Look after this podcast. See that some harm comes to it

Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the Oddjob Pod James Bond podcast Anybody would think Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself had been tinkering with this post - every time I attempt to write or publish something crashes or goes wrong.

Maybe SMERSH want to keep the news that a couple of weeks ago, Terry Duffelen, Graham Sibley and I recorded a new Oddjob Podcast on James Bond villains.

We all have our favourites, of course, and those we dislike. For instance, I'm not a fan of Hugo Drax, although Terry and Graham think very differently. I suspect my dislike of Moonraker somewhat clouds my judgement on this - perhaps it's time to rewatch and reappraise Michael Lonsdale's performance.

And then I quite like Elliott Carver as a villain - and I've found very few people who feel the same way about Tomorrow Never Dies and Jonathan Pryce's performance in general.

One thing we're all agreed on: Blofeld is not the best Bond villain, and there's only one definitive portrayal of the follically-challenged evil one. To find out which one, you'll just have to tune in, of course.

Longform: A non-fiction addiction

One of my favourite communities online is Stuart Waterman's Non-Fiction Addiction community on Google+. Dedicate to long and engaging content, it's a delight of discovery. As long as you have a web connection, there's enough reading material to keep you occupied over a train journey. Longform content isn't exactly trendy though. Sites such as Buzzfeed and Us Vs Th3m are leading the way when it comes to espresso hits of quick, shareable content. The fact that plenty of sites seem fit to ape them (especially the former, the latter hasn't been around quite long enough for copycats) shows that many sites are pointing towards the quick, easily digestable amusing visual content (and generally not doing it anywhere near as well as the leaders in the field).

But for all that, it's been fascinating to chat to several friends who work within the newspaper industry or for online publications who have all mentioned the same stat: namely that longform articles tend to do rather well on tablet devices at certain times of the day.

Joshua Lachkovic picks up the theme of longform at Hotwire's blog. In a lengthy post he discusses how the likes of Longreads and The Magazine are quietly building a significant reader base.

It's worth noting the discussion around Kindle publishing in Lachkovic's piece. Kindles may not exactly be seen as sexy in the digital sphere but they're certainly effective. Again, more than one editorial conversation I've had has spent a fair bit of time exploring the benefits of Kindle publishing for longform.

This isn't to say that longform will overtake shortform. The two can co-exist quite happily, and the world would be a poorer place without Buzzfeed and Us Vs Th3m. But has tablet usage especially increases, sites or apps who manage longform particularly well are in a good place when readers decide they want something a little longer on their morning commute.

One word of warning though. Slate's "You Won't Finish This Article" gives plenty of reasons  not to bank on longform, at least not via a browser, not least that the majority of people will have stopped reading a long time before the end. Worth keeping in mind next time you're minded to churn out a 5,000 word essay.

A bit of writing elsewhere and a change in focus for the blog

A slight change of direction will be coming up on this blog, I suspect, certainly regarding the social media posts. Anything social-related will probably go on the Ruder Finn Dot Comms blog. Anything else will probably be here (yes, the dregs. Sorry about that). And here's the first post: an analysis of when brands should and shouldn't piggyback on an internet meme, with specific reference to the Harlem Shake.

And I'm still doing the football writing, when time allows. Here's me at The Two Unfortunates imagining what if Exeter City manager Paul Tisdale had landed the Swansea City job.

Oh mama, I wanna go surfing...

“You get stuck in a rip and fight against it, you’ll eat shit. You try and stand incorrectly, you’ll eat shit. You don’t keep your concentration, you’ll eat shit.” Erik, our Norwegian surfing instructor, is nothing if not to the point.Ten minutes into my first ever surfing lesson, and it appears there are many ways you can eat shit. Given my complete lack of balance and co-ordination, this could be a very painful two hours that involves a lot of shit eating.

I am not a natural beach person, as my pale complexion probably immediately makes clear. As a child at the seaside, I was always happier exploring rock pools before going for a quick paddle and maybe a game of beach cricket. That’s not changed much. I emphatically had no interest in surfing and this lack of interest has continued all my adult life. Yet, here I am on Bondi Beach, about to embarrass myself in front of the Australian beach going community.

This wasn’t my idea, but I was told by my other half that if we were visiting Australia, I should experience the local culture and the surf lesson was duly booked. For me, not for her, obviously. Friends in England found this hilarious. “Pasty Brit on a surfboard on Bondi Beach. This will be brilliant,” was the general consensus.

As it turns out, the surf class is full of pasty Brits and one pasty Canadian, all of whom inhabit various degrees of hopelessness from complete novice to falling over a lot. Erik is very thorough though and has the patience of a saint as he guides us through the movements on dry land. “You might want to stand further back down the board, or you’ll wipe out,” he says, looking at my jerk movement from horizontal to standing up.

Me, in a rare moment standing up

Twenty minutes in, and it’s time to head into the water, waddling like penguins in our wetsuits. Erik talks us through how to prepare for a wave, before pushing us each off, much like a parent does to a child on a bike with stabilisers.

On my first attempt, I’m far too terrified to attempt to stand and tentatively attempt a movement towards the end of the wave. Predictably I fall over. “You need to be more decisive, stand up in one quick movement,” says Erik.

The next few attempts follow a similar pattern before I finally attempt to stand up quickly - and, crucially, without thinking - and, to my astonishment find myself standing on the board and the wave pushes me in to shore. This lasts about 10 seconds before I fall over.

Erik, who has probably been sighing inwardly at my timidity on the board is impressed. “Not bad, you’ve a good motion. You just need to concentrate and focus when you’re standing up and you won’t fall over.”

Concentration, it appears, is my major downfall. I stand stand but find it impossible to focus on anything in the distance, not helped by the fact I’ve not wearing glasses or contacts. After two relatively successful stands, I become too cocky and promptly spend the next three attempts falling off the board relatively rapidly. Still, I’m feeling good about my progress until Erik tells the group we’re moving into deeper water to try and catch a series of waves to take us to the shore.

Lying on the board attempting to paddle further out, I feel like a slightly backwards dog. There’s a lot of splashing around but I’m not really going anywhere. Even more embarrassing is the point where everybody stops and sits on their board. It appears I’m incapable of balancing without falling off.

Erik pushes us off again as we aim for shore, except this time if you fall off, which I inevitably do, there’s a long way back to the beach and it’s quite clear that without the initial shove, I’m incapable of being able to push off, let alone gain enough momentum to stand up. My only consolation is the rest of the class appear to be equally inept and it’s not an uncommon sight to see them flying through the air minus the surf board.

After the fourth capsize in as many seconds a nearby Australia swims across to me. “You’re not very good at this are you,” he says in typical blunt Aussie style. “First-timer?”

With a mouthful of seawater, I’m unable to speak so just nod instead. “You’ll get better at it,” he says, “although you’re probably best to stick to practising in the indoor pool.” With that, he turns his attention to his five-year-old son, who is gliding through the water with the ease of someone who has spent their life on the surfboard. I start paddling towards shore, catch a wave, attempt to stand up and wipe out badly, landing on my jaw (who knew this was even possible?).

Despite the pain - my back is also starting to ache badly - and the fact I'm still a good three or four wipe outs from shore, I grin. This surfing lark is quite fun, providing it's done closish to the shore. And I have lots of help. And as long as it's done on a sunny day on Bondi. Really, don't expect to find me doing this on a cold November in Cornwall. I'm willing to attempt local culture, but not so willing to take it home with me.

I went surfing with Let's Go Surfing. Despite my ineptitude on the board, they're actually very good and I had a blast. Can definitely recommend them if you fancy attempting to catch some waves for the first time.

RIP HMV: Not a eulogy

Plenty of people have been sharing their memories of HMV on Twitter following the news the troubled music retailer is set to call in the administrators, so here's one of my own, albeit more recent than most. About six months ago, I nipped into London Trocadero branch on the off-chance of finding the fourth series of a well-known American drama on DVD, as well as to see if I could find a couple of other DVDs I was considering buying for presents.

After much searching, and on the verge of giving up, I asked a shop assistant if they had the fourth season of Dexter. "Never heard of it, mate," came the reply. Did they know where it might be found? "Not sure, sorry." Was there any possibility of ordering it in or that it may arrive in the next few days. "Doubt it." It was a similar story with the other items on the list.

Then there was a similar experience this Christmas, when I may the last-minute decision to add a DVD into a Christmas present. The store was packed, but the DVD was nowhere to be found. Both quite frustrating.

Whether my story was a common occurrence or just bad luck, I've no idea. It does hint at a reason why HMV have been so troubled. If the staff seem indifferent to their products or to helping customers - and it's virtually impossible to find what you're looking for, it's no wonder people are turning to the easy-to-navigate Amazon.

Amazon, supermarkets and the digital world in general will naturally be blamed, but equally the company itself can take plenty of blame for the long-standing debts it finds itself saddled with. The over-expansion over the late nineties and early noughties, combined with somewhat questionable acquisitions such as Fopp and Ottakar's, played as much of a part as Amazon's growth.

HMV never did quite sort out the online side of its business either, with the browsing experience often as frustrating as trying to find an item in the store itself. That's hardly Amazon or Sainsbury's fault if a major retailer can't get one of the more basic requirements right and was too late to realise the need to enter a major market.

But while the nostalgia for HMV is perhaps a little disingenuous - If you really love a shop that much, try to step foot in in more than one a year - it's certainly not misplaced. As a teenager, HMV always had that perfect balance between the mainstream pop and the more niche (if not obscure) music, while their foreign film collection was a joy for a cinema obsessive from Devon. Their staff were always passionate, friendly and only too willing to help, which is what makes their demise even sadder at the missed opportunities.

Brands can't live on nostalgia alone though, and as journalist Dave Lee and Newsbeat reporter Greg Cochrane have noted, hardly anybody under the age of 26 seems particularly bothered about the retailer's demise.

With over 4,000 jobs at risk, there should be no pleasure to be taken for gloating and saying I told you so or using it to champion the brilliance of the digital age. The issues, as I've touched on early, weren't solely down to the likes of Amazon, while it's no fun to see another set of high street shops go empty. And for those who still have resisted Amazon and the internet's charms (and, yes, such people do exist), it leaves a difficult hole to replace.

Still, as Robert Peston writes, it's probably best the "zombie" company was put out of its misery, given it had been flatlining for two years. You can even make an argument it should have done earlier. And who knows, I'm no retail expert, but perhaps a new company with a much more sensible approach to online/offline might even arise and make HMV nostalgia just that - a thing of the past.

Radio head: A love letter

Let me transport you back to my childhood briefly. I had a fairly long journey into school every morning, which often meant a good 40 minute car ride with my mother. She wasn't into pop music and, at the time, neither was I (it took me a while before I became the kid who'd obsessively record every new entry off the Top 40), so the usual choice is listening was Radio 4's Today programme. This wasn't my choice, per se, but if I had to pick a starting point of my long love affair with radio, this would probably be it. I suspect I may well have been the most politically informed kid in my class at the age of nine. To me, the Today programme was my morning. I used to delight in the likes of Brian Redhead sparring with politicians, and getting the better of them. Looking back, my career choice was clearly never in doubt.

Despite discovering all manner of visual entertainment - starting with a BBC Master System and progressing through the Nintendo consoles - and diving headfirst into the world of film in a big way, I still returned to the radio time and time again as I was growing up.

As mentioned, I would sit religiously by my stereo, finger hovering over the record button, to ensure I didn't miss a moment of the Top 40. I laughed at assorted radio comedy, from I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue to Lee and Herring's Fist Of Fun. One of my favourite shows was Collins and Maconie's Hit Parade, where a bunch of people sitting round a table discussing music was turned into an art form. I appear to be the only one of my friends to remember this show though.

I was a Radio 1 devotee, for sure, but over time my tastes have changed somewhat, as I've grown up with the station. My favourite DJs were always Mark and Lard - their sense of the surreal and their bluff Mancunian humour was completely at odds with most other mainstream DJs on the station. When they (and Steve Lamacq) moved on, I think I did too.

Hell, I spent a fair bit of time listening to Jonathan Ross of Radio 2 (much much better than his chat show), while I now find Chris Evans a much easier listen on the same station, whereas I found him too much to stomach on Radio 1.

It'd be remiss not to mention two of my favourite ever broadcasters here. John Peel is obviously one. He could come in off the back of a practically unlistenable Bulgarian hardcore techno act with a voice that sounded as if he was offering you a cup of tea, before moving onto Half Man Half Biscuit. I once recall him broadcasting from a festival and refusing to go to the main act because he was enjoying an Eastern European choir. In a completely different way, Home Truths was also brilliant.

The other favourite is Danny Baker, a man who commands like English language like few others. Whether it was Baker and Kelly's football phone-ins that had little to do with any actual football action, or the genius of Fraser Digby's washbag, Baker is a true radio legend and one who is currently much missed while he undergoes treatment for cancer. Chris Lines at Narrow The Angle has a longer tribute to the man, which says it far better than ever I could.

It's why podcasting brings a whole new level of joy to my life, especially that there's a whole new world of discovery waiting out there. It also enables me to catch up during my daily commute on programmes I'd otherwise have missed.

Fighting Talk still makes me laugh on a regular basis, and 5 Live as a station as a whole is great for dipping in and out of. I'd much rather have radio commentary on while watching football. BBC London's Non-League Show is another weekly favourite, as are a whole host of other pods.

And every now and then, scouring the Radio Four listings, you find an absolute delight of a documentary, such as this (sadly no longer available) half hour programme from Phil Jupitus on Calvin and Hobbes (the cartoon, not the philosophers).

I love the way audio allows you to be creative in a way that TV can't. Four blokes sitting round a table discussing a topic can be dull on the box, but on radio it can be transformed into something totally different and much more alive.

Yes, you have no pictures. But that's the joy of radio - you paint your own pictures using creativity. One of my earliest radio memories, other than the today programme, was a version of Under Milk Wood, which had me enchanted.

I guess what this love letter is also saying is that radio can be a forgotten and sometimes neglected medium, but offers an experience that's much more personal and fun (at times) than TV.

Several years ago, when still a student, I took part in a focus group about the BBC. A lot of those in the group were complaining about the TV programmes, the licence fee, and the rest. I then mentioned radio, and, somewhat hesitantly, suggested this alone was worth the licence fee (hell, Test Match Special alone is worth the licence fee).

The mood in the room changed, and before long we were all comparing our favourite radio programmes. This isn't to belittle TV - I'm a sucker for a good documentary or drama (I'm currently enjoying State Of Play, which I missed first time around. It is superb). But there's just something about radio that makes it more friendly, more familiar.

I'll end this love letter by attempting to share the love. Next time you're watching sport, try turning the commentary down and switching the radio on. It'll enhance your viewing. And next time you're flicking through the channels, wondering what to watch, why not try flicking through the radio channels. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday Night with the Common People

You know how it is: you've carefully been saving up a set of blog posts on media and the wider world that are so corking that they may just change the way people think about the world and will surely elevate you to the rank of minor deity, then when you come to sit down and blog all you can think is: "I really, really want to write about Britpop." It's probably my fault for plugging in Pulp on the bus home. Different Class was the first albums I ever purchased and I still know all the words to every track. It may well still be the best album ever made (although Marvin Gaye's What's Going On gives it serious competition).

When Britpop was at its height you were either a Blur or Oasis man and, being a poncy Southerner, I naturally fell on the Blur side. Looking back, Roll With It is clearly a much better song than Country House, but I was blind to loyalty at the time (although The Universal was probably one of the best tracks from this era of Blur).

Taken as individual tracks, Oasis probably had the edge with several iconic anthems. Cigarettes and Alcohol, Champagne Supernova and Some Might Say sounds just as good today as they ever did. But in terms of overall canon, progression and longevity, Blur have the edge.

But just as I was wrong about the 1995 race for number one, so I was wrong at the time about Blur and Oasis being the best two bands from that period. I'll occasionally dig out a Blur album, usually their self-titled offering from '97, or Modern Life Is Rubbish, while Oasis occasionally get fired up on Spotify.

But for timeless classics that never fail to hit the spot and get repeat plays nearly every month, it's a toss up between the aforementioned Pulp and a band who may never have quite got the credit they deserved - Suede.

Pulp really need no more eulogising. They were the perfect band - a witty, lyrically gifted frontman in Jarvis Cocker, with a stage presence that gave up to all us bespectacled teenagers, while their songs were witty, pithy and said more than Noel Gallagher has managed in his entire career. Common People - need I say more.

Then there's Suede. Perhaps unfairly maligned for not being Blur or Oasis or Radiohead or Pulp, or as the band that filled the gaps between releases of the others, or a band who peaked too early and then lost their guitarist and were never quite the same. Not true.

Ok, so Richard Oakes was a little showier than Bernard Butler on the guitar and the band's glam rock influences started to take over by the end, but they could still produce a cracking tune. Coming Up was an amazing album that defies their reputation as a singles band, while Film Star and especially Saturday Night were highlights, while later tracks such as Electricity and She's In Fashion were Suede playing at being Suede and wonderfully entertaining.

And then there's the Bernard Butler era. Animal Nitrate, So Young, New Generation and We Are The Pigs and all outstanding songs while Wild Ones may well be one of my favourite ever tracks.

Put up against other bands from the era, Suede's tracks seem to have survived the test of time. Radiohead may have been a great band, but their albums are more to be appreciated than subjected to repeated listening while Blur and Oasis, while producing fantastic albums, tend to be remembered for a few select anthems. Pulp, sadly, also occasionally fall into that category, even if their best work - This Is Hardcore and Babies - came after and before Britpop's peak.

At the time, I'd never have said it, but Suede may now just be my favourite band of the 90s.

Although don't necessarily trust me. My first gig was The Bluetones.

The General Election aka Hobson's Choice 2010 has arrived

I'm sat on my sofa writing this at half eleven, the night before the general election. The Sun's front page for election day, with David Cameron mocked up into the iconic Barack Obama image, is flying around Twitter - mostly to disbelief. Bet their sales go up though. It's almost as if they've deliberately chosen an image that'll provoke howls of online outrage. So, yes, I'm sat here still not sure who to vote for. Tomorrow should be interesting, historic even. I can't wait for the drama and the coverage, although I'm less than sure about 98% of the politicians involved.

It's been a fascinating election to watch, especially from an online perspective, although I'm somewhat glad I took a holiday in the middle of it all and totally switched off from the entire campaign. Fun as it can be, I can totally understand why Adam Tinworth, and others, have retreated from Twitter for some of the election period. It can get a bit much, really.

Politics is tribal, yes. It also invokes passion. That I also understand. But it's somewhat unedifying to see people who are already elected representatives or are aiming to become an elected representative - and especially party-supporting people - close up and angry on social sites. This Tweet from Conservative blogger, Iain Dale, being a case in point (although, in fairness to Dale, he did apologise and he's not deleted the offending Tweet).

Call me an idealist, but given these people are meant to be aiming to change the world for the better and represent our interests, it'd be nice if one or two could rise above the mud-slinging. Really, all it comes across is that these people want power above political convictions (I'm probably doing quite a few a disservice here though). And I'd rather back somebody who is entering politics because of convictions as opposed to a fanatical desire to see their party returned to or achieving power.

It's not just Dale, who is meant to be one of the online stars of politics, who has forgotten what social media is about. I've seen plenty of people, especially on Twitter, who sell themselves as social media experts and, by and large, fall into that category, forget themselves.

Brands should listen and engage is a regular message from social media land. Which is why it's rather depressing to see certain people shout down and talk at others for having their party's policies questioned. It's worse than some of the rather low-brow football banter on the site. Much as I dislike Plymouth Argyle, I wouldn't go as far as some social media people have gone with politics.

And still the politics rumbles on, the 24 News Channels do their best to make The Thick Of It look like a factual documentary and all the political parties come out with policies with so many holes in them you could drive the entire US marine corps though.

This all probably sounds a bit gloomy and, yes, it's easy to be disillusioned with British politics. If there was a 'None of the above' option on the ballot paper, as they used to have in my old Students' Union elections, I'd place my cross there without hesitation.

But, having worked reporting two general elections and numerous local elections, 2010 feels like people actually care about the outcome. I haven't felt the country (at least in my personal sphere) be this engaged with the election.

I've had long conversations with strangers on the bus about the election, the result, their hopes and fears. That wouldn't have happened at the last two elections.

And, for the first time in ages, it's never been easier to connect with your MPs and other local politicians via social media and hold them to account. Anything that brings the public closer to their elected representatives can only be a good thing. Twitter and Facebook have made this possible.

But the most entertaining aspect has been the humour on social media, aimed at all parties. At least once a day I've laughed at something irreverent posted on Twitter or Facebook. It's made it entertaining. Politics is suddenly fun to discuss.

And it'll sure as hell be fun to watch tomorrow as the TV coverage gets bigger and probably more bizarre and the results fly in.

That said, it's now quarter past midnight on election day.

I still have absolutely no idea who I'm going to vote for.

Alternative Christmas Number One campaign

No, not Rage Against The Machine. I like the track I'm far too apathetic and quite like The X Factor as well. Whatever. But somebody on Exeweb suggested an alternative campaign to get Half Man Half Biscuit's 'All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit'. Now that's a campaign I could really get behind.

And because you can never have too much Half Man Half Biscuit, here's the wonderful Referee's Alphabet.

Time to dig out my copy of Cammell Laird Social Club, methinks.

Bedtime for the blog

Mark Twain once said it's far better to keep your mouth shut and let people assume you're an idiot than to open it and confirm their assumptions. God alone knows what Twain would have made of blogging, but it's a sentiment I can appreciate and, for the foreseeable future on here you're all going to have to assume I'm an idiot. Or, to put it less obliquely, I'm halting blogging. Indefinitely. I may resume a few months down the line. It may even be a few weeks. Or it may not. But, frankly, it's probably better to write this than do a series of half-arsed posts, all of which that start with "apologies for the lack of updates...", an opening that rapidly gets tedious by the fifth letter of the first word.

There's no one particular reason for this, but if I had to point to one reason it would be a lack of time. That and being very busy at work. Yes, being busy at work, a lack of time and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope a lack of inspiration when the time is free.

Being busy, as Terry Duffelen said to me on Twitter earlier, comes and goes. But I've been hideously busy for around four months now, and I've been thinking about calling a temporary halt to blogging for about half that time.

It's not just the amount of time that I don't have - it's the desire to do other things with this time when I'm free. I spend all day working with social media, reading blogs and other internet-related things, and I'm finding in the evenings I would rather not have to open my computer, but cook, watch TV, read, go to the cinema, go to the pub, go out for a meal, go to the gym. And when I look at that list, there's not a great deal of that I've managed recently. Essentially, I need downtime to switch off. Blogging used to be that. It isn't anymore.

Usually it's only snatched time late at night anyway. As in common with most recent blog posts, this is being written after 11pm. Which means I don't get as much sleep as I'd hoped. Which makes me a bit irritable the next day, which makes me less likely to blog. And so on.

There's also a lack of time to cover topics, and cover them well. In the last two weeks I've had about half a dozen topics, both football and non-football I've wanted to write about. But I wouldn't have had the time to do anything other than a few snatched words.

What about something like Posterous, you may say? What indeed. I like Posterous a lot. I've had a play and think it's a very nifty little platform. If I were starting out or starting anew, I'd definitely consider it.

But I either write for other blogs or try and offer some form of analysis on here, that a shorter scrap-book post on Posterous wouldn't have been able to do justice to, even if I could post it on the train into work.

The bottom line is when I write, I research first. For every post, I'd say the amount of research done is equal to the time spent writing the piece, more so with the football articles.

I know what you're going to say now - how did you ever work in a busy newsroom? Well I did, and I could again, no problem. But this isn't a newsroom, this is blogging; this is something I do in my spare time, and something I rarely get paid for (certainly not on this blog).

There are so many bad bloggers - and journalists - who will knock something together in the blink of an eye without having done any research or checking any facts. Fine, this approach may mean I take longer over my posts but I'd rather be right than first, especially as this blog (and others) carry my name. I refuse to compromise on quality and accuracy for the sake of being able to knock out a couple of extra posts.

It's not that the joy isn't there - I still love words, and I still love writing and genuinely wish I could do more of it, or spend my days thinking of witty asides to drop into finely-honed articles - but as was said to me the other day, it's like I'm trying to do two jobs on top of other things.

And ultimately, my priority is to my job, because they pay me. And I work hard, so throw in an extra job on top of that... well, I can manage it if I really want, but in honesty, I'd rather recharge my batteries, unwind and be fresh for the next day of work. Shoot me for attempting a work-life balance.

As much as anything, I think I needed to put this down so that I didn't have the spectre of an unwritten blog hanging over me. The guilt feels far less when you actually announce you're not blogging any longer. And that way people cant go 'this is a bad example of a blog, he only posts once a fortnight.'

So that's it. Me and blogging are done for the time being. That's here, and with football blogging as well. You may see a few pieces pop up from me though - these will be ones I've nearly finished or have already committed to. After that, no more.

Well, maybe not that final. I simply don't know if I just need to abandon blogging for a couple of weeks to recharge my batteries, or six months, or if I just don't want to come back. I just don't know.

This blog will remain as it is - it'd be a shame to delete it and I may feel the urge to blog gets too strong.

Oh, and if anybody even thinks about trying to use this blog and announcement as an example of how blogging is drying, I'll personally take that lazy one-blog assumption and stick it... well, you get the idea. I'm just a blog. I'm certainly not, and never have been, indicative of any trend.

I'll probably need to change my bio now as well...

Lights. Off.

Cancer jab follow-on

Just a quick(ish) addition to the post I wrote at the start of the week about the Sunday Express' "Jab as deadly as the cancer" article about the cervical cancer jab. Ben Goldacre has covered the story in his Bad Science column, and it's quite damning, especially his conversation with the expert, Dr Diane Harper. I'll repost a paragraph from his article, which speaks for itself.

"...I contacted Professor Harper. For avoidance of doubt, so that there can be no question of me misrepresenting her views, unlike the Express, I will explain Professor Harper’s position on this issue in her own words. They are unambiguous.

“I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix was controversial, I stated that Cervarix is not a ‘controversial drug’. I did not ‘hit out’ – I was contacted by the press for facts. And this was not an exclusive interview.”

Journalists are fallible. We do make mistakes. Occasionally we get the wrong end of the stick. But there's getting something wrong that you haven't understood properly and bending the facts to a state where they can do longer be called facts any longer.

It depressed me, it really does. In an industry that's going through upheaval and can be subject to greater scrutiny than ever from anybody with a computer - and that has serious trust issues - articles like this just serve to undermine the public's trust in journalists even further.

As was highlighted in the Royal Institution debate, the Express can produce good, accurate journalism. And it's always worth asking questions on health issues.

But not like this. This isn't good journalism. It barely even passes as a form of journalism. It's irresponsible writing that has the potential to lead to women needlessly developing cervical cancer.

Did the Sunday Express really think this was an acceptable trade-off for a headline-selling front page?

Like I say, thoroughly depressing.

Oh my science (2)

There's reporting that you disagree with and then there's an occasional point of journalism that's just wrong. Not just wrong, but dangerously misleading to a degree that goes beyond scary. Case in point - the Sunday Express' front page from yesterday: "JAB AS DEADLY AS THE CANCER"

Now, with the death of Natalie Morton, hours after she'd received the cervical cancer vaccine jab [1] was always going to lead to some interesting reporting. Some has been good, some has been bad and some has been scaremongering. Especially after the point where it was established that she died from a tumour and not the jab.

The story itself is largely built around the fears of an expert, Dr Diane Harper. In many respects, this is nothing unusual. Most journalists have built stories around experts. I've done it myself, although they've usually be economic stories rather than science.

And there's nothing wrong with this, per se. Often an expert provides a new, different angle and also helps with one of the first rules of good journalism: tell the audience something they don't already know. I've learned a lot from chatting to them and the stories are usually interesting.

But a lot depends on the expert themselves, who they are and what they are saying. And that, rather than the story they're talking about, is the important part. Because there are a lot of interesting experts out there.

Let's take AIDS as an example. It's not stretching things too far to say Africa has a serious problem with the disease, and that antiretroviral drugs stop Aids becoming a death sentence for sufferers. Yet there are people, who have lots of expert-looking expert credentials, who will use arguments such as population growth in South Africa as a reason why the numbers of being dying from Aids is too high. Or that vitamins can cure the disease.

In short, they can sell themselves as experts but their claims aren't necessarily the kind you'd put on the front page of a newspaper, and strongly suggest this outsider view is worth listening to.

But back to the Express and the cancer jab story, which, by the time the Express ran the interview, was fast becoming old news.

Reporting on just about any kind of issue is always going to ensure somebody shakes their head and disagrees with it. The more high-profile and emotive the story, the more likely this is.

I don't often agree with the Sun or the Mail's take on current affairs, but there are plenty of others who'll be in tune with this line of thinking. There are tabloid scares - some justified, and some not - but usually there's some basis to start from.

Not here. Virtually every bit of the Express article is just plain wrong. I dislike hyperbole, but there's a very real chance that parents could read the story, refuse to allow their daughters the jab, only for their daughter to catch the virus, and contract cancer. This isn't politics, or food scares, or the like, this is the health, life and potentially death of the next generation of the female population. Is it really worth getting blood on the hands to sell a few extra papers in this manner?

I'm not hugely fond of jumping up and down and crying bad journalism at the tabloids (or the broadsheets) - stones and glass houses and all that. There's a lot of good journalism in all of them, and I'm continually amazed in the best possible way at how good some of the journalists I know one these papers are.

But just because we're in a profession, doesn't mean we can't hold it to account and call it out when publications get it badly, dangerously wrong. There's a line between reporting potential health problems and dangerous scaremongering that could cost lives. On this occasion, the Express have crossed it [2]. I posted a link to the piece on Twitter earlier. One response from a journalist said: "That makes me want to disown my profession."

In fact, this story has got me so upset at the reporting that I'm going to do something I've never even come remotely close to ever wanting to do before: complain to the Press Complaints Commission.

Frankly, I don't expect it to have much effect. The organisation is somewhat toothless at the best of time. And writing to it feels like grassing up somebody at school.

But if nobody says anything, it means there will be more bad science, more panic and, potentially, more lives lost. I'm not trying to set myself as an arbiter of what's good or bad journalism; I'm just beyond appalled at this one article.

If you feel the same, then I'd urge you to also complain.To help, my old colleague Chris White has already written a letter (about 3 minutes after reading the story). He sent me the text of his complaint and I've reprinted it below. Feel free to adapt it for your own use:

"The front page of the issue of the Sunday Express published on 4 October 2009 leads with the headline "Jab 'as deadly as the cancer'."

The "jab" in question is the Cervarix vaccination against the two strains of human papillomavirus shown to trigger up to 70% of cases of cervical cancer.

The story follows the death of 14-year-old schoolgirl Natalie Morton, who died shortly after receiving the vacciation - but whose postmortem found her cause of death to have been a previously undiagnosed tumour.

The claim that the vaccination is as deadly as the cancer is manifestly untrue. At the time of this solitary death, around 1.5 million girls had received the vaccination. Cervical cancer affects an estimated 16 women per 100,000 per year, and is fatal for around 9 women per 100,000 per year. Even if the vaccination had been responsible for the death of Natalie Morton, then the cancer is clearly almost 150 times more dangerous than the vaccination.

That this is based on the opinion of "expert" Diane Harper is irrelevant. It doesn't matter what her opinion is: it only matters what the data show. (This is why academics are subject to a process of peer review for publishing their work: despite their supposed expertise, papers must be approved of by their peers before publication. The mere opinions even of experts count for little within their own communities and should not carry any greater weight with the public, nor with journalists.) There are no data suggesting that the vaccination is dangerous.

Furthermore, the quote from one Richard Halvorsen questioning the postmortem finding that Natalie Morton died from cancer, "If you have cancer you have symptoms", is, essentially, a lie. Many cases of cancer can be asymptomatic -- including, in a tragic piece of irony, most cases of cervical cancer.

This is little more than ill-founded scaremongering and irresponsible journalism of the worst kind. Its only effect is bound to be -- as was the case with the coverage the MMR "controversy" -- to reduce take-up of the vaccine, in which case the Sunday Express will share responsibility for further deaths."

EDIT: Malcolm Coles has flagged up his campaign to get Google's results to show better advice and information for parents concerned about the jab, so I'm more than happy to include links to cervical cancer jab information, cervical cancer vaccination, and a Q&A about the cervical cancer vaccine.

[1] Ok, I'm taking liberties here as well. I know it's jab about the virus that can lead to cervical cancer rather than the cancer itself.

[2] Ironically, a story from the Express was held us as a good example of science reporting at the debate between Lord Drayson and Ben Goldacre, and I'd go along with the Science Minster to a point when he says that sensationalist reporting can be good for science. The Express' article goes long beyond that point.

Oh, my science

Science reporting is in rude health in Britain, and also in a poor state, often getting basic science wrong and misleading the public. So (roughly) said Lord Paul Drayson, Science Minister for the government, and Dr Ben Goldacre, writer of the Bad Science column in the Guardian in a highly entertaining debate at the Royal Institution last night. Ok, so I've somewhat condensed the argument, but, strangely, they're probably both right (a reflection, perhaps, of how well they both argued). Lord Drayson made good points as to why science journalism has improved and why we need to celebrate it, and Ben Goldacre was entertaining as ever with his points and examples of very bad science reporting, many of which were still worryingly recent.

The most telling comment, though, came from Michael Hanlon, the Daily Mail's science editor, who was in the audience. Taking the example of the Mail saying that coffee could both cause and cure cancer, Hanlon pointed out the [1] number of studies done on coffee actually reflected this, with half saying coffee was beneficial and half saying  it was harmful.

Now, short of going into the lab and watching each experiment, the only way you're going to be able to say if this is significant or not is by doing a systematic review of all these papers - one paper alone is not necessarily an indicator in itself one way or the other - and coming up with a conclusion.

But therein lies the problem. Individual papers make good news, and the Mail is not necessarily wrong when it reports that coffee both causes and cures cancer. There's a good chance both reports are accurate with regards to the source material.

These both make good headlines. A review that concludes that it's difficult to say whether coffee is indeed good or bad for you doesn't have quite the same level of attention-grabbing.

What, Hanlon asked, would you have me do?

It's easy to feel sympathy for both sides here. Goldacre is right to despair at some science reporting. When you read some of his clinical dissections of poor science journalism (for example, 'Exercise Makes You Fat') you shudder and feel ashamed for your profession.

But then, the journalist has space to fill, deadlines to meet, and papers to sell. And science isn't quite like your political scandals or natural disasters. There's no clear narrative. One paper may be produced, peer reviewed and shown to be not all that. How does a journalist get something exciting, sexy, reader-grabbing AND accurate out of all this.

A lot of Ben's suggestions - features, encouraging bloggers, getting the public to be more discerning readers, getting scientists to write columns - are great intentions. Not all of them are without problems, and my worry would be if you did this, you may start to lose science from the news pages, which would not be a good thing.

On a slight tangent, I'd like to bring in my brief experience as one of those arts and humanities graduates, mentioned occasionally in the debate, who've ended up in journalism and isn't overly scientific (which is to say I understand science methodology and the philosophies behind it a hell of a lot better than I do the science itself. Which I often definitely don't understand).

In my reporting days, I'd tend to shy away from science stories (other than the fact they often weren't things that our target audience were meant to be interested in) because I didn't feel confident enough in handling them, or handling them accurately. I struggled with basic GCSE biology. I really wasn't the best person to critique or summarise an academic's work.

When I did cover science, the interviewee tended to get a relatively easy ride, again, due to my own lack of knowledge. And, yes, all too often I'd end up relying on a press release, especially if they were well-written and clear. It's perhaps not something I can say I'm overly proud of, but hopefully you can understand why (especially given how understaffed we were). Give me a football or local government story on the other hand.... No need for press releases there.

[This isn't to do I'd do this for all science or health stories. Lifestyle stuff, like your miracle cancer cures or food x causes y usually tended to get my bullshit alarm ringing].

Again, the question: what would you have me do?

Also, a secondary anecdote from my time editing the student paper.

Coming into the editor's chair, I was painfully aware how under-represented the science and medicine students were in the paper, especially given their bulk around campus, so we launched science and health pages - the first time, to my knowledge, the paper had ever included such sections.

I put out appeals to all science and medicine students, via email, asking them to get in touch if they were interested in editing or writing. I've no idea exactly how many students that went to, but it would have been in its thousands.

I got four responses. One ended up becoming our science editor, the other wrote a brilliantly vivid piece about his time on placement in hospital in Pakistan, and I never heard from him again, despite several emails almost begging for more articles. The other two never followed through. Ok, we got a couple more throughout the year, but that was still less than ten students (roughly).

I'm not quite sure what conclusions you can draw from that.

But back to the debate. It would be hard to say either side won, although that wasn't really the point. Both are right - it's good to praise good journalism and encourage it, and Ben Goldacre's right to bang the drum against poor science reporting which, at best is embarrassing and, at worst, dangerous.

The main thing was the debate was taking place in the first place. Just discussing whether science journalism is done well probably indicates both sides are right in their own way.

There's a more coherent write-up here and here from people who probably, unlike me, took notes. You can watch the debate here. I'd highly recommend it if you have a spare 90 minutes.

[And if anybody's wondering about the title of this blog post, it's a reference to a particularly demented and brilliant episode of South Park where Cartman freezes himself to get a Nintendo Wii but ends up in the future where Richard Dawkins' teachings reign supreme and there's a war between mankind and otters. It makes sense, honest.]

[1] It's late at night and I'm going by memory here.

Arguing for product placement on TV

It's been a few months later than it should, but it looks like UK television will finally get the nod for product placement. There's still a while to go yet before it finally gets approval, but if it does finally happen, it'll be a long-needed change to the rules. When then culture secretary Andy Burnham said there were "serious concerns" about product placement, he was doing the British public a disservice. It's not as if product placement is a new concept that audiences may find it hard to understand.

And, to me, a good indication of how well something is understood is if the audience can understand a simple joke around it, and judging by the amount of films with product placement related jokes in, they understand it pretty well.

Back in 1992, Mike Myers inserted a wonderfully simple - and still very funny - product placement gag into Wayne's World.

Without wanting to analyze the joke to death, the product placement joke worked on several levels and required a degree of understanding from the audience. Myers has a good grasp of product placement jokes, especially around Starbucks in the Austin Powers movies.

Obviously the entertainment industry isn't likely to bite the hand that feeds it, but there have been other examples, heading way back. The Truman Show has Truman's wife desperately trying to shoehorn a product placement into a domestic argument, while Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol 1 makes its own point about product placement by prominently featuring a raft of hyper-real fictional products. Latterly, the Orange adverts have also got in on the fun.

But, you may say, these are films and not TV. True, but then audiences have been watching films full of product placement for years now and, to date, nobody's seen a significant breakdown in society.

Take the James Bond franchise. A new Bond film, an event in itself, will typically have around 20 brand partners with products in the film. Die Another Day raked in somewhere around $100m through placement. Yet, despite the odd clunky moment ("Is that a Rolex?" "Omega") the films are often none the worse for being littered with brands; fitting given the style and endless brand namechecking in Fleming's books.

Viewers are also familiar with US TV and, even though imports are censored for placement where possible (think blurred out tumblers on American Idol), viewers are savvy enough to know when they're being marketed to. The ham-fisted attempt at censorship just draws more attention to the placement.

Then there's the added level of realism that product placement brings. We use brands on a daily basis. Some have even entered our lexicon. Yet characters still head into a pub and ask for a pint of beer, or use non-branded or fictional products to a frustrating level (although, in a weird full circle, so fictional products become so successful they cross the line into real life).

I take the point about exchange quality for more adverts. I take the point we're bombarded with adverts on a daily basis elsewhere, and can do without it ruining our favourite TV programmes. I especially take the point that product placement shouldn't be inserted into children's programmes, and the government if right to keep this as an exception.

But there are balances that need to be struck. If we want commercial broadcasting to keep producing high quality dramas, original comedies, or watercooler-worthy entertainment shows, we have to accept they need to be funded somehow, which means advertising.

It's never been easier to skip through adverts and, like adverts in print newspapers, you can't be sure anybody's actually watching - a nation can quite easily use an ad break for a mass cuppa or loo break.

So that makes product placement a lot more attractive to a brand, and easier to sell for the broadcaster. Does a company want a 30 second spot that some people may see or a placement in the programme that everybody will see.

At a time when commercial broadcasting is in need of a cash boost, it has made no sense to continue to ban product placement. It won't be the panacea to all woes, but it will help.

And, for once, I agree with Steve Hewlett when he says that badly-done product placement will see viewers turning off.

Sure, there will be some shows that take the money and produce an unwatchable advert, just as cinema has produced some clunkers where brands take centre-stage - Daredevil and Castaway are two that spring to mind.

But there's no reason why the two can't co-exist and produce something that everybody is happy with. Proof can be found in Shane Meadows' Somers Town, originally intended to be a short film funded by Eurostar, but one that ended up turning into a rather delightful feature film.

The two can co-exist and we, as audiences, are mature enough to understand when we're being sold something, without the need to be told we're being sold a product (a plan to come out of government, which was, frankly, patronising).

By all means have a framework or code of conduct (and I'd support this idea), but in this day and age, there's no good reason why our favourite TV stars can't refresh themselves with a Bud after a long day's work, before doing the weekly shop at Sainsbury's before curling up on the sofa with a tub of Ben and Jerry's.

Ok, so that may sound like a lot of brands just in one sentence, but think how, well, ordinary that is. If I told you that's how I spent my evening, you wouldn't bat and eyelid, and nor should we when our fictional counterparts do the same.

[Disclosure: I work for ITV in a communities/PR capacity, but these views are entirely my own. Plus, my university dissertation, many moons ago, was on the subject of product placement, so it's a subject I've always retained an interest in, and would do regardless of where I worked.]

Last night I think I died and woke up in some kind of food heaven

Another day, another year older. Despite my protestations, I'm actually less bothered about turning 28 than I am turning 29. At least 28 is the peak age for a top-class football. Once you reach 29, where can you go from there? 30? Whatever. And despite other protestations that I really don't like doing anything special, this is the third birthday in a row that's turned pretty memorable. This year was in no small part due to the fact my lovely girlfriend whisked me off to Jun Tanaka's Pearl for the tasting menu.

Oh. My. God. That's all you can say, really. This may well rank as one of the best birthday experiences ever.

It came as a complete surprise. I'd just been told to turn up in Central London looking reasonably smart and that was it. I'd no idea about the sensual treats on offer.

The tasting menu wasn't just about food. Every course came with a specially selected beer to complement the flavours.This is A Good Thing and can only be encouraged. I know a little about wines. I know a lot more about ales, and these were good ales.

Innis and Gunn I'd heard of, and had been keen to try for a while. The deep, malty toffee flavour was a perfect accompaniment to the lamb. The rest were equally delicious. The Spanish Alhambra Reserve that accompanied the monkfish stood out as a wonderfully rich-yet-balanced beer.

From start to finish the whole thing was magnificent. The pea, feta and mint foam palate cleanser to start through to the chocolate parfait, which lasted all of about 2 minutes, if that.

Inbetween came scallops, duck and watermelon, amazing monkfish, lamb so tender it melted in your mouth and a plum soup. Plus canapes.

I would attempt detailed description, but the different beers take their toll. Suffice to say, everything - from the perfectly cooked monkfish to the beer cocktails to finish - was unbelievable. I've eaten at decent restaurants. Nothing quite comes close to what I experienced at Pearl.

I would also provide pictures, but none of the courses hung around on our plates for detailed snaps. Especially not the chocolate parfait.

The only downside... I could easily get a taste for this kind of thing. One day, Fat Duck, I will have donated enough of my body to medical science to be able to afford your tasting menu. By that time, you may just have a table free.

[Although I seem to be making a habit of good food on my birthday. Two years ago, we wound up at The Cricket Inn at Beesands, which served up some of the most delicious, freshest seafood dishes I've ever tasted. Last year I was eating paella in Barcelona. To make up for the awfulness of turning 29 next year, perhaps I should insist on El Bulli and nothing less]

This redesigning takes time

And I wish I had more of it. What I really need is a wet Sunday where I'm doing absolutely nothing and have time to truly faff about.

In theory, changing themes shouldn't take long. In practice, it's a lot more difficult. It's amazing how many of the free themes don't work properly in Firefox or Safari. And even when you find one you like, there a lot of tweaking, which takes a lot longer than anticipated.

Plus it's taken me ages to find a theme I actually like.

This is the end result, and I'm much happier than with the old one. As and when I get time to play around further there'll be further changes, just in case you think things look different.

One day (hah!) I'd like to have a go at doing one myself, but that will involve learning CSS and that's a whole new set o'problems. It's been fun to learn as I go along though (and apologies if you've arrived here in the middle of something going horribly wrong for a few minutes). I'd even go as far as to say I've enjoyed this.

How skinny do you want your side order of water, ma'am?

Water is, I think we're all in general agreement, a good thing for our bodies. You don't drink it and you become dehydrated, which leads to a variety of problems. It helps rehydrate and, without getting too technical, helps keep our bodies ticking over. Given that we're largely made of water, drinking a decent amount of water every day is largely considered A Good Thing. There are many things I use water for. Losing weight isn't one of them.

But then I don't drink Skinny Water.

Given that there's not a lot to choose between different bottles of water, other than packaging and price, it's not surprising that the brand marketing people are looking for new angles to sell their water, and we shouldn't begrudge them that. It's their job. But this one really is really something special.

Right now there's somebody, somewhere, laughing all the way to the bank because they've essentially sold ice cubes to a bunch of Eskimos: the idea that you can lose weight by drinking a specific brand of water.

Skinny Water describes itself as "a low-calorie water". Which is impressive as water doesn't actually have any calories. Water's good for many things, but calories aren't one of them.

However, flavoured water does contain calories, and most likely sugar. Skinny Water's website says it has a hint of pomegranate in it, so it's a good bet that there's a bit of sugar and flavourings in here. These may compare well to other flavoured waters on the market but not as well as standard water. Because standard, non-flavoured water has no calories.

It's highly dubious that drinking water, or Skinny Water, will actually make you slimmer. It's not going to hurt to keep yourself well hydrated and to swap your Coca-Cola for a jug of tap water. But just drinking water alone won't change a great deal.

Drinking water, regular exercise and eating a healthy diet are probably your best bets if you want to lose weight. Running's a good start. You can refresh yourself with tap water. And that'll be just as good for you AND will cost less than a bottle of Skinny Water.

But then normal water doesn't have special science behind it, namely a special blend of chromium and L-Carnitine, which Skinny Water has. According to the blurb on the website these "assists natural fat burning and helps reduce sugar cravings".

If Skinny Water contains sugar (and I can't find a list of ingredients on their website) then it's hardly surprising if it reduces sugar cravings.

The fat burning issue is slightly more complex, and sounds impressive but that's about all it is, really. If you click on the Now Magazine coverage in their press section, you'll see that the 'expert view' says Chromium Deficiency can cause poor glucose tolerance, which in turn can lead to obesity.

Except chromium deficiency is incredibly rare. There have been three clear cases (PDF) in hospital patients who were fed a very specific diet over a period of time. Other than that, it's highly unlikely the average person would develop deficiency, although it's possible it may help with type two diabetes and that's still under debate. It does appear as a trace element in the human body and we do need it, although nobody's exactly sure why.

L-Carnitine is used to transport fatty acids when your body breaks down the fats, so yes, it well help. But if you're eating a varied diet you're going to get plenty of it anyway.  Beef, pork, chicken, dairy, and bread all contain L-Carnitine.

But after a certain level of L-Carnitine, it stops being effective and slows down the breakup of fats. So, in basic terms, you'll probably put on weight if you have it in excess as the fats won't get broken down as quickly.

It's also sold as a weight-loss supplement although there's no conclusive evidence that it has any effect in this regard. There's been plenty of studies into L-Carnitine's and athletic performance. Again, there's nothing conclusive to say it has any effect during exercise.

But then it also stops you feeling hungry. In all honesty, if I drank the ten bottles in recommends, I'd probably feel a bit bloated.

The website says there are plenty of scientific studies around L-Carnitine and chromium, which is true. It doesn't say what results these studies came up with. It also says they're FDA approved. Given that neither are going to do you much damage (unless you accidentally take the toxic kind of chromium) that's hardly surprising either. It doesn't make it that special.

Like I say, I've nothing against the marketing people who sell bottled water. It's when you start to move into making some rather ridiculous claims about weight loss that I start getting a bit more irritated.

Somewhere out there there's going to be impressionable teenagers who'll think that because Jennifer Aniston drinks Skinny Water to keep slim, that drinking water will be the way to stay slim. Or there'll be some idiot who'll view it as a way to lose weight.

Yes, if you drink nothing but water, Skinny or otherwise, you'll lose weight. There's also a chance you'll kill yourself.

Water's good for you, yes. But you can rehydrate a lot easier and cheaper than Skinny Water with tap water and the effects will, I'd wager, be roughly the same.

My favourite bit about Skinny Water is the endorsement from pop singer Fergie, from the Black Eyed Peas:

"At the moment I’m drinking Skinny Water. With a name like that it has to be good, right?"

You really wonder why nobody else has cottoned onto this. Just add Skinny to the name and hey-presto, it's good for you, especially the McSkinny Big Mac Burger. Still, if Fergie wants to waste her money on this, that's fine by me.

I'm going to try and make my fortune through a bit of reverse psychology though. I'm calling something Skinny works so well, I'm going to market the Fat Bastard Banana. It's like a normal banana, except we only sell the biggest bananas we can find. It'll be sold to far people who hate diets, so they can scoff bananas in the knowledge that it's sticking one to the system.

(If you're wondering, there's no real reason why I've decided to post this, other than I saw Sian had blogged about it and it got me a bit irritated)

Please bear with me, your blog is important to us

Want to know the meaning of sheer blog terror? The knowledge that clicking just one button could make a huge difference to your blog. Or it could destroy it. You wouldn't know until you clicked that button. It was this form of terror I experienced at approximately 8.34pm this evening, while attempting to set up a domain redirect from my old wordpress blog to this place. I'd followed the instructions, but still wasn't entirely sure I'd done everything correctly.

My blog was going to be, essentially, a version of Schrodinger's cat.

*click*

The tension was too much. I sent a couple of emails instead. Then I looked back.

It worked. Thank whichever deity you pray to for that.

So, now I can get back on track. The redirect, to me, was always the most important thing of moving to my new domain. Otherwise, I had two blogs floating on the net, with the old one getting all the links and the traffic.

Now that's done, I can worry about the design (ha! As if I'm going to get that right without breaking something).

Meanwhile, apologies again for waffling on about the maintenance of this place. It's sort of fascinating to me, as, for all the time I've spent on the internet, I've never bothered to learn the technical stuff. Now, I'm realising that I really should have done while I had the opportunity.

Ah well. More terror up ahead.

[Incidentally, for anybody who's looking to redirect their old wordpress.com blog to a new domain built on wordpress.org, this PDF is a Godsend. It's writing for people hosting on GoDaddy, but I use Bluehosts and the method's pretty similar and easy to work out]

Removal van unloaded, now to rearrange the furniture

Congratulations if you found this place. It's kind of a bit new, but in need of some DIY. Yes, after years of blogging on wherever, I finally caved in and got my own domain name. And, er, this is it. It looks exactly like the last one doesn't it.

Essentially, the plan is for this all to change. I've got plans to redesign the theme and split my feeds into at least two different topics, namely football and other stuff. And to make it look pretty.

The downside to this is I've never attempted to design a blog before.

"Get outta town," I hear you say. "You're all over teh internetz like a bad rash. How can YOU not know how to design a website?"

Um, well, I don't. And I can't. Seriously, I've no idea what I'm doing here. Blog designing lessons? CSS editing? Sorry miss, I must have been behind the bike sheds. Or doodling. Yes miss, sorry miss, won't happen again.

But, like any good man with a wanton disregard for instructions I'm going to attempt to do much of the redesign myself. So if you see funny things go on over here you'll know why. And I'll be blogging here from now on. So update your RSS feeds and your bookmarks.

No doubt this will all end in tears and I'll get somebody to do this professionally, but I at least feel I should have a go.

Like I say, tears before bedtime. Have you seen my attempts to put up shelves?

NightJacking anonymity

Earlier today, Mr Justice Eady [1] ruled that the author of the NightJack blog could not stay anonymous. This will probably mean nothing to most people, but could be a significant case law ruling when it coming to blogging and, potentially, whistleblowing. If you've never heard of NightJack, he's a policeman who blogged anonymously and candidly about his job. It was an eye-opener and a great read that made you emphasise with hiss job. The blog won an Orwell Award for the quality of it's writing.

That blog is no more and the author has been disciplined after The Times 'outed' NightJack. One of their reporters worked out the bloggers identity, the blogger took out an injunction, the Times challenged that injunction and today's ruling is the end result. Bloggers cannot expect anonymity.

The Times says of the ruling: "Today newspaper lawyers were celebrating one of the rarer Eady rulings in their favour." I'd beg to differ. It leaves me with a slightly sick feeling in my stomach and a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.

Let's go, if I may, on a slight tangent before getting back to the case in hand. Generally speaking, for both blogging an the internet, I think moving away from anonymity is a good thing. We're moving to an era, especially with social media, where identity is more open and the internet is all the better for it. It cuts down on trolling for a start.

I'm also a big fan of openness and accountability. If somebody asked me about starting a blog, I'd suggest they do it under their own name, or at least made it clear who they were. It clears up any misunderstandings from the off - setting out your stall so people know who you are.

Let's also be clear, when we're talking about anonymity, we're not talking about identities created around blogging here. NightJack was very different to the likes of Devil's Kitchen, Chicken Yoghurt, Doctor Vee, Bloggerheads or many of the other well-known bloggers. They have their online identity which sites alongside their real name. Anybody can find out who they are in a matter of seconds - their pen names are their blogging personas.

Moving onto the judgement, I can see why Mr Justice Eady came to his eventual judgement. It's still a bit of a mess but can be fitted into the letter of the law, by and large (although, and this is one of the wonders of the vagueries of the English legal system, you could easily have seen him ruling the other way).

But the judgement: the reasoning, the logic and the whole lead-up to this just doesn't feel right. As Paul Bradshaw says:

"... this is a ruling that has enormous implications for whistleblowers and people blogging ‘on the ground’. That’s someone else’s ‘public interest’.

And that last element is the saddest for me."

Let's leave aside the judgement itself for a minute (the judge can only really rule what's in front of him) and look to The Times and their role in unmasking NightJack. This is the part that leaves me uneasiest of all.

Their journalist pieced together who NightJack was and then went to publish. And the question I have is why? [2]

NightJack is a public servant, true, but in the grand scheme of things he really isn't that important. Certainly, going to all this effort to unmask him seems a little, well, excessive.

He's a blogger. A well-read blogger, yes, and an award-winning one. But is it really in the public's interest, as opposed to being merely interesting to the public, to know who he is? If he were a Chief Constable, a high-ranking BBC employee, an MP or a civil servant, I could understand this. But a Detective Constable in Lancashire? It's hardly a high-level scoop is it? Or, indeed, a high-profile and significant victory for openness, as they portray the judgement.

[The other thing that sits uneasy with me here is The Times have previous in this area when they unmasked Girl With A One Track Mind for no other reason, seemingly, than they could. That, more than NightJack, seemed like a particularly pointless act for the sake of a story].

Justin McKeating makes a very good point with regard to The Times' victory today: that of anonymous sources for journalists. They may not be bloggers, but you can see where Justin's coming from - the principle is very similar (and apologies for copying a large chunk of his text here, but it helps place his argument in context:

Would I be wrong in thinking that anonymous sources, insiders and friends are conducting the business of democracy in the media with the willing collusion of journalists? If nothing else, it’s in direct contravention of the ‘different type of politics’ promised to us by Gordon Brown – a politics promising a ‘more open and honest dialogue‘.
It would seem to me that some kind of public interest challenge in the courts is in order. Imagine the story in The Times…
Thousands of ’sources’, ‘insiders’ and ‘friends’ churn out opinions daily — secure in the protection afforded to them by the cloak of anonymity lent to them by obsequious journalists.
From today, however, they can no longer be sure that their identity can be kept secret, after a landmark ruling by Mr Justice Eady.
The judge, who is known for establishing case law with his judgments on privacy, has struck a blow in favour of openness, ruling that democracy is “essentially a public rather than a private activity”.
What could be more in the public interest than that?

 

Would I be wrong in thinking that anonymous sources, insiders and friends are conducting the business of democracy in the media with the willing collusion of journalists? If nothing else, it’s in direct contravention of the ‘different type of politics’ promised to us by Gordon Brown – a politics promising a ‘more open and honest dialogue‘.

It would seem to me that some kind of public interest challenge in the courts is in order. Imagine the story in The Times…

Thousands of ’sources’, ‘insiders’ and ‘friends’ churn out opinions daily — secure in the protection afforded to them by the cloak of anonymity lent to them by obsequious journalists.

From today, however, they can no longer be sure that their identity can be kept secret, after a landmark ruling by Mr Justice Eady.

The judge, who is known for establishing case law with his judgments on privacy, has struck a blow in favour of openness, ruling that democracy is “essentially a public rather than a private activity”.

What could be more in the public interest than that?

This comes back to Paul Bradshaw's earlier point about whistleblowers and 'on the ground' bloggers.

When it comes to the majority of bloggers, it probably doesn't matter too much whether they're anonymous or not. It'd be nice if we knew who they were, as I said earlier, but, at the end of the day, most of the time it's not really a huge issue.

But those bloggers who write detailed and informative posts about their profession are much rarer and are worth treasuring. Blogs like NightJack, PC Bloggs, Dr Crippen and The Magistrate's Blogs are essential reads.

They are candid and often eye-opening and enables you to get a better idea of the problems facing our police force, judiciary and NHS. They lift the lid, often a very small lid, on the inner workings of these professions. If anything, they give the public a remarkable insight into the inner workings. And to my mind, this is largely a good thing, as Tom Reynolds points out:

 

"What bloggers do is humanise and explain their section of the world - public sector bodies do well to have bloggers writing within them, after all these are the people who careabout what they do, about what improvements should be made and about where the faults come from. They highlight these things in the hopes that, in bringing this information into the public consciousness, they can effect a change that they would otherwise be powerless to bring about.

Anonymity provides a protection against vindictiveness from management who would rather do nothing than repeat the party-line, or lie, that everything is perfect, there is no cause for concern. Having seen management do, essentially illegal things, in order to persecute and victimise staff - anonymity is a way of protecting your mortgage payments."

 

You can understand why they are anonymous [3]. The blogs probably contravene the terms of their employment. Yet, in their own small ways, they are important for the public to read, more so than the person writing them (in all honesty, the writer of NightJack could have been any Detective Constable). [4]

There are very few bloggers for whom anonymity is a near-necessity, and if it stops others coming forward to give their insights then the internet will be poorer for it. And for what purpose. One article that doesn't really amount to much.

Not everybody will agree with this. David MacLean makes some very good points as to why NightJack shouldn't remain anonymous, although even he calls The Times' decision to publish "a tough one".

In the grand scheme of things, The Times' unmasking story by itself really isn't overly big. The legacy of if could well be.

 

[1] A name familiar to anybody who's studied media law.

[2] Anton Vowl asks the same question.

[3] Not all are. Tom Reynolds from Random Acts of Reality, who has some fairly strong words about this case, and Suzi Brent from Nee Naw are more public examples. But I'd wager they've had some awkward conversations with their line managers at some point.

[4] One of The Times' arguments was NightJack was committing Contempt of Court with his posts, and there is an argument here. Certainly if the blog had collapsed a trial there would be little argument against naming the author. That said, the internet is a hideously grey area when it comes to contempt. A reasonable amount of time on Google would probably produce enough to piece together extra information on any significant trial covered in either the national or local press. You'd probably have to do a fair bit of work to piece together events from a trial and link them back to the blog, and the level of threat the blog posed to a fair trial... possibly minimal. It doesn't make it right, but I'd be surprised if anything NightJack wrote would have led to a trial being abandoned.