that the company would asset strip the UK factories and shift production back to India. What happens on Teesside may be instructive.

The UK’s remaining steel workers across the country are contemplating strike action, but I can’t see a way out.

Successive Conservative and Labour governments have undermined manufacturing and heavy industry to such an extent that the end seems inevitable, and the market-first orthodoxy has left governments powerless as foreign companies snap up and grind down successive UK companies.

Just time then for one last stand against the wholesale destruction of skilled UK industry. A final throwback to a bygone age: like the brass bands, like community spirit, like a British Steel towel on a washing line, fluttering in the wind.

Written by Robin Brown

February 21st, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Twitter panics over Trafigura

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I’m not going to go into what the Trafigura meme on Twitter refers to, needless to say it can be found pretty easily on the interweb.

Britain’s frightening libel laws are currently being used to issue pre-emptive super-injunctions that not only prevent the media from reporting on cases, but prevent them from from reporting anything about them – even that they’ve been prevented from reporting them.

Traditionally, MPs could use parliamentary privilege to raise or discuss issues otherwise banned from public debate, but the recent emergence of these super-injunctions prevents the press from reporting parliamentary questions, or even referring to them specifically.

In the age of the internet this is quite absurd, like the long-gestating rumour about Andrew Marr that the Labour Party is planning to raise in parliament in revenge over Marr throwing stupid internet rumours at Gordon Brown.

Anyone with the merest hint of internet nous can find out what this refers to.

So, as is the way of things, Trafigura went viral following a written parliamentary question on Monday 12 October.

The Guardian reported that it had been banned from reporting a parliamentary question and Twitter took over.

Only, understandably, Trafigura was deleted from trending topics, despite the fact it was obviously the top-trending topic. One minute it was top, the next it had vanished. Twitter’s trend explanations were also absent from any topics relating to Trafigura.

Twitter Trafigura

I don’t blame them, British libel laws are notorious for being swingeing, and Carter-Ruck’s efficacy in the area is well-know.

However, the Private Eye reports that the legal grounding for these super-injunctions is dubious, and the Lib Dems and The Grauniad have promised action on the case.

It’s another case of how futile traditional libel laws are when it comes to social media, and it’s a score for the Twitterverse. Digg users got in on the act too.

Social media may the medium that brings down the use of super-injunctions, having brought the issue out into the light, where the traditional media could not. Fascinating stuff.


All the relevant keywords are back on Twitter, though Twitter is not explaining the reason for them trending, as it does with other trends.

The Torygraph is now reporting the Twitter/Trafigura phenomenon in a carefully-worded article, though its report features no mention of The Guardian.

While people have been sued for their tweets before, it’s not clear how the tens of thousands of people who have now tweeted about the injunction could be sued, or whether there’d be much point.

The press will continue to tread a cautious line until such an order is lifted though, with their legal situation less opaque than that of social media sites and individuals.

The Guardian is currently attempting to challenge the injunction in court and the Liberal Democrat are seeking a debate in Parliament.

And here’s the Minton Report, which kicked off all of today’s shenanigans.

So, to sum up, this is currently being reported all over social media, the world’s foreign media and can be easily found on the Parliament website.

The greatest irony of all is that no-one had heard of Trafigura until today.

• Here’s a Tweetmap image showing trending topics in Europe this morning. The fact that Twitter feeds are among the most automatically aggregated on the planet also indicates just how impossible it is to police social media.

Tweetmap Trafigura


Carter-Ruck gives up. Social media win.

What happens next?

It’s unlikely to get any better for Trafigura and Carter-Ruck according to Techchrunch

Written by Robin Brown

October 13th, 2009 at 9:26 am

The Sun drops Labour, but there are wider issues at stake

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Idiot comic The Sun has unsurprisingly switched its allegiance to the Conservatives, having declared that the Labour government has ‘lost its way’.

This supposed revelation is as unsurprising as its timing – immediately following Gordon Brown’s rallying cry to the Labour faithful at the Labour conference.

In a clear lie the Sun’s political editor, George Pascoe-Watson, stated that the announcement was not scheduled to cause maximum political damage. That’s absurd in itself, but also because no-one really believes a lowly tabloid political editor would be allowed to make a decision like this.

The clear originator is Rupert Murdoch, who can spot a trend when he sees one. Psephologists have long argued about the impact the media has one voting behaviour. To my mind it once did, but I don’t think that anything as explicit as people obeying newspapers on election days rings true any more. Class dealignment, party dealignment, paper dealignment.

Murdoch probably knows that, which is why he’s unwilling to lose face by backing Labour – a long shot at best – at the next election. That way the idea that the Sun is the prime mover in an election victory can be maintained.

In doing so Murdoch can also leverage his fearsome media arsenal against David Cameron if he so chooses. Murmurs from the Tories regarding the BBC will not have gone unnoticed, and Murdoch can probably rub his hands in glee at the prospect of another chunk of media real estate becoming available to News International.

This raises the prospect of a British Fox News, based on the American version that delights in spouting bigotry in every form. Such broadcast channels are currently outlawed in the UK, but Cameron has already indicated that he wouldn’t obstruct them as Prime Minister.

It’s here that I think the media still has a strong influence on thinking and behaviors, the insidious drip-drip that may not explicitly back politicians or parties, but steadily reinforces right-wing values by broadcasting ignorance, fear and intolerance.

Couple that to a neutered BBC and a media landscape that could also be missing the Indie and the Observer by next year and it’s a grim prospect for a healthy Fourth Estate.

Written by Robin Brown

September 30th, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Debenhams marks Twitter channel launch…with dismissive swipe at Twitter

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This utter non-story, reporting Debenhams’ revolutionary and unique use of some strange new device called Twitter, from the Torygraph has been amusing me during my lunch hour.

The tone of the article is the first thing to bear in mind (Twitter is apparently a source of ‘gossip and blogging’); the fact that there are dozens of stores already using Twitter is second; and the way that Debenhams spokesman Ed Watson rubbishes Twitter in his first quote is the third.

“Rather than finding out the latest celebrity tittle tattle we’re going to use Twitter to provide customers with instant customer service,” beams Ed, basically dismissing the whole enterprise at the first bang of the starting pistol.

If that’s what you believe is Twitter is all about why on Earth would you think it was worth bothering with in the first place? Rob ‘No Relation’ Brown goes into more detail.

In fairness to Debenhams, it has grasped the opportunity to create an interactive profile on Twitter, rather than a feed of its latest offers.

In doing this it has negotiated the first hurdle to using the social media network, unlike the vast majority of new businesses taking a first foray into social media – most of them resembling new-born fawns stumbling around in an unforgiving forest.

Debenhams’ idea is to allow customers to tweet directly to shop floor workers at its Oxford Street branch. But reports also include the following statement:

Twitter users not in store can also ask questions, which Debenhams hopes will encourage them to visit the sale at a later date.

All of which indicates that Debenhams’ Twitter experiment is designed to be used by shoppers already in the store.

In-store shoppers can attract the attention of a shop-floor worker if they @ the Debenhams Twitter account and include the #debtwtasst hashtag. Here’s Watson again:

Instant communication with our customers as they do their shopping is a tremendous asset. We intend to develop this approach for the future.

I’m all for early adoption of new technologies that actually assist people in leisure and work, but when it comes to tweeting someone who may be a matter of feet away from me I can’t help feeling that something has gone very wrong.

Celebrity tittle tattle never seemed so attractive.

Update: Anyone following the hashtag debtwtasst will know that precisely zero uses of the idiotic Debenhams Twitter experiment were ever see. Shock

Written by Robin Brown

September 9th, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Frank Field and the future of the BBC

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Every time I see Frank Field in the news he’s making another pronouncement on some aspect of the state and how it requires a radical overhaul.

This has generally extended to the welfare state, with particular emphasis on social security and pensions.

But Frank has recently branched out by claiming that the BBC should be scaled back to being a minority public service broadcaster with two TV channels (BBC2 and BBC4) and two radio channels (Radio 3 and Radio 4).

Field was, for a very short time, social security minister in the Tony Blair government, having been priased for his radical forward thinking on the welfare state.

That was until everyone realised that just about the only person who agreed with Frank Field was Frank Field. It has to be said, he was remarkably prescient on a number of issues, probably too much for his own good.

Double F was swiftly sent back to the Wirral, where he has spent the last ten years arguing that everything should be scrapped, scaled down or broken up – cropping up with a new headline every couple of years when he’s got another headline-grabbing report out.

Here’s Frank on the BBC in his report, called Auntie’s Dying: Long Live Public Service Broadcasting.

“The BBC cannot continue to impose a version of the poll tax on every TV household.

“They are chasing viewers by producing rubbish programmes which, frankly, would make the founders of the BBC turn in their graves.

On a pedantic note, the licence fee isn’t a poll tax. Just to be straight on this, you don’t need to pay the TV licence if you don’t want to. Ergo not a poll tax.

Field argues that the public-fund nature of the licence fee compels the BBC to produce populist programmes that mirror commercial TV’s offerings.

He believes that diverting the licence fee to other content producers, who bid for the right, is a better idea – and one that is more likely to preserve public sector broadcasting in the long run.

The cultural value of the BBC is clearly a subjective one, but Field seems to have applied his own personal philosophy to everything in life. Who’s he to say which channels and stations are worthy and which aren’t? His continued references to the Proms highlight a peculiarly fusty idea of what’s of value and what isn’t.

I actually agree with Field that the BBC is going about things completely the wrong way by chasing viewers, and the continued existence of BBC3 – surely due to be renamed PramFaceTV* anytime soon – is baffling to me.

The problem is, and always will be, differing idea of what constitutes good public service broadcasting. Field has his own idea, I have mine, everyone else in the country will have theirs.

His paper recommends asking everyone what they understand by public sector broadcasting.

Frankly, I’m with Sid Vicious on this one – these are the very people who lap up the dross from commercial broadcasters at the moment. I dread to think what would be on the Beeb if it were decided by Joe Public.

Field would dispose of BBC management and an independent body would decide which broadcasters got their hands on the licence fee cash. I don’t see how this could really be much different from the current situation, where a largely unaccountable elite decides what gets made.

Field has earned a reputation for thinking the unthinkable, but it’s rarely pointed out that many ideas previously thought beyond the pale are unthinkable because they’re fucking ridiculous.

There’s certainly a debate to be had over the ways the digital revolution is changing the broadcasting landscape, and the way the BBC and other terrestrial broadcasters are funded has resulted only in a fudge thus far.

The commercialisation of some of the Beeb’s output is also problematic, as is the reach and scope of – but I’d rather have the BBC in the muddled state it’s in at the moment than a neutered niche broadcaster envisaged by Field.

Despite its intention to save public sector broadcasting, I rather fear Field’s paper will be more grist to the mill for the Beeb’s many and varied enemies – generally ranged across the right-wing and generally for economic or political purposes.

They’ll be rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of getting rid of a mortal enemy and competitor, plus all that lovely licence fee cash.

The BBC needs to be at the centre of British broadcasting, reaching out to as many people as it can while remaining true to its core commitments. I don’t think it currently does, but it only needs a little tweaking.

Under Field’s disastrous vision the Beeb would be cowed, a little-viewed curio amongst a sea of digital shite. His suggestions would be the first shots in the eventual destruction of public-service broadcasting.

I’ve always found it odd that while the rest of the world looks at the BBC in envy and admiration, in Britain we spend all of our time trying to destroy it.

*It was the BBC itself, lest we forget, that actually had the temerity to call a programme about teenage mothers Pramface Mansion.

Written by Robin Brown

July 29th, 2009 at 7:04 pm

Posted in Business,Media,People,TV

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Obama appoints William Shatner as new GM CEO

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This is my April Fool’s Day post from I expect I’ll have to take it down before long, so I intend to have it on here in perpetuity.

Shatner is new GM boss

Following the departure of Rick Wagoner as General Motors CEO and Chairman, US President Barack Obama has moved quickly to appoint actor William Shatner as new GM boss.

Shatner is known primarily for his acting and singing career, and has no known experience in running global automotive OEMs.

Obama said the 78-year-old Shatner had the ‘right stuff’ to take GM into the future, and backed the former Star Trek actor to rescue the General from the edge of bankruptcy.

“William Shatner is an American hero whose appeal transcends political, religious and cultural boundaries.

“His ingenuity and calm head in difficult situations is well known to Americans, and I know Mr Shatner has the right stuff to turn around a global behemoth with $100bn of debt and transform it into a formidable enterprise.”

In his inaugural address as new GM CEO, Shatner gave a lengthy and detailed explanation of GM’s proprietary Voltec powertrain technology, outlined a 15-point plan to return GM to profitability within twelve months and attacked former Star Trek co-star George Takei.

“I spent most of the 70′s living in a truck thanks to typecasting,” laughed Shatner, adjusting his hairpiece. “I know the car industry inside out.”

Shatner went on to field questions from the press regarding next-generation battery technology, the intricacies of the VEBA agreement with Chrysler, Ford and the United Auto Workers and his memories of the Columbo episode ‘Fade in to Murder’, in which he guest starred.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” mused Shatner, before leaving for the Renaissance Centre.

Written by Robin Brown

April 1st, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Posted in Automotive,Business,People,Photoshop

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