Welcome to the 218th edition of the Britblog Roundup where in a nightmare vision, speakers blare the incessant admonition of our Wise and Glorious Leaders to:
“Keep young and beautiful,
It’s your duty to be beautiful;
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved.
Don’t fail to do your stuff
With a little powder and a puff,
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved.
If you’re wise, exercise all the fat off,
Take it off, off-a here, off-a there”
Al Dubin, 1933
Or, adapting the lyrics somewhat: “If you want to receive treatment on the NHS (though we will probably send you packing on the grounds that your problems are all self-inflicted)”. Nothing epitomises better the intellectual vacuity of the present Government than its preaching about lifestyles to distract from the assault it has launched on our fundamental freedoms.
James Purnell, Work and Pensions Secretary’s has come under fire for his latest bright idea to cut the welfare bill by depriving alcoholics of benefits unless they submit to the humiliation of penance on a government treatment programme, a measure, which surely would entail constant interference, monitoring and intrusion if it were to have a hope of being implemented, erasing forever the distinction between public and private. As if the idea were not offensive enough in itself, Mr Purnell compounds his error by dressing up a punitive measure as an act of compassion: “He said: ‘We need to look through the eyes of the person defeated by an addiction that keeps them out of work and on the outside of the community and give them the help they need.
‘But we can’t abandon anyone to long periods on benefits without help to overcome problems. So that’s why we are going to look at the arrangements for alcoholics on benefits, just as we did for problem drug users, so that people get the help they need to get sober, to get their life back and get back to work’.
He also condemned Tory proposals to withdraw benefits from unmarried couples. He said: ‘We know couples don’t marry for money, but often they do split up because of money worries’”.
The implication here is that Labour is less stuffily judgmental as they are only going to punish true social inadequates. Gordon Brown may peer into the living room, but David Cameron wants to police the bedroom, branding you as deficient for failing to seal your covenant of love with a band of gold.
Unsurprisingly, Purnell has attracted derision from various quarters. Dr John Crippen of NHS Blog Doctor summarises the general mood in Attacking the drunks: “Another bit of headline grabbing, focus group driven cynical cruelty from this failing government. Declaring ‘war on the work shy’ is always worth a vote. And yes, there are some boozers who are both on the piss and taking the piss. But, mostly, those sad people with chronic alcohol problems are an inadequate lot who need sympathy and support.
‘What is an alcoholic?’ I have not got a clue. I long since stopped using the word. I don’t know what it means. It conjures up pictures of vagrants on park benches with bottles of strong cider and Carlsberg Special brew half concealed in brown paper bags. And, for sure, some of these people are victims of alcohol. Some of them are ex-servicemen (Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan). Some of them are schizophrenics. How will cutting their benefits help? Conventional use of the word ‘alcoholic’ does not encompass the housewife drinking two bottles of wine a day; the solicitor who has a bottle of wine with his lunch and two more at night; or the politician and his advisers, drinking the hours away in one of the many subsidised bars of the House of Commons”.
The unacknowledged class dimension becomes pretty apparent here with the ability to maintain a front of respectability crucial to avoiding the scrutiny of the busybodies. Only the blatant drop-outs would be penalised. It is more than a little disheartening that the supposed champion of the vulnerable now gets its kicks out of putting the boot into those who cannot retaliate, whose ingenuity and energy are devoted to survival on paltry allowances.
The good Doctor is only too aware of the pernicious effects such a policy would be likely to have, exacerbating shortcomings, which already leave the ailing in the lurch: “There are a number of people who, long before they turn to alcohol, cannot function at any level. They become reclusive. They struggle by without engaging with their fellow man. Some eventually become alcohol dependent. Alcohol is their refuge, their hiding place. The alcohol is the symptom of their underlying problem. It is not the problem itself. More than half the people with diagnosed psychiatric problems drink too much. Sadly, those who above all should be there to help them usually let them down. I talk of course of the medical profession. Approach a doctor smelling of alcohol and he will begin to lose interest, but not before he has made a pompous remark in your notes: ‘Smelt of C2H5OH at 5.00pm’. Approach a doctor looking down and out and smelling of alcohol and he will take no interest at all. Even the psychiatrists are intolerant. Our local alcohol ’support’ unit throws out anyone who arrives looking or smelling the worse for wear from alcohol. Talk me through that”.
Neil Robertson at Liberal Conspiracy likewise castigates the stone-hearted secretary in Purnell’s silly plan for alcoholics, pointing to the difficulties besetting the idea, beginning with the definition of an alcoholic, adding up to some fairly insurmountable obstacles: “(…) how is the state going to identify alcoholics? The people who work in job centres are perfectly good at their jobs, but those jobs only involve following pre-approved computer procedures for eight hours a day. None of these people are trained in medicine or psychology, and therefore won’t be qualified to label people as alcoholics, much less terminate their benefits for it.
How does the government get around that? Will they subject every claimant to a full medical? Will they perform breathalyzers on everyone who walks through the door? Or will they be more discreet, and just ask staff to walk around council estates with clip boards and ask them to count how many cans of Special brew are left in recycling bins?”
Clairwil of the eponymous blog also takes Purnell to task in a truly spectacular demolition of the plans Benefit Scrounging Scum! , illustrating the reality beyond the Victorian era rhetoric of the “undeserving poor” from her dealings with the proposed victims of his “spongers’” cull: “First up is a fellow, also called James, a lovely man, very polite, reeks of piss, wears a dressing gown as an overcoat, can’t go anywhere without his mother, talks about his cat all the time and would like to join the police force. For some reason employers seem to be reluctant to employ him. I’d love Jamesey to tell us where we’ve gone wrong and identify exactly what sort of work this man is fit for because his department declared him fit for work despite him suffering a wee touch of Paranoid Schizophrenia. he scored zero points on the Incapacity Benefit Descriptors”.
As Clairwil then demonstrates via a link, a benefits medical is far from a pleasant experience. harrowing even to read, reproduce an excerpt (preserving the spelling and style of the original) written by a 41-year-old man, routine humiliation: “He asked if I has seen a Psychiatrist which I said yes he asked when which I said yesterday and showed him a letter to which he said ‘that’s not a psychiatrist that’s a clinical psychologist’ at this point I felt i was being told off he also told my wife when she tried to answer a question to shh don’t answer the questions and who are you I started to get upset as the questions went on he continued in this matter taking no notice of what I was trying to say to the point where I broke down completely and started to cry uncontrollably and become upset sobbing I said I had worked all my life and this is the only time I have asked for anything and I was being treat like this I was sobbing at this time my wife started to cry and said is this really worth your health I would rather do without than you go through this he the just asked the next question then when I couldn’t answer for crying he said if you don’t go on with this you will lose you benefit I said I felt like walking out and he repeated you will lose your benefit do you want to go on. I muttered yes and we continued however I was not in fit state to continue sobbing and crying. When I was asked could I wash or shave and I replied due to depression I do not feel like getting shaved and do not have the energy he said what about getting washed I replied I cant do nothing I spending my days in a dressing gown in bed or just throwing something on he then said ‘do you like to smell’ and ‘do you change your underwear’ I replied when im depressed I do nothing I cant face life I feel like I want to dye sobbing all the time”.
The intrepid Clairwil’s coup de grâce is to expose Purnell’s sheer gall in yanking away the safety net to leave those in free fall to hit the sawdust full force whilst milking a slightly different benefits system for all it is worth: “Is there nothing an MP wouldn’t claim on expenses? Is there no point where they think they might be able to manage to buy something out of their own wages?
I merely ask because the loathsome James Purnell has been claiming £400 per month, roughly double what an unemployed 20-year-old gets a month with which to buy food, pay the utility bills, water and sewerage charge, clothe themselves and travel to and from job interviews. he was trying to claim £475 per month but apparently that breaks the rules. Thank God there are some rules otherwise the claims of these scrounging scumbags would run into billions”.
That jolly tune starts playing again…
“Oh, a slim little waist is a pleasure,
And a trim little limb is divine”
If your vice is not that of imbibing but ingesting, there is nowhere to hide, as the Government has its disapproving eye on you too. Jonathan Calder of Liberal England asks a highly pertinent question in relation to the latest salvo in the war on obesity featuring two images of (slender) children with the kind of hard-hitting slogan hitherto reserved for encouraging smokers to stub out their habit, Government and food companies conspire to denigrate home cooking: “Personally, I find that cake pleasingly old fashioned. White icing, with a cherry on top. It’s the sort of cake children scheme to win in the Beano and the Dandy.
When we worry about what children eat these days, we do not worry about home baking. We worry about things like crisps and fizzy drinks.
So why does this poster show a home-made cake?”
Costigan Quist of Himmelgarten Café follows suit in reacting unfavourably to the woefully misguided initiative in Kids told cupcakes and consoles as bad as smoking: “This whole campaign stinks. I can understand concern about obesity and inaction, though I don’t think the evidence really supports it (for children at least).
But to be putting out this sort of scary, alarmist and downright nasty advertising you ought to have a damn good reason and they simply don’t. The message is a lie.
The Government is spending millions of pounds stigmatising our young people. They’re fat, lazy, unhealthy, anti-social and criminal. I don’t believe that’s the intention of Labour ministers; but it’s the result”.
However, the most eloquently scathing condemnation comes from Suzi FemAcadem at The F-Word in Fat is the new Folk Devil: “(…) two advertisements from the Change 4 Life campaign, which were run in women’s magazines. Both threaten the children in those adverts, with premature death, – one for eating a cupcake (girl) and one for playing computer games (boy). Besides the obvious and irritatingly sexist assumption that only boys play computer games, and only women care about their children’s nutrition and physical activity levels, both adverts are threatening children with dying for doing two very normal childhood activities.
These adverts make me furious on many levels. As a Mother, it is difficult enough, when my daughter comes home crying because someone at school told her she was fat and ugly (she’s actually ‘underweight’ and always has been. My son regularly refuses to eat foods because he has been told at school that they are bad for him.
As a Gamer, I am annoyed that once again computer games are being blamed for children not doing more activity. Just looking at my kids, and their friends, who all have access to at least one games console, not a [single] one of them engages in less than half an hour of physical activity. We live on a council estate, in an area that is recognised as having health inequalities, and a level of comparatively high deprivation. The reason those children have access to games consoles, is because their parents will save all year, scrimping on luxuries, walking instead of taking buses and so on, to get them a console as a big Christmas present. Also, especially with the advent of the Wii and Balance Board-based games, which massively encourage physical activity, and it seems clear to me that once again the Government is falling back on time old and dangerous assumptions.
Finally, as a fat, but healthy woman, I’m annoyed. This campaign against fatness, which for some of us, is out natural body shape, is infuriating, inaccurate and highly dangerous. Parents need to be supported to make healthy lifestyle choices, with a focus on Health, not avoiding fat. It should not be cheaper to go to Iceland and fill your freezer with frozen, processed foods than to be able to buy fresh vegetables and lean meats/fish to cook for your family. Fat people should not have to suffer humiliation, and be accused of being a drain on resources, just because some idiot in a government department decided that fat was the danger of the day, despite an awful lot of evidence suggesting otherwise”.
What next? If we exceed a certain weight are we to be issued with ration cards for chocolate and other treats? Or is unemployment to be alleviated by installing food monitors at every checkout, helpfully unpacking from your carrier bag the items they deem to be extraneous, figure-expanding luxuries? Or are we simply to be shamed by accusations of a culpable lack of solidarity (by gobbling up scarce NHS resources) in addition to the more traditional prejudices concerning our chronic lack of discipline and self-control, indolence and so on. What amazes me is the assumption that we are oblivious to the presumed dangers to our health in the midst of a fat-loathing culture. The Government should not be endeavouring to beat the diet companies at their own game in terms of exploiting our feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Molly of Gaian Economics continues the moral sermon by exhorting us to pay greater attention to what we stuff into our mouths, advocating self-denial for the sake of the planet in A New Ethic of Consumption: “Let’s start with a cliché:you are what you eat. I’ve been interested by the growing number of people who have food allergies and digestive problems. Of course some of this results from stress and no doubt post-modern, identity-related orthorexia has something to answer for too, but would it be too fanciful to suggest that we have treated our environment badly and it is now biting back?
Eating is the most direct way in which we come into relationship with our environment by literally consuming bits of it. In this act we cannot deny our dependence on the natural world around us. Some of my more consciously spiritual friends remember this by giving thanks to whatever they believe in rather than thoughtlessly tucking in”.
Peter Cranie (who refers to himself as “A Green MEP for the North West”, though surely this must be considered –in charitable mode – as a proclamation of ambition, as the only British Green MEPs in the European Parliament in its present – outgoing – composition are Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert) tackles the question of Donations and the Law, in essence an extended criticism of Liberal Democrat Councillor Steve Hurst: “Our democracy and the integrity of our political process is dependent on being able to trust that political parties will uphold the law, will not bend or break the rules on donations, and will not bring the results of previous elections into disrepute.
This is an absolutely key issue. If a political party is not to be trusted on making a full declaration of their donations, then just how do we account for how that money is spent?”
Sarah Cope welcomes the reappearance in showrooms of G-Wiz electric cars, but laments their price tag putting them beyond the reach of all but the few, who content themselves with flaunting them as a trendy accessory rather than acquiring genuinely Green credentials through a more radical change in lifestyle in Gee…that’s NICE: “I do have a problem though with the city exec with the two private regged Range Rovers, tootling into the city in his/her G-Wiz but using his/her gas guzzlers at all other times. ‘Look at me, I’m down with the kids,’ he/she seems to be saying. ‘I am so Green it hurts. Ouch’.
No mate, stop deluding yourself. You probably have solar panels (because your neighbours can see them) but no loft insulation (because they can’t). Why not take the tube into the city, or – whisper it – the bus? Or would that mean mixing with the hoi polloi, and possibly catching/smelling something nasty? Best to keep yourself cut off in your hermetically sealed (and oh-so-fashionable) bubble”.
Wendy Stayte at Transition Culture shows us the softer side of the environmental movement, providing An Update on Totnes Nut Tree Plantings.
In the dim and distant days before he metamorphosed into a clean-shaven Paw Broon, when he was a mere Chancellor of the Exchequer, our Beloved Prime Minister publicly pondered what it means to be British (British Council annual lecture, 7th July 2004): “What are the core values of Britishness? Of course, a strong sense of national identity derives from the particular, the special things we cherish. But it is my belief that out of tidal flows of British history – 2,000 years of successive waves of invasion, immigration, assimilation and trading partnerships that have created a uniquely rich and diverse culture – certain forces emerge again and again that make up a characteristically British set of values and qualities that, taken together, mean that there is indeed a strong and vibrant Britishness that underpins Britain”.
How might the essence of Britishness be put into words? According to Brown as follows: “(…) a passion for liberty anchored in a sense of duty and an intrinsic commitment to tolerance and fair play”.
He elaborates further: “And at every point this British belief in liberty has been matched by a British idea of duty as the virtue that reinforces neighbourliness and enshrines the idea of a public realm and public service. A belief in the duty of one to another is an essential element of nationhood in every country. But whether it arose from religious belief, from a noblesse oblige or from a sense of solidarity, duty in Britain has been, to most people, the foundation of rights rather than their consequence”.
And: “Britishness has also meant a tradition of fair play. We may think today of British fair play as something applied on the sports field, but in fact most of the time it has been a very widely accepted foundation of social order: treating people fairly, rewarding hard work, encouraging self-improvement through education and being inclusive”.
Five years on his pronouncements hold a certain irony: “The two ideologies that have characterised the histories of other countries have never taken root here. On the one hand an ideology of state power, which choked individual freedom and made the individual a slave to some arbitrarily defined collective interest, has found little or no favour in Britain. On the other hand, an ideology of crude individualism, which leaves the individual isolated, stranded, on his own, detached from society around him, has no resonance for a Britain that has a strong sense of fair play and an even stronger sense of duty and a rich tradition of voluntary organisations, local democracy and civic life”.
In asking What binds Brits together? former Islamist Ed Husain voices unease about the ability of the concept of Britishness to promote cohesion between diverse ethnic groups: “Let’s cut to the chase: we have a problem with connected identity here in Britain. It’s not just Muslims such as [Muhammad Siddique] Khan who feel disconnected from Britain – the problems of atomised, self-centred existence are widespread. The ‘nothing-to-do-with-me-guv’ mindset has caused us damage. It has made us unwilling to find common ground with our fellow citizens.
British bashfulness also prevents us from talking about ourselves. ‘Mustn’t grumble’ stops us from complaining about our identity malaise. An aversion to ideas and anything remotely intellectual – unlike the eager French – blocks any discussion of shared values, or common ideas that glue us together. But for how much longer? I believe that this lack of a vigorous debate is damaging Britain”.
What it boils down to is whether integration and assimilation are desirable goals for minority communities subsumed within wider society: “But can a secular, liberal democracy in 2009 sustain values-based challenges from faith communities? Time will tell, but a national conversation is overdue. Without fear of racism or Islamophobia, it is time to ask the difficult questions. Can religiously observant Muslims really integrate into Britain? And should they? How can a nation that has pubs as its shared space, ever truly welcome non-drinkers? How do ordinary Brits really feel about those who prefer orange juice to beer? And how can religious, marital monogamists raise children in a sexually liberal society that values individual choice over collective obligations?
And what about the loud minority within the Muslim community who oppose a secular state, and want to rule ‘for God’ and who wish to impose their reading of sharia law? Is democracy a compromise with hakimiyyah, their version of ‘God’s rule’?
We need to move beyond simplistic debates about identity and engage with the deeper issues that are at stake. Too often, commentators have suggested that a united society can be built on shared tastes in sport, food, and clothing. This is not enough: such arguments overlook that the 7/7 bombers played cricket, ate fish and chips and dressed in jeans. We need a deeper debate about the core values that can bind us together as a nation”.
His Quilliam Foundation is organising a seminar, What do Britons have in common? Its publicity blurb is telling: “Why does Britain face a difficult challenge around integration today? Is it because, as some claim, we have too many immigrants? Or because of Britain’s liberal sexual mores that seemingly contradict religious teachings? Or is it because our shared national space – pubs – appear inaccessible to some? Or are democracy and the secular state unacceptable to some? Or do Asian forced and arranged marriages abroad create generational tensions here in Britain?”.
The ascendancy of secularism and the concomitant loosening of the baleful grip of religion to my mind constitute the greatest achievements of Western civilisation, bringing many other benefits in their wake, including the unfinished project of full equality for women. As such, they are non-negotiable. Instead, I would re-frame the debate to focus on the limits of tolerance.
As a fully recovered ex-fundamentalist myself, I am more than aware of the blend of condescension and pity verging on outright contempt (although as Christians we never admitted the latter to ourselves, too piously concerned about the welfare of the eternal souls of the unconverted). It is when the segregation of the mind is accompanied by social segregation (not by definition unilaterally imposed from the outside) that fanaticism enjoys free rein. Religious conviction should not be allowed to take precedence over law within a parallel society. This is where multicultural “tolerance” degenerates into a form of racism (”their” own laws are good enough for “them”, a charter for exclusion, oppression and the perpetrating of abuses, such as honour killings and female genital mutilation, outlawed practices that would never gain acceptance in the community at large).
In spite of being a happily married monogamist, I would never – “live and let live” neatly and succinctly captures the British outlook – seek to force my choice on anyone else much less look down on them for rejecting it. Sexual permissiveness is always the first evil denounced by the religiously inclined, but I have no desire to see the clock turned back to the manifold miseries of the 19th century where the obstacles to divorce left women trapped in tyrannical relationships with no hope of escape. The comments about teetotallers are arrant nonsense. I have never frequented pubs and only drink a glass of wine with a meal in a restaurant in the company of friends yet this does not undermine my sense of belonging. Mr Husain is oblivious to the history of the Temperance Movement. The moral panic about women drinking to excess is very recent. When I was growing up, pubs were completely male-dominated, women only allowed to venture into the Lounge Bars (and even then they were suspected of “loose” morals), but nobody ever doubted that women were part of the nation.
The unfailingly perspicacious Heresiarch of Heresy Corner detects similarities between the two interpretations, which he cogently sets out in His master’s voice: “The concept of Britishness, currently much in vogue, would seem to have two principal aims. Firstly, to do something about the Muslim ‘problem’; secondly, to give Gordon Brown a point of contact with people in England”.
Khan and his disaffected spiritual brethren surely cannot be portrayed as typical young British Muslims: “It strikes me as ridiculous to frame citizenship programmes around the needs of such an unrepresentative group of disturbed individuals. All that the state should require of its citizens is that they pay their taxes and obey the law. beyond that we are in the realms of propaganda and indoctrination, neither of which strikes me as being particularly ‘British’ – any more than Brown’s recently-announced plans to inculcate a sense of national identity by using British teenagers as a source of unpaid labour. Britishness as something defined by and imposed by the state is – apart from anything else – profoundly un-British, an irony the prime minister seems incapable of understanding.
Nations are brought together by shared stories, by a national spirit, by indefinable eccentricities. With a government unable, or unwilling, to celebrate our shared national story – which used to concentrate on such things as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Henry VIII’s wives and the Victorians’ conquest of much of the known world – what is left is nothing but a series of empty platitudes, a statement of ‘values’ that say nothing whatever about being ‘British’ as opposed to being French or Taiwanese. Or there is an appeal to such things as freedom of speech, the British constitution, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and other parts of our national inheritance that have been systematically undermined and betrayed by new Labour”.
The Heresiarch lists a few of the cultural archetypes that inform our sense of self: “It is not ‘values’ that define Britishness but particular things – fish and chips, thatched cottages, red postboxes, roads that become impassable every time it snows, the Grand National. And these things change over time. Curry houses are now as ‘British’ as old-fashioned pub signs, not because of officially sponsored programmes of multiculturalism, but because they have been naturally absorbed into the landscape and into the national psyche. And it wasn’t some national characteristic of tolerance and cultural pluralism that made for the spread of Indian restaurants; it was because people wanted to eat the food they provided.
A national culture is organic and unpredictable. Attempts to impose it from the centre usually fail, or produce ugly results”.
Solidarity and belonging cannot be conjured up to order (or upon orders): “The current Brown-directed garbage about citizenship elides two very different things: an individual’s relationship towards other people, whether in their local neighbourhood or at national (and indeed international) level, and the individual’s relationship with the state. ‘Citizenship’ is both a legal concept, based on entitlement to a passport and the vote, and a moral concept, based on living in a society. The same word may be used for both; but that does not mean that they must be or even ought to be confused. To combine them, as the present British government is trying to do, in an artificial ‘Britishness’, is to assert the state’s sovereignty over both individuals and social groups, even to nationalise personal identity. I suppose that’s the idea. hence the paraphernalia of ID cards, lessons in ‘values’, ‘citizenship ceremonies’ (at the moment just for immigrants), repeated consultation exercises, a putative ‘national day’ and the new proposal for ‘compulsory volunteering’”.
The Heresiarch wonders what precisely Husain is driving at: “If all Ed Husain is saying is that all children, including those from Muslim backgrounds, should be taught that they live in a secular state and that they have a duty to obey the law, then I agree with him. He appears to be saying something far more ambitious, however. He claims (absurdly) that we are currently facing ‘the strongest challenge to Britain’s value system since the civil war’; his solution, it seems, is that a new notion of national identity ought to be constructed, which everyone of whatever background should have a duty to adopt. Such ideas are illiberal and, coming from someone who write a bestselling book describing his longtime association with Islamic radicals, presumptuous in the extreme. He appears not to understand British culture or national character at all. But then again, I suspect he’s really just doing his paymaster’s bidding”.
With details of the postmortem result emerging (abdominal haemorrhage as the likely cause of death as opposed to a heart attack), The British Citizen protests that the press has its priorities all wrong in Police violence and Tomlinson death more important than silly emails.
However, in what mainstream media-employed journalists would no doubt gloat over as proof of the self-obsessed nature of blogging (thereby conveniently glossing over the sheer quantity of column inches they themselves have devoted to the issue), the ongoing saga linked to the leak of the electronic missives dubbed “Smeargate” has attracted greater attention amongst nominators this week.
In a speech on Public Life delivered in Canary Wharf in June 2007, Tony Blair (not a politician from whom I can be accused of quoting very often) presented his thoughts on the implications of technological developments on the media (which opened up an ever-expanding niche for bloggers) and the latter’s relationship with politics: “The media world – like everything else – is becoming more fragmented, more diverse and transformed by technology. The main BBC and ITN bulletins used to have audiences of 8, even 10 million. Today the average is half that. At the same time, there are rolling 24 hour news programmes that cover events as they unfold. In 1982, there were 3 TV stations broadcasting in the UK. Today there are hundreds. In 1995 225 TV shows had audiences of over 15 million. Today it is almost none.
Newspapers fight for a share of a shrinking market. Many are now read on-line, not the next day. Internet advertising has overtaken newspaper ads. There are roughly 70 million blogs in existence, with around 120,000 being created every day. In particular, young people will, less and less, get their news from traditional outlets.
But, in addition, the forms of communication are merging and interchanging. The BBC website is crucial to the modern BBC. papers have Podcasts and written material on the web. News is becoming increasingly a free good, provided online without charge. Realistically, these trends won’t do anything other than intensify.
These changes are obvious. But less obvious is their effect. The news schedule is now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It moves in real time. Papers don’t give you up to date news. That’s already out there. They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary. And it all happens with outstanding speed”.
In the wake of Smeargate some of these contentions seem to have been borne out: “The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st Century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not the masters of this change but its victims.
The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by ‘impact’. Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact.
It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.
Broadsheets today face the same pressures as tabloids; broadcasters increasingly the same pressures as broadsheets. The audience needs to be arrested, held and their emotions engaged. Something that is interesting is less powerful than something that makes you angry or shocked.
The consequences of this are acute.
First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. news is rarely news unless it generates heat as much or more than light.
Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial (…)
What creates cynicism is not mistakes; it is allegations of misconduct. But misconduct is what has impact.
Third, the fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.
Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself. So – for example – there will be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.
In turn, this leads to a fifth point: the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course. In other words, this is not exceptional. It is routine”.
Even in a relatively measures speech such as this, Mr Blair could not resist the inevitable swipe: “New forms of communication would provide new outlets to by-pass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media. In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five”.
Blogging has not rendered the printed press entirely obsolete, however: “It is sometimes said that the media is accountable daily through the choice of readers and viewers. That is true up to a point. But the reality is that the viewers or readers have no objective yardstick to measure what they are being told. In every other walk of life in our society that exercises power, there are external forms of accountability, not least through the media itself. So it is true politicians are accountable through the ballot box every few years. But they are also profoundly accountable, daily, through the media, which is why a free press is so important”.
Not long ago journalist Nick Cohen waded into the debate with the question Who would you rather trust – the BBC or a blogger? (slightly lopsidedly pitting the true Goliath of news coverage against the rather puny David of the one-person blogging operation characteristic of most output): “[Clay Shirky] quotes the example of Alisara Chirapongse, a marvellous Thai student who blogged mainly about fashion. Her readership was tiny, until the 2006 Thai military coup. Chirapongse ignored a news blackout and described life in Bangkok. She posted photos of mutinous troops on her website and organised a campaign against the army’s attempts at censorship. When the crisis was over, international admirers left and she went back to sharing thoughts with her friends.
Newspaper correspondents in Thailand may have been censored by the military. If their editors had sent them from London, they may not have known the language or understood Thai politics. It is possible that Alisara’s writing was not only equal to the work of her professional rivals but superior and more widely read.
Why, then, mourn the passing of the hack? The best reason for wanting my colleagues to survive is that serious reporters and broadcasters offer a guarantee that what they say is true. If they stray, their editors impose journalistic standards and insist on objectivity. They may not have the best or fullest story or the most vivid account, but readers should be able to assume their work is reliable, while a blogger’s commitment to objectivity can never be assumed”.
All too often, such a lofty depiction of your average journalist’s work is inaccurate to the point of travesty, as we shall explore later.
Gaby Hinsliffe in Guido Fawkes: Fast, furious,buccaneering…and now claiming their first major scalp bemoans the sheer nastiness of “the bitterly personal and vindictive world of the blogosphere”, adding: “Political blogs are a mix of the courtly (they acknowledge a story taken from another blogger by crediting the source with a ‘hat tip’, for example) and the toxic, with bitter feuds regularly erupting between players. Both tactics actually help boost readership, by encouraging casual surfers to hop between sites or raising the profile of both sites in a spat”.
Briefings, lunches, consorting with the powerful and the implicit flattery of being invited have been the preserve of the fortunate and favoured few, who could congratulate themselves on having made it. At some stage the unwavering pursuit of the truth no doubt slipped down the list of priorities compared to wining and dining, or mixing in the right circles for the elite. Bloggers by contrast are not pampered and privileged in this way and our dedication to the truth (at least as we perceive it) has never faltered. By trespassing on the territory of the “professional” journalist, Guido’s scoop represents a milestone.
Nick Anstead, occasional contributor to Slugger O’Toole and lecturer in politics, sets out his assessment of the significance of the episode in Media in the digital era: “While not structurally revolutionary in itself, I would however contest this kind of event is more and more likely to happen. the mass media elite was defined by narrow inputs (produced by a small number among an information elite – journalists and publishers, for example). It was because there were few of them that the role of the modern spin doctor developed in the first place. A dialogue could occur among a narrow group of people and information could be managed.
Now though, we live in the digital era and have moved to a time of broad (and growing) inputs – in short, information cannot be managed in the same way by spin doctors when publishing is so easy. Secrets are far harder to keep. Look at wikileaks for just one example. This means a fundamental readjustment in the way parties and governments handle information, and the ending of the nineties consensus on how politics is done”.
In Drapergate: Labour falls into a banal pit of despond…, Mick Fealty of the excellent Slugger O’Toole furnishes us with a very useful (though not exhaustive) review of articles and opinions, setting out what he regards as one of the important messages to be distilled from the furore: “One is that if you are going to get into the business of smearing your opponents (and I would strongly advise against it), make them plausibly deniable. Guido has traded in smears of his political opponents from the start, some of it very personal and involving family members of the intended Labour party victim. But, so far as we know, he is not on the Conservative party payroll!
But, as I argued on Brassneck in February, Draper was wrong headed in his handling of his blog Labour List…He and his party have paid a high price for the banal nihilism card of getting your opponents, no matter what…”
Not that the blogosphere and mainstream media are locked into mortal combat by some ineluctable law of nature. As Slugger O’Toole demonstrates, when freedom of speech is under threat, they can fruitfully come to one another’s assistance. Slugger landed an exclusive (as finally acknowledged in The Irish Times) when a rather nasty letter was passed on, prompting the question A legitimate complaint, or case of bullying from the top?
Jim Jay of The Daily (Maybe) also analyses the deeper significance of Smeargate in There are lessons for every party in the McBride scandal, more particularly the tendency to stifle any manifestation of criticism or dissent (which even the most cursory glance at the history of Central Europe will reveal is a Socialist speciality): “It amounts to an unaccountable clique at the heart of the party, and in this case the government. Any criticism of Draper’s extremely problematic LabourList, for example, was seen as disloyalty to the party. Even senior cabinet members were unable to curb these rogue elements because they had backing at the highest level. This isn’t just a problem that the Labour Party faces, it is a potential problem for every political organisation (and non-political ones too probably).
Party members who have criticisms to make of party initiatives, departments or members are not just inconveniences but an important corrective that can help improve party performance. Without the ability of members to at least have a say over the direction of the party they are a member of, and that includes publicly voicing concerns, that party cannot make any claim to democracy – and certainly will be sabotaging its own ability to retain experienced members.
That does not mean that all criticism is appropriate or, heaven forbid, correct but its existence is not an affront to anyone but control freaks and psychopaths. But alas there are plenty of those in every party. Those people wrongly see every suggestion that things could be done differently as evidence of an enemy within who want to tear down everything their party has achieved”.
In passing, Rachel Sylvester in Brown’s loyal attack dogs always bite to order elaborates on the nature of the Prime Minister’s inner circle: “There is a laddish and bullying atmosphere to the cabal of advisers and MPs surrounding Mr Brown. Small talk revolves around football. Briefings take place in pubs and karaoke bars. The alleged coup against Tony Blair was planned over balti and beers. It is not surprising that Mr McBride begins his e-mail with the word ‘Gents’ – the underlying misogyny of the rumours he was trying to spread is one of the most shocking aspects of the whole thing. ‘Gordon is from Mars and more than half the voters are from Venus,’ one female minister says”.
Charles Crawford in Blogging Remora Fish: A Lack of Semiotic Subtlety? quotes from Wrinkled Weasel on the issue of blogging as a propaganda tool: “The real life parallel of blogging is a bar room rant, not an exchange of letters on Basildon Bond notepaper…
…If there is anything that could be described as ‘discourse’ in the blog world, it moves very quickly and is non-linear, which is why a lot of it becomes reduced to swear bloggery and ranting, since you do not have the time and reflection to agree on the meanings of terms, and ‘arsehole’ or ‘jerk’ tends to sum things up nicely”.
Blogging involves the gradual building of a constituency. Summoning up an instant audience flash mob-style according to the Draper/McBride recipe was doomed to failure.
Charles ends his piece with a wonderfully witty comparison: “Finally, bloggers love to bang on about the iniquities and incompetence of the mainstream media, whose journalists in turn uneasily bang on about the soaring irresponsibility and trivialisation brought about by blogging.
To use another biological metaphor, are the MSM a group of elderly and lazy sharks, while bloggers are the Remora fish who swim around their jaws and backends picking up decaying morsels for the benefit of both species?”
In a comment on Janet Daley’s rather sour A star blogger admits that the blogosphere has not yet come of age, Oldrightie forcefully conveys why bloggers have a reputation for trustworthiness surpassing that of their highly remunerated counterparts: “The blogosphere, Madame, is a place to vent one’s spleen whilst the MSM chase advertising and power. The self-interest and financial ambition of career journalism rarely taps the psyche of a public now very disillusioned by the media. In particular the shameful BBC bias and the power crazed manipulation of people such as by Rupert Murdoch. To gain way in journalism often requires the kind of subjugation as demanded by brown of his cohorts. Honesty is never an issue, just egotism and hubris. I’m afraid few journalists achieve accuracy or honesty in their commentaries and remain successful”.
Trixy, of Is there more to life than shoes? reminds us of the positive aspects of enhanced ease of access to information in Things to be thankful for: “The not-so-whispered concerns among hacks is that how did Guido get the mails before they did? Why was he the first port of call? Sunday papers in particular need those big scoops brought about when someone calls them with a scandal, or a video or some e-mails. They pay thousands of pounds for them knowing that it will draw in the punters to buy their weekly rag. It’s their life blood.
And now some upstart blogger who hasn’t done a graduate trainee scheme or worked on a regional paper has been running rings around not only the seemingly terminally foolish Dolly Draper and the political editors of the nationals but magnificently called the bluff of these spin doctors.
I can see why they’re concerned, but the running of this country and the actions of the people who do it is too important for the information not to be published. How dare people being paid from the public purse spend their time thinking up such deceptions? How low must one sink to try to divert democracy in such a way by seeking to alter the view voters have of an opposition party with such lies?
The internet has many pitfalls, but the quick, cheap dissemination of important information is one of the reasons we should revel in our new found power over people who seek to control the information we have access to.
If economics flourishes with information, then politics – an industry where the abuse of power can dominate opinions, actions and pay cheques, will surely benefit as people realise that they aren’t safe from the voter finding out.
And with the internet and blogs in particular, those who stand to lose the most can’t lunch or bully everyone”.
Bloggers do not pose a real threat to the livelihood of journalists attached to the major papers (even with their diminishing circulations we still cannot really compete with their entrenched position in the national psyche as authoritative and reliable sources of information, nor can we remotely command anything like the resources at their disposal). A few, such as Guido, might make inroads into their celebrity, the rest of us diligently plugging away in obscurity (I am not complaining, I prefer not to have every minute detail of my life held up for inspection). What irks me about the attitude of many journalists is that, instead of welcoming the broadening of opinion, and taking it as inspiration to improve their own writing to stay ahead, they fear it as a challenge to their authority. Like mice at a banquet, all we can do is gnaw at the hem of the tablecloth yet even this appears to be more than many can stomach. Yes, we bloggers are so bold as to deconstruct slovenly writing and to dish out criticism where it is deserved. “Keep Out” signs will not deter us. Journalists have to wake up to the fact that deference is not automatic, and respect has to be earned.
Returning to the lofty pronouncements of moral superiority and professional integrity on the part of our haughty detractors, I submit for your consideration two case studies. First up is Bill Carmichael in the Yorkshire Post on Brutal truths about protest: “The female protester allegedly assaulted by a police officer during the G20 protests is said to be ‘traumatised’ by the incident.
Poor love! She sounds like a delicate flower, doesn’t she? Strolling alone minding her own business in the City of London when suddenly she was struck down by the jackboot of the fascist police state.
Er…well, perhaps not. The marvellous thing about all this video footage that is swilling about on the internet is that truth cuts both ways – and often it dispels the myths on both sides.
Take a few moments to look at the video and a strikingly different picture emerges from the propaganda being put out by the protestors and their friends at the BBC and left-wing newspapers.
Instead of the sanitised version of injured innocence, what you’ll see is an aggressive-looking young woman – as yet unidentified –hat pulled down over her eyes, mouthing obscenities into the face of a police officer, who is trying to ignore her.
After several minutes of this he snaps and slaps her with the back of his hand with the words :’Go away’.
She doesn’t and she continues to hurl abuse. At which point he draws his baton and belts her on the legs.
If anyone ever deserved a good slap, this woman certainly did.
Instead of being suspended and investigated, I believe the officer involved should be commended for his forbearance”.
It is entirely inappropriate and completely reprehensible for a supposedly reputable publication to condone the physical chastisement of women for defying male authority. Perhaps the activist transgressed Mr Carmichael’s notions of demure, simpering femininity by spouting foul language, who knows, no doubt his remedy would be to resuscitate the laws against the pestilential scourge of uppity women, of communis rixatrix, bring back the scold’s bridle!
Harpymarx shares my disgust at his views, which she summarises thus: “(…) state thuggery and violence against women is totally acceptable as this woman got what she deserved. Is his next column going to argue for the return of the ‘rule of thumb’ against lippy women who step out of line?”
She pours justified scorn on Carmichael: “Let’s not contend ourselves with the boring details about this TSG cop not wearing his number let’s distract ourselves with the details of the woman who had her hat pulled down over her eyes. Shocking! And could she have done that because…it was a sunny day…(Oh, hiow prosaic!).
She remonstrated with the cop, if you look at the video on youtube, the cops decided a couple of mins. previously to grab a man for no reason that is what she and others were responding to. I witnessed them grab this man for no reason and that caused people to remonstrate…I saw the TSG cop grab another woman seconds before, he was intent on punching her as well! Carmichael would undoubtedly believe she deserved a beating too!!!”
Secondly, Uponnothing of Angry Mob picks apart the reporting of a tragic accident in Newspapers lie about the death of Georgina Williams, showing how biases lead to the wilful distortion of facts: “The Daily Mail reveals once again its obsession with class, it feels necessary to say she attended a ‘top grammar school’ which is then clearly juxtaposed with the ‘nearby comprehensive’ – so the Daily Mail clearly picks a side in the opening paragraph as well as the headline. Further unnecessary details include the value of the home in which she was found dead, again cementing the idea that a respectable upper-middle-class girl has been hounded to death by feral comprehensive children.
However, the interesting details are that there are ‘fears she was bullied’ by comprehensive students, the inquest and father of Georgina Williams had concluded that any fears were not founded, and in fact that no ‘row’ had actually taken place. So where is the Mail getting its evidence from? Their source is the reliable and neutral news source: Bebo” (going back to Nick Cohen’s piece, not only are the dailies failing to dispatch correspondents to Thailand, but even the wild, conflict-riven wastelands of Kent would seem to be too remote and expensive!).
As Uponnothing concludes: “The Daily Mail is therefore able to trump fact with unsubstantiated rumours posted by children in the period of time following the death of a fellow student. The Daily Mail are not reporting news, they are indulging in scaremongering gossip dressed up as investigative journalism – as if digging around Bebo page could provide answers that the inquest could not”.
The credibility that blogs possess by virtue of articulating the authentic opinions of the author has been recognised by those who would dearly love to hawk their wares and have no scruples about how they go about it, as discovered by Gordon McLean of One Man Blogs in Evil Pharma: “After some investigation it turns out the entire blog is fake, in fact it isn’t a blog at all, it’s a single page with faked comments, which inserts a ‘recent’ date at the top of the page and uses a script to match the IP of the visitor (you) to make it look like it’s being written by someone in the same local area”.
Thankfully, we bloggers are not as under-endowed with intelligence as the advertisers would like to think, as Gordon makes clear: “(…) you cannot simply con your way to having a good ‘online presence’, that blogs take work and effort, care and attention, and that,ultimately if you cock something up or try to con us we WILL find out”.
To close on all matters Internet, Letters from a Tory mulls over whether Twitter and Facebook may damage our sense of morality: “The speed at which we now receive a breathtaking volume of information every hour of every day is something that should be both praised and damned in some respects. As an adult who was brought up on the crest of the digital wave, I don’t think Facebook or Twitter or anything of the same ilk represents a threat to my morality or ethics. However, the prospect of someone developing and maturing in a world where instant reactions are the rule rather than the exception raises some interesting questions, particularly for parenting. No doubt some idiots along the way will call for digital media outlets to be banned or curbed but it is impossible to fight the tide”.
Laurie Penny of Penny Red argues that feminism’s emancipatory agenda is not confined to the liberation of the female sex in Men, feminism and the patriarchal con: “There are many urgent reasons why socialist feminists of all genders need to concern themselves with popular misandry and the subjugation of men, especially when we’re facing down the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. A recession is never a good time for women’s rights:economic crisis moves economic equality from the agenda, and a great deal of women’s struggle in and out of the workplace revolves around the battle for equal economic status. Cuts to welfare benefits and part-time employment hit women with children hardest. But most importantly of all, recession creates a large body of justly angry, disenfranchised working men, men who are encouraged implicitly and sometimes explicitly to take that anger out where it will do least damage to capitalist hegemony: to wit, on women. It is a well-known and oft-repeated fact that domestic violence against women increases in times of economic crisis, usually, as is the case now, contiguously with a cut in state spending on women’s refuges. But another backlash against feminism itself is also to be expected – and as feminists, the fallacy that the problems that men face in a recession are the fault of feminism is something that we need to turn and face”.
As if to substantiate her argument, Lynne Miles at The F-Word informs us Council strikes blow for gender equality, cuts women’s pay by 25%: “Sheffield City Council has announced a salary restructuring as a result of the onerous duty of gender equality legislation. Apparently the unreasonable burden of having to pay the workers equally for doing similar jobs has caused them a great deal of trouble. When they looked into it they found – as so many do – that they weren’t. Solution? Cut the pay of your lowest worker, blame the lefties who made you do it”.
Natalie Bennett of Philobiblon reviews Melissa Franklin Harkrider’s Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire’s Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580 in How to really annoy David Starkey, a tongue-in-cheek title, which she explains for the benefit of those not familiar with the historian’s prejudices: “Women, in Starkey’s world, had no significance in the 16th century, and writing a biography of a woman, even one who was high ranking, with access to royalty, would be a pointless exercise. Read this slim monograph, however, and you’ll realise just how silly this stance is”.
Whilst Susanne Lamido of Suz Blog samples some slightly less rarefied pleasures in Britain’s Got Talent Susan Boyle Sings Les Misérables.
If there was ever a feature of Englishness remarked upon by outsiders, then surely it is the proliferation of eccentric customs, such as gurning, Cheese-Rolling or the Hallaton Bottle-Kicking faithfully catalogued by Peter Ashton at Unmitigated England. No quaint, sedate rituals these. Their boisterousness and risk to life and limb in sharp contrast to the cotton-wool cosseted, drab government-approved entertainments of more recent vintage. Long may they flourish!
The Heresiarch contemplates the divine on the basis of research carried out by Professor Uffe Schøjdt into how believers apprehend God by scanning their brains during prayer in What a friend they have in Jesus: “What Schøjdt’s brain imaging reveals, then, is something that we really know all along: that when it comes to worshipping, or praying to, or putting trust in, ‘God’ most people (even, I suspect, some of the sophisticated theologians) are not relating to the Supreme Being, or to the Ground of Universal Transcendence, or some such abstraction or spiritual essence, but to something much closer to the human scale. Perhaps language, with its talk of heavenly fathers and ‘the word of God’, pushes them in this direction. But I suspect that religion, as a way of making sense of the world, had its origins in anthropomorphic ways of thought that seem to come quite naturally to human beings. Evolved to relate to other individuals with minds, people tend to relate to inanimate objects and even the universe itself as beings possessed of intelligence. In the days before science, people conceptualised forces at work in the natural world as reflecting the activities of beings with intentions, or as beings themselves. Even today we tend to (half-jokingly, perhaps, and in full knowledge of its futility) feel anger towards a car that won’t start. And we are constantly exhorted to feel a sense of responsibility towards ‘Gaia’”.
Cabalamat of Amused Cynicism expounds why Blair’s Faith Foundation is full of shit: “So Blair wants us all to respect other religions, or ‘faiths’ to use the namby-pamby ecumenical mot du jour. But hang on, isn’t Tony Blair a Roman Catholic? And don’t Catholics believe that if you’re not a Catholic (or at any rate not a Christian) you’ll be tortured in Hell after you die? That being the case, surely Catholics shouldn’t ‘respect’ other religions at all, but should regard them as deadly serious errors?
For example, if Blair saw a friend about to drink weedkiller, mistakenly believing it was blackcurrant juice, he would say ‘No! Stop! Don’t do that!’ And so it should be with religion, if Blair is truly a believer in the Catholic faith: if he notices that one of his friends is a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu, and he really cares about his friend, he should say ‘Stop, friend! Don’t do that! You’re risking being tortured for eternity!’”
In a thoughtful piece, which perfectly encapsulates the virtues of the blog as a mature medium for informed comment, Margin at Pseuds’ Corner and Home of the Frustrated Hack recalls An earlier Hillsborough disaster, the Spurs versus Wolves match at the grounds in 1981, which has not left a scar on the collective consciousness: “And the reason for that is simple.
Unlike their counterparts in 1989, the police commanders in charge in 1981 were not in charge of their first match, were not ignorant and incompetent, and were seemingly not predisposed to assume all problems were the result of violent scum on the terraces who deserved everything they got.
Instead, those in charge acted sensibly on the feedback of officers on the frontline. As a result they ordered the closure of the gates leading to the most crowded pens, and then directed incoming fans to safer areas. They acted somewhat late, but they did act. And many fans were helped out of the crowded spaces by fellow fans and police alike. They then sat along the edge of the pitch to watch the game unfold”.
Craig Murray pays tribute to the late Clement Freud, one of his predecessors as Rector of the University of Dundee: “For the student charities’ campaign he produced The Rector’s Cookbook, a collection of recipes that could be cooked in one pan on a single gas ring – in those days a not unusual sole cooking facility for a Dundee student.
He did a promotional piece for STV in a student flat in Springfield, equipped with a fold-away gas ring that swung out from the wall. Halfway through his cooking demonstration the cooking ring collapsed, the pan clashed to the floor, spraying everyone with chilli, and a jet of yellow flame shot across the room, setting fire to the bedclothes. Freud turned to the camera and said, in the slowest and most deadpan voice imaginable as the room blazed around him: ‘And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the perfect demonstration of the conditions which students have been reduced to under the Labour government’”.
Nest week’s Roundup will be hosted by Matt Wardman of The Wardman Wire. For a full statement of editorial policy, the hosting rota and the complete archives of the Roundup, consult the Britblog Central website.
As ever, nominations should be sent to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com