The practice of journalism

Tweets working – how Twitter is changing journalism

Published originally in the Feb/Mar 2013 edition of The Journalist

Researching an article about the popularity of social media platforms last month, Guardian technology journalist Jemima Kiss asked for opinions on Twitter. Within a couple of hours, she had 75 replies. “I am always looking for case studies or trying out ideas on Twitter”, she says. “I am never without a Twitter feed open on my computer. It’s like having an ear outside the office which is constantly updating me on what is happening in the rest of the world”.

Kiss (@jemimakiss, 32,388 followers) is one of many journalists for whom Twitter has become an indispensible work tool. John Rentoul (@JohnRentoul, 21,853 followers), The Independent on Sunday’s chief political commentator is another. “I rely on Twitter to tell me what are the running political stories. It has transformed the way that lobby journalism works. In 1995 when I started in the House of Commons, we relied on the PA wire. Today I can have a much quicker and broader conversation, often talking directly with politicians on Twitter”, he says.

Indeed, it is fair to say that the service, which allows users to post up to 140-character micro blogs from their computers, tablets and phones has transformed much of the way that news is created and broadcast. Of course, the vast majority of the 100,000 tweets that are sent every minute worldwide are of limited interest. But when important events take place, the news now nearly always appears first on Twitter. When the aftershocks from an earthquake in Costa Rica hit Nicaragua, it took less than two minutes for hundreds to tweet that there had been a tremor, for example.

Hoaxes can spread just as quickly. Last August a Twitter account called @OfficialSkyNews reported the death of Margaret Thatcher. It was retweeted thousands of times, the feed quickly gained 30,000 followers. The story was reported as fact in the United States by the broadcaster ABC, perhaps in part because the former Prime Minister’s Wikipedia entry was helpfully altered at the same time to add corroboration.

But establishing the veracity of information is just one of the reputational, ethical and legal considerations for journalists in the Twittersphere. The range of potential issues is evident from social media guidelines that have recently been adopted by many large news organisations, among them the BBC, the Washington Post, Associated Press and the LA Times.

The BBC’s guidance to its journalists encourages them to tweet in a personal capacity, but orders them: “don’t state your political preferences or say anything that compromises your neutrality”. Tweets issued in the name of BBC News must be cleared by at least one other member of editorial staff before they are sent.

But the problems can start before you have even taken a job. One of the BBC’s US bureaux hired two journalists fresh from college a couple of years ago. Almost immediately the new recruits’ social media from their student days was placed under intense scrutiny, from which a good deal about their religious and political views was evident. On that basis one blogger questioned the new journalists’ ability to work to the dispassionate standards expected of the corporation.

Current BBC thinking is that candidates’ prior social media activity should not generally count against applicants for employment – but the need to think carefully before you tweet is clear.

“Tweeting is quite a flippant medium”, says Kiss. “You tend to say things in the same way as you would in a pub conversation. But just like being in a busy pub, you do have to be a bit wary of who might be able to overhear you”.

Research by the New York Times, among others, suggests that when tweeting, most people imagine themselves to be addressing a small community, added to which there is a widely-felt drive to report or retweet news first. It is a combination that makes it easy to forget the normal journalistic instinct to verify information.

But quite apart from making yourself look a fool, there is the potentially costly problem of defamation. “Tweeting is just the same as conventional publishing”, cautions NUJ freelance organiser John Toner. “Don’t stop using your journalistic antennae when tweeting, and don’t for a moment imagine that prefacing a statement with the word ‘allegedly’ will provide any kind of legal defence”. Toner has already helped one member who faced a potential action for defamation as a result of a tweet.

There are more subtle ways that tweeting changes journalism too – sometimes with unexpected consequences. Live tweeting of events such as press conferences, for example, means an end to the days when a pack would agree the quotes at the end of an event. And with the real juice broadcast instantly, the challenge of adding further value with a written-up piece is all the greater.

Twitter is also narrowing some journalists’ focus, argues Rentoul, who declines to say how many hours a day he spends watching his feed. “The herd instinct of the lobby pack has been intensified by Twitter. There is even more pressure to follow the same stories as each other”.

The benefits outweigh the disadvantages, however, he argues. “You can have intelligent conversations on Twitter, as well as fi ghts. I am not sure how many of my readers I interact with on Twitter, but I am very engaged by quite a large group of people among whom I can check facts and try out arguments”.

Twitter can change the business model of journalism, as well as its practice, needless to say. Christian Payne (@documentally 21,675 followers) started his working life as a photographer on a provincial paper. Fearing that his prospects did not look rosy, he went freelance and now describes himself as a ‘social technologist’. “I self-financed an assignment in Iraq and sold a few pictures to the nationals.

But when I put the pictures together as a slide show and put it up on YouTube the viewing fi gures went through the roof,” he says.

More followers took notice when he posted up short personal video clips in which he sometimes ‘made an arse of himself’. His first was in the immediate aftermath of seriously crashing his car on the way to an assignment. Like his other material he put it up on the web for free – but the return comes from his expanded audience. “Suddenly work started coming to me, and today I am being offered three times more work than I have the time to undertake”, he says.

The United Nations commissioned him to produce video blogs, for example. He has covered numerous conferences and has even travelled from Lands End to John O’Groats without a penny in his pocket, by tweeting, on behalf of Vodaphone. Payne commands day rates of between £500 and £1,000.

Of course Twitter is by no means the first technological advance to which journalism has adapted – the telephone and the worldwide web were arguably more profound in their impact. Indeed, Twitter may prove to be significantly more short-lived than Alexander Graham Bell’s invention.

But even if it does not last a generation in its current form, you can be sure that Twitter’s ‘always-on’ water canon of information will endure, and that the world of journalism will be shaped by its considerable pressure for the foreseeable future.

Tweet sorrow

Allowing your personality to shine through your tweets is widely considered a key to gaining followers. The pitfalls of unguarded tweeting are considerable, however, particularly if your professional reputation depends on your ability with words.

According to a Freedom of Information request by Associated Press, convictions resulting from electronic communications increased from 873 in 2009 to 1,286 in 2011. Indeed, a journalist on the Great Yaremouth Mercury lost their job at the end of last year after tweeting on a personal account the name of a man being questioned by police investigating historic child-sex-abuse allegations.

Dave Boyle (@theboyler, 1,752 followers) knows more than most about the perils of ill-considered tweeting. He had to stand down as chief executive of the football charity Supporters Direct as a result of sharing rather too much on the microblogging site.

After an afternoon in a pub last year watching his team, AFC Wimbledon, secure promotion to the second division, Boyle issued a string of uncivil tweets. Some made rather grandiose and expletive studded claims for the import of his team’s success. Others indicated the strength of his dislike for some of the individuals who had allowed the original Wimbledon football club to migrate to Milton Keynes, nine years earlier.

In a beery pub conversation, Boyle’s comments would have attracted little attention. But once they were published online, and searchable by anyone with an internet connection, they made his position as the head of an organisation which is funded by the Football Association completely untenable – particularly once they had been picked up by the national press. “I was a bloody idiot”, says Boyle. “It hadn’t really occurred to me that the laws of defamation would apply to me when I tweeted, nor that any but my quite select group of followers would take any notice of what I said”.

Quite possibly Boyle’s mistake was to hand his enemies a stick with which to beat him, and for that he paid a considerable price.

If there is one lesson to take from his experience, perhaps it is this. If you value your professional reputation, then social media devices, like car keys, are probably best left behind when you visit a licensed establishment.


The revelations of a mid-winter ride

Surveying the rolling fields of East Suffolk from a rise in the land a little to the north of Henley, I could hardly contain my surprise. It’s a view I know well, being part of my twice-weekly fair-weather perignations, and yet, dotted in the landscape were a score of buildings that had hitherto escaped my notice. Skeletal trees and sunshine reflected from the receding snow revealed Dutch gables, tufts of thatch and even the knapped flint of a Church tower that were more usually obscured by leaves or shrouded in shade.

Despite an unexpectedly commitment-free Saturday afternoon, I very nearly opted for the indoor training bike. Slushy snow still covered the minor roads and although the temperature had risen to five degrees Celsius, a hint of north-westerly wind delivered an authentically mid-winter chill. But set out I did, with melt-water spraying up from the road.

Illuminated by the first sunshine in weeks, the stark landscape had a brilliant quality. Essentially mono-chromatic, the slightest hints of colour added a vivid, hand-tinted aspect to the scene. To the west was a baby-blue sky and running beside one section of road, the bristling remnants of reddish reed. The few cars that I saw wore their own camouflage of road filth, but intense flashes of brick work, pantile and hung-out washing flecked the scene with tiny contrasting dashes.

My second surprise came by virtue of slight variation to my route. I am still rebuilding strength and stamina after a broken leg, so I shortened my usual loop. The junctions of the road that I took, I have passed hundreds of times, without once venturing to find our what lay between. I should here acknowledge the privilege enjoyed by those who cycle in East Anglia. The undulating countryside of Norfolk and Suffolk is served by a dense web or roads – a legacy of the labour-hungry demands of yesterday’s agriculture. Long, if circuitous journeys are possible without seeing a moving car, and a cyclist can explore for decades and still have more to find – as I was to discover.

Cutting down the road signposted ‘Hemingstone’ I came upon St Gregory’s, a simple, fourteenth century Church. Quite possibly this morning’s congregation hasn’t even reached double figures, and yet, the idea that the surrounding community has been nourished and tended from this building for more than half a millennium was humbling.

A mile or so down the road can you buy valium online came a more dramatic revelation. Hitherto my route was lined by frozen ditches, ragged hedgerows and snowy fields. Suddenly I found myself riding beside a tall, evergreen box hedge, clipped into shape with the aggressive precision of an army barber. A towering wall could have no better asserted the import and wealth of what lay behind.

I half expected to see a shadowy institute housing noiseless, white-coated scientists serving a humming mainframe from behind smoked windows. Instead, looking over the canalised boundary stream was Hemingstone Hall, an eight-bayed brick mansion dating from 1625. Its elaborate, curling gables, juxtaposed the garden of dramatic, geometric topiary. I was tempted to jump the gate for a closer look, as there was no evidence of anyone in residence. But having earlier in the day been shooed from his fence by householder over whose more modest property I was peering, I decided to press on.

My final discovery was a series of planning notices, pinned to stakes on open stretches of roadside. Doubtless they comply with statute, but it is hard to believe that any but cyclists will pause to consider their contents. On my reading, they appeared to announce Scottish Power’s plans to erect as many as 350 wind turbines, each potentially 200 meters high, in a curve between Felixstowe and Wattisham – a narrow, 20 mile corridor wrapped around the entire northern approach to Ipswich.

I’m unsure about the economics of wind farms, but I am a fan of their aesthetics – at least on hill sides, or at sea. But the suggested scale seemed terrifying. I calculated that existing line of pylons that delivers power from Sizewell to the grid, stand between 30 and 40 meters tall. Structures nearly five times taller than these, each nearly the height of Canary Wharf Tower (One Canada Square to give it its proper name) would dominate the countryside, and be visible form as much as thirty miles away. I finished my circumnavigation fearing that my inner Nimby was about to be exposed.

Happily, back at base, a check of the local newspaper’s archives revealed that my fears to be groundless. The Caledonian engineers plan to build their turbines at sea, it was their application to lay a fresh line of pylons that I had seen. Perhaps it is just as well that few others will stop pause to check their notices.


For the record – does HMV’s demise matter?

The last time that I bought anything at HMV I came away with a box set of Sir Edward Elgar’s orchestral works and a book celebrating The Clash.  “That’s an unusual combination”, said the shop assistant, as he took my debit card.  “It’s all nostalgia”, I replied, absent-mindedly.

Walking away from the shop, however, I was overwhelmed with a sense of sadness.  There was a time in my life when employees in record shops were the epitome of cool.  Lowly paid, shop-working Saturday-staff, they might be, but with their sculptural hair cuts, improbable piercings and knowing air of detachment, they were as hip as you could find – at least among the retail units on the average high street.

The significance of my purchases was entirely unwitting.  The Elgar was a gift for my father.  But by some fluke, the grandly moustachioed Edwardian composer was the one who cut the ribbon at the opening of the very first His Master’s Voice music shop – back in 1921 in Oxford.

The Clash book – a sort of photo-montage of the band’s glory years – was an impulse purchase which tempted me with a remainder-shop price.  My favourite band, its true, but so pathetic is it for middle-aged men to wallow in manufactured memorabilia that I resisted, at least until the price drop.   For all their punk fury, however, The Clash are emblematic of an age when signing to a label and selling lots of records was the only route to mainstream success – even though their songs complained about those who ‘turned rebellion into money’.

Replaying my conversation, it struck me that record-shop employees were surely going the way of the coal miners, printers and ship builders alongside whom I had once, long ago, stood shoulder-to-shoulder on picket lines.  There was a difference, however.  By the time I was demonstrating in support of workers in our iconic heavy industries, those sectors were already long past their peaks of production and employment.  With hindsight, the bitterness of the industrial struggles of the 1980s look more like cadeveric spasms than sustainable threats to the social order.

By contrast, my record-buying life coincides with the high-water mark of mechanically reproduced analogue culture.  Top Of The Pops attracted 15 million viewers a week during the 1970s, the music press revealed a secret and magical world in even the most hum drum valium online with no prescription provincial outposts, and a quick inspection of a person’s record collection, related all that you needed to know about their taste and cultural bearings (or lack of them).

The HMV ‘in town’ was for years my first stopping off point on a Saturday.  Oftentimes, with no money in my pocket, soaking up the atmosphere, hearing the new sounds and leafing through the racks of albums was enough to justify my bus fare.

But, wistfulness aside, is the demise of nipper and his trumpet a real cause for sadness?  On balance, I think not.

I am fairly certain that I have bought my last CD.  Apart from charity-shop finds, I am never going to buy another album.  Despite that, I listen to more new music now, than at any other time in my life – even the headlong rush of teenage enthusiasm that wove songs and their singers into the very tapestry of my being.

The reason for this is simple – for a monthly subscription I have an extraordinary galaxy of music available to me streamed into my computer or iPhone.   If I am minded to buy music to download, there is the Apple store.  To hear more esoteric material I turn to YouTube and Myspace.

Nor does listening to new music necessarily mean surrendering to big business.  Because of the internet, artists such as Joe Pernice have been able to carve our reasonable livings from recording and playing exquisite, occasionally hilarious, music without recourse to big studios, big labels or, big record stores.

I feel nothing but pity for those who have lost their jobs, and I worry about the sustainability of high-street shopping as a dizzying succession of anchor-retailers pull down their shutters for good.  But technological advance has been doing this to music for decades.  Records and their shops did for the big bandsmen of the 30s and 40s, just as surely as pipe organs and pianos narrowed musicians’ employment opportunities by allowing one person to emulate an orchestra.

When it comes to real nostalgia, then, I will devote myself to the artistry of the music itself, rather than mourning the changing arrangements for its distribution.  Where my children will find to hang out on Saturday afternoons remains to be seen.  I suspect that it would not have been HMV, though, even if the administrators had not been summoned.

Cycling Uncategorized

Rolling news

Regaining the power of the pedal after three months with a broken leg.

A dart of pain shot up from my ankle as I threw my right leg over the crossbar.  As my weight settled on the saddle, though, the discomfort melted away.  I was terrified to lift my left foot to the pedal, but as I rolled from the front of my house, and started to turn the cranks it was a rare elixir that I inhaled.  Bright winter air filled my lungs and the rolling freedom that my bicycle has always provided was bliss.

Little wonder.  It is more than two months since I last rode a bicycle.

On 10 October, I slipped on the stairs at home and, although I caught myself on the banisters almost immediately, I somehow caught my left leg behind me.  My foot was immediately immobile, within five minutes my ankle was twice its normal size and an hour later an x-ray revealed that I had snapped my fibula – the thinner of the two bones in the lower leg.

A cast was applied and I was instructed to retire to bed for six weeks – ideally with the broken leg resting on a pillowy pile to keep the swelling down.  Of course I realise that many people deal with far more serious injuries, and some have to endure serious physical challenges though out their lives.  Having always been fortunate with my health, and never having broken a leg before, the privations seemed terrible.  I was totally dependent on my family.  My ensuite toilet was a painful crawl away.  The wonders of modern technology have allowed me to work throughout the bed-bound weeks.  But days on end in the same position became unbelievably sore.  Depression too was hard to avoid.  And anything other than phone contact was out of the question.

I was quite surprised when the cast came off, six weeks to the day after it was applied.  “Your break has mended well”, intoned my Doctor.  “I am discharging you today”.

Alas the leg that was newly revealed was not the one I remembered.  The dead skin that encased it quickly peeled away, but the calf beneath had lost three centimetres in girth.  Much worse, though, the joint itself was more throbbingly sore than I can possibly describe.  Three weeks on from that day, and walking is still a significant challenge.  A 200 yard hobble is possible, but only at half of normal walking speed, and I can’t cope with uneven surfaces or any kind or unexpected challenges to my balance.  I still need to sit with my leg up most of the time, and although I can get about buy ambien cheap online under my own steam, I am still most comfortable sitting on top of my bed.

My three mile bike ride, then, was a big adventure.  I had tried a couple of brief sessions on a static bike and decided that, weak and painful as my left leg is, the bulk of the work can be done by my right leg.

To move again under my own steam was to enjoy an extraordinary heady rush.  It was good to see my neighbourhood as I pedalled round, but it was the experience of rolling along that was like a forgotten favourite taste rediscovered.  The unremarkable act of balancing and travelling forwards seemed once more to be miraculous, and the cool air on my face an exquisite caress.

My ride represents the tiniest foothill on a journey back to full use of my leg, not to mention regaining the fitness that has wasted away.  But with base camp established, however distant be my destination, at least I have made a start.

So what are the lessons of nine weeks of enforced idleness?  One is certainly a much deeper sympathy for anyone else who endures mobility challenges, or ongoing pain.  In my capacity as The Sunday Times’ Cycle Doc, I receive dozens of emails from readers whose joints or limbs are, for some reason or other, making cycling difficult.  Drawing on a modicum of personal experience, interviews with medics, and various text books, I provide what general advice I can.  But I am not a doctor, and even if I were, without the chance to properly examine someone and talk through their issues, it is difficult to proffer anything but generalisations and to strongly advise correspondents to seek out qualified advice.

But much can be learned from the experience of others, so here is what I propose.  If you have overcome physical difficulties to return to cycling and you would like to share your experiences, drop me a line.  Once I have enough responses, I will tie them together into an article.  No amount of sharing will eliminated the need for proper medical attention, of course, but I am certain that there will be countless tips and tricks to get back in the saddle that it is worthwhile sharing.

In the meantime, in intend to enjoy every second my return to proper mobility, however swollen and sore my ankle becomes.  I may be some way off the 2000m Alpine climbs that I managed last summer, but for the moment, the satisfaction of completing far more mundane climbs is every bit their equal.

Politics Uncategorized

Brown’s cool days

Originally published in The Sunday Times, 26 November 1995

Some say he’s blown his chance of being PM. Last week, he was attacked by his own colleagues. But an unexplored episode from his past shows why Gordon Brown should never be taken for granted. Tim Dawson reports

In September 1970 London stockbrokers Buckmaster and Moore bought 11,000 shares in a mining concern on the Johannesburg stock exchange. They added these to a portfolio worth more than £500,000 of other South African shares that the company managed on behalf of a client in Scotland.

Like all speculators, their client needed high-yielding investments and for this the Johannesburg exchange was second to none. Returns on shares in South African mines, where most of the £500,000 was invested, averaged a world-beating 10 to 15% per annum.

But these profits came at a human cost. Some companies forced black miners to live like slaves in fenced enclosures and paid them less than one tenth as much as their white counterparts. Others had calmed industrial unrest by shooting strikers. Blood money perhaps, but it boosted the bottom line.

Two months later, Buckmaster and Moore delivered a 48-page account detailing the South African dealings. Secrecy was vital. Their client was Edinburgh university. And its principal was Michael Swann who had recently agreed to sponsor the Anti-Apartheid movement, thereby allowing it to use his name in its campaign to encourage organisations to withdraw investments from South Africa and speed the end of whites-only rule.

Swann put the report into a bottom drawer and hoped it would never see the light of day. South Africa was an emotive issue among his students. Months earlier, a mob of them clashed with police as they tried to keep the all-white South African rugby team off Murrayfield’s turf. To make matters worse, the students were now demanding to know if any university assets were invested in South Africa.

The management of Edinburgh university had no inkling of the furore they were about to unleash, nor the crucial role it was to play in launching the career of one of Britain’s leading politicians. Their way of doing things had changed little since the war. There was no right-to-know. Even press releases bore the legend “private and confidential”. No matter how many times students occupied the buildings around the Old Quad, Swann had easily resisted them. Decisions taken over a sherry with trusty aides were more commodious than negotiating with angry young radicals. Swann thought he could get away with it.

Under pressure from the students, Swann recommended that the October meeting of the University Court (its board of directors) issue a statement saying: “The university does not have directly, or so far as it is aware, indirectly any interests in companies known to be active in the support of apartheid.” To other members of Court it seemed inconceivable that the principal would lie, so the statement was published.

Only five people had access to the secret stockbroker’s report. So sickened was one of them, however, that in the middle of December he took the matter into his own hands. He left a copy of the document in a toilet deep inside the old college building. Then he rang the student publications board and suggested that somebody pay a visit.

GORDON BROWN had enrolled as an undergraduate at Edinburgh in 1967 aged 16. He had come through an accelerated programme to encourage Fifers to go to university and came top in a competition for bursaries. Playing for Kirkcaldy High School’s rugby 1st XV he took a kick to his head. Nothing seemed to be wrong but during his first weeks at Edinburgh he nearly lost his sight. After four operations doctors managed to save his right eye but not his left.

He missed much of his first year but once back on his feet gravitated to the student publications board which produced a newspaper called Student.

These were heady times. In May 1968 demonstrating students took over part of Paris for several weeks. Radicalism swept Britain’s universities as students opted for sex, soft drugs and sit-ins. Deference to authority was gone for ever. Even then, Brown could be a little dour. Flared loon pants, leather jackets and loud jumpers were all the rage among his friends. Brown wore a tweed jacket and a long tie that hung below his waist. He was one of the few male activists of the time who never grew a beard and, though his hair reached his collar by 1972, it progressed no further. But he could ferret out a good story and type like a madman so they dubbed him “Boredom Beaver Brown” and made him editor of the newspaper.

The significance of the tables of figures and company names in the stockbroker’s report was not immediately obvious. Brown and his team poured over them in their cramped offices in Buccleuch Place and soon realised what they had. There would not normally have been another issue of the newspaper until January but waiting was unthinkable. A fund was raided and the publications board got to work. As the bundles of their four-page Student special disappeared to be passed among students and staff, Brown and the publications board caught up on sleep. They knew their story was dynamite. But not even Brown realised that for the next five years he would be caught up in its shockwaves.

Throughout January, Brown motivated the campaign against the university from behind his publications board typewriter. “Sell the Shares,” demanded stickers and posters on every wall in the university, while meetings of social clubs and societies, as well as tutorials and staff bodies, passed resolutions demanding action from Swann.

For Swann, the damage was done. He changed stockbrokers and prepared to liquidate the South African interests. He was petitioned by 2,500 students and almost 300 staff. The Anti-Apartheid movement insisted that he disassociate himself from them. His whole university had turned against him. And before he could take his proposals to the University Court, he collapsed with a viral infection which confined him to bed for a fortnight.

BROWN was an increasingly charismatic leader. Despite his long hours in the library, holding his books to his face because of his eyesight, he drew people into his campaigns. “We should run someone for the Rectorship,” he argued. Fierce opposition from within the publications board could not prevent him winning the day.

The system of government in Scotland’s ancient universities was codified in law in 1858. Students were entitled to elect a Rector every three years to look after their interests. That person was nominally entitled to chair the University’s Court. In practice, students had opted for politicians and celebrities but few attended Court more than once or played a significant role. No student had ever been elected to the post.

Brown and his friends alighted on Jonathan Wills, the newspaper’s cartoonist. But by this time Brown was thinking three jumps ahead of the game. Wills won the contest, beating the humourist Willie Rushton. Wills realised, however, that his victory was largely symbolic. He knew that he did not have the force of character to really shake up the system and announced that he would serve just one year.

By the following November the mystique around Brown had grown. With his long dark hair and full, sensual lips he had looks to equal any rock singer. His girlfriend, Margarita, with whom he shared his flat, was not only beautiful but also a Princess, albeit of Romania from where her father had been ousted in 1947. And Brown had just taken a First in history said to be the best the university had awarded since the war.

He did not push himself forward but any other candidate would have been pointless. His bandwagon was unstoppable. Hundreds of students nominated him while “Brown’s Sugars” mini-skirted women in “Gordon for me” T-shirts urged students to the polls. When the papers were counted Brown had nearly double the number of his nearest opponent.

The University Court to which he was elected could have been the executive committee of Edinburgh’s establishment. The senior academics, head masters and town councillors were used to Principal Swann chairing its meetings genteel affairs which were over within an hour. With Brown in the chair, the University Court was a battlefield. Meetings went on for five or six hours as the 22-year-old Rector tried to drag the ancient institution into the late 20th century. But before he had made any progress, the establishment counter-attacked.

Glowering across the court’s table at Brown, Lord Cameron, one of Scotland’s most senior high court judges, proposed that the rules should be changed to prevent the rector from chairing their meetings. Lord Robertson, another senior high court judge, seconded him. Only Brown voted against. Heartened by this, Cameron suggested that, as the assistant, or assessor, who accompanied Brown to court meetings had recently led an occupation of the Old College, he should be barred from attending court forthwith. Brown stood alone as vote after vote went against him.

But back at his flat in Marchmont Road, Brown had made a careful study of the university’s rules. His room looked like an explosion in a bookshop, but his thoughts were clear. The judges had no right to do this, he decided. He took them to the High Court.

The case was the talk of the legal community. It was most unusual for one judge to sit in judgement over two of his colleagues. Brown was sufficiently nervous that he left the case to his counsel and retired to Marchmont Road with fingers crossed.

But Lord Keith’s judgement on his noble colleagues was in Brown’s favour. Brown had understood the university’s constitution; two of Scotland’s finest legal minds had not. The meetings of Court since his assistant was excluded were null and void. Brown could appoint whoever he wished.

Swann was incandescent. In a series of angry meetings he pushed through more and more votes to try and remove Brown but by then he had dual defences.

To change university rules, Swann needed the consent of the Privy Council and if they were to win this they had to demonstrate that their rule change was widely supported. At the General Council of Graduates old friends from the publications board infiltrated meetings to argue Brown’s case, while academics who had taught him pushed supportive motions through the university’s senate.

But it was from above, rather than below, that the university met its final defeat. Brown lobbied frenetically to muster support but there was one party to whom even he did not feel able to place a persuasive phone call.

The Duke of Edinburgh was the university’s chancellor. He enjoyed this ceremonial role but did not intervene in internal politics. When canvassed for his opinion on the rule change, however, his answer was emphatic. There was no case for removing the Rector’s right to chair the court. With Philip on the side of the opposition, the Privy Council was bound to reject the rule change. Swann was defeated.

Brown had not spoken to anyone at Buckingham Palace but the Prince had been discreetly lobbied. To this day nobody knows how Brown pulled it off but he did have an intriguing royal connection: Philip was his girlfriend’s god-father.

In defeat Edinburgh university was magnanimous. Even Lord Cameron learned to live with Brown’s brusque manner and forthright views.

He devoted the rest of his Rectorship to persuading the university to involve itself more with Edinburgh and also did a deal giving students a permanent seat on the university court. In return, students were barred from standing for Rector. The events of this period are remarkable in themselves. Brown’s determined, meticulously researched approach revolutionised the university’s government despite the efforts of a deeply entrenched establishment. The energies of student radicals elsewhere were often expended on campaigns which had little chance of success. Perhaps more remarkable, though, is the man who emerged from Edinburgh university.

MOST who know Brown well say the key to understanding him is his father. Reverend John Brown was of Fife farming stock and became a Church of Scotland Minister at St Brycedale Church in Kirkcaldy, where Brown and his brothers grew up.

Now retired, he is remembered in Kirkcaldy as a deeply compassionate man who put social justice before theological hair splitting. Brown acknowledges this outlook had a profound influence upon him. A collection of his father’s sermons reveals numerous lines strikingly similar to ones Brown uses in speeches today.

Consistent too are both the values Brown espouses and the political methods he employs to pursue them.

There is little in his student journalism that would embarrass him today. Indeed, some phrases he first used writing in Student newspaper continue to appear in his work. Writing about the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in 1971, he said: “The most untapped asset in Great Britain is the creative ability of working people”. With slight variations he has repeated this line thousands of times, just last weekend, speaking about his tax proposals, he was saying: “The biggest asset of any economy is the skills and education of its people.”

He also deploys the lessons he learned in political organisation with peerless skill. In Parliament he has lieutenants in all the key shadow teams who owe their first loyalty to him. He is the only shadow cabinet member without whose agreement Tony Blair would find it impossible to significantly alter party policy.

Even his constituency party in Dunfermline East is a model of New Labour. Like Tony Blair’s in Sedgefield it ran an early pilot mass membership scheme. And except for the three Scottish CLPs with social clubs, it now has the largest membership in the country.

Even his domestic chaos has spilled over from student days. Not until 1987 did he leave his student digs for a house in the constituency. Twice police have surveyed the aftermath of burglaries at his house. On both occasions they concluded that the place had been ransacked only for Brown to explain that things looked pretty much as he left them.

He and Blair shone almost immediately when they entered the Commons and provided much of the impetus to propel Kinnock’s modernisation of the Labour party. But in their approach to political persuasion Brown and Blair could not be more different. It is perhaps this that finally decided who would succeed John Smith.

Brown’s forte is facts, followed by soundbites. As he rose through the party, this served him well. Again and again his beavering has turned up information which could be deployed to devastating advantage. Ploughing through a mountain of figures in the Government’s competitiveness review he spotted a table that others had missed. It showed that Britain had fallen from thirteenth to eighteenth in the world prosperity league a fact he has trumpeted mercilessly ever since.

He is a politician to his fingertips. But this style and his discomfort in front of a camera possibly a result of his eye injury do not make him a sparkling television performer.

Blair is a natural who uses his own life to make political capital. He says he does not feel like a politician and projects his personal experiences in order to pitch his appeals to the emotions.

Brown’s aides contend it is no bad thing for an aspirant Labour chancellor to appear a man of sober seriousness. But it is impossible not to wonder what it feels like to have one’s leadership ambitions thwarted by your closest political friend.

This week Brown and Kenneth Clarke will do battle over their rival plans; one for a cut in the basic rate of income tax, the other for a new 10 pence tax band. It is a game of high stakes; the outcome will probably determine who will be inhabiting Number 11 Downing Street eighteen months from now. The Tories hope that after more than 20 years in opposition to his university and now the Tory party this has become Brown’s natural home. But they would do well to remember how his stormy period at Edinburgh university ended.