MPs’ Web Sites

When I set up Planet Westminster in 2006 I thought it would be a relatively simple project to maintain. Over the years, more and more MPs would start blogs. Every couple of months I’d add the new ones and everything would be great.

It hasn’t worked out like that at all. MPs’ web sites have proved to be really difficult to keep track of.

The problem is, of course, that the vast majority of MPs have absolutely no idea how web sites, blogs or web feeds work. That’s to be expected. What’s less expected is that many of them seem to get round that problem by delegating the work to people who also have no idea how web sites, blogs or web feeds work.

I’ve just done a clean-up of the feeds I’m currently monitoring. Here are some of the problems I’ve dealt with.

A few MPs (including Douglas Carswell and Caroline Lucas) changed the address of their web feed. Just changed it. No notification as fas as I can see. No attempt to redirect the old address to the new one. Just an old address returning a 404 error. Anyone who was subscribed to the old address would have just stopped getting updates. It’s almost like they don’t want people to follow what they have to say.

Ed Miliband’s web site has just ceased to exist. It now redirects you to the main Labour Party web site. Because the leader of the party obviously has no constituency responsibilities. Or something like that.

John McDonnell seems very confused. In 2007 he had a web site at In 2010, he was at john-­mcdonnell.­net. Both of these sites are now dead and he’s at It’s like no-one has told him that you can reuse web site addresses. I wonder what he’ll do once he’s run out of variations of his name on different top-level domains.

Eric Joyce has just lost control of his domain. His address currently goes to an unfinished web site campaigning for “John Smith for State Senator”. It doesn’t look as though Joyce realises this as he’s still promoting the web site on his Twitter profile.

Then there’s Rory Stewart. His web feed was returning data that my RSS parser couldn’t parse. Taking a closer look, it turned out that it was an HTML page rather than RSS or Atom. And it was an HTML page that advertised an online Canadian pharmacy pushing Cialis. Not really what an MP should be promoting.

Stuff like this happens all the time. MPs need to take more notice of this. And they need help from people who know what they are talking about. My theory (and it’s one that I’ve written about before) is that MPs’ web sites and blogs are often overcomplicated because they are developed by companies who come from a corporate IT background and who dismiss the possibility of using something free like WordPress and over-engineer something using tools that they are comfortable with. It can’t be a coincidence that many of the worst MP web sites I’ve seen serve pages with a .aspx extension (sorry – only geeks will understand that).

I’m going to repeat an offer I’ve made before. If any MP wants a blog set up for them,then I’m happy to help them or to put them in touch with someone who can help them. It needn’t be expensive. It needn’t be complex. But it can be very effective. And it will work.

Update: Eric Joyce replied to me on Twitter. He said:

Thanks. It’s being worked on and they seem to have pointed it at an obvious specimen page.


Ten Years in an Open-Necked Blog

Can’t be anyone in the London NooMeeja scene without a blog. So here’s mine.

Welcome to the New Blog in Town – 10 July 2002

That was the sum total of the first post on this blog which was made ten years ago today. I like to think that some of the subsequent posts were of a higher quality than that.

Blogging has been patchy over the years. We’re currently going through a bit of a lean period. But there have been times when I’ve been posting several times a day. Of course, a lot of those posts were “hey, have you seen this interesting article” and these days that will probably just get thrown out on Twitter.

I don’t claim that I was a particularly early blog. 2002 was the year that the world discovered blogging in a big way. But I expect that when I started blogs were numbered in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of millions we have today.

This blog has changed a few times over the years. It’s now run on different technology. The address has changed at least once. And the URL scheme isn’t the same as the one I started with. But I think that I’ve always put redirections in place so that anyone who linked to that first post (not that anyone would) should find that their link still works.

I wonder what blogging will look like in ten years time.

p.s. A (virtual) pint to anyone who gets the reference in this post’s title. It has nothing at all to do with this blog.


Mediawatchery Blogging Meet-Up Thingy 3

We’ve done it twice before and they just can’t stop us. So we’re going to do it all over again.

This is that occasional thing where the authors of some media-watching blogs get together in a pub to drink a couple of lemonades and make plans that will solve all the world’s problems.

The first two took place in London, but we’ve been reliably informed that there’s life outside the M25 – so this time we’re going to test that theory.

We’ll be at the Back of Beyond in Reading from 3pm on Saturday 12th May. There’s a Facebook event thingy if that kind of social conformity is your thing but feel free to just turn up if you don’t want to share details of your movements in advance.

Who will be there? Ah, well that’s confidential information. And the guest list is still in flux. But you know your favourite media blogger? He’ll definitely be there. He told me he was looking forward to meeting you. So you’d better be there.


Wasted Inches

It was 2002 when I first started blogging. This blog’s first post was in July 2002 and we’ll, no doubt, talk about that more when the time comes.

But earlier in 2002 there had been another experiment. I didn’t know that I was blogging at the time and it all worked using a few bits of Perl that I’d thrown together myself. There was no commenting system and no web feed. But I was writing topical posts on a regular basis, so I guess it would be called a blog today.

I thought I’d lost all the content a couple of server moves back, but a few weeks ago I discovered a backup of the table which contained all of the content. I’ve loaded it into WordPress and I’m planning to publish the posts in “real time” over the next few months. The first one appears today.

The blog was called Wasted Inches and I’m happy to see that some of my earliest writing on the web was on a subject that I’m still covering today. Wasted Inches was supposed to uncover the idiocy of the tabloid press. I wasn’t particularly interested in deep political analysis, I was just pointing and laughing at what the red-tops chose to put on their front pages.

Back then, of course, few of the newspapers had anything like the web presence that they have today. This had two effects. Firstly it meant that I couldn’t find my material online like I would now. I did my research by glancing at the tabloid front pages as I was buying my Guardian every morning. And secondly, I couldn’t link to any of the stories I was discussing. Or perhaps I would have been able to, but just couldn’t be bothered. Anyway, there are no links and I have no intention of trying to find references now.

I will, however, try to add some historical context. Many of the pieces were very much of their time. They assumed that people knew what the papers were talking about and didn’t waste time filling in background. Ten years on that makes some of them a little obscure, so I’ll try to explain what I was talking about – assuming that I can remember myself.

The writing style is itself quite tabloid. Or, at least, what I considered to be a passable impersonation of a tabloid style. There are a few turns of phrase that I’m still very happy with, but a lot of it is quite pedestrian.

There’s not a lot of it. Just over forty posts over about six months. And there are some quite large gaps between posts. None of the posts are very long either. It’s not quite a Twitter stream, but I guess it’s the kind of thing that Tumblr was made for.

Anyway, it’s just a bit of historical silliness that might amuse a few of you as the posts appear irregularly over the next six months.


Review of 2011: Favourite Posts

And here’s the second post in my review of 2011. This is a list of my favourite posts from the year. In 2010 I said it was harder to choose posts from that year as I had blogged less than in previous years. Well, I actually blogged even less in 2011 so it was even harder this year.

As usual I’ve tried to pick one post from each month, but because of the scarcity of posts I’ve had to bend the rules at times. Usually I don’t include posts that have already been mentioned in the list of most popular posts, but that has proved impossible this year so there is a small amount of repetition.

  • Boothill Foot-Tappers. The Boothill Foot-Tappers were one of my favourite band from twenty-five years ago. I thought I’d never see them play again, so it was great that they got together for a one-off reunion gig.
  • Leaving LoveFilm. I cancelled my LoveFilm subscription early in the year. This post explained why.
  • Genealogy Primer. A friend on Facebook asked for help starting his family tree. I wrote a quick braindump in reply. Later I thought that other people might find it useful so I turned it into a blog post.
  • Daily Mail on Google and Adele. One of the most ridiculous articles ever from the Daily Mail, debunked easily with the aid of Google.
  • Watching the Press – Notes. In May I gave a talk at Opentech about the nonsense published by the British tabloid press and how a group of us try to bring this to the public’s attention by blogging about it. This post contains the notes from that talk.
  • Free Web Advice: TalkTalk. TalkTalk really annoyed me by phoning me despite my phone number being registered with the TPS. They then annoyed me even more by making it next to impossible to discuss the matter with them. This post enumerated the many ways that their web site made this hard. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I finally just gave up.
  • Reading the News. A post about how I read the news these days and why a Kindle subscription to a newspaper doesn’t really fit into my life.
  • Hating Gnome 3. My favourite Linux distribution switched its default interface to Gnome 3. This made me very sad.
  • The Birth of a Meme. Some people writing in the Daily Mail claimed that the BBC had banned the use of the terms BC and AD and had forced broadcasters into using BCE and CE instead. This was completely untrue but that didn’t stop it repeated all over the media. Even now I suspect that a large proportion of the public think that it’s true.
  • Dorries on Humanism. Nadine Dorries was nominated for the New Humanist’s annual Bad Faith Award. She responded with a trademark closely-argued explanation of why Humanism is an extreme belief that no-one should admit to holding. Her reasoning obviously impressed New Humanist’s readers as she went on to win by a huge majority.
  • Winterval. More nonsense from the Daily Mail. But this time they’re admitting that it’s nonsense. When they started to publish a “Corrections and Clarifications” column I don’t think that anyone would have predicted that it would be used to undermine their core beliefs so quickly.
  • The War on Christmas Cards. Another Mail article to close with. They claimed that there was an atheist plot to keep religious Christmas cards out of the shops. They also complained about the increased numbers of “obscene” cards – whilst, in another article, praising the work of Donald Gill from a hundred years ago.

It was only while writing this review that I noticed that four of these twelve articles are about the Daily Mail. Looks like the blog might, finally, be developing a theme.

Last year was my lightest year for blogging. In fact every year has seen fewer post since I joined Twitter. Tweets are, of course, far less effort than blog posts. But nevertheless I shall, once again, endeavour to blog more often in 2012.

Thanks for reading in 2011.



Review of 2011: Most Popular Posts

As I’ve done for the last few years I’m going to spend a couple of days looking back at the year on this blog. Firstly, here’s a list of the ten most popular posts on the blog this year.

  1. Winterval. No surprise here. Because I monitor the Mail’s Corrections and Clarifications column, I was one of the first people to see that they had finally admitted that Winterval wasn’t the atheist/muslim plot they’d always claimed it was.
  2. Leaving LoveFilm. This has been a bit of a slow-burner. It’s only so high because it was published early in the year. I explained why LoveFilm’s rental model no longer fitted in with the way I want to watch films. Still waiting for them to offer streaming-only subscriptions.
  3. Hitchen’s Last Laugh. A look at the nonsense that took place on Twitter a couple of weeks ago following the sad death of Christopher Hitchens.
  4. MPs and Facts. Not much politics on the list this year. This is a reaction to Nadine Dorries’ appearance on Any Questions where she (unsurprisingly) talked nonsense about drugs.
  5. Chuggers. I’d been meaning to write something like this for at least a couple of years. Surely everyone hates being stopped by chuggers, don’t they? This was probably the longest comment thread of the year.
  6. Daily Mail on Google and Adele. I’m rather pleased with this one. The mail published some nonsense about how Google is deliberately encouraging piracy to bring down the British music industry. It didn’t take very much research to disprove their claims.
  7. Independent URLs. I’d forgotten this one. Back in April someone discovered a tiny flaw in the way the Independent’s web site automatically cleaned up URLs. Much hilarity ensued. This post explained what was really going on.
  8. Alternative Vote. An attempt to explode some of the myths used by the No campaign to stop people voting for the alternative vote. It apparently didn’t work.
  9. Message to ADT. Surprised to find this on the list to be honest. The ADT web site annoyed me so I wrote a post about it. Ten days later I got a reply from someone at ADT saying that my suggestions had been implemented. Which was nice.
  10. MPs on Twitter. A review of the number of MPs on Twitter and how it had changed over time. I even drew a nice graph. I need to revisit this project.

So that’s what you’ve been reading on the blog this year. At some point in the next couple of days, I’ll post a list of my favourite posts.



Media-Watchery Blogging Meet-Up Thingy 2

Remember back to those hazy summers days in August? A group of media bloggers got together for a high-level summit in a pub in Camden. You were invited. You might even have been there. We talked, we drank, we laughed. A good time was had by all and it seemed like we had put the world to rights.

But, it seems that it didn’t work. There are still newspapers out there who are spouting nonsense and ignoring the voices of reason.

So we’re going to have to do it all over again. And you’re invited again. And this time we’re giving you more than four day’s notice.

We’ll be in the Monarch on Chalk Farm Road from 3pm on Saturday 29th October. We’ll be the shady-looking group of conspirators plotting in the corner. It’ll be impossible to miss us. There’s a Facebook event for it if that’s your thing.


Media-Watchery Blogging Meet-Up Thingy

At Opentech in May I gave a talk about the informal Media-Watching project that I’m involved with. It’s a loosely-affiliated group of bloggers who like to point and laugh at the British press.

Well, the group is about to become that little bit less loosely-affiliated loosely-affiliated. A number of us are going to meet up in a pub to chat (and drink). It’s happening this coming Saturday – 6th August and we’ll be in The Monarch on Chalk Farm Road from about 2:30pm.

Why am I telling you this? I’m glad you asked. It’s because you’re invited too. If you’re interested in the media-watchery bits of this blog or you read and enjoy some of the other blogs involved in the project, then we’d like to invite you to join us in the pub. There’s a Facebook event, please let us know to expect you by signing up there.

Other people who will be there include the authors of Bloggerheads, Enemies of Reason, The Daily Quail and many other media-watching blogs.

Hope to see you there.


Web Site Links

Twitter is used a lot for sharing links. In fact that might be one of the main things it’s used for. And because of the nature of a lot of the discussion on Twitter, those links tend to be to either blogs or news sites many of which have a very similar structure. They will have an individual page for each story and a front page which lists the most recent stories. Of course there might also be time-based or category-based archive pages, but those aren’t important for this discussion.

If you find a story on one of these sites that you want to share with people, then the most sensible approach is to link to the individual page for the story. If you just link to the front page of the site then that is going to make sense whilst the story is near the top of that page but as new stories are published, your story will sink down the page and eventually it will vanish off the page completely. At that point anyone trying to follow your link from Twitter is not going to understand what you’re talking about.

The front pages of web sites change regularly. That’s their purpose. The individual story links will always link to their particular story. They’re called “permalinks” for a good reason – they are permanent links to a particular entry on the site.

So if I want to draw your attention to an entry on Tim Ireland’s blog, I’ll link to the individual entry, not to the front page. Perhaps it’s worth looking at those two links in more detail so that you can see the difference.

I’m not trying to be some kind of internet policeman here. I’m not saying that you have to do it my way. I’m just saying that this seems to be a sensible approach and if you carry on linking to the front page of sites then you run the risk of people who discover your link some time after you published it getting confused when it doesn’t show them what it showed when you published the link.

It seems to me that there are three reasons why people wouldn’t make the effort to publish permalinks.

Firstly, they just don’t understand how the internet works and don’t really know what they are doing. That’s ok, of course. We were all beginners once and hopefully this post will go some way towards showing them how things work.

Secondly, they know how it works but they can’t be bothered to go to the extra effort to dig out the real permalink. I mean, often you read these stories on the front page of a site and that’s the address that is sitting in your browser location bar, so that’s the address that you cut and past into Twitter. You might also think that Twitter is a transitory medium and people will only follow your link within a few hours of you publishing it. To these people I can only say that Twitter isn’t transitory and your tweets can potentially be read months or years later. I think that it’s really worth making that little bit more effort in order to make your historical conversations easier to follow.

Finally there might be people who deliberately don’t want to publish links to specific articles as they don’t want to be called on what they linked to at some unknown point in the future. These people have worked out that Twitter isn’t a transitory medium and, instead, they rely on the transitory nature of web site front pages to make their tweets seem transitory. It’s the internet equivalent of the person who gets angry if you try to get him to substantiate an off-the-cuff remark he made half an hour ago. This is a deeply cynical and unhelpful view of the internet and I really hope that no-one reading this fits into this category.

So please make an effort to give permanence to what you say on Twitter. It’s really quite easy to do and it makes a huge difference to the quality of the discussion.



Last night over on the bizarrely named “Tory Totty Online” blog I was almost accused of suffering from OCD. I say “almost accused” as the author played that silly game of not quite joining the dots. She defined OCD, she said “certain bloggers seem to be having recurring obsessive thoughts about other certain bloggers” and then she drew on some examples from my web presence before ending with:

Now, I’m no shrink, and far be it from me to suggest that there’s any sort of ‘obsessive behaviour’ going on here.

But it was just a thought.

And that’s a classic get-out clause. If I say that she said I have OCD then she can say “no I didn’t but, hey, if the cap fits…”. But it’s pretty obvious what conclusions she expects her readers to reach.

It’s a serious accusation to make, so it’s worth examining the evidence. In my day job I’m a programmer and attention to detail is an important part of what I do every day. Many great programmers are good at their job because they are mildly OCD or autistic. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if I exhibited some of the symptoms.

The blog post implies that I’m obsessing over Nadine Dorries. The proof is apparently that the first two blog posts on my web site yesterday were about Dorries and that I tweeted about her “informed consent” plans yesterday evening. It’s a shame that CateyMaxx didn’t look a little further down the front page of my site as there were three other blog entries listed, none of which had anything to do with Dorries. One was about programming, one was about the campaign to get people to answer the religion question accurately at next year’s census and the other was about choice of blogging platform. Had she bothered to look at my main blog’s front page she would have found posts about political campaigning, data backups and three consecutive posts about the pope’s recent visit.

This blog has been running for over eight years. I have written over 1,600 posts here and it looks to me as though 19 of them mention Nadine Dorries (this will be the twentieth). The earliest of them was almost exactly three years ago. Before the two posts that are currently on the front page, the previous time I mentioned her was in April. I’ve written about her four times this year.

The two posts that seemed to annoy Tory Totty so much are two weeks old. Yes, they’re my most recent blog posts (well, until today) but does that sound like an obsession to you? Nadine Dorries has been on cracking form over the last two weeks. There have been plenty of reasons to write blog posts about her. But I really could be bothered. Doesn’t sound much like an obsession to me. In comparison, the front page of the Tory Totty blog (which currently has posts from 25th October to this morning) has four stories that mention Nadine Dorries.

On the basis of this flimsy evidence, I’m going to have to plead “not guilty”. Obsessed with Doctor Who, maybe. Obsessed with getting these bloody builders to finish the work on my house, probably. But obsessed with Nadine Dorries, I really don’t think so.

There’s a serious side to all of this though, of course. Firstly, there’s the idea that Tory Totty would use something like OCD as an insult. It shows rather an unpleasant attitude to people with disabilities. And then there’s the idea that by labelling an opponent as mentally ill, you don’t need to address their points. I had hoped that Tory Totty (@CateyMaxx on Twitter) was going to be interested in an intellectual debate (I know that her choice of pseudonym made that sound unlikely, but I’m a glass-half-full kind of person) it’s a shame that she has lowered herself to this level.

Wow. That went on longer than I thought it would. I’m starting to realise why Tim Ireland’s blog posts are always so long. Anyway, to cheer everybody up, here’s one of my favourite songs from my long distant youth. It seems somewhat appropriate.