Friday, 29 July 2011

1 down, 8 to go

I'm sure everybody saw this story of the kitten which spent an hour in a washing machine in Scotland, only to emerge shaken but alive? An extremely cute little thing, her story was one of the most watched items on the BBC website in the last few days. When they put a film up on the web, they use the same headline as on the main story to caption the film. That resulted in this coming up on the website:

Most unfortunate. They've since changed it - I guess because somebody must have noticed that it makes it look like they eat kittens up there or something...

Oslo atrocity should carry lessons for the media too

Firstly, the thoughts of all of us must go to the victims' friends and families. All respect to the Norwegians for the dignified way they've responded to what must be unprecedented in their history, on their soil at least. But it's the media response, as usual, that I wanted to comment on.

Firstly, our own expectations. After it became clear that this was not a Muslim fundamentalist attack, of which more in a moment, but a Norwegian killing Norwegians, I don't know about you, but I had an expectation of some shaven-headed, boggle-eyed hard case, covered in tattoos and looking the living embodiment of violent fury waiting to pop. What emerged, initially at least, was a faintly pleasant looking, seemingly ordinary kid, smiling back at the camera. Later, the press got hold of shots of him which better suited their imperatives - namely of him holding an automatic weapon - and we got the shots we probably subconsciously expected of him. Once again, the question occurs - did the press print the type of thing the public wanted, driven and encouraged by sales when they've done so in the past, or do they do this regardless, foisting a sensationalist agenda on us whether we like it or not?

Anyway. Whatever mad, unspeakable motives drove such appalling acts, it seems the press had made up their minds what was going on almost instantly, and certainly before the truth started to emerge. Al Qaeda, or some other agent, were certainly to blame. 'Helpers of Islamic Jihad' came up too, allegedly claiming responsibility. News media all over the world were quick to link the attacks to Norway's part in NATO operations in Afghanistan, for example.

I know it could be argued that the media merely observe what's going on and announce it as it happens, so had every right to report the Helpers' claim of responsibility for the attacks. But the fact is that Al Qaeda are now a very convenient bogey man that the press can hang the blame for pretty much anything on while they wait for the truth, or something more exciting, to come out. In the desperate rush to be first with the news, consideration seems to be sacrificed cheerfully. It's clear that atrocities are now being practised on both sides of this extremely ugly coin, by both Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim right-wing extremists. But matters are not being helpd by the fact that, by the strictly dictionary definition of terrorism, the noun at least, the press are fighting for both sides. Scaring people, making them think that Islamic terrorists are everywhere, can strike anywhere at any moment, is merely building them up stronger than they actually are, and doing one aspect of their work for them. Now we've got this apparently lone nutter being linked with the EDL in England. Giving that lot any credibility as a terrorist force is the very last thing we need in a country, and even a continent, already in the grip of the kind of hysterical reaction which inevitably follows such events.

It seems this sort of immoderate, reactionary, sensationalist stuff is far from unique to Britain, looking round at some of the world's press reacting in the first few hours after the attack. Perhaps, just perhaps, if the media took a more considered view of these things, and reported the facts once they'd come out rather than desperately scrambling to get any tosh out there first, the increasingly bitter divisions which are reaving even the most stable societies like Norway may have just a little bit less fire in them.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Not such surprising News of the World we live in.

A word on the News International scandal that seems to be getting bigger, deeper and worse by the day. I won't bother rehashing the details here, I'm sure you're familiar with them, but there's a handy run-down of some of the stuff that's been emerging lately here.

This is, frankly, why I haven't bought or read a 'red-top' newspaper since I was a teenager. They're rags. They have a long and ignominious history of using their reach, influence and contacts for all the wrong reasons, not to mention the access to millions of people which they use to peddle whatever agenda they may have, rather than actually reporting news. It's bad enough some of the stuff they write - just off the top of my head, I recall the Sun's disgraceful incrimination of the Liverpool support after the Hillsbrough disaster, or that same paper dismissing Brighton as a town of 'junkies, homeless people and queers' after it emerged Brightonians were against Thatcher's Tories holding their annual conference in the then town.

More recently there was the utterly scandalous treatment of Christopher Jefferies, a suspect (later completely cleared by police) in the murder of Jo Yeates in Bristol, whom various tabloids all but called a murderer before any trial had even commenced, let alone a verdict reached, seemingly on the 'evidence' that he looked a bit eccentric. I could go on.

So while it seems new lows have been reached lately, I'm not sure that's the case. Raking through the shattered pieces of the lives of bereaved relatives of murdered schoolchildren by hacking into their phones may seem like the absolute nadir of this sort of thing, but I suspect it's just a case of them having actually been caught out this time. And now, it seems, they're beginning to feel the hot breath of public outrage. Finally these practices are being dragged out of the dark underworld in which they go on, into the harsh glare of media scrutiny. Oddly fitting that it should take the media to expose the media's worst excesses, but however these people are made to reap what they've sown, it'll do for me.

But there is a fundamental element to this which, so far, seems to have gone largely unremarked-upon. I'm not really sure the public, or at least that part of it which buys these bloody things and feeds into the process, are deserving of the right to their outrage. As well as the sort of stuff that's allegedly coming to light now, (some) newspapers do have a long history of investigative journalism, exposing malpractice, financial wrong-doing, corruption, paedophile networks, you name it. The contacts, resources, ingenuity and sedulous determination of an investigative journalist can bring any number of such nefarious goings-on to light, and can be a great force for good, but what do we get instead? We find 'celebrities' having their phones tapped to satisfy the constant 'need' for malicious gossip. Journalists following actors around and photographers camping outside their houses in the hope of being the first with the latest nugget of tittle-tattle, and the hacking into voice-mail messages of a young murder victim, to who knows what detriment of the police investigation into her death?

Such are the ends to which these foul means are directed. And the public lap it up. The Sun is still easily the biggest-selling daily newspaper in Britain, and the NOTW, which is at the centre of these latest allegations but doubtless by no means the only one guilty of them, is easily the biggest-selling Sunday. They do this because they're encouraged to do so by people buying them.

Well, finally, hopefully, the way in which this type of 'news' is gathered is being exposed and the response to it is salutary. Advertisers and charities pulling out of association with the News of the World before the allegations are even proven has a satisfying sense of poetic justice about it. I don't for a moment expect this to mark the beginning of the end of the celeb gossip type of news reporting, but it may yet mark a watershed for which the less hysterical elements of the British mass media, and the consumers of it, will be extremely grateful.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Latest piece for Wonderlance is up

A bit dated as I wrote this just before the penultimate Shuttle mission, but with the last one about to launch on Friday morning US time, it's still timely. On the price, and value, of human exploration of space.

Article here.