Thursday, 23 September 2010

Dirty Tricks and Politics

I'm bemused by the Coulson saga. It's sunk so low that even the feeble Press Complaints Commission has been goaded into "re-examining" allegations of phone-hacking on Coulson's watch as tabloid editor.

And of course the spinners are on.

Matthew d'Ancona says Coulson is only a target because it's a way for "Cameron's enemies" to damage the Coalition, and Cameron will back his communications chief because he values Coulson's "tabloid street-smarts" and "sharp" intellect. He adds:
"Coulson resigned. Although insisting that he had no direct knowledge of the phone-hacking, he did the right thing in 2007, which was to take responsibility for what had happened on his watch at the News of the World, and to quit. Fair enough. But his antagonists seem to be forging a new and frankly preposterous politico-legal doctrine of executive responsibility: namely, that a man should not only lose the job he holds at the time of the wrongdoing, but all subsequent jobs. On this sinister basis, one strike and you are out – forever."
Ah, but this is the stuff of moral panic, not reasoned argument on the central issue. It suggests the saga turns on the side issue of Coulson's personal plight, rather than who is fit to be the Prime Minister's communications chief in an era of alleged political reform. It casts Coulson as an honourable man (albeit one with "tabloid street-smarts") who risks losing his job twice over the same affair because of some petty playground drama amongst politicians, rather than because his background as a tabloid editor seems at odds with an alleged desire by the Coalition to clean up politics.

If we want governments and MPs to continue wallowing in a culture of rip-offs, leaks and political smear campaigns, then it would seem that Coulson's "tabloid street-smarts" and lack of direct knowledge about the activities of his staff and contractors may come in handy. Even if we do not, I guess there's still an argument (somewhat less convincing) that Coulson's skills and experience will enable him to 'turn gamekeeper' and at least pre-empt dirty tricks, if not help clean up politics altogether. But, in that case, can he be trusted not to do a little 'poaching'?

At any rate, Sir Christopher Meyers makes an excellent point that MPs are the last people on earth who should sit in judgment over journalists' alleged use of dirty tricks. Because, ultimately, they're all in it together.

So, it's really down to the voters, and whether Wavy Dave can trust that Coulson won't deliver the kind of culture that ended up doing for Gordo.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Barcelona and "The Hand of God"

Barcelona is a fabulous city, but prone to vice. A steady procession of excellent bars, restaurants, nightclubs, after-clubs and after-after-clubs tends to reduce one's hotel room to little more than a luggage-store and bathroom. Yet to reach many of these venues one has to brave back-streets cluttered with pleading prostitutes, and pick-pockets of the most amazing skill (the pick-pockets, I mean, not the prostitutes - I am unaware of whether or not the prostitutes possess any skill that one might qualify as amazing, or indeed any skill at all).

In the early hours of Saturday morning, one particular denizen offered to demonstrate for me the footballing prowess of Diego Maradona, which involved using his knee to juggle the wallet out of my front jeans pocket into his waiting hand. Fortuitously, one of my quicker-thinking drinking companions reached out to remove the wallet from 'The Hand' - a feat that perhaps Diego himself would have admired, and one that was celebrated for a good many hours afterwards.

At the suggestion of a local colleague, four of us deliberately headed into the infamous "Maradona's" turf on the way to a club in the early hours, and soon the man himself approached. My three companions dropped back and spread out to leave me one-on-one with the maestro, who hailed me by asking "You like football? You like Maradona?" over and over as he got closer. My wallet was in my right hand jeans pocket, where I'd been sure I could keep it safe. "Maradona" began hopping on his right foot as he approached, bouncing an imaginary football on the raised left knee until he was in front of me. Still bouncing, he put his right hand on my left shoulder, steadying himself and putting me back on my heels at the same time. Suddenly I sensed that his bouncing left knee had made contact with my wallet in my right pocket. I looked down just as it popped out, but being off-balance I couldn't get my hand down to stop it. I was powerless!

It was then that my colleagues pounced. One grabbed the wallet, while another shoved "Maradona" away, and there was a scuffle behind me as one of the maestro's confederates who'd crept up behind me was shunted aside by a third pal. The gang then melted away, leaving us to celebrate, all four of us bouncing along the street shouting, "You like football? You like Maradona?" over and over...

The following night on another drinking companion was pick-pocketed in a crowd, though sadly no one was 'on-hand' to save his wallet.

So, you have been warned. Leave your wallet secured in your hotel room. Some cash and a single credit card should be sufficiently concealable to see you through the night.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Preacher Plans Twin Towers of Babel

Controversial pasta (surely "Pastor", ed.), Terry Jones - the man who put "mental" in "fundamentalist christian" - landed in New York City last night, still hoping to meet the local imam with plans for a downtown religious centre.

Jones left his Dove World headquarters near Gainsville FL in an armchair powered by nine thousand white doves, rather than a jet owned by a leading news manufacturer, as rumoured earlier. But he never did reach the imam.

Something Happened Along the Way

"Downtown New York was bigger than I thought," a rueful Pr Jones admitted to Sky News reporters who are desperate to hype this non-story. "I became confused about the meeting location."

Indeed, downtown New York City is renowned for planning laws that nestle "gentlemen's clubs" amongst giant testaments to fear and greed. So Jones could be forgiven for mistaking the New York Dolls Gentlemen's Club for the site of the religious centre, as both lie within a few blocks of the former site of the famed "Twin Towers". Many gentlemen have similarly lost their way.

Meeting Will Go Ahead Today

News editors now hope the bogus meeting between the religious leaders will take place today. Apparently Pr Jones will present his own plans for the religious centre - a development proposal he has dubbed the "Twin Towers of Babel".

"The towers will have their tops in the heavens...lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth," Jones explained.

The local imam could not be reached for comment, sensible man, while a spokesman for the New York City planning office expressed doubts about the proposed height of the towers. "We've approached the Man in the Moon with a view to discussing how we share airspace, but he hasn't yet returned our calls."

Friday, 3 September 2010

Why eBook Readers Still Need Bookshops

I don't have the latest, smaller, lighter Kindle because I'm still enjoying the previous model - mainly for the convenience. My choice of book depends on what I feel like reading, and I tend to have as many as 5 books on the go. That's a lot of books to carry round on a business trip or even a week away. It also suggests I have about 5 feelings.

Not everything I read is on the Kindle. Everything else seems to be stacked on my bedside table. That's the first reason owners of eBook readers need bookshops - people like to give books as physical presents rather than emails, which don't gift wrap so well. But I do happen to have 4 books on the Kindle now: The Worst Date Ever (Jane Bussman's superbly written account of the hilariously appalling life of a celebrity 'journalist'), Smile or Die (Barbara Ehrenreich on the evils of the 'have a nice day' culture), The Junior Officer's Reading Club (Patrick Hennessey brilliantly recounts his time as British Army officer), and Stage-Land (Jerome K. Jerome's humorous critique of the Victorian theatrical formula).

The main reason the owners of eBook readers need bookshops is for inspiration. There are only so many books you can instantly recall as ones you wish you'd read but haven't. And Amazon's recommendations tend to reflect what I've bought the rest of the family as gifts - you can't read Brio, and Aliens In Underpants Save The World" probably wouldn't look so good on a small black and white screen. Book reviews would be helpful if only I trusted them. Instead, I trust the first page of the book, but Amazon doesn't always let you "Look Inside". So there's ultimately no substitute for whiling away the time in a decent bookshop, Kindle in hand, discreetly downloading the best stuff more cheaply until the manager asks you to leave, or you find something that looks better in real life. Which is still possible.

Of course, all of this begs the question: what should tomorrow's bookshops look like? But that's another post.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Publishers Need New Filters - And Friends

There has been much hand-wringing over the camp fire of late amongst the 'traditional' media concerning futile attempts to restrain publication of various 'stories' in the face of [trumpets sound] "The Blogosphere", as Charon QC has described.

Even after 15 years of public Internet development, we are still in the midst of a "fight over information flows and access to flows", as Clay Shirky put it. The traditional media are really bleating because we - their readers - have moved away from their cosy, "free-rider resistant", proprietary model of information distribution to a new "free-rider tolerant" model. A plunge in production costs and a diffusion of free self-publishing applications has meant that quality-filters no longer need to be applied at source. A glance at all media, from the nightly television schedules to books, to social networks, radio and daily newspapers prove that people will watch, read and listen to all sorts of crap. It's just a matter of enabling people to find the crap they want - creating new filters that work for creators and their audiences alike.

Unfortunately for the traditional media, the best of that territory is now occupied by others, and their only response has been to circle the wagons. While they stuck to the old trail and a broken business model, various facilitators began to understand and solve consumers' filtering problem - notably Google, whose CEO can now lecture the newspapers on their future, amongst others. The iPad has really opened up the "apps" channel as a whole new form of content. Facebook has recently struck another significant blow, and the semantic web is developing fast, while others continue to study the challenge of "information overload". The traditional media response to all this has been either to figure out a way to get us to collaborate exclusively on their proprietary platforms or erect a 'paywall' to charge directly for accessing their own content. Others have enlisted government support, with questionable results.

It's not over, of course. The digital era has only just begun. Newspapers, books, movies are not dead. Innovation doesn't kill anything. Everything co-exists. Electronic book readers, like the Kindle, are effectively new filters that still oblige you to pay for reading books and newspapers (and blogs). More and more information will be added at an exponentially increasing rate. Filters will continue to break and taste patterns will shift constantly. Many old niches remain, and finding new niches will take editorial and marketing skill, some of which still resides inside the traditional media wagons.

But they need to uncircle those wagons and start making friends.

Seen This, Seen Them All

I do enjoy movies that undermine the Formula. I've seen both sides this week - The Expendables (as in the film, especially every actor's lines, is expendable) and Scott Pilgrim vs The World (now that's more like it).

I was left with a similar feeling as after the "action double" I saw in May - Kick Ass and Iron Mask 2. The Expendables no doubt aspired to Scott Pilgrim's tagline, "An epic of epic epicness". But the geeks earned it.
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