Monthly Archives: May 2011

#newsrw: Heather Brooke on the PR gatekeepers of officialdom

The modern journalist’s role is not merely to report news, but to filter and distil masses of information that matters to the public and present it so they can act on it.

And reporters have to realise that supposedly independent government officials will always try to keep data secret where it might cause a negative headline.

That stirring call to arms is from Heather Brooke – journalist and freedom of information (FOI) campaigner – who was the keynote speaker at’s fourth news:rewired event on Friday, at Reuters’ London HQ.

Brooke’s FOI requests led to the release (via an unplanned leak to the Telegraph) of every MPs’ expense claims, which resulted in perhaps the most critical constitutional and political crisis in modern times. And her advice is timely…

Breaking down the backroom deals in news

Brooke learned her trade as a crime reporter in the US, where access to incident reports and other data is guaranteed. She came to the UK in 1997 the UK, and here it’s a different story, involving cosy private relationships between reporters and gatekeepers:

That’s why I became a campaigner for freedom of information in Britain – I didn’t like the way it was done here. It always came with strings attached, it was favouritism, it was about who you knew – so if you did something for them, they would do something for you.

So the agenda is decided by the people that have access to the information, not the media, whose job it should be to interpret data. As any regional hack knows, police “voicebank” phonelines – where coppers tell reporters what has happened in the last 24 hours, but seem to think police-run family fun days are breaking news – are very close to being worthless. Is this how the police-reporter relationship will always be?

Civil servants as PR gatekeepers

The people with access to official information – usually PR  and communications staff, but not always – had “an unhelpful attitude”, says Brooke: “People forget that they are there to serve the public. They think the information is theirs, that they own it.”

This is what’s happening across the world: they [officials] are trying to manage the reputation of their institution. We need to understand that in our data journalism. We need to make them understand that this [disclosure] is good for them above all.

This rings very true. Why are civil servants – who work for the public, not political parties – so careful about releasing information? Because it could genuinely negatively affect them in their jobs and their lives. But this is government by Daily Mail, not open disclosure for the public good.

Journalists’ data roles

“The journalist’s role is managing all this data and distilling it down into what is important to the public,” she says. And, without wanting to get into a “Is ice cream strawberry” style debate, for Brooke the interrogation of data is specifically what separates professional journalists from amateurs.

All that gathering data, checking, getting statements… this verification takes time and it takes money. But what many media organisations are forgetting is that this marks out a professional from a blogger or non-professional.

Brooke’s talk reminded me of the tenacity shown by journalist Chris Wheal in a conversation with a Treasury PR manager who was being mystifyingly unhelpful with his reasonable request for data (I wrote about it here).

It’s an uphill struggle finding the data you need to tell stories fully in the UK. But if you don’t take no for an answer, that’s a good place to start.

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Powerpoint, coffee and business cards: Media conference season gets underway

The Hollywood Hill's Mobile Media Summit

Image by Orí via Flickr

It’s that time of year when media hacks get up early, head to a hotel, drink too much coffee and find out what the future of the industry is.

There are a few really good ones coming up – including the next from – and I thought I’d mention them in the hope of meeting some interesting people by flagging up my attendence in advance.

News:rewired – Friday 27 May

With a focus on social media and data, the third news:rewired from has a good line-up, featuring some of the best thinkers inUK digital media – including occasional TheMediaBriefing contributors Greg Hadfield and Kevin Anderson. (I’m told tickets are available).

These events are focused on the production and distribution of news content and it’s a very useful, practical forum for journalists, particularly those with management roles who are looking for solutions to all the complex problems we all have to deal with.

Mobile Media Strategies 2011 – 14 June

This is Briefing Media’s second full-length major conference, and I think we have an unbeatable lineup. I’m pleased that almost all the people I wanted on board said yes – which I hope shows that we’re providing an independent platform for industry leaders to share what they’re working on and discuss the challenges they face.

There aren’t make conferences that get the likes of Telegraph, Guardian, Sky to appear in one day, for example. Plus I’m really interesting to hear what book publisher Dorlin Kindersley and Swedish mag innovator Bonnier are doing with iPad apps.

Tickets are here (and don’t forget we do group discount) and see who’s signed up so far. Conferences are often as good as the people in the room and there are already some great people coming.

AOP Awards 2011 – June 9

I’ll be at the AOPs this year – nothing unusual there, but this is the first time I’ll be going as an individual nominee, for Digital Editorial Individual, which is very humbling. Briefing Media is also up for Independent Digital Publisher, among some fantastic brands.

SIPA UK Conference – 13 July

The Specialised Information Publishers’ Association kindly asked me to run an editorial breakout session at its annual London get-together, which I’m doing with former colleague and now data wizard Martin Stabe.

Some really good B2B folk are taking part (I’m hoping someone films the WGSN pres as I’ll be on stage in another room) and it will be interesting to see if David Gilbertson – the former Emap CEO who left the company this month – turns up and does his session as planned. He’s a good speaker and one of the trade publishing biz’s smartest guys so I hope he does.

And, finally, a mini-plug for WAN-IFRA’s Newsroom Summit in Zurich on 9/10 June. I won’t be there but my colleague Neil Thackray from Briefing Media will be and Neil is especially good value on conference panels so watch out for that and by all means have a chat with him about Briefing Media/ if you’re going.

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BBC Social Media Summit: Newsrooms need a mix of skills and cultures #bbcsms

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02:  A BBC logo adorns...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

In this digital media, journalism and always-on bubble that we live in – if you’re reading this blog you’re probably in that category – we are weird.

Speaking at the BBC’s Social Media Summit on Friday at White City (or “White Stadt” as Google Maps puzzlingly and Germanically translates it) BBC Global News head honcho Peter Horrocks says that most newsrooms are not populated by people who are obsessed by the future. He says:

I think it’s really important that the people in this room and following online realise how weird and unusual they are in comparison to most newsrooms.

Most newsrooms are full of people living in the moment – they are  reactive and responsive to event. And theyre not interested in the vision and future of journalism and that’s fine. We need people like that. It’s got to be a balance of the different cultures.

Cultural divides

Horrocks was speaking on a panel titled Cultural Change and his points were useful to underline the fact that digital newsgathering is not used by a good many journalists, who still manage to do a good job.

Horrocks said last year that BBC News staff have no choice but to use socaal media in some way – a comment mistranslated as “tweet or die” by some. “It wasn’t tweet or die, it was tweet or be sacked“, he says, adding that he is serious about the need for Beeb reporters and producers to communicate and listen to people online.

Echoing a piece we ran this week on TheMediaBriefing calling for a blend of young, digitally-minded experts plus more management focused, traditional media  folk who simply know how to get stuff done, Horrocks says the BBC needs to be a “coalition” of people searching for the future and people just getting on with things.

WaPo: Numbers do matter

There is a tendency when talking about building relationships through publishing to ignore the numbers. It’s not the quantity of followers, but the quality of conversation that matters, goes the assumption.

But, speaking on the same panel, Raju Narisetti from the Washington Post has a refreshing counter-argument: numbers are everything in social media publishing. User data is the key to getting value – editorial and commercial – from relationships.

It seems there’s a move from a world of reporting and numbers to one of context. I’d like to challenge that and say numbers are everything in our business.

People think of unique users and eyeballs – but people forget that at the end of that unique user is a real person.

And here’s a thought: by listening to your audience, having a good analytics approach, Narisetti points out you can better decide what not to do.

With dwindling resources you can use data to decied what not to do… you are able to show what you can stop doing without impacting on your readership. That shift in metrics has been one of the biggest changes for us.

If it’s hard to sell the idea of journalists being on Twitter, Narisetti recommends the ego-centric approach. Facebook referrals for WaPo are up 300 percent year on year – increasingly, readers expect content to come to them and this is how to grow a brand and an audience.

“Journalists are driven by the ego of having more people reading their story,” as Narisetti puts it. But also, in age where innovation is at least in some part driven by fear, he says “It helps if your industry is in trouble and people think they might be out of  job.”

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Celebrating 100 Audioboos – my Leeds Trinity Journalism Week speech

Ahem. Without wanting to become one of those people that apologises “for not posting in while” – I realised I haven’t said much for a long time.

And for some reason I didn’t post my speech from Leeds Trinity’s Journalism Week earlier this year, organised by my alma mater, Leeds Trinity and All Saints College. I recorded it on Audioboo – my favourite audio tool – and since I’ve just passed 100 uploads, it seemed a good idea to share.

I waffle on about my career so far for quite some time (that is what they asked for…) so skip to 12.40 for some some thoughts on journalism skills and some advice for the students at TASC.

I talk about Twitter, blogging, thinking digitally, why writing still matters as much as it ever did, why you should beware of PR people (but they can help you)… and lots of other stuff.



Update: Somehow, I managed to miss that I’ve passed the 100 uploads mark on Audioboo. A swift headline change and maybe I can make it look like I planned this all along.

For interviews, bits of conference speeches, occasional whimsy and the odd guitar-based noodling, you can follow my boos here.

Frontline Club debate: “It’s so dangerous here, not even Osama bin Laden is safe”

A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video

Image via Wikipedia

On the day after al Qaeda’s “leader” Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in a daring raid on a nondescript compound outside Jalalabad, BBC Urdu sent out reporters into four cities across Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not to ask questions, but to observe. To sit at bus stops, to listen.

Aamer Ahmed Khan, the head of the BBC’s Urdu service, told a packed Frontline Club panel on Wednesday: “They reported back that hardly anyone was talking about it. They were talking about power cuts.”

One of the first jokes the journalists heard, with huge irony: “Oh my god it’s so dangerous here, not even Osama bin Laden is safe.”

This illustrates the disconnect between the western view of world events – and its 24-hour media cycle – and other parts of the world. For many in Pakistan, this was not earth-shattering news. But it’s huge news for the UK and even bigger in the US – so no doubt the Frontline was full of people seeking some analysis. Here’s what went down…

Lynne O’Donnell, an author and former bureau chief in Kabul for AFP, underlined the apathy felt by many in Urdu and Arabic speaking lands:  “The people I’ve been speaking to in Kandahar and Kabal… say the overwhelming response is one of indiffrence. They say alQaeda is not a man. When you think about it they have never looked at Osama bin Ladan as their leader.”

She went on to say that there are about 260 AQ fighters in Afghanistan – some of whom are ideologically motivated, while others are simply “supporting 10 kids and a mother-in-law, they might have three acres and the choice of whether to grow a crop or poppies.”

Middle East peace process hope

Zaki Chehab, editor-in-chief of, the “largest Arabic-language news website” saw a silver lining in all this: we might now start talking again about more important things:

I met [former Palestinian leader Yassir] Arafat one month after 9/11 and it was the beginning of US putting him under siege. His words were exactly, ‘if it wasn’t for 9/11 we would be having a Palestinian state within to to three months…. Now there is no Bin Laden anymore we hope that Israel and Palestine returns to centre stage.

Political fall-out

Dr Farzana Shaikh, associate fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, was in doubt that the Pakistani political elite has lost some bargaining power through its failure to identify and capture bin Laden. “The most immediate impact with the loss of Osama bin Laden is that in the leadership and intelligence agencies have lost their leverage… and the idea that they were entitled to a seat at the top table. They are now in a much more vulnerable position.”

She continued on the theme of Pakistan’s alleged indifference towards radicalism – a criticism levelled at the state by many in the US:

[former Pakistan leader Pervez] Musharraf capitalised on the threat of terrorism to keep his rule intact… Pakistan’s problem is really the problem of the state’s ambivalence towards Islam. Islam and religion have been repeatedly used as means of propping up regimes. Pakistan has become much more vulnerable and environmentally friendly to different waves of radical Islam.

This has been taken advantage of our military regimes which have nurtured a policy of militantism, which have used radicalism to pursue regional interests against India

Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies at City University, London, broached the tricky subject of whether the execution of bin Laden was legal. “They have killed thousands, hundreds of thouands, after 9/11. Was it legal? Probably not exactly.,” she said.

“If you make might right, how can you preach rule of law to others? Of course it’s absurd to say ‘justice was done’. Obama’s a lawyer…but he was speaking as a politician, not as a lawyer.”

And turning to the issue at hand – is the world a safer place without bin Laden? – she offered a more sociological analysis: radicalisation inside Europe is caused by the treatment of Muslims in Europe and the amount of immigration, she argued, which is a far wider issue than, who are the bad guys and how do we get them. “So I don’t think Osama bin Laden is responsible for all these sources of radicalisation.”

Hollis also made what was for me the point of the night – don’t think this superdcedes some of the genuinely era-defining democracy movements in the Arab world…

Rosemary Hollis: US needs to be aware of triumphalism/ Al Qaeda’s popularity has been superseded by #Arabspring #frontlineclubless than a minute ago via HootSuite Favorite Retweet Reply

Update: The headline is changed – apparently I misheard the joke told by Khan.

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