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Sunday, 19 April 2009

Too many old guys in suits and ties (plus Sly Bailey)

I tuned into the afternoon of the Digital Britain event on Friday. (I really don't need to hear Brown, Burnham and Mandelson's reading out the pat words written for them from the morning session - just any resulting talking points).

The online presence for the event was good. Live video and live blogging by the stunning Mr Briggs. But the real action was on Twitter where #digitalbritain managed to hit no.5 trending hashtag on all of Twitter as the afternoon ploughed on.

There has been very little blogging about the Digital Britain event (which really says something) but Donald Clark has the goods here. He's responsible for the "too many old guys in suits and ties" line I've pinched and his point that "the debate has been hijacked by the BBC, BT, Virgin, Universal, Mirror Group and some irrelevant London web companies, who are really TV production companies in disguise" was correct too. The panelists really were almost exclusively a bunch of badly briefed no-nothing's with the odd scary one (the head of Universal music, who actually said "we're at the beginning of cultural and creative global warming" and, urgh, Sly Bailey spring to mind) and some shockingly ignorant lines from other panellists.

Apart from one guy who co-wrote the Digital Britain report, Andrew Chitty, the most origial and useful stuff came from the audience such as this great line "the #1 threat to creatives is not piracy but obscurity" or about how the UK digitech industry grew from the "unintended consequences" of BBC Micro.

The event reached it's significant low point right at the end when a very bored looking Stephen Fry finally got to speak and blew open the whole event by slamming the idea of 'digital skills'. Finally some smartness, finally some original thought, finally some wit. The Twittosphere lit up.

And then it was over. Thanks to the BBC's Nick Higham, Fry got to add one more point in but was otherwise unable to speak. Their loss. Our loss as well I guess but the quality of 'debate' was shown by just how many panelists played the man (Fry was 'out of touch' by being smart, by being a geek) or the analogy he used rather than addressing his actual point.

Fry was right. We have always had the need for 'media literacy', to be able to read-between-the-lines of TV reporting and newspapers to get to the truth. This is as true online as off. This isn't new.

The constantly restated 'need' to train people in this 'digital literacy', with 'digital skills', to feel the need to constantly restate a policy fear of the net as being a (unique) source of untruths, misses the point and is disconnected because, as usual, the people pushing it laregly exist within a back patting egov walled garden. (There's also an unmentionable self-interest at work.)

Digital development for all, for the great unwashed, is about easier to use tech Fry said. About meeting the problem of finding stuff through better designed search. Yes you can train people on mouse use but development will have to (does) address those barriers otherwise its shit won't sell.

Most stuff still isn't that easy to use (cf Nielsen), but it is getting better: there's another Moore's law here maybe? Fry's analogy related to learning to drive - these days it's much easier. I've pointed before to the now 40-year old and still going development of ATM usability.

Breaching the digital divide is about content people want and stuff they can use: we're getting towards a true tipping point where people will both want and need.

In Africa a majority now use mobile phones - because they need to. If you want a day job in Kenya you can only find them through notification on a mobile. UK industry hasn't thought that far yet! That's not government's fault but it is government's fault if it thinks the 'digital divide' (or 'accessibility') for that matter is simply about better access to public services!

The lowest point of the event and the one which stopped me in my tracks ('wtf?') was the keynote by Sly Bailey, who runs the Mirror Group (and Donald reminds me is "a non-exec at EMI, known for its inept response to the digital music revolution"). Introduced like she was going to focus intelligently on the demise of local newspapers, she provoked a flurry of tweets from me as I have seen her in action.

During the dotcom boom she headed magazine behemoth IPC Media whose 'digital investments' as they now would be called crashed losing at least £35m. So many of them were oversold propositions along the lines of the infamous, the unusable, trendy clothes retailer who burnt £125m of investor money before going - entirely predictably - tits-up.

I sat in countless meetings where she listened wide-eyed as sales people sold her something (always looking - literally - just gorgeous on - literal - paper) so obviously overworked and useless I wanted to scream. But she wasn't interested in the thoughts of little people, her own paid staff, these sales guys knew exactly how to press her buttons (beggar the thought) and so ridiculous site after expensive ridiculous site was built.

A quater of a million was blown on the (god preserve us) Flash driven (because flash designers were expensive I ended up concluding) corporate site - this was 2000 remember. After it's 'launch' the mega-design firm responsible took staff to one of London's most expensive restaurants, I thought of that as getting some of the massive, innapropriate overspend back.

Notably, the big survivor from this mess was NME's website. They had resisted the Group's digital interference and the site was driven by passionate musos.

After Bailey was poached by Mirror Group she presided over Fleet Street's worst newspaper web site for years before giving it a far too late overhaul last year.

Like most newspaper bosses she's laid off countless actual journalists, including lots in local papers. Now she comes as someone someone thinks knows what they're talking about to Digital Britain to state a line undoubtedly pinched from the likes of Jeff Jarvis that newspapers will only survive on their own unique content - their own journalism with its "deep and intrinsic value". Not the recycled PR and celebrity news done better by the TMZs etc. Which she like most newspaper bosses have staked their paper's current 'business model' on.

Well, doh!

Her business model solution to save newspaper corps? Allow mergers.

So, not only did the event organisers keynote invite to her sum up all that was wrong and patronising with this 'summit' but her inclusion I suspect as a woman when someone realised practically all the speakers were male made it even more patronising.

As I tweeted, I recommend watching the debate between the head of Associated Press and Arianna Huffington on American public TV's Charlie Rose rather than listening to a dinosaur like Bailey for a real thoughtful contribution on the future of news organisations and of journalism. I've embedded the show below, the debate starts at 15 minutes in.

Someone tweeted the (missed) need for an 'unconference' paralleling this sort of doggedly 'top down' dinosaur event. Ab-sa-bloody-lutely. The 'fake' Digital Britain report wiki, which some of the people who should on panels at any future Digital Britain event have set up, is a good start.


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