Jan 14

This blog: a quick instruction manual

Since this blog is resuming after a break, here’s a fast guide on how not only to find stuff in it but also related things about journalism that I’ve written or clipped.

Fast wheel

All the posts on this blog get tweeted from @georgeprof and linked on a static Facebook page. For me, Twitter is about link-sharing and I pass on and retweet links about journalism, media and, occasionally, daft fragments which catch my fancy. The most active piece of this blog is “What George is reading” (right-hand column) because that’s linked to what I clip in Delicious. Delicious has a chequered history and upsets its users on a regular basis; but how anyone writes a book today without it or its near equivalent I don’t know. Very few days go by without something new popping up in that slot. On a normal day there will be several new links.

Slow wheel

Continue reading →


May 13

This much trivia I now know about writing a book (and some apologies)

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.

Continue reading →


Apr 13

This blog is back – swift catchup on the post-Leveson dog’s breakfast

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.

Continue reading →


Oct 12

Wisdom from India (and from children in Ethiopia)

The traffic figures for this blog make clear that what people like is strong opinions from the author. But occasionally this author grows tired of the sound his own thinking and just wants to pass on wisdom from others. I have two items to offer.

Last week’s James Cameron Memorial lecture at City University London was by N Ram, until recently editor of The Hindu, which has a claim to be India’s best daily paper. Ram delivered a magisterial overview of the Indian media which I can recommend as one of the best analysies of the subject you can find (video/audio, text).

My personal selection of edited highlights (page numbers for text in full):

  • Ram, who knew James Cameron, observed that the great foreign correspondent would not have had much truck with the idea, floated occasionally at the Leveson Inquiry and elsewhere, that journalism should be regulated as profession in the manner of doctors or lawyers. Cameron, writing in 1967, was clear that journalism was “not and never has been a profession…since its practice has neither standards nor sanctions” for the reason that “it can be practised in many ways.” (p2)
  • Ram stressed a discussion that far too many journalists complaining about failing business models forget: the fortunes of the news media are not the same as the state of the news media (p7).
  • Ram gives an up-to-date list of India’s juiciest corruption scandals (p11), remarking that the Indian media has been much better at reporting scandals in government and politics and much less good at chasing corporate corruption.
  • Reminding us that India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”, he lists the recent threats to free speech (p17).
  • He quotes often from a long piece on Indian media in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta: “Citizens Jain” (£).
  • If you want to see one o the most important differences between India and China, look at internet penetration rates: China: 40%, India 10%.

Continue reading →


Jun 12

Summing up what we’ve learnt on Leveson, Murdoch and law

My loyal band of Twitterati may have noticed that I’ve been in Australia, where I gave a talk in two universities trying to sum up what we’ve learnt from the Leveson Inquiry. British readers of this blog might well want to stop right here because a good deal of the talk below will be familiar. There’s a very short version on the Australian-based The Conversation, a site which acts as a web publisher for opinion and analysis on public affairs by academics. But in case anyone wants to see the full text, here it is:

Phone-Hacking, the Leveson Inquiry and Rupert Murdoch

Public inquiries – often thought of as deliberate, careful, rational procedures – often provide examples of the operation of the Law of Unintended Consequences. They don’t always work out as their instigators hope or intend.

So it is with the Leveson Inquiry, now running most days of the week in London. The Inquiry is formally into the “culture, practice and ethics” of something quaintly called “the press”. The inquiry’s terms of reference are very broad indeed. They cover standards, accuracy, regulation and law, media plurality and ownership, relations with both the police and politicians.

Continue reading →


May 12

When anyone can be one, what are journalists for exactly?

I’ve been asking and trying to answer this question for some time, since it’s most basic and existential one posed by digital technology which puts the power to publish in the hands of anyone with a smartphone. If journalists can’t answer it, they’re unlikely to find their way out of the troubles generated by the disruption of their business models.

So I perked up when this question was put by Steve Buttry, who works for John Paton’s Digital First company. And I like the image of gatekeepers made redundant by the fact that the fence has been blown away.

Steve has a list of purposes. Journalists are storytellers, watchdogs, fact-checkers, aggregators or curators and they investigate. When I tried answering this question, my list (extended version of the argument here) had four items and overlaps with Steve’s. Distilling down, this is what journalists do:

  • Verification
  • Sense-making (analysis, interpretation, opinion)
  • Eye-witness (still crucial in less open and accountable societies)
  • Investigation

Continue reading →


Jan 12

It’s Groundhog Day on the “sources going direct” question

Rupert Murdoch rarely says or does anything which doesn’t cause dismay somewhere. So it has been with his appearance on Twitter.

The octogenarian’s pithy provocations, unmediated by spin-doctors, have been enough to start yet more worries about the future of journalism. People were apparently in all seriousness sitting around at a seminar in the Columbia Journalism School considering the question of “sources” who “go direct” (to the audience, that is). The language itself is unintentionally revealing: how dare these people cut out the middleman and communicate directly with people? The seminar anxiously wondered if this would be “good for journalism”.

That will depend on how well journalists adapt to a transformative change. On the evidence of that discussion at Columbia, it’s going to end in tears in America. Digital communications allow people to publish to people; the oligarchic power of news publishers and broadcasters holding the technology, capital and licences has begun to dissolve. The value added by people calling themselves journalists changes and evolves every time something big changes in the way we can communicate.

In the beginning, “news” was about getting some basic information quickly to people who wanted to know it. There wasn’t much of it. As the supply increased, the value became making it reliable. Nowadays, with what was once in short supply being in glut, the value lies in extracting useful sense from the rush of data coming past you. For my money, journalists can now add value in four areas: verifying stuff, making sense of it, being eye-witnesses and in the specialist art of investigative reporting (this argument laid out more fully here).

Continue reading →


Nov 11

Journalism in India: the assassination test result

I’ve been lecturing in India and was yesterday at the Goenka Institute (partners with Lancaster University in Britain) just outside Delhi. As I usually am in India, I was asked by a member of the audience how Indian and British journalism compare.

My answer was truthful but also tactful: flaws in both…but at least open and competitive media systems…best journalism in both countries pretty good. I was conscious – over-conscious as it turned out – that the last thing anyone in India had heard about British journalism was phone-hacking and that Brits in India can so easily give offence and raise hackles by sounding “colonial”.

My tact was a miscalculation. At a later meeting with three members of the faculty and around ten students, my questioner was trenchantly contemptuous about the Indian media and had hoped that I would confirm his opinion. News media in any vigorous and open society are never popular, but all the same I was surprised by the depth and breadth of feeling. This wasn’t the frequently heard complaint that the Times of India has dumbed down; it wasn’t the usual moan about the silliness of the hyperfast 24/7 satellite news channels. No Indian media escaped censure.

On the spur of the moment, I invented the “assassination test”: you hear a rumour that the Prime Minister has been assassinated. To which media do you first turn? I thought that this would reveal that my Indian friends would actually rely on the state broadcaster or national news agency to tell them what had happened. Not a bit of it. “The BBC,” someone replied and most people round the table nodded. No one was prepared to say they would turn to an Indian source.

Continue reading →