Personal proof from watching Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: the time of passive, captive, media-gazing has passed

Procession arrives at St. Paul's Catherdral

Procession arrives at St. Paul’s Cathedral: the most graceful onlooker

The irresistible pull of old turf

The irresistible pull of old turf

In our age of pixels, one versatile midget-screen is worth more than cable television with two thousand and one channels on a hulking, high-definition display. This dawned on us as we said a silent, heartfelt thank-you to the BBC last week for the banner at the top of every frame of its ‘red button’ broadcast of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral: BBC LIVE. NO COMMENTARY.

Post-Gutenberg has not owned a working TV set for decades, by choice. But we were grateful to be lent one last Wednesday, hoping for deep absorption by London’s farewell to the steely, scrappy baroness, and the chance to imagine why people insist that Winston Churchill’s funeral was the most sublime, moving event in British public life in recent history. As she was accorded the military honours he was – in spite of a clinching argument against doing so by the right-wing political journalist Peter Oborne – we knew we would be observing similar, if not identical, rites of homage.

No sooner had we begun to watch the large screen than we felt irritable, as if we had ants crawling up our sleeves, anticipating the artificial voices of commentators bent on pre-digesting everything we saw. Because of these maddening intermediaries, the Beeb’s religion correspondent, Robert Pigott, would ordinarily have been quite right to say as he did – after the service in St. Paul’s – that no one outside the cathedral’s walls could have experienced the extraordinary ‘sense of occasion’ there. Yes, the talking heads have always had an annoying habit of proclaiming, ‘You really have to be here to know what the atmosphere is like’ – never acknowledging that this is at least in part because their chirping gets in the way. This time, Pigott was wrong. Possibly because his employer was savaged for its commentary on the last royal wedding, there were no all-knowing chirps at all.

In the great hush broken only by music and ceremonial words, occasional shouts of protestors, clumping horses, saluting guns, crunching military boots and church bells, any viewer of the BBC feed was free to get lost in personal trains of association — verses of hymns remembered from school assembly halls; watching someone close and dear on a parade ground when tiny; other memories and imagery. Just like anyone in the congregation. Bliss! … When we found the definition on our tablet screen crisper and truer to life than the one on the television display, we switched to viewing only the small screen.

This also had something to do with seeing the procession skirt the edge of our old London neighbourhood, a street ten minutes away on foot from the flat that was home – and in a flash, realising that we could take a screen shot on the tablet computer for a personal reminder of grey spring mornings in Holborn. After that, we captured images from every angle, of every scene in the funeral service that interested us – and except for the frustration of being constrained by the exclusively horizontal orientation of the feed, were delighted by the perspectives Auntie offered us from her staggering twenty-four cameras inside St. Paul’s, alone.

We loved the active watching on the small screen, so much better for noticing. We love having our own visual records to inspect at leisure, blowing up details for closer deconstruction.

Other people probably listened to the drone of interpreters in war paint and plastic styled hair, switching back and forth between their TVs and laptops; followed the textual explanations of what we were looking at, on the BBC site, even as they tweeted reactions to their friends, and updated pages on social networking sites throughout the ceremony. And why shouldn’t they have done what suited them?

We only listened to a single stream of sounds; reflected; and made a scrapbook, from which this idiosyncratic selection of images comes – each screen re-touched to remove the BBC logo. At the funeral of Britain’s first and only woman prime minister, it was chiefly women’s faces that we found most engaging.

H.M. QE II

H.M. QE II

Mrs T's daughter-in-law, flanked her son and grandson

Mrs T’s son, daughter-in-law, and grandson

Marvellous eyebrows: the carving competes

Marvellous eyebrows: the carving competes

Young woman, officiating

Young woman, officiating

MT going where we all do -- to 'the cloud,' as the Bishop of London (not pictured) put it

MT going where we all do — to ‘the cloud,’ as the Bishop of London (not pictured) said

Cameras of every kind

Cameras of every kind

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.