Monday, 25 July 2011

If my phone had been hacked: 10 headlines we could have seen

  1. Birmingham man in "extra bottle of milk needed" drama.
  2. Experts confirm that man, 41, still hasn't fixed his mother's cable TV connection.
  3. Local woman "not sure" of husband's intended time of return home.
  4. British Gas fail to make appointment for third time.
  5. Man really needs to let his wife know where he is.
  6. Garage hasn't fixed car's brakes. "They're meant to be like that," says spokesman.
  7. Concerns grow over man's dinner ending up in the bin.
  8. SparrowGate Day One: remains of bird to be removed from conservatory. Cat named as suspect.
  9. Current wireless router "worse than junk," says frustrated woman.
  10. Night at pub ends in tragedy as man banished to sofa overnight.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Shine on

Many years ago I lay in a tent and had what can only be called a psychedelic experience. The music of Pink Floyd was involved. I think there's probably a bye-law about that sort of thing.

I was in deepest Wales for a week-long Boys Brigade camp. I was only 11 years of age. This is beginning to paint me in a bad light, isn't it?

My elder brother - brother number 2, if you're interested - was a more senior BB officer and as such he'd been allowed to bring along one of those big stereo cassette players that were all the rage in the early '80s, together with a selection of tapes.

I'd been run out at cricket, which was hardly a surprise as I had failed to grasp the subtler principles of the game, namely the 'don't whack your wicket with your own bat' part. That is not a euphemism and you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Anyway, I decided to ignore the ongoing delights of cricket's honest warfare and lay myself down in a tent in the corner of the field. My brother's city-block sized stereo was there; I pressed 'Play' and Dark Side of the Moon greeted me.

I must have heard this album before at home. Despite what pop historians might tell you, punk rock did not sweep away everything that had gone before and there were still suburban households at the time that were no strangers to Pink Floyd, Genesis and the like. Brother number 1 was an unashamed Electric Light Orchestra fan. Johnny Rotten held no sway whatsoever.

But regardless, lying there in the rare warmth of a Welsh summer I did something different. I listened. And as I did, I let my gaze focus on the canvas of the tent above me. The sun was visible through the weft and weave of the fabric and there was this ever-changing inter-locking pattern of light and dark. I remember my breathing slowed. Before I'd even got past the end of the first track, I think I must have entered a higher state of consciousness.

I know. The only time I've ever heard that phrase before was from someone who knew a lot about ley lines and had an unhealthy obsession with silver jewellery.

In any case, this was heady stuff for an 11-year old. No substances were involved - well, nothing more than Spangles, but I don't think Timothy Leary would have recognised those as particularly counter-cultural.

I was reminded of this last night when a few of us went to Birmingham Planetarium for the Pink Floyd Fulldome Experience. A digital domed screen, some 10 metres across, with 360-degree sound and vision. They played Wish You Were Here last night; Dark Side comes later this year, along with The Wall. It was indeed psychedelic. And, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat trippy. As the kaleidoscopes, bubbles and patterns swirled and rotated over my head, I thought back to myself 30 years ago.

As in 1981, no mind-altering stimulants were required. Well, not until later that night when a few cans of BrewDog Punk IPA headed my way. Even now, it's the nearest I'll ever get to punk rock.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

All the news that's fit to print

Many years ago I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist. In truth, I only thought about it for a short time. I was 16 or 17, at that stage in life when the question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" has a special resonance.

They were worrying months as I embarked on A-levels and hoped the subjects I'd chosen were appropriate for my future path. For a day or so I seriously considered a career as a zoologist. This was nothing to do with a love for animals; I picked the last information card in my school Career Advisor's A-Z file system and thought, "Sod it, you'll do."

True story, by the way.

But journalism was something that interested me on a deeper, more deliberate level. At that time - and we're talking about the late 1980s here - my view of journalism was probably hopelessly naive and outdated. I thought the job would involve gathering up information and presenting it to the paying public in a compelling and engaging way. I liked words and was attracted to the thought of using them to earn an honest wage.

Plus it was mainly indoor work with no heavy lifting.

As it happened, something else came about to turn my head in another direction and I took a different path. I'm still not entirely sure what I'll do when I grow up (or even when this might be), but the uncertainty doesn't appear to be causing me too many issues at present.

However, recent events have caused me to revisit that earlier assessment of journalism once more. Today we have seen the final edition of News of the World. The acts leading up to the paper's closure have been covered in fine detail just about everywhere else, so I won't go into them here. Suffice it to say that the headline 'The Paper That Died of Shame' has been repeated again and again.

I'd been aware for some time that my earlier idealised vision of journalism as a career was just that - a vision. In short, it's probably just like many other jobs. It can be tedious. It must seem like drudgery, at times, cross-cut with the extreme pressure that comes with filling column inches and making the readers want to come back for more. Short-cuts must be attractive. And this, I think, is where media of all types - not just printed journalism - can fall down.

I'm not really bothered about the tabloid papers' fascination with banal celebrity gossip and kiss-and-tell sex scandals. Not my sort of thing, to be honest. What professional footballers get up to in Travelodge bedrooms is of no interest to me. But the Great British Public creates a market for this tosh by buying it in the first place. Coming over all moral about some of the content strikes me as a little hollow when 5+million people used to buy NotW every week. That's a far more complex issue.

But it's other, more subtle things that enrage me about journalism. It's those short-cuts I mentioned above. Haven't got the space to include the detail? Scared that your audience can't cope with a little complexity? Never fear, just strip the story down, turn it into black and white, us and them. Those details just make the story look a little messy, don't they? Leave them out then.

Want to get your readers engaged with a story? Let's personalise it. Nothing better than a bit of rabble-rousing, is there? Gets the blood pumping at the breakfast table. And you have to throw in a bit of generalisation too. Remember, we need to keep this simple.

This is why you have people genuinely believing that all immigrants are benefit thieves (when they're not stealing British jobs, that is). Or that everyone working for a bank is a blood-sucking vampire. That all public-sector workers are lazy and overpaid, serving out time for their gold-plated pension. Every single MP - without exception - is fiddling their expenses. You can't wear an England football shirt in case you offend 'others'. And there's a paedophile on every single street corner.

Are any of these statements true? Of course not. The truth is, as always, far more complex. But these ideas didn't just spring, fully-formed, into the head of the man on the number 7 bus. They were put there by someone. Someone who probably started off thinking that a career in journalism would involve using words to convey a message.

Of course, what we've seen this week is the general public and advertisers feeling genuine revulsion at stories of journalists paying others to hack into the phone messages of abducted 13-year-old girls. Newspapers showing outrage at 7/7 while listening to the voicemail of the victim's relatives. Claiming to support 'Our Brave Boys'  while intercepting the phones of dead soldiers' families. 

What we're not seeing yet is much in the way of protest about the other journalistic short-cuts - the three stage approach of simplify, personify, generalise. Perhaps we just think all papers do it, not just the red-tops. Perhaps we've gone too far down that road.

We've already seen short-cuts in operation. The closure of the NotW has been characterised as something political. It's the lefties having a pop at a free-market-loving News International title, some say. Move along, nothing to see here.

To take that view is to miss the point, though. There are 16-year-olds possibly considering a career in journalism right now, wondering what to make of it all. They are right to do so. The media has a huge influence on our daily lives - even if you don't read the papers you will come into contact with its effects. We deserve better from journalism. This is way too important to categorise as a simple case of right against left.

It's a case of right against wrong.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Inexplicably popular in Iowa

Today of all days I'm reminded of something really quite marvellous that happened a few years ago. It was 2007, a momentous year. North Korea announced her intentions to close down all nuclear powerplants in the country. The UN Climate Change Summit was held in Indonesia. JK Rowling released the final final Harry Potter book. In music news, Ace of Bass reformed. And in Japan, scientists announced that they'd discovered a 2,100 year old watermelon.

I know. Crazy times.

Closer to home, a heavy-set bloke in the UK's West Midlands was trying to lose weight for charity. Thinking that it might be nice to document his efforts, he started a blog, giving it a name that made sense for precisely ten minutes.

Yes, I'm talking about this very weblog, dear reader.

After a few weeks our heroic blogger realised that endless photos of his feet on the scales was not exactly going to bring the visitors in, so he started writing about matters of the day; the perceived anti-Wookkiee language in Star Wars, swimming squirrels, dogs that could recite Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative.

Admit it, you're glad I don't write so often these days, aren't you?

Even with these added attractions, the hero of our story was pretty sure he would get absolutely no visitors. It was all too random, too disconnected.

But then something really rather odd happened. The blog started getting hits. And comments. Hits and comments. Comments and hits. You get the idea.

But these comments weren't just coming from his 'real-life' friends and family. In fact, they weren't coming from friends and family at all. (Pause while I raise a virtual eyebrow at those people; the Comment link is there for a purpose, folks).

No, the traffic to Make lard History was coming from all over the place. Some of it was from Britain, but a significant chunk of these readers were, in fact, not from these parts. They had great teeth. They enjoyed wilfully extravagant breakfasts. They didn't just desire happiness, they were actively in pursuit of it.

In short, they appeared to be American.

My experience of Americans until this moment had been limited to a handful of trips to New York. They'd always been unfailingly polite and charming, the people I'd met, however this was perhaps to be expected from a touristy location. But now I was dealing with people from Iowa. And Alabama. And Michigan.

I don't think I've pandered. I haven't Americanised. I don't shy away from references that are peculiarly British. I've written about Marmite, the flying sausage on a fork featured from the opening credits of Grange Hill, pubs and the tills at B&Q.

I haven't covered the whole 'aluminium vs. aluminum' debate. There are some things even I can't solve.

We're led to believe that an American audience needs things to be translated. I don't subscribe to that point of view - and the people reading this rubbish from sea to shining sea appear to be living proof.

There's random stuff here. Impenetrable, sometimes. People who know me in real life often look pityingly at me after some of the posts. But others seem to like it. Well, perhaps 'like' is a little strong. It's maybe more along the lines of 'can't be arsed to unsubscribe'. But this is the Internet. Hits are hits.

I realise that as an Englishman, Independence Day has a particular resonance in my national psyche. In fairness, it's not loss of Empire that plays on our minds. No, we're still having waking nightmares about the whole 'tea-dumped-in-Boston-Harbour' thing a few years earlier.

But it's 4th July, so I will raise a bowler hat to my readers across the pond. I feel I should use some words like 'awesome' at this point, but that would be cheap and unnecessary pandering. Which would be gross.

Besides, I need some tea.


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