Sunday, March 03, 2019

February in Berlin - no blog, no cry

February went by in a bit of a blur. So much so I didn't update this blog much. I've been a bit poorly, but nothing serious, I've moved offices at work and started a different role which I'm still getting my head around. I'm also moving into the writing phase on my MA and feel I'm wasting time if it's not about that. But there's something more. As I said on a Twitter thread today, I forever find myself stuck in a perpetual state of repetition. Whatever new outrage emerges about Brexit, Labour, the Catholic Church, Blackburn Rovers, Manchester or Marple, I feel I've said it all, or that all the things I care about seem to be combusting at once. 

Example.

I said in April 2018 that Labour can't get rid of anti-semitism, because Jeremy Corbyn doesn't understand the problem, or see it.

I said in September 2016 that I didn't fear a Labour split, but I actively want it to happen. That the party is wrong, nasty and lost to the far left. Same rules apply.

This month a group of Labour MPs did what I've been hoping they'd do and left the Labour Party. This is what I said in 2017 about a project of the centre, and it pretty much stands. 

And as for Blackburn Rovers - the underbelly has been exposed, which I was worried about in October, only now we can't seem to beat teams as ropey as Rotherham or Reading. More Travis, more Rothwell and a fit Lenihan should stop that rot.

Part of me is tempted to do what David Parkin does and knock out a reflective summary of the week on Friday. 

Anyway, one thing I did do in February was visit Berlin with Joe, Matt and Elliot. It was a great trip, a real living city. It had a vibe of London - but as if it was South Kensington, Westminster, The Mall, Hyde Park and six better versions of Shoreditch. We probably only scratched the surface as you'd expect in a two night break, but we did have the best burgers at a place called Burgermeister in Kruizberg and immersed ourselves in recent political history.

By a remarkable coincidence the new series of Deutschland 86 starts on Friday. Maybe that will get me writing about good telly again.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Be the editors of our own stories - notes for my talk at Alliance MBS today


I started out in journalism as I’ve carried on – unconventional, unorthodox and unprepared. But I was always convinced that what I was doing had a valid purpose.

I was talking to my friend Paul Unger about this the other day; business reporting comes with such a responsibility to the community you are part of. It also gives you such a solid grounding in the basics. Checking, summarising, thinking strategically, listening, understanding and checking again. You have to learn how to cut through the marketing hype of slick PR operations to get the real message. Paul reflected on how Giles Barrie built a powerful brand and platform at Property Week, that in turn spawned a cohort of top drawer media professionals working today. My generation in the media and broadcast press of the 1990s have also gone on to great things too, with the benefit of that firm foundation.

My first editor in the business press was a guy called John McCrone who was pretty tough on me. He had a reputation for having buried a company up to its neck in a computer leasing scandal. He held me to a high standard and marked my work ruthlessly, pushed me to ask the difficult questions and helped me more than I probably ever thanked him for.

You have to develop an empathy for the sector you cover, in turn you risk the inevitable accusation that you have ‘gone native’ and got too close to the people you are supposed to be covering. I’ve definitely done that. But then I just like smart people and can’t help but be impressed by them and their achievements.

In our heyday at Insider and at Television Week in the 1990s we made choices to get closer to our readers by ostracising, humiliating and hounding those who didn’t play by the rules. We were a player in that world, especially when we had a role in building up chancers and crooks as a result of our own previous naiveté.

I used to do this talk to journalism students at UCLAN about why the business press was a good route to a career. One of the attributes you’d pick up was versatility. Writing for different formats, producing events, analysing new sectors. The way things have shaped up since have multiplied that phenomena. But the one constant is knowing what to say, remain trusted by the people you need to be trusted by, and knowing when to say it.

I think of all of this as I browse through the regional media market now – Paul’s brand Place North West and the media site Prolific North are ambitious deep dives into the vertical sectors; they have events as well as streams of content.  The business news factories keep churning it out; the race to cut and paste. I get all of them daily and sometimes can’t distinguish whether I got a story from one or the other. But no media organisation can afford to ever be behind and irrelevant. As long as the print products can generate an advertising income no owner will cut off a revenue stream and take their chances on a digital market that’s been restructured to suit Google and Facebook.

A lack of relevance, a lack of reach and diminution of quality has created a greater drive towards creating your own content channels. Cut out the middleman. It’s created a situation here where our Met Magazine, produced at Manchester Metropolitan University, to a very high standard, is the method by which we get out key messages for local stakeholders.     

Sure, we do plenty of media work, our press office are great at it. This week we had ITV interviewing Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones on campus, and last year David Beckham came to visit. Our experts, despite what Michael Gove said, are still in demand and trusted. We also actively work with other regional players to make our contribution effective.

When I was asked to do a talk at Alliance MBS today on media and messaging, especially the impact of social media, part of me thought it would be a masterclass. A modern PR toolkit for engagement with press and media, star columnists, and influencers. Such is the level of my cynicism now, it would simply include:
  • 1.     Have a great back story – childhood trauma
  • 2.     Create a business in the tech sector, no need to be specific
  • 3.     Have great offices in the city centre
  • 4.     Social media presence – lots of hashtags #entrepreneur
  • 5.     Offer to speak at conferences
  • 6.     Become a mentor to young people - at a university, or an incubator
  • 7.     Enter all the awards
  • 8.     Get listed in the Insider 42 Under 42, and the BusinessCloud 35 under 35
  • 9.     Speak out about charitable causes – homelessness is favourite at the moment, but it was sick white kids
  • 10.  Hang out with Andy Burnham
And that, in many ways, highlights the problem.

Two tweets in the last week also showed to painful effect what is going on under the noses of the media that they are able to react to at best, but have actively encouraged at worst. Rachel Thompson from Manchester Digital admirably called out the companies around the city going into administration then opening up around the corner as if nothing happened, leaving creditors high and dry. The other was a tweet calling out a horrendous experience at an interview. But the explosion of interest in the issue here proved it goes way beyond the odd isolated incident. The media, business clubs, events organisers and social media have all been culpable in creating many of the characters responsible; not least promoting the cult of the individual, especially the alpha male, the all powerful corporate dictator, who has taken all the wrong lessons from Steve Jobs.

It comes back to another painful truth about entry into the media profession, as well as resources. So many new emerging journalists want the glory, the status, the attention. I know this. I enjoyed it all too. They want to be a face, a name. Helen Lewis of the New Statesman was commenting recently that graduates want to be columnists, like Owen Jones or Katie Hopkins, neither of whom I rate, by the way. But to have that right, it isn’t good enough to be a voice, loud, strident, opinionated, you have to be able to do the journalism. I’ve been interviewed by Jones and he was dreadful. He was a good speaker at a left wing rally, but he’s no researcher and certainly no kind of journalist.

The other modern new phenomena that I just don't get are so-called 'influencers'. I sat through a presentation recently on how they came about, who they were and how much money they make. I was staggered. We had a descriptor for them back in the day – the corrupt ones. Paying for a positive review is just bullshit frankly. And if you want to see where it ends up – watch the Fyre documentary on Netflix. A party organised by the worst people in the world for people who actually want to be like them. 

I keep hearing that regional journalism is dead. I tell you this, Jess Middleton-Pugh and Jennifer Williams are two of the best we've ever seen. Jess has built a powerful community around property and place making. Jen covers politics and social affairs for the MEN and is the best political journalist working in Britain today. Some are better known, some have better access. But none are as feared and respected like she is by those she covers.

But they’ve both made a choice – they have the same number of hours in the day as every other journalist, they hold truth to power. And yet, let's not forget, there are so many resources that journalists have available now that weren’t around when I started out.

The internet, for a start. Freedom of Information requests. The justice system can be just as impenetrable, but the Companies House website enables you to rely on more than your gut. Open source journalism and data scraping has been the driver behind Bellingcat; a new model of political gossip has created Guido Fawkes, poisonous as it sometimes is. Locally, a few have tried things, but they’re at the margins.

I’m heartened by the CIJ, the Centre for Investigative Journalism at Goldsmiths in London and by a young journalist called Jem Collins who has created Journo Sources. These tools, this spirit for collaboration makes me a little less worried about the future.

And the other incredible resource is access. Social media has flattened the hierarchies, it has created new ones, granted, but it has made the powerful more visible and more fallible. They can’t hide, they don’t hide. More people have that platform and frankly they are easier to track down and enter into dialogue.

My hunch is that we’ve created a vacuum here. A post-truth fake news cavern that is being filled up with a mixture of ice and shit. One melting, to be forgotten, and the other growing and creating a stink that threatens to choke us all.

That painfully needy streak I’ve always had manifested itself in me being flattered and impressed by attention. But how many of you genuinely have a regular dialogue with a journalist? Good journalists talk to people, they get stuff explained to them, tell their stories, share, explain, effectively get the experts to do a lot of the legwork. Same rules apply now. Don't look to the editor, be the editor, come together, share, support, and source. It’s a community endeavour. If we as a community created these monsters like your dodgy company flippers, like the idiot bullying business owner, then we have it within ourselves to do something about this.

I don’t know what the answers are. I can’t claim to know where this will go. But I can say with some certainty that if we don’t pull our fingers out and think very seriously about what we are doing, then we’ll have no-one left to cry to.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Massive Attack’s Mezzanine at Manchester Arena

If you took all the different individual elements of Massive Attack’s live show at Manchester Arena tonight then it’s an enticing cocktail of music, artistic and ideological challenge. It’s why I forked out a ton for a couple of briefs. I didn’t think I’d get Banksy/3D spray painting a mural on the concourse, and I didn’t *really* expect I’d get Mezzanine from soup to nuts, even if it was billed as the 20 year anniversary tour. We didn’t get either, by the way. It wasn’t a shock, or a surprise, or a let down, but I’m wondering why I feel a bit flat after that. And really I shouldn’t.

First off, I’ve now heard and seen Elizabeth Fraser hit those notes at the peak of Teardrop. Second, I fell a little bit in love with Horace Andy, reggae legend, and possibly the only person on stage tonight who looked like he enjoyed himself. Fraser isn’t meant to, not if you sing Teardrop or Black Milk like you mean it. I expected a visual spectacle, there’s always been that element to Massive Attack’s whole pitch.

I’ve duly noted that they have worked with Adam Curtis before. I can sit through 3 hours of his mesmerising Hypernormalisation documentary and feel a bit numb. His film Bitter Lake had a similar effect, but as the backdrop to a couple of hours of spliced together video, knowing cynicism and Jenny Holzer stylised bursts of words the unsubtle attempts at messaging just left me infantilised, as did my teenage son, who assured me he won’t be donning a tinfoil hat in his student flat tonight.

I don’t love Massive Attack for their attitude or their charm, it’s possible even to forgive a lack of an encore, zero attempt to connect with the audience or the rigid set list. Possible even to pass over the £100 we paid (did I mention that?), because at times they were spectacular. That sound comes from here. Those bold cover versions of Velvet Underground, Cure and Ultravox, and that magical atmospheric grit they have crafted to painful precision.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The call of the mountains



Our rocky place

I'd love to claim that my bond with the hills, dales and mountains of England is in my blood. That I could climb rock faces and that I learnt of daring tales of Himalayan expeditions on my mother's knee. And that Chris Bonnington, Don Whillans and Ian Clough were as familiar names around our lives as George Best, Jimmy Armfield and Bobby Charlton. I'd like to be able to say that I was raised on Kendal Mint Cake, born with a Karrimor rucksack on my back and a pair of stout walking boots to guide those few tentative steps.

All of that is true, by the way. Before she had me at the age of 22 my mum was a climber, hitching to Scotland, proper hardcore, hanging with Whillans and that crowd, dossing down in a tenement in the Gorbals before heading out to Glencoe in the morning. Her dearest friends were Ian and Nikki Clough, absolute legends of the climbing world. We now wear the brand of Patagonia on our packs and coats, that logo with the distinctive peaks of Cordillera Del Paine in bleakest southern Chile. Their expedition conquered the central tower of Paine in 1963. To get there they stowed away on container ships and hitched a ride on a military aircraft. Nikki climbed the Matterhorn, the first woman to do so. Ian died on Annapurna in Nepal in 1970. Like I said, legends.
The very first Freshwalks

I probably managed more outdoor yomps than most kids, but I never tried to climb anything more challenging than a tree.  Weekends were spent scrambling around Littledale and Baines Crag, which we called The Rocky Place (top). I went Youth Hostelling with my primary school, hiking with the Scouts and even went up Borrowdale with the serious walkers in my secondary school.

And yet serious walking and hiking never quite fully formed in me. Music, football and friends took hold. True, for my 21st birthday me and the mother got our boots on and conquered Dow Crag, which is laughable when you think of what she was capable of and could have done. I did a bit of exploring when I lived in Australia and climbed Uluru, which I probably shouldn't have done. But I then went for years without doing something that clearly made me very happy whenever I did it. It always gave me a sense of achievement and helped me refocus. I realise now what I was missing all that time.

Over the last ten years, as a family, we've strapped on our boots and hit the hills. We've bagged the best that the Lake District has to offer, even getting lost attempting Haystacks, Wainwright's favourite, only to discover we were in fact on the top of Grey Knotts. But the kids have had enough of that lark, except for the middle son who has taken it to extremes.

It's the Peaks that now draw me closer. And other undiscovered gems around the North West, like Delamere and the coastal walks. That step into nature, away from everything that my city and suburban life isn't. A retreat from the present and yet a step into my past. Yes, I think I've got back in touch with who I should have been. I like the community of Freshwalks, a responsible adult guiding our route and actually understanding maps. I love that it has done all of this for me. It has pushed us to be better, to go further and not only to explore the outdoors and appreciate the natural beauty of the North of England, but to smell it, touch it and respect the challenge it can give us.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Rodwell incident - Unidentified Footballing Object

Tony Mowbray congratulates Man of the Match, Jack Rodwell

Close watchers of the Sunderland Netflix documentary would have struggled to spot Jack Rodwell in the first few episodes. Not only was the ex-England international not playing, he didn’t appear to be training, or appear in person at all. By the time Chris Coleman arrived, continuing to marshall a losing team, and looking for excuses; Rodwell was cast as pantomime villain.

The facts, we were led to believe, were that he was refusing to play and refusing to leave. He was everything that was wrong with football. Prepared to sacrifice his career for the short term riches that the lottery winning loot of a Premier League salary has offered up. There might be a truth in that, and if I was a Sunderland supporter, as many good friends are, I wouldn’t be happy that a player of his stature was unused while they dropped two divisions.

A far more visible presence on Netflix was the hapless Sunderland chief executive Martin Bain, for whom any sympathy was tempered by the fact that, like David Brent, he welcomed the cameras into his “behind the scenes” world. I’m going to cast an unpopular opinion in here; I’m as uncomfortable with the new exaltation of the senior management team at Rovers, and I winced at Tony Mowbray appearing without irony on a team picture of the “backroom team” tucked in behind Steve Waggott, the Bain of my club.

To be fair, I respect these guys have a vital job to do. And I’ll be honest, when Rodwell signed for Blackburn Rovers I wasn’t doing cartwheels at the prospect, given the collective failure of previous regimes. We’ve been had over by these types of footballer before. One of them now plies his trade on the Match of the Day sofa, ruling his moralistic eye over the footballing world, set up for life with the unearned income from a club in crisis. Obviously I don’t mean Alan Shearer.

In the last month we’ve seen the difference between Danny Murphy and Jack Rodwell. Rodwell has been towering in his appearances for us, and especially so against a dreadful Ipswich side yesterday. I’d suggest the motivation and management of a player of his obvious natural ability has been instrumental to his transformation. I have no idea how much he is paid, or what bonus structure he is on. I believe he’s on a year long contract. We get a glimpse of Mowbray’s management style when he speaks to the press and how he behaves on the sidelines. But what we see in Rodwell’s performances in central defence is of a manager who has found a purpose for a player who has physically changed since he made his mark for Everton as a creative midfielder.

Not only that, Rodwell looks hungry and determined. I love a centre half who is comfortable on the ball. Charlie Mulgrew has that, Rodwell too, and it’s a part of Darragh Lenihan’s game that is improving as he plays alongside either of these two.

For the first time this season yesterday, I sat through a match never in any doubt that Rovers would win comfortably. Paul Lambert’s Ipswich were a ragbag of journeymen artisans and broken men. Much like Paul Lambert’s Blackburn Rovers, to be fair. Every single Rovers player won his personal battles around the pitch, the one possible exception being James Collins putting a shift in at the back and matching Danny Graham in his weekly game of grapple. It should have been 5 or 6, frankly.

I over-confidently predicted that we’d finish 8th at the beginning of the season. To do that would involve getting beat a few times and suffering bad runs as well as enjoying good ones. That’s happened and will continue to do so. What is more, when we win it will be because good players like Rodwell, like Bradley Dack, like Lewis Travis, put in great performances, inevitably attracting the attention of bigger clubs. It’s a good position to be in, maybe not dramatic enough for a Netflix series, but it’ll do me.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Millwall Away

When Tony Mowbray said that Blackburn Rovers’ 2-0 win at Millwall was a terrible game of football, he was obviously right. But it reinforced to me once again how these days are about so much more than the 90 minutes that we forked out decent money to see.

Even the heading for this – Millwall Away – conjures up an adventure, a sense of danger that any football fan will relate to. We were as far away from any of that as we ate artisan snacks in Borough Market before the game, sharing stories with friends old and new in the Market Porter.

Yes, I was delighted to see Rovers win, I always am. But it reminded me of many of the games last season where I felt we were a better footballing side, but had that slight doubt we might not be physically strong enough and could come away empty handed (Walsall, Northampton, Oldham). 

Sure, Rovers contributed to the dire game; lots of mistakes, hoofing up to Bradley Dack (who was off the pace) and Joe Nuttall (who needs match practice), no shots on target until the bitter end and some pointless passing around. But I always take something from a game and for me it was the solid defensive pair of Darragh Lenihan and Jack Rodwell, and once again the role of Lewis Travis in picking out some terrific forward passes and properly mixing it when required.

What will live with me longer in the memory though was the experience of visiting The Den. I went to their old ground a couple of times, even meeting Jack Walker outside on the second occasion and getting a quote from him for the Lancashire Evening Post. I didn’t meet anyone like that this time but Matt Smith (Doctor Who) was stood just behind us. Such is the mythology around Millwall that I did vaguely consider asking him for a lift out of there if he had his blue phone box with him. I’m not going to lie, it is intimidating, it is grim. Everything about getting to the stadium; the heavy police presence, the cages guiding the walkway to the stadium, the fact visiting fans are placed only in the upper tier all create the feeling of being in a state of siege. That in turn encourages a certain type of swaggering dickhead among visitors and ours were no different. We also saw a gang of Dutch lads at London Bridge earlier in the afternoon, and I spoke to another group of PSV Eindhoven fans on the train from South Bermondsey. I doubt there’d be the same attraction for this kind of football tourist to go to Brentford or Charlton.

That makes it another new ground I’ve watched football on, the 158th. I’m on 84 clubs out of the current 92 clubs (the Punk 92), and I’m up to 80 of the current 92 grounds.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

New Statesman - an appreciation

From an early age I've always had a magazine that I have consumed avidly and which pretty much defined my world.

At various times that dubious and fragile honour has fallen to the NME (mid-80s), New Society, Marxism Today, Arena, The Face, When Saturday Comes, Loaded, Monocle and The Word. In recent years I've drifted a bit, as I think magazines have.

In all of that time, I've dipped in and out of reading the New Statesman - particularly when it absorbed New Society in 1988, before erasing trace of it 8 years later. It sort of baked in my politics around the 1987 General Election, but I think it probably lost its edge when Labour were in power. At that time, I found The Spectator the better of the political weeklies.

Yet now I look forward to my regular Friday treat of the New Statesman. It’s not only really helpful for work, providing the best insights into British politics, but it’s also a great commentary on a really rich cultural hinterland.

The present editor Jason Cowley has been in the job for a decade. When he was announced I remember a rather snooty backlash against his appointment, given he was a bit of an outsider from the political commentariat and had been editing Observer Sport Monthly, before a relatively short stint at literary journal Granta. Yet it was pretty clear that he's proved those doubters wrong and taken the title in a really bold direction.

In the 2018 end of year edition, he talked about what his original plan was:

"Take the New Statesman upmarket; make it more politically sceptical and unpredictable; free it from the clutches of the Labour Party; publish longer and better-written pieces; burnish its literary pages; create a dynamic website; and discover and nurture a new generation of political writers."

What I think I appreciate more than anything is the careful blend of freshness and intellectual discomfort that it brings.

Of course it's a bit London-centric, all of our media is. I've spent a lifetime trying to do something about that, and I wish they'd make more of an effort. Having a conference on the Northern Powerhouse in Leeds in February is good. More, please.

But I don't think I've read a better series this year than Matthew Engel's tour of Europe. It proved hugely useful to us before our trip to Estonia and I really liked his last essay on train travel.

Kate Mossman, ex-The Word,  is a wonderfully deft culture writer and a perfect accompaniment as a columnist to Tracy Thorn. Having John Gray doing expansive moral philosophy pieces is a real coup. I always enjoy Anna Leszkiewicz's media columns, but her piece on the future of television was the best synthesis of the issues for the business, showing a real grasp of what lies behind the rise of Netflix and the challenge to the conventional TV channel model. I also think the political commentators Stephen Bush, George Eaton and Helen Lewis, all do a particularly good job of  providing steady, solid political commentary on the chaos of our failing system.

It's not just because I agree with everything. I'm at odds with Paul Mason on many things, but he does reserve his best strategic analysis pieces for this outlet than any other he writes for. I also welcome Grace Blakeley joining as an economics writer, because she reflects a particular thread of UK leftist thought that is at the  heart of the debate that has been opened up by Mason and Yanis Varoufakis.

The great skill of an editor is to curate a publishing space that can welcome new voices and nice surprises. There's a fairly high bar here, where the age ranges of the contributors give you a sense of a world observed from a wide perspective. I like seeing Howard Jacobson popping up as a reviewer and guest diarist alongside as towering figures like Michael Heseltine, Gina Miller and Mike Brearley.

As well as the writing I enjoy the political podcasts with Helen and Stephen, while Jonn Elledge's CityMetric podcast has a marvellous geeky streak that I just adore. Whatever it is they do, you pretty much know there's a high standard of insight and commentary you come to expect. I even think they make a decent job of the advertorial supplements, which newspapers manage to make unreadable, whereas the NS ones are usually very useful.

When I used to lecture at UCLAN on the magazine journalism course, I used to emphasise the importance of knowing the reader, creating a clear personality of what the title is about and how it improves their life. As the editor of a business magazine group for twelve years I aspired to make our titles this relevant and with that single minded commitment to high quality. When you have writers, designers, sales staff and a publisher who share that vision, then you are on to a winner.

It's been a challenge for magazines to transition to digital and to keep on innovating with events and podcasts and other brand extensions, but I think they have everything at their disposal to do so.

Congratulations on 10 years Jason Crowley, you’ve done a top job.