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

My money doesn’t jiggle jiggle

A moment of viral fame for Louis Theroux, the documentary filmmaker (and a personal hero). From the New York Times today:

His agent has been fielding dozens of requests for personal appearances and invitations to perform. Mr. Theroux, a 52-year-old British American documentary filmmaker with a bookish, somewhat anxious demeanor, has turned them all down, not least because, as he put it in a video interview from his London home, “I am not trying to make it as a rapper.”

But in a way, he already has: Mr. Theroux is the man behind “Jiggle Jiggle,” a sensation on TikTok and YouTube, where it has been streamed hundreds of millions of times. He delivers the rap in an understated voice that bears traces of his Oxford education, giving an amusing lilt to the lines “My money don’t jiggle jiggle, it folds/I’d like to see you wiggle, wiggle, for sure.”

It’s a great craze, one of the best in TikTok’s short history. Here’s a good one, with a mere 13 million views:

But as amused as Theroux is about all this, he can’t help feeling a little downbeat. He’s become a one-hit wonder… without ever actually releasing a record. The fame he’s long sought in America has come for the wrong reason:

“I’m pleased that people are enjoying the rap,” he said. “At the same time, there’s a part of me that has a degree of mixed feelings. It’s a bittersweet thing to experience a breakthrough moment of virality through something that, on the face of it, seems so disposable and so out of keeping with what it is that I actually do in my work. But there we are.”

It’s always baffled me that Theroux’s work, which shines an incredibly intimate light on America, its quirks and its problems, has never found much of an audience here. Theroux’s work on the prison system, religious extremism and the right-to-die was groundbreaking. His film on paedophilia was one of the most disturbing pieces of television I’ve seen — yet riveting. But somehow, few here seem familiar with his work.

Maybe his slow style doesn’t land. Or maybe Americans are averse to having people they perceive as outsiders give their take on how they live and the problems they face. I don’t know. All I hope is that this jiggle-jiggle fun leads people to discover his documentaries too. Right now, some of the very best of them are on HBO Max.

Land grab

“Too many tech-adjacent businesses lifted top line growth merely by adding expensively-incentivised sales and marketing staff. With capital so abundant, growth-oriented investors had pushed them to expand, expecting profits to materialise following the land grab.”

— FT’s Lex on the tech jobs bloodbath

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.

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.”

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.

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.

‘Hostile to the concept of journalism itself’

“These people on this ascendant right don’t just have different ideas about the role and function of journalism; they don’t just believe journalists are biased liberals; they don’t just believe the media is too hostile to conservatives; they are hostile to the concept of journalism itself. As in, uncovering things dutifully and carefully and attempting to convey your findings to the public honestly. They don’t want that and don’t like it and are endeavoring to end it as a common practice. You are debating logic and facts with frothing bigots with a bone-deep opposition to your entire project.”

Smart analysis — and perhaps a wake up call — from Alex Pareene on the “fallout” from Taylor Lorenz’s Washington Post story on the ‘Libs of TikTok’.

Here come The Smiths

Great piece in the New York Times today looking at the new global media organisation being launched by Ben Smith, formerly of Buzzfeed and the NYT, and Justin Smith, former CEO of Bloomberg Media.

I’ve no doubt The Smiths, as they are now to be known in media circles, will create a compelling news org that justifiably breaks some of the outdated conventions in this industry. Great.

But reading this piece, I couldn’t help notice the reemergence of several tropes — the kind of comments you often hear from yet-to-launch media groups that pledge to cure the ills of every newsroom currently operating.

Let’s start here:

[Justin] Smith also shared his thoughts about what he called the end of an era when news outlets based in London, New York or Washington dispatched journalists to foreign countries to report on the goings-on there. He asked why foreign readers would not prefer a homegrown English-speaking native to report the news in their region.

“The idea that you send some well-educated young graduate from the Ivy League to Mumbai to tell us about what’s going on in Mumbai in 2022 is sort of insane,” Mr. Smith said.

He’s certainly not the first person to make this argument. Smith’s point is that by hiring strong English speakers locally you can not only expand more cheaply, but with more integrity since locals know more than outsiders. (It’s an argument also used by media executives when they’re slashing budgets, it’s worth noting.)

It’s hard to question this logic without sounding like a pompous arse. But I think it’s fundamentally wrong.

A foreign correspondent isn’t vital because he or she knows more than a local, but because he or she is representing the audience. An ambassador, essentially, with similar frames of reference and an instinct for what’s surprising, unique, shocking (or yes, entertaining) about a news event. Without being too blunt about it: it’s better coverage. Or to put it another way, there’s a reason the best and most honest books about places usually come from travel writers.

Now, is there a risk of “parachute” journalism, where the typically white and male reporter flies in one day, stands on a hotel roof, and pretends to know it all? Yes. But that’s just bad reporting–not an indictment of the foreign correspondent as a concept.

The very best at the job, the likes of Lyse Doucet or Steve Rosenberg, combine their knowledge of their audience with an ability to harness the right sources on the ground. The current coordination between the BBC’s core English news service and the teams from BBC Russia and BBC Ukraine is perhaps the best example of pairing the two pools of expertise.

Come to think of it, if there’s an ignorance problem that needs to be solved, The Smiths should look closer to home. The editorial agenda of a global news org isn’t determined in the overseas bureaus, but in the morning conference. Improving diversity of thought and worldview in that room is the real progress that needs to be made in foreign news. To their credit, I think they know this.

Ok, next thing:

[Justin Smith] also argued that many foreign news readers were ill served.

“You maybe went to school in the U.S., you’re pretty well educated, you’re connected to your network and your family all around the world — and the quality of your local media is not amazing,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s either state-censored or, it’s just, the journalism’s not great.”

“So what do you do?” he continued. “You say, OK, well, let me let me pick up The New York Times, or let me pick up The Wall Street Journal, or let me pick up The Washington Post. And what do you get? You get exactly what you’d expect if you read something that had the word New York in it, or something that has the word Washington in it. Or you go to CNN and you get a feed from Atlanta, some regional story from the Midwest, and you’re sitting in Singapore.”

He has a good, if limited, argument here. The point he’s making — I think — is that local media in some countries is of poor quality or worse, whereas The Smiths could expand globally, offering on-the-ground coverage in the same places as the audience, raising the game and doing important work.

Sure, I can buy that, because I’ve seen it: the BBC’s Nairobi office, the corporation’s biggest bureau outside of the UK, caters specifically to the local market as well as acting as an outpost for the wider BBC. Its impact has been huge. (Again, it has been done using a mixture of outsiders and insiders to the region.)

A couple of problems here. First, this is far more expensive to do well than I think Smith appreciates–unless he’s happy to settle for a highly-disjointed news organisation with inconsistent styles and standards in each market, a confused identity that will soon feel like several separate publications rather than one global brand.

Second, the danger is that in attempting to create a news organisation for everybody, it ends up being for nobody. Or, at least, nobody thinks it is for them–which is just as bad. BBC World has this problem, I think, as has the BBC World Service. It’s always struck me how quiet the inboxes for listener feedback were for even flagship World Service shows, compared to the breakfast show on, say, BBC Radio Shropshire. The degree to which an audience feels ownership over the media they consume is hugely important.

Hell, even the tiniest things can distance local readers. The newspaper I work for is positioned as a global newspaper, but that didn’t stop someone once saying to me: “It’s British, though. You use ‘s’ instead of ‘z’.” It was a joke, but it also rings true–an audience picks up on these subtleties and cares about them.

This is all to say: The Smiths are creating an American news organisation, and the audience will never forget this, even if it doesn’t say so on the masthead.