Monday, December 05, 2011

The toybox as a toolbox

When I was much younger I had a wooden chest full of Meccano, the metal version with proper nuts and bolts; when my son was a bit younger he had a big box full of Lego, standard bricks and special kits all mixed up together.

In both cases we could build things, make structures that were stable or unstable, see how to fit pieces together to achieve a particular end – and learn about the physical world through play. The toybox became a toolbox without us even realising.

I got the same feeling watching our postgraduate Magazine students put together podcasts under the watchful eye of Broadcast tutor Emma Gilliam. The toybox was full of microphones, buttons, knobs, faders, flashing lights – all the paraphernalia of a radio studio control board. Under Emma’s practised eye the students built soundscapes that began to fit together into a structured whole; they adjusted bits that didn’t work and reinforced bits that did. Just like playing with Meccano and Lego, the words and voices and technology merged into a tremendous learning experience.

I loved being in the studio, listening and watching as Emma brought everything together. It was a great example of what we strive to do in the Cardiff postgraduate journalism courses – break down silos, work together and adapt the techniques of one medium to the needs of another.

But – and this was an uncomfortable thought – would we have been doing this if Rupert Murdoch hadn’t battered down the walls of trade union demarcation at Wapping?

Luckily I found an answer while reviving an old Palm m500 that had fallen out of favour. In the Wordsmith app I had written some extracts from the Penguin edition (1967) of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. On page 222 they wrote:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

In other words, if it hadn’t been Rupert, it was a historical inevitability that it would have been someone else.

Somehow, that made me feel better.

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So inevitable? Eddie Shah starts off fighting the unions in Warrington, then Murdoch builds a plant in Wapping for a hypothetical London paper, tricks unions into a walk-out, then goes through the enormous hassle of a stand-up fight with Sogat, printers unions, NUJ et al., and single-handedly creates a newspaper market into which The Independent can carve itself a niche, and 25 years later we have Johan Hari. Ahem.

And then he goes on to bet his whole empire on Sky - which would probably have sunk had he not taken over BSB and its exclusive agreements to show sport.

I think you're unfair on Murdoch - he's done a lot to upset people, but I think he's shown a degree of nerve which wasn't to be found elsewhere in the newspaper industry, or many other sectors. A lot of 80s Britain isn't here any more, and a few newspapers could have slipped away too.
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I don't think you'll find an unfair criticism of Murdoch in what I wrote – just a slight feeling of discomfort that I was enjoying the fruits of his labour. I have been a journalist long enough to have tripped over some of the more ridiculous lines of demarcation drawn in the sand by SOGAT and NATSOPA and a great deal of what Murdoch did certainly needed doing. However, that doesn't mean I like the way he did it any more than I like the way Margaret Thatcher consigned the coal industry to oblivion. Could it have been done another way? That I leave to the "counterfactualists" (ie historians who write fiction).

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