Robert Pimm

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The best thing to do in Vienna on 1 November

“As night falls on All Hallows, the Zentralfriedhof is transformed into an ethereal wonderland. It seems every visitor throughout the day has lit a candle at a headstone. Kneeling black-clad women rake frozen earth around graves. Candlelight shimmers on stone angels’ wings. Visitors move toward the cemetery gates, their breath forming clouds .”

A stone cherub lit by a candle on 1 November 1986

The central cemetery in Vienna is worth a visit at any time of year.  The old Jewish cemetery, its overgrown state controversial, is symbolic and evocative (you may see deer there, or other wildlife).   (more…)

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The Overton window and social media manipulation: how worried should we be?

I first came across the term “Overton Window” in a piece by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books in July 2016.

He described it as “a term… meaning the acceptable range of political thought in a culture at a given moment… [which] can be moved.”

Lanchester said that ideas can start far outside the political mainstream yet later come to seem acceptable.  He cited Brexit as an example: considered eccentric in 1997, yet enjoying large-scale support in a referendum by 2016.

George Orwell

Lanchester’s article, by the way, like many LRB pieces, is improbably long: set aside a bit of time if you want to read it.

A recent piece at the splendid “Flip Chart Fairy Tales” blog (recommended: often a source of illuminating graphs, charts and views) entitled “Breaking the Overton Window“, also noted how opinions can change.  The author argues that for politicians and commentators the Overton Window has moved over recent decades towards libertarian, right-wing policies which do not obviously overlap with established political parties. By contrast, the views of voters have moved in the opposite direction, towards more authoritarian and left-wing ideas – likewise not corresponding clearly to existing parties.  This tendency, he argues, a) is a move away from traditional “left-wing” and “right-wing” categorisations; and b) should lead politicians to shift towards those authoritative and left wing policies if they are not to leave voters alienated from politics.

What has this got to do with social media? (more…)

Things are getting worse, right? Wrong. Here’s why.

‘I saw this terrible news today.’  My friend, a sensible person, is distressed.  ‘A terrorist group is breeding babies to be brought up as fresh soldiers for their cause.  How can we resist such fanaticism?’

‘Don’t worry,’ I say.  ‘It’s probably a mix of propaganda and sensationalism.’

I’ve written before about how the Internet is filled with misleading nonsense (“a vortex of vacuity; a crisis of kaka; a whirlwind of piss-poor polarisation”) in one of my most popular blogs: The Internet.  7 reasons why it will destroy civilisation.

Lesotho: one of the most beautiful countries on earth has a dismal life expectancy – Photo RP

I’ve also written about the elegant Tuchman’s Law (hit the link for the full article), which says: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (more…)

Read it now, watch it fast: scary, scarier, scariest

What if the team supporting a political campaign had information about the opinions, preferences and voting intentions of every individual in a country, and could tailor their campaigning precisely to each voter?

They have it already.

The Vice News article “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down” is the second scariest thing I’ve seen for ages.

It analyses how the harmless-sounding British company Cambridge Analytica uses information gathered from social media – all your “likes”; which shows you watch on TV; every quiz you ever did on Facebook; what you click on; what you buy; what you drive – in fact the whole of so-called “big data” – to build up a picture on you more detailed than anything George Orwell could have imagined.

If the Thought Police in 1984 had had big data, they wouldn’t have needed Room 101.  They would have known everything already.

As others have observed, Orwell got total surveillance right.  What he didn’t anticipate was people voluntarily putting on line all the information about themselves a potential authoritarian state could ever need.

(more…)

You need to smartphone detox. 11 free ways you can help yourself

‘It’s relentless,’ the god-like figure says to me.  ‘From 7 a.m. things are coming in.  All day – even when I’m in meetings, mealtimes.  Until late at night.  It’s the 24-hour news cycle.’

I’m talking to a top figure in an elite organisation: someone I respect and trust.

In fact, this person is almost a household name.  Most people would see him or her as someone who has risen to the top through an awesome combination of intellect, charm and hard work.  Yet this person is struggling to cope with information coming in on one device – a Blackberry.

What chance do the rest of us have?  You may be addicted to multiple devices.

When Blackberrys were first introduced, people called them Crackberrys.  No wonder.  Ten years later, our smartphones are one hundred times more addictive – an addiction as strong as alcohol or gambling, as the video below (watch it later!) points out.

What can you do? (more…)

Paris, the Internet, and the FT

My recent blog “The Internet. 7 reasons why it will destroy civilisation” set out troubling facts about this most wonderful of inventions.

One of my concerns was that:

“the Internet polarises opinion.  Imagine a billion people in a desert, shouting.  Who can shout loudest?  The best way to attract online attention is to be shocking and extreme.  Slag someone off.  Be outrageous.  You know that famous, reasonable, internet commentary site?  No?  That’s because there isn’t one.  You can’t be reasonable and famous on-line.”

So I was interested to see this weekend in The Financial Times a piece by Simon Kuper, “Paris attacks: Notes from a wounded city” (NB if you don’t have a subscription to the FT, you can sign up to read the piece – and several more every month – free).

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Kuper’s piece is characteristically thoughtful. I like his resistance to simplifying everything – particularly anything as tragic as the Paris attacks. But I was most struck by his comment that in the world of punditry and politics, “the people with the clearest messages win“.

Thus, Kuper suggests, if you want to look at the world in a more nuanced way – he quotes a man who asked of the 13 November events “with what perception must I perceive this?” – you are unlikely to be invited onto TV to pontificate about how we should react.

What people want is certainty; and that is what pundits offer.

That is often the equivalent of shouting loudest. But it is not always the best way to approach important issues.

Do check out Simon Kuper’s piece, and my earlier blog.

The 4 elements of the perfect article: Nut-grafs & Cosmic Kickers (part 2 of 2)

An experienced writer stares at a blank page, sweating.  How to get started?  If only there were a simple guide somewhere to writing articles for the Internet, newspapers or magazines!

So you want to write the perfect article? Welcome. I’ll tell you how.

The essential starting point is to have a clear central message.  What are you trying to say?  What’s your point? Clarity on this makes everything which follows much easier.

My companion piece “7 tips for writing the perfect article” illustrates with examples how to decide on your message and ensure what you are writing is relevant.

Once you are clear on what you want to say, it’s time to get started.  “The best way to start work is to start work”.  Structure is everything.

Many journalists use a simple template.  There are lots of ways of doing this; but the following, based on advice from a US journalist friend, has worked well for me in numerous feature articles during my time as a freelance journalist.  A worked example is at the end of this blog.

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Robert Pimm writing in an Istanbul cafe. Follow him on Twitter: @robertpimm

Your article should consist of the following elements. I’ve set them out in the order in which they will appear (more…)

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