Willie MacRae’s crashed car. (pictures: Police Scotland via What Do They Know?)
The death of Willie MacRae is one of Scotland’s most enduring mysteries. A prominent lawyer and SNP political figure, he was found dying from severe head injuries in his crashed car at the side of a road in the Highlands in 1985. Later examinations revealed he’d actually been shot. The official verdict of suicide has often been questioned.
I was only vaguely aware of the story until I read James Robertson’s novel And The Land Lay Still, which features the MacRae death as a key incident as part of its epic sweep through the events of post-war Scotland. He’s not the only author to have been inspired by the mysterious case: Ian Rankin writes here about how he studied it as part of his research for one of his recent books, and a new play is going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. There’s also an old Channel 4 documentary on YouTube which is worth a watch.
Some information relating to the case was quietly released last year by the Northern Constabulary (now part of Police Scotland), in response to an Freedom of Information request made using the excellent What Do They Know? site. The pictures in this blogpost are among a series of images and documents made public, and they appear not to have been widely published before, if at all.
Willie MacRae’s gun, recovered from the scene.
The conspiracy theory goes, roughly, that MacRae was murdered because he was considered a threat to the state, perhaps because of his role in anti-nuclear campaigns. The official version is outlined in a letter from the-then Lord Advocate Lord Fraser of Carmyllie to the Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, that is included in the files released by the police. It states that MacRae had been considering killing himself following a series of misfortunes in his personal life, and had told his brother and a friend about it.
The case remains closed and that seems extremely unlikely to change. But, once again, FOI has helped shed a small amount of new light on a matter of public interest.
The picture shows Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in June 1914, minutes before they were assassinated in an incident which ultimately sparked off World War I. The 100th anniversary has been much in the news lately, and some of the best coverage I’ve seen has been provided by the BBC.
It used a very 21st century tool, the liveblog, to tell the story of that day in real time, including some new videos shot by BBC correspondents pretending they were reporting at the time. This sounds all a bit worthy-but-dull-schools-programme, but actually worked really well. NPR’s newish London correspondent Ari Shapiro is well worth a follow on Twitter for his perceptive insights on Britain, and he was in Sarajevo for the anniversary too.
Sky News has started its own ‘real time’ WWI Twitter account, although it’s been a little disappointing so far – just a daily tweet with no links to anything to put it in any context, let alone a mini-site to rival the BBC’s. Hopefully it will improve as time goes on. Reuters looked into its own archive for this fascinating piece on how close it came to confusing the assassination with the result of a French horse race.
An eye-catching story from the WTF department was this one about Phil Collins (yes, that one) and his obsession with The Alamo. The story behind the story is well told by Texas Monthly here.
On the subject of curious obsessions, this Newsweek article on the tunnel king of Brooklyn is great. Guardian-backed collaborative journalism project Contributoria is well up and running, and this Jon Hickman article on social capital is well worth a read this month. And, joy of joys, this classic 2011 Vanity Fair piece on how Chad Harbach’s modern classic baseball novel, The Art of Fielding, came to be published is now free to read online. It’s the best insight into the world of publishing I’ve ever read.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Ari Shapiro, BBC News, Contributoria, Jon Hickman, Liveblogging, Newsweek, NPR, Phil Collins, Reuters, Sarajevo, Sky News, Texas Monthly, The Alamo, The Guardian, Twitter, Vanity Fair, World War I
I was at Bury College today to lead a practical session with some of their Year 1 BTEC media students. The group is coming to the University of Huddersfield next week for a Taster Day and sessions on TV, radio, magazine design and PR, so I thought I’d give them something a little different, and led a workshop focusing on the internet’s near-future.
I got into Google Glass, Augmented Reality and how the race is on among media companies to produce mobile-friendly content that will work well in these areas. With even the BBC News website reporting that more than half of its page views at weekends are now from mobile and tablet devices, the decline of the desktop seems to be coming about faster than we might have predicted.
To illustrate this, I got the students to make some notes on Findery. I’ve written here before about how I’m a fan of the site, which is run by Flickr and Hunch founder Caterina Fake. These days it’s out of beta and open to the public on the desktop, mobile web and as an iPhone app. I thought it would be useful for a workshop of this kind with students, because it’s all about making content that can work on mobiles but which uses an attractive and user-friendly desktop CMS.
The session seemed to go pretty well, and you can find the notes left by the students here. Findery is also appealing because the technology works like a charm, and the number of possible uses for it – from personal stories to local history to Instagram-style here’s-what-I’m-doing-now pictures – make it flexible for a variety of different audiences. I’ll be using it again in future to make some other point about the media, I’ve no doubt.
It’s just over seven years since Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey sent the first tweet, and I’ve just finished reading the most notable book so far on the company’s rise: Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton of the New York Times.
Bilton’s book is a good read, and has a focus on the battles between Twitter’s various co-founders for control of it. Central is the strife between Dorsey and Ev Williams, and the boardroom coup and counter-coup which has ultimately left Dorsey as its Chairman and Williams on the outside.
It’s easy to forget just how unreliable Twitter was in 2008/09 when the world began to use it in larger numbers: Bilton blames the regular sightings of the Fail Whale on Dorsey’s inexperience as a CEO. At one board meeting, new investors are aghast to learn that Dorsey had neglected to create any kind of backup for Twitter at all.
All the internal struggles left me wondering whether Twitter would have turned out rather differently under a more experienced management team with their eyes more on the ball. After all, it was Twitter users who came up with key aspects of the service such as @-replies and hashtags. Perhaps it’s just as well things went the way they did.
I’ve also been enjoying selections from the excellent Longform App, which picks out the best online long reads and puts them on your tablet for £1.99. I’ve been getting the free weekly emails for quite a while, but there’s something about reading the articles on a tablet which is more enjoyable all round.
Among the recent highlights was this January 1970 piece from Rolling Stone, written by Lester Bangs among others, piecing together the disastrous Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont the previous month. I also enjoyed this vintage profile of Johnny Cash from Playboy magazine, also dating from 1970.
But perhaps best of all was this recent article from Texas Monthly by Michael Hall, on a mysterious triple murder from 1982 – a complicated story which remains unresolved 32 years later despite various convictions. Well worth putting aside an hour of your life to read.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Altamont, Ev Williams, Fail Whale, Jack Dorsey, Johnny Cash, Lake Waco Murders, Lester Bangs, Longform, Michael Hall, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Texas Monthly, The Rolling Stones, Twitter
It was April Fools’ Day on Tuesday, and I gave a lecture to all the first years doing journalism courses at the University of Huddersfield. Appropriately enough it was about hoaxes, or at least some of the more infamous mistakes and errors in media history, and what today’s young journalists can learn from them.
I split it into two parts: the first was on memorable errors from the past, ranging from the newspapers which reported that no lives had been lost on the Titanic to The Times and its infamous Dream Football League story of 2013. The second looked at the challenges posed to journalists by social media, including unsubstantiated rumours and user-generated content of uncertain quality.
Bringing it right up to date, I did a bit on last Sunday’s false rumours circulated widely on Twitter, that Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood had punched a player in the dressing room following the defeat to Liverpool. Those rumours were only scotched when Aaron Lennon tweeted that they were “bollocks” – arguably the first convincing bit of end product the winger has come up with in quite a while.
The presentation is here.
I gave another media law lecture to the first year journalism students at the University of Huddersfield this week. After giving a series of five last term, this was billed as a refresher. But instead of going over all the same ground, I picked out a few recent legal issues and examined how the laws I’d previously taught them played out in those cases, including the Dave Lee Travis trial.
I also included a bit on election law (well, it is the season), including a reflection on Ofcom’s decision to categorise UKIP as a major party for the first time, at the forthcoming European election. I still think it’s unlikely they will be treated as a major party at next year’s general election, even if they top the poll next month, but real votes in real elections will make them harder to ignore when it comes to the big set-piece TV debates.
The presentation is here.
Scanning the Getty Images archive, and sticking an appropriate image into Photoshop for a quick bit of tinkering before publication, is as much a part of the online journalist’s toolkit as calling the police press office or doing the tea run.
Or at least it is if you’re working for a professional publisher paying for a proper licence to access Getty, the world’s best known photo agency. But bloggers and social media users have instead faced a choice: nick something that’s not yours and hope you don’t get a legal letter, or try to find a copyright-free image. Flickr Creative Commons has 300 million of these, so there are options, but it’s relatively rare to find much freely available on either current or archive news and sport events.
Until now. Getty has taken the decision to make 35 million images from its library embeddable in blogs like this one, which is why I’m able to put a picture from tonight’s demonstration in Sevastopol at the top of this post. I don’t pay anything: but I have to use Getty’s embed code, which at least ensures a credit if no money for both it and the photographer. I also had to tinker slightly with the image sizes within the code to make it fit nicely, but this only took a few seconds.
Click on a picture in the Getty library and this is what you see. I’ve highlighted the Twitter, Tumblr and embed code links below the image.
All very nice, then. But you might ask why Getty is doing this. A fair summary of the reaction from people far more knowledgeable about photography than me would be that it’s simply realised it just can’t prevent its images being stolen and shared. So it may as well let us do it for nothing in the hope that it can develop some revenue-raising tools around that freely-available content, like YouTube does.
Commercial publishers are still going to have to pay for a proper licence, so Getty will hope its bottom line won’t be affected, but photographers, relying on Getty for cash from those licensing deals, may well wonder where this will end. There’s a blogpost from the British Journal of Photography here, and more reaction from Business Week and the BBC.
There’s more about exactly how it all works on the Getty website here.
And just because I can, here’s a picture from the Getty archive of the last time Crimea was the focus of the world’s attention; Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference of February 1945.
Posted in Articles
Tagged BBC, British Journal of Photography, Business Week, Copyright, Crimea, Flickr, Franklin Roosevelt, Getty Images, Joseph Stalin, Media Law, Sevastopol, Ukraine, Winston Churchill, Yalta, YouTube
I was at Journalism.co.uk’s latest News Rewired conference in London last Thursday. As is often the case at these events, I learned a new word. This time it was ‘dronalism’ which I heard casually bandied around during a session on drones for news, as if it was an entirely normal thing to say.
Peter Bale from CNN demonstrated the above video of the wreck of the Costa Concordia, which they broadcast after buying it from Team BlackSheep. As cool as it undoubtedly is, I thought Bale was pleasingly candid when he said that drones would be all the rage in TV newsrooms for a while, but that things would die down when editors got tired of them and realised they only really add a dimension to certain stories.
Mobile in general was the key theme of much of the day, and several speakers mentioned the new benchmark being reported across leading news websites including BBC News – that visits from mobiles and tablets taken together have now overtaken those from desktops and laptops.
Matt Danzico of the BBC, and one of the brains behind its new Instafax service on Instagram, said it would be the template for Auntie’s offerings on all social media away from Facebook and Twitter. He pointed out that putting text on a short-form video is often a better solution for mobile than the traditional TV package mixture of clips and a voice over, because people like to watch these things in public and don’t want to send sound booming across the bus queue.
Amid all the well-received show-and-tells, the only real note of tension came whenever the issue of online copyright came up. The keynote speech from BuzzFeed’s ‘cat guy’ Jack Shepherd was smooth and mostly went down very well, the gif-based fun only draining away a touch when someone asked about whether they had the proper permissions for every single one of those images.
The same went for Hannah Waldram’s similarly enjoyable presentation on Instagram. Persistent questions from one freelancer about the company’s treatment of the metadata of the images uploaded to its app turned the mood in the room a bit sour. Waldram said that it was still an emerging debate, and someone called out: “Yes, and you’re right in the middle of it!” Only idiots go to media conferences and make predictions, so here’s mine: this is one talking point we’re going to be discussing a lot more.
There’s more information about News Rewired at its website.
Posted in Articles
Tagged BBC, Buzzfeed, CNN, Dronalism, Drones, Hannah Waldram, Instafax, Instagram, Jack Shepherd, Journalism.co.uk, Matt Danzico, News Rewired, Peter Bale, Team Blacksheep
The new Instafax service from BBC News.
I was in Leeds yesterday, leading a practical session for some BTEC media and journalism students at the City College. I thought I’d give them an insight into something new they could expect to learn more about during any future university course they might do, so put together a one-hour workshop on smartphone video, using Instagram Video.
Launched last summer, Instagram’s video function allows users to stop-and-start their way to little 15 second clips that be easily shared. Its rival, Twitter’s Vine, lets you make six second videos which loop. This last point seems to give Vine the edge for creativity, but BBC News recently began experimenting with Instagram Video for a service it calls Instafax. They’re little mini-bulletins featuring some still images, a bit of text and background music, currently sent out about three or four times a day.
It’s too early to say whether others will seek to copy Instafax, but with 130 million active monthly users, Instagram appears to be too popular for media companies to ignore.
In yesterday’s session, after rattling through some of these points and explaining why smartphone video is another important piece of kit in the toolbox of the modern journalist, I gave the students ten minutes to make their own short clips on anything topical they liked.
I’d hoped to send them outside, but I turned out to be giving the session on the 11th floor, so I just got them to see what they could find in the corridors. One made one on the lift which wasn’t working, which seemed like a newsworthy enough story to me having walked up 11 flights of stairs! Getting the students to save the clips on a particular hashtag meant I could use one of the many Instagram desktop viewers to take the group through some of their work and give a bit of feedback.
The presentation I gave is here.
The best, and admittedly only, book I’ve ever read about snooker.
Three of the books I’ve read lately are about sport’s relationship with the media, and in particular TV. All very good, the best of them might be Black Farce and Cue Ball Wizards, an account of snooker’s unlikely rise to national prominence and the years of internal strife that followed, written by veteran snooker journalist and commentator Clive Everton.
It’s highly readable and there are plenty of revelations, including how Everton himself blew the whistle on a match-fixing scandal that ended an early experiment with televised snooker on ITV. The book offers an interesting case study in the relationship between sport and TV, especially when that sport’s success is so inextricably linked to certain broadcasting contracts. Just how interesting you find the book as a whole probably depends on your personal threshold for reading anecdotes about Doug Mountjoy, but happily it turns out mine is surprisingly high.
ESPN has retreated from the British market for televised sport, but in the US it remains the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader. A brilliant oral history of its rise from humble origins at the end of the 1970s is Those Guys Have All The Fun, by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. The book made headlines in America, particularly on Gawker Media’s sport spinoff blog Deadspin, for its claims about various incidents of sexist behaviour down the years at ESPN. The oral history format certainly seemed to help loosen a few tongues of those being interviewed.
Another book to recommend is Martin Kelner’s history of sport on British TV, Sit Down And Cheer. It’s as enjoyably written as Kelner’s columns on this topic, which for a long time appeared in the Guardian and are now in the Racing Post. There are plenty of memorable nuggets, including the detail that there was barely any pre or post-game coverage of the 1966 World Cup Final, and some magnificent passages taken from the autobiography of Frank Bough. Ask your parents.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Black Farce and Cue Ball Wizards, Clive Everton, Deadspin, ESPN, James Andrew Miller, Martin Kelner, Racing Post, Sit Down And Cheer, snooker, The Guardian, Those Guys Have All The Fun, Tom Shales