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!

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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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