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Why we need a judicial inquiry into the phone hacking saga

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Last Friday the Media Standards Trust backed calls for a judicial inquiry into the phone hacking allegations at the News of the World. We did this for three – all rather practical – reasons:

1. Only a judicial inquiry, which would have the power to subpoena witnesses and order the release of police files, is likely to expose the truth about the allegations

The PCC has already conducted two ‘investigations’ into phone hacking allegations – one in 2007 and another in 2009. These essentially amounted to a polite exchange of letters with a small number of interested parties (not including Andy Coulson). Neither turned up anything new. Indeed, in its conclusions, rather than criticise the News of the World, the PCC went so far as to remind the Guardian of its obligations not to ‘to publish distorted or misleading information’ and claimed that ‘the Guardian’s stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given’.

Throughout 2009, the CMS Select Committee conducted a lengthy and detailed inquiry into ‘Press Standards, privacy and libel’, and from July focused considerable attention on the Guardian’s allegations. Yet they were frustrated by the ‘collective amnesia’ of News International and obfuscation from the Metropolitan Police. The Committee, despite its valiant efforts, did not have the resources, the remit or the powers (e.g. of subpoena) to uncover what really happened at the News of the World.

Last summer the Media Standards Trust called for the press to set up its own independent inquiry, after the Guardian published new evidence about phone hacking (see ‘This calls for an inquiry – but not by the PCC’, Media Guardian, July 13, 2009). We proposed newspapers should ‘appoint a genuinely independent figure with wide-ranging powers to conduct a lengthy and detailed investigation’. This could not only have boosted public confidence in the responsibility of the press, but also prevented a more official investigation that could potentially threaten press freedom. Our call was not taken up.

2. Without a judicial inquiry there is no guarantee the files will be opened

The police have files detailing thousands of examples of phone hacking and other invasions of privacy. We now understand this includes evidence that the then Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, had her phone hacked at least 28 times. Other ex-Ministers have reason to believe their phones were also hacked.

News International has, according to the Guardian and The New York Times, already paid a substantial amount of money to prevent these files being released (a reported £700,000 to  Gordon Taylor, and £1m to Max Clifford). It is also said to have paid Mulcaire and Goodman to keep quiet. Why would any company pay so much money to keep files hidden unless they revealed something they thought might be highly damaging?

Others are now stepping forward to make legal challenges and try to force disclosure of the files.

If there was a judicial inquiry that released the files then we could all judge the veracity of the claims against the News of the World for ourselves, and see how pervasive the phone hacking culture was across the news industry.

3. A judicial inquiry could prevent this being driven into a political cul-de-sac

Allegations of phone hacking on an industrial scale have made a lot of politicians understandably outraged. Unfortunately this is almost entirely on one side of the House. Even more unfortunately much of the attention has become focused on a single figure – No. 10’s Head of Communications, Andy Coulson.

Though this is entirely understandable, given Coulson was editor of News of the World during some of the period of alleged hacking, and given he has stated categorically that he had no knowledge of any hacking while he was in charge, it risks diverting the story into a political cul-de-sac. Were Coulson to resign some might see that as the end of the matter (see also Kevin Marsh’s piece ‘News of the World and the scalp hunt‘).

Yet the real story is about whether there was (is?) an ingrained culture of phone hacking and illegal intrusion at one of Britain’s most powerful media organisations. An organisation that could soon become even more powerful if News Corp is allowed to fully acquire Sky.

A judicial inquiry could renew the focus on the allegations, and stop the story being hijacked by high politics.

This story has now been stuttering along for over three years. As long as information seeps out it will continue to trundle along, with continued allegations and counter allegations, and a lingering sense of corruption.

Start an inquiry, expose the files, and shine some sunlight on News of the World and the Metropolitan police, and we can begin to draw a line under this whole affair.

Written by Martin Moore

September 7th, 2010 at 10:14 am

How news organisations should prepare for data dumps

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This post was first published at PBS Mediashift Ideas Lab on Monday 2nd August, 2010.

Soon every news organization will have its own “bunker” — a darkened room where a hand-picked group of reporters hole up with a disk/memory stick/laptop of freshly opened data, some stale pizza and lots of coffee.

Last year the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph secreted half a dozen reporters in a room for nine days with about 4 million records of politicians’ expenses. They were hidden away even from the paper’s own employees. Now we learn that reporters from the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel did the same with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks somewhere in the Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, London.

There is a wonderful irony that open data can generate such secrecy. Of course the purpose of this secrecy is to find — and protect — scoops buried in the data. From the perspective of many news organizations, these scoops are the main benefit of data dumps. Certainly the Daily Telegraph benefitted hugely from the scoops it dug out of the MPs’ expenses data. Weeks of front pages on the print paper, national uproar, multiple resignations, court cases and much soul searching about the state of parliamentary politics.

The Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel have not been able to stretch the WikiLeaks Afghan logs over multiple weeks, but they did dominate the news for awhile, and stories will almost certainly continue to emerge.

These massive data releases are not going to go away. In fact, they’re likely to accelerate. The U.S. and U.K. governments are currently competing to see who can release more data sets. WikiLeaks will no doubt distribute more raw information, and WikiLeaks will spawn similar stateless news organizations. Therefore news organizations need to work out how best to deal with them, both to maximize the benefits to them and their readers, and to ensure they don’t do evil, as Google might say.

5 Questions

Here are just five (of many) questions news orgs should ask themselves when they get their next data dump:

1. How do we harness public intelligence to generate a long tail of stories? Though the Telegraph succeeded in unearthing dozens of stories from the Parliamentary expenses data, the handful of reporters in the bunker could never trawl through each of the millions of receipts contained on the computer disks. It was The Guardian that first worked out how to deal with this; it not only made the receipts available online but provided tools to search through them and tag them (see Investigate your MP’s expenses). This way it could harness the shared intelligence — and curiosity — of hundreds, if not thousands, more volunteer watchdogs, each of whom might be looking for a different story from the expenses data. As a result, the Guardian generated many more stories and helped nurture a community of citizen scrutineers

2. How do we make it personal? Massive quantities of data can be structured to be made directly relevant to whoever is looking at it. With crime data you can, for example, enable people to type in their postcode and see what crimes have happened in their neighborhood (e.g. San Francisco crimespotting). For MPs’ expenses, people could look up their own MP and scour his/her receipts. The Afghan logs were different in this respect, but OWNI, Slate.fr and Le Monde Diplomatique put together an app that allows you to navigate the logs by country, by military activity, and by casualties (see here). The key is to develop a front end that allows people to make the data immediately relevant to them.

3. How can use the data to increase trust? The expenses files, the Afghan logs, the COINs database (a massive database of U.K. government spending released last month) are all original documents that can be tagged, referenced and linked to. They enable journalists not only to refer back to the original source material, but to show an unbroken narrative flow from original source to final article. This cements the credibility of the journalism and gives the reader the opportunity to explore the context within the original source material. Plus, if published in linked data, the published article can be directly linked to the original data reference.

4. How do we best — and quickly — filter the data (and work out what, and what not, to publish)? Those that are best able to filter this data using human and machine methods are those who are most likely to benefit from it. Right now only a very small number of news organizations appear to be developing these skills, notably the Guardian, the New York Times, and the BBC. The skills, and algorithms, they develop will give them a competitive advantage when dealing with future data releases (read, for example, Simon Rogers on how the Guardian handled the 92,201 rows of data and how Alastair Dant dealt with visualizing IED events at FlowingData). These skills will also help them work out what not to publish, such as data that could put people in danger.

5. How can we ensure future whistleblowers bring their data to us? It’s impossible to predict where a whistleblower will take their information. John Wick, who brokered the MPs expenses disk to the Telegraph, went first to the Express, one of the U.K.’s least well resourced and least prepared national papers. But it is likely that the organizations that become known for handling big data sets will have more whistleblowers coming to them. Julian Assange went to the Guardian partly because the journalist Nick Davies sought him out in Brussels (from Clint Hendler in CJR) but Assange must also have been convinced the Guardian would be able to deal with the data.

The influence of the war logs continues to spin across the globe, particularly following the Afghan president’s comments. But it is not the first — and certainly won’t be the last — big data dump. Better that news organizations prepare themselves now.

Written by Martin Moore

August 3rd, 2010 at 7:48 am

News organisations must innovate or die

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This post was originally published at PBS IdeasLab on July 8th 2010.

People in news don’t generally think of innovation as their job. It’s that old CP Snow thing of the two cultures, where innovation sits on the science not the arts side. I had my own experience of this at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Washington a couple of months ago.

After one of the sessions I spotted an editor whose newspaper had adopted hNews (the Knight-funded news metadata standard we developed with the AP). “How’s it going?” I asked him. “Is it helping your online search? Are you using it to mark up your archive?”

Before I had even finished the editor was jotting something down on his notepad. “Here,” he said, “Call this guy. He’s our technical director — he’ll be able to help you out.”

Technology and innovation still remain, for most editors, something the techies do.

So it’s not that surprising that over much of the last decade, innovation in news has been happening outside the news industry. In news aggregation, the work of filtering and providing context has been done by Google News, YouTube, Digg, Reddit, NowPublic, Demotix and Wikipedia…I could go on. In community engagement, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter led the way. In news-related services (the ones that tend to earn money) it has been Craigslist, Google AdWords and now mobile services like Foursquare.

Rather than trying to innovate themselves, many news organisations have chosen instead to gripe from the sidelines. Rupert Murdoch called Google a “thief” and a “parasite.” The U.K.’s Daily Mail has published stories about how using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer,, referred to someone as a “Facebook killer” (as in murderer), and runs scare stories about Facebook and child safety. And let’s not even start to take apart various news commentators’ dismissive attitude towards Twitter.

When they have seen the value of innovation, news organizations have tended to try and buy it in rather than do it themselves, with decidedly mixed results. Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace initially looked very smart, but now, as John Naughton wrote over the weekend, it “is beginning to look like a liability.” The AOL /Time Warner mashup never worked. Associated Newspapers in the U.K. have done slightly better by making smaller investments in classified sites.

Most news organisations do not see innovation as a critical element of what they do. This is not that unexpected since they spend their day jobs gathering and publishing news. Unfortunately for them, if it doesn’t become more central to their DNA they are liable to become extinct.

Speed and Unpredictability of Innovation

At last week’s Guardian Activate Summit, Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, was asked what kept him awake at nights. “Almost all deaths in the IT industry are self-inflicted,” Schmidt said. “Large-scale companies make mistakes because they don’t continue to innovate.”

Schmidt does not need to look far to see how quickly startups can rise and fall. Bebo was started in 2005, was bought by AOL in 2008 for $850 million, and then was sold again this month to Criterion Capital for a fee reported to be under $10 million.

The problem for Schmidt — and one that is even more acute for news organizations — is the increasing speed and unpredictability of innovation. “I’m surprised at how random the future has become,” Clay Shirky said at the same Activate summit, meaning that the breadth of participation in the digital economy is now so wide that innovation can come from almost anyone, anywhere.

As an example he cited Ushahidi, a service built by two young guys in Kenya to map violence following the election in early 2008 that has now become a platform that “allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline.” It has been used in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Pakistan, Gaza, Haiti and in the U.S.

He might also have cited Mendeley, a company which aims to organize the world’s academic research papers online. Though only 16 months old, the service already has over 29 million documents in its library, and is used by over 10,000 institutions and over 400,000 people. It won a prize at Activate for the startup “most likely to change the world for the better.”

The tools to innovate are much more widely available than they were. Meaning a good idea could be conceived in Nairobi, Bangalore or Vilnius, and also developed and launched there too, and then spread across the world. “The future is harder to predict,” Shirky said, “but easier to see.”

That’s why Google gives one day a week to its employees to work on an innovation of their choice (Google News famously emerged from one employee’s hobby project). It is why foundations like Knight have recognized the value of competition to innovation. And it’s why Facebook will only enjoy a spell at the peak.

Some Exceptions

There are exceptions in the news industry. The New York Times now has an R&D department, has taken the leap towards linked data, and published its whole archive in reusable RDF. The Guardian innovated with Comment is Free, its Open platform, and the Guardian Data Store. The BBC developed the iPlayer.

The Daily Telegraph had a go, setting up “Euston Partners” under then editor Will Lewis. (Although setting up an innovation center three miles away from the main office did not suggest it was seen as central to the future of the business.) The project was brought back in-house shortly after Lewis left the Telegraph in May 2010 and has been renamed the “Digital Futures Divisio
n.”

But mostly people in news don’t really do innovation. They’re too focused on generating content. But as the Knight Foundation has recognized, doing news in the same old way not only doesn’t pay — it doesn’t even solve the democratic problems many of those in news are so rightly concerned about. For some people FixMyStreet.com or its U.S. equivalent SeeClickFix is now more likely to give them a direct relationship with their council than the local newspaper.

News and media organizations have to realize that they are in the communications business, and being in that business means helping people to communicate. Giving them news to talk about is a big part of this, but it’s not the only part. The sooner they realize this and start to innovate, the better chance they have of surviving the next couple of decades.

Written by Martin Moore

July 22nd, 2010 at 2:42 pm

How did you get that story?

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How much information should journalists give about how they came to get a story?

Well, much depends, of course, on relevance. If I’m reading a story about the Chinese earthquake I want to know if it’s written by an eyewitness on the ground, or written from a distance and based on reports. But process becomes less relevant if it’s a report of a public event or speech.

Unless the report is based on material fed to the journalist prior to the event. If, for example, a report about Gordon Brown’s new healthcare initiative is based not on his announcement to the House but on special papers sent the previous day to the news organisation.

Then the fact that No.10 leaked the report early, and leaked it to only one news organisation, gives the reader some useful background about the government’s motivation, and about aspects of the government agenda that it views as important.

The New York Times did this in its front page report today about John McCain seeking to cap carbon emissions. McCain was due to announce his plans in a speech and gave the script, in advance, to the NY Times. To make this clear the Times, in its lead in to the third paragraph, noted that ‘In a prepared text of his speech, emailed to reporters on Sunday night and Monday morning…’. The sentence may end up a little clunkier but it gives an insight into the political process as well as insuring that, if McCain changes his speech at the last minute, the news report doesn’t look outdated or misrepresentative.

British papers very rarely do this but should.

Written by Martin Moore

May 13th, 2008 at 9:44 pm

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