For years, campaigners against the Burmese military junta have also been campaigning against Lonely Planet. If you can get hold of a copy of the first and most debased edition of its guide to Burma, you will see why.
The travel publishers pretend the dictatorship is ‘sensitive to criticism’. They tell tourists not to worry about the conscripted workers who built their hotels because forced labour is ‘on the wane’. The true nature of the regime creeps out in embarrassed sentences hidden in the small print. ‘Be conscious that the Burmese are not free to discuss politics with foreigners and may be punished or imprisoned if they are caught,’ reads one. ‘Don’t compromise local people by raising political questions in inappropriate situations,’ chides another.
Burmese democrats assumed that Lonely Planet was a cynical operator which knew the truth about their country but euphemised for the sake of sales. Thomas Kohnstamm, co-author of Lonely Planet guides to various South American countries, raises the plausible possibility that Lonely Planet employees were so stretched they barely grasped the nature of Burmese autocracy before moving on to the next country.
In his memoir, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, Kohnstamm shows a side of publishing which is at once decadent and mean. He explains a Lonely Planet recommendation for a Brazilian cafe by saying that the waitress suggested that he came back after closing time. ‘We end up having sex in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner. I later recount in the guidebook review that the restaurant “is a pleasant surprise… and the table service is friendly”.’
At least he was a gentleman about it and at least he went to Rio. Later, Kohnstamm cheerily admits to producing chunks of the Lonely Planet guide to Colombia from San Francisco. ‘I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern in the Colombian consulate.’ In his book, he says he filled the gaps in her knowledge by relying on other people’s research. He worked on the principle that ‘what I can’t plagiarise, I can always make up’.
He now says he was joking, but is adamant that he couldn’t do a proper job because Lonely Planet wouldn’t even cover the cost of his flight to Colombia.
Kohnstamm’s story went everywhere because it challenged the belief that reference books, reports in serious newspapers, magazines, academic papers and journals are the result of a reliable process which produces accurate results.
For all the talk of the net changing the world, it remains a parasitic medium which depends on old-fashioned sources, which readers could more or less trust. Most bloggers bounce off online articles written and edited by professionals. Wikipedia tries to limit its inaccuracies by insisting that although it is ‘the free encyclopaedia anyone can edit’, users must back up their often dubious assertions with links to published sources. Journals across the world help them do just that. In the past few years, nearly all of them have put their products online, free of charge, and hoped that web advertising will make up for the losses of print sales.
Even bloggers who have made their name by lambasting the mainstream media – Matt Drudge in the US, Tim Worstall here – believe newspapers and television companies are letting themselves down. ‘Don’t these people have editors!’ Worstall bellows as he dissects another howler. They do, but maybe not for long. Or if editors survive, they may not have the resources to ensure that what they print is intelligently researched.
An apocalyptic mood is gripping publishing. JK Rowling fought back tears as she told a New York court how an online site had ‘plundered’ her work. Tracey Chevalier, who wrote Girl With a Pearl Earring, warned at the end of March that piracy on the net will make writing uneconomic.
She worried about work that can be cut up and pasted easily on to websites: poems, recipes, travel guides, short stories. But in south Asia, China and Turkey, it is not simply recipe writers who are being hit. At last week’s London Book Fair, Simon Bell of the Publishers Association described factories in Turkey producing enormous numbers of pirated copies of complete books by combining the net with modern printing technology.
He was joined by Akash Chittranshi, chief investigator for the Indian publishing industry, who showed pictures of police raids on underground printers who run off near-perfect copies on ‘an unbelievable scale’ for street vendors.
Pirated books are rare in the rich world because bookshops will not take them. But the arrival of the Amazon Kindle and similar ‘e-book readers’ will allow books to be downloaded in under a minute. What can be digitalised can be copied, as the music industry knows to its cost. There’s no reason why novels won’t soon be as easy to steal as ballads.
People will always write for love. But love won’t give them the time to write any more than it will help provide an accurate account of the fighting in Basra or a reliable guide to Burma. Good research needs to be funded. The optimists say authors and publishers shouldn’t panic. Web advertising and new ways of marketing will make up any shortfall.
If they’re wrong, and a recession will quickly show if they are wrong, we will look back on our time with regret. Briefly, the net allowed the transmission of professionally produced and edited news, books, music and analysis to anyone anywhere in the world with a connection. But the golden age couldn’t last because the net users weren’t prepared to pay for decent content and the web degenerated into mediocrity.
‘It is necessary to piece together second-hand information about things you are not able to see yourself,’ said Kohnstamm. His cynical voice may be the voice of the future.
Actually, you don’t have to vote for Ken Livingstone
Democracy is a system where voters hold politicians to account. In London, we’ve turned it on its head and allowed politicians to hold voters to account.
Allow me to explain. Ken Livingstone has broken the left’s one worthwhile taboo and embraced the far right. He has ignored London’s liberal Muslims and supported assorted homophobes, misogynists and racists. For good measure, he has presided over an administration against which there are far too many allegations of corruption and megalomania.
Fine, sling the creep out. Not so fast, say virtually every Labour MP and journalist. Livingstone may be a creep, but Boris Johnson is a clown. In other words, you have no choice. You must vote for Livingstone, without receiving any commitment that he will change his ways.
Gordon Brown and David Miliband don’t announce that they have forced Livingstone to listen to Muslim democrats and socialists rather than Islamist reactionaries and conspiracy theorists. Instead, they tell us to vote for a man they justifiably despise, regardless of who he will associate with on his return to power. Similarly, leftish broadcasters never ask Livingstone if he will meet leftish concerns by promising to drop his opposition to government plans to make foreign billionaires pay a modest amount of tax, for instance, or abandoning his support for shady property developers.
The normal electoral process of politicians responding to voters’ concerns has been suspended.
I won’t distract readers outside London with a technical analysis of how Brian Paddick, the ex-copper running on the Liberal Democrat ticket, could come through the middle. My point is merely that in a democracy, free people pass judgment on their leaders – they don’t give their leaders free passes.