Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons – not as bad as you might have heard

Poor Sir Craig Oliver.

His memoir of the inside story of the Brexit referendum seems to have been universally panned by the press. James Kirkup’s evisceration in The Telegraph is particularly brutal.

It is true that it is not that well-written. The number of times that Craig “runs into” a world famous politician and then is reminded of a pop-culture reference suggest it needed more careful editing.

It has clearly been rushed out and is little more than a diary rather than a considered view of the campaign and its implications.

But that was also true of Alastair Campbell’s diaries too. So, why the universal derision?

I better declare an interest. I’ve known Craig for many years. He was a highly intelligent and capable programme editor at ITN and one of the driving forces behind ITV News during his tenure as Head of Output. He was a smart, driven but thoughtful journalist with a populist touch.

We stayed in contact after he moved to the BBC and I briefly worked for David Cameron in opposition – although I’ve not seen him since his elevation to Number 10.

But he’s not exactly clubbable.

When he started working for Cameron I heard back from friends in the Lobby and on comment pages of newspapers that they found him supercilious, unconcerned with the needs of the print press and purely focussed on broadcast news.

That was clearly the right thing to do in my opinion. Getting the message right on Radio 1, Radio 2 and the main broadcast bulletins watched by millions of voters is far more important than appeasing the Sunday Telegraph’s comment writers.

But it is clear the Lobby has never forgiven him and is getting its revenge now.

That said, this is an insight into the heart of the campaign and its failings. And it is surprisingly refreshing to see politicians actually being quoted in what would normally be off-the record moments.

And that might be something the Lobby, with its reliance on anonymous sources, might want to reflect on.

My most popular posts of 2015

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Here are the top five most popular posts from 2015 on my blog.

  1. UK election debates to go ahead
  2. My predictions for 2015
  3. First attempts at media punditry
  4. Who will be the new political editors of ITV and BBC News?
  5. New deputy editor of ITV News

No standout post this year, unlike last year’s On John Oliver quitting The Daily Show, (7th most popular story this year) but a steady amount of traffic to all.

Search terms are no longer that interesting a resource, with so much of Google’s searches now encoded. But still a steady amount of traffic looking for information about the former Deputy Editor of ITV News, Richard Zackheim.

A steady if not spectacular year – perhaps not surprising given the paucity of my posting. Must try harder next year.

BBC’s Robert Peston moving to ITV?

 

A great scoop for The Radio Times – it understands the BBC’s Economics Editor, Robert Peston, has been offered the job of Political Editor of ITV News.

He’s said to be making a decision this week – to poach him would be quite a coup for Geoff Hill and Tim Singleton. Peston’s one of the BBC’s most recognisable and trusted reporters.

It’s clear from his recent interviews that Peston has been feeling increasingly restless and the opportunity to report on politics from a premier position at a broadcaster is no doubt attractive.

But, as I’ve previously argued, I think there needs to be more diversity in the roles of political editor. Clearly it’s not the only the issue, but does ITV want to be the only major UK broadcaster with a middle-aged white man fronting their political coverage?

I also can’t help feeling, given ITV’s target audience, the cerebral Peston might not be the ideal person to communicate policy to the viewer.

And perhaps that means Peston should be cautious too.

He doesn’t need career advice  from me, but perhaps he should consider how successful or not some of the big name BBC to ITV transfers have been. The path to Gray’s Inn Road may be well-trodden but so is the road back to New Broadcasting House.

Still, I’ve argued before that part of what an Editor wants to achieve from appointing a new Political Editor is to make a statement about the news service’s positioning, garner positive headlines and deliver impact. On that basis alone hiring Robert Peston would be a success; it’s a bold and audacious move.

Who will be the new Political Editors of BBC and ITV News?

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They’re changing the guard at the Palace of Westminster.

After 10 years as political editors of BBC News and ITV News respectively both Nick Robinson and Tom Bradby are off to become presenters. Nick on Radio 4’s Today programme, Tom on ITV’s News at Ten.

The political editor of a TV (and these days digital) news service is a unique position in the broadcast firmament. Reporter, pundit, political anorak, celebrity, workaholic,  and conduit between government and company – the roles it encompasses are varied and subtle. It requires a sophisticated skill set to do the job well.

So, who’s in the running for two of the top jobs in British news?

As I’ve argued before these roles have for too long been awarded to middle-aged, white men. And the two deputies, James Landale and Chris Ship,at BBC and ITV respectively, fit that demographic. Both are competent and well respected, either would be a safe pair of hands.

But the deputy never gets the top job.

If you’re James Harding or Geoff Hill you want your appointment to make waves, garner headlines, perhaps bring in fresh blood and say something about your positioning of your news brand.

And I’d say that also rules out Sky News’s Joey Jones.

I’d say the most eligible candidates are all women. For either channel the interview short-list could look something like this:

Newsnight’s Laura Kuenssberg, Emily Maitlis and Allegra Stratton – all rising stars with serious clout, they may well want to take on the challenge while leaving Newsnight to head towards oblivion.

The BBC’s Lucy Manning – a well respected political journalist at ITV and Channel 4 before heading to the BBC, she’s got the Westminster chops. Crucially she’s also close to Head of Newsgathering, Jonathan Munro.

Channel 4’s Cathy Newman – a previous life with the FT and as a political correspondent means she’s got the experience. But with Jon Snow rapidly approaching 70 perhaps she might feel her name is firmly in the running to be lead presenter at Channel 4.

And as an outside bet, especially for ITV News, I’d look at the former political editor of The Observer, Gabby Hinsliff.

One final thought: Evan Davis has never really appeared comfortable at Newsnight. Could this be a way back into the mainstream of news?

2015: my five predictions for the media year ahead.

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Having started this blog in 2014 with a series of predictions, it seems sensible to keep up the tradition. You can see how successful I think last year’s were here. Naturally, predicting the future inevitably means egg on the face for those foolish enough to try it but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

1. Podcasts are back in fashion.

There’s nothing like success to breed imitation and Serial, the podcast investigation of a murder case and trial has been a phenomenal success. Sarah Koenig’s drawn out story seems to have been averaging around a million and a half downloads an episode. It would be wrong to say that this came out of nowhere; Serial’s an off-shoot of the brilliant This American Life on NPR. But these are big numbers.

Podcasting’s been around for more than a decade now . When it first began it promised a new multimedia future for print products and I’ve written elsewhere about my efforts as a podcast producer, including setting up The Bugle. But for much of its history, podcasting has been the unloved child of multimedia content. It was quickly eclipsed by online video. I remember going to a strategy meeting at The Times at the tail end of 2006 and being asked about my plans for a new slate of podcast products for 2007, and causing consternation by saying podcasting was over – it was now all about online video.

Well, maybe I wrote podcasts off to soon. But the success of Serial shows once again that overnight success rarely happens overnight. You need to support teams and products over the long-term and give producers the space to fail as well succeed. And a long-term commitment means strong nerves and resilience as you wait to see a return on your investment. It means allocating hard pressed resources in the face of budget pressures. It also means learning lessons from competitors and using the medium to the full. And it puts story-telling back at the heart of audio journalism.

Some commentators have said that Serial is unlike anything else out there. I’m not sure that’s true. It feels very American to me and very much a child of its NPR roots. But it is true to say that it doesn’t sound like anything on British radio or newspaper sites. Be assured that’s about to change. In the same way that Snowfall led to a rash of imitations, Serial is about to get some inferior but heavily promoted competition. And its pick-up by BBC Radio 4 Extra means that Serial inspired documentaries are likely to feature heavily in this spring’s Radio 4 Commissioning Round.

But now podcasts are back, shouldn’t they be called something new with the announcement that Apple is killing off the iPod Classic?

2. The TVisation of the web

It’s long been a truism about digital that TV hasn’t made the most of new formats and mechanisms for securing the audience of the future. To begin with dial-up and slow broadband connections meant that the experience for web video was so poor, TV companies felt able to dismiss the new upstart medium as having an irredeemably poor user experience.

That’s all over now. The exponential increase in broadband speeds has allowed a TV-like experience to be delivered by a new generation of suppliers.  Up until now that’s meant platform owners such as Netflix or YouTube have seen big benefits but there are two distinct trends in place at the moment that are changing that.

Firstly, the lo-fi. The punk, just do-it, ethos of Stampy, Zoella and others has captured the imagination of a generation who appear to be less engaged with TV. This is about content makers becoming stars on new platforms and new styles of video-making. And if you’re over the age of 25, you just won’t get it.

Secondly, the high-end. For example, Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards or Vice trying to corner the market in Millennial broadcast news. This is about replicating a traditional lean-back TV experience using a different delivery mechanism.

The web is moving closer to a broadcast platform. Yes there’s interactivity but as Twitter has shown, it’s not essential for success. And this is post-text – or at least a staging point on the road to post-text. Back in the CB-radio-like days of the 90s and early 00s it seemed everyone would be a publisher – now it’s clear publishers and platforms will be corporates and that talent and content can be sourced from everywhere. And that is a broadcast model.

And who does broadcast and high-end lean back experiences? TV companies. My guess is that 2015 is, finally, the year the TV industry fully embraces digital as an entertainment medium and not just a threat to their core business.

3. Towards a sustainable future for papers

The newspaper industry continued to show two distinct trends in 2014: the decline of print and the growth of digital.

That will continue and accelerate in 2015.

The industry is still drunk on digital numbers, but three, or perhaps four, clear business models are emerging. Advertising supported, subscription and advertising, and philanthropic and membership. I expect those to continue to consolidate during the next year and I also expect newspapers to continue to cut costs as the digital advertising fails to fill the hole left by the decline of print adverts.

I also wonder if we might not see a return to products providing an edited bundle. While the trend towards personalised news continues, for me there remains value in seeing someone else’s take on the news. Relying on news to find you via your Twitter feed can be just too samey.

4. The content bubble deflates

Money has rushed in to new digital products. Name journalists have established new brands. Digital native producers have built successful new platforms. And some astonishing values have been put on the new players.

So, will this continue through 2015? I don’t think so. The valuations look distinctly frothy to me. There’s a lot of old media money being thrown at new platforms but with money comes obligations. There’s a lot of people trying to establish market share, with no clear route to profitability. You’d think the legacy media would be sensible enough to see the warning lights here, but that’s far from guaranteed.

My guess is that the content bubble will deflate this year. Probably slowly, although I wouldn’t be shocked to see a high-profile closure. And if there are any external economic shocks that degrade the advertising industry, it may be bumpy.

5. The first UK-wide digital election

It’s already begun, of course, but the coming UK general election will be the first fought using social media as the primary battlefield – especially if the TV debates fail to go ahead. At the last election, social media was still in the early adopter phase; now it’s mainstream and I expect all the parties to use it heavily in the run up to May.

What’s less clear is what the nature of that engagement will look like. I don’t expect social media to feature a particularly positive campaign. This will be about parody, pastiche and mocking your opponents’ positions. There will be enormous amounts of half-truths, spun facts and campaigning hyperbole. Journalists will have an enormous job to do separating the fact from the fiction.

Still, it was ever thus. And it’s likely to be enormous fun.

Top posts of 2014

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One year into this blog, and that’s about 358 days longer than any previous blog I’ve attempted, here’s the top five performing posts of the last year.

1. On John Oliver quitting The Daily Show

2. Channel 4 News live in Tottenham

3. Who’s making great online video?

4. Why Al Jazeera English needs to think again about digital news

5. Behind the scenes at Al Jazeera

The John Oliver post was the runaway winner, thanks to retweets by Andy Zaltzman and loyal Buglers around the world.

The online video comparison did well on Linkedin. I also tried reposting a few things on Linkedin but there didn’t seem to be much traction. More inspirational business leadership blogging required for cut through there.

With Google implementing HTTPS searches, search terms are no longer a hugely interesting resource using WordPress’s native analytics. But the most searched term of the last year was unquestionably Richard Zackheim, the new Deputy Editor of ITV News. Relatively little has been written about him so my short blog welcoming his appointment performs absurdly well on Google. Still, I’ll take the glory where I can get it…

 

My media predictions for 2014 – successes and failures

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I started this blog with a rash set of predictions for the media industry for 2014.

So how did I get on?

1. TV journalism old guard to retire.

Pretty close here, I think. David Dimbleby’s not quite fully handed over the reigns of election night to Dimbleby-in-waiting Huw Edwards but they are sharing presenting duties. Tom Bradby will take over from Alastair Stewart over on ITV, although Alastair will continue to anchor the day two coverage. If it’s another hung Parliament that could be a crucial part of the story. And Jeremy Paxman does get to bring his more abrasive style to election night coverage. But it’s on Channel 4 not BBC1.

2. A national daily newspaper announces it’s going weekly.

No. Despite caveating this prediction with an acknowledgement of the unexpected resilience of newsprint, the nationals continue to hang on as the regionals are hollowed out. Still, I I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the presses stop, as Trinity Mirror’s experiments in Reading suggest.

3. NBC news to get a shiny new website.

Partially right this one. Lots of changes in style over at NBC News – take a look at the site today as compared to the end of last year. It’s looking much bolder and cleaner,

That said it’s been evolution rather than revolution at NBC. And recent changes on the executive floor suggest it has been far from plain sailing. Still, a tighter focus by Julian March on digital and innovation might not be a bad thing as NBC News seeks to increase its speed of improvement. And hopefully that will deliver more tangible results than just a refresh of a rather tired app.

4. Twitter and linear television drive more “event” programming.

Yes, not much doubt about this. People using Twitter to discuss event TV is an increasingly important and measurable part of TV programming strategy. Perhaps more interesting is whether that trend will continue. Facebook is moving to reinforce its status as chief driver of social traffic and with its huge global dominance it may be hard for Twitter to carve out a niche market as the global media water-cooler.

5. TV debates announced for 2015 general election.

Well, they’ve been announced. But it’s not yet clear that they will go ahead in the format suggested by the broadcasters. The level of confusion about whether or not different party leaders should be included may yet give David Cameron a get out of jail card. But I suspect that they will still go ahead. All the polling suggests there is still everything to play for and Cameron will want to use every tool in his arsenal to ensure reelection and that includes dominating his opponents in a TV debate.

So, three and a half out of five? Not too bad but I’ll try to do better for next year.