[Guest post] The ultimate celebrity interview!

Mhairi McFarlane is a kirby-grip strewing angel of vengeance and you should follow her on Twitter if you’ve got any smarts at all.

I am so sick of reading this interview. You read it all the time, constantly, year in, year out, in every glossy magazine and Sunday supplement. It’s founded on the twin principles that A) people who act are the most fascinating beings on the planet, and B) that we, the readers are totally credulous, awed plebians. The dumbstruck interviewer acts only as a conduit to divinity, drinking in their shuddering magnificence and recording their sub-adolescent witterings as if it’s brainy gold. We’re now at the stage where an actor or actress would have to take a shit on the reporter’s notebook to get a less-than-howlingly-sycophantic write-up. (Or maybe not. HE’S WHERE IT’S SCAT!) I’m convinced by now there’s a template. It goes like this.

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The political myth kitty

Criticising the media gets boring. Even Chris Morris – who did it better than anyone with The Day Today and Brass Eye – found that he couldn’t bear to do it anymore when he came to work out his response to the war on terror: “I did formalise some ideas,” he told the Guardian, “but the jokes were all concerned with media coverage and perception, rather than the issue itself. And when you’ve already had a crack at media language, you can only do it a few times before you know how it works.” Continue reading

What’s the blogging story?

There are some questions I didn’t realise were still worth asking. Is blogging journalism? Will blogging kill journalism? Can bloggers save journalism? So I was a tiny bit surprised to find myself talking about all these at a Bristol Festival Of Ideas event last Friday. As far as I’m concerned, the definitive answers are “sometimes”, “no” and “not completely”.

Blogging is a platform, and just like print it hosts good practitioners and bad practitioners. It’s well established now as a complement to straight news – so much so that most newspapers publish their comment sections in a blog format online. Meanwhile, a Wired feature by Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff argues that the rise of the app market means that the open internet in which blogs have thrived will soon be eclipsed. Media companies might just have found what they want: a way to use the astonishing distribution potential of the internet and make readers pay for it.

Which means the time when blogs were serious competion for an audience’s attention and money could be on the way out – a good thing for the financial security of the journalism industry and its employees, a bad thing if you like the way the web opens up journalism to non-pros with a story and scrutiny-minded amateurs.

The debate I took part in made me realise that not everyone is thinking that way. For some  journalists, bloggers remain an exisential threat – forgetting that there are plenty of journalists who blog professionally, or who self-publish extraordinary reporting and testimony, or who do so as an unpaid addendum to their employment. For some bloggers, blogging is the scourge that will clean up a corrupt mainstream media – forgetting, natch, that there are plenty of bloggers as billious and hateful as the worst newspaper employees, and that bloggers have seemingly worked hand in hand with traditional media outlets to get some truly grotesque non-stories going (Guido, The Mail, I am giving you a squinty look).

One of the strangest points in the discussion was when the idea of a code of conduct for bloggers came up, and Brooke Magnanti suggested that bloggers already had their own code of conduct, pointing to the fact that while her identity was known to some in the blogging community, none of those who guessed chose to sell her out. To me, this only says that bloggers are a group with shared social norms that value anonymity: that one principle means nothing in terms of accountability to or honesty about people who aren’t bloggers.

In the Saturday workshop, the delegates from the Bristol NUJ seemed to tentatively approve the idea of extending NUJ affiliation to bloggers and inviting them to adhere to its code of conduct, which is quite good. I hope they do. Bloggers – I think, anyway – are quite likely to become workers for media companies over time, and it makes sense for the union to cultivate the sympathetic ones from early on whether they ultimately turn pro or not.

There were some objections to this from NUJ members: one suggested that bloggers should be required to suspend posting in sympathy with industrial action, because they believed that blogging counted as supplying copy if a journal scraped the content to fill a page. Tagging bloggers as blacklegs for being plagiarised struck me as highly daft, and showed a real lack of understanding about how copyright applies to work published online. Which means that, if the happy anarchy of the web really is on the wane and blogs with it, some people still have a lot to learn before it’s all over.

If you’re really interested in the discussion, you can watch the video above – with contributions from Roy Greenslade, Anton Vowl, Sunny Hundal, Iqbal Tamimi, Brooke Magnanti, Elisabeth Winkler, Kevin Arscott and Donnacha DeLong (yes, there was a vast panel, and it probably didn’t help the discussion to stay focused). I can’t because it’s excrutiating to hear myself talk.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

What to say about Ed

It’s the decision that will determine Labour’s fate over the next five years. It’s the difference between a demoralising era of electoral devastation for the party, and the chance to mount an effective challenge on the next polling day. It’s the choice that could make Labour a force that’s ready for power, or inaugurate a bleak era of impotence.

No, it isn’t the election of a new leader. That matters, of course, but the effect of having one is probably as important as the effect of choosing any individual candidate over the rest. Even with no leader and only a provisional shadow cabinet, the gap between Labour and the Tories has been narrowing consistently in polls since the summer, with public attitudes hardening against the cuts. If Labour can organise itself behind a face that isn’t implicated in the perceived failures of the Blair/Brown period, sustaining and advancing that trend should be obvious. (I’m not saying that Labour can’t fuck this up. Just that it would be an impressive fuck-up if they did.)

Ed Miliband seems likely to do a decent job heading up his party. But there’s another  big call to make: how is the hostile media going to characterise him? There’s been an early move to mark him out as “Red Ed”, but that seems like a smear based on the mistaken assumption that the British public is as riotously anti-state as the American one – it isn’t, and anyway Ed is only pinkish round the edges. The Express has even made an early run at the Tea Party approach, with a story headlined “DEDICATED LEFT WINGER FOLLOWS HIS FATHER’S DREAM” apparently modeled on Dinesh D’Souza’s voodoo analysis of Obama (“Obama shares his father’s anti-colonial crusade…”). The gulf between The Express’ curtain-twitching paranoia and the grand insanity of Fox News is filled with bathos, and this stuff looks unlikely to stick for now.

Matthew Parris made a more convincing move, interviewed on the BBC at the Labour conference today, when he said that in five years Ed Miliband would be known as a “ditherer”. By lunchtime, Christina Odone had grabbed the idea and bundled it up with the Mail’s astonishing revelation that Miliband LIVES WITH A WOMAN and HAS HAD A BABY WITH THE WOMAN but is NOT MARRIED TO THE WOMAN. “This is a man who has problems with relationships,” oozes Odone, accusing Miliband of “commitment phobia” as if Ed was liable to run out on the country and leave the electorate chasing his through the CSA.

The Tory-supporting media is shuffling the elements at their disposal like Frankenstein playing with a set of body parts on his operating table (Son of a commie dad! Usurper of primogeniture! Scorner of wedlock!). Eventually, they’re going to make something that’s just close enough to the actual man for it to be functional.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Liddle hope

There can’t be many people with any affection for the Independent who are happy about the idea of Rod Liddle becoming editor. But there probably aren’t very many people left with much affection for the Indy at all, because the brand seems to have specialised in weird and reputation-squandering reversals. Its Sunday version campaigns for the legalisation of cannabis, but then decides that skunk is actually a deadly menace. It doesn’t support the Iraq war, but then recruits the Observer editor who put the made-up case for war on his front page.

Appropriately, Liddle was indirectly behind one of the other great journalistic screw-ups of the Iraq war – as editor of Today, he recruited Andrew Gilligan, who both found an internal source to blow the whistle on the exaggerations and bad intelligence in the “45 minutes” dossier, and then ruined the story’s credibility by mishandling his quotes and revealing his source.

But Liddle had left the Today programme the year before “sexed up” became a slogan, in 2002 – after a column he wrote for the Guardian was deemed to have shown unacceptable bias. (Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s director of news from 2001-4, hinted at the challenges of  employing Liddle in a tweet, above.)

Since leaving Today, Liddle has concentrated on obnoxious opinionising for the Times and the Spectator. And, in the same way his Guardian fox-hunting column relentlessly tracked the grossest prejudices of his presumed readers (toffs are loathsome because, well, they’re toffs), his later ones have offered racial determinism and climate-change denial to right-wing readers. He has a talent for presenting exactly what he thinks his readers want to hear as though it’s a consensus-shaking blast of radicalism, and no facility for (or interest in)  figures or facts.

If Alexander Lebedev gets the Independent, and if Liddle gets the job, it might be that Liddle’s crowd-pleasing reflexes will give Indy readers something to grab onto and stop them drifting away. Or he may retain that reactionary edge, and the Indy could become a new middle-market tab – an aspirational answer to the Express. Both of which feel like things that journalism could do without.

Update 9 January 2010: Sunder Katwala thinks all the speculation is a bit premature.

© Sarah Ditum, 2010

Jon Snow: bring in privacy law, finish off the tabs

Channel  4 news anchor Jon Snow comes out in favour of privacy restrictions on reporting in this Guardian interview with Ann Widdecombe. And strongly in favour, too, even disallowing the public interest defence in cases of hypocrisy:

AW Would you welcome a privacy act, Jon Snow?

JS I would welcome a privacy act, yes.

AW We have the scoop! Jon Snow says, “Bring in a privacy act.”

JS I believe that the tabloid media, in particular, have so intruded into the private lives of public people that they have brought it upon themselves that there should indeed be a privacy act.

AW I think that is absolutely right. I think…

JS Damn me, Ann Widdecombe, I didn’t think we’d have to sit here and agree.

AW And I consider that quite a coup, to have got Jon Snow to agree with me that we need to curtail the rights of the media. Thank you, Jon Snow…

JS I am totally opposed to, and would go to the gallows to prevent, censorship. But needless intrusion into the private lives of anybody…

AW Let me ask you this. Let’s imagine a politician – I don’t care whether it’s male or female, Jon, but let’s imagine a politician. You’ve got a politician who has never made any pronouncements about morality, who has a mistress. Is that the public’s business?

JS Not at all.

AW You’ve just put a lot of the tabloids out of business.

JS Well, they’re going out of business anyway, so that won’t mean much…

The Guardian, “Politicians interview pundits: Ann Widdecombe and Jon Snow”

I think the hypocrisy exemption is valid, if only because in those cases the private behaviour becomes the counter-argument to the political statements of the public figure (it’s possible that this is only a sop to my own prurience). But I approve very much of what I see as the logical extension of Snow’s statement: the hope for a culture where private, consensual actions are off-limits for both the state and the press.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

New post on Liberal Conspiracy: How Judge Eady went from press villain to hero

I’ve got a new post up at Liberal Conspiracy, where I ramble speculatively about the way Mr Justice Eady’s decisions on media law seem to be acting in combination against scrutiny at all levels of reporting: the sex scandal, science coverage, and anonymous whistle-blowing:

It’s not unusual for public figures to experience severe reversals of reputation, and the distance between “nation’s sweetheart” and “national disgrace” can be as short as a few column inches. But Mr Justice Eady’s recent rehabilitation in the eyes of the press is a remarkable one – for the swiftness with which some editors have shifted position, and for what it suggests about the future possibilities for scrutiny in the media.

Read the rest here…

Edit: I accidentally gave Eady a peerage, so I’ve fixed that here.