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Finding time

Last week’s Guardian included an article on the challenge of finding time to read, including examples of professional book readers who seem to be facing this issue. I didn’t know there were jobs where you really were paid to read – ah, it turns out you have to do something else, like edit the books or critique them, so actually my dream job doesn’t exist after all. I can, however, certainly relate to the problem of finding time to read. I’ve mentioned before that one solution is audiobooks, which currently gets me a good hour of reading time a day and has the other advantage of avoiding at least some of the Punch and Judy show that we call the General Election. But it’s not a substitute for sitting down and reading until it’s a few hours after you really should have gone to bed, but you just want to know what happens next, what your favourite character is going to do… and never mind the consequences on the next day’s productivity.

Apparently, reading a book instead of watching television doesn’t work in freeing up time to read. From experience, I can’t see why it doesn’t. It was the first thing to go in my case, following the Groucho Marx adage of

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

(I confess that I got the ‘exact’ wording from the internet, where there appears to be a range of possible combinations of words used, which I hope in fact reflect something he did write or say, but even if he didn’t, I like the sentiment.)

And the other ‘traditional’ solution of always having a book with you appears to have mixed reviews. When I do have a book with me, I find that there are always opportunities to use otherwise unproductive time to read it – walking about town on an errand (watch for lampposts that jump out at you), waiting for someone, even walking to or from your car. But what that doesn’t give us is the immersive experience of being in a different place, a different time, a different person’s head. We can sometimes just dip in and out.

Credit to Penguin books, though. They’ve brought out a series of ‘Little Black Classics’ at the attractive price of 80p (and no, Amazon aren’t cheaper than your local book shop).

Books

Please note the themed Easter tablecloth…

I was more than a little impressed by the selection and quality of the books they included. When the summary of some of the stories includes ‘Kafka’s favourite story’, ‘considered by James Joyce to be the world’s greatest story’, ‘three short stories by the modern master of the form’, ‘transformed the modern world and still shapes millions of lives today’, the chances are they are worth reading. They are also relatively short – perfect for the odd moments when we can snatch some reading time. But you still need hours on end for the full length novels.

I have a little card lying around that I picked up from a local bookshop a few years ago – “Eat. Sleep. Read.” If only.

Right and wrong – black and white?

The thing about black and white photography is that it isn’t really. Black and white, I mean. It’s shades of … no, I’m not going to finish that thought given the film (apparently) currently showing in cinemas. Black and white are just the ends of that spectrum, there is an infinite range of grey in between. Thanks to two very large books that recently arrived, I’ve been poring over some of the best photos from the last century, or at least some of the best black and white ones, trying to understand better what works in a picture and why. And I’ve also been out and about with my camera, experimenting a lot. I have no idea if any of the pictures are even worth looking at, never mind printing. But I’m hopeful that this coming weekend I will be able to develop and scan them and then we will know. For now, there are a couple of rolls of film lying in the fridge waiting for me to get to them. And I am very grateful for a wife who grew up with film in the fridge and who finds this entirely normal. Thank goodness for her journalist parents.

We often talk about ethical issues in black and white terms as well. Maybe it’s easier to take a firm position than recognise the nuances of the arguments for and against any proposition. I know that I have opinions on enough subjects where I am nowhere near as informed as I should be to have such  strong view, but there we are. And there are some questions where we don’t need to know every fact to have a sense of what we think a reasonable (if not ‘right’) point of view is. However… when it comes to politics, I was given something of a surprise when I looked at https://voteforpolicies.org.uk and selected which policies my views were closer to – without knowing which party they came from – and am now having to re-examine some assumptions I had previously made. It’s an excellent exercise to go through.

Despite the internet providing us with a range of opinions more than wide enough, we do still rely on the professionals working across the media sectors both to report and comment on current issues.

And that brings me on to the current debacle with the Telegraph and the reporting of the HSBC offshore tax disclosures. A quick recap – an allegation that the Telegraph didn’t report much of the HSBC story because of the amount of advertising the paper received from the bank, one of the paper’s senior reporters resigns and writes about his reasons in some detail, then we find out that apparently the newspaper’s owners received a loan from HSBC. And a general sense that all is not right in the world of editorial independence. Black and white, right? But this was, of course, the same newspaper that broke the story of the MPs and their expenses, and just today came the ‘revelation’ of two prominent MPs (for balance, one each from both the two main political parties) and the way in which they might be using their name, access or reputation to earn some extra money.

But back to the HSBC reporting issue.

Here are the front pages of the online newspapers of the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Telegraph on the day HSBC offices were raided in connection with alleged tax evasion:

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Clear cut, then. Only the Telegraph didn’t have the HSBC cover on its front page. Guilty as charged. Neither did the Independent. I just chose to omit that, because it wouldn’t have fit with the picture I was trying to paint. So sometimes it depends on what facts you include and which you exclude. Was there any agenda in my selection? No, they were just the three papers I tend to check. I only looked at the Independent to see if I could say that all the quality dailies except the Telegraph covered the story with the same degree of prominence.

None of this is new, the conflict between editorial independence and the commercial necessities of running a newspaper as a (profitable) business. I haven’t spoken with any of the journalists at the Telegraph and know no more about what really is going on at the top of that organisation than I read about elsewhere. But I did speak with journalists in Germany who went through a similar experience.

During the Soviet era, politics drove reporting of events in East Germany. Some areas were more overtly steered than others, but nowhere was immune. When the Berlin wall fell, the old system of media direction collapsed, the previous newspaper editors either resigned or were effectively fired by the rest of the staff. It was going to be a new beginning. And for a year or so, that was a reality. Thanks to continuing subsidies and without political interference, journalists could write about what they wanted, how they wanted to. And they did.

And then reality set in. Western publishers came along and the parameters of the reporting changed. Where there had previously been politically-driven dictats, now there were commercially-driven ones. Here’s what a few of them had to say about their experiences (you can, of course, read the whole story with all its nuances in my book – you can even skip the Marxist-Leninist theory and go straight to the fun parts where I shut up and let the journalists speak):

For those of us in the business affairs team the conflict is conducted between advertising customers and editorial work and there are conflicts there for me when advertising customers call the Berliner Zeitung saying the reporting of the opening of some shop was too limited and they buy so much advertising from this paper. Then the publisher impresses upon us that some reporter from the business affairs team has to go back there again and write about it again so that the advertising customer is satisfied, and I think that’s totally wrong – that so much influence is exerted by advertising customers – I think it’s increased as the number of advertising customers has reduced, business is bad, then you do something to counteract that, I think that’s somehow a betrayal of the reader.

And that is for me the biggest conflict of all, that in my opinion the profit that is made from this newspaper comes higher – obviously, because in this system it must come higher – than any ethics of journalism.

In the case of small advertisers you can bat it off easily and refuse, but when it’s a large, important advertiser who is close to the heart of our advertising department or the publisher, you don’t have much chance, you have to do it even if it tastes bitter to you, but we have got used to that.

There are limitations, so you can’t write a critical article about bad, overpriced goods in a supplement about homes and building if the same companies have adverts in the supplements. The freedom of the press ends with money, it used to be that it ended with political influencing, today it ends with economic goals.

So I wasn’t at all surprised to read that something similar has allegedly been happening at the Telegraph. For me, the more surprising thing was that we, as a population, didn’t think it was to some degree or other. What I haven’t seen (maybe I just missed it) is any suggestion for how to avoid this. We live in a world where we expect to get a lot for free, even our news. But we also want it to be produced by experienced professionals, with high standards of reporting and ethics, independent of external influences. If we aren’t willing to pay for that, how do we expect the newspapers to be able to continue to pay its journalists and other staff, if not through advertising? And if that becomes a vital source of income to allow the newspaper to continue to exist and report the cash-for-access, Snowden, MPs expenses type of stories, is it any wonder that the people paying for the advertising don’t expect to be lambasted in the same publication? I’m not saying it’s right or that I like it. But I don’t know what the solution is.

Did I mention that these kinds of questions are covered in my book? Now – was I influenced to write about this topic this week in the hope that someone might buy my book or because I thought it was important to write about it?

None of this is black and white.

What to do?

I’m struggling today.

I’d like to write something about Oxfam’s report projecting that, in 2016, the richest 1% of the world’s population will own more than the other 99% combined. But I don’t know what to do about that. It doesn’t seem right, does it? But I probably need to read at least three of the books on my current reading list before getting any real idea of what could or should be done to change this crazy situation. And I haven’t even got as far as reading the Oxfam report properly yet.

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Notwithstanding the best efforts of our media (Fox News excluded from that, although at least this time they apologised), it’s hard to be able to be properly informed on all the big issues facing us today. Just last week, we had terrorist attacks in Europe, more mass kidnappings in the West of Africa, a blogger in Saudi Arabia continuing to face the prospect of regular floggings (in addition to a long prison sentence and fine) for expressing his opinion. And that’s just the stories which spring to mind. There’s also climate change, government surveillance, and who on earth do you vote for these days?

One of the more useful distribution lists I seem to have got myself on is the Guardian Bookshop’s. So when I got an e-mail telling me there was a sale on, I had to have a peek. And when it turned out the books had about 80% off, I gave in to temptation. Some of them represent at least an attempt by me to delve more deeply into some of the big questions out there. I’m not yet sure if Russell Brand’s book is in that category but it should at least be amusing, and that counts for something!

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So I’m trying to get through this little pile as well as the ones which have been lyi

A different perspective – on everything

Imagine growing up in a country, being taught a history of that country, experiencing that country in a certain way, and interpreting your world through those lenses. Then, many years later, everything changes.

Yes, that was the experience of many people who grew up in East Germany and knew very little different, except what they saw on Western television or heard about from others. And with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall next Sunday (yes, I will be there – of course), that might be worthwhile thinking some more about. And my book on the experience of East German journalists shows how, while many things changed around them, a new normality soon set in which in some ways was not that different in feel and approach from what they had seen in communist days (and for the pedants, East Germany was not a communist state, it purported to a socialist one, but the end state of communism was never reached).

However, the experience I described above was one I had recently and was much closer to home. It starts with a book. Most things in my life do. But before that, there was the Snowden experience which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Remember how I believe less and less in coincidences? Here’s the chain of events.

1. Go to Book Festival event which Luke Harding is speaking at (about Snowden and the implications of what he made public) – incidentally, did you notice that GCHQ just last week admitted that they have been accessing data on UK citizens and others, collected by the NSA and other intelligence services, without court orders…

2. Read Harding book and realise that the Guardian has changed from the paper I remember it as when I was at university. In fairness, it’s been a while since then and it’s allowed to change.

3. Spend some time on the Guardian website and see that they have started a “membership” programme, including a free option which allows you to see what events are coming up (in fairness to me, most of the events are in London so paying to be able to go them really isn’t sensible).

4. The first event – streamed live – is with Naomi Klein, who has written a book on climate change, called This Changes Everything (I have it, it’s next on the non-fiction reading list)

5. The event is chaired by Owen Jones, who wrote The Establishment.

6. I read The Establishment (well, 90%, I’m in the last chapter at the moment. I probably should have finished it before writing about it. Oh well.)

The official blurb about it talks about a “powerful but unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap huge benefits in the process.” That wasn’t what I got out of the book to be honest. What I read was an account of how the events I remembered over the last thirty odd years could – and in Jones’s view should – be viewed differently. It’s persuasive. Is he right? I don’t know – there was one section in the book where my day job gives me some insights which I wouldn’t expect a non-specialist journalist to have, and which would lead me to different conclusions, so it did make me wonder what others closer to some of the other topics he covered would thing of them. But that’s at most a minor criticism.

One topic discussed at some length is the view of “scroungers” which is promulgated with a degree of relish by much of the media. By “scroungers” we mean of course benefit cheats/fraudsters/whatever other derogatory noun you can think of. One of the main objections against these people is that they are supposed to be ripping us all off – “us” being the hard-working, hard done by, families. And this is costing us all fortune, causing us to run up national debt beyond anything we would have believed just a few years ago. And this must be stopped. Politicians fall over themselves to tell us how much they will cut from the welfare bill.

What Jones does is remind us of the stories we don’t hear so much about. Atos, the French company which was paid millions (well, more like a billion apparently) to administer the new eligibility tests for disability benefits. The lack of human decency (and common sense) in the tests beggars belief. And Margaret Hodge, scourge of wrongdoers of all hues, said that

“Atos stated in its tender document that it had ‘contractual agreements’ in place with a national network of 56 NHS hospitals, 25 private hospitals and over 650 physiotherapy practices to provide assessments. This turned out not to be true.”

We are, according to Jones, being systematically told that the real “scroungers” are the individuals in receipt of welfare. But how about the companies and individuals who are being paid vast sums of taxpayer money to adminster what were government services, or construct and run buildings and operations which the public sector would previously have run? And then, when it comes crashing down, to walk away from it? Jones gives numerous examples of the scale of the “scrounging” going on at the top levels of society, funded by the taxpayer and part of the ethos of “public sector inefficient, private sector efficient”. To which one might say simply “RBS”. Or “HBOS”. Private sector companies which, absent the public sector rescuing them, could have brought down the entire economy.

Jones’s arguments are much more far-reaching than those examples could illustrate. But he does paint a picture of a direction of travel over the last few decades which we largely have accepted as “right” and which has been endorsed and promoted by the mainstream political parties, the media, and individuals in charge of a range of organisations.

So I saw today’s Telegraph headline (front page) “Dear taxpayer, quarter of cash goes on welfare” and thought “I’m reading that article with a different perspective now”.

Books really do change the way we think. And it’s good to challenge the way we think.

And finally, this article from the Guardian, tying up what I learned from The Establishment with the fall of the Berlin Wall:

As the wall fell, checks on capitalism crumbled.

Maybe it’s ironic that my eyes were opened 25 years after those of the East German population – although I might argue that their eyes were pretty open before then, they just didn’t know what they could do about it. And that’s the last 10% of the book I haven’t read yet. I did say I should probably have finished it before writing about it!