Book review – Media talk and political elections in Europe and America

A book review I wrote for The European Journal of Communication here

The book is an edited collection using discourse analysis to examine everything from The Daily Show to Cleggmania and Obama’s email communications.

It’s edited by Mats Ekström and Andrew Tolson and published by Palgrave Macmillan.

I’m only just getting used to academic publication cycles. I wrote this six months ago and it has just been released – hence the reference to Ed Miliband having more time on his hands!

That’s a lesson learnt about time specific references dating your copy…

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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?

Endless debates about TV debates

Surprise move: David Cameron appointed Craig Oliver

I’m not going to rehearse the debate about TV election debates; I’ve made clear I think they should happen and will happen in the short campaign.

But I think it’s worth noting that in trying to do David Cameron’s bidding in scuppering the debates, Craig OIiver seems to have managed to achieve the worst of all worlds.

Cameron consistently said he thought they sucked the life out of the 2010 campaign – although politicians are always likely to say this about debates they haven’t won.

Still, the Prime Minister’s determination not to let them take place again has led to a confrontation with the broadcasters at precisely the wrong point in the electoral calendar.

I know Craig from ITN and he’s a smart operator. But it’s clear he thought the broadcasters would back down when faced with a point-blank refusal from No 10.

That strategy has blown up in his face because of a surprisingly firm response from the broadcasters.

Now Labour’s chicken charge is sticking, it’s getting traction with the public, and that can only get worse from now on.

If Cameron doesn’t take part in the debates, he’s a chicken. If he does take part, he’s a flip-flop chicken.

Downing Street’s only hope for a way out of the impasse is a failure of nerve and splits among the broadcasters to emerge. Cue Lord Grade.

UK election leaders’ debates to go ahead

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We’re doing it with or without you is the threat from the broadcasters.

ITV, BBC, Sky and Channel 4 have offered a new formula for the televised leaders’ debates. One debate with the Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition alone; and two debates with the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the SNP, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru.

The debates would take place during the General Election campaign – with proposed dates of 2,16 and 30 April.

That sounds like a tough couple of programmes to produce. Presumably we’re now into the formal realms of “You have a minute to state your position on the NHS”.

But equally, it’s very hard to see how David Cameron can continue to refuse to take part without the “frit” allegation sticking. He wanted the minor parties, he’s got the minor parties.

Expect complaints from the DUP, Respect and others though.

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.