Friday, 30 September 2011

Numbers Are Fun

I live in The Forest Of Dean in Gloucestershire, and you couldn't find a finer place to live. 

You could however find a finer place to drive. The roads are notoriously bad for a number of reasons; lots of blind brows to sharply rising hills, hair pin bends with cliffs, no lighting, hidden dips, boar, deer, and sheep lots and lots of sheep. So when the Gloucestershire Road Safety Partnership erected signs on the main A48 through the area warning how dangerous it is then you'd think that I'd be happy. 

Weeeeelllll.... No.

It's not the signs, or really even the sentiment, it's the woolly reporting of numbers that annoys. The signs tell us about the number of Casualties on the road in the last 3 years. It's reasonably high at 39, it averages out at 13 a year. However when you do a little bit of research it turns out that these signs have replaced temporary ones that warned of 39 collisions on the road in the last 3 years.

Collisions or Casualties? 

Casualties in this sense is hugely emotive. If you take it at its most extreme definition then it could mean that there have been 39 deaths... I've had a look back over the last 3 years for reports of deaths on the A48. The Gloucester Citizen has been invaluable for this research (and they really know how to string out a good road death, coverage can last for months!) and I've managed to come up with.... 9 deaths since June 2008. 

9 is still a bad number, but then you look at the inquests; 1 black ice, 2 Drugs, 1 drink driving and a trip to prison, oh and 1 motor bike. So 5 out of the 9 have reasons beyond being careful and 1 of the remaining 4 deaths had excessive speed mentioned as a cause of the accident. 

So what am I saying here?

To use '39 casualties' isn't wrong it's just a little miss-leading (depending on the interpretation of casualty). If someone had a low speed shunt and was taken to hospital they then ended up on the casualty list. So it could be that there have been 9 deaths and 30 very minor accidents that meant a trip to hospital just to be on the safe side. 

It's very difficult to stop numbers having some sort of emotional baggage. It's not the numbers fault, they are entirely blameless, we're the ones that make them dance for us. Numbers when used to support a particular point of view (in this case that the A48 is dangerous even though it's categorised as Low/Medium by EuroRAP need to have context. I'm not even going to start talking about regression toward the mean that's for another day

So next time you hear someone boast that their sales have risen by 100% year on year, just remember that if you add context it could mean that they only made 1 sale last year and 2 this.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

X-Factor Winner 2012

As I walked across the restaurant I was first impressed by his stature, and impressed by his eyes.

My editor had called the previous day and told me that they had finally got through all the 'PR Shit' his phrase not mine, and they'd secured the biggest interview if the week. They had managed to get time with Andy Clart, this years winner of The X-Factor; The biggest best and boldest version of the show since it started as a singing contest in 2004.

Andy was no Steve Brookstien, he wasn't a Leon Jackson, he was something set apart.

If you go back to the 2011 series you'll understand why the format had to change, the moribund idea of a singing contest leaked viewers after the 'bootcamp' stage; It coincided with the announcement that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN had found that neutrinos can travel faster than light... We all know what happened next. It was a moment that can be likened to the realisation that Phlogiston doesn't exist. Suddenly the old certainties of the laws of physics had been broken and we started the age that some have called the 'Second Enlightenment'.

So why have a singing contest? Surely there were better things to do?

Simon Cowell the Svengali figure behind The X-Factor and (it's recently become clear) the building of CERN knows where the money is and this time it was in the mind... Out went the terrible versions of 'Hero' and in came the terrible versions of 'Boyl's Third Law'.

The first auditions were a revelation. Chemists, Physicists, Engineers, Philosophers, Librettists, Mathematicians, and assorted intellectuals queued for hours out side the O2 waiting to see the Judges; Richard Dawkins, Elinor Ostrom (hot from her Nobel triumph), Jocylen Bell Burnell, Andre Geim and for some reason Gary Barlow.

Most of the auditions were riffs on some classic work, one young hopeful even tried to give an account of Graphene whilst Andre Geim held his head in his hands and openly wept. The video of that has since become a youtube sensation!

Back to the restaurant and the tall thin man sitting in front of me, Andy Clart. Andy was one of the stars from the start, his unconventional thoughts on the work of Derrida was an elegant audition, but through the later stages he started to wow with his mixing of disciplines. His visual representation of Heisenberg is now in The Tate Modern, and his oratorio covering the events of the Franco-Prussian war is due to open the Proms this year.

"The remarkable thing is" he says, his bright blue eyes twinkling as he speaks "I hadn't really left my house for a number of years, I thought that whilst the world venerated people with a genetic predisposition for kicking balls or having slender thighs, there was really no point socialising. Yes I had the net and web cam friends and colleagues across the world, but we always seemed to be such a fringe community... we were the people hated by the anti intellectual masses." he pauses and takes a drink "You know" he continues looking more world weary "we could have stopped the credit crunch, but too many people were asking what Joan Collins thought, so we didn't bother."

So what does the future hold? Andy is the poster boy for modern intellectualism, some are saying he's like a sexy Prof. Brian Cox. He doesn't want to get involved in all that though, "I want to do good, and I'm not designing clothes, or endorsing products. I really wouldn't want to become a Nietzschien cliche."

(Taken from The Star newspaper January 2013)

Friday, 23 September 2011

People are people.

I listen to lots of interviews. It's what I do. I listen to interviews with civic dignitaries, local councils, regional government  parliamentarians and everything else. They all make the same mistake to varying degrees; they talk about information and not people.

I said in my last post that there was no room for 'stakeholders' in interviews and that is completely true. There has to be room for people. Yes I know that they are the same thing (more or less) but a stakeholder doesn't get dyspeptic after eating too much cheese a person does, a stakeholder isn't worried about their monthly budget but a person is, a stakeholder won't invite you to their house warming party... you get the idea? It's far from being a question of semantics it's a question of attitude.

Until the politician talks in terms of people they won't be able to bridge the gap between information and emotion. We may understand that the macro economic outlook is gloomy and that understanding will engender an emotion but what we need is a transmition of emotion that is one step sooner.

Valerie Geller Author & Guru
A number of years ago I was trained by Valerie Geller.

Ms Geller was one of a number of American consultants brought over to try and sort out what was wrong with BBC Radio. I personally didn't think there was too much wrong with BBC Radio... other than journalists being forced to be presenters with no training (after all it's only talking between the news bulletins, which are the important bit, it's not as if it matters)... I digress.

Ms Geller was flavour of the month and now, in the BBC, she's treated like Trotsky in the Stalin regime. Which is very wrong. Part of what she taught me was the power of 'you'. Her doctrine was that radio is personal and the listener is engaged in a powerful mutually beneficial relationship with the broadcaster; to engage them you need to start with 'you'. It's something that I took on whole heartedly and have used ever since to great effect. It's about 'you' not 'us'. It's about the personal experience not the group experience and this is how politicians at all levels need to think to be affective.

Going back to the economic outlook. There has been a lot of statements made talking about 'we'; 'We're all in it together' being one of the more striking ones*. The Government are trying to engender some sort of faux blitz spirit so that we'll all pull together for the greater good. Those days are long gone, we now live in a tribal environment that means that we have more in common with our Facebook friends than our neighbours. This throws up the difficulty of mobilising the hearts and minds; all you need to do is follow the simple rule of 'It's not about us, it's about YOU' then it gets personal and important.

*have they seen 'Brazil'? Terry Gilliam's classic has the line from the government of the day "Happiness; we're all in it together!" and that's set in a utopia isn't it?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Council Vs. Journalist

There are few things that get journalists angrier than Local Councils / Councillors (possibly the thought of having their pension changed just edges it) there is that 'heart sink' moment when you find out that you have to interview a local councillor because there is the immediate thought that they will be either slippery or dull.

Journalists don't like slippery or dull.

So what do I mean by 'slippery'?

It's more than avoiding the question, it's more than just putting the party line on an issue, it's even more than a terrible habit of using stupid phrases like 'increasing public involvement' or 'stakeholder awareness' it also covers a need to answer questions that they don't know the answer to... it's a need to be right, no matter what the cost.

Some of these difficulties can be ironed out quite easily with a greater sense of self awareness the last couple however have the potential to break any relationship that a councillor wants to build with a journalist or media outlet. No one wants to see or hear someone make stuff up on the spot but it happens with representatives of councils more than others. I'm talking with 16 years experience of interviewing councillors; there are some that have an inability to say "I don't know".

It's simple isn't it, just 3 words (including a contraction) that can be the difference between success and failure  Success in this case is trust. Why trust a representative and by extension an organisation that isn't telling the truth?

Trust is ephemeral and delicate and very easily killed.

When a councillor says 'I don't know' it needs to be followed with 'but I'll certainly find out.' and possibly even ' the end of the programme' it shows that you're treating the audience as adults, that you trust them, that you know what you're doing.

The journalist will accept that as an answer but if you don't supply the answer later all hell will break loose.

Don't expect this to work every time; there is a danger of appearing ill informed and certainly don't expect it to work if you are, for example, Cabinet member with responsibility for council housing and you don't know how many houses there are... that's just incompetence.

The other big problem is the need to be right. All politicians suffer from this. It's all down to the adversarial nature of politics in this country. Very little gets done in partnership, things have to be argued out and not everyone can be right. Right is even a subjective word. You need to embrace 'wrong'.

There is a great fear of wrong as wrong implies fault. If you admit that you were wrong then is there a possibility of legal action? Will people think that I am incompetent? Will my career ever survive?

Sensible thoughts if you've broken the law, you're incompetent, or your career isn't worth having.

Being wrong doesn't automatically mean that you are weak, in modern media relations it's something that gives a public figure strength. It builds trust; you can trust someone who is honest with you.

In conclusion 'I don't know' and 'I was wrong' can be 2 of the most powerful and trust worthy things a councillor can say to a journalist. Don't forget, through the journalist you're saying it to the audience and after a string of denials from banks, government, utilities, corporations, they are really in the mood for some honesty.

Monday, 12 September 2011


I don't usually blog twice in one day but this has just made me laugh so hard that milk has come down my nose... and I wasn't even drinking milk!

The latest Ofcom Bulletin details the case of Brick FM a Scottish community station which broadcast a song with the F-bomb in it and repeated use of the word 'punani'. This is very easy to do. It's one thing that terrifies any music presenter; are you going to play the wrong version of the track?

Cee Lo Green's recent 'Forget You' is one of those buttock clench tracks... have you got the right one loaded?

Back to Brick FM. They played the track 'More Punany' by Dr Evil at just after 3pm. It had 2 f-bombs. Bad enough you may say but noooooooo they then played the unedited version of 'Pass Out' by Tinie Tempah where a total of 5 f-bombs were dropped.

Once could be a mistake, twice just looks like idiocy. However, the people at Brick FM are genius, no they really are, in the response to Ofcoms investigations they first say that...

"a "punany" was a "sandwich sold locally and is made of Italian bread with cheese and tomato which is heated up" and therefore did not accept the song "More Punany" had sexual connotation"

The word that they are looking for is PANINI. That's PANINI guys!!

I really don't want to order a panini in the Brick FM area otherwise I'll have a lot to explain to my wife.

Thankfully the f-bomb isn't offensive either as they go on to say...

Brick FM also maintained that the word "f**k" is "a commonly used word in Scotland, as a description, when something goes wrong or if they get angry or upset" rather than a sexual act giving the phrases "f---cars or f---crazy" as examples. It argued that it had "the right to use the commonly spoken word which is not considered offensively locally" and claimed that Ofcom was "unfamiliar with our [its] local dialect". 

Well, that's all right then isn't it.

No, Brick FM has been found in breach of the code and may have the book thrown at them.

In conclusion, I really think that there is something in this defence. If your company is accused of something, if it is found to be in breach of a code, or it has offended public decency then just deny it. Just say that there is nothing wrong and that the rules are wrong and that the public bodies are wrong. I don't say it's a good idea, I just think it's an idea.

On one level it has worked, I'll be telling the story about Brick FM for years to come!

FYI here is the Ofcom adjudication in full

Real News

Last week the news broke that the BBC World Service Journalist killed in Afghanistan in July was shot by American forces. Ahmed Omed Khpulwak was killed in a case of mistaken identity.

Journalists around the world will have had a moment, however brief, of reflection. The news is real and too often that's forgotten.

I still remember the day that the news became real for me; I was working in Stoke-On-Trent presenting the early show and marketing the radio station. My friend Heather was reading the Breakfast news bulletin and was leading on the top local story of a young man who had been killed in a terrible car crash the previous night. It was just a news story and we thought nothing of it.

The morning continued as it always did, she read the news I made tea and tried to get more people listening; we had a laugh and then got on with stuff.

When the programme manager came in we knew that there was something a little wrong... She was an ebullient woman who would bound in, call me her 'prank monkey' and then we'd catch up and she'd start work. Today was different. It wasn't that she was glum, more preoccupied... She went into her office closed the door and made a phone call.

I'm nosey, you have to be if you're a journalist, so I tried to catch a sense of what was going on. I didn't listen at the door, but you can tell a lot from the tone of voice of someone in another room. She was sombre. All of a sudden she came out of her office and gathered the morning team around her.

"***** isn't coming in today" she said, "his nephew was killed in that car crash last night"

There was silence for half a beat and then Heather who had just been reading another story, who had just been presenting the news, who had been talking about a dead teenager as if he were a lost sock, burst into tears.

That day the news became real for me.

Last week the news became a little more real for any journalist with any sense of empathy. Ahmed Omed Khpulwak wasn't well known, but he was a journalist. Now he's news.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Speech isn't free.

A few weeks back I blogged on the vitriol that was being fired towards Historian David Starkey. I put forward the idea that a news interview wasn't the place to try and form elegant thoughts. There isn't enough time to place possibly controversial argument into context.

It was a sort of defence of David Starkey. This caused a little local difficulty. 

I post this blog on a number of sites to maximise its readership and to make sure that lots of people are able to benefit from my great wisdom... sorry got carried away there. On one of these sites I received the following response...

I might speculate that the lack of responses to John's post indicates the extent to which "free speech" has been subdued in the mother of democracies. No-one feels comfortable putting forward a view in case they are instantly branded as racist, sexist, etc.

In the emotionally charged atmosphere of a live TV debate I should imagine it is difficult to always select the most appropriate language. It's not like you have time to sit down and write an essay. People are too quick to comment on style instead of substance and take any debate down a rat-hole. If we go back to 1985 Sir Paul Condon (Met commissioner) said that 85% of all street crime was committed by one section of the community. Has anything changed?

Can someone explain to me why in this land of village greens, cucumber sandwiches and warm beer, that some people feel the need to conceal a 20" machete or hand-gun down their trouser legs to walk our streets?

The real difficulty our country faces is in expecting the same people who allowed/created the problem(s) to implement an effective solution.
The result of this?

A great big face palm.

It was as if my defence of David Starkey had rattled a disturbing cage that failed to see that free speech isn't free.

This is how I responded...

I'm not sure that the blog post goes to those lengths, I was hoping to explore the difficulty of an expert not being given the time to explain a train of thought and for the need to be careful what language is used. I hope that I did that.

I find it odd when people use the phrase 'free speech' because that means free speech for 'them' as much as free speech for 'us'. If you use the phrase you need to accept that those who complain of racism are themselves exercising their 'free speech'. It has to work both ways otherwise it isn't free.

To be honest I don't think that we have ever had free speech, and that's a very good thing.

If we did have this mythical thing called free speech then Oswald Mosley the British fascist leader wouldn't have been imprisoned during the last world war. He would simply have been exercising his free speech in supporting Hitler against his government... What we say publically shouldn't be something that affects another section of law abiding society adversely; which is what casual and even accidental racism does.

Village greens and cucumber sandwiches??? For some maybe, but you go back as far as you can and the court reports are filled with violence and death...

(BBC Radio 4 have a splendid programme looking at The Old Bailey records, the last one I caught was dealing with the 17th and 18th century male brothels or Molly Houses. Homosexuality is really not a recent phenomenon)

...cast your mind back to the 50's and you'll see that the riots and stabbings perpetrated by 'The Teds' make nothing this generation do look new. The only difference is that it's now reported nationally.

The world is a safer place, crime persists in going down, and crime that is perpetrated tends to be in specific areas amongst specific people, but because it's a story if there is a crime it gets reported and people perception of crime is skewed.

I have brought 2 children into this world and I have no intention of leaving this sceptre’ d Isle just as long as people coexist peacefully, think of the sensitivities of every community, deal fairly and honestly with each other and never think that speech is free... because completely free speech has a very high price to pay.
And there is where I left it and I went off on holiday. I am yet to receive a response.

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