Doors of the mind: Ghosts and thresholds in Bowie, Dickens, and the Generation Game

 

I’ve never been able to pass a door in an ancient wall without wondering what’s behind it.

spooky door with ivy

I know the truth is overwhelmingly likely to be mundane, but my subconscious mind can’t help picking out the details: the old ivy growth across it; the absence of any mechanism on the outside; the permanent silence on the other side of the wall.

 

Maybe I’m just nosey, but I’ve noticed that this door brings out different responses in people. Some want to know what’s behind it. Some fantasise what’s behind it. Others want to leave it well alone and walk on.

 

Doors have always been been as much about us as them; what we’ll see and what it’ll cost us. Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. The ones at the end of the hall in Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’, and the ones in his band’s name. In the tales of M.R. James, where they keep the living from the dead, for a while. In Bowie’s inner-demons-themed ‘Scary Monsters’, “opening strange doors that we’d never close again”.

 

 

What’s behind the door? Every gameshow and religion in history promises us that we can find out, if we play it right… but only ever at the end. Jacob Marley’s ghost comes to Scrooge as a door knocker: the future laid bare, if you’re ready to look and close enough to the void to see in. The scores are always on the doors – in the Generation Game just like they are for Marley/Scrooge and doorcheck St Peter.

 

This particular door – the one I pass and wonder about – reminds me of the last moments of ’60s acid guru Timothy Leary. On his deathbed, he fell silent, then as he died, he simply said “Why not?”

 

Maybe that silence from the other side of the threshold made him curious too.

 

Camus, Wim Wenders and a philosophy of table football

 

About to throw this broken table football game out, I took one last look – this time, from the players’ point of view.

Table football

 

Everything can look confused, urgent, overwhelming and dramatic if you get sucked in too close to the action. Existentialist writer and philosopher Albert Camus once said, “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I know it from football.” Camus was also a goalkeeper. Look at this picture, taken from behind the goalkeeper; then picture the game from where you’d play it, holding the handles.

 

The tension between those two points of view drives Camus’ The Outsider (below): between the antihero Mersault’s killing of a man, and society’s judgement.

 

 

It’s no coincidence that the other great existentialist murder story (it’s the opposite of a mystery; you always know exactly whodunnit. It’s a whydunnit, maybe?) is called The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty – famous as Wim Wenders’ 1972 film (below), adapted from Peter Handke’s 1970 book.

 

 

The moment of the shot, and what comes next. Look at it from that goalkeeper’s point of view.

 

That shot. The next second. Life coming at you, thick and fast, non-stop, in the shape of sudden, sometimes seemingly random, arbitrary or inexplicable events. Which way will you dive? Do you decide, or does it just happen? Is that part of the game – the penalty – something you can direct, or is it being done to you?

 

Knowing it’s both at the same time – knowing you are at all times both inside the goalmouth awaiting what comes and dealing with the shots, and viewing the game from above, holding the handles – is consciousness. It’s the goalkeeper’s terrible burden, like it’s all of ours. But it’s salvation too – if you can take that high view when it matters, learn to switch focus, and zoom in and out at the right moment.

 

 

Napoleon defeated, God dead, confidence up: How one London church reveals our secret history

 

This is a short story about what really happens to the things we think are permanent and powerful. And how they may not be at all what they seem.

 

In 1818, the British Government announced a bonanza of one million pounds to be spent on celebrating victory over Napoleon. Buildings, events, whatever. But make it impressive.

 

One result was a rash of ‘Waterloo churches’ such as Holy Trinity Church in Marylebone – designed and built by Sir John Soane, and completed in 1826.

 

(The picture shows its second, outdoor pulpit: a ballsy move amid the noise and thoroughfare, like a rock band promoting a new album by playing loud from the back of a truck. Turn heads, stop traffic. Or perhaps it was a desperate move. More of that in a moment.)

 

London Marylebone church history

 

Yet once it was finished in 1826, the church saw service for barely100 years.

 

By the 1930s, it was derelict. By 1936, it had been retooled as a warehouse for Penguin Books, who figured they could store inventory for longer in its dry, dark crypt. The crypt was down some stairs, lower than delivery vehicles or wheeled trolleys could get. So they put a slide from a children’s playground going from the street down into the darkness below, and used that as a book chute.

 

Since the second world war, it’s been an art installation space (once exhibiting a piece involving a crucified ape), and a Christian publishing office. There are currently proposals to redevelop the building’s interior, and turn it into a shopping arcade.

 

The building itself is a blank page. Every age has written its own narrative of very different kinds of redemption and salvation on it.

 

First, relief at the defeat of Napoleon and the need to manifest the national feel-good factor. Then, with the addition of the street pulpit, the crisis of faith and the urgent need for 19th-century Anglicanism to attract new adherents out there – to propagandise against Darwin and Owen and the ebbing of the tide, to save the religion itself by street preaching to the masses.

 

It was a books warehouse for Penguin amid the great rise in literacy, with the boom of state education, and the pressing need to serve affordable books to this new, empowered readership, lifted from the slums.

 

Post-war, as attendance lapsed, it became offices – a manifestation of the property developer phenomenon that promised to take all that was old and make it new. The regeneration of space.

 

And finally, the new national mission: shopping. Lift yourself and benefit the nation through consumer spend. Retail therapy as patriotic duty. Self service, customer service and service industry as the new national service; religious service, even.

 

After all, the term for converting money and credit into goods has always been “redemption”.

 

 

Review: Why new Ukraine documentary film Maïdan is right to resist the voiceover

 

I was asked to review Sergei Loznitsa’s 2014 documentary film Maïdan for Radio 4’s Front Row programme earlier this week. You can listen to the review, in the form of a stimulating conversation with presenter Samira Ahmed, here.

 

A year on from the massacre of Maidan protestors by president Viktor Yanukovich’s berkut officers, there’s a very real danger of the Maidan protests becoming lost from view.

 

Russia’s black propaganda efforts have been unrelenting – from official attempts to label the protestors ‘Nazis’ and their leaders in Kiev a ‘junta’ to the flooding of commetary with trolls and masking of their own forces as ‘separatists’, protesting in turn. So any document of Maidan that takes us back to first principles – that bears witness, rather than imposing a retrospective interpretation – is welcome.

 

And in a lot of ways, Maïdan is that document. The cameras are simply installed, and left to run, picking up the crowd, in parts and whole. There is no narrator. Or at least, not of the kind of narrator we’re used to in films. More of that in a moment.

In some ways, it’s as much a video installation piece as a film. I actually think the cinema is the wrong place for it: for my first viewing, I sat and watched. It was a strange, gripping but occasionally frustrating experience. For my second, I watched while pottering about, eating and wandering in and out… And it was amazing.

 

It’s a film that invites you to be part of it, in an almost ambient, inclusive way. For long stretches, it even feels like those long, late-night live-broadcast hours they used to do from the Big Brother house outside of scheduled programme time. There’s a screen between you, but there might as well not be. Life is being lived, sandwiches eaten, tea drunk on both sides of the glass. You feel like following buskers past the edges of the frame as they wanderout of shot. Faces in the crowd peer out at points just past your shoulder. But then suddenly – very suddenly – things turn. And by that time, you’re… what… tuned in and on their wavelength somehow. You feel involved, without being offered easy hooks, personal stories, heroes. No leading men or ladies, no leading politicians. You are one of the crowd.

 

In particular, what struck me about the protestors is just how sauntering and adhoc and The Mouse That Roared it all was. Hot drinks are clutched, volunteers make soup. Community centres, street corners become meeting places. They look, for the most part, like people with jobs, and mums and dads, and wholesome aspirations. People like us. Of course, that’s just how they look, and talk, and act. And amid all the noise, that’s all we have to go on. We don’t know them. We don’t follow them as individuals. There are no emblematic stories. It’s as if to say that emblematic stories have caused enough problems already. As a voice cries over the PA when imploring the crowd to remain calm even as the violence begins: “Emotion is your enemy.”

 

Maïdan’s insistence on not entering the mad arms race of over-narration and assertion and theorising all sides were/are being sucked into around Ukraine really does feel like the only sane thing to do.

 

I think that act of asking us to look and see what’s happening, and getting out of the way, is an absolute masterstroke.

 

Maïdan is not bums-on-seats, Hollywood-style commercial dynamite. And yet it feels like something people will return to for far longer. It feels, at times, like we’re seeing cinema stretching itself again, in ways that will have value in decades to come, like The Battle Of Algiers or even Eisenstein.

Of course, those are hardly examples of POV-free filmmaking. Which is, I guess, the twist.

 

Nothing is really that simple. Loznitsa shot more than a hundred hours of footage. We get two. Maybe Maidan does have more in common with narrated or polemical collages like Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake after all.

For me, though, this is where Maïdan gets really interesting. In fact, the longer it goes on, the more snatches of PA appeals for doctors, crowd chants, half-conversations-in-passing, painted slogans, odd shouts, noises off, radio pop songs and so on you hear, the more that circus of voices becomes the chorus, the narrator. It felt at times like those great Robert Altman films, M.A.S.H. (narration comes from tannoy), Nashville (chorus/narration comes from overheard snatches of event PA/DJs on the radio), Short Cuts (character scenes are accompanied by TVs on which you overhear news bulletins of the impending earthquake and crime stuff) etc. If it’s a composition of broken voices in an hour of chaos, maybe it’s our, or Ukraine’s version of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

But even if it is a collage, a composition, it’s one that leaves you alone for long periods, including extraordinarily long static shots.

 

There are no characters. No individual stories are asked to be emblematic of the whole. The subject is the crowd, and your responses to it. And while the camera is there, trained on the square or the refectory like a CCTV or weathercam, there’s no-one telling you what to think. You’re forced to pick your way through those voices and faces and messages… watch, listen and interpret which way things are about to turn as you watch the crowd at that moment. The crowd is all.

 

We don’t get to see inside anyone’s head. We’re among strangers. The anthem swells and disappears. People read demands to Putin. People talk about what Putin’s said back. People make and eat sandwiches. Mill about. Someone strums a guitar. There are moments when it feels closer to the infamous, unreleasable outtake-as-feature footage that made up Robert Franks’ Rolling Stones doc Cocksucker Blues, or Bob Dylan’s abandoned ’66 tour chronicle Eat the Document than anything else. Aimlessness as purpose. Chaos as direction. Crowd as motivational force.

In fact, for the most part – including the endless lulls, the itch to interpret someone coming towards us as a sign that ‘things are about to happen’, the comic moments, the slow-train-crash horror of things turning ugly and uncontrollable, whatever we intend – really is just like being part of a big demonstration/protest crowd. Key events are happening are out of sight. You hear that they’ve happened, or may be about to happen, elsewhere. You’re always reading the mood of the people around you and seeing how things are about to turn/who to be close to and who not/what happens next should someone kick off, etc.

 

This is a huge part of what I take from the film. The beginning really immerses you – sort of stretches your idea of what to expect I think. It’s like those long, fixed-camera hours broadcast live from the Big Brother house, or Andy Warhol films. You start getting itchy feet, thinking ‘When is something going to happen? Why all the waiting around in one place, camera?’ And of course that’s very much the start of any movement, if I recall my Iraq Demo, Occupy and Poll Tax Protest days right.

 

Maybe no-one telling you what to think is the point about revolutions. And about Maïdan. It’s messy. It’s bewildering.

 

And it might only make sense later, when it’s slipping away again.

 

What’s not cool: The UNODC’s demand-side denialism on cocaine

 

A very quick reaction post this one. I just read through the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime’s World Drug Report 2014… and I’m unsure whether the writers are being disingenuous or intellectually dishonest, or how many revisions and blue-pencillings it went through on its way to publication.

 

Consider this tweet.

 

 

 

Now, there’s nothing there that’s untrue, as far as it goes. But let’s look at the graph around use and seizures in the US over that period – a pretty good index of availability, right?

 

Cocaine prevalence & seizure UNODC

So OK, we can see that the US seems to bear that story out as far as it goes. Availability looks like it’s declined, in the major market shown at least. I mean, users aren’t getting their hands on any. Nor are the cops. So it must be down (as the report then goes on to say) to supply-side successes in the War On Drugs. Central and South American eradication efforts are bearing fruit, hurray.

 

No, wait. What? It’s that simple? Crop eradication has meant less availability in the US? Well, that’s not the way it normally works, I don’t think. I mean, the price didn’t go up, not according to users I know. (Anecdotal! But, uh, pretty robust.) And that happens if there’s steady demand but a shortage of supply, right? I mean, that’s a market.

 

Well, let’s look at what else happened between 2006 and 2012 in the major markets for cocaine globally (they’d be America and Western Europe, according to the report). Well, I’m drumming my fingers here. Did ANYTHING happen that might conceivably have led to fewer people wanting to buy cocaine (demand), that in turn led to lower availability?

 

Let’s look at this, from ZeroHedge.

 

Casino Gambling

Oh wow, look: There was this huge dip in gambling spend in the USA over that exact same period! 2006-2012 sure was a dip. So, was there less supply-side availability of bets? Or might something have happened that lowered demand for both cocaine and gambling among consumers in affluent Western markets? God, I’m really stuck as to what that might be.

 

Let’s look at another graph, from Tim Duys’ Economists Review – plucked from among thousands in a hurried and random manner – see if that helps. This is real personal consumption expenditure, and that huge dip is the period we’re looking at.

 

Consumer purchasing power in the recession

OK, look, I can’t ignore this any longer. Was there… was there a recession or something? I mean, if there was a recession in the West, then that would stop consumers spending, right? On stuff, including those nice-to-have lifestyle luxuries like gambling and the odd line of coke, right?

 

Of course. And that’s exactly what happened. But to admit that the recession is largely responsible for the drop in cocaine use would mean two things. First, that the War On Drugs is fighting the wrong enemy, and that supply is not the problem here, but demand. Second, that the war is unwinnable, because you cannot stop goods making their way to centres of demand without somehow addressing those appetites that drive demand. Which means Americans, and Western Europeans.

 

And that means intervention. And that means big government, and investment and education, and all those dirty words that put additional zeroes on Government balance sheets. (Nobody minds if those zeroes are on the military budget, to help eradication efforts in Colombia. But put them into a budget that might stop the next generation paying cartels for nosebag that we then have to pay again for soldiers to go and torch, and that sounds dangerously like nanny state madness, right? Give me strength.)

 

Of course, the report can’t address everything. It may be that looking at the deeper causes of cocaine’s hemisphere-wide blizzard is outside of the remit of the UNODC’s researchers. But it’s a hefty report – 82,264 words including footnotes, to be precise. And the word “recession” appears twice. In references given as footnotes. And neither of those references concerns the reasons for cocaine’s sudden partial disappearance from streets, homes, noses and impounded contraband during the recession.

 

The economy is growing again. Here comes consumer spending. The dirty habit’s ours, not Colombia’s or anyone else’s. That the UNODC can’t seem to address that makes for a dangerous cognitive dissonance that will cost more lives, and plenty more zeroes, in in the coming decade.

 

Well, I daresay a more careful reading will bring out hitherto undiscovered nuance. But for now, the World Drug Report 2014 – or at least the way it’s been edited and represented – feels like a ducked opportunity. The UNODC feels more like an arm of US foreign policy than it’s felt in years. And the War On Drugs feels bigger, and more hopelessly wrong, than ever.

 

You can download the entire report as a PDF here.

 

Rockin’ in the free world: Gorbachev, poppies and the death of Kurt Cobain

If you really want to know about Nirvana – from who killed Kurt Cobain to the rise of grunge and the Generation X tag – don’t listen to the conspiracy theories; ask a historian.

 

Soviet anti-drugs poster

 

The news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide broke 20 years ago today. The anniversary of his death – which probably took place sometime on the 5th April 1994 – from a self-inflicted gunshot at his home in Seattle, has already picked up its fair share of coverage.

 

There are also plenty of silly conspiracy theories. In the parlour game of ‘Who killed Kurt Cobain?’, anyone but Kurt Cobain will do.

 

Yet in historical terms, the story of what happened to Kurt Cobain is much bigger, darker and more mysterious – and ultimately, more important to us all here in 2014 – than the shopworn horror show of celebrity, depression, public addiction and suicide suggests. Like all the great detective stories, it deals in the kinds of details outside the jurisdiction of coroners and local cops. In this telling, the soap opera of a pop star’s life and the frenzied search for clues in the music is a distraction from another, more compelling trail of evidence, leading towards a far larger crime.

 

When American political economist Francis Fukuyama called the Cold War’s close ‘the end of history’ in 1989 – a phrase that gained global currency when he published The End of History & The Last Man in 1992, victorious, insulated America applauded. The rest of us weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Far from signalling the final, settled dominance of Western liberal democracy as Fukuyama predicted, the collapse of the Soviet Union had already led to the re-emergence of ethnic and political loyalties long suppressed – and nursed – by the comfortable stasis of the bipolar world. Because the same Cold War that had kept African puppet states, the Iron Curtain and European ethnic divisions in a kind of stasis for the past 40 years had also kept a little piece of death – the seed of his success and his suicide – away from Kurt Cobain. But it too was free now. And it was looking for him.

 

There’s an uncanny symmetry in Nirvana’s rise and the fall of the established order. The band’s breakthrough sophomore album (and the singer’s eventual albatross) Nevermind went nuclear over Christmas 1991 – the very week Mikhail Gorbachev signed the decree ending the USSR. Just a week later, on New Year’s Day 1992, Nevermind hit Number One, pushing Michael Jackson’s Pepsi-sponsored Bad off the top of the Billboard chart. We woke on that first morning since 1922 without a Soviet Union in the world (it ceased to exist as an entity at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1991) to find that Nevermind had conquered the globe instead.

 

It would be the first Nirvana record for which the band’s traditional way of sharing royalties out by even thirds would end up recarved by Cobain’s lawyers in the principal songwriter’s favour. No more comrades-in-arms indeed.

 

In fact, success had made lots of once-simple things dreadfully complicated for Kurt. Good, straightforward relationships – with his band, his record company, his wife, his fans – had become complex, shifting. They couldn’t be trusted. Everyone wanted something. All relationships and values were now calibrated in terms of money. It was a very post-Cold War feeling indeed.

 

No wonder the monstrous, freakish success of Nevermind led to the re-emergence of all sorts of long-dormant insecurities in Cobain. That happens when you’ve won, chart battle or political standoff. He’d become popular, but was it for the right reasons, in the right way? He worried away at his own worthiness, his authenticity. It didn’t help that he was convinced ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was little more than a cop of another band’s tune. He and bassist Krist Novoselic were consumed with fear that people would see the song for the Pixies rip-off they confessed it had started life as. He didn’t like the fact that he wanted money enough to get heavy on Krist and Dave Grohl about it. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ was a disguised dig at his own watching of every penny royalty. At the moment of his greatest triumph, Cobain was panicked. He felt like an impostor in his own life. And the more he felt like that, the further he retreated into the drug that made it matter less. Heroin. It have him the power to shrug it off. To say: Never mind. (By 1992, with the heroin-chic circus around him starting to reach the fashion glossies, he wrote a letter to fans explaining his struggle with rehab, in luring the phrase, “Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend.” )

 

Would he have been better off without Nevermind’s success? He often seemed to think so. What is beyond doubt is that while a global tsunami of fantastically good, cheap heroin from the former Central Asian borderlands of the USSR might have been the catalyst for grunge’s super-slow, warm’n’fuzzy sound and (to quote Billy Corgan) “I’m fucked up, you’re fucked up” mantra, it was the very worst thing for anyone experiencing exactly those feelings Cobain now harboured, exactly that need for refuge, at exactly that point.

 

Yet the wave of heroin kept building. And its appearance at grunge’s cradle was part of a Faustian pact much, much bigger than any that Kurt could make – or for that matter, Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, or Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, or Hole’s Kristen Pfaff, or Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, or anyone dealing in low-tuned, warm, slack, sludgy sleepwalking music in those melancholic, oceanic, autumnal-looking picture sleeves.

 

The invasion of Afghanistan just over a decade earlier had been the Soviet Union’s most public, costly and longest-drawn-out mistake. Before 1979, Afghanistan’s opium fields exported very little along westward routes. But the CIA’s (and Pakistan’s) assistance for mujahideen fighters resisting the Soviet occupation extended to getting the occupiers hooked on heroin. Production rose, and transportation was provided – Pakistan army trucks coming and going with bales of the stuff every day.

 

At the same time, there is evidence to suggest official (and increasingly desperate) Soviet plans to cultivate Afghanistan as a heroin patch, and to destabilize the West by facilitating supply lines to Europe and the US. (As early as 1971, a KGB directive designated M·120/00-050 outlined Soviet plans to use heroin to destabilize the West. And by 1986, Soviet state-operated freighters were sailing from Soviet Baltic ports, and arriving in Rotterdam, London, Denmark and elsewhere laden with hundreds of kilos of high-grade heroin.)

 

Encouraging it was one thing. Controlling it was another. Like a nuclear arms race that would leave unattended warheads lying around who-knew-how-many unstable, newly independent republics the day Nevermind hit the top, this was the sort of tactic that works during occupation and stasis, but backfires after.

 

The Soviets withdrew in 1989 – crippled by addiction, demotivated, bust. (How very early grunge.) The withdrawing soldiers, quartermasters, pilots, diplomats, drivers, construction workers, kids, all took their Jones with them. Their contacts and supply routes – often officially protected – stayed open for business. And sure enough, a huge problem that had been underground in the ’80s became a huge problem that had gone mainstream. And a system that put its faith in young pioneers, in ideology and the commitment and belief of workers, found itself ill-equipped to survive the point where those young pioneers shrugged, stayed home and jacked up.

 

And all the time, there came more heroin. And with the domestic market more or less saturated, it had to go somewhere. The product was there; the infrastructure was there; the corruption was still there. And now, as the ruble collapsed, came the sudden, pressing need to make hard, convertible currency. Down on the Afghan-Pakistan side, too many people had been making too many US dollars for too long to stop now. And on the now-ex-Soviet side, plenty of people – demobbed people, people whose future inside the system suddenly looked a lot less secure – suddenly found they had an opportunity. A simple trade.

 

South-East Asia’s heroin – difficult to transport to Europe or the US, and therefore invariably expensive and degraded by middle-men – suddenly had a far more attractive rival product to contend with.

 

These were wild times on a new Silk Route. Western Autobahns thronged with Trabis; Highway E55 on the Czech-German border became the world’s longest brothel, cars fitted with blackout screens and grubby curtains rocking and jerking through the bitter winter night. Adventurous tourists and robber capitalists alike swarmed East, overwhelming Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, Almaty and Tashkent with dollars and promises and legally enforceable contracts. And the heroin and the money flowed, aided by police corruption, desperation and the irresistible gradient of supply and demand.

 

Britain, Scandinavia and Western Europe were easy staging points for the now-free-to-travel vessels, trucks and containers of the former USSR. And once you were in Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Liverpool or London, the world – namely, the USA – was your oyster. The cheap heroin that had brought Russia to its knees was too good an opportunity for gangs on both sides to miss.

 

Slacker and grunge in the West, refuseniks in the East, were all borne along on the wave of unassailable apathy by history’s largest release of Afghan opium from a failed war. As a retort to the propaganda of struggle for a brighter utopian future (whether chasing a communist ideal or a floating hard-currency dollar), “Never mind” is pretty final.

 

It’s an intriguing thought. Had it not been for the disaster of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the ensuing collapse of the USSR, would Kurt Cobain have died as he did? Perhaps the bigger question is whether grunge itself could have become so big. Did that specific, one-time-only combination of the Afghan mujahideen, Gorbachev and Reagan, and a newly entrepreneurial network of heroin gangs save us all from LA hair metal?

 

Or perhaps the question is more important still. Maybe all those people in the East who shrugged and turned away from their manifest destiny were part of a more global idea of Generation X than we’d imagined. Maybe their piece of the Berlin Wall was our Adbusters. We’d all been peachy keen recruits to the system, before the shrug. This was history made not by people saluting or rallying, but by people retreating, copping out, shrugging it all off, saying ‘No’.

 

Which brings us back to that silent house in Seattle 20 years ago. Kurt Cobain didn’t die of a heroin overdose, of course. He died because he shot himself. The autopsy revealed large quantities of heroin in his system, alongside plenty of other stuff, mostly prescription Rohypnol and other garbage. Autopsies don’t say where the heroin came from. They don’t talk about why it’s suddenly flooding streets, gigs, friends’ bedrooms, hotels. They don’t address the economics. It takes history to do that.

 

Seattle, the E55, Berlin, Russia, Armenia, Kabul, Rwanda, Estonia, Rotterdam. 20 years later, you can trace more and more lines. Now it’s the West’s turn to retreat from Afghanistan. Opium production has soared during our occupation. It’s going to go somewhere. Maybe we should listen out for it. It’s there, in the music, and the celebrity news too.

 

To steal a 1989 line from Kurt’s hero Neil Young – whose “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” Cobain quoted in his suicide letter – we’re all rockin’ in the free world now.

 

One from the vault: Testing Salvia Divinorum for science

 

Back in 1998, I was part of a team of academics, medics, journalists and psychonauts who created a TV documentary series called Sacred Weeds.

 

 

Over the years, the series has since become something of a cult item. First shown on Channel 4 in the UK and syndicated around the world, Sacred Weeds examined a different psychoactive plant or fungus – Blue Lily, Henbane, Fly Agaric, Salvia Divinorum – in each of its four hour-long programmes.

 

The premise was simple. Each of the ‘weeds’ is used in shamanic rituals somewhere in the world. Our job was to investigate their properties using research, anecdote, laboratory testing, and finally self-administration.

 

Everything was carefully regulated. There were psychiatrists; risk assessments; special import licences; an American ethnobotanist called Daniel Siebert; and a resident cultural archaeologist, Dr Andrew Sherratt. We hired out Hammerwood Park, a near-derelict old stately home near East Grinstead that had once been Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s retreat. We stayed there, slowly working our way through the weeds: their histories, their mythologies, their effects.

 

I was chronicling the production, as well as participating. I remember everything about my own turn as guinea-pig very clearly. But I only discovered the programme on YouTube recently. I present ‘my’ episode – in which I took my turn to be lab-rat for the Salvia Divinorum test – in its entirety at the top of this post. And if you just want to know what a brush with Salvinorin A looks like (how it feels is an entirely different ballgame) the crucial point in the test is below.

 

 

In posting this, I hope I can steer a few people towards the Sacred Weeds DVD. Its on-sceeen graphics are of their time, and for those of us who were there, it feels like there was so much more explored than made the edit.

 

Still, there’s also an almost Open University seriousness to it that feels oddly fresh all these years later. There are no celebrities undertaking personal journeys. It’s not in a challenge format. People speak, and finish what they say, before the camera moves on. And for me, it’s that – and not the on-screen taking of psychotropic drugs – that feels most edgy today.

 

 

 

DOWNLOAD: Cool fabricator: The strange and beautiful case of Tom Kummer

Bad Boy Kummer: The poster for the inevitable biopic

In the course of researching my new book on resignations, I’ve been wading through a lot of parting shots from journalists.

 

Well, they have the public forum. Most of us pass through our careers without leaving a trace. We speak as representatives. We curtail our language. We stick to the script. This makes workplaces strangely preliterate, at least in terms of studying them. In the absence of personal testimony, we need to turn anthropologist.

 

It’s not like that with journalists. Everything they write is a personal testimony. Their/our careers are (often, at least) all footprint. And sometimes, the testifying is all there is.

 

So I’ve been wading through the last flare-outs of Jonah Lehrer, Johann Hari, Jayson Blair and others. And those cases reminded me of another that I’d known more than a decade before. This case never got quite the fame in the English-speaking world; but then, if it hadn’t been for our anglophone insularity, perhaps it could never have happened in the first place.

 

It’s the strange, strange story of a Swiss-German Hollywood reporter called Tom Kummer. He was Germany’s man on the inside throughout the 1990s. Nobody – not the LA Times, not Vanity Fair – could get the access he got; or get the stars to open up like him. He interviewed Brad Pitt about his bogies; Courtney Love about dinosaurs; Sharon Stone about post-structuralism. The world asked: how did he do it? What was his secret?

 

Well, you can guess. But there was a twist to Tom Kummer’s story that nobody saw coming. I wrote a feature about him in Jack magazine back in 2003. So I dug it out. Here it is.

 

It’s not perfect. But it sure is weird.

 

Matt_Potter_Tom_Kummer_1Matt_Potter_Tom_Kummer_2

“Paddy? What a fantastic death abyss!” Why the 1990s were David Bowie’s REAL creative hot streak

 

 

My revisionist piece on the David Bowie’s least-known (but most creatively rewarding) purple patch was published in Sabotage Times today, just as the world hailed his latest offering.

 

I argue that his lost years – Tin Machine, Black Tie White Noise, 1.Outside, Earthling, even The Buddha of Suburbia and his revelatory, manic turn on ‘The King Of Stamford Hill’ from Reeves Gabrels’ The Sacred Squall of Now – chart the progress of an artist pushing into new frontiers that even his best ’70s work could only foreshadow.

 

Controversial? Well, read the piece first. If any essay really needed to start with “WAIT, no please, just hear me out, hang on, WAIT A MINUTE…” this is probably the one. But please, do read it. I’d be interested to know what you think. Warning: Contains scenes of gratuitous (and actually, pretty magnificent) Tin Machine. Well, that’s my disclaimer. The piece is below. You can also read it over at Sabotage Times

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Hallo Again, Spaceboy

Ziggy Stardust? The Thin White Duke? Major Tom? Sure, they’re OK if you like that sort of thing. But anyone looking for Bowie’s real creative hot streak should dig deep into the 1990s, and the singer’s ‘lost decade’…

 

So a new David Bowie single is released, and the world goes mad. Again.

 

If I sound a bit jaded, that’s because – like some Twilight Zone clairvoyant who sees the future repeated over and over again and wishes he could change it – I know every single, horrible little detail of what comes next.

 

The album. The retrospectives. The interviews. The Culture Show. And all of it a slow-motion prelude to the inevitable crash, the reviews. I’ve seen them all, with their endlessly repeated punchline. This year, once again, the world’s combined bright sparks will declare a new Bowie product to be The Best Thing He’s Done Since Scary Monsters.

 

Honestly, it’s not the line I mind. It’s the whole idiot orthodoxy that ‘70s Bowie is a good thing, followed by one 33-year-long parade of duds, duets, drum’n’bass and dotage. Like all orthodoxy, it gets handed down complete: you know what to say without ever needing to go back and listen to the music itself. It’s easy. But it’s also a lie. And it’s one that deprives the world of the chance to encounter some of the man’s very best work.

 

This matters. With Bowie now 66, and the prospect of another run of amazing albums receding, his legacy is confined to what he produced in the 1970s. Yet even now, there are half a dozen albums that belong in that canon. Albums that should be heard; that stand with, or even above, his most famous work. And albums that change our understanding of his career. Because David Bowie’s most creative, unexpected, maverick and artistically satisfying hot streak of all came not amid the glare of ’70s superstardom, but when he set a course right off the map – and away from the charts – in the 1990s.

 

Hear me out. Of course – of course Bowie’s ‘70s was phenomenal: a manic run of 15 albums in a decade that, even if they weren’t all great – stand up Pinups, David Live, Stage and Peter & The Wolf – stand as some sort of record-breaking testament to artistic confidence and sheer stylistic chutzpah.

 

But Bowie in the 1990s was different. His output between 1989 and 1999 is the sound of a decade-long writer’s block being blown to smithereens, and with a manic, questing, sulphurous joy that all the deeper and more genuine for that nobody, least of all Bowie, could take his gift for granted any more. This was Bowie discovering a whole new set of frontiers by going further than he’d gone before.

 

The problem was, nobody could see it at the time. The spectre of David Bowie, rock aristocrat dancing in the streets with Mick Jagger or crooning in a tux at Tina Turner was still too fresh for us to take his volte-face seriously. When he turned round and gave the world his 1990s postcards from the edge, the world asked if he was pulling its leg.

 

In our defence, Bowie himself didn’t seem too sure of himself either, at least to start with. Having belatedly realised that he couldn’t trust the glossy productions to tell him whether the songs were any good, Tin Machine was an exercise in seeing what happened without it. Depressed after the Glass Spider tour, he’d started knocking around with avant-noise guitarist Reeves Gabrels. It was Gabrels who told him to fuck his career, fuck big tours, fuck entertainment and the mainstream: he was David Bowie for Chrissakes. And, well, you can see he was pretty keen to try it, but maybe not sure he’d get away with it under his own name.

 

Tin Machine the album is a slight piece of work. In fact, listen to it today and what strikes you is how much the writing resembles Let’s Dance and Never Let Me Down, just without the breathy sax, syn-drums and white funk arrangements: these are short, shouted-chorus affairs with big, bassy riffs and an eye on live performance. I remember when it came out. We all scratched our heads. Was it another game? A beard for his writer’s block? Why was he trying to be The Pixies? In retrospect, Tin Machine was Bowie’s way of taking his name off the record, an attempt to dispense with the stadium sheen, the sax and star duets, while mitigating the feeling of nakedness and risk. It wasn’t the faux-modest ‘all boys together’ attempt to join a band he got slammed for: it was simply the closest someone this distinctive could get to turning up in disguise at his own pop funeral.

 

He may have been surprised that the world didn’t end. People seemed to like it, or at least tolerate it with more grace than they had the Glass Spider stuff. That alone seemed to cause a change in Bowie’s public persona. Under pressure from his label, the photoshoots for Tin Machine had still been stagey, glossy – George Michael stubble, not grunge stubble. But now something clicked. With his chapter-closing Sound+Vision 1990 touring retrospective and obligatory back-catalogue reissues out of the way, Bowie-watchers watched at he suddenly went dark.

 

But if the lights were off at the mansion on the hill, it was only because strange things were cooking down in the cellar. The decks were cleared. It was time to get back to work. Time to make up for that lost decade.

 

Bowie, like Dylan, like Scott Walker, like all of us really, is at his best when he’s got the fear. When he’s aware he’s wasted time, has some wrongs to right. In other words, when he’s trying. If Tin Machine was a test – did the people want big production numbers, the family entertainer? – Tin Machine II is Bowie at the start of a new creative streak. Criminally underrated at the time, all but unknown now, in a lot of ways it’s not really a Tin Machine album at all, but the first solo album by a reborn Bowie, and one who genuinely could not give less of a shit about sales or charts or what his old fanbase thought. The prescient proto-grunge is gone; the music has a lightness of touch, a melodic intensity, that thrills today, as it zips from haunting to elegiac to disassociated to downright spooky rock’n’roll. And all of it (bar the two numbers at the end he let the band to sing and perform without him) is fantastic.

 

The songs came with an ease they hadn’t for years. Look at the studio session log: Bowie produced more music, wrote more songs, performed more takes for Tin Machine II than for any other album he’d ever made, and in a terrifyingly short space of time, straight after coming off tour. And those songs – even the ones he dropped from the final album or just handed out to soundtracks and compilations, with great titles like ‘Needles On The Beach’ – are uniformly brilliant. ‘Goodbye Mr Ed’ is dazed urban beauty; ‘One Shot’ somehow manages to make what sounds like a cut-up 911 call log sound slinky and seductive; ‘Shopping For Girls’ is the terrifyingly dark (and prophetic) piece on the flipside to the ’90s global-citizen dream. ‘Baby Universal’ and ‘You Belong in Rock ‘n’Roll’ both make groovy pop do things it will never, ever tell its parents about.

 

Best of all, for a man so recently reduced to plundering his own ’70s songbook and styles to the point where he hated himself for it and retired the songs, the album sounds like nothing else he’s recorded before or since. It may be among his best; what it is, beyond doubt, is his most off-kilter. I guess if it has any affinities, it’s with Lodger: not in terms of how it sounds, but just because of its air of defiant oddness, freedom and play by a man in absolute and dead-eyed control.

 

Bowie knew he had a live one. He put a degree of thought into it that would have been unthinkable for Tonight or Never Let Me Down, albums he couldn’t wait to see the back of. The song ‘Amlapura’, an astonishing, wonky, spectral ballad about Bali, reincarnation and love-suicide, was re-recorded with Bowie singing translated lyrics for the Indonesian market. The naked statues on the cover, once they had fallen foul of American Christian groups, had their cocks Photoshopped for Wal-Mart. This was first-rate music and Bowie wanted it heard… So much so that when the head-scratching reviews that should have appeared for the last album were belatedly issued for this (we reviewers overcompensate for missed calls too) and the album was dismissed as a lark, Bowie put some of its songs out on a live album called Oy Vey Baby too, just to give them a second chance at being heard.

 

It didn’t matter. Bowie was still paying for his ‘80s dilettantism. The world still suspected – still suspects today – that the band was nothing but a put-on by an insincere man incapable of anything but dabbling. The indie label he’d issued it on folded. The album struggled to a lowly 126 on the billboard charts. It remains unavailable in any form.

 

So he retired Tin Machine. But he didn’t retire its spirit. The creative nucleus, a writing partnership between him and experimental guitarist Reeves Gabrels, regrouped in 1992 to make the big Bowie comeback everyone had been hoping for. Record company execs were delighted, the public was happy, after all they thought they were finally getting a reliable, Paul McCartney-type heritage rock act they wanted. They got Nile ‘Let’s Dance’ Rodgers on board again, arranged overdub sessions with hot-at-the-time soul singer Al B Sure! and ex-Spider From Mars Mick Ronson, cleared permission for some covers, then sat back and awaited commercial paydirt.

 

Bowie had other ideas.

 

Black Tie White Noise is an album so strange, so subversive, that I’m not even sure I understand it even now, let alone like it. But fucking hell, it was thrilling to have it land. The key was in one of the covers: Scott Walker’s Nite Flights was the former balladeer’s frightening 1978 fuck-you to the mainstream and to the ballads his record companies kept asking him to record. If you know Walker – a personal hero of Bowie – then you know where Black Tie White Noise (that title, another clue) is coming from. The album was made up of ballads (including a Morrissey cover) being taken on a series of lonely walks down a number of very dark alleyways, then snuffed with glassy-eyed precision of a David Lynch hitman, with occasional noise-rock dissonance soundtracking the murders.

 

One ballad especially, ‘Don’t Let Me Down And Down’ sounds hopelessly sappy at first. And that weird accent he sings it in – stilted globish-patois-something. What the hell is going on? Few spotted that the song was a cover of a song originally in Arabic by a Mauritanian singer, Tahra Mint Hembara, that he’d picked up on a CD Iman had brought back from an Arab market in Paris; fewer still that Bowie was singing it as someone – say, the writer – who spoke no English would sing it to an Anglophone audience from a phonetic sheet. Goodbye, soppy ballad; hello again, Brechtian alienation device. The song is no longer about love at all; but about the difficulty of communicating. It’s the immigrant’s lament: no-one hears what I want to say, be it ever so heartfelt or wise, because they hear this stupid inarticulacy. At home I was a surgeon; here I am just your dumb immigrant taxi-driver. It’s ‘Shopping For Girls’ dark side to the peachy-keen 1990s dream again. From Bowie, coming off the back of being burned for Tin Machine II, it’s also an appropriately mute protest. The people I’m speaking to can’t hear past my baggage. We’re all prisoners of who we are. Watch what you say. Everything gets twisted.

 

Coming from a career chameleon, someone who flits effortlessly between discourses and audiences through the ’70s, this is a terrifying confession. It is the moment after the screaming nightmares and recoil of Baal and Diamond Dogs. We’re now squarely in Beckett territory. And the punchline? Nobody noticed. But it chilled me then, and it chills me now.

 

A spooky, cold, playful, expert, fond yet rather sinister act of convention-fucking, the album is Bowie’s Twin Peaks. (In fact, he’d made the movie spin-off Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me with Lynch immediately before commencing sessions.) The music practically dared you to take it at face value. ‘Jump They Say’, the lead single, was a pinprick-eyed krautrock disco number that some said was about his schizophrenic brother Terry, but sounds for all the world like a note telling us that he’s not making the record we think he’s making. For the first time in years, he’s listening to his own inner voices again. Commercial suicide? They say: Jump. Even the TV ad for the album was 30 seconds of complete silence. If anyone ever, ever tells you Bowie’s Thin White Duke period sounds arch, cokey and Replicanty, play them this. It’ll terrify them.

 

Black Tie White Noise was the coded warning. Then Bowie jumped. And shit got real.

 

From his soundtrack for the BBC TV adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia – a killer single, haunting, ambient instrumentals, off-beam dance grooves, issued with zero marketing then almost immediately deleted – Bowie discarded all the maps. A hymn to South London by way of Philip Glass, the Kray twins and East Germany, it felt flash, flick-knifey and pastoral, druggy and decadent and wistful and folky at the same time, acoustic guitars blending into drones and deep beats. It was a hell of a trick to pull off, and it sounded nothing like Low or “Heroes” either. Again, he seemed to be enjoying flying under the radar – the book’s multi-culti England became his brief, his jumping off point, just as his train journeys through the East had inspired Low. It is an astonishing album.

 

It came out with the book TV tie-in cover on the sleeve. Someone at the record company got hot-at-the-time soul-rock crossover muppet Lenny Kravitz to overdub some rockist guitar on the title track and issued it as a single. Nobody noticed.

 

As his creative roll gathered speed and power, it spun him further and further from what his record company kept telling journalists. You could almost sense his publicists’ glee as he announced he’d do the next album with Brian Eno in Montreux… and their despair as he returned with something like 20 hours of a cut-up music theatre piece influenced by Nietzsche, Einstein, body modification, ‘50s film noir and the concept of a digitized future.

 

That became a triple CD, then a single album. It was called 1.Outside. It was fantastic. Songs like ‘Thru These Architects’ Eyes’ and ‘Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ were hit singles from another universe; ‘Leon Takes Us Outside’ and ‘We Prick You’ show the kind of controlled theatrics even Berlin-era Bowie never had, and outtakes ‘Nothing To Be Desired’ and ‘Hide Me’ show the Bowie/Eno axis throwing caution overboard, free-associating and sparking more amazing ideas per bar than most artists manage in a lifetime.

 

What’s really odd, in retrospect, isn’t the music, but the reaction to it. It became a critical truism that he’d ‘gone techno’ – even though the music itself really only suggested it in as many places as it suggested avant-garde cocktail jazz or Dashiel Hammett. Fans and critics alike asked why Bowie insisted on doing this weirdy stuff, and sniggered at the idea he’d stoop to some sort of futuristic narrative with story interludes – as if Diamond Dogs and The 1980 Floor Show had never actually happened. They wanted unpredictable Bowie to be good old Bowie, doing the hits, like he always used to. Me, I was glad to have music this different and dark and amazing, and when it failed – and there are moments on 1.Outside when he overreaches badly, just like there always had been on Young Americans and Diamond Dogs and the rest – that was OK too because, well, just watch him blazing away.

 

Bowie was clearly having the time of his life with this new material too, and that manic joy just explodes from anything and everything he did in the 1990s. His next appearance was probably the single most savage, thrilling, hilarious and joyful performance he’s ever recorded, a split performance (‘duet’ just doesn’t capture it) with actor Gary Oldman on the track ‘The King of Stamford Hill’ from Gabrels’ solo album The Sacred Squall Of Now. Recorded as part of an abandoned adaptation of Steven Berkoff’s London gangland play West, it is an almost unhinged cry of power, fury and liberation. Gabrels and the drummer are clearly trying to race each other to the end of the song, Oldman performs his best Dickensian Cockney commentary and Bowie is in character as a pissed-off Hackney gangster who’s had just about enough. Someone’s stolen his turf, and he wants it back. (Put that in your career timeline.) The key moment is Bowie’s refrain, “Ain’t it fucking curious, some other cunts are trying to ditch the king of Stamford Hill”, and to this day it remains my favourite performance by either Bowie the singer or Oldman the actor. Snuck out on Gabrels’ album, like Tin Machine II, Black Tie White Noise and the Buddha soundtrack, it zipped over the heads of Bowie fans and critics who seemed to want their Bowie to become a jukebox again, like the Stones or Paul McCartney.

 

Yet that glinty-eyed mania, that sense of creative liberation, was something you could practically smell at the gigs. The tours around this time were a hoot. Out with Nine Inch Nails, Morrissey, whoever fancied taking him on, Bowie and the steady group of outcasts who’d coalesced around him and Gabrels would confront, subvert and strobe-fuck the audience.

 

He gigged at parties, he gigged in stadiums, he gigged incognito at festivals (as Tao Jones Index, sometimes even opening for David Bowie and performing electronic noise versions of ‘V2-Schneider’ and whatever else he felt like taking apart). This was Tin Machine by another name – a secret, low-pressure way of shedding (then grilling and eating) his career albatross. Searing new arrangements of old hits, extended, deepening grooves that sucked you in like whirlpools then spat you into the middle of somewhere you thought you’d known but now weren’t sure: I took some acid along to one gig, only to nix the plan the moment the music started, just because I wanted to be 100% sure it really was this off-the-map.

 

This live-without-a-net vibe informed 1997’s Earthling – probably the prime document of this period, and the single Bowie album of any period to which I return most often.

 

Every song was a single, the band was tight, and Bowie the performer and songwriter and bandleader was stomping all over it with the sublime confidence of a man who knows what he’s got. His partner in crime Reeves Gabrels was all over this one, playing punkish provocateur to Bowie’s purer pop sensibilities. The pair egged each other on, taking on dares and imposing seemingly insane rules. ‘Little Wonder’ was to include the names of all seven dwarfs in its lyric, in such a way that nobody would notice. (Nobody did.) On ‘Looking For Satellites’, Bowie told Gabrels to divide his guitar solo into four parts, each using just one string on his guitar (E, A, D, G) and keeping it in constant 16th notes. The result is as amazing as it is unlikely, Bowie by way of Beefheart. The whole album, the whole exercise, is stunning.

 

‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’, ‘Battle for Britain’, ‘Telling Lies’, even uncharacteristically chirpy single ‘Little Wonder’ with its unforgettable video, would have made this the debut album of the year. This is some of his best music. Not since Scary Monsters… but his best music, period. Critics called it his drum’n’bass album, but again, it’s pretty hard to hear what they were thinking of, or why its skewed electronics make it more of a drum’n’bass album than, say, Blur’s 13. Time Out berated ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ for being racist with regard to Americans.

 

Every artist needs honest engagement to survive. Even Dylan at least got booed when he went electric. But 1990s Bowie got second-hand feedback from people who heard everything but the music, bought the lazy orthodoxies, told him he’d made a techno album, or joined a pub-rock band, or whatever, and really just wanted Rebel Rebel. The Earthling tour ended. The Buddha of Suburbia suffered the ignominy of being deleted. And then, perhaps having realised nobody was listening, or perhaps having run his own energy reserves down – just as he had after his 1970s hot streak – something changed. As the 1990s ended, it seemed Bowie just ran out of fight.

 

The result was a retreat – probably the first artistic retreat (as opposed to a misstep) he’d ever really made.

 

1999’s Hours… was like some horrible act of public contrition for being so risky and abandoned and downright weird for the past few years; an exercise in showing everyone he’d shed the neophyte nonsense, and could be trusted to be good old David again, honest. There he was on the cover, cradling the dead body of the crop-haired, goateed 1990s Bowie. The music is… I don’t know. To me it sounds like a songwriter going, “I haven’t a bloody clue, you tell me: is this what you want?”

 

Thus began the most depressing rehabilitation in pop history. The retreat continued, Bowie enlisting his ‘70s producer Tony Visconti and a host of heritage rock guests (Pete Townshend, Dave Grohl) and started a career as David Bowie, national treasure, even touring 1976’s Low album in its entirety together with Heathen (2002). He took to curating his own established body of work instead of adding to it in any meaningful way. Gabrels, his demon familiar for a decade, was out. Tasteful, Tonight-style covers – of George Harrison, Neil Young, The Pixies – were back in. Heathen and Reality (2003) were just fine, if you came to hear something that made noises a bit like David Bowie. They contained precisely nothing remotely new, unexpected or off-message. Those bug-eyed, mind-bending 1990s albums were squeezed out of conservative, crowd-pleasing setlists. It was a numbers game again.

 

Me, I’m not surprised he wanted a whole ten years away from the game after he had his heart attack on the Reality tour. Where’s the fun in being a waxwork?

The real tragedy of Bowie’s career isn’t that he frittered away his credibility on the production sheen, superstar duets and auto-pilot albums of the 1980s. It’s that by the time he conquered his monumental writer’s block and set off blazing a crazed trail of deep, searching creativity that even his ‘70s work only foreshadowed, the world had stopped listening.

 

Or perhaps it’s that we only took him back to our hearts again when he came to heel, stopped challenging us and became a David Bowie impersonator. Lately, belatedly, people have started to discover 1990s Bowie. Gary Numan and XFM’s Eddy Temple Morris have both come out as fans of the earthling, while in 2010 Uncut called Tin Machine II one of the most unfairly overlooked albums in history. Well, small pockets of resistance and all that. We could form a support group. There’s four of us now.

 

So here’s the new single. It’s elegiac, quite lovely. It quotes his past, talks about his Berlin period. The critics are falling over themselves to praise it. And any minute now, here comes the album. And if it doesn’t sound anything like the David Bowie album you’d hoped it would be after all these years away? Be careful what you wish for.

 

A modest proposal: or, how to save journalism, make money and safeguard self-regulation… by killing content

 

In this post, I suggest a way forward for journalism, both for journalists and media companies struggling to make content pay.

 

But the future sketched here is about more than keeping (making) content financially viable. In the aftermath of the Leveson inquiry, I believe it could also be a way out of the regulation/self-regulation impasse. I suppose it involves changing the definition of content, and probably journalism too.

 

It’s a longish post, but perhaps of all of my posts, I hope you read this one. I’d really welcome your input.

 

A few of my tweets like this one last week stirred a bit of interest among fellow journalists, academics and researchers. What the tweets proposed was something that, at the time, seemed like a sensible move: to post my research for my next book of non-fiction reportage – my interview transcripts, my documentation, my letters and emails sent and received, my offcuts and outtakes – on this site, either as PDFs or ebooks, free or with a donate button for anyone who enjoyed the book and thought them worth the effort.

 

Originally, this post was to be a response to these requests to me, to flesh out those tweeted thoughts. But the more I thought about it, the more possibilities I believe they open up, not just for me, but for journalism and the business of news as a whole.

 

The tweets came as a result of a conversation with my US publisher. He was telling me about an American comedian called Louis CK. A household name Stateside, Louis has begun distributing his work direct to consumers through his website – audio, video, live show tickets – together with notes that talk about how it’s funded, and where the money goes. I thought it was a nice touch. Then went home to bed, woke up the next day, went to work, and forgot all about Louis CK.

 

By ‘work’, I mean I’m a writer, journalist and editor. My day job is more the latter. But I also write investigative current affairs/history/non-fiction.

 

Now, there are some things inherent in what I do as a journalist that, to me, seem more and more nonsensical; destructive even. I’ll deal with two of them here.

 

1. We as an industry champion output, and treat material as if it doesn’t exist.

 

There are all sorts of reasons for this. Probably the main one is the fact that most journalists come from arts/humanities/language backgrounds. They/we polish, lionize, quote, stand or fall by the bit where they/we communicate, and the words they/we choose to do so. They/we consider our/themselves artists – ‘creatives’ – not manufacturers or processors.

 

But content goes through many different stages even before it is consumed, and only the first (the pitch, the angle) and the last (the execution of copy) are really acknowledged. They are the glamour parts. The parts witnessed by the public at large; the auteur’s inspiration and star’s tour de force.

 

In fact, what looks direct, perceptive, original or revelatory (when you get it right) is only the refined, elevator-pitch presentation of a larger body of material. None of the participants in this long, crucial stage – sources, fact-checkers, other media and material consumed, databases, editors, sub-editors – are ever acknowledged, less still picture-bylined. But without them, the piece would be (actually, often is) a woolly, unformed piece of bluff and bluster. Or, ahem, a columnist.

 

As I was writing this, Mark Earls of Herd fame put it well in a short post on CERN and Higgs-boson that talked about science as collaborative, cumulative process rather than big reveal. That’s science. But in fact, when you’re a journalist writing a long project, or a piece reliant on copious research (a book in the history/current affairs/politics/economics bracket like my last, for example) most of what you do, in terms of working hours, sweat and sheer headspace, is collaborative. You’re working with partners, present and absent, human and material, in obtaining, verifying, sifting, ordering research material. Like a detective, or a scientist.

 

Some of it makes it into the final draft for publication in one abridged form or another. But 99.9% – more – stays on my hard drive, in folders, Word documents, emails, downloads, voice recordings, transcripts, web archives, and whole swathes of copy that just doesn’t fit my final purpose, or my editor’s.

 

That’s how it is for most of us outside of the columnist or reviewing sphere. The material, evidence, documents, transcripts and outtakes informed my conclusions; but the nature of the cut means that (barring a court case or a polite speculative approach) nobody else gets access to it. Which means that people must choose to like, love, hate, disagree with, litigate, applaud, ignore, our final, polished work. (Also that, given a certain amount of proficiency and care in the writing itself, it can be hard to tell responsibly produced, well-researched output from lazy or inaccurate journalism.) And while editing is necessary, consigning the nine tenths of your work that doesn’t make that final edit to oblivion seems profligate, too.

 

Catherine Baker, a lecturer in 20thC history at Hull University, agrees: “In co-authoring the book I’ve been working on, really agonised about what to do with the transcripts. So rich, yet so much cut,” she tweeted in reply to my original post.

 

So I began to wonder, in the age of crowdsourcing, search and open data, what other authors and researchers, historians, students and whoever else, could do with their research.

 

To put it to good use, for them and for the wider world.

 

2. When it comes to research of our own, we’re all working blind, alone, and against the clock.

 

A far more pressing frustration for the jobbing journalist/non-fic author/reporter is finding good, robust, verifiable material. Journalists and media organizations don’t share material. You expect that, to some extent – even when collaboration would help everyone. Less comprehensible is that media organisations, newspapers, hell individual journalists, don’t even pool their own material.

 

So everything starts new. Every 1,000-word deadline starts with a blank page and a blank mind. Then a phone call to someone who’s a well-known rent-a-quote in the field, or whichever organisation’s press office re having the best day. Cuttings services like LexisNexis are great, but even they only show us stories other people have already run.

 

This is why there are so many bad stories, non-stories, and stories you’ve read a million times before out there. It’s why under-fire, understaffed, unbriefed newsdesk and weekly magazine staff find themselves pressing Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V and uncritically flowing in press releases and corporate/police/government statements; it’s why press releases themselves are so often poorly written, unsourced cobblers, and the ‘content’ for which the public is asked to pay plainly, demonstrably, untrue. In fact, this churning of non-information into non-content may offer clues as to why – even when it’s freepeople in the UK are turning away from news.

 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining because it’s tough to access good material, or because in the current economic climate publishers see content as an unfortunate overhead, and are cutting editorial staff to the point where research time is a luxury, then time-sheeting their editorial and journalistic staff so tightly to words per day that only output is rewarded, and research effectively penalised. I’m also not saying this is the only thing that happens. There’s still a lot of great research being done by journalists. But they’re mostly working alone, or in pockets.

 

So what if media organisations, journalists, publishers, journalists, content creators, people like me, were to make their material – the raw data, the documents, the offcuts and outtakes, the transcripts, the workings – open, available and searchable too?

 

Not all of it – I can understand there’s plenty they’d want to keep back for future use, or to withhold for reasons political, strategic, commercial, financial or legal, or just because they want to use it in a future piece. But being realistic, the great majority of anyone’s material isn’t any of these things.

 

The odd thing is, it sometimes happens – or at least, bits of it do. Science and law bloggers routinely link to any sources they refer to. And while I understand why some media brands don’t want to link to their competition everywhere, newspapers like the New York Times are already doing just that on their blogs.

 

Bad Science author Ben Goldacre has written well and at length about his frustration that even sites of record such as the BBC website don’t link to (or even host) original research sources in its reporting on science. In the same way, he argues that researchers publishing findings – for example, success in a trial – should also be required to publish, probably upfront, the aim, method and sample size of the trial; as well as records of any previous (failed) attempts to achieve the positive result they sought at the outset.

 

His main argument is that failure to do so deprives the reader – member of the public, journalist or fellow scientific researcher – the means to engage with the research, or even the subject. It’s like presenting a final number as fact, without revealing first principles, assumptions, processes. In this view, making your material available allows others to progress, debate, refute, use your work for the common good.

 

He also argues in his book that failure to adhere to these practices of transparency actually deprives their eventual pronouncement – the ‘story’ they tell – any context, and therefore real meaning. The public simply hears that red wine/chocolate/cats/marriage [delete as appropriate] are good for you/bad for you/cause cancer/cure cancer [delete as appropriate], without understanding why you might say such a thing. The oddball scientist in the castle has spoken. Oh well, they’ll speak again tomorrow, probably telling us the opposite. Carry on regardless.

 

Now, for what it’s worth, I think Goldacre is dead right. But I also think he’s wrong to stop with the reporting of science. I can see the same benefits and dangers in everyday journalism.

 

Now I’m not, NOT, pretending every piece, every book, every thesis, holds as much interest, or can serve the public good in the way that knowing the full story of a set of cancer drug trials would. But imagine how powerful it would be for a journalist (or publisher, or author, or editor, or blogger) to release the research relating to their story, in full, for each story (within reason and limits).

 

But is it desirable? Surely, yes. That way, journalism’s great store of research and data would become part of the open data movement, allowing for more accurate insight, more responsible reporting, greater research literacy among the journalistic class, connections to be made with access to a huge body of research, more robust defences against vexatious legal challenges and better researched articles.

 

Practical? Eventually. The backlog of research material would be raw, it would be held in disparate places in different formats, at the beginning. It wouldn’t always be made public, just more often. But it would be there, for other journalists, researchers, historians, detectives, inventors, entrepreneurs, everyone, to sift, if they wanted to.

 

3. What do we think would happen, then?

 

Maybe… nothing. Maybe none of the workings or materials on which we journalists base the few words we finally write and publish (few in comparison to the masses we acquire, produce, read, process) would be of any immediate use. Maybe those interview transcripts or briefings or notes or press releases or letters or emails would become something of an unvisited library. I don’t think so, but it’s possible.

 

Here’s what I think. At the very least, I suspect that adopting a norm in which the expectation is that a selection of workings towards the story – however redacted and piecemeal – are made available by journalists writing important stories would have an impact on journalism. And were journalists’ notes and transcripts already open, a journalistic year characterised by Johann Hari’s Orwell Prize being revoked, the circus around the Leveson Inquiry, the irresponsible and inflamatory journalism at Richard Desmond’s media empire exposed by reporter Richard Peppiatt, the scrapping of the PCC, the wider debate around self-regulation vs regulation for the British press, and more besides, would have unfolded very differently.

 

And as for how much it would cramp journalists’ style? Well, the code of practice already exists in the blogosphere, where the stock of trust (and the need to prove what you say with citation and link) has been historically lower.

 

Wikipedia editors, Redditors, PhD students writing theses, even undergraduates on dissertations, by and large, manage to achieve higher standards of transparency than most mainstream journalists or non-fiction authors. Hell, Johann Hari in his new role as GQ feature writer is forced to reference original sources for every claim he includes.

 

For Hari, it probably feels like the journalistic equivalent of being electronically tagged. But for an industry suffering a crisis in confidence, adopting this as a standard might just be a way to regain public trust on one hand, and do something genuinely useful, even philanthropic, with all that data on the other. Nobody hoovers information, statements, photographs, evidence, like other journalists. Right now, the majority of it – and we’re talking inconceivable volumes – just is taking up space in the darkest recesses of archiving operations in medialand’s backyard (in the case of staffers) or forgotten on home PCs (freelancers).

 

British journalism’s lax attitude to our used and unused material is not the norm, after all. I’ve written in Germany and the US. And in both of those places, I’ve been fact-checked by my editors. That never happened once in the UK. They ring you up, request your interview MP3s, ask for documents, original notes, witnesses to incidents. It felt great actually, like getting a quality kitemark (I passed). But even there, once the laborious process is complete, those documents are discarded. The in-house editors can review some of your evidence, but the readers, researchers, authorities, students, thinkers, even businesses who could benefit from trawling your research, and even begin to crowdsource aggregates and databases, who could stay blind.

 

4. Why should a successful news or content company care? They’re doing OK as it is.

 

It’s all very well for me to suggest journalists go around surrendering their raw material, but come on, no media organisation is going to sanction that, less still give you the time each day/week it might take for an already overworked staffer to do their personal data dump onto a CMS.

 

I mean, who’s going to foot the bill? Where’s the return? There’s just no money in it.

 

Well, maybe there is.

 

Because once you start to see journalism in these terms, you start to see a possible way off the horns of the terrible dilemma on which news outlets are caught.

 

It’s clear by now that people don’t tend to pay for news online – hell, they don’t tend to pay for much content of any kind online. The only news/content brands that people seem prepared to pay, either in significant numbers or with significant sums, to consume online are those dealing in information. For businesses, that means The Economist (which has long promoted its Economics Intelligence Unit as a credibility builder and a subscriber benefit) and the FT. Elsewhere, it means academic journals, research body digests, even specialist collation services.

 

So I want to suggest that the failure of other media organizations to monetize content has much to do with the reductive way in which they’ve treated what they themselves do.

 

What I mean is, of course people won’t pay for content online. The content you’re expecting them to pay for is so very paper-thin (no pun intended). If news is a headline and brief report surrounded by what comedy duo Mitchell & Webb nail beautifully here as “uninformed ad-hoc reckons”, then it’s the air we breathe.

 

The cavalier way the UK’s daily papers treat issues of accuracy, attribution and intellectual property themselves (copying and pasting from news services and other sources then adding house bylines – it’s happened to me several times – is pretty much standard practice; while even the Editor of Murdoch’s much-hyped Daily was reduced to imploring his staff not to “just scrape the newswires”, kind of give the game away. Content, as defined by big media, is now the air we breathe, and people won’t pay for it.

 

And of course, now there’s so little to it, a quarter of us don’t even want it for nothing.

 

So people do not pay upfront for journalistic content any more. So news has to be written into broadcasters’ charters. Newspapers make losses offline and on, and those that persist and thrive do so because they are subbed by people or organizations with deep pockets – Alexander Lebedev, News Corporation, the Guardian Trust. So time and money spent on producing the stuff is all loss-making. It’s all an overhead. No ROI. So it’s produced on a shorter, slimmer and more threadbare shoestring. And of course the product gets worse. Until nobody at all will pay for it.

 

5. But what if we see content differently?

 

What if we stop thinking of it as content? (I hate the bloody word anyway. Like: we have this thing, and we’ll now fill it up with content. When it’s all we’ve got, and it keeps escaping our brand and our paywalls and whatever else we try to pour it into, and getting free, then personally I reckon we’d better start calling it something a little more respectful.)

 

So we stop pushing the content (I’ll still call it that for the purposes of this piece, don’t worry) at all. Maybe we still produce it, in the same volumes we do now. More, whatever. It’s great for brand, for shares, for reach. But we never ever ask people to pay for it. It’s our radio-play single.

 

Instead, we… what?

 

We ask people to pay for what we do, 99% of the time. We do what The Economist and Bloomberg and the FT do. We ask people to pay for our intelligence. Our data. The stuff that nobody ever sees. The stuff that is so rich, so huge, in such volumes, so impossibly labour-intensive and dense and often raw, and copious, that the discourse around “stealing”, “pirating”, “taking”, distributing” it is laughable.

 

So we give what we currently call our content away, and make what we can through advertising.

 

This – the raw content, data, evidence, transcripts, documentation and research – is what we paywall.

 

Access to the entire payload is a subscriber or purchaser benefit, with unlimited searches and downloads. Micropayments allow one-off searches by non-subscribers. Reports pulled on data can be ordered for more.

 

The news carrier – the website, and in some cases the paper – then has a clear role. In breaking news, in coming up with new investigations and angles and so on – that is, in creating great content – it will become the most searched, most shared, most read, most talked about, and they point, link and refer users consistently to their own data and investigations, behind the wall.

 

This system rewards news media with original content, and thorough research. That is, it rewards good journalism.

 

The losers will be those papers that scrape the wires, and who practice ‘churnalism’.

 

Of course, I’m not claiming that anything like a significant number of readers would want access to this material on anything like a regular basis.

 

But with the boom of data journalism, the atomisation of research and the blogosphere, students and academies, marketing and ad agencies, PRs, publishers, private companies, public bodies, lawyers, scientists and the due diligence sector all hungry for information and background data for the key public narratives of the moment, a potentially large B2B market opens up with a tolerance for far higher subscription fees.

 

Essentially, it’s a recognition that the world is changing, and the methodologies of the business world that were meat and drink to Bloomberg, The Economist and the FT are increasingly appropriate to other walks of life, from reporting on education, politics, society, government, local community, sports, world news, and so on.

 

What it also also does is provide the newspaper and its journalism with near-absolute credibility. Here’s our story, and if you care to come inside, you can see how we arrived at it, and view the full transcripts. Check our facts. (In my experience with vexatious litigants, spin doctors and panicky PRs, this will also lead to a step-change in the way they do business. Any editor will tell you, that will make life a lot easier.)

 

Right now, that’s looking like a smart way out of the regulation straitjacket the fourth estate is wriggling about in, post-Leveson. If our plea for self-regulation is going to work, it’s got to mean something. So how about this?

 

But to be absolutely clear, in my view the release of research and workings and offcuts and evidence is an exercise worth undertaking regardless of the financials, simply because at this point in the game it is looking more and more like the only responsible course. To open up our research and our data and our workings, in the way that good science and public initiatives do, in the knowledge that others can find uses for it that simply aren’t ours, is the right thing to do, and not just because it’s a sop to those who would look to regulate the media, or because it might stave off financial ruin and ensure our independence.

 

I filled my latest book, an investigative piece on arms-running and government collusion in smuggling networks, with citations and sources. I had to, and it had nothing to do with my publisher’s lawyers, although they were happier for it. I did so for two reasons.

 

One, I knew that there was a very good chance it would become a record of the very niche business (smuggling by air) I was chronicling, so I wanted to make it easier for people to track down the primary sources I used. (Most of the approaches I’ve had about Outlaws Inc come from either movie and TV people, historians, or arms monitoring and law enforcement, and most of them have asked me for further detail for which I’ve had to go back through lost and unnamed computer files, discarded cuts and packed-away boxes of notes. I sort of wish I’d made my work easier for me to search…)

 

Two, because I knew that without them, so much of what I had found out would seem incredible.

 

So, it helped readers, and it helped me.

 

If I’d thought about it at the time, I’d have done more than that. It took me 15 years to research, and if I’d known I was going to produce a book at the beginning, I’d have been more careful with the early records I took.

 

So, for my next book, and for any pieces I write here, I’m going to try something that goes further, and I’d like to know what you think. I’m going to publish, here on my website, my workings. That means not just documents I gather, but transcripts of interviews, sketches I make, notes I take. Even outtakes from the finished, cut and published text.

 

I’m going to do it because I think it’s a good idea, and it rewards readers who enjoy the book too, just like a good bootleg of outtakes rewards the music geeks who enjoy a particular album. But mainly, I’m going to do it because I think it’s the right thing to do.

 

In my own daft way, I sort of think it’s an idea that could catch on. And that if it did, it might just do some good, and even restore some of the faith we’ve lost in journalism.

 

It could become a best practice; an expectation; a norm. Self-regulation people believe in? Well, stranger things have happened.

 

I’m game anyway. A one-man norm. Open reportage. Starting here, with the materials I’m gathering for my fifth, or second, book, depending on what you’re counting. It’s going to be a bit like being a good scientist. Or an open-data project. Or a Wikileaks of the self.

 

Or just a journalist who thinks there’s still a way to save self-regulation, if we’re honest, optimistic and foolhardy enough.

 

OK then. I’ll leave that there.

 

5. Questions for you.

 

What do you think? I’m genuinely interested. Who’s in favour/against in principle? Who thinks it would be cumbersome? (Please don’t say “unenforcable”, because I’m really not suggesting anyone enforce anything, just that we begin to adopt it as a practice one by one, if we want to.)

 

Anyone already doing this? Anyone got any experience from other industries? What are the problems with this approach?

 

Feel free to push back, to ask me about financial models (I have some ideas, but this probably isn’t the place to go full dweeb), tear my thinking down.

 

I genuinely will publish and engage with all sincere comments on this.

 

UPDATE: 11/7/12
Dr Catherine Baker (quoted above) has made some points that I wish I’d considered. The conversation was on Twitter, and I’ve string all of her tweets into one passage here. They are unedited, but for the expansion of sentences/words from ‘twitterese’ to regular grammar/spelling (ie: ‘ppl” becomes “people”) and the words in parentheses, to indicate what in my tweeted question she was referring to.

 

“Good luck. In UK higher education, funding bodies are moving that way, I think – they want the datasets they fund to be open. At the same time, if a norm develops that “everything you tell interviewers is published,” would that dissuade some people coming forward? And not just for privacy reasons as such – interviewees often worried about seeming silly or irrelevant. (Which they are not!) At least one academic did publish all transcripts online, though: Jonathan Pieslak, to accompany Sound Targets, [his book about] US soldiers/music. So an opportunity is definitely there. I might design it into future project, but accepting interviews themselves might be different. [if they know everything is potentially going to be open]. Interviewees are always in some kind of performance mode (lots of oral history literature on this actually!), the question is which!”

 

MP: Catherine’s point about interviews is a good one, and I’m not sure how to address it to everybody’s satisfaction. I guess my response would be that, for journalists, there would still of course need to be conventions such as on-record and off-record interviews; and I’m not suggesting an enforced norm. It may be that a lot of the interviews we gather have to be redacted, and a lot can’t be released. But in the words of the supermarket, every little helps. As for performance, I think Catherine has hit the button. Everyone’s performing anyway – you wouldn’t believe the number of times each week I become aware that I’m being played, or someone thinks they’re using me as a message-boy. The key is probably to interrogate the material, and contextualise that ‘playing’. PRs hate that. And if that isn’t a great excuse to relive the joys of this interview between ITV reporter Damon Green and Labour leader Ed Miliband, I don’t know what is.

 

Update, 12/7/12
Ed Smith, a journalist from London, has a more practical concern. He puts the following question:

 

“I’m not sure how practical it is to transcribe, let alone upload everything. When I go through my interview soundfiles, I take down the money quotes in full, or the ones I think I’m likely to use or refer to. The others I just mark down as aide memoire gobbledygook. It’s just too time-consuming otherwise. How worthwhile is that? The other thing: servers and bandwidth. There’s a cost there, at the very least.”

 

MP: I’d agree with pretty much all of that. I guess I think it could easily be a raw soundfile that goes up, suitably tagged. Or as much or little of the transcript as the journo wants to release. Equally, it might be that the interviews themselves sometimes don’t go up at all. To be clear: I’m not suggesting some Taliban of openness, a rigid approach, or even a contractual obligation to do this at all, on anyone’s part. I suppose I think that if even 25% of the material any journalist sloughed off as they filed copy was made available, we’d have a vast amount more searchable, and potentially fertile, scrape-able data that we could collate and use, on-record interview material, and documents than we currently do. I also think that even the consciousness that all material would at least be a candidate for this release – the journalist/paper/company can decide whether they want to or not – would be a fundamentally healthy thing for the next generation of journalists to internalize. Right now, I know from my own personal experience in a number of media organizations and on countless projects, there is a generation of journalists and editors out there who have no expectation that they will ever have to account for the veracity of their claims or their responsibility towards their material. This is why we get churnalism and plagues of columnists with their “ad-hoc reckons”, and why our expectations of newspaper (or ‘viewspaper’, to use former Independent Editor Simon Kelner’s disastrously misguided idea/phrase) content is now so low that we don’t even want it for free. As for the server space issue: well, it’s one the financial papers have been living with for years pretty successfully. And while the mainstream papers have many times the amount of material, most of that falls outside the kind of journalism we’re talking about here. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the legions of record reviewers, film critics, fashion photographers, cartoonists, satirists, gardening experts, need be involved. This is about the ‘A section’, and potentially health/society/business supplements. Anyone whose work could be classified as in the public interest, basically. I’m not asking for anyone’s jotted notes and doodles as they formed a view on One Direction’s latest. Please.

 

Update, 16/7/12
Sam Hardy, an archaeologist based in the UK and author of the excellent Conflict Antiquities blog, has questions about its application for independent journalists.

 

“I just saw your journalism post & thought of Neni Panourgia’s post-writing equivalent Dangerous Citizens (dangerouscitizens.columbia.edu). (Sadly) I’m not sure individual journos could get salary-level subscriptions; but maybe corporate-rate-subbed subject/area groups/newspapers could.”

 

MP: Dangerous Citizens is interesting! Yes, agree: individual journos couldn’t make salary from it. Thinking for that (& me) potentially it’d be a nice way to release lots of material on one subject, via LeanPub (?). (Or just set it free & have a hopeful donate button!)

 

SH [reply]: “Ah, yeah, that would be good. At the very least it could sub you… getting lost… on other assignments.”

 

See the exchange, and follow Sam on Twitter here.

 

Update, 17/7/12
Ben Adams, an Editor at Bloomsbury USA in New York (full disclosure: he published Outlaws Inc. in the US/Canada), offered his thoughts on how news sites might incorporate the research released into the way their pages are tagged and navigated.

 

“I enjoyed [your] vision of ‘open journalism’. I see how it would impact credibility, but is there money in it? Perhaps Google/Pulse/RSS etc. can be made to index notes and sources so that the best-reported articles rise to the top.”

 

Personally, I think this is a great idea, and could work – one can imagine it being a way to filter/rank content on index pages, or offer in the form of a homepage widget broadly similar to those for ‘Most shared’/’Most viewed’ by the BBC et al. In fact, I’d like to suggest that might be quite a good way to flag up the any motherlode of research documentation (as I propose in the main body) behind a paywall.

 

As for that paywall/answering the money question. What if the news itself were all free/in front of the paywall, but every hyperlink from the text of a news story through to research/documents took a micropayment to click? Thus each piece becomes something like Docstoc or an academic publishers’ model. Only instead of the abstract, it’s the article itself that draws eyeballs/search/shares through, and counts of a certain percentage of those visitors to micropurchase proofs for some of the assertions.

 

Again, the system would begin to reward not just great, well-written, important and timely articles, but would begin to reward financially well-researched and linked pieces too. And because all the links would be to assets held by the paper, there would be no conflict for the advertisers.

 

Update, 18/7/12
Annie Machon, former MI5 whistleblower turned journalist and speaker – and now UK co-ordinator for LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) added her thoughts last night, by email. 

 

“I very much enjoyed your post. Can I suggest, for extra layers, you have a watch of these two videos? The first, I would move beyond the usual spy bollocks (about 20 minutes) and watch the end; the second, look at the questions at the end. My views on manipulation of the media.

 

Annie’s views on this specific subject are interesting to me, for three reasons. One, as a former MI5 officer, her reports offer quite a close analogue to journalism. (They sold narratives along the line, based on thorough research and a watertight case.) Two, her career as an MI5 officer ended when she became a whistleblower – a similarly neat analogue for the way journalism liberates information. Three, as a vocal supporter of Wikileaks and employee of LEAP, she works on behalf of two organizations who are working to open up access to information/documentation/research, and hoping that the truth, as it were, will set man free. I’m looking at it from a different point of view. But I’m sure the idea of news organizations running their own ‘in-house Wikileaks’ – more-or-less open-information channels they can charge for – won’t be lost on anyone.