[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.

Continue reading

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?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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.

The culture we make

I don’t like waking up to Nick Griffin being interviewed on the Today Programme one tiny bit, and since you’re reading my blog, you probably don’t like it either. That’s the thing about an ultra-stratified media world: your readers choose you, and they probably choose you because they agree with you already. Or, maybe, because they’re looking for an opponent to their own beliefs – but either way, it’s unlikely that many minds are going to be changed. On Sunday night, my Twitter feed was full of people worrying that the approach they’d taken to the BNP was the wrong one: maybe shouting “fascists” doesn’t work after all, they muttered.

Well, it depends who you’re saying it to. And saying it to a self-selecting group of Twitter-followers and blog readers probably isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. People who vote BNP have got their own outlets, and it seems that they like to spend a lot of time there, having their prejudices reinforced. Talking among ourselves is useful, it solidifies purpose, it makes action possible – but it only rises above being a pointless stunt if you make it a prelude to doing more.

6% of a one-third turnout is hardly a resounding embrace of fascist politics, but it’s enough to win them money and prominence to present their arguments. The BNP know about the shortcomings in journalism, and they’re keen to exploit them: even a local council candidate appreciates the value of the newswire in broadcasting his message.

Challenging mainstream press and broadcasters over unproven assertion presented as fact might be a good start. Checking their sources. Confirming whether the pictures they use are accurate. Pressuring them to move away from reporting how they think people feel (thereby turning those perceived feelings into confirmed grievances) and towards reporting what actually is, with a critical eye on statistics and surveys. And when you find a mistake, not just blogging about it, but writing to the publisher or broadcaster and pointing out where they’ve gone wrong. Culture isn’t inborn (despite what the BNP say), it’s made. At the moment, we have a news culture that fosters half-truths, lies and unchallenged agendas: I think that can be remade. I think it has to be remade.

A very dim engagement

A few month before, the racial laws against the Jews had been proclaimed, and I too was becoming a loner. My Christian classmates were civil people; none of them, nor any of the teachers, had directed at me a hostile word or gesture, but I could feel them withdraw and, following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well: every look exchanged between me and them was accompanied by a miniscule but perceptible flash of mistrust and suspicion. What do you think of me? What am I for you? The same as six months ago, your equal who does not go to mass,or the Jew who, as Dante put it, “in your midst laughs at you”?

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, p. 40

This evening, the Euro election results for the UK will be announced. The Dutch elections have already seen the far-right PVV become the Netherlands’ second-largest party in the European parliament; now, we wait and see whether our home-grown fascists have gained any Euro seats to go with the three council seats they’ve won.

Any benefit to the BNP means we will definitely be hearing more about engagement. Matthew Goodwin writing in The New Statesman is typical of this line:  “Working-class anxieties over immigration and multiculturalism are often dismissed as bigotry, but concerns run deep,” he writes.

There then follows a barrage of uncontextualised percentages: “60 per cent of Britons feel that there are too many immigrants in Britain”, “80 per cent feel that the government has lied to them about the scale of migration”, “nearly half of voters said they would support policies encouraging migrants to return to their country of origin”, “immigration is brought up by between three and four in every ten respondents in regular MORI polls asking about the most important problems facing the country”. His conclusion? “Put simply, these concerns need to be addressed.”

These aren’t figures about the actual, quantifiable effect of immigration and multiculturalism on the UK. They’re figures about the perceived effect. And where do people derive these perceptions from? A popular media which propagates a constant sense of hostility and anxiety towards non-white, non-Christian groups, and a government which derives its idea of consensus from the opinion pages of the press and vomits up the rhetoric of fear and hate.

It’s possible that when Goodwin and others like him say that the BNP’s arguments must be addressed, what they mean is that the false divisions, abuses of logic and denial of fact given out by the BNP – and echoed, consciously or otherwise, by apparently legitimate bodies – must be addressed, corrected, crushed.

But Goodwin’s piece doesn’t exactly say that. It certainly doesn’t explicitly say at any point that the BNP is a party of racists whose political aspirations are purely anti-democratic. What is says is that “simply bashing the party as ‘Nazi’ no longer works. Voters in some areas are so exasperated with the political Establishment, and so desperate for an alternative, that they don’t care about the party’s extremist credentials.” So, according to Goodwin, writing in the mainstream journal of left-wing party politics, we must address the BNP’s appeal, but it’s pointless to call them racist – so what form is that address supposed to take?

He doesn’t say. But I suspect that “engaging” with the BNP, and yet not calling them for the contemptible and violent bigots they are, is one of the most thoughtless rhetorical steps politicians could take up. It’s the hollow logic of consumerism applied to manifestos, the contemptible drive to expand your party’s appeal, to give the voters something to beckon them into your little marketplace of ideas. Something – even, apparently, listening to witless racism as though it was a set of legitimate concerns.

And you want to attract that sort of voter, so you tolerate that sort of rhetoric rather than calling it what it is, and you let it seep further into the speech of general politics and daily life, and you allow the conditions of mutual mistrust and withdrawal experienced by Levi in 1930s Italy to grow up in Britain, now – yet the simplest thing to do, when faced with arguments of no merit, should be to dismiss them:

And finally, and fundamentally, an open and honest boy, did he not smell the stench of Fascist truths which tainted the sky?  Did he not perceive it as an ignominy that a thinking man should be asked to believe without thinking? Was he not filled with disgust at all the dogmas, all the unproven affirmations, all the imperatives? He did feel it; so then, how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our study, how could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidote to Fascism which he and I were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers?

The Periodic Table, p. 42

In my daily life, I often feel a gentle Whiggish complacency about my life, the same tendency that gets condemned in Dawkins. I pull the advances of medicine, the welfare state and civil rights around me like a blanket to muffle out the terrible whine of global iniquity, exploitation, bigotry and aggression. But the severest repression and genocide has happened in living memory, in my continent, in nation states that are constituted like the one in which I live. The same beliefs which informed those hateful policies are still extant, and must be answered – not on the terms of their own stupidity and aggression, but on the terms of a better state which prizes knowledge and fairness.

Who you gonna call?

The decision by Ian and Dawn Askham (the Scottish couple infected with the world’s sexiest variant of flu) to retain Max Clifford’s publicity services troubles Ivor Gaber, professor of journalism at the University Of Bedfordshire. It troubles him so much he went on PM last week to talk about it in a head-to-head with Clifford:

This is a matter of major public interest and I think it is legitimate for the public to want to know from Mr and Mrs Askham, ‘What did it feel like, what were you symptoms, where did you catch it?’ and I am very uneasy – not just about this particular case but the precedent it is setting – that issues that ought to be in the public domain, that you shouldn’t have to buy a particular newspaper to find out about, are being monopolised and are being sold to the highest bidder.

This is overstating the value of the Askhams and the power of the Clifford by quite a lot: there’s nothing they can tell about their experience that’s more in the public interest than the information which epidemiologists and doctors can supply, and there’s nothing they can say in an exclusive that won’t be carried by every media outlet at the next print run or broadcast. But he’s got a point – anything which restricts the freedom of the press to ask important questions is conceivably a bad thing for reporting. I read Ian Hislop and Alan Rusbriger’s evidence to the select committee on culture, media and sport and nod my thoughtful little head at their concerns about the suppressive effect of a possible privacy law.

But, despite a series of interesting high court rulings on the matter, there is no privacy law as yet. And maybe, suggests PM presenter Eddie Mair, hiring Clifford is the best way for the couple to protect themselves from the extreme interest of the press. Gaber disagrees:

The media’s not this hungry beast waiting to spit people out if they’ve got a story to tell. I can’t imagine that there’d be a newspaper or TV or radio station that would want to take Mr and Mrs Askham to the cleaners. They’d wanna help them tell their story. […] When we’ve got issues like this where there are members of the public who are caught up in matters of major public interest, they don’t need media protection.

This, by the way, is a media including the same organs that libeled someone who happened to be nearby when a child went missing, dug out discrediting stories on victims of police brutality, pillaged Facebook to tell their readers how shameful teenagers are, and, when they can’t turn up the information they’re hoping for, turns to wiretaps and computer monitoring to find it. You know, that old trustworthy media. Clifford’s counter-argument was that the subjects of a story deserve to see some of the financial benefit their story will bring to the press. Maybe they do. But until there’s some kind of buddy system to help people negotiate unexpected press interest – or, I don’t know, a regulatory body that does its job – Clifford is maybe the best investment you could make in a situation like the Askhams’, however much he offends your journalistic ideals.