Friday, 17 June 2011

Another nail in the coffin of journalism

The single realisation that, when it dawned on me, spelt the end of any faith that I ever had in the mainstream media, arrived after I had been in the patent profession for a decade or so.  I was reading an article that mentioned an intellectual property subject, and which made a howling error that showed the writer to have no knowledge or understanding of IP at all.  I dismissed it, thinking something along the lines of "typical...".

Then I had a second thought.  I realised that I had dismissed the article without surprise because every single article I had read had been the same.  Not once had I read an MSM article that mentioned IP without there being a serious error or misunderstanding of some sort.  Now, IP is my specialist subject.  I have postgraduate and professional qualifications in it, and I deal with it every day.  Without being immodest, I can say that I am pretty expert in it.  Others are more expert in certain specific areas of IP, I will admit, but IP is a subject that I can honestly claim to know about and whenever I read a MSM article about it, it is wrong.

So, I realised, what about all the other articles?  The ones about subjects that I'm not an expert in?  Logically speaking, there are two classes of article, being those on a subject I know about and those on a subject I don't know about.  For the articles in the first class, I know that they all contain horrific errors and oversimplifications.  For the articles in the second class, I do not know that they do not contain horrific errors and oversimplifications because I am not qualified to assess this.

Logically, though, unless there is some link between me understanding a subject, and journalists tending to misunderstand a subject, we should infer that all articles on all subjects are sloppily written from an uninformed perspective.  That is the basis on which I have operated since that realisation.  So far, it was worked distressingly well.

Which brings me to the latest Telegraph article on the subject of the European Patent.  As ever, I approached this article with the primary aim of finding the glaring error.  This is good scientific practice, of course; if my hypothesis is that every such article will contain a serious error, then I should look for an error in each one so that I can, if possible, disprove the hypothesis by finding an article that discusses IP in an accurate and balanced manner.   Well, it didn't take long:
Currently, member states have their own patent offices. These work together as members of a non-EU body, the European Patent Organisation, which helps companies gain patents across 40 countries.
Ooops. No, the EPO and the national offices are operationally independent.  The EPO has its own offices, examiners, rules, fee structure, representatives, code of conduct, and so on.  It consists of the European Patent Office, which is controlled by the European Patent Organisation.  Yes, the Organisation has an Administrative Council that includes representatives from the national offices, but that is a policy-setting board that acts as a general oversight.  It is misleading to say that the offices "work together as members of a non-EU body [ to help ] companies gain patents across 40 countries".  They do no such thing.  The national offices do not work together to help companies obtain patents in other countries.

The European Patent Office acts as a competitor to the national patent offices.  It takes work off them by streamlining the process and allowing companies to patent their ideas across Europe at much lower cost.  That cost could be lowered still further by making savings in the utterly pointless translation scheme that was imposed on the EPO by national governments.  We (i.e. the UK) have been trying to lift this burden off the EPO since before I joined the profession 20 years ago.  This is not an EU sovereignty issue, it is a simple issue of bureaucratic efficiency.

Which leads to the other huge glaring error by the Telegraph.  In their desire to paint Cameron as a closet Euro-federalist, they have jumped on the latest UK effort to get the Community Patent off the ground to prove that he loves the EU and all its manifestations.  Which is, frankly, pathetic.

So as far as I'm concerned, the Telegraph can return to what it is good at - printing a large-format backing paper for photos of whichever female member of the Middleton family was looking prettiest the day before.


  1. There refusal to acknowledge the fact they are wrong, is what leads me to meditate most rewardingly about, journalists, concrete shower rooms, and cannisters of cyanide gas. And also why I would WILLINGLY donate a cannister of best five star petrol to ANY journalist that momentarily found themselves to be on fire.

  2. I reckon it would have taken approximately two minutes of Googling for the author to learn how the different IP institutions in Europe interact with each other (or not). This probably shows how much effort goes into every such article, unless IP is inherently more complicated to understand than other subjects such as politics or economics?

    I stopped buying papers a very long time ago.

  3. Blue - I think IP has a reputation for being "hard". I've heard lawyers say that. It isn't, though. Even I can understand it.

    And if Googling didn't work, they could always try phoning someone who does understand. There are plenty of them, after all. Of course, that might mean that they would not be able to print the version of events that they had already decided was true before they spoiled it by adding the facts.

    FT - Yes, they are remarkably immune to any consequences, and have a mysterious ability to change their mind at will and take an view diametrically opposite to yesterday's - usually in order to lambast a politician for making a U-turn.

    But if you meditate on subjects like that, may I respectfully suggest seeking professional help?

  4. For the last ten or so years up to my retirement I worked as an engineer at the London Air Traffic Control Centre. On every occasion when the press had some reason to write about it (usually following some problem) they published the wrong "facts" in spite of a full briefing from the PR department.
    I too take the same view as you. If they get it wrong on subjects with which I am familiar, how do I know that they are not equally wrong on other subjects where I have minimal knowledge?