The Loneliest Jukebox

Graham Barnfield's weblog, being gradually replaced by his Twitter feed -

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Media snips

Tuesday sees the launch of my Policy Watch reply to the DCMS Green Paper on the BBC's Charter; a PDF is available from this web page from Tuesday. Sunday saw a strange interview in the Sunday Telegraph on happy slaps (again); I'm struggling to remember saying some of those quotations, to put it mildly. I'm going to have to start filming and recording all my transactions and movements now, like Lee Evans' character in Freeze Frame. I also set the record straight with Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer after a brief cameo on his discussion boards; here's his reply:
What the deuce?

Do you mean to say sir that my purchase of a US Dept of Homeland Security
certified 'Slap Zap' personal anti happy slap defense system (complete with a
Lockheed Martin avionics derived heads-up, color coded threat alert display to
give the wearer advance warning of impending slap assaults) was completely for

Next, you'll be telling me the plague of Satanists terrorizing Christian daycare
centers I read so much about only a few years ago is also much ado about nothing.


Best of all, Saturday saw my mate Mant married: try saying that when you're drunk (which I was). Congratulations!

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A busy day. First port of call was the LERI-organised event 'Must We Play the Audit Game?', combining Dr. Johnson and the need for academics to resist the cult of Quality Assurance, despite QAA Chief Executive Peter Williams comparing his quango's work to Robert Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Then to the ICA, where a Fernando Di Leo season is in full swing - tough going for uninitiated. And on the way there I saw reality TV* star Paris Hilton lining up on the red carpet for the UK premiere of House of Wax. The invention of the cameraphone allows ordinary blokes to join the paparazzi, while standing around having conversations of the 'I'd do her'/'I'd do her too' variety. Celebrity culture on a Tuesday night, and Big Brother 6, hasn't started yet.
* See Raj Persaud, 'The problem with reality TV', Independent, 24 May 2005, p.40.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Third Degrees of Separation

The folks at the Marxist Internet Archive are hard at work reminding us that the 'Koran down the khazi' allegations have many historical precedents. Among these are a reprint of an article in the Worker snappily entitled "Exposes Third Degree: Lambkin Tells of Brutalities Following Arrest in Michigan Raid." [Oct. 21, 1922]: Cyril Lambkin, Detroit District Organizer for the Workers Party of America, was one of the 17 individuals arrested early in the morning of August 22, 1922, at the convention of the Communist Party at the Wolfskeel Summer Resort, near Bridgman, Michigan. This news report from the organ of the WPA, The Worker, quotes Lambkin's affidavit detailing police brutality following his arrest: a blow to the hip, grilling by multiple federal agents, a slap to the face, being hurled into another room, and being pulled up from the floor by his hair.
What does this tell us? That vacationing at the Wolfskeel summer resort was to be avoided? Possibly. That official brutality against the political opponents of the US authorities has a long history? Probably. But also that the violence against Cyril Lambkin is the kind of thing that opposition newspapers sought to expose, whereas the untrue Guantanamo Bay attrocity stories appearing in the pro-US Newsweek stem from the cynical malaise surrounding much of US journalism. Ironically, the cack-handed reporting in such magazines - now blamed for starting riots among Muslims - also deflects attention from Washington's existing disgraceful policy on political prisoners.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Blame Game

My happy slaps debacle continues, eroding the distinction between private grief - mine - and public life - yours. I'm still to be found blaming the media and garbling my sentences, this time in The Times. A brief Saturday night phone-in on 5-Live was a chance to say what I think is happening: "Phil wants your calls on Manchester United and 'Happy Slapping'" apparently and I was in the studio as an expert, again, despite going on record as not being an expert. Personal testimonies followed, Jackass got an exoneration from me (again) and the speculation went on until Britain's Eurovision drubbing became the hot topic. I pocketed £50 and two taxi rides off the licence fee payer, which I think of as a rebate. I won't be appearing on the BBC tomorrow as the staff are on strike, and I won't cross a picket line, even one of the airwaves.

Later on Saturday night a source at BBC London offered me a further insight into the panic. There is a widely quoted figure doing the rounds, of 200 attacks in the last six months, based on London Transport Police estimates. What's interesting is that, apparently, BBC London reporters themselves had to pursuade the cops to reclassify these attacks as happy slaps, based on showing them 15 minutes of (largely unrelated) video clips. All the old favourites were there: 'bitch slap', the bald guy on the bus, the traffic cone and so on. So rather than the news picking up the story from London Transport Police, it seems the latter had the story ghost-written for them.

Meanwhile in my email inbox, the backlash begins. Apart from the usual Viagra/hot nude teens spam, this grumpy missive arrived: "I am fed-up with the media blaming criminal activities on innocent TV shows, video games and music. I am a big fan of Jackass and Dirty Sanchez, and I find the comparison between stunts like running half-naked through a patch of nettles, and randomly attacking strangers whilst filming it, deeply unfair. Your comments on these matters to the media are only going to have deleterious effects on the programmes that I like to watch, when it is painfully obvious that bad parenting is to blame for these childrens behaviour. The shows are on late at night and so even if you do try to argue that they give children bad ideas, proper parenting should prevent at-risk groups from seeing them. We have had to sit through all this mindless scapegoating while watching heavy metal being attacked, as well as video games like Grand Theft Auto and yet none if it is to blame.

I hope you are satisfied that your comments are not going to solve any of our current social aggression problems, while they might well deprive us law-abiding citizens of our favourite modes of relaxation and enjoyment.

Nick Roesen
Cheers Nick. As a cursory bit of reading around would show, I'm not blaming Jackass or Dirty Sanchez for anything, apart from straying from my idea of entertainment - but we can agree to differ on this. What's 'painfully obvious' to me is that blaming bad parenting is an equally knee-jerk, common sense explanation of social problems not backed up by a shred of evidence. The same mentality that turns TV and parents Larkin about into scapegoats can also be turned around to provide an alibi for those who can't restrain themselves or act responsibly. Your concessions to the idea of 'at-risk groups' can also be used to suggest TV is to blame. Likewise to talk of 'current social aggression problems' means accepting the whole issue at face value. I prefer the fanmail - 'Good one GB. Well put.' - but don't mind replying to hostile critics about things I've actually said.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Slaps stick to me

Abbi Titmuss does not like being called a slapper, she confided to makers of Abi Titmuss: A Modern Day Morality Tale, broadcast on Channel 4 (UK) last night. I'm rapidly going off being an expert happy slapper too, not least because no-one takes a blind bit of notice of what I actually say. Try the Daily Mirror today: I've never blamed TV for anything, just noted the similarities between Jackass and happy slaps. It's not that difficult...

Still the phone calls come in (today it was IRN, the Manchester Evening News (again) and BBC Radio's General News Service). Still I tell them that a causal effect is unlikely and, even if it existed, no-one has done the research to back up these claims. In order to even count the volume of footage in existence, one would need a police or court order to obtain each multimedia message from the mobile phone networks. So no-one really knows what's going on. Not even me. Sometimes I'm even asked to comment on open court cases or recent assaults, about which I know nothing. (That's my alibi, anyway.) I miss being a humble 1930s USA buff; this week a lone Dashiell Hammett query from Mexico was all but drowned amid press questions about happy slapping. Sometimes my media breakthrough with happy slaps feels like an own goal.

What I need is a media enforcer, like The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker. That would sort it out. When I was quoted as blaming Dirty Sanchez once too often I emailed a fellow blogger, who offered a correction and this useful observation: "The problem normally with this sort of news is it depends on wire services. This story, as I ran it, was prominently on the BBC site. Which brings up an interesting point. No news agency and only two newspapers I know of will do this correction of archives which is why false fact, once in gets on the Internet, gains a permanent life of its own. And the BBC site which carried the original incorrect story still has it on the Internet."

As if to reinforce his argument about what Australians call 'Furphies', Gareth Powell also pointed out that a "story is circulating the Internet supposedly from the BBC with the catchy title: Lion Mutilates 42 Midgets in Cambodian Ring-Fight. The problem is it looks real. But further research brings us: This article has absolutely no affiliation with the actual BBC, its templates were used only to make the story appear to be legitimate. Please click the 'More on this story.' link at the bottom of the article and read that page. The BBC template is only left up to give an idea of how the article initially appeared, and how it was able to spread around the internet so quickly. Please note that the '' images were added as another precaution to make sure readers know the article is not real, to my knowledge, the BBC does not actually have a 'fake-news' department.
Which stops that story in its tracks. The problem with the Internet is that a lie can be twice around the world while the truth is still getting out of bed." Quite.

More of my reflections of a kneejerk reactionary appear here, on Spiked-online.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Not Tonight...
Interest in my 90 second TV slot and the accompanying press release has continued, making scheduled interviews a regular feature of the last few days. This morning it was a TV appearance on France 2 Londres; yesterday a slot for English language radio in Bonn. A Friday phone-in appearance for LBC was a lot more constructive than the previous day's soundbite on BBC London with John Gaunt. Time FM, the Newham Recorder and various other outlets beckon. Part of the coverage involves a moral panic, which like it or not, I seem to be contributing too, as my brother pointed out when the story reached him in Dubai.

Other correspondents are more sympathetic. 'Rachel' has a sensible post on this blog (see below), while Austin from London said "Thank you so much for your articles on happy slapping, it's so refreshing to read an adult actually talking logically about the situation. it's not a out-of-control UK craze at all!" The press office at work, for whom all publicity is good publicity, declared 'not bad for a 1-minute interview segment (... an oasis of calm in an otherwise unpleasant viewing experience) '. Thanks, I'll try to keep up the good work, while reminding people Jackass is NOT to blame for happy slapping.

The whole experience has raised interesting questions for me about peer review and expertise. A while ago Brendan O'Neill, fellow journalism tutor and the deputy editor of Spiked-online asked me to comment on depictions of humiliation for the BBC webzine. This was punditry and not, at the time, the product of any research. My main area of expertise is in 1930s documentary representation and the cultural policy that went with it, which in 2002 meant I published a book chapter (link below) on why reality TV and 'classic' documentary are not the same thing. Brendan's piece also mentions happy slaps - although I didn't do directly - so search engines now endow me with apparent expertise on the topic. (Many other 'slap' hits and links are of the R U BORD, SLAP A NORMAN INNIT? variety and therefore little help to broadcasters.) This 'Google effect' has since been magnified by my appearance in a press release for the TV show Mugging for Kicks.

So thanks to Google and circumventing the usual peer review process in academia I have acquired a reputation as a world expert in this trend. This is despite my apparently inarticulate statements such as "I think happy slapping is become a short cut in the eyes of the slappers to fame and notoriety among the people who see the images circulated on the web or sent to them via their mobile phones" (appearing here and elsewhere ad naseum). "Is become a short cut"? I checked the tape of Mugging for Kicks and I say "has become a short cut", albeit in a Leicester accent less polished than Gary Lineker's. But one would think that someone could actually proof-read the press release before sending it out or before uncritically reproducing it. What are they teaching on journalism courses these days?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Does Jackass cause 'Mugging for Kicks'?

I seem to think so. After all, it's in the Sun ('TV blamed for happy slaps'), on the ITV website, mentioned on BBC London's John Gaunt show and strangely on the BBC website ("TV shows blamed for attack craze", BBC News, UK - 12 hours ago). I don't just seem to think so because these news outlets influence me: I appear to be saying so in person on these and other websites, including some in South Africa, New Zealand and India, and on Lycos. The ever-reliable Reality TV World has me lining up with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in his war on hooded tops and baseball caps: turns out he too was nearly a victim of happy slaps.

This strikes me as a bit strange as I am generally suspicious of 'copycat' behaviour theories, e.g. those expressed in relation to the videogame Manhunt. Maybe I was having an off day when I apparently switched sides. So I responded to the BBC's request for an interview by spelling out my actual take on why happy slaps are happening. The 'Jackass to blame' BBC page was duly updated to read 'Don't ban slap attack TV shows'. (Oddly, an interim piece entitled 'Does "happy slapping" exist?' also appeared.) For the record, I think that Big Brother, Jackass, Dirty Sanchez and happy slapping all try to fill the same void, based on the breakdown of communal solidarities and a cultural attitude that indulges private anguish. It doesn't soundbite very well, but at least it's accurate. (Also, to the best of my knowledge, I'm not head of media at the University of East London.)

The annoying thing is that my actual views on such matters have been a matter of public record for some time, on the BBC website and on Spiked-online, among other places. Perhaps I need to start texting journalists a 15-second video of me making this point, while punching myself in the face, to make the point more effectively. (Admittedly, the press release sent out by the makers of Mugging for Kicks is not one I would have penned myself.)

My eventual TV appearance was brief, mercifully so. Despite being shot against the backdrop of a beautiful aquarium, the programme makers opted for a facial close-up meaning I looked like that head in a glass tank that cameos on Doctor Who at the moment, only with a hair cut done by glue-sniffing owls equipped only with paperclips. The mickey-taking text messages started to fly in immediately afterwards: many thanks for those, folks. Tomorrow sees at least three more interviews with radio broadcasters as I set the record straight. As if to confirm suspicions that turning happy slaps into a moral panic will encourage more interest in the wretched practice, the number of Google hits for the exact phrase (in quotation marks) almost doubled overnight after Mugging for Kicks was press released.

Someone give me a slap

Prominent positioning in Google search rankings has re-invented me as a world expert on 'happy slaps' a.k.a. 'happy slapz'. What's behind this dubious position? Once I wrote a book chapter on reality TV, and was later quizzed on the BBC website about the similarities between Big Brother and the brutality photos from Iraq. From here I used the same Google search terms that had already designated me a world expert to check out this new trend, and wrote it up for Spiked. There are, at the time of writing, 542 Google hits for "happy slaps" and a mere six newsgroup entries, with nothing linking from the images section. On the web at least, much more time is spent discussing these images than actually circulating them (which is also a big part of the argument in my Spiked piece.)

My Google rankings also help to explain why the Manchester Evening News called for me for comment last Friday, after two youths were convicted of setting fire to a man at a bus stop and recording it on their mobile phones. They didn't use the quote in the end, which was little more than an expression of sympathy for the poor fellow who was badly burned. But tonight I'm on the MEN's website front page, blaming TV for problems like these. I even pop up in New Zealand to make the same point. Apparently "I think happy slapping is become a short cut in the eyes of the slappers to fame and notoriety among the people who see the images circulated on the web or sent to them via their mobile phones." A short cut in the eyes, eh? Nasty, and that's just the garbled language.

Part of my main argument is that it's not worth getting worked up about this "crime wave". Why? a) it's not occurring on an epidemic scale and b) there are plenty of anti-assault laws on the books already. Do I blame "the media"? No, they just give expression to existing confessional trends in society. When the researcher for BBC Radio's Jeremy Vine show quizzed me about my take on happy slaps, I said it was a non-story. I like to think this persuaded them not to run an interview at all. (Could have used the appearance fee, but that's another story.)

That said, I was pleased to see that I had been promoted to "Head of Media" at the University of East London, and I hope that Paul Gormley, the real field leader in media, won't be too upset.

Roll on Mugging For Kicks: a Tonight Special, which is being broadcast at 10pm on Thursday on ITV1, featuring yours truly.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Still lost in translation

Over at a cultural industries weblog in Portuguese, the ever-thoughtful Rogério Santos is reflecting on our most recent exchange. My command of foreign languages being what it is, I have to rely on a google translation. Like subtitled movies, this brings its own problems. The Professor noted the same problem on his blog. At least I think he did. Here are his comments on the exchange, again strained through the improbability of a Google translation:

"Curious detail : the 19 of last December, a writer and English university professor, Graham Barnfield, entertainer of blogue The Loneliest Jukebox , post was considered to translate one mine, where I spoke of a book on this thematic one of the Big Brother , of which it is co-author. Being unaware of our language, it was helped of the automatic translator of the Google. The translation is an astonishment. As it is obtained to be ingenious! Later, we changed messages, where Barnfield confesses that of Portugal it only knows a hand full of names of soccer clubs."

Although his English is probably better than mine, Rogério may struggle to recognise these words as his own. Chances are translation has left them barely recognisable. Let's hope the boys and girls in Santa Monica can improve this software rapidly, or I might have to break with British tradition and start learning another language.

(On that note, thanks to a certain Utah divorcee for giving my friends and me a laugh in Las Vegas the other week. Perhaps wisely, she didn't want to visit us in London because she doesn't want the hassle of learning a foreign language. But she appreciated us making an effort by learning English before coming to Nevada ... )
"Honest, it were no trouble, miduck."