Tuesday, 30 March 2010

An online Bill of Rights

Jeff Jarvis sets out his 9 articles to be included in a putative online Bill of Rights.

They are:
  • We have the right to connect.
  • We have the right to speak.
  • We have the right to speak in our languages.
  • We have the right to assemble.
  • We have the right to act.
  • We have the right to control our data.
  • We have the right to our own identity.
  • What is public is a public good.
  • The internet shall be built and operated openly.
In the main they are simply an extension of what we already expect from society, but in the way they govern online behaviour there is a principle at stake here which has previously been devolved to governments out of practicality: the principle of self-determination.

Now I know there is a lot of debate online about the validity of state intervention, and even of the legitimacy of the state itself (Thatcherism vs New Labour principles), but it cannot be overstated how cyberspace is changing the way we interact - not only with the state and other people, but within our own lives too.

The representative democracy that has been in force for the past few centuries is facing a huge challenge from the simple ability to sit down at a computer terminal and do for ourselves what we've previously depended on other people to do: when we wanted to learn something there came wikipedia; when we wanted to find something, google was at hand; when we wanted to connect with others there was facebook; when we wanted to talk to people there was twitter.

Political institutions are increasingly under threat as these new technologies are unearthing bad practises and spreading the details, but this wonderous pioneering phase of the technological evolution we see before us remains only a phase.

The mass of valuable information is dispersed so widely that the time wasted weeding it out from among the piles of opinion and the signposts which (may or may not) direct us to where we want to go is almost too much for even the sharpest wizard in the school. Just like a sat-nav makes life easier it creates a form of co-dependency where we are forced to trust the advice even if it is heading us into an abyss. The ability to orientate ourselves with maps and environmental awareness is being lost: the commuter has become a slave to the radio travel update.

So an e-rights bill is not only essential in assuring against the abuse of convenience, but it also provides a new role for the state in securing our rights as their guarantor.

As I read around it becomes pretty clear that this has far-reaching and profound impact. For example Ben Goldacre's ongoing battle to establish a higher standard on linkage at BBC online [1, 2]. Online Journalism Blog covers the debate [pt1, pt2, pt3].

The BBC holds an important position here at the central of the maelstrom as the only real institution with the capability to lead by example. So it's interesting to read their response with the development of a new policy in communication with readers.

I was particularly struck by the comment: "Our role as an archive and resource is becoming as important to many of you as the more traditional role of reporting the latest news headlines."

Locally to me here we have the BBC Monitoring site in Caversham, which provides an invisible backbone to the corporation. This has enabled it to understand the context of what's going on and thereby gives it's journalists the ability to ask better questions of the people in authoratitive positions who are interviewed by its' journalists and write more relevant copy.

As more citizen journalists begin to chip away at the stern facade of recalitrant authority in their own small ways (such as I do for my Reading List) it is becomes increasingly clear that the people who contextualise rather than simply opinionate begin to position themselves at the head of a new online heirarchy.

I can tell simply by the growing number of people who are searching my archive to discover who has said what in the run up to the current election that my site is not simply a space where readers want to know that the story of today is, but that more want to find out what has been said on particular issues close to their hearts.

So the blogosphere is maturing to become a place where the weblogue is beginning to curate collected knowledge and the curators of that knowledge are showing they have greater staying power than the angry chatterers requiring immediate responses (who are largely migrating away from blogs anyway).

Media loves to hype up the influence of different media forms on elections, but it seems to me as the blogosphere gradually organises itself that its deeper influence is only set to grow.

But this influence depends entirely upon the ability to abide by a set of principles covering the provision of accurate and well-informed information. So, whether or not any online Bill of Rights gains official recognition, the blogger who hopes to continue to grow their audience must abide by some self-imposed standards.


Cross-posted from Reading List Editor's Page

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

A word on Lobbygate

The outing of Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and co as willing to sell their services to anyone willing to pay is shocking. It is the kind of thing which makes me furious.

But almost as bad is the sight of one my local MPs excusing it as a an accident waiting to happen. Salter is gleeful in using the cash-for-influence as a stick with which to beat part-time tory MPs - trying to deflect attention from the fact that it is the members of his party who are being disciplined because it is they who were in power.

This kind of sleaze and worse permeated John Major's government, and it was one of the principle reasons voters swung behind Labour with their announcement they'd be 'whiter than white'.

So their failure to prevent similar occurrences in their own ranks is not only an admission of failure in the 13 years since they got elected, but it is a concession that Labour no longer holds any moral high-ground.

For all the fight-backs made by Labour in recent opinion polls to give their activists encouragement, and the optimism with which Labour seems to have accepted the prospect of a hung parliament, this is a serious setback which threatens to overshadow the more practical measures to be announced in tomorrow's Budget.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Was David Cameron sober at PMQs?

My initial reaction was: not entirely.

Looking like a boiled lobster and barely able to contain his feigned apoplexy at the Prime Minister while he engaged in a repetitive onslaught on the issue of trade union militancy David Cameron appeared boosted by a dose of Dutch courage laced with confrontational relish. He showed his gristle - we should be glad he didn't start showing his balls!

Usually immaculate in dress and delivery, today he let his standards slip. It was particularly noticable that Cameron shlightly shlurred every letter 's' and h-over h-emphasised every 'h'.

We know from his personal history that he was an enthusiastic member of a dining club with a somewhat dubious reputation, so even this amateur's speculation is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

And there was definitely something odd going on as a bunch of partisan members on the tory backbenches were continually egging him on as though he were in a boozy lock-in at a private members club. Had there been an early opening meeting in one of the Westminster bars? Maybe a lobby firm had laid on a welcoming reception for a group of members.

But PMQs is no private members club - it is the weekly occasion to hold the nation's leader to account live and in public.

Now I'm not someone who advocates abstention in any absolute form, but I know very well that employers take against any incapacity to do the job due to a heavy night or a convivial and bibulous lunch - we should remember it was the main complaint against Charles Kennedy when he was removed from the leadership of the LibDems that his edge was blunted and he started to get his facts wrong when placed under scrutiny.

On the other hand Roy Jenkins was reknowned as being someone who could lunch for his country and he was remarkable for retaining his popularity with officials for giving clear directions, delegating, and being decisive - but then he was never leader of his party or a prospective candidate to be Prime Minister in a crucial pre-election period.

So is the odd digestive aid something to be frowned upon? No, but it is something I would consciously avoid on prime political occasions when performance is vital - and I have to say I thought Cameron's performance teetered on the brink of embarrassment at the final PMQ's before the budget.

He really should have been able to draw together a range of themes to prepare the ground for a major onslaught on the whole of government policy and enable him to clearly lay out his own vision, but instead he concentrated on attacking Labour's failure to deal with their vested interests - a charge that can be equally levelled at him with some not inconsiderable justification.

If the pressure is getting to the tory leader as he fails to score the regular knock-out blows his supporters expect as a formality then we have to start looking at what is behind it and questioning what further indications this provides should he rise to the highest office - much more of this inadequate strategic organisation and the public will be doubting what confidence to place in his party.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Questions re:Cashcroft

Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft has declared that he is a non-domiciled taxpayer, meaning he only pays tax on the portion of his income earned inside the UK.

Obviously this is bad news for the tories, but it has been dragging on for what seems like forever and I can't help feeling that the persistence of the story has had a greater effect than any initial hit may have had for the tories.

As any good PR man will tell you: the cover-up is more damaging than the scandal.

Which does beg the question of David Cameron, given his background is as a PR professional. Is he competent?

However, the timing of the eventual announcement was clearly stage-managed to coincide with the Tory spring conference, thereby drawing more attention and making the best of a bad lot. Clearly a battle of wills was won within the party, and such a tactic seems typical of the Andy Coulson modus operandi.

Which also begs the question of Andy Coulson, is he competent?

The announcement has drastically backfired on William Hague, who was apparently under the impression that the nomination of a peerage was conditional on the basis he would pay tax on his full income, sums which would net HM Treasury "tens of millions of pounds." Even the relevant scrutiny committee said these were central questions to the issue of accepting the nomination.

Which begs the question of William Hague, is he competent?

Evidently Lord Ashcroft has not been doing so, so he can fairly be described as dishonest for leaving that impression with the man who submitted his nomination.

But it's worse than that: Lord Ashcroft has clearly bought his peerage, and he is therefore directly guilty of continuing the 'cash for honours' corruption scandal that damned the tories under the dog days of the Major regime.

And this would potentially disqualify him from his position as the guardian of a major financial institution were BB Holdings regulated according to the same standards as in the UK (he offered to sell his stake in the past when it was suggested his company was instrumental in using the tax haven to launder drug money, but has since successfully used the courts to reinforce unfair contract guarantees which saw him accused of the theft of £5m aid money intended for the impoverished people in the country).

Um, that reminds me - whatever happened to Lord Conrad Black? Oh that's right, he's working on getting released early by getting friends to rewrite the statute books.

Now tell me again, why exactly would Lord Ashcroft consider becoming the most generous donor to a UK political party ever?

And why would the Conservative party be so desperate to accept his dirty money at all?

Three incompetent mice and one dishonest and corrupt banker pulling their strings - it could be the basis of a new nursery rhyme for our times.

But it doesn't rhyme, it reeks.

Gately-gate revisited

We all remember the Jan Moir affair when the Daily Mail journalist spoke ill of the dead and took a vengeful lunge at the 'lifestyle choices' of recently deceased Stephen Gately.

Well, in a superficially similar incident TV presenter Kristian Digby has been found dead at his home, so I wondered whether the wrath of the twitterati will be risked again to promote a similar extreme right-wing opinion on the presumed ills of homosexuality, or whether this viewpoint has been sufficiently laid to rest.

Looking back 'Gately-gate' coincided with the beginnings of the change in political fortunes of Labour, as a powerful rallying point was found to attack ideological opponents.

It didn't matter that David Cameron has made a concerted effort in his leadership to distance himself from such spiteful 'nastiness' as has been formerly associated with his party on account of a long list of homophobic and other policies - partly because the Daily Mail is seen as an strong supporter of the Conservatives and partly because the readership does still exert a strong influence over the grassroots activists and donors on the right-wing of his party.

So whatever efforts have been made to challenge such views internally and in public, the effect of Jan Moir's outpouring could only work as a significant turning point undermining at a stroke everything his personal platform was built on - you can change the leader, but you can't change the party.

In hindsight it may be possible to rationalise the single article was a deliberate act of sabotage, but I think that would be to give a bit too much credit to Paul Dacre and underestimate his personal politics (as seen enthusing every edition of the newspaper).

Where Brown suffered by attacking the class origins of the Conservatives during the Crewe & Nantwich by-election he now seems to have found his target by positioning himself as a caring leader. He doesn't need to specify the identity of his opposition, as that is so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness that to do so almost seems superfluous and would in any event be contrary to the principles of the message.

But more intriguingly this opens up the possibility that he can be goaded into overstepping the mark as he may find himself encouraged by the reduction in Cameron's lead in the polls to become more explicit.

Today's encounter at PMQs will be worth watching closely.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

On the proposed BBC cuts and #save6music - it's about priorities

News has been leaked that the BBC DG Mark Thompson has announced plans to make swinging cuts at the BBC. This is obviously controversial and the Paxman interview was wonderfully entertaining (watch again on iplayer).

Firstly Mark Thompson needs to get his priorities in order - he should offer to take a pay cut before he proposes cuts to services.

sign the petition

However I have to think the DG is playing the political game that the plans to reduce BBC Online staffing by a quarter etc is designed to fit with the post-election landscape, and potentially highlight a key election battleground.

The outcry against these cuts to much-loved publically-funded services is essentially turning into a rallying point against the tories, and I think it is noticable that the report was written by the head of BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, but was initially leaked to shadow culture minister Ed Vaizey MP who has made a rapid U-turn in the face of the inevitable public reaction.

So although the proposals are being made in his name I don't think it is quite as clear whether he is personally in favour of them and this may actually be a bit of a stitch-up to change the state of the debate.

There have been a number of dry runs on various save the BBC campaigns even in the past year, and it is a touchstone which hits a similar nerve as those save the NHS slogans.

But while it's easy to get caught up in protecting our favorite bits of the corporation's service, it is worth agreeing with the principles of forcing Auntie to focus more sharply on her priorities - so although I'm a fan of 6music (particularly the recent performances of Danny Wallace during January) I'm very happy to see the reduction in children's TV content such as Blast and Switch - I mean, providing a niche for creative experimentation where it wouldn't otherwise exist is not the same as filling one that does and struggles to survive because of the strength of the competition.

So really I'm arguing for the BBC to stop expanding mainstream products and concentrate more heavily on providing authoratitive expertise such as it it does so well with its' news and current affairs team.

I'd personally like to see a BBC Europe channel, covering the work of the EU institutions, cultural events like the Eurovision Song Contest and things like the European space programme which all UK citizens contribute to but rarely get any direct feedback from, and as a linguist I'd value the ability to watch more foreign-language reports and shows from those countries I visit most often... though I'm definitely not planning to get on my soapbox to call for a return of El Dorado!