Sunday, July 24, 2011

What's news? Winehouse or Norway?

There's nothing like a good Twitter storm to get armchair indignation going. I didn't tweet about Amy Winehouse myself because my Twitter is about writing and none of my followers care two hoots what I think about her. But is her death more important than the Norwegian massacres?

As a former showbiz reporter for the News Of The World, you'd think that Dan Wootton couldn't make himself more unpopular without opening a kitten abattoir. But he had a good go at it with the following retweet on Saturday night:
I agree RT : Terribly depressing news about amy winehouse and utterly remarkable neither itv or bbc bulletins lead on it
That drew a vitriolic reaction at a rate of two or three tweets a minute, justifying what another tweeter said earlier today: "On Twitter, you can only be upset about one thing at a time." As is the way with Twitter, he drew some measured criticism:
Are you actually being serious?
you vile man
you insensitive wanker
Being controversial will get the prick attention. Desperate stuff though.
you deserve all the abuse you get.
if you weren't such a pointless bellend people wouldn't feel obliged to hurl personal abuse at you!
I particularly enjoyed the tweets from people saying they had no words to describe what they thought and yet managed to find words to describe their inarticulacy: "The world has to know what I think, even if I don't know myself!" As ever, plenty of people described their displeasure in terms of regurgitation:
made me feel sick!
Read and try not to vomit
Now, I'm prepared to bet that not one diced carrot passed upwards past a single epiglottis as a result of reading Wootton's retweet. But that sort of hysterical hyperbole is, ironically, just the sort of reaction that Wootton's former paper encouraged. Wootton might be hoist by his own petard in that regard, but the hostile tweeters are reacting just the way his former employers always wanted them to react. He and they are all the creatures of the News Of The World.

But my absolute favourite was the twit who asked, "How on earth can you call Norway yesterdays news?" Er, because it was. And, whatever you think of the issue, it's right for a journalist to ask which of these two big stories should take priority on Sunday's front pages. You can't expect Wootton to make a sophisticated argument about it in 140 characters on Twitter.

Maybe it's worth putting these things in historical perspective, given the old news adage that newspapers are the first draft of history.

With Winehouse's entry into the 27 club, it seems appropriate to compare her death with another illustrious member of the 'rock stars who died at 27' community: Jimi Hendrix. His passing in September 1970 came a few months after the Kent State massacre, in which US National Guardsmen shot dead four students who were protesting on a university campus in Ohio.

The two events didn't happen as closely together as Winehouse and Norway, but in the perspective of years we can ask the question, which has had a more dramatic effect on our culture? I reckon that more people know about the death of Jimi Hendrix than the Kent State massacre. I'm not putting a value judgement on either, but Wootton isn't wrong to ask whether the passing of Amy Winehouse will resonate in our culture for longer than the Norwegian massacre. 

Personally, I disagree with him. The Norwegian massacres are so horrific that they merit more than a day on the front pages and in the news bulletins of supposedly serious broadcasters. Outside Norway, however, people might think that the passing of a major musical artist has a greater effect on their lives. Beyond horror, most of the issues raised by the bombing and shooting are of little relevance to non-Norwegians. The UK, for example, already has some of the most stringent gun controls in the world. The USA generates enough "armed nutter rampage" stories of its own to fuel the gun-control debate there without looking overseas. 

A newspaper that is immersed in celebrity culture might feel that the death of Amy Winehouse is the newer story and therefore more suited to its front pages. Without Norway, it would have been the top story in every newspaper in the land. If she'd died on any day other than a Saturday, her picture would even be on the front of the Financial Times

If I were the editor of a still-active News Of The World, I would give Winehouse the lead with a big photo, while having a very prominent sidebar on Norway. If I were the editor of the Sunday Times, I'd splash with Norway but reserve the main picture for Winehouse, because that's the story that's going to get hands reaching out to grab my newspaper (unless I had something amazingly eye-catching from Norway). In either paper, I'd have twice as much inside on Norway as on Winehouse. As a reader, I'm more interested in the Oslo massacre.

Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and John Lennon were all front-page news. It's not the working of a sick mind to ask whether Amy Winehouse should be too. 

Moral: Newspapers serve their readers, and they're very good at it. If some of them think that Amy Winehouse is the bigger story, it's their readers who should examine their consciences.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

I'm fed up with pictures of Brooks
so here's one of my ex-wife
There is no way anyone should accept the apologies of News International for the phone-hacking scandal. If we are to believe that these apologies are genuine, then we have to accept that every member of the company's management has suddenly acquired an understanding of what it means to be a decent human being – something none of them appears to have understood two weeks ago.

Reports from the Dowler family suggest that Rupert Murdoch appeared genuinely upset by what his lieutenants had done to them. This is entirely plausible. However much we might like to demonise him, Murdoch is a human being. Confronted by a family that has suffered the cruellest of tragedies and by the realisation that his company compounded that tragedy, he would be inhuman not to react with a degree of genuine remorse. Pretending that he's a monster, devoid of any humanity, is a cop-out.

But that doesn't excuse him.

Neo-Nazis have been known to excuse Hitler by arguing that he didn't directly order the Holocaust. That doesn't excuse him either (although it does beg the question of whether those Neo-Nazis actually approve of the Holocaust. If they do, why do they try to excuse Hitler at all? If they don't, why do they identify with the Nazis in the first place?). The point is that Hitler created the regime under which such a policy was considered acceptable. Hitler was culpable.

Similarly with Murdoch: he might not have known about the individual cases of phone-hacking and might well have disapproved of hacking Milly Dowler's phone if he had known about it. But he spent decades building the kind of organisation where this was considered a natural way of getting a story. Clearly nobody who knew about it thought it was wrong within the culture of News International, and Murdoch bears ultimate responsibility for that.

All this comes into focus when one studies Rebekah Brooks. She has spent more than half of her life and almost all of her working life within News International, so she is totally infused with its culture. She is, in effect, the creation of the Murdoch machine. Like a Galapagos tortoise, she has evolved in an isolated eco-system and has therefore evolved into a separate species, perfectly adapted to her environment. I have no idea what sort of creature she might have become in another environment, but at NI she has become completely the creature of Murdoch's world. Now the world can see what sort of creature that is.

Her rise to the top of the NI food chain shows that she is the ultimate creation of NI, and so it's no surprise that most of the group's offences were committed by divisions of the company over which she had some form of authority. Who created that eco-system? Rupert Murdoch.

Brooks has claimed to have no knowledge of what happened under her leadership, which makes her either a liar or a thoroughly incompetent manager, considering that the huge costs of these operations would have had to be approved by someone high up in the organisation. The third option is she ran things like the secret service – as they said in Apocalypse Now: "This mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist." Regardless, she is culpable under any of these scenarios. 

She is responsible for her own actions, for her own inactions and for what happened while she was in charge, and this principle was admirably stated only last year by the paper she used to edit and was in charge of till Friday:
[She] still REFUSED to accept any personal blame… Instead she pointed the finger at others - including her own STAFF. … She arrogantly brushed aside suggestions that she should take responsibility … [saying] "I did not have any personal dealing with the case."
You're the Sick Joke, Shoesmith
, The Sun, 16 September 2010
Murdoch is culpable because he slowly and painstakingly created the environment that created Rebekah Wade/Brooks. After four decades, an apology isn't enough. 

Moral: If you play Frankenstein, don't be surprised if you create a monster.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why we should all support News International

11th Century Cnut
…sort of. What I mean is that we should defend the powers that News International has abused so immorally because we'll miss them when they're gone.

Right now, there is nothing but pleasure in watching the agonies of Rupert Murdoch and his tottering empire. If, like me, the Dirty Digger looks for analogies in the 11th Century (and who doesn't?), he's probably imagining William the Conqueror (aka William the Bastard), though I was originally thinking more in terms of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer. The treatment of the News Of The World staff reminded me of Basil's ploy of blinding his prisoners but leaving every hundredth man with one eye so he could lead 99 others home. 

21st Century cnut
But now I'm thinking more in terms of King Cnut (hey, that's the scholarly way of spelling it. Stop sniggering). Cnut knew what he was doing when he put his throne in the path of the rising tide: he was showing his courtiers the limits of temporal power. Murdoch, on the other hand, doesn't seem to realise that the swirling waters are in danger of sweeping all his sandcastles away. If he's not careful, he could end up like Harold Godwineson. There are plenty of people queuing up to give him one in the eye.

One in the eye
Our politicians are exultant: suddenly they and their banker friends are no longer the lowest of the low in the public's eyes. Given half the chance, they will ride the wave of public revulsion and acquire the clean-nosed reputation they crave but don't deserve (with a few notable exceptions). They hope we won't look too closely, considering that most of those noses are far from clean, stained brown from years of being pressed tightly to the Murdoch sphincter.

Where's the down-side in all this? True, Murdoch deserves some credit for being an incredibly canny businessman who helped revolutionise journalism, and without him Fleet Street's broadsheets would probably look and read like the New York Times. But he put the tabloids firmly in the gutter and encouraged the relentlessly trivial approach to journalism that allowed the great and the powerful to get away with all manner of wrongdoing as long as it didn't involve their todgers. 

And that's another reason why politicians are revelling in Murdoch's distress. They can see a chance to shackle the press for good, and that's terrible for democracy. If it happens, Murdoch's legacy will be to have created a political and commercial class that is as untouchable and unaccountable as Catholic priests have been.

While the government was planning an illegal war, MPs were embezzling public funds and bankers were draining the lifeblood of the economy, the might of the press (Murdoch and others) was fully deployed in the vital task of finding out which B-list celebrities were knobbing without due care and attention or in pruriently feeding on the grief of murder victims. 

Good journalists have often had to bend or even break the law to find out the stories that the powerful wanted to keep hidden. If the press is put under the kind of restrictions that some are now calling for, then we will have to add the destruction of the free press to Murdoch's crimes. The public will be like the Bulgars: a stumbling army of the blind, except that the one-eyed man leading the way will now himself be blindfolded. 

Moral: News International isn't worth fighting for. Journalism is.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The trial of 'Mata' Hari

Hari: facing the Twitter firing squad
Johann Hari is the award-winning exotic dancer of British left-wing journalism who, like his Dutch namesake Mata, has been accused of going over to the other side. Rather than spying, his alleged crimes are fabricating stories, plagiarism, stealing quotes and lying. Many are hoping that his fate will be similar to Mata's, at least metaphorically. 

The story broke last week when it was revealed that quotations in a couple of interviews of his came not from the interview itself but from previously published work. The charges were irrefutable, since all the evidence was in the public domain and was efficiently disseminated on Twitter as the micro-blogging site showed its true worth (if you're prepared to ignore all the childish name-calling that went along with it). We didn't have to rely on what Hari's chums in the media said: we could see the evidence for ourselves. 

Hari was forced to explain himself. You can read his two attempts at this on his own site here, but here's the essence of them. I have included every point he's made in his defence and distilled them as accurately and honestly as I can. Neatly, there are ten of them. Items 1-6 are from 27 June; 7-10 were posted a day later.
  1. Sometimes interviewees have expressed the same idea better before. 
  2. None of my interviewees has ever claimed they were misquoted, even if they've complained about other things.
  3. It's not plagiarism or churnalism.
  4. Other journalists tell me it's normal practice.
  5. It makes the interviewee's ideas more accessible.
  6. If you've got a better idea of how to do it, please tell me.
  7. I only ever used clearer expressions of the same sentiment, and especially for foreigners.
  8. Every word I have quoted was used by the interviewee.
  9. I was wrong: an interview is a report of an encounter. It was a mistake to prioritise intellectual accuracy over reportorial accuracy.
  10. I'm sorry. I'll learn from it.
I won't tell you whether you should accept that, but I don't. Here's my take on his defence.
  1. I don't care if they've expressed the idea better before. I want something new. What if I've already read their book or their previous interviews? If I go to a restaurant I want a fresh meal, not the last customer's reheated vomit.
  2. Who cares whether the interviewee complains (though at least one of them has)? What are you, their PR? A correspondent for Hello! magazine? Your duty is to your readers, not the people you're interviewing.
  3. Yes, but whole sections of your interview with Malalai Joya were lifted from her book, and not just the quotes. Plagiarism and churnalism.
  4. I have no respect for such journalists. Nor should you, but you should perhaps work on the self-respect first (self-respect is not the same as ego. That seems to be in fine shape).
  5. Then you're a rubbish interviewer. Imagine if Newsnight had a live guest on the show, and every time the interviewer asked a question the producer cut to stock footage of the same interviewee answering a similar question on another show several years before. Would you feel cheated? I would.
  6. Read on.
  7. Gareth Thomas is Welsh. Some of them pretend not to speak English, but only to annoy tourists. Some poor bastard from Attitude magazine got some great quotes from him, and then a big-shot hack from a major newspaper nicked the quotes he worked hard to get and then passed them off as his own. And that is plagiarism.
  8. Yes, but he didn't say it to you, did he? If you write, "We stare at each other…then he says…" and then quote something he didn't say then, it means you're lying. You're also pretending that you're a better interviewer than you are.
  9. You don't really believe you were wrong. I can tell. You still see it as a value judgement between two kinds of truth. After a decade in journalism at the highest level, you're pretending you still don't know what an interview is.
  10. I don't think you are and I'll be surprised if you will.  
These are not isolated incidents. More and more interviews are being dissected to show that Hari's quotes are often verbatim or near-verbatim copies of quotes given to other interviewers at other times. The English courts have previously asserted that intellectual copyright exists in quotes, so he is guilty of plagiarism. He is using other people's interviewing talents to push his own career, while showing no respect for the issues he claims to care about. If he did care, he'd try to find something new rather than rehash other people's hard-won quotes.

Reading a lot of Hari's work in a short space of time, the corny repetitiveness of it gets a bit cloying. There's always a moment when the interviewee pauses, does something emotive (maybe looks away, perhaps wipes a tear from their eye or puffs on a cigarette) before leaning in and saying… 

…and you can almost guarantee that what follows is a quote lifted from somewhere else entirely. It's not as bad as copying your homework off Wikipedia, but it's close.

I was a journalist for fifteen years and I never did this. Mind you, on the trade press we did have some ethics, or maybe we had few enough readers that we valued and respected them more than Hari and the media friends who support him do.

Mata Hari was accused of sleeping with the enemy. One of Johann Hari's proudest boasts was that he had done the same. If it turns out he didn't, he could be in even more trouble. Me, I've seen enough already. I hope his ten-year ego trip ends here.

Further reading
Hari despises the Daily Mail, but he's happy to copy from it: 
Hari churns George Michael:
Hari gives (sells?) the same interview, now three years old, to the Huffington Post and calls it an exclusive:
Brian Whelan pulls several Hari "interviews" apart:
"But stealing quotes isn't plagiarism or breach of copyright!" Yes it is:
Then just type "Johann Hari" into Twitter.

Moral: No morals at all.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sex, and drugs, and rock, and roll. And Oxford commas

Oxford last Saturday
I have been using the past week to alienate some friends on Twitter by celebrating the exaggerated reports of the death of the Oxford comma.

For those who don't know, an Oxford comma is the one placed before "and" in a list. Despite its name (and it is also known as the Harvard or serial comma), it is rarely used in Britain but is much more common in North America. 

Many of my American correspondents are appalled at the thought of dropping this little piece of punctuation, predicting an apocalypse of ambiguity. We seem to manage quite happily without it here in Britain, which suggests to me that it isn't all that necessary.

Let's get one thing out of the way first. The Oxford University Press, whose rules gave the Oxford comma its name, has not abolished it. The directive that stirred up the fuss came from the university's Public Affairs Directorate, which isn't the same thing.

As it happens, I was in Oxford last weekend and I didn't see a lot of commas. Since we're in the middle of the Johann Hari scandal, I feel duty-bound to provide photographic proof that I really was there, and the photo has a tenuous relevance in that I once had a friendly argument about this very subject with the young lady in the picture, who has a better English degree than me and was working at the time for a major publisher. She described the Oxford comma as "graceful" and cited the oft-quoted dedication:
To my parents, Ayn Rand and God
This suggests that the writer's parents were Ayn Rand and God. The obvious retort is:
To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God
…which suggests that the writer's mother is Ayn Rand.

It seems clear from this simple exchange that you should use the Oxford comma when it removes ambiguity and avoid it when it creates ambiguity, because neither approach can be guaranteed to work in all cases. In other words, scrupulous writers should know when their writing is ambiguous and use their skill to avoid it. Whatever your personal rule, you should follow George Orwell's maxim: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." If you can't adapt, then you have no business calling yourself a writer. Sorry.

This post could end here, but I have to add the rule: "If punctuation serves no purpose, then don't use it." I've blogged before about the over-use of commas (here and here), so my reasons not to use the Oxford comma go beyond habit and upbringing.

There is a principle here: writing should flow, and commas should be used sparingly because they disrupt that flow (I'll get to why I used a comma there in a minute). The main use of a comma is to create a pause that mimics pauses in speech, and the spoken pause and the written comma create a little distance between two thoughts. Thus, in the above sentence, the comma helps to show that the words "flow" and "commas", although joined by "and", are not being specifically paired. Similarly, the bracketed comma is used to separate a phrase that could otherwise go in brackets (parentheses), as in the the phrase "in the above sentence" earlier in this paragraph. In short, commas are separators as much as joiners.

So, a comma before "and" is usually intended to denote separation, yet the Oxford comma is supposed to do just the opposite. In the simple example I used in the Twitter discussions: "sausage, egg and bacon"; there is no possible ambiguity. Furthermore, when you read it aloud there is no pause before "and", whereas there is a pause before "egg". So, why add an extra piece of punctuation that mimics a sound that isn't there and whose sole purpose is to remove an ambiguity that doesn't exist?

You wouldn't write "eggs, and bacon". How does the addition of "sausage" affect the relationship between "egg" and "bacon"?

Devotees who were polite and helpful enough to explain their position to me* pointed out that always using it keeps the rule consistent for when there is an ambiguity. I don't buy that. I don't add punctuation to a sentence simply to avoid confusion in a completely different, hypothetical sentence that I didn't write and don't intend to write. Interestingly, the OUP itself seems to agree with me, up to a point:
The general rule is that one style or the other should be used consistently. However, the last comma can serve to resolve ambiguity, particularly when any of the items are compound terms joined by a conjunction, and it is sometimes helpful to the reader to use an isolated serial comma for clarification even when the convention has not been adopted in the rest of the text. In "cider, real ales, meat and vegetable pies, and sandwiches" the absence of a comma after pies would imply something unintended about the sandwiches.
In this instance, the comma is unavoidable unless the writer plans to split the list into two sentences, which would be worse.

In most cases, however, it is either unnecessary or a quick fix for a badly made sentence. I'm seldom happy with fixes that would solve the problem for the reader but not for a listener, and the Oxford comma does just that. Michael Quinion's short comment on the subject uses this example:
"He studied Roman history, international politics and economics"
Were the economics international too? The quick fix is the Oxford comma. The better fix is to write:
"He studied Roman history, economics and international politics"
Similarly, the dedication writer could have written: "To Ayn Rand, my parents and God", while Jeremy Dibbell's example: "Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall", could just as easily have been written "Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and his two ex-wives".**

Above all, rigid adherence to one style or the other can get a writer into quite a pickle (isn't it interesting how often food comes into these examples?). Take the following poster on The Guardian's website:
I have three favorite types of sandwiches: (1) tuna; (2) ham; and (3) cheese.
With Oxford/Harvard/serial comma: I love to eat tuna, ham, and cheese sandwiches.
Without: I love to eat tuna and ham and cheese sandwiches.
Does the second sentence imply two or three types?
He sees the ambiguity in the second example but not in the first. In neither sentence is it clear whether the tuna and the ham are enjoyed in sandwiches or on their own. The ambiguity is resistant to both approaches, and the only solution is to rewrite the sentence.

Ian Dury could get away with the lyrics "sex and drugs and rock and roll", but this was done for comic and rhythmic effect. Commas in a series avoid excessive repetition of the word "and" and so are a synonym for it. By using the Oxford comma, you are effectively writing "and" twice.

In short, it seems heavy-handed to slow the flow of your writing with disambiguating punctuation that is only needed in a tiny minority of cases and cannot be guaranteed to do the job even then. Words are the meat. Punctuation is seasoning and should be used sparingly.

Moral: Use the Oxford comma only when you have to, and then ask yourself if you could have phrased it better. If it's still the best solution, use it.

*Those who helped (and whom I wholeheartedly thank) include Jaime Sperling, Meditor, Colleen Barry, Paul Sholar and Michelle Baker. Use these links to follow them on Twitter. They're all good.
**This final example has been countered quite effectively by Green Fence Farm in the comments section. I should have thought about that a bit more.