Thursday, 11 September 2014

Freedom of the Press

“Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” – Thomas Jefferson
"Freedom of the press in Britain is freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices as the advertisers don't object to." – Hannen Swaffer
“The press, operating properly and in the public interest is one of the true safeguards of our democracy.
As a result of this principle which operates as one of the cornerstones of our democracy, the press is given significant and special rights in this country which I recognise and have freely supported both as barrister and judge. With these rights, however, come responsibilities to the public interest: to respect the truth, to obey the law and to uphold the rights and liberties of individuals. In short, to honour the very principles proclaimed and articulated by the industry itself (and to a large degree reflected in the Editors’ Code of Practice).

[...] There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained. This is not just the famous but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events (many of them, truly tragic) far larger than they could cope with but made much, much worse by press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous.”

Extract from The Leveson Inquiry Report, Executive Summary- points 5-7

By JJ Marsh

Let’s hear that again, Lord Leveson...
“With these rights, however, come responsibilities to the public interest”
When news broke of murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone hacking in 2011, the volcano rumbling beneath press tactics finally erupted. Methods employed by newspaper management, editors, reporters and contracted employees were exposed not only as morally abhorrent, but beyond the law. The concept of self-regulation appeared a sham, and worst of all, sanctioned by the government.

The subsequent Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing, the Leveson Inquiry and first of the phone hacking trials are over. And now?

As the focus on familiar faces and gossip about misconduct wanes, so does public interest. Exit News of the World, enter Sun on Sunday. Goodbye Coulson and Brooks, hello the next batch of Murdochini.

Story fatigue has set in before the most important decision of all.

What happens next to the British press?

Better? Worse? Or more of the same under different masks?

Press regulation is still to be agreed.

This is potentially a massive cultural shift in British history. An opportunity to put our house in order, uncouple press from politics and get the independence and accountability we deserve.

Where do we go from here?

The Royal Charter
Based on Lord Leveson’s proposals for an independent press regulation, approved by all parties and sealed by the Queen, The Royal Charter stipulates certain standards for self-regulation. Rejected by the biggest newspaper groups.

(Independent Press Standards Organisation) The favourite option for some sections of the newspaper industry. According to the Media Standards Trust, Ipso fails to meet 20 out of 38 of Leveson’s recommendations regarding self-regulators. Budget, rules, codes, sanctions and investigations would be directed by the Regulatory Funding Company – made up of the largest publishing groups in the industry.

(Independent Monitor for the Press) A press regulator independent of both newspaper owners and politicians. With the support of leading journalists and free speech campaigners regulated by a board elected by an independent panel. Committed to arbitration, a standard ‘kitemark’ and whistleblowing hotline.

Nick Davies

Guardian journalist Nick Davies broke the hacking story. I asked him how he felt about the outcome and its ramifications.

JJ: How far do you feel justice has been done? Not just in the courtroom, but in media reporting of the guilty pleas, sentencing and exposure of newspaper practices during the trial?

ND: Not much has changed. The amount of criminal activity in newsrooms has fallen to just about zero and will probably stay at that level for a year or two more. But, in the wider picture of media activity, Fleet Street continues to assume that it has the right to engage in aggressive falsehood and distortion in pursuit of its political or commercial agenda.

The misreporting of the end of the big hacking trial - specifically the pretence that the trial had ended with only one guilty defendant and also the claim that it had cost £100m - was typical of this.

JJ: We’re at an unusual kind of crossroads regarding the press, its regulation and its freedoms. After the Leveson inquiry’s recommendations, The Royal Charter, Ipso and the latest alternative, Impress, which route do you see as both safeguarding free speech and protecting the public in the long term?

ND: I think Leveson came up with a clever solution which would protect the victims of the media without threatening free speech.

Impress is an attempt to make that happen.

Ipso is an attempt to stop it happening.

JJ: Are you concerned about the funding of Ipso by the Regulatory Funding Company? Is this a case of ‘marking their own homework’ again?

ND: As a reporter, I would be very worried about working for a newspaper which signed up to Ipso as currently constituted. Like its predecessor, the PCC, Ipso is vulnerable to the influence of the industry, for example via the RFC.

But what is really worrying is that Ipso has far greater power than the PCC.
I do not want the likes of Paul Dacre [The Daily Mail] and Trevor Kavanagh [The Sun] marking my homework, particularly if they have the power to investigate my work and to impose large fines. If Ipso had existed in this form while we were publishing the original hacking stories, they would have been able to kill us off.

JJ: How do you react to statements on press freedom such this:
Isn’t the 6am knock on a journalist’s door the mark of a totalitarian state?
(Daily Mail)
The role of a free press is to hold the government to account. It should not work the other way round.
(The Times)
On The Royal Charter] a slippery slope towards state regulation and a complete mistake.
(Labour MP Kate Hoey)
... a sad day for press freedom in the UK.
(Index on Censorship)
Despots will take heart from Britain beating the press
. (
Daily Mirror)

ND: The Leveson report was the object of a massive campaign of misreporting, which began before it was even published with newspapers paying for advertisements warning that Leveson was going to call for state regulation of the press. Aggressive fiction.

There is nothing totalitarian about arresting a journalist who has committed a crime - the totalitarianism would be to arrest him for doing his job.

There is no proposal for the government to hold the press to account.

There was some criticism of Leveson which was born of a genuine anxiety that his proposal in some way at some time could be distorted into something dangerous. That really was about trying to guess the future. I understood the anxiety but I don’t share it.

Beyond that, the bulk of the criticism was dishonest propaganda from the kind of newspapers who made the Leveson inquiry necessary in the first place.

JJ: In your piece describing the trial, you use the phrase “the dominance of corporation over state”. Has anything changed? Is it likely to in the future?

ND: The more the state is ‘rolled back’, the more powerful corporations become. The more powerful corporations become, the more they roll back the state. There’s no sign of it stopping.

Nick's book, Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch, is published on 31 July.

The Press Regulation Timeline

With grateful thanks to Hacked Off for permission to reproduce
1953  Four years after a Royal Commission told the press to start regulating itself, nothing had been done. Only the threat of legislation forced them to create the General Council of the Press. Withdrawing his private member’s Bill, C.J. Simmons MP told the Commons: ‘I give warning here and now that if it [the Council] fails, some of us again will have to come forward with a measure similar to this bill.‘

1962  A second Royal Commission told the press self-regulation wasn’t working and proposed steps to make it effective: ‘We think that the Press should be given another opportunity itself voluntarily to establish an authoritative General Council . . . We recommend, however, that the government should specify a time limit after which legislation would be introduced.‘

1977  The third Royal Commission on the Press urged radical reform of the Press Council and said that if nothing was done parliament should act. The report said: ‘We recommend that the press should be given one final chance to prove that voluntary self-regulation can be made to work.’

1990  Parliament backed the Calcutt Committee recommendations for radical change to self-regulation, including the establishment of an effective Press Complaints Commission. Papers were given a ‘year of grace’ to make this work and the Home Secretary, David Waddingston, told the Commons: ‘This is positively the last chance for the industry to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation.’

1993  The Calcutt Review concluded that the PCC was ‘not… an effective regulator of the press’. It recommended a Press Complaints Tribunal backed by statute. A Major government with a slender majority failed to implement this and the PCC continued.

2011  In the Commons in July 2011, speaking after the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, David Cameron said: ‘I accept we can’t say it’s the last chance saloon all over again. We’ve done that.’

2012  The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press held public hearings throughout 2011 and 2012, with the Inquiry report published in November 2012.

2013  The Queen sets her seal on the Royal Charter on Self-Regulation of the Press. The Charter creates the Recognition Panel, to which any regulator can apply for recognition under the Charter.

2014  The newspaper industry, in defiance of the Royal Charter and against the wishes of the public, is set to launch IPSO, a son-of-PCC. IPSO does not meet 20 of the 38 recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson in relation to press self-regulation.

Watch closely.

State-controlled media is a scary prospect.

So is a media-controlled state. 

Monday, 11 August 2014

First Page Competition 2014 - THE RESULTS!


1st Prize Winner
The Concealment by Lorna Fergusson

2nd Prize Winner
Wake by Jacqueline Molloy

3rd Prize Winner
An Inspired Mess by Georgina Jeffery


The Evening of the Second Day by Catherine Edmunds
Blood on the Booze Aisle by James Collett
Memories of the Piano Revival by William Walker
The Midlife of Dudley Chalk by Peter James Lamb
Netherwood by Gary Power
Superior by Perry McDaid
Condemned to Live by Clare Hawkins
Shadows of the Night by Vanessa Knipe
Heading for the Wall by Caroline Jestaz
The Storyteller by Marlene Brown
The False Prophet by Marlene Brown
Severance Kill by Tim Stevens


Message from Alice by Ginna Wilkerson
Lighter than Air by Susan Pope
Running from Sarah by Carly Pluckrose-Gates
Rahul and Sweetie by Martin Cornwell
The Bridge in the Middle of Nowhere by Pamela Robertson
The Red Hill by David Penny
I'm The One by Pat Black
A Hard Trail by Grace Rostoker
Hannah's Voice by Robb Grindstaff
Infixion by K E Coles
Lucifer Matches by Lorna Fergusson

Judge’s Report by Orna Ross

1st Prize Winner
The Concealment by Lorna Fergusson

The outstanding quality of The Concealment, is good old-fashioned fine writing. “I am not a good man,” the opening insists, and a few deft paragraphs introduce us to a man who, through guilt and misanthropy, has locked himself away from others and from the soft comforts of life. Unusual vocabulary -- the “scuttering” of insects, the “sough” of the Canadian wind; the “cresting” of a ridge; a “rickle” of branches -- show that we are in the hands of a confident writer.

Then we find this opening is a prologue and the scene changes, from first person to third, from cold isolation in a strange land to a Mr Thomas Ross, surveying his land and his soon-to-be-built house in its ideal location, a “casket in which to display” his beloved fiancee.

A lot happens in very few words and the quality of the writing, its tone and pitch ideally suited to the historical fiction genre, is here what makes the reader want to read on.

2nd Prize Winner
Wake by Jacqueline Molloy

Humour wins out in Wake: “Lying on your back under a coffin is not the ideal place to eat a chocolate biscuit,” is its opening line. Indeed.

In the paragraphs that follow, we are introduced to the 13-year-old narrator, a confident, independent thinker; a brother and dad, an aunt Sarah who didn’t care all that much about, her now-dead husband, Uncle Frank, and a mother who’s conspicuous by her absence, especially as we learn that the girl has been to at least a dozen wakes in her short life.

Her ordinary world of tea at six o’clock, of making the best of whatever situation you find yourself is juxtaposed with her curious under-the-coffin situation, in which she has to keep quiet. Who or what is she hiding from, as she focuses on the possibilities of the chocolate biscuit?

The lightness of tone, as well as the bizarre situation makes this story beginning irresistible.

3rd Prize Winner
An Inspired Mess by Georgina Jeffery

Tone of voice is what made An Inspired Mess a winner. “It’s a strange sensation, being dangled upside-down over the side of a bridge in the middle of the night,” it begins. “You might say that it brings about a contemplative state of mind.” The offhand, understated tone that is at odds with the content continues, through details of “dodads” and “curios” that the self-aware and self-deprecating narrator tells us he sells on The Black Market.

The market is “beautiful and surreal” while the light shimmering on the surface of the Thames conceals sharp rocks: in this story, it seems, nothing will be as you might imagine it should be, down to the substance he’s been dealing - “inspiration”.

As a beginning, it’s intriguing and compelling and impossible not to want to know more.

Winning Entries

1st Prize Winner
The Concealment by Lorna Fergusson

I am not a good man.

There are some who will tell you that I am; they seek to aid me in my destitution in this foreign land.
They would persuade me to rest on a feather-bed, to sup good food by a roaring fire, to ease the pains of age and agues with fine company and strong whisky. They are horrified by this place where I sojourn.

Sometimes I drop the bar over the inside brackets of the door, though all it would take is a hefty push to burst bar, door and building, to shiver it all into matchwood. I shut them out. I shut myself in.

I lie here, listening to their pleading. I have listened to pleas all my life, it seems.

I will not rise and unlatch that door and let soft hands draw me to comfort, for I do not deserve comfort.

Here is where I must be. Here, amongst scutterings of insects and the sough of Canadian wind, with damp in my bones and my chest glued with phlegm. Here, lying on a rickle of branches lashed into the semblance of a bed; here, low down, where I can smell the cold seep of the earth, waiting for me.

Chapter One

Canada, 1886

Thomas Ross, mounted on a fine roan horse, crested the ridge and looked down into the valley beyond. It was a gratifying sight. In a few months, he thought, it would be even more gratifying, once the house was built. The situation promised rural peace, yet was not too far from the city. Amelia would be able to visit her friends, attend theatrical entertainments, pay court to her father, all without difficulty. Even Hugh Morrison, the parent in question, could raise no objections to such an idyllic spot.
He urged Jupiter forward, descending with a rattle of pebbles to the valley’s base, hearing the trickle of a stream, then the voices of the workmen. Thomas reached inside his jacket and checked the papers were still there, neatly folded in a packet. His dreams, soon to be made tangible, in timber and stone. The house, the casket in which to display his precious jewel. He smiled at himself for such romantic whimsy - though his heart beat fast, as it always did, at the thought of her - then he pulled his face straight and stern.

2nd Prize Winner
Wake by Jacqueline Molloy

Lying on your back under a coffin is not the ideal place to eat a chocolate biscuit.

I had two primary concerns.

One: I hoped I wouldn’t choke.
Two: if I did choke could I do it quietly?

I’m not allowed to eat lying down, but I wouldn’t normally be lying under a coffin at 6pm in someone’s sitting room. I’d be home having my tea, sitting sensibly at the kitchen table with my dad and brother.

But dad had always taught us to make the best of any situation you found yourself in, so I licked the smooth chocolate off the top of the biscuit and allowed my tongue to find its way through to the creamy mint centre. I sucked at it quietly whilst examining the swirly patterns in the wood grain above me. Did you know that the underside of a coffin is nowhere near as fancy as the top?

This makes sense to me, because if you think about it, how many people are ever going to find themselves underneath one? This was a big cherry wood affair with fancy brass handles and sculpted patterned panels. Aunt Sarah’s choice of coffin for Uncle Frank surprised me. I thought she would have buried him wrapped in Hessian in a cheap veneer box but here he was, laid out in the fanciest coffin I’d ever seen. Before you get all cocky and ask “how many coffins could you have possibly seen given you’re only thirteen?” I can tell you confidently – quite a few.

I don’t keep detailed records or anything but if I looked back over my journals that I’ve been writing since I was eight, there would be at least a dozen wakes mentioned in there. It’s what we’re famous for in Ireland, along with civil wars, potatoes and “tar and feathering”.

I wrote that in a school essay once.

My bum was getting a bit numb lying on the floor but so far I hadn’t choked. I just had to tackle the now moist biscuit base. Should I just shove it all in at once or take the risk and bite it in half and hope the crumbs didn’t backfire all over me.

I held the biscuit up above me and weighed up my options.

3rd Prize Winner
An Inspired Mess by Georgina Jeffery

It's a strange sensation, being dangled upside-down over the side of a bridge in the middle of the night.

You might say that it brings about a contemplative state of mind.

Look at the way the light shimmers over the surface of the Thames, your brain tells you. Probably big, sharp rocks under there, it points out, helpfully. My, the rope around your ankles feels rather thin, doesn't it? Sure hope it's strong enough to continue holding a full-grown man . . .

These were my unfortunate thoughts as I swung helplessly in the breeze. I was especially concerned about my coat slipping slowly down my arms towards the swirling waters below. I'm rather attached to that coat. It's a proper trench coat with lots of spacious pockets – I've no end of elixirs and doo-dads and curios stuffed away inside it. If I lost that coat I'd lose a small fortune in potential profits with it.

There is a tendency to typecast men in trench coats as crooked characters, shady figures lurking on the fringe of the crowd with a range of dubious watches on offer for the discerning patron. This is totally untrue.

I don't sell watches.

“How are we doing, Mr Hansard? Have you reconsidered my offer?”

This was the slick voice of Mr Scallet from high above. It was at his leisure that I was currently being, aha, held.

I probably deserved this, I thought. I'd been going through a quiet period lately; not one of my sales had backfired in the past month, and no one had tried to kill me. This was quite an achievement, considering my usual run of luck was about as long as a piece of string on fire.

This is the sort of thing you come to expect, when you're a dealer on the Black Market. The real Black Market, that is.

It is a beautiful, surreal place where abstract concepts can be purchased in neat little boxes; where success comes in the form of an edible powder and fame can be hung round your neck on a single cotton thread. In need of a little luck? Heck, I know a guy in Blackfriars who can sell you it in a bottle.

I'm a here and there man, myself. I specialise in everything, if you know what I mean.

When Mr Scallet had found me, I was specialising in inspiration.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Occupation Diaries by Raja Shehadeh & The Wall by William Sutcliffe

Reviewed by Anne Stormont

These are two five star reads on the topic of freedom. One is non-fiction and the other is fiction. But they're connected by setting and they complement each other beautifully.

I became aware of The Occupation Diaries when I read a review of it in the Observer newspaper whilst on the flight home from a visit to Israel-Palestine in 2012. It was quite a coincidence to read about a book that was set in the very place I'd just visited. It was my third visit to the country and I was so impressed by the review that I bought the book as soon as I got home.

I was even more impressed by the book itself. Shehadeh's writing certainly confirmed the impressions I'd formed during my visit. The book is made up of diary entries during a two year period from 2009 to 2011.

It chronicles events leading up to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. But it is far from dry. This a very personal account, Shehadeh gives a clear and detailed record of his everyday life and of the lives of his fellow Palestinians living on the West Bank. He states his annoyance, anger and frustration at the ignominies, inconveniences, injustices and dangers that they face on a daily basis. But he never rants or lectures and his words are all the more effective for that.

Readers get a vivid portrait of Palestinian life and history and gain a clearer understanding of the politics and issues that the citizens on both sides of this contested land have to deal with.
The standout section for me was Shehadeh's poignant account of a visit to Nablus station. In it he tells how when he arrived there were about twenty passengers waiting for the train. He describes the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation as they await the train's arrival. But when it does arrive at the platform, no-one can get on. The train is an image. It's part of an art installation commemorating the station's centenary. Nowadays, however, no-one uses it. There are no longer any trains linking Nablus to Jerusalem, Damascus, Amman or Cairo. No trains cross this isolated and hemmed in territory. Travel in and out of the West Bank is a tortuous and uncomfortable undertaking for the Palestinians. But, as Shehadeh says, the experience of seeing the image of the train let the observers go beyond their 'dismal present' and envisage a future of freedom and connection with all their neighbours.
I recommend this moving book to anyone who wants to gain an insight into this conflicted area. Shehadeh is a skilled writer and educator and  a quiet and honest activist.

It was while I was reading the above book that my husband presented me with The Wall. It had been recommended by a colleague of his and he reckoned I might like it. He was right. This a charming work of fiction and is also set in The West Bank.

The main character is a thirteen- year-old Israeli boy named Joshua. Joshua lives in the (fictional) town of Amarias. Amarias is an illegal Israeli settlement which is situated close to a checkpoint (based on the real one at Qalandia). Joshua, still grieving the death of his father - killed while doing reservist service in the Israeli army - lives with his mother and step-father. Joshua doesn't get on with his overbearing step-father who bullies and controls both Joshua and Joshua's mother. Joshua also hates Amarias - finding it too manicured, perfect and stifling.

The town is close to  a heavily fortified checkpoint in the wall which divides Israel form the occupied territories of the West Bank.

All Joshua knows of the territory beyond the wall is that it is there that 'the enemy' live. That is until the day he finds a tunnel under the wall and goes through it. Here he meets Leila and her family. Joshua finds a place that is truly another world to the one of Amarias. It is the first of several very tense and risky visits. On the other side of the wall, Joshua's concepts of loyalty, identity and justice are all challenged.

It is the character of Joshua that gives this book its charm. He is naive. He has no vested interest. He's not weighted by history, religion or politics. He sees the issues as simply unfair and unjust.

The book is a political fable which presents a political reality.  Looking through young Joshua's eyes, we are reminded of the simple truth that there are two sides to every story. It's a clash of innocence and experience.

In the end it's a redemptive tale -  or at least it is for Joshua. There is hope for his future, hope that just maybe he'll use what he's learned to redeem and give hope to - even in a small way - people like his Palestinian friend, Leila.

I urge you to consider reading both the above books. The writing is straight-forward,  informative and moving. More than that - it is full of dignity and life-affirming truth.

Both books are available in bookshops and on Amazon
The Occupation Diaries is published by Profile Books

The Wall is published by Bloomsbury

Scripts: Go to Jail to Break Free by Ola Zaltin

Freedom - whoppee! I’ve got the whole world as my stage. I can write whatever I like, about whomever I like, living wherever I like. The computer screen is pristine white, the cursor winks at me invitingly and I can type faster than a choirboy runs from a bishop.

So where to begin?

I think I want to tell a story about a boy and a girl, who meet in...Nairobi. He’s English middle-class visiting grandparents; she’s a girl from the slums. No. Wait. She’s English white middle-class visiting her dad who’s stationed in Nairobi working at the embassy, and he’s the dishwasher at the embassy, living in a hut in the slums with his five siblings.

Okay. Delete all that, not another Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, now that I think of it, I’ve always wanted to write the new Star Wars, only with actual galactic stars as living creatures and sentient creatures battling out during the big bang.

...or maybe not. Better have another glass of red. Or not. Slow down now. White page again. Deep breath (and yeah a little sip of Merlot never hurt Hemingway, did it? He only put a shotgun in his mouth, no biggie. Big glass of Merlot then).

Who’s the main character? Man? Woman? Transgender? Dog? A talking stuffed bear? A Lego piece?  Is it a main character story, or an ensemble cast? Is it told V-O, narrated by an old man remembering his youth told in flashback - or, hey! Maybe it’s a silent movie?

And genre, God! (More Merlot, and there might be some vodka in the freezer for later on.) Romantic comedy? Tragi-comedy? Historical drama? Cop drama? Drama? Comedy? Black comedy? Comedy comedy? Strange film set in Korea? Sci-fi, low-fi, wifi - shiiiiit. What the FI have I got myself into? (Wine glasses are for ponces, btw, wine tastes best straight from the bottle.)

I haven’t even started (or in fact I have - about 13 times - but it’s looking to be a sad ending. Or should I make it a happy ending? For which character, in what location, told by whom? Aaargh.

Freedom is choice. And if there’s too much choice, you get lost - both mentally and geographically (anyone who’s ever visited a US supermall knows what I’m talking about).

For me, the trick is to take away as much “freedom” from my story as possible. Because if the whole world is your stage; if your characters are unlimited, if anything can happen at any given moment - you’re lost on an ocean of possibilities. This (to me) is both bewildering, scary and uncreative.

Writing - at least screenwriting - is not about freedom. In fact, it’s about rules, and strict ones at that.

So let’s rewind the tape, erase that computer screen once again and start over. What if, in fact, you didn’t have any freedom when you started writing your story? What if you had some very narrow parameters to work with, some absolutely unbreakable rules?

A typical film-school writing assignment is something like “two guys and a girl in a room”: one is pregnant, one is the father, there’s a gun, and a million dollars: only one leaves the room alive.  Write the scene. You have 30 minutes. Go.

(Producers, by the way, love these kind of scenes and movies: one room, one house, one apartment. They hate overseas travel, night scenes and any kind of film with Grand Central Station in it: it’s called “Writing with your wallet” - in fact, their wallet. A producer will ten times more likely accept a script that’s cheap to produce than one that needs thousands of extras dancing in Grand Central Station at night in costume.)

Examples of films that come to mind with small casts and limited locations are:

Pieces of April
Basically located in a tenement building and a car. The building where April lives, and the car that her family is travelling in, to come to her Thanksgiving dinner.

A lesbian (yes, with Gina Gershon: go see) noir crime thriller set in one apartment.

Before Sunset, Before Sunrise and Before Midnight
Okay, the films take place in three different locations (but only one for each film); Vienna, Paris and Pelopenessos, Greece, but it’s basically two people growing up, bickering, talking and meeting - and parting.

Those are just from the top of my head. The list could be made almost endless. (Oh, here’s another one: Little Miss Sunshine: A dysfunctional family travel cross-country in a beat-up VW bus to a pageant they all know their pre-teen daughter IMPOSSIBLY can win. One car, one family. Brilliant.)

Imprisonment is a great ally for the creative screenwriter. Freedom the enemy. Instead of mumbling to a possible collaborative partner:  “Uh, yeah, it’s about, like, my dad and stuff…?” Do your homework; build that prison before you even leave your room. Boil down the location. Sketch out the characters (no more than five, ever). Set up your parameters before you write one single word on page. Will there be a murder? Will cops figure - or not - if it’s a crime drama? Will the press play a part - or not - if it’s a legal drama? For example, have a vague idea, at least, of the ending.

Then, when all that is done: let loose, and let your characters take a right where you’d planned a left, argue when you’d wanted silence, make love when celibacy was the rule. For short: break the rules. But to do that you have to have rules in the first place, right?

For me, as a writer, creative freedom is impossible without imprisonment: rules that help me build the screenplay in a coherent and structured way. And what is school, workplace, the army, prison - hell, driving down the road - but rules?

In real life we all live (and mostly abide) by rules, from dawn ’til dusk, and then some. And why do we (mostly) go to the movies?

To see people break the darn rules. 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Industry View - Amazon vs Hachette

By JJ Marsh

OK, here’s the story so far:

Amazon and Hachette (one of the Big Five trade publishers) disagree terms. Amazon takes action against Hachette-published books by allegedly lowering discounts and removing pre-order options. Negotiations drag out and authors feel the pinch.

Authors such as Douglas Preston, Lee Child and John Grisham sign a letter, calling on Amazon to resolve the dispute without hurting authors and asking readers to email Jeff Bezos to ‘tell him what you think’.

Hugh Howey launches a petition of his own in support of Amazon and criticising the Big Five as devaluing readers and authors alike.

Amazon offers Hachette authors 100% royalties on their eBooks while the dispute lasts. 

UPDATE: July 29: Amazon release a statement with hard data on pricing.

David Gaughran
David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in Prague, and the author of the historical adventures Mercenary and A Storm Hits Valparaiso, as well as the popular writers’ books Let’s Get Digital and Let’s Get Visible.
He blogs regularly about writing and the book business here. A keen observer of industry changes, a top-rated blogger and publishing advisor, this is his take on the dispute.

WWJ: This is not the first time a distributor and publisher have clashed. Why is Amazon v. Hachette attracting more interest than, for example, Barnes & Noble v. Simon & Schuster?

DG: Because it’s Amazon! It doesn’t matter that Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster had a similar dispute last year (without people losing their minds) because the currency of the internet is attention and a story on Amazon will guarantee more clicks than anything else. The spat between Amazon and Hachette is essentially a business dispute between a large corporation and a very large corporation, but the “industry” is attempting to depict it as a battle for the future of writing as a viable profession.

This allows them to tap into the fear that many writers have about the paradigm shift that’s underway. Hachette can’t come right out and say that it wants higher book prices (which is the result if they prevail in negotiations and take back control of pricing and/or restrict Amazon’s ability to discount), so instead we get a narrative of a rapacious corporation versus a plucky guardian of our literary heritage. Authors should adopt a little more scepticism towards what is a concerted PR campaign from a series of vested interests.

WWJ: The recent furore over author earnings can’t be ignored. Leaving aside the Pattersons and Childs, who’s losing out, if anyone?

DG: I don’t think we should set them aside so fast. Bestselling authors like Patterson, Preston & Child are being hit hard in this dispute because Amazon is no longer providing pre-order facilities to Hachette. Pre-orders are essential to the very top-selling authors because the New York Times counts all pre-order sales as first-week sales for the purposes of their bestseller list. These big-name authors are on very different contracts than the average writer (which is why we’ve never seen them organize a protest against unconscionable contract terms and the paltry royalty rates the average writer receives, or something like the industrial-scale scamming at places like Penguin Random House-owned Author Solutions). These guys tend to get escalators or bonuses based on things like appearing on the New York Times bestseller list, so the real reason for this protest, I respectfully submit, is that it’s hitting them in the pocket. I don’t think they care about the average writer.

That’s not to say the average Hachette author is unaffected by this dispute. Hachette’s Amazon sales are way down – by much more than other retailers are seeing an uptick. I’m sure that affects Hachette titles across the board. And I’m also sure that when these authors come to negotiate their next contract with Hachette that reduced sales numbers will have an impact on any terms they are offered, despite the fact that this dispute was outside their control, because that’s what always happens.

I’m hoping this dispute gets resolved as quickly as possible. However, I fear negotiations could drag out for some time, so it’s essential that Amazon and Hachette remove authors from the firing line immediately. To date, Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to compensate affected authors. Hachette has summarily dismissed each offer without making any counter-offer whatsoever – indicative, in my opinion, of how it has approached the overall negotiations. Indeed, it could be argued that Hachette wants to keep authors in the firing line to increase the pressure on Amazon.

WWJ: Accusations and emotions are running high, with commentators invoking everything from commercial suicide to predicting the death of literature. What’s your outlook?

DG: Fear is the most powerful tool if you want to manipulate public opinion. Emotions are running high because the publishing industry is being radically reshaped by the same disruptive forces that have transformed all sorts of industries from travel and insurance to newspapers and music. Change is scary, and the publishing industry is changing at light-speed. If you want a parallel with music, I think it’s akin to going from vinyl straight to MP3.

Publishers like Hachette have been doing everything possible to slow down the changeover from print to digital. It knows that self-publishers and small publishers are grabbing huge market share because large publishers don’t have a lock on digital distribution like they do with print. Once a reader goes from shopping in Waterstones to buying e-books from Amazon, that reader starts buying way more books that aren’t published by the biggest players. The response of large publishers to the digital revolution was to drag their feet on the digitization of backlist books, institute windowing for e-books (so they weren’t released at the same time as hardbacks), and engage in an illegal conspiracy to fix the price of e-books to keep prices artificially high – all of which is designed to slow down the switch to digital.

Hachette’s aim in these negotiations is to regain control of retail pricing and/or restrict Amazon’s ability to discount books. The net effect will be higher prices for readers, which in turn will slow down the transition to e-books. This buys Hachette time as it figures out this weird thing called the internet and how to talk to those strange people called readers – something they didn’t really have to do in a print world where its customers were booksellers.

I absolutely reject the notion that if Hachette fails to regain control of retail pricing and/or restrict Amazon’s ability to discount books that this will lead to some kind of disaster. I think that’s a regressive, zero-sum view of the marketplace which fails to grasp that books are in competition with all sorts of other forms of entertainment. I think lower prices are something that we should strive for as that grows the market – which benefits all writers (and readers).

WWJ: Both the letter and petition I mention above appeal to The Reader. Do you see readers as the reluctant jury service or fortunate beneficiaries in this case?

DG: I don’t think most readers care about the details of any publishing dispute, but they do care about the after-effects – which often aren’t immediately apparent. Readers reacted with boycotts and one-star reviews when five of the Big Six publishers engaged in an illegal conspiracy with Apple to fix the price of e-books. I think they will be similarly mad if Hachette prevails now and Hachette e-books become more expensive overnight.

WWJ: Amazon’s hold on the market is described as a monopsony. If the UK had retained the Net Book Agreement [fixed price book agreement such as exist in France and Germany], would we now be playing on a fairer field?

DG: It’s quite revealing how traditional publishers cast envious eyes at the price-fixing/discount-restricting laws in places like France and Germany. It makes a mockery of any claim that they weren’t intending to fix e-book prices in America. The nostalgia with which the Net Book Agreement is viewed is equally illuminating. Such price-maintenance agreements are always presented in the media as a positive thing for the future of literature, but they are really about control. Publishers want to maintain e-book prices at a higher level so they can slow the changeover to digital as much as possible. Let’s be very clear about this: anyone campaigning for these kinds of laws or agreements is campaigning for higher book prices – something I absolutely oppose and something I think would be an incredibly regressive step.

With regard to the UK in particular, the problem, in my view, wasn’t getting rid of the Net Book Agreement, but the practice of publishers offering sweetheart deals to chains and supermarkets, making it next-to-impossible for independent bookstores to compete.

WWJ: Earlier this month, New York publisher Morgan Entrekin said, “we’re seeing concentration in the fewest hands ever in publishing history.” Do you think that’s true?

DG: I presume Morgan Entrekin was talking about the retail side of the business, but it’s also happening on the publishing side. Penguin Random House was the highest-profile merger/acquisition in recent years but the first half of 2014 was the busiest for mergers/acquisitions since before the financial crisis. The concentration is more obvious on the retail side where Amazon has grabbed a huge chunk of the market and major bookselling chains have collapsed or are teetering on the brink. What’s interesting to me is that consolidation on the publishing side has historically led to poorer conditions for writers and readers (with worsening terms and higher book prices), but consolidation on the retail side seems to be doing the opposite. Book prices are falling, and writers have new ways to publish their work with better contract terms and higher royalty rates – whether that’s with a progressive digital publisher, or through self-publishing.

There’s no argument from me with the view that a diverse retail landscape is the ideal, but the above phenomenon should be noted because it illustrates that market domination by one player isn’t inherently bad, but what makes it less than ideal is what companies can do with such power. In other words, it’s about what Amazon might do at some undefined point in the future rather than their actions to date. If the solution being proposed to this future-problem is for government intervention and/or price-fixing agreements then that will make the situation worse, not better. We should be encouraging Amazon’s competitors to raise their game, instead of trying to remove competition from the marketplace.

The simple fact is that Amazon sells more e-books than anyone else because it provides a better customer experience. If you look at the e-bookstores of Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, and Google, the difference is immediately apparent. And if you start divvying up the market by governmental fiat, then these players will have zero incentive to raise their game.