Sunday, July 16, 2006

Here Comes the Summer

Cor, it's too gosh-darn hot to think at the moment... The sun is beating down upon our heads like a big ... beating thing. And the drums never cease.

The Book Club - Show 8 was broadcast on 5th July on Beeb Radio N/cle ... and if you want to listen to it, pop along to the link below:

The featured books were

1. Football Books:

- John Foot - Calcio: The History of Italian Football (Fourth Estate)
- Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger - Tor! The Story of German football (WSC Books)
- Phil Ball - Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football (WSC Books)
- Gianlucca Vialli, Gabrielle Marcotti - The Italian Job (Bantam)

[We also received several other footie books slightly too late to feature in the show, but I'll include them here with - as always - a high recommendation. I was particularly impressed with Foot, Hesse-Lichtenberger, Ball and Winner's volumes which each give a real flavour of the cultures and mind-sets of the countries that they we're writing about.]

- Peter Robinson, Doug Cheeseman, Harry Pearson - 1966 Uncovered (Mitchell Beazley)
- Kevin Connolly and Rab MacWilliam - Fields of Glorey, Paths of Gold: The History of European Football (Mainstream)
- David Winner - Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football (Bloomsbury)
- Alex Bellos - Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life (Bloomsbury)

2. Dave Scott - The Disillusioned (Fraser Books)

3. Jeff Abbott - Panic (Time Warner)

4. James Essinger - Spellbound: The Improbable Story of English Spelling (Robson Books)

5. Andy Neill & Matt Kent - The Who: Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (Virgin)

6. Alistair Cooke's American Journey (Penguin)

7. Francesco De Mosto - Francesco's Italy (BBC)

Also Received during June:

-Aziz Chouaki - The Star of Algiers (Serpent's Tail)
- Liza Campbell - Title Deeds (Doubleday)
- Elizabeth Wilson - The Twilight Hour (Serpent's Tail)
- Rory Stewart - Occupational Hazards (Picador)
- Matthew Smith - The Kennedys: The Conspiracy to Destroy a Dynasty (Mainstream)
- Melissa P - The Scent of Your Breath (Serpent's Tail)
- Jasper Fforde - The Big Over Easy (Hodder)
- Jancee Dunn - But Enough About Me: From Eighties Geek to Rock 'n' Roll Chic Adventures in Celebsville (Headline)

Anyway, back to a long cool glass of iced juice and watching the cricket whilst being glad I'm in my gaff with the fan on full blast.

Roll on winter...

Monday, July 10, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies and Thing You Read in Your Newspaper

How much trust can readers place in what they read in today’s media world? Keith Telly Topping investigates.

In early 2003 that bastion of true and accurate reportage the Daily Star claimed a 'world exclusive' when they reported that the ex-Neighbours actress and sometime pop-wannabe, Holly Valance, was 'in discussions' to replace Sarah Michelle Gellar as the lead in the cult US TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In discussions with whom, exactly, the report did not specify. This revelation, no doubt, would have come as a major surprise to Mutant Enemy, the American production company which had made Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the previous seven years. Because, just two days before this article appeared, they had recorded the one hundred and forty fourth - and final - episode of the popular drama and held a production wrap-party at their Santa Monica studios – in, it should be noted, something of a blaze of publicity. A couple of weeks later, Buffy's creator, Joss Whedon, happened to be in London. During a magazine interview, Whedon was shown the Star 'exclusive' and asked to comment. He did. 'Who's Holly Valance?' he asked, seemingly genuinely amused by the article he was reading. And that's where the story ended, the Star producing absolutely no follow-up to either confirm their 'world exclusive' or to admit that, actually, they had been lied to by someone - probably an over-eager publicist - but had run the story anyway.

This – somewhat lightweight – tale of a newspaper printing absolute nonsense with, apparently, not a smidgen of shame or care, highlights one of the main problems for readers of newspapers in the Twenty First Century. That is, the difficulty in sorting out which of the many stories they are presented with are genuine, which – despite the presence of some obvious spin – are partially true and which have been accepted at face value by an eager stringer who hasn't even bothered to check the basic veracity of the tale before spreading it. However, least it be thought that only the tabloids deal in this sort of twilight, fäux-naif demi-monde world of truths, half-truths and no-truths-whatsoever, another example shows how far a wide cross-section of a willing media can be taken in – no matter how implausible the story may be.

In July 2004, the Associated Press excitedly reported that a British tourist had bought a suitcase at an Australian flea market and found inside of it recordings of 'hours of unreleased Beatles songs.' The report went on to suggest that 'documentation within the case' suggested that it may once have belonged to The Beatles' long-time roadie and associate Mal Evans who died in 1975. Except that, of course, it hadn't. Not even close. The 'documentation' ultimately proved, on closer inspection, to consist of little more than photocopies of some 1960s press articles, concert ticket stubs and other general ephemera – none of it, in any way, linked to Evans either directly or indirectly. The 'hours of unreleased recordings', somewhat inevitably, turned out to be fairly common bootleg material - mainly home demos made by John Lennon - which had, seemingly, been compiled onto a CD from a variety of different sources. The whole thing was a hoax – and not even a particularly elaborate one, at that. Indeed, anyone with a basic knowledge of audio recording should have guessed that fact from a line in the original AP story which stated that the tapes were found 'in their original metal cans.' Recording tape, which is metallic is, unlike film, never stored in or near anything metal. Despite this, the story ran in many newspapers and magazines around the world with, again, absolutely no follow-up once it was debunked some weeks later. For example, The Times even went to the extent of putting a snippet of one of these 'lost' recordings - 'I'm in Love' - on its website so that fans could hear it. Had they simply bothered to do a two minute Internet search, they would have found that 'I'm in Love' – a 1963 solo Lennon demo of a song which he later gave to The Foremost as their follow up to 'Hello Little Girl' - had been in the public domain for at least fifteen years and was available on several bootleg CDs.

Of course, these are minor stories about pop-culture subjects. Yet in a world in which some newspapers seem to regard the activities of Abi Titmuss and Jade Goody as more inherently newsworthy, per se, than those of Kofi Annan and Vladimir Putin shouldn't we be holding these stories to exactly the same standards as those written by serious political commentators? Ah, but that brings us to 'Gallowgate-gate' and the finest example of modern times of the media both creating and then continuing to feed an urban legend.

The British Prime Minister and I share at least one thing in common – a love for Newcastle United football club. However, Tony Blair's support has been questioned almost from the first moment that he mentioned it in public. In the late 1990s, his political opponents were given what appeared to be a open goal to score against him. It was widely reported that sometime during 1997, the Prime Minister had been interviewed – by whom seemed to change from report to report – and had talked with a rather cloying misty eyed nostalgia about his first visit to St James' Park, 'sitting in the Gallowgate End watching Jackie Milburn.'

Milburn, for the uninitiated, was Newcastle's record-breaking centre forward during the immediate post war years – thirteen times capped by his country, he scored two hundred and thirty nine goals in four hundred and ninety four senior appearances for the Magpies. From the famous Milburn/Chalrton footballing family, Wor Jackie was a classic example of the post-war working-class hero - the Ashington miner who escaped a life down the pit by earning a living playing football - he was my father's hero and a much-loved icon on Tyneside, an affection which continued long after his death in 1988. The problem with the Prime Minister's reported story was that Milburn left Newcastle in 1957 to manage the Irish club Linfield. At the time he played his final games for Newcastle, Tony Blair would have been four years old and living several thousand miles away in Australia. Worse, from the point of view of the story, the Gallowgate End was, until it was knocked down in 1994 and replaced with the new Exhibition Stand, a steeply banked open terrace with no seats in it.

This story subsequently become one of the major sticks with which to beat the Prime Minister - as an amusing little sidebar to everything from the Hutton Inquiry to Health Service reforms. If Blair was so economical with the actualite concerning his support for a football team, the argument went, then how can we then believe pretty much anything he says? As recently as April 2005, the defecting MP Brian Sedgemore used an interview with the Daily Mail to note that the trouble with Mr Blair is he tells 'big porkies as easily as he tells little porkies, whether it is watching Jackie Milburn play football or being certain of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.' Case closed.

Unfortunately for opponents of the Prime Minister, there is one slight flaw in this theory; Tony Blair never claimed to have sat in the Gallowgate End watching Jackie Milburn or anything even remotely like it. The story actually owes its origin to a BBC Radio 5Live interview he gave in 1997 which was subsequently reported in the North East in the local Sunday Sun newspaper. Thereafter, it appears to have taken on a life of its own. Eventually, earlier this year, the BBC Newsnight reporter Adam Livingstone tracked down a tape of the original interview. Asked when he had become a supporter of Newcastle, Blair replied that it had been 'just after Jackie Milburn.' He never mentioned the Gallowgate End at all. Yet in the modern world where, it appears, virtually every word that anyone writes or speaks, in any context, ends up somewhere on the Internet, a Google search of the words 'Blair' and 'Jackie Milburn' will almost inevitably direct the searcher to at least half-a-dozen websites all still excitedly informing their readers that Tony Blair is a lying liar who lied about his football viewing habits as a child and, therefore, is responsible for war crimes. The latter might be true, but the former, certainly, is not. There's something of a dramatic irony here, given the fact that many of these sites in question claim, proudly, that they exist purely as champions of factual accuracy.

There is a tendency for older readers to join the Prime Minister in his allegedly misty-eyed nostalgia for a better time and place – this is particularly true of former readers of the Daily Mirror who bitterly regret the decline into muck-raking of a once-proud institution. However, that's a cosy example of working class sentiment at its worst and, as James Bolam's character Terry Collier noted in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' 1976 film adaptation of The Likely Lads, such sentiments are 'an indulgence of working class people who've cracked it through football or rock and roll.' Yet knowing that what you are reading is, fundamentally, true is – surely - a pre-requisite for any author of any text (this one very much included).

Some years ago this author was reading a weighty biography on Peter Sellers and quite enjoying it when, a couple of hundred pages in, he stumbled upon a reference that he knew to be inaccurate. It was a tiny little thing – a one-line description of a brief meeting between Sellers and John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr which had been recorded and circulated on bootleg. I happened to know that this had taken place in January 1969 at Twickenham film studio during the filming of Let It Be and not, as the author suggested, at Apple's offices only because I am - tragically - an insufferable nerd when it comes to the minutia of the Fab Four's various lives and doings. Nevertheless, the fact that the author of the biography also managed to misdate the meeting by approximately six months proves that, in this one particular instance, he hadn't done all of the necessary research (again, five minutes on the Internet would have probably informed him when and where it had been recorded). The author would, perhaps rightly, conclude that such a small mistake is of no great concern in the overall context of such a massive work and he well may be right about that. But, as a reader, the inevitable follow up question in my mind has to be, if the author got that bit wrong, then what else had he got wrong that I'm not such an expert on?

Ultimately, it's up to the individual reader of any text to question a story's veracity of content as much as they should question the style in which it is written. Today, more than ever, we live in a world where, due to the instantaneous nature of the Internet, a lie (or, to be charitable, a half-truth) can be spread around the world in seconds and there will always be someone, somewhere, who will believe even the most outrageous claims. The print media, as a result, have a duty to make accuracy a key part of their focus. After all, without the trust of the reader that what they are being told is both entertaining and true, what's the point of anyone buying a newspaper in the first place?

Keith Topping is an author, journalist and broadcaster. His own work, sad to report, does occasionally include some factual errors. However, he did once see Jackie Milburn play at St James’ Park (in a testimonial match in 1976) whilst sitting (on a concrete barrier) in the Gallowgate End. So there.