Category: journalism

Interrogation by silence, and Trump’s mental Heartbleed

This Trump speech has been widely circulated by now, but two things come to mind. The first of all is that he seems to have the verbal version of the Heartbleed SSL bug. In Heartbleed, the problem is that you can request a keep-alive message of length you specify, with data you provide, but there was no check that the provided data was in fact of the length stated. Therefore, if you declared a much greater length than the actual data you provided, the target machine would keep reading past the end of the buffer it put your message in, sucking up whatever happened to be in working memory nearby and disclosing it to you.

As with the broken server, so with the Donald. He just keeps talking, filling the space, reading from whatever is immediately available in his head. This reminds me of a old journo trick. When I was your actual journalist, I often had to interview pompous and self-important businessmen. I came to realise that one of the best ways of getting news out of them was to shut up. Questioning them tended to make them clam up, refer me away, or complain to my editor. But if I said something as a stimulus, tangential to my real point, and then shut up, they tended to over-answer. And I would let them. When they paused, I would keep stumm, encouraging them to fill the awkward pause with talk.

A lot of people love the sound of their own voices. Self-important SVPs are preferentially selected for this trait and, God knows, get plenty of chances to exercise it. Also, there’s something about having a member of the media around as sycophantic amaneunsis that encourages the behaviour. If you hear something interesting, of course, you can shift gear and probe, but you might as well just take your full notebook back to the newsroom and your best friend, the Google site: command. That said, it’s very important to recognise the slips when they come, not least because that’s how you’ll remember them. Using this method requires you to brief yourself thoroughly.

Trump seems like an extreme case of the self-important sales guy promoted to the C-suite, so I’d recommend this trick to anyone interviewing him. It also has the advantage that it looks subservient and deferential to the crude eye, although it is anything but. This may be a problem for anyone who has to ask him questions on TV, as a live media interview is in part a theatrical performance. Questions must be asked and must be seen to be asked. On the other side of the table, one of the skills of a really good PR person is to recognise when the client is in danger of over-answering and divert them; the one who used to see through me on this was Vodafone’s feline mandarin of a PR director, Bobby Leach, who I think realised I was making a strategy out of it.

The Daily Telegraph’s personal finance page is depraved

So, on Monday, the Daily Telegraph ran this story on how you too can incorporate your BTL portfolio as a limited company and dodge tax. You’ll note that the story only exists because mortgage broker Kent Reliance pushed a report at the paper. And yes, it’s totally about tax.

Kent Reliance, the buy-to-let lender who produced the report, also found that 11pc of landlords say they have already “incorporated”, or have moved holdings to a lower-rate-tax-paying spouse or partner to limit their tax exposure, while a further 25pc are considering doing so

On the day, the top-5 sidebar next to the story looked like this.


If you’re going to incorporate in order to dodge tax, you might as well go large on the leverage and take out a 100% loan-to-value mortgage while you’re at it, eh. Also, don’t miss out on anything you could possibly include to juice the income multiple. After all, if anything about this worries you, why not blame it on the young’uns and their silly hair? They say no-one rings a bell at the top of the market, but the fifth story – “Is now a good time to sell my house?” – seems on point in the light of all this boosterism.

In case you’re wondering, literally all those stories are based on someone or other’s press release. It’s pure push journalism.

So, what might be in today’s paper? Well, who’s sent them something lately? Estate agents Haart, as it turns out. Revealed: the full shocking extent of the buy-to-let market collapse. I don’t know about you but I’d be pretty pissed off if I signed for that 100% mortgage on, say, Wednesday having read the paper on the Monday.

At least the Obscurer‘s advice column told the lady who was thinking of staging a spurious divorce to avoid stamp duty to bugger off. Honestly, people. There is such a thing as dignity and this ain’t it.

Polar Behr wanders the frozen North

This Rafael Behr piece about the Oldham by-election has been getting the bird, not surprisingly given the central prediction was hopelessly wrong. The really interesting bit, in my view, is that if we take a maximally charitable view and assume that there is nothing outside the text, so everyone he spoke to in Oldham who expressed an opinion is mentioned and is quoted accurately…well, he had all the information he needed to call it correctly.

We hear from “Rob”, who apparently voted UKIP at the general election but is going to “lend” Labour his vote this time. That is to say, he’s going to vote Labour. “Jo” is also going to vote Labour. We also hear from “Warren”, described as a “UKIP supporter”. We don’t actually hear whether he intends to vote or not, so we can’t weight him by likelihood to vote, but let’s be conservative and score him a strong K-for-Kipper. We also speak to someone who describes Jeremy Corbyn as “just another liar” and refuses to vote, and a ‘kipper who says he’s not going to vote.

Someone else says Jeremy Corbyn is an idiot and needs to get his act together, but doesn’t say which way they might vote or if they will vote. You might say it probably won’t be Labour on the strength of their remarks, but if you asked me I’d say much the same, and I would have voted Labour.

Either way, we’ve got 2 Labour votes with a full turnout weighting, 1 UKIP vote with a full turnout weighting, two people who aren’t going to vote and whose opinions are therefore zero-weighted, and someone who might do pretty much anything. On the night, 2.69 Labour votes were cast for each UKIP vote, so this micro-poll was actually pretty good. Apparently, Rafael Behr is a fairly effective device for generating randomised population samples!

Or maybe not, as none of his respondents has a name implying South Asian ancestry. But that in itself is interesting; it tells us that the UKIP fantasies of vast numbers of fake postal votes from Those People are just that, fantasies, or rather, excuses. If the white population broke 2.x to 1 against UKIP, they were always on a hiding to nothing, because they just didn’t have the votes, and too many of their supporters were popping off general crankiness rather than seriously proposing to do anything.

This would have been a great story, of course. But such was the power of Behr’s preconceptions, the mere fact that he met twice as many people who actually intended to vote Labour as he did ‘kippers doesn’t seem to have passed through his mind en route from memory to keyboard.

Daniel Davies has formed the opinion that Behr is the worst opinion former currently practicing in the UK. I’m not so sure. This piece on Tories taking an interest in Ed Miliband’s ideas about the economy is not only good, it also appeared in the paper on the morning of George Osborne’s autumn statement, seriously prefiguring the Ozzer’s U-turn so big it was more a Gefechtskehrtwendung. Either that was a very good prediction, or else Behr has a high-quality Treasury source.


I say bubble? I say bubble. Good piece, but the most interesting paragraph is the following, provided as a health warning on a NYT feature quoted:

(The article’s author, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, is the wife of Silicon Valley venture investor Marc Andreessen, though Theranos isn’t listed as a portfolio company of Andreessen Horowitz, his venture firm.)

There is no such thing as a “UK national security number”

What are national security numbers? Why would you think TalkTalk would have some? Why would you believe anyone who claims to have them is the real deal, when:

  • The UK doesn’t have a thing called a Social Security Number
  • Nor does it have a thing called a National Security Number
  • It does have a National Insurance Number
  • NINos aren’t used like SSNs – we don’t use them as general purpose identifiers

Clearly someone here thinks the UK has something like a US social security number and uses it in the same way, but vaguely realises it’s not called that, although not enough to ctrl+K and look it up. Or they know they don’t have a trove of TalkTalk users’ NINos, they’re bullshitting, and our “former cybercrime detective” didn’t notice the difference.

Update: Boy, 15, arrested in Ulster.

Sources close to Alex Harrowell will say “This is a lot of cock”

Journalists. Please, please, cut one phrase out of your vocabulary. It is “He will say”.

Why? Well, try “Unseasonably Mild” Wintour’s latest.

The first problem here is that something given out by a political party is being repeated uncritically. We get a complete paragraph-length Cameron soundbite, plus literally all the talking points, factoid by factoid and implausibly precise number by implausibly precise number. Because he hasn’t said it yet, there is no real response from the opposition or anyone else. There are remarks from Ed Balls, but they are either from the past and therefore stale, or else they are yet more he-will-say material, which means they aren’t responses to what the other he will say. The journalist has stepped into the game and granted the initiative to Gang A.

The second problem is that he-will-say stories permit journalists to pretend they have news when they only have briefings. He-will-say is news in the way that “a train will leave Stevenage for Finsbury Park at 0628 tomorrow” is news, or in other words, it’s not news. Wintour, or whoever, wants you to think he has discovered hints about what he-will-say through brilliant investigation or intimate contacts. So do they all, but they all have the story, because they were all briefed. They could just wait for the release tomorrow, but that would give away the unbearable fact that they aren’t all that. This leads us to the third problem.

The third problem is that he-will-say stories permit PR people to make sure their nonsense gets into the paper. They tell the national political hacks what he-will-say, rather than waiting ’til he says it, because then the hacks can pretend they have a story, which makes sure it gets into the paper. The fact that it’s in the paper leads us to the fourth problem.

The fourth problem is that the TV and radio people show up for the actual speech, although there is now no news in it, because it was briefed out to the newspapers as a he-will-say. This is a further violation of the general anti-bullshit principle.

Now we might say that this is a structural consequence of the media today, or some such. But look how often Wintour does it. Michael White did it about twice as often. On the other hand, business, sports, or trade journalists barely do it at all. I can’t think of the last time I saw a business desk article with “He will say” in the lede, although it’s not like business lobbyists don’t speechify. So it’s evidently a feature of the special/sick relationship between big news political desks and politicians.

Before you ask, I haven’t noticed anywhere near as many “She will say” stories, but even if they were to appear more often they would be just as awful for the reasons I have described. It might as well be “Karellen will say” without the passionate opposition to animal cruelty.

The one with Rupert Murdoch, Lord Nicholls, and the cocaine

So Brooks Newmark, Tory dickpic exponent. As Harlan Ellison didn’t title, I have no mouth but I can’t stop laughing. Or rather, I can’t stop laughing but I have a serious point I need to make. Obviously this was really awful journalism, in fact, hardly journalism at all in any meaningful sense. For a start there’s the entrapment. There’s also the frankly creepy impersonation of some random woman in Sweden. It’s very hard to defend even though…and then the laughter kicks in. But it is very hard to defend.

Which reminded me of something. Reading Nick Davies’ Hack Attack, it struck me that if cocaine was to write its memoirs, the chapter on News International would probably be left out in the end because cocaine would be too ashamed to publish it. And it would be a great pity, because it might have been the best bit.

It’s not just that the NOTW and Sun newsrooms were incredibly cokey, nor even, according to Davies, that Wapping had a recognised dealer on the staff, even if it’s telling that they managed to have a staff drug dealer while also having an editor who specialised in their contacts with gangsters and another who specialised in their contacts with cops, and the whole culture of the place seems like one long pit-stained gak-sweat. Brash, overfamiliar, and also brittle. Also, reading Stick It Up Your Punter after Hack Attack, it’s very noticeable how many people there are repeatedly described as “energetic” and “supremely confident”, but also subject to dramatic mood swings and waves of paranoia.

It’s that the paper’s routine functioning, the process of production, depended in an important way on the stuff. And I don’t even mean this in that so many of them couldn’t get going in the morning without a quick one up the hooter. No. I’m actually thinking of the Reynolds defence of qualified privilege for public interest. This is a classic case in English media law, resulting from a lawsuit brought by the Irish politician Albert Reynolds against the Times and the Times‘s appeal to the Lords. The key point is that in some cases, a journalist can defend themselves from a libel suit if they can show that publishing the story in question served a legitimate public interest.

What constitutes a public interest is a good question, and one that changes over time. It is not the same thing as what interests the public, something newspaper editors tend to get wrong. The guideline is points one and two in Lord Nicholls’ judgment, although it’s worth noting that point one (seriousness) is actually an argument against qualified privilege. The Defamation Act 2013, which supersedes Reynolds vs. Times Newspapers, reduces this to a test that the defendant “reasonably believe” that publication is in the public interest.

But the obvious example of something that is in the public interest to publish, and stays that way, is lawbreaking of some sort. That some celebrity is sleeping with the wrong person might once have been obviously in the public interest, but it has got less so over the years, and one day it will no longer be so. Cocaine is illegal, though. This is why so many of their stories involved it, and why so many of their reporters spent so much time partaking of it with their subjects, encouraging their subjects to buy it, and indeed sometimes supplying it.

This was rather perfect; it may be illegal, but it is not all that illegal, especially not in practice, so police involvement would be fairly unlikely even if the reporter was covered in the stuff from head to toe. And of course their links with the Met helped. However, it is illegal enough to bat away threats of litigation with some confidence.

#burybadnews: the burying. here are some boring links about fish

So I promised to check what bad news was getting buried over the indyref. Here are some stories.

NHS foundations crash to first-ever monster deficit: official

NHS foundation trusts are struggling, missing waiting list targets, spending a lot of money on agency staff, and have had a sector-wide deficit for the first time. 19% of the trusts are officially in the doghouse. There’s a report here.

One of those trusts is Queen Elizabeth II Hospital, King’s Lynn. This has been the subject of a Care Quality Commission report, which was released today, strangely enough. Secretary Hunt is sending McKinsey consultants to King’s Lynn, so if you live around there, try to stagger over the boundary before collapsing or something?

Morecambe Bay NHS is in trouble, and Hunt is sending it one Fiona West as Improvement Director. There seems to be a lot of it about.

Here’s a story of dodgy NHS procurement in Worthing.

Also in the NHS, a standard has been published setting out what information A&E wards should give the police when someone comes in who has evidently been the target of a violent crime.

The NHS is also sharing information with you, as it has a new data visualisation web site. I don’t know why that needed burying, unless it’s the detail that private-sector contractors don’t have to put any information on it.

Changes to GP practices’ catchment areas have been put off until January.

Do-gooders: three opportunities to lobby the powerful at PHE, OFCOM, and DWP!

And Public Health England has a global strategy, which sounds important! Rather like OFCOM, which invites comments on its Plan. There’s a plan, apparently.

Bash 7-day dole wait: don’t miss out!

Over at the DWP, they want you to wait an additional 7 days before you get any Universal Credit. The consultation on this measure has just opened, so get in there and object! The committee that will read your objection is as follows. It has an expert on Scotland.

The Committee’s Chair is Paul Gray. Its membership comprises: Les Allamby, John Andrews, Simon Bartley, Adele Baumgardt, John Ditch, Keith Faulkner, Colin Godbold, Chris Goulden, Matthew Oakley, Judith Paterson, Nicola Smith and Diana Whitworth. Its expert adviser on Scotland is Jim McCormick.

Sad IDS floundering as he misses by a million

Fortunately this may not matter much as the DWP is only 986,740 behind on its target of 1 million people receiving UC.

Sir Humphrey humphs once more as Sheinwald gets spooklomat gig

Speaking of information sharing, the government said it would appoint a senior diplomat as special envoy for law enforcement and intelligence as part of the DRIP legislation. The job goes to supermandarin Sir Nigel Sheinwald, former UK permanent representative to the EU, ambassador to the US, head of the Overseas & Defence Policy Secretariat, and prime minister’s foreign policy adviser.

In other bigwigs, the boss of Siemens UK joins the board of BIS, and an accountant becomes finance director of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, while Alex Salmond made his last act-in-office the appointment of four Queen’s Counsel. Anyone know them?

UK housing policy is a sorry mess and Eric Pickles is a fat clown

Islington Council has been trying to stop landlords converting business or industrial premises into low-grade housing. Housing minister Brandon Lewis has ordered them to stop, but no publicity, because he did it on the 17th.

Lewis also gave a self-congratulatory speech at the National Housing Federation in which he claimed Ebbsfleet new town and pre-fabricated buildings would solve all our problems, thus adopting two of John Prescott’s ideas from about five years ago.

Lewis’s boss, Eric Pickles, gave an utterly asinine and ridiculous speech in which he claimed to be fighting “the Binquisition”, blamed Brussels, talked about “Communist Cuba”, and promised weekly bin collections for zero money.

Here is a list of 21 magistrates’ courts that are trialling new technology.

Where was Islamic charity trustee going with the poor box?

The Charities Commission is starting an inquiry into something called Worldwide Ummah Aid after one of its trustees was stopped leaving the country with a large amount of cash. The terms of reference sound more fraudy than terror-y, but both are possible and either would be news.

The Cabinet Office may have hoped that the referendum would prevent the following embarrassment, but I notice that they have replied to one Williams’ Freedom of Information Act request with a message that their inbox is full.

Wrexham child protection report: exclusive

A lady in Wrexham has received the report she wanted about a complicated scandal regarding Wrexham child protection and a whistleblower. Fascinatingly, Wrexham council disclosed it over the #indyref. The report is here and mostly about nepotism.

Airlines can make you pay for checked baggage, the European Court has ruled.

Some stuff nobody in their right mind would read

Here is something trivial about tax discs, and something trivial about the Dartford tunnel toll. Baroness Kramer (remember her?) launches some ITSO cards (remember them?) A small flood relief project not quite in Leicester. Awards.

The government lobbying registers for the DCMS Permanent Secretary, the DWP Permanent Secretary, the Home Office Permanent Secretary, and Department for Education ministers have been updated but I haven’t spotted anything interesting.

A minister gave a speech, but there was no news in it. And here are some quite boring links about fish.

Worthwhile Norwegian website

Oh, neat. When you’re next stumped trying to find that EU document, remember that Norway may not be in the EU but it has to implement the acquis communautaire, and it has really powerful FOI legislation. And off you go to the Ministry of Government Administration, Reform, and Church Affairs and their search engine. Note; you may have to translate your query into Norwegian first, which makes this less helpful.

Coughlin 2.0

So it looks like we’ve identified the new Con Coughlin. Here’s a piece in the Torygraph that blames everything SIS might have done wrong in the Bush years on Tony Blair, built entirely on a single SIS source. When I first saw it, it weirdly didn’t have a byline, although it since acquired that of Peter Foster, writing oddly from Washington.

On the same day, Foster also dropped this turd:

Up on Capitol Hill, one aide agreed that Anglo-American relations had survived the Syria “no” vote, but also noted that “it did catch many here by surprise”, unlike the supportive statements by the French that had been “especially well received”.

Not, apparently, that our MPs appeared to detect any such misgivings, or the corrosive effect on the strategic relationship from defence cuts that see Britain being downgraded to what some in the US military describe as “niche status”.

Even on intelligence matters, Britain’s worth has shrunk since the Cameron government told Scotland Yard to investigate MI6’s role in the CIA’s kidnap and torture programme – a move that has curtailed cooperation and spooked the spooks at Langley.

This surge of activity was of course inspired by the coming news that yes, we let them do it at Diego Garcia.