Save the Observer, 2003 edition

It seems a bit unfair that the Observer has been singled out as Sunday Paper Most Likely To Fold. As The Media Blog points out, sliding circulation and slumping ad revenue hardly make it a singular failure in the newspaper world. And nor do its journalistic failures – most grossly, its uncritical publication of the false claims in the 2003 Iraq dossier. Detailed by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, the Observer’s coverage was hasty, credulous, and depressingly handy in pushing forward the war. A factual failing, and idealogically a fairly devastating failing for a supposed paper of the left – especially if its defenders, like Donald Trelford in the Newsnight segment below, have to resort to some sort of radical heritage of as an argument for its survival.

After the jump, the Newsnight discussion with Donald Trelford and Harold Evans on the Observer’s future.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

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Stephen Glover on NOTW phone hacking: lay off, we’re dying

Den and Angie

A painfully constant theme of journalists talking about their trade is the wail that things are hard enough for them already and papers shouldn’t make things harder by criticising their own industry. You get it from Dacre, you get it from Wade, and this morning, you get it from Stephen Glover in the Independent.

Glover indentifies a conspiracy between the BBC and the Guardian to push the NOTW phone hack story. If I was looking for the ingredients of a conspiracy in this business, I’d probably be looking at the organisation that’s been paying off the victims of its own criminal actions. Not Glover:

Most of this story was old. We already knew eight-tenths of it, though we had probably forgotten we did. Nonetheless, it was imaginatively repackaged by those symbiotic organisations, The Guardian and the BBC, and sold as new. The Corporation had been put on red alert by the newspaper at a senior level well before the story broke.

In the next paragraph, he dismissively mentions the part of the story that was new – the vast pay-offs – and instead accuses the BBC of being vindictively anti-Murdoch. Has it been? The BBC routinely runs heavily on critical media stories about its own actions. During the Brand/Ross farrago, most bulletins led on the outrage; when the BBC executives’ expenses were released, a large chunk of PM was devoted to picking them over. The BBC is an imperfect organisation and there’s plenty that it should be criticised for, but the best I can say without having a breakdown of broadcast-minutes-per-story is that the BBC has given no more prominence to the phone hack story than to any of those (probably much less important) stories. In contrast, News International has barely acknowledged that it’s under discussion.

But Glover is distressed to see the press’ failings exposed, as his ad hom attack on Nick Davies shows. First he silkily denigrates the investigative work of Flat Earth News by calling it “a book which suggests that the press is wildly dysfunctional” (my emphasis), and then, having failed to represent Davies’ ideas fairly, he goes on to give a poisonous description of his personality:

I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, but he seems to me a misanthropic, apocalyptic sort of fellow – the sort of journalist who can find a scandal in a jar of tadpoles.

What Glover doesn’t mention – and this is curious given how aghast he was a few paragraphs ago at Newsnight’s failure to reveal a perceived conflict of interest in Peter Wilby’s commentary – is that his own employers (along with every other Fleet Street institution) were substantially and specifically criticised in Flat Earth News. Glover is also a columnist for the Daily Mail. Apparently that’s not relevent to his views on Davies, though. Nor, seemingly, is the fact the Indy and its parent company have their own reasons to be displeased with the Guardian’s media coverage.

Still, it’s not as though Glover approves of the dark arts. It’s just that his “guess is that most newspapers have cleaned up their act”, and anyway, newspapers have more important things to think about than the quality or legality of their investigations:

Naturally I do not condone newspapers listening into the private conversations of celebrities, though I would have no problem in the case of a minister who was on the fiddle or betraying his country. I do know that the national press is weaker than it has been for more than a century, with most titles losing money, and I regret that, at such a time, The Guardian and the BBC should use largely old information to weaken it further

When pundits speaking for the press adopt this line, they sound like nothing so much as Angie Watts weedling Dirty Den to take her back by pretending she only had six months to live. There’s no other organisation from which newspapers would allow such claims: MPs who complained that the heavy reporting of the expenses scandal was undermining public respect for parliament were, rightly, ridiculed. The idea that newspapers’ problems come from an excess of self-examination is – as this indulgent, incoherent and partial article inadvertently shows – equally absurd.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

[Guardian Books Blog] Can the newspaper novel survive in the internet age?

I’ve got my first piece up on the Guardian books blog:

In a world of declining newspapers, is there any future for the newspaper novel? I recently stormed through Michael Frayn’s satirical 1967 newspaper novel, Towards the End of the Morning, and Nick Davies’ scathing study of how reporting works now, Flat Earth News. For the press, dawn is closing time, when the final edition has been printed and the hacks can go to bed – so Frayn’s title is a reversal of the usual metaphor: the end of the morning implies more of a shutdown than a rebirth. The novel, with its warm satire of the gentlemanly dissolution of the newspaperman in the fading days of old Fleet Street, makes a tender record of a deeply flawed but somehow loveable industry – before colour printing, before Wapping, and back when TV had only just begun to threaten the papers’ ownership of the news and comment business.

Read the rest at The Guardian…

Smearing people is wrong (mostly)

I don’t know about you, but in all the coverage of the unappealing McBride/Draper Smeargate nonsense, at least one thing was reassuringly clear: the press is totally, completely opposed to harmful insinuations that damage the reputations of public figures. Well, obviously, there’ll be times when newspapers report unsubstantiated and embarrassing allegations about the shadow chancellor’s wife – or, as you might say if you were feeling uncharitable, repeats and publicises them, making them even more destructive. But what are newsrooms supposed to do apart from churn out this sort of thing?

And then there are some times when it’s just really, really important to come up with something bad to say about someone. In the interests of balance. Like, say, if that someone is Nick Davies, author of a study of the endemic distortions and corruptions in the British press, and you happen to be a journalist on one of the distorting and corrupt papers. Then it’s basically essential that you ring him up and tell him you’re going to publish some “grotesque sexual smear” about a wife he doesn’t even have. Otherwise, how are you going to defend the honour of your paper as a reliable organ of responsible newsgathering?

Then, there are the people who might not have actively attacked your newspaper, but have somehow slighted you. Such as Nicola Fisher, who employed Max Clifford to represent her after being twatted in the face by riot police, and went on to give interviews to the Northern And Shell newspapers. With Nicola sitting on the front covers of the Star and the Express, it would be frankly remiss for Sun and the Mail to fail to say something nasty about her.

It can be something really simple: just drawing attention to the Clifford connection and throwing some scare quotes on phrases like “victim”, “hit” and “anti-capitalist” goes a long way to suggest that Fisher might really just be a violent opportunist who’s drawn on the baton-bruise with eyeliner. Or you could go big like the Mail and put together a balls-out character assassination:

Mail attack piece on Nicola FisherThat extract appears in search results for “Nicola Fisher” on the Mail website, although if you click on the link it redirects to the index, suggesting that the story has now been withdrawn. Not that it matters: the story did its bit to spike the opposition’s exclusive, and it set the tone for the reporting on Fisher, which includes beautiful examples like this column in the Yorkshire Post from Bill Carmichael, setting up Fisher as a punchable harpy. “If anyone ever deserved a good slap, this woman certainly did”, says Carmichael, pleased that law and order is free to do the important work of, um, silencing people he disagrees with by hitting them.

Smearing, then: totally harmful to the body politic and a dangerous exploitation of journalism. Just imagine what the papers would be saying about Osborne, Davies and Fisher if one of them had been involved in anything as disgraceful as smearing.