Online publishing feeds bewildered consumers a mass of mediocre content

...but there are flecks of gold there too.

Consumer campaigning group Which? recently published the results of a survey claiming around a fifth of consumers are regularly deceived into buying supermarket imitations of major food brands, as a result of clever mimicry in own-brand packaging design.

While I might venture to say there’s not too much difference between one tube of pressed oat lumps and another, when one is made by a supermarket chain and another by a multinational biscuit empire, the distinction between imitators and the imitated becomes much more pronounced when applied to visual and written media.

Back in 2005, a production company called The Asylum, which had been happily making low-budget, direct-to-video horror movies since 1997, did something extraordinarily clever.

It released a bargain basement adaptation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds in the same year as Spielberg’s no-holds-barred Tom Cruise adaptation of the same, and was rewarded with an immediate order of 100,000 copies by video rental chain Blockbusters.

The big win spurred a new business model for the Asylum, with the years to come seeing the release of films such as Paranormal Entity, Transmorphers, The Day the Earth Stopped, and Snakes on a Train – all bearing remarkably similar cover design to the films whose releases they shadowed.

The Asylum’s demographic was clear: tired parents in video rental stores, failing to remember the titles of big hits and picking boxes that, in a state of fatigue and unfamiliarity with pop culture, seemed identical to their recollection of movie posters.

Now of course, blockbuster has gone, and with it those late night box-browsers. But the model pioneered by The Asylum is far from obsolete: in fact, the purchasing environments fostered by online streaming services such as Lovefilm, Blinkbox and Netflix make it all the more lucrative.

Last night, my wife and I were browsing one of the above for a movie to watch, when we happened upon a movie called “Tooting Broadway”. The box design was slick, reminiscent of countless snarling Cockney stabathons, and it was only upon looking the film up on Wikipedia (where we were informed that the ending would “leave [us] in very surprisement”) that it became obvious it was a “let’s film my mates having a fight in a garage” type of affair.

Nevertheless, we only looked it up because, having ourselves lived in Tooting for years, the idea of someone using at as the titular manor for a gangster flick was faintly hilarious. But if we were living in Little Rock, Arkansas with little to no knowledge of South London geography, the film would have seemed as good a bet as Layer Cake or Snatch. And at £3.49 to buy, there would be very little reason to be discerning.

In the digital video shops we increasingly use as our sources of film entertainment, these movies are ranked alongside genuine big-budget efforts, with only a paragraph of description and a cover design (usually the most professional component of the whole project) to distinguish them from the real deal. In this sense, we have all become tired Blockbuster dads.

What’s more, book-buying has become a similar experience, through the advent of the Kindle and other e-readers.

The Kindle, to me, does to reading what electronic cigarettes attempt to do to smoking: provide a convenient technological replacement for a habit rooted in physicality. When I acquired mine, my reading habits changed dramatically, and with them the way I bought books. Rather than travelling into town and blundering round a shop or having to contest with delivery times – and thus my own attention span - online, I could simply select names from a list and have them appear in moments.

With the massive swell in self-publishing on the Kindle platform, these lists are getting very swollen indeed – and with the tiny price tags attached to the work of no-name authors, the temptation to play supermarket sweep when browsing can become irresistible.

I am an avid reader of science fiction, and I have recently developed a guilty pleasure whenever I run out of reading material: performing late-night trawls of the genre’s bestseller list on the Kindle store, and picking up six or seven extremely cheap books that seem to be being read and enjoyed by the masses, all by authors I have never heard of.

Most are mediocre – either bloated short stories that appear to have been proofread by drunks, or cliché-ridden hatchet jobs written in an attempt to jump on the rusty and creaking post-apocalyptic fiction bandwagon. But at 70p or £1.50 a pop, one can hardly feel cheated.

Besides, there are flecks of gold in there too. A case in point here is Hugh Howey’s Wool, a genuinely excellent survivors-in-a-bunker story I was reading on the way into work today, and which has gone from being a humble Kindle self-publish in 2011 to an international talking point with 20th Century Fox picking up film rights.

If the media I had access to was restricted to a pool of heavyweight titles approved by big studios and publishers, it’s very unlikely I would come across stories like this at all. And if the price of this occasional serendipity is a few pounds handed over to entrepreneurial hacks each month, then so be it. The more the merrier.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder