Category Archives: meeja

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.)

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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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