Friday, 22 March 2013

The case of Justine McNally

I'm quite troubled by the idea that a fair judgement has been passed against Justine McNally. I need to make sure there is no absence of doubt here, the victim in this case is someone I have every sympathy for. To fall (possibly) in love with someone, or start that path, and find that they are not the person that they said they were creates a kind of crushing, floor falling from under you, chaos creating emotion that is hard to escape from. You doubt yourself, your ability to judge people, your confidence goes as you feel like you have been used and that it is somehow your fault you let this happen. this case deception only exists in the sense that the victim has been shaken by the fact that the person that she was having a relationship is female sexed rather than male. There are reports that Justine told the victim and her mother that she would go through a sex change to continue the relationship. This isn't the stance of a twisted manipulator, it's one of a person with an unsure view of their own sexuality wanting to be in a relationship with someone she cares about.

If Justine had been born as a man (sex) and gone through this relationship this story wouldn't exist, and yet it's likely that how the two felt about each other would be no different than before the deception was found out. If Justine had, if it were possible, a sex change before meeting with the victim and kept that quiet...again...we probably wouldn't be hearing about this, and the two would still feel the same about each other. Yet this story won't be told in such a way since the media has already latched on to the idea that this was some kind of grooming scheme with a sole aim, to get a girl in to bed.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The #pycon incident: a catalogue of failures

This story makes me a little sad, of a joke gone wrong at the #PyCon event that has resulted in all kinds of mess. The story doesn't end with that blog post, it goes on further to the abuse and harassment of an individual for the choices they made.

From start to finish it's one unfortunate misjudgment over another that has compounded itself in horrible and hateful attitudes bubbling to the surface. I just wanted to list them here, I think we need to learn how we fight our battles.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

How to be "the Press" and not get bankrupted

With all the class of a toddler having a tantrum in a supermarket at 6pm on a Friday, senior journalists continue with their dreary moaning about the Royal Charter to come on regulation of the press. If they're not trying to rally supporters with scaremongering about how all the blogs are going to be shut down, then they're misrepresenting (or misunderstanding) the realities of the legislation.

Take the Independent, they talk (as the Daily Mail do) of £1m fines for breaking the code of conduct, and of the state regulator (who doesn't even exist) being able to dictate front page apologies.

On the former they're scaremongering, the £1m fine is a maximum, only if your turn over is £100m a year, and only for repeated and serious breaches of the code of conduct...and may not even be that high! On the latter, they have seemingly not realised that where corrections and apologies are talked about, the terminology is about independent regulators, not the regulator of regulators that is the Recognition Panel, which they'd know if they read all the way to page 22.

Then there is Simon Jenkins, pulling bullshit from thin air as if it is cast iron fact. For example...

But we have to accept that sometimes there will be mavericks who are beyond reprimand. Free speech within the law is their entitlement.

"Hey, some people are going to be arseholes within the law...don't go changing the law so they have to re-evaluate being arseholes!"

The regulator is obliged to offer a free arbitration service to anyone who feels traduced or unfairly treated by the press

Except where the regulator believes that they aren't...not *quite* obligation, but journalists have had a really tough time with definitions this week.

Indeed, the service will have a vested interest in fines as it will be financed by "fine farming", like traffic wardens.

There is literally no evidence of this whatsoever. Arbitration panels are financed by both parties in a pre-agreed fashion. Fines don't come in to it.

Parliament on Monday proposed no safeguards against this becoming a PPI-style stampede for anyone – including lobbyists

Except for the bit where it says "The Board will need to have the discretion not to look into complaints if they feel that the complaint is [..] simply an attempt to lobby."

Worse ensues if editors reject the new regulator and, because a matter of law is at stake, the case goes to a proper court. They there face punitive "million-pound" fines.

Simon here confusing the potential maximum fine for repeat abuse of the code of conduct (as the Independent does, see above) with exemplary charges, which actually have no upper limit defined in law, as it happens.

It is hard to imagine a more "chilling" deterrent to serious press investigation than this.

And so, for those journalists and editors deciding to abanding serious press investigation due to these new laws, here are a few handy tips for the press to help ensure that your "integrity" can remain intact.

1) Get in with a regulator, or help organise for one to be set up

You know, being with a regulator is going to be common sense. If you do something wrong and someone can't go to the regulator, then they can only go to the courts. This is why exemplary damages exist, it's to say "You know, this person could have got you to print a correction and get a few hundred quid off you, all within a've drawn it out, forced them to shell out on lawyers, now pay up for trying to stand in the way of justice"

Think that the regulator that you are/have gone for isn't keeping a fair balance between keeping you in line and staving off vexatious complaints? Go and sort out a new regulator. There are no limits on the number of regulators that can exist, as long as they are recognised by the recognition panel. The power is in your hands, create competition between regulators, reap the rewards.

2) Find your regulators code of conduct, or even help draft it, and apply it entirely to your own employee code of conduct

If you are following the code of conduct set out by the regulator, they will never let a complaint through to arbitration against you. The best way to protect yourself is to not be a dick, follow the rules. It's not a closed shop either, get involved with the formation of your regulator and you may be instrumental in ensuring the code of conduct is fit for purpose.

Don't like the code, or find your regulator is letting vexatious complaints through to generate fines? Please see point 1 above about organising a new one.

3) Keep up to date with who has told you to keep away

Your regulator will be keeping a list of people that are clearly "off limits". Want to provoke legal action against you? Go ahead and probe their lives or buy photos of them, outside of the relevant context of legitimate news and public interest stories. Otherwise, maybe staying ethical would be a less risky avenue.

4) Swot up on your regulator's "public interest" definition

Your regulator will need to provide guidance on when it's ok to break the code of conduct. Do you need to break the code of conduct? Worried that a complaint might be made that will cost you ONE MILLION POUNDS? Just talk to your damn regulator, they're hardly going to say "sure, you can do this, but not that" and, when you follow their advice, still allow the complaint against you through to arbitration.

Oh what, they have? MAKE A NEW REGULATOR (see point 1, again).

5) Make a transparent, readily available and FAST complaints procedure

Create a way for the public, whether personally involved or not, to complain about your work. Criticism is an opportunity for growth, and a mutually agreed outcome to a grievance strengthens relationships and respect. By having this procedure the regulation body you're subscribed to shouldn't be listening to a complaint before you've dealt with it, let alone take it to arbitration.

5b) Take complaints seriously

Oh, sure, you've got your complaints procedure but the net result is that you pretty much never accept fault, and any time you do you print the correction or apology in small text in one paragraph in 1/16th of a text heavy page. Are you surprised that the regulator feels they have to allow the complaint then made to them to go to arbitration?

If anything is making it to arbitration then it is going to usually be because you are are being unreasonable. Start thinking like individuals that like to be reasonable. Swallow your pride and print that apology with the same prominence you told the lie.

6) Don't keep making mistakes

So you've broken the code a few times, and you've not done anything about it, and you've had it go to arbitration....and you've lost each time. Maybe now is the time to re-evaluate your purpose in life and evolve? Or maybe you want to be fined up to 1% of your turnover (to a max of £1m)? Your call.

7) Profit

Big or small, if you follow the above steps then your "serious investigative journalism" is not going to result in your paper going bust. The insinuation that people are going to be able to go straight to asking you for a million pounds is an outright fallacy, and totally inaccurate with regards to the legislation concerned.

Perhaps this is a foretelling of the future though, as press regulation is passing journalists still can't get over misdirection, half truths and actual lies to try and push their view...right down to the wire the press is more than happy to show why it is so very important that these laws come to pass.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

What is "significant"?

To continue on from yesterdays blog post on the Leveson style Royal Charter and it's implications on regulation of blogs I think it's best to clear up something.

First of all, we need to understand scope. There are two relevant "bits" of legislation when it comes to regulation of anyone coming out of yesterday. One is the Royal Charter and one is amendments to allow for "Exemplary Costs" to be put against a defendant in a case who should be regulated but isn't.

The scope of the former is purely about setting up an oversight body and their functions. The latter is purely about defining who will be eligible to be hit with these punishment charges and the circumstances underwhich they will apply.

It is really important to understand that between the two, as it stands, a "publisher" in one doesn't not account for who a "publisher" is in the other.

You can be a relevant publisher by running your own blog (like I do here, though this is a grey area through blogger, see side note below), and thus refused from being able to serve on the body that will assess how well independent regulation of other publishers is going, but at the same time *not* a relevant publisher when it comes to whether you'll be able to have exemplary costs brought against you in court.

This doesn't mean bloggers like me are free to defame and to tell lies, that could still land you in court as before, but we wouldn't have to worry on top of worry about heavy handed costs intended only to publish those that are intended to find regulation.

The problem here is the term "significant" and it's subtle use in the Royal Charter.

10. The Board of the Recognition Panel must:
a. prepare and publish a report of any review it conducts, whether of a cyclical or
exceptional nature; and
b. inform Parliament and the public as soon as practicable if, on the first anniversary
of the commencement of this Charter and thereafter annually if:
i. there is no recognised regulator for a continuous period of 3 months
after the first anniversary of the commencement of this Charter; or
ii. in the opinion of the Recognition Panel, the system of regulation does
not cover all significant news publishers

Emphasis is mine.

The term "significant" is only used twice in the Charter when referred to this way, and the first is the synopsis.

AND WHEREAS the Report of the Inquiry recommended that for an effective system of selfregulation to be established, all those parts of the press which are significant news
publishers should become members of an independent regulatory body:

It's not quite true to allude, as in this guardian live blog that the Royal Charter doesn't try to say who is intended to be regulated, or that it's scope is purely about appointments, but the reality is that there is no definition available anywhere that gives a dividing line between different levels of news publishers.

What is needed quite urgently is this definition for "significant", so that there is no doubt as to where the line is drawn on expectations. The sensible path would be to define it in the same way it has been defined in the amendments that discussed last night in the Crime and Courts Bill debate, and as I discussed yesterday.


I saw this in the amendments...

For the purposes of this section, a “significant news publisher” is a news
publisher which in the opinion of the Recognition Commission has a weekly
readership which would place it within the first 20 of a list of news publishers
ranked in descending order of weekly readership.

It seems to me that this is the benchmark that the government is intending to put publishing bodies against, and that this text takes precedence over the separate draft Royal Charter that people are referring to that I guess we need to hope this kind of definition will make it into the wording officially.

Side note

I don't believe that tweeters fall under the Schedule 4 of the Royal Charter, I believe that Twitter falls under it as the publisher of the website. Similarly platforms like Blogger cause am interesting dilemma. Is the blogger URL the website, or is the sub-domain site (such as this blog) the website.

After a day to think over it, and hearing other opinions, along with reading about how Twitter sees it's own operation as a network and not a publisher, my view has swung slightly to that tweeters are indeed publishers, but that as single individuals (group tweet accounts obviously being different) they wouldn't fall under the regulation requirements for those that can be charged exemplary damages against.

Maybe along with "significant", "website" needs to be better defined too.

What do you think?

Monday, 18 March 2013

Leveson's Royal Charter - Not a blog regulator

There is a lot of fuss being made today about how new plans on press regulation via a Royal Charter/Legislation (it's all the same, at the end of the day) will result in regulation being required for humble bloggers (like!). The idea being put around is that bloggers will face potential chilling effects by new powers being open to those wishing to abuse the legal system to sue bloggers for what they're publishing.

tl:dr;? The laws collectively being brought forward mean we don't need to worry, relax, sit back...can I help you put that knee back in joint?

Now, let's put aside the rest of the content of the legislation that essentially exists to get people to sign up to regulatory bodies entirely to avoid court cases in the first place, and focus on this issue of the humble blogger. First, some files for your reference.

Here is the draft of the Royal Charter

Here is a draft of a really important sister-legislation, the Crime and Courts Bill Amendments

The confusion here comes, I think, in that the Royal Charter doesn't feel like it is fully formed. It is pretty much the same as the draft that was given by Labour and Lib Dems in response to talks breaking down a couple of days ago. In this sense the definition of a "publisher", and thus someone that should be seeking to be a member of an independent regulatory body, is extremely loose...

b) “relevant publisher” means a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in
the United Kingdom:
i. a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or
ii. a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a
newspaper or magazine);

e) “news-related material” means:
i. news or information about current affairs;
ii. opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs; or
iii. gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news.
(emphasis is mine)

It's easy to get panicked here, I am posting new-related material right now, it's news and information on current affairs. By this definition I am now a publisher. Taken further it's easy to interpret that this means your Tweets are, if current affairs or celebrity based, making you a publisher too.

But thankfully nothing else in the Charter really says anything about what you must do. The Charter, you see, isn't really about publishers, it's about regulators.

The whole point of the Royal Charter is to set up a body that assesses and advises the various independent regulators that the government hopes will be set up. Think the Press Complaints Commission MK2 for the tabloid and broadsheets, but maybe some additional ones for gossip magazines, or for large blogs like Huffington Post.

What matters to us is the content in the Amendments document. Bear with me, and feel free to skip the jargon to get to the interpretation...

(1) In sections [Awards of exemplary damages] to [Awards of costs], “relevant
publisher” means a person who, in the course of a business (whether or not carried
on with a view to profit), publishes news-related material—
(a) which is written by different authors, and
(b) which is to any extent subject to editorial control.
This is subject to subsections (5) and (6).
(2) News-related material is “subject to editorial control” if there is a person (whether
or not the publisher of the material) who has editorial or equivalent responsibility
(a) the content of the material,
(b) how the material is to be presented, and
(c) the decision to publish it.
(3) A person who is the operator of a website is not to be taken as having editorial or
equivalent responsibility for the decision to publish any material on the site, or
for content of the material, if the person did not post the material on the site.
(4) The fact that the operator of the website may moderate statements posted on it by
others does not matter for the purposes of subsection (3).
(5) A person is not a “relevant publisher” if the person is specified by name in
Schedule [Exclusions from definition of “relevant publisher”].
(6) A person is not a “relevant publisher” in so far as the person’s publication of
news-related material is in a capacity or case of a description specified in
Schedule [Exclusions from definition of “relevant publisher”].’.

...Phew... ok, what this says is as follows:

1) When a court is deciding how to award costs (in relation to penalising with heavy costs a publisher who has refused to join a regulator, and thus hasn't allowed a claimant the formal route of complaint they deserve), a publisher is defined (additionally and separately to the Royal Charter we've discussed) as a Business that publishes news and current affairs based material. The Business must publish content that isn't by just one single author, and has someone who is (2) in control of what to publish, when to publish it, and to generally be an "editor".

So far so good, I am not a business, I am one person, and while I edit my blog thisis the only way I fit this criteria. Already I can breathe easy that I am not going to be horribly punished by the legal system.

3) Publishers that aggregate content will also not fall into this legal definition. This is possibly the biggest grey area here. If I own a business that is all about publishing the news, but I let anyone free access to post on my site, do I fit the bill of having editorial control?

In reality this kind of clause looks to mean that forums, chat rooms, and social media sites like Twitter will not fall under any negative legal action purely for hosting what are platforms for publishing content, rather than websites that publish their own content in a specific manner.

4) Forum owners especially, but any owner of this business site that lets people publish content in general, will not be penalised simply because they take control of "moderation". This is actually huge news for the blogging community, which has long had legal issues with the idea that if you moderate comments on your website you take responsibility for the comments on your website. This is a huge step in rectifying that balance between encouraging participation and keeping yourself legally covered.

5) and 6) go on to mark out some specific situations whereby even if you hit all the markers in 1 and 2, you will still be exempt from huge legal costs because you are (and this is very rough, so don't take it too literally) a TV broadcaster such as the BBC that is running a website or publication, if you are running a site on a specific non-news/current affairs topic and only therefore post news relevant to your site's niche, if you are science journal, if you're running a business site whose news is solely about your business and it's interests, book publisher and public bodies.

So there you have it! We're moving forward with what is quite exciting legislation to require that big, for-profit organisations have to adhere to some minimum standards of accountability and ethics. At the same time, miraculously, we've also increased protection for bloggers and similar by removing some of the grey area that existed previously about their legal definition in the inter-world. But at the same time we do have an issue with a vague Royal Charter that encompasses almost anyone with an opinion and a means of putting it out there.

How people take this really is a pessimist vs optimist call, IMO. Nothing is forcing independent bloggers to get on board with a regulator, if they don't they'll be legally exempt from these "punishing costs". But at the same time the opportunity is here to think ahead, about our own standards, and to be proactive in a way that the dead tree press hasn't been and (if this week's evidence is anything to go by) never will be outside of legal coercion.


There is another interesting situation which I guess comes down to how these amendments are to be heard. On the one hand we have the Royal Charter, which I think everyone is agreed is very vague and loosely written in too many places. On the other we have an amendment marked "NS4" from Simon Hughes et al. in the amendments document.

Maybe it's just the formatting, but the amendment looks like a neater and tighter version of the Royal Charter. It'd be good if someone can shed light on whether this is an attempt to simply put the Royal Charter in to "real" legislation, or if this is a necessary bit of linking legislation. Given who has put it forward (i.e. not the government!) I would assume the former, and that the impetus will be on the ministers talking up the need for the Royal Charter and not this legislation.

This would be a shame, since the amendment by Hughes, Caroline Lucas, Ben Bradshaw, etc. is much *better*. It makes clear, through the amendments I have discussed above, that those people that cannot serve on the recognition body (and the body that appoints them) could indeed by little bloggers like me...a much more ambiguous assertion taking the Royal Charter at it's black and white words. (note: @loveandgarbage isn't so sure that it is a reference to the other amendment, but to the Royal Charter itself.)

Just some more food for thought...

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Doing what's best for you

So @hannahs_a_man posted this up yesterday...

And it's caused a swell of support which is nice to see, including this tweet...

I must say I'm extremely conflicted.

For a start, until it's too late to choose your path you generally don't know what's best for you. The whole nature of being a child is that you not only need direction, you seek it. The problem is not the parent that thinks they should push you to university, but that the system is inherently flawed when it comes to managing the realisations of people when they get what may well be their first taste of truly independent living and the soul searching that can result.

Of course the message that you shouldn't feel guilty about not following through on your parents (or peers) ideas of what is best is entirely right. When you're starting to take control of your life, probably starting around puberty for most, we should be happy that adolescents want to strike out their own path and encourage that rather than limit it.

But wouldn't it be nice if we could, as parents, guardians, peers, say that everyone should aim for higher education, and have systems in place that allow for interchangeability between the academic university route, and more applied apprenticeships and internships.

Hannah's predicament is interesting to me as I would actually say that staying at university while pursuing an internship makes sense. Hannah says herself that internship opportunities aren't well paid, so why not use the cheap(er) accomodation, within an environment of somewhat similar peers, and the buffer of a student loan to provide the platform for that to happen?

Wouldn't universities themselves as institutions work better if they were decoupled from a solely academic route and provided support for this kind of option too...a kind of "apprenticeship-lite" that allowed for a lower level of academic study to supplement ongoing work-experience that'll be more useful at the end of any "course"?

We can't begrudge people that take a view on what might be best for their children, though we can certainly try and educate them that they need to adapt their advice based on how their kid is forming their desires and wishes. What we can begrudge is a system that tries to tread the line of rounded "just in case" education while wanting students to ultimately take a "major" and pick their future life course without real-world experience to guide their choices.

What would be great is if Hannah and those like her were aided more to specialise earlier, to learn more about what they want from life and their career aspirations...but that educational policy existed as such in this country that if they worked out they'd chosen wrong that there was a flexible, cheap and available way to reskill/reeducate and move on quickly.


I guess I should clarify what I mean by this more flexible route. Some have said that a lot of universities that started out as "polys" should go back to what they were, in that they were more about "applied education" rather than purely academic. I'd say that as long as they had the ability to retain their right to award their own degrees then maybe it'd be a good differentiation for those that know that they want to do a purely academic or traditional subject (Law, Medicine perhaps?) and those that are going for a field that'll benefit from a more "hands on" experience.

But I tend to think more broadly than this. Imagine if there were 1000 people that all wanted to get a degree in computer science (the degree I took). Some might be looking to go through this in a 100% education capacity, to learn all of the theory and the skills that could be used. They might be comfortable and enjoy that. Others may benefit from a more practical and specific area of the subject, while others would most certainly benefit from being able to spend the vast majority of their time in work placements and providing dissertations on their work, ideally with the institutions in partnership with the university so that specific areas of the subject could be guaranteed to be approached in some way.

More importantly, people should be able to pick a point where they change their approach. Do they feel that they're simply not getting information that'll be relevant to them after a year of taking the academic approach? These institutions need the structures in place that they can translate equivalent success between these different approaches, that people can still achieve degrees despite choosing to move to a much more vocational study of the subject.

There will always be exceptions. Plumbers aren't ever going to be able to follow a pure academic route for their field, and it's hard to see how a mathematical theorist would ever find a hands-on route to follow.

Universities already tend to have it covered if people realise that they have chosen the wrong subject, however they do tend to do this by constructing complex and varied arrays of different sections of subjects, and this seems to me to be something that exacerbates confusion rather than helps to stop it. Some subjects aside, it's not as if it even matters what the course is you've got your first or 2:1 in anyway, not as much as it matters that the university has deemed you to be a master of a subject enough to get those grades.

This brings on other questions of course. Does it matter that you have a grade or not in the first place? From a personal perspective, probably's what you feel you now understand about the world and yourself. From an employer point of view it is useful to gauge commitment and ability...but does this even need to be tied to a specific subject outside of certain exceptions? Could a general HE diploma for all not indicate this general ability to be proactive and have the ability to learn and adapt on a broad range of subjects?

My thoughts on this aren't well formed, and would definitely benefit from further discussion...what I do know is the main problem that made me want to write this, and that is that we can't keep going on acting like students have 100% certain knowledge about what they want to do at 18, and give them an inflexible HE structure that causes consternation and stress when those who aren't 100% find they need to change their course in life.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Critique for Hannah

Why should people vote Lib Dem?

The framing, this is about why people should turn up in 2015 and vote for a Lib Dem candidate versus a Labour or Tory one. Let's refocus slightly, Labour have published their targets for seats, and only 16 are Lib Dems. By contrast the Tories are targeting less seats (concentrating on holding on to their own!) but 20 of them are Lib Dem. Indeed where the Tories are in power they have a number, maybe as much as a dozen or so, that are in danger of falling to the Lib Dems.

Why won't they fall, if they don't? Because as the Ashcroft polling has shown us, around half of the vote at this time appears it is leaving the party, the vast majority to Labour. This will be a combination of protest/tactical voters returning to their party and others disenfranchised. If this happens Tories will still win because the vote gets split.

So... long story's not why should "people" vote lib dem, but rather why should Labour supporters continue their tactical support, why they should give Lib Dems a look in, and why should wavering Tory voters switch sides. Votes switching to UKIP and the likes don't matter (and are certain to be lost causes for the large part), mainly because they will split the vote of your opposition more than they'll hurt you.

Like many people, my support for the Liberal Democrats wavered in 2010. I felt betrayed, as if the values I’d once stood for had been eroded. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that whilst the Lib Dem’s were in Government, they didn’t win the election. What they did was put aside the petty political tribalism that alienates so many from politics.

I think this is nonsense but for Lib Dems they do believe it's true. The danger is that labour voters don't. It is one of the things, however, that Labour seem to agree with more than other "positive" lib dem traits, so it's (for now) still a good line it seems.

They ensured that Britain had a stable govt. in a time of economic uncertainty. They ensured that an austere Conservative cabinet had a fierce vein of liberalism running through it.

The idea that a fierce vein of liberalism is running through the government may well be contested strongly at your conference this weekend. Ashcrofts poll shows even a majority of Lib Dems think the party has abandoned it's principles. As a party that is led by it's members, this is pretty shocking. The mood is definitely not that the Lib Dems are sticking up for liberalism right now.

Secret Courts, not putting the immediate stop to the snoopers charter, doing nothing on the digital economy act, reducing access to legal process for the poor, failing to veto a cut in benefits leading to a real terms lengthening of the poverty gap...this is not fierce liberalism, and further to your later points has nothing to do with fairness either.

Anecdotal, if any Lib Dem tried to win me over for a return vote for Lib Dems in 2015, this would put me off, it'd show they aren't in touch with the realities of what they've done and the sour taste they've put in the mouths of people with no other place to go within the liberal lobby. Just my two pennies.

Remember, your voters that you're trying to win over are those that are loose Labour voters now, and those that are on the more socially liberal edge of the Tory party. Does blowing smoke up the exec's ass about being a force for liberalism when actually it has failed convince those voters that they should give Lib Dems another shot at the ballot?

I mean this as a question and not a fact, but I assume that no-one is going to fall for the broad assertion made without something that truly backs it up, and I'm afraid that the Lib Dems don't really have many examples of where they've actually put liberalism at the heart of policy since 2010.

Imagine if the Liberal Democrats had stayed on the opposition benches in 2010.

· The tax threshold wouldn’t have been raised to £9,440, saving 24 million working people £600.
· The Conservatives would have cut inheritance tax for millionaires.
· There wouldn’t have been an extra £2.5billion targeted at helping the least well-off pupils in schools.
· There wouldn’t have been a ‘triple lock’ on pensions, which guarantees pensioners an above inflation rise in pensions every year. The biggest cash rise ever for the state pension.
· Local schools would be able to be run by for profit by private companies.

Personally I think this is a load of nonsense, but the polling from Ashcroft shows that probably the greatest asset the Lib Dems have is the blocking of Tory policy when it comes to showcasing their strengths to Labour voters.

Would the current government be more, or less fair without the Liberal Democrats?

Good question, you don't seem to answer it though :) This is *really* important since only 35% of 2010 labour voters think you're being fair. If you are, you need to remind them why. As it stands people overwhelmingly think Labour are the party of fairness, including a significant proportion of Lib Dem voters from 2010.

The Conservatives can’t be trusted to create a fairer society. They can’t be trusted to look after the needs of normal people. They can’t be trusted to not bend to the needs of the super-rich who fund their party.

Why not? If I was a voter you're targeting and I'm Labour then I already know this, and I'm currently not voting for you. What difference does this make? If I'm a Tory, how does this get me on your side?

And Labour? It’s because of them that Britain was nearly bankrupted. They binged on borrowing until the deficit was at a startlingly high rate. They can’t be trusted with the economy. Their decade in power showed them caring more about bankers and media bosses than ordinary working people.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Aside from the economy argument being a poisoned chalice the longer this government goes on, Labour are ultimately your ALLIES at the 2015 general election. Don't go around saying how horribly out of touch and stupid they are, because that doesn't exactly make friendly happy times happen.

What's important is that thanks to the Tories opposition to AV (ignore Labour's involvement for a minute), there are areas where Labour are unlikely to win, and that those that can win are the Lib Dems...but they can't beat the Tories without Labour voters helping them out directly.

We know from Ashcroft polling that most people want a Labour or a Labour led coalition in 2015 (57% of them). Everything about Lib Dem strategy in 2015 should be about playing in to this...most likely in a subtle way in the sense they don't want to put off Tory strategic voters either.

A lot of this is going to depend on what the central strategy is, but the best shot Lib Dems have in 2015 is obviously another hung parliament...wouldn't a "we like this about the Tories, but we like this about Labour, but we're needed to stop X and Y from either" message be a) more mature and resonate with those that still rate Lib Dems for being above party politicking and b) ruffle less feathers of those that are undecided but still faintly loyal to red or blue?

A vote for the Liberal Democrats is not a vote for the Conservatives.

This isn't going to fly without giving something very concrete on this. The majority of tories and labour supporters think you've not managed to change the course of Tory policies, nor inject your own stamp on policy direction. (though Tories are more sympathetic...or is that frustrated...on the issue of Lib Dems being able to stand in their way)

It’s a vote to continue threading liberalism throughout Britain. It’s a move towards mature politics. The kind of politics that doesn’t involve bitter sniping in Parliament by politicians bubbled away from the real world.

I know this is a brief "why vote" leaflet, but still no real evidence or reasons here. What about Clegg being the first member of a cabinet to put himself on the line for live call in radio to be accountable on a regular basis to voters? Examples, examples! Remind, and more importantly, educate people that there is something different about the way Lib Dems are approaching politics.

The Liberal Democrats aren’t over as a party.

"They're not over? What? Does that mean they're struggling then, why would they need to try and convince us they're not over?"

Basically...don't say this, it insinuates that there is a legitimate rhetoric that the Lib Dems are on the way out, and gives it that legitimacy through reference.

We want to keep ensuring that Britain is as fair as we can possibly make it. We want to keep on proving to people that they weren’t wrong to trust us with their vote.

We want to carry on building a stronger economy in a fairer society.

And we need your support to do that.

OK, I think I'd drop this last line, maybe this last section here needs to be phrased more along the lines of "With your vote" rather than "we want". Link those outcomes to their action, rather than their vote being an enabler to whatever the Lib Dems wish to do, however that may change.

Other notes:

Over all I think it would be wise to recognise that there is still, albeit not in majority, a regard for the lib dems as a party that has it's heart in the right place, and has the potential to be different. The above, for me, doesn't market that image whatsoever. It paints them as very traditional in politics, very partisan and overly negative on the other parties. With the Lib Dem vote share I don't know if being negative rather than constructively criticising the other parties is more of a help than a hindrance.

The party must know that differentiation is going to be the key to their campaign, so it must be in your interest to show that you can seek out and promote that differentiation. It will be the attitude and focus the campaign team needs, showcase that you have that angle covered.

Where is the talk about local Lib Dems being good for the constituents? The Eastleigh campaign was bouyed by the fact that a) most people voted for their best local candidate and b) most people thought that was Mike.

In the Ashcroft polling we also see that out of all the factors the most persusive argument for Labour and Tory voters is that their local candidate is a good'un if they were open to voting Lib Dems "tomorrow"! This is the closest indication to what is a strong message to those wavering.

On another issue, and without the nod from the campaign team it's hard to justify, it's clear that what voters want to hear, certainly Lib Dem and Labour voters...but even an interesting number of Tory voters, is vocal opposition to Tory policies. Putting forward policies that the Tories wouldn't usually? even better! (25% of Tory voters would see Lib Dems more favourably if they did this, insanity!)

Did you know that while people favour Lib Dem/Labour alliance, they don't trust the current party (Clegg, the members) to choose Labour over the Tories as much as they personally would prefer it? Interesting to note, I thought.

Anyway, I'm digressing now...end.

Monday, 4 March 2013

RWD isn't to blame for your website being fat

Are you serving core content that needs to be available for display on all devices, but want a "richer" experience for those on a desktop (for example)? After a little discussion on Twitter today it's dawned on me that people may well be misrepresenting this "problem" as one that responsive web design can't deal with.

The idea goes that you have too much content on your page to resize down to mobile, so RWD must be the wrong approach, since it is RWD that is causing us to load the whole desktop site and then hide most of it for mobile.

This is NOT a RWD problem

If your choice is between RWD, or creating a mobile only version, then we can tick one thing off the list... your system is good enough to allow you to pick and choose your content to display. This is a positive, it means we can differentiate between content.

The reason this is positive for RWD is it means that you can define your "basic" site as the one that everyone will receive...and then you can progressively enhance it. You could do this via the server side or via javascript, you could try "browser sniffing" or just utilising viewport width detection. There are a number of ways you could make the decision on when a site goes from "basic" to "premium". You can even make multiple steps, for example if you knew you needed to have a different set of content on tablet, but not quite as much as a desktop.

Take a look at this (rough) example for how it works

If we can do this we don't have a problem with RWD, but rather a complicated relationship with our content. Indeed if we have too much content for the site, then the planning and strategy for the content has failed. If the content is all needed, then we are simply facing a UX problem...a UX problem that RWD can still lay on top of to ensure that a variety of different screen sizes, and orientations, are utilised to their fullest.

It seems a lot of people are railing against RWD without fully understanding what it is. It is fundamentally not a tool, it's a concept. You can choose to not use it (or be forced in to not using it) however all you're doing is creating a situation where the customer at the end of the experience has something that they have to work to use, that is likely to be less intuitive and harder to follow.

If problems arise with sites that use RWD I will bet that the primary reason they've failed is because of the person that has designed/built them. A lack of respect for accessibility is endemic in our profession, for example, and with a recent spike in the average "page weight" it would seem that style has trumped user experience metrics when it comes to delivering sexy, but bloated, one page scrolling one page websites (for example). It is us, the workers, that aren't disciplined; not the concept of RWD, as far as I can see for now.

Do you have criticisms of RWD? I'd love to hear examples of where the practice of ensuring that a webpage displays optimally at any screen size is somehow something we shouldn't be doing in some circumstances. So far the only example I've heard that I agree with is that budgets may constrain the amount of time that can be spent on a project and make RWD non-viable (but even then I'd argue that a good chat around future cost savings should be had around this issue), so I'd love to hear some more.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A responsive day out

Friday saw a frantic and precision event focused on "Responsive Web Design", or RWD, ran by ClearLeft, called Responsive Day Out, or #Responsiveconf online.

There have been several accounts that have gushed over how enjoyable the whole thing was, and how amazing Brighton is as a venue for these kinds of events. I completely agree, and if it were to run again I would recommend people make the time to get on I'll spare you an in depth review of all the (many) talks and get right to the "#beefcheeks".

Winging it?

There was this phrase that Sarah Parmenter used in the first presentation of the day which gained a lot of kudos...that we're an industry that is "winging it". It was a bit of a "Right on!" moment, and you could almost feel the collective sigh as people felt the burden of having to act like they know it all being lifted from them. It's a shame really that this "burden" is one that we inflict on ourselves as readily as we do, and Jeremy Keith was spot on when saying we need to be more open about our practices, and our failures, if we're going to move forwards.

So, are we winging it? I'm not so sure I agree it's as simple as some may feel.

I know that I am not "winging it", I am trying to evolve. I'm not making rash decisions, or hoping that my choices will be the right ones. I've attended a lot of talks and conferences, I continually discuss our industry with my peers. There may not be a "golden standard" for which to follow RWD from start to finish right now, but that doesn't mean that the way we are going about achieving our goals is hap-hazard or without reason.

But then, I don't believe this is what Sarah was saying, specifically.

What we do have to accept is that our practices are never going to be the same again, the idea of a golden standard, or a perfect process, is something I don't believe we should try to attain. Ironically I think we need to be much more "responsive" in how we deal with individual jobs, the constraints different clients will bring to the work and, (especially if you're a freelancer) the variation of different skills and understanding your own colleagues will have each time.

I feel that designers have historically tended to take the design of a website as a work of art, or at the very least as a stand-alone piece of of online "print" work; front-end developers similarly have seen their builds akin to creating a grand building or structure to be admired. But this is a world now where what we're making isn't able to live in it's own bubble, free of the impact that the world around it can have. This is a world now where what we design and make is part of a wider process of building a system, and systems don't begin with layout and colour palettes.

Indeed, while I agree with a lot of what Laura Kalbag said in her talk, the real job of web design starts well before we start to think about typography and base units.

This is a world that those in the UX field have been tackling for some time now, increasingly trying to apply it to the world of the web, and that is how to create the process of building a website around finding the right answer. Of course this means that we need to start asking the right questions too. This means starting with your raw content, and your audience, both common and edge case.

When you boil it down, good responsive web design is good UX design. Nothing more, nothing less. In the spirit of this conference I will revisit this and how I and those I work with are trying to improve our processes in a future blog post.

PSD hate

Another reason I thought that Sarah's talk was important as a starting point is that it really set the scene for the realities of working on web design and development. Most of us doing this kind of work are working for an agency of some kind, if we're lucky it'll be for one that specialises in website or systems design, other times will be working for marketing or advertising agencies. Whether you're doing it freelance or full time is pretty immaterial.

The 'RWD problem' is only partly to do with our own mentality as professionals tackling a new concept, there is a large part that is still a problem with how we bring people to understand our craft with us. It's simple to claim this is a issue with our clients, it's always easy to blame the notion of a faceless buffon that doesn't know anything as much as you(!), however it is more likely an issue caused by over-complicated communication structures in our own companies, and choosing the wrong person to be the champion of our processes. I don't think it's any surprise that the organisations that seem to be pushing the envelope forward with RWD have people that are passionate about knowledgeable about this way of approaching web development talking with, and teaching, clients directly.

Sarah said something that is important on this issue, and that is that you need to use the right tool for the job, and sometimes this isn't even about the active task of design, but the job of selling in the process to the client.

Let's face it, sometimes your client isn't going to respond to anything but final looking artwork of your site, it doesn't matter how much you try to inform them. There will be occasions when throwing things together in a PSD is much quicker than trying to create a prototype site. The key isn't how you present this information, it's how you explain the limitations of that form of presentation.

Our problems are largely a communication problems. Even if we were as sure as anything in the world that how we've designed a site the best way, if we just present our work as a fait accompli to the client, or rely solely on those who's job is to keep the client happy to both understand and be able to explain the complexities of this work, we are fighting a massive uphill battle of our own making.

Natural navigation, good UX

One prominent example of this new way of thinking had to be the second talk from David Bushell. Talking specifically about navigation, it exemplified how our design has to follow usability measures as a priority. Making navigation that is inconsistent across viewport sizes, or that doesn't respect the limited area of a viewport, isn't designing with customers in mind.

Indeed the big question is, do we really need navigation at all (at least in the sense of a dozen items, with drop down menus, nested with drop down menus)?

Some sites will require it, and some customers will feel more comfortable having it...but it would be much better to give people a journey that they can follow through your content, and it's accepted that search is one of the most universally understood functions in the web environment.

A lot of our struggles, as I mentioned above with regards to Sarah's talk, are about control. Mark Boulton nailed it at the end of the day (though most speakers also extolled the same sentiments) when he said that we need to stop trying to retain control over our websites. However this isn't just about trying to control how it looks, but it also means how we try to control how people use it.

When we choose layouts we need to be choosing them because we are greasing the journey for our customers. We don't put prominent links with eye catching design at the top because we would like people to visit it, we should be doing it with content that we know the customer is going to be looking for. The same goes for navigation.

The reality with customers right now is that we cannot predict, nor fix, their journey. Nor should we! One customer could take a path from A to B quite directly through our site, another may go from A to B, but via another point C. More complicated, they may take the route from A to B over a spread of time, visiting points C and D on the way, but on different devices and in different contexts.

We have no way to say we know what our customer wants from us, and the "right" way to deliver it to them. So if our job isn't to create the perfect track for them to follow, it must be to provide them with the right vehicle in case they don't want to follow any track at all.

Taking the easy way out

There was only one worry that I got throughout the day, a theme that reoccurred very subtly, that we are trying to reduce the web to it's simplest form in order to make this job of RWD easy.

It's been noted before elsewhere that RWD 'threatens creativity'. It's not a new thing, for example Wordpress and it's ease of use has proliferated standard themes across the web, with RWD we see a much welcome (from my perspective) dislike of techniques and decisions that lead to the use of things like Twitter Bootstrap. Of course I agree somewhat with Jeremy's analysis of this situation which is that it's not RWD as a practice that is killing creativity, but bad designers.

However I'd go one step further and say that it is not necessarily just bad designers that kill this creativity, but that it is an industry in a recession, scared of losing business, cutting resource and budgets killing creativity. Bootstrap and Wordpress as "platforms" or "libraries" are primarily interesting to clients and to companies because they offer a way to make good profit margins with little effort.

This has the dangerous coincidence with designers and developers who just aren't experienced enough yet, or don't have the desire to to do more than get their pay check, and can make such a profit aware choice easy to access. We have to remember that for the large part our industry is intertwined with, and funded by, the marketing industry not the creative industry...whether that's directly or indirectly.

It's this reason that I think it's in our interest not to pander to such "tools", at least not without using them as a base to build upon, otherwise you're helping to make an identikit web that becomes soulless in the process.

I fear for a web that has every site looking the same, and while there has been a focus on the bad practice of the use of media queries as device size break points as being the height of corner cutting, I believe the specter of unmodified standard themes and grid system libraries to be even more terrifying.

Maybe I'm being over-dramatic (feel free to let me know if I am!), but I don't want to see the challenge of complex and interesting design to be lost to the world because RWD evangelists push that the ideal is a minimalist style without much fuss, and create a dangerous landscape that suggests that there might be an easy "one size fits all" way to develop a new website with RWD in mind. As a developer I am a problem solver, and tweaking Twitter Bootstrap slightly for each new website isn't going to keep me interested.

We are lucky, a benefactor of chance, to see web development and design get interesting again thanks to RWD. It is entirely in our power to keep it interesting, and I hope we can keep it that way without blindly falling in to the worst of cutting corners, and that is accepting that easy design is the only way to design.

Other thoughts

As I said at the top, there are views coming in all the time, so here are a selection. Feel free to drop me a link in the comments and I'll add yours in here too.

Jeremy is also keeping a much more complete list on his site

Police cars
Brick wall
Lego figures
Group hug