Contributions to The Times Diary


8th May, 2014: Ukip, a song and dance act

10th December, 2013: Come clean, says Belle de Jour

20th November, 2013: Michael Palin the woodsman

15th November, 2013: Eric Pickles: ‘I wore white tie once. I looked like Oddjob’

16th October, 2013: I contributed this item about George Galloway’s gorgeous (and lucrative) house sale.

15th October, 2013: I contributed this item about the Eric Pickles road trip.

September 18th, 2013A small piece in The Times Diary last week about, of all things, Tom Daley’s swimming trunks.

The auction was raising money for The Mercury Phoenix Trust, an HIV charity set up shortly after the death of Freddie Mercury of Queen. Smashing event; I even saw Al Murray do a short gig. Despite the predictability of his routine it always cracks me up.

4th September, 2013: George Osborne’s fear of snow.


Just a joke? Louis Trup is battering OUSU machine politics

He won by a landslide.

I wrote this for Cherwell a couple of days before about what Trup’s campaign tells us about the changing nature of student politics.

The Old Quad of Brasenose is a fairly odd place to be in this week. On either side of it this OUSU election’s two most interesting campaigns can be found.

Jane4Change, the centre-left establishment slate, have set up an improvised headquarters at the top of one staircase in the spacious room of James Blythe, who’s running for a sabbatical position.

It feels like what you imagine the hub of a student political campaign would be like: there are kettles, empty crisp packets and leaflets strewn across the floor. Anxious candidates can be found tapping away on their mobiles, coordinating two dozen or so supporters who are busily knocking on doors and distributing campaign literature.

In a room at the bottom of another Brasenose staircase sits Louis Trup, the famous ‘joke candidate’ for OUSU President. He wears shorts, sandals and psychedelic Himalayan knitwear. His campaign employs no leaflets, laptops or spreadsheets – just smartphones. There is no knocking on doors. Trup doesn’t need to; his message, which oscillates between crazy and sensible, has effortlessly been pushed onto our facebook and twitter feeds.

On the one hand you have an efficient and organised campaign that’s been whirring away since Trinity term. On the other you have a third-year geographer (and his mates) who saw an opportunity a couple of weeks ago to stir things up. It is the latter strategy, if you use the admittedly simplistic measure of facebook likes, that bizarrely seems to be working: Jane4Change – 479; LJTrup4ousu4change – 538.

So, is this a case of the old-style OUSU machine politics breaking down against online and social-media based campaigning?

Sort of. To be fair to the Jane4Change campaign they’ve put a lot of effort into social media and promoting their candidates online. Before they had to abandon a suspiciously excellent website the slate had a far better online offering than Alex Bartram’s Team Alex or Nathan Akehurst’s ReclaimOUSU. But what the campaign has failed to understand about social media is that, used best, it shouldn’t simply be a medium through to hurl out set-piece candidate pitches and unexciting blog posts. It should distribute content that normal people participate in and consequently want to share.

If Louis Trup emerges victorious on Thursday evening (unlikely, but plausible) it’ll be because his campaign did understand that fact. It produced a campaign video that wasn’t just 4 minutes of excellent procrastination but, through inviting (coercing?) other students to join in made it instantly shareable. At hustings he sung songs, varying the lyrics between colleges to match their distinct quirks. It hasn’t hurt either that his campaign’s status updates have been witty and hilarious – two features not commonly associated with student politics.

In fact Trup has benefitted from old-fashioned advantages too. First, he’s something of a socialite with a wide circle of friends at various colleges. Second, he’s had plenty of uncritical coverage from student media, though the coverage in these pastures has thankfully been more even-handed. And third, his message is compelling – ridiculous and possibly dangerous, sure – but compelling nonetheless.

Of course facebook likes and retweets aren’t votes. One Jane4Change campaigner told me today that the people enthused by Louis Trup online won’t, by and large, end up voting. Maybe he’s right.

The worry for Jane Cahill – and indeed Bartram and Akehurst as well – is that colourful candidates like Trup break the effectiveness of her team’s enthusiastic slating. Students may well log on and vote in support of their local OUSU hack, say. What they have less of a reason to do is to follow through on their friend’s recommendation to vote Cahill, Bartram or Akehurst. Behind the security of a computer screen, and with the vague mental image of a funny sandal-clad loon, the temptation is to fuck it and vote Trup.

Review: Out of Print

I reviewed George Brock’s new book about the future of journalism for Cherwell.

Last week I watched Blade Runner, the cult 80s sci-fi film that imagines a somewhat dystopian Los Angeles in 2019.

In keeping with films of its genre and generation it has an endearingly oh-so 20th century conception of what the 21stcentury might look like: cities in the sky, flying cars, humanoid robots – you name it.

But amidst all that futuristic splendour there are newspapers, actual ink-on-paper newspapers. Hollywood futurology circa-1981 managed to dream up every outlandish creation going, but it simply didn’t occur that news might one day arrive on something other than dead trees.

What’s unfortunate, according to George Brock, who heads City University’s journalism department, is that it didn’t occur to journalists either.

“The Internet will strut its hour upon the stage and then take its place in the ranks a lesser media”. So Brock teasingly quotes Simon Jenkins in 1997.

Jenkins, who used to edit The Times, now writes for the Guardian, a paper which has responded to plummeting print circulation by the unprecedented move of pursuing a ‘digital first’ strategy. Its problems are shared throughout the industry, forcing them to make editorial cut backs while searching for a business model that diversifies away from print revenue.

Brock neatly captures the malaise in a way that is comprehensible to the lay reader, though the narrative can be dry.

The book is at its best when it challenges the basic orthodoxy that the internet is killing journalism. The business model underpinning print media was coming apart well before new online entrants and social media emerged, Brock shows.

And in fact by opening up a treasure trove of data, information and source material, there has never been a more exciting time to be a journalist. On the consumer side new technology may actually rescue newspapers, rather than killing them off.

That said, the age of industrial-sized media outlets is an aberration in journalism’s history, reaching a climax in the inter-war period. What need is there today for a newspaper covering everything from opera to Big Brother when a customised twitter newsfeed allows consumers to pick only the content they are interested in, from multiple sources.

Brock predicts a return to an anarchic, more pluralistic market characteristic of the 19th century world of pamphleteers and activists. Politico, Gawker and Guido Fawkes are successful examples of outlets that have, at times, bettered old media, but Brock warns that even insurgent online start-ups like BuzzFeed, which as I write lists ’22 Hilarious and Disturbing Missing Cat Posters’ on its homepage, “will gradually become tougher competition for established players”.

Out of Print is a good primer in what journalism is (he refreshingly doesn’t subscribe to the obtuse notion that tweeting is journalism) where it has come from and where it might go. Brock’s story isn’t dazzling – I wanted more anecdotes – but it’s overwhelmingly shrewd.