Tuesday, June 29, 2004


I missed the curfew. All people to be home by 6.30, they said. Here's me, still in Central London. Tube strikes bring about a new form of resilience in Londoners, triggering memories of the Blitz. You readers outside London just don't know what a crisis is till you've witnessed the chaos caused by millions of commuters attempting to cycle in for the first time or who, even worse, have chosen to drive, their selfishness rewarded by massive traffic jams. The sensible people walk: don the backpacks, put the shoulders back and start the purposeful walk to or from London's edges. It's nice to see their faces lit by the sun, slightly flushed from speed-walking and their first prolonged period of summer exposure outside the tube or the office.

The Isle of Dogs doesn't get affected by the strike - the DLR doesn't have drivers: yet another reason to live on London's emerald isle. Who would want to live in North London now? Nobody - tomorrow morning they'll be fighting their way onto the buses while I shall be shuttling in on the free riverboat service to the Savoy. Heh.

[Update 30/6/04 1649GMT: The boat was lovely darlings, thank you for asking. Now preparing for the long march home: the boat might be wetter this time. I'm only slipping into first person diary mode, by the way, because I know how fascinated you people outside London are by the apocolyptic nightmare which is tube strike day. Last night, just before being sent to walk from Bank to Monument station, and then back again underground (Why? WHY??) I was told horrible stories about East Enders trying to get onto buses the last time this happened: blood was spilt, haggard looking zombies in suits were banging on the side of the bus, desperate to squeeze on. This is what it reduces us to, folks. The horror...

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

What is news?

If you do media studies, you learn a set of news values that come very close to what we read and see. These don't even refer to the extra set of 'values' that pass for news presentation in the majority of British newspapers.

Here is a proposal for some new values:

Scale: if something bad happens, it's bad wherever it is. Assume that some of your readers have been to all of the places you mention. Prioritise according to numbers of deaths

Humanity: If people are being killed by other people, that's badder still. So is any death that could have been prevented such as starvation and epidemic - whose fault was it? Is that acceptable to us?

Background: Answer the basic question 'Why?' If that involves giving some history, try and do it in a paragraph. All media can now link to a website that could have background material up

Complexity: The world is complicated, it's OK, we know that. You only need to report on what happened today. Keep it simple but don't leave it out because you think we're stupid.

Personal interest: It doesn't need to be a celebrity to grab our attention - look at how quickly we become interested in the Big Brother halfwits. We form new relationships online with all sorts of people. If someone has a story to tell, let's hear it. They don't have to be English, they don't even have to be white. We might just care.

Accountability: The media should be checking that things are working well - so do court reports, but don't just focus on the lurid ones.
Give us decent investigations of political figures, and ask them the questions we actually want to know based on real facts. Don't play their tedious games: loudly tell them to shut up if they use the word 'choice' in that meaningless way

Inform: If crime figures go down, then say so; if there is a spate of crime in a particular area then we might like to know that too, but don't come up with scare-stories just because it's a slow news day. Don't put the interweb on the front page just because you've received one of those forwards from your friend warning you about the teddy bear.

Truth: Reporters should be able to go to the point of a story and from there tell the truth as they have found it. And if they're in a foreign country they should always, always, talk to some ordinary people affected by the story. Really: just say what you see

There's nothing wrong with balancing all this with celebrity gossip, entertainment stories, but perhaps it's time we stopped treating all news as fun.

Could we really cope with this barrage of 'real' news? Do we really want to know all the depressing things that have happened around the world in five minute soundbites or 100 word articles? Perhaps we do really want to know what's going on in the world - perhaps we really want to make up our own minds about things.


Friday, June 18, 2004

InDesign - the love story

So I got my hands on InDesign last week - for anyone that don't know this is Adobe's version of Quark, the industry standard programme for designers and journalists. There's a big debate going on about whether InDesign will take over Quark in the end, fierce fights between those who love Quark's simplicity and those for whom Quark has thwarted their style ambitions just once too often.

I thought I'd share my impressions sometime, and this seems like the right time. Because at this moment, we've fallen out. InDesign is a tease.

It wasn't easy from the start - insisting that I delete most of my hard drive to run the trial version, but eventually we got to the impressive installation presentation: everything that InDesign can do. I nearly cried as it told of importing tables, thinking back to long nights spent tortuously putting sports tables onto Quark pages which could have been spent asleep. The butterfly logo suggested fabulous colours and flirtations with whole new worlds. The first thing I tried to do was open a Quark page - it worked! - and it looked fabulous. Fonts are rendered (if, indeed, I mean rendered) as they will look on the printout so it really does look like you're crafting your printed product on screen. I did some cool things, spinning text boxes and playing with wierd colour effects.

But then I tried to do some work. Real work. And it didn't like it. Much as it looks like Photoshop, not all the commands are the same so little things like changing colours were excruciating. Like a stilted conversation after a good first date, I felt deflated. But it got better. We worked together finding solutions to some of the things I actually needed to do, and discovered some good things about InDesign:

- you can use the paintdropper tool to choose the sort of text you want to use if it appears elsewhere on the page. Clever.
- you can turn your work into a webpage very easily and it looks lovely.
- transparent photos!
- importing tables is easy and works very well. You can also import all sorts of other things such as word documents, which will come out looking like they did in word rather than defaulting to some other text
- you can zoom in really really far. This has no real advantage in itself but Times New Roman really looks good close up.

That's about as much as I've discovered so far, mainly because it takes hours to load up, crashes my mac often and throws little fits every now and again, paralysing us both. It wants all your attention, just turning away for a moment to check your email is enough to send it into frenzied rage. InDesign wants more power that I can offer it hence the awkward little glitches that stop you from doing basic things one minute when it's quite happy to do it the next. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.

We could do great things together, me and InDesign. We may not be speaking at the moment, but I don't think I'll be able to resist it for long.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004


Ukip's success fulfils a media prophecy that fails the people of Britain

Last week Britain voted Ukip in as its third favourite party to represent them in the European parliament. In doing so they have given the Eurosceptics much to gloat about and created a very real risk that British governments could start to become even more awkward and obstructive in Europe.

Why are we in Europe? Primarily to keep the peace. The main thing our generation has forgotten is that before the creation of the European Union not a single half century passed without some spat between European states leading to hundreds of peasant deaths. The first half of the twentieth century saw generations ripped apart by these superpowers playing with their big new toys. War became simply too dangerous for Europe. The economic partnership of the EU has proved the most stable way to forge peace. But Europe gives us plenty of advantages above free trade: where the British government is reducing the powers of the Lords, Europe provides a stabling check on governmental power: all its actions are basically to fulfil the peace and development aims and uphold human rights - something that was never part of the British landscape until Europe made it explicit. Those that bleat about British sovereignty and self-determination forget that it is our country that took us into a war the majority didn't want and is paying the consequential costs. Our economic problems are nothing to do with Europe, they are our problems. Before you get all terrified about the constitution, just try reading it, rather than killing off all that we Brits hold dear it reinforces many of the greatest principles that Britons built in the world: peace, security, equality and prosperity. Most of its contents are very vague, it contains few things that we haven't already signed up to and the way it is implemented is, well, up to us.

Governments must take some of the blame for the break-down in communications between Europe and its British citizens. While they have been involved in every decision taken in the last 25 years, and often very influentially involved, they do not admit to the full extent of European involvement in our affairs. They blame problems on Europe, but take credit for the advances in employment law, consumer protection and economic regeneration that they helped to create from Brussels.

But it is the media which has been the real architect of the dismal level of debate which led to people using their European vote to protest against the British government or vote for Robert Kilroy Silk because they'd seen him on t'telly. Who writes about Europe intelligently? Not the Europesceptic papers, obviously, but not even the likes of the Independent and the Guardian to any real level. The argument against it seems to be that the readership 'wouldn't understand and aren't interested'. Well, make them interested, that's your job. Imagine if the media spent ten years without reporting at all on the British parliament and then turned round and said 'people are voting against Parliament because it's an undemocratic and unnacountable monster. Let's abolish it'. It would be exactly the same, and then who would run us: Murdoch? Richard Desmond? The media has many purposes, not just to tittilate and scare us, but its most respectable purpose in a democratic society is to hold our institutions to account. We should be able to rely on journalists to tell the truth about what they see around them, and there's no reasons why we should expect that from a bunch like Ukip, or any other political party for that matter. But the media has failed to hold the EU to account to such a spectacular extent that people like Ukip can come up with whatever scare stories they want and nobody on the doorstep knows any better.

If Ukip use their new powers to honestly expose the problems in the EU, the waste and the over-bureacracy then all for the good, but they will be addressing nothing that the EU isn't already working on. But if they use all that MEP money to try and destroy the EU from their lair in Birmingham (a city that has done very well out of Europe), then they will be guilty of the worst corruption themselves: by failing to involve themselves in the intitutions of Europe they will be failing their constituents.