Thursday, April 21, 2011

The King's Speech

I’ve just seen The Kings Speech, the second movie after The Queen interfering with my simple desire to loath the Windsors. I’ve never met any of the Royal Family but as an institution they embody everything that makes my Irish blood boil. They carry the baggage of immense history and are the symbol of British power and imperialism. The 19th century Pax Britannica that cemented British power was a fabrication brutally enforced across the world in Victoria’s name. The monarch’s picture on the currency reinforced the symbolism behind the success of British commerce. (picture of Lionel Logue in 1930: Wikipedia)

Britain declined after Victoria’s death though its delusions of grandeur were more difficult to shake off. The laws of the land ensure Victoria's descendants have exclusive access to the throne and through it the power of the Anglican Church. They provide pomp and circumstance to a wider international power in a way the royal houses of Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia do not (only the Rainiers in Monaco come close) and they remain an important projection of British soft power. Though crippled by inbreeding, they have successfully outsourced glamour to the likes of Diana Spencer and Kate Middleton. The elaborate fairytale production of “Will and Kate” is designed to reinvent the British royal brand for the 21st century with the help of a compliant media.

Comfortable with my curmudgeonly view of Will’s grandmother Elizabeth II as a hand-shaking cipher for the throne who has seemingly lived for centuries, I did not have high hopes for Stephen Frears’ film The Queen which came out a few years ago. But I came away with an admiration as Helen Mirren transformed the queen into a competent and complex human. Watching it, John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance kicked in and I had much better understanding of the issues Elizabeth Windsor faced after the death of Diana.

The Veil is best exemplified by the metaphor “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. But sooner or later you put your own shoes on. Frears’s film was ultimately not about the Queen or Diana but about the monarchy and its ambiguous position at the heart of Government. What power Elizabeth wielded was fleeting and a result of compromises and invented traditions which left the royals hidebound. The commoner Tony Blair knew quicker than they did the impact of not having the flag at half mast when Di died. He grasped, as they didn't the media's position on Diana, no matter how hypocritical. The media were mourning “the people’s princess” they never admitted they helped kill in the streets of Paris.

No matter how appalled they were by this, the royals could not complain. They want publicity just as much as they want privacy. Balmoral Castle where the family saw out Diana’s death features also in Tom Hooper’s The Kings Speech. The current Queen’s father George VI (Colin), then Prince Albert but known to the family as Bertie turns up to Balmoral for a party given by his brother, the new monarch Edward VIII known to the family as David (Guy Pearce). The party is a clash of cultures represented by the kilt-wearing traditionalist Bertie and the party boy David who was scandalising the court with his twice-divorced girlfriend Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).

In those days, the media ignored the peccadilloes of the Royals’ personal life. David and Bertie didn’t have to deal with paparazzi with long lenses and phone hacking techniques but they did have to deal with the technology that was changing the relationship of the rulers to the ruled. Before radio, the Royals were seen but not heard. But that was changing quickly. The first US radio station was set up in 1920 and the BBC started two years later. In 1932 Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon) used the BBC to reluctantly give the first Royal Christmas Message.

Like his son Bertie, George V had an elder brother who was expected to become king. But when Prince Albert died of the flu in 1892, George was suddenly second in line after his father Edward VII. George could see something similar happening to his sons and his advice to Bertie was to master radio, because communication was the key to retaining “the firm’s” power. The problem was, as George well knew, Bertie had a serious stammer. This rendered him completely unable to project the firm's power through the airwaves. His stuttering 1925 British Empire Exhibition speech was an embarrassment for the speaker and listener alike.

His father was an intimidating presence, but Bertie did have one big supporter in his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter). Elizabeth, the Queen Mother who died aged 101 in 2002, was a practical and intelligent woman who married into the firm with great reluctance in 1923 and who most unlike the current wedding, saw the newly created BBC kep away from her wedding. Elizabeth loved her husband but saw a succession of doctors fail to find a cure for Bertie's problem.

In desparation she sought out the unconventional Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech pathologist from Adelaide. Logue’s Irish roots and Australian lack of respect for traditions would help him deal with the prince on an equal footing, to the point where he was the only person outside the family to call him Bertie. As much psychologist as therapist, Logue delved deep into Bertie’s childhood psychoses to diagnose the archetypes that were causing his stammer: the cruel nanny, the missing mother, the harsh father and the taunting brother. Though not a doctor, Logue diagnosed poor co-ordination between the larynx and thoracic diaphragm and prescribed vocal exercises lasting an hour daily. The exercises gave Bertie the confidence to avoid tension-inducing muscle spasms that caused the stammer.

Logue more or less solved the public speaking problem by 1927, well before the time the film would suggest. Nevertheless he was retained throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The death of George V and subsequent abdication crisis of Edward VIII in 1936 brought Bertie to the throne as George VI. Logue helped him rehearse his acceptance speech and was also instrumental in the monarch’s triumphal speech on the declaration of war in 1939 and his even more influential Christmas Message that year. George mastered the communication and became an effective figurehead of an embattled community that needed real morale-boosting against the threat of Hitler.

The film gets its point over with some brilliantly cinematic tricks and the interaction between Rush, Firth and Bonham Carter is compelling. Once again I was forced to care about the king’s speech because Bertie was a living breathing person with lots of human faults. Yet I don’t think either of these films are turning me into an Australian monarchist. I was happy to take out Australian citizenship in 1994 after Keating removed the oath of allegiance to the crown. The idea the British queen or king should be head of the Australian state is an embarrassing anomaly.

Leaving Australia out of it, the royals biggest problem is to make themselves relevant outside of the redtop circus they have made a Faustian pact with. William Windsor’s great-grandfather was able to overcome this – and his own personal demons – by being the personification of leadership to a large imagined community in the time of great crisis. What, other than the supposedly mad one Charles, are the royals doing to contribute to solving today's crises?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Home ground advantage: commerce and e-commerce

I was at a local chamber of commerce meeting tonight where the guest speakers from one of the major banks gave us a macro-economic view of exchange and interest rates. The conversation about the health of the economy suddenly got round to the internet and its effect on the shopping experience. One of the speakers wondered at what point “home ground advantage” was lost and people did their shopping online because it was cheaper. (photo: transcyberiano)

The tale was told of shops who charged their customers $50 just to try on the footwear. Many people were getting fitted out while getting expert advice then buying exactly the same gear for a fraction of the price online. The owners had a right to be miffed by a time investment not matched at the till, but their defensive measures in response was also short-sighted, the speaker argued. The internet is coming whether the skishop owner likes it or not.

A few minutes later, there was a worried question from the floor asking what this meant for commercial operations in Roma. The speaker reiterated the earlier point: it becomes a question of when home ground advantage is conceded. As another voice from the floor put it, “I like shopping”. The Internet will never fully replace the visceral appeal of commerce in real life.

Nevertheless it is pointless to ignore the truth. Cheaper online overheads and the convenience of clicking will eat seriously into the profits of the shops. People are spending a lot more time online too. A Nielsen Australian Online Computer Report released yesterday showed average internet usage has increased in 12 months from 17 hours 36 minutes in 2009 to 21 hours and 42 minutes in 2010. Usage has tripled in the last decade and with the prospect of high-speed broadband ahead, it is likely this trend has not yet reached saturation point. Australians will sooner or later spend a full day a week online.

Much of this usage is spent watching TV programs or surfing, but shopping online is also on the increase, though not as sharply. In 2008-09, 64 per cent of Internet users (pdf) aged 15 and over made online purchases, up 3 percent on 2006-07. This behaviour is concentrated in the young, which suggests it will increase. Three-quarters of people aged 25-34 bought over the Internet while less than half aged 65 and over made online purchases.

Businesses are going to lose business to the Net whether they like it or not. Rather than resisting change by charging $50 for the right to try things on, the bricks and mortar operations need to engage with the competition. That doesn’t just mean having a website to sell their wares. They also need to maximise other home ground advantages. While issues of security and shopping in person were important factors the most commonly reported reason for not making online purchases in 2008-09 was “a lack of need”. People shop in the real world when they don’t need to do it online. Understanding how to tap into this lack of need should be a holy grail for 21st century business.

Traders cannot rely on the GST loophole argument to equalise prices. There is a threshold below which it is too costly to collect taxes on goods privately imported. Keeping retail price below the cost of imports plus delivery is unlikely so shops should look to value added services to keep the tills ringing. Intangibles like goodwill, trust, a social media presence, an identification with their geography, and an honesty when dealing with customers may end up being decisive factors. If customers think there is a need to for online services - and they will – then they will find them. It’s up to business to find an ecological niche to avoid extinction. (photo seen outside a closing Borders store in the US)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Insufficiently robust: Murdoch issues a mea culpa on phone hacking

There’s a joke doing the rounds. A banker, a Daily Mail reader and an income support claimant are sitting round a table. There are 12 biscuits on a plate. The banker takes 11 and tells the Daily Mail reader, "You want to be careful, that scrounger's after your biscuit."

The Mail has got a lot of biscuits of its own, selling over two million copies a day as does its Sunday edition. Only two British papers sell more (the Sun 2.7 million and the News of the World at 2.6) and they both belong to Rupert Murdoch. (photo:Reuters)

The latest sales figures show the circulation of all four papers is going down, however the News publications were experiencing a greater decline. The Sun has to try harder to reach a more diffuse audience than the died-in-the-wool Tory Mail. The last survey of readership by voting intention in 2004 showed over twice as many Tory voters than Labour read the Mail but the Sun had a 41-31 preference of Labour voters.

Murdoch's publications can’t take a hard reflexive pro-Tory line without alienating a substantial number of its readers. Far easier than talking about stealing biscuits is to give their audience an apolitical ration of tits, titillation and celebrity gossip. But the News of the World’s attempts to get inside access to the gossip that fuels their pages has ended up in the courts and a criminal investigation. There is likely to be great cost to Murdoch’s pockets in a case that has already had one high-profile casualty, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spinner-in-chief Andy Coulson.

Coulson was editor of the News of the World in 2006 when police finally exposed its phone hacking practices. No one can say how long it had been going on, but to this day Coulson denies he knew about the activity, a position that makes him either a liar or a fool. The only employee who has admitted guilt so far is former royal reporter Clive Goodman. Goodman had a reputation for scoops and held the paper's record for the highest number of consecutive front-page leads. But his thirst for inside information led him to hack private phone messages.

He hired a private investigator named Glenn Mulcaire to help him. Mulcaire managed to access message bank pin codes to listen to messages. Royal aides were confused when they found unread messages in their inbox appearing as already read. When Goodman then reported unusual information that only a handful of aides were privy to, the royal household rang the counter-terrorism branch of Scotland Yard. Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested and police raided the offices of the newspaper for evidence. With Goodman more or less caught red-handed, he pleaded guilty to intercepting phone messages when he faced court in January 2007. He got four months jail. As Justice Gross said in sentencing, the case was not about press freedom. “It was about a grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy," he said. Coulson had resigned two weeks earlier, seeing the writing on the wall. His departure wasn’t formally announced until the 25th when Mulcaire also pleaded guilty and got six months. Police found a hit list of other celebrities in his diary; celebrities not normally covered by Goodman in his royal round, but did little with this information.

The News of the World hid behind the ‘rotten apple’ and ‘rogue reporter’ defence. It would take another two years before the world would learn the hacking’s tentacles went a lot further than Goodman. Three phone companies told The Guardian at least 100 of their customers’ pin codes were compromised, which contradicted earlier police and News of the World claims only a handful was involved. The Guardian said those tapped including then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and PR guru Max Clifford. The Guardian also said Coulson was aware of the tapping. By then the Tories were in power and Coulson was Cameron’s right hand man. With Labour calling for his head, blog editor Tim Montgomerie asked how many times did Andy Coulson have to resign for the affair. Twice was the answer, after he left the government job in January 2011.

Meanwhile, the net was widening back at NOTW. MPs on a culture, media and sport select committee accused News Limited executives of collective amnesia, as well as ignorance, lack of recall and deliberate obfuscation. They said it was inconceivable no one else knew about the hacking. Several victims took the paper to court and won substantial out of court settlements that preventing discussion of the affair. Max Clifford won $1m on condition the list of journalists involved was not read out in the court.

In September 2010, the New York Times revealed why Police had no enthusiasm for the investigation. Parliamentary committee chair John Whittingdale said Scotland Yard didn't want expose widespread tawdry practices in the newsroom because it was "a heavy stone that they didn’t want to try to lift.” A former reporter told NYT the News of the World had a “do whatever it takes” mentality under Coulson and the then editor was present during discussions about phone hacking.

With Coulson denying the claim under oath, it has been difficult to mount a criminal prosecution. The Metropolitan Police has re-opened the investigation following what they said was significant new information. However it has been mostly left to the aggrieved to take to the civil courts. Sky Andrews, Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, Chris Tarrant and Andy Gray have all taken legal action against the paper.

Desperate to avoid the extent of the crime being revealed in open court, Rupert Murdoch was finally forced to take decisive action. On Thursday he apologised to eight victims and admitted the practice was rife at the News of the World. Murdoch said internal investigations into the matter were not “sufficiently robust" and has offered unreserved apologies to some of the victims (though it continues to fight allegations by Coogan and jockey Kieren Fallon). Murdoch has offered up to a million pounds, though some expect the bill to reach £40m. With new evidence there may have been 3,000 people on Mulcaire’s lists, there is a lot of people looking for crumbs from Murdoch’s biscuits. The question becomes how high a price News is prepared to pay to avoid making public the reasons why their internal investigation wasn’t sufficiently robust.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

EIDOS Brisbane conference: Social media in times of crisis

(Kym Charlton of QPS speaks at Eidos. photo: Fiona Muirhead)

One of the predicted outcomes of climate change is more frequent and intense severe weather events (today’s report in The Australian predicting exactly the opposite should be treated with caution due to the paper’s well documented ideological biases.) Given the likelihood of such events increasing, a conference called “Social media in times of crisis” held yesterday in Brisbane was timely. Organised by the Eidos Institute, the conference brought together a number of speakers from academia, media, public relations and public affairs to discuss the use of tools such as Twitter and Facebook in crises, particularly in the 2010-2011 Queensland flood event.

First speaker Kym Charlton was ideally placed to talk to the topic. Head of Queensland Police Service media unit, she was responsible for the delivery of a service that set the gold standard in crisis response. Charlton told the audience she set up the QPS Facebook Page in May 2010 without asking the powers that be for permission.

She admits it was a risky move in a notoriously risk-averse organisation. Without telling anyone about it, the page grew slowly through word of mouth. Charlton eventually realised she needed high level signoff for the page and approached her boss Deputy Commissioner Ian Stewart (who would later play a critical leading role in the flood response). The tech savvy Stewart agreed to trial the page for six months and by December 2010 the page had 6,000 likes. Early experiments such as live-streaming the funeral of an officer who died on duty failed, but the experience gained was crucial.

Then on 15 December as Charlton laconically put it, “it began to rain”. Many people, myself included, signed up to the QPS Facebook feed in the days that followed as it sent out reams of useful and relevant information covering the flood events across a huge area of the state. Then on 11 January, a torrent of water rushed through Toowoomba and into the Lockyer Valley below. Journalist Amanda Gearing would later take the conference through a harrowing blow by blow of events in the region from her eye-witness perspective.

There was a desperate need for credible and quick information about missing family and friends. USQ’s Kelly McWilliam told the afternoon session how one person’s page Toowoomba and Darling Downs Flood Photos and Info was set up within an hour of the flood (well ahead of scanty official responses from the Toowoomba Regional Council) as a repository of photos and information about the missing. It remains the most popular site with 37,000 fans.

QUT’s Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess measured Twitter use of the #qldfloods hashtag. They noted a huge spike in tweets on the day marked “Lockyer” (there would be an even greater number marked “Brisbane” in the days that followed.) The ABC’s Monique Potts told the conference how the national broadcaster used tools such as Ushahidi to map crowdsourced incidents in the flood (and later cyclone) region.

On the day of the Toowoomba/Lockyer Valley flood, the QPS Facebook page was a crucial resource. Suddenly as Kim Charlton said, their facebook page feed was on the pointy end of social media. 16,000 fans of the page became 160,000 in just 24 hours as people across Queensland, Australia and the world desperately sought to get information about those in the disaster zone. There were 39 million views of the page in that day, over 450 views every second. “Thank heavens it wasn’t our website,” Charlton said. “January 11 blew us out of the water.” The pressure remained intense to get timely and accurate news out all week as the wall of water headed towards Brisbane. Just as valuable as the information sharing were the QPS “mythbuster” posts and tweets which punctured the many rumours that were rife at the time. Then “after a week off” as Charlton put it, tropical cyclones Antony and Yasi struck the north coast pushing the QPS team into overdrive again.

It was an astonishing effort for a team with just one acknowledged social media expert in an organisation with no official social media policy. Emergency 2.0 Wiki Project Leader Eileen Culleton (herself a survivor of Darwin’s Cyclone Tracy in 1974 when it took days to let the world know what happened) would later tell the conference that setting a social media policy was a must for all organisations with a public presence. Culleton noted how the Brisbane City Council galvanised the "mud army" to help with the clean-up with their use of social media.

But for Charlton the QPS social media updates were simpler still; it was something they had to do to save lives. The conference's final speaker UQ’s Mark Bahnisch put these usages in a social sciences context of “social resilience”. Disasters, said Bahnisch, expose our social structures more sharply than any other important event. They unsettle us by taking us out of our normal rituals. But panic is rare, Bahnisch argues and there is a social good of new communities created out of the common bond of crisis. Social media go a long way to help creating those communities, not to mention as the QPS found out, saving lives.