Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘current affairs’ Category

Note: this is a piece I began in 2013 but didn’t finished – until today

“When we lose our myths, we lose our place in the universe.” – Madeleine L’Engle

Detroit.

It meant little to me in substance. I knew it for cars, the home of the mighty Ford Motor Company. I was never a fan of Motown though I recognise its cultural significance for America. When my musical tastes broadened from the classical music I was raised on, I came across Kiss’s Detroit Rock City on the album Destroyer: an iconic American album from an iconic American band that incorporates the name of an iconic American city into its most iconic song (is it ironic that it was actually Beth,  the b-side of the single, that caused Destroyer to sell?).

No matter that I had no real understanding of the reasons for Detroit’s iconic status. It’s name was enough.

Detroit, like other cities, simply meant “America” – a metropolis whose very name sounds hard on the tongue and conjured association with other “hard” words. Tough. Big. Violent. A place that I had no desire to visit but which part-reaffirmed the mythical status of America by simple fact of its existence – a fact which, to the casual observer, never had reason to be questioned.

So it was little more than a name to me in my childhood, another label pinned on a part of that vast country an ocean away that defined much of my cultural frame of reference. How much of cultural frame of reference? More than I am comfortable with, if I am honest.

America was prevalent everywhere, through film, music, television, brands, gaming and the 1980s proliferation of fast food joints and increasingly glitzy steak houses. And alongside the brash Saturday tea-time noise of Glen A. Larson and Aaron Spelling, the ruthless ambition of Dallas, the black humour of M.A.S.H. that re-wrote an American and Vietnamese foreign policy tragedy, the anime mash-ups of the likes of Battle of the Planets, voiced over with breathless Hollywood voices, the wonder of Spielberg and the crash of Guns n’Roses, Bon Jovi and Metallica, we could be forgiven, in our childish naivety, for being wowed and considering our own pop culture creations dull by comparison. We were youngsters raised on John Wayne’s gunfighters and left breathless by the iconic space operas of George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy, and, for those of us who bought the product, America was the place to go.

Of course, we were brought up to be contemptuous of this endless consumption and the excess we were witness to, both of which could be argued to have fuelled the supplanting of ambitions for long-term fulfilment with the desire for immediate gratification. That upbringing has, naturally, coloured our political, social and cultural filters. But despite paying lip service to European (and particularly English) superiority, we were still left hungering for this place that was vast and apparently advanced and where you could become a star – that ultimate Atlantic distillation of the American Dream.

And yet.

Even in the spectacle of a society that venerates the bombast of celebrity over the tragedy of history, not least due to the relative brevity of its history, we could sense there was another story: of striving, of achievement, of endurance. There was another side that was not immediately apparent in the cartoons and toys and guns and end-of-episode gurning laughter.

Some of us became confused. We were not sure whether to be infuriated or envious. We were not sure whether to cheer or groan or howl with outrage.

This obsession with condemning, celebrating and coveting our cousins, coupled with the fact that transatlantic flights are out of reach for many of us, is perhaps why we have sought in recent years to bring the American experience to the United Kingdom. To attempt to remake it in our image. We see it in the way that Lakeside and Blue Water have recreated the mall experience of the Midwest in the chalk pits of south-east England. Perhaps we see it in the way a generation of architects, town planners and local councillors, raised on a diet of American cultural soup have created leisure parks like Bas Vegas, trying to capture the eating, drinking, dancing, bowling and movie experience we witnessed – or thought we witnessed – on screens big and small growing up.

I think this American fascination has realised itself in these conscious and unconscious expressions of architecture, art, music and both economic and social organisation. I also think it is reinforced by the near mythical qualities of the labels which we use to define its geography.

Los Angeles. San Francisco. New York. Philadelphia. Chicago. Seattle. Pittsburgh. Oakland. Washington. Atlanta.

And Detroit.

All of these places have been part-defined in the European psyche by their portrayal in popular culture. We have an observers’ view of them, informed, also, by the way their inhabitants express their own identities. There is an uncomfortable truth in that. Our views are part-shaped by an expression of identity where historical accuracy is an unnecessary complication (see Mike Davis’s stunning City of Quartz for a ferocious dissection of the myths of Los Angeles) and the news industry, in the sinister forms of Fox and friends, has, in a post-ironic indulgence that subordinates accuracy to earnest prejudice, become a living, breathing Hollywood-imagined monster that renders parody redundant.

In my imagination, Detroit stood tall among these mythical giants. It was as powerful and eternal as any of its kin. I didn’t see the giant slayer of economic ruin.

I stopped in my tracks when I heard the report on the BBC. (It seemed ironic that I was on a footpath in a country park, looking out across the great vista of the Thames towards what had once been the site of the industrial powerhouse of the Shell Haven refinery, now levelled, and of which no evidence remains.)

Detroit was filing for bankruptcy.

The prospects are stark. It is the largest every U.S. city to file for bankruptcy, with an estimated $18.5 billion debt. (That statement brought me up short. I had missed the fact that others already had, including San Barnadino County and Stockton) . Court papers list over 100,000 creditors to the city. The story of Detroit’s decline is frightening – and sobering in that it started long before it fixed itself as an icon of American success in my juvenile mind:

  • Its population has declined over 60% since 1950;
  • Its unemployment rate is the highest of the 50 largest US cities at 23.1%;
  • It is the most impoverished of the U.S. Bureau of Statistics 71 rated cities, with rates for individuals living below the poverty level at 36.4% and the rate for families at 31.3%;
  • It has at least 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 empty houses, and 90,000 vacant lots;
  • The average price of homes sold in Detroit in 2012 was $7,500; 47 houses in Detroit were listed for $500 or less, with five properties listed for $1;
  • More than half of Detroit property owners did not pay taxes in 2012, at a loss of $246.5 million to the city;
  • It some of the highest crime rates in the United States, with a rate of 62.18 per 1,000 residents for property crimes, and 16.73 per 1,000 for violent crimes (compared to national figures of 32 per 1,000 for property crimes and 5 per 1,000 for violent crime in 2008);
  • Nearly two-thirds of all murders in Michigan in 2008 occurred in Detroit;
  • A 2012 Forbes report named Detroit as the most dangerous city in the United States for the fourth year in a row.

Those figures are eye-watering.

How did we not see the potential for tragedy? Did our faith in the myths of America mean we paid less regard to the stories coming out of Detroit, unable to believe that the Motor City could be driven out of business?

Madeleine L’Engle’s prescient lecture to the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, the Mythical Bible, sought to set the Christian faith in the context of its myths and their relatively recent deconstruction. She points to the modern phenomena of literalism in Christian belief as the way that people have attempted to cope with fear, making faith less wild and wonderful and instead a practical answer to the problems that trouble them. In doing so, we denigrate the power of myth to help us live beyond ourselves, to be more than the sum of our possessions. It is, she says, why we tell stories about ourselves, to explain what we believe and who we are.

The question for me is how does that myth, of an invincible America, that perhaps in part laid the foundations for this unfolding tragedy, come to the aid of a city on the brink of catastrophe? Can it help its inhabitants live beyond the tragedy of the moment and build something from the ruin of Detroit? With our compulsion for telling stories about ourselves, will we write a new myth, of how an American giant was toppled by a file of paper, before rising to new glories? Or will we see it fade to legend, a lost city to captivate the imagination of two thousand years’ time? Or perhaps the new myths of Detroit are being written in the way we are capturing its decline in photographs and essays?

Can the story of Detroit help avert similar disaster in Chicago and Philadelphia?

Whatever the answer proves to be, the hauntingly beautiful photographs of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre below are part of the reality of Detroit, Michigan and the literalism of economic reality that is killing the American myth that captivated this writer as a boy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Read Full Post »

I still recall from my childhood Fred the Postman, pulling up in his smart van, stepping out in his smart suit, smiling broadly as he stepped up to the front door and handed over a bundle of letters. He was older than many of his colleagues, more experienced, and he had the ‘prestige’ route, out in the countryside of Langdon Hills. He conveyed pride and importance, not in himself, but in a service that was vital in keeping us all connected. At that point, too, it was a single service.

Of course, Royal Mail and the Post Office are synonymous for me, just as I think they are for many people. 1986 saw Post Office Counters Ltd created as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Royal Mail, so we didn’t really notice the difference. We didn’t notice when Post office Counters Ltd became Post Office Ltd in 2001. We did notice when TPTB decided to rename the Post Office Group (Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd) to Consignia, but we soon settled back into a misplaced sense of cosy familiarity when that went disastrously wrong and the Royal Mail rose like a phoenix, in name at least.

It was only the contortions of government-imposed reform in 2011 that forced us to recognise that they are really quite different entities, with Post Office Ltd being made independent from Royal Mail (confusingly, Fred would still be a ‘postman’, even though he would be nothing to do with the post office anymore).

Today, Royal Mail post people pitch up in private cars, wear shorts and generally undertake a thankless task (‘I ordered this three days ago!’) in more comfort. Things move on and often for the better, though there is a part of me that hankers after the confidence and security conveyed by a liveried van and a smartly dressed individual walking to the door.

Whilst Royal Mail appears to be able to turn a profit, albeit with some cost-cutting, Post Office Ltd is not doing so well, with profits down.

And herein lies the rub. The eternal tension between public service and private, profit-making entity. The demands of the latter are slowly strangling the services available in the former. So, for instance, from July 31st, savers will no longer be able to buy premium bonds in branches of the Post Office. A small thing. Most of us don’t own premium bonds. But it is another example of the service aspect being chipped away.

On Tuesday I went to town to post off – recorded delivery – some important paperwork. I used to be able to walk around to my local shops, but that option went a long time ago. You used to be able to go to the large Crown Post Office in the town centre. That has been closed and moved into a branch of WH Smith. I walked into Smith’s – scene of many childhood purchases – and noticed it was shrouded in darkness. The Post Office is at the back of the store. A handwritten sign on a cheap plastic chair announced that they were closed due to a power cut.

I asked where the nearest Post Office was. The two staff, still behind the counter, looked visibly irritated by the question. They debated for a while.

There was one in Tesco in Pitsea. Or at Stacey’s Corner. Or one at Whitmore Way.

From years delivering Focus leaflets, I realised after I left that the closest wasn’t any of those, but actually at a local newsagent. When I got there, situated, luckily, on my route to the gym, I asked about posting by recorded delivery. The person behind the counter mocked the difference between Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed™ and Royal Mail Signed For® 1st Class (and I gasped at the price difference – over six pounds for a single sheet of paper for Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed™). The other person, on the till, didn’t know how to work the machine. When I explained the Post Office in Smith’s was closed, they grumbled and complained it simply meant that everyone would come up to them and they would run out of money. (I didn’t have the heart to tell them the Post Office staff didn’t know they existed.)

I was struck by the contrast with Fred the Postman, and the pride he showed in an integrated service. The Post Office as a resolute symbol of our need to communicate, with the men and women of the Royal Mail, like Fred, out in rain and sun and snow and wind.

I could feel the spirit of Fred as he turned in his grave.

In Basildon, despite the loss of a separate Crown Post Office, something I find unconscionable in a town of over 100,000, at least there are options. There are plenty of places to bury post office counters behind sad racks of sweets and lottery tickets, staffed by shop staff who regret taking on the onerous burden of providing a service with limited resources, even if the Post Office don’t know where they are. In rural areas, however, the options are much more limited and the Post Office retains much more of its powerful symbolism of our need to be in touch.

In 2012, a ten year business agreement was signed between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd to allow the Post Office to continue issuing stamps and handling parcels for Royal Mail (and Parcelforce). Three years of that have passed and in seven years’ time we will be in new territory altogether. Will the spectre of mass post office closures raise its head again?

The Post Office, as a concept and an institution, deserves to be more than a bone, ripped at by the twin dogs of left-wing union militancy and right-wing privatisation dogma. Today’s world is a hard-line one of pounds and pence, where cash transactions are being supplanted by card and automatic payments, and where profitability is seen as a requirement of public service. Those who care about the future of their post offices should be organising now to prevent the coming decimation of a network that is critical to our rural communities and has the potential to be a first rate supplier of public services in our towns and conurbations. We need an investment of creative energy, as well as money, to ensure that the Post Office thrives and becomes a modern institution that embraces the challenges of the 21st  century.

Read Full Post »

Today’s Guardian carries an article by Charles Arthur entitled ‘Did the Tories and Lib Dems live up to their 2010 tech manifesto pledges?

In usual Guardian preachy style, Arthur offers up a scorecard. At least, he calls it a scorecard but there are no scores on it – merely a commentary. One or two of his observations bear closer scrutiny.

On scrapping ID cards, he offers the following bizarre criticism of the commitment in the Conservative manifesto, failing to even acknowledge that it was also in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto:

‘There were no ID cards to scrap. No national ID register was set up.’

Oh?

It must be an alternate universe where The Guardian reported on 27 May 2010:

‘The 15,000 identity cards already issued are to be cancelled without any refund of the £30 fee to holders within a month of the legislation reaching the statute book.’

Or where The Guardian on 10 Feb 2011 showed images of Damian Green shredding hard drives with the caption ‘Minister helps destroys the national identity register’.

If he could be arsed to read the Annual Report and Accounts of the Identity and Passport Service 2010-2011, he would see that it cost taxpayers rather a lot of money to scrap a scheme that apparently didn’t exist. (Note 2a on page 41 if you are really interested – which incidentally suggests the figure of cards issued wasn’t 15,000, as reported by The Guardian.)

Arthur makes the following disingenuous statement about the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act:

‘The use of RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) by councils to spy on people was forestalled to some extent, but the coalition tried to introduce an extensive surveillance act in July 2014 – leaning on RIPA – that outraged privacy campaigners, especially in the light of the Snowden revelations over surveillance by GCHQ and the NSA of internet communications.’

Arthur misrepresents what actually made it to the statute book, using the weaselly form of words ‘tried to introduce’, whilst failing to report any of the safeguards that were secured by the Liberal Democrats and reported in – guess where? – The Guardian on 10 July 2014:

Those measures that could prove crucial in the longer term include:

• The “tip to toe” review of Ripa, the foundation stone of the surveillance state, to be completed by 2016, could prove particularly potent in ensuring that such state snooping in the name of counter-terrorism and serious crime is brought strictly under control. Debate is still going on whether it should be an “expert review” led by David Anderson, the counter-terror law watchdog, or a joint committee of peers and MPs.

It will issue an interim report before the general election on whether there are sufficient privacy safeguards in the post-Snowden age and whether there should be a major shakeup of the oversight regime for the security services.

• The creation of a US-style privacy and civil liberties board to ensure that civil liberties are a foundation stone of counter-terrorism legislation, rather than an afterthought. Bolstered by annual transparency reports from the state agencies, it could be the alarm system that the current oversight regime has failed to provide. It will effectively be a major expansion of the current one-man role of David Anderson.

• The appointment of a senior diplomat to lead discussions with the US government and companies to establish a new international agreement for sharing data across boundaries is also significant. This would smooth the way where US wiretap laws conflict with UK Ripa laws but also could provide a way of expanding the existing mutual legal assistance treaty rather than a “snooper’s charter” that sees British ministers issuing demands that US companies hand over ever more personal data on UK citizens.

This is a major package, albeit rushed, that will shape how we live and work in the digital world. It may just “safeguard the existing position” – these powers have been in use in Britain since 2009 – but it also provides an opportunity to introduce some civil liberties elements that up until now were missing.

Funny how there is no mention of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board by Arthur, perhaps one of the most significant legislative developments as far as surveillance goes. This is the body that The Guardian itself described on 16 October 2014 as one of ‘several embryonic cautiously hopeful signs’ in the wake of the Snowden affair – and was duly legislated for this year. A more constructive use of column inches might have been to challenge the next government to put those provisions into action.

In specific criticism of the Liberal Democrats Arthur claims there was no Freedoms Bill – omitting entirely to visit the Protection of Freedoms Act from 2010-12. If you care to look at the Act and Arthur’s criticisms, you will see that a substantial number are addressed.

Ros Taylor, former editor of guardian.co.uk/law described the Protection of Freedoms Act as a ‘a small but significant piece of legislation’:

‘This assortment of measures was intended to allay fears about DNA retention, CCTV, police and local authority powers and a number of other infringements of individual liberty (including, and very laudably, the right of men convicted of buggery to have their conviction disregarded).’

Where can you find Taylor’s comments? In The Guardian on 10 May 2012.

Arthur also states that ‘Fingerprinting of children continues, but parents can opt out of having their children take part.’ Our manifesto commitment – which he quotes just before – said ‘stop children being fingerprinted at school without their parents’ permission’. I struggle to see how what we did is inconsistent with what we committed to.

I am proud of what my own party, which has civil liberties at its core, achieved during five years of government with less than 60 MPs out of 650. Critics should remember: we were in coalition with a party that isn’t known first and foremost for its whole-hearted embrace of civil liberties, following thirteen years of a Labour government that had no regard for personal freedom and made us one of the most surveilled countries in the western world.

I have no problem when someone wishes to challenge the record of parties in government. I have no problem with someone who wishes to challenge me as a Liberal Democrat on my party’s record.

However, when readers rely on ‘quality’ newspapers to be informed, there is no excuse for such shoddy and misleading journalism in a paper that proudly boasts to the world that it won the Pulitzer prize for journalism in 2014.

Read Full Post »

Emotion and truth

‘Reality doesn’t interest me,’ said Leni Riefenstahl in a piece in Der Spiegel in August 1997 (Leni Riefenstahl über ihre Filme, ihr Schönheitsideal, ihre NS-Verstrickung und Hitlers Wirkung auf die Menschen Spiegel 18.08.1997).

Hitler’s favourite film-maker died in 2003 aged 101 and this quote, usually lifted out of context, did nothing to mitigate her notoriety. Her statement was an answer to the following question: ‘When you photograph a Greek temple and at the side there is a pile of rubbish, would you leave the rubbish out?’ ‘Definitely, I am not interested in reality,’ Riefenstahl replied.

My immediate reaction is ‘But wouldn’t we all leave the rubbish out?’

It is the sort of self-editing that most of us engage in when we are taking holiday photographs. We compose our shots to leave out the construction site that marrs the view of the old town, the unknown family that spoils our white-sanded beach, the cars that intrude into the sense of loneliness we want to capture on a coastal path.

My second reaction is ‘But what is the purpose of those pictures?’

If I am taking holiday snaps to remind me of how a place resonated with me, that allows me to be transported back there when I look at them, I am looking to take pictures that evoke an emotional response. I want to capture scenes that evoke memories of how beautiful a place was, how bleak it was, how peaceful it was. I am not looking to capture the essential truth of the place except in so far as that emotion is concerned.

Of course, there are other photographs I might be wanting to take – ones that document how disingenuous the holiday brochure was, how crowded the beach was, how the traffic crashed in on you at every moment. These may not evoke the same memories or feelings when I look at them, but they are ‘true’ in a way that those I self-edit aren’t. When we look at photographs in a newspaper, or we watch a documentary film, we place some trust in the film-maker that, whatever our emotional response, what we are seeing is ‘true’.

The power of Riefenstahl’s National Socialist propaganda film-making, as seen in the likes of Triumph of the Will, came from creating images and using soundscapes designed to evoke a powerful emotional response, whilst presenting them as documentary truth – even though some of the scenes were rehearsed fifty times, camera shots were distorted to create senses of scale and it allows a sense of party, state and people being a single united entity to emerge as unchallenged fact, exactly as her Nazi paymasters wanted.

Propaganda as a word is Italian in origin, taken from the modern Latin: ‘Congregatio de Propaganda Fide’ or ‘Congregation for Propagation of the Faith’. This was the committee of cardinals charged by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 with overseeing evangelical foreign missions and ensuring uniformity of teaching and interpretation – of ‘truth’. Its modern political interpretation emerged in the early twentieth century, encapsulating Riefenstahl’s style of film-making perfectly.

Yet bending the truth in film is not the preserve of dictators and repressive regimes.

War and lies

The Battle of San Pietro is a documentary film made by acclaimed director John Huston, apparently showing the Battle of San Pietro Infine as it happens, Huston claiming that the cameramen, who were attached to the U.S. Army’s 143rd Regiment of the 6th Division, filmed alongside soldiers as they fought their way up hill towards San Pietro. Later research by Peter Maslowski, in his book Armed With Cameras, demonstrated that this was false.  Once again, those watching were led to believe that the events recorded were as they happened. And elements of course were true – the body bags, the distraught Italians coming home. However, crucially, large elements were re-enactment. Or, to put it less generously, made-up.

The viewer doesn’t know where truth ends and fiction begins.

More recently, Canadian Michael Jorgensen made the controversial film Unclaimed, seeking to substantiate the oft-repeated claim (reinforced by various Hollywood blockbusters including Rambo: First Blood Part II), that some troops listed by the U.S. government as MIA were actually POWs held long after the cessation of military action.

Jorgensen’s film seeks to tell the story of former Special Forces Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, who, shot down over Laos and listed as MIA, but who was allegedly actually imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese. After a year, it is claimed, he was released and married a Vietnamese woman, living in a remote village in south-central Vietnam. Robertson forgot how to speak English and forgot the names of his American children.

It is a powerful piece of film-making, including at-first-sight reunions and was intended as a device to reunite Robertson with his family.

Again, however, its central claim had considerable doubt cast upon it. The Independent newspaper carried an extensive report debunking the claims:

‘According to a memo sent to a UK news organisation yesterday evening, the man claiming to be Sgt Robertson is in fact Dang Tan Ngoc – a 76-year-old Vietnamese citizen of French origin who has a history of pretending to be US army veterans.

The memo, taken from a Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office report in 2009, apparently says Ngoc first came to the attention of the US military in 2006 when he started telling people he was Sgt John Hartley Robertson.

He was apparently questioned about the claims but quickly admitted he had been lying and was in fact Vietnamese.

In 2008 Ngoc apparently began claiming to be Sgt Robertson once again, and he was taken to a US embassy in Cambodia to be fingerprinted. It was quickly established that the fingerprints did not match those of the missing army veteran.’

Later in 2013, a DNA test conducted reluctantly by the family showed that the man who was presented as Robertson was unrelated to Robertson’s nephew.

Of course, questions remain about the story of John Hartley Robertson, and who the man in the jungle is, but the ‘truth’ is certainly not as presented in Jorgensen’s film, just as it may not be as is presented by the Department of Defense (this article explores those questions further).

Modern falsehoods

Jump forward to November 2014.

On Armistice Day, Metro, the free paper handed out on the tube, carried an incredible story entitled ‘Hero Syrian boy ‘braves sniper fire’ to rescue girl in amazing video’. It described how a Syrian boy, under fire from snipers, rescues his friend, a young girl, and pulls her to safety. Incredibly, the whole thing had been captured on film.

It is an extraordinarily powerful piece of film-making.

It was Armistice Day. I had recently written about my great, great uncle. Every morning for a month I had disembarked at Fenchurch Street and seen the crowds building to see the incredible poppy installation at the Tower of London. I remember how I felt reading that story against a backdrop of reflections on war, evil and loss. This small victory of tremendous youthful bravery over evil created a sense of defiant hope. I remember thinking that I should find a moment to blog it.

The trouble is, it has emerged that not a single frame of it is true.

The millions of us who viewed that film, that reacted to it, who wondered on the fate of the two children after they escaped the sniper’s bullets, were duped by Lars Klevberg, a 34 year-old film-maker from Norway. In a piece for the BBC he said:

‘If I could make a film and pretend it was real, people would share it and react with hope,’ he said. ‘We shot it in Malta in May this year on a set that was used for other famous movies like Troy and Gladiator,’ Klevberg said. ‘The little boy and girl are professional actors from Malta. The voices in the background are Syrian refugees living in Malta.’

Were they comfortable making a film that potentially deceived millions of people? ‘I was not uncomfortable,’ Klevberg said. ‘By publishing a clip that could appear to be authentic we hoped to take advantage of a tool that’s often used in war; make a video that claims to be real. We wanted to see if the film would get attention and spur debate, first and foremost about children and war. We also wanted to see how the media would respond to such a video.’

Klevberg’s audacity is breath-taking and his intentions, surely, dubious at best. It is possible to generate a debate about war without faking footage and misleading people.

Zero Dark Thirty is a powerful piece of film-making which purports to show the events that lead up to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow often uses documentary-style camera shots to create a sense of immediacy and reality, reflecting the sorts of camera shots we see in contemporary news reports. At no point, however, does she claim that the film is documentary truth. The viewer is able to make a judgement as to whether or not the events were as depicted because we know this is a Hollywood film.

Klevberg’s clip is particularly insidious. It plays on the emotions that we have about children, especially children in war. It uses the sorts of footage that we have come to associate with documentary film-making and news reports. It depicts scenes that we imagine and that we have read about. Some of us have friends in Syria who are living this hell day in and day out. Yet Klevberg’s footage is entirely fake.

Who had heard of Lars Klevberg outside his native Norway before this emotionally-manipulative stunt? No-one beyond a small group of aficionados. Now he has trended worldwide on social media. For all of his protestations, it is difficult to see this as anything other than a cynical device for self-promotion, to register with a world hungry for some sense of hope in a conflict whose manifestations of evil affect us on a very primal level.

Deception and destabilisation

I think its effect is more dangerous.

It is a deliberate lie that reinforces our scepticism about everything we see. Many will argue that is a good thing. However, at a time when it hard enough to discern truth in the images we are presented with, when videos of IS terrorists committing murder for worldwide audiences of billions have to be ‘verified’, Klevberg’s actions seem utterly irresponsible, even to this liberal who instinctively distrusts power and questions constantly the evidence he is presented with. Scepticism built on a deliberate lie is as misleadingly useless as blind faith in authority.

Klevberg has done nothing to further confidence in documentary film-making and journalism. At best he has cast aspersions on his profession. At worst he has deliberately sought to manipulate emotion, mislead a worldwide public and construct events in a manner that fundamentally undermines trust. In doing so, he reinforces terrorist claims that what we see on our TV screens is nothing but Western propaganda.

We can be forgiven a creeping sense of déjà vu.

Read Full Post »

When I was told about it I thought my partner had made it up.

But no, as various newspaper stories and a quick search of Facebook confirm, there is a Facebook page dedicated to the posting of pictures of women eating on the tube.

Not people. Women.

I don’t like watching people eat on trains. I often get the late night ‘vomit comet’ out of Fenchurch Street and there’s little worse than the stench of stale beer, warm wine and Burger King on a hot summer’s night.

But this site is not about people. It is about women.

Funnily enough, according to Sara Nelson on the Huffington Post, the page’s creator, Tony Burke, claims that the aspect of gender is purely a coincidence. The site’s profile text says:

‘WWEOT is observational not judgemental. It doesn’t intimidate nor bully.

Subjects are embraced and cherished. We celebrate and encourage women eating food on tubes, we do not marginalise them. We always look for the story in the picture. We don’t swear.’

Really? That’s clearly not how some of the subjects feel. Perhaps the mere fact of posting the picture might be felt by some to be bullying or intimidating. Or do bullying and intimidation only occur if the perpetrator deems it so? Journalist Sophie Wilkinson posted about her experiences in a post entitled ‘Stranger shaming: how one public meal got me 12,000 online haters’:

‘I’m not exactly fond of necking a mayonnaise-sloshed pasta salad on a bumpy Metropolitan line, but I know I’m never going to eat on the tube again. I don’t even want to wear that outfit again – or read the book that the poster commented I was then ‘tucking into’ – because I’m nervous that people from the Facebook group might recognise me. Every time a man I don’t know – because so many of the commenters are men – so much as glances at me on the tube I wonder if he’s in on the joke.’

And it’s all just a joke, right, and Wilkinson should get a sense of humour? Those of us who don’t like it don’t get it and we should just leave them to their quirky little game?

This exchange – chosen at random on a random photograph – is extremely revealing. It is all men. The one woman who offers a counter view is told to take herself off to North Korea. Depressingly, the commentators repeatedly fail to recognise that bullying and harassment doesn’t have to be sexual. In one comment, one Tom Moore attempts to tackle the issue of why the photographs are of women and not men head on:

Because it wouldn’t be funny if it were all people eating on the tube. That doesn’t mean it necessarily has anything to do with it being women – that’s the point you don’t seem to get. It’s funny because it is obtuse, mundane and totally and utterly trivial. There is no hidden misogyny or unspoken sexism and the the fact that you try and force your preconceived notions upon it is so mystifying and frustrating for everyone who actually gets it. No sexist or sexual comments are harboured and no offensive comments are permitted.

Just because it is ‘obtuse, mundane and totally and utterly trivial’ doesn’t mean there is no ‘unspoken sexism’. And why is it funny to laugh at women but not all people? It is also difficult to claim that there isn’t sexism on a site dedicated solely to the presentation of women in ways that make at least some of the subjects feel ashamed. This isn’t some academic exercise in ‘preconceived notions’ and I am sorry that you find it ‘mystifying and frustrating’ that some of us take offence.

Let’s just go over this again.

A woman is photographed eating on a tube train, all without her knowledge or consent. The location is noted and the time. This is then all posted on the Internet without her knowledge or consent for people to ‘celebrate’ and comment on.

And those of us who find that bloody creepy don’t get it?

If you are still not convinced that the main motivator for this is men mocking women, consider the basic gender demography of the group. According to the website womeninbusiness.com, women in the U.S. using Facebook now outnumber men. I can’t imagine that those statistics are far behind in the UK. However, a cursory look at the front page list of members for the Women Who Eat on Tubes page revealed that of the 96 members shown, 77 were men and just 19 were women.

Clearly, women just don’t get the joke like men do.

In The Telegraph, Burke professes to not knowing why women feel threatened.

Perhaps it is because, as a man, he doesn’t face the intrusion into personal space that so many women experience. Because, as a man, he isn’t objectified, judged and defined by size, dress and appearance in the same way as women (unless, of course, he is pretending that the Daily Mail doesn’t exist). Because Tony Burke feels he is entitled to do whatever he likes, regardless of the offence it causes.

Celia Walden, also writing in The Telegraph, tries to portray those who criticise the group as hypocritical, alluding to an apparent contradiction between modern feminism and the use of social media. Her point appears to be about the selfie, though uses the most extraordinary generalisation to justify her critique:

‘ If any one of those “Women Who Eat On Tubes” has ever posted a “selfie” or Tweeted “I’m about to tuck into a lamb korma”, I’m inclined to believe that they have surrendered a right to the privacy of their own image.’

Really? And what about those countless women pictured who haven’t?

And why does an individual’s choice to post a picture of themselves mean they have surrendered a right to the privacy of their own image? The extension of that argument is that posting a selfie of yourself legitimises you as a target for revenge porn. After all, you have surrendered a right to the privacy of your image.

What Burke and Walden fail to appreciate is that this is not just causing outrage amongst groups that self-identify as feminist. It is offensive to many people who do not appreciate seeing women photographed in a way that many find humiliating.

And it is causing hurt.

If you have been humiliated because of your size, if you have been made to feel ashamed for doing something as basic as eating, if you have been the victim of sexual harassment (or have had to put up with the daily comments and jokes, all gender-based but just ‘a bit of fun’ and never intended to hurt), then you may well recognise this for what it is: bullying. And you may well recognise the clever people with their in-jokes for what they are: sad inadequates (predominantly, though not exclusively, men) who dress up their nastiness in buffoonery as they take pleasure in belittling and mocking women.

As men often do when defending the offensive, Burke resorts to reductio ad absurdum, implying that contesting his decision to post these pictures of women eating somehow equates to state censorship: “They’re in a public place. That’s the risk that you take. Let’s not live in this ridiculous nanny state where nothing’s allowed to exist in case it upsets someone.”

Sorry Tony. Just as it is your right to post your pictures regardless of the offence you cause, it is my right to judge you a misogynistic coward, regardless of how that offends you.

I’ve no interest in the state banning your group. I am, however, quite at liberty to lobby a private social media platform to remove content that I find offensive. I am also quite content to see people exercise their free speech to call you and your sad band of devotees out for being distasteful creeps.

I hope they do.

Further reading:

Nell Frizzell (@NellFrizzell) in the Guardian: ‘Women Who Eat On Tubes Sticks In My Throat’

Radhika Sanghani (@radhikasanghani) in The Telegraph: ‘Why this man takes photos of ‘Women Who Eat On Tubes’. He promises he isn’t a ‘weird deviant”

Celia Walden in The Telegraph: ‘There’s no need to be shy about scoffing on the tube’

Read Full Post »

The day after LBC hosted its Leaders’ Debate with Clegg v. Farage, the red tops carried the following front pages:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I fully accept that the complicated love life of two high-profile celebrities is going to be something of interest to the public. But is this front page speculation, at a time when mother, father and children will be coming to terms with the break-up of their family, justifiable in the public interest?

The Association of Accounting Technicians has a very interesting page on the ethics of public interest:

Last year, after runaway teenager Megan Stammers was found in France with her 30 year old teacher, Jeremy Forrest the BBC reported that Sussex police had stated the information which led to the discovery had come from a direct result of media coverage in France. After Miss Stammers and Mr Forrest were found, Mr Forrest’s parents released a statement expressing their thanks for the Sussex and French police as well as the British media for their assistance. On the other hand, however, due to the public intrigue and interest in this case both party’s names and intimate pictures were published and spread over the internet and Megan was forced to close down her twitter account following abuse on the site after her return to the UK. It can therefore be argued either way as to how the interest of the public affected the outcome in this case.

That excerpt alone reveals the complexity of questions of public interest. However, it demonstrates that a case can be made very clearly that there are circumstances for the reporting of people’s private lives, even if we should be alive to the consequences of such reporting.

At the same time, however, today’s front pages say something very depressing about us. They reveal that the tabloids would rather scream about the sad separation of a husband and wife – a story which fulfils none of the criteria of public interest – instead of reporting that, finally, two party leaders have engaged in a public debate on Britain’s future in Europe  – an issue which is of maximum public interest. How ironic is that considering how vocally misleading at least two of these three rags are on European issues on a regular basis? How hypocritical is it when we have seen them allege institutional opacity and use misinformation as a basis for advocating Britain’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ from the European Union?

You would think that the debate would be a perfect hook for shining a light on an issue that they will each argue (rightly) is critical to Britain’s future. But no. Apparently, it is more important that we are treated to pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow kissing another man. Who cares what effect such stories have on Paltrow, Martin or their children? Who cares if we pile on the humiliation in order to satisfy a smug and mawkish hunger for ‘sleb chat’? Who cares if we force Paltrow and Martin, because of their celebrity status, to put strange labels on an ordinary tragedy experienced by many every day?

Some might loftily proclaim that Clegg and Farage are not Miliband and Cameron. Why should they be interested in what they have to say? Perhaps precisely because they are not Miliband and Cameron and the voices of the leaders of Britain’s two largest parties have so far refused to debate Britain’s place in Europe. Whether you wish to cover the debate positively or negatively, on what was said by whom, or who wasn’t there that should have been, it is unarguable that the European debate is in the public interest.

According to one relatively recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, engagement with political news in Britain is lower than in the US and in much of Europe. For a country that prides itself on its history of Empire, its fundamental role in bringing peace to Western Europe and its understanding of the complexities of international diplomacy, that is a sobering – and depressing – fact.

So why is it our red tops feed us crap? Because we – the public – buy them when they speculate on whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow is a ‘love cheat’ (which is about as much the business of you or me as whether your neighbour is seeing the Tesco delivery driver). Because we are less excited by attempting to get to the truth of the vital economic links that Britain has with the European Union.

I get that we all like to gawp. We all have a morbid fascination for the car crash as we drive by or the ambulance parked outside the house down the road. But we owe ourselves more than a medieval curiosity at those whose lives have fallen apart.

If we don’t engage with the important debates of the day, then surely the falling apart will happen closer to home. Some – many – of the 3.5 million jobs that depend on Europe could be lost. National law enforcement agencies trying to tackle terrorists and organised crime, such as sex traffickers, could find themselves hamstrung by national red-tape, unable to engage properly with each other. Border-less environmental disasters could be made much worse by lack of a common strategy and protocols.

We – the public – are the people who can decide if things that are of public interest become things that are of interest to the public. We – the public – are the people who can engage with the debates that affect all our lives and ascribe them the importance that they deserve. If we continually put money in the pockets of people who will feed us dross because it serves the purposes of an inflated circulation figure, then we only have ourselves to blame if we sleepwalk into decisions that have calamitous effects on us, whether personally or nationally.

Of course our media is riotous, anarchic, gloriously irreverent. Just as it should be. It is also the preserve of magnates with very personal commercial interests in international political outcomes. We kid ourselves if we present a romantic picture of our noble free press without drawing attention to the corporate small print.

Shame on us if we are hoodwinked.

Read Full Post »

I’ve blogged previously about the amazing Jack Monroe, the blogger from Southend who talks more than a hell of a lot of sense when it comes to cooking, poverty and the politics of food on her blog, A Girl Called Jack.

She is absolutely bloody right when she writes:

 “to tackle food poverty and a culture of ping-ping meals, cooking at home needs to be less glossy, less sexy, less fancy kitchen equipment, less intimidating – and more accessible, more about what you can make from what’s in the cupboard, to spend less, reduce waste, and not spending all day tarting about in the kitchen or scouring shelves for asfoedita and artichokes.”

Anyway, Jack’s been at it again with the brilliant #22mealsforacoffee.

Her challenge?

Skip one latte, cappuccino or double espresso (whatever your morning poison, basically), average cost £3, and buy someone enough food for 22 meals. Buy low cost basics (she gives suggestions) and donate them to a food bank.

Yes, a foodbank – that criminal travesty of social justice that has arisen because as a society we seem to be too damn incapable of looking after each other. The Trussell Trust calculates a 170% increase in the number of people turning to foodbanks in the last 12 months:

“Trussell Trust foodbanks have seen the biggest rise in numbers given emergency food since the charity began in 2000. Almost 350,000 people have received at least three days emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks during the last 12 months, nearly 100,000 more than anticipated and close to triple the number helped in 2011-12.”

The Trussell Trust is the UK’s largest provider of emergency food packs but there are of course lots of smaller, local providers, often church initiatives, as well as work done by organisations like the Salvation Army. That means those figures from the Trussell Trust are the tip of an uncomfortably large iceberg.

For those who find their take on life is disadvantaged by the cynicism gene, the sort who simply think this is about people scrounging dinner for free, just pause for a moment. After you’ve grown up, think about the indignity of having to go and ask for food to feed yourself and your family because you can’t afford to buy it. I don’t think food banks are an easy option – but they are essential if some of those who are struggling the most are to have food on their plates.

I’m not going to tell you how to put a useful food pack together here on this blog. Jack deserves the traffic on her site, so click through to #22mealsforacoffee for suggestions. If, for whatever reason, this is beyond you, text FBUK13 £3 to 70070 to donate £3 to the Trussell Trust.

Jack’s posts are a constant source of inspiration and a rallying call to action for all those who are concerned about the politics of food. Which, when you think about it, should be all of us.

It is no good relying on politicians to sort this out. It requires all of us to change the way we look at food, its costs, production, social, economic and environmental impact. Start by swapping your £3 for 22 meals and may be we might just start to begin to understand the politics and economics of food poverty.

We are often told we are all in it together. That should be a social reality, not political vacuity. We should all be looking out for each other better than we do at the moment.

Thank goodness for the Jacks of this world for giving us a sharp kick up the arse.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: