Ai Weiwei on the project that awoke his political voice – The Start podcast

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In 2008, an earthquake devastated Sichuan province in China, claiming the lives of more than 69,000 people. Following accusations from parents that substandard construction caused the collapse of schools across in the region, the artist Ai Weiwei set upon a political investigation that would name every missing student and call the government to account for their deaths.

In the fourth episode of The Start, we hear how this investigation brought about Remembering, an installation of 9,000 school backpacks on the Munich Haus der Kunst, that both commemorated pupils and engendered a new sense of political duty within Ai Weiwei’s work.

World Press Photo Contest 2018 – the nominees in pictures

The most prestigious photojournalist prize in the world has unveiled the six finalists of its photo of the year contest. This is the first time in the competition’s history that a selection of finalists has been seen before the announcement of the winner in Amsterdam on 12 April
Warning: contains graphic images

Ann Hirsch on the art project that invaded her private life – The Start podcast

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In 2008, online and performance artist Ann Hirsch started to post videos of herself on YouTube under the pseudonym of Caroline, a self-confessed “hipster college freshman”. The 18-month project, dubbed Scandalishious, explored questions of femininity, sexuality and identity at a time when online presence was little understood.

In the third episode of our new culture podcast about artistic beginnings, Hirsch reveals how Scandalishious became an all-encompassing endeavour: infiltrating her private life, putting her safety at risk and eventually resulting in a breakdown.

Are You Measuring What Matters?

It's never too soon when you're starting a new business to take a break, catch your breath, look around, and make sure you're heading in the right direction, doing the right things in the right way, and chasing the right rabbit. Chasing too many rabbits at once is a formula for failure. Doing things just to keep busy (or because you can't sit still) is both debilitating and dumb. And it doesn't matter how fast you're going if you're on the wrong road. So, do yourself a favor and slow down occasionally.  This isn't anything you don't know. What matters is having the discipline to stop and take stock of where you are and to "course correct" mistakes in a timely fashion before they become unrecoverable failures. Left to themselves, problems will fester and only get worse-- they rarely go away.  Fixing things doesn't happen by itself.  I've developed a simple set of steps to guide you in the process. I call these the 5 A's:

Audit: figure out where to look for opportunities/exposures and what to look for;

Analyze: determine what's going on--right and wrong--and when changes need to be made;

Act/Adjust: bite the bullet and do what needs to be done, but don't take on too much at one time;

After Action: see what happened, good and bad, and,

Anticipate: get started on what's next.

Keep in mind that tweaks are fine-- not everything is a teardown or a complete redo. You don't test the depth of a puddle by jumping in with both feet. As we like to say, start small and scale. Importantly, don't plan on stopping, because this is an ongoing, constant, and iterative process where you get better a little bit at a time all the time. But only if you get started and keep at it. Not all the time-- not every day-- but in a regular and systemic way. Just like innovation, continuous improvement is not a department or a part time thing or a chore. Always striving to get better at what you do is part of the culture of the best businesses. 

The second and equally important part of the process is proper metrics. What gets measured in your business is what ultimately gets done because that's what you are paying attention to. Of course, watching and measuring the right things is paramount.

Metrics are all the rage today because Americans love nothing more than keeping score. All kinds of folks-- well-intentioned and also awful people--play off that desire every day. I can remember in the simpler times when we thought that clickbait headlines and listicles for losers were about as low as you could go in the corrupt competition for eyeballs. I warned then warned then that tricked traffic, vicarious visitors, and the kind of morons attracted to the latest news on Momma whoever's new diet weren't worth reaching or pitching to in any case because they weren't buying anything worth selling-- but at least we thought they were living, breathing human beings.I said:

                  "...if you're advertising on a web site, and its primary traffic drivers are hacks, tricks and clever pet pix, what are its visitors really worth? Even assuming that those visitors are people and not tracking robots?

                  I'd argue that they're not worth your time and certainly not worth your money. Instead of attracting people who might be interested in your products or services and also highly influential, you can end up spending money to attract mobs of easily-influenced people who probably couldn't explain how they got to a given website if they were asked."

How naïve I was: things can always get worse and more disgusting. Because the race to the bottom never ends, and lowlifes can be innovative, too. The latest craze of fraudulent exaggeration allows you to buy bots to tweet your site and acquire fake robotic followers to build up your alleged "audience," a service provided by shady scumbags in foreign lands. Duping people into thinking your social media voice (your megaphone) is much bigger and broader than it actually is isn't much different from the many ways that marketers seeking to monetize their media have lied about their metrics, viewership and reach since the beginning of time. But that's a swamp for another day.

For the moment, what's critical as you review your business is to be sure that you're measuring the right behaviors and results in the right way. To do this correctly, you've got to go all the way. Too often we settle for part of the story or fall for the form and forget the substance. I see this all the time in software and solution implementations. Too many IT professionals think they are keeping score, but they aren't really asking deep enough questions or looking hard enough at what's going on in order to actually know the score.

Effective software rollouts are a three-step process and every step counts. First, you have deployment -- getting the stuff on everyone's machines and devices. You can't stop there. Second, you have adoption-- are people using the new tools and solutions-- are the dogs eating the dogfood? That's a good next step, but you're not home yet. Finally: results. Is the whole big hairy deal making a real difference in your operations and your bottom line? If not, it wasn't worth the trip. This is the hardest and most uncomfortable question because no one might like the answer. The rule here is simple: if you've made a mistake, you've got to acknowledge that bad news and make the necessary changes. You should never stick to a mistake just to try to justify the time and money you spent making it.

Metrics are messy, but they're the keys to the kingdom; you've got to master the ones that matter. And they're fluid. Smart businesses are flexible enough to shift the ways they keep score (even when this may be unpopular with their customers) if the new approach makes more sense and is a better and more representative way to track the behaviors that drive the bottom line. A very relevant example is the recent shift that Starbucks made to its rewards program. Instead of simply tracking store visits, Starbucks shifted to tracking what the visitors/customers actually spent which, of course, makes so much more sense. The airlines figured this out a while ago and adjusted their frequent flyer programs to emphasize dollars spent over miles traveled or segments flown.

Part of your review process should focus on the same kinds of questions and concerns. Maybe you're measuring what's easy to measure. Maybe you're measuring things that don't matter and wasting time and money doing that. Maybe you're too focused on squeaky wheels and not on long-term loyal customers. There are a lot of ways to get this wrong and only one way to get it right. Get started.

Carrie Gracie: fearless leader of battle for equal pay at the BBC

At the height of the expenses scandal in 2009, a little-known BBC news presenter made the headlines by revealing her £92,000-a-year salary on air and getting into a public spat. Carrie Gracie told a Labour peer that, unlike the MPs charging for “chandeliers and manure”, she never even claimed for telephone calls “because I understand what public service is about”.

Gracie returned to the headlines last week when she resigned as China editor and accused her employer of illegal pay discrimination. A dispute simmering since last summer, when publication of BBC pay scales first revealed how few of the best-paid stars were women, boiled over and led to days of outrage and mockery over the BBC and its treatment of women.

In an interview for the BBC’s Woman’s Hour, Gracie explained that she had turned down a £45,000 pay increase that would have taken her overall pay to £180,000, but left it below that of two male international editors, the US editor, Jon Sopel, and the Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen.

“I didn’t want more money – do you understand – I wanted equality,” she said. Support was immediate and widespread: within hours, #istandwithcarrie was trending on Twitter, with women including Clare Balding and Gabby Logan tweeting their support.

The row has been painful for the BBC, exposing deep divisions among some of its best-known staff and evoking memories of the Savile scandal when its failure to act became symbolic of wider social injustice. In raising issues of inequality and fairness, Gracie has put the BBC at the heart of two of the defining issues of our age.

Former Countryfile presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, won an ageism case against the corporation.

Former Countryfile presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, won an ageism case against the corporation. Photograph: Andrew Fox for the Observer

Miriam O’Reilly, the former BBC presenter who took the corporation to court for ageism and won, said the reaction proved that dissent was now much more widespread: “I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like it; the reaction has been incredible.”

Political reaction has been swift, too. The newly appointed culture secretary, Matt Hancock, warned the BBC that “much more action is needed”, while the parliamentary select committee called on Gracie and the BBC director general, Tony Hall, to give evidence this week. The committee is expected to hear from some of the more than 200 women who have lodged grievance procedures against the BBC over pay disputes.

After an award-winning 30-year career at the BBC, Gracie is conscious of the criticism about the highly paid women leading the charge for equality. In her letter announcing her decision, she wrote: “Many of the women affected are not highly paid ‘stars’ but hard-working producers on modest salaries. Often, women from ethnic minorities suffer wider pay gaps than the rest.”

Jane Bradley, a former BBC journalist who now works for Buzzfeed, reflected the distaste many felt when a leaked recording of a conversation between John Humphrys, the BBC’s highest-paid news presenter, and Sopel showed him making light of the issue. “Hilarious banter from Humphrys who earns £600k a year whilst (female) friends of mine work overnight shifts to produce the programme on £38k.” One BBC news employee said: “This affects so many women of all ages, grades and ethnicities and in every kind of job. Carrie has a lot of support.”

The issue of equal pay is not entirely straightforward, however, with complexities and contradictions everywhere apparent in a system in which pay relates to the individual and not necessarily the job. Gracie pointed out the illogicality in the fact that her pay as a returning BBC News presenter of £145,000 “will be paid more for sitting in warm studio than hurtling round country of 1.4 billion 24/7. Strange.” With a wage boosted by her stint in Beijing, she will presumably be paid more than some of her colleagues doing exactly the same job.

The BBC would be breaking the law if it attempted to cut the wages of its male employees; instead, it needs to encourage them to take a pay cut voluntarily. Humphrys is one of the few to have gone public with his own decision to take a £120,000 cut, which still leaves him earning roughly four times the prime ministerial wage for working 15 hours a week on the Today programme and presenting Mastermind.

Amid rumours that Huw Edwards and Chris Evans were both being encouraged to think about how much they are paid, one senior BBC editor said: “I think the men will have to give up the money. They [the BBC] can’t force them, but they can just make it so uncomfortable for them.”

Some observers argue that there is a distinction between covering the US, which is on the main news programmes all the time, and the newer beat of China, with its surveillance and other hardships. In an interview during a period of long-service leave to supervise her children’s A-level exams, Gracie spoke of these difficulties: “I find it a hard environment, very punishing, the pollution, congestion, travelling, intensity of surveillance, difficult ethical issues.” Yet some at the BBC point out that Bowen, who has worked as a war correspondent for much of his career and whose driver was killed by Israeli mortar fire in 2000, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

One editor suggested it was typical of Gracie to stir things up. Another said: “She is very direct, good fun and a good person, but maybe quite naive, definitely idealistic.”

The daughter of an oil executive and born in Bahrain, Gracie joined the BBC as a trainee producer in 1987 after going to both Edinburgh and then Oxford universities, where she graduated with a first-class degree in philosophy, politics and economics.

She was Beijing correspondent from 1991 until 1995 and fitted in an MA in design for interactive media as well as a degree in Mandarin. She first moved back to the UK in 1999 because her young daughter was ill. In 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer but returned to work as soon as she could.

Her former husband, the Chinese rock musician Jin helped to look after their two children, now 21 and 19, while Gracie spent half the year in China. Her frequent trips home to London included her first stint as a Today programme presenter last summer.

John Humphry was recorded joking with Jon Sopel about Grace’s resignation.

John Humphry was recorded joking with Jon Sopel about Grace’s resignation. Composite: Rex

During her 30 years at the BBC, there have been several pay scandals. In 2009, when Gracie was disclosing her salary, Jonathan Ross was on a £16.9m three-year contract and the deputy director general Mark Byford was about to be given £1m to leave the BBC. Greater disclosure and a squeeze on public finances have conspired to change the culture so that such high pay at a public broadcaster is distasteful.

Full disclosure of all those earning more than £150,000 a year was only agreed in the last charter settlement and the BBC has announced plans to cut £80m from its news budget. The pay deals of men from the earlier era now look outdated. “This is a hangover from the age when money was thrown around to stop people getting poached,” said one BBC News insider. “Now there’s a sense that £300,000 is quite a lot of money for a nice job which lots of people want to do.”

Some blame the former director general John Birt, who is credited with making the BBC more competitive in the 1990s but also for introducing market-based reforms. “This should mean the BBC gets back to the pre-Birt era, before these people were treated like stars, not journalists,” said one insider. Several mentioned the fact that the BBC’s status as a trusted news source, still watched by millions, was worth a pay cut. “If it’s money you need, the BBC is not the place,” said a supporter of BBC women. “If public service and a good living wage is, then please stay.”

The BBC’s handling of the crisis has attracted a huge amount of criticism. From its initial statement that its pay was “fair”, to its decision to stop any presenter who had ever expressed any support for equality from reporting on the issue, BBC management appeared surprised by a turn of events it must have known about for weeks.

It took Fran Unsworth, the newly appointed first female head of news, more than 24 hours after the story broke to send an email to all staff: “Pay is an issue that we need to resolve swiftly and get right. This is a priority not just for me, but for the entire BBC.”

Its continuing insistence that an independent audit of on-air presenters would be published within a few weeks did little to assuage the doubts of those who refused to believe last year’s report of rank-and-file staff, which found “no systemic discrimination”.

As so often in the past, the BBC finds itself, often unwillingly, at the forefront of changes demanded by society. From April, all larger employers will be legally obliged to publish their pay for men and women.

Given the insults traded over the past week, it is perhaps surprising that Gracie and O’Reilly ended the week on a positive note. Tweeting after her last shift for Today, Gracie said that although the week had been a “bit W1A, referring to the BBC comedy: “What other news organisation would let you call it secretive and illegal on #equalpay, + still let you front flagship show? Despite troubles, #BBC IS GREAT.”

O’Reilly, who now campaigns against ageism and sexism, said times had changed since she quit the BBC a year after her successful court case because of “humiliating” treatment. “This is an opportunity now, not just for BBC women but for all women. If you can show that you can stand up to being treated unequally to men, women will benefit all around the country.”


Born Carrie Gracie in 1962 in Bahrain, where her father was working as an oil executive; raised in Scotland. Degrees from the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford. Before entering journalism she taught in China. Two children with Chinese rock musician Jin.

Best of times She was appointed BBC News’ first editor for China in 2013.

Worst of times Quite possibly the current furore over equal pay at the BBC. Though she appears to be handling matters with wit and grace.

What she says “I would not wish to be remembered forever as the woman who complained about money.”

What they say “A farce. The BBC could pay its female Today presenters equally if it retired John Humphrys.” – Ben Bradshaw

‘Peter Preston believed that journalism should try to make the world a better place’

Poignantly, a new blockbuster movie celebrating the best of journalism arrives at precisely the time that Peter Preston, who embodied the very best of journalists, leaves us. If there were two things Peter loved, they were movies and papers. I like to think he would have returned to the subject he addressed in his last column for this paper two weeks ago –The Post, the new Steven Spielberg movie with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep telling the story of the Washington Post’s battle to publish the story of the Pentagon papers in 1971. Having seen the film, he might have commented gnomically on the quality of some of the storytelling – for Peter always wanted stories to be told clearly – but he would have loved the film’s message: that journalism is about telling the truth, no matter how hard it is and no matter how great the pressure against you from management, government or the law.

In the last few days there have been countless wonderful tributes to Peter – to his kindness, his inscrutability, his energy, his brilliance and courage as a man and as a journalist.

And then, of course, there was his pipe. He was a quiet man around the Guardian office, no shouting or swearing, but you could tell when he was standing behind you from the pleasant whiff of tobacco fumes. “Hmm, not quite sure about that …” he would say about some headline you might be writing. “What about ...?” And come up with a much better one.

And the fact that you never knew when he was going to turn up meant you had to do some of the insanely long hours he worked. He was like a father to me, taught me most of what I have ever known, and gave me, like so many journalists, some of the best years of our lives.

He saved two newspapers, the Guardian and Observer, which isn’t bad. The Guardian was facing terrible trouble – from a brutal price war, attacks from the Times and the Independent, raging newsprint costs, insane and malicious union disputes – but Peter battled through them all. The Independent, when it launched in the late 80s, came after many Guardian journalists, offering to double salaries. That so few of us left was a tribute to the loyalty and love we felt for Peter and his paper. Maybe a bit of fear too: journalists can be awfully cautious at times.

Peter Preston photographed in 200 by Jane Bown for the Observer.

Peter Preston photographed in 2000 by Jane Bown for the Observer.

Through a shrewd series of investments and backed by an often brilliant commercial team, Peter started hugely successful supplements on media, education and the public sector, all bringing with them shedloads of classified advertising. Most of it has gone online now, but at the time this was a coup. This was supported by editorial innovation on a phenomenal scale – the women’s page, some brilliant cartoon strips, the G2 tabloid features section, a dazzling redesign that transformed the paper and is still widely imitated 30 years on.

Later he led the way when the Guardian group bought the Observer in 1993, and saved it from effective closure as the Independent wanted to fold it into its own Sunday paper. He was always immensely loyal to the Obs, despite coming under heavy bombardment from some Guardian staffers and one or two on the management side. Peter saw that the paper had great commercial potential. In fact, he was a highly commercially-minded man, unlike some on the Guardian who tended to view business and profit as dirty words.

He wasn’t ideological: he was progressive, outward-looking, fair-minded but I don’t know anyone who knew how he voted. He once interviewed a friend for a senior job at the Guardian. “Is there anything I should know about your politics?” Peter asked. (This was the mid-1980s and the new and short-lived Social Democratic party was more or less run by Guardian staffers.)

“Well, I was a member of the Communist party,” said my friend. “A communist? Oh well that’s OK, I thought you were going to say you were in the SDP. Half the staff seem to be eyeing up safe seats for the next election.” My friend, incidentally, got the job. Peter could always spot talent.

He believed, like all the best editors, that journalists should be outsiders: Peter was unbiddable, preferring a cinema or his beloved Millwall to the bright lights, swanky parties and first nights that too many of his colleagues liked to be seen at. He worked long and attritional hours, though would occasionally join his beloved (and very understanding) wife Jean for the end of a play. She said he had seen more second halves in the theatre than anyone living.

He was shrewd enough to spot the rising importance of green issues, launching Environment Guardian, another ad-yielding section as well as a skilful piece of branding. Quite how green Peter was I have never known: not especially I would guess, though at one time he did have a battered old Renault 4 parked up at the back of our Farringdon Road offices, bearing the legend “Nuclear Power? Nein Danke.” I think one of his daughters might have put it there, though. That was Peter all over: not for him the chauffeur-driven limos that most editors favoured. He would have thought it was a waste of money, for one thing.

He was certainly a frugal man, Peter, and – bless him – he expected most of his staff to be fairly frugal too. Early in my time there, as a subeditor, I found things fairly tight – this was London in the 1970s. I told Peter I was thinking of taking some freelance work in the mornings before coming in. “If you must,” said Peter. “Otherwise you could just find a rich wife.” I thought it was easier to take the freelance work.

Peter had recruited (and kept) an absolutely superb staff. And other papers wanted them. My, how they did. At one point the Sunday Times made an eye-popping offer for the late Frank Keating, the Shakespeare of sports writing. Frank loved the Guardian, which had given him a lavish canvas, and would have probably worked for nothing. It turned out that he almost was: Peter had a quick check on what Frank, who had certainly never complained, was actually being paid. Even Peter blanched a bit, gave Frank a few quid, though nothing like what he had been offered, and he stayed.

Another predator seen off. Frank, like so many of us, loved the paper that Peter made, with all its follies and foibles. Peter’s Guardian was a brilliant newspaper, quirky certainly but full of great reporters, home and overseas: when we did a shared reporting deal with the Washington Post, it turned out that the Guardian had a considerably bigger foreign staff. From its roots as a regional paper, Peter helped to turn the Guardian into one of the most important newspapers in the world. It was also rebellious, feisty and fun, full of different voices. We enjoyed producing it and we hoped people liked reading it.

Peter would not be defeated by anything: he battled polio as a child and defied its crippling effects to become a member of the Magic Circle. One of his early journalistic jobs was, he said, reviewing conjurors for the Magic Circle review. He was fired for being “too critical”. That was very believable. If pressed about his conjuring, he would say that his greatest trick was getting the Guardian out every night.

When I joined the paper in the mid-1970s, Peter was night editor, the last stage in his meteoric rise following some high-calibre writing jobs. He was now the person who gets the paper out: this was a time of vivid news – IRA bombings, political mayhem at home, strikes, upheavals in America, the cold war. Peter would map out his front page; I was one of the spear-carriers doing the rest. As the night unfolded, Peter would be at his typewriter, hammering out headlines and rewritten intros, one hand holding the other wrist steady as he hit the keys one-fingered.

It was always, then and for the next 40 years, an extraordinary performance. For the evening breaks, most of us would go to the pub or the canteen. Peter would stay at his desk, with a small pizza which he would microwave and a little plastic bottle of wine. It was very Peter: restrained, but not too restrained.

He was brave, bold, brilliant and tenacious. He believed that journalism wasn’t just about describing the world. It was also about trying to make it a better place. But now the world is a much poorer place without him. At the end of The Post, while frenzy grips the Washington Post newsroom as the paper is about to defy the government and publish the Pentagon papers, the editor Ben Bradlee, played by Hanks, leans across to his assistant, smiles and says, “Oh, the fun!” Peter Preston would have known what he meant.

Roger Alton held a range of senior positions at the Guardian before becoming editor of the Observer from 1998 to 2007

‘Serious failing’: inquiry to scrutinise Toby Young’s OfS appointment

An inquiry has been launched into the “serious failing” of appointing Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students without studying his long history of incendiary comments, the commissioner for public appointments has said.

Peter Riddell revealed that the Office for Students (OfS) interview panel’s report to ministers “made no mention of Mr Young’s history of controversial comments and use of social media”.

“Without any doubt this row makes a strong case for more extensive due diligence inquiries by departments in any case of doubt about a candidate,” Riddell wrote in a post on the commission’s website.

Young’s ill-fated appointment to the university regulator’s board was announced at midnight on New Year’s Eve. It quickly prompted controversy over comments by Young during his career as a journalist, including a series of sexist tweets.

In a letter to Robert Halfon, the chair of parliament’s education committee, Riddell said he planned to ask the OfS and the Department for Education (DfE) to explain the process that led to Young’s appointment.

Riddell said the report to ministers “indicates that Mr Young was judged as an appointable candidate by a properly constituted panel chaired by Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students”, before being named to the board.

“The subsequent controversy has, however, highlighted flaws in the process,” Riddell wrote, pointing to ministers’ claims that they were unaware of Young’s offensive tweets. “This was a serious failing of due diligence,” he added.

“I am now seeking the full papers on recent appointments to the board of the Office for Students from the Department for Education so I can establish in detail what occurred and whether this was in line with the government’s governance code.”

Riddell said his main focus was on the procedures. “The merits or otherwise of the appointment of Mr Young and other candidates is a matter for ministers, and not for me,” he wrote.

Young stepped down from the OfS role at the start of this week after criticism from Labour and Conservative MPs, including a call by Halfon for the government to reconsider the appointment.

Riddell’s move comes as Young finds himself embroiled in further controversy over his attendance at a secretive conference held at University College London in May, which discussed eugenics and group genetic and IQ differences. Young has previously written about what he described as “progressive eugenics”.

Young said he attended the UCL conference “only for a few hours on a Saturday”, to gather anecdotal material for a speech he was giving to a conference covering similar topics in Canada.

The controversy puts a spotlight on Young’s role as director of the New Schools Network (NSN), a charity contracted by the DfE to promote and support applications by groups establishing new free schools in England.

Asked if the NSN’s board of trustees had discussed Young’s position, a spokesperson said: “The board has complete confidence in Toby Young as NSN’s director.”

Young was appointed in October 2016 by the network’s trustees, who cited his successful co-founding of the West London free school. Young receives about £90,000 a year as director, according to the NSN’s accounts.

The revelations surrounding Young come at a delicate moment for the NSN. The bulk of its funding comes from the DfE, and last month the department opened its tender to renew the free school promotion role from April 2018, offering up to £3.4m for two years. Tender applications close on 19 January.

But questions also remain over the NSN’s role, as no new free school bids have been approved by the DfE since before the last general election. In recent years, many new free schools have been opened by existing academy trusts, which need less help from the network.