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The Strange Case Of Willie MacRae

Willie MacRae's crashed car. (picture: Police Scotland via What Do They Know?)

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.

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.

Embed Getty Images In Your Blog For Free

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.

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.

 

News Rewired: February 2014

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.

Storify: BBC Sport Online v Newspaper Websites

I spotted an interesting discussion on Twitter, which has stretched over several days since last week. It’s about the scope of BBC Sport’s online activities, and its impact on newspaper websites. The debate is mostly between Matt Slater of BBC Sport and Matt Scott, former sports reporter with the Guardian and Daily Telegraph, with some others chipping in.

There were some interesting points made on both sides, so I thought I’d collect the tweets together in a Storify. It was slightly tricky because there were various threads to the debate going on at the same time, but I think I’ve more or less managed to get things into a coherent order.

Using Buzzfeed In The Classroom

The BuzzFeed Community dashboard.

The BuzzFeed Community dashboard.

We’ve had a group of A-level students from Sheffield College at the University of Huddersfield today, having a Focus Day in the Journalism and Media department. They’ve each taken part in a series of hour-long workshops on different aspects of our teaching, and I led the sessions on social media.

Thinking about how best to tackle this in such a short time, I decided to get each group to contribute to a single Buzzfeed list. Partly because it avoids the hassle of having to get everyone set up on the same social network at the start of each workshop (almost everyone was on Twitter and Facebook, but one or two said they’d left for various reasons), and partly because I thought teaching the students about how to comb YouTube and Flickr Creative Commons for material might be a useful skill they’d take away with them. And besides, I reckoned they’d all have at least seen Buzzfeed, so would quite enjoy it.

There were four groups, and here are the four lists they made. I told them to promote their own on social media over the coming week, to see which ends up with the most views (access to these analytics being one of the advantages of Buzzfeed’s Community feature, another being its dead easy CMS).

8 Things We Hate About Sheffield

8 Signs You Grew Up In Sheffield

What Not To Do In Sheffield

8 Best Bands In Sheffield History

Here’s the Prezi I used to run the sessions. After a bit of a preamble about the changing media, I introduced them to Buzzfeed (most had seen the lists before through social media shares, often without realising the website itself was called Buzzfeed), got them to pick a topic and gave a brief overview of searching on YouTube and Flickr. Then after they’d found something each, I put the list together on the board with input from everyone. It seemed to go pretty well, and as an activity it fitted into an hour quite nicely.

“Is this what you actually do in lessons?” someone asked. Well, not all the time.

Al Jazeera Listening Post On Media Ombudsmen

Listening Post, the media programme on Al Jazeera English, did a report on the role of media ombudsmen and readers’ editors earlier this month. And I feature briefly giving my views on the topic towards the end. You can watch the story in full at the Al Jazeera Listening Post website.

Spoiler alert: in general, I think they’re a good idea.

I recorded my bit on my iPad mini, which meant I didn’t even have to leave my living room to do it, although viewers may have been slightly perplexed by the boxes of my daughter’s toys in the background.

The Facebook Beheading Videos Row

blog

The university’s View from the North blog.

As the controversy about beheading videos on Facebook restarted this week, I wrote a post about it on the University of Huddersfield’s View from the North blog, on which academics write about assorted current events. I’ve reproduced the post below.

WATCHING VIDEOS of people being beheaded is not a pleasant experience.  I remember once mistakenly seeing unedited footage of a beheading in Iraq, as it came into the newsroom of a TV channel I was working for.  The main lesson I took from it was to do what I could to avoid seeing another one.

But if I really wanted to, I could now satisfy my curiosity by visiting Facebook.  The social network has quietly reversed its previous ban on the posting of beheading videos.  Quietly that is, until today, when the change attracted the full attention of the media.  David Cameron even used Twitter, Facebook’s bitter rival, to condemn the decision as “irresponsible”.

It’s not especially controversial to say that beheading videos are bad in general, and that watching them is probably bad for us too.  But the dilemma facing Facebook is more complicated than that.  It comes down to this: is Facebook a publisher, or a platform?  Or put another way: is it more like ITV, or a simple transmitter?

If ITV broadcast the beheading video currently being shared on Facebook, it would be subject to potential sanctions from its regulator, Ofcom.  But in Facebook’s case, there is no regulator.  Nobody can fine it or take away its licence, even though members of the public have accessed the video using Facebook as surely as a theoretical TV viewer might access it using a particular channel.

The argument made by social networks that they are merely platforms for others to post content is fine up to a point.  But where Facebook in particular gets on to crumbly ground is when it refuses to censor beheading videos on one hand, but steps in to enforce its own ‘Community Standards’ on the other.

It rules all sorts of things out of bounds, from fake accounts to pictures of self-harming. You can understand the reasons why. But Facebook knows the more it intervenes, the more it edges away from the transmitter towards the publisher.  That could mean extra responsibilities for proactively policing material across its one billion users, which would be extremely costly in time and money.  Facebook would much rather leave it to us.

 

Talk About Local ’13

With it being the start of teaching, it’s taken me more than week to get around to blogging about this year’s Talk About Local get-together, which I went to in Middlesbrough at the end of last month.

This annual unconference for people interested in independent local media publishing and related issues has been running since 2009, and I’ve been at all but the first one. This year the event was notably smaller than 2012′s large one in Birmingham (probably a function of that city’s particularly developed hyperlocal sector), but the sessions were arguably more useful for having fewer people in them.

TAL’s Sarah Hartley has gathered together a list of other blogposts already written about the event here, so I’ll just add a couple of my own impressions.

It’s clear to me ‘hyperlocal’ is no longer the buzzword it was in, say, 2009, when I first had the idea to set up my own site in Saddleworth. This, and the fact the event was held in the relatively unusual location of Middlesbrough, probably accounted for the relative lack of presence from mainstream media companies at the event. Ed Walker of Trinity Mirror (and Blog Preston) was there, but nobody from TM’s local Middlesbrough Gazette turned up, despite having apparently been invited individually by TAL.

The view of Middlesbrough from the balcony of MIMA, where the event took place.

The view of Middlesbrough from the balcony of MIMA, where the event took place.

Perhaps some of the lessons of hyperlocal community reporting, as partly outlined in the book Ed recently co-authored, have now been absorbed by traditional media companies and therefore they’re no longer as interested in the sector. Whatever the reason, the mutual distrust between hyperlocal practitioners and newspaper executives, so much a feature of past events like this, was pleasingly almost absent this time.

Instead, the sessions I took part in were rather less about news, and much more about publishing other forms of community information. I was particularly taken with On The Wight’s oral history project, Voices, another string to the remarkable bow that Simon and Sally Perry have built up over the past eight years.

And perhaps it’s just because I’ve gone from mainstream journalist to hyperlocal journalist to academic, but I spotted that the university sector was notably well represented, not least because the Creative Citizens research project helped fund the day.

After the initial rush of interest in hyperlocal media, it seems the sector is now more reflective. But all the activity around the country, now being more thoroughly researched and analysed than ever before, demonstrates it’s not been a passing fad.

First Seven Tips For Writing News Stories

A good first sentence. (via GQ.com)

A good first sentence. (via GQ.com)

There are lots of different kinds of journalism writing, from news to features to reviews to obituaries to sportswriting to many, many others. People spend a career developing their skills in each area, so you can’t really learn it all in one go.

You’ve got plenty of time to develop your own style. But it’s good to master the basics first, and these are some tips to get you started with writing simple news stories. The kind you see online and in newspapers all over the world every day.

1. Get to the point

Put the most important piece of news in the first sentence. And try to include the Who, What, Where, When and Why of the story as early as you can. This isn’t an essay, so you don’t need any kind of introduction before you get to the interesting stuff.

2. Include the sources of any opinions

Take care to attribute statements you include in your article to whoever made them. For example, ‘The decision not to send the criminal to jail was a disgrace, according to the victim’s family‘. Otherwise it just looks like you’re putting your own opinions in. Save those for comment articles and columns, not news stories.

3. Your story doesn’t need a ‘conclusion’.

Student journalists often feel they need to include a sentence or two at the end of an article, summing things up like the conclusion to an essay. Don’t. If you’ve already gone over all the important details, there’s no need to re-state them at the end. News stories generally just finish, usually with a quote from somebody.

4. Write in short sentences.

Short sentences make articles easier to read. Writing like this is sometimes tricker than it looks, especially if you’re used to writing essays. The best tip I can give you would be to try to avoid using commas unless you really have to.

5. Use two short words instead of one long one.

If you’re looking at an article and you don’t understand a word, it’s a pretty big turn-off. So give your readers some help. You might know what ‘facilitate’ means, but ‘make easier’ is much better.

6. Don’t mix up your tenses

It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but generally newspaper and online news articles are written in the past (or future) tense, while broadcast scripts for radio and TV are in the present tense. Changing between the past and present tense in the same article can be off-putting, so try to stick to one.

7. Avoid using journalism clichés

There are hundreds of words and phrases used every day by journalists that are actually quite strange if you think about it. Sometimes these can be useful ways of explaining complicated things, like “test tube baby”. But more often you get scientists as “boffins” or an unhappy footballer making “a come-and-get-me-plea” while a celebrity is spotted “quaffing” Champagne. There are simple words in plain English for these things, so please use them instead.

The picture of Hemingway that appeared with the first edition of For Whom The Bell Tolls.

The picture of Hemingway that appeared with the first edition of For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Some further reading. In 1946, George Orwell offered a list of six rules for good writing (at the bottom of this essay) and they still stand up well today.

On the point about short sentences, a survey some years ago found that journalists’ favourite novel was For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was himself a journalist-turned-author, and it showed in how he used short sentences and rarely included commas. Give it a read.

And on journalism clichés, it’s worth looking at John Rentoul’s The Banned List (online and in book form) as well as Rob Hutton’s Romps, Tots and Boffins, which you can get a free sample of for Kindle here.

A Brief Lesson On The Power Of Buzzfeed And Facebook

My Buzzfeed opus on Aberdeen.

My Buzzfeed opus on Aberdeen.

You’ll be familiar with Buzzfeed and its listicles, the eminently clickable posts which have helped turn the site into one of the internet’s rising stars. But you may not be aware of Buzzfeed’s Community feature, which lets anyone put together posts for the site. As a bit of an experiment yesterday, I thought I’d have a go at doing one, to see how quickly it spread.

Calling on my hazy memories of my hometown and scanning Flickr’s Creative Commons for pictures, I quickly put together 31 Signs You Grew Up In Aberdeen in what I hoped was a suitably Buzzfeed style. I tweeted it once, Facebooked it once, stuck it on the Aberdeen subreddit, and waited.

But I didn’t have to wait very long. I was soon receiving emails from Buzzfeed telling me that the views were piling up. Helpfully, I didn’t have to take their word for it, because the Buzzfeed Community pages allow you to personally check the analytics for your post, so I could see it all for myself. Within 24 hours, it had 45,000 views.

My post made it onto the front page of the UK site for a while, and the BuzzfeedUK Twitter account promoted it once too, but the analytics show that it’s been overwhelmingly spread using Facebook. About two-thirds of total views are from Facebook, and almost all the rest are either clicks on the Buzzfeed site itself or are classed as Dark Social – sharing via email, third party Twitter clients and the like. Views from Reddit are only in the dozens, although that may be because the Aberdeen subreddit is not exactly one of the busiest pages on there. Views from search engines are in even smaller numbers, so far at least.

At the risk of reading too much into one little experiment which I did for fun (seeing friends I know on Facebook sharing the post without realising who’d actually written it was certainly that), it’s been a reminder to me of the persistent power of Facebook. We in the media might snark about it, but ordinary people are still on there in large numbers. And it seems ordinary people like listicles.