Tag Archives: News

Edinburgh Fringe BBC News crisis comedy – and without Jimmy Savile!

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Sara Pascoe, Hal Cruttenden and Dan Starkey

Sara Pascoe, Hal Cruttenden & Dan Starkey in Making News

At the Edinburgh Fringe in August, there will be a play titled Making News about a newly-installed female Head of News at the BBC who has to handle a breaking story about the corporation itself, a TV reporter frustrated about a story she can no longer sit on and the fallout from the decisions taken that “threatens to bring down the BBC”.

For non-British readers of this blog:

In 2011, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight conducted an investigation into DJ Jimmy Savile, a former Top Of The Pops and Jim’ll Fix It presenter. The investigation was never screened by the BBC. When allegations of paedophilia were subsequently broadcast on ITV, the BBC was accused of a cover-up and another Newsnight report wrongly implicated Conservative politician Lord McAlpine in the widening child abuse scandal.

Making News has been written by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky, who had a big success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with their political play Coalition about a fictional British coalition government. Britain currently has a coalition government.

Robert Khan studied law at university and is now a Labour councillor in Islington. Tom Salinsky studied mathematics and now runs training company The Spontaneity Shop. He also co-wrote The Improv Handbook with Deborah Frances-White.

I had a chat with Robert and Tom at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington last night.

Robert Khan (left) and Tom Salinsky last night

Robert Khan (left) and Tom Salinsky last night in Islington

“Mathematics… playwriting… improvisation?” I asked Tom. “They don’t go together.”

“I’ve always liked problem solving,” he replied, “and plotting a play involves quite a lot of problem solving.”

“You talk about careful plotting,” I said, “but you’ve written a book on improvisation and you run a training company called The Spontaneity Shop. So what’s an improvising-type person like you doing writing scripted plays?”

“Improvising,” explained Tom, “is like solving problems at 100mph. Improvisation’s really about making a series of choices and the delightful thing for the audience is they get to see the moment of inspiration – that moment of creativity – actually happen in front of them.

“The sometimes discouraging thing for the improviser is l’esprit de l’escalier – not thinking of the right thing to do until you’re on the bus on the way home. So, writing a scripted play, you don’t get the rush of instantaneous creativity, but you’re able to revise and improve.”

Making News has a cracking cast of comedians including Phill Jupitus,” I said. “Do you let them improvise?”

“Aahhhhh…..” said Tom and Robert in unison.

“We discourage it,” said Tom. “In rehearsals, anything goes…”

“Yes,” said Robert.

“… but once it’s on stage, it’s discouraged,” continued Tom.

“Heavily discouraged,” agreed Robert.

“Are you frustrated actors yourselves?”

“No,” laughed Robert.

“I am,” said Tom. “Incredibly frustrated as a writer backstage unable to influence events onstage.”

“And you’re both heavily into politics?” I asked.

“I think I’m politically aware,” answered Tom, “whereas Robert is politically active.”

“So why write two plays about politics?” I asked.

“I think it’s interesting to begin with…” started Robert.

Hal Cruttendon & Phill Jupitus in Making News

BBC crisis: Hal Cruttenden & Phill Jupitus with Sara Pascoe

“The new play isn’t party political,” Tom corrected me. “It’s current affairs, but it isn’t party political, whereas Coalition was.”

“We were interested,” explained Robert, “in how a large institution that has to report the news impartially reports bad news about itself.”

“And the strange thing is the BBC does,” I said.

“Oh yes,” said Robert. “I imagine the debates internally are quite difficult.”

“There’s a sort of Catholic guilt about it,” suggested Tom, “that they have to be particularly fearless when they have to report bad news about themselves.”

“Have either of you worked for the Beeb?” I asked.

“No,” said Robert.

“I’ve not been a salaried employee,” said Tom, “but, in my capacity as corporate trainer I’ve worked for all sorts of bits of the BBC – picture research, BBC Worldwide, current affairs… They hired my company for training.”

“Picture research?” I asked, surprised.

“One of their big problems,” explained Tom, “was that the people making the programmes wouldn’t co-operate with them. The conversation would go:

  • We want to take a picture of this big star
  • He’s not available…. 
  • Then we’ll have no pictures of him to give to the press… 
  • Well tough.

…so our job was to go in and help them build stronger relationships.”

“What was the logic,” I asked, “behind saying We’re not going to promote our own thing?

“Well,” explained Tom, “and it’s something we explore in the play… the BBC don’t see themselves as part of one big Corporation. They see themselves as a bunch of loosely-associated but basically independent units all looking out for themselves.”

“It’s true of all large organisations,” said Robert. “You break down into smaller units. It’s the only way human beings can operate… and you then become competitors.”

“So what’s your insight into BBC News?” I asked.

“Well,” said Tom, “we’ve certainly spoken to a few people.”

“But we can’t talk about that,” Robert told me.

“Some fairly senior people within News,” Tom added.

“Have you talked to any of the people you’re parodying?” I asked.

There was a long pause.

“As with Coalition,” said Tom, “we’re not parodying any particular individual. We’re looking at the roles. The hero of Coalition wasn’t based on Nick Clegg. It was an answer to the question What pressures would somebody IN THAT POSITION feel? Likewise, in Making News, we have a Director General, a Head of News, but they aren’t specifically based on any present or past people.”

“And we stress that very heavily,” said Robert, carefully.

“We are looking,” said Tom, “at What does being in that position do to you? When you come under these pressures, how might you react?

“I don’t think we need to do a pastiche of real characters,” said Robert.

“We create our own characters to inhabit those roles,” agreed Tom.

“It could be a tragedy rather than a comedy,” I said.

“Well, the difference is very small,” said Tom. “There’s a quote in the play that Labour governments resent what they see as the BBC’s lofty patrician heritage and try to cut the Licence Fee and Conservative governments think the BBC is a seething bed of Leftie hotheads and try to cut the Licence Fee.”

“If you have a state broadcaster that’s independent,” said Robert, “it’s always going to sooner or later rub-up the elected government the wrong way. And long may that continue.”

Phill Jupitus as the BBC Director General

Phill Jupitus as the BBC’s DG

“I felt sorry for the extraordinarily inept Director General George Entwhistle,” I said, “because he got crucified for saying I didn’t feel it was my position to ask any questions – but that’s the DG’s cleft stick at the BBC. If he interferes in producers’ independence, he’s wrong; if he doesn’t interfere in producers’ actions, he’s wrong.”

“It’s a very, very difficult job,” agreed Robert.

“When did you start writing Making News?” I asked.

“During the Edinburgh run of Coalition last August,” said Tom.

“So before George Entwhistle became DG?” I said.

“Yes,” said Robert. “Way before the Jimmy Savile scandal.”

Operation Yewtree,” added Tom, “cast a slightly distasteful shadow over the idea. We don’t go near any of that sex stuff in Making News. It would have been difficult to make that funny and it wasn’t what we wanted to write about.”

“The stakes are very high for the BBC,” said Robert. “Three Director Generals in the last 20 years have had to resign – essentially been sacked – Alasdair Milne, Greg Dyke, George Entwhistle. That’s quite a dramatic organisation to work for.”

“For a long time,” said Tom, “we were going to cast the Director General as the central figure. By this time, Entwhistle was DG. We thought we’d do A Year in The Life of a DG, ending in ignominy… and then he resigns after 54 days… We’d been trumped by reality! We had to more-or-less start again from scratch at that point.”

“Do you envisage a TV version of Making News?” I asked.

“I don’t think it would be on the BBC!” laughed Robert.

“Why not?” I asked. “They’d be dramatising themselves honestly and fairly.”

“Self-flagellation can only go so far,” Robert said. “Scotland on Sunday asked them about our play and the BBC issued a statement saying: This is not something we would comment on.”

“In Edinburgh last year,” said Tom, “we had both The Culture Show and Late Review come to see Coalition… It will be interesting to see if they turn up for Making News. They may feel completely happy to review it impartially or they may get the hump.”

“In the end,” said Robert, “this is more affectionate than Coalition was. We do hold the BBC in huge respect and affection.”

And so do I.

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How BBC News got a bias against news

Slowly recovering from the damage

Slowly recovering from the damage

In yesterday’s blog, I criticised the lack of world news on British TV channels, including the BBC News Channel. One reason, of course, is that people are not interested in news items which don’t directly and immediately affect them.

They do want to know about hospitals, schools and roads in the UK. They generally do not want to know about war in the Congo or trade wars in Asia… Although North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and London Mayor Boris Johnson may run neck-and-neck in the “and finally” humorous eccentricity stakes.

The Bland Birt Corporate logo

Bland Birt Corporate logo

Another problem with BBC TV News at the moment, though, is the deadly legacy which remains of former BBC Director General John Birt’s grey grip on journalistic style.

Birt came up with this theory that his presumed intellectual inferiors – the ‘ordinary’ men and women of Britain – did not understand the background to the news they were told in news summaries. He came up with the theory that there was a “bias against understanding” in news reports… so he directed that the background to every news story had to be explained any time there was any news.

Before Birt Came - the old logo

Before Birt Came – the old logo

The BBC used to divide factual reporting into two separated areas: News and Current Affairs.

News reports did just that. They reported news.

Current Affairs programmes (like Panorama) reported the background to the news.

Birt abolished the distinction, resulting in news reporting where you could not see the wood for the trees.

During his grey, foggy time at the BBC, I once heard a news item.

Some ordinary (ie not high profile) person had got shot in Northern Ireland.

I actually timed the report.

In the “news” report, there was just under three minutes of background on the 600-odd years of Irish Troubles which led up to the shooting and under 15 seconds reporting what had actually happened when this person had got shot.

Under Birt, news reporting had a “mission to explain” which actually became a mission which lessened not just the amount of news reported but the actual investigative reporting of reality.

In days of yore, BBC reporters would go out to uncover what was actually happening. Under Birt, the theory was that reporters should sit in their office, cool, calm and collected, look at all the sources they had, decide what was happening, then write their report.

They would then try to make this near-academic monologue more ‘visual’ by going out to interview people from whom soundbites could be extracted illuminating the pre-determined angle of the report. If interviewees inconveniently gave a different view, the reporter, it was suggested, should try to get the ‘correct’ angle out of them. If they continued to spout the ‘wrong’ view, then they would not be included in the report.

Because ‘ordinary people’ were deemed intellectually inferior, the message of any report had to be reinforced by relevant vivid visuals. This still lives on.

Two days ago, BBC News had a serious political story that LibDem leader Nick Clegg had likened the creation of coalition government policy to the making of sausages. The report was filmed not with the reporter standing in the Palace of Westminster or in Whitehall or talking to a Liberal Democrat but – you guessed it – standing beside a sausage machine inside a sausage factory.

I once saw a BBC political correspondent describe in a serious political report what was happening in the ‘Westminster circus’ by standing in a circus ring while acrobats flew overhead on a trapeze.

The BBC has mostly recovered from Birt’s pseudo-stylistic insanities.

But not totally.

The more analysis and background of news you have in news reports, the less time there is for actual news items.

Birt’s “bias against understanding” has resulted in a bias against actual news reporting.

There is also the risk, of course, that a “mission to explain” means explanation and editorialising outweigh reporting… and ‘explanation’ and ‘editorialising’ can easily overlap into opinion.

BBC News should report the news.

It should not have an opinion.

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Why do BBC, ITV and Sky News not report what is happening in the world?

(This piece also appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian news site WSN)

Blindfolded to what happens elsewhere

BBC, ITV and Sky TV’s target audience in their news reports

America is often criticised for being insular.

It was said that, in the build-up to the Gulf War, some people in the southern states – genuinely – were nervous because they believed the war would be happening in the Gulf of Mexico.

The blame for Americans’ insularity is usually put on US TV News which, it is said, reports almost entirely internal US stories.

But the words pot, kettle and black leap to mind.

Two people from Ireland were staying with me last week.

They complained that, on Irish television, the RTÉ news reports were almost entirely inward-looking reports about things happening in Ireland. One or two news items from the UK might be tacked-on briefly at the end.

But it is the same in the UK.

Blinkered, insular news reporting. We hear very little about what is happening in the outside world. One school shooting in the US is not wide world reporting.

I worked for 25 years or so in television, mostly in Entertainment but, early on, I was a Researcher on the BBC’s start-up teletext service CEEFAX, part of BBC TV News. This meant, in effect, being a cheap Sub Editor and, during the real Sub Editor meal breaks, being the person who, unsupervised, decided what went out.

We had Reuters and Press Association teleprinters spewing news in to us all the time and I remember one day stories coming in about massed tank battles involving (it was said) Soviet troops in Ethiopia or, I suppose, it was probably Eritrea. I did not report these on CEEFAX because the major full-scale war had been going on for months and had never been in the headlines.

In the same way, much later, the war in Liberia was almost never reported on British TV news because it went on for so long, because there were no TV reporters out there and because it overlapped with the First Gulf War.

I was thinking about this last night when I was watching vivid Al Jazeera reports on the civil war in Syria.

On the BBC TV News programmes last night – zilch, nothing, nada. Syria crops up occasionally but not regularly.

You would have thought that, with rolling 24-hour news channels, we would be getting more news, but we simply get the same news repeated every 15 minutes.

In a mainstream half hour BBC1 or ITV1 or Sky news broadcast we get, perhaps five news stories reported. Almost all are domestic UK stories.

Africa and Asia go virtually unreported.

‘Extended’ news coverage means Europe and the US.

To get regular news on Africa, Asia and Australasia, you have to watch Al Jazeera.

There is no reason why the BBC or ITN or Sky could not have a 15 minute slot every hour in which they report genuine World News. Quantity, in this case, is more important than in-depth reports.

Of course, the demand for what is happening in South America or South East Asia is not as high – unless there is a visually exciting tsunami.

I remember talking to a reporter on Granada TV’s World in Action programme years ago. He had risked his life in Nicaragua and Venezuela with bullets whizzing over his head and death threats from the government. But, he said, he knew that when his reports were networked on World in Action, they would get relatively low viewing figures… Whereas a relatively easy-to-make programme on the NHS or UK schools would get much, much higher viewing figures because those subjects touched people’s lives.

That is no reason, though, for not reporting what happens in the world.

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Beijing – Waltzing in the headlights of a fast-coming future in the new Tokyo

The future is bright and dazzling in Beijing - the new Tokyo.

I am sitting in my hotel room on the 13th (top) floor of a 4-star hotel in Beijing.

I was in Beijing in 1984, 1985 and 1986.

My memory of Beijing in 1984 is of almost everyone wearing green or blue Mao suits – a uniformity of dull colours. The next year, some lighter pastel colours were creeping in and I stumbled on a fashion shoot by the lake in Beihai Park where the glamorous model was wearing a mini skirt.

Back then, I remember a rather dusty, occasionally misty city with Dickensian factory chimneys, streets swamped with tsunamis of bicycles and building sites each with hundreds of workers instead of machines. This was not – and is not – a country with a labour shortage.

Today, on the 45-60 minute drive to the city centre from the giant fuck-off-and-die airport (built for the 2008 Olympics), we passed through a new city with giant, often very well-designed buildings and loads of cars on busy four and five lane carriageways.

Then we hit Tiananmen Square with its new monument to distract and disguise where the demonstrators were in 1989. It now also has an apparently permanent visible police presence plus parked police cars and vans.

Once past Tiananmen Square, we hit the more crowded, narrow streets with jumbled shops and narrow, greyish, busy alleyways I remembered.

The TV in my hotel seems to cater mostly for Chinese, not English-speaking, businessmen – a not insignificant point. And the BBC World news channel is reporting that Sony has announced a whacking $6 billion loss.

The Japanese are on their way out.

The Chinese are on their way up.

More surprisingly, the BBC still has a TV reporter inside North Korea. Why has this man not been thrown out of the country? He is still telling and showing the truth about what life is like there. He was invited in to show the glorious start to the celebrations of the 100th birthday of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung – and to report on the ‘fact’ that the North Koreans’ upcoming rocket launch is to put a satellite into space, not to test an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

Fat chance. He is making it clear North Korea is a fantasy land of literally incredible facades.

The North Koreans have said their rocket will be launched “by 16th April”. As the late Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday is on the 15th April, guessing which day it will actually be launched does not seem like, err, rocket science.

Back on the TV in Beijing, BBC World is reporting that someone called (as far as I can figure phonetically) Nee-lu-yang, disabled and on crutches after being beaten up by the police, has been sentenced to three years imprisonment – and her husband to two years – for “provoking trouble” by campaigning against the eviction of people from their homes to make way for new building developments by the Chinese authorities.

In China, rapid modernisation comes at a price which would be unacceptably high in the UK.

I took a walk out tonight and, over the course of an hour, I passed nine people walking their pet dogs. In the mid 1980s, a friend of mine went into Canton free market a meat-eater and came out a vegetarian: “It was the live dogs and cats and owls that did it,” she told me. “All in small cages, ready for eating. It was the owls that really got to me, with their big eyes staring out at me.”

Now dogs are kept by some as pets. The sign of an increasingly moneyed society and probably the sign of an increasingly something else society which I can’t put my finger on.

People were still doing that deep, throaty Chinese spitting in the street back in 1984.

Things have advanced at an amazing rate.

And yet… And yet…

There is still that protester disabled and on crutches after being beaten up by the police, sentenced to three years imprisonment for “provoking trouble”.

Some might argue that 2012 in China is more like Nineteen Eighty-Four than it was in 1984. But with a glittering veneer.

On my walk tonight, in a darkened open space about 20 feet from one of Beijing’s busy ring roads, I heard the faint sound of traditional Chinese music and saw about thirty people of various ages dancing in slow motion. Some were waltzing; some appeared to be practising slow-motion line-dancing.

Perhaps this is a new 2012 version of tai-chi.

In 1968, Country Joe and The Fish recorded a song called Waltzing in the Moonlight. In Beijing, they are waltzing in the headlights of a fast-coming future.

China is the new Japan… with Japan, like Atlantis, cut down to size by the Gods with a national catastrophe.

It only took water to overwhelm Atlantis.

Japan, a more advanced civilisation, had visited on it by the Gods the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Japan has stumbled if not yet been humbled..

The road signs in Beijing – and many local shop signs – are in both Chinese and English. The government is preparing for and has already entered an international future.

And yet… And yet…

The girl in this 4-star hotel’s Business Centre not only does not speak English, she does not know how to print off text from the computer she supervises onto the printer sitting beside it.

And the BBC World channel reports that the wife of prominent Chinese politician Bo Xilai has been arrested on suspicion of killing a British businessman last year. No motive is given; the businessman seems to have been a friend of the anti-corruption Mr Bo and his wife; and the Chinese leadership is changing this year.

Now, presumably, Mr Bo has been knocked out of the running.

Don’t mess with the Chinese.

*****

Here is the sound of Country Joe and The Fish Waltzing in the Moonlight

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Filed under China, Japan, North Korea, Politics

Before “Star Wars” men, I dream of comic Stewart Lee in a tight-fitting suit

Slow traffic yesterday was not as fast as comic Stewart Lee.

I drove up to Edinburgh from London yesterday. It took an hour longer than normal because, between Birmingham and Preston – a distance of 95 miles – the M6 motorway was clogged and we were stopping as often and as unpredictably as the humour in a BBC3 comedy show.

The good news, though, was it took so long that even my non-technical brain realised I could plug my new iPhone into the car’s cigarette lighter socket and, by putting the iPhone in the papier mâché mounting moulded by a friend for my SatNav (after some bastard thieves nicked the original in Greenwich) I could use T-Mobile’s unlimited data plan to listen to the BBC TV News channel while driving up the motorway. To be safe – of course, officer – I only watched the screen when stuck in traffic jams.

I felt as if I had, somehow, dipped a belated toe into what would have seemed a wildly futuristic world to Jules Verne or H.G.Wells.

Which is appropriate, because I am up in Edinburgh to attend a two day event organised by the Guardian newspaper at which both Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and 20th Century Fox’s former vice president Sandy Lieberson explain “how Star Wars, a film rejected by most of the major studios, was put into production by 20th Century Fox and went on to become one of the most iconic films in the history of cinema”.

By coincidence last night, just before I went to bed, I was phoned by the late comedian Malcolm Hardee’s sister Clare. She had mis-dialled. When I told her I was in Edinburgh, she asked:

“Oh, are you up there scouting something for the Fringe?”

When I told her why I was up in Edinburgh, she said:

“Oh, me and Steve (her husband) went to Tunisia last month and saw the Star Wars sets there out in the desert… We went out into the Sahara Desert… and it rained!… Isn’t that typical?… It was lovely, though.”

I then went to bed.

For unknown reasons, I woke up several times during the night, which means I remember a dream I had. It involved Malcolm Hardee Award winning, sophisticated and intelligent comedian Stewart Lee (whose TV show was yesterday re-commissioned by BBC2 for another two series).

He was performing at the Hackney Empire in London wearing a suit several times too small for him. (Two days ago, a friend of mine complained that my trousers were too short because she could see my socks.) On stage, he looked like sexually-disgraced American comic Pee-wee Herman.

Stewart’s act involved stuffing rapidly into his mouth several ham sandwiches on brown bread then trying to speak, which simply meant he was spitting and spewing out lots of little pieces of half-eaten brown bread and ham while he told for-him unusually rapid-fire jokes.

I have seen this ‘act’ before but cannot remember who did it.

The ham sandwiches were similar to ones I had eaten on the long drive up to Edinburgh.

This goes some way to explaining the content of the dream, but possibly not far enough for comfort.

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Duck! The dangers of Chinese subtitles, kidnap and Rupert Murdoch’s flying bus

Yesterday, I went to see a movie The Beginning of the Great Revival (aka The Founding of a Party), which was screening in London as part of the China Image Film Festival. It seemed to be very good film. A sumptuously made movie. Of course, if you work for the state film company, have a virtually limitless budget and you are making a movie about the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, this could help. But I thought I espied a director who had been influenced by Sergio Leone’s historical epics.

I say The Beginning of the Great Revival “seemed” to be a very good film because, alas, despite opening and closing titles with English translations, the actual two-hour long historical epic turned out to be in Chinese with Chinese subtitles.

This reminded me of the time I sat through Sholay at the National Film Theatre when they had accidentally rented a print of the epic Indian language movie with French sub-titles.

I speak neither French nor Hindi but you cannot fail to enjoy an all-stops-pulled-out Bollywood film where (as always) people randomly burst into song and the hero has both his arms cut off yet continues to fight in true action man style. (Both Sholay and Monty Python and the Holy Grail were released in 1975 so I doubt if either ripped off the idea of an armless hero; it must have been the spirit of the times.)

I also do not speak Mandarin nor read Chinese script and my knowledge of Chinese history 1910-1921 is a tad hazy, but The Beginning of the Great Revival was never less than interesting. You can see why in the (subtitled) trailer on YouTube:

I was brought back to some form of reality when I came out of the cinema and read Rupert Murdoch’s iPad-only newspaper The Daily. The front page story was:

DUCK! – Anyone’s guess where 13,000-pound satellite will hit

sub-headed as:

READY TO TUMBLE! Satellite hurtles toward Earth – and scientists can’t say when or where it will hit

This was a story I had never heard of before – and I had seen the lunchtime news on BBC TV yesterday.

“NASA scientists,” The Daily said, “are shrugging their shoulders with little or no idea when – or where – a satellite the size of a bus will fall to Earth. The latest projections last night were that the defunct NASA satellite would tumble to Earth from space sometime this afternoon, but because the satellite is free-falling, the space agency and the U.S. Air Force cannot make a precise prediction about when and where it will hit.”

According to the article, NASA claimed the chances of someone being hit by a piece of falling debris was 1 in 3,200 and the debris would fall along a 500-mile path.

Those odds of 1 in 3,200 seemed surprisingly low to me.

“The only confirmed case of a person being hit by space junk,” The Daily told me, “was in 1997 when Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was grazed on the shoulder by a small piece of a Delta rocket.”

NASA has apparently warned people against touching any part of the satellite they might find lying around on the ground.

“While it contains no hazardous chemicals,” The Daily reported, “the space agency said people could potentially be hurt by sharp edges.”

Apparently what NASA calls “medium-sized junk” falls back to earth about once a week. Debris the size of a bus falls about once a year. When bits of the Skylab space station (the size of a house) fell onto parts of Western Australia in July 1979, local authorities fined NASA $400 for littering.

I thought I should perhaps check if anything the size of a bus had fallen on London while I was in the cinema watching the glorious founding of the Chinese Communist Party in The Beginning of the Great Revival so I got a London Evening Standard (which is now owned, like the Independent newspaper, by an ex-KGB man).

Its front page news was a story about a boy who had been encouraged to read by the Duchess of Cornwall. I could not find any story anywhere about anyone being killed by a bus from outer space falling on their head so, when I got home, I checked the BBC News channel (no unusual deaths; no mention of death from above) and then checked my e-mails to find one from mad inventor John Ward – designer and fabricator of the highly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards for comedy.

He told me he had been booked by the University of Lincoln to appear on 12th October at something entitled An Eccentric Symposium – Tomato Tomäto.

Among other billed events and speakers at this academic symposium are ‘Project Pigeon’ (“an art and education project that works with pigeons as a vehicle to bring people together”), the World Egg Throwing Championships and a talk on Gender, Exercise and Art by Anthony Schrag, an artist now living in Scotland whose work, according to the University of Lincoln, “focuses on blowing things up, climbing on things and occasionally kidnapping people”.

I could take no more.

I went to bed.

When I woke up this morning, the BBC News channel was reporting that the NASA spacecraft could not be found, but it had passed over the UK twice during the night and was now “the size of a refrigerator”.

They also reported Prime Minister David Cameron’s warning to the world that we live in dangerous economic times.

Fuck the economy. Where is the fridge?

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Filed under China, Eccentrics, Movies, Newspapers, Science

The tsunami of anarchy which will be released by the death of newspapers

Last night, I went to the Fulbright Lecture at the British Library, given by the Financial Times’ editor Lionel Barber.

The subject was “Adapt or Die: The Future of News and Newspapers in the Digital Revolution”.

In 2009, more than one hundred US newspapers closed down and, in 2007-2009, newspaper advertising revenue fell by 10% in Germany, 21% in the UK and 30% in the US. Circulations for printed newspapers are falling like lemmings as readers and advertisers move online.

One saving thought seems to be that people may be prepared to pay for comment and analysis, though probably not for general news. The Financial Times is in the fortunate position of being a niche newspaper. It mostly reports on a specific subject area where people are prepared to pay for analysis, comment and specialised reports.

But newspapers in general have not been delivering news for the last 50 years.

I am ancient enough to have been at college doing Communication Studies (radio, TV, journalism, advertising) when the first issue of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun was published.

The guy who supervised the journalism part of our course was the Production Editor of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. On the morning the first edition of the new Sun was published, he went through it page-by-page with us, pointing out that all the main stories were not News as such: they had all been reported in the previous evening’s TV news or were, in some way re-heated old news.

After that, I paid closer attention to what was actually printed in newspapers and developed my taste for the Daily Telegraph. If you look at most newspapers, you can actually visually see that they are magazines. The Guardian is a prime example. Look at its news pages and you see big rectangular blocks of text which analyse and/or give insight into news stories. But they are almost never reporting new News.

The Daily Telegraph has lots of columns with different little inches of different stories, most of which have not been included in the always superficial TV and radio news. I blogged a couple of months ago about how I once met a Daily Telegraph sub-editor at a party who hated working at the paper for exactly the same reason I loved reading it. People would yell across the room at him: “Give me a three-inch story!” not caring what the actual story was.

And, except at election times, the Daily Telegraph tends to keep the old-fashioned division between news and comment (which most US newspapers also maintain).

Newspaper and TV News editors used to be – and still are – gatekeepers to what is considered news. But, with the internet, power has in theory moved from publisher to reader.

In fact, forget gatekeepers. Forget gates. Think dams. One gigantic dam behind which is all the water in the world.

In the past, newspaper and TV News editors were in charge of dams which kept most of the water behind their dams and let a few selected trickles through. Now the mother of all dams is opening and uncontrolled, uncontrollable amounts of information are going to be unleashed not just day-by-day but second-by-second.

In my erstwhile youth, if you wanted to find out facts, you had to go to a library. Librarians and the publishers of encyclopaedias were the damkeepers of knowledge. Now Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg and their ilk are opening the dams which should result in almost all (and, in theory all) current and past knowledge being available instantly anywhere in the world.

If you are sitting on a camel in the middle of the Australian desert outside Alice Springs then, on a 3G device, you are now able to instantly find out which films are being screened at all the cinemas in Glasgow tonight or which dates the Emperor Caligula ruled Rome – and you can download and read a copy of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield or Homer’s Iliad.

In future, it seems, all news will be available to everyone pretty-much instantly via Twitter, Facebook and every other social network known and as yet unknown to man and woman. The first news of the US attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May came on Twitter.

What will be needed is what, last night, Lionel Barber was understandably most scathing about – so-called news aggregators like The Huffington Post (which sometimes carries my blogs), The Drudge ReportThe Daily Beast and even Gawker, whose slogan is “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news”. At the moment, these (depending on your viewpoint) could be said to pirate other news sources and regurgitate the selected news.

The Financial Times currently employs 130 foreign correspondents to collect and interpret news abroad. What will be needed in future, I presume, is some way of analysing, interpreting and compacting news from several hundred million correspondents including the blogosphere.

Newspapers may become aggregators.

No, I have no idea how or if that will happen.

And I have no idea what will happen.

But traditional newspapers were dead 50 years ago; they just did not know it.

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