Thursday, February 23, 2012

A tale of two storytellings

Richard Peppiatt is the journalist who quit the Daily Star in protest at its approach to Islam (unsurprisingly, not in favour ... as a "journalist" shouldn't Peppiatt have had some clue as to the attitudes of his employer?) The first thing I read this morning was his contribution to The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial (Abramis, 2012).

Peppiatt actually says nothing more than what critics of tabloid journalism, including academics, have been saying for some time. Although he cites Jacques Derrida, his essay is hardly the "remarkable, theoretically adventurous" piece that the book's joint editor Richard Keeble claims.

In essence, Peppiatt asserts that journalists have turned into storytellers; this is an interesting claim but unconvincing because it needs to be analysed more carefully. Journalists have always been storytellers – his real claim is that they have now become fabulists.

The second thing I read this morning was the Guardian's obituary of Marie Colvin. Now there was a great journalist storyteller. As Roy Greenslade says: "She wrote about people so that others might understand the truth."
She was not interested in the politics, strategy or weaponry; only the effects on the people she regarded as innocents. "These are people who have no voice," she said. "I feel I have a moral responsibility towards them, that it would be cowardly to ignore them. If journalists have a chance to save their lives, they should do so."

Also worth reading: David Remnick's New Yorker obituary

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Round up the unusual suspects

How far is too far? What constitutes a witch hunt?

Both these questions raise themselves in the light of Monday’s fight back by journalists against continuing police arrests of their colleagues.

A number of responses spring to mind after reading Trevor Kavanagh’s piece in the Sun. The first, most flippant and least worthy of utterance, is – you don’t like it up you, do you?

Arresting journalists is never going to be a popular move and we (that is, “we the people”) need to keep a close eye on how and why they are being arrested and what the outcome is. Things may indeed have swung too far the other way but given the criticism of the police and the very public launch of two separate operations to root out wrongdoing it became inevitable that they would. The police were not only accused (rightly) of inaction in the matter of phone hacking, some officers were also shown to have enjoyed very cosy, and actually rewarding, relationships with some journalists. Who can forget Andy Hayman’s stagey proclamation of innocence to the Parliamentary committee of enquiry ? (“Good god. Absolutely not, I can't believe you suggested that! That is a real attack on my integrity!")

Trevor Kavanagh may say that paying for information “has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad. There is nothing disreputable about it” but many things have been “standard procedure” until they suddenly weren’t OK any more. Slavery, racism, paying printers for shifts they didn’t do

Think of this “standard procedure” as paying public officials for information they have acquired as part of their job and it begins to look different. Do we really want the deepest pocket to have the best access to information? Do we really want our civil servants to find bribery acceptable? (The Cambridge dictionary defines bribery as “money or a present that you give to someone so that they will do something for you …”)

Perhaps this is a turning point for journalism’s “standard procedures”. Perhaps the naughty children have gone too far this time, spoiling it for everyone else by forcing an adult to pay attention and do something before the party becomes a riot. And, like sugar-charged toddlers who have been allowed to get away with it for too long, there will be protests and claims of witch hunts and expressions of concern about stifling the spirit of democratic enquiry.

Then, perhaps, somehow, some growing up.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

I have just come across this lovely little comeback in the Leveson hearings.

Paul Dacre has quoted Professor Tim Luckhurst (whom god bless, of the University of Kent) at some length on what Luckhurst claims philosophers call "the sanction of public opinion ... People tempted to stray might be persuaded to think again by the certainty that their friends and neighbours would think less of them ..."

MR JAY: I'm sure what he says chimes with your view of the world in many of its ramifications; is that fair?
A. I think that's fair, yes. 

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

“You don’t understand how journalism works.”

“You don’t understand how journalism works.”

This, or something very like it, has been a repeated motif in much of the evidence editors and journalists have given to the Leveson Enquiry. Paul Dacre said it yesterday:

“20 million people read the popular newspapers. I suspect most of these assessors don't read those newspapers and therefore don't understand how those newspapers operate.”

If you are a journalism educator working in a university you have probably heard complaints about how “they” (meaning academic colleagues) don’t understand what “we” do. You may even have said it yourself.

As to the latter, my own view is that “we” should do all we can to ensure that “they” do understand what we do and why we do it.

Of course that would mean being clear about the What and the Why ourselves and sometimes self-analysis of that kind is uncomfortable. Many of our time-honoured practices date back to the world of telegrams and scissors. We need to make sure they are not just a kind of journalistic shibboleth that takes the place of proper professionalism.

The bigger question concerns people (incuding judges and barristers) not understanding what journalists do and how newsrooms operate. As with educators, there seems to be a kind of perverse pride in this opacity. Baroness Buscombe identified one of the problems in her evidence this morning: the culture of some newsrooms needs to be “thought through”.

A service (Can we call journalism a service? It provides information for a consideration) that simultaneously prides itself bringing light to bear on others while remaining obscure itself is a service that has a contradiction at its very heart. More like a secret service and, until recently, almost as unaccountable.

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Monday, February 06, 2012

British journalism: deferential, elitist and in need of a good shake-up

Today's Guardian. Page 28. At the top end Dan Sabbagh asks:

"... why is this country unable to create a globally significant disruptive media or internet business? ... Perhaps our institutional media stability creates too much hierarchy and too much deference ..."

Underneath, Antonia Senior falls into one of the many, many traps too many journalists don't even see:

"Kindle-owning bibliophiles are furtive beasts ... It's not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare ... Mills and Boon has done particularly well ... I'm not so sure it is wise to underestimate the boundless idiocy of the unobserved reading public."

Well blow me down – the populus reads popular fiction. Only in digital form, of course. Print has always, always been reserved for the elite, the truly literary, the recherché. There have never been any airport blockbusters, no James Patterson production line page turners, no Mills and Boon in print. No pornography either because only pure and clever people read real books.

Unfortunately she gives the game away by asking the lazy journalist's cliché question:

"Why else would anyone have read Ulysses?"

And did you hear John Humphreys going gooey over the queen on Today? As Dan Sabbagh notes:

"the broadcasters ... have become solid, permanent institutions in two generations."
Deferential, elitist, lazy and unlikely to be resuscitated by Leveson alone, in my opinion.

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Friday, February 03, 2012

Quality as an online filter

Quality of content, says Jay Lauf, is the “third filter” for online content, after search and word of mouth.

Lauf has the credentials to make such a statement – he’s publisher of The Atlantic, the American magazine that specializes in long form, thought-provoking features, and architect of that title's online resurgence. Quoted in Ian Burrell’s piece for the Independent, Lauf says, “There are too many choices and quality outlets are becoming a filter.”

I would like to think he’s right and that this process is a “natural” factor in consumer choice as expressed in a capitalist economic system, though it would take a deal more research to stand up my half baked hunch (pace Stephen Johnson). Take the automobile industry as an example. In the very early days both demand and supply were limited – cars were massively expensive and few people were making them (parallel: not everyone had internet access and few publishers were online).

Then came an initial boom with a lot more manufacturers, reduced prices and a bigger market in which the sheer novelty of owning a car was more important than the quality of the car (parallel: a large number of consumers got internet access, publishers fell over themselves to capture eyeballs … and consumers also became producers thanks to Blogger, etc)

The global car industry has now had a massive shakedown and, for example, mass produced British cars have been relegated to the history books as consumers look for quality, reliability and value for money (parallel: online consumers have so much choice that it is impossible to check out everything, leading to social recommendation and the re-imposition of brands that guarantee quality).

As I said, it’s half-baked, it’s incomplete and it’s wildly oversimplified but it makes sense. And an important thing about quality, something that manufacturers from Rolls Royce to Rolex to Krug have known forever, is that people will pay for it.

Sounds like the start of a business model.
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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Do journalists maintain the status quo?

Writing For The Media Today got underway this morning. It's our shiny new "converged journalism" module for third year undergraduate students on the BA in Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. I took the first lecture, which is a practice-oriented look at what journalists do and how they do it.

You can never be sure about asking questions of large student groups (there are 90 on this popular module) – sometimes you get a silence so dense you have to break it yourself, sometimes you can coax answers and sometimes they just come. Today was one of the latter, very pleasingly.

To my question "What do journalists do",  the answers included some very useful examples ("They report on events", "They provide information") and one that opens itself up to a number of different answers: "They maintain the status quo".

Now, if you are of the Chomskyist school of thought, maintaining the status quo will mean manufacturing consent, making sure that the mass of people are given sufficient mental pablum to stop them rocking the boat. Bread, circuses and gossip (did @CherylCole have an affair with @harveyofficial or not?) provide all that.

But it is possible to look at it in a completely different way too. If you take "status quo" as meaning that the flow of democratic information is or should be fairly evenly balanced – ie that sources of social, cultural and economic power are sharing information in an open and transparent way with the mass of people – then you can indeed see it as the journalist's role to ensure that the status quo is maintained as far as possible. Journalists do that by investigating, researching, asking awkward questions, developing strong sources. They do it, in fact, by holding power to account.

Top answer!

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