SubScribe: April 2013 Google+

Friday 26 April 2013

Gwyneth Paltrow and that dress

Isn't it time we stopped slavering over an actress's bum?

Do you recognise this woman? Almost certainly. She was on Wednesday pronounced the most beautiful woman in the world.

Do you recognise this picture? Perhaps not, but you'll almost certainly have seen it today.

You probably wouldn't have been looking at Gwyneth Paltrow's face, however.

Ms Paltrow was out on the red carpet last night for the premiere of the latest Iron Man film and while her smile might have been demure, her attire was not.

The black and white dress by Antonio Berardi caused the biggest press sensation since...well, since the last revealing gown worn by an actress with no knickers on.

It made the front pages of the Star and the Telegraph - something of an achievement - the Mail and the Express. None of them pretended that the picture was anything other than a piece of eye candy and all made lame jokes about raising eyebrows and being daring. How they all managed to miss/avoid Gwyn and bare it I shall never know.

SubScribe readily acknowledges that pictures of pretty women sell papers. But there should be a (sorry) figleaf of news to justify their appearance. Haven't we progressed at all in the years since Elizabeth Hurley burst out of That Dress and onto the front pages accompanied by the foppish actor-cum-kerb-crawler-com-scourge-of-the-press Hugh Grant?

The Guardian also put a token woman at the top of its front, albeit rather more modestly clad:  a sunbather suggesting that better weather had arrived. And it managed to get Gwynnie, Katie Price and Justin Bieber above the masthead. It also had Foals, Iggy Pop, Paltrow again and a monkey in its puff. Very cerebral for a paper whose splash concerned the future of the press.


Only the Independent and the Times of the serious crew went for hard news. The Indie filled the top half of its front with the Bangladesh sweatshop disaster, while the Times had the ace front of the day with its harrowing and important exclusive about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
This was a spectacular piece of serious reportage and the absolute winner of the day.

No Gwynnie for the Thunderer then? Ah, but wait. Take a look inside and there is a story telling us that tall, slim women have more babies. The piece is illustrated by a full-length photograph of a tall, slender actress in an Antonio Berardi creation.
Gwyneth Paltrow, we are informed in the caption, has two children.
Not four, not six, not more than the average. Two.

Come on! Talk about a lame excuse to run a picture of a comely woman showing her bum.


Thursday 25 April 2013

The women who died for our £1.50 T-shirts

How about a little red sewing machine to guide shoppers?

A friend contacted SubScribe yesterday to ask about the Telegraph's web coverage of the Dhaka factory collapse, asking why it had focused on Primark and was there a vendetta against the company. Had someone done something to upset the editor? 
For a journalist, it seemed natural that the Telegraph had emphasised the relevance of the disaster to a British audience by pointing up the link with such a successful business. But it was equally interesting to note that brands such as Benetton, Mango and Monsoon also had connections with the building. So how is the shopper supposed to know? That thought is what prompted this non-media post.

A T-shirt for less than the price of half a dozen eggs? How can that be possible?
A Christmas turkey that costs more than your party dress? That’s crazy!
An entire school uniform for less than a couple of lamb chops? Surely that can’t be right?

Yes, it’s possible; yes, it’s crazy; yes, it’s true – and no, it isn’t right.
It’s possible because we have outlawed battery hens, but we have done little or nothing to outlaw battery women.

We pat ourselves on the back as we reach for the free-range eggs, turning up our noses at those produced by caged birds; we wince at the price as we pick up our bronze bird for the Christmas table but pay up, and we check for the tractor symbol on our pack of Welsh lamb chump chops. We’re good, right-on people, concerned for animal welfare.

Then we jump in our cars and head for Westfield or Lakeside or the Trafford Centre, leaving our consciences behind. We roar around Primark or Matalan, filling our net baskets to overflowing with  jeans, shirts, dresses, jumpers, nighties, even bed linen and towels that we don’t need because we can’t resist the ‘bargains’. We tell ourselves that these things are so cheap that it won’t matter if they don’t fit or match the wallpaper – and then we find at the checkout that we’ve spent a hundred and fifty quid on a load of toot that will clog our cupboards, unworn, until we have a massive clearout and take most of it to the charity shop with the tags still on.
Been there, done that, got the T-shirt ­ - the £1.50 sole survivor of the shopping trip. Well that was a real bargain wasn’t it?

So if this £1.50 T-shirt has ended up costing me £150 (plus petrol), how much did it cost others further down the supply chain? The retailer has to build, buy or rent his premises, light the shop, pay the staff, pay taxes and pay accountants to minimise them. To do that, he needs to turn a good profit on his merchandise, so the chances are he won’t have paid more than 50p for that T-shirt. As a big player, our retailer will probably have negotiated directly with the manufacturer. Let’s move on to him.

The manufacturer is based on the Indian sub-continent, where the raw materials for textile making are abundant and labour is cheap. The seamstress who made my T-shirt is required to produce dozens, scores, possibly even hundreds in a long working day. For this she is paid about 75p.

On Tuesday someone noticed that there were cracks in the factory where she works. The safety authorities came out and inspected it and ordered the building to be evacuated and closed. So our seamstress had a day off?

No. Her bosses looked at the building, declared it safe and ordered the women back to work. Fearing the sack, they went, taking their children with them Рto be looked after in a cr̬che on another floor.

Within hours the building had collapsed. There were 2,000 working inside at the time. A thousand have been treated in hospital, more than 350 are known to have died. That leaves about 600 people crying in the rubble or crushed and undiscovered.

It’s a high price for a T-shirt.

The Rana Plaza near Dhaka is one of more than 5,000 buildings in Bangladesh that house a clutch of  clothing factories to supply the West. Production costs are kept to the bare minimum to keep an edge over rivals across Asia – China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Thailand – and factory owners there (and elsewhere) show scant regard for the safety or security of their workers.

In September last year about 280 people died when fire swept through a factory in Karachi, Pakistan, that had been certified as safe by Western observers only two weeks before. Last November, more than a hundred were killed in a blaze in another Dhaka garment factory building;  survivors staged a protest two weeks later and the Prime Minister urged employers to pay greater attention to safety and to increase workers’ wages – but was anybody listening?

Bangladeshi textile exports to the West are worth about £12.5bn a year and the industry employs about four million – 80 per cent of them women. The Rana Plaza building has supplied Primark, Matalan, Benetton, Monsoon and Bonmarche. Tazreen Fashions, site of the November fire, made clothes for C&A and Wal-Mart (Asda). The Baldia factory in Karachi supplied the German discount chain KiK. Gap, Zara and H&M all buy clothes from Bangladesh. 

We have responded to television campaigns about sustainable fish, factory farming,  even turkey Twizzlers and adjusted our shopping habits. But countless television documentaries about the conditions in sweatshops making clothing, toy and electronics seem to have no impact on our behaviour – is it because we’re all softies about animal welfare in our own society, yet don’t give a fig for human welfare a few thousand miles away?

Western retailers are eager both to distance themselves from suppliers who exploit and endanger their workers, and to be seen to embrace inspection regimes and ethical sourcing programmes. But it  isn’t enough. They need to bring greater pressure to bear on the manufacturers, to become more closely involved in the production of the clothes they sell so that they can proclaim loud and proud that they know everything about the factories they buy from, just as the supermarkets do with the farms that produce our food.

It is no use shoppers boycotting Matalan or anything with ‘Made in Bangladesh’ in it; that will only harm the workers. And paying a little more may salve the conscience, but do little else: the £1.50 Primark T-shirt could well have been made by the woman next to the one sewing the £30 Benetton trousers or the £90 Monsoon maxi dress. Without scouring the ethical websites, we have no way of knowing whether our upmarket little number really was produced by women working in decent surroundings for a decent wage.

If our high street shops got together to produce a sewing machine symbol to guarantee the source of our clothes, just as the supermarkets do with the tractor for our food, everyone would  benefit.  Workers would be treated properly, customers would know what they were buying and stores would gain in reputation. Prices may rise to a more sensible level, but market forces should prevent them rocketing.

Some stores would decline to join the scheme, but we would know that from the absence of the little red sewing machine. People could still buy cheap clothes as they do cheap frozen chicken. But that would be a matter for their purses and their consciences.

Come on Fleet Street, bring out your finest and make this happen.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Double take on the funeral blues

Ingenuity or indecision? The Northern Echo shows its split personality

When you're fighting for press freedom, the greatest battle is for editorial control. It's like Excalibur, get hold of it and you're pretty well invincible.

Tyrannical regimes all over the world and all through the ages have recognised this. News organisations are the first to be shut down or taken over in any coup; despots and closed societies rule by censorship and  propaganda.

In this country we had decades of skirmishes over an editor's right to edit without interference from proprietor or trade union - and we have seen blank pages, pictureless pages and the non-appearance of whole editions in defence of that right.

As the British press faces the biggest assault on  its freedom in centuries, it is therefore strange to see a daily editor surrender control of his front page to newsagents. And to be praised for his 'brilliance' to boot.

The Northern Echo appeared today with 'two front pages'. One has a photograph of Margaret Thatcher's coffin being borne down the aisle of St Paul's Cathedral, the other a photograph of a group of men round a protest sign hoisted on a van. The pages have the same titlepiece, splash head, inset picture of Thatcher and downpage head. But the teaser text differs and each page has the alternative as a little inset bottom left.

The idea was that newsagents should be able to display whichever side they felt more appropriate to their clientele. Peter Barron, the editor, writes in his leader column of the challenges posed by Thatcher's death:

There are very clearly two sides of the Margaret Thatcher story which need to be reflected.
Today's edition of The Northern Echo therefore seeks to achieve a balance by publishing the two sides of the debate on the two sides of the paper.
A letter has been sent to newsagents...explaining that there are two front pages on opposite sides of today's paper: one which captures the respectful tribute paid by political leaders in London; and one which shows former County Durham miners unfurling a banner condemning her economic record.
Newsagents are free to choose which of the pages they wish to display on their shelves.

An imaginative solution to an editorial dilemma? An example of an editor in tune with his readers? A "brilliant piece of creativity", as Barron's predecessor Peter Sands put it in his roundup of the papers?

The Echo pages are well executed and eye-catching. Better, for example, than The Times wraparound this morning in making full use of both ends of the paper to project strong ideas - The Times back page is just a flight of steps and a line of servicemen looking away from the camera.

 But what the Echo has not done is produce two front pages.

The front can only ever be a right-hander. Magazines and catalogues sometimes create the impression of two issues in one by turning the back cover and a succession of inside pages upside down, so that whichever end the reader starts, they can continue reading in the normal way. But that isn't the case here. The coffin page is the Echo's true front, a fact reinforced by its iPad edition.

If he wanted to send a different message to mining communities who still resent Thatcher, Barron could have used the time-honoured tool of the district/regional slip - indeed, the version I saw was slugged 'Darlington edition'. But no, invited newsagents who thought their customers might be upset by the front page to display the back instead. And in so doing, he was abdicating editorial responsibility and misleading some of his readers.

A former Easington miner may have bought the 'protest' paper, but when he went to read it, he was still confronted by the Union Flag-draped coffin; whereas the stalwart Tory in North Yorkshire need never have looked at the miners' page at all.

Barron may well have been inspired by the most honourable motives and a natural desire not to upset his readers, but it is an editor's job to make a decision and to defend it if necessary. Fudging and simultaneously telling readers 'I couldn't decide' is not the same thing.

That leader is troubling from the word go.
Here in the North-East, it has been a challenge to achieve the right balance on the coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death.

So newspapers in Liverpool, Wales, Scotland, the Midlands had an easy ride? The divisive nature of the Thatcher era, the adulation and the hatred have been the leitmotifs of all of the coverage of the past ten days. Almost every editor met a similar challenge and did not shrink from it.

Putting aside the papers that were fully for her (Mail) or against (Mirror), most nationals - which sell in the North-East as well as the South-East - managed to strike a balance without sacrificing their shop window. The rightwing broadsheets acknowledged that the lady made mistakes, some of which caused extreme hardship; left-leaning papers recognised that she had taken on issues dodged by successive governments and revived the economy.

There is further evidence inside of the Echo's struggle with its conscience. Pages 2-8 are given over to the funeral and pictures of protesters are scattered throughout. Headlines, too, are crafted to avoid giving the impression that Thatcher was any kind of saint. But the text proves the impossibility of striking absolute balance; things have a habit of not working out quite as you expect.

Pages 2 and 3 are devoted to the funeral itself, the straightest of headings, a factual read-through, pictures of the cathedral and a little sidebar on one of the pallbearers. With the absence of any anti-Thatcher content, there is a cutout picture of a protester in Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire.

Page 4 is mostly pictures. At the top -  and by far the biggest single image -  is an effigy burning in Goldthorpe, but the eye is drawn irresistibly to the cutout of Amanda Thatcher and down to smaller pictures of  Thatcher's old cabinet colleagues. The man in front of the Saltire celebrating in Scotland is almost lost bottom right. Of the eight quotes in a double column panel, only two express anti-Thatcher views and the basement is a local Tory MP giving his view of the service.

The Echo sent its political correspondent out to gauge the mood on the streets around the cathedral. The result appears on page 5, accompanied by four pictures - a big one of Guards watching the gun carriage pass, two of protesters and one of a black-clad security sniper lurking behind a statue. Rob Merrick failed to find anyone to denounce Thatcher and no one even seemed bothered about the cost of the occasion.

The miners get their first look in on page 6 with a six-column protest picture and a page lead on the mood on the 20th anniversary of the Easington pit closure. But a photograph of seven blokes with a couple of posters and a campervan in an empty car park doesn't really cut it - especially when one of their banners is so badly written that there is no room for the final letter. Even on this 'anti' page, the story at the bottom is about two miners' daughters who collect Maggie memorabilia and think she was a Good Thing

Page 7, too, was clearly intended as an 'anti' page with its banner Red is the order of the day - but again it didn't work out like that. Chris Lloyd, the political editor, went to a Durham cafe where he presumably expected to find hostility to the whole proceedings. A couple of people spoke out against Thatcher, yet the prevailing impression is still that she wasn't so bad. (*The red is tomato ketchup.)

It was in this piece that I found my favourite sentence of the day:
The former Bishop of Durham appears on the screen, giving the Blessing...
That'll be the Archbishop of Canterbury then?

And so to the final page and the Richmond Conservative Club's toast to the Iron Lady. Well we'd probably guess that they'd think she was wonderful.

Hardly balanced in the end then; for all his fretting, Barron produced a paper this morning that sent an overwhelmingly pro-Thatcher message. And that in turn raises the suspicion that the whole double front exercise was a cop out, window dressing, or a marketing ploy.

That is a pity. The cover pages are excellent, and would have stood up to scrutiny without the public declaration that newsagents had been asked to make the final call. It is the leader that is weak.

If Barron is as in tune with his readers' sensitivities as has been implied, should he have splashed on Thatcher at all? Or given her so much space? [Should anyone, for that matter? So many pages in so many papers when the readers have had more than enough.]

Unemployment figures reported on page 9 show that 23,000 of the 70,000 jobs lost in the past three months went from his circulation area, and the business splash on page 54 is about the possibility of two surface mines being opened in County Durham. Perhaps one or both of these could have been brought forward in place of cafe or Con Club chitchat?

One final thought: the trouble with 'one-off' specials is that they can so easily turn from exception to precedent. Having once been given the licence to choose which cover to display, newsagents might just decide in future that the football would sell better than the splash.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Searching for fragments of truth in Boston

Rumour, speculation and gossip: Twitter does its bit for bomb investigation

What's the latest on the bombing? Is it three dead? Or fifteen? Or thirty-three?

It depends on which paper or website you're reading. If you're following Twitter or the main news sites, the answer is still three -  one of them Martin Richard, an eight-year-old boy who had run to hug his father as he completed the Boston marathon.

If you are concerned about Syria, the answer is that 15 are known to have died in car bombings in Damascus on Monday last week. We still know little about the victims.

If you look a little further south to Iraq, the answer is that at least 33 are thought to have been killed in car bombings in Kirkuk (main picture) and Baghdad at about the same time as the Boston blasts yesterday. Again, there is little information about the victims.

Why, then, the heavy emphasis on Boston - especially when statistics suggest that around 80 Americans will have died of gunshot wounds yesterday? Is it somehow a greater atrocity? And if not, why is it a bigger news story?

These are, of course, rhetorical questions. Bombings in America are rare, in the Middle East they are a regular occurrence. We know that the attacks in Syria and Iraq were politically motivated and carefully targeted. We're all still fretting about the who, what and why of Boston. Al Qaeda? A lone maniac? Someone somehow linked to the threat from North Korea? A gun fanatic angered beyond all sense by suggestions of curbs after the Sandy Hook shootings? (The last stretch of the race was dedicated to the 26 killed by Adam Lanza at a Connecticut school in December.) Was it all Obama's fault - or that of the Republicans? Everyone was playing the blame game, but no one really knew anything.

The US authorities are  wary of using the word terrorism - as though bombing a city centre where half a million have gathered to celebrate a public holiday and the world's oldest marathon could be anything other than terrorism. In America, terrorism means foreigners. The notion that anyone home-grown could commit such a crime is almost impossible to swallow.

Many years ago, a journalist friend came up with an uncomfortable  equation of newsworthiness:
1 British child = 2 British adults = 10 French or Germans = 50 Australians = 100 Indians = 500 Chinese = 500,000 Biafrans.
It's horrible and in these more sensitive days, you would hope that any vestige of truth in the formula would have gone. But it hasn't quite, has it?

What is missing from the numbers game is the circumstance: how rare is the event, how great the suffering, how near are the cameras.

Terrorists of all colours, shapes and sizes, are smart cookies. They know when and how to maximise impact and when to hold back. The finishing line of the Boston marathon was a master stroke, for not only were there huge crowds, tv cameras and reporters, there were also trained first-aiders, medical equipment and wheelchairs. These bombs were relatively small ball-bearing devices and they were detonated long after the elite athletes had finished the race. This does not seem to be the work of someone determined to cause maximum death and destruction.

The terrorist's objective is generally to terrorise - the clue's in the name - and there will obviously  be consternation here with the London marathon next Sunday. That was naturally the focus of British coverage on the web today. The bombing itself was the splash in all the main papers yesterday, but even Martin Richard's human story had a tough job competing with the prequels of Mrs Thatcher's funeral today.

Up until a few years ago, the Boston story would definitely have held sway on day two. But now we are in the digital era, the rules are changing. Where an editor would scoff at a story because it had been on the Today programme, he or she will now say 'but it's been on the web all day'. Does the fact that the subject is the top trend on Twitter make it more - or less - newsworthy for a traditional print paper?

And how far does the web and Twitter influence our difficult choices about what to show and what to withhold? There used to be a cardinal rule that you did not run pictures of dead people; then it suddenly became OK if they were an unidentified foreigner  (I don't think that's OK, but what do I know?), and then if they  were famous or notorious, like Saddam Hussein.

Newspapers' websites show no restraint in publishing  photographs of blood-caked children or of people with legs missing, their faces fully visible and identifiable, being carried or wheeled away from a scene of devastation. It can be only a matter of time  before the rules are loosened still further for print. Has everyone forgotten that there were reasons for restraint: that people deserve dignity in injury and death, and the practical stricture that children should be able to pick up a paper without being frightened by what they see.

Another fear is that Twitter and the web will lead to a more cavalier attitude to what is fact and what is rumour, hearsay and speculation. The Slate website anticipated yesterday that people would seek to make capital - political or financial - from the disaster and published what it described as a journalist's guide to tweeting during a crisis. MediaUK  has also put up a miniguide under the URL

Reporters on breaking stories, desperate to learn the most details in the least possible time, have to clutch at every nugget. But no matter how assiduous they are in assaying their find, they will often have been proved wrong by the time the paper appears the next day.  We have never learnt the lesson of not putting death tolls in the splash headlines on disaster stories - and they are always, always, always wrong. Yesterday morning there were two dead in Boston; now there are three. With luck that will be the final figure, but with seventeen critically ill, who could guarantee it?

Flaky and overhasty tweets - especially from bystanders or friends of friends not involved in the incident or investigation - don't help in the search for truth; the imperative 'I must get this out now before anyone else finds out' is no one's friend. Stories on almost all the websites yesterday were heavy on 'sources', 'insiders','eyewitnesses' and 'unconfirmed reports', but feather-light on solid attribution.

First we  had reports of other bombs being found in hospitals, and of one being the subject of a controlled detonation. By lunchtime a Senator was on television saying that was not the case. There was an incident at  the JFK library, but that turned out to be an unconnected fire. There was a solitary figure seen on the rooftops just before the explosions:  was he the bomber - or maybe just someone who lived in a block of flats who had gone up top to watch the race?

By noon investigators had received 2,000 tips and were asking businesses to hang on to their CCTV footage. A search was initiated for a 'dark-skinned or black male, possibly with a foreign accent'; officers were also looking at a video said to show someone taking a number of backpacks into the area five minutes before the blasts.
Then there was the erratic driver and related information that led investigators to the Revere district of the city. A block of flats was soon swarming with teams from the FBI, city police,  Homeland Security,  immigration and customs seeking a 'person of interest'. They emerged with paper bags and rucksacks - but again, the occupant was quickly ruled out as a suspect.

David Taylor and Devika Bhat's copy for The Times was, in this context, a breath of fresh air, containing nothing that was not supported by legitimate and checkable sources.

The importance of Twitter in the Arab spring and in getting news out of closed societies cannot be over-emphasised. But now everyone with a smartphone is a citizen journalist and therefore feels obliged to tweet if they are witness to a big event - or even if their Auntie Mary used to live three streets away from a big event.

When I googled  'Boston marathon' at 7am yesterday, the BBC story was the top hit. Underneath there was a line saying '25,546 more stories like this..' Twenty-five thousand stories! (I know, this one makes it 25,457.)

One imagines - or hopes - that  those were 'stories' in the sense that they had some information to impart. Twitter imposes no such discipline. Tens of thousands couldn't resist tapping 'OMG, horror in Boston' into their mobiles, while celebs felt compelled to tweet to show their compassionate nature - and burnish their image. Roll up Arnold Schwarzenegger, Taylor Swift, Ben Affleck, Russell Crowe, Miley Cyrus, Oprah Winfrey, Justin Timberlake, Courtney Cox, Pink, Ke$ha, Mark Wahlberg. We all just NEED to know that you are praying for the people of Boston.

In the face of so much piety, it was fun to see that Cher made a mess of hers. Clearly under instruction from some PR person to tweet something, she wrote: 'So sorry about happy  Boston runners being blown up. wtf', swiftly followed by  'Boston! Made parts of 2 movies there. Lovely, lively people'. Well that's good then. We all feel better to know that.

Then came the cyber-ambulance chasers out to make a swift buck from disaster. Internet entrepreneurs, self-publicists, bloggers (yes, I know, pots and kettles), all went haring off - and so did the spivs and spammers. Within hours, fake Facebook and Twitter accounts had been set up, promising donations to fake charities in exchange for 'likes'. They even had pictures of little girls supposedly running in the race (do they let primary school children run in marathons?) who were supposed to have been killed.

Not all of those making hay from the disaster were behind computers.The LiveLeak website put up a video that shows passers by taking advantage of the melee to help themselves to official marathon jackets. Looting is always wrong, but it's hard not to smile at the smug look on these men's faces as they nonchalantly saunter away with their booty.

This post is really a series of questions, so here are two more to finish: how can we make sure  that we maintain standards of journalism in our mainstream media when there are so many competing sources of information and little time to sort the wheat from the chaff?

And how can we make sure that Twitter voices that must be heard are not drowned out by the cacophony of witterers?


How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Time to give Thatcher a rest

We've heard enough from this Westminster tribute band
- and please spare us the history lesson

Sometimes a story is so huge that it takes over everything, there is no escaping it and few want to. Think 9/11, Diana's car crash.

Sometimes a story is so big that it dominates news bulletins and front pages for days or weeks, but you can avoid it if you really want to. Think the Iraq war, MPs' expenses.

Sometimes a story is so important that it is still the splash on 'day three', even when nothing much has happened. Think American presidential elections, the death of Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher's death?  It's that important? Well every paper but the FT and the Express is splashing on the Iron Lady today, so it must be. Or maybe there has been a collective misjudgment.

In fact there seems to have been a collection of collective misjudgments since Thatcher died on Monday - most notably the lavishness of the funeral and the decision to recall Parliament yesterday at a cost of nearly £4,000 per MP attending.

Clearly there is a paucity of news, after all it is the Easter holidays. Who cares about North Korea or the G8 or Obama's budget?
Or that the Treasury has only just produced the 2010-11 accounts for 1,500 public sector organisations with £2 trillion of liabilities? Or that not only are the numbers late, but they are also inaccurate and incomplete (they don't include Network Rail, RBS and Lloyds Banking Group, which might just make a difference), so they haven't been approved by the Auditor General?
Or even the weather, which is expected to take a turn for the better at the weekend?

No, nothing competes with the public's avid interest in a procession of white men in dark suits taking turns to spout platitudes about the death of an 87-year-old woman who left office 22 years ago. Or the sight of Ed Miliband teetering across a rickety bridge to meet Cameron briefly in the middle without betraying the friends holding the ropes - and their noses - back on the bank.

For the Telegraph this was an occasion of such moment that it ditched the puffs and brought out its half-page picture and double-deck megatype banner format to proclaim

  Tories come to praise their Boadicea in pearls

Was this an intentional twist on Mark Antony's 'Friends, Romans and countrymen' speech? If so, perhaps the headline writer misunderstood Shakespeare - or hadn't got beyond the second sentence. Still, Boadicea in pearls was a nice idea (Boudicca would have been better, but of course you can't trust the reader to know who she was).

And the photograph? A praising Tory? Boudicca? No, none other than Sir Mark Thatcher with his best Blair-sincere face at the microphone outside his mother's house, flanked by a couple of policemen in hi-viz jackets. There are a few bunches of flowers on the doorstep in the background and it is a nicely balanced picture: the policewoman in a cap on the left, head down, arms behind her back; the policeman in a helmet on the right, head up, arms to the front in free-kick-wall  mode. But as a friend tweeted 'Even diehard Maggie-worshippers don't want to see a picture of HIM'.

The words set ragged right underneath are a sort of sketch but not quite, because only the people in the story are allowed to make jokes. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a splash.

The Guardian did manage to get a couple of news points into its lead - that the Speaker had not wanted to recall MPs and that there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the instruction that MPs should wear mourning dress - and sensibly put these in the headings. But the guts of the piece were still a series of quotes, angled on Miliband's tricky task. The page was rescued by the striking illustration and by Simon Hoggart's sketch on the right.

Even more striking was the Independent's approach. It ditched the front-page story altogether in favour of a bluetone photograph of a relatively youthful Thatcher overlaid with quotes from Parliament. There's nothing more to say about it other than it's a great idea beautifully executed.

The  Mirror and the Sun both pounced on the Labour semi-boycott of the tribute recall with picture-led pages that demonstrated how one idea can be used to promote diametrically opposed ideologies. Meanwhile the Mail pushed its agenda with a story about two teachers involved in organising celebrations of Thatcher's death. This was a shoo-in for the splash, since it not only involved leftie teachers, but one of them works at the school attended by the Miliband brothers. Clearly a hotbed of radicalism. Intriguing, though, to imagine how the boy Milibands might have been led on the path to the wicked Left by this monstrous man, given that he is 20 years younger than David and 15 years younger than Ed.

The Times also turned its back on Westminster, but not on Thatcher, and  managed to make a splash out of not one, but two octogenarians. And, like the Telegraph, it made its front page even more appealing to the passing reader with a Mark Thatcher photograph.

The paper was evidently pleased to have been granted an interview with Helmut Kohl, who served for 16 years as German Chancellor and had plenty of run-ins with Thatcher about the EU (as it was then) in the 1980s. Kohl blames Thatcher for Britain's ongoing divisions with and about the EC.

"It is true - Margaret Thatcher was difficult, just as our relationship was difficult. Unlike other leaders in  Europe and the world and despite the best efforts of both sides, Margaret and I simply never managed to build a trusting and warm relationship."

This is such an astonishing revelation that the paper not only runs a splash and a spread on the interview, but also offers readers the chance to read every word of the conversation digitally. Let me run through this again. The Times thought that the most important news event of yesterday was  an 83-year-old foreign leader who left office 15 years ago talking about his relationship with an 87-year-old woman who has died.

So important, indeed, that it also ran a top leader, which concluded that Thatcher got it wrong and Kohl got it right about the unification of Germany in 1989 - although the editorial expressed  no opinion on how this might have any relevance to the present day.

For heaven's sake. My daughter conducted the same analysis for her IB history exam. Yes, really. She had the assistance of a huge and expensive red volume called German Unification 1989-90, Documents on British Policy Overseas. I doubt it will be updated to take into account The Times's opinion today.

Three generations with reason to  thank Sir Robert Edwards, left:
 Lesley Brown,  her 'test tube' daughter Louise and grandson Cameron

But even after all this, I do believe that the most interesting story of the day was the death of an 87-year-old who had a profound impact on millions of people - Professor Sir Robert Edwards, the IVF pioneer.

Edwards and the surgeon Patrick Steptoe overcame opposition from the Church, politicians and even fellow scientists to 'create' the first 'test-tube baby', Louise Brown in 1978. They went on to found the world's first IVF centre in Cambridge, and persevered with their work in the face of unrelenting criticism and the withdrawal of funds.Since Miss Brown was born, more than five million people have had babies through fertility treatments. Edwards was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 2010 and his achievements were yesterday likened to those of Marie Curie, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.

That's one for the back of the book, then.

Monday 8 April 2013

All hands to the pumps for Thatcher

The obituaries have been ready for years. The recent declining health and time in hospital should have inspired all news organisations to dust down their specials and bring them up to date. So how did the press fare in its biggest test of the digital age? Could newspapers react as quickly as broadcasters to produce wall-to- wall web coverage while preparing tomorrow's print edition?

We saw some stunning work for the Olympics, but everyone knew exactly when they were coming and could staff up accordingly. Margaret Thatcher died on a Monday morning in the middle of the schools' Easter holidays and with Parliament in recess - the very time that top political writers and newspaper executives are away with their families. With papers at their thinnest on Mondays and Tuesdays, staffing lower down the food chain is at its leanest. So there will have been a scurry of phone calls to muster troops for the challenge ahead.

Online teams crashed and burnt to get the bare facts up as fast as possible, while the print lot took stock and prepared a strategy. First task was to examine what they already had, how much  needed simple  updating, how much had to be reworked and how much should be junked. They also had to consider hiccups such as people moving on - the reappearance of bylines for journalists who had long since left and even died. The Guardian's  front-page piece is an epitaph written by Hugo Young a few days before his death and the website carried a video of Polly Toynbee and Oliver Letwin debating the Thatcher legacy with Philip Gould,  who died in November 2011.
The picture below from The Times's design chief Jon Hill shows proofs of the paper's prepared coverage  laid out in the conference room ready to be dissected. This supplement started life in broadsheet form at least three editors ago and has been reworked countless  times including, of course, being turned into a compact version. Hill says that about 70 per cent of this version survived to see the light of day tomorrow.

Material already in usable form was swiftly uploaded to the web - Ben Macintyre's even-handed appraisal for The Times, Andreas Whittam-Smith's similar effort for the Independent were among the first that went beyond the 'Thatcher is dead' formula. These had the sheen of something that had been polished and repolished. Matthew Parris's 'I worked with Thatcher in the 70s' and Paul Routledge's outpouring in the Mirror may also have been on the stocks, but they read like instant commentary and the websites benefited from that air of spontaneity.

There were speedy blogs on the Telegraph site - Dan Hodges urging the Left not to be vindictive; Tom Chivers pondering the wisdom of a state funeral. He and John Rentoul in the Indie made the same basic point that it would be wrong because Thatcher had divided the nation and a state funeral should be for someone who united it - neither the Queen Mother nor Diana warranted one - but by the time their words were there for all to read, the decision had been made. So the most up-to-date medium was out of date?

Yes it was, but the most up-to-date medium isn't the web per se, it's Twitter. Twitter was all over the place on this, with people hashtagging #nostatefuneral when it had already been announced that there would be none; Mrs T is to have a ceremonial funeral, but there's not enough space on Twitter to explain the difference and most of the news organisations' web teams were up to their necks and didn't have the manpower to do so - or at least not on the relevant post.

Twitter was the most important factor in winning readers this afternoon - as Martin Belham predicted long ago with this spot-on pie chart. No newspaper can expect people, however loyal, to be using their website as their sole source on a story like this, especially if it is hiding its light under a paywall. This isn't a breaking or running story in the old-fashioned sense - a woman is dead, the great and not-so-good are busy spouting out their tributes and that's about it on the news front. Everything else is history, background, ramifications. You have to be tweeting to bring the readers in. And this is where the Twitter experts, whether professional hacks or citizen journalists, win.

Nick Cohen was quick to give his Observer column on bankers a topical spin with a tweet 'one legacy of Thatcher...', even though the copy didn't mention her. Sunny Hundai tweeted a link to his piece from December 2011 on privatising Thatcher's funeral. Seumas Milne of the Guardian pointed Twitter to an article from January last year.

John Rentoul proved a masterly tweeter linking not simply to the Independent, but to Left Foot Forward - five progressive things by Thatcher's governments and a further six (less interesting) from Stumbling and  Mumbling.

Everyone had naturally planned to cover all bases: the basic timeline from grocer's daughter to tearful downfall;  the political legacy,  the creation/destruction of Britain; the impact on business, the arts, industry etc. All interspersed with the quotes, from St Francis of Assisi to Kipling; We have become a grandmother; Rejoice, There is no such thing as society, The lady's not for turning and other ill-advised utterances.

Then there was the first woman prime minister guff: the ultimate example of feminism at work -  scientist, barrister, mother of twins, dutiful wife  'we arrange to have the decorators in when Denis is away so they don't disturb him' and, of course, Prime Minister - yet she hated the notion of feminism as a movement, and there were plenty to say 'what did she ever do to help other women up the ladder?'

Thatcher as fashion icon?  - I don't remember that in the coverage of Churchill's death -  but we have parades of Aquascutum outfits, loads on handbags and even the make-up routine, God help us. My favourite of this lot came from the Forbes website, which ran a gallery of 11 pictures, the first of which was of Meryl Streep. The Guardian may have thought it was going a little left field with its bit on five songs about Thatcher, with the aside 'we tried to find some nice ones', but there was much focus on songs, especially  Elvis Costello's Tramp the Dirt Down and the unlikely campaign to take Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead to number 1.

There's no dodging the fact that many have been looking forward to this day for a long time. The website isthatcherdeadyet? had a huge black underscored YES with the subhead 'The lady's not for returning'  and a growing tally of Facebook likes (208,000  as I write). It asks people to say how they're celebrating and points to sites detailing parties. 
But when you click on these links, there seem to be fewer than you'd expect in the mood for grave-dancing. Indeed, even for those who were celebrating there was more hilarity over the hashtag  #nowthatchersdead than about the death itself. Cher found herself trending as thousands read it as now-that-chers-dead.

Early in the day the Mirror reported David Hopper of the Durham miners describing Thatcher's death as a 'great day' and a special 70th birthday present. Routledge's piece was damning and Andy Dawson said he despised her for what she did to his community in Sunderland. 

The link to Glenn Greenwald's piece for the Guardian about 'misapplied death etiquette' was retweeted over and over, mostly on the basis of his comparison with the Right's reaction to the death of Hugo Chavez, but it was largely irrelevant. The really vicious personal 'rot in hell' venom was limited, and the commentators, Right as well as Left, barred no holds as they examined the nature of her politics and influence for good or ill. Even the most Thatcherite media conceded that she'd made some dreadful mistakes and split the country. Gerry Adams and Dennis Skinner made their loathing plain in clear, unemotional statements; they showed that to condemn Thatcher's actions was damning enough without rejoicing in a demented old woman's death.

Even so, the Mail and Express both puffed and blew indignance at the wicked trolls who were despoiling their heroine's memory, but they had limited examples - and they were remarkably similar.

The Mail at 13.55, 'by a Mail reporter'
The Left has led sickening celebrations in response to the death of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. MP George Galloway led the way with a crass tweet....
Only a few minutes after the death of the 87-year-old the Respect MP for Bradford West took to his Twitter writing 'Tramp the dirt down.' His response... was met with disgust by many users on the social networking site.It is thought the MP was referring to an Elvis Costello 1989 song in which the singer vows to dance on Thatcher's grave.
Meanwhile, a sick Facebook campaign has been launched to take Judy Garland song 'Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead' to number one.A series of pages urge people to buy MP3 downloads of the song, which features in 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz. One, called Make 'Ding dong the witch is dead' number 1 the week Thatcher dies, already had 590 members by 1.30pm with numbers rapidly rising.
A website set up three years ago asking 'Is Margaret Thatcher Dead Yet?' was today updated for the first time with the word 'YES'. The website currently has more than 130,000 'likes' on Facebook and thousands of people have written about it on Twitter. 'Likes' on their Facebook page were rocketing at a rate of 2,500 a minute.

The Express, no byline
Half the nation has mourned and half has scorned the death of Margaret Thatcher today, with vile Internet trolls "celebrating" the death of the former Prime Minister just hours after it was announced she had died at the age of 87. MP George Galloway was the first to provoke outrage after taking to Twitter and writing what has been branded a deeply shocking and distasteful comment. Only a few minutes after the death of the Baroness was announced the Respect MP for Bradford West posted: 'Tramp the dirt down'. His crass response was met with anger by many on the social media site with users labelling the MP "obscene," "vile", "odious" and a "heartless opportunist". It is thought the MP was referring to an Elvis Costello 1989 song in which the singer vows to dance on Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's grave.
Meanwhile, a sick Facebook campaign has been launched to take Judy Garland song 'Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead' to number one. A series of pages urge people to buy MP3 downloads of the song, which features in 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz.One group, called Make 'Ding dong the witch is dead' number 1 the week Thatcher dies, already has 733 members with numbers rising by the minute. Elsewhere, a website set up three years ago asking 'Is Margaret Thatcher Dead Yet?' was today updated for the first time - with the word 'YES'. The website...currently has more than 130,000 'likes' on Facebook while thousands of people have written about it on Twitter. 'Likes' on their Facebook page were rocketing at a rate of 2,500 a minute.

Thank heavens for news agencies on busy days.

The focus for those looking to party was on Windrush Square, Brixton, but for a long while the revellers with their burning posters seemed to be outnumbered by reporters and copy on the celebrations was thin. There were richer seams to quarry in Glasgow, whose street parties saw a greater turnout.

Much more fun was the news that an Oddbins manager had been suspended for tweeting:  ‘If for any reason, anyone feels like celebrating anything we have Taittinger available at £10 less than usual at £29.  Just saying …Can't help feeling sorry for him, Oddbins make a habit of turning news events into blackboard advertising and this was in exactly the standard style.

So was there anything unexpected in this outpouring?  Yes.

  • The joy of learning from the Bury Free Press that Mrs Thatcher visited Bury St Edmunds in 1987 and that Norman and Margaret Tebbit still live in the town;  and the worries at the Stroud Herald Journal that Ed Miliband might not after all visit on Wednesday; 
  • Evidence that Cherie Blair and Hillary Clinton both used her as a role model, together with the tribute today from Harriet Harman;
  • The imagination of Rotor & Wing in celebrating Thatcher's importance to the world of  helicopters - they were used in the Falklands;
  • Shirley Williams's disclosure that it wasn't Thatcher,Thatcher Milk Snatcher who stopped little bottles of warm sour milk being forced down primary schoolchildren's throats. She was the fall-girl for Chancellor Anthony Barber. An interesting admission, given that Williams was a Labour MP at the time.
  • The fact that as a junior research scientist for Joe Lyons in the early 50s, Thatcher was one of the team that created Mr Whippy ice cream;
  • Her insistence in the 1980s that habits had to change to tackle climate change, which most on the Right believed to be a nonsense.
Whatever you think of her politics, you have to admit that she was sometimes ahead of her time. Business Insider says she was 'freakishly correct' about the destiny of a single European currency when she predicted that  the Germans would worry about the threat of inflation and the poorer countries would need to bailing out. 

[The Germans had more important things to worry about than Thatcher and the euro yesterday, though, as the National Post in America told us:
Thieves make off with five tons of Nutella in chocolate-hazelnut heist worth more than $20,000]

And we journalists all owe her a debt of gratitude, since it was the youthful Margaret Thatcher who introduced the private member's bill that led to reporters - and the public - being allowed into council meetings. She advanced the bill in her maiden speech. Talk about starting as you mean to go on.

Let's see what the papers have to say tomorrow. In the meantime, this was my favourite moment of the day - an unintentional piece of irony from the BBC

Postscript: the morning after: And so here they are, a montage of front pages courtesy of Nick Sutton, editor of The World at One.

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