How Wikipedia covered Thatcher's death

Edit wars and Alex Salmond.

I heard about the news that Margaret Thatcher had died at 12:48 yesterday – on Twitter, naturally:



In a matter of seconds, four separate sources had tweeted the news, making it pretty unlikely to be a false alarm. And four minutes after that, the first Wikipedia editor went to work:

Revision as of 02:29, 4 April 2013
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, née Roberts (born 13 October 1925), is a British politician…

Revision as of 11:52, 8 April 2013.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, née Roberts (born 13 October 1925), died April 8th, 2013, was a British politician…

Over the next hour, there were 76 separate edits, as users piled on to the breaking news. Unusually for Wikipedia, these came from across the site's userbase; there were a few hardcore editors jumping in to clean up the text, but as many of the changes were made by contributors with few edits to their name.

Revision as of 12:17, 8 April 2013
(removed "Oldest Living Former Prime Minister" honorific title)

But unlike the best of Wikipedia's responses to breaking news, Thatcher's page did not see an influx of first-time users. That's because it was "semi-protected", a limitation the site imposes on certain pages which are prone to vandalism. And the Margaret Thatcher page was certainly prone to vandalism.

Revision as of 00:42, 8 March 2008
(←Replaced page with 'SHE IS DEAD. DO WHAT YE WANT WITH YER SATAN.')

Semi-protection came in ten minutes after that edit, and has remained ever since. Which is probably for the best.

Revision as of 12:10, 8 April 2013
(→‎Honours: was, past tense)

The first hour of edits were largely clean-up. Tenses were changed, dates were added in, and a whole section on her death was introduced. But after that, the edit wars began.

A section headlined "Reactions to her death" was introduced at 12:22, but removed by 12:50, after an editor added the note "please do not add tributes from around the world. It is unnecessary and clutters the article."

Revision as of 12:50, 8 April 2013
(→‎Illness and death: we don't need a separate section for this, and we need to make sure this doesn't degenerate into a book of condolences)

That didn't stop people adding in the innumerable statements world leaders were making.

Revision as of 16:58, 8 April 2013 by Zcbeaton
(→‎Illness and death: Added response from Alex Salmond, statement from Glasgow City Council.)

Revision as of 17:00, 8 April 2013
(Undid revision by Zcbeaton: massively undue weight)

Particularly harsh was the removal of Bulgarian Premier Marin Raykov's statement, with the words "bullshit, poorly sourced, badly written"

In the end, Thatcher's death wasn't a time for Wikipedia to shine. The basic facts of the situation were established early on, and the only deeper piece of information – that she had died in bed in the Ritz hotel – had arrived within four hours (although it was shortly removed because it didn't have a source cited). The urge to grow the article didn't lead to a deeper haul of information, but just squabbling edit wars over which piece of irrelevant data to include next.

Revision as of 03:48, 9 April 2013
(→‎Political legacy: Added comments about the Scottish Parliament.)

But in its own quiet way, Wikipedia proved its worth yet again. Just a day after her death was announced, the article has a detailed section on her death and legacy; the edit wars are quieting down; and a new article, on the Death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher, has been created. What's left is left for the future.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.