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An ‘enquiry’ inquiry

I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but I suffered a moment of pernicketiness yesterday. Reading this BBC News article, I came across the following quote from Mr Justice Fancourt:

This trial is not an enquiry.

‘Harrumph,’ I thought, ‘they’ve misquoted him—he surely said “inquiry”.’

The website has since invisibly corrected the mistake, or what I thought of as a mistake.

You see, I operate in a world where ‘enquiry’ and ‘inquiry’ are entirely different words, connected to different bits of my brain. I deal with ‘enquiries’ all the time—indeed, that’s how our record system at work labels calls and emails from people outside of the team. I deal much less often with ‘inquiries’—or even sometimes inquests—which are slightly scary legal or quasi-legal processes. I’d stopped noticing how similar the two words are.

And so to the Oxford English Dictionary—where the two words share a combined entry. The word ‘enquiry’ came into Middle English from the Old French ‘enquerre’—’to ask’. Some English pedants in the 14th century noted that the original root was the Latin ‘inquīrō’—’I seek’—and started spelling it with an ‘i’ instead. The two words co-existed for a long while.

Only in the 19th century did a distinction between the two develop: ‘enquiry’ came to be commonly associated with everyday questions, and ‘inquiry’ with formal investigations. But this has never been rigorously or consistently applied, and the two are still often interchanged in common usage.

In the USA, they use ‘inquiry’ for everything, which feels to me like it must be awfully confusing. I’m sure they’d say the same about the distinction.

So, as it turns out, my pernicketiness was nothing but misguided pedantry—and no one likes a pedant. I’ll try harder next time.


The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3. I’m not sure what’s going on with his fingers.

This post was filed under: Notes, , .

Another history of online news

Seventeen years ago, I highlighted a BBC News article in which Dave Gilbert reflected on thirteen years of online news.

So much of what has come to pass since is unwittingly signalled in that article.

The shrewdest comments came from the newspaper advertising executives who wondered where the revenue would come from. It’s a question some are still asking.

In 2024, this question is posed more frequently than in 2007. Waves of news organisations have collapsed, having transitioned to a business model that siphoned their income to Google and Facebook.

We clocked very early on that it was about a global audience, audience response and encouraging feedback – Web 2.0 in fact.

The idea of ‘audience response’ feels so quaint in 2024, when many news articles are built around embedded Twitter quotes. Often, it feels like the commentary has become the news, in a way that I certainly never foresaw.

People buy newspapers for a host of reasons but reporters never know how many read their own stories. From our real-time statistics, I know exactly what the audience is reading, and the feedback is almost instantaneous.

I don’t think any of us quite understood the extent to which those statistics would come to drive the news agenda, ‘public interest’ playing second fiddle to ‘things that interest the public,’ even at the BBC. ‘Beyoncé’s country album: the verdict’ would not have been one of BBC News’s top stories in 2007, though it was yesterday.

The pace of cultural change is difficult to believe.


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

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

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, , , , , .

31 things I learned in July 2020

1: I knew a little about Milton Glaser, but I didn’t know how prolific he was.


2: Priority postboxes, for return of completed home swabs for COVID-19, have appeared as if overnight. Or at least, stickers which designate existing post boxes which are already emptied later in the day as “priority post boxes”.

Postbox

3: Finland’s air force stopped using a swastika in its logo three and a half years ago, and no-one really noticed until now.


4: “These trying months have shown us a government and a prime minister of unique incompetence, deceitful and panicky, often inattentive to essential business (remember those five Cobra meetings that Johnson bunked), and incapable of pursuing a steady policy for more than five minutes. Yet when we emerge from the epidemic, we will be faced with the same government and the same prime minister and the same government demanding more powers, more central control.”


5: I’ve read quite a lot about Concorde over the years and the one parked up in Manchester is still on my “to visit” list. I’ve never read anything that got quite as closely into the financial side of the project as this 2002 article by Francis Spufford which I dredged up today.


6: In one of life’s stranger coincidences, after a few years of using Android phones, I bought my first iPhone since the 4S today—then realised that it is ten years to the day after I wrote about switching to the iPhone the first time round.


7: A mobile phone game can be a surprisingly powerful emotional experience.


8: Goats have rectangular pupils.


9: Someone wasn’t allowed on my bus today because they weren’t wearing a face covering: so I’ve learned that the rules are now being enforced.


10: “Nowhere in Christian scripture is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god. Hart regards it as a historical tragedy that the early church evolved into an institution of secular power and social domination, too often reinforced by an elaborate mythology of perdition based on the scantest scriptural hints and metaphors. The fear of damnation can serve as a potent means of social control.”


11: Torontonians are without their water fountains during the current heatwave.


12: I learned only recently that it is expected behaviour—and, in some cases, a school rule—for children to make their own way to school from around the age of five in Switzerland. The Swiss government’s response to a five year old being fined last year for travelling on a bus without a ticket is heartwarming sensible: to make public transport free for young children, with the side-effect of further cementing this approach to school transport.


13: Commercial analogue radio is to continue for a further decade (at least).


14: There’s a feeling of change in the air. Yesterday, I felt hopeful that covid-19 may be bringing to an end this brief era of populism: it seemed plausible that the crisis might sweep away the bombast of Trump, Johnson and Bolsanaro in favour of quieter competence. In the UK, witness the poll rating of Sunak and Starmer as examples of senior politicians who can both think and communicate clearly. Today, The New Yorker’s historical review had reminded me that things are rarely so straightforward: things can get worse as well as better.


15: “Andrew Lloyd Webber has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Donald Trump” sounds like the setup for a particularly corny joke, but it turns out that it’s the news these days.


16: We’re at a curious point in the Government’s response to covid-19. The official advice on gov.uk remains “stay at home as much as possible” yet the Government is running a major advertising campaign to convince everyone to do exactly the opposite, presumably for economic reasons.


17: One of the scariest charts I’ve seen in relation to covid-19 in the UK so far:


18: “When the inquiry does begin, the primary target for the Johnson government’s ire is already clear: PHE. One health service official predicted it would be ‘toast’ after the inquiry. One minister says: ‘We haven’t blamed Public Health England — yet.’”


19: “When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test, the students had average test scores that were 20 per cent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off.”


20: “Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, delivered its message to the assembly. He spoke perkily, as if everything in his country was under control. In fact Britain is the country which, given its relative wealth and long warning time, has failed most grievously to protect its people against the first onslaught of the virus. Its failure lay primarily in its neglect of the low-tech, low-cost, labour-intensive public health methods and community mobilisation that successfully prevented disease in low-income countries: universal lockdowns, self-isolation, masking, quarantine and tracing – by people, not apps – of all those whom sick people have been in contact with. Yet in his short video message Hancock was speaking the old language of Americans and Europeans, coming up with a tech solution – in this case, a vaccine that doesn’t yet exist – to the world’s problems. ‘I’m proud that the UK is leading this work,’ he said, ‘that we’re the biggest donor to the global effort to find a vaccine, and that UK research efforts are leading the way.’ Hancock’s wasn’t the only speech at the assembly to prompt the thought that before there can be solidarity, a little humility would help.”


21: This Psyche documentary following actors at The National Theatre in the hour before they go on stage is fascinating.


22: I learned more about the history of Nespresso. I am a heavy Nespresso drinker. I do at least make sure all of my pods are recycled.


23: “Answering emails is hard, and no matter how fancy your email app, that email isn’t going to write itself. There’s no tool smart enough to cure human stupidity, so maybe we should stop looking for it.”


24: Victorian Britain’s relationship with the seaside was complicated.


25: I think I use singular “they” without really thinking about it: it’s not a point of grammar I can get worked up about. I hadn’t previously clocked this common usage: “How do you complete the following sentence: ‘Everyone misplaces ____ keys’? There is no way to do so that is both uncontroversially grammatical and generally liked. Most people, even those who as a rule don’t like it, will be pulled towards the singular ‘they’: ‘Everyone misplaces their keys.’ The problem with ‘their’ is that pronouns should agree with their subjects in both gender and number. ‘Their’ is fine on the first count, because ‘everyone’ is genderless, but fails on the second, since ‘everyone’ is grammatically speaking singular, and ‘they’ is plural.”


26: Meditation is probably associated with a lower prevalence of cardiovascular risks (at least according to this one limited study). All of my psychiatrist friends meditate themselves and tell me it’s the best thing since sliced bread, in much the same was as endocrinologists tend to talk about Vitamin D supplementation. I wonder what public health people are reputed to bang on about?


27: Satire may have finally been killed off. “Boris Johnson has today unveiled plans to curb junk food promotional deals as part of a new government obesity strategy triggered by the pandemic” just seven days before the start of “a government subsidy to offer people 50% off meals in fast food restaurants.”


28: From Walter Isaacson’s outstanding biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I have learned that Leonardo described the mechanism of closure of the aortic valve in 1510, but it didn’t start to gain mainstream currency among cardiologists until Bellhouse’s work confirmed the description in the 1960s.


29: The decline of the landline is changing literary fiction.


30: The teasmade has been reinvented. It doesn’t look like the one my grandparents used to have beside their bed: the new version is much uglier.


31: Unorthodox was a great miniseries.

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30 things I learned in June 2020

1: “The reason for the bite is crystal clear: it’s there for scale, so that a small Apple logo still looks like an apple and not a cherry.”


2: How Germany’s contact tracing system for covid-19 works.


3: Economic downturns tend to reduce gender inequality, but the one associated with covid-19 has disproportionately affected women.


4: There are four national anthems without lyrics.


5: Over the last month, I’ve received 3,100 work emails.


6: I heard on the radio this morning that Romans painted eyes on their ships because they believe the gods would protect ships with eyes on them. And it made me think: was this the real reason? Will people in two millennia look back at our time and say that we printed crossed-fingers on all lottery tickets because we believed it brought luck (as opposed to it just being a brand)? There are so many things in life which start as superstition but become traditions which are completely divorced from the original beliefs.


7: The Normal People TV series was better than the book. I know people say you can’t compare the two, but I’m doing it anyway.


8: A loose lock meant that I got to peek through a crack in the door into the southwest tower of the Tyne Bridge:


9: Balancing rocks really seems to have become a trend these days. I know this makes me sound grumpy, but I’m not really a fan: there’s something that feels entitled about taking a shared area of natural landscape and putting a personal ‘project’ on it rather than leaving it how it was found.


10: Citizens of Monaco are called Monegasques.


11: “Uncertainty is a natural state for clinicians and scientists; a reality that politicians seem unable and unwilling to grasp. This contrast plays out sharply when politicians claim to be ‘following the evidence’ in their response to covid-19. How can the evidence be so certain that it should be followed? Isn’t it better to accept uncertainty, communicate that uncertainty clearly to the public, but provide a convincing rationale for policy informed by, not following, the best available science and evidence?”


12: When I’m asked to give talks about antimicrobial resistance, I sometimes mention the issue of incorporating antibiotics into ships’ paint to prevent the formation of a biofilm on the hull which allows barnacles to attach. This initially seems like a ridiculous use of a precious resource, but the issue is actually a bit more subtle than it first appears: barnacles create surprisingly high levels of drag, increasing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from the ship far more than you might first imagine. I was therefore delighted to learn of the invention of HullSkater, which is basically Roomba for ship hulls.


13: What’s the difference between music and language?


14: “As disaster strikes, ‘baseball caps appear atop politicians’ heads like mushrooms after a rain,’ Jerry Ianelli wrote, in 2017, for Miami New Times. Ianelli called the disaster hat ‘performative folksiness.'”


15: I missed the news a couple of months ago that Renzi Piano’s replacement for the Ponte Morandi in Genoa has been structurally completed, less than two years after the shocking and tragic collapse.


16: It seems that Instagram’s artificial intelligence can’t reliably distinguish photos of naked people from photos of paintings or statues, even when backed up by 15,000 human reviewers. This is a bit of social media controversy which has been around for years, but has hitherto completely passed me by.


17: Solar panels in space generate more energy than those on Earth because our atmosphere reflects or absorbs over half of the solar energy reaching the planet. This topic popped into my head for no clear reason this morning, and the magic of the internet meant that clarification was only a click away. What a time we live in.


18: “The painful conclusion is that Britain has the wrong sort of government for a pandemic—and, in Boris Johnson, the wrong sort of prime minister. Elected in December with the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, he did not pay covid-19 enough attention. Ministers were chosen on ideological grounds; talented candidates with the wrong views were left out in the cold. Mr Johnson got the top job because he is a brilliant campaigner and a charismatic entertainer with whom the Conservative Party fell in love. Beating the coronavirus calls for attention to detail, consistency and implementation, but they are not his forte.”


19: The OED defines “suspend” as “to debar temporarily from participation in something.” Today, I’ve seen the BBC using the construction “permanently suspended” for the first time, which seems like a significant moment of change in the use of that word.


20: Food is all about salt, fat, acid, heat… and Samin Nosrat, who is impossibly endearing.


21: “You often cannot innovate before the world is ready.”


22: Grief and paperwork come as a package in the US healthcare system.


23: “My experience of being a person is a continual act of becoming, of creation. If nothing else, you continually have to be another day older. To instead focus on the things that are never going to change—from the day that you are born—is like locking yourself in a room.” That struck a chord with me, which was an interesting and arresting experience because it was said by Lionel Shriver, whose opinions are usually diametrically opposed to my own.


24: What advice on covid-19 social distancing can be given to sex workers?


25: The last episode of The Good Place is almost as good as the last episode of Six Feet Under.


26: “In what may be the first known case of its kind, a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit.”


27: Beautifully scented designer alcohol hand gel is a mainstream thing now.


28: This profile of Richard Horton gave me some new insight into his response to covid-19.


29: Midwifery is marginalised in the USA.


30: Fukushima serves as a reminder of the long-term consequences of major incidents on mental health. I worry that the response to covid-19 in the UK suggests we haven’t learned that lesson.

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31 things I learned in May 2020

1: We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm.


2: A monk’s cowl is “meant to be impractical – you can’t run in it for instance. It slows you down and you can’t do much in the way of work as a result of the long sleeves.”


3: “While the rest of us headed into lockdown worrying about whether we had enough toilet roll and ketchup, the super-rich were desperately trying to recruit live-in staff.” I’m not usually partial to cheap reverse snobbery, but that article had some zinging lines in it.


4: Paul Collier’s critique in The TLS of the UK Government response to covid-19 is the best I’ve read to date (though admittedly I’m trying to avoid reading too much on covid-19 outside of work). I don’t agree with the detail of all of his conclusions, but I think he brings important issues to the surface.


5: “There are many modern thinkers who emphasise the individual’s dependency upon society. It is, on the contrary, only the cultivation of interior solitude, among crowded lives, that makes society endurable.” So said John Cowper Powys, apparently. I tend to agree.


6: “In Europe, bunks on a night train have traditionally been set at ninety degrees to the direction of travel, like the teeth of a comb. In America, the custom was to place them lengthways, so that your body, when horizontal, slotted into the train like a bullet in the breach of a rifle.” I could have lived my entire life without this delightful bit of trivia ever coming to my attention.


7: “The hope is that almost all of us will download the app, that we will be diligent about using it if we develop symptoms, that the detection of identifiers will be reliable, that the subsequent risk calculation will be more or less accurate, and that we will, by and large, self-isolate if the app tells us to. Crucially, the strategy also requires easy access to tests so people can be rapidly alerted if a contact who had symptoms turns out not to have had the disease.” I’m a covid-19 app sceptic: I don’t think the uptake will be anywhere near 80% of smartphones (as is hoped) and nor do I think that there will be comparable compliance with isolation advice given by app and that given in a human conversation. Twelve months from now, when this post is published and the app has proven to be a rip-roaring success, you can comment and tell me what a fool I am for posting such silly predictions.


8: Moving a Bank Holiday to a Friday makes it more difficult to know what day it is. Lockdown and the consequent intense but irregular working pattern already made it hard enough for me.


9: The details in The Economist‘s cover images sometimes pass me by.


10: “Stay alert will mean stay alert by staying home as much as possible, but stay alert when you do go out by maintaining social distancing, washing your hands, respecting others in the workplace and the other settings that you’ll go to.”


11: Gillian Tett’s observation that “Americans are wearily used to the idea that 40,000 die each year from guns, and many accept this as the price of freedom” helped me see grim fatalism as one response to the lifting of the covid lockdown: the polar opposite of the safety first, fear-driven response that many pundits predict will dominate.


12: “Britain is so preoccupied by the virus that it is devoting far too little attention to its Brexit negotiations, increasing the chances that an on-time Brexit will also be a bitter Brexit.” I’m fairly confident that, despite current bluster, the Government will end up asking for an extension of the transition period. (This post is rapidly turning into “31 predictions from May 2020” rather than 31 lessons…)


13: Will Self’s article on the mechanics of freelance journalism, published in the reputedly low-paying TLS, opened my eyes to the basic realities of that profession.


14: My local petrol station is now charging less than £1/litre.


15: “Senior Conservatives have called for all MPs to be allowed to return to the House of Commons as they become concerned Boris Johnson is struggling in the deserted chamber in his encounters with new Labour leader Keir Starmer.” Bless.


16: Uncertainty about the safety and effectiveness of contact tracing apps is growing. The Economist has a published a leader on the topic: “They are an attractive idea. Yet contact-tracing apps are also an untested medical invention that will be introduced without the sort of safeguards that new drugs are subjected to. Inaccurate information can mislead health officials and citizens in ways that can be as harmful as any failed drug. Governments should proceed with care.”


17: “The most important breakthroughs in medical interventions – antibiotics, insulin, the polio vaccine – were developed in social and financial contexts that were completely unlike the context of pharmaceutical profit today. Those breakthroughs were indeed radically effective, unlike most of the blockbusters today.” This is obvious when you think about it, but I’ve never really thought about it before.


18: Multi-person iron lungs existed.


19: Chloe Wilson, who I’ve never come across before, seems to be quite a writer.


20: Cereal taught me the Korean idiom “when tigers used to smoke,” meaning a very long time ago. And also the lovely saying “deep sincerity can make grass grow on stone.”


21: Vitamin String Quartet covered the whole of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album and somehow this news has passed me by for the best part of four years, even though I like Vitamin String Quartet and love Random Access Memories.


22: “A local leader characterises PHE’s response to the crisis as ‘carry on covid.'” It seems that even The Economist has now concluded that Public Health England is “unlikely to survive the crisis.”


23: This video introduced me to several new terms unique to the world of antiquarian book repair (though Slightly Foxed taught me the meaning of ‘slightly foxed’ some years ago!)


24: Itsu’s katsu rice noodles are lovely, even if they are basically a posh pot noodle.


25: Going for a drive to test one’s eyesight is, according to the government, an acceptable reason for deviating from “stay at home” advice.


26: How different artists approached drawing the SARS-CoV-2 virus.


27: Dr Bonnie Henry has had some shoes made in her honour. And they sold out quickly.


28: A month ago, I don’t think I could have confidently defined ‘pangram’. Now, I’m coming across them everywhere: there’s been a running feature in The Times diary column, they feature in Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan which I’m currently reading, and The Browser recently recommended an article about them. My current favourite is ‘amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes’.


29: The Twentieth Century Society made me aware that tax incentives promote new construction over refurbishment, which is part of the reason why perfectly sound buildings are often demolished rather than repurposed.


30: It’s been lovely to have a day off and go for a walk with Wendy. COVID-19 work has run us both ragged recently. I’ve also had my first takeaway coffee in several months.


31: According to anonymous sources talking to The Sunday Times, “Boris has always been clear that he doesn’t ever say sorry,” “these stories about Boris being fed up with the job are all true” and “the chances of Boris leading us into the next election have fallen massively.”

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31 things I learned in March 2020

1: Talking about how to influence politicians, Professor Dame Sally Davies told the HSJ ”You’ve got to think ‘where are they coming from’ and frame the issues so it has salience for them.” When I was lucky enough to work alongside her, I learned a huge amount from just watching how Sally worked. It still strikes me as notable that many doctors take the approach she describes with their patients but don’t do the same in political discussion. 


2: Leaving portfolios until the end of the appraisal/CPD year is a bad idea. This isn’t really a lesson specific to this year, but I never seem to learn it regardless. 


3: Some days are longer and busier than others. 


4: In Grandeur and Greed, Giles Smith refers to Bassano’s painting The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark as having “the worst depiction of an elephant in any exhibited artwork in a major gallery”. It took me a while to spot it, which rather says it all: I think he might be right


5: It’s always lovely to reconnect with an old friend. 


6: Just as the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of pandemics is common sense. 


7: The more intensely I work, the more I lose perspective. This is a useful trait, great for total immersion in complex projects, for trying to untangle a complicated outbreak or for trying to make a useful and structured text from lots of conflicting ideas. But I’m learning that it’s not a helpful trait when working intensely to others’ plans, because it’s easy to become fixated on the flaws and fault lines of my little corner rather than seeing the bigger picture taking shape. Rest helps to restore perspective. 


8: I’m not sure whether I actually learned anything from it, but David Marchese’s interview with Aaron Sorkin in The New York Times Magazine was brilliant. 


9: I’ve learned what book reviewers think is the point of book reviews


10: Being woken in the middle of the night when on call seems to get even less fun each time it happens, and covid-19 means it is happening a lot. 


11: Sleeping for 12-and-a-half hours straight is still a thing that happens when I’m tired enough. 


12: The Electoral Commission recommends postponing the May elections until the autumn, and I’m surprised by how conflicted I feel about that. 


13: Mind-gardening is a thing. Apparently. 


14: I can’t remember the last time a cartoon stopped me in my tracks like this one by Ella Baron


15: Philippe Descamps’s article in Le Monde Diplo on cycling in Copenhagen was interesting—particularly the bit about having predictable provision according to the road’s speed limit. The article suggests that only 6% of daily journeys in Copenhagen are on foot, which I suspect is an artefact of the definition of “journey”: almost everyone will walk some distance on foot each day, and on the occasions when I’ve visited Copenhagen, I’ve enjoyed the fact that provision for pedestrians is as thoughtfully considered as the provision for cyclists. 


16: Despite it being (apparently) very commonly taught in schools and universities, it is only at the age of 34 that I’ve first heard of the “five paragraph essay”


17: The good people of Newcastle are, it seems, panic-buying chicken. 

Empty shelves

18: Snail facials are exactly what they sound like. According to Race Across the World, there are 52 species of hummingbird in Costa Rica. This came as a particular surprise to me as I thought ‘hummingbird’ was a species. I know nothing. 


19: Even a fairly crude “guy walks into a bar joke” can be a delight when it’s well written. 


20: I usually walk to work: it takes a little under an hour, which is only a little longer than it takes by Metro or car. Today I learned that if the rest of the world self-isolates, it actually only takes nine minutes to drive. 


21: Traveling from London to Mallorca by train, foot and ship is easier, but less environmentally efficient, than I’d have guessed. 


22: I’ve never thought before about the fact that escalator machinery on the London Underground wears unevenly because of “the weight of those who dutifully stand on the right”. 


23: This time three months ago, I thought it was extraordinary that a Government would remove the right of citizens to live and work in any country in the EU. Never did I imagine a British Government could remove citizens’ rights to the extent that they have to stay indoors. I’m living in extraordinary times. 


24: Most of the time, letters responding to articles in medical journals add very little. Sometimes, though, they add completely new insights which change my perspective on an issue: pointing out that health improvement interventions that go along with screening tests are usually ignored in analyses of the effectiveness of screening programmes is a great example. 


25: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Doctors


26: There’s a reason why it feels strange to walk on a stopped escalator


27: It’s been too long since I last listened to Reply All


28: “Self-sacrifice has always been an implicit part of being a doctor. It is a source of both pride and pain, and why, on the whole, doctors and nurses deserve our respect. Rarely has it been so called upon as in the covid-19 crisis.” 


29: It’s tough to be a spy in a country in covid-19 lockdown. 


30: An article by Peter Blegvad in the latest Brixton Review of Books made me think quite a lot about the relative accuracy of each of imagination, observation and memory: a theme explored in quite a few novels I’ve read, but which I don’t think I’d really considered in art before. 


31: “Pineapple is the smell of masculine.” Apparently. 

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Six reasons Sambrook is wrong about 24-hour news

Earlier in the year, Richard Sambrook (the former director of BBC News) wrote an article for The Guardian in which he argued that 24-hour news channels were no longer relevant in the modern world. This week, with news reaching The Independent that his thoughts are being taken seriously inside the BBC, I feel like it's time to put across an alternate point of view.

Here are six reasons I believe Sambrook is wrong.

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1. News channels don't need to break news first

Cable news established the 24-hour news habit, but today social media and mobile phones fulfill the instant news needs of consumers better than any TV channel can. Twitter – and increasingly live blogs of breaking news events – consistently beat 24-hour TV channels. Being first – the primary criterion for 24-hour news channels – is increasingly the least interesting and effective value they offer.

Sambrook is right to say that the ability of television channels to deliver lines of breaking news at high speed is limited in comparison to online sources, whether accessed through mobile phones or social media. But most online and social media outlets are poor at putting those lines of breaking news into context. Indeed, at present, news channels are equally poor at this.

In my vision of a news channel, a line of breaking news would appear on screen, in much the same way as it appears online. Perhaps, "Valco supermarket chain in administration". I don't need the channel to break away from whatever it is reporting to bring me this news – it can simply appear on screen. That is the benefit of the visual medium.

Then, within a short period (say within fifteen minutes or half an hour), the BBC can put one of its expert business correspondents on the air to discuss that news in context. They can tell me the relevance of this to the City, to individuals, and perhaps even bring a degree of response from their journalistic contacts.

There is no need to discuss the news immediately and constantly repeat a single line accompanied with endless speculation. Instead, the channel should wait until there is something to report, and report it in a detailed and intelligent way.

 

2. News channels needn’t conform to expensive norms

The infrastructure behind a 24-hour news channel is impressive – and formidably expensive. The biggest cost comes from having created a machine that has to be fed. Every 15 minutes we go back to our reporter in the field for an update on what's happened since the last time we visited them. Most of the time the answer is "nothing".

Going back to a reporter in the field every fifteen minutes is not only expensively, it's also irritating. There is no need to do this. There are two reasons news channels do this: to fill time, and to follow the structure of a conventional network news bulletin every half hour.

We'll return to the former, but the latter is simply farcical. There is no reason (beyond "it's what we've always done") for 24-hour news channels to follow the structure of a conventional news bulletin. There is no reason why we have to return to the same correspondent to repeat the same news every hour. This is a problem of the format, not of the medium. A much more open-ended structure is possible.

 

3. News channels needn’t carry everything live

Newsgathering becomes a sausage machine, dedicated to filling airtime. Hours a day are spent on live feeds waiting for something, anything, to happen. The editor can't risk broadcasting a different report or going live somewhere else in case he misses the start and a rival channel can claim to be "first".

Of course, there is no reason to do this other than it being what rivals do. Every Wednesday, I cringe as presenters on television and radio fill in anticipation of Prime Minister's Questions, which starts a variable number of minutes after midday. Every Wednesday, I wonder why no broadcaster has had the bright idea of scheduling a five-minute discussion previewing the content, and then starting the coverage, cleanly and professionally at 12.05, through the simple use of a few minutes' delay.

The number of people who are insistent on watching Prime Ministers' Questions absolutely live is probably tiny. I know that I, for one, would prefer to watch a slick production with informed commentary and analysis rather than an unedifying scramble every week.

 

4. News channels needn’t uselessly fill time

The need to fill airtime – and particularly the need to be seen to be live – means that in the heat of the moment questionable editorial judgments can be made. Everything seems to be "breaking news". In the last 12 months we've seen the BBC showing live pictures of an empty courtroom in the US, eagerly anticipating the sentencing of already convicted kidnapper Ariel Castro – a story of interest to few if any in the UK.

There is a need to fill airtime. There is not a need to fill airtime with live content. With 24-hours at their disposal, and with less of an emphasis on a presenter reading a single headline every time news breaks, there is much greater scope for in-depth reporting and interviews with newsmakers. Watch an hour of any 24-hour news channel, and you'll almost certainly see an interview cut short, often for no good reason. Allow these to be much more open ended, and repeat them (in edited form, with expert analysis) and much of the airtime will be filled. As with Prime Minister's Questions, make much more extensive use of live delays and on-the-fly editing to increase the standard of presentation, and to allow the programme to naturally flow.

Similarly, I can see no reason why these channels don't make the most of the available air time to show more "explainers". I think an occasional airing of an updated 15 minute background package on what's actually happening in Ukraine would be a valuable service a news channel could offer. And it would fill time at low cost.

 

5. News channels can show pre-recorded packages

The number of stories that are conveyed by live "as it happens" pictures is vanishingly small. Many stories – the economy, climate change – aren't best served by pictures; others (inside Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Zimbabwe) often don't have pictures available until days after the event; many more work better with a well crafted, tightly edited package rather than a live feed.

There is no reason for 24-hour news channels to be so focused on live pictures. Well-crafted, tightly-edited packages would be welcomed by viewers over somebody standing in the rain reporting nothing.

 

6. Sambrook's vision doesn't fulfill the BBC’s purpose

What might a reconfigured on-demand news service look like?

Sambrook's suggested on-demand news service (I haven't quoted his whole plan, for it is far too long) involves people actively participating in creating their own bulletin. This is precisely the opposite of what I believe the BBC should be doing.

We, the people, have terrible news values. The more the BBC tries to align itself with our values, the more it degrades its worth. We need to be told what we need to be told. We need experts to fight for coverage of their areas. We need to know what matters, not what we want to know. And we place our trust in the BBC to make those decisions for us.

If the BBC won't make those decisions, but will defer to us, then there is no point in the BBC existing. I can ferret out news that interests me from a wide variety of sources without the Beeb's help. And in the areas in which I have a particular interest, that's exactly what I do.

But the BBC, and its news channel, should be about expert contextualisation. It should be the outlet which says "actually, this isn't an important story, so we're not covering it in depth" more often that it says "sit up and pay attention, this is boring but important".

It should make the most of genuine experts in their field – including fields it currently covers with a laughable level of credibility, like science and technology. The BBC news channel should be the "news channel of record". It should cover things in depth and intelligently. It should not chase ratings, and it should not be in a race to read out lines of news with no context. It should not be obsessed with live coverage. It should edit, curate, and analyse.

 

 

In his analysis, Sambrook conflates the current output of news channels with the medium of news channels itself. He uses the argument that current output is poor to suggest that there should be no output. I disagree.

I think that news channels can be done better – particularly the BBC News channel, which doesn't have to answer to shareholders, and doesn't have to chase ratings. It should be held to a higher standard, and should drive the quality of 24-hour news up. The BBC should not abandon it altogether.



A version of this post also appears on Medium.

The image in this post was posted on Flickr by Ian Wright, and is used under Creative Commons licence.

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Moaning to the media

Every now and again, I find myself moaning to Sky News about some report or other they’re running, usually on a medical topic. This might put me in the same box as the green-ink angry brigade of old, but I kind of hope it doesn’t.

Sky News is normally the outlet on the receiving end of my moans because Wendy likes to watch Sunrise in the mornings, so they tend to be the ones to irk me when I’m sleepy-eyed and vulnerable. Usually, they’ve misunderstood the findings of some piece of research, or are giving advice that needs a little more nuance. Generally, I fire off an email to them, and they correct either their script or package pretty quickly, or else get back to me to explain why they won’t. I actually think I have a pretty good relationship with them.

A few years ago when the whole MTAS debacle was kicking off in the medical world, I helped Channel 4 News with some of their reporting, and also found them really helpful, willing to listen to my explanations, and good at accurate reportage.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think I’ve ever complained about a BBC News report. But then, the BBC News website published this article about the Queen’s faith role. This couldn’t be further from the stuff I’d usually moan about, but the report was based on a COMRES poll, and originally opened with the claim that 80% of the population supported the Queen’s faith role. I didn’t believe this, and so checked out the original data on the COMRES website, which revealed that 80% responded positively to a question about whether the Queen has a faith role. This is, of course, different from giving support – it’s a question of fact, and, as the Queen is the head of the Church of England, it seems pretty undeniable that she has a faith role, whether or not it’s supported.

So I fired off an email. And, within hours, the article was changed to the current version, which reports the actual survey findings more accurately. What I hadn’t anticipated, and hadn’t had from any other outlet, was that the Religion Editor gave me a call. We had a great chat in which he explained how the article had come about, how the mistake had been made, and also a general talk about the complex rules that the BBC has around commissioning surveys. This was fantastic.

So what’s my point? Essentially, any time I personally have moaned to a media outlet about a factual reporting error, I’ve received a positive response. Granted, it would be better that the mistakes weren’t there in the first place, and it’s probably true that not all sections of the media are as responsible as those I’ve been involved with.

But journalists are humans too. They make mistakes, and many of them seem happy to have these corrected. Leveson might give the impression that all journalists are unethical idiots, and Blair might think they’re feral beasts, but some journalists are just doing a bloody hard job as well as they can, with the utmost professionalism.

I know it’s not a popular view at the moment, but maybe we can consider giving journalists a break sometimes? Just a thought.

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The BBC’s future is under threat from social media

I predict that the BBC is about to enter one of the most turbulent periods in its history – and I’m not certain whether it will come out the other side in a recognisable form. The next decade may well be the one in which the licence fee becomes unsustainable.

I desperately hope this doesn’t happen. I think the Beeb is the world’s greatest broadcaster, and one of Britain’s most awesome institutions. Yet the signs are there, and I think the Beeb needs to sit up ad notice them.

The BBC’s raison d’être has always been to “inform, educate, and entertain” – and, as successive Directors General have been keen to point out – that order of priorities is crucial. In recent years, the BBC has faced real challenges with the latter two of these, but it’s about to be shaken by an impossible threat to the first.

It’s mission to “entertain” has been threatened in recent years by the approximately decennial shifts between ITV and the BBC in dominance of Saturday night TV: the last decade of Pop Idol, X Factor, I’m a Celebrity and the Talent franchise has been ITV’s. The BBC has also had real difficulty catching up with commercial operators in its engagement of young adults. And the Brand-Ross affair caused stifling restriction to creativity at the hands of “compliance”. But by and large, it seems to be finding its feet, and learning to walk through he entertainment genre again.

The aim to “educate” has been challenged by the ludicrous QueenGate scandal, where non-broadcast footage of the Queen was edited out of sequence. The BBC’s massive over-reaction probably harmed its trustworthy reputation. And the exile of almost all high-brow factual programming to the digital diaspora of BBC Four made for an excellent channel, but also for frequent accusations of dumbing-down elsewhere. And getting Jeremy flipping Vine to “host” Panorama was unforgivable – though I suspect that’s more a personal bugbear than a threat to the corporation’s future existence.

The most significant threat to the BBC has always been any threat to its news output. If it can’t reliably “inform”, then it has no core purpose. And, I think, it’s this aspect of the BBC’s purpose that is about to be shaken to its core.

The Times has declared itself many times (even, laughably, recently) to be “the newspaper of record”, and – to borrow the expression – the BBC’s news bulletins have always been the broadcast bulletins of record. The lead story on the Nine or Ten O’Clock News has always been, by definition, the “big story”. Alistair Campbell obsessed over the Labour Party’s position in the running order because he knew that closeness to the top guaranteed closeness to the top of everyone else’s running order. The BBC’s bulletins have, for many years, been the arbiter of importance in this country’s news cycle. And it is this that is under threat.

I think it was Tim Cook, though it could easily have been someone else, who described the notifications centre in. iOS 5 as compiling “your life’s breaking news”. And that is the crux of the problem. The democratisation of the media, brought about by social media as much as anything else, means we all have a “top story” now.

The BBC is forever being criticised on Twitter for not covering some story or other in huge detail – be it famines (East Africa), protests (block the bridge), or reforms (NHS). People are passionate about their pet topics, and want to see the BBC leading on them. The positive reinforcement from similarly interested people on social media reinforces individuals’ perceptions of the popularity and importance of the cause: “Everyone in my Twitter feed supports x, yet it hasn’t been on BBC News”. Folk also tend to read websites and subscribe to RSS feeds that share their own views and agenda, further reinforcing their own belief of the importance of the story. But, of course, the range of stories believed to be important across all individuals is huge.

The BBC’s traditional hierarchy of the importance of stories no longer applies to the majority of viewers. People begin to believe that the BBC is ignoring their interests, perhaps because it is biased. In fact, the interest is a small minority one, thought to be a larger one only because the individuals is surrounded by factors which positively reinforce that view.

The problem is exacerbated by BBC funding cuts, which mean that the number of stories which get any coverage at all is reduced.

Yet the BBC’s news starts to seem irrelevant, or even biased against every individual’s views. “Why cover Liam Fox / Steve Jobs / Nick Clegg, when he’s just one man? The BBC should be leading on NHS Reform / Block the Bridge / Famine / General Strike / Pensions / Finance because that affects us all, everyone’s interested in it, and it’s a really important story.”

Recently, I’ve been following NHS reform with particular interest, and felt this effect myself. There was little coverage of the Lord’s vote on the NHS reform bill, but my Twitter feed and selected websites had been covering events minute-by-minute. To me, the story seemed earth-shatteringly huge, and I had difficulty understanding why the BBC was effectively ignoring this massively important story. Except, in the grand scheme of things, it was essentially a procedural Lords discussion about a Bill progressing through Parliament. There was a popular campaign to block it which never had the scent of success, and by the end of the day, we knew little that we didn’t know at the start. Yet to me, this story remained huge, and the BBC’s lack of coverage felt disenfranchising.

As more people embrace social media, and as news sources fragment into finer and finer grain communities, the gap between the stories the BBC’s website and flagship bulletins see as important and the stories we as individuals see as important will turn from a crack into a gulf. People will question the purpose of the BBC, and struggle to see its importance. “If the BBC can’t even cover x properly, then what’s the point?”

If trust in the BBC’s news is eroded like this, then it’s unique funding stream becomes increasingly difficult to defend – especially in recessionary times. And in a decade which looks certain to be dominated by the Tories, who is going to stick up for it politically?

For the BBC to survive, it needs to change its news output. A homepage which “learns” about your interests and prioritises its news hierarchy appropriately might be the beginnings of a start.  But how the BBC can possibly reflect the conflicting priorities of millions of people in a meaningful way against a shrinking budget is beyond me – and that’s why I fear for its future.

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