Archive for August, 2008

What the press can learn from advertising

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If you read yesterday’s Media Guardian interview with Chris Smith, Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), but replace the ASA with the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), you may – like me – find the piece more interesting for what it says about the shortcomings of the PCC than for what it tells us about the effectiveness of the ASA.

The ASA was originally modelled on the PCC (or Council on the Press as then was), but has since become a very different beast. It has expanded its remit, taken the initiative to do research on specific areas of content, taken account of third party complaints about specific subjects, and targeted companies that regularly flout ASA guidelines. Were the PCC to do the same it might find it has a considerably more positive influence on press standards.

Take coverage of the environment. The ASA has recently taken steps to prevent ‘greenwashing’ – i.e. companies falsely claiming green credits. It has accepted complaints both from NGOs like Friends of the Earth and the general public (the equivalent of ‘third party complainants’ in the eyes of the PCC). It has held seminars to understand public concerns and, when companies have made misleading claims the ASA has not been afraid to single them out for criticism – for example in the case of Royal Dutch Shell.

Why couldn’t the PCC do the same? Were the PCC to act a little more like the ASA it could examine claims, for example, of Islamophobia in the press. It could hold seminars about press coverage to help inform guidance to newspapers. It could take account of complaints by campaigning groups, and members of the public. It could even pick out particularly persistent egregious offenders.

Right now the PCC very rarely conducts research about aspects of news content (social networking and privacy is an interesting exception). Even more infrequently will it seek to prevent news outlets from writing misleading reports (e.g. see coverage of the McCanns and Robert Murat).

It will not accept any complaints from ‘third party complainants’, nor will it necessarily focus on an area of content that has received many complaints. It never (to my knowledge) singles out specific organisations for criticism – as the ASA did in the case of Royal Dutch Shell. Rather it concentrates on individual incidences of individual articles in specific news outlets.

Since their offices are all of 5 minutes walk from one another, the PCC could do worse than wandering down High Holborn to learn a few things from its advertising cousin.

Written by Martin Moore

August 19th, 2008 at 11:50 am

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From Tbilisi to ID cards to Madeleine McCann

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Goodness Jon Swaine’s been busy.
The prolific journalist has written 8 articles published today on (according to journalisted), on subjects as diverse as ‘World’s oldest mother shows off twins’ to ‘Condoleeza Rice in Tbilisi to secure Georgia peace plan’ to ‘ID card scheme could be blighted by bad fingerprints’, to ‘Madeleine McCann: No evidence our daughter has been harmed, says Gerry‘.
A total of over 3,000 words published since 10 o’clock this morning.
I know alot of Telegraph correspondents have left recently, but surely Swaine could use a little help?

Written by Martin Moore

August 15th, 2008 at 3:41 pm

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Should Labour really get blamed for UK's increased drug use?

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A remarkable example today of how the same news story, based on exactly the same government report, can be spun in such a completely different way by two different newspapers.

‘Drug Nation’ dominates the Independent’s front page, and documents some of the findings of a Department of Health report which found that 2 million people in Briton now take illegal drugs every month. Though clearly designed and written to make the reader conscious that drug-taking is far greater and more widespread than before, the article is not explicitly judgmental about the increase, nor does it try to ascribe blame.

Compare this to the Daily Mail which also leads on the drugs story. ‘Shocking toll of drugs on under-16s’ the main headline reads. ‘Hospital admissions for mental problems and overdoses doubles under Labour’ (the online version is more political still). In case you missed the subtitle the first sentence of the article re-emphasises who the paper believes is to blame: ‘The number of children taken to hospital because of drug use has soared since Labour took office, figures revealed yesterday’. A few sentences later it suggests ‘critics’ blame Labour’s failure to “tackle the scourge”.

Neither story is factually incorrect with respect to the data, but whereas you might leave the first simply conscious that there has been an increase in drug taking, you can’t help but leave the second believing it is a political issue for which Labour is responsible.

Perhaps it is, but there are innumerable other factors that could help explain the increase. The Independent, for example, quotes Harry Shapiro from Drugscope who connects drug use to income and lifestyle. Therefore whereas use of heroin and crack has not risen, cocaine use has and this might be partly due to higher disposable incomes. If Labour gets the blame for higher drug use, shouldn’t it also get the blame for higher disposable incomes?

Framing every issue – from drugs to knife crime – through the narrow prism of party politics might make for stories with political bite but does very little to explain the issue, and helps create the skewed impression that politicians are always to blame.

Written by Martin Moore

August 15th, 2008 at 1:29 pm

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How the Orwell diaries went global

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We had no idea that when we – the Orwell Prize and Media Standards Trust – decided to celebrate the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s diaries by publishing them as a daily blog, they would attract such an astonishing amount of attention.

From Italy to Australia, from the Today Programme to the Boston Globe, the re-publication of the diaries, exactly 70 years after Orwell started them in August 1938, has triggered amazing international interest.

Newsnight’s Paul Mason went so far as to write a ‘homage to the old Tory anarchist’ blog in the style of Orwell. While the Observer mused, “does a blog by a dead person count as a real blog, as the author cannot engage in vicious spats with commentators or post photographs of his cat?”

So how did they come to be published? It started, as these things do, with an awfully good idea. Gavin Freeguard, the Orwell Prize Administrator (with whom I work here at the Media Standards Trust), was trawling through the Orwell archive – a wonderfully dusty couple of rooms housed in a fantastically 1984-ish concrete edifice just north of Euston – when he became entranced by the author’s diaries.

At once substantive and trivial, insightful and quirky, they illuminate both a remarkable man and a remarkable time. Orwell was motivated to start the diaries by Europe’s descent into war. Yet rather than just keep a political record he also decided to write his personal reflections, so giving the reader a sense of place and mood, as well as history.

Yet they have only ever been seen as a footnote to Orwell’s other work. Indeed the only previous time they’ve seen the light of day was 20 years ago, in Peter Davison’s monumental complete works of Orwell (with an understandably limited print run).

It was only after leaving the archive that the serendipity of dates occurred to Gavin. That we were only weeks away from the diaries’ 70th anniversary, and that it would be crazy not to make them available to a wider audience by publishing them as a blog (with a big hat tip to Phil Gyford and the Samuel Pepys diary – launched as a blog back in January 2003).

The news that we were about to do this was picked up by the Today Programme and the Telegraph on Wednesday 30th July, after which it was snaffled by bloggers, then US mainstream press, and then went global (for links to just a few of the international stories see the blog roll on Orwell Diaries).

Our hope now is that by raising the profile of the diaries we’ll not only peak interest in Orwell and his political writing, but in the notion of political blogs generally. The number of good political blogs is, in the UK at least, still pretty limited and most have a teeny audience. Perhaps the Orwell blog will help to change that.

Written by Martin Moore

August 13th, 2008 at 1:58 pm

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