All entries for May 2009

May 21, 2009

Why journalism and the market don't fit together

Robert Picard’s piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay (published Tuesday) will go down with the NUJ like a lead balloon. He argues that journalists deserve low pay because:

Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren’t creating much value these days.

If we accept his first point – that wages are compensation for value creation – then his second point is right on the money.

But that’s a slavishly ‘markets-rule-the-world’ kind of mindset. In the real world, wages are compensation for our time, effort and experience. We get paid more (unless we’re a banker) because we put in the time, the graft and have the knowledge and qualifications to do the job that’s required.

Basically, my point is that if we’re going to pay people because of the value they create, then teachers and doctors would be multi-millionaires and journalists would earn 50p per hour.

Neither of those things are the case.

But let’s ignore that for now and move down Robert Picard’s piece, because much of it is a wake-up call to the struggling media industry.

Journalism must innovate and create new means of gathering, processing, and distributing information so it provides content and services that readers, listeners, and viewers cannot receive elsewhere. And these must provide sufficient value so audiences and users are willing to pay a reasonable price.

Like much of the article, this is so right it hurts. But written from an American’s perspective (albeit via Oxfordshire), Mr Picard’s argument ignores the importance of public service broadcasting, which is fairly thin on the ground in the US.

There are lots of stories out there for everyone to chew on, many of them original, worth reading and worth paying for. But with public service organisations to compete with, commercial news providers find that the pool of original journalism is reduced in size and harder to find.

This makes it hard to have such a diverse, privately-owned, profit-making media in the UK. But I’m not going to complain about that. Too much of the commercial world (whether television, radio, print or online) has given up the fight and has little energy left for original, value-creating journalism. They should be left to wither or should face up to radical change.

But Mr Picard’s scenario, combined with the UK’s exceptional circumstances, make me think that the Guardian’s model of ownership (through a not-for-profit trust) might be the best way forward. It recognises the necessity for a pluralistic media industry while not relying on the distraction of profit above-all-else that most organisations have to live with.

Mr Picard’s article calls on journalists to change their mindset, and he’s right to do that. But the ownership model needs to change too. Unless journalism is taken away from shareholders and investment funds, it won’t just fail to create value. It’ll fail to exist.


May 20, 2009

Why the next Speaker has to be Sir George Young

I won’t predict the next Speaker of the House of Commons. My last prediction, that Michael Martin would cling on, proved to be somewhere in the region of wrong.

Instead, I’ll offer a few reasons why the Conservative MP for North-West Hampshire, Sir George Young, should be trusted with the role.

1) Independence
He’s not afraid to walk the difficult path. In Andover, the centre of his constituency, he disagreed with almost every Conservative in the town on plans for an enormous Tesco warehouse. They generally supported it – he was one of the leaders of the campaign against it. By doing so, he was against those who wanted the jobs, but probably caught the public mood at the time. Perhaps he was guilty of following that public mood for electoral gain, but nevertheless, don’t we need a Speaker who’s in touch with what the public wants right now?

2) Transparency
Sir George was one of the first MPs to publish their expenses online. I doubt there are any others who reveal their spending in as much detail as this. In 06/07 he claimed £165 for food, for instance. The one black mark on his record might be that he maxed out his second home allowance for the last two years.

3) Balance
If convention is that the Speakership rotates between someone from the Government benches and someone from the Opposition benches, it really is time for a Tory.

4) Form
As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, he knows how the system works but can’t be blamed for its failings. He’s also a man in tune with the times – he led a campaign to get broadband into rural areas back in 2001.

5) The X Factor
He’s likable. He’s not annoyed anyone on the opposition benches, and he’s a lover of Parliament (theyworkforyou.com says he has well-above average attendance). Yes, he’s a Baronet, and yes he’s what people might call a ‘Grandee’, but he’s also a safe pair of hands, from the right party, at the right time.

P.S. Make of this disclosure what you will, but I lived, for just over a year, in Sir George’s constituency and regularly met with him to do radio interviews. That fact probably colours/informs my judgement somewhat.


May 19, 2009

'Education, Education, Education': The Results

Figures released quietly on Friday reveal the success of some of the government’s education programmes.

Michael Gove, the Tories’ Education Spokesman, asked the government how children on free school meals (the widely used guide to childrens’ family wealth) had done at A-Level and in their Sats tests (soon to be abolished).

These are the answers he got:

Those on free school meals who sat Maths A-Level:
2004: 554 (13.8%)
2008: 705 (17.1%)

Those on free school meals who sat Further Maths A-Level:
2004: 31 (0.8%)
2008: 53 (1.3%)

Those on free school meals who achieved Level 7 in their KS3 Maths tests:
2002: 5,120
2006: 9,233

But it’s not all good news. While Maths has been a big success, English results have actually worsened.

Those on free school meals who achieved Level 7 in their KS3 English tests:
2002: 2,663
2006: 2,364

These figures only reflect successes (or otherwise) in English, Maths and Science. Many teachers say the focus on these three subjects came at the expense of other subjects, especially at primary school. Where maths figures appear to be good news, those for modern languages show the inverse. Those getting two language GCSEs at grades A* to C fell from 7.3% of pupils in 1996 to 4.7% in 2008.


May 18, 2009

The Speaker will cling on

I think the Speaker of the House of Commons did enough today to cling onto his big green seat.

He was, of course, awful. Woeful. Abysmal. He needed a good showing, and he summarily proved he didn’t know House of Commons rules by getting confused over the technical arcania of substantive motions. I was momentarily transported back to student politics.

Shudder.

But he was nice to Gordon Prentice and Douglas Carswell who did their very best to rile him.

This was out of character, and was the one solitary thing he did today that was different from last week. Hidden in his measured, if stuttered tone was a smidgen of a whiff of a note of change.

The Speaker didn’t give the people (nor the media) what they wanted though. No retirement date. No immediate release of every MP’s expenses. And beyond that faint dram of forced friendliness, no sign of change.

He doesn’t want to go. The PM may want him to go politically, but electorally a by-election in the until-now safe Glasgow North East seat would be disastrous. And a contrived band of Scottish friends, led by the ridiculous Lord Foulkes, don’t want him to go.

All they have by way of weaponry is the sharp sword of convention.

Rarely do five or six people stand up to sixty million and win. In this battle, full of history and precedents, they just might.


May 11, 2009

They're not all scum

I think the Telegraph, and others, have gone too far with MP’s expenses now.

Yes, some of them are money-grabbing little sh*ts who deserve the marching orders they’ll be given at the next election.

But some of the MPs who’ve had their expenses splashed across the newspapers really have done nothing wrong.

The Daily Mail have the news that Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 to replace a leaking pipe under his tennis court. His response that:

I was served a statutory notice by the water company to repair the leaking pipe, which runs underneath the tennis court and garden. No improvements were made to the tennis court or garden.”

seems to have been pretty much ignored – the paper’s still run the story and painted him as an expenses cheat in the process.

Another overblown example is the Prime Minister – yes his cleaner seems to be flipping expensive, but suggesting he was siphoning off public money to line his brother’s pockets is pretty close to an outright lie, and yet it’s the impression most people will now have.

I’m not too worried about individual MPs being slandered though – their electorate will see through the media bluster at the next election.

But I think the general ‘they’re all at it’ mood of the press is going to be really damaging. With a change of government more than likely, you’d expect turnout at the next election to be higher than 2001 and 2005.

But if the public think politicians are universally a breed of tight-fisted, public money-stealing good-for-nothings then it wouldn’t surprise me if turnout actually dropped. What, after all, is the point of voting for anyone if every politician is bent?

Gordon Brown’s claim that the system is at fault is nearly half-right, but it takes a certain kind of person to exploit that system.

However, the media’s completely over-the-top wall-to-wall coverage of the 650+ liars, cheats and bastards will do nothing for the public’s faith in democracy. And if that breaks down, we really are screwed.


May 06, 2009

A weird Kind of company, a weird Kind of idea

I’ve already blogged about how silly I find the Amazon Kindle. The fact they’ve brought out a second version today (because the normal one’s too small for newspapers and textbooks) seems to perfectly sum up why paper is best.

But this new release has also got me thinking about Amazon. They’re not really a hardware company. Yes, there’s a lot of hardware behind their website and in their enormous distribution centres. But they don’t really understand how to make and market hardware yet.

The clearest sign of this is the fact that neither the Kindle, Kindle2 or the new Kindle DX are available in the UK, or anywhere outside North America for that matter.

And that’s not just because they haven’t got round to it yet – all three Kindles use EVDO, a wireless modem that’s completely incompatible with phone networks outside the United States. That, to me, is a crazy decision, and makes me think Amazon don’t really know what they’re doing when it comes to selling hardware.


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