Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Communication breakdown

LIKE a lot of businesses these days, including NatWest bank, mine has become totally dependent on new technology. Using the world-wide web enables me to gather information, reconfigure it to suit my customers and then send it by e-mail, anywhere around the globe. So when a worker driving a bulldozer to dig a trench across a field opposite my house cut through the BT cable, my business came to an immediate halt. The Internet as well as business and home landlines ceased to work, as you would expect. That wasn’t BT’s fault. But what happened next gave an interesting insight into the thinking processes of Britain’s exclusive IT communications company. Unless you use a satellite supplier, your internet, and of course your telephone landline, come down BT Network’s cables. So I rang 151 on my mobile, as I remembered it as the BT Engineer’s number. I got Vodafone, my mobile provider. The Vodafone technician used the web to try to find a BT phone number for me, but could only come up with internet solutions, obviously no good as I had no internet. I eventually found a number in the phone book which I recognized as the old engineer’s number 151, but with a 0800 prefix. I rang it. I was told by an English sounding recorded message that my call would be recorded for training purposes. I was then told by a different, Scottish-sounding, recorded message that I would be charged 14p a minute for the call and invited to ring another number which might be cheaper. I declined and stuck with the 151. I was told by a third recorded message that they were busy and would I prefer to report my fault on-line. As I had no internet this was not possible. After listening for 20 times to the same advice, I was starting to get angry. An hour later the phone was answered by a human being with an Asian sub-continent accent on a very poor line. By then my mobile was low on charge, so he was having trouble hearing me too. We shouted at each other across the ether. Then I made a dreadful error. I tried to be helpful and told him about the bulldozer and the cable. He said in that case I had to ring a different number belonging to the strangely named Open Reach Network 3rd Party Damage Report Team. This I did reluctantly. Then I got another set of recorded voice messages about 0800 being expensive, would I like to ring another number, and that I couldn’t use this number to report faults or broadband service interruption. But that was the number my BT friend had told me to ring, so what was I supposed to do? I stuck with it. After more recorded messages about them being busy, I finally got though to another human being. She told me I had to ring BT engineers to report the fault! I screamed. I then tried to remain calm enough to explain events so far. She said it wasn’t her fault but she only dealt with health and safety issues. It was her job to make sure there was no danger to the public, but faults had to be reported to my provider. But my provider is BT, and BT owns Open Reach, I argued. But Open Reach is not allowed to give BT customers preference and Oftel insists they refer me back to BT engineers, she countered. She said I shouldn’t have told the engineers about the damage. What is more, she added helpfully, if Open Reach repaired the cable that didn’t mean the fault would be fixed. That was up to the BT engineers. I screamed again. Then I called BT Engineers again. This time I didn’t mention the damage. I was put onto an automatic system that told me they were checking the line and would I like to report it on-line. As I was talking to a recorded message, I couldn’t explain that they were wasting their time. I knew there was a fault and no, I couldn’t go on-line BECAUSE MY CABLE WAS SEVERED! Besides if I had told them that they would probably have told me to ring health and safety again. So I kept quiet and waited. Another quarter of an hour later, I was told there was a fault. You, dear reader, should now understand that this was not a surprise to me. They then said that I could be kept up to date by text messages, to which I agreed. So I got a text, then a phone call from Open Reach, telling me again that they were worried about health and safety. It would take a couple of hours for a man to come from Liverpool “to assess the damage” but the cable might not be repaired until tomorrow. And no, that didn’t mean the fault would be fixed. I then got three texts from Vodafone asking me to rate the level of service. I hope BT do the same. I then received a phone call from Open Reach in Liverpool, asking me to tell them if the damaged cable was a danger to the public. I didn’t think so, but if I told them that, they would put us off to later, so I said I wasn’t able to make that judgment for them. The Scouser was obviously not happy at my lack of co-operation. He said he would have to spend extra money getting someone out. In the circumstances, I didn’t dissuade him. I then got a text message from BT saying they would try to fix the fault by 5pm the following day. Oh, and by the way, the text told me to track progress on-line. Aaaaaaargh! Four hours after the original incident an Open Reach turned up, but not to repair the cable, never mind fix the fault, but to assess the danger. He put a triangular fence with red and white tape round the damaged cable and left it unrepaired. That was end of day one. Day two an Open Reach engineer turned up and fixed the cable and fault by 10 a.m. So in the end BT’s various companies did quite well in the circumstances. If they want advice on human communication, as opposed to IT, then I know where they can get it. That’s what my business does.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Upbeat police and media relations

LORD Leveson, the judge heading the inquiry into press standards, has said he hopes tighter rules on police and media relations will not stop beat bobbies tipping off local reporters. Well, put out the flags, bang the big drum and three cheers for his Lordship. But don’t assume that his words of wisdom will lead to a restoration of the sort of working relationship that used to benefit society. Lord Leveson said it was obviously important that neighbourhood police officers should be able to speak to local press about events, pass on good news stories, raise concerns, seek witnesses and other material that helps glue communities together. “It seems to me sensible that everything one can do to encourage that sort of contact is worthwhile,” he said. He seemed to find a sympathetic ear in The Home Secretary Theresa May who responded: “The important thing is for officers to know where the line is drawn between who they are able to speak to and what they are able to say in those conversations.” She added: “It shouldn’t have a chilling effect but I think what’s important is that we have a framework that doesn’t have a chilling effect and a framework that enables common sense to be operated in these relationships.” “I think it’s trying to apply common sense to the relationship the police should have with the media,” she added. Mrs May has received guidance from police chiefs which recommends that officers should not accept gifts, gratuities or hospitality except those of “trivial nature”. The Assocation of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) has suggested allowing officers to receive only “light refreshments” during meetings with reporters, seemingly ruling out lavish lunches. Previously forces drew up their own guidelines, with wide divisions in what was deemed acceptable. The new guidance calls for more robust decision-making and recommends that forces should have a single register of gifts and hospitality governed by the head of professional standards. It calls for a “shift to blanket non-acceptability save for a certain circumstances and a common-sense approach to the provision of a light refreshments and trivial and inexpensive gifts of bona fide and genuine gratitude from victims and communities”. The guidance continues: “One extreme can properly be considered to be a breach of criminal law (the Bribery Act 2010) through to the low-level hospitality which could in no way be considered as a breach of integrity on any party involved.” Mrs May said: “I think that is a sensible approach that is being taken by Acpo in an attempt to find a greater consistency. “What’s important isn’t that they have a single force register but that everybody knows that there is a general belief that they shouldn’t be taking gifts, gratuities and hospitality, except where they are of a more trivial nature.” The real obstacle to a sensible approach, however, is the control freak tendency of senior police officers with their armies of press officers, public relations experts and marketing departments. If, instead, they trained officers to tell the media what is going on, leave editing material to the trained journalists and their legal advisers, encourage relationships built on trust and mutual support, with nothing more than an occasional cup of tea or pint of beer involved, then it would make for a more honest, open and helpful attitude. The ultimate beneficiaries would be the public, with fast dissemination of information leading to apprehension of villains, traffic updates and hazard warnings. If Leveson’s inquiry leads to this then it might have been worth a smidgeon of its time and cost, at least.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Reaching the parts

THIS week we were presented with the results of research of the sort that has us crying out loud: “I could have told you that.” Nevertheless I cheered when I read it. The startling result was that sales of national newspapers increase when editions carry more regional content. Hallelujah! It may be blindingly obvious, but it is a lesson that the National Press would do well to take to heart. Their circulations have plummeted by roughly a half over the last ten years, with everything from round-the-clock TV news to lifestyles to the Internet blamed. But a factor far less discussed is that the accountants have taken over the board-rooms. They look at the cost of running teams of staff reporters in the regions and deem them surfeit to requirements. Offices have been closed and reporters, many of them experienced journalists who learned their trade on regional titles, made redundant. The result is that the papers have become more London-centric and driven by agendas remote and irrelevant to the vast majority of readers. Newspapers have opted for the easy political fare and celebrity news, easier to garner in the capital, and ignored real stories about real people living in the parts of the country where newspapers are still read. If you doubt this analysis, then look at the comparative resilience of the Scottish media. North of the border they still produce newspapers that reject the London bias, and their sales have held up far better than their English counterparts. From Liverpool to Norwich and Newcastle to Southampton there will be readers crying out for better representation of stories from their regions. So The Sun is to be commended for finally realising the error of their ways and confirming they will re-open their Manchester offices. It has promoted Northern correspondent Guy Patrick to Northern News Editor to lead a seven-strong team, which includes deputy Northern news editor Richard Moriaty and Northern features editor Jane Atkinson, alongside four reporters: Andrew Chamberlain, Rachel Dale, Emma Foster and Lauren Veevers. It was discredited Sun editor Rebekah Brooks who closed the paper’s old Manchester office in 2004 with the loss of ten jobs. But she was only one of many. Even a newspaper with as strong a Manchester connection as The Guardian acted similarly. Northen Editors and correspondents have been biting the dust consistently over the last few years. Now along comes the research and guess what? It finds the more regional content The Sun has, the more copies it sells. Well blow me down with a feather. Next it will be research proving ursine defecation usually happens in the trees and the Catholic tendency of Popes. But let all of us with an interest in the future of newspapers in general, and their regional content in particular, rejoice.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A right royal suspect

THANKS to Prince Charles and a soggy day in the Lake District, I now know what it is like to be an Asian or Arab-looking young man in Great Britain today.
I was today corralled, questioned and, despite my best efforts, intimidated by three of Scotland Yard’s finest undercover special forces. No doubt they were armed.
I think I was guilty of being provocatively dressed, in that I was wearing a mackintosh and a ridiculous wide-brimmed Lake District rain hat, useful for keeping the wet stuff off my note-book as I went about my daily business gathering news.
Not being in the main-stream media these days, I no longer get gilded letters from Buckingham Palace or notifications from Press Association when there is a royal visit pending. Nor am I admitted to the enclave of local dignitaries who swarm to such occasions to savour the scent of glamour which still attaches to the Royal family.
But I do keep my ear to the ground and when I found out Prince Charles was visiting the Lake District, I decided to tag along, to watch the watchers and chat to those he had graced with his presence afterwards to see if he said anything of interest I could sell to the National or regional media.
His first port of call was Staveley Mill Yard, just outside Kendal, where he went to the local baker, furniture maker and Hawkshead brewery, the owner of which is a former BBC radio correspondent Alex Brodie.
So having got the lie of the land from Alex, I went down to the Mill Yard and watched the local school-children, villagers and business people wave their flags and put on the semblance of a Royal welcome.
I had a leisurely coffee in the excellent Wilf’s cafe, waiting for the razzmatazz to die down before moving in for my mop-up exercise.
It was proving to be pretty boring. Even Alex was struggling to find an angle for his press release.
So I headed back towards my car in the yard car park. It was then I became aware of being followed, then hailed by three burly men.
They looked like slightly seedy, past their best, rugby players, or bookmakers perhaps. I stopped, turned to face them and put on my most disarming smile.
For a fleeting second I wandered if I was going to be mugged. But instead one of them explained, in a Durham accent, that they were from the Royal Protections squad. Two of them produced Metropolitan police identity cards.
They explained that I had been behaving oddly, by which I assume they meant I hadn’t been standing in the rain waving a pathetic union flag at some strange man in a limousine.
They demanded to see my business card and credit card, wanted to know what I was doing and for whom. Could I prove I was who I said I was? They wanted to know my birth date.
They took my car registration number and the smallest of the three, a cockney, started taking copious notes. These turned out to be my description.
The third man, the red-haired silent one, whose idea of camouflage was to wear a rugby shirt with a badge saying Cumbria RU, got on his mobile phone to some central data-base to check me out.
I thought I was about to be frisked and told to bend over the bonnet of my car for a good seeing to, but disappointingly they seemed satisfied by my generally relaxed demeanour and explanations.
I told them I had been on the verge of leaving as there was no story for me to report until they turned up. It was a joke as the media would not really be interested in Royal protectors doing their jobs.
But the note-taker seemed bolstered by the idea. He puffed up his chest and said “you gonna write ‘baht us, then.” “Might do,” said I, not wanting to give ground in the intimidation games. He actually seemed pleased.
There are two ways of looking at this episode. You can see it as an example of the terrorism-obsessed forces of law and order picking on a law-abiding citizen with a view to intimidating him. Or you can relax easier in your bed knowing that the Royal family is being well protected.
They were polite. Their guns were hidden. I came to no harm.
I suspect other innocent people get a far less civilised inquisition, even in this country, particularly if they are from a group, some members of which are seen to be a threat.
But despite my natural confidence and experience of such matters, there will be a small part of me wondering if I will get a knock on the door in the next couple of days.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Press freedom under threat

THOSE people who are rubbing their hands in glee at the plight of the established media may like to reflect on the fact that the United Kingdom has dropped nine places in the 2011/12 Press Freedom index.
The UK now stands at its joint lowest position since the survey was first carried out in 2002, standing at 28th, falling below the likes of Cape Verde and Namibia, the first two African countries to break into the top 20.
The campaign group Reporters without Borders, which compiles the survey, blames the UK’s “archaic” libel laws, which “threaten freedom of reporting”. the Leveson Inquiry and the London riots.
The accompanying report added: “[The UK] caused concern with its approached to the protection of privacy and its response to the London riots. Despite universal condemnation, the UK also clings to a surreal law that allows the entire world to come and sue news media before it courts.”
Citing the impact of the London riots, RWB said it was “worried” about co-operation between the BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) and the police after the company provided Scotland Yard with information about a number of BlackBerry users following the disturbances.
RWB claimed this “jeopardised” their personal data.
The rankings are based on a country’s score in a 44-question survey covering areas including violence against journalists, censorship laws and freedom of the internet.
As has been the case in each of the surveys put together over the past decade, Scandinavian countries dominate the top of the table, with Finland and Norway taking joint top spot this year.
Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan make up the bottom three for the seventh year in a row.
This year’s figures also drop the United States 27 places to 47th, after some journalists were arrested during coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
The report concludes: “Never has Freedom of Information been so closely associated with democracy. Never have journalists, through their reporting, vexed the enemies of freedom so much. Never have acts of censorship and physical attacks on journalists seemed so numerous.”
The timing of this report was apposite with Sun associate editor Trevor Kavanagh warning that journalists arrested in this country, including five of his colleagues, and questioned by police have done no more than “act as journalists have acted on all newspapers throughout the ages, unearthing stories that shape our lives, often obstructed by those who prefer to operate behind closed doors.”
The five Sun staff journalists arrested at the weekend were questioned on suspicion of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office.
There are a couple of dozen laws that are routinely used in Britain to curtail Press Freedom, but this charge is an offence so obscure that there is not one word about it in the 2009 edition of journalists’ media law bible McNae’s. So no journalist could reasonably be expected to know anything about it.
It’s an ancient offence under common law, rather than legislation, and dates back to 1783.
Doubts have been expressed about whether the charge of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office can even apply to journalists. The idea behind the charge is to police public officials, not journalists.
Dominic Ponsford, Editor of the media industry’s trade magazine, Press Gazette, wrote: “I suppose technically that is a conspiracy to leak out secret information, but we would live in a strange and dark place if that sort of behaviour was made illegal.
“Proof that we are already living in unsettling times is given by the fact that News Corp – previously a staunch defender of press freedom – is providing the ‘evidence’ of the crimes against these journalists without a fight, or any discussion with those under suspicion about whether they had a public interest defence.
“Most journalists would, as Mail editor Paul Dacre might put it, die in a ditch to protect the anonymity of their sources. Yet News Corp is apparently serving them up on a plate to the police without any fight.”
One of the Sun journalists arrested as part of a police corruption probe has been questioned about an expense claim for £50 spent on taking two policemen to lunch, according to The Times.
Police are understood to be acting on information found in a cache of 300 million emails, expense claims, phone records and other documents which News Corp’s Management and Standards Committee has been analysing.
I left Fleet Street 28 years ago because I was uncomfortable with its ethics and culture, but I would not feel any less uncomfortable living in a country where Media freedom was so curtailed that journalists were too intimidated to do their jobs.
Lord Leveson will require the wisdom of Solomon to do his job. He also needs to be brave enough to resist pressure from those expecting his inquiry to introduce even more legislation to further muzzle the media.
If the police had applied properly the laws that already exist, there would be no bribery of their officers or hacking of mobile telephones to investigate.
Sources: The Guardian, Press Gazette and The Times.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Mail boss reinvents union code

Somewhere in a box or drawer I have a memo from Paul Dacre wishing me well in my career. He wrote it when I quit the Daily Mail as a regular casual.
This was back in 1984 when I was appointed deputy editor of The Bedfordshire Times. He was then News Editor of the Mail, one of several young, talented news room executives jostling for recognition from the then boss, Sir David English.
I thought it touching and the sign of a good employer that he took the trouble. He, of course, received his own recognition by succeeding Sir David to the top slot.
In those days he used to sit in a goldfish bowl in the otherwise open-plan office of the Daily Mail in their old Carmelite Street offices. The actual news desk was manned by minions who were supposed to filter out phone calls and the dross sent in by freelances and others for consideration for publication.
Only the best of the best was supposed to get to Paul’s attention. He then produced a closely typed news list consisting of a single sheet of A4. Around ten or twelve items a day made it on to the list, each with a couple of lines of explanation.
If the story didn’t make it on to this list it wasn’t worth bringing to Sir David’s attention. The news tasting abilities this demanded were considerable.
Also in this private office of Mr Dacre was an amazing document, in about 50 volumes. It was what was called a reverse telephone directory, with every street in Britain listed by town or area, with the telephone number and name of every householder.
It had been compiled by telephone engineers to help them trace and fix faults, and was covered by the official secrets act. In those days the telephone system was run by the General Post Office, a Government organisation.
The going rate for a bribe to secure a copy of this document, which was a tremendously helpful resource for newspapers, was apparently £100, quite a lot of money in those days.
I am reminded of this illegal access to information, every time I see Mr Dacre trying to fend off inquisitors during the Leveson inquiry. The reverse directory was the equivalent of hacking, in those days before the mobile phone.
The other thought is the extreme irony of Mr Dacre proposing a register of accredited journalists.
The Independent, of all publications, said Mr Dacre was right that the idea that journalists should be licensed by the state is repellent to the fundamentals of press freedom.
But there is merit in his suggestion for a body replacing, or sitting alongside, the existing Press Complaints Commission, which would be charged with the wider upholding of media standards.
One of its functions might be the issuing of a press card which could be suspended or withdrawn from individuals who gravely breach those standards.
This used to be the preserve of the National Union of Journalists, an organisation that The Daily Mail has always loved to vilify, or ignore.
In fact the whole newspaper industry has fought to undermine the NUJ, on the grounds that having got rid of print unions, publishers and owners dreaded the resulting soaring profits being watered down by a strong and militant journalists’ union.
Just how successful this marginalisation of the NUJ has proved is illustrated by their almost total absence from the considerations of the Leveson inquiry.
So why would Mr Dacre now appear to back a move his organisation has spent years undermining? The Independent has an interesting theory.
Dacre's model could move the sanctions to journalists, rather than their employers. In his evidence in relation to barring non-press card holders from events, Dacre commented: "It is my considered view that no publisher could survive if its reporters and writers were barred from such vital areas of journalistic interest."
This implies major organisations should sue only accredited journalists. If wrongdoing was found in a paper, it could be a matter for the journalist and the press card regulator. The writer would lose his or her press-card. The paper would dismiss them and express regret at their actions.
Whether this has been thought through as the way ahead by Mr Dacre and his advisers, it is impossible to tell.
The NUJ had a very strict, but sensible, code of conduct. If it had been allowed to play a role at the heart of the media, particularly national newspapers, it is interesting to speculate whether hacking and its associated excesses would have ever been allowed in the first place.