Below is a transcript of the Bloggers Summit Q&A Session
CHAIR: Do we have any questions: we’d better be quick.
Q: Hi, my name’s Imran Khan, I was at the previous session in this room and it was basically talking about the decline of journalism as under threat from libel and the law, and also from finances. And one of the points they were making was that there was a lot of talk on how blogging culture and citizen journalism can help to fill that void, but if you look at, for instance, what Ben did with Matthias Rath. Rath came in with a giant legal action. And I suppose if you weren’t attached to the Guardian you wouldn’t be able to defend yourself. So what would happen to that kind of investigative journalism in a blogging culture and can we somehow create an infrastructure that means we will be protected in some way?
Chair: So bloggers and libel threats. Did you have a question?
Q: Just recently we had a campaign in New Zealand to stop a clause of the copyright act leading to the termination of people accused of copyright infringement. Its still on the table but at least its there – we just want to set out an iconic campaign. Stephen Fry blacked out his icon and it became an international issue – many might not have known it originated in New Zealand. I guess the question for the panel is, do you think these sort of techniques are going to work again, or is it just a one off? Do you think the answer with blogging is reduced activity and longer posts?
Chair: Great OK, any other questions?
Q: Yes, I have a question. President Obama and also some people whose names I’ve forgotten in British Government were talking about wanting to impose age restriction things on the internet, and there was a quote I remembered which was that the internet was like Colorado during the Gold Rush and that it had to be controlled sooner or later, preferably sooner. So I’d be curious to know what people make of that and whether it’s good or bad and what the possibilities are.
Chair: Sure, ok. Do you guys want to answer them?
Panel: Bloggers are in quite an unusual position for libel in the sense that the decision for the person suing you is have they got any assets worth getting and will I win and I guess the answer to that varies from blogger to blogger. I don’t have any assets and houses got expensive before I became an adult. So if anyone sued me I’d find a friend with a camera and libel it. But the thing is people have said to me dreadful things about Matthias Rath on the internet and in general, to an extent, people do say horrible things on the internet and for the most part, if you’ve got any sense, you just go, well that’s just somebody being a twat in a pub. But ultimately, you might just have to sit back and be sued. No one’s going to cut your leg off. It’s just a lot of hassle. I mean it took a lot of my time being sued by this millionaire South African vitamin salesman who was saying that AIDS is better treated by his vitamin pills and you should throw away your AIDS drugs. That took a lot of my time and it was great that the Guardian supported it but it was still like a hassle and nobody pays you for your time defending that kind of thing. But it was also still really, really interesting. And also the great end product of that was, I have documentation on this man’s life now that stacked in my archive boxes is as tall as I am. I know more about this man now than almost any other person alive. And that’s like a free book.
Chair: Heather do you want to respond:
Heather: Yes, I think its true that there’s a real crisis with investigative journalism and I wasn’t here for the last session but I think that’s certainly true and that’s the kind of journalism that I really enjoy doing, but I can tell you I certainly don’t make my money from it – I do it because I’m obsessed with it, because it’s a passion really. But I certainly don’t get paid because basically the way that I sell my stuff is, obsessively get data, or try to get data, and sell the finished product to the paper and all the papers do is buy the finished product. Well, I make the joke when I talk to journalism students, the amount of facts in a story is in inverse ratio to the amount of money you’ll get paid. And its true, if I write something in the Times I get paid probably twice as much – I would even go so far as to say I get six times more money – than if I do an investigative piece. And not only is there that difference but if I do an investigative piece, particularly if its something I really feel strongly about, I’ve then got the threat of libel. I’ve been threatened with libel twice: once was that ridiculous child psychologist woman that I talked to you about. She claimed that I libelled her by saying she was a ‘litigious bully’. So yes, you’ve got that threat, and then also you’ve got massive intimidation because generally the sort of journalism I do is not what others are doing, particularly because I do the police a lot and I compare the police forces to each other which they absolutely hate. And instantly they all get on the phones to different bits of the paper to say, this is all wrong and so I have to be meticulously accurate with all the data I use when I make comparisons, so it’s a huge amount of effort just for me and I’m living in a country that has no freedom – no first amendment, the worst libel law in the world. I mean it really does – its so shocking. In this country, you claim to be a democracy but you have no freedom of expression law to protect what people say. I think that law has to be reformed, its just an outrage.
Chair: Just quickly, lets come back to Sam’s point.
Sam: Firstly, you asked about restrictions on internet use – can it be a mental age? Some people do not want us to see this information. Amnesty international runs a fantastic web button thing which shows you something that somebody doesn’t want you to see.
Benjamin: I just wanted to say one thing really quickly, as well as the bullying thing that can happen is, the practical thing that’s really important to do, is to protect them from getting into your internet service provider or the person who posts your website and getting them to take them down because that’s happened a lot of times. A society of homeopaths went to the quackometer – you can imagine what the quackometer says about the society of homeopaths – and asked them to take it down. And actually there are some webhosts like positive internet for example who host me for free declaration of interest – they are very clear that if somebody comes to us with something that says you’re libelling them, or it’s a copyright infringement, then that’s for you to sort out. They say, we’ll defend ourselves, but it’s your problem: we expect you to be responsible. I think finding any other webhost that also does that would be important.
Phil Booth: We’ve certainly put stuff out in public that maybe we shouldn’t have. We use an outfit that you’ve probably all heard of – wikileaks. When we get a government document that we think might make them break into our houses and steal our PCs for, but it strikes me that there may be a new tool for us – wikiblogs perhaps which could take all the stuff that they want to take off peoples’ blogs and create a wikileaks for that sort of material. Very quickly, it was Andy Burman, Former Home Office Minister who is now our Culture Minister, who was talking about age restrictions on internet controls. It strikes me that if Mr Burman is that scared of the internet, maybe he isn’t that good a dad either if he can’t just take them aside and say, the internet’s a very interesting place with lots of interesting stuff. If you see anything you like, come and talk to me about it.
Chair: Right, a few more questions.
Q: My name’s Hugh Williams I’m a journalist for the Financial Times. I’m relatively new to this debate and I’m interested in what Ben was saying about the relationship with the mainstream media. Are there positive moves between investigative journalists and bloggers like yourselves and mainstream media – the way we work? Is there a more positive interaction developing these days? As well as the criticism that we’re not interested in investigative journalism – we’re too conservative in our approach? Talk a little bit about the positive developments in the relationship between the blogging community and the mainstream media.
Q: Heather reminded me of a very interesting talk about three years ago now, by a chap called Hans Rosling. … now that would certainly help with what you’re doing and it would help with what a lot of us are doing that depends on having data available in open formats, in easily accessible formats that you can write, program, analyse, or graph or whatever.
Q: Hi, I’m one of the politicians at the local council and you’ve been pretty ambivalent about the politicians – just a quick example. You started webcasting council meetings that were so obscure – I grabbed the stream and put it on youtube and people from the other party were outraged that others could see it. But what I wanted to ask was, we’ve been very ambivalent – we’ve got lost in libel law etc – but great, have facebook pages, have blogs on this stuff, but you kind of expect politicians to deal with this torrent. What are we supposed to do with this when we’re getting faxes from twitter, sms, blogposts, petition responses and all this stuff. You know, help us out here a bit because you’re throwing a lot at us and we want to help. Have you got any ideas?
Chair: Great Heather, do you want to start?
Heather: Yes, well there’s two questions that tie in really well because I think one of the positives in the mainstream media for me is a new interest in data-driven journalism. In America its called computer-assisted reporting. Its something I do a lot of training in at BBC, sky news, Channel 4, and journalism students, and its all about generally having to use FO, freedom of information, to ask for electronic data out of the government and all public bodies. In America, this stuff is very readily accessible in usable formats. In Britain, its getting to be more so but still we have this huge method of obstruction from politicians unfortunately, and public servants who have this very feudal attitude where they feel like the information belongs to them and not to the people. So if I call out and say, “I’d like to get the data set of all your restaurant inspections” or to the Fire Brigade, “I’d like all the fire inspections” in most places they don’t want to do that. But anyway the idea is that you get that, and then you’re meant to analyse it yourself as a journalist and maybe cross reference it with other sets of data and come up with stories. It’s a kind of journalism that’s done a lot in America – it’s kind of a social sciences type Academic journalism that you’ll see all the time in the New York Times and the Washington Post and I think that journalists here, particularly at the Financial Times, because I was at the training session for that, and they’re sort of getting on board that. In a way that’s great because it is one way to ward off all these threats about libel because you’re always using the government’s own data – you’re not making it up, you’re not reliant on a source, you haven’t got some axe to grind. You’re actually using the public body’s own data to make your stories, so that is my positive response on the data.
New Speaker: On your question about ONS data getting better, the problem you have is if you want fifty years of data, how many times has the definition of anything changed in fifty years, you need somebody who can understand the data and look at it. The data availability is enough, but if you don’t understand migration or whatever it is you’re looking at, you can come up with something that’s fundamentally misleading and ends you up on Ben’s blog.
New Speaker: My society’s developed quite a few ways to get that data. Data is becoming better available but you still need to have a look and do it – it’s not just press a button and get 50 years of MPs expenses.
Phil Booth: Be under no illusion. Government data is more disparate, messy, out of date than you would imagine. Major agencies that send out actual civil penalties, know they’re working on a database where one in five records is incorrect. So they know that they are sending out threatening letters and actual penalties to people, one in five of whom, they shouldn’t be sending them to.
Well I know Bill Thompson’s done a lot of work on getting the formats of APIs to be more common in that format – maybe that’s something that could be looked at. Maybe its something the government could work on – on format.
New Speaker: Well I said a long time ago we should make Tom Steinberg a lord and minister for API. It’s the only viable solution to the problem. They’ve got this thing called transformational government. The whole point is the focus is on us – making us more transparent. Turn it back on themselves. Lets have some, as they say, open APIs and data structures that actually make sense so that the government becomes accountable to us. Having all the tools on the outside and all the analysis on the outside is only ever going to address the surface of the problems.
Chair: Right, a few more questions. We’ve only got ten minutes or maybe less so you have to be quick please.
Q: Moving on from data, I think one of the reasons why blogging isn’t taken seriously is because of the comment threads and people are acting in an echo chamber.
Q: Just about the comments thing: I was just going to ask the panel what they would do if they began to get comments that were libellous.
Chair: Oh, just delete them. We’ve had that on Liberal Conspiracy a few times. There’s unfortunately no way around it. If someone is making a libellous comment you just have to delete it. That’s the only way to get round that problem really. Do you have to delete comments on websites?
Ben: Very rarely actually. I think if you lead by example by being fairly sensible in what you say by being sort of childish and evidence-based, then that on an individual person’s blog makes a big difference. A big problem with Comment is Free is it’s such a huge community that its very difficult to have a linear discussion so in the absence of threaded comments it’s just people posting up things they think. But I’m constantly amazed actually by how oversensitive journalists nad readers are to childish things that are said on the internet in comment threads. Looking around the room I can see five people who are already my friends and I reckon maybe I’d like about twenty percent of you to be my friends and I reckon about twenty percent of you I’d really, really hate you. And that’s fine, I can ignore you. I don’t have to read what you say or think about you and that’s not a problem for me.
Chair: Keep that in mind – you lot back there. Just to answer Rachael’s point, I was just invited recently to this Labour Party – they’ve been trying to show how they can engage with the internet. The trick for them there is to say, well is this something we can translate to votes? And that’s probably why – that’s the main reason for engaging for them. Obama’s campaign was very much like that – he wanted your votes – he wanted you to get involved with the campaign. In return you sort of engaged with what they were doing and tried to give your opinion so its sort of a bit of a two way thing, you pretend that politicians are going to engage purely to listen to your views and that you’re going to do something for them in response.
Speaker: There’s a new point of information – there’s a big labour party event happening today. No twitter, no livestreaming, no blog – apparently someone there has just told the audience that its very easy to start a blog.
Q: One final question. I just wanted to come back to that point that the politician made: he said that he wants to engage but there’s just too many voices out there. I’m speaking from the other end as a guy with a blog that’s probably read by three people. I think sometimes its just stream of consciousness, sometimes you’ve got a valid point. I think many issues where you’ve got groups like NO2ID representing or involved, there are others where you don’t have a group like that, but there’s a lot of collective wisdom out there. And in amongst all the different blogs, and all the different authors and bloggers etc, there are voices to whom politicians want to respond, but they can’t respond to everyone – to the million people with blogs. I don’t agree with the conspiracy in the Hazel Blears community….. (inaudible)
Chair: Just one final point to make: the Guardian have a new section called Liberty Central where they try to aggregate lots of liberty-related information and there are obviously a lot of blogs: Bad signs, Right to know, Liberal Conspiracy, My Society and No2ID. Get involved and help other people out and collaborate more. Thanks for being here with us.