Ada Lovelace Day

About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

Case Study 01 - A European Pharmaceutical Group

Find out how a large pharma company uses dark blogs (behind the firewall) to gather and disseminate competitive intelligence material.


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Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

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Monday, September 21st, 2009

Newspapers: A message from users in 68-foot tall flaming numbers

Posted by Kevin Anderson

As the great paid content debate of 2009 has played out, we’ve had a lot of assertions about what users should pay for without much clarity about what they would pay for or much about their habits. My gut feeling is that users will pay for certain types of content but that it will be extremely difficult to simply monetise existing content or attempt to create false scarcity by putting all content behind a paywall and drive readers back to print.

As a journalist who has chosen to make the internet my primary medium, my gut and quite a bit of my experience tells me that while I may be an early adopter, readers are moving more toward my habits than staying with or moving to print habits. However, I’m very careful not to generalise without data. My friends are all part of what I often refer to as the global geek collective. Our habits are our own and we shouldn’t assume that those habits are common to our audiences.

This week, however, new data appeared that made me feel slightly less like an outlier. The American Press Institute released the results of a survey of 2,400 news executives in the US. The event was invitation only, but Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism released the 80-slide presentation. It is a treasure trove of data and journalism bloggers have been slowing dissecting the data and the methodology all week.

Steve Outing highlighted a statistic that should give news executives and journalists pause. As Steve points out:

…the graphic shows that 75% of newspaper execs believe that if their content were no longer available on their website, online users would foremost turn to the print edition of the newspaper. Meanwhile, only 30% of online news users said they would turn to the print edition in such a case; the No. 1 choice (at 68% of respondents to a 2009 Belden survey) was to look to “other local Internet sites.”

Steve comes to the conclusion that “newspaper leaders remain delusional”. I might be a wee bit more generous and say that this is a clear message from users to newspaper owners in the US. However, not to put too fine of a point on it: This is a radical disconnect between the assumptions of publishers and the views of people who might have formerly been their audience.

Would the results be the same in the UK or other markets? I’d love to know. Suw and I often bemoan the lack of basic media research in the UK. In the US, the Pew Centers for the Internet and American Life and for the People and the Press do excellent basic research on internet usage patterns, attitudes towards the press and other media issues. The UK could really benefit from similar research.

Returning to the API-commissioned survey, the bloggers at Harvard’s Nieman Lab did an excellent job pulling out key bits of data from the survey.

Again, there is much food for thought. It’s important to note that the API commissioned the survey in the context of the meeting billed as the “Newsmedia Economic Action Plan Conference”, wherein the US newspaper industry tried to buy a clue as to how to survive the recession and rebuild a viable, sustainable business. Of course, Steve Brill and Co at Journalism Online have offered themselves up as the key to the glorious future of paid content online. They were one of several companies that provided proposals to publishers at the event.

Zach Seward provides this caveat about one of the companies responsible for the API survey, ITZ Publishing:

You’ll also want to apply a helping of salt because ITZ Publishing consults for Steve Brill’s pay-for-news firm Journalism Online, which just touted the results as an “API study” without noting its business interest.

The ‘frequency challenge’

The survey highlighted, yet again, what Steve Yelvington has been pointing to for years: The challenge of frequency for news websites.

In nearly all markets, newspaper websites receive 2.5 visits and 10 pageviews for each unique visitor.

Steve’s frequency challenge is this: High monthly (or even daily running average) unique figures for many websites obscure the fact that most of these visitors come infrequently and look at only a few pages. This is one of the reasons why, despite record numbers of visitors to news websites, it is proving difficult to translate this traffic into revenue. The recession and subsequent collapse in online and offline advertising is a slightly separate, but deadly, issue for news organisations.

As the survey found, the 2.5 visits and 10 pageviews a month figure is a pretty consistent figure across the industry. It’s grim, but it really highlights the amount of drive-by visitors coming to news sites via search engines and the high level of long tail activity on most news sites. The head of the tail is about 25% of readership, what the survey calls “core loyalists”. The survey found:

“Core loyalists,” who visit a newspaper 2-3 times a day for 20 days a month, comprise 25% of unique visitors. Not surprisingly, then, core loyalists account for 86% of pageviews and are “overwhelmingly local.”

Steve Outing’s and Zach Seward’s posts and Bill Densmore’s liveblog of the event are well worth reading for more context.

I’d like to see more demographic information about core loyalists. How old are they? Are they heavily weighted in older age groups? Is there evidence that these core loyalists are being replaced by readers over 30? Assuming that core loyalists are older - and there is evidence to support this - should newspapers focus on older readers? Unfortunately, we have good data that says that older readers aren’t being replaced. Focusing on a declining group of older readers is not a long-term strategy and it begs the question: Can news organisations provide compelling services that re-engage younger readers online or offline? Furthermore, if most of these services are digital, not an unrealistic assumption, can they build a business around these services?

The concept of ‘core audience’ as outlined in this study is difficult to translate to the British market because UK newspapers with national circulation don’t really have a loyal local audience unless one considers their London base as local. However, regardless of whether this data is relevant to the UK market, the pain being felt by newspapers, especially regional newspapers in the UK, is similar if not worse.

I’m still digesting these figures. I would say that they reinforce one of the points made by the Internet Manifesto out of Germany that has been making the rounds and some waves: “12. Tradition is not a business model.” As any journalist who gets out of the media bubble knows, the sense of importance, relevance and audience loyalty often expressed in the boardrooms of many news organisations is such happy talk that you have to wonder what’s in the tea and biscuits.

Reconnecting with audiences

Many of us have known for quite a while the problems that this survey flags up. Paid content advocates like Brill & Co will read into this that their promise to get 10% of online news audiences to pay for some kinds of content is achievable. However, this masks serious long term issues for news organisations. Our audiences are shrinking. They aren’t being replaced and while we have business-threatening short term economic issues we will have to quickly pivot to deal with these long term issues.

The biggest long term problem most news organisations have is declining trust and relevance. I have to agree with Michael Skoler, writing in the autumn edition of Nieman Reports.

Journalists are truth-tellers. But I think most of us have been lying to ourselves. … The news became less local and less relevant, and reporters became less connected to their communities. Surveys show a steep drop in public trust in journalism occurring during the past 25 years. … The truth is the Internet didn’t steal the audience. We lost it. Today fewer people are systematically reading our papers and tuning into our news programs for a simple reason—many people don’t feel we serve them anymore. We are, literally, out of touch.

One important step that we need to take to rebuild our businesses is to rebuild our relationship with our audiences. This is why I embraced blogging as a journalist and have continued to embrace more recent forms of social media. I saw an opportunity to improve my journalism and, by opening up to a conversation with our audiences, I saw an opportunity to reconnect with audiences and build a sense of loyalty. It is why I stress when I speak to journalists and editors that it is a mistake to believe that social media is fundamentally a technical problem for news organisations. I’ve seen excellent technical solutions that still fail because journalists won’t engage with their audiences. More journalists will need to take responsibility for rehabilitating this relationship. It’s not just about building a personal brand. It is more importantly about rebuilding trust. Without that, the economic solutions are meaningless short-term fixes.

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Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

Government support for journalism is no panacea

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Today, I had a Twitter discussion with Kevin Garber, an “African entrepreneur in Australia and founder and CEO of spellr.us” an online spellcheck service. As with Twitter conversations, this is actually from two threads that take some joining. It began based on one my response to journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen who said:

My testimony would have been: No government funding for news; culture war yahoos in Congress will just Mapplethorpe it http://tr.im/kDIb

Jay was linking to a US Senate committee meeting about The Future of Journalism. Jay is referring to the battle over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the US over support of exhibitions of homoerotic photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. The NEA became a key front in the US Culture Wars.

Journalists in the US who look to the BBC model for funding journalism or want their own government bailout would be wise to remember the Culture Wars. They’ve loved covering it, but if they took state funding, they wouldn’t be just be covering it, they would become embroiled in it, even more than they already are. As I said to Jay on Twitter, People in US arguing for gov’t support for newspapers forget what a political football arts or public broadcast funding is.

Kevin said:

the key question is are newspapers a public good that can’t be addressed via normal supply/demand mechanisms …

To which I replied: “No, the question is about about journalism not about newspapers. Public funding for journalism is not a panacea. (says as ex-BBC)”.

I’ll agree with Kevin who said in a follow up comment that “smart capitalism doesn’t rely on mkt for everything”, but I’m not sure that the market is failing in terms of support for professional journalism. Rather, I think we’re in the midst of changing business models and that the dominant print model has given way to a multi-platform model with much greater diversity of revenue streams than the recession sensitive over-reliance on advertising. Newspaper and broadcast journalism are capital-intensive, industrial businesses that rely on advertising rates that were under threat before the recession and are unsustainable during the recession. The market has been sending clear signals to newspapers for 30 years that their business model was under threat, and those trends have only accelerated in the last five years. However, the Great Recession is a rupture in business as usual. Assumptions, business projections and companies are now being swept away as this credit bubble bursts.

Now, like the banking and auto industry, the newspaper industry is looking for a solution, and many journalists share Kevin Garber’s view that newspaper journalism is such an important public good that it merits public funds. You hear it when journalists argue that they play a role essential to democracy.

Even non-journalists make this argument. Suw was at Social Web Foo Camp recently at O’Reilly HQ in California, and she said that many people during a “design the future newspaper” pointed to the BBC as the model that could save journalism. Public service broadcasting is a funding model for journalism, but even in the UK, it hasn’t been extended to newspapers. And I doubt it will be. I think journalists also need to realise that such a model probably couldn’t roll back the job cuts that are hitting US newspapers. This shouldn’t be seen as some full employment act for journalists. Also, let’s get real. As an American, I think it’s safe to say that we would have to be living in some Star Trek-variety parallel universe to even contemplate significant public support in the US for a $200-plus annual licence fee payment to watch live broadcast television (either other-the-air or down a cable of some description). It ain’t gonna happen. Seriously. Also, while many other state broadcasters benefit from a licence fee, the UK is unique in the level of funding, and I think a poll of senior executives at the BBC would find most of them preparing for a dramatically reduced level of public funding in the future.

But apart from the political feasibility of a publicly funded journalism institution at the level of the BBC, let’s take a look at some of the cons stemming from public funding. And I say this coming from the point of view of having worked for Auntie for eight years. I love the BBC, and I was very proud to work there. However, public funding doesn’t come without its downsides (and strings attached, just ask the banks or Chrysler for that matter).

  1. What one administration giveth, another can taketh away. And the cuts might even come from an administration that you think will like you. Bill Clinton didn’t really like the press when he left, and Labour, while it might seem would have much more kinship with the BBC and public broadcasting, has not exactly been a supporter of the BBC. Just ask Director General Mark Thompson who thought he was going to get a much more generous licence fee settlement than he got.
  2. Your commercial competitors will spill tankers of ink, pay lobbyists and rant endlessly on air (cough, Fox News) to make sure that your funding will be as low as possible. Just ask the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the US. (Maybe you should take a page out of NPR’s books and start subscription drives.)
  3. You’ll have to subject new ideas to a ‘public value test‘ and make sure that it doesn’t distort the commercial market. In other words, you can be successful, but not too successful.
  4. Public funding won’t insulate you from job cuts. As I said, I worked for the BBC for eight years. There were cuts four out of the eight years I worked there. One year, the cuts were 18%, which was a blessing because the Head of New Media at the time, Ashley Highfield, had asked for 25%. And the cuts continue. This year, they are looking to find £400m of savings.

There are pros, of course, and the BBC is a great journalistic institution. But it’s not in the ruddy health that most American journalists assume it is. Like much of the media, it reached a high water mark in the early part of this decade, and it’s now swimming against the tide. This is not to say that public funding shouldn’t play a role in journalism, but it already does in the US in the form of NPR and public television. Also, based on the experience of Sweden, state support might help for while, but it’s not a long-term solution.

I’ll be interested to see what if anything comes out of the US Senate hearings today, but if it’s government support you want, be careful what you wish for.

UPDATE: A timely example of what I’m getting at. If journalists are anxious over a sense of powerlessness from market forces, it’s no different when the government can change your budget by fiat. See: (Conservative Party leader) Cameron to force vote to halt increase in BBC licence fee. He might not get his way now, but he might when he’s prime minister.

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Socially disrupting a major news site is trivial

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I originally was just going to add Chris Applegate’s discussion of trolling and griefing at Social Media Camp London last weekend (we didn’t manage to make it) into our delicious links for the day, but then I realised that Chris has highlighted a really important issue.

The social sophistication of trolls completely out-strips the social thinking behind most news sites. As a journalist who hears a lot of complaints from other editors about trolling, I can honestly say if 4Chan turned their attention to a major news website, it would be trivial to socially disrupt it. Actually, 4Chan has already done this, gaming the Time magazine most influential person poll.

The Internet has different rules. The folks at Time just learned about it in a very amusing way, as their third annual poll for the world’s most influential person was topped by moot A.K.A. Christopher Poole, founder of the legendary memebreeding forum 4chan.

The fact that it’s so easy is probably one of the reasons that really good trolls don’t bother playing silly buggers with news sites. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Chris says, quite rightly:

The barrier between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has come down, and what happens online can now very easily spill over into offline. There is no inherent morality within Web 2.0 - tools can be used for good or evil. Trolls are now their own separate problem within themselves - they allow efforts to be distributed to many human actors over a variety of technologies, and collectivised to any particular end, over a mere matter of minutes, hours, days or months. It’s a different problem from spam (mainly bots) or hacking (mainly individuals or small groups) and as the social web gets ever more ubiquitous and less distinct from the ‘real’ world, it’s only going to be more of a concern. Successfully fighting against them is a distinct concern - but at the same time let’s not get obsessed by it; letting it stifle innovation would mean the trolls truly have won.

Anyone who has worked with social media on a news site knows that trolling isn’t a new problem. As soon as you have a forum, as sites that I worked on in the 1990s did, you will have people who enjoy poking at the other users. But there are just some folks who have a passion for more than mischief.

However, although we’ve increased the number of interactive features on our sites, news organisations mostly have failed to increase the emotional and social intelligence of their strategies. Some of this is an over-emphasis on technical solutions to what are largely social problems. Certainly, bad technology can make your job harder, but technology can only go so far in solving social issues.

A lot of the problems come from strategies that make perfect sense in the era of broadcast mass media but don’t make sense in terms of social media. And when I say broadcast, I mean uni-directional media, including print, not simply television or radio. Mass media constantly competes for attention, often by trying to shout over each other. Editors wanted to be talked about, and a lot of the strategies seem solely designed to outrage, upset or simply piss people off. Some mass media strategies aren’t social strategies. They are anti-social strategies. Journalists give sources a right to respond, but now the audience has a right to respond too. If we whip an audience into a mob, the result is predictable.

Social media journalism is about working in constructive ways with the audience to provide something of value both to the news organisation but more importantly to our co-collaborators in the audience. We have new opportunities to help people make sense of the world and make decisions in democratic socieities. If the only value that news organisations provide in terms of social media is an opportunity for people to vent their rage, that’s not a winning startegy. It’s a strategy that deserves to fail.

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

How to run a news organisation in a down economy

Posted by Kevin Anderson

The year has started out with more hand wringing about the predictable (and predicted), but very dire, economic situation of newspapers, particularly in the US. News organisations’ belief that quality will be their saviour is usually the result of projections of their own information consumption patterns and standards for quality on their audience, motivations that their audience may or may not share.

Newspapers are not maintaining the audiences necessary to support their current costs. Steve Yelvington just wrote this post about the bad news for newspapers and rays of hope, which is a comment that he left on Jeff Jarvis’ list of newspaper bad news from 2008:

At the core, it’s not an advertising problem. Local businesses still need to reach potential local customers, and they’re willing (although certainly not eager) to pay for results.

It’s primarily a failure to attract and retain a commercially relevant audience that’s breaking the newspaper business model.

I agree with Steve that multi-platform, multi-revenue stream businesses are necessary to survive, and many publications are in the process of the wrenching change required to achieve that.

But there is another, equally important, way to make the necessary change for news organisations looking to survive in this very challenging economic environment, and that is to disrupt their own costs (and I don’t mean cutting head count even further). While some blame digital technology and the internet for the death of newspapers, I would argue that embracing disruptive digital technology could lead to substantial cost savings.

Off the shelf, pro-sumer gear straddles the line between consumer and professional kit but costs substantially less. Open source software can extend the life of aging computers in the office, can run the servers and handle most CMS functions. Open-source content-management systems might not be ready for the largest sites, but most small- to medium-sized news sites could easily use Drupal or WordPress for their entire site. In the hands of a competent contractor with the occasional tweaking from a third-party vendor, the site will easily cope with moderate traffic.

I even think there is a possible radical model where there is a small office that handles core administrative and sales functions but the journalists are by and large dispersed, tele-commuting as much as possible. They would work as close to the story and their sources as possible and file remotely. They can use Skype or IM to communicate with their managers, and Twitter-like service Yammer to keep in touch with each other and help prevent a sense of isolation. Maybe I’m advocating this because as a journalist who worked in a foreign bureau and often out in the field for several years, this type of working seems natural to me.

A lot of successful digital content businesses already work on this model, and I think that we’ll see more competition in this space from within the industry. In this downturn, digital outcasts made redundant by traditional news organisations will start their own boot-strapped news organisations, potentially pushing many of their former employers to the wall, unless the incumbents radically, not incrementally, remake themselves. It is only a matter of time. The digital disrupters will run very lean, digitally-focused businesses with multiple revenue streams, as Steve suggests.

For a model of the thinking that will drive this type of business, look to this post by Eric Ries HOW TO: Raise Money in a Down Economy on Mashable. He serves as a venture advisor for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and talks about trying to raise money for a venture in 2004, when scepticism remained after the dot.com crash. His advice is:

The most important thing you can do to improve your chances of raising money in a down economy is to build a great company. A great startup is more than just a miniature version of a great large company. All of its process should be focused on innovating and learning. Today, it’s possible to use a combination of free and open source software, community-generated content, and agile software development to bring new products to market with extremely low cost.

Add professionally created and curated content and apply this model for an innovation-led business, and you’ll find a way out of this perfect storm affecting the newspaper industry. It’s eerily similar to the Newspaper Next project recommendations for good reason.

However, I ask those of you toiling in the industry right now. How close is this disruptive way of doing business to the environment at your news organisation?

  • Is your company focused on learning and innovation?
  • To what extent is your company using free and open-source software?
  • Is your company focused on delivering information while cutting costs?
  • Is your company looking for new ways to partner with and build new relationships with your audience?

Cutting costs doesn’t just have to happen through job cuts. Companies need empower their people to work smarter, spend money more wisely, and focus on doing more with less. There are many ways to achieve this, and I think we’ll see experimentation and innovation this year as the economic crisis deepens. Necessity will be the mother of re-invention.

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

SquareState.net:: Trick or Vote this Halloween!

Posted by Kevin Anderson

If you are passionate about voting and Halloween, then this is the event for you: Trick or Vote. It’s in 25 cities across the United States. Dress up as your favourite ghost or ghoul for a good cause and Trick or Vote.

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Untitled 1

Posted by Kevin Anderson

what you see is what you get.

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

Oops

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

UPDATE: The Feedburner feed has now been fixed, so you should get articles in your aggregator as per normal again.

When we switched Strange Attractor from Movable Type to Wordpress, we borked the Feedburner RSS feed… Oops! Unfortunately, it’s been so long since I started that account that I’ve, erm, lost the password and the password reset seems to have been sent to an old email address that I no longer use… Oops again!

So, if you’d like to still receive Strange Attractor by RSS, then use this feed in the meantime, whilst we try to resurrect the old one. If you want a feed of the comments, then that’s here.

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

Trust: Journalists, audiences and countries

Posted by Kevin Anderson

For some editors, it’s a dream story. It includes a British computer hacker who took down US military computer networks, taunted the American military, threatened to “continue to disrupt at the highest levels” and alleged that the security “stand-down” before 11 September was no mistake. As if that wasn’t enough, the hacker admitted to breaking into the systems, but only because he was looking for evidence of alien technology.

It’s the kind of story that sounds too good to be true. Unfortunately, most of the coverage in the British media has played fast with the truth and have left many claims by the hacker, Gary McKinnon, and his legal team unchallenged.

McKinnon has spent years fighting extradition. He and his legal team claim that he will be sent to Guantanamo and that American officials have said that they want him to ‘fry’. They said that US officials threatened him if he didn’t plead guilty and accept a plea deal, a claim that US officials denied in affidavits. In actual fact, some claims of threats of harsh treatment were based on an unrelated case in Canada in which a prosecutor said on Canadian television when asked to describe ’stringent conditions’ a person might face if they didn’t agree to a plea bargain responded: “You are going to be the boyfriend of a very bad man if you wait out your extradition”. McKinnon’s legal team never claimed that such threats were made to McKinnon, but the insinuation successfully upped the ante.

The story also feeds into popular upset in Britain over what is widely seen as an unfair extradition treaty with the United States. This is despite the extradition request being made in 2002 under a previous treaty and not the contentious Extradition Act of 2003. CORRECTION: While the proceeding began before the treaty came into force, the filing came under the Extradition Act of 2003. Some have argued that the US government purposefully waited although the accusation is not supported by any reporting. Under the 2003 treaty, to approve extradition, the judge must be satisfied that the request contains admissible evidence of the offence sufficient to establish a prima facie case against the person. This requirement does not apply in respect of extradition requests from the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. (emphasis added)

Public upset over the treaty reached a fever pitch in 2006 when the US succeeded in extraditing three bankers who were charged with fraud relating to the collapse of Enron. After initial hostile coverage towards the bankers, their legal and PR team crafted a strategy to focus on the treaty. Ex-Guardian journalist Nick Davies explained the PR stragegy:

Fleet Street must stop talking about the alleged guilt and extravagance of these three men and must focus instead on one single aspect of their case, the new Extradition Act under whose terms the three men now faced trial in Texas. The act had been rushed through Parliament in 2003 as an aide to the extradition of terrorist suspects and yet here it was being used against businessmen.

The PR firm pushed the angle that the three bankers would never receive a fair trial in Texas, and the coverage traded on stereotypes about American ‘rough justice’.

After the case, it came to light that the British Financial Services Authority provided American authorities with the evidence to charge the bankers. The uproar over the treaty in Britian led officials to press for approval of the treaty by the US Senate. The US Senate ratified the treaty unanimously on 30 September 2006. (Some British journalists might want to update their reporting on the subject.)

Gary McKinnon’s legal team have followed much the same route, now claiming that his civil rights would be violated by serving time in terrible American jails. After losing his appeal before the Law Lords, he told The Independent:

All the time you hear about the rapes and beatings. Just the other month I read an Amnesty International report about how prison guards were using their stuns guns too much. As someone accused of supposedly attacking their country, I can’t imagine I’d be too welcome, either.

There is a popular view that Gary McKinnon should be tried in British courts as a British citizen. It’s a similar argument made by conservatives in the US against extradition and international criminal bodies like the International Criminal Court. It is an argument that claims that extradition infringes on the sovereignty of a nation and imposes the law of one nation on another’s citizens. McKinnon stated a not uncommon view of US-UK relations in The Independent interview:

“I’m very angry,” he says. “I genuinely believe that we are the 51st State. You see it everywhere you go, not just our foreign policy, but in our schools, our hospitals and now our courts. The British Government simply bends over backwards for America.”

I think a more compelling question raised by the case is whether a person accused of computer crimes should be charged where he or she was when the crime was committed or where the ‘victim’ of the crime was. That’s a fair question in this virtual age in which a person can commit a crime half-way around the world with the click of a mouse.

Myths in the Media

I’m a bit surprised and disappointed that after falling for the PR campaign by the NatWest Three, that the British media would fall for the same approach by McKinnon, aka the Crouch End One.

Let’s take this point by point.

Myth 1: McKinnon is going to be declared an enemy combatant and disappear into George W Bush’s extra-judicial black hole, Guantanamo.

The Indy says: “Even worse, because Mr McKinnon’s hacking adventures targeted military computers, America could chose to prosecute him as an ‘enemy combatant’ – the same status given to those left in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay”. ITV is even more sure of his fate: “But he could be sent to Guantanamo Bay as a terror suspect if the US succeeds in extradition proceedings.”

Facts: He has been indicted in US federal court with seven counts of computer fraud and related activity. This is a civilian court. ZDNet.co.uk says that former FBI legal attaché Ed Gibson wrote a letter in April 2003 saying that the US retained the right to try McKinnon under US military law. UPDATE: A source close to the case has disputed claims by the defence team that the letter reserved the right of the United States to try McKinnon under military law. The issue of military trials would only have come up, the source says, in the context of clarifying that McKinnon would not be tried under military jurisdiction.

However, at the extradition hearing in 2006, US officials gave the judge assurances that this case would remain in civilian jurisdiction. The BBC reported:

Receiving this guarantee meant, (District) Judge (Nicholas) Evans said, that “any real - as opposed to fanciful - risk” of Mr McKinnon being sent to Guantanamo had receded.

Furthermore, the US Supreme Court has been chipping away at the legal framework that allows Guantanamo. As the judge said, the idea that Gary McKinnon might end up in Guantanamo is ‘fanciful’. Yet, that angle still appears routinely in reporting here. British commentators keep repeating that he’s no terrorist, but the US hasn’t accused him of being one. They’ve only accused him of breaking into US military networks and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage. (For the curious, the damage estimates are calculated by multiplying the hourly rate of military staff by the number of hours it took them to repair the alleged damage.)

Myth 2: The US is angered at his resistance to extradition. The US military is embarrassed by the intrusion and ‘want to make an example of him’. They will give him the maximum sentence, a ‘life’ sentence, condemning him to die in a US prison.

Facts: Gary McKinnon was offered a plea deal, standard practice in the American justice system. While British audiences might find such deals unseemly, they are common in the US. By offering a guilty plea, criminals also are often seen as taking the first step towards taking responsibility for their crime. They also save the costs of a trial, and as the Lord Brown noted:

No less importantly, it is accepted practice in this country for the parties to hold off-the-record discussions whereby the prosecutor will accept pleas of guilty to lesser charges (or on a lesser factual basis) in return for a defendant’s timely guilty plea.

Also from Lord Brown’s ruling, we have the facts of the plea offer:

On this basis it was likely that a sentence of 3-4 years (more precisely 37-46 months), probably at the shorter end of that bracket, would be passed and that after serving 6-12 months in the US, the appellant would be repatriated to complete his sentence in the UK. In this event his release date would be determined by reference to the UK’s remission rules namely, in the case of a sentence not exceeding four years, release at the discretion of the parole board after serving half the nominal sentence, release as of right at the two-thirds point. On that basis, he might serve a total of only some eighteen months to two years.

McKinnon told the BBC this week that the Americans would not put the plea deal in writing. He said that he initially agreed to the deal, but that US officials wouldn’t guarantee it. In his words: “They said: ‘No we can’t put it in writing.’ Only a fool would have gone across.’” (Listen to the 5Live interview.) He told Jon Ronson in the Guardian:

“They said, ‘If you incur the cost of the whole extradition process, be a good boy, come over here, we’ll give you three or four years, rather than the whole sentence.’ I said, ‘OK, give me that in writing.’ They said, ‘Oh no, we can’t do that.’ So they were offering a secret trial, no right of appeal on the outcome, no comment to the newspapers, and nothing in writing.

That’s not true. The Lords said the deal was in a ‘lengthy document’.

Supporters, including his mother, have said that in the UK he would face a lesser sanction, possibly nothing more than community service. This also isn’t true. In the ruling denying his extradition appeal, Lord Brown said:

As the Divisional Court itself pointed out, the gravity of the offences alleged against the appellant should not be understated: The equivalent domestic offences include an offence under section 12 of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990 for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Why hasn’t he been charged in the UK? At least one reporter said the British Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges because McKinnon didn’t illegally access any British computers.

McKinnon also said that he would gladly serve in a few years in a British jail but not ‘60 in an American prison’. He has consistently played on the idea that he would face ‘disproportionate’ punishment in the US, saying that he would spend the rest of his life in a maximum security prison where he might face reprisals from patriotic prisoners. Even if he was successfully extradited and convicted, the Associated Press (UPDATE: see bottom of story, the link to the original AP story on Google had expired), quoted one of the prosecutors who filed the original charges as saying:

A 60-year sentence is “extraordinarily unlikely,” according to Scott Christie, who was the lead prosecutor in the case in New Jersey before going into private practice. …

“His general exposure would be in the range of between three and five years,” he said.

I have yet to see a British report includes that quote from the Associated Press. In US coverage, reporters often include the top figure for sentencing, but always put it in terms of a more realistic sentence considering the particulars of the case.

Myth 3: Unnamed American officials have said that they want McKinnon to ‘fry’.

Facts: This is irrelevant. Even if an American official said this, he’s not charged with a capital offence. He is in no risk of being executed, and again, it plays into popular upset about capital punishment in the US. This allegation is meaningless in this case.

Why am I so exercised by this?

I started with a general unease about the coverage of this case, but after a few days of digging, this unease has given way to upset. I’ve worked for British journalism organisations for 10 years. I’ve been cheered by the more critical coverage they have given of the US, coverage that comes from a distance that would be difficult for an American journalist covering his or her own country. But occasionally, I’m also disappointed when they get basic facts wrong because they are dealing with a different government or justice system that they don’t always understand.

Living in London for three years, I am familiar with some of the tensions between the United States and Britain. There is legitimate upset over Guantanamo, especially the fact that British citizens have been locked up there. There is disgust in some circles about the continued practice of capital punishment. There was and still is legitimate upset about the Extradition Act of 2003. It was seen as forced through Parliament in the wake of the 11 September attacks and a capitulation to George Bush’s War on Terror. I can understand all of this.

As is often said, journalists are entitled to their opinions, but not their own facts. The general coverage of this story has been appalling. It has been fed by legitimate issues that some Brits have with the United States, but it’s now being used to feed anti-American sentiment. I’m more than happy to take my country to task for its failings, including when it abuses the ’special relationship’ with Britain. I can understand British journalists who are sceptical of the American government, but the coverage of this story is factually inaccurate and antagonistic.

If only the shortcomings in coverage of the US were isolated to this. I become frustrated when journalism with an agenda relies on stereotypes and prejudice instead of solid reporting. I was shocked by domestic reporting in the US in the lead up to the war in Iraq that poked fun at European countries who would not support the war. I thought it was a particular failing of the American media. Unfortunately, I was saddened to discover that such sensationalist and derisory coverage is all too common in the British media in coverage of the US. It makes me feel decidedly unwelcome in my adopted home.

Monday, January 28th, 2008

links for 2008-01-28

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Friday, January 25th, 2008

links for 2008-01-25

Posted by Kevin Anderson