Sunday, 18 October 2015

How to make people care about 'the serious stuff'

I'd love to be able to say I'm an eternal optimist about human nature. I'd love to be able to say that we live in a world of altruistic, concerned, politically-minded people who voraciously seek out stories about public administration, home affairs, economics, and the like, to make sure the world is fair and no one is suffering unnecessarily.

East Jaywick: the most deprived neigbourhood in England. Do people elsewhere care?

Sadly, I live in a world in which we can measure exactly how interested people are in such things.

The answer, too often, is 'not very much'. The answer, too often, is 'I know it's important, but I don't really do the serious stuff'.

In order to identify a solution, we need to be clear about the nature of the problem.

First, the good news: in my experience, it's not that people can't be made to take an interest. It's just that it doesn't always come naturally, at least to most. Not in the way it comes naturally to click on a story about a celebrity doing an ill-advised thing while drunk, or a video of a street brawl, or expert analysis of a football game you just watched.

Second, the not-entirely-surprising news: in general people care more about their own lives than the lives of others, and more about the concrete than the abstract.

To illustrate the point, consider a story that says one in seven women continue to smoke in pregnancy, right up to the moment they give birth.

Will people be interested? To some extent.

But what if the story includes a specific person - a heavily-pregnant woman who gives an interview, and poses for pictures, arguing that she doesn't believe cigarettes are doing her unborn any harm, and in any case she doesn't intend to stop?

That story - the concrete, not the abstract - will get a lot more clicks. It will generate a lot more engagement, and a lot more debate.

And if a reader happens to know the woman in question - the personal, not the general - well, I can't imagine a single person who wouldn't click.

Perhaps that's just human nature. Whatever: there are lessons we can learn, and things data journalism can do to help.

Consider now the recently-published statistics on deprivation in neighbourhoods in England. These were undoubtedly important: they showed that pockets of just a few hundred families in the poorest parts of the country seemed to be trapped at the bottom of the pile, perpetually faring worst, in all respects, than upwardly-mobile places often just a stone's throw away.

Still, unless you lived in one of those neighbourhoods, how much would you actually care?

In order to address this - in order to give our coverage a concrete, personal aspect - we created a little gadget which enabled people to enter their postcode and find out exactly how deprived their neighbourhood was (or wasn't).

Hey, presto: a story which had fared quite badly in the past (without a gadget) suddenly became one of the most-read news stories on both the Mirror and the Manchester Evening News. People were sharing their results, talking about their results - and consequently talking about deprivation.

Are these people 'interested' in deprivation in precisely the way that the most noble-minded among us would like? Perhaps not. But they are interested in it.

Maybe they approach it through the prism of their own lives; but if our gadget shows them how lucky they are, and gets them thinking about other people who are far less lucky, I'd say that's more of a win than simply hoping that one day the world will be other than how it is.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Five random post-conference thoughts about politics

1. Jeremy Corbyn's best hope is to be Jeremy Corbyn

Yes, those on the right of the party are still pissed off that he won and will leap on him with glee every time he fails to sing the national anthem, or talks about nuclear weapons, or wears trousers that don't match his jacket. So be it. 

Jeremy Corbyn's USP is that he isn't part of the political mainstream, the middle-ground consensus.

Can he win an election from the left? Almost certainly not. I thought he was a terrible choice for the party and still do. But trying to force him into adopting a few tokenistic centrist policies, or spending a fortune on spin doctors to teach him how to walk and talk and dress, will just make him look inauthentic and weak. It would imply the very thing that made him attractive – his difference, his idealism – is something he would compromise for a sniff of power. 

His only chance is if Britain really has changed as much as the Labour party. I doubt that very much; but Jeremy Corbyn being Jeremy Corbyn might at least change the way a few people think about politics and politicians, stir some passions, frame some important debates. That matters.

2. Like it or not, David Cameron is a centrist at heart

It is frankly undeniable that David Cameron has overseen significant changes in the Conservative party. 

Today he got a standing ovation with a passionate plea for religious tolerance and gender pay-equality. That simply wouldn't have happened in the pre-Cameron era. 

It's easy to forget he won the leadership election with a positive, eco-friendly, modernising message. It's easy to believe that lurking behind that message, always, was a true-blue Thatcherite heart. 

And yet, however strategically sensible it might have been for him to pitch for the centre ground today, he didn't have to. He has a majority. He is planning to stand down. He can do what he wants for the next four years. 

What he wants to do, I suspect, is define his legacy. And he wants that legacy to be as a leader of Britain, not a leader of the Conservatives.

3. Ed Miliband was a disaster for Labour

Put simply, the party has learned the wrong lessons from his defeat. 

Ed Miliband didn't lose because of the media. He didn't lose because he was too left wing, or too right wing. And he didn't lose because he wasn't 'authentic'. 

In fact, he was: authentically Ed Miliband. A well-meaning, nice-enough, slightly geeky, Islington socialist. A man who had never lived, and didn't understand, the lives of the very 'hard-working families' he talked about so much. 

He never really spoke about schools and education. He didn't recognise how much people might want to own their own homes. Instead he focused on the extremes: the very poor and the very rich. 

While plenty of people trying to raise a family on the median wage (or just below) might think the 'bedroom tax' led to some unfair outcomes, or that the very rich should contribute more in tax, these really aren't their main concerns. 

That doesn't make them awful people. Ed Miliband had no intuitive understanding of those concerns. So they didn't vote for him.

4. Politics is getting more divisive

Win or lose, Jeremy Corbyn has already achieved one thing: he has stirred and emboldened those people on the left who might have thought 'mainstream' politics deserted them during the Blair years. 

The tens of thousands who marched through Manchester this weekend did so in the belief, the knowledge, that through the new Labour leadership they are now part of the debate. Or rather, that their voice will now be heard. Whether they are interested in listening is another matter. 

Either way, the ranks of the 'noisy disenchanted' will swell; anger will drive more of the discourse; and it is hard to predict quite how that will end. It's very easy for older hacks to claim that this is simply the 1980s all over again. But a glance over the border to Scotland should show just how quickly politics can change in remarkable ways.

5. The Liberal Democrats are in serious trouble

The Liberal Democrat conference seemed to pass by almost unremarked. You'd think Labour vacating the central ground would present them with a real opportunity. But no one appears to be talking about the Lib Dems. 

That's bad. At least former Lib Dem voters felt something about Nick Clegg, even if it was anger. Now it seems like a lot of people don't feel anything about the Lib Dems at all. 

Tim Farron is going to have to work extremely hard simply to get a hearing. Cameron pitching for the centre ground will make things even worse.

It's actually quite sad, in a way, to see a party which worked so hard to get a footing – particularly in local government – have to essentially start again from scratch.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

What is an 'important' story in the age of the internet?

Recently, there was a fair bit of fuss made within the industry when one Trinity Mirror paper - the Birmingham Mail - 'admitted' it could no longer be a paper of record.

My instant reaction to this was: well, of course. The concept of a 'paper of record' has always seem to me to be a ludicrous journalistic conceit: there is something arrogant about the idea that you could boil down all the important things that had happened in the world, on any given day, to 20 or 30 pages.

No; that was never true, never could be true. I can't be the only former political hack who has had my oh-so-vital reports of scrutiny committee meetings and council debates knocked back to a 50-word brief, or left out of the paper altogether.

And how many incredible human-interest stories pass us by every single day, that we don't know about - let alone have chance to reject?

The classic paper of record - the Times - was once characterised by lengthy, turgid reports of parliamentary debates. Fine, I suppose. These days you can search Hansard in seconds if you are really interested in neutral presentations of that kind of thing. People don't, of course. But they could.

Were readers of the Times ever interested in that sort of content? We can't be sure. What we do know is that tabloid newspapers became the dominant force in British journalism based on the insight that choosing the stories that people actually wanted to read, boiling them down into the most gripping essentials, telling them in an entertaining way, showing a bit of character, breaking exclusives rather than simply regurgitating what had been said the previous day, were things readers might actually want.

The red-tops weren't 'papers of record', not like the Times of old. They never wanted to be. But they broke (and continue to break) big stories, and they found (and continue to find) plenty of space for 'serious' topics like politics, too (as Jeremy Corbyn, surely, will attest). They treated readers less like passive recipients of medicine - not enjoyable, but good for you - and more like consumers whose interests and values they shared. Autonomous individuals who were willing to listen, but could also make choices about what they wanted to read.

Now, in the age of the internet, people have all the choice they could ever imagine. Millions of pages of content, thousands of pages of news every day, on just those issues that they choose to seek. We aren't just fighting for readers to buy our papers. In an internet age, we have to fight to persuade them to read every little scrap of every single page.

So what are people who claim to want a 'paper of record', now, really saying? They are worried, I guess, that too many important stories will go by-the-by, in an age of limited resources and - yes - metrics that tell us who is reading what.

Here, then, is a more difficult question: what counts as an 'important' story, when we can measure exactly how interested people are in every single thing we write?

A casual glance at the 'most read' section of any given news website, on any given day, might make you think that the British people were obsessed with celebrities, soccer and videos of drunk people getting into fights. And - let's be honest - as consumers we do like those things. But scratch a bit deeper and the figures will show you that very large numbers of people can and will read about political issues, about health issues, about education issues. Those types of stories can be, an often are, in the 'most read' lists, too.

And why wouldn't they be? After all, 30.7 million British people voted in the general election this year - more people than have watched any television programme, ever. (Den divorcing Angie in EastEnders got 30.1 million, since you ask.) Everyone who has ever had a sick relative cares deeply about how good (or bad) their local hospital is. People move house to get their kids into a good school.

The trick with these 'important' issues is to tell stories in ways that people respond to; and maybe think harder about the stories we don't do (or shouldn't), as well as the way we tell the ones we do.

Because that's the point: no matter how important we think a story is, what can that possibly mean, if no one is reading it? Important to whom? Or if that isn't the right question - if we're claiming it is somehow intrinsically important - well, can anything be intrinsically important if no one notices?

If we believe, as journalists, that a story matters, then we have to find a way of telling it that makes people engage and share. Otherwise, ultimately, it doesn't matter at all. It can't. You can't start a debate, frame a debate, if no one hears your voice.

Metrics are a good thing. They make us ask difficult questions. They make us work harder. They make us treat our readers like human beings with their own concerns and interests. We might not always like the lessons we learn from the data; we might sometimes wish the world were different.

But we can also embrace the challenge and use the power of data to help us connect with our readers, tell them 'important' things in engaging new ways, and maybe change the world one small step at a time.

After all, isn't that what great journalism has always been about?

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Mapping asylum, continued

Here's a geographically accurate map of Europe:

Now, here's what happens when we adjust the area of each country according to the number of asylum seekers each nation registered as arriving between April and June this year:

Hopefully you'll notice straight away that it isn't the UK which has swollen significantly in size. It's central Europe  - in particular Germany and Italy - and Sweden, too.

That's because while the UK received 32,300 applications from adults and their dependents, Italy received 63,700 - nearly twice as many. Sweden received 81,300. And Germany? Germany received 173,100.

Even that, though, doesn't really give a sense of the 'burden' - if such a word is appropriate - that each country is carrying when it comes to refugees. Germany, after all, has a significantly larger population than other European nations. So I suppose you could argue that Germany can comfortably accommodate a higher number of refugees.

So here's a final cartogram. In this one, the size of each country is determined solely by the proportion of the current population who are asylum seekers:

Suddenly the UK doesn't look so big. And it isn't: as a proportion of the total population, Sweden has 16 times more asylum seekers than we do. Hungary has around eight times as many. We may be a European giant in economic terms; when it comes to taking in refugees, despite all the sensationalist headlines, we are far from a major player.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Asylum seekers in England, in cartograms

Ah, cartograms. Those funny squashed maps where the size of an area - a region, say, or a country - represents not the actual geography, but a variable.

That could be total population. Or number of millionaires. Or average house prices. Or death rates from cancer.

It could be anything, really.

Cartograms have their drawbacks. They can be misleading, I think, by making small absolute numbers seem terrifyingly large. They can also be messy and confusing.

Done right, though, they can be a very useful way of drawing at-a-glance, intuitive comparisons between different areas.

With the plight of Syrian refugees at the top of the news agenda - and a domestic debate about whether we can 'take' any more asylum seekers - I've been having a closer look at the latest asylum statistics, which run to June this year.

The data shows how many asylum seekers are currently receiving so-called 'section 95' support from the British government. This can be in the form of money, and also in the form of accommodation.

In order to receive section 95 support, an asylum seeker must be 'destitute'. This is defined as not having 'adequate accommodation or enough money to meet living expenses for themselves and any dependents now or within the next 14 days'.

The offer of accommodation is the most controversial. Under an official dispersal programme - aimed at 'spreading the load' to places outside London - anyone wanting accommodation will more than likely find themselves hundreds of miles from the capital, and in a place that is certainly not of their choosing.

Critics have suggested some areas are pulling far more weight than others - with potentially negative consequences for all concerned.

But to what extent is it true that the dispersal has been skewed?

First, here's a geographically-accurate map of the English regions:

Now, here's what happens if we change the map into a cartogram where the size of each region corresponds to the total population of that region:

London suddenly becomes much bigger. The south west, which is relatively sparsely populated, looks a bit skinny. The south east looks a tiny bit fat.

Before we start adding in data on asylum seekers, there is a very important caveat to bear in mind.

The total number of asylum seekers receiving section 95 support stands at just over 80,000 across the whole of the UK.

The total population of the UK is 64 million.

That means only one person in 800 is a supported asylum seeker.

The numbers are relatively tiny, and politicians (and others) would do well to remember that when talking about these issues.

With that in mind, here what happens if we make the size of each region correspond to the total number of supported asylum seekers in that region:

Two things stand out. Firstly, despite the dispersal programme, London is still supporting significantly more asylum seekers than any other region.

They may not be getting accommodation; but they are staying in the capital, somewhere and somehow.

But a second feature is equally striking. The south west, east of England and (to a lesser extent) the south east have virtually disappeared from the cartogram. That's because the south west is supporting just 1,668 of the 80,000 asylum seekers in the UK; the east of England just 1,944.

Those are very small proportions indeed.

Finally, let us look at the dispersal programme.

Here is a cartogram where the size of each region represents the number of asylum seekers in section 95-supported accommodation:

This is hugely top-heavy. Why? Because the government's 'dispersal' programme doesn't mean dispersal around the country. It means dispersal, by and large, to the west Midlands and the north.

I wouldn't invite you to draw any major conclusion from these cartograms, other than this: if someone from the south west, south east, or east of England starts telling you how 'we can't take any more asylum seekers', they probably aren't basing their opinion on data, but on something else.

You can decide for yourself what that something might be.

(These cartograms were created with the fantastic tool Scapetoad. I'd also like to thank Boston-based software developer Zia Sobhani for answering questions I had about using shapefiles. You can see some of her blogs about cartograms here and here.)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

What data journalism means to me

So I told someone recently I was a data journalist.

"Define 'data journalism'," they said.

"No," I replied.

"Why not?" they asked.

"Because it's an incredibly tedious thing to do," I said. "And anyone who thinks it is important to define data journalism precisely is likely to be doing it really, really badly."

I'm paraphrasing. In real life I'm not that much of an asshole. But it's basically what I said, and certainly what I believe.

The fact is, I am not interested in precisely defining data journalism. I am interested in practising data journalism, and how other people practise it. 

I am interested in brilliant content - content that is valuable; content that is unique; content that people actually want to read, share and engage with.

I am interested in how we harvest the sea of information that is now available to anyone with a computer, tablet or mobile phone. 

Information being pumped out, in real time, in the guise of data feeds. 

Information being published by governments in the form of spreadsheets that no one seems to bother to read. 

Information - stories, scandals even - hiding in plain sight.

Now, okay. If we can't construct any kind of definition of data journalism, then it becomes a meaningless concept. 

I wouldn't want that. 

But I'm with Wittgenstein on these things. I think data journalism is defined primarily by practice. I also believe it is a classic Wittgensteinian 'vague concept'. 

Like sport. 

Some things are clearly sports (rugby, say). Some things are clearly not sports (having a bath, for example). And then there are things in between. 

Is darts a sport? It has certain 'sporty' features, like precision improved with training, competition, etc etc. 

It has 'non-sporty' features, too, in that it isn't physically taxing, and (at least if you are an amateur) drinking beer can make you better at it.

So is darts a sport? 

Dunno. Don't care. There is no categorical answer because the concept 'sport' isn't precisely defined.

That doesn't mean there is no such thing as sport. Or that darts is any greater, or lesser, an activity, for being, or not being, a sport.

Is Phil Taylor a sportsman?


Is Phil Taylor amazing?


Same with data journalism. Some things are data journalism. Some things are not data journalism. Some things are like darts: borderline. Are they data journalism? Are they not?

I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in whether they are amazing.

Having said all that, I am interested in the ways people try to over-define data journalism; to exclude things as not really data journalism at all.

I'm interested in this because I think it can teach us valuable lessons.

One the one hand, you have those people who say: "That isn't really data journalism."

We got this, for example, when we did our 'Pick your horse with data' gadget for the Grand National. This was, clearly, a bit of fun: a bit of fun aimed at people (like me) who don't just want to stick a pin in a list of names, but also don't want to spend hours and hours poring over every horse's performance in every race on every type of going etc etc.

It was a bit of fun.

It involved programming. And algorithms. And visualisation.

But it was definitely a bit of fun.

Was it 'journalism'?


Was it fun? Was it original? Did people love it?


Then, at the other end, you have those who say: "This isn't really data journalism."

Often this is simply code for: it wasn't visibly complicated enough for me. 

Or: there weren't enough really difficult maths in it for me.

These seem odd complaints. It seems to me that if we want to connect with a mass audience then the difficult stuff should happen in the background; swans' frantic feet below the water, if you like, allowing for the serene progress above.

Also, I think people confuse 'statistics journalism' with 'data journalism'. 

I define 'data' the classical way: as information. There is nothing intrinsically mathematical about it.

For me, data journalism is essentially about applying advanced techniques for finding and interrogating information in the service of journalism in a digital age. 

That might involve scraping websites, knowing how to properly use spreadsheets, having programming skills, visualising data, and using and understanding data feeds.

Data journalism might involve all of these at once. Or more often some. Or sometimes none at all.

A final point. When Claire Miller and I set up the data unit, we defined two different work streams.

One was 'news', as classically understood. A perishable commodity with a 'line' or hook. We wanted to use data journalism techniques to create front-page news.

The other was 'resources'. By this we meant data journalism projects or tools which would be enduringly useful and which our readers could use to find and explore relevant information about their local schools, hospitals, crime rates or whatever.

I said at the start of this post I defined data journalism by practice.

For me, these splashes - based on some quite sophisticated statistical analysis by Claire of datasets that are not usually put together - were very much 'data journalism':


But then so was this one, based on a round-robin FOI that generated responses collated into a master spreadsheet that could then be sorted to generate a very simple but newsworthy line:

And so was this data scrape of sheet music by the data unit's Patrick Scott to find the modern singer with the greatest vocal range:

And so was Rob Grant's painstaking data-processing of more than a million records held by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which technical savvy allowed him to turn into such incredibly detailed (and moving) insights into local losses in World War One as this, for Liverpool:

All of these are 'data journalism'. And I'm proud of every one. 

Only I'm not proud of them because they are data journalism. I'm proud because they are bloody good.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Maps that tell a story: Is Labour finished in Scotland?

A really good map - like any really good data visualisation - tends to tell a story at a glance.

Sure, you might have to glance at a key to understand colours, or gradients, or whatever. But once you do, the best maps are often those where the weight, the import, hits you like a hammer.

So today, in the light of the Labour leadership contest, I decided to have a closer look at what went wrong for the party at the general election this year.

To do this, I simply looked at the vote share Labour achieved in each constituency in 2010, and the vote share it achieved in 2015.

Where Labour's vote share had gone up, I decided to colour the constituency red. Pale red for an increase of up to five percentage points. Mid-red for an increase of five to 10 percentage points. Bright red for an increase of more than 10 percentage points.

Where Labour's vote share had gone down, I decided to colour the constituency grey. Light grey for a loss of up to five percentage points, mid-grey for five to 10 percentage points, dark grey for more than 10 percentage points.

Here's the result (best viewed on desktop I'm afraid):


When I tweeted a static image of this map, I was struck by a correspondent who pointed out that it made Scotland look like a cancerous lung on a medical chart.

Certainly, from a Labour perspective, it shows that what happened in Scotland was not part of a general UK-wide pattern. What happened in Scotland was a uniquely Scottish trauma.

That's a problem for Labour. Normally, after taking a battering, you'd reflect on previous electoral history and assume you could find ways of righting the ship. But look at the map. The rest of the UK shows what a poor performance is supposed to look like: up in some places, down in others.

That sort of pattern gives you something to go on: clues about how to finesse your message.

Scotland, by contrast, was an utter wipeout. No one responded to anything Labour had to say. So what then?

Okay, so it's just one map. Just one way of looking at the figures. It certainly doesn't prove there is no way back for Labour in Scotland.

But it does suggest what happened was unique and decisive on a scale that political parties find hard to understand. Partly because they have never experienced it before. And partly, I daresay, because they'd rather live in denial.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Sketch for a memoir: five mildly embarrassing meetings with politicians

There's something about political journalism that reeks of seriousness. Of interviews in studies that smell of beeswax polish and are lined with leather-bound books. Of decisive nodding. Of important papers being removed from well-used briefcases. Of furrow-browed grey men whispering in corridors. Of throats being cleared and water being decanted into glasses. Of hyperactive Oxbridge Amelias and Ruperts shouting into their mobile phones: “Arrival in three. Arrival in three! Is the ordinary voter in position? Get the ordinary voter in position right now!”

Of entire stories, too, based on the thinnest sliver of nuance. A sliver so thin, sometimes, you could easily mistake it for absolutely nothing.

“Ah yes, Jeremy, but it isn't what he said – it's what he didn't say. Or more importantly, the tone in which he didn't say it.”

I loved my decade or so as a political journalist, actually. I also like to think I uncovered some decent exclusives, from time to time, in among the nonsense.

I broke the story about Greater Manchester's planned (and later aborted) congestion charge. I got the first interviews with a tearful Hazel Blears and a much-less-tearful James Purnell after they tried (and failed) to force Gordon Brown's resignation by quitting the cabinet.

Me, in a vintage shirt, about to make Hazel Blears cry. 
I don't know what's happening with my left hand

Through sheer force of whining, I got Tony Blair to write a pledge to fund the Metrolink tram expansion into the 2005 Labour manifesto.

You're welcome, tram fans.

But let us put the seriousness to one side. It is the nonsense I'd like to celebrate today. Because it is important for politicians and political hacks alike to remember just how much nonsense abounds.

So here are five embarrassing things I saw, did, and indeed had done to me as a political journalist.

There may well have been worse, but these are the ones that spring to mind. These are the ones I am ready to talk about, outside of the therapist's room.


This was in the very early days of my career as a political journalist.

Mr Prescott was launching some 'Let's Make The North The New London Through The Power Of Ideas'-type scheme.

You know the sort of scheme I mean: the sort politicians of all parties are far better at launching than delivering.

The launch was in Leeds. I was in Manchester. The M62 was completely rammed, as always.

I had been penciled in for an interview with Mr Prescott. I was late.

I dumped my car near the venue, ran the last 500 yards, found the Prescott entourage, announced I was David from the Manchester Evening News, and started a breathless apology.

I didn't get very far.

(Some important background. At the time, the MEN was running a fairly aggressive campaign to force the Labour government to reinstate some vital Metrolink funding. Mr Prescott, who had scrapped the grant, was very much in the paper's line of fire.)

No sooner had I said “Manchester Evening News” than the deputy prime minister had put an arm around my neck and pulled my head down to somewhere near his waistline.

He then rumpled my hair with his free hand and said: “Manchester Evening News, eh? Are you going to ask me about trams? Are you? Are you? Ha! You're obsessed with those trams!”

At the time, I hadn't done many interviews. I wondered whether in some strange way this was normal; some sort of weird fake bonhomie that was assumed to exist between political interviewer and political interviewee.

What has life taught me since? No, It wasn't normal. Not normal at all.


I was working in Carlisle. Ms Widdecombe was making a visit to rally Cumbrian Conservative troops. She was running late when I met her along with the local Tory 'fixer'. Evening had become late evening, and we hadn't had time to eat.

When Ms Widdecombe finally arrived we went to a local pub. A round of sandwiches was ordered. It arrived on a large plate.

I was hungry. I made a rough calculation that there were plenty of sandwiches for the three of us.

“Oh good,” I thought.

I was just about to dive in when Ms Widdecombe pulled the plate towards her, expertly but unobtrusively shielding it with one arm, while picking at sandwiches with the other.

She then proceeded to wolf down every single one, without offering either me or the fixer so much as a crust.

To make it worse, I had to interview her as she ate. I believe it was the most sulky, passive-aggressive interview of my career.

What I said was: “Do you think the local Tory mood has been boosted by news of a two-point blah blah blah?”

What I wanted to say was: “Here's a question for you, Ann Widdecombe: why don't you give me just one sandwich when you have so very many sandwiches?”


I was pretty excited the first time I interviewed Gordon Brown. A Labour party press officer had managed to get me 'car time' with the then-chancellor.

This was a good thing. Mr Brown famously didn't do lengthy interviews, least of all with the regional press.

On the day in question he was visiting a factory. I was to join him in his car for the drive there. I would be able to interview him during the journey, which was scheduled to take about 20 minutes.

I drove to the pick up point. I got out of my own car. I walked towards Mr Brown's car.

The press officer emerged from the back seat, grinning, and gave me a thumbs-up.

I got in the seat the press officer had just vacated.

I looked over. There was Mr Brown, flicking through some briefing papers.

I decided a cheery greeting was in order.

“Hello,” I said brightly, “I'm Da----”

The chancellor raised a finger in my direction and almost imperceptibly shook his head. I trailed off.

“Okay,” I thought. “He's just going to finish reading the paragraph.”

Mr Brown continued reading to the end of the paragraph.

He continued reading to the end of the page.

He continued reading to the end of the next page.

I looked more closely at his pile of papers.

It looked suspiciously thick.

Mr Brown read another page.

And another.

And another.

And another.

I waited just under ten minutes in total. I know this, because I surreptitiously timed it. I had absolutely nothing else to do, and no one else to talk to.

(I mean, I guess I could have tapped the driver on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, is this normal for him?” But it didn't seem like a good idea.)

Ten minutes might not sound like a long time to you. In those exact circumstances, it felt like an age.

Occasionally I wondered if I shouldn't, in fact, be saying something.

Was the finger thing really a 'shushing' gesture? Had I been mistaken? Was I just wasting my own time?

Was Mr Brown sitting there thinking: “This is odd. I've given this joker car time. And he's not asking me anything at all!”

Eventually the chancellor finished. He carefully shuffled the pages together, and put them down by his side. He rubbed his eyes. He made a noise that sounded like a sigh.

Then he suddenly turned to me.

“Oh hi there!” he said brightly - exactly as if the previous ten minutes had simply never happened. "How are you?"

What I said was: “Oh hi! I'm fine thanks! I'm David from the Manchester Evening News.”

What I wanted to say was: “I'm really quite freaked out right now. You have freaked me out, Gordon Brown, and I need to open a window and take a few deep breaths.”


I was riding in the passenger seat of Tony Blair's car. The prime minister himself wasn't in it. He was waiting somewhere else.

I had been put in his car to get me to the interview location on time.

We had a police escort. Motorcycle outriders. Blue lights. Traffic parting, melting away, as we sailed down Princess Parkway.

It was a lot of fun.

In truth – in my defence - I was probably a bit giddy with it all.

I didn't know anyone in the car.

I assumed the driver was some sort of special forces bodyguard type.

There were also a couple of members of the prime minister's entourage in the back, but they were chattering away into their mobile phones.

I became aware that I hadn't spoken a word since I got in the car. That seemed wrong. With the blue lights and the scattering traffic, it felt like we were all in this together. Part of something important.

I felt I should say something. But what?

Then I noticed that the driver had been obsessively squirting screenwash throughout the entire journey. Not once or twice, but time and time again.

The outlines of an ice-breaking joke began to form in my mind.

(At this point, I should point out that I am terrible at jokes. Terrible at constructing jokes. Terrible at telling jokes. Terrible at knowing when not to tell jokes, too.)

I waiting until the next squirt. Then I went for it.

“I hope," I said, "that isn't taxpayers' screenwash!”

Silence. Complete, agonising, terrible silence. Then a tap on the shoulder.

“David? It is David, isn't it?"

I nodded.

"Please don't speak to the driver again.”

It seems we weren't all in it together after all.


Liam Fox was in town to have a Chinese meal with Manchester-based journalists, including me. I had not met him before.

I had been playing football earlier that evening.

Occasionally, after football, I get terrible cramp in my upper legs.

I do mean 'terrible'. The cramp I get is the kind where I simply have to roll around on the floor, leg ramrod straight, while crying out in pain.

This usually continues until someone is kind enough to grab my foot and push the toes up towards my head.

I'm sure you can figure out the details of this story for yourself.

Suffice to say, Mr Fox looked pretty horrified and shuffled off in the other direction.

I remember ruefully recounting this story to a friend a couple of days later.

"I couldn't believe it," I said. "He is a doctor. Surely he's seen cramp before?"

"Did you tell him it was cramp?" asked the friend.

"No," I admitted.

"Well then," she said. "To be fair, he might not have know it was cramp. He probably thought you were a terrorist."


Monday, 20 July 2015

The league of love and hate: a virtuous data circle

I love the idea of generating useful and interesting content purely from data supplied by readers.

It's the ultimate virtuous circle. Readers provide content. That content generates interest. That interest stimulates more readers to provide content.

It's what makes TripAdvisor so successful. It isn't like anyone's getting cheated; people like giving their opinions, just as they like reading the opinions of others.

And the more people give their opinion, the more valuable the dataset becomes.

I remember when we first set up systems to collect fans' player ratings for football matches. A couple of people would object along the lines of: "Is this really worth it if sometimes on a couple of hundred people are actually filling in the ratings forms?"

The answer is yes. Because how many people submit ratings is far less significant than how many people engage with those ratings. Far more people want to read ratings than want to supply them.

Plus, once you've started collecting the data, there are all manner of other types of content you can create, questions you can answer.

Which players only play well at home? Which players only play well against 'easy' teams? Which players only play well in the warmer months?

One of my favourite user-generated data projects is the League of Love and Hate. It's a glorified survey we run every year in the off-season. Essentially we ask people to tell us which Premier League team they support (if any), then tell us what they think of other teams in the league.

The overall result - most liked and disliked - is done on a 'Eurovision-style' voting system. The views of fans of all clubs carry the same weight, no matter how many of them actually choose to vote.

This year, as things stand, it isn't looking great for Manchester United:

Ah well.

We can also tell fans who complete the survey what fans of other clubs think about their team.

In the case of Liverpool, for example, Everton fans dislike their neighbours the most. Leicester fans, for whatever reason, seem to have a soft spot for Liverpool:

Finally we can also tell Liverpool fans what their fellow Reds supporters think. Surprisingly, perhaps, they hate not just Manchester United but also Chelsea more than Everton:

The League of Love and Hate was only ever intended as a bit of off-season fun. What's interesting, though, is the amount of coverage this rather light-hearted poll has gathered in the past. Even our media rivals pounced on the results in 2013, which showed Chelsea (rather than Manchester United) at the bottom of the popularity pile. In terms of Trinity Mirror titles, headlines like this were some of the best read that month.

All of which goes to show: harnessed correctly, and with the right caveats, there's something enduringly fascinating about the wisdom of the crowd.

When did Labour stop caring about winning?

"A meme entered the Labour mind that identified its time in office with the Iraq war and overindulgence of the rich. The progressive achievements of 13 years in power – the minimum wage, equality legislation, record spending on public services, the greatest amount of redistribution from rich to poor of any period of Labour government – all that was gradually effaced." 

So wrote Andrew Rawnsley in his column this weekend.

I don't know exactly when it was that I started to find the collective voice of the modern Labour party ever-so-slightly annoying. When it began to sound a bit less like a kind, open, optimistic friend, and a bit more like a hectoring A-level sociology student at the dinner table.

When it seemed to have became more important to win arguments than elections; to have the smug satisfaction of being 'right' rather than helping millions of people live slightly better, fairer, healthier lives.

Who is this collective voice? Honestly I don't know; but I don't recognise the voice of the Labour councillors, party members and MPs that I dealt with during my years at a political editor. I hear a younger, angrier, less nuanced voice. I hear a voice less rooted in the struggles of everyday politics. I hear a voice that may take defeat very personally, but is metropolitan, reasonably well off, and doesn't have to personally live with the consequences of that defeat.

It is a voice that sees the world in black and white; where it isn't enough for the Tories to be wrong. They have to be evil, too.

And so, it seems, does Tony Blair.

Because nothing is so utterly perplexing to me than the attitude of this current Labour voice to the last man to actually win them an election.

Now I understand what happened in Iraq. Honestly, I do. And I understand why many people will find what the government did over that issue utterly unforgivable.

But surely, apart from that, we should still be able to ask the question: what else happened during the Blair years? And was it good or bad for the country, from a Labour-supporter's point of view?

Surely we should be able to hold those two things in our heads at the same time? Surely we should be capable of allowing for the possibility that the world is a morally complex place, where one person can do some bad things, and some good things, and the scales simply hang in the balance?

Because when I think of the Blair years I also think of the very large sums of money that were ploughed into our public services. I think of the thousands of schools that were completely rebuilt; the fact investment in the NHS rose to something like what it should have been for a Western European country.

I think of the many lives that were undoubtedly saved as a result. Lives of family members, friends.

When I think of the Blair years I think of the minimum wage. I think of tax credits. I think of SureStart centres.

I think of the Human Rights Act, the abolition of hereditary peers, the Freedom of Information Act. I think of devolution.

I think of the completion of a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland.

I remember discussions with Conservative friends and contacts who were genuinely worried that their party had been pushed to the margins and rendered obsolete.

None of the things are minor details.

None of them can be brushed out of moral existence with an impatient snort, a wave of the hand, and an angry: "Yes but Iraq!"

They did happen. They did change the political discourse.

They did make a huge difference to people's lives.

And I think that should matter.

I'm not arguing for a second that the Blair years, domestically, were above reproach. That would be ridiculous. You can question the levels of spending once the 'golden rule' was ditched. You can question the efficacy of much of the spending: PFI, for example, or the love of expensive bureaucracy, watchdogs and scrutineers.

And you certainly question the fact that our economy was driven to a dangerously large extent by flyaway house prices stoked by dodgy lending, and an under-regulated financial sector that no one wanted to ask too many searching questions about.

The fact remains: from a Labour perspective there was an enormous amount of money spent, with the majority targeted at the poor. There was a real push to improve education and work towards a meritocracy.

I think that should matter.

If you want to do these things, you need to win elections. If you want to win, you need to take people's problems seriously. Not just the very poorest, but other people, too.

People who are working hard and trying to support a family on the median wage, for example.

People who vote. People who decide elections.

You can't just tell those people that if they don't care about the 'bedroom tax' or food banks then they are plain selfish.

They have concerns of their own, legitimate concerns that you need to understand and address.

You need to win their trust, and build a coalition which gives you the right to change the world.

You need to listen, not lecture.

You need to admit you might be wrong, or at the very least consider this: isn't it possible that rightness is measured, ultimately, not by the number of like-minded keyboard warriors who share and endorse your views on social media, but rather by the number of lives that you actually get to improve?

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Mapped: where are people most likely to take anti-depressants?

This is a map I made today as part of some analysis of a new parliamentary research paper looking at different prescription rates around the country in 2014.

I chose to focus on anti-depressants, and specifically look at those areas where prescribing rates were significantly higher than the national average.

Prescribing rates are expressed as prescription items (the thing you get when you hand in your prescription - a box or course of anti-depressants, say) per 1,000 patients registered with a GP.

The average prescription rate for anti-depressants is about 1,000 per 1,000 across the year. Or, to put it another way, one boxful of anti-depressants for every many, woman and child in the country.

Certain places, though, have much higher rates. Here's the map; figures are only available for England, so ignore Wales and Scotland. Grey places have above-average prescription rates for anti-depressants, The darker the grey, the higher the rate. You can click on an area for precise figures; the number is the percentage by which anti-depressant prescriptions are higher than the national average:


Straight away, you can see some sort of visual pattern. There is definitely more grey in the north than the south. There is more grey on the coast than inland. There is no grey at all in or around London.

The areas with the highest rates of anti-depressant prescriptions are in County Durham, Blackpool, the Lincolnshire coast, and Norfolk. There are also clusters in Cornwall, Merseyside, Cumbria and the Yorkshire coast.

Now I haven't done detailed correlation work, and I am not in a position to draw any firm conclusions on the reasons for these patterns.

You could argue it has something to do with poverty; something to do with unemployment. I'm pretty sure the darker grey areas will have above-average deprivation. I'm less sure the correlation will be particularly precise. There is an awful lot of deprivation in London, for example, and in Manchester. Yet these areas are not top of the 'depression' list. London, in fact, is right at the bottom.

At the very least, therefore, there must be other factors in play. One might be age: some areas are younger than others, and younger people might be less likely to be on anti-depressants. I don't know; it's certainly possible.

Another factor might be GP access. Being registered with a GP doesn't necessarily make it is easy to see a GP. A lower level of anti-depressant prescriptions might not mean a lower level of depression; it might just mean people who need tablets aren't getting them.

Other demographic factors might be relevant, too. It's notable to me that the most culturally and ethnically mixed communities in England seem to have relatively low rates of anti-depressant prescriptions. I'm thinking of London and Birmingham, in particular. Could it be that white Britons are more likely to get depressed? Or rather, more likely to seek and obtain medication for it?

The most interesting theory put to me on Twitter today was none of these. Rather, a correspondent  pointed out that all the areas with the most grey seemed to be the most physically isolated. And there does seem something in that. I don't know how good the public transport links are in County Durham, Cornwall, Norfolk or West Cumbria. But I wouldn't be surprised to hear they weren't great.

I wonder if as sociable creatures it isn't important to our well-being to feel plugged in to a wider community. I also wonder if we don't need to feel free, not trapped, and moving forward, not standing still.

The original data was lodged in the House of Commons library as a research paper this week. I'd be interested to hear if anyone come up with some precise correlations, or even just wacky theories.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Ideology, values and politics

You could ask it as a GCSE maths question, probably.

Candidate A will make life 20 per cent better and fairer than now. There is a 20 per cent chance he will be elected as Prime Minister by the British people.

Candidate B will make life 80 per cent better and fairer than now. There is a 1 per cent chance she will be elected as Prime Minister by the British people.

Candidate C will make life 10 per cent better and fairer than now. There is a 60 per cent chance she will be elected as Prime Minister by the British people.

Let's say A, B, and C are standing for the leadership of a political party.

Which one should you support, if you want the best and fairest outcome for the country?

I mean if you really, really care?

I mean you're not just grandstanding, or point-scoring in some abstract political debate.

I mean you actually want to make a difference to the lives of other people.

Which one should you choose?

And if your answer isn't C, then why?

Monday, 13 July 2015

Yes, I do call this news

"You call this news?"

Anyone who has ever worked on, or for, or even just near a news website will recognise this.

It is The Great Comment. It is Comment Number One. It is the comment equivalent of the Ford Focus: it crops up everywhere, all the time, so much so that you almost stop noticing it.

But it is there.

You might think it looks pretty harmless. You would be wrong.

You should know, as every journalist knows, it has been written by someone frothing with rage and indignation. So much rage and indignation that if you asked him to italicize the sentence, he wouldn't know where to start. He couldn't choose between

"You call this news?"


"You call this news?"

or maybe even

"You call this news?"

because what he really wants is to italicise every word in the sentence; to say it with such savage irony that any journalist who read it must surely burst into tears and immediately resolve to mend their ways.

Well I'm sorry, but no.

For one thing, the comments are almost always left on stories which patently are news, of a particular sort. It might, for example, be entertainment news - Justin Bieber visiting a nightclub in Birmingham while wearing a funny hat. But how is that 'not news'? If you actually saw Justin Bieber in a nightclub in Birmingham, wearing a funny hat, I daresay it would be all you'd talk about for the next few days. 

It might not be Watergate. That doesn't mean it isn't news. 

For another thing, who ever said all the content on a newspaper website had to be news? Newspapers themselves contain TV listings, cartoons, weather forecasts, sudoku, crosswords, horoscopes and opinion columns. They have TV reviews. They have leader articles. Call any of that news? Nope. So what? It's just interesting content that complements news.

My team, for example, does data journalism. And the scope for genuinely useful, interactive data-based content is huge. Only it isn't necessarily news in the conventional sense. To take just a couple of simple examples: this gadget tracks car parking spaces in Manchester using live data. And this one lets you find out how good your local GP surgeries are.

News? Maybe not. But it is using technology to tell people something useful about their local communities. And surely that is something newspaper sites should be doing.

Actually, though, what annoys me most about 'call this news?' comments isn't either of these things. It is the implied moral criticism. It is the implication that newspapers should only cover 'worthy' news.

Now I don't put 'worthy' in quotation marks to sneer: great investigative journalism that holds power to account still exists, and is still a wonderful thing. I put it in quotation marks because elsewhere in the news landscape, it is less clear to me what is 'worthy' and what is not.

Is covering a court case involving a murder more or less 'worthy' than writing a story about someone doing a fun run to raise money for charity? How much more 'worthy' is a report of a council sub-committee rubbing stamping a decision without dissent, which perhaps a couple of dozen people read, compared to a video of a swearing parrot that makes tens of thousands of people laugh?

The former is somehow more worthy, no doubt. But how much? And, bluntly: how much should newspapers care about these more marginal cases, if the difference in potential traffic is so great?

For the implication of the 'call this news?' brigade seems to be that newspaper organisations - commercial newspaper organisations, whose very existence depends on getting eyes on pages and copies on doormats - should put more stock in 'worthiness' than anything else.

Why? We never did before. Newspapers were always about things that interested the public as well as things that were truly in the public interest. We are just better now at measuring what that is.

And maybe Mr 'Call This News?' doesn't like that. Maybe he doesn't like a mirror being held up to society, only for it to show that people aren't all clamouring for detailed line-by-line scrutiny of party manifestos.

But that isn't my fault. It isn't the fault of the newspapers. And it isn't the newspapers' job to fix it, if it really needs fixing.

I think people should take a rather different view. I think people should be amazed, as I am, by the lengths to which newspapers have gone to adapt their coverage of politics, civic affairs, health, education, and other 'worthy' topics in order to keep people reading, and caring.

You see more sharp analysis than before, more punchy exclusives, more campaigning journalism, fewer meandering opinion pieces and fewer verbatim reports of meetings. 

And you know what? That kind of journalism is harder, not easier. Anyone can sit through a meeting all day, then write 300 words about it. Getting exclusives people want to read takes contacts, judgement, research, work. It is fulfilling a moral duty journalists and editors impose on themselves; because you could quite easily fill a website with swearing parrots and probably do pretty well for yourself in traffic terms.

One day - one wonderful day - I will open one of these investigative stories and the first comment will say: "Thank you - I call this news!" One day. But not yet.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

On certainty

In a previous life, I used to write a newspaper column. And here's the thing: I used to hate it.

I used to hate it not because I hate newspapers columns per se. There is nothing wrong with a well-expressed opinion, a well-crafted argument, a piece that makes you think about the world a different way.

There is nothing wrong with a column that tells you something you didn't know. There is nothing wrong with a column that makes you happy, or sad, or angry, or whatever.

Neither did I hate it just because I was particularly bad at it.

No; what I hated about writing a column - and what I often dislike about columns I read - is the presumption of moral certainty.

For it isn't enough that columnists write as if they are correct on all relevant ethical or political points. Oh, no; they also have to write as if they quite obviously correct, and that only a particularly stupid person would fail to see it. It is why so many columns are written in that annoying, smug, semi-exasperated tone of a parent explaining to a small child why eating too much chocolate is bad for you, or why you shouldn't poke your fingers into a plug socket.

And yet, this is all wildly implausible. When it comes to ethical and political judgments, I daresay none of us get things 100 per cent right, 100 per cent of the time. It's like that weird fiction always and for ever accepted in party politics: that in any and every argument, our guy is absolutely on the side of right, and their guy is absolutely on the side of wrong. Because our guy is a saint and their guy is evil. (This came up recently during the Budget when some commentators, talking about the  Conservatives' decision to mandate a living wage, pointed out it was a 'curveball' that Labour would find 'very difficult' to respond to. But why? Why couldn't Labour, and Labour supporters, just say: "Yep. This bit - paying people more money - is good.")

A lot of ethical issues are really quite complicated. That's why - unlike the sum of the internal angles of a triangle or the best technique for the high jump - we are still disputing them, passionately and with no clear resolution. Like abortion, say. Or euthanasia. Or animal rights. Or the limits (assuming there are at least some limits) on freedom of speech.

I have opinions on all those things. But they are complex opinions that don't really lend themselves to the traditional column structure. No one wants to read a column along the lines of "Euthanasia? Dunno. It's complicated." And yet maybe they should. It's probably a much better way of approaching such issues - with an open mind, a readiness to think hard and change your mind, and a sense of humility about what kind of conclusion you are after. The world is a complex place full of complex issues. Like it or not, they can't all be solved conclusively on deadline, in exactly 500 words.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

On writing

Ask a journalist why they decided to become a journalist.

Honest answers might include:

I'm really nosy


I'm a rampant narcissist who needs to feel all world events somehow inextricably involve me


I fear structure in my life (because of my father/mother/Catholic upbringing/unexpected death of a much-loved pet dog at an early age) 


I don't know; it just seemed cool before, you know, the internet and that.

Journalists never actually say any of those things. Instead, backed into a corner, they tend to say something like:

 I just wanted to write.

Now this is a terrible reason to become a journalist. The kind of writing people have in mind when they say 'I just wanted to write' is absolutely not the kind of writing that 90 per cent of journalists do 90 per cent of the time.

When people say 'I just wanted to write...', that sentence implicitly continues '...about the meaning of life'. Or '...about love and loss'. 

No one ever says, or means:

I just wanted to write about chip-pan fires being tackled using positive pressure ventilation fans


I just wanted to write about a procession of crackheads appearing in magistrates' court charged with a string of depressing low-level crimes.

Journalism isn't really about writing as expression. Nor should it be, not in essence. It is about writing as communication. 

It is about finding out what has happened, and telling people as clearly, efficiently and fairly as possible what has happened. 

This isn't glamorous, but it is hugely important; much more important than most people realise. 

It is what the legendary Guardian editor CP Scott had in mind when he said, "Facts are sacred, but comment is really annoying."**

What it isn't, though, is romantic. It doesn't fire the soul.

So here's the thing. I became a journalist because I'm a nosy narcissist who fears structure and wanted to be cool. And yet part of me still just wants to write.

Which is partly why I've started this blog. I might write about data journalism, or politics, or innovation, or anything that I feel I want to say. I honestly don't know.

I just feel I want a space to write.

(** This may be a slight misquote.)

Preludes IV

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

 I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

 Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.