Sunday, 7 December 2008


No other way to put it - bloody awful news regarding The Herald, Sunday Herald and Evening Times this week. In brief: new editor-in-chief of all three titles, Donald Martin, has sacked the entire workforce, around 250 hacks, and told them to reapply for their jobs under new terms and conditions. Oh, and there will be 40 fewer jobs to apply for.

The owner of the titles since 2003 is Newsquest, a UK subsidiary of an American company called, unbelievably, Gannett. Newsquest owns 17 dailies, one Sunday (the Sunday Herald) and an absolute shedload of free weeklies; they also own the s1 series of websites. And the Exchange & Mart.

A bit of background: Scotland has what I'm told is a German model of newspaper production and reading - the main daily titles are strongly associated with the cities in which they're based. Glasgow has the Herald, Edinburgh the Scotsman, Dundee the Courier and Aberdeen the Press and Journal. Despite the claims of both the Herald and the Scotsman there is no national newspaper.

Since Newsquest took over there has, allegedly, been a marked decline in quality on all three Glasgow-based papers. (I say allegedly because I don't read the Herald, since it's a Glasgow paper.) Resources have been cut as well. In fact things got so bad in 2007 that the journalists went on strike; you can read a good account of it, as well as background, in a piece from the Independent.

It doesn't seem things got any better. Job cuts and new IT systems that didn't work have, unsurprisingly, led to over-stressed and under-motivated staff, according to a report by the NUJ. The Guardian covers the story here (28 Sep 2008).

Regarding the new editor-in-chief, it doesn't seem that he's done much of a job on the Evening Times. Contributors to this discussion board reckon he's driven readers away with front-page trivia and unquestioning support for Glasgow City Council, and then tried to win them back with bizarre giveaways. The discussion runs to two pages but it's mostly concise and well-written, and bang up-to-date.

It's deeply saddening and ironic, though not surprising, that the DTI report approving Gannett/Newsquest's acquisition of the papers made these key points:

1. The transfer is unlikely to adversely affect competition between newspapers in Scotland.

2. We do not expect the transfer to adversely to affect editorial freedom, the current editorial stance, content or quality of the SMG titles, accurate presentation of news or freedom of expression.

3. Nor do we expect the transfer to result in undue financial pressure on the titles acquired such as to reduce editorial quality.

Alex Salmond has said that he can imagine how The Herald would have covered the story if this had happened at another company in Scotland: in fact, they have. Google "herald" and "sackings" and you find this 2002 story about the Clyde & Forth Press Group sacking 11 editors and inviting them to apply for four new posts; also this one about SEPA sacking 600 staff who refused to sign a new contract.

The thing is, it simply does not make sense to treat staff in this way. The return you get from listening to and consulting staff and bringing them on board massively outweighs the expense, because a motivated workforce is more productive. I don't, I just don't understand why employers don't see this, unless it's the old story from Suetonius and The Twelve Caesars: people who are put in a position of power will abuse it. In other words, it's not because they have to - it's because they can.


Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Bufo bufo, bufo bufo

I had the pleasure of going out for a drink with Joe fairly recently, which is to say a few months ago. The time-distortion effect of young children is not one which has ever made it into an episode of Star Trek, but I can assure you it exists. “Captain! The Borg have jumped back in time 500 years and changed something! Our present is unrecognisable!” “What’s your opinion, Mr Spock?” “Clearly we must follow them, Captain, even at the risk of being unable to return ourselves.” “No problem, Spock. I had Scotty lay in an extra kindergarten before we left dry-dock. Mr Sulu – set the parental-stress switch to maximum!” [Much more of this – Ed.]

As ever, I mused over Joe’s forced ejection from Wankerstone’s, nearly four years ago now, and through some kind of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, have found a number of quasi-relevant quotations jumping out of recent reading.

First, and most lengthily, here is Vaclav Havel is considering the nature of what he calls the post-totalitarian system – according to the Wikipedia entry on Havel ‘a term used to describe the modern social and political order that enabled people to "live within a lie."’
No matter what position individuals hold in the hierarchy of power, they are not considered by the system to be worth anything in themselves, but only as things intended to fuel and serve this automatism. For this reason, an individual’s desire for power is admissible only in so far as its direction coincides with the direction of the automatism of the system.


If ideology was originally a bridge between the system and the individual as an individual, then the moment he steps in to this bridge it becomes at the same time a bridge between the system and the individual as a component of the system. That is, if ideology originally facilitated (by acting outwardly) the constitution of power by serving as a psychological excuse, then from the moment that excuse is accepted, it constitutes power inwardly, becoming an active component of that power. It begins to function as the principal instrument of ritual communication within the system of power.


As the interpretation of reality by the power structure, ideology is always subordinated ultimately to the interests of the structure. Therefore, it has a natural tendency to disengage itself from reality, to create a world of appearances, to become ritual. In societies where there is public competition for power and therefore public control of that power, there also exists quite naturally public control of the way that power legitimates itself ideologically. Consequently, in such conditions there are always certain correctives that effectively prevent ideology from abandoning reality altogether. Under totalitarianism, however, these corrective disappear, and thus there is nothing to prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality, gradually turning into what it has already become in the post-totalitarian system: a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.
From his essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ (1978), published in Open Letters.

Now here is David Simon, from his ‘Post Mortem’ in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets:
Struck, Wooten, Alvarez, Zorzi, Littwin, Thompson, Lippman, Hyman - some of the best reporters the Baltimore Sun had were marginalized, then bought out, shipped out and replaced with twenty-four year-old acolytes, who, if they did nothing else, would never make the mistake of having an honest argument with newsroom management. In a time of growth, when the chance to truly enhance the institution was at hand, the new regime at the Sun hired about as much talent as they dispatched. And in the end, when the carpetbaggers finally departed, their mythology of heroic renewal intact, they had managed to achieve three Pulitzers in about a dozen years. During the previous dozen, the newspaper’s morning and evening editions achieved exactly that same number.

Listening to Garvey over drinks that day, I came to realize that there was something emblematic here: that in postmodern America, whatever institution you serve or are served by – a police department or a newspaper, a political party or a church, Enron or Worldcom – you will eventually be betrayed.

It seemed very Greek the more I thought about it. The stuff of Aeschylus and Sophocles, except the gods were not Olympian but corporate and institutional. In every sense, ours seems to be a world in which individual human beings – be they trained detectives or knowledgeable reporters, hardened corner boys or third-generation longshoremen or smuggled eastern European sex workers – are destined to matter less and less.
Not long before, I’d read an interview with Hanna Segal in The Guardian:
[S]ince we tend to submit to the tyranny of our own groups, “speaking our minds takes courage, because groups do not like outspoken dissenters.” The battle now “is between insanity based on mutual projections and sanity based on truth”. And all we, as citizens, can do is “struggle to expose lies, and strive for the preservation of sane human values”.
Not that this is anything new. Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) lamented thus:
What vaileth trouth or by it to take payne
To stryve by stedfastnes for to attayne
To be iuste and true and fle from dowblenes
Sythens all alike where rueleth craftines
Rewarded is boeth fals and plain
Sonest he spedeth that moost can fain
True meaning hert is had in disdain
Against deceipte and dowblenes
What vaileth trouth
It should be noted of course that Joe did indeed vail, and Waterstone’s had to admit unfair dismissal. Finally here is Francis Bacon:
For these winding and crooked courses are the goings of the serpent; which goeth basely upon the belly, and not upon the feet. There is no vice that doth so cover a man with shame as to be found false and perfidious.
From the very first essay in the truly excellent Oxford Book of Essays, just reissued. Would that it outsells Clarkson this Christmas. One can, and should, hope.


Earlier in the same essay, 'On Truth', Bacon says that "it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in and settleth in it, that doth the hurt". One could take this to be an early description of foma, Kurt Vonnegut's term for those white lies which don't hurt anyone and make everyday life that little bit easier.