June 17, 2022 12:13
The news headlines this year have been particularly grim, especially from the war in Ukraine. But we have been living for a while now in times of deep uncertainty, with our emotions stirred not just by the events around us but also by the way that they’re reported. The news never stops: our phones ping with the latest developments, and social media then whips up storms in which there is no opportunity for quiet contemplation.
20 Things That Would Make the News Better argues that the news doesn’t need to be like this. The public service broadcasters still attract millions of viewers to their content on TV, radio and online, and they are the places we can go for guidance on what matters and what doesn’t. Amid all the screaming hysteria of Twitter and the like, calm analysis still cuts through – and it’s what we need, now and in the future, to make sense of the world.
The challenge is that public service broadcasting is far from perfect. The BBC in particular has an obligation to reflect the whole of the country and the views of a vast and diverse range of audiences; and, along with much of the rest of the media, it has struggled on some of the biggest stories of recent years. For instance, I explain how some of the BBC’s editors in the regions were very clear about the way the Brexit referendum campaign was heading, but their opinions were not heard by the decision-makers in London. And I suggest ways we can avoid these traps in future – through greater investment and, crucially, giving real power to the nations and regions of the UK.
There are voices arguing that traditional broadcasting has had its day and impartiality is a concept that no longer has value when raw opinion can be much more stimulating and engaging. I disagree. The polling evidence is unambiguous that the public want unbiased news, but nobody should underestimate the effort needed to preserve it – especially when politicians are busy tinkering with the BBC’s licence fee and seeking to privatise Channel 4. However, it is also a consequence of mandatory public funding that every member of the nation should believe that their voice matters and that they are not ignored by the smart young folk in the metropolitan newsrooms.
Everyone will have a view on how the news we consume could be improved. I began talking about ten things that would make the news better in a lecture in 2018, and it is friends and colleagues who have doubled the number and contributed ideas along the way. I’m pleased that some of the leading lights in the industry have spoken to me on the record
about their takes on these themes. There are some provocations, too. Does Brenda from Bristol, whose complaint about another general election went viral, justify the number of times reporters are sent out onto the streets to conduct vox pops? Or would it be better to spend that time telling us what is actually happening around the world today?
There is much at stake. Events, and the way they are reported, could overwhelm us. But we know what keeps our society together, and the question for us now is how hard we will fight to protect high-quality news service. My fear is that once lost, they will never return; the battle for better news is real and urgent and very important indeed.
Intrigued? Order your copy of 20 Things That Would Make the News Better here.
April 21, 2022 10:17
Biteback is delighted to announce that it is to publish Matt Hancock’s inside story of the pandemic.
Hancock served as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care from 2018 to 2021.
For eighteen months, the MP for West Suffolk led the UK government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The book, based on contemporaneous accounts, will recount first-hand the most important events and decisions as they unfolded throughout this unprecedented global crisis.
The book will provide a unique and candid account of Britain’s battle to turn the tide against Covid-19.
For the first time, Hancock will reveal the crucial moments of the struggle to save lives and the race to develop the vaccine. He will give his unique perspective on how the NHS rose to the challenge, recognising the incredible hard work and sacrifice of so many. He will offer an honest assessment of the lessons we need to learn for next time – because there will be a next time.
Matt Hancock’s pandemic diaries will be published later this year and his royalties will be donated to NHS charities.
For more information please contact email@example.com
February 15, 2022 11:58
Ahead of the paperback publication of Two Minutes to Midnight, Roger Hermiston discusses the eerie parallels between Donald Trump and the 1950s...
The Trump Show is back for a new series in 2022. Disgraced though he may be in the eyes of very many Americans by the events on Capitol Hill, Donald Trump still retains his grip on the Republican base and is set to influence the party’s approach to the mid-term elections later this year.
Startlingly, if there was a presidential election tomorrow, he might well be back in the White House. An average of recent polls, compiled by the organisation RealClearPolitics at the end of 2021, showed 46 per cent of voters backing the former President compared to just 41.2 per cent for Joe Biden, bogged down as he is with the Omicron variant, worries about inflation and the collapse of his domestic spending plans.
Trump’s brand of populism and nativism has always appealed to a large slice of the electorate, while a uniquely American strain of demagoguery has pulsed through the nation’s veins from its founding days. But you only need to go back to the 1950s to find Trump’s political father, the man from whose playbook the last President plotted his successful course. What’s more, there is a direct link between the two men.
His name was Joseph Raymond McCarthy – ‘Joe’, as everyone knew him. The Senator from Wisconsin, with his roughly handsome looks, burly stature and thick baritone voice, etched himself vividly onto the canvas of American life in the early 1950s with his relentless hunt – which many described as a witch hunt – to root out communist conspirators in every shape and form.
Adeptly exploiting public fears of Soviet subversion at the height of the early Cold War, McCarthy dominated the front pages and the evening news broadcasts. His technique of the unsubstantiated accusation, the vilification of those unable to answer back, the charge of guilt by association and the counter-accusation as a method of defence remained constantly on show in an age of anxiety.
Starting to sound familiar? Once you begin to analyse it, the comparisons between McCarthy and Trump are uncanny. For a start, neither had a fixed political identity or consistent ideology. McCarthy was once an uber-liberal Democrat but made the sharp U-turn to rock-ribbed conservative. Trump followed suit in furtherance of his own ambitions, switching political parties five times. So both used the Republican Party for their own ends, terrifying the leadership but energising the base.
Both were charismatic demagogues, delighting in entertaining showmanship, noisy rabble-rousing techniques and fiery tirades in which emotion substituted for thought. In their public speeches and pronouncements, both McCarthy and Trump adhered to the maxim that ‘if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it becomes the truth’.
Both exploited a climate of anxiety and fear that existed in America – Trump with unemployment in the ‘rust belt’, McCarthy with the ‘enemy within’. In that atmosphere, both also set up demons in order to slay them – for McCarthy it was of course communists, for Trump it was Mexicans and Muslims.
Both were master manipulators of the media. In 1953, McCarthy had the mainstream press in thrall to him as he peddled falsehoods about supposed scores of communists in the State
Department. In 2020, Trump, who despises the mainstream media, instead projected his ‘fake news’ differently, through a sympathetic news channel (Fox News) and social media, in particular his famed Twitter account.
Of course, both ruthlessly turned on anyone in the media who sought to critically examine their methods – McCarthy with the respected liberal journalist Ed Murrow, Trump with the Washington Post and his sexist insults at Megyn Kelly of Fox News.
Both railed against America’s ‘corrupt elites’ – although there was a difference. Trump vowed to ‘drain the Washington swamp’, while McCarthy’s approach was a subtler one of manipulating from within.
Ultimately, of course, Trump wielded far more actual power as President than mere Senator McCarthy ever did, although the latter’s chairmanship of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations enabled him to range far and wide across American political and public life.
Strikingly, the torch was passed from McCarthy to Trump by a man named Roy Cohn, the Wisconsin Senator’s brash, aggressive, young (just twenty-six) legal counsel in 1953. After McCarthy’s downfall in 1954, Cohn went to work as an attorney in New York, where he stayed until his death from AIDS in 1986.
Who hired Cohn in the 1970s? None other than the young Donald Trump, who was running into difficulties with his housing development, not least with the building of Trump Tower. Cohn had links with mobsters, and legend has it that he persuaded them to get the Teamsters Union members back to work to resume the building of Trump’s monument to his vanity.
McCarthy finally overreached himself in the spring of 1954. He had decided to take on the nation’s most revered institution, the army, and it proved a communist hunt too far. On the thirtieth day of televised hearings, the army’s chief counsel Joseph Welch, exasperated by McCarthy and Cohn’s haranguing of a young soldier, famously told McCarthy: ‘Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?’
From that moment on, McCarthy’s spell over the American people was broken. He would be condemned by the Senate later that year for ‘conduct unbecoming’, and he turned increasingly to alcohol, eventually dying of hepatitis in 1957.
Will Trump’s spell be broken? Might it be through a single, illuminating moment, as with Welch and the army trials? It seems highly unlikely any time soon, given the entrenched nature of American society and the American electorate. We will likely hear from and see much more of McCarthy’s disciple in 2022.
Roger Hermiston’s book Two Minutes to Midnight: 1953 – The Year of Living Dangerously is published in paperback by Biteback on 22 February. Grab your copy here.
November 16, 2021 09:00
Having spent forty years observing crime play out from a ringside seat, I thought it was now or never to enter the arena and try my hand at writing a trilogy of books. The first covers my life as a defence lawyer (entitled No Lawyers in Heaven, published in 2020) and the third is a book of short stories (currently in progress). This is the second – a crime fiction novel. If, having read it, you are kind enough to call it a pacy illegal romp, I would take it as a great compliment.
The characters who appear are all drawn from my personal experiences over the years. True, they are not pure single malts but rather blended personalities from numerous individuals who have suffered the misfortune of crossing my portals. From the main protagonist, Big Jake Davenport, numero uno in the London underworld, to Halfpint, his special operations manager. From the acerbic judge known to all as Mack the Knife, and his problems at home with an adulterous wife, to Bob the Merc, a ruthless loan shark. From the illustrious Patrick ‘The Edge’ Gorman QC, the man to see, to his cerebral and eagle-eyed junior Daniel Jacobsen, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and on to the Italian beauty, Angelina. From Percival the Persecutor, a one-trick pony who always goes right for the jugular, to, finally, the no-nonsense Detective Chief Superintendent Iron-Rod Stokes, who is hell-bent, in his last case before retirement, on achieving a murder conviction against a hapless wronged man.
I have always been fascinated by the seemingly insoluble battle between morality and the law, and so, before picking up my pen, I decided that this conundrum would feature prominently. Innocence and guilt are not stamped in black and white. They are not absolute concepts. Most criminal cases fall into a shadowy expanse, reigned over by ever-darkening skies, stretching between righteousness and downright amorality, and inhabited by the types of characters you will find in this novel. They mingle here in muddy waters (as do their
lookalikes at the Old Bailey), battling it out against each other, mentally and physically, to achieve their own sense of justice.
I hope that readers find my style accessible, engaging and easy to understand, and, if so, while being entertained, that they will also become somewhat the wiser as to what really goes on behind the scenes in a murder case that ends up in Court 1 at the Old Bailey.
To those of you who doubt that the types of characters depicted in my novel exist in real life, I can only say, believe me, they do – I have met them all!
Henry's book, Murder at the Bailey, is out now: get your copy here!
September 02, 2021 12:25
New authors are often asked, ‘Why did you write this book?’ I’m going to give answering that question a go in this post.
I start with a self-aware caveat: I’m not an historian – I am that most English of things, the enthusiastic amateur. I have great admiration for those who’ve dedicated their lives to research and to teaching and cannot claim to be one of them; I work in the City, and history has always been a much-loved hobby.
I began telling the stories as a distraction for myself during the recent coronavirus lockdown(s) in a series of threaded tweets on Twitter (where my handle is @ajcdeane) under the hashtag #deanehistory. I’ve always thought that we can learn from the past, and the first few were just stories I had told to people from time to time over the years. Denied an in-person audience to inflict them on, I took to social media to air them there instead!
The surprising thing to me was how well they were received. They were widely shared and commented upon, and soon people who love history as much as I do were proactively suggesting new stories, as well as adding many interesting digressions and responses. That’s also where the demand for a book of stories began.
So, for a book about history it is a surprisingly 21st-century work – originating on social media and much of it crowd-sourced!
The book is light-hearted – much of the attention it’s received has kindly stressed how funny people have found some of the stories. But it’s also true that, in recent times, I’ve moved from loving history to being rather worried about it. When people are pulling down statues, I fear that we’ve gone too far.
There’s a real risk in modern views that people think this is Year Zero. That all that has come before us is ignorant and wrong and this is the sole generation of wisdom uniquely able to judge those who have come before. Apart from anything else, it’s less than positive because there will come a next generation, and one after that, and I assume we wouldn’t want them to think themselves uniquely enlightened and that we are bigoted barbarians.
What starts with statues doesn’t end with statues. In fact, what starts with statues isn’t really about statues. The destroyers won’t stop when they get their way on statues. They’ll move on to the next thing. Films. Books. Blue plaques. Street names. Town names. A veritable bonfire of the vanities awaits us.
So there is a little of that in the book, as well as the humour.
It’s worth saying that, freed from the strictures of the Twitter format, the stories that reappear in the book have been extended and elaborated on, and many other stories appearing in it were not posted online.
Finally, I was writing Lessons from History as my father was dying. Caring for him at home with my family, I was surrounded by his great collection of works of history, which reflected the wide-ranging and random interests that are reflected in the book – and though inadequate as a tribute, it is dedicated to his memory.
Alex's book Lessons from History is out now: order your copy here.