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Location: United Kingdom

Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Ashleigh, The Daily Mail and Facebook: lessons learned

The Daily Mail published an apology in its print edition today over an article, which originally appeared with the headline "I posed as a 14-year-old girl on Facebook. What followed will sicken you."

What followed did sicken me but not for the same reasons that it did most people.

Not Facebook
The hoo-ha was about an account written by Mark Williams-Thomas, a former police detective working as a criminologist and child protection expert, who had gone on a social networking site pretending to be a 14-year-old female. The article says that within seconds he had been approached by older men making inappropriate suggestions and personal questions of sexual nature, with the implication that Facebook was a breeding ground for paedophiles and other sexual predators with a penchant for sex with teenagers.

As it turns out the SNS he had used was not Facebook at all, as Williams-Thomas clarified in a tweet (below), although he refuses to reveal which site it was. According to Williams-Thomas, despite his requests for the Mail to change the draft, the paper went ahead and printed the unamended copy. When Facebook protested, it changed the heading to "I posed as a girl of 14 online. What followed will sicken you."

It sounds all too convenient that such a controversial article was published so soon after the news on the conviction of 33-year-old Peter Chapman for the rape and murder of teenager Ashleigh Hall, whom he had groomed on Facebook.

Chapman, a registered sex offender, had approached the 17-year-old Hall from Durham on the social networking site, masked as a 16-year-old boy. Hall went to meet Chapman believing she had a date with a boy from her age group but told her mother she was staying overnight with a friend. The teenager was never to return.

Facebook is now threatening to sue the Mail for misrepresenting their brand image, as first reported by David Steven in Global Dashboard, and followed up by, The Guardian and the BBC.

Internet: villain or hero
Last month I worked as a digital reporter at the Young People in a Digital World 2010 conference in Wales, a discussion forum on digital skills and e-safety for children and young people hosted by WISE KIDS and WISP (hashtag #YPDW2010 on Twitter).

The message from the experts was clear: the future is digital. Young people need to experience the digital tools available to them as a life skill, and lessons on internet safety are to be part of that education.

Knowing that schools, youth workers and media consultancy organisations, such as WISE KIDS, are taking proactive steps to encourage internet access and digital literacy in young people, I am disheartened and enraged to imagine the potential impact media stories like the one in The Mail could have on families with young children, who regularly use social networking sites.

At the YPDW2010, I spoke to Rebecca Newton of Mind Candy, creators of the Moshi Monsters site. With many years' experience managing online communities of young people at sites such as Habbo Hotels and Moshi, she understands online behaviours in depth and explained to me how e-moderators flag up suspicious approaches, which require further investigation.

Two key things I learned from Rebecca were that, firstly, actual paedophiles do not approach their victims overnight asking direct questions such as where you go to school, what your age is, etc. There is a "grooming" process which can take from months to years. Secondly, children are far more in danger of being sexually exploited or abused by people they actually know off-line, such as a parent, a step parent, an uncle, a cousin, a neighbour.

The fact that the internet is often painted as a dangerous world with sexually deviant creatures lurking at every corner is the product of a collective fear created by scare media stories – exactly as the one printed by The Daily Mail. Here's my interview with Rebecca:

Her words made me reflect on the enormous responsibility media organisations and individual journalists have in influencing the perception of the nations' parents on children and their relationship with the internet.

Peter Chapman's conviction news splashed out on the front pages was harrowing enough for any parent to read, but a newspaper article saying an adult posing as a teen on Facebook was besieged by come-ons from several older men, only foments unhealthy, blind hysteria. Articles of similar nature could start a nationwide trend of frightened, overanxious parents, taking all internet access away from their children.

Hard as it may be, Ashleigh's story needs to be told to the world, for there is a lesson there to be learned. But it is totally unnecessary – dare I say even irresponsible – for any publication to spread scaremongering rumours about Facebook and exaggerate the vulnerability and helplessness of young users.

Captive children
Professor Tanya Byron gave a wonderful videoed keynote address at the YPDW2010 conference, which showed how rightly child-centric her recommendations are.

Tanya Byron is a clinical psychologist and child therapist who was commissioned by Gordon Brown to conduct an independent review on inappropriate material for children and young people on the internet and video games in 2007. The results of her investigations, published the following year as "The Byron Review", or Safer Children on a Digital World, informs all present government's policies on e-safety.

In Prof. Byron's words:
"We live in a risk-averse culture. We are raising our children in captivity."

She was referring to the tendency adults in this country have of shutting their children off the outside world, believing they would be more protected at home, under their supervision. But, she says, adventure and risk-taking are part of childhood. If they can't do it offline, they will seek their identities online.

Let's face it: all young people do it. Social networking sites have become a lifeline for the young generation. Just as we used to hang on the phone with our friends for hours on end in pre-internet times (with our parents shouting next door that they need to use the landline urgently), young people now stay connected with each other 24 hours a day through computers, mobile phones, even video games. Blocking their access to sites every one of their friends is using is pointless to say the least. Children are "digital natives" – they will always find a way round them.

And when they do, unless they are equipped with knowledge and skills to protect themselves, empowered to distinguish the good from the bad, what chance do they have of staying safe?

Ashleigh's choice
Ashleigh's mother had taught her daughter not to speak to strangers, online as well as offline. But as a 17-year-old, with a natural interest in the opposite sex, she must have, for one instant of poor judgement, been carried away by what she thought was a young boy's constant attention. For that one mistake she had to pay with their life.

Facebook came under criticism for refusing installation of the panic button, which allows users to report suspicious activity directly to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). MSN and Bebo already have the button installed, but Facebook says their own reporting system is adequate. You can read more details in this Guardian report.

Young students attending the WISE KIDS-WISP conference said they found the reporting system on social networking sites awkward, with far too many questions to be answered. For that reason, often, they could not be bothered to report.

It is likely Ashleigh knew she had the option of reporting Chapman on Facebook, or the boy Chapman pretended to be. She chose not to, as she felt there was no need. She trusted him. It is humanly understandable.

What defies comprehension is how a man on the sex offenders' register could have had a profile on a social networking site in the first place. And why Merseyside Police waited nine months to start pursuing Chapman after he was reported missing from his home last year.

Too many failed the young Ashleigh, and yet she alone paid the price.

Mobile geo-tracking
Despite safety and privacy setting issues having caused controversy among users, Facebook is planning to add a new feature from next month, which, like Foursquare, will allow users to share their location with others, as announced by The New York Times.

With a fourth of its 400 million users accessing Facebook from their mobile phones, the new feature would open up infinite possibilities for location-based advertisement.

I accept that Facebook is, at the end of the day, a commercial enterprise and needs to generate a revenue in order to keep competitive, but I wonder what the consequences of such an application could have on the safety of our children, even ourselves, as adults.

We live in an age dominated by online and mobile conversations, often in open platforms, with privacy becoming an increasingly rare commodity. In our haste and excitement to develop more and more tools to facilitate the communication, we may have unwittingly dragged young people under the wheels of technology.

The traffic got faster and more furious, but we forgot to set up the digital equivalent of the lollipop lady so that they can cross that highway safely, before they can learn to drive fast cars.

Social media sites, child protection agencies, parents, guardians and educators all share the responsibility for safeguarding the protection of our young people. At a time when communication tools have never been so advanced, it is ironic there should be so many crossed lines.

It is time we started talking with, not AT each other.

Let us not allow the tragic loss of Ashleigh Hall's life to have been in vain.

Updated 12/03/10: Michael Cole has posted a fantastic piece on how flawed Facebook's reporting system is:

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Monday, 8 March 2010

International Women's Day: some random thoughts

Today is International Women’s Day, a day for remembering and celebrating the achievements of women past, present and future.

The fact that there isn’t an International Man’s Day seems like an indication that women have always had it much harder than men to get to the same places.

Men certainly seem to dominate the upper echelons of print and broadcast journalism and although some of my favourite journalists are in fact female, their careers seem to be generally blighted by sexism and ageism, which get better or worse, depending on what the part of the world they work in.

Age concerns
It wasn't that long ago that BBC boss Mark Thompson came under fire for replacing a mature female judge in a popular dance show with a pop star 36 years her junior.

The fact that in television, older, grey-haired male presenters carry on commanding respect well into their retirement age, whereas their female counterparts get sidelined as their age starts to show, could be a reflection of a society's warped views about women, and not exclusive to the industry.

Women's value and employability should not be conditional to age or appearance, but women in highly "visible"jobs such as television or film, do not always have a choice.

Anna Ford (photo right), a journalist worshipped by her male peers as something nearing a sex goddess in her heydays, decided to retire in April 2006, at 62, saying:

"I might have been shovelled off into News 24 to the sort of graveyard shift.”

But I am placing my bets we would be perfectly happy to accept a geriatric Paxman on a zimmerframe presenting Newsnight.

The BBC announcing the recruitment of “older female newsreaders” soon after the Strictly Come Dancing judge swap saga, strikes me as being laughable. I can visualise a screaming headline: “Older women join ethnic minorities and the disabled under positive discrimination scheme.” Or, more bluntly, as The Independent put it: Must be Female. Young Need Not Apply.

The future is not orange
The very idea that women are so vulnerable they need to be placed in a special category of their own is preposterous.

I worked for many years in publishing and have always been outraged by the existence of the Orange Prize for Fiction, a literary prize awarded solely to women. Some might say it provides women authors with an extra opportunity to have their work recognised. My view is that it implies women writers are so lacking in talent that competing for the Man Booker Prize alone doesn't suffice.

It is most unfortunate that the current sponsors of the unisex Man Booker Prize are an investment company called Man Group, giving the prize its present name. Had they not decided to retain the “Booker” from its original name, Booker-McConnell Prize, the country's most prestigious literary prize for fiction would simply be called Man Prize.

It is ironic when you think women read more fiction than men.

Too many women spoil the broth
Publishing may be a sub-sector under the media umbrella, and pay equally poorly at entry level, but unlike in print and broadcast journalism, women reign in the world of books .

In an industry known for the predominance of female workers it is not uncommon for women to climb their career ladders to become directors and publishers in their 30s and 40s. A female-dominated industry can make it easier for women to break the glass ceiling; it may even offer better working conditions, such as flexitime for working mothers and good maternity leave terms, but publishing also has its drawbacks.

For young, single female workers hoping to meet future partners at a book fair or book launch party, the prospects of finding an eligible bachelor among the married and gay men are dire. Let's put it this way: book fairs and book launch parties are not exactly a speed dating scene.

Had I known this in my early 20s, I might have chosen journalism sooner. The idea of being able to approach an intellectual-looking sub in a newsroom to consult about the correct use of commas is a major turn-on compared to the girls' club that publishing is.

Women in uniforms
Some women-dominated professions seem to deceptively put them in a position of power, when they are the ones most susceptible to malicious exploitation.

I am thinking of nurses and flight attendants. The uniform makes them look as if they were in a position of control, and yet they are less threatening to men than an executive woman in a power suit. This seems to enhance their sex appeal.

Perhaps you will remember Virgin Airlines' 25th anniversary "Still red hot" TV advert. A group of model-like gorgeous flight attendants march down the airport with the pilot, wearing the airline’s red suit – short skirts and red pin heels – while men ogle, drop phones and hamburger fillings in astonishment. The ad concludes with a passenger saying, “I need to change my job,” and the other “I need to change my tickets.” Despite complaints that it was sexist and insulting to women, the Advertising Standards Authority dismissed them, saying the ad was " unlikely to be seen as a realistic depiction of the profession", as reported in The Guardian.

We may be well aware real-life stewardesses don't actually dress or walk like the ones in the Virgin ad, but it does add fire to some people's fetishist fantasies.

Flight attendants working for Japan Air Lines (JAL), the bankrupt airline recently rescued by the Japanese government, are facing not only the risk of losing their jobs but the double humiliation of having security chips sewed on to their uniforms to prevent them from selling them to the black market when they've been laid off. The story was broken by Sky News and appeared in The Times, The Telegraph and the The Daily Mail.

Last week the carrier announced 400 cabin crew jobs would be axed, and the local sex industry was already going into a frenzy to lay their hands on their uniforms for customers keen on role-playing. A JAL suit on online auction sites are said to be selling for thousands of pounds. Go figure.

Bras on fire
Is there a solution to women being exploited, patronised or sidelined because they look too sexy, too vulnerable or too old? Should we be stomping off to Westminster to burn our bras in front of Parliament like the feminists of the 60s? What would we achieve? What do we want to achieve?

I guess no single answer can sum it all up, as each woman has her own battle to fight. For some, it may be as basic as learning how to write their name so they can access better opportunities (65% of the world's illiterate population are women). There is still so much work to be done.

Whatever it is that may be constricting women from achieving their right to achieve, be it a brasserie they can easily unhook, or a social stigma or discrimination that are harder to undo overnight, today is a day for reviewing milestones past before we set goals for the future.

The long path already travelled, makes us what we are today, collectively, for we women are more powerful than we imagine.

As Alice Walker said:

"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."

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