Beware dangers lurking in cyberspace

RICK WAGHORN What follows is an account of the opening speech made by Les Hinton at the Society of Editors Conference in Windermere last October. Les Hinton is the chairman of News International.


What follows is an account of the opening speech made by Les Hinton at the Society of Editors Conference in Windermere last October.

Les Hinton is the chairman of News International. He serves as Rupert Murdoch's right-hand man and is top dog in London. Basically, he runs The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and The News Of The World. In short, he's probably one of the biggest 'players' in the British newspaper industry. More than that, he's a global 'name' and influence.

What any of this has to do with Norwich City Football Club will, I hope, become slightly clearer in a 1,000 words time. What follows won't endear me to some, but there we go. Whenever this football club enters a spot of turbulent waters, this job will never win you a popularity poll.

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Anyway, the thrust of Hinton's argument - and this is where I come in - is where on earth journalism and newspapers are going in the age of the internet. It is, in our little world, a life-or-death debate as the idea of reading ink on dead trees - and paying for the privilege to boot - flies out of the window.

For as we all know, we are now fast moving into the age of where blogs, websites and message-boards rule - the “citizen journalist” is king.

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Hinton saw this new army of “citizen journalists” on the march in the wake of last year's hurricane in New Orleans. And, sorry to say, he wasn't impressed. Hinton accused them of amateurism and misrepresentation - of not hitting the same level of trust and reliability we like to think we command. Rich coming from the boss of The News Of The World, you might suggest.

But there we go. At least you can still sue the News Of The World if you don't like what they've printed; far more difficult if you are, say, Leon McKenzie who doesn't like what's on a Canary website where, of course, anonymity all too often reigns. Or Dean Ashton and Jason Shackell for that matter.

You boys and girls - by and large - can say pretty much what you like with no fear of any comeback. Unless you're 19-years-old, wear five-inch high heels and can totter into Mercy VIP lounge on a Saturday night, there's not too many of you who will ever actually get up close and personal with a young Norwich City footballer. So how do know what they're thinking? What makes a Ryan Jarvis tick?

“In New Orleans a lot of bad information came from bloggers and amateur witnesses, all newly empowered with instant communication,” said Hinton, one of the world's greatest newspaper powers. “We must be experts at getting it right and being reliable.”

Not easy in an age of spin and cynicism. “We have always seen ourselves as sceptics, which is a good thing, but are too many of us becoming cynics? Cyncism is infectious, but are we catching it from our readers or are they catching it from us?”

It's a fascinating debate. After all, hand on heart, how many of you these days actually believe what I write when they are so many more 'alternative' views out there on web-sites, messageboards and the like? You're all “citizen journalists” now. And why not? Everyone is wholly entitled to have an opinion. And let's face it, who hasn't got an opinion on Norwich City Football Club, particularly in this city? The beauty of the web and the internet is that you've now got a platform on which to (a) express your opinions and (b) find like-minded souls who thoroughly agree with you. You've got a voice - just like those crying 'Rape!' on the New Orleans websites. How dare anyone call on you to stay silent; to keep your opinions to yourself. After all, the truth is out there - somewhere.

How newspapers - and the journalists that serve them - react to this swiftly-changing world is the gauntlet that Hinton was throwing down at the feet of his industry colleagues.

“In the 21st century avalanche of media, people have never been so bombarded with information. They must trust us to provide understanding and context. Context is becoming so important.”

And nor do we have much time to work out how we put “context” into your fevered debates. You're in there already; you beat us to it by your instant messaging; instant blogging; instant opinions. You don't have to wait for the paper-boy to arrive. And why read a newspaper at all when the word is already out there?

What can I, or any other journalist, tell you that you don't already know - not now that you've got a “citizen's army” of seasoned sports reporters to dictate the daily Carrow Road debates? And before anyone throws too many toys my way, I'm not saying you can't tell a good player from a bad; that that is the 'exclusive' right of the all-knowing reporter. All I'm saying is that, sometimes - just sometimes - there needs to be a spot of context inserted.

And being a football reporter as opposed to a 'citizen reporter' sometimes - just sometimes - that gives you access to more privileged information.

“Citizen blogs actually are stealing our audiences, at least our audiences' time. Their tanks are on our lawns,” said Hinton, a conclusion that, no doubt, sent a shiver down the spine of every listening newspaper executive.

Coming back closer to home, if this season has taught anyone anything it is that the internet tanks of the 'Yellow And Green Army' are parked firmly on the doorstep of Carrow Road.

In a football world that has always delighted in rumour, hint and whisper - one which newspapers traditionally seized on with glee - the message-boards have flourished. This city, this county and this football club is now knee-deep in “citizen journalists” poring over every last ounce of information or misinformation before throwing it into the great cauldron of Norwich City opinion with every last person delighting in the fact that they can now have their two-penny worth.

And that's the beauty of the internet. Everyone is there, able to freely express an opinion.

But there are dangers; dangers when certain debates lack a context or a fundamental and inescapable point of fact.

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” is one of those tabloid sayings that all journalists like to cling to; in reality, the law of libel and defamation pins many of our thoughts and moves. As does maintaining a productive relationship with the football club.

Out there in “citizen journalism” land, fact and truth can swiftly find themselves swamped by rumour and speculation - to an unhealthy degree. Take the case of Sunderland striker Andy Gray.

As far as I'm aware - and I made a phone-call to check at a little before 11.48am on Thursday morning - there has been no formal contact whatsoever between Norwich City Football Club and Sunderland over this supposed switch to Carrow Road.

Go out there in cyberland and not only is Gray en route, but the vast majority of you have already decided that he's crap. And from there it is a short step to Gray being yet another example of Worthington's wretched transfer policy.

God help the lad if he ever did set foot in Norfolk; he'd never stand a chance. Likewise, there's a body of opinion out there which has already made its mind up about Dickson Etuhu - despite the fact, for me, game by game he is improving. As most newly-arrived players do when given a little bit of time; when free from the snap judgements made in cyberspace. Iwan Roberts hardly shone in his first season here.

As for Gray he might not be the best thing since sliced bread; I've barely seen him play. Unlike, seemingly, everyone else in Norfolk. Perhaps - on closer inspection - Worthington actually drew the same conclusions as you.

I don't know. All I do know is that there are a hundred and one reasons why a player might not be playing well that the great jury of “citizen journalists” are unaware of. And not through any fault of their own; some things are simply not common/message-board knowledge.

Bits are - only to then gain a complete new life of their own as the 'Chinese Whisper' effect takes hold. Leon's form clearly dipped at the start of this season and, in part, that was due to the domestic trouble and strife that was going on his private life; but it was never, ever, anything to do with Damien Francis. Factoring that certain knowledge into the way this reporter saw the whole McKenzie debate was the kind of “understanding and context” that Hinton was hinting at.

Pound to a penny someone will seize on the word “formal” with regard to the Gray talks. “A-ha…,” they'll say. “So there has been informal talks…” and away we'll go again. I'll see you all at Gray's signing-in ceremony next Monday. And, no doubt, I'll read all about it on your websites first.

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