Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hating Politics?

Broadcaster and blogger Iain Dale posted about his growing disillusion with politics recently.  It seems to have started from a realisation that Question Time, the default programme for political obsessives, is becoming too irritating to make for stimulating viewing any more, while there's also a sense in Mr. Dale's blog entry of annoyance at the incommunicado status of some of his recently elected friends.  Let's hope he hasn't just blogged because people aren't returning his calls any more (although I know the feeling....)

Personal issues notwithstanding, he has a point about the negative impact of media reporting on politics.  We have increasingly few independent or interesting politicians at work today because of a pervasive fear that anything uttered which veers slightly off the accepted line will be reported in sensationalist fashion.  Ministers and MPs prefer to retreat into bland uniformity rather than genuinely engage in political dialogue because the world of political reporting has become so corrupted that no accurate representation of such dialogue could possibly be forthcoming.  In an era of short-term attention spans, an out of context sound-bite is everything and a considered argument nothing.  Of course, it is possible that we also just happen to have very second rate MPs, too many of whom (like all of the present party leaders) have rarely ventured outside the world of professional politics.  They have allowed themselves, through their own intellectual and political cowardice, to become the mere puppets of the media, dancing along to the ethos demanded by the print and broadcast agencies.  They do not dare to promote politics as a thinking person's activity which just might occasionally need to be controversial, and might need to address actual concerns with direct responses.

Boris Johnson is a popular politician because he does not conform to the stereotype and does things differently, as well as often speaking off-piste.  He uses this largely to become a comic vehicle, but just think of the impact someone with more serious intent could make if they had a similarly cavalier attitude towards how they were reported.  We live in an age of machine politicians, and the problem with that is when it turns us so far off the political process we forget to check in and challenge what they are doing. 

When someone like Mr. Dale - who at least has a radio show in which to promote political debate - feels turned off by politics, what hope for the rest?  Edmund Burke's famous dictum could perhaps be rephrased to suggest that "All that is required for bad laws to pass is that normal people lose interest".  Let's hope that the great political turn-off isn't too universal.

'Lincoln' Verdict

Went to see the film 'Lincoln' and penned - or blogged - this verdict.  Not wholly taken with it I fear!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Blogging For Free

There continues to be much online conversation about the evils of unpaid internships, and in particular about the willingness of high profile sites - notably the Huffington Post and the Guardian - to make use of free blogs from unpaid bloggers.

The problem can be simply stated.  There are many more people wanting to write than there are organisations willing to pay for it.  Thus, a glut of would-be opinion formers are happy to hawk their material around on free sites because at least it gives them a profile.  It is foolish to blame HuffPo or others here.  If people refused to contribute blogs to the sites - most of which remain as unread as this admirable blog - then the owners would soon need to revise their strategy.  But in the era of free internet comment that is an unlikely scenario.

My real concern over this is that good quality writing and journalism is being devalued.  Writers who articulate opinions in elegant and stimulating ways, or journalists who spend time ferreting out important stories and making them accessible to the wider public, are professional people who should expect to be financially rewarded for their labours.  Unfortunately the model of free news sites has seriously undermined this.  It seems bizarre that so many publishers are willing to make their offerings free online.  Rupert Murdoch may have been mocked for putting the Times behind a paywall, but his principle was sound enough.  His company will spend money employing the best writers, reporters and editors.  In so doing, their labours shouldn't then be hawked around free of charge on the internet.  As a consumer I should be as happy to pay for the internet commentary that I want to read as I am to fork out for a print copy of a newspaper.  Many people have praised the availability of information and opinion on the internet, but it is also in danger of devaluing and undermining the work of real craftsmen in the art of writing.

In this, I think Chris Wheal, of the NUJ's Professional Training Panel, has it right when he says of the students who produce copy for free:

“Students are misled into thinking having bylines all over the place is a good idea, so they are conned into writing for free. Potential future employers can see the difference between paid-for work and freebie sites and have little time or respect for those who place so little value on their own work that they give it away for free.”

I'm not normally a cheerleader for Rupert Murdoch.  But by maintaining that good journalism is worth paying for, he is sticking to a principle that might just save the art of the journalist from being swallowed up by the beast of free blogging forever.

Cameron's Maastricht Moment Approaches

I’m not sure ‘Fresh Start’ is quite the right name for a group of Tory MPs who are busy re-hashing what is by now a pretty hackneyed message within the Tory party.  The self-proclaimed group is publishing a report calling for the repatriation of significant powers from the EU to Britain.  So the same call that has been made by Tory MPs since Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech – a fresh start indeed.

Yet, of course, the group’s report remains newsworthy because David Cameron is himself entering the European maelstrom with a speech due on Friday that advance spin suggests will be redefining the British relationship with Europe and calling for a referendum on the terms of our membership.  Mr. Cameron is going to complete the work that John Major began with Maastricht it seems, although Mr. Major himself had rather assumed that the Maastricht agreement was an end in itself, requiring no further finesse.

The problem for Mr. Cameron is that of the few policy positions he does hold, a vague but clear Euro-scepticism is amongst them.  This is a Prime Minister held in deep suspicion by the majority right-wing of his parliamentary party, and he undoubtedly sees a new Euro-scepticism as just the sort of red meat to throw their way in order to keep them off his back over other things.  He should beware.  There is no beast so utterly single-minded and determined as the Euro-sceptic Tory MP, and they will not be appeased by some vague ideas about renegotiation.  Neither will they be too happy about what must seem a far distant prospect of a referendum on Europe under a majority Tory administration, especially given the unlikelihood of such an event.  Hatred towards Europe has become an unthinking element in the DNA of most Tory MPs, to the extent that any rational debate about it is virtually impossible, and what used to be the Tory Party’s will to power has been all but negated by the willingness of Eurosceptics to drive the party into a kamikaze approach that receives carefully expressed opprobrium from all but its own members.

Take the Obama administration.  After successful visits each way between Barack Obama and David Cameron you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a transatlantic relationship built on the strongest of foundations.  A harkening back to the glory days of Reagan and Thatcher.  Well, in the sense that Reagan consistently belied his own rhetoric by following a US self-interest that usually denied Britain its own requirements, I suppose it is.  For all the bonhomie of Cameron and Obama, the administration has not been slow in making it very clearly known that it regards Mr. Cameron’s European manouevres as unwise and potentially disastrous.  A Britain isolated from Europe will not be able to rely on any special relationship with the United States.  Their realpolitic views a single European unit as the most useful form of European ally.  Any country standing outside of that – including Britain – will be a marginalised minnow.

And the US attitudes are nothing compared to those of powerful European countries such as Germany. Gunther Krichbaum, a key CDU ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, warned of economic disaster for Britain is she stood outside the single market.  Just as British Tory euro-sceptics are vigorous and single-minded in their call for ‘renegotiation’, so most European players are equally determined that Britain cannot keep treating the EU as an a la carte menu to be picked from at will.

David Cameron is more euro-sceptic than his predecessor John Major.  He also appears to be a less effective diplomat however.  Andrew Rawnsley, in a thoughtful piece for the Observer on Sunday, recalled the tenacious and canny diplomacy of Mr. Major (“a gentleman” according to one of his European adversaries, Ruud Lubbers) which eventually yielded the opt-outs in the Maastricht Treaty.  But, as Mr. Rawnsley reminded his readers, such opt-outs benefited Mr. Major not a whit, as he watched his 1992 election triumph dissolve into the ashes of a disastrous party war which doomed it to never, thus far, winning a majority on its own terms in parliament again. 

David Cameron is not, as I’ve noted before, a leader with any deep roots in the Conservative Party.  It is one of the factors that makes him such an isolated leader.  But it would be foolhardy of him to think that he can ride the euro-sceptic bandwagon.  Europe wins few votes amongst the British electorate to whom Mr. Cameron is answerable, but a perception that Britain is an isolated, marginal figure in world affairs does have an impact, and in appeasing his unthinking right Mr. Cameron is clearly heading in that direction.  He should leave Europe alone, and look again at reinvigorating a domestic One Nation Tory policy that would have a real chance of reversing the decades long Tory electoral decline.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Wodehouse Restoratives

In this time of hardship there can be few better restoratives than regular readings of P.G.wodehouse, the undoubted master of the comic bon mot.  Happily for Wodehouse aficionados - and they are surely legion - the BBC has spent at least some of its licence fee wisely in the commissioning of a new Sunday night series based on the Blandings novels, ranking alongside the immortal Jeeves as one of Wodehouse's outstanding serial creations.  Blandings begins this Sunday.  Meanwhile, the BBC's Hugh Schofield has been given to musing about P.G.Wodehouse's French connection here.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Students and their Lectures - the University Failure

So finally a university lecturer has had a go at students for not attending lectures.  The highly regarded medieval historian Guy Halsall, who adorns the York history department, apparently let loose something of a rant that involved his expression of displeasure that too few students bothered turning up for his lectures.  He posted his views online, on the university’s virtual learning system, telling students that they had missed the chance of hearing from one of the premier medieval historians in the world, to whom conferences pay large sums of money when he goes and guest lectures.  Professor Halsall intimated that the vast sums of money being spent on a university education were being wasted.
He has a point, of course.  The fees of £9,000 a year should be starting to focus students’ attention on the real value of university education.  And while his comments may seem a little too self-regarding (although one could equally ask, why shouldn’t they?) they raise the thorny issue of just what university education is actually for.
In the great debate about school exams, we often hear media pundits and politicians suggest that it would be a rather good idea to get the input of university departments when constructing the secondary school curriculum and examinations system.  Yet it seems that university departments have enough to do sorting out their own provision rather than being used as experts for an age group they don’t teach or deal with.  The imposition of high tuition fees has focused attention on what universities are actually providing for their undergraduate students. The feedback from numerous recent undergraduates is less than inspiring.  I hear plenty of tales of poor lecturers, seminars being given by graduate students and irregular and superficial essay supervision.  On the arts side, the contact time between student and lecturer is minimal, often amounting to a total of just six hours a week (split between several lecturers) for students.  This usually includes three or four hours of lectures to large audiences, so the small group sessions may be a mere one or two hours a week.  The only exceptions are Oxford and Cambridge, who at least provide weekly tutorial or supervision sessions of one to one (or one to two) for their undergraduate students.  Compare all of this with the much maligned secondary school system, where even an undemanding A-level system requires two or three hours of lesson delivery a day, and frequently more depending on timetable vagaries. 
There were apparently some 11,000 unfilled university places in the last application cycle.  For those places that were filled, it would be surprising if there weren’t more attention being paid to just how the universities fulfil their teaching mission.
Professor Halsall’s frustration is also an interesting reflection on the student regard for university education.  For all of the violent protests against the imposition of fees, it seems that students still cannot be bothered to turn up to a lecture by an international authority in his field.  If students really were bothered about their value for money, the least they would be doing would be attending the specific lectures and seminars laid on for them.  Perhaps, after all, the fact that such fees won’t be paid until well into their working life has engendered a sense of ennui towards their academic studies?  Perhaps too  the universities should stop putting lectures online and demand physical attendance instead, much as the school system does?  Are they worried that such demands might reduce even further the number of students who survive to graduate at the end of a third year?
We clearly haven’t got the university system right.  The teaching in too many is abysmal and the reaction from students seems to be to limit their exposure to it as much as possible, whilst happily committing themselves to their eventual £27,000 pay back.  Outside Oxford and Cambridge, it is rare to hear of students extolling the virtues of their academic studies.  More is learnt in the clubs and the bars than in the lecture halls.  We may wonder indeed just what the virtue of a university education is.  Perhaps instead of constantly sniping at secondary schools, who are at least delivering education to the nation’s under-18s on a daily basis, it would also be worth reviewing the set-up of the education that the state expects to be provided after 18.  It would save an awful lot of money if we finally regarded it as being unnecessary.