Which news app?

If, like me, you are a news and current affairs junkie and you like to be in the know most of the time, then here’s a stroll through my favourite news apps of the moment. I’m an iPadder, so all apps reviewed are from the Apple store, though I’m sure there are Android alternatives for most of these. I’d love to hear back about any others I should try. There’s a distinct lack of major US news agencies simply because I’m trying to escape wall-to-wall coverage of their next election for as long as possible. So here in no particular order…


imageAs with all news outlets, whether or not you like or trust them depends on how you perceive their editorial bias. The Beeb, from what I observe, comes in for more than its share of stick being labelled too this or too that, too pro, too anti on almost any issue it reports on. That said, it still commands a huge amount of respect and credibility due to its sheer history, size and global network of correspondents.

Their recently relaunched app now includes a ‘My News’ section, enabling you to select your particular areas of interest and then displaying the top stories in those sections on one page after the Live Feed and Top Stories. After that you can drill down and more areas of interest, which are then added to a top menu bar for ease of access. If you allow notifications, you will get breaking news alerts but one point here is that the BBC tend not to be first with breaking news preferring to have stories verified before they issue and alert. In terms of look, I can’t help feeling that it’s too close to CNN and not in a good way but it is a must have among my staple of apps and my most often referred to.
The app is free to download and use or well I guess we pay to use it through the TV Licence Fee but at a fraction of a fraction of the cost of other apps. That said…considering all the other apps reviewed here are at absolutely zero cost that makes the BBC news app the most expensive in this array, bar the next one…
Rating: 4/5

SKY News

imageAgain, Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky might not be your thing but they are one of the speediest news agencies at releasing reliable breaking news alerts and for that reason mainly, their app is part of my collection. When massive major news stories break, Sky do tend to focus all their energies on them while other news agencies will flit around on to more stories so if you can’t get enough of a major event of concern, Sky is worth having. Visually I find it quite messy and haphazard to use and there is no facility to filter-off areas of specific personal interest. The app is free to download by everyone but only free to use if you are already a Sky TV subscriber. If you are not, then a monthly usage fee of around £5.00 applies and that’s a big negative to me.
Rating: 2/5

France 24

imageFrance 24’s English language service is growing in terms of the attention I give it. They are available in the UK now as a TV service, at least the English service is. Online, they are available in French and Arabic too. The English service is fronted by an array of presenters from the UK, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and North America and they cover global news from a French perspective. You will find more coverage of European news than we get in the UK plus an emphasis on regions of the world that were formerly French colonies, mostly Africa and the Mid East. If you allow notifications, you will get news alerts from them and in my opinion they are often the first and fastest alongside Agence France Presse (AFP) with reliable breaking news. On opening the app, you will be taken straight to the English live video feed and very minimalistic menu of content options to the right and bottom of the live feed leading you to their top stories, sport, business, a compressed news bulletin and the weather highlights from across the globe. A hidden right side menu which, will open as you touch the button to the top left of the Live Feed gives you the option to drill further into news articles and a ‘favourites’ section to select specific areas of interest to you plus you can link into their Twitter feed to see what they are talking about or who conversing with there. The app is free to download and use.
Rating: 4/5


imageDepending how you use your Twitter account (if you have one), this can be one of the most interesting and immediate of all news apps (even though it is social media and not specifically news) but there is a deal of caution here. I don’t use my Twitter account to make friends or gather followers. I mainly use it to follow news and current affairs from as wide a perspective as possible in a language I understand and that means following news agencies on either side of political, cultural and conflict divides. So, for example I will follow Western English-language news agencies as well as Russia Today or the Chinese English service. I follow Israeli news agencies and the Iranian or Arab state broadcasters but I draw the line with ISIS scum. In doing so you can get some fascinating insights into differing geographical perspectives and emphases on news and very often hear about news stories not being covered in the UK. I also like to follow individual journalists and particular regional correspondents. While they are always careful in what they say so as not to give the impression that their views represent their employers, you can get fascinating insights into their personal perspectives and sometimes amusing banter between them. The most graphic content can be found in what they report on Twitter first hand from frontline situations, even describing violence and disaster around them with a blow-by-blow immediacy you don’t always see, hear or read when their reports are made public by their agencies. The big caution with Twitter is that it can also be the biggest rumour mill on the planet so caution is needed with breaking news unless from a reliable source. The Twitter app is free to download and use but you will need to set up a free Twitter account (and then spend a good year or so learning how to use it!).
Rating: 3/5

Reuters TV

imageThis is a new app on the market I’m still trying to get used to. Reuters claim to have created it for people who have switched out from watching live broadcast news for whatever reason. It’s a very simple app to use from one of the world’s most reliable and oldest news agencies. Essentially, you tell the app how much time you have to consume the essential news stories of the day – 5 minutes or 10, 15, 20 up to 30. The shorter time you allow and the app will deliver the top stories in video format on to your screen as a playlist of that time length. You can either just hit the play button and the app will play through all the stories in sequence of if you are more picky, you can choose from the playlist just those stories you are interested in. The longer you allow for your news the more diverse the news stories Reuters will provide. Over time based on monitoring your behaviour in the news stories you choose to view or avoid, the app will start to deliver more content it thinks you like. Noteworthy features are the ability to watch your content offline, connect to the global Reuters live feeds to consume news as it happens and upgrade to an ad-free version. The app is free to download and use, though there is a charge for the upgrade to the ad-free version. I’ve not been using this app long enough to give it anything other than a rating straight down the middle, though I suspect that might move upwards in time. Very pleasing on the eye.
Rating: 3/5

News 360

imageThis has been around a while and I’ve had it a while and can’t remember now why I took it off my iPad (probably an emergency memory storage issue). Very glad to have it back. It’s free to download and use and once you have it takes seconds to set up by offering you a very wide range of content from Top stories to lifestyle, entertainment, travel and LOADS of niche and specialist subject matter to add to your customised start screen and so the app will only ever serve up the news content you want to see. A sliding home screen will then display your news choices in a pictorial menu by subject matter and you select whatever content you want to read that moment. A really great feature with this one is the facility to link your social media accounts to the app. The app will never post to your social feeds unless you decide you want to share something. You can link with Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (if anyone still uses that) and once you give permission the app will browse through your profile page to see what subject matter you like to post on and then it will offer you content areas taken from what it sees to be your areas of interest for you to add to your News 360 Home Screen. So for me, surprise surprise for all who know me, News 360 offered me Airline news, British Airways, Christianity, gadgets and the Eurovision Song Contest to add to my content choices. Don’t worry, if you spend all your time on social media slagging off that silly cow who lives up the road you can rest assured that cows, tarts or slag heaps will not show as content options for you nor anything of that personal a nature.
Rating: 4/5


imageAnd finally Newsflash, though this has little to do with providing news flashes. This is another new one I’m trying and I can’t say I’m all that impressed at the moment though I need to give it a fair chance. Of all the news apps, this has the most boring look and interface though after Twitter it offers the most varied content and content providers of any apps in this review. It’s free to download and use and you can spend forever scrolling through the content options and media providers. A great feature is that you can mute some of the pre-selected news agencies (ie the Daily Mail for most of my social circuit) plus add others that are not on the pre-selected list. The thing with this app is that because the choice is so wide-ranging, when I go into it I get that same feeling as when I used to go out at lunch time where I worked to buy lunch only to come back to the office empty-handed as there was just too much to choose from and so settle for a bag of chips from Greasy Joe’s across the street instead (which I guess in media terms is the equivalent of settling for 5 minutes doing The Sun crossword instead of consuming something more wholesome).
Rating: 2/5


A word that’s become very important to me in all sorts of ways. It’s great it has all sorts of meanings, all of which I love.image

The captain vanishes: who sunk the Estonia?

imageDo you remember the sinking of the cruise ferry Estonia in September 1994 or have heard of it? This disaster in the midnight hours of a stormy Autumn morning in ice cold waters grabbed global headlines. We in the UK and other countries remember it for being a very sudden dark-of-night disaster with echoes of Titanic yet ultimately we were told it was down to a mix of mechanical and human error once the final investigative reports were published. For many in the Nordic countries intimately involved however, there was more to this than met the eye, especially when 12 known crew member survivors, including a senior Captain on the Bridge at the time…disappeared without a trace in the aftermath and still no-one knows what happened to them to this day.

I remember this disaster being reported. I even had nightmares about it afterwards but I never knew the conspiracy theories that emerged afterwards among the grieving and angry people of Scandinavia in the immediate aftermath that continue to this day.

The Estonia was the pride of the civilian merchant fleet of the newly independent former Russian-ruled state of the same name. Estonians have always been westward-leaning toward Europe and more particularly toward Scandinavia of which they consider themselves to be first cousins if not quite blood brothers. The Estonia played a key role in re-establishing trade and cultural links with Finland and Sweden in particular following release from the Russian harness after the Soviet collapse.

imageOn 28 September 1994, Estonia was en-route linking the Estonian capital Tallinn with its Swedish counterpart, Stockholm. 803 passengers boarded the ship, mostly Swedish nationals, attended to by a primarily Estonian crew of 186. Estonia was a RO-RO (roll-on, roll-off) ferry with opening bow and aft to enable road vehicles quick and easy boarding and departure. The ship left Tallinn at 19.00 and was leaning slightly to port due to poor cargo distribution, or so it was reported. It was an overnight crossing and the ship was not due into Stockholm until around 09.30 the next day. By the time disaster struck at around 01.00, most of the passengers who had paid for sleeper cabins had retired for the night. A loud bang was heard, later understood to be the bow visor opening and being ripped off leaving the ship open to the icy Baltic Sea, which duly flooded in causing the Estonia to list severely. By 01.30, the ship had rolled over by 90 degrees causing the cars and lorries on the vehicle deck to tumble to the port side and thereby sealing the fate of the vessel. By 01.50 the Estonia had sunk without a trace in under an hour with the loss of 852 of the 989 souls on board. Such was the speed and severity of the disaster that only the fittest and luckiest managed to make it out, often by having to climb like gymnasts through the inverting ship. Most of the women, children and elderly on board perished.

imageOfficially, the disaster was attributed to the failure of the bow door against treacherous sea conditions and that the ship was built for coastal waters and so should not have been operating in open sea. The crew were also blamed for running the vessel too fast in deadly conditions. Estonia’s sister ship, also a RO-RO, suffered a similar incident with her bow door, though in much calmer sea conditions. Sweden had suffered the most out of the disaster with 501 fatalities while Estonia, also grieving 285 losses, faced wounded national pride at the sinking of its flagship and symbol of newly found independence from Russia. In all, 17 countries lost citizens to the Baltic Sea that night. It was in Germany, however, that the conspiracy theories first started to emerge soon after the disaster that quickly took root right across the Nordic and Baltic states. Germany became involved in the post-disaster investigation as the country which had built the Estonia and it was a German magazine, the New Statesman, which was the first to publish an article claiming that laboratory tests undertaken in Germany indicated evidence of a deliberate explosion on board. The article also implicated the Swedish, British and Russian governments in a conspiracy to cover up the ‘truth’ that there was an intelligence operation active that night to smuggle Russian military hardware out via Estonia to Sweden and then the UK on board. No statements were ever made by the three incriminated governments to confirm or deny the rumours and the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing refuted the New Statesman’s claim entirely.

imageAs with all conspiracy theories, once they take root they tend to stay and grow. In 2004, ten years after the disaster, a former Swedish customs officer went on Swedish national TV to claim that he knew the Estonia had been used to transport military equipment. Amid public outrage in both Sweden and Estonia, the Swedish government was eventually forced to confirm that the Estonia had indeed been used on two occasions that same month, September 1994, to transport non-explosive military hardware but not on the night of the tragedy. This only served to harden the resolve of the conspiracy theorists and deepened doubt among the general population where speculation as to whether dangerous material was on board which may have caused the disaster was rife. In Estonia, however, a far more sinister theory began to capture public imagination: was the sinking of the Estonia a deliberate act by Russia’s KGB to thwart an Anglo-Swedish intelligence operation and exact retribution on Estonia for its treachury in leaving the Soviet Union?

Prior to the revelations of clandestine shipments of military equipment on the Estonia, the Swedish government had already enraged its population and those of other affected nations by blocking all attempts to mount a salvage operation or to recover the entombed bodies of the dead. They spurned all international offers for assistance in this and instead hired a Dutch company to encase the wreck in concrete as they had declared it a national cemetery.

imageIf there was anyone who could cast light on the truth of the conspiracy theories of that night it would be anyone who was on the ship’s Bridge and one such man is reported to have survived: Captain Avo Piht. Captain Piht was not in command of the ship on the night she sank but was travelling to Sweden as a guest crew member to sit an exam that would enable him to steer the Estonia into Stockholm harbour on future voyages without taking on board a local harbour pilot. He was a senior captain of the Estline Marine Company and was licenced to take command of the Estonia. He would have had access to the Bridge as guest of the Captain and would have been the second most senior seaman on the Estonia that night: Captain-in-Charge, Arvo Andresson, went down with his ship.

The 138 survivors were transported to hospitals in Sweden and Finland. Captain Piht was cared for in Finland’s 2nd city, Turku. Several survivors attested to having seen the captain as did Bengt-Erik Stenmark, security chief of the Swedish Maritime Administration who, it was reported by Reuters, told them that Captain Piht had been interviewed by the international investigation committee. The German TV channel ZDF also broadcast a video clip purporting to show Captain Piht and other Estonian crew members arriving in Turku. According to the New Statesman, German Intelligence officers confiscated the video shortly after broadcast. Waiting for news of her husband back in Tallinn, Mrs Piht was told that her husband had survived, was in Finland and would be home with her soon. He never arrived and she has never seen him again to this day but The Independent reported in the immediate aftermath that Mrs Piht also recognised her husband in televised video clips of survivors arriving in Turku. Captain Piht, the Chief Engineer and 10 other surviving crew members were reported never to have been seen or heard from again.

So that’s the story and the theories. As I searched around the web for any credible news brand with an authoritative take on this I couldn’t find any. If you Google around this topic you will be soon drawn to a plethora citizen blogs that claim and speculate and create a ‘what if’ cloud you can’t possibly see through. I buy the faulty bow visor on the Estonia as a major cause of the disaster. Do I buy the Anglo-Swedish military intel op? Well, while Sweden is not yet a NATO member, it has always co-operated with the Western alliance and Estonia was an aspiring member and former Soviet puppet. Their intel on Russian military technology still on Estonian soil will have been of immense interest to western defence chiefs and our own SIS (formerly MI6).

The disappearances of the 12 Estonian surviving crew and Captain Avo Piht…if true…is most intriguing of all. Do such things happen? Apparently so. Go Google ‘extraordinary rendition’ Sweden is known to have used this measure when dealing with suspect terrorists. Would they use it on a new, pro-Western ally such as Estonia? If so…what did they have to hide? Authorities have poo-pooed the video footage that claimed to show Captain Piht alive and well in Finland as mistaken identity and that he drowned that night in September. Could his wife have mistaken footage of her own husband?

Whatever the truth, the Estonia conspiracy theories will continue to rumble on along with those of 9/11, MH370, Diana and JFK. We may never know for sure what truly happened that fateful night.

The Tower – movie review

imageIf, like me, you like action/adventure/disaster movies but are a tad bored with what’s been coming out of Hollywood lately, then maybe try this. This is a South Korean take on Irwin Allen’s 1974 all A-List classic The Towering Inferno (Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Fred Astair, William Holden). It’s in Korean with English subtitles, yet despite that I found this particularly gripping and I am the worst person I know for using the skip forward function on any media player. I never skipped forward once. The movie was released in 2012 and is available now to rent or buy on Google Play (£3 rent and well worth the splash).

If you are a fan of the original film, you will find all the imagekey elements there: dodgy builders and architects, overly ambitious bosses, a VIP party miles high on the top floors, scenic elevators, exploding water tanks, heroic firemen, love interests and tons of fire, explosions and mass panic. This is a deconstructed Apple Pie of a movie. Just as arty chefs nowadays can take a culinary classic and rework and deliver it looking nothing like the original it’s based on yet with all the ingredients in place, that’s The Tower.

imageEssentially this is a disaster and rescue movie based on the original but with echoes of Die Hard 1, The Poseidon Adventure, Speed and 9/11. Instead of one tower in distress here, you have twin towers (geddit?). The special effects from start to finish are stunning, realistic and evidently not cheap. This movie has a big feel to it.

No point me mentioning the cast as unless you are a film buff imageof the freakiest kind. Any readers I may have are very unlikely to have heard of any of them, yet I found the cast and especially the leads completely engaging and thoroughly watchable. The two lead females (one adult and one child) are particularly noteworthy.

imageThere is an attempt at humour in the film, which because I’m not Korean I didn’t really get. The hapless and disaster-prone chef delivers some of these elements (don’t worry…this is not a chip pan drama). The rest is provided by a family of evangelical Christians who pop up now and then like when they are praying for a tsunami to put out the fire while trapped in their penthouse swimming pool unaware that the Firemen are about to blow up the huge water tanks on the floors directly above them. The film appears to be respectful of the characters but could also be interpreted as taking the piss. Why that should be? Well, if you didn’t know South Korea has a huge evangelical Christian population with churches that meet in giant sports stadia that still can’t accommodate all their congregations in one sitting and they may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

If you are going to punt £3 on renting this, just bear with the imageslowish start but that does get you engaged with the central characters in the classic style of all good disaster movies. Self-sacrifice for the good of others is a recurring theme throughout the movie from several characters though interestingly not from the Happy Clappies, which further makes me think they are caricatures who are being gently mocked rather than play a key part in the drama…apart from one of the Firemen, that is.

Yes, I would watch this again. Probably will have to as when I searched for the original Towering Inferno, which is what I was planning to view, it is nowhere to be found among Google Play’s extensive library.

The Tower is rated 15.

Click to view trailer.

Hidden London: St. Pancras

imageI was in London recently for a meeting. Inner London and not the north-west outskirts where I live. It's a place I sort of know. Usually it's a place you pass through to central London and out again or else bound for one of the gateway train stations linking to the Midlands and North or else France and the Continent and used by millions of rail travellers each year: Euston, King's Cross and St. Pancras.

Opposite my appointment is a London landmark I've passed manyimage times but never paid attention to until now. It's an incredible architectural Grade I listed building and once the second most expensive of its kind constructed in London after St.Paul's Cathedral in its time. Across from Euston and choking in the maelstrom of heaving traffic and London's regular push'n'shove it is only 'hidden' because everyone is too busy to notice it. It is the parish church of St. Pancras and I only just learned about it because I stopped by to take notice.

imageOdd name 'St. Pancras'. Turns out it's Greek and I guess there might have been some clues for me seeing that the building mimics ancient temples on the Acropolis in Athens and I'm an Ancient History graduate. Pancratius was a 14-year-old Greek kid born of Roman citizens in the Empire. His mother died during childbirth and his father died when he was 8. Raised by his uncle in Rome, he converted to Christianity just in time for the murderous reign of Emperor Diocletian and his crackdown on the rapidly rising Christian 'cult'. He was beheaded for his faith in 304AD after refusing several times the Emperor's 'invitations' that he sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Cutting a little known story shorter, his only link to the UK was that parts of his relics were supposed to have made their way to England. St. Pancras Parish in the area around Euston, St. Pancras, Kings Cross and Russell Square are said to be among the first areas of Christian worship in the capital.

The church is not the original parish church (which can still be found hidden behind St. Pancras station). The 'new' parish church dates back to the 1800s and is a classic example of 'Greek Revival' architecture fashionable in northern Europe at the time. The magnificent entry portico is upheld by 6 impressive Ionic columns, again with a nod back to ancient Greece. The building is made of a mix of stone, Portland Stone and terracotta. Unfortunately it does not scrub up well amid the heavy traffic pollution of its surrounds despite several attempts. It was originally built to accommodate a congregation of 2,500.

The iconic star of the external architecture is the side porch imagelooking onto Euston road modelled on the Temple of the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens. This stunning portico is unique among the buildings of the capital and while none of it actually comes from there it is a slice of the magnificence of ancient Athens here in London. An actual Caryatid (the female statues) from the Acropolis sits not too far away housed in the British Museum.

imageIf you are ever at Euston, King's Cross or St.Pancras and massively early for your train (as I invariably am) a visit to this church is highly recommended. For a start, it will give you a tranquil place to sit and rest your feet, beating the distinct lack of seating in all three stations. Stepping into the church from the mayhem of Euston and you step into an oasis of peace and serenity. After post-war renovations, the number of pews was reduced and so the church today accommodates far less than the 2,500 it was originally intended to hold. The pews today are made of English Oak wood and are the really old-fashioned type that can be closed off by a door to the central aisle creating an almost private compartment. Originally this is what the pews were - private compartments that could be rented for a year by wealthy parishioners who always had their own same space to sit together on Sundays. I guess this is where the tradition of 'pew hugging' started that has been the bane of church life ever since.

Despite the distinctly 'high church' feel to it, there is a sense as you look around that there is a real worshiping community there today. Take note of the notice boards and see the faces of today's members. Note the collection point for the food bank donations right at the entrance, the play area for the children, the Hymn books and Bibles. There is also a feeling that the church reaches out to the public around it, Christian or not. Music recitals regularly take place at lunch times as does a 45 minute communal Bible Study on Tuesdays. The impressive crypt, entered via the Caryatid portico also supports local artists and regularly hosts exhibitions.

The church also supports the student Christian Union at the nearby University College London and is the venue for their annual Christmas concert.

Poignantly, St. Pancras New Church also became the focal point of local and national grief and floral tributes to the victims of the 4th bomb (the 'Bus Bomb') to explode on 7/7 just yards away from the church entrance down Upper Woburn Place 10 years ago this year.

Especially adding to the cool, dark reverence of the interior imageare the beautiful stained glass windows, though these were not part of the original plan. The original church was built with clear glass windows in the days when the folk inside would have looked out onto the fields of the now extinct English county of Middlesex, the land of the Middle Saxons (as opposed to the West Saxons in Wessex, the East Saxons in Essex and the South Saxons in Sussex). Only Essex and Sussex now remain among England's shire counties. The stained glass windows visible today were gradually introduced after 1866, some 40 years after the consecration.

imageAs I looked around I was surprised to see on the walls a reference to my home borough of London way up on the north-west edge as being 'in the same county' at one time as the parish of St.Pancras. Again, this is a reference to Middlesex, which was subsumed into the hungry stomach of an ever ravenous and expanding London in 1965. Middlesex once stretched from here in Euston (or the borough of Camden as it is today) all the way north to the borders of Hertfordshire and my home town of Harrow.

Once you have had your time in the church and are feeling aimage little peckish (but still with plenty of time before your train) here's another little tip. Rather than head to the plastic shops and cafes of the stations, exit the church onto Upper Woburn Place, turn left and walk a few yards down the street. On your left you will soon find a small turning, which if you blink you will miss, called Woburn Walk. This tiny little tucked away oasis has a small clutch of cosy cafes for a lite bite and continental coffee, perfect in the Summer for dining al fresco and watching the world go by.