Behind the scenes at Al Jazeera

Here’s a video I made showing how the gallery team work during a live news programme with some colleagues in the London office of Al Jazeera English.

I’m using it as a teaching tool for multimedia journalism and media production under-graduates. They tend to find it quite hard to understand the dynamic between producer, director and presenter – and spend a lot of time shouting as a result.

I think this has turned out quite well and I’m sure it will be a useful teaching tool. If you’re interested in using it for teaching it’s available as part of the open education resources from the University of Northampton – drop me a line if you want more information.

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Libel reform – Andrew Caldecott’s nine principles for a public interest defence

I attended an interesting Press Gazette conference last week on the new defamation act and its implications.

Much of it looks like good news for journalists, especially digital journalists, with improved protections against spurious libel claims.

There’s still much to be tested in the courts but it is especially heartening to see the Reynolds’ Defence now formalised as the Public Interest, or Section 4, Defence.

This essentially says journalists have a defence against libel action if they can show that a story was on a matter of public interest and that they reasonably believed that publishing was in the public interest. And that defence can hold even if they cannot prove that the allegations are true.

Among the conference speakers was Andrew Caldecott QC – one of the country’s most experienced media lawyers. He outlined his nine principles for ensuring a successful public interest defence.

1. The journalist must report fairly what they know.

2. What is the nature of the allegation and how is it pitched? IE Is it a serious allegation? Are we saying that they’re guilty or that there are merely questions about behaviour?

3. Never tinker with direct quotes.

4. Watch the sub-editor. And if possible hold copies of emails to sub-editors warning of the danger of tinkering with copy or over-egging headlines on sensitive stories.

5. Seek and publish the response of the target of the story.

6. Carefully place any denial of allegations by the target. Having it in the final par makes it look like it’s disbelieved.

7. In online copy be sensitive to changing circumstances. That doesn’t mean re-editing published stories, but writing new ones in light of new information.

8. Keep your notes and emails. Post-Leveson it’s not acceptable to say they’re no longer available.

9. Be careful what you put in emails. It may be used against you in the future.

A good set of guiding principles. As ever, McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists has chapter and verse.

Can BBC World be digital first?

I’ve been taking a look at Sir Howard Stringer’s fascinating report looking at the future of the BBC’s world news operations.

Commissioned by new Director of News James Harding, it takes a look at how to achieve the new Director General Lord Hall’s vision of a 500 million global audience for BBC products by 2022. And it was written by the man who may well be the new chairman of the BBC Trust.

So, this isn’t just hot-air. Both Stringer and the BBC say this isn’t a blueprint for the future. They’re being disingenuous. It is exactly that.

What’s the plan then? Well, it’s simultaneously radical and conservative; strategic and reactive; bold and yet curiously cautious.

Let’s take the big one first:

Mobile and social first. For a pure-play digital news organisation this would be a no-brainer. The BBC already says its website has more mobile users than those using traditional PCs. By 2022, one would expect this to be by far the most dominant method of accessing digital news.

But it’s hard to under-estimate what a large change in mindset and culture this will require of the BBC, for World Service radio, World TV and the digital news operation. What will it mean for newsgathering and output? The website’s a powerful player in BBC News these days, but even with Harding’s emphasis on digital, it’s still not the primary driver of output. Forget meaningless calls to action, such as the nonsensical claim that more people follow @BBCBreaking than watch an edition of the 10 o’clock news (they do, but who are they, where are they, what are they and how do they interact with BBC services?), when it comes to driving newsgathering and the daily output it’s still the big beasts of output that matter most. The TV news bulletins, Radio 4 news programmes, World Service news.

To break down that powerbase and to move towards an always on-air approach to digital news will be a huge strategic, cultural, and managerial change. Reworking the digital output so that it’s targeted at global mobile users is an editorial as well as a technical challenge. And it’s a laudable ambition that signals an appetite for the future which should be welcomed.

Lots of the coverage of the review has focussed on Sir Howard’s reflection that the BBC doesn’t punch its weight when it comes to social sharing of news. He points to Buzzfeed as one of the new kids on the block with global traffic that’s similar to the BBC’s once you exclude the UK (which is a bit of an odd thing to do given that’s the home market). This has prompted much horrified and rather literal comment. As if the BBC’s content is now going to solely be made up of lists such as this absolute corker or GIFs of cats that look like Hitler.

But it is worth reflecting on whether there are things that can be learnt from the mechanisms and brands of social news. Why can’t Newsbeat be a global youth news brand? Is the news coverage of the website too strait-laced, where the programmes themselves have personality. Where, for example, is the website version of Newsnight or PM – not just as a brand extension but in style and tone for digital natives? Channel 4 News has made great strides in reflecting it’s broadcast brand online, why haven’t BBC news programmes?

These, it seems, to me are perfectly sensible questions to ask. There’s no dumbing down here. But for all those newspaper editors watching with crossed fingers, hoping that the BBC’s getting out of straight news reporting…. don’t hold your breath. It seems to me this is tinkering at the margins of the core product not reinventing it.

And after the big bombshell it’s back to business as usual. Earn more money from commercial ventures, tick; grow the big language services and get rid of the small ones, tick; partner with local providers, tick. All long-standing BBC ambitions that rarely seem to have much impact. Yes, Top Gear makes a lot of money, as do other programmes, but there’s been less success with other commercial proposals – cf Lonely Planet. Because, in the end, the BBC is not a commercial organisation – it doesn’t have the profit motive embedded in its DNA.

There’s some other mildly interesting thoughts, a multi-genre channel for Africa akin to BBC America and a new Korean language service. Again these are extensions of current strategy, rather than radical new ideas.

And then there’s the completely pointless and bonkers idea: the international op-ed forum. Because the BBC really needs to be republishing controversial opinion pieces like a hole in the head. Firstly, this is hardly an under-served market – everyone from The Guardian, to the New York Times, to Al Jazeera does it. And secondly what possible benefit does it bring to the BBC? This feels like a concession to the fact that senior journalists like leader and opinion columns and conferences, but the BBC should leave it well alone.

But all of this doesn’t even begin to tackle the big challenge for World News on radio, television and online. It needs to justify itself to the licence fee payer. At a time when the licence fee is coming up for renegotiation and domestic viewers are seeing services close, can the BBC really justify an increase in spending on services that don’t have a sound commercial under-pinning?

It seems to me that’s the big issue that Sir Howard’s report is missing. Why should the licence fee payer support a new Korean news service when the BBC is closing its youth TV channel? The costs may not be comparable, but without a solid argument as to why this is the right strategy, the BBC is setting itself up for a confrontation with the people it relies on most.

And if you want to see Buzzfeed school the BBC in how to cover a BBC story in Buzzfeed style – take a look at this.

 

Google and the Right to be Forgotten

Normally when I post something on Twitter it doesn’t have very much impact. I have a few hundred followers and occasionally one will retweet me or reply to something I’ve said.

But last night I found dozens of people had retweeted or favourited a tweet I posted a few days back:

I was slightly surprised, until I spotted it had been retweeted by the great Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted, The IT Crowd and more.

The result was I felt obliged to engage with some of the replies about “The Right to be Forgotten” – a throw-away comment had forced me to think a bit more about the ruling from the European Court of Justice.

Effectively the ruling is based on this premise:

Do I have the right to control data relating to me on the internet?

Yes, says the court. It’s not a ruling without caveats but essentially it states an individual should have control of the way information appears about them online.

The law which underpins this case was passed back in 2012. There’s a good write up of it here from the Stanford Law review. Quoting Google’s chief Counsel, the author argues, there are three real world examples that one might draw on to understand the implications of the law – each progressively more dangerous to freedom of speech.

1. If I post something online, do I have the right to take it down?

2. If someone republishes the thing I posted online, do I still have the right to have it taken down?

3. If someone posts something about me online, do I have the right to take that down?

For most people, I suspect, the first example would be uncontentious, the second more difficult but still arguable. The third is the most controversial and it’s this argument that the case of Mario Costeja Gonzalez relates to. He was unhappy that a Google search returned a link to a bankruptcy case involving him in the 1990s. He successfully argued that he had the right to be forgotten – that this information was no longer relevant. He says he has settled the case and the fact there was such a case two decades ago is of no relevance to people doing business with him today. The fact that it was published in a newspaper, that it was accurate and truthful didn’t matter to the court.

It’s this element of the case that has taken many commentators by surprise. The court has ruled that truthful, accurate information published about a person can effectively be removed from the public domain without recourse to legal action.

There’s two big caveats here – firstly the court said that information linked to people of public interest would be exempt. For example, Google could refuse to take down a link to a political figure which revealed a past conviction for a hate crime. Such a case would clearly have a public interest in remaining available to users.

The other big caveat is where information is being used “solely for journalistic purposes or the purpose of artistic or literary expression.” 

The court has recognised that there is a clash here between the right to privacy and the right to free expression. But it appears that the court is suggesting  a two tier system of publishing. A person might be able to request the removal of a link on Google to a news story about them, if they were able to make the case that it was no longer relevant. But that person would not then automatically be able to force the original publisher to remove the content from their site. Effectively creating a two tier search system – can’t find any information about someone on Google, you’d better double-check on a newspaper’s own website too.

It’s also unclear what happens if the newspaper is using Google site search as the search engine for their own website. Although if I was a publisher I would be playing safe at this point and moving to a white label search tool.

This system seems ripe for abuse, not least because it’s far from clear what the legal checks and balances should be.

Google will now have to create some kind of tool allowing people to flag content for removal. They will then make a decision on whether to remove the content. That raises a number of important questions. Who is making that decision and what is the process? If I own the content, how do I appeal against this decision? What incentive is there for Google to ever decide to continue with publication and fight the case in the courts? Who bears the costs of any legal case?

These processes are going to be tested in the coming months and years. There have already been requests for information to be removed. According to The Guardian:

A former UK politician now seeking election again wishes information about their behaviour while in office to be removed. A man convicted of possessing child abuse images has demanded links to pages about his conviction are removed, and a doctor has said that negative reviews from patients should not be searchable.

A couple of final thoughts here.

Firstly, this is yet another court ruling which assumes that Google is not an information blind generator of links but a publisher which should have editorial mechanisms in place to police the links it creates. That can’t help but have implications for both Google and future tech businesses. A platform, not a publisher is no longer any kind of defence. In effect, Google is being asked to act as a curator for the web rather than just be a navigation tool for it.

Finally, the court seems to be calling for a technical solution to a human problem, but how hard would it be to envisage technology circumventing this ruling? Could a freedom of expression campaigner create a bot which detects when a link is deleted from Google and republishes on a new URL, forever staying one step ahead of the deletion requests? This could easily end up as the digital equivalent of Whack-a-Mole.

Well, this turned out to be a longer post that I intended. If you’ve got this far, well done. Have a John Oliver video on the right to be forgotten as your well deserved reward – and the flowers were forget-me-nots… see what I did there….

 

 

Reasons to be cheerful about the future of news

M+J

A couple of weeks back I hosted a Q&A session at The University of Northampton with ITV News’s Head of Digital, the redoubtable Jason Mills.

Unlike many in the media, he was cheerful and upbeat about the future of news – even going so far as to tweet me this after the session:

That reflects my own view.

Last year, when I was applying for jobs lecturing in journalism, I spent a lot of time telling anyone who would listen that there’s never been a better time to be a journalist. The entire industry is being remade, rule-books ripped up, received wisdom over-turned. People throughout the media are comparing the digital revolution to the invention of the printing press. New companies are being set up, experiments are being carried out, reputations are being made.

Of course, things don’t look so rosy if you’re a middle-aged hack on a newspaper. Innovation and disruption are exciting things to do, but not so comfortable to have done to you. As George Brock from City University has outlined in his relentlessly optimistic “Out of Print: Newspapers, journalism and the Business of News“, it’s the people who repeatedly throw the spaghetti against the wall who are going to create the new publishing platforms and maybe some of them will strike oil too. For those dazzled by the pace of change, institutionally or personally unable to react, it will be all too easy to be over-taken by the pace of change.

But I think there’s reason to be optimistic. For some time it’s been fashionable to predict the rise of the individual journalistic brand. The reporter or columnist who becomes bigger than the institution they work for. Recent moves in the United States suggest that time has arrived and that journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Ezra Klein and David Pogue are now able to command significant value to transfer to digital start-ups, bringing their cachet with them.

The Pew Research Center has published some new data looking at the size of the digital native news market. It looks encouraging, these are significant editorial departments. And as Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti has made clear, these are organisations with significant editorial ambitions which stretch far beyond 28 Devastating Truths about Adulthood Nobody Ever Tells You.

It’s a fascinating time. Both to be a journalist and to be a journalism teacher.

But, as one former ITN colleague tweeted me earlier:

Still that is another story….

The future for TV news channels

Cardiff University’s Richard Sambrook and Sean McGuire of Oliver Ohlbaum argue here that the 24 hour TV news channel has had its day.

Why, they ask, pay for studios, presenters, crews and reporters to hang around waiting for news when audiences can get it instantly online? TV news can’t beat digital, so why not get rid of some of that costly infrastructure and rethink broadcast news as an on-demand service?

At first sight it’s a compelling argument. TV news is locked into formats developed decades ago, change has been slow to show on-screen as disruption has happened all around it. In my own experience I know that between 2006 and 2012, when I worked predominantly in digital news, it felt like there was wave after wave of disruption and innovation – podcasts, web video, social media, broadband uptake, personalisation – each one forcing us to reexamine our assumptions.

When I returned to television in 2013 it felt like nothing had changed. That’s not quite true – the ability to use broadband in newsgathering had reduced the reliance on satellites, but aside from that, I got straight back on the bike.

But….

The trouble with this kind of argument is that it presupposes an active viewer. Someone who wants to take the time to create their own personalised bulletins, that’s interested in watching a raw feed of video of an event, that has no interest in the context and analysis added by reporters and guests – but still wants the high quality newsgathering that Sambrook and McGuire think they’ve freed their reporters to conduct.

Some people are like that. But I’d suggest most are not.

Sometimes people just want to watch the news. Yes, that needs to be made easier to consume when I want to consume it – but that seems to me to suggest more infrastructure built around a TV news channel not the abolition of the channel itself. Yes, live news needs to cover better stories, to reduce its reliance on balcony two-ways with journalists far from the story. In my opinion, Al Jazeera English has a good track record in this. But I can’t see that a reduction in competition is likely to improve the quality of coverage for the viewer.

And, yes, people make mistakes. But I think viewers can forgive that. Just as they can also forgive the mistakes that happen online in the wake of disasters. 

TV news needs to change to keep itself relevant. It needs to lose its complacency, to embrace online and the digital revolution, but the idea of an output spine which keeps newsgathering motoring 24-hours a day is still relevant, and long may it continue to be so.

Internet Secret Sauce – why the digital tortoise may yet beat the hare

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Proving that I don’t just read The Guardian, I saw this interesting take in the NYT on Ezra Klein moving to Vox Media from The Washington Post.

Veteran media commentator David Carr uses it to dismiss the argument there’s a bubble building in digital content. That’s the view of some commentators as Buzzfeed, Vox and Business Insider et al attract funding and the new kids on the block show the squares in legacy media how it’s done.

Fair enough. As David Carr points out, the short history of online publishing is marked by radical change but at some point sustainable commercial models will emerge.

But there’s that Internet Secret Sauce argument too. Want to be big in digital? Invent technology. Be different. Change the world. Attract big money investment and sell up fast.

Look at the thinking behind Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media. The stated aim to build a challenging journalistic endeavour supported by licensing the underlying technology.

Good luck to them. I hope it works.

But why do old media companies such as newspapers seem slow to become digital oil wells? It’s not because they employ stupid people, or those who don’t get the internet. They employ some of the best brains in the business. So what’s the problem?

1. Digital advertising isn’t worth much. Unless you’re Google, selling advertising online isn’t a route to big money. And Google already has that Google space pretty well filled.

2. Print advertising is still worth lots. It might be shrinking, but a sector worth £2bn a year in the UK is still worth having.

3. Because the print advertising market is mature, publishers efficiently set-off costs against income leading to relatively predictable profits. With digital, publishers have to iterate towards new business models – that means soaking up losses.

4. In order to continue to service the print market, legacy media operations have had to maintain large numbers of staff. Cut staff and reduce the flow of original content, increasing the rate of audience loss and revenue.

5. Owners want results. And they want them now – just ask Tony Gallagher.

This all adds up to something of a conundrum for publishers. How do you cut costs, without damaging your audience, while encouraging innovation that doesn’t eat your business model?

And the answer? Go slowly. Innovate and iterate, but don’t kill the golden goose. And that strategy shows no sign of changing, Jill Abramson is still talking about a print editon of the New York Times existing in twenty years time.

Maybe.

The trouble is with the slow but sure model is that it has a tipping point. Eventually, the costs of producing and distributing the paper will outweigh the benefits of the advertising income. And that’s where the new kids on the block have the edge.

But I don’t think that the digital native media companies have reinvented journalism or publishing. They’re doing what successful media businesses have always done. Identify a market, serve its needs and establish a cost base low enough to make money.

The successful ones have done it with verve, imagination, wit and ability – that’s what sets them apart from the crowd – but I’m not sure that they’ve invented new models for publishing. Unlike, say, Twitter who have created something genuinely revolutionary.

The legacy media might move slowly but it still brings huge levels of brand recognition. If they can continue to capitalise on it, it has value. Just look at the leading global digital news destinations. Not one is a digital native. At least not yet.

I’m afraid, for me, it’s still meet the new boss. Just like the old boss.