Category Archives: Politics

One of my favourite days of the year

This is one of my favourite days of the year. I get to spend the morning welcoming applicants to study medicine at Bristol to their interviews. It’s a great reminder for me of why I love working in HE, and it’s a massive privilege to be able to meet so many incredible, (mostly) young, highly motivated individuals as they set out on a journey that will hopefully lead to them qualifying as doctors in 6 or 7 years’ time. Getting a place at medical school is an incredibly competitive process – we received 3,700 applications for our 251 places in this round, and we will interview about 900 of those applicants as we decide who to make offers to. And this remains the case in the face of what looks like a concerted campaign to undermine the UK higher education sector.

There has been a slow drip-feed of stories over recent months that has created something akin to a hostile environment for universities. Initially, the focus was on Vice-Chancellors’ pay, and one or two outlier salaries were held up as evidence of a rotten system as a whole. This was closely followed by a succession of almost wholly unsubstantiated claims of a crisis of free speech on our campuses; with rumour and anecdote taking the place of actual evidence, to create a narrative that ‘no-platforming’, safe spaces, and ‘snowflake students’, were preventing the robust discussion of contentious ideas. Next came the double-whammy of concerns about value-for-money and claims that white boys going to new universities would end up worse off than their peers who went straight into the world of work at 18. The Augur review of tuition fees is due to report later in December, and is widely trailed as recommending a reduction in fees for subjects like English, Drama, and History; with fee levels capped for medicine, engineering and sciences. This conflation of ‘value for money’ with graduate earnings is simplistic and unhelpful. The ‘worth’ of a degree is not something that can be calculated in purely financial terms. Most recently, unconditional offers (at entry to University) and so-called grade inflation (at graduation) have come into the sights of those seeking a stick to further beat the sector with. The headlines are again dominated by claims of universities lowering standards to allow students in in the first place, and then allowing those students to leave with an undeservedly high award at the end of the course.

What has been remarkable about all of these issues is the lack of detailed empirical evidence underpinning the challenges that have been made; and the uncritical reporting of them in the mainstream media. To be clear, I’m not saying that everything is perfect in the sector; but nor is it anywhere near as dysfunctional as the current narrative might suggest. UK HE is hugely beneficial to the country, and to those towns and cities which have thriving universities. As we teeter on the edge of a departure from the European Union, and in a world that seems to be becoming less certain and more fragmented, institutions that bring people together from across the Home Nations, and the international community, deserve to be supported and reinforced.

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A televised Brexit debate? A guaranteed turn-off

I’ve tried really hard not to devote too much of this blog to the soap opera that has become Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Hot air, posturing and bare-faced lies have blighted any attempt at a sensible discussion about the UK’s future relationship with the EU since the 2016 referendum was first mooted. Whilst May and Corbyn have not been the worst offenders in this regard, nor have they been blameless. Each has made statements that stretch the truth and have served to confuse and obfuscate rather than clarify and crystallise the choices facing the country through this critically important process. From May’s recent crass description of EU workers coming to the UK as “queue-jumpers”, to Corbyn’s meaningless and wholly unsubstantiated claims for a “jobs-first Brexit”, they have both played the role of small-minded, party-focused, tinpot apparatchiks, when the country was crying out for strategic leadership.

Now, with the EU having signed off on a Withdrawal Agreement and framework for a future relationship with the UK that they have made clear is the final, fixed offer, May faces the seemingly impossible task of persuading enough MPs to support her ‘deal’ in a vote in the House of Commons in mid December. Somewhat bizarrely, she has embarked on a two week tour of the UK to ‘sell’ the deal, presumably in the hope that public opinion will be brought to bear on those MPs who are minded to defeat the proposal either because it’s too Brexity, or because it’s not Brexity enough, or because they never wanted any Brexit in the first place. The irony is that May’s deal seems to have achieved more in uniting the competing factions than any other proposal so far since the referendum result in 2016. Unfortunately for May, all the factions are united in opposition to it.

Which brings us to the proposal that May and Corbyn will be offered a prime time TV slot to debate their respective positions on the Withdrawal Agreement and future framework as it stands. I can’t imagine a greater TV turnoff than a head-to-head between these two political pygmies. The past two and a bit years’ of Prime Minister’s Question Time encounters between the two has generated all the chemistry and dramatic tension of a wet Wednesday afternoon just outside Ousefleet. It’s not as if we don’t already know how the debate will proceed. May will bang on about a deal that ensures strength and stability (despite all the evidence that we will be poorer as a country, less significant in terms of our place on the world stage, and with a widening of the gap between the rich and the ‘just about managing’ that May made such a fuss about in her ill-fated post-Brexit election campaign). Corbyn will spin his own vision of a unicorn-filled future in which the UK will be outside the EU but will retain all the EU market access and employment protections that our current membership affords. They’ll both agree that their vision respects the will of the 37% of the electorate who voted to leave the EU in 2016 (conveniently ignoring the fact that all recent polling suggests that the slim majority in favour of leaving then, has had serious second thoughts having properly understood the implications.

However, these aren’t even my strongest objections to the TV debate proposal. Even more worryingly, it’s being seriously suggested that this charade of popular politics might replace Strictly Come Dancing, Dr Who and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in the prime time Sunday scheduling. Frankly, nobody voted for that in the referendum.

Review : Wounds – a memoir of war and love

The Irish Republic has rarely featured as prominently in the mainstream British media as it has in recent months. Plans for a soft Brexit seem set to founder on the challenges posed by the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland; and the historic referendum on changes to the law relating to abortion was the dominant news story of the late-May Bank Holiday.

Today, the Democratic Unionist Party’s annual conference will be addressed by Boris Johnson, having spent last evening listening to Philip Hammond on why the current Withdrawal Agreement is the best that can be achieved by negotiation.

It was in this context that I came to read Fergal Keane’s Wounds : a memoir of war and love. Having long admired Keane’s forensic approach to broadcast journalism, most notably in his coverage of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 as the BBC’s Southern Africa correspondent, I was intrigued to see how he would tackle a subject that was – literally – much closer to home.

American sociologist Charles Wright Mills wrote that “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both”2. Keane reflects this philosophy perfectly in Wounds, his account of events leading to the Irish Uprising in 1916, the battle for independence and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, and the subsequent civil war and political settlement underpinning the Republic of Ireland as it is today. Keane employs his journalistic skills to excellent effect. Meticulous research and reference to contemporary source materials lends an academic rigour to the writing. But the text is brought to life as Keane draws on his own family history in north Kerry to see the events through the eyes of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

I came to the book from a position of woeful ignorance about the history of the island of Ireland, and the series of events leading to the Uprising and eventual secession of the Republic from the UK. This book makes clear that what little I thought I knew was hopelessly simplistic and anodyne.

The caricature of English oppressors lording it over an impoverished native population is comprehensively demolished by Keane. He paints a picture of the north Kerry of his grandmother that is so much more complex and nuanced. Certainly, there are ‘old English’ families receiving an income from Irish tenant farmers on estates that were given to English ancestor-invaders several hundred years before. But these landlords are not all hostile to the interests of their tenants, nor are they uniformly against the principle of a greater say for the people of Ireland in their day-to-day governance. Similarly, some of those who fought most doggedly to preserve British rule were themselves born and raised in Ireland. As Keane writes in his prologue : “This is the story of my grandmother who was a rebel, and her brother and how they took up guns to fight the British Empire. And it is the story of another Irishman… who fought against them because he believed it was his duty to uphold the law of his country.” Towards the end of the book, he concludes that : “There was no absolute telling how the mood of the times and the circumstances of family, the generational shifts and, possibly, resentments could change the way in which young men and women saw the world.”

A recurrent theme throughout the book is the genuine conflict that existed across communities, between families, within individual combatants, throughout the skirmishes and battles that characterised the guerrilla campaigns of first the war of independence and then the civil war in the south of Ireland. Keane links the fight for freedom from UK rule in the period after 1916, directly to the Troubles that claimed so many lives in the lead up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998 : “The Provisional [IRA]’s claims of legitimate violence were rooted in the violence of [those] who had no electoral mandate for revolution when they struck in 1916 against a government they declared to be illegitimate.” In this context, the peace process that reached a conclusion in 1998 brought to an end a conflict that had begun 80 years earlier. And this is why questions over the border between north and south as part of the political soap-opera that is the Brexit process have such deep meaning in Northern Ireland and the Republic. In contemplating the possible return of a hard border between the UK and theRepublic, Keane observes : “Nobody thought the war would start again. But so much of our island history is about how unforeseen consequences play out over the long run that I cannot say violence will never return.”

Wounds is a thoughtful, accessible and above all intensely compassionate account of a period of history that has profoundly influenced the last 100 years of politics in the UK. I highly recommend it as a primer for anybody seeking a deeper understanding of the modern history of the island of Ireland, and a better appreciation of why any potential dilution of the Good Friday Agreement is the cause of such alarm.

(Mills, C. W.: 1959, The sociological imagination, Oxford University Press, London)

Spitting Image revisited

The creator of Spitting Image, the satirical sketch show involving caricature puppets of politicians, sportspeople, celebrities and others in the public eye, has donated his entire archive of material to Cambridge University library. When asked whether the time was right for a re-boot of the programme, Roger Law commented that : “We are back where we were with knobs on and yes it can be done.” If you’ve never heard of Spitting Image, or have no idea what it was all about, then I’m not even going to try to describe it – instead, please follow the link to the YouTube excerpts. Suffice to say, in the 1980s, it was the most subversive pricker of pomposity and hubris that there was. In many respects, Spitting Image can trace its ancestry back to the satirical programmes including the Frost Report and Monty Python in the 1960s; and which continued in slightly more mainstream form with the great impersonators (such as Mike Yarwood) of the 1970s and 1980s. Anyway, I’ve been motivated to write today’s blog through re-imagining what a Spitting Image of 2018 might look like. I’ve come up with some characters that I think would make great satirical material and I’d love to hear your views.

The first would be a narcissistic heir to the family billions who gets bored with appearing on reality TV shows and bankrupting a succession of otherwise strong businesses, and chooses instead to run for president of the United States. Each week would feature a sketch where the petulant man-child causes chaos in the corridors of government through random policy announcements made entirely through social media. These would be punctuated with abusive comments directed towards other world leaders and threats of war, fire and brimstone against any person, country or religious group that happens to come under his gaze. Positioning himself as an anti-establishment figure who was committed to ridding the country of corruption and Making it Great Again, he’d actually be permanently mired in allegations of corrupt behaviour and colluding in foreign interference in the democratic process. All such allegations would be brushed off as fake news by the President and his team of fawning acolytes, who would distribute blatantly doctored video and audio footage to back up their increasingly ridiculous claims. To make clear that this character was a gross caricature and not based on any real person (past or present), the puppet would be coloured vivid orange with a superfluous mop of hair vainly struggling to cover a large bald patch.

My second character would be the UK prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party. The shadow of her puppet character would be shaped to match the Margaret Thatcher character of the original series, but each time my new character said or did something stupid, the Thatcher-shaped shadow would shake her head in a mixture of disbelief and despair. My character would speak entirely in aphorisms and slogans, adding emphasis through constant repetition of her personal mantra : “Let me make this absolutely clear”, before launching into a vacuous and unintelligible soundbite. At the end of my first series, this character would be deposed as a result of a coup led by former cabinet members from the deranged alt-right wing of her party, and the coup de grace would involve her being sent on the last train through the Channel Tunnel to France before it is blown up on the Folkestone side. Brexit means Brexit, after all.

The third and final character in my pitch would be an elderly, left-wing career politician who – through a series of unfortunate events – finds himself as leader of the Labour party. His long track record in opposing all forms of government (right or left) over a thirty year period stands him in good stead as he charts a course that means that he will never actually have to govern himself. Miraculously, in the face of the least popular and most dysfunctional government in modern history, he manages to keep the Labour party behind the Conservatives in the polls, and maintains his own approval ratings at a reassuringly low level. This character will have an uncanny knack of disappearing from scenes whenever called upon to actually say anything significant, only to pitch up in North Africa or South America at some event to mark an episode in a glorious but ultimately doomed revolution from the 1970s.

And they say that satire is dead.

 

 

What is it about Christmas adverts?

This time last year it was a Greggs advert that was getting everybody hot under the collar. The high street baker’s use of sausage rolls in its baked goods nativity scene was causing an unholy rumpus. There was a degree of silliness about that story, alongside a sense that Greggs had achieved exactly what they set out to : viral coverage of their campaign that went far beyond what would have been achieved by a less controversial approach.

This year, it’s the frozen foods specialist Iceland that has found itself the centre of a spat with Clearcast, the organisation responsible for vetting adverts for broadcast on British TV. The retailer has made a big play in recent months of removing palm oil from all of its own brand products. This is in response to the deforestation of large parts of Borneo, Malaysia and other parts of the world, with a devastating impact on orang-utan populations. Iceland had partnered with Greenpeace and were intending to use a Greenpeace animated film as their Christmas advert. You can see the film here. However, their plans have been scuppered by a Clearcast ruling that the advert is too political. The irony that advertising palm oil products is legal, but highlighting the habitat destruction that allows palm oil to be produced is not, has not been lost on many of the commentators who have so far written about the story.

But as with the Greggs furore last year, the reality is that more people are now aware of the Iceland campaign than would probably have noticed it has the TV advert simply been cleared for broadcast. The fact that the YouTube version has been linked to from virtually every UK newspaper site, as well as countless Facebook and Twitter accounts, has established a reach for the content that far exceeds that which would normally be expected from TV advertising alone.

In this case, it’s a good thing that the important message behind the advert is getting through.

The implications of this episode for the stifling rules governing TV adverts in an age of YouTube and other social media platforms, remains to be seen.

Have we reached peak news?

Last week, the Electoral Commission referred Arron Banks and the Leave.EU organisation that he fronted, to the National Crime Agency for alleged breaches of the financial rules governing the funding of political campaigns in the UK. Almost before the ink was dry on the press release from the Commission, the BBC announced that Banks would be interviewed live on its flagship weekend politics show on Sunday 4th November. The decision to interview a person of interest during an on-going investigation before even the investigators had spoken to him, was subject to extensive scrutiny in the 48 hours leading up to the broadcast. There were fiercely argued points both for and against his appearance on the Andrew Marr programme. Broadly, those in favour of proceeding with the interview saw it as a vindication of the role of a free press in a democratic society. To supporters of the decision to proceed, this was a case of interest to the public, and it was in the public interest to expose Banks to public scrutiny in front of the widest possible audience. To opponents of the BBC’s decision to allow Banks access to a nationwide television audience whilst under criminal investigation, this was an ill-advised ratings-chasing exercise, that seriously risked prejudicing both the investigation and any subsequent trial. The arguments were long and loud and continue even now. On balance, my sympathies lie with those who believe that the potential damage to the effective rule of law in this case did not justify the editorial decision to proceed with the broadcast, but that’s not my main point for this post.

More broadly, it raises for me the question of whether we have now gone past what I’ll describe as ‘peak news’. What I mean by this is that the capacity for instant broadcast of news and current affairs has now so far exceeded the supply of genuinely newsworthy material, that the quality of the news offering (whether through broadcast media, print publications or on-line) has suffered immeasurably in the pursuit of something – anything – to fill the available space. The signs have been there for a while. Simon McCoy has gained cult status for his less than enthusiastic coverage of various royal births in recent years; and on-line editions of newspapers (most notably – but by no means exclusively – the Mail Online) have come under regular scrutiny for plagiarising content from other sources simply to have something new to add to their webpages. In similar vein, there has been a noticeable growth in the number of ‘news’ stories that are little more than compilations of Tweets, Facebook or Instagram posts. This coverage of the death of Aretha Franklin is a case in point.

Why is this important? For two reasons, I’d suggest. Firstly, and most importantly, because the need for large quantities of news significantly reduces the quality of what is produced. Paradoxically, as the demand for more and more material builds inexorably, so the number of journalists employed in the UK has remained the same or reduced. In parallel, the number of people working in corporate and public relations roles has significantly increased. The result is that there is much less analysis and scrutiny of material that is pushed out by public bodies, corporate organisations and political and lobbying groups. One of the objections to Marr’s interview with Banks was that the presenter was not sufficiently versed in the complexity of the allegations against Banks to be able to properly hold his feet to the fire. Following the interview, there was a general consensus that Marr’s lack of familiarity with the brief had allowed Banks to obfuscate and bluster his way out of difficult questions in a way that a seasoned investigative reporter fully familiar with the story would not have allowed. Of course, the counter is that Banks would never have allowed an interview with such a reporter. It is telling that the main impetus for first the Electoral Commission and now the National Crime Agency looking into the Banks case has come from features writer Carole Cadwalladr, who has been given nothing like the air time of Banks himself to explain the conclusions of her investigation.

Secondly, this matters because the value of real news has been seriously diminished in the clamour for things to fill the available space. To coin a phrase, if everything is now deemed as news, then nothing really is. This contributes to the regular complaints to programmes like the BBC’s Newswatch, about the coverage afforded in news bulletins to things like the identity of the latest actor to play the role of Doctor Who, or stories of celebrity break-ups. But there is almost a sense that news itself is now a commodity item that needs to be ‘sold’ to consumers in a market-place where supply outstrips demand and news organisations are competing for viewers. It is this that leads to the clickbait stories and ‘celebrity’ interviews that frequently accompany more serious news stories, both reducing the space available for proper coverage of serious news, and trivialising the news offering as a whole. It seems to me that this serves neither the person watching or reading the news in search of analysis and information, nor the news organisation that increasingly sees its role as filling space rather than editing in the traditional sense of that word. The upshot of all this is a less well informed public, become cynical about ‘news’ that is often little more than reformatted press releases and increasingly bemused about what is fact, what is hyperbole, and what is bare-faced lies.

It would be good to see a return to a less is more mentality in newsrooms and commissioning editors’ meetings – a focus on quality coverage of news and events by journalists committed to understanding and reporting the details of the story; and the demise of the celebrity interview masquerading as journalism.

 

It’s been a while…

I haven’t posted here for some time. In recent years I’ve focused my blogging energy on the annual challenge of National Blog Post Month during each November. I’ll probably try that again this year too. So what’s prompted me to come back to the blog right now? Simply that there’s a lot of stuff that makes we want to write now.

The end of the world is confidently predicted on a more or less annual cycle, and usually on the basis of a strained interpretation of a Nostradamus prophecy. Nevertheless, there is something apocalyptic about current world events. When nation states can collude in the premeditated murder of troublesome journalists; while others build secret internment camps for religious minorities; and ‘populist’ leaders of major industrial countries downplay the threats of global warming, it is clear that the moderate, centrist consensus that has largely dominated global political discourse over the past 40 years or more, is rapidly unravelling.

Whilst identifying the precise tipping point is inevitably a matter of contention, there is no doubt that populist movements around the world were galvanised and emboldened by the Brexit referendum vote in the UK in June 2016. The decision of 52% of voters to support the withdrawal from the European Union was used by campaigners for Donald Trump in the US to justify Trump’s call for people to take back control from a liberal elite portrayed as self-serving and out of touch with ordinary people. The fact that both the leave campaign and Trump’s own push for the White House have since been shown to have been funded and supported through illegal payments, and interference from foreign (predominantly Russian) intelligence networks, has had only limited impact on the sense among core supporters that they made the right decision. Brexit will lead to greater hardship and reduced prospects for people in the UK for generations to come, but at least the UK will be solely responsible for its own destiny. Trump’s America will end up isolated and with a much-reduced influence in the world, but at least in the eyes of steel workers and coal miners in Pennsylvania, the country will be Great Again.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of Nicaraguan dictator and US ally : “He may be a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard”. There’s no doubt that similar sentiments led to the election of Trump, and the popularity of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK’s Brexit campaign. The fact that none of these can sustain any credible claim to be ‘men of the people’ is irrelevant. Where they have succeeded is in persuading those who feel left behind or otherwise excluded from a share in improving economic fortunes, that they will stop the exploitation of ordinary working people by bureaucrats in Europe, or crafty exporters from Mexico, China or Canada, and will do deals that will increase the fortunes of everybody in the US or UK. Faced with a choice of more of the same or an enticing vision of sunny uplands and the realisation of some mythical era when independent nation states were free from the constraints and shackles of world trade bodies and international treaties, voters have largely taken the view that they had nothing to lose in giving the alternative a try. Voters – feeling that ‘however they vote, the government always gets in’ – have turned their backs on politicians in favour of populist causes or candidates promising changes that will actually make a difference. When those changes prove more difficult to deliver – an orderly Brexit, or a wall at the Mexican border for example – the populists deflect the blame onto ‘the establishment’ or those outside the country who are portrayed as unreasonable, intransigent or untrustworthy.

Professor David Runciman of Cambridge University’s Department of Politics, traces the roots of the current populist surge to the financial crash of 2008 and the austerity economics that followed. Paradoxically, Runciman sees Brexit and Trump as symptoms of a ‘mid-life crisis’ in the development of democracy – a kind of recognition that things need freshening up but without any real desire to destabilise the democratic foundations of our political system. Rather colourfully (and appropriately in the case of Trump, Farage and Johnson) Runciman offers the view that voters have fastened on the idea of changing leaders rather than the system – trying a different clown, as he puts it.

The coming weeks will give a much better picture of whether the current crop of clowns have outlived their entertainment value. The US mid-term elections will provide the clearest indication yet of the extent to which the Trump administration has retained the popular appeal that took Donald into the White House; while the final details of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union seem increasingly destined to result in a general election as the only way of reconciling the mess that is the Conservative Party’s fragile coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Whatever happens between now and 30th November, it’s unlikely that I’ll be short of things to write about during NaBloPoMo 2018!