Sunday, July 24, 2011

Brilliant, bright, brief

What a depressing couple of days. A lone nutjob massacres almost 100 people in Norway and then surely one of music's most inevitable headlines: Amy Winehouse Found Dead. If there's one good thing out of all this, it's taken the name Murdoch off the front pages for the first time in a month.

No sooner had we begun to digest the true, psychopathic horror of Utoya and Oslo (ignore the chronological reversal - sadly, the later events of Friday eclipsed what took place earlier in the Norwegian capital), than a story broke that was probably written a long, long time ago.

No one - least me - will compare the horrendous waste of young life in Norway and North London equally. But despite the inevitability of Winehouse's death, it would be wholly wrong to look upon in it as another rock'n'roll triviality. As Billy Bragg pointed out, quite simply, "It's not age that Hendrix, [Brian] Jones, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain and Amy have in common, it's drug abuse, sadly." 

'Abuse' may be the right functional description, but addiction is a condition. It may be the result of experimentation, of recreational diversion, of boredom, of pressure to escape reality - whatever - but it is a disease. Alcohol, drugs, food - these addictions are born from the progressive dismissal of the sufferer that they have a problem. Some are lucky and can kick it before it kicks them. Some need intervention. Some may never be saved. 

If you've never suffered addiction it's easy to say addicts are victims of their own misfortune. It's also easy to say they shouldn't be regarded as victims at all, that it's their fault with society picking up the pieces. It's not.

Like all her peers in the infamous club of 27-year-old rock tragedies, Amy Winehouse was a talent of rare quality. Before her breakthrough Back To Black album emerged in 2006, she was earning a deserved reputation bridging the vintage jazz, soul and blues she so obviously evoked, and an urban-smart sensibility reflecting her Southgate stamping ground. 

The industry buzz was well justified. She couldn't be packaged. You couldn't simply describe her as a retro act. She was no ironic Mike Flowers Pops take on yesteryear, no Style Council homage. Hers was application of the best of Sarah Vaughan with a new and modern twist. But unlike Duffy and Adele who've followed, Winehouse wasn't a comfortable fit on daytime TV. I doubt if she would have known what daytime TV was.

What happened after her glorious arrival, why it happened and who it happened with is no longer important. It needs to be understood. It needs to be prevented from happening again. But as long as there are temptations and opportunities in the way of those susceptible to them, there will be tragedies. 

I know this blog has appeared to have a morbid obsession with dead rock stars in recent months. Please grant me comment on just one more: Amy Winehouse's passing may have admitted her to illustrious, if tragic, company. but in joining Jones, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain and Hendrix, she has given credence to Keith Richards' keen observation, mentioned on these pages not so long ago. The commonality between these people is not only tragedy or addiction, but that - whether through fate or design - their stars shone brilliantly, brightly and briefly. If your record collection only includes the handful of albums the so-called 'Forever 27' club made, you'd have a very decent record collection indeed.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The true cost of the War on Terror is perception

Wednesday, October 10, 2001: almost one month to the day after 9/11, I found myself on an early morning United Airlines flight from San Francisco to New York.

The cavernous Boeing 767 was, inevitably, half-empty. Normally this would have been one of the busiest flights in North America - the first of the day from the West Coast's business capital to the East Coast's (hence the scheduling of a wide-bodied jet like the 767). The plane was so devoid of passengers I didn't just have the pick of the seats, I chose my row.

So much disappeared as a result of 9/11: American innocence and the naïveté that terror happened somewhere else, for starters. In its place crept an almost wartime return to the sinister suspicion that within our midst lurked people planning to do us harm.

I'll admit it: as I settled into my window seat, I was paying far more attention to my fellow passengers than I ever would have done before. Shameful as it was, I (and I'd challenge anyone else on that plane to deny they were doing the same) was profiling people as they boarded. Beards, olive skin, a lack of hand luggage - all and every irrational consideration flashed across my mind. 

On the return flight I was waiting at the gate at JFK. The flight was, again, half-empty. I'd already undergone an excessive security check, perhaps because I had a beard myself in those days, or possibly because I was wearing khaki cargo trousers. Who knows what criteria airport security was applying. It's just a pity they hadn't been more thorough a month earlier. 

Sat at the gate were two young Indian parents, accompanied by their two exasperating, hyperactive boys. The parents looked exhausted. They had clearly endured a long flight from India, and now they had five more hours in the air with their maddening children. My fellow passengers gave them a wide berth. Ridiculous. As it turns out, they slept soundly on the flight. I applauded their rare moment of tranquility.

Fast-forward to yesterday afternoon. Reports came through of an explosion in Oslo near to the Norwegian prime minister's office. Before long it was clear that a massive bomb had gone off. The scenes of devastation were reminiscent of the aftermath of the Bali attacks. Buildings around the canyon-like streets of Oslo's business district had been torn open, debris strewn everywhere.

Immediately the assumption was made: terror attack. Presidents and prime ministers gave instant comment about another terrorist tragedy. Without a shred of evidence to suggest it had anything to do with any affiliation, the suggestion was there: "No one has so far claimed responsibility," announced one so-called expert, "but Norway has been a part of the NATO force in Afghanistan." Right. I see. Obviously we know who did it. Banged to rights. In the 70s and 80s in Britain, all death and destruction was the fault of Irish terrorists until evidence proved otherwise. Now it's Islamic extremists.

As the impact of the massive Oslo bomb was being examimed by newsroom analysts devoid of any further material information, news emerged of a shooting incident on an island 50km from Oslo, where young members of Norway's ruling Labour Party had gathered for the Norwegian holiday weekend. Simultaneously the same thought occurred everywhere: Mumbai.

So how disappointed were we that these attacks hadn't been carried out by anyone with the racial traits that clearly mark one out as a terrorist? What was our collective surprise that the authorities detained a blond, blue-eyed 32-year-old farmer by the name of Anders Behring Breivik. Imagine our shock when it emerged  that the alleged perpetrator of what The Sun screamed NORWAY'S 9/11 turned out to be a right-wing crank with access to vast amounts of fertiliser. Norway's 9/11? Sounds more like Norway's Timothy McVeigh.

Perception can be a corrupting sense. Just as you don't spend your entire holiday on Sicily dodging Mafiosi, a visit to Israel doesn't require body armour. I know that now. I couldn't help being just a little apprehensive before my first trip to Israel last year. Another irrational trait shared with many who will never get to visit stunning parts of this world because of who, as well as what, they think they might encounter.

In the end, I loved Israel. The only downside is that I now have an Israeli stamp in my passport, apparenty making it difficult to fulfil my wish to visit Beirut. As we all know, Beirut is a war zone of West-hating evil. With fantastic restaurants, some of the best hotels in the Meditteranean, and the warmest, friendliest people you could ever wish to meet.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Wapping Bombshell

"We didn't think it could get any worse," News of the World political editor David Woodman told the BBC on Thursday. But it did. A lot worse.

Shortly after 4.15pm on Thursday, July 7, the newspaper's 280 staff gathered in the second-floor Wapping newsroom to hear James Murdoch's statement that the News of the World would publish it's final edition today.

After a week of searing accusations, allegations and insinuations, Murdoch Junior (and, it should be assumed, Murdoch Senior) had had enough. The most-read English-language newspaper in the world would print one more edition and then, in the best tradition of many of its infamous exposés, make its excuses and leave.

There will be many people who will say "good riddance", and others who'll say "who cares?". I'm sure there are plenty who have dismissed the whole brouhaha as a lot of media types getting their knickers in a twist about, well, a lot of media types. To do so, however, would be to ignore the political and cultural significance of the whole affair.

Press freedom is something we should care about greatly. Regardless of how far newspapers like the News of the World have stretched it over the years, the basic right of the Fourth Estate to uncover wrongdoing, expose the shameful, and burst the pomposity of the privileged who abuse their privilege is one which should be protected at all costs.

Whatever you think of the News of the World's frequently tawdry news agenda, it had, for the most part, upheld the solid traditions of what a newspaper is meant to do - deflating the over-inflated by applying investigative instincts and campaigning on behalf of those who don't have a voice.

That it lurched, like everything else in celebrity-obsessed Britain, towards the crass and the degenerate doesn't take anything away from the fact that it had been a more credible and authentic voice of working class Britain than any other news organisation, its sister title The Sun included. Mazher Mahmood - the so-called 'Fake Sheikh' - actually scored some creditable hits with his entrapment scams, which nabbed Sarah Ferguson offering her ex-husband up like some Royal pimping operation, and Pakistani cricket officials accepting piles of cash to throw test matches.

However, despite its self-promotional claims about being a champion of victims of crime and wrongdoing, nothing can escape the fact that hacking the mobile phones of teenage murder victims, the relatives of terrorism attacks and the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq is about as morally bankrupt as it is possible to be. 

Though no doubt prepared by the best PR brains at his disposal, and clinincally vetted by his lawyers, James Murdoch's statement on Thursday was a remarkable document: "The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself," he said, adding that despite  criminal convictions for the original Royal phone hacking scandal, "...the News of the World and News International failed to get to the bottom of repeated wrongdoing that occurred without conscience or legitimate purpose."

Stunningly - and with a possible swipe at the very executives who have been protected by the decision to close the newspapers - Murdoch pointed out: "Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued."

The decision to close the News of the World was a bold but clever act. Mindful that the newspaper's reputation and brand had been mired forever, and sensing the risk to News International and its parent, News Corporation, the Murdochs had the News of the World cauterized. In the process, they cleared the path for a long expected move to seven-day operations for The Sun and a further opportunity to stem losses within the company's UK newspaper operation of some £200,000 a day.

On top of that lay the bigger objective: protect BSkyB at all costs. On a simple financial basis, it makes perfect sense. The News of the World earns something like £120 million a year in circulation revenue - the 'newstand' price - and a further £30-40 million in advertising revenue. Sky, on the other hand, rakes in £6 billion a year. So, despite shocking everyone by simply closing down the very newspaper that established the Murdoch beachhead in Britain, News International made a bold step to mitigate any threat to its full takeover of Sky.

The question now is, was it worth it? The Murdoch empire has been sailing choppy waters for a while. Newspapers are its foundation. Rupert Murdoch's father was a great print icon in Australia, and his son kept that going. Whatever your opinion of Murdoch's newspapers, or indeed his excessive influence on politics, he has always been a great newspaperman. Ink, one rival publication wrote this week, runs through his veins.

The problem is, ink is no longer the currency of information. The reassembled zeros and ones you're reading right now are the modern commodity. The printed word is in terminal decline. Over the last few years, the Murdoch print stable has been investing heavily in digital technology, creating multimedia editorial operations, turning traditional print hacks (a questionable name, now, to describe a journalist) into videographers. The invention of the Apple iPad has proven to be another boon, and the development of dedicated iPad apps for all of the News International titles in the UK may yet prove to be another stroke of genius. Certainly, consolidating the gargantuan Sunday Times into a portable digital format was a welcome idea that only those with a perverted addiction to the tactility of holding a newspaper would consider bad.

So, as five million copies of the very last edition of the  News of the World get snapped up, 200 journalists look for work, and their newsroom is sealed ahead of further police investigations into phone hacking, what next?

Rebekah Brooks remains at the helm of News International, bizarrely retained at the cost of an entire newspaper and its staff under the murky premise that she is "the best person to lead the company out of this crisis". Rupert Murdoch's takeover of BSkyB remains on hold. There is no decision, yet, on whether The Sun will be published on a Sunday.

In their attempt to find new angles and alternative nuances on this story, the rest of the British - and, indeed, global - media have concluded that this has been one of the most engrossing scandals to have gripped Britain in years. Some have likened it to Watergate. I'm not so sure, and the fact that this has been a scandal of the media, reported and then amplified by the media, may not put it in the proper perspective. If, ultimately, it costs Rupert Murdoch his entire empire (there are murmurings that it could even lead to BSkyB's operating licence being withdrawn), there will be other media organisations. Life will go on.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Hacked off

Let me get the confessional out of the way: between August 1988 and the end of November 1992 I worked for Rupert Murdoch. Not directly, you understand (although I encountered him on a number of occasions including, bizarrely, standing next to me in a kitchenette making himself a cup of tea. Yes, I also thought that he had minions or offspring to do that for him).

During this time I was employed by the same organisation which publishes the News of the World. I have even worked for a bit as a writer for its sister title, The Sun. Today, though some might scoff at the notion, I still consider myself to be a journalist, even though my brand of the noble art manifests itself as a corporate PR bloke (I maintain that the two professions are sides of the same, thin coin).

On Monday this week, however, I came close to disassociating myself with the profession altogether after it was revealed that a private investigator working for the News of the World had hacked into the mobile phone of the abducted and murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and listened to - and even deleted - her voicemails.

After all the Dowler family went through during the trial of Milly's murderer, Levi Bellfield, when it felt like the Dowlers themselves were on trial, they have been confronted with the fact that while their daughter was missing and probably - by then - dead, someone working (we must assume) on behalf of a major British news organisation was illegally accessing her phone. In the pursuit of what, we can't begin to imagine.

What restored my faith in journalistic endeavour was the story being broken by The Guardian. Lest it be said that the dear old Grauniad has never been the greatest Murdoch fan; but in its good old-fashioned scoop discovering the new depth plumbed by the ever-more Faustian saga of the NoW's alleged use of phone hacking against public figures, the leftist paper sparked an unprecedented wave of justifiable fury against the Wapping tabloid.

British PM David Cameron has condemned the alleged hacking, and major advertisers like Ford are said to be considering their position regarding the newspaper. A loss of advertising revenue will hit the paper harder than any stinging political rebuke, but questions have been rightly asked about Cameron's political associations with the Murdoch empire.

Was it wise of the prime minister to hire former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his head of communications, knowing that Coulson resigned from the paper when the original Royal phone hacking scandal came to light? Has Cameron shown the best political judgement in being close to Rebekah Brooks, now News International's chief executive, and editor of the NoW when the Dowler hacking allegedly occurred? Brooks' hierarchical culpability and, we must assume, inevitable knowledge of the use of mobile phone hacking puts her in an untenable position now, especially with Rupert Murdoch looking to take over BSkyB fully. News Corporation and its British subsidiary News International currently need a spotless corporate reputation for this purpose - you'd struggle to say that they do with the hacking scandal hanging over them.

Meanwhile, the story continues to unravel: were the phones of victims of the 7/7 bombings hacked by the NoW? And what about the phone of one of the parents of the girls murdered in Soham in 2002? Apparently there is a suspicion of a hack there.

All this suggests a new degree of British media sleaze, and a further stain on the reputation of journalism itself. Once again we enter the discussion as to what constitutes "public interest". It has long divided opinion, especially when it comes to what licence the media has to invade individuals' privacy. Catching footballers shagging nannies may be of questionable public interest - beyond public appetite for such titillating nonsense - but accessing someone's voicemail is no better than breaking into someone's home and rifling through their personal possessions. It carries no justifiable purpose.

Those of us who work in and around the media will often turn a blind eye to the excesses of the press. We have a certain tolerance for the moral ambiguity occasionally applied by the media, even when they trample over something or someone we might otherwise find awkward or uncomfortable in pursuit of some truth or other. But the still-unravelling saga of the News of the World's seemingly systematic use of phone hacking and - if true - the despicable attempt to access a dead teenager's voicemail, surpasses even questions of morality. Perhaps those found ultimately responsible - up and down the editorial chain of command - will have plenty of time to reflect on that from their jail cells.