Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Norway - I din mørkeste time skinne deg den lyseste

I’m still reeling from the atrocities this weekend in Norway, it is a country that I am very familiar with and which has a strong place in my heart. It is a country that has made me incredibly welcome and opened my eyes to the possibilities of an intelligent and inclusive society. This is what makes the events of the weekend so hard to comprehend at first glance.

I have been with my Norwegian wife for 13 years and visited Norway multiple times, I consider it my second home, so by default I feel the national sorrow side by side, I know how deeply this atrocity will affect a country that is so collective socially and so family focussed. I know that the children on Utoya will have been representatives from every small community across Norway. Every single community will have lost a bright burning star of hope and the future. This is what makes this tragedy so profound for me. Looking at the local paper from our Norwegian community and seeing the faces of young people who have both survived and died at Utoya makes me realise that there are few degrees of separation to this tragedy for any Norwegians.

When the reports first rolled out across the news about the Oslo bombing it was hard for myself and my wife to reconcile why anyone would bomb Oslo, whilst people speculated about Al Qaeda and all manner of international terrorism, it didn’t ring true to us. Whilst there was the long history of unease with refugee Mullah Krekar, it seemed unlikely to be connected and with Norway’s pro Palestinian stance it just didn’t feel right that this was in retribution for anything in particular. Also coupled with happening on a Friday afternoon and during the national holiday period – this did not fit correctly with the usual media orchestration of a major terrorist attack. I held back from commenting about this on Twitter, I prefer not to speculate in absence of any facts (unlike most of the mainstream media) as explained by Charlie Brooker in his Guardian article.

I hoped that it had no connection to Islamist terror due to how precarious Scandinavia is right now with anti multi-culturalism and Islamophobia, I feared such an event could tip Norway closer to how Sweden and Denmark are dealing with multi culturalism, something they have resisted well. As I watched the news from Utoya gradually emerge I felt that this was more likely to be a character more in the vein of Varg Vikernes than international terrorism, a deranged individual seeking to justify their actions through some disjointed ideology attributable to a right wing point of view.

Before speculating too much about the deranged killer, I wanted to reflect on how strikingly different the socio cultural response from Norway was in this tragedy, something many have commented upon, summed up best by a German newspaper:

"Even in their deepest sorrow, the Norwegians don't get hysterical. They resist the hate. It is amazing to see how politicians and the whole country reacts. They are sad to the deepest thread of their souls. They cry in dignity. But nobody swears to take revenge. Instead they want even more humanity and democracy. That is one of the most remarkable strengths of that little country."

I have always been in awe of Norwegian culture, it’s honesty, it’s integrity and its sheer intelligent maturity on so many things. It is an approach I wish I could see in our culture more, I feel more at home in Norway than I do in Britain right now. Could you imagine our politicians responding with integrity like these statements: Prime Minister Stoltenberg Initial Statement and at Oslo Cathedral.
The key statements echo and resonate for me:

“the answer to violence is even more democracy. Even more humanity.”
“If one man can create that much hate, you can only imagine how much love we as a togetherness can create.”

That one man was just that, one man. A man who does not deserve to be named, written about or debated – it feeds him. As Dr Park Dietz points out here:

We should not fuel the media saturation for good reason. Much will be said about links and causal attributes in a bid to understand this, I would hazard a guess he is a classic narcissist and his ranting about conspiracy and the right wing drove him to it are about the same as David Berkowitz blaming his neighbour’s dog for his killing spree. The words of Fabian Stang, Oslo’s mayor ring very true:

“We are going to punish him with democracy and love.”

It will take a long time for the wounds to heal, but Norway is in a healthy state to do this, they have the emotional maturity and dignity to grow from this, the fallen at Utoya and those in the Oslo blast will not be forgotten, their memory will not be wasted.

In closing, the words of Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg seem fitting in memoriam.

Our Youth

Enemies near and by,
threatening your right!
Under a storm of blood -
You have to fight!

Might you then ask in fear,
unarmed and open:
how shall I combat them,
what is my weapon?

Here is your shelter strong,
here is your sword:
faith in mankind,
and in everyone's worth.

For all the future holds,
seek this and tend it.
Die, if you have to, but:
deepen, extend it!

Silent the bullets glide
all through the night.
Use all your strength and love,
stop deadly flight!

War is contempt for life.
Peace is creating.
Add forces to the strife:
death shall be beaten!

Love - and enrich with dreams -
greatness of old!
Challenge unknown terrain -
truth will be told.

Works not yet being built,
stars never seen -
reveal them through rescued lives,
able and keen!

Noble is everyone,
earth, rich and sweet!
Hunger and suffering,
caused by deceit.

Crush it! In life's own name
injustice shall fall.
Light, bread and love and hope,
birth right of all.

Forcing all weapons down,
warfare shall cease!
Shielding man's dignity
creating true peace.

Who by his right hand's side
carries a burden,
precious and dear to him,
can never murder.

This is our promise,
from kin to kin:
cherish our fragile Earth,
it's ours to win.

We will protect and keep
beauty and grace -
as if we held a child
in tender embrace!

This is the playlist of music that helped me write this post:

Monday, July 11, 2011

Murdoch - The Last Frontier or The Next Frontier?

Stepping back from the hacking scandal and the detail that must now obviously be sifted through, I try to wonder about the tactic of the Murdoch empire in dropping the toxic News of the World so quickly, there is the obvious desire to complete the BSkyB deal as a paramount concern, but are we starting to see a change in direction for News Corp for the long term as media disintermediates across the spectrum? Ditching a print medium in this long term view is merely small change and may have been on the cards in the medium term anyway, recent events would have just made it more expedient. Thinking about this made me go back to a speech Murdoch gave in Paris in May this year to the eG8 Forum. The speech was titled Education: The Last Frontier.

In the speech Rupert Murdoch outlines a compelling truth about how education is lagging behind in the use of technology to engage and facilitate learning and he sets out compelling evidence that any learning technologist would firmly agree with, but before we commend him too highly on this noble outspoken and passionate speech (apologies for evident cynicism) – what lies behind it?
His opening statement that “we are living through a time when many of our leading economies are not performing as they should” maybe the key indicator to his mindset, he knows that News Corp will need to diversify their businesses away from mainstream media over the next couple of decades.
He continues, “everywhere we turn, digital advances are making workers more productive - creating jobs that did not exist only a few years ago, and liberating us from the old tyrannies of time and distance. This is true in every area except one: Education”. Like countless other publishers News Corp knows the education market is being set up for ripe exploitation across the globe.

He preceded this speech by making strong forays into the educational market at the end of last year, firstly by acquiring Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York city’s public schools, the same man who is now heading the internal News International investigation in the UK, he is Executive Vice President overseeing investments in digital learning companies with a News Corp education division and a $2 million salary. A few weeks after Klein joined News Corp they then acquired Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn based education technology company, for $360 million, with News Corp owning a 90% stake. Prior to this takeover News Corp had told the New York Times they planned to make “seed investments” in entrepreneurial education companies, it is likely that Wireless Generation is the first of these investments. Spokeswoman Andrea Reibel stated that “Wireless Generation is positioned to grow aggressively, and it was the right time in the company’s journey to find a home where it will have access to the resources it needs to fuel that aggressive growth”.

Rupert Murdoch stated “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone” about the acquisition. Murdoch is not stupid, he would have seen the success of other large publishers entering into the education sector and firmly set his eyes on the same prize as he concludes in his eG8 speech “Right now, these are just bits and pieces. Our challenge is to learn from what works best - wherever in the world we find it - and put it all together. My company is determined to try - in a big way”. Is this Murdoch's next frontier?

The landscape in education is shifting dramatically and quickly, particularly in the learning technology sector.
We have recently seen the acquisition of the large global learning technology provider Blackboard(the provider of VLE’s for a large proportion of global education) by “affiliates of Providence Equity Partners” for $1.64 billion. Providence Equity is an investment banker; naturally for investment banking, the firm’s goal is profit. To maintain Blackboard’s stock price at Oracle price-earnings ratio of 20—equivalent to an annual 5% return on investment (ROI)—earnings would need to increase from 2010’s $16.6 million to $74.9 million. That is, net revenue increases and cost reductions of at least $58.3 million are needed to be comparable with other public software companies. The average annual ROI of private equity firms for buyouts is 19.6%, though they may accept a less aggressive figure for one or two years. Assuming a market capitalization of $ 1.5 billion, earnings would need to be $292 million. This is $271 million more than current projections for 2011. To meet their expectations software prices would need to increase 52.3%. This could well impact increased licensing costs and maintenance costs for thousands of schools and HE organizations.

Additionally we know that for profit educational establishments owned by large corporations in the US are not without their own scandals as last year’s US Senate Hearings and undercover investigation by The U.S. General Accountability Office into practices at 15 for-profit colleges showed.

Whilst this activity has predominantly been in the US, the global marketplace for the publishing/ information businesses extension of their offerings into education is rapidly growing and as the global outsourcing sector develops into rapidly developing economies (RDE’s) such as India, China and Brazil as their populations are growing and professionalising at a fast rate. Those publishers with their combined resources and global reach will squeeze orthodox education and training providers and gradually start to make headway into buying their way in to the marketplace. It is safe to say that the squeeze has already started with the HE White Paper in the UK that had it’s way paved by the report law firm Eversheds provided to David Willetts back in 2010 and was commissioned by private education provider BPP, owned by Apollo Group.

I am not against the injection of private investment within the education sector or private providers of education (I work for one), but I am cautious of large corporations manipulation of education as a market and where it may lead based on the history of the profit motive that drives large corporations and the inevitable risks that start to occur over time. We’ve seen it with the property markets, the banking markets and even more recently with the media in the guise of the News International scandal.

I’m mindful of what Richard Hall outlined in his post,

“Higher education is explicitly a commodity now. It is explicitly open to market forces and for-profiteering. This exposes it to risk, hedging, venture capitalism, and the treadmill of competition. This means that all of the social relationships we develop and nurture within higher education are subject to the rule of money. There is no outside this exchange mechanism that frames how we relate, as Capital turns back in on what it terms ‘the developed world’, in order to accumulate [our mutual futures] by dispossession through debt-driven consumption.”

We need to keep a watchful eye on the corporations that do enter this market and how they operate in their other fields of business, what is their operating ethos and ethics? Something we are all asking about News Corp this week and as they marketise our education, we must educate their markets.

And just in case we ever need reminding of News Corps ethos and ethics:

Friday, July 8, 2011

End of the World?

As I sit and reflect on the stunning revelations, actions and developments of the News International story I think it’s important to try and step back and think about the wider picture. There will inevitably be countless more facts, e-mails, twists and turns in this story because of the nature of the history of it. It is a complex web of a culture that has pervaded our wider society for a long time.

I have always been uncomfortable with the nature of tabloid investigation and sensationalism, I have witnessed it from the sidelines numerous times, a bizarre symbiotic relationship between news media, politics and entertainment.

As a naive entrant into the world of media I believed in the strong tenets of noble journalism, I believed that it was all in the realms of Woodward and Bernstein, a somewhat romantic rose tinted view of the industry. This continued in my training in broadcasting having been taught by excellent broadcast journalists such as Peter O’Kill and Sue Roberts, it was an arena that I wanted to pursue.

But then I saw a side of myself that I didn’t like in a news simulation training exercise where we performed the duties of journalists in a major catastrophe. The simulation was to cover a fake disaster and cover the story from a hospital. It was mainly a training exercise to aide the hospital management in how to cope with a major news story whilst also dealing with a mass of wounded people. It was a full simulation with actors and make-up, us with cameras and sat trucks etc playing our part. We felt the pressure to get the story, and I realised that you soon will do anything to achieve your goal when under that level of pressure. We applied subterfuge, lies, coercion and all manner of tricks to get the story – the “victims” were mere pieces in the game and we forgot about the humanity and I recall it scaring me, I looked into the abyss and it certainly looked back at me. It was a strange experience and I wasn’t entirely comfortable.

A year later I was making a documentary in the midst of the 1997 election campaign about a political outsider running a campaign in the provinces, whilst doing this I constantly came into contact with journalists of all ilks from tabloid to broadcast, I was going for an observational feel rather than investigative so I observed the different journalists that buzzed around the candidate like flies at a barbeque, what struck me was the arrogance and mightier than thou attitude of a high volume of them, it never felt like they were drawing a story out, they had a narrative that they needed to substantiate come what may. I also felt the sting of the media manipulators that handle the candidates too, the other side of the relationship so to speak. Having inadvertently caught something on camera that suddenly became news worthy, so I also understand what it is like to be heavily leant on by the handlers, the whole thing put me off politics and news journalism. I wrote in my journal at the time that this strange relationship would corrupt the inner workings of the political media set if it continued. I was not remotely surprised by the whole Kelly affair, nor am I surprised by the News of the World affair – it was all self evident for me as an observer at that time and I tried to move away from it.

However, it was hard to get away from, shortly after I did a stint at a low rent cable channel that just happened to be owned by a tabloid newspaper, this is where I saw the more typical traits of tabloid journalism being applied to “factual entertainment”, working with ex newspaper hacks to make “documentaries” in the style of tabloid news stories, I recall one title was "Is Glenn Hoddle Mad?". I was sent to hound and door step people on stories of no real merit, they were mere salacious tittle tattle and my cameraman who was an ex-pap photographer may have been one of the most odious people I have ever worked with. He also didn’t seem to understand that constantly shouting out the rather clichéd rants that paps do to get a photo from celebs doesn’t really work when operating a video camera with sound, therefore luckily rendering some of the footage useless. I also got to see how an editor sets the narrative and then you are under pressure to merely find material to illustrate that narrative by whatever means, it’s an unpleasant feeling and I have sympathy for those that do it day in and day out, I also understand how this can lead to such events that are now unfolding if you forego integrity for income.

The last chapter in my experiential tale is then being an entertainment show producer and regularly doing the premieres and hotel press kits for a film show and standing side by side many paps and tabloid journos whilst waiting for little events to happen. I’ve seen the paps on the rocks outside the Hotel Du Cap with listening devices and telephoto lenses during Cannes desperately trying to get something other than just sunburnt. I’ve also seen the stars who will grab a girl in a wheelchair for a photo opportunity then push her away once the shot is taken or the PR person who will bully you into stopping an interview even against the subject’s will . What will always astound is the banter amongst these people, the arrogance and contempt they show not only for their subjects but their audience too, it is truly gods and monsters stuff. This has been the downfall of all media, politics and entertainment in my opinion, this bacteria ridden little microcosm of a culture that has fed off of itself, it’s spread through so many parts of our mainstream and you have to ask why?

As we sit on our high and mighty thrones to condemn all this wrongdoing can we really say we had no part in it? Why do we have an insatiable appetite for salacious stories? Surely we feed the beast with circulation numbers and audience figures? What is it about our society that so enjoys feeding on the banal and salacious gossip, that enjoys righteous indignation about others behaviour? Have we become a suburban cul-de-sac of curtain twitchers and over the fence gossipers?

We fed these machines, we bought the papers, we elected the MP’s, we riddled ourselves with debt. We played the game too and as we disintermediate some of these intermediaries in that process, will we actually change our society or will we actually continue to in our appetite by spreading gossip, xenophobia, tittle tattle etc via social networks or blogging and just continue – I fear we are there already as I see the online equivalents of the News of the World appear as groups and pages on Facebook, Blogs or cliques in Twitter.

It is good that a stranglehold of an inner circle is being broken within the media industry, it has been too pervasive for too long, but it is just the tip of the iceberg above the water in a cultural context.

I'll make a prediction that we will see the social media equivalent of this story within the next 10 years.

In the mean time, here are some old clips when I tried to allude to the absurdity of it all: