The best of both worlds: Spiceworld and Narnia

Today’s Sun says that for the very first time Alex Salmond has admitted that independence won’t be easy and that we won’t have magic taps running fresh water, whisky and oil.  “Was that really so difficult, First Minister?” the leader asks.

As Wings Over Scotland points out, it wasn’t difficult – and wasn’t difficult  when he said the same thing publicly in June 2013, in January 2014 and in June 2014.

It probably sounds like a minor thing, but it’s characteristic of something that’s really shaken my faith in journalism in general over the last couple of years: we’re being told stuff that simply isn’t true and that doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of fact-checking. It’s not just the tabloids, either.

If the papers can’t be straight about very simple, well documented and easily verifiable pieces of information, how can you trust them on the more important issues?

It’s hard to quibble with Stuart Campbell when he says:

this stuff isn’t (just) cheap, snarky point-scoring about the stupefying incompetence of other journalists. It’s about the people of Scotland being fed a completely false narrative about a dishonest, shifty First Minister who promises the Earth and refuses to acknowledge any possible problems.

Obviously I’m coming to this from the perspective of a (converted) Yes voter, but it’s very clear from conversations I’m having online and off that many people will be voting in part based on outright lies and some very carefully worded claims (so for example the Better Together literature points out that Scotland benefits from transplant deals with English hospitals, implying that independence will mean the end of such deals. It won’t).

I’m not naive. I know that political campaigning means lying, distortion, dog whistle issues and other unpalatable things. But journalism is supposed to counterbalance that, to investigate the claims, expose the falsehoods and to hold campaigners (on both sides) to account. Its number one purpose is to ensure that the electorate are well informed – and from where I’m sitting, much of the media appears to be doing quite the opposite.

Journalism is supposed to be part of the solution, but here in Scotland* it’s part of the problem.

* With some honourable exceptions, of course. 

“The comments have failed us”

Margaret Eby argues that online comments on news pieces “are, most of the time, a disservice to both the writer and the reader.”

It’s true that putting your work out for public consumption requires some heartiness of spirit. But it is now not just tolerated but expected that journalists should suffer abuse at the hands of their audience. This is a relatively new occupational hazard. Newspapers always got their fair share of cranky letters, but no reporter was required to read–let alone publish–all of them. There is no other job, save comedian or bar band, where heckling is so routine.

It’s (nearly) time to get excited about virtual reality gaming

A fantastic piece by Richard Cobbett on what’s great about VR and what isn’t quite ready for prime time. I am *really* excited about this tech.

In an experience like the Museum of Games, you get to see many famous game characters rendered at their actual size – to really appreciate the scale of something like a Left 4 Dead Boomer and why it would be so terrifying to meet one in the flesh, or to stare up, up and further up at a Transformer rendered at a scale that no monitor can do justice to. It sounds like bullshit, but it’s true – VR adds a sense of meaning to things, from turning a series of empty corridors into a place, to making its inhabitants feel solid.

The Wee Blue Book: everything you’re being told is wrong

One of the things that’s really struck me about the Scottish independence debate is the astonishing amount of bullshit, usually from the No camp, that gets printed and broadcast. That’s inevitable when the majority of the media favours the status quo, but it’s pretty offensive to read or hear something that you know is utter bollocks go unquestioned.

Wings over Scotland is biased in the other direction, but at least it backs up its arguments with facts, figures and details of its sources – and its (free) Wee Blue Book does a pretty good job of telling the pro-independence side of the story.

You certainly don’t get this kind of honesty in the campaign literature, or in many of the newspapers:

Anyone, on either side of the debate, claiming to know as a matter of certainty what would happen to an independent Scotland’s EU membership status is a liar. Nobody knows for sure whether an independent Scotland would be admitted directly, because although the EU has offered to answer that question, it will only do so if asked by the UK government, and the UK government refuses to ask.

If you’re frustrated by the hazy optimism of Yes and the outright bullshit of No, The Wee Blue Book is well worth a look.

Hope and Faith: an independence anthem

It’s almost a year since we released Good Times, High Times and Hard Times, so it’s about time we put out some new music. Here’s the first one, a wee independence anthem that doesn’t so much veer close to Big Country territory as barrel through it on a motorbike fuelled by Irn-Bru.

As ever, if you like it we’d appreciate it if you could share it – and if you’d like to use it for something, please get in touch.

The Magazine Diaries

I’ve contributed to The Magazine Diaries, “a little book publishing project designed to let magazine people tell the world how they feel about making magazines in the middle of the biggest disruption in publishing history and raise some money for a great charity.” The project is asking magazine people to submit 100-word articles about their jobs, and my one is here:

I worry about thinning walls between advertising and editorial, about writers who don’t need paid because someone else is picking up their tab, about slideshows and pop-ups and weird tricks for flat bellies.

But I still feel lucky.

You’ll find a full list of contributors here.

A black hole, not a black dog

There’s an honest piece about depression in this week’s Sunday Post by the very talented and exceptionally nice Chae Strathie, whose books make lots of children very happy.  For Strathie the illness wasn’t so much about feeling down – it was about not feeling anything at all. As he puts it, it was more a black hole than a black dog.

It sounds melodramatic now, with the benefit of hindsight. But at the time it was all too real and impossible to see a way out.

Of course, being a Scottish male in public I put on a brave face and told no one about what I was going though. If bottling up emotions was an event in the Commonwealth Games, Scotland would sweep the field. When it comes to keeping schtum about feelings, we’re world-class.

I’ve experienced similar issues, and like Strathie I went to the doctor about it. If you can relate, you should go too.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason.”

While I’m on an old-article tip, I’ll republish this as part of my ongoing and Quixotic battle to stop Hunter S Thompson from being misquoted. It’s from .net back in 2008.

Flies and death and stuff

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason. There is also a negative side.” Legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson said that, and it’s been circulating around the internet for years now.

The thing is, he didn’t say it. If you pick up his book Generation of Swine, you’ll see that what HST really wrote was this: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.” The misquote has become an Internet Fact.

It’s a similar story with Mariah Carey. Despite what you might have read in Grazia last year, she didn’t actually say of starving children that “I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all the flies and death and stuff”. The quote was invented by a satirical website, but it soon became an Internet Fact that ended up in print.

Internet Facts are a good example of the wisdom of crowds being drowned out by the mooing of herds: what survives isn’t necessarily the truth, but what people would like to believe. It’s funny when it’s making Mariah Carey look daft, but when it’s something more serious the effect is chilling.

In June, The Sun reported that an Anglo-Indian couple had abandoned their newborn baby girls because the dad wanted boys. The following day, it returned to the story – this time to quote the relevant NHS trust’s statement, which denied the allegations and said that the parents were perfectly attentive and very much in love with their daughters. Dozens of blogs quoted the original article; not one of them ran a correction when it turned out that the story was flawed at best and completely false at worst. And on The Sun website, it’s clear that most commenters simply ignored the correction. The result was several pages of knee-jerk nonsense, often bordering on the racist, sometimes crossing the line altogether. The story – the original one, not the corrected, accurate version – has become an Internet Fact, fuel for casual racists and Stormfront posters alike.

There are countless examples, ranging from the relatively harmless – for example, lurid and entirely invented tales of celebrities’ sexual proclivities – to the downright dangerous, such as the false dangers attributed to life-saving vaccines. Thanks to blogs and comments, we all have the right to publish this stuff and to circulate it more widely – but with that right comes the responsibility to ensure that what we say or post is actually true. Everything we post online has the potential to become an Internet Fact. As with most things in life, it pays to listen to Cher: as she sang in If I Could Turn Back Time, “words can be weapons. They wound sometimes.”

Freelance writer Gary Marshall on Apple, technology, music and too much coffee

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