Sep 11

Hari: act of contrition for the weekend

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post here about the Independent writer Johann Hari which made a mistake. Time to rectify that.

Two days ago, Hari handed back his Orwell Prize and published a long and somewhat weaselly mea culpa in The Independent. (Readers new to this saga start here). Hari’s confession included confirmation that he had gone to considerable lengths to boost his friends and smear his enemies on Wikipedia under an assumed identity. The full extent of his lifting material to embroider his interviews is also now clear (see the critical comments at the foot here).

I didn’t condone Hari’s actions in my premature post. But I did argue that George Orwell would have taken the view that ridicule and revelation were enough, and that Hari needn’t have been stripped of the prize. That judgement looks particularly foolish in the light of what we now know; it was silly as it was. As Bagehot of The Economist pithily says, this isn’t a matter of training and teaching but a more basic one of character and integrity.

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Sep 11

Should states subsidise news media?

I listened a few days ago to a lecture devoted to arguing that the economic crisis of news media in America is so bad that the government should be giving journalism direct financial support. I’m very wary of these arguments. But because I think this is a subject which is going to keep cropping up, it’s worth pausing to look at this case in full.

The speaker was Robert McChesney, an American journalism professor (and much more unusual in the US, a socialist) who argues that journalism is a public good and that as such it needs and deserves public support. McChesney has recently edited a collection of essays arguing variations on this theme.

McChesney’s key points were:

  • The frequent, instant dismissal of subsidy is wrong because assuming that journalism can be a business is the wrong starting point. Journalism is essential for democracy and as a public good deserves to be sustained by public funds. The idea that journalism can be solvent is an illusion. Just because for one period in recent history advertising cross-subsidised news, doesn’t mean that solvency is attainable. Journalism is too important to depend on the accidents of business.
  • When anyone raises the idea of subsidy, scare tactics suggest that this is the start of something which will end in media control as practised by Stalin or Pol Pot. This is absurd, considering that many European states subsidise news. In fact the top five or six countries in The Economist’s annual quality-of-democracy league are the top media subsidisers. The same overlap occurs in the Freedom House democracy table.
  • The crisis of the press is part of a wider democratic decline. The three worst political sleaze scandals in recent years in Washington were Abramoff, Cunningham (both lobbyists) and Tom DeLay (congressman). The three reporters who broke those stories are now all unemployed. A business-dependent press has failed in its duty of making politicians and policymakers accountable, especially when covering (or failing to cover properly) the making of war and the steering of the economy.
  • An American BBC is not the answer: the BBC’s monolithic structure and entrenched monopoly itself causes a problem. Independent, multiple public-service broadcasters would be better.

Continue reading →

Sep 10

Webdeath (3)

By far the best look at the forces pulling the world wide web in a new direction (a.k.a. the debate about “webdeath”) comes from The Economist here. Background to this in previous posts here and here. I’m with the academic quoted towards the end of this piece who says that it’s just going to be too hard to build proprietary walls round web content and break up global interoperability. Also note: web access rules by governments in Britain and the rest of Europe come out of this well.

Aug 10

Jay Rosen Q & A on political reporting

A quick link to an exceptionally clear exposition of the thinking of NYU professor Jay Rosen about political journalism. Rosen has for years been developing a case against the “neutrality” of political journalists, arguing that neutrality is a point of view but its defenders just won’t confess to it. This hypocrisy, Rosen says, distorts the journalism in the end. The stance of non-partisanship is misleading fakery.

This argument erupts regularly in the US but hasn’t ever really taken off in Britain, partly because newspapers are, and always were, more partisan in the first place and partly because attempting to apply the Rosen analysis to Britain involves casting doubt on the journalism of the BBC. And that, commentators are mostly loath to do.

I’ll come back to that theme, but as a primer in Rosen’s views here is a Q&A he did recently with The Economist. It has the great benefit of being succinct and clear.

Jun 10

In memoriam Norman Macrae

I was poised to write a highly serious post about the creeping tendency towards ideas about state subsidy for news organisations when I took a look at The Browser and fell across an long, affectionate obituary from The Economist for Norman Macrae, the paper’s deputy editor for 18 years. Macrae, a defender of open markets in a collectivist age, would have had no truck with the idea of government’s subsidising the provision of news.

Macrae was influential and at the same time almost unknown. The obituary opens with the astounding observation that when Macrae died this month, not one newspaper mentioned the news or his career. Macrae was not self-promoting, never became The Economist’s editor and worked much of his career at a paper which doesn’t print bylines. But even so, this is quite some indifference to the journalist who “discovered” Japan and its economic potential in the 1960s, was one of the first people to understand modern computing at the internet (he coined the term “telecommuting”) and more generally was a formidable explainer of post-industrial society. But read the piece for yourself.

The comments, including one from Macrae’s son Chris, are just as well worth reading. Many of Macrae’s ideas would have been regarded as daft when he first expounded them (a handful remain dotty) but in the long run he was often proved right. Time is a great reviser of reputation.

(Update 26/6/10: a week later, the Financial Times prints an obituary.)

Jun 10

Weekend miscellany: Assange, Kenyan corruption, why is sport so huge, the missed banking story and Iran

I’m increasingly finding, as this blog finds its feet, that I reach the end of the working week with a bunch of links which I’d like to pass on but which don’t require much comment or elaboration. I’m going to try bundling them into a single post. From time to time these pieces will have already appeared in “What I’m Reading” (just to the right of here) but that feed often osbcures the real subject of something I’ve clipped into Delicious. What follows is an eclectic selection, so there’s no point in trying to pretend that there’s any common thread.

  • Fascinating drama now going on around Wikileaks as the US government goes after its founder Julian Assange. Some background here. A more recent summary from The Economist, containing an intriguing little hint from Pentagon Papers man Daniel Ellsberg.
  • I’ve been reading properly for the first time It’s Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong, the story of John Githongo, the man who exposed deep-seated, systemic corruption in the Kenyan political elite. The book is a superbly-written tragi-comedy: Githongo “exposed” a lot of appalling evidence but failed to dent the practice by which Kenyan ministers plunder the country’s treasury. But thanks to the depth of Wrong’s knowledge of her subject, the book is also a history of modern Kenya – and a very dispiriting chronicle at that. When Kenya’s tribal rivalries explode again, as Wrong predicts they surely will, reading this book will explain what is happening and why. Among her many qualities as a writer, Wrong is unafraid to take aim at conventional pieties. As they say in Texas, sacred cows make the best burgers.
  • Especially at World Cup you may occasionally wonder how sport, all sport, got so big. Because once upon a time, sport just wasn’t that huge a thing. When you don’t read much a subject – and I don’t read much about sport – you like an issue fully dealt with in a single place. This piece by Tim de Lisle from Intelligent Life is it.
  • Sometimes it takes a non-journalist to spot that journalists are asleep at the wheel. Not every document that emerges from the Bank of England is newsworthy or even comprehensible but the one spotted in this post was. As the perenially interesting MP Frank Field remarks here, this was not a story which either the Financial Times sor The Times ought to have missed.
  • A cluster of excellent stories from The Guardian on Iran at the first anniversary of last year’s stalled “green” revolution-that-wasn’t.

Continue reading →

May 10

Newsweek RIP?

All you need to know about the background to Newsweek’s decline Newsweek RIP?and likely fall (with links to other commentaries) from Marion Maneker’s Goodnight, Gutenberg blog at Slate.

This debate is known as “It’s not the Economist, stupid.”