After being in London for nearly a year I’ve finally managed to make it to a Westminster Skeptics in the Pub meeting. I was rewarded with an entertaining and thought-provoking talk by crusading journalist Heather Brooke. Based on her new book it focused on journalism in the digital age with examples from the MPs expenses scandal and the on-going saga of WikiLeaks. The spirited Q&A that followed brought up a whole load of issues.
The key things that jumped out at me (in no particular order):
If we believe as a society that journalism is important for holding the powers that be to account, how are we going to pay for it? I have to say that I occasionally feel guilty about not subscribing to a daily newspaper, but then I remember that I really don’t want to pay for sports reporters and alternative health correspondents. What’s worse is that I’m an absolute news junky, so how does a news organisation turn someone like me into a customer? I have no answers here.
Something that came up a few times was the idea of journalists as filterers and synthesisers of information. The way way this was being described made me think of Librarians. This isn’t an insult, as a former denizen of academia I have had occasional dealings with real librarians; like Dragons they are of fearsome aspect, capable of deep magic and to be treated with the utmost respect. My gut feeling is that the real difference between a Librarian/Curator and a Journalist is narrative.
The issue of releasing redacted vs complete source material was circled around a few times. The whole business of redacted material bothers me quite a lot. Back when I had peripheral involvement in some medical data projects the topic of anonymisation of patient data was discussed quite a lot. If you anonymise clinical data properly you are allowed to store it for research purposes on networks that don’t meet the same security standards as the clinical network. The reason I mention this is that some research has been done on how much anonymous data you need before you can start identifying individuals. As I recall it needs rather less data that most people suppose. This makes makes the appropriate redaction of source material a difficult process. I’ll have to see if I can track down the papers I dimly remember on this subjects.
Which sadly brings us to the final question of the evening. Reading a book in an hour standing up in Waterstones and not buying it is not an indication of your intellectual prowess it’s an indication that you are an arse. Also, if you are going to insult the speaker please try to articulate an actual question. Accusations of hypocrisy, and mentioning that Julian Assange tried to kiss the speaker do not a cogent argument make.
Right, it’s a school night. I must be off. Looking forward very much to the next Westminster Skeptics.
This post brought to you by beer.
#edited for spelling and links
This was also my first #westskep, but describing the talk as excellent is baffling.
I have a great deal of time for Heather’s work. I think the arguments she puts forward about how to assess trustworthy information are sound. However, I found it pretty hard to glean this from the barely audible, and rather incoherent and rambling delivery at the event. Was I the only attendee disappointed with this aspect of the ‘talk’? I’ve learnt more about her arguments from a couple of blog write-ups (including this one) than through having been there.
It felt like a lot of people at #westskep were already aware of enough background information to be able to suspend their skeptical faculties and just enjoy being with a crowd of like-minded people.
Praiseworthy write-ups make it hard to judge whether this is standard fare for one of these events. I think it’s great that Heather is engaging in this sort of forum, but one does expect an author to (give the impression that they) have done some preparation to succinctly convey their work in a medium other than the written word.
The teething troubles with the mics would have made things harder for people further from the stage. Fortunately I had a pretty good spot.
Yes, there probably are quite a lot of people at #westskep that are very familiar with the arguments around freedom of information and open government, so possibly it would have been less coherent for someone new to the topic.
I don’t think the word ‘praiseworthy’ is what you meant, but I’ll take compliments where I can get them.
Ha, I don’t even have the beer addled excuse. The write-up’s good, but you’re correct, I meant a commentary praising the speaker.
I also realize that as it was the first #westskep for you, you’re not in a position to judge the usual form. I agree though, the mic problems did make the situation worse.