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A Dose of the Few? April 29, 2009

Posted by markswill in Media.

In London to promote a work creation scheme (i.e. my own), ogle a bit of art and socialise, I found myself decamped from Paddington onto a crowded tube train where everyone was reading the obligatory free evening newspaper (or legalised litter, as the uncharitable might call it). The front page headlines blasted out ‘TUBE ALERT AS SWINE FLU ‘ALREADY IN CITY’, and although as yet no-one was wearing the paper masks we’ve seen pictures of from elsewhere, palpable paranoia nonetheless tainted the acrid air of the Circle Line.

Over the subsequent 24 hours – and it may be even worse by the time you read this – such pervasive unease has been stoked into panic by an eager media and a compliant government, with a couple of the tabloids announcing this morning that NHS had ordered 32million face masks and that online sales of the Tamiflu antiviral have risen by a 1000% since last week. Which is hardly surprising, given that before the fourth estate got hold of the story, they were around zero. Perhaps more startling is the amount of coverage serious news sources such as R4’s Today Programme and the Daily Telegraph are according the epidemic, or to put it correctly, the Mexican epidemic since there are only a handful of cases outside that country and thus far only one person – a Texan baby ­– has died elsewhere. The net effect of course is to swiftly inflame public anxiety in a manner that brooks little of the scepticism or even debate engendered by other strains of national scaremongering, e.g. WMDs in Iraq or the desperate need for ID cards. I understand that Twitter, the social networking site for the alphabetically challenged, is also partly responsible for escalating the paranoia, which only goes to show – depending on your viewpoint – how uncritical, or vulnerable, we’ve become as a nation.

My ageing motor-scooter being rather poorly at the moment, tomorrow I’ll be travelling extensively around London on Nice Mr Johnson’s filthy, erratic, expensive but otherwise obligatory tube trains and am anticipating a mild outbreak of paper masks (thrice deemed utterly ineffectual by different experts on R4 news bulletins today) and mass defections from any carriage a passenger might sneeze in. In the meantime I wonder how long it will be before the whole thing calms down as quickly as it erupted or, as a friend warned me as I left my Welsh domicile yesterday, I don’t make it home alive?

And mention of Twitter – which I refuse to engage with as a matter of humbug-ish, middle-aged principle – prompts another observation on the state of the media (see my earlier blog, ‘Paper Tiggers’, if you will). Having recently decided to hawk my services to website publishers as well as those of the ink’n’paper variety (see my website, if you will), I’ve been spending much time trawling through a huge variety of sites just to see what opportunities might exist. The upshot being, unsurprisingly, that the standard of writing on the internet is generally pretty lame, the standard of editing and proofing, ditto. The easy if obvious explanation is that a generation weaned on digital media – texting and e-mailing in particular – have no time for grammar, spelling or even a coherency of prose and therefore the credibility of a website isn’t undermined, as it might well be in printed media, by sloppy copy.

This may also sound like a grumpy old mannism, or even mannerism, but just as journalism itself has evolved in my working lifetime, and in many respects for the better, perhaps we must embrace this and actually employ it to our own benefit? Certainly the newsmedia, who can develop a story far quicker online than in their daily ‘papers, are using the syntax if not the textual shorthand of the internet to get their stories out. So I’m gratified, though as there’s no such thing as an original idea, hardly amazed to read in the latest issue of Prospect that my argument for putting a levy on internet usage (ref. ‘Paper Tiggers’ again) is being mooted as a solution to both declining newspaper revenues and also a way of saving the country from bankruptcy.

If and when that happens, perhaps I’ll be earning enough money from my online antics to afford a stockpile of Tamiflu in time for the next outbreak of viral hysteria.

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(c) Mark Williams 2009



Killing-off the Biker Hordes April 14, 2009

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes.

Who can blame folks for hating motorcyclists? They dodge dangerously between us as we sit in our Mondeos waiting for the jams to clear, accelerate effortlessly and infuriatingly around obstacles and scare us witless when they roar past as we pootle at a steady and above all safe 53mph along otherwise deserted country A-roads. Dressed like multi-coloured spacemen or dread-locked Mad Max-types in greasy black leather, these ‘ton-up’ boys and their peroxide blonde jezebels seem to mock us with their jovial banter when we stop for flap-jacks and bottled water at Corley Services. So it’s reassuring to know that ongoing legislation is fuelling a steep decline in motorcycle ownership and soon we will be entirely rid of these reprobates.

                 Our admirably responsive government has steadily increased the complexity and cost of youngsters smitten by the insidious lure of two-wheeled ‘kicks’ getting their licence to enjoy them, and the prohibitive price of insurance has added a further, welcome deterrent. (Our shrewd American cousins set an example earlier this year by outlawing sales of all ‘youth motorcycles’). At the other end of this vile spectrum, older ‘bikers’, equally repulsed by the financial penalties rightly imposed on them for insuring the garish ‘superbikes’, find that the plethora of speed cameras judiciously placed along their favourite highways soon render their machines, if not their licences, impotent.

                  Unfortunately, many of these motorised ‘speed fiends’ thought they could still get their perverted thrills by abandoning the tarmac their obscenely powerful machines were designed to terrorise in favour of ‘mudplugging’. Happily, groups of public spirited libertarians banded together to pressure governments both local and national to address the innocuous-sounding practice of ‘green-laning’, and the results are encouraging. Although Britain’s 17,000-odd so-called ‘trailriders’ once enjoyed the ancient byways that they spuriously claim their forebears rode for many decades, wiser heads prevailed and a law passed in 2006 effectively slashed by half the mileage available to them. (They can now only access 2% of the nation’s unsurfaced byways, let’s hope it’ll soon be 0%).

                   This had the additional benefit of increasing the traffic on the remaining ‘green-lane’ network to the point where it has become over-used, worn out and even damaged, thus justifying local authorities closing them to vehicular traffic because they can’t afford to repair them – much better to spend our taxes on more road signs and magazines telling us how much they care about us. As a consequence, many ‘trailriders’ are hanging up their helmets for good, frustrated by the lack of anywhere left to ride, and the relative powerlessness of the toothless trade bodies and/or the only organisation championing their so-called right to ride which, unlike the morally righteous institutions who oppose them, lack the singlemindedness, marketing savvy and political cunning to further their unjust cause.

                   By co-opting politicians of every stripe to their cause – after all, woe betide the MP who doesn’t list ‘walking’ and/or ‘country pursuits’ amongst their hobbies – the noble champions of this entirely justifiable intolerance of all things motorised and two-wheeled are increasingly outgunning last-ditch attempts by the dwindling band of battle-weary activists to keep ‘green-lanes’ prone to the ruination of rural tranquility that all right thinking people abhor.

                   So within just a few years the remaining green-lanes will be stilled to the bark of exhausts (save of course those of the massive farm tractors which have been erroneously blamed for damaging sensitive surfaces far more effectively than any motorcycle could) or allowed to become overgrown to the point where even horses can’t be ridden along them (in the process tearing up moist surfaces that stymie the spandex-clad ninnies who ride mountain bikes) and the countryside will be safe for us to drive our Range Rovers into scenic car parks where we can enjoy a packed lunch of the finest comestibles Sainsburys can provide and perhaps take a gentle stroll up a thoughtfully paved ‘footpath’ before heading home.

                   There remain of course a few misguided cretins bemoaning the loss of previous so-called rights and liberties, and even some who might claim that the so-called rural economy suffers at the loss of free-spending motorbicyclists who cannot bring everything with them when they go for a weekend of hitherto legalised devilry either on or off-road. Fortunately public opinion will continue to turn against them: After all, is it not infinitely preferable that those who might otherwise have taken up so-called ‘two-wheeled fun’ instead spend their time safely Twittering on Facebook with their myriad and very real friends who share values so much worthier than some spurious ‘entitlement’ to enjoy themselves in the open-air? As for the beleagured small filling station, B&B and shop owners, well like the social deviants who patronised them, in this age of Wal-Mart, Tesco and good-old corporate homogeneity who, quite literally, needs them?

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                                                                                    (c) Mark Williams 2009


Brown Nosing April 5, 2009

Posted by markswill in Politics, Schmolitics.
1 comment so far

At the tail of my first ever blog two week ago, I threatened to excoriate our great spiritual leader, Broon of the Glens, and was somewhat surprised when reaction to my second effort, cannily dated April 1st, included disappointment that I hadn’t followed through. However despite the fact that as a sometime and therefore congenitally untrustworthy journalist, I had in the meantime seen a YouTube video which would render impotent any excoriation of the PM I might scribble.

 The failure of almost all news media to report MEP Daniel Hannan’s surgical demolition of GB’s fiscal management in the European Parliament prompted the inevitable conspiracy theories amongst many who saw the clip, which is why I urge you to watch it yourself and wonder just how much longer he’s going to get away with it (Broon, not Hannan). So point your mouse this way:


 However in the light of this week’s G20 platitude-fest, I won’t entirely let slip an opportunity to proffer my six penn’orth for as yet I’ve heard little which suggests that we’ll rise out of this economic quagmire anytime soon. In particular and despite what was promised, the tax-payers’ bail-out of banks has failed to provide any significant benefit. Okay, mortgage rates have fallen big time. which is a Good Thing for many folks but au contraire for the millions of savers who are suffering accordingly, especially if they’re retired.

 Perhaps Darling Brown – for in their arrogant self-denial they are one and the same – thought that lopping a bit off mortgages would have homebuyers dancing gleefully into World of Leather and thus buy the economy out of the toilet, which only reveals that they’ve ignored the power of fear. And to quote the title of my second favourite Barry Newman film (the B-list actor, not to be confused with the thinking man’s Jonathan Ross, Barry Norman), fear is the key to our malaise and if the bank’s won’t lend to business, and there’s no other fiscal stimulus to the average joe, then forget any recovery.

 Although governments are traditionally adept at invoking fear to advance their interests – Saddam’s WMDs and MMR jabs, anyone? ­­– Darling Brown & Co. seem unable to cope with its unintended consequences. So as well as admitting their culpability, they might do well to echo FDR’s inaugural address, i.e. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, rather than spouting tired excuses about it all being a global problem started elsewhere.

 For example, no-one is going to go out and buy a new car only to have it re-possessed six months later when they’ve lost their jobs. So the car manufacturers go out of business, as will their many suppliers, one of which is hanging on by its fingernails in my hometown right now – and then there’ll be even more citizens who won’t be able to afford, well, very much at all. But that’s alright, as three years hence our woefully underpaid MPs (who haven’t apparently grasped the import of this vicious circle) can be driven to their second homes in Chinese-built limos. Welcome to Third World Britain.

 Having made this point to my American friend Mr. T, (who actually is a venture capitalist), he noted a growing disenchantment with his own leader’s performance: “The autoworker’s are ready to hang Obama since he’s giving them the shaft and letting the bankers go free and run wild.Which is of course true. He added that in anticipation of escalating public unrest, “(the US government has) ear-marked 20,000 soldiers for ‘domestic duty’ ”. Ooh-ee-ooh.

 That might seem a tad far-fetched here in stiff upper-lipped Blighty, but we have a reasonably effective if over-stretched welfare system and they have… soup kitchens.

 And to affirm just how gloomy I am about our prospects, I’m stockpiling tinned kippers and buying a shotgun… no, but seriously I’m sure we’ll muddle through as we always do. But I hope in the process we’ll see the end of a prime minister who, having bleated his no-more-boom-and-bust mantra for so many years rather astonishingly expected us to believe he alone could then sort out the ruinous legacy of his chancellorship.

 But that’s enough fear’n’loathing: soon I’ll be scribbling something much more upbeat, especially if you cherish magazines, hate motorcyclists and enjoy North London pub culture. Unless of course, I don’t. Meantime, thanks for your e-mails, do please add any comments by clicking on the deceptively named ‘No comment’ link below, and even better, subscribe using the box on the right.

 Do please subscribe to my Blog (it’s free!)  – see link on the right. And if you’d like to make a comment, click on the confusingly named ‘No comment’ line, below    

                                                                                                                               (c) Mark Williams 2009

Paper Tiggers* April 1, 2009

Posted by markswill in Media.
1 comment so far

In recent weeks there’s been much hand-wringing amongst the media punditry about the escalating decline of newspaper sales. As an ex-local newspaper editor myself and because it parallels a brooding downturn in magazine fortunes, I therefore feel moved to rattle my own bracelet.

Following a bleak economic analysis by James Robinson in March 22nd’s Observer (‘Presses grind to a halt as print passes its sell-by date’), Polly Toynbee’s fairly alarmist but not entirely baseless piece (‘This is an emergency. Act now, or local news will die’) in March 24th’s Guardian reiterated that same newspaper’s Roy Greenslade who’d pointed out “free news on the web has always been parasitic on the ability of (news)papers to generate print advertising.” Well blow me down.

Some newspapers, most successfully in readership terms probably being the Guardian and Telegraph, have turned gamekeeper and mounted their own extensive websites which essentially replicate much of what’s in their paper editions but with the ‘added value’ of blogs, comments and even complete stories exclusive to the digital version. Trumpeted on virtually every page of their papers, these are supposed to be a bit of a bonus for customers who loyally shell out nigh on a quid a day for the inky version – and at weekends much more. However for the proprietors they are a crude means of driving up traffic on their websites so that they can attract and charge more for their digital advertising. (Having seen its circulation fall by 6% over the past year, my biggest local newspaper, the Newsquest-owned Hereford Times, is now following suit and the dumbing down of both versions is has become depressingly palpable as they increasingly on regurgitated press releases, many of them weasely-worded by opportunistic local politicos).

Ever since I did some serious research on this some three years ago for a major but ultimately aborted magazine launch (“Not enough advertising potential”), I have always viewed this through the eyes of the cynic who sees a naked emperor talking up his new tailor. For just as soon the advertising hoardings were being erected along the digital highway back in the late ‘90s, so too was the cost of filling them steadily pushed down by advertisers as the traffic increased. The net result was that business plans have been regularly torn up as print publishers desperately strove to increase their hit rates whilst having to drop their CPTs (cost per thousand hits, or more likely per 100,000).

Which of course has all too often been done at the expense of the quality of their print journalism, with all the quality ‘papers shedding the experienced journalists that in large part were responsible for attracting readers in the first place. As a consequence I know of a Telegraph and a Guardian reader in my street alone – and it’s a very short street in a tiny Welsh town – who have given up on their daily paper and now buy it only sporadically, sometimes in deference to the Daily Mail whose character they may be uncomfortable with but whose lower price they find comforting.

Replacing the craft and the considered journalism of these writers with fewer, generally less experienced (if photogenic) media studies graduates may still fill the pages, but their output – reduced reportage, shorter, less-nuanced stories, more froth – whilst it may well suit the websites onto which it is streamed, tends to turn off these papers’ core readership and, crucially, does little to address the advertising deficit the websites were supposed to address.

And of course it takes no account of the longterm fortunes of the fourth estate which, as Ms Toynbee rightly points out that whatever their sometime considerable failings, are crucial because “democracy without the scrutiny of good journalism is unthinkable”. Champions of the internet’s immediacy and universal access claim that such scrutiny will simply migrate online, but until publishers can find a model which generates enough income to finance it, that will never happen unless there’s a newspaper newsroom in the background to deliver the goods. And therein lies the rub that I’ll attend to in due course.

  • A fairly obvious reference to A.A. Milne’s over-optimistic if unrealistic character in The House at Pooh Corner et al.

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© Mark Williams – 2009