Radio Interviews

A welcome side-effect of the new English PEN website is an increase in inquiries from journalists. There have been a couple of free speech moments in the past couple of weeks – Günter Grass, and China at the London Book Fair – and as such the media have been in touch with us. I was asked to speak on the radio on a couple of occasions.

Discussing Günter Grass on BBC World Have Your Say:

Discussing China at the London Book Fair on Monocle 24:

I also spoke to 2ser Radio in Sydney but haven’t heard the audio yet. (Update: here).

Its excruciating to hear all the “ahs” and “ums” and “you know” and “sort of” that pepper what feels, at the time, like normal fluent speech. The second clip is better than the first, which is because I had longer to prepare.

The audio is hosted on PodOmatic, which I’ve only just discovered. It is free to sign-up and has easy integration with iTunes. I would use AudioBoo but it limits the length of the audio clips to 3 minutes.

How the Depiction of Technology in #Sherlock Captures the Zeitgeist

In a paywalled Times article this time last week, Hugo Rifkind highlighted our loss of the communal Christmas TV moment. EastEnders can never achieve the dizzy ratings heights of the 1980s, Eric and Ernie are dead, and even the numbers for Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas message are in decline. Rifkind blames the spread of new viewing technologies as the cause of this: A plethora of channels; asynchronous viewing options like Sky+, TiVo, and iPlayer; and the alternatives presented by DVDs and YouTube.

It is interesting that despite this decline, new technology can provide a facsimile of the old, communal TV viewing experience. Instead of discussing an episode over the water-cooler or at the school gates the following morning, we all have a ‘second screen’ and discuss it in real time over Twitter. This is not a particularly original observation, but I mention it because it is Twitter that tells me just how universally popular is Sherlock, the second series of which began last weekend, with Episode 2 to be aired later this evening.

Hilariously, given the above paragraph, I did not actually watch the first episode ‘live’ – instead I caught up later in the week via iPlayer. That doesn’t detract from how popular the show seems to be, at least among the connected Twitterati.

There are plenty of explanations for the success. The writing is excellent and funny. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch exudes an autistic confidence that is true to Conan Doyle’s original character. Mysteries and puzzles are always the most popular stories (c.f. the perennial dominance of detective stories over Lit Fic) and the Sherlock series adheres to the rules of a good detective story, presenting all the clues to the audience as they are presented to the sleuth himself.

However, I think it is the representation of technology, and the visual choices inspired by technology, which make the thing feel so contemporary. Holmes receives text messages and interacts with Lestrade on a mobile phone. Dr Watson has a blog, and the villainess of Series 2, Ep. 1 had her own Twitter account (both of which, as is obligatory these days, also exist in the real world and keep up the conceit). However, it is not just that the characters use technology that makes the show interesting, but how the director integrates that into the visual style. Sherlock employs the popular technique of overlaying motion graphics onto the action. It is method made easy by new digital editing tools (see the opening scene of Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell for an ostentatious example of the genre, as is Fifty Nine Productions’ work in Two Boys at the ENO). In Sherlock, the subtle use of this style makes the technology seem fully integrated into the way the characters view the world. The text messages flow past and through Sherlock, he barely has to look at his handset. I think it mirrors the way most of us live, with our eyes flitting between the screen and reality so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how exactly a particular piece of information came to us. It certainly represents the way a large audience segment are experiencing the show. Are they watching Sherlock, or are they watching #Sherlock? Both.

BBC Accused of Selective Editing

During Tuesday’s edition of Newsnight, hosted by Gavin Esler, one of the studio interviewees accused the BBC of selective editing.

The prgramme can be viewed online via the BBC iPlayer (available until 16th August).  In a debate about why young people have joined the riots in London, student Yohanes Scarlett said:

First of all, I would like to say, earlier, during your newsclip here, you had a recording of a gentleman with a bandana across his face and sunglasses on, and I would like to point out right now right from the beginning that the BBC have cut out his original statement.  I was there.  He gave an original statement which he wanted the people to hear. It has been cut out, this is a misrepresentation.

Scarlett’s speech begins at about 15 mins 35 seconds on the iPlayer recording.  The clip he referred to is at 7 mins 23 seconds.

Chairing the discussion, Gavin Esler immediately asked Yohanes Scarlett what the chap with the bandana said, but Scarlett said he couldn’t remember it by heart and was reluctant to paraphrase.  He went to to say that the BBC should play the full clip.  “Perhaps we will” replied Esler.

@Magic_Torch: @robertsharp59 @BBCNewsnight Just because they were accused it doesn’t mean it was true #justsaying

There is probably a simple reason why the interview was cut.  Reporters have a strict time slot and the subject Liz MacKean was reporting on was very broad.  However, it was an edit which a Newsnight interviewee – someone credible enough to be invited into the studio to talk specifically about the concerns of urban youths – thought was an unwarranted.

@Eastmad: @robertsharp59 @GavinEsler agreed – selective editing of people who you know don’t have much of a voice is egregious

Youths without a voice causing violence; youths causing violence because they have no polical voice.  This context is important.  This is not simply a case of a politician complaining about selective editing (which actually happens very rarely). Politicians have ample opportunity to clarify and expand upon what they say to broadcast journalists, and they are trained to talk in soundbites anyway.  This is not true of the underclass, the submerged.

So fairly or unfairly, the BBC’s reporting has been called into question.  If rebutting this criticism was in any way difficult, then maybe it would be appropriate for the BBC to shrug off Yohanes Scarlett’s comment, and the news cycle would move on.  But in the age of YouTube and iPlayer, there is really no excuse for uploading Liz MacKean’s entire interview with the masked youth.  It only takes a few minutes, and will give those who want it a deeper insight in the psyche of those causing chaos on our streets.

Of course, there are legitimate concerns about giving crimminals a platform, but in the case of the Newsnight package, I think that ship sailed when the anonymous looter was invited to give an interview in the first place.  And it was only last week that I outlined my view on whether to censor the words of criminals: we are best served when the ideas of wrongdoers are openly discussed and rebutted.  And it is in the BBC’s best interests to prove to their critics, over and over again if necessary, what responsible reporting looks like.

Update 12th August 2011

I’ve just received this response via e-mail from Newsnight’s Deputy Editor, Liz Gibbons:

With reference to your tweets about why we didn’t put the full interview and statement of the man who claimed to have some involvement with rioting on Newsnight on Tuesday night – it is standard televisual journalistic practice to choose clips from interviews in filmed pieces, rather than run interviews in full. This individual asked to make a statement to camera, but also agreed to do an interview in which our reporter was able to ask him some robust questions about why he thought it was justifiable to loot. I am sure you understand that it would be odd for the BBC to allow a statement from someone justifying criminal behaviour to be aired unchallenged, without us asking the individual some robust questions which the public would expect us to ask. We gave this individual no undertaking or promise of any kind that we would run his interview in full or that we would air his statement at all.

I have spoken to the reporter about the content of the statement that the individual made to camera and I am content that there was nothing he said in that pre-prepared statement that was not reflected in the subsequent interview exchange that was aired on the programme. Nor did he claim to represent any group, or organisation, or offer any insight beyond that which was reflected in the interview about why people were committing acts of violent disorder and criminality. You may have noted that Yohannes Scarlett who appeared in the studio, and was present when this interview was filmed, couldn’t actually recall what this individual even said in his pre-prepared statement.

I hope that allays your concerns.



Dumbing Down?

Last night, I caught a good portion of an excellent documentary on the late Charles Wheeler. It was narrated by John Humphrys and included contributions from Jeremy Paxman and John Simpson, and lauded the seriousness of Wheeler’s approach, his commitment to the highest quality journalism, and an insistence that the story, not the journalist, take centre stage.

How incongruous, then, that the broadcast was followed by Des Lynam’s Sport Mastermind, the very title of which screamed of the current obsession with celebrity and spin-off, old ideas re-packaged.

Here we go again

A classic multiculturalism scare story without substance, now honed to a fine art. This time, Ben Elton is the stooge:

Ben Elton has said the BBC is too “scared” to broadcast jokes about Muslims for fear of provoking radical Islamists… [he] added that the broadcaster would “let vicar gags pass but would not let imam gags pass”.

I’ve dealt with the difference between vicar gags and imam gags before (though I can’t seem to find the appropriate comment at the moment). Vicars are inherently more funny, especially to the British mind-set which sees more humour in taking the piss out of the familiar, than the exotic.

The other strand to the story is the second-guessing among well-meaning yet ultimately clueless decision makers. The story here is not “muslims can’t take a joke” or even “BBC thinks muslims can’t take a joke” but the ridiculous third degree of separation: “Ben Elton thinks that the BBC thinks that muslims can’t take a joke.” Is this what passes for discourse now?

As an aside to all this, may actually be the case that taking the piss out of minority religions could actually signify integration an acceptance, rather than intolerance.

Robert Kilroy-Silk is a waste of space

Once again, real issues have been marred by people who do not know how to have an argument. I refer of course to the embarrassing piece of human discourse that was the Kilroy affair. The article at the centre of the argument was very bad, but in some ways the arguments against it were worse, because they lent credence to Robert Kilroy-Silk where absolutely none was due.

In years to come, historians will hold up the article as a prime example not of human ignorance or bigotry, but of human idiocy. It is likely that they will give short shrift to the article itself, which embarrasses itself with inaccuracies, sentence construction, and ignorance: Kilroy-Silk says that no-one can think of anything the Arabs have ever given us. To this, the long list of retorts begins with an ‘a’ for algebra, and continues from there.

His one vaguely pertinent point – that Arab states should not be supported – is given an entirely offensive new meaning by the fact that he confuses ‘Arab states’ with ‘Arabs.’ His “grammatical error” (if we assume that is what it was) betrays a general immaturity of thought – that to speak of a people, is to speak of their government, and vice-versa. It is not racist to criticise the policies of the state of Israel, the USA, or any of the Islamic middle-eastern states. I believe all deserve the criticism ten-fold. Indeed, it can never be racist to genuinely question the policies of anyone, or anything. However, it is the very definition of racism is to ascribe the policies of a few, to a whole race, for that is a prejudice. To rail against The Arabs, The Jews, The Americans is nonsensical, for they are groups of individuals about which we know very little except where they live.

It is therefore nonsense to say that Mr Kilroy-Silk has a right to free speech over this issue, because his article has nothing logical or interesting to say. It is as if he had declared that he was actually a Vauxhall Astra 1.6 convertible, and then someone said “Well, I disagree with him, but everyone has a right to their opinion.” With free speech comes the responsibility to string your words together in a proper order, a task at which Mr Kilroy-Silk has manifestly failed.

The right to free speech is also attached to the responsibility to research your topic. We should not expect everyone in the UK to understand that Iran is not an Arab state (indeed, their proximity makes this a forgivable mistake). However, such knowledge is a pre-requisite for someone such as Kilroy-Silk, who was commenting directly on the issue. The BBC took the ridiculous step of suspending Kilroy-Silk and his programme only after complaints were made. They should have sacked him immediately: not because they disagreed with the article, but for proving beyond reasonable doubt what a rubbish journalist he actually is. The Sunday Express should be vilified for printing what is unarguably shoddy journalism.

The editors at The Sunday Express are the chief culprits in this tale of human stupidity. Their response to the complaints was to remark that the article had been printed in April, and no one had complained! This is an argument that could be used to justify any of the holocausts that stain our history. If something is only made racist or wrong by the number of complaints received, then every unreported crime is acceptable… Perhaps during the article’s first publication, the complainants were reading a better newspaper. More likely, they were too busy complaining to the Express about something else.

Every day, the foolishness of our media, and the inability of our politicians to ever make a proper argument, draws me closer to my depressing conclusion: we still live in the dark ages, where false arguments justify false aims. Historians of the future will group this new century in with all its predecessors, and call it the pre-enlightenment age. They will not bother trying to learn anything from this era, for it is already stained with the mark of a village idiot. The controversy surrounding Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article is the latest in an infamous tradition of mad hatter tea-parties. Like the dormouse, we shall sleep through many more.