Harry Brown

9 03 2010

Apologies for the time-lapse since my last post, I have been very busy with production days and contributing to the exciting new CJS website Capture Cardiff.

In the light of the above, I have decided to add some of my recent articles to this blog, particularly my reviews and comment pieces.

I will start with last week’s DVD review: the new Michael Caine vehicle Harry Brown.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

From the opening scene of Harry Brown, it is clear the viewer is in for a harrowing experience.
An unprovoked act of violence in broad daylight, in which a group of youths shoot a defenceless mother, is a microcosm of the moral abyss in which the events of the film take place.

Nearly 40 years on from Get Carter, Michael Caine shows he still has star quality

Michael Caine stars as the eponymous antihero, a vigilante who takes it upon himself to combat the rule of the violent and unrestrained youths of south London.
***

But the real star is Ben Drew, who is beginning to forge an impressive acting career after a semi-successful foray into rap under the pseudonym Plan B.
Reminiscent of a young Vincent Cassel, Drew excels as the hollow villain of the piece. Few performances have disgusted and impressed in equal measure as much as his since Gary Oldman’s in Leon or Cassel’s star turn as Vinz in La Haine.
***

The strength of the acting is complemented by an impeccable use of gothic London cityscapes, which transport the viewer back into a Jekyll and Hyde-esque nightmare in a way which is not at all artificial.
***

Director Daniel Barber, making his feature-length debut, looks like an old hand. His command of subtle lighting and his use of silence or minimal dialogue add to the atmosphere of frightening uncertainty.
***

The haunting tone of the piece leaves the viewer feeling distant and horrified throughout, yet undoubtedly affected once the film draws to its chilling climax.

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[insert tenuous automobile pun here]

17 12 2009

This term we have had a number of wonderful speakers talk to us about various elements of online journalism.

We have learned about blogging, digital storytelling and much much more, from names as diverse as Rory Cellan-Jones – who has years of expertise to fall back on – and Rob Andrews, who only recently graduated from the very same CJS course we find ourselves on now.

But for our penultimate lecture of term, we went back to where it all started – a stuffy lecture theatre in the law building and the wise words of Glyn Mottershead.

Not that I want to belittle Glyn’s teachings – far from it. For in this lecture he gave us an insight into the vital skill of Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR)

Gran Turismo

Although CAR has been a popular source of reporting in the US for some time, it is yet to board the ferry for Britain with any real authority.

Many have speculated on the reasons for this, although I will hazard a guess that Glyn’s comment that ‘It’s quite time consuming’ may have something to do with it.

Perhaps after missing the boat originally, British journalists have ascertained that the 24-hour news culture renders speed more important and 100% accuracy less so.

Or perhaps its the school of thought which came up with the statistically inaccurate assertion that there are ‘lies, damn lies and statistics.’

All that’s certain is I made 81.2% of these assertions up on the spot.

Breakdown cover

Like many things, CAR can be broken down very simply, but at the same time the process of dumbing-down is counter-productive if you don’t then expand back out to give a fuller picture. Confused(.com)? well you shouldn’t be.

CAR is about working out where you can find information, then evaluating, analysing and (finally) communicating it. Key to this process is our old friend the Freedom of Information Act.

And here is where things start to get a little more complicated, in terms of finding the information you need for that elusive scoop, that front-page splash that your editor wants you to provide.

Steering you in the right direction

When making a Freedom of Information request, if just ask for an answer to your question that will only get you so far.

If, on the other hand, you ask for documents relating to the issue you want to cover, this will potentially get you much further.

Sure, it might require more work on your part, but researching and using all the available information is all part of the job, right?

Take, for example, the Labour government pledging an extra £300 million for childcare. On the surface an impressive-sounding, headline-grabbing number. But CAR helps us tell a different story.

It can tire you out

What is £300 million? Well it’s just a number. The figure was pledged over a 5-year period, so to work out how much it amounts to per year, you need to divide by 5.

Then divide by 52 to find out how much will be pledged per week.

Then work out how much that is per child – here is where the Freedom of Information request comes in.

Long story short, the seemingly extravagant £300m equates to only £1.15 per child per week.

How did I get to this answer? I got there by CAR.

On the road

So, that’s about as much as I know so far, but I think I can speculate that CAR will grow and grow quickly.

After all, most of us at CJS have already expressed an interest in learning more about it and developing our existing skills. And we’re some of the best budding journalists in the country, right?

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted, but for now I’ll leave you with this gratuitous post, a video from a legend of modern music whose words single-handedly brought down the Berlin Wall. Why don’t you come along for the ride?





Climbing up the (pay)walls

6 12 2009

In the beginning, there was news.

Then people, for argument’s sake let’s call them journalists, thought it would be a good idea to print news. The newspaper was born.

Many years later, the internet came along.

The internet quickly became a repository for anonymously abusing people, watching pornography, and of course reading news.

When the UK’s national papers jumped on the online bandwagon they thought it would be a good idea to make their content free to whoever wanted to read it.

Sales of physical newspapers were not in as dire a state as they are now and anyway, if sales started to fall away they could always start charging and people would be happy to pay up, right? Wrong.

“Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.” – Pink Floyd, 1973

Last week, former Cardiff Journalism School student and current UK editor of paidcontent.org Rob Andrews came back to his old stomping ground to give a talk about the problems facing newspapers as they try and bring in money from online sales.

The main issue is very simple. People don’t want to pay for something they can find for free somewhere else.

Rob explained how difficult it is for online sales to put money in the kitty

You see, you should never underestimate people’s willingness to shop around for freebies.

And with so many news aggregators around online, it is becoming easier for people to find free news if they are determined enough.

While some papers, including the Financial Times, have experienced some success after setting up paywalls, Rupert Murdoch’s ambition to do the same with The Times is likely to be less fruitful.

Because you’re worth it

Now I’m not saying many – if not all – of the UK’s national papers deserve income from their online stories.

While the stories themselves may be the same as those available for free elsewhere on the web, The Times and its counterparts frequently display a far greater standard of journalism.

Take, for example, this brilliantly-written article from Daniel Finkelstein.

It shows a lot of depth that cannot be found elsewhere, yet people will still prefer to read articles like this which are free, informative and to the point.

Keep it snappy

When I went on a work experience placement at BBC Sport, one of the first tasks I was given was to write four-paragraph stories.

I was told that four paragraphs are all you see on the first page of Ceefax, and that on the website you have to scroll down to get to paragraph five.

People don’t like scrolling down, I’ve heard. It requires too much effort.

The difference with the FT and other similar sites is that they provide expert information.

People go on sites like this because they are looking for something specific. And by ‘something specific’ I don’t just mean ‘Who is Katie Price going out with this week’ or ‘What film did I see that actor in?’

I mean information that people can trust, specialist information that readers need to be able to rely on.

Mmmm… free goo

Recent trends seem to show that people are moving towards free sites, no matter how uninformed or useless the information they provide is.

And the polls which Rob showed us seem to suggest that forcing people to pay for news will be ambitious at best.

The one potential saving grace, which seems like a fairly remote possibility, is that Murdoch’s plans will drive readers back to print media.

Is this the end for print media?

But have people really just stopped reading papers because they can get the exact same stories for free, or is it because they simply don’t like carrying a paper around with them every day and ending up with a pile of useless ‘old news’?

The Evening Standard would seem to side with the former, jumping the  gun by becoming a freesheet and – one would assume – seeking to get advertising companies on their side early and generate something approaching a steady revenue.

And while Murdoch hopes to buck the trend, few have been able to convince themselves that paywalls are the answer to journalism’s woes.

After all, the success of paywalls requires something far more difficult than writing an award-winning story. It requires convincing people to change their habits.





Write, hear, write, know

24 11 2009

Did you always want to be a journalist? Joanna Geary did, and she’s turned out to be quite a good one.

After weeks of doom-and-gloom stories about the future of my chosen field, it’s refreshing to get a more positive outlook on things.

Joanna’s talk gave me hope. Hope that, five years from now, I might not be living in a cardboard box with mountains of debt.

Joanna Geary. She smiles just as much in real life, you know

Joanna Geary. She smiles this much in real life too, you know.

Joanna Geary is still in her twenties, and has already risen to the rank of Web Development Editor for The Times.

This is a far cry from the message I have garnered from conversations with the selection of ‘hacks’ – old and young – who I have gently pestered for work experience.

Here is just a selection of the responses I have received after mentioning my ambition to start a career in newspaper journalism:

“Newspaper journalism is going down the pan.”

“There are no jobs around nowadays.”

“You should probably take a year or two out, then see if things have started to pick up.”

“Who are you and who let you in my office?”

None of your business

If it didn’t offer me enough hope that Joanna has come such a long way in such a short space of time, her route into journalism was right up my street.

Her ‘in’ was as a business reporter at the Birmingham Post, even though that was maybe not where she saw herself as a wide-eyed youngster driven towards journalism by a combination of parental encouragement and considerable self-motivation.

Similarly, I am confident that it was my work as Jobs and Money editor for Cardiff University’s student publication Gair Rhydd which got me where I am today.

It was not my first choice of position after the demise of the much-lauded Television section, but the change of pace was probably a blessing in disguise for me.

While thinly veiled satirical attacks on public figures was no doubt fun, for me to fulfil my ambition of becoming a serious journalist I needed to make the move towards, well, serious journalism.

One thing led to another and here I am, using my blog posts as the chief vestige of humour within a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, postgraduate diploma course.

Look around you

While Joanna’s newspaper work undoubtedly helped her gain a foothold in the world of journalism, it is a combination of inquisitiveness and ambition which has helped her make great strides over the last few years.

After being alerted to a blog called Created in Birmingham, she felt the need to step up her game and decided to contact the website’s creator, Pete Ashton.

He started talking to her about blogging and within 18 months Joanna managed to take what she learned and apply them to a project which has helped her significantly augment her income.

After being instructed by her employers to set up a blog network for the Birmingham Post, a feat which no other regional newspaper has even attempted to repeat, she asked around for contributors, using her twitter account and her own blog.

Not only was she able to set up a successful blog network, her work also helped her obtain a virtual job reference from revered journalist Jeff Jarvis, and her career continues on an upward spiral to this day.

Um, try to do lots of good journaling?

I believe that many of us took Joanna’s advice on board, and if we are to pick out one person’s example to follow, who better than someone who was in our position not too long ago.

The overwhelming majority of students on my course already have twitter accounts, and most of us interact with eachother as well as following journalists and celebrities from across the globe.

We are well and truly part of ‘the conversation’, and we have learned that, if we want someone’s help in relation to all things journalism, all we need to do is ask.

Case in point: my friend and fellow journalism student Caroline remarked on a twitter conversation between two of her ‘personal journo heros’ and amazingly got a reply from one of them, Charlie Brooker.

Rather than the two obvious responses of shocked silence and unsubtle sycophancy, easy options which I might have gone for not too long ago, she decided to dive in and personally ask the Guardian and BBC4 funnyman if he had any tips for aspiring young journalists.

While his advice, ‘Um, try to do lots of good journaling,’ was perhaps not the most inspirational, it still offered hope to the generation of young journalists to which I belong.

And reading between the lines, it is evident that Charlie – like Joanna – gave us all one great piece of advice: speak, and people will listen.





The reels on the bus

10 11 2009

So far on the journalism diploma course we have been forced to grow up fast.

After three years of enjoying the student lifestyle, it has been made clear to us that this is more like a job.

Lie-ins and four-day weekends have given way to 9-to-5s, strict work deadlines and ‘professional life streams.’

Given all of this, it was refreshing to get a perspective on journalism from someone who hasn’t really ‘grown up.’

Dr Meadows

With his youthful smirk and smart-casual attire, Dr Daniel Meadows could easily be mistaken for one of the ‘down-with-the-kids’ teachers in a teen movie.

Dr Daniel Meadows

He seemed to be making a statement with his entrance, and to be honest it could have gone either way.

Or so I thought. But Dr Meadows had the room hooked from the start with his genuineness and awkward charm. He gave the impression he didn’t want to be pigeonholed by the ‘doctor’ tag.

Say cheese

And it was this same charm which helped Dan kickstart his journalistic career, with something called the photobus.

The year was 1973. Britain was going to the dogs, the world was at his feet, and journalists were still using clichés.

It was a time when, as Dan tells us, it was very difficult to break into the world of journalism.

Without the familial or platonic connections which might fast-track him into this world, and without the blogging framework which helps all us desperate hacks get a foot through the door, Dan took to the streets.

JRR404 in all her glory

The vehicle above is JRR 404, the bus in which a young Daniel Meadows lived and travelled the country, taking photos of anyone who was won over by his charisma and wafro.

And the results of this experiment would prove more far-reaching than even Dan himself could have imagined.

This uninspiring lecture theatre is as far as possible from the streets of 70s Britain, and unambitious manufactured pop – rather than the expressive invention of punk and reggae – is the soundtrack to this generation.

So it is perhaps less surprising than you would think that in 1999 – 25 years after the first photos were taken on the ‘Free Photographic Omnibus’ – the images captured on humble black and white film still carry great importance.

Dan captures our imagination with tales of Lynne the go-go dancer, and Florence, who proclaimed herself ‘one of lifes losers.’

While the stories themselves are inspiring and emotive from a human standpoint, Dan’s methods helped enlighten us about the value of images, both still and moving, in the work of any journalist.

Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe

At the end of the lecture, we were advised to look at a short film by Marcus Bleasdale entitled Rape of a Nation. The film is a wonderful piece of journalism, and a perfect example of one man’s effort to use the visual arts to give a news piece more impact.

Bleasdale’s work will hopefully be successful in bringing the political situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country whose name alone evokes a cruel irony when juxtaposed with his images, to the fore.

The conflict has had criminally little coverage in this country compared to situations in Gaza and Bosnia which – while no less appalling – surely do not deserve a monopoly on western guilt.

Even the recent genocide in Rwanda, which saw hundreds of thousands die needlessly, only captured our attention when visualised in films such as Hotel Rwanda and Shooting Dogs. Until then, as one character says with such painful honesty in the latter, “They’re just dead Africans.”

Seeing is believing

While it is perhaps going too far to say that it is the responsibility of journalists to bring such significant stories into the public eye through the media of pictures and videos, we should certainly not ignore the opportunity which technological developments have given us.

With print and online journalism perhaps more closely aligned than ever before, those of us with the facilities to make the suffering of the Congolese and others more ‘real’  should not waste this opportunity.

And the logical step up from driving around Britain with a bus and a camera is flying around the world with the means to instantaneously publish whatever you feel should be seen.

I will leave you with this wonderful collage, compiled by the band A Perfect Circle. While it cannot be classed as conventional journalism, the convergence of all forms of media mean that it is capable of fulfilling the same task we all should set out to achieve.






Hashtag la vista

28 10 2009

Last week I, and my colleagues on the Cardiff postgrad diploma in journalism, were tweeted to an intriguing lecture from @cward1e

You may be wondering a couple of things about that opening sentence, namely why I used the word ‘tweeted’ and why I referred to our guest lecturer Claire Wardle as @cward1e

There are two reasons for this:

1. I am massively self-important and am using words like ‘tweet’, ‘hashtag’ and ‘blogosphere‘ to sound smart and hide my profound lack of knowledge on subjects I might appear to be well-versed in. Note that by making this point ‘1’ I am only drawing more attention to this self-importance.

2. Claire was talking to us about her area of expertise, social media, and – more specifically – the twitterverse.

Sesame tweet, this week brought to you by the letter @ and the #32*

For those of you who are new to the world of twitter, let me give you a brief rundown.

People post their views – known as ‘tweets – on whatever they want, from their views on Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize to what they are eating for breakfast, and share these views with the world.

Anyone can see your tweets if they choose to ‘follow’ you, but long gone are the days when people only joined twitter to stalk the likes of Stephen Fry and Charlie Brooker ( or @stephenfry and @charltonbrooker to you and I and anyone else who follows them).

So, those @ signs, what do they do? Well they allow you to tag or mention your friends/followers/stalkees in your tweets. For example, yesterday I tweeted about going to a Frank Turner gig with my friend Emma – the tweet went something like this:

seeing @fthc tonight with @emcetera

You can also throw in the odd hashtag (that’s a #) to discuss ‘trending’ topics – i.e. those which a lot of people are tweeting about. For example, last week, one such topic was #oneletteroffmovies and my immature offering was #oneletteroffmovies ace ventura – pee detective.

The hashtag is – of course – by no means restricted to juvenility and bad puns, that’s just what I use it for.

#butwaittheresmore

Trending topics can do more than simply bring together like-minded people. They can help bring news stories out in the open.

Take, for example, the recent coverage of the Trafigura debacle – the name of the Swiss company became common knowledge far quicker than it might otherwise have done, simply as a result of tweets and hashtags spreading it like wildfire.

And there are other ways that twitter helps bring people together.

Claire told us about things such as twitterfall and tweepml in her lecture. The former allows you to see what people have to say about certain trending topics, while the latter allows you to form lists of people with certain things in common. Go on, try them out.

Other things came up in the lecture, such as netvibes and tweetdeck, but I’ll let you find out about them yourself.

Alessandro Diamanti

*32 is a completely arbitrary choice, made – for argument’s sake – because it is the number worn by Alessandro Diamanti when he scored the equalising goal for West Ham last weekend. It’s the ‘#’ bit that’s important, although if you hadn’t worked that out by now you’ve probably wasted your time reading this. The eagle-eyed among you will have also noticed that ‘@’ is not technically a letter. Good for you.





Blogosphere and loathing

22 10 2009

I hoped I’d be able to get away without ever using the word ‘blogosphere’ on this blog.

It just feels too pretentious, as if I am telling readers ‘I know the proper names for things you don’t even know exist.’

However, as it happens, the blogosphere is of vital importance to the topic I wish to discuss this week, namely the Trafigura scandal.

OK, so let me run you thorough the basics, in case you have been in a bubble (or a balloon) for the last 10-or-so days.

The art of silence

Last week, The Guardian ran a front-page story explaining that a gagging order prevented the paper not only from reporting on a certain question raised in Parliament, but also from revealing what said question actually was.

The Guardian was, in fact, only able to reveal that the gagging order was obtained by Carter-Ruck, the American law firm.

So, in a MacGuyver-esque display of deduction, bloggers speculated indiscriminately about further details of this super-injunction.

And the always-informative Guido Fawkes blog was one of the first to suggest the issue concerned was ‘The publication of the Minton Report‘ on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.’

Here is where we can see the power of the blogosphere at all levels.

Tweet like a nut, tweet on Trafigura

Various other blogs – political or otherwise – ran riot, with people many posting their opinions on the situation with little knowledge or understanding of the subject matter.

And the name of the Swiss company was almost instantaneously among the most-mentioned topics on twitter, the London Lite to the blogosphere’s Daily Mail.

Clearly 140 characters constitutes a detailed analysis for some.

But it is not about the quality of articles on the subject, it’s about the dissipation of information.

In the days before the internet – or even the days before it became the tangled web of social networks it is today, the situation may well have panned out something like this:

1. Guardian tries to print article on findings of Minton Report

2. Carter-Ruck imposes super-injunction

3. Other newspapers throw their hats into the ring

4. They too are told to Ruck off

5. Trafigura dumping toxic waste does not become public knowledge, at least to so great a degree

But now, ideally, it will pan out like this:

1 and 2 – see above

3. Guido Fawkes blogs about the issue, making it public knowledge in certain spheres

4. The story spreads worldwide within hours, if not minutes

5. Damage is potentially done to the reputations of both Trafigura and Carter-Ruck to a greater degree than would otherwise be possible.

To cut a long story short, if you manage to sift through all the dross and uninformed tweets and ramblings, you can cut to the core of the situation.

3109673465_b5aca1d7cd_o

The information is getting to the people who need to know about it, and quickly. Admittedly it’s a bit like throwing paint randomly over the walls of your house hoping to create art, but within these circles people live off information and they need to be fed.

So there we are. For anyone criticising the internet for its foibles, it’s important to recognise the potential for the benefits to outweigh the hindrances. And this can only be a good thing, right?