Category: special relationships

The price of BBC independence. In favour of cynical payoffs

I notice people are whining about BBC “payoffs” again. This is pathetic. If the BBC is meant to be independent, that means politicians of all descriptions shouldn’t be able to threaten the people who work there with the sack. This can be achieved in two ways – either we take the politicians’ power over the BBC away, or we take the power of the sack away, by stuffing it with money.

The first option was the one chosen by Lord Reith when the BBC was created. It would of course be lovely if the BBC could hire the people it wants by offering civil service rates and a final salary pension. The problem, however, is that it didn’t work.

Historically the political class has always tried to bully the BBC, usually with the self-interested complicity of the press barons. They can’t give it up. The charter review process itself sticks the Chekhovian gun on the mantelpiece that will eventually get fired, rather like a BBC executive. As a result, if the BBC management has to rely on sticking it out for 38 years to get their money, the BBC won’t be in any way independent or interesting because anyone who is either of those things will get sacked or won’t join it in the first place.

It’s possible to square this circle if you have really strong political cover. The classic example is of course the civil service itself. But the BBC will never be as big or ugly a lobby as the civil service, and even the civil service gets bullied by politicians more often than it would like to admit. Actually it’s worse than that. Very often, the party trying to intimidate the BBC is the state, and it should be obvious that Downing Street cannot protect the BBC against Downing Street.

This leaves the second option. BBC people implicitly recognise that the political class can turn on them at any time, but in exchange for taking the career risk, the BBC implicitly promises them a lot of money if it happens. This means occasional, embarrassing payoffs, but it also means that a modicum of BBC independence is possible.

If politicians really are angry about “BBC payoffs”, they should leave the BBC alone, resist the temptation to get worked up about TV shows they didn’t bother to watch, stop micromanaging bits of its web site. They won’t do that, of course. They’re politicians and it is too big a megaphone for them to leave it alone. It’s almost as if…they don’t really want the BBC to be independent, and that’s why they whine about payoffs.

It’s certainly not the principle of rewards for (perceived) failure – as recently as 2010, MPs who lost their seats could get a year’s salary as a resettlement grant. More recently this has been cut back to a maximum of 6 months’ money, but ministers get 3 months of their ministerial salary on top of that and there’s up to £55,000 available for the costs of closing down your office.

It would be nicer, I agree, if we could go with option 1. But we’re just not that kind of society, and I’m not even sure if that’s a bad thing. We never were, either – back in the good old days, the BBC sent all its employees’ personal files to the police for vetting except for Jimmy Savile’s. If nobody ever tried to influence the BBC, would that mean its independence was so rock-solid there was no point, or that it had completely internalised what the politicians wanted?

10 insights on the Biryani Project

So, to summarise this post a bit, here are some insights:

1) The Curzon Foundation website has been up since February 2010. The various Curzon companies have existed for the same period of time, one succeeding the other as they successively failed to file accounts and got struck off. It looks very much like each one was intended to replace the previous one. They share addresses and directors. Although the Initiative and Foundation don’t have Afzal Amin as a director, we know from Mohammed Hanif’s LinkedIn profile that there is no distinction between them and the Institute.

2) From 2013 on, Afzal Amin and friends were operating parallel commercial and charitable entities with the same address, website, and field of operations. The £120,000 Government grant was paid to a nonprofit entity, but it would have been very easy to have it contract with one of the commercial companies for services, or buy assets from them. The scandal at the Kings Science Academy in Bradford is an example of this kind of related-party transaction abuse.

3) The network of directors around Amin includes local property developers, people associated with both Home Office and DCLG counter-radicalisation projects, a school governor accused (controversially) of being an Islamic extremist, and either a Labour councillor, or a serving police officer, or both. What was a Labour councillor doing trying to get a Tory elected? What was a cop doing getting involved in party politics? What was he doing holding outside directorships? If it was the councillor, not the cop, why didn’t he mention the Curzons on his declaration of interests?

4) Calling it the Curzon Institute was simply illegal. So was offering to pay EDL activists to canvass.

5) Far from being a purely hypothetical discussion, it seems that the Biryani Project actually became operational on the 26th of February, when the EDL did indeed march in Dudley. Local news reporting at the time quotes Councillor Hanif, Afzal Amin, and Chief Supt Johnson (also mentioned by Amin in the Yaxley-Lennon tape) expressing their profound satisfaction. The image of racists, jihadis, aldermen, cops, and a Tory converging on a provincial mosque by their common accord is deeply surreal.

6) The same story also mentions “community stewards” organised by the head of the Dudley Private Hire and Taxi Association. Seems legit…

7) If the Curzon entities were functioning as far back as February 2010, it seems logical to suppose they were getting money from somewhere, and further that they used it for something. That somewhere was presumably the PREVENT/CONTEST programme, but I don’t think anyone intended that to fund either Councillor Hanif or would-be Tory MP Afzal Amin’s electioneering or even some guy’s buy-to-let empire.

News stories about Jahan Mahmood at the time suggest that the “new” counter-radicalisation programme, which wasn’t meant to talk to anyone who might be too radical under the influence of Michael Gove, cut off his funding. Is the point here that Afzal Amin got DCLG to restore the flow of money into the pre-existing Curzon network, in exchange for its support to get elected?

8) It seems very, very likely that Afzal Amin exaggerated his military career substantially. We know that he was in Iraq as an education officer, not some sort of commando, and that he gave the impression to the BBC that he was a tutor or personal adjutant to Prince Harry when in fact he was the education officer attached to his regiment. He doesn’t seem to have left the Adjutant-General’s Corps Education & Training Branch throughout his career.

9) A source tells me that the leadership of the Defence Academy are “extremely angry” about Amin and are actively trying to get DCLG to cancel the grant and recover any money that hasn’t disappeared.

10) And there’s still another company – UKS3 Ltd – and another director – Michelle Clayton – to look into.

More questions on the Biryani Project.

Randy McDonald, and probably others, seem to have found the Afzal Amin piece baffling, so I thought I’d draft a brief explainer as follows.

Afzal Amin, potential Tory MP and ex-army officer, tried to incite the EDL to stage a provocative demonstration in his heavily Muslim constituency during the campaign, while also inciting a group of radical-ish Muslims to protest the EDL. He then tried to get the EDL to call off the demo (that he incited) when he asked. The point was to create a situation in which Amin could appear at the last minute and resolve the conflict without a nasty ruck between EDL football thugs and semi-jihadis, presumably vastly adding to his prestige and authority and getting him elected.

Obviously, as this involved the EDL backing down and CAVING IN TO THE TERRORISTS, or maybe just COMPROMISING WITH THE SYSTEM, they needed a big side-payment. Amin promised their leaders money or possibly jobs, plus support to integrate the EDL into respectable politics, and also offered to pay rank-and-file EDL activists hard cash to campaign for him. Using hired canvassers at an election is illegal in the UK in itself. He also seems to have had ambitions to roll out the process elsewhere in the UK, and to be inspired by David Kilcullen/Galula/etc counterinsurgency theory. Unfortunately for him, he was caught – somehow – by the Mail on Sunday‘s investigations team, which managed to video him conspiring with the EDL in a curry house.

A really interesting question is where he was going to get the money to pay off the EDL (and presumably also his vaguely edgy Muslims). It turns out he has an incredibly shady fake NGO, which got a no-bid contract to the tune of £120k with a bit of the government that has responsibility for counter-radicalisation policy, the CONTEST programme, incidentally headed by a political buddy of his. So the obvious conclusion is that he planned to put the EDL, and probably the Muslims, on his NGO’s payroll and bill the expenses to the government. At which point we need to ask whether the CONTEST people knew about the whole caper and this was some sort of ill-thought out amateur spook scheme. That said, it’s not like huge irresponsibility, deceit, incredibly careless handling of public money, and the use of government resources for one’s election campaign aren’t enough to be going on with.

Before the whole affair sinks into obscurity, I think it’s worth following up some questions that are still outstanding. First of all, Amin mentioned to the EDL that he’d been meeting “some Muslim lads” regarding what I will from now on call the Biryani Project. This sounds very much like he wanted to make sure there would be an angry and at least somewhat radicalised reception committee for the planned EDL march, in order to maximise the conflict he would then solve.

Presumably, if the Biryani Project was indeed meant to serve as a model and be rolled out nationally, it would need angry Muslims just as much as it needed the EDL. Logically, if he needed to hire Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, he would also need to hire the Muslims. So that’s another group of people he’d need to pay or place in a sinecure of some sort. What did he promise them and how did he intend to deliver?

Secondly, who were these Muslims? A place to start looking would be here – via Labour candidate Kate Godfrey’s Twitter feed, it seems he tried to incite the Muslim Public Affairs Committee to insult him about his military service.

Why he bothered when Dan Hardie will insult him about his military service for the sheer pleasure of the thing is another question.

MPAC UK’s involvement needs some parsing, though. The simplest explanation is that they were the “Muslim lads”, in which case we might reason that they were involved and are accelerating away from the mess, or alternatively, if we accept they are telling the truth, that Amin was deluding himself about their involvement. Both are possible. It is also possible that he addressed himself both to MPAC UK and to some other group.

In general, we should be looking for a group around Dudley who were offered a grant, and I suspect a detailed review of the DCLG’s report and accounts (here) might be telling. I’ve yet to find anything suspicious, although I do wonder why literally the only Google hit for “Srebrenica memorial day” and the organisation DCLG thinks it gave the grant to is the DCLG accounts. That could be a clerical error, though. Anyway, the Curzon Institute’s grant is in there, and Amin says he’d been talking to the EDL for at least a year – which means he had DCLG’s money in hand when he began the project.

Meanwhile, Theresa May sets out an important counter-radicalisation initiative:

After several months of disagreement the only official anti-extremism unit to be formed immediately is an “Extremism Analysis Unit”, which set out a blacklist of individuals and organisations with whom the government and the public sector should not engage.

Presumably, except over a chicken biryani at the Celebrity Restaurant, Dudley?

Meanwhile, on the question of Amin’s career, the Wikipedia article has improved to the extent of including the London Gazette mentions for his commission, promotion, and retirement, which places him in the Education & Training Branch throughout. The “Counterinsurgency and Stabilisation Centre”, which someone asked about, is a terminology error for the Land Stabilisation and Counterinsurgency Centre, which was headed by Alexander Alderson and whose name implies it belonged to Land Command rather than the Defence Academy.

heywoood, always up to no goood

There’s a bit more on the war of Coulson’s Clearance here, from Robert Peston, who I seem to remember attracted attention back in 2011 as being oddly pro-Murdoch.

I know the answer to why Coulson was not given top level security vetting in 2010.

What happened was that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood had decided that too many special advisers had access to the highest level of security clearance and wanted to reduce their number.

So he made a policy decision, without pressure from David Cameron, not to get Coulson cleared for access to such material. At the same time, Mr Cameron’s chief of staff Ed Llewellyn was given the most vigorous degree of vetting, because of his foreign policy role.

Sir Jeremy simply felt it was inappropriate for large numbers of SPADs – as special advisers are known at Westminster – to have access to this material.

He subsequently decided Coulson was a good egg and could have access to this top secret sensitive material, even though he had not been cleared. So if anyone is going to be embarrassed by the failure to vet Coulson, and Labour’s investigation into this, it will be Britain’s top civil servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood

We already knew, since July 2011, that there was a degree of pushback on vetting Coulson and others, supposedly for cost reasons. But I think the first 3 paragraphs here are probably accurate, although the tone Peston gives them is tendentious. I know the reason – closing out the story much?

Taken literally, Heywood didn’t think Coulson should have access to anything sensitive. Neither did he think other special advisers should have such access. This doesn’t, of course, reflect positively on Coulson.

Also, it sounds as if the civil service as personified by Heywood wanted to roll back the integration of the No.10 press operation with the political/operational staff. No.10 is where the wiring for the intelligence community, the civil service policy machinery, certain bits of MOD, and the prime minister’s media support come together. Revoking the spin doctors’ access to secrets would dramatically reduce their power, and increase that of the institutions.

The last paragraph must be read in parallel with the rest of the news. We know that Coulson was eventually put forward for his clearance, and we can reason that it happened in the autumn of 2010. Clearly, Heywood didn’t somehow neglect to have him investigated, because after all it happened. We also know that Coulson did indeed get access to high-level secrets – whether from the possibly accidental “strap one” mention or his own words.

So an exception was made for him. Some media actors will want to blame Heywood for granting it. Others will ask who requested it. The process requires that the department that employs you acts as “sponsor” and presumably pays the bill. Coulson’s sponsoring department would be…you guessed it. The Prime Minister’s Office is a thing these days, with a domain name and all. It sits in the Cabinet Office administratively, Francis Maude’s ministry.

Since the Tories’ re-org of the civil service, the roles of cabinet secretary and head of the civil service have been split up, and the new one of the No.10 permanent secretary added. Heywood has emerged as first among equals from this position. Therefore, I give you three options – Heywood, Cameron, or Maude. But Cameron is the customer for the communications director. It’s his interests that are served.

Interestingly, we learn from this that it wasn’t only Blair who gave such access to his press secretary; counting back from Coulson, doesn’t the statement that the last four No.10 press secretaries had it take us into the Major years?

Satellites to new heights

I’ve recently seen someone from the Satellite Applications Catapult come up on the UKNOF mailing list, asking about how best to get dark fibre from their Harwell offices into London with a view to distributing lots of satellite imagery. Obviously a CDN is the way to go, but the first thing that came to mind is whether they’ve got a new satellite. I mean, it’s vaguely surprising that an organisation that runs its own cloud platform would be asking for fairly simple networking advice, and even more so one that owns this.

Context, and more, plus much more in this category.

Kim Philby and a web of trust

Show me your Kim Philby and I’ll show you your concerns. Ever since his defection, British writing on the iconic spy has always reflected the anxieties of society at the time of writing, modulated by the latest lot of declassified documents. What else could it do, faced with such a character, a man who couldn’t have been more protean or more expert at letting his interlocutor project their own thinking on to him? In the 1960s, his role as the ultimate Etonian predominated. In the 1970s, sexuality took over. In the 1980s, to go with the revival of the cold war, it was the communism again. But what would it be now?

Anyone writing about Philby is standing on the shoulders of giants. The literature is enormous, and has regularly been transformed by the disclosure of more information. However, this viewpoint often mostly serves to show that the giants are skew-whiff on their pedestals.

Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal is the latest to have a go. He decides to frame the book around the notion of friendship and the relationship between Philby and his friend, defender within SIS, boss, agent handler, and interrogator, Nicholas Elliott. As a result, the book is in large measure a group biography, always a neat trick.

I’m not sure how well the friendship element of the book works, except to highlight that Elliott was almost comically decent to Philby and everyone else involved, visiting Aileen Philby daily in the psychiatric hospital while Kim, self-absorbed as always, barely seems to have noticed she was ill. But that’s OK. Macintyre brings up whole chunks of new story.

One especially rich chunk is the women. A Spy among Friends is among other things a succession of incredible women, like the chief of staff in SOE Section D who was also the chief organising officer of the Conservative Party – surely we need a brief life at least – and the Sunday Express war correspondent who recommended Philby to her, or the MI5 investigator Jane Archer whose abilities Philby rated so highly he insisted on getting her transferred to his SIS counterintelligence group to make sure she didn’t by chance get assigned to his case. Marks & Spencer executive Flora Solomon appears at a succession of critical junctures, helping him launch his career, politely declining the opportunity to join him in the KGB, and eventually providing crucial evidence against him – in part, out of anger at his appalling treatment of his wife, a close friend of hers. (She was also furious about his journalism, specifically his criticism of Israel.)

Peter Wright, by contrast, mentioned Litzi Philby/Kohlmann in passing and hardly says anything about any of the other women in the story, not even his colleague Archer. Neither does The Culture of Treason although it’s a long time since I read it. There’s your answer: the highly un-gay Philby was remembered as the Gay Traitor, not out of homophobia, but out of sexism. This shift of focus tends to diminish Philby as a character, to pigeonhole him as a posh chancer who left a trail of broken wives and unpaid bills behind him, dumping his self-inflicted chaos on – who else? – his friends. But this is a welcome cold bucket of realism.

Another important point is the politics of professionalism. The critics of SIS tended to make much of its habit of recruiting through the old-boy network and of operating in a highly informal fashion. They used the words professional and modern a lot and affected classlessness. But even as they were saying their piece, Michael Young was already writing the strongest possible rebuttal, The Rise of the Meritocracy.

In many ways, the post-defector recriminations were a debate about how the access to elite status would be regulated in future. On one side, the traditionalists believed that the best solution was a diffuse network of contacts who themselves could be trusted and a specific culture, as hard to define as it was unmistakable. On the other side, the modernisers (and I use the word deliberately) believed the best solution was a graduate profession with defined career progression, credentials, and tests.

Importantly – and here’s where Michael Young comes in – this doesn’t for a moment mean that the same sort of people wouldn’t be recruited. If the modalities of Nicholas Elliott’s recruitment couldn’t have been more stereotyped (a word put in by his old housemaster, an approach at the races), it was also true that he was an Etonian with a good degree, someone whose chances of passing through a credentials-based, supposedly modern and prejudice-free, system would have been between excellent and certain. The same was of course true of Philby, whose academic qualifications could not have been more stellar.

Another way of looking at this is from an information security perspective. The traditionalists didn’t have the vocabulary, and public-key cryptography hadn’t been invented yet, but they were essentially a web-of-trust. Trusted individuals vouched for others, whose trustworthiness they initially evaluated through diffuse markers of subculture. This had the advantage that it was much, much harder to fake being the right sort of chap than it is to bang on the effort, get the credential, and keep your nose clean. Any fool can fake conformity, but it takes a genius to fake weirdness convincingly. It was even harder again to gain the connections into the web of trust required.

(Macintyre is good on eccentricity as strength; he needs to be, because the book is just full of prize weirdos. Also, there is a hell of a lot of drinking, hardcore, vase full of Martinis, whisky before breakfast, falling out of windows, eight pints and gin chasers the night before a zero-dark-thirty call for a dangerous mission, drinking. Arguably, had anyone worried about the booze and drugs, they might have rumbled the entire spy ring in the early 1940s – but hardly anyone was remotely sober. It’s the 1950s as seen in this classic Jamie Kenny post Oh yes, and did you know Commander “Buster” Crabbe RN was in the habit of wearing his diving suit to make love? Apparently his marriage was falling apart at the time of his sticky end in Portsmouth harbour, and the suit wasn’t helping.)

The modernisers wanted something more like a public-key infrastructure. A succession of tests administered by a central source of truth would lead to the issue of credentials, which could of course be revoked.

As it turned out, the Cambridge spies reveal both the strengths and weaknesses of the web of trust. The system was very robust; it took multiple, individually brilliant, persistent, patient, cooperating, already partially trusted attackers to break into it. It was also resilient; it continued functioning despite the massive security breach, and many people in it did in fact detect the attackers. However, it was extremely difficult to restore after the disaster, as the continuing hunt for more spies after Philby demonstrates. Also, its very resilience made it difficult to know that it had been subverted, and easy to take refuge in denial.

The Americans adopted the second approach. Theoretically, a PKI is easier to administer and more scalable, but more brittle. Spies like Aldrich Ames and Jonathan Pollard had to fake it, adopt the conventional signs of conformity, but once they faked it, they were in. (It didn’t help that the Americans were so keen on lie-detectors, an example of security theatre marrying pseudo-science.)

But brittleness can be useful. When, for example, a SSL certificate authority has been compromised, it has (as far as we know) become obvious very quickly, and the problem has (as far as we know) been solved quickly, by revoking and re-issuing the certs. The diversity of CAs, and hence competition between them, is useful here. Even the Heartbleed fiasco is mostly remarkable for the swiftness with which it was fixed. It is often useful for things to break unequivocally and publicly.

And webs of trust have other problems. Any system that intends to determine if some people can be trusted or not is exclusionary; that is sort of the point. As a result, they tend to absorb and harden the prejudices that are ambient in society.

So, I show you my Kim Philby: the key concerns seem to be sexism, disenchantment with graduate career prospects, and the failure modes of distributed cryptosystems. I guess I was right.

Quality comment

A really intelligent blog contribution from someone who is a weird kind of Tory-Lib Dem hybrid as far as I can make out. Here goes:

I was always under the impression the intention of matching 15% of US commitment in order to earn Framework Nation Status with the command input that entails.

If we take Iraq as ‘typical’ example of a US style intervention then they have an average commitment of 140,000 troops through the main sequence of campaign, a period spanning six years. For Britain to justify the command input that comes with the 2IC slot, where we influence operations to reflect our priorities, we would have to sustain 21,000 troops in theatre. In reality this means three combat brigades and an additional brigades worth of supporting HQ, logistics and specialists elements. This is of course a generous calculation because if we wish to vie for Framework Nation Status as the strategic purpose of our expeditionary capability then we have to match our resources to the sum of US commitments. As can be seen in the table below that US commitment includes another 30,000 troops in a separate theatre of war, which means Britain needs to pony up another light-brigade at the very least. And yes, we really would have to consider this additional commitment, command input results from trust earned over time, not merely from meeting some arbitrary figure on only the missions we liked in the pic-n-mix bin.

It basically doesn’t work, and to the limited extent it does work it absorbs the ENTIRETY of our capability, and thus removes Foreign Policy as a competence of HMG.

We maintain force levels and structures defined by framework nation status, and more strategically, by the influence it is meant to bring. As a result, seeking it consumes all the resources we are willing to put in, and therefore eliminates our policy choices. Once the organisations required are set up, they must be used to justify their budgets, hence the hunt for somewhere ARRC HQ could go.

Because the practical aim is to do the least that provides framework status, the influence so gained is minimal going on none. Of course, the whole idea presupposes that our allies don’t go utterly crazy and leave us in the position of trying to avoid being in the same campaign.

Sometimes, you should read the comments.

The threat of preference modification

So YPlan. It’s a neat enough proposition. Basically, it’s a way of getting rid of spare tickets, or if it gets big enough, guaranteeing a minimum sale. It buys up what’s left. It asks new users some questions and runs a weighted Bayesian classifier to guess what they might accept and pushes recommendations to them. Whatever they take permits them to train the classifier further. They run an in-app credits system to make it easier to do giveaways and to let the app store handle payments.

This fills me with a sort of cybernetic horror. Recall this post from July and especially this quote:

maybe we could get the interface down to an iPhone app that would superimpose a bright white line over the camera’s view of the surrounding street just telling us where to walk and what to do and buy all day long. Wouldn’t that be a bit of a relief?

So that’s what they did. A magenta line running out of the office, with BUY popups. You might say this is a kind of hipster Luddism. All those years of self-fashioning and bedroom posters and obscure blogs and your girlfriend doing haughty walkouts from here and there, and these scum have an app. But this would be wrong. Ludd had a point, and the point was nothing to do with despising progress as such.

This is an example of a future beyond advertising. Advertising aims to influence you before you come to the point of needing to buy something. A different future tries to influence you at that point – my favourite example is a paint manufacturer whose mobile app matches the colour you point the camera at to the right paint and tells you where the nearest stockist is. This future, though, aims at something else.

The more college-smarty kind of economists like to talk about “desire modification”. If I could choose to like cheaper stuff I’d be richer! This is of course yet another failing of US education, with the homecoming jocks and nerd sessions and bull diamonds and whatnot, but that’s beside the point. A version of desire modification that might actually exist is preference automation, and here it is.

Rather than even having preferences that are influenced by advertising, why not hand them over entirely? Confirmation bias, the availability heuristic, and social proof will make sure you’re convinced pretty soon that whatever gets recommended is actually what you like. This means, of course, that preferences increasingly carry no information whatsoever, a serious blow for the entire notion of a market economy.

Whatever one says about “emotional labour”, it is difficult or perhaps impossible to deliver good service without taking the initiative, by definition unscriptable. Industry has long grasped this with regard to quality, as in Toyota production, or gone bust. Finance? Well, their managers either have no idea what they’re doing because they don’t or else they’re faking it.

In the future, at least in the UK, it’s even possible that we might end up enjoying more actual freedom at work than we do outside it. The consumer economy might be dominated by preference automation and spam that knows where your dog goes to school. The public sphere might be reduced to Tory badgering as replacement for public services or post-Blairite policing of social norms against talking in the street.

Get involved.

So, the Sun is on the move. This was a bit of a surprise to me, what with News reorganising to separate the UK papers from Sky. You might think the papers look like a cost centre without the TV assets, or that the division is intended for sale as a package. But they’re up to something interesting.

The headline is that the Sun website is going behind a paywall, but this is really beside the point. The core of the offering is a mobile app that provides football highlights and daily deals – the details are at the link – but the really interesting bit is that you have to buy the paper to activate the app. The website is here or there; it’s about the mobile app, the paper, and (as always with Murdoch) the crosspromotion.

The other really interesting thing here is that News knows in some detail who sells copies of the paper, how many, and where. In the UK, newspapers are distributed on a sale-or-return basis. The retailer orders as many papers as they think they need, and bundles up the unsold copies for collection with the morning’s delivery. These are counted, and deducted from the retailer’s bill. If you’ve ever been in a corner shop late at night, you’ll have seen the shopkeeper bundle up, count, and label the returns with the preprinted barcode supplied by the wholesaler.

The point of the exercise is that the newspaper, not the newsagent, takes the risk. This is important because, obviously, the paper cannot sell if it is not on the shelves. If the newsagent gets stuck with unsold copies, they will order fewer papers and take the chance of running out. Alone among British newspapers, The Guardian is distributed on cash terms, which is why it’s so often sold out. I think they consider it unsportsmanlike or something.

So, to shorterise: the sale-and-return distribution model requires the publisher to know all the points of sale. Another feature is that it is a great way to measure the newspaper’s effective circulation in detail, and as the papers are being accounted for, this is subject to the paper’s auditors. You can see why advertisers might like this.

Now, the Sun is going to be getting its readers to type or scan something in the paper into the app. If, as I pointed out on Twitter, this something is specific to the individual papers, it’s possible to identify where the user buys their newspaper. I had some doubts about practicalities in the printing process, and wondered if they intended to do something clever with the PayPoint API or hand out separate inserts to be added by the newsagents.

But today, the question is answered – I was able to examine a pile of the things, and they indeed carry a 9 12-character unique identifier, printed as part of the newspaper. Keen and agile minds will observe that this provides enough entropy to identify the whole print run uniquely, indeed, a print run substantially bigger than even the Daily Mirror‘s 1960s five-million plus. This might mean that it encodes more information than just a serial number, or alternatively that they’ve left space to do so should they want to in the future. Also, it’s not obviously sequential, so you can’t trivially work out the daily print run, although I haven’t made any serious study of this.

(Update): It’s actually 12 characters, in three alphanumeric groups of 4, and all the issues I’ve seen started SS… today. That might be part of a geographic identifier, but it might also be Sunday Sun. Anyway, that gives quite a bit of scope.)

Why is this useful? Well, this gives them insight into close-up neighbourhood geography across the UK. People are likely to buy their newspaper in the same place as they buy plenty of other things, for one. But it’s also a look into the UK’s cash economy. Newspapers have always been sold mostly for cash, anonymously. And the heavy dose of football in the experience points at other ambitions. After all, they can probably work out which is your local pub, and a lot of them have a WiFi hotspot provided by the Sky (ISP) subsidiary The Cloud.

It is probably telling that this comes just after their new “casual” Sky TV offering, something which seems to exist to satisfy demand generated by advertising in the Sun app. Also, Sky TV has always been very good at last-minute ad insertion.

But there’s also a political element here, especially for those of us who fundamentally wish ill to all Murdoch’s business ventures. When the News of the World was rolled into the sea like a sack of waste, as Hunter Thompson said of Richard Nixon’s mortal remains, I was very impressed by the public response, which was either rejoicing, or else, absolute apathy. None of its millions of readers was moved to protest or even to complain. Surprisingly few of them even bother to buy the Sun on Sunday. As a result, I asked on this blog if Sun readers actually exist, in the sense of people who self-identify as such, rather than being labelled by others, in the way that readers of the Guardian, Telegraph, or Mail do in Jamie Kenny’s sense.

In this sense, I think this project is an effort to make Sun readers out of people who happen to read the Sun in the same way as some people happened to consume the News of the World as a weekly kitschburger, a newspaper-style product. The polite way of saying this is “deepening user relationships”.

The really depressing element of this is probably how much of the ad revenue sounds like it’s going to come from gambling. No, it’s not even that, even if the goal of the week starts coming with an editorial soundbite like page 3 did in the Rebekah Wade years. (That said, the business model may well end up being all about cross-media advertising – the Springer papers in Germany seem to be trying to collect as many classified ad outlets as possible.)

The really, really depressing element of this is the increasing degree to which your local pub is being converted into an integrated Murdoch experience. I already resent this (how could I not?) but it’s only going to get worse. Note that the TV ad strapline for all this is “Get Involved”.

(Note: Le Monde‘s South Kensington correspondent Marc Roche argued a few weeks ago that the Sun‘s problems were down to the “disappearance of the blue collars and their replacement by immigrants who can’t speak English”. The Sun does not appear to be basing its strategy on this, to say the least.)

Hunt, through a non-sexist prism

So, did ya ever want to know social network analysis metrics on the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport’s special advisers during the spring of 2011, as Rupert Murdoch’s interests in the UK feverishly lobbied Jeremy Hunt and his staff and we raced towards the epochal eruption of Hackgate? ‘Course you did.

In June, 2011, Adam Smith, Hunt’s special adviser and the man who took the fall for his boss, attained a gatekeepership score of 1.42 – that is to say, people who lobbied him achieved a 42% greater improvement in their influence as measured by weighted network degree than the average lobby achieved. He did this on a personal weighted network degree of 0.175, which is piss-ant. His score on the West Point GREEDY_FRAGILE metric, which calculates how much more or less centralised the overall network would be without him, is -6.21635100991e-06.

In May, 2011, his colleague Sue Beeby achieved an even higher gatekeepership, 1.56, and the month before, she was actually the most powerful gatekeeper in the system after excluding the Scottish and Welsh Offices, at 1.928 on a network degree of 0.0875, and a GF of -7.92399753226e-06.

Who was getting this access? The answer is in Smith’s case, “big sport”, the FA, the ECB, and the RFU, although the Rugby League did manage to see him too. It turns out Beeby is far more interesting. In the first 6 months of 2011, she saw The Times 37 times, the Sunday Times 37 times, and Sky TV 8 times.

She also met “sports journalists”, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the English Cricket Board, and a PR company called Good Relations which only occurs in the dataset 5 times, all meeting her in March of that year. In the aggregate, the vast majority of influence going in here came from Murdoch.

She moved on with Hunt to the Department of Health, and lists herself on LinkedIn as a Conservative Party press officer. I don’t remember there being anywhere near as much fuss about her, though, as there was about Smith.

(Inspiration, of course, here.)