Freelance technology writer Nick Booth explains how he came to be sacked from his regular spot as a blogger for tech company Telefonica after he unwittingly fell foul of Boris Johnson’s former lover Jennifer Arcuri.
Have you ever been sacked over a story? Or missed a corruption story that was hiding in plain site? Or failed to spot a political sex scandal?
Well cheer up, I managed to combine all three in 2016, when I unwittingly entered the orbit of Boris Johnson and Jennifer Arcuri.
In the military, they say you know you are over the target when you start taking flak. In my case, the reason for the flak was an entirely innocent blog I write eulogising Jennifer Arcuri’s qualifications for security and her fan boy Boris Johnson.
I wish I could say it was satire, but it was a corporate blog. I had no idea I was making accidental double entendres.
Sadly, I must have toadied so excessively that I think they must have thought I had rumbled them. In this case excessive fawning cost me my job.
Still, what do you care? If there is a useful lesson I can share it’s that you never know where your life-changing exclusives will come from.
Scoops are especially rare in the age of digital media. It’s hard to hold truth to power when power’s had decades of media training and truth just wants to please the search engines.
Even more so in the world of corporate blogging. I waited all those years for a scandal, then so many came together I missed them all.
My miserable career had taken a brief upturn in 2015, when I’d started writing blogs for Telefonica, the mobile phone operator that owns O2. They seemed such a happy bunch. The editor was a dream boss – always positive and encouraging. The blogs were relatively well paid and they gave me licence to say what I liked, within reason.
OK, I’m no Julie Burchill, but I liked to think my counter-culture pieces were quite edgy and provocative. Nobody else was debunking the platitudes about “leadership” and “thinking global” and telling people to relax and become an “un-trepreneur”.
If the boss gave me some tough assignments, I took that as a compliment. Pick out the highlights of this interview with Ed Vaizey, digital minister, I was told. Highlights? She clearly thought I was a miracle worker.
My reward was to be an even more exciting interview prospect. Jennifer Arcuri, the metadata said, is an American technology entrepreneur, ethical hacker and zeitgeist influencer. Innotech Networks, Pink Sheets, technology ecosystems – you know the thing.
The IT industry sometimes seems like a Witless Protection Programme, that recruits the dullest men with the narrowest mindsets. These Digital Dittos all say the same thing. This Arcuri woman, I thought, might just open the talent pool to the other 95% of the population (females, minorities, men with social skills).
If she did then maybe we could get our economy firing on all cylinders. Which means more money in circulation and more opportunities for freelance writers. So I was dying to meet this creative genius. Looking back perhaps it was probably the enthusiasm that worried her.
Arcuri didn’t seem to be too keen to return phone calls, so I prepared a comprehensive list of questions to email.
Since I was useless at IT I’m always massively impressed by the competent. Arcuri was touted as an expert in one of technology’s most exciting jobs: cyber detective, so I was desperate to ask her how, why, where, when and who she’d hacked.
I sent a comprehensive list of questions begging for anecdotes about everything that Arcuri claimed to be. In business mags, people generally love it when you ask them to explain their expertise. To my disappointment, Arcuri never bothered to reply to me.
So once again I was forced to cobble something together and it appeared in February 2016. The intro was an attempt at self-deprecation, mocking the insecurity of the male-dominated IT industry. Then came the over the top praise for Arcuri as a straight-shooting no-nonsense type of fraud fighter. I mentioned that Boris Johnson was a fan:
What would you think if you heard a young hacker from California is in the UK on a recruitment drive for like minded souls?
Personally, I’d be pretty nervous! Especially since this charismatic young revolutionary wants her charges to teach themselves how to hack computers, through her Hacker House organisation.
But we can relax, because Jennifer Arcuri isn’t really trying to start a criminal empire. Quite the opposite. Hacking is the hook Arcuri uses to grab the attention of the audience. Arcuri is from Hollywood, so I imagine creating a compelling narrative comes as second nature.
Few corporate blogs evoke much reaction, but this one triggered multitudes of complaints, including one from Jennifer Arcuri herself on 12 February.
Arcuri was clearly upset and I couldn’t understand why. I was trying to compliment her. In our subsequent phone conversation I apologised for any offence and promised to rectify the bits she didn’t like. Even so she informed me that she was well connected and had influential friends.
So, in my usual desperation to hold onto a job, I wrote a new, even blander version of the blog. I took out anything that might possibly offend a pedant. I left in the reference to Boris Johnson being a fan: how could that be offensive?
The complaints continued.
The Court of Social Media seems to have been in session. On the dog whistle frequency the charges heard were: Sexism, Misogyny and a Gross Display of The Nakedly Obvious. The conviction rate is 100 per cent. You are never allowed to hear the charges – let alone address them – until a verdict has been reached.
On what grounds? Maybe it was the passage containing this line.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s some reason why [WOMEN HAVE] never really got into programming. Just saying.
All I was trying to say is: we’ve been making the same mistakes for 20 years, why not try a different approach? What if we based our hypotheses on different assumptions?
In my ham-fisted way, I was attempting to see things from another person’s perspective.
“Remarkable such views get published” tweeted one commenter.
“This is the worst blog I’ve read in quite some time,” tweeted Playstation’s communications expert.
Arcuri then announced that my piece read as “hateful”. In the Court of Social Media, you know you’re on trial without a jury when they start accusing you of hate crimes.
Shortly afterwards, my work with Telefonica dried up anyway. Nobody ever explained why. That’s how cancellation works. There’s no appeals process.
The worst humiliation is missing so many fantastic story angles. The affair. The dubious assignment of public money. The subsequent allegations that Hacker House was misleading about the extent of its UK-based business.
It’s like missing three open goals in the cup final. Now I can’t even get a game in the Sunday League.