Monday, February 16, 2009
My Censored Newspaper Column
[My usual weekly column in Newcastle's daily newspaper The Journal didn't appear this morning. My editor gave me the following explanation:
"Tom, I've decided not to print your column tomorrow. Disparaging newspapers and those who write for them should not be the work of Journal writers, however contemplative they intend to be."
For my regular readers, here's what you missed.]
The problem with writing a newspaper column is the deadline. I’d love to be writing on Monday morning as you read this, so you can know my thoughts about things that are happening right now (your right now, not mine, because my right now will have happened several hours ago).
I mean, who knows what excitement could have occurred in the intervening hours while The Journal’s presses are churning away and the vans drive through the city to your newsagent. Another of our banks (yes, the banks we now own) could have accidentally lost us another £8 billion; a third plane could have nosedived into a city; Gordon Brown could have smiled (unlikely, I know, but hey, it’s been a surprising few weeks).
But I guess if you really wanted to know what I was doing or thinking right now, we’d be using Twitter. There, I’ve said it: the T-Word. I’ve absolutely no idea how or where you “twitter”, or why it’s called “twitter”, but everyone I speak to is talking about it, if not actually twittering, so I thought I’d mention it this week to be part of the club. Obama twits (or is it tweets?), and so do Ross and Fry. It’s a social networking thing where the only communication you have with your friends is telling them what you are doing or thinking. In 140 characters or less. On your mobile phone. Goodness, modern life is exciting. How did we live before Twitter?
So, What Am I Doing Now?
"I’m actually writing these thoughts in the contented afterglow of Valentine’s Day."
That was only 81 characters, so I’ll add: "With 3 of my 5 children, including baby Izzy, and partner Jo."
Somehow the space restriction doesn’t encourage a satisfactory reflection of my feelings of bliss engendered by watching the family playing together, separated by three marriages and 27 years; or my continuing amazement at Joanna’s beauty as she smiles at baby Izzy snuffling at her breast. My world is now complete, the ultimate Valentine’s present. It’s enough to stimulate the green shoots in a recession.
Speaking of which, I know something good is on the way the way because of the tweets. Not the messages sent on Twitter (which really are called tweets), but the birds in our wood, which have gone quite twittery over the last two days. They know it’s soon to be the end of this cold, heartless winter. And according to the man in the country store, loud tweeting means early Spring.
I’m surprised I’m feeling so positive. On Thursday night I was at a dinner party with the leaders of quite a few media organisations, and, gloves off, we all said what we really felt about the recession. Gloom doesn’t describe the collective feeling. The consensus was that we’ve seen nothing yet and it’s going to get a great deal worse. It’s enough to make you go off and live in a farmhouse in faraway Northumberland. Which, as luck would have it, I do.
But the assembled gathering also felt that, aside from utter cowardice of our bankers, what’s really holding back those green shoots is public confidence. We’ve all got our heads under the duvet, waiting for winter to end, and until we pop them out and tweet like my birds, it never will. It was also felt that the last people to spot the upturn will be the journalists, and especially the newspaper columnists. News likes gloomy; good news doesn’t sell papers.
So as soon as I’ve worked out how to do it, I’m going to get Twitter. Because I want to know what real people are doing and thinking right now – not the bankers and politicians and journalists. Because that’s the key to the end of this recession. And the moment there are some positive vibrations floating around I’ll let you know. Albeit a few hours later.
[As you will surmise, the reference to journalists was actually made by others at the dinner, attended by some senior broadcasters, publishers and journalists, together with a number of academics. Because it was a small private dinner held under Chatham House rules, I can't reveal who said what. These thoughts are also echoed to a certain extent in an article on Twitter in today's Media Guardian - where it's revealed that switched on journalists are now using Twitter to get information about popular culture and the mood of society.
In one way, I'm rather relieved this wasn't published, as the piece is far from my best work. I suspect that familial contentment doesn't make for spicy writing. However, I don't really see where the slight against journalists appears, other than my cheap and unnecessary cliche about good news not selling papers. I don't actually believe this axiom, particularly not in the case of The Journal, which provides an excellent service for the North East and specialises in front page splashes about major local achievements. It also holds celebratory campaigns for the good things about life in the North, like its food and many natural assets.
However my real point, albeit sloppily made, is about the social climate, and how we can spot changes in what people want and think if we keep or ears to the ground; it's a theme mentioned elsewhere in this blog, for I believe that one of the primary jobs of a television producer (and also a journalist) is to sense the popular zeitgeist in advance. After all, we're pitching shows which won't be seen for a year or two, and we want them to be enjoyed - so predicting public taste and fashion is part of the job. As a consequence searching for green shoots in these dark days is an important goal - we can't rely on the house price index or unemployment figures. These indicators reflect what has already happened. What's interesting is what is happening now - and that's where Twitter could come in handy.
Incidentally, one person at the dinner suggested that it should be the BBC's role to provide uplifting content for the nation in its hour of need, rather as the British film industry tried to do in the 30's. I pointed out that at least one country in Europe had an alternative solution to the depression, which was fascism. Perhaps more episodes of Strictly Come Dancing might have a positive effect. Or maybe Bruce Forsyth should become our Fuhrer.]