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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, , , , , .

Calmness is key

Jonathan Moules recently wrote in the FT about the British Library’s ongoing response to a significant cyber attack. The piece focused on the role of the Chief Executive Officer, Roly Keating.

I have no inside knowledge about what happened at the British Library. It is perfectly plausible that the Library’s public face on the events might not truly reflect the experience of the staff working for the organisation. In addition, the piece is light on accountability for the (assumed) security lapses which led to the attack in the first place. Nevertheless, as a profile of a senior leader responding to an incident, a few things stood out to me.

Firstly, I admired Keating’s calmness. Moules explicitly describes him as ‘calm’ and ‘softly-spoken’, but it was Keating’s declaration that ‘I’m a believer in eight hours’ sleep’ that stood out to me.

When big things happen, it is second nature to panic and rush headlong into responding. The more one panics, the more urgent tasks appear to become. Teams must work ever-increasing hours at an ever-increasing pace until they inevitably burn out. This is a pattern I’ve seen more times in my career than I’d care to count.

The secret to things going well is for the person leading the response to remain calm. This takes considerable training and enormous effort in the moment. It usually requires disappointing people who are panicking: it might mean declining requests for hourly updates from people with every right to ask for them. It often means slowing the response down, acting on the insight that doing the right thing at a medium pace is considerably better than doing the wrong thing quickly. Most of all, it means projecting calmness and control.

Keating says, ‘This was a situation we had thought about, we had rehearsed.’

You can almost hear those words as the opening to the initial ’emergency meeting’ that Keating chaired. It’s easy to understand how they would imbue a sense of calm among those attending. It’s reassurance that, while this situation is unprecedented, it isn’t unexpected. It’s just time to follow the plan.

And that’s the second thing that stood out to me: they had a plan, and more importantly, the person leading the response knew they had a plan, had confidence in it, and followed it. This shouldn’t be surprising, yet it is frighteningly common to find people trying to lead incidents who are either unaware of the plan or disregard it.

Of course, having rehearsed the plan is a great help in enabling a sense of calm, so this is self-reinforcing. Yet, it’s not uncommon to hear of senior leaders who fail to prioritise preparation for unlikely contingencies, thereby shooting themselves in the foot.

The final thing—and it’s hard to know how much of this is down to Moules’s writing—is the clarity of thought in the response. Keating uses plain English in describing ‘an emergency meeting with library executives and the security team’, not some opaque jargon like ‘establishing an incident response cell.’ Moules talks about ‘articulating choices’, not ‘developing an options appraisal’.

It was an article that gave me a little bit of hope.

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

Reading and leading

In the Financial Times earlier this week, Professor Margaret Heffernan made a startling claim:

I have yet to meet a chief executive who reads regularly.

She means, essentially, reading for pleasure—not reading reports and so forth as part of their role.

Many skip newspapers, and magazines are a stretch. They don’t have time, they say. It’s inefficient; they can get the information they need from those around them.

As well as citing lots of evidence around the benefits of reading, Heffernan observes that reading broadly provides perspective.

Fiction invites you to loiter unseen in the lives of others. We are living through a golden age of translation too, so you can go anywhere in time or place.

The idea that modern complexity is new is swiftly put to rest by the rich brew of voices, perspectives and disciplines that see human history through a spinning kaleidoscope.

Heffernan’s article made me reflect on several things.

Firstly, I disagree a little with her evangelism. I derive considerable benefit from reading, but a large part of that is because I enjoy it. Reading isn’t for everyone. There are other ways of seeking diverse voices and transporting our minds elsewhere.

That said, reading is an enjoyable and effective way to reach those goals. Many people who don’t think they enjoy reading just haven’t yet found their groove, often because they pick up the books they feel they ‘ought to’ read rather than ones they ‘want to’ read. The specifics of what people read are less important than the benefits that come from being swept up and transported to an entirely different view of the world.

Secondly, I’m surprised that so few chief executives read. There’s a surprising overlap between literature and medicine, and it’s common to hear casual book recommendations from senior people in their fields. I’m surprised that this doesn’t extend to the world of business.

Expertise in both medicine and business requires good pattern recognition. Books allow us to live through many more experiences than could be packed into a lifetime and to distil the patterns and lessons from them. I’m surprised to hear that this isn’t recognised in business.

Thirdly, my surprise is tempered by the reflection that the revelation feels true.

In one of the places I’ve worked, a corporate line seemed to catch on about it being a ‘huge organisation’. This wasn’t true: it was smaller than most in its field. I challenged this with executives so often that I ended up with a text file saved on my desktop full of numerically accurate comparisons I could quote whenever necessary.

I’ve worked for organisations whose senior leaders claimed them to be ‘world-beating’, and I’ve wondered which world they lived in.

Wendy and I have come to admire the journalist Sophy Ridge for her pluck, often remarking to political and business interviewees, ‘Come on, you don’t honestly believe that, do you?’

On reflection, all these are about the same thing: a lack of broad perspective. If all executives ever engage in is their tiny sliver of the world, then of course they will believe the unbelievable and of course they will misunderstand their organisation’s place in the world.

Reflecting on what I’ve seen about the lack of perspective many executives possess, I should have intuited that few of them read. Perhaps we ought to hope that things might change.

This post was filed under: Things I've learned, , .

One man’s trash

It’s a few weeks old, but this article about the luxury carrier bag caught my eye. It’s by Helen Barrett of the Financial Times.

In particular, this paragraph widened my eyes:

A curious parallel market has emerged in used luxury product packaging on sites such as eBay, where large paper Céline carriers are listed for about £25 each. According to recent research by the credit broker Money, empty Louis Vuitton boxes sell for an average price of £74. You could argue such a market is absurd, but in satisfying demand, it is entirely rational.

I had no idea that this market existed. I recently donated an old radio to a charity shop in a spare yellow box from a certain Italian perfumer, for no better reason than to keep the power adapter and the radio together. A quick search on eBay reveals that the going rate for the box is a multiple of that for the radio. I have posted back library books in boxes worth more than the price of the postage and the books combined.

The value of boxes was news to me, but it wasn’t shocking. It’s not unusual for me to see a second-hand shop or a market stall and to comment to Wendy that I would have binned everything they were selling if it were in my house. I’m bad at recognising the intrinsic value of stuff I think of as rubbish.

I’m the opposite of a hoarder: I like to get rid of stuff. If you like, call me William Morris (‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’) or Marie Kondo (I fold my socks but, regrettably, I don’t talk to my backpack). Wendy has, shall we say, different preferences. Hopefully, our approach is happily balanced overall.

I’ve made an effort over the past year to offer more stuff to charity shops rather than sticking it straight in the recycling, partly—if I’m frank—because of the tax-based financial incentive. But I’m sure there’s a lot, like the boxes, where I don’t recognise the value and could try to do better.

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

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

Sarah de Lagarde fell on to the Tube tracks. Nobody helped. Why?

Sometimes, a newspaper story just takes my breath away, and a great example was published online yesterday: The Financial Times story about Sarah de Lagarde’s horrific accident on the Tube last year. This is partly because it’s a story that I’d completely missed previously, and because the story itself is so alarming, but it’s also attributable to Madison Marriage’s brilliant writing.

I would have guessed that people falling between a train and a platform was an exceptionally rare event: it’s the stuff of nightmares. To find out that it happens on the Underground every other day feels alarming, even considering the huge number of journeys.

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

I like Sunak’s confidence

Writing for the Financial Times yesterday, George Parker and Lucy Fisher said:

Next year, Sunak will ask the public at a general election to trust the Tories with another five years in power. Even many in his own party believe he is doomed to fail, that he will be dragged under by the legacy of 13 years of Conservative rule: public sector austerity, Brexit, the chaos and lies of Boris Johnson, the Covid-19 lockdown parties and the economic meltdown of Truss’s brief tenure.

Nonetheless, Sunak remains bullish about his chances of defying the sceptics, with the economy faring better and inflation coming under control. A revamped Number 10 operation is determined to deliver a fifth consecutive Tory election victory. “He really believes he can do it,” says one Downing Street insider.

I think—and hope—Sunak is wrong. I don’t think the Government he leads represents the best group of people to run the country. But Sunak’s confidence gives me optimism.

I worry that Sunak’s best chance of retaining power is a snap, single-issue election in the next handful of months, the issue being the European Convention on Human Rights. A pretext can be manufactured easily, and may even be handed on a plate by a Supreme Court decision that deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda contravenes the Convention. The fact that withdrawal would be controversial provides a strong pretext for “putting it to the people” at a general election. It’s not hard to imagine the right-wing press campaigning fervently in support: “you might not like everything about the Tories, but this is our one opportunity to get this done.” It’s also not hard to imagine that message cutting through.

The logic of enacting this plan this autumn is also straightforward: Sunak can argue that he is “making progress” on his “priorities” and it bounces Labour onto the turf on which they are currently least comfortable, before they’ve worked out their election position. With the press behind them, the Conservatives can define the terms of the debate and largely keep the election as a single-issue vote.

The most dangerous thing for a party heading to an election is ennui introduced by low expectations. The clear narrative based on polling is that Labour is on course to win the next election. The best way to suspend those expectations is by doing something unexpected: calling an early election and redefining the terms of that election to something where the majority view is less clear-cut. Suddenly, the narrative becomes that “it’s all to play for”—inflating the perception of the popularity of the Conservative vote.

This would be a horrible thing to happen. It would spark a distressingly toxic debate and—by definition—give voice to some of our most inhumane tendencies. For what it’s worth, I also don’t think it would work: I don’t think moderate Conservatives would fall into line, I don’t think this sort of campaign would energise large sections of their base, and I think Labour would find ways to cut through with strong ‘change’ messages. This ‘nuclear option’ might be Sunak’s best shot, but I still think it’s a long shot.

If Sunak “really believes” he can win conventionally, then this bet—not to mention the damage it could do to Sunak’s reputation and future earning potential—is not worth the risk. And if Sunak’s confidence avoids us taking a disastrous path, then it’s hard not to like it.

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

Email mountains are awful; some of the alternatives are worse

Pilita Clark’s column in the FT this week was about being overwhelmed by email.

We have reached the point where the benefits of communication are being outweighed by a dispiriting loss of production.

This was confirmed by a Microsoft report last month that found workers around the world are struggling to keep up with a “crush of data, information and always-on communications”.

The research showed people are spending 57 per cent of their workday on email, meetings and other communication but just 43 per cent on productive creation.

I worry that the solution to this view of the problem actually makes things worse. In my own area of work, there is a constant push—for example—to replace written reports with online ‘dashboards.’ This would, no doubt, shift the classification of the work from being ‘communication’ to something ‘productive’, even though the actual task that is being accomplished is the same thing—just often less efficiently, because dashboards often lack clear commentary and so require lots of people to consider data separately to reach the same conclusion. The communication becomes less efficient, but feels more ‘productive’.

I think the “crush of data” is the bigger problem than the deluge of emails. We’ve reached a strange point where people have concluded that data is transparency, whereas it is often actually obfuscation. I can, in no time at all, produce statistics on the number of notified cases of certain infectious diseases. But this explains very little: declining cases might be a ‘bad thing’ if they are likely to reflect poor access to healthcare or a problem with testing. Increasing cases might be a ‘good thing’ if they reflect work done to target high-risk populations. A dashboard is often much less helpful than an explanatory paragraph, even if one of those things looks ‘productive’ and the other looks like ‘communication’.

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

This post was filed under: Technology, , .

Elif Shafak on the earthquake

Elif Shafak is an extraordinary writer. Her books The Island of Missing Trees and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World were lyrical, beautiful, and brilliant.

She is also Turkish, and she wrote this weekend’s FT Weekend Essay on the subject of last week’s devastating earthquake, which hit south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria. Her excoriating essay, which makes the point that inequality and government corruption have proven to be more deadly than nature alone, is well worth your time.

They have never learnt from the sorrows and mistakes of the past. They have never let go of their hubris. Greed and cronyism have been the dominant guidelines.

There is so much anger, so much sorrow. Whether we are in Turkey or across the diaspora, we oscillate between grief and rage. One minute we are crying uncontrollably, another minute burning with outrage, consumed by a sense of brokenness.

Today, I walked past a tribute on the side of the street with pictures of some of those killed in this disaster. A solo violinist played nearby, taking donations to the relief effort. The pain is worsened by Shafak’s description of how government decisions have contributed to the suffering and death.

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

Five links worth clicking

The fourth in an occasional series of posts listing things I’ve enjoyed on the web recently.

As the lock rattles

This is a bit of a cheat because I read it in the paper LRB rather than online. John Lanchester’s article on the pandemic is well worth reading for both its detailed analysis and its snark about our wholly unable Prime Minister.

It isn’t always possible to draw a straight line from someone’s personal life to their public works. Johnson’s private life is his business. But one thing you can say about a man responsible for at least nine pregnancies by at least four different women is that he is prone to wishful thinking. That wishful thinking is the common theme in the government’s failures from spring 2020 to autumn 2020 to now. Johnson doesn’t want certain things to be true, so he acts as if they can be ignored. That strategy has worked for him in domestic politics. It was at the heart of his advocacy for Brexit. But it doesn’t work in economics, and it doesn’t work in dealing with a pandemic.

Lanchester’s discussion of the topic on the LRB podcast is also worth a listen.

Things fell apart

I listen to quite a lot of speech radio, but without wanting to disappoint Auntie, I have been a bit of a BBC Sounds refusenik. It’s a stupidly named service with a hard-to-navigate app that has never seemed relevant to my life.

Yet, when searching for something completely unrelated online recently, I discovered that Jon Ronson had made a radio series for BBC Sounds, which has also had an edited run on Radio 4. The series began in November, and despite being a fan of Ronson’s work and therefore presumably within the target market, the Beeb’s marketing didn’t reach me until after it had finished, but the whole series remains available.

Once I knew it existed, I enjoyed this series. Each episode investigates the ‘origin’ of a particular aspect of the ‘culture wars’, which sounds tedious, but with Ronson’s gentle humour and humanity, it becomes a collection of interestingly strange and moving tales.

Not a drill

The relationship of the USA to guns is one that always feels difficult to grasp from a British perspective. This chilling Atlantic article from Nicole Chung describes her experience of a receiving a text from her 13-year-old daughter in the middle of the morning telling her that she is sheltering at school as there is an active shooting threat.

I was in high school when Thurston and Columbine happened, which means I was in high school before it occurred to me that I could be shot in my school. This knowledge is something that American schoolkids of all ages live with now. My 13-year-old has been participating in shooter drills since she was 3 years old—though when she was younger, her teachers couched them in vague, less frightening terms. I remember the day she came home from preschool and told me, “We practiced what to do in case someone is in the school who shouldn’t be.” She described her teacher locking the doors, turning off the lights, and herding all the students into a small bathroom, where they were told to sit still and stay “very, very quiet.” “It was hard. We weren’t very quiet,” she admitted.

This is one of those articles that just stopped me in my tracks.

Clinical negligence reform is an ethical and financial necessity

Ian Kennedy’s suggestion for reform of the NHS approach to clinical negligence, as published in Prospect, is clear and convincing.

The crux of the approach is this: we should separate the needs of the patient from the conduct of the professional/institution.

I’d struggle to mount a convincing argument against.

‘Daddy isn’t coming back’: surviving my partner’s suicide

There isn’t a line in Manuela Saragossa’s FT story that isn’t worth your time, but this one particularly spoke to me:

The meds were to treat schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar, the worst of both terrible worlds. In Steve’s case, his illness manifested as persistent delusions, mania and depression.

“It’s just in your mind,” I would tell him, uselessly, after an episode, once the volume had turned down on the recurring, persecutory thoughts that tormented him. “My mind is all I have,” he would rightly reply.

This is a moving and direct account of living with a partner with severe mental illness, and coming to terms with his untimely death. In another universe, I’m a psychiatrist: I came very close to applying for specialty training in psychiatry, before opting for public health. I don’t think I would have been all that good at it, in retrospect.

This post was filed under: Five links worth clicking, , , , , , , , , , .

Five links worth clicking

The second in an occasional series of posts listing things I’ve enjoyed on the web recently.

What does Fluffy think?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a strong attachment to animals: it’s just not a feature of my personality. I like a cute fluffy panda, but wouldn’t want one in my garden. And I struggle to even imagine the sort of attachment that causes people to risk their own health by continuing to live with their TB-riddled cat or a budgerigar which is destroying their lungs.

So, what of those who enjoy sexual relationships with animals? And where is the intersection between artificial insemination of farm animals and, well, insemination for pleasure? And in the context of society accepting the killing of animals on an industrial scale for food, why is using them for sexual gratification judged to be so much worse?

While sex with ‘companion animals’ — dogs (canophilia), cats (aelurophilia) and horses (equinophilia) — is the most prevalent form of human-animal sex, humans are also known to engage sexually with donkeys, goats, pigs, sheep, cows, chickens, turkeys, hamsters, dolphins, eels, octopuses and (less commonly) camels, deer, llamas, bulls, boars and gorillas. Sexual attraction to certain creatures is common enough to have a scientific name: mice (musophilia), birds (ornithophilia), spiders (arachnephilia), bees (melissophilia) and snakes (ophidiophilia).

Bees?! Amia Srinivasan’s article for the LRB is eye-popping, educational and insightful all at once.

Met averse

In his Galaxy Brain newsletter, Charlie Worzel does an outstanding job of writing thoughfully about new technology. So much of technology journalism is characterised by an apparently cool ‘snarky’ tone these days that it’s refreshing to read those who consider the issues.

In this edition, Charlie analyses his own fairly sceptical reaction to Facebook’s recent presentation of its ‘Metaverse’. Each section is interesting in its own way, including his quotation of Jason Koebler’s article setting out the less pleasant things happening on Facebookat the same time as the promotional presentation. Yet, Charlie’s final conclusion was most interesting to me, particularly coming from a technology journalist:

It is rational to be skeptical of new frontiers in innovation — not because you reflexively hate progress or think that the world ought to be frozen in amber here in 2021 (ew) — because we are drowning in evidence of what happens when we let people with narrow, hastily deployed visions of a technological future impose their visions on the rest of us.

I hope we can resist the urge to reduce conversations about the future of the internet down to Luddite vs. Expanding Brain Futurist. It’s a binary that serves few interests except of those who already have the power and means to create these new frontiers in their image. Flattening the conversation in this way almost ensures that our future technologies are designed by a select few — many of the same people that are in charge right now. We all know how that’s worked out.

It seems to me that his point about the need to resist false binary distinctions which serve only those who already have power is a lesson that extends far beyond technology writing.

Lunch with the FT: Brenda Hale

John Gapper’s interview with the former President of the Supreme Court is one of those rare interviews that made me buy the book it promoted (Hale’s autobiography).

We consult the menu. “I can’t bear soft-boiled eggs,” she remarks of the starter I am pondering, and I ask why.

“I just don’t like them. You don’t have to have rational reasons for your food likes and dislikes,” she exclaims.

The interview sparkles from start to finish, with a delicious combination of fearless insight, genuine emotion and intelligent discussion of some challenging legal issues of our time, from prorogation of Parliament to transgender rights.


When your publication starts articles with a dropped cap, how do you cope when the first letter of the article is a “Q” and its descender is messing up the page layout?

I can honestly say I’ve never given this a moment’s thought, but Ben Campbell has both recent experience and a wealth of historical precedent to share in his article for the LRB blog.

Very small problems that occur infrequently are doomed to remain unresolved.

But Ben Campbell has given it a go.

A once-quiet battle to replace the space station suddenly is red hot

I had a vague notion that the current space station was nearing the end of its life. Until I read Eric Berger’s Ars Technica article, I hadn’t really given any thought to the fact that its replacement—or replacements—will probably be private rather than public constructions.

Although nothing has been formalized, a general consensus has emerged among the international partners that the International Space Station can probably keep flying through 2028 or 2030. But after that? NASA realizes it needs a succession plan.

Politicians and policymakers have started employing the spectre of the dreaded “g” word, saying NASA must avoid a “gap” in flying a low-Earth-orbit space station. This has become especially urgent with China’s recent, successful launch of its own Tiangong space station in April. In response to these concerns, NASA has hatched a plan. Recognizing the maturing US commercial space industry, NASA intends to become an “anchor tenant” of one or more privately developed space stations.

This is one of those articles which is so interesting, that even some below-the-line comments are worth reading. I was particularly interested, for example, to understand why the plan was to build a whole new station rather than just replace modules on the current construction.

This post was filed under: Five links worth clicking, , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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