Wednesday, 29 December 2010

That was the year that was

And so I've come to write my look back at 2010 – a sort of between Christmas-and-New Year special – in which I pick out the things that have made an impact on me this year from the political, to the personal, and the things that just didn't quite make sense. Or just or made me laugh.

As 2010 dawned I think I can safely say I was one of those people who would have put a bet on a hung parliament being the most likely outcome of the General Election. Six months on from that political soap opera in May I think the electorate probably think that overall, they made the right decision – namely, refusing to vote for any single party to have a whopping majority. Although the polls are looking positive for Ed Miliband's Labour with a backdrop of savage cuts to public services, most people aren't quite ready to trust them with government again just yet. They may even be prepared to give them a further drubbing with the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election early in 2011 – but for what it's worth, I don't think it matters. Labour's still my party and I want it to do well but Miliband is a wise man to play the long game, and not be forced into the sort of short-term tactics that damaged his predecessor.

Whereas, at the beginning of the year most people would have wagered on David Cameron becoming Prime Minister one way or another, I'm not sure many would have envisaged the stratospheric journey of Nick Clegg and his subsequent appointment as Deputy Prime Minister. It was hard to make sense of a new sort of Liberal Democrat party, half of them parachuted into ministerial positions by Cameron's 'open and generous' offer. In one bold move, Cameron enacted Blair's pre-1997 dream, except this time it was the Tories and not Labour who were joining forces with the third party in the 'national interest'. I'm still not sure whether LibDem ministers could quite believe their luck at being able to play with the big boys at last, but it's clear that there were many more of the so-called 'Orange Book' free market types able to work with some decidedly Thatcherite Tories in government. The Labour party has enough ideological baggage to permanently put them at odds with the Conservative view of the world – not so for the LibDems who didn't take too long to decide whether they wanted real power, and after all have happily worked with Tories in local government for years.

Despite the cosying up and the rose garden love-ins, we've already witnessed some of the bloodiest battles already and the next year could highlight more dividing lines in the Coalition.

The certainties of politics and I think, the nature of democracy have been called into question in other ways. We now have a spontaneous, radical student movement, united in opposition to tuition fees that has taken politics in protest to a new level. While it's fair to say that this movement haven't quite agreed what they're for – there may be a few disagreements down the line over the extent to which education should be funded by general taxation – there's a renewed engagement in ideas and the way in which debate is framed. Politicians themselves seem ever more terrified of the prospect of having to have a genuine conversation over these 'policy outcomes'. The only comparable 'movement' of any kind I can think of was the poll tax riots in 1990 – and possibly the anti-war movement, in which over a million people marched against an invasion of Iraq in 2003. The UK Uncut campaign will be interesting to watch too. I've already boycotted the January sales at Topman in solidarity.
Technology – and in particular the web - has been a bigger part of my life this year than ever before. The edge-of-your seat political blockbuster of 2010 has been accompanied by a revolution in the media. Although the 2010 General Election was by most accounts a TV election, the part played by social media can't be ignored. I followed every development of the election campaign – and plenty of other big news – through the all-knowing Twitter and Facebook and many other sites through my trusty laptop, not to mention the background distraction of rolling news. And when you're me, it really is a terrible distraction. I love 'microblogging' and the conversations of the Twitterati, but I must learn in 2011 to focus my creative efforts on more than 140 characters. But cats in wheelie bins, Chilean miners, rogue Geordie gunmen and bigoted Daily Mail columnists all make up the rich tapestry of life and I suppose the media would have even more space for DFS adverts if these things didn't make the news.
I got engaged in July. Andy caught me completely unawares, since I'd always assumed it had been my responsibility to pop the question. It all happened in a quite beautiful location on 2 July, in the garden of a pub overlooking the Millennium Dome – or the O2. There's nothing quite like that place to represent an exciting new beginning, marking the transition from my relationship with Andy over the last three years – to the beginning of the rest of our lives. It was lovely, and beautiful, and a bit soppy! Plans remain at what I call the 'storyboarding' stage but once I've got this MA out of the way I'll be in full wedding mode. 

Talking of the MA, I took a bold decision to apply for a Political Journalism course at City University in May, and subsequently got offered a place, accompanied by a generous bursary which was a much appreciated reward for my written efforts. It's going well so far, and I can't say I've ever been bored or unmotivated during the week-night lectures which have included some fantastic guest speakers. Over Christmas I became the proud owner of a new digital voice recorder (thanks, Dad!) which I think symbolises me becoming a 'proper' journalist at last – even if I'm not being paid for it just yet...

The next year presents just as many questions as the beginning of the last one, and I'm not going to make any more predictions here. Except to say that it won't be dull – and I hope that everyone who reads this blog will continue to read my occasionally thoughtful analysis of what's going on in the world.


Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Alastair Stewart and the new theatre of TV politics

Alastair Stewart, moderator of the first ever UK General Election televised debate

“The TV debates were a tipping point in how we do politics” according to Alastair Stewart, who made history as moderator of Britain's first ever televised election debate between the three main party leaders. And having experienced in the flesh the effervescence of the man himself, I couldn't think of anyone better to do so.

For Gordon Brown, there was much to fear from a new spotlight on his persona. For David Cameron, it was a chance to prove his statesman credentials. Nick Clegg would be the new boy with the clean slate, railing against the 'Labservative' duopoly. They had everything to lose, and everything to gain. For the broadcasters, the debates were a long-awaited “alignment of the planets” as according to Ric Bailey, the BBC's political adviser, previous Prime Ministers had refused their rivals an equal footing.
It would have been easy to write off the debates as presidential. But for Stewart, they were a chance to revert to “old fashioned campaigning...when TV meets people who are trying to get your vote”. And it worked. Viewing figures compared favourably with, say a Friday night episode of Coronation Street, with the first debate watched by 9.6 million – and remaining consistently high for the Sky and BBC broadcasts.

The debates came at an opportune time for parties to get their message across when public trust in politicians was at an all-time low, in the wake of a damaging expenses scandal and an enormous budget deficit. Stewart reflected the overall feedback seen afterwards in the press, and throughout on social networking sites such as Twitter. Brown came across as “ill at-ease, and made no 'killer' points”. Cameron “hadn't a clue what he was doing”, but Clegg “shone from the outset, with a natural, compelling narrative”.

“The penny dropped in enormous numbers” as the public fell for Clegg's seemingly invincible message. Joint favourites of the 2010 General Election had been the Tories and 'change' – and the result fulfilled a general desire for a hung parliament. But as Stewart said, “the real impact didn't change the outcome” - but did confirm the perception of politics as presidential...the brutal ideological battles are now struggles of the past”.

In articulating party policy, those “three to four minutes of interplay were better than reading out verbatim statements on policy” and for Stewart, from that “brash, commercial channel”, prime time viewing figures were encouraging: “We got 10 million people to watch a TV show about politics – and I'm personally very proud of that.”

Stewart's perception of the debates was unsurprising. And, like Stewart, I'm only partially in agreement with Andrew Rawnsley in that the TV debates dominated to such an extent that they 'sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the campaign'. It could be the fault of the parties themselves, for not creating enough 'real' events. Arguably the only other exciting element of campaign in 2010 was Brown's infamous encounter with Gillian Duffy, which benefited Labour ultimately as they snatched the seat from the LibDems. Might the campaign have benefited from more unscripted encounters? Maybe. “Television has to reflect the tussle that's going on” said Stewart, and, what's more, “there were lots of local candidates who were not being covered by national TV. Local TV needs to work better.”

And, having delivered his script, in true TV style this seasoned pro shuffled his papers as if signing off from the evening bulletin. I half expected the lights to go down and a rousing theme tune to play him out...

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Cameron's cult of personality: a response to Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer's recent Telegraph article on David Cameron's cult of personality suggests that the recent expansion in the Prime Minister's 'vanity team' masks a massive vacuum of policy. Asking his readers whether they'd prefer he stopped holding politicians to account and offer a defence of Wagner (assuming he means the German composer and not the X Factor's unlikely contestant), Heffer criticises the decision to put 26 people on the public payroll working in roles as diverse as personal film-maker, 'web guru' and a 'behavioural insight team'. All of the above, of course, would not be out of place in the PR department of any large-ish public organisation. 

But Heffer rails against a leader whose 'court photographer' has started to give him a monarchic air – and when the monarch herself is appropriately frugal these days - it's not hard to disagree with his argument. Whereas the case for employing communications professionals in many parts of government has never been stronger – given the need to communicate a great deal of change both internally and externally - when half a million public sector workers are projected to lose their jobs, the right of the Prime Minister to employ hand-picked individuals to make him look good should be questioned.

None of this is at all surprising coming from the pen of Heffer, a man known to be deeply sceptical about the entire Cameron project, and especially since it has been somewhat blurred in league with the Liberal Democrats. And, although I share his scepticism, the subtext of his article is that an alternative Tory government, probably led by a socially conservative leader well to the right of Cameron, is infinitely preferable.

Governments need people to present their policies, and it's right that political parties spend more time and money doing so today than at any time in history. I agree with Heffer's point, but he inevitably misunderstands that brand is crucial in politics. The Prime Minister Cameron brand is six months old, but has not yet developed enough gravitas or substance in order to make a clear break from Cameron the mischievous Leader of the Opposition, to Cameron The Great Statesman. Aside from that, this brand has to jostle for space alongside that of Nick Clegg and the increasing beleaguered Liberal Democrats, although it shouldn't be too difficult to assume dominance given the electorate's rapid falling out with the Deputy Prime Minister. In a year's time we will know a great deal more about what the Prime Minister is capable of. The problem is that there just isn't any substance, because of the lack of clear mandate from a hung parliament, policies are more often or not made up on the hoof. Cameron knows this, and so in Heffer's words 'the deeper motive of survival is more likely'.

If the Coalition is to survive in the Cameron mould, he should look to Margaret Thatcher, the grandmother of Tory strategists, who would tell us that presentation comes second, and policies should be foremost. Even if you disagreed with her politics, she had a formidable presence which didn't so much need to be created, but simply tweaked to suit the television age – for example, she had lessons to lower the pitch of her voice to project more authority. Her government became quite expert in its use of propaganda and talented artistic types to present their policies, paving the way for new Labour in the 1990s.

Footnote: Cameron decided yesterday that his employment of a personal photographer and film-maker had sent a "wrong message" so it seems that general pressure from the public and the media have forced a u-turn,which means two of the so-called 'vanity' team will be placed back on the Tory party payroll.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Tuition fees are the right answer to university funding problems

It wasn't hard to feel sorry for the 50,000 students and lecturers who marched against cuts on Wednesday, in defence of their right to a fairly funded education. The vast majority of demonstrators protested peacefully, underpinned by a serious and coherent political point. But it is understandable that a sizeable group of the electorate should feel let down by a political leader who promised the earth when he knew he'd never have to deliver on his pledge. Now the Liberal Democrats are finally in power, Clegg is eating his words.

I was in the House of Commons in 2004 on the night that the Higher Education Bill, which introduced top-up fees, passed its second reading. It was clear then that Labour was already well down the road of enforcing a greater personal contribution to the cost of higher education. The Coalition's policy takes these Blairite goals further.

It's true that Lord Browne's report recommended that there should be no cap on fees at all, and the only reason that this was not implemented was because selling that to the electorate wasn't palatable. The Coalition has to balance imposing even more personal debt when the country is supposed to be paying off a record structural deficit – and paying for it by cutting vital public services.

But despite public anger, the arguments for a £6,000 cap on tuition fees have never been stronger. The government is in no doubt that higher education has a value. It has also made a firm commitment to ensuring that students from the poorest families have exactly the same opportunities to study at not just any university, but also Russell Group universities which on paper would be closed to them. It has made a significant policy break in deciding that those who decide not to go to university should not have to subsidised by those that do. Self-funding, and the subsequent debt incurred post-graduation by fees, is a fairer prospect than any of the alternatives. A graduate tax would be an education penalty on an individual for life, but the cost of a degree can be paid off over five, ten or fifteen years depending on earnings.

Those who protest are wrong in assuming that thousands of pounds of fees would have to be paid up on day one of an undergraduate degree course. If it were desirable to attack the government for landing all students with a massive bill, upfront, for their education, I'd be doing just that. But, higher education, in theory and at to a certain extent in practice, means better and more fulfilling job prospects.

The irony of the case against fees is that the middle classes - who find home ownership and the inevitable mortgage so desirable - cannot comprehend the value of a degree as something to be invested in and paid for over a long period of time. Debt is a part of life, and it was absolutely right that Labour invested in higher education and introduced fees to fund it – recognising that investment in education is worthwhile not just for the individual, but for society as a whole.

The protests will mean nothing unless they're attached to genuine anger against the scale of the cuts – an 80% reduction in university teaching budgets is counter productive and vandalises the fabric of the excellent institutions already struggling to survive. Students and lecturers alike should continue to fight back - because it's not yet clear what damage the funding cuts could do.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Meddling with the psychology of a nation

"I woke up to a mental image of Moira Stewart standing outside the BBC shouting SCABSCABSCAB in Alan Dedicoat's face"

The good people of the BBC don't strike very often, but when they do, it's somewhat eerie. Turning on your television set on the morning of Friday 5 November, a day usually set aside for remembering a certain dramatic occasion in history, you may have been forgiven for thinking that a national emergency of some sort had just occurred. It hadn't of course, except that several thousand journalists working for BBC news outlets on television and radio and its website, from Humphrys and Paxman downwards, had refused to cross picket lines. The reason was a strike called by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in protest to the Beeb's management over pension reform.

It was said that, during the Cold War, when Radio 4's Today Programme stopped broadcasting, civilisation and society as we know it had ended, and it would be only safe to emerge from your deep level nuclear bunker or Protect and Survive inspired domestic shelter once the programme had started broadcasting again. In fact, as was reported yesterday, nuclear sub commanders supposedly watched for this as sign UK obliterated by nuclear strike. Listening to Radio Four at 7:45am yesterday, I kept expecting to hear a four minute warning and a stern, patrician voice telling me to 'STAY INDOORS', in the sort of imaginary post-apocalyptic way the wonderful Mitchell and Webb sketch so brilliantly parodied.

So, instead of the usual Today gang, we got an peaceful and easy going early morning documentary on birds and, as an extra special treat, like your mother letting you off doing your maths homework because it's your birthday, even Thought for the Day was forfeited. There just weren't any journalists around to 'make' the news. I doubt for one moment many of the big stars were actually on the picket lines, but I loved the spoof 'bbctvcentre' Twitter account, which gave us a running commentary of the comradely solidarity outside Television Centre: “Keep it up, my loves," trills Brucie. "I'll see you in the bar for a drink afterwards”. And the Guardian had its own take on the allegedly gaping void left by Today, with its own live blog 'covering' the same sort of stories that would normally be broadcast.

Did we miss our usual diet of news, current affairs, religious lectures and sport? No, I don't think so. As a friend of mine, who's worked in the centre of the government's media operation, said: “no disrespect to the NUJ strike at the Beeb, but I can't say I miss the Today programme on Radio 4. Tired format, self-important presenters”. And as Breakfast and Five Live carried on with a mix of stand-ins and skeleton staff, repeating old news and even drafting in senior executives, commentators reflected on the different tone set by the lack of BBC news coverage. “The world feels a calmer place” said Steve Richards from the Independent, as “news is determined less by what happens but availability of journalists and tone they take”. It seems maybe for the first time, that the Westminster village (and I put the media at large in that category), is beginning to doubt the quality of the BBC's output and a style of journalism and programming that could be putting self-serving inflated egos before audiences.

I don't doubt that the BBC needs a morning news magazine on radio, and a light and fluffy television breakfast show (which my boyfriend calls 'middle class live'), but I get the feeling that it's time to take a step back and take a proper look at what audiences actually want. The Today programme supposedly plays to a very important Westminster audience who would be aghast if anything were to change, but the BBC needs to remember its wider remit and bring its radio output up-to-date. BBC Breakfast is so twee I can't watch it, and only gets bigger audiences than 'the other side' because its new rival is so awful, and sets the standard of coverage at such an insulting low. News coverage needn't be dry or boring, nor insulting or patronising – it is possible to cover both current affairs, culture and 'lifestyle' issues without assuming your audience are either members of Mensa or can't even sit in a chair because they can barely function.

I'll be pleased when normal programming returns because I like to know what's going on in the world when I start my day. And I support the journalists' dispute, but that's a separate issue here. But a short break in normal service is a great opportunity to reflect on what could be – a sharper, more interesting and less 'personality' led style of broadcasting – which is genuinely led by professional journalism and not mythical audience whims.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The US midterms: will Obama be too late for the Tea Party?

On Thursday 4 November, President Barack Obama will find himself exactly halfway through his first, and possibly his only term in office. In today's election, the results of which will start to trickle through shortly, 435 seats of the House of Representatives, and 37 in the Senate will be up for grabs.

Regardless of the result, Obama should then be able to determine a strategy in which he can survive the rest of his presidency and possibly run again in 2012. And, whether the Republicans can cause an electoral upset not seen on a level since the 1970s remains to be seen.

The first big question is around the impact of the Tea Party, so far an unknown quantity, which has successfully injected a new form of anti-politics into public life. Their success or failure will be a signal of the extent of an hitherto repressed anti-Obama feeling – undoubtedly underpinned by a subliminal racism - which was easily overwhelmed by the media hype around his election in 2008. Since then, hopes of change have been raised and dashed, the American electorate is more insecure than at any time in its history and a strong anti-state feeling has pervaded throughout politics on both the left and right.

The second big question asks whether the Democrats have been able to create an American tale that expresses the hopes and dreams of ordinary citizens in 2010. With unemployment stubbornly lingering at nearly 10% and foreclosures affecting one in every 371 households in September, it's not just about improving your lot, it's about surviving.

A Republican landslide would be a tragedy for America at a time when it needs state intervention more urgently than ever. Political historians point to how Bill Clinton successfully fought off challenges from a Republican dominated Congress in the 1990s – but Obama has even less experience in the sort of political street-fighting skills you need when your legislature doesn't naturally swing your way. And although Clinton presided over a period of healthy growth and economic stability, he also produced law which proved a disappointment to liberals – an example of which includes the pernicious and regressive 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy excluding lesbian and gay people from the armed forces, which Obama will need to fight hard to retract. The political implications for the next two years could see Obama being forced to compromise and water down further his grand designs to prevent the constant threat of gridlock in Congress, alienating those who put him in the White House.

American politics is having one of its periodic bi-polar episodes, the cure for which in many conservatives' eyes is Sarah Palin, a sort of George W Bush in drag. She will speak for the comfort zone of mid-western, small town politics but where she has seemingly boundless ambition and small-town charm by the RV-load, she has neither the nuance, the political skills or the oratory to lead America away from its own self-destruction. The next few days will be very telling indeed.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Big Society, little town

2-4 High Street, Shefford
I've just got back from a weekend staying with a good friend of ours, Angie, who lives in a town called Shefford in Bedfordshire. It's a pleasant little community that still has a few pubs, several restaurants, a fire station, a bowls club, and a brewery. Some of these places are housed in fine historic buildings, many of which seem to be well looked after and inhabited by businesses or private residents. Coincidentally, it also resides in the Mid Bedfordshire constituency, the Member of Parliament for which is one Ms Nadine Dorries, as I pointed out in my previous post.

As we drove into Shefford at the weekend, Angie pointed out a cluster of attractive Grade 2 listed buildings, in which she's become rather interested in developing a small business. Having a rather useful knowledge of English Heritage databases, I delved into the history of 2-4 High Street a little further. Parts of the building date from the early 17th century, encased by a more obvious early to late Victorian structure. Peering inside, there are beautiful old beams, low ceilings and great space, all elements of the buildings character which give it so much potential for a variety of uses. 

Another view of the building, from the 'shop front' side
The significance of these old buildings- which nestle quite happily on a prominent junction at the end of the High Street - is that Angie wants them to be the home for a new venture called 'The Retreat', which she hopes will be the leading centre for yoga and complementary health in Bedfordshire. In Angie's words, “the Retreat is a beautiful and growing sanctuary offering an abundance of complementary treatments, classes and workshops, which are designed to feed mind, body and soul”. It will offer a range of different styles and disciplines of yoga for different abilities and ages, crystal healing, reiki, Oriental facial massage, Tai Chi, Indian head massage and pilates as well as relaxation, meditation, personal development workshops and coaching. Angie already runs successful workshops in her own home and strongly believes people achieve health and balance in their lives through developing their spiritual, emotional and physical health. 

The Retreat would be a one-stop shop for people wanting to explore ways in which to further their development. Although Angie would clearly run the place, she won't – and can't - take it all on herself. That wouldn't be the point, given the amount of services she would like to offer in the building. There would be a Fair Trade organic cafe and music rooms to use for local young people for example. Some of the rooms could be used as a small-scale business awayday venue, as an alternative to stuffy, modern and overpriced hotels, and a range of local voluntary organisations and societies could use the space for performance arts and similar activity.

Angie's keen on getting investment from a wide-range of sources – possibly local businesses or public sector organisations. There's clearly a potential for some sort of community interest company to be set up – Angie doesn't anticipate making millions from the venture – but it would provide a means of an income to her and others, as well as volunteering opportunities.

The real potential is in the role that The Retreat could play in becoming a hub of health and wellbeing, filling the void where other local services are likely to be cut back as a result of local government funding cuts. Shefford is growing – new, high quality housing is being built on old industrial land and there are around 6,000 people resident in the town, who Angie believes would be a ready client or customer base for the Retreat. And with good road links to other villages and towns in Mid-Bedfordshire, it could easily be a destination for others too.

Is this the Big Society in action? There's something about Angie's plan which isn't 'just another business' – it needs community support from many quarters for it work and, if it does work, would become a real asset to Shefford, which fundamentally is not an unappealing place by any means, but could do with some investment and creativity. What's more, the local unitary authority is not likely to be getting any funding windfalls any time soon so it really will fall to Shefford citizens to come up with the initiative and the capital to provide facilities for their own community.

I'm really excited about what The Retreat could become – not only because I want a close friend to have success in her venture, but because from a political angle I think it could serve as a barometer as to how the Big Society that we're all expected to be a part of can actually become a reality. Perhaps I also feel the need to give Government the benefit of the doubt, considering my less than positive thoughts on the subject a few weeks ago.

I've asked Angie to keep me posted with her project, and I hope that I can return to it on this blog when there's more to tell. And, when the time comes, I've even offered to dab a paintbrush here and there and help restore the place. It's early days, but I'm convinced that with the right people and a sound business case, it could help transform a little corner of Bedfordshire for the benefit of many people. There's still many hurdles to overcome – but with the right plan it could be saved from becoming yet another soulless supermarket.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Nadine Dorries: '70% fiction'

In quite an extraordinary way, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries, has admitted her blog was '70% fiction' in a somewhat bizarre attempt to 'reassure' her constituents that she was not shirking her duties.

"My blog is 70% fiction and 30% fact. It is written as a tool to enable my constituents to know me better and to reassure them of my commitment to Mid Bedfordshire.

"I rely heavily on poetic licence and frequently replace one place name/event/fact with another."

Dorries suggested she had been subjected to "bullying" by the media after the expenses scandal broke.

"In the light of the bullying onslaught of the Daily Telegraph I used my blog to its best effect in reassuring my constituents of my commitment to Mid Beds," she wrote.

Sorry Nadine, but that's not bullying - that's fair game.

More from the Guardian.

What with Andrew Marr's outburst last week and Nick Robinson's perplexing Blogger of the Year award, we bloggers have some work to do.

The crushing brutality of the new state

Crowds of people 'celebrate' the coming of the Big Society
 Yesterday afternoon George Osborne announced the biggest cuts in public spending in 80 years. In a systematically crude and overtly political move, Osborne sought to rewrite the chapter of history book which covered the banking crisis, which forced governments all around the world back into a classic Keynesian model of injecting capital into the economy, telling the British people upfront that they had to pay the price for a decade of free market gambling.

Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers who rely on government contracts face the misery of unemployment, knocking their self-confidence and forcing them into Iain Duncan-Smith's new, 'progressive' welfare system.

People already dependent on state handouts, who know what it's like to simply live hand-to-mouth, will face an even more crushing disadvantage as local authorities cut back the services which they rely upon to enjoy any sort of quality of life. Citizens of rural areas will quickly find their wings clipped and face disconnection and isolation on an enormous scale when their bus services are axed - because the Department for Transport will no longer support the subsidy for their local routes - making it far more difficult to find an already scarce job, or enrol on a college course. And, for those who can't afford £500 iPads or home PCs, small community libraries will wither when local authorities find there's actually quite a high market value in a solid Victorian building ripe for redevelopment.

But, hold on! Like an omnipresent supernatural force, the Big Society is here to step in and fill the gaps left by dedicated public sector workers! They who once ran high-quality local services will run your library for free and happily shuttle across the Shire counties in minibuses, ferrying pensioners, aspiring students and single mothers between centres of prosperity, because, after all, they've nothing better to do anymore. Who needs a salary?

Sarcasm aside, the broader political question obstinately remains. Does George Osborne really have the credibility to redefine fairness, a man who, as Johann Hari pointed out today, is the beneficiary of a £4m trust fund he did nothing whatsoever to earn? Does he really get what it means to live in a town dependent on the public sector for employment and endemic post-industrial health problems? The state as we know it, as a provider of public services and an enabler of prosperity, is being redefined so fundamentally and so rapidly, that the howls of protest over one cutback are being noisily drowned out when another is announced.

Worse still, when the government decides it's simply going to stop doing something, the persistent apathy which pervades our parliamentary system means that our democratic institutions won't be strong enough to resist, as Paul Richards' excellent book points out:

"On the housing estates and in the inner cities, democracy is ending not with a bang, but with a whimper. If democracy fails, it won't be because of a coup d'etat. There'll be no revolutionary soviets or troops in the streets, no capture of the radio stations and martial law. It will die because we couldn't be bothered to save it".*

We might agree with some of the decisions being made by the coalition, particularly when they genuinely enhance individual liberty and protect the public services we value most, but struggle to understand or support public policy initiatives which the coalition idly leave to the Big Society - an initiative which the Tory party have struggled to comprehend, let alone the public at large.

It's Government, Jim, but not as we know it.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Anger over rail fare increases ‘could see MPs losing seats’

A transport policy group has warned that raising train fares above the rate of inflation could cost some MPs their seats at the next election.

A poll of commuters in the Home Counties suggested that 74% would consider switching their support away from parties that want to raise the cap on rail fare increases.

By raising the cap on rail fare increases, the Campaign for Better Transport believes that some commuters in Surrey, Sussex and Kent will be paying up to £1,700 more for their annual season tickets by the time of the next election.

The biggest increase could affect the cost of a Brighton to London season ticket, which by 2015 could be £4,268 – a £1,164 rise from today’s price.

A spokeswoman for the campaign said: “the poll shows that commuters aren’t going to take excessive fare hikes lying down. Passengers have been promised ‘fair fares’ by the Government, and now many could be paying hundreds if not thousands of pounds more for their season tickets in just a few years’ time.

The votes of commuters and other regular rail users could be decisive in many of the key battleground seats in London and the Home Counties that changed hands in the 2010 general election.

It is highly likely that next week’s Spending Review could see the Department for Transport change the rail industry’s current RPI+1% formula to a new RPI+3% formula, causing large fare increases.

In constituencies such as Brighton Kemptown, won by the Conservatives at the General Election, 13.8 million people use nearby Brighton station every year.

Other constituencies where commuters votes’ could cause seats to change hands include Basildon South, Croydon Central, Thurrock East and Watford.

"We need to encourage more people to take the train, not price those who already do back into their cars.”

Season ticket costs in five years?

• Hastings to London: £6,337 (increase of £1,729)
• Milton Keynes to London: £5,269 (increase of £1,437)
• Gillingham to London: £5,236 (increase of £1,428)
• Reading to London: £4,659 (increase of £1,271)
• Brighton to London: £4,268 (increase of £1,164)

Source: YouGov

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Expenses Scandal and the media: an avoidable disaster?

Steve Bell's take on MP's expenses - copyright of The Guardian
The Great Expenses Scandal of 2009 was the biggest storm to hit the turbulent climate of the Westminster Village for many years. Although political corruption has been a feature of public life for as long as the national consciousness can remember, it had registered on such a huge scale. Even where sex scandals, cash for honours, questions and passports have passed over and left the detritus of ministerial careers in their wake, the cumulative effect of the revelations of office, home and travel expenses of 630 MPs shocked the British public.

For anyone who worked in Westminster, it can't have been surprising. Anyone who has ever worked for an MP wouldn't bat an eyelid at some of the claims. Like many other people with daily lives built around a series of expenses claims, some Members of Parliament just didn't bother themselves with form-filling and bureaucracy for the reconciliation of receipts for dinners with parliamentary colleague or a second home mortgage repayments. And because they'd taken their eye off the ball in quite a spectacular way, MPs were oblivious to the potential damage to their reputation caused by a liberal interpretation of the rules. In any other organisation, an officious finance officer and robust policies would refuse the most extravagant claims, but Commons clerks knew it was the job of MPs to account for their mistakes – and be held accountable for them.

The media should have been on to this sooner – after all, it wasn't as if MPs expenses had never been under the microscope before. What made the 2009 scandal so dramatic was the way in which it broke. The Daily Telegraph pounced on the opportunity to buy and then pore over the contents of stolen computer discs from the House of Commons, weeks before they were due to be published online anyway. It was a significant leak, not without its own ethical problems (the Times had first refusal) – but breaking the story relied on indiscretion and misconduct in itself. There did not appear to be any particular political agenda behind the leak, with Tory grandees and old Labour stalwarts alike under the spotlight – marking an 'all-out' assault on MPs by the media.

Westminster just didn't know how to handle it. The marriage between politicians and the media had broken down irrevocably, on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. The roles changed, and the relationship rebalanced. As Professor Ralph Negrine of Sheffield University put it:

During the expenses scandal – a witch hunt – politicians could not find a way of dealing with broadcasters [who] became more accusatory and interpretive in their approach.
MPs could not justify themselves – their problem was 'how can we explain ourselves?”

Although every party was affected in some way – proportionally less so for the LibDems - there was no coherent strategy as to how to deal with the accusations. Party headquarters would distance themselves from disgraced candidates – and brief against those who have been deemed beyond the pail – leaving angry, betrayed and bitter MPs to pick up the pieces, attempting to salvage what remained of their reputations. 

A notorious casualty was the MP for Norwich North, Dr Ian Gibson, who when faced with being barred by Labour's star chamber in standing at the next General Election, resigned as an MP, triggering an immediate by-election and subsequent loss to the Tories. Dr Gibson had come clean over selling his London flat cut-price for the benefit of his daughter and her boyfriend. The so-called 'star chamber', deemed this unacceptable, Gibson's resignation was accepted, and an otherwise hard-working figure of integrity left public life. 
In the end, it was the Labour party's judgement to make – as it was for the Tories' with Sir Peter 'Duck Island' Viggers and other deposed Members. But fundamentally, the media won this battle, and the aftermath of the MP's expenses scandal had an enormous impact on the makeup of the House of Commons at the 2010 General Election, with new, 'clean' candidates replacing their disgraced predecessors. As Negrine points out, “during the 1980s and 1990s – news management and spin worked. But it did not work during the expenses scandal. Before this, politicians had space and opportunity to make their case”. 
Now, the dynamics of the relationship presumes politicians are in the wrong from the outset.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The 'dark arts' debated

The idea of a panel of journalists debating phone-hacking, alongside other interested parties, was always going to be an interesting discussion and one worth having, not least because the ethics of the 'dark arts' are very rarely de-constructed in public. I went along to yet another evening debate at City University last week for a session entitled 'How far should a reporter go – the lessons of the News of the World phone-hacking story' expecting to hear from a group of people split down the middle on the issue.

The specifics of the News of the World case were not really discussed, on the presumption that the chair and panel members found it safer to discuss broader themes around privacy and journalistic surveillance. I suppose it would have been tempting to steam away furiously on an anti-Murdoch rant, with equally strong opinions from the other side of the fence, although as panelist Nick Davies pointed out, every major national newspaper has engaged in phone-hacking – it just so happened that it was Clive Goodman and the News of the World who happened to get caught.

My views on the subject changed somewhat during the course of the evening, and made me realise that there's a whole tool-kit available to the investigative journalist which isn't always questioned – let alone justified - in the pursuit of a public interest story. There are indeed, as the chair Andrew Caldecott QC pointed out, 'many layers' in such a case.

The first big surprise of the evening was the argument put forward by Max Mosley, former president of the FIA, and offspring of the notorious Mr and Mrs Oswald Mosley, fascists and Hitler sympathisers. As you might expect, his successful suing of the News of the World pitted him against the activities of the paper – but for which he didn't make any money out of. It wasn't difficult to disagree with Mosley's defence of privacy, in which he scalded Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre's self-assumed right to pillory on the paper's front page “someone who has a slightly more adventurous sex-life”. What did Dacre think sex was all about, Mosley asked? “Turning the lights off,waiting for three minutes then adopting the missionary position?”. More seriously, in response to the position of Roy Greenslade (Professor of Journalism at City and former Mirror editor, playing devil's advocate), who argued that the activities of celebrity 'role models' are fair game for adjudication by the national press, Mosley thought that if the morals of those public figures are considered unhealthy, “we shouldn't be publicising it”. (I did feel slightly sorry for Greenslade for having to put forward such a weak argument, but I'll be polite about him here as he's one of my lecturers).

The second biggest surprise was the view of Sir Ken McDonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions at the CPS. Having not heard him speak before, I expected an establishment, Civil Service standpoint on the question of how far journalists should go. He's also someone who's had his private life scrutinised by the jury of the press. Yet, according to McDonald “we could all imagine circumstances where we want journalists to break the law”. Privacy was, he argued “in danger of defeating the broader agenda of press freedom”. Supporting this view, the French press for example, were “not praiseworthy” in their supposed deference to their own public figures, failing in their pursuit of investigative journalism.

One of the more bizarre proposals of the evening came from Nick Davies, suggesting that because reconciliation between the free press and privacy was so problematic, there needed to be some sort of mechanism or process to deal with the question of public interest. Max Mosley seemed to prefer a judicial option, whereby a judge would make the decision pre-publication of an article. But Davies pondered as to whether there could there be some sort of 'tribunal of wise men or women', where the decision to authorise a journalistic investigation of an individual could be later made public, if say, the 'victim' were to sue. Picture, for a moment, the legitimacy of a tribunal made up of Dacre, Dominic Mohan, Richard Wallis, and Peter Hill – all editors of major national titles. I'm not suggesting any of them are fundamentally unethical people, but they're paid to do a job and ensure that their papers sell in an increasingly competitive and commercial environment.

With these sorts of pressures on them, there's no way that it a tribunal could be workable, let alone result in truly ethical decisions. Any members of such a panel would be the result of a judgement of someone, somewhere, who may or may not make a more valid editorial judgement than the individual who edits a newspaper. That's not to say that I agree with the casual fishing around for stories that some on the panel practised or supported (including ex-NotW features editor Paul McMullan) - I just don't believe that fundamentally speaking, journalism can allow for such cumbersome processes. What's really needed is a change of culture but that's a debate for another time.

We have a uniquely free press in this country, and some excellent, fearless journalists working on them. I'm not sure if we'll ever resolve that difficult question of public interest, or see the sorts of safeguards some people would like to see to protect the privacy of individuals, but that genuine spirit of inquiry for the public good is always worth fighting for. And the issue of phone-hacking isn't as black and white as it seems.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Wikileaks, the moral high ground, and the question of accountability

Julian Assange was swamped by a media scrum at the end of his talk
"Who put Wikileaks on the moral high ground?" A very interesting question indeed, posed by the right-leaning Times columnist David Aaronovitch at a debate to which I was invited at City University last Thursday evening, where, as a lot of people who read this probably know, I've just started a journalism MA course.

Wikileaks claims to be "an organisation to promote justice through the sharing and communication of knowledge". This, it has done, through the release of many hundreds of thousands of classified documents, emails, reports and correspondence: from Sarah Palin's Hotmail to shocking footage of a US helicopter attack killing innocent Baghdad civilians (note my deliberate value judgment there - I'm not in the game of criticising those who hold to account those who have been perpetuating barbaric and illegal wars).

I can't say I've looked at the site more than once before, when it leaked a slightly out-of-date BNP membership list, which was covered by a BBC News article amongst many other outlets. It has, after all, become something of an essential item in the investigative journalist's toolbox. But, like many people, I wondered what made Wikileaks tick. It is broadly seen as having a left-leaning, anti-war agenda, so there's an obvious political ideology in there somewhere. And, if so, who are the ideologues who call the shots? Who redacts information from the thousands of leaked documents that could be deemed to put peoples' lives in danger? More worryingly, is Wikileaks completely indiscriminate in the way it simply takes information from many, many sources and publishes it without making any kind of judgement on it first?

Taking the view that it would be preferable to pick up on and quote from aspects of the site first hand, I've unfortunately found it rather frustrating to write this blogpost since Thursday's debate because the site has been shut down for 'scheduled maintenance', making it difficult to make a more rounded judgement on what Wikileaks is all about, and why it exists.

The debate was framed by David Aaronovitch, who posted his own thoughts in Saturday's Times, as well as Julian Assange, the curious, evasive, and socially awkward face of Wikileaks. Chaired by the veteran broadcaster and panel chair Jonathan Dimbleby, I came away from this bizarre event not that much more aware of what the raison d'etre of Wikileaks actually is. The audience, of mainly students, academics and other journalists, consistently asked questions about what keeps Wikileaks going in the background (apart from its indeterminate number of volunteers), and consistently, didn't really get any answers.

And, like most of the rest of the audience - a sizeable chunk of mainly journalists or journalism students - I wanted to know what editorial judgements Wikileaks makes, if any. When faced with serious accusations that the actions of the site you run has contributed to civilian deaths in a warzone, you might be expected to respond to those accusations robustly, and with empathy. Someone asked whether it was a goal of Wikileaks to have people protected, and if so, how did they do this? What did they actively do? Did we trust Assange's 'harm minimisation?'

"We are a publishing organisation - we do nothing else. The public decide whether to fund us. You decide whether we continue on this course of action, looking at the fruits of our labour.

"I find it hard to see another organisation which is immediately accountable to the public".

This last point was fascinating, because, despite being asked at least once, Assange couldn't reveal a list of donors who funded the organisation. Maybe this is for a very good reason, but it's clear that a set-up of this nature can't compete with the likes of established national newspapers and mainstream media outlets. We know who runs them, we know who funds them - we quite often disagree with those who are in charge of these organisations and the political line they take, but it's pretty much all out there in the public sphere.

Assange wouldn't be drawn on whether Wikileaks was being bankrolled by the Chinese government, as has been rumoured, nor would he comment on any of the increasingly public disagreements with former volunteers such as Daniel Schmitt (also known as Daniel Domscheit-Berg) who, as a BBC Radio 4's PM programme pointed out last week, has had some serious disagreements with the way Wikileaks is being run, to the point where Assange has suspended him - and it doesn't look like he'll be going back.

"Fundamentally, [Wikileaks] needs transparency in the way it is working, and the way it deals with its finances" said Schmitt, suggesting that Assange, as the leader of the organisation if such a figure really does exist, needs to "focus again, calm down and get a holiday". Schmitt claimed also that the people he had been working with "are no longer involved as far as I can tell".

Responding to the allegations, Assange denied there had been any mass departures: "There have been no resignations other than a media statement. We're a complex organisation with a large, extended network. We make no apologies for not being transparent about the protection of our sources.

Asked whether Wikileaks was too focused around himself, Assange said "Of course it is founded around me. I started it." He also claimed that the level of public interest in Wikileaks was "annoying". Assange is beginning to panic now that the spotlight is beginning to shine very brightly on him. And, until someone more credible than Assange is put up by Wikileaks to defend the organisation and its guiding philosophy, I can't square that question of accountability.

Update on 13/10/10: City have now released the full video of the event, available on their website.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Ed Miliband: the 'honest optimist'

It was supposed to be the speech which broke the mould. Less than three days after being announced as Labour's new leader, a fresh, wide-eyed idealist bounded up to the stage. With an overriding theme of youth throughout the speech - in a marked contrast to the weighty years of experience of his predecessor - this was not an occasion at which the old guard would feel comfortable.
Ed Miliband hammered home, directly to the Shadow Cabinet, his personal beliefs of where New Labour had gone wrong - "I understand that the promise of the new politics of 1997 came to look incredibly hollow after the scandal of MP's expenses". He spared a more traditional vitriol for the Coalition, occasionally verging on the sanctimonious, and constantly referring to government being something that Labour had the right to take back: "If we are not the party, nobody will be". A personal jibe at David Cameron enforced his view of Britain simply being in reckless hands: "You were once the optimist but now all you can offer is a miserable, pessimistic view of what Britain can achieve. And you hide behind the deficit to justify it. We won't let you get away with it".

This speech was both different in tone and content from the dramatic set pieces of Tony Blair and the solid, statistic heavy reports of Gordon Brown (although Miliband teased the audience briefly with an old Brown line "thank you for what you did", interminably repeated at large party events to acknowledge activists' tireless work). Instead, Miliband projected a more fragile, nervous understatement. After all, until just a few weeks ago it was not expected that he would win. There was even a hint of this last-minute nature in the jokes, some of which would not have been out of place in a best man's speech, scribbled on the back of an envelope the night before: "I stole David's football, so he nationalised my train set". And, reflecting the theme of youth and the new generation, an affectionate but pointed remark aimed at Jack Straw "what was it like to meet the man who invented the wheel, Jack?" only served to underline the boyish qualities of the new leader.

Ed Miliband's comradely, fraternal language echoed a political training spent in debating halls. Overwhelmingly, this was a speech to a pitched to "friends" at a Labour Party branch meeting or a left-leaning thinktank - both environments in which Mr Miliband is inherently more comfortable - and not the conference hall of an aspirant Prime Minister. More precisely, it addressed the sort of people with whom he has spent the past four months, and not Great Britain.

Overshadowed by the failure of his older brother's campaign to clinch the leadership, there were key questions of legitimacy to answer. Did Ed possess the oratory skill of his brother? Many people doubted as to whether he could articulate a vision of Labour that was forward looking and believable. Proving that the Labour party had caught up with a sizeable and aggrieved part of the electorate over the Iraq issue, Miliband boldly repeated the conviction which characterised his campaign when he spoke to the party at large:

"We were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that...wrong because that war was not a last resort...we did not build sufficient alliances and...we undermined the United Nations."

Pacing towards a crescendo finish, Miliband adopted a poetic, tub-thumping rhythm not dissimilar to Blair and Brown, with regular nods to the party's heritage. This was a man brought up by passionate activists, which showed as he comfortably referenced the pivotal figures of the Labour movement who, at one time, as Miliband of Brothers told us, most were present in his parents' dining room. Although there was much in the speech to reassure party members, at no time did he excite the audience beyond the polite reception you might normally expect from a Labour conference.

This was a positive, upbeat speech, honest about the past and hopeful about the future. Opposition parties and the press alike were unsure of what to make of his inaugural address; labelling him either as a thoughtful, candid newcomer or a dangerous, left-wing union bidder. But, with just three days in the job, there was a general consensus that he wasn't quite ready for Downing Street just yet. After all it took David Cameron nearly five years to make that transition, and Neil Kinnock, a front-row advocate of Ed, never made it after nine. The recent history of British social democracy reminds us there's a bigger story behind new leadership rejecting past ideas and going on to win elections - particularly when you've been blessed by a predecessor. Another Clause IV moment could yet happen.

Monday, 20 September 2010

My hopes, dreams and ambitions for journalism

Today I’m taking my first steps towards a new career – something I really should have done quite a long time ago in fact – with my first evening of lectures at City University for an MA in Political Journalism.

The summer has given me plenty of time to read around my subject and I feel that as a new student, I’m already developing a worthy critique in my head of today’s journalism and its strengths, opportunities and dynamism, but also its weaknesses, frustrations and, in some cases, lazy and shoddy misreporting. The excellent Flat Earth News by Nick Davies has been a good starting point and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a better idea of why journalism isn’t working as it should. And it should work better, because there’s an awful lot going on out there which needs to be taken note of by journalists and which is in danger of slipping away from public consciousness.

So why am I doing this? For the last six years, since my undergraduate degree, I have, in the main, been working in various civil service and public sector communications roles which, although they’ve developed my basic skills in writing good copy and finding stories, I’ve never been responsible in that time for any public or externally facing communication. My interests have always been more around speaking to a wider audience and that passion for the drama of politics and a long desired professional aspiration to journalism have never once waned. Right now seemed an opportune moment to embark on a new career once it became clear that British politics was experiencing a moderate earthquake – of which I’m sure the aftershocks will be felt for some time. A tired, chaotic government has been swept from power, the two-party system is on the verge of being dismantled, the Liberal Democrats are in government and there’s a wave of unpredictability washing through public life which makes things constantly fascinating for the observer of the British political scene.

So, I’m hoping that in order to help make sense of this brave new world, this Masters will help nurture a strong interest in good quality, investigative journalism that is – dare I say it – ethical, and that I can find a new career in helping to peel off what sometimes seems like increasing layers on, and barriers to the machinery of government. I’m not pretending to speak from some pious lectern on what’s wrong with the world – either in politics or in journalism itself – but I want to be able to do things my way, through a prism of values which might seem lofty or impractical – but hopefully true to myself and with independent, rigorous thought and research.

I am an optimist and an idealist by nature and I hope that, if you were to ask me, in five years time ‘where have your ideals and principles gone?’, you won’t witness my detached soul scuttling off down the road to the world of sensationalist celebrity gossip and the sort of pseudo-journalism I don’t think I’ll ever be interested in – let alone be any good at!

Keep following me on this blog, which, I’m advised, needs to be updated at least two or three times a week. I’ve had a blog since 2007 and I don’t think I’ve ever got anywhere near close to that sort of regularity of posting, but hope that over the next year at least, I can promise some occasionally interesting, insightful and thought-provoking articles. And, if you’re a potential future employer or you run a political or news website and you like what you read, please do get in touch.

So, pull up a chair and we’ll have a nice cup of tea as we put the world to rights.

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