Category Archives: meeja

Lies, damned lies and the BBC News

I’ve always thought the BBC News was reasonably trustworthy. Very establishment-oriented, very quick to condemn disorder in any form, very slow to condemn the police or politicians (unless a readily identifiable bad apple can be found), basically rather right-wing, unthinkingly dismissive of the radical Left and rather too fond of displaying attacks from the Right as evidence that they have achieved ‘balance’. For all that, I’ve always thought they were basically reliable on matters of fact, not to mention on fundamental issues like the importance of not killing, not lying and taking the law seriously.

My confidence has been dented by some recent stories. I was disturbed by the BBC’s coverage of the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, parts of which didn’t so much skirt the ‘anti-extremist’ rabbit-hole as jump straight down it: “where does multi-culturalism end and extremism begin?” we were asked one evening, by the newsreader himself. (So, about these darkies – can we trust them as far as we can throw them?) Parts of the Gaza coverage have also been appalling. But it was last night’s news that really shook me – the story on restricting out-of-work benefits to EU migrants, specifically.

So here’s the story from PM, broadcast at 17.00 on 29/7/2014.

The government is defending new measures to restrict out-of-work benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance to EU migrants, saying they’ll save half a billion pounds over the next five years. EU claimants will receive only three months of payments unless there’s a very clear prospect of them getting a job.

On the 6.00 News (18.00, 29/7/2014), Norman Smith covered the politics of the announcement, and when I say ‘politics’…

Today’s curbs on so-called benefit tourism follow a string of similar announcements aimed at ending what the Prime Minister calls the “magnetic pull” of the British benefits system – the hope that barring EU migrants from claiming support after three months will deter many from coming here in the first place. But the move is also designed to reassure voters that Mr Cameron is serious about tackling immigration. … UKIP meanwhile, who have made immigration central to their appeal, mocked today’s announcement, insisting that under Mr Cameron immigrants would continue (in their words) to flood into Britain … The European Commission have also stepped into the fray, dismissing ministers’ concerns over benefit tourism and announcing a review into the legality of the government’s benefit changes. All of which is most unlikely to trouble Mr Cameron – provided today’s announcement helps convince voters he’s at least trying to address their concerns over immigration.

First off, there is nothing principled or even rational here. Smith distinguishes between the actual effect of the policy and its presentational impact, but the only effect cited – Cameron’s ‘hope’ – is that fewer people from other parts of the EU end up coming to Britain. Why is that a good idea? We’re not told; we don’t need to be told. But as well as this hoped-for reduction in the numbers of people speaking English with a foreign accent (and wasn’t there something about saving half a billion pounds earlier on?), the policy is designed to ‘reassure voters’ that the government is ‘trying to address their concerns’. By the end of the piece this has become the main purpose of the announcement: it’s not that the government hates foreigners, you understand, it’s just that lots of people out there do hate foreigners and the government wants their votes. As for the European Commission, we know that our Prime Minister doesn’t listen to them! (On a side note, the relentless personalisation of this story is depressing in itself – when was David Cameron elected president?) Those Europeans – they can talk about how there’s no evidence, and how it might be against the law or something, but why should anyone care what they say? Bunch of foreigners!

So there’s xenophobia; cynical attempts to pander to xenophobia, for no other reason than that somebody else is doing it; the design of government policy around vote-chasing, irrespective of whether it’s needed or what effect it will have; contempt for international obligations; contempt for evidence; contempt for the rule of law. This is disgusting stuff; to hear the BBC passing it on as political normality is depressing and, frankly, alarming.

But all is not lost. The programme included a second report on the same policy by Mark Easton, who seems to have more traditional ideas about how journalism works:

When the BBC asked how many migrants would be affected by the proposed changes to eligibility, we were told ministers simply didn’t know. There are no figures for EU migrants claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance for more than three months. The government blames the previous Labour administration for not keeping proper records. Our analysis suggests the number affected by the new measures could be as low as a few thousand across the whole country. … [The Prime Minister] told reporters today’s changes would save the British taxpayer half a billion pounds over the next five years. However, later Downing Street explained he was referring to estimates for how much might be saved by existing immigration controls. As we now know, they can’t tell how much the policy might save, because they admit they don’t have the evidence that would tell them.

Wait a minute – that’s a story right there. The Prime Minister announced the reduction of entitlement to out-of-work benefits from six to three months, and then he said – it was quoted all over the place – “Our changes today will save the British taxpayer half a billion pounds over the next five years”. None of your ‘existing immigration controls’ – our changes today. That claim was false – or speculative at best – and it’s been retracted, after the BBC did the numbers and asked for clarification. That’s the headline, surely. At the very least it’s a proud day for BBC News: “Government withdraws misleading claims under pressure from BBC”. This could have legs: “Furious Cameron demands source of inaccurate immigration figures”; “Cameron under pressure as ‘misleading’ immigration claims unravel”; “Fears for coalition as Lib Dems challenge immigration policy” (they haven’t yet, but get this out there and they will)…

At the very least, the story has changed: it’s no longer a story about how your government is going to save money and address your fears about all those nasty immigrants (with a nod and a wink to the grown-ups from Norman Smith: OK, so it’s all just scaremongering, but that’s politics for you!) It’s now a story about how the government has put forward a very controversial and possibly illegal policy, with the specific aim of making one group of very poor people even poorer, and first claimed to have evidence to support it, then admitted that there is no evidence.

News headlines, Radio 4, 19.00, 29/7/2014

The government is defending new measures to restrict out-of-work benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance to EU migrants, saying they’ll save half a billion pounds over the next five years.

Unless they use pre-recorded news headline segments, by the time that script was read out, the government wasn’t ‘saying’ that. The announcer himself had probably heard the retraction on the 6.00 News. The only reason for leaving that claim unchallenged is to save the government’s face – and that’s the last thing the BBC News should be doing, least of all when the loss of face is related to a baseless, evidenceless, cynical, hateful and illegal exercise in chasing votes and polluting the public discourse.

BBC News: shame on you.

Relax and float downstream

Updated 25/11 (third section)

1. And though she feels as if she’s in a play

When I was little, I had an imaginary friend. He used to go with me wherever I went. I used to talk to him inside my head and I knew that he could hear me. And sometimes I’d make wishes, and if I was very lucky he would grant them for me. Then I got a bit older, and I stopped going to church.
– Jimmy Carr

One more religion post, this one inspired by Derren Brown.

On the Fear and Faith programme broadcast last week, Derren Brown induced what he presented as a counterfeit religious experience in an unsuspecting – and unbelieving – volunteer. After talking to her for fifteen minutes in a highly atmospheric church crypt, he left her alone; at this point she felt a sudden urge to stand up and was overwhelmed by a sense of unconditional love, together with the sense that it had been available to her all her life. Some time later, Derren Brown explained how the trick had been worked (with lots of quasi-hypnotic suggestion techniques on his part) and impressed on her that she had done it all herself: the emotion was real, but it was all her own work, with no need to invoke God to explain it.

My immediate reaction was that Derren Brown had completely missed the point of what he was doing. He’d essentially love-bombed this woman, making her feel happy and important; then he’d talked to her about experiences of awe and wonderment, and about the incomprehensible vastness of the universe; then he’d evoked feelings of being cherished, of your life mattering in some absolute sense despite only being an infinitesimal speck within the vastness of the universe. (And then he’d left her alone in a church.) Whatever other NLPish cueing techniques he’d used, just by his manner and his choice of topics he’d steered this woman into feeling ‘religious’ emotions – but they’re emotions which are entirely real, valid and appropriate. You do matter; the universe that surrounds you (in time and space) is vast and incomprehensible; and there’s no better reaction to the massive contradiction between those two facts than a sense of wonder and gladness. So we’ve proved… what?

According to Derren Brown, we’d proved that it was possible to have a religious experience “without God”. Now, Derren Brown was a born-again Christian at one time, so to some extent he knows whereof he speaks, but this strikes me as a bizarre overstatement. For anyone who believes in God, God is in the vastness of the universe, as well as being in that sense of your existence being important and in your reaction to all this. In short, God was there all along. When it comes to the experience of believing in God, on the other hand, that sense of a rush of unconditional love is quite a specific experience; it’s certainly not something believers routinely feel, between one Sunday and the next. What matters in practice is not feeling that God is talking to you, but feeling that you’re trying to talk to God.

Derren Brown (and Jimmy Carr, also an ex-fundamentalist) would probably say that all this openness and doubt and silence is all very well, but it’s not religion as we know it; I could be talking about yoga, or Buddhism at a pinch, but not Christianity. Christianity, surely, is all about knowing that God exists, knowing that God has a plan for you and knowing that God is talking to you from day to day; this is precisely the background faith that Derren Brown’s volunteer didn’t have, which is why we can say that she had her experience ‘without God’.

I don’t know. It strikes me that the knowledge which comes from faith, however certain, is very different from the knowledge that comes from living in the world. Faith is always in dialogue with doubt; if faith-based knowledge was entirely free from doubt it would just be knowledge.

Or is it that simple?

2. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free

Someone came up to me, and he said to me
I know something that you don’t know.
I was captured by this stance, I gave a second glance
And said “I’ll follow where you go”
– Peter Perrett

This sense of faith as always being accompanied by doubt is what I was getting at in an earlier post about religion. Talking about the idea of religion as a comforter, with particular reference to death, I said

And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe.

I wonder just how much comfort that comforting knowledge could be – or perhaps what kind of comfort. In the watches of the night, surely the happiest clapper would find it hard to feel any real confidence that God would sort it all out. At my father’s funeral, the vicar told me my father still loved me. I didn’t believe him, but if I had it would just have given me something else for doubt to grapple with. I think what’s healthy and psychologically adaptive about religion is a kind of turning towards something vast and incomprehensible, in a spirit of humility and trust: there’s stuff in our lives that’s beyond understanding, we don’t have to sort it all out, it will be all right. Perhaps explicit religious beliefs – such as the professed belief that my father did still exist, despite all the evidence to the contrary – are a kind of mental exercise: here’s something vitally important to you which absolutely doesn’t make sense, but go with it and it will be all right.

Faith, I think, is always in a dance with doubt. But there are different kinds of dance, and some of them are less healthy than others. Ever since the first of these posts on religion I’ve been thinking I should link to this post; I read it seven years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. The mentality I’m describing goes something like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; we can’t understand it but it’ll all make sense some time, and it’ll be all right eventually“. What Justin described in that post is more like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; that’s the kind of thing he does, he could do it to us again any time, and we don’t deserve any better“. In other words, instead of opening to grief and bafflement in a spirit of trust, it closes down that grief and makes sense of it – and it makes sense of it by calling it a good thing and bowing down to whatever inflicted it. Doubt is in the dance only to the extent that it’s being emphatically trampled on by faith as it strives for certainty – and since the only things certain in life are loss and death, a God of loss and death is what faith gets pinned on. This is a life-denying, self-abasing, anti-human attitude – and if that was reliably what religion meant, I’d have nothing to do with religion.

Or there’s another form of dance with doubt which can also go under the name of religious belief, although this one takes other forms as well. It doesn’t usually last very long, either; it’s a bit of a young person’s game. I’m thinking of the kind of faith which enacts that doggedly repeated repression of doubt, but in the name of hopeful certainties: as if to say, I would ask questions about eternal life and the Creation and everything, but look – shiny! Everything‘s shiny! The closest I’ve come to this is when I was a novice conspiracy theorist; I fell for the old once you have eliminated the impossible trick over and over again, and found myself clutching some remarkably shiny truths about what was really going on. You can go down quite a rabbit-hole this way, and to be honest it can be quite a trip: the moment that scepticism says Can this be right? It doesn’t fit with how I think the world works, faith counters with Ah, but maybe that’s not really how the world works…, and you’re off again. Believing you’ve tapped into something that’s at once true, comprehensible and important is a heady experience, and letting doubt in on it seems like no fun at all. This kind of faith essentially shouts doubt down, or asks it to wait outside; once the dancing starts properly the faith is liable to collapse.

3. Hold on to that feeling

Sometimes you confuse me with Santa Claus
It’s the big white beard, I suppose
– Elvis Costello

I suppose that combination of true, important and comprehensible is what both these forms of belief share: they both offer truths that make life matter and make it understandable. To put it another way, they both present believers with the contradiction between our belief in our own specialness and the vast indifference of the universe, and they both resolve it. One worldview pictures God as the boss of the world, and from this perspective there is no mystery about why your little life has been trampled on: God did it, because that’s what he does, and he does it because he can. (Besides, who’s to say that you deserved anything better?) The other has God as a Father Christmas figure, with gifts for all the good boys and girls: your life can be as blessed as you feel it should be, and it will be, in the future. Just be good, be patient and don’t stop believing…

It was interesting seeing Derren Brown explaining the characteristics of the religious belief he was going to induce; interesting, as well, seeing how animated he became as he talked about ideas like that of God looking down on each one of us and intervening in our lives. I felt that he, having been a born-again Christian, was harking back to a young person’s religion stocked with shiny, doubt-repressing beliefs: the kind of religion which would interpret the volunteer’s experience by saying yes, that definitely was God’s love you felt, no, it couldn’t have been anything else, yes, that definitely was God actually talking directly to you, absolutely definitely, I wouldn’t consider any other explanation for a moment (and repeat).

If you’re trying to ward off that kind of religious belief, then saying “those are real emotions you’re feeling, but God didn’t produce them” makes a degree of sense – it certainly lets some light in. But if religion is an orientation to the baffling vastness that somehow contains our incomprehensibly significant lives, and if God is a name for that vastness and some people’s experiences of it, then what Derren Brown’s volunteer experienced wasn’t a fake religious experience at all – it was the real thing.

One final analogy, which came to me after I’d read a passage from (bizarrely enough) Derren Brown’s book Tricks of the Mind. Despite (or because of) being an alarmingly proficient hypnotist himself, Derren Brown is very concerned about the ethics of hypnosis, believing that it can do a lot of harm in the hands of untrained or thoughtless users. He argues that it’s essential to talk hypnotic subjects down, so that when they leave they’re in no doubt that they’re no longer hypnotised. You can see his point. A mysterious influence you can’t understand – seemingly preventing you from getting up, lowering your arm, remembering your own name or whatever – is all good fun in a theatre, but it’s not something you’d want cluttering up your mind once you’re back in the real world. What interested me was the comparison which he drew with magic – where, clearly, audiences do experience something they can’t understand and go home without having it explained. Quote:

it seems wrong that the argument that ‘hypnosis isn’t real’ should absolve the hypnotist of all responsibility towards the welfare of his participants. If a hypnotist were able to say to his audience, ‘If you come up, please just play along with everything,’ it might be argued that the subjects should then be responsible themselves. However, given that he is going to manipulate, bully or cajole rather vulnerable people into anything from playing along to really living out what he suggests, and in a way that might be very confusing or unsettling for them, there is a sense in which one should not just immediately decide that he can walk away from any duty of care.

Now perhaps one might argue that according to that logic, a magician should then be held responsible if a participant in a card trick takes the magic way too seriously and loses so much sleep following the performance that he develops an illness. However, this would be a very unusual case, and clearly a reasonable person would not be expected to react in that way. In our hypnosis scenario, though, it is more understandable that a participant might leave the show troubled if handled unprofessionally.

I think what’s troubling about hypnosis, if not handled properly, is that it puts the subject through something which seems entirely real but doesn’t make any sense – and then leaves the subject to try and make sense of it. Magic does something similar, except that it tells the people who experience it, loud and clear, not to worry about making sense of it: it’s just magic. Leaving a hypnotic subject suspecting that she might still be subconsciously under another person’s control – or for that matter leaving her believing that hypnosis has transformed her life for the better – is very much the way those two narrow, doubt-repressing forms of religious belief work. Derren Brown’s scruples about the correct use of hypnosis, as well as being very much to his credit, are of a piece with his opposition to religion, as he sees it. The irony is that the magician – performing the impossible and then saying, You’ve seen what you’ve seen, don’t worry about making sense of it – is creating something much more like what I’d consider a religious experience.

Made a move for chart position

Updated 8/11 (Barnett, Hastings)

Andrew O’Hagan’s been thinking – and talking to people – about the Savile scandal and the larger cultural conditions it grew from. His piece is a bit overlong and, I think, under-edited, but it’s genuinely insightful and troubling for all that. I shall be thinking about this for a while:

The public made Jimmy Savile. It loved him. It knighted him. The Prince of Wales accorded him special rights and the authorities at Broadmoor gave him his own set of keys. A whole entertainment structure was built to house him and make him feel secure. That’s no one’s fault: entertainment, like literature, thrives on weirdos, and Savile entered a culture made not only to tolerate his oddness but to find it refreshing.

And, in particular, this:

Let’s blame him for all the things he obviously was, and blame him for a host of other things we don’t understand, such as how we love freaks and how we select and protect people who are ‘eccentric’ in order to feed our need for disorder. We’ll blame him for that too and say we never knew there would be any victims, when, in fact, we depend on there being victims. Savile just wouldn’t have been worth so much to us without his capacity to hurt.

I don’t know quite what that last sentence means and I’m not sure O’Hagan does either, but I’ve got a horrible feeling it’s true.

A week after writing the above, I saw this from Anthony Barnett which I think joins some of the dots. Barnett starts by musing on the sheer repellence of Savile – the obvious, in-your-face excessiveness of his get-up and demeanour -

Why did ‘we the public’ admire a blatantly bad man? You only needed to look twice at his clothes, his glasses, his conjuror’s apparatus of decoys and diversions, his bling and his shell-suits and cultivated white-blond hair to sense he was repellent. Imagine getting onto a bus filled with Jims grinning with his arrogance and self-aggrandisement.

I’ll come on to “we the public” in a minute – that assumed ‘we’ is one of the weak points of O’Hagan’s piece as well – but I do think this is a real question. Why did people not only tolerate but celebrate such an insistent display of preening arrogance? Did nobody ever ring up and say “About that PA, Jim – maybe something low-key this time, not so much of the gold and leave the cigars at home”? It doesn’t seem very likely – the peacocking was part of what people wanted. Why? Barnett suggests an interesting answer and makes a couple of interesting parallels:

It was thanks to a form of celebrity that shares and rejoices in the whiff of wickedness that surrounds misogyny. The cult (and love) of chauvinist celebrity forgives misdemeanours ahead of time. It encourages men especially to project longings to be outside the law onto the figure of fame. The media may provide the cult’s priests, but the congregation is compliant and provides the energy. Today celebrities seem to build entire reputations on ‘getting away with it’ as ‘we the public’ continue to collude in a worship of strong and powerful men who break the rules.

Bingo – Jimmy Savile’s appeal wasn’t acting like an infantile megalomaniac, it was acting like an infantile megalomaniac and getting away with it. People around him knew that the treatment he was getting was against the rules; they also knew nobody would ever bend the rules for them in the same way, and deep down they wished somebody would. So if he could get away with it, well, good luck to him.

There’s something quite deep-rooted and weird going on here. Jerry Sadowitz’s 1987 crack about Savile – “That’s why he does all the fucking charity work: it’s to gain public sympathy for when his fucking case comes up.” - hints at it but (perhaps surprisingly) doesn’t go far enough. Consider what we knew about Savile before he died:

  • What he was like: flashy, excessive, arrogant, with a one-note act centring on drawing attention to himself
  • What he did: charged large amounts of money for appearing and doing the act
  • How he did it: his own way, for his own price (I don’t get out of bed for less than £10,000) and whatever side-benefits he felt like
  • What he did it for: charity, in particular children’s charities

He demanded attention, to himself as himself – look at me being me, doing the me thing that I do! He was loved and cared for and had to do nothing in return apart from being him, doing the being-him act. He did it however he wanted to, and everyone else had to fit in around him. And he did it for unarguable good causes – not only good causes, but perhaps the one type of good cause that everybody, however hard-headed or mean-spirited, can sign up to. (Famine in Africa? Charity begins at home, I say. Cancer research? Can’t fight Fate, we’ve all got to go some time. Terminally-ill children? Ahhh…) To be loved unconditionally while being an all-powerful egomaniac, and at the same time to be undeniably good – it’s genuinely infantile thinking; it’s how we all think of ourselves, or would like to think of ourselves, between about 18 months and 3 years. Never quite goes away, either – so when we see somebody dedicated to living that particular dream, there is a definite urge to bend the rules of the adult world so that they can get away with it. In its own terms it’s a virtuous circle – the star lives out the fantasy, so we bend the rules for them, so they get away with it, so we bend the rules some more… It’s only when the music stops that we find out what they’ve been getting away with – hence Elvis’s squirrel sandwiches NB check this or Imelda Marcos’s shoes. Or Savile’s victims. Needless to say, there can be an excessive, spectacular edge to the exposure phase as well, as if to keep the roundabout spinning just a bit longer – look what else he’s been getting away with! Which may tell us something about the Duncroft story.

We project our own thwarted megalomania onto stars, I’m suggesting, and part of the process is wanting them to break the rules and get away with it – and indulging them when they do. (You can tell a lot about how loyal a following somebody has from their reaction to brushes with the law. Compare and contrast: Pete Doherty and heroin, George Michael and cannabis, Richard Madeley and Tesco.) There are two worrying aspects to this. One is directly relevant to Savile, and relates to just what people get away with when they can get away with it. The good news is that most people, given the power to please themselves, don’t gravitate to cruelty and abuse – the dressing rooms of the stars aren’t one long Stanford Prison Experiment. But there’s always that possibility, particularly in a culture which positively validates male power over women. The 70s are a long time ago – they seem like a different planet – but that culture and that possibility haven’t entirely gone away.

The other issue, which is perhaps more immediate, concerns what happens when celebrity culture seeps into politics – which is where Barnett’s parallels come in. He points to an extraordinary piece in the Daily Mail, in which Max Hastings settles some old scores. Either that or he really hates his subject:

Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor — from painful experience — with my wallet. It is unnecessary to take any moral view about his almost crazed infidelities, but it is hard to believe that any man so conspicuously incapable of controlling his own libido is fit to be trusted with controlling the country.

His chaotic public persona is not an act — he is, indeed, manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.

Some Tory MPs are so panicked by their standing in the opinion polls that they have persuaded themselves that London’s mayor is the future. On the basis of what, some of us would ask. Boris Bikes on London’s streets? The peerless jokes and bonhomie and TV wizardry? Testimonials from ex-lovers who found him amusing in bed?

Ouch. But then, what’s behind his (clearly quite substantial) popular appeal, if all there is to the man is ruthless egomania and a few good jokes?

A friend said to me not long ago: ‘When will you understand that the reason the young are potty about Boris is precisely because he is not serious, because he treats the whole business of politics as a bit of a lark.’ This is true. I sat at a dinner table last week with three teenagers who expressed near-hero worship for the mayor, and said they could not care less when I suggested that he has less integrity than a City banker.

Boris Johnson was at the Tory conference yesterday for one purpose only — the exaltation of himself. This does not much matter when he is only Mayor of London, but would make him a wretched prime minister. He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion.

Answer: what’s behind it is… ruthless egomania and a few good jokes. Before Johnson was elected, Caitlin Moran semi-seriously advised voting against him because of the jokes – because, as she knows (and I know) making jokes to order is hard, time-consuming, attention-stealing work, and the time and energy he’d spent dreaming up “Ping-pong’s coming home” could have been much better spent on, well, politics. She missed what now seems obvious – that the jokes are actually a demonstration of how little of his attention Johnson devotes to politics, and that this is part of his appeal. He gets away with it – and a key emblem of getting away with it, in a society where men dream of power over women, is an element of unpunished sexual dominance and deceit. A Boris who didn’t cheat on his wife wouldn’t be Boris.

There’s another obvious political parallel, which Barnett mentions briefly in his conclusion:

the kind of racy ‘reality’ [Savile] personified was an early product of a twisted version of male celebrity culture whose misogyny continues to be celebrated and is seeping into politics.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this isn’t Italy. There is also growing resistance to such behaviour in large parts of the public perhaps even more than within the elite. We are spitting out the presumptions and arrogance behind Savile and company.

Another political leader who acts like a celebrity; another leader with a ruthless devotion to his own advancement and little or no interest in the substance of politics; another political leader who spends his time making jokes, and let’s not even go into the sexual side of the story. It’s an unpleasant parallel, and I’m less sanguine about what it tells us than Barnett appears to be. If “this isn’t Italy” because of OpenDemocracy and the Guardian, Italy isn’t Italy either: there was ‘growing resistance’ to Berlusconi when he first came to power – in 1994 – and it’s been growing ever since. The trouble is, for every voter who’s genuinely appalled at the tax-dodging, the bunga bunga, the demonisation of the Left and the awful jokes, there’s another who thinks it’s all a bit of a laugh and Silvio’s a sly dog for getting away with it. And, in a democracy, you don’t need to get all the voters on your side; realistically, you don’t even need half. Barnett’s overestimation of the British public reminds me of Leonardo Sciascia’s comments on the Italian Communist Party’s attempts, in the 1970s, to evoke a ‘sense of the State’ in the ruling Christian Democratic party.

Neither [Aldo] Moro nor the party he presided over had ever had a ‘sense of the State’. The idea of the State … had probably only crossed Aldo Moro’s mind in his youth [i.e. under Fascism] … what has attracted and continues to attract at least a third of the Italian electorate to the party of Christian Democracy is precisely the absence in that party – an attractive and reassuring absence – of an idea of the State

Berlusconi offered an “attractive and reassuring absence” on a much larger scale – an absence of morality and seriousness, as well as ethics and political substance – but the approach is basically the same. Ego and cynicism, worn blatantly enough, can take you a very long way; it’s part of the deal we make with the godlike figures onto whom we project our powerlessness and compliance.

So there’s a ‘we’ watching the screens and harbouring dreams of power without responsibility – and there’s a ‘we’ who are “spitting out the presumptions and arrogance” and generally not taking it any more. I think they both exist, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t back the second against the first in a fight. O’Hagan evokes another ‘we’, silent and complicit:

And no one said, not out loud: ‘What’s wrong with that man? Why is he going on like that? What is he up to?’ He was an entertainer and that’s thought to be special. A more honest society brings its victims to the Colosseum and cheers. We agreed to find it OK when our most famous comedians were clearly not OK.

No one said… anything? Up to a point, Lord Copper.

2006
On Have I Got News For You, Ross Noble and Ian Hislop describe Savile as a disgusting sexual predator.

1999-2000
Widely-circulated fake Have I Got News For You transcript refers to Jimmy Savile having sex with twelve-year-olds.

1997
Val McDermid publishes The Wire In The Blood, featuring the character of “Jacko Vance”, a rapist and murderer.

Vance, a former athlete, hung about hospitals and toured towns in a show called Vance’s Visits – similar to the Savile’s Travels radio show.

Val, 57, said: “People often asked me where I had got the inspiration for the character. They never guessed it was Savile. For a start, Jacko is handsome and charming. I assume Savile didn’t recognise himself in that description.”

Val, from Fife, encountered Savile as a young reporter in 1977. She said: “He was a deeply unpleasant man. He was all smiles and laughter for the audience but as soon as we were alone, he was different. Savile was very much in the front of my mind when I was creating Jacko.”

1996
Irvine Welsh publishes Ecstasy, featuring the character of Freddy Royle, a necrophiliac.

Ecstasy is a collection of three short narratives; in the first, “Lorraine Goes to Livingston”, Freddy Royle was a chat-show host and “distinguished friend” at St Hubbin’s Hospital.

In one passage, Welsh writes: “The thing was, Freddy brought millions of pounds into the place with his fund-raising activities. This brought kudos to the trustees, and made St Hubbin’s Hospital a flagship for the arm’s-length trusts from the NHS. All they had to do was keep schtumm and indulge Sir Freddy with the odd body.”

1994
On Boxing Day, Chris Morris announces Jimmy Savile’s death [WAV] on Radio 1.

Jimmy Savile drops dead at the Stoke Mandeville Boxing Day bash – but the patients are far from mourning.

[Male voice]: “The majority, if not all of them, are extremely relieved that he’s now dead, although I suspect that some of them will be sorry that he didn’t suffer a great deal more.”

1990
Lynn Barber interviews Jimmy Savile: I was nervous when I told him: “What people say is that you like little girls.” Savile replies by denying that under-age girls are interested in him:

“A lot of disc jockeys make the mistake of thinking that they’re sex symbols and then they get a rude awakening. But I always realised that I was a service industry. Like, because I knew Cliff [Richard] before he’d even made a record, all the Cliff fans would bust a gut to meet me, so that I could tell them stories about their idol. But if I’d said, ‘Come round, so that I can tell you stories about me’ or ‘Come round, so that you can fall into my arms’ they’d have said: ‘What! On yer bike!’ But because reporters don’t understand the nuances of all that, they say, ‘A-ha’.”

1990
The “newly enknighted” Savile meets Prince Charles, as seen by Private Eye‘s “Heir of Sorrows”:

‘Fascinating. You really must meet Diana.’
Sir James looked momentarily puzzled. ‘Is that your daughter, Your Maj?’
Charles shook his head. ‘No, no, my wife.’
‘No thank you very much, Your Maj. Bit old for me. That’s not Jim’s scene at all.’

What could he mean? Sometimes these holy men spoke in riddles.

1987
Jerry Sadowitz calls Jimmy Savile a paedophile. (In fairness, giving Jerry Sadowitz credit for accurate muck-raking is a bit like crediting Nostradamus for accurate prophecies – you can find something if you look hard enough, but accuracy isn’t really what the act’s about.)

1986
“He knows the answers to life’s great mysteries,
He knows what makes Jim Savile tick.”

– Yeah Yeah Noh, “It’s easier to suck than sing”

Is that no one saying anything, or just no one saying anything “out loud”? And if it’s the latter, what would have constituted saying something out loud – publishing and being damned? Let’s face it, Savile wouldn’t just have seen you in court, he’d have seen you in the bankruptcy court.

I think what’s going on here is that a sense of collective complicity is being stretched to the point where it becomes perversely comforting. If we are all to blame, then we can do something about it; at the very least we can do better next time, and try to stop there being a next time. It’s a reassuring thought: never again! ¡no pasarán!

But what if part of the problem is that there is no “we”? What if some of us were spitting out the presumptions and the arrogance all along – or at least having very bad feelings about them – but our revulsion could only be articulated in undertones and behind closed doors? We might not immediately think of Savile as a powerful man – he didn’t make anything happen on a national scale, or on any but a very local scale – but when it came to his own affairs he was very powerful indeed, in several different ways. As well as being rich, famous and well-connected, he was charismatic, generally well-liked, personally forceful and – in his prime – physically strong; he wasn’t a good man to say No to. Once someone has acquired that kind of power, it doesn’t really matter what “we” think about him (and it usually is “him”); whether we view what he does with indulgent approval or with physical revulsion, he’s still going to get away with it. The “we” of O’Hagan’s diffuse culture of star-worshipping quasi-paedophilia is doing double duty, standing in for the “we” who are able to hold individually powerful people to account. And that “we” – that collective articulation of a popular sense of what’s right and what’s wrong – didn’t exist in the 1960s and doesn’t exist now; tabloid bouts of morality can perhaps be understood as a morbid symptom of its absence, fuelled by bad conscience (I never wanted him to get away with that!).

O’Hagan writes:

Child abuse is now a national obsession, but in 1963 it scarcely came up as a subject of public concern. That doesn’t mean it was fine back then and we were all better off, but it allows one to see how much the public understanding of what isn’t all right, or more or less all right, has changed. There have always been genuine causes for concern, but overall, nowadays there is an unmistakeable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat posed to children by adults. (It’s hard not to imagine that the situation has to do with a general estrangement from the notion of a reliable community.)

I think the first part of this is right, and for a much broader timespan than 1963 (which seems to have got into the argument here by way of the Larkin poem). The last, parenthetical comment is pointing to something important too. There are stars, there are individual purchasers or fans, and in between – what? What’s missing seems to be some kind of sense of society as a mechanism – or many different mechanisms – of feedback and accountability. O’Hagan comes close to arguing that Savile and people like him were acting in all our names. Perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say that some of us thought it was all a bit of a laugh – not so much “in my name” as “in my dreams”. As for the rest of us, we might have thought “not in my name”, but we had no way of saying it as a collectivity – and still, perhaps, don’t.

Cold water in the face

A remarkable variety of people have poured scorn on Clegg Minor’s contribution to the Sun, and rightly so. The point I want to make, following on from that fourth link, is that we need to watch the Liberal Democrats – now more than ever. (‘Watch’ here includes ‘exacerbate the contradictions within'; there are some good people in Clegg’s party, even now.) The problem is not just that the party’s support is going down the drain, or that the party’s reputation as a byword for unscrupulous vote-whoring has escaped the politically active minority and gone viral: trust can always be regained, to a greater or lesser extent. (And at the end of the day they don’t have to outrun the bear: it doesn’t matter if they don’t look whiter-than-white any more, just as long as they look cleaner than the other two parties.) What’s more to the point is that the reputational capital the party built by coherently positioning itself to the Left of New Labour was thrown to the winds last May; a sizeable chunk of the party’s 2010 vote went with it, and it’s not coming back. On top of that, the experience of coalition – the extraordinarily passive and timorous experience of coalition – is surely chipping away at the party’s bedrock support: from David Steel back to Jo Grimond, the party always stood for something, whatever that might actually be in any given period. The ‘standing for’ part seems to elude the party at the moment – quite possibly because they’ve been stitched up like a kipper by their coalition partner – and their former supporters have noticed.

The problem for the Lib Dem leadership is that they need to stem the flow of disaffected supporters. (The party took 23% of the vote last May; UK Polling Report currently has them averaging 9%, and doesn’t record a single poll when they’ve exceeded 15% since the beginning of November.) Or if they can’t do that – and they haven’t had much luck so far – they need to get support from somewhere else. And cue “Alarm Clock Britain”:

There are millions of people in Alarm Clock Britain. People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life. People who want their kids to get ahead. People who don’t want to rely on state handouts. People who don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives. People who are not poor but struggle to stay out of the red.

They are the backbone of Britain. These are the people who will get this country moving again. It is their hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in.

This Government is formed by a coalition of two parties and we want to join the people of Alarm Clock Britain in another coalition. A coalition of people prepared to roll up their sleeves and get the nation back on its feet. Ed Miliband may be prepared to hide under his duvet from the problems Labour left us with. But we will get up every morning and face up to them. In Alarm Clock Britain, people don’t want a handout but they appreciate a helping hand. And that is exactly what the Coalition Government is offering them.

I know that times are difficult right now. We are having to make cuts to pay off Labour’s debts and some bills are going up. Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.

That is why the Liberal Democrats made a promise to voters on the front of our manifesto. That no basic rate taxpayer will pay any tax on the first £10,000 they earn. We’ve already taken the first steps which will take nearly 900,000 out of paying tax altogether. From April, every single taxpayer earning less than £42,500 a year will see their income tax bill cut by £200. By the time of the next election, 23 million people will be paying £700 less.

The Government is lending a hand in other ways, too.

(That’s enough Lib Dem promises – Ed.)

“Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.” And who is he standing up for? Why, it’s you, you lucky Sun-reader! “People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life.” People in work, in other words. Follow it through: these are also people who “want their kids to get ahead”, “don’t want to rely on state handouts” and (bizarrely) “don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives”. And they’re “the backbone of Britain”: Nick Clegg thinks they’re great, he really does.

Obviously life isn’t always quite that neat, but that’s OK too. Maybe you are receiving benefits of some sort or other – lots of working people do – but that’s all right: you’re just one of those people who “don’t want a handout but … appreciate a helping hand”. Maybe you’ve found that you just can’t “get on in life”, no matter how early you start work, but not to worry – you’re not poor, it’s just that you “struggle to stay out of the red”.

Which is just as well, because if you were poor, or – God forbid – if you didn’t have a job to get up for in the morning, then this offer would no longer apply. You would no longer be putting in the “hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in”; on the contrary, you would be digging that hole deeper with every day you lived on benefits, and making life harder for “the backbone of Britain” with every morning that you didn’t stir from your lazy idle bed.

Who Nick Clegg is standing up against turns out to be just as important as who he’s standing up for. The message seems to go something like this: Tired after a long day? Taking on extra shifts? Working unpaid overtime? Blame them – blame the workshy, blame the bone-idle, blame all those people living on benefits. They don’t know the meaning of a hard day’s work, not like you do… This would be nasty, vindictive stuff at the best of times. At a time when the unemployment rate stands at 7.9%, or 2.5 million people – and when (as Clegg well knows) the government is poised to throw many more people out of work – it’s outrageous.

Having abandoned any pretence of a position to the Left of Labour, Clegg seems to have decided that fishing for support to the left of the Tories isn’t working either, and he’s trying out the populist far Right. I’ve got a nasty feeling this isn’t going to be a one-off: Clegg may be staring into the abyss, but he’s not going down without a fight. In 2011, watch out for our Deputy Prime Minister celebrating Crimestoppers Britain (“people who don’t want to see lynch law, but can’t let petty criminals make their lives a misery”), Easter Egg Britain (“people who are not racist, but simply know how to value their own traditions”), Beside The Seaside Britain (“people who don’t hate other nations, but know the truth of that old adage – east, west, home’s best!”) and (of course) Poppy Day Britain (“people who don’t glory in war for its own sake, but know that sometimes it is the only honourable choice”).

On the plus side, by the end of the year they’ll probably still be stuck on 9%.

Update Oldham East and Saddleworth: Labour 42.1% (up 10.3%), Liberal Democrat 31.9% (up 0.3%), Conservative 12.8% (down 13.6%); turnout 48.1% (down 14.1%). An interesting result, not least because the shares of the vote aren’t that different from earlier results:

Votes for the main parties in Oldham East and Saddleworth, 1997-2011 (rounded to nearest %)

Year Labour Lib Dem Tory Tory + LD
1997 42 35 20 55
2001 39 33 16 49
2005 41 33 18 51
2010 32 32 26 58
2011 42 32 13 45

At every election from 1997 to 2005, Labour has been at least 6% ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with the Tories taking less than 20% in third place. You could see 2010’s result as a local example of last year’s swing against Labour, and last night’s result as the return of business as usual. But if 42% and 32% are around what you’d expect Labour and the Lib Dems to be getting in OE&S, 13% is very low indeed for the Tories; there will have been some defection to the extreme right, but not a lot (the combined BNP and UKIP vote share went up by a little over 1% against last May). The best explanation is surely that the consistency of the Lib Dem vote is deceptive, and that some – perhaps quite a lot – of last night’s 32% were tactical Tory votes. It’s also worth noting that the combined Tory and Lib Dem vote was lower last night than it’s been at any time since 1997; it’s only the second time it’s been below 50% (and 2001 was an unusual election; this was the year of the BNP’s big push in Oldham, when they took 11% of the vote).

However, unlike Tom Clark, I don’t believe that this result supports Clegg’s apparent new direction:

YouGov this week reported that by 51% to 16% , the small band of remaining Liberal Democrats would prefer a Tory government led by Cameron to an Ed Miliband Labour administration.

The shrinking Lib Dem electorate, then, is now much more inclined to the centre-right than it has been historically, and Oldham suggests that as it retreats from the left it can hope to make good some of the losses by advancing on the right.

Dear oh dear. The Lib Dems have lost 14% of the 23% support it had in May 2010 – more than half; 51% of 9% equates to 20% of 23%. Lib Dem voters are more right wing than they used to be because there are fewer of them, and the left-leaning voters are the ones that have given up on the party. (As UK Polling Report puts it, “the remaining rump support for the Liberal Democrats is made up of those more positively inclined towards the Tories”.) This doesn’t mean that there are votes to be gained by “advancing on the right”; in fact it specifically and precisely means that that’s a good way to lose votes.

Nor does OE&S suggest that there are votes to be won on the Right; actually what it suggests is that the party’s vote is only holding up thanks to the generosity of Tory voters. This kind of grace and favour arrangement may keep the lights on for a while, but it doesn’t bode well for the party’s future; it suggests that a party with Liberal in the name is, once again, locked into a decaying orbit around the Conservative Party. Into which, precedent suggests, they would disappear without a trace.

Update 19/1/11 Polling data bears out my speculation that the unchanged Lib Dem percentage vote masked a partial collapse in the vote, propped up by borrowed Tory votes. UK Polling Report:

of 2010 Lib Dem voters, only 55% of those who voted in the by-election stuck with the party, with 29% instead defecting to Labour … This drop in Lib Dem support was cancelled however out by Conservative tactical voting: of 2010 Conservative voters, 33% who voted in the by-election ended up backing the Liberal Democrats.

Only 49% of the 2010 Conservative voters in the sample voted Tory in 2010; 91% of the 2010 Labour voters stayed loyal, but then there were fewer of them. Shift all the Tory-LD defectors back to the Conservatives and you get a notional Tory vote share of 22%, vying for second place with the Lib Dems on 23%. Of course, this is working back from answers to a phone poll to the actual result, which isn’t really legitimate, but what’s interesting about these figures is how much of the shift in voting patterns they do in fact seem to account for. You can do it yourself if you’ve got a spreadsheet handy:

2011 Labour = 91% 2010 Labour + 29% 2010 LD + 5% 2010 Tory (!)
2011 LD = 5% 2010 Labour (!!) + 55% 2010 LD + 33% 2010 Tory
2011 Tory = 0% 2010 Labour + 3% 2010 LD + 49% 2010 Tory

Let 2010 Labour = 32%, 2010 LD = 32% and 2010 Tory = 26%, and the 2011 figures come out at 40%, 28% and 14%; you only need to massage the figures a bit to cover variable turnout and you’ve got the real results of 42%, 32% and 13%.

These figures bear out the big difference between the Tory base and its Lib Dem counterpart. Tory support is flexible, and will go under other colours if it’s for the good of the party. Lib Dem support is just soft – and, given what they’re currently being asked to support, it’s no wonder.

To be someone

“All of us knew Pooky would be famous one day,” Philip Hensher writes in the Independent. This came as a surprise to me, although Pooky was certainly memorable when I knew him at school in Wales. He was small, Welsh and pugnacious, and hit puberty a full year before any of the other boys. He lent my friend Jem Brian Aldiss’s A Hand-Reared Boy, which as far as we were concerned was the dirtiest thing imaginable; Jem was quoting it for weeks.

I only ever heard Pooky called by his real name once, in a Welsh lesson. Our Welsh teacher ran the school branch of Urdd Gobaith Cymru (which we were all encouraged to join) and had no patience for English incomers who had trouble with the language; luckily for me I only qualified on one count. But one English girl in our class had a complete tin ear for the language, and in particular for the consonant ‘rh’, which is a kind of aspirated R (held, not rolled). (And it is tricky; my father came from Rhosllanerchrugog, and I still have to take a run-up at that ‘Rh’.) Unfortunately the kids in our Welsh exercises always seemed to be going up and down the hill (rhiw), so it was hard to avoid. One dreadful lesson, our Welsh teacher could stand this girl’s mangling of her beloved language – and the word rhiw especially – no longer. “It’s not hard! It’s easy! Like this – ‘rhiw‘! It’s just like Hugh with an R in front! You can say ‘Hugh’, can’t you? Come on, stand at the front. Now, look at Hugh and say his name three times, and then say it again with an R in front – Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, ‘rhiw‘.” We had worked out who this ‘Hugh’ person was about halfway through the tirade, and we watched in horror – tempered (as always) by relief that it wasn’t us – as this nice English girl stood at the front of the class and gazed obediently at Pooky the goatboy, saying “Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, roo“. The teacher made her do it three times before she would admit defeat.

You know what? This isn’t the same guy. Hensher was writing about the actor Pooky Quesnel, who knocked him out in Cabaret when he was at Oxford. Me, I confidently expected to hear more after Cambridge of Annabel Arden and Simon McBurney, whose drama workshops I briefly went to (a bit boisterous, and I wasn’t bendy enough). Also, of Roger Hyams; of Jonathan Tafler; of Oscar Moore (who wasn’t actually in theatre, as far as I know, but he was obviously going to be a star in some way or other).

Jonathan Tafler was Chair of Mummers – a university-wide drama society originally founded by Alistair Cooke – when I pitched a play to them in my first year; it was a kind of anti-authoritarian panorama of human history, influenced by Paines Plough, Stuart Christie, Art Bears, R.D. Laing and Scritti Politti’s first single, beginning in the Garden of Eden and ending in the psychiatric ward where a rebel against the authority of state, capital and family had been confined, and in whose head the whole thing was revealed to be happening. “Given time she can think it through…” Jonathan, anyway, told me he thought there was something there, which was amazing… and invited me to meet the rest of the group and pitch it to them in person, which was agony. I was very shy (and rather young); no way could I pitch an idea to a group – I wouldn’t have bothered writing an entire first draft of the play if I could do that – and absolutely no way could I take other people’s suggestions on board. In short, it wasn’t to be, and I gave up any idea of getting involved in the stage soon after that. But I did always vaguely think I’d hear Jonathan Tafler’s name again. It turns out that he’s working; he’s done a ton of radio; and he can tell a Jewish joke. Not so shabby.

As for Roger Hyams, I remember once somebody told a friend of mine that Pip Torrens had told her that Roger already had his own agent, and while we thought this was a bit presumptuous we weren’t in the least surprised – he was so clearly going places. (I think it was Pip Torrens; if it wasn’t him it was probably Pip Broughton. But anyway.) The only time I saw Roger act he was co-starring in Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act – a play whose cast consists of a man and a woman who have been caught in the act of inter-racial sex by the South African police, and who are both naked throughout. (Not quite throughout – he puts on a string vest halfway through.) It’s a strange but rather wonderful play. It’s very static and declamatory, as the name implies; it would work well on radio, if the players’ nakedness weren’t such a powerful element in it. Roger was terrific; if anything he slightly outshone the female lead, who I’m reasonably sure was Tilda Swinton. But where is he now? Here (at least, I think this is him): writing and directing, among other things. The acting didn’t work out, but he’s done all right.

Looking these people up, I chafed slightly at Philip Hensher’s conclusion:

Some people who you meet young have talent and glory just shining out of them. They achieve it, or, alternatively, they settle for labouring respectably while people no one at the time ever heard of, like David Cameron, take over the world. I wonder how many other brilliant Sally Bowleses there are in the world, making a living.

After I left university with my English degree – complete with a commendation for my poetry, which had been judged in part by Raymond Williams – I was on the dole for a year. For the next twelve and a half years I worked in computing – for a pre-privatisation MANWEB, for Manchester City Council and for Swinton Insurance. Now that‘s “making a living”.

There is something very Oxbridge going on between the lines here; I’m reminded of the couple in Peter’s Friends who everyone else more or less openly looks down on, because after Cambridge they ended up in advertising (dear oh dear). It’s as if a career in the arts or literature – at any rate, a career in the vicinity of the star you want to follow – is a given, and success and failure is measured by the calibre of desirable career you end up with. The possibility of ending up in computing or banking or accountancy or management – let alone ending up in one of those jobs where people tell you what to do – can be completely discounted: it’s stardom or drudgery, where drudgery is defined as second leads in Leatherhead and two-line parts on the radio. From outside Oxford and Cambridge – or from outside the groups that feel at home there – it looks different. I suspect that plenty of comets blaze across the firmament of student drama at Durham and Exeter and Cardiff; I also suspect that a much smaller percentage of those stars achieve real-world stardom, and a lot of them drop right through the cracks to end up in, well, computing or banking or accountancy or management. There’s a passage in 1982 Janine where Jock remembers one of the stars of a student production he was involved in many years earlier, and says that she’s now one of the first people casting directors ring when they want to cast a middle-aged female character to appear for a week or two in Casualty; he then points out that, as acting careers go, this is doing pretty bloody well. Viewed from the perspective of most actors, Pooky Quesnel and Jonathan Tafler and Roger Hyams aren’t also-rans – they’re success stories.

PS And if you really want a mute inglorious Garrick, I’ll see your Pooky Quesnel and raise you Dave Bates. Fantastic actor – one of the best I’ve ever seen. He was at my school (in Croydon, not the one in Wales). He was in every school play for a few years: an automatic choice for the lead role until he got bored of doing that, and after that he could have his pick of the roles. He could do anything, from tortured-soul young male lead to Pythonesque gurning (not in the same play). Then he got bored of acting altogether and withdrew his application to RADA, to the horror of our English teacher. No idea what became of him; he certainly didn’t go to Cambridge. I expect he ended up getting a job or something.

Scant evanescent things

Can a post be written entirely in the interrogative mood?

Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?

Is there any politician who is unaware of the activities of Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation? Is there any politician who has no views on the management and ownership of the broadcast media? Is there any politician whose views on the media do not imply a preferred state of affairs?

Can we imagine the “quasi-judicial” regulatory role Cable was to fill being taken on by a politician who had no opinions about the state of the media? or one who had no strong preferences about how the media should be organised in future? or one who knew nothing about News Corporation’s past and present operations?

Does Robert Peston’s “biased judge” analogy have any relevance, given that the business of a courtroom is to determine legal guilt or innocence of a specific charge, and that the past conduct of a suspected offender is ruled out of consideration on those grounds? Considering that the government’s role in this case is to consider the findings of a regulatory body concerning a proposed change to a known state of affairs and apply a further public interest test, is this analogy in fact spurious and misleading?

If Vince Cable’s expressed opinions render him incapable of impartially applying a public interest test, what politician is capable of the desired level of impartiality? If Jeremy H*** can be confidently expected to set aside his own views on Murdoch when in “quasi-judicial” mode, why should Cable not be trusted to set aside his?

And which is worse for a political career, threatening to bring down the government or threatening to obstruct Rupert Murdoch?

(We know the answer to the last one, at least.)

You what?

At the end of the first series of Doctor Who after the handover from Russell T. Davies to Steven Moffat, we can detect a subtle but definite difference in the way Moffat and his predecessor think about the character and his canonical backstory. As scripted by Moffat, the Doctor still has a gift for inserting chunks of plot exposition into action scenes. (And it is a gift. The other evening on Dollhouse there was a scene in which a group of characters ran between two action scenes while shouting bits of plot at each other; they looked as if they were running between two action scenes shouting bits of plot at each other, which is to say that they looked ridiculous. The Doctor can bring it off, and has been doing so since the Jon Pertwee era. I suspect there’s a manual somewhere.) What’s changed is the substance of the plot that gets expounded.

Davies:

Ha! Of course! The Daleks have managed to invoke the protection of the Covenant of Horg, which was laid down by the original rulers of Gallifrey just before the Dark Time (very bad time, that was – very dark). The Time Lords took on the Covenant, and its powers were sealed in the Signet of Harg, which was lost in the first skirmish of the Time War. Or… how could I have been so stupid! The Signet couldn’t be lost – it was forged within the Omni-Vorticon on the Anvil of Hurg, and hence it was eternally pinned to a single point in space-time! Which means that… we’ll have to hurry. You two, run down that corridor and keep running. I’ll stay here and pull some levers; I’ll be all right, I’ve got a fire extinguisher. Now go!

Moffat:

Ha! Of course! The Daleks have managed to detonate a cataclysmic explosion within the heart of space-time itself! All that’s preventing it from destroying the entire fabric of reality is that the explosion is timed for one second in the future – but that second is growing weaker with every moment that passes, and our reality is being bombarded with explosive time-rays. Or else… how could I have been so stupid! The detonation occurred before the removal of the Daleks from this plane of existence, which meant that we were safe as long as nobody thought about the Daleks! Now that we’ve remembered them, they’ll recover their physical form any second now, and the entire fabric of space-time will explode. Which means that… we’ll really have to hurry!

Davies’s scripts could have been written for Vince, the Doctor Who anorak from Queer As Folk (in a sense I suppose they were written by Vince). After an info-dump like that, you could imagine someone like Vince freeze-framing the DVD and ferreting through his Who reference data – “but that would mean… wait, this would have to have been before the founding of… oh, right, yeah, it would fit.” Moffat’s, not so much. The fact that Moffat’s not writing ‘nuts and bolts’ sf doesn’t matter – Who has always been on the fantasy end of the genre, a kind of frequently-earthbound space opera. What is new is that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in ‘maps and timelines’ sf either; he seems to be steering the series out of space opera altogether and into something altogether more impressionistic and psychological. Less Left Hand of Darkness, more Lathe of Heaven.

Which works for me. As, much to my surprise, does Matt Smith, who grew on me rapidly over the course of the first episode and had made the role his own by the middle of the second. David Tennant was good, of course, but his trajectory in the series was very much the established dramatic lead on an upward path – go in with Casanova and Blackpool, come out as a star. Christopher Ecclestone was good, too, but his career was also established to the point where he couldn’t do anything with Who other than become a star in it, which he didn’t seem to want to do. In Matt Smith, for the first time since the revival, the Doctor is played by someone who doesn’t come trailing his showreel: he’s not a star in the making, he’s… the Doctor. He’s also been reminding me a lot of Patrick Troughton, who is probably the best of the old Doctors for any new Doctor to emulate. (I still remember odd bits of Troughton Who from first time round. I started watching when William Hartnell was playing the Doctor, although ‘watching’ almost certainly means ‘not being taken out of the room because my parents didn’t want to miss it themselves’.)

Karen Gillan proved herself in that extraordinary final episode – starting with that really extraordinary pre-credits sequence (“Right, kid. This is where things start getting complicated.”) – and, for one story at least, it looks as if the Doctor will be operating with two companions. That really takes me back, to those days when Peter Purves bestrode the screen like a hairy-kneed colossus, in a doomed attempt to compensate female viewers for the claim on their menfolk’s attention of Louise Jameson in a fur bikini (are you sure about this? – Ed.) Roll on Christmas – or if you’re Russell T. Davies, roll on the Feast of the Birth of the Nazarene Theohominid.

The rest we can leave

To end this slightly hyperactive day, here’s a recommendation you’ve probably seen already: read Johann Hari on Hammersmith.

As I spend days walking across the borough, I find the detritus of the old thriving public sector now shut and shuttered. Next to a big council estate I stumble across the large red-brick Castle Youth Club. It was built in Dickens’ time and bequeathed to the local council “to benefit the children of this area for perpetuity”. The Conservatives shut it down two years ago to sell it off. The deal fell through, so now it sits empty while the local kids hang around on the streets outside.

I realise I am peering into the reality of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody … started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It’s a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same.

Read the whole thing. (I’ll wait.)

And here are a few lines from a comment at Crooked Timber (hi Tim!)

I too would like to ‘punish’ Labour for the GWOT/Iraq business. Brown may not have been enthusiastic about the whole business, but keeping quiet and wishing it would go away while signing off on every penny is of course nowhere near good enough. On the same grounds, I’d like to reward the Lib Dems (as well as liking their noises about Trident and ‘illegal’ immigrants, for example). … But retribution and reward are not top priorities at this point, even they could plausibly be seen as a necessary part of a system of long-term incentives. (The war has already had electoral consequences in prising Blair out, of course.) … The urgent imperative is to keep Cameron out.

The Conservatives have done nothing at all to suggest they have moved toward the centre in broadly economic terms – even with a rightward-bound centre. … The Conservatives have, even before getting in, the most hawkish about spending cuts, and flagrant in their ambitions for top-rung tax cuts like inheritance, for example. Their real intentions have to be guessed at, but they won’t have been understating their brutality. Even the line of verbiage they’ve chosen to fill the ominous silence is actively repellent. All this wittering about voluntarism is familiar enough stuff, now elevated from a weak debating point to a supposed philosophy: ‘other things equal, wouldn’t it be nice if everything were done voluntarily, out of, er, benevolence?’. Other things equal my arse. Tell it to Adam Smith’s baker. Making obligations and liabilities voluntary – repudiable – has only one purpose, as every instance of self-’regulation’ testifies.

I particularly like that last point. Other things equal my arse – Tories of all people should know that you don’t get owt for nowt. But the market doesn’t supply everything or everyone – it’s conspicuously bad at providing universal services, unlimited emergency services or services for people who can’t afford to pay, for instance. The history of public service provision since Joseph Chamberlain has been one of collectively-funded efforts to redress market failure. Turn off the funding and that ‘market’ – the market for home helps, youth clubs, women’s refuges, emergency accommodation – will fail in a heartbeat. And the Tories know that, those of them who are older than 18; they have to know that. The idea of sleek Tory politicians knowingly and heedlessly consigning poor people to lives of misery and fear is terribly old-fashioned and rather melodramatic, I know, but it seems like an awfully good fit.

If you’ve got a vote tomorrow, please use it to help prevent a Tory government. That will be an achievement worth having been part of.

Career opportunities

Jim asks:

I’d really love to know how to go about earning a crust (or even half a crust) out of freelance writing. Yes, I’m aware that’s the Holy Grail for every blogger but if, dear reader, you’ve worked out how to achieve it, I’d be eternally grateful for your advice.

As it goes, my career as a freelance writer overlapped with my time as a blogger, but not by much – I’ve been blogging since a few weeks before the last election, in 2005, and I last sold an article in September 2007. I’ve had a few things in collections of blog posts, but my experience of turning bloggery into money is zero.

However, Jim also mentions that he’s soon to embark on a PhD thesis, and I can trutfhully say that I supported myself through my PhD thesis as a freelance journalist. The bad news is that it took me five years to complete my thesis, in which time I gained no academic experience at all – this is not recommended. I did look into the possibilities of doing bits of teaching, but concluded that the rate of pay was so low, relative to the living I was managing to make as a writer, that I’d effectively be doing it for nothing – and I couldn’t afford to do it. I got my first permanent academic post six years later.

So the first thing I’ve gleaned from my career as a freelance journalist is that it’s laborious and time-consuming work, and it will soak up time and effort which you could have done with keeping back for other purposes. It’s hard. When it’s going well it’s also one of the best jobs in the world – but even then it’s hard work, and it will cost you.

As for how to do it, three golden rules.

Rule 1: On getting the work. The rule is: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. That doesn’t mean that you need to have had Condé Nast executives invited to your christening – although if they were, you certainly won’t have to read self-help posts like this. It means, work your connections. If you haven’t got any connections, take an educated guess on which of your friends has got connections and work them. Don’t bother cold-calling, doorstepping or otherwise propositioning an editor you don’t know. There are 100 other ambitious unknowns who could write the article you want to write – or something which would look as good as that article to people who don’t know your area, a group which will probably include the editor you’re trying to pitch to and will definitely include his or her boss. Not only that, but out of those 100, 50 are younger than you, 20 are slightly better-known and three know the editor, or say they do.

Getting a start in journalism is all about having some kind of personal connection with someone who can take a chance on you. If you know the editor – even slightly, even tenuously – and you can persuade him or her to let you have a go at something, then you’re in. If not, not. So if you don’t know any editors, you will need to change that situation. (I should say, incidentally, that this isn’t current advice – it’s based on my experience in the early 90s, when the journalistic climate was positively balmy compared to now.)

Rule 2: on getting more work. Once you’ve got your foot in the door the advice changes. All you need to do then is get the work done. Get it done, whatever it is; get it done on time, to the exact specs you’ve been given. I used to work on programme support for the Channel 4 ‘Real Lives’ strand – an odd gig which involved watching the programme, writing a 1000-word précis and recommending at least three books & at least three Web sites for the ‘Find Out More’ section (this was often the hardest part). I’m quite proud of my work on the Wallis Simpson programme, for no other reason than that I got the tape at 10.00 one morning with strict instructions to get the work filed by 5.00 at the latest – which I did, complete with three URLs and eight (count ‘em) book recommendations. That was a good day.

Anyway, rule 2 can be stated just as bluntly as rule 1: if you do exactly what they ask you for – whatever they ask you for – and do it on time and do it well, then you may get repeat business. Not ‘will’, but definitely ‘may’ – and if not, you definitely won’t.

Depressed yet?

Rule 3: on next month’s work. If you can write, and if you’re in touch with commissioning editors, and if you can write to order, to length and to deadline, then you should be able to make enough to live on… for this month. However, you will also need to eat next month. You know how you had to work to get your first commission, and your second, and your third – shmoozing, pitching ideas, scrounging for repeat business? Fancy doing that again and again, month after month, indefinitely? Me neither, and I don’t believe anyone actually lives like that.

Hence Rule 3, which comes in two parts. Rule 3.1 is: get a regular gig. Better still, have a regular gig lined up before you make the leap. I embarked on my PhD knowing that I had first refusal on at least £5,000 a year’s worth of work from my previous employer. £5,000 a year isn’t a lot – rule 3.1.1 is get another regular gig – but it’s a big improvement on £0.

It gets worse, I’m afraid. Rule 3.2 is: be prepared for when the work dries up. Freelance writing work is inherently precarious. Editors move on, magazines close, production companies take their writing work in-house, once in a while you may even screw up an assignment and fall out with an editor. (The advice here is, of course, don’t ever do this. But the chances are that you will.) Freelancing isn’t a fallback – in the immortal words of James Thurber, falling back on journalism would be very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter’s tools. Have something in reserve – some other marketable skill, or just a couple of months’ rent money stashed in an account you never touch.

I have to say, as if this post wasn’t negative enough already, that I don’t know if I’d be able to pay the bills for five years if I was starting out as a freelance journalist today. Certainly the nets I dropped a couple of years ago – when it looked as if academic freelance work (that’s another story) was drying up – almost all came up empty: most of the outlets I wrote for have closed, and there’s very little call for the kind of stuff I used to write (“if you’ve got a great idea for a column, keep it for your blog”, one editor told me bluntly). But then, if I was starting out as a freelance today I wouldn’t be trying to write the kind of stuff I wrote in the 1990s, or working the contacts I had then. I wouldn’t tell anyone to go for it!, but I realise I’m not in a position to tell anyone definitely not to.

In other news*, Toby Young is an unmitigated idiot. In all of my five years as a freelance I made a point of taking a week off in summer and disconnecting completely from work. This in no way prevented me from paying the bills, despite the fact that I was writing Web pages for Channel 4 and sub-editing German computing advertorials rather than, say, for instance, writing a column in the Guardian and having my million-selling autobiography made into a film. Tosser.

*OK, not news** as such.

**Inasmuch as the column dates from 2008, I mean, not the ‘unmitigated idiot’***. I was going to blog on it at the time, but it infuriated me too much.

***Although that too.

Too pale a hue

June? June?

Oh well – I’m back, probably.

What’s been happening? Looking back at the last two posts, both those papers got rejected; in one case it was more of a “revise and resubmit”, so I’m not particularly distressed. The other was more of a “hit the back wall without bouncing” rejection, which did stop me in my tracks for a bit – but I’ll get a resubmission out of it. And my book is almost out, and almost has its own Web page (a holding page as I write this, but I’m going to fix that RSN).

I was going to kick this blog back into life with a few thoughts on blogging, or a political meme that drifted past in the summer, or some thoughts on the mainstreaming of Fascism, or possibly even my long-planned post on the ethics of armed struggle. (Armed struggle: I’m agin it.) Instead of which, I’m going down that time-honoured route to a blog post, the comment that got too long for the comment box. Sparked off by something on Daniel’s site, which has an odd sort of big-fleas-little-fleas appropriateness about it.

First off, how about a bit of Tronti? (Borrowed from my book, which is out soon.)

Capitalist society has its laws of development: they have been formulated by economists, applied by governments and endured by the workers. But who will discover the laws of development of the working class? … We ourselves have put capitalist development first, workers’ struggles second. This is wrong. We need to reverse the problem, change its sign, begin from first principles: and the first principle is the struggle of the working class. Where capital is developed on the social scale, capitalist development is subordinate to workers’ struggles: it follows on from them and has to shape the political mechanisms of its own production accordingly.
Mario Tronti (1964), “Lenin in England”

More generally – Tronti and the workerists argued – capitalist development is parasitic on workers’ intelligence and creativity, which they use in the refusal of work. You get the job done with half an hour to spare and sneak off for a fag; your employer cuts your working day by half an hour and cuts your pay accordingly. Result: profit. You do eight hours’ work in six hours; your employer increases your workload by 33%. Result: profit.

And so to Thomas Friedman.

we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public [i.e. state] school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.

[the] problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.

Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

For a start, the “untouchable” theme is a striking example of Friedman’s legendary tin ear. To use “untouchable”, as a noun, to refer to people at the top of the heap – people who will thrive while the rest of us struggle – is bizarrely insensitive. To do so when what we’re struggling against is competition from low-wage countries, like, say, India – ugh. Brane hertz.

The “work-smarter-not-harder” stuff in the last paragraph quoted above is pretty insulting, too – at least, it is for those of us who have been hearing it from management gurus, year in and year out, ever since the last recession. The sermon changes from year to year – sometimes there’s just no money around; sometimes there’s lots of money but lots of people competing for it; sometimes it’s neither of the above but the world is changing! – but the message is always the same. There’s always some compelling reason why we’ve got to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to achieve this and save money on that. We can’t just get on with our jobs – that would be wrong. (More to the point, it would mean we didn’t generate more profit than we did last year. See Tronti.)

But Friedman has something more specific to say here. Something that goes roughly like this:

“Only a minority of American workers are doing well out of globalisation – everyone else is getting shafted! As nobody could possibly have predicted (except for everybody but me)! So we need to move all American workers into that minority! And the key to that is education, government-provided education in particular! And what we need to do to government-provided education is, oh, damn, time’s up.”

I was particularly struck by the line about the $40-an-hour jobs. He’s literally proposing to fix the problem at the margin – by moving everyone who’s being affected by global competition into the margin of jobs so skill-intensive, and skills so specialised, that they can’t be done for less than $40/hour. Because if they could be done cheaper they would be, and if they’re done cheaper on the other side of the world, hey, them’s the breaks.

In The age of insecurity, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson liken globalisation to a strong wind – a conventional enough image these days. They then say that the anti-protectionist orthodoxy is a bit like saying we should deal with this strong wind by opening all our doors and knocking down walls where possible. (That wind is out there whether we like it or not! It’s a fact of life! It’s the way the world is!) Friedman has been urging on a process which other people said should be resisted or slowed down, because it would lead to disruption and immiseration on a large scale. He’s now claiming that it has led to large-scale disruption and immiseration – and his only solution is for the 80% to clamber on board the 20%’s lifeboat. And if that doesn’t work, well, it’s probably the fault of the government.

Who owns what you do?

Here’s James Mensch, who’s a Canadian professor of Philosophy, writing at openDemocracy:

Those who fear solidarity’s exclusionary tendencies generally focus on the solidarities based on our past, that is, on our inherited situations of race, language, culture, and religion. Those who proclaim its benefits see solidarity in terms of our working with others to achieve common solutions to common problems such as global warming. Here the focus is on what we want to achieve politically, that is, on the future that we seek to collectively realise. Identity in this instance is not a matter of what the past gives us, but is rather provided by our working with others for a common goal. This identity is political rather than natural. … Being a member of a state with its universal rights and political obligations, that is, being a citizen as opposed to a member of a racial or linguistic group is sufficient for this type of identity.

No one, of course, lives completely in the past or the future. Thus, our identities (and corresponding senses of solidarity) are never so neatly defined. Our collective actions are informed by the past. Without it, we have no experiential or moral basis for acting. But they are also determined by the future, that is, by the goals that we want to achieve.

Only by being concrete can we be attentive to multiple solidarities we are actually engaged in. Our different situations of race, language, religion, and cultural preference involve us in differing networks of solidarity. These, unless artificially suppressed, provide a natural system of checks and balances within the solidarity that is based on the past

And here’s Rochenko responding to Mensch:

Once you have acknowledged particularity or diversity, and postulated that their forms provide the ‘checks and balances’ to the possibility of exclusionary violence rooted in past divisions, there is nowhere to go. Mainly because trying to go anywhere else would be too risky: reasoning about the general interest that unites all the particular interests risks doing violence to some of the particulars.

The problem is that refusing to go this extra step towards the idea of a general interest automatically does violence to the particulars: by freezing them as abstract particularities, it denies them a transformative future … Only by attempting to articulate what actually unites particular forms of identity in a political project can they have a future.

Nationalism, as a form of solidarity, is therefore not always regressive. Richard Phillips writes in this month’s issue of Planet magazine … that the resurgence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism can represent not the desire to tear loose from the UK a residuum of ethnic and lingustic identity, but a path towards a new internationalism. … Solidarity is once again an attempt to challenge the social totality, to build a genuinely international community, based on the unhealed divisions within the nation-state, based on the legacy of colonialism, based on the continued triumph of those who have always written history. In the form of the abstract particular (linguistic identity, the legalistic promotion of Welsh etc.), this new nationalism risks becoming another tool by which political elites retain their hold on power, and closing off the future. But national self-determination also generates a new enthusiasm for returning to the basic political question: how do we want to live?

I was pleased to see that last paragraph, as by the time I reached “automatically does violence to the particulars” I was flashing back to a book review I wrote a few years ago that, uncouthly, backed ethnic nationalism over civic ditto. (It was partly a Michael Ignatieff thing; if he’s for it I’m usually against.) And by the time I got to that last sentence I was already thinking, this is why I’m still interested in Welsh nationalism, and why Irish blogs like Splintered and Cedar Lounge seem so important – revolutionary socialism is always partly utopian, but when you’re trying to build a new nation you have to think about how people are actually going to live together. But I guess you’ll have to take my word for that part.

Great minds, anyway. And here’s that review, which appeared in the May 2000 issue of Red Pepper. I was quite surprised with how the argument turned out – not unpleasantly, though.

Edward Mortimer and Robert Fine (eds.), People, nation and state: the meaning of ethnicity and nationalism (I.B. Tauris, £12.95)

In this collection thirteen writers on nationalism, ranging from Michael Ignatieff to Danilo Türk, grapple with the resurgence of the ‘national question’. On the whole they like what they see. Neil MacCormick argues that “individuals may have as one among their most significant contexts some national identity”; therefore “the members of a nation are as such and in principle entitled to effective organs of political self-government.” Nationalism, however, takes symbolic and ‘ethnic’ as well as rational ‘civic’ forms; moreover, not every nationality can have its own state. Hence multiculturalism is a must: “the national identity of a community should be so defined that it includes all its citizens and makes it possible for them to identify with it”, writes Bhikhu Parekh. Civic nationalism stands above and validates the multiple ethnic nationalisms of its citizens. Ultimately this is an ethical programme: Robert Fine quotes Ignatieff envisaging the nation as “a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”

This consensus hides an unresolved contradiction between ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ nationalism. Ignatieff endorses the desire of “the subjugated minority” for a nation state, only to argue that “civic contractualism is the only possible basis for … national solidarity and social cohesion”. Presumably once this is achieved minorities have no need for full-blown ethnic nationalism: if your nation’s governed by the right kind of state, the most you can aim for is civic-minded reformism and the celebration of cultural diversity. There is a whiff of the End of History about this.

Other contributors are more sceptical. Olivier Roy stresses the plural nature of ‘ethnic’ identity, which operates at national, sub-national and supra-national levels: the same person may identify as a French Algerian, a Kabyle, an Arab or a Muslim. Africanist Terence Ranger presents evidence suggesting that ‘ethnicity’ itself is a relatively recent invention. On the other side of the equation, Fine queries the merits of state nationalism: “Civic nationalism offers … an emotive source of political cohesion … But it also engenders faith in the state rather than critical reflection, and a sidelining of social questions”. This recalls MacCormick’s formulation, prompting the question of how national identity relates to such other “significant contexts” as gender, sexual orientation or (whisper it) class.

Notably, Fine is also the only contributor to ask what liberal nationalism has to offer “the homeless pariah who refuses, or is refused, participation in national communities”. Many of the arguments here seem tailored to the more clear-cut ‘national questions’ – Türk’s Slovenia, say, or MacCormick’s Scotland. Harder cases – Kosovar Albanians, the Romani minority of Kosova, Kosovar Romani asylum-seekers in Britain – would require a deeper analysis of culture, rights and power. This might start by treating ‘ethnic’ self-assertion as a positive value rather than a malign throwback, complementing it not with the liberal self-congratulation of ‘civic nationalism’ but with the fundamental humanist demands of democracy and social justice – demands which know no country and have no end.

That’s all changed

There is “a fair amount of rewriting of history going on”, says Martin Kettle. (This post began life on CiF. I keep meaning to give up commenting there – it’s a singularly unrewarding occupation, apart from those rare occasions when the columnist you’re responding to actually reads the comments. Commenting on most CiF posts is ‘interactive’ in much the same way that shouting at the TV is.)

Anyway, back to Kettle. Apparently, where the terrorist threat is concerned, the Brown/Straw/Smith regime won’t be a big change from Blair/Reid, because actually Blair and Reid were pretty moderate, actually. No, really:

It is not actually true that the Blair government invariably responded to terror alerts by reaching for tough new powers. In fact it finally learned from its earlier mistakes, notably after 7/7, just as Brown has done.

Terror alerts have been more or less continuous for the last six years; as it stands the first line is trivially true. As for the Blair government’s response to terrorist incidents, the first major example on Blair’s watch was the Omagh bomb of 1998. Response: the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, with new police powers (a police officer could state that a suspect belonged to a proscribed organisation, rather than the suspect having to own up), a new offence (conspiracy to commit terrorist offences outside the UK) and new penalties (including seizure of terrorist-related assets). The CJ(TC)A took the form of a raft of amendments to the annually-renewed Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989, which was itself a revised and updated version of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions[sic]) Act 1974.

The Terrorism Act 2000, it has to be said, didn’t come in response to any particular incident, but did show awareness of new forms of terrorist organisation; the definition of terrorism was expanded to include ‘religious’ or ‘ideological’ as well as political motivation. The Act included just about everything that had been in the PTA 1989 as amended, together with several elements of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 and some entirely new provisions, such as a revision of the length of time a suspect could be detained without charge (from two days to seven). Also, the PTA 2000 applied to the UK as a whole, and it was permanent rather than renewable.

Then there was September 11th. Not strictly speaking our show, but the Blair government thought new legislation was called for nonetheless. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 brought in a raft of new offences associated with aeroplanes, nuclear installations and weapons of mass destruction, together with powers to deport suspected international terrorists – or intern them if they couldn’t be deported without risking torture. A terrorist, in this context, is defined (ATCSA s.21, sub-sections 2 and 3) as someone who

is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of international terrorism
is a member of or belongs to an international terrorist group, or
has links with an international terrorist group

A group can be described as an international terrorist group if

it is subject to the control or influence of persons outside the United Kingdom, and
the Secretary of State suspects that it is concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of international terrorism.

In other words, there’s a pretty broad range of people who could be deported or detained, subject to the Home Secretary’s ‘suspicion’. (The criterion of reasonable suspicion is used elsewhere in the same section, but not here. Presumably this is deliberate.)

Then there was the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which raised the limit on detention without charge from 7 days to 14.

Then came 2005 and… the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. To be fair, this wasn’t a reaction to 7/7; it was a reaction to the Law Lords’ judgment effectively overturning the detention provisions of ATCSA. Hence, the PTA 2005 gave us control orders.

Then – after the Blair government had seen one major review of anti-terrorist legislation, two anti-terrorist bills rushed through Parliament in the wake of particular incidents and a third anti-terrorist bill patching up one of the others – came July 7th 2005. The Blair government’s response was: the Terrorism Act 2006, which raised the limit on detention without charge yet again – from 14 days to 28. (There’s a handy review of this topic – and a startling graphic – here.) It also introduced such new offences as preparation of terrorist acts and dissemination of publications favouring terrorism, as well as the now-notorious offence of ‘glorifying’ terrorism.

Back to Kettle’s two propositions:

It is not actually true that the Blair government invariably responded to terror alerts by reaching for tough new powers. In fact it finally learned from its earlier mistakes, notably after 7/7, just as Brown has done.

1. You could have fooled me.
2. Not entirely clear what this is supposed to mean, but:
2.1. If Kettle’s arguing that the Blair government’s response to 7/7 was refreshingly sober and restrained, see 1.
2.2. If he’s referring to the government response to events since 7/7 (the liquid-explosive airline plot, Dhiren Barot’s “gas limo” plan), the implication is that we should commend the government for not rushing through emergency powers in response to terrorist attacks that didn’t actually happen. This is pushing it rather. I never thought I’d hail Margaret Thatcher’s liberalism and sang-froid, but let’s not forget that the serving Prime Minister was very nearly killed by a terrorist bomb in October 1984. Special legislation passed in response: none.

As well as downplaying the extent of New Labour’s panic response to terrorism, Kettle downplays the degree to which it represents a break with the past. Hence this comment, in response to the recent non-proscription of Hizb-ut-Tahrir:

Labour ministers have never been slow to proscribe organisations that promote terror

‘Never’ is quite a long time, even if your starting point is 1924 (before which there weren’t any Labour ministers). The IRA was proscribed, by a Labour Home Secretary, under the PT(TP)A in 1974; until that point there weren’t any proscribed organisations in British law (Northern Ireland law is another matter). So perhaps it should read Since 1974, Labour ministers have never been slow… except that Labour ministers didn’t proscribe any other organisations between then and the fall of Callaghan. The INLA was proscribed in 1979, under Thatcher (that was the full extent of the incoming government’s legislative response to the assassination of Airey Neave shortly before the election; Neave was a Conservative shadow minister and a personal friend of Thatcher’s). After that no terrorist organisations were proscribed in British law for another twenty years. Even the post-Omagh CJ(TC)A 1998 didn’t actually proscribe the Real IRA, limiting itself to empowering the government to specify active Northern Irish terrorist groups which would be treated as proscribed organisations.

It all changed in 2000, when a list of 14 organisations proscribed in Northern Ireland law was incorporated into the Terrorism Act. Since 2000, certainly, Labour ministers haven’t been slow to proscribe, etc – the list stood at 58 the last time I looked and has probably grown since. But that’s just to say that the Blair government has its own distinctive approach to terrorism – which is the position Kettle’s arguing against.

To borrow Kettle’s pained, sleeve-tugging language, it’s not actually true that Blair reacted to terrorism in the same way as any other Prime Minister, or any other Labour politician. New Labour – or should we start saying ‘Blairism’? – was something new, in the field of counter-terrorism along with many others; it doesn’t do the Labour Party any favours to pretend otherwise.

Update 26/7

should we start saying ‘Blairism’? Maybe not.

Gordon Brown moved yesterday to dominate the terror and security agenda, grabbing a Tory proposal for an integrated single border force and then challenging David Cameron to accept that the scale of the terrorist threat requires an extension of detention without charge to up to 56 days.

The move, announced in a ground-breaking Commons statement, follows months of discussions with police and security services on a range of measures, including post-charge questioning of suspects, the use of intercept evidence in court and a proposal that convicted terrorists be treated in the same way as sex offenders.

Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

Free of the need to be free

At the risk of sounding like a bad standup -

Mark Thomas: …this – thing – that’s really tepid and bland and moulded to fit this Lego model of comedy… seventies gag, TV presenter gag, difference between cats and dogs, difference between men and women, have you ever noticed at a dinner party…

- have you ever noticed, right, you know that Comment is Free site? It’s not very good, is it?

Here’s a comment I posted today (and it says something that I think I’m giving it a wider distribution by posting it here):

I find myself in the weird position of both agreeing and disagreeing with you. I agree with you that there is a problem. The comment threads on CiF are a complete and utter mess; I’m approaching the point of giving up on CiF and posting anything I want to say about CiF/Graun content on my blog, just like I used to.

What I don’t agree with the way you describe the problem. I found the tone of both this and the previous ‘Less is more’ post really startling – offensive, even. You [addressed to Georgina Henry] seem to genuinely hate a lot of the comments posted on CiF; not all of them, of course, just the ones you describe as ‘pointless chatter’, ‘slanging matches’, ‘quick-fire insults’, ‘mindless irrelevant chatter’ and indeed ‘rubbish’. That doesn’t necessarily mean you hate the commenters, but I imagine your attitude to anyone who positively values the comments you hate would be pretty tetchy.

But how can you sustain this opposition between the pristine blog and the spoilsport commenters? In other words, when did CiF exist in the form you think it ought to have, before the invasion of the pointless chatterers? I wasn’t watching CiF all that closely over the first couple of weeks, but I strongly suspect the answer is ‘never’. This is your blog: this is how you designed it. The comments threads would look very different now if you’d required real names to be printed; or if you’d required commenters to display an email address or a blog URL under their name – or even if you’d allowed email addresses or URLs to be displayed. It would look different if you hadn’t thrown open commenting rights to anyone who applied; it would look different if you hadn’t allowed talkboard users to inherit commenting rights. And it would look different if all CiF content were written by journalists with a personal interest in blogging, rather than consisting very largely of rebadged opinion columns.

All of these are design decisions. The decisions which you (or your blog advisors) made created CiF as it is now.

One other thing leapt out at me from the previous piece.

persistent breaches of our talk policy … pointless chatter that litters threads … degenerate into back-and-forth slanging matches … try our talk boards. Alternatively, as some have done, they can start their own blogs (we’re happily linking to quite a few) and continue the quick-fire insults in their own space.

Leave blogs out of it, eh? I could name several blogs where the quality of the debate is in a different league from CiF – where it’s something like how I imagine the Platonic ideal of CiF debate, even. But none of those blogs was widely advertised and immediately thrown open to all their readers – and none of them was written by high-profile journalists with a record of ignoring their critics.

To sum up, the reason CiF almost immediately became a high-volume, high-polarisation, Harry’s Place/LGF scratching-post isn’t that it’s a blog. The reason is that it’s a blog designed by people who don’t understand blogs, and written by people who don’t like blogs.

Stick my neck out

I used to live down the road from Marc Riley. I turned up at his flat a couple of times to buy In Tape releases, and once interviewed him (and Jim Khambatta) for a fanzine which I was vaguely thinking about putting together. (Somewhere I’ve got the answers Yeah Yeah Noh supplied to a questionnaire I sent them – could be worth a bit now. Or not.)

One of the things we talked about in my ‘interview’ with Marc was the Creepers’ song “Make Joe”. The starting-point was Marc’s observation that skinheads freak people out: not big skinheads or hard skinheads, particularly, just anyone with a shaved scalp – even if there are normal-haired blokes around who are larger, harder or both. Hence:

Why does a head like a boiled egg make Joe shit himself?

Some years later Marc returned to the topic, in the song “Tearjerker” on the Creepers’ last album. It’s a great song, really poised – funny and touching at the same time. From memory:

Let me tell you a story of old
About a skinhead with a heart of gold
Who got chased down Dickenson Road
By some people that he didn’t even knowBecause he had a shiny bonce
Because he had size-ten feet
He was taken for a fascist slob
But a nicer bloke you’d never even meet

The same thing happened to me
I was taken for a racist rat
By a sensitive young journalist girl
Armed with pointed teeth and a cricket bat

But what about my clothes, she said
Visions of me in jackboots in her head
She was in for a terrible fright
In less than a minute I put her right

And serve her right, too.

Skins, though. Even now, there’s something about a head like a boiled egg that sets middle-class alarm bells ringing. They’re not nice, are they? What I’m saying is, they’re not nice people, you know?

One topic that fascinates me, with my academic hat on, is the political management of violence. As a rule one of two things seems to happen: in some cases violent acts are reframed as somehow excusable, not real violence; in others the minority responsible for violent acts is framed as inherently violent, criminal by nature. (And sometimes both tactics are used, side by side.) It’s a discriminatory manoeuvre, and as such it can take the shape of any existing form of discrimination: the irredeemable criminal minority may be an ethnic minority or a delegitimised political group, for example.

Or they may simply be a bit common:

Ablewhite was not the tough, independent type his shaven-headed appearance may have suggested. In fact, like many of those on the extreme fringe of the animal rights movement, he is a well-educated, articulate man from a supportive family background.

The campaign of intimidation and harassment against the Hall family and their employees began in 1999. Protesters threatened death and destruction, damaged property and sent a letter bomb to Sally Ann Hall, the daughter of John Hall, who runs Darley Oaks with his brother, Chris. Then, in October 2004, the remains of 82-year-old Mrs Hammond – Chris Hall’s mother-in-law – were dug up and removed at night from the graveyard of a church in Yoxall, Staffordshire. The remains have never been found. Though the authorities are still not able to prove who was responsible for the desecration of the grave, the police were in no doubt that Ablewhite was at the centre of the campaign of fear.

I do like that second sentence – “In fact”, indeed. I have to say, the guy sounds pretty tough and independent to me – and I can’t see that those qualities are incompatible with being well-educated and articulate. Unless what the Guardian is really trying to say that, despite his scary appearance, he isn’t one of those people. (He can’t be, after all, what with being a teacher and having a vicar as his father and so forth.)

I don’t feel any sympathy for Ablewhite and his mates – they sound like the kind of people who get into animal rights (to paraphrase the old ‘vegetarian’ gag) not because they love animals but because they hate people. But I’m struck by the sense of genuine shock expressed in the Guardian article that Ablewhite was a nice, middle-class boy as well as an animal-rights militant, and by the article’s utter lack of comprehension of what’s actually going on here. Yes, Ablewhite’s educated and articulate. No, he’s not a mindless thug (even if he does have a shaved head). And no, these statements are not at all surprising. Put it another way, is a clergy house in the rural West Midlands the kind of background you would not expect an animal-rights militant to come from?

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