13
Jan 12

Ed Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisis

I was going to write about the use of jokes in politics and how political reporters never cover the subject for fear of sounding trivial. But then jokes suddenly starting happening everywhere.

The leader of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, Ed Milliband, made one of those doomed “relaunch” speeches last week which no one outside the political industry much noticed. An interview that morning intended to set the stage for the speech went awry when Milliband found himself being asked if he was too ugly ever to be elected Prime Minister.

Milliband’s looks may or may not be a liability but he has bigger problems. He never seems to find anything funny and never makes any jokes anyone can remember and retell. Plenty of leading politicians are born without a sense of humour, but the smart ones have that corrected. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t naturally hilarious and had to have jokes explained to her. But she had a speechwriter (the theatre director Ronnie Millar) who was funny and who, as someone reminded me the other night, carried a small notebook everywhere in which he recorded lines that he could use.

Milliband shares this humour-deficit with the strange collection of people currently slugging it out (“mud-wrestling for dwarfs” one commentator called it) for the Republican presidential nomination in the US. John Dickerson of Slate reflects here the Great Republican Humour Crisis and on what the presence or absence of gags tells you about politicos. And his piece has jokes. My favourite is the self-deprecating story told by a now-forgotten man called Mo Udall. Canvassing, Udall walks into a barber’s shop and introduces himself as the local candidate who’s asking for their votes. “Yeah,” replies the barber, “We were just laughing about that.”

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18
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.

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09
Nov 11

Serendipity and Mr Kurkov

When I travel I read more serendipitously and randomly, wandering off the path I normally take through newspapers and magazines. And as I sat in trains and planes, I fell across this piece from the New York Times by Andrey Kurkov.

I sat up immediately because I had never before seen any journalism by Kurkov, who I know only as a novelist. He is Ukrainian and his debut novel Death and the Penguin deserves to be more widely celebrated as a small comic masterpiece. In the course of a short, spare novel about a man who makes friends with a penguin who has wandered out of an untended zoo, Kurkov manages to say more about the bleak reality of post-communist societies than a dozen textbooks. The tone is quirky and ironic; Kurkov belongs on the same literary shelf as Bulgakov. There are other novels: I recommend A Matter of Life and Death, which in the course of a meandering story about an obituary writer manages to speak powerfully about a corrupted state.

And so with his New York Times piece. The gentle irony and local detail are deceptive (“The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 brought great joy to my family”). His conclusions about law and public honesty apply well beyond his own country. Indeed they could apply to Italy, where I happened to be when I read it. The government was just falling in Rome.


10
Aug 11

UK riots: 4 fragments of wisdom

The leafy part of south-west London where this blog is often written has not yet been touched by rioting. But of course I’ve been watching the news, the tweets and reading the commentary.

What emerges most plainly from the coverage so far is bafflement. Journalists and wintnesses with memories long enough to recall past rioting in the UK (it’s not completely unprecedented) can see that this isn’t like riots of the past. But they still can’t quite grasp or label it.

Here are four pieces from different angles, all published in the last 24 hours which seem to me to get closest to doing so and to capture some of the sense, cause and effect of what’s happening on (some of) the streets of the capital.
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26
Jul 11

Phone-hacking, politics and Pharisees

I’ll return to the debate about press regulation after phone-hacking later this week. In the meantime three nuggets worth passing on.

In a media feeding frenzy such as the phone-hacking affair, instant reaction overrules reflection. Just when you think you can read no more, along comes a piece so detached and so sharp that it feels like a cool drink.

This is such a piece, written by a writer who mostly works as a film critic: Anthony Lane of the New Yorker. He skillfully shows that the roots of the corruption in tabloid newsrooms are long and deep; competition and economic pressure have made things worse, but are not the only cause. Lane also places phone-hacking in the wider frame of British media and culture, deftly suggesting that some current media analysis smells faintly of hypocrisy. Of all the descriptions of this affair and the attempts to understand its significance, this one deserves to last.

Among both journalists and politicians, self-criticism is in short supply in these days. Which is what makes this article by Jonathan Powell so notable. Powell worked at Tony Blair’s side for more than a decade and was in an excellent position to see the ex-Prime Minister’s dealings with the media tycoons in general and with Rupert Murdoch in particular. Powell could easily have written a piece without directing any fire at himself or his boss. But he passed up that easy option. And whether or not one might agree with his prescriptions, his diagnosis is accurate: “The root cause of the problem is press unaccountability.”

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30
Jun 11

Johann Hari: ridicule and revelation work just fine

George Orwell, who gave his name to a prize won the other day by the beleaguered columnist and interviewer Johann Hari, would have smiled at the row over Hari’s ethics and methods.

My guess is that Orwell would have taken, as he often did, a view against the herd. Hari has been revealed as playing fast and loose with quotations from his interviewees and misrepresenting what happened in the interview itself (new readers start here). Social networks carry many kinds of material, but they thrive on strong emotion, outrage and suspicion foremost among them. So there have been plenty of voices calling for Hari to be sacked and/or stripped of his Orwell prize. There is an entire Twitter-borne genre of parodies and jokes at Hari’s expense. I took part in an earnest radio discussion on this yesterday.

Orwell would have told the thundering herd of hyper-critical tweeters to stop and think. Hari did wrong; he and his editor have said so in plain terms after initial attempts to bluster it out collapsed in the face of the evidence. Everything Hari has written will now be toothcombed for flaws and, if found, they will be widely available for all to read. He has been attacked and criticised; far more effectively, he has been ridiculed. Many of very best 140-character stingers manage to say a surprising amount about taking quotations out of context. My favourite points out that when Winston Smith delivers the most famous line of 1984 – “I love Big Brother” – you need to know the context to be clear that he’s not talking about reality TV.

As I write, the judges of the Orwell Prize are apparently considering what to do. I hope that they do nothing. I think the great man – no, he would have hated that phrase. I think that the man himself would have said that ridicule and revelation are remedy enough.


11
Jun 11

Miscellany: on getting used to things being free, Mamet, closure on a reporter’s death and more

I’ve haven’t for some time rounded up a diverse collection links in a weekend post because I noticed that the readership of this blog falls to its lowest on a Saturday and Sunday.

But I’ve also been noticing that my posts have quite a “long tail” and get looked at some time after they’ve gone up. So here’s some varied weekend or weekday reading. There is absolutely no common theme.
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01
Jun 11

Shallowness, truthiness and keeping calm

Sometimes you just miss things and have to catch up. This piece, by James Fallows of the Atlantic, on “learning to love the (shallow, unreliable, divisive) new media” has been out for about six weeks.

But I only remembered it while conducting an archaeological dig in my inbox. Then I realised that I hadn’t read it properly. It’s an effective antidote to endlessly gloomy prognostications about the future of news media and journalism. Among other things, Fallows reminds us that prescriptions for journalism which ignore what people actually want to read about are little use (have a look at the ideas of Gawker’s founder for bringing down totalitarian regimes by beaming gossip in from offshore), that journalism frequently lurches between respectable and populist eras and that platforms for journalism are regularly upset and re-invented.

I hope to return to truthiness, Eli Pariser’s filter bubble and public reason before long. But I’m still trying to work out what I think.