Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Snooker: how not to break with the familiar

I used to watch lots of snooker as a kid but then more or less stopped following it. Like many others, however, I’ve found myself glued to the World Championships over the last week or two. Not just because of the number of exciting matches, like Ronnie Sullivan's 13-12 defeat to Barry Hawkins. Not just because it’s one of the very few sports my mum watches with me. But because I like the familiarity - both the coverage and the sport itself are virtually the same as I remember. The same presenter (Hazel Irvine), same venue (the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield), same format (32 players, four rounds), same referees and - for the most part - the same players. If players aren’t playing any more, or if they got knocked out early, they’re in the commentary box (Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty, Steve Davis, Peter Ebdon, John Parrott) alongside the ever so familiar voices of John Virgo, Willie Thorne, Dennis Taylor and Terry Griffiths. It almost feels like the only thing that’s changed somewhat is the theme tune, and even that’s based on the same song (the excellent Drag Racer by the Doug Wood Band).

This year's World Snooker Championship is the 40th to
be held at the Crucible in Sheffield. Photo: Philippa Willits

Another sport I follow closely is basketball. But speed and fitness are so important that players rarely play past their mid-thirties, let alone into their fifties like in snooker. I first got into NBA basketball in February 2007, staying up late over much of the next 18 months to catch games. Then I went six years without following it properly. By the time I got back into it, players who’d been young stars when I last watched them were suddenly “veterans”. Many had already retired. Several teams had moved or “rebranded”. At the end of the 2007-08 season, after which I lost interest, the Seattle Sonics moved 2000 miles and became the Oklahoma City Thunder. That almost makes Wimbledon’s infamous 60-mile move to Milton Keynes seem ok by comparison (well, not quite, nothing does). The New Jersey Nets are now the Brooklyn Nets. The New Orleans Hornets are now the New Orleans Pelicans. The Charlotte Bobcats are now the Charlotte Hornets.

I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a small “c” conservative when it comes to sport, which wouldn’t reflect my support for the introduction of technology, whether goalline technology in football, Hawk-Eye in tennis and cricket, or the television match official in rugby. Obviously I also welcome how better equipment has improved the quality of many sports. And how injuries are taken more seriously than in the past, especially head injuries in football and rugby.

But one thing I do like in sport is familiarity. I despair when I hear older generations of football fans lament how the game has changed for the worst. Some things have improved since the 80s (mostly safety at stadiums and attitudes shown towards racism and homophobia, not always punished sufficiently yet, but more than before). But what’s the world coming to when fans are expected to pay £55 a game to watch wildly overpaid players who jump at the chance to move for even more cash? When £100k a week for Liverpool Football Club, one of the biggest on the planet, isn’t enough for a 20-year-old, who refuses to play until granted a transfer [to Manchester City]? When owners try to change historic team names or team coloursWhen a Premier League game between Everton and Manchester City kicks off at 11.15am to please TV audiences in the Far East? When a player staying at the same club all career is seen as a thing of the past? When an FA Cup semi-final between Everton and Manchester United takes place at Wembley rather than a neutral ground closer to the North West? When some "big" clubs think they should automatically qualify for the Champions League or start their own "breakaway" league?

Cardiff City fans protest against changing the
team's colours to red. Photo: Jon Candy

Globalisation and money will almost inevitably continue to change sport. And snooker's probably no exception. But the only significant recent changes so far seem to have been positive. It’s expanded to China, swelling the sport’s global viewing audience. There are now more players from outside the UK and tournaments outside the British Isles than before, which few see as a bad thing - we call it the "World Championships" after all. Tobacco advertising is outlawed - rightly, in my opinion - so it's found other ways to replace lost income. One or two other minor reforms have been mooted.

As a spectacle though, it’s reassuringly similar to what it was like 10, 20 or 30 years ago, and it's reassuring to think that future generations will watch the same spectacle, not altered beyond recognition because a small number of people have seen a new way to make lots of money. And the changes made and talked about pale into insignificance compared to the radical overhaul which has harmed football since my dad first started to go and watch Charlton in the 80s. Driven not by what supporters want but what broadcasters and commercial interests, football's changed almost irreparably in many ways. Governing bodies, some of which have apparently been too busy lining their own pockets, seem too weak and feeble to apply meaningful regulation, to enforce robust “fit and proper” tests for owners, or to cap ticket prices (the £30 away ticket limit is too little, too late). What a shame!

Friday, 22 April 2016

Why TFL should drop standing-only plans before anger escalates

Much has been written about Transport for London trialling standing-only escalators for London Underground passengers. As someone unfortunate enough to use the station hosting the experiment (Holborn) on a regular basis during rush hour, I can perfectly understand why TFL want to tackle congestion as a matter of urgency. And I can see where they’re coming from in that it’s farcical that so many passengers rush along the platform only to stop and queue to get onto the right of the escalator (turns out they weren’t in the hurry they made out they were in or else they’d walk up...)

All the coverage I’ve read, however, misses one key point. Is the average time it takes a passenger per escalator the only important factor in play? In my opinion, what matters most is not the average speed but the top speed one can reach using escalators - which, clearly, is considerably higher under the “stand on the right” status quo.

For thousands of tube users, having the option of going at top speed can be the difference between making it to a 9am meeting just in time and slightly late. Between making a train and missing it and having to spend a fortune on a new ticket now that "advance tickets" dominate UK rail travel, tripling stress. Between making and missing a flight. Between making it to and missing an event with a "no latecomers" policy.

Photo: Elminium
A small change to the speed most people (those that stand) go at surely doesn’t make such a big difference to them - if they were in a hurry and every second really mattered, they wouldn’t just stand. As far as I’m concerned, people who can afford to wait to stand can be kept waiting 30% longer to protect the right of those who feel the need to to walk or run up. After all, most of those who queue to stand will, at some point, be among those who need to walk/run - we're broadly talking about the same people. Surely more than half of London Underground users have walked or run up escalators at least once. Haven't you?

There are things you can do to speed your journey up when you're in a hurry. My favourite is using the Tube Exits app, which tells you which carriage to board the train in to alight right by the exit. But, by commendably trying to address one problem - the congestion at stations like Holborn - their proposed solution threatens to create another, a greater one in my view.

A major cause of the congestion at Holborn is that, staggeringly, there’s just one exit from the Central Line platforms. Unless you've used the app and know where to board the train, it can take as long as two to three minutes just to leave the platform. Wouldn't it make more sense to divert resources wasted on this experiment into building another exit? What do you think?

PS. Before anyone comments, yes, I know TFL have now introduced a third "up" escalator at Holborn for those who want to walk, but how many stations have that luxury? That’s a response that would not be available at most stations; few have so many escalators.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Back in the blogosphere

I’ve decided to revive Modern Life and return to blogging at last. I'm not yet sure what I’ll write about or how regularly - it depends how busy and self-disciplined I am. Because, when you blog, you're setting your own deadlines and editing your own work, I tend to be much less reliable than with work assignments, where obviously I can't miss deadlines in the same way.

As it’s so long since I last wrote anything on this platform, though, I thought I’d first fill you in as to what I’ve been doing over the last few months.

I graduated in July 2015, the same month I started my first paid journalism job at BBC Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, having work experienced at BBC Bristol, Times Higher Education and Bristol 24/7 in June. I spent two and a half months at WDYTYA? writing online content, including a weekly genealogy news round-up, TV and Radio highlightsinterviews with researchers who featured in episodes of the latest series and fact files about celebrities appearing on it.

I then interviewed for a job as Online Editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine. My role there involved running its Twitter and Facebook accounts and writing and editing a wide range of articles. Subjects I covered ranged from the badger cull to leaf peeping, speed limits, the plastic bag charge and farmers’ mental health difficulties.

Like with WDYTYA?, it involved working with a lovely group of people who made me feel welcome from day one, and the team was great fun to be a part of. We had one or two stressful moments, mainly due to readers phoning in with some strong views, let’s say, about the dog of the year competition... Actually, to say some readers had "strong views" about dog of the year is possibly the biggest understatement since Boney M. sang "Ra Ra Rasputin, it was a shame how he carried on". But I learnt a lot, it was thoroughly enjoyable and the journalists there - like those on the magazines around us (we shared the building with Homes & Antiques, History, Wildlife, Cross Stitch Crazy and more) - do an excellent job.

An old friend I ran into at GuildHE conference grabs the camera and
 takes a sneaky photo as I post HE reaction to the Autumn Statement

After three months, I moved back to London and started as Reporter for higher education policy and politics website Wonkhe, which aims to improve policymaking in HE and provide a platform for the new or previously unheard sector voices. I scheduled tweets throughout the week, wrote and commissioned articles, and did reports and liveblogs from several sector conferences in London, GuildHE’s Annual Conference in Worcester and the higher education fringe at the Labour Party conference in Brighton.

I enjoyed being part of a growing organisation and writing about a topic I take a real interest in. Especially at a fascinating time for HE - for good or for bad. From a journalist’s point of view, it’s been the ideal time to be reporting on it. I now work there in a reduced capacity and have gone freelance so pitch articles to various publications about a range of topics that interest me.

In my free time, I’ve continued to attend Charlton Athletic games with my dad and brother - we have season tickets and have been to five away games. Lowlights included being at Selhurst Park to witness a 4-1 League Cup thrashing by rivals Crystal Palace in which our then manager infuriatingly rested several key players and a trip to Reading in which we failed to even have a shot on target. But what makes it the most depressing time to be a Charlton fan since the 80s is not poor results which have kept us in the Championship relegation zone since December. Not even the week which saw a 5-0 loss to Huddersfield, a 6-0 defeat to Hull and an FA Cup exit against Colchester United, who are bottom of League 1. It’s how our club’s been run by our odious owner and CEO, and their utter contempt for the supporters who, when we lost our ground in the 80s and faced collapse, saved the club and played a key part in helping bring it back to the Premier League. In my time watching football, I’ve never known such an overwhelming majority of any club’s fans oppose their ownership. Nor such unanimous agreement among journalists - local, national and international - that they’ve got to go. Blog to follow.

At The Valley to see Charlton in happier times

In a personal capacity, I was invited to speak at an Italian Democratic Party event in Reggio Emilia, where I took part in a discussion about the future of the Italian left and alternatives to austerity alongside President of Tuscany Enrico Rossi and former British Labour Party MP Chris Williamson, who I travelled with.

I was also lucky enough to host a public interview with Richard King about his excellent book on Bristol music and his time working at Revolver Records on Clifton Triangle.

I organised a conference for London-based student journalists with six guest speakers covering topics such as digital media, constructive journalism and how to freelance, as part of the voluntary role I do for the Student Publication Association on the side.

And I went to Dismaland while it was open, and thought it was absolutely brilliant!

I’ve also been adjusting to living back at home with my family. It’s not that long since I moved back here, so it’s probably still the “honeymoon period”...

There's one more question I should probably answer before I sign off: why go into journalism even though it's become one of the hardest industries to get into?

I made up my mind quite suddenly over the 2014-15 Christmas holidays, having loved (nearly) every minute of the first half of my term as Epigram Editor. And I knew when I thought about it then that I wanted to make a living from things I like doing so much - writing, interviewing people, keeping the public informed and holding people to account.

My experience nine months in, just like at Epigram, has been that you meet so many nice people, whether interviewees or colleagues. You also you learn so much and become more and more informed about more and more topics from research, interviewing and considering different points of view. In a way it's like being able to study for life, increasingly putting to use skills you learn.

It's become tougher to find journalism work than ever before, though. You used to be able to leave school at 16, go to your local paper, learn on the job and work your way up from there. And not just 40 or 50 years ago. I know people in their 30s who did the same. That’s unheard of these days. Nor is a good university degree and significant experience at a student newspaper generally enough. You’re told that you won’t get anywhere unless you spend a further £9,000 on a Journalism MA or over £4,000 on an NCTJ-accredited diploma. Local papers, which used to be ladders to nationals, tend to be the fussiest about having the qualification, so the ladders are mostly being taken away.

I don't often agree with Nick Cohen, but he's right that, in journalism, "managers have passed the cost of training to potential applicants. They no longer pick promising recruits and pay them while they learn. They expect the graduate to arrive fully formed and fully trained, and to work nothing for months as an intern".

You’re expected to do more than ever - writing, editing, subediting, social media, data, photography, audio, video and so on - and own a car. And you’re paid less than ever, less than predecessors who could only do one of those things were. But no-one goes into journalism for the money (or job security), and I’m no exception, so I’ll just keep plugging away.

An up-to-date list of my articles can be found on my Journalisted page.

Friday, 8 May 2015

A final note from the editor - Epigram editorial (8 May 2015)

This issue will be the last of the 2014-15 academic year, meaning that, while our website will continue to be updated over the next few weeks and months, readers will have to wait until the autumn for another print issue.

I’m very excited by the content in the paper, which includes reaction to Thursday’s surprise General Election results and interviews with our Vice-Chancellor, the Bristol Mayor and Winston Churchill’s granddaughter.

As with all of the issues this year, it makes me very proud of my colleagues, who have put in massive amounts of work during assessment period, and throughout 2014-15.

To sustain a fortnightly, high-quality 56-page publication and frequently updated website without any paid roles, as a group of students who all partake alongside their studies, is no mean feat. To smash records in the way that we have done this year makes me immensely proud.

A total of 13 stories have been picked up by national news outlets, including BBC News, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, Private Eye and The Huffington Post.

I would like to thank all of our section editors, sub-editors, writers, photographers and illustrators. This is not to forget our Webmaster, cartoonist or crossword designer.

I would also like to thank our Business Team, who work incredibly hard behind the scenes to source adverts, organise events and oversee distribution.

In April, we won a national award for Best Use of Digital Media, seeing off competition from the top student publications in the country.

It can’t be exaggerated how proud I am of the wonderful group of people I have had the pleasure of working alongside throughout the year.

The standards our team have set are extremely high. But I am confident that next year can be Epigram’s best ever. Our writers and editors have put in an unprecedented amount of hard work, countless freedom of information requests, multiple long nights either in the Epigram office or running liveblogs, be it Varsity, Students’ Union elections, the General Election or our own Question Time event.

I would like to thank everyone for reading, whether it be avidly or just flicking through the issue that turns up in your living room every month or so. But most of all, I would like to thank those around me, who make me a lot more optimistic about the future of journalism.

Finally, I would like to say a special thank you to Anna Fleck and Victoria Halman, our Deputy Editors. I can’t stress how lucky my colleagues and I have been to work alongside such dedicated, talented and fantastic individuals, who will go onto great things in the world of journalism. It truly has been a privilege, and I look forward to seeing Epigram continue to grow and develop over coming years as well as keeping in touch with current editors and writers.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

The importance of newspapers - Epigram editorial (25 April 2015)

Newspapers are important. Be it national newspapers, local newspapers or student newspapers. All have different audiences. All have an important role to play at local, national and, at times, international level.

We’re very pleased to have had 13 stories picked up by national news outlets so far this year, which underlines the amount of work put in by so many of our writers and editors.

13 is more than the number of issues we’ve printed so far in 2014-15, and this shows that, on average, we’ve published at least one story per issue that has seen issues highlighted at national level. It is vital that local newspapers, and student newspapers, are supported and able to continue to ensure that people are held to account and readers are kept in the loop.

As an excellent article in last week’s Guardian argued, ‘The presence of a journalist who turns up to council meetings makes local politicians more accountable and keeps tabs on their behaviour.’

Local newspapers can often be a vital vehicle for local campaigners. The said article gave the example of how campaigners in South Wales against the construction of the biggest biomass plant in the world have struggled to get their voice heard since the closure of the Port Talbot Guardian.

Parts of the country that lack a newspaper mean unreported news and unscrutinised politicians and businesspeople, which may make life easier for them but certainly don’t enhance democracy. Concerningly, some local papers, including in some London boroughs, have essentially become council newsletters. 

Some others have seen a rise in ‘churnalism’: the proliferation of regurgitation of press releases, be they from councils or PR companies, in place of news, which many papers are now guilty of as staff numbers are cut and the journalists that remain are increasingly overworked.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is rightly expressing concern, and last weekend held a special summit in Birmingham, which I attended, to discuss challenges in the industry.

Meanwhile, at national level, some newspapers are failing at basic duties and reducing faith in the press as a whole, with practices such as phone-hacking and   attacks on individuals.

For example, The Daily Mail attempted a hatchet job on Nick Clegg last election at the height of his popularity (it may be hard to believe now, but he was popular, particularly among students, back in 2010).

It ran a front page that shouted:
‘Nick Clegg in Nazi slur on Britain’, referring to an article he had written in 2002 which had been completely taken out of context.

The 2013 attack on Miliband’s late father, Ralph, as ‘the man who hated Britain’ crossed a line and was rightly condemned by politicians on all sides, including David Cameron. Mail columnist Sarah Vine’s recent comparison of Justine Miliband to ‘Mr Spock’ was also out of line.

While not quite as malicious, some recent ‘exposés’ about Ed Miliband’s love life – when he and the journalists he was linked with were single – appear desperate. Unsurprisingly, they seem to have backfired, with polls and a flurry of tweets showing increased respect for the Labour leader as a result.

Meanwhile, some recent Telegraph front pages have been tediously predictable. Take the 31 March front page ‘letter’ which features 100 ‘business leaders’ backing the Conservatives. Someone pointed out that the equivalent splash prior to the last election was released on exactly the same day of the year: 31 March 2010. Talk about using the same playbook…

Reverting to such predictable formulas is at odds with the Telegraph’s forward-thinking online strategy, which has seen it gain hits from an increasing number of those outside its traditional readership, including many young people and students put off by The Times’ paywall and looking for an alternative to The GuardianMeanwhile, reader trust was significantly undermined amid the HSBC scandal which saw respected columnist Peter Oborne leave the paper, claiming that articles exposing the bank’s tax scandal were pulled because it was an important advertiser.

The Mail is the most guilty of spreading misinformation about, for instance, social security spending. The public believe that 27 per cent of the social security budget is wasted on benefit fraud, but in reality it is only 0.7 per cent. That is letting down readers and failing in the paper’s duty to accurately inform the public.

In short, at a time when local newspapers are struggling for revenue, it is disheartening to see some of the wealthiest newspapers’ low standards.

On the subject of the election, well done to readers who registered to vote in time! I was uncomfortable with the deadline being so early (especially before students had even returned to university after Easter). But anyway, if you are registered, make sure to turn out on 7 May, whichever way you vote. The more students vote, the more our issues will hopefully be addressed and the less politicians will be able to largely ignore them, as they mainly have done over the last few years. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

Are Bristol students really 'winners'? Epigram editorial (9 February 2015)

A recent Times article (03/02/14) about tuition fees referred to Bristol University as among the list of ‘winners’ since the lifting of the cap on student numbers. Many students will be asking how we can possibly consider ourselves 'winners' from an unsustainable expansion, which has seen student-staff ratios rocketing and undergraduates sharing bunk beds.

It was Bristol’s ranking at the top of the list of universities’ increases in student numbers, ahead of UCL, Exeter and the LSE, with a whopping 40 per cent increase (1475 students) since 2011 that highlighted our apparent ‘success’. Since 2011, the University has continued to grow.
But are we really ‘winners’, when we have a Vice-Chancellor who lobbies against reducing fees below £9000? Someone who now claims to be concerned about living costs, but just three years ago tried to get rid of bursaries and replace them with fee waivers.
Are we ‘winners’ when many of our hard-working lecturers and administrative staff members face threats to have pay docked for engaging in marking boycotts and are expected to mark more work for less, as student numbers rise?
Are we ‘winners’ when we have to pay significant extra costs on top of the sky-high tuition fees and living costs in a city like Bristol?
It’s not all doom and gloom. The University has responded to some concerns. Epigram welcomes the University’s first public forum for Arts & Social Sciences, where students were free to raise issues. We welcome the creation of the ‘task force’ itself. We worry, however, that the lack of publicity meant that only a small fraction of concerned students were able to attend, and that, at time of writing, there remains no sign of another such event being organised.
However, whilst we acknowledge that action is being taken to increase problems study spaces, a number of which are now available in the Students’ Union, we believe that the University is not responding sufficiently to issues raised by student representatives (from course rep level up to sabbatical officers) surrounding extra costs, class sizes and accommodation shortages.
Does any Bristol student seriously feel like a ‘winner’ right now? Someone out there thinks that you are. Hopefully just a journalist from The Times’ sub-editing desk, under a tight deadline and not having the time to think through the implications of the use of such a word. Or could it be that, despite the students protesting outside Wills Memorial Building, despite National Student Survey satisfaction scores falling; someone in the University seriously believes that because of the expansion, we are all ‘winners’ here? Just remember that possibility next time you struggle to find a seat in your overcrowded seminar or fork out for ‘required readings’.
Forgive the footballing analogies, but while they say it’s only a game, the academic experience of staff and students alike is so much more than that. Yet here I find myself losing with 15 minutes (relative to my degree length) of my undergraduate life remaining.

There’s still time to get something out of this match, for the University to salvage its reputation among current students and show that it is taking action across areas of concern. But if chances aren’t taken, if the manager doesn’t make some changes, then we’re going to lose.
Oh well. I’m a Charlton fan. I’m used to losing.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo - Epigram editorial (26 January 2015)

It is impossible not to feel the need to comment on the recent atrocities in Paris and add our voices to those condemning the murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists, and police officers. It was a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, and I’m sure everyone reading will agree that nothing can justify the murder of 14 innocent people, however offensive or provocative the cartoons they may have published.
Debates have taken place surrounding the rights and responsibilities of media products, some of which feature in this edition of Epigram. My view is fairly simple. We do have the right to pretty much publish what we want. But that doesn’t mean we should feel that we have to publish images which we know will offend or hurt people. It is largely for this reason that I have taken the decision not to publish the ‘offending’ Charlie Hebdo cartoons in Epigram. But that in no way means that we as Epigramjournalists do not feel solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.
It’s not for me to pass judgement on what someone ‘should’ believe in, what they ‘should’ be offended in. Do we really want to tell people of a certain religion that they should not take offence at perceived caricature of an idol? It may be your right to offend them, but it is also their right to be offended, and for me it is a question of common decency whether or not to publish cartoons knowing that they may offend.
It would be especially insensitive at a time in which there have been disgraceful attacks on Muslims across Europe and politicians which espouse Islamophobia appear to be gaining considerable traction. Recent statements from Muslim leaders across the UK, and in Bristol itself, have made it clear that many feel deeply uncomfortable about what they deem as ‘gratuitous’ publishing of cartoons. That in no way whatsoever justifies any kind of attack on Charlie Hebdo or others who choose to depict Muhammad. That is obvious.
Whatever columnists in some newspapers have argued, printing cartoons of Muhammad is not necessary to show solidarity. A number of those to have done so take the view that free speech should be absolute. But we have laws, rightly in my view, that impose certain limits.
Why should Jewish people have to put up with blatant anti-Semitism? Why should Muslims have to put up with those who deliberately incite violence and racial hatred? I digress a little. But this is worth remembering as, in what is an extremely complex debate, it has seemingly been forgotten at times.
In summary, everyone at Epigram feels revulsion towards the acts of the terrorists, particularly as journalists who believe in free speech. But it is also frustrating to see the horrors of 7 January exploited by politicians and by free speech absolutists, a small number of which seem to actively enjoy promoting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.