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.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Do voters believe in Santa Claus?

There's a nice line from Andrew Rawnsley in his assessment of the Eastleigh impact for today's Observer.  After reviewing the list of UKIP manifesto pledges, which combine both a reduction in taxes for everyone and an increase in spending for everyone, Rawnsley says that UKIP "must be the only party to be led by people who still believe in Santa Claus".

Perhaps so.  But the greater concern is that it seems to be voted for by people with a similar belief pattern. 

Friday, March 01, 2013

Eastleigh's Lessons

That the Liberal Democrats won at all is a minor triumph for them and let no-one tell you otherwise.  This is a party which was mired in a truly demeaning scandal during the last week of the Eastleigh by-election campaign, whose media operation looked utterly out of condition and whose leader was subject to the sort of scrutiny usually reserved for pariahs and criminals.  Add to that the fact that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems enjoy the support of not one single major media outlet, but can count on the active  hostility of all of them, and this really does start to look like an extraordinary triumph.  No leader since John Major has received quite such a pasting from the right-wing press, but at least then some papers still maintained a veneer of regard for the party Major was leading.  No such exceptionalism exists for Nick Clegg.  Any triumph he gains, any achievement he chalks up, is and always will be done in the face of an extraordinary hostility from mainstream press outlets. 

So how did the Liberal Democrats win in Eastleigh?  Two reasons I suspect.  One – their organisation on the ground is excellent.  They have a large number of councillors and activists in Eastleigh and they used feet on the ground to considerable effect.  In the age of media and social network politics, localism still counts and a motivated ground-force can still make the difference.  This is what will probably rescue the Lib Dems from oblivion in any general election.

Second – they faced the split opposition of the right, and herein lies a serious problem for the Tories.  Eastleigh was a Conservative seat not so very long ago, held by a middle-ground Tory of cautiously pro-European opinions who tragically was subject to personal demons which ultimately caused his untimely death.  In this by-election, conscious of the leering threat of UKIP, the local party fielded a Tory who could have been a poster girl for the right.  Maria Hutchings held forthright views on immigration, is a determined euro-sceptic and would have been no Cameron patsy if elected to parliament.  She is the dream candidate for those right-wing Tory MPs determined to give their party a make-over.  And she lost.  Not marginally, not by just a few votes.  She lost substantially, coming in a humiliating third to the party whose image she tried to emulate and whose implicit endorsement she tried to achieve. 

The Tories will try and draw all sorts of lessons from this defeat and most of them will be wrong.  The one thing that should stand out for them in achingly luminous colours is the reality that the right-wing vote in this country is too small to permit of two competing parties.  It is arguably too small to permit of even one successful party.  The Tories’ split identity is beginning to harm them, but that is nothing to the rump they will become if they really do draw the lesson that what the electorate in seats like Eastleigh need is a more unvarnished brand of Tory rightism.  They will never be right-wing and eurosceptic enough to appease the UKIP supporters without alienating the crucial centrist vote that all parties need to sustain themselves in government.  This is a simple matter of electoral arithmetic.  The Tories need to solve their identity problem and determine whether they are UKIP Mk 2, or a proper, broad, centre-right coalition who can appeal to disenchanted voters of the centre.

As for UKIP, they should enjoy their triumph.  They didn’t win, but they scored their best by-election result to date.  It isn’t quite as great a triumph as Nigel Farage is trumpeting.  At a time when both governing parties are hugely unpopular, this party of protest failed to wrest a seat from them.  It was a viable party of protest in Eastleigh but it couldn’t persuade enough voters that it might also be a viable party of parliament.  In their heyday, the Social Democratic Party – a party of protest which sought to extract voters from the Labour Party in much the same way as UKIP does from the Tories – managed to pull off extraordinary by-election victories in both Conservative and Labour seats.  They did it when the governing Tories were pursuing unpopular economic measures.  And they never managed to translate their extraordinary by-election success into general election success, descending into third party misery each time. 

UKIP’s achievement is less than the old SDP.  If they can’t win a seat like Eastleigh in a by-election when protest votes account for a higher than usual proportion of the electorate, then they won’t win anything in a general election.  UKIP may be pleased at their relative success, but it is still far short of promising them anything further. 

Eastleigh has produced a victor, whatever the gloom that the national pundits may be pronouncing for all parties.  That victor, to the dismay of the Conservatives, is their coalition partner.  It will keep the coalition going, but it offers no hope to the major governing party.