Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Rah Rah Rah, We're Going To Smash The Oiks!

Last week the delightful Aditya Chakrabortty of The Guardian reviewed the government's plans for funding Higher Education. I won't bore you with the technical details, but essentially they were going to fund expansion (largely through private providers of the kind currently suspended for immigration fraud and low standards) by selling off future student loan payments to banks.

The only problems were that 1) so many students weren't paying back their loans that the whole loans-for-fees system isn't saving the government any money and b) even with a massive discount, banks weren't biting. The whole idea is ridiculous: flogging off a major income stream for a pittance, even on their own terms. I wrote to my MP Paul Uppal, the HE minister's private parliamentary secretary, asking him if he could explain how it would all work. He replied with a very courteous letter essentially saying 'er…no, but I'll write again if we think of anything or if the sale doesn't go ahead.

The sale isn't going ahead. Vince Cable, who as Secretary of State for Business obviously oversees HE funding and policy, has declared that the sale is off, leaving a £12bn hole in the projected budget. My hunch is that they'll close it by ending the expansion of student numbers.

So this is the background to Chakrabortty's declaration that the sector is itself in disarray, with market-friendly managers and senior academics wrecking proud institutions like King's College London.
pushed into a marketplace, the managers of higher education don't really know how to act. So they ape each other, pass off what they are doing to what's left of the staff as the new wisdom – and pay themselves vast sums for wrecking one of the few sectors in which Britain leads the world. The result in all its strategic confusion and grasping anxiety is the university version of The Thick of Itfrom bean to cup, those HE bosses fuck up.
Not that I have a single critical word to say about the enlightened leaders of my own dear Hegemon. I don't want to end up like Thomas Docherty, suspended by the University of Warwick for 'sighing' and  'irony'. Apparently academic bitchy resting face is now a disciplinary issue.

But fear not. The true madness has just descended on us. The deposed minister for HE, David Willetts, has been privately advocating a work of staggering genius. Discovered by Newsnight's Christopher Cook and presumably a government attempt to float the idea, Willetts wants to dump student debt on individual universities.

The idea's simple. You borrow from the government. That debt is then sold to the student's university on graduation. That's the debt that they couldn't sell to the banks, you remember. Then the student owes her debt to her alma mater.

A few problems arise. Firstly, are either the government or university finance offices capable of even managing the process? I can't even get my finance department to pay a visiting speaker £30 in travel expenses, so I have my doubts that it will successfully negotiate the (enforced?) purchase of discounted financial instruments.

Secondly, loading universities with their students debts is guaranteed to lead to fewer courses populated by richer students. Imagine the recruitment department looking at a forty-year old single mother from a minority community applying to study social work or education. Women earn less. They have career breaks, often to have children. School teachers, nurses, social workers and other useful people earn very little compared to the bankers who even steal from the government which bailed them out. The average company CEO, it turns out, is still male, 54 and an Oxbridge graduate (and therefore very likely to be white, too).

Any sane university trapped in the logic of depending on student loan repayments would turn away the poor, the old, the ethnic, the female and the altruistic. It would shut down the courses which lead to socially useful jobs, because they pay less. It would also shut down the expensive courses, like the sciences.

And then we turn to geography. Imagine being a university serving a community of poor, often BME people. The local employers pay the minimum wage or are public sector employees. Unemployment is high. Would you provide courses enabling the poor locals to better themselves? Of course not: because we all know that unemployment and low pay aren't a function of individual fecklessness or bad luck. They're a deliberate strategy designed to provide a pool of desperate workers (keeping wage inflation down) and to increase shareholder and executive pay at the expense of the workforce.

Willetts claims that loading universities with their students' debts will make the institution work harder to make those graduates more employable. This is economic illiteracy or – worse – deliberately deceptive. It implies that employability is solely a matter of personal qualities and education is a private good, when it remains inescapably true that there are (and have been since 2008) more unemployed people than there are jobs, and until the financial recovery becomes an economic recovery, this will continue to be the case. So it doesn't matter if you have 'appropriate' qualifications bursting from every orifice, or your university has showered you with skills, courses and internships, many graduates won't get a job.

Cook points out that six 'top' universities are keen on the whole idea. Of course they are. Getting a degree from the Russell Group, particularly Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and a couple of others, is like winning a Golden Ticket (though Willy Wonka's distribution of tickets is much, much fairer than elite university entrance, which is largely predicated on parental wealth and private education: as an aside, Piketty's Capital points out that the average parental income for Harvard undergraduates is $450,000 p.a. – feel the egalité). So these 'top' universities, drawing their intake from the global elite, can be pretty sure that most of their students (of course some will dedicate their lives to low-paying, altruistic work) will be earning massive salaries simply because of the name on their degree certification, let alone the social capital acquired along the way. They won't even have to shut down the Medieval Icelandic courses, because institutional prestige will smooth those graduates' paths.

Those VCs are rubbing their hands together with glee, because there's another little bonus coming their way. They can point to their students' economic successes as proof that they have little risk attached to income, and raise their fees massively, thus excluding more of the Great Unwashed. If you're going to become a derivatives broker, £50,000 debt is chicken-feed, a quarter of the price of your latest Lamborghini. So is £100,000. So let's party!

Meanwhile, in the rust-belt, poor old Poly will have progressively shut down sculpture, art, and music, then media and film, then languages (if any still existed), then English. Before long, history, politics and sociology will go. Pretty soon only nursing, law and business will exist outside the sciences. At some point the finance director will point out that sciences are expensive and the students aren't getting well-paying jobs. Then the league tables will point out that legal and business jobs depend on contacts and prestige degrees, while the nurses have stopped paying back their loans. Before long the whole place will quietly shut down with barely a whimper of regret from anyone in authority. A (perhaps the) major source of pride, regeneration, cash and enlightenment in the region will be gone and nothing will bring it back.

This will not be an accident. This is the plan. As I've said over and over again since I started this blog many years ago, successive government long-ago decided that they work for the financial elite. Rather than looking at the industrial situation in 1960 or whenever and work out how 60 million people will earn a living, they decided to concentrate on shareholder profits. This meant crushing wages, reducing labour protection, reducing social security and engineering an economy based on low-paid, low-employment, low-skilled services. This necessarily requires a smaller, meaner state because while most of us can't and wouldn't avoid our taxes, corporations can and do. The grotesque sight of Russian oligarchs paying the Tories £160,000 for a game of tennis with Boris Johnson illustrates this strategy perfectly. Why pay millions in taxes, governments say to these people, when you can pay the Party a few hundred thousand?

Higher and Further education are key to this strategy. They don't want, or at the very least don't care about widening participation. They don't think the poor deserve or are capable of succeeding at HE, and they define success solely as personal financial gain (except for their own kids, who will be privately funded to study wonderful courses I'd love to take such as Medieval Icelandic, safe in the knowledge that they'll never be exposed to the cold winds of the job centre). My students, and their kids, can sod off to an Amazon warehouse and be grateful.

Other, better analyses of this crackpot scheme are here, here and probably all over the net.

Which takes me to the title of this post, derived from the chant of Footlights College when they meet Scumbag College in University Challenge.

It was funny then. Now it's policy.

Lucky there's an election in 10 months eh readers?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

They can't mean me…

Now and then I get a slightly exhausted senior manager on the phone, asking me in for a little chat about whatever the local rag has stolen from my Twitter feed or blog. So far, they've been very kind and understanding, and always insisted that I would never be asked to remain silent on whatever subject has caught my eye that week. Nonetheless, it's pretty clear that they would rather I occasionally passed up the opportunity to offer my two cents. I do, too: despite some pretty childish attempts by local hacks to rile me, I've let some things drop and not raised others. I'm certainly a lot more circumspect about the things I learn in my role as union rep and university governor too: despite my reputation as a bigmouth, there are plenty of things that have either enthused me or depressed me that I've maintained a discreet silence about. I'm just one person and I'm not always the best qualified individual to judge what should and shouldn't be publicly aired, despite my strong feeling that a university is nothing if it isn't a series of loud, public arguments.

In the sector generally, silence is beginning to fall. Quiet words are being had, prominent individuals are being sidelined, suspended or retired for disagreeing with management in public. In the new university sector, the institution is no longer the ramshackle conglomeration of students, teachers, support staff, managers, local authorities and interested parties. The university is now a small collection of very highly-paid professional administrators at whose beck and call we exist. From cleaners to professors, 'we' are no longer the institution: we service it. (I prefer the original Italian model in which students would hire a room and a lecturer).

One of the many problems with this horrid corporate model is that suddenly we're all meant to obey the Word from on High. Corporate loyalty and obedience become paramount. In the old days, academics were meant to be unruly troublemakers. That's why we were hired: we have a loyalty to the ideals of education, not to the local and contingent structures in which we find ourselves. We challenged old nostrums, whether about the Great Vowel Shift or the catering menu. Now the job consists of two things: Teaching and Shutting Up. One manager recently proudly told me that his job is to ensure that nobody 'disruptive' gets a job here: I thought the point of higher education was to disrupt the status quo.

This hierarchical, top-down corporate structure is beginning to acquire a legal and managerial structure. Take David Browne's public (and hastily removed) musing on Luis Suarez's behaviour and what it means for universities:
‘high performing’ academics can damage their ‘university’s brand’ by their ‘outspoken opinions or general insubordination’.
In the probably non-existent Golden Age of higher education, it was accepted that academics would and could be a royal pain in the arse. There are even witty books about playing the academic game, and hundreds of tedious diaries and biographies of Senior Wranglers from Oxbridge colleges who spent their entire careers whispering poison about each other into influential ears. Campus novels teem with single-minded Vice-Chancellors worn down by academics who won't knuckle down and follow orders. Most of them are very boring.

It's different now. Universities, as Mr Browne observes, are brands and businesses which happen to produce education as their product. Some have been like that for years, such as Warwick. Once the end-result of a university education isn't critical thinkers, an oppressive apparatus of control appears (and in specific regard to Business Schools: the global economy collapses because nobody's being critical). Some elements are minor or silly: meaningless slogans, logos, email footers. Others are more heavy-handed. Out goes the legally-protected notion of academic freedom:
academic freedom is specified in the Education Reform Act 1988, Section 202 (2). The clause, setting out the role of a new body of University Commissioners, is quite specific: “to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions
and in comes the imposition of mission statements, pronunciamentos and a general air of disappointment and fury every time we who have found ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchical structure we naively thought was egalitarian resist the latest attack on principles we hold dear. Yes, we have a legal right to 'question and test received opinion', but I wouldn't mind betting that an industrial tribunal will see a university argue that this right refers only to scholarly concepts and not to corporate policy. 

If I suddenly go quiet, look for me teaching Business English on the midnight shift at our Siberian satellite campus.

For some, sanctions. For others: ammo

We can all be forgiven for thinking the world's going to hell in a handcart. South Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Ukraine to name just a few places. Thank heavens we live in a nice quiet bit of Northern Europe/North America or Australia. What's wrong with these foreigners that they reach for a gun at the drop of a hat? They're just barbarians. We're civilised.

Of course we're civilised. As long as you miss out Northern Ireland, or make sure you carry out your genocides before international law and media get going. Native Americans? Just enough left to weave some rugs for the tourists. We wouldn't behave like these savages. Or at least, not in public. Yes, there's Guantanamo and Bagram and Diego Garcia and black sites in Poland, Romania, Egypt and various other places, but they're only for terrorists. We're for democracy. At least, when and where it suits us. Sure, Egypt's a military dictatorship and Saudi Arabia is the worst place on earth for Jews, women, atheists, black people, liberals, trades unionists and religious minorities. But they put on a good spread and some of their leaders are very hospitable to our salesmen. Really, Rolls-Royce and BAe haven't a bad word to say about them.

Look at these brutes. Smashing civilian planes out of the sky. We wouldn't do that. Well, OK, we would, using the USS Vincennes which had entered Iranian waters after getting annoyed by Iranian speedboats. But that plane was packed with Iranians, in Iranian airspace. Honestly, they were asking for it. And we said sorry. Well, not exactly sorry, but we did give the 290 victims' $61m between them without admitting legal liability. These things happen.
When questioned in a 2000 BBC documentary, the U.S. government stated in a written answer that they believed the incident may have been caused by a simultaneous psychological condition amongst the 18 bridge crew of the Vincennes called 'scenario fulfillment', which is said to occur when persons are under pressure. In such a situation, the men will carry out a training scenario, believing it to be reality while ignoring sensory information that contradicts the scenario. In the case of this incident, the scenario was an attack by a lone military aircraft.
What did President Bush the First say?
"I will never apologize for the United States — I don't care what the facts are... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy."
In fact it was the Iranians' fault for being at war with Saddam Hussein, he said. And you can't say fairer than that. Which is why Bill Clinton continued to refuse to apologise.

But anyway, apart from that, it's pretty clear that the dividing line between Civilised and Uncivilised is religious and ethnic. Arabs and Muslims are Uncivilised, White People are Civilised. We don't do these things to each other.

Except that we obviously do, and we help out when our Civilised friends want to go about smiting the Uncivilised. After all, we can't leave the Israelis to do all that child-killing unaided. We (rightly) sanction Russia for at least helping shoot down a jet, but we send Israel more ammo. All the stuff a feisty little nation might need to bombard a densely packed city with heavy weaponry.
David Miliband admitted that Israeli equipment used in Gaza in the 2008-9 conflict "almost certainly" contained UK-supplied components. He cited F16 combat aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, Saar-Class corvettes and armoured personnel carriers.
Perhaps it's a tinge of imperial nostalgia. After all, it's almost a century since the British got to bombard a densely-packed city of lightly-armed rebellious natives holding a largely symbolic insurrection next door: Dublin, 1916. (A side-note of pride: my great-uncle Thomas was Commandant of the 1st Dublin Brigade and fought in the GPO that day). I'm really looking forward to the wall-to-wall BBC/Daily Mail coverage of that proud moment in a couple of years time. I mean: these Palestinian children and bakers and mothers and street-cleaners and lawyers are just asking for it. And that's not just me, that's the Wall Street Journal:

So what am I rambling on about really? Well, it comes down to realpolitik: the understanding that any principles evinced by democratically-elected leaders are contingent. Democracy is something with which to taunt your enemies, not press on your friends. Palestinian children just are expendable. The planes your enemies shoot down are evidence of barbarism. The planes you shoot down are regrettable instances of unfavourable conditions. You kidnap: we have secure rendition facilities. We were provoked: you're inherently evil. We must defend ourselves: you're warmongers. We have security concerns: you're terrorists. We have values that must be defended: you're fanatics.

Right now, I've got a 'plague on all your houses' feeling, which is wrong. All these conflicts are more complicated than they seem. Every side is committing offences against humanity that we should be getting outraged over, case by case. But watching the news and social media, hearing the same tired old lies and evasions trotted out by our political leaders, it's hard to do anything other than accept the disempowerment and watch events unfold as though we're at the cinema. When you hear John Kerry tell the news that Israel is conducting 'pinpoint' operations then being caught on camera using the phrase sarcastically, you have to admit that – as Baudrillard pointed out – we're not in a real war at all. There's what happens, which Kerry can only mutter to his aides about, and there's the simulation, which is far more important. Kerry clearly doesn't like Israel killing children and civilians on a personal level, but his job is to deny it's happening for the purpose of maintaining the USA's uncritical support for whatever Israel wants to do. (As an aside, the Fox presenter challenged Kerry for expressing regret for the dead children: criticising Israel is just not on). Social media's no better: one Christian activist polluting my timeline on Twitter is spending his time explaining why exactly it is that God needs lots of Palestinian kids dead in a hurry. I'm no wiser, to be honest. It's just thousands of people posting decontextualised photos or propaganda points in pursuit of what, exactly, I don't know. Still, they're all better than Caitlin Moran's all-purpose outrage:

Well done Caitlin. We can all stop worrying about it now because all those FGM-advocates will be bowled over by a columnist writing WTF on her hand. Staying seated on a bus? Passing a law? Throwing yourself under a racehorse? Boring. Or BORING!!!!! as Caitlin would say. She's written an opinion on her hand and posted it on Twitter. End Of!

Time to stop. Even by my standards this is rambling nonsense rather than an argument. It's hot and everybody's gone mad. Including me.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Come into the garden Maud

Life in the new Faculty is less than halcyon. It feels more like this.

And yet somehow you just know that management thinks everything in the rose garden is lovely. Apart from their philistine, arrogant and ignorant attacks on everything they do, they compound the insults by not even bothering to spell our names or get our sexes right on the insulting material they send us.

I know there's a critical management studies field of 'workplace resistance'. They'd get a career's worth of material from this place. Me? I refer you to the sublime Office Space:

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Cutting Edge Thinking from British Fencing

OK, well over 99% of you won't give a damn about this one, but I need a mini-Rant.

I've just read the latest edition of The Sword, British Fencing's quarterly publication. It carries fencing news, results, and sometimes my photos if I've been to a competition recently. The other regular feature is 'Why oh why is fencing in crisis?' (which it usually is).

This time, Ronald Velden, one of the prominent commentators in British Fencing has hit upon a clever wheeze to develop the sport:
improving participation in the independent schools
That's right. When you have no Olympic medals in living memory, and the public perception of your sport is that it's a toff activity, what we really need to do is funnel more cash and attention (including taxpayers' money) to a small percentage of the mega-rich 7% of the school-age population who attend fee-paying institutions. Obviously there must be huge social barriers to their participation which need overcoming. I'm really bothered by the idea that we should recruit from a pool of privileged kids who are largely white and male. That's what led the Amateur Fencing Association's leadership to put on fund-raising events for England epeeist and British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley: a blinkered, smug and exclusive elitist mind-set.

It may surprise Ronald and his chums in the British Fencing hierarchy, but out here in the sticks we actually do recruit widely and reduce barriers to participation. There are clubs such as Newham, West Fife and Camden which recruit from the local population (very weirdly, Ronald is chair of Camden Fencing Club!). Some of them are even black, which is – sadly – a new experience in the fencing world. Their kids are competitive and hugely successful. Other clubs, like my own, offer free coaching and ultra-low fees (£2.50 for 2.5 hours fencing) but we don't do enough recruitment, relying instead on people finding us.

Other sports, particularly British Cycling, worked out a long time ago that success comes from recruiting from as deep a pool as possible, rather than relying on a traditional circle of insiders. The UK is notably unsuccessful at fencing and I think that's partly because it still recruits from the traditional class-based sources: private schools and the armed forces. In Italy, Germany, France and all of Eastern Europe, fencing is a normal sport open to everyone. It's certainly true that their social elites have a strong historical link to the sport, but participation is open to and affordable by all.

Apart from the argument about medal success, I detest the inward-looking, cosy smugness of the fencing hierarchy. Surely if you believe your sport is wonderful, as I presume we all do, we want to persuade everyone to try it. Fencing requires a set of athletic, mental and social disciplines which are good for individuals and transferable: we should be going in to primary schools and community centres, demonstrating what we do and taking in anyone who wants a go, whether they'll go on to be Olympians or just fat blokes like me.

I was going to say 'imagine going to the Government and saying "give us more money and we'll spend it on private sports"' when it struck me that the current crew would probably open the coffers enthusiastically.

OK, back to the real world shortly.

Friday, 11 July 2014

You shouldn't be allowed to see what it is yet!

So this was in the local rag recently:

The 'anger', it turns out, is entirely felt by one man who feels so strongly about it that he wishes to remain anonymous, presumably worried that the region's roving bands of violent paedophile cartoonists will visit vengeance upon him.

He feels very deeply that the complete works of Rolf Harris should be withdrawn from the public domain:
I can understand books being written about people who committed horrific crimes, but this is something he has written himself…I think it’s disgusting this sort of offensive material is on show for anyone to see.
So, to sum up: he's quite happy for anyone to see and read books about 'horrific crimes' but thinks that  books like A Pet For You: Animal Hospital with Rolf Harris, Can You Tell What It Is Yet? and Rolf On Art: My Approach from First Steps to Finished Paintings are 'offensive'. They also found an 'outraged' user who did give his name and felt that The Best of Rolf CD should be banned too. The council isn't withdrawing the books for adults or the CD, but is taking away a book for children by Harris, as though there's something inherently paedophilic and contagious in the book, which completely baffles me. It's way beyond logic and rationality.

Why am I bothered? Because I came into the office at 7 a.m. this morning to do a live radio interview on the BBC's WM station with this chap and the presenter, and I spent yesterday thinking about how I feel. Sadly, our defender of public morality either didn't wake up or thought better of making a public stand: he didn't answer, and then switched off, his phone. We were going to talk about censorship, the nature of offence, the history of book-banning and whether art and artists can and should be treated distinctly.

Rather than let good material go to waste, you can have my take on the Filthy Books Furore. I guess that you won't be surprised that I'm against censoring books by bad people. I tend to believe that reading Rolf's book on art won't make you a bad person, it'll make you a bad artist. His books aren't offensive: he is. There's a difference. If you don't want Rolf to make 6p in royalties, don't take out his book.

I'd probably yank biographies of Savile and Harris from the shelves on the grounds that they're out of date, but keep the autobiographies. I strongly believe that a society that wants to understand itself shouldn't sweep material under the carpet but examine it. Savile's autobiography was astonishingly candid: perhaps closer reading would have caught him while he yet lived.

I just don't think that art should be judged by the standards of the artist's morality. Rolf's art was always bad art, whatever we did or didn't know about him. Caravaggio was a murderer: should we take his paintings down? The case I know most about is one I was going to mention on air because it's directly relevant to the BBC. Eric Gill was a talent sculptor, typographer and artist - one of the most fascinating characters of the twentieth-century. You've seen his work millions of times, because he designed Gill Sans, a beautiful typeface:

As well as typography, he carved the astonishing Prospero and Ariel figures on the BBC's Broadcasting House, and the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral:

Eric Gill: Ariel Between Wisdom and Gaiety
I tell my Media Ethics students about Eric Gill. I show them the artwork. Then I tell them about his sex life. He had affairs with his sisters (usually no reaction). He had sex with his daughters (some disquiet). He had sex with his dog (utter horror: I usually tease them for their moral hierarchies by observing that it's probably less cruel to have sex with an animal than to kill it, and ask what they had for lunch).

Does this catalogue of horrors mean that Gill's artwork is tainted? I don't think it does. Gill painted and sculpted eroticised images of his daughters and sister Gladys. Knowing this adds a degree of horror, but if I'd never know who the models were, or what their relationship was, I don't think anything intrinsic in the artwork would have communicated abuse or taboo. In many ways, knowing the background to some of the art makes it more complex and intense. I wouldn't hide them away because I don't think there's a magical connection between an artist's morality and his or her work. There are exceptions: I do think Graham Ovenden's art was explicitly paedophilic and don't believe his exquisite technique entitles him to a free pass.

Jimmy Savile recorded a series of road safety adverts, like this one:

Should this be banned? I think not. The message is unaffected by what we now know about Savile. In its time and context, it was perfectly reasonable, and retrospective horror about what Savile was up to in other situations doesn't taint the purpose and content of this text.

Books and pictures don't commit crimes. Writers, artists and photographers do. I agree with the ban on paedophilic photography and film because it requires the abuse of real people in its production. I agree with the ban on the circulation of such material because it stimulates the further abuse of real people. I disagree with the ban on fictional representations of illegal acts however. I don't think the imagination can be legislated against, however vile the products of that imagination are. I don't think fiction creates real victims. I think we should ban the execution of actual crimes, not potential ones.

Secondly, a blanket ban on the discussion or representation of illegal acts prevents understanding them. Book Ban Man explicitly says he's happy for people to read about 'horrific crimes'. He clearly doesn't think that reading about murder or sexual violence leads to more murder or sexual violence - so why does he think that a criminal's thoughts on felt-tip line drawing is 'offensive'? Though if he feels that no books by criminals should be allowed on the shelves, I'm tempted to agree: let's rid public libraries of the complete works of Jeffrey Archer!

Let's talk about Nabokov. Lolita is one of the vilest books I've ever read. As you probably know, it's an exploration of a much older man's sexual obsession with a very young girl. I do actually think that it's paedophilic, and that fascination with young girls pervades much of Nabokov's work. I still wouldn't ban Lolita nor do I think even great literature, let alone Rolf Harris's books should be totemised as magical objects with the power to turn ordinary people into slavering perverted beasts. Texts are framed and contextualised in particular ways: while I find Lolita creepy and unpleasant, I don't think it's an advert for an act society has deemed beyond the Pale. Additionally, texts don't exist in a vacuum. They aren't magic: readers create texts by reading from their own unique perspectives. I'm sure a determined paedophile could manage to turn Lolita into simplistic one-handed entertainment, and perhaps even Rolf on Art, but the problem is with the reader: s/he's the paedophile, not the book. S/he still would be even if the book had never been read. There's only a social and legal problem if the reader commissions or commits a paedophilic act.

Away from the sphere of illegal acts, I'm generally against censorship of other material. Too many texts have been banned because some politician or campaigner sees temporary, local advantage in it. I'm sure Evelyn Waugh had Ulysses in mind when he lampooned the government in the first chapter of Vile Bodies, in which poor Adam has his autobiographical manuscript confiscated by customs.

Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Joyce, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter…all have been subject to bans for offending someone (well-meaning liberals don't like To Kill… being used in classrooms because it uses authentic but now-offensive racial epithets, while evangelists in the US condemn Rowling for promoting witchcraft). Social mores are complex and fluid: banning texts often seems very silly in a short space of time. It really bothers me that those with the loudest voices or cultural capital get to decide what gets banned. This isn't mature, democratic debate. It's the morality of the lynch mob.

It's impossible to ban books or anything else anyway. The Spycatcher case established that national boundaries had become meaningless: the book was banned in the UK but published overseas, and a judge ruled that as overseas publication had put any sensitive material in the public domain, British publication may as well go ahead. And this is before the internet, of course. Despite the spirited efforts of every government, material can't be buried for long. If all the libraries removed Rolf Harris's books from the shelves, anyone determined to learn how to draw anthropomorphic kangaroos could locate a copy on the web in seconds.

No, physical interdiction and legal intervention aren't any good when we're talking about ideas. I'm perfectly happy to ban the circulation of material depicting illegal acts, but it's far more important to discuss why we have taboos, and educate people so that they either don't feel or don't act on desires we collectively and calmly decide are damaging.

So anyway, that's what I'd have said in my 2 and a half minutes on local radio. And then the local paper would have led a violent mob to my front door.

Oh, and a final word of advice to libraries and readers. Don't buy books because they're (ghost)-written by celebrities. Buy books on the basis of quality.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

That All-Purpose Today Programme Running Schedule

Today Programme
Broadcast Running Schedule
date: any

  • 6.00 a.m. Headlines
  • 6.03-6.15 UKIP-voting farmers demanding more European subsidies
  • 6.15-6.20 Summary of Daily Mail editorials ('Today's Papers')
  • Inaccurate time-check (to be repeated at intervals throughout)
  • 6.20-6.43 Forced banter. 
  • 6.43-6.59 London weather.
  • 7.00-7.15 Hegemonic Headlines
  • 7.15-7.7.23 Patronising and embarrassing attempt at popular culture.
  • 7.24-7.34 Nick Robinson Fellates A Conservative Politician ('Yesterday at Westminster').
  • 7.34-7.50 Sue McGregor Or Some Woman Gets A Female-type Piece on Caring or Breast Cancer or Children or Whatever. 
  • 7.50-7.53 Everybody Look Serious While a Religious Person Says That It Really Does Make You Think, in kindly tones.
  • 7.53-7.59 - Muslim Outrage Of The Day.
  • 8.00-8.15 Hegemonic Headlines
  • 8.15-8.29 John Humphries Shouts At Member of the Public Excoriated by the Daily Mail (may be replaced by John Humphries Shouts UKIP Talking Points at Labour Backbencher or Daily EU Bonkers Lunacy Outrage Of The Day).
  • 8.30-8.35 Forced Levity While Someone Common Talks About Working-Class Sport Things.
  • 8.36-8.38 Melvyn Bragg Tortures a Topical Pun. 
  • 8.39-8.40 Moment of Silence before presenters manage to laugh at Bragg Pun. 
  • 8.40-8.41 Global News Roundup Token Minute, or 'Foreigners Do The Funniest Things'. 
  • 8.41.5-8.42 Stuff From Outside Central London. Whatever. 
  • 8.42-8.50 Inaccurate Time Check. Hilarity.
  • 8.50-8.58 Evan Davis Pretends To Know Stuff, To Interviewee's Obvious Scorn and/or Embarrassment. 
  • 9.00 John Humphries Finishes Speech Disguised As A Question He Started at 8.15. Crashes Pips
  • 9.01. Gloom Settles Over Nation. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

Dear Jeff: a letter to Amazon

Dear Jeff,
you don't know me. Your company thinks it does: it once emailed with the header 'Amazon loves you', which made me feel all warm inside until I realised that it just wanted my cash. I read recently that you read and pass on to your executives email sent to jeff@amazon.com on the basis that anyone who bothered to get in touch must feel deeply about whatever problem has come up.

Jeff, I have a problem. Several in fact, but only a couple of them relate to you and Amazon. I've been an Amazon customer since 1999. My first purchase was a copy of The Mabinogion for which I paid £5.74. I've still got it. I didn't buy anything in 2000 or 2001, probably because I lived over a book shop. By 2002 I was buying books and music from Amazon: the first CD was a Steve Reich collection. Harry Potter turns up in the next year, alongside some computer peripherals. By 2006, I'm like an alcoholic in a free bar - music, books, DVDs, software, hardware: all sorts of stuff brought to me as if by magic. It's amazing looking at my order history and remembering that CD or this hardback, almost Proustian (though I've never ordered any madeleines, though you do stock them).

And so it goes on: 24 orders in 2007, 78 in 2008, 109 in 2009. 230 in 2010, 256 in 2011, 281 in 2012, 243 in 2013, 114 by June of this year alone. Mostly books, but also plenty of 'big ticket' items. I'm your perfect customer Jeff. I'm hooked. I just can't stop.

But let's look more closely. The value of my orders has decline massively over the last couple of years and the nature of them has changed. If you check my order history you'll see that 3 years ago, I cancelled a £1000 order for my beloved Nikon D7000 camera. I went elsewhere, and paid a little more. Since then, I've mostly bought second-hand books from independent sellers in your Marketplace. I used to buy through ABE, but you bought that. I bought from the Book Depository. You bought that too. If there was an independent global network of then I'd go there for secondhand books too. I buy new books from Waterstone's now, or from Webberley's in Stoke on Trent when I'm up there. The prices aren't too bad. Perhaps they're a little more expensive, but I go to them for one simple reason:
they pay their taxes. 
The other reason is that one of my friends worked at an Amazon warehouse. He and his friends toiled on incredibly low wages, at unsociable hours, with no job security, no benefits, and no trust. He and his colleagues were treated like indentured labourers.

I know what you're going to say Jeff. You're going to say that everything you do is legal. That tax-efficiency is a fiduciary duty to your shareholders. That if it isn't you, it's some other company. That workers are free to take their labour elsewhere (you don't like trades unions either, do you?).

It won't wash. Not any more. Do you remember a company called Standard Oil? Owned by Rockefeller, it was a pioneer of legal shenanigans, secret deals and market abuse, leading to John D. Rockefeller becoming the richest man in the world. It became such a threat to economic stability – to capitalism itself – that the US authorities broke it up. £8.57 gets you a copy of The History of Standard Oil, which I strongly recommend.

I know lots of other people have mentioned this to you, but I wanted to put it out there. Your nifty use of international tax law (and the absence thereof) is a form of vandalism, of self-harm even. Every pound you salt away is a pound removed from a country's education budget, its healthcare system, its social security budget, its road-building and railway networks, its police service and its courts. You need all these things. You need customers who can read and write to buy your products. You need customers who have skills they can sell to employers to earn enough to shop at Amazon. You need workers to keep your company going. You need a health service to keep them upright. You need a distribution network, good roads, health and safety officers to keep your warehouses standing and safe, lawyers to help you hide the cash and courts in which they argue their cases, a social security system that subsidises the appallingly low wages you pay your workers.

The problem is, Jeff, that you want and need all these things, but you don't want to pay for them. You're sponging off your workers and off the rest of us. Two people said interesting things that you should pay attention to. The first one is Henry Ford, who was a lot like you, except he didn't bother to hide the ruthless, oppressive nature of his capitalism. But he was a very clever man. His own company says this about his 1914 master-stroke:
…he startled the world by announcing that Ford Motor Company would pay $5 a day to its workers. The pay increase would also be accompanied by a shorter workday (from nine to eight hours). While this rate didn't automatically apply to every worker, it more than doubled the average autoworker's wage. 
While Henry's primary objective was to reduce worker attrition—labor turnover from monotonous assembly line work was high—newspapers from all over the world reported the story as an extraordinary gesture of goodwill. 
Henry Ford had reasoned that since it was now possible to build inexpensive cars in volume, more of them could be sold if employees could afford to buy them. The $5 day helped better the lot of all American workers and contributed to the emergence of the American middle class.
It's not complicated. He worked out that well-paid, well-rested workers were more productive, and that profits come from spreading the wealth: a lot of people spending some money is better – especially in your business – than a few people spending a lot of money. You don't do this. Your profits come from two sources: shutting down small competitors, and expecting the rest of us to pay for public services, infrastructure and social security support.

President Obama makes my point more eloquently. Ironically, this YouTube clip was put up by the Republicans, who appear to think that enunciating the complex web of social and economic ties we call a community is somehow subversive:

Elizabeth Warren makes a similar point: that massive tax cuts for people like you – who already avoid paying taxes – isn't just wrong: it wrecks the economy on which you depend.

They're not, from my perspective, rabid communists (if only). Of course, if my liberal bleating isn't enough to persuade you, buy a copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He suggested, in a barely-veiled warning to his contemporaries, that Rome fell apart because the plutocrats of the day stopped paying attention to social cohesion. They stopped providing bread and diversions to the commoners, and spent more money on private pools, harems and of course higher walls and tougher slaves to keep them safe from the hungry mob outside. Remind you of anyone you might know?

So Jeff. I have a problem. I want to spend my hard-earned money in ways that will help my fellow citizens. If they're well-paid, highly-educated and healthy, they'll give you some of their money too. I'm a little self-interested here, I have to admit. I'm an educator. Everybody else's taxes paid for my BA, MA, PhD and teaching certificate. I get a decent wage courtesy of the taxpayer too, and in return, I help further generations educate themselves (too many generations actually, thanks to the extended retirement date occasioned by the tax-evasion you practice) and in theory they will fund future educators to aid their kids. See how it works? But if you insist on using the state to subsidise your low wages, while making almost no contribution yourself having exterminated your local competitors, we're all screwed, including you and your shareholders. But the way you do business makes it impossible. Your company, and companies like it, act as if you have no ties to human society. You make my friends ill, you make my city dark, gloomy and empty, you close hospitals and you degrade schools. I've helped you do that, and I regret it.

How are you going to make things right?

With best wishes,
The Plashing Vole.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Say cheese…

Rather shockingly, I've won this month's Guardian travel photography competition, on the theme of solitude. Shocking because lots of the other shortlisted entries are stunning, and because I almost never travel, and certainly nowhere 'exotic'. I go to Ireland several times a year, and to Stoke-on-Trent most weeks.

(Click to enlarge the photos)

I can only see the shot's flaws now, but I'm still pleased with it. The girl's hair matches the paintwork, and the different lighting emphasises her isolation. I never use flash or tricky post-production nonsense: this was taken with a 50mm f/1.8 at 1/200, 1600 ISO on my Nikon D7000.

I took it at 1 a.m. at the famous Puck Fair in Killorglin, Ireland. Out of shot, 10,000 drunks are marauding round the streets singing, drinking and celebrating, while a wild goat presides over the festivities from the safety of a tower. I was interested in the aftermath - you can see from my set that the place is trashed, though by 6 a.m. the streets are pristine once more and ready for the child-friendly daytime activities. I've a taste for garish fun sometimes - a couple of years ago I took my old camera to Birds' Funfair at Puck and was pleased with the results despite having very limited technical resources.

The lad demanded I take his picture, then his sister arrived to tell him that I 'might be a paedo' and promised me a beating if I was. She still wanted her picture taking though. 

Live footage of people up on some horrific ride. It reminded me of something from David Lynch. 

The next competition's theme is 'beach'. I don't go to many beaches, but I was thinking of submitting one of these. 

The beach at Formby/Crosbie near Liverpool has these Anthony Gormley statues all over it, at different depths of water or in the sand. People do funny things to them, like paint on swimming trunks, dress them up as James Bond and so on: high art becomes folk art (see them here). They're also ageing beautifully, covered in rust and algae. But they're so familiar now (one was entered for the competition I won) that it's hard to photograph them in a new way. So I was pleased to find this family camped around a rusty naked gentleman even though the beach was almost deserted. The sun was blazing, so I decided that I could emphasise both the heat and their isolation by opening up the aperture to its maximum, flooding the image with light and losing all the background detail.

My other options are more traditional landscape shots, taken from another spot near Liverpool: Hilbre Island off the Wirral peninsula. At low tide, the sea becomes a mud flat, sometimes even a beach, and you can walk out to the islands. The weather changes every few minutes and the light is wonderful.

What could be more English than this? 'Trudging slowly over wet sand' in the rain towards a coastal town they forgot to close down, whose most prominent building is a Morrison's supermarket?

Which one do you think I should enter?

Monday, 30 June 2014

Weir all crazee now*

Can you name a female composer other than Hildegard of Bingen? I bet most of us can't. I'm fairly knowledgeable about contemporary classical, and I struggle to get to ten (Nadia and Lili Boulanger, Saariaho, Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav, still overlooked), Maconchy, Beamish, Bingham, Nicola LeFanu and Judith Weir. Why? Partly because I'm shockingly ill-informed of course, but also because classical music is one of the last bastions of patriarchal privilege. The 'High' Arts are where the men rule. They get the training, they get the jobs, they make the contacts and they get the critical attention. It's OK for women to perform – essential, given we've given up castrating boys thanks to the 'elf and safety mob as the Mail would no doubt put it – but there seems to be a structural resistance to women as creators of anything other than babies. There are female artists from the pre-feminist era, but relatively few because women weren't thought capable of philosophical, creative or abstract thought, barring them from the production, circulation and criticism of art. The music world is like the medical world: just as there are plenty of female nurses and junior doctors but almost no surgeons, there are lots of women filling the orchestral desks, few leaders, almost no conductors and very few regularly-performed composers.

A composer's sex shouldn't matter, but it does. Who knows how many great works have gone unperformed – or uncomposed – because a woman has been deterred from writing, or from learning to write, music? (And all this applies to non-white composers too). Classical music is split between the defenders of Culture who tend to be crusty reactionaries and hip young gunslingers eager to demonstrate the form's variety and openness to contemporary society. What brings them together is their white maleness. The 'new' composers are just as likely to be earnest young men playing with samplers as the traditionalists' heroes too which is really disappointing though as I say, it's structural. None of the composers, conductors, orchestra managers or whoever would admit to being sexist, but they do operate a boys' club. Why aren't women signing up for composition classes, or winning commissions, getting on the concert bills, or getting the various other hands up along the way? I refuse to accept the claim that they're somehow not good enough - there are plenty of mediocre men who get their work played (yes I'm looking at you, Terry Riley, Ravel, all the Strausses, Fauré, de Falla, Gorecki, Respighi

So here are some clips from some great female composers I like, starting with Judith Weir who has just been appointed Master (or Mistress, it's unclear yet) of the Queen's Musick. I know it's a silly title bound in to an embarrassing and outdated patronage system, but at least somebody has noticed that there are great composers with genitals on the inside. Enjoy.

Some Judith Weir (she writes operas too but I'm not that keen on those)

Some Nicola LeFanu, whom I really like:

Some solid Elizabeth Maconchy (mother of Nicola LeFanu - demonstrating that good role models and contacts help nurture another generation):

*Apologies. I couldn't resist that gag.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Just for fun…pop, politics and teenagers

Here's a historical curio for you. I'm writing an article (possibly a book) on creative writing by politicians. As background research, I'm reading Steven Fielding's survey of politics in popular culture, A State of Play, which is fascinating. 

It's led me to Just For Fun, a 1963 teen movie which mixes musical numbers with a story of fun-loving teens being crushed by the pop-hating Right Party and cynically used by the secretly-pop-hating Left Party. Various incredibly bland pop groups appear performing songs with utterly lame slightly political songs, shoe-horned in to a terrible plot. For added joy, celebrity paedophile Jimmy Savile appears, as does Alan 'Fluff' Freeman. It's one of the corniest things I've ever seen, and it's great fun. By the end, the Teen Party wins the election…and destroys the country.

Another teens-meet-politics novel, Angus McGill's Yea Yea Yea was very freely adapted for Press for Time, a truly awful Norman Wisdom vehicle. Can you last for the whole trailer? 'Get an eyeful of les girls: they're busting out all over!'

Sadly I can't find any footage of Swizzlewick, the cynical and 'lewd' local politics satire (the Guardian: 'a new low in tastelessness') and only episode is believed to exist, but you can have a speech from Dennis Potter's 1965 Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, which was yanked from the broadcast schedules hours before it was meant to go out so that its satire could be watered down to avoid offending the poor political classes. 

I've recently read Wilfred Fienburgh MP's No Love For Johnnie (an MP who is 'the most unmitigated, grasping and self-important bastard...' encountered in politics) which one review reproduced on the cover declares 'the most cynical book ever written on any subject'. I haven't yet watched the film, but note that what was an X certificate in 1961 is now merely a 12. Whereas the contemporary reviewers condemned its focus on 'sordid mattress capers', the BBFC now merely notes 'moderate sex references and languages'. 

There's no footage from the film online, but here's some of the music – it's by Malcolm Arnold and therefore is great. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Cycling: the latest zombie pursuit?

You might know that I'm a keen cyclist. You can catch me out on the roads at any time (as long as it's dry and the temperature is between 10-23C) wearing Specialized cleat shoes, Craft Lycra shorts, Lycra top, gel gloves, DHB cycling glasses and a helmet, inelegantly atop one of my two bikes, either my carbon-forked Forme Longcliffe 4.0 or my customised 1967 Moulton Classic.

I am, in short, a MAMIL: a Middle-Aged Man In Lycra. There are lots of us about. Whenever I go out, I give a cheery nod to lots of men and some women dressed just like me, often riding bikes that wouldn't shame a professional cyclist with a ticket-price to match. They're all faster than me.

Aside from the mid-life crisis crew, cycling's everywhere. The Tour de France is coming to the UK this year. Bradley Wiggins, Varnish, the Trott sisters, Cavendish, Froome, Pendleton, Armitstead and several others are all over the media.

So lots of people are cycling and professional cycling is hugely popular. Why, for the love of God, do I think it might be dying? Well – I'm worried that it's becoming ghettoised as a hobby for rich elitists, professionals and gear-fetishists. Look at my description of my cycling life: branded to the last comma. Ten years ago I had a knackered 1970s racer bought for £10. I don't even recall whether it still had a maker's name. I didn't agonise over the extra weight incurred by using cheap inner tubes, nor care what other cyclists thought. I just went places. Nor did I concern myself with consuming gels: I had a bottle of water. Now, we acknowledge each other while casting a discerning eye over each other's frames and wheel sets, all trying to look like we're on the Sky reserve list.

In short, I worry that cycling is next in line for the golf treatment. I loathe golf, but I know it has a rich history outside the Home Counties of being a poor man's pleasure (let's discuss golf's inherent misogyny another time). Out in the wilds of Aberdeen or Kerry, normal people could go out and smash a few balls round a course with a basic set of golf bats then go home happy. Then courses started getting professionals. And expensive redesigns. Equipment manufacturers realised that they could whack up the prices by holding out the promise that buying their stuff would improve players' games and make them look like their heroes. Bingo: a sport becomes a business.

Cycling used to be more than a lucrative 'lifestyle' occupation. It used to be mass transport, and it used to be a means of liberation. For a low price, the workers could reach places previously out of bounds. The price of admission to the countryside or the seaside was a very few pounds and strong legs. Entire sub-cultures grew from the invention of the bicycle, such as the Clarion Clubs (still in existence), which linked exercise, travel and socialism.

I could just about imagine Bradley Wiggins endorsing this slogan, but not Chris Froome, currently residing in Monaco for tax purposes. There were a whole load of other people's cycling clubs too: for vegetarians, communists, Tories, workers, Masons, Daily Mail readers, servant girls, actors, soldiers, Christians… There was even a rebel British League of Cyclists formed to run illegal road races after the National Cyclists' Union caved in to government hostility and banned the sport.

The bicycle didn't just bring about political liberation either: for women it assisted their move into the public sphere, allied to Rational Dress and closely entwined with the Suffragists.

Cycling was good for the genes too: though I've never been able to track down the source, there's a claim that the French peasantry grew an inch taller once a generation of them had the chance to ride bikes to court people living further away than a decent walk, most of whom were their relatives!

So cycling's a special activity: it's a product of industrial capitalist modernity which democratised movement, speed and physical exercise at a fairly minimal cost. But now – and I'm certainly part of the problem – the sport has been to some extent taken over by cults of consumerism and physical perfection. You don't see people like the young me around so much, riding ramshackle contraptions for fun, though many of the country's cycling clubs are doing fantastic work. Instead, there's a competitive element both with regards to kit and performance which I think moves cycling into the same category as golf and similar bourgeois sports in which the consumerist aspirational element has become too prominent. I can see how it happens: I know very well the seduction of desiring more, supposedly better kit (in my other hobbies of fencing and photography too) when I know in my heart that just trying harder will make more of a difference. At least when I go swimming there's almost no equipment to worry about! Or at least none that can be improved without serious surgery.

I love cycling (in the right conditions). I like the speed, the surroundings, the pleasure of squeezing that little bit more out of what's frankly an unlovely and low-quality body, and simply of getting to interesting places under my own steam. I think cycling is special because it's so open and democratic, and don't want it to become hierarchical, competitive and the preserve of the MAMILs. Few phrases are more snobbish than 'Bike-shaped Object', used by 'serious' cyclists –and me, sometimes – to describe the (often-dangerous) budget bikes on the roads. Cars and bad urban design have pushed bikes off the roads for work as well as pleasure except in a few British cities - I'd hate to see the cult of consumerist perfection and professionalisation discourage the leisure cyclists and those without loads of cash by setting examples that can't be followed. Fatties of Britain: Unite and Get On Your Bikes!

Friday, 20 June 2014

We need to talk about Tristram

I'm a member of the Labour Party. Being a member of any political party makes me a little bit weird - formal participation has been declining for many years. I'm even weird amongst my friends. Most of us are socialists, and we're not especially welcome in the Party. But I carry on because I'd like to have even a tiny say in the policy determinations of a party that has a strong chance of winning a general election. I admire my friends who spend their time arguing over the minutiae of leftwing ideology before standing in the rain selling three sectarian newspapers a week, but let's face it: that's more of a hobby than a plan for government. 

So I'm in the Labour party. I joined to vote for John McDonnell in the leadership election that led to Gordon Brown's elevation. What can I say? I unerringly support the losing side. I wanted Denis Kucinich to win the US Presidency. I've met both Milibands, and far preferred Ed. David struck me as an unreflective and cynical machine politician. Ed, for all the scrapes he gets into, seemed to be principled and genuinely interested in the people he met.

But my party doesn't make it easy for me to remain a member. There's the whole embrace of neoliberalism, for a start. Then the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture, the kidnapping, the deregulation etc. etc. ad infinitum. There's the latest wheeze, which is to punish young unemployed people for the bankruptcy of Britain (caused by the financial sector) by reducing their social security support. It's marketed as 'help to train' so I'm sure it's a complete coincidence that the 'help' is significantly lower than the current rate of unemployment benefit.

But most of all, there's the Honourable Tristram Hunt MP.

Tristram is the privately-educated son of a Lord (not that I'm particularly bothered about that: Benn and Dalyell were both quite posh) who was unaccountably parachuted into the poor and socialist constituency for Stoke-on-Trent Central, apparently thanks to the machinations of his friend Peter Mandelson. Tristram is an historian, or as the newspapers put it, a 'distinguished' historian, i.e. one who can produce a decent narrative from interesting though not essential material without troubling the reader with tricky metaphysical questions.

Tristram is the Shadow Secretary of State for Education. That means his job is to oppose the work of Michael Gove, the man who thinks that education should be given to private corporations who'll reproduce the atmosphere of Mr Gradgrind's drone factory and make a profit along the way. Mr Gove wants you all to become junior Empire Loyalists who know that Muslims are Bad and the British have been, are and always will be White, Christian and Nice.

Tristram isn't up to the job. Worse than that: he agrees with everything Mr Gove does. He simply feels that Michael could be a little more efficient. For a very clever man, he seems incapable of thinking anything through beyond the question that obsesses all rightwing Labour politicians: 'what will the Mail say about this?'.

Not only is Tristram incompetent, deeply conservative and entirely lacking discernible Labour values, he actively works against his party's history, beliefs and members. A few months ago, this former academic went back to Queen Mary College to deliver a lecture (apparently he doesn't consider being an MP and shadow cabinet member constitutes full-time employment). To do so, he crossed a legal picket line of his own colleagues. The subject of that lecture? Socialism. The biographer of Friedrich Engels stirred the workers with his principled defence of the right of exploited workers to withdraw their labour:
"I support the right to strike for those who have balloted to picket. I have chosen not to join the strike." Mr Hunt, who is also the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said his "personal commitment remained to the students" he was lecturing.
Funnily enough, that's the exact same claim deployed by my scab colleagues here at The Hegemon. It is, of course, transparent bullshit. I took strike action because I'm committed to my students: I want them to be taught by rested, decently-paid academics who have the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research, not by exhausted hourly-paid ones exploited by a management that cares for nothing beyond bums on seats, while the financial sector or whatever creams off potentially great thinkers.

I won't be going to my constituency party's summer party to be lectured on Labour values by a man who betrays his colleagues and his comrades. The continued presence of Tristram Hunt, while marginal compared with all the other failures of the political class, has become symbolic to me of a party leadership which can't throw off the mental shackles of the New Labour period, a clique which is more concerned with appeasing the right than developing the self-respect required to make a case for socialism and persuading the voters of our cause.

I know that my party's local and national representatives will write off my whinging as typical of a privileged élitist, but they're wrong. You don't have to be a raving Trotskyist to understand that you don't cross picket lines, especially when you're a massively rich person earning a second or third income by taking work done by former colleagues protesting about eight years of declining pay.

Tristram is the touchstone of the debate, a symptom of the cowardice and isolation of the upper reaches of the Labour Party. If you can't find anything to argue about with Michael Gove, you're in the wrong party and the wrong job.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Getting Stuffed With Paxo

Tonight is Jeremy Paxman's last appearance as lead anchor for Newsnight, the BBC's premier long-form news broadcast. To many, Paxman is a hero of hard-hitting journalism, famous for encounters such as this, with the egregious Home Secretary, Michael Howard:

Or this more recent one with the hapless Chloe Smith of the Treasury

There are many other examples of him at the top of his game: the interview with Blair in which he tried to pin down the PM's rather shifty conflation of Christianity and neoliberalism, then listed (from 8.50) one Labour donor's publishing stable ('Horny Housewives, Mega Boobs, Skinny and Wriggly') to which Blair could only reply 'I've said what I've said…Look…'.

I used to love Newsnight. The other news broadcasts seemed lazy, lightweight, incurious and uninformed. They were also, to my younger self, thrilling. A rude, loud and openly sceptical interviewer demanding answers to awkward questions from people I hated - Tories and rightwing Labour ministers and MPs. It was, frankly, a macho thing, a gladiatorial battle. I felt exactly the same way about the Today programme, Radio 4's flagship 3-hour morning news show.

I no longer feel that way. Firstly, probably because I'm getting old, I find myself frustrated by the sheer lack of knowledge displayed by all sides. I keep thinking that if I can educate myself in basic economics, climate science, philosophy, the arts, sociology etc. etc., the least the politicians and journalists paid to be experts can do is be ahead of me. I'm also sick of the closed circle of Establishment voices represented on Newsnight and its equivalents. Despite the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the importance of the EU, the dissemination of expertise to charities, universities and local organisations, the political and media classes are still resolutely metropolitan and Westminster-centric. I'm tired, too, of the relentless parade of privately-educated, Oxbridge-finished faces and voices reflecting a world-view and an interrogative style derived from the tired rituals of the Oxford Union debating society. The perspectives of tens of millions of other people just never get a look-in: and that's before we even touch the exclusion of female, minority-ethnic and northern people. Civil society is now invisible in political and hard news journalism, which I find deeply saddening. The obsession with the remnants of democracy seems rather archaic when executive and corporate power retreats further out of the reach of electoral politics.

Presentationally, I'm now utterly drained by the moribund, sterile set-up of Newsnight and Today. Paxman's aggressive approach was once essential: the interview with Michael Howard may well have changed the course of British politics by revealing him to be not just authoritarian but also profoundly dishonest. But it's a tactic that stopped working long ago. Any politician – with the exception of Chloe Smith – has had so much media training that an appearance opposite Paxo holds no more terror. They're trained in the art of 'bridging': filling the available 3/8/15 minutes with so much bland pap that neither the interviewer nor the audience is given anything to grasp beyond a sense of whether the interviewee is 'good on telly'. Paxman's brute force frontal attack can't do anything against an interviewee whose only concern is to 'fill'. They're trained to look human (I know, what a world, in which our representatives need training to sound like the rest of us, but it is, of course, our fault: we and our chosen newspapers and TV channels demand robotic perfection then mock them for giving us what we think we want), not to answer reasonable questions.

I am tired of the two-heads format in which people with extreme views are presented as equally knowledgeable while a presenter mediates ('Well he says you're a liar, what have you got to say to that?'). Yes, we all like a good argument but we often end up none the wiser, or even misled. Climate science is one particular victim here: presenting the views of corporate whores like Lawson (who has zero scientific background) as co-equal with 99% of active researchers in the field has literally done enormous damage to the planet. Last year I fruitlessly pursued a complaint against Newsnight, which presented Peter Lilley MP as an expert who'd written 'a report' about climate change, which he thinks is a hoax. The programme didn't mention that he has no credentials, nor did they mention that he is a director of an oil exploration company. In short, they presented him as a qualified and neutral observer. When I complained, they refused to accept that his interests should have been flagged up. When pressed, their defence was that Lilley's financial interests are listed in his Parliamentary Declaration of Interests, and were therefore common knowledge. Really? I strongly suspect that more people watched that interview than even know that there is a Declaration of Interests, let alone where to find it. TV is powerful, much more powerful than the notion that viewers are out there Googling the background of guests afforded the privilege of airtime on a flagship show. Newsnight's actions, and their response to my complaint, seemed little short of dishonest to me, an abuse of power.

Paxman famously cited Louis Heren's approach, 'Why is this lying bastard lying to me?' as the source of his style, but it's become unproductive, and contributes to a general cynicism which is infectious. I have no doubt that politicians did – and do – lie to Paxman and the rest of us, but Newsnight seems to have applied this method to absolutely everybody. The result is the grotesque sight, last Monday, of Paxman telling Professor Alice Roberts what the scientific method was, of functionaries, charity workers and ordinary people being treated as objects of suspicion, of climate scientists being accused of misleading the public for some kind of obscure conspiracist purpose, of good people being assumed to be up to something. This is corrosive, but it's also counter-productive. It's noticeable over recent years that Jeremy Paxman's editorialising and sneering is more frequently applied to people you might call liberal or leftwing. He has become openly reactionary, about climate science, non-neoliberal economics, youth culture, the arts, non-Establishment approaches to history and a host of other subjects, often, I suspect, those about which he knows least. This week's series of farewell interviews has been instructive. He seemed most at ease with Hillary Clinton, a rightwing machine politician well-versed in the art of giving nothing away. He is drawn to power and nowadays rarely interested in principle and motivation: like him, Clinton is about the exercise of authority rather than any kind of idealism. Paxman then talked to Lord Saatchi, who presented him with a copy of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and proceeded to explain that corporation tax should be abolished in the name of 'freedom'. To this, Paxman had no response to the redefinition of freedom as merely economic and available to rich capitalists, despite there being no shortage of very mainstream alternatives. The gift, it seemed to me, represented the thanks of a grateful class of neoliberal governors.

Is Jeremy Paxman a Conservative? I doubt it: he seems like a patrician radical to me. But away from the individual personality issues, I think he represents a deeply radical-conservative perspective which is socially damaging. The assumption that nobody has any higher motives reinforces the status quo. It militates against social, economic and political change. It maintains the dominance of a ruling class which may occasionally incorporate some dissent and alternatives (such as the general acceptance of homosexuality) as long as the deep structures of the state and the economy remain unchanged. Once this is understood, Newsnight, the Today show and its ilk become simply ritualistic performances little different to the excruciating arse-kissing seen when politicians turn up on breakfast TV sofas to talk about what they feed their kids or whether their partners have to do all the ironing: it's just a way of reaching a different demographic.

We end up with the tired rehearsal of familiar scripts, as Chris Morris pointed out a very long time ago in a satire that now doesn't look particularly extreme.

Do we gain anything from these shows? It's noticeable that neither the flagship programmes nor the investigative newspapers foresaw the financial crash, LIBOR, Snowden, the Savile affair or any of the major scandals of our time.

I think we've reached an impasse. The Fourth Estate is now too entirely bound up with corporate interests (the private sector), paralysed by fear or simply too enmeshed in the ritualistic, performative practices of the establishment. Effective scrutiny of power is now out of reach. There are journalists I admire: Paul Mason for one, but it's too easy for those with authority to evade their grasp. Citizen journalists, big data analysts, leakers and websites do their best, but they're largely excluded from the public forum and lack the resources for serious investigation, or they're also wrapped up in corporate webs.

I'm sorry to say that I won't miss Paxman. There's a place for attack-dog journalism, but the media landscape has moved on. Power is dispersed, discursive and often invisible. Unfortunately, being a mere blogger and so-so academic, I now run into the sand. We need a searching, effective media environment more than ever, one capable of reflecting on, exposing and investigating our governments, cultures and societies. Newsnight, battered by the Savile affair, has attempted a new direction (perhaps occasioning Paxman's departure) but it's a sad and pathetic show, seemingly desperate to keep up with the kids on Twitter by running LOLcats, excruciatingly 'funny' or 'quirky' pieces and trying badly to be arty, which communicates little more than creative and journalistic exhaustion and insecurity. I have no idea where we go from there. Your thoughts?