Posts by Cheryll Barron

Marcel Proust, punk rocker avant la lettre (… a post about, well, … language)

Fasnacht in Switzerland's MittellandPhotograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Fasnacht in Switzerland’s Mittelland

In some lucky, freezing parts of the world, this is a time for the licensed collective madness called winter carnivals. In German-speaking Switzerland, the prelude to Lent named Fasnacht or Fastnacht gives the famously orderly Swiss an excuse for escaping their usual selves in ritualised abandon and disciplined bacchanals – all dressed up in fantasy.

We suspect that it was in this state of mind that a Swiss correspondent of post-Gutenberg’s sent us a link to one of the most unlikely obituaries we have ever read. It might have been written specially for Fasnacht – in deepest sympathy with the spirit of this celebration – even if it is an actual encapsulation in a London newspaper of the life of a 1960s English rocker we confess we had never heard of.

What is it about the life of Reg Presley of the Troggs that makes us especially ashamed of our ignorance? These extracts (below) will explain, to anyone too busy to read the original – who will want to know that the Larry Page mentioned in our first clip was the group’s manager.

Two conclusions occurred to us when, frantic for oxygen, we reached the obituary’s end:

(i) It would seem that long before the villainous internet killed culture — if you believe some of our fulminating, fuddy-duddy, cultural guardians — our era’s counterpart for sumptuously graphic Chaucerian language, describing essential functions of the human body, entailed using a single word beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet a lot. Okay, an awful lot — through mindless, spontaneous repetition.

(ii) It was not some ignorant online – Amazon! — reviewer but a professional dead-tree critic in faraway 1971 who pronounced rocker Reg the equal of the most venerated writer in the French literary canon.

Page dressed his protégés in loud striped suits and urged them to maintain an impeccable image offstage. Presley, a moderate drinker who smoked, by his own estimation, an average of 80 a day for most of his life, never took illegal drugs. But Page was also particularly insistent that the group refrain from swearing. With time, the musicians found this stricture more difficult to adhere to.

In the late 1960s, a studio engineer secretly kept the tape rolling while The Troggs were airing musical differences between takes. The recording begins on an optimistic note, with one member explaining that: “This is a f—— number one. It f—— is. This is a number f—— one, and if this bastard don’t go, I f—— retire. I f—— do. Bollocks. But it f—— well won’t be unless we spend a little bit of f—— thought and imagination to f—— make it a f—— number one. You’ve got to sprinkle a little bit of f—— fairy dust over the bastard.”

Later in the discussion (ironically the song in question, never released, was entitled Tranquillity) a note of disharmony begins to creep in. Presley offers some advice to Ronnie Bond, the band’s drummer. “You can say that,” Bond responds, “all f—— night. Just shut your f—— mouth for five minutes. Don’t keep f—— ranting down that f—— microphone. F— me, Reg. Just f— off and let me keep going f—— through it. I know it ain’t f—— right. I can f—— hear it ain’t right you —-. F— me. When I f—— hear it in my f—— head, that that’s what I’ve gotta f—— do, then I’ll do it. You big pranny.”

“The Troggs’ Tapes”, as the bootlegged session became known, became one of their most enduringly popular recordings. Parodied in a scene of Rob Reiner’s 1984 comedy This is Spinal Tap, it was eventually issued legally, as a bonus CD in Archaeology, a 1992 boxed set of the group’s collected works. “I was a bit annoyed about the tape at the time,” Reg Presley said, “because it was a while before we knew it even existed. We found out in a pub, in west London. This bloke came up to us and said: ‘You’re the Troggs, aren’t you? Have a listen to this.’”

Presley was informed that pirated copies of the 11-minute tape, unpurged of its 114 expletives, had been eagerly purchased by his rivals in the music business, and that black market vendors were reporting a more satisfactory level of customer feedback than was usual with a Troggs recording.

This was unfair. For Wild Thing, With a Girl Like You and Any Way That You Want Me were outstanding singles which inspired a host of performers, including Iggy Pop. The late American writer Lester Bangs even went so far as to publish a 25,000 word eulogy to The Troggs, which hailed them as the godfathers of punk and called their music “holy”. At one point Bangs, whose critical instincts occasionally betrayed his prodigious consumption of narcotics, compared Reg Presley to Marcel Proust.

[...]

When discussing space travel, Presley tended to depart from the standard vernacular, referring to interstellar craft as “the bugger” or “the bastard”, and to interplanetary communications systems as “tackle”. In 1994 he claimed to have obtained footage of a metallic disc seen hovering over crops, an object which, he said, was “nosin’ around at corn height”, and “sniffin’ around the field”. This, he argued, was “one of the little fellers – the ones with the big cow eyes, which in UFO circles we call the greys. I’ve got a sneaking feeling that they are engineered by aliens who can see the future; if they know a woman is going to lose a baby they take it and they convert it. They put in a bit of extra brain. Maybe no vocal. But they can mind-read you.”

If an alien craft landed and offered to abduct him, Presley reflected in 2006, “I hope I would have the bottle to go. Because I’d like to ask them a lot of bloody questions. And they’ve probably got all the answers. These beings may be 20 million years in advance of us. What kind of technology must they have? You could come back to earth and not know a soul on the planet. But perhaps you would have seen something that would help save the whole human race. And maybe some people have done that.”

Note at a publishing crossroads: is it time for Ian Rankin to move over and let younger Scots writers take his place?

postgutenberg@gmail.com

They’d said it would take me 105 days to get to Mars in Unicorn One. I’d only been going for eight days. The window was facing away from the sun but a glint of refracted light must have found its way through the thick quartz glass. I saw my image reflected amongst the stars. My hair looked terrible.

Now, who on earth could that be?

Ah, … the main character in a delectable short story, ‘Unicorn One’, in a collection titled Storm Damage. Any reader who tests works of fiction by sampling random paragraphs is immediately compelled by this e-work to scroll back a few pages to learn that

 … within ten years of standing on that hill with Tommy, I would be selected as Scotland’s first astronaut. Not the first Scot to go into space, of course, but the first one to be chosen for Scotland’s Independent Space Program. The world’s media had regarded our endeavour as a joke. Too long had we been seen as England’s or America’s poodle. The German press had shown photographs of our most dilapidated, forsaken housing estate ghettoes and asked what kind of people would begin a Space Program with this kind of poverty rampant in their back yard.

[…]

Even within the Space Program, I had not been a popular choice for first astronaut. They had turned down pilots and scientists, Marines and arctic explorers, mountaineers and deep sea divers, only to choose me, a hairdresser from a remote Scottish town.

‘It’s necessary nowadays,’ they had told me, ‘to find people the public can relate to …

When we reached that sentence, at post-Gutenberg, we were not simply shaken out of a mood best described as chiaroscuro-verging-on-dark. Soon, we were reading all the way back from the beginning – an opening that we would have found just as irresistible, had we started where most people do:

There was a beautiful bird on the branch, singing. It was small with brown wings and perfect white chest feathers. Its tone was too shrill and its eyes darted. Its whole manner was erratic. The sunlight was salmon-pink among the trees and I knew something was wrong, something was going to happen. I didn’t hear a sound, except the bird singing, until the shot went off and chips of wood sprang towards my cheek from the tree I was standing near …

To think that in the old days of traditional print publishing, we might never have had the luck of reading John A. A. Logan — a marvellous writer happily undaunted by chronic cold-shouldering by literary gatekeepers. His success in e-publishing turned him into a lodestar for anyone publishing unmediated e-books as independently as Virginia Woolf once released her own experimental novels in print.

When we wrote about him and other young literary Lochinvars a few weeks ago, we did not mention that we had been thinking of how wonderful it would be if Ian Rankin could only award John his latest monster advance from his publisher in recognition of the e-book writer’s infinitely fresher perspective and fizzing imagination. The once-unique Rankin creation, the boozy, crusty and jaded police detective, John Rebus, has suffered, in recent years, from his inventor’s all too-obvious irritation and boredom with being forced to spin yet another tired yarn about him.

In November, this trend earned poor Ian Rankin the gimlet-eyed attention of a contributor to Private Eye’s books section (issue no: 1328) reviewing his latest novel – described as

full of reliable Scots wisecracking and people saying ‘Back in the day’, and … clearly written at one hell of a lick. Like many a previous Rebus outing, its final effect is to call the whole basis of Ian Rankin’s career into serious question.

Ouch. The Eye did not mince its words, fingering the culprit for this apparently lazy and self-indulgent offering by a writer who has by now grown accustomed to having an overstuffed piggy bank:

Brought to a waiting world amid a flourish of publishers’ trumpets, attended by wall-to-wall publicity … Standing in Another Man’s Grave can be marked down as a triumph for the old-style trade-book model …

Of course old-fashioned publishers are still capable of surprising and thrilling us with new discoveries, but at today’s publishing crossroads, you would have to be a fool to look only in their direction for the best new work.

Which is worse: fantasy presented as fact by a high-ranking veteran journalist — or by film-makers not in the documentary business?

Third view of 'The Mysterious Baths,' Giorgio De Chirico (see the last two posts)Photograph by MIL22

Third view of ‘The Mysterious Baths,’ Giorgio De Chirico (see the last two posts)
Photograph by MIL22

Surrealism. Surely, the art movement for our time.

What other tradition in image-making supplies better backdrops for recent events in — say, the dance between media and human life?

On that subject, we are making quick notes about what we know we will find impossible to believe without them, at some future date:

Item 1: a well-known columnist and ex-editor, Simon Jenkins, howls in outrage about facts twisted to heighten the drama in two feature films inspired by recent history.

His opinion on the subject matters. He has been chosen as a special adviser on decisions related to future press regulation, the focus of governmental negotiations with newspapers in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. This is an appointment that, for reasons deducible below, amounts to giving the machine-wrecking Ned Ludd of Luddite fame a job as factory foreman.

Simon says, about two new films, Argo, whose subject is the escape of U.S. diplomats from Iran in 1979, and Zero Dark Five, a dramatisation of the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden:

Makers of films captioned as “true stories” claim either that fabrications do not matter as they are “just making movies”, or that they are justified in a higher cause. Yet they can hardly be both. Cinema in my view is the defining cultural form of the age. It deserves to be taken seriously, and therefore to be criticised for shortcomings. If the most celebrated of “docudramas”, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, could go to lengths to authenticate its storyline, why should not any film claiming truth to history?

This is an intrinsically odd objection. The tradition of pretending to tell the truth in the service of art goes back as far as the book considered by some authorities to be the first novel, in the West, Don Quixote (originally, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha; 1605). Miguel de Cervantes, the author, pretended to be merely the translator of an actual historical record of Quixote’s adventures by a Moorish scribe, Cide Hamete Benengeli. The exhausting true title of the book most of us know as Robinson Crusoe (1719) is The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was delivered by Pirates.

A delightful essay about Daniel Defoe’s winking invention of Crusoe — unrelated to the subject of this blog — appeared in The Wall Street Journal a few days ago. It describes critics complaining about Defoe ‘going too far in in creating the novel’s solid sense of actuality’. But that is irrelevant to its status in posterity. The essayist, Danny Heitman, is hardly isolated in declaring that ‘the book’s most abiding message is its affirmation of literature itself.’

Item 2: the same journalist, Simon Jenkins, foists a bizarre reality-distortion field on readers every time he writes about internet culture and our increasingly computer-permeated lives.

Against ever-longer odds, he strains to persuade us in elegant prose that we are well on our way to post-digital life. Is he joking? Apparently not, as he goes to pains to present curious factoids for substantiation — for instance, these:

A mild sensation was created this summer by the revelation that Google, Apple and Yahoo executives were sending their children to California’s Waldorf schools, where computers are banned. The masters of the e-universe appear convinced that computers “reduce attention spans and inhibit creative thinking, movement and human interaction”. Classes have reverted to using blackboards, chalk, pens, paper, books and even teachers.

Post-digital is not anti-digital. It extends digital into the beyond. The web becomes not a destination in itself but a route map to somewhere real.

Really? How many children were involved in this trend supposedly sweeping Silicon Valley? An inconsequential sub-fraction — according to one blogger’s good humoured evisceration of the non-evidence in an excellent post on Papyrus News about the rather less overblown report in The New York Times on which Simon was apparently leaning:

The article [mentions] four Silicon Valley firms: Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett Packard. Between them, those firms have tens of thousands of employees, with tens of thousands of children. A total of 294 children go to the Waldorf School (not all of whose parents work in high-tech industries). Does that mean that 99% of employees in high-tech firms believe that computers do have a role in education?

Nowhere are classrooms ‘reverting’ to chalk and blackboards. In the very week in which Simon wrote his screed, the most-discussed news in education was the explosion in disembodied learning through online courses offered by universities like Stanford and internet tutoring in maths and science for school children.

Nor has he yet produced a single convincing argument or anything resembling a fact to support his prediction of a transition to ‘post-digital’ existence — now mentioned by him in at least three columns.

In 2009, he announced – and was congratulated by several naive commenters for his revelation — that there was a reason why ‘the ghost of Gutenberg’ was about to ‘die laughing.’ And why was that? According to Simon, a new venture was downloading text from the internet and selling on the streets of San Francisco a publication called The Printed Blog. Lo! he crowed triumphantly, ‘[F]or the Jeremiahs who tell me that I and my medium are doomed to litter the fish-shop gutter, I have news. . .’.

If nothing was heard of this thundering victory before he wrote his column or since, it is because there never was any such publishing exercise in San Francisco. You might imagine that either he or his editors should have discovered that themselves — simply by checking, a basic act in journalism — for the column grandly titled ‘Old is new. Even Gutenberg’s ghost has returned to live in Silicon Valley.’ (N.B.: a detail: San Francisco is not and never has been considered a part of the cradle of high technology.)

Yet, last weekend, there was Simon himself playing scolding schoolmaster,

Fiction may be free and facts expensive, but film-makers are not short of researchers. Commentators may be accused of choosing facts to prove their opinions – plague the thought – but that is different from falsification. Nor do they excuse lies as higher truth. The licence to report carries responsibilities.

Well. Erm … yes.

Item 3: a judge cites the fictional spy James Bond’s wide renown to justify a real-life decision unfavourable to chiefly female petitioners treated by undercover police as sexual prey. Some of these policemen had children by the women, even five-year relationships with them, then disappeared without a trace.

In a column last week, Jonathan Freedland recorded with fully-warranted fury that

Mr Justice Tugendhat […] ruled on whether a case brought by 10 women and one man duped into fraudulent relationships by undercover police officers should be heard in open court or in a secret tribunal.

The decision hinged on whether the law governing agents of the state allows them to form sexual relationships with those they spy upon. The good judge believes that when MPs wrote the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) in 2000, permitting undercover police to form “personal or other” relationships, they must have meant it to include sexual relationships. After all, the legislators were bound to have had one particular secret agent in mind. “James Bond is the most famous fictional example of a member of the intelligence services who used relationships with women,” Tugendhat declared, lending “credence to the view that the intelligence and police services have for many years deployed both men and women officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature”.

[…]

Those involved tell of deep and genuine attachments, the men integrated into their lives as partners, living together, travelling together, attending family gatherings, sitting at a parent’s bedside, even attending a funeral.

[…]

[T]his was the hacking of people’s lives, burrowing into the most intimate spaces of the heart in order to do a job, all authorised by the police. It is state-sanctioned emotional abuse …

Such horror was nearly as hard to believe as Simon Jenkins’s assertions that print was on its way to re-capturing eyeballs lost to screens, or that computers were on their way out of education — only it was actually inflicted on real people.

Item 4: a teacher of the storyteller’s art complained in The New York Times, a fortnight ago, that most of his students were no longer capable of constructing narrative fiction that made sense of the world.

That will hardly surprise any reader who has reached this paragraph of our post. The teacher, Steve Almond — whose splendid essay deserves to be read in full said, in part:

About 10 years ago, in creative-writing classes I was teaching, I began to encounter a particular species of student story. The hero was an unshaven man who woke in a strange room with no idea where he was or why. Invariably, something traumatic had happened to him, though he didn’t know exactly what. The rest of the story sought to reconstruct his arrival in these dire circumstances, via scenes that had been chronologically mutilated for maximum profundity.

My standard reaction to such pieces was to jot earnestly flummoxed queries in the margins like “Where are we?” and “Is it possible I’m missing a page?”

[…]

The underlying … question is whether the story of our species — the greater human narrative — has simply become too enormous, too confused and terrifying, for us to grapple with. This might explain why so many of us now rely on a cacophony of unreliable narrators to shape our view of the world and ourselves …

… So, to summarise these jottings in reverse order: people whose job is to tell stories have given up on trying to make sense; judges justify police mistreatment of citizens, citing figments of a novelist’s imagination as proof of societal sanction for it; a journalist prone to presenting wild invention as fact admonishes spinners of screen fantasies for not doing what is supposed to be his job — strict adherence to the truth.

There is an ancient Hindu conception of the world as all-maya — which means, illusion.

There was a time, not long ago, when it was hard to understand.

Forget #Leveson. Journalism’s future is about being held to account by us, not judges or statutes

Pop Art tribute by the surrealist Giorgio De Chirico from another another angle (see last week's post)Photograph by MIL22

Pop Art tribute by the surrealist Giorgio De Chirico from another another angle (see last week’s post)
Photograph by MIL22

Lord Justice Leveson believes — or must now pretend that he does, for political reasons we explained in a recent post:

[B]loggers and tweeters … have no real reputation for accuracy or reliability but are, in many ways, no more than electronic versions of pub gossip […O]n the other hand, the established media and established journalists … have a powerful reputation for accuracy …

 – lecture at Melbourne University, 12 December 2012

… and …

The internet … does not trade in gossip. It simply publishes it online, […I]t does so without, as yet, any general standards of behaviour, such as those to which the media is held.

 speech at the University of Technology in Sydney, 7 December 2012

The truth is that without thoughtful, diligent bloggers — and other agents of free speech — this trenchant perception from nine decades ago would still apply with full force:

[J]ournalism is supposed to tell us what is happening. It actually serves up a mixture of true facts, false facts, and comment … ‘The high mission of the Press.’ Poor Press! As if it were in a position to have a mission! It is we who have a mission to it.To cure a man through the newspapers or through propaganda of any sort is impossible: you merely alter the symptoms of his disease. We shall be purged only by purging our minds of confusion. The papers trick us not so much by their lies as by their exploitation of our weakness.

– E. M. Forster, 1925

Here is the concluding sentence of an exposé of serious misreporting by the press of an important government reaction to Lord Justice Leveson’s report — a warning by the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, about just one of the judge’s recommendations, in a favourable overall assessment of them:

Unfortunately, the press has once again, sacrificed balanced and accurate reporting of facts in order to promote its own political agenda.

Of course that would hardly surprise Forster, a subtle and deep social observer (whose perspicacity we have alluded to before, in the very different context of the British Raj in India). The blog post from which we clipped that grim conclusion is reproduced below with the kind permission of Hugh Tomlinson at the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) – which, as far as we can tell, is run not by members of the media but lawyers with a social conscience.  Its subject is the distorted newspaper reports of the Information Commissioner’s reservation about Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion on ‘subject access’ — that the subjects of news stories be permitted to examine the information about them in the files of journalists (with the 1998 Data Protection Act as his context). This is an eminently reasonable objection: opening journalists’ records to their subjects would make it it impossible to protect vital confidential sources. … But that is no excuse for the comprehensive misrepresentation by the press of what the Commissioner said about the Leveson report — as the INFORRM post explains in the fine and somewhat technical details it must, to justify its condemnation beyond any possible defence.

Independent voices like INFORRM’s are exactly what Forster wanted — members of the public, us, purging press lies from society’s store of critical information, without fear or favour, and treating upmarket broadsheets like The Guardian no differently from downmarket tabloids like the Daily Mail, when they are guilty of the same offences against the truth.

News: Leveson Recommendations – the Information Commissioner responds and the Press misreports

9.01.2013

The Information Commissioner has published his response to the Leveson Report.   His response was overwhelming positive, agreeing with the large majority of recommendations including, in particular, the recommendations about tougher sentencing for data protection offences.  This would not, however, have been clear to readers of the British press.  Newspaper reports of the response concentrated on one sentence of the 20 page document dealing with one part of one recommendation.

The Recommendation in question was number 49 – concerning the removal of the right of subject access from the “journalistic exemption” in section 32 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (a recommendation qualified by reference to the need to ensure the protection of journalist’s sources was not affected).  The Information Commissioner commented (on page 11 of the Response) that

“The area of subject access is particularly problematic in that there are legitimate concerns about the ‘chilling effect’ Lord Justice Leveson’s proposal might have on investigative journalism. This area will need very careful consideration. This again is a matter of balance of interests and is ultimately a matter for Parliament”.

This comment was transformed into the “Daily Mail” headline, “How investigative journalism ‘could be harmed by Leveson’, says Information Commissioner”.  The words “could be harmed” do not, in fact appear in the Information Commissioner’s response. The opening paragraph of the “Daily Mail” story is wholly misleading

“Key proposals in the Leveson Report could harm investigative journalism, the Information Commissioner warned yesterday”.

The Commissioner gave no such warning and did not cast doubt on “key proposals” – but rather, raised a question about one small part of one proposal.  The “Daily Telegraph” had the headline “Leveson could have “chilling effect” on journalism, Information Commissioner warns”.  No such warning was given.

The Guardian did not do much better with the headline “Leveson data protection plans ‘could have chilling effect on journalism‘.  Again, the words “could have a chilling effect” do not appear in the response.  The “Guardian” also, wrongly, states that the Commissioner said he would “actively oppose” changes to the role of the ICO in relation to the press.  What was, in fact, said was that the ICO was “not actively seeking” a wider role.

None of the newspapers mentioned the fact that the Information Commissioner had welcomed the overwhelming majority of the recommendations – and in particular, the one relating to section 55 (which, as Julian Petley’s recent series of posts have shown, the press has been campaigning against for many years, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).

The Daily Mail and Guardian stories have been tweeted on several occasions and the disinformation is spreading.  In order to assist our readers who do not have time to read the full response we will endeavour to provide a more balanced and accurate account.

The relevant recommendations fall into three areas: ones directed to the Ministry of Justice concerning the press and data protection, ones made to the Information Commissioner directly and ones with data protection implications generally.

First, there are those directed to the Ministry of Justice (Recommendations 48 to 57). These concern various amendments to Data Protection legislation in relating to the press.  As a general point, the Commissioner says that

“Taken as a whole package, Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on reforming the DPA would, if implemented, move the ICO closer to becoming a mainstream statutory regulator of the press. The significance of the proposed changes should not be underestimated. It is clearly for the Government and Parliament to consider what role the ICO should ultimately play in regulating the press“.

The Commissioner makes it clear that the ICO is not actively seeking such a role but that, ultimately, this is involves “public policy decisions” for the Government and Parliament to make (p.9).

In relation to the specific recommendations under this head

Recommendation 48 – amendment of the exemption in section 32: The Commissioner says that this has merits but the key is creating the right balance which is a matter for Parliament.

Recommendation 49 – narrowing of the scope of the section 32 exemption:  The Commissioner says this requires careful consideration and, as already mentioned, that there are “legitimate concerns” about the chilling effect of the proposal in relation to “subject access”.  It is noteworthy that he does not add any example or analysis or express a view as to whether these concerns can properly be met in amended legislation.

Recommendation 50 – right to compensation to cover pure distress – The Commissioner strongly supports this recommendation.

Recommendation 51 – repeal of certain procedural provisions in the DPA – The Commissioner supports this recommendation

Recommendation 52 – provision relating to “balance” of freedom of expression and data protection regime.  The Commissioner sees no difficulty with this but questions whether it is necessary.

Recommendation 53 – provision to have regard to a recognised system of regulation.  The Commissioner, again, sees no difficulty with this but suggests that it reflects existing policy and practice.

Recommendation 54- bringing into force amendments to section 55 of DPA (custodial sentences and enhanced public interest defences).  The Commissioner hopes that “there will be no further delay in implementing this recommendation”

Recommendation 55 – extension of ICO prosecuting powers -The Commissioner agrees that there is some benefit in an express power to prosecute for related offences although believes that its powers should not be extended to cover all crimes in which personal data is processed unlawfully.

Recommendation 56 – a new duty to consult with CPS -  The Commissioner has no difficulty with this recommendation but wonders whether it is necessary to introduce a formal duty.

Recommendation 57 – reconstitution of ICO as an Information Commission -  The Commissioner agrees that the opportunity should be taken to consider this option but mentions a number of alternative models.

The Leveson Report makes then makes nine recommendations “to the Information Commissioner” (Recommendations 58 to 66).  These recommendations are all substantially accepted.

Finally, there are three recommendations that impact on the work of the ICO (Recommendations 67, 69 and 70).  The Commissioner “welcomes” or “agrees with” all these recommendations.

In short, the balance sheet is that of the 22 recommendations relevant to the ICO, 17 are agreed with, welcomed or strongly supported.  In relation to the others, the Commissioner believes that some require further consideration or should be accepted in part and that some (those relating to the journalistic exemption) require careful consideration by Parliament.  None of the recommendations are said to be “harmful”.

So, a more accurate headline would have been “Information Commissioner welcomes Leveson Data Protection Recommendations”.  There could be no proper complaint if newspapers had reported the Information Commissioner’s response and then added their own comments.  Unfortunately, the press has once again, sacrificed balanced and accurate reporting of facts in order to promote its own political agenda.

Book publishing’s future: a distinguished Spanglish record of a catastrophe foretold

 Giorgio De Chirico, the founder of the Metaphysical school of painting -- a forerunner of Surrealism -- created this sculptural work, 'The Mysterious Baths,' in 1973 -- when he was eighty-five. Photograph by MIL22


Giorgio De Chirico, the founder of the Metaphysical school of painting — a forerunner of Surrealism — created this sculptural work, ‘Fontana dei Bagni Misteriosi’ (‘The Mysterious Baths,’) in 1973 (aged 85).
Photograph by MIL22

A dig through papers stored in cardboard boxes on a freezing day in silver January light yielded a forgotten scrap of treasure. Who would deny that there is a touch of divine Borgesian surrealism about the circular below, from July, 1994?

Two years ago, we found ourselves arguing with a handsome Swiss nineteen year-old, the son of a novelist, who haughtily condemned the efforts of Google Translate — and was impervious to any suggestion that the translator-robot might be better than nothing, and improving steadily. What, we wonder, would that Adonis make of our vintage circular from the Spanish publisher of the likes of Octavio Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino? This relic, though unsigned, was clearly the work of one of those gentlemanly, perfectionist luminaries of the old print-book publishing world who could — at the drop of a sombrero — have summoned any number of helpers capable of a more straightforward rendering of Spanish thoughts into English.

It is astonishing to read this author complaining about excessive haste — the hurried new tempo being born, for people in his trade — even though no literary proletarian of the time was obliged to answer email around the clock, or multi-task, or check thought-streams in social media.

Still, we are delighted with our discovery. No text we have read, for days, has lifted our spirits to quite the same degree. This is not so much because it reminded us of the high comedy of our own inept attempts to communicate in, say, rusty French. It is the writer’s gung-ho, embrace-the-future-or-perish sentiments about the future of publishing — and eagerness to join forces across cultural borders, for the transition — that we find both moving and endearing.

TUSQUETS EDITORES

PUBLISHERS MEETING ON THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF TUSQUETS EDITORES

the 5th July from 10.00 to 13.30 hours
at the Museum of Science (Museu de la Ciència de la Fundaciò de ‘la Caixa’)

The perplexity of the publisher at the end of the century
Proposal for a debate

Our starting point is the fact that we have been living, on last years, great, swift changes which depthly affects the habits in publishing within the field in which we usually work, which is essentially the literary one, under whichever its forms. I think that all of us, now and then and in one way or another, have plunged into perplexity when faced to some of these changes, sometimes rude. From a special way of working, in which time was that of reading and the mechanisms of making contracts, of production, distribution, advertising and selling were relatively clear and simple, we have gone over to a new way of working, mastered by a hurried tempo and increasingly more complex mechanisms. This has often been generating into us doubts and hesitations concerning the future of our very activity as literary publishers and editors, whose activity, fundamentally based on risk, is to discover and experiment, both of them functions which need most of all, at first sight, different manners and time from those of an uniformised and accelerated production, distribution, advertising and selling. I suppose that this approach is valid, although very different nuances, whatever might be the kind of company in which usually works a literary publisher or editor, either an independent one, or a national or multinational group.

Therefore I suggest to divide our contributions into two interacted blocks:

1. Considerations on the present situation and analysis — avoiding as far as possible useless nostalgias — of those aspects from the past which we consider indispensable to safeguard, and even to fight for and maintain, and which complement or come into conflict with the steps each of us has been taking to grapple with the changes of these last years.

2. Reflections on how and what could be done in forthcoming years for the survival of this vocationally cultural activity, intact in its original purpose and spirit, but integrated into the new habits of both publishing and new reading communities, which already became unavoidable and are a part, like it or not, of our everyday task.

The contributions and the debate will be held either in English, French or Spanish, and we’ll have at our disposal, whenever needed, a simultaneous translation service to and from the three languages.

photo

lee to cb

Should Babette’s creator have been expected to ask for permission to be a writer?

Drawing by Sascha Juritz

Drawing by Sascha Juritz

Dear Reader, our wish for a Happy New Year comes in the spirit of the lovebird mentioned here, in this set of advance instructions:

When a baby budgerigar died in a cage adjacent to the lovebird’s the latter grieved horribly for three days. She sat on her perch with her eyes squeezed tightly shut and ignored all attempts to communicate with her. She ate meagrely — but after three days, she put the matter firmly behind her and would entertain no reminders. She had returned to her usual vivacious self. So there you are, the animals are ahead of us. Humans are always uncertain about the policy in any situation, but animals …possess an answer to all problems.

The witty, magisterial line of Sascha Juritz, about whom we posted earlier this year, accompanies those thoughts of ACB’s, an ardent admirer of feathered creatures, whose flashing communication about an iris we recently recorded in this spot.

What came to mind when we revisited Sascha’s sketch yesterday was the title of a short story, ‘The Old Chevalier,’ from the Seven Gothic Tales of Isak Dinesen, to whose incomparable oeuvre post-Gutenberg was introduced by that same ACB — one of the two most significant forces in our existence — to whom we had no choice but to say a final good-bye last week.

Reflecting on her life, we find ourselves thinking often about Dinesen’s ideas about redemption through literature and art for all those who feel more thwarted than not; who can justify seeing themselves as victims of implacable, virtually lifelong, opposition to their hopes, dreams and plans.

Our woolgathering inevitably led us to Google, where we found, first, an appreciation by Susan Hardy Aiken of the most famous Dinesen story, ‘Babette’s Feast,’ whose theme the critic considers a reprise of another tale by the same genius, ‘The Supper at Elsinore’ — ‘a story of failed flight, of “all the betrayed and broken hearts of the world, all the sufferings of weak and dumb creatures, all injustice and despair on earth” …’ …

Of the later story, Aiken tells us:

… [T]he haunting presence … is … a revolutionary woman. At once ‘beggar’ and ‘conqueror’, benignly maternal and bewitchingly seductive, a festive, unclessifiable figure who makes ‘righteousness and bliss kiss one another’, Babette is also … a ‘great artist’ with ‘the gift of tongues’ whose concoctions can transcend and transform the confinements of culture and the misdirections of history. … Writing ‘Babette’s Feast’ in her old age, at a time when her own body was consumed by incurable illness, Dinesen would enact her artistic transcendence of that carnal confinement, offering her readers a ‘celestial’ feast of words, a ‘blissful’ feminine Eucharist able to redeem those who are failed or thwarted …

Then we found, in Susan Brantly’s book about Dinesen, a reminder of the reason why this author was first published outside her Danish homeland:

Dinesen’s reception in the United States was enthusiastic beyond all expectation [ … but her… ] misgivings about how the Danish audience would receive her book proved to be well founded … [Her] imaginative tales set in the previous century were quite different from what most Danes were reading. Svend Borberg described Dinesen as a flamingo-red orchid in a cabbage patch … The most notorious of the Danish reviews accused Dinesen of ‘snobbism, the fantastic, and perversity.’ The negative Danish reviews upset Dinesen. Svend Borberg, with a good dose of irony, suggested one reason for Dinesen’s being subjected to such a beating by the Danish critics: ‘It was naturally very cheeky, not to say brash, of Isak Dinesen — alias Baroness Karen Blixen — to conquer the world first with her book Seven Gothic Tales and then come to Denmark with it. As a Danish author she should have felt obligated to ask here at home first if she was worth anything.’

Ah, gatekeepers … We have posted about these beings before, when we considered Samuel Beckett’s opinions of them in a post here last winter. No doubt we will revisit the subject in 2013, if we can keep this blog going.

How high ambition hobbled Lord Justice Leveson’s chance to be a shining model for guiding media evolution and put new muscles on democracy

MIL22 + p-G leggitrice

Comrades across time: a scholarly girl of the 19th c. and a debater-netizen at a university today. (See our last two posts)
Sculpture by Pietro Magni, 1861, Villa Reale, Milano
Photomontage: MIL22 and post-Gutenberg

In social situations I try and leave telling people I am a lawyer to the end. I would much rather they see me first as an innovator, explorer, change agent, problem solver or entrepreneur.

– excerpt from article by Geoff Wild in the Law Gazette, selected for Private Eye‘s ‘Pseuds Corner,’ 14 December 2012

Why has Lord Justice Leveson turned against free speech on the net, after wisely refraining from doing any such thing during his hearings on press ethics and practices? His report and the aftermath of its publication, subjects of our last two entries in this blog, confirmed our grimmest expectations. The header of a post in May actually read:

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

Though honest, incisive journalists and editors of the highest rank justified — at the Leveson hearings — the public’s perception of the dangers of a fact-bending partisan press, the Leveson report said:

We want the news in the press to be true and accurate; we do not want to be misled or lied to. But we want, or are content for, it to be presented in a partisan way. We want a measure of balance and context, but we also want a perspective. We want the truth, but we understand that there are many versions of the truth, and incompleteness in all versions. […] [‘F]act’ and ‘comment’ […]  are by no means distinct and watertight categories. The very act of describing a fact is to comment on it. All forms of recording are selective.

As we interpret that, hair standing on end, the judge now fully supports newspapers and proprietors of the likes of Rupert Murdoch in their wish to protect their power base  – no matter what damage partisanship does to the presentation of the truth. In our May post in this spot, quoting the Leveson testimony of Alastair Campbell, the famously Machiavellian political adviser to Tony Blair who deeply regrets his own manipulations, we explained:

Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality,  as it actually does, at present – the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.

Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in […] ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.

And then, just as we feared in early summer, in remarks made earlier this month, the judge has disappointed everyone who understands the internet as our best hope of accelerating and refining democracy — the steady trend across centuries, in the world’s free societies, towards making one human being more fully the equal of another in, above all, the right to unfettered expression.

Where did he go wrong?

It is clear that this happened at the very beginning.

The judge’s big mistake was in announcing at the start of his excavation into press misbehaviour that he did not want his recommendations for improvement to gather ‘dust on an academic’s shelf’ — along with the reports of several failed 20th-century attempts at tackling the job he was handed by David Cameron in 2011.

If Lord Justice Leveson only knew that he stood no chance of being a force for the good if he showed how much he cared about putting his ideas into practice.

This is because turning his conclusions into policy is the work of politicians. A politician sees getting re-elected as his or her most important duty. Politicians still believe that the support of the famous names in the newspaper business is crucial to winning elections – in spite of the internet’s destruction of the financial viability of these mouthpieces and readers’ growing reliance on other, net-based sources of information.

If only #Leveson LJ — who so impressed many of us watching the hearings with his intellectual rigour, meticulousness, and scrupulous disinterestedness — could have realised that in revealing that his supreme aim was to make his mark on history, he had fallen into the role of the hapless innocent in fairy tales who blindly promises the evil wizard his first-born child tomorrow, in exchange for magic that lets him slay dragons today.

During Tony Blair’s testimony at the hearings in late May, the judge implored the ex-prime minister to help him make his dream come true. What this lofty witness said proved that politicians fear falling out with powerful old print media to an unimaginable degree — as France 24 reported:

‘With any of these big media groups, you fall out with them and you watch out, because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens,’ Blair, looking tanned and smart in a navy suit and white shirt, told the Leveson inquiry.

‘My view is that that is what creates this situation in which these media people get a power in the system that is unhealthy and which I felt, throughout my time, uncomfortable with. I took the strategic decision to manage this and not confront it but the power of it is indisputable.’

What should the judge have concluded, from that remarkable, quaking confession of intimidation? That committing himself to being steered by politicians would mean losing his ability to offer wise, objective counsel about rules for fair combat in the evolutionary struggle between fading old media and their digital successors.

Which is how the Leveson Inquiry shows every sign of sinking ever-deeper into the muck of political bargaining and infighting in which politicians — now the main actors — will use every delaying tactic they can think of to ensure that the Inquiry’s clear demonstration of what needs to be repaired, discarded and replaced in British media comes to naught.

But then, isn’t the point of the Law to ensure that the behaviour of people and institutions conforms to rules and standards wrought from yesterday’s ideas? In that sense, lawyers and judges are innately, unavoidably, conservative — preoccupied with conserving the values of the past until forced to do otherwise.

So of course Lord Justice Leveson’s speeches in Australia earlier this month amounted to threatening the internet, or mass communication’s future, to please his new friends — the fogeys of the old print press.

Forget the debates now droning on about choices for self-regulation by the press, with or without statutory support. The judge has become the chief protector and champion of that same institution he seemed bent on purging, sanitising, and returning to the marvellous ideal of an incorruptible and deeply moral 4th Estate, mere months ago.

Will sic transit gloria do, for a Christmas message?

Quick screen grabs: the internet generation reacts to #Leveson LJ lecturing about laws on the way for online life

SUPER sceptical blonde student Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.06.54

Watching Lord Justice Leveson speak to a predominantly middle-aged audience at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advanced Journalism four hours ago, post-Gutenbergers were struck by the extraordinary scepticism and disengagement on the few young and youthful faces among his listeners. The yawning gap in perspective is unsurprising. How could someone who has never blogged, tweeted, or commented on articles online understand the power and glory of communicating on the web? How could he be expected to do more than issue grim warnings about freedom’s end?

We rushed to take some fast-and-dirty screen shots.

In a future post — before the new year, time thieves permitting — this blog should have rather more to say about the judge’s speech.

tweet tries boring int into submission Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.59.18

sceptics, 2, young, small scr Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23.58.52

lev S sceptical pink Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23

sceptical or sleeping aud members Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.11.29
sceptical yng mn wmn Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23.40.14
sceptical blonde girl (b) Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 00.06.51
LJL warning Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 23.42.19

tweet lev pedestrian + BLOGGERS NOT NECESS A DANGER Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 01.02.11

Lord Justice Leveson in Australia, fear of ‘mob rule’ on the internet — and a case of wobbly telepathy?

Barbarians on the net? A blogger, even a putative 'troll,' could easily be a civilised, cerebral girl like this one'La leggitrice' -- Photograph by MIL22

Barbarians on the net? A blogger, even a putative ‘troll,’ could easily be a civilised, cerebral girl like this one
‘La leggitrice’ — Photograph by MIL22

Zounds. The original header for this entry, first published a day and a half ago, was:

‘Congratulations, #Leveson LJ, for leaving the blogosphere and online publishing alone — and for declining to succumb to neurotic fear of the “mob”‘

We linked to an announcement of Lord Justice Leveson’s speaking engagement in Sydney, at a symposium held there today. And … guess what we have just found on Google? A BBC News report, still warm from the oven, with this fragment from his speech: ‘Laws are needed to prevent “mob rule” on the internet and “trial by Twitter”, Lord Justice Justice Leveson has said … .’ This is the first record we at post-Gutenberg have ever heard or seen of him mentioning ‘mob’ in the same sentence as ‘internet’, even though we would hardly be surprised if he did so in some exchange in his Inquiry. Might telepathy explain this astonishing development — or (but, no, surely not) did an aide to Leveson LJ draw his attention to re-tweets about this post by the two most constructive blogs on the Inquiry, Hacked Off and INFORRM (the International Forum for Responsible Media)? 

If it was indeed a telepathic connection, it was a bit spotty, because, according to the BBC bulletin, the judge is every bit as worried as the rest of the Establishment about the lawlessness of the net. What we said in our post (below) is still perfectly accurate. He deserves high praise for not warping the evolution of the internet as a radically democratic medium with poorly conceived and premature rules for online publishing. He could have used his Inquiry to do the wrong thing and copy King Canute commanding the sea to roll back — as so many newspaper proprietors and obtuse columnists had hoped he would. 

He did not.

We should note, here, that post-Gutenberg is as keen as anyone else on the arrival of the day on which we finally have a wise and far-sighted set of rules for online life — not least because we care passionately about protecting artists’ and writers’ right to eat, through reasonable copyright enforcement. (See ‘Might audience jealousy of artists explain why copyright is being officially destroyed on the internet?‘)

As for our apparent anticipation of the Inquiry leader’s interest in the topic of ‘mob rule,’ we hope that he reads all the way to the end of this post. 

Quel wheeze. 

Many journalists are worried about the impact of the Leveson report. […] What I’m worried about is about how Leveson will empower the people who lurk below the line […] How will Leveson empower these people? […] The scum below the line will mobilise and use the regulatory system to complain online, and en masse. Plenty of people already dedicate their time to making the lives of journalists a misery …

Columnist ranting in The Telegraph about reader comments on newspaper websites

Like certain unwitting colonisers from the Northern Hemisphere in the late 1700s, the eponymous judge leading the Leveson Inquiry into press behaviour and standards has gone to Australia. Never mind if he is a willing transportee serving the aims of H. M.’s government, whereas so many English who travelled the same route two centuries earlier were not. In the hostile unease in today’s Establishment that Lord Justice Leveson went to pains to pacify in his report published last Thursday, there are echoes from the past — from Establishment debates and anxieties that inspired the founding of the penal colony Down Under.

Judging by what we at post-Gutenberg have been able to read of the Leveson report, so far — in a true annus horribilis leaving us scarcely any time for blogging — his execution of the judiciary’s task of restoring calm and order to society has been thorough and careful.

But especially commendable is this: he did not let the hysteria of the ruling class — especially the segment of it that the press represents — force him into any unwise, premature attempt to draft rules for the blogosphere, or indeed any online publishing competing with old print media.

Lord Justice Leveson appears to understand perfectly that it is too soon to check or discipline a medium so new that it still has slippery fragments of afterbirth clinging to it, and will not be mature enough to be teachable for a while. ‘If we wish to compress something,‘ — for instance, constrain online publishing — ‘we must first let it fully expand,‘ was the advice we ourselves relayed from a sage of long ago, in answering the Inquiry’s request for public comment and suggestions.

The traditional press, railing at the Leveson report, sounds like online publishing’s envious, vengeful sibling, demanding that a parent impose equal punishment on all offspring regardless of culpability. Why must newspapers face new controls and rules, with or without statutory underpinning, when the Inquiry made no such recommendations for, eg., bloggers? Under the headline, ‘Leveson angers press over internet control,’ The Financial Times recorded this fury:

Lord Justice Leveson has angered UK newspaper bosses …

In an editorial on Friday, The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship tabloid, wrote “an over-regulated press in parallel with an unregulated internet spells chaos and will be the nail in the coffin for the newspaper industry”.

Yet again, newspaper reporting on the Inquiry has been wickedly selective. Leveson LJ notes in his findings that ‘the work of very many bloggers and websites … should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional’ — but scarcely anyone in old print media was brave enough to record that statement.

Only Private Eye and a few blogs like this one have been drawing attention to such omissions and distortions over the eighteen months of the Inquiry. How has the traditional press been getting away with this crime against honest journalism?

Irrational fear of ‘the mob’ is the answer we suggest. In the past, this sanctioned rank injustice actually codified in law. Robert Hughes’ references, in his magisterial history, The Fatal Shore, include the habit in Georgian England of referring to the masses beneath the elite as ‘the mobbish class of persons’. You could easily substitute ‘bloggers’ or ‘the internet’ for ‘mob’ where he notes,

The ‘mob,’ as the urban proletariat was called, had become an object of terror and contempt, but little was known about it. It was seen as a malign fluid, a sort of magma that would burst through any crack in law and custom, … easily inflamed…

and especially, here:

The ‘mob’ was Georgian society’s id — the sump of forbidden thoughts and proscribed actions …

The irrational terror meant that no one in any position of responsibility went to the trouble of doing any research into the factual basis for the elite’s misconceptions of the proletariat. The actual rise in crime that followed the population explosion that in turn followed the Industrial Revolution was vastly exaggerated, and used to justify ever more unjust laws that especially victimised the poor:

One could be hanged for burning a house or hut, a standing rick of corn, or an insignificant pile of straw; for poaching a rabbit, for breaking down ‘the head or mound’ of a fishpond, or even cutting down an ornamental shrub; or for appearing on a high-road with a sooty face.

What made all this particularly dire was that there was, increasingly, no competing authority to keep the judiciary in check. Eighteenth-century England, Hughes observes, witnessed

the growth of the Rule of Law … into a supreme ideology, a form of religion which, it has since been argued, began to replace the waning moral power of the Church of England.

That is even truer today, in an officially secular society in which the upper crust is free to speak of religion with spitting contempt. We should be all the more grateful to Lord Justice Leveson for his resistance to Establishment pressure to recommend legal controls and disciplinary action for the expression of thoughts and ideas, and dissemination of facts, on the internet.

Perhaps, in his time in the Antipodes, he can congratulate himself on his moderation as he is reminded, simply by being there — haunted in his dreams, perhaps, by the clanking chains of convicts — of the excesses of his predecessors in judicial robes:

The belief in a swelling wave of crime was one of the great social facts of Georgian England. It shaped the laws, and the colonisation of Australia was the partial result.

On the threshold of ♯Leveson’s d-day, The Guardian shuts reader-citizens out of the debate


Citoyens
 should be king in a democracy, but are being denied free speech on press regulation — by the press.
Photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

In the autumn of last year, in the prelude to formal hearings for the Leveson Inquiry, Baron Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, said:

It is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right. It is the right of the community as a whole. It is, if you like, our right, the right of every citizen.

Reporting on the curious omission by newspapers of any mention of that warning to the press, post-Gutenberg asked:

Why … is no one in the British media mentioning the prohibition by a leading newspaper of free discussion – by ordinary citizens – of the future of the press, on three separate occasions last week?

On the last Sunday before d-day — the 29th of November, when Lord Justice Leveson is due to deliver his report – The Guardian belatedly opened to comment by readers two vital contributions to the press regulation debate from Observer writers. Reader commenting had been barred for most of the day after these pieces were posted in the (ahem) Comment-is-free section of the web site shared by these newspapers but administered by The Guardian (which bought its rival several years ago).

That must have been quite a fight behind the scenes, before The Guardian relented and, by mid-morning on the 25th, let justice and common sense prevail.

Read the excerpts from these opinions The Guardian found so threatening, and be amazed. Better yet, follow our links, read the rest – especially the few reader comments permitted before commenting was once again closed, after less than half a day – and be astounded by the usual categorisation of The Guardian as a ‘liberal’ newspaper.

(i)

– from the Will Hutton column, ‘Why I, as a journalist and ex-editor, believe it is time to regulate the press’ [24 November 2012]:

The precious freedom of speech of an individual is different from the freedom of speech of a media corporation with its capacity to manipulate the opinions of millions, which is why it must take place within the law and within a framework of accountability. Freedom is not only menaced by the state; it is also menaced by private media barons and their servants, …

An avalanche of highly spun journalism to serve partisan interests has become habitual. The public realm has become degraded. The trade and craft of journalism has been abused; the journalists who work in newsrooms, where standards are routinely sidelined, need protecting.

(ii)

– from an editorial in The Observer, ‘Leveson report: do we need a new law to rein in the press?’ [24 November 2012]:

The press – as anachronistic as that term now sounds in a digital age – have not, on the whole, been a great advert for plurality in the last month. In that time, they have fixed Leveson in their cross hairs and unleashed a ferocious ordnance in his direction.

[…]

There are reasonable, cogent arguments to be made about regulation or the lack thereof. There is a proper debate that we need to have post-Leveson, one characterised less by tribalism and more by reason.

As we wondered, last November:

[The] question no one in the media apparently wants to face is, will the public grant professional journalists a continuation of special privileges in the digital age if they no longer adhere to the traditions of fairness, neutrality and dedication to the truth that won them those privileges in the 18th century? Earlier this month, this blog mentioned the media’s refusal to acknowledge – or indeed discuss at all – the public’s dismay about an increasingly partisan press.

There are other alarming silences …

Now you see them, now you don’t …

Structural priming — or why you can’t put an arts career on hold to get rich, then become Van Gogh or Nabokov

Conversational sketch, at lightning speed, by ACB
Photograph by Louise Dumitriu and Drew Collins

Photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

A lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out, to the public gaze.

Daybook, Anne Truitt

‘Artistic people aren’t respected.’

Such was the sorrowful reason given to a mother by a mid-twenties daughter for abandoning the drawing and painting garlanded with praise by teachers at her school. Post-Gutenberg hopes that this daughter, a newly-discovered second cousin, was only having a temporary fit of the glooms and has yet to donate her 2B pencils to the Salvation Army.

We are reluctant interventionists. We are unlikely to collar this cousin and warn her about one common, possibly universal, form of pressure indiscriminately applied to young people with artistic talent.

It comes in the form of this advice: just build a secure nest egg, first, by chopping off the mental equivalent of arms and legs in the service of a Procrustean accommodation to conventional expectations – by working in (say) plumbing, podiatry, linear programming, or as a technology entrepreneur. Get a mortgage. Pay off most of it. Then, and only then, allow yourself to yield to your daemon – or whatever wonderful madness compels people to sculpt, write musical scores, etch, scribble, and so on – ‘and become successful and world-famous.’ That last part is often laced with irony the advisers like to imagine they have successfully concealed.

Ignore this well-meaning counsel, we would tell anyone with a true vocation. Toss it into the nearest circular file, because it amounts to dispatching someone on an impossible mission. Where are the ex-financiers and former Silicon Valley stars rocking and reshaping the arts world with their surpassing contributions, in second careers? (as even post-Gutenberg fondly imagined, long ago: see ‘Literary Capitalism’.)

That’s right. There is virtually no life that fits that arc.

Why not?

Once, we could only have offered a hunch based on years of watching lives unfold. Now, we can point to possible support for our intuition in speculating about the wider application of findings in psycholinguistics – of which the gist is that what we do strengthens and biases our neurocircuitry towards doing more of the same; also, that this can become a sort of mental rut not easily escaped.

For example, someone churning out executive memos day after day is unlikely to be capable of writing with the freedom and literary finesse of, say, a Sean McNulty (Murray) – recently featured on this blog – on nights after work, or years down the road, in retirement. Sean, judging by what he has told us over the years, chooses jobs for the time and brainpower they allow for writing – that free as much mental circuitry as possible for polishing risky, high-wire prose like his new novel, Twentieth Century Transmissions.

Post-Gutenberg would recommend Sean’s solution, working in the time-honoured tradition of ‘day jobs’, to anyone else young, talented and patron-less –  as far preferable to the ‘art as second career’ option that is really not realistic at all. Some means of keeping a talent alive by practicing it every day must be found, if only in the chinks and crannies of a life.

ACB, for example – someone as militantly anonymous as MIL22, whose photography frequently graces this site – has never stopped drawing, sneaking it in much like Jane Austen shoving her manuscripts under a blotter every time a family member entered the drawing room. When she mentioned bearded irises to us last week, in just the minute and a half it took post-Gutenberg to hunt for our photograph of one specimen, she had sketched – from memory — the flower she was referring to in the notebook she keeps at her side. ACB, we might add, is 81 and a half years old, and still, despite the acute arthritis in her hands, the multi-tasker she learnt to be long before whizzy digital technology filtered down to the public.

We had never seen so clear a pointer to the advantages of keeping your hand in, to preserve a talent, as the one we found in the implications of this explanation of ‘structural priming’ – in the way we all use language – in a recent column in The New York Times:

[Y]our brain’s activity in one part of the day shapes it in another, especially when it comes to creating sentences. This is a real phenomenon, described by psycholinguists, who call it “structural priming” or “syntactic persistence.” Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically. Our tendency to say the same sorts of sentences as those around us was first studied by someone looking at, of all things, walkie-talkie conversations between burglars. Our words and sentence patterns are also primed in the same way, such that the words we chose are the words we will choose later.

If I write Kevin gave Sally a pen, I’m more likely later to write John sent Tim the files than I am to write John sent the files to Tim.

[…]

Each time you sit down to write, you should cleanse your linguistic palate by reading some things that are vastly unlike what you’ve been writing.

[…]

Also, it’s imperative that you shut off the Web and don’t look at e-mail while you’re writing. Each time you look at Facebook or Twitter, you get primed with another kind of language, whether it’s your friends’ or your own. But maybe you want to write like you tweet. In that case, prime away.

We make no claim to being neuroscientists, at post-Gutenberg. We have no official license to speculate as we have about the critical importance of priming not just as a sort of mental conditioning for scribblers, but a guide to managing a life in the arts. Even so, we suspect that many readers here will find all this cod obvious.

The Leveson Inquiry: rumours and batty arguments abounding, and a cautionary tale from Australia

We know that Lord Justice Leveson is pondering mightily; we hope that he is still pondering well
Photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Google reminder: it’s the birthday of Auguste Rodin, the original Thinker’s sculptor

If the rumbling from the leaks-and-rumours mill is right, Lord Justice Leveson is going to recommend, in his report expected any day now, that the press needs statutory regulation.

Tant pis – if true.

As we have argued in a series of posts (for instance, this one), the transition to post-Gutenberg publishing makes all such rule-making pointless – the 21st-century equivalent of rewriting the regulations for monks hunched in scriptoria when the clattering, new-fangled presses of Johannes Gutenberg had already doomed to virtual irrelevance not just hand-lettered manuscripts but religious authority over human life.

If the editors of any leading newspaper are convinced, as we are, that the best way to keep journalism honest is to open the doors wide to online competitors, they are being awfully quiet about it.

In the ever less exciting wait for Leveson LJ to part the kimono on his conclusions and recommendations, the arguments being used to oppose the rumours we find so disappointing grow curiouser and curiouser.  Even The Observer appeared to have noticed this, in a column at the weekend, but when we read below the sniffy standfirst — ‘In an exploding digital age, arguments about press regulation are simply becoming silly’ — we found that Peter Preston  did not mention the decidedly odd shape of one missile launched at ♯Leveson (a Lunchtime O’Booze-grade weapon?) by another newspaper. This was in an unsigned editorial — ‘Telegraph View’:

One argument often advanced in its favour is that since the broadcast media are controlled by a statutory body, why should the press be different? The answer is that if people don’t like a newspaper, they need not buy it, whereas TV programmes are beamed directly into most people’s homes whether they want them or not. This distinction has long been recognised in law. To seek to bring the press under statutory regulation will impair freedom of speech and the liberties of the subject, however much MPs try to gild the lily.

What?… spluttered post-Gutenberg, all but choking on an apricot-and-almond brekky bar, during an unexpected visit to the Southern Hemisphere. No on-off buttons on British tv sets, then.

A quick check online confirmed that the real reason why broadcasting media are regulated but newspapers are not, is rather different – as Eve Solomon records in her excellent UNESCO paper on the subject:

[W]hat is the overriding rationale, the reason for regulating broadcasting as distinct from other media, say newspapers and magazines, or the internet?  The main justification argued by governments is that broadcasting uses spectrum, and spectrum is a public resource, allocated to nations  in accordance with complex international agreements.  As such, it is a scarce resource: there is only so much spectrum available for broadcasting use in each country. And therefore, because it is a scarce resource, it is valuable. Even though digital broadcasting is increasing the number of radio and television channels which are  available, there is still not an infinite supply. It is therefore reasonable for the State, as the owner of spectrum, to place obligations on broadcasters who use that resource.

The mechanism used for placing obligations on broadcasters is generally through licensing.

And the reason why the Telegraph editorialists do not know this is — ? Hmm. We can only guess. Perhaps they do, but the trauma of anticipating statutory regulation has befuddled their brains.

Australia shows exactly what is likely to happen in Britain if the scriptorium –- sorry, we mean, conventional press, is handed new rules for proper behaviour, and threatened with legal consignment to a grim and sunless naughty corner:

‘Light touch’ media reform could still spark fight

[The Australian, 8 October 2012]

AS the Gillard government finalises its overhaul of media laws, division between ministers and Julia Gillard has led to a watered-down set of proposals …

There has been no cabinet deliberation on a submission dealing with media reform; nor has there been any discussion as part of the regular strategy sessions within cabinet on substantive proposals.

[…]

While the Finkelstein inquiry proposed a statutory-based and government-funded industry super-regulator to be known as the News Media Council, the government is likely to reject this proposal. A senior government source describes the proposal for a media regulator as “all but dead”. …

… In other words, fight or no fight, the Finkelstein Inquiry seems most likely to be written off as a complete waste of time. It would be sad indeed to see ♯Leveson come to an equally sorry end.

Post-Gutenberg literary dilemmas: trick or treat?

Photograph by Mark Barron

Halloween is not part of our tradition at post-Gutenberg. Never mind, we feel uniquely privileged, posting this text and image sent to us as unsought bounty – yes, a surprise, in each case.

What are the most interesting arguments about literature’s transition to the post-print world? The extract from Sean McNulty’s Twentieth Century Transmissions – the novel he has just completed — came in email with shades of one debate for a preface:

I’ve attached the opening pages but FYI have taken out of copyright works by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Bruno Schulz, Nathanael West, Virginia Woolf and others and remixed them into my own story, pretty much as China Miéville was talking about here just as I was finishing the novel:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/21/china-mieville-novels-books-anti-piracy

The language of Sean’s text struck our inner ear as exceptionally fine — suggesting that the pessimism in our last post might not be entirely warranted. We found his manuscript original in the best way, as well as acutely disturbing. As a Halloween offering, it is the equivalent of the original Grimm’s fairy tales – galaxies removed from the sanitised, saccharine revisions commissioned to protect the tender psyches of 20th- and 21st-century children.

Before we leave you to read it, we have a message for regular readers here who have admired our clip, two posts ago, from The AdorataThat was by Sean Murray, a pen name Sean McNulty says he was forced to use when he wrote that first novel – to avoid upsetting his employer at the time. As we have never met either Sean in person, we can only take him at his word.

Perhaps Halloween will in the future be celebrated as commemorating not just ghosts but the remembrance of indecipherable pseudonyms past.

Twentieth Century Transmissions

A novel based on works by

Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Bruno Schulz, Nathanael West, Virginia Woolf and others.

Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad.

Jorge Luis Borges

We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?

Samuel Beckett

Bad Friday

Lenny’s Austin followed the Moray Cycling Club, the same half mile behind it had kept all morning. He watched through the windscreen’s muck as the Great Comet rose pale blue over the mountains, half earthly, half heavenly banners with slits of blued snow in the peaks. It felt almost supernatural, this world about to end.

The Club’s fanatics were allowing themselves one last ride before the Comet hit. A blonde woman brought up their rear, ringing her bell and grinning till she caught her reflection in a farmhouse window. She’d glimpsed fine enough features there but they were also red with lack of breath and gaudier than they ever were, the features that had shed those masks – Maglemosian, Egyptian, Greek, Spanish, all the way down to this last reality, the final mortal mask of the thing now called Maggie Guthrie.

Well, nothing endures, does it? Without this Comet Pessaria business, without big Lenny to kill her off and send her on to pastures new, she doubted she could have faced more masking on this Earth and not felt sick to the pit. Once it had been wearying to think of yet more years of masks of skin and bone keeping hidden her essentials, but now with the Great Collision here at last she wasn’t sick or sorry, not sad at all, just too much time to think as she pumped away at these pedals.

With the sun the Comet went on rising through the sky, one going southward from the east, the other northward from the southwest trailing its colossal tail. And now Maggie’s bike slowed as she caught her breath and took in the sights around her. Roadside birds swerved up when they heard gunfire in the direction of Kingussie, then swooped back down and sat silent on the trees and fence-posts, highly conscious of one thing or another. For some it was wild flowers or stalks of grass casting double-shadows, their sun-shadow and their Comet-shadow. For others it was dewdrops with the entire sun or Comet trapped inside.

Other birds sang in the warming sunshine. They sang on the twigs of bushes and perched in trees’ upper branches, letting the chirps and whistles burst out of them. Their eyes bulged and their claws gripped twigs and they sang to the Comet as though releasing all the pressures of its long Approach.

When the cyclists got off for a break Lenny’s exhausted head began to revolve slowly, rhythmically, and to hum at his bruised temples. As he parked the car something moved into his line of sight. In her sweat-soaked vest and shorts Maggie’s figure was the glamorous thing that attracted all the morning light, casting curving shadows left and right. She walked her bike into a wood. He left the car and followed.

His head blazed as he plodded between the trees. He saw her wipe mud from her bike and legs, leaves’ double-shadows dancing on her hair and skin, woodchips littered beneath her like splashed light. A pulse passed through his bruises and he ran toward her.

She let her bike fall and backed away. Her foot caught on a root, then she went down backward and her spine thudded against a stump.

He got his knees on her chest, pressed her chin back over the stump’s edge and with the base of his palm shoved it hard. She wheezed out, ‘Nothing endures.’

As he kept on kneeling there and shoving, everything blurred for a moment and became a painted film-set, the blue Comet and golden sun its glaring spotlights. Memories came of Maggie with his father, Maggie desecrating his dead mother, Maggie sneering as he came. He wondered how his contorting face might look on camera.

Though the base of his palm pressing at that upturned chin, that woman wheezing there and gurgling – that wasn’t acting. He heard a little cluck and crunch and his head turned to vapour as convulsions shook her body. The limbs twitched and sprawled and blood brimmed from the nostrils, hesitated and ran back into her dead eyes. That was fine. That was as it should be.

He found himself brushing leaves off the body as it lay with a strip of Comet light along the chest. He sat beside it, surprised that the leaves were glittering and the woodchips reflected blue. In the glare he imagined he saw the glowing hair of his murdered wife.

He looked around and tried to remember where he was. Not a film-set. He got on Maggie’s bike and rode it along the nearest path. A doe, a moving bit of reflected light, went running through the shade. Lenny, transfixed by it, went crashing into a tree and fell.

He stayed there on the ground with his temples throbbing, his mind busy with delirium. His mouth was dry and hard and blood was darting in his head. There was something knocking. Trees and other greenery, streaks of weird light across the ground, something knocking. He saw something creep up a treetrunk, a whistling bird that rapped on the trunk and then ran out of the shadow, its head bobbing and its white legs twinkling. Its build was neat, compact. Well, that’s birdlife for you, Lenny thought.

So I have done it, he thought. I have murdered Maggie Guthrie.

A kind of wonder came on him, followed by low animal exultation at that cluck and crunch and those sprawling, twitching convulsions. A little grief came too, but it was all right, he told himself, it wasn’t really Maggie. That dead husk with blood pooled in its eyes wasn’t Maggie and never had been. Whatever dark spark constituted Maggie Guthrie, it wasn’t that. And he wasn’t really Lenny Uath either. Wasn’t that what she always told him?

Something scuffled and he sat up and watched a squirrel run in bounds over the ground. It flew at another squirrel and they chased each other until he had a coughing fit and sent them up a tree. One peered round at him halfway up a trunk, clinging to the bark.

Darkness fell like a shutter. He had killed Maggie as she said he would and the Comet was here at last. He was arriving on the real dark bottom but it was all fine, fine.

He thought he saw lightning flutter around the rippling, shimmering Comet and visions came of tonight’s Collision and the last few minutes he’d now have to face, priests and ministers gazing upward and wailing psalms, some tearing off their clothes and sending up curses or hallelujahs, some scourging their backs bloody and collapsing on the ground in fits, prostitutes flicking tongues and blowing the Comet kisses, tramps gossiping about last-minute escape rockets and rescues by Archangels. The delirium went on and on, his mind flickering like the lightning.

Then a hunt for water, and surges of now pointless hate for Maggie. Then moments of calm and ease and his father’s voice somewhere, approving of her murder: ‘Fine, boy, fine.’

His brain was flaming with thirst. There the Cairngorm mountains ranged across the pale edge of the sky, double-shadowed and solid with blue snowy markings. He was twisting in a paroxysm on the grass.

His thoughts had split from him. There was also the clog of his body, another splitting thing. He was dividing. There was maybe some connection between the different parts, or maybe not. Either way all the shapes were going. Pale blue rays were drilling through their bonds.

The year was 1943. So was the Comet real? Was Maggie real?

These are not simple questions. Others who’ll tell this story may answer them conclusively, but for now we’ll just say this. Certain events, entities, things, lack what might be called precision. They’re too large to be contained by the world of facts, and occur partly to find out if that world can bear them. Think of those strange gaps in the history of your own world, those Marie Celestes and Tunguskas that manifested and then quickly faded.

Normal events are strung along time like carriages on a railtrack. They have their causes and their effects, pushing and pulling one another forward and forming all our stories. But what about events too large for that railtrack, that maybe need a different gauge? Well, time has many parallel tracks, my friend, and the fact is that down certain secret tracks these larger events await us all. And in this sense they are real.

We must come to terms with the Great Comet. We must come to terms with Maggie Guthrie. We must not let their reality embarrass us into silence.

Och for God’s sake, let’s shut up and get started.

The Broadcast  

 1918

The Reverend Don Uath’s next ministry after the Western Front was in the Shaugh, the village of his birth. His family made the flit from Tomintoul in carts. Lenny was two years old.

The going was wild the night they set out, and several times they skidded badly in drifts of sleet before the horses brought them to the hills. Don watched his wife Willa in her nook in the leading cart with Lenny at the breast, her skin cold and blueing and strands of her red-gold hair draped into the light of the swinging lantern. When the horses skidded again she held off Lenny with milk dripping creamily from his lips.

Don called out to her, ‘We’d better get beds at the next village and not try the hills in this weather.’

But Willa called out at that, ‘Beds? Think we’re made of money?’

‘No,’ Don answered, ‘but maybe we’ll skid again and all die this night.’

A bellow arose where old horse Mo had halted, tail to the wind and refusing to pull his cart any further into the hills and sleet. Willa laid Lenny on his back and climbed down and went past the head of Mo, and there she uncoiled the length of hide she used as a whip. It crackled through the sleet and made the hair rise across Mo’s back, and he began to neigh and fall into a trot, the younger horse Tod following after, slipping and sprawling on his hooves.

So, creaking and bending beneath their loads, the carts plodded into motion again, full of gear and furnishings for the manse the family would occupy in the Shaugh. Head down to the wind went the horses in the moonlight, in this mile and that Don calling, ‘Fine, you two, fine. Come on then, boys.’

The road kept winding up and sometimes he sat huddled in his nook as the sleet went past in the darkness, and sometimes he climbed down and walked beside Tod and watched the lights across the moors where folk lay dry and warm. Then the road would swerve and the wind would be at him again and he’d climb back on the cart with freezing feet and hands, urging Tod on to their new home.

In a few hours the carts had cleared the hills and through the sleet Don saw the Shaugh’s scattered points of light. Willa stood on her cart holding Lenny and took in the nearby lochs, where night fishermen in cockleshell boats were braving the weather and casting out their nets. On the banks others carried baskets full of flapping catch and looked up at the northern sky.

Tiny smears swirled and floated up there among the sleet, an enormous flock of swallows. The scene looked like some old fresco, full of birds not intended for the Moray sky in the depth of winter, criss-crossing it in graceful climbs and swoops.

A few hundred roofs stood out clear below them, and yews around a steepled church and manse set round with gravestones and grass in tufts that a fox slunk through shedding sleet.

Maggie Guthrie watched the same scene from the standing stones, then rode down toward it on her bike.

[...]

Private Eye on the death of literary culture

How long before literature in print begins to seem as mysterious as cave paintings – its preoccupations and the culture around it approachable only by conjecture?

Readers who do not drop in here regularly – and some that do – might have read the last two entries on this blog with exasperated harrumphing and disbelief.

Professional book reviewers deserve to be going the way of the dodoGet away with you! Publishing houses have been declining to publish manuscripts lauded by their own editors, that have even excited film consultants with a proven instinct for spotting bestselling and screen-friendly material? Codswallop! (That would be bull dookey, for Texans.)

O sceptics, here is substantiation from a source whose remorseless objectivity about its own world of print publishing and journalism has been praised by no less than Lord Justice Leveson, of the Inquiry – and which is not notably a lover of online publishing, even though it is organised and run in ways we think the best digital publishers will approximate closely in the future .

The extract is from a review of the memoir of a London book editor, Miriam Gross, An Almost English Life, Literary and not so Literary Recollections, in a late September issue of Private Eye (no. 1323) that we have only just seen, owing to one thing and another.

At any time over the past half-century it has been possible to earn a few pounds by writing an article on ‘the death of the novel’.

Just lately, what with the rise of the internet reviewers, E. L. James and celebrity memoirs, more alert commentators have been able to expand this topic to accommodate the death of literary culture per se.

[…]

The really surprising thing, in these circumstances, is the torrent of books about literary culture that continues to spring from the nation’s printing presses. Publishers from Tom Maschler down pop up to regale us with memories of their time in the trade.

[…]

Ms Gross, it has to be said, is the grande dame of her profession: a Jerusalem-born bluestocking, who arrived in England in 1947, married the late and very much lamented John Gross first time around, […] and was successively arts editor of the Torygraph [Texan trans.: The Daily Telegraph, traditionally the upmarket Tory paper] and books editor of its Sunday sister. […] On the other hand, to call this elfin volume – bulked out to 200 pages by the inclusion of some old Observer interviews – ‘the remarkable story of one of the great observers of our time’, as Alain de Botton does on the cover, is ever so slightly pushing it.

[…]

[O]f what, on this admittedly partial evidence, does ‘literary culture’ actually consist? Dare one say that the whole thing eventually betrays itself as a delightful private club, where all the members are simply wonderful and incompetence is habitually excused on the grounds that the defaulter is one of us: sad to contemplate here on its downward spiral … but, really, impossible to mourn.

 

Testimonial to the curious state of commercial publishing: literary young Lochinvars locked out despite high praise from gatekeepers

John A. A. Logan poised to evoke the touch of evil in The Survival of Thomas Ford – and below, less alarmingly, with his mother, Agnes Logan
Photographs by Alasdair Allen (above) and northern-times.co.uk

‘We sly women are the world’s only hope,’ said Jan, ‘And not just any old sly women either. You can forget about yer Jews and Protestants for starters. And of course any woman who dabbles in atheism.’

‘You get them, man,’ said Bathsheba. ‘It happens.’

[…]

‘Still in deep denial about the Counter-Reformation, yer Prods.’ Bathsheba beeped the horn again. ‘The most comically perplexed souls of all time, poor things.’ Beebeep. ‘The ne plus ultra of human… Of human whit? Thingummibob. Whit’s the word? Cartoonishness? Am I toasty warm? Get us the thesaurus.’

Jan found it in the glove compartment and gave it over.

The Adorata, Sean Murray

What is the point of thrillers – the noir kind, especially?

Er, … entertainment, do you suppose? you suggest drily, stifling a sardonic ‘D’oh!

To which post-Gutenberg’s answer would be, but what is the point of this sub-genre of entertainment?

Yes, yes … we know, an absurdly ambitious question for a funny little blog.

But this hardly rules out suggesting a line of enquiry for an answer: might the point of blood-and-gore electrified by crackling suspense be to fight horror with horror? That is, neutralise real-life horror, shock and sadness, with the imagined and invented kind? Nothing supplies temporary relief for the agony of witnessing the suffering of someone beloved in extremis – helpless to do much to relieve it – as well as a story so powerful that it takes control of your brain and entire nervous system, whether read in snatches or all the way through.

Events of recent weeks have shown us that a well-written thriller violent and gripping in direct proportion to the unbearable, in actual life, works better than any other literary form – particularly for a reader who loathes violent films and literature, and often resents the manipulations of narrative suspense.

The book is set aside, and the reader feels inexplicably stronger and ready to face down the monsters again. Some process less akin to catharsis than to Freud’s idea of displacement is surely at work – which, in a Wikipedia definition,

operates in the mind unconsciously and involves emotions, ideas or wishes being transferred from their original object to a more acceptable substitute. It is most often used to allay anxiety …

The book – or rather, e-book — that worked this strange magic for us is The Survival of Thomas Ford, about which we learnt from a Twitter link by its author, John A. A. Logan, to a detailed history of the manuscript’s long string of rejections that we would call staggeringly unbelievable and absurd if we did not know it to be an impeccably accurate record of the state of conventional publishing in 2012. We began to watch John’s tweet stream after we found ourselves on the same side in an online debate about copyright in the age of the net; among the not-terribly-popular lobbyists for paying artists and writers for work in the age of e-pirating.

Soon, we were reading arresting sentences and sequences like these:

 Jimmy sipped Coke and watched Robert out of an eye’s sly edge.

 Robert believed that it was sometimes possible for the universe to overlook certain misdeeds, even serious ones. He had believed from an early age that the universe made errors, usually errors of omission. He believed, in fact, that Jimmy’s very existence was evidence of such an error.

  If Jimmy was a vacuum, then Robert had been sucked in.

We registered something indefinably Scottish in the observations, the styles of expression, and marvelled at the absence of the too-familiar props in mass-market thriller-writing – glamourising brand names and settings – and clichéd ‘middle-class’ attitudes to people on less fortunate social rungs, or the reverse. A hospital cleaner, finding herself for the first time in an urban garden thinks,

This garden was like a machine for escaping the city.

After weeks of reading in tiny sips, for a lack of time, we reached a scene in which a father punishes his adult son for mistreating immigrant Polish bricklayers by flinging him into the mud with a feral twist that all but breaks his neck. Soon, there are characters bleeding from kitchen knives stuck in their sides and … For fear of the spoiler effect, we’ll stop there and say that we usually go to extremes to avoid sustained violence in any form, and were able to endure no more than a half-hour of The Silence of the Lambs. But we could not stop reading Survival.

John Logan is certainly not trying to be Muriel Spark, the grand priestess of modern Scottish literature, but as real life trouble intensified and spun out of control for us, we grew increasingly impatient with audio recordings of still gritty but tired recent books by Ian Rankin to which we had turned – because they were sitting on our library re-shelving cart – to make sure that we stayed fully alert on long driving expeditions on featureless roads. We longed to listen instead to the fresher writing voice and inspiration of the next chapter of the Logan thriller with its endlessly surprising perspectives and frequently excellent prose.

That last attribute is something John’s work has in common with other young Scots writers, too many of them unpublished, or self-published and unnoticed because of hair-raisingly nonsensical sagas of rejection – like his. The extract from a modernist — Barthian, Bellowish, (William) Burroughsian – novel by Sean Murray in the epigraph for this post came from a discussion of misogyny in the work of male novelists on Donkeyshott and Xuitlacoche, the domain of a blogger, Philip Hall, who has a head crammed with stimulating, cosmopolitan ideas. The guest-post on his blog spotlighting the Adorata remarked, ‘If your life depended on it, could you imagine Mailer creating a female character with a thesaurus stored in her car?’

In disembodied cyberspace, post-Gutenberg has had more than one encounter with these Scottish scribes — whose energy and dauntlessness recall ‘O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west/Through all the wide Border his steed was the best …’. We have been honoured by bracing and uplifting encouragement from them – which might make our motives for writing this post suspect. Fear not. We have … ahem … credibility to protect, as obscure as we are, in this patch of the net.

Before we leave you to read a clip from John’s account of his well-deserved — but hard-won — success with publishing Survival as an e-book, we have a question. Can we — those of us who care about the absurdity of neither John nor Sean Murray finding a conventional publisher with conventional marketing muscle — do something to finance the efforts of writers suffering from the disappearance of editors capable of nurturing unpublished writers? Or sustaining the efforts of those who already have stellar publishing credits, but have run afoul of the salespeople promoted to über-gatekeepers at some of the most famous literary imprints?

We have made suggestions before, about how this might be done – using micropayments, something better than Kickstarter and a new way of organising publishing as a massively inclusive, subscriber-based ‘co-owned’ medium.

That post-Gutenberg — thousands of miles from Scotland, with no real-life acquaintance with any of these scarcely-known Scottish scribblers — should care so much about helping them find support surely means that something can be done, and soon.

Over, now, to John himself – although you will want to read his entire record of the death of common sense. The last page of Survival says that John has been published by Picador, Vintage and Chapman – all in the loftiest tier of the serious end of the book business.

… In December 2010, the literary agent phoned me for 90 minutes, to tell me he was sure a major publishing house’s editors had wanted to take my book, but then at the meeting with the sales dept the sales folk for this publishing house had said that I “reminded them of someone they had had high hopes for two years earlier but then had lost money on”. And that ended that house’s interest in the book.

A little later, the senior commissioning editor at another major UK publishing house wrote to say “I think John Logan is a hugely talented writer. I love books like this that have the pace and excitement of a thriller but the voice and emotional depth of a literary novel”. But again when it came right down to it, no sale!

Then my agent passed the book to a film consultant who worked with him. She told him my novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, was the best book she had read in that literary agency in the last 4 years. This was taken very seriously, as this film consultant had discovered Slumdog Millionaire as an unpublished manuscript and was responsible for it getting developed into a film …

Harry Potter Politics for Dummies — or why professional book critics forced Joanne Rowling to write The Casual Vacancy

Mystery portraitist: write to postgutenberg@gmail.com for credit, please

Once upon a time, a few decades ago, no self-respecting novelist or aspiring or actual literary star spoke of writing book reviews except as work dashed off to pay the grocer, replenish a wine cellar, or finance the abortions of a careless mistress. Editors doled out book reviewing assignments to support writers they believed in, who got drunk in the same watering holes or clubs, or had long ago been cricket or baseball-playing mates.

Some book reviews might have been incisive and elegant enough to be described as lapidary, but what mattered infinitely more than fairness to the book and writer under inspection was showing off well. Showing off about what? The speed at which a charming prose confection was constructed – the ideal result being the literary equivalent of iron claws in a velvet glove; an attack on a book that every chatterer who cared about remaining a member of the chattering classes was obliged to buy, boosting the circulations of book-reviewing publications. Complaints by authors about mistaken characterisations of their books, misquoting, abysmal incomprehension of them or other consequences of arrogant or desperate skim-reading, were treated as unsporting and ungrateful.

Now, that was book reviewing in the glory days of literary print culture, when its power was at its zenith. It has not lost all its sway yet. There is still a literary establishment and, as the example we will soon supply demonstrates, it was sufficiently self-confident a decade ago to imagine that its judgments would pass unchallenged.

That establishment is feeling rather insecure these days, as anyone following the spate of recent attacks on ‘citizen-reviewers’ and blogging book critics will have noticed.

Some of its arguments are eye-popping in their hollowness. We quote, for illustration, the tack of one of the most likeable old print pundits – Robert McCrum, the former literary editor of The Observer, who has endeared himself to many a commenter by replying politely to ferocious attacks on his credibility, even when addressed as ‘McCrumble’. Imagine post-Gutenberg’s astonishment at reading on the books-blogging site of a newspaper, last week, this McCrumbly description of a professional book review:

Before publication, it will be subjected to a prolonged and intense process of subediting. Crucially, it will be signed, and usually paid for. Compared with the raw material of your average blog, it has been refined and distilled to within an inch of its life.

None of this guarantees that such a review will not be savage, destructive, ad hominem or partisan, but it will be considered, …

Considered? … Really? That would mean putting the actual reading of subjects of reviews, and pondering, weighing and reflecting, above dashing off – cloddish clog-dancing by comparison with the impeccably executed, once-over-lightly pirouette still sanctioned in many a respectable home for print.

… Which brings us to the subject of Joanne Rowling, who has just published The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for adults, to deafening fanfare. The print literary establishment, discovering that she has, in spite of her success, written a better than respectable novel campaigning fiercely for have-nots, might have been a lot less astounded if its members had gone to the trouble of reading the books that made her famous. Because so many of them only deigned to notice her at all when she became odoriferously rich, they fell into the error of confusing her work with dim and, or, absurd mega-bestsellers, like the one built around a witless ‘code’ poor old Da Vinci would have choked on – which could only have been invented to make Dan Brown the agreeably tweedy and self-deprecating fat cat author he has become.

By contrast, any actual — adult — reader of the Harry Potter series might, like post-Gutenberg, have been most amused not by either the wizards or monsters but the social commentary at the edges of J. K. Rowling’s picture. Could any Londoner who has ever visited, say, the Department of Industry in Victoria Street, fail to explode in laughter, meeting its perfect fictional twin in Rowling’s Ministry of Magic – not just because of her descriptions of its atmosphere, its corridors and the attitudes and work ethic of the dispirited bureaucrats shuffling down them, but because of the delicious wheeze of including such an institution in this particular story?

At the start of the Harry Potter mania, one book-reviewing journalist and essayist, Pico Iyer, was given enough space in The New York Times to hang himself comprehensively – having managed, somehow, to read Rowling’s cod obvious political sympathies back-to-front. The most obvious point of his contribution in the dashed-off tradition was boasting about his educational pedigree. In his eagerness to use a consideration of Harry Potter’s success as a peg and excuse, he forgot to check that the parallels he drew were justified by any part of the boy magician’s adventures, or their framing.

As a boy, I went for many years to the Dragon School in Oxford. The rooms in which we lived were called ”Leviathan” and ”Pterodactyl” and ”Ichthyosaurus”

[…]

I mention all this because, as Harry Potter’s adventures conquer the nation … readers on this side of the Atlantic may not appreciate how much there is of realism, as well as magic, in the exotic tales of young sorcerers being trained at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The classical boarding-school process favored by the English middle classes is esoteric […]and Friday nights would find us bouncing up and down in our pajamas, reciting the principal parts of Greek irregular verbs. Every Sunday night, in our flowing black robes (we were known as ”tugs”), we would gather in a classroom dating from 1441 to sing hymns in Latin …

[…]

When I was at school, it was always assumed that all the years of quasi-military training (”Hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me,” the Hogwarts caretaker says) were meant to teach us how to rule the Empire and subdue the natives around the world.

Well done, you!  the weary reader of that extended exercise in feather-fluffing is liable to have exclaimed, as it ran on … and on. To the credit of the NY Times – never mind that it failed to vet Iyer’s reflections on Rowling the way Robert McCrum claims professional book reviews do — it promptly published, the following week, this deflating reaction:

October 31, 1999

To the Editor:

In his essay ”The Playing Fields of Hogwarts” (Oct. 10), Pico Iyer reveals a blinkered — i.e., thoroughly Mugglesian — misreading of J. K. Rowling’s intentions. Her Harry Potter books don’t ”recast” the elitist English boarding school experience ”in a positive light”; they are gloriously subversive.

Whereas English public schools have traditionally subjected their pupils to lives of Spartan deprivation, the food at Hogwarts is delicious and abundant. Students sleep in four-poster beds hung with velvet curtains. More telling than these details is that Hogwarts resembles a conservatory or any other meritocratic school for gifted children, not an establishment designed to train the children of the elite ”to rule the Empire and subdue the natives around the world.”

Belonging to old magical families confers no special advantage on Hogwarts pupils; only talent counts. Both Harry and Hermione, one of his two best friends, receive letters inviting them to attend the school — and are plucked out of Muggles families because their innate talent for wizardry has mysteriously been discerned by Hogwarts administrators.

The prodigiously gifted J. K. Rowling is doing a great deal more than tweaking Iyer’s Etonian experience ”in a magical direction.” Contrary to his assertion, her theme is absolutely universal. She tells about both the vulnerability and the protective insulation that come with artistic talent, about the escape route that an imagination offers from the horrors of real life. To say that the charm of the Harry Potter books lies in ”their fidelity to the way things really are” is to grievously shortchange Rowling’s brilliance.

The writer of that old-fashioned, mediated citizen-review known as a ‘reader’s letter to the editor’ – the only chance a member of the public once had to draw the same reading audience’s attention to mistakes or idiocy inflicted on it – has scrupulously avoided becoming a professional assessor of books.

We could not agree more with Robert McCrum, pronouncing,

[T]he citizen journalist’s review is not the same as the professional critic’s.

Indeed not. As the woman who brought Potter to life said, in a BBC interview on her reasons for writing The Casual Vacancy:

Ultimately, the people who have read the book, who are not paid to have an opinion, are generally the best benchmark of whether you have done what you set out to do.

#Leveson, as anticipated by Elie Wiesel, 83 – in his turn, trailing fellow-activist Zhou Youguang, 106, in the blogosphere

‘Giant pawn’ MIL22

Earlier this month, a post-Gutenberg entry on the Leveson Inquiry had the honour of being put in the Twitter ‘favourites’ queue of Hans Peter Lehofer – an administrative law judge and former head of the Austrian Communications Authority, which decides the rules for broadcasting in that country.

No, we did not interpret our inclusion in his list as a gold star of approval. He almost certainly uses the ‘favourites’ button on the glorified e-notice-board the way we do – as an online bookmark. Never mind if, exactly like us — making the same point to #Leveson the other day — he doubts that merely passing laws affecting the way the press works can guarantee our getting what we need, which is ‘broadcasting’ representative of society as a whole.

What did please us is that Herr Lehofer’s interest bears out our forecast in May that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on press regulation would influence the debate about media policy around the world. Austria is lucky to have such a curious and progressive rule-maker. Anyone in Britain worrying about bloggers and citizen-journalists being treated as mere pawns in the chess game the Inquiry is being forced to play with politicians in the final weeks before it delivers its report is bound to be heartened by this judge’s grasp of the size of the leap in thinking about media that we need from the judiciary. He has a blog of his own, and also blogs collaboratively on more than one site.

Gerard Hogan, another intelligently au courant judge — a specialist in constitutional law at Ireland’s High Court — recently accorded the blogosphere a right traditionally reserved for professional journalists. In what the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) reckons as ‘the first Irish judgment to consider the position of bloggers,’ the court allowed Mike Garde, the blogger-director of an Irish organisation helping people brainwashed by cults, to protect his sources of information.

Hogan J’s judgment read, in part:

Part of the problem here is that the traditional distinction between journalists and laypeople has broken down in recent decades … Mr. Garde’s activities fall squarely within the “education of public opinion” envisaged by Article 40.6.1. A person who blogs on an internet site can just as readily constitute an “organ of public opinion” … [T]here is a high constitutional value in ensuring that his right to voice these views in relation to the actions of religious cults is protected.

How much longer, we wonder, will it take Elie Wiesel – twice quoted on this blog in recent weeks, and cited yet again, below – to join the unmediated conversations in the blogosphere? He has used every other medium in his extraordinary record of ‘bearing witness’ to the murder, torture and terrorisation of European Jews in World War II – after surviving Auschwitz, where he was dispatched as a 15 year-old.

His age today, which is 83, hardly explains his failure to start a blog. Last spring, The New York Times ran an inspiring profile of a Chinese human rights activist, 105 at the time, using a blog to broadcast his thoughts. This astonishing Zhou Youguang – still blogging at 106, if the net is to be believed — is the inventor of the Pinyin or ‘Romanised’ system for converting Chinese sounds into the English alphabet. For his transmissions on the net,

Mr. Zhou … uses a typewriter that converts Pinyin into characters to deliver ever-more pointed critiques of the party in essays and on his as-yet-uncensored blog.

The explanation for the deep hooks sunk into post-Gutenberg’s brain by Elie Wiesel’s short 2010 novel, The Sonderberg Case, is the startling correspondence between this author’s reflections on the role of the press in society, and the actual debate over the Leveson Inquiry. He also uses the trial at the heart of his story to weigh the relative worth of the work of lawyers and journalists – most engagingly.

Our final excerpt from the book is about a fight at a dinner party in New York. It seems uncannily prescient about the precise arguments being used in real life by the media’s old guard – here presented by the main character, Yedidyah, a journalist, and the hostess, Emilie, his only ally – as opposed to those of the public, on whose behalf Yedidyah’s wife Alika, an actress, spars victoriously.

There seems no doubt whatsoever about which side the author is on:

We talk about journalism. Is it useful to a democratic society? Honest or corrupt like everything else? A reliable source of information, a necessary tool for forming an opinion? Emilie and I stand up for the media, primarily because they represent an indispensable element in protecting individual and collective liberties. Alika is our most violent opponent. I’ve rarely seen her as fierce in her opinions. For her, even the best daily papers disgrace their readers. And she goes on to quote and appropriate the remark of a big British press baron concerning a well-known magazine. ‘It isn’t what it used to be … and actually it never was.’ And this applies to all publications, she tries to convince us, with no exceptions. Alex agrees with her. So do their guests. Emilie and I valiantly stand up to them. Alika flares up.

‘How can the two of you stick up for all those miserable newspapers and weeklies? I’m prepared to think you don’t read them! Even the cultural pages are over-politicized. As for the literary supplements, what do they tell us except ‘long live the buddy-buddy network’? What kind of moral rectitude is that? And what about the right to truth?’

[…]

Calm and resolute, Emilie pursues her counterattack and cites the facts: Can we really suspect such and such a writer, at such and such a newspaper, of dishonesty? And can we honestly question the integrity of such and such a professor, who writes in such and such a journal?’

Without the slightest compunction, Alika answers with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘Yes we can. And we should.’

‘In other words,’ Emilie says, ‘they’re all guilty until proven innocent, is that it?’

‘No,’ Alika concedes. ‘I wouldn’t go that far. But I maintain that as a reader, I have the right to wonder about their conception of ethics.’

… Happy birthday, tomorrow, Elie Wiesel.

Untranslatable poetry, part 2: show, don’t lecture

Painting of a Bengali beauty by Jamini Roy (1887-1972)
http://www.ngmaindia.gov.in/sh-jamini-roy.asp

part 1 is here

Dance with the language. There’s a saying that “The English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors.” Those ancient storytellers were drunk on words. … For encouragement, I would naturally suggest you look to Irish examples.

Frank Delaney, Irish novelist, in the Word Craft column of The Wall Street Journal, March 2012  

A. A. — not the do-gooder organisation but a poet of rare gifts and post-Gutenberg’s most supremely articulate friend — emailed this reply to a request for his reaction to last week’s excerpts from a debate about poetry in translation:

I feel disinclined to join this fray, going on at least since the Battle of Hastings (more archers!), where, it could be argued, The Translation Question first enters history on English soil. For the record, though, I am, I suppose, innately suspicious of what we might call The Proprietary Position, always couched in some preposterous notion of accuracy, or worse, fidelity, that any real artist would find objectionable. All poetry is inaccurate, in a sense, to begin with — its bewitching power of distortion, revealing deeper truths by traducing apparent ones, being the very reason for which Plato denied poets a place in his Republic: their ability to undermine by subversion and misrepresentation.

In any case, no poet worth his reduced sodium could forget that even the word translate is a metaphor: carried across. So, if “Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle … ” is carried across, delivering something like, “When you are old and grey, and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire…”, I’ll sign for the package.

We answered that we did not disagree with him,

… except on the question of who is guilty of bullying from the Proprietary Position. It’s the self-appointed Authorities in academia and other parts of the literary establishment, like C.A. …  There is such a thing as direct translation … ‘La plume de ma tante,’ … no ambiguity whatsoever about an object belonging to an ink-stained aunt. … If literary translation could be universally understood as galaxies removed from that straightforwardness and even better, if it were to renamed, called something like ‘approximation,’ that would be the infinitely preferable truth.

In a perfect world, poetry would never be taught – we mean, garotted — in any classroom. There might be poets on tap, willing to supplement published appreciations — as opposed to academic deconstructions — by answering questions from, say, a reader intrigued by the difference between Shakespearean blank verse and John Donne’s (controversial) version of it in one of his masterpieces, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. But there would be no one laying down laws for interpretation, no pompous pontificators on language as idiosyncratic and – as A.A. says – subversive, as poetry.

Anyone seeking to introduce a poet across cultural borders could stimulate an instinctive and intuitive grasp of a poem’s intentions by interweaving, rather than explaining – that is, showing its lines threaded into a reader’s stream-of-consciousness. It is the happy fate of all the best verse to become woven, subconsciously and unconsciously, into our depths. But who can demonstrate this special capacity of the form? Do it, for instance, for the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore – about whom, as our last entry demonstrated, critical opinion in the English-speaking world is still divided, a whole century after the Swedes gave him their famous literary prize?

A good novelist might be up to the task — a wordsmith capable of transcending the language gap. For instance, Sunetra Gupta, writing in English in Memories of Rain (1992) about the doomed love affair of Moni, a young Bengali woman, and Anthony, an Englishman visiting Calcutta that her brother introduces into their family circle. In a scene that made post-Gutenberg wish Satyajit Ray were alive to adapt the book for the screen, her brother embarrasses her with a halting reading to their guest of impromptu translations of his own short stories, through a long night rent by relentless monsoon winds and rain. Years later, in England, where she is now unhappily married to Anthony, who is besotted by his new English lover, her recollection of Tagore is enlaced with remembered details of their romance’s first chapter:

… From such a land Anthony had rescued her, a land where the rain poured from the skies not to purify the earth, but to spite it, to churn the parched fields into festering wounds, rinse the choked city sewers onto the streets, sprinkle the pillows with the nausea of mould, and yet the poet had pleaded with the deep green shadows of the rain clouds not to abandon him, the very same poet who wrote,

You, who stand before my door in the darkness

What is it that you seek?

It has been many years since that spring day, when there came a young wanderer

And immersed my parched soul in an endless sea of joy;

Today I sit in the rain-filled darkness, in my crumbling shack

A wet wind snuffs my candle, I sit alone, awake;

Oh, unknown visitor, your song fills me with sweet awe

I feel I will follow you to the depths of uncharted dark.

But it was not this song, not yet, that ran through her rain-ravaged mind as the grandfather clock in the living room struck two, interrupting the awkward flow of her brother’s translation, the grammatical mistakes she shivered at, why was his English so terrible, and she stood in the bathroom, splashed icy cold water out of the drum onto her feet, she caught a ghost of herself in the cracked mirror, and a sudden embarrassment overcame her, she switched on the lights and took in the cracked plaster, the dilapidated water closet, long since choked with lime, suspended over the Turkish toilet, the cracked mirror, the shelf cluttered with bottles of coconut oil, toothpaste tubes, rusty razor blades, and she compared it to the bathroom at Amrita’s, where she knew Anthony was staying, marbled to the ceiling, with Western commodes and bathtubs, he cannot be used to any of this, she thought …

Tagore on rain again, in a later passage, in which Moni wakes from a dream about death and marigolds – and in this one, his lines taker her soaring above earth-bound domesticity:

… [H]ere she found a deeper silence than even the quiet before a tropical storm,  the still rushes, the frightened birds, once, she had lingered, in a field of mustard, in the windless core of a storm, in such an hour, a dark village maiden had lifted her ebony eyes to the poet,

like black clouds gathering at the corners of a May sky

like soft black shadows descending upon June forests,

in this way the mirth of a July evening fades suddenly away.

The rain whipped around her as she fought her way back to her aunt’s house, inside, rivulets of water forced their way through closed shutters, trickled through the whitewash to collect in chalky puddles on the floor. She watched the heavy hips of her aunt as she bent down to mop up the rainwater  … And, shivering with sweet sorrow on that fateful winter morning, Moni had wondered, as she studied the wooden grace of her aunt’s arm sweeping in complicated arcs across the red floor, what she had gained by leaving a home, an indifferent husband, a cruel mother-in-law, to live alone, among the blunt banyans, to sit in her bamboo rocking chair on her veranda and read endless novels, did she not, on some still summer evening, lift her eyes to a glorious sunset, and feel, like the poet

If you did not give me love

Why paint the dawn sky with such song

Why thread garlands of stars

Why make a field of flowers my bed

Why does the south wind whisper secrets in my ear?

If you did not give poetry to my soul

Why does the sky stare like that upon my face

And why do sudden fits of madness grip my heart?

I set sail upon seas whose shores I know not.

Sunetra Gupta’s prose veers frequently into shades of deepest purple, but her emotional intensity, dial turned up all the way, perfectly fits Tagore’s. This really is quintessentially Bengali. In cultures that prefer strict emotional continence, this form of extremism is often frowned on as a sign of stupidity – of giving irrationality permission to take over.

But intense emotionality and exemplary analytical intelligence are hardly mutually exclusive. Consider what this novelist does today, in addition to writing fiction. She is a professor of Epidemiology at Oxford, where she describes her work on the site of the Department of Zoology.

My main area of interest is the evolution of diversity in pathogens, with particular reference to the infectious disease agents that are responsible for malaria, influenza and bacterial meningitis. I use simple mathematical models to generate new hypotheses regarding the processes that determine the population structure of these pathogens. I work closely with laboratory and field scientists both to develop these hypotheses and to test them.

Post-Gutenberg did not know that she existed until a postman delivered in the mid-‘90s a catalogue of remaindered books whose offerings included  Memories of Rain. Why has this author had less attention than other writers of Indian origin — Salman Rushdie, Anita or Kiran Desai, or Jhumpa Lahiri? We suspect, for part of the explanation, that she writes first to please her own sensibility, rather than Western literary tastes. See an earlier entry on this blog: ‘Gatekeepers I: in defence of Rachel Cusk — let cross-cultural flowers bloom in simultaneous international e-publishing’.

For gatekeepers alarmed about so-called ‘multi-culti’ — appreciating foreign cultural traditions — corrupting the mother-culture, does enjoying the Gupta-Tagore duets by this novelist diminish in the smallest degree a passion for the great works in the English canon? Of course not. Here is John Donne feeling exactly as Moni does, by the end of Memories:

Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
Nor any place be empty quite ;
Therefore I think my breast hath all
Those pieces still, though they be not unite ;
And now, as broken glasses show
A hundred lesser faces, so
My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,
But after one such love, can love no more.

Poetry, another word for untranslatable; Rabindranath Tagore — and is rain happy or sad?

Moghul girl-as-poem: is she translatable?
Photograph: firozjuma.com

part 1; part 2 is here

‘That day, the sun rose in the west.’

Fogeyish old media hacks in every age bracket — for instance, Mic Wright of the Telegraph, who looks as if he might be waiting to turn twenty-one — treat as equally unreal the idea that reader-commenters on newspaper sites can offer rare, crucial insight. ‘Comments are the radioactive waste of the web,’ the Telegraph blogger said.

Do these bigots ever stop to consider that because commenting on the web crosses national and cultural borders it has become an innovation no thinking person would want to live without? That is one reason why the logistical impossibility of also maintaining a comments section in this spot has been cause for real grief, at post-Gutenberg.

To experience the high-wattage illumination that spontaneous, trans-continental commentary can supply, consider the subject of poetry in translation.

An email notice from The London Review of Books the other day about a series of translation master-classes in honour of International Translation Day (30 September) gave us an excuse to re-read a four year-old debate in the comments about a blog post on the site of a London newspaper.

The commenters’ fight began with opinions about the appeal of Edward Thomas, the World War I poet, whose emotional restraint and sparing use of adjectives and adverbs had been lauded in the post. Later, joining the discussion, the post’s author implicitly compared the Welsh sensibility of the poet’s ancestors with her own English cultural tradition. In tones of thinly-veiled disapproval, she characterised as ‘typically downbeat’ the two Thomas poems about rain to which her text was an introduction.

The critic is an academic of strikingly conventional views whom we will call C.A. in highlights of the discussion that we are featuring below.

A particularly incisive commenter we will refer to as S.A. took exception to the assumption that painting in emotional pastels was necessarily a virtue. He insisted that this preference should be acknowledged as an English cultural bias — of which C.A. appeared to be oblivious. Furthermore, rain — he argued — was not universally perceived as depressing: far from dampening spirits, in hot, dry regions in the tropics, it is experienced by those who live there as poetic.  To that, post-Gutenberg would add that its associations in India with romantic love and passion are easy to see in the many Moghul miniature paintings on these themes in which thunder and clouds appear in the background of pictures depicting lovers, or maidens lost in romantic reverie.

S.A. went on to make a series of comments on the rain poems, their author, and his academic critic on the newspaper’s site that were far richer and more engaging than any literary criticism post-Gutenberg had read for years. He offered, for comparison, a snippet of ‘Varsha Mangal,’ verse about a monsoon deluge by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most revered poet — who has, in his native Bengal, the same standing as Shakespeare does among English-speakers.

S.A. was known by regulars among his fellow-commenters as a descendant of English and Central European stock, but born in South Africa.  He said that he and his Mexican wife enjoyed listening to recordings of Tagore reciting his own verses – even though neither of them spoke, or was literate in, Bengali.

He was challenged, in this commenters’ debate, by I.P., our initials for an Irish writer of minimalist, experimental poetry. Arguing from much the same academic orientation as C.A., I.P. endorsed virtually all her prejudices.

Among C.A.’s and I.P.’s opponents were two debaters offering no biographical information, whom we have renamed M.W. and S.E.. After S.A. playfully posted a re-translation of ‘Varsha Mangal,’ omitting its many adjectives, the proudly chauvinistic C.A. said that she much preferred the stripped-down version as a serious, not just larky, translation – to M.W. ‘s horror.

M.W.  What you propose would be like rewriting Joyce to read like George Orwell. Both excellent styles and writers — but ridiculous, no? The verbal excessiveness and flourishes you mention are quintessentially Bengali.

S.A.  Is simplicity of language an English Reformation thing. Is it Calvinist, I wonder. Were British poets more rococo before the reformation? Perhaps in eschewing the florid we are just scared of the Epicurian.

C.A. Oh dear, I rather liked the pared-down Tagore. The elaborate language, however fine and right it is in Bengali, is heavy-going in English. I always avoid him.

I.P.  Would Edward Thomas have cheered for England or Wales?

C.A.  I think he’d have supported Wales before 1914, and England after. […] Perhaps relevant to the ‘which side would Thomas have supported’ question: ‘I do not believe in patriotism, in times of peace or war, except as a party cry, or the result of intoxication or an article in a newspaper, unless I am in Wales.’

[ A commenter posts an impish parody of Thomas’s verse – in the spirit of S.A.’s doctored ‘Varsha Mangal’. C.A. turns livid. ]

S.A. You didn’t mind simplifying Tagore, whereas I am sure had my wife read my smudged Tagore, she would have been really pissed off too.

C.A.  No, the Tagore simply altered the adjectives, nothing in the contents or context. I defend Thomas’s right to believe in what he believed in and not have it re-written by silly twats.

M.W. Since we’re on the subject of comparisons, do you have any basis for comparing your understanding of how Tagore’s poem should read with the translation [S.A.] posted originally — which retained the poet’s ultra-Bengali adjectives? Do you know enough about Bengali literature to pronounce those adjectives dispensable?

You’ve spent a lot of posts analysing what a foreigner might consider sub-microscopic distinctions between Englishness and Welshness, even if we know exactly what you mean. Don’t the differences between the equally distinct cultures of India – and between any of them and Englishness — deserve as much respect? . . . And while we’re discussing criteria that might be anachronistic, how about reflecting that Tagore won the Nobel prize in 1913 when flowery prose had many more admirers everywhere?

… Sorry if I’ve over-interpreted you, but you have argued more than once — apparently in earnest — for turning Varsha Mangal into Varsha Mangle.

C.A. The Tagore was a translation … It’s accepted that translations will be of many degrees of fidelity. There’s one big proviso, of course, which is that the translator explains honestly what he or she is doing with the original and why. […] I believe it’s important to create versions of foreign-language poetry that work in modern English, at least if you really care about that poet and want to introduce new readers to the work. […] Perhaps it would win Tagore more readers if modernised versions of his work made by contemporary poets were available.

The whole point about translation is totally missed in your notion that you have to stick to the quintessence of the language you are translating from. You must stick to the quintessence of the language you are translating into, be it English, Bengali, Russian. [post-Gutenberg’s emphasis]

M.W. Ah, yes. The results of what you propose are perfectly summed up in this remark by the young Chinese pianist Lang Lang in today’s Observer:

‘[O]ne composer said to me, ‘I want Bach meets tango, and hip-hop meets Beethoven’ – both great ideas, but then I heard the music. Where’s the Beethoven? It’s like fusion food: mix French and Chinese dumplings – and it tastes like cat food.’

[ A wicked commenter ]  French ‘dumplings’ are called quenelles. Let’s show our Gallic friends some respect.

M.W. I certainly agree with you, … but if you follow [C.A.]‘s rules for translation, I suspect that both dumplings and quenelles become meatballs.

C.A. If I wanted to make quenelles but couldn’t get (let’s say) the right kind of fine flour or oil in my benighted English village, I might well end up making meat-balls.

I.P. I’d suggest that the Joyce/Tagore comparison is one of the clearest examples of the Nobel crowd getting it very, very wrong. Personally, I find Tagore (in English at least) unreadable, almost a joke. Is anyone here qualified to comment on the Bengali originals or the fidelity of the “original” translations?

As an aside, I’m not sure that respecting the author’s intentions should be an ambition for the translator of poetry, or at least not when translating anything more than, say 50 years old. Translation works best, I think, when it is an act of renewal. [post-Gutenberg’s emphasis]

S.A. But it was an Irish poet, Yeats, who made Tagore internationally. He is the one who gave Tagore, in translation, his poet’s baptism.

The key here, I think, is the word “international”. Try and translate Joyce’s wordblends impressionistic syntax into another language and maybe you can understand why the Swedes didn’t get it.

I.P. I remain to be convinced that Tagore’s writings demand anything like the same degree of respect that Joyce’s do.

M.W.  Who are you to judge? You don’t read Bengali.

‘I’m not sure that respecting the author’s intentions should be an ambition for the translator of poetry, or at least not when translating anything more than, say 50 years old. Translation works best, I think, when it is an act of renewal.’

Just FIFTY years. Really? Time to renew/rewrite Joyce, then? — so that he’s accessible to, say, people who text more than they read or write?

S.E. [ a commenter pretending to be a Spanish-speaker struggling to communicate in English ] The Tagore’s Bengali should be retranslated perhaps into another Baroque version, that would mean more fidelity to the Baroque quality of the Bengali original… I think Juan R. Jimenez and wife retranslated Tagore into Spanish with huge success, since these versions keep been republished.

M.W. This is genuinely interesting.

It could be that Bengali is deeply incompatible with English but much less so with other languages — and there might be even a particular sympathy between Spanish and Bengali. I was trying to find a book of Octavio Paz’s on my shelves to quote … , so wasn’t surprised to find him on this wiki list of scribes apparently influenced by Tagore:

‘D.R. Bendre, André Gide, Yasunari Kawabata, Kuvempu, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz’

. . . not a single writer in English among them.

S.E.  I mean, translating Tagore is regarded as a greatest challenge, as worth of merit as Finnegans’ [sic] Wake.

[ … A few days after her ferocious defence of a translator’s right to chop off Tagore’s verse at the knees, the academic authority on poetry returned to the subject. Surrendering to her opponents, she announced a grand mea culpa. ]

C.A.  Just quickly on translation again – it was (in connection to [S.A.]’s re-write) the use of the word ‘translation’ that confused the issue (shame on me – for falling into a lexcial gap). I liked the piece of writing that [S.A.] produced, based on the Tagore translation, would have been a more accurate way of expressing it. I couldn’t and shouldn’t judge it as a translation of Tagore’s original, not knowing Bengali, but I can judge is as a piece of writing in English, and that was all I intended to imply.

How much more did that delectable scrapping about Tagore enlighten readers than the standard Western regurgitations of his poetry’s defects – judged by Western standards?

Even the instructor learnt something, and had the grace to admit as much.

In our next post, we will demonstrate an even better — not remotely scholarly — tack for demystifying part of Tagore’s appeal to discerning readers of Bengali literature.

Why attack ♯Leveson, our best chance to save real journalism?

The coercion which the police state exercises on thought and art is indeed appalling. Yet the damage done may, in the final analysis, be no greater than that caused by the absolutism of the mass market. … The censorship which profit imposes on the media is as destructive, perhaps more so than that of political despotism.

George Steiner, My Unwritten Books, 2008

That Fleet Street editors are once again ganging up to attack the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and practices — concentrating their salvos, this time, on its as-yet-unpublished first report and recommendations – could turn out to be a great good thing.

Their aggression is inviting attention. It is giving everyone who cares about getting reliable news and facts undistorted by hidden agendas and special interests — for instance, the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM) — a chance to remind the 4th Estate that public opinion is firmly on the Inquiry’s side.

But, …

as the INFORRM blog warned, last week,

… there is an important case to be fought in the court of public opinion over the next couple of months. A careful eye needs to be kept on press attempts to distort and manipulate the arguments to support the self-interest of its proprietors.

The self-interest to which it refers is, of course, the profit motive. That is true despite the longstanding tradition in which most of those proprietors have supported newspapers losing money decade after decade, as if red ink were simply natural for them, as intrinsic as spots for leopards or nuclear scent for polecats. Hardly anyone needs to be told, any more, that the reason why these proprietors have long competed ferociously for the privilege of owning papers is because of the fantastic levers they are for piling up profits in other spheres, and buying political influence.

We have quoted those words of George Steiner in this post’s epigraph before and we will quote them again – as often as necessary. That is, until it becomes common-or-garden wisdom that, just as the Wikipedia has brought us closer to the ideal of what an encyclopaedia can be, we need to refine forms of collaborative journalism. It has to be universally understood that journalism at its best has to be divorced from the profit motive. Just as the excellence of the Wikipedia has no connection whatsoever to improving any corporate ‘bottom line,’ there is no reason why journalism has to be directly or indirectly wedded to it any more.

The reason why no leader at the head of any prominent newspaper has risen to post-Gutenberg’s challenge – ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders‘ – is because they are  beholden to the old system of organising the dissemination of facts. They are well-paid indentured servants of the profit motive, enshrined as the ‘advertising-based business model’ for running papers.

The best possible outcome of the Leveson Inquiry is not in the least complicated. It would be an evolutionary restructuring of journalism to restore as its fundamental and only raisons d’être:

the quest for truth

and

forcing transparency in the exercise of political power.

It is this parallel with the Wikipedia that matters. The co-ownership of media and various forms of collaborative operation, in the practice of journalism, are simply the most logical means to that end.

Until we reach it, passages like this — from The Sonderberg Case, an Elie Wiesel novella about the harm that Nazism inflicted on the Nazis’ own descendants – will seem depressingly unattainable:

Actually, I had discovered journalism well before working in the field. My uncle Meir, early on, considered it the finest profession … He ranked the committed journalist as the equal of writers and philosophers.

A boatload of words, part 2: new media experiments suggest how lost languages might be saved

‘L’Arsouille’, Rennes, Brittany
Photographs by Mark Barron

Owing to chronic disruptions beyond our control, our usual timetable for new posts – roughly every six to seven days – must regrettably be abandoned for a while. ]

[ part 1 of ‘A boatload of words …’ is here ]

We are experimenting again — this time, with 21st-century ways of long-distance literary exploration. We are doing this in a multi-media collage — additions to some lines of poetry that we featured here last month.

Suppose that you discovered a beguiling poem that was a call to arms on behalf of an endangered language — lines saturated with the emphatically anti-glamorising spirit of a place, and adding up to a sort of love letter to its culture? Suppose that this place was Brittany, and that before you found the poem, you had only ever read the same clichés about its resilient, courageous, resourceful and fiercely independent people and been served, ad nauseam, the same images of its rugged coastline, its boats, its mizzling North Atlantic skies — without ever having heard a Breton speak?

Language arguably is culture.

Its sounds contain revelations inaccessible except by listening — a thought that came to mind playing back a recording of Roy Eales’s exemplary, playful-yet-serious reading of his own poem in its English original, then hearing his friend Fañch Peru recite his translation of it into his native Breton in ringing tones that are somehow both gritty and embracing. You can almost feel the inhospitable roughness of rock on your skin and taste acrid brine, halfway through the Breton version.

Beneath audio clips that any visitor to this blog can compare is the Breton text of Peru himself, a scholarly authority on the language – offered for listeners curious enough to read along. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post.)

( … The audio files that follow work on some machines; not on others. … We are still digging to get to the bottom of the mystery. )

Roy Eales reads ‘A boatload of words:


Fañch Peru reading his translation of the poem into Breton:


Near relations of ours were in Brittany earlier this summer, and to one of them we are indebted for the photographs at the start of this post. They were taken in Rennes, where the native people speak not Breton but Gallo, the other regional language of Brittany, but whose look and mien — in the images we were lucky enough to receive — do fit Roy Eales’s descriptions of the preference for substance over style in the culture of this province.

The correspondences between sound and meaning in Breton are so unexpected, to these post-Gutenberg ears, so captivating, that we consider ourselves enlisted in the cause of saving a language we have never heard in its own home – ‘virtual’ allies. In our last post about Breton and ‘A boatload, …’, we proudly displayed a drawing by the artist Sascha Juritz, another foreign campaigner, but one who considered Brittany a home for years before he died in 2003. It has taken a while for the photograph of him that we requested to reach us, but here it is – an image well worth waiting for:

Portrait of Sascha Juritz by Ursula Leipold

The Wikipedia entry for this region – Europe’s northwestern corner — says, in part:

In 1956, Brittany was legally reconstituted as the Region of Brittany, although the region excluded the ducal capital of Nantes and the surrounding area. Over this period the Breton language declined precipitously. Children were not allowed to speak Breton at school, and were punished by teachers if they did. Famously, signs in schools read: “It is forbidden to speak Breton and to spit on the floor” (“Il est interdit de parler breton et de cracher par terre”). As a result, a generation of native Breton speakers were made to feel ashamed of their language and avoided speaking it or teaching it to their children.

Victor Hugo (Les Misérables), who had a Breton mother he adored, unfortunately identified with the French capital’s prejudice against the place. As one of his biographers, Graham Robb, has explained:

According to Hugo, … his mother was a half-wild royalist Amazon, chased through the Breton undergrowth by republican soldiers, risking her life to rescue persecuted priests. Brittany itself, in Hugo’s Parisian view of the country, was an antediluvian land inhabited by hairy, tattooed peasants, squatting in their cottages or holes in the ground, surviving on milk and chestnuts, fanatically loyal to King and Church, their worldview bounded by the horizons of the ancient forests in which they hid, bristling with Druidic superstition and mindless animosity – a contrast, in Hugo’s personal mythology, to the mountain-born genius. Only the `wash-basin’ of the Atlantic Ocean was equal to the filth of Brittany, he wrote on a visit in 1836.

Oh, the obtuse pointlessness of prejudice … Here, two centuries after Hugo was born, is an extract from a Breton poem – Fañch Peru’s rendering into English of his eulogy for Sascha Juritz:

The black knight of summer

Every summer

The black knight

Came galloping to our country.

In clothes of velvet corduroy

And leather boots

He rode his white horse

Along green paths,

[…]

To meet friends

And talk together

With fervour and passion

Of art,

Of poetry,

Of the force of words,

Of Brittany, its language,

Of black and of white,

His chosen colours,

Of the wide world

Which turns the wrong way.

.

And we were happy.

[… continues in What matters most is what you make ]


En ur porzh-mor kozh e Breizh un den, ur gasketenn martolod gantañ war e benn harpet war e c’har zehou a selle pizh ouzh un dra bennak a bouez bras.

Treiñ a reas e benn hag ober a reas un hanter tro war e c’har gleiz evit cheñch plas hag e chomas aze war e c’har zehou adarre.

Tanañ a reas e gorn ha kontañ a reas ur marvailh. Setu petra ’ oa c’hoarvezet.

Ur beurevezh yen er goañv en hevelep porzh-mor e kludas un evn mor du war e skoaz hag e kontas dezhañ e brezhoneg penaos ul lestr bras tre ruilhet ha diruilhet e-maez da Vreizh war ur Mor Atlantel rust a reas peñse abalamour d’un taoldispac’h -eus e lestrad – ur sammad gerioù, e gwirionez, holl c’heriaoueg yezh ar ro.

Richanañ a rae an evn du en ur ziskleriañ penaos ar gerioù a oa da vezañ diskarget er mor, ul lev vat er-maez e seier du krouget start merket warne e ruz: DIEZHOMM dre urzh Ministrerezh ar C’hontrollerezh Diharz.

Evel-just ne voe ket laouen ar gerioù gant se. Bet e oant trec’het kent met biskoazh ken gwazh kinnig marv n’o doa bet.

En ur brezegenn nerzhus, Gwendal, e-penn al lestrad gerioù a c’houlennas digante sevel da stourm. Ijinañ a reas ur mod d’en em zifenn. Dieubiñ an holl a rafe an ampartañ gerioù, kas al lestr d’ar strad a rafe ar re bounnerañ. Goude e tistrofe an holl c’herioù war-varin d’o bro c’henidik.

Evned mor o nijal a – us d’al lestr a glevas dre guzh komz eus difennerezh ar gerioù. Goulenn a reas ar re-mañ digante skignañ buan ha buan kemennadoù e brezhoneg e touez ar bobl.

Evel-se e voe embannet prim ar c’heleier a-dreuz ar vro ha prestik holl aodoù Breizh a virvilh, beuzet a don hag a son hag a dud o koroll hag o kanañ dirak ar mor hag al lestr o vont d’ar strad en dremmwel.

Hag o tont davete ul liñsel eonenn gwenn war ar mor, un eonenn gerioù, yezh ar vro en he fezh a voe charreet gant lorc’h betek an aod gant ar gwagennoù evel un harozez.

Adalek an deiz-se e touas ar bobl ne lezfe biken ken he yezh he-unan da rentañpenn da n’eus forzh peseurt degouezh arvarus war ar mor pe e-lec’h all.

Translation, English to Breton : Fañch Peru, Breton poet and professor of the Breton language. From the book, What matters most is what you make … 

Audience jealousy of artists, part 2; & what this has to do with Sisyphus and rock ‘n’ roll

 

Stills from Jankovics Marcell’s ‘Sisyphus’ (1974)

[ part 1 is: here ]

And what about the collective memory of artistic creation? For every Prometheus and Sisyphus haunting scholars, how many of their former equals are barely stirring and covered in dust?

The Sonderberg Case, Elie Wiesel (2010)

Our screen shots from a short Jankovics Marcell animation, Sisyphus (1974) — a work of genius in nearly every frame — could be depicting the struggle to change the monetary terms on which artists make art. We would like, in this lifetime, to see that accursed rock stop and stay still, where it ought to. By that, we mean that some self-sustaining way of letting artists and writers keep up with plumbers must somehow be put into practice.

Presumably Marcell, a Hungarian, earned enough from licensing a giant US multinational to adapt his haiku-like video for a (comparatively crude and clod-hopping) tv advertisement to make the world a gift of his original, so that anyone can watch it, free. But only a sub-microscopic fraction of creators can afford such generosity.

We still shudder, remembering the relentless succession of hostile posts in the discussion on a newspaper site we quoted extensively the last time we wrote on this subject, last month. Artists have starved and suffered throughout history, ran the argument – if we have to dignify rants with that word. So what? … the ranters raged.

It is asking for nearly inhuman self-control, to suppress the vituperative and scatological reply that comes immediately to mind, on hearing that question. People all over the world were actual serfs for aeons, but then became merely virtual serfs – wage-slaves – a few centuries ago. Being a baby-making machine, year after year, and – as someone once put it, ‘tied by their tits’ to their broods – was seen, for most of humanity’s time on earth, as the unavoidable fate of women. If injustice could be defended merely by precedent, and by precedence extending to pre-history, how odd that we no longer accept chaining and whipping our fellow-beings like defenceless animals.

Poverty was once universally accepted as the inevitable lot of most scholars. The great 17th century Dutch rationalist-philosopher Spinoza – whose idea of God, Albert Einstein said, was closest to his own — is known to have lived on porridge, groats and milk, or was certainly obliged to eat that diet more often than most of us would think endurable. Then someone invented tenure, and certainly in rich countries – even after years of budget cuts – few contemporary academics share the abject insecurity, at the level of penury, that too many artists among their fellow-citizens do.

We have returned to the subject not to say anything new as much as underline the importance of change – and because we forgot to mention, earlier, that thoughtful interpreters of Greek mythology consider the fates of Prometheus and Sisyphus to be allegories for the life of inventors and creators. What most of these theorisers have in mind, in drawing their parallels, is not money and financial survival but the interior, psychological struggles of creative people — and the punishment for extraordinary talent, in both stories.

This post ends with a semi-non-sequitur, an extract from an essay by Rollo May (1909-1994) – a disconcertingly perceptive, often poetic, writer on the psychology of workers at creativity’s coalface – for which our excuse is simply that we have been admiring the passage for a very long time.

It earns its hopefulness; is as far as possible from Pollyanna optimism. As May explains to the uninitiated in a terse footnote, ‘Sisyphus was a king of Corinth condemned by Zeus to roll a large stone ceaselessly up a hill.’ (Alternatively, as Nick Pontikis claims in an irresistible, fleshed-out version of the legend on his Thanasis blog – we are indebted to the stoical monarch for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.)

… Are we doomed to live in a world no one can make sense of? …

… Out of that … despair is born this myth which is new but eternally old, the only myth that fits this seemingly hopeless situation. This is the myth of Sisyphus. The one myth which … goes no place at all, seems to be a repetition, every day and every act being forever the same in perpetual monotonous toil and sweat.

But that is to omit its crucial meaning. One thing Sisyphus can do: he can be aware of each moment in this drama between himself and Zeus, between himself and fate. This – because it is most human – makes his reaction completely different from that of the dark night of the mountain up which he rolls his rock …

… The myth of Sisyphus is sometimes interpreted as the sun climbing to its apex every day and then curving down again. Nothing could be more important for human life than these circular journeys of the sun. …

… [W]e face monotony in all we do; we draw in and exhale breath after breath in ceaseless succession through every moment of our lives, which is monotony par excellence. But out of this repetitiveness of breathing the Buddhists and Yoga have formed their religious meditation and a way of achieving the heights of ecstasy.

For Sisyphus is a creative person who even tried to erase death. He never gives up but always is devoted to creating a better kind of life; he is a model of a hero who presses on in spite of his or her despair. Without such capacity to confront despair we would not have Beethoven or Rembrandt or Michelangelo or Dante or Goethe of any others of the great figures in the development of culture …

Sisyphus’ consciousness is the hallmark of being human. Sisyphus is the thinking reed with a mind which can construct purposes, know ecstasy and pain, distinguish monotony from despair, and place the monotony – the rolling of the stone – in the scheme of his rebellion, the act for which he is condemned. …

Sisyphus … must have noticed in his trips some wisp of pink cloud that heralds the dawn, or felt some pleasure in the wind against his breast as he strode down the hill after his rock, or remembered some line of poetry to muse upon …

… [In t]he myth of Sisyphus … [w]e are required … to recognise our human state of consciousness in progress or without it, … with the disintegration of the world or without it. It is this that saves us from destruction when our little rules prove unavailing.

This is what led Albert Camus to conclude his essay on Sisyphus, ‘We must consider Sisyphus happy.’

… Rollo May does mention money in a passage before that extract, not in connection with artists who have too little of it, but showing us why their poverty so often elicits self-righteous scorn. He says, in a profoundly intelligent dissection of greed, focused on America, but applying widely on every continent:

There has been in America no clear-cut differentiation between right and wrong ways to get rich. Playing the stock market? Finding oil under your shack in Texas? Deforesting vast tracts of Douglas fir in the state of Washington? Amassing piles of money for lectures after getting out of prison as a Watergate crook? The important thing in the American dream has been to get rich, and then those very riches give sanction to your situation. The fact of your being successful is proof that God smiles on you and that you are among the saved. It is not hard to see how this, in true Calvinistic tradition, drifted into getting rich as the eleventh commandment.

[ part 1 is: here ]

Would the Nobelist Elinor Ostrom have agreed that women are naturally more cooperative than men?

Bukidnon women of the Philippines island of Mindanao — Hans Brandeis

Norwegian women:
Minnesota Historical Society

Are women instinctively more cooperative than men?

Annoyingly, post-Gutenberg cannot seem to get off the fence, on that question.

There is no equivalent, for the other gender, of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman – a blood-curdling, too often accurate, book about the scope of this category of unkindness by a respected psychologist, Phyllis Chesler. On the other hand, women have never fashioned whole careers from bludgeoning each other, the way legions of men did for most of human history — serving both noble causes and evil ones.

Nor has highly organised, male-dominated aggression disappeared. Our eyebrows went shooting ceilingward when we discovered, the other day, that in the country proud to think of itself as the land of Gandhi, elite business school students gather as rapturously as American hipster-cultists at Burning Man for a contest in strategic capitalist thinking called the Mahindra War Room. Om mane padme … oh dear, … we thought.

We would like to know whether there is any substance in the idea that women involved in running organisations tend naturally to a more consultative and collaborative style. Should women be encouraged to lead in promoting cooperative ownership as the fairest and most engaging way to organise people working together, wherever coops make sense?

We care about the answer because we have been obsessed by coops for some time. As we explained in a February post, the internet — used as both frame and engine for cooperative organisations — could vaporise many of the handicaps and inefficiencies that plagued failed coops of the recent past. More than once, we have linked to an outline of a scheme for making readers and commenters co-owners of media – a collection of ideas marinated in 2009, then lightly grilled and put on the table in January of 2010.

We could all be witnessing the start of capitalism’s evolution into an array of highly motivated, updated cooperative workplaces. It hardly matters that beady-eyed commenters spotted the questionable logic in one specific comparison in an otherwise accurate Guardian piece, last week, on the growing enthusiasm for cooperatives: ‘Co-operatives and mutuals keep outperforming the UK economy’. A reader, @johnjm, remarked acidly: ‘Comparing co-operatives, which are largely in retailing, with GDP is spurious and arguably financially illiterate.’

If @johnjm is honest, he will concede that some eminent economists find the concept of GDP itself unsatisfactory.  Scrolling down all the reader comments on that article by Greg Rosen does suggest that its premise — that a ‘cooperative renaissance’ is underway — is warranted. Growing numbers of us see coops — warts and all, without any expectation of being led to paradise on earth — as the shrewdest solution to the problem of the 1% that Occupy campaigners turned into high drama. Even if Rosen’s is a flawed comparison, it was intriguing to see these numbers side-by-side – and the next sentence rang deeply true:

While the real level of GDP in the UK in 2011 was 1.7% lower than in 2008, co-operative sector turnover has grown 19.5% over that period.

Some parts of the co-operative economy have been resilient for the past 40 years – but without public recognition.

That said, how are we to get more people to demand cooperative organisations? Could women hold the key to that galvanisation? If forced at gun point to guess either way, a few months ago, post-Gutenberg might have ventured, with cringing reluctance, that females are probably somewhat less adept at friction-free collaboration than men are (see Phyllis Chesler, above).

But lately, these scraps have come floating to the front of our mental screens — on eddies of serendipity:

• Elinor Ostrom, the first and only woman ever to win the Nobel prize for economics (2009), made her name as a specialist in ‘examining the use of collective action, trust, and cooperation in the management of common pool resources’ – such as irrigation networks and fishing grounds — working closely with her husband, Vincent Ostrom.

Our introduction to this radical but self-effacing thinker came from Howard Rheingold’s new book, Net Smart. Like Howard, a cyberspace pioneer and writer, she stood out for putting her ideas into practice in her own life. Shortly after her death in June, he kindly answered our question about their brief acquaintance by explaining that they met at a conference in Bali, through another woman academic interested in the same subject …

… Charlotte Hess, whose work I had been following. In my research on cooperation theory (compiled at http://cooperationcommons.com) I had become familiar with the foundational work of Elinor Ostrom. Hess had co-authored with Ostrom a key paper on information as a common pool resource. […]  Lin Ostrom, as everyone seems to call her, was gracious enough sit down with me and talk about our shared interest in informing policy decisions about common pool resources with real empirical research. Then, as she often did, Ostrom voiced her concern about all the decisions being made at the political level without a shred of knowledge of the significant body of scientific research about what worked and what didn’t work with commons governance issues. […] I came away […] understanding that I had met one of the few great people I had the good fortune to encounter in my lifetime.

• A paper by an economic historian, Beatrice Moring, ‘Female Networks and Cooperation in the Nordic Past’. She delivers an important reminder of how women once excelled at cooperative tasks – ‘[c]ommunal activity without payment, lasting one day or less, aimed at performing tasks needing many participants.’ She argues that after the industrial revolution, the specialisation and commercialisation of work destroyed strong and indispensable female networks which — in Finland, Norway and Sweden — had once milked cows, collaborated in weaving and making clothes, communal baking, and heavy-duty housecleaning.

Elinor Ostrom’s animating spirit, or what can be gleaned of it in an excellent obituary in The Economist, was in close sympathy with those toiling Nordic women:

[C]ollaboration was her watchword. Neighbours thrived if they worked together. The best-laid communal schemes would fall apart once people began to act only as individuals, or formed elites. Born poor herself, to a jobless film-set-maker in Los Angeles who soon left her mother alone, she despaired of people who wanted only a grand house or a fancy car. Her childhood world was coloured by digging a wartime “victory” vegetable garden, knitting scarves for the troops, buying her clothes in a charity store: mutual efforts to a mutual end.

• A light-hearted April 23 column by the science journalist Natalie Angier taking an extreme position also, incidentally, at the furthest extreme from Phyllis Chesler’s – and extended to include non-human females:

In animals as diverse as African elephants and barnyard mice, blue monkeys of Kenya and feral horses of New Zealand, affiliative, longlasting and mutually beneficial relationships between females turn out to be the basic unit of social life, the force that not only binds existing groups together but explains why the animals’ ancestors bothered going herd in the first place.

• A blog post about Elinor Ostrom by the president of the International Cooperative Alliance, founded in 1895 and representing 248 co-operative federations and organisations in 92 countries, according to the Wikipedia. And who did that turn out to be? Yet another woman – Pauline Green.

… Might these scraps amount to dots describing a larger, highly significant pattern – even if they do not quite add up to proving a greater female affinity and aptitude for working in cooperative organisations?

We have no idea. We would like to have asked Elinor Ostrom that question but, sadly, learnt of her existence too late.

Summer, 2012

Photograph by MIL22

woolgathering

1553, “indulging in wandering fancies and purposeless thinking,” from the lit. meaning “gathering fragments of wool torn from sheep by bushes, etc.”

Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper

woolgathering

This week’s plan for post-Gutenberg.

Quiet levity at ♯Leveson, and some thoughts on the film version of the Inquiry for Robert Redford’s scriptwriter

Leveson’s subtle cerebral swordsman, Robert Jay QC:
is he Hollywood material?

Robert Redford in 1976, playing
the Watergate reporter-hero
Bob Woodward.
Photograph: collectorsshangri-la.com

Nowhere in the commentary about the winding down last week of Part 1 of the Leveson Inquiry into press practices have we seen the lines we expected some old print publication or other to throw in for leavening. Only in the blogosphere have we found mentions, in this context, of …

You cannot hope to bribe or twist

The honest British journalist

But seeing what the man will do

Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

There are minor variations of those four lines in circulation. They are the wittiest and best-loved summing-up in verse of the British tradition of journalism – at its best, still the world’s finest, in our opinion, which might have been influenced by sprinkling with  baptismal water in this branch of the craft. Long before then, the poem was on a page of a school poetry textbook to which some of us, at post-Gutenberg, often turned for relief from galumphing deconstructions of poems unfortunate enough to have been put on the syllabus.

Will Robert Redford find a way to include Humbert Wolfe’s 1920s quatrain in his script — if there is any substance in the speculation about him giving Leveson and the phone hacking scandal the Hollywood treatment? A Redford film about the Inquiry — showing us what an outsider makes of the Icelandic saga it has become — could be a treat. A clip from a BBC interview with the actor-director in April is irresistible. His tone becomes wondering, almost awed, answering a question about his impressions on a first visit to London for 30 years:

I come here and I watch the Leveson Inquiry. And whatever’s going on — I’m sure there’s some savage stuff going on — but it’s done in such a dignified, calm, graceful way that I think, gee! this is really fascinating. Somebody’s killing somebody, here, but you’d never know it.

Italian-born Humbert Wolfe
wrote the most famous poem
about British journalism.
Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

The poet Humbert Wolfe also had a stranger’s acute powers of observation. He was born in Milan. His mother started life as Consuela Terraccini. His pen strokes captured the journalism and journalists of his adopted country while he worked at a day job in its civil service.

But even if one of Redford’s most famous roles was in All the President’s Men (1976) — playing the Woodward half of Watergate’s heroic ‘Woodstein’ partnership at The Washington Post – it is not the British press but the lawyers and gracious conventions of British law in action that captivated him. At a press conference on the same trip, a reporter asked if he was watching the proceedings and ‘hoping for the return of proper investigative journalism’ – following his complaints elsewhere about the increasing ‘triviality of media’. He replied:

I’ve been very impressed with the dignity and elegance with which the process has gone forward. People take their time speaking. And in my country, things have become so accelerated and … so hyped up. … It’s sad for me to see because it blurs this more important part, which is, where are we going to find the truth? The democratisation of the internet has actually made truth harder to find — along with its positives.

Somehow, that vital qualification of his disappointment with democracy on the net was dropped from the Independent’s report of his remarks, with no indication of any omission. That paper, like the other broadsheets, never stops copying King Canute straining to command the sea to roll backwards – in its case, the evil digital sea of change obliging the 4th Estate to share its megaphone with new rivals.

Actually, Lord Justice Leveson and his chief counsel for the hearings, Robert Jay, have often struck post-Gutenberg as a brilliant pairing. In their uncannily well-coordinated forensic interrogation, they function like a legal Woodstein – even if not technically working as partners but in their distinct and separate roles. The background to their bravura performance could be an engaging part of the story, whenever Redford or someone else digs into it.

Admittedly, that is most likely to be a someone else – since the cinema only rarely conveys intellectual, as opposed to emotional, subtlety and complexity. Just as nearly every film ever made about the lives of artists and writers has failed to illuminate the mechanisms of their creativity, let alone uncover its secrets, there seems little chance of the cinema tackling judicial tactics and strategising of the highest sophistication.

Unless the presiding judge or some other senior member of the Inquiry’s legal team writes a completely frank account of its hidden dramas, there is just as little hope of our learning any details of the hearings’ behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – the pressure from vengeful old 4th Estate tigers distraught about the prospect of their de-clawing; the wily manipulations of politicians. We can only discern their effects – in, for instance, the ever more drawn and tired face and hoarse voice of Leveson LJ, in the concluding weeks of Part 1.

Would a Redford film explain the sort of thing keeping us hugely amused at post-Gutenberg? – the private joke we read into the judge thanking ‘the press who have reported on the inquiry, for keeping everybody informed,’ which made broadsheet headlines. Taking what he said strictly at face value (Lord Justice Leveson ends Inquiry by thanking journalists), those news reports missed his point entirely. To grasp what Leveson LJ was actually saying, you would have to know about this exchange between him and the admirably non-partisan Peter Oborne, chief political commentator at The Telegraph — and by far the most enlightening and accurate senior journalist testifying at the Inquiry:

P.O. : … [T]he reason why rival newspaper groups were unwilling to report phone hacking […] It’s only my views as an informed spectator, that … there was a reluctance of one newspaper group to embarrass another.

LJL : … If that is so, is that inevitable?

P.O. : I don’t know if it’s inevitable or not, but it has been a very, very — it has been a feature … [A]nd I think it’s been weakened a little bit, or even quite a lot, by blogs, and Private Eye has played a fantastically important cleansing function in the last 30 or 40 years. […M]aterial which has not found its way into mainstream publications has found its way into Private Eye.

LJL : Private Eye has also been publishing during the course of this Inquiry what the newspapers don’t publish. In other words, they’ve gone through a number of stories and said, “Actually, it’s rather interesting that this story appeared in this paper but it didn’t cover another aspect.”

Had the judge not been teasing huffy 4th-Estaters for their selective and misleading reporting on his hearings, he would have thanked all reporters and commenters – including bloggers, whose legitimacy and importance he has scrupulously underlined.

On that subject, we have a message for Robert Redford.  It is only because of the internet’s democratisation of the media that post-Gutenberg learnt that he acknowledged the constructive aspects of the rise of the net, even as he blamed it for the growing scarcity of good traditional journalism. As we have already noted in this entry, The Independent only printed the portion of his remarks that suits its agenda. But, thanks not only to a BBC video but a YouTube clip from his London press conference, we could all watch him speak his unedited thoughts and interpret them for ourselves.

And that is just one more tiny scrap confirming that expand and include; don’t compress and exclude should be the principle directing anyone powerful who has a say in shaping the media’s future – for reasons we recently explained here.

A poetic boatload of words and a foretaste of e-publishing as bringer of light and joy

Cover drawing by Sascha Juritz
What matters most is what you make
Roy Eales
Blackbird Editions, Pawel Pan Presse, 2004

Sit up and pay attention, all you change-resistant bookworms who see no good in e-publishing; nothing but the prospect of avaricious conventional publishers charging readers more than once for the same text repackaged in different media – and witless self-publishing writers drowning us in e-drivel.

This week, post-Gutenberg offers word nerds everywhere an example of the littérature-sans-frontières that the net could – will – soon give us as a matter of course. Undeniably, no e-book could replicate the pleasure of handling the slender volume printed on luscious, textured paper from which our extract comes. Never mind, read on. See proof in many dimensions of how the net could – conceivably — help to save literary culture.

These poetic, fanciful lines with something critical to tell us about real life are introduced by their writer, Roy Eales. In his book What matters most is what you make (2004), they appear translated into Breton – the language of the French province of Brittany – as well as in French and German, alongside the English original. (Only the second translation is reproduced here, but we hope to find time to transcribe the other two.)

Roy is a fine, original, unpredictable and unclassifiable English writer and poet living in Brittany who was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by official France in 2004. He is that rare scribe not born a ‘digital native’ who has leapt from print-only to blending literature with other art in readings of his work interwoven with musical performances by members of his group. A selection of his poems in five languages has been recorded on a CD, ‘Just in Case’ by Roy Eales and his friends (2010), with original music by artists in Brittany and Wales.

Beneath Boatload, on this page, is another excerpt from the same book– the first verse of a wicked, delicious, posthumous tribute to Sascha Juritz, the artist and friend whose drawings accompany Roy’s poems, prose meditations and vignettes.

                                                 

.

.

A note from Roy Eales:

.

A boatload of words came to me in the middle of a night sometime in late 2003. Legend, mythology, mystery abound in Brittany, Bretons and their literature, and I searched for something satirical in which I could use these elements to castigate the French, heavily, for their stern, backward attitude towards other languages in their national space, and to challenge the Bretons, lightly, for not fighting back enough.

[ from the book’s introduction: ]

Boatload and the other poems in this book were dedicated to Sascha Juritz, brilliant artist, my friend and publisher of this and other books over the years. He died in 2003 as this book with his exquisite drawings was being published. He saw Brittany as a twin for Lausitz, his own Slav country locked into the Czech and Polish borders and colonized by Germany some centuries ago as independent Brittany was by the French. Like the Bretons, the people of Lausitz have sought to protect their culture and language despite the inevitable forces to conform to the ‘master’ French and German cultures and languages. 

.

[ If you are reading this on the blog's 'front page,' please click on the title of this post to be taken to its own separate part of the site to read the following words set out as they are meant to be. WordPress's automated layout software tends to destroy certain types of special formatting, such as spacing for poetry. ]

.

A boatload of words: a fable for Brittany

.

At an old port in Brittany a man wearing a peaked black cap was

leaning on his right leg staring capital in the face.

.

He turned his head and swivelled on his left leg to an alternative

position, and rested there on his right leg again.

.

He lit his pipe and told a tale. This is what happened.

.

One cold winter morning at the same port a black seabird

perched on his shoulder and told him in Breton that a huge boat

heaving off Brittany on a strong Atlantic sea had been wrecked

by a mutiny – of its cargo – a boatload of words, in fact, the entire

vocabulary.

.

The black bird twittered, in revealing that the words were to be

dumped at sea, three miles out, in black stranglehold sacks stamped in

red: SUPERFLUOUS, by order of the Ministry of Absolute Control.

.

Naturally, the words didn’t like this. They had been beaten before,

but never, so overtly, threatened with extinction.

.

In a mighty speech, Gwendal, their leader calls for a rebellion, and

draws up a plan. The cleverest words would free everyone, and the

heaviest words would sink the boat. Then all the words would float

back to their homeland.

.

Seabirds flying over the boat learnt secretly of the plan from the words,

who asked them to speed messages in Breton back to the people.

.

So the news spread quickly across Brittany, and soon all the shoreland

bristled full of music and people, dancing and singing, facing the sea

and the sinking ship on the horizon.

.

And coming towards them a sheet of white foam on the sea, a foam of

words, as the entire language was carried proudly ashore by the waves

like a hero.

.

From that day on the people vowed never again would they leave their

language alone to save itself from any perils at sea, or wherever they

may be.

.

Roy Eales, 2003 

.

. 

Une cargaison de mots: fable pour la Bretagne

 

Sur un vieux port breton, un homme portant une casquette de marin

noire s’appuyait sur sa jambe droite, fixant du regard un point d’une

importance capitale.

.

It tourna la tête et pivota sa jambe gauche pour changer de position

et se tint là de nouveau sur sa jambe droite. It alluma sa pipe et raconta

une histoire. Voici ce qui s’était passé.

.

Un froid matin d’hiver sur ce même port un oiseau marin se percha

sur son épaule et lui raconta en Breton qu’un énorme navire se soulevant

au large de la Bretagne sur une forte mer atlantique avait fait naufrage à

cause d’une mutinerie – de sa cargaison – une cargaison de mots, en

fait tout le vocabulaire de la langue du pays.

.

L’oiseau noir gazouillait, alors qu’il révélait que les mots devaient être

jetés à la mer à trois miles au large, étranglés dans les sacs noirs sur

lesquels était tamponné en rouge: SUPERFLU, sur ordre du Ministère

du Contrôle Absolu.

.

Naturellement, les mots ne furent pas contents. Ils avaient déjà été

battus, mais jamais, si ouvertement, menacés d’extinction.

.

Dans un vibrant discours, Gwendal, leur chef appelle à la rébellion

et établit un plan. Les mots les plus habiles libéreraient tout le monde,

et les plus lourds couleraient le navire. Puis tous reviendraient en

flottant jusqu’à leur terre.

.

Des oiseaux marins volant au-dessus du navire furent en secret mis au

courant du plan des mots, qui leur demandèrent de faire rapidement

passer un message en breton au peuple.

.

Ainsi les nouvelles se répandirent vite à travers le pays, et bientôt

tout le littoral grouillait, repli de musique et de gens qui dansaient

et chantaient, face à la mer et un bateau coulant à l’horizon.

.

Et venant vers eux, drap d’écume blanche sur la mer, une écume de

mots, toute la langue du pays, était portée fièrement au rivage par les

vagues, comme un héros.

.

Depuis ce jour le peuple fit serment de ne jamais plus laisser sa langue

toute seule faire face aux périls en mer, ou n’importe où ailleurs.

.

Roy Eales, 2003

Translated into French by Nanda Troadeg and Susan Eales ]

.

And here is a snippet of Roy’s tribute to Sascha Juritz, ‘Don’t Overdrive, my dear‘ … you can read the rest in your own copy of What matters most is what you make:

.

This time

Is there only the reality?

.  So don’t overdrive, my dear.

Where this genius is concerned

reality is irrationality.

The black lines

send off the normality

and poetry is just

.  a little shit

after which you feel better

and lose a bit of yourself.

.  It doesn’t matter, my dear.

.  They hear nothing

.  Say nothing

.  See nothing — scheisser — .

But every man is always

.  a Grand Poète,

has something to say,

. a small bird in the head.

.

[ ... continues ... ]

.

.

♯Leveson must protect citizens’ rights to comment alongside a 4th Estate incapable of self-regulation: see Private Eye No. 1317

‘f&f’
Photograph by MIL22

One after another, members of the 4th Estate have been parroting some version of the same frightful cliché – don’t throw out the baby with the bath water! – as they warn Lord Justice Leveson about the risks of imposing any form of regulation on the press.  Google offers roughly 21,200 search results for the terms ‘baby + bathwater + Leveson’.

You might suppose that someone would have the wit to find a new metaphor after this year’s revelations about decades of collusion between politicians and the largest 4th Estate empire by far, the one run by Rupert Murdoch – disclosures that have shown us that the wretched baby is being bathed skinless to divert attention from its reeking, putrid condition.

Last week, in another part of this site, we posted a mention of an important study by a London School of Economics researcher about comment moderation policies on the websites of newspapers. We found it only by accident, on the day we wrote the post. For reasons obvious from five minutes spent reading the study’s findings, no newspaper has given it any publicity whatsoever. We hope that the Leveson Inquiry’s team of investigators has copies of the LSE researcher Sanna Trygg’s paper, ‘Is Comment Free? Ethical, editorial and political problems of moderating online news‘, which underlined in various ways these observations:

In the past, ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ media have been considered as the main public forum for free speech, critique and discussion. Today, readers are also invited to participate in the debate directly online. The main platform for this is the comment field attached to news articles published online.

[…]

Comment fields on newspaper websites offer great potential for participation in democratic dialogue. […] It is important to continue to strive for real engagement between people with different viewpoints, even when those views are marginal. The danger remains that people will not learn by having their views challenged.

[…]

Readers’ participation is still not a priority in the newspapers organization. [Comment] [m]oderation is being performed on the terms of the newspaper and is a product of a relatively narrow policy. This issue matters if it drives people away from ‘reasonable’ moderated discourse. […] It is a central problem for the creation of a truly networked journalism or Fifth Estate.

Trygg — whose work experience includes a stint as web editor for Skånska Dagbladet, a newspaper in her Swedish homeland – was pessimistic about the likelihood that the Inquiry will address the most vital media-related issue that needs resolving. That is not simply to note the 4th Estate’s replacement by the 5th , but firmly discourage today’s still-dominant print media from suppressing the voices of citizens who disagree with its positions and expose its flaws in newspaper comments sections. She surmised:

At present it does not seem likely that Leveson will deal with news website moderation directly, but surely it should be considered in any investigation into newspaper editorial practices and their contribution to British public life?

As we keep saying here, there is only one widely circulated print publication in Britain writing ‘without fear or favour,’ the way a real newspaper should – and as only bloggers and other unmediated writers publishing on the net do. In late June, Private Eye supplied a detailed contradiction of misleading testimony by David Cameron at the Leveson hearings that the rest of the 4th Estate either ignored or mentioned glancingly.

The Eye’s evisceration of that testimony referred to Jeremy Hunt, a culture-minister-in-waiting who in 2010 had boosted his party’s chances of winning the election by securing the support of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun – through spouting, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, all the positions on media policy that Rupert’s son James had outlined a few days earlier in delivering the annual, high-profile MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

“THERE was no overt deal for support, there was no covert deal, there were no nods and winks,” David Cameron told Leveson, dismissing the suggestion that the Tories agreed to back the Murdochs’ commercial interests in return for the support of the Sun before the 2010 general election. Hmm…

As the Eye pointed out before Cameron gave his evidence, there was, however, an uncanny resemblance between James Murdoch’s MacTaggart Lecture on 28 August 2009 and an article that the then shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote in the Sun three weeks later on 19 September – just before the paper switched its support to the Tories.

Hunt echo

In the MacTaggart, Murdoch complained about a “land grab” by the BBC, claiming that “the scale and scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling”. Hunt echoed that in his Sun article, warning that “something is going wrong at the broadcaster”.

Murdoch declared: “Rather than concentrating on areas where the market is not delivering, the BBC seeks to compete head-on for audiences with commercial providers.” Or, as Hunt wrote three weeks later: “The BBC needs to focus on what it does best – great family entertainment and programmes the market will not provide.”

Murdoch rant

Murdoch complained that “the BBC’s income is guaranteed and growing”. Ditto Hunt: “We should not be having inflationary rises in the licence fee.” Murdoch then ranted about the “particularly egregious” expansion of the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. Lo and behold, Hunt argued: “It’s time to rein in the activities of its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.”

Murdoch’s fury extended to the BBC Trust. “You need deep pockets, sheer bloody-mindedness and an army of lawyers just to make the BBC Trust sit up and pay attention,” he fumed. Hunt promptly “pledged to replace” the BBC Trust “with a truly independent body”.

Perish the thought that any of this might amount to evidence of a mating dance between the Tories and the Murdochs.

We hope that the Leveson Inquiry will do all it can to ease the way for more media of every sort to fill crucial gaps in mainstream reporting as only the Eye does, at present.

Appearing before the Inquiry last Tuesday, Lord Hunt (no relation to Jeremy), the present head of the press-run Press Complaints Commission all but universally acknowledged to have failed at the job of self-policing, failed to melt Lord Justice Leveson’s heart when he begged for a second chance for his organisation. Every month brings fresh evidence of the hopelessness of any claim that the press is capable of regulating itself.

Two such scraps on our minds at post-Gutenberg today:

• Last summer, even with the whole world transfixed by emerging details about phone hacking by Murdoch’s minions, the media tycoon announced his intention of mucking out his corporation’s stable with an internal investigation that struck critics as woefully unconvincing. It was led by Joel Klein, a New York lawyer and education expert, freshly hired by News Corp.. The New York Times noted earlier this year:

Shareholder groups have expressed concerns about Mr. Klein’s independence in leading the investigation. His compensation package at News Corporation was more than $4.5 million last year, according to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“His salary was a huge bump, so he’s clearly beholden to Murdoch and should not be running an internal investigation,” said Michael Pryce-Jones, a spokesman for the CtW Investment Group, a shareholder advocacy group based in Washington that works with pension funds for large labor unions.

Last month, Joel Klein handed over that smelly job for a head groom to another senior News Corp executive – but that was someone hired at his behest, and his having been entrusted at all with the sanitising task did not inspire confidence in the likelihood that Britain’s heftiest media conglomerate is capable of putting the public interest above considerations of narrow commercial advantage.

• Newspapers ignore complaints about the suppression of citizens’ comments about their policies and behaviour  — even censoring, with peerless irony, a post about an opinion piece by the chief executive of Index on Censorship, a British watchdog group chiefly concerned with spotlighting censorship outside Britain.

One reason for starting this post-Gutenberg blog last September was to draw attention to comments censored by newspapers. Obviously thinking on closely parallel lines, Sanna Trygg suggested in her paper, published in January:

[W]e would argue that in the long run it is worth newspapers continuing to push for more transparent moderation … For example, would it be worthwhile making records of deleted comments public? Since no publicly available records exists, all we know is that comments are being deleted, but not which ones and why.

The latest tactic by old print media worthies determined to neutralise the Leveson Inquiry is to claim that neither the presiding judge nor any of the lawyers assisting him – all educated at élite institutions — are capable of looking after the interests of ‘Joe Public,’ since none of them are part of the tabloid-reading majority of customers for Britain’s newspapers.

This will be seen as a particularly ill-judged attempt to ensure the unchallenged reign of the 4th Estate if the Inquiry acts on what Lord Justice Leveson plainly understands well, which is that ordinary citizens are best served by any newspaper that gives its readers a chance to freely express their opinions.

A source quoted by Sanna Trygg encapsulated why this is exactly what members of the public need:

Research by the Swedish survey Institute Sifo in 2011, showed that workers, unemployed and less educated people think that reader comments in themselves are more important than civil servants, self-­‐employed, private employees and highly skilled:

“A qualified guess is that people with higher education and status in society feel that they already have the opportunity to be heard. For people with lower status are comment fields however, an important platform to make their voices heard.” 
Sofia Mirjamsdotter (Swedish journalist, blogger and social media expert.)

Might audience jealousy of artists explain why copyright is being officially destroyed on the internet?

Do artists deserve to eat?
Photograph by Mark Barron

In a March post, post-Gutenberg asked,

As more writers and artists without formal qualifications but with undeniable gifts find audiences for their work on the net, will micropayments finally take off?

[...]

So far, so-called Millennials – the generation in their twenties and early thirties now shaping our experience of the net — have shown little enthusiasm for [...] experimenting with micropayments — direct transactions between buyers and sellers [...]

Many ardent campaigners for the so-called ‘Freemium’ economy willingly pay small ransoms for the latest gadgets – even when these are only minor improvements or enhancements of last year’s versions, and are designed to fatten the profits of the hated capitalists. Few of them learn to cook simple meals from scratch: they are happy to pay huge mark-ups for bland microwaveable fare cooked and packaged by giant corporations, or to patronise fast-food chains.

Why is it seemingly only art that turns them into Scrooges?

For people working in the arts, the grim news last week – ‘European Parliament Kills Controversial ACTA’ — marked surging public support for depriving them of any protection from online piracy:

The European Parliament rejected the controversial global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in a crucial vote on Wednesday. […] ACTA, abbreviation for Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, mandated that signatory countries implement legislation to criminalize certain types of downloading content such as music and movies, from sites not sanctioned by rights owners …

ACTA was killed by a vast online social network expressly formed to oppose paying creative artists for downloading copies of their work. There were some eye-popping attempts at justifying this European vote in the comments section of a furious protest against ACTA’s defeat by the Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison: ‘Throwing out Acta will not bring a free internet, but cultural disaster’.

To study that thread is to pick up a persistent undercurrent of jealous resentment – whose real target is not, as so many of those commenters claimed sanctimoniously, the ‘content conglomerates’ or multinational music publishers and film studios charging inflated prices for CDs and DVDs. It is the musicians, actors, and other ‘content-producers’.

One commenter seemed to speak for many in this post:

Bauhaus

Culture is shared and owned by everyone.

Floggin plastic discs, is a business, and nothing to do with culture.

A flurry of comments belaboured the point that artists must simply accept that technological change has made it difficult or impossible to prevent people from helping themselves to art free of charge.

At post-Gutenberg, we wondered why these stalwart defenders of freeloading have yet to form a movement against paying farmers for food. As tillers of the soil use air, earth, and knowledge of crop-growing ‘owned by everyone’, why not risk arrest and imprisonment by ganging up to pirate vegetables, eggs, milk and poultry from fields and farms unprotected by fences or other low- or high-tech barriers?

As heatedly as they insisted on freedom for themselves, the commenters crowing about ACTA’s defeat demanded that artists – especially musicians – work on their terms. These go beyond requiring musicians to ‘share’ recordings of their work for nothing. Never mind if they are brilliant composers with crippling stage-fright, or who would simply prefer not to perform live, these audience members know what is best for them … and some wrote strings of posts making essentially the same demands:

bleeper

The world has changed, and it has been changing for well over a decade now. A generation have grown up expecting free music and it’s nothing to do with being ‘radical’ or ‘hip’, it’s just the norm.

I suggest becoming a renowned performer rather than relying on CD sales.

To put it bluntly : adapt or die.

whitesteps

This little rant is of course based on the assumption that the grotesque wealth that has, in recent history, accompanied success in music or acting or writing is in any way desirable. 

wh1952

Pirating is wrong, but […] maybe the artists need to perform more. Those “used to be musicians” might still be if they’d got out of the studio and into the pubs and clubs like their predecessors did.

dirkbruere 

So music will once again be about artists performing live, instead of corporate fatcats presiding over billion dollar industries.

What a tragedy. 

seeingclearly

Most of the people you are talking about and their businesses, those in the creative industries, willingly use and exploit the free internet to give a wider audience a taste of what they are about and to use its capacity as free advertising for their events. The bonus of this is that live events which had been dying have now been invigorated.

wh1952 

[…]

[Musical artists must] do what most musicians have always done, flip burgers during the week and live for the gigs on Friday and Saturday night.

alloomis

[…]

… [U]nregulated web will lead to musos having to play guitar solo on street corners for thrown coins. can’t see anything wrong there. 

Existangst 

[…]

If you create something outstanding and expect to live off the work for the rest of your life, and your family for 70 years after your death, then you must charge a sufficient amount to invest the proceeds and live off the investment income.

Otherwise you need to continually produce new works, or perform existing works.

We did not have more than a few minutes to test our impression of artist-envy in a search engine trawl. Two results – not enough to prove anything, but admirably frank, and revealing:

From a post titled ‘Why we are insanely jealous of artists’ on Jason Kallsen’s Vinethinking blog:

At a certain point, usually in our youth … we stand alone in front of the mirror with thumb raised and sing along to a song that is pounding out of the stereo.  And during our dream sequence, we see thousands of screaming fans before us, cheering us on.  Yes, deep down, at some point, we all want to be that person.

[…]

We love artists, and we are jealous of them for two reasons: they live their life doing what they want to do without permission or apology, and their career creates legacy projects naturally. [his bold type]

From Momus’s click opera blog:

I’m jealous of artists especially when a shiny new copy of ARTFORUM arrives. I flick through the pages looking at the ads.

It’s important to be jealous, without rejecting. Jealous and full of desire.

[…]

I’m jealous of the super-elite art tribe who ride the global flow from one biennial to the next.

And I’m ultimately jealous of the fact that our society has evolved to such a level that we indulge people as if they were children, and let them act out the whims and games of children in public, and pay them for it. It seems that being an artist — in the West, or in China — is the ultimate evolutionary point of the individual. Perhaps it’s a point we’ll recede from as times get tougher later this century, but a world without these selfish, clever, silly children isn’t a better one.

Jason Kallsen points the way to the right solution – which is most definitely not to deprive artists of copyright:

[W]e can all live fuller lives than we probably do.  Even if you are chained to a desk (for now) find an outlet that allows you to creatively do whatever the hell you want to do.  A painting class, doing more personal writing, visiting museums more often, taking the camera around town on a daily mission to make one great photo, etc.

It is only a small leap from there to the reason why this post-Gutenberg blog was started last September – to campaign for changing the ownership structure of media to let members of the audience become co-owners, and give them the chance to perform and publish themselves. See, for instance: ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …‘.

Julia Hobsbawm and a few more reasons to be wary of social networking

The New Yorker explains the ‘structural holes’ theory of social networking.
21 November 2005.

We are indebted to Ian Jack, writing in his latest Guardian column, for justifying our extreme suspicion of coercive social networking — and especially, of academic theorising about the value of something people have always done supposedly being on the verge of dominating everything else that we do.  (See footnotes for links to earlier entries on aspects of this alarming subject.)

Reflecting on a speech by Julia Hobsbawm, the new Honorary Visiting Professor in Networking at the Cass Business School at London’s City University – in which she pronounced ‘Facebook and Twitter … de facto, the new water cooler,’ but warned that extra-powerful networking takes place in ‘grassroots, lateral, face-to-face networks,’ — he noted,

The better people were connected, she said, the more they flourished. At the bottom end of the scale, “the completely un-networked” were often the unemployed. At the top end, networking away like barn dancers, were people who gathered at places such as Davos for the global events Hobsbawm always found “hugely stimulating and enjoyable” but regrettably confined to the same old elite. As I understood her talk, which may not be perfectly, the trick was somehow to open up these conclaves to less privileged people. Thus “social and intellectual plurality” would lead to “social and professional mobility”.

He came to this sad conclusion:

The Cass Business School should adopt a motto and paint it over the entrance: non quae sed quem cognoscis, not what you know but who. And thereby recognise the return of this unfortunate reality.

The New York Times, just as sceptical in its report of Julia Hobsbawm’s inaugural lecture, also emphasised her own splendid family and social connections as the key to her success – that she is the daughter of an eminent Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, and was once the business partner of the wife of a former British prime minister in a public relations company.

Why do social networking theorists like her make their ideas so hard to understand?

Like Ian Jack, the New York paper quoted tiny snippets of her talk to convey deep bafflement – but post-Gutenberg did not really grasp what they were hinting at until we followed a link to a recording of exactly what she said. This longer segment of her lecture makes it easier to see why they found her — erm, ‘meta-concepts,’ is the way she and her fellow-theorists would probably put it, so elusive. We hope we have punctuated her words correctly in this transcript: it is not easy to decide how that should be done when struggling to make the ideas themselves fit together. After asking whether knowledge might be ‘more valuable when it is loose rather than tight,’ she continued,

The global workplace is itself becoming looser. Our graduate children are shadow-boxing hidden counterparts and hidden competitors on other continents. The Silicon Roundabout worker in London must be mobile and fluid because they may end up in Silicon Valley or someone from Silicon Valley may pinch their job. The garment producer in Mumbai may come from Mombasa. That’s because knowledge moves in a kind of diaspora now, uprooting from a fixed position and travelling. In fact, The Economist – again – noted in an article about diaspora networks last year that there are 215 million diaspora migrants in the world now. That’s the equivalent of 3 per cent of the world’s population taking ideas from over there back home. China’s growth may have more to do with the fact that over 500,000 people have studied abroad and returned, mostly within a single decade, bringing a huge brain surge through the ranks of think tanks and government.

The best expression of very loose knowledge that I can find is the sociologist Ronald S. Burt’s term ‘structural holes’. He describes the way ideas often form between formal [her emphasis] network nodes than in them. As Burt put it, and I quote, ‘Structural holes are the empty spaces in social structure. The value potential of structural holes is that they separate non-redundant sources of information, sources that are more additive than overlapping.’ And I’m minded to quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she describes freedom as coming from ‘the blank white spaces on the edge of the print.’

‘Loose knowledge’, it would seem, is a stunning sequence of non sequiturs that could sink anyone listening for too long in a bottomless black hole.

Or, we might simply say, to encapsulate our yokelish incomprehension of the Hobsbawm networking spiel, very Swedish chef  … – in the hope that a few readers have come across this sublime Muppet Show character whose recipes could kill you, if you followed them – but that would call for understanding his directions.

_____________________

How would introverts like Beckett — and Wittgenstein, Kafka and P.G. Wodehouse — have survived social media?

http://post-gutenberg.com/2012/01/09/how-would-introverts-like-beckett-and-wittgenstein-kafka-and-p-g-wodehouse-have-survived-social-media/

Google, bowing to social media, is letting down tomorrow’s Samuel Becketts

http://post-gutenberg.com/2012/01/16/google-bowing-to-social-media-is-letting-down-tomorrows-samuel-becketts/

The Muppet Show’s Swedish chef in a meditative pause between utterances. http://www.olofssonfamily.se/wordpress/tag/the-muppet-show/

Advice for Lord Justice Leveson from Lao Tse: how to shape the afterlife of the 4th Estate and assist the birth of its successor

[ On 10 July 2012, The Independent, a ‘liberal’ London newspaper, declined to publish a comment on press reform linked to this post. That polite comment is here. ]

Niklaus Manuel’s ‘Dance of Death’ (‘Totentanz’, 1516-1519) was a hugely popular theme as Gutenberg presses proliferated and the Renaissance was in full sway. It could have symbolised a coming-to-terms not just with death but the dying of old ways.

Presiding over an Inquiry whose conclusions will shape the afterlife of the British press – doomed to extinction by digital media and the new voices of the 5th Estate – Lord Justice Leveson keeps reminding us of the contradiction in the difficult job he has been given. What mechanisms can he recommend to the government for the enforcement of ethical behaviour by the 4th Estate without ‘imperilling the freedom of expression or our free press’? – as he put it during Tony Blair’s testimony in late May.

Post-Gutenberg would like to recommend a fragment of ancient Chinese philosophy as a frame for thinking about a solution to his quandary. Lao Tse reportedly said, in the 6th century BCE,

If we wish to compress something, we must first let it fully expand.

Lao Tse

Rule-making can be seen as a sort of compression – in the sense of limiting, constraining and controlling. It is too soon for anyone, even the admirably wise men at the summit of Britain’s judiciary today, to draft rules for media being turned inside-out by the digital revolution. As perspicacious witnesses have pointed out, any new regulations that minutely specify what the 4th Estate can and cannot do must inevitably pronounce on who should be considered a journalist. How can that be done when the profession’s boundaries are being obliterated by the arrival of the 5th Estate?

It would be disastrous if the Inquiry were to lead to any blocking or impeding of this successor to the 4th Estate. What the arrival of the 5th Estate means for the press is that it has to share the megaphone it has so far had all to itself.  This succession is directly in line with the evolution and improvement of democracy – something that people everywhere want dearly, a yearning that events like the Arab Spring have dramatised.

To watch the Leveson hearings is to see the presiding judge agonise over too many details that an unimpeded 5th Estate will soon make irrelevant or outdated. They take up too much of his time, even when he understandably declines to deal with them in an Inquiry being criticised for taking on too much. As Dan Sabbagh noted in a good summing-up in The Guardian last week,

Leveson has so far showed little apparent desire to get into the question of the ownership structures of newspapers: when invited … to set a cross-media ownership limit that would force a Murdoch sale of the Sun or the Times, Leveson fought shy, “because that involves all sorts of competition issues which would require quite detailed analysis”.

Instead, Leveson went elsewhere to debate some practical solutions. The judge has been surprisingly consistent in the views he has espoused, taking the approach of testing out ideas periodically with witnesses he likes. Leveson is clearly sceptical of the PCC [Press Complaints Commission], telling Financial Times editor Lionel Barber in January that the body was not “really a regulator” but a “complaints mechanism” – and that it needed to be supplemented by another body, a new kind of court, “some sort of arbitral system” to cover libel and privacy claims – an imagined body that the judge said would be designed to be low cost – or to use a phrase he repeated many times “not make extra work for lawyers”. Its nearest analogue would be the industrial tribunals, or the arbitration system used in the construction industry. 

Post-Gutenberg likes the way the judge is thinking about  a replacement for the defunct and essentially toothless Press Complaints  Commission. We would also be happy to see the criminalisation of a small set of completely unacceptable infractions, such as extraordinary invasions of privacy by phone hacking and other underhand means.

But instead of pointless brain-cudgelling about precisely what percentage of which communication medium newspaper conglomerates like Rupert Murdoch’s should be allowed to own, Lord Justice Leveson’s highest priority should be to open the way to the largest number of competitors for the 4th Estate.

In other words, expand, don’t compress should be the principle guiding his recommendations to the government in September.

Check bad behaviour on the part of today’s media elite by maximising  opportunities for the outsiders of the 5th Estate to offer alternative presentations of facts and unfamiliar opinions, and to challenge and expose the biases and mistakes of every sort of media, new and old.

There is no shortage of good ideas for the democratic licensing of access to sensitive information by both professional and non-professional disseminators of facts. In a post a few months ago  on the blog of the International Forum for Responsible Media (INFORRM), Hugh Tomlinson QC made an excellent suggestion about ‘benefits for public interest journalism of creating a category of “accredited journalists”’.  These would be …

… a sub-category of those writing for publication [who] should be given specific privileges to assist them in their work. […] [P]rivileges should not be granted to journalists simply because they are employed to write or because they work for a media organisation.  Neither should the privileges be granted to any “citizen journalist” who claims to be writing public interest stories. Rather, the privileges should be made available to those who pass through a gateway policed by a voluntary independent regulatory body and sign up to an enforceable code of responsibility. [post-G’s ital.]

There are new ways of organising and financing journalism that could use Lord Justice Leveson’s support – even if that only means he will be careful not to hobble the reorganisation of the media as, for instance, a set of cooperatives in which readers and viewers could be offered the chance to become co-owners. In recent months, proposals for setting up and running these have been increasingly detailed and specific. (See, for instance, the mention of Paul Smalera’s suggestions in ‘Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media …’.)

The mere existence of the Leveson Inquiry has already had salutary effects. To give a small but critical example, the moderation of comments in The Guardian’s popular comments sections has become far less trigger-happy. Commenters are not being censored quite so reflexively for opinions or factual posts that conflict with that newspaper’s views and political positions, or criticise its friends. Last weekend, it was heartening to see a post about the Inquiry itself opened for comments after months of prohibition on grounds that made no sense – and to be able to read contributions to the debate about Ian Jack’s illuminating comparison of Leveson with an earlier government investigation of press practices.

As for the Leveson hearings, per se, their radical transparency — with a presiding judge confident enough to muse aloud and react spontaneously to testimony —  goes far beyond what many of us could even have imagined as a model of open government. (The best demonstration came an hour after this post: here). American lawyer friends looking on in awe tell us that nothing in the US system would permit Americans to copy the form of these proceedings.

Most amazing has been the discovery that the conduct of the Inquiry is characteristic of an exceptionally progressive judiciary. Utterly unlike the notoriously slow-moving and stodgy legal system wickedly satirised in Dickens’s creation, Jarndyce and Jarndyce — a court case that grinds on for generations – Britain’s top judges are not just acknowledging the implications of new communications media and adjusting to them, but doing so faster than the professionally nimble 4th Estate.

Post-Gutenberg only recently came across a news report from the spring of last year about a speech in Israel by the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Igor Judge, who put Sir Brian Leveson in charge of this indescribably gratifying investigation into press culture and practices. He explained that in Malta, where he was born, one of his grandfathers owned and edited a tiny newspaper. His sympathy for the press’s problems is, in a sense, inbred. But he favours the transparency and inclusion that are more the defining characteristics of the 5th than the 4th Estate – even for keeping his own legal system honest:

His “fervent hope” was that new technology would make it easier for the media to be “present” in court, reporting the proceedings, and “the present trend of fewer and fewer reporters in every court would come to an end”.

In an apparent reference to “virtual” courts based on video-conferencing, Judge insisted that justice should be done “in a public forum to which the public, or the media, has access”.

He continued: “Technology must not lead to justice done in secret, or some form of hole-in-the-corner justice.

Post-Gutenberg wishes to offer just more one scrap of advice to Lord Justice Leveson – who has invited everyone, however obscure, to contribute thoughts to his hearings: please do not allow political partisanship by the press to be conflated with press freedom. As we observed in a recent post in this spot, sanctioning political one-sidedness means licensing powerful media owners to be king-makers, with all the compromising wheeling and dealing that goes with that. It means condoning the skewed reporting of the facts so essential to the functioning of a genuinely democratic government.

With a fully licensed 5th Estate in full cry, media conglomerates trying to run Britain, with lots of help from British prime ministers – or what the Economist appears to dismiss nonchalantly as the inevitable ‘proprietor problem’ –  should be shown their proper place. And where would that be? If not oblivion, then as far below the salt as possible.

Gatekeepers II:  why not learn, like Bill Gates — so as not to dismiss subjects like intellectual India from blind ignorance?

‘The Indian Genius’: watch the menu at the top of the home page for a forthcoming compilation of articles on subcontinental topics.
Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling out and walling in …

‘Mending Wall’, Robert Frost, 1914

Gatekeepers would get more respect in this sceptical internet age if they could only acknowledge the vastness of what they – like the rest of us – do not know. The assumption of omniscience is inevitably a curiosity-killer. Satisfying deep curiosity – as even the most hopeless pilgrim on the road to wisdom knows – calls for humility, and for moving out of your zone of comfort in more than one sense. So it was that soon after Bill Gates stepped out into 44°C heat in the northern Indian city of Lucknow a few days ago, he went on Twitter to send out a link to a new post on his blog, thegatesnotes.com – a preview of a video report about this latest expedition to the subcontinent:

His entries about the trip are what you would expect to see in the online diary of the world’s most prominent philanthropist. He explores slums. He calls on chief ministers of Indian states. He visits medical research laboratories to check on progress in developing new vaccines. At the end of the short video clip, he gives his chief reason for travelling to this part of Asia: ‘Most of all, I go to learn.’

It was not subcontinental weaknesses and poverty but India’s strengths that originally put this country on his radar screen, when Bill was still running Microsoft. About a decade ago – and before he and his wife Melinda assumed control of their charitable foundation – he acknowledged Microsoft’s extraordinary dependence on Indian engineers for its operation and continued success. (See, for instance,  ‘Gates goes gaga over India’s developers, education system,’ The Economic Times, 14 November 2002).

As everyone in Silicon Valley is well aware, whereas the Chinese shine most brightly in computer hardware research and design, software is where Indians excel. This is not accidental. Cultural traditions going far back into antiquity supply highly plausible explanations for the difference. But you would be hard-pressed to find any book-length accounting for it.

Why?

Because book publishers in both the UK and US do not believe that readers have any interest in the subject – even though many thinking people, not just technologists and tech-entrepreneurs, know …

  • … that in the late 1990s, help from Indian programmers was crucial to averting the Year 2000 (Y2K) crisis that could have been disastrous for people using computers everywhere – however indirectly, as in digital telephone networks and computerised banking. Their energetic re-programming corrected the error that had left most computer software with no means of recognising, or independently adjusting its time-keeping for, the start of a new millennium.
  • … that, as much of a shock as it was for many Westerners to have to turn to the land of bullock carts and yogis for help with computers, the Year 2000 work was relatively trivial by comparison with evidence of the Indian aptitude for software design and development at the most sophisticated levels. That is why the loftiest rungs of research and management at Google, Microsoft, Adobe and other technology leaders are thickly populated by professionals of Indian origin.

In 2003 and early 2004, a book proposal and essay discussing the reasons for these phenomena were shopped to more than one newspaper and magazine – before a letter about the project landed on the desk of David Goodhart, the founding editor of the British magazine Prospect (whose charter, at its 1995 launch, called for it to succeed as a cross between the vanished Encounter and The New Yorker.) His unusual curiosity, easily the equal of Bill Gates’s, led over the years to him coaxing contributions to his magazine out of Francis Fukuyama, Margaret Atwood, and J.M. Coetzee, among other provocative intellectuals.

An article accepted and edited by David, setting out a hypothesis about Indian excellence in software and titled ‘The Indian Genius,’ ran in the April 2004 edition of Prospect. Its writer was invited to address a seminar in Paris at the French Senate on India’s transformation by globalisation, and gave a paper that had an exceptionally enthusiastic reception.

None of this changed the minds of our gatekeepers in Western publishing or led them to delve into the question of whether there was indeed an audience for a cultural and historical explanation for India’s competitive advantages in software, and how the West should react to them. Did they make any effort to fill gaps in their knowledge of Asia — if only as a gesture towards matching the depth and breadth of Indian interest and immersion in the Western cultural corpus? Apparently not.

What is to be done about this? Paul Kiparsky, a professor of computational linguistics at Stanford University, also a Sanskrit scholar, does not believe that the project will find the support it deserves until a sufficient number of wealthy Californian entrepreneurs of Indian origin are not just ploughing their money into new technology ventures and alleviating poverty in India, but turning their attention to Indian culture, scholarship and art.

While we await that happy day, post-Gutenberg will — as time and stubborn formatting gremlins permit — compile a small archive of essays and articles related to Indian intellectual contributions. Our first post will be the original version of the Prospect piece on India and software, truncated as the magazine was going to press, to make room for a reaction to train bombings by terrorists in Madrid.

In searching for links to post here for readers, we found that British Library Direct has begun to charge close to £ 20 for access to the article’s edited version. This, oddly enough, is being done without the permission of the author, or an offer to share any part of the proceeds – but its being offered on that site is additional confirmation that there is a readership for the subject.

If book publishing’s gatekeepers were less incurious, would the ascendance of China and India have come as such a shock to the West?

The answer is, unfortunately, all too obvious.


Gatekeepers I: in defence of Rachel Cusk — let cross-cultural flowers bloom in simultaneous international e-publishing

‘Brobdingnag o Lilliput’: the net has room for radically opposed perspectives and taste
in art and literature (see nearly invisible figures at base of shop windows).
Photograph by MIL22

Readers, all three of you, know that this blog could be one of the greatest fans Private Eye** has ever had – not just for its satire in direct descent from Jonathan Swift and other upholders of the grotesque tradition in English literature; not only for its unique compendium of whistleblowing about misused power and authority in Britain published every fortnight, but also for the futuristic modus operandi that makes these offerings possible.

This means that it is with excruciating reluctance that we at post-Gutenberg ask why the Eye keeps savaging the novelist and memoirist Rachel Cusk, who is capable of dystopian flights of prose of this calibre –

Summer came, clanging days of glaring sunshine in the seaside town where I live, the gulls screaming in the early dawn, a glittering agitation everywhere, the water a vista of smashed light. I could no longer sleep; my consciousness filled up with the lumber of dreams, of broken-edged sections of the past heaving and stirring in the undertow.

It reminded us of …

She listened … there was only the sound of the sea. … She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her … but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotized, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea …

… lines by another good writer, about whom we’ll have a bit more to say in a moment.

The first passage is an extract from Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, published this spring by Faber and Faber, today’s most prestigious literary imprint in Britain. With such a backer, she certainly did well with the gatekeepers in the sense in which the term is being used now – to refer to the old print media mafia of literary agents and editors deciding whose manuscripts will be lifted out of the slough of rejection, then promoted energetically, or left there to rot.

‘Gatekeeper’ could reasonably be used more widely, to include the reading public of a particular place either giving scribblers permission to think, feel and write in the ways that come most naturally to them – or attacking them or otherwise discouraging them from doing so.

That sanction has so far largely been denied to Rachel Cusk in Britain – for her divorce memoir. The Eye is far from her only excoriating mocker. Other British newspapers and innumerable citizen-commenters on reviews and articles about her have lambasted her eidetic, intelligent and ferociously self-critical account of this sad passage in her life. She has been denounced for solipsism, wallowing in dark emotions and imagery, and wrecking her own family’s privacy. For any objective witness to this battering – watching a long way from literary London – the last criticism is the most puzzling. Not once does she name her ex-husband or make it possible to identify him by his occupation, which has anyway changed since their divorce. Nor are her children easily identifiable, since they have no Christian names in her story, and presumably the surname of their father.

Yes, some of these facts can indeed be discovered online, but not by her choice – only, you suspect, because of the snippets of real life information extracted from her in publicity interviews on which book publishers insist, brooking no compromise.

You wonder why the anger about the baseless accusations of privacy invasion are never directed at ‘luvvie’ newspaper columnists, bloggers and social media networkers who never have to open the kimono, apparently delighted to live with it flapping high above their heads in a permanent hurricane of disclosure about themselves and their near and dear.

Cusk’s actual mistake was in violating the unwritten and unspoken rule for English writing in England – one that tends to make Americans uncomfortable. It decrees that sustained introspection and emotional intensity – when tending to chiaroscuro, if not outright melancholy – must be undercut by wit, poking fun at oneself, or some form of outrageousness like the scatological riffs and downright nastiness in some of Philip Larkin’s poetry. Admitting to admiring the lyrics of Leonard Cohen is asking to be sent to an aesthetic Siberia in most social circles. That makes no difference to those of us who marvel at the way sounds marry words in his contributions to music – even if we do believe the world’s greatest literary tradition to be English, inevitably: it shaped our taste.

But that is not the same as thinking that English aesthetic preferences should be used as a universal yardstick.

North America has crept into this scrap of wondering because Cusk’s writing style has partly been shaped by the years she spent there as a child. Her Mood Indigo prose in this memoir – I look forward to reading the others, and her novels – is strongly reminiscent of Joan Didion’s.

If Aftermath had been published simultaneously as an e-book in Britain and America – instead of in the UK alone – she would surely have elicited a more sympathetic or certainly, balanced, reaction from a cross-cultural audience. 

As sharp-eyed lit-critters have already guessed, the writer of the second extract quoted in this post is none other than Virginia Woolf – in To the Lighthouse. Much of her oeuvre consists of narcissistic, depressive, long-drawn-out exercises in introspection. Yet expert and non-expert British readers grant her genius status. Does a female writer have to be a victim of incest, and mentally ill, and finally, a suicide, to be allowed to say what she wants to as she sees most fit?

In a special editorial, no less, about Cusk, not long after Aftermath was published, The Guardian asked whether children can ‘really be counted as acceptable collateral damage in the self-styled vocation of the artist’ — without a substantiating word or phrase for the accusation. … Well! Should literary critics include in evaluations of the works of Virginia Woolf the question of whether it was right or fair that Leonard Woolf should have been obliged to interrupt his literary career, chronically, to serve as his wife’s psychiatric nurse? A nonsensical question, yes, but no more so than the one about damaging children.

The Guardian feels justified in lashing poor Rachel Cusk for writing a book that ‘plunges headfirst into the phenomenology of pain, which she wraps in a beautifying prose.’ Note the use of beautifying rather than beautiful – the compliment her sentences amply deserve – hinting that her writing so well must be reckoned another crime against decency; lipstick on a pig.

Time and the net will, we suspect, deliver the respect she deserves – for giving us, for instance:

We too came by car, along the motorway and then on smaller roads that took us through countryside and villages, little redbrick places that reminded me of the village where I used to visit my grandmother as a child. We lived in America then, and that English village, so damp and miniature-seeming, so full of twists and turns and cavities, constituted my education in the country of my parents, where soon I would come to live for good. In California I wasn’t quite sure who I was: large pieces of the jigsaw were missing, and it seemed that the missing pieces were here, in this rain-darkened place. I half-recognised them, the antiquity and the expressive weather, the hedgerows with their mysterious convoluted interiors, the sense of a solid provenance that underlay the surface movements of life like wood beneath the burnish: they were part of me and yet they lay outside me. … I was an onlooker, though I didn’t want to be. I wanted to live in the moment instead of always being lifted out of it into awareness, like a child lifted out of its warm bed half-asleep in the thick of night.

Brava! Rachel Cusk. Carry on scribbling, don’t let the Mini-Englander mentality get you down and in future, insist on simultaneous international publication.

——————-

** Feeling a bit low?  antidote: ‘Never too old’, a new love story by Dame Silvie Krin

The Leveson hearings are showing the world how beautiful transparent and open government would be

‘Quasi-judicial’: Jeremy Hunt, the minister responsible for culture and sport, awaits his turn at the Leveson Inquiry beside a former prime minister.
Detail from an anticipatory sketch by Martin Rowson for The Guardian, 26 May 2012

Strange times, these …

An incisive cartoonist can grasp the meaning of ‘quasi-judicial’ clearly enough to depict it with diagrammatic accuracy. Yet a British government minister charged with impartiality – the one with oversight of culture, no less – implied in evidence at the Leveson Inquiry that this aspect of a critical part of his job was really, really hard to understand. So difficult, indeed, that he saw only belatedly that there was something wrong with lobbying his cabinet colleagues to look favourably on a $16 billion bid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. – the phone hacking champion – to take over the TV broadcasting giant BSkyB.

You might think that a cabinet minister should be capable of a less unconvincing defence, but you would be wrong. It was pathetic to watch Jeremy Hunt claim, last week,

This was probably the first time that I heard the phrase quasi-judicial or had some kind of exposure to what the implications of quasi-judicial meant, […] Obviously I did become extremely familiar with what quasi-judicial                  meant.

Two days before Hunt’s testimony, Michael Gove, another cabinet minister appearing before Leveson – the one in charge of education – defended Murdoch, his good friend and former employer, in ringing oratorical tones. He described him as ‘a great man’.  This eye-popping characterisation undoubtedly led others, not just sceptical post-Gutenbergers, to spend a few minutes learning more about such a faithful acolyte of the Digger’s. It took mere seconds to find the Telegraph columnist Tom Chivers, obviously beside himself with glee, telling his readers last June:

So here’s a thing. Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove – the man charged with the schooling of our nation’s children …  in an interview with The Times, said: … “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.”

Newton’s laws of thermodynamics! That’s Newton (died 1727, expounded the laws of motion in 1687) and the laws of thermodynamics (expounded between 1847 and 1851 by William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin).

And in a letter to the editor of a newspaper, that remark earned Gove six of the best from a cane that whistled as it descended:

I see that Michael Gove thinks that “what [students] need is a rooting in … Newton’s laws of thermodynamics” (Report, 18 June). As a science teacher, what I need is a secretary of state who knows the difference between motion and hot air.

Ben Littlewood

London

The Politicalscrapbook blog awarded him a dunce’s cap. No one looking on as he tried repeatedly — and dismally failed — to score points off Lord Justice Leveson could have doubted that the error fit the man. Neither he nor Jeremy Hunt seem to realise that even the dimmest members of the public find it impossible to comprehend members of government making excuses or pontificating without using search engines to check for factual accuracy and, or, plausibility, before they open their mouths. … Well, for goodness’ sake, they have aides to do such heavy lifting for them.

Both inexcusable ignorance and arrogance are harder for anyone to get away with now that encyclopaedias have morphed into the free and weightless Wikipedia. The Leveson hearings have let everyone observe human beings at the pinnacle of executive power being courteously but persistently grilled for hours on end. They been allowing us to compare the words of witnesses with body language and the most fleeting facial twitches.

The longer the Inquiry continues, the more new expectations it will create.

Who, after being riveted by judicial interrogations of the high and mighty, month after month, will be willing to put up with less than perfectly transparent and open government?

On Twitter, expressing a private opinion, Adrian Monck – who runs Communications for the World Economic Forum in Geneva – tweeted, after Hunt’s appearance, and in close sympathy with this blog:

RT @amonck: #Leveson should remain as a standing committee on British public life

— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) May 31, 2012

It is difficult to imagine living without it.

Blogging shakes off its bastard status as the Leveson Inquiry legitimises non-professional, post-print media

Cartoon by an unknown artist at an exhibition, King’s Cross, London, 24 March 2012
Photograph by Katy Stoddard

A journalist giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry on 23 May answered questions from the lead counsel, Robert Jay, QC, about his written submission – until the Bench intervened: 

Q.  … Can I ask you … about the arrangements or the negotiations with politicians which you say can become very convoluted. …

A. … I do find it easier not to have politicians as personal friends.  …

Q.  In the context of the symbiotic relationship you go on to describe?

A.  Yes.  I mean, it is like ticks and sheep, isn’t it?  One can’t exist without the other.

Q.  …  You might become parti pris or become just a little too understanding.  It’s obviously those vices which you carefully eschew.  Is that fair?

A.  Yeah, I mean I don’t want to set myself up as some sort of absolute prig here.  … I find it easier and cleaner to have a disconnection, that’s all … [A]nd the only justification, I think, for our existence, is that we act on behalf of the citizen.  We don’t act on behalf of the powerful or the vested interest.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON:  Nobody will think you’re a prig, Mr Paxman, having just compared yourself to a tick.

Jeremy Paxman at the Leveson hearings

In 1999, after Jerri FitzGerald – the only doctor in a 41-person team on a research expedition to the South Pole – discovered a lump in her breast, she ‘performed a biopsy on herself with the help of non-medical staff, who practised using needles on a raw chicken.’

Everyone expecting courageous, detached professionalism in another sphere from newspapers covering the Leveson Inquiry into press standards and practices has been sorely disappointed. The most important story emerging from the hearings – confirmation of judicial sanction for members of the public who choose to blog, and for an unprecedented range of sources of information for voters seeking to make good voting decisions – is being concealed through a nearly exclusive focus on the implications for David Cameron’s government of sensational revelations from the phone hacking scandal.

All reporting on the Leveson proceedings by the press has been highly selective. Readers have even been deprived of such fun as the judge’s gentle takedown of the BBC’s best-known inquisitor on politics – the suave and debonair TV journalist Jeremy Paxman – recorded in our epigraph.

Reporting by traditional media about the changed status of blogging is non-existent, scant or distorted – sometimes gravely. Andrew Marr, one of the most respected political commentators in Britain, had this exchange with the Inquiry’s chief interrogator, Robert Jay:

Q.  …  [A]n article from The Guardian,  11 October 2010, … reports you as dismissing bloggers as “inadequate, pimpled and single” and citizen journalism as “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night”. … Is that comment about … the tone and quality of some of the online debate, or is it a more fundamental criticism of bloggers as being detrimental to the good name of journalism?

A.  …[I]t’s partly a symptom of my deadly weakness for a vivid phrase.  It was a comment really aimed at the enormous amount of anger and vituperation that seemed to me to be swilling around parts of the Internet, most of it anonymous.  I was probably a bit out of date even if I was saying that. Now, you know, you look around and a lot of the most influential highly respected political commentators aren’t newspaper journalists, actually, they are bloggers.

In The Guardian, Dan Sabbagh supplied a master-class in biased reporting in a news story radically watering down Marr’s testimony about the value of political commentary by bloggers:

Lord Justice Leveson has queried whether bloggers would have to be brought in a revised system of press regulation, as he heard evidence from Andrew Marr about the growing power of political websites.

The BBC journalist and politics show presenter said that ConservativeHome and other sites are “now as influential as any newspaper” and any new system of regulation proposed by the judge “would have to include those alongside newspapers”.

Whereas the Sabbagh report had the judge merely reflecting ‘rhetorically’ on ‘the boundaries of regulation’ – meaning the degree to which bloggers would be treated as part of the 4th Estate – anyone paying close attention would have heard Lord Justice Leveson agonise about a ‘nightmarish’ task of a very different sort. What he said was clearly predicated on bloggers and citizen journalists not being be excluded from any new system of press regulation. His dilemma, he explained, lay in deciding exactly who should be required to redress complaints about journalistic misbehaviour in that new system – that is, wrongdoing not just by those traditionally considered journalists but by anyone practising journalism.

The judge must wrestle with the distinction within the blogosphere between those whose writing amounts to comments for the sake of commenting, versus ‘those that are in the course of — if you like, a trade or business.’ Or, as he later rephrased that division, bloggers and other newcomers who are ‘simply commenting and those who are doing more and getting towards the business end of journalism.’

It is money changing hands for commentary that is, for him, the key point of difference between traditional and non-traditional journalists – not levels of expertise, or indeed any intrinsic entitlement to comment.

Andrew Marr at the Leveson hearings

In another fascinating interlude in that day’s testimony, Andrew Marr noted – earlier – that a special category of political blogger had appeared on the scene:

I think what the world of the influential political blogger has done is introduced a new player into the system who isn’t the full-time professional journalist with a press card working at Westminster under an editor and isn’t a politician, but is somewhere between the two.  A lot of these people are card carrying party members.  […]  They have particularly strong contacts with their side.  And therefore you can’t treat them as old-fashioned journalists under old-fashioned journalistic codes …

Then, with commendable honesty, he added that newspapers had begun to employ these professionally partisan political bloggers – if not mentioning what post-Gutenberg has in recent posts about the ‘old-fashioned’ press now claiming partisanship as a basic right of a free press.  Paid political bloggers, he said, are

an  influential new thing.  I mean, even a lot of the papers are picking people up and using them as commentators now. I think the old distinction between a political player and would-be professional journalist is breaking down, and any system which is built upon the old system will quickly look out of date as well.

On Dan Sabbagh’s keyboard, that testimony was conspicuously tweaked, like the rest of his report – and made no mention of newspapers bringing spin-doctors into the fold:

Marr said that political bloggers were often “card-carrying party members” often with “strong contacts with their side”, which meant that they could not be treated as “old-fashioned journalists” but were nevertheless increasingly significant.

What a good thing it is that no member of the Inquiry’s outstanding legal team misses a beat.

There was, for instance, the moment when Marr told the presiding judge that the ‘buy-in from the editors and the journalists who are going to be part of it,’ would be critical to the success of any new system of regulation introduced.’ He emphasised that ‘you need them to be plugged in … enthusiastically and willingly so.’

This conversational minuet ensued:

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON:  In relation to buy-in, of course, if I’m going to recommend any system, it has to be a system that everybody has to buy into.

A.  Yes.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON:  It will only have a chance of working if it works for the press, it works for the public as well.

A.  Mm.

… Not for ages has anything in public life offered the satisfaction of seeing right being done to remotely the same degree.

The lost wisdom of co-ops: a conversation about the key to future creative freedom for artists and inventors of every stripe

All artists now want to work on terms they co-determine.
Photograph by MIL22.

Post-Gutenberg will occasionally be letting visitors eavesdrop on discussions between our colleagues – starting with the pseudonymous and gender-free Escargot and Mustrun, who are not quite ready to divulge any personal details, except in warning about their tendency to be over-earnest, humourless, and on occasion, dull. Not the best qualifications for bloggers, we agree, but we make do with what we have – or rather, who.

Mustrun: I see that on Sunday we linked to The Observer — to a sharp John Naughton column about the Facebook hype falling flat on Wall Street. Someone here dropped into a comment there a link to our Valentine’s Day post about snubbing Facebook and re-inventing social networking sites as co-ops.

Escargot: So that’s why our traffic numbers have gone zooming into outer space. We’re not used to thundering herds of visitors shattering the monastic silence in these parts.

Mustrun: Right. Co-op promoters are the slave trade-killers of tomorrow.

Escargot: Trying to be aphoristic again, are we? Don’t. That one’s as clear as mud.

Mustrun: Just saying. All the clever people were sure for over two millennia that slavery would always be with us. Anyone trying to abolish it was written off as a lunatic or idealistic fool.

Escargot: Oh. Quite. Last week that lovely Leveson Inquiry judge, more owly than we are, was asking eminent witnesses to suggest how to make the British press behave in the future, and be less hopeless at holding politicians to account. No one mentioned redesigning media organisations as co-ops, but it’s surely a solution whose day has come. Not to mention dead relevant.

Mustrun: You’re thinking of the Harvard journalism lab experiment? Something to do with an Indian tree that looks like a multi-limbed goddess on steroids?

Escargot: The Banyan Project, yes. It’s been building a prototype for doing online journalism as a cooperative enterprise, focusing on local news. The man behind it, Tom Stites, has exactly the right idea. We’ve quoted him on post-Gutenberg before.

Mustrun: We have? Well, you know me. Any subject not mentioned in a post header, or that I didn’t write about myself, does not register.

Escargot: [sighing inaudibly] So as usual, you want me to urp up what he said, to fill you in?

Mustrun: Leopard, spots; all in the hard-wiring – yes? … If you would, please, Scargo.

Escargot: [reads through imperceptibly gritted teeth] ‘A significant source of co-ops’ strength is the trustworthiness inherent in their democratic and accountable structure. … This is also an era of rampant mistrust of journalism, so co-op news sites’ trustworthiness has the potential to add value to what they publish. Further, the co-op form allows, or rather demands, that news coverage decisions arise from what a community’s people need … The web is inherently collaborative — just as co-ops are — and at the local level this creates the potential for civic synergy — ’.

Mustrun: Translation: co-ops and the internet were made for each other. Spot-on, in that long-winded Murrican way. He might add that it’s strange but true that large parts of the internet sit on top of ‘peer-to-peer computing’. But this Justice Leveson, … how is he supposed to go from applauding a fine example like Banyan – assuming he does any such thing – to persuading the media to try out co-ops? He’s hardly going to order them to alter what we’re supposed to call their ‘business model’.

Escargot: Right. Britain is not a dictatorship. But he might recommend that the government offer old or new media organisations tax breaks for setting up co-ops – in the oldies’ case, by reinventing themselves, or parts of their operations, as co-operative outfits.

Mustrun: You think journos would sign on? Remember that the majority so detest the idea of any change that they can’t even bring themselves to report that Nick Davies — the journo hero of the phone hacking saga — told Leveson that the press cannot be trusted to regulate itself.

Escargot: Mmmm. Some of them will sign on, certainly. More will as the idea loses its strangeness, I suspect. There are editors and journalists who’d leap at the chance co-ops could give them to set rules and policies collaboratively. Mainly, I suspect, the craft-focused ones — hoping, like artists and writers everywhere, that this net revolution really will get rid of hierarchies and gatekeepers.

You saw the Tom Friedman column celebrating some of that on the New York Times site yesterday – yes?… But then of course, many journos live not so much for the craft as for the clubbiness in the profession. And sort of think of themselves as football teams – the women just as much as the men.

Mustrun: Clipped Friedman for skimming, later. Journos are petrified of more democratic media organisations, especially of any plan that involves making room for outsiders — for more varied contributors and voices. I’m always asked the same nervous-Nellie question about posts on here like ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …’. It’s this: will working in a media co-op mean that trained journalists get paid the same as bloggers and citizen-journalists?

Escargot: Oh, I’m asked that. All the time. No matter how many times we explain that the way a co-op works will depend on the particular set of rules its owner-members agree on, the journos and media managers revert to projecting their most paranoid fears onto any mention of  co-operatives.

Mustrun: Someone ought to re-publish that superb Tom Lester article about co-ops in the disintegrating copy of Management Today you once disinterred from our archive. It’d make a terrific contribution to the new e-publishing collections of long-form journalism – with an introduction setting it in context, of course, and updated facts. Remind me of the year it was published?

Escargot: Imagine you proposing anything in long form, Musto. The owner of the world’s most attenuated attention span. The Lester piece — the cover date for the magazine says February 1979 — deserves every last gram of your praise.

Mustrun: Even text-grazers like me have to stop for a real meal, now and then. What he pulled off in that article is amazing. His subject was the failure of the Kirkby Co-operative in a depressed manufacturing town near Liverpool. Yet by the end of his dissection of how Kirkby was done in by badly-designed rules, you somehow feel hugely optimistic about a well-designed co-op’s chances of succeeding.

Escargot: Yes, yes, and yes. The piece partly answers the question of how journalists might be paid in relation to bloggers – not that we existed, then — by explaining the rules for profit-sharing in one of the world’s biggest and most brilliant co-ops. Mondragon, in the Basque country of northern Spain.

Mustrun: ‘Mondragon’ sounds like something in Lord of the Rings. Lester uses its exotic history — it was started by a Catholic priest in the desperate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War — to create a riveting context for a step-by-explanation of exactly how an individual could join a co-op and help run it.

Escargot: [ swipes over to scanned copy of the article in a tablet computer ] The ratios may have changed, but in 1979, Lester said that at least 30 per cent of a Mondragon co-op’s profits had to be put away in the collective reserve funds. Then, ‘the other 70 per cent is divided up among the members of the co-op according to a points system reflecting job status.’ … And of course, every member could help to decide the status of one job in relation to another.

Mustrun: But in addition to practical, nitty-gritty details like that, he tells about some of the lunacy that seemed to go hand-in-hand with the passionate idealism behind co-ops of the past.

Escargot: Mmmm. ‘No shortage of idealism,’ he says about Mondragon, ‘…but mixed with hard-headed realism.’

Mustrun: Yes, but noisy idealism has been the biggest enemy of co-ops. Makes sensible people mistrustful.

Escargot: Quite. If only people who believe in them and have the right skills – extroverts, unlike us – would just get on with setting them up with no fuss. The way, for instance, Tim Berners-Lee quietly invented this World Wide Web. What could be more idealistic than a way of communicating as powerful as this one, connecting the whole planet –  but given away, free? A scientist silently beavers away in a lab in Geneva and without any self-advertisement, no speechifying whatsoever, changes the world.

Mustrun: Well, I really must, … you know …

Escargot: Right. Off you go, then.

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

Lord Justice Leveson interrogating Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief.

Why is this blog keeping a close eye on the progress of the Leveson Inquiry? Not because of minutiae about Rupert Murdoch and his henchwoman Rebekah Brooks jumping in and out of bed with British prime ministers, metaphorically speaking – as important as those shenanigans are to grasping the extent to which the governing of Britian has been infested by parasitical media magnates.

Under his Inquiry’s terms of reference, Lord Justice Leveson will have to make recommendations about the future of press regulation in Britain. These are bound to influence the debate about policy in other parts of the world. The expectation about the effect of his prescriptions that we at post-Gutenberg find most exciting is in this advice the judge has received:

…[I]f you do get the regulatory framework right for print journalism, I think that will have a profound effect on the way the Internet develops. […] What I think is happening is that we’re going to end up in a position where there has to be a redefinition essentially of what a journalist is.  … [I]t would be absurd to expect you to have regulation for every single person who is on Facebook and Twitter because then you’re not far off from saying we have to regulate the content of text messaging and so forth. [...] So I think there has to be a definition of what a journalist is, what a media organisation is, and [though] this is where I have some sympathy for the print industry, it’s not just about the print industry.

That was part of yesterday’s testimony by Alastair Campbell, the much-reviled political strategist and press adviser to Tony Blair. Further justifying this blog’s praise for his contribution at an earlier hearing a few months ago,  Campbell has proved to be incontestably the clearest and best-informed thinker among those assisting the Inquiry.

Lord Justice Leveson’s obvious grasp of the most subtle aspects of what Campbell told him was particularly welcome after undercurrents at last week’s hearings suggested that perhaps David Cameron’s government – even though it commissioned this Inquiry – had been warning the judiciary, off-stage, about excessive zealousness.

The presiding judge’s unfailing good humour had up to then been as striking as his scrupulously fair treatment of all witnesses. But a newspaper quoted him as having said, last Thursday, with unprecedented irritability, that he was impatient to reach the end of the hearings and get back to ‘productive judicial work’. As this followed his rejection, the week before, of the government’s request for privileged ‘core participant’ status in the proceedings, it seems most likely that friction between the executive and judicial overseers of our democracy played some part in darkening his mood.

There were other apparent reactions to unpleasant, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – as in the somewhat tortured and meandering summing-up by the chief interrogator, Counsel Robert Jay, of the chief issues raised by the hearings. Formally addressing the Lord Chief Justice, he delivered a sort of pre-mastication of findings from witness testimony to date. In this, he partly echoed quixotic attempts by the media to justify a partisan press – of which the most bizarre has been an argument offered by The Economist, dissected in an earlier post on this blog.

‘The fearlessness and vibrancy of our press is something of which we should be enormously proud,’ Counsel Jay, usually a model of calm rationality, said in a rare rhetorical passage. He also said:

Newspapers are entitled to be partisan in a democracy, to campaign in favour of causes, policies and political parties; and were the State to legislate otherwise that would be undemocratic, as well as, under our current settlement, an abrogation of human rights.

This paean clashed with his clear understanding – obvious from his thinly veiled outrage, in one interrogation after another – of the damage done by partisanship.  On Friday, grilling Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, he sought to underline that the payoff for newspapers, for pushing the agenda of their chosen political parties, is the ability to influence policy — and that this seriously undermines democracy. A New York Times report spotlighted his repeated insistence to Brooks that

…. media executives and editors were ‘unelected forces’ influencing policy by exercising power over governments …

Post-Gutenberg wondered, watching a video feed from Leveson:  since when has the concept of press partisanship been warped by being treated as an essential component of press freedom?  Not everyone is taken in by this Orwellian obfuscation. Gus O’Donnell – a Whitehall mandarin who has served three governments as cabinet secretary –  testified just before Alastair Campbell yesterday. In his written statement submitted to the Inquiry in advance, he said unequivocally,

Newspapers can and do actively support political parties, meaning it can be difficult to obtain objective information from them …

… then, in his live testimony, added:

 … [I]t’s in their strong interests for politicians to talk to newspaper editors and proprietors to try and explain their policies, try and explain why that newspaper should support them.  That’s been going on and continues to go on and that’s the structure we have.  And as long as you have newspapers which are allowed to strongly support and come out very overtly in favour of political parties, that relationship is going to continue.

Where I would like to see a change, perhaps, is […] if you contrast the newspapers, say, in the United States with the United Kingdom, you’ll find in the United States newspapers in general tend to separate out opinion and news much more.  So you’ll get a page of opinion, which basically says, “We strongly     support this politician or this set of policies”, in a very kind of almost propaganda-ish way, and then you’ll get the news columns, which tend to be pretty straight.

I think if you looked at our newspapers, where they differ is that you’ll find that you get all the opinion in the same way but in the news stories. [my ital.]

… Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality,  as it actually does, at present – the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.

Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in what O’Donnell characterised earlier in the day as ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.

Alastair Campbell noted:

Because Murdoch’s the biggest figure and because the phone hacking has led to this Inquiry, there’s been a huge amount of focus on him, but this goes right across the media panoply.  I mean, I was in charge of Tony Blair’s  media operation and we had strategies for all of these papers and we had approaches out to all of these papers.

Let us hope that Lord Justice Leveson, when he sits down to write his report, proposes a regulatory framework that puts an end to the toxic mutual manipulation that goes with press partisanship. Let us hope that he can resist the huge pressure being brought to bear on him to stop citizen journalists and other outsiders from breaking up the exclusionary symbiosis of old media and government.

One thoughtful witness after another has recommended greater transparency and accountability in press dealings with the government and politicians. Excellent and essential ideas, yes. But the Lord Justice should, in addition, do all he can to let the new technologies at our disposal open the way to many more disseminators of facts, and to challengers of media warping or omitting inconvenient facts.

New voices must be heard from – in whatever framework he advocates — on equal terms with today’s media powerhouses, even as the lights dim in these institutions, and they bow before the force of the onrushing 5th Estate.

Memo to Walter Bagehot, ex-editor, The Economist: did you really mean to defend a partisan press, the most insidious enemy of democracy?

We cannot let the reign of the 4th Estate end in nothing but frayed and faded ideals. Composition by Tricia Meynell. http://www.triciameynell.com

Walter Bagehot

6 May 2012

to: ghost of W. Bagehot, Esq., editor, The Economist, 1860-77

from: post-Gutenberg, a 21st-century blog

Sir: this blog is not in the habit of addressing spectres. We are not even sure we believe in ghosts. But if that isn’t a phantom you writing the column titled ‘Bagehot’, and the ‘Bagehot’s Notebook’ blog for your old paper in St. James’s Street, then someone is spouting a stunningly unpersuasive argument in your name.

Let us assume that you do exist. This somehow seems friendlier in the age of social media – and we are thrilled by the possibility of a ghost going to the trouble of broadcasting his opinions.

Are spectral attention spans long or short? We cannot decide, so will make our response easy to scan.

Please refer to your post ten days ago: ‘Are British newspapers a menace to democracy?‘:

• Partisanship in the 4th Estate. Why do you defend a partisan press when impartiality has been the noblest aspiration of the 4th Estate – and its American equivalent? See this list of principles in The Elements of Journalism, quoted here a few weeks ago:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

[…]

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. …

And, as the judge presiding over the Leveson Inquiry explained as its purpose, at the start of the proceedings,

…[A]ny failure of the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry therefore may be one simple question – who guards the guardians?

• Democracies need unbiased facts. Have you forgotten that a democracy is virtually pointless without disseminators of facts who can give voters the truth – the chance to get as close as possible to factual completeness — to help them make the best decisions in elections and referendums? That is why – as you know — the 4th Estate has long been granted such special privileges as access to lofty authorities, the right to protect sources of information, etc..

You seem to be under the illusion that whether the press is good or bad for democracy turns on how the media direct and manipulate their audiences’ opinions about voting choices — rather than on the reliability of the facts about the world that they serve up.

• If there is any justification for a partisan press, you haven’t supplied it. You said, about journalism that takes sides:

Newspaper campaigns clearly influence policy-making. […]  But arguably their greatest day-to-day influence is indirect. […] Britain is an outlier [...] In lots of European countries politics encompasses angry extremes, with the hard-right and far-left attracting hefty votes. By contrast, newspapers in such countries are often small-circulation, centrist, and prim. Britain does things the other way round. Partly because of first-past-the-post voting, the big parties cluster at the political centre. The brass-band blare of dissent comes from a fiercely partisan press. 

About that, one commenter (not anyone we know) expressed the essence of our reaction at post-Gutenberg:

Konker

April 27th, 06:13

Bagehot repeats the old trope that British newspapers are extreme and therefore its politics is moderate whereas in Europe politics is extreme because the media is moderate. Does anyone seriously buy this argument. That the nature of the press determines the nature of politics. And that politics is opposite to the press. And that you can only have extreme and vicious press or moderate centrist press. What a piece of nonsense.

If Konker is mistaken and that isn’t nonsense, then – to justify such an exotic argument – why not cite a respected political scientist? Or offer your readers a hyper-link to a table with statistics for European voting patterns? Link to a book or study that supports those statements?

When you say, ‘lots of European countries’ — with surpassing vagueness — which ones are you referring to? To the best of our knowledge, the largest, France and Germany, have big political parties clustered at the centre. Just like Britain. So? … Walter! The outlines of your life mention your pride in writing about politics and economics with scientific precision. Science = substantiation. Since you know how to blog, you can surely use these tools that think with strings of 1s and 0s to share evidence with us? You could put a URL or two into your texts — yes?

Sorry, this argument sounds like something you might say at the merry end of an evening at your club. (Spectres don’t haunt those, do you?)

• The preferences and political agenda of even a free press are not the most important forces in a democracy. It is the will of the people that matters most. Even press freedom is about the people, and not the press – as the Lord Chief Justice said in a speech he gave just before the formal proceedings of the Leveson Inquiry began (words to which the press largely played deaf). He quoted a famous statement in 1762 by the reformer and political agitator, John Wilkes:

“The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country”.

We embrace that statement. The significance of what John Wilkes said was not, as those connected with the media sometimes suggest, that the statement is upholding the liberty of the press. [...] It is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent.

We speak of ‘media’ because they represent channels for expressing the opinions and feelings of the people. Newspapers are not goads, nor licensed wielders of carrots and sticks. Read Paul Johnson on the rise of democracy in 19th-century Europe. ‘Towards the end of the 1820s, the world moved a decisive stage nearer the democratic age,’ he has written, listing among the chief factors and trends behind that, the spread of literacy, and ‘huge increase in the number and circulation of newspapers.’ In Britain, it was not just newspapers through which public sentiment was expressed:

… [T]he demand for fundamental reform was growing again. One reliable index of political intensity is the number of political prints produced, which can be gauged from the vast stocks held in the British Library. Artists and print sellers mirrored middle-class opinion …

• Your own readers do not want a partisan press. If the results of this poll running on your own site since last July can be trusted, 73 per cent of 2,686 of them have voted ‘Yes’ in reply to: ‘Some commentators welcome the rise of a partisan press […S]hould respectable news organisations strive to be fair and balanced?’

• Partisan reporters on politics cannot do their jobs properly. You end your reflection on whether British newspapers undermine democracy by saying,

Journalists and politicians can never be truly friends. Lowly reporters and MPs always knew this: given a big enough story, each will turn on the other.

Really? If that were true, why did staff journalists on the Whitehall beat fail to get this century’s biggest scoops in politics — and leave the job to outsiders, the freelances Heather Brooke and Nick Davies, as this blog recorded last week.

… There’s a beard-scratcher for you, old bean!

—————————————————————————————————————

[ More on this subject: 

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

http://post-gutenberg.com/2012/05/15/2311/ ]

Murdoch’s end shows why the 4th Estate needs competition, power-sharing, and watchdogs as astute as Lord Justice Leveson — on permanent duty

Rupert the piteously wronged: it should not have taken 30 years to see him flushed down the sewer of history

Questions that came to mind, watching segments of Rupert Murdoch’s testimony last week at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press:

Why did it take over three decades — the lifespan of some loyal readers here — for the outing of Rupert Murdoch as the most pernicious influence on British journalism for at least a century?

Max Hastings, who was for some years the editor of The Daily Telegraph – but has voted for both Labour and the Tories, in different elections — is almost the last man standing at the profession’s summit who deserves deepest respect. His account of competing with Murdoch and his newspapers in a memoir published ten years ago, Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers, reveals why the man went unchallenged for so long, and offered a deft portrait of him:

… Murdoch, as always when I encountered him, cut a curiously joyless figure. He appeared to have no life beyond his business, no cultural or aesthetic interests. [… He] will leave this planet having added precious little to the store of decency, culture, humanity …

[…]

One of the most sensitive issues for many British newspapers is that of how they treat their rivals in print. There is a shameless, self-serving compact between companies, that the personal embarrassments of newspaper owners are not reported by competitors. Anyone who attempts to write about Rupert Murdoch’s or his family’s domestic arrangements for another publication is likely to receive  a call (or, more likely, his editor or managing director will do so) from one of the great tycoon’s senior stooges at News International, drawing attention to the proprietors’ pact, and warning without much subtlety about the inevitability of retaliation if the convention is breached. The preposterous Barclay brothers ruthlessly assert their right to be spared personal publicity of any kind, even about the fortress they have constructed in the Channel Islands, and even though they have chosen to become newspaper owners.

It always seems pretty rich, that titles which derive most of their income from laying bare the private lives of others should show no embarrassment about protecting their own proprietors from scrutiny, through what amounts to a system of social nuclear deterrence.

All that being known on Fleet Street, why are none of the newspaper chieftains conceding, as they analyse the implications of Murdoch’s toppling, that he and they were all in the same club? … Why are none of them explaining the wider consequences of that to their readers? … For instance, that staffers on their papers were as entangled with politicians as Murdoch and his lieutenants were – so much so, that the two most important scoops of the last decade about power in Britain came not from staffers but freelance journalists?

As far as I can tell, there has been just one noble exception to this selective blindness. An Observer columnist, Henry Porter, wrote at the weekend:

The point of regulations and institutions is to defend the relatively fragile democratic process from people like Murdoch. The fact that none of the safeguards worked and we came within a whisker of allowing his near total dominance of the marketplace further erodes our faith in the political class to act in the interests of the public. Let’s not forget that it was largely accident, and the dedication of a very few journalists, that exposed the cover-up, of which Murdoch now claims, with eye-watering hypocrisy, that he was a victim.

Actually, it was one dogged and intuitive reporter – Nick Davies, working as an outside contributor to a broadsheet newspaper, who was able to capitalise on the ‘accident’ that exposed the extent of phone hacking by Murdoch’s minions.

Why did staff journalists anywhere fail to publish that ugliness hidden in plain sight, or break the political horror story of 2009, the MPs’ expenses scandal – the revelations about members of parliament misusing allowances and expense accounts to pay for pornography and cleaning their castle moats, among other fraudulent acts?

This scoop was also the triumph of a freelance journalist, Heather Brooke – operating outside the cosy club in which the country’s leading parliamentary correspondents wined and cuddled politicians.

The inescapable conclusion?

The club walls need tearing down. It is time for the long reign of 4th Estate journalism to give way to the 5th Estate, in which new rules and conventions will allow for the full participation of outsiders, including citizen-journalists.

Like everyone else who cares about making democracy work, David Puttnam, a genuinely idealistic politician and activist who is also a hugely successful film producer – of Chariots of Fire, for one – perceives a clear need for media reform:

In the House of Lords and elsewhere, I have repeatedly called for a comprehensive cross-media impact study – so far to no avail. At the end of his session with Lord Justice Leveson, Rupert Murdoch described the digital landscape, which we have now entered, as one in which tablets and GPS-enabled smartphones are displacing newsprint. The potential of this technology to engender even greater competitive diversity in an intelligently regulated democracy ought to be very welcome. It should result in a broadening of the lens through which we see the world, not a narrowing of it.

But that requires a clear regulatory framework that encourages, in fact enables, media plurality to flourish. We cannot, for example, legislate for good journalism, but we can legislate for the conditions under which the very best journalism is nurtured and sustained.

There were some hostile early reactions to the Leveson Inquiry from the 4th Estate — when it was not ignoring it altogether — like this bit of ludicrous exaggeration by the Guardian columnist and former editor of two newspapers, Simon Jenkins: ‘As with a military occupation, the longer Leveson’s tanks stay on Fleet Street’s lawn, the less benign they seem.’  But lately, some leaders there have apparently begun to hope that the judiciary’s interest in their doings might be used to protect them from being overrun by the 5th Estate.

A Guardian editorial last week adopted a surprising new tone:

The other revealing moment in Murdoch’s testimony last week was when he launched into an incoherent rant about – and against – the internet. […] As Murdoch rambled, waving his arms despairingly and pounding the table, it was difficult to determine what point he was trying to make, other than the unfairness of governments regulating newspapers while the wild west web remains untamed. Was it just that he senses his powers ebbing away, flowing towards the new masters of the digital universe – the Sergey Brins, Larry Pages and Mark Zuckerbergs of this world?

Will they turn out to be any better than the media moguls who preceded them? And who will play Lord Justice Leveson’s role if they don’t?

As this blog pointed out, when newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were doing their best to ignore the judicial probe, the two-man team of Lord Justice Leveson and Robert Jay has been giving us an astonishing demonstration of judicial skill and insight. This is British justice at its dazzling best.

David Cameron would do well to put these same men at the head of the organisation that replaces the disgraced Press Complaints Commission – at least, for the first few years of its existence.

Above all, let us hope that in his recommendations at the Inquiry’s end, this Lord Justice spotlights the need for the media to adapt for the future, in a reinvention guided by maximising inclusiveness and transparency – through, for instance, co-ownership. See:

(for an explanation of why the old order has to give way to the new: )

Good Guardian, bad Guardian, and two more censored comments

http://post-gutenberg.com/2011/11/15/good-guardian-bad-guardian-and-two-more-censored-comments/

Also:

Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media

http://post-gutenberg.com/2012/02/21/why-a-keiretsu-cooperative-is-a-gentle-transition-for-old-media-and-how-about-saying-an-exaltation-of-bloggers/

Co-owning media is on the horizon — and press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry shows why we need this

http://post-gutenberg.com/2011/12/06/co-owning-media-with-audiences-is-on-the-horizon-and-press-coverage-of-the-leveson-inquiry-shows-why-we-need-this/

Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?

http://post-gutenberg.com/2011/11/07/why-is-the-guardian-censoring-discussion-of-press-restructuring-and-ignoring-the-top-judges-support-for-citizen-journalism/

Is Amazon a bully, beating publishers into submission? Dear writers: some publishers were aiming for totalitarian rule of the book business

Writers forever scooter-riders, while publishers travel in limousines? Photograph by MIL22.

Not many writers visit the book fair. ‘It’d be like bringing a cow for a stroll around a meat market,’ said one editor.

report on the London Book Fair by Patrick Barkham, 18 April 2012

[ the date is what matters most, here: ]… Publishing is moving towards a crisis. One should expect to see a number of respected publishing houses quietly exit the scene.  […]  Authors’ incomes are low for an embarrassingly simple reason: publishers do not sell enough copies of their books. […] For every copy of a hardcover book sold at its normal retail price, one book is sold as a remainder – a book that goes from the publisher to the remainder dealer for less than the cost of producing it and with zero income to the author. No other industry can make this claim.

– Leonard Shatzkin, In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, 1982

Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant that something new was being born.

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 2011

Writers are deeply confused by e-publishing and its implications. They are mistaking friends for enemies, and embracing their most shameless exploiters – for centuries – like Little Red Riding Hood hugging the beast tricked out as her granny.

I read with eyes popping in disbelief a veteran publisher, Dan Cafaro, advising young writers to ‘mentally prepare to endure as a starving artist.’ He said that last October. Then, referring to the digital revolution, he suggested that they ‘carve out a patchwork career in the creative arts by complying with the behaviours of this new paradigm of publishing’.

How could he have come by the wisdom in his second pronouncement without understanding that the ‘paradigm’ taking shape represents the best chance that has come along – ever – to change the meek acceptance of hunger and suffering as inevitably the lot of scribes? … Yes, thank you, I have read my history. I know that this has been thoroughly conventional wisdom for a long time. But why not consider that for aeons, everywhere, the wisest heads once saw the fates of kulaks, their poorer fellow-peasants, and Hindu caste untouchables, as equally immutable – until these social doormats seized their chance for rebellion?

I would like writers who care about being able to make a reasonable living some day to get just two things right: (i) Amazon is their true friend, as this blog has explained before, and not members of the old print club, like the five publishers fined by the U.S. justice department on the 11th — with Apple – for collusive price-fixing.  (ii) Far from gobbling up book publishing on every continent and turning everyone else in the business into a forelock-tugging serf, the giant retailer could just let us rewrite the sad story of writers and their wages into a far happier narrative.

Scott Turow, the president of the American Authors’ Guild, is simply wrong to say that the antitrust suit risks ‘killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.’

Consider these arguments by one of the few voices of sanity in the hullabaloo over Amazon’s well-deserved victory over the price-fixers. What Eduardo Porter said in his ‘Economic Scene’ column in the New York Times last week is not merely true. It correctly puts the welfare of writers — the workers without whom there would be neither books nor e-texts — at the centre of the picture.

To believe publishers and authors, the government just handed Amazon a monopoly over the book market: The price-fixing suit against Apple and the nation’s top publishers […] will free Amazon to offer ruinous discounts in the booming new market of electronic books, drive brick-and-mortar bookstores out of existence and kill off publishers’ lucrative business of ink on paper.

[…]

Yet there is a different reading to this story. Publishing companies — like bookstores — fear they are on the losing end of a technological whirlwind of digital distribution that will make much of what they do obsolete. They would like to stop it. But though publishers may be happy to subvert competition to protect their business, this can entail a heavy cost for the rest of society.

Why have none of the hysterical media commentators Porter contradicted in his analysis – for instance, David Carr, writing for the same newspaper – met a journalist’s obligation to state the whole truth, which is that Amazon’s share of e-book sales has fallen dramatically over the last two years? As Porter says,

While Amazon remains dominant, its share of the e-book market has fallen to about 60 percent from 90 percent.

Carr dug out a law professor in New York to say, for his column: ‘It is not clear that lower prices are necessarily in the long-term interests of the public at large.’ He found a New York lawyer for a gloomy summing-up: ‘The book business is both hermetic and dwindling. There is not a drop of new capital coming into this business … The margins are low and there is almost no growth …’.

The only trouble with orchestrating this condemnation of Amazon is that the same mournful dirge was being played for book publishers thirty years ago. Then, there were no e-books or gigantic e-booksellers. E-publishing existed exclusively in the misty visions of futurists.

In In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, Leonard Shatzkin, a respected senior executive in the New York book business, wrote three decades ago:

There is no longer very much doubt that trade book publishing is suffering from more than its share of our present economic malaise … The immediate future for … book publishing in general is bleak …’. [his ital.]

A number-cruncher at heart, Shatzkin diagnosed poor sales forecasting and inefficient stocking and inventory management as the chief cause of book business woes. He dreamt up complex mathematical formulae for calculating the ideal size of a publisher’s sales force, and techniques of regression analysis for projecting book sales.

Though it is clear throughout his book that he was a civilised man who cared about readers, sound editorial policies, and publishing’s ‘contribution to the health of our democratic culture’, only one of his sixteen chapters was devoted to writers: ‘Don’t Forget the Author’. Who does his book treat as the lead characters in the business? Publishers, book distributors, and booksellers.

Encapsulating his recommendations for curing publishing of its ills, he advocated precisely the reverse of what actually happened after Amazon entered the scene about ten years later – that publishers aim at complete control of the book business by wresting power from book distributors:

It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest that some of the larger publishers will some day make publisher control of inventory a condition for doing business with a book retailer. […] The introduction of rational, publisher-controlled and publisher-responsible distribution implies other desirable consequences. […] Distribution controlled by the publisher will reduce the shameful waste resulting from the present need to guess how many copies will be needed on publication day …

And what was the happiest result he foresaw? It is hair-raisingly ironic for anyone listening to the raving by Amazon’s critics about the steady decline in book prices that it has brought about:

The reduction in production waste and in the waste of handling and processing of returns […] and all the activities concerned with distribution, should lead to a reduction in the retail price of books. Even at half their present levels, book prices will give publishers much greater margins than they now enjoy.

Ahem.

So, was Leonard Shatzkin – who died ten years ago – a lone, batty eccentric, mostly ignored by his cohorts when he wrote his book? Very much to the contrary, In Cold Type’s publisher, Boston-based Houghton-Mifflin – one of the most blue-blooded imprints in the U.S. – inserted an extraordinary note into the copyright page, which read in part:

It is not often that Houghton Mifflin adds a statement to a book it has published …[W]hen a publisher presents a book containing strong opinions about … American trade publishing, it may be thought that such a book represents, in some measure the philosophy of the publisher as well as that of the author.

Instead of publishers devouring the book chain, as Shatzkin and Houghton hoped, the panic in 2012 is about the chain – or rather, one member of it – making a meal of all publishing.

From the perspective of writers who care most about their craft and the particular manuscript they happen to be working on today, the fight is about as interesting as competition between football teams for someone whose game is boules. Yes,  certainly, who wins – and how – will have crucial consequences for their ability to make ends meet. But to survive financially, writers are better off ignoring the memory-loss endemic among Amazon’s critics and thinking flexibly, like Eduardo Porter, about a universe of possibilities lying before us:

For sure, if brick-and-mortar bookstores disappear, browsing will die with them. But writers and publishers will have plenty of other ways — think Amazon, Facebook or Google — of letting readers know about their books. E-books, moreover, can be profitable. […]  And even if every existing publisher were driven out of business, reading would probably survive. Without the middlemen, publishers might even pay higher royalties to creators.

Let us toast that prospect — make mine a two-shot latte, please.

The Kickstarter-kicking has begun: don’t let crowd-funding of pigs-in-pokes ruin the promise of micropayments

Looking for an image of a pig in a poke led to this preliminary sketch by Victor Juhasz, on his site showing visitors how he makes decisions about directing his delectable line. http://www.drawger.com

This post-Gutenberg blog typically takes the giraffe-necked – that is, very long – view. It hardly expects instant gratification for recommendations about the future of publishing, or suggestions for its evolution. That made it both unsurprising and shocking to find the gist of these cautions about micropayments and crowd-funding prove justified in less than a month:

  • Could crowd-funding art with cash advances amassed from micropayments be less helpful than getting artists decent compensation from micropayments collected for finished work?
  • … [Artists] transferring the balance of cash-gathering sweat to work that has yet to be done is surely a bad idea …
  • There is some danger that disappointment with microfunding could lead to disenchantment with micropayments of every kind. That could delay the shift from conventional ways of selling art (through publishers, galleries and so on) to the liberating alternatives that new technological inventions have begun to bring us.

Only six months ago, Gizmodo, one of the most influential technology-watching sites on the web – it counted Steve Jobs among its avid readers – was raving about the prospects of online fundraising for new projects of every sort, from new-fangled gizmos like iPad stands to artistic schemes, inventions, and gigs. Its enthusiasm was concentrated on Kickstarter, the most prominent go-between for creators and the random collections of small-scale investors contributing to ‘crowd-funding’ creative toil:

10 November 2011

Kickstarter is full of awful, ill conceived, downright dumb ideas. So is the internet. So is the universe. But it’s also festooned with crazy-good thinking, ingenuity, and imagination. It’s fun and unfettered.

[…]

Kickstarter is the only viable place any average Jonny Internet can take a decent idea and stand a chance of making it real. No venture capital vampires, no hype …

The recommendations of old print media usually follow in Gizmodo’s wake, but in January, The Economist appeared to boast about leading the applause:

This newspaper has written about Kickstarter several times in the past two years, including an overview of how crowdfunding works after the firm had raised about $15m in its first year. At the time, it was unclear whether such crowdfunding (also called micropatronage) was a passing fad or a rising alternative to conventional starter financing for creative media.

Kickstarter’s performance in 2011 bolsters the latter case.

Though that ancient cosmopolite’s bible did mention the odd disappointment for both fund-seekers and micro-patrons, it has yet to regret its championship of crowd-funding. But for Gizmodo – far more closely in touch with thinking among the twentysomethings who dominate online innovation – it was time for sackcloth and ashes a fortnight ago. In a piece headed, ‘We’re done with Kickstarter,’ Gizmodo explained:

29 March 2012

We look at hundreds of products every week. Sometimes thousands. At first all of us were pretty stoked about Kickstarter, because it seemed like a genuine font of unfettered innovation—the hive mind coming up with products that we truly needed but had never even thought of before. And maybe it was. But it’s not anymore. It’s a sea of bad videos, bad renderings, and poorly made prototypes. Some might be good. Many are poorly made. And some are downright fraudulent, taking peoples’ money without delivering the promised rewards. This has happened to me.

[…]

Hopefully Kickstarter will evolve into something a little more trustworthy that we can feel comfortable sharing with you. Because in this game, a source you can’t trust is a source you can’t use.

In comments on its lamentation, readers railed at Gizmodo in posts like this one from @anamnet:

Giz introduced me to Kickstarter and now they are the first who’re sick of it. Makes them sound like a teenage girl who’s getting over a fad.

Actually, Gizmodo deserves to be congratulated for its forthright mea culpa. Next, it would be wonderful to find on that site a piece weighing all the reasons given here for preferring post-production micropayments – especially for artists and writers, starting with this one:

Seeking and accepting money in advance can constrain creativity. Anticipating prospective backers’ anxiety about squandering even small sums on inconsequential, pig-in-a-poke projects, artists are puffing up their planned works and divulging details of visions that have yet to meet the challenge of execution. How much room for creative manoeuvring and play – or simply changing their minds – will they have when, to reward their micro-investors’ trust, they feel that they must treat proposals as promises?

… Gizmodo’s helpful admission about reading the tea leaves incorrectly on crowd-funding is not just admirable in itself but made a salutary contrast, in my week’s reading, with an older publication’s delusion that it  comprehends what readers want in post-Gutenberg publishing. An extract from a mesmerising report in the latest Private Eye:

‘Last weekend we did something extraordinary.’ That was the verdict of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on his ‘Open Weekend’ … at which readers descended on the paper’s offices to gawp at [Guardian journalists].

Never mind that the newspaper is losing money galore. The bring-your-readers-to-work idea represented the way forward for ‘Open Journalism’ – apparently something to do with internet clouds, killer apps, crowd-sourcing and trouser-presses.

Many hacks in the building looked on the jamboree with jaundiced eyes […] but were assured that this is the way forward for Journalism 4.0 as the Guardian set off on its exciting transformation from newspaper to online events organiser.

Alas! The ‘new paradigm’ seems no more profitable than the old one. After totting up the figures, Grauniad beancounters have discovered that the self-styled ‘festival of readers and reasonableness’ – attended by 5,000 people paying between  £60 and £70 – made a net loss of £150,000.

Dear Grauniad, your ‘Open Weekend’ is surely the daftest idea anyone has heard for reshaping publishing. No, your sensible readers do not wish to crowd-fund your survival. Nor do they want to pay to peer at your writers, or throw peanuts through the bars of their cages. How about showing some glimmer of grasping what this post-Gutenberg revolution is really all about? See:

Wanted: a brave newspaper for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders … & … Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media — and how about saying, ‘an exaltation of bloggers’?

for 8. 4. 2012

‘It looks as if it could be a gorgeous day, except for a bit of wind,’ a voice said.

A reply framed itself but went unsaid: ‘What a baffling qualification. A bit of wind makes a merely lovely day perfect.’

Not a popular idea.

To the bookshelf, then, to commune with a long dead fellow-connoisseur of all the astonishing variations in the movement of air across a landscape – which can be entrancing in spring, every bit as pleasurable as the soft, caressing warmth and return of the light.

A philosopher Tsu Chi and his disciple Yen Cheng Tsu Yu converse:

‘In the mountain forest, deep and fearsome, there are huge trees a hundred arm spans around, with gaps and hollows like nostrils, mouths, and ears, like gouges, goblets, and mortars, and like muddy pools and dirty puddles. The sounds rush out like water, whistle like arrows, scold, suck, shout, wail, moan, and howl. The leading notes are hissing sounds followed by a roaring chorus. Gentle breezes make a small harmony, fierce winds a great one. When the violent gusts subside, all the hollows become quiet. Have you ever seen the shaking and trembling of branches and leaves?’

Tsu Yu said, ‘The earth’s music is the sound from those hollows. Man’s music comes from the hollow reed. May I ask about the music of heaven?’

Tsu Chi said, ‘When the wind blows through the ten thousand different hollows, they all make their own sounds. Why should there be anything that causes the sound?’

Chuang-Tzŭ (Zhuangzi), Inner Chapters, 4th century BCE

trans.: Gia-fu Feng and Jane English ]

Yes, cooperatives are idealistic … like marriage and parenting, and no, they do not have to be run like AA meetings

Cooperation or a Mexican standoff? Photograph and mise-en-scène by MIL22

When there is separation, there is coming together. When there is coming together, there is dissolution.

Chuang-Tzŭ (Zhuangzi), Inner Chapters,4th century BCE

[ trans.: Gia-fu Feng and Jane English ]

It is curious that anger about inequality is boiling over around the world precisely when we have new tools capable of taking us a long way towards a solution.

Yet disillusioned, battle-weary romantics who once joined some attempt to make democracy more democratic — or run a cooperative as an alternative to the Darwinian capitalism so adept at spawning plutocracies — have been telling us how they failed so gloomily that they could be competing for hopelessness with the Icelander Halldor Laxness and his Independent People.

Is it unreasonable to ask that, instead of justifying their pessimism, they collect and broadcast their thoughts about what they learnt from those failures and would do differently if they were to try again? And might they sit up and notice exactly what is possible with the new, democracy-friendly tools that could have helped them to avert disaster — if these had only been invented in time?

If paying attention, the nay-sayers might avoid the unfortunate misperception of cooperatives as cuddly, slow-moving, necessarily lovable ‘kumbaya’ institutions – as in a newspaper columnist’s suggestion last week that members of worker-owned coops might specialise in listening to each other as patiently and empathetically as people at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

… er, please, … no! … ideal co-owners are far more likely to be reading at their own pace – in most cases, fast and online — than attending in the same room to statements of each other’s positions on any issue. Or they might be watching a short video clip on the subject – in the information-gathering and debating prelude to making a decision.

As this blog noted six weeks ago, technology has made it possible for everyone to consider the same information simultaneously, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. The deciding in a cooperative could be done at – well, why not say, warp speed, and that hardly seems an exaggeration when you consider the spread of ‘clickers‘ linked to polling software, and mentioned on the front page of the New York Times last week as

… hand-held wireless devices with just a few buttons.

[…] In recent years, college students have been bringing clickers to lecture halls, where professors require their use for attendance, instant polls and multiple-choice tests. Corporate executives sometimes distribute the devices at meetings, and then show survey responses immediately on Power Point slides. Just two of many companies that make clickers have sold nearly nine million units, which typically cost between $30 and $40 apiece, in under a decade. One of the companies, Turning Technologies, sold 1.5 million in 2011 alone.

But clickers can now be found in […] churches, fire departments, cruise ships and health care providers [...] spreading the phenomenon of online crowdsourcing to off-line crowds. Fans of the devices say they are efficient, eco-friendly and techno-tickling, allowing audiences to mimic TV game-show contestants.

Do not, dear reader, mistake me for a neophile. I put off admitting digital innovations into my life until the penalties for resisting them are nipping at my heels – or a brother of mine has nagged me to distraction. I never forget that no matter how much more tools let us do today than we could yesterday, human nature remains the same at its core — fallible and perverse.

No technological wizardry has made it possible to hand over to robots the effort it takes to succeed at marriage, child-rearing, or working productively and in harmony with other people. All that calls for unceasing trial and error – and persistence, staring down disappointment and discouragement. I found a statement of this truth, twenty-five centuries old, browsing in my ravishing edition of the Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tsŭ’s Inner Chapters – for a reason to be explained in next week’s post.

‘When you wrack your brain trying to unify things,’ the passage begins,

… it is called ‘three in the morning’. What do I mean by ‘three in the morning’? A man who kept three monkeys said to them, ‘You get three acorns in the morning and four in the evening.’ This made them all very angry. So he said, ‘How about four in the morning and three in the evening?’ – and the monkeys were happy. The number of acorns was the same, but the different arrangement resulted in anger or pleasure. This is what I am talking about.

Empathetic listening could be a good guiding principle for some cooperatives, like the one the newspaper columnist has in mind. Other coops will want a different arrangement of acorns. It will all depend on the rules they make for running them.

I have yet to read Howard Rheingold’s latest book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online – but look forward particularly to seeing what he has to say in it about cooperation and collaboration, having glimpsed in this section his introduction to the ideas of Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009.  He quotes her conclusion that

… ‘institutions of collective action’ were more likely to succeed when a small number of design principles were observed, and more likely to fail in the absence of these measures.

He lists her suggested principles, of which these struck me as most important:

  • Ÿ Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
  • Ÿ Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • Ÿ The right of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.

… Discussing suggestions like hers is exactly where the conversation about cooperatives needs to go next.

A triumph for cooperatives: customer-owned Swiss banks are thriving while their shareholder-owned rivals lick their wounds in disgrace

Though the Swiss seem to have a special knack for running cooperatives, there is new interest in this form of organisation in communities all over the world. Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

Everyone writing off cooperatives as impractical — or as artefacts of misguided ‘hippie’ idealism – will please read the article below, re-published with the permission of Swissinfo.ch, a section of Switzerland’s equivalent of the BBC.

The Swiss see cooperatives as building blocks of democracy. They are rightly proud of their own ‘extreme’ or ‘direct’ democracy — the subject of an earlier post here – based on the rigorous implementation of proportional representation, and are apt to shake their heads despairingly about the ‘winner-takes-all’ version of the system of government in other western democracies.

The Economist – which has a habit of sniffily referring to cooperative banks as ‘dull but safe’ – has cited two authorities confirming the wisdom of coops:

A 2009 study by the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, into the connection between financial stability and bank ownership also found that co-operative banks were much less likely to fail than those owned by private shareholders. That fits with earlier work done by staff at the IMF in 2007, who argued in a working paper that co-operative banks were more stable than their commercial counterparts.

23 March 2012 

Crisis gives new life to cooperative banks

 by Armando Mombelli, swissinfo.ch 

——————————————————————————–

Sometimes seen as an old-fashioned business model, cooperative banks have succeeded in strengthening their position since the crisis in the financial sector.

The three main cooperative banks in Switzerland – the Raiffeisen, Migros and Coop banks – have been enjoying strong growth in the past few years. 

“Until recent times, the banks had a stabilising effect on the economy. But in the past few years they have turned out to be a destabilising factor,” said Florian Wettstein, who teaches business ethics at St Gallen University. 

“Growing international competition and pressure from shareholders have led to a logic of short-term profit with very negative consequences,” said Wettstein. 

“We no longer talk about growth. What we want is bigger growth than last year’s or last quarter’s. At a certain point, this attempt defeats itself and we get speculative bubbles which burst sooner or later.” 

The last such speculative bubble that burst in 2008 threw the financial sector into crisis and forced many countries to exert huge efforts to save banks in difficulty. 

Even Switzerland was not spared: UBS, the number one Swiss bank, just missed going under thanks to massive intervention by the federal government and the country’s central bank. 

“It is interesting to note that Swiss banks, in particular UBS, were not just caught up in this trend. They played a very active role on the international scene, throwing their traditional culture of caution to the winds,” noted Wettstein. 

New management models 

The crisis in the financial sector spread to the “real” economy and it is still negatively impacting on growth around the world. Governments have been studying new models of management and regulation of banking to avoid another major financial crisis. 

Forbidding high-risk speculative ventures, separating investment banking from deposit management, limiting bonuses and various other measures have been examined by the Swiss government as well as others. 

Government and parliament here have approved an increase in equity capital requirements for banks, higher than those enforced by other European countries. This measure has still been regarded as insufficient by many experts. 

On the other hand, a business model that is sustainable and crisis-proof has existed for quite some time: it is the model of cooperative banks securely anchored in the local economy. 

Since 2008, Raiffeisen, Migros and Coop bank have attracted thousands of customers and billions of francs away from the “big two”, UBS and Credit Suisse, whose credibility nosedived after the losses they took on the American market. 

Last January, Raiffeisen almost completely took over Wegelin Bank, which had to shut down its activities when it found itself under investigation in the United States along with ten other Swiss banks accused of having helped thousands of American customers to evade taxes. 

In February, Raiffeisen became the first bank to guarantee transparent financing of political parties and indicate it was in favour of the introduction of automatic exchange of information on bank deposits with European countries. 

Several advantages 

In difficult times for the financial services industry, this cooperative bank is showing itself particularly dynamic and willing to break with taboos like banking secrecy which no longer seem to have much of a future. 

In the International Year of Cooperatives proclaimed by the UN, this fact may serve to renew interest in a business model often dismissed as old-fashioned – almost all the big cooperatives were founded more than half a century ago. 

“Cooperative banks actually offer several advantages,” said the economist Hans Kissling. 

 “The main one is that they are not exposed to pressure from owners or shareholders, and so they do not go for big risks and excesses. Rather they pursue a long-term strategy in the interest of their members, who are also their customers.” 

“Once shares are not involved, there is no danger of things like insider trading. Nor is there a danger of public takeover bids at their expense: attempted takeovers by other companies have to be approved by the members,” added Kissling, who is a former board member of a cooperative. 

“And last but not least, capital does not drain from the company through payments of  exorbitant dividends or salaries. It stays in the cooperative and gets used for new investments or to strengthen its equity.” 

Democracy and solidarity 

Tending as they do to democracy and solidarity, cooperatives almost always come out on top of the rankings for companies that enjoy the trust of the ordinary public. 

This has not in itself been enough to stimulate growth in the sector: every year thousands of limited companies are founded in Switzerland, but only a handful of cooperatives are set up. 

“The government should introduce tax breaks or create a special fund to promote the conversion of family businesses into cooperatives, for example on the death of the owner. Another option might be to introduce share certificates without the right to vote, which would encourage the capitalisation of cooperatives,” said Kissling. 

In the Swiss banking sector, most of the potential for this kind of development would come from the cantonal banks, which several cantons hope to privatise eventually. Conversion of these into cooperatives instead of limited companies would help safeguard their original mandate. 

In this way, almost half of the 20 principal Swiss banks could one day become cooperatives. 

“Promotion of cooperatives should above all be anchored in the constitution, as it is in Italy,” maintained Kissling. 

“This would not only serve to acknowledge the economic and social importance of cooperatives, but also to emphasise the long Swiss tradition of solidarity, which goes right back to the country’s roots.” 

He recalls that the Swiss Confederation is called in German “Eidgenossenschaft”, which literally means “a cooperative of sworn allies”. 

Armando Mombelli, swissinfo.ch

(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee)

[ Of course cooperatives -- being creations of imperfect human beings -- also have their flaws, and these are considered in a swissinfo.ch briefing on the topic. ]

Micro-funded advances for artists is good news: micropayments for finished work — like paying for mobile apps — would be better

The tall droid was originally a female bimbo. Photograph: http://www.zazzle.com/starwarselection

Creativity needs flexibility, as I was reminded through the demise of someone who had a hand in creating robots who inhabit a patch of my dreams.

R2D2 is the fictional character of the last hundred years I would choose to give the run of my house – in an eye-blink – although I would settle for his Star Wars comrade, C3PO.  A domestic cleaner-robot with charm is my only hope of indoor snow – of experiencing inside my house the supreme happiness of watching frozen H2O blanket everything messy and unsightly in a landscape and turn it into a serene Japanese garden. Yes, reader, untidiness is one of my besetting sins. I like the idea of being pandered to by a droid whose raison d’être is serving humans, and it hardly matters that Threepio’s responsibilities in the George Lucas series are protocol, etiquette and translation (from ‘six million forms of communication’ – really, just look up his wiki). He is programmable. He is sophisticated. Being so much more intelligent, he would sail over the hurdle before which I always collapse – I mean, work out how to de-clutter my existence without hobbling my attempts to do the few things that justify it. He would strap his frilly apron in place and get on with it, expecting me to do no more than keep his antivirus software up-to-date.

But Threepio might never have found his way onto cinema screens. If not for a sort of creative miscarriage, he would not have been born, and this relates to a question I have been weighing since last week’s post about micropayments. Could crowd-funding art with cash advances amassed from micropayments be less helpful than getting artists decent compensation from micropayments collected for finished work?

Let me explain.

You can pay a carpenter an advance on a set of kitchen shelves, agree on a design and choice of wood, and receive more or less what you thought you would. Though the best carpenters are unquestionably artists of a kind, they rarely derail expectations comprehensively – delivering, say, a four-poster bed in pine instead of the birch shelving grid promised for your heirloom pots and pans. Things are rather less predictable in the arts – even in the most extroverted and collaborative branches, like film-making for mass audiences. Capricious flitting about is of the essence of imagining.

C3PO, you see, was originally a woman – not just an anyone with breasts, but ‘a tall, elegant, expression-less Art Decoesque golden female robot’. I made this discovery a few days ago in a New York Times obituary for Ralph McQuarrie,  an artist who served as a sort of medium for directors of science-fiction and fantasy films. He rendered in gouache detailed externalisations, through  interpretation, of their vague imaginative stirrings about characters – a skill he acquired as a technical illustrator and from some years spent at an animation company. The obituary records that his help was crucial to the success of George Lucas’s quest for the financial backing he needed to make Star Wars – to

… persuading the board of directors of 20th Century Fox to finance the first film in the series, and to distribute the others …

“These paintings helped George get the movie approved by Fox because it gave them something to visualize, instead of just a script,” said Steve Sansweet, the author of 16 “Star Wars” books and until recently the director of fan relations for Lucasfilm.

Now, I reckon that those producers made no fuss about a sex-change operation on what is, for some of us, one of the most endearing characters in the series (not Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia or Darth Vader, who are merely archetypes of the hero, heroine and villain as old as mankind). Hollywood has always worked the way small towns do – like publishing does in London or New York. Those producers would have known quite a lot about George Lucas before they invested in him. I could be mistaken, but am guessing that clubbiness would have given him the creative license of a friend who was once so well-connected in literary New York that her publisher made no protest when she used the advance paid for a non-fiction book about wild animals giving birth to submit, instead, a romantic novel involving safaris and social justice.

A cautiously optimistic report last Saturday by Patricia Cohen, an author and arts & culture editor at the NYT, noted surging interest in online backing for artistic projects by small-scale investors being given credit for betting on and supporting talent. Many – if not most of these actual or prospective micro-investors — do not seem to know the artists they are helping.

Some consequences and implications of this particular route to aiding struggling artists are bothering me:

● Seeking and accepting money in advance can constrain creativity. Anticipating prospective backers’ anxiety about squandering even small sums on inconsequential, pig-in-a-poke projects, artists are puffing up their planned works and divulging details of visions that have yet to meet the challenge of execution. How much room for creative manoeuvring and play – or simply changing their minds – will they have when, to reward their micro-investors’ trust, they feel that they must treat proposals as promises?

● Whereas George Lucas had Ralph McQuarrie toiling over the supply of his mock-ups, artists are being diverted from their own work to create elaborate sales pitches – like the multi-media presentations of a bold new British book-funding and publishing site, Unbound. (See, for instance, this lively appeal by five women historians for their planned collaboration on Our Reigning Queens.)

● The clarity and precision required to design and deliver an investment pitch do not fit the fuzzy, dreamlike state that neuroscience is revealing to be ideal for creativity – as Jonah Lehrer has shown in his new book on the subject.  Yes, the fund-raising part of a creator’s life can be separated more or less from doing the actual work, but there is arguably too much inimical to the right frame of mind claiming our attention already — even for people keeping their distance from social media. As Lehrer puts it, ‘… we live in an age that worships focus—we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate, chugging caffeine’, even though this bias of the zeitgeist ‘can inhibit the imagination’.

● People are confusing micro-advances for art and literature with micropayments for  work that has been completed independently and put up for sale – like the small sums that authors of short e-books or long e-essays have begun to ask for, both independently and through conventional publishers.

Of course payments ‘upfront’ and for finished work are not mutually exclusive. But transferring the balance of cash-gathering sweat to work that has yet to be done is surely a bad idea.

There is some danger that disappointment with microfunding could lead to disenchantment with micropayments of every kind. That could delay the shift from conventional ways of selling art (through publishers, galleries and so on) to the liberating alternatives that new technological inventions have begun to bring us.

I am thinking once again of Threepio’s trans-gender leap. What if one of George Lucas’s backers for a Star Wars script financed by micro-investors had been an ardent feminist who contributed $500 for the pleasure of introducing audiences to a female robot in a key supporting role – and then had to confront  the horror – oh, the horror!  — of a gender re-programming?

… I say, let’s focus on using micropayments to make it easy for painters, film-makers, sculptors, writers, musicians and their kin to be paid for their ‘products’ — as easy as for developers of software apps for our portable electrovices. ( Sorry, that was meant to read, electronic devices.)

The market for apps has been booming. Why should someone who can afford to pay €3.47 — or its equivalent — for an electronic game app not part as readily with the same amount for a short story by an up-and-coming Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and be drawn inexorably, blissfully and unforgettably into an opening like this one, for GGM’s ‘Maria Dos Prazeres’:

The man from the undertaking establishment was so punctual that Maria dos Prazeres was still in her bathrobe, with her hair in curlers, and she just had time to put a red rose behind her ear to keep from looking as unattractive as she felt …

Do we need a campaign for micropayments to support ‘lyric perception’?

Photograph by MIL22

This helpless thing, lyric perception, is an authentic response to the world’s impossible contradictions which seem to resolve themselves, finally, as beauty. In fact, I believe that lyricism represents a form of courage, for it is the only response as thoroughly vulnerable as the jeopardized world itself is.

Patricia Hampl,  Spillville,  1987

'1 2 3 4 QUARTETTO b' MIL22

As more writers and artists without formal qualifications but with undeniable gifts find audiences for their work on the net, will micropayments finally take off?

By micropayments I mean fractions of €10 or $10 notes – or their equivalent – paid through a transactional service like Kachingle or Flattr to look at an image or video, read a text, or listen to a musical performance or composition. These are payments so minuscule that they barely register with our pocketbooks, but do earn their creators some measurable income in the aggregate.

Popular writers and artists would still far out-earn rivals who cater to more specialised tastes, but some of those appreciated by smaller audiences might be able to retain more of the earnings that they must give away, at present, to middlemen they cannot really afford to pay at all – intermediaries who rarely have the time or inclination to spend much time promoting their work.

So far, so-called Millennials – the generation in their twenties and early thirties now shaping our experience of the net — have shown little enthusiasm for micro-transactions. Their complaints about feeling cheated by corporate middlemen in the music business, when obliged to pay for the pleasure of  ‘sharing’ a song, are not completely incomprehensible.

But why are they so unenthusiastic about experimenting with micropayments — direct transactions between buyers and sellers?

Many ardent campaigners for the so-called ‘Freemium’ economy willingly pay small ransoms for the latest gadgets – even when these are only minor improvements or enhancements of last year’s versions, and are designed to fatten the profits of the hated capitalists. Few of them learn to cook simple meals from scratch: they are happy to pay huge mark-ups for bland microwaveable fare cooked and packaged by giant corporations, or to patronise  fast-food chains.

Why is it seemingly only art that turns them into Scrooges?

If more Millennials come to see themselves as artists, writers and musicians in years to come – using the democratic new publishing tools – will they become less unsympathetic?

Now, net-shunning Private Eye outranks even The Economist as Britain’s most popular current affairs magazine

Ian Hislop, who has been Private Eye's editor since 1986

Private Eye cover, 12 April 2008

All hail Private Eye, whose circulation grew by more than ten per cent last year, when so many famous names linked to old media were — are — howling about print meeting its doom.

All hail Private Eye, not least because, as far as I can tell, no one in mainstream media has, on this occasion. There have been no laurel wreaths from its rivals, no adulatory editorials or delving into the reasons for its astonishing success since the Audit Bureau of Circulations released the latest figures in mid-February – although the media section of one broadsheet did carry brief news items on the subject.

All hail Private Eye because, in spite of its (affectionate) marginalisation as a ‘satirical magazine,’ it looks as if it could be becoming Britons’ most reliable source of printed information about what is happening in the UK — or close to that. The trade publication Media Week anointed it ‘the leading news and current affairs magazine by issue in the country, nearly 18,000 copies ahead of The Economist,’ with the minor qualifier that ‘its rival title is published weekly.’ (That qualifier is probably meaningless, since I reckon that most subscribers would be delighted to buy it once a week.)

There is no reason to disagree with the Eye’s managing director, Sheila Molnar, who explained two years ago that ‘People always turn to us in times of trouble because they trust us. With the MPs’ expenses row and the banks, people trust Private Eye and what they read in it.’

Though the Eye has no digital edition and is virtually ignoring the internet, its pages are saturated with the fearless, irreverent, outsider ethos of the web and blogging world – most obvious in its ‘Street of Shame’ column. There, as its editor Ian Hislop told Lord Justice Leveson in January at the official Inquiry into press culture and standards, his writers concentrate on the foibles of the 4th Estate — on

… stories about

journalists misbehaving. It tends to be anything from

making up stories, drunkenness, stealing stories from

each other, printing things that are totally and utterly

untrue, promoting each other for reasons that aren’t

terribly ethical, sucking up to their proprietors, being

told what to do by their proprietors, running stories

because their proprietors insist on it, marshalling the

facts towards a conclusion that they’ve already decided

on.

Private Eye’s robustness confirms these suspicions at post-Gutenberg about the secrets of media thriving in the transition to the 5th Estate – in its case, with only token contributions to its operating budget from advertisers, which is why it cannot afford to give away its contents on the net:

It is strictly non-partisan

The political left, right and centre are all flayed with equal relish. As noted here last month, highly-placed apologists for a worrying shift in 4th Estate practices feel that there is nothing wrong with abandoning political neutrality – but a reader poll on the site of The Economist shows that this is, overwhelmingly, the very opposite of what the public wants.

It is – without fear or favour – supplying the uncomfortable, true facts indispensable to government by the people, or what we call democracy

It might just as well be called The Whistleblower Wire. It tackles malfeasance as no other publication does, across a staggering breadth of public life. A small sample: ‘Called to Ordure’ (parliamentary proceedings); ‘Medicine Balls’ (mainly, the National Health Service); ‘Signal Failures’ (the railway network); ‘The Agri Brigade’ (farming and food policies); ‘Rotten Boroughs’ (local government); ‘Music and Musicians’; ‘Keeping the Lights On’ (the law and lawyers); ‘Books and Bookmen’ (cronyism in book publishing).

It relies on its readers for its peerless investigative reporting

… and did so long before the internet came along with its promise of building reader ‘communities’.  As Ian Hislop said in his Leveson evidence, his magazine

operates as a sort of club where people not only buy the

magazine, they write a lot of it, which is the principle

we work on. Broadly, the sources come from people

inside their professions, so the medical column, the

column about energy, the pieces in the back, a lot of

those are given by people directly involved.

None of its content is influenced by advertising

As it does not run on the advertising-centred business model for publishing — unlike virtually every other great name in print journalism — it has no need to court or bow to corporate panjandrums and satraps, and its articles are not distorted by their manipulations.

Its success underlines the undesirability of concentrated media ownership, as it has the extreme editorial independence only possible when a publication is not beholden to any single media mogul or proprietor trading favours, buying influence, or vulnerable to manipulation or blackmail

In some ways, Private Eye can be seen as an early prototype of the ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ a model for post-Gutenberg publishing  in which sites are co-owned with clubs of reader-contributors. Its Wikipedia entry lists no fewer than seventeen shareholders, and says that the magazine has never disclosed exactly who has contributed what to its capitalization and upkeep.

What is an instance of this magazine’s uniqueness and indispensability? The other day, when all the broadsheets reported that the education secretary, Michael Gove, had condemned the Leveson Inquiry for its ‘chilling effect’ on the media, they failed to explain why he was complaining so bitterly about an investigation initiated by his own leader, David Cameron, and in the same tirade, lauding Rupert’s Murdoch’s launch of the Sun on Sunday. They also offered not a single example of what noble journalism the Inquiry has supposedly been inhibiting — just as he failed to do.

Mystification over all that was beginning to make me feel mildly unhinged when the latest Eye arrived. There I discovered that the education secretary is married to  — well, well, well, a journalist on the Times. And who owns the Times? Let us say, a certain Australian-born media mogul.

And, returning briefly to the subject of ownership … As diligent use of both inductive and deductive logic has yet to yield incontrovertible proof of his existence, I must reluctantly dismiss as speculation all hints to the effect that Private Eye does in fact have a proprietor — a reclusive individual writing occasionally under the rubric, ‘A Message From Lord Gnome’. The same goes for any suggestion that he is simply too shy or coy to (a) scotch rumours that his life’s ambition is to be more elusive than the putative Higgs boson particle, and (b), admit that he has no help from ghostwriters in recording his sublime meditations, as on the subject of the recent fate of bankers:

[W]here, we must ask, will this witchhunt end? Which other leading figures in the economic life of our country will be next to be hunted down, to be publicly humiliated, as their names are execrated across the land?

Should ordinary citizens be denied a say in the media’s future — as in, ‘For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments’?

Are cover-ups and the suppression of debate growing more frequent in the world's proudest democracies? Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

This is no ordinary elephant in the living room, the one the media are pretending not to see. She is pirouetting on stiletto heels in the shortest skirt ever sewn, displaying elephantine slabs of thigh. Still they behave as if she is invisible.

Recent events in England – which gave the rest of the world the model of a free press – are sending shivers up the spine of anyone who cares about democracy, from Calcutta to San Francisco and beyond. This is because of the eerie, silent void where you might expect round-the-clock media coverage of the media’s strategies for preserving their freedom and independence — on their terms.

Any attention paid to this struggle by the British press has focused on the tabloid phone hacking scandal, and just that part of a far wider judicial investigation of professional standards and practices, the Leveson Inquiry ordered by the prime minister.

Shameful and appalling as the hacking sagas are, they matter far less than the pachyderm in the parlour – on a par with the news earlier this month of Google being forced by the government of India, the world’s largest democracy, to cooperate with censoring web pages after ‘weeks of intense government pressure for 22 Internet giants to remove photographs, videos or text considered “anti-religious” or “anti-social”’.

That question no one in the media apparently wants to face is, will the public grant professional journalists a continuation of special privileges in the digital age if they no longer adhere to the traditions of fairness, neutrality and dedication to the truth that won them those privileges in the 18th century? Earlier this month, this blog mentioned the media’s refusal to acknowledge – or indeed discuss at all – the public’s dismay about an increasingly partisan press.

There are other alarming silences. Why, for instance, is no one in the British media mentioning the prohibition by a leading newspaper of free discussion – by ordinary citizens – of the future of the press, on three separate occasions last week?

In each case, a member of the Establishment – one high-ranking politician and two journalists – addressed the jubilation in the British press about Rupert Murdoch redux; many journalists only care about their belief that he is saving jobs in journalism. The media mogul who should have been fatally wounded by the hacking scandal is throwing his octogenarian energy into engineering a comeback with a new paper, the Sun on Sunday. None of these writers spared Murdoch the lash. Two of them delivered blistering warnings about the dangers of condoning this latest power-grab and about the perils, for British democracy, of concentrating media ownership in a few hands — especially, his.

Nothing in their excoriations suggested that they feared any legal retribution from Murdoch or his empire, News International. And yet each of these articles appeared on the portion of a newspaper site titled Comment is Free, advertised as a debating forum open to all, with an announcement that, For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments’.

In that case, why were the Murdoch bashings put on this part of the newspaper’s site at all?

Could the real message behind blocking readers’ reactions be that the newspaper’s editors believe that only they and their colleagues have a right to discuss the redesign of the ‘media landscape’ – even though most British citizens still rely on the press to give them the facts a democracy needs to make decisions that affect its collective wellbeing?

This blog has recorded the same newspaper’s censorship of readers’ posts about media reform in its Comment is Free section (see the entries on 7 November and 15 November). The paper gives no sign of having absorbed the salutary reminder by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, last year that

[i]t is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right. It is the right of the community as a whole. It is, if you like, our right, the right of every citizen.

Here are opinions that the Guardian refused to allow its readers to discuss on its site – without any explanation that made sense (Kafka-esque, for real?):

Item 1: extracts from an article titled, ‘We must fashion a new media landscape,’ by Norman Fowler, a former chairman of the House of Lords communications committee.

… Murdoch remains the traditional proprietor. From his New York headquarters he will continue to have his say in the politics of the United Kingdom – and make no mistake, there will be politicians who will play along with this. […] So we are back to where some of us began. Last summer we were within days of the culture secretary waving through the Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB and claiming that phone hacking was an entirely separate and irrelevant issue. That fate has been avoided, but the challenge remains to devise a system where nobody – Murdoch or anybody else – has a disproportionate share of the British media. […W]hat is a disproportionate share of the media market? Four newspapers controlling almost 40% of national press circulation and total control of a major television company would have put Murdoch the wrong side of the line. […] Any new rules on share of voice cannot be directed exclusively at News International. The BBC must come within the net as too must the other media giants like Google.

[…]

• For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments

Item 2: extracts from an article titled. ‘If the Sun on Sunday soars Rupert Murdoch will also rise again,’ by Polly Toynbee.

[P]ractitioners are hired to do their masters’ bidding, even when that can mean spreading disinformation and disregarding evidence. The seventh Sun will offer jobs to those willing to put their pens to abusing migrants, travellers, trade unionists, single mothers, women, the unemployed, public sector staff, young people, Europe, foreigners or anyone to the left of John Redwood. Even the disabled are now being harassed as scroungers to win public support for benefit cuts reducing the already poor to penury.

[...]

Clouds of opposition are gathering around the Leveson press inquiry. Its remit grows, destination unknown. The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, along with many others, are right to demand that it leads to new laws to reset limits on media ownership by any one organisation, which Margaret Thatcher abolished for Murdoch’s sake. If the Sun on Sunday soars, [Murdoch] will be back owning some 40% of press readership, plus Sky (to whom the BBC is wrongly obliged to pay £10m a year).

The Sun and its owner’s influence on British politics have been underestimated in the history of the last decades … […]

For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments @commentisfree

Item 3: extracts from an opinion piece titled, ‘Rupert Murdoch’s Sun on Sunday sets on his empire,’ by Michael Wolff.

Curiously, he used […] the arrests of senior Sun staffers on suspicion of bribing the British police – as the crisis that justified the new Sun. The immediate launch of the paper, just days after he arrived in London, would be a way to stabilize an impending civil war in Wapping, he insisted – even as his own investigators continued to turn over evidence to the police. It would be a way, too, to shift attention from the negative to the positive, from retreat to advance.

[…]

Of course, all the investigations continue, the law suits mount, the US Justice Department is at attention, and, next week, public television in the US is promising an explosive new documentary on the Murdoch scandals, which will, in a sense for the first time, bring the story in all its details to the US.

[…]

• For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments

There is no doubt that the Guardian is furious with Lord Justice Leveson, who asked at the official commencement of his Inquiry, ‘Who guards the guardians?’ Last week, the news that British judges would be rating British lawyers for their performance in court gave the newspaper a chance to play tit-for-tat in an editorial that remarked, ‘Advocates might reasonably ask who is judging the judges’.

No one watching the Leveson hearings could fail to be struck by this judge’s open-mindedness, or by the deference and respect he shows witnesses. He comes across as genuine when he asks for their opinions of what should be done about the media’s failed self-regulation – and is frank about not knowing how to resolve the dilemma that follows from the all-but-universal dislike of proposals for statutory control.

He seems keenly aware of the media’s annoyance with interference with what they see as their business – and sympathetic. But from the odd remark he has let drop about the importance of allowing free discussion – for instance, that statements made on social networks such as Twitter must be counted as mere chat, and not held to the same standards as professional reporting – it seems unlikely that he would disagree with Albert Einstein about the undesirability of letting a wealthy or powerful few control the dissemination of facts and opinions for the many.

It feels not a little odd to be quoting the great physicist’s essay, ‘Why Socialism?’ for the second time this month. But there is a rather stunning parallel between present events and his noting, in 1949, that ‘Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo …’.

This was the most vital point he wanted to impress on his readers:

[U]nder existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Now, as I was saying, about that elephant

Why a keiretsu-cooperative is a gentle transition for old media — and how about saying, ‘an exaltation of bloggers’?

Parallel and convergent thinking about co-ownership

What’s in a name?

A lot, I suspect, when the subject is cooperatives.

Writers delete or tear up drafts, painters scrape paint off canvases that refuse to match the visions of a mind’s eye – and versions of co-owned enterprises, surely hundreds of thousands of them over the years, have ended up on some equivalent of the cutting-room floor.

But associations with failures of the past should hardly be allowed to stain the excellent solution cooperatives could be. Certainly not now, when – as noted on post-Gutenberg last week in a post about Facebook – the World Wide Web is proving to be a matchless engine for running them, and getting around the classic banes of collaborative ownership and administration.

What if our name for these organisations has become the chief enemy of their promise? Should we call them something else? Say, leaps – as in a leap of leopards, to convey a  jump in the right direction for co-ownership and co-action? Peer-to-peer pods, anyone? Straightforwardly, collaboratives? Or just flats, perhaps, as shorthand emphasising that these are anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian and decentralised structures.

The next few years should see the evolution of specialised terms for variations of such online organisations – or simply net-related groupings – that meet different needs. I have for some time been fondly considering an exaltation of bloggers for our key-tapping multitude, in a nod to the seductive title of James Lipton’s book about collective nouns, An Exaltation of Larks.

Since last week, search engines have led me to others who think that Facebook should be turned into a cooperative – although there was little open support for this suggestion when it was first proposed under the screen name ‘postgutenberg’ last September in a comment beneath David Mitchell’s semi-serious call for the ‘nationalisation’ of the social mega-network. (That comment, too, was inexplicably censored by The Guardian, but I have a copy of the page as it was before the axe descended.)

A writer for Reuters, Paul Smalera, carefully set out the reasons why a collaboratively owned and run Facebook makes sense:

Why not share the company itself? It’s fine to talk about technology’s power to change the world if you’re the one who’s going to profit from it. But this isn’t really a change […] it should become a nearly one-of-a-kind company for the technology sector: a co-op.

[…]

Facebook wouldn’t be forgoing its fundraising if it abandoned its IPO and became a co-op. [...] In Facebook’s virtual community, its 845 million users could easily pay a small sum — say $5 in the U.S. and some locally adjusted equivalent in other countries — to become an owner. Some of that money would be used to buy out existing stock owners and set up the new management model — it would still have Zuckerberg as CEO with a management team, but with the same one vote that every other member has. Over time, if Facebook’s owners keep the cost of becoming a member as low as possible without in any way starving the site for cash, Facebook could even become the world’s first trillion-dollar company — just in a way no one has ever previously imagined.

He went on to give even more specific suggestions for how it might operate:

Facebook already offers voting tools, organization pages, recommendation links, polling, etc. With the help of a management team and committee structure, it would be pretty easy to let members assign themselves to committees and shape Facebook into the community they want it to be.

[…]

[T]hink of a sample proposal. Say a user wants Facebook to give 10 percent of its income to charity.

1. She creates a new page and persuades her friends to follow it. The page holds the pro and con discussions of the proposal.

2. After hitting a certain threshold of followers, the page makes the Revenue Committee agenda, where a subcommittee is assigned to study its feasibility and write a summary about the proposal’s impact on Facebook, including how it would affect the bottom line.

3. The committee then votes on the summary — if it’s approved, it goes into a general Facebook meeting, where the entire user base gets to vote. […]

Commenters on the Smalera piece were understandably pessimistic about the chances of Mark Zuckerberg handing over Facebook to its members. So was a colleague of his, Edward Hadas, in a critical but beautifully balanced consideration of his arguments a few days later. He concluded on an encouraging note:

[T]he limited success of the cooperative movement does not equate to a resounding triumph for its ideological opposite – the shareholder value cult. If profits were all that mattered for the economy, then more than a quarter of all American workers would not be employed by enterprises that function, often quite well, without profit motive – 17 percent by governments and another 11 percent by private, not-for-profit, organisations.

[…]

In organising the economy, greedy schemers and utopian dreamers are not the only alternatives. Like well-run government agencies and prudent shareholder-owned companies, well-designed cooperatives can be efficient servants of the common good.

The expectation of resistance to a pure cooperative explains why the keirestu-cooperative — first proposed two years ago for the evolution of publishing – does not entail starting a co-owned enterprise from scratch.

It lays out, instead, a scheme that amounts to a halfway house for old print media moving into the future. A newspaper publisher could experiment with sharing ownership of a segment of its site with readers paying small sums for their subscriptions or shares. This section would ideally be one in which readers already contribute most of the content today, in their role as commenters.

As part of the experiment, the co-owners would share any profits from advertising attracted to the trial site, which would give them an extra incentive to lure more readers and part-owners to it.

Setting up such a site – starting with software design and registering co-owners – would cost money. A newspaper publisher could share that, and the expense of site administration, by entering simultaneously into a funding partnership with, say, a book publisher catering to essentially the same audience.

That would make for a collaboration resembling the loose affiliations between firms that the Japanese call a keiretsu.

People who reject that word as too exotic need to know that it is easy to say – ky-ret-su – and should remember that there was a time when we were just as frightened of the word karaoke, which has since become as unremarkable as pizza.

The scheme is all. A keiretsu-cooperative by any other name would be fine by me – as long as someone, I mean, some few, are brave enough to try it out.