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Computer mags – or ambulance chasers?

Death grist to the editorial mill

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We like Computer Weekly and Computing. Not because they're first with the news (the Web has put paid to that) but because the politics of the venerable rival IT pubs remains hugely entertaining.

A case in point are the stories that cause the most controversy inside the papers amongst the journalists. But they don't involve whether the paper is for or against Microsoft (of course it's an evil empire) or whether to campaign against the industry's increasingly blase approach to users' privacy, as shown by Real Networks global database of individuals' music tastes.

No the real arguments are caused by disaster stories, where human tragedy can be linked in some way to technology. They always make a good story, but the trouble is no two journalists can ever agree whether the readers are interested. Computing was never the same after the Dunblane school tragedy. It remarkably devoted all of pages two and three (21.3.1996) to a Dunblane special, in what proved to be the final crazy days of then editor Jerry Sanders.

"Could last week's tragic events in Dunblane have been prevented?" the paper asked. Pointing out that the private sector was slowly building huge data warehouses to track customer behaviour it argued for a similar effort on the part of government in which a single image of the nation's citizens, constantly updated from thousands of database sources up and down the country, is made visible to anyone charged with a duty of care towards other citizen."

The events of Dunblane meant that Big Brother was now acceptable, and the paper decided bizarrely to campaign for this. Perhaps the idea was close to the heart of Sanders, a one-time employee at signals intelligence agency GCHQ. Understanding of the idea was aided by an entirely incomprehensible diagram and list of databases that could be linked up, ranging fromAlcoholics Anonymous to the Scout Association. Big Brother didn't last.

The story went down in insider folklore as unacceptably irrelevant to the supposedly technology trend-hungry reader. Sanders ceased to be editor of Computing shortly afterwards. The subsequent sentiment was encapsulated in the immortal phrase: "It's a bit of a Dunblane story," and was applied by Computing staff to the undoubtedly poor efforts of rival Computer Weekly.

Weekly ignored Dunblane but later retaliated with its own page hogging masterpiece: a mere 70,000 word investigation by star reporter Tony Collins into the 1994 Chinook military helicopter crash which claimed the lives of 29 top service personnel (27.3.99).

Luckily the Internet had been invented by now allowing the magnum opus to sit on its own special web site, where it was downloaded an incredible 1346 times in the first ten days according to reporter Collins. Fortunately a summary of the analysis takes less than 70,000 words.

After the crash, the Ministry of Defence, finding "no evidence of a technical malfunction" blamed the deceased pilots. Except that it might not have been their fault. The rest of the analysis meticulously documents "serious doubts over the MoD's verdict and the airworthiness of the Chinook-equipped computer engine control systems. It is the story of a political and technological cover-up which has lasted for five years."

In short a software error might have caused the crash - and as a result the pilots stand wrongly accused. Ministers however have refused to agree with this investigative journalism. Meanwhile over at Computing, some staff were amused at this epic Dunblane-story. One editor dubbed the paper "Helicopter News", and efforts were made to get Computing's sales force to tell its advertisers how irrelevant Computer Weekly was in the wake of the Chinook word orgy.

But Collins is a man whose commitment is second to none, even if at times it means he has to take a starring role. In October 1992 the London Ambulance Service implemented one of the most disastrous applications of all time. It was a computer-aided dispatch system for handling 999 calls but delays and finally major problems with the implementation (which only ran for a day and a half) meant that emergency calls were not being responded to quickly enough. Trade unions believed that as many as 20 lives were lost as a result.

The problems were widely reported at the time, and were prefigured because the existing paper based system was failing to cope and an earlier replacement was canned. Computer Weekly found this out at first hand (17.9.92) with the help of, you1ve guessed it, top reporter Tony Collins.

"A man collapsed on the platform at West Croydon British Rail station this week. But the London Ambulance Service computer-aided dispatch system was unable to respond to a Computer Weekly staff member's telephone call for help.

"Executive editor Tony Collins spent more than six minutes trying to call out the service, but only heard a series of recorded messages in a call-logging queue."

The situation at the London Ambulance Service was sufficiently grave that both papers for years after dwelt on its lessons. These were encapsulated in a damming official enquiry. Computing (4.3.93) said that the "Procurement document put price before quality", that the project timetable was "over ambitious" and warnings from unions and consultants were ignored or suppressed.

But wisdom learned just after the event is easily forgotten - and harder to implement.

After a train crash near Watford, in which one person was killed, Computing led with a story (15.8.96) in which Railtrack said it would now implement a £1 billion signalling system that could have prevented the crash.

Except "rail passengers will have to wait 10 years for Railtrack to implement the system" which included Advanced Train Protection (ATP), a system which automatically stops trains if they pass a red light. It wasn't to be the last occasion in which ATP, which had been on the agenda for years but was felt to be unaffordable, could have made a difference, as last month's tragedy at Paddington showed. ®

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