Scoop?

Reach me with story tips and other queries by email on dave.lee@ft.com or via Twitter DM @DaveLeeFT.

If you would prefer a more secure channel, you can send me a message on Signal, where my number is (628) 400-7370.

Blog

Carrying on

“This week, to mark her platinum jubilee, Queen Elizabeth II gave a tell-all TV interview. No, of course she didn’t — she’s the Queen, and she hasn’t sailed to her 70th anniversary on the throne by adopting the tactics of mere politicians and celebrities. Already Britain’s longest reigning monarch, she is one of the very few people who make the news simply by carrying on.”

Henry Mance in this weekend’s FT

‘Let them see what they’ve done’

Timothy L. O’Brien writing for Bloomberg Opinion asks the question of whether Americans should be shown images that bring home the brutality of school shootings.

Jacqueline Kennedy made a point of wearing her pink, blood-spattered Chanel suit on the plane back to Washington after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Aides encouraged her to change. She refused. ‘Let them see what they’ve done,’ she insisted.

O’Brien goes on to say:

But showing people the reality of gun violence — consistently, responsibly and without flinching — matters over time. And anyone hoping to end gun massacres in the U.S. should consider whether most of the images they encounter after shootings actually force them to grapple with reality or simply airbrush it.

He’s right. An unwritten rule in western media is that it is sometimes ok to show dead bodies, but only those in far away lands, or those who feel sufficiently different to ourselves — whether Mexican drug cartel members, or washed-up refugee children. That in itself demands reflection.

We know change comes from visuals that shock us into action — or rather, shock us out of inaction. The open casket of Emmett Till, the Greensboro sit-ins, the murder of George Floyd. Three huge moments in the racial justice movement that would not have had the same impact were it not for imagery that demanded change.

I was in Uvalde last week. I heard accounts of what happened that will stay with me forever. But it’s this vivid recollection, told to CNN by an 11-year-old girl, that moved me the most:

[11-year-old survivor Miah Cerillo] said after shooting students in her class, the gunman went through a door into an adjoining classroom. She heard screams, and the sound of shots in that classroom. After the shots stopped, though, she says the shooter started playing loud music — sad music, she said.

The girl and a friend managed to get her dead teacher’s phone and call 911 for help. She said she told a dispatcher, “Please come … we’re in trouble.”

Miah said she was scared the gunman would return to her classroom to kill her and a few other surviving friends. So, she dipped her hands in the blood of a classmate — who lay next to her, already dead — and then smeared the blood all over herself to play dead.

Miah will relive that scene in her mind for the rest of her life. It will change her. America would be changed too if it was forced to see such horrors. Police reports described piles of bodies. Parents had to do DNA tests in order to help identify the mutilated victims.

The descriptions should be enough. As someone who has lived here for seven years, and spent considerable time in parts of the country seen by outsiders as beyond help, I can tell you Americans are good. Americans are compassionate. They care about their communities and their families. But that instinct has been hijacked by forces that know political tribalism means votes.

As I type, President Biden is outlining sweeping new gun control policies. Inexplicably, he faces an uphill battle to put them into law. Confronting Americans with the reality of what happened in Uvalde — and the 20 mass shootings that have happened since — may be the only way to release this country from the grip of its most deadly disease.

Peerless

“Moments after their side strode on to the pitch draped in flags of their homeland, the words which were belted out took on a whole new significance. ‘The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished. Luck will still smile on us brother-Ukrainians.’ As it transpired, luck had little to do with their team’s triumph here. In perhaps their finest hour, they were peerless.”

BBC Sport’s Scott Mullen on Ukraine’s 3-1 defeat of Scotland on Wednesday night. The war-torn nation will now face Wales for a place in this winter’s World Cup.

Grief turns to anger in Uvalde

Uvalde is a small city. Around two weeks ago, Angie Garza, a grandmother who helps run an automotive radiator repair shop on Main Street, took in Celia Gonzales’s grey Ford truck — it needed its air conditioning fixed.

On a follow-up visit a few days later, Garza recalls, there seemed to be something on her customer’s mind. “She looked distressed. She said she was dealing with her grandson.”

On Tuesday, Gonzales was shot by her 18-year-old grandson, Salvador Ramos, and remains in a critical condition. Ramos took her truck to make a short journey in the direction of Robb Elementary School, before crashing into a ditch.

Wearing body armour and carrying an automatic rifle, sold to him legally, he went inside the school and killed 19 children and two teachers. Among the dead was Amerie Jo Garza, Angie’s granddaughter. She was 10.

Read more @ FT.com >>

Jack Grealish

Sky Sports chose a YouTube-friendly headline here, but the really interesting insight comes at around 3:30 minutes, when Jack Grealish opens up about the pressures of playing for the best club side in the world. It’s the kind of honest reflection you’d typically see in some retrospective documentary broadcast decades later–not 30 minutes after the final whistle.

The whole fleet is lit up

(h/t William Ham Bevan )

What a treasure Woodrooffe was. From his Wikipedia page:

“Woodrooffe continued to work for the BBC, and in 1938 he was the main commentator at the FA Cup Final between Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, the first to be televised. After 29 minutes of extra time it was still 0-0 and Woodrooffe said “If there’s a goal scored now, I’ll eat my hat.” Seconds later Preston was awarded a penalty from which George Mutch scored. Woodrooffe kept his promise, appearing on the BBC television programme Picture Page the following week and eating a hat shaped cake.”

‘Union drip’ shows how the American labour movement is changing

In which I become the first (probably) and last (possibly) person to use the phrase “dripped out” in the Financial Times:

Back in the sixties, a prescient essay from the British historian Eric Hobsbawm stated that “explosive” spikes in union support could only occur after what he termed “qualitative innovations in the movement”.

Bad conditions alone weren’t enough of a driving force to galvanise workers into unionising, he argued, unions had to also move with the times: introducing modernised ways of thinking, new demands, and fresh leadership.

In 2022, it could be said that this reinvention quite literally hangs off the shoulders of Chris Smalls, the leader of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), and an aficionado of what has come to be known as “union drip”. 

Read more @ FT.com >>

Workers reject union at Amazon warehouse number two

Amazon workers at a second facility in New York have rejected efforts to form a union, dealing a blow to a grassroots labour movement that hoped to capitalise on momentum from its surprise victory at a larger warehouse last month.

Employees at a sorting facility in Staten Island, known as LDJ5, voted by 618 to 380 against joining the Amazon Labor Union, the organisation led by Chris Smalls, a former worker at the ecommerce giant.

Read more @ FT.com >>

I must admit, after the Amazon Labor Union’s triumph at JFK8 last month, I did think the momentum would carry them through this vote at LDJ5, which just over the road.

What does this mean for the ALU? There’s a danger, of course, that its progress could be completely unravelled. Amazon squashed the vote at LDJ5, and it may be able have the JFK8 thrown out. Testing times for Chris Smalls and his grassroots org.

Giant plastic box

The humble beginnings of the iPod:

Bruce Lee, son of San Francisco

A still from the film "Golden Gate Girl," in which a 4-month-old Bruce Lee had his first role, as a newborn baby girl.
Bruce Lee makes his screen debut in 1941, playing a baby girl.

This picture is from an absolutely wonderful piece about Bruce Lee’s life and influence in San Francisco, written by Lee biographer Charles Russo, published by SF Gate, and brought to my attention by the SF Minute).

Russo writes:

His candidacy as our most famous San Franciscan has gone strangely unacknowledged over the years. Despite his popularity around the world, many San Francisco residents don’t know that he was born here. In fact, he didn’t even make the cut when the Bold Italic ran an article in 2014 listing our city’s “most famous natives.” In this sense, much of Lee’s Bay Area origin story has existed in a hazy urban mythology that perennially teeters between obscurity and hyperbole. 

To help, Russo has devised a walking history tour. I plan to check it out this weekend.

Engineering problems vs human problems

The harshest thing about the Silicon Valley “bro” trope, I think, is that the people who create technology products don’t realise, or aren’t compassionate about, the problems that arise when those platforms are unleashed on the public.

For the most part, they do care. But in the same way not all of us are good at math, or writing, or singing, or the long jump… different humans possess different skillsets, some of which necessarily contradict each other. By and large, the hierarchies in the tech industry reward engineers first and foremost, people who — through no fault of their own — are often characteristically not as well-equipped to deal with challenges that fall outside the binary decisions laid before them in code. When extraordinary brains that build products and solve problems based on IF/THEN/OR come face-to-face with a however or maybe–the results can be less than optimal.

I’m minded of this as Elon Musk uses “simple” tweets to lay out how he plans to fix Twitter. Here’s one:

He’s pinned that to his profile, perhaps signaling it as a mini-manifesto of sorts. This is his view on free speech and its parameters. Ok. But those familiar with the content moderation space consider it naive to the point of parody, as though a moderation algorithm is as straightforward as: IF very against law THEN delete tweet.

It’s a classic case of “engineer’s brain” in action. But you can hardly blame Musk for that. After all, he has engineered his way to being the world’s richest man by solving almost exclusively engineering problems: how to securely send money over the internet (PayPal); how to create a high-performance EV and then make it affordable (Tesla); and how to reuse a rocket (SpaceX). None of these are problems in which the great complicator, the human condition with its whims and inconsistencies, are a factor. Nothing on Musk’s CV comes remotely close to the credentials required to know what’s best for Twitter.

In reporting out this story, I spent some time on the anonymous workplace messaging app Blind, where employees — verified using work email accounts — can sound off. It’s been lively on the Twitter board since the Musk news broke, and it’s by no means an entirely anti-Musk environment. But this comment details what Musk is up against — it is an angry response to another Blind user saying Musk’s idea of sharing “the algorithm” is a good one:

Let me clue you in on a little secret, “the algorithm” (which is not a giant if else statement but a neural net) is retrained regularly. And tweets come in all the time. To figure out how something will perform you need almost the entire backend of Twitter. And then YOU are going to try to determine if it is fair? I’ll tell you right now that you can pick a measure and a slice for which it won’t be, not because the algo is evil (ML is morals neutral) but because it is an extremely complex problem. I am sure we don’t have political leaning as one of the thousands of features we train on. But it doesn’t mean that it will be unfair in 3 days or even 1 day after retraining. What does having the algorithm help you with? Moderation policies should be open, I agree 100%, but there really cannot be a world without moderation. I agree that sometimes Twitter probably overenforces and sometimes we underenforce. We probably do both on both sides of political spectrum. Not because we hate one side but because it is a hard problem and we don’t always do it right. One side is more vocal in complaining. And I know you will pull all the incidents they cite because you are completely ignorant of what happened on the other side. Remember when we were going to get level 4 self driving Tesla every year for the past 8 years? Expect a Tweet from Elon in 5 years or so admitting that the social media that allows healthy open conversation is much harder problem than he thought. Jack was a free speech absolutist too. Anyway, I appreciate small minds debating problems they know nothing about, but you have no idea what you are talking about, neither does Elon.

Twitter employees fear the worst, hope for the best with Musk deal

As Twitter employees digested the most turbulent week in the company’s 16-year history, the message from top leadership was: sit tight.

In the immediate aftermath of the news that Elon Musk had clinched his $44bn takeover bid for the platform with Twitter’s board, staff at a virtual emergency all-hands meeting were told there would be no lay-offs “at this time” and that little else would change until the deal closes later this year, pending shareholder approval and any further dramatic twists.

But then what? Twitter’s workforce is divided and apprehensive.

Read more @ FT.com >>

The great Covid privacy creep

San Francisco’s Moscone Center is best-known as the site where tech companies stage blockbuster events. It was here in 2007 that Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPhone with the words, “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.”

I used to be a regular visitor to Moscone but, over the past two years, I’ve been there just three times: twice for vaccine jabs and, more recently, for the Game Developers Conference, a gathering of video games creators, known as GDC. It was the largest event I’ve been to since the great re-emerging, with 12,000 people attending.

Read more @ FT.com >>

Is Britain ready for its own ‘Tucker Carlson’?

There was a clip posted last July in which a man confronted Fox News host Tucker Carlson as he walked around a sporting goods store in Montana. Carlson, if you’re not immediately familiar, is the man you’re mostly likely to see if your exposure to Fox News is limited to just the very worst bits that get shared on Twitter.

The man told Carlson simply: “You are the worst human being known to mankind.”

I mean, there are probably stronger contenders, granted. But it’s a comment that’s easy to understand: Carlson’s show is a regularly hateful display, riling his viewers into misinformed furies on vaccinations, immigration, race and gender, delivered in sneering tones. Lately, Carlson’s been talking about tanning testicles with Kid Rock, in a series addressing an apparent crisis of falling levels of testosterone in the modern American man. (I’d focus on brain cells, personally.)

The path that led Carlson there—talking literal bollocks with Kid Rock—has been a long, controversial, but very deliberate journey, during which he has learned how to cultivate the grievances of (largely) white Americans, turning discussion around their anger and fears into a highly-profitable art form. 

Most Americans will be very familiar with his schtick. British people perhaps less so. They should pay attention. The Carlson formula is ripe for imitation, and there’s one man who I am certain knows that very well.

Or to put it another way: Piers Morgan has a new TV show.

Now, contrary to (what I think is) popular opinion, I’d argue that Morgan is one of the most talented people in British broadcasting. He has a track record of knowing when the wind is about to turn, especially when it’s against him, and he makes decisive and bold moves. You don’t get to the level of power and influence Morgan has amassed without skill and judgement.

Some would argue he is just a loudmouth. I think it’s more accurate to say he’s very good at playing one when it’s convenient and lucrative. The opposite is true too — Morgan’s more personable side can be seen in his interview series Life Stories, which lasted 12 years, and was a consistent example of high-quality TV interviewing, lowering the guard of celebrities and making even Cliff Richard seem interesting.

But, like so many in this modern media landscape, Morgan has found that the shortcut to global attention in the last decade or more has been by provoking outrage. Sometimes it comes online in the form of mean tweets about young tennis stars. Other times from “quitting” a morning TV show live on air, or for getting punched by former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who reportedly referred to Morgan as a “ghastly little weasel”.

These controversies would typically show themselves every few months. With his new show, Piers Morgan Uncensored, that outrage machine will need to be in full swing every single day. 

“Its mission statement is to cancel ‘cancel culture’,” Morgan told Ros Atkins on the BBC’s Media Show this week, warning about the “woke brigade” apparently stifling British life. It’s a good interview, not least because Atkins has become a leading figure in British media on account of being something of an anti-Morgan in style.

When asked who might make the ideal guest on his show — someone who has been cancelled — Morgan mustered JK Rowling, due to her highly-criticised perspective on transgender rights. Multi-millionaire author Rowling, Atkins duly pointed out, could of course ring up any show in the world and likely be invited on to talk. Cancelled? Hardly. 

That, of course, doesn’t generally matter. Just as Fox News, comfortably the most watched news channel in the US, rails against what “the media” won’t tell you, the definition of what constitutes being “cancelled” is highly fluid.

But it does always rely on one thing: a villain. On his show, Carlson has learned these villains can come from a variety of sources. The playbook is effective, but it’s a beast that needs constant feeding for a daily show.

Politicians are the easiest and arguably most deserving (or least undeserving, maybe) low-hanging fruit. Sometimes it’s journalists — like Taylor Lorenz — using arguments that often constitute both bad faith attacks on the reporter or columnist but also against the act of journalism itself. 

Sometimes it will go after revered cultural bodies classified as “liberal” or “elite”, such as universities or schools, or long-established scientific or health institutions. Each segment serves to undermine, or weave paranoia about who is “really” in control. When a single person can be identified and blamed, a political motive will be placed front and center as the irrefutable reason for his or her actions. 

Least deserving of all will be the regular members of the public, perhaps in minor positions of authority, whose worst, most ill-judged moments — or often just out of context ones — get filmed, uploaded to social media, and then dissected as being one example of the bigger, sinister picture. Viewers are told: this is what the “woke brigade” wants for you, so watch out. Many seem to believe it.

It’s no coincidence that the architect of both Carlson’s and now Morgan’s show is Rupert Murdoch. Morgan and Murdoch apparently long ago buried the hatchet after their falling out over Morgan’s departure from the News of the World in 1995. This, I believe, is their first project together since. Morgan calls him “swashbuckling”. 

Where all three men are smart is in finding ways to touch on legitimately held frustrations felt by many reasonable people. Right now, that’s a feeling that we’re living in an era of over-zealous shutting down of views, a limiting of free debate, or comedy, and, to use Morgan’s words, an absence of “common sense”. Whether or not you agree with people who feel that way, it is undeniably there, and Morgan will be better than anyone at tapping into it.

Image

But I’d like to think, on an optimistic note, that Piers Morgan is not Tucker Carlson. Indeed, Morgan said it himself. “I like his show, I like him,” he told Atkins. “I agree with about 75% of the stuff he says. Last time I checked, that’s fine.”

There are things I think are clearly in that 25%. I can’t see Morgan sharing words of support for Vladimir Putin, say, or trying to undermine an election. On that at least, he seems to have refused to play ball with Trump. (In the first interview of Morgan’s new series, Trump “stormed out“, a perfect result. Or was it?) 

Trump is day one. To make this show a success, Morgan will need to push new buttons with weaker material, and emulate Carlson in boundary-pushing ways we’ve not yet seen delivered on British television, at least not by someone of Morgan’s calibre.

Where that takes us is worth following closely. I hope, and believe, the British people are on the whole not like the Americans who rate Carlson’s show, and will reject any effort to descend headfirst into the dreck of political discourse that’s so prevalent here. The lasting legacy of Carlson’s show, and the reason he was confronted that day in Montana, is that he pitched citizen against citizen and called it informative. I’d hate to see that happen in the UK.