Thursday, November 29, 2012

Press Power and Leveson

The fightback began some time ago.  Throughout Leveson plaintiff columns about free speech could be read in newspapers and heard across the airwaves.  A few days ago the Mail revealed the astonishing political left nexus at the heart of Leveson (er, someone connected with the Leveson Inquiry also knew some left-wingers was about the strength of it) and today the Sun screeches about the importance of not having any regulation.

Because lack of regulation has worked really well so far.  The Sun yesterday was forced to pay out 500,000 euros to Louis Walsh for publishing lies about him.  The Mail a few days ago had to apologise to a Brazilian TV presenter for describing her as a soft porn actress.  And over the years countless people have had to contend with lies, half truths and innuendos being published about them, to say nothing of the harassment that a certain breed of journalism develops.

Statutory regulation hardly means political control of the press, but you wouldn't guess that from the newspapers.  The BBC is subject to statutory regulation, but no-one regards it as a dangerous political mouthpiece for elected politicians.  The issue is whether the press should continue to have the freedom to damage people's lives because the penalties for doing so are so minimal.  The issue is whether, after the failure of the press to regulate itself, it really deserves another chance.  The issue is about whether the most powerful institution in this country should be allowed to continue to abuse its power and be the only unregulated body in the country.  The issue is about many abuses committed by the press, but whatever Lord Leveson proposes, it is unlikely to involve shackling journalists' ability - and duty - to carry out proper investigative reporting, or the right of newspapers to hold whatever opinions they wish.  Protests to the contrary are hysterical hot air designed to cover up a multitude of sins.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Chris Patten's Masterclass

Lord Patten has been at the heart of the BBC storm over the past few weeks, but that doesn't mean he has somehow lost his touch to defend a difficult position, or that he is  running scared when having to face a committee of limelight-hungry MPs.  As he showed in a bravura performance yesterday when being questioned by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

Chris Patten is a Tory of the old school.  A now unfashionable One Nation Tory of centrist outlook.  He was, as he reminded the committee, the last Tory Chairman to preside over a Conservative election victory, back in 1992 (when the party fielded some frankly outstanding candidates in far flung constituencies like Warley East).  He clearly wasn't going to allow himself to be boxed into a corner by such a political novice as the snappy Philip Davies.  Mr. Davies doesn't much like the BBC, nor Lord Patten, whom he almost certainly regards as the sort of Tory the party is well rid of.  But Mr. Davies, for all his persistent questioning, found he still had much to learn from his elders when it came to scoring points in a committee hearing.

Lord Patten maintained a deadpan, deliberate demeanor throughout, but that hardly took the acid out of many of his scathing responses to Mr. Davies' questioning.  Possibly his best retort was to demand whether Mr. Davies wanted to know his toilet habits, after that forward MP had asked the BBC Chairman to provide a diary of his work for the BBC.  But there were other gems from a seasoned politico still able to deliver an elegant, velvet gloved punch to an upstart tike.  You can hear highlights - and they are definitely worthwhile - from the BBC's 'Today' programme here (scroll to 44.10 minutes in for the report).  The Tories, meanwhile, should mourn the fact that they have too few politicians of Lord Patten's calibre, and too many of Mr. Davies's.

The full hearing with Lord Patten is here.

It's Not About Press Freedom Any More, But About Press Responsibility

80 MPs and peers have signed a letter urging David Cameron not to accept any recommendation for statutory oversight of the press, should such be made by Lord Leveson in his much anticipated report.  In many ways it is encouraging that so many legislators, themselves often the target of press attacks, should be so concerned about what they have termed an issue of free speech.  They are right in wanting to steer clear of political control of any media outlet.  But the issue for the British press is no longer really one of free speech.  It is one of responsibility.

The Leveson Inquiry's exhaustive hearings heard example after example of an astonishing abuse of press power.  This wasn't simply the willingness of some newspapers to use illegal methods to obtain information.  It was also their relentless commitment to the harassment and persecution of those who they decided, often on a whim or on the barest of hard knowledge, to victimise.  Famous examples of non-celebrity figures include the McCanns and Chris Jeffries, but they were hardly the first.  There have been many more low-profile examples of consistent press abuse.  The stories of Juliet Shaw and an innocent deputy headmistress, both caught up in the Daily Mail's tangled web of media ethics, serve as a reminder of just what happens when there isn't a major inquiry into the conduct of the press.    The Sun managed to identify an innocent man as a paedophile and never produced an apology, so strong is the current system of press regulation.  There are plentiful, regular examples of how an out of control press - particularly the tabloids - smear people's reputations with no requirement to apologise or make restitution when they are proved - as they so often are - wrong.  The intrusion of the press into people's private lives continues unabated.  The best observation of press antics comes at the moment from heroic blogs such as Tabloid Watch and The Media Blog, and it makes depressing reading.

The MPs who signed the letter today rightly consider that the ability of the press to investigate political and commercial interets without fear or favour should be unhindered.  Absolutely.  The problem is that it so often doesn't.  It isn't MPs or political interests who require the defence of a proper system of regulatory control.  It is the little people, the small people's interests, who urgently require this support.  The very people MPs should be representing and whose interests they should be considering.  It is in some ways astonishing that the 80 signatories of today's letter have been so willing to leap to the defence of powerful, vested media interests, but have remained mute when ordinary people have been victims of press abuse.  But then, many MPs and ministers mix freely with the owners, editors and reporters of the press.  David Cameron's friendship with Rebekah Brooks, Michael Gove's one-time employment with Rupert Murdoch's Times, Boris Johnson's current employment with the Black twins' Telegraph, Jeremy Hunt's cringe-inducingly cosy emails and texts to a senior aide of the Murdoch corporation - all of these relationships betoken an unhealthy danse macabre that wholly fails to protect us from a rampaging, lazy, abusive press system.

It is notable that the Guardian - a paper which has impeccable investigative credentials when reporting on the powerful and the wealthy - has published a poll finding today suggesting that 79% of the public want a powerful regulatory body to control the press.  It would be difficult to find an issue on which there is such variance between our representatives and ourselves.

Preventing the press from publishing untrue statements that irreparably damage people's lives is not the same - nowhere near - as political control and it is a pity that the letter signatories don't realise this.  It was Stanley Baldwin years ago - using a comparison possibly offered to him by his cousin Rudyard Kipling - who noted that the press "have great power without any responsibility.  The prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."  Too much of the British print media has failed to show even the slightest hint of willingness to regulate themselves.  It is time they were subject to the same strictures as every other organisation in this country, for they wield the greatest power, and power should never be allowed to go unchecked.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Nadine's Forced Return To Work

Like many Britons, I failed to tune in to the latest series of "I'm A Celebrity...." and so was unable to see at first hand whether MP Nadine Dorries really was able to use the programme to further her political ideas.  Since she's been quickly voted off the programme - the first one in this series - I guess I can see that her desire to be a major-league celebrity has clearly failed.  One verdict on Ms. Dorries' sorry little foray into the jungle is from Radio Times' Tim Glanfield, whose damning verdict is that actually, Ms. Dorries simply proved how apathetic towards politicians most people are. 

Nadine Dorries has been a figure of ridicule - a just consequence of foolishly thinking that being an MP was simply a halfway house to becoming a celebrity.  Only one politician has achieved genuine celebrity status, and Boris Johnson had done that before becoming an MP.  It still remains to be seen whether he has a parliamentary future of consequence, despite his role as London's chief humourist.  Ms. Dorries, on the other hand, probably has very little political future of any consequence at all.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Defending the Beeb

David Dimbleby did a good job on 'Today' this morning in trying to get to the heart of the crisis, as I've noted earlier, but it's hard to disagree with the judgements on the Media Blog either.  Author Will Sturgeon might not quite be a candidate for Director General, but he seems to have got the crisis pretty well right and, what's more, firmly in perspective.  He notes:

Disgraced tabloid editors have had their knives out. Piers Morgan has waded into a debate about journalistic ethics and honourable resignations. Rupert Murdoch has taken issue with an editor-in-chief pleading ignorance. All done seemingly without irony.

Meanwhile, ITV News bemoaned the fact the BBC Director General only did interviews with the BBC. But ITV is yet to carry an interview with its own chief executive or programme bosses at This Morning over a widely criticised stunt involving a list of alleged paedophiles Phillip Schofield had harvested from the internet.

We need the BBC. Not least because it has not pulled a single punch in holding itself accountable. 

He went on to publish an awesomely cringe inducing video of a Fox News anchor questioning Rupert Murdoch (addressed oleaginously as "Mr. Chairman" and "Sir"  throughout) and being batted away when he dared to mention the News of the World as a useful contrast with the John Humphreys grilling that led to George Entwhistle's resignation.  Sturgeon concludes with a call for proper perspective.  The BBC has done a lot of public flagellating recently.  It needs to move o:

Angry tweets from Match Of The Day viewers tuning in for the programme on Saturday night only to find a special bulletin about Entwistle's departure, served as a timely reminder that many people just want the BBC to get back to doing what it does well. Barring two recent terrible editorial decisions, that includes producing exceptional current affairs programming and investigative journalism.

The Annoying Chairmanship of Margaret Hodge

I don't feel terribly positive about Starbucks for their UK tax avoidance, nor Google and Amazon for that matter.  A small personal boycott of Starbucks coffee is my own response - I'm sure they'll be devastated - but I very nearly thought I should immediately reinstate it, and buy a load of books from Amazon, after watching the lamentable performance of Margaret Hodge at today's Public Accounts Committee meeting which saw chief officers from all three companies being summoned.

Hodge has a less than stellar record as a former Islington Council leader when the council was plagued with child abuse issues in its care homes that it seeemed unable or unwilling to get to grips with, but she is certainly capable of grand-standing and today was her moment in the sun.  She dominated proceedings like some exceptionally annoying grande dame performing to the gallery and relished trying to put high powered chief executives on the spot.  Her regular shrill interruptions and constant state of indignation meant that her interlocutors had few opportunities to say very much, but that didn't really matter since this was the Margaret Hodge Show.  She clearly wasn't going to waste a rare opportunity of public show so the aim wasn't so much to question as to simply leap from one statement to another.  Irritating to watch or hear, and certainly not conducive to gaining any sort of constructive information about the companies called to defend themselves.  It was tempting to see if we could phone in and send her to join Nadine Dorries in a bushtucker trial. 

As for Hodge, it is a matter of public record that the family company in which she has shares currently pays only 0.01% tax on a 2011 turnover of £2.1bn.  Clearly the best person to investigate other corporate tax dodgers.

Dimbleby on BBC Crisis

Lots to be said about the self-inflicted wounds hurting the BBC at the moment, but David Dimbleby gave a particularly coherent and forthright performance on this morning's 'Today' programme.  His criticism of George Entwhistle was that his failure to 'fight' (for instance in the Saturday interview with John Humphreys) in itself suggested he wasn't up to the job.  A man who resigns in these circumstances has made a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dimbleby was once a contender for the job of DG and also Chairman; wonder if he's still interested?  On the basis of this morning's interview, he'd be a pretty good bet, and a reassuringly vigorous figure for the BBC.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Explaining Away Bad Punditry

Dick Morris, the American pollster, and Fox News contributor, made a few waves before the election with his extraordinary prediction that it would be a landslide for Romney.  Like all commentators, pollsters and pundits, Dick makes a hefty living by commenting on, rather than participating in, politics.  He is one of the many armchair critics who apparently know so much and can comment so vigorously for substantial rewards, but who actually don't really want to put their heads above the parapet in the real world of electoral and governmental politics.  Thus, Dick fortunately has no responsibilities whatsoever - unlike the men and women he takes to task.

This is lucky, because Dick's Romney prediction was so far out of the ball park it was laughable.  Should he be taken seriously ever again?  Almost certainly not, and his mea culpa on the Fox News site does little to add to our confidence.  He admits getting an entire segment of the voting population wrong - the voting ambitions of black, latino and young voters - but still manages to sound off about where we should go from here.

It's a helpful reminder that while pundits may be part of our need for conversation, their usefulness and reliability pales into insignificance compared to the men and women who are concerned enough to do, and not just say.  When you next hear Dick Morris rail against Obama or another politician, remind yourself that the man can't even get his own chosen art of punditry right. 

NB The Guido Fawkes blog has a piece on Morris and other profoundly incorrect pundits here.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Four More Years, So Now What?

A few thoughts after Barack Obama's re-election victory.

First, it is a triumph.  Obama is one of those rare incumbents able to transcend the difficulties of his time, notably the recession, and persuade a small majority of voters that his medicine is the right one and that he remains best placed to steward America through the bad times.  FDR was the notable other, and he was a reformer too.

Second, Obama's victory speech.  Having secured his second term, he then resurrected the soaring eloquence we associate with his earlier victory and which had been sorely absent from too much of his own campaigning this time round.

Third, the congressional races.  Although the composition of the two chambers hasn't much altered - the Democrats remain in control of the Senate while the Republicans have kept control of the House - there is food for thought for the Republicans from some of the seats they have lost or only just held on to.  With only 10 Republican held seats to defend this time round, they have had a poor night, losing Massachusetts and Indiana and failing to take Virginia, as well as losing Olympia Snowe's Maine seat to independent Angus King who is likely to caucus with the Democrats.  The Republicans might want to reflect on whether the Tea Party has done them much good, and what the long term future is for them if they continue to hunker down behind a wall of non-co-operation.  The Republicans in Congress are as ideological as they have ever been, but now they face a president with no more elections to fight.

Which brings us to the fourth issue.  What will President Obama's strategy be with regards to the House?  The last two years have been one of Congress's least productive ever.  If the president cannot find a way to break the partisan impasse between Democrats and Republicans, then he does at least have to hone his political communication skills to the extent that his agenda and actions are properly explained to the American people.  His and his party's aim would be to regain control of the House in 2014, but they can only do this if they display a much more canny approach than they have over the past couple of years.  It might be time for new leadership in the House to help with this.  Nancy Pelosi is a combative and abrasive Minority Leader; possibly not the person to try new strategies in a divided capital.

Obama has avoided the stigma of one-termism, but his next four years show no sign of being any easier than the four behind him.  If he wants to leave a substantive and positive legacy, he needs to hit the ground running for his final term.

The BBC's Transatlantic Struggle

So far, with polls yet to close in Ohio, Virginia....well pretty well everywhere, the highlight of election evening has been the BBC's finest struggling to produce a sensible line between them.  From Emily Maitlis announcing that a familiarly shaped map is actually America, to the reporter in the Ohio bar solemnly telling us that we should not assume everyone in Ohio would be voting for Obama (on the strength of a couple of interviews he'd just conducted), we've been subjected to statements of the blindingly obvious.  Jon Sopel reported from Virginia that turnout had been high, but neglected to mention that the hotly contested senate race between two former governors might have something to do with that.  Of course, this is still rather dead time.  3 states have so far been 'called' by the networks (which doesn't mean they've finished actually counting) giving Romney a healthy lead [Kentucky and Indiana to him, Vermont to Obama].  But the real battles are yet to come.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Why Obama?

There have been plenty of UK endorsements of Obama from predictable sources.  I doubt, for instance, that Romney will be losing much sleep over the decision of the Guardian and Observer newspapers to plump for the president.  But it's not British liberals so much as ex-pat US based libertarians whose views interest me, and in this regard Andrew Sullivan has been consistently and eloquently pro-Obama.  Here's his case again.

Human Contact - Still An Electoral Imperative

Paul Waugh has produced an excellent analysis of the campaign, and concludes that an Obama win will be down to the superior organisation of his on the ground workers.  It's a reassuring thought that as we keep debating the impact of online technologies and social media, the one thing that still really works is actual people contact.  Commenting on a field study of the 2008 campaign conducted by Obama's then Ohio, now National, Campaign Director, Waugh writes:

The main conclusion was that the single most effective medium in reaching a potential Obama voter was not TV ads or glossy leaflets - it was contact from an enthusiastic human being.

There you go.  Keep tweeting, facebooking and emailing; but don't give up on making human contact.  The decimated parties of the UK might want to take note, and start building up their grassroots operations again.

Meanwhile, thanks to politics student Michael Kynaston for this heads up about Simon Tisdall's Guardian piece on all the factors that could still make for an Obama defeat.  Happy reading indeed.....

Decision Time

It could be really close, this 2012 US presidential election, or it could be a greater majority for one or other of the candidates than we know.  The closeness of the polls and the important distinction between national and state polls has allowed for pretty well any and every interpretation to be given.

Given that the state-wide polls seem to favour an electoral college win for Obama, there has of course been a late rush of contrarian commentators to predict Romney wins.  Dick Morris has gone so far as to predict a 60% chance of a landslide Romney win, while George Will was the only member of the ABC News panel to go for a Romney win.  British political blog "The Political Reader" is also going with a Romney win, while the right-wing Spectator reluctantly concludes that actually there is really no way Obama could possibly lose.  There is also the prospect of a bit of legal action - keep your eyes peeled on Florida again, and even the much fought over Ohio may still have its place in the courts.

We're in for an unpredictable night, that much is certain.  The game of predictions is an addictive one, but ultimately of no use whatsoever.  Tomorrow, all predictions wither away in the light of the actual result.

Obviously, I offer my own.  I think Obama will win, with a decent, but not landslide, majority in the electoral college, taking Ohio and Florida with him.  I think Hurricane Sandy has helped him, and I notice that the BBC's Mark Mardell, who has spent much of the campaign talking up Romney's prospects, has commented on how genuinely relaxed Obama's key advisers - Axelrod and Gibbs - are.  They clearly believe the polls and their own ground organisation will deliver a second term to their man.  And, of course, there are those wise old birds, the betting houses.  Obama's odds have been far better than Romney's over the past couple of weeks.  Obviously he'll win!

I did place a small bet on Romney just in case, and I do believe that if elected he would govern as the centrist he was when Governor of Massachusets, but tonight's election is, I suspect, Obama's after all.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Star Wars And The Curse of Lucas

Did you know that one of the people on whom George Lucas based his evil emperor was the former American president Richard Nixon?  It's a little nugget of information I've always enjoyed as both a fan of the original Star Wars films and someone fascinated by the career of Nixon.  The late president, of course, was a rather more complex figure than Lucas's straight-forwardly evil emperor, but nonetheless it represents a little bit of linkage between fantasy and reality.  I mention this simply because in the wake of Disney's purchase of the Lucasfilm franchise, I re-watched the execrable "Phantom Menace" to check that a change of ownership was a good thing, and then wrote a blog post about it, here.   Too much time on a Sunday, clearly.