The Guardian’s brilliant map-testing and map-making in Murdoch meltdown

July 19, 2011

The crisis at NewsCorp has been produced in no small part by brilliant investigative journalism from The Guardian newspaper. Their analysis of Sir Paul Stephenson’s resignation demonstrates how a story can be read and tested for its credibility to help reshape public beliefs

Journalists are attempting to create new stories all the time. This is a process which metaphorically examines what is known (map reading), tests its credibility (map testing) and offers re-interpretations (map making).

As the crisis unfolded [in July 2011], the Guardian’s daily accounts became the first ‘go to’ for many who had not been regular readers. A nice example of its approach can be found in its treatment of the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson
as chief of the Metropolitan Police.

An interpretation

The piece was presented as ‘an interpretation’ of the resignation statement. The map was presented as provided by official sources. Its contents were scrutinised to get behind the text (map-testing). By focussing in such a way, a story behind the story emerges. For example:

When Sir Paul writes that he has no knowledge of the phone hacking in 2006

The Guardian notes: Reminds people that the original inquiry happened on Sir Ian Blair’s watch… nothing to do with him

When Sir Paul writes that his meetings with the NOTW deputy editor Neil Wallis were a matter of public record

The Guardian notes: Between September 2006 and June 2009, Stephenson had seven dinners with Neil Wallis. That’s a lot of dinners for a deputy editor. The meetings weren’t “public” until this weekend.

When Sir Paul notes that unlike former NOTW Editor Andy Coulson, who had been employed by Prime Minister David Cameron, deputy Editor Neil Wallis had never been convicted or associated with the phone-hacking issue

The Guardian notes: Stephenson is effectively saying to Cameron: Your guy is smellier than my guy. It leaves Cameron vulnerable to the question: if the Met chief is willing to take responsibility and resign, why don’t you?

The map-making continues

The last piece of map-testing had become part of the questioning of those interviewed about their insights yesterday [July 18th 2011], including London’s mayor Boris Johnson. Boris was announcing the resignation of Sir Paul’s deputy, John Yates, the latest casuality in the crisis. Quizzed on Sir Paul he was somewhat less ebullient than usual, and rather unenthusiastically refused to agree that David Cameron should resign for lack of judgement in the Andy Coulson affair.

Making sense of a complex story

The Guardian method of analysis is worth studying by any student wishing to test the accuracy of some text. It can be extended to ‘reading’ of situations of all kinds.


Why British Business Leaders won’t appear on TV shows

March 28, 2008

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In the US, appearing on the right news shows is part of a business leader’s job. In the UK, there is far more reticence by business leaders to court such publicity. Which culture is better served by its leaders and celebrity news presenters?

In one of his recent blogs, Robert Peston draws attention to an interesting difference between American and British business leaders.

When a chairman or chief executive appears on BBC television or radio, he or she is typically talking to millions of people in the UK and across the globe via our assorted programmes and channels and platforms. That’s appealing to a minority of business people, such as Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer or Justin King of J Sainsbury. Their visibility, they believe, sends out a strong message of confidence in their respective businesses to their customers, employees and shareholders. Other executives are more reclusive, they cherish their privacy – which is understandable. It’s part of my job to persuade them they have a duty to be accountable, via the BBC, to the many different groups which have an interest in their respective companies

Well, yes, up to a point. As one of the BBC’s celebrity business journalists himself, Robert Peston has taken an understandable perspective. But methinks he doth protest a bit too much. Or, anyway, glosses over a very interesting difference in the way in which the media interact with business in America and the UK.

Hollywood invented the star system as a brilliant marketing strategy. The image of the star was supported by the studios and developed the image-building techniques and principles.

Off screen, the Holllywood star had to have an impeccable public life. On stage, the image was also that of the heroic figure. The male lead is exceptional, and yet someone who is also recognised as role-modelling important cultural norms. These include self-reliance, championing the oppressed against the forces of evil or morality. The faithful lieutenant knows his place, and his place is to perform well but not to upstage the star.

Every Lone Ranger has his Tonto …

The drama creates the world in which the audience suspends disbelief in the artifice. When successful the production helps generate popular demand for more of the same. For sequels and even prequels. The images replicate themselves.

We do things differently

Pursuing the metaphor, we can detect cultural differences. If Hollywood produced its heroes capturing and arguably helping create the American dream. While influenced by Hollywood, The British Film industry developed its own cultural mores through its own golden era of war-time propaganda firms in the 1940s, Korda, and Rank were driving forces behind the studios at Ealing and Pinewood.

These centres of creative film-making also helped establish the courageous and modest British hero with intrepid sidekick.

Every Holmes had his Watson …

Propaganda films reinforced the rigid class stratifications of the 1940s, although if anything the class divide between hero and chirpy sidekick in the war dramas strengthened the notion of an officer class, leading a nation of cheerful and indomitable lower orders.

Fast forward

In their related ways Hollywood and Pinewood found space for the rebellious hero. They also celebrated the progress of the self-made man.

Let’s fast-forward to a world of multi-media communications. California has provided a former American President, and its current State Governor.

The candidates for the next president of The United States are a charismatic young man making good; the dynastic successor of a former charismatic leader: and the veteran war hero. More than ever, media presentation will be vital in deciding the way the non-party voters move.

A similar context can be seen around the image-making of commerical figures. With some honourable exceptions, American TV interviewers of business leaders tend to be far more respectful.

The encounters are more obviously a performance in which each of the actors knows his or her parts. There is little difficulty in seeing how that old sociological metaphor of role-players applies. The business leader acts out the role of the able, honest, trustworthy figure. The interviewer acts out the role of able honest, trustworthy lieutenant.

The convention permits some variations in the playing of the roles, but there has also been a lot of convergence towards what is box-office.

Meanwhile, something quite different has happened in the UK. There has always been a theme of the revolutionary and rebellious hero. In the UK, the theme has developed into the celebrity newscaster taking on the establishment. The lawyer, politician and BBC journalist Robin Day was an early proponent in the 1960s.

Fast Forward to Modern Days.

The trend-setting Robin Day has been followed by another generation of celebrity journalists. The dominant themes of drama has all-but-been inverted, with the action reverting to the ancient Greek dramas in which vengeance is meted out to evil leaders by the avenging nemesis as played by the interrogator. It’s Tonto punishing The Lone Ranger. For episode after episode.

The star-system now builds up the image of the studio or channel’s new stars. Competition is fierce. As the Guardian recently reported, the stars are really battling with each other.

The paper was commentating on a public spat between two of the snarliest beasts in the media jungle, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman.

To help decide the issue, perhaps we need a Celebrity Newsreader [contest] , scoring the two on Aggressive Interrupting, Exasperated Repetition and Curmudgeonly Books about England …

The problem with superhero battles, as any comics fan will tell you, is that it leaves the way clear for an arch-nemesis to clean up with nefarious schemes. Have you seen how much work Sir Trevor McDonald is getting these days?

Quite. It is hardly surprising that business leaders and politicians are avoiding the roles offered them in the dramas.

Leadership lessons

If the increasingly dated style of Humphrys and Paxman were to be seen and compared with interviewers with a less confrontational, yet engaging style, we may well get more glimpses of our business leaders.

Would we be better off as a society? The American system offers more showings of their business and political leaders. They are not particularly popular as prime-time material. As with the president’s well-managed press conferences, they are too rehearsed to be particularly revealing.

Perhaps in the UK, a successor to the much-missed Antony Clare would be worth seeking.


Celebrity journalists as thought leaders: The case of Robert Peston

December 7, 2007

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The Australian journalist Mark Day argues that celebrity journalists today follow far earlier examples. We examine the cases of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Winston Churchill. Parallels with Robert Peston’s role in the Northern Rock drama can be made

Mark Day is the doyen of Australian journalists. He recently raised concerns about the rise of the celebrity journalist, citing cases from Australia, from Rupert Murdoch’s father at Gallipoli to the notorious New York night club story which did the aspirant political leader Kevin Rudd no harm at all. Day suggests TV journalism is continuing the tradition of the celebrity journalist.

It was Mr Day’s reassuringly sage and bewhiskered visage which first grabbed my interest. This, I thought, is the face of someone who speaks with the wisdom of the ages. A role model more callow bloggers. Perhaps it was his headline: Journalists become the news.

Day has his say

Mark Day argues that journalists have always been tempted by celebrity as a route to career success. He cites the example of Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, and war correspondent at Gallipoli, as well as confidant of the Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Murdoch ’s capacity to become part of the story is famously illustrated in an incident in which he was charged with delivering a letter from Gallipoli to authorities in London. When ‘Intercepted and relieved of his letter’ he wrote his own extended version, handed it over, when it appeared to have had some influence on British understanding of the unfolding military disaster.

Another time, another land. He might have mentioned the rise of Winston Churchill, already famed as war correspondent, and by then heavily involved in the Gallipoli campaign.

We can stretch things even further in considering the merging of journalism and social comment. Take Charles Dickens, for example, who would have been a great TV personality born a century later.

In these enlightened times

Has much changed from the days of Dickens? Not a lot, according to Day. He gives various contemporary examples from political life in Australia. One interesting one is the incident in New York some months ago, involving the youthful Kevin Rudd, at the time a wannabe Prime Minister. The story was internationally covered.

According to The Daily Telegraph

KEVIN Rudd’s hopes of becoming Prime Minister have been rocked by a visit to a New York strip club where he was warned against inappropriate behaviour during a drunken night while representing Australia at the United Nations. Mr Rudd yesterday issued a statement to The Sunday Telegraph, confirming he went to the club. But he said he could not recall what happened at the night spot because he had “had too much to drink”.

Rudd’s embarrassment was short-lived. He went on to victory a few months later.

Day introduces a further twist to the tale suggesting that the incident which had occurred four years earlier, had been rather sleazily treated by the journalists, who had persuaded the notoriously high-minded Rudd to loosen up a bit. But that’s another story. He concludes that the journalist as part of the story is inevitable, and that blogging is an even more exaggerated process in which each blogger seeks to place themselves right at the heart of the story. I plead the Fifth on that one.

The campaigning journalist

Charles Dickens began his journalistic career reproducing the speeches in Parliament for his readership, a feat requiring phenomenal powers of recall. In the meanwhile, he was churning out hugely popular fictional tales which made up an outstanding social commentary of the times. Dickens as performing celebrity became even more the centre of his stories.

Then there was young Winston, whose exploits seem to have had some parallels with those of the first of the Murdoch dynasty, Keith. Churchill’s reports from the Boar war made him famous and wealthy. His fame outlasted his periodic bursts of affluence. But fame and wealth came from his creative tales in which we wrote himself as the central character. And what about Mark Twain, yet another itinerant journalist whose genius with words excused him from proximity with factual reality as he reported on his journeys?

These were early celebrity journalists. They were at times hugely influential. Another example this time from France, is Emile Zola in exposing the Drefus scandal, In this case, the author used his fame to help promote the story, rather than use the story to promote his fame.

Back to the Rock

All of which takes us back to the still smouldering case of Northern Rock. This appears to have acquired its own celebrity journalist in the shape of the BBC’s Robert Peston. It The story continues to run. Now the BBC is able to maintain a stream of exclusive scoops by interviewing someone right at the heart of the story, namely their very own Robert Peston.

Peston’s influence on events these has been mentioned in Parliament. An overview can be found in a newsletter within which the following quote summarizes the impact of Mr Peston’s journalistic activities

The following press release was issued as Update No. 5 on 18/10/2007: Press049_Northern_Rock_Value (mainly to try and stifle some inaccurate press comment), together with the following notes: Some of you may have seen Matt Ridley and Adam Applegarth responding to questions from the Treasury Select Committee on TV news on Tuesday. Not a lot new was learned from the session except that both the Chairman and the rest of the board had volunteered to resign if required. It was also clear from the evidence given, and comments by Robert Peston of the BBC later that evening on BBC TV, that the BBC announced the rescue by the Bank of England in advance of it being issued in a Regulatory News Announcement based on a leak from someone. I have so far heard three different versions of who leaked it so am not sure which is a rumour and which is the truth. But it would appear that this premature announcement stampeded the company into making the announcement and we know that it was not possibly as judiciously worded as it might have been – the end result was an unexpected rush of depositors to withdraw their cash.

Truth, rumours and Robert Peston

The thought expressed in the above had been nagging away as I followed the Northern Rock story. Clearly, The BBC’s Robert Peston was leading the pack. He must have been the envy of less well-connected political journalists around the land.

But how much is straight reporting, how much highly personalized story telling? He is clearly very much part of the story. Peston is doing no more than the heroic journalists from bygone days, who thrilled the public by not just witnessing the story, but by playing a starring role in it. Not so much communicators as creators.

Stop Press

I was about to publish this post when I heard of a story breaking, on BBC’s radio four, related by a familiar voice, that of Robert Peston. The story? A member of the third generation of Murdoch, young James, is making his mark as celebrity journalist. He becomes head of the Dynesty, and heir apparent.