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.

Review: The Politician’s Husband

Written for Cherwell in May 2013.

I ended up really enjoying the series, though at only 3 episodes it rushed a bit too much. The idea, I figure, was to avoid an abrupt ending, but as a result there wasn’t enough time for the characters to develop and for the audience to properly empathise with them. A longer series would have been more satisfying.

Nick Robinson: Live From Downing Street

I’ve just finished Live From Downing Streeta political history-cum-biography, with a fat dollop of polemical musing, from BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson.

What to make of it?

In short: a Very Good Book, but mis-sold. This is emphatically not the ‘inside story’ that we are promised on the front cover; it is an astute, well-informed and colourful history of the British media-political nexus. The black and white years certainly merit all the pages Robinson devotes to them. How fascinating indeed, to discover the contempt with which Churchill held Reith, the founding Director General of the BBC, and vice versa.And who’d have known that today’s Beeb was, until staggering recently, a mere plaything of the Establishment and the incumbent government? Until the late 50s laws preventing debate of anything occurring in Parliament that week or the next remained on the statue. Having made his career in a media world unencumbered by any such restriction, Robinson is best-placed to describe the tedium, dullness and impotence of the broadcasters, which he does succinctly. It took the charisma and insolence of one man, Robin Day, a former barrister on the newly launched Independent Television News, to change that. And change it he did: the abrasive character of television and radio journalists today such as Paxman, Crick and Humphrys  is born out of his legacy.

Robinson’s account is generously embellished by anecdotes. The personal ones are cute and original. Recounting his first interview with Blair, Robinson was mischievously introduced by Alastair Campbell – spin doctor extraordinaire – as “the chairman of the Young Conservatives”. ‘Having anticipated such a welcome’ he recalls, ‘I had a response ready. “Prime Minister,” I said, “at the time of my life when I was involved in politics you had long hair and were playing the guitar with the Ugly Rumours.” Blair reacted instantly. “Yes, Nick, but I wish I still was.”

However some of the anecdotes that pre-date his career will, to those familiar with the political history of the period, come across as tired. Describing Atlee’s quiet and unassuming demeanor he refers to a famous Churchill quip – “one day an empty taxi drew up and Mr Attlee got out” – which is fine, perfectly adequate, but political junkies sort of expect more from the ‘inside account’ which they shelled £20 out for.

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The problem is that Robinson’s job makes him the ‘most important person in British political journalism.’ I know this because he says so. Ok, no, he doesn’t really- he quotes one of the US President’s advisors. Which President? Which advisor? I don’t know, I’ve just spent the last ten minutes thumbing through 413 pages trying to find that one excerpt. Needle in a haystack indeed.

Anyway the point is that Robinson’s ginormous influence, that is, his network of contacts, will evaporate away – hell, no, spontaneously combust (!) – if he tittle tattles on them all. The time for that will come, post-retirement, but it’s not yet.

Consequently Robinson pulls surprisingly few punches, surprisingly few for a character self-described as “northern, arsey and confrontational”. [For the record Robinson grew up down the round from me in a leafy Cheshire suburb] There is an unsubtle dig at Sky News: ‘other [channels] repeat it without needing to bother to establish the facts for themselves (which is what happens when the giveaway words ‘media sources’ appear at the foot of the screen on Sky News a minute after the story breaks on the BBC).’ More forcefully, in his narrative of the BBC-government war following the alleged ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq/WMDs, Robinson singles out Andrew Gilligan, then reporting for Radio 4’s Today, as a bandit.

What we are left with ultimately is a political history told by someone exceedingly well qualified to tell it, albeit more because of the author’s insightfulness and command of the facts, rather than his willingness to disclose much that couldn’t be deduced – or guessed at – anyway. If Robinson had written this book on the eve of retirement, rather than the peak of his career, he might have been more forthcoming: a second edition of Live From Downing Street circa-2020 would therefore be welcome.

Review: Peep Show Series 8 (first half)

Reproduced from Cherwell

Like all the greatest rock stars, the best British comedic dramas have historically died young: Fawlty TowersThe Office; even Monty Python’s Flying Circus properly lasted only three series. Peep Show fully deserves to number among these classics, but, now bucking the trend, is in its eighth series. With the show, and its characters, now almost a decade older than when it all began, you could be forgiven for expecting a certain level of classiness or maturity: Mark (David Mitchell, who Cherwell interviewed earlier this year), after all, now has a child and has asked his long-term girlfriend Dobbie (Isy Suttie) to move in, turfing Jez (Robert Webb) out.

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But, thank goodness, nothing has become sacred: even last rites. Mark seethes as Dobbie tends to the sickly Gerard (Jim Howick). One evening Mark manages to persuade her not to rush to his bedside – “But Dobs, it’s the Apprentice tonight, I think there’s going to be someone we both really hate” – and, hilariously, Gerard kicks the bucket. Corrigan remains a master of the acutely awkward observation, the cynical retort and the withering put-down; and what a relief it is that while the material feels so fresh, the central conventions of the show have survived intact: it is comforting to see Jeremy’s inane reasoning (“I’d make a great therapist. Look at all the pussy I bag”) and Mark’s sardonic wisecracks (“Is that a quote from Freud or Jung?”) continuing to manifest in their characteristically outrageous fashion.

Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the writers of Peep Show, deserve medals for crafting a script that manages to place authentic, pitch-perfect, toe-curling awkwardness into poetry: “I never stone alone; I’m just high on pie”, is how Mark declines a spliff. A useful one to remember. All that said, the format is predictable. Jeremy says and does stupid things; Mark pursues eminently sensible goals, but typically fouls up just as badly as Jeremy. Jeremy remains an infant in a grown man’s body: a perennial failure with occasional flashes of jealousy. Hearing that Mark has published a book (albeit with the suspiciously named ‘British London’) Jeremy panics: “What next? He’s found a director for his film? A builder for his cathedral?” Mark loves to berate Jeremy for his failings, but in reality is consumed by a similarly bitter pettiness; acutely conscious of his own under-achievement, Mark patronises Jeremy and jealously curtails even Dobby’s career ambitions.

You sort of know how this is going to unravel just by skim-reading the subtext. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. Peep Show revels gloriously in drudgery; even its most colourful characters lack charisma, instead generating in their comic interactions a remarkable anti-charisma, which itself forms the gravitational centre of the show’s charm and intrigue. Mark and Jeremy can always be trusted to get over their mutual loathing because, after all, the only thing animating the lives of the ‘El Dude’ brothers is each other. The fruits of that relationship, not just the gags, are surely the reason the show has lasted so long. The viewer remains as wedded to the central relationship as Mark and Jeremy are to each other: we remain oddly charmed by how totally aware they are of the other’s naivety and haplessness, while apparently blissfully ignorant of their own. And how deeply they know each other’s quirks: Episode 2’s depiction of Jeremy discovering Mark executing the ‘Velvet Spoon Routine’ (avoiding the obligation of making him a cup of tea) is a highlight.

“I hate living with him, but I never really want it to end,” Jeremy describes living with Mark. In a similar way, I’m not quite sure why I keep watching Peep Show. Its pulling power is akin to popping bubble wrap: it all seems slightly mundane and a little pathetic but somehow instils a deep affection in me. Series 8 has moved to Sunday night from the usual Friday slot, a shrewd move I think: the essence of Peep Show chimes much better with the Sunday night mood: dour, reflective, lazy, mercurial. Series 8 has got off to a cracking start. The next episode sees Jeremy move out of the flat and in with the steadfastly drugged-up Super Hans. Perhaps they should move this one back to Friday.

Book Review: Dancing on the Frontier

This is a review of a travel book, reproduced from Cherwell, written by my friend Nico Hobhouse about his year-long journey in China. 

 

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Devising a travel novel that people actually want to read is tough. It’s clearly necessary to communicate the great and the good; the bad and the ugly, sure. However a discourse that is solely descriptive, even in beautiful prose, can get tedious. ‘What I did on my holidays’ is nice enough for an article, but downright dull for a book. Nico Hobhouse, a second-year Classicist at Trinity, is therefore wise in his attempt to marry colourful description with spirited polemic in his self-published book Dancing on the Frontier: Travels by Land through China and Tibet.

Dullness is absolutely not Hobhouse’s problem. Some randy passages hit you like a bus, especially since they come from nowhere. Fresh from describing a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Chapter 11 takes a sudden and inexplicably lewd turn: “Down one narrow alley I spotted two donkeys rutting. The female seemed less eager and pulled away. The male trotted after her, his member still primed to go…The poor jenny was having a rough day.” These entertaining but stand-alone remarks are far from atypical. More than once the reader is thrown off the scent of what he thinks is an emerging theme by a slightly wacky observation.

The paragraphs are short and fairly punchy; it is an easy read (mostly: I confess to having to look up ‘somnolent’) though the images Hobhouse evokes are nonetheless vivid and varied. However the overall effect is diminished by numerous typos and an episodic structure that leaves the passages disjointed. And once in a while the language is a bit clumsy: in one instance he suggests that the ‘lack of [political] openess in China…is as alive as ever.’ Can an absense of something be alive? Probably not. It’s one of the areas in which self-publishing – otherwise a fantastic blessing for first-time authors – falls down.

The typical passage – which provides an original story followed by a fascinating insight – works well. There is a well-scripted section about his experience of the visceral antipathy felt by otherwise sophisticated Chinese urbanites against the Japanese. Staying in Nanjing, the sight of a brutal massacre at the hands of Imperial Japan in 1937, Hobhouse movingly describes the sensation of Western guilt as “more powerful that disgust at what I saw. I felt ashamed that I had not known about the incident before I had come to China. The scale and horror of the massacre were comparable to the Holocaust and yet I had never really cared back home in England.”

Occasionally though the formula breaks down; the weakest parts of the book generally crop up when it does. Anecdotal, albeit unusual, tit bits are used to draw predictable and not especially profound conclusions: “I saw two toads copulating – a reminder that early spring was approaching – and reflected that nature was losing out in a big way to China’s urbanisation.” Ew. Is this really what Hobhouse, observing the amphibian fornication, thought at the time? Or is he indulging in a bit of post hoc analysis that matches up his travelling experiences to the well-established assertions commonly bandied about in The Economist?

By contrast the strongest sections occur when he is more modest in his ambition. Sharing a minibus, with an elderly monk, trundling through Tibet Hobhouse recounts the monk’s contradictory behaviour. “The senior of the two took out some prayer beads…[A]fter chanting for a long time he took a few swigs from his bottle of water. When he had finished, to my astonishment, he casually tossed the empty bottle out of the window. He had a fake Tissot wristwatch…and a mobile phone on which he took my photo.” The reader does not need to be explicitly told what Hobhouse is implying: that the monk’s contradictions betray a disconcerting truth about modern China. The effect is immensely satisfying.

One final groan: Hobhouse clearly takes his liberalism seriously. From Bautou to Beijing, Shanghai to Lhasa, he strikes up an argument about the virtues of Western democracy vs. authoritarian capitalism with just about every poor chap he meets. Each time he presents the dispute fairly crudely, though given the fact that he had to conduct these Socratic dialogues in Mandarin we can forgive him for that. The issue is rather that when it comes to the book he keeps banging on about it without saying anything new each time. Travelling alone, off the beaten track, meeting bucolic village folk who had perhaps never spoken to a white man before, Hobhouse’s account really should have been stronger in explaining how China understands itself, as well as the world it will shortly dominate.

Yet the final result is really quite impressive. Hobhouse has taken a year of his life that is tough to characterise in any one definitive way, and has turned it into a thoroughly readable, thoughtful and playful journal. Were he to write a second travel book, as I am told he is planning to, I suspect he would avoid most of the mistakes made in Dancing on the Frontier. Through it Hobhouse has nonetheless cultivated an authentic tone and an inquiring style that will serve him well into the future.

‘Dancing on the Frontier’ is published by Xlibris. A paper copy can be purchased through Amazon or alternatively as an eBook through W.H.Smith