Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Interview

The Andrew Marr Show, 9am, Sunday mornings, is one of my staples of news media. The eponymous man himself has sadly been out of the action for some time, recovering from a stroke that incidentally put the fear of god in me. Marr, beanpole extraordinaire, wasn’t a picture of health in the strictest of terms but he didn’t look at all unhealthy. I think to my horizons and the likelihood of being that type – an ostensibly hale ticking time-bomb. Exercise is being seriously considered.

With the series continuing in his absence, we’ve seen a string of stand-ins, a veritable conveyor belt of the high calibre journalists of the BBC. Between Landale, Vine, Reid, Raworth and Williams, the ailing Marr might be fretting more than his condition should permit. But long commitment to the BBC and seniority probably keep him safely and I think more that the future of our news programming is in safe hands.

But then Eddie Mair went and shook the boat. You may have seen this radio news veteran appearing with increasing consistency as another lieutenant of Newsnight in the past couple of years. Being staunchly loyal to Paxman, Wark, Maitliss and Esler, I am always wary of newcomers but he settled in smoothly enough. Bringing that satisfying disregard for status and authority, a sort of truth to power vibe and enough sarcasm in the average delivery to skin a cat, I was even pleased.

Sadly however, Mair took this carefully refined style about ten steps too far against Boris Johnson yesterday morning. It’s hard to say why. Perhaps because Johnson is famous for providing the most obfuscated answers to the most simple questions, something that riles serious journalists to no end. Paxman of course is famous for abandoning the script in favour of extracting something even approaching sincerity, but despite adding to his legend, these occasions are still cringeworthy.

And those occasions would largely take place during the late night shift of current affairs analyses. I must say that even Marr can push the tone of a Sunday morning politics show to the edge. But in a sense it’s what I always want to see, politicians or public figures being forced to confront the undiluted or PR’d truth and being asked the questions they would rather not be asked. It’s the entire point of journalism. Failure to do so simply makes you purely a publicity mechanism.

What Mair did to Johnson in this interview was more akin to a hatchet job. The presumed purpose of the interview was to discuss London housing and other mayoral issues but, as I’m sure you may have seen, it descended into an unpleasant and rather one-way flow of barbs from the interviewer. Calling on unsavoury but isolated incidents from Johnson past, Mair ultimately accused him of being “a nasty piece of work”.

That alone is unacceptable. It isn’t a journalist’s role to pass that kind of judgement on their subject, and certainly not in that kind of manner. It wasn’t confrontational in a traditional sense, it was just rude and while I rarely prescribe to the notion of deference to the office, it was simply that. Rude. Mair made a poor host of himself and this all being secondary to a tactic in his trade that I find as equally lacking in integrity as any accusation he levelled against Johnson.

Blind-siding is equivalent to laying down the terms of a negotiation for which both sides prepare, and then coming to the table with a completely different set of tools. The express purpose being an expedient victory. Rather then a well-planned but also challenging interview we had an awkward inquisition and a very uncomfortable mayor actually trying to help Mair out of the mire. But Mair wouldn’t be helped and from the performance I detected the greatest sin.

Bias. The best rational explanation I have for this affair is that Mair brought his personal dislike of Johnson or his politics into play and thus he even directly challenged the man’s integrity. Hard stuff and not adequately supported by an upcoming documentary on Johnson, nor his ever-simmering ambitions for the top job in the country. It would have been difficult to condone during the typically raucous pursuit of political distortions during the late night slots, but Sunday morning?

Embarrassing. For Johnson, for Mair and for the show. A show, for that matter, that seeks to attract the big names in politics and society, which sounds to me like a reciprocal arrangement. Guests enjoy the publicity, often for the price of a grilling but ultimately both sides come away with something. Being ridiculed and insulted doesn’t appear to be worth the trade in my humble opinion.

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Correspondents Roundup

Superb. Simply superb. In case you haven’t followed up to this point there are a handful of journalists of some renown whom I track and occasionally offer a retort to, depending on how objectionable a certain discussed topic might be. To date these have been Mark Mardell, Simon Jenkins and Jonathan Freedland, although I’m always tempted to overextend my attention to others, and each has just produced a fine piece of work.

I’m not lavishing praise on them for nothing, and not simply because they are journalists of a very high standard and these are notable pieces, but actually because by sheer providence they have individually touched upon the key issues that I was looking to. Mardell’s piece studies Obama’s tour of the Levant, Jenkins approaches the outcome of Leveson and press regulation with a shared sense of dread and disappointment and Freedland goes about the Budget with a cleaver of truth.

While I do pride myself upon the creation of a well-written article of sound facts and analyses, I don’t pride myself for repeating the thoughts that others were more diligent in putting into the public sphere. As mentioned in my last article, those people do usually benefit from being employed to be so diligent, but I don’t like to make excuses. I do my best even if that is sometimes to merely offer an opinion or a more obscure angle.

On the other hand, on occasions like today it’s just nice to tip my hat to those who have completely removed the necessity to exercise my self-imposed obligation to comment. Mardell eloquently describes the pains with which Obama is tentatively manoeuvring through his overseas visit with just hint of the resignation and scepticism that has begun to characterise most grand endeavours in that part of the world.

Jenkins clearly perceives the moves of government to install press regulation in the same terms as I do. Criticism of elements of the British press was patently justified after their scandalous behaviour, and a considerable change of culture was required. But that could have been achieved by realigning core media values with the existing laws and general moralities of the age. The wealthy and powerful now have obscene control over their own public profiles.

And Freedland… oh Freedland. Perhaps more than anyone I’m loving Freedland today. I watched the Budget yesterday, yes, actually watched the Budget, and the ensuing deluge of analysis in order to actually make sense of much of it. I’m not stupid by any metric, but neither am I an economist, and nearly an hour of a speech containing nought but economy related issues is a bit dense. Understanding the measures in context can only be helped by a little interpretation.

Freedland’s article stands out for me because it attacks the issue in the manner that I would. While I’m sure he has a better grasp of the economic factors then I do, he was also looking to the politics of the Budget. And I love politics, none more so than British. It is like the perfect marriage of all the serious matters of life with a sort of tragicomic theatre, and indeed lately I’ve almost had no need for non-factual television programming.

Read these pieces, damn your eyes. Read them and give me the benefit of the doubt that had I been more focussed you might have read them here first. Would that I could provide such a service.

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All Matters Greater Than Us

It’s hard to turn a corner at the moment without bumping into some seminal event or other. Sometimes it can be nigh on impossible to build some enthusiasm for discussing the more banal issues and yet adversely I’m now overwhelmed and intimidated by the sheer quantity of incoming things of import. Where to begin? With an apology perhaps as each issue herein deserves individual attention but who the hell has the time!?

Paid writers, that’s who. But I’m not bitter. I’m still young, haven’t been doing this for that long, so there’s plenty of time to nurture my enmity for those who can pass their time as I would love to. Onto the actual stories of late, and three stand out in my estimations. The election of the new Pope Francis I, one Jorge Borgoglio of Argentina, the agreement on press regulation measures between the UK’s political leaders and the impending fiscal crisis coming out of Cyprus.

What is there to say about the new heartthrob of Catholicism? In a previous article I mentioned that all things Catholic have an almost completely indirect meaning to me, but that isn’t really true. Having hoped that the new Bishop of Rome would be a moderniser, without any substantive reason to believe this would actually happen, what we have in the end is a very austere and traditional figure who will likely only reinforce a lot of damaging values.

Homosexuals, women and the developing world will all have to wait for this rather archaic and hegemonic institution to liberate it’s flock from superstition and baseless propositions of moral authority. Pope Francis is already being lauded for his humility and stated mission of returning the faith to its roots, but it won’t last long. Every sermon denouncing gays and birth control will remind all that Catholicism is ultimately doomed for its anachronisms.

The scene of his coronation was exceptionally telling. A balcony full of old men, ordaining an old man with the powers of a faith system designed to empower, you got it, old men. If I was to say one thing in favour of Pope Francis is that I imagine he will be a fairly vocal critic of international super-wealth and the institutional corruption of the banking system that led the global village into dark economic times. It’s not much, but it is something.

As for the endless saga that has been the Leveson Inquiry, this one hits awfully too close to home for comfort. There are already whispers that this highly curious tripartite agreement between messirs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband spells potential doom for freedom of speech across all media. The papers have come in their droves to criticise the proposed measures and call attention to their dangerous implications.

Indeed, in a month or a year or a decades time, will I be able to write on this blog with absolute freedom, providing I’m not libellous? The calmer disposition says yes, and that the Royal Charter will only hit the true offenders, but I am still nervous. I say more than enough to offend those of certain views and the thought of having ‘exemplary damages’ taken against me is scary. Should I already begin tempering my thoughts out of fear?

Of course not. If I have faith in my critique as an honest expression of my beliefs, devoid of lies and slander then I should have nothing to fear. We’ll see. I always thought the existing law could have been enough to regulate the actions of unscrupulous journalists, if properly enforced, and what I see in the deal now is something of a coup for people like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Max Mosley. As if the super-injunction wasn’t enough, they’re now protected to the hilt. Insult if you dare.

So finally Cyprus, the EU and the ever-gloomy outlook of the international economy. This is the issue that best encapsulates a loose theme I was pondering across these seemingly disassociated things. A great event occurs that I will have utterly no impact on as an individual but will likely, even if by degrees of separation, have a profound impact on me. It’s frustrating, and more so in this case because it’s so difficult to understand.

The bare bones are easy enough I suppose, in exchange for a 10bn euro bailout from the EU, Cyprus needs to produce somewhere over 5bn euros from bank levies. This is hugely controversial, deposit protection having been originally agreed as an internationally safeguarded measure to prevent runs on the banks, and indeed the Cypriot government yesterday voted against any such action being taken.

They had Merkel screaming in one ear to produce the goods and Putin screaming in the other for a different purpose. With 40% of the deposit wealth of Cypriot banks belonging to rich Russians, a bank levy would effectively be stealing Russian money, the provenance of which is broadly being called into question. Destitute Cyprus is now expected to appeal directly to Russia in light of their graciously being a haven for dirty roubles.

It is a desperately serious situation and all I can be is a spectator. I have nothing to offer on this matter, no original thought or bright idea that could serve to fix all of this. I’ll leave you with the thought that it’s possible no one does. All the while we hope there is someone with their finger on the pulse of these issues, working towards solutions, but this is all new territory. Let’s hope the intrepid politicians of the EU can pull something out of their rectums.

While it could be an unavoidable fact of life, I tire very quickly of external forces. All any one of us ever asked for was stability and degree of control over our own lives. I start to feel a little anarchic when confronted with all these concerns, almost entirely the product of the mistakes of others in far flung places. In today’s world the failures of faith and politics come back to visit us all.

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Forget Deference for a Moment

The blood boils. With an early evening cup of tea I watched Prime Minister’s Questions, seeking my usual dose of political theatre, hoping to glean a few hints between the lines of the questions, answers and raucous cheering and jeering. It’s usually an eye-roller, but today it was an eye-bulging, vascular ruining, aneurysm inducing affair. The leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, is not fit for purpose, and that’s a very restrained assessment.

I’m loathe to repeat my general criticism of the Labour leader, I’ve already done so enough, but he drags me back in time and time again. The void of ideas, the steady stream of attack on government and the hypocrisy of his machinations in relation to his party’s time in government are bad enough, but he has sought new means by which to make tatters of the prestige of Westminster. I would advise you to watch this Wednesday’s edition and see if you don’t agree.

Being generously gracious, the coalition is not having the best time of things. It’s approaching shambolic territory really, and this is well understood by everyone. Criticism of this ill-matched union is well-deserved, as even their lingering claims of progress are being drowned out by the obstacles and regressions. Improved employment and increased exports aren’t enough to distract from huge benefit and public sector cuts, against a backdrop of an otherwise lame economy.

Cameron is visibly under fire. He looks tired, embattled, fearful of the whispers of a leadership challenge. The Conservative Party surely realises how utterly self-defeating this would be and yet I have a brewing dread based on their previously suicidal political blunders, not limited to becoming embroiled in social issues and the ever looming European question. Solidarity is beginning to waver and the struggles of government are plain to see.

So I say this of Mr. Miliband. If there is nothing he can do other than gesticulate like a precocious infant while riling up the Commons with petulant and entirely disrespectful rhetoric of precisely zero value, he should resign. Today was the end of my tolerance for his pathetic brand. Immediately to his left sits Harriet Harman, an infinitely better prospect for the party thanks in part to her maturity and experience, but also much more.

She at least is dynamic. Forget this talk of Teresa May taking over the Conservatives, unless Thatcher 2.0 is your thing, Harman should be the next female leader in British politics. And the sooner the better. God help us all if the dismal antics of Miliband and Balls are actually appealing to anyone, as their dereliction to the whole meaning of opposition spells doom for their potential in government.

I have no doubt Harman can dish out the salty Commons jibes with the best of them, and indeed has in her capacity as deputy under Brown. The difference between her and her two colleagues is that when offering criticism she also tends to offer alternatives. Not always fully formed, it must be said, but then I’ve never even demanded that of the increasingly symbiotic abomination that is the Labour leader and shadow chancellor. Just more than playground sarcasm.

Miliband was shockingly awful today. I can only hope people were paying attention. If they liked what they saw, they shouldn’t, because in every nasal taunt and scoffing assault were the signs of his total inadequacy. On their own it would usually only amount to the typical buffoonery of Prime Minister’s Questions, but coupled with his negligence and vapidity it’s an insult. Socialist ideas man? Thinker? Intellectual? My left nut. Prove it.

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Protest Voting

I have a terrible headache. It’s just all too much. When it seems the cautionary tales of sci-fi drama “Black Mirror”, partially the brainchild of our favourite tousle-haired telecritic and curmudgeon Charlie Brooker, have been coming to life, it’s time to consider the entire meaning of comment. I personally don’t see the need to satirize or ridicule things which are self-evidently satirical or ridiculous, and yet I have to write about something.

I’m thinking particularly of the most recent episode, where “Waldo”, the blue idiot bear, commandeers the attention of the politically disenfranchised, resulting in a near future new order of iconoclasm. Plastered on every product, billboard and, obviously, fighter-jet, are the obnoxious eyes and grin of this irritating creature, supposedly binding the world together for all its freshness and anti-establishment appeal or whatever.

“Waldo”, merely an animated on-screen character, is propelled to fame when its dreary controller, a depressed comedian of sideways career trajectory, has a minor breakdown, unleashing a populist tirade against a politician during a televised debate for a by-election. The ursine cartoon ultimately places second in the vote-count, having been entered to raise the exposure of its comedy news show carrier, and slightly beyond believability, to “shake things up”. Onwards and upwards it goes.

Amongst other things the episode hints at the fear of, and potential for, protest voting and its dubious outcomes. Or that’s what I wanted it to hint at, as things get a little muddled towards the end, but in light of what has been occurring abroad and now at home, it was those thoughts I found myself with after. This isn’t to say that in real life the puerile actions of laughable clowns are threatening the fabric of well-established democracies… oh.

Actually, this is to say that in real life the puerile actions of laughable clowns are threatening the fabric of well-established democracies. Memory raps upon the doors of forward thought and usher in the names of Rand Paul, Beppe Grillo and Nigel Farage. Or if you might be unfamiliar, the Waldo’s of the USA, Italy and the UK respectively. These are the men who are the products of their nation’s dissatisfaction with the political mainstream.

I have no secret anticipation of seeing Farage’s goofy, beaming face in place of the red, white and blue circles of the RAF, quite the horror that would be, yet still I fear the kind of outcomes that protest voting and popularism can birth. Government, despite the relentless passages of ineptitude and embarrassment that its denizens always play out in the public eye, is serious business and not even by half do all its applicants possess the necessary qualities.

Essentially, even when we take politics really very seriously indeed, we get the usual blend of respectable competence right through to borderline criminal idiocy. Speaking mainly with a concern for the state of Europe, it being that Rand Paul, his ilk and their intellectually inverted principles have already rasped onto the body of American governance, the last thing needed here is likewise. Right now we need the boring, the grey, the tired. The sane.

We need the stability of the old institutions of Labour and the Tories and the formidable collective political experience of Westminster that goes back well beyond the tenure of any currently sitting minister. Sir Peter Tapsell aside. And Italy needs the Mario Monti’s, or at least the Pier Bersani’s. It boggles the mind to an extent that words cannot do justice that Silvio Berlusconi is ever again allowed within a thousand leagues of a government building.

There’s really nothing to say about Beppe Grillo. He can’t possibly run a country, it’s simply not a serious proposition. Much the same I feel as Nigel Farage and his band of merry Europhobes. While not an actual comedian, and indeed ostensibly a true politician, he is for that still only as serious Grillo. Riding the opportunistic highs of occasional political strife, they haven’t the complete package in either policy or competence to enact policy.

Those who came out in support of UKIP at the recent Eastleigh by-elections should be very aware of this. While I’m quite sure this bump for the right-wing party is entirely short-lived, there’s always the lingering fear of unexpected vitality and longevity. To assuage the temptation of anyone thinking about continuing their support, I would point them in the direction of the current traumas of the United States Congress.

There Rand Paul, Tea Party Congressman, is displaying for all the wisdom and reason of fringe political figures. Being integral to the Republican mechanism that has for over four years now sought to ruin the efficacy of government and the success of Obama’s presidency, he is currently holding up the confirmation hearings of CIA director nominee John Brennan, for probably as little cause as he was Obama’s choice. On paper Brennan is a perfect conservative candidate.

The problems caused by successful protest voting clearly manifest themselves in a unique way in the USA, in a manner which corresponds to their particular set of challenges. Just believe that the problems we face in the UK will only become magnified should we let (more) unworthy individuals into government. That message of course also goes out to government itself, in the hopes they might straighten up and earn some of those votes back!

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