Archive for the 'journalism' Category

“We did him in up country”

28 March 2016

Since it’s Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to share the lyric of “Search and Destroy“, words by Clive James, music by Pete Atkin, in which the Easter story is reimagined as a laconic report about the end of a successful 20th century counter-terrorist operation.

James, who is an outstanding lyric writer, has written better songs than this, but there’s something to admire about the way the final stanza locates the story conclusively and then punctures it decisively:

The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock/ About a spook who rolls away the rock/
At which point golden boy walks out alive/ We’re bumping them all off as they arrive.

One can imagine the likes of Brigadier Richard Clutterbuck being delighted about the way things turned out here.

Search and destroy

I'm glad to say we're mopping up up here
I'm sending you today's report in clear
Security's no problem now at all
You just pick up the phone and make a call

     We should have done all this back at the beginning
     And never let the clowns think they were winning

We took a month to crack their second man
But when he talked the strudel hit the fan
He named eleven leaders who we shot
And then the top guy's girl who we've still got
The chick was tough and held out for a week
But spilled a bibful when we made her speak
We picked his mother up and worked on her
He came in on his own and there you were

     We should have nailed the first ones when we found them
     Before all the mystique built up around them

We never gave the local heat a chance
To get him on their own and make him dance
We did him in up-country, bombed the cave
And made the whole damn mountainside his grave
The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock
About a spook who rolls away the rock
At which point golden boy walks out alive
We're bumping them all off as they arrive

     And that winds up this dreary exhibition
     A total waste of time and ammunition


‘The Cavalry incident’

Of course, Clive James is in good company here. The radical journalist Claud Cockburn recalled in his memoir I Claud rewriting the Easter story in the early 1930s as a parody of The Times’ Berlin reporter Pugge, who tended to see the streetfighting going on in Berlin in somewhat simple terms. This is how Cockburn described it in the book:

It was a level-headed estimate studded with well-tried Times’ phrases. ‘Small disposition here,’ cabled this correspondent, ‘attach undue importance protests raised certain quarters result recent arrest and trial leading revolutionary agitator followed by what is known locally as “the Cavalry incident”.’ The despatch was obviously based on an off-the-record interview with Pontius Pilate. It took the view that, so far from acting harshly, the Government had behaved with what in some quarters was criticized as ‘undue clemency’. It pointed out that firm Government action had definitely eliminated this small band of extremists, whose doctines might otherwise have represented a serious threat for the future.

The youtube clip at the top shows Atkin—who is currently, thankfully, recovering after being hit by a bus in Bristol—performing “Search and Destory” solo in Sheffield.

The recorded version is on the Pete Atkin reord Lakeside Sessions Vol. 2, which is available as a CD online or via iTunes. Or if you want to play it yourself, the chords are here.


Cartooning at the New Yorker

22 November 2014

Bob Mankoff

Robbie Cottrell’s excellent service The Browser, in which he reads the web and points you to the best bits of writing and journalism, pointed me this week to something I’d never have come across through my usual sources: a short review by Cody Walker of the memoir by the Cartoons Editor of the New Yorker, Bob Mankoff.

Now, I’ve always loved the New Yorker: although there’s too much in there to read every issue, it’s still a treat for a train journey. Some of its writing is still among the finest American reporting, and, of course, it’s famous for its cartoons. Those were what I came across first, since when I was a lot younger I used to read a lot of James Thurber‘s collections of writing and drawings, which sadly seem to have fallen out of fashion now. Through that I found my way to his memoir of the New Yorker‘s infamous founder and longserving editor, Harold Ross, The Years With Ross. Ross’s approach probably wasn’t the only way to run a magazine, but it certainly worked.

But back to Bob Mankoff. Thurber was one of the people who set the tone for the New Yorker cartoon, and there’s a kind of a template for them: whimsical but knowing, wry, complicit with the reader. One thing I learned was that the Cartoons Editor of the New Yorker looks at about 1,000 cartoons a week, and passes on 50 to the Editor, who will use about 17.

And there’s a laugh-out-loud moment as well, for which it helps, I think, to know that Mankoff is Jewish:

Bragging to his friends, the elder Mankoff said: “They laughed when my son said he was going to be a cartoonist, but they’re not laughing now.”

The image at the top of this post is courtesy of the Westport Library, Connecticut, and is used with thanks. A Browser subscription, which gives you access to the archive and unlimited articles, is a modest $20 a year.

Nosing out the Armstrong scandal

14 October 2012

Perhaps it’s coincidence that the two journalists who have pursued Lance Armstrong most assiduously – David Walsh and the former professional cyclist Paul Kimmage – are both Irish. Kimmage has been a vocal anti-drugs campaigner since his landmark book A Rough Ride was published in 1990. The Sunday Times settled a libel case with Armstrong out of court (in the libel-friendly English courts) after the paper published extracts from Walsh’s French-language book, LA Confidentiel. M’learned friends are revisiting that case as I write; and I imagine that publication of USADA’s ‘Reasoned Decision‘ will open the way for an English-language edition, or an update of his book From Lance to Landis.

Despite all the leaks, the USADA report, which runs to 200 pages with another 800 pages of affidavits by way of an appendix, is eye-watering. There’s a line in Matt Rendell’s book, Significant Other, written about and with the US Postal domestique Victor Hugo Peña, where Peña says of Armstrong, in effect, that while all professional cyclists live the abstemious life, Armstrong does it more than anyone else. The same turns out to be true of drug abuse.

A profile of David Walsh in the current edition of the UK Press Gazette, explains why Walsh became curious about Armstrong:

What first piqued Walsh’s suspicion was Armstrong’s reaction to an article by a young cyclist named Christophe Bassons, in which the Frenchman claimed the top riders were still doping.

“Armstrong bullied him and hounded him out of the race,” says Walsh. “My feeling at that moment was that a clean rider wouldn’t have done that. It was pretty obvious to me that Armstrong was doping – not from any evidence I had but from the way he behaved.

“I think if anybody had been applying cold logic at the time, they would have come to the same conclusion.”

That was in 1999, and Bassons (along with the former US Postal soigneur Emma O’Reilly who talked to Walsh for LA Confidentiel) is one of the unsung heroes of the Armstrong affair. When Armstrong did something similar to Filippo Simeoni, another critic from inside the peleton, five years later, more suspicions were aroused. (As an aside, Armstrong’s line as an enforcer of the omerta within the peleton on drugs use is an interesting application of game theory: the correct strategy is the maximum level of personal threat to the edge of the law).

Anyway, I worked as a journalist myself at the start of my career, and I thought that Walsh’s observation was a fine example of what’s sometimes called journalistic ‘nose’ – niggling away at something that doesn’t quite fit until the underlying story reveals itself.

It’s clear, now, that one of the reasons that cycling’s governing body, the UCI, has been so irritable about the USADA investigation is that now the evidence against Armstrong is public, their own complicity is visible. The former President Hein Verbruggen was on the offensive this week with a fine line of bluster. But of course, like Armstrong, the UCI suits do their own line in bullying, pursuing a ‘shoot the messenger’ strategy in the Swiss courts. Floyd Landis has just lost a libel case brought by the UCI and its current and immediate past Presidents Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen, and Paul Kimmage is being sued by the same trio for comments in an interview with Floyd Landis published in the Sunday Times, because, says the UCI, “Mr Kimmage had made false accusations that defamed the UCI and its Presidents, and which tarnished their integrity and reputation.” (The full transcript of Kimmage’s interview with Landis can be read at NYVeloCity).

Kimmage, unlike Landis, is contesting the case. Vigorously. (The UCI hasn’t sued the newspaper, which speaks volumes for their approach: and some of the legal affidavits about the UCI in the documents released by USADA with the Reasoned Decision seem pretty tarnishing, which may give the court at least a pause for thought).

You can show your support for Kimmage by contributing to his defence fund, started on the cycling site NYVeloCity, which is at $60,000 as I write. There is, inevitably, an expletive laden Downfall parody online, of the moment the UCI learns of the defence fund. But increasingly, in the wake of the USADA documents, the UCI and the two Presidents look like the losers here, no matter what the outcome in the courts. Given the extent of the evidence that USADA has pieced together, they’ll have to choose if they want to be taken for fools or for knaves.

This cartoon of Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen is from the cycling commentary and satire site cyclismas, well worth visiting for its coverage of the Armstrong affair and other things cycling, and it is used with thanks.

Watching the door

13 June 2010

I was in Belfast and Derry last year on holiday, and while I was there read Kevin Myers’ fairly recent memoir of reporting the Troubles in the north of Ireland 35 years ago, first for RTE and later as a freelance. You realise, some way in, that you are watching a man coming to terms with post-traumatic stress. He never says it, of course, and my saying it here is not intended to diminish a well-written and compelling book. But about half way through Watching the Door,  he admits us to a dream he had, every night for several years, even after he has left the city.

The men appeared out of nowhere. They were masked and armed and said not a word. Both raised their guns, but only one fired at me, hitting me neatly in the neck, and down I went, on my back. I knew I was doomed, that the wound was fatal. My spine was severed, and my trachea torn open. The two men walked over to finish me off … As I began to speak, the air merely bubbled through the bullet hole in my trachea, splattering boiling hot blood over the ice-cold rain on my face. Then they fired.

The catalogue of killings is relentless – he acknowledges his debt here to David McKittrick – the violence remorseless, his own part in it all captured on the page. In the introduction, he describes his role as being that of ‘a maggot’; at the end, working now as a freelance, the final straw is the La Mon tragedy in which 12 people were burnt alive:

Each penny earned in this way now depended on someone’s death. No killing, no money. The relationship was immutable and unavoidable. A fireman watching television in the base earns the same as a fireman fighting an inferno. Not me. I needed bodies. After my initial report about Le Mon I told NBC to look elsewhere.

The psychology of the violence is well captured, as is his increasing distaste for it. A story about a powder-blue Mercedes, owned by one of the two drivers who ferry him around for the Irish broadcaster RTE when he first joins the station’s Belfast bureau seems to stand for it all. The driver is shot by a soldier while changing a battery within sight of an army barracks. The Catholic car dealer who buys it from his widow, and his business partner, are both killed by the UDF when they drive it on business to the Protestant Shankill Road area. The hooded body of one is left on the back seat. The car, now unsaleable in Belfast, is sold cheaply through a Dublin newspaper: the new owner died in the vehicle on the way back south after losing control on a bend.

Belfast was [in 1972] now like that Mercedes: cursed from on high, and violent and terrible death awaited the unwary at every turn and every hour. … Every morning brought a harvest of bodies of the stupid, the unlucky and the gullible who had died terribly.  Protestants and Catholics were equally likely to fall victim to this lethal mood.

The life of a journalist in such circumstances inevitably becomes complicit, to the point of becoming a target. One of the UDA hard men tries to kill him (he’s saved by a tip-off from a companion); he flees from a planned beating by the IRA; a pistol is cocked to his head by a member of the Paras; he stumbles out of the debris of a pub bombing only because he happens to be in the urinals when it explodes.

It’s an honest story, well told. I think he may be too hard on himself, looking back at 60 on his 20-something self, for I am not sure that others would have fared better. Buried in the story are several occasions when he did the right thing, either as a journalist or as a person, sometimes at some risk to himself. And he’s sharp on the British government and the British Army’s place in the conflict, and their blindness to the role played in the conflict by the UDA and UVF loyalists.

In a memorable passage, he observes that Belfast in the 1970s had, as a city, become clinically insane. He starts by believing that he understands its madness, but realises that the longer he stays the less true this is. He’s walked into a world, and a time, which is impossible for an outsider fully to grasp; he’s tolerated for a while by those who live there while he suits their purposes, but he’ll never learn their codes and private meanings.

‘Smart work for civilisation’

10 May 2010

Controlled anger is one of the hardest registers for a journalist. It is the thinnest of tightropes between ranting, on the one hand, and bathos or special pleading on the other.

So I was impressed to find an outstanding example in the excellent biography of the war correspondent George Steer, written by Nicholas Rankin. Steer is best known (largely, it should be said, as a result of Rankin’s work) for his coverage of the bombing of Guernica, where he broke the story of German involvement, and collected enough evidence to refute the black propaganda that followed both from Germany and Franco’s Nationalists.

But before he arrived in Spain, he had covered the Italian assault on Ethiopia; he was one of the last foreigners to leave Addis Ababa as it fell, he married his first wife there, and later Hailie Selassie became the godson to his eldest child. After he had left the country, the Italians massacred thousands – including many members of the intellectual modernising group, the ‘Young Ethiopians’, which included many Ethiopian friends of Steer’s – after a failed assassination attempt on the Italian Viceroy, Rodolfo Graziani. This provoked a long article by Steer in the Spectator – of which this is just an extract:

Marshal Graziani, who executed so many men in Tripoli and who allowed his native troops to massacre Harrar in May, 1936, is distributing bonbons to the Ethiopians whom he has spared. Somebody throws a hand grenade. Graziani survives. The Italians are quickly pulled out the crowd of Ethiopians, and the Ethiopians are machine-gunned to a man. Three hundred dead. I call that smart work for civilisation.

Graziani is carried off to a hospital. The lovely planes take off from Akaki, over the sighing blue gum into the brilliant air. The little tanks rattle through the still-ruined streets. In the afternoon, ammunition is handed out to the Blackshirts, and the biggest massacre since Smyrna begins.

They kill all the Young Ethiopians, all my friends: not one they tell me survives. They are dead because they spoke French, wore sometimes European clothes, behaved decently, loved their country and wanted to make it more efficient and more civilised. But unfortunately the Italians beat them to that game.

Of course, the most famous British journalist to cover the Italian campaign in Ethiopia was Evelyn Waugh, working for the Daily Mail (which inevitably supported the Italian fascists). Waugh later got four books out of his experience of Ethiopia: Black Mischief and Scoop, of course, and two non-fiction books, Remote People and Waugh in Abyssinia (I’m guessing that the pun was deliberate).

The two men knew each other, but didn’t like each other; Steer was sympathetic to Ethiopia’s history and culture, while Waugh, like many Europeans, thought it medieval. When Waugh reviewed Steer’s book on the Ethiopian campaign, Caesar in Abysinnia, he was sharp (Rankin uses the word ‘waspish’), suggesting that Steer had an affinity with the Ethiopians because he had been born in South Africa, and implying that he wasn’t, perhaps, a ‘proper’ European. Waugh’s view of Ethiopians was summarised in a letter in 1935 (this is the original punctuation) to Diana Cooper:

‘i have got to hate the ethiopians more each day goodness they are lousy & i hope the organ-men gas them to buggery’.

Which, of course, the Italians went on to do, ruthlessly and illegally. As Gandhi remarked when asked his opinion of Western civilisation: I think it would be a good idea.

Fitting up the news

30 January 2010

Thanks to my colleague Tomi Isaacs for alerting me to Charlie Brooker’s fine parody of the typical television news report. It made me realise how little has changed in TV news since I worked in it in the 1980s, except that the graphics are better and cheaper satellite time and technology means that ‘live’ has become so over-used that it is meaningless. (The ‘live’ two-way with a correspondent standing outside a deserted government building in the late evening is surely a target for Brooker for another day.)

Long distance cricket

2 October 2009


I followed most of the Ashes, the one-dayers against Australia, and the Champions Trophy games via the ball by ball coverage on cricinfo, so I was amused to read an account of the so-called ‘synthetic broadcasts’ constructed by the Australian broadcaster ABC to cover the Ashes in Australia in 1934 and 1938. (I’m indebted to Gideon Haigh’s excellent book Inside Out for this).

A panel of broadcasters convened in the studios in Sydney and reported more or less as live the ball-by-ball information sent by means of coded telegrams by Eric Scholl at the Test match grounds. Sound effects were provided by a pencil and a block of wood; crowd noises came from a gramophone record. The listening public was enthralled, staying up to listen until the small hours of the morning. Employers complained.

And how unlike the coverage on cricinfo, much as I depend on it in the absence of a Sky Sports subscription. Reading between the lines of some of the summer coverage, they have a team of writers based in Melbourne, who watch the television coverage and transcribe it into ball by ball updates. In 70 years we’ve updated the technology but the method seems all but identical. Cricinfo, it should be said, does have a journalist at the ground. He (almost invariably he) feeds colour into the ball-by-ball commentary from time, but his main role is to write the Bulletin, the analysis pieces at the end of each session of play. To describe the action, it doesn’t really matter where you are; to understand it, well, you still have to be there.

Idling away

27 September 2009


On Friday I picked up An Apology for Idlers, the Penguin mini-edition (or ‘Great Ideas‘, to use their label) of some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s journalism, prompted in part by a glowing review a while back by Nicholas Lezard. There were other motives as well. I love Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, which conjures, tenderly, a whole pre-electric childhood, and having been partly educated in Scotland Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was inescapable. I’m sure that I read Treasure Island at some point, of course. But although I’m interested in journalism I’ve never read any of  Stevenson’s.

I’ve only dipped into the title piece over the weekend. It was written in 1877, but there’s a section at the start of it which seems strangely topical:

Just now, when every one is bound, under pain of a decree in absence convicting them of lèse-respectability, to enter on some lucrative profession, and labour therein with something not far short of enthusiasm, a cry from the opposite party, who are content when they have enough, and like to look on and enjoy in the meanwhile, savours a little of bravado and gasconade. And yet this should not be. Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.

The text – now out of copyright – can be found online here.

The picture, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’, is by the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent.

Return journey

15 September 2009


I thought about writing something here when the journalist and novelist Gordon Burn died, quite young, earlier this summer, but realised that I had nothing to add to the encomia that littered the obituaries pages.  “One of the greatest – and arguably underrated – British writers of his age*, said one, and I don’t really disagree with that. His journalism – for me a former journalist – was exceptional. In a world where there is plainly too much journalism I’d seek his pieces out.

But looking through an old notebook I found recently – which read a bit like a longhand blog – there was a piece on an article by Burn from 2005 that was worth sharing, a meditative reflection on a return home to Newcastle after the death of his father, even if his memory, perhaps appropriately for such a genre, is playing tricks. The whole thing is worth reading, even if you know nothing of Newcastle and care even less, but there’s a striking quote and a striking image.

The image is of some elderly Tynesiders singing songs in a pub in the late afternoon. It turns out that they are tourists, living in Greece now, come back for a nostalgic visit. “They were voluntary exiles, travelling in the opposite direction to the economic migrants from the former eastern bloc and elsewhere for whom they had made space; ex-pats come back to revisit not what was actually there, but what they wanted to see.”

The quote is from the American writer Toni Morrison:

“They straightened up the Mississippi river in places, to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use but in fact it is not flooding, it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has perfect memory and is trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that; remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.”

Towards the end of the article Burn acknowledges that he has only recently “admitted” the claim of Newcastle on him.

“It is a nostalgia prompted by the sense that the entire world is now a space traversed by signals, everything virtual, nothing solid; our employments increasingly having to do with abstract operations, every operation stroked one way or another into the digital network economy. To go “home” was to return for a time to a time where, at the risk of sounding like the bleary-eyed saloon-bar crooner, and to quote the historian Robert Colls, nobody talked of “community” and everybody belonged to one.”

Dog bites man

30 August 2009


When I was a trainee journalist, we went through that exercise where we worked out what news was. “Dog bites man” happens quite a lot, so obviously isn’t news. “Man bites dog” is unusual, so probably is.

But of course, it doesn’t actually work like that. When Rupert Murdoch’s son James, now responsible (among other things) for protecting and promoting the commercial interests of one of the largest pay-TV operators in Europe, uses a lecture platform to make a meretricious, and substantially misleading attack on the BBC, it is widely reported as ‘news’.

And without getting into the detail (though Will Hutton has a good critique), James Murdoch has worked in the UK long enough to know the difference between a publicly-funded independent broadcaster and a state-controlled broadcaster, but this is exactly the sort of smearing elision that you see all the time of the Murdoch-controlled Fox News. (Blogger Tom Freeman described the speech as “laughable hypocrisy“.)

What actually happens in a newsroom is that the daily news agenda is driven by the news editor’s “forward diary”, which mostly details the comings, goings and pronouncements of the powerful and the official. Reporters are assigned as a result of this to cover the expected stories, most of which are more about dogs biting men than the other way around. And even ‘unexpected’ news stories, such as earthquakes, have their own expected dynamics; eight days or so afterwards, inevitably, there will be a miraculous rescue of a survivor who’s been trapped in the rubble. Michael Frayn captured this predictable aspect of journalism, hilariously, in his novel The Tin Men.

There’s a better quote about news gathering, from memory, from a disaffected member of the White House press corps: “What reporters do is to hang around the corridors of power waiting for important people to lie to them.”