She’s gone, but the rest may still follow

A few minutes ago I received the news that Rebekah Brooks has finally fallen (or been pushed onto) her sword as chief of News International.

We are currently in the eye of a storm that one day will be taught in media classes in universities all over the world.

Her resignation perfectly follows the NI reaction to the hacking scandal – too little, too late.

There is a school of thought in PR that says you take the blame, take the pain, keep your trap shut and move on. Its effect is to appear contrite and limit the life-span of a story. It is often very, very effective.

For NI, this could have meant carrying out a proper investigation when the original hacking allegations came out, publishing the findings and taking appropriate disciplinary action all the way up the chain where warranted.

This, as we know, is not what happened.

Instead, the laughable “lone wolf” defence was put forward as NI refused to concede more than was already in the public domain. No-one in any position of responsibility at the News of the World or NI was held to account.

The result is that the revelations have gotten successively worse for the world’s most feared media barons and that, in their attempts to slow down the runaway train of bad publicity, they may well end up derailing their media train altogether.

And yet the resignation of Brooks is not the worst piece of news for Murdoch this week.

That prize is reserved for the preliminary investigation into whether or not the systemic NOTW tactic of hacking into mobile phones was used at the time of the 9/11 atrocities in the great city of New York.

If what seemed to be a cheeky tactic to get the jump on the competition was used on one of the blackest days in American history, Murdoch’s empire will be buried faster than you can say “Enron”.

This is, after all, the country that gave us “freedom fries” and if Murdoch’s minions have hacked the phone of a firefighter or police officer who gave their lives on that day, America’s revenge will be swift, brutal and richly deserved.

Murdoch, an American citizen, was attracted to the land of the free by their values and patriotism. It is fitting that it will be the very same patriotism that leads to the demise of his empire.

But for now, let us enjoy the fact that Brooks has gone, and with her the idea that a newspaper can consist of lies, entrapment and hacking from cover to cover.

Today is a great day for journalism. But there are greater days yet to come.


When you say nothing at all

Sprinter Usain Bolt takes a question from Ourmaninstockholm about Manchester United in good humour, Oslo, June 2011

I had one of those interviews last week.

It was the kind where, despite speaking to someone for a painful five minutes, they don’t actually say anything that could possibly be construed as interesting.

When it was done and filed, the editor on the desk called me up and said “the quotes are very mundane- can you try to inject a little personality?”

My response was that I couldn’t put in something that the interviewee either didn’t have or didn’t want to share with me – or you.

The vast majority of athletes are now given some sort of media training, either by their clubs, federation or managers, where they are taught to reveal as little as possible.

They trade in blandness, sticking out only when a sponsor or meet arranger demands it. And sometimes, not even then.

Of course, it’s not entirely their fault. Some of my colleagues in the press room – team-mates, if you will – are only too ready to deliberately misinterpret what they say.

They will create “rifts” and “shocks” and “betrayals” out of the most innocent comments.

There are exceptions of course. Free from injury, Usain Bolt was a pleasure last week in Oslo and even if she doesn’t seem to like the questions I ask, Carolina Kluft is always talkative, friendly and accommodating.

Of all the footballers I’ve run into recently, Almeria’s Henok Goitom is a breath of fresh air.

Though I haven’t interviewed him yet, he is an intelligent young man, well able to defend his opinions and principles in a way others could learn from.

Moreso, he will have a career long after the curtain comes down on his playing days, because people will remember what he stood for. The same cannot be said for many of his contemporaries.

Because for the most part, athletes are now one half of the ultimate journalistic chicken-and-egg situation; they hide, afraid to be misconstrued, whilst the hacks without principles peck away at their words like blind hens, hoping to miraculously strike it lucky in a farmyard of banality.

Who started it is a moot point – the fact is that it’s now the way of the world in the press conference and the mixed zone.

Strangely, neither seem to be embarrassed by the whole situation, but I still find it very irritating because it’s a sign of a lack of respect on all sides- from the athlete, the journalist and the reader.

But if they don’t think it’s worth saying, then I don’t think it’s worth writing about.

And if you’ve any sense, you won’t find it interesting to read about either.

Never trust a sock puppet

To the blind indifference of most of the rest of the world, two lesbian bloggers have been unveiled as being fakes.

Rather than being gay activists, they are the one thing that media and the blogosphere has in spades- stupid white men.

But even as gay community groups are understandably outraged that bloggers such as these two would jump on their bandwagon to make a name for themselves, readers must also hold up their hands.

Because just as much as bloggers and journalists have an obligation to write truthfully, readers share a similar obligation to read everything critically.

Journalists are taught that the single best source of information is what you see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears. The next best thing is what is called a “primary source”- someone with insight into or knowledge of what you are writing about.

When reading, many assume that a journalist has established the bona fides of their sources.

Sometimes they have; sometimes they haven’t. Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes it’s not in their interest to do so, as it will kill a very promising story that wins them brownie points with the editor.

So as readers, we shoud always be asking ourselves “why am I being told this? What evidence is the writer offering in support? What is fact and what is opinion? What makes them qualified to write on the subject?”

An even better technique is to read every sentence and ask “how do we know that?”. This one simple question will help you cut through journalistic bullshit like a hot knife through butter.

A good example is the falsehood that regularly gets thrown at me when I speak publicly about the Swedish welfare state. Some sneering gobshtie will always spit out the old line about Sweden having “the highest suicide rate in the world”.

It doesn’t- it’s 18th in the World Health Organisation list, behind France and Belgium, and it’s very easy to disprove by visiting their website. The gobshites don’t sneer any less, but a lot less people listen to them.

Due to it’s very nature, all news cannot be based on instantly verifiable fact, and for one reason or another a source may have to remain anonymous.

Though not always a reason to discount a source, anonymity should always ring alarm bells.

If someone calls me up and tells me something juicy but refuses to divulge their identity, I put the phone down. If I can’t verify what they say, I cannot stand over it when it’s published. It’s out.

But if it’s someone I know and trust who has been right before, and wants to remain anonymous to protect their job or their family, I can view it in a different light. It’s never ideal, but there are degrees.

Bloggers are not subject to the same rules that journalists are, but readers can still apply the same standards of critical thinking to sort out the lesbian activists from the fat white guys in Edinburgh.

If there’s no name or other circumstance, beware. If there’s a back story, check it out – privacy died sometime in the late 20th century with the advent of Google and Facebook, so it’s pretty easy to check the details of even the most mundane of lives.

For the record, my identity is pretty much in the public domain, as is virtually everything I write. Those of you hoping for an admission that I am in fact a lesbian activist from Tulsa will be sorely disappointed.

As am I, in some small way- it might mean I’d have more success with the ladies…