[Comment is Free] A crafty way to educate children

If you’ve had a look at my Writing page, then you’ve probably noticed that I have a bit of a thing for crafts. And now Comment is Free at the Guardian has provided me with a platform to declare my love of making stuff, and my hope that more schools will give their pupils the opportunity to learn practical skills:

The idea that an education should train your hands as well as your head has been consistently chipped away at over the last 30 years. Up until 1975, UK secondary schools offered pupils training in home economics and textiles (for the girls) and woodwork and metalwork (for the boys). The Sex Discrimination Act banned gender-specific classes and helped to undermine the stringent channelling of children into “domestic” or “labouring” futures, but it also – as Joanna Turney explains in a recent book – forced schools to compress craft education into nothing more than a set of “taster classes”.

To find out what I think about craft and class, the domestic in drag, and how compulsory metalwork can be a progressive force (YES IT CAN) – read the rest of the article…

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

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

[Comment is Free] Men and women? Both from Earth

I have a new post up at the Guardian’s Comment is Free section. Why is evolutionary psychology so popular with headline writers?

Evolutionary psychology promises big answers – and best of all for headline-writers, the big answers all have to do with sex. In its academic form, it’s an effort to interpret human behaviour in the light of our genetic heritage – data from psychological and behavioural studies, archaeological and anthropological data can all be thrown into the big narrative of how humans bred their way out of the caves and into the cities. The information it draws on is, or should be, empirically established observations. The stories evolutionary psychology tells with that information are speculative.

For more about why the Telegraph thinks you need to keep your eye on your big-chinned lady, and why this misrepresentation depresses me so utterly, read the rest of the article…

Into the money-making tent

tents crop

Simon Jenkins thinks that newspapers need to get into the festival business if they’re to continue. Alright, he doesn’t really think that: he’s arguing that newspapers can charge readers for the privilege of belonging to a brand (and he seems to be speaking for a chunk of his newspaper’s policy, as Liberal Conspiracy reports that the Guardian is looking into some sort of freemium members club).

That’s one side of the extra value that could entice readers to pay for their news. The other side is convenience – and on the Monday Note blog, Frédéric Filloux gives a quick breakdown of why news on your phone could be a service worth paying for. Mobile is the perfect vehicle for the micropayments some proprietors are itching to charge, because users are accustomed to paying a monthly bill already: whatever tiny fee the newspaper settles on per issue, or per article, could be gently folded into the direct debit at no extra hassle to the reader.

It’s not clear yet what the Sunday Times is going to offer their customers in terms of either convenience or community when they begin their paywall experiment. And, as this Radio 4 profile on James Murdoch points out in passing, the current chief executive of News Corp doesn’t have a sterling background in online: “He’s reputed to have persuaded Rupert to invest in a number of internet ventures which resulted in significant financial losses.”

It’s not enough to just decide that people should pay: you have to convince them that they’re getting something superior for their money. When we know what the Sunday Times is planning on charging for, we’ll have a better idea of whether it’s worth it – but whatever they offer, it will surely have to be something better than their current website with a moat dug around it.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by frozenchipmunk, used under Creative Commons.

Comment Is Free: Blond’s witless take on abortion

Comment Is Free has published my response to Tory philosopher Phillip Blond’s statements on abortion:

More than anything, Red Toryism – the paternalistic credo with an eye on fixing our (allegedly) “broken society” – wants you to like it. The main proponent of Red Toryism is Phillip Blond, and in his interview with the Guardian over the weekend, he was quick to temper his anti-abortion rhetoric with some pro-lady noises. “For me,” says Blond, “women who choose not to have abortions are among the most moral creatures on these shores.”

I was at the beginning of my second year at university when I found out I was inconveniently and unexpectedly pregnant. I chose not to have an abortion, which I guess puts me in Blond’s awkwardly sentimental category of “moral creatures”. So, from the position of unearned ethical authority into which I have been corralled, perhaps I can explain exactly what is wrong with his argument when he says that “by and large, [abortion] should become an unacceptable practice. I would probably want to limit it to only the most extreme cases: rape, or when someone was very young, or incest.”

Read the rest here, and let me know if you brave the comments.

Related: Paperhouse, “Think of the children”

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Stitched up

Giving an interview is an act of trust in someone else’s ability to represent you. And a good interviewer is one who accepts that they’re responsible for the way their subjects appear: not obliged to make them look good or bad, but to be accurate and fair.

hitler moustache

One of the things I learnt from the last big interview I did was the value of collaborating with the subject, and it’s a principle that I found reinforced by Dan Baum:

the ensuing back-and-forth usually helps me make the story better. I honestly can’t think of a time when somebody took the opportunity to take something back. What usually happens is, the source says something like, “You didn’t get me quite right here. What I was trying to say was this….” And that opens up a second interview — a deeper one, that often leads to even more interesting insights. I’ve had reporters throw up their hands in horror at the thought of allowing a source to amend a quote after the interview. But why not? Isn’t the point to portray people, and their ideas, accurately? I would never show a source my story before publication, but until I’ve processed them into copy, the notes from our interview feels to me like our joint property. I don’t want to play “gotcha” with sources; I want to understand and convey their ideas properly. I want them to read my stories and say, “He got me right,” even if they don’t come off well in the article.

(I can see exceptions to this. If the governor admits in an interview that he looted the pension fund to play the horses, I’m not going to let him take that back. But in the 16 years I’ve been offering to share interview notes with sources, something like that hasn’t happened to me.)

WordWork, “Type fast”

When I interviewed Graham Linehan, his go-over on the transcript was exactly was Baum describes – in a couple of places he restored what was lost in tone when the words were detached from his voice, in a couple of others he clarified the normal ambiguities of speech so they could survive the page. He didn’t remove or retract anything, but he was able to rephrase things in a way that would have been rankly dishonest if I’d done it myself.

That only works, of course, if you “don’t want to play ‘gotcha’ with sources”. If the “gotcha” is what you’re looking for, you’re going to have to try something else. Say, for example, you’re Brian Logan – you’ve pitched a feature about the new offenders of standup comedy, had it accepted and now you need to harvest a few good quotes to inject a hefty jolt of outrage into your reader. Ideally, you want it to read something like this:

This year, veteran comic Richard Herring is sporting a Hitler moustache for his show, Hitler Moustache, in which he argues “that racists have a point”. […] One recent [podcast] episode aired Herring’s purported hatred of Pakistanis, a routine that he expands on in his new standup set. In another routine, he claims to support the BNP’s policy to deport all black people from the UK. Into the awkward laughter that greets this joke, he says: “Don’t go thinking I’m the new Bernard Manning. I’m being postmodern and ironic. I understand that what I’m saying is unacceptable.” Then he pauses. “But does that make me better than Manning, or much, much worse?” This is “playing around with things”, he tells me: “it’s the intent behind it that’s the important thing.” But is it?

The Guardian, “The new offenders of stand-up comedy”

Unlike Baum, Logan isn’t generous enough to let us in on his techniques for journalistic success. But Richard Herring can:

I did sense during the interview that Logan seemed uninterested or bored by a lot of what I was saying. I felt like he wasn’t listening to much of it, but hoped this was just the affected smugness and superiority that I have sensed in his reviews. He works for the Guardian and I felt I could talk in quite a lot of detail about what I do without fear that he would become sensationalist and take things out of context. I didn’t tape the conversation and I have done several long interviews recently and so can’t remember everything that I said, but I know that I was careful to explain myself and the context of some of my more contentious ideas. I was largely critical of offensive comedy, arguing that it takes a very experienced and thoughtful comedian to get away with it and that there must always be a point behind it. I briefly described the “maybe racists have a point” routine from the new show, but (as far as I remember) expressed concern that most of my show was, if anything, a bit of a throw back to the 1980s political and polemical comedy and was a bit right on. […]

I had a slight nagging sense of unease about it all. Just the distance and detachment that I had sensed, perhaps, though I thought he might pick up on me saying that after a certain point a comedian is not responsible for the stupidity of the audience – I had said that Al Murray was not necessarily at fault if his audience took him literally, but Al has said something similar himself.

The article came out today and I was, I have to say, pretty astounded by how it misrepresented what I had said and my material. Here it is.

Richard Herring, “Warming up” 27 July 2009

If Herring’s description of the interview is right – and what I’ve heard of the show suggests that the Guardian piece has framed him horribly – it sounds like the interviewer was sitting out the interview, waiting for the “gotcha”, possibly rather bored at having to listen to all the self-scrutinising stuff about a comic’s responsibilities when using offensve material. He got his moment, and he was able to push his facile little thesis that there’s a new reign of nasty in comedy.

And then, Herring got to unravel his interviewer’s methods publicly. And this is another, excellent and self-interested reason for journalists to follow Dan Baum’s advice: if your interview subject is a public figure, they’ll almost certainly have their own blog. If you stitch them up, they can let the people who’ll be most furious with you – their fans – know what you’ve done. If you’re not worried about the ethics of interviewing, you should at least be worried about what readers and colleagues think of your ethics.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009