Freedom of the press

Freedom of the press normally applies to the freedom of the press and media to operate and report without unreasonable state interference. It’s important all right, but not for me today. My mind is weighing heavily on a different interpretation of this much used phrase.

I’m looking at the freedom of the press to ride roughshod over the principles, ethics and standards of journalism. Principles like objectivity, impartiality, fairness and accountability. Principles that every journalist should swear by, but sometimes seem to stick two fingers up at instead.

Yesterday, The Telegraph’s Business Editor Alistair Osborne posted a news story bearing the headline “Betfair a ‘shambles’ says punter who lost £16,000”. With a headline like that it was soon all over Twitter like a rash.

Before I go any further I should declare an interest here. I worked for Betfair for two and a half years up until January 2011. I left the company by choice. I am not a shareholder. Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a long standing Betfair customer and fan of the company. My experience working for Betfair served to reinforce what I have always believed. It is a great business, run my passionate and capable people, as well as a great place to work.

After reading the piece I was left with an uneasy feeling that the author has a bit of an axe to grind. Since when has a customer service issue become bona fide business news in a quality UK broadsheet?  At best it’s the kind of story that given time may possibly develop into something Anne Robinson may take up on Watchdog – but even that is unlikely as there is no question of skulduggery or deceit.

I then noticed that the author’s last two pieces on Betfair were equally critical in content and tone. I had even tweeted about one of them at the time just a few days ago, as I was disappointed to learn that Betfair had physically prevented journalists (including Alistair Osborne evidently) from entering their AGM. My feeling at the time was that adopting a bunker mentality was not sensible for a public company with nothing to hide.

Anyway, after reading the comments under Mr Osborne’s latest piece I was quite shocked at how many people were taking the opportunity to indulge in a spot of Betfair bashing. So I tried to redress the balance and point out that in my opinion the author had an axe to grind and the story was a ‘shameful’ piece of journalism.

Well the moderator was having none of it and after a short delay my comment was removed. Luckily I kept a copy. This is what I posted:

“Shameful journalism. This is not business news. This is the kind of tosh I’d expect from Anne Robinson on Watchdog, not from a business editor on the Telegraph. The author clearly has a personal agenda here. Just look at his recent pieces on Betfair. Take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror Mr Osborne. Is this how they taught you to behave in journo school?”

At the last count the article has 91 comments. Many are littered with strongly worded abuse towards the company, the industry and even the ‘victim’. Some accuse Betfair of being rigged. Others of theft. One even makes reference to the CEO’s ethnicity and jokes about his access to triad gangs to enforce gambling debts.

One wag using the name “the_judge” wrote “Jon Weedon get back in your plantpot. Betfair is a scam outfit. It took me months to get my deposits back from these crooks. I hope they go bust and your shares go down the toilet.”

My point is that my comment was not half as rude or threatening as many posts that still reside in the thread. I can only conclude that it was removed because it did not comply with the sentiment of the anti-Betfair brigade who dominate the thread and it dared to question the author’s journalistic integrity. It looks like the expedient route of censorship prevailed over freedom of speech.

It feels very much to me like double standards are at play here. How can a member of the press corp being excluded from an AGM be an outrage, when a member of the public being excluded from commenting on a poor piece of journalism is fine?


The Untouchables

I read a piece on the Seattle Post Intelligencer today that kind of amused me.

The plot revolves around the ‘Seattle Speakeasy Seven’, a gang of wannabe gangsters accused of running an illegal gambling operation in and around Seattle, recently exposed after a 4-year investigation by the city’s vice squad and state gambling officials.

Read the piece and you cannot help but be transported back in time to the 1920’s and the heady days of Prohibition.

Honestly, it could be a scene straight out of Bugsy Malone. For Fat Sam and Knuckles read DK Pan and his trusty sidekick Bill Donnell III. From several delightfully seedy sounding establishments, including a poker room in the now defunct Bit Saloon and a storage facility in ‘Tubs’ (where patrons could previously rent hot tubs by the hour), the wannabe mobsters allegedly ran their dodgy criminal enterprise.

I know this sorry tale revolves around wholly terrestrial activities but I could not help but relate this to the pickle that our North American friends seem to have got themselves into over their somewhat half-hearted ban on online poker.

Have they learned nothing from the Prohibition? In particular the unintended side effect of increasing the grip of criminal gangs who history shows will willingly fill the void created by attempting to ban something that so many of your people do and will continue to do regardless of well intentioned but misguided state intervention.

Never has history better shown that banning stuff that so many of your citizens do anyway is at best futile and at worse dangerous. Don’t ban it – licence it, regulate it, and protect your citizens by pulling the plug on the mobsters.

Allow your citizens the freedom to choose how they spend their leisure time and money. And at the same time stake your claim on all that lost tax revenue that is already out there swilling around just waiting to be put to better use.

Brown’s big toed blunder

The world’s gone barking mad again.

When I woke up this morning, Labour were at odds of 30 to 1 to achieve an overall majority on 6 May. I know this because I work for the world’s biggest and best betting exchange, and our customers are getting more active by the day in the run up to the General Election on our UK election markets.

I spent the morning at a Social Media in a Corporate Context conference and being a good boy had declined the rather sensible invitation of my hosts to cast aside traditional conference etiquette and keep my mobile phone switched on throughout the event.

So imagine my surprise when during the lunch break I reconnected with the outside world to discover that the odds on a Labour majority had drifted out to 46 to 1.

Blimey I thought – something big must have happened to cause a swing of this size. The Labour party had fallen to its lowest level of support in the betting since the market opened two years ago.

The newswires were fizzing and Twitter was full of it. Gordon Brown had insulted a lifelong Labour supporter in a private conversation in the back of his car.

It strikes me that what he says in the privacy of his own car is his matter. The fact that his comments were picked up by the media because the microphone on his tie had not been switched off was unfortunate. But hey – hands up anyone who has never said a bad word about someone moments after smiling sweetly in an effort to avoid unnecessary conflict.

Have you never maintained an air of conviviality with someone you may not see eye to eye with and once you’ve put the phone down said a few choice words to relieve your frustration?

I see absolutely no crime here. What I see is a gleeful over-reaction from an over intrusive and mischievous media, on a mission to make something out of nothing.

That’s my first point.

My second is why the sensitivity over someone’s big toes?  I just don’t get it!

The Clegg Factor

Tonight’s election debate was certainly an interesting experience. As a piece of live TV I found it pretty sterile, clearly hampered by the terms and conditions. I found the lack of audience reaction most disturbing, although I do concede it helped not to distract viewers from what the three party leaders were saying.

The pre-debate chat at work today centred on the expectation that Clegg would nick it in the post-debate polls, which he did. Personally I found him the most unnatural of the three.

For me his performance was just that – a performance. His attempt to demonstrate what a good listener he is by thanking each questioner by name at the end wasted valuable wrap-up time and felt horribly contrived.

To demonstrate how shallow I really am, here are my personal highlights:

  • Half way through my 15 year old daughter announced that you couldn’t possible vote for Gordon Brown because he looks like Mr Potato Head (from Toy Story). I think it must be something to do with the ears. Nice one Jessica – nice to see you focusing on the big issues. I wonder where she gets that from….
  • At the very end of the programme, Brown broke the rules by jumping off stage clearly before he was supposed to. Cameron pulled Clegg back when he tried to follow him and they both stood there looking very uncomfortable and increasingly desperate as Brown began shaking hands with the front row of the audience. Alistair Stewart then signalled to them that they could leave the stage, at which point they then also piled into the audience. Comedy gold!
  • As Alistair Stewart closed the programme there was an old geezer in the audience gurning (unintentionally I’m sure). The girls noticed it and we then re-played several times and the more you watch it the funnier it gets. If I can find it on YouTube I’ll be sure to put the link in here. It was brilliant.

What will be very interesting is how Brown and Cameron adjust their approach in round two as they both seek to overcome the Clegg factor. Can’t wait!

BTW, this post was originally a comment on Rachel Allen’s blog, but the site kept crashing when I tried to submit it. Sorry Rachel!