In 2004 I described the basis of attacks on the MMR vaccine as ‘unsubstantiated speculation masquerading as science’, and finished the piece: ‘I despair.’ Measles is now busier in Europe than it was fifteen years ago.
Eleven people have gone on trial in Riyadh, accused of murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul in October. The defendants have not been named, but they do not include Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, generally believed to have ordered the killing. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said the trial is ‘not sufficient’. According to an opposition report on Twitter, the prisoners are being difficult: some mutinous, some suicidal. One unpredictable consequence of the affair has been a radical change in the way all things Saudi are reported in the media, above all the mainstream US media.
In 2008, a Newsnight producer called me to ask if I would appear in the studio with the British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, to debate ‘the white working class’. The BNP had been gaining seats on local councils since the mid-2000s, and Griffin was engaged in a campaign to make it seem a respectable electoral choice. I told the producer he had to be joking. What was he doing even thinking of having a fascist on the programme? He seemed mystified by my response. Wasn’t it a good thing that the BBC were listening to the concerns of ‘the white working class’? And shouldn’t we have these debates so the fascists won’t win? No, I said: fascists belong under stones, not on national television. Griffin didn’t appear on Newsnight that time; perhaps they couldn’t find anyone on the left willing to go on with him.
Reports have been circulating in the press of a discovery at Olympia of 13 lines from very early in Book 14 of the Odyssey, inscribed on a clay tablet. These reports all seem to be based on an announcement by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports; various muddles in the English press reporting, such as calling Book 14 a ‘rhapsody’, can probably be blamed on Google Translate. The report also claims that the clay tablet, which the archaeologists are said to have provisionally dated to Roman times, ‘probably before the third century AD’, is ‘extraordinarily unique’ (πέραν της μοναδικότητάς), because it ‘may perhaps preserve the oldest known extract of the Homeric epic’. Hordes of newspapers have repeated the claim. There are plenty of papyri of parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey that are far older than the third century AD, however, including the first ever discovered, a piece of papyrus housed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which dates to the first half of the third century BCE. There are even earlier bits of Homer on other materials, such as a line from Odyssey 9 on a potsherd found in ancient Olbia (in modern Ukraine), dating to the fifth century BCE.
The right-wing press – Telegraph, Times, Mail, Express, Sun – is peddling the old accusation of ‘communist subversion’ against the Labour Party, specifically against Jeremy Corbyn. One leading Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, was forced, under threat of legal action, to withdraw a tweet in which he claimed that Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’. I hope they charge Bradley nonetheless. He’s the man who suggested that the unemployed could be vasectomised to stop them breeding.
‘Online intimidation of Tories brings call to curb Momentum,’ a headline in the Timessaid on Wednesday. The article was about a new report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which ‘contains detailed criticism of “fringe groups” that have a big impact on the tone of political debate’. The report doesn’t name Momentum, but the Times is confident the left-wing Labour group is its target. But what about the right-wing press? Yesterday, the Daily Mail attacked a number of Conservative MPs on its front page for voting to give Parliament a say on any final Brexit deal. Most of them were among those branded ‘mutineers’ by the Telegraph last month. Some of them have since received death threats.
Donald Trump Jr was approached last summer by a publicist, Rob Goldstone, acting on behalf of a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who offered the Trump campaign ‘very high level and sensitive information’ about Hillary Clinton’s dealings with Russia. The response by Donald Jr was not high-minded: ‘If it’s what you say, I love it.’ Apparently the offer of information turned out to be an empty pretext. The instigator of the meeting was a pop musician, Emin Agalarov, the son of a businessman, Aras Agalarov – a name that also came up in the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Trump collected by the ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Trump Senior had taken money from Agalarov, and in return provided Miss Universe contestants for use in a music video by Emin. American billionaires and Russian oligarchs may be supposed to share an elective affinity. They are members of an international tribe, and snap their fingers at sovereignties.
In Psmith, Journalist (1915), P.G. Wodehouse’s most enterprising character stumbles into the world of New York journalism and transforms a sleepy and sentimental family paper, Cosy Moments, into a campaigning publication. He sacks all the regular columnists and launches a crusade to improve the living conditions of tenement dwellers and unmask their anonymous landlord, despite threats encouraging him to stop: ‘Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled!’ he declares.
Reporters and political commentators have been lining up since the election to tell us they are sorry: they were wrong about Jeremy Corbyn, wrong about the move to the left which is both cause and consequence of his leadership of the Labour Party, wrong about 'the public'.
Brittle and blustering Theresa May reacted to Saturday night's killings in London with strong words from outside Number 10. We know they were strong, because the BBC’s anchor Jane Hill kept telling viewers so the next morning, during the rolling coverage near London Bridge. Central Office must have been heartened to see that Lynton Crosby’s election campaign attack lines are getting through undiluted into the Corporation’s news reporting. Later, on BBC1's evening bulletin, Hill's 'strong' had become 'blunt and uncompromising' from the Beeb's political editor Laura Kuenssberg.
On the BBC’s Today programme yesterday, some nine hours after the horror of the Manchester bombing, Nick Robinson was speaking to Chris Phillips, a counter-terrorism expert. ‘Terrorists don’t care who they kill,’ Phillips said. ‘It’s the number of bodybags that determines success.’ ‘And the publicity,’ Robinson interjected. ‘And the publicity,’ Phillips agreed. The Today programme then dutifully devoted its entire three hours of programming to coverage of the bombing (apart from a few minutes on weather and sport). This was before the perpetrator had been identified and before the security services had been able to assess whether or not the attack was an isolated incident. Coverage mostly consisted of commentators speculating on motives, along with a series of harrowing eyewitness accounts that helped to amplify the main objectives of terrorism: to create fear and to sow division.
Binyamin Netanyahu’s relation with, control of and attitude to the media is a central component of his career and ongoing success. Through his years as a furniture salesman, ambassador to the UN and prime minister, Netanyahu has mastered the art of public relations. To stay in power, he has realised that he needs, on the one hand, to have as much control as possible over the media, over what they cover and what they don’t cover; while on the other hand, he needs Israelis to believe that the media are biased against him.
Bill O’Reilly’s world-weary smirk has been replaced by Tucker Carlson’s confused stare in the 8 p.m. slot on Fox News. O’Reilly, the most popular host on US cable news, was sacked because of a sex scandal, but Carlson is in many ways a more fitting presenter for the age of Trump.
The British papers are at it again: a ‘loaded foreign elite’ (the Sun) have triumphed in their court challenge to the prime minister’s plan to use the royal prerogative to trigger Article 50; the judges have been declared ‘Enemies of The People’ on the front page of the Mail (the Telegraph, with venerable caution, has merely decided that the judiciary are ‘at war’ with the people). The judges’ personal lives are probed for telling details: one has an interest in European law, another – imagine the Mail journalist’s delight – is an ‘openly gay’ former Olympic fencer, practically a textbook decadent cosmopolitan. The Express, ever aware that it’s poppy season, says we are in the gravest crisis since Churchill exhorted us to fight on the beaches.
The three Home Alone movies all featured in a list of the ten most watched TV programmes in Ukraine in January and it’s tempting to speculate that the popularity of the franchise reflects the way the country sees itself: abandoned by those who should be responsible for it, under attack from bigger powers and having to improvise its self-defence with anything that comes to hand. This isn’t just about the latest Russian aggression. Historically Ukraine has been invaded and occupied by everyone in the region: Romania, Austria, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia.
The first time I wrote an article for a newspaper, the first online comment said: 'If I ever see you in the street, I hope you get shot.' The article was about being abused and harassed in the street, specifically while cycling. I wasn't surprised that the online comments mirrored the behaviour the article addressed. But unlike the men who shouted at me as I waited on my bike in Clapham, the online commenter could be sure I wouldn't spit in his face in response.
Most newspapers and magazines these days (including, yes, the LRB) send out barrages of emails in their campaigns to lure readers into subscribing. Sometimes it's hard to tell, though, what exactly they want readers for, or what exactly it is they think they are offering them: 'news' hardly seems the word for a lot of it. Nothing wrong with taking a line, of course, but there's a difference between taking a line and crossing one. No prizes for guessing which paper sent out the following bundle of headlines. Rotherham child abuse gang leader wanted IVFPupils who go private get ahead by two yearsCity lawyer in court over ‘sex outside station’Peerages for Cameron supporters in EU referendum campaign‘Meddling’ Britain feels wrath of IranRefugees can be cleared from Jungle, French court decides
Evelyn Waugh was no enemy of money – he wrote for it, he made a lot of it – but monied society was his subject, and like F. Scott Fitzgerald he wrote about the careless, destructive people for whom spending money is a palliative for everything, the Toms and the Daisys, the Beavers and the Brenda Lasts. ‘Mr Graceful,’ Brenda says to her solicitor in A Handful of Dust, ‘I’ve got to have some more money.’ In a piece about hotels in New York, Waugh explained there was no end to what you could spend your money on if you stay in one:
I lost my watch in York last Tuesday, somewhere between the Shambles car park and Betty’s cafe on Davygate. It was raining, my two-year-old son ‘needed’ to be carried, my backpack was slipping off my shoulder, the streets were heaving with Christmas shoppers. It wasn’t until I was queuing for lunch and wondered what the time was that I realised my watch was missing. I retraced my steps but unsurprisingly didn’t find it. The odd glinting object in the gutter was only a half-eaten packet of mints or a condom wrapper. The watch was a 21st birthday present from my parents; I’d had it for nearly 18 years. Both keepers had fallen off the strap weeks ago, and I’d been meaning to replace them, but hadn’t got round to it because the watch stayed on my wrist OK without them, until it didn’t. Like much of the city centre, the Shambles car park 'is currently inaccessible due to the recent floods in York. All the cars that are currently parked in the car park remain safe and secure.' ‘Mr Cameron is facing a tide of public anger,’ the Yorkshire Postreported on Monday, ‘after it emerged that the government dug deep last December to finance a £300 million scheme to protect the Thames Valley after previously rejecting a £180 million scheme to safeguard 4500 homes in Leeds city centre, one of the areas worst affected by the Christmas deluge.’ The estimated cost of the floods is approaching £6 billion.
Mediapart, the French online journal known for its investigative scoops and the quality of its analytical pieces, is in trouble. The problem is to do with VAT – the tax collector has decided the journal owes €4.1 million – but it goes much deeper. At the root is an argument of principle, conducted in the open by the editors for several years, about fair competition between print and online newspapers. Mediapart insists it should be entitled to the preferential VAT rate reserved for print media: a derisory 2.1 per cent as against the standard rate, which rose last year from 19.6 to 20 per cent.
Playboy, the men's magazine-turned-'brand management company' said this week that it was getting out of the nudity business. 'The battle has been fought and won,' Playboy's CEO, Scott Flanders, told the New York Times, though the announcement sounded more like an admission of defeat.
Had I put £1000 on a Tory Parliamentary majority in March, when the odds of that outcome were rated as low as 100-1, I'd have made £100,000. Had I then placed my winnings on Jeremy Corbyn to win the Labour Party leadership at the start of the contest, when he was a 200-1 outsider, I would have found myself on 12 September with £20 million. But I didn’t: Cameron and Corbyn's victories may have made someone a fortune, but it wasn't me. Those two elections have another winner, someone who has run no campaign but has recently returned to a position of power after four years away from the job. No prizes, no bets on who that is:
'If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing. The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive... For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position.' Peter Singer's (famous, and much disputed) contention in 'Famine, Affluence and Morality' (1972) may have acquired a new, literal force this week with the widespread dissemination of images of the drowned corpse of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. The pictures don't alter Singer's argument one way or the other, but reduce the perceived distance between Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.
I wake up every day to the sound of an argument. This time it’s James Naughtie pressing a shadow minister to declare his position on the prospect of a Corbyn win in the Labour Party leadership contest. The Today programme’s combative exchanges are all too familiar. The politician says no more than his notes allow; the interviewer attempts to expose his subject’s hypocrisy or ignorance. If the politician is guilty of selective hearing, driven by the soundbite and haunted by the Whip, then political interviewers don't fare much better: irascible, heavy-handed, hectoring. It’s a game where each player depends on the other for his own performance. But for all its frustrations there’s no denying that such rhetorical sparring draws a crowd. Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winner and zoologist, once told a story about taking his French bulldog, Bully, for his daily walk. They would pass by the long and narrow garden of a neighbouring house, where a white Spitz lived.
Last Thursday, Stephen Colbert, the comedian, gave Stephen Colbert, the character, his perfect send-off: a death scene the character was too stupid to see through, though many old guests – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alan Alda, Christiane Amanpour, Ken Burns, Katie Couric, Peter Frampton, Henry Kissinger, George Lucas, Yo-Yo Ma, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Samantha Power, Gloria Steinem, Michael Stipe and others – had gathered to sing him on up to heaven. In the background, just behind Barry Manilow, I caught a glimpse of George Saunders.
I stayed up late the other night, following the café siege in Sydney on the Guardian website: 'What we know so far...' the live updates page said. Below that, like the punch line to no kind of joke, was a bullet point: 'Uber were criticised for charging minimum $100 for people trying to leave CBD during the siege. They have since offered free rides.'
When the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, addressed the Trades Union Congress on Tuesday, the press bench at the side of Liverpool’s BT Convention Centre was full. Some national papers had several journalists in the hall, dividing their efforts between shorthand notes, tweets and other tasks. But as soon as Carney moved onto questions from the gathered delegates, reporters began to put their notebooks away and leave. It was a neat illustration of the link between the decline of industrial reporting and the surge in attention afforded to the City.
Just how nasty are politicians expected to be? Maybe they need to look nastier than they really are, because the demos demands that they hang tough. Even so, voters baulk at politicians who go home and dismember effigies of opponents or torture kittens; indeed the public, at least as ventriloquised by the press, demands politicos not succumb to such common moral foibles as fibbing, graft and the wedlock-bucking hump. As the two demands clash, modern politicians find themselves flip-flopping between machismo and piety – which explains why, taken in the round, they often present as characterless vacuums. Thatcher’s and Blair’s premierships managed to strike both poses at once, in a tic that degenerated into self-caricature.
I stumbled into journalism twelve years ago, at the dingy and convivial offices of the Cairo Times, a now defunct independent English language weekly whose Egyptian and foreign interns and journalists have gone on to report across the Middle East. I’ve worked as a reporter in Cairo ever since – as an editor at other local independent publications and as a correspondent for foreign media – and I’ve never known a worse time for journalists in Egypt than the present.
The people behind Game The News describe themselves as ‘the world’s first news correspondents who cover global events as games’. In Endgame: Syria, for example, you guide the political and military actions of ‘the rebels in their struggle’.
Press propaganda before the Leveson report came out warned darkly that a statutory press scrutiny body would herald a return to a censorship regime that expired in 1695. The Telegraph and others insinuated that in that year newspaper publishers, tireless in their defence of free speech, finally won out against an overweening state.
Maariv, once Israel’s highest-circulation daily paper, until yesterday was facing imminent closure. It was founded in 1948, three months earlier than the state of Israel. A group of journalists resigned from Yedioth Ahronoth, which had been going since the late 1930s, and set up Maariv as a co-operative. It billed itself as an open and independent paper, as opposed to its competitors, many of which were tied to political parties. Yedioth’s owners, the Mozes family, swore revenge for what they called ‘the putsch’. In the build-up to the 1967 war, Yedioth Ahronoth was freely distributed to the soldiers, and eventually it paid off: a decade later it overtook Maariv.
One can only imagine what thoughts may have passed through the Queen’s mind at breakfast this morning as she digested the front page of the Sun along with her bread and dripping. Most days she no doubt passes it across the breakfast table to her husband for page 3 while she gets her teeth into the Racing Post, but one fancies that, if for only a moment, the royal gaze fell on snaps of her grandson plastered – geddit?! – all over the front of the Current Bun. Catching a royal at it, in flagrante, in a naked – and here comes a word only ever used in red-top-land – romp, in the sort of royal flush that falls to hacks but rarely. It aligns all the bananas in the fruit machine, a feat pulled off in once-in-a-lifetime headlines like Gordon Ramsay’s 'Naked Dwarf Porn Double Found Dead in a Badger Hole in Wales', or the Scottish football writers’ dream, 'Super Callie Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious'.
As Philip Oltermann writes in the latest LRB, it's sixty years since Bild was first published. To mark the anniversary on Sunday, the Springer Company delivered 41 million copies of the tabloid’s 'jubilee issue' to every household in Germany. A celebration of six decades of fearless journalism, or a desperate bid to boost circulation? Twenty years ago, Bild sold about five million copies daily; it's now down to about half that.
In April, a video entitled ‘Iceland forgives mortgage debt of its population’ went viral. The 30-second clip, a Spanish-language news broadcast by the Latin American TV network teleSUR with English subtitles, reported that the mortgage relief was ‘a response to citizens’ demands’. Within 24 hours of being uploaded, the report had been watched tens of thousands of times (videos on teleSUR’s English-language YouTube channel often struggle for double digit viewing figures). Activists on Twitter and Facebook hailed Iceland as an example to the world, reposting as they went.
Almost all western media reports of the massacre at Houla on 25 May said that it was carried out by members of the Shabiha militia, irregular forces loyal to the Assad regime. But in two articles for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Rainer Hermann has raised doubts about the reliability of the accepted version of events and offered evidence that rebel forces were responsible.
The cover story in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is entitled ‘Prep School Predators: The Horace Mann School’s Secret History of Sexual Abuse’. Amos Kamil, who left the school in 1982, names several teachers, including the headmaster, as pervs. I was at Horace Mann 15 years earlier than Kamil – class of ’67, near the bottom of the fifth quintile and a great disappointment all round – and knew a couple of them: one was waving his baton as a young music instructor and the other, a large boy, a few years older than I, Stan Kops, later became a teacher at the school. Poor Stan wound up killing himself. I believe he swam butterfly on the varsity swimming team.
I'm not sure this is more urgent than the destruction of the NHS, or the latest recession (remember sherbet dips at primary school? It makes it hard to quail at the notion of the double dip), but I couldn't take my eyes off this week's magnates and moguls parade at the Leveson Inquiry.
The influenza season draws to a close. But the virus isn’t going quietly. Monday 2 April started early for me with an interview on the Today programme about the sensible decision by the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to give up trying to censor papers describing the enhancement of bird flu infectivity in ferrets. I covered the same story for Good Morning Scotland. The benefits of knowing about potentially nasty mutations before they take us by surprise far outweigh any risks from al-Qaida virologists.
Haywards Heath in West Sussex is probably best known for being followed by the words ‘where this train will then divide’ in announcements on the London-to-Brighton line. A commuter town more or less from the beginning (it sprang up around the railway station, which opened in 1841), it’s a boxy settlement with a determinedly dowdy high street and a giant Sainsbury’s on a former cattle market site to serve the socially atomised exurbia surrounding it. Once it had a certain reputation locally on account of the Sussex County Asylum, later known as St Francis Hospital, on Colwell Road. Robert Hounsome, a Brighton-born journalist, writes electrifyingly in his autobiography:
In 1889, Adelbert Wangemann, an associate of Thomas Edison, came to Europe to promote Edison's latest invention, the phonograph. After making some recordings in Paris, Wangemann travelled to Germany, where the Siemens family opened doors for him to be received by the kaiser. On 7 October 1889, Wangemann met Otto von Bismarck, who agreed to speak a few words into the megaphone.
'This is the most humble day of my life,' Rupert Murdoch said after trying to avoid attending and before failing to give satisfactory answers to the Leveson Committee on 19 July last year. It was very probably true, at least in so far as he appears to have entirely ditched humility since that day, or moment. In January, Murdoch opened a Twitter account. For those of you not following him – why aren't you following him? – here's a taste of what you are missing. He does global politics, international finance, domestic UK and US policy on education and welfare, and jokes. Here's a joke from 19 February: 'Miracles do happen! Sun shining in London.' The sun was shining, it was a lovely day. But the following day Murdoch announced the launch of the Sun on Sunday. See? What a tease.
In every journalist, Marguerite Duras said, lies a moralist, and one knows what she meant. Moralism is the one trusty pleasure left to those whose knowledge is marred by their impotence. Modern societies and the internet create plenty of both, and so, predictably, tartuffery is the order of the day. Even bloggers – virtual hacks of no great moral pretensions – can sometimes get sucked in. It can be a challenge, faced with its seductions, to keep one’s feet planted firmly on the moral low ground. Duras might have found Paul McMullan a testing case for her dictum.
Eleven-eleven-eleven is upon us, and the 93rd anniversary of the Armistice. Politicos and telly folk have long vied to out-poppy each other by getting on their red blooms ever earlier in October, and this week the poppy piety has merged with its near-ringer, the death-piety of the Premiership, where it only takes the groundsman’s cat to croak for a minute’s silence and black armbands all round. The entirely proper matter of honouring war dead has been 'overshadowed' by teacup squalls over the England football team’s royal-enforced right to wear poppies and Muslims’ lack of a right to burn them – with, as usual, the red-tops riding shotgun on the catafalque. Thursday’s Question Time panel, sanctimonious even by QT standards, unanimously agreed with the home secretary’s decision to ban poppy-burning, on the strange ground that this 'glorifies' terrorism.
Last week John Humphrys was seconded from the Today programme to present The Future State of Welfare on BBC2. He wrote a piece for the Daily Mail to promote the programme: ‘Our Shameless Society – How our welfare system has created an age of entitlement.’ Returning to his birthplace – Splott, in Cardiff – Humphrys found that ‘one in four people of working age in this area are now living on benefits,’ which he puts down to the ‘perverse incentives’ of an overgenerous welfare system rather than a lack of jobs. But in a piece for Left Foot Forward showing why ‘John Humphrys is wrong, wrong, wrong on social security’, Declan Gaffney points out that only 5.3 per cent of wards in Britain have such a high proportion of benefits claimants, down from 9.5 per cent of wards in November 1999.
Uri Avnery on divisions in the tent protests in Tel Aviv: Something very strange – or perhaps not so strange – happened to the media on this occasion. All three major TV stations covered the event live and at length. Itzik’s speech was carried in its entirety by all three. But in the middle of Daphne’s speech, as if on orders from above, all three stations cut off her voice and started broadcasting “comments” by the same tired old gang of government spokesmen, “analysts” and “experts".
It’s slightly less than a week since my piece on Maurice Glasman and Blue Labour went to the printers, but slightly less than a week is a long time in the crazy circus that currently passes for British politics. Ed Miliband has won a victory of sorts by getting David Cameron to admit that he should never have hired Andy Coulson, but now he has the problem of knowing what to do about Tom Baldwin: if he gets rid of him, he rather diminishes the victory; if he keeps him, he allows the Tories to taunt Labour with being the party that hangs on to its News International insiders. Miliband’s riposte to questions about Baldwin in parliament today – that Baldwin’s line manager when he worked at the Times was Cameron’s education secretary, Michael Gove – is ingenious, but only adds to the sense that the story is descending into farce.
In all democratic societies the relations between politicians and the press are close and problematic. But in Britain those relations developed earlier than anywhere else; earlier even than in the United States or France. Britain was the first society to develop a mass urban industrial working class and industrial-commercial middle class. Its newspapers were a consequence of this, and some, like the News of the World or the Daily Mirror, had circulations without equal in the world. In such circumstances it was inevitable that the political class and the newspaper-owning class – who were often, as in the case of Lord Beaverbrook, the same people – would become intimate, since both thought the press a uniquely powerful instrument of persuasion.
Worried about careless thinking in all the euphoria yesterday at the shuddering on his plinth of Rupert Murdoch, the undersung Labour MP Graham Allen underlined the problem of volume of ownership, calling for 'a proper legal framework, as well as clarity about how many news and media outlets that one person, or one organisation, can own. Until you resolve those questions in six months time we could be back in exactly the same position.' Murdoch already owns too many newspapers and too much of BSkyB. A law forbidding anyone, directly or through nominees, to hold more than a fixed, low percentage of any or all media would build a barrier against invincibility. Belief in Murdoch's invincibility produced Blair's speech of flatbelly abjection before News Corp employees at Hayman Island in 1995.
As The Ballad of Reading Gaol says, all men kill the thing they love. Well, up to a point. Rupert Murdoch may have had a soft spot for the News of the World, but it’s as nothing to his amour propre and love of the power born of wealth. Murdoch knows that the papers now are good at best for pin money. The real aim is to fireproof NewsCorp’s global brand, ensuring that its big airtime account-holders don’t take fright. Then there’s the the BSkyB merger, which, after the consultation period ends today, can hardly go through on the nod, even if Sky News is ‘spun off’. A few hundred workers on a UK rag – 168-year history and all – are, as Hyman Roth says in The Godfather II, small potatoes.
Hosni Mubarak was the Israeli government’s favourite dictator, so it was hard for them, and for the mass media, to say goodbye to him. Coverage of the uprisings elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East has been fairly supportive of the protesters, but Egypt was a special case. As Gabi Ashkenazi, the recently retired head of the army, put it, ‘stability is preferable to democracy.’ The refrain throughout has been: 'Israel is anxiously following events.’ But on 26 January, the Israeli establishment was hopeful that its neighbours would fail in their struggle for democracy. The daily Ma'ariv, under the headline 'Trusting Mubarak', said: 'Israeli officials are optimistic: Egypt will overcome’ – ‘Egypt’ here and elsewhere meaning the despotic administration, not the people.
Big news from the Institute of Mental Health and the West London Mental Health Trust suggesting not only that grandmas don't know how to suck eggs but that there’s much less of it – mental health – around than we imagined. Perhaps imagined isn’t the right word. One thing people with Personality Disorder don’t have is delusion. It’s practically the sole defining characteristic – at least the only symptom not mentioned. At least 4 per cent, or possibly 13 per cent of us suffer from it. In fact, the definition is so broad that it may be we all suffer from it, all of us who don’t actually see things that aren’t there when we’re awake and not drunk or drugged.
Ed Miliband’s well-wishers, his ill-wishers and the press have all made themselves clear: the Labour leader must assemble a bright, coherent and costed programme, as much of it as indelibly precommitted as possible. And Miliband has obliged, telling the party’s national policy forum on Saturday that ‘the strategy that says wait for them to screw it up, simply be a strong opposition, is not a strategy that is going to work for us. We need to do that hard thinking of our own.’
The essential moral of Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ for people who live in a modern western democracy is that when the laughing stops, the emperor is still the emperor. Indeed, he is more powerful for having allowed himself to be laughed at. As for the small boy who pointed out his nakedness, he can deal with him later. In his new title sequence for The Simpsons, already shown in the US and due to air in Britain on 21 October, the graffiti artist Banksy tracks away from the Simpson family on its suburban Springfield sofa to show a subterranean Asian sweatshop making Simpsons merchandise. A child dips images of Bart into a vat of acid, kittens are pulped to make stuffing for Bart dolls, the tongue of a beheaded dolphin licks envelopes, an enslaved panda hauls a cart, an exhausted, broken unicorn punches holes in DVDs.
I was watching The Colbert Report the other night when a picture of my local mosque flashed across the screen. Colbert was covering a story that the Murdoch-owned New York Post had broken a few days earlier: a man had barged into the mosque during a service, cursed at the congregants, pissed on their prayer rugs. 'No one can pray now,' someone had told the paper. 'The rugs are completely soiled. It was disgusting.' So far, so bad. But Colbert (who isn't a journalist) didn't know that the Post journalists (it had taken three of them to file the 168-word story) had got it almost entirely wrong.
The revelation that meat from the bulls Dundee Paratrooper and Parable has been eaten by people created a media storm this week. It happened because the animals were the offspring of the cloned product Vandyk-K Integ Paradise 2, a Holstein cow in Wisconsin. Particular outrage has been expressed by Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA and the Soil Association. They have said that the cloning process causes animals to suffer, and have raised food safety concerns. The Food Standards Agency is the main regulator; it has pointed out that milk and meat from clones and their progeny is a 'novel food' and requires authorisation from them before it can be marketed. They say that this was never sought. I have no doubt that the milk and meat from these animals was safe to consume.
Misperception, willful or naive, is to be expected in US commentary on the Middle East. But it's hard to think of an Arab figure as consistently misperceived as the Lebanese Shia cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who died on 4 July (a holiday you can be fairly sure he wasn't celebrating). In obituaries in the American press (and in poor Octavia Nasr's tweet, which cost her a job at CNN), Fadlallah was, as ever, described as the ‘spiritual leader' or ‘spiritual father' of Hezbollah: never mind that he'd been estranged from Hezbollah since the 1990s. And he was invariably portrayed as a dangerous extremist, if not a terrorist.
The Sky News presenter Adam Boulton names his 'favourite hate figure' in the May issue of Total Politics: There's a classics don called Mary Beard. I think she's the worst kind of modern liberal. Or you could widen it to the London Review of Books.
The way this unlikely story was reported in the Daily Mail, you'd think the Dubai Royal family was setting up in competition with Ryanair (note gratuitous use of the epithet 'free'): A stowaway hid in the undercarriage of a jumbo jet and survived temperatures of -41c at 25,000ft during a free flight into Britain. The jobless Romanian crouched in the rear-wheel compartment during an extraordinary 800-mile trip from Vienna to London on a Boeing 747 owned by the Dubai royal family.
Overhear that something unusually bad has happened in Whitehaven without at the same time overhearing what it might be, and the alarmist mind (mine) scoots recklessly ahead – knowing as it did nothing about Whitehaven except that it’s a town within easy fallout range of Sellafield – to invent a whole montage of pictures and reports of nuclear devastation. Had all the many newspaper and television reporters who were packed instantly off north to Cumbria to serve as intermediaries between events in Whitehaven and ourselves found in fact that they had some sort of fearsome meltdown to report on, they might also have found it simpler to measure up to than the real events they were faced with.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the Tory press’s onslaught on Nick Clegg over the last couple of days. One minute, the Lib Dems can’t get in the news, no matter what they do; the next minute, they’re notorious cat-stranglers. No, it’s even worse: they’re (gasp!) partly foreign! Well, sort of – Dutch mother, Russian grandfather, Spanish wife. ‘Is anything about this man British?’ yowled the Mail. It seemed a self-defeating way of putting it, since the answer is yes – he is.
Reading some of the news reports about the national agreement signed between the CWU and the Royal Mail last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’d secured the deal of the century. Under the headline ‘Pay rise and bonuses for striking postmen’, the Daily Express said: ‘Royal Mail postal workers who caused havoc with a series of strikes before Christmas are to get a pay rise, shorter hours and bonuses of up to £2500.’ Or try this headline from thisismoney.co.uk (owned by the Daily Mail): ‘Royal Mail strikers get more for less work.’
These reports read as if they’re based not on the actual agreement, but on the press releases handed out by the CWU and the Royal Mail.
The New York Times Magazine recently profiled Charles Johnson, who – back in the good old days of Dick Cheney’s ‘Go fuck yourself’ – was an important online player in what one ex-associate of his terms ‘the trans-Atlantic counterjihad movement’. A ponytailed, LA-based jazz guitarist, Johnson was one of those who went a bit nuts after the 11 September attacks. Little Green Footballs, previously a personal blog devoted to web design and bicycle racing, rapidly became the go-to site for defenders of Western civilisation who wished to share genocidal fantasies about Muslims, fret or gloat over the plight of ‘Eurabia’, send pizzas to Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories and so on. Melanie Phillips became its best-known British fan.
Everyone sends out self-congratulatory newsletters these days. Carter-Ruck, the firm of solicitors that 'remains the market leader in defamation and privacy law', calls its newsletter Get Carter-Ruck (geddit?). No prizes for guessing where that quote about being the market leader comes from. It's in many ways a paradoxical document. Since much of what it celebrates is the successful silencing of the press, some of the news is necessarily oblique: The Daily Express has published an apology to Michael Winner. For what? No one can say...
Most African herbalists cause no more damage than dispensers of alternative medicines on our high streets. Every now and then, however, a sinister practitioner will advise a very special client that while roots and animal parts are useful, the most potent medicines are made from human blood, liver, spleen and heart. Yes, it is dreadful, he whispers, but there are unscrupulous people about, and I have heard that your rival is in the market for the stuff. What choice do you have? When one big man is persuaded, his peers are immediately alerted. In consequence medicine murders tend to crop up in clusters, the clients typically rich and powerful men. The anti-human sacrifice and trafficking unit of the Uganda police recorded 26 cases in 2008 and 28 in 2009, and a number of suspects were brought to trial. Enter Tim Whewell of the BBC’s Crossing Continents programme.
When the Toronto Star announced it would be outsourcing 100 editorial jobs, someone sent a copy of the publisher's letter to Torontoist.com, marked up in red ink with dozens of corrections. Point made. (Click on the image to see the whole thing.)
There's a story in the Times about the far-right islamophobic organisation of British ex-football hooligans who call themselves Casuals United. The piece ticks the box for evenhandedness, ending with a quote from a spokesman for United Against Fascism, though it's not clear why the Casuals deserve a whole page about them in a national 'quality' daily. Online, the piece is illustrated with a portrait of the group's leader in a heroic pose, backlit and shot from below, and a picture of the Casuals marching through Birmingham, confrontational but not – yet – violent.
The New York Times Book Review prides itself on its objectivity: no known lovers or sworn enemies are allowed to review each other. In actual practice, this means that the author of a novel about getting divorced in Pennsylvania will extravagantly praise the author of a novel about getting divorced in Connecticut. A political ‘moderate’ will air and then dismiss the ideas in a book by a left-winger; a right-winger will express some mild reservations about an ultra-right-winger; and a left-winger will only be asked to review something without contemporary content (e.g. a feminist on the biography of a suffragette). Edited by Sam Tanenhaus (biographer of Whittaker Chambers and, in progress, William F. Buckley), the NYTBR is predictably softcore right-of-centre.
Swine flu has been spreading in Britain for three months. The virus has got about quite well, although the great majority of infections have been mild. Until two weeks ago reassurance about our preparedness for a pandemic was the order of the day. But the media tone changed with the reporting of the deaths of six-year old Chloe Buckley and Dr Michael Day. Chloe was said to have been infected with the virus but didn’t have the ‘underlying health conditions’ usually present in fatal cases, and Day was the first healthcare worker to have a lethal infection. Coincidentally, the tenor of official public pronouncements altered too. The chief medical officer for England mentioned the possibility of 65,000 deaths. On television he was quick to qualify: that figure was a worst-case scenario, necessary for planning, not a prediction. But the number, not the caveat, got the publicity. There was also a change in the way that case statistics were announced, with a shift from laboratory confirmation to estimates based on GP consultation rates and clinical diagnoses. The overnight five-fold increase in ‘cases’ was inevitable. Lab tests tend to underestimate, and consultation rates increase because of the media coverage.
Britain's isn't the only newspaper culture to make a habit of naming and shaming. Last year in Serbia a national tabloid vilified the human rights activist Sonja Biserko, calling her a traitor and a threat to 'Serbian homogeneity'; it also published her home address. In Kosovo, despite bitter memories of Serbian domination, this practice of whipping up animosity against public enemies, while canvassing a paper's readership for henchmen, hasn't gone away. The journalist Jeta Xharra is the latest public enemy. She presents Life in Kosovo, a weekly televised debate on current affairs for the public service channel RTK.
GQ (formerly known as Gentlemen's Quarterly) has just released some mind-boggling artefacts from the Cheney-Bush Era: the covers – like elementary school reports – of the daily intelligence briefings that the Department of Defense prepared for a few eyes only, and that were often personally delivered by Donald Rumsfeld to the Oval Office. (There's also a background article here.) One of the lessons of Watergate and the investigative journalism of the 1970s was that the wildest stoner rumours of the 1960s turned out to be perfectly true (‘Whoa, dude, I heard the CIA tried to put some powder in Castro's shoes that would make his beard fall out . . .').