Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Are bloggers ready to safeguard our democracy?

THIS week I have been thinking a lot about the future of my industry- a lot more than usual. Circumstances have made it such. In case you haven't been paying attention, last month the KM Group announced its intention to buy the paper I write for.

As I write, the Office of Fair Trading is mulling it over. The outcome will be anyone's guess.
Since I haven't a clue who my employers will be in six months I will be keep most of my opinions on this to myself.

Many fear this potential change could mean the demise of the local press in Thanet.

I think this highly unlikely, yet it hasn't stopped the (often gleeful) conjecture from some corners that the blogs will take over as the papers dwindle.

It that is so then God help us.

Don't get me wrong I love blogs, I have one myself. They offer us news, gossip, comment, variety, colour and occasionally they might even beat the press to it.

I will even go as far to say Thanet's diligent blogging community is a source of pride for the Isle.

But a replacement for the Thanet press it is not- and it won't be for a long time.

Consider the Isle of Thanet Gazette. There are many functions this paper fulfils week in week out that I have yet to see achieved on any amateur blog with any confidence or competence.

Here are some examples

Court coverage
Only yesterday I was covering a case in court, as I do three or four times a week, and thinking to myself- who else does this in Thanet?
Open justice is principle so integral to our democracy, without a member of the press present there is no one there to see justice is done, to see that it is open, and to see that it is fair.
Regardless of this I am yet to see a Thanet blogger cover a court case and I can count on one hand the number of times I have had to share the press bench with a rival journalist and it worries me. With no one to cover provincial courts- there is nothing to insure they remain accountable and no one to expose wrong doing or the consequences of it.

A democracy needs an impartial press. Though we don't always get it right, we are morally, and legally, bound to give a balanced story. Not only are we beholden to the law but also to the Press Complaints Commission code and to our peers. A blogger on the other had has only their self and their conscience to rely on and this alone is not enough to guarantee fairness or impartiality by any stretch of the imagination.

Consistency and accuracy
Unlike a blogger, a newspaper is not an individual, it is a collection of individuals. Not only do we regulate our own content but the content of our peers. The news agenda is formed from both a professional and moral consensus and the way we write is subject to an agreed style guide. For this reason papers like the Isle of Thanet serve as a reliable public record

For me this is the most important issue. Often bloggers will accuse the papers of lagging behind because they won't print rumours that Mr Wot-sit is taking backhanders or Mrs Do-What is running brothel above the bakers or because they won't run a particular story without getting both sides of the story straight first.
I have lost count of the amount of times I have seen bloggers flout the law regarding defamation or confidentiality.
The law is yet to catch up with the Internet but the law is there for a reason, to keep the media accountable and to protect the vulnerable.
As for self-regulation, I wouldn't be surprised if half the bloggers out there thought the PCC code was something you run on your computer.

I have barely scraped the surface, many journalist could no doubt add this list.

Bloggers of Thanet, you are amazing, don't stop what you are doing but support your local press because unless you have the time or inclination to address the issues above, you can never fill its shoes.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

So Long, and thanks for all the beagles.

Avid readers of The Isle Of Thanet Gazette may remember that on June 10 we ran a small article on the front page about the lab animals kept at Pfizer's Research and Development site at Sandwich.
For those of you not up to date, US drug firm Pfizer announced it will pulling out of the area in February.
At the time, ours was the only paper to ask "what happens to the animals when Pfizer leaves".
In truth the question was first asked by reader Sandie Ralph who posted the following on our facebook page:
"Whilst we all feel for the people that will lose their jobs when Pfizer closes, has anyone given a thought to the lab animals that are on site at the Sandwich site ?"
A fair question considering Pfizer's track record.
So my first port of call was to contact Pfizer spokeswoman Lauren Starr and ask "How many animals are being kept at Pfizer's Sandwich site and what will happen to them when Pfizer leaves?."

An absurd exchange not unlike the following ensued:

ME: How many animals are being kept at Pfizer's Sandwich site and what will happen to them when Pfizer leaves?
LAUREN: We are committed to humane and compassionate care of our research animals.

ME: Can at you at least tell me how many do have?
LAUREN: We are committed to humane and compassionate care of our research animals.

ME: Are they going to be destroyed?
LAUREN: We are committed to humane and compassionate care of our research animals.

ME: You are not giving much away, don't think that will reflect badly on the company?
LAUREN: We are committed to humane and compassionate care of our research animals.

-ad nauseum etc etc-


So I contacted a likely local animal group to explain the deal with Pfizer and reported their reaction. The following shortened piece was printed:

PHARMA giant Pfizer has been accused by an animal welfare group of being "cynical and cowardly" after refusing to say what will happen to its animals when its Sandwich site closes.

A Pfizer spokesman said: "We are committed to humane and compassionate care of our research animals."

Andrew Tyler, director of the Tonbridge-based Animal Aid, said: "I think it is utterly cynical and cowardly for Pfizer to conceal this particular point. They have a duty, they have made use of these animals and they should come clean. It is simply not sufficient for them to keep it quiet. They should set up a fund and make sure these animals are homed."

And that was it. I had expected Animal Aid might have picked up the baton or a facebook campaign might have gained some momentum but there you have it.

Fast forward to today and I have just spent the afternoon hanging out with a couple of science bods from Pfizer.
I brought up the issue of said animals in question (I understand they were beagles) and asked what the deal was.

The response?

Well lets just say if you was thinking of starting up a campaign to save them you are too late.
Pfizer has taken care of it- humanely and finally.

Allegedly there were a dozen of these animals- I don't think it would have taken much for the gigantic pharma firm to re-home them, or at least given them some quality in what life they had left.

You win some, you lose some.

Friday, 19 August 2011

A new reporting frontier

TODAY, at the Isle of Thanet Gazette office, I have been preaching to my colleagues the virtue of an application called Bambuser. It has been around for a while but I have only discovered myself just recently.
For those who don't know, Bambuser is an application that allows you to broadcast a live video stream from your computer or mobile device.
I wouldn't say it is completely different from YouTube accept that it is live.
The beauty of this is that I can report live from a scene of a story and have a link to a video posted on my Twitter as soon as I start recording.
I used it for the first time today when I went to report on an accident in Margate (see right column).
If I am honest it wasn't a successful attempt, the camera was shaky and the commentary was non existent- I am after all used to writing the news instead.
However it did get me thinking about the possibilities of such an application.
Bambuser has already achieved fame for being the first website to be banned by governments during the Arab Spring; anybody could record events live, across the world, as they unfolded.
What does this mean for journalists like me? On the face of it, it is a great tool, a way get the news out there to the public as quickly as possible. The only thing is is that anyone can do it, anyone can be a live reporter now.
This might not bode well for the newspaper industry but the only way the newspaper industry and the media as a whole can survive this absolute democratisation of information is to embrace it.
The beauty of a world in which anyone is welcome to produce their own content is that everyone is also free to subscribe to what they like and leave the rest.
I am confident that whatever shape media takes in the future there is still a place for quality journalism as long as journalists, and media organisations they work for, evolve with the times.
Websites like Bambuser prove that as reporting becomes easier, Journalist are going to have to work harder.