Data dump: Oxford Today closure


WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2017

For the record, and without further comment for now, here is the response I received from the University of Oxford to my Freedom of Information request about the closure of Oxford Today magazine.

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ITEM 1 – AGENDAS, MINUTES BACKGROUND DOCUMENTS FROM ANY POLICY OR STRATEGY MEETINGS CONNECTED WITH THE UNIVERSITY’S DECISION TO CEASE PUBLICATION OF OXFORD TODAY MAGAZINE IN PRINTED FORMAT

1.1        General Purposes Committee, 23 January 2017

Extract from Public Affairs Directorate Annual Report (GPC(17)02)

Proposal for the future of Oxford Today

Currently, PAD prints 165,000 copies of Oxford Today twice a year using commercial (non-OUP) printers, and posts them to alumni who left the University more than ten years ago. Good progress has been made on increasing advertising revenue, but sharply rising print and postage costs mean that the status quo is not sustainable. We therefore propose substantial changes to the Oxford Today model during 2017. This

If these proposals go forward:

  • Oxford Today will be delivered primarily through a newly-developed app, three times a year in a digital format rather than twice in print.
  • We will continue to print some copies of each edition (c10,000 tbc) using OUP presses. These will be distributed via the Colleges, Divisions, and Alumni Relations, to important alumni. Alumni who are genuinely unable to access the online version of Oxford Today will also be able to receive a printed copy.
  • Oxford Today will retain its important qualities as an intelligent, curated magazine. The savings from the move to a majority-digital version will allow PAD to meet the objectives for 2017 outlined at the beginning of this paper.

For reference, the number of monthly page views for the digital edition of the University alumni magazine www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk currently stands at 52k (up from 1.5k in 2010). Twitter followers now total 3k, while Facebook likes are 4k (up 30% and 70% respectively year-on-year). The open rate for the weekly Oxford Today e-newsletter is 30%, which is considered very healthy by media industry benchmarks. Dwell time per page – which is considered to be a strong metric for measuring quality of engagement with an audience – has increased from 2 minutes to 2 minutes 59.

1.2       Minutes of the General Purposes Committee, 23 January 2017

Public Affairs Directorate Annual Report (GPC(17)02)

  • PAD currently had £325k funding available for non-staff costs, £250k of which was used to print and distribute Oxford Today. With costs increasing at 6% per year, if no changes were made within 4 to 5 years all the available non-staff resource would be spent on Oxford Today.

GPC expressed its strong support for the strategic shifts and for the move to measuring success by impact rather than output. It was agreed that the current financial position in relation to Oxford Today was not sustainable and that printing and distribution costs needed to be reduced. Printing 10,000 copies (which could be done by OUP) for distribution via colleges, divisions and Alumni Relations was considered to be a sensible way forward. However, although there appeared to be no direct connection between the magazine and donations coming through the Development Office, the view was expressed that Oxford Today played a role in college fundraising. Given this, it was important that PAD continued discussions with colleges about mitigating the impact of the changes. Decisions would need to be taken by April 2017 as this was when the current printing contract terminated.

For its part, GPC endorsed moving to digital delivery of Oxford Today and encouraged PAD not simply to replicate the magazine in an online format but to exploit fully opportunities to reach out to different audiences, to tailor content accordingly, and to make the magazine more dynamic. It was confirmed that, whilst PAD formally owned the content of Oxford Today, content could be freely shared with divisions, departments and colleges.

GPC agreed the proposals on the understanding that PAD continued to engage with the colleges on how to mitigate the impact of the proposed changes to the printing and distribution of Oxford Today within the 10,000 issue ceiling.

1.3       Minutes of the General Purposes Committee, 20 February 2017

Minute 3: Public Affairs Directorate Annual Report

GPC noted that the Conference of Colleges’ Development Panel had just completed its survey of college opinion on the proposed changes to the printing and distribution of Oxford Today and that the Chair of the Panel would discuss with the Director of Public Affairs and Communications.

1.4       Minutes of the Committee for Development and Alumni Relations, 30 January 2017

Public Affairs and Oxford Today[1]

The committee noted a presentation from the Director of Public Affairs on the Public Affairs Directorate (PAD).

Oxford Today

The committee was informed that a decision had been taken, in consultation with the General Purposes Committee, to distribute only digital copies of the Oxford Today magazine after April 2017. The decision had been taken based on the following:

  • the current cost of distributing Oxford Today was around £250,000, and would increase yearly as the number of alumni was rising. Costs were expected to rise even more after Brexit. PAD’s budget, not including staff costs, was around £300,000, and with yearly cost increases it was projected that the cost of producing Oxford today would take up the whole of this budget within five years;
  • the Oxford University Press was not able to provide the printing services for the magazine, so it had to be produced by an external company, which was more expensive;
  • the University did not have an IT system which could facilitate a subscription system, and the budget for developing this could not be found in the next few years;
  • although an alternative might be to reduce circulation to certain groups of alumni, it was considered that this would be damaging from an alumni relations perspective;
  • other universities were making similar decisions with their alumni magazines: some advantages of the digital versions were that they could be more interactive, and it was possible to analyse user interaction more extensively; and
  • the principal concern was that the quality of the publication should not be jeopardised by the increase in costs.

As a contingency, 10,000 print copies would be produced in case groups were identified who would not be able to use the digital copies. PAD would discuss with OUP whether more copies could be produced economically.

The committee was concerned that the decision might have a negative effect on the colleges’ alumni relations initiatives, as Oxford Today was valued by alumni, but it recognised that the constraints on PAD’s budget made the current arrangements for distributing the magazine untenable.

1.4       Minutes of the Committee for Development and Alumni Relations, 8 May 2017

Minute 3 – Oxford Today

The Director of Alumni Relations confirmed that the magazine would be produced in electronic form as planned, but a number of hard copies would still be made available for the colleges to distribute to their alumni. The exact number of hard copies which would be produced was still being negotiated.

[1] There was no accompanying paper.

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Item 2 – details (including agendas and minutes) of any proceedings involving the editorial advisory board of Oxford Today over the past two years that make reference to the potential closure of the print edition

Minutes of a meeting held on 18 January 2017

Future of OT

This item of the agenda was brought forward in light of [Initials redacted] having to leave early.

[Initials redacted] explained that he perceived OT to be a high quality publication that undoubtedly did much good. However he faced major headwinds in respect of PAD budget and as a result of unforeseen shocks among them BREXIT. As a result of this the high proportion of PAD’s budget spent on mailing OT now appeared unsustainable and the view was to curtail that and reduce it to possibly 10,000 copies printed by OUP/Oxuniprint.

[Initials redacted] noted that this would mean losing almost all (if not all) advertising revenue, which stood at about £140,000 a year.  Inserts could be exception to this, but again revenue would be significantly reduced. [Initials redacted] clarified that what was being proposed was effectively the axing of OT as the magazine it had been for 28 years.

A wide-ranging discussion then ensued. [Initials redacted] explained that he had had as many industry conversations as possible, and that digital magazines were not working for other publishers. The current investment was typically in social media, website and if anything a re-investment in print, whose merits in some respects grow as the digital sphere becomes too noisy. [Initials redacted] asked if Oxford had considered only sending OT to wealthy alums. It was noted that sending it only to a ‘high engagement’ list was under consideration. [Initials redacted] noted that in some ways OT could be seen as projected an image of the University that runs contrary to the one they now want to project. [Initials redacted] noted that it might be possible to use a different paper stock and trial something more like the NYRB rather than a ‘glossy’. [Initials redacted] noted that it was impossible to quantify the good that OT does and in respect of fundraising in particular. This has long been the weakness of all alumni publications, that they are ‘soft-marketing’ with non-quantifiable returns, although [Initials redacted] noted that good research had been done in the US and that there had been shown to be a strong positive correlation between giving and alumni publications that do not explicitly ask for money, more so than for direct fundraising development literature. [Initials redacted] noted that a majority of Russell Group universities now sent only one magazine a year, and that all of them were wrestling with similar issues of cost and resourcing. Nonetheless, he said, there remains a strong view that print magazines are superior to a merely digital alternative with no physical presence.

[Initials redacted] ended the meeting, which had run out of time, by noting that nothing had finally been decided in respect of OT and that he was still surveying ideas and possible ways ahead.

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Oxford Today: gone tomorrow?


THURSDAY, JUNE 22, 2017

The University of Oxford’s magazine, Oxford Today, is to cease publication after 29 years. If the industry rumbles are correct – and I’ve very good reason to think they are – then the final print issue of the magazine was dispatched last month to alumni and other subscribers.

It’s a baffling move, and one that will make Oxford stick out as the only university in the global top division without a magazine. What’s more, the closure comes at a time when its competitors are waking up to the value of print, and throwing considerable resources into strengthening their publications.

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Of the other three British universities in the top ten of the QS world rankings, both Imperial College London and UCL have relaunched their magazines with an external publisher in the past three years. CAM, the University of Cambridge’s award-winning magazine, has been refreshed with a major design update. (Note that I have connections with all three titles: please see the disclosure statement at the end of this post.)

Yesterday’s news: Oxford Today

In the United States, Oxford’s decision would be unthinkable. While it’s difficult to make direct comparisons – Harvard Magazine is published six times a year by a company independent of the university and part-funded by reader contributions, for instance – alumni magazines are seen as absolutely vital in maintaining the lifelong relationship between a university and its graduates.

At their best – and their best is very good indeed – these magazines are sources of prestige and objects of pride for their universities. They attract the top rank of writers and cleave to lofty editorial standards. Their articles frequently go on to set the agenda in mainstream publications. In a small way, they are part of public life.

This has not been the case in the UK, where alumni relations is still a primitive science. Most university magazines are dreary, flimsy pamphlets stuffed with “success stories” of alumni you’d cross the road to avoid, architectural mock-ups of shiny new buildings that all look alike, and news of research breakthroughs that has been translated via several hands into marketing guff.

Fortunately, this has been changing. A lot more British universities are at last publishing magazines of genuine value to their readers – driven in great part by a recognition that providing something that repays their graduates’ attention is the best way to foster an ongoing sense of belonging (and philanthropic thoughts). So why is Oxford Today moving in the opposite direction?

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My guess would run along these lines. Printing is expensive and inflexible, which is why the accountants love online platforms. As anyone who has worked in the business knows (and again, I’ll draw attention to the disclosure statement) the figure generated by producing tens of thousands of magazines tends to leap out from a spreadsheet. Why not stop the presses for good, and make the mag online-only? Everyone has an iPad nowadays – right?

There has probably been some research with alumni. I’d imagine it delivered the insight that while a large proportion of recipients look forward to receiving the magazine and consume it eagerly, many others will pick it up and immediately file it in the recycling tray or the cat box. The environmental implications hardly need stating.

All very well, but these are arguments for being smarter with the print edition, not abandoning it altogether. An opt-in or opt-out system could easily remove the uninterested and indifferent from the mailing list.

Because the simple fact is that you don’t get the same experience, engagement or loyalty from online publishing. No one in journalism doubts that print is a dying business; but there are times and places where it is still the most appropriate medium, and this is one of them.

For one thing, going online-only cuts out a whole constituency of readers who simply don’t use the internet. This group includes many of the oldest alumni, who are generally most loyal to the magazine and to the university. And if you want to be instrumentalist about it, they’re also among the most likely to provide philanthropic support for their alma mater.

You can’t leave an online magazine on the coffee table (or in the smallest room of the house) to be picked up in moments of leisure or relaxation. You cut out the chance of serendipity: finding an article on an unlikely subject that proves to be engaging and illuminating. And if there’s one attribute that marks out the best university magazines, that’s it.

By contrast, readers “pick and click” at online articles according to a brief headline. While an article may be shared many thousands of times and travel way beyond the graduate community, this is a different sort of engagement altogether. It does more to forge an association with the person sharing the article than the online magazine brand, and ultimately the university.

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To go back to some specifics, Oxford Today’s recent history is an interesting one. What has happened over the past seven years speaks (to me) of an initial willingness to develop the title, which was then stomped upon by bureaucracy, bean-counters and marketing wonks.

Since 2010, it has been published on behalf of the University’s Public Affairs Directorate by FuturePlus, the contract magazine division of Future Publishing Ltd in Bath. The awarding of the contract was not without controversy, and several members of the editorial advisory board decided not to follow the publication to Future.

(In a quirk that will surprise no one who has dealt with Oxbridge, the magazine comes under the aegis of Public Affairs rather than the entirely separate Alumni Relations operation, whose feelings on the closure are as yet unknown.)

My understanding is that the contract with Future will now be allowed to lapse, and all alumni communications will be taken in house. It’s likely that the Oxford Today branding will continue to be used across online channels.

No announcement about the closure of the print magazine has been made, and I’ve had no response to my inquiries from the university’s press office. I’ve lodged a Freedom of Information request to see paperwork connected with the decision, and I’ll update this story as soon as it has been fulfilled.

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A call to action, then. I strongly believe that the decision to cease publication is the wrong one, and that it’s time for alumni who feel likewise to make their views known to the University.

The Alumni Office may be contacted at enquiries@alumni.ox.ac.uk – and I think it’s well worth spreading the word to fellow alumni, and among College and University groups.

 

FULL DISCLOSURE: I wouldn’t pretend to be neutral in this debate, so for the avoidance of doubt… I write or have written for the alumni magazines of the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, UCL, Bath Spa University, Birmingham City University and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I am editor of Staffordshire University’s alumni magazine, which I helped to launch in 2012 with Publishing Ink Ltd (subsequently RileyRaven Ltd). I’m an alumnus of the University of Oxford and a member of two Colleges (Jesus and Linacre). I was interviewed for the editorship of Oxford Today in 2010; the job was awarded to Dr Richard Lofthouse.

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End of an Eros at the Standard?


WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2017

Yesterday, Press Gazette reported that the Evening Standard is moving to a single print edition each day. As ever, it’s the sub-editors who will be getting it in the neck. Staffers are set to lose half their working hours and half their pay.

As well as being a personal catastrophe for the subs, it feels like the end of an era for evening papers in the capital. Until Alexander Lebedev took over and turned it into a freesheet in 2009, the Standard published no fewer than five editions throughout the day.

Off the top of my head, there was the News Extra in the morning, then the City Prices and the Late Prices Extra. The edition on sale for afternoon commuters was the West End Final, but this wasn’t the final Final; the late-night edition was also branded West End Final, but often had a different splash.

Learning to tell them all apart felt like the day you qualified for your London passport. You’d often see street vendors flogging off their stale copies of the Late Prices Extra side by side with the Final. I’d get a rather pitiful thrill by grabbing a paper from the right pile while tourists were scalped with the old stock.

Statue of Eros

Do I look like I’m Cupid: The Statue of (Ant)Eros
(Pic: Magnus Manske/Wikimedia)

Years earlier, according to this Guardian feature, it had been far easier to distinguish the West End Final. In the late Eighties, this was the only edition to carry the newspaper’s emblem – a stylised version of Piccadilly’s Statue of Eros.

(Yeah, yeah, I’ve not forgotten. As any nit-picking sub will know, Eros isn’t Eros at all. The statue is actually of his duller, worthier brother, Anteros, who represents “reflective and mature love, as opposed to Eros… the frivolous tyrant”. Even that was not enough to assuage all the Victorian objections to a nude figure prancing about with a bow in the middle of a major London thoroughfare, so it was renamed “The Angel of Christian Charity” – to no avail. To all but a few pedants, Eros it remains.)

Anyway, the Evening Standard’s Eros has another secret. He was kidnapped.

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In the summer of 1984, Mirror Group Newspapers hatched plans to launch a London evening paper. The Evening Mirror is obscure even in the roster of great Mirror failures, as it never made it to market. It bears no relation to Robert Maxwell’s later London Daily News, which at least managed five months in production.

What’s known is that the Evening Mirror was to be pitched downmarket of the Standard, aiming for the same readers who had bought the Sun, Star or Daily Mirror in the morning. Peter Thompson, then deputy editor of the Daily Mirror (and a future editor of the Sunday) was put in charge of the project.

A 56-page dummy was produced in secret at a studio in Clerkenwell and printed in the West Country. However, someone leaked a copy to Press Gazette, which ran several excerpts and judged them favourably.

The editor of the Evening Standard saw the Eros graphic in Press Gazette and promptly nicked it. In his 2016 memoir, Cudlipp’s Circus, Thompson writes:

I’d searched around for an iconic figure to symbolise the London spirit and decided on the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus. Lou Kirby, editor of the Standard, liked the stylised version of the winged god so much that he put it on his front page where it had remained to this day.

As soon as Robert Maxwell took control of Mirror Group, the Evening Mirror plans were cancelled. But on the front page of today’s Evening Standard, Eros survives as a greyed-out, ghostly presence – rather like the paper itself – toppling away from the titlepiece.

When the Standard moves to a single edition, perhaps it’s an appropriate time to retire him for good, or at least return him to the Mirror at Canary Wharf. And a change of name might be in order, as it’s no longer an evening paper in any meaningful sense.

The new title could even honour those sub-editors who are having their livelihoods taken away in the name of progress. How about the Sub Standard?

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Phone hacking and the Fifth Beatle


MONDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2017

Last week, George Michael’s family expressed their fury that the 999 call about his death had been leaked to the media. The source of the audio has not been publicly identified, and the latest reports suggest that the Ambulance Service is still investigating the leak.

It brings to mind a similar episode almost 50 years ago. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was found dead at his Belgravia home on August 27, 1967. The inquest later ruled that he had taken an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, but conspiracy theories have flourished – driven by the fact that the press seemed to know about the death before the emergency services.

I’ve spent much of the past year immersed in the published memoirs and unpublished archives of Daily Mirror journalists. And surprisingly, it turns out that the mystery was put to bed as long ago as 2002, in the autobiography of former editor Richard Stott. It provides a glimmer of insight into how calls were being intercepted by the press long before voicemail and mobile phones.

Several band biographies have mentioned the Epstein riddle, including Magical Mystery Tours – a 2005 memoir by the Beatles’ childhood friend Tony Bramwell:

The Daily Express had apparently called out of the blue before anyone else knew that he was dead, to say they had heard that Brian Epstein was seriously ill… Nobody ever owned up to tipping them off.

Philip Norman’s acclaimed Beatles biography Shout! – last updated in 2011 – quotes Joanne Newfield, Epstein’s personal assistant:

At three o’clock, the Daily Express rang up and said, ‘We’ve heard that Brian Epstein’s terribly ill. Is there any truth in it?’ Only the four of us knew that had happened and none of us had contacted the press. It was never explained how the story got out to the papers.

Norman added: “No one has ever… explained the curious fact that Brian’s death was known in Fleet Street less than an hour after Joanne Newfield burst into his darkened room.”

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The late Richard Stott enjoyed a long career at Mirror Group, rising to editor of the Daily Mirror and the People. But in August 1967, he was working for the Ferrari News Agency of South East London, feeding stories to the national press and the capital’s two evening papers.

In his own memoir, Dogs and Lampposts, he devoted half a page to Epstein’s death. He wrote: “Was he murdered? How did reporters get to the scene before the ambulance? Somebody else must have known what was going on… Therefore somebody else must have known he was dead.”

He went on:

It is true that somebody did know of his death even as the first of the Beatles was being told by the butler. It was me.

As part of our listening system we had a number of GPO operators on our books who used to tip us off about news items… When the phone went and it was one of our regular tipsters, I didn’t pay much attention until he asked if I knew Brian Epstein was dead.

The operator, who was on a retainer with the agency, had heard the news while connecting the first, frantic call between Epstein’s butler and one of his assistants.

Knowing that it was the newspaper likely to pay the most for the story, Stott called the Daily Express, which immediately dispatched a reporter to the scene. “Hence the story about the tip-off to the press before anyone else knew,” he wrote. “True, but no murder conspiracy.”

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It’s a reminder that the recent phone-hacking scandal was not Year Zero for the tabloids intercepting telephone calls, or having someone else do the dirty work. Perhaps the greatest difference between then and now is not the ease with which it can be done, but the ease of detection.

Digital systems always leave an audit trail. When voicemail boxes are accessed, there is a record of the number that has made the request. Despite the use of disposable “burner” phones by journalists and private investigators, this information has been crucial in securing convictions.

Along similar lines, it’s likely that a fairly perfunctory forensic analysis could determine where a recording of a 999 call was made. (Though in the case of George Michael, my guess is that the origin of the audio is an open secret in several London newsrooms.)

Back in the Sixties, bribing a telephone operator would leave little evidence. And in the days of the old electro-mechanical Strowger telephone exchanges, a corrupt engineer could easily attach a few crocodile clips at the appropriate place and listen in to any conversation on a subscriber line. Unless caught in the act, he’d almost certainly get away with it.

So how common was the practice? Did the papers and press agencies have a whole division of Post Office Telephones staff on their books? That’s one that can only be answered by the veteran tabloid operatives who were there, and whose ranks are now thinning precipitously. The pre-history of phone hacking is yet another topic that awaits its historian.

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Please do not shoot the sub-editor. He is doing his best


FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2017

Professor Geoffrey Pullum’s articles on Language Log are required reading for anyone who cares about language usage. So – speaking as a former sub-editor – it was almost an honour to see our sort pulled out for a bloody good thrashing in a recent post.

At issue was a leading article in the Times, which contained the gormless sentence:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The writer’s original copy had read: “to legally minimise their tax liability”. According to the professor, the person responsible for un-splitting the infinitive and mangling the syntax was “a sub-editor with a green eyeshade and a brain the size of a walnut, moving adverbs from positions where they modify what they are supposed to modify… to positions where they don’t even sound like vaguely reasonable English.”

Walnut

Cracked: The brain of a sub-editor (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

This was presented as evidence that sub-editors could be replaced with a computer or done away with completely, “letting sophisticated writers position their adverbs wherever they think the sense of the sentence demands.” (It’s worth noting that many publishers have had the same notion about getting shot of the subs, normally after a visit from the management consultants. The results are always unfortunate.)

He is quite right about the article in question and the idiocy of avoiding the so-called split infinitive, but I feel a duty to come to the aid of my fellow walnut-brains. It goes without saying that we subs fillet out far more barbarisms than we add. And in the latter case, we are sometimes acting against our own judgment.

Sub-editors are expected to follow the publication’s style guide. Whether it’s a work of wit and common sense that may be read for pleasure (such as The Guardian Stylebook) or an extended sneer peppered with inanities (Simon Heffer’s effort for the Telegraph), it is definitive. Orders are orders.

The Nuremberg defence is not one that cuts it with Prof Pullum. In an older blog post on similar shenanigans at the Economist, he wrote:

…editors and proofreaders have trained themselves to accept these offences against grammar (in the belief that they are upholding the standards of the magazine as laid down in the style book). Writers and editors alike have blinded themselves to the realities of the grammar of their native language, wrongly imagining that by doing so they are working in the interests of their readers.

Well, fair enough. Even the better style guides can be pusillanimous when it comes to shelving pseudo-grammatical bunk and following common usage and common sense. Newspapers should be using their privileged position to lead on these matters, not flogging dead horses to avoid a few angry letters from retired schoolmasters.

Here are five instances where – in my opinion – they ought to take a stand. In each case, I’ve looked at the style guides of the three quality newspapers, plus the Economist.

 

Split infinitives

GUARDIAN [] “It is perfectly acceptable, and often desirable, to sensibly split infinitives – ‘to boldly go’ is an elegant and effective phrase – and stubbornly to resist doing so can sound pompous and awkward.”

TIMES [] “Do not use except in famous quotes such as ‘to boldly go’ or in limited emphatic constructions such as ‘I want to live – to really live’.”

TELEGRAPH [] “Not a mortal sin, but most can and should be avoided. Be guided by the relative ease of understanding. To boldly go easily becomes to go boldly, or even boldly to go.”

ECONOMIST [] “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

As with so much else in 2017, it seems utterly ridiculous that we’re even having this debate. Rules about the split infinitive are a nonsense on par with avoiding cracks in the pavement. The Guardian’s advice should be the last word on this, and all newspapers should take note.

The Telegraph’s assertion that “boldly to go” is as easy on the ear is plain bonkers. It sounds absurdly stilted, like the first half of some half-recalled proverb (“boldly to go, quickly to come”, perhaps).

The Economist just runs up the white flag, leading Prof Pullum to suspect they may be keeping this policy just to irritate him. See this, this and this.

 

‘Warn’ without a direct object

GUARDIAN [ ? ] No policy in style guide.

TIMES [] “Transitive verb that requires a direct personal object… however, we can afford some flexibility in headlines.”

TELEGRAPH [] “‘He warned that…’ is wrong. The speaker must warn somebody or ‘give a warning that’.”

ECONOMIST [] “Warn is transitive, so you must either give warning or warn somebody.”

This is a bloody stupid edict. Why should we waste two whole words in saying “The Chancellor gave a warning that…” rather than “The Chancellor warned that…”? There is absolutely no reason to ban intransitive “warn”, except to give the writers of style guides and green-ink letters something more to fuss about.

What’s more, it’s an injunction that is universally ignored in practice. The Telegraph has broken its own rule at least four times in the past two days alone:

…Time Team presenter Tony Robinson, who warned that…

Economists, however, warn that…

…heritage organisations, who warn that…

…the US investment bank warned that…

There’s no shortage of similar examples in the Economist. This is a perfect example of a zombie rule that doesn’t yet know it’s dead. Time to drive a stake through the corpse.

 

‘Like’ in place of ‘such as’

GUARDIAN [] “‘Cities like Manchester are wonderful’ suggests the writer has in mind, say, Sheffield or Birmingham; it’s clearer to say ‘cities such as Manchester’ if that is what she means.”

TIMES [] “Do not use as a synonym of ‘such as’.”

TELEGRAPH [] “When giving named examples of people or objects we should use ‘such as’, as in ‘He said that he admired players such as Jones, Smith and Brown’. The sense is that he admires those players specifically. If we used ‘like’ it would mean that he admired players with qualities similar to those of Jones, Smith and Brown.”

ECONOMIST [] “‘Authorities like Fowler and Gowers’ is a perfectly acceptable alternative to ‘authorities such as Fowler and Gowers’.”

If we were to take this one seriously, then “people like us are not welcome here” would have to mean “people resembling us, but not including us, are not welcome here”. That’s simply not how the word is used, and it’s difficult to dream up instances where this “exclusive” reading would be a useful one.

In any case, “such as” is a phrase that should always set alarm bells ringing in a sub-editor’s walnut. If we are saying “He admired players such as Jones, Smith and Brown”, did he simply say that he admired those three players? If that is the case, why not say “He admired Jones, Smith and Brown”?

This becomes important when an article says something like “Labour politicians such as Corbyn, Abbott and McDonnell have opposed the move”. Was it only those three, or are they representative of a wider group? What exactly is that “such as” prompting us to infer?

 

‘Data’ as a mass noun

GUARDIAN [] “Takes a singular verb (like agenda), though strictly a plural; you come across datum, the singular of data, about as often as you hear about an agendum.”

TIMES [ ? ] “Strictly plural, but can be singular through common usage.”

TELEGRAPH [] “Data are plural.”

ECONOMIST [ ? ] No policy in style guide.

The Guardian gets it right, the Telegraph gets it wrong, and the Times sits on the fence and gets splinters in its arse. “Data” as a mass noun is useful to us in the 21st century; “data” as a plural is not. Bugger the Latin. Once a word becomes a full member of the English language, it’s under our roof and it abides by our rules.

 

‘Due to’ for ‘because of’

GUARDIAN [ ? ] “Traditionalists argue that ‘due to’ should only be used when it is the complement of the verb ‘to be’, and could be replaced by ‘caused by’; otherwise, use ‘owing to’ or ‘because of’. The distinction, once routinely taught in primary schools but now assailed on all sides, especially by train and tube announcers, is being lost.”

TIMES [] “Must not be used as the equivalent of ‘because of’ or ‘owing to’. The phrase must be attached to a noun or pronoun.”

TELEGRAPH [] “Due to is used adjectivally and, therefore, needs a noun to modify (‘His lateness was due to rain’, not ‘He was late due to rain’). Illogically, there is no similar rule for ‘owing to’. The use of ‘because’ solves problems in this area (‘He was late because of rain’) and is preferred.”

ECONOMIST [] “When used to mean ‘caused by’, due to must follow a noun.”

For good or ill, a style guide’s job is to prescribe usage, not describe it; we have linguistics departments to do that. This time it’s the Guardian that fudges it, though it manages to sneak in a bit of Hefferesque snark toward rail workers.

Is there a single good reason to maintain the distinction between “due to” and “owing to”? I can’t think of one. Getting rid of it is long overdue. The newspapers owe it to us.

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‘Lie back and enjoy it’: Greville Janner’s guide to rape


MONDAY, JANUARY 30, 2017

When Greville Janner died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease in December 2015, it marked the end of proceedings against him for child sex offences – though not of efforts to determine the truth of the allegations. The inquiries now under way are proving every bit as labyrinthine and controversial.

However they proceed – and without speculating on matters of guilt or innocence – we can say with certainty that the Labour peer held some fairly unpalatable views on sexual violence and consent.

We know this because he set them out himself, in an article published under a pseudonym shortly before he first entered Parliament. Writing as a barrister, he offered guidance on how women could avoid a sex attack.

Janner sums up his advice with a hackneyed rape gag:

If the worst comes to the worst, you could take the advice of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius: “If you are going to get raped, you might as well lie back and enjoy it!”

Certainly, if you resist with sufficient force, you may end up dead.

The advice is part of a double-page spread headlined “How not to get knifed, burgled, cheated or blackmailed”, which appeared on February 7, 1970 in the Mirror Magazine – the colour supplement that came tucked inside each Wednesday’s Daily Mirror.

Daily Mirror

Added colour: The short-lived Mirror Magazine (Pic: Daily Mirror)

It contains sections on how the reader could avoid misfortunes such as being “coshed, bottled, knifed or kneed”, “wrongfully charged with shoplifting” or “cheated by the repair man”. But the starkest advice deals with “How not to get murdered or raped”.

This begins with the observation that “The girl who manages not to get raped greatly reduces her chances of being murdered”. It goes on:

Women should realise that men are a thoroughly excitable lot. And when excited, they are liable to lose control. Girls who play sex games are usually quite capable of stopping within sight of the winning post. But men are often utterly incapable of self-control, once they’re on the home straight.

So the first rule if you seriously want to avoid being raped is to keep your companion in a reasonable frame of mind.

Unfortunately, murder and rape are often intertwined. The woman resists. The man loses his self-control. The women dies.

Rule one, then, is to avoid provocation. As the old riddle goes: “What’s the difference between a crook and a virgin?” “Once a crook, always a crook…”

It’s an unsettling piece, which would be howled out as a creepy example of victim-blaming if published today. So does it matter that instead, we’re dealing with a curio from more than 45 years ago? I’m sure many would argue that yes, it does make a difference. Whenever material like this comes to light, there’s a chorus of Those Were Different Times, You Have To See It In Context and Anyway That Stuff Was Just Locker-Room Humour.

Or perhaps robing-room humour. The notion that women are responsible for provoking sexual assault is more persistent than herpes in the murkier corners of the judiciary. Worse instances can be found a lot more recently than 1970, and delivered in open court rather than pseudonymously in the press.

Possibly the most notorious example came 20 years later. Summing up in an Old Bailey rape trial, Judge Raymond Dean told “the gentlemen of the jury” that “when a woman says no she doesn’t always mean it. Men can’t turn their emotions on and off like a tap, like some women can.”

Those remarks were widely condemned, and supplied the name and impetus for the original No Means No campaign; but there’s no shortage of similar cases that could be cited, before and since.

Today, it would be extremely difficult to find out whether Janner’s article prompted any kind of response at all. All that can be said is that his Confucius quip has a long history of causing offence – sometimes with career-ending consequences.

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It may seem odd that the feature hasn’t resurfaced before, given the controversies of the peer’s final years. But the short-lived Mirror Magazine is very difficult to track down in archives, and I’m told that not even the British Library has a full run. More importantly, the article was attributed not to Janner but to “barrister Ewan Mitchell”.

This was the pen name under which he wrote a vast amount of material in the Sixties and Seventies, including a long-running consumer column in the Daily Mail and many layperson’s legal manuals and how-to guides such as The Retailer’s Lawyer, All You Need to Know About the Law and Coping with Crime.

There is nothing sinister in his use of an assumed byline. At the time, barristers were totally prohibited by the Bar Council from mentioning their profession in published articles. This was viewed as soliciting business, and a grave breach of etiquette. Quintin Hogg, a future Lord Chancellor, was once disciplined simply for telling a reporter he was returning to private practice.

Indeed, Daily Mail diarist Nigel Dempster would stitch Janner himself up in 1976, running a snippet about how the MP had included the sacred “QC” postnominals on the promotional ballpoint pens that he gave out at his Westminster office – and mischievously alerting the Bar Council to the transgression by approaching them for comment.

Four months after the Mirror Magazine article, Janner was returned as a Member of Parliament in the 1970 General Election. He was selected by his constituency party upon the sudden withdrawal of his father, Sir Barnett Janner – something that supposedly saved Labour a bob or two on reprinting “Vote Janner” posters. The next year, he was appointed QC, a courtesy then extended to most barristers entering the Commons.

Somewhat cheekily, he used one of his “Ewan Mitchell” articles in 1972 to highlight a Private Member’s Bill about car parks, which was being introduced in Parliament by a certain “Mr Greville Janner, MP for Leicester North West”.

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Few of Janner’s constituents would have known of his parallel career as a prolific journalist and author, or been able to link him with the attitudes expressed in Mitchell’s writings. Whether many of them would have cared is one for the social historians.

Mirror Magazine

Feminine appeal: A pre-launch ad for the Mirror Magazine (Pic: Daily Mirror)

From a media-history point of view, however, it’s interesting that the article was carried in the Mirror Magazine. Launched in October 1969 as the first colour supplement of a tabloid newspaper, it was specifically intended to appeal to women – or at the least, it was pushed to potential advertisers on that basis.

The way it interpreted that brief is often bizarre. The Magazine contains a very male, Fleet Street take on what women’s-interest features ought to look like, from supercilious motoring articles (“Every woman likes to imagine herself at the wheel of an open roadster – men like women in sports cars”) to fashion pages with gratuitous full-colour frontal nudity, a full six months before Stephanie Rahn became the first proto-Page Three Girl in the Sun.

It’s a strange publication that is worth studying on several grounds, and one that I intend to revisit in more detail on this blog.

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Back to Janner. One further section of the feature warrants a quick mention. Sandwiched between “How not to get burgled” and “How not to have your car stolen” is a remarkable section on “How not to get taken for a ride by a prostitute”. And it’s that wacky old Chinese guy again:

Easy, said the experienced tart. Confucius, he say: ‘Fun first, pay later’.”

As a throwaway attempt to leaven the article with humour, it clanks like scrap iron. But it’s difficult to ignore a nagging sense that it is a clue to where its author’s sympathies – and prejudices – truly lie.

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Sometimes the bastards are right


FRIDAY, JANUARY 13, 2017

Spare a thought for the galley slaves at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. They’re now tasked with rooting through more than 140,000 public responses to the Leveson consultation, a prospect that must fill them with unbridled glee.

The evidence they collate will help ministers decide whether to implement the infamous Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, and whether the second part of the Leveson Inquiry should go ahead – unless, as some cynics suggest, the Government has made up its mind already.

My own response is in there somewhere, waiting to be sifted into the pile of noes (to Section 40, at least). It will be in the distinguished company of some of the worst people in the British press, and indeed in public life. They include apologists for the most egregious abuses of media power: phone hacking and the illegal tapping of personal data; the relentless bullying of public figures; the delivering of “monsterings” to people who can’t answer back; vile invasions of privacy.

A quick scour for others who have publicly come out against Section 40 delivers a list that includes Kelvin MacKenzie, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Littlejohn and the folk at Guido Fawkes. These are people who’d be about as welcome in many houses as a rabid bat at Midnight Mass.

The thing is, they’re right.

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Section 40 means the state registration of newspapers. It’s that simple: register your newspaper with a state-approved regulator – and crucially, observe its diktats about how you conduct your journalism – or face the prospect of getting put out of business by ruinous legal costs, whenever someone decided to sue.

The law’s supporters make the point that signing up would be voluntary. In fact, it would be voluntary only in the sense of Don Corleone’s offer that couldn’t be refused. I’m reminded of a tale from when my father did his National Service, and met conscripts from remote fishing communities in Scotland. They told him that attendance at their kirk was in no way compulsory. But if you weren’t seen there, your groceries would stop being delivered, your nets wouldn’t get mended and you wouldn’t be able to buy any petrol.

Over the past weeks, debate about Section 40 has descended into a dirty war of ad hominem attacks, with such spectacles as the tabloids slagging off Max Mosley and the press-reform mediocracy slating anyone who opposes Section 40 as either acting in bad faith or being in the pocket of the media moguls.

Forget all that. Forget about Impress, IPSO, Hacked Off, Mosley, Cathcart and Dacre. The composition and funding of the regulator is irrelevant. What matters is this: once newspapers have surrendered to the notion of having a body telling them how they should do their job, backed by the force of law, we do not have a fully independent press.

(Incidentally, a question for anyone arguing that we’ve never had one because of existing laws relating to defamation, malicious falsehood, privacy and contempt of court. Do you think adding to all that with state-backed kangaroo courts applicable only to the press would make it more or less free?)

Ah, but what about libel reform, or providing low-cost arbitration to those who have been wronged in print? Great – bring it on. It’s much needed. And that being so, why should it be confined to those outlets that are designated “relevant publishers” under Sir Brian’s proposals?

Suppose the press reformers’ dream scenario came to pass, and all the national papers joined a recognised regulator and resolved to accept its edicts. Then, if you thought you had been libelled by the Sun or the Daily Mail, you would have the option of a supposedly fair and inexpensive remedy. But if you were defamed by a politician, a banker, a think tank, a lone blogger (even one who was, say, the CEO of a multinational company) or a common-or-garden troll on Twitter, this door would be closed to you.

In fact, the apparently trivial part of the proposals that determines who would fall under their jurisdiction – sorting the “relevant” sheep from the presumably “irrelevant” goats – is key to why the whole thing is so wrong. Section 40 would play merry hell with an important principle governing the media that has been built up over many centuries.

It’s that journalists are treated no differently from any other citizens. They have no extra privileges, but neither should they have any additional statutory responsibilities, or potentially be subject to further penalties.

Many lay people, with considerably more honesty than Hacked Off and their associates, might shrug at all this and say: “Yeah, it is state regulation. Why the hell not? After what the tabloids have done, that’s exactly what we need. Why shouldn’t newspapers be regulated like any other industry – like barristers, or gas fitters?”

Journalism is different, because anyone can do it. You don’t have to be CORGI-registered or sit your Bar exams. In the eyes of the law, publication is the same thing whether it’s to a million people in a red-top tabloid, to a hundred parishioners in a church magazine, or to a score of passers-by on a lavatory wall. This is how it should be.

Today, with social media and online publication putting a potential audience of just about everyone within reach of just about anyone, the barriers to entry have never been lower. The folly of Section 40 is clear. Hacked Off and their allies are not only on the wrong side; they’re still fighting the last war.

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So how do we get the press to behave itself? That’s one for another time. But for God’s sake, not like this. However much the bastards might agree.

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Shazaam, the Buggles and a big black crow


FRIDAY, JANUARY 6, 2017

A delightfully batty story broke over Christmas. In the New Statesman, Amelia Tait wrote about how hundreds of online commentators are convinced they’ve seen a Nineties movie called Shazaam, starring the American comedian Sinbad as a hapless genie. But unless you believe in the “Mandela Effect” – and don’t look it up until you’re equipped for a long sortie down the rabbit-hole – there is simply no evidence that the film has ever existed.

The article got a lot of traction on social media, and has been taken up by Slate, Vox and Snopes, among others. And it’s a story that hit my resonant frequency, because I’ve lately been dealing with my very own Shazaam.

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In the early Eighties I was fascinated by a Japanese-language version of Video Killed the Radio Star, which for some reason was on heavy rotation at Swansea Sound, the local independent radio station.

This definitely wasn’t a delusion caused by too many thumps to the head playing British Bulldogs or a surfeit of McCowan’s Wham bars. Thirty-five years on, the bloody thing was still lodged in my head. I could clearly recall the stilted, ill-fitting lyrics of the chorus (“Dee-ta-mah-kee a-ta-gracoh-boh-nah”). The clincher was that my friend Justin – who now operates the excellent When Is Bins blog – remembered the track, too.

One problem: it didn’t and doesn’t exist. Having raked through every nook of the internet, neither of us could find a scrap of evidence for any such recording. There have been several Japanese cover versions of the Buggles’ song, but none of them matched what we remembered.

A couple of weeks ago, he cracked it. It wasn’t Japanese (although I’ll still swear that the announcer said it was). It was French. And as soon as that misconception was cleared up, YouTube delivered in spades.

The artist was a certain Ringo, a major star in the francophonie who sometimes performed under his full stage name of Ringo Willy Cat. (His wife, also part of the French pop aristocracy, went under her own mononym: Sheila. In 1980, she sold five million copies of the disco smash Spacer as part of Sheila & B. Devotion.)

In Ringo’s hands, Video Killed the Radio Star had become Qui est ce Grand Corbeau Noir (“Who’s this black raven?”). The phonetic babble I remembered from the chorus was actually “Dites-moi qui est ce grand corbeau noir”. As with many French cover versions, the lyrics bear scant resemblance to the original ones.

Fair enough. But why was it on Swansea Sound all the time? Again, I’m indebted to Justin for an answer. Until 1988, British radio stations were limited in the amount of mainstream recorded music they could play each week by the “needle time” agreement with the Musicians’ Union and Phonographic Performance Ltd.

In the case of BBC Radio, the shortfall could be made up by such things as house orchestras, Peel Sessions and material from its own internal record label, Radioplay. Cash-strapped Independent Local Radio stations – restricted to just nine hours of records a day – had to rely on more rough and ready solutions, such as making their jingles longer, ratcheting up the chat quotient, and using imported foreign recordings that were outside the MU/PPL agreement. Merci bien, Monsieur Willy Cat.

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Busting that particular Shazaam, and at least proving there was a kernel of truth inside the error, should be a satisfying feeling. But it isn’t – rather the opposite, in fact. And it’s not the only time over the past month that the internet has taken a hammer to what I’d thought were cast-iron memories.

Two more examples. The first involves another tune, James Galway’s theme to the Eighties children’s TV series Brendon Chase. Hearing it hotwires a nostalgia centre in my brain, because I connect it with the clunky old Sony Trinitron set at our family home in Gwent Gardens on which I watched it each week. I could still plot out the whole of that living room on squared paper. Yet according to IMDB, the series was first broadcast on New Year’s Eve, 1980 – long after we’d moved out and left the set behind. I never saw it on that telly.

The second is a more recent scene: I’m at my first job in journalism, at a London press agency, and talking about something I’ve found on a new website called the Huffington Post. Our editor, the late Jonathan Ashby, says: “You know what that is, don’t you?” and tells me that it’s the plaything of an American politico, Arianna Huffington.

I can readily conjure up his voice, unmistakeable to anyone who worked for him. But Wikipedia tells me that whoever was speaking to me, it wasn’t him – and it was at least five years later. The Huffington Post started up in May 2005. I left the agency in early 2000, and saw Ashby only once more after that, at a party that summer in Islington (an occasion memorable in retrospect for the appearance of his latest recruit, a young reporter named Amy Winehouse).

Those memories and many like them are so vivid that I would happily have stood up in a court and affirmed every small detail. This was what happened. Yes, I’m sure. I remember it. You know, I’m often impressing friends with my memory of schoolteachers, the Eighties, old adverts and crap like that. And then prosecuting counsel would pounce. But the song wasn’t Japanese, was it? You didn’t see that programme when you said, did you? You never had that conversation with your editor, did you? How can we believe anything you’ve told us?

Having an all-powerful debunking engine at everyone’s fingertips is enough to drive anyone paranoid, and journalists doubly so. You end up half-wondering whether you’d exist if there were no online record. Benjamin Franklin quipped that he didn’t get up until he’d checked the obituaries in the morning paper for his own name. Today, it’s quicker to use Google. And who reads newspapers any more?

Shazaam may not be real, but we’re never going to get that genie back into the bottle. And yet, for all the resources of the internet – some 1,131 million web pages at the moment, apparently – there is one question to which I still can’t find an answer. Who the hell was that black raven?

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Oh, what’s the bloody point?


SATURDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2016

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

And with the snippet of Kipling that’s thumped into the heads of trainee journalists across the English-speaking world, we’re off. Welcome to the Harlot of Wales, a new blog. My blog.

This first post is less of a manifesto than an apologia, or at the least an explanation. I don’t know what the world needs now: Google’s suggestions include “a hero”, “a return to sweetness and decency” and “a jetpack unicorn”, and only a knave would quibble with Bacharach and David’s “love, sweet love”. What I do know is that it hardly needs another blog to join the great unread. So why bother?

Here’s why and a quick word from my other five honest serving-men, too.

WHAT? The Harlot is intended to be a media blog, though I don’t doubt I’ll be using it as a brain-dump for anything else that skewers the interest. Its name is a nod to the famous quote from Stanley Baldwin a phrase pinched from his cousin Rudyard Kipling, as it turns out and to the Herald of Wales, a defunct weekly freesheet in Swansea. Its paper rounds were highly valued when I was growing up, as bundles could be offloaded to local chip shops in return for a free supper. No questions were asked.

WHY? This is the biggie. Aside from a swift experiment in the darkest Noughties, I’ve never blogged. Like most people who write for a living, I have an aversion to giving stuff away for free; and after cranking out words all day, I’ve never much fancied dredging up a few more for kicks and giggles.

I say, I say, I say: Do you like Kipling?

Today, maintaining a blog makes more sense. In the olden days, whenever I came across material that might form the basis of a feature, I’d duly put together a pitch and send it out to editors. Journalism etiquette has changed, and I might as well write a squib for the blog actually getting something out there and use that to gauge whether there’s any further mileage in the idea.

I’m also hoping that this will help to splice together the threads of my work life. As well as journalism and advertising, I now do doctoral research in media history. Every day, the file labelled “interesting but not relevant” gets a bit fatter, and I accumulate more stuff that I’m itching to share. This will be the place to do it.

Then there’s the question of social media, which rots away at my sanity. Time spent on ill-considered arguments, 180 characters at a time, may be better wasted on a more definitively ill-considered blog post.

WHEN? I’ll be posting as often (or as infrequently) as I have something to say, but I’ll aim to slap something up on here at least once a week.

HOW? The Harlot is not a professional operation, and funding isn’t an issue. Overheads are minimal: basically, my time and a nuke-proof hosting plan in Iceland.

WHERE? This comes to you from a small seaside town in South Wales. I’ve lived and worked here since leaving London in 2008, though I’ve never had any Welsh clients and seldom had the chance to write about the country. Yet another reason to operate this blog, perhaps.

WHO? See above. I’ve tarted my way up and down the metaphorical Fleet Street for around 20 years. I’ve been a staffer on three national newspapers, contributed on a freelance basis to most of the others, and written and edited for all sorts of magazines, books and websites. I also work on promotions and advertising for various clients, taking considerable pains to keep my editorial and commercial interests apart. (Is that ever entirely possible? I don’t know. Do your own bloody PhD.)

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