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Finding freedom

I read Jacob Stern’s article in The Atlantic about the political controversy in the USA related to specific car manufacturers selling certain models without AM radios.

It made me wonder whether my car has an AM radio. I know it did when I bought it, a little over 14 years ago. I remember occasionally listening to Richard Bacon’s afternoon show on BBC Radio 5 Live in the car. But I’ve replaced the radio twice since then.

For the last three years, I’ve been using a ‘radio’ which uses Apple’s CarPlay system to stream content from my phone. Since then, I’ve never listened to broadcasts via FM or AM. I knew the system had a ‘tuner’ function, but I wasn’t sure whether it included AM frequencies.

Surprisingly, the ‘radio’ unit I bought is still ‘current’. I found it on sale on a national retailer’s website. Despite the technology now being several years old, the retail price has inflated by more than 11% since I bought it.

The retailer’s website didn’t list whether the ‘radio’ had an AM tuner. I can only assume this must be irrelevant to many people’s purchasing decisions these days.

I consulted the manufacturer’s website, but it wasn’t listed on the main product page there, either. I dug into a separate ‘full specifications and features’ page—lo and behold, there it was!

My car radio does, indeed, have a hitherto unused AM tuner.

Some US commentators appear to believe this to be essential to my freedom. I still don’t think I’m going to use it. Given that my car model isn’t sold in the US, perhaps no one will mind.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, , .

Pinging news

I often hear people complaining about notifications from the BBC News app and whether they really represent ‘breaking news’. I don’t use the BBC News app, just the website, and most of the notifications on my phone are turned off, so I don’t spend much time thinking about this. But perhaps I should.

On Tuesday, the FT’s Stephen Bush wrote about the impact of these push notifications on people’s awareness of policies and how this may become more salient in the forthcoming general election. I was surprised to learn that the decisions on which stories get push notifications are ‘made by comparatively low-ranking journalists, certainly compared with the six and the 10 o’clock news.’

But then, I’ve frequently been surprised by the BBC’s willingness to downplay or delegate its most crucial role. The editorial decisions taken by BBC News about what matters in the world—what it puts at the top of its news bulletins, what gets the big slot on the website homepage, what it sends notifications about—are among the most significant decisions anyone in the organisation makes. Yet, too often, the decision is ceded to others: parroting the front pages of openly biased newspapers or perverting the news agenda to promote its own programmes are two common sins. It’s rare to log on to the BBC News website on a Sunday morning and for the ‘top story’ not to be that their political discussion programme is on the air: that’s not news.

This is also reflected in much of the marketing BBC News undertakes: the focus is regularly on ‘news that matters to you‘. But it ought to be the exact opposite of that: the BBC ought to be the source of the news that matters to all of us. The organisation should cherish and embrace its unique position in directing the national conversation. It should talk to us about it.

In the third episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, anchor Will McAvoy gives an on-air speech which includes these words:

From this moment on, we’ll be deciding what goes on our air and how it’s presented to you based on the simple truth that nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate.

We’ll endeavour to put information in a broader context because we know that very little news is born at the moment it comes across our wire.

We’ll be the champion of facts and the mortal enemy of innuendo, speculation, hyperbole and nonsense. We’re not waiters in a restaurant serving the stories you asked for, just the way you like them prepared. Nor are we computers dispensing only the facts because news is only useful in the context of humanity.

You may ask: who are we to make these decisions?

We are Mackenzie McHale and myself. Ms McHale is our Executive Producer. She marshalls the resources of over 100 reporters, producers, analysts, and technicians, and her credentials are readily available. I’m Newsnight’s managing editor and make the final decision on everything seen and heard on this programme.

Who are we to make these decisions? We’re the media elite.

I’d love to see that kind of confidence and pluck from BBC News.

This post was filed under: Media, , , , , .

Saving local journalism

Some weeks, I think more about local journalism. This has been one of those weeks, as I’ve been thinking quite hard with my comms colleagues at work about whether and how to include public health messages in statements relating to a minor local news story. It’s sometimes a trickier call than you’d think.

When I saw James O’Malley’s most recent Substack post was about saving local news, the topic was already on my mind. He suggests that local news might be sustainably delivered through ‘paywalled newsletters’, initially supported by the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) funds, which currently pay for local newspaper journalists.

In an instant, this would mean that many more pockets of the country once again have quality reporting in a quality publication, covering the nuts and bolts of their local democracy. And with a LDRS subsidy, it would mitigate the chicken-and-egg problem that newsletters have, of needing to sign up enough people to be viable while still paying the wages of the writers.

Over time, some newsletters might even become profitable or sustainable – like the Mill. Others may need to be subsidised for slightly longer.

But ultimately, it would stimulate an ecosystem of viable local newsletters, with the reach and distribution to serve communities with real, meaningful news – with all of the civic positive-externalities that implies: Better democracy, better accountability, and better media.

As I read this, I immediately thought this was both a brilliant and terrible idea, and I haven’t entirely managed to reconcile my thoughts on it since.

The downside is, of course, the paywall. I’m not sure that content whose accessibility is limited to a few paid subscribers really does deliver better democracy or accountability. At the very least, it’s harder to counter misinformation and disinformation that is not out in the open in the first place. I’m also not confident that it’s ethically sound to use LRDS public money to fund journalism that’s only—or at least preferentially—available to those willing to pay a subscription fee.

And yet, if a product like that existed locally, I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up, so I’m not that ethically opposed to it. Heck, I even subscribe to the apps of some local newspapers so that I can view the less ridiculous content without a deluge of advertising. And surely a sustainable future for local journalism, even if it is a little less open, is better than no local journalism at all?

It’s a quandary.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Media, .

A brilliant format for radio… on TV

In Monocle this month, Michael Booth profiles Det Sidste Ord (The Last Word), a Danish television programme where famous people give an interview that is. filmed in great secrecy, edited and broadcast only after their death. Slightly weirdly, the questions are asked in the past tense and the third person (‘Who was Simon Howard?’ or ‘What was the most important thing Simon learned during his lifetime?’)

The interview is typically shown within a few weeks of the participant’s death, and there is an intention to re-edit and re-broadcast them around twenty years after death.

It sounded fascinating, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a radio format. The description didn’t sound televisual to me.

I’ve been trying to work out why that was my reaction. I think it is because it sounds like the format involves deep and intimate conversation, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done well on television. Radio somehow conveys authenticity; TV struggles to break through a sheen of artificiality.

I read Rob Burley’s book about TV political interviews earlier this year and disagreed with his view that long-form television interviews are the most revealing. They often become performative and false in a way that rarely happens on radio. They are simply different beasts.

It’s an unfair comparison, but you can learn more about a person’s character from one appearance on Desert Island Discs than from ten guest slots on Graham Norton or Laura Kuenssberg’s TV shows.

With those preconceptions, I can see why my initial reaction was that Det Sidste Ord would make great radio rather than television. But perhaps the real lesson is that those who make British TV have much to learn from the Danes, or that I am watching the wrong programmes.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Media, Post-a-day 2023, , .

Meaningless soundbites

A local politician popped up on our regional news bulletin yesterday evening. This was the sum total of his contribution:

What we’ve seen today is a series of meaningless soundbites that will provide very little reassurance to families that are struggling right now. To turn our economy round, we need tough but necessary decisions.

These two sentences could have been ejaculated by any representative of virtually any UK political party discussing virtually any issue. There is poetry in their vacuity. It is content-free speech lamenting content-free speech. There’s no hint of an idea, a political message, or even a substantive criticism.

Rather than the politician spending time on constructing such empty verbiage, the reporter and crew attending to film it, and the viewers having to listen to it, perhaps in future we could just replace it with one of those classic slient film caption cards: “ … “

This post was filed under: Media, Politics, Post-a-day 2023.

Banning politicians from social media

Over recent months, I’ve become more certain in my position that the BBC shouldn’t be creating and sharing material on closed social networks. I’m defining ‘closed’ as anything that isn’t available to the public without a login. For example, BBC journalists shouldn’t—as part of their job—be posting threads on ‘X’.

Universal access is a core part of what the BBC stands for. Indeed, they’ve always aimed (with variable success) to give equal access to their television services regardless of the platform rather than giving preferential treatment to, say, Sky subscribers. I shouldn’t have to give my data to a third party to receive BBC content.

I used to think the same of government bodies, but then I changed my mind: it’s the responsibility of the government to reach people where they are, no matter how unpalatable that location.

A couple of weeks ago, Ryan Broderick gave me a whole new suggestion to ponder when he suggested that all politicians should be banned from private social networks. It is coming up to a month since he wrote that, and it’s been swimming around my mind ever since.

On one hand: clearly, there’s a risk of politicians being duplicitous by posting different things on different closed social media networks.

But on the other: ‘twas ever thus. I’m sure politicians have always said things in closed fora that they might not say elsewhere. The bit they write for a church newsletter is probably quite different in tone and content to the speech they give at the local social club. That’s clearly not wrong nor necessarily bad. If they end up saying contradictory things to different audiences, then they risk exposure.

It’s fair to say that the internet is not a church newsletter: for one thing, social media content has the potential to travel further faster than anything handed out in hard copy. But that’s actually protective of the underlying principle: the further content spreads, the greater the probability of inconsistencies coming to light.

So, despite my misgivings about social media, I don’t think I’m with Broderick on this one.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Media, Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , .

In praise of Apple News

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in real life refer to the Apple News app. It seems to me that it has virtually no social cachet. And yet, it’s an app I use every day, and which I really appreciate: it took a little while to get into, but once you give it some signals (giving articles a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ and following or blocking sources of stories) then it quickly comes to learn one’s preferences.

I have Apple News+ and, in addition, the app syncs with my login credentials for a number of providers (like The Economist), which means that I get access to quite a bit of subscription-only content through the app.

But there’s one ‘killer feature’ in the Apple News app which keeps me coming back, and it’s one I’ve never seen discussed elsewhere. Unlike some apps, where the ‘top stories’ are driven entirely algorithmically, Apple News has editors who curate the news in various ways. They select ‘top stories’, but also promote notable feature articles, and even curate collections of articles on topical themes.

One advantage of this is that they use ‘breaking news’ push notifications extremely judiciously. I think it was Jeff Jarvis who once said that the threshold for ‘breaking news’ notifications should be ‘news you’d interrupt a meeting for,’ and I think they get that about right. It’s the only news app whose notifications I haven’t blocked.

But the ‘killer feature’ is how they handle curated news stories from sources you have blocked. The temptation—perhaps even the logical option—would be to hide them, but Apple News doesn’t. Instead, it shows a grey tile with the headline in the curated position, along with a message that the user has blocked the source.

This is a wonderful way to stop people becoming trapped in filter bubbles. It says, ‘hey, you might not want to hear about this, but we have judged that it’s objectively important.’

Showing that level of confidence in the editors’ professional judgement is admirable, particularly in our ever-more divided culture. The combination of human-curated news and algorithmically driven sections on topics that the system thinks I’m interested in makes a compelling combination.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Media, Post-a-day 2023, .

On Edinburgh

One of the strange and wonderful things about living in the North East is that our closest capital city is that of Scotland, not of England. And famously, London is much closer to Paris than to Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

As I sped back from Edinburgh on the East Coast mainline recently, I was pondering this. There’s been stuff in the press about the BBC moving the One O’Clock News to Salford, as it has with Breakfast, to counter accusations of London-centricity.

But it’s poorly understood that London-centricity isn’t really to do with the physical location of the bulletin. It’s to do with a thousand little things. To name just one: next time you see someone from the Royal College of Physicians on television, try to spot if they’re quoted as being from the Royal College of Physicians of London or the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

The former is almost always assumed, and the rare clarifications usually state that RCP London represents physicians in England… yet our physical proximity to Edinburgh means many in the North East choose the Scottish option.

London isn’t the default for everyone, and not even for everyone in England.

This post was filed under: Media, Post-a-day 2023, .

The worth of a life

Last week, the news paid open-ended attention to the loss at sea of the Titan submersible and its wealthy crew. Days earlier, the plight of 750 people, many of them children, on the sunken Adriana didn’t even make the top story on the bulletins I saw.

Ours can’t have been the only sofa in Britain on which the comparison was made with dismay.

On the LRB Blog, Michael Chessum suggests:

The mass drowning of migrants does not meet the media’s criteria for a human-interest story because the victims have been dehumanised. Centuries of racist conditioning have led us to this point, but there is a new strategy at work, too. Donald Trump and Suella Braverman have an air of performative stupidity, and it comforts the liberal commentariat to believe that the far right’s spell in power is a blip. But their project is deadly serious and for the long term. Trump’s ‘big, beautiful wall’ and the UK government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. The core narrative of the nationalist right, that migrants and foreigners are to blame for falling living standards, now dominates the mainstream. It feeds popular demand for the militarisation of our borders.

I’m not certain that I fully agree: I think there’s an element to which the loss of life of migrants has become normalised and ‘expected’, whereas the Titan story was unlike any story we’ve heard in recent years. Yet, the balance of coverage—not to mention the relative willingness of nation-states to spend money on each rescue effort—did feel like an upsetting new low to me.

Twenty years ago, Aaron Sorkin tried to shock us by including a ballsy line in the fourth season of The West Wing making the case that, from the President’s perspective, ‘a Kundunese life is worth less than an American life.’1

These days, it’s no longer the shocking subtext: it’s beamed into each of our homes in full technicolour, so routine that it no longer attracts on-air comment.

  1. Equatorial Kundu is one of Sorkin’s most successful fictional countries, originating in The West Wing, making a cameo in The Newsroom, escaping the Sorkin universe in iZombie, and turning up in any number of fictional exercises and assignments. Qumar never quite caught on in the same way.

This post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, , , , .

AI is not a single entity

There’s a typically brilliant piece by Liam Shaw on the LRB blog right now about the recent use of an AI tool to assist in the discovery of an antibiotic: abaucin.

There is much important detail in Shaw’s blog which was missing from most of the media coverage on this topic. Most crucially from a health perspective, this antibiotic is likely to be useful only in topical applications (onto the skin) whereas the majority of harm from the single species the antibiotic treats—Acinetobacter baumannii—is from sepsis. It is a significant discovery, but mostly in the sense of being a staging post on the long road of development, rather than as an end in itself.

Shaw is also specific about the techniques used, and their limitations:

As well as powerful neural networks, the machine learning model depends on the existence of carefully collected data from thousands of experiments. It’s still a vast screening project, just not as vast as it would be without the AI component: it uses the data to find the best ‘ready to use’ molecule from the available options.

The discovery of abaucin shows that AI is helpful for the early stage of winnowing down the vast space of chemical possibility, but there’s still a lot to do from that point onwards.

This is useful because it feels like we are in a moment where ‘AI’ is used to refer to myriad things, and using the term on its own is not very helpful. It feels akin to the early 2000s, when a whole group of technologies and applications were referred to as ‘the Internet’ (always capitalised) as though they were a single entity.

It’s notable that the abaucin study didn’t refer even once to ‘artificial intelligence,’1 but used the somewhat more specific term ‘deep learning.’

When so many technologies, from large language models to recommendation engines to deep learning algorithms to theoretical artificial general intelligence systems are all condensed into two letters—AI—it doesn’t aid understanding. I’ve spoken to people this week who have interpreted the headlines around this to mean that something akin to ChatGPT has synthesised a new antibiotic on request—an understandable misunderstanding.

When scientists are warning about AI threatening the future of humanity, they aren’t talking about chatbots—yet you’d be hard-pressed to discern that from breathless headlines that refer to anything and everything as simply ‘AI’. In just a handful of days, even the well-respected BBC News website has published articles with headlines referencing ‘AI’ about drone aircraft, machine learning, delivery robots and image generation: all entirely different applications of a very broad class of technology.

If we’re to have sensible conversations about the ethics and regulation of AI technologies, I think there’s much to be done to try to help the public understand what exactly is being discussed. That ought to be the job of the news. Currently, it feels like we’re stuck in a cycle of labelling things as ‘AI’ as a strategy to garner attention, leading to conflated ideas and complete misunderstanding.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney, whose idea of the appearance of a human brain seems sketchier that I might have imagined.

  1. Though, in fairness, the press release did.

This post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

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