"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)

23 September, 2010

Sushi, Shiraz and Tsunamis - (A Personal Take on) The James Cameron Memorial Lecture 2010

Ever wondered what happens to old journalists? Do they simply put down their pens, slip silently away from the still active herd and head off quietly in the general direction of the elephants’ graveyard? Don't be daft. Of course they don’t.

Journalists never retire. They may well retreat to the country cottage but, rest assured, there is always the odd op-ed piece to write, the odd talk to give, the odd colleagues’ lunch or an apposite lecture to attend.

There were certainly plenty of very distinguished journalists gathered at City University in London on the evening of 22nd September for the annual James Cameron Memorial Lecture – not least the two prize winners, Africa specialist Michela Wrong and pioneering film maker Michael Cockerell (who made an amusing and remarkably self-effacing speech about Cameron, the doyen of foreign correspondents, himself).

The lower rows of the lecture theatre were filled to bursting with the balding pates and silver locks of scores of Britain’s finest scribes and broadcasters. The upper tiers were equally full: of bright-eyed, shiny City journalism students, live-blogging on nifty net-books, filming the proceedings, tweeting apace.

But where were the in-betweenies? All the senior, if not quite yet venerable, experienced, maybe middle aged journalists who must form the bulwark of this country’s most respected print and broadcast organisations? Surely they can’t all have been “let go” or – perish the thought – moved into financial PR? They were certainly conspicuous by their absence.

I was hoping for some sort of explanation from our orator for the evening, Leonard Downie of the Washington Post but alas, his lecture - entitled “The New News” - threw up rather more questions than answers.

Careers in journalism simply don’t come any more glittering than Downie’s – and yet last night in London, he appeared to have nothing fresh or insightful to say about our “new journalistic era”. Instead, we had plenty of tired, old clichés, including that evocative but hoary chestnut of the “tsunami of economic, technological and social change [washing] over the news media”.

In Downie’s view, unsurprisingly, nasty, thieving aggregators like the Huffington Post are “parasites”; the blogosphere and social networks are “chaotic”. He also railed rather predictably against the cynical appeal of “news presented as entertainment and entertainment presented as news”.

For the rest, we were treated to an exhaustive enumeration of various new hyper-local news sites across America and a list of equally novel, not-for-profit, investigative news organisations – many of which were apparently staffed by professional journalists who have been made redundant. It sounded for all the world like the one-size-fits-all speech that Downie, in his newish role as Professor at the Walter Kronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, must be giving on a regular basis. You can download a copy of the lecture from the City website here.

I really do wish I could take heart from Downie’s enthusiastic endorsement of nascent Stateside not-for-profit journalism initiatives, such as ProPublica and the new national Investigative News Network. He also espouses an apparently steadfast conviction that scores of wealthy philanthropists are just waiting in the wings for an opportunity to invest in some mythical new, non-celebrity, transparent and accountable news service.

Yet somehow I just can’t see some rich Brit forking out to found a 21st century successor to the Scott Trust while persistent hostility towards the BBC licence fee exposes widespread reluctance among the British viewing public to underwrite credible and verifiable journalism.

In her rather shorter acceptance speech, Michela Wrong spoke movingly about former colleagues who are now no longer able to make a reasonable living from journalism. Well, I was moved and I am one of them. She suggested that, although protracted, this turbulent "period of adjustment" would eventually end. After the lecture, as London's journalistic élite queued for the sushi and the Shiraz, the consensus was that Wrong had said more in her five minutes than Downie had managed in fifty.

13 May, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest - Why Journalists Need to Have the Courage of their Convictions

The Nightmare on Downing Street last week – albeit relatively short-lived – sadly succeeded in pushing a far more serious crisis much further down the news agenda. As I write, oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating miles and miles of highly sensitive natural habitats and threatening the livelihoods of millions of fishermen and other human inhabitants of the US Gulf Coast states, all the way from Texas to Florida.

Given the absence to date of any real concrete developments, this environmental catastrophe is currently struggling to hold international attention. Attempts by British oil giant BP have so far proved to be woefully unsuccessful in plugging the leak which followed the 20th April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig which claimed the lives of 11 BP workers.

I have been following the saga with more than my usual news junkie’s interest. It is not that I am a diehard environmentalist, although, of course, nobody likes to hear about dead dolphins. I have actually been charting the fortunes and the reputation of BP since I spent several months working on their corporate communications - a few years ago now.

There, I’ve said it. So much for all my juvenile ambitions of “shining a light into the world’s darkest corners”. It is true. My little freelance copy-writing agency once accepted a series of commissions from a local media agency whose key, actually sole, client was BP. The work was straightforward, the remuneration was nicely above market rates and, most importantly, my byline was not on any of it.

So, I spent a fair few months conducting phoners with BP operatives in places as far-flung as Azerbaijan, Indonesia and Mozambique. I interviewed many of the senior bods, including current chief exec Tony Hayward and COO Doug Suttles. Both, I must add, were cooperative, informative and utterly charming.

I also learned a lot – about how exactly you go about extracting tar from pesky tar sands, about how best to go about resettling entire villages, particularly if the elders are objecting; about how best to protect your precious pipeline from Islamic terrorists.

Yet finally, I had to jack it all in. Now I would love to be able to say that it was my conscience which made me relinquish this role – as the tiniest of cogs in the gargantuan BP PR machine. Sadly, the truth is more prosaic: I fell out with the intermediaries, the media agency, who were slack, disorganised and very tardy payers to boot.

Yet, I was relieved to give up polishing copy which I knew in my heart was 90 per cent promotional guff. I have no doubt that BP takes the welfare of its staff and other key CSR issues as seriously as the next global corporate behemoth. I just didn’t want to have a hand in crafting, editing or disseminating anything that smacked, even ever so slightly, of propaganda.

I don’t mean to come across as unnecessarily noble. In fact, I am pretty much with Dr Johnson in the “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” camp. But for me, at least, there are limits, as I discovered during my short stint with BP.

Times is tough for journalists, particularly of the old school. Print and broadcast media are both broad-based pyramids and for every editor of the Economist, there are myriad lesser hacks, running around trying to make an honest buck – however, wherever and whenever we can.

So why have I been so surprised to see that so many of my former colleagues have jumped the wall into the PR and corporate communications world? At a drinks party a few years ago, I was struck dumb, as scores of my former Financial Times comrades handed over business cards, proclaiming their elevation to head of media relations - or some such - at one swanky bank after the other.

Yet maybe these were the smart guys? The ones who got to 35 and realised they had a mortgage and school fees to pay. So they wisely stopped mooning round the newsroom, stuck on NUJ wages, waiting in vain to be appointed editor. Instead they bravely took the plunge, surrended to the blandishments and accepted the twinkly shilling of the selfsame evil corporations they had spent the previous decade attempting to unnerve?

In one of those twists of serendipity, the BP head of media currently popping up all over the place to apologise for the Deepwater Horizon fiasco is none other than former FT editor, Andrew Gowers, who, I recall, sat at the far end of my second floor office in Bracken House, many many moons ago now.

I don’t envy Andrew or, indeed, any of my other mates who now spend long hours, burnishing brand reputations, sorting out corporate cock-ups and spinning finely crafted yarns to their erstwhile journo chums, who are, sadly, more credulous and indolent these days.

I’m just ever so slightly thankful that I have been able to dust down my languages and do a bit of translating. After all, the psycho spaniels’ vets bills (not to mention all of my other, if rather less terrifying, expenses) have got to be paid somehow…

18 February, 2010

The Cautionary Tale of the Professor, his Blog Post & the Blatant Plagiarism

Any journalist with more than a few years’ experience has a sad saga of plagiarism to tell. Not even the most august publications are immune from the practice, as we saw only yesterday with the resignation of New York Times business reporter Zachery Kouwe amid allegations he lifted material straight from a piece written two weeks earlier by a Wall Street Journal reporter.

This kind of blatant theft – plagiarism comes from the Latin verb: to kidnap - makes for a good headline and there was no surprise that prestigious Spanish newspaper El Mundo chose to splash the story of the NYT investigation on the Media section of its website. El Mundo used Spanish news agency EFE copy and ran it without comment.

Good then, to see El Mundo alerting its readers to this shameless breach of protocol by the venerable Gray Lady. What a shame it failed to take this perfect opportunity to admit to an equally brash example of plagiarism on its own website earlier this week.

On Tuesday 16th February – Ramón Salaverría wrote a blog post which - loosely translated - was entitled “Plagiarism & What to do about it”. He explained that his Monday post - concerning the future of EFE - was lifted shortly after he published it – and practically verbatim – by the website of major Spanish daily El Mundo.

The story which follows is a cautionary tale about the swift rise of uncredited appropriation of original material in our global digital age. As the loud slamming of stable doors at the NYT shows, policing this piracy is practically impossible. It also highlights the frustrating impotence of individual originators in the face of powerful media organisations.

Ramón Salaverría is Professor of Journalism at Spain’s prestigious University of Navarre and is the academic behind the influential e-periodistas-weblog. He tweets at @rsalaverria.

Justifiably peeved, Ramón sent a tweet about the plagiarism - which, unsurprisingly, was swiftly retweeted around the Spanish-speaking Twitterverse. Less than an hour after the tweet – 140 characters which exposed the casual appropriation of a considered blog post by a respected journalist and commentator - the piece on the El Mundo website was markedly modified – in a patent attempt to differentiate it from Ramón’s original post.

However, it still contained no acknowledgement of the original source, nor any nod to the original author of the piece. The time of posting of El Mundo’s re-jigged version had also been mysteriously modified – to predate the original, expository tweet. Ramón tweeted about this back-tracking by the El Mundo website. He also noted that El Mundo was also flagging the NYT-WSJ plagiarism piece.

There is a silver lining to the black cloud of this story. Ramón’s story prompted an avalanche of indignant tweets, all expressing solidarity. On Wednesday afternoon, he finally received an apologetic telephone call from an El Mundo representative. Was this apology prompted by the Twitter backlash? Impossible to be sure but difficult to discount completely.

As I write, Ramón’s story has appeared elsewhere in the Spanish media; a couple of headlines reading: Salaverría accuses El Mundo of plagiarism. The use of that particular verb is, as he says himself, a question of nuance.

Salaverría is a journalism professional and the author of several key publications about online journalism and the future of news on the Internet. With this frank and expert eye on the media landscape, he recognises that he is not the first to have his intellectual property whisked away in this manner – nor will he be the last.

But as he expounds in his original blog post: we all know that the media are in full-blown crisis; the future is far from clear. Professor Salaverría firmly believes that this future depends upon the media – whether print or on-line - remaining a credible and trustworthy resource for their readers.

He echoes several other commentators’ pleas for a return to the criteria of excellence and – slightly scarily – refers his readers to a post he wrote six years ago – the substance of which remains: “pressing ‘delete’ does not necessarily mean rectification”.

07 February, 2010

Art London: Saatchi’s Latest Squint at the Zeitgeist

Jitish Kallat (b.1974) "Public Notice 2" (2007) - this image copyright: Saatchi Gallery

It is 25 years since bashful advertising maven Charles Saatchi opened his first gallery in a disused paint factory in north London. Saatchi has since courted controversy and divided the critics with his potent, some might say, baleful, patronage. However, signs are emerging that the art market Melmotte may finally be mellowing. The gallery is now in its third incarnation and some distinctly philanthropic elements are appearing, alongside the taciturn collector’s once rather more commercial objectives.

In 2003, the Saatchi Gallery left leafy St Johns Wood, migrating south to London’s former County Hall. However, the sojourn on the South Bank was ill-starred to say the least, overshadowed by rows over tenancy and an acrimonious war of words with the YBAs Saatchi had once championed and their nominal gang leader, Damien Hirst.

I personally never felt many of those period icons, such as Damien’s Shark, Gavin Turk’s Sid Vicious and Ron Mueck’s Angel seemed entirely at ease, among the wood panelled corridors and chambers of the palatial former GLC building. The Japanese landlords eventually won their legal case; Saatchi was evicted – it may well have been for the best.

The Saatchi Gallery reopened in October 2008 in the rather more elegant, grander setting of the former Duke of York’s Headquarters, upstream from Westminster, off the King’s Road in Chelsea. The shiny new floors have now finally settled down, the white walls no longer reek of fresh paint and a decent café is now also open.

The latest, and third major, show seems to have Saatchi continuing to monitor the geo-political and economic shifts which have marked the 21st century. The first exhibition showcased new art from China, the second, young Middle Eastern artists and now we have “The Empire strikes back: Indian Art Today” (29 Jan.-7 May 2010).

Aside from the dubious, gimmicky titles: “The Revolution Continues” for China; “Unveiled” for the Middle East, the shows have been critically well-received while art-loving natives and tourists alike now have another airy place of pilgrimage, with a growing reputation for thoughtful shows. Admission is also free.

The curators of the current show take advantage of the venue’s extraordinary spaces. To date, Gallery One has been used for a single or pair of powerful installations and is here given over to "Public Notice 2" (2007) by Jitish Kallat (above). There is an awful lot of Kallat, current darling of the sub-Continental art scene, on show here. Yet I had to admit every piece had earned its place. Unsurprisingly, practically every work on show here references socio-economic themes: poverty; violence; the gap between rich and poor.

Kallat’s monumental sculpture of the boy book seller “Eruda” (2008) is stunningly displayed here. Yet I found “Death of Distance” (2007) far more moving. The work comprises another huge sculpture, of a one rupee coin and five lenticular prints which juxtapose two found texts – one of a girl who commits suicide for want of one rupee for school lunch and the other on the launch of one-rupee-per-minute phone rates. Do take the time to read both stories. Kallat talks more about his work here.

Subodh Gupta (b.1964) "Spill" (2007) - this image copyright: Saatchi Gallery

At the 2005 Venice Biennale, I found Subodh Gupta’s installations of cooking pots and utensils both insubstantial and banal. In this setting, really rather more intimate than the always chilly and gloomy Arsenale, I found more to admire in the clever distortions of scale and in the still life oil paintings of the same steel cans and pans.

Another artist benefitting from intelligent installation was Pakistani artist Huma Mulji. Her taxidermied animal sculptures are not easy on the eye but the discomfiture they provoke is balanced by a marked humour.

Huma Mulji (b.1970) "Her Suburban Dream" (2009) - this image copyright: Saatchi Gallery

On show in the gallery’s Project Room is an on-going work by American artist Emily Prince (b.1981), entitled “American Servicemen And Women Who Have Died In Iraq and Afghanistan (But Not Including The Wounded, Nor The Iraqis Nor The Afghans). This highly topical contemporary comment-cum-tribute is overwhelming in scope. I will be revisiting this piece, and examining new works of war art by Prince’s contemporaries in a future post.

Last but far from least, Chelsea boasts another pull with the recent unveiling of Richard Wilson’s “20:50” – a site-specific installation of used sump oil and steel, first shown in the original Boundary Road gallery in 1987. This truly extraordinary experience now occupies an entire gallery, built specifically for the piece. The artist (b.1953) will discuss his work with critic Ossian Ward at the gallery on Thursday 25th February.