"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

22 November, 2009

Art Sydney – How to be a Venerable, yet Very Hip Art Institution – The Art Gallery of New South Wales

This image: copyright The Luo Brothers

We have all got them, haven’t we? A rather specific, rather personal, list of our own favourite, arty hang outs. They are, more often than not, the key venues we visited, usually as pimply adolescents, clutching our cheap reproductions of Matisse and Monet, insanely happy to wander through hallowed halls, finally contemplating the images that had inspired us – still blissfully ignorant that the rest of life, sadly, did not consist of empty afternoons, devoted to the casual contemplation of art.

In a fairly long list, mine would include the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, acknowledged ugly sister of the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh, but an institution where key elements of the European avant-garde were forged, and a place where I personally did much of my own art education, over the course of several lunchtimes, during my first posting as a foreign correspondent.

There is also Peggy Guggenheim’s still somehow slightly louche villa on the Grand Canal in Venice, the light, bright Picasso Museum in Antibes in the South of France and the warren of basements and mezzanines which constitute Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

It would also very much include the Art Gallery of New South Wales, an eclectic and extraordinary collection of significance, housed in a fabulous late 19th century neo-Classical building in the heart of Sydney’s airy, green heart, The Domain.

I first visited AGNSW on a flying trip to Sydney in 1999. It has been a rather long ten years and Oz is a very long way away; but I resolved that my recent trip Down Under would include another visit – if only to check that my initial impressions of a superior institution had been well-founded.

Before we – myself & my friend Elana (of whom, more later...) even entered the Gallery, we were treated to the latest of the Kaldor Public Art Projects: an installation by Japanese-born, Berlin-based, artist Tatzu Nishi, who has ingeniously recreated the immediate environment surrounding the equestrian sculptures outside the museum - in a thought-provoking and utterly chilling way. I would urge Sydneysiders not to miss this extraordinary installation and anyone passing through to try and catch it (it runs until February 2010).

The AGNSW also boasts a vital Asian Art collection. Funerary ceramics such as Tang horses are cleverly, and not at all patronisingly, displayed alongside works by provocative contemporary Chinese artists, such as the Luo Brothers (see image at the top of this post).

The AGNSW exhibition space itself is aptly fit for purpose. Every piece was immaculately installed and sensibly labelled - elements so often ignored, even by leading global galleries. As a whingeing Pom, I particularly enjoyed all the home-grown stuff and I have now concluded that Australian Art is rather like Swiss Wine: the locals are well aware of how good it is; ergo, they like to keep it all to themselves.

The Australian artistic tradition exhibited at AGNSW is vibrant and inclusive. There is plenty of heritage work by artists who are perhaps better known further afield such as Sydney Nolan (1917-1992) but more contemporary artists are also well-represented, such as Russell Drysdale, Lloyd Rees, Jeffrey Smart, John Olsen, Fred Williams, John Brack, Rosalie Gascoigne and everyone's favourite, Brett Whiteley. There is also an important collection of Aboriginal and Torres Straits art, from bark paintings to new media installations.

As a brief aside, the Australian contribution to the Venice Biennale this year also impressed, particularly Felicity Fenner's small, but perfectly formed, group show at the Ludoteca, a former convent between the Giardini and the Arsenale. The medieval building lent itself perfectly to the installations by emerging artists, Vernon Ah Kee, Ken Yonetani, and Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro.

Given my exuberant enthusiasm for the Gallery, I was thrilled when I returned home to Blighty to discover that AGNSW also had a Twitter feed @ArtGalleryofNSW run by the lovely Molly and Sheona. The Gallery also runs regular Art After Hours sessions, with live music and ArtBeat workshops and events, especially for Gallery Kids. They have tours in Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese and sign language tours for the deaf. The Gallery also has a Flickr group and a YouTube channel – sure signs of a venerable institution that knows just how to make the most of Social Media.

It was through Social Media that I first came across the perfect companion for my NGNSW trip. I was in Sydney helping out with a conference about the Future of Journalism in the Social Media Age, run by Media140 and generously hosted by the ABC.

Elana Bowman is a feisty South African born lady, whose family emigrated to Australia in the 1990s. Fellow bookworm Elana and I first met on-line, via virtual reading circle, Shelfari.com, back in the mists of time, around five years ago, when Twitter itself was still a gleam in the eyes of its founders: @ev and @biz.

Since then, she and I have become Facebook friends and follow each other on Twitter. I learned about her heartbreaking decision to close her beloved book shop, her subsequent job hunt and followed a few of her romantic ups and downs. She, in turn, was a great cyber support when my dear old Dad succumbed to dementia over the course of 2007/8. I had no doubt that when we finally met IRL, in the bowels of ABC’s Ultimo Centre, it would be just like a reunion with a long lost and trusted friend.

And so it was. Our afternoon in the gallery, followed by a stroll through China Town's night markets, a welcome libation in a backpacker pub and the post-Media140 valedictory drinks at the CBD Hotel, was truly one of the highlights of my Australian interlude. So thank you, city of Sydney for the Art Gallery of New South Wales and thank you, Social Media, for my dear friend, Elana.

28 September, 2009

Cowgirls in Corsets: Why the Picture Desk loves the Catwalk Shows:

So farewell then, London Fashion Week. The weekend papers made the very most of the last few gobbets of gossip –
i.a: "Doyenne Anna Wintour ignores wannabe Alexa Chung horror";
"Spell-binding Emma “Hermione” Watson all grown up now”

Meanwhile, the front pages featured the last set of opportunistic images before the entire circus packed its natty bondage ankle boots into their custom-made Louis Vuitton trunks and hot-footed it (Business Class, natch) to Milan.

Breaking news so far from the Italian shows?
“Armani explores the future with a “plastic fantastic” theme”
“Raunchy cowgirls in denim corsets at Dolce & Gabbana”
Sex sells at Emilio Pucci

Sex sells? Well, hold the front page. No doubt about it: fashion certainly sells. Picture editors have long been grateful for the bi-annual race around the globe, covering the collections. Unsurprisingly, heel heights, hem lines and super models make for a more appealing front page than the usual parade of grumpy, grubby suited politicos, sombre flag-draped coffins or sundry other sobering trappings of the War on Terror or the global economic crisis.

Much as the advent of colour television transformed the sport of snooker, fashion coverage in so-called serious newspapers started in earnest in the early 1990s, when the first full colour imaging technology began to transform the Front Page. We bid a thankful farewell to tiresome inky fingers but (imho) we also (pace The Independent) lost the bold statement of the impossibly eloquent monochrome news photograph.

Now fashion coverage is considered de rigueur for the most earnest of organs. During my years at the Guardian, the Women’s Page stalwarts would not have considered the catwalks a subject worthy of serious coverage. I do remember one brave Features Desk intern suggesting a fashion-related feature in conference one morning - to audible sniggers. To her credit, she stuck to her guns and, unlike fashion-phobics such as myself, is now still fully and lucratively employed. Only last week, I noted her byline above a piece explaining how to wear the Breton trends, elbow cages, sequins and snakeskin details which apparently “emerged” in London last week.

Now, fashion coverage appears to be a Guardian staple with this breathless round-up pretty much par for the course. If you can’t get enough from the paper or website, you can even follow Milan Fashion Week live as Observer fashionista Helen Seamons tweets live from the Front Row (hashtag #MFW)

Alongside such London Fashion Week scoops as the surprise arrival of Victoria Beckham, I was heartened to see some serious debate triggered by the audacious decision of Canadian designer Mark Fast to use size 12 and size 14 catwalk models. The heart, however, did sink to read that this brave move had prompted Fast’s stylist to resign.

I did find myself last week - albeit briefly - finding rather more respect than I have had to date for Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, Linda ($10,000 a day) Evangelista et al. I spent an excruciating two hours having my own photograph taken for a rare appearance as the subject and not the writer of a newspaper article. The photographer John Lawrence was charming, professional and exceptionally patient - as I gurned and grimaced in a bid to convince him that the dogs were far more photogenic than their reluctant owner. Everyone who has seen the piece seems to agree..

Before I sign off, I wanted to thank all this blog's readers - you know who you are! - for their extraordinary patience while this forum became precariously over-weighted with posts about social media and the real time web. I have now transferred these to the new Media140 team blog here. This forum will now return to its main, niche but nice, photo-journalism and fine art theme. To that end, I will also be confining my more personal postings - those cheery themes of elder abuse, assisted suicide, musings on mourning et al to a new forum at: ahappierending.blogspot.com. I do hope you will check it out some time.

02 July, 2009

Behemoths of Media Buying set to bestride the New Media Landscape (but there is good News for Geeks..)

(If you need a caption for this image, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog)

Hands up if you remember the 1980s? You know, when eyeliner was everywhere, greed was good and mobile phones bigger than bricks were the de rigeur symbols of status.

Back then, I was still a starry eyed young journalist, on my first foreign postings, trying valiantly to shine a little light onto some of the world’s worthier stories. Unsurprisingly, I was utterly unmoved by the entreaties of one particular suitor, who thought the way to my heart would be to whisk me off to lunch at the Ivy – in his Porsche natch - where his lavish corporate expense account allowed him to entertain clients and contacts several times a week.

Actually, it wasn’t the Porsche, the brick-sized mobile or even the bow tie that put me off. Reader: he was a media buyer – the very thought of consorting with a non-creative ad exec sent shivers down my spine. Back then, media buying was not considered an entirely respectable occupation for a gentleman.

But that was then and things have certainly changed in our brave new media world. Humble journalists are obliged to twist their copy to suit complex new click metrics while the media buying behemoths continue to consolidate the power now afforded them by the transparency and accountability of the world wide intraweb.

You may have heard, if only vaguely, of companies called Aegis, Omnicom, Havas, Zenith and WPP, but you probably have little idea of how powerful they have become, given that jointly they control more than 50 per cent of the global advertising market.

This was the frankly chilling scenario eloquently explained by Professor Joseph Turow this week at the Oxford Internet Institute at an event jointly organised by the inestimable Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Professor Turow suggested that the rise of the buyers, leaving the usually lauded creative element of the advertising industry behind, has been under-reported and is – as a consequence – misunderstood.

That newspapers, news journalism and news values per se are undergoing a fundamental change is not news but Turow painted a vivid picture of a media future in which the key players were no longer the once mighty publishing platforms. Those (to some extent, already) in charge will be the media buying agencies, the advertisers, the media rating companies, some third party ad networks and of course, the technology developers.

But what about the journalists, you ask? Well, those who haven’t already crossed the PR Rubicon or been replaced by a far, far cheaper, Anglophone typist on the ground in Bangalore, may be lucky enough to find work with an altruistic foundation, generously funding issue-based journalism along the lines of ProPublica.

There may also still be some work available for hacks prepared to specialise – as advertisers will continue to be willing to fund niche supplements serving distinct interests. Oh and guess what? There is also going to be an awful lot more “refining” of what purports to be straight news to allow for (yet more) product placement.

Prof. Turow, a genial (coincidentally, also bow-tied) Brooklynite, is the author of the cerebral but highly accessible "Niche Envy" and is considered to be the expert on media fragmentation. He also foresaw a future of merged regional news cooperatives and a diverse raft of new organisational forms and alliances between traditional prestige content providers. In principle, this sounds like a reasonable solution, although I have had personal experience of dozens of newspapers attempting to work “together” from my stint as editor of Guardian Europe in the early 1990s and at times, I have to admit, it was not a particularly pretty sight.

So far then, so bleak for all my keen journalism students. I keep telling them to go into something rather less precarious, like investment banking perhaps? No, better still, make that financial PR. And what of the smooth Porsche-driving, bow tied beau, I hear you ask? Reader, I married him.

05 June, 2009

D-DAY 65 - Canadian Tanks reach Juno Beach by Lt. Fred Jackson RNVR

Members of the LST & Landing Craft Association gathered recently to celebrate the life of their shipmate Fred Jackson ISO, QFSM, CPM

Anniversaries are like buses at the moment. Tiananmen Square plus 20 and this weekend's 65th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings - both of which have caused very different but predictable amounts of furore (viz: my previous post). I am no royalist but I believe it is important that Prince Charles is now going to the Normandy commemorations. It is a key anniversary - mainly because the numbers of veterans are dwindling and this may be the last year that many of them, all now in their 80s and 90s, are well enough to cross the Channel.

Sadly, it is six months too late for my own Father to join them. He died, after a few rather less than dignified months of dementia, in December 2008. We celebrated his life last month with 14 of his LCT and LSA shipmates, who included National Standard Bearer Anne Cutter and her husband Harry, Parade Marshall. They solemnly placed the huge banner on the altar in church, behind the casket containing his ashes upon which his white fireman's helmet was placed. When they retrieved it and marched out to the Sharlston Male Voice Choir singing the Navy Hymn (For those in peril on the sea) there was not a dry eye in church.

There has already been reams of D-Day material in the MSM; one of the most moving and thoughtful pieces was by James Delingpole in the Telegraph. James interviewed surviving members of 47 Royal Marine Commando and visited the scene of their most heroic battle at Port-en-Bessin. Read it here.

I will now hand over to Dad himself, who wrote about his own D-Day experiences in an uncompleted memoir. The BBC also has some wonderful audio clips of veterans while the British Legion is also doing its usual sterling job.

Dad returned from Normandy the week after D-Day, celebrating his 21st birthday, not as I did with champagne and canapes under a Palladian collonade, but on the choppy waters of the Channel, not knowing whether he would ever set foot on British shores again. I think you get a wonderful feel for his optimistic, courageous and ever curious outlook on life from these - completely unedited by me - few lines.

Holding Juno - German counter-attacks

"At about this time, we changed over our old Mark III Landing Craft for a newer Mark IV type with far better accomodation - causing a near mutiny from the other crews. We were then allocated a detachment of Canadians and nine large tanks each with a huge 105mm gun. Our job on the approach to Juno was to open fire at 10,000 yards, run on to the beach, offload via the bow ramp, prior to kedging off (pulling yourself off the beach by use of the storm anchor) and heading for another load.

"We started doing many familiarisation exercises on the beaches at Boscombe, Bournemouth and Slapton beaches which were similar to the ones we would land on in France. Around this time, Slapton beach saw a shoot-up with German E Boats and almost a thousand men - all US personnel - were lost. Between March and April, we had a quickie refit and check at the Lady Bee boatyard in Southwick, where they normally built luxury yachts. We managed to persuade them to build us a lovely day cabin in our troop space - quite unofficially of course!

"Returning to Southampton and yet more exercises, we had a pep talk from Lord Louis Mountbatten himself on the 1st of June, telling us what to expect and how to react - a bit like Horatio at Trafalgar. On the 4th of June, we received orders to stand by to sail but a serious gale had blown up and the operation had to be delayed by 24 hours. June 6th would be D-Day. We sailed on the night of the 5th. The 100 miles across to France took us 12 hours. En route we received a message to the effect that we would be required for the second wave on D+1. We made our way to Juno beach but were not required to fire on the way in. There was still a huge amount of activity on the beach, but our lads already appeared to have the upper hand.

"We looked for an opening on the beach and the skipper slowly brought her in. When I felt the craft grounding, I took a sounding and found only three foot of water, so I gave the order for the first tank to move off. We successfully disembarked all nine tanks and they rumbled across to join the others on the beach. There was some air action going on at the time and many of our men on the ground opening up at a lone Spitfire which came across the scene. Fortunately, they appeared to miss him however and he made good his escape on this occasion to fight another day.

"We then started taking in the stern kedge anchor which was a little tricky as we were semi-impaled on a beach defence but managed it successfully, finally got turned around and headed back towards UK and our loading base in Gosport. A couple of miles offshore, we came across a sister ship with wires around her propellors. We took them in tow for a couple of hours and they eventually managed to clear them. Some 12 hours later we were on G4 Loading Hard in Gosport and after a few welcome drinks whilst loading, we were soon ramp up, heading back to Arromanches. Luckily, the local, the Lord Nelson, was just off the Hard. In the many days that followed, we did some 50 trips with men, transport, tanks and later, agricultural machinery for the farmers in Rouen."

Find out more about the British Legion's D-DAY 65 campaign & how they are using it to help current servicemen in the theatres of Iraq & Afghanistan here.

03 June, 2009

#8964 Another Brick in the Great Chinese Fire Wall – Some Sober Thoughts ahead of the Tiananmen Anniversary

Match the correct caption to this photo (but don’t win £100,000):

A) Daily Telegraph publishes photo of the latest garden ornament bought on expenses by leading Labour MP (note iconic portrait of Party Leader in background).
B) French tourists inspect the unusual & ingenious exchange gift presented by President Obama to President Sarkozy ahead of their commemoration of D-Day (note iconic portrait of Party Leader in the background).
C) The makeshift “Goddess of Democracy” statue surrounded by student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in May 1989.

Do you even remember the wonky, jolie-laide, but somehow potent figure which, for a few weeks at least, came to symbolize the aspirations of many younger Chinese for more transparency, democracy, for less corruption and repression. Oddly enough, it is an image you don’t see very much any more. I wonder why.

It was rather more difficult to suppress the equally identifiable image of “Tank Man” – the one which sits permanently at the top of this blog for – I hope – obvious reasons. Perhaps because the tank man was photographed by half a dozen Western photographers and won several awards, most notably the overall World Press Photo in 1989 - awarded to the shot taken by Charlie Cole of Newsweek.

I wasn’t at Tiananmen but I was as near as I could get – around 1200 miles to the South, huddled in Statue Square with hundreds and hundreds of like-minded optimists, milling between three bizarre monuments to Hong Kong’s colonial past: the Cenotaph War Memorial, the Mandarin Hotel & the Hong Kong Club. Frankly, there was not much we could practically do, but we felt we had to do something and so we came together, collectively symbolising solidarity with our peers in Beijing.

I was born in Hong Kong and I doubt if I will ever be able to do justice to what it was really like, growing up in such a politically anachronistic and avowedly capitalist society, hanging on gingerly to the underbelly of the mighty and hostile Chinese dragon. Perhaps my feelings for what was then the Peking regime were crystallised during the 1967-68 pro-Communist riots in the colony, during which we went to school in armoured cars and several of my father’s peers in the Fire Brigade and the Police Force lost their lives to random bombs and in violent street skirmishes.

On Monday night, I duly attended an event devoted to Tiananmen + 20 at London’s Frontline Club which champions independent journalism. The influential panel included Shiao Jiang, one of the organisers of the protests, who was subsequently imprisoned & eventually fled to the West after years of harassment. Shiao Jiang wore a simple black tee-shirt bearing the Tank Man image.

I hope to post later at greater length on the compelling, if frustratingly truncated, panel discussion. Founding Editor of the authoritative Chinadialogue, Isabel Hilton, provided several insightful contributions to the discussion which was expertly moderated by Sky News Foreign Editor Tim Marshall. Telegraph.co.uk's Kate Day did an excellent job live-tweeting from the event.

Inevitably, the debate came round to the potential of technology, the Web, the burgeoning Chinese blogosphere and enthusiastic uptake of Social Media. BBC World Service China Editor Shirong Chen suggested that communication technology was certainly pushing the boundaries of transparency within China, but the Party should never be underestimated and “could so easily put the lid back on”.

Nevertheless, I skipped out of the Club later, feeling that my few days standing in Statue Square 20 years ago might not have been totally in vain and that the amazing world-wide intraweb and the inexorable rise of on-line communities might - eventually - effect some real change in 21st century China.

Yet Shirong Chen was extraordinarily prophetic; when I logged on the very next morning, I discovered that China had blocked a range of social networks, including Flickr.com, Twitter, Hotmail accounts and even the new Microsoft Bing. The censors had already been at work according to the BBC’s Beijing-based James Reynolds.

One of the very first Chinese characters you learn to write – after your numbers of course: 一; 二; 三 - is 中 as in 中国

This image: copyright Reuters

The word for China: the Middle Kingdom. An empire which boasts several millenia of advanced and civilised culture and history, an empire which now has well over a billion of hard-working and deeply aspirational consumers; an empire which - perhaps understandably - sees itself as the kingdom at the centre of the world. Perhaps it is naive of me to think that Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and the ilk, could even start to chip away at the surprisingly agile monolith which is the Chinese Communist Party - but I don't intend to give up hope - not quite yet.

17 May, 2009

How my afternoon idling on Twitter taught me a bit about earthquakes & space walks & a lot about the increasingly skewed perspective of BBC news

"BBC Eurovision host Graham Norton was nowhere near the protest and is totally unharmed” (Irish on-line forum)

I’ve been very busy lately but I couldn’t really tell you what it is I have achieved. I suppose I’ve been mostly busy with life minutiae – you know the sort of stuff: sick spaniels, laundry, being the executor of my late Father’s estate and the rest of all that bereavement baggage (separate post coming eventually – I know, bet you just can’t wait…) last minute commissions just a little too lucrative to turn down, laundry, lovelorn girlfriends, scrubbing the house as it goes on the market and, you’ve guessed it, yet more laundry.

I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had a minute this month to fulfil my regular commitment to a U.S. database, who pay me very nicely to read and abstract foreign language arts magazines for their website. It’s my favourtie gig. Interesting, informative, stimulating and, as a bonus, the (UK) Cambridge-based editors with whom I work – if only virtually – are a lovely, professional bunch.

So, on Saturday afternoon, I sat down with the express intention of completing a few records. And then I got distracted. Yes, hands up, by Twitter, but I hadn’t been terribly attentive or active for ages and wanted to ensure I knew what was going on in the Twitterverse, ahead of Media140 in London on 20th May with which event I’ve been lucky enough to be just a little bit involved.

These are just a couple of the things I did, courtesy of Twitter and Twitter pals IRL and otherwise, on Saturday afternoon alone. I heard within minutes about the Texas earthquake from the must-follow @JimMacmillan. Not a big one at 3.3 apparently but unusual for Texas. I also discovered the #earthquake Tweet stream which is bizarrely compelling. I was able to follow the latest on the Twitter #fixreplies saga via @JamesRivers and read a top think piece on the emergence of Social Network Revolt from @mashable.

I learned about the great #UnderAPound #Under2Bucks initiative started by @DarenBBC which is just the kind of TwitterLove project/meme which particularly appeals to me. Thanks to @Carole29, I was alerted to a link which let you watch the space walk live. I am no geek but a live space walk! How far is that from 1969, when my parents made us sit down in front of a tiny monochrome TV to see Neil Armstrong take his small/big step.

Courtesy of @tristamsparks I found out all about the #freejeanfer #escandologt campaign. If you haven't heard about it, I recommend you do so. I’d been trying all week not to get bogged down with daft #eurovision tweets but then saw this one from my friend IRL @Danoosha, "#Eurovision: gayest event in European calendar in Europe's most homophobic country. I predict a riot" http://tinyurl.com/qdqkgb

I’m not gay – although many of my close friends are and I suppose I have kept a vague watching brief on HIV/Aids related issues since my late brother, Rory, died in 1995. I didn’t even know that activists, including Peter Tatchell, a brave bloke whatever you think of his motives, were planning to stage a protest ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest. Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 but the gay rights situation remains dire. Moscow’s influential mayor Yuri Luzhkov has described homosexuality as satanic. Then I found @PeterTatchell’s Tweet Stream which included such perfect succinct tweets as the following: “Arrested. Shortest march I've ever been on” and the last tweet at 12.26 on 16th May: “Free from police station but am deeply worried about Slavic Pride organiser Nikolai Alekseev. Haven't heard anything since his arrest”

As I continued trying to do a bit of remunerated work, I drifted back to Twitter and became more and more anxious about the lack of news about the Moscow arrests. Searching #Eurovision merely unearthed Euro-Tweeps’ preparations for camp parties with a few blatant attempts to secure votes for particular countries. Then I started to check MSM, starting with the BBC who were running huge coverage of the event itself. Much anticipation of whether Graham Norton could adequately fill the shoes of his countryman Sir Terry Wogan but on the protest and the arrests? Nothing whatsoever.

On Google, pratically nothing but the wire services’ anodyne round-ups of which the English-language Russia Today turned out to be both the most neutral and the most comprehensive. On Twitter, I found a previously undiscovered country of (mostly) sober and serious LGB voices, tweeting either as individuals or from collective platforms. Via one of these, I found a link to UKGayNews which had by far the most up-to-date news.

The story is still moving with one detainee, US activist Andy Thayer completely off the radar for several hours. I’m still struggling to find anything breaking but have definitely given up on the BBC. This morning, Radio 4 news at 9.00 am ran a soundbite with the Norwegian violinist who won Eurovision, admitting that he really couldn’t sing but the bulletin mentioned nothing about the arrests. “Openly gay” host Graham Norton reportedly said something along the lines of: “heavy handed policing spoiled (sic) a grand Eurovision”. I’m still trying to work out whether this line on an Irish on-line forum was serious or supposed to be funny: “BBC Eurovision host Graham Norton was nowhere near the protest and is totally unharmed”.

Looking forward to debating this and many other key issues: #whithertwitter, the changing face of news gathering and the citizen journalist at Media140 on Wednesday 20th May. Hope to see you there.

Stop press: this tweet from PeterTatchell "Glad everyone was freed eventually, though Nicholas & others face police charges. On my way home to London now.... I need a holiday" (c.1115 hours Monday)-

15 May, 2009

Guantanamo Tribunals & Torture Photos: why my own Honeymoon with Obama is over

This image (from the 2006 series “Guantanamerica”)
Copyright 2006 John Keane/Flowers East

Barack Obama’s controversial decision to restart the Guantanamo Bay tribunals has been hailed as the official "End of the Honeymoon". It certainly marks the beginning of my own irritation with the increasingly pragmatic President. Just when I thought it was safe to publish a new post on his decision to hold back thousands of images of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, he throws in yet another extraordinary reversal of a campaign promise, infuriating the left-liberal blogosphere and rendering much of my own carefully crafted musings on the torture photos decision rather old hat.

The story is still moving quickly. Just as the White House is spluttering over what or was not promised on Guantanamo, more shocking pictures of American torturing prisoners have emerged, despite all the administration's efforts to suppress them. The latest images to emerge via an Australian television channel are thought to be from a batch of the original 2006 Abu Ghraib shots which were not publicised at the time.

My last post on Obama’s approach to the thornier elements of the Bush legacy was in early March, when I explained the significance of his promise to release previously banned images of America’s war dead and other footage from both theatres of war. At the time, the decision was, rightly, hailed as a victory for a long-fought battle for freedom of information and seen as welcome proof that Obama’s re-iterated campaign promises for greater transparency would be honoured. The main reason given this week for holding back the torture images is the need to prevent any further international anti-American feeling, suggesting that now finally in office, the Obama administration may be finding national security issues more complex than they appeared to be when viewed from the rather simpler perspective of a hopeful candidate.

However, this week’s back-tracking, both on the torture photos and on Guantanamo seems to signal a decidedly more sober presidential approach, interpreted by some U.S. commentators as a victory of statesmanship and pragmatism over the instinct and spontaneity which has previously characterised the new President’s approach and which so many of the electorate clearly found so attractive. Nevertheless, the speed of both reversals has shocked observers on both sides of the political divide. The president originally ordered Guantanamo to be shut by early 2010 in a bid to restore America’s human rights image. But the closure of the Cuban-based detention camp was always going to be fraught as Newsweek’s Dan Ephron pointed out perceptively as long as six months ago.

The image above is by John Keane (b.1954) one of my favourite and most thoughtful artists. He is often called the ‘journalists’ artist’. He was the Official Artist during the First Gulf War and has since consistently turned his intelligence and extraordinary technical approach to issues of conflict and media all over the world. My personal favourites are his 2006 Angola series, in conjunction with Christian Aid and his 1999 series ‘Making a Killing’ featuring Rupert Murdoch and Diana, Princess of Wales.

01 May, 2009

Small Country: Significant Trauma - Why the Queen’s Day Parade attack is sure to scar the Dutch psyche

This image from the series "Reigning Queens" © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, NY and DACS

Why the shock of the Queen's Day attack on Queen Beatrix has shaken her subjects to the core

The key challenge for every foreign correspondent is to report accurately from wherever the dateline, without falling into the facile trap of resorting to national stereotype. The Netherlands, with its familiar and easily caricatured iconography of windmills, tulips, clogs and cheese, is a relatively small northern European country, (population 16.5 million) whose heady days of maritime empire are centuries ago and whose guttural language erects yet another barrier for any outsider attempting any meaningful analysis of the contemporary Dutch nation. It is moreover, a society which has been radically altered over the last four decades by unfettered immigration, much of it from Islamic countries.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to underestimate the shock and horror reverberating throughout the Netherlands at yesterday’s – ultimately suicidal – attack on Queen Beatrix and her family, as they travelled in an open-top bus through the central Dutch town of Apeldoorn, home of the main Oranje royal palace, Het Loo. Without exception, today’s headlines in the Dutch papers all signal the end of dreams, the shattering of illusions, disbelief, disgust and discomfort. “Zwart fantoom blaast alle dromen weg” (A black phantom blasts every dream away); “Nationale illusie gesneuveld in Apeldoorn” (A national illusion slain in Apeldoorn); Beatrix: “Heel diep geschokt”.

The country’s leading commentators seem to be taking an unusually long time to gather their thoughts but the on-line message boards have been buzzing with indignant theories and demotic and instinctual apportioning of blame. “The American plague of crazed individual narcissism has arrived!” was one comment in daily de Volkskrant. Another complained about the insensitivity of the media, quick to broadcast footage of the attack on main news programmes, without a prior warning as to its highly disturbing content.

I arrived in Amsterdam in 1985 on my first foreign posting. I was nervous and anxious that my Dutch experience would be as wretched as my gap year, teaching English in a small town in Bavaria. On my first trip to the office, I got hopelessly lost along the city’s central horseshoe of canals and stumbled upon the floating flower market on the Singel. It was April. All I could see was what looked like a protracted rainbow of brightly coloured, perfectly formed tulips. I was hooked.

I lived in the Netherlands, on and off, for almost a decade. I even managed to master – albeit with a still frightful foreign accent – their curiously classical, yet simultaneously colloquial – language. Slowly, I discovered a people startlingly close to their British cousins across the Channel, or the big puddle, as it is affectionately referred to in Dutch. I admired my Dutch friends’ refreshing directness and candour, their dry sense of humour, their robust family ties and their intellectual curiosity and often surprisingly whacky creativity. And, despite my clumsy attempts to mangle their fiendish tongue, I was universally welcomed. The centuries-old alliance between the Low Countries and Britain developed into fervent Anglophilia during the Second World War when the government, eventually led by Gerbrandy was evacuated to London as the Germans invaded their previously neutral neighbours in May 1940.

The Dutch resistance was partially run from London and agents on the ground were heavily indebted to the BBC for communications. British troops’ role in the May 1945 liberation set the seal on an affection which continues, unshaken by any trivialities of EU politics. To this day, German sailors on the Ijsselmeer fly the blue, starred EU ensign, rather than their national colours and most Dutch people, even though they speak perfect German, will use their fluent, accent-free English when replying to German visitors.

I personally believe the Occupation is a vital key to understanding the apparently self-contained Dutch character. The survival instincts, courage and compassion fostered during those five years seem to have lent the Dutch an almost arrogant confidence in their ability to deal with almost any conceivable affront. If my generation has only limited understanding of what our parents and grandparents went through during the Second World War, how much harder do we have to imagine what it must have been like to live, with the Occupiers living next door, with the fight for survival and the temptations, in a time of privation, of collaboration? As a translator, I have had the privilege to work on more than one self-penned tome of memoirs and the extent of the local heroism and courage in all of them is humbling.

The Netherlands is known more for the visual arts than for the literary ones but the Occupation inspired several important lightly fictionalised autobiographical works, among them De Aanslag (The Assault) by Harry Mulisch and my personal favourites, Stripes in the Sky and Drowning by Gerard Durlacher. The Occupation is moreover the subject of the most famous Dutch book of all time, one which has become one of the best-loved books in world literature, Het Achterhuis or Anne Frank’s Diary. The Occupation continues to reverberate artistically, in works such as Paul Verhoeven’s surprising 2006 return to credible film with Zwartboek (Black Book).

The other key factor in understanding the implications of the Queen’s Day attack is the immense affection in which the Royal Family, and particularly Beatrix, herself is held. The family remains remarkably accessible to the Dutch population. Who could possibly imagine the entire British Royal Family taking to a charabanc for a parade on a holiday? A holiday which is anticipated and enjoyed as a true Volksfest – a proper people’s party, with free beer, spontaneous jumble sales and obligatory naff Orange accessories, cheerfully and willingly donned by all.

Of course, there have been regular mutterings about the Dutch royals, since Queen Wilhelmina decided she might feel safer in London, leaving her loyal subjects to deal with the invading Germans. Beatrix herself courted unpopularity in 1966 by marrying a German, Claus van Amsberg (1926-2002). More recent tittle tattle has concerned the putative activities of Argentinian-born Crown Princess Máxima’s father during the Videla dictatorship and the suitability of alleged gangster’s moll, Mabel Wisse Smit, now the wife of Prince Friso.

An excellent English-language portal into Dutch news is the website of the venerable daily NRC Handelsblad which also has clear links to the equally professional English language offerings of Germany's Spiegel-Online and Denmark’s Politiken.

22 April, 2009

George Orwell would be blogging. Why irrational nostalgia poses a real threat to the future of print journalism

This image copyright Hergé/Moulinsart SA

World’s most famous Belgian?
Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter and his trusty sidekick Snowy

Is there another profession whose practitioners suffer from quite as much maudlin nostalgia as journalism? I think not. You don’t often hear doctors talking about the good old days of trepanning and leeches and I have never met a farmer – and yes I know quite a few, living as we do in rural isolation – who would willingly swap his Sanderson for a horse drawn plough or the sharpest scythe.

Yet gather together hacks of a certain age and before too long, the conversation comes around to the long lost days of hot type, the whiff of the ink, the clatter of the typewriter keys and the reliability or otherwise of telephone lines across five continents. At a recent Frontline Club discussion on the future for local newspapers, I was flabbergasted to hear three members of a distinguished and experienced panel, plus a few contributors from the floor, recounting endless tales of how things used to be done and how noble (read: how much better) it all was back then.

There was much hand wringing at the current crisis but precious little initiative or lateral thinking on the thorny subject of how the local papers will have to regroup to survive. One panellist sorrowfully evoked Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi presumably in the sense that you “don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”.

Unsurprisingly, I shared many of the fears expressed, notably that the current slash-and-burn happening across the country at so many regional titles will inevitably lead to a dumbing down of coverage and erosion of quality and to a worrying lack of transparency on key community matters such as the arcane proceedings of the local council or the police. Nevertheless, there was no valid discussion as to how the big media groups might go about replacing the (once obscenely) lucrative advertising revenues which have inevitably migrated to the nefarious world-wide intraweb.

I, too, am guilty as charged: my very first job was actually, physically, on Fleet Street in the elegant Lutyens-designed headquarters of Reuters at number 85, next door to Wren’s equally elegant St Bride’s, still the “Journalists’ Church”. I, too, can bore for Britain with tales of long nights at El Vino’s, long days at the City Golf Club and the odd international scoop. Earlier this month, I sat, enthralled, alongside 120 other self-confessed hacks, listening to the distinguished poet and writer James Fenton wax lyrical about his days as a bona fide war correspondent, hitching one of the last choppers out of Saigon. Those were indeed the days and should be celebrated as such.

I was struck by the absurdity of this longing for a long gone era when recently recounting just such a tale, albeit at their request, to a bunch of student friends, all of whom remain puzzlingly keen to forge their own career in journalism. “So finally, after four hours of failed attempts, we finally got a phone line through to Moscow, I had to run all the way down the newsroom in my high heels and short skirt, to make sure the copytakers were ready.”

More than one hand shot up. “What’s a copytaker, Dee?” Now these are Oxbridge undergraduates, not conspicuously lacking in intelligence but I could see the concept perplexed them. They simply could not conceive of a room full of head-setted typists, fingers poised over the keyboard, ready to take dictation. Of course not. They all write their own pithy reviews of dire student drama productions on their I-Phones and just press send.

When you think about it, hankering for the good old days of journalism is plain bonkers. Why would anyone swap their Netbook and Wi-fi for a super-annuated Tandy dependent on a reliable three-pin plug and a telephone line? No chance. Technology is awesome and should be gratefully embraced. Click here to read an enthusiastic paean on the topic from the entertaining and always perceptive Shane Richmond of the Telegraph.

I hope to return to post on some practical approaches for the brave new world of print. The advertising model is not actually broken – as was tiresomely reiterated during the Frontline discussion – but it does need some serious modification. Counting solely on traffic has already failed to successfully monetize newspapers' online offerings. The existing CPC/CPA model currently in widespread use really needs to move to a tenancy-based sell. There are, however, several other problems which may prove more intractable, from simple inertia, to the huge range of widely diverse individual newspaper cultures. At 'Out with a Bang' Rick Waghorn writes intelligently about these and related conundrums. Another mine of knowledge and consistently lucid source is the editors’ blog at Journalism.co.uk. For a truly comprehensive view, I can really recommend the percipient and spookily timely “SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save The World” by LSE Polis Director, Charlie Beckett whose blog is also required reading.

Print is not yet dead. It is not even moribund as I was reminded by two publications which recently hit my desk. The first is the immaculate, highly readable and beautifully produced UK version of Wired, edited by a former Guardian colleague David Rowan. I am still dipping in and out of the April Launch Issue. The second is IssueOne magazine, a rather more exotic but equally beautiful beast to which I hope to return in another post.

11 March, 2009

Signed: Elizabeth R To Our Trusty & Well-Beloved Fred Jackson Esquire, Greeting!

My Dad - 12/06/23-18/12/08 - Requiescat

The rumours are, I am afraid, all true. I was once an avid collector of autographs. Long, long before these our days of celebrity culture, I was an over-keen, gangly pre-teen, hanging around the stage door, never without my leather-backed notebook and lucky ball-point pen. I can still see the first three pages with their hurried yet clearly legible marks: Cliff Richard; Frankie Vaughan; Gilbert O’Sullivan!!!

The notebook is long gone, of course. Into some trunk, into some attic, gnawed on by rodents or consumed on some bonfire. I still have a few prized signatures, however; many of them just visible in the corners of the paintings & lithographs I started to collect when autographs per se started to pall. I’ve even got the Queen. Her bold Elizabeth R, in a rather beautiful frame, hangs on the wall above the sink (signed Philippe Starck) in our downstairs WC.

I didn’t actually wangle an invite to Buckingham Palace and whip out a scrap of paper and a fountain pen at a likely juncture. I didn’t need to. Her Majesty made her mark upon the royal warrant conferring the Imperial Service Order upon my father – making him Fred Jackson, ISO, QFSM, CPM. Every time I wash my hands, I now have a mental picture of the Queen, perched at a huge desk in Sandringham or Balmoral, spectacles on, looking as serious as Helen Mirren in that movie, working her way through a ream of parchment warrants, scratching out Elizabeth R again & again & again.

The ISO was established in 1902 by Edward VII. It is a limited order, awarded to a select group of civil servants “for long and meritorious service of the British Empire”. It was seriously limited in 1993, when it was quietly dropped in favour of the Imperial Service Medal; stands to reason – we haven’t really got an Empire any more.

Dad himself was quietly but hugely proud, not just of his ISO, but of his many awards. Myself, I was proudest when I went, in my Sunday best, to Government House to see Sir David Trench present Dad with The Governor of Hong Kong Lanyard – awarded for outstanding gallantry during the 1967 Communist uprising and riots. Self-effacing, modest & often surprisingly shy, the most he would ever say was: “not that bad for a boy from Askern, is it?”

A few years ago, Dad started to write his own memoirs. Alas, they stop abruptly in 1968 – when my mother, Tina, was first diagnosed with breast cancer. He has a charming, candid and quietly comic voice and I hope to do something with them at some stage. For now, I am afraid, the following will have to temporarily suffice:

Fred was born in 1923 in a tiny hamlet on the edge of the South Yorkshire coalfield. My grandfather, Cecil, was still a dairyman then but the pit at Askern would soon dominate the local economy. My grandmother, Violet, née Spink, went on to have another 10 children: Sidney; Charles, William Arthur; Anne Cecilia; Eric; Cecil; Stuart; Violet; Michael and Norma – the latter and her brother Eric both died as infants of pneumonia. At time of writing, both of Dad’s sisters and his brothers Bill and Michael survive him.

My grandfather went on to tend to the pit ponies and Dad’s bi-annual trip underground to bring them out for their brief respite in the fresh air convinced him that a miner’s life was not for him. Despite fierce paternal opposition, he escaped the pit by joining the Navy and swiftly, despite a truncated formal education, became a commissioned officer.

In 1944, he found himself accompanying the Canadian tanks across to Juno Beach on D-Day & celebrated his 21st birthday, not as I did, with champagne and canapés under an elegant 18th century colonnade, but on a battered landing craft, negotiating the choppy Channel waters on his way back to England. My mother clearly fell for this wind-burnished chap in uniform and they were married in October 1946.

Dad then joined the Fire Brigade in Doncaster and in 1956, he and my mother left for an initial three year contract in Hong Kong, a move rather braver than any gap year student with a mobile phone and laptop might now be able to fully comprehend.

My parents both loved the colonial lifestyle and tropical weather and my father endeared himself to his men by learning to speak fluent Cantonese (albeit retaining his distinctive Yorkshire accent). Dad was an exemplary officer and was decorated several times for gallantry. He was instrumental in preparing HKFS for the eventual localisation of senior ranks ahead of the 1997 handover and, by the time he retired in 1985, he was the Deputy Director of the Brigade.

Alas, in 1975, we lost my mother, Tina, to breast cancer and were doubly devastated less than 20 years later when my brother Rory became an early and ludicrously young victim of HIV/Aids. Dad himself enjoyed nearly 20 years of healthy retirement back home in Yorkshire until 2006, when on-going heart and vascular problems prompted his cardiologist to give him a pacemaker. This operation coincided with a diagnosis of a fairly rare condition: Dementia with Lewy Bodies, which, although not yet fully understood, seems to combine the worst elements of both Parkinsons and Alzheimers.

Difficult as it is to watch someone you love & who was once so very vital, thus cruelly diminished, I found it comforting that Dad’s vivid hallucinations – a key symptom of DLB – usually took him back to Hong Kong or to his Navy days and that very often he clearly saw my late brother, Rory, sitting amiably at the foot of his bed.

Otherwise, Dad’s final months were not as dignified as I, or anyone who loved him, would have wished and I intend to write elsewhere about the terrible circumstances of his demise – when the time is appropriate. Certainly not until after we hold our service of Thanksgiving for & Celebration of his life on Friday 8th May, at St Joseph’s Church in Pontefract, where my parents were married, after which his ashes will be interred in my mother’s grave, alongside Rory’s.

Dad wanted any donations in his memory to go to the Fire Fighters Charity or to the Mission to Seafarers. You can find out more, both about the charities and about Fred on our justgiving.com page.

04 March, 2009

Can one photograph really change the world? Yes it can! Or can it? Obama, Secretary Gates and the sorry saga of the flag-draped caskets

This image copyright USAF

I admit: it is impressive. Obama and his team continue to pull stunt after stunt in such an artfully casual way, we barely notice how brazenly we are being manipulated. This week alone, we have had glam, yet reassuringly mumsy, Michelle on the cover of Vogue and now, the shocking juxtaposition of the vital, groomed & grinning Obama with the bowed, dishevelled & grumpy Gordon - (eight out of 10 Washingtonians reportedly identified the British PM thus: ‘Is he like maybe a news anchor for one of the cable TV channels?’)

We wait to see whether the potent currency of Candidate Obama can be converted into presidential success, yet there are signs that the new administration is chipping away at some problematic vestiges of the Bush era. It started with a vow to close Guantanamo Bay. There is also welcome news on the environment with the granting, to 14 states, of waivers from the Federal Clean Air Act, allowing them to impose even stiffer standards on emissions.

Last week, Defence Secretary Robert Gates (whose appointment raised influential eyebrows) announced that media images of the flag-draped coffins of America’s war dead will now be allowed – with the express permission of the families of the fallen. This decision is a dramatic reversal of the blanket ban imposed in 1991 by then President George H.W. Bush and the scrapping of the ban has sharply divided the miliblogosphere.

It is, however, a victory for a Freedom of Information campaign, led by veteran CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter. Begleiter, now professor of Journalism in Delaware, home state of Dover Air Base, where the caskets are repatriated, sued the Pentagon in 2005, in a bid to release images of regular honour guard ceremonies which continue to be documented by military photographers.

"I never considered the release of images a political issue," Begleiter has said, "But, seeing the cost of war can have strong political consequences. Hiding these images from the public....hinders policymakers and historians of the future from making informed judgments about public opinion and war.”

The defence establishment has had a vexed relationship with the media since William Russell first got to the Crimea in the 1850s. Since then, myriad weighty tomes & conflicting theses have been produced on the influence of war reporting and of specific photographic images. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that the dissemination of so many gruesome scenes from Vietnam was instrumental in the shift of U.S. public opinion against the war.

In the pre-digital era, every conflict threw up its own iconic image. We can all instantly conjure those seared on our memories, such as the one below taken by Nick Ut in 1972.

This image copyright 1972: Associated Press/(Nick) Ut Cong Huynh

Since Vietnam, technological watersheds and the increasing speed of global media networks have made it far more difficult to single out the sole and specific iconic image; yet somehow, one or two always seem to insinuate themselves into the public consciousness. The images from Abu Ghraib prison, featuring Lynndie England and her U.S. army colleagues, which encapsulate a key Iraq War narrative so eloquently, seem set to become the first such photographs to be taken by amateurs rather than by professionals.

In Britain, the MOD exerts equally strict access limits on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq but is less draconian on the use of photographs of the fallen or, indeed, of their Union flag-draped coffins. They are, however, rigid on issues of copyright & I struggled to find images to safely & legally reproduce. British services photographers continue to document both conflicts; many thoughtful and accomplished images can be seen here:

So, in Britain we have no real restrictions on showing images to illustrate the human cost of these wars, yet why do they now appear so infrequently in our newspapers – both quality and tabloid? I live close to a huge Royal Air Force base and the Hercules transport planes bearing the remains of services victims fly overhead on a depressingly regular basis.

This image: Crown copyright/Sgt Ian Houlding

Yet the next day, when I scour the papers for any mention of these tragic shipments, I am usually disappointed. The fate of these men & women is now usually consigned to a downpage paragraph or two, accompanied by a blurred profile picture of an absurdly youthful face, smiling broadly into the camera. Then again, this slight dignity is rather more than that afforded to the many thousands of Iraqi and Afghan victims who have died since Britain and the U.S. went so boldly and unthinkingly into their respective countries.

I am rarely at one with the Mail’s columnist & pundit Peter Hitchens but I was easily persuaded by his cogent arguments in a recent piece linking the most recent military deaths in Afghanistan to the sadly premature death of six-year-old Ivan, the disabled son of David and Samantha Cameron.

At last count, the Pentagon says that 4,253 U.S. service members have died as a result of the war in Iraq since March 2003 while another 584 have been killed in Afghanistan

According to the Ministry of Defence, 149 British service personnel have been killed on active service in Afghanistan while the toll since 2003 in Iraq is 176 fatalities.

03 February, 2009

Online Communities? "They are all just Victims, in Search of a Common Enemy..." Discuss:

A wise old blogger, of the ‘never apologize, never explain’ school, advised me never to blog about NOT blogging. Makes sense. Get to the point. Never apologise for cyber-absence, no matter how protracted. So, I’m back, though I have popped up elsewhere in the blogosphere - anonymously. When the crisis in question is no longer sub judice, I hope to put my own name to the posts.

Not necessarily here. The same wise blogger advised me that blogs should retain distinct voices, focussed on a specific range of subjects. This very blog is usually restricted in scope (ie: research for my tome-in-progress on photo-journalism). One friend described it well: “Very nice, but very niche”.

Fred Jackson ISO, QFSM, CPM 12/06/23-18/12/08 - Requiescat -

I do try to keep to photography/news/arts themes & not hijack the blog for subjective rants & meanderings. Neither am I particularly qualified to analyse citizen journalism, UGC, social media & all other elements of the 21st century worldwide intra-web. I leave that to the professionals, many of whom you will find on my blogroll.

Yet for several weeks now, I have wanted to write about “online communities”. I heard – well, overheard – the statement in this post title over lunch. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping? But the tables were so close! We were in an Italian trattoria, much frequented by the editorial & management teams of a global media organisation.

On the rare occasions that my picture byline now appears, it is so out-of-date, that I am utterly unrecognisable & the two Fleet Street Grandes Dames who sat next to us, although I'd met them both before, did not acknowledge myself or my table mate, beyond a friendly smile when the over-sized pepper mill arrived.

One was a writer, of the superior Polly Filla variety, musing on an apposite subject for her next piece. The mental health of readers who left online comments in response to her column was suggested by her interlocutor, a senior editor, with wide management experience. She delivered the assertion above with conviction & audible venom. She went on to complain about the hundreds & thousands of pounds “wasted” by the newspaper on the ever so dull & time-consuming chore of moderating said comments.

As I choked on my tiramisu, I was reminded of two former colleagues, both political pundits but from diametrically opposed corners of the ideological spectrum, both of whom have struggled with the uncomfortable accountability which the new mania for reader interaction has foisted upon them both. An analysis of this feedback frenzy was provided in the Times recently by the perceptive Sathnam Sangera. Read more here.

Unsurprisingly, my friends reacted distinctly to this new relationship with their readers. The first was both sanguine & fully cognisant that the volume of comments, temperate or otherwise, was key to keeping him safe in his lofty position, both on the Op-Ed pages & the editorial board. The other was bug-eyed & apoplectic in his fear & loathing of the “green ink brigade”. What might surprise you is which reaction came from the Leftie and which from the old reactionary....

I have no pat answers to the vexed question of online communities. It is early days and the communities in question are still in their infancy; we may not yet have the perspective to judge their merits or otherwise. In a recent blog post, my friend (not IRL, but one of my many talented Twitter friends – go figure…) Benjamin Dyer points out that online communities are fundamentally flawed, because they are driven by emotional human beings. Read his thought-provoking post about building an online community here.

When another Twitter acquaintance, Neil Perkin, was asked to present on how online communities work, he actually crowdsourced opinion which he was then able to feature in his talk. Read more about Neil’s intriguing project here.

From a purely personal perspective – that is: of someone working freelance from home, alone but for the much-appreciated company but non-existent conversation of three psycho spaniels – I feel extremely grateful for the often unexpected but always stimulating interaction with my own online communities – such as they are.

I have finally been able to abandon an uncomfortable fortnightly evening of warm Pinot Grigio and bitching, masquerading as a book club and I am now able, via Shelfari.com, to discuss my own favourite books with intelligent readers around the world, who share not merely my postcode but my literary predilections

When I switch on my computer every morning, I remain enchanted (just about) to be able, via Facebook, to IM my teenage goddaughter who has just got back from school in Hong Kong or to see the very latest photographs my talented stepson Daniel Griffin has uploaded to Flickr.com from his current trip to India & Nepal.

Via Twitter, I am in touch with scores of other freelance translators around the world - all of whom are never less than generous with their tips, suggestions and even the occasional heads-up on a potential work opportunity.

Over the last 30 months, as I've struggled to find my way through the terrifying parallel universe that is the planet of geriatric care, I have been more grateful than ever for the opportunity to moan, whinge and even scream in cyber-space. And guess what? Amazingly – you usually get heard.

Late one November night in 2006, possibly, after a glass of wine or two, I started to blog – more or less anonymously & very much elsewhere. I wrote about my much loved Father’s sudden & utterly unexpected descent into a rare, and not yet fully understood, form of dementia, about our frustrations at the tyrannies of the “pathways” & “protocols” of the health & social care systems, about our shock & distress when we discovered that so many of those with a duty of care to my father were actually exploiting and abusing his frailty, his confusion, his generosity and his trust.

Within minutes of pressing post, I had received a score of responses: from social care professionals, from more than one medic, from daughters who had been through a similar experience. Yet the majority came from casual readers, those who had taken a few minutes to read my posts and who felt moved enough to respond. If that is not a "community" - I'm not quite sure what is.