Posted by: J M | September 8, 2011

U is for unpaid

The launch of a UK edition of the popular US news site Huffington Post has brought to the surface a familiar wrangle – the question of whether a writer should be paid for work they produce if the company they write for is making money. The more you think about the issue, the more impossible it becomes to volunteer a straight yes or no. Like the ‘citizen journalists’ before them, bloggers are ruffling the feathers of an industry that can feel the hot breath of extinction on the back of its neck.

How you feel about unpaid blogging rather depends, I suppose, on whether you think that someone who is blogging for free is doing something a journalist could, or should, be paid to do. Most blogs at the HP are updated weekly and not particularly in-depth. You could say, then, that they are not particularly time-consuming and so wouldn’t warrant any pay. They are also voluntary. There are, of course, a number of journalists out there who are paid to submit weekly columns. There are megastar columnists who are trading on their name and can be published pretty much anywhere, charging huge amounts – think Julie Burchill and her ex Tony Parsons to name just a couple – and there are also the scribes who are lesser-known and contribute to a variety of publications alongside a day job and very much rely on every bit of income. Is blogging killing off their revenue stream?

For years, the creative industry has encouraged a culture of working for free. Whether it’s an intern writing all the copy for a corporate site because the company can’t be bothered to hire a content expert, a runner on a TV production fetching endless cups of tea in the hope they’ll be noticed by someone important, or a designer sending speculative work in the hope of exposure, getting something for nothing isn’t a new phenomenon. The reason it continues largely unchallenged is the sheer amount of competition out there for creative jobs – everyone’s a designer, a writer or a film-maker. In the confused, overcrowded market, only the lucky few manage to rise to the top, an ascendance not always based on talent. Connections and an ability to make yourself noticed, by any means necessary in some cases, can triumph over being good at something any day of the week.

Interns are on the increase. At least 50% of the job ads I see are for unpaid interns, or work placements. I’m sure that a few years ago, these placements would gave had set timeframes, perhaps of a few weeks, but these internships are now indefinite, with no guarantee of a ‘proper job’ at the end of them, whatever a proper job now means – one where you actually get paid, I imagine.

It’s true to say that the existence of amateurs in any field doesn’t have to mean the professional side suffers. Thousands of amateur football matches take place every weekend, but nobody is claiming that they harm the professional game, or reduce anyone’s chances of becoming a paid footballer. In fact, they are known to feed into it, with scouts standing on the sidelines looking for new talent. But what if league football teams started taking on unpaid intern players, players who would work for free for the first year or so. What would happen to the game then? Would the demographic of both players and spectators change a great deal?

The bloggers on HuffPo aren’t being forced to blog. Nobody’s ripping them off, they retain copyright and can republish their work anywhere they want. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. It has always been their content model and they are very transparent about what they do. iI’s merely another outlet for talented people – as some of them are – to get the exposure and recognition they deserve. There can be no denying that the inclusion of being a HuffPo contributor in your portfolio could open doors for you – if you were any good of course. Hell, I’d do it.

It only becomes a concern for me when this model becomes the norm – established publishing outlets following suit, having seen the success of HuffPo balancing user contributions and paid-for journalism. Will amateur writers become more abundant on national newspapers, with paid contributors restricted to merely reporting news and facts, while any opinions or deeper analysis are handed over to the bloggers? Are we already on the way there with the Guardian’s Comment Is Free articles? One of Britain’s biggest newspapers has taken to hiring interns to do its blogging for it. What does this mean for future generations of journalists, and indeed those hunting for jobs today?

Everyone has an opinion, after all – should we expect to hold our hand out for a fiver every time we tell a friend what we think of their outfit? How much is your opinion worth?

Posted by: J M | July 30, 2011

Y is for youth

I think I should get the full disclosure out of the way immediately: I don’t like Louise Mensch. The novelist-turned-MP has to be one of the smarmiest, drabbest individuals around – and when you’ve got a wealth of other dreary female politicians like Harriet Harman and Hazel Blears to pick from, that’s damning praise indeed. Her performance on the Commons Committee hearing, where she grilled Rupert and James Murdoch, had all the gravitas of a  dead-eyed salesman demonstrating a new kind of electric egg whisk at the Ideal Home Exhibition, and her appearances on various news programmes in the wake of the phone hacking scandal have had me reaching for the remote/radio dial with the speed and efficacy of a bullet. So now that’s all the vinegar about her out of the way, let’s move on to the honey.

This week, because she simply wasn’t getting enough publicity, I’m sure, Mensch revealed that she had been contacted by email by someone who claimed to have photographic evidence of her “on drugs” on a night out with her former colleague from EMI Music Nigel Kennedy at Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham. The emailer, clearly revelling in his or her new role as spiteful bitch at the back of the school bus, then went on to flatly claim that she had been sacked from her job at EMI for writing her first novel Career Girls in work hours, an allegation she denies. There was also another bizarre accusation that she had named characters after former colleagues and friends, which is no big deal, really; I once had a character in a book named after me – a reality TV contestant who came SECOND; oh the inhumanity – but it’s quite flattering, really.

Mensch’s response to the email was relatively swift but not entirely direct. She admitted working on Career Girls at her work computer, but said this was after hours. So far, so good. More interesting was her reply to the allegation of being drunk and on drugs on the night out in Birmingham. Mensch, who writes under her maiden name Louise Bagshawe, proved her worth as a politician by admitting it, but not actually, really, definitively saying whether she’d done it or not. The papers lauded her for her honesty but, in actual fact, she swerves the question, saying she “couldn’t remember” the night in question but that it was “probable” she had taken drugs in her 20s, but essentially ‘so what?’. Chapeau, indeed.

She’s right, of course, that getting off your head in your 20s doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or not fit to be an MP. Scratch the shiny surface of the exemplary public and private profile of most people and you will soon see the smear of shit beneath. “We all do stupid things when young” was Mensch’s final word on the matter, and how right she is. We do. Imagine living your life ever-conscious that you might one day become well-known, and so do nothing for fear of it being cast up against you in the future. Imagine never making mistakes, never taking a risk, never kissing someone you shouldn’t or fucking over someone who’s asking for it. That’s not a life, is it?

So full marks to Mensch for kind of not being afraid to say “Yes I got fucked out of my brains in a nightclub – deal with it”. I hope, however, that this is not the first in a long line of amnesties by politicians or public figures looking for a little bit of exposure. Most of us don’t care what you do or who you do it with, and I don’t want to hear you say you regret it or it was “stupid” just because you were young and didn’t think it through.

You’ve lived. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

Posted by: J M | July 24, 2011

A is for Amy

Rolling news really came into its own following the premature death (in my view, at least) of Amy Winehouse yesterday. After a friend received a phone call from his brother telling him the news, we flicked on BBC News 24 and saw the infamous breaking news banner across the bottom of the screen and knew it must be true. The BBC never goes with stories unless they’re 100% confirmed. One half of a split screen showed live pictures from her house in Camden showed an ambulance, police officers and plastic cordon but not much else. The other half played on rotation clips of Amy singing, drinking, fighting, smoking – just being Amy, really. As on-the-scene reporters and stony-faced newsreaders gave way to a bizarre and completely unnecessary phone call with Paul Gambaccini, we watched and watched, until finally we could watch no more.

In all the hysteria and the oft-repeated line about Amy’s “struggle with drugs and alcohol” it’s very easy to forget what a talent Amy was.

My first introduction to her was late one night, as I was sitting up half-watching TV after my then-boyfriend had gone to bed. A music show was on and the very last video was Amy’s ‘Fuck Me Pumps’ song. I had heard of her before, but never heard her music. I watched the video and laughed at the lyrics and thought “Wow, I have got to get that album”, which I did. And the rest is history; I was smitten from that moment on. Read More…

Posted by: J M | July 14, 2011

J is for journalism

This week has been another tough week to be a journalist or involved in editorial in any way. In the wake of the closure of the News of the World, the uncovering of increasingly grotesque dealings and the general chaos in Parliament over what to do about it all, journalists are now proudly portrayed as 2011’s version of the “greedy City bankers”. It’s apparently irrelevant that fantasists like Johann Hari and phone hackers are a very small minority; as far as ‘the public’ are concerned, all journalists – even those who write for Tomato Growers’ Weekly – are evil.

It has been an equally tough week or so to be taking part in any social media. Just the other day, I read this in my Facebook news feed:

“So it’s official now- 
The Press: Cunts. (Including the Guardian & Indy)
Politicians: Cunts. (Particularly the Conservatives and Labour, but yes, all of them)
The Police: Cunts. (The force as a whole, not every individual lug-head, some of them are just stupid.)”

Oh dear, I thought. I can’t speak for the police and politicians, as I’m not one, but I have worked on a national newspaper and in broadcasting, so I felt compelled to reply, very simply, that journalists were not cunts. In retrospect, I truly wish I hadn’t bothered or, at the very most, left my response at that. Sadly, my response gave rise to other, more passionate responses, and before I knew it I was embroiled in a Facebook slanging match. It has taught me such a valuable lesson that I am going to reproduce most of it here, as a stark reminder never to do it again. Read More…

Posted by: J M | June 29, 2011

C is for crush

Non-Londoners must excuse for me for being a little capital-centric here, but, as most of the world is aware, it is the second week of Wimbledon fortnight. Among the usual press coverage of the Wimbledon matches, the nation is also lucky enough to have endless commentaries on how many strawberries are eaten and glasses of champagne quaffed  – usually with twee diagrams or pictorials showing an upper-middle class person glugging from a gleaming flute. We may also be treated to a snap or two of one of the male tennis players’ girlfriends and, year in year out, an article on the Williams sisters’ hair/match outfit/bad attitude. This year, however, I’ve noticed a growing number of articles about another Wimbledon feature – Judy Murray.

“Who’s Judy Murray?” the three people who read this may well ask. Well, let me tell you. She’s mother to that sulky, hulky volley machine that is the British number one Andy Murray. I’d never heard of her before, but this year coverage of 50-year-old Mrs Murray has ramped up – possibly because she’s quite vocal and enthusiastic about her son’s ability. She’s been known up until now as a ‘Tiger Mother’, a description which isn’t exactly endearing but makes her sound more like a protective, encouraging kind of ma rather than the type of woman who’d rip your head off for pushing in front of her in a bus queue. Mrs Murray, then, was off my radar until yesterday, when I saw a short piece about her in the Evening Standard, London’s newspaper which dropped its cover price a couple of years ago to absolutely zero, and saws a huge rise in circulation. All I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t pay for it. Read More…

Posted by: J M | June 7, 2011

C is for congratulatory cupcake

I was speaking to a friend on the phone the other day. He was telling me that his wife had been ill and that he had been doing housework and making evening meals. No big deal there. But he then went on to say that he had received very little recognition for his achievements, despite his long hours at work and extra efforts at home.  “Don’t you think that’s good that I did all that?” he asked. I didn’t quite know what to say to him, but I did eventually reply “So what?”. Throwing a vacuum cleaner around a lounge or dining room isn’t the most manual of labours, and cooking dinner for your sick wife is unlikely to put you in consideration by the Nobel Prize jury, but it seems that any task we do that is outside our norm should be recognised, appreciated and met with unending gratitude. Whatever happened to just doing something because it needs to be done?

The praise culture is on the rise. Human beings are at risk of turning into performing dogs desperate for a rub on the belly with the constamt need to be validated. It’s nice to be acknowledged for things you’ve done that are of great importance or significance, but making a shepherds’ pie after a 12-hour day, which isn’t even up there with ‘doing a favour’? What do you want? A bouquet?

Or how about a delicious cupcake as a token of goodwill? It’s increasingly difficult to move without encountering a cupcake of some description. Almost every bakery that isn’t Greggs is giving over shelf after shelf to the not-so-dainty, over-decorated behemoths of sugar and icing. Cupcake businesses are springing up faster than Starbucks and McDonald’s, as starting your own customised cupcake-to-your-door company replaces f*cking the tennis coach as a pastime for moneyed, bored housewives. To feed this new obsession, bookshops are flooded with cupcake recipe tomes and guides on how to decorate them so that they look pretty despute the fact they don’t fit into your mouth because of the small construction site going on atop all the sponge. And now, hell has finally frozen over and the cupcake monsters have all but taken over the world – a well-known deal-a-day discount website now features an offer for a series of lessons in cupcake decorating.

The main issue with cupcakes is that, well, they don’t actually taste very nice at all. Once you have got through the mound of oddly-coloured icing, and have managed to avoid being poked in the eye by whatever sparkler, firework or leg of lamb is adorning the top of it, you’re left with a rather ordinary little bit of sponge in a brightly-coloured, eco-hostile box and a price tag that equates to a three-course meal at your local Harvester. See you at the salad bar.

Posted by: J M | May 3, 2011

S is for service

It’s not often I feel sorry for tourists who come to London. They’re quite willing to pay extortionate amounts to stay in hotels I wouldn’t be seen dead in, and to buy overpriced tat from those stalls which line the capital’s streets, all for a glimpse of our faded grandeur. They get in the way on escalators, talk loudly on the tube and ask you how to get to Trafalgar Square while standing in the middle of it. They smoke incessantly, send their children over here for the entire summer holiday to learn English and have no concept of queueing. Yes, yes, yes they’re good for the economy – I know that. But still.

But I’ve started to come round to the tourists. I’m on their side. I never thought it would happen, but after experiencing London’s idea of customer service over the last two bank holiday weekends, I feel like I should stand at the departure gates at Heathrow, handing out rosettes or small trophies to any tourist who has made it back to the airport without wanting to kill one of us.

London’s been busy, what with Easter and the Royal Wedding. It’s like the world had a good grope down the back of the sofa to find inhabitants it didn’t even know it had, just to send them onto us here in London. Eateries and shops in the West End have been rubbing their hands in glee at this, knowing full well that most tightfisted, miserable Londoners will avoid town like the plague during this period, meaning that their patrons will be the poor hapless tourists – wallets on legs, with leaky pockets and a high tolerance for being treated like shit.

Over the first bank holiday weekend, I found myself in town with a friend, buying stuff for a holiday I’m about to go on. Town was less horrible than it usually is every Saturday, as the weather was baking hot and most people had stayed at home, save for the aforementioned tourists who were taking pictures of Niketown wit such enthusiasm that I had to check Princess Diana hadn’t been resurrected and plonked atop the store. Shop assistants are a funny old breed at the best of times, but it’s during the summer when they excel themselves, becoming a new race altogether. I know; I was one, once. Come the first rays of sunshine and all a shop assistant can think about is what time they finish work, how long it will take them to do their hair and how many drinks or wraps of drug it’s going to take before they’re grinding flesh with another shop assistant/DJ/promoter (all fairly interchangeable roles). They they’re working in a shop with a view to serving customers is an inconvenience, something they barely give a second thought. When you do approach them and ask them for help, their head tilts involuntarily to one side, as if observing a mouse being ripped to shreds by a cat, and with their slackened jaw they’ll start to tell you that “all stock is out” or that “this fitting room is closed” or they’ll just hold their hand out for your card or cash without telling you how much your purchase costs. But at least as a Londoner you can call them out on their rudeness and threaten to complain. They still won’t care whether you live or die, but at least for the rest of your transaction, they’ll drop the attitude. For tourists, however, with the language barrier and lack of confidence which goes with it, there is no mercy. If the shop assistant is feeling particularly sadistic, they’ll get the hapless tourist to repeat what he’s trying to say over and over and over, like a Rosetta Stone language tape, until the tourist gives up and finds and ‘authentic London pub’ to drown his sorrows in, whereupon he’ll get charged a ludicrous amount for a pie which probably dates from Nell Gwynne’s era.

Waiting staff are also similarly gripped by “don’t give a fuck” fever in high season. While in town with my friend, I ‘enjoyed’ an excruciating bite to eat in a well-known bar chain behind Regent Street. The place was empty inside, as everyone else in the pub had thought “skin cancer be damned!” and was sitting outside, cooking much faster than our pitiful meal eventually would.It’s always great to walk into a place, ready to spend money, and to be met with what I would call indifference, but that seems too nice a word for it. Perhaps contempt would be better. After being served flat prosecco, a cold meal and being charged a service levy for going up to the bar and ordering ourselves, we weren’t having a good time. Then, as if by magic, the waiting staff started having a huge, sweary argument with each other about a missing tip. We complained and got part of the meal refunded, but the manager didn’t seem to care that we had had a dreadful experience and was more concerned with ignoring all the tourists desperately trying to catch here eye so they could pay the bill. She was, of course, hoping they’d give up waiting and just leave some kind of cash sum that would be way over what was necessary. Given that the tip being argued over by the staff was £40, it’s clearly a great racket.

And so pity the poor tourists. Ripped off, spoken to like they are shit, given hopeless directions by Londoners who can’t be arsed explaining the difference between The Mall and Pall Mall.

Posted by: J M | March 26, 2011

H is for homophobia

It was sunny last Saturday. I woke up feeling buoyant. I arranged to meet a friend by the river and decided to walk as it was such a nice day. I trundled along the busy road, summery pop blaring out of my earphones. I felt invincible, reborn as only one can on the first truly beautiful day of the year. As I reached a busy junction, two younger men came toward me, walking in the opposite direction. As I passed them, one of them said something in a derisory tone. I didn’t hear the exact word, but the first syllable was ‘gay’ and his face had held such a look of distaste that I knew he wasn’t complimenting me on my choice of blazer. Read More…

Posted by: J M | January 29, 2011

H is for humourless

I was out shopping for a new bed and bedroom furniture today. I didn’t find anything as my tastes and my wallet refuse to meet halfway when it comes to expense, but I *did* see the sign in the picture below. It is what looks like a fairly harmless promotion for Valentine’s Day in the posh furniture shop Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road, featuring a quote from famous author Kingsley Amis.

It's only half a life without a woman? REALLY?

I merely glanced at it as I was leaving the shop, but as my brain processed what I’d actually seen, I found myself going back to it to take it all in. I get that it’s a quote and all that, but what does this actually mean? At the risk of sounding like an over-zealous, militant PC warrior, why does a shop think it’s OK to use this quote, when there are a million more romantic and more ambiguous quotes out there that would do just as well? Read More…

Posted by: J M | January 24, 2011

R is for ‘ram it down my throat’

It was with some interest – and indeed a state of mild depression – that I read this piece by Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail, which raises concerns that aspects of gay life could be introduced into schools’ curriculums. The examples given are fairly innocuous: students could learn about statistics referring to gay people as a percentage of the population  or in geography consider why homosexual people leave rural areas for the city, but to read this somewhat pointless diatribe, one would think that schools are being encouraged to ask little boys to kiss each other open-mouthed or handing out dildoes to teenage girls. One ludicrous example even lambasts the possibility that science students could be taught about male animal species who take care of their young rather than females, which doesn’t seem quite like a gay trait to me, unless human widowers left to look after a family following their wife’s death instantly acquire a predilection for penis. Read More…

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