Insights On The Connected Consumer

If there is one primary topic in the media world these days, other than have you seen the Duchess of Cambridge pictures, it is the connected world.

Over the past few years it has become a familiar theme. It was the main uniting feature at this month’s IBC conference and associated Leader Summit in Amsterdam and discussed widely at the CTAM, cable conference at Vienna last week. There was also a sustained examination of every facet of the phenomenon at MediaTel’s Connected Consumer seminar this week – and putting the emphasis on the consumer usefully emphasised that this debate has moved on and is now about much more than what television set manufacturers have decided to offer us.

Just like the old jokes are the best jokes, so old, or rather familiar, questions are absolutely the right ones to continue to ask until the answers are absolutely and unambiguously revealed. We have not got there yet although the outlines of the connected world – and the associated emerging buzz words “the second screen” – are starting to emerge from the mist.

MediaTel’s quarterly Connected TV consumer survey provides useful benchmarks. Ownerships of smart TV’s increased from 12.9% of respondents in the third quarter of 2011 to 15.7% now. It seems like a modest rise but when combined with changing habits of new television purchase – down from once every 10 years to every five to six years – you can see a strong trend emerging.

It really does become a reasonable proposition, as many are suggesting, that 50% of the television homes of Western Europe – with the UK probably in the vanguard – will have smart TVs or at least connected devices in some form by the end of 2015.

The old questions remain. What will consumers actually make of all the technological power being put at their finger-tips? Will it enhance the existing big broadcast brands or lead to the creation of a long tail of almost forgotten but much loved television programmes?

There is also the possibility that apps for the burgeoning number of over the top (OTT) operators like Netflix, LoveFilm and Blinkbox will finally lead them to the sunny uplands though some will fall by the wayside. Or not.

At the seminar Damien Read of BT Vision noted that what the viewers really want are relatively modest – the ability to record programmes and the live pause function.

Author and consultant Michael Bayler provided a theoretical framework for trying to understand what is happening in the living room when the consumer is brought together with smart and connected devices. There are now two eco-systems working in parallel. There is a macro big TV system and a micro-system devoted to such things as social communication. The two may converge occasionally but actually there is very little overlap.

There may however be more overlap than Bayler acknowledges. A lot of the micro communication is linked to what is happening on the big screen though some programmes such as X Factor encourage such communication more than others. Indeed we heard that as much as 40% of peak time Twitter traffic is television related.

In custom research for IBC’s Leadership Summit, Deloitte concluded that the most common use of full connectivity in TV sets is likely to be “a moderate increase in viewing of mainstream TV content catalysed by access to catch-up services and a wider portfolio of content.”

What is clear though is that there is little appetite among mainstream broadcasters for spending much if anything on original content for the second screen. They believe, rightly, that the money should go to the first screen and anything else would be parasitical. The question then becomes an argument about which actually is “the first screen.” For most people surely that will remain the flat screen on the wall.

Other take-aways from the seminar is that shock, horror the YouView box is actually a great piece of work. Cynical hacks like to go for the too little, too late, too expensive line of argument on YouView. Not so according to Nigel Walley who has put YouView through its paces at his iBurbia emporium in Chiswick. “YouView is the only proposition that has the five apps everyone wants. Smart TVs don’t have these and do have many more we probably don’t want,” says Walley. The famous five he is taking about are of course the catch up services from the main broadcasters.

The great why doesn’t BT buy ITV argument re-emerged, initially from the audience. Why indeed? It is still astonishing that no-one had the courage and the imagination – and you wouldn’t have needed very much – to bid for ITV in 2009 when the share price slid unbelievably below 30p. Now it might take bids closer to Greg Dyke’s heroic 130p a share effort to land the UK’s leading commercial broadcaster and one obviously heading in the right direction.

BT will probably never make a move in that direction but in BT Vision they are clearly serious about television but 38 live Premier League games and library films and television programmes are unlikely to add up to a breakthrough.

And then there are the dreaded metrics – audience numbers to you and me. The more complexity you have with the connected consumer and first, second and even third screens the greater the need will be for reliable information. And we are clearly not there yet – or more precisely we will not be there when significant numbers migrate from the main channels – if they ever do.

As Jean-Paul Edwards from Manning Gottlieb OMD, who has been trying to divine the future these past 17 years put it, there was at the same time too much data and too little. Too much background noise, too little significant, meaningful data.

Here again the conclusion has to be everyone will have to live with increased complexity and continuing uncertainty for the foreseeable future. A gradually evolving BARB will continue to do the heavy lifting on television while failing to afford to be able to do everything. At the same time more targeted “metrics” will sprout alongside.

To the hopeful person who asked “can’t we have a single body measuring everything?” the answer probably remains: In Your Dreams. TouchPoints will have to do for now.
(This article first appeared on Mediatel)


Eric Schmidt Smiles too Much

We all had a good laugh at Eric Schmidt’s harpooning of the Lord Sugar, the well-known property tycoon.
How silly of Sugar to turn down an Apprentice candidate because he was an Engineer for goodness sake.
After all, noted the Google executive chairman, reverting to the stiletto, we haven’t done so badly.
Schmidt, one of the many engineers at the top of Google, obviously gained his biggest headlines from his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival with his entirely sensible appeal for the UK to bridge the gulf between the arts and sciences. It is an appeal echoed frequently by Prof Brian Cox, another Edinburgh star, who likes to point out in a rather perplexed way how BBC types from the arts side of the trenches feel comfortable almost boasting about their total ignorance of science.
There is nothing new under the sun. The somewhat faded novelist C.P.Snow highlighted the issue in his Two Cultures lecture in 1959.
Changing attitudes of TV producers might help a little but only education secretary Michael Gove could actually do anything about the undoubted problem with dramatic changes to the curriculum.
Under Schmidt’s big tent argument there were a number of much more contentious issues – such as the launch of Google TV.
Naturally in everything it does Google seeks to advance the cause of humanity and the common good –while making honest billions along the way.
Lord Grade could not have been more wrong when he denounced Google as a “parasite.”
Rupert Murdoch was of course totally mistaken when he elaborated on the parasite theme by describing the company as “a tapeworm in the internet.”
And how silly of former Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan to even suggest that Google took more revenue out of the UK than ITV’s total earnings.
It was therefore totally daft for anyone to fear the arrival of Google TV in Europe early next year with the UK “well among the top priorities.”
It was complete nonsense for silly players, such as the US networks, to think that Google was about to compete with them and start creating its own content.
If that were to happen, all you would get, said the self-effacing Schmidt, would be a lot of bad sci-fi movies.
No, the point was to create an open platform for the next generation of TV to evolve rather as the creation of the Smart Phone platform had sparked a whole new era of innovation, said Schmidt oozing both natural and choreographed charm.
Beware someone who smiles at you that much, was the immediate comment of one media academic after the lecture.
The fear surrounding the arrival of Google TV is understandable. The company is so big, so rich and so ambitious.
In football terms think Manchester City and quadruple it. Google has the resources to build or buy anything its wants.
Except there might just be a bit of a flaw in Eric Schmidt’s big argument. Britain’s broadcasters may indeed be stuffed too full of arts graduates but Google may have too many engineers in power positions for its own good.
As Ken Auletta argued in “Googled: The End of the World As We Know It” there has often been a naivety about the engineers of Google.
There is an admirable “can do” approach in inventing things but that nevertheless often fails to take account of what impact their innovations will have, how consumers perceive them and sometimes a disinterest in whether or not they will make money.
Lets assume that Google TV destroys the financial models of the original content creators of Europe.
Gee we’re really sorry that really wasn’t our intention at all, would be the likely response.
Luckily we don’t have to have any worries on that score. The launch of Google TV could turn out to be a dead duck – one of Google’s imaginative clunkers.
Such a judgement is based not just on an optimistic whim.
As Google would expect there is intellectual rigour and proper research behind it.
Nigel Walley, chief executive of Decipher, who tests all new boxes, tellies, media revolutions to destruction has put the new Google TV box through its paces at his Chiswick headquarters and found it seriously wanting.
According to Walley there is actually little new or imaginative about Google TV.
Unless you buy a television set with an integrated Google TV box – and there is no sign they exist so far- Google TV will be add-on to any set-top box (STB) rather than a replacement. It has no TV tuner in it so therefore can’t receive broadcast TV.
As Walley notes: “When you get it out of the box it asks you which STB you want to use with Google TV, and goes off to find the right EPG data. You then have to run the ‘out’ cable from your existing STB into the Google box, rather than directly into your TV.
The Decipher chief executive adds: “ Then there is anther cable that comes out of Google TV into your screen carrying the combined Google and STB data. Most consumers will have lost the will to live by this point.”
The benefits of the Google TV set-up?
It opens up your TV to any website rather than the limited list that other companies are letting into their devices and it allows TV web players to integrate with Android apps.
The overall verdict of Decipher?
Unless there is a miraculous re-design it is likely that Google TV’s flaws, including its inability to integrate web sites with broadcast channels, will outweigh its benefits.
Maybe Google should bring in some of those highly creative British “luvvies” to advise the Google “geeks.”
Apart from giving Lord Sugar his just deserts Eric Schmidt was spot on in targetting the UK’s regulators, in particular the Competition Commission which blocked Project Kangaroo.
Schmidt was rendered almost speechless by the concept that the potentially world beating concept was done to death because it might have been too successful.
Even if YouView meets its revised 2012 deadline several years had been lost – the equivalent of an eternity in the fast-moving world of regulators.
Mazel Tov to Britain’s regulators.

Winehouse and Breivik

In the parallel world inhabited by news editors, bad is good, terrible is terrific and a major tragedy just as the school holidays are starting is totally bloody brilliant.
After two weeks of great headlines which rose to a crescendo with the appearance of Murdoch and son before House of Commons Select committee the hacking story was obviously on its last legs – at least for now.
It would have taken a full confession from Prime Minister David Cameron that he had personally hacked Ed Miliband’s mobile to have kept the story alive on the front pages.
The daily disclosures had caused a serious outbreak of Murdoch fatigue for which there is no known cure.
Then just at the very moment when a declaration of the official launch of the silly season seemed inevitable, along came the most dreadful atrocity from the most unexpected of all places – Norway.
Marvellous thought the news editors as they leapt into action pulling in the experts to create the instant consensus view that this was obviously an al qaeda multi-target terrorist conspiracy.
Then we had one of the most pronounced reverse ferrets for years as the awful truth dawned that this crack al qaeda team in the Mumbai mould was actually a single, blond Masonic Norwegian with ridiculous extreme rightwing views.
A new set of experts was rapidly called in to discuss the politics and motives of extreme European rightwing groups and we were off and running again without scarcely missing a beat.
In the world of 24-hour news you need to have a flexible mind above all things.
By the Saturday morning the full horror of what had happened on Utoya Island became apparent and the chase was on to find out everything possible about the neo-Nazi Anders Breivik, 32, his links with London and the moving stories of the young people who survived and those who did not.
Just great news for the Sundays and the weekend news bulletins.
It might have been the second day of the story but this was a very unusual second day. It was actually the first day when the scale and true seriousness of the situation became obvious for the first time.
Then like something out of a journalist’s training course where a hypothetical last minute breaking news story is always tossed in to disrupt proceedings Amy Winehouse died an inconvenient death.
How irritating. Couldn’t she have waited a couple of days and then she could have been given the full, unambiguous dead tragic star/hero treatment without any Norwegian neo-Nazis getting in the way.
But alas there was no doubt about it. The 27-year old Jewish singer with the jazzy contralto voice and drink and drug problems was definitely dead.
A choice would have to be made. Do you lead on Amy the famous, talented, notorious, celebrity from North London or the deaths of perhaps seventy dead, unknown teenagers who had actually died more than 24 hours earlier.
How many dead anonymous European teenagers, or for that matter dying children in the Horn of Africa, do you need to outweigh one dead British rock singer?
The anecdotal evidence at the time was that it was the individual tragedy that seemed to shock most.
It was news. It had just happened and people had just heard about it on the radio or television and said almost involuntarily: “Isn’t it sad about Amy,” naturally identifying with the almost inevitable saga of the highly talented young woman who had apparently drunk herself to death.
But news editors had to chose and the vast majority chose the events in Norway.
In a way newspaper executives have it easier than television duty editors. They have an old-fashioned front page to deal with and they hedge their bets by putting both stories on the front.
In almost every case they made the events in Norway the “splash” and put “Amy Winehouse Dies” as a sort of banner headline across the top or the bottom of the page.
The Sunday Telegraph shrunk the front page news about Amy to a tiny earpiece that would have been easy to miss, presumably on the grounds that its readers would not be very well acquainted with albums such as Back to Black.
The News of the World, we can safely predict had it still existed, would have not had a moment’s hesitation before splashing on The Lonely Drugs and Drink Death of Tragic Amy.
The broadcasters who really had to choose between the two tragedies were divided.
Both the BBC and ITV decided to lead with Norway while giving extensive coverage to the Winehouse death.
Only Sky, after considerable internal debate, decided to lead with Whitehouse, mainly because it was new, and news, compared with a second day story.
The Sun had do doubts. It followed Amy Lay Dead For Six Hours with I’ve Lost My Dear Love Amy.
Does all this soul-searching matter? If both stories are well covered does anybody really care whether one is first or second in the running order.
The answer seems to be that people do care about the relative values ascribed by journalists to stories. Instinctively they register the moral valuations involved and often disagree about the choices made.
Show business journalists were outraged that anyone in their right mind would even think of leading with anything other than Amy Whitehouse.
“Civilians” tended to argue the opposite just as vociferously. How could anyone think the hardly unexpected premature end of a talented but self-destructive pop star more important than the attack on an entire democratic society?
There is a larger issue about the arrival of big all-encompassing stories such as Murdoch, Breivik or Amy Whitehouse.
They push all other stories to the margins whether threats to the Euro, the US financial crisis or famine in Africa.
It would be truly tragic if thousands of children were to die in Somalia because we were all engaged elsewhere and news organisations can only manage to concentrate on one, or at most two, sad stories at the same time.
Raymond Snoddy

A Morality Tale For Our Times

It has been a great time for Gilbert and Sullivan, Whitehall farces and freedom of expression in the UK.

A number of judges have made asses of themselves. A new Lib Dem political hero has emerged – and there are not many of them –in the unlikely shape of John Hemming MP.

We can now utter the words Ryan Giggs, Giles Coren and Fred The Shred Goodwin without the fear of the secret police turning upon our doorsteps.

We have all had a good laugh and a great gossip but the more we learn the most important and serious the underlying issues become.

What sort of a judge – you might even say what sort of a human being –could make secrecy orders in favour of Trafigura over allegations of pollution in West Africa.

Who could have thought privacy for Sir Fred Goodwin and the role played by his mistress within the Royal Bank of Scotland was more important than  finding out everything of relevance about why one of the UK’s leading banks had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.

The lady’s role seems highly relevant to such an understanding but alas we have to leave it there for now for fear of … two years in jail.

What sort of a judge would grant a super-injunction to a philandering multi-millionaire footballer on the apparent grounds that otherwise the poor dear might have been jeered from the terraces?

And if The Independent is right, the situation is even worse than previously imagined with more than 330 gagging orders issued in England over the past five years.

Some will be have been entirely legitimate to protect the identity of children or vulnerable adults.

According to The Independent the roll call included 28 men accused of extra-marital affairs and nine cases where convicted criminals were granted anonymity. There was even an injunction protecting the identity of a lawyer accused of possessing hardcore pornography.

All of this thankfully can be overturned by the internet and Twitter in particular.

The situation moved the otherwise admirable Lord Chief Justice, Lord Justice Judge to observe this week that technology was now out of control.

The obvious response is maybe, but so are many High Court judges.

Prime Minister David Cameron noted correctly that the present situation was unsustainable and that it was unfair that information that was true and widely available on the internet could not be reported in the press.

Confusion and muddle reigns and even House of Commons Speaker Bercow does not seems to have a firm grasp of the fact that absolute privilege protecting anything said on the floor of the House of Commons means precisely that.

Finding a solution to the current mess, farce, brouhaha will not be easy.

The Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger had an attempt and suggested in the interests of open justice reporters should be allowed to attend injunction hearings – but then added that of course they would not be allowed to report what they had heard.

Just occasionally journalists are inclined to gossip, particularly in licensed premises.

How long before such information reached the internet – 10 minutes ? Twenty?

A joint committee of the Houses of Parliament has been sent up and there have also been suggestions that the answer lies in strengthening the role of the Press Complaints Commission.

All of them will face problems.

The internet is a revolutionary, disruptive force of nature and many of its most established corporate players, including Twitter, are based in the US and will undoubtedly respect the First Amendment to the US constitution.

Just in case the words are not already engraved on your heart it says; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances”

It’s very tempting to send a copy to every High Court judge in the land for their edification.

But they will say they are only interpreting the law and adjudicating on the conflict between different articles of the convention on human rights promising both freedom of expression and the right to family life and privacy.

They should receive Parliamentary help in the form of an explicit instruction that in almost every case the right to know should take precedence over the right to privacy. Specified exceptions would obviously include matters of national security unless it was in the public interest.

Ah the public interest. That’s where the real difficulties begin. How to define what is in the public interest rather than what the public is interested in – though actually what the public is interested in is a better starting place than is generally supposed.

The concept of public interest needs to be widened to take in more categories of behaviour beyond the anti-social and criminal. It would have the merit of going with the grain of technology and history.

Why should football supporters or indeed cinema-goers not know about scandalous behaviour of those whose salaries they pay?

Many such performers profit massively from image rights and sponsorship deals trading usually on the fact that they are regular guys or girls not flaunting conventional societal values.

Why should sponsors not know the truth about the character and behaviour of those they reward to promote their products? Not too many sponsors stuck with Tiger Woods when the truth about his life finally came out.

What is denigrated as “tittle-tattle” designed merely to sell more newspapers is actually more significant than that – a morality tale, society speaking to itself about what is acceptable and what is not. It is a process forever in motion.

Maybe before too long no-one will raise an eyebrow about three-in-a-bed footballers and serial adulterers pretending to be faithful husbands and that would be absolutely fine.

But obviously we have not reached this saintly state of grace yet otherwise why are such people so keen on spending hundreds of thousands of pounds preventing people from knowing about their behaviour?

Think of the First Amendment and bring it all on and we can look forward to the first three-judges-in-a bed story.

Raymond Snoddy

First Amendment

Old media and old law have been learning a salutatory lesson about the power of new media this week as the scandal of the imposition of gagging orders – super-injunctions in the UK turns to farce.

Last week a journalist or anybody else could have got up to two years in jail for writing that the Manchester United football star Ryan Giggs was anything other than a devoted family man. And then MP John Hemming used the cover of Parliamentary privilege to name the footballer in the House of Commons.

But that is scarcely the main point. Before the official institution of press, Parliament and judiciary started colliding with each other more than 75,000 people had tweeted the name Giggs. Indeed the name and his behaviour has been known to anyone with the slightest curiosity for weeks.

The law firms which has taken something like £150,000 of his money to protect his privacy has now tried to take legal action against Twitter in the English courts.

As a  California based company Twitter will be well within its rights to tell the lawyers,Schillings which has made something of a speciality out of obtaining super-injunctions for celebrities, to take arunning jump.

Or alternatively they could go to law in California when they would of course have to disclose the name of their client.

Twitter should just quote the First Amendment of the US constitution and get on with the job of revolutionising society through the free flow of information.

And if that results in a few multi-millionaire footballers keen to protect their image rights and sponsorship deals being jeered on the terraces-so be it.

Raymond Snoddy

What if the bin Laden announcement came just as Will and Kate said I do?

Written for Mediatel.

There is one large unanswered question about the shooting of Osama bin Laden. No not the one about whether like Elvis he is really dead or not.

The most intriguing issue is why President Obama – and you can see how broadcasters who got Jeremy Hunt’s name wrong could mix up the two men – authorised the attack on Saturday as opposed to any other day.

Could it be? Could it really be that the US President was too busy on Friday watching the Royal Wedding to be bothered about matters such as Al Qaeda. That could wait.

Naturally the President wanted to be able to watch the attack on Abbottabad live and the White House spin doctors must have wanted a clear run at a news story that could guarantee them all another four years of employment.

Spoilsports will point out that if you are going to try to kill a Muslim terrorist Fridays are not considered the most auspicious day anyway, if you want to avoid inflaming religious sensitivities more than absolutely necessary.

But what on earth would have happened if President Obama hadn’t given a fig for the Royal Wedding or the significance of Friday and made his announcement about the death of bin Laden just as William and Kate were saying they do?

Would Huw Edwards have cut into its live coverage from Westminster Abbey with the immortal words we are receiving news that… or would the little “Breaking News” banner have crept across the screen with the momentous information?

Nobody at Sky would have lost their jobs for ditching the wedding coverage in favour of a US triumph.

Alas we will never know and indeed we never could have because not even Section 6 of the Seals, the elite of the elite, would have thought it wise to attack in the late afternoon Pakistan time.

The very different events that came within a couple of days of each other do however raise common questions about the willingness of much of the media to become uncritical cheerleaders on behalf of the Royal Family and against the unmitigated evil of Osama bin Laden.

For most people and most media outlets the only proper response is three cheers for the wedding and the funeral: celebrations that the British monarchy has apparently managed to renew itself through charm and tradition one more time and that the inspiration of the 9/11 attacks in the US has finally been dealt with.

In both cases questions still hang in the air about the media performance that raise profound issues about the current state of democratic society.

You have to give top marks to all those involved in marketing the Royal Wedding. Superb job. Choreographed to within an inch of its life but beautiful sounds and sights.

Naturally television got all the right angles and it would be churlish to dwell on whether one presenter rather than another got the tone absolutely spot on.

In audience terms the rewards were high with a peak of 26 million viewers and the BBC scoring its usual points victory – 32.6% compared to ITV’s average share of 19.3%.

As for the two billion viewers worldwide. Up to a point. That usually means the coverage is available to around two billion, not necessarily the same as viewers.

Cheer-leading again.

The newspapers too will hope for an uplift in circulation from all those special wedding supplements with even The Independent, which has traditionally been sniffy about all matters Royal, producing 10 pages on the subject.

Leaving aside the actual ceremony itself, which many people who are no fans of Monarchy would want to see as spectacle, much of the coverage was fawning and irredeemably trivial.
Hours and hours devoted to nothing actually happening.

It was coverage largely in a time warp paying little attention to the vast changes that have occurred in British society since the last Premier League Royal wedding 30 years ago – ignoring particularly the end, or at least decline, of deference.

It was an event that was ring-fenced with normally tough journalists asking no questions, certainly not tough questions.

As for the Monarchy it is one of those rare occasions when it is possible to agree with Stephen Glover in The Independent.

The Royal spinners may indeed have unleashed “a monster”.

They have whipped up the media and the public into a frenzy and now they want the subjects of all this attention and mindless adoration to have privacy for the next two years.

Can’t be done mate. Not possible – you simply can’t have it both ways.

As for Bin Laden it’s also a case of questions not being asked. We have now, it seems, come to accept that bad guys can simply be taken out and merely admire the bravery and skill of those responsible.

After the initial fumble suggesting Bin Laden was a coward because he used his wife as a shield at the same time as firing back. We now know he was shot down in cold blood.

Maybe that was the right thing to do and almost certainly the practical thing to do.

But shouldn’t the question at least ask whether there are issues here to do with the rule of law?

After all difficult to imagine anyone more evil than the Nazis but they had trials at Nuremburg. Even Saddam had a trial.

In response to such musings Jon Williams, the BBC’s world editor, posted on Twitter that after 9/11 Al Qaeda were declared “military enemies” by Congress and therefore not protected by the 1976 ban on targeted killings.

All true of course but is it not necessary to keep asking questions about the use of torture, murder by drone and execution by special-forces and whether such anti-terrorist methods are legal under international law and might just be counter-productive?

It’s what journalists are supposed to do and perhaps more searching questions should be asked about the triumphalism involved in both reporting Royal weddings and a significant victory over Islamic terror.

Raymond Snoddy

Rupert Murdoch and his plans for BSkyB

The silence on the case of Rupert Murdoch and his plans to own all of satellite broadcaster BSkyB has been very profound in recent weeks.

Processes have to be gone through, protocols observed in this potentially most litigious situation.

There is no indication that the current silence is any evidence that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt is having second thoughts.

After all the future of the NHS is not at stake.

And Hunt has already wagered too much of his reputation on the “courageous” choice that he is minded to approve the multi-billion deal rather than refer it to the Competition Commission to change his mind now.

Hunt has said he hopes to make his controversial announcement soon AFTER Parliament returns from the Easter recess on April 26.

But a lot of thought must already have been given to the presentation of the announcement and the howls of anguish that will inevitably follow.

The temptation must have been growing in recent weeks to reach for rule number one in the government PR rule book – just before a recess, or during it if you think you can get away with it – is an absolutely brilliant time for releasing unpalatable news.

The attraction must be compounded by the intensifying parallel News Corporation drama that continues to unfold by the day: the criminal interception of private phone messages of the famous by people acting on behalf of the News of the World.

Presumably we can now drop words such as “allegedly” and “apparently” given that News International, a wholly owned News Corp subsidiary, has formally decided to approach “some civil litigants with an unreserved apology and an admission of liability in cases meeting specific criteria.”

Tell that to former deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott who recently called for News Corp’s take-over of BSkyB to be delayed until the current police inquiry into phone-hacking at the News of the World is complete.

In the Lords, Prescott who believes he is a victim of NoW phone hacking, could not have been more blunt.

“Is the Government aware, in giving this decision on BSkyB, that it would be totally unacceptable for a company like this that is actively involved at all levels in criminal acts to be given control of BSkyB?” he asked.

At a superficial level there is no connection between the two issues.

There is no evidence, or even suggestion, that anyone at BSkyB has ever been involved in such activities, or even knew what was going on in the very different, arcane world of tabloid newspapers.

The only common link that could become really damaging was if someone with the surname Murdoch were to become embroiled in the scandal. There is absolutely no sign of such involvement and it is highly implausible that such a thing did happen. Indeed there are obvious signs that Rupert Murdoch has even been leading, perhaps belatedly, the current crackdown on the miscreants.

There is however a more tenuous link. Hunt’s test has been a public interest one, though primarily in the setting of plurality of news provision.

But what would happen if News Corp were to face a criminal prosecution as a corporation as some have suggested it should?

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act a corporate body can be charged with the unlawful interception of voicemail messages.

It would essentially have to be demonstrated that the company itself  “connived” or “consented” with committing the offence or its staff were negligent in allowing it to happen.

It would be a difficult one to prove and it is equally difficult to imagine Jeremy Hunt waiting around to see whether such a longwinded legal path is even theoretically possible.

So we can assume its all systems go for the BSkyB deal – subject to prolonged haggling over price.

But what happens next in the great phone-hacking scandal?

James Murdoch, who was recently promoted to deputy chief operating officer of News Corp and chairman and chief executive of the company’s international operations, told a media conference in New York earlier this month that the case had been isolated.

“What we were able to do is really put this problem into a box. If you get everyone sucked into something like that, then the whole business will splutter, which you don’t want,” the young Murdoch said.

That sounds like wishful thinking.

There is no guarantee that anyone will accept the compensation sums now on offer, which will presumably come with confidentiality clauses.

It will take only a few influential people to press on for full disclosure, and who knows how any names are in the vast electronic archives handed over by News International to the police.

There have been suggestions that more than 3000 may have been targeted.

The criminal law will now, at last, take its course but there are still politicians determined that the next stage should involve a public inquiry.

There are certainly important questions still hanging in the air now that the single “rogue” reporter defence has been abandoned – such as who exactly knew what, when.

We also still have to hear who authorised large payments to the private detective involved.

Could an accountant have done that off his own bat?

Perhaps, but it much more likely that authorisation must have involved more senior editorial or managerial figures.

What is certain is that Rupert Murdoch will own all of BSkyB long before the News of the World phone-hacking scandal really has been isolated and finally put in its box.

Raymond Snoddy

The NYT’s Project Cascade gives us a glimpse at the future of news

I have written at length about my half-baked ideas on the future of journalism and news, leveraging real-time data to predict and represent news events.

Imagine my excitement, then, at seeing this from The New York Times’ R&D team: Project Cascade.

The New York Times' Project Cascade

Project Cascade is a beautiful visualization of how, and the degree to which, NYT stories propagate across the Internet. Its a fascinating look at how ideas and stories travel, and potentially a very useful tool in tailoring content with social distribution in mind. Currently, it seems to be largely based on twitter’s well-structured data, but it could in theory be expanded to look at web-scale propagation. In addition, given that Project Cascade is being used to look at influencers, it could also be flipped to focus on event prediction – using influencers to quickly evaluate the likely accuracy of a story – as well as highly efficient content distribution.

It’s a forward-thinking project and given the volume of content they are dealing with, they could easily license this technology to other publishers and brands. Propagation analysis has a lot of potential, and mainstream tools such as Radian6 could do well to integrate more detailed propagation analysis into their conversation management dashboards. Content propagation is also a great way of understanding the deep influencers in a space, far better than generic influence scores. We are working with a number of clients on web-scale propagation planning and monitoring, as generic influence scores are often meaningless.

My fundamental belief then: brands, news outlets and publishers who can analyze and tell stories using large datasets will ultimately win.

Oliver Snoddy

Twitter is News but is it Journalism – for Mediatel

There are still Twitter deniers but it is time to acknowledge Twitter as the communications phenomenon of the modern world.

Last month Twitter passed a number of remarkable milestones – a fifth birthday celebration, more than 200 million users and around 1 billion of the 140 character messages now being sent every week.

Everyone apart, of course from those Twitter deniers, has got their own Twitter history. This hack of a certain age finally got it on May 21st 2009 with the help of a digitally literate son.

The first Tweet went: “ Question? How come nobody has been fired at The Times for turning down the scoop of the decade? Could it be the culprit was James Murdoch?”

The scoop of the decade involved was the MP’s expenses scandal, a story that was first offered to The Times which turned it down before finally ending up at the Daily Telegraph.

Alas the answer to the question is still unknown although you never know because no-one ever did get fired – at least for that spectacular error of judgement. The decision, we can still deduce, must have been cleared by someone very senior in the organisation.

One thousand, two hundred and twenty two tweets later – most of them to do with observations about the media – and curiously the latest this morning (Wed) is also about The Times. A little bit of praise for the paper for giving a perfectly respectable page five lead to the alleged misdeeds of News of the World journalists as the phone hacking scandal gathers pace.

Cynics said in advance that it would be fun to watch how News International titles buried the story or perhaps ignored it altogether.

The Sun was more true to form with a mere 61 words in a single column on page 2 and there was no room to mention that the Sun is a sister paper of the News of the World.

The achievements of Twitter and the rest of the digital media and their impact on the traditional world are brought together in a new book published yesterday: The Internet and Journalism Today – Face The Future.

In it co-editor John Mair of Coventry University sets out his stall for all media organisations when he argues that “the status quo is on shifting sands; sticking to print or linear broadcasting is not an alternative in 2011. Like it or not, you have to face the future as a publisher, journalist, journalism educator or student.”

Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian and The Observer calls his contribution: “If you want to find out where (most) things happen first – go to Twitter.”

The bugbear of Rusbridger’s life are the people who still say that they just can’t stand Twitter and all that “inane stuff about what twits are having for breakfast.”

It may have started out like that, and there may even be a few breakfast fanatics still around but the more important reality is that Twitter has turned into “a highly effective way of spreading ideas, information and content.”
There is little doubt that when the final record is in Twitter and Facebook will be shown to have played a key role, alongside 24-hour television news, in mobilising the sudden outbursts of civil unrest and social revolutions in recent months in North Africa.

And forget about the limited 140-character scale of the tweets – they are often just the teaser linking in to much richer content elsewhere.

For the Guardian editor Twitter is a great reporting tool for searching for information and drawing on “the wisdom of crowds.”

And you can get the “crowds” to do some serious journalistic legwork for you – such as assigning up no less than 27,000 interested members of the public to sift through segments of the  400,000 records of MP’s expenses in the search for some hidden gems.

Then there is the student at Lincoln University who has used Freedom of Information data searches to see if there is a correlation between areas of the country where there is a high uptake of free school dinners – a measure of poverty – and Army recruiting activities. There was.

As for Twitter, Rusbridger is realistic. While being a great reporting tool it can also instantly bring the full weight of the world’s attention to a single piece of unstable, and possibly untrue, information.

And Twitter and social media should not be set on a pedestal on top of traditional media.

Kevin Marsh, outgoing executive editor of the BBC College of Journalism and editor of the Today programme during the Hutton, goes further.

Twitter is not journalism. The volume has just been turned up on the ambient noise that has always been with us.

You mustn’t confuse the tools with trade.

True journalism is what it has always been and should be – about inquisitiveness, bearing witness, narrative, poignant detail and a sense of the tragedy of human experience.

But above all else, according to Marsh, it is the sense that what journalists do matters. That it’s important “ that it’s different from gossip, chatter, rumour, prejudice: the sense that mere information – no matter how well disseminated – that mere data- no matter how well mined – are not enough.”

Marsh is right of course but it is equally true that Twitter is not going to go away.

On the other hand there is this thing called Quora, a social service for posing and answering questions, which is described as a cross between Twitter and Wikipedia…

Raymond Snoddy

Interview with David Montgomery – former boss of Mecom newspaper group-for InPublishing

There are few people so steeped in newspapers as David Montgomery. At various times, editor, investor and proprietor, David has worked in publishing for almost forty years. I spoke to him before his departure from Mecom about why he won’t be retiring and why he still believes in newspapers.

The friend was trying to be helpful about David Montgomery’s future career moves following his ousting in January as founder and chief executive of Mecom the pan-European newspaper group.

Surely newspapers were a lost cause, wouldn’t it be far better to try something entirely different, his friend suggested?

“I replied, well I’m not really qualified to do anything else. I can play the piano a little bit,” Montgomery, the former chief executive of the Mirror Group, told him.

“Well you could become a pianist in a brothel. That would be a really secure job,” noted the friend.

It won’t come to brothels for Montgomery and anyway the 62-year-old retains a firm belief in the future of newspapers.

He was speaking in Mecom’s fifth floor eerie in London’s Jermyn Street, where he was still beavering away at his post until the last as if his future depended on it.

The company had put out a statement about Montgomery’s “planned retirement” at the end of January.

That of course was complete nonsense.

It may have been planned, but it was certainly no retirement.

Major shareholders in the company, Aviva and Legal & General, had made it clear that they wanted Montgomery out.

They were so intransigent on the issue that they were prepared to call an extraordinary general meeting to remove him unless he went “voluntarily”.

The big outstanding question still hanging in the air when he left was WHY?

“I can’t elaborate for a variety of reasons. As a principle reason, I don’t want to stir up any controversy surrounding the company,” says Montgomery, who remains a shareholder.

“The company is in good condition. It delivered what it promised and hopefully it will prosper and become more successful,” the controversial Ulsterman added.

It was Montgomery who, after extensive travel around Europe, spotted the opportunity and assiduously bought newspapers in Germany, Poland, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands – more than 300 titles in all with nearly as many websites – and then floated the company.

Mecom had, of course, been hit severely by the recession like everyone else but had weathered the storm – just – with the help of disposals and a rights issue.

“The only thing I will say on the record is that the trading statement announced in January in what was still a very difficult trading year showed extremely positive results,” Montgomery explains.

In the trading statement, Mecom said underlying profits were expected to be around €155 million (£133 million) for 2010 – €11 million higher than the previous year.

According to Montgomery, the 2010 results actually exceeded the future targets set by the shareholders for the company at the time of the rights issue in May 2009. Over the past twelve months alone, the share price has risen from 136p to around 266p.

But doesn’t all of that therefore make his departure under pressure all the more strange and inexplicable?

“The company delivered what it promised to shareholders, what it promised at the time of the rights issue and that is all really I will say about the circumstances of my departure. Nothing more than that,” insisted David Montgomery.

The classifieds crash

While nobody is saying anything on the record, all the signs are that Montgomery’s fate was sealed more than eighteen months ago when the global recession pushed newspaper classified advertising in Europe over the edge of a cliff.

Mecom titles across Europe lost €200 million in advertising revenue in eighteen months between 2008 and 2009 and it is a business where 80 per cent of advertising revenue falls to the bottom line – or not as the case may be.

Mecom was particularly badly affected because it had used debt to fund its rapid expansion.

“The people in the banks who loaned the money with great glee and enthusiasm were nowhere to be seen and the coffins in the basement were opened and this new team obviously kept for these situations emerged. They weren’t required to think just suck blood that’s all,” recalls Montgomery with increasing animation.

The former Mecom chief executive insists that the company was never in danger of going bust because of its assets and cash flow, though he concedes there was a danger it might have breached its banking covenants.

Mecom reported a full year pre-tax loss of £944 million for 2008. In early 2009, it sold its German newspapers, including the Berliner Zeitung and some of its Norwegian titles to reduce debt which had reached £669 million.

A re-financing deal was eventually done but not without boardroom rows and dramas.

Montgomery wouldn’t accept the board’s original deal with the banks and demanded a re-negotiation whereupon most board members resigned, including anther former chief executive of the Mirror Group John Allwood.

The overall deal finally agreed was still draconian and the company’s share price was on the floor.

The shareholders put up £141.5 million in new money through the rights issue under which the shareholders received six new shares for every one they already held at 1.5p. That was a huge discount to the previous already low closing price of 5p.

Aviva, L&G and Invesco, which has subsequently sold its 14 per cent stake, held Montgomery responsible for the millions they had lost.

“Monty was blamed for the recession. That’s more or less what it amounted to,” said someone who knows the company well.

The controlling shareholders then tried to install Patrick Tillieux, a former chief executive at broadcasters SBC and ProSiebenSat1 who wanted to sell off more of the company and concentrate on the Netherlands.

The board blocked the appointment and the sell-off strategy, and just as Montgomery was leaving, non-executive director Stephen Davidson was appointed as executive chairman with the task of finding a new chief executive.

So, is David Montgomery really going to wander off into the sunset to play his piano?

“I don’t intend to leave the industry. I continue to be very positive about the long-term future of newspapers. The general perception is that newspapers have had their day. I don’t agree,” says Montgomery who has a long history of not just editing and running newspapers but investing in them.

Buying up newspapers

The investing bit has been particularly frustrating.

The venture capital group 3i backed a Montgomery investment vehicle.

Together they bought the Belfast Newsletter and Derry Journal which were sold at a considerable profit to Johnston Press.

Montgomery thought it would have been better to keep and run the papers.

He was unable to persuade 3i to bid more than £80 million for Express Newspapers, which went for what has turned out to be the bargain basement price of £125 million to Richard Desmond.

They were the under-bidders for the Daily Telegraph and Montgomery also recommended 3i bought a 20 per cent stake in Axel Springer for €40 a share. His proposal was rejected and the stake was instead bought by Hellman & Friedman of New York and the price eventually reached €120.

“They (3i) wanted to have my expertise but they didn’t take my advice”, says Montgomery, who then went off to build up Mecom on his own.

Is he about to do something similar again?

He will certainly do something in the newspaper world in the UK or continental Europe, but for now he is probably being deliberately Delphic about what it is likely to be.

Will he raise capital and buy papers on the Mecom model or start with a clean sheet of paper with new people?

“Not decided. The issues are different country-by-country, territory-by-territory. I clearly like the European market but it is different north and south,” says Montgomery who while on his travels, likes turning up at some of the more obscure opera houses in Europe.

The UK challenge

If anybody wanted a real challenge in the newspaper industry then “you should try fixing the UK,” he believes but adds there is no obvious niche.

The odds are that Montgomery will probably end up choosing continental Europe for his next initiative but nothing has been ruled out at the moment.

His faith in the long-term future of newspapers does however carry a massive BUT.

“The BUT is that the practitioners in the industry have to wise up and anything we thought previously was a remedy to the ills of newspapers can be dismissed as inadequate because it hasn’t worked well enough,” says Montgomery.

“The reform that is needed has to be very radical and very creative and we have to convert an awful lot of people internally to the idea that they can no longer do things the way they have done them for decades, for generations, centuries even,” he argues.

Above all else, the former Mecom chief executive believes the newspaper industry has to divorce itself from its industrial past with everyone, whether journalists or sales people, working much more flexibly.

Smaller numbers? More skilled people?

“Clearly all of those, but the essence of it is flexibility. I don’t have all the solutions by any means but from my recent experience in Europe, I think I have some real ideas where newspapers can become much more interesting,” says Montgomery.

There are lessons to be learned, he believes, from Mecom’s Norwegian experience where some of the titles achieve nearly 100 per cent penetration by concentrating exclusively on local news.

They have also dropped sports coverage in the paper and concentrated sport entirely online – appropriate content on appropriate platforms, as Montgomery sees it.

“Why should you sit around until midnight before you press the button on the print machines simply because you are holding back to publish the football results when every one of your readers is using online,” asks Montgomery.

Local television for newspapers doesn’t work. He’s tried that and online is much better value.

Montgomery believes you could set up the infrastructure for a newspaper from now he plans to travel round the old Mecom territories and other territories looking for opportunities.

“My preference is to continue to work to modernise the newspaper segment and my belief in the content and in the people who produce the content for newspapers is stronger today that it has even been, but they need to give a little”, he says.

So, David Montgomery will not be playing a piano in a brothel and he certainly will not be retiring.

Absolutely not.

Raymond Snoddy