It’s time we made ‘trolling’ socially unacceptable

Internet abuse is rife.

Internet abuse is rife.

I suspect like me, many people love and loathe the internet in equal measure.

Perhaps it’s an over-simplification but I would suggest that if you went to school in the days before the worldwide web then you realise that a) books (real ones, with paper) are good and b) there really is more to life than having a mobile phone surgically attached to your hand.

Don’t get me wrong: The internet has its uses. It’s a wonderful tool for learning (so long as you’re savvy enough to wade through the dross for reliable sources). It’s also great for shopping.

But, of course, the best thing about the web is that it brings people together. It instantly connects us with friends and loved ones around the country and all over the world.

For example, yours truly can chat online, face-to-face with my gamer friends in the States or via social media with my cousin Steven in New Zealand.

I’ll be sitting at work here in Hanley early in the morning and suddenly a message will pop up on Facebook from a little town called Feilding in the Manawatu region of the North Island where Steve is just about to hit the hay. This will never cease to amaze me. Bear in mind I’m still in awe of touch-screen technology.

But for all the advantages of the internet, there are many down-sides – not least the way in which it, and social media in particular, perpetuate bullying and abuse.

I was heartened to hear this week that people who abuse their victims on social media face prosecution for the first time in a shake-up of domestic violence rules.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders announced that criminal prosecutors have been given new guidance to modernise the way they investigate abuse.

She said some teenagers may not consider themselves victims if they are being targeted on sites such as Facebook and Twitter – as opposed to being physically abused.

This new guidance means online abuse will now be taken into account in domestic violence cases.

The problem is that these kinds of incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

There have been numerous documented cases of teenagers committing suicide after being bullied online; Of celebrities and high-profile individuals being stalked or harassed; Of organisations being unfairly targeted by individuals with an axe to grind.

It’s just so easy, isn’t it? This technological marvel which is seen as a vital lifeline in countries where people live in fear of oppressive regimes is a double-edged sword.

Anyone, anywhere can log on to the internet and create a platform to spout their (very often not so nice) views about other people.

Anyone with a social media account will see this abuse daily. Anyone who logs on to forums – such as the hugely popular football club fan sites – is exposed to it. Anyone who reads The Sentinel online and looks at some of the comments posted beneath stories will know what I’m talking about.

Many of the worst offenders hide behind pseudonyms and often have several of them. They like having the last word – believing this means they have somehow made their point or won the argument.

Ironically, I suspect very few of the abusers – because that’s what they are – would have the courage to say such things to the faces of their victims. Otherwise presumably they wouldn’t hide their identities.

The internet tends to embolden morons and give such people an over-inflated sense of their own importance.

I thought I had left the playground bullies behind when I finished school 26 years ago but it seems many of them have re-emerged via keyboards.

Forgive me if I sound like a representative of the Thought Police but it is hugely worrying to me that this sort of abuse is commonplace.

There’s a world of difference in my mind to free speech enabling robust, healthy debate and the insidious persecution of individuals because someone has an axe to grind with them or just because they can.

To my mind, swearing at someone on the internet or calling them ‘scum’ or a ‘liar’ or worse should be as socially-unacceptable as drink-driving.

I’ve blocked about 80 people from my Twitter feed in the last five years – the vast majority of whom claimed to be Port Vale supporters. Most of them began abusing me when the club’s chairman fell out with The Sentinel last November (ignoring the fact that this newspaper and yours truly did a bit to help the Vale in recent years).

Such abuse is water off a duck’s back to me these days but not everyone can shrug it off. We should remember that sticks and stones may break bones but words can also hurt people.

Sure, you can ‘block’ someone from your Twitter account or ‘unfriend’ them on Facebook. You can avoid forums or report abuse. But why should you have to?

Internet forums and social media are the verbal equivalent of the Wild West.

Given that children now have access to tablets and mobile telephones from a very early age, I think it’s vital that parents and teachers advise them how to behave online.

It’s one thing to install restrictions on devices to block certain websites or to protect your child from predators through education, but I think it is equally important to equip youngsters to deal with online abuse which can’t be filtered out – and to ensure they don’t actually dish it out themselves.

My view is: If you can’t say something politely then don’t say anything.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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How the digital revolution changed our lives (whether we wanted it or not…)

The keyboard from a Commmodore 64 (like what I had!).

The keyboard from a Commmodore 64 (like what I had!).

This week I attended my first ‘tweet-up’ where prolific Twitter users from our patch met face-to-face over a pint at The Leopard pub in Burslem.

A disparate group of people, including some of North Staffordshire’s most influential thinkers and business people, were brought together by the power of a social network.

It is a concept that would have seemed bizarre even 20 years ago.

During my time at high school and college and the early years of my career as a journalist, such a thing would have been impossible as the technology just didn’t exist.

I am talking about a time before Skype, text messages, mobile telephones, email and, of course, the internet.

Simply put: The revolution in digital communications during the last quarter of a century or more has had a dramatic effect on the way we live our lives.

It is an effect that we would neither have believed nor understood three decades ago.

What’s more, the changes all come back to the advent of the internet and key events during the 1980s which really did shape the world we live in today.

In 1988 I sat my GCSE examination in computing and got a C grade which basically meant I could log in and shut down a PC and use a mouse.

This was, in fact, partly due to the fact I had a Commodore 64 at home on which I was playing Airwolf and Johnny Reb of an evening.

Perhaps more telling was the fact that I was one of only two boys at Holden Lane High who also sat the GCSE typewriting exam – using actual typewriters with ink ribbons. Remember them?

What most of my generation was unaware of was the fact that a revolution was coming. A digital revolution.

Back then we viewed computers as new-fangled machines for the office and school or play-things. If you were lucky you had one at home – although most people didn’t.

It was a time when children first started having portable (usually black and white) TVs in their bedrooms. Chunky little things with aerials that you had to manipulate in order to get a decent signal.

Either that or you had to stand on your tip-toes up the corner of the room holding the aforementioned telly in a certain position to achieve the best reception.

Anyone over the age of 30 knows I’m not kidding.

Computers were static, large, clunky things which took ages to ‘boot up’ and were, in effect, little more than memory devices for text or video game consoles.

But the internet changed all of that and made computers vital to every walk of life – from healthcare and law enforcement to your weekly shop and keeping in touch with friends and relatives in other parts of the country or across the world.

The origins of the internet can be traced back to the first real network run on what’s called ‘packet-switching’ technology.

Arpanet, or Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was born in 1969 when computers at Stanford University and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) connected for the first time.

There was no commercial benefit to this – it simply allowed data to be shared by people across the network – but this very basic system was, over time, to lead to the global connecting of computers which the current generation takes for granted.

The 1970s saw the first email sent, the first trans-Atlantic connection and the advent of the first PC modem which was originally sold to computer hobbyists (when they were still niche).

In 1984 the domain name system was created – making addresses on the internet more ‘human-friendly’.

1985 saw the development of ‘The WELL’ (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) – one of the oldest virtual communities still in operation.

By 1987 the internet had around 30,000 hosts and a year later Internet Relay Chat was first used – paving the way for real-time chat and the instant messaging services we use today.

1988 also saw the first cyber attack by malicious software when the ‘Morris Worm’ caused major interruptions across the fledgling ‘inter-network’.

A year later saw the proposal for the World Wide Web – written by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim) and published in the MacWorld magazine.

At the time yours truly was working as a cub reporter at Smith Davis Press Agency, where one of my colleagues remarked that this ‘internet’ thing would hit our industry like a train.

At the time he was referring to electronic image transfer and I honestly don’t think he had any real idea how the internet would change everything. To be fair, no-one did.

By the end of the decade the die was cast and the digital revolution had begun.

Oh. I almost forgot: The 1980s also gave birth to another modern-day staple of communications.

In 1982 the first smiley emoticon was used.

Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist now living in Pennsylvania, proposed using 🙂 after a joke to represent a smile.

So now you know exactly who to blame for such nonsense. 😦

For more Eighties nostalgia pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday

Exciting, exhausting… and I wouldn’t change a thing about my days as a cub reporter

We bought an iMac at the weekend after our computer died. Literally. Other PCs are, of course, available but I have to say it’s a great piece of kit. Stylish, powerful and – most important of all – a brand that is intrinsically-linked to my days as a cub reporter in the Mother Town some 20-odd years ago.

The purchase got me thinking about those crazy early days of my career as a journalist.

While studying for my A-levels at Sixth Form College in Fenton I got a Saturday job working for the Smith Davis Press Agency in Tunstall – shortly before they moved to Burslem.

I was 17 and had applied for a full-time job I wasn’t eligible for just to get a bit of work experience.

The directors – two ex-Sentinel men called Peter Davis and Dave Smith – took pity on me and had me in at the weekends.

I made tea, fetched and carried and got to go to Port Vale and Stoke City games with writers who, unlike me, could string a sentence together.

Most importantly of all I was taught the basics of journalese – in other words, how to write news, sports and features stories.

I thought I could write. I was wrong. I could cobble together history and English Literature essays and the odd bit of (bad) creative fiction but that didn’t mean I could write in the real world.

At Smith Davis I learned how to construct a story and to avoid repetition.

I learned about the who, what, where, how, why and when questions. I learned about drop intros and the need to check your facts with more than one source.

Those lessons in the basics, from a couple of veteran newsmen, were backed up by rollickings from the news editors from national newspapers who would shout very loud and turn the air blue if there was a single error in the you copy you had filed down the ‘wire’.

Let’s just say anyone who has had me as a news editor really doesn’t know they’re born. Suffice to say I learned quickly. It was a case of having to. It really was sink or swim. It didn’t matter that I was part-time at first and it certainly didn’t matter how old I was.

I had it drummed into me that you were only as good as your last story.

I did OK. Well enough, in fact, to be offered an £80 a week contract when I left college – which led me to turn down offers from three universities and enter the world of work at 18.
No-one tells you what to expect when you walk into a newsroom.

You have an idea in your head based on television and films but the reality is, in fact, a world away.

It’s seldom glamorous, often laborious, and certainly does not involve sitting in a pub all day.

Indeed, you’re more likely to spend the day with a telephone attached to your ear – like yours truly in the picture above. Back in 1989, the industry was very different to the modern day media world.

The internet was in its infancy and wasn’t yet on our radar. There was no email, no mobile telephones and no 24-hour TV and radio news.

Agency reporters – or stringers as we were known – really were (and still are) the dog soldiers of journalism. I worked Monday to Saturday and was on call 24/7 and carried a beeper – just like a hospital doctor – which would wake me up at all hours of the day and night.

I ran with the national ‘pack’, did regular work for Central TV, Granada TV and Signal Radio, and cut my teeth on Vale and Stoke match reports and the occasional exclusive for nationals – ranging from The Times to the Today newspaper and even the Daily Sport.

I was fingerprinted in a murder inquiry, tailed back to the office by special branch, went undercover at General Election time (can’t tell you), was threatened with a shotgun, met and photographed royals – including Princess Di, went clubbing with Vale players (those were the days) – and broke a couple of major national stories from which I’ve still got the clippings.

Looking back, I recall it was exhausting, exciting and I wouldn’t change a thing. I realise now that those five years were the best possible training a hack could ever receive.

Then one day we upgraded to new computers – funky new Apple Macs – and my colleague Andy Jackson started talking about something called the internet and electronic picture transfer which he said would hit our industry ‘like a train’.

He was right. Andy often was. Suddenly the landscape changed and newspapers were under threat from digital communications.

Some people will tell you that the print media is doomed. They’re wrong.

Take it from someone who’s had newsprint on his hands for two decades or more.

People like having something tangible in their hands. Something they can pass around and show their missus or their mates – something they can cut out from or keep.

There’s something reassuringly familiar about the product I am privileged to help create – my home town newspaper – which is what convinces me there will always be a need, a demand for its vital, grassroots kind of local journalism.

It’s been a long time since I’ve run with the pack and in recent years my profession has taken something of a pounding. What’s more, the technology involved and the demands and challenges we face are greater than ever.

But I still believe in the ethos of the job which I picked up in those early days: That our role is to inform, to educate and to entertain and that journalism is a cornerstone of our democracy.

I certainly wouldn’t still be doing it, if I didn’t. And I wouldn’t be doing it at all if it wasn’t for those boys at the agency in Boslem.
This one’s for you, gents.

This article is dedicated to some wonderful colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from over the years – especially the late John Hollinshead (Smith Davis photographer), the late Jeff Henderson (sub-editor with the Chester Evening Leader) and the late, great John Abberley of The Sentinel.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

We would be all the poorer without libraries

BETWEEN the ages of 14 and 16, every Saturday morning I would walk the mile or so from my house in Sneyd Green to the city centre with a rucksack slung over my shoulder.
My destination was Hanley Library and I didn’t mind the trek because I was on a homework mission.
Geoff Ball, that most charismatic and engaging of history teachers at Holden Lane High, would ask my class to find out everything we could about a certain historical figure.
So it was upstairs to the reference library I would head in search of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
I can still recall the smell of those black, leather-bound tomes.
I’ve always been a bookworm which is why I loved the library. I wasn’t interested in borrowing videos, records or those new-fangled CDs. I was there for the books.
I vividly recall swotting up on Il Duce – Benito Mussolini – and the ensuing pride at my pencil sketch of the Italian dictator.
This was, of course, the mid Eighties – otherwise known, children, as before the internet.
If you wanted to find something out you didn’t type it into a search engine, you went and looked it up in a book.
You see, as much as I enjoy the benefits of the digital age, I have to say I’m still a terrible snob when it comes to the written word.
I’ll defend books, and libraries, to the death and when I read about the closure of these bastions of learning as part of council cutbacks I can’t help but feel incredibly sad and worried for the future.
There’s something about having a library card and visiting a place dedicated to knowledge.
You see, despite what successive governments have been telling us, no-one can convince me that standards of literacy are going up year-on-year.
I think the truth is that so much emphasis these days is placed on computer-based learning that generations of children are growing up without a love or appreciation of books which I think is a crying shame. And, at the risk of sounding like some dinosaur, give me a good book any day of the week – something I can hold in my hand – as opposed to a screen to stare at.
I visit schools to be shown the wonderful LRCs (learning resource centres) filled with lap top computers – and then despair at the fact that I have a bigger library of actual books upstairs at home.
On Sunday morning I sat with my eldest daughter Lois, who is six, and watched open-mouthed as she navigated her way around her school’s website – or ‘virtual learning environment’.
Now I don’t mind her spending a little time on a PC because Lois loves real books. We’ve read to her every night since she was six months old and she’s never without a Meg and Mog story, a Horrid Henry book or something by Julia Donaldson.
She’s also got a complete children’s encyclopedia which she’s now using every week to help her to get more out of the different topics at school.
I know that she’ll grow up with a love of books akin to my own but I wonder how many other children – shoved in front of a telly, wired into a games console or glued to a computer screen for hours on end will be as fortunate.
Yes, I understand full well that the ability to rip stuff off the internet is an essential tool for school children and students these days.
But I fear that this aversion to books is genuinely damaging.
Critics argue that libraries have failed to adapt to changing times and fashions.
They say, with some justification, that learning habits have changed, that books, music and DVDs are cheap to buy and that information is readily available via the worldwide web.
In other words – libraries as we know them, the libraries that I grew up with, are past their sell-by date.
Wrong. Anyone who has ever visited a library and watched a children’s story session knows what a magic libraries can weave.
Anyone who, like me, spent a little time at a library on World Book Night understands the key role these places have – the way in which they can bring people together through literature and the arts.
They may have to evolve further and offer other local authority services but I feel very strongly that libraries are crucial to our communities and that we would be all the poorer without them.

We need sense of perspective during season of goodwill

I love Christmas and everything about it. I make no apologies for milking every drop of happiness from the festive season.

On Christmas Eve I am the dictionary definition of a big kid. It’s by far and away my favourite day of the year.

I haven’t read my festive copy of the Radio Times yet, but suffice to say I won’t be able to sleep until I’ve watched a re-run of Blackadder’s Christmas Carol for the umpteenth time.

We have a real tree at home and an old-fashioned wooden advent calendar for the girls that we can restock with chocolates.

I don’t send e-Christmas cards – emails to those of you who are wondering – and pretend it’s because I’m being green or giving to charity.

I write proper cards, dozens of them, to family, friends and work colleagues.

Aside from being lucky enough to be in a panto for the first time, I’ve already attended the Christingle church service where all the congregation receive an orange with a candle stuck in it, and a few dolly mixtures.

I’ve also enjoyed carols round the tree at my daughter’s school and sat through her first Christmas show – a delightful story involving the birth of Jesus, two lost angels and a guest appearance by St Nicholas.

I remember taking part in a Nativity play at my primary school 30-odd years ago and desperately wishing I could have worn the green cloak shouldered by Jason Barker, one of our three wise men.

Such things stay with you. As, I’m sure, will the fact that my eldest turned down the chance to play the lead role of the Star of Bethlehem because she wanted to dress up as an angel like the rest of her pals.

Like me, Lois is a daydreamer and occasionally zoned out of the show – too busy watching her classmates dressed as donkeys and elves to keep up with the songs and dance routines.

Not that it mattered. The missus and I couldn’t have been more proud.

Most of us had cameras, some parents used their mobile phones to take pictures, and a few had video cameras.

The following evening my wife took a phone call from a friend of ours who had worked herself up into something of a lather.

Apparently, one of the dads had uploaded a video of the aforementioned show on to the internet for all to see.

For good measure, he’d also named the class and the school.

An hour and a few phone calls later the cameraman had been persuaded to take the video off the internet.

The headteacher was made aware of what had happened and no harm was done.

As a governor at the school and someone who has had to be checked by the Criminal Records Bureau in order to accompany pupils on trips, I fully understand the need for vigilance when it comes to protecting youngsters from the dangers posed by the internet.

The video should never have been posted on the internet in the first place.

However, the dad in me cringes at the world we now live in and feels some sympathy for the poor bloke who posted the video in all innocence.

He was obviously as proud as I was to see his daughter take part in the show.

So much so that he had handed out slips of paper to other parents in the playground so they too could enjoy watching the video.

Hardly, I would suggest, the actions of a dubious individual – more the naiveté of a bloke puffed up with pride and trying to do others a favour.

By the same token, as much as I understand why we have to be careful in this day and age, I would hate to see all schools banning the use of cameras which record such precious occasions for posterity for family, friends and local communities.

Newspapers up and down the land publish Nativity picture specials at this time of year. Should we ban them too?

One of the joys of being a parent is witnessing your child’s milestone moments and sharing them with others.

Among the most enjoyable and rewarding are their first public performances – often at Christmas time.

I’d like to think that while remaining vigilant we can also keep a sense of perspective with regard to childhood and parental responsibility.

This is the season of goodwill, after all.