Thursday, April 02, 2009

In The Same Sinking Ship As The Rest Of Us

I know that commenter 'Organic Cheeseboard' has got the idea that Nick's Standpoint tv columns are off-topic, but Nick himself treats his most recent as of a piece with his regular Observer gig, calling them part one and part two. This in itself deserves a mention, as it's unlikely that the target Standpoint reader takes the Observer and there being so many more Observer than Standpoint ones, many won't even have heard of the monthly. Not that this matters because the two pieces don't make a coherent whole. (Also surely the deadline for the magazine would have been some time ago.)

From Standpoint:

Second, although my newspaper colleagues may not realise it, BBC journalists are in the same sinking ship as the rest of us. We should feel no schadenfreude. Someone has to bring us the news, but I am damned if I can see who is going to do it.

The first comment comes from Francis Sedgemore (who used to write on Comment is Free and IIRC used to blog for the Drink Soaked Trots).

Nick – BBC journalists are indeed in the same sinking ship as the rest of us, but the quality of BBC journalism remains relatively high, and we should acknowledge this and be thankful for it. Elsewhere – and that, I'm afraid, includes the broadsheets for which you write – proper journalism is being replaced with often ill-informed opinion and expressions of middle-class neuroses. ... Local newspapers have been failing for some time now, and the rot set in long before the current economic crisis. One shouldn't damn the BBC for being creative. ...

This rather makes my main point. Nick damns the BBC management, but one of the reasons the BBC is such a large presence on the net (and, say, ITV isn't) is because they made several very good creative decisions. Specifically, they took their news-reporting which was largely delivered to tape and turned it into written content, and they've done it very well. BBC web coverage of regional stories is, IMO, considerably better than local papers provide. A commenter on Nick's site wrote:

They can’t help themselves telling viewers and listeners what to think. They shamelessly intertwine reporting and editorial.

I think the opposite is the case of the BBC on the web (it's truer of the broadcast news). Nick is worried about the effects of the web (Standpoint):

Editors have always built careers on claiming to know what their readers and viewers want. The Net creates the illusion that they can indeed discover with scientific precision that an urgent national mood is swelling, which they must satisfy.

It seems to me that editors are actually pretty good at sniffing out co-ordinated campaigns. The papers changed their lines on Jade Goody repeatedly, but not in response to the net specifically. I can't think of a paper which 'responded to the national mood' with respect to Gaza as a result of email or comment threads.

The national broadcaster, however, should be able to commit and affirm the national mood, which is almost impossible to gauge when new technology allows minorities, often very small minorities, to appear to be the authentic voice of the masses.

But there is no 'national mood' - as if, in the words of Belinda Carlyle, "we dream the same dreams, we want the same things" - all of us apart from some "very small minorities" who want to spoil everything. Even if there were such a thing, I don't see how a journalist in Canary Wharf or Broadcasting House would be any better placed to determine how feelings run in Dublin, Dundee, or Humberside without the impediment of the net. Unless, of course, he resorted to the time-honoured tactic of just making shit up and then throwing an epic strop if anyone dared call him on it. (I mean, dear me, look at all these comments calling Mike White wrong.)

And how's this for being patronising?

Soon, if [BBC] camera crews do not go to Nigeria, no one else’s will.

Yet in the same article, he'd written:

He [Clay Shirky] quotes the example of Alisara Chirapongse, a marvellous Thai student who blogged mainly about fashion. Her readership was tiny, until the 2006 Thai military coup. Chirapongse ignored a news blackout and described life in Bangkok. She posted photos of mutinous troops on her website and organised a campaign against the army’s attempts at censorship. When the crisis was over, international admirers left and she went back to sharing thoughts with her friends.

Newspaper correspondents in Thailand may have been censored by the military. If their editors had sent them in from London, they may not have known the language or understood Thai politics. It is possible that Alisara’s writing was not only equal to the work of her professional rivals but superior and more widely read.

He may already have shown that the BBC doesn't need to send camera crews to Nigeria - we may get better reporting if broadcasters and papers source local journalists: the ones already there. This will lead to job cuts, but it won't be the end of news. (It's not as if the media we have is unrelentingly realistic.)

An Observer subed gave Nick's "Part two" piece the title, Who would you rather trust - the BBC or a blogger? I'm writing this on a blog for an audience of blog-readers, so what I'm about to say may be self-indulgent. Suppose for a moment that being a blogger is harder than being a journalist. Many of the 'top bloggers' are academics or, like Andrew Sullivan, at least have PhDs. Journalists generally have an undergrad degree and perhaps a year's vocational training. Good bloggers are more educated than journalists. Comments on blogs call out factual errors; they're not just bearded minorities calling for the introduction of head lopping. Saucy Jack and Chris Williams tore my exiguous history to shreds in the comments to the last post but one. It's very hard to be credible unless you stick to what you know well as a blogger. Journalists, meanwhile, pump out all sorts of rubbish. Martin Bright wrote about Clay Shirky too. Bright doesn't get blogs either:

It's a long piece (so much for the web encouraging bite-sized chunks of information) and some of it is very technical.

Who suggested that the web would 'encourag[e] bite-sized chunks of information"? I think Marshall McLuhan made some observation about a small child in the 60s have little or no attention span, but nothing I've read in Shakespeare, Dickens, or Mark Twain has ever led me to believe that children were capable of feats of sustained concentration in ye olden days either. I can remember a story that Alastair Cooke told of his hosting half-hour documentaries in the US in the 1950s and they tried to cover Watson and Crick only to find that molecular biology was simply too complex to cover in the time they had. (They tried anyway.) Bite-sizing isn't new, and it's nothing to do with the web. In fact, the beauty of online writing is that it can be any length at all. Newspaper columns have to fit a page; blogs don't.

One final thing: Nick overlooks News International, which owns the most successful Sunday broadsheet, which buys the best journalists at rates rivals can't compete with, which has several tv channels and has a secure grip on the nation's viewing. There is a rival to the BBC. Don't tell me there aren't Sky dishes in Islington.

Nick likes to portray left-liberals as of one mind. But it's not so. Who would you rather trust? A generalist newspaperman on house prices or a Economics Nobel-winner with a blog?

This is a bit OT, but here are some talking heads taking issue with the government of the day. You have to admire the audacity of the guest who enters @ 5:10. Is this your urine sample?. When two guests disagree (on, of all inflammatory subjects, US policy in Afghanistan), they do so like adults. That's both brothers Hitchens looking good this week.

Via 3 Quarks Daily (itself an endorsement of Hitchens' argument - if we go back to Joyce rather than Murray Gell-Mann).


Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I should have chucked in a link to Glenn Greenwald. The predominant attribute of the right-wing movement is self-victimizing petulance over the unfair treatment to which they are endlessly and mercilessly subjected. How unlike our watchees! [/sarcasm] Also, there's an award in the US for special achievement in independent media, which sounds like its what the Orwells are supposed to be. (NB Praise for IF Stone from inter alia Paul Berman.)

Chris Dillow thinks the Orwell prize is worthless. (Nick believes this to be true because his mate wasn't shortlisted; Chris argues that the format is wrong and the judges are ponces, so it doesn't matter who is longlisted or who wins.)

4/02/2009 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

Nick overlooks News International, which owns the most successful Sunday broadsheet, which buys the best journalists at rates rivals can't compete with.

This is a joke, right?

4/02/2009 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

It seems to me that editors are actually pretty good at sniffing out co-ordinated campaigns. The papers changed their lines on Jade Goody repeatedly, but not in response to the net specifically.

I think that to an extent, the one net campaign - or at least, the one hotbed of net activity that papers responded to - was 'Baby P'. That really did feel as if net response was having a pretty big influence on press coverage, at least initially. But overall i agree.

In general this is Nick's sideways way of getting a bunch of typically right-wing BBC bashing into his columns, isn't it? That's why the pieces fundamentally make no sense, and contradict each other (and themselves) several times.

The main problem with print journalism nowadays is as you say the fact that too much of it consists of ill-informed opinion as opposed to actual investigative journalism; and as Nick Davies showed, regurgitated press releases from very obviously partisan sources. (Though here we're really talking about daily papers and possibly weeklies, aren't we - I mean the LRB, NYRB etc are still great as is the New Yorker).

That Nick often uses press releases as his main source is clear - witness countless thumbs-ups for Policy Exchange, which handily coincide with reports being released, and the 'Londoned' article was pretty clearly from a press release for Urban Dictionary. Though the BBC lead with think tank reports far too often it's a lot less bad than print media.

The internet has allowed people like Nick Cohen, and Martin Bright, who really don't understand it, to get lazy - to stop reading books and stop keeping contacts sweet. That's fostered a culture of people expecting to get stuff on a plate which leads them to accept press releases as fact.

But then again, the reason for this is that by the time the internet came along, Cohen and Bright had both already made it and clearly didn't pay much attention to it for a good long while, and as a result they're both still treating it like out-of-touch old duffers (this is especially true for Cohen).

4/02/2009 07:36:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Doe Cohen ever get out of Britain, by the way? I mean one of the things about an older generation, as Christopher Hitchens could perhaps have told them, is that they went to places. They met people. They didn't get Google to do it for them.

4/02/2009 08:09:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

"Him", rather than "them", apologies. Post a lecture about journalistic standards and you know there'll be some illiteracy in it.

4/02/2009 08:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Johann Hari goes places. And look at the good it did him.

4/03/2009 05:02:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Bubby: it wasn't a joke. I was thinking of Nick's Standpoint piece: The BBC uses public money to weaken newspapers with its websites and rival broadcasters by enticing their stars away. (This is a problem with the way I blog. If I'd written a second draft, I'd have noticed the omission of the Nick reference, and - I hope - explained myself better.) Anyway, I think the Times does entice other papers' "stars" (including our own dear Aaro), and it does have - IMO - a particularly strong commentariat at the moment.

However, I was using 'best' in the somewhat Tim Worstally sense of 'most use in shifting newspapers' rather than 'most lucid', 'most principled', etc.

OC: spot on. I meant to mention press releases. I couldn't have put "and as Nick Davies showed, regurgitated press releases from very obviously partisan sources" any better. We'd be better served if those press releases were published on the releasers' websites: then we'd know who said what. Anonymity (which journalists always link to the web) really bugs me here.

Actually investigative journalism is one of the themes I left out. Nick might have the germ of a story in his Observer piece. But his complaints would be much more powerful if they appeared as a four-page investigative spread. You know the sort of thing, with people's names and verifiable stories. I mean, we all pay for the BBC; we have a right to know how it's run. This is public interest stuff. There are two explanations of why no paper (especially the Murdoch press, which has an interest in undermining the BBC) is running this. One: the PC multicultural Hamas cuddling Trotskyite Left control all the media. Two: there's no story there. Which is it? (Feel free to add your own, BTW.) Well, without giving too much of my own personal bias away, I have my suspicions...

I agree with Justin about the need for journalists to travel. During the Cold War, the Guardian used to publish 'diaries' (which were pretty blog-like) of its Washington and Moscow correspondents on the comment pages. I think a great deal is lost in the filtration process; too many of the CiF crowd are UK based. But the Guardian is a lot less internationalist than it used to be.

4/03/2009 08:10:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Bah, a lot of the neocons travel, but they either go to the wrong places or seek out the wrong people. In fact, there is no shortage of people whose passports must look like the Lonely Planet Guide to Stupidity.

4/03/2009 10:31:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I should say I don't think you absolutely have to travel in order to write well about your theme and nor do I think that travelling in itself somehow guarantees proper journalism. I do however think it odd, and probably not good, that somebody so interested in internationalism, events in the Middle East and so on, should apparently write all this stuff from somewhere in North London. You can write comment pieces like that, five hundred or a thousand words for a deadline : what you can't do is write really good stuff, make really good contacts, be a real authority.

The Decents may loathe Robert Fisk, but there's good reasons that the rest of the world like him and they include not just his viewpoint but his knowledge and experience - and as I said, if they prefer there's always Christopher Hitchens, whose present viewpoint I may not share but who it would never occur to me to consider under-informed. Nick Cohen, on the other hand, seems to have travelled the Middle East flying Google.

4/04/2009 08:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But the focus of decentism isn't Beirut, it's Hampstead. Each event, atrocity or not, is analysed for its ability to be deployed rhetorically as a stick to beat your Near Enemy, not considerd in and of itself.

Fair play to the decents, they are by no means alone in this way of talking about the world, and many on the proper left also suffer from it - but Decentism elevates it to an art form. The hounding of the Lancet was perhaps the most stunning example of this.

Chris Williams

4/04/2009 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I might write more later but just to note that Martin Bright has been to the middle east - well, he's been to Israel - on a junket paid for by a pro-Israeli lobbying group...

I do however think it odd, and probably not good, that somebody so interested in internationalism, events in the Middle East and so on, should apparently write all this stuff from somewhere in North London.

I might have said this before but I don't think Nick Cohen is actually intersted in the middle east at all, except to use the interest of others in the region as a stick to beat them with. I mean his response to Gaza was a month after the conflict ended and read like something he'd copied from Frontpage about a month and a half before.

Part of the problem with Nick post-9/11 is that it forced him to take an interest in stuff that he previously never really took an interest in, with 'hilarious' consequences. He was always a journalist who blogged on national and lcal issues - that's how he made his name.

4/04/2009 10:20:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Agh - the last sentence 'blogged 'on', that goes directly against my claims of his internet illiteracy up there.

Oh dear. Well at least I don't write for a national newspaper. Otherwise something like this could befall me.

A possible end to his 'why lefties don't get teh islamists' pieces...?

4/05/2009 09:35:00 AM  

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