Wednesday, 28 December 2011

2011: a year in politics

A year ago, we could have described what had been a “challenging” twelve months in UK politics. And, if 2010 were challenging, then 2011 has been extraordinary. Harold Macmillan’s “events, dear boy, events” has never been a truer adage of the way politics can take unexpected turns.
David Cameron could surely not have expected an easy ride upon taking office as the Prime Minister of the first coalition government in over seventy years in May 2010. Convincing the electorate of the Conservatives’ deficit reduction strategy – and the consistent trashing of Labour’s record as big-spending, big-government and economically reckless - was the easy part. A generally acquiescent media helped Cameron and his party along the way, while the Liberal Democrats, as coalition partners, raised no significant objections to this line. But with no firm plan for growing the economy - austerity being the only dish on the menu – Cameron’s party has found that governing as if it were a single-party government with little opposition is not an option. Conflict would have to be engineered, distractions capitalised upon and personalities exploited if his party were to convince the electorate that despite being in coalition, it was still business as usual for the Tories.

As distractions go, no-one predicted quite how the Tories’ biggest friends in the media – Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers – would face such a spectacular crisis in the way that they did in July 2011 when news emerged that the mobile phone messages of Milly Dowler, a young girl who had been horrifically murdered in 2002, had been hacked into by News of the World journalists shortly after she disappeared. Within a week of these revelations – and many more - the paper was closed. Only a month or so before, the political establishment, including the Labour leader Ed Miliband, had cavorted quite happily in the company of Murdoch himself at News International’s summer party. All of a sudden, the political class was in crisis yet again, achieving a hat trick of scandal after cash for peerages and the MPs’ misuse of their expenses. Huge questions remain over Cameron’s personal judgement, both as Prime Minister and while in opposition over his hiring of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as Communications Director, and it remains to be seen whether the resultant Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and practices of the media will draw out any hard lessons for politicians.

Despite the embarrassment of his murky media connections, Cameron, like Tony Blair, has demonstrated his own Teflon-like quality. Nothing sticks. What's more, he has found it convenient to direct flak in the direction of the Liberal Democrats. As leader of that party and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has never redeemed himself from the consequences of his party’s sudden u-turn in government in introducing fees of up to £9,000 for some university courses. A referendum on moving to the ‘Alternative Vote’ system for General Elections did not result in a Great Liberal Moment – with an overwhelming 67% of the voting electorate saying that actually, they didn’t agree with Nick. Any surge in enthusiasm for the Lib Dems during the 2010 election campaign had vanished without a trace by mid-2011 as the party struggled to make the transition from party of protest to party of government - still very much the third party, stubbornly languishing at around 10% in the opinion polls despite the trappings of office.

Meanwhile, there were plenty of distractions on the international stage. With the disaster of Iraq was still deep in the political consciousness, a decision to take military action in Libya eventually paid off with the eventual demise of Colonel Gadaffi. Rather, it was Europe that once again presented itself as a pressure point for the Tories, exacerbated by crisis in the Eurozone and Tory backbenchers’ desire to score one over their coalition partners. The supposed ‘veto’ wielded by Cameron against a treaty designed to save the Euro (supposedly threatening the City’s financial interests) left the UK more politically isolated than it has been for years. And although large numbers of British people remain of the view that things like immigration, justice, defence and employment rights should be decided by Britain alone, it remains to be seen however whether there is any appetite for the EU having a less of a role in areas such as the environment, foreign policy and trade rules. Asked about the UK’s continued membership of the EU in a referendum, one poll suggested that only 41% of voters wanted to stay in, with 41% wanting to leave – a sharp shift from recent polls indicating that up to 50% wanted to leave. Other countries went ahead with negotiations anyway, with a cost in personal and diplomatic relations, most graphically illustrated by President Sarkozy’s refusal to shake Cameron’s hand during a televised clip of the summit. There is no love lost between the two men.

Whatever happens in UK politics in 2012, it is less predictable than ever. While the coalition has remained stable, the condition of the UK economy does not show any great signs of improvement. Predicted growth has not materialised, youth unemployment is unacceptably high and the promise of many more vacancies in the private sector to replace those lost in the public sector failed to materialise. The next year will mark the halfway point of this notional five-year parliament – a point at which the Chancellor, George Osborne, may well have to adopt ‘Plan B’ for reviving the economy and creating jobs. Cynically, the government may choose to play the anti-EU card rather than admit defeat on the economy.

But with the aftermath of the English riots still raw in voters’ minds, there are evidently opportunities to bolster the government’s law and order credentials, a policy area in which Labour has been gaining some ground. Labour aren't keen to say too much about the deficit, or what they might do about it. But they are also aware that most voters reluctantly accept the cuts, and, despite the obvious pain, traditional opposition arguments based on public spending, jobs and growth may not wash with voters. Miliband will need a sharper strategy and need to think on his feet in response to the government attempts to woo voters with emotional causes such as the Europe question, or the question of whether they feel safe in their towns and cities, which ultimately have little impact on the money in voters’ pockets. 

Monday, 19 December 2011

Getting all sentimental - about a bus

A little over six years ago, I indulged myself in a secret geeky pleasure – a ride on the penultimate AEC Routemaster on a normal, cross-London bus route. It was a little misleading, because these 1960s veterans continued to ply their trade on two special ‘heritage’ routes, the 9 to Kensington High Street, and the 15 to Tower Hill. But the final day witnessed an outpouring of emotion for a public transport icon that only the British could be capable of (see files marked 'End of Steam on British Rail' and 'London's Last Tram').

As a reasonably recent arrival to London in 2005, I was already nostalgic for the Routemaster, with their 1950s design and quirks of a bygone age. They plied the streets of Dalston where I first lived, a flotilla of weathered red metal, rubber and comfy moquette. I missed them so much that I even ended up doing weekend work as a conductor and guide for a company that specialised in Routemaster charters when money became tight.

normally never a stranger to sentiment, but I recognised these museum pieces couldn’t go on for ever without significant re-engineering, time and money (the first one was built in 1959 after all). An impending 2017 deadline imposed by the Disability Discrimation Act sounded the death-bell for these purring red beasts. Mayor Ken Livingstone had made it clear that, since the introduction of German-built bendy buses on the high-capacity Red Arrow routes in 2002, the future was not going to be the preserve of elderly double-deckers with an open ‘hop-on, hop-off’ rear platform. The Routemaster was, after all, evolved from a design which, admittedly with the addition of a roof and pneumatic tyres, was little different from the pre-war B-Type, and later RT type. Why then, in 2005, would anyone want to operate a vehicle that was prone to accidents around its rear platform and which, without passenger doors, could be very cold in winter?

It took a Tory mayor, Boris Johnson to take that somewhat retrograde step – much against the advice of industry professionals and those who said “it can't be done”. But Boris did it. The proof of the pudding for me was on Saturday, as I perused the
Thomas Heatherwick-designed Routemaster New Bus for London. In tune with London's aspirational classes, it was parked up outside the brand-spanking new Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, itself the epitome of modernity situated on the Olympic park. Londoners were invited to inspect their new public carriage, and they seemed impressed during my short visit. It is indeed a beautiful vehicle which may finally render redundant the insult 'he/she/it looks like the back of a bus’; the NBfL is far from ugly. Its striking curves, traditionally-inspired seating and flooring and other bespoke design touches make it a winner, at least from an aesthetic point of view. Oh, and like many of London's new buses, it's a hybrid – so the Toyota Prius loving classes should come flocking. 

Like all good design however, the proof of the pudding will be in how it fares in every day use. The new vehicle seats just 64, and there is less space for wheelchair users and those with pushchairs – facilities which bendy buses seemed to have in abundance. The first two prototypes of eight initial buses are due in service on 20 February on the arduous 38 route – a bus route which has become ridiculously frequent in recent years, and one which runs not too far away from Boris' own home in Highbury. So let's see how the residents of Hackney and Islington deal with an open-platform bus six years after the last one ran in their locality. It is a high-profile risk to take for a Mayor of London who is so keen to see this expensive and quirky pet project succeed. I hate to be a cynic, but even if it does succeed I'll wait for the first person to fall off the back of one and become seriously injured (or worse) and see what the Mayor thinks about his new bus then.
'Elf 'n safety may well win the day - the passengers of 2012 just aren't those of 1962.

Meanwhile, is it just possible that the average passenger just wants a seat on the way to work – and isn't particularly bothered about what the bus looks like?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Doing it all again: why I'm striking tomorrow

Today I was told by a friend that, as a public sector worker, I'm part of a 'bloated, inefficient mess'. I thought hard, but struggled to see the relevance of his point, when considering the record performance of the small but high-profile part of the civil service I work for. Despite only having a workforce of about 415, and having shed around 40 or so jobs over the past year as a result of funding cuts, its staff are dedicated to what they do. All this is against a background of continuing redundancies, a government-wide recruitment freeze and a two-year pay cut.

We're confident that what we do is worth more than that though. Public sector workers – and yes, there are a heck of a lot of 'em – do vital jobs that are often unnoticed and yet are very noticeable in their absence. At the end of December, I'm leaving the civil service after eight years (with a few gaps) to pursue my career in journalism – I won't be a public sector worker for much longer. But I'll nonetheless withdraw my labour on 30 November 2011 as I would not be prepared to lose nearly £90 a month extra from my salary in protest as a result of the government's proposed 3.5% rise in employee contributions. I'll also have to work up to eight years longer for it. When the cost of living has increased so rapidly and living standards have in fact gone down, something has to give.

The truth is that public sector pensions are entirely affordable, and that public sector workers are a victim of short-sighted political choices, rather than remaining the beneficiary of the entirely reasonable status quo. Lord Hutton, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and even the Office for Budget Responsibility all agree. Yet, the proposed changes to pensions amount to nothing more than a levy that will raise more from public servants than the levy on banks in order to pay off the deficit.

To me, it is grossly unfair to shoulder even part of the blame for the deficit on teachers, ambulance staff, nurses, midwives, doctors, firefighters and civil servants. We didn't crash the stock market, wipe out banks, take billions in bonuses or dodge tax. In protest at this attack on our current pensions arrangements, it's all to play for and is worth fighting for tomorrow.

My Top Charity: Shelter

It all started with an attractive bearded man with a clipboard on London’s Regent Street one cold, dark November afternoon about five years ago. I normally make my excuses when I’m approached by charity fund-raisers on the street, but unlike a lot of  ‘chuggers’, he made a compelling case as to why I should give away my bank details there and then; among the heaving mass of shopping tourists. I hope he now works somewhere important in Shelter or another charity because my direct debit has been going out ever since. And quite unlike many other causes I’ve flirted with in the past, I have never wavered in my support.

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Sunday, 20 November 2011

Guarding radio's sacred flame: Gwyneth Williams in conversation with Gillian Reynolds

Meddle with the BBC, and you meddle with the psychology of a nation. Or, more specifically, should Radio 4 Controllers meddle with the fundamental cornerstones of the nation's best loved spoken word radio station, they will be told in no short shrift what listeners think of their decisions. If you have read the excellent potted history of the station, And Now on Radio 4, you will get a slightly more detached, yet sentimental view of this national treasure – much is written of the trials and tribulations faced by various controllers over the years. Radio 4 is, quite simply, the station with the most vocal and critical audience of any on the airwaves.

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The PCC is dead: Does television hold the key to better press regulation?

Timing is everything. The Leveson Inquiry, which began on Monday to look into the culture, practices and ethics of the media, will make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance. But what about the freedom of the press - that politicians constantly tell us they support - in that drive towards the highest ethical and professional standards? 

Many in the media – particularly journalists – are somewhat aggrieved at what they see as an overly critical spotlight on their profession in the light of “the most important reputational issue the press has to face up to” - the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

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Friday, 18 November 2011

Friday, 11 November 2011

Rethinking the unthinkable - are the Conservatives the new party of gay equality?

Remember David Cameron’s cringe-inducing interview just before the 2010 General Election with GT? The then Leader of the Opposition got so flustered that he had to ask his press officer to halt the interview because he couldn’t present a convincing line on equality to the interviewer. With these images in the collective consciousness of gay voters, and without the convenience of the Tories being in government to dispel them, it was still easy to badge them as the nasty party, as Theresa May had once said.

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Does 'big society' spell the end of charity as we know it?

With charities providing more public services, some feel like small government departments.

When is a charity not a charity? We are seeing the end of the clear dividing line between what government does and what the voluntary sector does. The government at all levels has made it clear that it is uninterested in directly providing public services, leaving it to charities, social enterprises and ethical companies to battle it out. The Victorian notion of a charity – giving money, goods or time to others – is becoming unfamiliar to the British public in the age of the big society. Are we, therefore, seeing the end of charities as we've known them?

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Sunday, 6 November 2011

Them and Us: A Special Relationship?

If there's one thing that politicians and journalists really don't agree on, it's the so-called Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. It deserves capitalisation not just because of the absurd way in which it is exploited, but arguably because it's often to the benefit of the Americans rather than the Brits. What makes it special is, as they might say, the Million Dollar Question. Like many long-standing marriages, it often appears somewhat dysfunctional and you're never sure whether the two sides really do love each other. American presidents come and go, while successive British Prime Ministers do all they can to rekindle the passion. Is it something that simply exists in the imagination of the British political establishment?

The Today programme anchor and long-standing BBC man Justin Webb is well placed to speak about the political and cultural differences between the United States and the UK. With his new book, Notes on Them and Us, he's taken the time to reflect on what stands us apart from our cousins across the Atlantic – as well as the bonds that tie us together. Webb returned to his alma mater, the London School of Economics, at the invitation of the Media Society and Polis to discuss his own reflections on the subject.

We didn't have an academic interest in the US – we moved for the sunshine” opens Webb, in conversation with the New York Times's London correspondent and author of The Anglofiles, Sarah Lyall. With a young, energetic family and a career-defining opportunity offered by the BBC, you can't blame him. In fact, he's done the return journey twice.

But the culture shock was soon apparent, recalls Webb, when the unthinkable happened. “We knew a guy who worked at CNN . And we went to his party at which there was no booze at all”. And, horror upon horror, “they were drinking cherryade”. This might have been fine for the school tuck shop, but for a party of east coast media types? To a Brit, this was unthinkable.

It was occasions like this, as Webb jokes that are “a misunderestimation [sic] of the cultural differences between you and us”. Indeed, it's clear that Webb's affection for the country is unmistakeable. Something about community ties and a can-do spirit seem to have sparked his enthusiasm for this country. It's because “Americans are generous, not just to strangers but to themselves”. The first thing that comes to mind is a calorie-laden hamburger with fries, but there's more to it than that. Webb talks about an “ideal of attachment”, with references to religion and of pride in geographical roots. Americans are proud to be from Wyoming, or Maryland or wherever, but there is no corresponding sense of belonging from the citizens of Somerset, for example.

What's more, Webb concedes that the influence of religion on American politics is somewhat overstated, referring to Karl Rove's dismissal of evangelical Christians as “not terribly reliable”. The British, after all, have an established church, arguably wedded to our political institutions far more than Fox News is in the US. Nontheless, Webb is critical of the standard of broadcast journalism there. “American broadcasters don't get real players. They get proxies who just lay into each other”. That leads him to comparison with the UK parliamentary system. “It may look messy but at least we can do things". Lyall retorted: “at least our constitution is written down!"

While organs such as Fox bleat about America's supposed terminal decline, Webb sees it as somewhat relative “compared to the rest of the world”. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. Yes, there's persistent unemployment, and the ever-present threat of terrorism. But Americans have always been exceptionalist in their outlook, and Webb puts it into historical context: Barack Obama is clearly not the first President to be blamed for economic woes that pre-dated his term of office.

There's plenty to learn about the ways in which the US can teach Brits a thing or two: questions about philanthropy for example are sparking “an interesting debate”. For example, the European way of increasing funds for the public good was through higher taxes, while Webb's observations in the US convinced him that it was not necessarily higher taxes that encouraged benefactors, but rather easy ways of giving large sums of money.

Webb's overall view is that there is a fundamental divide in the special relationship. But it is no more than a cultural split between the two nations, maybe in part due to a British uneasiness with American self-gratitude and an audacious, unapologetic embracing of religion. But with a more honest recognition of it – possibly even a celebration – a more mutually beneficial collaboration is possible.

Originally posted on the Media Society website.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Blast from the past: cartoon competition

I don't really do restaurant reviews, but I do love the Gay Hussar. This Soho institution was opened in 1953, named in honour of the elite of the Hungarian army rather than marketed at the LGBT community as its location - and name - might suggest. Popping in there on a weeknight with a group of university friends, as I did last week, to devour platefuls of yummy Eastern European comfort food is one of life's pleasures.

It's probably not the most fashionable of eateries, which probably explains why it is particularly popular with backbench Labour MPs. Many of them have been immortalised in portrait form, drawn by the Guardian and Tribune cartoonist, Martin Rowson, and adorn the walls of the ground floor and stairs. Whether they're flattering or not is open to question, but I was reminded last week by one of my friends that Rowson had in fact drawn me. The occasion was the relaunch of Tribune back in 2005. (It recently announced its closure, only to be reformed as a co-operative venture).

So here it is. Rowson himself very kindly sent this on to me, and the first person to spot me (alas, not how I currently look) wins a copy of the West Wing Season 1 on DVD. It's a little bit biased towards people who actually know who I am, but I never said the competition was fair did I?

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Have you got an interesting story to tell about community action?

I'm very interested in the activities of neighbourhood groups and local organisations doing great things and organising to make people's lives better in some way. I'm looking for stories about the struggles they face and the hurdles they come across – and overcome - and the ways in which they raise money and succeed. The focus is politics, but with a small 'p'.

Your story could get a large audience - as well as my blog, I write for the Guardian's Voluntary Sector Network, and occasionally other publications.

If you've got something you'd like me to cover please email me and don't forget to include brief details and a way of me getting in contact.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Seeing red in London's mayoral contest

I cried when Ken Livingstone lost the 2008 election to Boris Johnson to become Mayor of London. Yes, I know. I'm a silly, soppy thing who takes politics far too seriously. I have soft spot for the old warhorse, and I'd been canvassing all day. I'd had a few bottles of wine, and it was late. Ken Livingstone's valedictory address was heartfelt, and he was clearly gutted. And surely politically-savvy Londoners would see through the vagaries of The Blonde and re-elect Red Ken, the man who had remade London politics, with a landslide. Wouldn't they?

That was over three years ago. I've given up active politics since then, mainly because I couldn't do anything but feel guilty when looking at bundles of leaflets that needed delivering to nearby streets. I don't feel so guilty any more though. London's politics has changed – and elections are no longer fought and won in the hole of the 'doughnut' that is inner London boroughs. With credit to Ken, the centre ground of London's politics – a micro state within the UK – did shift westward. Even the Telegraph has called Ken the most successful left-winger of modern times. As a result, massive investment in public transport, the congestion charge and a commitment to police numbers have all been written into the rulebook for London's mayor.

Boris knows these truths, and in spite of the blustering demeanour is no fool. He is surrounded by smart people at City Hall; strategists, specialists, communicators. As Conservatives, they have realised how valuable City Hall is as a power base and they are not prepared to throw it away, despite the historic antagonism towards London local government under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Much has been made of the personal similarities between Boris and Ken – the mavericks acting outside the party mainstream, even their occasionally racy private lives. Boris isn't on the same page as David Cameron. Ken's rarely read from the same book as the Labour leadership. But both claim to be standing up for the People's Republic of London in their own way.

The New Bus for London – or the new Routemaster -is a big bold, physical manifestation of Boris making his mark on London. But Ken was right to scrap the original Routemaster, as I've argued before. He was right also to introduce the unfairly maligned bendy buses, which seem to operate in many of Europe's other cities without any trouble at all.

Boris and his team have been entirely wrong to scrap bendy buses, which have been well suited to the job expected of them. Preferring to listen to ill-informed advice on what might win him the election (it worked, but his advisors know nothing about running transport) we’ve seen chaos outside places like Waterloo and Victoria stations, where there are either too many replacement double-deckerscausing congestion at the terminus, or smaller buses which leave large numbers behind. Here's the evidence:

Enormous queues build up at Waterloo station every morning waiting for the 521 bus - down the stairs, double-backing several times and causing huge congestion like some sort of low-budget British horror film
Bendy buses on the route I use most often just vaccumed up queues and never left anyone behind. And, as for the urban myth that they're more dangerous to cyclists – well, not a shred of evidence could be provided to support that theory.

I’d personally like to see the return of the bendy bus, and for politicians to leave decisions over what sort of buses should be on our streets to the professionals, rather than getting stuck in a 1950s timewarp about ‘new' Routemasters. Yes, that's right – a bus based on a open rear entrance design that dates back to at least the 1920s, but built in 2011. It will leave TfL and the London bus companies open to lawsuits. But Boris powers on with his pet project, which although is undeniably pretty as buses go, is still unnecessary and expensive in an age of supposed austerity and budget cuts. The first is due in trial service in the new year.

Artists' impression of the imaginatively titled Emirates Air Line
Then there's the Thames Cable Car. Who remembers Londoners asking for this? It would have been expected that any incoming or re-elected mayor would have supported a new bridge in that part of London, easing the pressure on the Blackwall Tunnel and the Limehouse Link. It wasn't however, part of either Boris', or for that matter, Ken's manifesto and has managed to spectacularly overtake other long-hoped for projects such as the Cross-River Tram or Crystal Palace Tram extension, or the DLR's Dagenham Dock extension. The Emirates Air Line, as it will be called, has even sneaked on to the tube map. Like the new Routemaster, it's shiny and glossy and looks great in the run-up to a Mayoral election. But do we actually need it?

Non-Londoners may wonder why all this is of consequence. But what happens in London next year will undoubtedly have an impact on UK politics come the next general election in 2015, or sooner. Ken Livingstone has been busy attacking Boris on police numbers, for example. Boris sounds less combative towards his opponent and has grown in confidence significantly since taking on the job. He's even using similar language and the posturing of his opponent. Meanwhile, Ken really needs to learn the lessons of 2008 - and some have doubted whether he really can - if he is to wrest back control of the capital. There's even been muttering that he may be deposed as Labour's candidate. Either way, 2012's going to be an interesting year in London.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Civil partnerships or 'gay marriage'? What should progressives be arguing for?

A month or so has passed without me banging on about some aspect of the politics of sexual identity. Yet I've been following the gay marriage debate with interest, watching the odd Conservative MP or two speak for or against it, the culmination of the debate being David Cameron's speech to the Tory conference last week. In the speech, he told the assembled blue-rinse brigade that he was for gay marriage “not despite, but because” he's a Tory. And despite the common perception that it's the older generation of his party that are most uncomfortable with it, there are plenty of younger Tories, including self-hating acquaintances from my past, who have also expressed reactionary sentiment against the idea. On the whole, however, it's reasonable to say that there is political consensus behind it.

Yet, to me, it's striking how little the gay community itself is talking about marriage equalisation. And let us resist the 'gay marriage' tag, because there's nothing inherently gay about making the law equal for same-sex couples. We don't after all, call the existing institution 'straight marriage'.

In reality it could only have been a matter of time before Cameron came out in favour of marriage equality, but I applaud him for his decision to once again make gay rights a cornerstone of one of his conference speeches. Speeches such as this are still important to leaders, if not the political rhythm of the UK more generally, and it took a confident centre-right Prime Minister to announce that he was in favour of marriage equality when the eyes of the UK's political class and media were on him. His speech means that the language of marriage equality is now commonly spoken not only by Cameron and all three mainstream party leaders, but by Peter Tatchell also, which is very rare indeed. Tatchell himself, in that classic liberal way of his, wouldn't even tie the knot in marriage himself, but believes it's a fundamental human right. I agree.

If and when the law to equalise the law does get passed however, it will pose an interesting dilemma for those gay and lesbian couples who are planning on getting hitched, or indeed are already in civil partnerships. I'm not sure which category my boyfriend and I will be in by the time that the law is passed – we officially registered our intention on Friday - but should we accept that a civil partnership is still as good as a newly defined extension of marriage? In other words, do we 'upgrade'?

Speaking purely for ourselves, we're actually quite happy with the relatively progressive institution of civil partnerships, the legislation for which has only existed since 2005. We are happy without the historical, religious and cultural trappings of marriage, and see our civil partnership as a more favourable evolution of the concept of shackling together human beings in matrimonial harmony. After all, whatever form of legal agreement we choose, we still have to decide who puts the bins out on Wednesday nights.

Chris Ashford's blog is another interesting read on this subject.

Oh, and this from Channel 4 News too. Had to have a little lie-down after half-agreeing with Douglas Murray.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Keep your hands off my balance sheet, Dave

I’ll be paying back my student debt for some time to come, thanks to the last government’s zeal for vast loans and my complete inability to secure ample part-time work while I was studying. Resigned to not being financially secure until my mid-thirties – and that’s an optimistic outlook – I now realise that the semi-detached, picket fence comfort of my parents’ generation will be much harder to come by.

Short of inviting himself to kitchen tables across the land, armed with an accounts book, a calculator and a pair of scissors to guillotine our flexible friends, the Prime Minister’s response to my domestic financial crisis has thankfully proved short-lived. An early draft of his conference speech announced that “the only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That means households - all of us - paying off the credit card and store card bills."

All of this confuses the Government’s economic message; aren’t we supposed to be propping up fragile High Streets by spending on clothes, electrical goods, and holidays? Or should we be living as if we’re part of a religious order? What Dave has failed to explain is how we’re supposed to eke out a day-to-day existence in the meantime.

Yes, debts are terrible, nasty things that strangle our otherwise happy existences like a noose around the neck. Most of us enjoy luxuries such as shelter, food and clothes that make us look vaguely flattering, so we put off the inevitable. We limit your outgoings, dealing with one debt at a time. An instruction to pay off everything we owe on national television would have halted already fragile consumer confidence, plunging our retail sector into despair. The message is all the more insulting as when you consider that Britain’s Prime Minister and his consort are reportedly worth around £30million between them. Many of the Cabinet are also millionaires. They don’t have to borrow a penny to survive.

Here’s a better idea. ‘Plan A’ doesn’t work. Youth unemployment is at 20%, consumer confidence is at an all-time low. Cameron would be better off concentrating his efforts at macro-level, securing growth and jobs for those who really need them. That’s what he’s paid to do. Frankly, I’d rather be advised on my finances by the broadcaster and financial advisor,
Alvin Hall. He’s got bags more charisma and would make a lot more sense.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Cat-call politics is back

Every so often, a generation of politicians becomes afflicted by a rapidly setting form of collective amnesia, as they forget why a key piece of legislation exists in the first place. The Human Rights Act is one example. It’s not yet clear what its fate will be, but it’s another excuse to talk about immigration.

There’s something about discussing immigration in the UK which does more to uphold the image of the British as a nation of eccentrics than an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Something about it touches a nerve so that it becomes responsible for much unhinged ‘debate’. The Home Secretary delivered another of these crazy interludes when she claimed, while making her case against the Act, that an illegal immigrant could not be deported “because he had a pet cat”.

The tradition of Britain standing up for human rights goes back at least to the Second World War - during which fascism and communism had been responsible for some of the twentieth century’s worst atrocities. Hats off to the relative sanity of Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, who responded by wagering a bet with May that nothing of the sort ever happened. Recalling how Britain led the way in drawing up the European Convention on Human Rights, Clarke echoed a more serious politics.

I’ve a feeling that the abolition of the Human Rights Act is just mood music to placate rowdy Tory backbenchers, frothing at the mouth at perceived concessions to Liberal Democrats. We are still in conference season. Ideas are floated, dismissed, chewed over. David Cameron knows that any real attempt to rip this particular statute would be terminal for the Coalition, and worse, the prospect of minority government. Like other things which this government has told us it is against, the intention to do so something does not necessarily mean it will happen while it relies on Liberal Democrat votes.

Even May’s own department claimed that the pet defence did not have a role to play in the decision not to deport the man in question.
So, don’t bet on it becoming a common factor in immigrants pleading with the UK Borders Agency in future. Aside from the odd parrot or two, how many innocent cats, dogs, guinea pigs or hamsters could we really expect to construct a defence of their owner’s right to stay in the UK? That’s cat-call politics for you.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The 23rd most popular left-wing blogger!

I'm dead chuffed to have been placed 23rd in the top 75 left-wing bloggers in the recent Total Politics awards. It's nice to know I'm being read, and strange to see my name close to longer established journalists like George Monbiot, and ahead of people like Johann Hari, although given his own troubles this year, maybe that's not so surprising. Big congratulations also to fellow City hack James Bloodworth too, who came in at eighth place with his Obliged to Offend blog.

I love writing about politics, and I try to resist being too self-indulgent or unnecessarily inflammatory in the subjects I write about. Maybe there's a bit too much of that out on the blogosphere - I pride myself on some semblance of balance and reasoned argument, and try not to take myself too seriously.

Thanks for reading, and especially if you voted for me too. It means a lot.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Why lifting the ban on gay men giving blood has made me more angry

So, the lifetime ban on men giving blood who have ever had sex with another man has been – partially - lifted. After a 12-month ‘window period’ of effective celibacy, men who have ever had sex with another man can give blood. Great. A particularly discriminatory restriction has been lifted.

It’s fine if you’re celibate, or asexual, or a monk. As the Twitter feed of my favourite online magazine said when the announcement was made, “it’s that awkward moment when you realise you’ve not had any in so long, it’s OK for you to donate blood”. For some people, that will be the case, either out of choice or not through want of trying. The vast majority of gay men, I suspect will not fall into the monk category. After all, even in the most remote outposts of the UK, the internet has made it more than possible for men who want to have sex with men – regardless of whether they’re gay or not – to do just that. They don’t even have to define as ‘gay’ these days.

But how should you feel when you’re in a monogamous, long-term relationship of over four years, and you know that you’re free of any sexually transmitted infections (STIs)? I’m entering into a civil partnership with him next year, for goodness’ sake.

I take great issue at being pigeon-holed in that great mass of gay men who are at particularly high-risk of catching and transmitting hepatitis B, which is difficult to detect for up to 12 months after transmission. Quite rightly, this article points out the tacit failure of UK governments, past and present, to immunise against hepatitis B, as 85% have done. So, surely there is a big question about the duties of government and the public healthcare systems to protect against such diseases? I am a gay man, but I’m not a member of the mass of gay men who, somewhat mythically, carry a myriad of STIs. Whereas sexually active gay men may well be at high risk statistically, I simply don’t believe this is the case for many, simply because they don’t have sex, they engage in safe sex, or they engage in safe sexual activity which is within the confines of any normal, loving relationship. I do take responsibility for my health, funnily enough.

It couldn’t just be men who have sex with men who are prevented from giving blood, so I had a look on the National Blood Transfusion Service website, which gives some advice on who should, and shouldn’t give blood. At the top of the page, it gives its less severe advice. Apparently you should not give blood if:

“You've already given blood in the last 12 weeks (normally, you must wait 16 weeks)”Fat chance, the blanket ban was only lifted today so thus far in my life I’ve been prevented from doing so.

“You have a chesty cough, sore throat or active cold sore.”Hmmm, not lately. Last time I checked my phlegm-like output, there weren’t any STIs lurking.

“A member of your family (parent, brother, sister or child) has suffered with CJD (Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease)”Not as far as I know. Although we did eat British beef in the 1990s - does that count?

There are many other reasons given, including if you’ve had a recent tattoo or body piercing or if you’re pregnant (none, certainly not the latter, apply to me). Fair enough. I would assume there are valid, legitimate medical reasons behind all of this, not least in the interests of the health of the individual giving blood but also public health at large.

Going towards the bottom of the page (where most eyes will have begun to turn off, because the website isn’t brilliantly designed) it finally tells me that I should never give blood if I’m a man who's had sex with another man, even safe sex using a condom. So, I can be entirely clean, clear and safe of any nasty STIs or HIV, completely healthy, yet still banned (and that will still apply to me when the ban is partially lifted, because I’m in a sexually active relationship).

What’s more, any woman who has had sex with another man, who in turn has had sex with another man must never give blood less than 12 months after sex. That might rely on an awful lot of investigative work on the part of the woman who surely, shouldn’t be expected to know the sexual history of the man she’s in the sack with (and wouldn’t necessarily get an honest or reliable answer as a result).

Human honesty, therefore, is rather problematic. The National Blood Transfusion Service, quite rightly, needs to ensure that the quality of the blood it takes from people does not in any way endanger public health. But surely science is better than ever before to ensure that the quality of blood is never compromised? The questions that are asked of people should, surely be based on everyone’s unprotected sex and not just one group. There are significant numbers of people in the UK who still have unprotected or high-risk sex, without condoms, and in this instance, I’m talking about people who engage in sexual activity with the opposite sex.

I can’t say I’m in a massive hurry to give blood. But I’d like to one day. Who knows when a close friend or family member will need that particular blood type that I have because, God forbid, they’ve been involved in some horrific accident or has to undergo some sort of emergency medical procedure? It doesn’t bear thinking about. For the time being, I can’t go anywhere near one of those big trucks the National Blood Transfusion Service trundles around the country, and enjoy my first ever post-transfusion cup of tea and a biscuit.

What am I led to believe? The argument from the powers-that-be seems to be that a 12-month restriction can only rest on some sort of inherent homophobia at worst (and I hate to think this), at best a complete ignorance of the sexual behaviours of gay men, not least women who’ve ever had sex with gay men. My response is: let the science do the talking and treat us as individuals, gay, straight or whatever.

Anything less, and it will still feel like the state thinks what I’m doing in the bedroom is a bit wrong.

Worth saying also that London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is a good port-of-call for advice on these matters: 0300 330 0630.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Review: London Road

Cottesloe, National Theatre, London

14 April – 27 September 2011

If David Cameron were looking for an example of the big society in action, he may need look no further than the close-knit community of London Road, an otherwise unremarkable street in Ipswich, Suffolk. In late 2006, a group of previously disparate residents had come together in the most unlikely circumstances to forge new bonds in their community in the aftermath of tragedy.

Over November and
December 2006, fork-lift truck driver Steve Wright terrorised this usually genteel town, murdering five prostitutes who worked in the red-light district; the consequent manhunt triggering the biggest inquiry evermounted by Suffolk Police – and the attention of the world's media. The extraordinary spotlight cast on London Road soon began to bring together the street's residents more often - a thriving annual flowers in bloom competition, a Neighbourhood Watch and a quiz night. All this attracted the attention of a writer, Аlecky Blythe, who began to spend a lot of time with the still emotionally sore locals, somewhat ironically employing a form of journalism that would later translate her conversations with them to the stage.

Blythe deserves much praise along with composer Adam Cork for the uniquely faithful yet sensitive setting of the residents' spoken words to music. If that sounds like a tall order in the context of the Ipswich tragedy, it has paid off tremendously. The conventions of the traditional musical are thrown aside to remarkable effect. Every intonation, flaw and variation of dialect is captured, often humorously, sometimes bittersweet. The audience, from the very beginning has been invited into the story, with the opening bars of “Hello, welcome” and the shaking of hands of those in the front rows, spoken to music by the character of Ron, the Neighbourhood Watch chair. And while initially it is odd to hear the openings to musical 'numbers' with lines such as “Yeah, s’quite an unpleasant feeling, everyone is very, very nervous …erm …”, the overall effect is captivating. In the words of Cork, “the choral presentation of this story in particular seems to underline the ritual aspect of human experience”. It is a story about deep, centuries-old aspects of the human condition – in which the usual societal boundaries have been broken down because London Road needs to heal itself.

London Road
will no doubt set the standard for a bold, fresh new take on the musical genre for years to come, and will undoubtedly encourage audiences to question what is being presented to them. We experience an honest portrayal of civic society's desire to improve its sense of community; that isn't just borne out of meddling by liberal 'do-gooders'. The residents act out of a desire for self-protection, a human reaction to shovel life's nasties away out of sight. But, for all the lighter moments and the sympathy imparted by the audience for a group of people whose lives have been invaded, a reflection by one character towards the end remarks disturbingly on Wright's crimes: “I'm glad they're gone – I could shake him by the hand for what he did”. Ominously, the prostitutes themselves feature just once in the entire production – standing silently on the stage in a poignant moment of quiet reflection. Do we question the girls' plight and the residents' reaction to it? Yes – and that's what makes this production work, because we are not fed the warts-and-all detail of their deaths.

Through the authentic, choral representation of its residents, the success of London Road is a reminder that occasionally, stronger society can come out of tragedy. And, if we had any doubt as to the motives of those behind this production, over £25,000 was raised for the Iceni Project over the course of the show's run – a real life charity helping Ipswich prostitutes and their families in dealing with drug and alcohol problems. 


Wednesday, 24 August 2011

In defence of Sally Bercow

Some Tories haven't the backbone to act to oust the Speaker of the House of Commons. Instead, they choose to attack his wife.

It’s unfortunate that in 2011, there are some people who just can’t cope with the idea that a politician’s wife might occasionally do things which don’t fit in with the stuffy, 1950s world that is the House of Commons. (Had I used the word Parliament, I would have included the Lords and replaced 1950s with ‘nineteenth century’).  But generally speaking, we have more women in Parliament than ever before and they too have past lives and personalities which are far from the twin-set and pearls image of political spouses.

It seems that the archaic attitudes of olde England are alive and well in the form of Francesca Preece, who in a blogpost today on Total Politics, claimed that ‘political spouses should be seen and not heard’. Far from being a satire on the sort of patriarchal nonsense you might read in the Daily Mail, this article was for real.

In Preece’s line of sight was Sally Bercow, wife of the current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Now, coming from the left of the party and highly favoured by Labour, the Speaker is far from flavour of the month with his erstwhile Tory colleagues. He’s attracting the sort of abuse and insults in the chamber that is not worthy of MPs – but that’s another story. Mrs Bercow’s crime it seems, is simply to have a high profile and a life story. She’s a prolific Tweeter, reformed alcoholic and a former drug user. She’s a bit bolshy, she’s had her own fair share of sexual conquests and, worst of all to many Tories, she’s a member of the Labour party. Sally Bercow does not fit in with the prim, proper world of political spouses who press the flesh and run the constituency office. So what? She is a human being. But Tories can’t stand it.
Were Bercow to battle past the men in tights to streak naked across the floor of the Commons while screaming crazed obscenities, her critics would have a point.
Were Sally Bercow to battle past the men in tights to streak naked across the floor of the Commons, screaming crazed obscenities while her husband sat back and did nothing, her critics would have a point. The office of the speaker should be respected. But the critics of John Bercow, not Sally, should be doing the honourable thing and seeking to depose him if they’re not happy with his performance.

It’s just not on to attack someone who, aside from her connection through marriage to the Speaker, is in no way responsible for that position. The responsibility for keeping order in the chamber is the job of the Speaker, and nobody else. And if Members of Parliament insist on applying this otherwise invisible moral code (I can’t see much evidence of MPs upholding a moral code any more stringently than any other human being), then they may want to begin with some of their colleagues. If a drug-taking past is so aborrent, how about picking on Louise Mensch? Or is criticising the Speaker’s wife just too easy a target?

Footnote: Sally Bercow is currently appearing in Celebrity Big Brother – and her nominated charity, Ambitious about Autism – have already received £100,000 as part of Bercow’s conditions for appearing on the show. If she survives the entire show, the charity will receive £500,000. Is such a sum not worth Bercow’s “outrageous, attention-seeking ways”?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Vote for me in the Total Politics 2011 Blog Awards!

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011

If you like what you read, that is! Just click on the link to go straight through to the voting page...

Voting closes at midnight on Friday 19 August. Please make me your number 1 choice :-)

There is no clear lesson to learn from the riots - yet. But we’re all responsible.

< Insert terrifying picture of burning building here >

Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché. But it’s no joke. No mainstream politicians can escape some sort of responsibility for the rioting and civil unrest that ravaged England. Most are making noises about what should be done to ‘fix’ society; with David Cameron essentially repackaging many of the speeches he made when he first became leader of the Conservative Party with an angry tone of voice. This time, he’s added authoritarian zeal by calling for social networks to be closed down and has floated the idea of water cannons and rubber bullets. None of this illiberal nonsense seems bother Nick Clegg however, who in return has announced a ‘communities and victims panel’ which will fall tantalizingly short of the public inquiry that is really needed to get answers.

The impact of cuts cannot truly be felt yet and although it cannot be ruled out as a causal factor in helping create the riots, or doing enough to stem social disorder, the Labour party under Ed Miliband, to their credit are broadly right in their refusal to pinpoint the cause on anything in particular. That is sensible, clear-headed thinking at this stage. And although Miliband has instead called for a more wide-ranging, community-led inquiry into what went wrong, he cannot escape Labour’s failure to recognise the ties that bind in urban populations while it was in government, despite justified expenditure in inner cities through programmes such as SureStart and city academies. It may remain to be seen how much the public connects with his linking of the banking crisis, MPs’ expenses and the phone-hacking scandal and the apparent reaction of the ‘underclass’ to this irresponsibility, but it may well be a useful political narrative in the months to come.

Some people on the radical, Trotskyite left are convinced that looting is a political act in itself – and that what happened is somehow part of a wider workers’ movement. If that is true, then this class war that is horribly dysfunctional, when the communities that have suffered the most damage are pretty much characterised by the poorest parts of London: Tottenham, Brixton and Hackney, not to mention other areas of deprivation in the UK. It’s fairly perverse to support the wilful destruction of property of people who have nothing in the first place, whether that be homes or small businesses. A class analysis of the problem falls at the first hurdle.

That’s not to say that the left have nothing to say about the riots. But it needs to understand that an economic analysis is somewhat limited in its scope. We could blame Margaret Thatcher and the deliberate running down of certain British industries in the 1980s, but it wouldn’t fix our problems in 2011. Likewise, we shouldn’t discount traditional Conservative and right-of-centre politicians as completely wrong when they talk about families as the ‘building blocks of society’. A strong, family-type unit is crucial to a child’s upbringing, but strong families exist in many forms, whether that be a heterosexual, 2.4 children nuclear family or the sort with two daddies or one mummy. All of the above are preferable to brutal, murderous gangs which, as David Cameron has rightly identified, are no substitute for the caring, loving bonds of families and law-abiding, respectful communities.

So there are lessons for the left, as well as the right. And it seems irresponsibility by pretty much every section of society is to blame in some way or another. But the main parties are unwilling to lift up the rock to see what is actually happening underneath, evading the real answers as if nothing had happened. The causes of the riots are not ‘criminality pure and simple’: that is a woefully ignorant and inaccurate misreading of the mayhem which wreaked England’s streets last week. Opportunistic they may have been, but the riots cannot be defined on racial, economic, sociological or even criminal lines. In London, around half of those arrested in the first week after the riots were under 18, but among the balance were teachers, social workers, chefs and postal workers. No stereotypes there. So it is clear that whichever bit of society ‘broke’, it was by no means characterised by the unwaged and unemployed. Indeed, while we consider these facts, the most convincing analysis of the riots has come from people such as Peter Oborne and Camila Batmanghelidjh, who have at least introduced several interesting socio-political perspectives - as political commentator and social worker extraordinaire - into the debate.

We may have made some progress in our initial post-mortem of the riots. We might even agree that society – and that word is absolutely crucial - does need to teach responsibility at every level and cannot pretend the underlying problems of social decay don’t exist. Government plays a role in this process just like the rest of us, but it’s certainly not about single-parent families or ‘Left-Wing’ teaching in our schools. Similarly, it’s not purely about poverty or the cutting back local services.

We do need a moral code that at the same time is not ‘moralising’ but unites everyone, and which doesn’t play easily into the hands of ideologues whether they are political or religious. Sadly, going down that path could happen too easily. But blinding ourselves with an easy, readily available panacea doesn’t do the victims of last week’s unrest justice.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Sketch: Boris makes a clean sweep for the Big Society

The Prime Minister must have woken up on Tuesday morning with a spring in his step, and hope in his heart. Not, surely at the sight of smouldering buildings and buses which had made a bonfire of parts of London. But rather at a movement which was gathering apace among those whose communities had been destroyed by the previous night's rioting. The previously vaunted Big Society had in fact reared itself up to clean up the streets, energised and angry in reaction to the mayhem in Clapham Junction, Woolwich and Croydon. It also probably filled up time for bankers and City types on annual leave.

It was a sad, sorry, mess though. Even the façade of the Party Superstore was no joke. The mask had slipped on this fondly regarded supplier of fancy dress for south London types, exposing a blackened and burnt out shell and leaving shards of PVC and broken glass in the street. But before many had woken up, something extraordinary and heartening was building among the more organised, socially aware elements of inner London.

After an enterprising artist on Twitter had come to the rescue with the hashtag #riotcleanup
, hundreds of people had answered the call to marigolded arms, forming up behind the police cordon like an advancing army with a rainbow sparkling brooms that - being either brand new or hardly used - would have aroused the suspicions of Channel 4's Kim and Aggie.

And they took it in their stride and surged forward to clean up the mess.

Boris Johnson's people at City Hall got wind of all this activity, and thought it'd be a jolly good wheeze to get the Mayor out there, so he could look the people of Lavender Hill in the eye. A sort of modern day Queen Mother in a blonde wig, if you like. But these people had been waiting hours for the police to declare that the area was no longer a crime scene. They were agitated. And they certainly weren't in the mood for casually congratulating metropolitan leaders who just happened to be passing.

"I came as fast as I could" panted the Mayor, having rather reluctantly rushed back from his holiday in the United States. Facing a barrage of questions about the lack of policing and the apparent unpreparedness (the residents of Clapham Junction had all found out via Twitter that they were going to be attacked), the Mayor told them that there would be "many more police on the streets” and “robust policing”. But the public didn’t really know what he meant by that as it clearly hadn’t been present the night before.

The Home Secretary hovered nearby but was swiftly removed from view by Home Office press officers as if she had taken her cues from a Victoria Wood
Acorn Antiques spoof, shuffling carefully out of sight as if she'd walked into the wrong shot. The cameras barely got a flash of her kitten heels. If Boris really was going to get into a public argy-bargy, Theresa May not be dragged into it.

It wasn't going terribly well, and City Hall press officers quivered at a potential PR disaster. And the thronging crowd weren’t interested in numbers or politicians’ rhetoric.

"WHERE’S YOUR BROOM, WHERE’S YOUR BROOM, WHERE’S YOUR BROOM?" hollered the crowd. It was a sign
of the Mayor's eloquence and charm that he could continue answering questions with a pantomime backdrop of chanting middle-class street cleaners, who all wanted answers. Eventually, a kind man relented to the crowd’s demands, handing the Mayor the aforementioned tool. And, lo and behold, with typical Boris unpredictability, a potential disaster turned into a coup for the cameras as the Mayor brandished his newly acquired accessory high in the air as he went to address the assembled throng. It was a nice little spot for the telly really, but he relished the opportunity.

As the cameras drifted away, the Prime Minister was very proud that his big society agenda was being so publicly advocated by his long-time rival. Not only were the dreams he'd had before he became Prime Minister being played out in scenes on national television, pretty young ladies straight out of a Cath Kidston catalogue were playing bit parts in the show. Now all he had to do was to make sure that his old chum Boris didn't take too much of the credit. But with mayoral elections just around the corner, would Boris's new broom give him a clean sweep at the polls?

Welcome to the Big Society - a piece for the NMC Review

I've been spending a lot of time over the last few months researching and writing about the Big Society, as part of my MA final project. And as part of that, I've been fortunate to be commissioned for the Nursing and Midwifery Council's excellent publication, NMC Review, writing the lead feature for their most recent issue.

And here it is. Needless to say, the subject is provoking a lot of debate in the healthcare professions at the moment.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Rupert Murdoch, as told to Michael Wolff

Michael Wolff, author of The Man Who Owns The News

We thought we had a chance to “catch our breath and calm down” on this story, began Charlie Beckett from Polis, introducing the US-based writer and journalist Michael Wolff for a special event in conjunction with the Media Society on 28 July. That evening, revelations had emerged of Sara Payne's mobile phone being hacked, just weeks after she had penned a farewell column in the last ever edition of the News of World. This story was far from over, with numerous inquiries launched, investigations started, and resignations – well, many.

Wolff was visiting the UK at a time when the developing phone-hacking scandal has put Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation at the centre of a storm in public life, claiming the careers of its own executives and editors, both current and former, two senior police officers and the closure of an entire newspaper.

Rupert Murdoch - not always hearing what others are saying

Wolff has spent a lot of time with Rupert Murdoch, and it shows. Although The Man Who Owns The News was published in December 2008, his personal look at the world's most influential media mogul will have never been so relevant.

Wolff talked about the sheer longevity of Murdoch, the media mogul who has been a figure of British public life since 1968, far longer than many of the journalists and editors working on his own papers. “Rupert has held power for far longer than anyone else. They come and go, he carries on".

Having not so much been given explicit consent but had never been told “no” when seeking access to the man himself, Wolff told the LSE audience that he simply sought to understand more about a man who “followed his interest and passion and created one of the most peculiar, extraordinary businesses of ever time”. By his own admission, Wolff had secured a role as chief obituary writer when the media magnate eventually goes to the great newsroom in the sky. “When the end comes, I will be the first person they call. So be nice to me” he recalled having told Murdoch.

“How wonderful he's helping you with the book" said Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, Rupert's 102 year old mother. "He's never read one!”

Referring to him as 'Rupert' in the sort of informal, first-name-terms way that's telling of the sort of access he's been privileged to have had, Wolff talked of the Murdoch family in a way that many people probably aren't familiar with. Coming from a family he describes as the “Kennedys of Australia”, Murdoch's own father was a newspaper owner, and his mother, Dame Elisabeth, is still going strong at 102 with a wonderful acerbic humour as Wolff recalls: “How wonderful he's helping you with the book! He's never read one!”.

For those who haven't read it, Wolff's book will undoubtedly be a fascinating insight into the psychological profile of Rupert Murdoch. Wolff talked about a man who displayed somewhat “autistic” traits through his lack of awareness of what is going on around him. Anyone who watched him giving evidence at the recent Culture, Media and Sport committee appearance might have just witnessed a slightly hard-of-hearing octogenarian passing the buck to his son when things got too hard. Yes, there's a hard-headed businessman still present, but in the body of a somewhat more frail and forgetful man than the one who made his first foray into British newspapers in the 1960s.

“He will lose track of conversation mid-sentence. But Rupert loves gossip. Speak to him about specific things or people, and he can respond. He hones in on people's weaknesses”. Some of Murdoch's past editors say he takes a back seat in editorial policy, including Roy Greenslade and Patience Wheatcroft. But according to Wolff, he's far from being hands-off. “Rupert knows everything – everybody is doing things in the Rupert world view” - and especially in the newspapers.

Given recent events, a bright spotlight is shining on News Corporation, and the way its subsidiary, News International, is structured. Newspapers are unsurprisingly Murdoch's first love, and it is through those organs that his businesses have projected their 'brand': The Sun, and The Times for example and until recently, The News of the World. This has shown up Rupert's empire to look extraordinarily incompetent and embarrassed when times are hard. “Rupert's usually good in a crisis. But they [News International] are not good at dealing with issues of trust, credibility and transparency” said Wolff, who drew attention to the highly unusual, personally oriented set-up of Murdoch's business empire.

“They have never felt they needed a public face or a need to justify themselves. From a marketing standpoint, they're a very old-fashioned company, all about controlling monopolies and undercutting the other guy's price”.

But how would Rupert Murdoch feel about the emotional wreckage caused by the News of the World?

“Rupert's a compartmentalised man. He sells tabloid newspapers, and he's very aware of the product he's selling. Phone hacking was not perceived as terribly wrong”.

So far, we'd heard a lot about Murdoch the man, and the politics of NewsCorp. But what of his relationship with senior politicians?

"It was Wendi who told me 'Tony' was one of the people I should go speak with. Within a very short time I was sitting in Tony Blair's office. And it was almost creepy".

“It was a close relationship with Tony Blair – and it was Wendi who told me 'Tony' was one of the people I should go speak with. She would arrange it, and then within a very short time I was sitting in Tony Blair's office. And it was almost creepy. Why was he talking about the Murdochs in this hagiographic way?”.

“He disdained David Cameron, and was convinced by James and Rebekah not to oppose their support of him.” Since those days of easy access to Downing Street – albeit nearly always through the back door - all of the politicians previously courting his attention have now found ethical values. “Or found that Rupert is toxic” proffered Woolf.

At Murdoch's side throughout everything is his third wife, Wendi Deng, a woman who Wolff describes as having “a big sense of humour”. But she's also someone that News Corporation executives and Rupert's children don't like, with her “indomitable presence”.

What's more, “Wendi did not like Rebekah, who had aligned with his children” leaving Rupert in the middle of a “very fraught” family dynamic. We are surprised to learn that he's a hen-pecked husband, dragged along to somewhat unlikely social events with Hollywood liberals by Wendi – hardly his closest ideologues.

Maybe in the midst of tensions within his own family and inner circle, it is unsurprising that the “house of cards” as Woolf calls it, has collapsed. There may well be a separation of the most toxic elements from the company – namely the British newspapers, Rupert's first love above everything else. Criminal inquiries will reach conclusions, things will change. The man at the centre of it all retains an unflinching, unflappable ability to keep his head while those around are losing theirs, a not undesirable quality. As Wolff concluded:

"I liked him – he's without pretence and incredibly human. I related to him as a father”.

Maybe there's more to this media mogul than meets the eye after all.

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