Paying for Journalism Online

wpid-Photo-4-Jan-2013-0940-PM.jpgIt’s been some time now since the fall of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Sully himself has moved back to a mainstream publication (this time the New York Magazine), and the world has moved on.

Andrew had an interesting idea. Continuing his blog as he had done on places like the Atlantic before, but on his own, allowing people to see a certain number of full-posts through a (leaky) paywall, but giving people full access for a single low yearly fee.

Alas, even Andrew Sullivan, with his huge blog following, couldn’t quite keep it going. For his own health, as much as anything else, he finally called it a day.

Does that mean his experiment failed? Does it mean that paying for online journalism just won’t work? I hope that’s not what people take out of his venture.

First of all, I’m just not sure people will pay to read a blog, that was mostly an aggregate of content from other sites. There might – and only might – be a viable platform for paying to read content, where there’s that direct link between the author and the reader.

The only truly viable platform that exclusively works like that right now is the humble book. Be it a “dead tree” version or an ebook. People, it seems, are still more than willing to pay to consume that written content.

You can say that people are still paying for newspapers and magazines too. Yes they are (though circulations are falling), but think about it, the cost of selling those publications almost never pays for the content. They all have adverts running in them. Today here in the UK, free papers like The Metro are actually (in an income/expenditure sense) among the most successful models right now. They make a lot of money, and don’t charge their consumers for that content.

However, that simple model isn’t working in the online world. Rewind a number of years back. Newspapers started getting websites. Journalists, keen to have their work  be seen by as many people as possible, convinced their bemused editors to let them post all their articles online. That content was available for free. But the value of the advertising (especially considering how clever those media-rich ads could be) was never really understood by the sales teams and editorial teams. Very quickly Google dominated that game, allowing advertisers pay pennies for ads whose equivalent in print would cost many pounds. Google was happy with this because they are working to scale. They can get tens of millions of customers and be quite happy. A modestly popular site that gets, say, 50,000 visitors a week will make a fraction of the revenue from advertising that a weekly magazine with a circulation of 50,000 would make from its ads.

So those appear to be the two main models that people concentrate on. However, I think there’s another model we dismiss at our peril.

Journalists (particularly older ones, like, say, Andrew Sullivan), really dislike “native ads”, sometimes called “sponsored content” or “advertorials”. These are articles usually made by the in-house editorial team, but used to promote a message by an advertiser. Some associate it with Buzzfeed (which does very well, btw), and the like. I don’t see why the concept, with a different tone, couldn’t work in other forms. I’m personally totally okay with that content, as are many of my fellow millennials.

I spoke to a load of people my age (and younger) about this. The response was fascinating. We often seem to be okay with advertorials, as long as they’re called “sponsor content” and is clearly labelled as such. We’re just as likely to read it (if it sounds interesting) as we are the rest of the content. We don’t like being deceived into thinking that an article is purely editorial rather than “sponsored content”, but apart from that, I think we’re okay with it. It’s just more content in the mix.

Unlike the Googlefication of banner ads, etc., sponsored content needs to be high-quality. It needs to be readable. For the consumer, it shouldn’t be in-your-face and offensive (like awful intrusive ads that block the content unless you find the ‘X’ to close it for example). And for the advertiser, it appears to actually have much higher conversion rates than an ad.

It’s scalable, but can’t be automated. A computer can’t automatically write a beautiful, artistic, engaging, clever article for a client. That takes good journalists and copywriters. Therefore, it can’t be made for a few cents. You need to spend real money, and get it out there.

I think that this kind of content can help pay for the other stuff, the content that’s unshackled from the burden of commercial pressures, while making it free to the consumer. It might be online journalism’s best hope for growth.

So I remain optimistic for the future of written journalism and content creation, and I see sponsor content – be it on blogs, news sites, Medium, etc. – as being one of the most interesting and practical ways of getting us there.

Imagine your favourite sites, clean, ad-free, fully-acessable and gratis, with sponsored content among the rest of the work. But paid for and sustainable.

So what do you think? Can sponsored content (done in the right way), be the digital shot-in-the-arm this business needs?

Hillary Hiding Behind Trump

Hillary ClintonDonald Trump the Republican cartoon character Presidential Candidate is sucking all the air out of the current election race.

I can appreciate how frustrating that is for the other hopefuls. But one person who is probably quite grateful – for now – is Hillary Clinton.

Arguably the worst thing about Donald Trump’s presidential circus act is that he’s successfully stopped political commentators and journalists spending any serious time looking at what Hillary Clinton would be like as a president. This is especially odd, given that the polls make her the most likely to take the top job, compared to anyone else currently in the running.

Many people will vote for Clinton simply to be a part of history. I totally get that. A woman president has been far-too long coming. But isn’t it a little patronising, and even maybe sexist, to vote for someone just because she’s a woman? That doesn’t feel like it’s striking a blow for feminism, as much as striking a blow against it, to me.

I’d like a female president. But I’d like one who really deserves to be there, who’s been put through the ringer, and really tested.

So far Clinton appears to have side-stepped this process. She’s been allowed to get away with quite a bit as a result. We’re talking about a person who has still – to the best of my knowledge – refused to acknowledge that she used a ghostwriter to write those weekly newspaper columns and bestsellers of hers. She’s yet to explain her lying about being shot at in Bosnia, or discussing ways to beat Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, using Bobby Kennedy’s assassination as a similar scenario to the fight she was having (serious, what was that about?)

There’s lots of other little lies too. Not just the ghostwriting, but how broke she was upon leaving the White House with her husband (nope), how her daughter was jogging near the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 (she wasn’t), how she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the heroic conqueror of Mount Everest (she wasn’t. Sir Edmund made the climb in 1953. Hillary Clinton was born in 1947).

But that’s just small stuff right? The tittle-tattle that tabloid journalists care about. Okay, I get that. The odd forgetful moment or little white lie I understand. We’ve all done it. Okay, so maybe not to this level, but we’ve all done it. Let’s look instead at her policy record:

As a Senator of New York, she was a loud, and unashamedly vocal supporter of TARP, the disastrous and economically-illiterate Troubled Asset Relief Program. And let’s not dwell too much on the equally damaging ethanol subsidies, auto bailouts, etc. It’s also interesting how we’ve all forgotten about her proudly declaring herself as the “representative of Wall Street” during her time as Senator. A declaration now oddly ignored by the Occupy crowd.

What trade agreements does she support and which is she against this week? With the flip-flopping, it’s hard to a) keep track, and b) understand what economic principles – if any – she really believes in.

Many wise heads warn that we’re looking at the possibility of another economic dip at some point soon. Will her proposed federal “infrastructure bank” (at a cost of $250 billion) really help us out in a time when we’re trying to live within our means? Hasn’t the weapons-grade failure of bailouts and shovel-ready projects got back to her yet?

She basically sided with Bush Jr and Cheney when it came to Iraq. In fact, she was arguably more hawkish than either of them when it came to linking Saddam to Al Qaeda. Her position on the failure was simply to flip-flop (again) and say that Bush didn’t pursue diplomatic avenues enough. Okay, but she specifically voted against the amendment that would have forced Bush to explore more diplomatic avenues before the invasion began. But, she seems to have been given a free pass on having her cake and eating it too.

I won’t dwell on Benghazi or the potentially federal-grade offences she may have committed with sensitive government emails, those are areas that’ve been well covered at least. Except to say that she still seems to have had a free pass on them. But let’s talk Libya. Anyone who has been concerned with Bush and Obama’s hyper-interventionism can’t help be a little concerned by her actions there, least of all referencing Moammar Gaddafi being disposed as “We came, we saw, he died”, (while laughing).

ISIS are reportedly using the areas she intervened as Secretary of State. It still hasn’t stopped her describing that unstable mess as an effective use of American “smart power”.

Clinton is a full-blown supporter of George W. Bush’s Patriot Act, and continues to wrongly describe Edward Snowden as a man who could have “gotten all the protections of a whistleblower”. That’s flat-out wrong. The rules – that Clinton fully supports – makes it currently impossible for someone in Snowden’s position to be a whistleblower. The “proper channels” she says he should have used are explicitly denied to employees in national security positions like Snowden.

In the social sphere, she’s against legalising marijuana for recreational purposes (but the states appear to be moving ahead anyway), she’s flip-flopped (there’s that phrase again) on gay marriage, only finally supporting it when it was clear most Americans now do. Also in a similar vein, only when the polls showed that people were turned off en-mass at Trump’s harsh treatment of illegal immigrants, did she change her position. But she still doesn’t fully support free speech, supported by the 1st Amendment, advocating a change to the US Constitution to limit what she worryingly describes as “unaccountable” political speech, and pushing for more governmental “backdoors” to our private data.

This is just a short list of things we haven’t talked about when it comes to Hillary. It might turn out that by the time of this year’s election, she really is the best of a bad bunch. But if that is the case, I can’t help feel that’s a depressing choice.

I’d love there to be a female US president. But I’d especially love there to be a good one.

2015 Was the Best Year. 2016 Will Be Better.

Happy New Year.

It’s tough watching the news on TV, or listening to it on the radio sometimes. And – trust me on this – it’s sometimes harder having to read it. The grim facts of awful deeds being committed around the world are often enough to turn even the most resilient of stomachs. I can’t tell you how many times this year as a broadcaster I’ve been upset at the stories I’ve had to cover: from being on the scene of the Shoreham Airshow disaster, to having to ‘up’ the death-toll in Paris, between each hourly bulletin.

But it’s not all bad news. In fact, it’s mostly good news.

Good news doesn’t translate well into news bulletins though. It’s not a criticism of my fellow journalists. It’s pretty hard to talk about rising standards over long periods of time, but completely relatable to talk about an awful event that’s just taken place.

As we have welcomed in a new year, I’d like to take a moment – if you’ll indulge me – and point out why despite the migrant crisis, economic disasters, and sickening terrorist attacks, 2015 was in fact the best year in the history of human existence. And it wasn’t just a ‘fluke’ year. 2014 was also better than 2013, which was better than 2012, and, well, you get the idea.

Not only that, but 2016 will almost certainly be measurably better than 2015 for the vast majority of our fellow species.

This isn’t wishful thinking. Quite the opposite: it’s a simple statement of fact. There are fewer hungry people in the world today than ever before. Yes, fewer as a proportion of the population than ever before, as well as in absolute terms, and that’s even considering the fact we number over seven billion now. We’re still well on course to virtually eliminating absolute poverty in the lifetimes of most people under the age of 40.

Proportionately, there are fewer victims of violence than ever, a fact made clearly when we consider that the last century – which contained no less than two world wars – was actually the least violent century with fewer conflicts than at any time in the history of human civilisation. Yes, we’re right to worry about ISIS, President Assad, and Yemen, Libya, Paris, Charleston. But that’s just us doing what we’ve always done: paying attention to the immediate bad news. It’s much harder – and often quite counter intuitive – to step back and look at the slowly-emerging positive trends of humanity.

Many people, reflexively, intuitively, but wrongly, think that things are always getting worse. If you look at 50 or 100 year ‘chunks’ of time, it’s seldom true. In fact, year-on-year these days, the world is getting better. For example:
2015 literacy compared to 2014? Up.
2015 sexual equality compared to 2014? Up.
2015 human longevity compared to 2014? Up.
2015 infant mortality compared to 2014? Down.

We’re better fed. In 1990, the number of our fellow humans suffering from malnutrition fell to an incredible 19 percent. Fewer than one fifth of us. Amazing. But it got better: despite the increase in population, today the number of us suffering from malnutrition has collapsed to 11 percent and is falling all the time.

The rise of free markets and free trade (both of which could always be freer of course) has dramatically seen more of us healthier than ever before, and overall we’ve made remarkable improvements to the environment around the world. Cleaner water, increased biodiversity all playing a part. We’re so used to hearing that the environment is facing irrecoverable catastrophe, that it’s almost heresy to write those words. But ‘conventional wisdom’ doesn’t make those words any less true.

Another boon in the rise of ever-freer markets is the continuing decline of poverty. Earning $1 a day (in inflation-adjusted 1990 prices) is the definition of extreme poverty. Back in 1990, 43 percent of the developing world population lived on it. It more than halved by 2015 to 21 percent, and globally, it’s 9.7 percent: less than 10 percent for the first time ever. Single-figure extreme poverty. We really are going to make it history.

Even with Syria, Paris, and many other places, terrorist deaths are generally on the decline. The United States continues to wrestle with the issue of mass shootings, despite the number of homicides continuing to fall there by a steady 3,000 each year. Between just 2000 and 2015, the number of people worldwide dying due to violence had fallen by six percent.

There’s just no getting away from it. 2015 was generally for the average person, the greatest year to be a human being. I’d stake every penny I’ve got on 2016 beating it.

Why Sycophants Don’t Help You Grow

I shot the video you see above, of Dame Vivienne Westwood, riding a tank to Prime Minister David Cameron’s house. It’s found its way onto almost every mainstream news outlet, including the Times, Guardian, Telegraph, and Buzzed, to name but a handful.

The purpose of riding in this armoured personnel carrier (to use its proper name) through the quaint streets of Oxfordshire, was to demonstrate against fracking. Westwood is unhappy about the use of fracking because, in part, of the CO2 emissions that are released by burning the gas that’s released. So she’s riding a vehicle that does gallons-per-mile rather than miles-per-gallon, to protest about, well, polluting the atmosphere.

It’s easy to write off Westwood as an anti-science, out-of-touch, slightly batty whack job. And yes, I think, having interviewed her, that’s fair. I’m not going to go into a diatribe about how dramatically low-carbon fracking is (though it’s really, really low carbon compared to most energy extraction sources we have currently), and the myriad of other benefits. You know how to use Google, you can find the reports from the EPA and other geologists, who, despite trying over and over, can’t find any major indictment on hydraulic fracturing. And I’m certainly no expert.

But I am a journalist, and despite the sensationalism of movies like Gasland, it seems that, when looking at the figures, this isn’t really as big and dangerous a thing as it’s been made out to be. But I could be wrong. And when serious overwhelming evidence presents itself that fracking will basically kill us all, etc. I’ll be the first to spin on a dime.

The thing is, spending a morning with Dame Vivienne Westwood actually convinced me beyond any EPA report that we’ve got nothing to worry about. She’s surrounded by sycophants, who worship her every word. I started by interview with her ‘softly’, asking why she’s there, what message she wanted to get out to wider world, etc. That way, I definitely have something in the can. As soon as I asked a tougher question about the EPA’s reports and the general conclusion from the geological community that for the most part fracking is safe and an ideal low-carbon way that could help us hit or exceed our Kyoto targets and move us towards a greener future, the interview was ended. We ran out of time, and as her handlers explained, the Dame had to get on a tank. Just a coincidence it was as I asked a slightly more challenging question. Bad luck for me.

The look on her face when I asked a question that was in no way confrontational, but just looked at things from an alternative perspective was quite fascinating. I wasn’t trying to push her into an angry response or anything, just illicit a more developed answer. That didn’t happen. She looked, well, surprised. I don’t want to say this is how she felt, but it was a bit like “How could anyone ask me such a thing?”

And this is the point. I’m not smart enough to know much about fracking. I’ll bow to her better knowledge if I must. I definitely bow to the generally opinion held by most geologists in this field. The point is, she appeared like she had not had an alternative position on the issue ever placed in front of her before, to counter her opinion. I know this is naive of me, but I expected her to be used to the cut-and-thrust found in battling alternative points of view. I expected a bit of intellectual discourse.

Then I looked around. Her ‘people’ (for want of a better word) surround her, nodding intently with every batty thing she says. She was accusing the Prime Minister of deliberately poisoning people who were going to see fracking in their area. “So we’re going to poison the poisoner” she told me, alluding to the fake colourful gas she wanted to pump out towards Cameron’s house as part of a protest.

Now it’s obvious that she has a different opinion than David Cameron on the merits or disadvantages of this gas extraction technique, but how has she convinced herself that he’s sitting in a lair somewhere laughing evilly about all the lives he’s going to destroy through fracking? Seriously, how does a grown-up think like that? The answer appears to be, your views – no matter how nuts – can grow when you’ve got a bunch of people surrounding you, encouraging every word you say.

Dissent is important. It allows you to think. It helps you redefine your views, sharpen them, improve them, and yes, change them.

I learnt a valuable lesson from Dame Vivienne Westwood: don’t surround yourself with sycophants. It might feel good to be told how wonderful and smart you are all the time, but having seen that extreme sycophancy up-close and personal, I think it weakens you as a person.

UK 2015 General Election: Predicting the Unpredictable

Ballot boxAs I write these words, we’re just days away from the UK General election, which has been billed as the most unpredictable for a generation or more.

That might be true, but is it totally unpredictable?

While the exact outcome is going to be pretty difficult, we can certainly get a sense of what is more or less likely to occur.

I’ll be broadcasting on-air overnight that night for Global: Europe’s largest commercial radio group. I have teams across the south region region waiting for the ballot papers to be counted, and the results to come in. It’ll be a long night for all of us in the broadcast media, but an exciting one, not least because the exact outcome is so uncertain.

But the opinion polls – which have remained pretty consistent throughout – do give us at least some sense of what we might see come the early hours of Friday 8th May.

Firstly, a quick disclaimer about the figures. Polls, let’s not forget, predicted a trouncing for John Major’s government back in 1992, almost right up to election day, only for him to re-enter Downing Street with an increased majority.

But the polls are the best we’ve got, and with the figures in them being so fixed for so long, there’s a good chance that they are painting at least a reasonable picture of the outcome.

If you extrapolate the percentage-based polls into actual seats won for each party (a risky business), we can see a lead of ten or so seats for the Conservatives over Labour, around half of the Liberal Democrats losing their seats, a less than impressive result for UKIP, and domination in Scotland by the SNP.

What kind of a parliament does that create, and how do we create a government out of it? I feeling that our system is quite outdated. In my book from a couple of years ago, “TREASON: And Other Good Ideas“, I suggested a system where the people directly elect the head of the executive branch. That way, if you ever get a fragmented parliament (the legislative branch), you at least know that the Prime Minister is in his or her position with a reasonable degree of legitimacy.

However, we live in a different world to the one I suggested then, so for now, we have to deal with the system as it stands. And as it stands, things might get ugly.

Simply put, neither the Conservatives or Labour will win enough seats for an outright majority. That’s something we can be at least fairly certain of.

For the Tories, it looks very unlikely there will be enough Lib Dems to form a coalition with, and even factoring UKIP and the DUP from Northern Island, there may not be enough for a “grand coalition.”

It’s looking equally as grim – if not more so – for the Labour Party. They could form a coalition with the SNP, as they’d have enough seats between them to form a government.

But this would be almost impossible after Labour’s leader Ed Miliband ruled out a coalition. If he went back on his word now, he’d possibly push Labour out of No. 10 for a decade or more. Plus, most people in the UK would see this as an illegitimate government (even if it wasn’t technically), as only people in Scotland could vote for the SNP, who could hold Labour to ransom for anything they wanted.

There’s a slim chance that Labour could form a coalition with other left-leaning parties other than the SNP (like Plaid Cymru in Wales and the Green Party if they do better), but again, there’s a good chance Labour will have fewer MPs than the Tories, and so any government not formed mostly of Conservatives could be seen as not “right” by many people: “How can a party have the most MPs but not be in government?” The answer, is “well, it’s our quirky system”, but that won’t be satisfactory to many.

So I’ll put my neck on the line and do something fairly daft: I’ll predict the outcome for the least predictable UK general election in a long time:

I think that we’ll end up with a minority Conservative government. It’ll be a short-lived entity, which will build bridges and alliances in some areas, but fail to pass many of its bills as they wind their way through the parliamentary system, but possibly just about getting Labour to sign off on its Queens Speech, for the sake of stability if nothing else. Then, as soon as this October, or maybe into next year, we may go to the polls again. It might end up being a poisoned chalice for the Tories who end up stuck between a rock and a hard place, while becoming so unpopular that they lose the subsiquent election convincingly.

I’ll report on events as they happen on the Heart and Capital networks, and LBC. It’ll be interesting to see just how wrong I am.

We’ll find out soon.

Fighting “Writer’s Block”

WritingThere’s a lot of comments, blogs, articles, interviews with authors, and all sorts of stuff online about “writer’s block”, and what it really means. In fact, there’s so much, it can stop you from writing as you procrastinate and use up as much time as possible reading about writing problems rather than, you know, writing.

To be frank, it’s not something I’ve had much trouble with these days. So when I had a really charming letter from an aspiring writer the other day, who asked me what I do to overcome writer’s block – ironically – I couldn’t think of what to say to her.

But I’ve had a bit of a think, partly because the email was really sweet (I won’t repeat it here, she asked if I don’t as it contained specifics about her work that basically I’m too lazy to edit out), and partly because it got me thinking about my view on this alleged creativity-draining problem. So in the end, I came up with a reply, which she kindly let me share with you here. I’ve re-written it quite a bit to suit a more generic writer rather than specific issues of a specific problem.

With the disclaimer that my advice might sound crude, or undermining of a creative process you may have, I’m afraid that I only have blunt things to say about “writer’s block”, and how it may be overcome. They might not be warm and comforting comments, but I think they have the advantage of being spot-on in most circumstances, for most people.

My cousin, rather like my grandfather before him, is a trucker. Long-haul, big-rig stuff. The money’s pretty good, and it’s something he’s always wanted to do. He passed the Heavy Good Vehicle driver’s tests, and he earns enough to support his young family. He’s also a really great guy and a loving father to two adorable children.

Sometimes, somewhat unsurprisingly for a truck-driver, his job requires him to get up very early in the morning and drive from one end of the country to the other.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to suppose that sometimes the last thing he wants to do in the whole world is get out of bed very early in the morning, leave his lovely wife-to-be and great kids sleeping at home, and head to the depot to start the working day.

But he does it all the same. He gets up, goes out in the cold and dark, does the job, and – one assumes – almost certainly gets a sense of satisfaction out of knowing he’s done a good job for a good days pay.

In other words, he doesn’t get “trucker’s block”. It’s a job. It’s a job he likes. With the early starts and other aspects, he doesn’t always like every part of it (who does in any job?) but he does what he needs to in those times, and he is all the better for it.

If you are writing your first novel for example, (that’s the case of the writer who emailed me recently through this site), and you feel you’re getting what some on the internet have told you might be “writer’s block”, think of it as “trucker’s block”. And then it suddenly sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

Yes, I know it’s disappointing that I don’t have some special, magic trick to share. But I do have that one tip. Call it “trucker’s block”. That’s my advice.

Because you might be writing for pleasure at the early stage of your endeavours, rather than the paycheck, it can be hard to carry on during the bits that aren’t as much fun. And that makes sense. Who wants to do a job they’re not enjoying if they don’t have to? My cousin wouldn’t get up at 4am to drive a lorry over to Whitstable from Stoke-on-Trent if he didn’t have to, and still got paid regardless.

And this is really the point. For the jobbing writer (of anything really, journalists, content-creators, copywriters, novelists, etc.), I’ve noticed that “writer’s block” is less of a phenomenon. Because like a trucker at four in the morning, you just have to get up and get on with it. It’s your job. If you really really hate everything about it, then why are you doing it? Seriously, go do something else and be happy. But if you don’t feel like it right now, when you booked yourself time to do it, I say force yourself to start anyway. After a while, the reflexes kick in, and at the end of the day or session, you feel pretty good about what you’ve done. Even if it’s mostly/partly junk and you’ll need to do something about it later. You did it, and that counts for something.

And here’s the odd thing that I think I’ve mentioned before. Sometimes when I get that feeling which some call “writer’s block”, it’s often because I’m really disliking what I’ve just written. Once again, instead of going “Ah, I’m not writing well today, I should leave it”, I force myself to carry on, because usually the next day, when I’m in a better frame of mind, I look at what I’ve written in that frustrated “blocked” period of time, and end up realising that I’m reading some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. Seriously.

Of course, your mileage may vary. This advice will help some, and annoy others. I’m sorry if you fall into the latter category. This isn’t a hard and fast rule for writing. I don’t believe that those exist.

It’s just that for me, there’s times when I don’t feel like writing something. But I don’t call that “writer’s block”, I call that “not wanting to write at the moment.” When I feel like that, I get on and do it anyway. Not to meet the deadline, not because of the paycheck, but because my cousin is a truck driver. And he has to get up and do his job too, so I don’t see why I’m any different.

50 Shades of Snobbishness

50 Shades of Grey book cover

It’s funny isn’t it? A glance at the average persons Facebook or Twitter feed over the last month, and it seems clear that everyone hates the movie adaptation of E.L. James’ bondage fantasy flick “Fifty Shades of Grey“.

Everyone that is, apart from the millions of moviegoers who have parted with over $150 million and counting of their own money in the US alone since its release.

The box-office gross figures on the Internet Movie Database are right below the current top-ranking review of the film, a one-star review that is simply titled “Oh this film was just DREADFUL!”

How do we square the contradictions here? We don’t need to, it’s actually a common attitude to popular art.

The one thing that’s more entertaining than enjoying a popular piece of art (be it a song, painting, movie or novel), is often to trash it. That’s very fashionable.

There are well-documented critical reviews of the “hack” Shakespeare or Dickens, and this criticism usually coincides with artists being at their peak, at their most popular.

Maybe some of these criticisms are valid, but it doesn’t really tell you much about the quality of the work, which was/is popular, and usually is very good.

So the “I’m oh-so fashionable” criticism descends into something more base: snobbishness. This is a trend that does on throughout popular culture, whether it’s the written work of E.L. James, the film adaption, or the work of Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling or any other successful writer.

It’s not hard to find old archives full of people explaining how the emergence of Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley was the beginning of the end for “good” or “proper” music. I think it’s wise to remember that they said the same of Frank Sinatra, or Miles Davies, or even Beethoven.

I’ll readily admit that E.L. James’ novels haven’t really appealed to me. But that’s just me, and, given the weight of enthusiasm and support (those sales numbers are very impressive), it’s clear that there’s a strong constituency that feels very differenly about her work. I admire their enthusiasm and respect their choices.

Because to dismiss her work basically because it’s become so popular, places critics onto the ash-heap of irrelevance.

Glenn Greenwald: The 21st Century Bob Woodward?

It’s been an interesting few years for Glenn Greenwald.

He’s a lawyer, but has a take on journalism that’s interesting, subversive and deeply important.

As the face of the Edward Snowden Saga (with a documentary centred around him too), it could be argued that Greenwald is a modern version of journalist Bob Woodward – made famous for his coverage of the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein that lives on through the movie All The President’s Men.

In the above video, he talks to Reason TV, and talks more about his new online magazine “The Intercept”.

The Federal United Kingdom?

TREASON (and other good ideas)In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, which saw the Scots vote to stay part of the Union, 55%-45%, I interviewed John Redwood MP, who has been the driving force behind the proposals of English MPs (only) for English votes.

He took me through his plan, which no doubt he pushed for in a mini-conference with Prime Minister David Cameron in Chequers days after the Scottish vote.

Basically, it’s a simple plan. There will be no new English parliament, they’ll use the current one in Westminster. There will be no “Members of English Parliament”, they’ll just use the current MPs who represent English constituencies. Mr. Redwood told me that this would make it a fairly “cost-free” solution, that doesn’t burden the people who yet another layer of politics.

His case is compelling, and it will probably be the primary type of English devolution that the Tories will push for. It will also be the most popular in terms of backing among the electorate.

That said, I wish that we were looking for a more radical solution. The “Redwood Plan”, (as I’ve just decided to start calling it) will help “federalise” the UK more, but I’d take it much further.

Some are concerned that a totally federalised solution in the UK wouldn’t work, as 85% of the population would live in one of the constituent parts (England) and the remaining 15% in the other three areas (Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland). Gordon Brown made that same point recently.

That could be a valid practical point, but I think it wouldn’t matter so much if we had this solution:

  • The Parliament in Westminster is called the “UK Parliament” with a Prime Minister and Vice Prime-Minister (who we vote for on a national level, counting all our votes up, just like they did with the Scottish referendum). We then also have MPs on a constituency basis, but the whole parliament just concentrates on UK-based decisions, that are dramatically cut, like national defence, international trade and relations, embassies, infrastructure projects of “UK importance”, etc. The MPs are paid a salary that matches the national average full-time wage (about £22,500 at present, plus expenses). The job is effectively not a full-time job, as their responsibilities are dramatically cut.
  • This dramatic cut in power and cost in the UK parliament is used to create (hopefully almost revenue-neutral) four parliaments in the UK: One in Scotland (which already exists), one in Northern Ireland (again, we’re almost there with that), Wales (upgrading the Welsh Assembly) and a new English Parliament (maybe set up in the middle of the country in Manchester? Or London if that’s more practical and economically viable).
  • The MPs in each of the four parliaments get to legislate on everything else: income taxes and all other taxes, health, education, infrastructure, policing, etc. They are the source of most government income, and a percentage (say, 10%) from each of the 4 “states” kicks up to the UK government to fund it. This is crucial: all 4 “states” MUST be self-funding. Again, a First Minister and Second Minister (with a constitutionally-recognised order of succession) is voted for separately in state-wide Executive elections, that maybe coincide with the state MP elections, and possibly the UK executive/legislative elections.
  • Power then for many more things goes down to each region, constituency, town/city/parish.

Probably not viable, but much more democratic and accountable. This isn’t my utopian idea, but a practical step towards a “Federal Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” that makes us more prosperous and free.

And of course, some of this is covered in my book TREASON (and other good ideas) which – unsurprisingly during this time of potential UK constitutional upheaval – is making something of a comeback in sales.

Sorry to end the post on a cheap plug, but hey, I’ve got to eat, right? 😉

Looking Back on the News to Look Forward

I’ve really enjoyed spending a little bit of time on website Retro Report recently.

They subtitle it “The truth now about the big stories then” and it is a really valuable journalistic endeavour.

It’s supported in part by the New York Times, but I believe it operates with autonomy, and is a totally separate company that works with the Times, rather than for them.

Whether it’s the hyperbole surrounding the media’s frenzy over the Y2K bug, or the fear-mongering that plagued the GM revolution and the so-called “Frankenfoods”, it’s very refreshing to watch mini documentary web videos with a more accurate and fair analysis of what really went on during these times. And who knows, maybe this kind of reporting can help those of us in newsrooms around the world to avoid making some of the same mistakes again in the future.

Click here to see for yourself.