Hard News by Russell Brown

12

YouTube and the programmatic problem

It hasn't been a good week for YouTube. It's not the content: that continues to be added at a rate of hundreds of hours of video every minute – and a billion hours of YouTube video are watched every day. It's not the audience, which now stands around 1.3 billion, or about a third of internet users. It's the advertisers.

In the US, AT&T, Verizon, Starbucks, Pepsi, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson and others have pulled their ad campaigns from YouTube. Across the Tasman, Bunnings, Foxtel and Caltex have done the same. Hundreds of other companies are heading for the door. This global advertiser exodus has been building since The Times published a story last month showing the way big brands have had their ads placed against videos promoting Isis, or from neo-Nazi groups:

Alex Mostrous, the Times investive reporter who leading the story, has been covering the fallout via his Twitter account – and lordy there's a lot of fallout to cover. And not only from big companies. The British government pulled all its YouTube advertising after this Times story showed its advertising budgets were being spent on ads accompanying videos by "rape apologists, anti-Semites and hate preachers".

But it's worse than simply being next to bad people. Google runs a revenue-sharing scheme with its video "creators" – they get a slice of the spend. So the British government had been paying terrorist sympathisers for their  videos. And YouTube itself does the transactions.

In the wake of the Times story, rival UK newspaper The Guardian pulled its  advertising not just from YouTube, but from the ad networks operated by YouTube's owner, Google – after discovering they were appearing with videos from European neo-Nazi groups. But the Guardian will continue to use Google's DoubleClick network and associated Adx advertising exchange to populate its own pages with ads, because it doesn't have much choice.

This isn't a problem limited to YouTube, or even to Google. It's a problem with the paradigm that dominates internet revenue: programmatic advertising. Programmatic is a ceaseless series of auctions conducted between computers, with two goals. Firstly, to match ads with the "right" viewers. And secondly, to do so at the cheapest possible price.

On the surface this is an advertiser's dream. Conventional publishers find it hard to match Google and Facebook (and their manifold associated ad networks) for both demographic sizzle and price. They have little choice but to, like The Guardian, get with the programmatic and let the competitors destroying their businesses place their ads too.

But programmatic advertising is run by machines without taste or judgement. It's vulnerable to manipulation and struggles with traffic exchange systems that are sometimes little more than scams. The fake news phenomenon is strongly tied to this kind of manipulation – it has effectively turned the internet's own revenue model on itself.

A couple of weeks ago I let a company I have some dealings with know that its ads were appearing on the notorious fake news site USASupreme. My friend there said "bloody marketers" and thanked me, but there's no guarantee it won't happen again on another website. I checked USASupreme this morning and it showed me ads from Jetstar and Jucy Rentals:

USASupreme has spawned any number of bogus stories and conspiracy theories, but it isn't actually a Nazi site or a terrorist hotbed (although it could be a Russian disinfo asset), so perhaps those two companies are happy emough to be there. Others won't be.

YouTube, ironically, was supposed to be better than that. It has its extraordinarily sophisticated Content ID system that identifies the owners of copyright material (music in particular) and allows them to share in its advertising bounty (about two billion has been paid out since Content ID launched). It has systems which annoint high-quality advertiser-friendly publishers, who attract a premium.

But those systems clearly don't always work. And screwing them down harder has already had consequences for publishers whose material (say, a video dealing with sexual abuse) might be edgy but is not exploitative, hateful or illegal. It's a hard road back if YouTube "demonetises" your content.

Google says it will increase the human moderation of participating sites, but that faces the same problem that drove the creation of the programmatic system: the sheer size of the internet, the sheer quantity of content looking for revenue and the sheer number of individual publishers. It's beyond the capacity of humans.

Two local internet news ventures, The Spinoff and Newsroom, have turned their backs on conventional display advertising and instead embraced sponsorships from a limited number of companies. The closer relationship implied by sponsorship can be a problem for editors and journalists – but it's arguably a lesser problem than those that come with the low-value world of programmatic.

UPDATE: This Bloomberg video has some useful commentary and numbers to set this all in context:

–––

I'm interested in New Zealand companies' advertising turning up in the wrong places. If you spy something interesting out there, please feel free to screenshot it and upload it in the discussion here. Just use the "choose fil" button next to the comment box (you'll need to have typed something in the box for the upload to work).

9

The lessons of Prohibition

If Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's rich, nuanced 2011 documentary Prohibition does anything, it is to show how complex both the causes and effects of America's "Great Experiment" really were.

The coalition that achieved the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, embodied many different agendas.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union correctly perceived that alcohol abuse by men had devastating social consequences, particularly for women and children – but campaigned over decades for abstinence and eventual prohibition of alcohol as part of a platform of broader social reform. The Anti-Saloon Alliance, by contrast, was a brutally effective political pressure group that cared little about broader social issues and was absolutist in its stance.

In the South, Prohibition was a Jim Crow cause; in the North, it was often blatantly anti-immigrant (German and Italian immigrants arrived with cultures in which alcohol played a strong traditional role and always resisted Prohibition). Although Prohibition was enacted under a Republican presidency, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and reformers all fell either side of the line in the years before and during Prohibition.

And although we're used to think of the Experiment as a monstrous failure,  its effects weren't all bad. Many Americans did in fact stop drinking and the overall death rate from alcoholism dropped nearly 80% (it subsequently rose again during Prohibition, but never quite to pre-1920 levels). It immediately got rid of the saloons, men-only boozing spaces that had become a destructive social anchronism by the 20th century. And with that order broken down, the speakeasies became places where women could participate. The New Yorker launched in 1925, in the midst of Prohibition, and in that year began running the columns of Lois Long, who chronicled the city's illicit nightlife (under the pseudonym "Lipstick") with a boldness and sexual openness that was revoutionary.

Long's prose, as quoted in the third and final episode of the five-hour documentary, is delicious and the joy of Prohibition is really its writing: both in the epigrammatic quotes from Long, HL Mencken and their contemparies and in the elegant, perfectly balanced scripts of long-time Burns collaborator Geoffrey Ward. The words, married with a trove of period photography and film, are more vivid than any full-colour reconstructed whizz-bang.

But, of course, Prohibition was a failure. It created almost instantly a network of organised, violent crime that never went away. Whole police forces and legislatures were paid off. Hard liquor supplanted beer again. Child drinking rose. Many thousands died from booze bulked out with wood alcohol. Loopholes abounded. And a generation of Americans learned to hold the law in contempt and become "a nation of hypocrites".

There are obvious parallels with modern drug prohibition – too many to mention – but they are never explicitly drawn. The documentary leaves them for viewers to draw.

Yet there is a modern resonance that the film-makers could not have anticipated in 2011. It's the part of the Prohibition struggle that pitted the rural America against the thriving cities, conservatism against liberalism and modernity. Then, as now, immigrants and people of colour were cast as the enemies of order and safety.

That's the dynamic that got us Trump – and, in Prohibition's case, it did pass.  But it took nearly 14 years and a great deal of suffering to correct. Urban America will be hoping it doesn't have to wait so long this time.

In a way, the worst news is implied by the closing credits. Three of the funders – the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS itself – would be eradicated by the budget proferred by the Trump White House. The many archives and museums which provided material would very likely suffer too.

A danger of the present political barbarism may yet be that it prevents Americans from learning from their own history.

Prohibition is currently available for viewing of Netflix NZ. It's really good and you may wish to check it out.

19

Friday Music: Sound and Light

I didn't go to Adele's first show in Auckland last night and, short of the freebie fairy paying a late visit , I won't be going to the others either. I don't mind Adele, but I don't have $300-a-ticket worth of affection for her work.

But I was fascinated when pictures started coming through before the show at Mt Smart Stadium. First by the in-the-round staging – I have an idea that's been done before at Mt Smart, but I've never seen it done so well.

(Pic from the One News Twitter feed)

In the hours before showtime, the screens around the stage looped the same cryptic teaser that announced her southern tour:

There is, of course, art in those eyes too, and the internet is only too willing to tell you how to achieve "Hello Eyes" on your own face.

This is what you get at the top level of concert production: not only the artist's performance, but a presentation of that performance that has its own creative substance.

In that light, the best concert production I've ever seen remains Willie Wilson's extraordinary creation for U2's Vertigo tour. I'm not exactly a U2 fan, but I was genuinely moved at times by that show, as I wrote shortly after in 2006:

The key feature of the stage was a towering “beaded curtain” strung with spherical LEDs (MiSpheres, they’re called, and they were developed specifically for this tour) which can be programmed simply as decoration, or as individual pixels in a giant low-res video display. I have never seen anything like it.

When the UN Declaration of Human Rights scrolled across the curtain, I thought of An Inconvenient Truth and its dazzling Keynote slide show, and wondered whether, with this command of new communications technology, we’re seeing a new form of liberal speech. What would once have been deadly dull – a rock band reciting a manifesto, some guy giving a science speech – can now be vivid and captivating and large.

At other times, the arena had more the feel of a cathedral, with a titanic wall of stained glass at one end. Or, to put it another way, this was some of the grandeur and spirit for which people visited cathedrals before there was electricity. Either way, it seemed the kind of show only Catholics could stage.

There were startling and moving moments. As ‘One Tree Hill’ hit its stride, a beautiful pattern of koru motifs flowed across the curtain. The crowd went wild. Sounds cheesy? It wasn’t; it was a compelling way to accompany a song for a Maori New Zealander (I knew the late Greg Carroll – he was the kind of keen, capable, full-of-life guy everyone wants to do well). The local references strewn through the show – including the threading of lines from ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ into ‘Beautiful Day’ – were clearly a work of some care. It was a bit more than Hello Auckland!.

More often these days, a big show will feature very large, extremely vivid video screens – an innovation for which U2 can also take some credit (the first time I saw screens like that was at U2's 2003 Zoo TV concert at Western Springs, which I found pretty dull musically). When an artist can do more than just Really Big Television, it makes a difference. (I gather Adele's team shoots video of every city she plays to localise 'Hometown Glory', which shows an admirable attention to detail.)

In general, of course, productions will not be quite so huge, nor need they be. But creative integrity still matters. The staging for Nick Cave's show at Vector Arena in January – illustrated with projections onto a textured backcloth – was relatively simple, but it was in perfect sympathy with the music, through all its moods. It didn't make the music better (it was already great) but it made the experience of hearing the music better.

PS: if I'm reading Russell Baillie's tweet right, they solved the problem of getting Adele to her stage by sticking her in a road case and wheeling her there. She's a trooper.

–––

My night out this week was Wednesday, beginning with the official launch of Songbroker, Jan Hellriegel's innovative new publishing and licensing platform. Jan wrote about what she's done and why for us earlier this week. Yes, Songbroker currently sponsors this post, but I genuinely think this is an excellent innvotation in a part of the music business that largely hasn't followed the rest of the biz in becoming more bespoke and flexible. And I have a lot of time for Jan herself.

If you're thinking of using music in a screen production or even as part of an event, go and have a look at Songbroker and see if there's a New Zealand artist who has what you need.

From there it was up to K Road for the opposite of a launch – a closing down party. Tito Tafa's Rebel Soul Music has been the jewel in an otherwise dull arcade since it opened in 2015, but it hasn't proved sustainable and he's had to make the choice to close rather than renew his lease.

If it was a sad evening, it was also a great party, full of Tito's interesting friends, and I was a little slow to start my engines the next day.

Best of luck, man – you're a good dude.

–––

Ahead of tomorrow's Music 101 Alex Behan has posted a really useful report on how the music charts actually work these days. Which leads to the question: what are they for now?

–––

Whoop!

J.P.S.E. are getting together for a one-off show at Avondale's Hollywood Theatre to pay tribute to their former bandmate, the late Jim Laing. And they have a pretty serious lineup of guests helping out: Buzz Moller, Matthew Heine, Robert Key and Shayne P. Carter.

I gather the idea for the public show came after the remainingmembers got together and played at Jim's funeral. The show is on Saturday April 22 and you'd best buy your tickets here without delay.

–––

There's now a video for Fazerdaze's infectious 'Lucky Girl':

–––

Tunes!

New Sola Rosa – and it's nice and slinky. The three-track single (including an instrumental an a capella) is just three bucks on Bandcamp. (Gah. Sorry, the Bandcamp player won't embed right now ...)

And here's a damn good jam – Jimmy Edgar has posted this bouncy bit of techno as a freebie on Bandcamp ahead of concerts in the UK:

Tom Scott has busted out an unreleased (Home Brew?) demo from the vaults. It's about smoking weed ...

And lastly, via the Ghetto Funk crew, a remix of 'Mama Said Knock You Out' in the traditional noisy-assed bass-heavy ghetto funk style. Boom! (Click through for a free download) –––

The Friday Music Post is sponsored by:

Songbroker

Representing New Zealand music

17

A tale of two festivals

'The ugly side of Polyfest' blared TVNZ's headline about two fights near PolyFest in South Auckland last weekend. It was a horrible headline which appeared to imply that violence was somehow part and parcel of this annual cultural festival, now its 42nd year. It really isn't.

And, indeed, after a flurry of social media criticism, TVNZ completely rewrote both its headline and story as: 'It's incredibly disappointing' - police condemn teens for brawling near Polyfest as thousands watch fight vids. But the original version is still cached as: Graphic: The ugly side of Polyfest emerges as video captures teenage girl dragging another by her hair then punching her.

You'll note the new headline says "near", not "at" Polyfest. This is presumably a response to a statement from Counties Manukau Police which declared:

Over 90,000 people attended Polyfest in Manukau over the four-day festival and police were very impressed with the behaviour of those who attended.

Only two arrests were made during the event and these were not related to the event itself. No arrests were made in relation to the behaviour at the festival.

The statement said neither of the fights captured in Facebook videos actually happened at the festival. One was nearby and the other was outside Manukau's Westfield mall.  Both were on Saturday afternoon and it seems far from clear that the second was associated with Polyfest at all.

TVNZ did another thing: it removed the videos it had ripped from Facebook from the story. And really, while the framing might have been a result of racist assumptions, those videos were the only reason the story got space. The spectacle was the story. 

While TVNZ has copped plenty of flak, it should be noted that a number of other news organisations ran those videos too: Newshub, Stuff, the New Zealand Herald, Newshub again and the Daily Mail Online. Radio New Zealand and Māori Television managed to report the story – and the responses – with single stills from one video. Their stories lost nothing but spectacle. Maybe wringing your hands about violent videos getting thousands of views and then giving those videos a bigger platform isn't really a very consistent approach.

Ironically, on the same day, there was another troubled event in a different suburb where the property values are loftier – the one where I live. George in the Park was a partnership between Auckland Council's Music in Parks and MediaWorks' George FM. It featured Kings, Sola Rosa and Nice 'n' Urlich and, according to the council, 13,000 people converged on Point Chevalier's Coyle Park.

I actually doubt that figure (my guess was well under 10,000), but the streets north of Meola were certainly jammed in a way I've never seen them before, even for the Big Gay Out. I rode down there on my bike around 3pm and I could see it was parked up all over. The other thing I saw as I got closer was kids sitting around drinking. Why would you preload before going to a park?

The organisers had repeatedly appealed to people not to bring glass, but said the event was BYO if they wanted a drink. Unfortunately, a lot of people seemed to hear that as an instruction to turn up with boxes, slabs and bins of beer, cider and RTDs.

I was actually unnerved by the amount of booze I saw being lugged past me. And I've been to enough gigs to feel that that much alcohol in a very crowded park was not going to end well. I enjoyed Sola Rosa, but I felt a bit uneasy with it and didn't stay long.

Within an hour or two, all hell was breaking loose. Ambulances arrived to attend comatose punters. A guy tried to pee off the clifftop behind the stage, lost his balance and fell onto the rocks below. Another guy was found face down on the nearby tidal flats and had to be dragged to safety by members of the public (he was deposited on a grass verge where he remained apparently unconscious). A group of KCs turned up. Police cars converged. People staggered out and peed (and even shat) on nearby properties. There was a big brawl at the other end of Point Chevalier road, spilling across the intersection with Great North. It was a hell of a mess.

The council has since published a brief statement hailing the attendance but saying:

It was disappointing to see poor behaviour from a small number of attendees which didn’t reflect the intent of Music in Parks.

We regularly review how events are run to ensure they provide a fun and safe experience for Aucklanders.

My understanding is the council is unlikely to partner again with George FM. For whatever reason, the day went very differently than a Music in Parks event is meant to (although while the front of the park was heaving, the back field was pretty sweet, with stalls and even a man making bubbles for entranced children). And it does seem clear that they were surprised by the size of the crowd, which is why there weren't enough portaloos.

It's possible, I guess, that the mess may also result in a ban on BYO. Which would be a shame, because it's lovely being able to have a beer in the sun and listen to good music. In truth, the problem isn't the rules, it's the fact that people need need to bring a weekend's worth of booze to a four-hour event. It's us.

It's also worth noting that Polyfest was prominently advertised as drug and alcohol free.

But the striking thing is that in contrast to the events near Polyfest on the same day, none of this made the news. In part that's explained by the availability of shocking video that could be associated with Polyfest. But you have to wonder if that wasn't the only reason.

79

The long road to Hit and Run

One of the most important characteristics of good journalism is is also its plainest: simple persistence. It's worth bearing that in mind in light of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson's new book, Hit and Run.

As Andrew Geddis explains here, the book focuses on a retaliatory raid on a village in Afghanistan in 2010 – a mission "our SAS planned, manned and ran in all its aspects" – which it says left civilians dead and injured. Our government and military command have long claimed the mission resulted in the deaths only of insurgents, 12 of them. The book says no insurgents were killed, only civilians. And that what happened in our name had the characteristics of a revenge attack, and a war crime.

This new reporting doesn't come from a vacuum. It builds on work done by  Hager in his best (and possibly least-read, on account of its length and density) book Other People's Wars, and on work by Stephenson that included his landmark feature for Metro, 'Eyes Wide Shut'. The consistent theme in both sets of work was clear enough: that we had not been told the truth about what was being done in our name by our military forces. That theme also underlies Hit and Run.

That history puts an intriguing complexion on the analysis of the book since it was revealed at 5pm yesterday. The Guyon Espiner who interviewed Paula Bennett on Morning Report today was the Guyon Espiner who conducted a crucial interview with then-Defence minister Wayne Mapp in April 2011 (and, to be fair, also the Espiner who got well out of his lane in pulling the "I've been to Afghanistan" card on Hager later that year).

On Newsroom, Tim Watkin, Espiner's producer on Q+A at the time, explains the context of the Mapp interview, which was booked in anticipation of Stephenson's Metro story, but instead went with a tip about a more recent event than those described in the story, about the raid in Bamiyan:

We knew little about the details, but wanted to know if New Zealand soliders had been involved and whether it was a response to O'Donnell's death.

Watkin continues:

I've since spoken to Mapp about that interview. Despite the rants of some genuine conspiracy theorists, the interview wasn't a negotiated deal where Mapp could reveal the raid in his own way. He was blindsided by the question about the raid.

The way he described it to me, he knew he had two seconds to decide whether to confirm New Zealand's involvement, thereby revealing operational matters he would have had no desire to reveal, or try to dodge, evade or even lie.

In those seconds, he chose transparency. He didn't want to lie to the public and, he figured, we probably had more knowledge and sources than we were initially revealing. He was wrong on that front. We were flying a kite.

You can see in the transcript that he tries at first to deflect Espiner's questions, saying "operations do take place". But ultimately decides to not deny SAS involvement, thus implying it played a role.

We had a similar moment later that year on our former TV show Media7. The show featured Hager, Stephenson  – and retired chief of the New Zealand Defence Force Sir Bruce Ferguson, who had remarked on RNZ that he wondered "what Nicky Hager has been smoking” in writing Other People's Wars.

The Sir Bruce who turned up on Media7 was a different man. He was thoughtful and responsive. But it took until an online-only extended discussion (we made the call on the fly to keep recording) that he addressed my question about the military whistleblowers who had spoken to Hager for his book and Stephenson for his print media stories. Was it a breach of duty for a soldier to voice his disquiet in such a way – or his duty to do so?

It’s probably a combination of both. My first, my gut reaction is very disappointed that people whisteblow with respect to the military. I do take Nicky’s point though, there will be people who are concerned. In every war, again, soldiers will see things or be ordered to do things about which they are not happy.

It takes a very gutsy soldier, sailor or airman to go to the commanding officer and say “I don’t want to do this”. Now, until probably about 20 or 30 years ago it would probably end up with them being put in the slammer.

But if they get no traction from that and they still firmly believe in their views, I can understand, while not sympathising with them, I can understand why they may go further.

I would not ask Nicky for his sources because I know damn well he wouldn’t give them  to me. And actually it doesn’t worry me anyway, because I’m retired.

I would always continue to be disappointed that people felt so strongly about it they couldn’t go to their commanding officers. But they may well have done, and I would not have known that. They may well have gone to their commanding officers and the commanding officers, to use their words, covered it up. I would not see that.

Sir Bruce was acknowledging not only that there could be a cover-up, but that in such circumstances, whistleblowing to journalists might in fact be the ethical thing to do. It made some headlines.

As is sometimes the case, the extended discussion proved to be more compelling that the broadcast programme. In this case, it provided quite vital context around the SAS, Afghanistan and the transfer of prisoners covered in Stephenson's work. Jon, I recall, was quite elated afterwards at what the discussion had produced. He felt vindicated.

Unfortunately, that part is long gone from the TVNZ website and was never uploaded to YouTube, where Media7 episodes dwell in the twilight of crappy metadata. I'm looking to retrieve that and get it posted, but in the meantime, you can still watch that 2011 programme, which I think was one of the best we made.

Jon had always indicated to me that there was more to tell about Afghanistan and our role there. And then, being Jon, said no more until he was ready to report. I suspect there's more yet. He and Nicky Hager have called for an inquiry into the incident at the centre of Hit and Run.

It's a long story. But, let's not forget, Afghanistan was New Zealand's longest-running war. There's a lot to tell. And while what took place in the little village of Khak Khuday Dad in 2010 may seem like a tiny part of the enormity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is our part to account for.

We already know that we have not been told the truth about our part in other people's wars. The evidence presented by Hager and Stephenson says we're still not being told the truth. And that is the problem.