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  • In Page One Documentary, the Grey Lady Receives a Timely Makeover

    September 26, 2011 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    If you’re a newspaper journalist who enjoys masochistically gorging on the “newspapers are dead, take me to the content farm” meme, then Page One, a documentary about The New York Times showing at the Irish Film Institute, is the movie for you. Or at least it was for me. I came away from it duly convinced by the democratic importance and sweeping professionalism of The New York Times, as I think is the intention. As a tribute I’ve replicated in this post’s title the newspaper’s unique stylistic fondness for starting a headline with a prepositional phrase.

    It’s not that I didn’t absorb the very real sense of insecurity and self-doubt that’s clearly got a guest pass for the New York Times Building. As advertising plummets and the culture of free triumphs, the editorial axe swings. A veteran section editor decides to take voluntary redundancy rather than try to “push my luck for another five years”. The deputy obituaries editor departs in the knowledge that her job title is on the endangered species list. Colleagues clap and cry.

    But much of Page One seemed designed to “move the story on” from the paper’s recent woes. So, as a corrective to the scandalous saga of Judith Miller’s uncritically WMD-tastic, administration-cheerleading war reports, there’s a segment where a series of editors forensically rubbish an NBC news broadcast proclaiming the US military’s exit from Iraq, deriding it as fake narrative closure by the network.

    What of the diluted authority of “analogue newspapers” in a digital world? One of the talking heads notes that in the YouTube age, someone like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange doesn’t need The New York Times the same way that Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Vietnam war-era Pentagon Papers, needed The New York Times. Ultimately, however, it’s decided that the Wikileaks documents gained credibility by virtue of its “vetting” and publication by established journalistic brands.

    The threat posed to public interest journalism by parasitic aggregators like Michael Wolff’s Newser and ethically-alternative media magnates like Sam Zell are cited, though both are effectively and amusingly taken down in one way or another by the film’s blunt hero, David Carr, a former cocaine addict turned media columnist. (If you’ve seen the film, you can read Carr’s page-one story on the “bankrupt culture” of Sam Zell’s Tribune Company here.) Carr has a short fuse – “I don’t do corporate portraiture,” he tells a multimedia company making a pitch about how great they are.

    But the line that had me wide-eyed was where he informs his editor that he is going to take “another” two weeks to research the Tribune article, followed by a further week to write the piece, and only then would he have something to show him. Three weeks plus added time is an ice age in the average byline-hungry, resource-starved newspaper. Any minute now, I thought, this being the US media, they’re going to start talking about the mysterious creatures known as “fact checkers”. Or maybe someone is going to be shown hot-footing it down to a crime scene in order to conduct a parallel investigation that eventually trumps the inferior police one. Such is the way with journalism in the movies, even when they’re fretting about the end times. The New York Times may be committing fewer resources to journalism than it once was, but its investment is still way ahead of most of the rest.

    Amazingly, however, even when someone comes along and makes a documentary as flattering as this one, the newspaper is still old-school enough to be wilfully non-commercial about it. Apparently mindful of potential “conflicts”, the paper hired somebody outside the company to review it on its movie pages. Sadly, the reviewer slammed the documentary as “a mess”, telling the loyal New York Times‘ readership to go see His Girl Friday again instead. Oh well.

  • Bunga bunga cha cha cha: the BBC vs Silvio Berlusconi

    September 21, 2011 @ 8:00 am | by Laura Slattery

    “Standard & Poor’s declassa l’Italia,” read the headline for Italian daily Il Tempo, but for diplomacy-eschewing Silvio Berlusconi, there’s been even more bad news this week. He’s being sued by the BBC for making what The Daily Mail has dubbed a “porno” version of Strictly Come Dancing. (I’ve not seen it myself.) The Berlusconi-owned broadcaster Mediaset stands accused of abusing the copyright of BBC Worldwide’s prized format export, in the process of which it has replaced its nudge-nudge-wink-wink subtext with a level of obvious bunga-bunga-ness that would make a Pussycat Doll blush, never mind Head Judge Len.

    Presumably, this is so the copycat show, Baila!, lives up to the standards of Berlusconi’s notorious sex parties, where the dancing was apparently of the pole and not the Paso Doble variety – though, funnily enough, when it came to matching up partners, similar care and attention was paid to the issue of compatible heights. Italy’s own Vincent Simone slipping a few cheeky ganchos into an Argentine tango with Edwina Currie just isn’t the kind of thing that cuts it for screen sizzle on Mediaset’s Canale 5 station. Who’d have thought?

    BBC Worldwide licensed the Italian rights to Dancing with the Stars (as it’s known internationally) to the public broadcaster Rai six years ago as part of its multimillion-earning cunning plan to teach the world how to turn learning the quickstep into a “journey”. Sold to 35 countries, it’s one of the most successful reality television formats in the tear-splattered history of reality television. Now Rai’s lawyers are, ahem, arm in arm with BBC Worldwide in its bid to slap down the alleged copyright infringement by Mediaset.

    The Berlusconi company, meanwhile, says that Baila! is based on an entirely different South American format called Bailando Por Un Sueno or Dancing for a Dream, created by Televisa Mexico. A version of this show broadcast in Argentina featured a topless model simulating sex during one of the dances – or so I’ve read. (I’ve not seen it myself.) It really does sound like it’s just one octogenarian, a wardrobe rail of sparkly body stockings and any number of Craig Revel-Horwood panto-snarls away from the real deal.

    In any case, I’m still too traumatised by that footage of Berlusconi and the traffic warden to even contemplate what his broadcasting executives might do with the rumba, so more power to the BBC and Rai. By rights, however, the Rome court with which they’ve lodged legal papers should be aware that there is really only one fair way to settle this dispute – a dance-off between Silvio and David Cameron. With Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Barack Obama – and Arlene Phillips – as the judges, obviously.

  • It’s not you, it’s Suzuki… how a motor marriage with Volkswagen reached break-up point

    September 12, 2011 @ 7:44 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Corporate alliances, if the soured partnership between Suzuki and Volkswagen is anything to go by, are just like human relationships – complex, tortured and rife with passive-aggressive barbs that can be helpfully delivered by third parties (in this case, the media).

    Suzuki chairman Osamu Suzuki certainly feels that way: “We should just have a simple break up with a smile and say we weren’t meant for each other,” he said today of his company’s marriage to VW.

    The Japanese vehicle manufacturer and the German carmaker’s partnership agreement first frosted over back in March, when VW made the rash claim in its annual report that it had the power to “significantly influence financial and operating policy decisions” at Suzuki, which it described as an “associate”. This didn’t go down well with Suzuki, which had, seemingly, not yet committed to quite such an intimate and controlling a relationship.

    Not long afterwards, Suzuki took up with a familiar acquaintance, Fiat, deciding to buy diesel engines from the Italian carmaker, with which it had previously done some business. In August, the Suzuki chairman said the company “sees no reason why Volkswagen would be upset” by its purchase of engines from Fiat.

    But VW took Suzuki’s flirtation with its old flame personally. Message received, it said in July that it was placing the partnership “under review”. Suzuki executives responded by noting to news wire Bloomberg that a successful relationship depends on an understanding that the two companies are equal partners. In other words, it wanted some R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It was also heard smarting that VW “keeps talking to the media, but not to us directly”.

    VW is now insisting that the Japanese firm violated the terms of their partnership. Bravely, it gave Suzuki an ultimatum - granting it “several weeks” to remedy the alleged infringement, or else. Suzuki has replied by saying if that’s how VW feels about it, then maybe VW should sell the 20 per cent stake it holds in Suzuki.

    Suzuki chairman Osamu Suzuki at a news conference in Tokyo, September 12th. Photo: Reuters / Kim Kyung-Hoon

    It’s probably too late for both parties to sit down and consider what brought them together in the first place. The VW-Suzuki partnership was always going to be a marriage of opposites. Suzuki’s dowry was its leading position in India, while VW’s attractions lay in its global reach as the third’s biggest carmaker. United, they were supposed to take the hybrid and electric car markets by storm. But that was 2009. Two years later, and no joint projects have begun.

    It’s entirely possible that VW and Suzuki may yet turn out to be the motor industry’s equivalent of one of those couples who fight constantly, only to confound divorce-forecasting sceptics by renewing their vows instead. But right now, it seems the early flush of excitement has worn off, permanently. The two companies are discovering that they have little in common and probably never really did.

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