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.

Share this