Thursday, 14 July 2011

We can't defend the News of the World - but we must defend press freedom

This has truly been a momentous week for the country as a whole as it has been forced to examine – possibly for the first time – the inner workings of the national press and its curious relationship with people in power.
The extraordinary events of the last 10 days, which culminated in the shock closure of the biggest-selling English language newspaper in the world, has had a profound effect on the whole country. And of course particularly on all of those of us who work in the media.
To hear that a 168-year-old institution like the News of the World was to close down forever was like hearing that as of tomorrow Manchester United or Heinz baked beans wouldn't exist. Some institutions just seemed too big to not always be with us.
But, then again, no institution could survive the onslaught the News of the World had last week.
Can I stress straight away that there is absolutely no defence for what some members of staff of the NOTW did a few years ago. It seems harsh that many of the very good journalists who worked on the paper until last Saturday lost their jobs because of the sins of their fathers but the public mood was so strong that the paper simply could not survive.
Some national journalists, I believe, got into the mode, a few years ago, of believing that the public wanted certain stories so badly that they didn't mind how they were sourced. These people conned themselves that the readers probably felt the end justified just about any means.
However, what we now know is that the public does have a distinct dividing line in their mind – and the News Of The World truly, and unforgivably, crossed it. It signed its own death warrant as a result.
In saying all that, however, I think it's only right that a word of caution is brought into this whole, dramatic debate.
In the midst of all the understandable anger that has been created over the past couple of weeks, we must be careful that we don't allow vigilantism to grow against the whole concept of journalism – and especially investigative journalism.
By the very nature of their jobs journalists sometimes have to use all their wit and wiles to dig away and uncover important stories, and if we allow the current hysteria to stop them doing so, then we could be on a very dangerous path indeed. One that could threaten the precious and prized notion of a free press.
As a powerful example, a couple of years ago a newspaper paid significant money to receive documents it shouldn't by rights have had, which led to a fundamental change in modern British life. I'm referring here not to a red top like the News of the World but to the paper of the establishment – The Daily Telegraph.
It took the enormous risk of paying for material from a 'mole' that revealed the true abuse of expenses by our elected Members of Parliament.
Was it legitimate for the paper to have the files it had? I can't answer that – but what I can say is the Telegraph did an enormous service to the public as a whole by exposing this story.
And, to be fair to the New of the World, (not a phrase you've seen much this week), its final edition spoke of the 250 people who are currently behind bars because of some of the legitimate exposés it did.
Journalism may never be the same again and although for local papers like us nothing has changed – we have always adhered to the strictest legal and moral codes – we must be vigilant that politicians do not use this as the opportunity many have long craved to reduce the freedom of our press to uncover wrongdoing and wrongdoers.
The News of the World did a terrible thing and has paid the ultimate price.
But it is vital that investigative journalism is not another victim of their reckless, criminal activity.
So let us use this opportunity to have a better, cleaner, more honest press – but not one whose freedom is undermined.
A free press is one of the most visible proofs that we live in a free society. We must fight for it.
Sam Holliday

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Not all newspapers should be in the dock . . .

This is the leader I did for the Bath Chronicle on July 12 - before we knew the News Of The World was to close

This has not been an easy week for anyone involved in newspapers or the written press.

The terrible revelations about the extent of the phone hacking carried out by the News of The World has left all of us in the press feeling a sort of collective guilt.

Of course we, at the Chronicle may be a million miles away from the 'red-tops' in terms of the way we approach news - and indeed the way we get our stories - but we are all part of the same profession.

As such, when one of us lets the side down we know our industry as a whole can start to look very bad in the eyes of the public.

But, just as one rogue policeman doesn't mean a whole police force is corrupt or one bad teacher means an entire school has failed, it feels only fair, as the attacks on our profession mount, to at least ask that people don't tar all newspapers with the same brush.

As Alaistair Campbell pointed out on the radio on Tuesday night Britain has some of the best and the worst press in the world and we hope that local papers such as the Chronicle are seen very much in the former category due to our absolute commitment to our communities.

Our hopes for this were raised this week by a Newspaper Society survey which showed that the local press remains the most trusted of all media - ahead of television and well ahead of our national colleagues. We have earned this position, we believe, by trying to provide an independent news service week in, week out that fully reflects and celebrates local life.

While national newspapers have political or social biases, we have none - our only bias is towards our readers and their concerns. We believe our papers are built on the basis of mutual respect and trust between ourselves and our readers.

However, we are not complacent and we are always keen to hear from you about how we can improve because we are conscious of the fact that you set us very high standards.

It is our privilege to try and match your standards. Why? Because this is your newspaper.

School Proms? Nah, they'll never catch on . ..

As with every parent of teenage children these days I have had to become acquainted in recent years with something that seemed totally alien to my own school experience - the prom.

When I was growing up the prom was just some impossibly glamorous American concept where impossibly glamorous young Americans attended a glittering event which was a million miles away from the end of school disco some of us can vaguely remember.

As such when the proms first started to appear in this country I think, like probably a lot of people, I was somewhat cynical about them. And I was pretty adamant that they would be just a passing fad.

But how wrong I was.

Over the past couple of years I have seen my own children go to proms at the end of their fifth form and sixth form (or in 'new money' Years 11 and 13) and we are all now surely familiar with the sight of hundreds of local teenagers dressing up for these big nights out.

My two children certainly approached their proms somewhat differently. My daughter planned hers seemingly months ahead and everything had to be right - the dress, the hair, the method of arrival. It was like a military operation - which seems quite apt as people have been known to turn up to these things in tanks (where on earth did they find them)?

By way of a comparison, my son informed me at the end of last week that he had a Year 13 prom he was going to - and it was in 48 hours. There then followed a dramatic scramble in Bath and beyond to try and find a suit for him. You would think this wouldn't be so hard but it seems every school in Bath and Wiltshire is having proms at the moment and every cheap and cheerful suit was already snapped up by sensible people who probably gave their parents more than a day's notice.

Eventually I did find one - literally the last one in the shop hiding behind many bigger sizes - and my son was suitably suited and booted and ready for his prom night.

The fact that it took place on what I ironically would call a school night means I had a bleary-eyed trip to work the following day after picking him up late but I didn't mind because I know he had a great time. And considering the last time we had been out together he had been practically rolling in Glastonbury mud, he didn't half look smart.

Of course, as I eluded to earlier, this is all light years away from when I hung up my chalk board.

I do have that vague memory of that end of school disco but it is so vague it may just be an implanted memory because it would be sad to admit my school days had ended in a whimper rather than a bang.

To be fair though, discos when you are 16 or 18 were pretty stressful affairs. If I was offered the top prize in this week's Euro millions if I revisited the agonising, humiliating moments of the 'last dance at a teenage disco', I would seriously have to think about it. What an ordeal of tension and unfulfilled ambition that could be!

I dare say that similar agonies happened at all our local proms this week but at least most young people faced them after a good meal and in a nice dress or suit.

And life always seems better after being in a tank.

Glastonbury was muddy marvellous

Whenever anyone goes on holiday - even if it is to the most culturally exciting place - the first question most people are asked on their return is: "so what was the weather like?"

You may have just seen all the Seven Wonders of the World but to some of your friends and colleagues this will matter far less than the deepness of your tan.

And so it is with Glastonbury.

It may be the world's biggest music festival and it may create a city built on sound for a whole weekend but for many people who go , it is the weather conditions - and most particularly that mud - that people really want to talk to them about afterwards.

And yes I also want to talk here about those weather conditions. And that is because I think the extremes that I saw at the weekend spoke volumes about Glastonbury - but also volumes about Britain as a whole.

And all of it good.

Those playfully extreme conditions meant that on Friday we were virtually sinking into the muddy mire but by Sunday it was a case of how could we avoid getting burnt to a crisp.

The best thing of all from that perspective is that it meant all the stall holders selling their wares at the event benefited - Mr Wellie man was in his element on Friday and much of Saturday but by Sunday Mr Sunglasses and Miss Sun Cream had smiles on their faces too as the conditions changed more dramatically than the music on the ever eclectic stages.

Having only been to Glastonbury twice, I had never experienced the serious mud before and I had privately thought it was all a bit exaggerated. It is not. It felt at times as though you were walking through quicksand and for every one solid(ish) step forward, there were two or three where you risked life, limb and wellie by plunging your foot on to a potentially watery grave.

And yet, despite the fact that this was all hard work, nobody moaned. We may all have been wet, muddy and a bit miserable at times, but the general spirit and almost gallows humour was a joy to behold. In true Glastonbury (and British) style the feeling was we had come here to party - we were all-in-it-together and we might as well just enjoy it.

It was quite inspiring to see.

And that all-in-it-together concept really was true. I was lucky enough to spend some time around the hospitality area but Glastonbury doesn't pander to anyone and I guarantee the mud in and around that area was as thick and as unappetising as anywhere else. I expect you would have to be Bono or Beyonce to have avoided all this - for 200,000 of the rest of us it was a genuine communal experience.

By the time the sun finally did emerge - and its first appearance on Saturday was greeted with roars, most of the bands would have been happy with - it felt as though a collective cloud had literally been lifted off us and from then on it was just fun in the sun.

So, yes it was all a big mud bath and it did rain far too much.

But it was still muddy marvellous.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Handing out my 'Glasto's

Long after the mud stains have disappeared from the clothes, tents and bodies of nearly 200,000 Glastonbury revellers, it is the quality of the music that will give people the best barometer of how good this year's fun in the (sometimes) sun really was.

There is no doubt that those bizarre weather conditions will still be fresh in the mind of the many people back in their homes and offices this week after their trek to Pilton, but at the end of the day it's the music that counts.

So, how good was it?

To answer that, I hereby present the Bath Chronicle 'Glastos' – my awards for the good, the bad and I suppose the muddy of the whole weekend …

Best performance: It has to be the queen of r 'n' b, Beyonce. The beauty of Glastonbury is that you go and see acts you would never dream of buying tickets for but something compelled me to watch Beyonce even though she's a million miles away from my own musical taste.
And I'm so glad I did.
She looked and sounded stunning and her stage show, her superb all-female band and just the general feel and quality of her performance put her in a difference league to everything else over the weekend.
And, despite the fact that she's been showered with awards and played many, many high profile concerts/events, there was a real sincerity about the way she talked about how happy she was to be there. She made you believe in her and her music. It was some show.

Best song: Fix You by Coldplay. This was an incredibly moving and beautifully staged moment at the end of Coldplay's stylish set where they had dared to play new, first-time material alongside the obvious crowd pleasers. Fix You is an amazingly emotional song and Chris Martin rung every note of passion out of it in a towering performance of the song. The delicious Viva La Vida wasn't far behind either. People were still collectively singing that an hour after Coldplay had left the arena which says it all.

The great but maybe not so great as expected award: U2. I'd secretly believed that U2 would absolutely take the festival by storm and my expectations for them were probably, therefore, unrealistically high.
They certainly turned in a strong and powerful set and it was wonderful to hear a classic old track like Out Of Control in among the hits but maybe because the rain was driving down throughout their performance and the mud was rising to the top of the wellies, the audience just didn't react in quite the ecstatic way I was expecting. And I think U2 sensed that.
It was a great show, don't get me wrong, but I had privately thought U2 would simply rip the place apart and no-one would be talking about any other set. It didn't quite work out that way sadly.

Unexpected treat: I would give this to a band called Two Door Cinema Club. They may have one of the silliest names in music but like many people I was totally wowed by their performance early on Friday morning on The Pyramid Stage. They were simply excellent.

Worst kept secret: Every year two special 'secret' guests appear on The Park Stage which is something of a hike from the main Pyramid arena. It is, therefore, rather a gamble about whether it's worth it. This year the 'secret' performance was announced on NME and everywhere else a few hours before and because it was Radiohead, thousands of people (like me) decided to walk through a sea of mud to see them.
I say 'see them' but the truth is the vast majority of us didn't get to do so because so many people wanted to see the, ahem, secret' show. Not only did I not see them but I couldn't hear them either when I eventually got there because the sound was so terrible. Not fun.

Worst rumour: All day on Sunday people were saying that Beyonce would be joined on stage by everyone from Jay-Z and Kanye West to Destiny's Child and President Obama. In the end none of it was true – the only one to appear somewhat pointlessly was Tricky. Distinctly under-whelming.
The 'has he really played that many gigs?' award: BB King. According to the literature, BB – who played a lovely, luxurious Friday afternoon set, has played 15,000 gigs in his career. He may be older than God but I still think that might be something of an exaggeration because even if he had played a concert every single day for the past 40 years, it still wouldn't be enough. Of course if you have seen all 15,000, then I'd be delighted to hear from you….

Nicest tribute: The normally excellent Gaslight Anthem, who were somewhat hampered by a poor sound on Saturday lunchtime, still deserve major credit for coming on stage to the sax solo from the Springsteen song Jungleland. This was the finest recorded moment by Clarence Clemons who sadly lost his life last week. Poignant.

Best Mel Brooks lookalike award: Paul Simon. After a somewhat mixed set – his African-inspired tunes were certainly better than some of his other rather too laid-back solo work – the thing I will remember most about seeing Mr Simon is how much he now looks like the man behind Blazing Saddles. Are they perhaps related?

Best Fight: The beauty of Glastonbury is even with that many people in the crowd, signs of aggression are as rare as unicorns. And yet who needs crowd trouble when you have Plan B? They finished their punchy set with a punchy finale as they staged a mock fight which was a bit livelier than it might have been. Arrest those men, GreenPolice!

Most irritatingly overused name award: Alan. People always lose each other at Glastonbury and you can often hear people shouting for their friends.
Every time someone did this at the weekend it was hijacked by everyone else shouting for Alan, which after initially being very funny, after the 50th time, made you want to smack the first Alan you met.

So, there you have it, my first 'Glastos' to celebrate a great Glasto. It was an event I thoroughly enjoyed not least because, for once, I think all three headliners deserved their elevated slots. After this tickets for the next Glastonbury (2013) will be as eagerly sought after as Alan.
Sam Holliday