Ray Gosling and a waste of time

I have been following with interest the case of former BBC journalist Ray Gosling.

Gosling was arrested in a blaze of publicity after admitting (twice) that he had killed a former lover who was dying of Aids in order to end his suffering.

It reignited the debate about 'mercy killing', which hasn't been far from the headlines since the Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas opened its doors.

But last week came the announcement that Gosling had been charged not with murder or manslaughter, but with wasting police time.

The statement from the CPS reported that in the initial murder investigation - something that was inevitable once he has confessed to millions of people that he had killed someone - he had been interviewed by police several times and that 'detectives conducted an extensive investigation into the allegation'.

It is clear that the police now believe that the confession was false and that Gosling must now face charges as officers spent so much time investigating the allegation. Under British law, Gosling is currently innocent of any crime and the purpose of this blog is not to decide upon his guilt but to react to some of the coverage the fresh charge has inspired.

Jack of Kent - a superb campaigning lawyer who is on the the right side of nearly all debates (stupid scientology, Gillian McKeith, Singh v the chiropractors etc) - is clear in his stance. In his blog, he believes that the time wasters are clearly the police.

In Jack of Kent's blog, he highlights four areas of concern about the decision to prosecute:

First, a piece to camera which is subsequently broadcast does not seem to me to be a "report" within the meaning of the offence.

Although the 1967 Act does not require the report to be to a police officer, for the word "report" to be extended to include such a broadcast piece seems to stretch the word to the point of meaninglessness.

Second, it is not clear that the content of what Mr Gosling said was sufficiently precise for it to be a statement "tending to show that an offence has been committed".

In fact, it seems too vague to be a report of an offence, if it is even a report in the first place.

Third, the offence requires mens rea (a guilty intention) the time the "report" is made; there is no evidence available that such an intention was present at the time of the actus reus (culpable act).

And fourth, apart from all the above, one cannot easily see the public interest in prosecuting Mr Gosling.

But I take a different view. If Gosling did indeed falsely confess to the crime then the charge is inevitable. Who he confessed to is irrelevant as any one of the viewers of the original programme or the ensuing coverage could have reported to the police that they had evidence that a murder had been committed.

I am not going to debate mercy killings and whether it is right or wrong (mainly because I cannot make up my own mind) but under British law, the deliberate taking of someone's life is murder and the police have a duty to investigate.

I feel uneasy with the principle of the CPS or police interpreting the law as they go along. I am delighted when courts and juries challenge bad law but from my statutory bodies I want implementation not interpretation.

My main concern with the above four points is in point four however. "One cannot easily see the public interest in prosecuting Mr Gosling".

From a journalistic perspective I can see few greater wrongs than falsification and the police and CPS have alleged that Gosling has falsified a confession to a murder.

I abhor the kneejerk 'role model' accusation that is slung around these days to all and sundry when wrong doing occurs, whether it is England captain, Hollywood actors or top golfers.

But surely a respected, campaigning journalist presenting a 'factual' piece about such a deeply sensitive matter is indeed a role model. His word and his actions could have direct influence on the actions of others.

I will continue to follow this with interest but I have a feeling it could be a significant case for journalism and journalists.

I only wish, like Jack of Kent, that the CPS had applied the same strident approach to the decision on whether or not to prosecute PC Simon Harwood.

A journalist's smoking gun

A comment piece byPhilip Johnson in The Telegraph caught my eye today.

OK, first of all I am aware it is a comment piece and therefore made up of opinion. However, there is a lot of material being given as fact which I take issue with.

In a nutshell, Mr Johnson said that a trendy nightclub in London (Tramp - although I am not au fait with it)is installing an area for smokers to "help stem the loss of business caused by the ban on smoking in public places".

He described the ban as draconian and directly blamed it for the closure of pubs, citing a statistic that there are 6,000 fewer pubs than in 2005.

But it's a poorly researched and presented piece of journalism. For a start, it is guilty of the assumption that opinion does not need to be based in well researched fact.

If we assume (and yes I can hear my students chant about what happens when we assume), that the stat is correct, it seems stark and persuasive. But how many trendy new chain restaurants have opened?

It put me in mind of a former assistant editor I worked with. She was a committed smoker and was convinced that the smoking ban would destroy the pub industry so insisted that our regional newspaper carry stories to that effect.

We found seven city centre pubs that were closing. "Ah ha", said she. "Proof positive."

The fact that further research showed that three pubs had opened in the last six months as well as a host of chain restaurants in a new city centre development, could not deter her from wielding her sword of truth to highlight the undemocratic and economically unviable ban.

The smoking ban has been an emotive subject for people from both sides. I smoked when it came in and maintain that without it I would not have been able to give up.

I love taking my kids to smoke free pubs and restaurants and I am pleased that we do not face the ridiculous situation proposed by The Telegraph's Mr Johnson in which we would have smoking pubs and non-smoking pubs giving choice.

Not really a choice for the staff though is it and if you're in a group of friends who smoke then you either need new friends or can suffer the effects of second-hand smoke.

Are we really to believe that the type of people who previously enjoyed all that Tramp has to offer now sit at home and watch Casualty on a Saturday night because they can still enjoy the odd Woodbine inside?

Many of the regulars in my village pub said they would not drink in the pub when the ban came in and gloomily predicted the closure of Appleton's hostelry, The Plough. But really what were hey going to do? Turn their back on their social lives and site at home alone contented in a fug created by 20 Superkings?

In fact the pub has gone from strength to strength. "Proof positive that the ban works", say I. But you know what, I am not going down that route. Since the ban came in the pub has a new landlord and landlady and they serve food and provide entertainment, which has far more to do with it.

And that's my point. Look past the dangerous, knee-jerk assumptions and dig deeper or, as a journalist you are not even doing half your job - even if you're 'only doing comment'.

From the mouth of a babe

The other day Molly, my four-year-old daughter, was asking me about Oxford and I was telling her as much as I could remember about the city.

She then said: "But Daddy, how do you know this?"

Me: "Well, as a journalist I often have to find a lot of things out so I can let everyone know and then I just remember them."

Molly: "But how do you find things out?"

Me: "I ask people and they tell me."

Molly: "But why don't they just tell everyone."

Me: "Well people have always come to journalists to find things out because there was no other easy way of doing it. Now though we have the internet [a concept she is familiar with through the CBeebies website] so anyone can tell everyone everything."

Molly: "Oh..... So we don't just need people like you any more then?"
I thought it was amazing. She succinctly summed up what is happening in our industry with one short conversation.

Of course, 'people like me' are quite useful for bundling all this information together but we're not needed to the same extent.

If she can get it why do so many journalists fail to?

The joy of 100 Followers

The Big Day came, and when it arrived, it was not with a whimper but a bang and subsequent glittery shower of excitement.

Fatherhood? No.

Wedding Day? No.

Significant sporting achievement? No.

I’ll put you out of your misery, it was the arrival of my 100th follower on Twitter. ‘Not a big deal’, you cry? It is to me as I have become enchanted and engrossed in the social media site in the past few months.

Initially I had some reservations - Facebook without the good bits was a frequent complaint about Twitter but it is so much more than you can put into 140 characters.

I came to it late because despite being involved in online journalism for five years, we in the regions viewed anything external - ie not explicitly carrying the corporate brand - as being a trendy waste of time. One of the joys of jumping ship to higher education has been cutting myself free of that kind of thinking and throwing myself into all social media has to offer.

I use Twitter mainly as a way of networking with journalists, students, PR professionals and in that sense it is completely separate to my Facebook page, which I use mainly for keeping up with old friends and family. To me Twitter is a way to make new friends and contacts.

I have also watched some groundbreaking stuff happen on Twitter in the guise of the Trafigura scandal in which a hugely powerful international company and very slick legal firm in Carter Ruck were brought to their knees by the power of the Titterverse.

I also enjoy follow the little spats that get going. Ben Goldacre and Jack of Kent's haranguing of the awful poo lady (Gillian McKeith) and Jack of Kent's later goading of stupid Scientologists have been a joy to watch.

The attacks on Keith Chegwin as a plagiarist by Ed Byrne and David Baddiel have been more confusing as I enjoyed Keith's tweets (such as: Channel 4 dropped Wife Swap & How Clean is your House. Good time to pitch How Dirty is your Wife, Want to Swap) but as a fan of comedy imagine that Byrne and Baddiel will become close friends once my screenplays and novels are finally recognised for the genius they undoubtedly are.

I also felt very much part of a movement who objected to Jan Moir's homophobic opinions on the death of Stephen Gately and are still objecting to AA Gill's homophobic taunting of Clare Balding.

Twitter is a place where secrets can't be kept as Carter Ruck and PC Simon Harwood(the police officer who hit and violently pushed Ian Tomlinson to the ground during the G20 protests, yet miraculously escaped prosecution when the innocent Tomlinson died) found out.

But as professional as I try to be when I use it, the lore of the playground still holds true in that you want as many friends as you can get. I was determined that I wouldn't just seek out our my Facebook friends and add them to Twitter as that would sort of defeat the point but I was positively embarrased when I remained stuck on 24 followers in the first month. 50 felt like a milestone but my envious glances at other people's profiles confirmed that I was still a bit of a social media pariah (Twitteriah?).

But I got a big rush of followers following an off-the-cuff Tweet about David Cameron during the general election:

"In Radio Times Cameron says he doesn't get social media. Good thing he's not from a PR background or trying to run the country then."

It seemed to resonate and it was retweeted several times and all of a sudden I bagged another 25 followers.

I've tried to analyse what made it successful and recreate the core parts with tweets like:

"Looks like Richard Desmond is bidding to be the Lidl to Rupert Murdoch's Waitrose in the evil empire stakes."

and even the more blatant recreation

"So Cameron wants to close Raoul Moat Fb page. Nowt like censorship to create martyrdom. Cam spot on when he said he didn't get social media."

But alas there was to be no new flood of followers, so I thought I would ask some of my existing followers why they followed me and this is what I found:

Only One Ports: "I think I saw a RT of yours during the leaders debate which made me chuckle. Sent a response and you replied. I follow people who chat.....have opinions/are interesting and make me chuckle. Besides ur sporty like me too."

Sarabedford: "As local politician & a user of social media, was amused by tweet @10.49 Saturday re Cameron. I thought I'd give you a go."

niklasf: "actually I don't remember how I started following you. Probably through an interesting retweet."

pinotblush: "Am following because I like hearing/sharing thoughts and ideas with other media people and my hometown is Oxford."

So it appears there's no secret formula. My Cameron tweet drew a few people in and I treat Twitter as a conversation rather than a series of statements (take heed politicians). I might have to try a few more PM-bashing tweets but I'm worried I risk becoming a Twitter version of 1980s Ben Elton.

I was hoping for a reponse from some of my more 'colourful' followers such as Shitlog who posts pictoral updates of his daily bowel movements or some of the ladies who appear to be offering naughty delights of the virtual kind, but sadly they remained silent.

I should really remove people like these from my list but then I might go back to being in the 90s and I can't have that now can I?

I've also faced the quandry of whether I should automtically follow anyone who follows me. But I have decided against it for the following reasons:

1) I don't want to see pictures of someone's daily number twos. I get a enough of that through having two young sons in nappies.

2) I don't want my followers to wonder why I am following ladies of the night

3) Some people are boring. It's harsh but true. One guy I was following just filled his timeline full of bitter and snide comments about any football team that isn't Arsenal. If I want to hear that kind of twaddle, I'll seek out the BBC 606 boards.

But then I also know the pain of rejection when I follow someone who doesn't follow me back. Stephen Fry and Tim Minchin seem unmoved by my 'hey guys I'm funny and technologically savvy too' banter and suddenly I'm back in that school playground again looking at the cool kids and thinking: "if only...."

The Sun and me

It has recently been pointed out to me that I seem to knock The Sun and, more specifically, Rupert Murdoch on a regular basis.

The observation followed a recent Tweet about Richard Desmond's acquisition of Channel Five in which I wrote:

"Looks like Richard Desmond is bidding to be the Lidl to Rupert Murdoch's Waitrose in the evil media empire stakes"
It was a hilarious and cutting observation which spawned exactly no retweets and, beyond the confines of my own head, very few laughs other than politeness.

I then followed it up with a comment on a former colleague's Facebook page in which I (jokingly) advised him to make up some journalism for The Sun because that is what they all do. So far so cliched and borderline defamatory.

But looking back, I do appear to have a bit of a history in knocking The Sun, which is after all one of British journalism's great institutions. It is the country's most read newspaper and the technical quality of the journalism is superb. I'm not just saying that - it is far harder to write 250 words on politics for The Sun than it is to write 1,000 words for the Guardian.

Also, Murdoch has recently seen a slight upsurge in public opinion. An example of this would be the excellent David Mitchell's article in The Guardian recently in which he says that liberal society's dislike of Murdoch is leading to a blindspot over the paywall he has introduced at The Times.

But I still can't bring myself to like The Sun or prevent myself from making sarky comments about it so I thought it was time I buckled down and examined why that might be.

So here's the case for the defence (it's my opinion I am defending in case you were wondering):

1) Many of The Sun's most celebrated stories are fabrication. Take for example, Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster or Elton John has voice boxes removed from his guard dogs. When people talk about stories like these it is often with a chuckle and a roll of the eyes as if making this kind of stuff up is akin to a cheeky child being caught taking two biscuits when one was on offer. It isn't. It's wrong to make stuff up as I readily admitted recently in my silly season confession post. However, The Sun is so proud of its fabrications that if you like they have given permission for them to be reproduced emblazoned on a T-shirt.

2) The Hillsborough disaster coverage: "Oh no, not that again," I hear you groan. But yes that again. Not only did the paper accuse Liverpool fans of revelling the disaster, pickpocketing victims and urinating on those trapped in the mayhem, but it also took an obscenely long time to properly apologise (15 years since you ask). That apology only came about when it was clear that The Sun's circulation figures in Liverpool were never going to recover unless something was done.

3) The Sun is hideously self-important when it comes to politics. I've blogged about this before. Last week I was having a conversation on Twitter with David Dunkley Gyimah (@viewmagazine), who is a video journalist and lecturer at Westminster University, about the fact that modern journalism is ill-equipped to cope with modern politics. I summed up my views rather glibly with the phrase:

"Modern journalism is over-simplistic and modern politics is over-complicated"
Nowhere is this more obvious than at The Sun, which blatantly tries to sway the views of the electorate at every General Election. From being Maggie's lapdog and Kinnock's vanquisher to the uneasy alliance with the freemarket socialist Blair to backing the man-of-the-people/old Etonian David Cameron, The Sun has advised us who to vote for. But are we best served by having Murdoch's mouthpiece steering our vote? Do people know why the recession hit other than because Brown was grumpy and Alistair Darling's eyebrows are a different colour to his hair? There is a potential for astute political coverage in The Sun but it gets lost in the posturing and celebrity-obssessed diatribe we have to put up with.

4) Its coverage forced 10 seasons of Big Brother onto our screens. Admittedly I have little empirical evidence for this but I am sure that the interesting programme that was BB1 and 2 became the mud-wrestle at Aldi it is now because of the shallowness of The Sun.

I know, I know. That all sounds very po-faced and humourless. Believe it or not, I do like a bit of humour in my papers - I just don't want it to be made up or patronising.

Of course, it has been pointed out that I worked for a worse paper in the Daily Mail and that is undeniable. I would offer a critique of the Mail but Dan and Dan have done it better than I ever could.