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Thoughts on The Guardian’s Open Weekend

Picture the scene… it’s 7:45 on a Sunday morning. The clocks went back overnight, so really it’s 6:45. I hadn’t got in until 12:30 the previous evening having been out drinking in a west end cocktail bar (unusual in itself for me). The previous night I had also been out until late and still up at a reasonable hour. It had been a long week at work, and sleep had been a victim. Surely now was the time to catch up on slumber?

So why in God’s name was I dragging myself out of bed to go and listen to Ed Balls?

The answer is that weeks earlier I had decided that as part of my “get out and do more stuff or you’ll just sit alone in your flat and end up getting a cat” regime I would book a ticket for the Guardian’s first Open Weekend. I know, it sounds like the most revoltingly middle class event in history, which the Guardian themselves described itself as “Richard Littlejohn’s worst nightmare”. As I sat bleary eyed on the Piccadilly line to Kings Cross I really wasn’t sure why I was going, and given the £30 ticket price started to fret that it was all a waste of time, money and valuable doing nothing time.

Fortunately I was proved wrong. Yes, many of the cliches you would expect from a Guardian event were there, including poetry in the foyer, all sorts of free range/organic produce at a canal side farmers market and various eccentric characters milling around. Not that I understood the poetry… I tried, honestly I did, but as I sat surrounded by intelligent looking folk nodding earnestly all I could feel was the whoosh of the prose flying straight over my head. I have no soul.

The event mostly consisted of a bewildering selection of talks, workshops and debates held across the Guardian’s Kings Place HQ, the lower floors of which double as an arts centre. It’s a wonderful building nestled on the Regents Canal just round the corner from Kings Cross. I had serious office envy, although as I know too well a good looking building is not necessarily a joy for its occupiers.

Here are some incoherent ramblings on the sessions I attended:

Ed Balls in conversation

I’ve never been a huge fan of Ed Balls. He always comes across as a bit of a bully who is very keen to tell people they’re wrong but then less so to tell us the solution. In this session his human side definitely came across, probably thanks to the time available and a tone far less aggressive than your regular interview, Commons debate or episode of Question Time. His worries over the NHS reforms was surprisingly chilling, describing such policies as the moments that make opposition hurt the most. His critique of the budget was unsurprising, although again I couldn’t grasp much substance in terms of alternatives.

Obviously a room full of Guardian readers such as myself were going to be sympathetic to Balls’s coalition bashing, and much as I found myself nodding along I felt deeply uncomfortable that I was merely validating my own views. The interviewer could have been more challenging at points, although she rightly picked up on the hypocrisy of a former Labour minister criticising the current government for attempting to manipulate the media. It wasn’t entirely a love-in from the audience though, with many expressing the common exasperation of left-leaning voters despising the coalition but struggling to understand the opposition’s message. Balls’s answer is that as the public grow tired of excuses the mood would change and support would drift back to Labour. I think he’s right about being tired of excuses, but I’m not so sure about the second part.

Some edited highlights of the session are available here.

Will the internet be open?

Richard Allan (Facebook’s European director of policy), Rachel Whetstone (Google’s global head of communications and public policy) and Clay Shirky (auther, professor, God to geeks) discussed freedom on the web and the threats to it. China may be the obvious example, but as Whetstone pointed out this risks letting several (even democratic) countries off the hook. While she was reluctant to name and shame, Shirky was happy to point the finger at Turkey and South Korea. The panel explored some of the issues, both real and hypothetical, that face companies like Google and Facebook as well as their implications for start-ups – YouTube can afford lawyers, the next YouTube can’t.

Allan was reluctant to be drawn on Facebook’s stance on China and what they would and wouldn’t be willing to compromise on to gain access to the lucrative market. I think that relationship status will definitely be “It’s complicated” for a while. There was also a brief but good-natured ding dong over what Facebook did and didn’t reveal to Google and why Mark Zuckerberg’s Google+ profile appears higher in Google’s search results than his Facebook presence. It would have been nice to hear the neutral Shirky pronounce over such issues, but time was against us.

No great conclusion was reached, but it was a thought-provoking discussion with excellent speakers, especially Shirky. I ended up buying one of his titles from the bookshop, where I could happily have spent a small fortune had I not reined myself in and remembered my already overflowing in-tray of reading material.

Small society: are Britain’s social bonds fraying?

This was a wildcard option for me as I had a spare slot and there were still tickets available. It was definitely the most “Guardiany” session of my day, addressing issues around social cohesion, community and inevitably last year’s riots. Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company was, as ever, a captivating listen, conveying the sometimes impossible to imagine realities of some young people. There is always a danger of appearing to make excuses which, on the whole, she successfully avoids, although as with Ed Balls this was hardly a balanced room.

Social analyst Richard Sennett discussed the implications spending more time at work, especially with work now often so far from home. His suggestion seemed to be that more home “stuff” (my pathetic phrasing, not his) such as schools and childcare should be moved closer to our work. I wasn’t too clear on how this would make a significant difference, other than distancing us even further from our home communities. As an audience member later questioned, why must we accept the premise that life should adapt to work and not the other way around?

Conservative MP Jesse Norman somehow bypassed security and made it to the stage, but generally refused to play up to the Tory stereotypes which was pleasing, although I honestly can’t remember the thrust of his argument (and I wonder why the journalism thing never worked out for me?).

The tone of the discussion was not especially combative, with each speaker largely making their own points without disputing the others. There was one tense moment when Norman attempted to suggest that Hereford was not the bed of roses you might expect, which seemed to rile Batmanghelidjh and more so the audience, which I found frustratingly predictable.

Again there was little in the way of conclusion… other than the depressing thought of what social unrest may blight the Olympics. Cheery cheery. Incidentally I’m no saint on communities – in the six months I have lived in my current flat I have barely said a word to my neighbour, and I’m massively jealous of my friends in the suburbs who not only know their neighbours but even socialise with them!

On the cutting edge: scientists working at CERN explain the latest developments in physics

Scientists communicating their work always fascinate me… I don’t know why people so fantastically intelligent and sufficiently focussed (some would say blinkered) to reach the summit of their chosen field should somehow, by coincidence, be expected to also possess the ability to disseminate this knowledge to us mere mortals. Many of my university lecturers were, I’m certain, at the bleeding edge of their specialism, but they couldn’t explain the relative basics for toffee.

The three physicists on this panel did a reasonably good job explaining their amazing work, and an excellent job conveying their passion and enthusiasm. I was definitely struggling by the end though… clearly this was due to a lack of sleep. Yet even as I sat in utter confusion, I was thrilled that on a glorious Sunday afternoon there were a few hundred people willing to sit in a dark basement in Kings Cross to hear about this stuff.

The Guardian's three little pigs and big bad wolf

The Guardian's three little pigs and big bad wolf

Some other nice touches to occupy time between sessions:

  • Over lunch in the staff canteen (a very tasty lamb cobbler) I shared a table with a couple of Guardian writers who were happy to chat about the sessions we had each been to, along with what they were working on that afternoon. A reminder that amidst the crowds there were still people putting together a newspaper for Monday morning.
  • A giant mural was created over the course of the weekend, documenting and reflecting on the event, exploring the purpose of the paper, its relationship with its readers and its future in the digital age. Yeah, OK, very Guardian.
  • The three little pigs and the big bad wolf from the Guardian’s recent TV ad were on display in the foyer. If you haven’t watched the ad, do so now – I think even an Express reader would chuckle.

And the point?

So what was the point of all this? At £30 for a day ticket it wasn’t exactly cheap, but I have no idea if they made a profit or if that was even the purpose. I suspect this was more about a newspaper engaging with its audience, trying to make them feel more connected, more inclined to get involved and more likely buy copies / subscriptions / associated services.

And the point for me? I don’t really know. It was just a nice way to spend a day, surrounded by pleasant and friendly people. Much like when I go to Radio 4 comedy recordings at the BBC, this felt like my crowd – certainly more so than the people I shared the cocktail bar with the previous evening (my friends aside of course!).

This was an opportunity to learn more about things that I knew a bit about and to learn a bit about things I didn’t know about at all, though I should probably have challenged myself and done more of the latter. My one regret is not getting along to any of the sessions about the paper itself – how it’s put together and what the future holds. Hopefully I’ll have another opportunity next year.

I’m still a media anorak at heart. And apparently a Guardianista as well. I can live with that.

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Categories: General, News
  1. 26 Mar 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Sadly I decided on the getting a cat option! Your day sounded very interesting, though visiting an overflowing cesspit would have been more fun that that bloody club!

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