Civil Serf: Simon's video for BBC

I got an email from the team behind BBC News 24’s Your News show during the week, asking if I’d record a contribution as part of a piece they’re planning about – guess what – Civil Serf. So here it is, as a Puffbox first-play exclusive.
Nothing you probably don’t know already, but hey – a bit of TV exposure, for the first time in ages. Eagle-eyed viewers may recognise the location for the filming, a deliberate choice obviously. (I say filming: more a case of propping my mobile phone up against the wall of the Foreign Office building.)

The inevitable tragedy of Civil Serf

It’s most amusing to see so many journalists writing up the Civil Serf story for the ‘proper’ media… particularly since most seem to be lifting the key quotes from each other’s write-ups, rather than the blog itself (which was pulled, cached versions and all, by Sunday morning). Secondary sourcing at its worst.
Steadily though, the Legend Of Civil Serf is building, in the secondary analysis and the ill-informed blog comments which build on it. That the blog was revealing state secrets, including the contents of Alastair Darling’s forthcoming budget. That it named individual Ministers and told endless tales of their incompetence. That she was wasting time blogging, when she should have been working. That it was a big deal. In truth, it was none of these. It was a modest affair, a handful of posts written over a three-month period by an intelligent young woman, describing what she saw in her workplace.
There’s been an air of inevitability about each step, as the story plays itself out. Of course her anonymity was going to fail eventually. What else could she do when the truth came out, but delete the blog? What else could people make of it all? My worry is for the next inevitable, knee-jerk step: a Cabinet Office communique choosing to interpret the Civil Service Code in such a way that bans all such blogging.
The Civil Service has a problem. It needs to recruit people with outside experience; and it does a pretty good job of that. The problem is keeping them, once they’re inside. I left under a cloud of frustration a couple of years back. Too few people interested in making things happen, too many people eager for a quiet life – and, I concluded, a quiet retirement. Or perhaps that’s harsh. Maybe just too set in their ways.
More than anything, it needs people who really care about what they’re there to do. And when you care about something, you want to talk about it. You want to evangelise. You want to involve your friends. I’m really worried that this sends a message – join us by all means, but whatever you do, don’t start to care.

The rise and disappearance of Civil Serf

It was going to happen eventually. I think was the first to highlight Civil Serf’s excellent blog, back in late January. She started to hit the big-hitting political blogs a few weeks later – see Dizzy Thinks, the Telegraph’s Three Line Whip, The Times’s Comment Central. But it’s only when she hits the proper media, namely this morning’s Sunday Times and Telegraph, that it becomes a big deal. Big enough, it seems, to wipe the blog from the face of the web. (Wish I’d archived it for onepolitics now.)
First off, there’s a lesson here about the relative importance of blogs in general, and the papers’ own blogging efforts in particular. If the Times and Tele were that fussed about it all, they sat on its existence for a remarkably long time. That’s assuming one desk in the newsroom is talking to another – one suspects not, on this evidence.
It’s really depressing that the blog has been deleted so quickly. I don’t recall anything especially sensitive being disclosed – she never said enough to really confirm which department she worked in, even. (For the record, some of us reached a different conclusion to the Times.)
The only controversy, and that’s already stretching the definition, was the fact that a civil servant dared to ‘tell it like it is’, and very eloquently too. It was provocative, but having been in a very similar position myself, I can say it was absolutely valid. Frankly, I think we’d be better off if there was a bit more of that.
I have a nasty feeling this has set back the cause of ‘government 2.0’ by a good few months – just as it seemed the word ‘blog’ had shaken off its most negative connotations. It’ll be interesting to see if Tom Watson makes reference to it in his big speech tomorrow.

Commons flame war

I draw your attention to Early Day Motion no 1037, lodged yesterday by Peter Kilfoyle MP and signed by more than 50 MP colleagues: at the current count, 51 Labour and 1 LibDem (Lembit, before you ask).

That this House deplores the innuendo of the blog of Nick Robinson, the BBC’s lobby correspondent; calls upon him to substantiate the imputations he makes in his blog concerning the Speaker and hon. Members; and also calls upon the BBC to publish a full, itemised account of the expenses of Mr Robinson, in the name of transparency and accountability of public funds.

This follows Kilfoyle’s submission of a comment on the offending post on Nick Robinson’s blog, barely an hour after it was posted. Nick reflects on the kerfuffle here. Personally, I don’t see why Kilfoyle’s getting so worked up: if someone said I was crap at my job, I’d probably be less inclined to be nice to them. Still, I guess it’s all an interesting step forward.
Incidentally, Mr K: be careful what you wish for. BBC Radio Ulster presenter Conor Bradford was interviewing the DUP’s Gregory Campbell MP on precisely this subject. As the Belfast Telegraph reports:

During (the) debate on air, Mr Campbell had been jibing him about BBC secrecy policy on presenter pay when Mr Bradford defended his position. “Look, I earn £29,000 a year for my Good Morning Ulster contract,” he said. “That is not hidden, that is open for everyone to see. That is my salary. Have you got any problems with that?”

Mr Campbell, the article also notes, ‘rents his constituency office from his wife and employs her in a secretarial role.’

Sky's innovation rewarded

Breaking news from, er, last week. Amid all the usual yah-boo of who won the RTS News Channel of the Year award, I missed the fact that Sky’s ‘Sky dot com news‘ bulletin at 7.30pm won the Innovation award. ‘The winning entry aims to integrate the web and tv audiences and was judged to be innovative because it lets the public rather than the news editor set the Agenda,’ reads the citation.
As I noted when it launched, they’d done a ‘reasonable job of making it feel a bit more internetty, without becoming cheesy’. I don’t catch it often, as it clashes with family bedtime… but on the occasions I do catch it, it’s amusing to see a steady stream of familiar faces from the blogosphere, some more comfortable on-air than others.
So what next for the show… or by bagging a trophy, has it achieved its objective? I’d personally want them to make more of their blog, which consists of little more than a list of post-show links each day, and a trickle of comments. Take the award as justification for pushing forward, guys. I’d look to do two or three blog posts through the afternoon, as the show comes together… maybe Twitter’s a better channel than a conventional blog. Invite the gang to react beforehand, if you like. And please, embed each day’s video recording in the post-show writeup.

PoliticsHome: like onepolitics, but with cash

onepolitics has competition. The Dizzy Thinks blog revealed at the end of January that Stefan Shakespeare (who previously brought you 18 Doughty Street and YouGov) is set to launch, promising to be the ‘definitive portal to the ongoing political debate, edited by some of the UK’s leading political journalists and pollsters’. Then Guido published a screenshot a couple of weeks back (although his footnote that PoliticsHome ‘is not going to be the final name’ looks a bit shaky given the company’s later use of the URL).
First there was a job advert for ‘well paid part-time shifts‘ on the Work for an MP site, withdrawn early due to a high number of applicants. Now there’s an ad on the Guardian site, offering a salary of around £40k for a ‘Daily Editor to manage the newsroom and head up its website coverage’. But crucially, the ad notes, the site ‘does not produce its own content.’
Promises of a February launch look a bit optimistic now. But there’s clearly a lot of money going into this – and it had better be good, very good. Because in a matter of a couple of days, and using fairly straightforward technology, I produced a website which (if you don’t mind me saying) does a more than reasonable job of providing a ‘portal to the ongoing political debate’. Granted, onepolitics makes no attempt to offer a qualitative commentary on individual posts… but it could, if anyone fancies helping me construct a business model?

Telegraph style guide: 2m forward, 1' back

Thanks to Shane at the Telegraph for highlighting the new Daily Telegraph style guide. Written (or more accurately, drafted?) by Simon Heffer, it’s online now for consultation, prior to hard-copy publication in a few months.
As you might expect it’s a curious mix of the web-friendly and the conservative (with a small, and probably also a large C). So you get rulings like these:

Increasingly, as the distinction between publishing the newspaper and producing the website fades, we will stop using such words as “yesterday” and “today” in copy except when necessary to avoid confusion or to promote exclusive stories.

On the internet the priority for any headline is to inform search engines (and therefore readers) what the article is about. Its language should therefore be concrete, not abstract, and contain full names.

We use imperial measures except where for accuracy’s sake – as in some scientific or foreign story, or one detailing the calibre of armaments – metric is appropriate.

Bah. Just as you think the Telegraph is reinventing itself and its journalism for the imminent future, it drags you crashing back to pre-decimalisation days.
The death of ‘today’ is well judged, though. I’m seeing too many (government) press releases with eager press officers falling back on the old rule of getting the word ‘today’ in the first sentence, to make it seem more urgent. I’m not sure it ever worked; now it’s positively counter-productive.

BBC internet chief promises to learn web

Nick Reynolds is the ‘editor’ of the BBC internet blog. I must admit, I was glad to see he’d written a post to explain what the ‘editor’ of the blog did, since it almost seems like a contradiction in terms. Nick says:

‘The man who persuades important people in BBC Future Media and Technology to write blog posts’ is more accurate but a bit of a mouthful. But as well as persuading people to write, Alan Connor and I do the actual work of putting what they write into the blogging software, checking it, sometimes adding extra links and photos, and then pushing the button to publish.

The post (currently) features a fairly small number of comments – ‘typical BBC’… ‘waste of resources’… ‘public money’… etc etc. Sadly though, I note the comment I tried to submit – but apparently failed – hasn’t come through.
What shocked me most wasn’t the fact that the blog has a full-time staffer, although that’s certainly curious. It was more the suggestion that people in the BBC’s Future Media & Technology department aren’t capable of typing or pasting words into a web-based authoring form. This includes people in extremely senior and highly paid positions – Ashley Highfield reportedly earns £359,000 a year (including benefits). I’d like to think he’s capable of basic computing skills. I’m afraid a promise that he’ll try to stop emailing in his posts just doesn’t cut it. Movable Type v3.2 isn’t state-of-the-art any more, but it’s hardly rocket science.
My attempt at commenting fell foul – not for the first time, it must be said – of the BBC’s creaking blogging platform. I know they know it isn’t up to the job. Why the delay in replacing it?

Sky News goes Ajax

Really, really delighted to see Sky News finally adopting Ajax technology for its image galleries. The click-to-reload-the-whole-page approach was just unacceptable in 2008… and it’s great to see my own baby, the always-popular ‘Pop Up Papers’ press review which won me a 2001 European Online Journalism award, finally growing up. It’s got its own permanent URL and everything. Sniff. They’ve also started dropping Ajax photo galleries into stories – see this David Beckham example. Hats off to them.

Breaking news blogs (again)

Alfred Hermida, ex BBC, now Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of journalism, makes an interesting suggestion: using the new WordPress Twitter-style ‘Prologue’ theme as a breaking news site, ‘with reporters adding the latest details as they come in’.
I actually suggested something identical to this, back in July: ‘A ‘breaking news blog’, in my book, should look and feel more like Twitter. Activate it when a huge story breaks – maybe only a couple of times a year, maybe a couple of times a month. Short snaps of maybe only a couple of lines, written in an informal tone.’ Wish I’d followed it through, now.
If I were running a news operation right now, I’d have a WordPress installation quietly stashed somewhere offsite, ready to go. It’s so many advantages: emergency capacity in the event of a site meltdown, instant activation (by the newsroom, not the IT team) when required, and a more natural ‘breaking news’ style. When you get another 9/11, it could be as simple as switching the DNS for your main site.
By the way… did I really hear a BBC interviewer utter the words ‘people look at the World Trade Center very differently after 9/11’ the other day? Yes: they used to look up, now they don’t. That’s pretty different.