Sunday, December 26, 2004
A tsunami of news
Today's tragedy around the Indian Ocean is still unfolding. It will be several days, if not weeks, before the true extent of the death and destruction is known. Yet the absence of hard facts has not prevented a torrent of blather on the TV.
Parallel to real life events, a tsunami of 'news' swept all other events off our TV screens - but to what effect? Today's coverage has demonstrated the banality and flatulence of our 24-hour TV news channels. "Never mind the quality, feel the width" should be their motto.
The first tidal wave of coverage consisted of idle speculation. Given the breakdown in communications in south-east Asia and the lack of reliable information, the news stations resorted to the archives, opened the graphics file marked 'earthquakes' and asked, "is there a geologist in the house?" Before we knew it, we were all instant experts on tectonic plates. This was all no doubt great stuff for pub bores wanting to argue whether it was 8.5 or 8.9 on the Richter Scale, but somehow seemed to miss the point entirely.
A few hours later, the second wave hit our shores, as the initial, faltering eyewitness accounts and disjointed pieces of film footage emerged. But since no-one was yet able to make sense of it all, instead we wallowed in the shallows of "how does it feel?" interviews.
Then at last, someone at Sky News had the wit to consider the long-term impact of this tragedy. A man from the tourist industry was wheeled in to answer the question on everybody's lips, "how will this affect the local tourist industry?" So now we'd reached what's important.
Sky News would have been better advised to invite a priest or a philosopher into the studio. We could then have contemplated the fundamental issue, which is the essential fragility of human existence. But such profound questions might have upset Boxing Day viewers, surrounded by their new iPods and electronic devices they'll never use.
Today's TV news output has been based on the false premise that the gravity of a situation is measured by the extent of the coverage provided. But the indefinite extension of news coverage does not demonstrate respect for events but rather diminishes them. On occasions like these, we need depth, not breadth. 24-hour news channels are like a guest in your house who can't bear silence but insists on talking incessantly. They are "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
If the 24-hour news channels cannot prove their worth even at a time like this, they cannot justify their existence at all. The news media would serve us better if, instead of indulging in endless speculation, they offered a period of silent reflection and spoke only when they had something worth saying.
Motorways and Miss Marple
The British have an odd attitude to motorways. We love using them (they are overcrowded most of the time), yet we make such a hash of building and operating them.
I was struck by this on Christmas Eve, when I drove south through the centre of France on the new A75 autoroute (motorway), which cuts through the middle of the Massif Central mountains between Clermont Ferrand and the Mediterranean.
I stopped at the 'Volcans d'Auvergne' service station just north of Clermont Ferrand ('volcans' refers to the extinct volcanoes in this region). Among the amenities is a large gift shop, 'La Maison des Volcans', selling a wide range of locally-produced food specialities and handicrafts.
This is not unusual in France; every motorway service station has at least a small selection of regional produce on sale and many, like this one, have an entire shop devoted to it. It is also normal to find local tourist information available. French service stations are operated by private corporations, yet manage to offer genuine variety for the consumer and support for local small enterprises.
Compare this with Britain. Every service station is a clone, with identical branded outlets offering corporate mass-produced goods. It's the same wherever you go. The private operators of these service stations run concessions licensed by the government - there is a good case for making it a condition of future concessions that licensees must support local producers and local tourism. If nothing else, it would help relieve the monotony of British motorway travel.
Further south, I encountered a second contrast. I crossed the spectacular new viaduct at Millau (opened by President Chirac earlier this month), the highest road bridge in the world. This is actually an Anglo-French project, designed by British architect Norman Foster and constructed by the French company that built the Eiffel Tower (more info available on the official website and also on this French-language site).
The French take pride in their 'grands projets'. If you are going to have a new motorway or airport, they reason, you may as well produce a stunning design and generate some pride in these things.
In Britain, we increasingly wish to use airports and motorways but don't want them in our back yard. We are also terminally cynical and tend to see hubris where none exists. One only has to recall the press treatment of the Channel Tunnel over the past twenty years to realise this. Or consider the absurdity of the so-called 'environmentalists' who object to wind farms because they "spoil the view".
If the town of Millau were in Britain, the local residents would have objected to a new bridge, no matter how well-designed, yet would have continued to moan about the traffic jams in their town.
As a result of this small-mindedness, Britain ends up with bland or half-cocked designs and a general air of shabbiness about its civil projects. The mixture of ugliness and unfriendliness reaches its nadir at Heathrow airport, where most of Britain's foreign visitors first arrive. Presumably the idea is that, after first being hit in the face with Heathrow, foreigners will find everything else about Britain a pleasant surprise.
Our Victorian forbears had pride in their civil projects - look at the Forth Rail Bridge or St Pancras station (where the contrast with the neighbouring new British Library building symbolises everything that has gone wrong). The British lost their sense of confidence at some point during the twentieth century, at first resorting to brutal modernism, then retreating into fake classicism or twee suburbanism (Prince Charles's model village of Poundbury is a monument to this British loss of nerve).
Most British people want all the amenities of a modern society, yet desire to live in a fantasy Miss Marple-style village. I don't know about you, but if I lived in the same sort of suffocating village society as Miss Marple, I'd feel like murdering somebody.
Saturday, December 25, 2004
I wouldn't normally wish to strike a sour note during the festive season, but in this case I'm prepared to make an exception.
Earlier today, I had the misfortune to read Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik's views on Christmas. One sample will suffice: "To those Yuletide Refuseniks who say "Nuts to the Yuletide," I say "hey there, someone needs a hug!"."
Pass the sickbag.
Compared with a Christmas spent with Lembit and his compulsory fun, an eternity trapped with a Butlin's redcoat would seem like an attractive option.
And a Merry Christmas to you, too.
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
"The worst possible outcome"
Further to my previous posting last Saturday, the Sikh protestors have got their way. The controversial play 'Behzti' at Birmingham Repertory Theatre has been taken off. And a proposal to stage the play at a different Birmingham theatre has been abandoned after threats to the safety of the (Sikh) playwright - although the Royal Court Theatre in London may yet stage the play.
Here we have a victory for mob rule and censorship. Not only that, but this incident will seriously damage race relations in Britain by confirming many people's stereotypes about ethnic minorities.
Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Tuesday , called this "the worst possible outcome". He added, "... feelings of hurt and offence cannot be a reason for the silencing of a voice of a young playwright," and warned that, in a world in which people could be shouted down, minorities would be the biggest losers. He also criticised Catholic church leaders who supported the play being taken off.
The performance of the Catholic church is a particular disgrace. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Birmingham endorsed a boycott of the theatre and the local bishop described the play as "offensive to all faiths". Worse, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, told BBC London, "There's a balance to be kept here between freedom which I think is rightly cherished in this country... but there's also some kind of self-censorship that playwrights too have to realise that some things could be very offensive to people."
The cardinal's sinister call for 'self-censorship' reminded me of a piece of graffiti in Paris in 1968, which read, "The church complains of persecution when it is not allowed to persecute."
In my previous posting, I queried whether the Liberal Democrats would have the courage to criticise the Sikh protest. Fortunately, Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, speaking in his capacity as a member of the National Secular Society, made an excellent case on Monday's Today programme.
But on an issue of such fundamental importance to Liberals, where was party leader Charles Kennedy? Here was a ready-made opportunity to assert Liberal values and he missed it.
Sunday, December 19, 2004
Sikh and tired
Saturday night's violent protest by a group of Sikhs, complaining about a play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, is a cause Liberals should not touch with a bargepole. Indeed, we should repudiate it loudly and clearly.
Our instinct may be to side with an ethnic minority, but in this instance our sympathy would be utterly misplaced. The Sikh protestors are demanding censorship on the grounds that they find a play (written by a Sikh, incidentally) "offensive". They appear not to have grasped that being exposed to opinions you find distasteful is one of the prices you must pay for living in a democratic society.
Polly Toynbee (in an article in last Wednesday's Guardian) made a useful distinction between believers and their beliefs. People should be free to practice their beliefs and should be free from persecution or discrimination. But we should never place anyone's beliefs beyond ordinary debate or criticism.
This Sikh protest is a good illustration of how bad is the government's proposed law on religious hatred. But it also illustrates how more and more groups are leaping on the bandwagon set in motion by feminists and Zionists in the 1970s.
At the dawn of the PC era, feminists claimed that any and all criticism of women or their beliefs was "sexist", while Zionists claimed that any and all criticism of Israel or its actions was "anti-semitic". This tactic proved remarkably successful. Most critics were intimidated into silence, and both groups have been shielded from some much-needed intellectual rigour and much-deserved moral scrutiny.
No wonder so many other special interests find this political device attractive. But every expression of opinion offends somebody somewhere. If we were to accept 'offence' or, worse, 'feelings' as a criterion for restricting free expression, we would end up with complete censorship.
No Liberal should have any truck with the concept of 'blasphemy' or its modern day New Labour equivalents. It is illegal to assault anyone or deny them employment because they are a Sikh, and rightly so. But if we wish to say that their religious beliefs are complete bollocks, we should have every right to do so.
Now, I wonder. Will the Liberal Democrats be expressing this robust Liberal point of view, or will some local tactical considerations dictate that discretion is the better part of valour?
Thursday, December 16, 2004
One shouldn't kick a man when he is down, but this website is rather good.
The right thing for the wrong reason
So David Blunkett has resigned as Home Secretary. Given his illiberal impulses and authoritarian agenda, Liberals have good reason to celebrate his departure.
But Blunkett has resigned for the wrong reason. On the Richter Scale of political corruption, his misdemeanours were trivial. If the worst a British politician can do nowadays is misuse a train ticket to Doncaster, it suggests a generally high standard of probity. (In France they do things differently. When President Mitterand was accused of having a child by a mistress, his response was simply, "Et alors?").
The problem with Blunkett was his political agenda, not his sex life. His departure will not diminish New Labour's enthusiasm for ID cards, as new Home Secretary Charles Clarke has already made clear.
Indeed, Blunkett's dignity in TV interviews yesterday, combined with a generally sympathetic treatment in this morning's press, if anything makes it harder to criticise Blunkett's policies and the philosophy behind them.
We need to be wary of cheering on yesterday's events. A world in which the Daily Mail can pick off public figures one by one is every bit as unsavoury as the authoritarian society Blunkett wishes to create.
Saturday, December 11, 2004
Looks like we got ourselves a lynchin'...
There is a disturbing link between two apparently unrelated stories; the controversy over the right of householders to defend themselves against burglars, and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy's appearance in a Christmas edition of Eastenders.
The controversy over burglars has been manufactured. To listen to some right-wing politicians and tabloid newspapers in recent weeks, you would think there has been a plague of injustice, with householders being sued left, right and centre for assaulting burglars. But when, on BBC TV's Question Time last week, UKIP MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk was challenged by Lib Dem MP Matthew Taylor to list any actual cases of injustice against householders, he was unable to think of any.
This controversy arose in 1999, when farmer Tony Martin was convicted of murder (later reduced to manslaughter on appeal) for shooting an intruder at his farmhouse. Yet even the legal reforms currently advocated by the Tories would not have protected Martin, who was not strictly speaking defending himself. He had in fact shot a 16-year old burglar in the back when the burglar was running away.
The present law allows householders to use "reasonable force" and, in practice, is adequate in most cases. Given that there is not a real problem, why is the issue becoming so prominent? The easy answer is to say that the Tory politicians promoting legal reform are indulging in populism. This is true but is not a complete explanation.
Advocates of reform are, in effect, promoting lynch law. We can see this as all of a piece with the tabloids' recent 'naming and shaming' campaign against paedophiles. And it forms part of a broader picture, in which it would seem that the right-wing tabloids, notably the Daily Mail and the Sun, want to dismantle what might be broadly termed the liberal democratic settlement. By this settlement, I mean the informal agreement across the political spectrum that governs our political and legal system - a shared belief in representative democracy, reason, fairness, rational argument and due process.
These tabloids are undermining democracy through incessant campaigns to promote lynch law over due process; to promote intolerance over understanding; to promote gut reaction and finger-stabbing certainties over deliberation and analysis; and to suggest that all people in public life are corrupt.
What do the tabloids really want? My guess is some form of populist oligarchy, perhaps a British version of Silvio Berlusconi - a media mogul who is also prime minister must be their idea of a wet dream.
How does this relate to Charles Kennedy's forthcoming guest appearance on Eastenders? The problem with such media appearances is that they are an attempt by politicians to finesse populism. Through the self-abasement endured in such appearances, they calculate, they can restore their reputations.
At best, this is a high-risk strategy (for example, Neil Kinnock must now regret attempting to chair the satirical TV game show Have I Got News For You a week ago, after the mauling he received from Ian Hislop and Will Self).
But even when such media appearances pay off tactically, in the end they serve only to debase democracy. Populism presents the greatest danger to democracy because it is such an easy route for the unscrupulous to take. Responsible politicians should demonstrate their worth by standing up to populism, not pandering to it.
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
Must try harder
How many seats will the Liberal Democrats win at the next British general election? If one is looking for a reliable guide, the best people to ask are not the pollsters or pundits but the gamblers.
The excellent Political Betting blog is worth following for that reason. This recent posting and discussion thread are particularly illuminating.
The Liberal Democrats currently hold 55 seats. Two of these are by-election gains and unlikely to be held. Another (Shrewsbury) is due to a defection and is bound to be lost. The party will also lose one seat in the Scottish boundary changes. So the true base is 51.
The next general election is likely to take place on 5 May 2005. There is disagreement among punters over exactly how many seats the Lib Dems will win but the consensus is that any gains will not be dramatic. The highest prediction is 80 seats and the lowest 50. Most punters forecast between 60 and 70 seats, while current spread betting is a more optimistic 71-75. Predictions of the Lib Dem percentage vote range between 21% and 26%, with most punters forecasting around 22%.
Whichever way you look at it, this means only incremental gains – and that’s not good enough if the party wants to be a serious contender for government. For that, you need a national image, but the Liberal Democrats lack a coherent strategy, a clear identity and a target demographic. Instead, they are relying on local campaign tactics, via an aggregation of local targeting efforts.
This approach can only ever deliver incremental gains. It also stymies any attempt to develop a national identity, since it gives local campaigners an effective veto over national strategy. For example, a cosmopolitan and progressive identity, which would suit campaigners facing Labour in urban centres, is unwelcome to party members campaigning against the Conservatives in rural areas, whereas rural concerns about hunting play badly in urban areas.
In most general elections, it is rare for there to be a swing above 10% in any one constituency. On this basis, the Lib Dems cannot hope to gain more than 19 seats (15 Tory and 4 Labour seats with a majority below 10%). Meanwhile, there are 16 vulnerable Lib Dem constituencies (i.e. captured in 2001 with a majority below 10%).
Predicting the result next time remains difficult. There are several significant variables, which provide scope for argument:
- Will the turnout fall yet further – and whom would this hurt or benefit?
- Will UKIP take sufficient votes from the Tories in key marginals to affect the result?
- Will there be a ‘tactical unwind’? – Labour holds up to 40 seats thanks to Liberal Democrat voters voting tactically to keep the Tories out. Many of these voters, disillusioned with Labour, may return to the Lib Dem camp.
Leading Liberal Democrats have made much of the collapse of Tory fortunes in the inner cities. The obverse of this is that the Tories have been targeting rural and suburban constituencies and may win back more marginal Lib Dem seats than is expected.
This brings us to the ‘2009 breakthrough’ theory. It has become an article of faith among many leading Liberal Democrats (especially MPs hoping to succeed Charles Kennedy) that whoever is the next party leader will become prime minister in 2009.
The theory goes like this. Labour will win in 2005 but, by 2009, will be a busted flush and cannot hope to win a fourth term. Who will succeed? The Tories cannot break out of their rural English heartlands. Hey presto! It’s the Liberal Democrats!
Some optimists even believe the Lib Dems will overtake the Tories in 2005 in terms of the popular vote, if not seats. The basis of this belief is an alleged ‘iron law’ that the Lib Dems always add 6% to their poll ratings during the course of a general election campaign so, if they start on 22%, they’ll end up with 28%.
Let’s deal with the latter fantasy first. A study of past general elections shows that this ‘6% rule’ has not always applied. Furthermore, election and poll results suggest there is a solid base of 28% of the electorate that will always vote Tory regardless.
In any case, between now and 2009, the political landscape will probably be transformed. We are likely to experience a deep economic recession, an increasing popular distrust of the political classes and further turmoil on the international stage.
The Liberal Democrats cannot rely on statistical determinism or local tactics. They need a clear ‘brand image’ and a clear idea of which section of the electorate they are targeting. There is no sign of this happening. Worse, another incremental gain can be presented as a ‘good result’ and defer any serious reconsideration of strategy.
Still, we can always take the long view. With a constant rate of small incremental gains in parliamentary seats, the Liberal Democrats should achieve an overall majority before the 22nd century is out. That leaves plenty of time to “prepare for government”.
Sunday, December 05, 2004
If, like me, you find the sound of Johnny Mathis's rendition of 'When A Child Is Born' brings on severe constrictions of the lower bowel, then here is some seasonal cheer.
"If I hear 'Frosty the Snowman' one more time," says Maureen Dowd, "I'll rip his frozen face off."
Amen to that.
Saturday, December 04, 2004
The adolescent tendency
A thought-provoking article by Martin Jacques in today's Guardian, which examines why Britain is becoming a more infantilised society.
It would be easy to dismiss Jacques as another grumpy old man but, amid his gripes about the dumbing down of the media, he poses an interesting question. How do we explain the paradox of a continuing adolescent trend, despite demographic change making Britain an older society?
Jacques's conclusion is that the underlying cause is the 'western condition'. "For over half a century we have only known prosperity, never experienced depression or mass unemployment, never fought wars except on the edges at other people's expense, never known the vicissitudes or extremes of human existence, comfortable in a continent that has enjoyed, for the most part, a similar existence and, having turned its back on grand visions and big dreams, opted for the quiet life."
It is an attractive theory but not, I suspect, a complete explanation. And it is alarming to think that the only way we could persuade people to grow up is by having a jolly good war.
The underlying cause, I suspect, is more to do with our reflexive society and self-obsession. Still, this is a topic that is central to some our most serious political problems; social dislocation, excessive consumption (and hence ecological problems and personal debt) and popular disillusionment with democratic politics. It deserves wider discussion.
This evening's edition of Flog It!, one of BBC TV's numerous antiques shows (see my earlier posting), encapsulated the moral state of Blair's Britain.
One brief vignette said it all: a middle-aged woman explained that she wanted to sell a valuable framed miniature on behalf of her elderly mother, to help pay for her long-term nursing care.
Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Not 'arf, mate!
So, farewell then, Top of the Pops. BBC TV's flagship chart pop show is being put out to grass after 40 years in a peak-time slot.
Top of the Pops has, for a variety of reasons, long ceased to be a 'must-see' show. The slow decline in the show's fortunes began in the 1980s. And, as Stuart Jeffries pointed out in yesterday's Guardian, it was never much good anyway.
Top of the Pops was first aired in January 1964, at a time when pop music in Britain still had almost a samizdat quality. There were a few other TV pop shows at that time (Juke Box Jury, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Ready Steady Go) but the only legal radio stations were the BBC's three national channels. Of these, only the Light Programme (the forerunner of Radio 2) played any pop music, and that was only a couple of times a week (Saturday morning's Children's Favourites and Sunday evening's Pick of the Pops). You could pick up the faint signal of Radio Luxembourg after 8pm. Or you could listen to pirate radio, which sprang up to fill the vacuum.
So Top of the Pops was lapped up by a young audience starved of broadcast pop music. It was based on the singles charts, at a time when singles were more important than albums. It was launched in an era when there was still one shared pop culture, before pop music fragmented into different genres. Once these conditions ceased to apply, Top of the Pops was doomed. The show's demise is not a surprise; what is remarkable is that it survived so long after its sell-by date.
Today, young audiences for pop music are spoiled for choice. There is a wide choice of radio stations and music TV channels, extended through cable, satellite, digital and the internet. That is, if young audiences are still listening.
Pop music is no longer central to youth culture in the way it was in the 60s and 70s. Young people have a choice of competing leisure options. And because of the fall in the birthrate since the 70s, there are fewer young people around.
Conversely, the baby boomer generation is buying music in increasing quantities. I had always prided myself on never fitting into one of the advertisers' handy stereotypes, until I discovered that I am a 50-quid bloke, one of the 40- and 50-somethings who are now the main market for CDs. And we're buying albums, not singles.
In the 60s, a single would have to sell hundreds of thousands of copies to reach no.1 in the British charts. A no.1 hit by the Beatles would sell more than a million copies in the UK. Nowadays, a single can reach no.1 with as few as 30,000 sales and can enter the lower reaches of the charts selling fewer than 10,000. Such is the decline in sales that, this March, WH Smith announced it would stop selling singles altogether. What's top of the pops this week? Who cares?
The answer is your 10-year old daughter. Britain's biggest sales outlet for singles is not a record shop chain but Woolworths. This is because today's main buyers are pre-teens, 10- and 12-year olds clutching their pocket money.
As a 40-something chronic CD buyer, it is gratifying to walk into a large record store and see one's tastes validated. But this is only possible because the few young people still buying pop music are turning to downloads or formats as ephemeral as mobile phone ringtones. In the future, pop culture will not be a shared culture. And that's no culture at all.