Thursday, July 22, 2010

Obama Administration Running Scared of Fox News?

US liberals are furious about the Sherrod affair, and particularly the belief that the supposedly liberal Obama administration might be running scared of the relentlessly hostile Fox News. Cenk Uygur on Huff Post here, and the 'Young Turks' video take are examples of liberal anger. Who's to blame? The firedog blog sees Rahm Emanuel as responsible for ignoring the liberals and embracing Fox!

Bush III?

Would America elect another Bush? Obama's current poll difficulties are being over-rated (his popularity has actually remained pretty consistent over the past few months), and the Republican field is very uncertain - but still, another Bush?

Conservative Future

There's an excellent write-up of a debate on the "Future of Conservative Thinking" on the Platform 10 blog. Andrew Sullivan sees the British example as being the way of the future for their American cousins, if the American conservative movement really is interested in progressing. He concludes:

They [the British Conservatives] take climate change and civil liberties seriously; they are investigating torture; they are including everyone in conservative values. Can a reform Toryism save American conservatism? Or should I have stayed in Blighty?

Breitbart v. Traditional Media

Breitbart, who publicised the Shirley Sherrod video, makes no pretence at being a proper journalist. He's there to mix it up and push his agenda as much as possible, even if it means using misleading, edited video material. Fox News is not much better. But do the traditional US media really need to follow suit? This post on Daily Kos asks if the traditional media isn't losing integrity fast over the way it simply regurgitates Breitbart and Fox.

And the British Right Move On To the Attack

Conservative Home's Tim Montgomerie has identified ten 'attack' pieces towards the Coalition in today's Daily Mail. His conclusion?

Part of the Coalition's problem is that the Right lost out in the post-election reshuffle. Chris Grayling and Nick Herbert, for example, are voices that are now rarely heard but would be useful in reassuring the Mail and the increasingly anxious Sun.....Cameron needs to love his party and natural supporters now, as protection for the unpopularity that will come when the cuts start to bite.

As Cameron and Clegg press ahead with their extraordinary coalition experiment, seeking to bring a new sharpness to the British centre, so they will both feel the heat of the right. Cameron's party, with Conservative Home in the lead and and the denizens of the right-wing commentariat as heralds, will demand more right-wing policies to define the government they believe should be theirs and theirs alone. The Liberals will face a pincer movement from both a right that wants to decimate them and their impact on Cameron, and a left that is furious it lacked the strategy or drive to do their own deal. It's been a nice honeymoon for Cameron and Clegg, but the end is clearly in sight.

The Evils of the American Right

Until Monday, Shirley Sherrod's was not a name that would have inspired widespread recognition in America. A black lady working for the US Department of Agriculture in Georgia, she was a worthy, hard-working but low ranking government official. Then a right-wing website broke a video in which it claimed she was advocating racist, anti-white policies. She appeared to be suggesting that she had not given a white farming couple the 'full force' of her support in helping them to keep hold of farming land they were in danger of losing. The website which showed the video,, owned by right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart, has a history of inaccurate scoops, but this didn't stop a fire-storm breaking over Ms. Sherrod's head. She was subject to strong outbursts by Fox News anchors, notably Bill O'Reilly, and eventually asked to resign by the Agriculture Secretary. Even the Civil Liberties Association, who hosted the video-ed meeting, supported her resigning.

However, when the full video eventually surfaced, it was clear that the context of her comments were far from being racist, but were in fact part of a painfully honest assessment of her own journey from identfiying race to considering poverty as a principal factor in determining the need for help. Her father had been killed by white murderers who had never been apprehended, and Sherrod committed herself to remaining in the South despite this. The white farming couple she referred to did indeed receive her full support, as they have been gratefully acknowledging. Now, the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has apologised to Ms. Sherrod and asked her to re-join the Administration.

There are a few unpleasant undertones to this story. First and foremost is the iniquity of a right-wing movement dealing in deliberate falsehoods and misleading information to smear an unassuming, low-ranking public servant for their political ends, to say nothing of their mixing it around in the racism pit. If we needed any further evidence of the bankruptcy of the media part of the American right then it is surely here. Alongside this, however, is the all-consuming need of the 24 hour news cycle to be claiming victims, without recourse to any form of investigative check-up. If the original video was deliberately put out to create a false impression, the more 'mainstream' news organisations are themselves guilty of a wretched and absolute failure of responsibility to check Ms. Sherrod's side of the story, and identify whether or not the original video was genuine, before leaping into condemnatory comment. Third, and in some ways of most concern, is the way the White House Administration leapt so quickly to a media tune. President Obama's team need to be media savvy, but part of that savvy is surely to be confident enough in themselves and their procedures not to leap into judgement. Their rapid forcing of Ms. Sherrod's wholly unjust resignation was a miserable capitulation before the forces of an untamed and irresponsible media. Finally, it is clear that the election of a black president may have broken a glass ceiling for the black community, but it has not diminished the awful power of racism to divide and harm.

The 24 hour news cycle has eaten in, perhaps irreparably, to the idea of politics as a considered, long-term pursuit. Too many decisions are now made in haste in order to satisfy this voracious need for sensationalism on an hourly basis, and far and few between are the evidences of serious investigative reporting and proper, considered responses. The Sherrod Affair has claimed a scalp and restored it in just a few days. That can hardly be to anyone's benefit.


Huffington Post story is here, and further commentary here.

Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish is concerned that the whole episode shows us a White House living in fear of right-wing attacks.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cameron's Clarity

David Cameron has impressed as Prime Minister, particularly in his commitment to making the Lib-Con coalition work, and perhaps even to use it as a vehicle to marginalise the right-wing and reinvigorate a centre-right. His message to defeated Tory candidates yesterday was a severe one for the plotting right-wingers - that there is no hope at all for a party which veers rightwards. He was clear in his belief that, whatever flaws the tory election campaign may have had, they do not include a need for the party to have been more right-wing.

As Conservative Home and the restless old guard backbenchers continue to shuffle around uneasily and wait for a chance to undermine the coalition, Cameron's own steadfastness in defending it is much to be welcomed. Conservative Home's editor, Tim Montgomerie, was meanwhile having to reassure his readers that he did not in fact believe in a snap election to dump the Liberals. The main problem here is that such a rumour was so eminently believable!

FRIDAY UPDATE: Tim Montgomerie has responded to the Cameron speech here. He describes David Cameron's belief that a move to the right would be electorally diastrous as a 'smoke screen'.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Peter Mandelson's Honesty

Not many people are actually feeling very welcoming towards the good baron at the moment. Last October it almost seemed as if the Labour Party had really begun to love him. I'd hate to put him up in front of a Labour audience now. On the other hand, it is difficult to see why conservative commentators like Peter Oborne are so vigorously against him. Mandelson's vial of regurgitated poison is giving the coalition a further honeymoon lease.......ah, that'd be the reason then! His memoirs, though, certainly don't deserve the bile being directed towards them by those not directly implicated in his tale of treachery and deception. Unlike many memoirists, Mandelson is not making some sort of claim to higher reality in justifying his fast off the presses tome.

Mandelson has never made any claims to some spurious form of moral authority; he doesn't preach at us from some mythical pulpit; he has always been a manipulative spinner, a master of the dark arts of politics and his book is, in a sense, a vindication of that. What better time to dish the dirt - Mandelson's whole raison d'etre - than immediately following his party's defeat? It is not actually, on the strength of the Times extracts, particularly revelatory, but who would deny Lord M his last bit of fun. He's being doing this sort of stuff as a professional for years, and his book is just Mandelson being Mandelson. He is not offering us some spurious, righteous justification for his words. He is simply giving us politics in the raw. And there's a rare honesty in that!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Cameron's Grace as PM

David Cameron's election may not have been accompanied by much fanfare or expectation, given the nature of the election results and the need to form a coalition, but he has made an increasingly positive start as Prime Minister. The Guardian's Martin Kettle, from the left, is full of praise for the way Cameron has so far managed his office, while the Spectator's David Blackburn considers the coalition to be the making of Mr. Cameron.

Not that this praise is going to mean much to the unreconstructed rightists in the Tory Party, who are fearful of the party's leftward momentum under its coalition leadership, and are manouevring anxiously to undermine the coalition and be ready to replace Cameron as soon as they can. Three right-wing MPs have been elected to the Board of the Conservative Party, and they include newcomer Priti Patel, who cut her political teeth organising against Tory MPs as press adviser to James Goldsmith's Referendum Party. Conservative Home, meanwhile, is becoming more and more a sounding board for the right than a genuinely Conservative site, with its editors and contributors desperate for a stronger right-wing voice to offset the looming realignment of the centre that the coalition might be portending. Three right-wing parliamentary groupings are, according to CH, now co-ordinating their approach to ensure maximum success. Labour may not be able to match Cameron's grace, and they may be fearful of being left behind as the coalition secures its ownership of British politics' centre ground, but they must surely also be watching the antics of the Tory right with a glimmer of hope for the future, for it is from there that the Coalition will probably receive its nemesis.

Gove's Apology and an Education Nightmare

The period following the A-level exams becomes a bit of a period of blogging withdrawal for me, and perhaps, too, the hot early summer is inducing a degree of lethargy! Nevertheless, the recent education storm is worth breaking the blogging break for.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, may have endured a torrid couple of days following inaccuracies in the list of changes to the school rebuilding programme, but whatever the political difficulties he can certainly hold his head up. His genuine and heartfelt apology to the House of Commons, and afterwards, represents something of a novelty in modern politics, a minister who takes responsibility and can say sorry for something his department has got wrong. The Blair/Brown years made us all too used to the unedifying spectacle of ministers using any verbal perambulation they could to avoid accepting responsibility for anything that went wrong. 'Sorry' was a word uttered only for crimes and misdemeanours with which you could not possibly associate the speaker. Thus, Tony Blair was 'sorry' for the holocaust. Gordon Brown was sorry for poverty in Africa, and for the slave trade. Neither of them were remotely sorry for the long list of their own errors; it became a comonplace that Gordon Brown virtually couldn't pronounce the word. So to have a minister accept that he is at fault and to make an apology for himself and his department is indeed refreshing, and perhaps bespeaks a new kind of politics.

The other feature of Gove's apology is his refusal to lay the blame elsewhere, although it is unlikely that he himself compiled the list that contained such inaccuracies. He is right to avoid doing this, although the inaccuracy for which he has accepted responsibility is, ironically, a justification of the need to deal with the horrendously overblown 'Building Schools for the Future' programme that he outlined in the Commons. The list was provided by the Partnership for Schools quango that oversees the schools building programme, and its shoddy nature speaks volumes about the way that organisation has been operating. Private Eye reports the figure of £700 million a year for the building programme, which equips a few schools with new buildings but dries up the maintenance budget for a vast number of others. It also ensures financial over-runs and bureaucratic nightmares, and tens of millions spent in consultancy fees - hardly surprising that their own list is so full of errors.

New buildings for schools are an undoubted boon, but we should be wary of seeing them as a panacea for educational success. I listened to one headteacher and educational adviser try to explain that the expensive new classrooms they were due to get would allow for 'new ways of learning', and would provide 'learning hubs' that would revolutionise teaching, but I remained ignorant as to exactly how this would work, or why you couldn't just re-arrange the furniture in an existing room! More concerning for the teaching profession - and I write this particularly warily I can assure you - is the knowledge that only 18 teachers have been dismissed for incompetence in the past 40 years. Re-focus away from fancy new buildings (except where the dilapidation is such that there is no alternative) and focus on reinvigorating the teaching profession, and we might find that it is not only economically more viable, but significantly more beneficial all round. Michael Gove's priorities are right in this instance, and firmly confirmed by the fiasco of the inaccurate list.

On a personal level too, Michael Gove's grace under pressure contrasts dramatically with the appalling Tom Watson, a man whose undistinguished career in government included plotting to overthrow Blair for Brown. Watson's thoughtful response to Gove's apology was to shriek at him that he was a "miserable pipsqueak of a man". It came after the equally synthetic anger of the shadow schools minister Vernon Coaker. Both representatives of the regime that landed us with the wretched Partnership for Schools quango, and both good examples of why it is such a relief to be rid of the shrill, angry and arrogant New Labour government. Long Live the Coalition!

And just to let the Watson intervention speak for itself, here is the wretched man's performance: