Archive for January, 2009
Flattering as it is to be referred to in the Reuters Institute’s new publication, ‘What’s happening to our news?‘, I better clear up a confusion before it gets fixed in people’s minds.
The Transparency Initiative, which we (the Media Standards Trust) and Tim Berners-Lee’s Web Science Research Initiative, are leading, is most definitely NOT about digital kitemarking. It is about digital labelling – or ‘meta-marking’. Though initially this might not sound so very different, believe me, the two are chalk and cheese. I know because I’ve spent far too much time – and too many sleepless nights – thinking about it this past year.
Digital kitemarking will not – IMHO – work. Why? Here’s just a few reasons:
(a) It’s top down – like most 20th century media models it assumes some sort of central control. If we’ve learnt anything from the digital revolution it must be the – welcome – dissolution of this control;
(b) It’s not specific enough – no individual kite mark would be able to both provide a guaranteed mark of quality, and at the same time be flexible enough to work for different types of journalism and different types of journalists;
(c) Gatekeeping would be overwhelming – vetting each new individual or organisation that wanted to apply the kitemark would be extremely time consuming and onerous (and on what basis would you do it?);
(d) Untenable risk management – a few high profile failures could undermine the whole system (errr… BBC, Jonathan Ross, Gaza);
(e) Lack of industry acceptance – why would I (insert BBC, Reuters, The Sun etc. here) let someone else ‘kitemark’ my work? The brand should be the kitemark of quality;
(f) Impractical to police – it would be very hard (an understatement) to stop people applying a label, even if not ‘permitted’ to (requires combination of honour system and legal sanction).
On the other hand, digital labelling, or meta-marking, could work very well because it is:
(a) Descriptive – it describes the origins of the content, not whether it’s any good (ie. who wrote it, who it was written on behalf of, when it was first published etc.);
(b) Democratic - it distributes participation, enabling anyone who is producing content online (e.g. a journalist) to describe what it is rather than rely on a third party to do it for them. In this sense it is ‘bottom-up’ rather than top down;
(c) Empowering - once labelled, there is information within the content itself that provides the reader with what they need to assess it (rather than some sort of ‘stamp of approval’ from someone they’ve probably never heard of);
(d) Discourages gaming - by making the information descriptive rather than judgmental, you dilute the incentive to game the system;
monitoring difficulties – by making the information highly visible (to machines as well as to people), mistakes and fraud are very easy to spot;
(f) Adaptable and flexible – the criteria can be applied to many different forms of information and allow each to be distinguished from one another (as well as from other content);
(g) Extendible – the scheme is easily scaleable – it is possible for millions of people to use it successfully without the system breaking or becoming overly bureaucratic. It could be extended to work with other suppliers of information and content, e.g. should the government want to label its content, it should be able to work in a similar and compatible way.
Digital labelling is not about telling people what’s good and what’s bad, it’s about telling people what is. Kind of like the ingredients on the side of a food packet. It’s like giving information on the web a postcode so people can find it more easily and, when they’ve found, know a little more about where it came from. This is very very different from kitemarking, with its implications of top-down editorial judgment.
To see how digital labelling can work, and how it could help journalists their content, see the (very beta) development site at www.newscredit.org.
At the annual ‘big media’ shindig in Oxford today, at which Andy Burnham – Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is making the keynote and, in his own words, not ‘playing safe’.
He is making his speech in the shadow of Obama’s inauguration – and like Obama – Burnham spends alot of time drawing of lines in the sand. ’The old media world has ended’ Burnham said, and ‘… with it must go old thinking’. He called this ”A year of decision’, and even went so far as to call for ’Change we can all believe in’. All very Barack.
Burnham said he wanted to get away from ‘fevered and introverted industry debates’. Although then, rather bizarrely, cited the debate about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand as evidence that the public care about standards, and showed that ‘quality and standards matter’. Curious, that seemed to me more like a ‘fevered and introverted industry debate’.
The government is committed to public service broadcasting provision beyond the BBC, the Secretary of State said, and gave three reasons for this: (1) because it ‘provides range of voices and perspectives’ that is crucially important in, for example, news and current affairs (2) it creates competition which is inherently good for the public and (3) it lays a ‘bedrock of quality’ from which other quality grows.
So what does public service provision mean? Well, news, current affairs and childrens (of course). Non-metropolitan (i.e. London) output. Independent producers. Encouraging risk taking & innovation.
All pretty motherhood and apple pie at this point. Though Burnham then pointed to programming that was missing – even from the Timbuktu end of the cable TV spectrum. More Shakespeare. Programming for the over-65s. Coverage of women and girls sport (?).
Then onto the meat. The ‘public interest’, Burnham said, should be sustained by upholding the BBC and other public service broadcasters. The BBC will have to change, and maybe this means putting ’partnership into the BBC’s DNA’. We should, the Minister suggested, add ‘enable’ tothe BBC’s ‘inform, educate and entertain’.
Local news provision ‘has to rise up the political agenda’. Ahhh, more politicians recognising the crisis in local news (see previous blog). Here Burnham argued we needed to look at all options for new partnerships to help local news – private, public and community bodies. A possible solution might be ‘a national network of local consortium’ he said.
Still, having stressed the importance of local news, Burnham then accepted that the regional news obligations of ITV should be relaxed.
Finally Channel 4. It is, the Secretary of State stressed, here to stay. But… it may have to have ‘A more specific remit’, it will need to explore partnerships – and not just with WorldWide or Five. Oh, and neither did he shut the door on using the digital surplus.
Hmmm… year of decision or audacity of hope?
Most people would now acknowledge that there are serious structural issues facing regional and local news. ITV says it’s too expensive and it will stop providing it unless the government makes it worthwhile (see Michael Grade’s piece in the Telegraph). Local newspaper circulations have been dropping virtually non-stop for the last few years and, more importantly, their advertising and classified revenues keep falling. As a result news organisations are cutting local staff, closing offices and shutting down newspapers (see Job Cuts Timeline at journalism.co.uk, Roy Greenslade on Archant shutting offices, and the FT on newspaper closures).
Some local areas have it worse than others. This week two Welsh politicians called Wales a ‘media wasteland’ where stories of public and political interest simply go unreported – despite the devolution of power to Wales a decade ago. ”Since 1999″, Dai Davies said, “we have seen a vast increase in powers to politicians in Wales and yet more and more journalists losing their jobs, and less and less reporting of politics and political debate and decision-making” (from BBC News Wales).
Now English politicians are also starting to become animated about the decline in reporting and lack of political coverage. Ashok Kumar, Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland says he is next week going to ask the government to provide state support for the regional press (from Press Gazette).
Kumar and other politicians follow a growing number of voices from within the media itself who are suggesting the government should subsidise local newspapers. Most notably Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who wrote back in November:
“Is there any reason why local newspapers – whether in print, on broadband or broadcast – shouldn’t compete with the broadcasters for some form of subsidy in return for providing the public service of keeping a community informed about itself?”
But subsidising the local press is not, IMHO, a good idea. For at least three reasons:
1. An independent commercial press would be neither independent nor commercial if it was taking hand-outs from the government. The watchdog role played by the local press would be seriously compromised were it to be state subsidised. Imagine the attitude of local councillors to reporters whose salary was partly dependent on government financing?
2. There are huge changes taking place in the way news is collected, edited, published, delivered and consumed. These changes are forcing news organisations to completely rethink how they do business. Subsidising a 20th century model will not help them rethink and reform, it will just encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing
3. It would distort local editors and journalists view of who they serve. Instead of feeling – at root – responsible to the public, they would inevitably feel a degree of responsibility to the government.
This is not an argument against intervention per se. The government can set parameters – particularly fiscal parameters (i.e. tax) that incentivise people to collect and publish public interest news. But this is fundamentally different from providing a subsidy, however arms length, that organisations can apply for.
The British news media has a terribly ambivalent view of its own power. When it runs a campaign and believes the campaign has been a success, it trumpets its power to influence change (see everything from the infamous ‘It’s the Sun wot won it‘ through to the Mirror’s Stop Knives Save Lives campaign and the Daily Mail on plastic bags).
But when anyone talks about calling its power to account, there is a loud chorus from the news media of ‘Not me guv, we didn’t have anything to do with it, we were just reflecting the public mood’. Suddenly our brazen press becomes bashful and demur.
Which makes 3 representations of media power from the last few weeks all the more interesting. Namely: the role of the media on government policy towards drugs; the resignation of the England cricket captain Kevin Pietersen; and the role of Robert Peston in the financial crisis (as told by Panorama).
Earlier this week Sir Simon Jenkins wrote that government drug policy is being determined not by scientific or professional policy advice but by fear of tabloid newspaper reaction. ‘Blair’s (and now Brown’s) press operation lives in holy terror of the tabloids’ Jenkins wrote (in ‘Who will cure Ministers of illiberal headline addiction‘). Gordon Brown, ‘eager for plaudits from the tabloid press’ has pledged to upgrade cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug, Jenkins says. Similarly, he suggests, Jacqui Smith will reject the recommendation that ecstasy be downgraded – for the same reason.
For his four mentions of the role the media played in his resignation, Kevin Pietersen’s statement is worth quoting at length (my italics):
“Contrary to media speculation today, I wish to make it very clear that I did not resign as captain of the England cricket team this morning. However, in light of recent communications with the ECB, and the unfortunate media stories and speculation that have subsequently appeared, I now consider that it would be extremely difficult for me to continue in my current position with the England cricket team… At no time, contrary to press speculation, have I released any unauthorised information to the media regarding my relationships with the players, coaches and the ECB itself.”
And finally, the Panorama on Robert Peston and the financial crisis, which I missed over Christmas but caught up with via BBC iplayer. Anyone watching the programme could be forgiven for thinking Robert Peston was the only person reporting on the crisis. Not only that, but that Peston himself was the cause of the run on Northern Rock and might well have influenced the speed and direction of government intervention in the autumn of 2008 (Peston himself played down his role, unlike the programme).
In each of these cases you could take issue with the importance of the media. However, the fact that many people – including the participants – believe the media plays an important role is itself very telling (perception as truth and all that). The more you believe the media is powerful, the more that power becomes actual.
Yet, for those in these citadels of power? I’m sure most would say their power is vastly over rated…