Tuesday, 15 May 2012

This is the age of the train...

I've moved to 'the other side' in the past few months, in more ways than one. My first piece of significant news is that I've found full-time paid work in journalism, after spending eight years or so as opposed to working in a corporate communications role or writing on a freelance basis. At the beginning of March I joined RAIL magazine, a respected railway industry fortnightly, as News and Features Writer, which among other things, has meant a move out of London to Peterborough.

The other piece of significant news is that I've moved my entire archive of work to Wordpress - as you may have already gathered by now, I haven't updated this site for quite some time. Now I'm established on RAIL – my work for the magazine appears in print every fortnight rather than online at the moment – I intend to continue writing on a regular basis on my new Wordpress-based website as well as other places.

I hope that you, dear reader, continue to enjoy my writing, which will, when possible, be published here. And if you don't see anything for a week or two, pop into your nearest branch of WHSmith and look under the 'Transport' section.

Here's Sir Jimmy Savile.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Work needs to be fair: and for work experience to pay, it needs to be paid

We should not say that one man's hour is worth another man's hour, but rather that one man during an hour is worth just as much as another man during an hour. Time is everything, man is nothing: he is at the most time's carcass”  - KARL MARX

Real-life experience of work can only be a good thing. There is absolutely no doubt about that. It was, therefore, a relief to hear that Tesco have said they’ll offer people on work experience a choice of doing the government scheme, or a job: as long as they “do OK” on a four week work placement. That’s progress.

But the government’s "sector-based work academy scheme" has, predictably, been challenged by critics mainly on the left. “Exploitation”, they cry. “The modern equivalent of slavery” they say - something we supposedly abolished 200 years ago. Not even Hitler went this far, says the Daily Mail. And they’d know about that.

There is, however, something of concern to capitalism as a whole if we are to remove the right to payment for work in an environment where everyone else is getting a wage for their labour. After all, it’s hardly a radical left-wing statement.

Whereas I’m not against a work experience scheme per se, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the presumption that it is right that an enormous, billion-pound company like Tesco can get away with not paying people for work that paid workers will get a wage for. I can speak with some authority, having worked in Tesco myself, shelf-stacking as a student, many years ago. The people I worked with would be appalled that others would be expected to do the same job for no financial recompense, aside from jobseekers’ allowance. And unfortunately there's little opportunity for promotion in places like supermarkets – aside from back office or managerial work. Much of the work is menial, arduous and physically exhausting. It's not job snobbery to criticise an arrangement where people do work that is unpaid, mainly because it isn't community service.

These schemes are supposed to that helps give people a routine preparing them for the world of work. There is much merit in the principle of doing work-like activity, but how might you be expected to actually search for work while undertaking a 10-hour shift?

So who really gains more? The “employee” or the employer? There may be some expectation of an interview at the culmination of an individual’s placement – which, importantly, Tesco has said it will do, and also offer a job. But for all of those other employers that are still on the scheme, could it be possible that the scheme simply doesn’t serve the individual jobseeker’s interests whatsoever, but rather provide the employer with a source of cheap (i.e. free), desperate, casual, unpaid labour? What's more, non-attendance at the voluntary job coming with the threat of cutting off JSA is just inhumane.

To me, the whole thing is rather an unimaginative solution. It’s not Stalinist or totalitarian to expect government to step in and provide meaningful work schemes where the private sector has failed to create new jobs in the void created by public sector cuts. If Tesco are successful and continue to open new stores – and in turn, hire new staff, that’s great. But they should pay the people who put products on their shelves, and haul roll-cages in an out of warehouses, freezers and stockrooms, cleaning up rotten food while being on their feet all day long. Everyone will be happier for being recompensed for the work we do. And we do society at large no favours by demonising the unemployed, wilfully denying them proper work.

There is much about modern working life that is unrewarding; not least because the division of labour from the goods that we produce and the services we provide has never been greater. We can do much better as a society to make work meaningful.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Scotland’s future: reduced to opportunistic tinkering and simplistic choices

Rather like the Prime Minister’s spurious and self-seeking arguments against electoral reform, the Scottish people have now been told they must have a “straight choice” over independence.

In other words, the prospect of any kind of constitutional settlement aside from staying in or out of the union – in other words, ‘devolution max’ – is considered so unpalatable that the Westminster elite would like any referendum to be as simplistic as possible. David Cameron’s recent hint that he might consider more powers for Scotland, in the event of a referendum deciding against independence can be considered as a mere sop to nationalist sentiment.

The Scottish National Party is minded towards holding a straightforward yes or no ballot, and although it is thinking about including a 'devolution max' question – an evolution of the current powers vested in Holyrood. Yet Cameron, playing his finest colonial statesman, has made it perfectly clear that he does not intend to endow such choice to Scotland’s voters.

That range of options, however, is something that should be self-determined by Scotland’s people, and not dictated by Westminster. After all, creating interest in a debate on Scotland’s future among English and Welsh voters would be an uphill struggle, to say the least. Yet Westminster politicians of all hues remain of the view that Scotland’s destiny is theirs to shape.

Holyrood and Westminster are currently negotiating on what form the referendum might take, and when it might be held. In the meantime, the Lords’ constitutional reform committee has already expressed its feeling that devolution should not just be a matter for the Scottish people. That might well be true, as any dis-entanglement would need to involve the other constituent parts of the UK to some degree. Its main concern is "the potential to create different and competing tax regimes within the UK". That may be true, but that’s the whole point. Further devolution or independence would invariably mean tax-raising (or lowering) powers, and internal revenue arrangements which would suit Scotland rather than the UK as a whole. The noble Lords’ argument is weaker still considering the haphazard constitutional tinkering which has blighted the UK for the last fifteen years in fact; a perfectly adequate way of describing the future of their own half-reformed chamber. We just don’t do constitutional consistency in this country, and that’s the way our politicians have always wanted it.

Meanwhile, establishment parties at Westminster plod on with the same, tired old view that Scotland’s future is a political plaything, influence over which will occasionally be swapped between competing elites. Cameron considers Scotland as a somewhat romantic appendix to England where he occasionally visits his posh mates to go shooting; he can’t possibly be seen as anti-union in his party. Ed Miliband is petrified of losing Scottish MPs after Labour’s Holyrood wipeout in 2011. Nick Clegg doesn’t really seem to have a particularly distinctive view of his own, aside from saying that he believes in "greater discretion" and "freedom" for Scotland, pulling out antiquated labels like “home rule”. Political elites are doing their patronising best to ensure the status quo is retained. Every one of them is going against the grain of popular opinion. Good luck to the SNP.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The phone-hacking scandal: journalism at the crossroads?

Lord Justice Leveson is only halfway through his inquiry, but the first book on the phone hacking scandal has already been published.

To mark the launch, the Media Society joined forces with Coventry University, bringing together a panel of contributors, industry veterans and experts, for a debate on the state of the press – with particular focus on the tabloids. Raymond Snoddy once again chaired the debate in his admired humorous and democratic style.

Starting with the case for the prosecution, Kevin Marsh, the former editor of Today and a contributor to this book was “struck by the day that Sienna Miller gave evidence”.

Continue reading

Originally published on the Media Society website (co-written with Deni Kirkova)

Scottish independence: to be or not to be?

Alex Salmond could be toasting with more than a Scotch whiskey sometime in the next few years
 The fervour for celebrating nationhood in the run-up to Burns Night may or may not have been coincidental, but the debate over the future of the United Kingdom ramped up a level in January. David Cameron seemed to have caught many commentators unawares in giving Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond an ultimatum - making it clear that his government would welcome a binding referendum on Scottish independence – and only on Westminster's terms.

Salmond and his Scottish National Party colleagues argue that the Scottish Parliament already has the right to hold a referendum without any interference. Yet Cameron's government has already set itself in conflict with the Holyrood administration. Salmond had previously stated his intention to hold a referendum 'in the second half of the parliament', but Cameron is keen that it be held 'sooner rather than later' – possibly as early as 2013. The government's position can be summarised thus: don't let Alex Salmond get away with breaking up the Union by giving him 1,000 days to make his argument for independence to the people of Scotland. What's more, Cameron's call is for a somewhat simpler affair – a straightforward yes or no rather than asking about the preference for two varying degrees of devolution or independence, which is the SNP's preference.

Publicly, Alex Salmond is portrayed by his opponents as a bully, perhaps in daring to defy Westminster in setting the terms of the debate. Yet, although they might not admit it, many British politicians of all hues secretly admire Salmond, who became Scotland's fourth First Minister in May 2007. They adore the gumption of the man, a formidable parliamentarian and debater who has somehow managed to take both left-wing and right-wing positions, culminating in what the Spectator called 'an extraordinary victory' against eight years of Labour and Liberal Democrat rule in the Scottish parliament. Salmond has managed to steal both the clothes of social democrats while also appealing to conservative tendencies, helping to ensure that the Conservative party itself remains an irrelevance north of the border.

Seeking to get one up on Salmond, it is Cameron who has decided that an urgent debate on the future of the union is needed. And, with little regard for broader constitutional questions, Cameron would like the Union question dealt with once and for all, in order to bolster his own party's credentials as defender of the United Kingdom, and arguably, present a distraction from the government's other troubles. As a result, some have argued that Cameron, rather than Salmond, is playing fast and loose with the make-up of the UK. Little thought has been given to the consequences for England in a UK bereft of Scotland under the current settlement. Independence could, however, provide a resolution of sorts to the so-called West Lothian question, famously posed by the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, whose constituency gave its name to the issue. This particular issue centred around Scottish MPs being able to vote on English matters – such as funding for the NHS – a peculiarity of the British constitution seeing as English MPs have no such powers in Holyrood.

Major constitutional issues aside, support for independence has jumped to 45% in recent weeks and edging ever faster to 50% in favour. With the Scottish question likely to be dealt with in the next three years, attention would inevitably turn next to Wales, itself emboldened with a devolved government although unlikely to survive without its larger neighbour.

Are we nonetheless witnessing the second act in the break-up of the union? As it stands, it could be remarkably easy for Scotland to decide to go its own way. Some Conservative backbenchers seem already resigned to a seemingly inevitable breakaway, with heightened suspicions of the Prime Minister's true intentions only exacerbated by renewed tensions with Eurosceptic backbenchers. Yet if Scottish MPs were to leave Westminster
en masse, it would have a profound impact on the make up of the UK Parliament overall – and with vastly different outcomes for all political parties. As Gerry Hassan noted in the New Statesman, 'many Tories have already given up on Scotland and dream of losing the burden of Labour's 41 seats north of the border'. With the impact of proposed Westminster seat boundary changes taken into account, Labour would lose out regardless. Coupled with the current First Past the Post voting system, the prospect of permanent Conservative rule at Westminster may seem almost certain.

A complete evacuation by Scottish MPs from Westminster would, of course, be the ultimate development. Variants on a theme have included 'devolution max', giving Holyrood the full range of powers over tax but with Scotland asking that defence and foreign affairs remain under the control of Westminster. The SNP has previously also said that it would wish to retain the Queen as head of state, and the pound sterling as currency, meaning that full independence for Scotland with its own tax system, foreign secretary and army may still be some way off.

Regardless of the final settlement, all mainstream party leaders have demonstrated their 'unity over the union' – whatever that means in the current environment. Desperate to not appear anti-union, Labour leader Ed Miliband's position has seemingly reflected the Prime Minister's own: preserve the union at all costs. Yet Scottish nationalism isn't the preserve of one single party and never has been – meaning that the right to self-determination cannot be ignored. The late Labour politician Donald Dewar (the first First Minister of Scotland) had nationalist sympathies but without the ideological zeal of his SNP rivals. Once again, it may well suit Labour to moderate its position given that not all its supporters in Scotland - or those who may vote for the party in the future - will all be quite as positive about the United Kingdom in its current guise as the Labour leader is.

This piece was originally published in Mauritius News in February 2012.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Government refuses pardon for Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing

The Enigma codebreaker and founder of modern computer science, Alan Turing

The government has refused to grant a pardon for homosexuality convictions to the wartime codebreaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing.

A parliamentary motion noted the vital contribution made by Turing to Britain’s war effort by inventing the machine that tackled the problem of solving the German Enigma naval code, which became the subject of books and a film.

Contine reading

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Football's big taboo: time for some real leadership on homophobia in sport

The Swedish player Anton Hysen: a "one off" as the only openly gay professional footballer in the world

I've never been a big fan of football, although my whole childhood was dominated by it. Many of my family are big fans of our local team, Ipswich Town (“The Tractor Boys”). Some of my family have even worked for the club itself over the years. And, they gain much pleasure from their interest, which is great. I did go to a few matches when I was a kid, but never caught the bug – I don't know why. In fact, when it came to any team sports at school, being a little uncoordinated and ungainly in stature, and a little bit blind, I preferred to sit these things out on the sidelines with a good book.

To sit through a live football match today would probably bore me, at worst make me feel a little uncomfortable. Yes, the tribal singing and audacious banter that goes wherever a group of football fans happen to be - the stadium, the railway station or the street – must bring with it a sense of comradeship and belonging that I probably envy, deep down. But the unease that I occasionally feel in these settings comes is a result of what seems to be one of the last remaining vestiges of public prejudice – that is to say chants and singing motivated by casual homophobia, even if the group dynamic doesn't intend it in a nasty or vindictive way. Nonetheless, it's the sort of environment I avoid.

The Football Association and groups like Kick It Out have done a great deal of work in eradicating racism in the game, notwithstanding the occasional high profile incident. What's important is that the game's authorities quite rightly take the issue of racism seriously, as do the media.

But what about dealing with homophobia in such a robust way? Watching
Britain's Gay Footballers this week was a disturbing reminder of just how gaping the void is between the country's overall awareness and acceptance of homosexuality and where football as a game, an industry and a part of a society happens to be. The 'elephant in the room' clich̩ is an understatement. Homosexuality is simply not discussed in football, full stop. It is 20 years behind the rest of the country, long since moved on. Of course, footballers don't live their lives in isolation from everything else that's a part of our culture; be it fashion, music, film or TV. But those industries are by and large however, comfortable with the idea of out gay men Рas are other sports including rugby and tennis to a large extent. Sadly, with respect to homosexuality football is still trapped in a world of unchallenged social attitudes, its star players and leadership alike abstaining from the responsibility of making the game more tolerant of diversity.

Britain's Gay Footballers
centred on a thoughtful journey of discovery by the model Amal Fashanu, whose late uncle, Justin Fashanu, hung himself in a garage in east London in 1998. Justin was, to date, the only gay footballer to have ever come out in English professional football. There's a local link for me too, as Fashanu once had a trial with Ipswich Town.

But what drove Fashanu to suicide? We may never really know, other than by speculating on the consequences of the pressure caused by coming out, very much in the public eye, to a largely intolerant press and the even more hostile world of professional football. And there's more than a hint that Fashanu's sexuality was the cause of bullying over his sexuality which would be deemed unacceptable in 2012.

Back in the early eighties, Fashanu was a player at Nottingham Forest, and after having come out of the closet, Fashanu had claimed to be “accepted” by team mates, although he had admitted that they would often joke maliciously about his sexual orientation. He eventually became the target of baying, hostile crowds as a result. But according to former team captain, any criticism or mocking of Fashanu was because he was deemed to be not performing at the club, as the former Forest team captain John McGovern remarked in the programme. McGovern displayed staggeringly unfortunate ignorance of the sort of language that he seemed to find acceptable in conversing with Fashanu:
Poof – that's just slang for homosexual isn't it? I don't even call that discrimination”.
OK, maybe he wouldn't. The meaning of language changes with each generation. But would be refer to a black player using the N-word? Even during less tolerant 1981, there's a question mark over whether a top league football manager would have stood for that sort of abuse. In the macho environment of the changing room, derogatory language relating to gay men was, it seemed entirely acceptable. And it was evident at management level too. Forest was, at the time, managed by the infamous Brian Clough, supposedly a committed socialist and one-time chair of the Anti-Nazi league. Yet he was light years away from his party's more progressive view on gay rights. As Clough famously recanted in his autobiography:
Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?” I asked him.

A baker's, I suppose” answered Fashanu. “Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?”

A butcher's”.

So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs' club?”
Fashanu frequented many gay venues which seemed to jar with the lifestyle prescribed by Clough, who had battled alcoholism right up until he died in 2004. We've all got our demons, I suppose. But is it any wonder that, therefore, given the treatment of Fashanu by the 'legendary' Clough, that this once brilliant player had lost all his confidence and had stopped scoring goals for the team? He was no angel, but Fashanu had become the target of constant crowd abuse because of his decision to come out. As Andy Wasley points out in his recent article on the subject, gay sportspeople who are out and comfortable with their sexuality perform better. Regardless of what he had said in the papers about his supposed sexual conquests, Fashanu deserved to be treated as a human being and a professional footballer and not with the contempt he appeared to have received from fellow players and managers alike.

Have things changed at all since 1990, when Fashanu outed himself of his own accord in the pages of the Sun? In conversation with Amal, t
he publicist Max Clifford related the view of Premiership players who had approached him. “Their career would be finished if some TV producer wanted them to come out” said Clifford, adding that “players are as frightened now as they were ten years ago. Football is still in the dark ages”.

And what has the Football Association been doing? Virtually nothing. Amal briefly interviewed the FA's diversity manager (apparently a tokenistic appearance – where was the chief executive?), who enlightened us little about what the FA might be doing to tackle homophobia in the game in future, other than the paltry £10,000 it has committed so far to an awareness campaign.

Football deserves better than this shoddy and ignorant approach to diversity, only serving to highlight the ignorance of the FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, indifferent to the potential issues that may be faced by gay fans in Qatar at the World Cup.

Football's institutionalised homophobia is doing nothing for the reputation of the game, and it's time in was brought kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. I'm sure that many grass roots organisations such as the Gay Football Supporters' Network and Kick It Out! are doing as much as they can to bring about a change, but surely a stronger lead from those in charge can entice a few more fans of the beautiful game?

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