SubScribe: April 2012 Google+

Friday, 27 April 2012

Missing: an opportunity

Five years ago a young British girl disappeared, leaving her family distraught. She hasn't been seen since.
You wouldn't recognise her name or her face because she wasn't a pretty white child with middle-class professional parents. The world's press didn't descend on the place she was last seen, there were no reconstructions, and innocent bystanders didn't have their lives turned over in a fever of innuendo and accusation. There are no websites today dedicated to finding her.
To be honest, I don't know who she is either. But I know she exists. Every year the police receive 360,000 reports of people who have gone missing in the UK - in case you didn't manage your primary school arithmetic, that's about a thousand every day. 
Two thirds of them are under 18, overwhelmingly teenagers, and many are in care.Thankfully, the vast majority are swiftly found safe and well. At any one time, though, about 2,000 people have  been missing for more than a year.
In 2007, the year Madeleine McCann vanished, nearly 600 children were abducted from Britain and removed from the country. Some were taken in so-called 'tug of love' cases, some were victims of forced marriage or honour killings, some were trafficked  or groomed for the sex trade. What we can surmise from a respected review three years earlier is that some 60 of these children were spirited away by strangers - "every parent's nightmare" as the cliche writers would have it.
And so, on the basis that this works out at an average of five a month, I am making the extravagant assumption that at some time in May 2007, someone abducted a girl  who wasn't Madeleine McCann. 


With the fifth anniversary of Madeleine's disappearance coming up on Thursday the 
mawk machine has been cranked up to full output. The Express has featured the girl in various guises on its front pages six times in the past fortnight, including  the  preposterous She is Alive heading you see above. How can they possibly write that without so much as a quote mark? The story certainly doesn't  justify it, even if the quotes were there. 
Last week the paper -  which seems to regard Madeleine as a cipher to be alternated with Kate Middleton to shift copies on the news stands - splashed on a 'spotted in Spain' story  that was so tenuous as to fall apart at first reading. It really is time for a moratorium on such nonsense until the child is found.

And the hard news to back this flurry of activity? Well, there isn't any actually. What happened was that Panorama decided to make an anniversary documentary. In  the course of filming, a detective was interviewed and expressed the opinion that there was no reason to assume that Madeleine was dead. He also thought it would be good if the Portuguese police were to reopen the case. Every newspaper - even The Times, which has been largely a Madeleine-free zone under James Harding - reported this, some more breathlessly than others.
A noticeable feature of the reports was the restrained response from the McCann camp. Kate and Gerry didn't speak at all (possibly holding their fire for next week);  their spokesman said simply that they had been encouraged by the Met's attitude.
So great excitement in Britain. Or at least great excitement in the British press. And then yesterday those horrid foreign coppers had to go and put a damper on it, saying they wouldn't reopen the case unless they had some credible new evidence to go on, rather than speculation and sentimentality. Boo! Hiss!
Most papers reported that, too, today. The Telegraph, Times and Independent all made it a top brief; it was (surprisingly) a page lead in the Guardian and a front page puff and inside page lead in the Express, Sun and Mirror.

Ah no, I've got that wrong. There was one paper that didn't report the Portuguese rebuff: the Mail. But then, it had a full page of Jan Moir under the heading 
Miracles do happen - why not for Maddie 
in which she says
Let's hope the Portuguese authorities do the decent thing and follow up every single lead that Scotland Yard now unearth. The world would expect the British police to do the same if a Portuguese child went missing here - and you can bet your beat-pounding boots that our cops absolutely would.
Never miss an opportunity for unfounded xenophobia.
But look at the Express today, with its puff
Madeleine: Parents 'hugely encouraged' by new police hunt
The basis for that line is the spokesman's quote on breakfast TV yesterday in response to the policeman's remarks broadcast on Panorama on Wednesday - a little behind the curve. 
But the story does at least have the good grace to acknowledge that the Portuguese have said no dice.

Of course what we all wish is that Madeleine was taken by a woman desperate for a child and then cosseted by a warm and devoted family. But we know that is unlikely to be the case. Would such a loving woman simultaneously be so hard-hearted as to torture another family?
So then we get the Natasha Kampusch / Jaycee Lee Dugard camp. She could be alive and have been kept prisoner as some kind of toy or slave.  That is the scenario Jan Moir sees as a potential miracle. Jesus!
We have an obsession with anniversaries. Last year we had a letter from the McCanns urging David Cameron  to gee up the police; a letter delivered not by the Royal Mail but by the Sun's front page. The Prime Minister dutifully responded with  a 'Dear Kate and Gerry' letter (that also quickly found its way into print),  promising to ask the Home Secretary to ask the Met to do something. Oh dear. How must all those other families with missing relatives feel? And now the Telegraph is pouncing on the triple joy of the Murdochs at Leveson, the general Cameron discomfort and the Madeleine anniversary to accuse News International of pressuring the Prime Minister into action.

Now all this is just so much fish and chip paper - but the tragedy is that something worthwhile could have been crafted from this fascination with one blonde blue-eyed girl.

In 1986 the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh disappeared as she went to keep an appointment with a client noted in her diary as Mr Kipper. She was never found and was declared dead in 1994. Even so, the hunt goes on for her remains and her killer -  with two or three convicted murderers seen as suspects.
As you can see, Miss Lamplugh was an attractive woman, so there was plenty of coverage of her disappearance with all the usual appeals from her parents, Diana and Paul, reconstructions of her last movements etc etc. 
But the Lamplughs were pretty extraordinary people. They didn't just weep and wail; they quickly set up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust with the aim of highlighting the risks of single life and offering advice so that people could avoid or reduce danger. A practical example of "We don't want others to suffer as we have". 
In the same year Mary Asprey and Janet Newman were inspired by the Lamplugh case to found an organisation to help and support families of missing people. They started in a bedroom and eventually remortgaged their homes to register Missing People as a charity. They are still involved today and also run a sister charity the Missing Foundation. Last week they hosted their annual  conference, attended by 250 delegates who discussed practical measures to try to trace missing people and help their families. Total number of national press column inches devoted to coverage of this event: 0.

I am not joining the chorus of damnation surrounding the McCanns. I don't think they are evil cold fish; I don't think they killed their daughter (and, incidentally, I'm aghast at the Yahoo Answers website which asks people "Madeleine McCann: Do you think it was Kate that done her in, or Gerry?). I do think they were irresponsible parents to leave the children alone in the flat, but that's a personal view, and by God they've paid the price. Nor am I condemning the tunnel vision approach of the Find Madeleine campaign and websites. They simply echo those of Ben Needham, the toddler snatched in Kos 21 years ago (we can expect further anniversary fever about him in July). You cannot require every grieving family to be as selfless as the Lamplughs. 
But the press doesn't have to follow the one-child agenda.
Wouldn't it be so much better if our newspapers used this anniversary to shine a light on the whole issue of missing people, to look at the continued abductions, grooming and forced repatriations? Just one little fact box with a few statistics would be a start.

A grand example of taking one personal story and making it relevant to the wider world is the case of Mary Bowers, above, a Times reporter who was knocked off her bike by a lorry on her way to work last autumn. She is a lovely woman who is still seriously ill in hospital.
Her accident would be worth no more than a filler in the normal course of things. After all, to put it crudely, nobody died. 
But  Kaya Burgess didn't just turn up at hospital to read to his comatose friend in the hope that she might be aware of something. He also got to work and started to look at how such accidents could be avoided, how roads could be made safer for cyclists.
And so in February, The Times launched its Cyclesafe campaign to coincide with an upcoming parliamentary debate. It was well-prepared and thoughtful. The paper produced an eight-point manifesto it wanted MPs to adopt;  writers across the paper added different angles on the joys and pitfalls of life on two wheels; families of cyclists who had been killed told their stories (26 people have died on their bikes so far this year, each one diligently recorded by Burgess). 
The issue took off immediately. Within two weeks 30,000 people had expressed support; cities at home and abroad had signed up; MPs had crammed into Westminster Hall for the debate. 
Then readers were asked to pinpoint danger spots around the country and this week the paper published a graphic showing 10,000 stretches of road deemed too risky for cyclists. The editor presented the evidence to a Transport Select Committee inquiry into road safety on Tuesday - at the very moment his former boss James Murdoch was being questioned at the High Court about the conduct of the press. The MPs promised to look further. We can but hope.
Of course no paper other than The Times reported Harding's appearance at the committee; they had other fish to fry. But this is a campaign that will affect their readers as well as those of the News International pariahs. It is worthy of wider dissemination.

And so, you see, it is perfectly possible to take one girl or one woman's great misfortune and turn it into a force for a greater good. 
Madeleine McCann is a phenomenon. If you google her name you get 65,500 results in 0.14 seconds. Wouldn't it be wonderful if just one paper could harvest a pebble of wisdom from the sea of sentimentality we can expect next Thursday.

Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.

Sold down the river the Beeb's flotilla and fireworks fiasco - and a feeble fightback. Why didn't the top man have his hand on the tiller?

Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever

Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive

Why local newspapers matter Why we should care about the revolution in the regional press

Riding for a fall Does buying a ticket for a jolly day out at the races mean you are fair game for the snobs who sneer and snipe?

Just a pretty face Illustrating the business pages isn't the easiest job in the world, but spare us the celebs who aren't even mentioned in the story

Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef) 

The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and  the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Why local newspapers matter

When was the last time you - or anyone you know - stood at the gates of a cemetery collecting names of mourners as they left a funeral?
When did you last attend a parish council meeting or magistrates' court? Or call into a local police station for a chat (rather than to hand in your drivers' documents) or check the upcoming weddings at the register office? 
Do you still look at the postcards in newsagents' windows and check the village notice board?
Indeed, have you the faintest idea of what I'm on about?
For generations of journalists, being soaked through or bored throughout were the price to be paid to learn their craft.  The lessons were given not by university lecturers, but by wiser older hands (sometimes as old as 23) who knew all about the fetes worse than death, that brides were more likely to carry a bouquet of  freesias than fuchsias, that rain never dampened the enthusiasm for anything and that the lady mayoress was frequently to be seen sharing a joke.  The biggest lesson of all was that faces and names sold papers - and that those names must always be spelt correctly.

Forty years ago a weekly newspaper serving a medium-sized market town could expect to have a circulation of between ten and fifteen thousand. It would be staffed by an editor, a news editor, a chief reporter, half a dozen reporters, a sports editor, a couple of photographers and three or four subs. There might also be a feature writer, often an older woman working part-time.
Nearly all of the reporters would likely be juniors - indentured trainees who would serve three years before taking their proficiency test. Some would stick to news reporting, others would find a niche in sport or features or even subbing. Some in bigger newspaper groups would move around during their indenture period so that they would taste life on a daily early in their training. Most would seek to move on once they had that proficiency certificate in their hands. The fundamental skills they had learnt would be expected everywhere; all the ads used the same phraseology: reporters had to have a talent for finding off-diary stories; subs must always be fast and accurate. 
The young journalists would move from weeklies to evenings to bigger evenings. Some would choose the executive route and find their place in the community as the editor of the local paper; for others Fleet Street was the dream. The ambitions were equally honourable - if not equally remunerated - and the result was that Britain had a thriving newspaper industry populated by well-trained journalists. (I am talking here about journalism, not about printers, electricians etc and the Mickey Mouse nonsense of the era.)
For those happy to stay in what were then known as the provinces, there were plenty of jobs and opportunities. 
You may like to sit down before you read the next par.

In 1970, the Birmingham Evening Mail had a circulation of 400,000 and employed 113 journalists: 30 newsdesk and reporters, 25 district reporters, 23 news subs, 15 features staff, 20 sports staff and 9 photographers.
There are national newspapers today that struggle to match that level of staffing.

Then came the freesheets and the landscape changed. 
People are fickle: readers cancelled their orders for the paid-for weeklies and the freebies flourished. Village stringers were as happy to send their snippets to the newcomers as to the old rags - and sometimes preferred to, since the freesheets' smaller staffs (often ad reps doubling up to perform editorial tasks) wouldn't  have the time or inclination to rewrite them. As time went by, readers became convinced they were getting something almost as good as they'd always had - and for nothing.
The local press struggled; advertising ratios grew, so that the papers became almost as ugly as the upstart rivals; costs had to be cut. Newspapers which had been run by local businessmen for reasons of altruism or influence were sold into groups that got bigger and bigger. Some paid-fors took the 'if you can't beat them' approach and went free.
The freesheet didn't kill the local rag. It survived to fight another day. But only just. The decline has been relentless, but the smallest thing can still shock. This morning it was not so much the Johnston Press horror, but the announcement  of the shortlist for this year's regional press awards that made me sit upright. There among the nominees is The Birmingham Post, once one of the country's most respected morning papers. And the category? Best weekly newspaper with a circulation of less than 20,000. (It's sister, the Mail with the monster staff and a circulation to match, now sells a tenth of the copies it did four decades ago - and "sells" is a generous term, since many are given away.)

Today  the local press is facing its greatest  fight - but with a much depleted army - and this time everyone is adopting the 'if you can't beat them' line. The combination of a series of recessions and the rise of the internet is a formidable enemy for the local press to confront and few would bet on it emerging triumphant.
The consolidation of small newspaper operations into bigger businesses with shareholders to answer to has removed all romance and sentimentality.The clank of the linotype, the smell of the ink, the thunder of the presses have long since been removed from most offices as pages are sent electronically to printing contractors hundreds of miles away.  With profits and circulations falling and debts rising, journalists are under ever greater pressure to work harder and longer. Jobs are being combined (for heaven's sake, even editors are being done away with) and editions cut.
The Bristol Evening Post is abandoning its Saturday paper. Johnston Press is turning dailies into weeklies and has sent the Editor in Chief of the Scotsman on enforced leave while it decides what to do about him, having abolished his job.
And all the time we are being offered assurances that readers will get the same local coverage across a range of platforms or formats or whichever digital buzzword is in vogue today.
Well, you have to admit that Johnstons have to do something. The Doncaster Star is an evening paper that sells 2,500 copies a night. Yes, 2,500. How can you run an evening paper with such a circulation?
There are big names in the Johnston stable, but all are scoring at a fraction of the rate they enjoyed in their prime. The Sheffield Star sold more than 200,000 in 1970, today its circulation is around 37,000; the Yorkshire Evening Post sold 250,000, today that is down to 35,000. The Halifax Courier, which has been told it is turning into a weekly, is down from 43,000  to barely 15,000.

Ashley Highfield, above,  Johnston's newish chief executive, today spelt out his vision for his local newspaper stable. And what is it?  To emulate mumsnet. 
Or as he put it, to create "themed digital destinations". Material on similar topics - gardening, football, events, small business news - will be "aggregated and enhanced with social media to create a compelling destination for people interested in that particular niche...websites like mumsnet have exploited this brilliantly and we can too. So our plan is to create several of these new businesses and then promote them on a national basis".
Excuse me? This is the future of your local newspapers? To turn them into online versions of Gardening Weekly or Football World? On a national basis? Have you not noticed that there are quite a lot of specialist publications and websites out there? With experts writing them rather than shoestring staffs. Why should anyone turn to the Halifax Courier online edition for gardening tips?
Another part of the strategy is to raise the price of the print editions. "Have you ever wondered why,"  Mr Highfield asks, "we charge 65p for a paper in one part of the country and £1 for a similar product elsewhere. There are many cases where we simply undercharge. Our experience is that price increases do not have an adverse impact on circulation. Consumers will pay up to 95p for a well-produced weekly product."
Right, so when Rupert Murdoch started his price wars, he got it all wrong did he? He could have raised the price and seen circulations remain the same?
Or if Mr Murdoch's experience doesn't convince him, Mr Highfield might care to look at his own group. A while back, the Yorkshire Post raised its price from £1 to £1.10, scrapped district editions and cut the newsagents' margins. The circulation fell. A survey of 1,400 people for the National Federation of Retail Newsagents said that 59 per cent of respondents were put off by price rises and 60 per cent said they were buying fewer paid-for papers than they were last year because of the cost.
And then there is that caveat in Mr Highfield's remarks: people are willing to pay "for a well-produced weekly product". If local offices are being closed (Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Bridgnorth are all for the chop) and staff being cut, how well-produced will these papers be? 
In his 1971 book Provincial Press and the Community, Ian Jackson of Salford University noted that the Cambridge Evening News left routine local news to its weekly sister and found that it assisted sales. "In towns where the weekly is largely a reworking of the previous week's local news as reported in the evening press, sales are often unimpressive," he wrote. The same must surely apply to regurgitating web content once a week.

The whole industry is being squeezed; morale is low across the board. But there are still organisations that want to produce truly local papers for their communities - and even in these tough times, some are seeing benefits that buck the trend.
***Last autumn only three regional newspapers saw their circulations increase and two of them were sisters: Norwich's Eastern Daily Press and  Evening News. In an interview with UK Press Gazette, Don Williamson, the papers' circulation chief, talked about home distribution and other matters that you would expect to concern a man in his position, but he also showed understanding of the editorial ethos. "We want to establish a bigger network of local correspondents and get readers and newsagents to have an affinity and love for the paper and a sense of ownership of everything we do."
Apart from the staff at the Norwich headquarters, including specialists in local government, health, education and crime, the papers maintain eight district offices and a London-based political editor. The editor EDP Peter Waters told Press Gazette  that he made it a principle to avoid shock, horror journalism. 
"We are still very conscious of providing a comprehensive local news package as well as national and international news, sport and business, We should do everything a national can do, with local news as our USP. 
"We want people to feel upbeat about where they live and they made the right decision to live in Norfolk. We are militantly pro-Norfolk. We run campaigns for people to shop here and holiday here. The papers belong to Norfolk.”

Tindle Newspapers are beating the same drum. The company founded and still run by Sir Ray Tindle at 82 operates under the motto "local papers at the heart of the community". The group has more than 200 titles and managing director Brian Doel says: "I am sure we could have saved money across the group, but we've kept each title very local with local editions and subs and reporters as much as possible. they know most about the community they serve."
Now Sir Ray is no latter day saint and people who work for the EDP or the Tindle papers may not feel life is quite as wonderful as their bosses paint; both groups have made cuts and consolidations. But the core function - to produce local papers - remains intact. The shot of the Tindle papers above show how each has retained its identity; they certainly can't be accused of homogeneity. Some are paid-for, some are freesheets. If you look at an edition online you turn the pages, just like a normal paper. For some you are asked to pay 35p or 40p, others are free.

Compare this with Newsquest, which now owns the clutch of papers that  made up Essex County Newspapers plus the Basildon and Southend-based stable that was once part of Westminster Press. The ECN group had its headquarters in Colchester, above, where the  Evening Gazette and weekly Essex County Standard were based. There were also district editorial offices for weekly papers in Harwich, Clacton, Maldon, Chelmsford and Halstead. All were  printed in Colchester. Today the weekly operations have been merged, the Gazette is still produced - but without an editor - and, to be fair, it has done well to hang on to a circulation around half the 30,000 it managed at its peak. Martin McNeill, who trained with the group in the 70s, is now the editorial director, overseeing the production of the Gazette and the Southend Evening Echo from the group's offices in Basildon. 
Let's just run through that again: a daily newspaper with no editor being run from an office more than 50 miles away.
Like everyone else, Newsquest is hoping to capture new readers through its digital output. The lead story on the Gazette's website at lunchtime today was

Mum's heart stops four times and she suffers stroke having twins
There was a photograph of the woman concerned with two children aged, at a guess, between nine and twelve months old. So this is hardly new news. The picture came with three pars of copy telling us about the heart stopping and the hospital's two-hour battle to save her life. The site then guides us to "Special report in today's Gazette". So that's it, that's all you'll learn unless you buy the paper.
Well, it's a strategy of sorts.

Clicking on the 'most read' list at the side, I bring up a story called
Slimmers urged to use new programme
It tells us that the Anglian Community Enterprise is setting up one-to-one classes to advise people on a weight loss programme that has helped 600 people to lose 200 stone over the past year. (That, as a reader points out, is an average of four and a half pounds each).  It doesn't tell us what Anglian Community Enterprise is (it's part of the NHS) or that the sessions are free - as are two other programmes that aren't mentioned in the story, which has no byline.
There is a Tesco ad embedded in the the copy; in the centre of the page there is a glittering mirrorball with roller skaters passing by; at the side there are six ads between the various links to other stories, and there are a further four on top of the Gazette masthead. Every one of the ads  is moving. It is almost impossible to read anything without being distracted by a flashing word or image. There are only four local stories on the page, but there are links to national news and features.
The Yorkshire Press, which sold 60,000 a night even with the mighty Evening Post as a rival in the Seventies, is also now owned by Newsquest. Its website looks exactly the same with similar national links, although obviously with different local stories.
Is this the way we want our local news? Will these templated websites with their dancing ads  attract or deter readers?

Local newspapers matter.  Royal Mail is not allowed to give up deliveries to homes just because they are difficult to reach; bus companies are not allowed to abandon rural services and cream off the lucrative urban routes; broadcasters are required to maintain levels of local coverage in return for their licences.
I'm not suggesting that  newspaper businesses should be regulated in the same way - you cannot force a private enterprise to provide a potentially loss-making service - but I am saying that those rules for the mail, the buses and the TV stations are there because local communities matter. It is important that people are able to keep in touch and feel part of the area where they live, to be able to reach friends and neighbours in person or through letters, papers, phone calls and, yes, online social networks. 
To produce a decent local newspaper, the reporters need to have proper contact with their readers and the community leaders. They need to go to those boring council meetings, not just to take notes, but to chat to people afterwards, to get the stories behind the stories. They need to maintain contact with the local police, the village shopkeeper. They need to be in court for all cases, not simply when they've been tipped off that there's an important or juicy one coming up. And if they don't build their contacts they won't even get the tips for those. 
We had to fight in the 1970s for the right to remain in council chambers to hear all the discussions. Councils used to be allowed to vote to go into camera and exclude the press without explanation. As a young reporter I had to stand and challenge such a vote when the law  changed, to seek an explanation for why what they were about to discuss was not fit for public consumption. The new rules were effective; government became more open. 
And now we can't even be bothered to turn up. Or rather we can't afford the time to turn up. If you've got to write up the Basildon charity fun run, the A12 car crash, the Maldon regatta and the Colchester factory strike, you've barely got time to ring the Stebbing parish clerk about last night's meeting, let alone consider attending in person.
So more and more stories are covered on the phone - but the contacts who tell us what happened are the people with the vested interest in seeing the story slanted in a particular way.  Justice and democracy at their basic levels are not seen in action. 
Local newspapers have always been produced largely by youngsters with aspirations. Those village calls have always been a chore, the staid writing style constraining. But this is about providing a service, about learning to deal with people, about being grounded and disciplined. If local papers become digital wannabe redtops with slang headings and endless celebs, there will be no use for them. And that matters. 
It matters because millions of people will be denied basic information about their communities. And it matters because this slapdash approach will drag down the national press. If local papers do not produce decent ethical journalists with basic skills, who will? National papers have set up their own graduate training schemes, but these are open to only a relative handful of the smartest young men and women. 
There are 50 applicants for every graduate post  - and the universities are turning out more media graduates than there are journalists employed across the entire industry. That means there's an army of young people with certificates saying they know what they're doing. But how can they find out for real? Everyone can learn a certain amount from the classroom, but there is still no substitute for what used to be called on-the-job training and where are these youngsters going to get that? 
How will they learn how to interview a woman whose five-year-old son has just died in the village pond? Will they understand the importance of shining a light on what's going on in the Mayor's Parlour? 
They need to know.
One day they may be interviewing the woman whose son has just been killed in a terrorist bombing in a shopping centre. Or looking into shady dealings in Downing Street that could bring down a Government.

***Important update: Don Williamson was sacked a week before he was due to retire in August 2012. He admitted falsifying the circulation figures for the Evening News and Eastern Daily Press. The figures were reaudted in October and showed that News sales had fallen by 6.2% and the EDP's by 6.5%.

Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.

Sold down the river the Beeb's flotilla and fireworks fiasco - and a feeble fightback. Why didn't the top man have his hand on the tiller?

Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever

Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive

Missing: an opportunity How the hunt for Madeleine McCann could be turned into a force for good instead of just a festival of mawkish sentimentality

Riding for a fall Does buying a ticket for a jolly day out at the races mean you are fair game for the snobs who sneer and snipe?

Just a pretty face Illustrating the business pages isn't the easiest job in the world, but spare us the celebs who aren't even mentioned in the story

Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef) 

The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and  the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)

Friday, 13 April 2012

Riding for a fall

You're walking along the high street, stumble on the kerb and fall. A friend comes to your aid and you get up and dust yourself down, no harm done. Big news? Probably not.
Your girlfriend or sister is in her glad rags for a night out when she catches her heel in her hem and falls as she walks into a restaurant. Her friends help her up and all is well. A photographer witnesses the scene. Will the local paper think his picture worth publishing? Probably not.
Your mother or daughter goes to the races in cripplingly high wedge sandals. She slips on the grass  and a friend holds out a hand to break her fall. Big news? Surely not.
Yet her embarrassment is broadcast to millions - because she happens to fall at Aintree on the first day of the Grand National meeting rather than at the local point-to-point.
Is this right? Is it fair? Is it reasonable?
The Independent thought it sufficiently important to run as the page 7 picture under the heading 

Grand National Aintree's faller at the first

If the horses are as unsteady on their feet as this punter on the opening day of the Grand National festival, a lot of bets will be lost at Aintree this weekend...

The woman is not named. She is merely a "punter".

The Telegraph, too, thought the unfortunate woman was fair game and ran a slo-mo sequence of four pictures of her falling on page 5 under the heading

Faller at the first Aintree meeting starts with a tumble (blame whoever shod her)
A race-goer takes an early tumble on the first day of the Grand National meeting at Aintree yesterday....

The paper goes on to mention that Coleen and Wayne Rooney were also there and that Coleen was in a fuschia dress (which we are not shown), before ending

More examples of Scouse fashion will be on show on Ladies' Day today.

The Express went even bigger, devoting most of page 3 to  the woman's trip, rescue and recovery under the heading

Aintree filly falls at the first...
Merry race-goers were falling at the first hurdle of Aintree's Grand National festival yesterday, as the sunshine left Liverpool's champagne-soaked ladies wilting.
One blonde reveller hit the turf after tottering on huge wedge heels while navigating her way over a grassy bank at the Merseyside course.
Her ungainly tumble came after it was revealed that Britain's women punters are expected to wager up to £100 million on the Grand National this weekend - partly due to the appeal of regular punter Coleen Rooney....

There is  a small  picture of the Rooneys and the report adds that  Mrs Rooney - in a Mad Men-inspired hot-pink Roksanda Illincic dress and sky-high Louboutin heels - had a 50-1 winner in Follow the Plan. It goes on to say  that one man collected £100,000 after betting half a million on Big Buck's in the first race and there are the usual bookmakers' quotes about how much we'll risk this sporting weekend and how much they'll lose if the favourites triumph.

The Mail also went for the sequence - but way back on page 24, even behind Samantha Brick's latest "I am wonderful" piffle.

12.10 at Aintree and we have a faller at the first
And they're off - although it appears some fashion fans have more form than others.
As Liverpool's finest arrived at Aintree for the first day of racing yesterday, this woman took a tumble at the first hurdle as she battled to navigate the enclosure in six-inch wedges...

And this is where the Mail can, for once, claim some superiority over the rest: the next sentence begins with the woman's name: Milly Johnson. We aren't told what she does, where she comes from, how old she is, or anything else about her. But we do have a name and, more importantly, a small face shot in which she is looking directly at the camera. In other words, the photographer (who is not credited) or the reporter Liz Hull actually spoke to her. So Ms Johnson will have known that she might appear in the newspaper today.

But what about the Indy, the Telegraph and the Express? They didn't know who she was or anything about her - or if they did, they didn't share the information with the reader. To them she was just a "filly" or a "punter" or a "merry reveller". Chris Riches of the  Express perhaps produced the most respectable first-day-of-the-National- weekend  report  in that it had more facts in it than most - Coleen's win for a start - but did he know that Ms Johnson was champagne-soaked or did he just assume she was tipsy?

Many women dress for  big race meetings in the hope of being photographed, and with Ladies' Day today, you can be sure tomorrow's papers will be full of fashion verdicts.
But it troubles me that we as journalists are taking too much for granted. Just because a woman is dressed up for an occasion doesn't mean she's giving tacit permission for her every move to be open to  public examination. Is it now the case that the purchase of a ticket means the sale of your privacy, that you are required to subject yourself to the judgment of the masses?
"Oh come on, look at what she was wearing...that halter neck dress, that hemline, those heels.."
Is that the argument? That used to be the dodgy defence in rape cases in the Fifties and Sixties: if a woman dressed "provocatively" she was "asking for it". 
Scrutiny by the press is obviously not rape. But are today's women "asking for it" just because picking an outrageous outfit is part of the fun of a big day out?
We have seen the ladette culture, the Ibiza shame, the TOWIE brigade and we know that some women do not set great store by acting with decorum. But how dare we make assumptions about people we don't know just because they are showing a bit of flesh, wearing high heels and - heaven forfend - are in Liverpool?
And the language. It's so derogatory. 
The Times, in common with The Guardian and The Sun, chose not to use the photographs of Ms Johnson, focusing instead on the Rooneys. But then Russell Jenkins  blew it this afternoon with this patronising prose on The Times website: 

Punters could get 9-1 on Clare Balding bursting into tears during the BBC's last John Smith's Grand National broadcast, and millions will be wagered on Katie Walsh to become the first woman to win the world's greatest steeplechase
But, as ever, the annual parade of Scouse fillies tottering past the Winner’s Bar at Aintree, in Merseyside, on Ladies’ Day on the second day of the Aintree Festival remains beyond price.

Scouse fillies tottering? Why are we treating people with so little respect?

When Agyness Deyn falls over on the catwalk in London Fashion Week, comment is legitimate: it's her job to wear high heels. She's paid a great deal of money to do so.
Ms Johnson is not, so far as we know. We have no reason or excuse for turning her into a figure of fun.

Business as usual?

Earlier this week  the Telegraph illustrated its business cover with a photograph of Maria Sharapova  without telling us who she was (Just a pretty face). It was obviously so thrilled with its new game of Guess the Sports Star that it has decided to make it a new feature.
Today's business front has a picture of Usain Bolt under the heading

Bolt from the blue Olympic power supplier surges 20pc

The caption beneath reads
Aggreko, which supplies temporary power to events like Glastonbury and this summer's Olympic Games, saw its share price soar after Q1 revenues were well ahead of expectations. Full story B3

Once again, it doesn't name the subject of the photograph, although the "Bolt" in the heading and on the sprinter's chest may help if you are vaguely interested in athletics. The picture was, in fact, taken at an Aggreko-powered event: the world championships in Berlin three years ago. But it would probably be spoiling the spot-the-link challenge to tell the reader as much.

I can hardly wait for tomorrow's teaser.

And finally...

Sorry, still with the Telegraph. The front page splash this morning says

Royal Mail rationing stamps

Royal Mail is limiting then number of stamps it supplies to retailers now to ensure it profits from record price rises later this month.
Some of the biggest high street chains and post offices said yesterday they were running out of stamps as people began stockpiling them.
Royal Mail confirmed yesterday that it had imposed a cap on the number of stamps every shop could buy...

Good consumer story - even  though it didn't get the angle in the Express that Superdrug was selling stamps at a 5 per cent discount - certainly good enough to warrant a turn and a Q&A factbox. 
The turn included this par 
A Royal Mail spokesman denied that stamps were being rationed, but admitted supplies were being "limited".
Semantics,  you might think. The backbench were obviously happy enough to go with a 96pt rationing splash head. Perhaps they should have talked to whoever was overseeing page 2, where we find this turnhead  

Stamps not rationed, insists Royal Mail

Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.

Sold down the river the Beeb's flotilla and fireworks fiasco - and a feeble fightback. Why didn't the top man have his hand on the tiller?

Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever

Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive

Why local newspapers matter Why we should care about the revolution in the regional press

Missing: an opportunity How the hunt for Madeleine McCann could be turned into a force for good instead of just a festival of mawkish sentimentality

Just a pretty face Illustrating the business pages isn't the easiest job in the world, but spare us the celebs who aren't even mentioned in the story

Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef) 

The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and  the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Just a pretty face

Maria Sharapova seems to be a cutie when it comes to business. She may not be doing quite so well on the tennis court these days, but she has amassed wealth estimated at some $90 million and is the world's most highly paid sportswoman. This is in large measure a result of her eight-year deal with Nike, which should earn her at least $70 million. Her sports clothing range is achieving buoyant sales, even in the downturn, and the shoes that bear her name (and sell at $150 a pair) have been hailed by fashionistas as the perfect ballet pump.
Not entirely surprising, then, to see her on the front page of the Telegraph's business section then? Well yes, actually.
There she was, all grit and determination, under the headline 

Disadvantage Sony Reforms to cost 10,000 jobs.

Excuse me? Has Sharapova lost her job? Perhaps the caption might be more enlightening?

Sony, the electronics giant and sponsor of the Sony Ericsson Open in Florida, has suffered falling sales. Full story, B2

Sharapova isn't identified and even the word tennis doesn't appear, so a  business reader with limited interest in sport wouldn't have the faintest idea what this was all about. In fact, the photograph appears to have been taken during the final in Miami the previous week - a match that Sharapova lost to Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland.
None of this is mentioned in the front page or in the fuller story inside - a story, by the way, that describes Sony as a retailer and then goes on to explain that most of the job cuts will fall on the chemical unit. Of course, every retailer has a chemical unit.
The iPad edition was even more enigmatic: its business front carried the same photograph under the heading 

Disadvantage Sony

There was no caption, so even the tenuous link of the tennis tournament was lost. The  story a few pages on made no mention of tennis, but focused on the straight news - and was accompanied by a photograph of the chief executive in front of a presentation screen.
Illustrating business stories is difficult if you don't want your pages to be filled with a succession of middle-aged white men in suits, so designers and chief subs are always on the lookout for an imaginative alternative.
The preference across Fleet Street is to use pictures of women wherever possible on all news pages. Men like looking at pictures of women; women like looking at pictures of women. Fair enough. But surely there must be some rationale behind the choice of illustration  - and the least a chief sub can do is to let the reader into the secret by identifying the person in the photograph and explaining what she has to do with the story.
This was an extreme example, but the Telegraph is beginning to resemble the Sunday Express of the John Junor era, where pages were randomly illustrated with pictures of pretty women for no reason other than that they were pretty women.
The Telegraph has its favourites: the Duchess of Cambridge is clearly at the top of the list, closely followed by the Queen, Samantha Cameron, Michelle Dockery, Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren. Liz Hurley, who was top of the charts when the Times was going through its Johnny Wilkinson phase,  has fallen out of favour.
Do readers really want to see these same faces day after day? It might be understandable if they were doing something unusual or the image was in some way remarkable. But they are largely simply standing and staring at the camera. And why this fixation with stand-alone pictures that are frequently incongruous with the serious stories surrounding them? What is wrong with having photographs or graphics  that  have some bearing on the real news being reported on the page?
Stand-alone pictures have become such a staple of the Telegraph formula that a formal style has been established for captions. There is either a little box in a corner of the photograph that allows a couple of pars of copy or an 18pt head that sits along two lines of caption. In each case a pun kicker is required and this is set in blue. Sometimes the blue heading is followed by  another in black as on page 3 yesterday

American dream Acting ambitions

In this case, there were four pars of copy about some Olivier-nominated actors who had given interviews to the Radio Times - which was credited in the story and with a cover photograph.
This is another feature of this picture policy: most are blatant puffs with no news value at all.
Listed below are a series of headings and captions taken from photographs published in the paper over the past two weeks. Every one is given in full and with the published punctuation and capitalisation. I leave you to judge their merit:

I spy A Russian doll 
Anna Chapman, who was deported from the US on charges of espionage, models in Moscow
Page 2, March 23. Double-column  photograph of red-haired woman on catwalk

Sister act, Jagger-style
Sisters Jade, left, and Georgia May Jagger, daughters of Sir Mick, in Soho, London, at a dinner to mark the release of the latest issue of Another Man magazine
Page 8, March 24, bottom nib photograph of the two women hugging

Mirror, mirror...
Model Lily Cole prepares to help launch The Body Shop's "Beauty with Heart" marketing campaign
Page 10, March 24. Double-column photograph of woman in front of make-up mirror

Taking flight Firebird premiere
Adela Ramires catches the eye as "Lead celebrity" in the English National Ballet's new version of The Firebird, choreographed by George Williamson. The ballet had its premiere at the Coliseum in London this week
Page 16, March 24. Four-column picture of ballerina being lifted by leading man

Respect Aretha at 70 
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, celebrates her 70th birthday at a party in New York on Saturday
Page 7, March 26. Double-column picture of Franklin with cake

Maddening Parents are too uptight, says star
Parents were more relaxed in the 1960s but have now become too uptight about raising children, according to January Jones, one of the stars of the TV series Mad Men. Jones, who as Betty Draper slaps her on-screen daughter, said that while she did not condone the practice, the show was right to remind viewers of changing times.
Page 8, March 26, Double-column photograph of January Jones in character

Kate resurfaces Titanic returns in 3D
Kate Winslet, at the world premiere of Titanic 3D at the Royal Albert Hall last night. The original version, in which she starred, is the second-highest earning film of all time
Page 11, March 28, Double-column red-carpet picture of Winslet in black dress 

Sunshine skater 
Alex Hamilton, 33, of Notting Hill, made the most of the sunshine yesterday with a skate in Hyde Park. The warm weather is to continue before clouds roll in at the weekend Weather, back page
Page 8, March 29. Three-column picture of bare-midriffed woman skating by the Serpentine with dog on lead

Biker chic Samantha in leather
Samantha Cameron chose a leather jacket instead of the lycra gear favoured by many cyclists as she rode out from No 10 yesterday
Page 10, March 29 Double-olumn photograph of Mrs Cameron on her bike 

Ace of hearts Dame Helen's first aid
Over the years, Dame Helen Mirren has warmed many hearts. But yesterday she learnt the secrets of heart massage with the London Ambulance Service. The actress is a patron of a charity supporting volunteer lifesavers
Page 8, March 30 Three-column picture of Mirren on her knees gazing at an ambulance person while pretending to pump the heart of a dummy

Spectator sport Party time for Samantha and mother
While Samantha Cameron attended a book launch in London for her friend Alexandra Shulman, her mother Annabel was at The Spectator party just a few streets away with her husband Lord Astor. Miss Shulman, the editor of the British edition of Vogue, was launching her novel Can We Still be Friends. Also attending the Spectator party was the actress Olivia Grant, far right
Page 14, March 30. Three-column picture of Cameron and Shulman, single-column of Lord and Lady Astor, half stick of Grant

Helena vamps it up
Helena Bonham Carter in the first production stills for the forthcoming vampire film Dark Shadows
Page 15, March 30. Double-column picture of the actress posing with full make-up - and cleavage

All heart Sport talk
David Walliams, the comedian, and his wife Lara Stone were at No 10 to discuss Sport Relief
Page 8, March 31 Double-column shot of the couple in a clench on the steps at Downing Street

Smooth finish Swimmer in shape
Jenna Randall, the captain of Britain's Olympic synchronised swimming team, has won a new title as the legs of Braun shavers
Page 12, April 2 Double-column picture of Randall in provocative pose in swimsuit and killer heels being splashed with water

Olympic babe Team GB nappies
Paula Radcliffe, the 38-year-old British marathon runner, holds her 18-month-old son Raphael, who is wearing a nappy created by Pampers to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic Games
Page 2, April 3 Four-column picture of Radcliffe and son both with huge smiles. The toddler is in a red, white and blue nappy

King's cast Stars in Soho story
Annia Friel, top, filming The King of Soho at the Savile Club in Mayfair. The film also stars Steve Coogan, above left, as Paul Raymond, who opened the UK's first strip club, and David Walliams.
Page 5, April 3. Double-column pic of Friel in clinch with unnamed man, single-column shots of Coogan and Walliams

American girl Dockery stars in the States
She is already one of the most recognisable faces on our television screens, and now Downton Abbey has made Michelle Dockery a star in the US as well.
The actress is a cover girl for the latest Vanity Fair, which hails her as one of the "most watchable women" on television.
Dockery, 30, posed in bed with the actresses Julianna Margulies, Claire Danes and Sofia Vergara. The magazine called Downton "a sophisticated sensation".
Dockery said she was still getting used to US fame: "I was in a tea shop in New York and the couple next to me were talking about Downton Abbey and recognised me."
The May issue of Vanity Fair is on sale on Friday.
Page 5, April 4. three-column picture as described. Single-column magazine cover shot

Wheels of power
Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minister, arrives at No 10 Downing Streets on a Brompton bike yesterday
Page 6, April 4. double-col pic of minister on a bike (photographed by Steve Black, who also took the cycling Sam pic - and the jogging Sam pix of a few weeks back)

Flower girl Ballet opens
An English National Ballet dancer performs in My First Sleeping Beauty, which opened last night at the Peacock Theatre in London
Page 10, April 4. Three-col picture of unnamed dancer on points

Big step Ballet fun
Four-year-old Daisy Anne Bolton meets the Sugar Plum Fairy, Northern Ballet dancer Lori Gilchrist. Northern Ballet is seeking sponsorship following a 15 per cent cut in core funding
Page 2, April 5. Three-col pic of dancer on points with the little girl at the barre

Charlize Single mother
Charlize Theron poses for the May issue of Vogue, in which she discusses her new role as a single mother. The Hollywood actress, 36, recently adopted an African-American baby called Jackson. In the magazine, out on Monday, she describes her son as "the greatest gift", adding: "I've always known I wanted a family."
Page 9, April 5. Five-column  pic of actresss lying on couch or bed in low-cut dress with legs apart

No problem Sound of Music star is back
Connie Fisher, who starred in The Sound of Music after the TV talent show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? is in Wonderful Town at The Lowry in Salford Quays. She was told last August she might never sing again because of a throat condition
Page 10, April 5. Double-column pic of Fisher dancing on stage in dress slit to the crotch

Stung Kiss for Meryl
Meryl Streep and Sting perform in the Concert for the Rainforest Fund at Carnegie Hall, New York
Page 12, April 5 Double-column picture of Sting kissing Streep on the lips

Step up Paula leads
The marathon champion Paula Radcliffe on Westmiinster Bridge yesterday with fellow athletes ahead of the Great British 10k run on July 8. The route goes past the Houses of Parliament
Page 14, April 5. Deep three-column pic of a dozen women running past Parliament

Titanic task
The singer Katie Melua will be part of the Titanic commemoration show in Belfast on April 14. It will be broadcast on BBC Two
Page 15, April 6 Deep double-column of Melua in long red dress, sitting on a trunk

Stop! Stop! We get the message, I hear you cry. 
But this barely scratches the surface and almost entirely ignores the obsession with the Royal Family. During this fortnight, we had pictures of the Queen and the Duke going to Waltham Forest and having a disagreement over whether they had been there before; Kate increasing the sales of hockey kit; Charles playing basketball (in the same issue); Camilla visiting Liverpool and remembering that teenagers used to scream at the Beatles; Zara playing with her nephew; the Queen visiting the BBC Salford studios and doing stuff for Sport Relief; William and Kate not going to a memorial service for the Queen Mother - followed the next day by a line-up of all the royals who did attend. It goes on and on....and don't get me started on the Camerons.

And all this before we even begin to examine the picture choices and caption writing outside of this stand-alone format - a three-column shot of Helen Mirren in that bikini to illustrate a story about a row over her Italian villa, for example. And, to my mind the worst of the lot, a double-column picture of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Manchester United shirts alongside a story headlined 

I'm no longer haunted by last photo of murdered girls, says Holly's father

It is nearly ten years since the girls were killed by Ian Huntley and Kevin Wells gave an interview to announce that he would be running the marathon to raise funds for the Grief Encounter  bereavement charity of which he is patron. He told the charity's newsletter that he didn't want to talk about what life had been like the past ten years, but said that he now imagined his daughter as a woman of 21 and not the girl in the famous photograph. "That photo no longer impacts on me," he said.
Maybe not, but I still feel it was crass to use it as the main photograph.

A newspaper's use of  pictures  defines it almost as strongly as its splashes and its columnists. And caption writing is one of the supreme arts of the sub-editor. The Telegraph is strong on wildlife, often picking up photographs that are under-displayed by rival papers. But this sub-glamour PR handout approach demeans it as a quality broadsheet , and the banality of the captions compounds the problem. 
OK, in some of these instances there is barely room to say anything, in which case it is the sub's job to approach the page designer or chief sub or night editor and ask for an extra line or three. None of these pictures would suffer from a little being shaved top or bottom.
But even where there is enough space to make something of the job, there is no apparent enthusiasm. An actress adopts a child and says "I always knew I wanted a family." Well, wowwee, what an unusual woman; move the story to the front. 
And that five-par Vanity Fair puff. This magazine has its finger on the pulse. Those four actresses didn't fall into bed together by accident: they are the real TV stars of the era. Juliana Margulies was watched by an average audience of 10 million in her ER days, in the Good Wife she draws 12 million; Sofia Vergera's performance in Modern Family picks up a regular audience of 14 million; Downton averaged 10 million at its peak.  Claire Danes may not be reaching quite those figures with her stunning performance in Homeland, but she has been nominated for a hatful of awards - and the programme has been endorsed by President Obama.  Perhaps some of that could have made its way into print? But no, we get this vapid comment from Dockery about being recognised in a tea shop. God save us.
Maybe it's  too much to ask subs to use their imagination in the face of such pappy subject matter. But surely they shouldn't be so disenchanted by the material that they can't be bothered even with the basics - such as identifying the woman in the picture on the front page. 

Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.

Sold down the river the Beeb's flotilla and fireworks fiasco - and a feeble fightback. Why didn't the top man have his hand on the tiller?

Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever

Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive

Why local newspapers matter Why we should care about the revolution in the regional press

Missing: an opportunity How the hunt for Madeleine McCann could be turned into a force for good instead of just a festival of mawkish sentimentality

Riding for a fall Does buying a ticket for a jolly day out at the races mean you are fair game for the snobs who sneer and snipe?

Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef) 

The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and  the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)