Readership of One: The Citizen Journalist

I read that William Hazlitt warned of the danger, with the advent of the popular press, that:

“every one, high and low, rich and poor, should turn author”

(I think this is from ‘The Influence of Books’ New Monthly Magazine, 1828).

For the many who concern themselves with the rise of Internet publishing, a constant worry is the possibility of good and informed writing being diluted by the virtual reams of chatter and crap. When Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, unveiled his plans for an online “revamp”, the cry from many quarters was that the corporation site would degenerate into a glorified MySpace, with each page winning a readership of only one or two.

I’m not worried, however. Many others have written on the importance of dedicated journalists and analysts providing news and comment for the rest of us to consume. I take the term ‘citizen journalist’ to mean someone who has other commitments – a day-job, perhaps (if not, then they’re simply an unemployed freelancer). The ‘professional’, on the other hand, can make the time to do their reading and research which leads (we hope) to better articles.

One of the reasons why I love the BBC is the sheer breadth of information it provides. For example, the quantity of obscure, conference-league football matches that are covered by the corporation is to be applauded. Part of the point of public service broadcasting is to provide information that the market will not. I’m not sure the commercial stations could or would provide the same level of coverage.

It is in this realm that the ‘citizen journalist’ becomes useful. These people can provide the information that the professionals cannot – local and niche news. Why stop at conference-league football results for example? Why declare 1000 fans as the cut-off point for relevant sports news? Why not 100? Or one? To labour the example: There are thousands of other football matches played every day – sub-conference regional leagues, pub leagues, university leagues, schools leagues, and youth football for every year-age group from under 8. Citizen journalists can provide the information, and the BBC provides a public service by creating an ordered place for that information to be filed, and then found. Sure, only one person may be interested in the Crookham Rovers vs Hadley Town U13 bottom-of-the-league mud-fest… But if that one person is a grandpa, under arthritic house-arrest, who reads (and even sees digital images) about grandson Bobby’s goal-mouth scramble… then I would say the public has been served.

Remember, we are concerned with online news here, where the marginal cost of providing this data is near-zero. For ‘football matches’ you can read any other sport; or local produce prices; support-groups and voluntary organisations; amateur arts; or street- and tenement-level local politics.

The operative word in ‘citizen journalism’ is not the latter, but the former. It is not about the army of Hazlitt wannabes, talking to themselves. It is not about reaching the global, but the local instead. It is an integral part of what Michelle Kasprzak calls the ‘Smallweb’. It is about the stregthening of civil society, catalysing those unseen and unreported interactions between people, forging and reinforcing bonds, those that the ‘professional’ journalists keep telling us we have lost.

I was a couple of hours ahead of Jay Rosen’s post at the highly informative PressThink. He ask in what ways citizen journalism could be better regular journalism, and how the media can tap into that unique knowledge.

Hypocrisy

The Independent‘s Saturday front page is shockingly, embarrassingly hypocritical.

independent-climate-change

Chief Scientist warns bigger rise in world’s temperature will put 400 million at risk.

And an advert above:

WIN Return Flights to New York

More at Chicken Yoghurt, from where the illustration was pilfered.

Little Guys

Like many others, I’m obviously very interested in Comment is Free from the Guardian, a ‘superblog’ similar to The Huffington Post.

Arianna Huffington today suggested that the ‘little guy’ finds a level playing field online. This is true in many ways, not least because governments can no longer control the media, and dissidents can find a voice. However, Tim Worstall points out that Arianna’s examples are hardly members of the disenfranchised:

A former editor of the Times, Guardian columnist, a man knighted for services to journalism, very definitely one of the Great and the Good, is one of the little guys? [On Simon Jenkins presenting real time opinions]

Arianna is one of the bloggers posting on Comment is Free, along with other high-profile names. I somehow wonder whether the new venture will help level the playing field at all…

At the Press Gazette blog, Justin from Chicken Yoghurt asks whether the mainstream media are blogging properly:

I have yet to see a newspaper blog where the writer has got down and dirty with the readers. This defeats the object of blogging to a large extent and is seen as poor etiquette by many non-newspaper bloggers

I might add to this, that linking is also a huge part of blogging. The web is a perfect place to cite others, take their arguments to task, or to new places. Not only should bloggers correspond with their reader(s), but allow those readers to link elsewhere too. The first article I read on Comment is Free was by Brian Brivati, on the discrepancies between The Left’s responses to Iraq and Darfur. Could I leave a link to my earlier thoughts on the same issue? No I could not… and my comment appears devoid of context, like some fucking chump who doesn’t know to type properly.

I could blame The Guardian’s editors for this, and suggest that they really don’t care about anyone else’s opinions. However, the truth of the matter is that because the The Guardian is a highly visible part of the media business, it must ensure that none of its comment is offensive, libellous or (in these heady days) blasphemous. Moderating comments is already a Herculean task for them. Moderating links would be impossible. The result is yet another site that cannot fully exploit the power of the internet. Only the little guy, operating from his bedroom or surreptitiously at work, has the time to moderate comments properly. He is the only true blogger. The mainstream media are desperate wannabes, spending money to join the club, but always on the periphery.

Funny how the two bloggers I quote directly in a post entitled “Little Guys” are actually two of the most read in the UK…

Adverts

A correspondence on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, on the wish that advertising to children should be banned:

On days when he gets to watch TV, our relationship is instantly transformed from that of child and provider to child and denier. The kid is being manipulated and you know it – and you are too, as a parent, because the advertisers know that you – or enough of you – will eventually cave.

For a while, I have been perfecting a taxonomy of adverts. I have whittled it down to six types, with all adverts falling into one of these categories. Are there any that I’ve missed?

The Sexvert

The Sexvert says: “Buy this product, and you will get laid.” It might be disguised under some tenuous notion of marriage or male-female friendship, but that’s just a smoke-screen. All consmetic and hygene products are obviously of this type.

I’ll tell you the commercial they’d like to do, if they could, and I guarantee you, if they could, they’d do this, right here. Here’s the woman’s face, beautiful. Camera pulls back, naked breast. Camera pulls back, she’s totally naked. Legs apart. Two fingers, right here, and it just says, “Drink Coke.” Now I don’t know the connection here, but goddamn if Coke isn’t on my shopping list that week … Damned if I’m not buying these products! My teeth are rotting out of my head, I’m glued to the television, I’m as big as a fucking couch. “More Snickers, more Coke!”

And, according to Bill Hicks, junk food.

The Kidvert

The kind of ads that Andrew mentions above fall into this category, but also some aimed at adults too. Their message is “buying this product will make you a better parent.” McDonald’s put out nothing but Kidverts, and anything with a grandparent in it is actually a Kidvert in disguise.

Comedyvert

Funny adverts. Very rare. These do often overlap with Kidverts, but since they almost always involve young men making fools of themselves, I am yet to be convinced that they are not actually a sub-genre of Sexvert.

Worldvert

Also dubbed the Cynical Multinational Global Ethnic Diversity Shitvert, these are usually the preserve of faceless corporations trying to convince us that their utopia is the only one around. Purveyors include oil companies and credit-card companies. Likewise with the comedyvert, I don’t trust these not to be sophisticated sexverts in disguise – especially when young ladies in national dress are concerned.

Budgetvert

These are adverts that naively try and sell a product, usually sofas. Bless them.

The Elusive Sixth Element…

… is the car advert. Sweeping shots of rolling hillsides and mountains, flashes of lightning, tumbleweed and wild deer. How this convinces anyone that the car in question is just what they need, to drive the kids three minutes down the road to school, is totally beyond me.

Old men and little girls

We do not know whether Norman Kember is alive or dead, and yet he is a ghost. His face haunts our TV screens. We go about our daily lives, with his image in the background, on TV sets in shops and on an inside page of the Metro newspaper. When we eventually hear something, we will look up for a moment, and think “oh, it’s happened, then” and then carry on with whatever it was we were doing. Whatever the news, we will barely be surprised. We do not an will never know him. He is just a symbol for something indeterminate, and icon that we look at for a while.

Norman’s image is the latest such symbol to hover on the edge of our consciousness. Ken Bigley took on the role before him, another old man. We hear stories of how they are decent normal people, just like us. Anything that does not fit with the stereotype is not mentioned, glossed over. It is Ken’s brothers and father who the media go to for quotes, not his Thai-bride, Sombat. Norman’s mission to Iraq seems eccentric – not the action of a typical, normal bloke – but it is mentioned with pride as if its the sort of thing any of us might have done after picking our kids up from football practice. We use their first names, not their surnames. They symbolise the ‘everyman’ for a little while, and then we switch the channel over.

That other, sadly familiar icon is that of stolen innocence. The narrative of the Soham murders fit neatly into a Brothers Grimm template. The girls become one character, Hollyandjessica. Dressed in their Manchester United replicas, they are modern Red Riding Hoods, skipping off to play, where a Big Bad Wolf eats them. Maxine Carr becomes the wicked witch, with The Sun bizarrely dropping her in the same circle of hell as Myra Hindley. (By the way, this is the same tabloid that also supplied us with images of slighlty more mature girls wearing Man U shirts on Page 3). So persistent is the story that the media seeks out new ways to reinforce it. The girls are always shown together. I’m pretty sure that one of the later images released is a computer composite (the one with Holly – or is it Jessica? – in a blue cap). The light looks wrong.

In other cases, the facts don’t fit with our preconceived narrative, and so we are presented with misleading symbols to crowbar it in. When Jodi Jones was killed near Dalkeith in 2003, it was not the shattering of innocence, but a tragic end to a life already peppered with low self-esteem and grief. And yet the picture of Jodi distributed by the news media had been taken several years earlier, giving the impression that the victim was a primary school petal, and not a pierced, fourteen year old goth. How would we have judged the case if a more recent picture had been released?

Perhaps none of this matters. It will not change the fate of Norman Kember, nor condone the murders of Ken Bigley, Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman or Jodi Jones. But it is worth remembering that we do not know these people, and we do not understand their stories. Their images merely wallpaper our lives for a time, and we will forget them once more, learning nothing.

TABOLID SHOCKER!!

Tabloid journalism is unhelpful. It often purports to present the bare facts, yet emotive language is often used to impose values and opinions upon the reader. An article of only a hundred or so words simply cannot provide an in depth discussion of events, as a longer article can. A reader cannot form detailed and valid opinions with the little information tabloids present. Instead, he or she is forced to take the point of view of the editors. This is a dangerous state-of-affairs.CHOICE

It is argued that tabloid newspapers are necessary because people must be free to choose how much news they read.

This is an empty and dangerous argument.

If a man chooses to live alongside others, he has a duty to be well-informed. He has a duty to form an opinion. He has no right to choose otherwise. This is a crucial aspect of democracy.

Unless a man takes himself off to subsist in a cave, he will interact with other people. He has a duty of care to his neighbours.

Anyone who has the right to vote, has a duty to seek out as much information possible on all the political issues that effect the lives of his countrymen.

He cannot get this from tabloid journalism.

PATRONISING

It is also said (in a soft and kind tone of voice) that some folk find the broadsheets too difficult to read. “They do not wish to read longer articles with longer words.”

This is highly patronising.

All men have the ability to follow a detailed, logical argument, and form an opinion on what they have read. This skill is what sets us apart from the lower mammals. They should be encouraged use that skill at every opportunity.

By ignoring these abilities, we are demeaned. By reading the over-simplified news, we surrender our humanity.

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.