Hacks hack

Extraordinary movement in the phone hacking case today – and presumably only the beginning of a torrent of admissions and concessions. This is good. But there’s something about the indignation of the celebs (and near-celebs and non-celebs) caught up in the phone hacking mess – those whose names appeared on those long lists of ‘targets’ and whose personal information showed up in tawdry news stories – that limits sympathy. Politician blustering, starlet whining etc. I can’t quite throw my circle of empathy around this group of moaners. I want to say: “change your bloody PIN and move on, you crowd of money-grubbing dimwits.”

But hold on, cease your righteous typing in the comment box. I know that would be wrong. I know this is serious, but the offense here is not one of kind – it’s not the essentially adolescent crime of trying a few obvious PINs on a minor royal’s voicemail – but of recklessness, of hugely overdoing it. Had the editors and reporters felt able to confine their ‘hacking’ (it barely merits the label) to genuine miscreants – cocaine lords, oligarchs, privy councillors – this practice would and probably should have carried on essentially unnoticed into the future. In fact, used with discretion and in the public interest – like ‘camera bags‘ and dressing up as a sheik – it would have formed a useful part of the investigative package.

It was the simple greed and desperation for stories (and the whole culture of ‘going out and getting’ and ‘proactively producing’ stories) that blew this up and gave it the potential to undermine journalism as a profession and as a vital public service. Let’s be clear, the ultimate villains in all this will be the editors who permitted, if not actually sponsored, this conduct. And it’s obvious that this is much larger than a single newspaper and a single editor (or even a single proprietor).

A whole generation of Fleet St editors (with a handful of exceptions, I’m sure) will leave their posts having radically diminished their profession and their business – those who put up with or directed this miserable dilution of the values of investigative journalism. And the big question is whether this and other increasingly desperate competitive measures marks the beginning of some kind of final decline for the prints.

There’s a kind of morbid postscript to the whole thing, of course, for we humble readers and voters. It’s the bit where we suspect that legislators were compromised and embarrassed by what they suspected the tabloids had on them and consequently sat on their hands during crucial debates on regulation and ownership. That bit makes my blood boil. The idea that editors may have literally (and I’m using the word ‘literally’ literally here) blackmailed MPs not to back legislation they didn’t like is heartstopping. A giant affront to democracy (it was when Tom Watson alerted us to this nastiness that I really switched on to this scandal).

Comedy voicemail service prospers

Spinvox, the service that translates your voicemails into text messages, has raised a wheelbarrow-load of money from various top-drawer sources for international expansion. I like Spinvox and the company’s continued success shows that it’s clever to hang out where voice and data meet. Machine translation – especially in noisy environments like mobile – is hard so it’ll continue to produce opportunities. Until translation is an embedded function, until every operator offers it as a standard (and invisible) feature of voicemail, Spinvox will prosper.

The thing about Spinvox, though, is that I’m still pretty sure there aren’t any machines. People who’ve visited the firm will tell you that there’s a roomful of… well… people translating those messages. And any user will provide plenty of evidence from their own inbox of human fallibility in the call centre. I keep a small collection of genuinely hilarious Spinvox mistranslations.

From a work contact: “Hi Steve. Beats me in the arse. Please give me a call when you’re available”

From a BBC Manager I know vaguely (and whose name is not John Arthur): “Hi Steve. It’s John Arthur here. I do love you very much, though. Can you please give me a call”

From my wife: “Call ham Steve”

Also from my wife (whose name is Juliet): “Hi Chloey. This is Joey”.

If the heavy lifting at Spinvox really is still being done by people, why do they continue to talk about their awesome software? If the software is steadily taking over (which is the most likely explanation) where are these errors coming from: the software or the people? Speaking for myself, Spinvox’s comedy mistranslations are the main reason I continue to subscribe. Hope they don’t sort it out too soon.