Scene: The Independent. Time: Deadline. Simon Kelner (for it is he) is on the phone to his night editor: “Duffy, listen…Whaddya got for the front page…millions out for strike action? Thousands, then? Oh, hundreds?…no matter, what’s the pic?…how many in the pic?…Three!…Jeez, can’t we photoshop some of them, make ’em a crowd?…oh, dressed as polar bears and pandas, were they…well splash that and make it “Pandas, Polar Bears and Penguins strike against Pensions big freeze”…whaddyamean there’s no penguins….OK, forget the penguins…bring the penguins in on page three, get the environmental page guy to do something with a Greenpeace press release or something…where’s Sharapova?…page 7??!!…. no, bring her up to page 5…big pic…don’t care what’s written, a big pic on page 1 with a tease and huge on 5….’cos she serves up big grunts…and put her on 6 and 7 as well…what’s that?…Hari’s fessed up? Hari? Hari??!… Stick ‘im on the funnies page!”
Fans of a certain classic screwball comedy may know where I’m coming from with the above intellectual profile..
A suitcase? If it comes ready-packed and pret-a-porter, a certain J Hari would be a goer for this prize at the moment.
Brian Whelan’s excellent expose of Johann Hari’s, shall we say, “creative” way with direct quotes and interviews – which itself follows another Hari expose here – is quite rightly receiving a lot of play on the mediablogs, such as FleetStreetBlues.
Most of the commentators have used the phrases “cut ‘n’ paste” and “mash-up” to describe what Hari has done, which is fine as far as it goes, but I think a more accurate analogy comes from the wonderful world of Photoshoppery.
Those of us who use the digital image editing program Photoshop for more than just the occasional colour correction or cut-out and drop shadow know there’s an incredibly handy tool called the Clone or commonly, because of its icon in the toolbar, the “Rubber Stamp”. This handy little gubbins lets you copy an area from one part of a picture and then “stamp” it on to another area. In the early incarnations of Photoshop, this was fairly crude – often the colour of the pixels in the copied area didn’t quite match those in the target area, so you had to massage them with, say, the smudge tool to make the transplant more seamless.
So far, so cut’n’paste. But over the years, this little tool has become increasingly sophisticated, to such an extent that Photoshop itself does the mixing, reading the pixels of the copy to those with the target and making whatever colour adjustments are necessary to either to make the transplant truly seamless, to the extent it would take a real expert to find where the join is. And it can do this with areas copied from another picture and stamped into another one, too: the adjustments are done automatically.
It would appear that Hari is more than just a bog standard cut’n’paste merchant. He is master of the photoshopped quotation, able to cut quotes from a variety of sources and paste them seamlessly into one coherent whole. The tenses match, the flow of the quotations remain unimpeded: they really do read like the direct reporting of what a person said at a single time and a single sitting at a single place. Except of course that it isn’t and they weren’t.
Astonishingly, Hari doesn’t seem to grasp what might be wrong with this in a report which purports to be the subject’s thoughts and behaviour at a single time and a single place:
My test for journalism is always – would the readers mind you did this, or prefer it? Would they rather I quoted an unclear sentence expressing a thought, or a clear sentence expressing the same thought by the same person very recently? Both give an accurate sense of what a person is like, but one makes their ideas as accessible as possible for the reader while also being an accurate portrait of the person.
Well, yes, Mr Hari, I guess most of us think there is nothing wrong with cleaning up the occasional grammatical lapse or deleting all the umms and errrs that occur in everyday extempore speech. Most British journalists would also have no qualms about reordering sentences within a direct quote to help make the sense flow, although our US counterparts tend to be more queasy about doing this.
But actually lifting quotes from a subject’s previous interviews, inserting them into other quotes and trying to pass it off all as what that subject said at a single interview is wrong. And it’s wrong for the same reason that photoshopped pictures purporting to show a single event in time and place are wrong.
An interview is after all a picture in words of a single event, if you like. It purports to be a faithful rendition of what was said and, in the case of the personalised “intellectual portraits” which Hari favours, what was done by the subject at a single point of time, just as a press photo should show what happened at a single point of time. To doctor either, either to make them more newsworthy or, in Hari’s disingenuous words, “make their ideas as accessible as possible” is nothing short of deceit.
Hari may well claim that none of his subjects have complained. Perhaps none of them noticed or, if they did, didn’t care. But then they’re not the ones who are really being deceived. It’s his readers to whom Hari owes an apology.
UPDATE: Nice to see the old Downfall Hitler meme is alive and well on YouTube and being put to good use.
UPDATE II: And of course The Daily Mash has got into the act.
Sad news indeed that Peter Falk, who played the dirty mac ‘tec Columbo, has died. For some reason the fact that he had Alzheimer’s doesn’t seem particularly tragic, but peculiarly apt, given the character he played so well and so memorably. This is not to downplay the awfulness of Alzheimer’s, only to comment that, as Joe Orton memorably said, with madness, as with vomit, it’s the passer-by who receives the inconvenience.
“Oh, and another thing which just slipped my mind Mr Mandleson, I’d’ve asked you before but y’know you showed me that photo of your lovely dog and it kinda slipped my mind…” etc. You know the programme, you know the drill.
One thing that always struck me about the Columbo formula – and it was a formula – was his approach to weeding out the truth: always indirect, never directly confrontational. So unlike our own dear, dreary, Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrey. Now I realise Columbo is (was) fiction, but it always struck me that his approach worked better at getting at the truth than the in-yer-face-let’s-be-‘aving-yer approach of the three-minute soundbite oneupmanship, or the tell-us-how fabulous-you-are hour-long smarmathon press release which too often passes for journalism on TV, radio and indeed the rest of the media today.
Indeed, I think if those two approaches were reversed, it would make much of what passes as “news” much more interesting and informative. John Humphrey: “Prime Minister, is there anything you want to say to the many fans who have supported you through this difficult cabinet reshuffle?” Davina McCall: “Peter Andre, the latest polls suggest you’re jealous ‘cos your ex-wife has bigger boobs than you have – whaddya say to that?”
But I digress. What I am saying is that in more than 30 years of journalism, I think the Columbo method works best, and that I’ve always got better stuff – whether hard news, featurish stuff, good quotes or just leads to other folk – out of just talking to people, even in an absent-minded, indirect but friendly way.
Imagine how much grief might have been prevented if one reporter had said to Tony Blair: “Now, Mr Prime Minister, my wife – she’s a great fan of yours, by the way, has your photos all round the house – but she keeps askin’ me about these Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq or Iran – she don’t know which, y’know, and truth to tell, I don’t neither – and she’s askin’ me if I can get a photo of ’em from you. An’ I dunno, if you can spare one – and maybe sign it for ‘er – she’d love that. Is that too much trouble, sir?”
Probably could not have happened. He’d have been chucked out of No. 10 for smoking a cigar. And Alastair Campbell would have stomped on it…and him.
Currently, both the BBC baby farm – sorry, BBC News – and Sky News are featuring heavily and tweeting louder than an evening chorus the news about blue-eyed soul singer Joss Stone and arrests surrounding an alleged “murder plot”. Both the BBC and Sky seem to rely heavily on that increasingly deranged and hysterical font of breaking “news”, the Daily Twittergraph. Even to the extent of sharing the same phraseology and “spokespersons”.
Hmmm. Stone of course was the artist who attracted widespread opprobrium from the bien pesantry in the UK media in 2007 by affecting an American accent at the Brit awards. How dare she sound something like George Dubleya! Boo! Hiss! Gerrer orf!
But in these days of Hopey-Changey, that’s OK now, so it seems she has been rehabilitated by the North London chattering classes. Huzzah!
What none of these news reports thought fit to mention is that she has just this week released a new single, Somehow, taken from a new album, LP1, due for release on July 26. I’d have thought these facts might have relevance to the story. But obviously they were unaccountably not included in the original press release. Or, if they were, the journalists for some reason thought fit not to include them, despite finding a lot of other superfluous rubbish to include, including the telling details of – to quote the BBC – “swords, plans of the singer’s home and” – a real gothic, Burke and Hare detail this – “a body bag”. Surely there was a phosphorescent-fire breathing hound somewhere in there? We are talking about Devon, after all.
Well, call me a cynic, but isn’t the coincidence of a singer coming back in from the media cold with a just-released single and an upcoming album, with a red-hot, hold-the-front-page story of possible kidnap and murder which might have been ripped straight from the pages of a Victorian penny dreadful enough to make even the Twittergraph’s fearless investigator of “quirky internet stories”, Andrew Hough, pause for thought? Maybe not.*
For the record, I enjoy Joss Stone’s singing. You can hear some tracks from the new album at her website. She sounds as good as ever.
Personally, I don’t give a monkey’s what she talks like at some arse-licking industry award show like the Brits. There, she could moo like a cow or honk like a flatulent goose for all I care. She certainly wouldn’t sound any worse than the journalists at the bleeding-edge of our shiny new 24/7 news cycle.
* UPDATE: Or maybe so. I notice at 1.16am this morning, the Telegraph website had taken down Hough’s original story, plus some other “related” stories.
A reader alerts me to that rarity: an interesting article in the London Evening Standard.
Londoner’s Diary notes:
Simon Garfield, author of a book on fonts entitled Just My Type, notes that Barack Obama’s success was connected to his choice of letter style. Obama’s campaign used a new typeface called Gotham for the 2008 US election campaign. His challenger John McCain used Optima, often used in branded goods. “That was never going to work as it reminded people of the hygiene aisle in supermarkets.” Garfield noted that Obama’s choice of Gotham has caught on. “I can prove it was a success,” said Garfield. “Because Sarah Palin is using it.”
Well, I will put aside Garfield’s dubious claim that “Obama’s success was connected to his choice of letter style”, other than to note that many of the world’s present and most expensive ills and misunderstandings are due to commentators who wilfully, and often mendaciously, ignore that correlation does not equal causation (yes, I talking about you, George Monbiot. And you, Polly Toynbee. And you, Johann Hari. And you, the UN IPCC).
But as a saddo who loves typography and is a great collector of fonts, I was struck by Garfield’s analogy. Indeed, I can see it opening up an exciting new line of employment, with politicians hiring their own “Typography Special Advisors” to tell them when it is demographically advisable to use Comic Sans, or when a prevalence of ABs demands the use of serif fixed-width uppercase. In these times, anything which creates jobs is to be welcomed, no matter how mind-numbingly useless.
Londoner’s Diary didn’t supply samples of the two fonts used in the US elections. Here’s Gotham, a comparatively new font:
Optima is a font I’ve always had a liking for: it has a certain formality loosened slightly by jauntiness, like that black-sheep uncle who attends a wedding in full morning suit, but murmurs suggestive jokes about the bride, the groom, the vicar and most of the principal guests in your ear throughout the service.
Despite what Garfield maintains, a search of McCain’s campaign posters only turned up a couple of examples of the use of Optima, so I’m not convinced it was ever adopted as his “official” typeface in quite the same way Gotham was Obama’s:
It’s a friendly, self-assured font, but not exactly one that exudes gravitas or authority. In the US, where they seem to elect everyone who claims a wage from the public purse, it would probably just the ticket for a candidate for the local dog-catcher, but not really the stuff for a presidential wannabe.
But I started thinking: what would be the typefaces best suited to our own political leaders?
Nick Clegg: Well, given he’s trying to hold together a party that splinters faster than a pinetree struck by lightning, what else could it be than Cracked?
Ed Miliband: The Labour leader’s perennial wide-eyed air of Year 7 ingenuousness immediately makes me think he could probably do with keeping within the straight and narrow, hence the choice of Schoolhouse Printed A.
David Cameron: I couldn’t find quite the right font for DC, so I had to fiddle around with an existing one (Apple Chancery) to come up with one that I call Red Rag To A Bullingdon. It’s posh, it’s expansive, it’s rosy-cheeked, but it does lean rather worryingly to the left: