What makes news news?

The BBC’s news coverage of Hurricane Sandy has been exemplary. But on tonight’s news, they have repeatedly referred to the 30 deaths that the hurricane has caused.

They of course mean US deaths, a number that now sits at 39, plus one in Canada. For one reason or another, they are not mentioning the 68 deaths at the hands of the hurricane in the Caribbean, 52 of which occurred in Haiti, a further 11 in Cuba.

If Sandy had not made landfall on the US or Canadian mainland, the news coverage would have been minimal. Yet it’s likely that the mainland deaths will be comparable in number to those suffered in the Caribbean.

I guess various factors influence the coverage that the hurricane receives as a result of its US landfall. The US is a comparable nation to the UK, in ideologies, in language (mostly), in development. Brits have been to New York on holiday. We know the US from the TV programmes and films that we watch.

I find it quite saddening really. The newsworthiness of weather is not measured purely in terms of its impact on those living through the disaster. It is also measured based on the connection that the intended audience feels towards the disaster’s victims.

Morgan Freeman is alive and well. And other such hocum

The other week, someone (on Facebook I think it was) “Liked” a picture of a dog in trouble. The dog was seemingly being rescued from freezing-cold waters by people holding out a ladder, trying to drag it back to safety.

The caption on the photo read as follows:

Like this photo if you would rescue this dog. Ignore it if you don’t care.

I ignored it. And it has troubled me ever since.*

Occasionally, I’ll receive an all-too-long email, usually from someone dear to me, asking me to forward it to a specified number of friends to bring good luck to both them and me, and quite likely the person who sent it to me. (Wow, this month has five Mondays, five Tuesdays and five Wednesdays. The first time since the Gregorian calendar was introduced.**)

I always ignore them.

And all too frequently, a post will appear on Facebook with the words “R.I.P Morgan Freeman” (it’s always Morgan Freeman, and there’s never a full stop after the P). The latest one has been Liked 1,438,643 times, has 378,778 comments and has been shared a staggering 61,344 times.

I’ve ignored it. It’s not because I don’t like the man. I genuinely rate him as an actor. It’s because I’m quite certain he’s not dead. So suggesting that he rests in peace, at this stage in his life, would literally be a death wish.

There are similar variants. “Press L to see what happens next” is a common one. (L, coincidentally, is the Facebook shortcut for liking a post, btw. If you press L, nothing appears to happen, and you soon move on to look at some pictures of cute cats. (Cue lolz.) Meanwhile, the Like count has just incremented by one.)

I’m not sure whether their purpose is in aid of vanity by those that post them, or advertising revenue to the same. Either way, they highlight the gullibility of those who use the internet, and the power of heartstrings among the very same.

So if I ignore your email, don’t be offended. Good luck will either come to you or not, and my obeying the instructions in the email will have not a jot of impact to your life, nor indeed mine. But I urge you to take the same lack of action, for my sake as well as yours.

As an aside, when Morgan Freeman does die, it is expected that it will take three full months for anyone to acknowledge the fact, owing to the cynicism with which such “news” will be greeted by that point in time.

* I’ve since given it not a moment’s thought.

** 2007

The proofreader’s paradox

As a proofreader, I have an irrational fear that haunts me regularly. Here it is.

On page four of a literary work is a reference to something that appears on “page five”. But the thing being referenced appears at the very top of page six. So I change the reference from “page five” to “page six”. All is good.

But in so doing, because the word “six” is shorter than “five”, and word and line breaks being what they are, everything thereafter shunts up a little, and the thing that previously appeared at the top of page six now appears at the bottom of page five.

Without changing other aspects of the document, I am unable to correctly reference the thing being referenced.

I shut my laptop, find a seat on the floor in the corner of the room, focus on an indistinct point on the opposite wall while hugging my legs, and rock backwards and forwards as tears stream down my face.

Thus far in my career, the above scenario has never happened. But I imagine it’s only a matter of time.

Cycling accident, Clapham Common (10 October 2012)

Last Wednesday, 10 October 2012, my morning started pretty much as any other morning. The ablutions and dressing were not particularly worthy of note, save my decision to change my blue socks so that their trim (invisible to the observer once shod) matched the new purple shirt that I had chosen to wear that day. I sometimes do such things to bring about good luck.

My daughter and I left the house, put our respective bags into the boot of the car, put on our respective seat belts, and set off for school, as we do every morning.

At 0807, we stopped at the lights on Cedars Road, waiting to turn right onto Clapham Common North Side. Unusually, we were the only vehicle at the lights. More often than not, there are enough vehicles to make getting through the lights in a single sequence far from a formality.

While waiting for green, an articulated foreshortened oil tanker pulled out wide before turning left into Cedars Road. A cyclist was on his inside, marginally ahead of the lorry. I’m unsure whether she was intending to continue west down Clapham Common North Side or turn left into Cedars Road. Either way, the tanker driver didn’t see her, and hit her with the nearside corner of his cab.

At that point I saw her face in panic. My screaming “no” had no impact, my windows being wound all the way up. I genuinely thought that at that stage of the accident, the lorry driver had clocked the situation. If I remember, his speed slowed, but I now think this was because of his changing up a gear. He continued into Cedars Road, oblivious of the unfolding situation.

The cyclist screamed repeatedly for the tanker to stop. But he didn’t hear. She slipped from her bike, and eventually fell to the ground. I think I remember her face change from a fighting to a resigned frame. But maybe this memory has been embellished subconsciously.

At this point, the accident progressed out of my eye line, as the tanker moved to block my line of sight. I was thankful for this, as I was almost certain that the worst possible outcome would result.

Eventually, about 12–15 metres further down Cedars Road, the tanker came to a halt, presumably prompted by the sense of something hindering his progress. I opened my car door and ran across to the other carriageway, expecting to find a body crushed by the two front sets of the tanker cab’s nearside wheels. The tanker driver followed me round the front of his vehicle.

The woman was indeed trapped, but miraculously (to me), she was still in front of all of the tanker’s wheels. Where her bike was, I have no idea. But her body was trapped underneath the tanker cab. She lay still and silent. The tanker driver was utterly shocked. He ran back to his cab, either to turn off his engine or to reverse – I think it was the former, but I couldn’t be sure.

I ran back to call the emergency services from the phone that was in my car. I feel ashamed at this action. Maybe I should have tried to establish her state of health. I tried to explain to the emergency services operator that we were on the junction of Queenstown Road and Clapham Common North Side, which she clearly struggled with. (Queenstown Road turns into Cedars Road way before it hits the Common.) My panicked state couldn’t fathom the reason for her confusion. I berated myself later for my error.

Once we’d sorted the location, I reeled off the services that we’d need. Ambulance, naturally. Police, because this was an RTC. And fire, because there was likely a need to lift an oil tanker off a person. The whole suite.

By this stage, there were sufficient people around the woman to aid her until the emergency services arrived. I now had my daughter in my arms, and was eagerly looking up and down Clapham Common North Side to guide the emergency services to the accident. They were quick to arrive.

The fire engine secured itself to the back of the tanker, to save the possibility of it rolling forward I guess. I gave my name and mobile number to the police officer, which he rather quaintly wrote down in his A7 (yes, A7) notebook. (I was reminded of Heartbeat.) And I was on my way, assured that the police would be in contact. I’m quite confident in that I was the only third party witness to the accident.

The police have not been in touch. I called them a couple of days later, but was told that if they needed to speak to me, they would call.

Here is the only news article I can find about the collision. The 28-year-old cyclist has allegedly suffered life-changing injuries. I wish her as full a recovery as possible.

I don’t know who, if anyone, was to blame for the accident; nor will I speculate. But I will beg my cycling friends to please take extra care around large vehicles, particularly those that might be turning left. Your life can be transformed in an instant, as happened that morning for the woman.

RIP Directgov

Just under nine years ago, I started work on a project that to this day stands out from the crowd. That project was the delivery of Directgov.

Previously, we had completed the arduous task of building a new website delivery system for government, from soup to nuts. Both the front-end and the back-end were highly bespoke, the vision being a single content repository and delivery mechanism for all UK government content. Its name was DotP.

Traction was slow. Without a mandate, we relied on selling the concept to other government departments, and had some success. First, ukonline.gov.uk was ported from its unwieldy and expensive HTML platform provided by BT Syntegra. I then project managed the migration of dh.gov.uk to the new platform. (More specifically, it involved the replacement of doh.gov.uk with dh.gov.uk, a stroke of genius that made the migration that bit simpler and the branding that bit clearer. But that’s another story.)

A couple of other small websites came to join the party before the concept of Directgov was introduced.

As I remember, the project kicked off in November 2003. We enlisted offshore support to allow us to hit some very aggressive content entry deadlines. We implemented a radical (and in my opinion confusing) information architecture at the behest of the business. And we went live in January 2004. As project manager, I gave a written status update on 25 December 2003, and a verbal one to Andrew Pinder, the e-Envoy, on Boxing Day. Yet again, we delivered on time.

The hard launch followed in May 2004, and on 9 July I left the Cabinet Office to venture to New York for new experiences. I looked back on the project very fondly. I even cried during my leaving speech, such was the importance of the project, and more importantly the team, to me personally. (It was probably also influenced by me being a rather emotional person. But that aside…)

In mid-2006, we headed back to London to start our next chapter. While I remembered Directgov, it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind – until we hit London. It was on the back of buses, on billboards, and even had a TV campaign. Its URL and its distinctive orange branding adorned every government website, and it was a big deal. A very big deal. It had much, much greater prominence than its UK online predecessor had enjoyed.

The DotP platform was retired 40 days shy of its fourth birthday, on 14 March 2007, upon DH’s migration to Stellent. (Directgov moved off the platform two months prior to this.) Directgov the website will be retired tonight, making way for www.gov.uk, the new government offering.

I wish its successor well. A good number of my good friends are involved in the project, and I wish it every success: for them, for its audience (of 15 million visitors per month), and as the next instalment in the story of the single point of entry for government. Directgov has had a very good life, and I am proud to this day to have played a key role in its inception.