Attempts On Her Life

The National Theatre have today launched a micro-site for their production of Attempts on Her Life, which I am working on for Fifty Nine. There is an ambitious blog for audience reviews, and a short trailer which previews a couple of the scenes we have been working on.

And it is an ambitious production. Written by Martin Crimp, the play is billed as “a roller-coaster of late 20th century obsessions”. The ‘attempts’ deal with idolatory, fetishisation, and control.

Anna-Nicole SmithI think these obsessions have become particularly acute in the past few weeks. Anna-Nicole Smith was fascinated by Marylin Monroe. Just like her heroine, she died young and in the media glare. And just like Norma-Jean, she was objectified to the point of destruction. When we apply convenient euphemisms like ‘former Playmate model’ and ‘widow of the billionaire,’ we conceal the seedy truth: she was paid money by men who used her as an object for their own gratification. As the ever honest Onion put it, some seven years ago: ‘Anna Nicole Smith Awarded $450 Million In Nonagenarian-Fucking Fees’. We should feel uneasy about her life and descent into drugs and death. Instead we gawp, and then offer the judge in the custody case for her child a TV contract.

And always, always, the deceased woman is depicted in a red dress. Why is that?

Meanwhile, when Britney Spears chooses a haircut which does not fit with the conventional image of feminine beauty, she inspires more column inches and moral panic than when she drops her baby. Marina Hyde manages to stay above the fray as she discusses Britney’s hair in today’s Guardian supplement… along with some pertinent comments on Danielle Lloyds redemption via a series of underwear photos in Maxim, and a woman who, instead of living her own life, spends her time impersonating the obnoxious yet popular Naomi Campbell.

Another 20th Century obsession and (for me, at least) an overarching theme of Attempts On Her Life, is our relationship to The Screen. In many places, the show uses the language and conventions of TV and cinema to critique and satirise western consumer culture. Editing together the images produced, its hard not to be reminded of how pervasive these media are. It catalyses and magnifies these other obsessions. There is no escape from the larger than life icons that surround us. They are like an ever-present ambient noise, which we cannot help but absorb. No wonder there are legions of us who seek to be on The Screen for its own sake.
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Terrorist disrespects Islam

CCTV Footage of Yassin Omar (from the BBC website)A couple of London’s evening papers yesterday published pictures of Yassin Omar, alleged terrorist, caught on CCTV as he escaped London… dressed in a burka.

In the two versions of the story I read, in the Lite and the Evening Standard, there’s a detectable but unspoken subtext, which is that these garments somehow undermine the ability of the security services to keep us safe.

No more than other head coverings. Yet “criminal flees justice dressed in hoodie” (or motorcycle helmet, or baseball cap, or Halloween mask) is not front-page news, because pretty much every criminal will conceal his identity from CCTV cameras in such a way.

If the Burka is sacred to some people, then it is they who should be outraged in such a stunt. Indeed, Omar’s insensitivity suggests that his ideology (whatever it may be) is far removed from mainstream Islam. But “terrorist disrespects Islam” is not the message I get from either the Lite or the Standard.

Today in the media…

A full schedule for a lot of people today, it seems.

Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics is going to begin a media blitz today, with an article in the Guardian and some radio appearances, promoting his New Generation Network.

Edinburgh blogger Devil’s Kitchen is making an appearance on 18 Doughty Street today too.

Finally, the BBC Asian Network Report will be airing a documentary Sex, Lies, and Culture, co-produced by the BBC and myself for Fifty Nine:

Are young Asians taking unnecessary risks with their sexual health? Brook Advisory Services, the national sexual health charity, are calling for further investigation into worrying information about Asians visiting their Birmingham clinic. They found higher proportions of Asians were likely to have unprotected sex, and to request emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and referrals for an abortion. They were also less likely to be tested for sexually transmitted infections. The Birmingham clinic saw aImost 4, 500 Asians under 25 years old last year, fewer than other ethnic groups. In Sex, Lies and Culture Anita Rani investigates whether the strict attitudes of older Asians has created a generation which isn’t informed about safe sex.

There should be some media coverage of those issues on the BBC 6 o’clock News, and also in The Times.

More soon…

The Fear mongering Metro

The Metro is a useful companion on a lonely Monday morning bus ride… but far too often it provides fodder for an annoyed rant. Apparently,

“Scottish children are getting fat because parents fear they will be preyed on by paedophiles, an expert has claimed … [Dr Lawrence Gruer] claimed the health of children was suffering due to fears generated by high-profile murders, including the death of 11-year-old Rory Blackhall in Livingstone earlier this year.” [no link yet]

Thankfully, Dr Gruer goes on to point out the absurdity of this situation, calling on parents to “reassess the dangers”. His campaign is facing an uphill struggle, however: it is inaccurate reporting by the Metro which exacerbates our fear. For starters, Rory Blackhall died in 2005. Its a minor point, but the news article is wrong, and it implies that such murders are occurring with greater freqency than they actually do.

From the same edition of the paper, we hear that “Muslim Radicals take a bite out of Apple”. The Apple shop in New York has come under fire from muslims, because the new square store looks a bit like the Kaaba at Mecca. Further proof, if any were needed, of the intolerance of Islam…

Only, the whole thing is bunkum. The story first appeared on the Middle East Media Research Institute website. This was duly picked up and reported verbatim by the main-stream media organisations. However, as alt.muslim points out, the “extremist” website that was apparently the source of the complaints went unnamed. The story was totally unsubstantiated.

This was all written last week, yet the Metro printed the initial, unchallenged allegations in today’s paper. I found the story via Andrew Sullivan, who was keen to pass on the initial claim, but also quick to link to the debunkings. Shame the Metro could not have done a few extra click-throughs, before ripping-off a story from the blogosphere.

Update

Dave Hill highlights another, better, example of shoddy editorialising – this time over Gingerbread “people”…

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.