Spreading my wings…

As is always the case when I find myself with a bit of time on my hands, I’ve been trying indulging in a little ‘project’.  I’ve finally decided to experiment with my own little space on the internet.  I had been reluctant for some time to go  down the whole domain/hosting route but I thought it was time I stretched myself a little and developed some new skills.  Much as I like the option to use a WordPress.com site, I thought it was time to try something that got me trying a few new tools (up until now I did not have a clue what an FTP was let alone use one!).

I have to say I have learnt a heck of a lot already.  Whilst I had some knowledge of HTML from my days using Blogger as my platform of choice, I was a little rusty and only really knew the basics.  I’m hoping that my creating this little space I will continue to develop and learn new skills – which I think in the current climate is very much a good thing.  So anyway, what about the site itself?

Well, after a bit of thought about what to call the website, I went for Infoism.  I was keen to avoid a domain that used either my name or my Twitter username and plumped for a ‘word’ that I think reflects my interests (information and politics).  I plan to use the site to cover a wide range of topics from libraries to information in general (perhaps with a particular focus on the information divide – which is one of my pet interests).  I was also keen to avoid creating a blog that provides hints/tips/useful tools for those in the profession. There are more than enough of those, all of which are far more eloquent than anything I could contribute.  Instead, I wanted to create something that is more focused on general issues facing the information society (I say that now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that intention goes by the wayside!).  I suspect I’ll still use this blog from time to time, perhaps to share my continued experiences on my course or to post random stuff, but my new blog will become my main home.

Anyway, at present my home page is a little basic (don’t forget I am teaching myself HTML here – I perhaps should have used some HTML software!) but I have created a mobile version (woo!) and even a cool little icon when you bookmark it on your iPhone/iPad/iPod thing.  I suspect once I have access to Photoshop again I’ll create a more appealing, less texty front page…but it will do for now.  Oh, and I have also posted my first blog post here.  Be gentle with me, I’m still learning!

Injunctions and the restriction of information

Injunctions - unfairly restricting the flow of information?

There has obviously been a lot of chatter in the past few days in the light of the recent revelations regarding a certain well-known personality (I’m not going to name names given that the injunction is still in place).  Unfortunately, due to the nature of the injunction that is in place, the main focus of the discussion has been the kind of prurient revelations that are manna from heaven for the tabloid press.  Their rabid attempts to reveal the name of the individual involved have caused many to question any attempt to break an injunction.  However, not all injunctions are in place to protect celebrities from the tabloid press.

Previous to the recent revelations, John Hemming MP had revealed to the House of Commons a case that was particularly disturbing.  From The Telegraph:

Politicians criticised the injunctions as an “affront to democracy” after John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat MP, disclosed details of one on the floor of the Commons last week.

The hyper-injunction goes a step further. Mr Hemming told the Commons that the order, which was obtained at the High Court in 2006, prevents an individual from saying that paint used in water tanks on passenger ships could break down and release potentially toxic chemicals.

It specifically bars the person from discussing the case with “members of Parliament, journalists and lawyers”, along with the US coastguard and any ship owners, and also forbids any speculation linking chemicals in the paint with the illness of any individuals.

It says: “The defendant must not communicate to the third parties any speculation that the illness of any individual (including without limitation the collapse of H) was, has been or will be brought out by the chemical composition or the chemicals present in the coating of the potable water tanks.”

This is a particularly disturbing case.  To prevent an individual from even discussing a case with his MP is a gross violation of their democratic rights.  The ability of a corporation to restrict this information is also deeply troubling.  I am not going to pass judgement on the nature of the allegations (obviously), but the individual concerned should at least have the right to discuss the action that has been taken against them with their MP.  One wonders how many other such injunctions have been issued.

It is a shame that one sexual scandal has overshadowed the issue of injunctions.  Their use isn’t always restricted to personal matters between two individuals, they’re also utilised to stop the public gaining access to information which is very much in their interest (a case of public interest rather than in the interest of the public).  As someone working in the information field, any restriction on the flow of information is troubling and the aforementioned case especially so.  Of course, the woolly legislation around injunctions and privacy needs to be resolved by the judiciary and politicians as soon as possible.  And resolved in the best interests of the general public, not the media or wealthy individuals who can afford to take out such injunctions.

It is a shame that it was the tabloid baiting injunction that was revealed to the public, but it is entirely understandable why.  I don’t know if it was foremost in Hemming’s mind (I think events involving the attempts to gag Twitter users and imprison a journalist were possibly uppermost) but you can be assured that if the individual referred to in the Telegraph’s piece was revealed, there would barely be a murmur in the media.  It is a rather sad indictment of our celebrity obsessed culture that the only way to ensure publicity of such injunctions was to refer to the case of a renowned sportsman rather than that of a potential public health issue.

Whatever the motive and whatever the reasoning, the flow of information that is genuinely in the public interest should be protected at all costs.   This is the issue that should be central to the debate, not the private lives of so-called ‘celebrities’.

Why Niall Ferguson, Ken Livingstone and Toby Young got it wrong on national debt

It has been a while since I last wrote anything along these lines.  I think the last time I debunked some lazy journalism was when I corrected a piece by Melanie Phillips in an article for The Guardian.  But once again we have seen an example of poor information research and once again it needs to be corrected, not least because of the implications of such mis-information.  So let’s get straight into it.

The nub of the problem is a post written by Toby Young about Thursday night’s Question Time.  His particular claim is that Ken Livingstone ‘lied’ about debt and Niall Ferguson was correct.  Young writes:

On Question Time this evening, Ken Livingstone claimed that when Labour entered office in 1997 government debt as a percentage of GDP was 42% and 13 years later, when Labour left office, it stood at 40%.

Ferguson pointed out that, in fact, debt as a percentage of GDP when Gordon Brown left office was 71.3% not 40%. And he’s absolutely right, as this chart from the Office of National Statistics makes clear.

So far, so seemingly plausible.  Or is it?  Well, no.

First of all, Livingstone actually said (and you can check on the video clip above) was “when Blair won, our debt was 42%”.  This 42% figure that Livingstone introduced comes from the UK National Debt as a percentage of GDP which was 41.92% in 1997, so let’s call it 42%.  It is probably worth explaining at this point what figure government, politicians and the media refer to when they talk about “UK National Debt”.

The website UK Debt Bombshell explains:

The precise term ‘National Debt’ refers to an older definition of public debt that excludes too many liabilities to be meaningful nowadays. The official government measure of what is commonly known as the national debt is Public Sector Net Debt. In this context, public sector refers to central government, local government and publicly-owned corporations. [emphasis mine]

So, essentially, when you hear the term ‘national debt’ what is being referred to is Public Sector Net Debt.  Going back to Livingstone’s 42% reference earlier, he is talking about Public Sector Net Debt (the official government measure remember).  So Livingstone is right on this point.  Debt was 42% in 1997.

Where Livingstone goes wrong is by claiming that it was 40% when Labour were kicked out of office.  It wasn’t. It was 40% when the banking crisis started, but it was not 40% by the time of the election due to the banking crisis.  The Office for National Statistics states that:

Public sector net debt (excluding financial interventions) was £875.8 billion (equivalent to 58.0 per cent of GDP) at the end of February 2011. This compares to £729.9 billion (50.8 per cent of GDP) as at the end of February 2010.

Note that the right-hand graph refers to Public Sector Net Debt.  Remember, “public sector net debt” is the official government measure of national debt as we have already demonstrated.  So, Livingstone is wrong.  National debt was at 50.8% of GDP in February of 2010 and, using the graph as a guide, around 55% when Brown left office.

But then Ferguson claims that the figure was actually 71.3% when Brown left office, a claim repeated by Young.  So where does this figure come from?  Figures from the ONS have already demonstrated that using the official government measure of debt the figure was around 55%, so where does this 71.3% figure come from?

Young handily links to a ONS report that shows where this figure comes from.  Unfortunately for both Young and Ferguson, this is not a chart representing the UK national debt, this chart refers to general government debt, a quite different measure and not one that has ever been used to signify UK national debt.  The ONS states:

In the financial year 2009/10 the UK recorded general government net borrowing of £159.8 billion, which was equivalent to 11.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

At the end of March 2010 general government debt was £1000.4 billion, equivalent to 71.3 per cent of GDP.

This figure refers to general government gross debt which is quite different, as explained here:

General Government Gross Debt (GGGD) used by EU. is similar to Public sector net debt but excludes net debt of corporations. Also does not offset liquid assets.

So, it is not the same as the government’s official measure for national debt.  Which means that when Ferguson and Young correct Livingstone, they are right to do so (he got the 2010 figure wrong) but the figure they gave is equally incorrect in terms of the measurement of national debt (this chart demonstrates where Livingstone got his 42% figure from and charts that figure right up to 2011).  They are both talking about something completely different to Livingstone who was clearly (as demonstrated by his reference to the 1997 figure) talking about Public Sector Net Debt (the government’s official measurement of national debt – worth repeating).  So, Ferguson and Young are also both wrong.  As stated above, national debt according to the ONS was around 55% in April 2010, not 71.3%.

In summary then: Livingstone was right about national debt in 1997.  Livingstone was wrong about debt when Brown left office.  Ferguson was wrong to claim that debt was 71.3%.  And Young is wrong to repeat it.  And Young’s error is perhaps the greatest.  His wasn’t made in the heat of debate, it was made when he was at a computer and able to check his facts first before blundering in.  A simple check would have revealed to him that the ONS put UK national debt at around 55% in April 2010.

Ok, so why is this important?  It’s just a game of numbers right?  Well yes, but it matters on two fronts.  Firstly, it matters because of the justifications that are being made for the current cycle of cuts.  All the named players above have vested interests at play.  Livingstone wants to play down debt to defend Labour’s record.  Ferguson and Young want to make it sound worse that it is to defend their own ideological positions on the economic right.  Both are wrong and, as usual, the truth is between the two.  Which leads me on to the second reason why this is important.

We are told repeatedly that we live in a world where all the information you could possibly want is free for anyone and everyone to access.  That we don’t need librarians any more to point us to the information we require.  Google can do it all for us.  What we have seen here (as with the Melanie Phillips example cited earlier) is that even journalists and academics make errors when obtaining and sharing information.  And this has very serious implications when one considers the roles that both sets of professionals play in society.  In this case, both Young and Ferguson make a basic error in not understanding what national debt actually refers to.  It is an easy mistake to make.  Who doesn’t leap at the first bit of evidence they come across that defends their own ideological position?  However, the skill is to look deeper, find out what this information actually means before drawing conclusions.  It is a skill that not everyone has, but it is a skill that is essential to the role of the information professional (and, to be honest, it is surprising that an acclaimed historian failed on this score).  Non-prejudicial information retrieval and evaluation.  Remove the information professional from the equation and, as here, you are left with a separation of information from its meaning.

Of course, now Young has put this out on the Internet it is there for all to see.  If only he had asked a librarian for the national debt figure, he might not have made himself look so silly.

Oh and in case you think Young wasn’t talking about national debt (he only uses the term ‘debt’ in his blog post), here’s his comment on Livingstone’s blog post on the issue of debt:

Toby Young

Wikileaks – information should be free

Despite attempts to halt the leaks, they still keep coming....(flickr image: Brother O

As someone who is working in the information business, I have been fascinated by the leaks coming out from Wikileaks over the past few weeks. Fascinated as much by the reaction to the leaks as the leaks themselves. The reaction from politicians and commentators in the United States has been particularly….er…..disturbing. Calls for assassinations and equating Julian Assange with Osama Bin Laden are just some of the examples of blatant hyperbole that have dominated the airwaves since this series of leaks commenced. However, the leaks still come and day by day we are hearing new revelations in regard to foreign policy and international diplomacy. Yes, some of this may be tittle-tattle, but some of the information that is being leaked is noteworthy. Certainly they help to provide a bit of context to some of the events of recent years. But what about the future for information delivery in the light of these attacks on Wikileaks?

I guess before I go any further, I should disclose that I share Assange’s philosophy that the unlimited provision of free information can make the world a better place. Rational decisions can only be made when one has access to all the relevant information. One cannot, as an individual, make reasoned decisions without information. As I’ve noted before, one cannot expect people to make rational choices about the food they eat without being provided with information about it (or even the tools to interpret it).

What is more, the Internet is perhaps the greatest tool at our disposal to ensure the spread of information. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years there have been moves to restrict the flow of information on the Internet. Newspapers are steadily hiding things behind paywalls. Big name companies are placing restrictions on what content can be kept on their servers (see Amazon pulling the plug on Wikileaks). Large multi-national corporations have spent millions lobbying against net neutrality, effectively supporting a two tier information network. What we are seeing is the steady erosion of the liberty principle behind the Internet by corporations and governments, leading to a system where some have access to information and some do not, with money being the main dividing line.

As if the slow establishmentarianism and commercialisation of the Internet wasn’t bad enough, the only institution that can level the playing field (libraries) are being slowly taken apart (maybe not so slowly in some cases).  For libraries can subscribe to content to ensure that people can access materials without having to negotiate pay walls.  Why bother paying to subscribe to The Times online, when you can access it for free at the library?  In a way, the increased commercialisation should be a good thing for libraries.  After all, if libraries can purchase access on behalf of their users it could theoretically encourage people back into libraries.  However, it may be that this is seen as too much of a threat to the commercial world.  Whilst there is a free access model, they cannot make the profits that they would hope for.  And the free access model is certainly under threat – see the increased attacks on the BBC as media outlets start to put their content behind paywalls.  As long as the BBC puts out free news content, few people will pay for news content online.   Take the BBC out of the equation and bingo…users will be forced to pay for news content.

The internet is in very grave danger of moving towards a state where there is a large amount of content that people are simply not able to access.  As the commercial sector and the government tighten their grip on this resource, there is a very real danger of the digital divide becoming virtually impossible to close.  Certainly, without libraries to help provide access to content that is otherwise behind paywalls, there are a great many people who will never be able to access the kind of information that most of us will take for granted.  It would seem that not only is education being re-branded as a privilege, access to information may well be about to go through a similar re-branding process.  Governments and corporations both have much to gain from just such a re-branding exercise.  Control for the former and profit for the latter.

For more thoughts on this, I’d heartily recommend The Commercialisation of the Internet and the Erosion of Free Speech.  It’s a very interesting read and highlights some of the dangers ahead for free information on the Internet.

Is Murdoch Heralding The End of Free News?

With Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that News Corp will start charging for content on the internet, there has been much talk about what the implications are in a society that is used to accessing such content for free.  Whilst it is only News Corp at the moment who are looking at this, it will almost certainly lead to other newspaper groups considering their options.  Will others follow suite?  Or will Murdoch’s media empire be the sole crusader against free news?  As a library student, I will be hoping that it is the latter rather than the former (although I also don’t think it makes much business sense either – it won’t increase revenue as long as other groups keep content free).

One of many problems associated with this move is  the impact it will have on public libraries.  For years now, public libraries have been able to access news content on the internet from reliable sources free of charge.  Suddenly, that looks like it could be threatened by this move.  How will public libraries be able to afford to subscribe to a range of newspapers should others follow suit?  Certainly it seems unlikely that they would be able to subscribe to every national newspaper.  But cost isn’t the only concern.

Although the idea is to charge for news content, ensuring that only subscribers can access it, in practice this will be very difficult to manage.  In an era when anyone can publish information for all to see, what is to stop a subscriber from copying chunks of news content and publishing it on a blog?  Very little.  Sure, it risks breaching copyright, but as we saw with the distribution of music files it still happened.  Once these extracts are published on blogs they will be distributed far and wide making it virtually impossible to prosecute everyone involved in its distribution.  And therein lies the other problem for libraries: the temptation to rely on blogs for news content.  It would be very tempting to rely on a freely accessible blog rather than worrying about having to pay for content – quite possible leading to inaccurate information being disseminated.  Good news for bloggers who want to make a name for themselves, bad news for those who require access to accurate information. (Although that doesn’t mean that I have a problem with allsuch content.  There are some excellent blogs out there and I also see the value of resources such as Wikipedia, it just means more care needs to be taken.)

It will be interesting to see if anyone else does follow suit or whether this is a massive error by a newspaper owner who has never really got to grips with the internet.  Personally, for the sake of access to information, I hope that the majority of newspapers continue to carry freely accessible content.

Web 2.0 Technologies and the Media

As a long-time blogger, I have been a great believer in the positive impact they can have on the news narrative.  I have always believed that they can be a force for good, drawing people’s attention to the stories that the mainstream media overlooks. The growth of the blogging community could (finally) ensure that the stories that are normally ignored by the mainstream media would finally get the exposure they deserve.  They also had the potential to create stories in a new and exciting way.  In my opinion, blogs had great promise as providing a distinct news narrative from the mainstream media.  At least, that was my opinion, until the events of the past couple of weeks.

The revelations concerning the proposed establishment of a website designed to smear opposition politicians grabbed a great many of the headlines recently.  What made this story unique was that a well known blogger (Paul Staines, otherwise known as ‘Guido Fawkes’) was key to these revelations getting into the public domain.  Cue much excitement in the media about blogs coming of age and actually dictating the news agenda.  But was this such a great revelation?  Was there actually any real difference between these revelations and countless other similar such revelations in the tabloid press over the past twenty years?  Not really.  The blog at the centre of the revelations has hardly caused a revolution in terms of the style of reporting.  It has merely repeated tactics that have been used by the tabloid press for sometime.  The fact that it was on a blog rather than in the print media was the only thing particularly unique about the story. The real story over the past few weeks has been much more interesting than that.

When Ian Tomlinson died during the G20 protests, there was initially very little coverage of the incident in the mainstream press.  When it was mentioned, it was usually framed to imply that protesters had been the main cause of his subsequent death.  The central accusation that they had thrown bottles at members of the emergency services who were trying to resuscitate him. The story was sidelined by most of the media and little or no attempt was made to investigate the incident any further.  The version of events that was presented to the media was taken to be fair and accurate representation of events on that day, and there appeared no need to investigate the story further.  This was pretty much reflective of how the mainstream media have operated in recent years.  Investigative journalism is time consuming and, therefore, expensive.  In these times of increased competition, costs need to be kept low to ensure that the organisation is competitive.  Consequently, investigative journalism is a rare feature of the modern media (although obviously it still happens from time to time).  This is not a good thing for democracy as a whole.  As one professor in journalism has put it:

Investigative journalism matters because of its many contributions to democratic governance. Its role can be understood in keeping with the Fourth Estate model of the press. According to this model, the press should make government accountable by publishing information about matters of public interest even if such information reveals abuses or crimes perpetrated by those in authority. From this perspective, investigative reporting is one of the most important contributions that the press makes to democracy. It is linked to the logic of checks and balances in democratic systems. It provides a valuable mechanism for monitoring the performance of democratic institutions as they are most broadly defined to include governmental bodies, civic organizations and publicly held corporations.

The decline in investigative journalism means a decline in quality information ‘about matters of public interest’ – a concern for anybody working in the information sector.

Despite the failure of the mainstream media in investigating the incident in question, the story did still develop over the following weeks. However, this was not due to traditional investigative journalism techniques. Whereas the media had failed to fully investigate the death of Mr Tomlinson, the public and modern technology stepped in. Shortly after the initial reports had emerged, a witness had approached The Guardian with filmed footage of what appeared to be an assault on Mr Tomlinson by a police officer shortly before he died. Needless to say, this caused a media storm and suddenly questions were being asked when before a blind eye was turned. Over subsequent days, more evidence began to emerge about what really happened during the G20 protests. Photos such as this one were posted on Flickr. Video footage emerged on YouTube that also suggested that the police were less than even-handed in their dealings with protesters. Suddenly, the media agenda was being led by developments on web 2.0 technologies. Ordinary citizens armed with cameras were able to do what journalists had failed to achieve. This was radically different to anything that had happened before. This was providing a new, distinctive narrative separate from that pursued by the mainstream media. Whereas ‘Guido Fawkes’ was essentially repeating the tactics of many a red-top over the years, this was something new and different and highlighted the potential that sites such as FlickR and YouTube in disseminating information.

The funny thing is that, over the past few years, blogs and the mainstream media have become ever closer. The media mimic some aspects of blogs in order to maintain an audience (see the number of articles that now have comment threads) and blogs (such as Guido Fawkes) have mimicked typical tabloid tactics. In the near future, you will barely be able to distinguish between the high-profile blogs and the mainstream media, such will be the similarities between the two. The consequence of this (particularly in terms of decreasing funds in the mainstream press) is a distinct decline in the standard of information in the public domain. This would, in turn, lead to an ill-informed electorate without the information required to exercise their democratic rights. It could just be that web 2.0 technologies will become an even more important informational tool than was first thought.