Clearing out the attic of my house the other day I came across an unusual newspaper cutting lining an old chest of drawers.  It was undated but obviously came from the 19th century.  Readers may be interested in it as a curious throw back to times past as it clearly bears little relationship to modern society.

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In a move unprecedented since the introduction of the “Penny Post” by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli today responded to the Fenian Riots in our great northern cities by calling for the suspension of the now-familiar Royal Mail letter service.

Mr Disraeli told a crowded House of Commons that chief constables up and down the land were reporting that Fenian troublemakers were writing letters to each other to co-ordinate their nefarious activities.

“The problem,” he said “is that the service with its guarantee of same or next day delivery allows these Irish ‘gentlemen’ in one city to communicate almost instantly with those in other cities where there has been large scale immigration from Ireland. The problem has been exacerbated by the increasing number who are able to read and write and can afford the 1d postage stamp affixed to each letter.”

Reaction from other parts of society has been critical.

The secretary of the London Chamber of Commerce Mr Thomas Gradgrind said “This proposal does not seem to take account of the extent to which our great British industries rely upon swift communication with each other in order to progress the business of Empire.  This could be a major blow to many of our members.”  Private soundings taken by this newspaper from within government itself affirmed that the Board of Trade amongst others shares the Chamber’s concerns.

The editor of the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post asked “How are we to despatch our daily edition to country subscribers, many of them gentlemen of the cloth, in the event of a suspension of the postal service?”

And Lady Cynthia Garside, doyenne of London high society lamented “This will be an absolute disaster for the social life of the capital.  At present one can despatch a letter to any respectable member of society in the morning inviting them to supper that evening, confident that they will have responded by the luncheon hour affirming their attendance or not.”

It is not known at the time of writing if Mr Disraeli intends, in the argot of our military men, to “stick to his guns” or whether like the Grand Old Duke of York he intends to march back down the hill again, having ascended half way to the summit.

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Well done UK council chief executives.

They’re having a summit in October to think about the future of the important services local authorities provide.  Their debate will be structured around five propositions you can find on the web site they’ve set up to prepare for the event.

One thing they didn’t anticipate (who did?) will surely inform their deliberations – the “riots”.

I was pondering this as I checked out their site and in particular their

Proposition 4 Public services in a networked world

Although they can’t have intended it, this is absolutely central to what happened in England (media, Twitterers, politicians, foreign commentators et al please note – England, and even then only parts of England, not UK).

Spurred by this thought I dropped a note on the web site concerned.  Being of an economical and sustainable cast of mind I thought an expanded version might have a wider interest.

My thoughts started with something I’ve already looked at on this blog – the performance of the UK government Directgov portal during the disturbances.  That led me to thinking about social media and four distinct groups.

Central government itself

Given my other blog post it probably needs least comment of all here.  My characterisation of it to the chief execs was

An apparent social media paralysis…Directgov, their web portal, and its Twitter feed remained supine over the first few days of the riots

Local authorities

My own trawls did not reveal any hugely systematic or proactive use of the web and social media by councils, councillors or council chief executives.  Was I reading the wrong sources (let me know)?  I found three honourable exceptions.

The leader of Lambeth council was out and about in Brixton the morning after their disturbance and blogged about what he saw.  It had the smack of authenticity about it rather than the dead hand of PR

I was astonished to find Ms Cupcake, owner of a bakery on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, out in Brixton this morning handing out brightly-coloured iced cakes. She told me this was no day to sell cakes, and she wanted to show the world the true face of Brixton –smiling, generous, and big-hearted.

The chief executive of Haringey wrote for his peers about his experience on the SOLACE web site and the Guardian’s Public leaders network gave it a wider audience.  A thoughtful piece that concluded

I would love to close with some coherent thoughts on how we move on from this but as I reflect on the events of the last few days both here and across the country – reading the reports of the damage to our street maintenance depot which was attacked last night – I find myself like many others wondering how we got to this point.

I watched for council Tweets on the situation but few crossed my path amidst the thousands tumbling out, initially tagged #londonriots then #ukriots (but see comment on “UK” above).  An ironic exception was the prolific Twitterer Ruth Hyde @relhyde, chief executive of Broxtowe Borough Council.  Ironic because they’ve had no reported troubles.  But they’re next door to Nottingham which did and she’s been keeping her followers up to date, most recently with

Riots updates with Police and partners. Great communication from Notts police, Nothing yet reported in Broxtowe.

Note the praise given to the police.  She’s also been assiduous in re-tweeting their messages.  She gets the point in a way that many don’t – to the point, a conversational tone, up to date and frequent (but not excessive) Tweeting, informal and friendly.  A great example.  You feel there’s a real person there not the junior member of a comms team.  She deserves more followers (so get on over there and sign up) .

Rioters and would-be rioters

This is the group that’s had all the publicity.  Not only their use of social media including Twitter and Blackberry messaging to co-ordinate (co-ordinate probably pitches it too high) their activities but also their Tweets and videos showing the results.  So social media is immediately cast as the villian of the piece and bizarrely, for this particular business user, the Blackberry with its secure encrypted messaging in particular becomes a “problem”.

Community response

This for me has been the most inspiring use of social media in the current disturbances.  Just as baddies can use it to communicate so can goodies.  Hashtags like #riotcleanup and #riotwombles (love that) came out of nowhere and residents appeared on the streets almost instantly with brooms and dustpans to tidy up their own communities (although a big plus to many councils who were also mobilising their own resources for rapid clean ups).  And elsewhere in cyberspace you could hardly blink before people had web sites up gathering photos of probable looters (innocent until proven guilty of course) for identifying and reporting to the police.  This looked like the big society in action, although it has to be said without any credit due to the only begetter of the idea.

Which of these groups made most effective use of social media?  You’d have to say central government was pathetic, councils good in parts but, sadly, the baddies were expert.  The good news is that the positive community response was probably more expert (certainly more educated).

Nothing here about the police use (and monitoring, which we’ll probably never find out about in detail) of social media.  That’s another story and someone else will need to tell it.


It’s extraordinary how one situation can throw light on another in ways completely unintended.

I’ve had more than one go at the ineffably feeble Directgov web site (starting with Government web sites can be bad for your health).  Despite a review by Martha Lane Fox announced a year ago it still exists.  Moreover to show government is up to speed with all this newfangled technology it has a Twitter feed which advertises itself as

Information and practical advice about public services.

Wonderful.

What better place to counter the much-publicised use of social media by rioters in London and other English cities over the last three days, 6 – 8 August?

Here’s the “information and practical advice” the Directgov Twitter feed has offered an eager citizenry over the last five days.

5 August

  • A Tweet that says A map showing publicly-owned property has been published. These include pubs, an airport and four football stadiums http://bit.ly/asset_map [five days later there’s probably slightly less publicly-owned property in London than the government’s map plotted, although that’s by the by]

Silence until

9 August

(after three days of disturbances), then in quick succession

1121 hrs

  • 16,000 police officers will be on duty tonight in London, says PM

1122 hrs

  • 16,000 police officers will be on duty tonight in London, says PM #londonriots

1126 hrs

  • 16,000 police officers will be on the streets of London tonight, says PM #londonriots

Do you see what’s happening?

The answer is, they haven’t got a clue.

To spell it out.

  • Three days of major public disturbance pass and not a word.  This at a time when Twitter is humming with tens of thousands of Tweets (good, bad, ugly, fearful and totally bemused) about the situation
  • On day 4 a message appears about the number of police officers who will be on duty in London that night
  • One minute later someone realises that there’s something called hashtags and that’s how you get attention on Twitter.  So out comes Tweet reissue No. 1 with a hashtag
  • Four minutes later someone (the same alert public servant?) realises that “on duty” may sound a bit weak (on duty behind desks?) and that the extra officers will actually be on the streets.  So Tweet reissue No.2 emerges with amended wording.

By the way you probably won’t find the first two Tweets on the subject because they’ve been deleted from the Directgov Twitter stream.  But not before they were sitting in my timeline and those of the other 19,362 benighted souls who follow Directgov.

How’s that review going, Martha?