I have in recent months been writing a book (yes, it’s about journalism, it’s out in September and you can pre-order) and the experience taught me a lot. I also have a few apologies to make. Here are a few lessons and mea culpas.
- Graham Greene said that writers must have a splinter of ice in their heart. I think he meant this in the strictly literary sense of a writer always having the detachment to remember a scene of passion or misery for later use. I have discovered that anyone writing a book has to be selfish for months on end, excluding most other distractions and duties. Without this ruthlessness, the writing of a book stretches into years and decades. As it is, my wife thinks it may never end. Apologies to all the people, emails and obligations I have dealt with slowly or not at all.
- Despite writing on the screen, I think I may have consumed my own weight in plain A4 paper. With the number of words in a book, there comes a moment where you have to feel it on paper to be able to grasp where everything is and how it reads. This may be terribly old-fashioned, but I still find it easier to correct my own writing in hard copy. Then you find yourself doing it again and again as a new version needs combing and fine-tuning. Here I say sorry to a lot of trees.
- What is about writing which creates a craving for biscuits? I was fairly restrained about the amount of coffee I drank and I did not once, not ever, give way to the temptation to eat jammy rings. But I did eat quite a few other biscuits.
- Human beings are hard-wired to ignore their own experience. I know that I write quickest when I prepare what I’m going to write and prepare it carefully. But I have been trained by experience to write fast if needed. Several times I sat down at the keyboard to make a fast, charging start on a chapter. If I hadn’t figured it out carefully, I lost momentum almost immediately. I have known this for a long time, yet I blithely forget it.
- This was a long, cold winter to be writing and I discovered that your lower half gets colder than your upper half. Your arms and shoulders aren’t doing much exercise when writing, but they’re moving more than your legs; I guess that explains the temperature difference. At one point I was considering long johns. Do professional writers wear them or perhaps tights under their trousers?
- If I wrote books all the time, I suspect I might become a vegetarian. My solitary lunches contained less and less meat as the weeks went on. Unless this was because I was subconsciously afraid I would fall asleep in the afternoon, I cannot explain this trend to meatlessness.
- A non-fiction book writer needs a large floor. By the end I had stacks of paper and books covering a space large enough for two double beds.
- The last paragraph you wrote at the end of the day before always turns out to be rubbish. Sometimes more than needs surgery, but often just that single last paragraph. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know.
PS: The book’s called Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age and I’ll tell you more about it soon.
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I’m not inventing this: Iran really does have a body called the the Supreme Council for Cyberspace. This body with the science-fiction name is wrestling with the dilemma facing dictatorships everywhere.
Even by official estimates, more than half of Iran’s 75m people are net users. At that level, the internet is basic to the functioning of the economy, and that includes trade and contacts outside the country. So the cyberspace councillors can’t just shut down the internet even if they had the technical means to do it.
So they do two things: they slow it down and they try to build infrastructure which they can watch. There’s a tense election coming in June and the authorities have had several years to plan against a repeat of the demonstrations which took them by surprise in 2009. As AFP reports, the authorities in Tehran are suspected of putting the internet in a “coma”. Revealingly, the people who seem to have spotted this first are the DVD pirates who can’t any longer download foreign movies because the system is so slow.
The way that the cyberspace rulers may be managing this is by blocking Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Iranians who don’t want to be traced accessing sites outside their borders use VPNs to connect to international sites and to disguise where they are. The use of VPNs is illegal on the grounds that they are insecure and may carry material considered depraved, criminal or politically offensive. So the Iranian authorities are building their own VPN for people to use, which internet experts quite reasonably assume will be transparent to the supreme cyber-councillors, not to mention to the security police.
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I know that this week’s media debate is going to be all about the pros and cons of real-time news sharing in fast-moving crises like the Boston marathon bombings and subsequent shootouts, but this blog has a little catching up to do. While I have been writing a book, the government, Houses of Lord and Commons and the Hacked Off campaign have managed to make a gigantic dog’s breakfast of the follow-up to the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking.
This was pretty much the only subject on which I published during the long winter, so I’ll start by rounding up that stuff. It’s hardly surprising that inventive lawyers intent on intimidation are using Leveson’s recommendations to try to silence newspaper reporting or that the Metropolitan Police, who had a grimly embarrassing time in front of Leveson, are being cautious and unhelpful. What has surprised me is the depth of the legal and political doo-doo into which the government has stepped. In a hurry to get the Leveson Inquiry dealt with before the 2015 election season opens next year, the government tied itself in knots which may take years to unravel. The Royal Charter deal on a new press regulator was a rushed botch.
The largest single dilemma which Leveson plonked in the government’s lap is defining “the press”. Leveson was so heavily preoccupied by the issue of the misuse of power accumulated by the major newspaper groups, that he did not treat this as a central issue. He should have: defining who is to be covered by law or regulation dealing with news publishing is a basic issue in an era when “the press” doesn’t really exist any more. I argue in a TLS review (£) of Leveson and a report from the Columbia Journalism School on “post-industrial journalism” that the Leveson report’s worst flaw was that it was so backward-looking.
Thrashing round trying to define internet sites and blogs which are “news-related” and suchlike won’t work for anyone except lawyers who can spend happy years in court fighting over definitions. In this BBC explainer there is a nice little film by Newsnight’s David Grossman trying to explain the new law as it relates to online publishers. The Department of Culture Media and Sport have produced a colourful new diagram to help publishers work out if they’re covered by the new law. Here’s Patrick Smith of MediaBriefing picking holes.
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This blog is currently taking an enforced holiday which I have not spent eating Christmas pudding but mostly writing a book. More on that another day when I resurface.
For the time being I will simply wish all my readers a happy new year and post this video of a panel discussion held at the Battle of Ideas conference in London not long before the Leveson Inquiry produced its report, which is still being energetically debated. The panellists are Christina Patterson, Ray Snoddy, Mick Hume and me.
I’m sorry to see James Harding shoved out of the editor’s chair at The Times. He had made mistakes, but he had also done the paper (for which I worked) a lot of good.
The instant speculation about why he was dumped tells you a good deal about the way journalists think about their business. Some, noting rightly that coverage of News International and phone-hacking had been good after an initial stumble, thought that this robust editing had annoyed News Corporation’s boss Rupert Murdoch. If this was any problem at all, it would have rated as an irritant. Likewise I can’t think that Harding’s failure to buy the CD containing details of MPs’ expenses, when offered it before the Daily Telegraph, would have done for him.
Journalists find it hard to confront the unpalatable truth that the present and the future cannot resemble the past. The reasons are economics and nothing to do with politics or proprietorial power. In a phase of rapid change driven by technology and money, a large part of an editor’s job now is to help to find a business model. The Times hasn’t got one.
In this, The Times is not alone: the Guardian searches for the same thing. When the Sunday Times made profits which covered the losses of The Times, the weak market position of the latter title didn’t matter much to a company making plenty of money from three of its (then) four papers. Around ten years ago, The Sunday Times stopped covering the losses of The Times. These financial agonies lie at the root of all that is happening.
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This is a rapid gut and comment on the Leveson report executive summary released today. The complexity of his regulation-legislation solution seems to have masked the genuine severity of his audit of what some newspapers have been doing.
No report on the press would be complete without a quotation from Thomas Jefferson and Lord Justice Leveson obliges on page 4: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” The next fifteen pages demonstrate exactly the opposite.
Leveson does not think much of the “culture” of the press (as his terms of reference called it). Indeed it seems unlikely that he would even think the word “culture” the appropriate one. He is outraged not just by bad behaviour but by what he seems to think was a lack of any moral sense: “There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as it its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.” Note the “which it wrote” dig at hypocrisy. (para 7)
He makes a nod to the fact that the press does hold its own powers to account, citing (para 10) both the Guardian’s investigation of the News of the World and the ITV and BBC Panorama’s investigation of Jimmy Savile. He acknowledges (para 18) that commercial changes have increased pressures on newspapers “to find different ways to add value” (without accepting this as an excuse for anything at all).
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With Lord Leveson’s inquiry into the British press now due to report on November 29th, Press Gazette has kindly posted a version of an argument I made to the inquiry and wherever else I’ve been able to find an outlet for it since.
If Leveson proposes a new form of independent regulation for the press founded in statute (something which all previous versions of self-regulation have avoided), there will be an almighty fuss. But the proposal is liable to founder not because of the volume of complaint but because of the problems intrinsic to the plan: issues of definition, compulsion and funding.
There’s a better way. Use law as an incentive towards transparency and self-regulation. Strengthen and clarify privacy law, build strong and consistent public interest defences into laws which impact journalism and allow courts to take editorial integrity and standards into account when cases come to court. Within that framework, self-regulation would be worth doing and worth doing well.
That’s a bald summary. I saw an ad in the Daily Mail today from the Free Speech Network objecting to the possibility of the press being “shackled”, showing six newspaper front pages and asking if these stories would have appeared under “state regulation”. (The stories shown are the Mail’s front pages on the men alleged to have killed Stephen Lawrence, A Telegraph splash on MPs’ expenses, The Sun front page on Andrew Mitchell calling policemen “plebs”, a Times investigation on celebrity tax avoiders, the Daily Mirror on John Prescott’s affair with his secretary and a Guardian front page on phone-hacking.)
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I am a regular reader of Frederic Filloux’s weekly commentary on media, The Monday Note. I cannot recommend it too highly for its trenchant originality.
Triggered by a new wave of complaint about Google in Europe, today’s note looks at Google’s interest in legacy news media. Why, Filloux asks, has Google maintained Google News for so long when it makes no money and when news sites are so relatively insignificant as sources in Google’s gigantic search business?
He thinks that the answer lies in Google’s planned move from being a search engine to being a knowledge engine: the ability to deliver more sophisticated and useful answers than most of us can dream automated search can now deliver. At the heart of that effort is something called Knowledge Graph. And the key to that is the boring-but-important issue of the structure of data. News media connect bits of information to make it knowledge people may want and need.
As Filloux points out, pure-play web news sites are often better at this than the ones built by established mainstream media – despite the fact that the legacy media often hold richer, bigger databases. New media’s data is easier to find because what is stored is better labelled and can be made sense more easily.
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