Raine and Snow

•December 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

And this our life exempt from public haunt

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,        

Sermons in stones and good in everything.

– from, William Shakespeare, As You Like It

In response both to this post  titled The Enemy of Contemplation (about overcrowded “blockbuster” exhibitions) and to the onset of the British winter, I’d like to make a case for snow as the Aid to Contemplation.

In the title poem of his first collection in a decade, How Snow Falls (published last week, with the season’s first snow), Craig Raine refers to “this snow, this transfiguration”. The poem begins like this: “Like the unshaven prickle / of a sharpened razor, / this new coldness in the air”; but, as it continues, it is newness – or “transfiguration” – not coldness that comes to the fore.

Few things have the ability to make us see differently – sometimes, snow is one of them. Earthy fields, under thick snow, take on a different character. New-born yet eternal, they don’t fully belong to modern life. The scene in Monet’s 1875 “Snow Scene at Argenteuil” doesn’t look much different from those around rural Britain right now, its telling details snowed-out.

Monet, Snow Scene at Argenteuil, 1875

Monet, 'Snow Scene at Argenteuil' (1875)

On a recent visit to Edinburgh, I was struck by the quietness of the place. City sounds were muted by drifts of snow – which, in some place, had levelled-out the pavement and road. Unusable cars lined the main streets, some tyre-deep in snow; pedestrians slipped about, clinging to railings and each other. And, each morning, the whiteness was startling.

Art deals in modulation, narrative, transfiguration. It is newness that makes us consider what we had, and have. What you can’t get in Tate Modern on a busy Sunday afternoon, you might find up a snow-capped peak… So, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind.”


This post was originally published at ft.com/arts-extra, for which I work as an editor.

‘How Snow Falls’ by Craig Raine, Atlantic Books £14.99.

 How Snow Falls

Like the unshaven prickle 

of a sharpened razor,

this new coldness in the air, 

the pang

of something intangible. 

Filling our eyes,

the sinusitis of perfume 

without the perfume.

And then love’s vertigo, 

love’s exactitude,

this snow, this transfiguration

we never quite get over.

The Future of Books

•August 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

“Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn.”

So said Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale – and James Shapiro in a London Review of Books panel discussion on The Future of Books.

“A book” is both an object and a medium, and as the way we read changes, that distinction becomes more apparent. Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where this discussion took place last week, opens his programme blurb “It is my privilege to welcome you to the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2010” and closes “On behalf of the team I am proud to welcome you to the world’s greatest festival of ideas.” Notice the shift from actual to abstract; “Book” becomes “ideas” –  just as the “book” in “e-book” is the text, not the object.

So are physical books “things dying”? Amazon‘s recent announcement that its e-book sales have outstripped hardback sales suggests so. Yet, as another panelist, LRB publisher Nicholas Spice, was keen to point out, the LRB‘s circulation is up on last year, as are profits at Penguin.

The stats are, as ever, contradictory. What’s harder to contest is that more and more people are turning from print to electronic media for news, information and – as Google begin their mission to digitise the world’s books – for literature. If more people read, say, the Guardian online than in newspaper form, then, in a sense, the field has been levelled.  Guardian.co.uk has blogs: so do mums, ex-pats and foodies, each with their own niche (cf. my posts on “citizen journalism” and online communities). That’s why people talk about the internet being “democratic”.

But this worries Andrew O’Hagan, novelist and critic also on the panel. The process some call “democratisation” – and O’Hagan calls “amateurisation” – is lowering editorial standards, he argues. It works like this: the literary criticism of non-professionals is less well written and researched than that of professionals; readers get used to it and lower their expectations; professional critics are priced out of their jobs. Perhaps more worrying is O’Hagan’s argument that we readers aren’t just putting up with bad writing, but, by relying on sites like Wikipedia for information, “losing our interest in the provenance of fact.”

Other panelists, too, had evidence of “amateurisation” at work. Shapiro, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and Professor of English at Columbia University, used to teach a book reviewing course that has since been scrapped due to lack of demand. Nowadays, he said, most graduates of the course email him asking for references for their law school applications – not for writing tips. (See the article Death of the Book Review for more.)


So, people are less willing to pay for journalism than they used to be, turning instead to the internet for the free version. But are do they feel the same about books? Is a digital book preferable to a smelly old paperback?

I’m inclined to think e-books won’t replace the physical ones for at least a couple of generations. And that publishers will survive the slow shift from old to new, as long as people are willing to pay for the new. (Those who will suffer are independent bookshops and public libraries.)

I imagine I will see the book newborn and repackaged many times in my life. But I am certain I will never see its death – for a book is not what sits on a bookshelf, but a distillation of life.

Olafur Eliasson: Innen Stadt Außen

•August 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The first room of Olafur Eiasson’s solo exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, contains two works: “Reality Compass” (2010), a delicate kinetic sculpture suspended from the ceiling, and “Berliner Bürgersteig” (2010), is a series of thick, rough slabs of granite once part of a Berlin pavement.

When I entered the room a small blonde boy was stamping up and down the slabs, gleefully flouting all the rules of gallery behaviour he’d been taught. But he was not, in fact, doing anything wrong. Eliasson’s work encourages us to engage with it – and sometimes that means stamping on it.

I didn’t realise “Reality Compass” was turning slowly until I stopped and watched it for a while: as long as I was moving faster than it, its movement was imperceptible. It was asking me to slow down. To take my time here.

So it was slowly and carefully that I trod the “Berliner Bürgersteig” (below) and entered the second room. It felt strange, like a performance. Art in a gallery often seems conscious of its being in a gallery (kind of like T.S. Eliot’s flowers that have “the look of flowers that are looked at”) but Eliasson’s work, I think, goes further by relying upon us not just to observe it but to realise its potential. It is this collaboration between visitor and object that makes it “art”.

The reflective surface visible through the doorways above is “Mercury window” (2010), a large bumpy mirror in which the world appears bitty and unstable. Eliasson uses the word “window” ironically – as a reference, I think, to the Renaissance notion of a picture as a window into a space of the same proportions as the real world. “Mercury window” is neither a window nor a mirror – at least not a mirror like Anish Kapoor’s mirrors, perfectly smooth, coolly clever. My reflection fragmented and jumped about when I stood before “Mercury window”; its effect was more troubling than that of Kapoor’s.

Mirrors, reflections and illusions feature prominently in this exhibition – which is unsurprising given Eliasson’s concern with the relationship between art and its consumers. The exhibition’s centrepiece is “Mikroskop” (2010), a large chamber made of mirrors supported by scaffolding the outside. It was dark outside the chamber and almost blindingly light inside. It was also hard to make out the edges of the mirrors, where reflected became reflection. The mirror-walls shook as people passed through, and my reflection wobbled like water. This is how it feels in a fish tank, I thought.

Next I came to “The curious museum” (2010), a window through which visitors appeared to be watching people in the next door building who were, in turn, watching them. The scene was strangely calm.

Then I spotted a familiar face among the next door faces: my own. Ah-ha! There was no next door, only a huge well-positioned mirror – and we were looking at ourselves.


Eliasson’s interest in visitor-artwork interaction doesn’t stop at mirrors: there is shadow-play, too. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition was “Your uncertain shadow” (2010), which spans three rooms, each empty except for a light/projector.

People walked across the rooms casting multiple shadows, swinging their arms and legs, dancing or standing still making bird’s wings with their hands. Their shadows expanded and contracted beautifully as they moved towards or away from the projectors. We took turns to watch each other’s silent performances; it felt irreverent and silly but also like something we should respect. No one left before we had each had our turn in the light.


After three rooms filled only with shadows came the larger “Model room” (2003), its vast table loaded with paper sculptures, plastic geometric structures, towers and helix-forms. Amid these were small screens showing short films, some elliptical and collage-like, others documenting the making of the surrounding sculptures. There were neon lamps on the table and so many shadows it was hard to trace their origin. Low globe-shaped lamps and mobiles hung close together from the ceiling, like the model of some alternative solar system.

It felt like entering the workshop – or even the mind – of some eccentric inventor. Adults stood like children marvelling at the ordered chaos before them; children dashed about excitedly, reporting back with new sightings. There seemed an infinite amount to be discovered if – as in the first room – we stopped and looked closely.

In the next room was the film that gave this diverse exhibition its name, “Innen Stadt Außen”, or “Inner City Out”. A white van drives through wintry Berlin with a large mirror fixed to its side, covering all but the driver’s cabin. It reflects bare trees, traffic, cold concrete and people wrapped up against the chill. The frame is often split between what is in front of the camera and what is reflected in the mirror, making it hard to tell what’s “real”. After a few minutes I began to notice that the reflection was slightly more wobbly. (You can watch the video here.)


This exhibition seemed to be about our relationship with an environment: about how we perceive it, behave in it and place ourselves within it – be it a gallery room or a city. I realise this is a very subjective interpretation (I know little about Eliasson’s influences or career). It is a conclusion reached, at least partly, by way of my preoccupations at the time. I visited the exhibition on the last of my seven days in Berlin; by then I had a “feel” for the city, having shunned tourist sites in favour of bicycling around different neighbourhoods. But I also felt very much an outsider.

When I go to a new place I often find myself considering the idea of “rootedness”. Is it necessary to “put down roots”? I think so. I never belonged in India, as much as I wanted to, because I couldn’t speak the language and that put so much out of reach. There is a lot I’d like to see and learn, but first I must learn to stay in one place. I have spent the past year moving between different houses in London, between spare rooms and sub-let rooms, and now I’d like to inhabit one awhile. A room of one’s own… I think Virginia Woolf was onto something.

Olafur Eliasson, “The weather project” (2003), Tate modern, London

Francis Alys and futility as art

•July 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

At Prussia Cove

•May 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

 It’s nice when something you’re looking forward to comes sooner than you expected. I thought I’d have to wait until September to see Prussia Cove again (see previous post), but then I received an invitation to Johanna and Julian’s Whitsun Wedding.

It was a sunlit Saturday, like in the poem, when we pulled up outside the house, four of us in an old Mercedes. It had been a hot and clammy morning in London, but the sea made London seem unimaginably far away. It looked wild and inviting.


Johanna and Julian are both German and live in Berlin, but they met at an IMS session at Prussia Cove. He is a cellist, she a poet. They had invited German and English friends to stay in the house and surrounding cottages, and the wedding service took place in a mixture of both languages.

I’ve been to a lot of weddings in my 23 years (I used to work at them in the holidays) and this was far the nicest. All three days were hot and clear and the mood was mellow. Those of us who had volunteered at chamber music weeks held at Prussia Cove were back in the kitchen feeding the wedding guests – but it didn’t feel much like work, chopping vegetables in the sun then going swimming in the sea “for a break”. One of the best things about it was there were no strangers: there was no-one there who didn’t want to be there. 

Here are some pictures of food and eating…



This is one of the Indian food stalls we set up on the rocks the evening before the wedding. (Angus the eccentric and wonderful chef, is currently making a documentary about the street food of Calcutta. Note the leaf-plates!)


But, for me, the best part of the wedding was not the delicious food, the wild flowers in tin cans nor Julian’s playing the first Bach Cello Suite during the service. The best part was the first dance. The tables were pushed to the sides, the Cornish folk band struck up and the Johanna and Julian took to the floor. They danced without inhibition, stomping to the beat and turning each other fast. They were concentrating hard – concentrating on each other’s bodies and the music, not on any practiced steps. When Caspar, the best man, saw me watching them he leant over. “The first time I saw those two dance,” he said, “I knew they’d get married.”


As I wrote before, something about being in Prussia Cove makes me recall lines from literature. Seeing the bride and groom dance like that made me think of Mr Emerson, in E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View, when he tells the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch,

“When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love – Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made.”

The Good-Morrow

•April 30, 2010 • 1 Comment

I spent the middle week of this month in a house on the edge of a cliff. I decided to take a week off work to volunteer at the International Musicians Seminar (IMS) at Prussia Cove, near Penzance, Cornwall. And how much a week can do!


IMS hosts two annual sessions in this great stone house overlooking the sea. In April, talented young musicians take master classes with maestri – Andras Schiff and Steven Isserlis among them – in one of two 10-day programmes. Some of the students come as soloists, others in quartets or trios. In September, the exceptional students are invited back to play chamber music with the maestri and older professionals; some of them then tour Britain, finishing up at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Music is taken seriously at Prussia Cove. IMS was set up in 1972 by the  Hungarian violinist Sándor Végh, who saw that this  beautiful, remote place could serve as both a retreat and an inspiration for musicians. The atmosphere, particularly in April, is intense: I soon learnt that most of the students had been playing their chosen instruments since the age of four and had grown up listening to the maestri playing, be it on the radio from Melbourne or in concert halls in New York.


As a “helper”, I found Prussia Cove a place of intensity and great freedom. I felt focussed – writing, reading, even thinking more than usual – yet unpressurized. Perhaps being surrounded by music-making stimulated my own version of creativity.  Every room became a practice room, and I liked to walk slowly down the long, cool corridors of the house hearing different pieces of music drift through each door. It gave me the strange sensation that  I was hearing my various (and often contradictory) thoughts.


The masterclasses are “open” classes – somwhere between rehearsals and recitals. Students come to listen to the maestri imparting wise words; helpers wander in with novels and mugs of coffee after shifts in the kitchen ; and IMS supporters pay a little to come and discover the “next big thing”.

I had never heard music of that standard played in such informal settings, and it was a revelation. In one particular cello lesson I sat in on, the maestro stopped the student’s playing at various points to ask her, for example, what the “colour” of the last phrase had been and where the tensions lay. They discussed which emotions should inhabit which bits of the score, and how all this could be achieved with different lengths of bow, kinds of pressure, types vibrato etc. It was  a fascinating mix of technical and psychological.

To  musicians it will seem obvious, but I learnt at Prussia Cove that playing a piece of music is like reading a script. That it is about an imagined relationship between composer and musician, and playwright and actor –  a meeting of intention and interpretation.


Between helping in the kitchen, listening to classes and walking the clifftops with new friends, I set about preparing a lesson on John Donne (I do one-on-one A-Level tutoring in the evenings). I have always believed that my reading of a poem changes depending on where I am or who reads it to me. This was especially true of that week and Donne’s “The Good-Morrow”: the more I read it the more it seemed to me to be about Prussia Cove.

“The Good-Morrow”

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?

But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?

Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?

’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.

If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.


And now good-morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room an everywhere.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.


My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres,

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.


Prussia Cove might be Donne’s “little room” – one that was both “an everywhere” and different from anywhere else. When I was there, I had no mobile reception and no contact with anyone outside that small natural harbour; for one week, it was as though nothing else existed.  Perhaps that made Prussia Cove unreal; yet there everything seemed somehow more real and more meaningful – and normal life “but a dream” of it.

When I got back to London, I opened an email from my father about Prussia Cove. “That place, the sea, the wind, the birds, the music, the cheesepie,” he wrote, “what a heavenly mix an match. The word ‘fulfill’ might have been coined in that half walled garden.”

I think he puts it perfectly.

More on political art

•March 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

blogged recently about the effectiveness of political art – thoughts that were stirred by the Richard Hamilton exhibition currently at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Here are some more musings…

The problem with “protest art” is that its power often lessens not only as news reels roll on but as artistic tastes change. Hamilton has been called the “father of Pop Art”: he was doing it in the early 1950s ten years before Warhol started doing it in America. This is one of his best-known Pop Art works:

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956)

But Pop Art has saturated urban life – or my perception of it, at least – for so many years now that it is near powerless. I felt a little bit irritated but mainly bored going round the Tate Modern’s Pop Life exhibition last autumn: I’ve simply had enough of it.

I was surprised, then, to find Hamilton’s 1960-70s Swingeing London series, now on show in the Serpentine Gallery, so arresting still. The paintings depict Mick Jagger and Hamilton’s art dealer Robert Fraser handcuffed together in the back of a police car after a drugs raid, and he made them from a photograph of the pair taken by a journalist on the scene.

The “repeated image” has since been done to death (just think of those Warhol spin-offs).  But somehow in Swingeing London it works.

Swingeing London 67 (1968)

[working drawing; ink and gouache on photo]

Swingeing London 67 (1968-9)

[screenprint on canvas, acrylic and collage]

Swingeing London III (1972)

[screenprint and collage]

A strong sweet smell of incense (a) (1972)


Though Hamilton says things like “the picture created itself”, he does a lot with the graphic he inherits. In Swingeing London bits of basic information were missing: Jagger’s hand held up to shield his face had been whitened out in the original, hastily-snapped photograph, so when making the painting Hamilton had to go back to his sketchbook and draw a friend’s hand, from life.

This slow abstraction of an image – which occurs when its versions are seen in succession – points to the slippery unreliability of a story told through the media. (One could, I imagine, achieve a fast abstraction – a speeded-up, flick-book mutation – by running the length of the Serpentine’s West gallery, head turned 90-degrees towards the row of Swingeing Londons on the wall. But that would not be considered good gallery behaviour.)


Hamilton’s friend, the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp said that a work of art will change very rapidly. It will begin to look different (the fading of pigment, or weathering of a sculpture) and to be consumed and interpreted differently.

Interestingly, the works in Modern Moral Matters that make comment on this process are the ones that retain most power. By addressing very the transmission and reception of a message (textual and graphic), these works transcend the narrow, best-before realm of much political art.

I doubt that Hamilton’s bland portrait of Tony Blair, Shock and Awe, made 2007-08, will stir the imaginations of viewers in 50 years time in the same way as his 1988-90 series of depictions of an anonymous Orangeman might.

The latter are simply more interesting to look at.

Shock and Awe (2007-8)

[Hewlett-Packard inkjet print on HP Premium canvas]


The Apprentice Boy (1988)

[Dye transfer]

The subject (1988-90)

[oil on canvas]

The Orangeman (1990)

[Offset lithograph in 5 colours, with hand-applied Humbrol enamel]

On political art

•March 19, 2010 • 2 Comments

Modern Moral Matters is an exhibition of ‘protest art’ by the British artist Richard Hamilton at the pretty Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. At the press conference, the artist, 88, talked about his work and about the relationship between politics and visual art.

Most members of the Independent Group – the artistic movement to which Hamilton belonged in the 1950s – thought it fashionable to be apolitical, aloof. Not Hamilton. His art was then, and remains, politically engaged; his sympathies left-leaning.

This small exhibition spanning five decades of his career covers  some familiar territory – Ireland and Iraq, Thatcher and Blair – as well as some that is lesser known.

The idea for his earliest protest painting was conceived in 1962  after Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the Labour Party (which was in opposition at the time), sanctioned Britain’s use of nuclear weapons, saying he didn’t want the country to enter the conference chambers of the world “naked”.

Hamilton describes his Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964) as his first “satirical picture”. In an essay on the painting, he writes, “In putting to myself the question ‘what angers you most now?’ I found that the answer was Hugh Gaitskell.”

He felt betrayed by Gaitskell, and turned his anger into creative energy. “A satirical painting should be topical and passionate,” he wrote, “I imagined the picture as one to be violently executed, it should be big, the paint aggressive, the meaning awfully clear.”

But art that refers to current affairs is often limited by that very current-ness: it can lower the art’s semantic life expectancy. Hugh Gaitskell now sits outside the span of many people’s political consciousness, so the painting’s immediate impact is diminished.

For how long is Pop art Pop art once its subject has left the realm of popular consciousness?

Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964)


Last week, Hamilton insisted that protest art was ‘worthwhile’ – which implies that, on some level, it works.

As I walked around the gallery after he had spoken, I wondered whether his art constitutes (or has ever constituted) an active protest – that is to say, a call for change, justice or justification – or rather whether it is simply a series of oblique responses to situations?

“Modern Moral Matters” is a title borrowed from the Eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth, famous for his depictions of  public and private corruption. I saw Hogarth’s The Election series at the Tate’s exhibition in 2007. This is the second of the series:

Canvassing for Votes (1754)

Perhaps Hamilton is a satirist in Hogarth’s image: engaged but detached. Hamilton doesn’t believe artists have a direct responsibility to “hold governments to account”, yet he has long believed in the effectiveness of art as a political medium. The pieces he created in 2009 for this for this exhibition, Maps of Palestine – a pair of maps showing the Israeli-Palestinian boarder as fixed by UN in 1947 and as it is today – he described as “a simple demonstration of a situation”.

Maps of Palestine (2009)

For him, the effectiveness of the pair lies in their simplicity: simplicity in the face of knotty political issues.

To me, the paintings seem impotent. The colours are unmodulated, flat; the compositions static. They remind me of uninspiring geography textbooks, and long afternoons spent sitting in classrooms, the real, moving world the other side of an open window.

The relationship between politics and art is, I think, something more fraught than a “simple demonstration”. Hamilton said as much when he admitted there are some subjects simply won’t touch: the current famine in East Africa, for example. “I can’t even imagine a painting that would be a response to that,” he sighed, suddenly looking very old.

On new media: ‘citizen journalism’

•February 21, 2010 • 1 Comment

The term ‘citizen journalism’ – to denote the contribution of news by non-professional journalists – caused great upset  at the news:rewired conference.

It was bandied about in a panel discussion on ‘crowdsourcing’ between Kate Day, communities editor of Telegraph.co.uk , Ruth Barnett, SkyNews‘s first Twitter correspondent, and Andy Heath, comissioning editor of the ‘citizen newswire’ Demotix (a company that buys content from citizen journalists and sells it to organisations like the BBC).

The audience at was, for the most part, made up of professional journalists.  Many of this group had been journalists since the days of Fleet Street and many  protested that the term ‘citizen journalist’ devalued their professionalism.

Perhaps they are right to feel threatened. The very nature of the media is changing, rapidly. But I am not convinced that so-called ‘citizen journalists’ do pose a threat to professionals or to mainstream media organisations. 

It is true non-journalists, who outnumber journalists, are more likely a witness to an unexpected, news-worthy event. It is true, also, that technology can turn non-journalists into ‘citizen’ or ‘accidental’ journalists (such as the man who snapped the Hudson plane crash on his mobile) and that channels like Twitter allow them to spread their news themselves. That social media can turn home videos into ‘user-generated content’.

And if all of us are journalists, perhaps none of us are journalists. In a nice blog for the Telegraph titled ‘Why journalism is like cooking’ (written after the conference), Kate Day argues that it’s not the person but the result that matters – not the chef or the hack but the food and the story.

But while citizen journalists have the potential to break news faster than professionals, major media organisations retain the greater credibility. News-consumers rely on such organisations to verify stories, even – perhaps particularly – if they were broken by non-professionals.

All three speakers on the panel emphasised the need to verify ‘crowdsourced’ information, just as they would any other source. Demotix check the coded information within the photos they receive to determine whether they really depict what they say they depict. SkyNews took those Iranians more seriously who had been tweeting news before the protests than those who began once they realised the West was following.

Demotix illustrates well the balance of power between citizen and professional journalists. Their business model – buying from citizens to sell to professionals  – works because the mainstream outlets remain the most comprehensive disseminators of news.


Citizen journalism is not just un-threatening but potentially helpful to major media outlets. Their audiences now talk back, and, if they ask them questions, they not only create stronger communities (= stronger ‘brands’ and more £) but get answers that can inform investigative journalism.

Mainstream media outlets that use social media effectively also save time and money. When the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, SkyNews urged its Twitter followers to check their local MPs’ claims: the Quentin Letts bell tower example was uncovered that way. ‘Crowdsourced’ information is often given freely and worth money: professionals would be foolish to ignore it.

Though the role of major news outlets is moving from breaking to verifying, they retain the lion’s share of the audience – many of whom are now willing to help them do their job. That’s got to be more help than hindrance.

On new media: Online Communities and Free Speech

•January 23, 2010 • 3 Comments

This is the second of a series of posts re-fashioned from the notes I made at  news : rewired, a digital journalism conference hosted by Journalism.co.uk at City University, London. (My first post, on the changing role of the BBC, is here.)


Almost all newspapers several years ago turned their Op/Ed sections in print into discursive forums online, allowing readers to comment and exchange views with each other and the newspapers’ journalists.

Yet these online communities vary in nature, specifically with regards to their level of “moderation” by those in charge.

Jessica Reed, an editorial assistant on Guardian.co.uk’s Comment is Free (CiF) and a speaker at the conference, said that comments posted on CiF articles are often radical and ranting (the chat room alter-ego having now had a good decade to develop).

Part of her job is to remove comments deemed offensive. With 30-40 articles per day commissioned and published by CiF (alongside those originally written for the print edition) and sometimes hundreds of comments per article, this process takes time.

Robin Hamman, head of social media at Headshift (a social business consultancy), put forward comment/tweet “curation” as an alternative to CiF-style “moderation”. On his personal website, Cybersoc, he simply picks the five best tweets in any given discussion and publishes only those on an embedded Twitter feed. He is more like a museum curator, chosing and arranging the best exhibits, than a schoolteacher trying to catch snatches of bad language in the playground. 

The way Hamman treats tweets is the reverse of how CiF treats comments, and it seems suited to his smaller, more subject-specific site. If Jessica Reed adopted Cybersoc’s method I suspect CiF commentors would feel excluded and eventually stop contributing to conversations that they no longer felt were open.

Kate Day, Communities Editor of The Telegraph, put forward yet another solution. She does not “moderate” comments posted on My Telegraph – a readers’ blogging site, set up about two and a half years ago – but instead responds to individual complaints and removes inappropriate comments once they have been flagged up by a reader. Apparently the Daily Mail has just started doing the same on its website.

This method is less labour-intensive and, Day believes, strengthens the community of readers who feel they are being heard. And if no active, “moderation” decision is made then The Telegraph cannot be seen to condone an offensive stance.
Or that’s the theory. In reality, publishing the views of those other than their paid writers is a tricky business for media organisations. The line between commissioning (and finding acceptable) and publishing can seem blurry to readers.

In theory, any reader should be able to start a My Telegraph blog. But when the British National Party’s London Assembly Member Richard Barnbrook decided to exercise this right Day was faced with a “difficult decision”. In the end she decided to let him blog. 

In his second post, titled “Blame the immigrants”,  Barnbrook wrote:

“I have had enough of political correctness. I have had enough of people being afraid to actually say what they really want to say. Yes … it is the immigrants. The real crime is on the streets, and it is the young people who are being attacked every day now by knives and guns. Most of it is being done by immigrants or by the sons of immigrants who have been protected by a despicable government desperate for the Ethnic Block-Vote.”

The blog post was picked up my Media Guardian, among others, and The Telegraph responded this statement:

“Our readers are entitled to their opinions and, within the law, they’re entitled to publish them on the My Telegraph blogging platform. We believe our readers are intelligent and discerning enough to avoid the content they dislike and report that which offends. That doesn’t mean the Telegraph necessarily endorses their opinions nor promotes them.”

The post has since been removed. Whether this was the decision of by Kate Day or Richard Barnbrook himself, I am not sure, but it does reveal the ethical problems inherent in censoring a community of free speakers.