Tuesday, October 16, 2007

No More Mr Nice Guys

I was transfixed by the sight of Simon Hughes and Vince Cable outside LibDem HQ last night, trying to explain the absence of Ming Campbell. It was not the Lib Dems' fault perhaps that they choose to topple a leader just as the nights are drawing in, and the ghostly glare of the camera lights made Messrs Hughes and Cable look like dodgy doctors who had - rather like George V -hastened Ming's end to coincide with quality media (instead of the Times now, it's so that the assassins can utter soothing words on Newsnight)

The headline writers have had huge fun with puns on the Ming dynasty etc. Andrew Gimson in the Telegraph is good value

as is Ann Treneman http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article2666584.ece

But my favourite is Simon Hoggart I particularly like his comparison of H&C as the Walrus and the Carpenter. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,2192053,00.html

What I can't help remembering is Mark Lawson's description of the SDP all those years ago as the Nice People's Party. Seeing Hughes and Cable on Newsnight last night it seemed a very long way from that....

Now of course the anticipation is, after that gobsmacking revelations of the last Lib Dem leadership contest, what could possibly top that?

Thursday, October 11, 2007


to Doris Lessing, the new Nobel Laureate for Literature. She came to City a couple of years back when I was doing my MA and generally wiped the floor with everyone (she's just been telling Shaun Ley why she is surprised she got the prize on the basis that 40 years ago the Nobel committee apparently told her they didn't like her stuff and she would never win it. In fact she said they were rather rude...).

We had to read The Grandmothers before she arrived...still one of the most unsettling books I've read.

What I like about Lessing is a) she thinks life gets better as you get older (not an ounce of self pity) and b) she thinks writing is something you struggle and work at. As she once said

"I don't know much about creative writing programmes. But they're not telling the truth if they don't teach, one, that writing is hard work, and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer."

It consoles me every time I rip up another page and start again......

PS Ms Lessing's reaction here to being told

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My favourite things....

My new favourite thing is Persephone Books - www.persephonebooks.co.uk - I have to stop myself buying them all up. But apart from the truly beautiful design (these elegant gray covers with cream titles and then inside different fabric designs as endpapers) they are just extraordinary books available.
The idea that these are genteel books by genteel lady authors, now forgotten is rubbish though. They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple has an unflinching look at domestic violence. And I've just finished There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult which is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read about what it feels like to lose your mind. This is a review of it in the Spectator http://www.spectator.co.uk/archive/books/21598/losing-the-plot.thtml
I really didn't think about a third in whether I could stay reading it, but it's absolutely compulsive. Claire Temple is a dreadful snob, who has got by on charm and you can frequently sympathise with how difficult she is to live with. But the dismissive way many of her former friends and servants treat someone who is old and losing her memory is chilling too.
Claire is based on Violet Hunt who had once been proposed to by Oscar Wilde and had a liaison with Ford Madox Ford (who is Wallace in the book). Hoult used to go and visit Hunt in Campden Hill Road when the older woman was losing her memory - and used much of the material in the book. (Interesting...could you still get away with that now)
From my point of view finding a book written in 1944 which talks about bad behaviour in the war (in particular a couple caught in flagrante on the sandbags) is great, because it confirms many of the ideas I wanted to look at in my novel (no sandbag incidents there though)....Plus it gives lots of practical details about the war (eg Barkers closing at 4.30 because of the blackout which I found useful). And when she is taken to the pub there is a clear indication how reverence for the 'toffs' has gone, and that no one should really be surprised at the Attlee 45 victory....
The only problem is the books at £10 each plus postage and I can't bankrupt myself buying more....Can I?

Monday, October 08, 2007

The limits of citizen journalism

John Naughton in the Observer this weekend makes a very good point......

Stick it up your junta

Once upon a time, we thought that the internet was essentially uncontrollable. Our mantra was John Gilmore's dictum that 'the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it'. The ruling Burmese junta never had much time for Mr Gilmore's utopian views, however, and so have always exercised heavy control of internet use. A few months ago, the OpenNet Initiative, a collaboration between academics, reported that the Burmese regime blocked 85 per cent of email service providers and nearly all pro-democracy sites. And all in a nation in which less than 1 per cent of citizens have internet access in the first place.

After images of beaten-up Buddhist monks and the killing of a Japanese photographer leaked out via the internet last week, however, the junta took even more drastic steps - apparently physically disconnecting primary telecommunications cables in two major cities. As the extent of the clampdown became clear, John Palfrey of Harvard University, a leading expert on internet censorship, was much in demand. How did this compare with other state-controlled actions? 'I've never seen anything like this cut-off to the internet on such a broad scale so crudely and completely,' he said. 'They've taken the nuclear bomb approach. We've witnessed what appear to be denial of service type attacks during elections, for instance, but nothing so large-scale as this shutdown.'

The only silver lining is that some information has leaked out. When I last checked, the Facebook group 'Support the Monks' Protest in Burma' had 326,981 members.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

So Gordon Brown has bottled it?

According to the BBC the PM has told Andrew Marr that he is looking to 2009 to go to the country. Frankly I'm relieved. People might actually turn up now on Nov 5th if they are not in the middle of covering an election. Interesting according to an economist I interviewed last week, Brown's best chances for maximising his time in Downing Street is if he goes to the country in 2007 or 8; 2009 is late. Mostly politicians go too early - Atlee being the worst example....in fact the only ones who have gone late are Blair and Thatcher in 2001 and 1983 respectively.
I wrote a piece about this last week that got squeezed out (Sigh - the life of a freelancer)

On a more cheerful note I went to the Independents 21st bash last night, held upstairs in the Angel opposite the old offices in City Rd. Spookily even though it's eight years since I left everyone looked the same (and I wasn't drinking so this is not down to alcohol).
It reminded me of being a young and nervous trainee, sent off to the Women of the Year lunch at the last moment, terrified I was going to be late, and sacrificing my last few pounds on a taxi (so as not to get the sack for missing the story).
I had just got in the cab, when a man ran out of the Independent offices, equally in a hurry and asked if he could share the cab. I rather brusquely asked where he was going and gave in with bad grace; weighing up the chance of being able to eat dinner that night if he shared the fare versus being late.
He was niceness itself in comparison and asked me who I was what I was doing at the Inde, what story....I felt I had to reciprocate and rather gruffly asked who he was.
"Oh my name's Andy Marr," he said.
Horrorstruck and expecting to be sacked immediately he could phone the editor to tell him about this grumpy trainee, I could only stammer 'You don't look like your byline picture'...
Luckily I think he never did tell anyone about quite what a gauche northerner they had picked to be one of the trainees that year

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

No more secrets....?

In between trying to finish my Guardian lecture I wrote this quick blog for AlertNet about how Burmese bloggers were the latest example of UGC...the use of user generated content is a big part of my lecture following on from the seminar I gave earlier in the year entitled Can You(Tube) Save the World?
I think it's very easy to overstate the importance of UGC but I still find it fascinating that only six years ago - at the time of 9/11, the kind of citizen journalism that we take for granted now was not around. When I talked to the BBC about this they said they got no images from ordinary people and only a handful of emails....fast forward to the Pakistan earthquake where they received 3,000 in one day.

Meanwhile I am trying to think about morality and disaster reporting. One of the most famous images of famine is one taken by Kevin Carter. In 1993 Carter a member of the so-called Bang Bang Club – a group of white South African photo journalists known for their images of apartheid - went to Sudan to shoot pictures of famine victims who were then dying at the rate of 20 an hour. Seeking relief from the masses, he wandered into the open bush where he saw a small, emaciated girl collapsed from hunger. Then a vulture landed a short distance away. Carter waited 20 minutes hoping the bird would spread its wings and make a better image. It did not and after he snapped several pictures and chased the bird away.

The powerful picture, first used by the New York Times was reproduced around the world. Hundreds of people called the Times to find out what happened to the girl. Carter was praised for capturing the horror of famine and censured for not rescuing the child. Two months after winning a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph, he committed suicide. He had earlier told a friend “I’m really really sorry I didn’t pick the child up”

As Susan D Moeller comments “Being close enough to photograph the starving child meant being close enough to help. The responsibility to bear witness does not automatically outweigh the responsibility to get involved." And Jim Dwyer, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the late New York Newsday says the only ethical justification for a reporter’s intrusion into a victim’s life is that he will help.

But if you take that as a starting point where does that leave objectivity?
And (particularly if you take Amartya Sen's dictum that there's never been a famine in a democracy with a free press) what then happens to reporting?
It's difficult to have a debate like this without even sounding heartless but what is the responsibility of the journalist?