Monthly Archives: January 2010

How digital media changes are affecting local media

This article – an overview of the local media scene in the UK – appears in the latest issue of Government Gazette.

The local media are currently trying to ride through a perfect storm of change, from a decline in readers that long pre-dates the internet, to advertisers fleeing their pages in droves and a new medium that steadfastly refuses to give them the profits they enjoyed in print.

It’s a complicated picture, and anyone who pretends to blame one company, or one business model, for their demise, probably wants something. Continue reading

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Another newspaper that ignores copyright law – and ethics

http://podcasting.ie/docs/mos.pdf

The Irish Mail on Sunday has finally responded to complaints about a story it published this week based on the words of a blogging female air traffic controller: “The male chauvinist pigs of air traffic control” (PDF)

“Melanie Schregardus,” the article says, “claims she was forced to endure a torrent of sexist abuse when she and a handful of colleagues first broke into [the] profession”, and the rest of the article continues in the same vein.

The publication of the article understandably caused Melanie some distress. She wrote:

“In the middle of an incredibly trying time for my colleagues, an article has appeared in a Sunday Newspaper that says I feel abused by the people I work with. It gives me opinions that I do not have, and uses words I have never said. It does so to attack my profession, impugn my employers, and portray me as a victim of my friends.

“I feel sick. Any future employer could fairly read what Luke Byrne has written about me and conclude that I am a disloyal, untrustworthy person. The people I work with today could, and probably have, read it and decided that I am not on their side, and that I think that they are sexist, nasty, bullies. None of this is true.

In fact, she deleted her blog, before realising that, without it, there would be no record of her actual words. So she then started a new blog, with the post quoted above. Apart from her complaints about misrepresentation, and that she was never contacted about the story, she also wonders how the newspaper was able to publish a photograph of her without permission (see comments for more on this aspect). And she has complained to the ombudsman. This is where the Irish Mail’s response comes in.

The Irish Mail responds: ‘She was asking for it, mate’

Now at this point The Irish Mail could have protected its brand and claimed this was just one rogue journalist without a sub editor to keep them in check.

Instead, they have decided to dig themselves in deeper, saying:

“The photograph of Mrs Schregardus which we published to accompany this article came from Page 36 of this online magazine http://issuu.com/connors-bevalot/docs/publication1_-destress

“Like Mrs Schregardus’s blog, it had been put into the public domain by Mrs Schregardus herself.”

Of course, being in the public domain has no relevance to copyright. A published newspaper is ‘in the public domain’, but that doesn’t mean anyone is free to copy images from it without paying or crediting the copyright holder. You’d think newspapers would know this.

As for not contacting Mrs Schregardus, they provide an insight into the rigorous journalism practised in their newsroom:

“On Thursday, January 21, Luke Byrne [the reporter] attempted to contact Mrs Schregardus by Twitter (the only contact details he had) and asked her for an interview. On Friday, January 22, Mrs Schregardus replied. She informed Mr Byrne that she had sought permission from her trade union to speak to us. He awaited further contact from her, but he did not hear from Mrs Schregardus again. Either she chose not to speak to him or her union refused her permission to do so.”

So here we have the relentless reporter who will leave no stone unturned in his search for… hold on. “Oh, she didn’t tweet back. Well, I guess I’ve done all I could then.”

Luke Byrne's tweets to Melanie Schregardus

And finally, the misrepresentation. Incredibly, the newspaper claims

“The Irish Mail on Sunday did not attribute to Mrs Schregardus the view that her colleagues were sexist”

So that line saying that she “claims she was forced to endure a torrent of sexist abuse”?

Or the one that reveals “She went on to say that the representation of women didn’t seem to have changed much”?

Or that “She revealed that she endured one of the most pervasive forms of workplace sexism”.

Silly words. They do have an awful habit of arranging themselves in the most unusual sentences.

Same old story, different context

Of course it’s nothing new for a Sunday newspaper to take quotes out of context. Normally that someone is a public figure, and the journalist can argue that it comes with the territory. In The Irish Mail on Sunday’s response you can detect the same theme: she “published on an internet blog that was open to millions of people around the world to read,” they say.

That’s true, and some will say Mrs Schregardus should have been more cautious. I think that’s expecting a level of cynicism that we wouldn’t like to see in the average air traffic controller, but that’s a conversation for another blog post. In the meantime, it’s worth pointing out (aside from the, you know, ruining-a-person’s-life-for-a-story aspect) the long-term effects of an event like this.

Firstly, there’s the effect on the newspaper brand and journalism as a whole. Schregardus outlines how her own opinion (and now, you would expect, those of her readers) has changed as a result:

“I’m sure this happens to other people all the time. Probably people who are far more famous than me. I’ve probably read and formed opinions of other people based on things that are just not true. I’ve probably talked about other people’s lives based on things I’ve read that were hurtful to them.”

Secondly, there’s the effect on workblogging more broadly. We’ve already seen the prize-winning writings of police blogger Nightjack deleted after he was unmasked by The Times, and it’s fair to say that it’s going to be more helpful to journalists to encourage workblogging than to shop their authors – or misrepresent them – to their employers.

Because when the workblogs have gone what will you do? Pick up the phone? Luke Byrne may struggle with that.

Police visit to Seismic Shock blogger after "harassment" complaint – the context

This is a cross-post from the Wardman Wire, looking at the various questions around the Sesmic Shock case, which Paul has mentioned previously. It’s an interesting and very important story, because it touches on politics, religion, law, and police use of that law.

A blogger who writes the Seismic Shock website has published articles critical of a Church of England Vicar, who has complained to the police over ‘harassment’ resulting in the blogger being paid a visit by the West Yorkshire constabulary, and his computer files at his University – who I believe is his emloyer – to be searched. The site linked above is the new one; the blogger deleted the old one “voluntarily” when the Constabulary had a “word”.

The Church of England Vicar is Rev Stephen Sizer, of the parish of Virginia Water. He is a known critic of the State of Israel, and of “Christian Zionism”, and a reasonably well-known controversialist on these questions.

We should also note that there are some statements being made around that would be on the edge of our defamation laws in the UK; see, for example, the introduction to this piece on the Z-Word blog of the American Jewish Committee.

This dispute doesn’t depend on the content of the story, though, and I’m not about to go fishing in the “Pro-Israel” or “Anti-Israel” or “Pro-” or “Anti-Palestinian” pool.

Sizer has also been doing his own bit of ‘harrassment’ in the comments on the blog of an Australian blogger, “Vee” of LivingJourney. She mentioned Sizer in a piece, and linked to the Seismic blog.

Sizer left her this comment:

Dear Vee,

You must take a little more care who you brand as anti-semitic otherwise you too will be receiving a caution from the police as the young former student of Leeds did recently. One more reference to me and you will be reported.

Blessings
Stephen

Harry’s Place has a guest post from Seesmic Shock setting out his point of view. There is also a report on the Index on Censorship blog.

Free Speech or Harassment

Paul Bradshaw has the key points summarised well at the Online Journalism Blog:

This is worrying on so many levels:

  1. A blogger links to evidence linking a reverend in the Anglican church with holocaust denial and antisemitism.
  2. The reverend complains to Surrey Police, who pass it on to Yorkshire Police, who pay the blogger a visit, during which the blogger agrees to delete one of his blogs.
  3. In addition, it appears that the police have also spoken to the university which the blogger attends, where the head of ICT “would like to remind me that I should not be using university property in order to associate individuals with terrorists and Holocaust deniers”.
  4. The blogger eventually chooses to speak up when the same reverend threatens another blogger with similar action (despite them being in Australia)

And he is asking exactly the right questions (updated slightly from Paul’s article):

  1. Why are police getting involved? West Yorks police say it was a claim of “harassment”. Is that all it takes?
  2. Why are they ‘paying a visit’?
  3. Why are they approaching an educational institution to gather information on that person?
  4. Why does that educational institution then get involved?

Harassment

For context, “harassment” is defined in English Law thus, under the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act:

““Harassment” of a person includes causing the person alarm or distress; and a course of conduct must involve conduct on at least two occasions.”

Where will this go?

This story is likely to run and run, and I think it is important to keep the principles of law at stake here separate from the arguments about Middle East politics and religion.

My View

I don’t think that a published author and controversialist will cover himself in glory by complaining to the police about hostile articles by somebody else. I hope that authors would pay more attention to the principle of freedom of expression. If material is defamatory, then the action should be for defamation. If it is a vigorous argument, then argue back. Note: I have not of course – since it has been deleted – seen all the original content of the Seismic blog.

I think we have a problem with a nebulous definition of harassment, which is being assessed too heavily on the basis of the statements of the victim; some reform is needed.

And, I’m reluctant to say it, but I think that there are so many petty interferences and use of laws to intimidate individuals by different varieties of policemen – the most topical example is photographers – that I think we need to make it almost a principle not to give in to “a quiet word from a Constable”; we need to make our police justify their actions at every point.

I think that it is important to keep the principles of law at stake here separate from the arguments about Middle East politics and religion.

Why news organisations should start thinking seriously about their data

I don’t often post a simple link-and-quote to another post these days, but Martin Belam’s article on the value of linked data to the news industry is worth blogging about. In it he makes the clearest argument I’ve yet seen for linked data. First, the commercial argument:

“Pages [on a non-news BBC project using linked data] are performing very well in SEO terms. They sometimes even outrank Wikipedia in Google when people make one word searches for animals, which is no mean feat … And the ongoing maintenance cost of organising this wealth of content is reduced.”

Second, the editorial one:

“Let us picture a scenario where each school has a unique canonical identifier, which is applied to all Government data relating to that school. Or – more likely perhaps – that we have mappings of all the different ways that one school might be uniquely identified, depending on the data source. Now picture that news organisations have also tagged any content about that school with the same unique or a similarly interoperable identifier.

“Suddenly, when a newsworthy event takes place, a researcher within a news organisation has at their fingertips a wealth of data – was the school failing, had the people involved been in any coverage of the school before, does the school have a ‘history’ of related incidents that might build up to a story. We have here a potential application of linked civic and news data that improves the tools in our newsrooms.

“And just because we share some common identifiers for data, it doesn’t necessarily mean producing homogeneous content. It is perfectly possible to imagine one news group producing an application that works out the greenest place to live if you want your child to be in the catchment area of a particular school, and another newspaper to use different sets of data to produce an application to tell you where you need to buy a house if you want to get your child into school x, and have the least chance of being burgled. And then news organisations repackaging these services and syndicating them to estate agent and property websites as part of their B2B activities.”

(With a commercial flourish there). It’s worth reading from start to finish.

More details on the Seismic Shock police visit. Still worrying.

Following yesterday’s post on the visit paid by two West Yorkshire police officers to an anonymous blogger, the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones has done some digging and spoken to the blogger in question, who explains:

“Someone had traced my IP address to Leeds University and the police had spoken to the university and retrieved some files of mine, none of which contained anything which I hadn’t made public. The police then relayed a message from the head of ICT department that I shouldn’t be using university property in such ways.”

Rory’s piece continues:

The officers asked him to take down his blog, which was at that time being written partly on a university computer, and he agreed to do so. “Why?” I asked him. “I did it because I felt intimidated,” he said. “I felt had to co-operate with the police.”

So why did the police or Leeds University get involved in this argument? The university offered no comment, except to say that the person who knew about this issue was away on holiday.

This is the most worrying piece of the puzzle for me.

  • Firstly, that – apparently on the basis of a complaint – the police should request computer files from a university.
  • And secondly, that the university should comply.

I’m waiting for a response from West Yorkshire Police and Leeds University for further details – particularly on how the police handle harassment complaints like this (and what the nature of the complaint was), and the university’s policy for handing over student data. This may well be a storm in a teacup, but there are valid questions here that need to be answered.

A roundup of other reports on the story can be found here.

UPDATE: I’ve now received a reply from West Yorkshire Police who appear to be merely repeating what they already told Index on Censorship: “As a result of a report of harassment, which was referred to us by Surrey Police, two officers from West Yorkshire Police visited the author of the blog concerned. The feelings of the complainant were relayed to the author who voluntarily removed the blog. No formal action was taken.”

I’ve repeated my questions about how they handle harassment complaints and requests for data more generally.

Police pay Seismic Shock blogger a visit over 'harassment'

This* is worrying on so many levels:

  • a blogger links to evidence linking a reverend in the Anglican church with holocaust denial and antisemitism
  • the reverend complains to Surrey Police, who pass it on to Yorkshire Police, who pay the blogger a visit, during which the blogger agrees to delete one of his blogs.
  • in addition, it appears that the police have also spoken to the university which the blogger attends, where the head of ICT “would like to remind me that I should not be using university property in order to associate individuals with terrorists and Holocaust deniers”
  • The blogger eventually chooses to speak up when the same reverend threatens another blogger with similar action (despite them being in Australia)

Forget about the specifics. Here are the questions:

  • Why are police getting involved in a libel issue ? Update: West Yorks police say it was a claim of “harassment”.
  • Why are they ‘paying a visit’?
  • Why are they approaching an educational institution to gather information on that person?
  • Why does that educational institution then get involved?

Extremely worrying. Watch this one.

*If that link doesn’t work, try this or this.

The clause that concerns us all

Business secretary Peter Mandelson’s proposed Digital Economy Bill has ruffled a few feathers in the new media world, but has also gained support from unions and industry bodies. The fate of the bill could have a significant impact on the future of internet use in Britain, and on the growth of new media.

It is difficult to work out just who would benefit if the bill was successfully passed, apart from the government, which stands to gain millions in taxes. It is being touted as an effort to keep pace with technological change, yet in the same breath, threatens to severely limit access and creativity.

The loudest protests concern the worryingly vague clause 17, which would offer unprecedented power to the government to amend the Copyright, Design and Patent Act. Consumer groups have warned the bill could jeopardise privacy laws and make way for unwarranted monitoring and data collection. Critics argue the flexibility of the clause could lead to unfounded claims of copyright breaches and over-reaching power.

The clause states: “The Secretary of State may by order amend Part 1 or this Part for the purpose of preventing or reducing any infringement of copyright by means of the internet if satisfied that (a) the infringement is having a serious adverse effect on businesses or consumers, and (b) making the amendment is a proportionate way to address that effect.”

Interestingly, media heavyweights, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Ebay joined forces to protest against the clause:

“This clause is so wide that it could put at risk legitimate consumer use of current technology as well as future developments,” the joint letter to Mandelson read.

The government has since moved to allay concerns, hinting it may water it down. Ministers maintain the government is committed to the principle of clause 17, but have drafted amendments.

The National Union of Journalists has signed a letter in support of the clause, stating jobs and the future of ‘creative Britain’ are at stake without it.

The NUJ’s support of the clause, at best, suggests a misguided attempt to protect member’s interests, and at worst, a regressive and short-sighted move, which could hinder the growth of the industry. This is a clause that concerns us all.