Monday, 30 July 2007

In France

I am in France for three weeks and it is very different here.
The local weekly (paid-for) paper has gone through traumas over the past few years. Resolutely off-line, it’s tried every possible way of re-configuring its local offices to offer, first, a single paper for the whole region; then, a complex web of micro-papers which were flops because they were too micro; then a micro with a macro fold-in; and now, back to a single paper for the whole region.
The problem they had with the micro-papers was that there just isn’t enough news. No, really.
It’s even a bit of a problem with the single, regional edition.
Top headline this week? A picture lead on “the dead wife of the Lord of Crequy, who died in the war (crusades, that is), Dame Brunhilde haunts the chateau by night (that’s a pun, incidentally, on a dramatic production coming up at Fressin castle called ‘Nuits de Chateau”) whenever danger menaces the fortress.”
Inside. Barn fires – one of them deliberate. Car crashes – no-one hurt. One obituary.
And this, under the headline “Dog beaten up”:
“After passers-by raised the alarm, a 22 year old man was arrested on Saturday morning for beating up his dog and throwing it from the four-metre high sea wall. The dog – an American Staffordshire - did not seem to have been injured.
The man is being charged with cruelty and also for failing to muzzle the dog – the dog was not wearing a muzzle even though it is considered as belonging to a dangerous breed, category two.”
It’s about as bad as it gets in the summer. In the winter, he might have shot it.
Elsewise, all the news is good. A couple who have welcomed a child from Darfur into their home gets an inside page to itself. Painters and artists are inspired by or hang their work in trees. Artois medievality is celebrated on all sides, Victor Hugo here and there.
There are births marriages and deaths; theatrical and musical productions where the audience rather than the performers is the picture feature.
Mayors, departmental, regional and national government are invisible; the CRS a welcome buffer between the seaside town rowdies (many of them British stag and hen parties) and ‘us’; the courts seem never to over or under sentence.
And in spite of the pictographic weather forecast predicting brilliant sunshine, the sun has not returned and it is raining, raining, raining.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

In the mirror

Something bugs me about this - but I'm not sure what.
It's the Mirror's account of its reporters' bungled attempt to 'test security' at a rail depot. I first heard the story in a late night news bulletin on the BBC on Tuesday evening ... and was, uncharitably, puzzled not to see the cock-up reported in the Mirror the following day.
Roy Greenslade has this account of the Mirror's reasons for not reporting on its own reporters ham-fisted debacle.
When they did get their backsides in gear, the account was a cross between pusilanimous and whining.
"The Government wants us to trust them over 56-days' detention. The disquieting experience of these two Mirror journalists raises hugely worrying questions
..."
bleats the intro.
Hang on - the Mirror incompetents were in the jug for a few hours. Fifty six days? What's that got to do with it?
Plus; "worrying questions" would have been raised in my mind if they hadn't been shaken down pretty thoroughly - in fact, I wonder if 12 hours was enough.
I suppose the thing that both worries and bugs me is the unquestioned assertion that planting something dicky with wires on a train is, in fact, a "legitimate assignment" for a journalist.
On the one hand, it has to be right that the media tests the assertions of authority, that they're doing all they can to make us safe. On the other, it's - frankly - not that oozing in enterprise to skulk around a train yard with a box of tricks ... or, for that matter, to smuggle something nasty onto a plane knowing that, except in the most knuckle-headed foul up, you'll get away with it.
And I suppose the thing that bugs me is when it does end in a knuckle-headed foul-up ... isn't the only legitimate response to say - 'yup, this time we lost'. If you're testing security and the security works, then - I would have thought - you say so.
To flick it round as the Mirror did to argue that holding a couple of buffoons for a few hours to check out their story, that going to their houses to check that story stacks up is somehow oppressive is, at the very least, perverse.
Yes - of course checking those assurances about our security is legit; but, please, when you've shown that guys who plant stuff on trains get caught ... say so. End.
What's that line about 'if you can't take a joke you shouldn't sign up ...'?

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Not chicken in Kiev

Apologies. Crap half-pun. With a trace of meaning.
Just spent half a week in the Ukraine capital with the UN there trying to explain Corporate Social Responsibility ... with a bit of journalism ethics on the side.
CSR is one of those things that you either get or you don't - and, no, it's not a typically lefty, BBC type thing aimed, at best, at taking the edge off raw capitalism, at worst, returning the globe to a tankie-style planned economy. It's rooted in business and profit; why are energy companies amongst the biggest CSR fans? Because they want to be still making profits in fifty years' time.
In Ukraine, as in most other places - including this sceptical blast from the Economist (login required, but you can get it free) - CSR is confused with philanthropy; supporting the arts or buying a local orphanage. It isn't - as the fons et origo of global CSR the UN Global Compact makes clear; at root, it's about respecting the law, fellow humans and the environment. Which lets the sceptics in from both sides; either it's chucking profit away on the feckless or the aesthetic or it's no more than the law prescribes.
The Global Compact is far from ideal; its 'precautionary approach' to the environment is bonkers, effectively legitimising as it does even the daftest allegedly (untested) eco-plan ... so long as it's done in the name of environmental protection.
But the worst thing about it by far is its failure to pay even lip service to the role of the press, the media, journalism as either watchdog or platform to debate the merits of the whole idea.
Which was my theme ... so I witter on about that; and press freedom; and media ethics. And I point out that Ukraine has only one choice about CSR; fast or slow. Access to western capital, markets etc depend on it.
There's a forest of hands. 'What do you do in the UK when a businessman pays your editor to spike your story?' Or 'What do you do about TV owners who tell their newsrooms not to report certain stories?' Or 'What's the point in signing up to the CSR agenda if media companies refuse to report it even exists?'
Ok. Slow dawning. Wrong starting point. Like other dilettantes, I assume the Orange Revolution has licked the land of the Cossacks into some sort of recognisable shape ... decent by EU standards, that is.
On the face of it, Ukraine's media and journalists are free ... constrained by the constitution, the legal code (which is extensive) but most of all the raw power of the oligarchs. There is something brutal in the air, which you kinda catch from the muscle bound, smoke-fugged, shaved-heads driving the cabs and dooring the pubs, or the ads for prostitutes and 'try before you buy' brides on the tourist office givewayws. But here in a five star hotel in central Kyiv a couple of hundred journalists spend a day and a half railing against it, asking for help with a way through. A way through that doesn't go the Georgiy Gongadze way. And then the journos from Moscow, Tbilisi and Almaty pitch in. Judged by their tales, Ukraine is not that badly off.
I've never had the thugs come round so I don't know what I'd do if they did. Nothing heroic, I'm sure.
So I lecture them on accuracy, the journalism of verification, independence and impartiality. And then go to the airport to catch up on Queengate.