Guardian calls on people power to investigate MPs

June 24, 2009

How do you sift through tens of thousands of detailed documents and individual receipts with a view to highlighting the weird and the potentially unlawful?

Well, if you are the Daily Telegraph trying to dig around MPs’ expenses, you assemble a 45-strong team of journalists and lawyers, lock them in a secure room and tell them they can’t come out until they have gathered enough material for several weeks’ worth of daily coverage, plus a 68-page weekend supplement. The result is probable caffeine dependency for many of the team involved and a sales boost of a reported 150,000 copies for the supplement.

An alternative is to lock 15 web developers in a room with the instruction to build a new web framework that will enable thousands of members of the public to scrutinise official documents released by Parliament. This approach, which I must admit is new to me, known as crowd sourcing” was chosen by the Guardian. To date, about 180,000 pages have been viewed by 21,000 people.

Of course, opinion is divided on the merits of scrutiny by online citizenry. The Daily Telegraph has been sniffy, saying such an exercise lacks rigour; “great journalism takes discipline and training” a Telegraph blogger insists (you could also add an XL-sized chequebook in the case of MPs’ expenses). The Guardian maintains that crowd sourcing is hugely innovative and empowers “citizen journalists”. As newspaper editorial budgets are squeezed and the potential of online communities is tapped, I suspect we will see increased use of crowd sourcing-type techniques.

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Jargon: the war of the words

June 17, 2009

A new initiative has been launched to clean up British politics, not of sleaze this time, but of jargon.

The argument runs that if the political process is to be more understandable and accessible to the public, then impenetrable town hall-speak must be consigned to the communal waste vessel (dustbin to you and me).

The targets of this purge are not those politicians who use language as a kind of kids’ building set to be arranged in any order and without reference to the instruction booklet. Here we could include those celebrated masters of the malapropism George Bush and the former Deputy PM John Prescott, who, according to the Daily Mailsketchwriter uses “the English language like a novice customer in a spaghetti house”. My favourite example of Prescott wrestling with his verbal linguine came when briefing parliament on an explosion at a fuel depot near Hemel Hempstead in 2005. He explained that the resulting plume of smoke was non-toxic and was a mix of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and “hydrocardigans” (even the spell checker on my PC is blinking in disbelief at this one).

No, the target of this latest campaign is that brand of management-speak which most people in the business world will have come across at one time or another. Helpfully, the BBC has compiled the ‘50 office-speak phrases you love to hate’.

The call for clarity comes as the Plain English Campaign celebrates its 30th year waging war on gobbledygook and misleading public information. The group, which trains government departments and other officials, awards its Crystal Mark stamp of approval to organisations that communicate clearly with the public.

At this very late point in my blog I must put my hands up to using the occasional piece of management-speak. A quick look at the homepage of this site will show that I’m not averse to ‘engaging’ with people, or sending out messages to ‘stakeholders’. In the business world, such phrases are a form of shorthand, the general sense of which is understood even if a precise meaning is difficult to pin down. I stand admonished and, going forward, promise to positively impact my non-verbal communication.


A day to remember

June 9, 2009

By coincidence rather than design, my wife and I visited Chartwell in Kent on Saturday, which marked the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

The house, which was the family home of Sir Winston Churchill from 1922 to his death in 1965, is maintained by the National Trust, largely as it would have been in his lifetime. His favourite walking sticks are in a stand near the front door, paint brushes are scattered next to an unfinished canvas and a glass of whisky rests half-empty on a side table in his study. These small touches as much as the main museum rooms are very evocative and contribute to the feeling that the man has been called out of the room just briefly to take an important phone call or to attend to government business.

Among the volunteers answering visitors’ questions were a number of veterans clearly proud to be playing their part in keeping memories of the wartime leader alive. Seeing the veterans standing erect, medals pinned to their chests, it seemed a fitting place to be on that day of all days.

The visit all served to remind one of Churchill’s great eloquence and mastery of the spoken word which he used to steady and inspire a nation threatened by invasion from the sea, bombed from the skies and demoralised by daily privations. The US wartime correspondent in London said of his rhetoric: “He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.”

Of course, the speeches and oratory were carefully crafted and rehearsed to have the required impact. And despite being voted greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 BBC poll, Churchill has become fair game for revisionist historians who challenge the widely held hagiographical view of him. But if you have any doubts about Churchill’s contribution to the victory against the Nazis, you might start by addressing your question to those men proudly wearing their medals and directing visitors at Chartwell.


Size does matter

June 4, 2009

Interesting times on the high street. The bowler hat (Bradford & Bingley), the square umbrella (Abbey, formerly Abbey National) and what looks like an opened orange-coloured box with a blue base (Alliance & Leicester) are being replaced by the red flame logo of super-bank Santander.

I am sure most Alliance & Leicester customers will not be greatly exercised by the fact that their bank – a bank with a history dating back more than 150 years – will from next year assume the name of a port and beach resort on the north coast of Spain. If you are a B&B customer living anywhere outside of the West Yorkshire town of Bradford, you may even look forward to a ‘swoosh’ of Spanish glamour.

What customers of all three banks will probably welcome is the reassurance of visible links with a bank that has 90 million customers in more than 40 countries and describes itself as “one of the strongest and most secure banks in the world”. Strength, scale and prudence are the key brand attributes all retail banks are looking to project to instil confidence in customers left dazed and confused by the banking meltdown. And whatever the risks and costs involved in a major rebranding exercise (the marketing campaign supporting the relaunch of Norwich Union as Aviva this week is estimated at £10million), the Santander proposition is clear: at times of financial storms, seek out a safe port.

If Santander is relying on its size to connect with customers, other brands are using their history. The use of so-called ‘heritage’ branding will be understood by anyone who saw long lines of people outside M&S stores recently as the retailer celebrated its 125th birthday with a penny bazaar sale on selected items. Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic has dug out a brick mobile phone and shoulder pads from the 1980s to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and Persil and Milkybar are also airing their back catalogue of television advertisements.  Far from breeding contempt, familiarity in a recession can be used to signify trust, reliability and value for money. In troubled times, it pays to be big and old.