Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hidden treasure reveals the truth and horror of 1991 massacre in East Timor

IT IS a story of murder, betrayal, love and intrigue – but sadly not one you are about to see anytime soon on a TV or cinema screen near you.
I sat transfixed – and I’m not ashamed to say a little moist-eyed – through a screening of ‘Bloodshot: The Dreams And Nightmares Of East Timor’ here at Southampton Solent University this morning.
Also on hand was producer/director Peter A Gordon, an unassuming yet clearly committed film-maker, who poignantly reminded the audience of students and staff that today (November 12) was the 22nd anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre on the South East Asian island nation.
It was the filming of this bloodbath by former Blue Peter presenter turned war cameraman Christopher Wenner (now there’s an amazing fact for you!) that alerted the world to these atrocities and forms the basis for the narrative of Bloodshot, which reflects on events of 1991 and weaves a story of the fate of the survivors.
Gordon had been in East Timor making an undercover film before the violence erupted that Wenner (now reborn as Max Stahl) captured so dramatically. Helping make the film was Australian researcher Kirsty Sword, proving an adept front for their ‘tourist movie’ cover. Her local language skills proved invaluable and in another you-couldn’t-make-it-up moment she fell in love with, married and had three children with Xanana Gusmão, former resistance leader and latterly prime minister (see below).
That story is the subject of another film, Alias Ruby Blade, a bigger budget production that concentrates on Sword’s admittedly amazing story but at the expense of the bigger picture that Bloodshot encapsulates.
I guess like many people, my knowledge of the struggles in East Timor was sketchy at best, informed by some of the United Nations circus who turned up when I was in Afghanistan in 2002 fresh from the independence celebrations of the newly-born Timor Leste.
Gordon revealed that the film has just gone out on TV in Timor, but only after a seven-hour debate on the merits, or otherwise, of showing such a powerful retrospective on the massacre which killed 250 people in just a few hours.
And it is a powerful portrayal, but Gordon admits that it is not as ‘commercial’ as it could be which maybe accounts for why TV companies or cinema distributors are not queuing up to sign up the rights.
Which is a shame. Contemporary history is served poorly by mainstream media, beyond the first flush of recording in words and pictures atrocities and disasters. This portrayal is accessible, moving and thought-provoking. It deserves a wider audience.
See a trailer for Bloodshot here

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tony Garnett: Angry old man shows why we must all still care

I’VE SPENT most of my life striving to uncover the truth – or whatever passes for it at the time – and working to relay that to as many people as possible.
So it was fascinating to spend the evening in the company of man who’s spent his career making up stories – and jolly good ones too.
“We make sense of the world and help society to connect by telling stories,” said Tony Garnett, screenwriter, producer and director extraordinaire whose pedigree goes back to Kes and Cathy Come Home through to This Life and Ballykissangel.
Trim, dapper and looking nothing like his 77 years, Garnett (right) told an audience of students and staff here at Southampton Solent University that documentaries pose difficult ethical problems, which is one reason why he’s stuck to fiction. “There is some seriously morally ambiguous behaviour from film-makers,” he said.
Garnett, himself, has previous in this area. A film he helped make with his collaborator Ken Loach never saw the light of day for 42 years after the charity that commissioned it, Save The Children, took exception to its content.
“We agreed to lock it away in the vault of the British Film Institute if they didn’t sue us,” Garnett told me last night. “But it did eventually get shown once to a small audience all those years later.”
The story behind that film, originally called ‘In Black and White’, but ultimately shown as the nameless ‘Save the Children Film’ is told here, but it would be interesting to see what the protagonists think about it now, especially the big cheeses at London Weekend Television who never did transmit the programme.
It was thrilling to be in the company of such an angry old man –  “You’ll be exploited, abused and pissed on,” he told students at one point – and it was comforting to have such a venerable witness for my prosecution that the creative industries need people who really care.
He had encouraging words for students looking to start a career in screenwriting, citing the number and variety of outlets now available for their work. He shared some of the secrets of his success and touched on his widely-leaked email attacking the BBC for, among other things, “totalitarian micro management”. 
But he left with a word of advice that he’s certainly taken heed of himself: “Your reputation is all you’ve got and all you’ll ever have.”
Amen.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

How to make it BIG..and stay a nice guy too

IT TAKES a lot to get 100 students to turn up at 6pm, sit still, stop fiddling with their phones and engage with a forty-something bloke standing at the front of a lecture theatre.
Sadly, pure mathematics rules me out on age grounds, so step forward David Davies, magazine industry guru, college buddy of Jon - The Men Who Stare at Goats - Ronson and now we find out all-round great guy.
Davies (pictured right looking inscrutable!) captivated students at Southampton Solent University with his tale of Brummie Boy Dun Good and sent them home salivating at the thought of a £200,000 job, making a Top 10 single and dining out with the great and the good – and George Michael.
Like a lot of us he’s had his lucky breaks, but you don’t get to be a big cheese at Grazia, heat, FHM and Q without having something going for you.
He was self-effacing to a fault, telling students that he wasn’t the brightest or best but he did share his ‘Six easy tips to build a successful career in the media’.
Among the barrage of superb advice a couple of ideas had the most resonance for me.
  • Do anything you can to work with people better than you
  • Don’t out-stay your welcome
  • Have fun…while you can
I’m guilty as charged on all accounts and just hope our lovely students take it all on board too.
But more than anything I hope they realise that simply being a nice person - engaging, personable, lively and fun - goes a long way too. It certainly hasn't done David Davies any harm.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Caption contest: Anyone seen my contact lens...?

IT GAVE me the willies (can you still say that nowadays?) to look up, let alone down.
Brave souls tackled the 418 foot high National Lift Tower - or 'Northampton Lighthouse' - abseiling down from the access door near the top.
Thousands of pounds have been raised for charity over the past couple of years, but now Scrooge-like residents (not me, I hasten to add, although I live just around the corner) are trying to stop the activity because of traffic congestion.
You wouldn't catch me doing it, I'm afraid, and at £95 a pop I might have other things to do with my money. But if thrills from on high are your thing the National Abseil Centre is the place to go.
And, as they explain on their website: "There is a small risk that if the wind picks up while you are abseiling you could be blown away from the building and hit it on the way back in, possibly resulting in bruising and other injuries."
Oh, that's all right then...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

'Why I was not born to be a local hack' revisited

THE latest addition to the pantheon of media books is officially launched tonight and I hope my chapter on journalism training gets another airing.
I’m keen to kick-start the debate on what journalism needs to do to not only attract the brightest and best recruits but also retain them.
My research looked at the fate of 60 trainees who I worked with over the past four years and drew some conclusions about where it all starts to unravel for some people.
One suggestion was: “Money is, I feel, is often used as an excuse to get out. Complaining that they are not compensated well enough is a convenient excuse when they are really finding the going too tough or they realise they are not good enough.”
Cue usual outrage from the usual suspects on the usual forums, but just this week one of those trainees who didn’t finish her training has delivered her reasoned, well-written, but also rather sad verdict on the state of life in the trenches in weekly newspapers.
Michelle Arthurs caught our eye when Surrey Mirror editor Deanne Blaylock and I visited the trainees at Brighton Journalist Works. She was bright, articulate, ambitious and just bolshie enough to have the makings of a good reporter.
As Michelle details in her blog post (above)she had a try-out with me at the Essex Chronicle and then joined Deanne on the staff at the Surrey Mirror, first on paid work experience and then as a trainee.
Michelle (left) did well, apart from struggling to make it to 100wpm shorthand, without which she could not be put in for her senior NQJ exams. But eventually she decided that she’d had enough of newspapers and decamped to work in marketing for a cycle shop.
I was sorry to see her go, and wondered what happened to the sparky, motivated wannabe reporter I met in Brighton.
Perhaps her own words sum it up best: “Working as a newspaper journalist was at times exhausting – at times it was stressful. Other days were wonderful, and there were moments when I loved my job. The truth is, however, that I wasn’t comfortable sharing the stories that people didn’t want the readership to have access to.”
I hope chairman Roy Greenslade and the rest of the distinguished panel have a chance to think about those words and what we can all do to make sure the right people come into journalism in the first place when we gather in London tonight.
  • What Do We Mean By Local? The Rise, Fall – and Possible Rise Again – of Local Journalism. Edited by John Mair, Richard Lance Keeble with Neil Fowler. Published by Abramis Bury St Edmunds. isbn 978-1-84549-593-0. Price £19.95 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Why I still love The Dell...and Twitter

BACK IN the late 80s my son Chris and I were at the vanguard of a brave family season ticket’ venture at The Dell, home of Southampton FC, ‘The Saints’.
Chris, then about seven years old, paid next to nothing (£10 for the season, if I remember) and I paid far less than I would have done anywhere else in the ground to stand (remember standing?) in the concrete monstrosity that replaced the ‘chocolate boxes’ at the Milton Road End. The only ‘catch’ was that we both had to go in together to be allowed in.
We watched Alan Shearer,  Matt Le Tissier, Jimmy Case, Russell ‘Shoot’ Osman and someone who looked like a younger, slimmer Neil Ruddock run rings round the opposition…or at least that’s how I remember it.
Back in that part of Southampton for the first time in a generation I retraced our old steps to the game: along Northlands Road, past the old cricket ground (another RIP), left at Archers Road past the church, nip along behind the east stand and…there it was – gone.
Bizarrely the flats are in a large rectangle roughly the same dimensions as the pitch, but where once Terry Paine knocked it over and Ron Davies knocked it in bored teenagers smoke on tiny balconies and rusty bikes fight for space with windblown litter. I’m grateful to @ReddArrow for the aerial view above.
Apart from homage to the greats – Stokes, Bates, Le Tissier, Bates, Channon – in the naming of the blocks there is nothing that I could see that commemorates more than a century of footballing greatness.
But thanks to my new friends on Twitter at least the mem-or-ree lingers on. One little message and this picture prompted several hundred retweets, favourites and comments including one from my hero Danny Baker. There was predictable abuse from Pompey fans, serious discussion about the merits of new grounds and more misty-eyed recollections like mine.
Back in the prehistory of January 2011 I wrote that Twitter was “the biggest revolution I’ve seen in my time in journalism”. I never cease to be amazed that this lawless, irksome, bastard child of ‘proper journalism’ continues to surprise and delight. And long may it do so.
Follow me @alangeere

Friday, August 16, 2013

Poor pay, work experience and those biscuits

Lovely to see the cut and thrust of comment and debate following the publication online of my chapter in the latest journalism book, What Do We Mean By Local? The Rise, Fall – and Possible Rise Again – of Local Journalism.
As a newspaper editor it’s always tempting to have the last word with those pesky readers, so why change the habits of a lifetime? Here goes with some responses to correspondents on holdthefrontpage and PressGazette
Kendo Nagasaki (where are you now, Peter Thornley..?): If this man had an understanding or empathy he would realise that people’s circumstances change. They may start their career as single but, like most of us, after a few years, begin to think about settling down. They realise that a reporter’s salary is not enough to buy a house and raise a family. That’s why they leave for better paid jobs. It is laughable that Geere thinks that an editor’s salary of £30k is somehow good. You can earn more churning out press releases at a local council.
I’m proud of the hundreds of people I have helped on their way in journalism from students, trainees and senior journalists. I’ve ‘understanding and empathy’ by the bucketload and one of the main thrusts of my piece – mainly ignored by the masses – is that I want to help upgrade the status of journalism to everyone’s benefit.
LOL: “Journalists who leave either during their training or shortly after qualifying can feel an embarrassment that they have abused their employer by accepting the training (at a cost of an average of £1,000 per head) and then jumping ship” Would be very interested to see what this ‘average’ cost was based on and what went into it.
There are the actual costs of registration with the NCTJ, fees for exams, the cost of refresher courses and the cost of time put in by senior staff helping trainees. I actually think £1,000 may be a little on the conservative side.
And unionman writes: Surely a lot of contracts have clauses which mean if a trainee “jumps ship” shortly after qualifying as a senior they are liable to pay some of the training costs back – mine did!
Yes, those clauses were in place, but I never actually invoked them. It seemed churlish or even callous.
I’m grateful to Chris Morley from the NUJ having the good grace to put his name to his comments, unlike the other lily-livered lurkers: Geere participated in Northcliffe’s halving of its staff from 2009 [not true, maybe one third, but not half] which vastly increased workloads, stress and working hours for journalists. It meant they were forced to cut corners and hindered their ability to carry out their professional duties. The jobs massacre particularly targeted those in slightly better paid editorial jobs and flattened the newsroom hierarchy, considerably reducing prospects for career progression for those who remained [don’t follow the logic. If better paid people left why were there reduced career prospects?]. I am surprised to hear him say editors on small weeklies get £30k plus – that’s news to me, particularly for those installed in the job in recent years [I know the numbers, and helped ensure editors salaries were realistic at at least £30k]. Pay was frozen for a number of years and the final salary pension scrapped.
It is risable that Geere attacks trainees who leave when decent terms and conditions – as the basis for a lifetime’s career – have been laid waste by their bosses, offering them only joyless slog for pay rates bearing no relation to the responsibilities and effort put in. Instead of blaming everyone else, those who have drove the media ship on to the rocks should take some responsibility for their failure and get out of the way while those who believe that journalism requires proper resources get on with the job of rebuilding a great industry.
Very eloquently put, Chris, despite the factual errors highlighted above.  But you’re preaching to the converted. I have battled for improved pay and conditions for journalists for many years and will continue to do so.
Don Estelle, Greenhall Whitley Land, writes: Al continues the tradition of newspaper managers turning their face to the plight of their more junior staff. His superficial ‘report’ glosses over the practice of stuffing newsrooms with trainees while forcing senior journalists out to reduce costs.
As Kendo points out, people’s circumstances change, that’s why many have to leave. Al mentions interviews and how salaries are clearly explained. I wonder how clearly the future of his newspapers was explained to candidates? I can’t help thinking some of his trainees began drifting off once the reality started sinking in. As for being embarassed (sic) about the cost of their training, I feel, like me, most will not give it a second thought.
Wish I knew what the ‘future of newspapers’ was - I wouldn’t be sitting here if I did! Any candidate worth recruiting should be fully aware of the issues facing newspapers and make a career decision based on that information.
Now freelance, Anywhere but local papers: I was a local hack at one of the Kent papers taken on by Northcliffe and it was a horrorshow of a proprietorship. ….For Alan Geere to even have a platform to push his dubious ‘survey’ and to criticise reporters for wanting job security, decent pay and pensions literally takes the biscuit. Or not, if you worked for Northcliffe, where even biscuits were rationed.
I hope most readers will agree that this is not a ‘dubious survey’ but a serious attempt to tackle an underlying issue which threatens the health of journalism. And, as for those biscuits, we provided our own and my Aldi luxury range always went down well.
Capt. Starlight:  If any youngster asked me for advice on possibly going into journalism, I’d warn them strongly that they may end up disillusioned and stretched after a year or two. Bit like saying they’d like to be an actor or model. Sad but true?
Absolutely, Cap’n, I don’t disagree. But the point I am making is that journalism must up its game and recruit better people who can cope with the pressure.
JW, NUJ Life Member, says: “Work experience should set out in a formal contract, with a minimum period compulsory before a job offer is made.” Another way of staffing an office on the cheap?
You’ve gotta be joking! Workies can be time-consuming, unreliable and unproductive. A few can provide a helpful hand but as for staffing on the cheap it’s a non-starter. The work experience experience is there for the benefit of the (usually) young person not the employer.
Anon: How the hell does one remain a 'trainee journalist' for six years???? What's going on there?
Don’t even go there (what’s the teeline outline for that?)
Anon:  It’s nice to see the Press Gazette is letting comments through on this story. Over on holdthefrontpage, they're refusing to let through any comments that say anything unfavourable about Alan Geere. I'm sure the fact they're serialising his research has nothing to do with it...
News to me…

  • What Do We Mean By Local? The Rise, Fall – and Possible Rise Again – of Local Journalism. Edited by John Mair, Richard Lance Keeble with Neil Fowler. Published by Abramis Bury St Edmunds September 1 2013.  isbn 978-1-84549-593-0. Price £19.95 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The oil crisis growing on my doorstep

WE ARE right in the middle of sunflower growing season here right in the middle of France.
These titans of the countryside soar to anything upto two metres high in a matter of weeks but show their famous bright yellow nodding heads for just a few days. The flowers and foliage quickly die away leaving the sought-after seeds maturing in the wind and sun.
The French love their Huile De Tournesol – rather like they love everything home-grown – made from the sunflower seeds that most Brits think are just budgie food and Americans chew and spit out at baseball games.
Our region, Poitou-Charente, is the biggest grower of sunflowers in France, producing nearly a quarter of this vast country’s output. And that puts us right in the middle of an oil crisis involving the sunflowers and palm oil, produced mainly in central Africa and south-east Asia.
Palm oil has gathered its critics for both its environmental and health damage and last November the French national assembly's social affairs commission rejected a proposal to triple a special tax on palm oil from EUR100 to EUR300 per tonne.
The so-called 'Nutella amendment' had been initiated by the French Senate and justified on the grounds of promoting healthier eating and combating obesity. Palm oil makes up 20 per cent of the famous chocolate hazelnut spread and Ferrero, the Italian company that makes it, became the focus for anti-Palm protests. And, yes Ambassador, they make Ferrero Rocher too.
For now that legislation has been parked, but the anti-Palm movement is gaining even more support leaving my sunflowers even more important to both France in general and the economy of my little corner in particular.
It’s had the immediate effect of making me forsake Nutella  – a favourite with croissants here – and look more carefully at the ingredients of processed goods.
Not sure it had any effect on the traditional children’s game on making faces out of the heads – haven’t seen that on Xbox yet! – but then again the times do change a little slowly round here….

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ouch! How I was injured on the Tour de France

I AM nursing a sore neck after getting hit by a flying packet of biscuits at the Tour de France.
It’s a dangerous business, this spectator sport. They reckon 15 million people will watch this year’s Tour. Today alone, there were an estimated 300,000 lining the last 15km of the tortuous mountain stage into Mont Ventoux.
No punishing climbs on Friday’s Stage 13 and after about an hour’s gentle pedalling – if you can call riding a bike at nearly 30 mph gentle – the 190 riders swept along the northern bank of l’Indrois river and in less than a minute left Chemillé-sur-Indrois (pop. 227) with nothing but memories and extra work for the commune’s refuse team.
By that time I’d already sustained my injury. Two hours before the race passed through we all gathered for the ‘Caravane’, an indecently commercial cavalcade of sponsors and advertisers in bizarrely adapted vehicles, like a high-class carnival parade.
The convoy trundled through Chemillé (see above) in the biggest invasion since the Romans came to town 2,000 years ago throwing souvenirs to the crowd. Sweets, snacks, newspapers, foam hands, hats, fridge magnets, drinks coolers all caused a mad scramble for athletic local teenage boys and ungainly, middle-aged, overweight Dutch visitors.
And then came the biscuits - I believe they were Les Fourrés Chocolat de Bjorg - in a small plastic pack which caught me just above the left eye. I must have jolted, leaving me with what those pushy lawyers call “a whiplash-style injury”. And when the peloton came through later I narrowly missed a drinks bottle jettisoned by one of the riders (see below).
No real harm done, although my two-handed forehand a la Marion Bartoli (gotta support the French on Bastille Day) looks a little weary.
Nothing, though, on Chris Froome who looked like a man on autopilot after winning today’s 242.5km race - the longest stage of the Tour. A sore neck would be the least of his problems…

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why the French love their sporting heroes – and their newspapers


THE French love their sporting heroes – even if they have to borrow them, a la David Beckham.
The 37-year-old (really?) former England captain played just 16 minutes as a substitute for Paris St-Germain in their 2-0 win over championship rivals Marseille last night but made the front pages of the papers sporting, national and regional.
The reports were gushing, praising Beckham for his part in Ibrahimovic’s added time second goal, and even drawing a cartoon in L’Equipe, still France’s best-selling national paper by a mile, sorry kilometre, despite steep losses lately.
The French love their newspapers too. The gentleman above couldn’t wait to get out of the shop to read his. And it was interesting to see the regional daily Charente Libre, published in Angouleme, 260 miles south-west of Paris carrying a picture of Beckham as its front page image.
That’s like the Newcastle Chronicle running a Manchester United story on its front, a laughable suggestion. But such is the star power of Beckham that he transcends national and regional differences.
I was surprised to see renowned newspaper guru Juan Antonio Giner have a pop at L’Equipe branding it as ‘not a very good design’ with ‘not a very good future’. It still sells more than twice both national dailies Liberation and Les Echos and provides the sports fan with a daily dose of everything that moves.

Oh, that a publisher in the UK could find a way to sell 200,000 plus copies a day of a sports paper, even given that the Wonderful World of the Internet is supposed to provide everything to all men. For information, interviews, comment and reflection L’Equipe is hard to beat. 
The argument has long been that’s what the UK national papers do in with increasing volume and competence and a sports paper would not work. Maybe not, but it would still be fun to try…
FOOTNOTE: L’Equipe also has an 88-page colour magazine free at the weekend. This week’s issue featured an interview with everywhere-man Will Carling. Didn’t see, though, that he was next up on Danny Baker’s Saturday morning Sausage Sandwich Game on Radio 5 Live.



Monday, January 14, 2013

Where happiness is a 2 pence bag of water

It is very hot in Kampala today. Currently 28 degrees with the sun baking down out of a clear sky. Time to get the camera out and see who’s doing what…

THIS BAG of water cost the thirsty customer 100 Ugandan shillings – a little more than 2p in Britain. She is either unwilling or unable to pay 10 times that for a bottle of water.
The bag comes complete with carefully cut straw, which pierces the bag. Just gotta be careful how you carry it…
NATIONAL hero Stephen Kiprotich, the Olympic marathon champion, is everywhere on billboards. ‘Kip Siping’ doesn’t really do it for me, but I think we get the message.
‘A BILLION REASONS TO BELIEVE IN AFRICA. I’m not sure what Coke’s slogan means. It’s also a typographical masterpiece so I guess it’s all in CAPS. This huge truck towing a trailer rattled and rolled along Kira Road delivering glass bottles which will eventually find their way into the thousands of shops, restaurants and roadside kiosks.

THIS girl slogs up the road under an umbrella sunshade. Still looks hard work, though…

Monday, January 07, 2013

“You have to love journalism with all your heart; if you lose the sense of excitement, give up.”

THESE are sadly not my words – I wish they were – but from William Rees-Mogg editor of The Times from 1967-1981 who died just after Christmas.
I hadn’t realised he was so young, just 38 when he became editor (below, right) and only 54 when he switched careers to become chairman of the Arts Council.
His career reminds me that journalism offers a ‘suite of skills’ like no other job. Journalists work fast, are accurate and fearless in dealings with people from all walks of life. No wonder journalists carve out extra careers in politics, education, the arts, charity sector and, whisper it, the dreaded corporate communications.
My concern – as an editor, a journalism educator and a lifelong advocate for the part that journalism plays in holding society together – is that not enough of the right people are coming into journalism and a lot of those that do just don’t stick at it.
Some very good young reporters that I recruited have drifted off into marketing, PR and all that netherworld where no-one cares that you can take down shorthand at 100 words a minute or that your legal and public affairs knowledge will make you everyone’s friend at the pub quiz.
Perhaps I’m just an old romantic for the difference that journalism makes to people’s lives. Whether it’s a phone call to the council to get a street light fixed, reuniting lost-long family and friends or calling the rich and powerful to account what we do does get things done.
But I wonder whether it’s a lack of application from the young journalists or the industry’s failure to provide both more money and a discernible career path. Like a lot of people I swerved around both with some hard work and a bit of luck.
I cut grass and cleaned windows to help supplement my even then meagre newspaper salary, but at no time ever considered giving up to go and do a job that needed no qualification or special skill. And the career path just sort of opened up as I was in the right place at the right time but only after doing some of the stuff that no-one was queuing up for like working at night/holidays/weekend.
I’m embarking on a piece of academic research to see what became of cohorts of NCTJ graduates through the years. My own alma mater (Harlow block release 1975-6) boasts Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes), tennis correspondent of The Times (above, left with you-know-who), and Bob Bird, former editor of the Scottish News of the World.
But what became of the others? My guess is that more are still involved in and around mainstream journalism than from subsequent years.
I know a former journalist, who now works in digital, who wouldn’t help put together a New Year Honours piece because it was the “end of his shift”, not the first time he has pulled out the time card. If that’s what we all become, last one out turn off the lights…