In praise of journalist Ian Jack

Ian Jack’s Guardian by-line photo

We’ve lost a fine writer and observer of British life and politics with the death of Ian Jack.

My spirits always rose on a Saturday when I spotted one of Jack’s beautifully observed Guardian columns. It helped that I’m fascinated by the topics he made his own, such as Britain’s industrial heritage, and the long-lost glories of our railways and maritime traditions. Who else would have linked the disastrous new rail timetables of 2018 with the misreading 153 years earlier of a timetable that caused the Victorian railway crash that ruined the health of Charles Dickens? (In that piece, Jack also highlighted that Dickens was travelling with his lover when their train crashed into the river Beult.)

He turned wistful memories into compelling copy. Take this example, a childhood memory of a 1950s dining car experience, woven into a column mourning Chiltern Railways’ axing of on-train catering services:

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Goodbye to Guardian Weekend

Weekend covers

“Where’s the Weekend magazine?” I asked myself. I had just bought Karen her print copy of The Guardian, and wondered if I’d picked up an incomplete copy of our favourite Saturday paper.

I hadn’t. A quick online search told me that the paper had ditched the supplement, launched in 1988 in response to The Independent’s very popular Saturday magazine. I hadn’t noticed because I read the Guardian in the daily app rather than in print, where it is less obvious.

It made me nostalgic. I’ve been reading The Guardian for over 40 years, but was seduced by The Independent’s Saturday supplement in the late 1980s. Edited by Alexander Chancellor, it was the perfect Saturday morning read. The Indie was a good looking but rather dull paper in its early days, but its editors were clever to see the potential of Saturday in an era when that day’s edition was typically the worst selling of the week. It was famous for its photography, which was arguably the best of any British newspaper at the time. The Guardian recognised the threat and launched the Weekend magazine – at first as a low cost print effort, upgraded to a glossy magazine in 2001.

I enjoyed Weekend, especially the often quirky readers’ letters and Stephen Fry’s witty reviews of the latest text gadgets, such as this essay on the Canon 1000D. (The camera with which I recorded Owen’s early years.) Not to mention Let’s Move To…, which offered a quirky take on places around Britain. (Though not always accurately – the feature on my mother’s hometown of Penarth was a sour piece.) The Guardian’s supplement suited my mood in a way that the Sunday Times’s far longer-lived colour supplement didn’t. And Blind Date was a winner, an often laugh-out-loud account of two people going for a … blind date.

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It’s an election, not a war, Polly Toynbee

It's an election, not a war

It’s an election, not a war

I expected better from Polly Toynbee. The Guardian’s columnist is usually a wise commentator on politics, and a passionate voice for the deprived. But today’s column indulged in childish war cliches. I assumed a female commentator to be more sensible.

What on earth has a ground war and an air war got to do with an election? Please grow up.

Don’t get me started on ‘retail offers’. Political reporting gets more ridiculous by the day.

Goodbye to Guardian’s Media Talk podcast

The Guardian Media Talk podcast

Media Talk silenced

Fridays will never be the same again. The Guardian’s Media Talk podcast has ended after eight years.

It’s not a huge surprise. The Guardian has been losing money – like most newspaper groups – for years and has been making cutbacks for some time. (The venerable separate Media section of the print edition was merged with the main section in 2011.)

I’ve been a regular listener from the beginning. I loved the mix of wit and insight into the changing media scene from the likes of Matt Wells, Emily Bell and Maggie Brown in particular, as well as final presenter John Plunkett.

Media Talk has chronicled one of the most dramatic eras in media history. The digital revolution has led to what many see as print’s terminal decline. Rupert Murdoch introduced a paywall – the opposite approach to The Guardian and Mail Online – then was laid low by the phone hacking scandal, which the Guardian played a big role in breaking.

Media Talk was off air when the paper’s revelations about the News of the World hacking Milly Dowler’s phone became a major scandal in 2011. But I was there a week or so later when Matt Wells recorded a special edition on the subject with a panel including Guardian editor in chief Alan Rusbridger.

Ironically, Emily Bell herself said in the farewell podcast that there are signs that podcasts are enjoying a revival. All is not lost: John Plunkett and team are hoping to revive the show as an independent production. Please subscribe to make this happen.

PS: Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff writes critically about the Guardian’s US expansion in GQ.



Guardian wrong on Chris Huhne – readers’ editor

The Guardian’s readers editor Chris Elliott today accepted the paper was wrong to allow Chris Huhne to use his weekly column to attack convicted judge Constance Briscoe’s part in his own conviction.

I blogged my disgust at Huhne’s column the day it appeared. I think the Guardian made a misjudgement giving Huhne a weekly column. But this crass piece was the final straw. Continue reading

Grim up north: The Guardian’s hatchet job



Northern pride: Gateshead and Newcastle upon Tyne

The Guardian was once a proud northern newspaper. As The Manchester Guardian, it was one of that great city’s treasures, along with the Hallé, Manchester University and free trade. The historian AJP Taylor celebrated it in his essay about the city in his book Essays in English History.

How things change. The Guardian is now arguably our most London centric national newspaper. Its outlook is Islington not Irwell. It’s hard to imagine the Manchester Guardian publishing Saturday’s ‘It’s grim up north’ article by Andy Beckett about the north east. True, Beckett set out to portray the impact of government spending cuts on the region. And no one would pretend that the north doest face some stark challenges. But it was a bleak and inaccurate portrait, describing the north east as our remotest region – a surprise to anyone enjoying the excellent transport connections from Newcastle. And I have news for Andy Beckett: distance from Islington isn’t a definitive measure of remoteness. On that basis, Sydney, Australia would be the back of beyond.

Beckett’s article has sparked outrage. Hartlepool MP Iain Wright pointed out the irony of casting the region as a British Detroit given the success of Nissan’s plant in Sunderland, which he says builds more cars than Italy. PR consultant Sarah Hall has launched a petition under the hashtag #NEandProud asking Beckett to return to the north east to write a more balanced piece.

I first visited the north of England when I was 15, returning regularly when I was at university in Leicester. I loved the sheer difference between Yorkshire and the south of England. (It took longer for me to get to Newcastle.) I was struck by the stunning scenery and the vibrant cities. As AJP Taylor said of Manchester, part of the glory of the north east is a refreshingly different outlook from that of London and the south east.

The media love lazy stereotypes. Growing up in Cardiff I was all too familiar with them; I grew weary of explaining that Cardiff wasn’t in the valleys and that the only coal mine in the Welsh capital was in the National Museum.

One last thought. The great northern cities were products of a fiercely proud local tradition. They were not forged by dictat from London. Britain is so much poorer for the miserable and demeaning centralism that has blighted our politics over the past forty years. If Andy Beckett wants to win back a few friends, he could do worse than start a campaign to put the local back into public life.

PS: thanks to CIPR president Stephen Waddington and Stuart Bruce for pointing out the Andy Beckett article after I missed it first time round.

Newcastle Gateshead by night

Light on the Tyne: Newcastle and Gateshead


Chris Huhne: The Guardian’s shame

Convicted criminal and Guardian columnist Chris Huhne

Chris Huhne, convicted criminal and columnist

I was horrified when The Guardian gave convicted criminal Chris Huhne a weekly column. It was a big misjudgement. But today’s column, in which the former cabinet minister wallowed in self pity about his conviction, marked a new low.

To recap. Chris Huhne is the liar who put lives at risk. As I blogged when he was convicted:

The act of deception that destroyed his career was intended to avoid a driving ban. Yet just weeks later he was banned anyway, for using his mobile phone while driving. The man is a menace. And any sympathy we may have for his former wife – Huhne walked out on their 26 year marriage – is tempered by the fact she put other people at risk through their reckless act of conspiracy.

This foolish and vain man says in his column today:

Although I was guilty, I justified my denial to myself by saying that it was a relatively minor offence committed by 300,000 other people.

That’s all right then. Lots of other drivers put lives at risk, so it doesn’t matter. The man has learned nothing. He cares only about himself. The conviction of Constance Briscoe is irrelevant: as he concedes in the column, his own conviction was justified. Yet this awful man compares his carriage of justice (we can’t call it a miscarriage as he admits he was guilty) with the Stafford NHS scandal, in which people died. The man is as dim as he is vain.

What possessed the Guardian to give so much valuable editorial space to this man? It’s not as if he has any valuable insight, or has achieved anything in his political career that made him a catch as a columnist. This grubby business is such a contrast with The Guardian’s Pullitzer prize for its NSA revelations.

I should add that I don’t object to newspapers employing convicted criminals as columnists. I supported The Guardian when it was attacked over its columnist Erwin James, a convicted murderer, who had worthwhile insights into the criminal justice system without any sense of brushing aside his crimes.

Let’s hope that the paper sees sense and axes this weekly insult to its readers.

Solving Daily Telegraph iPad app problems

Daily Telegraph iPad app

Daily Telegraph iPad app

I love reading newspapers on my iPad. I get them delivered to my tablet without having to go to the letterbox, never mind the newsagent. I can catch up on the news wherever I am in the world, as long as I’m online. The Daily Telegraph iPad app is one of my favourites, as it’s one of the most elegant apps.

But it’s not the most reliable. It rarely if ever downloads automatically, unlike the Guardian and Sunday Times. And recently it has stopped downloading at all: it sticks at 8% downloaded.

Time to use the app equivalent of turning a pesky computer on and off again: I deleted the app completely and downloaded it afresh. This is where I ran into difficulties. It asked me to enter my details as a subscriber. I chose ‘digital subscriber’. But it didn’t recognise me. I tried again. And again. Still no joy. It kept asking me to buy a subscription, which I already had.

At this point I called the 0800 number. A helpful man told me I needed to take a different route: click on the cogwheel on the bottom left of the app screen. Click subscriptions, then choose restore purchases. Enter Apple ID password – and you’ll not be asked to buy a new subscription.

Restore purchases

Choose restore purchases

This solved the 8% hitch. It still doesn’t download automatically though…

Why I’m cancelling the Guardian after 36 years

The Guardian: from print to pixels

The Guardian: from print to pixels

I’ve been reading The Guardian since 1978: the year the winter of discontent started and the first test tube baby was born. As a 1980s student I endured days when the paper never appeared because of strikes and days when photos were so badly printed they were impossible to discern. Today’s paper is a miracle in colour – and the writing is as glorious as ever – yet I’m cancelling my subscription.

But this is no act of infidelity. I’ve decided after two years that the Guardian’s iPad edition is perfect for me. I prefer pixels to print, at least during the working week. I can read the ‘paper’ at the breakfast table in San Francisco and Sirmione as well as at home in our Buckinghamshire village without looking for a newsagent. I don’t have to recycle yesterday’s paper. And my fingers don’t get mucky with newsprint.

I made the decision after weeks of never buying the print edition with my subscriber’s vouchers. Most days, I read the iPad edition over lunch at my desk at work, avoiding the queue at WH Smith for the printed paper.  I couldn’t see the point of spending almost £40 a month for the print subscription when I could get the digital version for around a quarter of the price.

I’ll still buy the printed Guardian on Saturdays. Weekends are different, and Karen and I enjoy sharing the weekend paper – I devour the opinions and sports sections, while she enjoys Family and Travel. (We both love the Weekend magazine.)

The Guardian is special. It stands out from the overwhelmingly authoritarian, right wing British national press. It has been a digital pioneer, although it was slow to introduce an iPad edition. Like many, I wonder how long it will maintain a print edition. Yet I’ve surprised myself. When I started reading the Guardian, Times and Telegraph on my iPad, I thought printed newspapers had a unique appeal that would endure. Now I’m not so sure.

Britain’s papers have embraced the iPad. The broadsheets have become pixel publishers, yet it’s not clear how much money they’re making from their digital editions. But there are two brutal truths: they cannot survive on print alone. And giving away content for free online threatens everything. It will be fascinating to see how this story develops over the next few years.

PS: my review of the very first Guardian iPad edition has stood the test of time. You can also read my post about The Times’ iPad edition.

The Telegraph's iPad front page

The Telegraph’s iPad front page

Thanks for the laughter, Simon Hoggart


Above: The Guardian mourns its star sketch writer

Saturdays won’t be the same again. The Guardian weekend columnist and parliamentary sketch-writer Simon Hoggart has died aged 67.

Never again will we savour Hoggart’s waspish columns, mocking politicians and everyday people – especially Christmas round-robin letters.

Today, The Guardian’s obituary recounted examples of Hoggart’s wit, as well as his serious journalist, notably covering the darkest days of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.  His damning account of the British Army’s actions on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972 was confined by the 2010 Saville inquiry.

Hoggart was also a witty broadcaster, and he transformed Radio 4’s venerable News Quiz in the 1990s when he took over as chairman from Barry Took. He made it essential listening compared with the tired show that he inherited. (Helped by a fresh generation of brilliant comics, including Andy Hamilton, Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith.)

A sad loss.