Saturday, 28 January 2012

Review: The British Museum's Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam exhibition

The British Museum is my favourite museum and one of the most renowned in the world (the latter is probably more impressive), so when it puts on a special exhibition, you know it's going to be good.

Its latest special exhibition is Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam. Pretty self explanatory, it's the story of Hajj - its origins, what it is, why people do it, how people do it. The exhibition's title is relevant on more than one level - Hajj is a pilgrammage, a journey itself; visitors are taken on a journey when they visit the exhibition (literally and figuratively), and the exhibition explores the journeys of those who have undertaken Hajj in years gone by, and how those journeys are undertaken now.

The first part of the exhibition is dedicated to the story of the Hajj, and the journeys travellers from years gone by made to get to Saudi Arabia, from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Most fascinating in this area were the stories of Europeans who made the pilgrammage. Of these, the one I was most interested in was Lady Evelyn Cobbold, who because the first British woman to undertake the Hajj in the early 1900s.

Impressive artefacts include coverings for the Kabah, letters, books and tools used by pilgrims on the way to Hajj and a gorgeous Mahmal - a red silk tent of sorts which was used to symbolise the power of the sultan when his subjects went to Hajj.

Moving into modern times there is a short video which uses extracts from a film made about the Hajj. This explains succinctly the rituals that make up the Hajj, and their origins, and shows pilgrims from modern times on the Hajj.

Art has always been a big part of the Arabic world, and the exhibition shows the work of some modern artists who have made pieces inspired by the Hajj. Among my favourites was Ahmed Mater's Magnetism, showing a tiny Kabah with pilgrims surrounding it - all the pilgrims are actually iron filings. Also moving was the print made from two lines of a poem written especially for the museum's Hajj exhibition.

One of the best things about the exhibition, aside from its way of explaining the Hajj in a clear, concise manner, is the range of artefacts gathered by the British Museum to showcase in it. Short films from the archive of the Imperial War Museum and Pathe sit alongside giant photographs, which hang next to glass cases containing Qurans that are centuries old, which lead the visitor to contemporary art created within the last year. The British Museum worked in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library Riyadh to put on the exhibition, and has gathered pieces from its own collections and from collections across the world.

If one of the best things is the collection of objects, then probably the best thing comes at the very end of the exhibition. There, visitors can listen to contemporary pilgrims describing what they felt when they went on Hajj. Their stories are moving, and a fitting way to end the exhibition. However public the Hajj, and however it is explained, it is only by hearing the intensely personal stories of pilgrims that you truly get a feel for how much it means to those of the Muslim faith.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is on at the British Museum until April 15. Visit for more information.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Reading challenge book two: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

Book two in my challenge to read one book (I haven't read before) a fortnight in 2012 is A Clash of Kings, the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.

I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire after watching Game of Thrones, the television series based on the first book in the series, coincidentally called A Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is one of the best and most faithful adaptations of a book I've ever seen, so there were very few surprises when I came to read the book. However, I came to book two in the series, A Clash of Kings (which the next series of Game of Thrones will be based on) with no idea of what would happen.

What happens is more brilliant storytelling, more of the brilliant world Martin has created with meticulous detail. If you thought Lord of the Rings was detailed, then wait until you read A Song of Ice and Fire. These books contain hundreds of different characters, and all are completely different to each other. Martin's ability to create a whole other world is astonishing - there are characters you only meet a few times who you feel you know because Martin has described them so well.

A Clash of Kings takes on much the same format as A Game of Thrones, with each chapter centred on a different character, although some characters do get more chapters than others. Chapters are largely chronological, meaning major events in one character's life are left untold because they've already happened by the time you come back to them. Rather than making me feel like I'd missed out on something, this method made me anticipate what was coming next even more, and try and guess myself what had happened (and I got it right with two of the major characters).

By focusing on a range of different characters Martin also shows how there is no black and white, rather everything is shades of grey. There are, of course, despicable characters - King Joffrey for one, who deserves a smack round the head - but they are largely seen through other people's eyes. There are other characters who we should dislike - like Tyrion, who is technically on Joffrey's side, and Theon, who betrays the people who brought him up - but they are actually likeable, or if not likeable, then we feel pity for them. Because chapters are told from their point of view, we learn there is more to them, and we get to judge them on who they are and not who they are fighting for.

True to form Martin illustrates once again he is not afraid to hurt his characters. It's a great trait in an author, as many choose to indulge themselves and their characters long after they have reached the point of usefulness. Much like in A Game of Thrones, where Martin dispensed with some highly important characters, we once again lose a few people in this book. It may be a shock, but since there are so many interesting, well-formed characters still alive, it's not necessarily a loss.

Many readers might be put off by the fact that Martin's books are fantasy, but despite the presence of dragons and strangely intuitive wolves (direwolves), these are books about human nature. At the heart of them is a struggle for power and dominance, something most of us want, even if we would never admit it. I challenge anyone not to be drawn into this world, even the most ardent fantasy-hater.

Among the characters at the centre of A Song of Ice and Fire are the Stark family, whose motto, if that is the right term to use, is: "Winter is coming." The slogan (used for the television show as well) may be dark, ominous and gloomy, but if the series carries on being as good as the first two books, I'm looking forward to winter.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Reporting tips: making contacts

In the world of journalism - local, national or international - contacts are how you bring in the good, sometimes great, off-diary stories. Contacts, who come in many different forms, like to feel like they matter, and because they're the ones providing you with stories, they should matter to you. Just like any relationship in your life, you need to nurture it so that both parties are getting the best out of it. There's no substitute for hard work when it comes to making contacts, but here's a few tips to help smooth the way.

Keep in touch
Don't just call contacts when you're desperate or when you need them for a comment. Make sure you give them a ring every so often just to check in and see how they're doing, or go out for coffee with them. If you're in regular contact, they're more likely to remember you when a story does come up, and they'll give you a call. And if you're speaking to them on the phone often, then sometimes they'll mention something they might not see as a story, but you do. 

Everyone is a contact
At journalism school (a bit like Hogwarts without magic) I was taught to put everyone I ever spoke to into my contacts book. It might seem a bit odd, but it's very, very useful. Always try and put as many details as possible about them in, like where they live and work, as well as contact numbers. That way, if something happens in the area they live or work, you've got someone you can ring to try and get some information from. 

Never miss an opportunity
One of the best stories I ever did came about because I once gave a talk to a bunch of junior school kids about journalism. At the end, despite the fact that they were 11, I gave them my business card. Lo and behold, a year later I got a call from one of their mother's, telling me she had a story and that her daughter had my card and liked me, and they wanted to tell me about it. And that story was picked up nationally. It's highly unlikely I'll get a story that way again, but it taught me to never underestimate where a contact can come from. 

Be interested
Contacts have lives of their own - they're not simply there to provide you with stories. Remember little details about their lives, and ask them how they're getting on. It'll make them like you and want to talk to you when they've got something newsworthy. 

Show off the paper
At my first paper we used to go to court every week on the morning the paper came out. We'd take along copies of the paper for the security staff at the courthouse, and for the court clerks. The papers would get passed round so everyone (solicitors included) could see what was going on that week, and could see what cases we'd put in. Giving away a few papers that would otherwise languish in the office meant the court staff liked us all, and were easy to deal with when it came to getting court lists etc. 

Put in the time
Sometimes contacts don't work the same hours as you, in fact, a lot of the time they don't. And while it's not ideal, occasionally you will need to put in unsocial hours to make contacts. I can't count the number of parish council meetings I went to when I started at my first paper, but sitting through numerous discussions on street furniture and the like meant I was not only trusted by councillors and was their first port of call when a story occurred, but I was also trusted by people living in those areas, because they could see I'd put the time in.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Cooking with Sarah: Mexican-style soup

This soup is really easy to make and is great as a light lunch, starter or even a main meal if served with bread and salad. It's got a kick to it, so make sure to have a glass of milk nearby if you're not so good with hot dishes. This recipe makes enough for four people and should only take around 35 minutes.

1. Heat 2tbsp of olive oil in a large saucepan, then add one finely chopped red onion.
2. When the onion is starting to go soft, add 1-2 finely chopped fresh green chillies (deseeded), two finely chopped garlic cloves, half a tsp of dried oregano, 1tsp of ground cumin and a pinch of cayenne pepper or red chilli powder. If you don't want it too hot, stick with one fresh green chilli, and don't use the cayenne/red chilli powder.

3. Stir in a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes and 650ml of hot vegetable stock. Bring gently to the boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer gently for 15 minutes.
4. Add in a 400g tin of black eyed beans (drained and rinsed) and 5tbsp of tinned or frozen sweetcorn. Simmer for five minutes.
5. Add in a splash of lemon or lime juice, and some coriander. Season with salt, black pepper and a pinch of sugar to taste.
6. Serve with a dollop of Greek yoghurt or soured cream on top, with toasted pitta bread or any other bread of your choice.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Glee: Yes/No recap/review

Let me just say it, the star of this episode was Helen Mirren. What's that I hear you say? Helen Mirren in Glee? Why yes, Mirren stars as Becky's inner voice - a genius concept.

Mirren gets to say lines like: "I, Becky Faye Jackson, am the hottest bitch at McKinley High School." Um, surely we can just call the whole episode great because of that intro.

Okay, so perhaps we have to judge the whole episode, not just Mirren's lines ("You may be wondering why I sound like the Queen of England, it's simple, in my mind I can sound like whomever I want, so lay off, haters" - brilliant).

Having tied up most of the big storylines of the first half of the season in the episode before the Christmas special (Quinn's baby drama, Mike's daddy drama, New Directions/Troubletones drama drama) there's not much left to sort out (apart from college stuff). So it was time for Glee to introduce some new storylines.

The highlight of this episode, for me, was Becky and Artie. I loved seeing Artie actually doing something, and it was good to see him in a few different lights. Befriending Becky and telling the glee club that they can be judgemental were plus points for Artie in this episode. A minus was him leading Becky on because he couldn't tell her he didn't want to be with her, acting the same way as the glee club act towards her, and then eventually giving her an excuse for why they wouldn't be dating. But his reactions were, I feel, realistic.

Despite how forward and well-adjusted and open and accepting we think we are as a society, there is still sometimes a stigma around people with Down's Syndrome, like Becky. Her closing inner monologue reveals her heartbreak, and is really moving (another plus for Mirren who puts such feeling into everything even when we can't see her) - "I didn't ask him what I wanted to ask him. I didn't ask if the reason he didn't want to be my boyfriend was because I have Down's. I didn't ask him because I know the answer was yes. Some days it sucks being me. This is one of those days. Focus Becky. Don't let them see you cry."

Artie didn't want to be with Becky because she has Down's, but the advice Sue gives him is to have the courtesy to treat her normally and tell her he doesn't want to be her boyfriend. Sue shows Becky the same courtesy when it comes to comforting her after break up (tissues, ice cream, sad film) - yes, this time Becky's heartache is because a boy didn't want her because of her Down's, but Sue shows Becky that rejection is part and parcel of life for everyone, however horrid it is, and that she is not alone, and empathises with her. It's a touching moment between Sue and Becky, and the latter's storyline in this episode is some of the best stuff Glee's done. Plus, Lauren Potter, who plays Becky, is brilliant in this episode, her facial expressions during that last inner monologue broke my heart.

Sue is the perfect balance of friendly and mean in this episode, and it makes a nice change. She dispenses good advice to Emma, graciously admits defeat to Bieste and is, as already discussed, supportive to Becky. Okay, she's always supportive to Becky, but the other two things are a bit of a surprise. I love all-the-time-mean Sue, but it was getting a bit tired. Balanced Sue is a refreshing change. Although she was still mean to Artie, he wasn't totally blameless and it was funny.

This episode was partly about origin stories of a sort - how various couples got together or the first time both parties saw each other, and, in Finn's case, how he came to be the person he is, or thinks he is.

In a way, the origin stories are sort of old ground, because we're heading back to the past, but overall it's well done - particularly when Rachel, Tina, Santana and Mercedes sing The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face and flash back to the beginnings of their various relationships (or, in the case of Mercedes, her first relationship and not the one she's currently in).

At the end of season two Sam and Mercedes were together (sort of secretly) but come season three Sam had moved away. Now he's back, we get to hear the story of how they got together (sort of, and there are no beaches or people from Australia involved) when they do Summer Nights from Grease (the only thing they have in common with Danny and Sandy are that they were together over a summer). 

Still, it's cute, and Santana makes a good Rizzo (shove off the bench included), although I can't help but see Rachel as more of a Sandy - dull fashion sense, slightly whiny, bit annoying, ouch, was that harsh? - than Mercedes.

But this episode isn't just about Sam and Mercedes, the latter of whom realises she still has feelings for Sam during The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face. It's good that the Sam/Mercedes storyline hasn't been resolved in one episode. I'll be interested to see how Mercedes copes between having her heart divided between her boyfriend and her first love.

Another couple of focus was Will and Emma, who the episode seemed to be named for until we got to Rachel and Finn (more on that later). It's been so long since we've seen Will properly I almost forgot he existed. The greatest thing about the Wemma storyline in this episode is that we get to see inside Emma's head, where she dances in a bridal gown with her back up singers. And it's the back up singers who steal the show - Coach Bieste and Sue, dressed in ugly, shiny blue bridesmaid dresses, sporting ugly headwear. In a nod to last year's most famous hat, Sue gets to wear a replica of the thing Princess Beatrice wore to the wedding of Wills and Kate - hilarious.

Other hilarious moments in this episode include Becky's inner voice asking Puck whether he's got a mohawk or a squirrel on his head. Glee fans have been talking about this for ages, and seeing it turn up in the show is virtually solid proof that the creators haunt Tumblr.

While Sue was perfectly balanced, we got Sue light in the form of synchronised swimming coach Ros Washington, played by NeNe Leaks, who's on Real Housewives of somewhere or other (I think). I don't watch that, and had never heard of her before, so am missing that layer of fun when it comes to this role. Her quips about Sam's lips are old, and I don't really get her purpose in the show. Will we see her again? Or was that one speech it?

There were lots of great things in this episode, but lots of stuff that made me go: "WHAT?"

Unrealistically, Will asks the glee club to help him with proposing to Emma. This is wrong in so many ways, I can't imagine a teacher ever doing this, but this is Glee and normal rules don't apply. Still, I cringed when he said: "This is news you share with your family, and you guys are my family." Last I recall, Will's parents were pretty pleasant, why not share it with them?

Talking of parents, why did Will ask Emma's crazy parents for permission to marry her? Yes, it's polite, but last time we saw them resulted in Emma's OCD getting much, much worse. Plus, they're mean.

My biggest WHAT? moment was when Will asks Finn to be his best man. This is crazy. Apparently Finn stands up for his friends and has taught Will about being a man. WHAT? Have we forgotten all the stupid stuff Finn's done, all the times he's been unnecessarily cruel to people (Blaine) and the time he outed Santana? Also, does Will not have any friends his own age? This is preposterous, and I actually shouted "WHAT?" out loud when it happened. Unfortunately, in a few short seconds, this almost spoilt the episode for me. Luckily, the interaction between Becky and Artie and Becky and Sue was good enough for me to try and erase this Finn/Will incident from my mind.

Another WHAT? was when I first realised Finn was going to propose to Rachel. Goodness, I hope she says no. She'd better say no. And sine the episode is called Yes/No and Emma's said yes to Will, Rachel had better say no to Finn.

Finn finding out about his dad was tough, and it was good to see him uncertain about who he was after finding out his dad was not the war hero he thought. But to then go and propose to Rachel? That's not grown up, that's completely stupid. Is Finn ready for marriage? Not at all. In a way, it's a perfect Finn reaction, jumping into something without thinking about it because he's trying to do the right thing. But, in a perfect Finn way, he did the wrong thing trying to do the right thing. Proposing marriage to try and feel adult is not the way to be an adult. I have confidence that Rachel has her head screwed on enough to say no.

I occasionally think the line between characters and actors gets blurred in Glee. First, we had Kurt using sai swords in a routine (actor Chris Colfer cites sai swords as a hobby) and being told he should write his own parts (Colfer has written a film which he stars in), now Sam is mentioning his impressions (actor Chord Overstreet does impressions in real life). Why are these lines being blurred? It's strange, stop it Glee writers!

The music 
Some solid musical numbers - Without You and We Found Love, although the cheesy proposal at the end of the latter let it down a bit, but the synchronised swimming brought it back up.

The mash-up of Moves Like Jagger and Jumping Jack Flash was okay. I'm not a fan of the former song, so it's not my favourite thing. 

Summer Nights was the most fun song of the episode, but the best song overall was the beautiful rendition of First Time I Ever Saw Your Face. Bravo, ladies.

What Glee did well
Overall I thought this was a solid episode, mainly because Becky's storyline was so compelling. I was pleasantly surprised, thinking Yes/No would just be a filler until we get to the next highly-anticipated episode. 

One of the best bits I didn't get the chance to mention above was Emma's moving speech to Will - "This is what you get. This incomplete person." It's such a truth - no one is perfect, no one is complete. It's a lesson Will learnt well, and one that Becky should bear in mind when she's trying to get over her heartache - everyone is incomplete, it's nothing to do with whether you've OCD or Down's or anything else, it's just human nature.

Pluses this week also for Santana and Sue, who were both far more balanced characters.

Next week
The Michael Jackson episode. Okay, it's the week after next.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Reporting tips: how to get the best from press officers

In season five of The West Wing, there's an episode titled Access, where a camera crew follows White House press secretary CJ Cregg around. When asked what she thinks her job is, she struggles to come up with an exact answer, but all her replies go something like this: "I am here to articulate the President's message and to honestly inform the press, and through them the public, about what is happening on any given day."

And that's the dilemma for press officers. They serve two masters - reporters, and whoever pays their wages at the end of the month.

The relationship between press officers and reporters is probably never going to be as smooth as silk, but reporters should be able to respect what press officers do, and vice versa. Here's some basic tips, gleaned from experience working in a council press office and for newspapers, on how journalists can build a good relationship with press officers.

Get to know each other
It can be all too easy to be just a voice on the other end of the phone to a press officer, and for them to be the same to you. That might work, but meeting face to face is always more conducive to building up a relationship with each other. Take the press officers you have the most contact with (police, council etc) out for coffee. Meet on neutral territory and make it a regular thing so you can get to know each other. People are always more willing to help those they know, rather than those who just call up every so often demanding answers.

Don't shout or be rude
This is a general lesson for life as well as for when talking to press officers. Yes, it's frustrating when it's taking ages to answer a query, but shouting is not going to get anything done faster. In fact, it's just going to slow things down. If you're frustrated as to why a query is taking so long to answer, explain your dissatisfaction in a calm manner, and lay out your points as to why an answer should be forthcoming as quickly as possible one by one and in a logical way. 

Submit full queries
During my brief stint working in a council press office before my journalism training, I took a call from a journalist about an event the council was staging. The journalist asked me a few questions, I found out the relevant answers and called him back. Only by that time he'd come up with a few more questions. So I found out the answers, and I called him back, and he'd come up with some more questions. We went back and forth about five times during the day, which was incredibly frustrating. Lesson - try and ask all the questions you want answers to in one go. Yes, sometimes an answer the press office gives you will lead to another question, but more often than not you should be able to ask all your questions in one go, saving your time and the press officer's.

Make sure the press office knows your deadlines
As soon as you put a query in, give the press officer a deadline. This saves any confusion later on. With weekly papers, some press offices like to know a paper's general deadlines. When giving press officers these, make it clear those are your deadlines, not theirs. Just because your print deadline is 2.30pm on a Wednesday doesn't mean the press office has until 2.15pm on a Wednesday to get back to you. Responses don't magically appear on a page - copy needs to be written, news edited, subbed and placed on a page, so make sure you leave yourself plenty of time for that. It's your responsibility to make sure the press office knows when you need responses by.

Always tell press officers the full story
This is especially true if your story is negative on the company the press officer works for. Don't give them half the story to respond to, because you'll only get an angry call on publication day, asking why the press office wasn't given a chance to respond to all the criticisms in your story.

Find the best way to contact your press officer
Some people like to be called, some like to be emailed. Some press officers are also more readily available by mobile, as their jobs see them moving around. Find out which they like, and which works for you as well. Personally, I prefer putting in a call to the press office, then emailing my query just to be on the safe side. Other reporters may like doing it differently. Make sure you know ask the best way to reach a press officer (and tell them how best to reach you), so you'll have the right contact details handy when you really need them.

Always keep a record
Keep your emails to press officers, and keep their responses, particularly in the case of any controversial stories. It's always good to have a paper trail just in case anything goes wrong. And remember to keep any shorthand notes of conversations. 

Ask for a heads up
Sometimes press officers aren't able to get you an answer to a complicated query in the time period you want. In that case, ask if the press officer can ring you and give you an indication of what the response will be so you can plan your story. Or just ask them to keep you updated on how getting a response is going, so you can plan your time.

Don't expect miracles
Press officers can't just come with answers out of thin air. They have to talk to the relevant people, formulate a response, get it approved and then give it to you. And sometimes the people press officers have to get answers from aren't always cooperative or don't see the press as a priority (there's a council where this is apparently rife - no names). Don't give press officers unreasonable deadlines they can't meet. Telling them you want an answer in 15 minutes isn't acceptable, unless it's a big, breaking news story. 

Sometimes you'll have a couple of stories that need responses from press offices. Try and plan it so that you put in all the queries as early as possible. Don't leave putting in a query until you sit down to write copy, it gives the press officer less time to get back to you, and slows you down because you can't finish writing until you have a response.

And one last piece of advice you will hardly ever need, but worth bearing in mind just in case:

Go higher 
There will be the occasional press officer you encounter who will be obstructive, who will answer every query with: "Are you sure that's a story?" and who will take weeks getting back to you in the hope that you forget about the story or just give up. Thankfully, these kinds of press officers are a rarity, but if you are unlucky enough to encounter one, remember they have a boss. If you've done everything in your power to be reasonable, made your queries clear, given deadlines and been polite, and they're still not getting back to you, then go to their boss and ask for your query to be answers.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but following these points should make life easier for you and for the press officers you speak to. If you have any other tips, leave them in the comments below.

DVD review: The Whistleblower, starring Rachel Weisz

American police officer Kathryn Bolkovac went to work as a peacekeeper for the United Nations, and ended up being sacked after discovering her fellow officers were involved in sex trafficking.
She went on to win a case for unfair dismissal against the company she worked for under whistleblower laws, and although a number of the officers involved in the scandal were forced to resign, none faced prosecution because of diplomatic immunity.

Bolkovac’s experiences have been turned into The Whistleblower, with Rachel Weisz playing the lead role.

She is good as the tough Bolkovac (with some fictional liberties), who leaves Nebraska for Bosnia to make more money in the hopes of seeing more of her daughter, who lives with Bolkovac’s ex-husband.

Unfortunately, once we get out of Nebraska, Bolkovac seems to forget she has a daughter, and shows more motherly feelings for Raya, a trafficked girl she meets, than her own daughter. In fact, other unrelated characters seem more concerned about Bolkovac's real daughter.

No parallels are drawn between her being a mother and her need to protect those she encounters, leaving us with the impression that Bolkovac is not a very good mother - jarring in the context of a film about protecting vulnerable females.

The film has some moments of suspense, including during scenes where the terrified trafficked girls are abused, and during a brief car chase which results in traffickers recapturing one of the rescued girls. There are some scenes where Raya and her peers are screamed and shouted at, and worse, but the worse is done in such a vague way that I'm never quite sure when watching what the punishment is.

Vanessa Redgrave plays Bolkovac’s mentor Madeleine Rees, and steals every scene she is in. Her wise words help Bolkovac bring down the trafficking ring, but for a woman with so much power within the UN, it's not clear why Rees just can't do the work herself, and why Bolkovac has to do it.

For Sherlock fans, there’s a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch, although he doesn't really do much - much like many of the characters in this film he seems to just be there for Bolkovac to get frustrated with and realise she has to do everything by herself.

Most of the time, the film left me left disappointed. 

Apart from some threatening looks and the odd comment thrown Bolkovac’s way, she doesn’t appear to face any difficulties in getting away with information which could bring her employers down.

There is no excitement in the scene where she emails senior officials with details of her colleagues’ crimes. It's meant to be a pivotal scene, one that leads to everyone knowing she's onto them, but the email she compiles (revealed in voiceover) is boring and seems to include none of the unsavoury details of what her colleagues are doing.

Similarly, the supposedly climactic end sequence, where Bolkovac has to get evidence out of her old office building unseen is boring and predictable.

Usually, I get a little bit annoyed when true stories are given the "Hollywood" treatment, but in this case I think the film needed it. The Whistleblower is billed as a thriller, but fails to thrill in any way, shape or form.
It comes across more like a documentary, and perhaps if it had been made as one, The Whistleblower would have been more interesting, but billing it as a thriller holds certain expectations - which aren't delivered.

One thing The Whistleblower did succeed in making me do was want to find out more about the real Bolkovac and her case, but only because the film left me so disappointed. Trust me, the real story is more exciting.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Reporting tips: how to make the newsdesk put you on its A team

A former journalism tutor of mine told me that all newsdesks split reporters into A team reporters and B team reporters. A team reporters - nothing to do with Face or Mr T - are the ones who can be relied upon, the ones the newsdesk will turn to when a big story comes in. B team reporters, well, they're the other guys. On local newspapers, where resources are stretched, you can follow these simple steps to ensure the newsdesk will always see you as part of the A team.

Everyone makes the odd typo, and they can generally be forgiven. But there are few things more frustrating for the newsdesk than reading copy that is littered with mistakes, from missing commas and speech marks to misspelled words to repetition. Simply proofreading copy right before filing will mean you catch a lot of those mistakes and save the newsdesk, and yourself, from a lot of headaches. Tips to ensure you make fewer mistakes include reading your copy out loud and reading from the last word to the first so you see the actual words and not what you want to see.

Read/refer to the style guide
Every paper has its own style guide and it's important to refer to it. Style guides can be long (the one I currently use runs to more than 100 pages) so no one expects you to memorise them, but scanning them every so often can ensure the most important things get noted. Common things you'll need to look in the style guide for include police and military ranks, how to write dates and times, and what the policy on writing numbers is. If you're ever unsure on something, refer to the style guide. If it's not in there, then ask the newsdesk. Don't just write what you want only to discover later that it's wrong. 

Come up with your own ideas
Newsdesks have enough to do without having to spoonfeed stories to reporters. Take the initiative and find your own stories, whether they be follow-ups, features, community stories or unusual takes on diary events.

Read the paper
It's such a simple thing, but so many reporters don't read their own papers. On the day your paper comes out take 15 minutes when you get in to take a look at what's in there. Reading the paper is also important so you can see how your copy has been changed. 

Remember the story is more than the copy
Yes, you may have crafted 350 words of pure genius, but slapping those on a page do not a story make. What pictures are you going to use? Does the story need a graphic? Have you got any ideas for sidebars? Have you got an image in your head for the way it can be laid out? You may not always get your own way, but thinking about the story as it looks on the page, and not just the words, will show you understand there's a bigger picture. 

Learn to multitask
Papers are making do with less reporters than they ever have, which means everyone needs to do more, even though that's not ideal. As a reporter, multitasking is important. Don't just concentrate on one story at a time. Make sure you've put the calls in for the next story you're going to write, so that by the time you get round to writing it you've got the responses you need and can finish the piece.

Remember the small stuff
Everyone loves getting their name on the front page, even if they deny it, but newspapers are more than page leads. It's impossible to finish pages without picture stories, downpage leads and nibs. Make sure you file things in addition to leads, unless you want the newsdesk screaming at you for nibs every single day. 

File copy on time
What the newsdesk needs most from reporters is to see copy filed. Without copy, nothing can happen. No stories can be assigned, no pages can be designed, no copy can be subbed. Voila, before you know it, it's 10pm on a Tuesday night and you're still in the office because the newsdesk refuses to let you go because there's not enough filed to meet deadline. 

Talk to the newsdesk
Never be afraid to just ask if you're unsure about something or want some advice. Obviously, don't do it two minutes from deadline when everyone is panicking, but every other time is fair game. The newsdesk is there to help you become a better reporter, and you can only do that by talking stories through, getting feedback and bouncing ideas off other people.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Reading challenge book one: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Book one in my challenge to read one book a fortnight in 2012 is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

I must confess, it's left me feeling a bit guilty, as I've never read Pride and Prejudice, but since I hope to rectify that at some point this year, I don't feel too guilty. Plus, I've watched many adaptations, and that has to count for something right?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes some of literature's best known characters - all your favourites including Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy are here - and just adds in lots of zombies.

There are still balls to go to, Jane and Bingley are still in love, and the story takes the same speed getting to its happy ending. Along the way the Bennett sisters kill lots of zombies, who have started to pop up across Britain.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a fun book, partly because everything is so familiar, yet so unfamiliar. When Darcy first tells Elizabeth he loves her, she doesn't just reject him, she flings him into a mantlepiece so hard a piece breaks off (of the mantlepiece, not of Darcy). And when the stupid Lydia runs off with Wickham, the consequences are far worse for the latter than just having to marry Lydia - and far more satisfying for the reader, who has suffered the annoyance of both characters for a couple of hundred pages.

The humour carries on in the illustrations inside the book, and in the reader's discussion guide at the back, the introduction to which reads: "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a rich, multilayered study of love, war and the supernatural. We hope these questions will deepen your appreciation and enjoyment of this towering work of classical zombie literature."

Joking aside, the use of zombies can be seen to have a deeper meaning. The zombies in the book are the physically ugly manifestations of some of the characters with ugly personalities, and show how shallow and self-absorbed some of the humans are in the tale (Mr Collins is so interested in himself he fails to notice his wife turning into a zombie). The zombies' need to feast on human flesh can be seen as a metaphor for how some characters want others simply for what is on the outside (their looks and their wealth) rather than what is on the inside.

Austen purists might not love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but it is an amusing read and a great tribute to one of Britain's greatest writers. Co-author Grahame-Smith clearly has a lot of respect for Austen, and he chooses to show it by turning her greatest hero and heroine into tough zombie killers.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Sherlock Holmes vs Sherlock Holmes

He's one of the best known fictional detectives ever, and Sherlock Holmes has been having a resurgence in the last couple of years. The second of two Hollywood films was released just weeks before the second series of BBC One's adaptation of the books by Arthur Conan Doyle started. So which one wins? Let battle commence....

Sherlock Holmes
The film draws on the considerable talents of Robert Downey Jr, whose Sherlock Holmes is more action hero than nerdy detective in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, while Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC's adaptation - the first episode of the second series is A Scandal in Belgravia - goes for a more cerebral Sherlock. While they look completely different (Downey Jr spends most of the film covered in a combination of dirt and blood and sporting a black eye, while Cumberbatch is meticulously neat and dressed - when he has clothes on), both do have a lot of similarities. 

Downey Jr would beat Cumberbatch in a fist fight, but neither of the actors' detectives shy away from physical violence, and both can easily hold their own. Both versions of Sherlock are very, very clever, as per canon, and they both have a sixth sense, although it's shown in different ways. Downey Jr's detective seems to spend a lot of time forseeing how fights will go, while Cumberbatch's Sherlock uses his ability to gather information on the people surrounding him.

There are plenty of differences in the way the main character is depicted in the two adaptations. Cumberbatch's Sherlock is sarcastic and his humour can be cutting and cruel (as Molly says: "You always say such horrible things. Every time. Always."), although some physical comedy is employed during the scenes in a bedsheet in Buckingham Palace. Downey Jr, on the other hand, decides on a more slapdash form of comedy, with his Sherlock shown as drunk, high and dressed as a woman (during which he spends plenty of time looking like he's in a compromising position with Watson). Cumberbatch's Sherlock has other interests (playing the violin, technology) which help inform his detective work, while Downey Jr's whole life revolves around mysteries (and in this film Moriarty).

Downey Jr's Sherlock's vices are out there for all to see, making him a rather transparent character, while Cumberbatch's has a dark past hinted at often (Watson: "Are you sure tonight is a danger night?") but never fully revealed, giving him depth.

When it comes to Sherlock and romance, the programme again takes the lead. Downey Jr clearly has a romantic connection to Irene Adler (more on her later), but he enjoys dressing up as a woman, a very unsubtle way of getting us to question Sherlock's sexuality. Cumberbatch, on the other hand, shows Sherlock as almost asexual. He is completely oblivious to Molly's attraction to him, and shows a remarkable lack of reaction to Irene Adler when she's naked, although he is immensely attracted to her mind. It would have been enough to leave it at that, but the programme shows other characters discussing Sherlock's sexuality, just in case viewers aren't clever enough to deduce themselves that his romantic life is a mystery.

Winner: Benedict Cumberbatch. His Sherlock is more subtle and layered, and therefore far more fascinating than Downey Jr's. 

Doctor Watson
Jude Law vs Martin Freeman - what a choice. 

On the one hand you have the suave Law, whose Doctor Watson is happily in love yet indulges all of Sherlock's whims and always, always forgives him. Law's Watson is Hollywood handsome, as befits a film version, but rather inoffensive and mostly in place just to act as the straight guy to Downey Jr's kooky Sherlock.

On the other hand you have Freeman, famous for his turn in The Office. His Watson cares about Sherlock, but has a life of his own and doesn't take any rubbish from Sherlock, calling him out on his cruelties when he needs to. 

Winner: Martin Freeman. Jude Law is just bland. 

Irene Adler
The woman in Sherlock's life, possibly the only woman he has ever cared about, is Irene Adler.

In the film she's played by Rachel McAdams, while Lara Pulver takes on the role for the BBC in A Scandal in Belgravia. Both characterisations show Adler as sassy, sexy and sly, but with Adler as the focus of the BBC's episode, she's better developed there.

The BBC, or rather writer Steven Moffat, has turned Adler into a dominatrix who finds herself drawn to Sherlock romantically, even though she tells Watson she's gay. She has the brains to almost match Sherlock, although he always manages to best her (even if it takes a while). In the television programme the pair's relationship is based on trying to beat each other, and a mutual respect for their cleverness. Both know nothing will ever happen between them, but both want to keep it that way, because getting any closer would destroy them both.

In the film Adler has a more playful relationship with Sherlock, showing equal affection for him as he does her. McAdams disappears pretty soon after the start of the film, having let Moriarty get the better of her after betraying Sherlock. The film's Adler is disappointing, letting men dictate what she does, while the BBC's Adler puts herself first, plays the game, and is fully prepared to accept the consequences of her actions ("Goodbye, Mr Holmes").

Winner: A Scandal in Belgravia. Lara Pulver's Irene Adler kicks arse, in all ways.

Action scenes
There's plenty of action in A Game of Shadows, which would have included car chases had anyone but Sherlock owned a car. There's plenty to make up for the lack of Fast and Furious type chases though, with a great fight sequence in a bar, a huge shoot out on a train, falling buildings and some one-on-one combat between Moriarty and Sherlock.

A Scandal in Belgravia does show Sherlock as more physical than in the first three episodes the BBC showed. Cumberbatch gets to flex his muscles, but his fights all take place indoors, and against CIA agents, and there's never any sense that Sherlock won't win.

Winner: A Game of Shadows.

Sherlock's brother is only slightly less clever than him, and is more integrated in society, with a role in the government. While both the film and the television programme use the basics, their Mycrofts' are very, very, very different.

In A Scandal in Belgravia Mycroft is serious and brooding, often telling Sherlock off and acting like the dull, older brother, which he is in this case. But in the film Stephen Fry lends Mycroft an air of ridiculousness and comedy, and he never fails to get laughs when he appears on screen (especially when he's naked and his modesty is being covered by strategically placed furniture).

Winner: Stephen Fry in A Game of Shadows.

A Scandal in Belgravia is set in London (apart from the odd couple of scenes), with the capital acting almost as another character. We get to see more of the famous 221B Baker Street, where Sherlock lives (his bedroom has a poster of the periodic table on the wall), and the action takes place in some familiar spaces (Buckingham Palace!). Sherlock Holmes is a very British detective, and his surroundings contribute to that part of his identity.

The film take viewers on a journey across Europe, stopping in countries including France and Switzerland, and it's great to see Sherlock being Sherlock outside of London, although it feels a bit alien.

Winner: A Scandal in Belgravia.

And the winner is...the BBC's adaptation. While Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a great action movie, that's not what Sherlock is about. The BBC combines action with subtlety and a brilliant storyline, so pips the film to the post. Let's hope the rest of the series is as good.


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