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.



Zombies, punks & immigrants: What J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise’ says about Britain in 2015


Tower blocks in Ladbroke Grove, London


It’s there if you look for it, snaking like mist around the tower blocks of West London, from Acton to Ladbroke Grove. An atmosphere. A message for us, maybe.


This part of London was the inspiration and setting for JG Ballard as he wrote his 1975 dystopian novel High Rise.


In the book, life for residents of a luxury high-rise development degenerates as they turn inwards, shutting off the world outside. Soon, the usual (1970s) assortment of malfunctioning elevators, power cuts, small annoyances, neighbourhood frictions, and petty tiffs spiral into terrifying violence along class and block floor lines. As factions develop and amplify, the block tumbles into savagery and eventually, cannibalism and total isolation.


So what? High Rise is a dystopian novel; one from 40 years ago. That’s what they were like. What has it got to do with reality? And more to the point, what does it have to do with us?

J G Ballard High Rise( 1st Edition)

The ’70s was a time of huge anxiety around social cohesion. In Britain, it was the heyday of Class War, Punk, the National Front, and heightened paranoia about immigration, domestic and international terrorism and Britain’s relationship with Europe. Fear of Armageddon was measured by the Doomsday Clock’s minutes-to-midnight time. The Left, with the Labour Party having seemed so powerful, with a charismatic, modernising leader (for Tony Blair, read Harold Wilson) until so recently, was fragmenting, running out of steam, and turning on itself.


Across the developed West, recession and stagnation combined with high rates of urbanisation and urban development (all those high rises) to put fear of urban crime at an all time high. Ballard’s Britain in the early 1970s was beset by power cuts, strikes, and shortages of everything from bread to water. Industrial action caused backlogs of refuse (striking binmen) and cadavers (striking cemetery workers). In 1975, New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy – so close that emergency services faced the prospect of paralysis. Public blocks went unrepaired, living conditions degenerated. The following year, West London saw the second wave of Notting Hill race riots. By 1977, New York had descended into lawlessness amid a blackout. The same summer saw the Battle of Lewisham, with National Front, locals and antifascists in pitched battles across South east London.


The social fabric, the contract we made with each other, seemed to be letting us down just when we needed it to protect and comfort us.


To those who remembered it a decade on, it must have seemed that Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” was less a credo than a statement of fact. The masses were fundamentally hostile; or at least, they were in competition with us, for whatever we wanted to take for ourselves and our family. They were everywhere, and they wanted to raid our pockets: communists pushing redistribution of wealth at home; criminals on our streets; strikers on the shop floor; immigrants at the gates; Europeans around the negotiating table.


In this context, the Conservatives’ famous Saatchi & Saatchi-produced 1979 General Election campaign poster, with its advancing, shuffling queue, looks very different.



Saatchi Labour isn't working 1979 general election


This fear of the hordes, the masses – the Other, who looks like us but means us harm – was also behind the high 1970s’ other big cultural explosion: the zombie movie.


A slow trickle had started a few years before against a backdrop of student riots, assassinations and impending anarchy with Night of the Living Dead (1968). But with the high ’70s, the flood broke. Zombies were everywhere. Suddenly, they were overrunning shopping malls, rural farms, homes, city streets. Unintelligible, irreducible, shambling and inelegant, ragged but unstoppable, they were the perfect metaphor for the invasive, alien masses Mr & Mrs Average saw moaning at the gates. In just under a century, those “poor… huddled masses” had gone from being beckoned by the Statue of Liberty to being decapitated by full-blood American heartlanders with shovels.


Tombs of the Blind Dead Zombie movie


(The zombie movie explosion arrived in perfect sync with its twin, the other great, quintessentially 1970s American cinema phenomenon. Blaxploitation movies attempted to deal with precisely the same anxieties of lone citizens standing alone against a rising tide of violent and degenerate Other, only from the other side. We can read in Shaft‘s urbanity and Superfly‘s threads an analogue to the British Mods’ emphasis on style as an outward expression of ‘clean living under difficult circumstances‘.)


No wonder politics got so beleaguered and panicky. No wonder Reagan’s winning 1980 manifesto was called ‘Morning In America’.


The mid-1970s was a dream from which it seemed we were trying to awake. A dystopia, narrowly averted. As Ballard wrote High Rise, he channeled this feeling. The block was a metaphor for society, its tribal split by floor – upper, middle and lower – mirroring the strata outside. But others were picking up on the mood too.


Think about that mood. Zombies – immigrants, the poor, the Other – were all over popular culture. Terror and immigration were all over the news. Urban high-density development was driving out residents. Atavism as politics, driven by a deep anxiety about the future, and about securing what we have. It was all very 1970s.


And in its own way, it’s all very 2010s, too. It’s no surprise that High Rise is being made into a film by Kill List director Ben Wheatley. So what does the rise of that old hysteria, those old anxieties mean? What do The Walking Dead, World War Z, I Am Legend and Zombie Apocalypse say about us? Who are our shambling, malevolent hordes, in ragged clothes, destroying the brains of young people and advancing on our gates?


And just as importantly, who are the people promising us easy answers, this time around? Answers that involve barricades, and turning inwards, and everyone for themselves? Or even turning our guns on these “unstoppable cockroaches” and crying “show me the dead bodies”?


And if we know that, then might we begin to change what happens next, in our very own luxury fortress-like High Rise?




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.


Are US mercenaries deploying in Ukraine? Or… is it bullshit? On Putin’s use of speculation as foreign policy.


RIA Novosti screenshot


Yesterday, Russian news agency RIA Novosti asked for my insight into Kremlin claims that US private military company Greystone is deploying mercenaries in Ukraine.


Amid the chaos of eastern Ukraine and Greystone’s association with Blackwater/Xe Services, the Russian claims seem to be gathering momentum, regardless of evidence. There’s an added twist. RIA Novosti itself – once a pretty independent source of news – was shut down late last year by the Kremlin, and now exists as a government controlled agency. 


Claims like these remind me of the ‘Bullshit Or Not?’ sketch on cult 1987 film ‘Amazon Women On The Moon’ in which Henry Silva floated the possibility that Jack the Ripper might in fact have been the Loch Ness Monster. So I figured the least I could do would be to point out how problematic agenda-driven news like this can be. Here are their questions (below). What follows is my reply, warts and all (but with links and some hurriedly made typos corrected).

The April 10th 2014 email from RIA Novosti

The April 10th 2014 email from RIA Novosti

Hi _____,


Thanks for inviting me to comment. I’ve written you some answers, and they appear below.


But of course I’m a little wary of the current editorial line of the ‘reborn’/post-shutdown RIA Novosti. From the questions you ask, I sense that it would be convenient for me to get excited (like the classic nutters and conspiracy theorists on Russia Today) to back up some line about mercenaries. (“We are doing a story about Greystone mercenaries in Ukraine” would seem to accept that such forces are in Ukraine before the question “Are there mercenaries in Ukraine” even arrives!)


I’m afraid that if that’s the editorial line, my answers are going to disappoint.


I don’t think there’s credible case either way for the presence of mercenaries (we’ll get to contentious definitions later) in the places RIA Novosti is currently reporting, and I don’t think interviews with local militia commanders who reckon they saw people who “look like” mercenaries (were they wearing the party hats?) or spoke to people who claimed they’d heard some mercenaries (were they discussing their membership of a mercenary union?) is the way to go.


I could probably find someone on my road who says they were John Lennon in a previous life, but I don’t think I’d report it as fact. Although actually, the Lewisham News Shopper did have a cracking piece on a poor lady who was convinced she’d been Arsène Wenger’s fiancée in mediaeval France. Apparently he had no Plan B then either.


Essentially, if this is part of a piece in which the editorial line is “Let’s get some people to agree that there are mercenaries doing evil deeds in Ukraine”, I’m not your man, and I can’t give permission to participate, or to use my material.


OK. Apologies for saying all this first. I’m a confirmed and lifelong russophile, my work in journalism tends to be around avoiding the harmful push towards convenient but mendacious narratives, and I’d say the same to trolls-and-nutters US networks like Fox TV these days if they asked me for material to back up what I suspect might be a non-story.


That said – and on the understanding that you guys will treat this with integrity – happy to offer some insight.


Here are your questions, with my answers underneath. I hope they’re helpful.


The pathology around the word ‘mercenary’ makes it an easy thing to accuse someone of, but a very difficult thing to define, much less prove. And of course, the absence of a mercenary force is by its nature unverifiable – could it just mean that they were “so good they were never caught!” Which makes it the new witchcraft, I suppose. Certainly the new conspiracy theory. Libya was a recent example of the word ‘mercenary’ applied to just about every side at one point – depending on who you wanted to delegitimize. I reckon this is not only intellectually dishonest, but sows fear and miscalculation. It also (perhaps more importantly from your point of view and this story) misses the key points about mercenary use anyway.

1. How legal is it to use mercenaries, what are the existing regulations?

There’s a UN convention against mercenaries (UN resolution 44/34, International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, came into force on 20/10/2001) and different countries rule against their use too. However, their definition of a Mercenary is quite full of loopholes, and could either encompass security guards in buildings, or Blackwater, or soldiers of fortune, or none of them. (The UN’s definition is copied here.)


Parameter one, “…in order to fight…”: Historically, that’s been got around by saying “Our staff are not there to fight, they are security guards specifically trained in conflict avoidance techniques” or some such. Is guarding something fighting? Not really, no – you hope it won’t be, any more than walking down the street means getting mugged. So in practice, there’s often a huge blurry area where terms like security guard, courier, technician and mercenary (and too many others to mention) tend to edge into each other.


Perhaps the most famous recent example of someone who inhabits that grey area is Viktor Bout – a simple businessman in the air freight industry, as he and the Russian government claimed during his extradition hearing? Or The Merchant Of Death, the world’s most notorious gunrunner to mercenary and guerrilla armies, as the US & UN Panel of Experts claimed? The picture gets complicated because, though he worked for private militaries in Africa, promised to supply what he thought was FARC and so on, he was also subcontracted to both the Pentagon (as a transporter for US reconstruction in Iraq) and the Russian government (flying arms to Afghan factions in the 1990s – see the 2010 Russian blockbuster Kandaghar for the dramatization of the story of one of his real crews). But there’s also the ‘grey’ zone around US PMCs in Iraq, armed security around oil pipelines and refineries (in Russia, Africa, Libya, everywhere), and companies like DynCorp and Executive Outcomes used by peacekeeping operations in Africa.


Or, more simply (if no more easy in terms of answers), it is not legal to use the classically defined proactive paid combatants known as mercenaries. But to deploy trained security personnel who can protect property, people, assets, businesses, whatever – that can well be legal, and of course for businesses across Russia, the West, the world generally, it’s part of standard corporate practice. So the dividing line becomes something people tend to define for themselves on a case-by-case basis.


2. Are there mercenaries in Ukraine?

Nobody has credible information on that score – including, I’d strongly suggest, the ‘local militia leaders’ and sundry other types currently pointing and shouting about mercenaries from RIA Novosti’s Twitter feed.




And I’d tend to mistrust anyone who claims to know differently right now – like those local militia commanders being treated as responsible/expert sources on RIA this afternoon… Because ‘mercenary’ so loose and therefore easily manipulated, defining people as ‘mercenaries’ has become as much an act of political will and expediency as calling someone a “traitor”.


(Example: Just look at the ongoing claim and counterclaim as to whether pro-Russian protestors in Kharkiv are “paid and arrive in buses” or “locals who are not being paid”.)


For what it’s worth, I suspect that there’s an element of that here. The Kremlin and bystanders have said people look like mercenaries. Yet (unless you’re reading graphic novels or watching Hollywood films) mercenaries don’t really look like mercenaries. Well, you wouldn’t want to really, would you? For the same reason, you don’t get a badge and uniform when you join the Mafia!


Sometimes private military contractors take full advantage of that looseness too – as did Blackwater in Iraq.


But beyond ‘Nobody knows for sure’, we can say that it’s in the interests of (or, it fits the policy of) the current Russian government to say there are.


This leads us to the goal of any mercenaries – whether real or imagined.


3. What are their goals?

If there were any paid personnel (please see earlier qualifier as to what makes one person’s mercenary another’s guard), their goals would probably be the usual – protect key people, assets and potentially places and resources.


This is not the goal people usually imagine, of course. But remember, any private military company who pro-actively deploys to engage with an enemy is no longer deniable: it would be breaking the UN Convention in a very clear way. So ‘mercenary’ units (PMCs) don’t tend to do that. Hence the high number of ‘security contractors’ and not ‘mercenaries’. Usually their deployment makes a deterrent to casual or spontaneous damage (like a bodyguard to a celebrity – you won’t ever hope to protect them from a planned assassination, but from a nutter with a broken bottle, sure) and potentially to be there for the rapid rescue of specific people or intelligence or whatever, in the event of an acute crisis.


But then, we also need to ask what would be the purpose of phantom (ie: not really there at all) mercenaries. Well, on one hand, if the West were deploying mercenaries in Ukraine, it would be very easy for the Kremlin to call it a provocation (In fact, though there’s no credible evidence, it just did anyway.) So it’s clearly in the Putin administration’s interests – or rather, again, it seems to fit their current line of policy with regard to Ukraine – to claim they are there.


Which is one reason, actually, that I’m a little dubious about the claim. Are there businesses (including, but not limited to, Western ones) with regional HQs in Ukraine that employ heavy security to protect their property? Well, they’d be stupid not to, right? In the same way that Gazprom employs a private army to protect miles and miles of Siberian pipes, or Shell uses armed security to protect oil installations.


Are they anything to do with the current crisis? I’d tend to think they were trying not to be.


Are they a convenient thing for hawks in Putin’s administration to call mercenaries?


Maybe. Let’s ponder that.


4. What threats does it pose to the democratic processes in the country?

Well, as you see, nothing around mercenaries is simple. And when you throw in propaganda, high emotion and a chaotic environment in which the rule of law is being denigrated, it’s murkier still. Mercenary armies, when they exist and deploy, are clearly counter to the common good. That’s why the UN bans them, in language however woolly.


However, perhaps in this case you could say that throwing the phrase “mercenaries” around is also a threat to the democratic process in a country. I’d suggest that at the very least it’s unhelpful, and at worst intended to stir up a feeling of being “under occupation”, or being muscled into by a military force other than Russia. So of course, rather than “Do you want to be just Ukraine, or more closely tied to Russia?” they’d hope to force the question: “Under whose military occupation/protection would you rather be? Your neighbour, or a Western bunch of people some local militia leaders reckon are definitely mercenaries?” A choice based on a false premise, aimed at persuading floating voters? In the end, that’s the suspicion that lingers over these claims.


However, it’s just a suspicion. I’m probably being infuriatingly cautious from a broadcaster’s point of view. Apologies. But truthfully, it’s best to be suspicious of anyone who speaks with less caution at a time like this. By far the greatest threats to the democratic process in Ukraine and everywhere else are fear, miscalculation, and bullshit.


Make sense?


Thanks for letting me sound off! Hope some of this is useful.


Many thanks.


Postscript: Well, I wrote that to be as defiantly unquoteable as I could, copying in a fellow Moscow journalist, just to put the exchange on-record in real time. Here’s what RIA Novosti turned the above contribution into.

... here's how RIA Novosti extracted my quotes to suit their purpose.

… here’s how RIA Novosti extracted my quotes to suit their purpose.

And here’s my reply, pre-publication:

My response to RIA Novosti, asking that my quotes not be decontextualised

My response to RIA Novosti, asking that my quotes not be decontextualised

The piece eventually appeared with my one-line qualifier in. I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Henry Silva, Jack the Ripper and the Loch Ness Monster, and a sketch that could have been written for Russia Today (or Fox News, to be fair). In Mr Silva’s words: “Is it bullshit? Or not? YOU be the judge!”


Crime & corruption: Are you a terrorist? If Yes, please tick box below…


Ever get the creeping feeling that the fight against corruption, money laundering and tax avoidance are doomed? Well, you’d be right. And here – in one phone call – is why.


I had a conversation with my bank about money laundering today.


I denied everything, naturally. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? These are tough times for money-launderers. We know they are because the government tells us, the police tell us, and the news media tells us.


Somali remittance services like Dahabshiil are getting the third degree amid claims they are conduits of funds to Al Shabaab. David Cameron recently “pressed the EU” on tax evasion, and has committed to a public register of company owners. “Those who want to evade taxes,” he thundered after this year’s G8 summit, “have nowhere to hide”.


Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that the Prime Minister’s cherished City of London is one of the leading global hubs for money laundering licit and illicit (and if you haven’t read Nicholas Shaxson’s eye-opening book Treasure Islands: Tax Havens & The Men Who Stole The World, I would urge you to do so): the overall message is clear. Money laundering by the rest of us is a Very Bad Thing, and Inspector Cameron, HMRC and the G8 are totally on it.


So it was that, having announced I wished to make a deposit with my bank (actually switching some money from another account somewhere else), I was made to feel what it’s like to have nowhere to hide. Here’s how it went.


Me: “Hello, I’d like to make a deposit, please.”


Bank: “OK. Now, I do need to ask – in accordance with the new money-laundering regulations – where this money is from?”


Me: “It’s mine.”


Bank: “OK, that’s great, I’ll tick ‘savings’. Thanks.”


And that was it. That was the full extent of the change wrought by the new money laundering regulations.


So if you’re a Mexican drug lord, Al-Shabaab fighter or common-or-garden tax avoider from the UK, remember: you have nowhere to hide. Except, y’know, a mortgage or current account. So long as you don’t confess under thorough interrogations like this.


As the Monty Python sketch says: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…





The real reason I write: In praise of ‘threshold apprehension’


The cover for my next book arrived today. Any writer will tell you: the arrival of their new book’s cover is an exciting moment. Me, I’ve always found it a little bit poignant too.


Up to this point, it’s all about the making. There are routes to take; ways to turn things. The whole project exists in that glorious state of suspension where all things are possible. It’s crazy, but I always thought I knew pretty well how the pilot in that Roy Lichtenstein painting feels the instant before he pushes the button that makes the Blaaaaaaam! happen. (It always struck me as quite a peaceful, meditative picture for that reason. I understand I may well be alone in this.)


It’s elsewhere too. There’s a great Black Francis album called Bluefinger, all about the life of Dutch artist, rock star and heroin aficionado Herman Brood. It contains a song called ‘Threshold Apprehension’ that nails the feeling, the taste in your mouth, of being just about to nail something; the split second before the “Yessss!”. Threshold apprehension. (In the context of the album, I suspect it’s also about the feeling of a hit of smack, and the 9th-floor window Brood eventually jumped to his death from, but let’s stick with the eureka thing for a moment.)


It’s an obscure feeling, and you don’t hear it talked about much, but that’s only because (by definition) there’s nothing tangible you can show people. The Blaaaaaam! is what they see; only the pilot knows the heavenly chill that had him upside the temples the second before.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not some Eeyore, saying that having done good work (insofar as I have done any) isn’t satisfying and wonderful and all. But being about to nail something great is The Drug.


It’s also the secret feeling. You’re alone with it. It’s the one result of the creative process you don’t get to talk about at awards ceremonies or on CVs, or see in the press, or exchange views on with your kids, or your mates. You’d sound like a freak. But you know it’s the fix that really keeps you in the game.


So that’s the feeling, from spark through pitch to publishers, tracking your story, bringing it to life, right the way through edits, then cover discussion and brief and feedback to the publishing house. And then…


Well, then there’s this… thing. A good thing. You love it. You brought it up, dammit. And it looks confident and it’s hanging out in shops and with the rough boys and girls on Amazon and in the press, and all you can do is wish it good luck out in the world, prepare yourself to explain it a few hundred times, and hope you gave it the toughness to handle itself out there. But it’s not yours any more, not really. Which is just fine, actually. And I mean, by this time you’re over the cover. You’ve seen it too much. You want to think about something else.


So you turn your attention to other things. Call people you haven’t seen for a while (you’ve been writing your book too many evenings lately). Get back to those things you love to read. Surf the net.


And that’s when the idea hits you. The idea… maybe even The Idea. Now this, this is exciting. You can almost taste it…


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 ( (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.





Comment: Duwayne Brooks and the London riot story that never got written

Some stories write themselves. Some never get written, though they’re better by far. There’s something irreducible about them, too many loose ends. They don’t have neat beginnings and endings. They don’t fit our (journalists’, readers’) idea of the arc. Sometimes they’re just collected impressions.

This one’s like that, and I’m setting it down here simply because I think someone should write the story that never got written. Maybe it isn’t a story after all, but a diary of sorts. You tell me.

It starts (though I didn’t know it at the time) nearly 20 years ago. As a newly arrived, young, white Londoner, I followed the Stephen Lawrence case through the 1990s, then the 2000s, if not avidly then certainly with an odd mixture of horror, casual compulsion, mounting disbelief at the catalogue of establishment errors or worse, and something… what was that other thing? I guess it was a bit like shame, only less easily pinned down. It was a vague, nagging, sticky discomfort that came and went. Something I didn’t like feeling, but knew it wasn’t to be shied away from. It was an itching unease about what might, for others, lurk beneath the surface of a society that I, white, lower-middle-class and male, may not always have liked, but had always, personally at least, experienced as fair and neutral in its justice.

I knew names, places, details from the news. I remember Martin Bashir’s documentary on the Dobson-Norris gang as a consensus TV moment: the one we all knew we’d all watched, whatever our age, background or colour. That photograph of the teenage Stephen Lawrence – striped top, grin, one arm folded upwards – was one of the defining images of 1990s Britain. Printed and reprinted, flickering on screens from electrical shops and pub TV sets, for a generation it became as ubiquitous, as powerful, as any shot of Neville Chamberlain, heavy-eyed, monochrome Myra Hindley or triangular, flag-topped Iwo Jima.

I knew the names of the gang members. Acourt, Acourt, Norris, Knight, Dobson. The first two sounding posh and French, then the three identikit English names. They took on a strange voodoo, these names. Bad luck to utter them. Creepily average. I looked at the faces, and tried to remember them too.

There was one name I did not know. The other person who’d been present – Stephen Lawrence’s friend, the boy who managed to escape. I’m not sure how I missed it, but somehow it never registered. Eventually, that boy faded from my memory altogether, and only the crime – the innocent victim, the actions of the mob – remained.

By 2011, I was living in south-east London. It’s a big, open, hilly place. A few train stops and two decades separated my neighbourhood from early-1990s Eltham. Still, some things bubble and blister beneath the surface, and occasionally they rise. The London riots, when they came that summer, tore through the High Street, smashing faces and homes and shops and trust, then slipped round quiet neighbourhood corners and into evacuated parks, until the following day.

I wasn’t watching it on TV this time. Walking home, passing groups of people heading the other way, I took it all in. There were fights, screams and the sound of car doors. There were chases, and mock-furtive, too-loud talk of where was next, which houses were marked for tonight, and who was doing what. Like everyone, I was on edge, cautious, rattled. But I was curious too. So sometimes I followed as close as I could, to see what happened next. I set up multiple TweetDeck feeds, to monitor the streets, neighbourhoods and tags I suspected would see action. I began examining coverage, mapping claim against reality.

And what I saw, on the streets, in the galloping updates on my Twitter feeds, and when I turned on the TV that night, was fear. Any journalist knows TV cameras can do that – point a camera at a burning car or smoking Tube station from enough angles, and that night it will look like the whole city is ablaze. But somehow, those flickering black-and-orange images leaped off the screens and captured the popular imagination.

Fear bowled along the streets of Lewisham, even when nobody else did. Rumours spread. More riots would be coming tonight. The freesheets ran with it. Offices buzzed with it. A group of 1,000 rioters had been spotted heading North along the next road. EDL members were marching now. A race riot was about to kick off. Shops were being looted.

There were no police. Senior members of the Government were all caught out, still on holiday, as was Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. Tracked down by broadcast news, they looked lost, floundering, and smaller somehow. So did London. I knew it wasn’t an apocalypse, and that cover of Time was just silly, but the speculation, more than any fires or smashed windows, quickly lay waste to a lot of the residual trust people there felt, not just in the police and government, but in fellow Londoners.

There was one public figure in the city who seemed to be playing a blinder, though. I’d never even heard of him before – or at least I didn’t think I had. He was a Lib Dem Councillor in Lewisham, and suddenly he was everywhere. He seems, at one point early on, to have made it his personal mission to take on the misinformation, the rumour-mongering, the panic and the suspicion. His tweets tell the story today if you care to look back over them. He went from place to place and tweeted what he saw. When even the normally reliable Alex Tomlinson of Channel 4 News repeated an unverified rumour about a brewing race riot near Eltham, the Councillor debunked it. He replied publicly to people who claimed they’d witnessed improbable acts of mass violence, and asked them for details over the 3G airwaves. Where was this? Had they seen it? Because he was there now and the shop window looked intact. He asked Londoners to refrain from indulging rumours and retweets of things they could not personally verify. One tweet said simply: “No fighting no riots no looting no NF in #lewisham. Please stop tweeting nonsense. This is not a game. People are scared. #fixup please.”

He went further. He put his personal mobile number on his site, and tweeted it, so people could call and ask him what was happening, anywhere in the area, when they had no reliable information. He became, briefly, the single most trustworthy medium for news on developments in South London’s melting pot turned bubbling cauldron. He replied to enquiries and appeals on Twitter – all of them, publicly or individually. Again and again, he damped wild speculation about the racial demographic of rioters, and quashed rumours about white racist vigilante groups.

His huge presence, his championing of perspective and truth, was quite a contrast to the vacuum the Met and the Cabinet had left us inhabiting those first few hot, suspicion-filled, dangerous days. I remember tweeting his details at the time, “[Councillor’s name] – he’s on fire. This is what politicians are for!”

And all the while, in the midst of the chaos, I had two images in my head. One was of something this local politician reminded me of, an image drawn from the book I had just finished. It was Boris Yeltsin clambering up on a tank in front of Moscow’s Parliament building during the attempted Russian coup of 1991, and facing down the crisis with sheer presence (and reportedly some vodka too). It made me laugh with its bathos even then, but on some level it was true too.

The other image?

That didn’t make me laugh, it made me tense. It was an image of the worst that can happen in South London. It was a picture of what the city had to avoid, at all costs. It was a picture from 1993, of what happens, of what is lost, when people let themselves hate and mistrust, blindly. It was that shot of Stephen Lawrence, and I kept it in mind every time something immoderate appeared on a front page, or crackled over the airwaves.

The riots ended with the run of hot weather, and with the late, slow arrival of the police. I meant to thank the Councillor. I’d heard phrases like ‘community leaders’ before, and I’d always sort of thought they referred to self-appointed spokesmen or religious elders among discrete, probably ethnically or culturally homogeneous communities. Muslim community leaders. Black community leaders. I suppose for the first time I saw leadership being shown, rather than claimed, and I realized that I was part of one of those communities experiencing a degree of leadership. So I thought about composing a quick email – maybe a tweet – just to say how much of a difference his work for those few days had made.

But I never did. I left it just too late. And by then, the man I wanted to thank was in the news again, for very different reasons, and probably receiving more emails than anybody could be expected to handle.

I saw the Councillor in the news during this winter’s trial of two of the men who had killed Stephen Lawrence. His name was Duwayne Brooks, and back on that evening in 1993, he’d been the friend who’d escaped from the gang. I felt stupid for not having remembered the name’s significance that summer. Then I thought: wow.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve read more about Duwayne Brooks – the terrible impact of the murder itself; the long campaign of intimidation, prejudice and smears against him by the Metropolitan Police; his treatment at the hands of the law and, often, the media; his transformation from frightened, suspicious virtual fugitive to politician; and his dignity and perseverance at the final reckoning for two of the murderers.

And here’s what impressed me most. If there was ever anyone who had the right to feel hate, or suspicion, or to welcome some form of blowback against the power structures of a city that had let him and his friend down so badly, it was Duwayne Brooks. If anyone could have been forgiven for succumbing to paranoia about a police vacuum and rumours of racial conflict in South London, it would have been him.

But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, for those long, hot days in South London, when those structures let everyone down and fear threatened to take over the streets, he was as a powerful force for tolerance, truth, reason, calm, and – more than anything – trust. He was markedly less speculative, panicky or paranoid than most of the better journalists I know.

What I started out wanting to say was this. I don’t usually write praise for politicians, but in this era of photo opps, press briefings and presubmitted questions, It’s worth remembering Duwayne Brooks was there for the people he represented. On his mobile, on the streets, and on the case.

And yet this is not really about politics either. It’s about how we let ourselves feel as people, as Londoners, and about how we react to what shapes us. Because if a city like this can’t learn more from Duwayne Brooks than how to survive a terrible ordeal and come through, then we miss the point. And if we can’t learn from his incredible presence during that week of madness how to help others through their troubles and suspicion and fear too, then we’ve got no-one to blame but ourselves.

So… So what? I don’t know the rest. Like I said at the start, it’s not really a story, and this is too messy to be an ending. But in the years to come, I hope we – Londoners, people, whatever – can give it an ending, and make it a proper story. And I really hope we make it a good one.

Update 16th January 2012: After receiving a copy of this piece for syndication, the London Evening Standard ran it, originally changing the byline to one of their staffers. That issue has now been rectified, and you can read their shorter edit of the piece here.

Comment: The best writer I know


While I was in New York, running around promoting the book and doing things I thought were all terribly important, something else happened.


Jetlagged and excited, I sat on a step outside a Starbucks close to 5th Avenue to check my emails. There was a cheery, round-robin, letting-you-know email from a good friend and fellow journalist – I’ll call her X here, because though her news is now more or less public, I’m guessing it would only embarrass her if people knew who she was from reading this. It started in the way she always starts important news – the chatty, importance-deflating opener, the joke or two just to settle you in, then (wallop) the Big News, always with the same casual, pick-that-out-of-the-net delivery. I love the way she does news.


As I began to read it, I remembered the last time I’d seen such an off-hand opener to a piece of amazing gossip from her. That one had said something like, “So whaddyaknow. I got a book deal.” I’d loved that. I read on.


So whaddyaknow (…the jokes…) the big news is (…and the casual netside smash…) she’s got cancer.


I read it back again.


X has got cancer. Actually, she’s got cancer back. And this time it means business in a way that makes even her previous brush – aged 28, breast, stage four, double removal and reconstruction, more major surgery, chemo – look like it was just messing her about. Three years on, it’s in her bones. And while it can be treated, it cannot be cured.


Then the jokes again, and the Bossy X thing, telling recipients to get a damn grip, put it in perspective and look out for her husband, brother and family. It was a hell of an email. I sat there and looked at the email, while 5th Avenue did its fast-motion thing around me and my inbox.


Then something weird happened. Something that was almost as surprising as the news itself.


But for me to tell you what, there are three things you now have to know about X.


1. She’s the best writer I know. This is something I said, both to her face (OK, Twitter face) and others (everywhere) before this note. A good thing too: if I told her now, such is her aw-shucks modesty she’d assume I was “just saying it”.


2. When I say the best writer, I actually don’t mean just the best writer. Her tweets, her journalism, her blog, her book, her conversation – especially, her conversation – all have something that make people want to be a part of them. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s a sort of empathy. There’s this thing when you’re at the pub or work or wherever and chewing the fat with X, where you see her absolutely rapt in the narrative (joke, tall tale, laugh, polemic, whatever) of the moment. You tell a story, and you notice she’s primed, ready for the laugh. Essentially, I believe this is what informs her writing. She’s up for the story in a way that a lot of journalists aren’t, and will follow a line of humour for the reward, where other writers might pull back. It’s a sort of nose for the good bit. An instinct for entering into the spirit of things. It makes her writing fun, and true, but it also makes it really human. A lot of journalists don’t necessarily do things like human, warm, empathy. I love slipping into them, but for her, they aren’t fancy dress; they’re like housetrousers.


In fact, I think that’s what makes her a great writer: the same thing that makes her such fun to have as a mate. And if you’ve read her books, her articles, but don’t know her, here’s the news: you do know her. Because she really is the person you hope she’ll be when you laugh and tut and generally hang out with her page-self.


3. That’s what I think. And I’m not even one of X’s super-close friends. We’ve worked together, jabber over social media quite a bit, meet for a drink occasionally. I’ve met her man and he’s a great guy too. I guess/hope they both know I’ve got their backs if it comes to it. But in that oh-so-London way, I still don’t know her home address.


So why do you have to know all this? What comes next that’s so surprising, so hard to understand?


For X, I felt (feel) pissed off, powerless, sad, guilty (Woah! Where did that come from?), and lots more. But something in what she wrote, or how she wrote it, made me weirdly hopeful. Or maybe inspired. Something. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t hopeful or inspiring news. So that messed with my mind for a few days. And (a week on) I think I’ve figured it out.


There’s been a fair bit of cancer flying about in my family recently, and there’s nothing good about it. It’s a mean-spirited thing. It doesn’t just take your health, or your loved ones’ health; it tries to mess with your mind. It puts things off limits – not just activities but whole subjects of discussion, even feelings. It puts up barriers between people. It stops them doing, saying, even thinking what they really want (need) to do, say, and think.


People become prisoners to it.


They want to talk to their families like they did before, freely and with love, and without baggage.


Cancer says No.


They want to say ‘I love you’ without the other person thinking they’re only saying it because they have cancer.


They want to be told they are loved without thinking, “This person is only saying this because I have cancer”.


Cancer says No to that.


They want people to see them, argue with them, say hello and goodbye to them, hug them, catch up with them, share a joke with them, without the other person seeing a cancer-sufferer instead of a mum, a brother, a sister, a wife, a dad, a grandma, a son, a husband, a daughter, a friend.


They want to talk to people without cancer subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen.


They want to watch TV, listen to some music, read a magazine, have a conversation, without half-expecting that awful moment when innocent turn, chance remark, supporting character (something they would have skated over a million times before, something innocuous or coincidental) brings them out of the moment and back to their cancer, and its shadow.


Cancer says No.


Cancer says No to a lot of things. It tries to close us down. It can be very isolating. X knew this, because in the book she wrote about the last time, she even thanked the friends “who just didn’t know what to say”. At different times, that’s been me.


I’ve never had cancer. But like I say, more than one member of my close family has had it, this past couple of years. And while they had it, they got further away. And that always seemed to me the cruellest thing.


The No is always the same. It’s a shake of the head, something filled with doubt and isolation. But everything X does, everything she says, and everything she writes in response – even in the email that informed her friends of its return – is a far more powerful affirmation of her closeness to people. Humour beats doubt and awkwardness every time; humanity, openness and generosity of spirit will always kick the black dogs of depression and helplessness out.


And then there’s love.


That – sheer bloody love of life, of the people around her, of the ongoing story, of the moment before the laugh, of her husband, family, friends, of people at large – is what comes through in her writing and conversation. It’s in that email, her ongoing blog, her book, and her journalism on damn near any subject; it’s in her tweets and status updates, and (especially) it’s in the times in pubs and offices and on Twitter that she’s made me laugh and think how much I’d like to be her when I grow up.


And those things combine in her to make a great big fucking YES, about million times louder than anything the cancer can muster up.


YES to friends, yes to humour, yes to honesty, yes to closeness, yes to all the precious stuff cancer tries to deny. Yes to still loving life, yes to seeing the world wide open. Yes to the moment before the laugh. Yes to the continuing story, whatever it holds.


That word. Somehow she managed to sneak it inside every single one of the other words on that email. You couldn’t see it at first, you couldn’t read it, but you could sure feel it. Like I say: the best writer I know.


 Update, 29th September: So the cat is out of the bag regarding the person identified as ‘X’ in this post. And since it is, I’m adding it here, so readers can chase Lisa Lynch’s work down – and her blog entry on the subject, which contained much of the text from the just-letting-you-know email – and see what I mean for themselves. And as for her book, The C-Word, just buy it.