Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Democracy - It Means Getting Involved!

A usually smart friend of mine posted up on his facebook page part of an article in the Guardian by George Monbiot.  The essence of the article as a whole is that big business runs the political parties so we might as well all give up and forget about politics altogether.  It's already been bought by someone else.  The posted segment was the conclusion, where Monbiot's lengthy, eloquent whinge-fest reached its apogee:

Since Blair, parliament operates much as Congress in the United States does: the lefthand glove puppet argues with the righthand glove puppet, but neither side will turn around to face the corporate capital that controls almost all our politics. This is why the assertion that parliamentary democracy has been reduced to a self-important farce has resonated so widely over the past fortnight.
So I don't blame people for giving up on politics. I haven't given up yet, but I find it ever harder to explain why. When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political funding system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians of the three main parties stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?

Oh dear.  Oh dear oh dear.  Poor George.  Politics has ceased inspiring him and the nasty corporations have taken over.  Except, er, that it rarely does and they haven't.  We live in a democracy.  Politics can reflect as much or as little of our interests as we choose to let it.  It isn't usually an inspiring process; it isn't some beautifully uplifting process; it's a messy, flawed, difficult, awkward and annoying one, and it is those things because it is a human process.  If you're waiting to be inspired, well then feel free to wait bt don't complain while others take advantage of your absence.

Because George's problem - the ultimate, well-paid middle class columnist's problem - is that it is a whole lot easier to whine from the comfy seats than to actually go and get involved.  It's Jeremy Paxman's problem too, as he complains that he wants to give up on politics and there's no-one worth voting for. It's the problem of every smug, self-righteous whiner who thinks that somehow politics and politicians should uplift them while they barely lift a finger to assist.

Monbiot's comment is redolent of the pathetic defeatism that so infests too much commentary on our political process. And yet, as a democratic country with mass membership parties, open to anyone, we all - defeatist, whittering commentators included - have the opportunity to get involved.  We can join a party.  We can spend time trying to influence it.  We can select candidates.  We can be candidates.  We can use our party links to representatives to lobby them.  We can take advantage of party machinery that almost painfully polls its members on pretty well everything.  But of course, all of that is hard work, it's slow, and it's not nearly as satisfying as conjuring up some nice words with which to complain every week.

As a democracy we get the politics we deserve.  I do want to hear diverse voices across various media; I want government to be challenged.  But I want us to think as well about the possibility that we can be involved.  At the heart of our political system are the parties that offer all of us a route into direct engagement with the process.  We've chosen, by and large, to abandon them.  Well, that's a choice we can make, but we should be absolutely clear that in making it, we also abandon the right to complain about how politics has left us beached on an arid desert of corporate sand.



Thursday, November 07, 2013

Clegg Attacks 'Sneering' Paxman

Nick Clegg often seems to be the whipping boy of British politics.  Leader of the junior coalition partner, no powerful press or media to support him or his party, lambasted on all sides because he can't deliver a full Lib Dem manifesto list.  You do wonder what he could do to achieve any sort of positive press, and I remain impressed at the man's ability to simply keep going.  His latest comments on his LBC radio show are meanwhile unlikely to endear him to one powerful media presence.  He decided to take aim at none other than Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman, the Grand Inquisitor of British politics.

Paxman recently soft-balled Russell Brand in an interview and subsequently went on to echo Brand's comments about being disengaged from politics and not voting in an election.  It is easy to understand Mr. Paxman's frustration with many of the politicians he interviews - and much of it provides very good political theatre - but it seems somehow out of kilter for him to give frankly parasitical millionaire celebs an easy ride while skewering those poor politicos who do at least bother to put their head above the parapet and engage in public service.  This was also the crux of Clegg's comments today, and to be honest, I think he had it right.  Clegg observed that our politicians are far from perfect - well, they're human for a start - but that it was possible for people who opposed them to get their hands dirty and become involved themselves.  The problem with the Paxman/Brand view of politics - delivered from the lofty eyries of well rewarded celebrities who have eschewed responsibility themselves - is that it is contributing to an unhealthy anti-politics ethos in our society.

We have managed to create such a toxic atmosphere towards politicians that the very process has become one which it is almost preferable to steer clear of.  This is hardly going to contribute to the well-being of  a democratic state.  Politics is about the way we live and the good life we seek.  It is about achieving the sort of society that somehow reflects the positive aspirations of its citizens, and in a democratic country it is a collective endeavour.  We get the politicians we deserve and we get the society we work for.  If we disengage from the political process and merely stand on the sidelines casting brickbats, then we have no business complaining about the state to which politics has descended.  There is also something amiss in a polity which rewards the commentators and interviewers so healthily, they who have abjured the unpleasant business of getting their own hands dirty, whilst insisting that the public servants we elect to do the job of governing and legislating  on our behalf should be worth so much less.

A vibrant, informed interrogation of politicians is an essential part of keeping a democracy healthy.  But so too is a positive attitude towards involvement in the political process, and somehow, somewhere, our pampered media elite have simply abdicated a responsibility on that one.  The much abused Mr. Clegg was right to make the sharp comments he did.  Perhaps Jeremy Paxman would care, next time he interviews him, to offer the same forbearance he gave to Mr. Brand?



Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Police Fit Up Is Unravelling

There is still more to come in the so-called 'plebgate' saga, but the scandalous tale of a senior cabinet minister being fitted up for political reasons by select members of the police force is certainly unravelling.  The Police Federation behaved disreputably at the time, as I noted here, and today the deputy chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission has more or less confirmed that in her view the Federation behaved dishonestly in its media accounts of the meeting it held with Andrew Mitchell, the then chief whip who was under fire.

The Police Federation looked like a hostile and malevolent organisation at the time.  What is perhaps more concerning is that members of the Downing Street team - charged with the protection of ministers and other VIPs - also appears to have contained the canker of dishonest and deliberately malicious behaviour within its ranks.  There is some way to go yet before the Met police finally fesses up and works out where to go from here, but it is certainly not in a very happy place at the moment.  As for Mr. Mitchell, he must be wondering whether it is ever likely to be worthwhile heading back into high office.  The police had probably better hope he isn't destined for a Home Office job in the future.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Adam Afriyie's Early Hubris

Adam Afriyie's leadership bid is still only in embryonic form - there is noticeably no vacancy at the moment, nor much of a call for one - but even so it looks as if it's crashing fast.  Mr. Afriyie has not discouraged people from referring to him as a "Tory Obama" but doesn't seem to share the US President's political acumen.  He doesn't actually seem to share anyone's political acumen to be honest.  I never thought a Eurosceptic proposal could be greeted with contempt and hilarity within the Tory party, but such is Mr. Afriyie's standing amongst his parliamentary colleagues that that is exactly what has happened with his like-to-be-stillborn amendment to the euro referendum Bill.  Most of the 2010 Tory intake have signed a letter urging him to drop his amendment, which demands a referendum next year, according to a report from James Forsyth in the Spectator.  Forsyth also tantalisingly claims that if Afriyie doesn't drop his amendment then another letter may be released.  By implication, this one could be rather less polite.

Mr. Afriyie's self-delusion was clear for all to hear in his Today programme interview earlier this week.  He declared that promoting a eurosceptic amendment was never going to make him popular in the Tory party (er, he has met members of this party, right? And he seriously thinks it's not eurosceptic inclined?).  Even more hilariously, the man who has set up a putative leadership team claimed that he really didn't like stirring things up.  Quite.  A really reluctant controversialist, Mr. Afriyie.

Adam Afriyie may not have won quite the levels of acclaim he was hoping for.  After all, the Telegraph's Damian Thompson has rather cuttingly referred to the would-be leader as a "wally" in what one suspects is a level of carefully chosen wording that many Tory MPs would be happy to echo.  But he has achieved the near impossible feat of bringing the eurosceptics firmly in line behind the Prime Minister.  I'm beginning to wonder whether he hasn't been a secret No. 10 plant all along.

Oh, and a slightly more objective view of Mr. Afriyie is here in the Economist.  They're such fair minded people.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Fourth Estate Is Too Powerful To Be Left Alone

A Privy Council Committee has rejected the newspapers' own ideas for the regulation of their industry and as such the ball is back in the politicians' court.

It seems utterly contrary to all principles of a free society to have politicians discussing - and preparing to legislate on - the freedom of the press at all, but in the UK in the early 21st century the sad fact is that our Fourth Estate is out of control.  Subject to no authority but its own and wielding immense power over public and politicians alike, the print media continues to dole out its own brand of harassment, influence peddling and political self-righteousness to often terrible effect.  This was seen in its most vigorous form again in the Daily Mail's now infamous article and headline about Ed Miliband's father.  When they printed Mr. Miliband's response to the attacks on his dead father, they ensured that his article was surrounded by further antagonistic reporting and editorialising.  This was hardly a brave lament for liberty.

The Spectator's Fraser Nelson blogs again today about why statutory press regulation should not even be considered.  An eloquent writer, he raises up the historical nature of the fight for liberty and looks abroad to the example such legislation might give to countries less enamoured of freedom and democracy than Britain.  These are powerful arguments, and the real tragedy is that they have been so utterly traduced by the behaviour of the press in Britain itself.  If we are to look anywhere for the betrayal of the principles of crusading journalism and fights for liberty, it is, alas, to the bulk of the print media itself.  There would be no debate at all on this issue if newspapers hadn't been revealed to have used criminal methods to obtain stories, or if there hadn't been a host of victims, such as the McCann family or Chris Jeffries, who came forward with their own distressing tales of how the press had cynically used their power to abuse them.  The press no longer preserves the freedom of innocent individuals in Britain, it too often inhibits it.

I blogged in March about why we should no longer take the press at their own valuation, and I have seen nothing since then to invalidate that view.  And it is a tragedy.  There is nothing better than a free, campaigning press holding those in power to account and throwing the light of journalism into the murky areas of our national life.  We just don't have that any more.  Sadly, the power that needs to be held to account is wrapped up in the very newspapers who should once have been challenging it.

Anything Interesting About the Reshuffles?

Apart from the people directly involved, no-one's lives are going to change as a result of the three party reshuffles held in Westminster yesterday.  We don't look at them for seismic political shifts, but see them more as cautious statements of political intent.  Thus, Ed Miliband appears to have very slightly shifted his party towards a more left-wing position and ditched a few Blairites; David Cameron has marginally increased the female profile of his party's governing ministers and shifted a little into the centre ground; and Nick Clegg has thrown a bomb into the Home Office as well as sacked a perfectly inoffensive Cabinet minister.

The most interesting move has been that of Lib Dem Norman Baker to the Home Office, as effectively the Lib Dem deputy to Theresa May.  Baker has famously cast aspersions on the suicide of scientist David Kelly (part of the collateral damage of the infamous Iraq war dossier and the Campbell/Blair feud with the BBC), suggesting he was murdered by secret service agents.  Well, now Baker could be responsible for those self same sinister services.  Apparently Theresa May - who wasn't consulted - is furious, but the rest of us should be delighted.  A genuine, campaigning anti-establishment figure is just what is needed at that emporium of state manufactured security.  Let's see how long he lasts.

Baker is a maverick in government.  Nadine Dorries is a maverick unlikely to ever be in government.  Adding greatly to the colour of the nation's political life, Dorries is standing for Deputy Speaker (to replace Nigel Evans who has resigned over sex assault charges that are about to enter the court arena).  She began a charm offensive yesterday with a nice little email to all Tory MPs.  Her charm has lasted all of 12 hours, as she launched an attack today on promoted Tory Kris Hopkins. Clearly pulling her punches, she described her Tory colleague as one of parliament's "slimiest, nastiest MPs".  That's another vote for Deputy Speaker just chalked up then!

Amongst the Cameron female promotees is Nicky Morgan who takes the post of Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and must be hoping that she doesn't suffer the same fate as the last woman to hold that position, Chloe Smith, who was effectively Paxmanated on Newsnight. If you enjoy car crash voyeurism, that interview's below.  Meanwhile, really good news for the TRG wing - or left - of the party is the promotion of forthright One Nation Tory Jane Ellison to government.



Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Daily Mail's Torrid Little War

The Daily Mail has certainly gone into overdrive in its battle against the Miliband family, with its sister paper, the Mail on Sunday, sending journalists under cover to a memorial service for Ed Miliband's uncle.

It isn't worth recounting the full saga in this post, although the Media Blog has a pretty comprehensive analysis, complete with the reminder of the Mail's own rather disreputable past as a Nazi supporting paper in the 1930s (with the present owner's great grandfather writing eloquently in defence of the blackshirts).  Nick Clegg, too, had a good line when he commented that "if anyone excels in denigrating and often vilifying a lot about modern Britain, it's the Daily Mail".

It is no secret that the Mail, in common with most other newspapers in Britain, is vigorously opposed to any regulation of it by a statutory body.  The way it's handled the Miliband affair has probably made the case for such a body stronger than ever.  The Mail is a powerful and wholly unaccountable force.  Stanley Baldwin, infuriated by the newspaper proprietors' abuse of their power during his premiership, described them as having "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".  The only change since then has been that harlots have probably adopted greater levels of responsibility to their clients.

Politics Reading

I've updated the reading list to include Damian McBride's memoirs and Matthew D'Ancona's new book on the Coalition, "In It Together", so for those wanting to check out a small selection of good, general reader friendly British politics books, here is the current list for AS level students (together with a few suggested websites and blogs, but the sidebar on this site is more comprehensive.)

There's a good review of the D'Ancona book by Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian here. She admires D'Ancona's insights, but notes the rather partial nature of his tale.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

McBride's Self-Deprecating Memoirs

Damian McBride, former spinner to Gordon Brown, has received a great deal of publicity of course, but his book is well worth reading.  Or at least it looks as if it will be from the perspective of starting chapter 3!  I think it's the sharp turn of phrase and witty self-deprecation that's winning me over.

Here's how he ends chapter 1, having described his desperate escape from the media scrum in the boot of his girlfriend's car:

"Alone with my thoughts in the darkness, one word came to my mind: 'Twat.' "

And no sooner have we chortled over that, than the second chapter gives us:

" I wasn't always a nasty bastard, but you could argue the signs were there."

If Mr. McBride does decide to return to the political arena, there's no reason why his writing shouldn't enliven our reading of it in the press on a regular basis.

Red Ed?

Has Ed Miliband committed Labour to a sharp leftward move?  The Spectator's Fraser Nelson thinks so, in this piece analysing the new Ed, taking credit for the 'Red Ed' label (really? that needs crediting?) and suggesting that Milband's sharp left turn might be just what's needed to wean Tories off UKIP.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Personality Politics Ousts Policy This Weekend

We love gossip, and we love reading or hearing about the outrageous goings on of our political masters.  For public consumption, of course, we all say we're fed up with personality politics, and attacks upon politicians by their enemies.  The media is with us.  They too hate the sordid world of personality politics and would much rather the political classes concentrated on good, hard policy.  Which is presumably why so much of today's political coverage is devoted to the distinctly gossip based revelations of Gordon Brown's former spin doctor, Damian McBride.  And why yesterday, so much time was spent showing and discussing the laughably neanderthal views of an MEP for a minor party.

Godfrey Bloom (I keep wanting to call him Orlando, bizarrely) is a largely joke figure who seeks - genuinely it would appear - to reinforce his image as a caricature blunt speaking, offence giving politician.  He probably sees himself as "telling it like it is".  Most people see him as being, frankly, a bit of an ass.  He used the hackneyed term "bongo bongo land" to refer to Africa (following in the verbal footsteps of the late Alan Clark, who got into hot water using the same term), and completely unsurprisingly has caused more opprobrium to be heaped on him and UKIP by referring to women as "sluts".  Actually, he hooted the phrase "all the women here are sluts" or some such, whilst at a champagne fuelled reception marvellously titled "Women In Politics".  Mr. Bloom's final escapade was to rage at the Channel 4 journalist Michael Crick for being a 'racist' (Crick had pointed out that all the faces on the UKIP manifesto cover were white; Bloom presumably thought his best line of attack was to inexplicably refer to Crick as a racist).  He then hit Crick over the head with the manifesto - something most politicians have probably wanted to do to Mr. Crick in the past (you can see it here).

The best thing to have done with Godfrey Bloom is probably to ignore him, a bit like ignoring the ubiquitous nutter on the bus who plagues you with his political views.  But the modern British media doesn't have that level of self-restraint, and rather enjoyes stories featuring the Godfrey Blooms of this world, and in any case it was a lot more fun than reporting the actual mechaics of the UKIP conference.  So cue much coverage of the lamentable UKIP MEP.

Then there's Damian McBride and his memoirs (the revelations from which have caused Ed Miliband to suggest that he called for McBride's sacking - very quietly, it would seem *).  The iniquities of Mr. McBride when he was a spin doctor to Gordon Brown are already largely well known, but he's just written his memoirs, and apparently they're quite well written and in any case, here's a great opportunity to have another go at Labour and Ed Miliband if you happen to be a Conservative supporting newspaper, which the Daily Mail - who have serialised the memoirs - is.  There's no doubt that it is fascinating, gripping stuff.  It has frankly malicious, sinister, utterly amoral political doings at its heart that illuminate a paranoid and dark time at Number 10 when Gordon Brown was in charge.  But it is also essentially a story for the Westminster political village.  The fact that it has gained such extraordinary coverage is back down to the undeniably sound principle that we all prefer a good gossip to a conversation of substance.  Covering McBride's sordid past is far easier, and much more entertaining, than trying to engage in genuinely enthusiastic discussion about Ed Miliband's new welfare policies, or whatever his Next Big Thing is going to be.

So it's worth remembering, when we read newspaper editorials loftily telling us that politicians have failed us all by focusing too much on personalities and not enough on policies, just who it is who gives such nonsense a free run for so long.  That'd be the newspapers.

* McBride confirmed Ed's account in a tweet to journalist Tim Walker, saying that he told Gordon Brown to get rid [of McBride] and he was right.  Tweets here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Michael Le Vell's Hell and the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail was all sympathy and outrage on behalf of 'Corrie' star Micahel Le Vell yesterday, headlining the question "Why Was He Ever Charged?".  But as the Media Blog points out, the good journos at the Mail might not need to look much further than their own and their fellow tabloids' efforts over the past few months.  Yet another triumph for the unregulated press!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Politician 'Boring' Shock

And today's shock revelation is that even television news editors think that their politician guests are boring.  Ian Katz, who has admittedly only been editing Newsnight for a week, was caught out with a tweet - intended to be a direct message, but these things can be so difficult to work out - that described last night's guest, Labour front bencher Rachel Reeves, as 'snoring boring'.  This can hardly come as a revelation to anyone who has bothered sitting through a Rachel Reeves interview, but an offended Labour hierarchy has forced him to apologise for his undeniably accurate comment.

Several Labour nonentities have already announced that they might not appear on the programme, which can only enhance the prospect for some more energising news viewing.  The Telegraph's Michael Deacon has a great take on the whole affair here, while the rest of us live in hope that the unfortunate Mr. Katz's indiscretion might just wake MPs up to the need to stop reading party lines and start being - well, interesting.

Previewing Obama's Speech...And a Housekeeping Notice!

Barack Obama's move to refer the decision for a military strike against Syria was an extraordinary one, and gave the impression that this president, at least, didn't want the burden of what he considered necessary but unpleasant action to be placed on him alone.  Was it an abdication of leadership?  His opponents would argue so, but as we look back at the last half century or so of American foreign policy there have been times when such an abdication might have spared the US some truly disastrous interventions.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama's speech to his country tonight may presage some further backing off from military strikes in the light of the recent Russian diplomacy and Syrian government response about its chemical weapons.

Ronald Reagan's former speech-writer, Peggy Noonan, has a forthright and - of course - elegantly expressed view about Obama's dilemma in her Wall Street Journal blog.  She holds no candle for a president she clearly despises, describing him as "a self-besotted charismatic who can’t tell the difference between showbiz and strategy, and who enjoys unburdening himself of moral insights to his peers" (ouch!).  She also has a nice turn of phrase about his speaking tonight to advocate a position that he is himself gradually abandoning.  "It will be a president appealing for public support for an action he intends not to take", she writes.

Noonan has some perceptive insights into the sort of speech Obama might make, and the spin that he could employ, as befits an author who was one of the finest speech-writers of her time.  But in her antagonism towards Obama, she quite fails to pay attention to the one legacy that is haunting his every action, and making even the thought of military action so lethal in America and across the world.  And that is the legacy of one George W Bush.  The legacy of a Republican predecessor whose own military adventures have made any such considerations so toxic now.

If Obama's room for manouevre has significantly lessened from that of his predecessors, its restriction owes much to the actions of those very predecessors.  In finding an alternative way forward, however, he may finally be earning the Nobel Peace Prize given to him at the outset of his presidency, whilst having maintained pressure on both Syria and Russia.  Who, after all, can doubt that the recent diplomatic flurry oculd only have come about because of the American threat of action.  Obama could be playing a bad hand very ably.  Only time will tell, but Ms. Noonan's stiletto should probably not be quite so gleefully applied.

A brief housekeeping note.  I'm aware this is the first post since June, and while teachers take long holidays that gap really is rather excessive.  But as the new term gets into its stride, blogging should become more regular here, and there is shortly going to be a bit of a change to the nature of the blog itself.  More soon!


Monday, June 17, 2013

Iran's Election Requires Positive US Response

 
When Iran last held an election – four years ago, as its constitution demands – protests greeted the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad which went on for days and even led to some expectation in the West that a long awaited “green revolution” might be at hand.  The U.S., under its relatively new and apparently liberal president, played a careful role, keeping public comments low-key in order not to further inflame a clearly delicate situation.  President Obama was clear that there was to be no US intervention, and he faced a predictable round of right-wing criticism for his temperance.

Yet there is a case for seeing Mr.Obama’s earlier restraint as a necessary factor in this year’s victory of a would-be reformer in Iran.   Using the voting booth – something western audiences could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that Iran doesn’t possess – the Iranians have now given their presidency to Hassan Rouhani, a reform minded cleric.

Mr. Rouhani may seem an unlikely reformer, and there are those in Iran who certainly consider his new, reform mantle to be as yet untested.  Indeed, the clue to his political stance lies more in the pragmatism which he embraces than any ideological commitment to reform.  Nevertheless, this is as good as it can get for Iran, and Mr. Rouhani came to power on the strength of many of the voters who saw the 2009 election as a fraudulent steal.  With both of his pragmatist predecessors – Rafsanjani and Khatami – weighing in to support him, and the late withdrawal of the only openly reformist candidate, no-one can doubt where Mr. Rouhani has drawn the majority of his astonishing support.

The new president has given much cause for optimism, despite the predictably downbeat comments of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, hard-line leader of the region’s only nuclear power.  What his election now offers, however, is a real challenge to the policy makers of the West, and in particular to Mr. Obama.

The hostility to Iran has always been led by America, and in Mr. Ahmahdinejad they had a suitably clownish opponent, easily subject to caricature.  America’s attitude, however, has not been without its faults.  In a new and devastating critique of the West’s attitude towards Iran, Peter Oborne and David Morrison charge the United States in particular with an unwonted hypocrisy in its dealings with the Islamic state, which reach back to the CIA-sponsored coup of 1957. 

Oborne and Morrison’s book, “A Dangerous Delusion”, should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the alternative view of the threat that Iran poses towards the West.  The authors set out, passionately but in convincing detail, the case for Iran.  A power that has abided by the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty despite the provocations and misrepresentations it has been subject to; an essentially peaceful nation which has – rarely for the region – never provoked a war since the end of the Second World War; an intelligent regional power which can justly feel threatened by the lead swinging of its nuclear neighbour, Israel.   They point out the baselessness of accusations of nuclear weaponry levelled against Iran, whilst countries who have failed to sign up to the NPT to which Iran is a signatory – Israel, India, Pakistan – have continued to receive substantial US investment.  In short, Iran is suffering from a caricature portrayal in the western media that is not born out by its actions.

Iran has entered a new era with the election of Mr. Rouhani.  The wrongs of the 2009 election have been righted, and that earlier American caution has paid dividends.  However, Iran can only engage practically with the West if there is a similar desire to engage in the West itself.   A couple of years ago, Barack Obama might have seemed just the sort of president needed to ensure that such engagement could happen.  His international liberalism has taken a few blows recently, but the Iranians have offered him a tremendous opportunity to re-shape the world polity in a positive and less dangerous direction.

With the civil war in Syria showing signs of leaking abroad, the need to have a flexible attitude towards Iran that is based on respect towards an ancient regional power rather than the neuroses of decades of hostile reaction, is as urgent as it has ever been.  But it doesn’t just require the pragmatic skills of President Rouhani.  It requires realism and a willingness to break out of the Washington box from Mr. Obama, and that is still far from assured.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Betraying the Bright


How often is it possible to bemoan the same problem and consistently avoid the obvious solution?  Plenty, it would appear, if the problem is how to support bright children in the state education system.

Ofsted have today reported that thousands of bright youngsters are failing to achieve their potential in secondary schools.  They have issued some shocking figures.  Take English.  Of the children who achieved Level 5 in English (the highest level) in their primary schools and went on to the standard non-selective secondary school, 62% failed to gain a grade A or A* in the subject at GCSE.  Even taking into account the natural decline in learning that some children experience in the secondary school years, that is a lamentable figure.

More than a quarter of previously high attaining pupils failed to gain a grade B or A in Maths or English.  The bright, eager primary school pupil with ability to nurture is being betrayed by what Ofsted have described as a “culture of low expectations” in secondary schools.

Of course, it is no easy job to encourage the bright students when you are teaching a class of thirty students whose abilities range right across the spectrum and who contain a fair share of the educationally discontented amongst them.  Blaming the schools and their teachers is all very well, but the demands we make by our present system are huge.

The problem of the mixed education system was well identified by a prominent academic in an article in the New York Review ofBooks in 2010, entitled simply “Meritocrats”.  He furiously denounced what had been happening to secondary education when he wrote:

For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.”…. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.

He was not the first critic.  In the Black Papers of 1975, one author argued that:

Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?

These were strong words, and the interesting thing in both cases is that they came from the pens of bona fide left-wing thinkers.  Tony Judt and Iris Murdoch respectively.

They correctly identified where the real victims of the comprehensive reform of state secondary education would lie, and while articulate middle class parents push their way into the catchments of the few remaining grammars, everyone else has to put up with the “culture of low expectations”. 

Oddly, for all his reforming zeal, Michael Gove has steered well clear of the grammar school debate.  Happy to push for elitism in the form of exams; presumably happy to maintain the elitism required for the university system to thrive (because yes, they select students based on academic ability), he has made no pronouncement whatsoever on grammar schools.  Free Schools and academies are hamstrung in one significant way – they cannot select on the basis of academic ability alone.

Perhaps Conservatives - more likely to be able to use the private selective school system, or ensure residence in a catchment area for a state selective school, or able to take advantage of the free school opportunity – don’t really have any motivation to push for a fully selective system on the state.  Maybe their opposition to state control of education stands in the way of advocating a directed system of educational elitism to aid the aspirations of the poor and disadvantaged. 

If so, is it entirely outside the bounds of political credibility for the Labour Party to rediscover its commitment to social mobility, and advocate the return of a grammar school system?  In one bound, they could pull the rug from under the feet of the wimpy Conservatives who have avoided this toxic issue for so long.  They could, indeed, listen to Tony Judt’s closing plea not to accept the disastrous status quo:

Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.


Sunday, June 09, 2013

Conservatism and the State

Peter Oborne is a must-read journalist and author.  His books on modern politics - "The Triumph of the Political Class" and "The Rise of Political Lying" - were compelling indictments of the modern polity from an erudite, informed and maverick observer, while his most recent book, "A Dangerous Delusion", bravely and honourably seeks to correct years of misinformation about the threat of a nuclear Iran.

But Oborne is first and foremost a conservative who understands conservatism better than most of its professional practitioners in parliament, and his recent Telegraph article is a masterly survey of what's right and what's wrong with the Cameron government.  Oborne understands the Conservative relationship with the state, when he writes:

"Conservatives understand that there is a great deal to be said for leaving things alone. They respect the wisdom of the past, the necessity to preserve inherited institutions, and the rule of law. 

This is the reason we Conservatives, contrary to popular opinion, value a strong state, so long as it is virtuous and not corrupt. We do not (as many believe) merely value a powerful state for purposes of national defence and to uphold law and order. All serious Conservative thinkers grasp that only the state can embody all those ideals which bind us together, and which count for so much more than mere self-interest."

In my recent attempt to call for a definition of One Nation, I suggested that what marks Conservatives apart from the New Right who now inhabit much of the party was a commitment to the role of the state.  What made One Nation Conservatives so enduring and effective was their understanding of how to use the state's mechanisms for the greater good, even when that meant using welfare and building mechanisms more effectively than rival socialists or liberals.  It is the commitment to what the state can do for society, but the wariness of its dangers, that should make conservatism such an unbeatable political brand, but until the party is led by people who really understand that, it will continue to flail around in shallow electoral waters.





Wednesday, June 05, 2013

One Nation Conservatism

Further to the rather frustrated post below, I did blog a slightly more detailed response to Damian Green's Macmillan Lecture on the TRG's Egremont blog.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

One Nation Conservatism's Crisis

It's come to something when the best defence that can be mustered of One Nation Conservatism is that it encourages aspiration by stopping people living on benefits.  I'm not sure if that had been the limit of its inspiration it would ever have made the extraordinary impact it did from Disraeli to Heath, but that seems to have been the message from the TRG's Macmillan event on Tuesday evening.  There was a definite desire amongst some of the audience for a more forthright defence of One Nation than was available from MP Damian Green, and one of the most eloquent interventions reminded us of the still pitiable existence of a substantial group of marginalised people in poor areas of the country, prompting the question of what Conservatism has to offer them.

One Nation Conservatism was once a clarion call for action.  Now it seems to simper in the face of neo-liberalism.  When Ken Clarke finally goes, I do wonder if there will be anyone left still bothered to wave the flag for the Conservative party's best chance of redemption in the eyes of the electorate!

Monday, June 03, 2013

Another Doctor Needed

Not for the NHS, of course, but for the sci-fi perennial Dr Who.  As a not-quite-obsessive but nonetheless keen fan over the years (a good bulk of its 50 year run alas!) Matt Smith's announced departure has of course prompted excitement and anticipation.  A few musings on his successor on the other blog.

MPs We Deserve?

They've not got much of a reputation at the moment, these MPs we send to Westminster.  And the fact that the lobbying scandal has engulfed three Lords and only one Commons member in its current round doesn't seem to have helped the elected lot one jot.

Now the government, in its customarily ham-fisted way, has tried to use the scandal for the cynical purpose of a bit of anti-union legislation.  Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk, called this a "disreputable" move.  Rafael Behr was even more scathing in his rather lyrical tweet:


But perhaps most refreshingly came the reaction from Tory MP and certified maverick Douglas Carswell.  He questioned whether the lobbying scandal had really generated concerns about trade unionism, as well as asking whether or not it was the lobbyists or the lawmakers who required a bit more oversight.  Take a look at this series of his recent tweets, and then remind yourself that he's an MP:


Carswell - along with MEP chum Dan Hannan - is of course also behind moves to allow for recall of MPs, and indeed to have MPs face re-election when appointed ministers, as at least a method of distinguishing legislature and executive in our merrily fused system.  Author of a radical book titled "The End of Politics", as well as regular blogger and tweeter (in an interesting, ideas-oriented rather than dully formulaic way), Carswell is the sort of MP who just about restores your faith in the willingness of the elected public servant to actually - well, you know, serve the public interest.

Of course there are other often unsung heroes in Westminster.  And we shouldn't easily forget, either, that if we don't like what they do, we can exercise our hard won right to kick them out, or we could become involved.  Even stand, perhaps?  I know such an exercise doesn't always have the right result - Warley East in 1992 springs to mind - but it's a sight better than sitting back and bemoaning the calibre of our political class.  They're there because we choose for them to be there.  Douglas Carswell knows that.  So do quite a few others.  The more we hear from them - whether we agree or not - the healthier our democracy can be.  And, of course, since we get the Commons we deserve, we might feel a little bit better about ourselves too!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Beware What You Tweet

Somehow, Sally Bercow managed to secure upwards of 56,000 followers on twitter.  Which made her inadvisable tweet about Lord McAlpine all the more - well, inadvisable.  Lord Tugendhat's ruling appeared today, and he ruled against Bercow and in favour of McAlpine, that the tweet was indeed defamatory.

There can't have been much doubt on the part of anyone who read it that Mrs. Bercow wasn't in fact simply stating a trend and asking a question about it.  "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*" asks us to believe something more; it was a would-be cunning way out of being accused of suggesting that McAlpine was a paedophile - the nature of the untrue twitter rumours based on a poorly sourced Newsnight film - by indulging in a bit of nudge-nudge wink-wink gossip.  As such, the ruling is to be welcomed.  If it dissuades Mrs. Bercow from tweeting in future it has probably served a further purpose too.  Her fame is mysterious, and despite frequent denials seems to be based upon the fact that she is John Bercow's wife.  The ruling itself says that Bercow "is well known to the public for a number of reasons. Amongst these is that she is the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons".  Indeed.  It goes on to say that she has appeared on famous television broadcasts, but doesn't stoop to noting that these, too, derive from her position as a famous spouse.  Given that, one can fairly assume that Mrs. Bercow's tweeting career was part of a relentless and successful campaign to ensure constant public coverage. It is good that she - and others - have been reminded of the limits to one's stream of consciousness utterances.

Meanwhile, it seems that the Bible got this one right some years ago, when the author of Ecclesiastes warned against cursing the king or cursing the rich "for a bird of the air will carry your voice" (10:20).  More recently, Robert Bolt's masterly play "A Man For All Seasons" has Cromwell remind the jury in the trial of Thomas More that "there are many different kinds of silence".  It seems we can now add to his list the virtuous silence of the one who doesn't tweet.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cameron's Losing Battle Against Tory Puritanism

With Tory cabinet ministers - led by the ubiquitous Mr. Gove - scrambling over each other to assure their party of their out and out Euro-scepticism, it is tempting to wonder what all the fuss over UKIP is about.  Apart from a matter of timing, it seems they are all united on a referendum approach.  But, of course, there is more to it than this.

UKIP is not just a repository for those who are anti-European.  Indeed, Europe is merely the hook on which to hang a whole panoply of other concerns, making UKIP essentially a protest party.  For disillusioned Conservatives in particular UKIP offers an unrepentant leader in Nigel Farage, who contrasts nicely with the rather more nuanced Mr. Cameron.  Tory members - both grassroots and a significant number of backbench MPs - are not happy in coalition, hate the thought of Tory moderation and dislike the grey shades that come with compromise.  In their black and white - or blue and red - world, there is much virtue in Tory puritanism and Mr. Cameron's great crime is that he fails to see that.

Mr. Cameron, of course, is trying to work in the real world.  His Toryism derives from his upbringing rather than any form of deep political conviction, and it was never honed through a party activism that might have brought some deeper, grittier understanding of the party he leads.  His Toryism is more instinctive, and thus more inclined to accommodate itself to the demands and pressures of the world outside the bubble of the Conservative Party.  That was what was behind his chaotic but worthy pursuit of 'modernism' and it still lies behind his desire not to take knee-jerk approaches to such complex issues as membership of the EU.  Mr. Cameron is, at heart, a Tory pragmatist of the type that used to dominate in the twentieth century heyday of the party.

The party he leads no longer resembles the triumphant machine of last century.  It is debateable as to how far this change is down to the legacy of the party's first truly ideological leader - Margaret Thatcher - and how much would have occurred in any case as a result of a growing sense of alienation in the modern world.  Whatever the cause, the Conservative Party today is a beast of puritanism, railing against the many iniquities of the world but not hugely capable of propounding broad-based solutions.  Like 16th century puritans, today's Tories take comfort in their purity and isolation and want nothing to do with the murky waters of compromise politics.  Even before the halfway mark of the Coalition, many Tory backbenchers had been restlessly pushing against the constraining walls of joint-party government.  They have managed to breach some of them now, even to the extent of proposing Bills that challenge their own government's legislative agenda.  But then, it is difficult at times to distinguish backbench Tories from a brand of opposition MP.

Europe - or rather, its forced removal - is the great prize.  Mr. Cameron has tried to feed that hungry appetite but has found its gaping maw remains open for more no matter how much he tries to satiate it.  He is facing the same problem as the last Tory premier, John Major.  Paul Goodman makes the comparison on Conservative Home, and puts the issue down to a failure of leadership on the part of both men.  But this is not the whole story.  It is not really possible for any outward-facing Tory leader to lead his party.  No-one who is not a died-in-the-wool euro denier has a hope of gaining the support of the Tory backbenchers, and yet when such men are put into leadership they fail to gain the country as a whole.

Europe, however, merely represents the high water mark of the Tory Party's desire to become an unadulterated and unrestrained party of the right.  They envy UKIP its easy positions and rather want them for itself.  There are many Tories now who would prefer purity to election.  Mr. Cameron is no longer simply struggling against the euro monster.  He is struggling against a much wider desire to retreat to a position of political comfort, a position which he tried to force the party to leave when he became leader.  It is possible that his failure was due in part to the incoherent nature of his modernisation project, which was too Blairite in nature and could have had more success if it had taken stronger account of the historic position of One Nation Toryism.  The big question is whether, if Mr. Cameron does in the end fail - and the signs are that he has - there is ever going to be another chance for the Tory Party to be a broad-based party of the centre-right, or whether it will simply take UKIP's mantle, and stay on the fringe.  When your likely successor is Michael Gove, it doesn't look like it.


Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Problem With Michael Gove

It's a great pity Michael Gove can't just become history rather than being able to prounounce upon it.  If he were one of those tedious old bores who keeps telling you how much better things were in the old days then one could safely nod sagely and expect to escape within about half an hour or so.  Sadly, Mr. Gove can't be escaped from very easily, and his unformed views on history teaching matter because he is the Education Secretary, the man who can dictate what we teachers do if he so chooses.  And it appears he does so choose.

Michael Gove has no expertise or experience in teaching, and as an English graduate he sports no more historical acumen than the interested amateur.  The interested history amateur is, of course, not to be sniffed at.  The great virtue of history is that it can and should be read, savoured and enjoyed by all.  Mr. Gove, unfortunately, believes that he has a mission to restore a form of history recitation to schools that used to be quite popular in the Victorian era.

Gove has decided, bizarrely, that primary schools - with their non-specialist teachers and very young children - are the best places to learn the intricacies of medieval history, and that secondary schools should confine their teaching to a dry and colourless list of philanthropists, politicians and inventors accompanied by appropriate dates.  He and his team - two special advisers whose main interest is the social media site twitter - sat themselves down recently, compiled a list of dates, events and people that they remembered from parlour games of the past, and proposed it as the new history curriculum for schools.  Their dire proposals have been universally lambasted by the history teaching profession and by such eminent historians as Sir Richard Evans.  But Mr. Gove knows better of course.  Now he has taken his campaign further by criticising a lesson resource he appears to have found on the internet, which involves using the Mr. Men to teach history.  I have never come across this idea, and know of no history teacher who would consider using it, but that hasn't stopped Mr. Gove from displaying it as an example of all that is bad with history teaching in secondary schools.  He may preach a fine line about rigorous teaching and good research, but he could never knowingly be accused of actually using such qualities himself.  His ludicrously ill-informed campaign against history in schools has been a classic study of opinionated preconceptions driving policy. 

It is interesting, incidentally, that Mr. Gove's speech today spent some time attacking the methods used by primary schools to teach history, yet these are the very places that he now wants to place some of our most complex and crucial history teaching.  It is also notable that most of his anecdotes are unlikely to be very clearly sourced, and it could prove well nigh impossible to find schools who really do teach in the way he describes.

Mr. Gove may be fast becoming the single best reason not to vote Conservative at the next election, if only in a desperate bid to save decent, interesting school history from his destructive clutches.  But I suspect his real reason for sounding like such a reactionary oaf is more to do with his desire to court both the right of his party in anticipation of a post-election leadership campaign, and to place himself as the man who can deal with UKIP.  If that means wrecking a bit of history teaching in schools, then so be it, but it is a tragedy that Gove's desire for populist approval in his party could lead to such serious undermining of school history curriculums.





Thursday, April 25, 2013

Othello, but not at the National

In the week of Shakespeare's birthday (probably) it is no bad thing to indulge in a bit of Shakespeare watching, and so I took myself off to see Othello with a couple of friends.  No, not the lauded one at the National, but a great fringe production in a north London pub.  Well, at the top of it anyway.  The review is here

Envy, jealousy and rage in a war camp setting are one thing, but there must be a chance soon to comment on our own prime minister's uneasy relationships.  Looking over his shoulder all the time at Boris Johnson, he has decided that one of his best manouevres is simply to get a member of Johnson's family on board, and so he has appointed Jo Johnson - unlike Boris, an MP - as his new head of the policy unit.  Whether that's to generate new political ideas, or just because the magic of the Johnson name is meant to assuage unhappy Tories who believe Cameron is too left-wing, is yet to be seen.  It's probably not a long term solution to electoral unpopularity though, which is likely to be given another display in the forthcoming county elections. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Funeral Reflections on Margaret Thatcher


I was nursing a hot chocolate in a small cafĂ© beneath one of the North Yorkshire peaks when someone told me that Margaret Thatcher had died.  There were no rumblings in the nearby mountains, no lighting strikes and the rain didn’t stop falling, but it was possible nonetheless to feel a sense of the profound.  We all of us, after all, live in a country whose political environment she has largely ordered, and the acres of print and online commentary which followed the announcement of her death was all produced by men and women whose own political outlook was shaped by her.  We are all Children of Thatcher.  Progressives and reactionaries, lovers and haters, nationalists and internationalists, we have all had our political consciousness defined by the woman whose funeral procession will move along the Strand and Fleet Street and up to St Paul’s this morning.  It is an extraordinary reflection of her impact.  Just as politics seemed to be retreating into blandness, and fewer people want to be bothered with political argument, it all comes flooding back.  Thanks to her.

My own earliest political memories and actions are to do with the Lady.  I canvassed for her, as a member of a relatively political family, in 1979; rejoiced in her triumph at a preternaturally early age on that sunny May day; went on to join the Young Conservatives where Thatcher would be greeted by enthusiastic ovations on the last day of the national conference, even while it was in the hands of some distinctly non-Thatcherite Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen.  And even when I started to move away from the Thatcherite creed, I never doubted – no one did – the impact of this woman who had taken Britain by the scruff of the neck in 1979 and sought to re-boot it.  Meeting her in person was a defining moment, even if she did spend some time attacking the profession – teaching – that I had recently joined.  But then that was – and is – the point about Margaret Thatcher.  She had no time for false niceties.  She was blunt in her opinions and her actions, in the black and white world she looked upon, and she expected others to be the same.

There is an irony in the Ding Dong brigade being so triumphalist.  You can sing Ding Dong Socialism’s dead.  Or Communism.  Or militant trade unionism.  And you’d be right in those instances.  Indeed, if you really must, you can remind everyone via a 1930s Munchkin song that the Lady herself is dead.  But her ideas aren’t.  Her legacy isn’t.  Enjoy the song while you can, you preening lefties, for Thatcherism has survived everything you sought to protect. 

But of course, she also managed to destroy One Nation Conservatism, the creed of this very blog.  She gave it lip service, commenting that “We must learn again to be one nation, otherwise we shall end up as no nation”, but that wasn’t really a commitment to what we understand as One Nation Conservatism.  She was as happy to spell the end of a brand of conservatism that she considered weak and inarticulate as she was the trade unionism which had halted much of Britain in the months before her march on power.  Yet even for us, the last remaining outpost of old Toryism, her death is an event to provoke respect and to stimulate reflection.

Why should we respect her?  Why should we draw ourselves to mark her passing on this funeral day?  Because she is of a rare breed.  She is of a breed that sees politics as a can-do vocation.  A breed that allows no obstacle to stand in the way of political passion.  A breed that comes to political maturity at just the time they are needed, to change things, whether through conflict or persuasion, because actually, the change is so very needed.  A breed that makes the political world seem so much larger and so much more important because the scale of their own thinking and activity is so monumental.  We mark her passing because we know very well that she will be one of only a handful of political leaders whose name will remain part of the common currency of discussion and memory a century or more hence.  That is what makes her passing worth marking.

When this day is done the passions won’t much die down, and her name and legacy will still inspire furious argument on either side.  But we will return to the sometimes dead-ended politics of today and may occasionally wonder what could happen if another person of the Lady’s ilk were to bestride the political nation again.  We might have some nostalgia for a time when ideas really seemed to matter, or we might be grateful for our less troublesome, more mediocre politicians.  But we will know that the era to which Margaret Thatcher gave her name was indeed an extraordinary one in the annals of British politics.  And we are still living in its shadow.




Sunday, March 24, 2013

Michael Goveathonics

Michael Gove believes himself to be the greatest historian living.  Only he really understands how to impart the most important historical knowledge to youths in schools.  Nothing else really explains his fantastic new history curriculum, which breezily rejects the advice of top historians, and of all the rather less academically inclined practitioners of teaching history, and instead gives us the Gove History of Britain.  When he and his two advisers played the game "who do you think are the most important figures in making Britain great" and turned it into a would-be history syllabus, they were merely assuring each other that they really did know better than anyone else.

Well, it turns out that this is but a small part of what is going to be the only subject on the Great British School Curriculum - Michael Goevathonics.  It is outlined, ever so clearly and horrifyingly realistically, by comedian Stewart Lee in his Observer column today.  Lee reminds us that Gove was once a television satirist, thus setting up the awesome possibility that Gove has been playing a subtle political satire on us all ever since.  But read the column.  It is ridiculous, surreal and satirically brilliant.  It is no longer possible to simply criticise Gove in normal, layman's terms.  You have to reach out to the existential fringes of satire to really nail him, and Lee does that.

Along the way, the Old Silhillian also remarks upon his own unremarkable education.  And - significant name drop alert - I too remember that, for we shared the same secondary schooling for a couple of years.  Yes, before he became alternative comedy's most alternative mainstream comedian, Stewart Lee was penning such dramatic gems as "The Central European Safe-Cracker" and getting it performed on stage with scenery in various stages of collapse.   I think I even know which teachers he is talking about.  In an exclusive blogpost I might just reveal their identities one day, and subject their teaching to a line by line analysis.  Or I might not.  On the grounds of lack of interest.  Who wants to read about teachers anyway?

Eddie Mair Skewers Boris

Most interviewers succumb to Boris Johnson's peculiarly bumbling charm and thus fail to really nail him on political or personal issues.  It remains something of a mystery as to how this most flawed of politicians remains such a public favourite, but this morning one interviewer did at least manage to treat Johnson as a politician and not a celebrity, and quietly stuck the knife in with nearly every question.

Somewhat ill advisedly, one suspects, Boris has agreed to be interviewed for a documentary about himself, "The Irresistible Rise of Boris Johnson", to be shown on BBC2 tomorrow evening.  The Marr Show's presenter for the day, Eddie Mair, was thus on interviewing duties with Boris this morning.  Mair is already one of the BBC's most highly regarded interviewers by those who appreciate well informed and forensic interviews.  His on-screen honesty was a gem when he fronted 'Newsnight' at the time that programme was under the microscope for its Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine failings.  Now, he was ready with his unshowy, gleaming interrogator's knife, for the most obfuscating man in British politics.

Mair used the upcoming documentary to ask Johnson about his personal failings, bringing them one by one to a clearly discomfited mayor.  Did Johnson fake a quote when a journalist at the Times?  Did he lie about his adultery to party leader Michael Howard?  Did he really agree to collude with his friend Darius Guppy in the planned beating up of a fellow journalist?  Mair just kept putting these to Johnson, and failed to adopt the chummy persona that so many interviewers do when confronted with this man.  On twitter, the Mair strategy was a hit.  "Murder on television", "car-crash TV", "the best interviewer the BBC has" - plenty of positive coverage for Mair's businesslike approach.   Guido Fawkes, of the high-rated political website, even tweeted that the most worthy successor to Andrew Marr would only require a one letter change in the opening credits should he take over!

Boris Johnson's leadership ambitions - and Mair didn't get him to admit he wanted to be Prime Minister in his one interview fail - are still a long way off.  He is not even an MP, and he was never as successful in parliament as he is as a one man show now.  But the more he is talked up as a future leader, the more, eventually, his distinctly erratic career will be subject to the sort of questions Mair raised this morning, and the documentary tomorrow will presumably feature.  Michael Cockerell is behind the documentary, and he normally comes up with first class political television.  Should be as gripping as a Sorkin drama, and a lot less optimistic.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Culture Break - Cloud Atlas

I don't think I'm ever going to make it as an up to speed reviewer, but I did finally get to go and see the extraordinary film "Cloud Atlas" - review is here.  Very engaging film, visually brilliant of course (it's the Wachowskis after all) but possibly didn't quite meet its ambitions.

The Spectator's No

I'm certainly pretty clear that I think the press is too monstrously arrogant and out of control to avoid external regulation.  My previous two posts, and the links therein, bear this out.  The screeching noise from the media itself has added over the last couple of days to the impression of arrogance.  Nevertheless, the argument against regulation can still be made in a reasoned way, and the Spectator this week has attempted to do just that.  I'm not convinced the Spectator would be likely to fall foul of the new demands for press integrity contained in the proposed legislation, but despite its tastelessly tabloid-style cover this week, editor Fraser Nelson presents the case against the Charter, blogging his conclusions here, which seems to encompass his fear of a threat to the freedom of online expression too.  The main article is in the magazine's print edition.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

More Press Noise

The press are certainly able to make a lot of noise.  Most of the country may not be that bothered about press regulation, but it has definitely become the NUMBER ONE ISSUE for the denizens of the media class.  The Budget is almost looking like light relief tomorrow.

There are a few voices of sanity if you look hard enough.  Amol Rajan in the Evening Standard yesterday commented on the dangers of victim justice, while Will Sturgeon on today's Media Blog provides a reminder of exactly why press regulation is on the agenda, and it's not to do with politicians trying to extend their power, funnily enough.

But there is also still plenty of group press hysterics to keep us all entertained, nowhere more obviously than in Quentin Letts' parliamentary 'sketch' in today's Mail.  Letts is so focused on pouring vitriol over the heads of any MP who dared suggest that press regulation is needed that he quite forgot to be funny.  Or maybe that's become his house style nowadays.  He even managed to take a pop at Max Mosley for simply sitting in to watch the debate.  His best line, when he wasn't giving a bit of soft-focus loving to the few anti-motion Tories, was when he suggested journalism wasn't elitist because "its very rawness links it to the street".  What sort of street does Mr. Letts think his celeb reporting, Westminster inhabiting colleagues are living on?  It's been a while since the Mail produced any serious investigative reporting which makes it all the more remarkable that they've suddenly discovered the need for a liberty-defending investigative press.  Sadly no amount of press regulation will deprive us of this sort of self-serving nonsense, delivered in the name of campaigning journalism.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Freedom of the Press? Or Abuse of Power?

A powerful and over-mighty institution that has abused its power, lied publically over the years, ruined the lives of innocent people and vigorously defends its right to attack all manner of individuals in ways that are likely to cause stress and ongoing emotional damage, may possibly be subject to some form of regulation.  Had this been any other institution – the police, perhaps, or the National Health Service – there would be no shortage of pious articles in the press to call for stronger, probably legally backed, regulation.  But the institution in question today is not any of these public services.  It is the institution of the press.  The privately owned, unregulated behemoth that strides unchecked across the landscape of Britain.  So fearsome is the power wielded by this institution that the Prime Minister quails before the very thought of taming it.  The man whose government is happy to attack teachers for not doing their jobs, or health professionals for failing in their duties, has steered well clear of even muttering the idea that the press might be in need of serious reform.

The phrase that leads the vocal defence of the press of itself is “freedom of the press”.  Without this crucial freedom, we are told, the country is in danger of descending into dictatorship and oppression.  Really? 

There was certainly a time when “freedom of the press” meant something.  When journalists and papers would risk everything to expose the corruption of political systems or highlight injustices in society.  Then, indeed, “freedom of the press” was an important freedom.  But today?  The reputation of the print media is so low that today’s front page of the Sun, quoting Churchill’s stirring defence of a free press in 1949, merely provoked laughter amongst friends who saw it.  Churchill, himself a journalist whose income was dependent on the munificence of press baron Lord Beaverbrook, was no impartial observer, but it can at least be suggested that his words came after the great battle against tyranny that was the Second World War.  Not that British papers even then had covered themselves in glory, with the Daily Mail parading its pro-Nazi sympathies until close to the outbreak of war itself.  And, of course, the press was anything but free during the war itself, agreeing not to publish details of military operations lest they compromise the British war effort.  No wonder Churchill was so grateful in 1949.

Today, though?  Let’s have a look at what press freedom it is that is so significant and crucial to our society that the newspapers claim they should be the only institution in Britain not subject to proper, external regulation.

The Sun’s defence of English liberty, outside of its cringing use of selected quotes from Winston Churchill, John Wilkes and Gandhi, includes a story detailing the friendship between Harry Styles and Rio Ferdinand; a report of a bust-up involving David Beckham; and the shock revelation from Gwynneth Paltrow that her marriage to Chris Martin is not perfect.  Stuff to defend the foundations of British liberty indeed.  More seriously, last Thursday – 14th. March – the newspaper had to again publish an apology to Gordon Brown for having lied about what he said concerning that paper’s unethical use of Brown’s infant son’s medical records.  This was the fifth apology to Gordon Brown for falsehoods in under 5 months.  A real record of rigorous and accurate reporting, well worth defending with the words of Churchill.

The Daily Mail is equally loud and self-righteous in its demands today that MPs do nothing to control the nation’s foreign-owned newspapers.  The freedoms that the Mail wishes to see continue unfettered include its right to publish misleading information on health issues (for example it printed a false claim that e-cigarettes caused cancer – another in a long list of things the Mail announces as a cause of cancer); to publish false information about such prominent individuals as Christine Hamilton (apology published 4th. March 2013); or to cover-up letters pointing out the frailty of its stories with regards to European Union directives (it made a false claim that the EU was planning to ban Famous Five books).  Today’s paper, alongside such investigative gems as Beyonce’s new track, Kim Kardashian’s difficulties with pregnancy and Khloe Kardashian’s holey jeans, offers up at least three different articles about press freedom, together with a self-serving leader.  Whether or not we really will be losing “something precious altogether”, as columnist Dominic Sandbrook suggests in the Mail today, might remain a matter of severe dispute, particularly from those whose lives have been ruined by the Mail’s peculiarly malicious brand of reporting – those such as Juliet Shaw, or the innocent Deputy Headmistress accused of having sex with a teenager.

The issue before parliament is not one about freedom of the press.  It is about abuse of its responsibility by the press.  For years now newspapers in particular have operated with impunity, and it is their over-mighty power that now needs curbing.  They have not used their power for the greater good.  They have not been the crusading campaigners for justice that they are portraying themselves today.  They have been craven, trivial, malicious, lazy and downright dishonest for the most part.  They give acres of space to opinionated and inexpert columnists whose carping, self-serving and often vindictive judgements are meant to stand as definitive testament to the work of thousands, millions even, in public service and elsewhere. 

The Leveson Inquiry wasn’t just about the extraordinary abuse of phone hacking, an abuse which now sees two of the once most powerful people in British media stand before criminal courts, but about the overall ethics of an industry which harried and persecuted all manner of people without any regard to the public interest of its stories.  The Leveson Inquiry revealed too much of the British press to have been warped by its monstrous power.  Of course it needs trimming.  The tragedy is that the cosy relationship between politicians and the press will stymie any attempt to seriously control it, whatever anaemic deal may finally be agreed between the parties.  The “freedom of the press” trumpeted today is simply the freedom to continue on a path of abuse.

Further Information:

Two blogs which do sterling work on publicising the frequent distortions and untruths that unaccountably find their way into our free media, are Tabloid Watch (who highlighted some of the examples I have used above) and the Media Blog.  It is writers and editors of blogs like these who are now the ones seeking to 'speak truth to and about power', not the over-mighty print media with its foreign domiciled owners.  I commented on the contrast between good and bad journalism here.