July 2003 Archives
July 29, 2003
Here's an interesting interview with the new head of the post-Blair (the other one) New York Times:
Eric, a thoroughly good chap from the other side of the pond, has directed a question at me. It's in his post point5b: Scary Media Thought on his Livejournal. In it he refers to an article which "reveals" that most journalists arn't experts in the fields they write about. My response?
The skill of being a journalist is not being an expert on a subject and then pontificating about it in print. The skill of being a journalist is just the same as it's ever been:
1. Set out to report on a subject
2. Research your subject
3. Build contacts in that field
4. Gather information from all of your sources
5. Summarise it as a news story or feature
A journalist isn't someone who is an expert in a particular field. He or she is an expert in finding the experts in the field, gathering their collected knowledge, sifting through it to find out what is most interesting for the readers and publishing it.
A journalist is essentially a conduit between those who know and those who wish to know. They act as a filter and a translator from the expert source to the lay reader. That's the skill of journalism, not some nebulous idea of being an expert before you put finger to keyboard.
July 26, 2003
Tom Coates of plasticbag.org has dug up an old piece of journalism by Keith Waterhouse telling people how to write opinion columns in newspapers. It's amazing how much of it can also be applied to blogging. I've said for a little while that most blogging is little more than uncontrolled examples of columns found in the op-ed pages of newspapers. This seems to prove the point.
The latest issue of the NUJ's magazine, the Journalist, has an article by my former boss, Mark Hayes. I used to work for him on a magazine called Hotel & Restaurant, until 1996. Late that year, the management gave me the choice of being made redundant or moving to a job I didn't want on another one of their titles. I took the latter option, and less than a month later found myself a new job with my current employer.
The way they treated Mark was even worse, as his article describes:
Management's response was to unfairly criticise my performance, freeze my salary and threaten me with disciplinary action. I reached breaking point in May 2001, when I went off sick with a severe stress reaction to my workload and the way Quantum management were mistreating me; I lost my voice. I could not speak.
They drove him to the edge of a breakdown and then dismissed him while he was off sick. Two years later, with the backing of the NUJ's lawyers, he has won £93,000, costs and a moral victory over Quantum Business Media.
It's a damn shame it came to this, though. Mark is an extremely talented journalist and editor, and has the awards to prove it. It's a shame that some publishing companies don't have the intelligence to realise the gems they have in their organisations.
July 25, 2003
Like Dan and Meg, Lorna and I have to endure the sounds of foxes getting romantic several times a year. It really is just as bad as he makes it sound. They also dig up our lawn, tear open our rubbish bags and generally behave like anti-social neighbours. The urban fox of London Town is a canny beast. It can even whisper in the ears of Labour MPs while they sleep, persuading them to ban the hunting of their rural cousins.
Beware. The foxes have it in for us. They taunt us with their breeding and they defile our gardens. This is just the start...
In fact, 400 years ago today, James IV of Scotland was crowned in Westminster Abbey, becoming James I of England as well. This The Union of The Crowns was the first step towards the eventual Union of the Nations.
You can catch some oblique references to it, if you hunt around, but not many.
Of course, students of the history of the preceding few hundred years will note that the two had been one in some measure on and off for centuries. Scots kings were constantly swearing allegiance to the English, rebelling, getting invaded, rebelling again, swearing allegiance...
That uneasy relationship continues to this day, even after devolution and the formation of the Scottish Parliament. My fellow English folk have a terrible habit of using "England" and "Britain" as interchangeably as tourists do, which doesn't endear them to the Scots. As a child growing up in Scotland, I was routinely irritated by kids' TV wishing everyone good luck in their exams and giving guides to revision over a month after the Scottish schools exams had finished.
It's common for the English to accuse the Americans of being isolationist and ignorant of the world outside their shores. How ironic that so many of us are just as ignorant of a land which borders on our own.
The call for devolution and a Scottish Parliament were an inevitable result of a London-focused Government and media that repeatedly neglected the land north of the border or, worse, used it as a test bed for terrible ideas like the poll tax.
One of the good things Labour did upon taking power was granting Scotland a measure of independence, satisfying that hunger for more control and recognition, without destroying the United Kingdom. What a pity that they screwed it up by excluding English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from a direct say in running Scotland, while allowing Scottish MPs a say in measures that don't affect Scotland at all. This is the West Lothian Question, and years after it was first asked, nothing has been done to address it.
There have been calls for a English Parliaments, or to ban Scots MPs from voting on purely English matters in Westminster. Yet, the Labour Party continues to ignore the issue. Could the fact that Scottish MPs are predominantly from the Labour Party have anything to do with this unwillingless to address this constitutional nonsense.
400 years after we first welcomes a Scots king onto the English throne, we should be mindful of the fact that his political successors have more influence over their neighbour than is warranted. The English's wilful ignorance of all things north of the border makes this a vain hope.
As someone who has to endure 20 minutes in the hands of Connex, the railway operator which is having its franchise unceremoniously removed, This article struck a particular chord with me.
July 24, 2003
You know that myth about hard-drinking journalists and long lunches?
Well, I just had my first "wet" lunch in a very long time and I've been completely useless for much of the afternoon. Journalists just don't work like that any more. Alas, alack.
July 23, 2003
I've been watching the blame-storming with increasing interest over the last few days. However, one comment in an Evening Standard roundup of the controversy caught my eye, mainly for this paragraph:
There are also rumours in the corporation that a tape recording may exist of Dr Kelly discussing the dossier. In a statement, the BBC referred to supplying the inquiry with "notes and other materials" made by the journalists but this may simply refer to Mr Gilligan's records which were made on a Palm Pilot computer rather than a notebook.
He made his records on a Palm?
I've been known to use a Palm for notes myself, in non-contentious, low pressure situations. However, with the best will in the world, writing graffiti on a Palm is going to be much slower than writing shorthand in a notebook. It doesn't seem the best choice in the world.
Worse than that, though, is the evidence factor. Libel actions can be brought up to five years after the publication of an article. Thus, most publishers require that journalists keep their notes for a minimum of five years after the article sees print. Our notebooks and other research material go into a "squirrel" - warehouse storage somewhere in the country where they can be retrieved if need be. I'm not sure what happens to them after the five years is up - they get burnt, probably. Anyway, the point is that they are accessible if I ever need to defend a story in court.
Not so with notes taken with a Palm. Most Palms don't even have hard storage of any kind. They're kept in memory and only exist on a hard drive after the Palm is synchronised with the desktop. Let the power run out on your Palm, and any evidence of the original format of the notes is gone. The notes could be altered, untraceably, at any time after they were made. Only making notes on a Palm on so important a matter seems unspeakably foolish to me, but then, that seems to be the order of the day.
July 22, 2003
Roy Greenslade has written a surprisingly measured response to the blame-storming going on at the moment. It's worth reading for the historical context as much as anything.
The BBC gives a simple but fairly broad update on the blogging scene in an article published yesterday.
Interesting how the adoption of blog technology by AOL seems to be perceived as the legitimisation of the technology.
July 21, 2003
On the way to church last Wednesday, my wife and I were stopped and questioned by the Police, just as everybody else on that road was. I finally got around to checking out what it was all about.
Well, it turns out that it's all about Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager who was murder a decade back. A centre in his memory was due to be housed in an abandoned water authority building in Deptford. Last Tuesday night, it caught fire.
The fire tore through the first and second floors of the disused former Thames Water pump house in Deptford at 8pm last night.
Officers would not rule out the possibility it had been started "maliciously". A Scotland Yard spokesman said: "We are treating it as suspicious at this early stage."
Strange that this received so little press given that the original case was all over the media for years.
Samizdata has published an insanely good post in the Tony Martin situation entitled, appropriately enough, Samizdata.net - Tony Martin: Political Prisoner.
The establishment's favourite game of blame-storming is in full swing. The weekend's "blame Blair" mood seems to be shifting round to a "blame the Beeb" attitude, lead by attacks from Peter Mandleson and other Blair loyalists. There's a nice "point, counter-point" here.
No surprises there. Labour is just following the old maxim that attack is the best form of defence. (They're also ignoring the fact that their own backbenchers, including Glenda Jackson, are loudly putting the boot into the current party leadership). What is more surprising is that some Conservative MPs are just as vocal in their attacks on our favourite state-subsidised broadcaster.
Of course, the BBC has done itself no favours in recent years by first alienating the Conservatives with an apparent bias for New Labour (tracked here) and then turning around and attacking its former inamorata the minute it strays from the BBC's approved path by going to war on Iraq. The recent spat between Blair and the BBC smacks of a lover's quarrel, with both sides showing the sort of vindictiveness you reserve for someone you once loved.
My bigger concern is what this situation will do for investigative journalism in both the short and long term. There's a well-established (but often ignored) principle in British law that allows journalists to protect their sources. (The Bill Goodwin case, for those who are interested.)
If the perception is that the government will hound any whistle-blower and the media fail to protect their identity, this tragic death could end up rendering our politicians and their lacki...advisors even less accountable than they are already. Who wants to be the next Dr Kelly, haunted by "dark actors" from the government?
However, having a state broadcaster that seems unable to maintain even a façade of independence may have scuppered that idea long ago.
July 16, 2003
How refreshing to be reminded of the interesting things that you can stumble across on the Internet. Davis Coffer Lyons are property advisers in London specialising in restaurants, bars, pubs (apparently). Their current property deals are quite interesting, but in particular, one of their old newsletters has the rent details for McDonalds Leicester Square.
This is distinctly old news for me. I work for Estates Gazette, the leading commercial property rag in, well, the world. The Coffer of Davis Coffer Lyons above is David Coffer, whom I've often met, and his son is our news editor.
The McDonald's deal is not desperately surprising. Leisure rents around Leicester Square and retail rents on Oxford Street are amongst the highest in the world. Some chains have shops there which are only marginally profitable, because of the rent roll, or possibly even unprofitable, simply because you have to be there to be taken seriously. They're flagship stores.
People's eyes often glaze over when they realise I work for a commercial property title rather than a residential one and thus cannot advise them on their house price. Simon has realised the crucial thing; all businesses need property to operate out of and thus the commercial property market tells you more than you can imagine about business as a whole.
I can't link to anything I've written for the mag, alas, because it's buried deep in our pay site EGi. Of course, you can subscribe for £450 per annum.
I'll add links to this as I find them.
Samizdata has an interesting and somewhat cynical take on the whole affair. You've got to admire that.
UPDATE: Actually, someone's already doing a good job of this. Go check out Harry's Place.
July 15, 2003
The crowd gathered at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to the Great Committee Room were exactly as one would expect: a smattering of suits, a good measure of geeky types, a fair few trendy new media types and a few journalists staring intently at the crowd and composing an intro like this one.
Anyone who wants to accuse bloggers of being anti-social nerds stuck behind a screen would have been disappointed, though, as people were merrily introducing themselves to one another. Social software for social people, as it were. The same liveliness was on display throughout the seminar. I've been to too many conferences of late where no-one asks any questions. This wasn't a problem for the Voxpolitics seminar. (Voxpolitics is a "shady pseudo-think tank" as one of its directors, James Crabtree, put it).
If there was one downside to the debate it was that it was the converted talking to the converted. No-one there seriously seemed to think that blogging politicians was a bad idea. The argument was in the details.
So, will the 150-odd people there make a difference to political thinking in Parliament? Well, the seminar was reported on the BBC, which will hopefully attract more attention than the reports in the specialist IT press. It may well be in some of the national papers but I haven't had time to check. Perhaps, though, the more useful idea that came through from the discussion is that we, the people, can encourage this by interacting with those MPs already doing this and encouraging our own MPs to do the same.
Well, the seminar last night was excellent, even if it was preaching to the converted. I'll write up my thoughts later on, but you might like to look at the meeting notes, the manifesto prepared for the event and Voxpolitics' write-up. The BBC covered it as well.
July 14, 2003
Whatever you think of the issue of fox hunting, it still seems bizarre to me that we're spending so much parliamentary time on it when the country's social services and transport infrastructure are collapsing. If it's really about animal cruelty, why aren't we banning battery hens? They are infinitely more cruel, with millions of chickens suffering daily rather than the few hundred foxes killed every year. No, this is an example of the affluent urban Labour Party cheerily trampling over a rural population they don't understand, and don't wish to understand.
Actually, this has been said far better than I could ever do so, by Peter Cuthbertson. Check it out.
[Via Au Currant]
I'm off to Westminster tonight to attend this seminar. I don't think I've been to an event garnering so much media coverage since my student protest days. I will, of course, blog about how it goes.
So, why the switch to Movable Type? Why move the blog to the front of this site and move away from the photoblog model I'd been developing back on the old site? What's the point of all this?
It was an odd conversation, simply because as I read it, I realised that many people have very little idea how journalists really work. Malcolm was talking in general terms about the proprietor dictating how the journalists reported a story. To Malcolm, they're just the faceless employees of a foreign newspaper. To me, some of the journalists are people I've worked with and socialised with. That, naturally, gives me a slightly different perspective on things.
We journalists are terrible at talking about what we do. We're happy to hide behind the stereotypes of pissed old hack (one I often play up to) and sexy, dynamic young journalist. In the meantime, people of all political stripes start building up strange pictures of why the reports of the same event differ so much from paper to paper, magazine to magazine. With no true picture of the nature of the job, it's very easy for people to start constructing conspiracy theories. Well, I've been a working hack for the best part of a decade now. I might as well put that experience to some use in blogging some of my experiences and thoughts on the issue, and I'll be doing that in coming weeks.
Reading back through my Livejournal entries and blogs passim, it's amazing how little I've written about my professional life. I think I've tended to play to my audience which has, on the whole, been the slightly geeky (sorry lads and lassies) followers of the roleplay business, along with a few British friends involved with the live action version of the hobby. It's time for that to change.
The photoblog aspect of the site will remain - the ability to categorise posts is one of the reasons I switched to MT - and no doubt I'll get sucked into politics, too. Purely personal stuff will remain in my Livejournal.
I hope you enjoy what's coming.
The observant may have noticed that the colour scheme of my blog broadly matches the colour scheme of my study, pictured below.
This is entirely intentional. Sad, huh?
July 12, 2003
Welcome to my brand-spanking new Movable Type-powered blog. I'm going to be putting in some serious effort over the next few days to get all the entries from the old Blogger blog here and in shape, while also fiddling with the template and posting some new stuff. Enjoy the ride.
July 6, 2003
My desk is a state. It's understandable, really. I've had a couple of deadlines in quick succession and thus I've never had the time to clear away the detritus of the creative process. Over the next few days, I'll be making an assault on the mess.
This is the "before".
An "after" will follow.
July 5, 2003
If there's one tradition worth celebrating in the English village of years gone by, it's the church fete. All the worthies of the village assemble in one place and sell their old possessions, their crafts and their cakes over the course of a few hours. There's a tombola, a raffle and any number of games for the kids to enjoy.
I spent a few hours today at Bramfield's church fete, which was everything you might expect. My Mum and wife worked the china painting stall. I picked up a few books and some old, abandoned photographs and slides. I might even post some of them at some point. Hundreds of people, both villagers and visitors, came and went.
From those few hours of idle country pleasures, many hundreds of pounds found their way into the church coffers. Time well spent.
July 2, 2003
|In this day and age of political apathy, there's at least one group I respect.
Every week, the Women in Black make their silent protest on an issue that concerns them, under the statue of Edith Cavell on St Martin's Lane. The stand questly, wearing or holding banners outlining their views. A few of their member distribute leaflets and other information. That's all they do. It's more than enough.
The quiet dignity of this protest never fails to impress me. I've been seeing these women for years, and while I don't often agree with their politics, I respect utterly the way they choose to express them. London will be much the poorer if they ever stop holding their protests.