Oct 192014

No.  I’m not very good at titles.  You may have realised that already.

This post is not really about obesity at all.  It’s written out of ignorance – as well as a reluctance to make myself seem more learned than I am by spending five minutes Googling statistics held online.

A couple of days ago, Jonathan Freedland connected – as symptomatic of two very current Western conditions – the Islamic State and Ebola crises.  He identified two states of mind as representing our shared responses.  Firstly, fear:

They are dark, unseen enemies, come from far away – and they are scaring us witless. Isis is not a disease, and Ebola is not a terror organisation. But fear is their common currency: intentional for one, inevitable for the other. […]

Secondly, impotence:

But the greater similarity is the feeling of impotence that both crises prompt. The US, the most armed nation in the history of humankind, the world’s hyperpower, which spends more on weapons than the 10 next highest-spending nations combined, that country – along with five European allies and partners from the Gulf states – is pounding Isis from the air and yet making only marginal progress. No one is talking of victory over Isis; most speak of merely containing it. Meanwhile, the same US, with all its state-of-the-art technology and germproof suits, couldn’t prevent one of its nurses catching Ebola. You can hardly blame those inside and outside America who look at both situations and feel overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, as I read Freedland’s perceptive train of thought – especially as he avoids with his perspicacity what the neocons will prefer to describe as that almost psychotic connecting of ideas (what, indeed, I myself have recently called the corrosive relativism of the Guardian‘s “Comment is Free”) – I may actually be falling into the trap of doing what he so successfully avoided.  “What trap?” I hear you ask.

Well.  I look at the two plagues currently assailing our Western civilisation – obesity and mental ill-health – and wonder why no one (as per Freedland’s methodology) cares to make the connection too often.

As the Guardian reports in the obesity story just linked to, on the initiative by the state to encourage health workers to sort out their own weight problems in order to give the country a good example:

The move by Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, comes amid mounting frustration within the medical profession and NHS over the failure of successive governments to invest sufficiently in public health campaigns.

One in five young people and one in four adults in the UK now suffer from obesity, which each year causes 34,000 deaths and costs the NHS more than £1bn. Last year almost 11,000 people – 8,000 of them women – were admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of obesity.

However, I am minded to point out that in both the contexts discussed, the economic drivers soon push aside any primary considerations of a more humane nature, by coming to the fore of most policymakers’ mindsets.  Whilst the first report only mentions the cost to the NHS (others will I am sure go on to upfront the cost to businesses), the second – on mental health, and even as it starts out by talking about the impact on people – communicates the following (the bold is mine):

Dame Sally said the costs were “astounding” and NHS bosses needed to treat mental health “more like physical health”.

“Anyone with mental illness deserves good quality support at the right time,” she said.

“Underinvestment in mental health services, particularly for young people, simply does not make sense economically.

And this, if anything, if we are to use Jonathan Freedland’s carefully couched methodology, is why in the cases of IS and Ebola we are both fearful and impotent – and why in the cases of obesity and mental health we are getting far more ill than we should be.

A focus on economic drivers is driving our whole Western civilisation – once so liberal, caring, socialising and forward-looking (that little-by-little but positively remorseless progress of social democracy) – into the hands of these four hoarse men fed up of shouting out truths into the night.

The fear and impotence we are manifesting when faced with terrorism and horrific disease, as well as steady-state physical and mental infirmities such as obesity and mental ill-health, are all consequences of our leaders’ inabilities to make connections at the simplest level.  These inabilities to understand what makes us obese, mentally ill, unnaturally fearful of disease and terrified of terrorism … well, it all leads our makers and shakers to assume even more of their same is needed, when – in reality – it’s been more of their same which has failed us.

We are frightened, but not because we the people have done something very wrong in our lifestyles; rather, it’s because, deep down, we have already realised technocracy is not up to the job.

We are impotent, but not because the communication from our lords and masters has been inadequate to the task in the hand; rather, it’s because, deep down, we have already realised that those in charge, the technocrats and their economic sponsors, are now too powerful for us to be able to shift them in their error-making ways.  They refuse to make the connections we’ve struggled to make ourselves and, instead, look to multiply inability a thousandfold.

And when we try and communicate a different idea or approach, they see us as threatening their already fearfully threatened positions.  So instead of verily being part of the solution, we quickly become part of the threat.

We are living the rapid decline of pyramid capitalism.

They don’t know it, but we do – and that’s what’s making us fat.

Oct 102014

A while ago I had this to say about the hollow empire that once was Rupert Murdoch’s – and how I felt that the Guardian, in its page-impression-chasing “Comment is Free” section had reproduced such hollowness, perhaps quite despite itself.

The corrosive relativism – that platform for anyone, even one’s enemies (which, as you can see, I am suggesting has very curiously grown up in Murdoch’s imperial shadow and early example) – must have seemed a good idea at the time: that is to say, not corrosive.  But I would argue that in particular the last General Election – the commentariats’ recommendations and all that has rained on us since – has shown the consequences and ramifications of such an approach: ideologies, after all, are not important in order that they may allow the non-thinking to impose the inflexible on good people but, rather, precisely this, to make it possible for the thinking to measure the pitfalls of the relativism they rightly explore.  By always measuring such pitfalls at the same time as investigating new ideas, ideology helps – like a compass in the wild – the explorers amongst us keep on the right, intelligent and humane side of mix-and-match instincts to thought.  And equally, in ideology’s absence, there is nothing left to define how far we are travelling away from the goals we started out with.

So if exploring ideas in a relativistic way is good, how do we guard against its long-term corrosive downsides (if, indeed, I am right to term and argue it thus)?  That our newspapers are a reflection of our ways of thinking, doing and seeing is undoubted; that they fashion and impact on such ways is also clear; and that, above all, in the economically aggressive times for the industry all media are currently experiencing, that they will tend to strive any which way they can to overcome their own destruction, via online tricks (and tics!) of all kinds … well, it’s obvious that much of what has happened in the press over the past thirty years has had more to do with the overarching need to get to the end of the month than alleged empire-building and king- and queen-making antics.

In truth, democracy has been corrupting itself since the 70s; and the evidence is out there if you just care to look.  Which hasn’t meant there haven’t been parallel movements designed overtly or covertly to satisfy – as a social species – our democratic urges.  Open source software communities are one example of this.  Where cogent and useful and supporting real purposes and needs, they can be examples of alternative democracy worthy of significant study.  But we don’t even need to go so technical: the web, whilst mining the data and lives of so many of us, does also allow like-minded souls to aggregate around like-minded goals in so many online environments.

What’s now approaching is, however, something quite challenging.  The so-called Internet of Things (IoT) will blur the lines between offline and online: our fridges will tell us that we need to buy milk on the way home; our cars will end up deciding where we need to drive; our watches will inform us of our health and any remedial urgencies to be contemplated.  As I concluded in another post on the same subject (whilst observing, sadly, the following lost opportunity: if only we’d called the Internet of Things a much happier Internet of People!):

As John Naughton reminds us, and Larry Elliott before him, the dominant mode of business is a business not of people but of things.  It’s hardly surprising that someone should have defined the next wave of connectedness thus.  What’s most worrying about it, however, is not the way such organisations repeat their behaviours.  What’s most worrying about it is that democracy itself – currently beholden only to ballot boxes, paper-based procedures and other remnants of quite ancient times – will shortly migrate to this still undefined Internet of Things; will shortly be defined from top-to-tail by corporate capitalism.

And then where will people be able to find even a niche?  Then where will people even exist?

This, for me, is the key issue to hand: how to make of an approaching (maybe we would more accurately say “encroaching”) Internet of Things a place designed for the grassroots input of all kinds of people.  Not to connect the offline and online worlds only through technologies which track us, measure us and – ultimately – define us quite despite ourselves but, rather, use tech to bring the real world back into the centre of all our endeavour – whether that endeavour be cultural, social, political or economic.

From a corrosive relativism to truly recovering the soul of one of our greatest newspapers?  And, consequently, in part, our much wider civic engagement?  I don’t think it’s beyond the ken of intelligent people to be as ambitious as this.  Look at this initiative, for example:

We believe that the open exchange of information, ideas and opinions has the power to change the world for the better

Guardian Membership brings together diverse, progressive minds, journalistic skills and the best of what others create to give you a richer understanding of the world and the opportunity to shape it.

And this:

In 2016, the Guardian will reopen the Midland Goods Shed at London’s King’s Cross to create a new kind of civic space.

The building will be a hub for big ideas and stimulating conversations. It will host events, activities and courses from Guardian Live and institutions we admire, as well as being the home of Guardian Membership.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested, the following article from September 2014 gives more background to how the Guardian sees itself in terms of this project.

So why do I suddenly find this so stimulating?  We can harp on about London-centric initiatives (I myself often do; I don’t have the resource, on occasions neither the emotional desire, to trog on down to a place which is often quite negatively foreign to my ways of thinking); we can even argue that it may become a white elephant of grand corporate self-aggrandisement, if those who are developing it aren’t careful.

But right now, with the data I get the feeling that I have to hand, I don’t think the above will happen.  And I certainly wish for it not to take over a beautiful idea we should all prefer to support, whatever our politics or ideological inclinations.

If we are to rescue the Internet of Things from those who would worship things instead of prioritise people, then public civic spaces like these where people of all ways of thinking, doing and seeing are physically able to meet other people, combined with video-conferencing tech for those who cannot be there in person, will inevitably become progressively more practical as the Internet we name the Internet of Things is – perhaps most hopefully – recovered for that Internet … of Our Mutual Civic Soul.

Jul 232014

I started thinking about the subject of journalism this morning, via a tweet from the always excellent Rob Manuel.  As often happens with what he sends round the ether, you smile, learn and continue to think once his thought passes you by.  This was the tweet in question:

Jon Snow has started doing gonzo journalism. http://blogs.channel4.com/snowblog/people-gaza-gracious-hospitable-condemned/24236 …

And this was the Jon Snow post he linked to.

And this is what he meant (I assume) by “gonzo journalism”:

Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word “gonzo” is believed to be first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. It is an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of both social critique and self-satire.[1] It has since been applied to other subjective artistic endeavors.

Gonzo journalism involves an approach to accuracy through the reporting of personal experiences and emotions, as compared to traditional journalism, which favors a detached style and relies on facts or quotations that can be verified by third parties. Gonzo journalism disregards the strictly edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for a more personal approach; the personality of a piece is equally as important as the event the piece is on. Use of sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity is common.

I was reminded at the time, and thought this post was going to be mainly about that experience, of something that happened to me when I applied to go on the El País journalism course over a decade ago.  I passed the first stage, but failed on writing about how I saw journalism developing, feeling as I did that opinion needed to come in from the cold.  Later, on these pages, instead of demanding more hollowed-out opinion, I called it a need for more voices.

And so, as a result of Rob’s gonzo comment, I thought I might write something discursive and uncontroversial.

However, this afternoon – in the hervidor that is the self-same Twitter – a battle over journalistic probity between Owen Jones and James Bloodworth produced along the way this tweet from Max Shanly:

@J_Bloodworth @OwenJones84 Because all too often James you focus on the negative and ignore the positive.

Now whilst I’m pretty sure that at the moment of its sending, James’ tweeted reply suggested that journalism’s job consisted in focussing on the negative, as anything which focussed on the positive was the activity of the propagandist (ie Owen Jones), I’m darned if I can now find the phrase I’m sure he tweeted (and which I’m equally sure I also favourited).  And, to be honest, I can’t see any reason for him to be ashamed of the idea – certainly not enough to delete it from the web (if, indeed, that is what he did – in a world of subtle censorship and filtering, one can now never be sure exactly what one did see).  In part, I didn’t get onto the El País journalism course precisely because I wasn’t as rigorous as James clearly prefers to be.  Rigour of such a kind, even if unpopular, is hardly something to make one feel professionally disgraced.

Yet the position and its counterpoint are both worth pursuing.  Where we find ourselves in conditions as extreme as Gaza, perhaps gonzo journalism – the journalism of emotion, I mean – is the only reasonable, that is to say, the only moderately democratic, reaction and way forward.  The carefully weighed-up, predigested and moderated journalism of traditional media contains within itself a lot of information which is not communicated.  As a result, a journalistic elite, a hierarchy of power and centralised command and control, is inevitably erected over the readerships and viewers various – precisely because only the negative is worthy of being told.  The shit is encouraged to hit the fan – and so the journalists themselves become the fans of the shit.

It may be, then, that to focus on the positive could be the job of some propagandists, but to wallow in the negative as James (I think) seemed to want to – apart from anything else, in order to avoid any accusations of propagandism – is equally extreme; equally self-interested; equally falsifying of the reality we all experience.

The alternative could be the multiple voices of direct emotion that traditional journalism forcefully resists like a schizophrenic’s medication similarly aims to.  Voices which may multiply uncontrollably – but which may also serve to understand a mad world better.

For as I said a couple of years ago in my piece linked to above:

By allowing those most knowledgeable about such corrupting influences to speak from the heart instead of the pocket, from their own most private voices instead of their borrowed and acquired public positions, the darkness that has fallen over one of the pillars of our democracy may ultimately be cast aside.

Feb 222013

After meekly exiting Labour’s intranet, Members Net, having blogged for quite a while in its partisan embrace, I stumbled across an outside world of blogging at the hand of Andrew Regan’s now defunct political aggregator, Bloggers4Labour.  I thought this a wonderful device, maintaining as it healthily did the visual and locational idiosyncrasies of individual blogsites, even as it brought together in one sensible place the feeds of each and every one.  It allowed for a wonderful overview of what was bubbling under in the Labour-blogging community; it helped new bloggers get exposure and support from existing practioners; and it served to sustain a worthy sense of common cause in what has often historically been a fractured political grouping.

Andrew really did know how to integrate the needs of readerships by using technology.  He would even supply his own often gently proffered and constructive comments on other people’s posts.  This helped create a point of focus on the wider input which – in a very simple and neat way – helped generate an air of shared purpose.

My memory of Bloggers4Labour was almost entirely positive.  Both Andrew and I, sometimes together, sometimes separately, tried to build on this original achievement with other projects which I was either rather tangentially involved in (for example, Andrew’s Poblish – a super-aggregator designed to outdo Google’s own search in the global field of political blogging) or more directly engaged with (for example, my idea for a Last.fm of political thought).  In all cases, I think what drove him – and certainly myself – was a desire to return, in some way or other, to that golden age of political blogging which Bloggers4Labour – at its most didactic and pedagogical best – seemed at the time to represent.

Instead of cramming everyone together in a single platform – a kind of awful melting-pot as per a United States of Blogging – Bloggers4Labour and the ideas that came afterwards looked to allow individuality to shine through even as the aim was to bring voices together.

A European Union of Sovereign Blogging, if you like.

So if it was such a good idea, why didn’t it quite work out?  Who knows?  Maybe because we didn’t have the resource; maybe because we didn’t quite hone the ideas; maybe, in reality, because it wasn’t such a golden age.  Or maybe because blogging, in a different way, has kind of had its time and has transmuted into other ways of exchanging the information we value.

Blogging always was a bit of a traditional hierarchy of communication: author-led top-down authorities who were often challenged, but never entirely toppled, by those who would hang from their coattails.  Which is not to underestimate the importance of commenters to the good functioning of a blogsite.  Sometimes, the broader reputations acquired belonged more to those who commented than to the original posters themselves.

Symbiotic relationships of thought were ever thus.

Of course, we all know what happened to blogging: Facebook and Twitter.  It was probably going to happen, whatever the company name, whatever the online constitution, whatever the business model.  But Facebook and Twitter both hastened traditional blogging’s demise.

People much better resourced than us English blogging fans were able to re-engineer the instincts behind standard blogging for an instant-fix generation.  And so the beautiful exchanges between considered author-led hierarchies began to lose their dominance on the web.


So now we come to February, 2013.  And whilst the domain’s been running for a while, with a fairly traditional blogging platform behind it, SpeakersChair.com – a cross-party political blogging website on which I have had some of my recent posts published – has suddenly had the audacity to suggest, through a massive makeover of functionality, that political blogging might not be as defunct as we thought.

Before this change, SpeakersChair.com was essentially a traditional melting-pot-type blogging platform.  Writers of different political colours submitted their posts for site editors to repost on the site.  We see this model operating successfully in many places: from Liberal Conspiracy to – I guess – even the Guardian‘s Comment is Free.  I think, however, that the new SpeakersChair.com moves away from this model in several significant ways:

  1. From a melting-pot blogging platform like Liberal Conspiracy, where visuals and technologies become common to all authors even as posting rights remain with site editors, it transmutes itself more into a souped-up kind of TweetDeck, where its prime function is to sit as a front-end to both Facebook and Twitter – as well as SpeakersChair.com itself.
  2. The ability – and challenge – of each contributor is to act as an authorial hub around which comment is designed to flow.  I guess this could be the case for contributors who write original posts just as much as it might be for contributors who add their opinions as comments to original posts.  In fact, at very first glance it seems that the deliberate intention is to blur as much as possible the hierarchy between original posters and commenters.
  3. I cannot but help considering this latter innovation healthy: it clearly shows that the designers of this online constitution understand that their version of political blogging needs to “get” social, if it’s to have any decent chance of catching on.  And social is much more than tacking on commenting tools at the tail-end of the professionalising commentariat: social, above all, is a matter of sharing hierarchy and power.

Seen, then, as a communication front-end more than a traditional website, seen in fact primarily as a posting tool to various channels, there is no reason why SpeakersChair.com shouldn’t compete effectively with Facebook, web Twitter and even third-party communication tools out there.

I just wonder if there’s also an app in the pipeline.  That imperious world of mobile Internet doesn’t half make or break communication these days.  It surely would serve to complete a beautifully political blogging circle which, for me, started out with Labour’s Members Net, stumbled for a few years after Bloggers4Labour’s major steps forwards – and which could now quite easily find its natural home in a cross-party communication project that, at least in my humble opinion, has everything it needs to deservedly succeed.

Sep 282012

I had a bit of a Twitter chat today with a Guardian journalist on the subject of the Guardian and its recent levels of political commitment.  I’m not going to quote each exchange but will, instead, summarise my thesis – a thesis which, in the event, was roundly rejected.

It’s not the first time I’ve suggested this might be the case, but on other occasions I’ve been rather more rambling.  So here’s the short version to bring us all up-to-date.

I compared the trajectory of the newspaper with Rupert Murdoch’s own as publisher.  I suggested that at the beginning of the latter’s professional career, he tended to chase the money more than engineer a particular political point of view.  If I am right in this assumption, his could then fairly be described as a hollow empire – because there was little it did which actually tied its different publications into one particular political mindset or another.

His downfall at the hands of the last decade or two could arguably be said to have come as a result of sliding – much as Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (more here) before him – precisely into that dialectic battle of the committed publisher.  In many instances (though not all, even so: we have, for example, the sharply right-wing Weekly Standard in the US alongside the cuddly but generally subversive TV output of the Simpsons family virtually everywhere), his output now befits that of the charismatic leadership where nothing really needs to be said any longer for people to know which line to peddle.  And so it is possible for a man, who in a huge media empire is clearly unable to be everywhere, to be at the heart of a publication’s daily production cycle.

From simply creator of wealth to kingmaker of the political right.  That is the trajectory of Murdoch.

The Guardian then?  It was easy, at least as I remember it when an adolescent reader, to know who the Guardian stood up for.  As I’ve recently observed, it wasn’t the most concise or focussed of papers – at least in my memory – which is why I actually preferred it: the people who wrote for it, even in the news and sports sections, didn’t homogenise their attitudes but – rather – seemed to share them because they were morally right.  There was a sense of working-life wisdom which its pages seemed to exude.

Rose-tinted spectacles?  Clearly.

But I think, quite at the margin of the contained emotion in the above paragraph, and its corresponding potential to be read as foolish, my thesis still deserves a hearing: Manchester’s Guardian, rooted in the North of England, had quite a different take from the Guardian which slowly evolved after that retreat.  And if Murdoch has moved along the scale from simple pursuit of wealth creation to a far more complex pursuit of political commitment, which simultaneously and more directly shapes society in the UK even as it also serves to benefit his financial interests and connections, then I would sadly sustain that the Guardian has moved in the opposite direction.

From a clear commitment to the voice of the poorer sections of society to a page-impression-chasing relativism which, while to its credit still ensures the poor do have a voice, even so does also drown that voice out in a myriad of other voices – a myriad which, in any case, already owns a far more powerful visibility elsewhere.

It was once the fate of Murdoch to simply chase the money, before he had the power and resources to lose the undeniable focus and ability his early days as editor obviously demonstrated.

It is now the Guardian‘s turn to look for solutions to an admittedly worrying and challenging publishing environment.  And whilst I can understand the reasons for wishing to chase page impressions so vigorously, or find alternative sources of reliable funding, I’m still not clear that as an institution the paper really knows what such a process has done, is doing and will do to its soul.

Sep 252012

I’ve come across the idea behind the title to this post many times in the last decade.  I started out on this journey when I did a Spanish Publishing Master; was then exposed to the rough and tumble of one open source community; exchanged thoughts and emails with fascinating thinkers in the field; and remained, quite generally, an interested – though inexpert – amateur in the subject.

Yesterday, I posted a well-received article on the subject of the Guardian‘s proposal that traditional newspaper publishing’s business model should be sustained through a blanket broadband levy on all British Internet users.  Lots of people have said far more complex and convincing things, though, about why such a move wouldn’t save newspapers or journalism.

I think, to be honest, unless – for some shady reason – government gets hooked on this idea, nothing further will be done.

I have thought for a long time, mind – not the the only soul to do so – that copyright is now the problem not the solution.  But I’ve never really been able to put it into words (well, I have, but not widely broadcast words …).  I’ve also kind of lost a friendship (not exactly, but you know what I mean – there now exists a certain distance) as the result of disagreements entertained on these pages and elsewhere, and in relation to the subject of the Internet and copyright abuse.

As always is the case, however, nothing is new.  This was my idea from 2011 as to how to resolve the problem of creators needing a piece of the action, after subscribing to the Guardian‘s Kindle version.  First, on the need to sustain plurality:

[…] we should want to make the Kindle experience conducive to plurality.  For that is exactly what the Internet has provided us with over the past decade.  If anything good has come out of the free-content era, it’s the broad access to multiple opinions that such a structure has provided.  Unfortunately, all I can see on the horizon – if the subscription costs are to remain so relatively high – is that inevitable return to those silos of prejudice that traditional newspaper publishing used to imply.

If we truly want a plural press, we need a public which is truly exposed to a wide variety of opinion.  If, in the future, I am only to blog on what the Guardian publishes, my blogging will be far the poorer for that.  Yes, of course I can make a conscious effort to restrict my contact to social-media and non-mainstream content – but do I really want to do such a thing?  After all, if any lesson has been learned since the News International scandal, it’s that social media needs a good mainstream media if it is to function at all well.  Without the resources of a properly funded and properly plural professional journalism, blogging, tweeting and other social media activities will never reach the truths that need to be exposed.  As an echo chamber, social media is absolutely perfect – as a revealer of dirty deeds, it lacks the money, the lawyers and the visibility to kickstart any serious investigation into the ills of the rich.

Then, to a possible solution:

Social media needs the mainstream media like never before.  But not at £10 a month.  Rather, £10 a month should buy a package of media which allows us to read as broadly and widely as before – yet this time contributing a little of our ill-gotten gains to ensuring the plurality we all must desire.

I’d suggest that such packages would not be based around the product from existing content manufacturers (deriving an access to everything from the News International stable for example) but instead be created around interest groups which cut across the walls media empires want to sustain: everything for political wonks would include the publications I mentioned above; science and technology fans could include anything from Top Gear to MIT’s bi-monthly publication; religious interests could be covered by access to a widerange of cross-faith publications …

Finally, to clarify the objective:

The list is clearly endless but the objective would be essentially didactic – a deliberate intent to socially engineer our thought by allowing the plurality of the press to be hardwired into our subscription systems.

But all of the above suggestions were still operating within the broad schemes of current copyright structures.  And as such structures will predictably lead to the criminalisation of more and more people in the future, especially whilst copyright proponents continue to refuse to change their business models in line with already widespread behaviours, we’re obviously getting into a position where the state must equally invade privacy and citizen space more and more in order to apply the laws so many of them are clearly evading.

Where not avoiding.

Funny how the difference is allowed to operate only for the one percent – but not for your regular teen file-sharer.

Anyhow.  In a comment to my broadband post yesterday, a fascinating link has been added.  And listen to this: it apparently dates from 2003 – eight years before my own thoughts.  The executive summary at the head of the .pdf in question can be found below:

Executive Summary

The institution of copyrights has its origins in the feudal guild system. Copyrights provide an incentive for creative or artistic work by providing a state-enforced monopoly. Like any other monopoly, this system leads to enormous inefficiencies, and creates substantial enforcement problems. The size of these inefficiencies and the extent of the enforcement problems have increased dramatically in the Internet Age, as digital technology allows for the costless reproduction of written material, and recorded music and video material.

The artistic freedom voucher (AFV) is an alternative mechanism for supporting creative and artistic work. It is designed to maximize the extent of individual choice, while taking full advantage of the potential created by new technology.

The AFV would allow each individual to contribute a refundable tax credit of approximately $100 to a creative worker of their choice, or to an intermediary who passes funds along to creative workers. Recipients of the AFV (creative workers and intermediaries) would be required to register with the government in the same way that religious or charitable organizations must now register for tax-exempt status. This registration is only for the purpose of preventing fraud – it does not involve any evaluation of the quality of the work being produced.

In exchange for receiving AFV support, creative workers would be ineligible for copyright protection for a significant period of time (e.g. five years). Copyrights and the AFV are alternative ways in which the government supports creative workers. Creative workers are entitled to be compensated once for their work, not twice. The AFV would not affect a creative workers ability to receive money for concerts or other live performances.

The AFV would create a vast amount of uncopyrighted material. A $100 per adult voucher would be sufficient to pay 500,000 writers, musicians, singers, actors, or other creative workers $40,000 a year. All of the material produced by these workers would be placed in the public domain where it could be freely reproduced.

Under plausible assumptions, the savings from reduced expenditures on copyrighted material would vastly exceed the cost of the AFV. Much of this savings would be the direct result of individuals’ decisions to use AFV supported music, movies, writings and other creative work in place of copyright-protected work. A second source of savings would be the result of lower advertising costs, since much of the material used in advertising supported media would be in the public domain.

In contrast to copyright protection, which requires restrictions on the use of digital technology, the AFV would allow for the full potential of this technology to be realized. Creative workers would benefit most when their material was as widely distributed as possible. They would therefore have incentives to promote technologies that allow for recorded music, video, and written material to be transferred as easily as possible. By contrast, copyright enforcement is demanding ever greater levels of repression (e.g. restriction on publishing software codes, tracking computer use, and getting records from Internet service providers) in order to prevent the unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted material. The police crackdowns on unauthorized copying by college students, and even elementary school kids, would be completely unnecessary for work supported by the AFV.

A question of choice, then.  A copyright killer which allowed normal copyright to continue.  A choice in a world where choice has become mandatory.  Re-engineering copyright without telling existing copyright holders “The game’s up!”.

What, if anything, could go wrong?

The arguments are – at face value – pretty convincing.  So those of you who have a far better grasp of the implications – what are your opinions on this?


Footnote to this post: a tangential thought, but one that is coming to my mind more often recently.  We are always being told – I say it myself – that overall the quality of journalism on the web and in society is expanding, multiplying and generally improving our lot.  As citizen journalism begins to take up the communication reins and “professionalise” its own instincts, many feel the future will lie in a hyper-localisation of information gathering – perhaps aggregated, sorted and filtered automatically by tools such as Poblish.

But I do wonder if this perception isn’t an example whereby we look to a societal benefit and ignore an individual need.  Yes.  When burnout takes place, and an excellent blogger gives up the ghost, there will always be another excellent blogger waiting in the wings in order to spread his or her own.

And yet there is this question: what happened to our understanding that people – discrete and specific individuals, that is – matter just as much as societies?  Why can’t an excellent blogger propose blogging to the end of his or her days?

Why, in reality, are we so very happy to accept what we might term the “wave of ants” approach to earning a living out of generating content?

That is to say, to put it crudely, that there’ll be plenty more fresh meat out there prepared to produce great stuff and work for nowt, in order that we might sustain what – individually – is unsustainable.

Society’s benefit isn’t the only criteria here.  An individual’s need to earn an individual living surely should also count for something … shouldn’t it?

Sep 242012

The Guardian is looking for ingenious ways to support its journalism, in a world where “freeconomics” are driving traditional publishers absolutely spare.  And I can fully understand and appreciate the quandary – even as I do not entirely agree with the tools this newspaper has used.

The latest suggestion to come out of the Guardian‘s marketing department was something I suggested years ago on my now dormant publishing blog, Zebra Red.  You can find two of the pieces in question here and here.  In essence, we could argue that the content producers have lost out to the distributors – those who make the money these days, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), sell access to generally free content which newspapers, writers, film-makers and musicians various are finding it incredibly difficult to live off.

The solution then?  Cream off some of the money which the ISPs currently keep for their lonesomes – and redistribute it through some ingeniously automated system in terms, presumably, of usage and page impressions.

This is Mr Greenslade blogging on the suggestion this morning:

Has David Leigh cracked it? We have been puzzling for years about how to subsidise journalism once it makes the final transition from print to net (see here and here and here). One obvious model is the funding of the BBC through its licence fee.

Objectors to such an idea – including current commercial proprietors – have argued, unsurprisingly, on press freedom lines. Any connection to the state is to be avoided.

But Leigh, The Guardian’s investigations executive editor, has come up with a very clever quasi alternative: charge a levy of, say, £2 a month on the bills of subscribers to UK broadband providers. Then distribute the money to news providers in proportion to their UK online readership.

You can see his reasoning and consider his sums in his article today – in print, page 32, or online here.

Now I can fully appreciate that content producers which add considerable value to society – whether on the right or the left of the political spectrum – may feel rather abused by the cut latterday distributors are taking from the equation.  In many cases, I can imagine it’s not even the forty percent of traditional book publishing but, rather, closer to a destructive hundred percent of all incomes generated.

So I’m sympathetic to the suggestion, especially as I am myself struggling to make a professional living out of my writing.  But I would ask four questions of those who would jump on the bandwagon – just in case they’re able to think twice before doing so:

  1. If the principle of levies on what are essentially 21st century utilities is to spread to other areas, who’s to say Jeremy Hunt won’t one day argue we need to bill our electricity users to keep the recently privatised NHS lights burning?  This levy, after all, proposes to charge a public like myself in order to support private industries which may very well choose not to publish or disseminate my political views in the least.  Why, under any constitutional arrangement, should I be obliged to pay for opinions and news-gathering positions I do not want to see spread around, when I use something like the Internet: as ubiquitous and essential a utility for the functioning of a 21st century state as water, gas and other basic services before it?
  2. If we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband, and this does help to landgrab more of our evermore limited discretional spending for private journalism (whether we care to read papers or not), and – in the end – this succeeds in rebuilding a battered industry so that traditional newspaper journalism enters a brave new online world with its head held finally and remarkably high (on, it has to be said, the backs of the workers), who is to guarantee that they won’t recreate themselves as wasteful, expansionary and world-dominating media empires?  For if working people’s cash is going to be recycled into corporate pockets without democratic oversight, I really don’t see the difference here between the Guardian‘s suggestion for publishing – and what Lansley first, and Hunt now, have been doing over at the NHS.
  3. Penultimately, why does the Guardian suggest an extra levy on top of existing broadband prices?  Why doesn’t it fight bravely – Robin-Hoodedly even – to extricate some of the cash already swilling around ISPs as the grand evil distributors of our time?  Is it that the paper and its executives have calculated it’s safer to antagonise its readers for a bit than fight the technology corporations tooth and nail for a piece of the existing action?
  4. Finally, if we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband access so that private industries can continue to push the sometimes marvellous, occasionally twisted, content they produce, wouldn’t in some subtle and inconvenient way the content thus produced begin to belong to us?  That is to say, to be reused and appropriated at will perhaps?  Now who’d really like to provoke – and then sort out – a copyright mess like that?

Sep 202012

This piece from Rob Marchant, from the end of August, has just come my way via Bob.  It’s about the Guardian newspaper’s online presence – in particular, the mini-website Comment is Free.  Worth reading in its entirety – so let’s read it.  Meanwhile, I’ll wait for you to catch up.


Whilst driving back from Spain this end-of-summer, I remember feeling just about everything Marchant says in his piece: essentially, that something was going haywire for the paper with respect to Comment is Free.  I read Norman Geras’s blog quite regularly too.  I don’t always agree with what he says in his focussed and concise posts, but I always value his measured way of saying it.  And if you’ve been reading the latter’s posts over the past year or so, enough evidence of streaks of left-leaning anti-Semitism has filtered into the daylight of his virtual column for anyone to want to wonder exactly what is happening..

I’m instinctively inclined to believe there is a reason for everything – and when that reason is difficult to understand, it’s simply we haven’t thought profoundly enough.  In the case of Comment is Free, however, the reason really isn’t that deep or disconcerting.  The freedom to comment – in a liberal society, both a sacred responsibility and right – is being used quite crassly as a marketing tool to drive, engage, maintain and sustain web traffic to the paper’s digital advertising.  This is, of course, from a business point of view, entirely understandable.  In an age of “free” content, building a media environment which can continue to pursue the kind of investigative, current affairs and societal reporting the Guardian undeniably provides is a damn difficult job – especially when social media coattails almost require you to engage in good faith with the audience-chasing enemy.

But who said working in the professional media industry was going to be easy?  The greatest challenge doesn’t lie in the money you need to raise; that’s a marketing process, and there are plenty of marketing rules and tools out there.  That’s a question of turning interesting writing into product advertisers want to be seen alongside.  It’s a question of selling.  It’s a question of positioning.  It may, of course, be that advertisers have pretty poor taste these days; it may be that voters and citizens are to be more generally distrusted than the leaders they are supposed to distrust; it may be that social media inputs are, more generally, degrading our intelligences.  But whatever the reality, the job of pushing content consistently has its sector, its costs and its solutions.

No.  The greatest challenge in the kind of publishing the Guardian is currently involved in – moving as it is from a print-based medium to the rough-and-tumble of non-immersive content – lies in striking a balance between informing and engaging in a popular way and informing and engaging in a populist way.

Perhaps we are truly at the edge of a kind of precipice: whilst there are those who say the kind of investigative journalism which brought the Murdochs to heel will never take place without the populism of Comment is Free, there are others who might argue that citizen journalism, properly executed, combined with a revamped form of WikiLeaks-style information dumping, would manage to do the job just as efficiently and just as precisely – as long as, of course, freedom of speech and freedom from consequent government persecution were both guaranteed givens in our societies.

What’s absolutely clear is that – long-term – any attempt to create a vehicle for social change out of the mad pursuit of eye-goggling page impressions is condemned to serious failure.

And to be honest, what I’d really like to recover from my youth is my old and much-treasured Grauniad – that organ of gently idiosyncratic information, humane enough to contemplate regularly corrected spelling slip-ups.  A newspaper which felt it knew what it was to be English: slightly eccentric; an honest combination of reporting and journalistic angles; a slightly inefficient way of covering the news which allowed for real voices, individual styles, good faith and a kind of referred people power.

Those communicators were people, first and foremost.

Not brands, defining their and our expectations.

Marketing has its place, of course.  I just wish those who use it knew what that place was.


Further reading: I’ve just stumbled across this post I wrote back in spring.  These paragraphs are particularly appropriate, I think, to Marchant’s general thesis:

Which is why it does occur to me that in much the same way as Thatcher lived on in Blair, and in much the same way as Blair’s legislation has facilitated Cameron’s destruction of the Welfare State, so the Guardian‘s proud talking-shop which is Comment is Free has more than a little of that vacuous and morally empty hole which is said to have occupied Murdoch’s empire.

“We do what we do because, essentially, it sells news.”  I imagine these words, of course – I’m hardly privy to the private thoughts of Mr Murdoch.  But in the Guardian‘s trajectory, in its allegedly partial attachment to certain causes – and in its resistance to others – we have the makings of an argument which suggests that our favourite liberal paper has so grown up in the shadow of Murdoch that it has replicated, on the left, whether intentionally or by accident, even his empty soul.

Along with everything this might imply.

Which brings me to my initial question: does Murdoch’s legacy live on in the alleged amorality of the Guardian‘s Comment is Free?

May 102012

The Guardian‘s Comment is free section continues to surprise me.  Specifically, this evening, after Andy Coulson’s apparently masterful performance (though sturdyblog would beg to disagree most forcefully), we discover that whilst Roy Greenslade can say exactly what he likes about the matter, normal readers of the paper – who might care to freely leave their own comments – have had the lawyerly battalions imposing their will a priori.  Check out the screenshot below and you’ll see the following words:

• For legal reasons, this article will not be opened to comments

Not even a moderator in sight, it would appear.  Clearly, Comment was free before #Leveson hit our screens – but not so clearly afterwards (though some, of course, would argue it had never been as free as was claimed).

Is this, then, how censorship of social media really begins?  With those you’d least expect to kowtow to the establishment?  Under the guise of a lawyerly decorum, we randomly pick and choose when, where and whether our legions of page impression-generating readers can interact in public or not.

Mind you, it may be that I haven’t been paying too much attention to all of this.  It may be that they’ve been doing it for quite a while now.  It may be that all newspapers, from the Daily Mail to the Guardian itself, like to create a veneer of freedom and interactivity whilst – deep down and in their amoral innards – they are essentially looking to sustain a simple and coherent business model of advertiser and political interests.

Curious, at the very least, is all I can say, that one of the articles which shuts down the free interchange of comments on a matter of serious public issue should be one which praises a man who used to be at the centre of Cameron’s government – a man who clearly played an important role in Cameron getting quite as far as he did in his process of detoxifying the Tory Party brand, and therefore in his process of getting into power.

Now I’m not for a moment suggesting Greenslade himself is writing out of bad faith – nor offering up to the straitjacketed reader what might be interpreted as an outrageously political slant on the matter.  Rather, all I’m inclined to point out is that social media stuff as run and marshalled by mainstream media won’t always find itself able to deliver the freedoms it claims so wholesomely to support.

This article and the decision taken on preventing reader comments being one such case in point.

And if a first as I suggest might be the case, then a sad example of even more creeping establishment censorship.

Apr 202012

I take it that Norman refers to the Guardian, when he says:

In a far off land, the question has arisen whether a certain newspaper is a conduit for anti-Semitism. Some think so, and others think not.

I’ll play a short substitution game with the next two paragraphs in his piece, which in their original version describe the state of play in relation to the media treatment of Jews.  The originals can be found here.  My version below:

Those who think so point out that the newspaper in question provides space in its pages for the opinions of people on record as hating socialists; space also for those justifying the elimination of socialism from British politics; and space also for writers who deploy well-known anti-socialist themes even while professing that they have nothing whatever against socialism but are merely critics of Labour.

Those who think the paper in question is not a conduit for anti-socialism argue that it can’t be because it has socialists writing for it; and allows space in its pages for people who explicitly condemn anti-socialism; and is a liberal paper with a record of opposing extremism. Some say, as well, that it is the function of such a paper to be open to different points of view, and therefore it is not surprising if, as well as material of the latter kind, this newspaper allows room for material of the former kind.

Norman then goes on to show that the paper in question is actually partial in the causes it takes up and espouses or, alternatively, aims to criticise.

To be honest, I’m inclined to believe that if he feels this way about the Guardian with respect to Jews (if, indeed, it is that paper which is the object of his unhappiness), then – equally – socialists across the country who inhabit that political state which is Labour might feel just as maltreated by the Guardian‘s amoral tendency to “free” comment.

They don’t support our literal extermination – but they do perhaps support our figurative disarming, where this for example is clearly not the case with respect to the Liberal Democrats or even the Tories.

Which is why it does occur to me that in much the same way as Thatcher lived on in Blair, and in much the same way as Blair’s legislation has facilitated Cameron’s destruction of the Welfare State, so the Guardian‘s proud talking-shop which is Comment is Free has more than a little of that vacuous and morally empty hole which is said to have occupied Murdoch’s empire.

“We do what we do because, essentially, it sells news.”  I imagine these words, of course – I’m hardly privy to the private thoughts of Mr Murdoch.  But in the Guardian‘s trajectory, in its allegedly partial attachment to certain causes – and in its resistance to others – we have the makings of an argument which suggests that our favourite liberal paper has so grown up in the shadow of Murdoch that it has replicated, on the left, whether intentionally or by accident, even his empty soul.

Along with everything this might imply.

Which brings me to my initial question: does Murdoch’s legacy live on in the alleged amorality of the Guardian‘s Comment is Free?

Apr 142012

This caught my eye just a moment ago.  From the Guardian today (the bold is mine):

Shops that prey on customers’ weaknesses such as strip clubs, bookies and kebab shops are blighting economic recovery on high streets, council chiefs warn on Saturday.

The Local Government Association environment board vice-chairman is then quoted as saying (again, the bold is mine):

“The general public are less likely to shop on high streets with clustering, while businesses may be less willing to set up on roads with clusters of unsavoury takeaways and raunchy sex shows. Town halls and local people are calling on the government to reform the tools available to councils to make local planning decisions that can prevent unwelcome clustering hitting economic growth.”

Presumably franchises such as McDonald’s and Burger King are not included in such judgements, given that they don’t prey on anyone’s weaknesses at all – and certainly not at an industrial level.

Neither, I suppose, would tasteful sex shows upset the LGA – or is that actually the sub-editors at the Guardian itself?


Prejudice permeates us all.  The only defence is to be conscious of how easy falling for its ever-present temptations can become.

And then to act accordingly with an appropriate humility, sense and sensibility.

Feb 212012

I remember, a long time ago, someone telling me (or maybe I read it) that the difference between the French and the English lay in their approaches to implementing systems of control.  As my memory fades a little bit now, I don’t know if the industry in question was the railways or nuclear power – but essentially the argument went as follows: whilst the English believed in devising foolproof processes and procedures, the French believed in upskilling foolproof people.

I exaggerate and simplify terribly of course.  But you get the general idea.

And as neither could ever be 100 percent foolproof, the choice was entirely a free one: the French believed almost ideologically in people, the English almost ideologically in mechanisms.

These days, of course, we’re all probably much of a muchness.  The English way – perhaps I should say the Anglo-Saxon way – has taken over from so much traditional face-to-face and person-to-person engagement.  From call centre-serviced bank branches to virtualised ordering and tracking procedures, from scripted job interviews to online careers advice … well, very little of what we do these days requires us to think too much for ourselves any more.  As our processes become evermore dumbed down in order that the least trained (ie the cheapest) amongst us can cope with the tasks to hand, so the ability to think beyond the immediate environment is being lost.

Not only is it being lost, we don’t even care to prize it when it exists.

It’s not all bad I admit.  Much easier to track an international parcel via clicking on a link than phoning up a foreign country and misunderstanding the language coming from the other end of the call.

But something, even so, is being lost.  Some ability to think for oneself before acting.

This story today, for example:

US and Nato forces have rushed to apologise for discarding and possibly burning copies of the Qur’an, as thousands of furious Afghans gathered to protest outside Bagram military airbase.

How did it happen?  It would appear that confiscated copies of the Qur’an had managed to get mixed up with a regular consignment of paperwork to be incinerated.  The key sentence in the Guardian report – at least for me – is this one:

It is routine practice to burn waste documents on military bases in Afghanistan, and police chief Bekzad said the copies of the Qur’an were discarded together with many other papers.

“Routine” – along with its parents “process” and “procedure” – are, of course, the causes of the vast majority of human errors.

Only personal professionalism, wisdom and a sense of responsibility can ever fully keep such errors to a minimum.

And whilst our current reliance on processes and procedures removes most of our opportunities to practise the latter virtues, things like book burnings on Afghan military bases will continue to happen.

For although the reality was that it took Afghan workers – who presumably understood the meaning of the content which was being burnt – to realise the gross and clearly unintentional mistake that was being committed, by inference it was hardly the first time that books themselves had been destroyed in such operations.

Otherwise the error would have been detected way before it took local people to react.  That is to say, not the error of burning a particular book but the error of burning any book.

You don’t need to understand the language of the Qur’an to know some of the rank and disagreeable history behind the burning of books.

But if ignoring that history is what you aim to do, you surely need to believe more in the ideology of processes and procedures than in knowing the difference between right and wrong.

Oct 292011

I’ve got something sad to report.  Not sad in a universal sense – nor sad at a personal level.  But sad all the same.

I read this report this afternoon on tablet users and their willingness to pay for their news.  In it, we discover:

But the figures came with one pitfall: “News is valued but willingness to pay is low.” The majority of tablet owners (85 percent) had never paid for news on their tablet, and 78 percent said that news on the tablet was not worth more than any other medium. Out of those who had not already paid for news, only 21 percent would agree to pay $5 a month for their favorite tablet news source. Most turned down the $5 charge, even if it were the only way to access it.

And it’s funny how things you read sometimes make you take steps you’ve resisted out of belief, altruism or simple inertia.

Whilst living out in Spain I used to buy the El País newspaper on a daily basis.  At one point, I even subscribed to foreign newspapers such as the International Herald Tribune.  But there was one thing I could never escape: that piling up of unread old news which I felt I was obliged to read, and which simply served to add to my fret list.

In fact, the only subscription I could ever properly deal with was the Guardian Weekly.  As its name suggests, it was delivered to me weekly, came on a very fine, very white, crinkly and airmail-friendly paper – and contained news from (if I remember rightly) the IHT and Le Monde too.  I used to really love awaiting its arrival – used to really love the weekly as well as worldly perspective.

And so it is that we fast forward to a digital age – and this post, where I dealt with a number of issues surrounding the Guardian‘s Kindle edition: especially in relation to what I considered was a lost opportunity in the subscription model being used.  In this piece I suggested that:

Social media needs the mainstream media like never before.  But not at £10 a month.  Rather, £10 a month should buy a package of media which allows us to read as broadly and widely as before – yet this time contributing a little of our ill-gotten gains to ensuring the plurality we all must desire.

I’d suggest that such packages would not be based around the product from existing content manufacturers (deriving an access to everything from the News International stable for example) but instead be created around interest groups which cut across the walls media empires want to sustain: everything for political wonks would include the publications I mentioned above; science and technology fans could include anything from Top Gear to MIT’s bi-monthly publication; religious interests could be covered by access to a wide range of cross-faith publications …

The list is clearly endless but the objective would be essentially didactic – a deliberate intent to socially engineer our thought by allowing the plurality of the press to be hardwired into our subscription systems.

Described in such a way, it now probably doesn’t have a chance of getting off the ground, of course.

On the other hand, we do do it with online music subscription services such as Spotify and Last.fm.  So why not do it with thought in the way I describe above?

What’s really stopping us?

In a world where collaboration should be our aim – rather than the polarisation which our current political class is offering us – we need systems and structures which encourage us to regularly cross boundaries and frontiers of thought: not out of a desire to triangulate us all out of all possible ideological attachment but, rather, out of an honest wish to learn more about the unknown.

A Spotify for writing then?  We might observe that’s what Kindle – and tablet users more generally – need right now.  But far more importantly, and far more urgently, it’s what our whole society requires of its future generations – if we are not, as a species, to repeat the crass and now self-evident errors of this current crop of makers, shakers and breakers.

Oh – and the sad news I have to report?  Well.  After almost four months, I’ve discontinued my subscription to the Guardian‘s Kindle edition.  The reasons I gave – because they ask you to say why when you do – were “too expensive”; “no time to read it”; and “other”.  And my other?  Back to the Guardian Weekly concept, I think: “I would like to subscribe just to the Observer [which comes out on a Sunday only] when I would have time to read it”.

In part, I think all the above is true.  But in part, it’s also because I can get it elsewhere for nothing.  (For example, for the moment, on the Kindle’s own browser.) 

Thus it is that a monetisation which allows good writers to write for a living is not an easy process to engineer. 

In the meantime, as a result of the upsides of the open web, we do have that plurality of access which allows us to believe in a better world. 

And in the meantime, before they paywall it all, we can still try and gather to ourselves that plurality of thought; that wisdom and ingenuity only a broad mind which is allowed to read broadly can reach out to.

Sep 232011

Is a headline a coherent and discrete enough an item to warrant copyright protection?  To be honest, I’ve always felt the skills of the sub-editors responsible for flagging up the content of a story in no more than half a dozen well-fashioned words deserve far more recognition from almost everyone than ever seems to be the case.  It’s just about as close, in fact, as you can get to industrial poetry as I think you could fairly manage.  Whether this needs to go as far as receiving the protection I mention above, I don’t really know.  Though others would beg to differ.  At least in certain, very specific and money-making contexts.

But whilst copyright would appear to be having a significant impact on how the open web can operate, it’s not the only force at work.  We’re already aware of the language created around the tools of SMS texting.  But then there’s Twitter and its imperious tendency to remove articles, the word “and” in favour of “&”, the blessed full stop and a whole host of other abbreviating strategies which lead you to wonder if a decade of this isn’t going to bring us a totally different English language.

And so I wonder if the strategies we instinctively use with Twitter to communicate in less space and time – the liberties we take with the otherwise hard-and-fast rules of a language we should love rather more gracefully than we do – will be used as assertively (I resist the temptation to say “aggressively” – even as I know I shouldn’t) by those who pull the strings of money.  I’ve already noticed, in a curiously subversive and unacknowledged sort of way, that mainstream newspaper articles from at least the Telegraph and the Guardian seem to be acquiring a new and consistent internal structure which makes snipping their meaning concisely and briefly for use in my posts an evermore difficult task.  I do wonder if there isn’t some software out there – or, at the very least, a journalism school in-the-making – which is beginning to allow one to protect one’s content better against the kind of quoting, sharing and remixing the last decade of blogging and social media has accustomed us to.

For I do wonder, you see, whether the open web is on its way out whatever we do.  Capitalism may be stumbling (arguments for and against this thesis can be found from Chris here and from the BBC here) – but money will always attract money; and if capitalism isn’t to be the way, then something else will eventually be found to channel those instincts – base as they may be.

Perhaps the key to monetising the web lies precisely in developing such linguistic strategies which make it impossible to cut and paste as we have until now preferred.

A different kind of industrial poetry then?  An industrial poetry that uses the very nature of the language itself to protect its writers and authors from the very human, and otherwise admirable, instinct of their readers to copy and share amongst themselves?

An industrial poetry writ so humongously large, in fact, it can even encompass news-gathering businesses across the globe – and protect their business models from the kind of seepage and leakage the open web has encouraged to date?

Just as well that companies like Amazon are currently involved in doing this sort of thing.  Otherwise, I’d be inclined to throw in the towel – and give up entirely on humanity.

(Oh I do hope this idea I’ve stumbled across today isn’t already irreversibly changing the way we communicate online.)

Sep 162011

I have kind of asked this question several times over the past few days.  In my piece “Legal Aid = NHS = Welfare State = Magna Carta (or Bye Bye Britain)” I said the following:

It does really beg the question, doesn’t it? Why is the government so against the proposals of the Law Society – proposals which practising professionals have designed in accordance with their close and profound relationship to the coalface of daily endeavour; proposals which aim to save more money not less than the government’s own plan of action?

I then went on to pose, in my naive and trusting way, the following question:

So what do you think? Is there any pattern emerging? Does anything make you feel the strong are being given ever-stronger tools to impose their power over the evermore hapless weak? That the government doesn’t simply ignore the needs of the less well-off in society – but actually actively operates to prejudice them.

Only to conclude:

[…] The more the population discovers that its government’s true intention is to effectively remove a safe access at point of sale to a raft of human rights (human rights which we previously had learned to take absolutely for granted), the more those who break the law will get away with doing so. And thus the rich will get richer – and the rest of society, from the middle classes downwards, will be all the poorer in both body and mind for it.

Doesn’t half sound like what this Coalition government is doing to both the economy and the NHS.

So does no one else perceive the similarity on these three significant fronts – in vision and actions both?

Can no one else see the pattern?

Will no one else demand that this all be stopped before the circle is finally closed?

And I say in my naive and trusting way because I naturally assumed the Coalition was acting – as political groupings mostly do – on behalf of its sponsors and natural supporters.  Nothing out of the ordinary there, then.  Nothing to raise even a resignedly unhappy eyebrow.  You might not agree – you might even find it distasteful – but politics is politics, and the pork-barrel side of its age-old and revered process is never going to be that distant a factor.

Only the conundrum would now seem to be unravelling.  The other day I published a post which described how the Association of British Insurers and big retailers like Argos and Asda were supporting far-reaching government proposals to alter the balance and structure of compensation cases in the future – essentially, and for the alleged benefit of customers and workforces, to remove lawyers from the equation in order to save money and speed up the process.  As I said in that post:

So let me see.  What we’re arguing here is that if lawyers were no longer to be involved, insurers and their clients would continue to happily fork out an extra £289 per case compared to the amount they would otherwise have paid under the so-called “have a go” culture.  That is to say, without the threat of lawyerly intervention, insurers would blithely – nay, joyfully – pay out sums of money to injured parties precisely and only because the purpose of insurers is to give people lots of money!

It just didn’t seem to fit.  Didn’t seem to fit at all.

And then the Guardian goes and publishes the following story this evening – and everything becomes as clear as the hardest of all blood diamonds:

The Conservative justice minister piloting controversial plans to cut legal aid and curb payouts that could benefit the insurance industry to the tune of a billion pounds a year will personally profit from the changes, a Guardian investigation can reveal.

Jonathan Djanogly, the legal services minister, is pushing a bill through parliament which will attempt to slash the budget for legal aid by £350m as well as forcing claimants to pay out of any awarded damages their lawyers’ success fees and insurance policies that cover court costs. Experts say this will benefit the insurance industry by at least “hundreds of millions of pounds”.

Remember, as I and others have already pointed out with a more than sufficient clarity, the Law Society has proposed a plan which saves more money than the government’s own proposals whilst still managing to protect the right of access for millions of people. 

Till today, the real confusion has lain in why the government has a) doggedly preferred its own proposals to the aforementioned plan; b) doggedly preferred the consequently minimal access it promises for the vast majority of people to proper legal support; and c) doggedly preferred – in these times of supposedly serious economic crisis – the £350 million they aim to save with their proposals to the £384 million the Law Society suggests might be practicable with theirs.

There was me thinking it all had to do with greasing the levers of corporate power.

But, in the light of the Guardian report this evening I link to above, it would appear the real reason strikes much closer to a much more tawdry home than that.

And so I ask the following question: are certain members of the Coalition now running the government entirely in their own self-interest?

Sep 152011

It would appear that the Johann Hari saga reaches some kind of resolution.  He hands back his Orwell prize, leaves his Independent desk on unpaid leave – and promises to go on a journalism course to become that journalist it would appear he never was.  He could, I suppose, do worse than apply for one of the unpaid internships currently open to aspiring journalists – dutiful souls who might be interested in some hands-on experience at the Guardian newspaper, no less.

I have to say, from the very beginning, I didn’t understand what was going on with this one at all.  Partly, I didn’t know how to filter out the noise – and as someone who’s always been more interested in the artistic truth of a finely turned phrase than the experimental nature of the (im)provable reality behind it, I wasn’t best positioned to comprehend what exactly was going wrong.  Plus, as many of you will know if you have followed my writing from Labour Members Net days, I was always getting knocked about by Dave Semple of Though Cowards Flinch fame for the rhetorical flourishes I was always choosing to get involved in.

So if you want a far clearer summary of what’s happened than I can ever provide you with, you might want to pop over to this excellent and analytical post at the Economist – the conclusion of which I will, neverthless, and even so, dare to take some issue with:

So here is my take on Mr Hari. On reporting trips on the other side of the world, far from the watchful gaze of his editors, he plagiarised and embellished quotes (though he still denies accusations of inventing some of his most dramatic facts). Now he is admitting to wrong-doing and apologising, but only after getting caught, years later.

I have met too many journalists like that, and their flaw was not one of training. At the risk of being pompous, it was one of character. The Independent’s editor, Chris Blackhurst, announces today that there is “no doubting [Mr Hari’s] talent as a columnist and we are hoping to see him back in the not too distant future.”

What does that say about British journalism?

The thing is, I can see both sides of the issue – and so, as always, can expect to get duly shot.  The truth of the matter is that the coherence and intelligence of a body of writing doesn’t necessarily carry over into the character of the writer.  The problem I suppose we have in cases like these is that the tool we call writing which can fly in the context of art – and be valued entirely internally in terms of its machinery, motifs and signs – should better be described, perhaps, in the context of that noble profession we call journalism, as boilerplating – plain and simple.  And perhaps, in a sense, Hari’s biggest technical error here was to apply the brick-by-brick approach of this kind of journalism – the boilerplating I mention – to a stylistically advanced form of communication that dared to border on art.

In essence, then, he didn’t start from scratch – much as most of his colleagues in both tabloid and broadsheet never do either.  The vast majority of modern British journalism is about as formulaic as it can get – and yet art demands much more than simple formulae.  If we agree with this thesis, Hari’s work was neither journalism with a right to be made of boilerplate nor art with the goal of remaking all anew.

Finally, if all of this doesn’t convince you either, and it probably won’t, then maybe we should keep in mind Chris’s column on what columnists are really for:

Newspapers are businesses like any other. And the function of a business is to give its customers what they want. And in many cases, what the customers want is not the “truth” but the comfort that they are right.

And thus:

Seamus Milne and Simon Jenkins had no expertise in military matters or Libyan politics; the latter is especially elusive given the problem of preference falsification (pdf), as discussed by Timur Kuran. So why did they write about intervention? It’s because they weren’t paid for their expert analysis, but rather to echo the prejudices of Guardian readers, which are that NATO and the military are bad things.
The Guardian, of course, is not unusual in this. Bloggers love to slag off Melanie Phillips, but not one of them points out the key fact – that she’s paid to write columns and they are not. This difference exists not because Ms Philips is a better writer or better informed than her critics, but because she is better able than they to express Mail readers’ prejudices.

If the current editor of the Independent is careful enough to describe Hari not as a talented journalist but, rather, as a talented columnist, perhaps there is a reason for this – and perhaps that reason is as Chris outlines. 

For if Hari does come back at some time in the future to regale us with more finely turned work, maybe it’ll then be time we invented a whole new job description for exactly how he writes. 

How about short-story writer?  As good a start as any …

And there’s a helluva lot of truth wrapped up in that noble profession.