Monday, 5 May 2008

The shoe-horn cracked.

Nick Davies' excellent deconstruction of what must be one of the worst reported stories this year - the Haut de Garenne investigation - is a great Bank Holiday read. (Oh, how sad is that?). Until this:

"Like so many false and distorted stories, this one was driven by PR, here from the police. That PR material was used by media outlets without sufficient checks and then recycled secondhand by masses of others, all of them falling foul of the commercialised media's in-built preference for certainty over doubt; for fitting facts into fictional templates; for taking the safe road of running the same angle as the rest of the media; and, most of all, for running stories which sell."

You really could hear the shoe-horn crack. Somewhere deep, deep in the background of the Haut de Garenne insanities may perhaps be aspects of the far from unarguable journalistic universe that Nick articulates in Flat Earth News. But even if they are, they're well hidden by the figures in the foreground - the 'reporters' locked into a ritualised reverence for 'the story'.

By Nick's own account, the information shared with journalists was a million miles from PR - and it's worth trying to imagine the alternative for a moment. What if deputy chief officer of police, Lenny Harper had revealed nothing of the inquiry in press notices and conferences?

Inevitably, details would have leaked and the headlines would have been similar, the coverage similarly mendacious and chaotic ... with the added implied verification "it must be true because they didn't want us to know it."

Coverage like that of Haut de Garenne is much more the result of the internal rites and rituals of reporters obsessed with the outdated idea of 'the story' - and their preparedness to bend or omit any set of facts to make 'the story' - than it is newsrooms' surrender to commerical pressure or slave-labour news production quotas.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Bloody internet

Seems I'm the only person I know who isn't publishing a book right now. That's OK - I can live with it. What I am doing, though, is trying to get my head around an idea I sold to BBC R4's Analysis: and, yes, it did seem like a good idea at the time etc. The programme Editor and producer, Hugh and Ingrid, have that irritating tendency proper to clever people of insisting that people like me who aren't very clever get a grip of their facts and what it is they want to say before opening their mouths.
The idea is, on the face of it, a straightforward one: 'Can the British press survive its crisis by taking lessons from the American public journalism movement?' And yes, if I'd had the courage of my convictions, I'd have opened it up as a web conversation and taken it from there.
But I'd written a short(ish) pamphlet on public journalism for my BBC bosses back in 2005 ... so at the time I floated the idea, it didn't seem too big an ask.
Which is where the 'bloody internet' comes in. The great thing about the internet is the serendipity of the research you do there, arriving in places you could never had predicted when you clicked on that first link: I remember Theodore Zeldin telling a symposium at the World Economic Forum in Davos back in 2004 that the ideal internet search engine would be one that delivered random results, his way through the information fog.
The bloody thing about the internet is what happens when it crashes into traditional research for a traditional, linear piece of work. A piece of work with a deadline.
First, the depression when you find that every 'original' thought you think you've had has already been had: second, your subject's refusal to be constrained by any single, or even complex, line of thought: and by extension, third, the distance you travel from those post-its you sprayed around your computer screen with the chapter or section titles on them.
'Course, Dr Zeldin is right - it's much more fun this way and you do end up with both the conscious and unconscious bits of your brain better employed. But it doesn't make it any easier to arrive at five thousand particular words which, when joined end to end, work both grammatically and intellectually.
Take this: I thought I'd got the bit worked out about the 'BIG CHOICE' for the press - whether it re-establishes itself as a meaningful agent in the public sphere or finally abandons its threadbare 'public interest' loincloth and just gets on with flogging eyeballs to advertisers.
Then Googlereader gives me a link to this post on Steve Boriss' 'Future of News' - reviewing James Bowman's new book. Steve summarises James Bowman's arguments like this:
"... a key motivator for consumer newspaper purchases is the vanity of knowing more than others do. Since we tend to assume that the privileged rich, powerful and famous have access to knowledge the rest of us don’t, much of modern journalism has devolved into the questionable and narrow practice of digging out the “hidden truths” allegedly known only to elites."
Now, the problem with this is that it gives a second chance to a line of thinking I'd abandoned on space grounds: linear means you can't get everything in and have to decide priorities ... thank heavens 'the story' is dead. The post-it had already been crunched into the recycling.
When I was Editor of The World at One, in 1997, I commissioned some research to try to find out how the audience actually used what we broadcast. What it told us was that a huge chunk of our 3 million or so listeners used what they learned in conversations with others - in the pub, at the golf club or even in the 'bus queue: in the words of the academics, we were both a location and agents in the public discourse.
Of that huge chunk, a significant slice liked to feel - and here's the link - that what they heard on WATO enabled them to feel they knew more than others. Now, I wouldn't call that vanity ... though clearly the motivation has some sense of social hierarchy hidden in it.
But here's the thing: I had never linked that motivation - to know more than others within the context of their engagement with the public sphere - with the second half of Steve Boriss' summary: that it leads to the "questionable and narrow practice of digging out the “hidden truths” allegedly known only to elites" aka "punk journalism".
So what to do? Now that I know this is an argument out there ... do I have to include it? Do I have to un-crunch the post-it? I'm not sure that the link between the two propositions is a necessary one, by the way.
Or do I stick to the nice straight line my surviving post-its make across my desk and pretend either I never came across this or - haughtily - imply I've considered and rejected it?
Like I say, bloody internet.

Another small stone on the mountain

I've hesitated before adding to the post-Chilcot comment mountain. But there are a couple of things that strike me - especially since ...