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Review: Live from Downing Street by Nick Robinson

Nick Robinson’s Live from Downing Street is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the history of the relationship between politicians and the media, from the very beginnings of Parliament to the present day. It’s part historical and part autobiographical, with the latter part in particular including lots of amusing anecdotes about Robinson’s time as a political journalist. Some of these genuinely made me laugh out loud. It also has a lengthy “last word”, in which Robinson muses on the future of political journalism, and the opportunities and threats offered by introducing to the UK biased broadcasting in the mould of Fox News.

He has an easy writing style making this an easy relaxed read. He sometimes has a slightly peculiar reliance on turns of phrase which fail to accurately communicate what he means to say: for example, there’s a passage where he introduces Gordon Brown’s disastrous flirtations with YouTube by saying that politicians have always been keen to embrace technology to communicate their message – something which he’s spent most of the first two-thirds of the book disproving.

He gives a very eloquent account of the effect of the plurality of media in the broadest sense meaning that people surround themselves with messages that support their world viewpoint, and the effect this in turn has on perceptions of bias at the BBC. This is something I’ve been banging on about on Twitter for ages, in a far less coherent manner, and it was interesting to see that the same thoughts have occurred to that organisation’s Political Editor. He also gives an interesting discussion of the nature of bias and impartiality, which I very much enjoyed.

There isn’t an awful lot of new stuff in this book. I think many people who follow politics in detail are probably aware of the history of the BBC and the historic developments in the relationship between journalists and the press. But Robinson presents all of this with such a clear narrative and in such a clear way that I still found myself very engaged with the content even when he was describing events I knew well.

The lengthy discussion of recent events and media figures – phone hacking being perhaps the most notable example – will probably make this book date quite quickly. Indeed, the mentions of Leveson “whose report has not been published at the time of writing” already make it feel a little behind the times, particularly since Leveson’s report covers much of the same ground discussed by Robinson.

Either way, this is well worth a read, and comes highly recommended.



Live from Downing Street is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 1,975th post was filed under: Book Reviews, Politics, .

Review: My Trade by Andrew Marr

This is a thoroughly enjoyable personal history of journalism, written by the then BBC Political Editor, and former editor of the Independent, Andrew Marr.

My Trade certainly delivers on its promise to provide ”A Short History of British Journalism”, but rather than delivering a dry journalistic history, Marr injects copious amounts of humour and panache. He provides many personal anecdotes – some longer and more developed than others, but all entertaining – and passes judgement on developments in the media world, rather than merely reporting their occurence. The personal touch makes the copy much more engaging, and prevents it descending into a super-extended newspaper feature, like so many other books by journalists.

Anybody interested in British journalism would be well advised to read a copy of this book. It provides much background on how newspapers are put together, and how this has changed over the years. It even provides some history on the rivalries between newspapers, looking at (as an example) how The Mirror’s sales declined at the hands of The Sun, and how Marr’s own Independent set out to be different from everyone else, but ended up being much the same.

This is not intended to be – and nor is it – a detailed history of the development of the British media. Instead, it’s an enjoyable romp through the subject, stopping off at points of interest – particularly recent ones, and many of which you’d have thought he may have liked to avoid. He goes into some detail about Hutton and the problems of modern journalism, making convincing arguments for his point of view – which is, in part, critical of his BBC paymaster. It’s very clear from his writing that he’s experienced as a journalist, not just because he lists his many and varied jobs, but also because of the detailed insight he is able to deliver, and the apparent wisdom of some of his comments.

Certainly, this is a very easy-going enjoyable read, from a political editor who comes across as an affable kind of chap, and a book which I must highly recommended.

My Trade is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This 1,897th post was filed under: Book Reviews, Media, Politics, .

Jesus, the jungle and Nadine Dorries

I am not an MP for any reason other than because God wants me to be. I constantly try to do what Jesus would do.

So said Nadine Dorries in 2007. Obviously, Jesus has now recommended that Dorries abandons her constituents and takes a month off her regular job (while retaining a full £65,738 salary) to earn about £40,000 appearing on a tacky reality television show. God certainly works in mysterious ways!

This 1,876th post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, News and Comment, Politics, Quotes, .

Review: A Journey by Tony Blair

Tony Blair’s autobiography gives a real and detailed insight into what it’s like to be Prime Minister: the stresses and how he coped with them, the challenges and how he tried to overcome them, the successes, the failures, the balancing of family life with political life and statesmanship. It really is quite fascinating.

Politically, there’s little in here that we haven’t heard before, but the detail and explanation of how and why decisions were reached seemed interesting to me. The “behind the scenes” detail of the huge events that occurred under Tony Blair’s leadership provided genuine insight, if not new information – Diana’s death, 9/11, 7/7, the Hutton Inquiry, and Iraq to name just a few.

Yet, it’s taken me the best part of two years to plough through this tome. That’s mainly due to what Ben MacIntire of The Times described as a “congenial style peppered with slang and gossipy asides”. I’d describe it as a style resembling transcribed speech, and it frequently becomes very thick and frustrating.

Let me pepper this review with some examples. When talking about the themes underpinning his leadership (something he does frequently, citing different themes each time), the following sentence appears: “Perhaps above all, an emphasis bordering on the religious on what counts to be what works.”

It’s not a crime against humanity, but it is a verbless sentence that doesn’t really scan very well. It’s the sort of sentence you have to re-read a couple of times to get the message. In a paragraph of prose, it’s a frustrating sentence that should have been edited. And these are little throughout the book.

Here’s another example. Read this sentence aloud: “I wondered – as did some of the newer and more radical faces in my Policy Unit, although this was still heresy in the party, not least among most of my ministers – whether we had been right to dismantle wholesale GP commissioning in the NHS and grant-maintained schools in education, instead of adapting these concepts of local self-govenment to spread decentralised management across the state health and education systems, but without the inequity inherent in the underfunded Tory reforms we inherited.”

Again, the message is clear, but it isn’t an easy read. A decent editor would surely have added some more punctuation, or cut this down into several sentences.

And, since we’re on a roll, let’s play “count the subclauses” in this example: “Precisely because the roots of this wider struggle were deep, precisely because it was a visceral life-or-death battle between modernisers and reactionaries, precisely because what was – and is – at stake was no less than the whole future of Islam – the nature of its faith, its narrative about itself, and its sense of its place in the twenty-first century – precisely because of all this, there was no way the forces opposed to modernisation, and therefore to us, were going to relinquish their territory easily.”

I think these examples demonstrate the message that this book is not an easy bedtime read. Yet, within a few sentences of passages like those above, Blair tells us about Alistair Campbell’s “clanking great balls”, describes Iraq as “a basket case”, PMQs as “a girls’ school playground” and relates that “I like to have time and comfort in the loo.”

And then, occasionally, Blair becomes suddenly coy: he didn’t want to discuss his son’s vaccination status “for private reasons the family was sensitive about issues to do with.” Note, again, that this hardly scans well.

The constant juxtaposition of long badly written passages of political prose and puerile descriptions of characters and situations wore me out. I couldn’t read more than a couple of chapters of this at once.

I think this demonstrates that I found this book a difficult read, which makes it difficult to rate. On the one hand, much of the content is five-star – well worth reading, whichever side of the political fence one occupies. On the other, the form of expression is risible, bordering at times on unreadable. This is a book that badly needs a revised and edited edition under the guidance of a decent editor! Until then, I can’t in good conscience give it more than three stars.

A Journey is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This 1,794th post was filed under: Book Reviews, Politics, , .


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