Tomorrow’s chip paper

I was very sad today to learn that the Northampton Chronicle & Echo is to cease publishing as a daily paper and go weekly, starting next month. I grew up with the Chron, and even though I left the town it is published in 28 years ago (heavens, that sounds like a long time when you write it down), I’ve enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with it ever since, always providing a quote or a contribution if asked, while the paper has always been very supportive of not just my commercial ventures, like books and gigs, but also the work I do with Thomas’s Fund, which of course is Northamptonshire-based.

When I was 15, my friend Paul’s Dad worked at the paper in the print room, and it was through this contact that Paul and I had some cartoons we’d drawn together published in the Chron. This was quite a thrill for a teenage boy. Indeed, we were photographed for the paper, and its rival the Mercury & Herald, when our cartoons landed us on the local news show Look East.

I guess it was my first taste of the media, and my first taste of nepotism, for which I remain inordinately grateful, and although my jobs in print have been in specialist publications, either music or film, my first job was at a newspaper, the NME, which gave me an early taste of the industry as it emerged from hot metal and adapted to new technologies. (Ironically, the NME was a weekly, with its frankly languid production schedule. Some of my colleagues, Steve Lamacq and Terry Staunton notable among them, had come from local papers, and I always considered that “proper” journalism. Putting out a daily paper!)

The story of the Chronicle & Echo, whose parent company Johnston Press is downsizing five of its local dailies (also: the Halifax Courier, Scarborough Evening News, Peterborough Evening Telegraph and the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph), is one for our times. People aren’t buying newspapers the way they once used to before the internet and 24-hour TV news, and as such, the industry is in steep decline. I’m just glad the Chron isn’t being closed altogether, as has already happened to numerous local titles since the crash. Newspapers are having to go digital to survive, but as we know, advertising revenues for websites are way down on the sort of money you can charge for print ads.

I subscribe to the Guardian, which saves me money, and also, I hope, supports the print edition. I need it to survive, as I don’t have an iPad, or an iPhone, or any kind of electronic reader, and I demand an old-fashioned papery edition, please. It’s wise to subscribe to any paper publication you “take” regularly, as this kind of security helps the publishers to plan ahead and creates a better “story” for advertisers. (I spent the first ten years of my career in print, and it rubs off.)

Here is a photo of myself and my friend Paul with Sarfraz Nawaz, Northampton cricket star. It was taken for the Chronicle & Echo by the Chronicle & Echo at the offices of the Chronicle & Echo, where a reception for the team was laid on in 1980 after they’d won the Benson & Hedges Cup, and Paul and I were invited to attend as we’d drawn caricatures of the whole lot of them. It’s an event I look back on fondly. The closest I came to a Jim’ll Fix It, although I hated the turquoise suit Mum made me wear.

Of course, I now follow the Chron on Twitter. Follow them on @ChronandEcho, if, like me, you find local news about Northampton vitally important. The rub, of course, is that the paper makes no money from being followed on Twitter. Their website is here, and at time of writing, the lead story is about the potential collapse of Northampton-based Aquascutum, another local icon. The bad news is everywhere. (Stop press: since typing that, the Chron has broken the story that Aquascutum has indeed gone into administration. I found this out via Twitter.)

Apparently, redundancies will be in “single figures” across the reduced newspapers, but it’s a sad day nonetheless. The end of an era. The Chronicle & Echo, like many local papers, was a daily feature of my life in Northampton. My Dad had this letter printed in it, in 1980. We thought it was the coolest thing in the world at the time. I don’t imagine the young people of today would give much of a toss. They publish things all the time on Facebook and other sites – who needs a newspaper to do it?

I live in London and my local paper, the loathsome London Evening Standard (currently a Boris Johnson party political broadcast in paper form, wrapped in constant propaganda about the London Olympics), is given away for free. It is, literally, worthless. I miss pressing my 50p into the grubby hand of a vendor on my commute home, and I don’t even like the paper. I feel that somebody should play the Last Post on a bugle.

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Man covered in blood

This is a picture of a man covered in blood. The man is in the process of being killed. He is in pain. He is about to die. Don’t worry, though, he is a fictional character, Sonny Corleone, played by the actor James Caan, being made to look as if he is covered in blood and being killed using special effects in a film, The Godfather. This week, specifically Friday, the front page of every major national newspaper bore a picture, or pictures, of a man covered in blood. The man was in the process of being killed. He was in pain. He was about to die. He was factual and not played by an actor; he was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, deposed leader of Libya, who was finally, and perhaps inevitably, captured and killed by rebel troops in his home city of Sirte on Thursday. The video footage from which the ubiquitous screen grabs were taken was shown on BBC News in the afternoon, over and over again. I don’t know if the footage was shown on Sky News, but I suspect it was.

This was a newsworthy image, from newsworthy footage, and its newsworthiness was never in doubt. Gaddafi was a dictator and he was killed by his own people (with a bit of bombing help from NATO) after 42 years in power. The uprising against him, and the sanctioned NATO assistance, tell us a lot about the so-called Arab Spring, which continues to rage across the Middle East and North Africa, and I’m not debating the need for the world media to cover this story in detail. It’s front page news in any year, in any decade, in any country, in any language.

What I question is the decision to run these gory pictures, in many cases blown up to large size for maximum impact. When I went to pick up my paper on Friday morning I was pretty offended by the sweep of bloody faces at my feet in the garage. Gaddafi is dead. Gaddafi was killed. Gaddafi was beaten to a pulp before being shot. We get the picture. But did we actually need to see the picture, without warning? I’m really only talking about the impact of the front cover images here, the ones that were on display in newsagents and garages up and down the land, where tiny children – and, hey, the adult squeamish – were likely to see them.

Clearly, none were more offensively framed than this one, but it’s no more or less than we’ve come to expect from The Sun:

I know, I know, the argument runs thus: this image of a bloodied, pre-death dictator was all over the internet within seconds of the footage being released by the National Transitional Council (they don’t sound much like a death squad with that name, do they?), so it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty for the mainstream news media not to follow suit and publish/run it. It is, after all, proof of a man’s death. And hey, it’s already out there. But there is still a difference between the internet, where many unpleasant images are just a click away from the eyes of users of all ages, and stacks of newspapers in a newsagent. It felt a bit like Snuff Day.

It felt to me as if it was OK to run pictures of this particular man in pain and about to die because he was a bad man. I’m not saying he wasn’t. But although the Sun went mad with vengeful bloodlust, it was no more exploitative than the other, more “respectable” papers really. (You had to admire the Express and Times, and I think the Star, who at least ran the picture small.) As Billy Bragg stated on Question Time the other week, human rights apply to all humans, and not exclusively to those humans that other humans have deemed worthy. Was there no dignity available for Gaddafi? Had he actually forfeited that human right? You might say yes. After all, when the body of Mussolini was hung on a meat hook from the roof of a petrol station in Milan in 1945, I expect these photos were sent around the world (albeit perhaps with a little less velocity).

As with my recent whine about animal rights, some of you may think me wasting my energy worrying about the dignity of a dead dictator. But it does coarsen our view of the world if men covered in blood, moments before death, are displayed across our newspaper covers. When I was at the NME, we debated long and hard about whether we could print the photograph of Richey Manic after his self-inflicted “4 REAL”. If memory serves, we decided against running it as the cover image, and only ran it in black and white on the news pages. It appeared, in full colour, inside the paper. But he was not dead. He was fine. This was 20 years ago, when competition with other media was less stiff, and newspapers were in a less of a panic about copy sales. I guess it took a brave newspaper editor not to run the bloody Gaddafi pic full splash on the front cover.

I’m not sure I always approve of the world I live in.

Comment is free

OK, here’s where I break my first New Year’s Resolution, but it is an illuminating case. I don’t get to write for the newspapers very often. But in the limbo between Christmas and New Year, the Observer called and asked me if I would write a 1,450-word profile of the actress Natalie Portman. It was New Year’s Eve. I said yes, and spent the rest of the day researching it, online, and writing it up. By the time I filed the copy, at around 6pm on Friday December 31 for publication on Sunday January 2, I was something of an expert on Ms Portman’s life and work. It was to tie in with the imminent release of the ballet thriller Black Swan, which is kicking up quite a lot of interest because Darren Aronofsky directed it, it has received seven Golden Globe nominations and it has a lesbian scene in.

Anyway, I was delighted to be asked to write something for a national newspaper. They don’t use non-contracted freelancers at the Guardian and Observer as a rule, so they must have been pretty short-handed to offer me the gig. It appeared online on the Saturday night, and in the paper the next morning. They cut some passages, and neatened it up, but it’s pretty much as I wrote it. A couple of attempted gags, but mostly fairly vanilla. It is, after all, a profile, and not an opinion piece. It’s not about me, it’s about her. You can, if you wish, read it here. It’s pretty benign stuff. Or so I thought.

By the end of Sunday, in the statutory comments section underneath my piece, I had, variously, been accused of “intellectual snobbery”, of being “embarrassingly in love” with my subject, of using “a stupid turn of phrase”, and of tacitly supporting Israel’s massacre of Palestinians because I failed to mention Portman’s association with Alan Dershowitz, the pro-Israeli lawyer who publicly defended Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in 2006, and her own failure to denounce the state of Israel, where she was born. After – stupidly – leaving a comment defending my decision not to write in detail about the Israel-Palestine question because that wasn’t the piece I was commissioned to write, I was duly accused of “recoiling behind the convenient and elastic idea of not being asked to engage into a political agenda.”

Hey, most of the comments – an astonishing 73 before they closed it – were harmless, either commending Portman for being a committed vegetarian or doing a degree at Harvard and potentially harming her own career in Hollywood; others discussed the merits of Black Swan. But even when writing a vanilla profile of a Hollywood actress, you still draw aggressive flak from certain quarters. (In other papers, profiles of this type are run without a writer’s credit.) To be honest, I can take or leave Natalie Portman. She’s alright. The new film looks interesting. I couldn’t give a toss whether or not she was in the rubbish Star Wars films. She comes across as a bit of a dullard in interview, and I’m certainly not that impressed that she did a degree. I know lots of people who’ve done degrees. They are not better than the people who didn’t. But I reiterate: it’s not about me, it’s about her. The big illustration is of her. That’s what a profile is. Had I interviewed her, and failed to ask her why she killed all those Palestinians, I would be journalistically deficient.

I have pretty firm views on Israel and Palestine. So, I’m sure, does Natalie Portman, having been born in Jerusalem, but these are not in the public domain, or at least, over the course of an afternoon at my laptop, I didn’t come across any. I know that she studied under Dershowitz, but didn’t think it central to a profile of her life and work. Maybe a profile of Dershowitz? You’d be amazed how quickly 1,450 words get eaten up. (One commenter castigated me for not mentioning Goya’s Ghosts, a film she was in. She’s been making films since the mid-90s; I did not mention them all.)

All this goes to show why you should not get sucked into a dialogue with anonymous posters on newspaper comments sections. I’ve done it before, and I had sworn not to do it 2011. It only took me two days to break that resolution! And there really is no reasoning with someone whose views on a volatile international political situation are so passionate they feel the need to weigh in after the profile of an actor.

Oh, and later on, I got this: “This obsequious gushing about how perfect Ms. Portman is in every way is simultaneously dull and distasteful; it’s rather like reading a lonely man’s intellectual masturbatory fantasy.”

Spare me. (Mind you, in my haste, I did say she was “christened”, which is rather unlikely for a Jew born in Israel. But the Observer subs didn’t pick it up either. It was New Year’s Eve!)