Lazy web suggestion: The People’s Ard Fheis

I was speaking with Damien about this a minute ago and figured there was no harm in putting the idea out there as a “lazy web” suggestion.

We in Ireland are about to be bombarded with a near constant stream of party Ard Fheiseanna, as all parties try to turn heads and get noticed in an important election year.

Bar the Extraordinary Ard Fheis set up by Sinn Fein for the end of the month (which will only cover one issue), the first one on the way is Labour’s, which I believe is in February (thanks Keith).

Anyway, my idea is a People’s Ard Fheis (thanks to Damien for the suggested name) to be held a month (or so) before the general election, which would probably make it April or May.

The event would take the exact same form as a political party ard fheis, with motions being put forward, debates being held and votes being taken. The only difference is that all of the above would be done by normal people, not politicians or party members.

There are a number of things to be taken from this event. It would be a great forum for debate, it would be a great way for politically aware people to meet up (and for those who want to become more politically aware to be able to hear a wide range of ideas) and it could also be seen as a great temperature gauge as the country prepares to vote on its next Government.

The reason why I’m putting this forward as a lazy web suggestion is because the idea has just hit my head and it’s something that would require plenty of planning involving plenty of people if it were to succeed.

So, what do you think?

The same thread over at Irishelection.com features a discussion on the idea.

Hour special planned for The Thick Of It

The Guaridan are saying (free reg required) that Armando Iannucci will make another one hour special of The Thick Of It, due to air in the summer.

I’m a huge fan of the show and loved the Christmas special shown in early January. I had been expecting a new, full season, however and am a little disappointed to see it only return for another once-off. I know the Christmas special didn’t perform particularly well, although it was on BBC4, and in this day and age probably isn’t interesting to a lot of people.
Hopefully more will follow it, however, perhaps if/when the situation with actor Chris Langham is resolved.

While a little bit let down I’m glad to see this great show get more air time, and I’m equally consoled by the fact that Iannucci is working on a US port with the man behind Arrested Development, Mitch Hurwitz.

Our perception of media terminology

“Sensationalism does not mean distorting the truth… It means the vivid and dramatic presentation of events so as to give them a forceful impact on the minds of the reader. It means big headlines, vigorous writing, simplification into familiar everyday language, and the wide use of illustration by cartoons and photographs. Every great problem facing us… will only be understood by the ordinary man busy with his daily tasks if he is hit hard and hit often with the facts. Sensational treatment is the answer, whatever the sober and ‘superior’ readers of other journals may prefer. No doubt we shall make mistakes, but at least we are alive.

Silvester Bolam, Editor – Daily Mirror, 1948 – 1953

The above is a sterling defence of sensationalism from a time when the term was not one of the media’s dirty words. I came across it in Andrew Marr’s excellent My Trade, which charts the history of the British media.

Bolam’s defence is simple, honest and quite fair. Why shouldn’t verbal red-tape be removed from the facts? What is wrong with painting an event vividly? Why is simple language less powerful or trustworthy than any other type?

The truth is, sensationalism is not the problem – it is the way it has been abused that is. If you strip away the pre-determined definition you have come to for the word you’ll see that the bias, the spin, the panic-educing garbage; none of that is implied in the word sensationalism.

A story can be sensational or it can be sensationally painted without it being overblown, oversold or distorted. The problem is that sensational language can make it easier to do all of these things to a topic and over the years journalists and editors, out of laziness or calculated intention, have used it as a tool to sell their stories and papers.

However, in the hand of an able and honest writer the style is no more harmful than the straight-faced fact used in other newspapers. The fact that it might get more people to read about the issues that effect them is just a nice bonus.

I’ve spoken before about the perception certain media terms have gained through the ages, specifically the word ‘tabloid’. In Ireland and Britain (amongst other places, I’m sure), a tabloid newspaper is one that contains little hard news, next to no political coverage, “celebrity” pap-shots and trivia, huge pun headlines and slang terms in the actual reporting. It is the home of page three girls, over-whelming sports coverage and a healthy dollop of bias and lazy reporting.

The reality of ‘tabloid’ is quite different. The word is in no way a reference to the content of a newspaper, just its format. A tabloid newspaper could be hard-hitting and intellectual, or it could be all the ills described above – it didn’t matter as long as the format was right.

The same applies to the word broadsheet – seen by many as a comment on the target audience, style of reportage or topics covered it is again just a reference to the size of the publication. But I digress…

Sensationalism is now a dirty word in media and you’d be hard pushed to find any newspaper editor gladly describe what they do as sensational, and defend it with the same aplomb (or ability) as Mr. Bolam did 50-odd years ago. There are plenty of other terms that enjoy the same distortion from their original intention.

The origin of the word paparazzi is interesting, for example – it’s Italian for mosquitos and was the surname given to a photographer in La Dolce Vita, stemming from director Fellini’s memory of a boy he knew as a child who was given the nickname due to his fast speech and movements. Now, of course, the image is far less endearing, if anything it is vilified (despite the work they conduct being lapped up by millions on a daily basis).

Etomology always fascinates me, and a big part of that fascination is the evolution of language. Quite often, the origin of a word is a mile away from the use it currently enjoys – sometimes the journey hasn’t distorted that meaning quite so much.

I think it’s important, for the sake of accuracy, to know that sensationalism isn’t bad by nature, nor is tabloid media – we in Ireland just happened to get a few bad examples to sour the relationship somewhat. The tabloid market in Ireland just happens to have plenty of trashy publications in it and out of those that use sensationalism the majority abuse it.
With that in mind, it might be time to reassess some publications you judged on the basis of their size or headline – they might be doing honest work in a way that will attract as many as possible. Then again they may not be – only one way to find out, I guess.

Obama starts the ball rolling

Seen by many as America’s great white (!) hope for re-uniting a divided and damaged country, Senator Barack Obama has been seen as a front runner for the Democratic vote in the 2008 US Presidential elections.

He ruled himself out of the running before, and then softened his tone. Now the BBC says that he has begun the first step towards a presidential race – he’s set up an exploratory committee.

Since the congressional mid-terms all eyes have fallen to the US Presidential elections. With George W. Bush forbidden from running and Cheney too old to even be considered, the whole thing is seen as wide open.

There are plenty of people who have already filed with the US Federal Elections Commission, and more that have set up exploratory committees. The most notable name so far to file with the FEC is John Edwards, Democrat candidate for vice-president in 2004. Obama seems to be on his own in the “exploratory committee” category for the Democrats, but big names on the Republican side include John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Current caucus favourite for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton, has not made any move just yet.

The next 2 years should be interesting in American politics.

Things are going on here

I swear.

I’ve been busying myself with some design for my new project, which will launch by the end of the month if all goes to plan. I’ve shown a few people the design (so far) and the response has been generally positive, and I’ve had a helping hand or two for some of the more complicated details (i.e. the ones that involve anything other than basic HTML).

I’m really anxious to put it out there, just to see the reaction and begin the long process of building the idea into a reality, with reader participation and discussion being an important part of that development stage.

Nothing defines an idea like its ability to float in the real world – so far those who I’ve shared the idea with have liked it, but I know that even with much enthusiasm, I’m getting myself into something that will not be an easy ride.

On a more local front (by that I mean this site) I’m beginning the long process of updating my portfolio page, which has lain idle since August last – I now regret my procrastination as I try to sort through the X amount of published work I’ve had in the last 4/5 months and do all the code up for it (which can be a pain in the arse).

I’m also committing myself to a post a day from now on. There, I’ve said it publicly so I have to do it now. Right?

Making contact(s)

Whenever someone asks me about how I’m getting on in the Sunday Business Post, or how my attempts at sparking off some version of a career in general are progressing, I always say something like;

“good. Things are certainly going better than I had hoped they would before I left college. I’m not at the stage I want to be at*, but I’m getting there quicker than I’d expected and hopefully it will all continue to improve. But…”

… there’s always a but, and it’s always in relation to contacts.

Acquiring good contacts is at the cornerstone of being a good journalist. If you can endear yourself to trustworthy and informed people you already have half the battle won when it comes to getting fresh stories.

I’ve never been under any delusions about acquiring contacts; I always knew it was a hard slog that took time, effort and a little bit of luck. You always have to keep in mind that if someone is in a position to hear sensitive and important information, they are putting their neck on the line by passing it on to the media. Just as a journalist needs to be sure of the reliability of their sources, a source needs to be able to count on the journalist to protect their identity in the article and in any event that may arise from that.

I think it’s important to respect that and to respect any sources you do find – to the same degree you should keep your eyes open as to their reasons for passing on information, which may be honest or underhanded depending on the situation (and all the more reason for establishing a two-way bond of trust!).

Of course contacts aren’t everything in journalism – having the best contacts in the world won’t make you an unstoppable force in news. You need to be able to take information and apply it in the right way, put it to the right people and get the adequate response to make it a whole story. Tip offs are equally important, as knowing that something might be going on behind the scenes can often be enough to force an issue into the open.

On the issue of building contacts, one of the best (and many) pieces of advice given to me so far has been to note every phone number and email address you come in contact with, as you’ll always find a need for it down the line – even in the most unexpected way. In my few weeks in a newspaper I’ve already seen that to be true.

For now though I’ll continue to work on building up my contacts, as I always knew I needed to, and I will continue to add the “but” to my answer. To me, contacts can come as a result of many things, with trust always being at the fulcrum. With that assumption, I plan to press on as best I can and see what happens next.

* I’m certainly where I want to be for my age, but not in an overall “career” sense, and what 21 year old would want to be? That’d be awful boring. 

On your marks…

The pace is really picking up for the Blog Awards – you can now make your nominations for the various categories here.

The nominations will be made up into a longlist, which will then go to the public vote to decide on a shortlist. Those lucky enough to make it this far will become the final cateogry nominees with the Blog Awards panel deciding on the winner.

If you happen to think anything on this site is worth long-listing I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to the compliment at all…

In other good Blog Award news, it looks like Damien has filled up the sponsor list already, with just the Best Blog to be decided (which will be done via auction in the coming weeks/months).

And now to sit down and put some serious thought into my nominations…

Welcome Kathy

Cian gave us a quick tour through the handful of blogs belonging to Irish journalists the other day; well worth a look if you’re interested (and it’s good to see the number rising, especially in recent weeks).

Anyway – I noticed in one of my RSS feeds (and so did Cian) that Kathy Foley, formerly of the Sunday Times Ireland and now a freelancer, has also dipped her toe into the water. You can head over to her site and read all about her exploits as she makes the jump from staff to freelancer – a pretty interesting place to start a blog I would say!

Welcome Kathy, hope you’re settling into the your new venture well enough!

(Just to add, I figured that there were so many Irish journalists blogging that I should put them all into their own category in my blogroll… it’s a good sign that the new category doesn’t look bare, isn’t it?)

iWant one

Damien (along with even the most hardened of Microsoft fanatics) has fallen in love with the newly announced iPhone and wants one now – well he’s certainly not alone on these shores.
With the Apple Store down we’ve yet to see if us Irish consumers will be able to get one with anything resembling ease and two important factors, price and battery life, seem to be missing from all the buzz… saying that, with PMP, phone & PDA features all jumbled into an OS X-based package and finish with the kind of design you would only expect from Apple it would take an astronomical price and a horrendous battery life to quell my need for this device.

Update: Looks like the phone will be available from June of this year in the US, and 4th quarter for Europe (would that include Ireland? Who knows?). Price in the US will be $499 (€380) for a 4GB model and $599 (€460) for an 8GB model – that’s with a 2 year contract… ouch.
Now, if there’s any way to turn this into a dictaphone-cum-mobile podcasting studio, I’d be 100% sold on it.
From Engadget:

Come on Sinn Fein, time to be your own party

In my mind, there is a simple reason why the DUP and Sinn Fein have failed so miserably in their attempts to reach a consensus over the years; neither side is actually trying to find one. Since both parties came to a majority in their respective communities they have fought long and hard to balance and re-balance the onus of blame in anticipation of the inevitable – the collapse of negotiations.

The sad reality is that neither party has had the time to actually think about what conditions they’re willing to accept because they’ve been too busy ensuring that the game ends with the others holding the ball. As a result of this neither party really knows what to do when an agreement seems likely; a reality we have found ourselves in in recent days.

In his new year address, Ian Paisley reminded us that actions speak louder than words; thus ensuring that if/when he walks away he can still [try to] blame Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams promised a special Ard Fheis as long as they got a positive response from the other parties; ensuring that he can call the whole thing off and [try to] blame the DUP for it.

And now the Ard Fheis is indeed in jeopardy because the soundings from Ian Paisley haven’t been positive enough; possibly the most childish moment we’ve seen in Irish politics this side of the millennium (if not ever). Sinn Fein, a party that overtly aims to do things for “ourselves”, almost seems to be looking for reasurances from the other side that they’re doing a good enough job before they actually do anything. It seems ludicrous that any party should hinge such a massive decision on the reaction of the opposing side, thus putting the DUP in charge of the tempo of play just at the moment when Sinn Fein should be calling the shots.
Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help but get a disturbing visual of little Gerry running into daddy Ian with some scrawled picture that he cobbled together in a vain attempt to make his cold-hearted father proud.

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe Sinn Fein should stop being so self-conscious and start trusting their instincts. After the Ard Chomhairle’s decision, Adams rambled on about how he was now willing to recommend the recognition of the PSNI to his party as this was the right move towards a United Ireland, and yet he doesn’t seem to be so sure of himself now that the DUP have borne a frown.

The reality is that it’s time for Sinn Fein to borrow somewhat from their offspring at Fianna Fail and become soldiers of their own destiny.

(Oh, and just to sweeten the deal for them; if Sinn Fein do accept the PSNI & Gardaí (and do all that’s entailed in making this move) and the DUP still refuse to play along, then no-one will be able to point fingers at Adams & Co. when a devolved government is blown out of the water once again.)