The Times, They Are a’Changin

The Times of Israel was launched in February by David Horowitz, former editor of the Jerusalem Post. It’s an English-language news and comment site for Israel and Jewish-related news. About the same time as it launched, Haaretz’s English-language site began putting most of its content behind a paywall. This left a gap which the ToI immediately started filling.

The ToI seems to be modelled on the Huffington Post, the US news and megablog site founded by Arianna Huffington. The HuffPo was sold to AOL $315 million in early 2011, which provoked some controversy: many of the hundreds of unpaid bloggers felt that Arianna had taken their work and basically profited from it. Of course, 18 months later, the Huffington Post is still doing fine and has no problem attracting bloggers to write for it.

A similar debate was sparked about the Times of Israel’s bloggers after the President’s Conference, when Naomi Elbinger wrote a blog on her own site about whether ToI’s bloggers should primarily identify with their own platforms and outlets or with the ToI itself:

In a very short time, The Times of Israel has attracted over 100 bloggers that regularly publish on their site for free, using the Huffington Post-esque assumption that the very fact that your name appears on their site is payment enough….

…what struck me as most strange about the Times of Israel blogger crowd at the President’s Conference is that they introduced themselves as “My Name is X and I blog for the Times of Israel.”

Heck, they even got up in front of Alana Newhouse, a major personality in online Jewish publishing, and instead of promoting their own identity and brand, instead of letting her know about their own blog, business or cause, they promoted the Times of Israel.

All of this is my way of saying that last week I had a blog published on the Times of Israel. It’s about Israel and the Olympic Games, a subject relevant to the ToI’s readership. You can read it there.

I hope to write the occasional blog there. It has a large and increasing audience, and comment editor Elie Leshem has helped build a supportive bloggers’ community. But, to answer Naomi above, it’s not going to be my only platform. I’ll post blogs there when it’s relevant, and when I feel that they would benefit from the wider audience. In this case, for example, the subject was related to my day-job and so, though I wasn’t getting paid for writing it, neither was I doing it completely for nothing.

This blog will carry on as normal. I might sometimes write for other publications. I also ghost pieces pretty regularly (reasonable rates, email me for details). And I’ll also occasionally blog for the Times of Israel. It’s a big Internet out there.

London riots and media ‘blackouts’

I will write a fuller blog on the London riots later, but just wanted to comment on a theme seen in some of the tweets and chatter: that the media somehow covered up the latest rioting in Enfield and other places in London.

The news is rarely instant. It often takes hours for something to be reported as “BREAKING NEWS”. That’s because newsrooms are big and have lots of things happening. It takes time to get cameras to a scene when something’s happening. Sometimes the initial reports take time to make it to a news-desk, or are contradictory by the time they get there.

Twitter means that we can (and often do) know about things before they appear on the mainstream news. As a twitter-addict and news-addict, I follow in turn many people with the same twin afflictions. I am very used to seeing a big story break on Twitter hours before it appears on the BBC. Lots of other people are less used to this, so when they saw hundreds of tweets about trouble in Enfield but no footage on the BBC, they assumed it was some kind of cover-up.

When journalists on the scene showed empty buildings rather than ongoing riots, some people assumed it was part of a conspiracy rather than because the looters were in cars, moving fast and not wanting to be on the news nicking  42-inch tellies.

When the BBC news website wasn’t updated, they assumed there was a D-notice rather than that it was a Sunday night in August so maybe the BBC website team was just a little light on the ground.

When nobody reported on the riot in Hemel Hempstead, they complained but didn’t consider the possibility that there wasn’t actually a riot in Hemel Hempstead.

Tonight proved again that Twitter is now the primary medium for news. This doesn’t mean that journalists have no role to play. I got my news tonight from the Guardian’s Paul Lewis on the scene in Enfield and Edmonton, the Telegraph’s Andrew Hough in Brixton, and Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy (who’s still out on the streets of Walthamstow trying to help). Two of those are broadsheet journalists and all were using Twitter.

In a public incident, Twitter will always beat traditional news media for speed. We’re all just going to have to get used to that rather than scrambling about for conspiracies.

The real evidence on Circumcision and HIV

Writing in the Guardian, Neil Howard and Rebecca Steinfeld argue for a ban on circumcision. I disagree with them, but luckily so do many others and they’ve done a good job of responding. See this direct response from Adam Wagner, and this pre-emptive piece by Alex Stein.

I have an instant prejudice against the potluck buffet approach to advocacy. I feel people should pick a line of argument and stick with it, rather than offering all sort of different forms of case. Steinfeld and Howard’s article makes rights-based claims, offers ends-based and harm-based objections, even flirts with anthropolatry.

It’s the section on the medical argument that really bothers me though. Howard and Steinfeld, in their wish to make every argument they can, dismiss the good evidence for circumcision as an HIV-prevention method. They do this in two ways – using problematic sources, and using good sources but misinterpreting them. The offending paragraph in the Guardian article is:

What about the health argument, that male circumcision is “cleaner” and prevents HIV transmission? There is a body of research that claims a correlation between circumcision and reduced transmission rates, and this is not to be taken lightly, since it represents the strongest case for male genital cutting – at least in Aids-ravaged regions. But such research is heavily contested. A 2007 study by Dowsett and Couch asserted that insufficient evidence exists to believe that circumcision does reduce transmission, while Gregorio et al’s later analysis cast doubt on correlations between circumcision and transmission of HIV and STI’s more generally. Read More

Rules and Media Restraint

I’ve just come back from an event discussing the future of the UK’s Coalition Government, put on by Lexington Communications and ConservativeHome. But that’s about as much as I can say.

There are rules. This event was under one of the most famous, the Chatham House Rule, named after the offices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, which everyone just calls Chatham House anyway.

The Chatham House Rule is:

Participants are free to use the information received [at the event], but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

So I sat through an interesting event but I couldn’t tweet (a problem for those of us who have got into the habit of sharing interesting things we learn) and can only mention the things the panel said at some unconnected point in the future, perhaps passing off their opinons as my own or as something I “heard someone say”.

The Chatham Hose Rule is useful, because it means everyone can speak their minds and be honest rather than having to represent the positions of their political party or organisation. People tend to keep to the Chatham House rule, at least when it comes to publication, or the system wouldn’t work. I’m sure people tell their friends what people in meetings said but you won’t usually read it in the papers.

There are rules. Journalists don’t print everything they know.

I’ve been dealing with journalists since I was a teenager – one day I’ll tell the story of my short-lived run for Mayor of London in 2000 – but haven’t been quoted or cited much, because almost all of that contact was on background or totally off the record.

When you talk to a journalist off the record, they don’t publish what you tell them, though they may use that information to go digging. When you talk on background, the journalist doesn’t quote you or cite you as a source but may use the information you give them as background information to a story they’re writing. Every time I speak to a journalist, even one who’s a friend, one of the first things I say is the status of the conversation: “this is all off the record” or “this is on background” or, very rarely, “this is attributable as a quote”

Everyone that works with the media accepts these rules, because they’re useful and they help journalists understand the stories they’re covering without being totally alienated from them. They can be abused; in politics,  anonymous briefing against colleagues lets the source damage someone’s reputation while having their own anonymity protected.

And there are other rules. The UK Government still publishes what used to be called D-Notices, official requests not to print information that could damage national security, and even though they have no legal force, UK newspapers and broadcasters still follow them.

None of these rules are absolute or formally binding. Sometimes someone will take a tape recorder to lunch and catch a Minister who thought he was off the record saying something silly. Sometimes someone says something so juicy at a Chatham House Rule event that a reporter writes it and publishes it anyway. Sometimes the journalist forgets that you agreed to speak on background and so puts a quote from you in an article that may or may not be what you actually said (this has happened to me a couple of times). But these are the rare exceptions to rules that are usually followed strictly.

And it’s interesting, because all the talk now is about injunctions and super-injunctions, privacy and libel law  – all these imposed external restrictions on the freedom of the press – but really the media is self-censoring every day, every minute, because otherwise it wouldn’t be able to do its job at all.

We bloggers and tweeters may be a less disciplined and less coherent bunch, but the rules still apply, so my thoughts on the panel tonight will have to remain private, at least until everyone’s forgotten about it altogether.