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The fourth plinth: Surely the place for Rupert

July 8, 2011 Leave a comment
Rupert Murdoch

Still wrong-footing them, after all these years: Rupert Murdoch

For some years, I’ve argued that the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square should be occupied by a statue of a great man, Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian civil engineer who single-mindedly cleared central London of its slums, created the embankments and Battersea (and other) parks and rid London of the great pestilence of cholera forever. The capital still relies on his sewers today. And they still work.

But increasingly, I’ve come to the conclusion – a difficult one for a New Zealander – that the honoured place should go to an Australian: Rupert Murdoch. For he is the only one who has carried the robust free speech traditions of Cobbett, Horne Tooke, Hazlett, Paine, Johnson and Coleridge into the 21st-century – and willingly paid for it, often to his cost – when the panty-waisted likes of  Rusbridger (minor), Toynbee, Thompson, Hari, Snow, Kelner et al stood around saying “oooh, let’s play nice!”, so politically correct they shit where they stand lest they befoul minority toilet bowls.

Don’t get me wrong: Murdoch has his faults. He really needs to see “man made” global warming for the expensive, anti-scientific scam it is, for instance. But on many matters – many of them important, such as freedom of speech – he is on the side of angels.

How to make a dead duck fly: A guide for the Media

July 5, 2011 1 comment
  1. Take a dead duck. (If not dead, make sure it’s half-strangled.)
  2. Throw in air, with all your might.
  3. Say: “Look, it flies!” Commentators will remark that duck “has legs”.
  4. Take potshot. Take all the potshots while you can. If you find your aim is wrong, bring in Max. He knows what to do  (cos you don’t).
  5. Sit back and enjoy while your mates and fellow travellers take potshots at duck.Think it strange that duck appears to fly backwards.
  6. Bask in glory while dead duck is carved up and dished out. Ignore fact that it seems to be all bone and feathers.
  7. Moan because you didn’t get your fair share of dead duck. Spit out feathers, bones etc.
  8. RSPCA Nazi-agents knock down your front door and invade your home (which legally they are allowed to do) because you have violated a dead duck’s “rights”.
  9. So when are visiting hours? I’ve got that Johann Hari  coming to intellectually profile me!

The Johann Hari way to photoshop an interview

June 28, 2011 Leave a comment
Johann Hari

Photoshopped quote king: Johann Hari (hairdo photoshopped from a previous photo)

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.

Newsquest London – Mission Not Accomplished

May 27, 2011 Leave a comment

The latest news from Newsquest’s south London operations is worse than even the most practised of Jeremiahs had predicted.

As journalism.co.uk reports, 12 editorial jobs are to go. This includes the whole of John Payne’s Sport and Leisure team – the two areas which have managed to hold off the relentless tide of churnalism that has swamped most of the news teams (with one or two exceptions) .

The savagery of the proposed “downsizing” is a case of not so much cutting off your nose to spite your face, but both ears, an arm and a leg, and giving one eye a poke with a sharp stick.

It has been sad to watch the steady drip-drip-drip decline of the once thriving south London Guardian, Comet and Richmond and Twickenham Times series in the year and a half since I and others were made redundant, and I have commented on it before.

Caught woefully on the back foot and looking in the wrong direction by the rise of the internet in the late 90s and early noughties, a once complacent company has struggled to get a web foothold, flailing around blindly as one by one the main props of its advertising revenue – first jobs, then motors and finally property – ebbed away to the web.

Rather than meeting the threat with innovation and adaptation and, most importantly, meeting the threat locally, Newsquest’s web policy was decided nationally, and thus began an on-going game of catch-up in pursuit of  forever elusive goal. First it was just putting what was published in the papers up on the web (after the papers had hit the streets), then it was putting one or two stories up every day, then it was “web-first”, then community blogging. And so on.

What should have Newsquest done? Well I have several ideas, most of which are neatly encapsulated in Peter Sands’ 2007 article here  (second part is here).

Most importantly, Newsquest should have gone back to first principles, asking itself “what are we here for?” The answer is of course found in its name. But as the savage cut-backs in editorial staff show, Newsquest is spending less and less time and fewer and fewer resources questing for news.

By coincidence, I found my old “induction folder” from when I joined Newsquest way back in 1998. Inside is the following interesting document, the company’s “Purpose”, “Values and Beliefs” and the inevitable “Mission Statement”. It makes droll reading in the light of today’s news:

Purpose

We are in business to provide our communities with valuable, up-to-date information on which they can depend to help make decisions and enrich their lives.

Values and Beliefs

o     We value above all our ability to win, satisfy and retain customers.

o     We take pride in our ethics and integrity: we are consistent, honest and fair

o    Commitments are to be fulfilled – “One time, on time, every time”.

o    We respect and are responsible to colleagues, customers and communities.

o    We live up to our stated high standards in dealing with them

o    We believe in continuous improvement, quality and consistency.

o     We expect a fair profit from providing a superior service at the lowest delivered cost

o    We value highly the enthusiasm, commitment, knowledge, skills, teamwork and integrity of our colleagues, recognising that our future is built on these qualities.

o     We value value and the ability to add it. Individual and team performance is measured by the value added above our minimum required standards.

0    We are committed to providing training and feedback to allow each individual to bring added value to their role, and to help them realise their full potential.

o     We believe in honest and open communication.  Our style is of accessibility and open doors, and making time to talk face to face to individuals about themselves.

We listen.

Mission

The first choice for trusted information serving the largest local audience

We will be household names for whole families and communities.    We will have more customers – readers, advertisers and users of our services – than any competitor. We will widen the gap in our market leadership.

Our employees will say this is the best company they have worked for.  We will feel that our colleagues are the best we could have.

Our competitors will envy us.

3/98

Today, the company’s “Mission Statement” is shorter, blander and rather short of specifics (scroll down to the bottom). The careful reader will note there’s none of that “we value highly the enthusiasm, commitment, knowledge, skills, teamwork and integrity of our colleagues” and “Our employees will say this is the best company they have worked for” nonsense. They may still be listening, but they sure ain’t hearing nothing.

As staff in Sutton and Twickenham now know to their cost, there’s a reason for that.

Japan’s earthquake causes massive media meltdown

March 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it? There’s nothing like an increasingly, hysterically ramped-up nuclear Thermageddon to get the blood going and cut one’s coat to suit one’s cloth.

That’s until the bubble of hysteria bursts, and the so-called “facts” you have been ramping your story up with all week collapses under the weight of their unbelievability and your own lack of verification in that cold hard world which we call the Planet Earth. Whereof nuclear meltdown? Wherefore art thou The War Game? Thank God – or Allah, or Yahweh, or Squawking Dawkins, or whoever  you believe in – that good ole Mad Dog’s arrived to deliver the goods! We meeja types can look the other way and tell everyone else: never mind that – LOOK AT THIS!

The attention of supposedly grown-up, adult media outlets has shifted from something which most desk-jockey journalists know nothing about (nuclear physics) to something which most desk-jockey journalists know less about (war), but which clearly provides more exciting footage they can ooh and aah over. And, in the way desk jockeys who today pass themselves off as journalists (and vice-versa) do, they will deliberate, cogitate and digest. Though there’s likely to be little of  the former, less of the middle and even scarce of the latter.

So that’s all right, then. Except it isn’t. Because I suspect what we’ve seen over the last week with coverage in Japan, we’re going to see with Libya – in spades (and more probably in Spads).

There are certain types of people who see opportunity in a fog of uncertainty. But they do not see the chance to enlighten, inform, explain, to shine the cold, hard light on the fog and reveal the truth. Rather, they see the fog as a cover to disseminate rumour, unfounded “facts”, their own beliefs and suppositions and anything else which will grab popular opinion, to expand and confound the miasma and – let’s face it- achieve a hidden motive.

In wartime, we call such people “black propagandists”. Their job is to spread misinformation, purportedly from a reliable source, but which serves another hidden cause. The hidden motive is, of course, to disinform and demoralise the enemy so as to easier victory for the propagandists’ side.

In peacetime, we call such people “24-hour rolling-news journalists”. Their job is to spread anything which on the face of it may count as information, purportedly from reliable sources, but which always has a hidden cause. These causes are increased sales (for newspapers), increased viewers/listeners (for TV and radio) and increased website hits (for web-based newsites, which in most cases include both the former media). Unlike black propagandists, they do not seek to intentionally mislead. But nor do they have anything to do with the truth as an end in itself.

With the Japanese earthquake, the media rubbish started early. That’s OK: it was a massively disruptive natural event, most obviously to those who endured it, but also to those of us who have assumed the task of conveying that event to others. There is chaos, lack of normal communications, trying to co-ordinate pictures, words etc. Plus there’s always the very real possibility that your on-the-spot reporters not where they reckon they are.

So I can – almost – forgive the BBC for captioning this picture – included in an online  photo-series called “Japan earthquake: A week in pictures “- as Sendai, the city “that was home to several million people”:

Um, Sendai? Up to a point, Auntie Beeb

Almost, except it’s not.  Sendai was home to about a million people and indeed still is, since apart from its coastal areas, it remained largely unscathed by the quake. Unlike our own dear small coast town of Minami Sanriku, pop. 19,170, 50 miles away, which this picture actually depicts and which, lying just 55 miles west of the quake’s epicentre, received the full force of the ensuing tsunami. The Telegraph got it right:

Minami Sanriku: Not to be confused with anywhere else (unless you're taxpayer funded and couldn't care less)

OK, so far so good. But this is Japan, right? Land of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and , er, things like the Emperor, the tea ceremony and Godzilla. They must know something about everything nuclear. And if they’re panicking, well – what are we waiting for?

Well, either this:

or this:

I do not know “British mum” Keeley Fujiyama, but I wonder if she is closely related to my old Sun mate “Del Keyboard”. (A keen mountaineering amateur photographer, he always reckoned there wasn’t a Fuji he couldn’t mount.) She said: “On Tuesday, the radiation levels in Tokyo were ten times above normal and people started to panic.”

Except they weren’t. On Tuesday,the radiation levels in Tokyo were less than were emanating from the bananas in the combined plastic bags on the editorial floor of Wapping Towers. Stay in Tokyo would be my advice, love.

But apparently if our doughty British mum “Keeley Fujiyama” had stayed in Tokyo, she would have been lonely.

The “Tokyo Ghost Town” then became the big story. With this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1367309/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-Tokyo-ghost-town.html#comments

and this

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8387051/Japan-nuclear-plant-Just-48-hours-to-avoid-another-Chernobyl.html

and this:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8389415/Japan-nuclear-plant-exposed-to-the-elements-nuclear-fuel-in-meltdown.html

One doesn’t have to have much beyond third form science to read this stuff and think: “Hang on on, this doesn’t make sense, but I’m not sure why but I want to find out. It’s not like I’m Stephen Fry and have to suck up to that nice chap from D:Ream to get some sort of contract to make people think I know something, do I? Or do I?””

The Independent, meanwhile, leavened its boilerplate “Thousands flee Tokyo” story with an intriguing non-factoid:

Some have heard that the Emperor has abandoned the city for Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, though there is no evidence that it is true.

The Indy’s intrepid David McNeil, reporting from “the spooked metropolis”, endeavours to use all his journalistic wiles to get to the bottom of this:

“That’s not what concerns me,” said Yutaka Aoki, a taxi driver who works the area around Shibuya Station.

Well, maybe he was more worried about the perigee “super” full moon, as reported by the Sun:

Sun headline Dis supermoon cause quake?

Sun grasses up Moon: Man cheesed off

Now look: it was possible to find real, grown-up, scientific news about Fukushima, though you had look hard to find it in the mainstream media (such as this article in the Guardian). Even on March 13 – two days after the initial disaster – The Australian Age was reporting this.

But mostly, if you wanted fact-based, non-sensational, balanced news about what was happening at Fukushima, you had to go outside the MSM, and on to websites such as The Register, World Nuclear News and ANS Nuclear Cafe, and bloggers who knew what they were talking about, such as The Captain’s Journal, with its excellent primer.

The point is, these alarmist MSM reports do have an effect, far beyond the temporary lift in sales or viewing figures. While wild talk of “meltdowns” – near or otherwise – and “radioactive plumes” may have little effect on the home populations in the UK and the US (other than scaring the bejaysus out of them), they do have a knock-on effect on those folks who really close to the heart of the action, ie, Japan.

It’s a little-considered consequence that was picked up by Mariko Sanchanta in this excellent article in WSJ:

Many Japanese are going about their daily lives and routines as normal. In sharp contrast, many foreigners have left after being deluged with phone calls from relatives pleading them to leave Japan after watching and reading media reports in their home country.

Sanchanta points out that part of the disparity between what was going on in the Japanese media and the rest of the world’s hyperventilation might be due to subtleties lost in translation:

Contributing to the perception gap is the difficulty translating certain nuclear terms that have different meanings in Japanese and English. Top Japanese government spokesman Yukio Edano kept using the Japanese word “yo-yu,” in reference to the fuel rods in nuclear reactors, which means the rods are melting. However, many journalists translated this term as “meltdown”, which has much different implications and stirs up strong emotions.

Typically, the Pythia of Journalism has cast his gimlet eye over both Japan and Libya and managed to get things completely wrong.

There are several things to say about the momentous coverage of two momentous stories this past week. That while ordinary people have fled Japan’s danger areas and Libya‘s battlezones, journalists – sometimes at real peril to themselves – have tried to go to the heart of the crises.

No, Mr Preston: “ordinary” people did not flee Japan’s “danger areas” unless they had to – in fact it seems most of them stayed put – and journalists transparently were not at the heart of Tokyo, nor in Fukushima, nor in Minami Sanriku, nor, I strongly suspect, will they be so much in Tripoli. I suspect “ordinary” people will be. “Ordinary” people are usually the ones caught up in these sorts of things, aren’t they, and they don’t have the bulwark of tax-evasive media company expenses to soften the blow or get them the hell out of there.

But isn’t that the tea-time bell, Mr Preston? After you’ve had a cup of tea and a nice slice of Battenberg, we’ll have a chat about this marvellous thing called the interwebs and cut’n’paste and quoting anyone no matter who they are, what they know or whom they represent and calling them an “expert” and vomiting them out into 24 hour rolling news reports. That’ll be nice, won’t it, Mr Preston? Best have a lie-down first, though. May I plump up that cushion for you?

But while I’m doing that, maybe you might like to ruminate on these words from Lewis Page at The Register, who strikes a welcome note of Hominem te memento in his reflection on exactly how your battlezone journalists covered the Japanese nuke story:

Personal bootnote

As one who earns his living in the media these days, I can only apologise on behalf of my profession for the unbelievable levels of fear and misinformation purveyed this week. I have never been so ashamed to call myself a journalist.

After the last week, I know just how he feels. That’s been the real meltdown.

It’s doomed…doomed, I tell ye!

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment
Newsweek 'sold for $1'

Newsweek: Yours for a buck

Now why doesn’t this surprise me?

Full story here at the PeeGee.

By way of an I-told-you-so, my previous thoughts on the decline of a once mighty newsweekly are here.

(And by way of extra schadenfreude, wasn’t Newsweek the publication which a year ago told us to forget the Great in Britain because, as its insightful “thought leader” analysis informed us, it  didn’t have an empire any more? Oh yes, so it was…)

The cooling world of Newsweek

July 10, 2010 1 comment
graph from Newsweek

This is either (a) a graph from Newsweek's famous "The Cooling World" article of 1975, or (b) a Newsweek sales graph

“He [Jon Meacham] ignored the truth that the old newsmagazine editors lived by: journalists who write to satisfy people like themselves will soon run out of readers.”

An excellent piece at commentarymagazine.com by Andrew Ferguson looks at the slow, lingering death of Newsweek, once an almighty titan in the newsmagazine stakes, a serious, heavyweight rival of Time and The Economist.

It’s a story of  greed, unbridled ambition, lust for glory, journalistic narcissism, the unprincipled forgetting of basic first principles and lots of sweaty, kinky sex.

Read more…