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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Freedom of Information Act redefines journalism in Orwellian terms

I've had an email from the Information Commissioner about my request that the names of the judges of the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards be revealed, the request that the BBC's poorly named Freedom of Information office had already denied.

If you recall, the reason why the folk awards was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC said, was because obligations under it vanish if the thing under scrutiny can be defined as art, journalism or literature. So the folk awards qualified as either art, journalism or literature. The BBC was a little hazy about which.

On the other hand, there was nothing much that was hazy about the eight page letter from the Information Commissioner, which was full of legal twists and turns: lots of people have challenged the way the FoI Act works in the last five years. But what it boiled down to to in the end was that the law defines the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards as - drum roll - journalism.


... the "second limb of the definition" being journalism.

Just think about that for a moment.

John Leonard's stated reasons for "employing judges anonymously" were that (1) they might get free CDs and (2) too many musicians would try and get in touch with the 150 or so judges (for what else is "lobbying" in the context of the folk awards but playing someone your music? There are no large record companies to offer financial inducements or lavish freebies, whatever Leonard might like to suggest) and that this would place undue pressure on them.

Both of these reasons are ultimately about concealing information. Firstly the names of the judges are concealed so that, secondly, music will be concealed from the judges.

I ask you: what does this have in common with journalism? However hostile one might feel to individual journalists or media outlets, journalism in a democratic society is not about concealment. It is about the opposite.

Something is very wrong here, for the BBC and the Information Commissioner to have arrived at a point where they are defending the concealment of information on the grounds of journalism.

I refer you to the concept of doublethink from George Orwell's novel 1984.

Sorry. Couldn't resist that :-) Some points.

(1) This state of affairs may be partly due to a confusion between journalism and the relatively new concept of "content", which is something else entirely.

(2) Other people will ask the same question of the BBC and the Information Commissioner in the future - in precisely the same way that I have not been the first to take it to them myself. (And thank you, by the way, to the person - let's call you Marjory - who got in touch to say that they'd already trodden this path, and accurately predicted the outcome so far. There may have been others - the data protection act prevents us from knowing.) Anyone reading this blog can pursue the matter in the same way I have and I know that some have considered it. This is because the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards is produced using public money and we have a right to know how it is spent. This money, incidentally, goes into the pockets of John Leonard and all employed by UBC Media Group, lest we forget. Our money.

(3) UBC Media Group is listed on the stock market and check out the correlation between the stories running about the company on this blog and the drop in share price on this graph. Is that a coincidence? It's unlikely, since the story was picked up by Roy Greenslade, whose media column in The Guardian is read by analysts. It's lost more than 20 per cent of its share price since the beginning of December.

(4) I wonder whether Sony was aware of UBC Media Group's approach to preferment when it chose to bestow the Sony Awards on Smooth OperationsWas its decision "in spite of" or "because of"? I think I may ask.

(5) Unless the process of judging the folk awards ceremony is seen to be honest John Leonard, the BBC, Sony, Uncle Tom Cobbly and all might as well give away the awards within their gift to the musicians, agents and PR people who've made them most tempting offer. Because we don't currently know any different.

And yet despite all this, the Information Commissioner has left a chink of light. I asked why the folk awards are different, as far as the BBC was concerned, to the their Sports Personality of the Year award, which not only publishes the provenance of the judges but for whom they voted. And this was the Information Commissioner's reply

So come on the BBC, John Leonard, Smooth Operations and the board of UBC Media Group. Do us the courtesy.

* If you'd like to read this saga from the beginning you could start here.

* Here is the next post about the BBC folk awards.

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Sunday, 15 January 2012

Albireo, The Scarlet Jacks, Josienne Clarke and, um, Metallica

Happy belated new year! Apologies for the slight gap in the service but I've been trying to start some new projects while simultaneously fighting the urge to hibernate. However, today is the 365th day of the Glamour Cave blog and - 50,000 hits in - I've decided to mark the occasion by drawing attention to some music I really like.

First up is an album called Northern Cross by Albireo, which contains two people associated with Pilgrim's Way: fiddle player Tom Kitching and Peter Crowther, who plays bass with them occasionally. Albireo has been around for a decade and is a superior kind of dance band - though Northern Cross appears to be their first album. You can have a listen to some of it here.

Things I like about this album include the names of it and the band, partly because they enhance a theory I'm incubating about geekiness. Originally they met to rehearse at a pub called The Swan with Two Necks, in Stockport, and there is a constellation called Cygnus, or "the swan" - also known as the Northern Cross - which has a bright binary star called Albireo on its beak. This pleases me. (I'm also pretty sure from goings-on on Twitter that there's another band called Albireo in Japan, although Japanese isn't my best language.)

Pure geekery aside, the music is described on the website as being "from three continents and four centuries". It has a gemütlich quality that conjures a better future and specifically one in which I would be playing the album in an environment that has more and better homely qualities than The Glamour Cave. Perhaps it just produces optimism. (I should explain, as well as being the name of this blog, "The Glamour Cave" is also the partly ironic name of my home in Bethnal Green, where I've been since 1997. So although I like to moan about it occasionally I really have no one to blame but myself if it's not up to scratch. In its defence the place has some structural limitations and I rent it. A lot of people love it. My mother, however, really doesn't and wishes I lived somewhere with central heating.)

Northern Cross has a sense of urgency throughout that's to do with the band's ceilidh background and blends traditional instrumentation with a freshness of arrangement that makes me think of one of those houses on Grand Designs with thatch on the roof but a knocked-through interior and modern furniture. Best of both worlds. I can imagine playing it in the car, or in the background eating dinner with friends. It just calms the brainwaves and produces cheerfulness and although I've only been listening to it for a couple of months it feels like I've known Albireo for longer.

It was produced at Talking Cat by Jon Loomes and Forbes Legato. Nuff said :-)

Second are The Scarlet Jacks, who have an eponymous, first EP out. They are guitarist Greg McDonald, whose music I've admired before, and Gemma Gayner who plays a mean and jazzy fiddle.

The EP's cover is black and white and looks, rather archly, like something from the 1970s folk revival.

It kicks off with a flourish that belongs in a spaghetti western, followed up by an opening line that goes Twas in the year of 1620 that the first Earl of Berk-shire... Which is to say that it manages in an admirably short span to produce the exposition: we're a folk outfit, mainly. And we've got a sense of humour.

They go on to prove it by doing four tracks that are all quite different from each other, including a stunning version of Teardrop by Massive Attack and a pounding Dashing White Sergeant that suggests serious crowd-pleasing potential at festivals. Greg McDonald has an enjoyably distinctive voice that seems geared for story-telling, Phil Beer and Steve Knightley will be producing their forthcoming album and I hope to see them live in 2012.

The third outfit to which I would like to draw your attention is Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, who I saw for the first time at the first Bethnal Green folk day last summer. Here's a taste.

Ben had been in touch on Twitter about several other, unrelated things, so it was with a slight sense of disorientation that I realised how flipping good these two are - as well as how young. I took away a copy of their album, which is called One Light is Gone, only to have it swiped by a friend, which tells you everything you need to know about it really.

Josienne has a faithful and growing band of online admirers already. There's a clarity to her voice that might be connected to the fact that she apparently doesn't touch alcohol. But whether it is or not, the two of them have an immense store of talent which is mainly devoted at the moment to reflective original songs and cover versions. Here they are doing a Gillian Welch cover in someone's front room.

I hope that convinces you that they deserve a wider audience.

Anyway... to change the subject slightly. The other thing I've been paying a lot of attention to since the new year is not folk. I now have my own copy of the documentary Some Kind of Monster by Metallica, which has made a big impression on me. OK. It's about a hard rock band and therefore will not be completely to the taste of everyone who reads this blog. But it's also a brilliant documentary about a band attempting to resolve some internal difficulties.

Hands up. I've got a thing for Lars Ulrich: drummer, bi-lingual viking and metal warlord. But if you haven't seen it and you get a chance to, you should. Despite having serious Spinal Tap potential - because superficially what's not funny about the biggest heavy metal band on the planet collectively submitting to psychotherapy - it somehow ends up being the Anti Spinal Tap and you don't even have to like their music for it to work its astonishing charm.

I hate this word when it's not used right. But it's genuinely awesome.

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