The real NOTW headline – the age of broadcast political bullies is nearly over

This week saw the closure of an outdated and unprofitable Sunday tabloid newspaper. It also saw a feeding frenzy on the unholy relationship between broadcast media players and politicians. One of these stories is very important.

It is so easy to use pantomime villains like Murdoch and Brooks, or even Cameron and Blair, as the focal point of our righteous indignation. To do this is to ignore something much more fundamental at work. What we are seeing is an assassination attempt on the now long-standing axis of News International and the British Government.

There are some angry people out there.

The white blood cells of the Guardian, celebrities and the massed ranks of the Twitterati are in full onslaught against every chink in the Murdoch armour. They are determined to use this moment, in which News International should have been celebrating their impending ascendancy as masters of the convergent media battlefield, to bring their ambitions crashing to earth.

This is no mean feat. After all, this is one of the most potent power relationships in the UK. To an extent many certainly do not realise.

This is also in the context of an entire past century in which political power and media broadcasting have been inseparable. In fact the political history of the 20th Century can be seen just as clearly through the lens of media change as through the lens of political wings. After all, it was the era of mass newspaper distribution, of radio fireside chats, of movie newsreels, and live televised debates.

When you think of the icons of the political nineteenth century, you might think of them through their portraits. Or perhaps through their speeches, or their nicknames. When you think of the icons of 20th Century Media, you almost immediately think of them through their media appearances. To be a political superstar in the 20th Century, you had to be a master of the media.

Perhaps the greatest of all was Churchill – just one of a list (FDR being another great example) of true gurus of the radio broadcast.

JFK is of course one of the most iconic American politicians of all time – despite a decidedly patchy administrative and moral record. But he was great on TV. Nixon (at this point a hugely respected figure of great integrity) was not.

And to take things to their most logical and ridiculous extreme, let’s not forget that this man is now pretty much the most respected President of the 20th Century.

And played out to its worst extremes, of course the 20th Century brought us the tide of fascism, of Communist based dictatorship – usually established on a bedrock of broadcast-driven cultural brainwashing.

Even in the succeeding and supposedly more cynical age, the power of the broadcast media continued. In particular, still the press, with which politicians remain absolutely entranced, it being the only medium that is truly interested in them, and which enables them to keep score. Particularly the tabloids, which they perceive as being able to connect with ‘ordinary people’ in a way that they have forgotten. And of course to many of them, it is still the Sun wot won it (or lost it).

Some say Kinnock could have lost it without them

Blair and his ‘spin doctors’ were described as a new generation of super-cynical, media-obsessed politicians. In reality, they were the end of the old era – the last generation of effective media managers. They could still, just about, manage public opinion through 3 or 4 really big media relationships, with Murdoch as the centrepiece. But the mere fact that the world of spin is one of the first things we think of in relation to a government that brought peace to Northern Ireland and war to Iraq is testament to the unravelling failure of that form of message management.

And now, we see Cameron, the apparent heir to Blair, the PR man in Number 10, playing out the next stage of this decaying power structure. Suddenly his power base looks fragile, and his big bet on Murdoch and Coulsen looks rash and destructive. Not only because of ethical questions – but because when it really comes to the crunch, even Murdoch’s legions represent a pretty small part of the spectrum of opinion, and a tiny fragment of the playing field of active participation in political discourse.

The relationship with the media isn’t going away as a crucial success factor for politicians. It can only become more extreme as media itself becomes a bigger part of life. But the axis of politicians with ‘The Media’ – ie a small circle of powerful but venal owners and editors – is no longer a sustainable power model. It is more transparent than ever, and there is more of the political discourse outside of their control. It is a more fragile base than ever on which to build control.

Nor are the traditional skills of message management going to retain the same power as before. The idea of owning the ‘news cycle’ practiced so successfully by Blair and Campbell in their honeymoon period, simply do not work if your ‘workings’ can be scaled to the population at any moment, without the need for a broadcaster to drive the distribution. Which is why this kind of approach from Ed Miliband simply will not work any more.

A new generation of politicians will find a new way to bend the media to their ends no doubt, but retaining the kind of control they are used to won’t be possible in the future. We see politicians dabbling in listening exercises and ‘Twitter Town Halls’ as they dip their feet in the future. But it is fair to see we haven’t got it work out yet (I will consider this in a future post.)

One thing that is clear is that as with entertainment and marketing, a distribution model on its own will not be enough. Ultimately content – transparent and compelling actions – will be more powerful than ever.



Filed under Uncategorized

As one generation gap closes, another opens

Media may be making kids get older younger. It is almost certainly making adults stay younger for longer. If they meet in the middle, isn’t this a good thing?

As a doting and anxious parent, I am not always a big fan of the toy industry. Behaviours and attitudes formed early in life shape people’s long-term outlook, no doubt, and some of the materialism and sexualization of children’s play that is inherent in some toy lines really grates with me.

Not in my house

BUT this week I saw Mattel say something brave that had the unmistakeable ring of truth – that the widely accepted phenomenon of ‘KGOY’ (Kids Getting Older Younger) may be drastically over-stated. Kids may be dressing a bit more like us, but for the most part, kids are still kids, and their emotional and psychological development actually proceeds much as it ever did.

This is part of a much broader myth which which we are all familiar – the ‘Myth of Decline.’ This takes many forms – the belief that society is getting more violent, less compassionate, more dangerous, totally apathetic, more materialistic – and is almost never borne out by rigorous statistical analysis. Nonetheless it is a power instinct, and one in which many media outlets and businesses have a vested interested. So it is fair to say it won’t be going away (and it will probably get worse. Bah.)

The scriptwriters for the Myth of Decline. Everything is getting worse. Apart from the Royal Family.

At the same time, I have been witnessing multiple examples of technology entering the world of kids. My daughter is regularly receiving ’emails’ from family and friends on her mini toy computer. My nephew recently participated in a live treasure hunt in a park in which he was enabled and tracked through GPS. And pretty much everyone I know who has young kids regularly witnesses them trying to control the TV through touchscreen…because the iPad just seems so normal to them.

Media convergence is stopping at sensible, grown-up things. It is sweeping through the world of kids. My instinctive, Myth of Decline driven reaction is to think this is a bad thing. Why? Maybe it is a good thing?

I think there is little doubt that changes in media, in particular ‘social’ media, and bringing kids into ever closer contact with the adult world. But is separation from the adult world such a good thing? And does it ever really exist in practice anyway? The most popular TV show with kids in the UK right from its very inception has been Coronation Street. All of life is there. And as introductions to the world of adults go, maybe it’s not such a bad one.

And at the same time, adults are more and more happy acting like kids. This manifests itself in obvious ways – increasingly, and gadgets, and spend time in gaming like kids do. Could you imagine adults spending so much time on Facebook in a more ‘adult’ age? And in fact childish behaviours are increasingly seen as important elements in the serious business of learning to make the world a better place – as explored by the Lifelong Kindergarten at the MIT Media Lab.

I fact you can probably conclude that for the next generation, childlike ‘Play’ will probably to have the same kind of impact on technological progress as the much more adult ‘War’ did in the last century. And the fact that we are sharing these media and play spaces with children significantly increases the likelihood of benign outcomes.

The other thing that is interesting here is that we are viewing ‘media’ as the dangerous catalyst that is throwing adults and children together – whereas in fact, from the village to the multi-family urban homes, shared adult/child lives have been the norm throughout most of history. It is really only in the ‘golden age’ of mass media that we are just leaving now that the whole concept of a separate ‘youth culture’ has been commonplace.

It has been a fertile counter-cultural melting pot at times – from Teddy Boys, to Punks, to Ravers and beyond. Alienated youth have been able to use media technology to alienate adults from their secrets, from the distortion of electric guitar, to the intensity of 200 BPM, to pirate radio.

But just as often we have seen some fairly mean exploitation of youth culture and youth media, from the Beatles to Bieber. Where some saw in the proliferation of media a chance for the young to question authority, it is fair to say more often the mass media has been used by adults to subjugate the young – and that ultimately in the war against the mass-media counter-culture, the suits won.

Maybe, through social platforms and location-aware services, through converged gaming platforms, kids and adults are increasingly going to start living in the same world. There have been many teething problems, and there are bound to be more. But maybe, just maybe, it will be a good thing.

So we may be at the point of finding some good answers to the problem of the last generation. Great. We are thus far not much closer to solving the problems of our own age – of reconciling with an older generation that is often alienated by technology, but whose size and needs are growing all the time. A problem for another time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Lost in Meta-News

A very inspiring English Literature teacher once told me that all poems were about poetry, and all plays were about plays. Increasingly my newsreaders seems to be telling me that all news is about news.

Now I happen to think that poetry and plays should be about other things too, but what my teacher said stuck in my mind, because for literature by and large it is true.

The artistic process is inherently a meta-process, because any medium we engage, from blank page to blank canvas to blinking cursor, acts a mirror to ourselves. Ultimately when we engage with the world of imagination we only have ourselves as material to work with.

Great artistic works, like Proust, or Hamlet, or, are often acutely meta-textual, to an extent that they feel almost like organisms becoming aware of themselves. And in fact we almost define the trajectory of artistic progression as a medium’s path to supreme self-consciousness.

This is not a pipe. But it is a fantastic student poster.

But the news is different. Because the news, by and large, is one of the most essential tools we have in creating social cohesion and empathy, and to help people to understand real events in the world around them.

But it seems that finding out the news is just getting harder and harder. Because all anyone wants to tell me now is the Meta-News.

What do I mean by this exactly? Well, after reading this watch pretty much any TV news apart from the BBC World Service, or read pretty much any newspaper apart from the Financial Times, and you are likely to very quickly notice that about 50% of the airtime is devoted to coverage of the reaction to the news, or the process through which the news was obtained, or the difficulties in filming the news – with astonishingly little detail on what has ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

The modern news studio - a monument to Meta

Nowhere is this worse than in the world of 24 hour live news, in which the irregular flow of real news poses as significant threat to the much more regular flow of actual minutes and seconds. One thing that remains constant however is the speed at which people speak, film and report the news. That makes it a godsend to the rolling news editor.

This whole phenomenon went way beyond satire some time ago, though it has fed some of the very best, from Brass Eye to Charlie Brooker.

But that doesn’t make it any less disturbing to try to discover the details and impact of the Osama Bin Laden, and have to try to weed out a couple of actual facts from amongst the debris of people’s emails, footage of strange macabre people dancing in Times Square and a randomised selection of tweets.

This last area is particularly painful. News knows that email is important, and that there is every chance Twitter might be even more important. What is the response of TV news? Use it as filler. The ultimate, infinite time-filler of opinion. What’s more, a bottomless pool of opinion – which means you can easily find opinion to back the agenda of the broadcaster. Perfect.

The result – a relentless flow of jabber, which makes the angry angrier, the old-fashioned ever more befuddled, and which to the vaguely tech literate looks like an old-fashioned headmaster putting on sunglasses and trying to do some tricks on a skateboard.

All of which is silly, and infuriating, but worst of all, represents a collective shrug by the news broadcasting industry at the creative potential inherent in the most connected age of mankind, to get people to understand and empathize with news in ways never achieved before, in favour of the news equivalent of the music you hear in lifts.

It’s not all bad. Anderson Cooper on CNN is immense, and his fluency in the multi-screen world is awe inspiring – including the seamless interaction of international coverage and inside accounts on Twitter and YouTube into his reports. This is what the new golden age of newscasting could be all about.

In the meantime, the great majority of news coverage is still rather self-excited, and lost in a tedious and iniquitous spiral of-Meta News. Let’s hope it emerges soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The clash between the narcissism of technology and real love

A soul-enriching Memorial Day weekend, with minimal use of technology for anything but checking the weather, has reminded me that the Internet and Life are not the same thing.

And then I listened to this – a phenomenal diatribe on the incongruity of love and ‘being liked’, on the disjoint between technological narcissism and real experience, from the brilliant Jonathan Franzen speaking at a Kenyon College Commencement.

'Liking' is not loving.

Here is an excerpt – but listen to the full thing when you have some time for contemplation.

‘A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb ‘to like’ from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)

But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.”

Not only are ‘liking’ and loving not the same thing – is there a danger that technology can turn us into a machine for ‘liking’ and being ‘liked’ – and forgetting to experience the real thing…or worse, becoming too afraid of rejection to even give it a try?

ADDITION: The related New York Times op-ed is also great if you don’t have time to listen to the full thing.



Filed under Uncategorized

10 things Bob Dylan taught me about progress

I’m jumping the gun slightly, but Tuesday is Bob’s 70th birthday. And unlike most 70 year olds, he remains the embodiment of change. In fact, to me he seems like one of the greatest chroniclers of change – technological, emotional, social.

I think Bob is like a shark. If he doesn't keep moving forwards, he'll die. He even looks a bit like a shark.

Here are 10 things that Bob Dylan know about progress and technology that I now also know, partly thanks to him.

1. Journalists are an unreliable source of understanding of what change is really happening in society. They tend to mainly chronicle the phenomenon of journalistic interest. Or rather, they know something is happening, but they don’t know what it is.

2. You shouldn’t define, who you are, or what you believe, by what technology you do or don’t use. And certainly not by what other people think of it.

3. The future is unevenly distributed, and that means that there’s a lot in the past that hasn’t finished its path yet. Like Woody Guthrie.

4. Sometimes, more interesting things develop when you hand things on to someone else, rather than trying to keep control of them. The intersection between Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix might be better than anything either could achieve alone.

5. Young people are braver and faster to embrace change. But you can do things to stay young, or even to think younger than you used to, which can only lead to good things.

6. Artists may be really good at defining a vision of where society should be going, or giving shape the the collective thoughts of a new generation. That doesn’t mean they should be in charge of making it happen.

7. Hard work and creative thinking gets you a long way. But inspiration is real, and is magical. It’s where all the really big leaps come from. If you experience it, don’t take it for granted – even if you are uniquely blessed it doesn’t last forever.

8. There is nothing more destructive in the world, or more likely to hold back the invention of exciting new things, than fear. Fortunately, there is also nothing more ridiculous, particularly to a posterity who have to look back at the era of Communist fear. Not many people saw this as clearly as Dylan.

9. It doesn’t how much technology there is in the world. And how messed up your throat gets. There is still no substitute for physical performance. Just keep singing through the pain. 50 years of continuous gigging is inherently admirable.

10. Progress isn’t everything. Some things are timeless. And sometimes it can feel like the whole of history is happening at the same time, if you really use your imagination. The latest technological developments are pretty irrelevant on Desolation Row.

Anyway, thanks Bob. His music gives me inexhaustible pleasure, and I think he’s said more useful things about what changes and what stays the same as time passes than pretty much anyone else. Happy Birthday.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Here’s to the great Indian/Nigerian trade wars of 2055

So when we tend to conceive future development, it is easy to get fixated on a US/China polarity. The new UN population projections create some pause for thought.

Looks like India will be number one by population by 2025, and Nigeria will be bigger by population than the United States by 2055.

Start looking for good real estate in Nigeria now.

Added to the news yesterday that apparently one third of Africa’s population could now economically be described as ‘middle class’, it helps to give some food for thought around future economic development.

And the UK better work pretty hard to maintain its role as an educator, entertainer and innovator…because pretty soon its population will be less than Yemen.

Plucky little island

More on this subject shortly…for the moment some useful resources…

Full data is here:

And some visualisations here:

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

1st Anniversary – where did they come from, where did they go…?

Hello all. It is the first anniversary of this blog (roughly). Thanks for reading. I appreciate there are a lot of interesting things to read out there, and I appreciate the time you have spent here, and the comments you’ve made. If you have any feedback on what you want more or less of, let me know.

I got my first real 6 string...

The comments and suggestions are the best part. It has been a good place to keep conversations going with people I know, and to interact with new people from as far afield as Australia and India (who help me to realize that banana-peeling behaviour varies hugely across the world.) If you have anything you’d like me to think or write about, let me know.

One aspect of blogging is an obsession with stats. In between posts I am going to share a facts and figures that I have found interesting along the way so far. First off – where do people come from, and where do they go?

Where do they come from?

Thank you Blue Eyes

I’ve had about 3,600 views so far. Many of these have come from search engines, particularly recently, which aren’t reflected here. Lots obviously have come from Facebook and Twitter, partly because I have pushed out quite a lot in these environments, and partly because this blog is mainly read by people who already know me.

The biggest other contribution, under-represented here thanks to the hidden Facebook effect, was from the Nudge blog, which of all things featured my piece on peeling bananas. It is a great blog, and an even better book, so check it out.

However, particular thanks are due to behindblueeyes – not only a fantastic blog from which I read every post, but also one which sent me my first decent burst of highly engaged readers, and really encouraged me to keep doing this. If you haven’t checked it out, do, and subscribe. It is a unique inside view on London, and has real integrity.

Also thanks to electricginger…one of my favourite blog names, but a damn fine blog too from a lovely guy.

I have no idea what the various dating and mesothelioma sites are all about. It’s just noise. The curse of the internet.

Where do they go?

Where did they go? Room for improvement.

In turn I have sent a few elsewhere…mainly blueeyes, but a few to Chris Stephenson’s excellent Mediation blog from Australia too. I’d like to send some more to Googledigook, because it is very funny, and warm and smart. I will have to steal more of its ideas and try to pass them off as my own.

I am going to try to keep the links a bit more up to date too, with some more ideas on interesting stuff to read. If you have any great things you think I should be looking at, let me know.

Thanks again all.


Filed under Uncategorized