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Saving journalism with a button

August 30, 2016

Imagine if every online news article, feature, interview, column, video or slideshow had a click-to-read button – like the click-to-share buttons (for Twitter and Facebook) or the RSS feed button. This simple button would charge you a tiny read fee, perhaps 5 pence/cents for standard article, as much as £$1.50 for in-depth mixed media content.

Daily use could be capped at a chosen amount, say £$5, after which an additional security click would be required. Users could top up their read-fee accounts by direct debit or with regular payments, along the Skype or PayPal models, or with contactless payment system.

The system would, of course, require all media outlets to sign up to it – and institutions like the BBC with its licence fee and other public/charitable bodies mightn’t be able to – but this seems to me the only viable way to maintain quality journalism, in-depth trusted reporting from knowledgeable correspondents into the coming decades.

Because, I don’t think people have a problem with paying for journalism; they have a problem with the bureaucracy it currently entails: registering, filling forms, entering bank and other personal details. It’s a faff and, because of that, most people would rather not bother climbing a paywall.

This one-button, simple system – like the tap of an Oyster card, the click of an Amazon payment button – means there is a just one-off registration system to read whatever you want.

The readfee system would always offer the first, say, 30-50 words for free. This would act like a teaser for longer articles on the journal site or on aggregators and social media, like Facebook, and provide enough news for scanning eyes. I anticipate that the real payout would be for exclusives and feature length content. Ads could be dispensed with entirely or adopted into the new system.

Micropayment systems are, of course, not new – they have been proposed in the past and several are already in use (this system shows success). But they fall down for two reasons, because they are not universal and they are not simple enough to use – they may require a separate browser, for example.

This is why I propose a universally adopted one-button payment system.

Media houses could be in charge of their own article rates – I expect that market forces would lead them to standardise fairly quickly. Special offers and other enticements could be agreed within the button operating rules. But, the rules should agree a minimum payment, even if it is as little as tuppence. The button would display the number (price) of the article.

Now, all we need is for the first news organisations to sign up – come on, are times not bad enough!


Dispatches from a failing state

June 27, 2016

There’s been a trend over the past decade in translating forgotten Eastern European plays from the 1930s and 40s, resetting them in a contemporary Britain and staging them to new London audiences. The problem I’ve always found with these adaptations is that the plays – often satires – only really make sense in the context of the time and place for which they were written. Emerging into a relaxed 21st century London after curtainfall, stretches the “it could happen here” premise too far.

The events of of the past week have undone this certainty – have undone me.

As I write, Britain faces a deep economic recession with cuts areas already struggling in the wake of years of austerity policy, including our cherished National Health Service, social care, transport and infrastructure, housing, regeneration for deprived areas, education and environmental services. Food, energy, oil prices are set to rise. Jobs will certainly be hit, opportunities for young people slashed as the 27-nation options become limited to just one. Where there was unity, however fragile, there is now dangerous division – between nations, within nations, between rich and poor, rural and urban, educated and uneducated, white and coloured, native English speakers and those with foreign accents. A week ago, an English MP was murdered in a racist attack, and such attacks have increased across the country. Our social democracy and our shared value system is threatened – and what threatens us in Britain threatens our European neighbours too.

How the hell did we get here?

  • Tory austerity policies that hurt the poorest, most vulnerable most, combined with policies that enriched the very richest, helped to increase inequality and foster a consensus among the disenfranchised that things couldn’t get any worse for them, and that voting Leave was a vote for change, a protest – two-fingers up to the ruling elite.
  • Ineffective opposition from Labour to the progressive dismantling of our social care and justice systems, to austerity and, ultimately, lack of leadership in campaigning for the Remain cause. Effective leadership could have persuaded the poorest that their situation was the result of government austerity not EU policies, and revealed just how reliant on EU funding many of their communities are.
  • Selfish careerism from David Cameron who called this unnecessary and ridiculous referendum, and with such arrogance he did not even contemplate losing it.
  • Irresponsible programming and reporting by the BBC and mainstream media, which has given Nigel Farage such a sustained and regular platform on TV over the past five years that he appears to have the same legitimacy in the public debate as our elected members of parliament. It is partly for this reason that Cameron felt so bullied into holding the bloody referendum. Further, though, the BBC has again been creating false balance. Just as it created a false balance between scientists warning about human-caused global warming and those who claim it is not happening, so the same false balance was created between Remain and Leave arguments. For example, although the City and financial institutions overwhelmingly supported Remain, the impression given – largely because the format for TV/radio coverage is debate between a pro and anti  was that there is an even split between the experts. Here’s an extract from a Boston Globe article on this: “The relentless hostility of large parts of the press has also cowed the BBC to the most extraordinary extent, so that in its quest for “balance” it has largely abandoned its obligations to the truth. A lovely example came over the radio news the other day, when one report started “Leave campaigners have attacked a claim by 17 Nobel Prize winners that leaving the European Union would damage British science.” Framing the matter this way suggests a complete equality between the people who actually know what they are talking about and anyone else with an opinion.” Other publications – The Sun, The DM – typically abandoned truth in an extreme betrayal of their readers’ interests.
  • Voters have not taken seriously the responsibility that comes with having a say in the democratic process. Too many appear to have not understood or researched the repercussions of the two options, or used their vote for point-scoring. We are all paying for the consequences of this in Britain and beyond.

Next steps?

  • It is my hope that Labour quickly unites behind a new, electable leader. She or he must then liaise with the government, with Lib Dems, SNP and others to coordinate a strategy that minimises the negative consequences of this referendum.
  • My hope is that a cohort of the inept – Boris, Farage, Gove – attempt soon to negotiate a Leave deal with EU members. The package they bring home is so unattractive that it is overwhelmingly voted out.
  • A general election is called at which time policies will have to be declared and properly debated.
  • Britain remains in the EU.

And us?

We must stand with our values. Where we see racism, we must challenge it. Where we hear lies, we must challenge them.


I should add, as a postscript, that I see many problems with the EU, for example, the TTIP. If there had been an intelligent campaign for leaving, based on well thought-out arguments and policies, a plan for managing our relationship with European partners, I may have considered its merits. There was not. The Leave campaign was a racist, inward and backward-looking propaganda based on lies and orchestrated not out of the protagonists’ heartfelt beliefs and public service commitment, but the worst sort of careerist game playing. I was unequivocally for Remain.

Dot Earth

January 30, 2016

Discussing the Anthropocene in a San Francisco park with Andrew Revkin for his New York Times blog Dot Earth.


Paperback writer!

January 7, 2016

The UK paperback of ADVENTURES IN THE ANTHROPOCENE: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made is out today, published by Vintage!


Happy New Year!

January 3, 2016

Wishing you all a wonderful 2016, whatever adventures life brings xxx

Beyond Paris: Planning for a hotter world

November 25, 2015

Hopes are high that the 21st United Nations climate summit in Paris this December will finally achieve international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s coming rather late in the day. It’s time now to face up to the fact that we now live on a warming planet with extreme and unreliable climate, and figure out ways of ensuring humanity’s continued survival.

This means urgently focusing global action towards ambitious adaptation strategies for our protection in a warmer world, and investigating geoengineering options to mitigate the situation.

Instead, the world’s politicians and scientists are colluding in the worst kind of charade to spare us from the unpalatable truth: it’s now too late to avoid dangerous global warming.  Read more…

Seeds of hope

November 6, 2015

In 2008, some 860,000 seeds from nearly every one of the world’s countries were deposited in an underground vault carved into an Arctic mountainside. The Global Seed Vault, in remote Svalbard, 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, was designed to protect the world’s crops from the worst natural disasters, nuclear war, and pandemic diseases. Even if the electricity supply to the storage system were to be cut, the vault would remain frozen and the seeds protected for another 200 years.

Why the elaborate precautions? This vault contains something far more precious than everything inside Fort Knox: our food.

As global diets start to look the same, we increasingly rely on few crop varieties, causing previous staples to become forgotten. Nowadays, wheat is popular across the globe, whereas millets have fallen out of favour. Already, the world has lost some 75 percent of crop varieties Read more…