Friday, March 17, 2017

Not your Standard editor, Mr Osborne

George Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Evening Standard, odd, daft even, as it may seem, is in one way, little more than the natural progression of modern journalism.

And it speaks volumes for where those with the power to hire and fire seem to see the role these days.

There's clear conflict with his job as cheerleader for investment fund but he won’t be the first senior hack to have held high office in politics. After all, most of us have done our fair share of moonlighting, even though we didn’t get paid £650 for a day a week.

But if the hon member for Tatton thinks editing an evening paper is something he can knock off before lunch and nipping across town to help run the country, he’s in for a rude awakening.

The days of the gentleman editor, poking his head into the newsroom once in a while to put a hand on the tiller between entertaining the great and the good and pontificating from platforms went out with the rest of the staff they had to make redundant.

Editing a paper at a time of wide-ranging constitutional chaos, when your plummeting circulation won’t even sustain a paying readership and when there’s a new app every week threatening to deliver the same message in a more relevant and appealing way, needs to be more overtime than full time.

I don’t blame him for not knowing that. He probably knows as little about newspapers as I do about running the Treasury. But his staff will, his boss should and the readers, such as they are, may well too.

Conflicts abound even if here is merit in having the capital’s premier publication toughing up as a battering ram against Theresa May’s runaway Brexit rollercoaster. But it’s not a part-time job and should be far more than just something to fit in between Commons, constituency, and consultancy.

David Miliband responded to the news by Tweeting that he was about to be named the next editor of Heat magazine. Tim Farron joked he should apply to edit Viz.

Joking aside, at least they would be more do-able, given their lead times and publication cycles.

Osborne inherits a seriously strong editorial team. He will have to learn fast if he is to impress them. And to do that he'll have to put in the hours and treat it with the respect it deserves and not as a high-profile and comparatively low-paid indulgence.

Either way, the issue is less about where it leaves the Evening Standard, more a case of what it says about the way we see newspapers these days.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

You don’t need long knives to put down a Fox

When a fellow Leicester fan remarked as we lined the streets to watch our heroes pass with the Premiership trophy: “can you imagine anything better than this?” there was a universal shaking of heads.

But I had one further scenario in mind. If I could perhaps, don the mascot suit and run out with the team for the first home game of the following season, that would probably, I had to admit, put the topping on the pizza.

As a fan since schooldays, a former club member/shareholder and proud over of an actual brick from the rubble of the actual now-demolished City Stadium, a chance to be Filbert Fox for 90 minutes would have cemented a lifelong relationship with the club like little else.

But after last Thursday’s disgusting dismissal of our now-legendary manager Claudio Ranieri the only image I had in mind was this fittingly poignant one created by Telegraph cartoonist Matt Pritchet. The one where a club official brought a vet to the stadium and told him: “We’d like to have the team’s mascot put down.” And they might as well have done, as most of Fleet Street seemed to recognise with equally-fitting attacks on the club’s Thai owners for managing to turn football’s greatest fairytale into a sordid and sorry soap opera of back-stabbing and deceit.

Like most of Matt’s cartoons, it said in a picture what many columnists would take an inside-back dps to do: you might as well kill the mascot, they’ve already killed the spirit of the club.

How reassuring then to see fellow Italian Jose Mourino wear the initials CR on his chest at a press conference the following day.

He may have been echoing what the Milan-based daily Gazzetta dello Sport described with their splash: Inglesi Ingrati (ungrateful English).

Or he may just have been giving us a subtle lesson in the sort of humility, good grace and sense of fair play few involved in this sorry affair, if not the current game, would understand.

What do I mean? Semplice: A season earlier, the same thing had happened to him when he was sacked by Chelsea only a few months after having won them Premiership title. And he isisted that, while it was “a giant negative” in his career – “I realise it was peanuts to what happened with Claudio”.

And which was the game that cold December day that sealed his fate? Only an embarassing 2-1 defeat at the hands of Ranieri’s Leicester City.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Time to play the Trump card

Why was it only Associated Press and TIME Magazine that had the presence of mind to act appropriately when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hand-picked a select group of journalists for a private “gaggle” in his office.

The off-camera gathering with news outlets seen as less hostile to the Trump regime (and I chose that word deliberately) was a way of blocking the likes of CNN, BBC, The New York Times, LA Times, New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, The Hill, and the Daily Mail from attending a regular press briefing.

The chosen few included the rightist Breitbart News, One America News Network, and The Washington Times, all of whom attended.

White House Correspondents’ Association president Jeff Mason immediately called on those allowed in to share the material with press corps colleagues locked out. Whether they will or not remains to be seen. But it’s surely the least they can do, given they didn’t have the mettle to take the AP/Time route – and boycott it.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Brexit and the edge of reason

I often tell – and, I admit, delight in the comic irony – of the time I subbed a piece one Saturday afternoon for the Sunday Telegraph praising the way John Major effectively saw off a back-bench revolt, only to skip across town to do the late-stop on the S. Mirror and get stuck into the same story - telling how party “rebels” had a now red-faced PM bang to rights.

But that’s politics. I cared only that the copy sang. To what tune was not an issue when it came to time and a half for the anti-social nature of the shift.

So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Boris Johnson, entirely coincidentally, a Telegraph staffer at around that time, was just as, shall we say, flexible with his political “angle” when it came to penning his thoughts on the EU.

In his new book on the Brexit campaign, All Out War, Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman describes how Johnson, in an article written but never published for The Daily Telegraph, wrote of Britain as “a global force for good”, adding: “It is surely a boon for the world and for Europe that she should be ¬intimately engaged in the EU."

Boris, apparently, warned that Brexit could lead to an economic shock, Scottish independence and even Russian aggression, the latter showing impressive foresight, given Moscow’s plans to send an aircraft carrier through the English Channel as a sign of open defiance over Syria.

According to Shipman, the article was written two days before Bozza’s surprise announcement that he would campaign to leave the EU.

So the story goes; he had already written one Telegraph column arguing a case for leaving, then wrote the Remain piece as a way of clarifying his thoughts, before doing a final pro-Brexit one for publication.

Sky News’ Jon Craig goes behind the scenes on the intrigue in what appears more reminiscent of Brian Rix than the likes of Jim Hacker or Malcolm Tucker. But for the rest of us, it does make it ever more difficult to appear positive when faced with the usual down-the-pub attacks about how you can’t believe half of what you read in the papers.

Problem is, if much of the cringe-worthy rhetoric spouted either side of the mistimed-misjudged and miscalculated Brexit vote is examined closely enough, you probably can’t.Certainly, one campaign not afraid of advancing that notion, and gaining traction in the process, has been Reasons2Remain which goes as far as listing no less than 300 of them so far. That's one of their graphics above.

In tandem with others, it’s the work of the former BBC investigative reporter Jon Danzig, not one I've ever known to pull his punches – and, from first reading, appears to do a far better job of challenging the sort of outrageous spin, half-truths and downright untruths behind the Leave campaign than David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Corbyn could muster between them.

Otherwise, they wouldn’t be either out of a job, or struggling to keep them - and the country wouldn’t be in the desperate state it is now.

It’s gloomy reading in places but worth bookmarking as there's, sadly, lots more to come.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

'Even hardened newsmen' . . . and other myths

I remember as a teenage copy boy back in the day making a point of reading the text beneath the red pen lines of the subbed copy I had to dash off to the composing room. I did it because a likely lass who'd been in the job a few months longer warned me not to.

Too gruesome, she said. The bits they take out. But I was young. So these were the juicy bits the guys in green eye shades had all the fun of censoring.

It was an early insight into the complexities of news judgment and prompted me to ask a foreign corr, on the rare occasion one would speak spoke to an oik like me, why such detail would make even the first draft.

He gave me two replies. The first, in the formality of the office, was simply that "I just report. I leave all that to the subs." The second, after a few pints down the pub, was more revealing. He loved to convey whatever sense of drama or danger he could because it gave the job more of an edge.

The fact is, I was left for a long time with the impression that I was less likely to end up in therapy working on a subs desk than if I was in a war zone. Reading about atrocities second-hand and cropping the gore out of AP photos couldn't be as traumatic as seeing it first hand.

Odd then that, as I was to later discover, the few times I got close to anything uncomfortable as a reporter, the effect was minimalised, neutralised even, by the involvement of third parties such as police, rescuers, forensic teams and the like.

And the very few times I've gone home with a feeling that sleep may be hard to come by has been as a result of things I'd read, sometimes repeatedly over the course of a shift, updating and expanding as details emerged and having to absorb and understand in enough graphic detail to be able to effectively sanitise.

It feels almost gratuitous to elaborate so I won't, save to say that it was the mere realisation that what I was dealing with were actual events involving real people - sometimes as young as my own children were at the time, if that gives a clue, rather than scenes from something screened after the 9pm watershed.

It was no surprise then to learn that the likes of Storyful and Reported.ly and other eyewitness organisations are having to adopt policies to protect their, I imagine quite youngish, staff from the worst effects of days spent trawling social feeds and coming across what Storyful’s news projects chief Derek Bowlder describes as “unmediated and graphic evidence of brutality”.

One of the reasons the organisation has teamed up with a Dublin-based counselling service to introduce an Employee Assistance Program which lets them seek help in confidence if they feel unduly affected.

And all power to them. It's not that long ago an expression of disgust at an unsavoury scenario or other would have been met with an empathetic nod but a request for "a few minutes' fresh air" would have prompted raised eyebrows and a dismissed with a simple: “wuss”.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ipso, MPs and some early day notions

Ipso, Another day, another regulator. The names change, the stories come in anew. But the one thing guaranteed to stay the same: MPs will reach for the cliché drawer and brand the watchdog “toothless”.

It happened again a few hours ago when Sir Alan Moses appeared before the Commons culture, media and sport select committee.

MPs wanted to know why Ipso, set up two years ago after the Leveson inquiry, had not fined any newspaper it found to be in breach of its rules.

They also couldn’t understand why it had not insisted on equal prominence for corrections of dodgy headlines and why no-one had bothered to call the whistleblower’s hotline it set up for disgruntled staff with issues about what is expected of them.

Now, it may just be me but, reading through the ever-growing archive of complaints adjudications, I’d be hard pushed to find one worthy of a financial sanction, equally hard-pushed to find a breach so bad it warranted a splash apology and can’t realistically envisage many circumstances thus far when anyone would phone the hotline.

On the last point, I’m not suggesting there has never been any justification for such a call in the past two years, although I hope not. It’s just that, in the main, I think it’s something most journalists would have a problem with.

What I wouldn’t want to see is any regulator feeling pushed into a position where it felt it needed a scalp or two to feel properly blooded. It’s early days, the changes to the culture of certain newsrooms is palpable at the ground level and I sense a strong feeling among those at the top that they don’t want Ipso on their case lest it can be avoided.

That can have as much to do with the Leveson legacy as anything else but, for the moment, it exists. And while it does, there’ll be little to seriously test a fledgling watchdog. Early days. Methinks the MPs were questioning in haste.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

On this day: the other side of the Telegraph's 9/11

Peter Foster’s piece in the Telegraph today recalls the day America came under attack on September 11, 15 years ago.

He nicely mixes fact with anecdote to bring quite a vivid inside view of what it was like to be in a daily newspaper office as the story of the decade was evolving.

But he tells only one part of the story, and an important one, given the the way we look at news today. By the time the newspaper went to press with its first, and highly memorable, edition, readers had been following every spit and cough of the story for the previous eight hours, thanks to a (then) fledgling news team online just two floors above their Canary Wharf offices.

Foster’s story begins by setting a typical newsroom scene – the senior team on the foreign desk were out at lunch. Five calls to mobiles went straight to voicemail and it took a waiter on a landline to deliver the message that they might want to get back to the office.

Upstairs, where the news team in total comprised only three, include myself as the then deputy editor, we were having lunch where we always did – at our desks.

Foster’s initial reaction – “I assumed it was a traffic spotter plane or a police chopper” – were mine exactly. Within five minutes we were leading the Home Page with a non-committal plane believed to have struck the World Trade Centre, partly because the only TV images available were taken from a nearby roof on the other side of the tower.

Unusually, and a sobering sign that this may be something bigger, editorial director Kim Fletcher appeared at my side and watched the next few moments on the TV that hung over my desk. “Probably a training flight?” I said. He was unconvinced. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. This looks bad.”

Then, two things happened.

Firstly, as I began fussing over when we were going to get an image to fit the tiny slot at the top of the page, it happened. Live on Sky TV, the second plane came into view and flew, as if in slow motion, into the second tower.

Secondly, an online newsroom schooled in uploading print copy, embellishing with links, images and meta-tags and providing snappy, running updates for office workers who didn’t want to wait for the 6pm news, suddenly became into a broadcast hub providing minute-by-minute coverage that continued throughout the day and night.

Had it happened a year earlier, I may well have been sitting downstairs on the end of the back bench with everyone else, looking forward to an afternoon of cramming the rest of the news into two pages, before planning and re-planning and trying to imagine what the first edition may look like.

As it was we planned and re-planned on the spin. We had no real video capability, limited access to pictures, no flexible CMS that allowed us to resize an reshape our Home Page, let alone a Twitter feed or even SMS alerts to alert the world of what we were doing.

In fact, in my head, I actually went backwards in time. To the days of filing from phone boxes at the scene, dictating adds and offering wraps and write-thrus as a story unfolded. To make the point, I added the words more soon (in those italics to express urgency) at the end each time we refreshed a refiled.

And, when all those old-fashioned agency things like attribution didn’t seem to cut it, we simply told the reader (users, some of my young team called them) straight: a statement is due any moment, keep refreshing, it’ll be here . . .

An IT lady called Theresa came over and gave an update on traffic. Someone said we were dealing with more than 100 request per second (huge in those days). Someone mentioned the strain on the system in being able to accommodate.

Someone else said CNN and the BBC had temporarily gone down through sheer volume and we were getting their cast-offs. Our pages were taking ages to load. Could we close some of our channels to keep news live?

I heard Editor Derek Bishton say something behind me about closing "all non-essentials" and things seemed to speed up.

On my right I had a rookie reporter called Ann Wasson, an American with family in New York, bashing out updates. I revised them by getting her to read outloud, send and go back in whioe I read over her shoulder. At one stage her voice faltered and a tear appeared as the closeness of it became clear and I told her to close the page for me to go in. She refused.

Fletcher told me “This isn’t enough. We need a new front page”. He took a designer and our best XML coder into a corner and reinvented the front end of the site. The next time we refreshed we had a headline Attack on America - one word away from the one the paper led with - the now-iconic image of the burning tower “and loads of slots for all the comment and analysis" we were amassing.

My wife rang and asked why I was in the office when TV pictures showed all the bankers in all the tower blocks pouring out on to the lawn outside. It reminded me to send the intern home and Fletcher assured me we could relocate to our City office if the building was evacuated.

IT Theresa came over with a mobile and a laptop and said, if we shared a taxi, she could keep me “live” until we got there.

In the event, we stayed. Six hours passed, the most appalling scenes were played out in front of us, the towers were reduced to rubble and she told me: “Well, so far, you’ve published 148 times.”

By the time the drama was over, we were reduced to minor updates and the odd “tweak”. But downstairs the newspaper was just getting into its stride. The batten had been passed. What we had been telling people all afternoon was now being recorded in massively more detail and backed by the sort of heavyweight analysis the Telegraph was known for.

Our night team came in and prepared to out all that online sometime after midnight. As calm returned to the room, I wandered downstairs and watched them in the full flow of organised chaos. I realised there was no baton, really. The paper would be a collector’s item and we’d merely “held the fort”.

I looked at a few proofs, went back upstairs and tinkered all night, keeping the Home Page as fresh as possible as night turned to day in foreign parts and readers, even those in tiny, unheard-of countries where we had five uniques, woke up and logged on.

Then, too late and too tired to drive home to Hertfordshire, I had a nap on the nurse’s couch in the medical room on the 11th floor. At about 4am, a cleaner’s vacuum bashed against the door and I awoke with a start. I was, after all, in a tower block in the heart of a financial centre.

It was only when I closed my eyes it fully dawned on me.