Robin Brown

Journo. Editor. Tutor. Dour northerner.

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Richard Attenborough Interview

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Lord Attenborough’s recent death took me back to an afternoon in 2000 when I went to interview the director, who was promoting Grey Owl – his penultimate work and probably not his best. For some reason, which still baffles me, I had been chosen to interview Attenborough by whatever company had been retained to deal with these things. Alongside Joe Riley of the Echo, I was the only one afforded any time with the great man.

The do took place at what is now the Radio City tower with much food and booze laid on for the occasion – it was like walking into an episode of Sex and the City. Having headed straight from the office where I was laying out the next newspaper, under orders to pretend I’d seen the film at a screening and probably looking like a complete scruff, I was rather out of place. Attenborough clearly spotted this while doing the rounds and made a point of coming over to me to engage me in conversation.

It was a lovely gesture, though I would have warmed to him anyway. I was very chuffed with the interview, where Attenborough nursed me through with interesting and thorough answers to what were probably unimpressive questions and hushed the people telling him he had to make time for other interviews (there weren’t any more as it transpired, we’d talked for so long no-one else got to speak to him). Afterwards he asked: “Was that alright, Robin?”. I was thrilled with that too. He essentially sacrificed the time reserved to promote his new film to be nice to someone who he obviously thought needed it.

I’ve reprinted the interview that resulted below, which is rather shot through with an angsty pessimism that reflected my mood at the time but reflects a style that I have adopted to a lesser degree ever since: a little bit gonzo, emotive, personal. I quite like the interview, despite the lack of quotes, looking back but it wouldn’t have amounted to much without the help of the subject. Those 20 minutes with Lord Attenborough were a wonderful treat and instructive too.

Godspeed, Dickie.



Lord Attenborough. The name itself is so thick with meaning, gravity and grandiosity that the prospect of meeting the man is quite unnerving.

I’m also surrounded by so much decadence at Radio City headquarters at the top of St John’s Beacon, while surveying some of the city’s seamier quarters of Liverpool that it’s impossible not to be struck by the juxtaposition. As I enter the building I am entreated to buy a Big Issue; as I enter the room chosen to host the launch party for Grey owl, Attenborough’s new film, I am faced with plates full of food, a lobster perched slightly sadly on top, as several people try to force wine into my hand.

318px-Richard_Attenborough_1975

Slightly fazed by it all and the roll-call of people who move on to another victim once they learn that I’ve come from the student newspaper, I sit by the window to admire the view. Realising there’s someone standing next to me who hasn’t moved away once they’ve noticed my whiskers, I turn to make a comment on the scenery when – inevitably – I’m faced with the man himself: “Magnificent view!”

Lord Richard Attenborough looks like my Grandpapa.

After a fat man from the Liverpool Echo creeps to Attenborough for an eternity, I am maneuvered through the gaggle of journos – “Janet Bland from the Daily Post…” – and get to spend some time with him in a side room. He looks tired [Attenborough was 77 at the time] but that doesn’t seem to dim his enthusiasm.

“Louis B Mayer always said that films have nothing to do with messages, I don’t agree with that, I don’t accept that. I believe that movies are essentially entertainment, but I also believe they are about things that people care about: totalitarianism, racial concerns, religious persecution – things that are worth talking about.

“I do believe that the environment is of great concern. There was a statement out yesterday that said within 70 years we will have plundered the planet, there will be no natural resources left: trees, water. It’s terrible, terrifying.”

Quite what the throng of hacks outside would make of this is anyone’s guess, but there’s no stopping him.

“Now, here’s a tale that deals with these issues, but with a fabulous tale behind it. A guy who was a total phone; a liar, drunk and bigamist…”. Ah, this will be Grey Owl, the true story of the Red Indian who renounced his life as a trapper in Canadian forests to become the leading figure in global environmentalism prior to WWII, only for it to be discovered, upon his death, that he was a chap from Hastings called Archie.

Attenborough’s delight at this story is evident – and his passion when talking about environmental issues evident. Indeed, Grey Owl shares many characteristics with many of the director’s other films: tolerance, harmony and respect chief among them. Looking at the critical and box-office receptions for Ghandi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom it’s hard not to conclude that Louis was wrong after all. But where does all this come from?

“Mike Parkinson said to me: ‘Your parents were committed to good causes’. They weren’t good causes – they were committed to helping people live and breathe, everyday things. It seemed unthinkable to them that you were not concerned with people less fortunate than yourself, or people who were being persecuted. You can’t just stand by. It isn’t something special to me; it’s perfectly ordinary behaviour.”

I’m with him, but the executives who refused to bankroll Attenborough’s films when he was transitioning from Hollywood leading man to director didn’t seem to agree. They laughed Attenborough out of the room for wanting to make a film about ‘a little brown man, dressed in a sheet and carrying a beanpole’. They had reckoned without his eye for telling a good story and his tenacity. Having spent 20 years trying to get the funding together to make Ghandi, he promptly won eight Oscars.

“My monstrous behaviour was that I gloated over the fact that all those buggers who turned me down then started to bid for it,” he admits a little ruefully, but with a definite twinkle.

Attenborough clearly loves making films, despite the difficulties he has encountered – he has also had to raise the cash to make Grey Owl privately – but it seems to me the overriding reason is to convey messages of humanitarianism in a format that people find palatable. The spoonful of sugar in Grey Owl is the love affair between Piers Brosnan’s eponymous lead and his wife, but the message behind it is hard to miss.

It’s a passion that has led Attenborough behind the camera more and more as his career has progressed, but it’s worth remembering that he was one of Hollywood’s key leading men during the golden age, starring in classics such as Brighton Rock, I’m Alright Jack, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and 10 Rillington Place. More recently he has appeared in Jurassic Park, where Steven Spielberg asked him to direct portions of Schindler’s List – he was too busy working on Shadowlands, a critical smash that was showered with Oscar nominations and BAFTA wins.

I waste some precious time musing on his early film career – “William Hartnell was a wonderful man!” – Brighton Rock being one of my favourite books and a strong film to boot. Attenborough’s anti-hero Pinkie is one of the most fearful, most violent figures in literature. He can’t stop himself though; a gentle chat about the films of the 40s becomes an impassioned statement about film violence: “We become inured to violence, we accept it as the norm. We should be horrified by it and we should be horrified by war.”

Time ticks by and we have to make way for Lord Attenborough’s next engagement. I leave the interview and seek out more booze. Everywhere people are chattering into mobile phones, taking wine from pretty waitresses without acknowledging them and networking furiously. What will these people take away from Grey Owl, Cry Freedom or Ghandi?

“What was he in?”

“You know, the one with the dinosaurs.”

• Image via Creative Commons, Flickr

Written by Robin Brown

October 29th, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Journalism,People

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Jimmy McGovern Interview: Failure Is Good For You

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I stumbled in from the pub tonight and flicked through the channels until I came across an episode of Cracker. It was To Be A Somebody, the incendiary episode starring Robert Carlisle as Albie – a white, working-class scouser-turned-serial-killer – and I watched the last 15 minutes as rapt as I was when I first watched it at the age of 16.

Even then I knew I was watching something important – something that included Hillsborough, racism, working-class socialist bigotry and a host of other issues that send a shiver down the spine of any middle-class liberal. A disturbing confluence of issues – overlapping on a Venn diagram – as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

Watching it back it’s hard to not view Albie’s call-to-arms in terms of Irish republican violence, 7/7 and even the rise of UKip, BNP and EDL. A touchstone for the disaffected white working-classes, denied the social gravity of work, unions, church and football. It struck me, although the outcomes may be somewhat different, that it’s hard to disagree with the thrust of his script.

Cracker Albie

I interviewed Jimmy McGovern in 2005 for Black & White Magazine, a Liverpool culture magazine I edited back in the day. At the end of some delicate negotiations I had an email exchange with Jimmy where we exchanged questions, discussion and gossip.

He was incredibly accommodating, polite, funny – I have not a bad word to say about him. Doctor Who was gearing up for a return at the time and he gave me some juicy gossip involving Christopher Eccleston, whom he obviously held in high regard. I also got a lovely Christmas message from him at the end of the year – I like to think he’d appreciated something in the questions I asked.

As is always the case, we lost touch and I doubt he even remembers the exchange ten years on. But I remember his personal kindness to a young journalist to whom he owed nothing – he also allowed me to sell the interview to Tribune – and willingness to engage on subjects we both found interesting. Thanks Jimmy.

Ten years on from that interview – and 20 years from the episode’s debut – the issues of which we spoke are still relevant. And, with The Street and Accused, so is Jimmy McGovern.

The following represents the compiled Q+A I assembled from our email conversations, printed in Black & White Magazine and Tribune. Inevitably I feel I was a little gauche and tactless – and wish I’d pursued certain lines on inquiry, but remain pleased with the exchange.

Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

Right now I’m trying to do final polishes on the Cracker special and a six-parter for the BBC provisionally entitled The Street. As for the six-parter I’ve written only two eps and been a sort of lead writer on the others. The Americans would call it “show runner” but to hell with the Americans and their cultural imperialism. With the exception of a man called James Quirk the writers on The Street have been relatively inexperienced – but they all had good stories to tell and that’s the main thing for me. I’m sick of watching telly and seeing the same old stories being regurgitated. When I’ve finished these polishes I’ll be switching over to a musical about the history of cotton. We’re trying to blend negro-spirituals from the cotton fields with brass band music from the cotton mills. God knows if it will work.

What made you decide to come back to Cracker?

I’ve gone back to Cracker because I used to be co-organiser of the Hillsborough Memorial Golf Day and we needed a sponsor so I went to Granada and told them that if they sponsored the golf, I’d write them another Cracker.

Do the characters you create inevitably stem from aspects of your own personality – even if it’s a small one?

You’re right: if you’re in any way serious as a writer, you will always write characters based upon your own personality. That’s easy to say when it’s people like Fitz [from Cracker] because people like him despite his flaws. Not so easy when it’s characters like Albie [from the episode To Be A Somebody] but Albie was based on how I felt in the aftermath of Hillsborough. I don’t think I could have killed anybody over Hillsborough. In fact I’m sure I couldn’t. But I certainly felt like killing Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher and every single member of the South Yorkshire Police. And as for The Sun… I think every single killer in Cracker has come from somewhere deep within myself.

Hillsborough seems to be something of a touchtone across more than one of your works; something that has deeply affected Liverpool. Is this a fair reflection?

And you’re right again: because of that, some people think I’m a headcase, a hot-headed, angry, frustrated Scouser. But I’m not. I’m fifty-six. I’ve been married for thirty odd years; I’ve got grandkids; I play golf. The secret is, I know I’m nothing special. I know I’m not particularly good. Or particularly bad. I’m just like everyone else. And if I’ve felt like doing horrible things, then I’m bloody sure everybody else has as well. Nobody’s unique. Well, everybody’s unique but you know what I mean.

I have always seen myself as left-wing but, honestly, throughout the eighties it was hard to be a left-wing, white, working class male. We were blamed for everything: racism, sexism, fascism. And, of course, the epitome of the white working class male was the football fan. People hated them, especially people on the left. Hillsborough came out of all that and, after Hillsborough, I said to myself that I would never let people attack us (white working class males) like that again. And Fitz came after that – the first post-feminist, post political-correctness TV series.

I never had any doubts about writing the story of Albie in Cracker. In fact the Hillsborough families came to a screening and supported it. They, more than anyone, understood Albie’s anger. As for the drama-doc itself, I wrote it because the families asked me to write it. As simple as that.

Do you still have a personal faith, or are you a cultural Catholic?

I have never attacked the Catholic faith. I have never attacked any religion. There was one particular journalist who slyly hinted that I might be anti-semitic but I can tell you I’m not. The great religions, when they are properly adhered to, are a force for good. It’s the institutions that sprout up around those religions that get up my nose. And the hypocrites within them. One example, the Catholic Church sheltered child abusers for years. If it had done this out of compassion for the abusers, well that might, just might, be understandable. But it sheltered the abusers because it was frightened of losing its great wealth in the courts.

What would be the worst and the best we can expect to come out of Liverpool winning Capital of Culture?

I’m ambivalent about Capital of Culture. On the one hand, if we ever get my cotton project onto the stage it will probably be because of Capital of Culture money. On the other hand I’m not prepared to be gagged because of that. I think 2008 will pass the vast majority of Scousers by, just as whatever-year-it-was passed the Glaswegians by.

Liverpool has given you a lot of source material in the forms of Hillsborough and Dockers, albeit frequently tragic and terrible. Does this make you ambivalent about living here?

No. I thank God I was born here. I have always loved this city and the older I get, the more I love it. The people above all, their humour and passion and sensitivity, but also the river, the architecture, the parks, the history of the place…

I have always had a soft spot for Ireland. My wife has 100 per cent, pure Irish blood in her veins. And, of course, I have the obligatory great grandad who came over in the Famine. But I see myself as a Scouser, a catholic, white, working class Scouser. That means I’ve plenty in common with the Irish but, no, I am not Irish; I am a Scouser. Lots of people see themselves like that, I think, and that’s healthy surely.

Where did The Lakes come from? Was there an element of it being something that was ‘fun’ to write?

I am proud of the first series of The Lakes. The trouble was the second series. We brought in a lot of very good writers, each with his or her own “voice” so the second series went all over the place. But the first I liked. And a lot of it was autobiographical. As was Hearts and Minds of course.

I know I’ve got this reputation for grittiness but, actually, the first two things I wrote, other than Brookside, were Felix Randal and Traitors. Felix Randal was based on the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, about a farrier in Liverpool in the late nineteenth century and Traitors was about Father Garnet’s involvement in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

Are there particular actors who you prefer to work with?

Because I write a lot about working class characters, I like to work with actors who are working class. It’s the hardest thing to pull off for an actor, I think: to act outside your socio-economic group. Interestingly, Irish actors can do it. It’s often very hard to spot an Irish actor’s background. But for the English it’s not so easy.

I used to fight like mad to get my programmes made in Liverpool. But I got tired of people accusing me of portraying Liverpool in a bad light. You know, the people of Manchester have never said to me, “Hey, you Scouser, how dare you portray our city as full of headcases and psychopaths!” That’s because they understand that film and TV production brings millions into the local economy.

What are you most proud of of your scripts?

No matter how well something has been done, it could always have been done better. I’m proud of Hillsborough of course because it helped people. I’d say the same thing about Dockers, Sunday and Priest. But Heart, a small movie, was a bit of a failure as was the second series of The Lakes. As for Mary Queen of Scots, I wrote it as a big-budget movie and, in hindsight, I should have fought to get it made as such. But failure is good for you, you know. Particularly if you’re Catholic.

Written by Robin Brown

September 4th, 2014 at 12:38 am

Posted in Journalism,TV

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Myleene Klass, Letters Pages And The London Evening Standard

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Occasionally an email arrives, offering some work. Sometimes it’s a one-off piece, sometimes it’s a book (out now in all good bookshops, well, some bookshops, possibly). Sometimes it’s someone asking me to work for free. You can probably guess which I prefer.

Often I’m asked to contribute a paragraph for use in a wider piece – or interviewed on the subject for the same reason – on the basis that I’m quoted as an expert of some sort, or a chump who happens to be both available and able to feign wisdom. I’ve been on the radio talking about cars, cricket, beer, Liverpool – and quite a few other things (most recently how social media has affected my sex life). Examples of the former include a piece in the Guardian by Jon Henley about Twitter and a radio interview I recently did from the toilets of the Royal Court Theatre.

I don’t expect payment for these things – they take five minutes and don’t really require any effort on my part. I can talk off the top of my head and am not served content guidelines nor deadlines. So when, on a Sunday night at 10.30pm and neck-deep in work, I get an email from a guy at the London Evening Standard asking me for 200 words on the Christmas John Lewis advert (he’s read AdTurds) by 9am the following day, the first question I’m likely to ask is ‘how much’?

At the time I queried whether he was after quote fodder or commissioning me to write an article, pointing out that while AdTurds – where he’d seen my comments on the John Lewis advert – is a blog, I work as a journalist. The intended implication being that I wouldn’t be writing anything for free.

Josh, for that is his name, replied that he wasn’t in search of a ‘piece’ – just a ‘comment’. In fairness he apologised for approaching me, having assumed I work in advertising. Though he went on to say that he was still keen to hear my views. Noting that Josh had mentioned on his initial email that he was writing “from Letters at the Evening Standard” I sought more clarification – was he basically asking me to write an article for no fee that would appear on the letters page, as if I’d penned an Annoyed Of Hartlepool missive?

Yes, came the reply from Josh, who went on to add that a variety of celebrities, including Myleene Klass, had contributed letter in the past. “No thanks Josh,” I replied, assuming he’d move on to another blogger. I was a non-plussed but would have left it there, were it not for his reply:

“Okay, sorry we’re not good enough!”

This annoyed me. The implication was, surely, that I was getting a bit above my station to refuse to write an article for free when such luminaries as Myleene had consented. So I sent this back:

I’m not being funny Josh but that’s quite a strange passive-aggressive little snark considering you just asked a journalist to write you an article for nothing. You might not have known that initially, which is fair enough, but you did after my first reply. 

Those people you listed are not journalists and even if they do make their living from writing I don’t suppose that Myleene Klass or Nick Hornby are knocking out 800 words on cars for fleet managers as we speak. Simply put they probably don’t need the money. Had you asked Myleene to come and do a little solo gig in the office, free of charge, and had she consented I might have seen the relevance. 

I Googled Josh. There are about half a dozen blogs floating about detailing varying degree and forms of annoyance with the way he approached them. Six months ago, Josh accidentally asked a respected Australian film critic to write a letter for him.

The critic, Lynden Barber, took the story to his newspaper, The Australian, who wrote it up in the media section, detailing an exchange that seemed to get pretty snippy and including Barber’s thoughts on the affair. Josh subsequently sent an apology to Barber and the media correspondent, which included the following line:

[A]s an occasional writer myself I understand the irritation felt by freelancers when asked to contribute articles for free.

Uh-huh.

The notion of proactively seeking content from non-professionals – and clearly professionals from time-to-time – seems fairly dubious on a few levels to me. That they’re presented as letters – thereby invoking some idea of amateurism and presumably a desire to contribute without expectation of recompense – doesn’t really cut it with me.

If I wanted to write a letter to the Evening Standard I wouldn’t wait for an invitation and set of writer’s guidelines. If they’re not receiving sufficient letters to pan out a letter’s page, I’d suggest they don’t have a letter’s page. Why not replace it a DPS sourcing some decent writing from good bloggers. Making profits of a million quid or so a year and owned by a billionaire I’m sure they’ve got a few spare pennies knocking around.

Either way, if you’re soliciting for informed, authoritative, well-written content within editorial parameters it’s work that could – and should – be done by journalists.

Josh – if you’re reading – I’ll happily write you 200 words on the subject, for publication in the Standard. At my usual rate. In the meantime, consider this an open letter you can have for nothing.

Written by Robin Brown

November 30th, 2013 at 7:34 pm

Posted in Journalism

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Social media newsgathering in action

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Tyler Wakstein’s video of the finish line at the Boston Marathon didn’t get a huge amount of traffic. For horrific reasons his graphic still of the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing did.

Shortly afterwards Tyler was bombarded with shocked, dismayed, bewildered questions. And a lot more from news gatherers asking if they could use his picture online, in newspapers and on television.

As of 11pm on 15 April it’s had over 4,000 retweets and Wakstein has been appearing on broadcast media all day.

Should you – can you – use social media pictures in this way? If you’re a journalist the upside to getting eyewitness reports and media via Twitter is obvious. It’s more evidence of my belief that of all social media platforms Twitter is by far the most useful – at once a live ticker tape, media source, RSS feed and crowd to be sourced at once.

The wherefores and hows are still rather more nebulous – here’s a couple of guides from Journalism.co.uk and The BBC on using social media for reporters – and a guide to the likely fees that people may charge if you want to use their photos.

Written by Robin Brown

April 15th, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Posted in Journalism

Everyone wants to be the Huffington Post

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News that the Huffington Post – the current Death Star of journalism for reasons outlined here – is now generating twelvety billion impressions a day has obviously enervated the UK’s newspapers.

Well, the online versions of them anyway. The Daily Mail adapted first – and is a recognisably different beast form the print version. Put simply, it has a lot of tits down the iconic right-hand sidebar that virtually stick your fingers to the mouse – metaphorically and, quite possibly, literally depending on the photo.

The Mail Online also writes what might be the first ever article it’s ever done virtually every time it mentions a topic. So, for example, if I were to write an article on the Mail – in the style of the Mail Online – I’d go into how the long the website has been live, how many redesigns it’s had, what it’s raison de’tre is and any recent newsworthy items relating to it. Let’s say, um, Jan Moir’s vile columns or Twitter poll karma. Basically you can expect to read a mini Wikipedia entry about the topic on every different article; like a pen picture for the stupid.

I expect that, combined with lots of other tics, this is an SEO exercise – as the entire site is, really. 3.2 million articles can’t hurt, mind.

The reason for this image will be revealed later on

The Mail also a internet dog-whistler – even going to the trouble recently of winding up its own audience with a ‘lefties are more clever than righties’ article – and it borrows a trick from its print self in stoking up people’s irrational fears and disgust.

The Mail and the Huffington Post have been duking it out for some time for traffic. Other papers have their own versions: The Telegraph has a frothing twat by the name of Jams Delingpole whose only purpose is to wind people up. The Guardian has an entire section devoted to that purpose in the shape of Comment Is Free. The Indy writes millions upon millions of ‘top ten’ articles – it’s almost pitiful.

But I’ve noticed something else in the last few weeks that I did not notice before – something I can only put down to the clear success off The Huffington Post. Namely, idiotic galleries designed to keep users clicking through dozens of pages, getting trillions of eyeballs on display ads and ensuring they’re shared on Facebook and Twitter.

Is Cheryl back with Ashley?

Today the Torygraph has dozens of images of Steve Coogan’s various alter egos – something that amounts to 24 press stills assembled with approximately ten minutes’ effort writing captions. Last week the Grauniad had a load of photos of dogs swimming underwater, for crying out loud.

Somewhere else the Grauniad is following the Huffington Post is into the free resource market. I say ‘free resource market’. What I really mean is ‘using bloggers and media professionals who can’t find employment to churn out high-quality work for no money’. At least the Guardian asks – the HuffPo gets its free labour to take stuff from the web, rehash it vaguely and throw a link back to the source, buried among a million ads and calls-to-action.

I find this fairly egregious, but symptomatic of where the web is heading. Shorter attention spans, sites wielding their Page Ranks like weapons of mass destruction and a brainless mix of celebrity flesh and diverting pictures.

In celebration of the New Journalism, here’s a top ten of internet facepalms I’ve collected from around the internet that other people have taken the time to mock up.

Faceplams are an internet meme popularised by an image of Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Patrick Stewart holding his head in hands. They are meant to typify frustration or disbelief at the behaviour of others (my own genuine facepalm is above).

Star Trek: The Next Generation is a US TV network show that was broadcast between 1987-1994, starring Patrick Stewart. Patrick Stewart is a Shakespearean actor known for his bald head. Baldness implies partial or complete lack of hair. Stewart had a famous public with roly-poly funnyman James Corden at an awards ceremony in 2010.

Written by Robin Brown

February 27th, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Calling Peter Mandelson a liar

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Peter Mandelson says he regrets saying that the Labour party was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’.

From The Grauniad:

Lord Mandelson has admitted he is no longer “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”, given rising inequality and stagnating middle-class incomes brought about by the damaging downsides of globalisation.

Almost a decade and a half after making the remarks, which were seen as characterising the Labour government’s embrace of free markets and the City, Mandelson said he was “much more concerned” about inequality than when he made first made his comments to a US industrialist in California in 1998.

This isn’t, in itself, especially interesting beyond one of New Labour’s key architects admitting he got something wrong, which is fairly rare.

What’s interesting to me is that I interviewed Mandelson in 1998 and quizzed him about the wisdom of those remarks while representing Hartlepool – a depressed post-industrial north-east town with high unemployment and low ‘filthy rich’ rates – as MP (the full story is here).

Unsurprisingly he bridled at the question – and then denied flat out that he’d said it. I knew that he’d almost certainly said it, so I asked for a clarification. “You’ve never said that?”.

“No. Next question.”

These were the days before the internet was much use as a research tool, so I’d trawled newspapers archives and stacks of various political mags to find some interesting questions to ask Mandelson – I’d seen the quote referred to a few times but couldn’t trace where it had first been used or who had first reported it, despite talking to a reporter who’d written it (he’s copied it form another report), so it remained – like the mushy pea story – something that was probably true but plausibly deniable.

Mandelson remains the single most unpleasant interviewee – and one of the more unpleasant people – I’ve ever met and he appeared to take great delight in trying to rough up and obstruct a student reporter simply because they’d nailed him with one of his own dim-witted remarks.

So I take some small measure of satisfaction, the best part of 15 years later, to call Peter – now Lord – Mandelson, in this one regard, a liar (I still have the tapes).

That politicans tell lies and, let’s be honest, wholly inconsequential ones at that, is not headline news either. But on behalf of my 19-year-old self I’d just like to call Peter out on that lie – and for being a total dick.

Written by Robin Brown

January 26th, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Journalism,People

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Privacy is for paedos

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I’ve watched the hackgate/NewsCorp/Leveson circus with a fascinated mixture of horror, revulsion and amusement. It’s been something of a car crash spectacle, only onlookers didn’t hack the phones belonging to the relatives of those expiring in the inferno, stick a camera into the faces of dying people or hound the relatives of the dead afterwards.

Seeing the likes of Brooks and the Murdochs get some measure of comeuppance has been vaguely satisfying, but I don’t think a lot will change. One lot of dodgy newsroom execs will get the boot; another load, steeped in the dubious cultures of modern national newsrooms, will take their place.

The new I'm A Celebrity cast lines up at the Leveson Inquiry

What may happen is that the ridiculous Press Complaints Commission might finally shuffle off to a Soho restaurant for good, in that it should be clear to even the most swivel-eyed hack that it’s permanently fucked; rather like a semi-senile octogenarian business type constantly befuddled by what his avaricious minions are up to behind his back.

The revelations over what families such as the Dowlers and McCanns were put through should cause everyone who calls himself a journalist to cringe with the awfulness of it all. The press has been out of control for much of the last decade; each jaw-dropping anecdote about hacking, blagging or other criminal behaviour another black mark against an industry capable of so much good.

Yesterday at the Leveson inquiry absolutely blew that away though, with the testimony of Paul McMullan, a man who has only existed previously in cartoonish representations of the most archetypally amoral journalist going. McMullan virtually admitted, without shame, that he had broken the law in many and varied ways more times than he could remember – and went on to explain that absolutely anything that sold newspapers was justified.

I’d suggest that the combination of massive, extra-legal power, backed up by lorry-loads of available cash – essentially the tools of tabloid journalists over the last ten years – coupled with the belief that virtually any behaviour, and any story, is justifiable is a pretty worrying proposition.

McMullan didn’t seem to think so. “Privacy is for paedos,” he averred, tucking his press card into a hatband, scowling at a Muslim and knocking one out to a page three picture of Lucy Pinder’s tits. `

“Circulation defines what is the public interest,” he continued, lighting up a fag, breaking wind and slurping on a pint of warm beer. “I don’t see it’s the job of anyone else to force the public to read this or that.”

The public interest. Have three words ever been so misused to justify such scandalous behaviour? To a new generation of hacks and hackettes, this new definition of “the public interest” happens to dovetail with “what newspapers want to publish”. Jon Venables’ new identity; Kate McCann’s private diaries; Charlotte Church’s norks – public interest.

These things cannot possibly be in any recognised definition of “the public interest”; the only “interest” involved here is self-interest. Over the last 40 years journalists have started to fantasise a bizarre superhero role for themselves, where they bring down druglords, bent politicans and have become crusaders for free speech and the Great British Public.

In some ways they have – and the right of the press to muddy what constitutes legal and illegal conduct in the pursuit of uncovering corruption, mass illegality and behaviour inimical to civil society has been, unofficially, enshrined.

McMullan just about stopped short of admitting to – but happily defended – a wide spectrum of illegal activities, such as cultivating contacts with police, being involved in high-speed car chases, entering private buildings under false pretences, theft, telephone hacking and using private detectives to ‘blag’ information.

Many of these activities fall into a kind of grey area in the PCC’s codes of practice – and statutory law. The Guardian only managed to bring down Jonathan Aitken – one of the greatest instances of investigative journalism in our country’s history – by faking a letter from the House of Commons. Illegal? Unethical? Perhaps – but there’s a peculiar ‘ends justify the means’ aspect to journalism in this country.

In some instances they do. Most of the great political scoops of the tabloid era will have been broken with some assistance from legally dubious methods. If that work exposes corruption, illegality or double standards of those in public life then I can see a justification.

But somehow “the public interest” has been extended to actors, sportspeople, musicians, reality TV types – even the families of those in the public eye; basically anyone famous enough to arguably be of interest to people who buy newspapers. Tabloids tell us they’re the guardians of truth and honesty and give us tawdry sex-and-drugs splashes concerning people like Joe Calzaghe and Kate Middleton’s uncle; the News of the World wasn’t known as the News of the Screws for nothing.

McMullan’s only apparent regret was that he once discovered Denholm Elliot’s daughter – homeless, drug-addicted and working as a prostitute – took her to his flat, reeled of some grimy topless photos of her and splashed her sad wreck of a life all over the weekend papers. A couple of years later she killed herself. Public interest, right?

Some journos and editors cannot tell the difference any more between who’s a legitimate target and who isn’t. And their behaviour risks legislation, in response, that will make it harder for journalists to investigate legitimate targets.

In taking advantage of the grey areas of what’s excusable as part of political and economic journalism – by exporting those cloak-and-dagger methods to tittle-tattle – they’ve probably made it easier for governments to muzzle the kind of journalists who exposed Jonathan Aitken, Robert Maxwell, Jeffrey Archer, Conrad Black and expenses-fiddling politicians.

That they can’t see it themselves, apart from a few notable exceptions, is worrying. They genuinely believe they have the right to do what they want in the pursuit of a story. That extends to deleting messages on Milly Dowler’s phone, causing her family to believe she was still alive when she was dead; and printing Kate McCann’s grief-filled private diaries, before going on to suggest the McCanns had sold their daughter for cash without a shred of evidence.

The hacking and the dubious provenance of the diaries – almost certainly both illegal – sold papers, runs the McMullan defence, therefore they were fair game. His testimony, while amusing, should do little to convince the general population that tabloid hacks aren’t the absolute scum of the Earth.

How did any of it support his view that the PCC does a good job, the press should remain free and that journos are sympathetic characters who are working in the “the public interest”? Not one jot; in fact his testimony was so batshit that there was apparently some discussion that it should be ignored completely.

Justice Leveson, currently overseeing what amounts to the most fascinating chat show ever broadcast, says that a free press represents “an essential check on all aspects of public life”. Certainly it does, but it’s become clear from the parade of celebs, tits, paedos, grief-mongering, jingoism and shrill hyperbole in many of the tabloids that it’s simply not fulfilling that role any more.

Nick Davies – whose horribly depressing book Flat Earth News is a must for any journos and has been circulated among every journo, by every journo, I know – says that it’s “incredibly difficult” to know where the public interest lies. That difficulty has become a cloak to protect dodgy journalists and covers a multitude of sins.

“[A]ny failure within the media affects all of us,” says Leveson. “At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question — who guards the guardians?”

That should send shock waves rippling through the media – and particularly the PCC. But they only have themselves to blame. For too long the cowboy journalists have bent rules designed to help the press expose wrongdoing in order to shaft anyone who enters into the same definition of “public interest” to which Paul McMullan subcribes.

“A balance must be struck between the freedom of the press and the rights of individuals to be treated fairly,” said Leveson. That the balance is hopelessly skewed is fairly clear from the first few days of the inquiry; that Leveson will feel compelled to act, given some of his statements thus far, seems equally clear.

How has this been allowed to happen? Because successive governments enter a Faustian pact with media moguls and their lackeys such as Murdoch, Brooks, Lord Rothermere, the Barclay Brothers, Paul Dacre and Richard Desmond – bestowing favours and turning blind eyes to the worst excesses.

The end result is a situation where the Prime Minister is best chums with two people described at the Leveson inquiry as “the scum of journalism”, complicit in a system that has the power to bring down politicians – or destroy any public figure – almost at a whim.

I wonder if Leveson has changed his mobile passcode.

Written by Robin Brown

December 1st, 2011 at 12:59 am

Posted in Journalism,Media,People

Tagged with

Is the media beyond parody? AOL reports spoof as news

with 5 comments

Just a quickie, to promote a site I find amusing – and to flag up something even more amusing resulting from it.

The News Grind is a satire site that I contribute the occasional bit of writing to if something catches my imagination.

Today the news that Kay Burley was descending on Newcastle to broadcast her appalling live reports from the vicinity of a freshly-dead corpse spoke to me, so I dashed something off in my lunch hour, emailed it to the ed and thought nothing more of it

Until a text arrived, telling me it had been picked up as a serious news report by AOL News on something called the Surge Desk, with a header pretty similar to the one I wrote.

AOL News bases a report on a spoof story on The News Grind

Fairly astonishing, in that mine is not an especially subtle satire at the best of times. But it would never occur to me that the header ‘Nation ‘can’t wait’ for Moat shoot-out’ might be taken for real.

Or that the suggestion that schools and businesses were closing so Brits could enjoy the rolling news coverage and resulting bloodbath together as a family could possibly be true.

Here’s how AOL saw it:

Forget the World Cup action between Uruguay and the Netherlands — people all across the United Kingdom are tuning their tellies to the news today in hopes of catching a glimpse of what promises to be a far bloodier confrontation between a fugitive and the officers he has promised to kill.

As officers and dogs move in, citizens from around the isle are anticipating a swift and gruesome conclusion to the national drama. Some are even clamoring for it, calling it the best live entertainment they’ve seen in some time.

News Grind paints a vivid picture of the mood:

“I can scarcely wait for the climax,” confirmed Elsie White, 77, as she raced back to her house after picking up some toffees and copies of today’s paper from a local newsagent featuring the blood-soaked face of a police officer allegedly shot by Moat.

“We haven’t had a live event like this to enjoy for quite some time and there’s only old ‘Doctors’ episodes on at this time of day.”

Families have been collecting children from schools and nurseries throughout the day so they could watch together, as expectations reached fever pitch that a violent firearms confrontation was imminent.

Over 800 schools have closed across the country as a result.

Even if that story didn’t ring any alarm bells, what about related news such as ‘Trainee builders must have PhD in Postmodernism’; ‘Heart attack ‘link’ with sheer unadulterated terror’ and ‘“Look at me, I’m a fat bastard,” says proud local man’?

A mistake anyone could have made? Perhaps, in these days of rolling news and slapping on content and the rush to be first with a report – the news grind, if you will.

But even that old chestnut about Americans and irony doesn’t wash – the US is the home of The Onion, the finest satire site in the world, after all.

Maybe it’s just a sign that, in these information-saturated days, even the news is beyond satire?

Written by Robin Brown

July 6th, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Posted in Journalism,Media

Tagged with , ,

Stick it up your paywall: Guardian rolls out new content plugin

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EDIT: This literally never worked on any of my blogs. Neat idea, poor execution.

The Guardian has launched a new WordPress plugin that allows self-hosted bloggers to reprint content from newspaper’s website.

The Guardian News Feed plugin is surely designed to act as a direct counterpoint to talk of paywalls and charging for newspaper content and is an extension of the Grauniad’s Open Platform system, which allows people who sign up to access the paper’s massive databanks and develops apps based on it via an API.

There are over 1m articles available published as far back as 1999 available through the plugin, which theoretically looks quite simple, and users can do pretty much anything they want with the articles, so long as they leave the actual content and code alone.

This is pretty much an ultimate expression of the idea of content as online currency – exchanging content, apps or services for traffic, leads and revenue.

In this case, the Guardian content is exchanged for increased traffic, backlinks, harvested data and ad revenues, leading to more exposure, brand equity, SEO juice and cash.

A screenshot of the Guardian News Feed plugin back-end

It’s hard to see a downside for The Guardian. By signing up and republishing articles from the site I had to enter more data about myself and every Guardian article reprinted on my blog gets more backlinks, domain authority and ad clicks for the paper’s website.

Depending on what they do with anchor text and ads, they can probably pull off targeted SEO campaigns and ad campaigns too. Now multiply that by potentially hundreds of thousands of blogs around the world.

In return I get a nifty new toy to play with, potentially higher traffic and – arguably – a little more authority. If I’m clever and use the articles well I could even get a boost in search engines and ad revenues too, if I displayed ads on my blogs.

The exchange is complete, both parties have something of value. It sounds like a win-win situation, and it’s a great way to further leverage the latent value in the Guardian’s article bank, by doing virtually nothing on an ongoing basis.

Already some on Twitter have started to voice their scorn about the plugin. And, really, what we have here is a very clever form of inbound marketing, using the Grauniad’s massive and powerful archive of content – it’s simply leveraging that content to make money in the same way that Murdoch is trying to leverage The Times’ content via a paywall.

Whereas The Times uses content for more explicit transaction – using content as a currency to generate cash directly, the Guardian’s more elegant approach delivers all sorts of other benefits, besides revenues – brand equity, SEO authority, increased engagement – albeit somewhat nebulous and of indeterminate cash value.

But it’s a smart bit of PR too – while everyone was talking about News International’s attempts to place more value on its content by charging for access, The Guardian is throwing its content out to whomever wants to use it; it can be sold as a direct, and opposite, move to that of Murdoch.

Finally, I’d hoped to include an article using the news feed below, but I can’t get it to work – probably something to do with my host I suspect. Which just goes to show that even the simplest, most elegant, ideas can be undermined by a lack of technical nous or user error.

Go here for instructions and more deetails

Written by Robin Brown

July 2nd, 2010 at 12:31 pm

A very British coup

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I speak not of Gordon Brown’s parting shot in the 2010 election – his pledge to resign to facilitate a deal between the Liberal Democrats and Labour – but of the extraordinary reaction by the Tory press to the news today.

If Brown thought he had endured the worst the assembled frothing, tweeded, spluttering, luv-a-duck rent-a-mob of assembled gobshites and nutcases had to throw at him, he was wrong.

Throughout the last couple of weeks, and through various twists and turns, one thing has become clear. The assembled weight of the media has been thrown well and truly behind Cameron and the Tories to almost unimaginable proportions.

The Tory press today suggested that no less than a coup was being perpetrated right under the noses of British subjects, and appears to be calling for its own in return.

What else to make of the claims that Brown is perpetuating a ‘sordid’ coup; or that Clegg has behaved ‘treacherously’?

Yesterday, says the Mail, was a ‘squalid day for democracy’. Inside, Richard Littlejohn railed against ‘nothing less than an attempted coup’, a ‘cynical putsch’ and a ‘naked power grab’.

He went on to state that Brown might as well have ‘ordered the tanks to roll down Whitehall and train their guns on the meeting of the Parliamentary Conservative Party’.

If he pulls off a Lib-Lab coalition, ‘democracy as we have known it in Britain will be shattered – possibly beyond repair’.

Astonishingly, Littlejohn even dares to have a pop at the ‘desperate Labour propaganda sheets’, while taking a pot-shot at the ‘the State broadcaster, the BBC’ for broadcasting lies about the Conservative party, the true hallmark of all swivel-eyed columnists.

To my mind, all of this goes well beyond anything the Tory press has managed before. The sheer brass neck, the hypocrisy, and the deliberate ignorance of parliamentary process. The right-wing press seems to have lost its grasp of the facts at hand.

The electoral system that they all back has produced a hung parliament, the mess that is responsible for all this back-room chicanery, but they want to keep it. (Note to Kay Burley: People did not ‘vote for a hung parliament’).

Brown, constitutionally, has the first right to try and form government, but allowed Clegg and Cameron to have the first shot at it, despite the resulting power vacuum.

The Conservative Party did not win the election. Combined, the Labour-Lib Dem share of the vote dwarfs the Tory share of the vote. Combined, Lib-Lab seats would eclipse Tory seats.

British politics in the 20th century is littered with unelected Prime Ministers, mostly Tory, as would be the case under a new Labour leader in a progressive coalition.

This is how hung parliaments work, this is how our electoral system works, this is how the constitution works. This is how politics works.

I’m personally dubious that a Lib-Lab coalition is the right result to come out of this election, but I’m not clear on what is the right result. No-one, to my mind, has a mandate. There is no victor.

But a Lib-Lab coalition would be perfectly constitutional and perfectly reasonable. It would be no more of a coup than a minority Tory government or a Lib-Con coalition, which is to say that it would be none at all.

The irony is, in complaining about Brown’s final act constituting nothing more than a ‘coup’- with all the talk about ‘treachery’ and ‘sordid’ politicking – the right-wing press appears to be calling for nothing less itself.

In a more fractious political, social or economic landscape, the language and tone deployed by tabloid editors and columnists across London screaming for Brown’s head could be explosive – and horribly irresponsible.

As it is, despite all the promises that the markets would not tolerate a hung parliament and that people would be burned to death on the streets, subsequently proved to be baseless, the press just looks like a spoiled child denied its way.

Brown may be affording himself a smile.