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Communications Line number 63 of 9 May 2008

Communications Line

By John Bishop
Issue number 63 of 9 May 2008

The importance of the internet in modern communications is demonstrated in many ways, and there’s no doubt it has changed the way we think, behave and communicate. Here are two instances that raise a number of issues of access, power, and influence, but also demonstrate the potential to use the internet to empower people as well. Of course, it’s all about money too. Elsewhere in the newsletter you'll find a question with a prize, a video link that explains the current credit crisis and lots more on customer choice, cell phones and upsetting the green movement. I also suggest how the government could spend a billion dollars on railways better

Consultation over information

In April the Economist reported that “the official websites of the main political parties in the UK - Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats - get less web traffic than the most popular political blogs, and much less than even the far-right British National Party. No surprise, say cyber enthusiasts; they do a passable job as repositories of information but offer little scope for users to get involved beyond signing up for e-mail distribution lists.”

In New Zealand some political parties (Greens, National) do better than others (Labour, United) according to web guru David Farrar (see Communications Line # 60

And in the USA, presidential aspirants Ron Paul in 2008 and Howard Dean in 2004 used the internet to raise large sums of money (Ron Paul took in $6m in a single day).
In the UK, there are now moves to use the internet for public consultation says the Economist. “Since 2006 the Downing Street website has allowed the public to create and sign online petitions. In amongst the calls for the drummer from The Stranglers to be honoured, Jeremy Clarkson (a mouthy motoring journalist) to become prime minister and Arsenal football club to be “closed down” have been some serious and hugely popular petitions. One in 2006 calling for the government's road-pricing policy to be scrapped ended up attracting 1.8m signatures.

In a speech to the Google Zeitgeist conference in London last year, David Miliband, the blogging foreign secretary, looked forward to the internet allowing people control over public services, not merely access to them. Policy wonks talk excitedly of “Public Services 2.0”.

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, wants much more information put online, including American-style crime maps and every item of government spending over £25,000. More radically, he is flirting with “open-sourcing” policy: some companies now go online to solicit solutions to stubborn problems, so why not the public sector?”

Freedom versus money

Who owns sports coverage is an issue which has come to prominence in the USA partly because of the activities of bloggers at sports events. Until the internet, newspapers and magazines covered sports events and owned the pictures. Same when TV came along. The major sports sold coverage rights and the networks owned the pictures. Now the New York Times reports “the explosion of new media, especially with regard to advertising income, has made competitors out of two traditional allies — news media and professional sports. At the heart of the issue, which people on both sides alternately describe as a commercial dispute and a First Amendment fight, is a simple question: who owns sports coverage?

Sports are having trouble enforcing restrictions on coverage. Baseball tried but the news organisations wouldn’t agree to time limits on the length of clips or on the number of pictures that could be used.

Bloggers may work for print organisations or for themselves. Either way bloggers publish material that either the networks or the sports leagues would like to own or control. Bloggers are now allowed into locker rooms in most of the major sports, but behind the issue of access is the money. “League officials argue that too much video and audio on a newspaper’s website could infringe on rights holders — the broadcasters who pay millions of dollars to carry live games’ the NYT says.
“The leagues and teams have their own Web sites, carrying news accounts and footage, (and they) are big business. Major League Baseball Advanced Media, baseball’s Internet arm, generates an estimated $400 million a year in revenue and is growing at a 30 percent a year. Investment bankers have estimated that the business is worth $2 billion to $3 billion. Sports executives see the issue as pure business, and balk at any suggestion that restrictions are an affront to a free press.”

Politics is entertainment

According to a former editor of People magazine, the rules for getting readers in the magazine business are simple: “young is better than old, pretty is better than ugly, television is better than music, music is better than movies, movies are better than sports. And anything is better than politics.”

But not this year, the New York Times reported yesterday. “Not since John F. Kennedy posed for Life magazine during the 1960 campaign - tanned and windblown in his sailboat - have the entertainment media been so infatuated with a presidential campaign.

Why? “You can’t get much better drama than what we’re seeing on the campaign trail,” said Charles Lachman, the executive producer of “Inside Edition,” the syndicated entertainment newsmagazine. “It’s the greatest reality show on television.”

And it suits the candidates. “Campaign aides say that they can usually count on a soft, friendly chat conducted by reporters or television hosts who are unlikely to hit them with questions about the Iraq war, while at the same time reaching crucial younger female voters.

Driving all of it, editors and campaign aides say, is the appetite for news on presidential candidates and their families —people who have transcended politics to become bona fide celebrities. As the campaign stretches into its second year, in some corners it is simply seen as entertainment.” Only in America eh!

Hillary’s Dream

All the commentators have written off Hillary Clinton’s chances of becoming the candidate now that she didn’t win well enough in Indiana and lost in North Carolina. Sure she’s not quitting yet, and yes there are stills some primaries left, although not enough for her to catch up to Obama in the delegate count. Obama also leads among the super delegates. Her money is drying up. Her staff are talking off the record about when, not if, she quits. I am not putting her T shirt and buttons away just yet, but it’s pretty hard to see how she could conjure a victory from here.

The far right writers are already ecstatic at her failure, but even if she does withdraw and call for unity behind Obama, the Democratic Party will still be far from united. If Obama offers her the VP slot, would she take it? In 1960 Lyndon Johnson surprised John Kennedy by agreeing to be his VP after a bruising fight in the primaries. Since then those picked as running mates have usually been less prominent. But would her selection as VP help or hinder Obama in the race against McCain, who, incidentally, is still having trouble convincing conservatives that he is a conservative?

Cell phones are the new smoking

The world has never been more connected, but Levine Breaking News reports that in some corners, it's developing a real hang-up over the ubiquitous cell phone. “Taking a cue from France's national railway, which offers phone-free "zen zones" on high-speed trains, Austria's second-largest city this week began ordering public transit commuters to keep their phones on silent mode. The crackdown in the southern city of Graz has triggered a noisy debate between advocates of free speech and people who say they're simply fed up with having to listen to annoying ring tones and intrusive cell phone chatter.”

Green wrath

I had the temerity on Wednesday to criticise publicly policies that were encouraging the production of crops to make ethanol at the expense of crops to feed people. (The Panel - Afternoons with Jim Mora on RNZ National). The displacement of food production in favour of biofuels is widely reported as leading to increased hunger, food prices and food riots in third world countries. I said that the green movement’s credibility had shrunk to zero because of their advocacy of such policies, and that governments were also to blame for the heavy subsidies of the biofuel industry. The Green Party of Aotearoa (whom I did not mention and was not referring to) got upset. They don’t support displacement and have said so. They got an amendment to the Biofuel Bill currently before Parliament to prevent displacement. Using more biofuel may reduce greenhouse gases, but it is hardly a good move if it also causes food production to fall and people to go hungry.

UK says NZ out, China in

There’s confirmation, as if any had been needed, that the UK sees its strategic interests being with China and India rather than the Commonwealth. The confirmation came in an announcement (which as far I can see went unreported here) by British Foreign secretary David Miliband that the UK is abandoning its funding of Commonwealth Scholarships forthwith.

And abandon is the right word. It’s not phasing them out, giving notice of its intention to wind down. No. It’s cut them this year. Fullstop. No more. No applications will be considered in 2008 and the scheme stops right now. The resources are being “refocused”. “We will maintain a global scheme, but we will focus scholarships particularly on those countries such as China and India which are going to be most important to our foreign policy success over coming years," Mr Miliband told the House of Commons.
So what were these scholarships and why am I making such a fuss? Since 1959 Commonwealth countries have run a scheme whereby students could study in another Commonwealth country. New Zealand takes in students from the Pacific and other places. Bright students form New Zealand (and other Commonwealth countries) used them to do postgraduate study in the UK. They were good because a number of them were awarded each year. They covered a wide range of disciplines, unlike the narrow, discipline specific scholarships usually available to just one student. And they were well enough funded that a student getting one didn’t have to face a whole lot of extra costs (which is not to say there aren’t any). Now they have gone, quickly, abruptly and apparently without recourse. And not a word from our government.

What do customers want to know?

One of the premises of a market economy is that consumers will make well informed choices if they are given accurate and useful information, and there are usually penalties for traders who provide inaccurate or misleading information. In a move against obesity, a New York federal court has now ordered restaurant chains to post calorie counts alongside the prices on menus. The city’s food regulations require this for all restaurants with more than 15 outlets nationwide. Starbucks, Quiznos, Subway, Chipotle, Auntie Anne’s, Jamba Juice and Chevys are complying, but McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell are resisting.

So will making the information available make a difference? Will it alter menu choice, or influence people not to go to takeaway stores? I don’t know, but I don’t assume that it will. People will have to see that factor (the calorie count) as important in their decision making. That isn’t necessarily the case.

In New Zealand we have had star ratings for energy efficiency on major electrical appliances for many years, but retailers say that, for most customers, the rating is much less important than functionality and price. We may also get an energy efficiency rating for houses soon. This will inform potential buyers, but it is also intended to encourage the current owners to improve the property whether it is being sold or not. And it is also suggested that cars will get a fuel efficiency rating as well. Will that encourage people to buy a more fuel efficient car over a less efficient one? The answer may be yes if they see that as a more important factor than others like size, colour, price, safety record, running costs, mileage and so on.

A winning idea

We already know as a general rule, that all new(er) cars are more fuel efficient than cars made ten years ago. The average age of the New Zealand car fleet is twelve years, so the best way to improve our use of fuel would be for the government to give us all a new car. It’s not silly. If a new car (minus duty and taxes) costs $20 000, then for the same amount of money as the government will spend on buying and re-equipping the railways (about a billion dollars), we could have 50 000 new cars. They could be prizes in Lotto – a thousand cars a week for the next year. Now that would stimulate sales, raise money for charity, revive the spirits of the nation, achieve an important policy objective and make the government more popular all at the same time. A real win/win scenario.

Who’s to blame for the world’s money woes?

This revealing interview of a banker on the South Bank show has the answers

Who said this?

"The failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems."
Can you identify the speaker and the country being referred to? Email me at

US newspapers down and up

Circulation of newspapers in the United States is down again, figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation show. The New York Times is among the big losers – its Sunday edition is down 9.2% to 1,476,400. The paper's daily circulation declined 3.8% to 1,077,256 in the last year. The Washington Post’s daily circulation dropped 3.5% to 673,180 and on Sunday it’s down 4.3% to 890,163. The daily circulation at The Wall Street Journal grew a fraction of a percent, up 0.3% to 2,069,463 copies. USA Today was up even more - plus 2.7% to 2,284,219. The Murdoch owned New York Post lost over 3% daily and more than 8% on Sunday. In Los Angeles, the LA Times lost more than 40,000 daily copies. Daily circulation there was down 5.1% to 773,884.


A discussion on Jim Mora’s programme on RNZ National this week about misuse of the apostrophe and the great number of errors on restaurant menus prompted one listener to suggest that there was probably a business in offering restaurants a service in getting these things right. Wrong, at least not if my experience is anything to go by.

I started up an online business aimed at restaurants and real estate agents to proof and check their work. It was on line so that they could get fast turnaround – two hours I said; quicker if necessary. Did I get any business? Yes, but only a trickle. My conclusion was that either people don’t care, or are too rushed to take the time to check that they have it right. (Some are arrogant enough to think that they are right even when they are not, but even so that just reduced the size of the market still further.) I closed the website after a couple of years, unwilling to commit to further promotional expenditure for uncertain returns.

This from an email promoting a creativity seminar. The presenter was described as having “a vision to facilitate change and illicit hope through creativity.”

Seen on a chalkboard recently, a restaurant was promoting its “saefood buffet

One’s true self revealed

Six up and coming business leaders recently went on a “transformational leadership experience” in Nepal with a new company that is specialising in such matters. Some of their experiences are recounted in “Soul curry for the corporate samurai”. See

Thanks Andy – whoever

It’s not often that people send me presents so I was pleasantly surprised when I opened a recently delivered parcel to find a quarter bottle of Macleod’s Speyside single malt sent from the Whisky Shop in Christchurch. The note enjoined me to “enjoy my dram” and was signed Andy. Problem is that I don’t know who Andy is. But thanks anyway.


John Bishop is a commentator, professional speaker, communications consultant, writer and trainer who publishes a free electronic newsletter on media, marketing and management matters. This can be found at Feedback to

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