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Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

I’ve always wanted to be in awe of the London Underground, with its complex network of services and its myriad stations that take in incredibly varied landscapes. From the ‘little boxes’ suburbia of Upminster, to the east end of West Ham, with its rejuvenated twin in Stratford, to the eerie Bladerunner majesty of Docklands and Canary Wharf, to the lush countryside of Amersham, the lines of the London Underground go to astonishingly different places.

Frankly, though, the customer experience (I don’t dare suggest we are passengers) is appalling. A single example from a single day:

I made a visit to Amersham to see family on Friday. On the way home,  I timed my journey to take a train selected specifically because it was going all the way to Aldgate. No sooner had it departed then the driver announced it would terminate at Harrow on the Hill as there was an issue at Baker Street. We were told we should board the Baker Street train at Harrow and terminate at Baker Street, picking up another train to Aldgate. We duly did so, trooping across the platform to an empty train (of course, that makes more sense than the one we are on continuing its journey). No sooner had that departed then the driver announced it would terminate at Wembley Park. We were advised to cross to the Jubilee Line (fine for those of us who could alter our routes and go south, but what about everyone else?). As we pulled in there was an empty Jubilee Line train waiting on the southbound platform. As soon as the doors open on our terminated Metropolitan Line train, the Jubilee Line train pulled out, before we could board. It left empty.

What kind of Kafka-esque service is this? Or is it run by people who really don’t give a stuff about providing a joined up service to those who pay for it? If that is my story, from a single journey, on a single day, what are the stories like of the tens of millions of other travellers through the year?

For me it was a minor inconvenience. Irritating, but I know my way around London and the Underground. For the old, the infirm, the visitor, this level of service is embarrassing and appalling.

Arbitrary changes of destination mid-journey. Unexplained halts for minutes on end. A lack of air-conditioning on many lines, with travellers becoming ill, hitting emergency buttons and so throwing travel into chaos. Appalling packing of commuters in sweltering conditions. Platform roulette, not knowing which train is leaving first.  Bored staff who resent being asked questions about destinations. No help with heavy luggage. Only now a grudging acceptance of running some lines through the night.

In any other business where we are told we are ‘customers’ we wouldn’t stand for it. If we went to the cinema and they made us change screen three times, without explanation, and the third time put us in on a totally different film, part way through, I can’t imagine any of us sitting idly by. We would be – rightly – angry that the film was not what we paid for and not up to scratch and we would seek compensation – often willingly given by cinemas keen to maintain their reputation. Yet when it comes to the tube, we simply take the crap that’s dished out as part and parcel of the package – even though the ticket can cost more than going to the cinema! We buy the tickets in advance of travelling, on the basis that they tell us that we will be able to use certain services at certain times to reach certain destinations. Yet there appears to be no mechanism to hold them to account when it doesn’t work according to the ‘offer’. We are told we are customers, but don’t behave like them – and we aren’t treated like them. Perhaps that is because we know the language is a con and that, deep down, we realise we are still passengers.

Don’t get me wrong. The London Underground is a remarkable feat of engineering. It is still an incredible mover of people. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to its embarrassing deficiencies or make us feel guilty for challenging a level of service which should not be acceptable in a rich, world-leading city like London in the twenty-first century.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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So Charlie Hague’s beautiful eco-home, which wouldn’t be out of place in The Shire, is to be bulldozed within two months on the instructions of Pembrokeshire County Council because:

“”benefits of the development did not outweigh the harm to the character and appearance of the countryside

A lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges for young people today. Local authorities are often reluctant to build or facilitate it, preferring instead to take money from developers to fund future social housing developments. In a different  place, at a different time. In a more ‘appropriate’ development. Rather than now, when people might need them.

We see this locally in Basildon with the proposals to build hundreds of “aspirational” homes on ancient pastures in Dry Street. Essentially, these will be unaffordable, luxury homes with a bare minimum of affordable provision. Neither the local council nor the developers have any interest in providing houses that local people can afford to live in. Instead, they are content to see greater and greater strain placed on local services and infrastructure by encouraging new people to move to the area.

Having been on a downward trend in the UK for years, the number of households in temporary accommodation has started to rise again. The long term impact of poor quality housing on health is well-documented. After four years of living in a damp caravan, Charlie Hague decided to act.

Charlie’s father owned a plot of land next to the pioneering Lammas Ecovillage. For around £15,000 he built a roundhouse out of straw bales, plastered with lime, and covered with a reciprocal roof (self-supporting, essentially). You can watch the story of Charlie’s house below:

I’ve served on local planning committees. The decisions are never easy. But retrospective planning permission is granted up and down the country all the time and for less considerate developments than this.

We should be looking to promote and support inventive and sustainable ways of building and living. This kind of construction should be championed as an example of how a new house can be sympathetic to its environment – not bulldozed out of existence.

Sign the petition to save Charlie and Megan’s house and please like, share and reblog to draw attention to the their plight.

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London_Evening_Standard_30_7_2013It was with a sickened sense of incredulity I read the front page story of yesterday’s Evening Standard:

“Twitter Trolls Tell MP: We’ll Rape You”

Following Stella Creasy’s support for Caroline Criado-Perez, who was herself subjected to vile rape threats on Twitter for having the temerity to suggest that our bank notes should recognise the contribution women have made to our national success, it seems Twitter’s women-hating brigade have decided attack is the best form of defence.

I hesitate to use the word “trolls” in the context of men threatening rape.

It is a word that risks lessening the offensiveness and dangerousness of the words they choose to use. It also risks lessening the offensiveness and dangerousness of them, the men that make such threats, by decontextualising the perpetrators. A troll means different things to different people: the quasi-comical lumbering beast of popular culture; those punk-haired childhood toys that look like Child’s Play casting rejects; the dark and monstrous creatures of myth and fantasy; or dysfunctional “saddos” that should “get a life”.

In terms of the Internet, particularly, it is too easy to latch on to this latter idea. It is too easy to suggest that such threats should be dismissed as the mindless (and harmless) ranting of sexually dispossessed indequates. That those who feel threatened (generally women) should grow a thicker skin, particularly if they wish to enter the realm of the Internet (coincidentally designed and dominated, at least in terms of its architecture and maintenance, by men).

It also creates and reinforces a perverse sense of camaraderie and community. Persecutors present as the persecuted. They seek canonisation from their peers for defying the intrusions of the amorphous entity known as “the state” into their domain. It is a domain where, despite the fact that this domain and their freedom to explore it only exists courtesy of the state of which they are citizens, and the physical security and economic infrastructure which that state provides, “the state” and all that accompanies it (such as the rule of law) is evil: only the techno-anarchic, as defined by this self-selecting twisted-moralising techno-prophet elite, can be good.

Part of the hysterical rhetoric deployed is that this sort of censorship is the preserve of “feminazis”. Anyone familiar with the etymology of that word will know it was popularised by right-wing chat show host Rush Limbaugh in his attack on supporters of the pro-choice lobby. Suddenly, it was okay to conflate the term “feminist” with “National Socialism”, a genocidal quasi-religious totalitarian ideology, in order to mock and bring down those who chose to take a public stance on critical issues of women’s health. A quick trawl of the Internet reveals casual use of this term in Internet forum debate on the issue, as well as men seeking to deny that the rape threats were even made in the first place.

I don’t suppose it will be long before Criado-Perez’s assertion that “this is not a feminist issue” will be used both to undermine her credibility with feminist colleagues and, in complete contradiction, to attack her for her feminism. My reading of her comments is that she is making clear that this is an issue that has – or should have – currency beyond those who define themselves as feminist, not that this is not an issue for feminists. It is an issue that many might well identify as a feminist issue, but that we as a society should all be concerned with. It would be regretful if a well intentioned headline, designed to broaden participation and engage those who would normally stay outside such debates – not least of all because of the way some vocal and antagonistic participants use the terms “feminist” and “feminazi” to derogate and intimidate opponents – provided unintended cover for those who would prefer to retreat entirely from uncomfortable discussions of gender, identity and security (see the quote from Professor Mark Griffiths in this BBC story on Criado-Perez’s experiences and the wider issue of cyberbullying: Twitter abuse: Why cyberbullies are targeting women).

We need to slay these trolls – and even the very concept of them. We need to put abusers back in context. We need to remove their self-styled outlaw identity, where they seek to aggregate the romantic pioneer legacy of the Wild West to themselves and to the exclusion of those who choose not to engage in threats to violate other human beings. Like the rapists they emulate, these abusers are fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, boyfriends and lovers, banal in their evil. Like the rapists they seek to emulate they have mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends and lovers. They are men, real human beings who have lost touch with the qualities that make them human – at least, such qualities as make them functional members of a liberal and democratic society in which all should feel safe to carry on their own business without the oppression of the state or other individuals in that society.

You hope that these individuals would not talk to their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends or lovers in the language they choose to address a stranger. (I resent describing them as “men” almost as much as I am reticent about calling them “trolls”. Unfortunately, I can’t escape the fact of their gender. Perhaps I should use the term “males” as “female” and “females” seem to be the nouns of choice when men engage in the casual objectification of women.)  You also hope, perhaps forlornly, that they would be angry as hell if a man approached a woman they loved and said he was going to rape her. If it were someone I loved who was threatened in that manner, I hope I would have the guts to punch their lights out.

If anyone doubts the extent of the challenge, it is worth reading Cath Elliot’s thought-provoking Guardian piece from October 2011 and the response it provoked in comments from readers: Facebook is fine with hate speech, as long as it is directed at women. One particular argument provoked a storm of angry comments from indignant readers, predominantly (though not all) men:

“What Facebook and others who defend this pernicious hate speech don’t seem to get is that rapists don’t rape because they’re somehow evil or perverted or in any way particularly different from than the average man in the street: rapists rape because they can. Rapists rape because they know the odds are stacked in their favour, because they know the chances are they’ll get away with it.”

This was immediately seized upon as Elliot saying that all men are potential rapists. Comments under her article include:

“So any man will rape if he thinks he can get away with it? Is that what you’re saying Cath? That were rape to be legalised tomorrow we’d all be doing it?” [04 October 2011, 11.18am]

“Given that even using the disputed maximum figure for number of rapes committed per year you wind up with only 1 in 500 men actually being rapists I’d say that that does make them pretty different from the ‘average man’.” [04 October 2011, 11.22am]

“Oh. That’s absolutely disgusting, by the way. I hope you’ll clarify you’re not seriously suggesting the ‘average man’ would be out there, raping away, if they thought they could.” [04 October 2011, 11.33am]

At no point did Elliot make an equivalence between rapists and non-rapists. Quite the opposite in fact. She makes the distinction based on their actions. In the end she responded with her own comment:

“I didn’t say they were the ‘same as’ I said they weren’t ‘particularly different from’, and they’re not, apart from one key thing – the fact that they’re rapists!

I’m actually surprised that so many posters here seem to think rapists are some kind of special alien-like breed, easily distinguishable from everyone else. Well they’re not. As someone else has pointed out in the thread, they’re brothers, fathers, uncles, neighbours and so on, ordinary men in just about every way except for one – they’re prepared to commit this heinous crime whereas the vast majority of other, decent men are not.”  [04 October 2011 1.17pm]

She makes the point on contextualisation: that these men are like other men, enjoying the same relationships as non-rapists. They do not appear different, even though their monstrous actions set them worlds apart. If you want to get an idea of the kind of person who makes such threats, read this piece by Emma Barnett, the Telegraph’s Women’s Editor, on her radio interviews with two Internet trolls who attempt to “defend” their “right” to make rape threats online.

I wonder if those who scream “Free Speech” in defence of the right of men to threaten the rape of women on the Internet, whether to intimidate or just “for a laugh”, have really thought through what it is they are calling to protect? Before joining the chorus of indignation, anyone who is in doubt as to the vileness and impact of rape should talk to a rape survivor.

Hear them describe the fear and the sickening sense of violation and the powerlessness and the destruction of self-esteem and the ruin of identity. Hear the anger and the self-blame and the vilifications that have been caused by another man. If you are a man, wrestle uncomfortably with your instinctive sense of affront and indignation at any gender generalisations about men and male behaviour and realise they are being made by a woman who has had her identity reduced to object, a thing which a man felt entitled to violate.

To those who are critical of my gender-specific language, I am of course aware that men are raped and the horrific nature of each instance of rape is not altered by the gender of the victim. However, that still doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of rape victims are women. Get your head around the fact that official UK government statistics reveal that some 85,000 women are raped on average each year. That is over 230 a day. Then realise that means the offence has been reported and recorded and so unreported offences, which are no less real to victims too terrified or ashamed or resigned to report their rape, mean the real figure is much higher.

And then think what it means when a man says the following to a woman, whether in private or in the street or in a virtual forum: “I am going to rape you.”

Rape survivor stories make for harrowing reading. It is an offence that defies our sense of what is right on every conceivable level. Those who think that we who are offended by rape threats and jokes (without even being threatened) should grow thicker skins should themselves pause to consider how desensitisation to language is a very real thing. The recent history of popular culture is testament to that.

After all, we have learned as a society to tolerate language that our parents and, even more so, our grandparents, would not. Some of us have championed that as liberating. Some of us have bemoaned a collapse in standards of manners and social etiquette. Still others, myself included, have done both, casually accepting this change in the moral value of language without real challenge, assimilating vulgarities into our own speech despite the things we believe, bemoaning that vulgarity in others, yet also unwilling to see society return to a more censorious age. We may like it, we may not like it, we may champion it, we may hate it, but no-one would seriously question that Western society today is more acclimatised to the use of certain words than a generation ago.

Prevalence of such words, through use and reuse, has, inevitably, extended social acceptability. However, there is a world of difference between the freedom to use offensive words as we choose, with no intrinsic or constructed intent, and the use of phrases that are clearly constructed to create fear through expressed intent – targeted hatred designed deliberately to impact fundamentally on identity and a sense of self, of place. And whether we are content to live in a society in which casual disregard for such intent is a socially acceptable norm is a question we all have a responsibility to answer.

For me, in this particular debate, the cry of “Free Speech” is a modern-day Chimera, a monster conjured up by techno-demonologists to strike fear into the hearts of a non-expert majority who rightly fear a censorious state that interferes with political expression and the way we choose to live our lives. It is intended to terrify liberals into feeling that common sense has no place in a liberal democracy. It seeks to drive them into knee-jerk defences against an authority that, manifested in the state, is deemed amoral by the very fact that its pronouncements could arguably bear the label “moral”. It seeks to create a false and binary choice between one particular and romanticised meme of an anarchic Internet, which is fundamentally good, and the opposite and obvious evils of a liberal totalitarianism, worthy of the worst excesses of Arendt or Orwell. To up the ante, this is often presented as an insidious precursor to the totalitarian regimes we witness and condemn in a variety of real world manifestations. Unlike for many of its inhabitants, there are no shades of grey at all in the Internet’s potential states of existence.

I wonder if we are still intimidated by technology? I wonder if for those who aren’t in on the workings of the illusion there is still something mystical about the Internet that means we are terrified it will suddenly vanish if we apply some of the ground rules to this virtual playground that we use to order our physical space? Do we regard these techno-demonologists, who function as the Internet’s high priests, in much the same manner that the inhabitants of Oz regard the Wizard in Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz? One of Baum’s biographers, Rebecca Loncraine, describes the story as a critique of power that demonstrates how “easily people who lack belief in themselves can become willing participants in the deceptions practised by manipulative figures who rule over them.” [“The Real Wizard of Oz The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum”, New York, Penguin Group, 2005, p. 179.]

The same liberals that vociferously deny that the existence of a free society depends on the right of its citizens to bear automatic weapons become less sure of their ground and even mute at the thought of tweets in this virtual, “unreal” realm leading to prosecutions and imprisonment in the “real” world (I would suggest that “unreal” and “real” are increasingly unsustainable distinctions in terms of the interface between the virtual and the physical). Yet were this their mother or daughter or sister in the street, they would not hesitate to recognise the threat for what it is. For me, the fallacy of the rapist tweeters’ argument is demonstrated clearly by the way it collapses under the weight of its intrinsic illogicality: “Our right to say what we like, no matter its reception, is one to which we attach such value that it must be protected at all costs, but yet, don’t worry, because it is also so valueless that you can simply disregard it completely when we exercise it.”

If we start from the presumption that freedom of speech matters, which for me it does, and at a very fundamental level, then surely it cannot be divorced from the responsibilities I accrue as a member of the society that protects that freedom? I am free to say what I like in the United Kingdom. I am also free to understand that if I say certain things, there will be certain consequences. That is part of the social contract I enter into by participating in a society that has decided to protect its minorities from words and behaviour that may make them feel threatened for simply existing.

The social contract is in part defined by law and in part by the the informal ways in which we interact with each other socially to establish appropriate behaviours. In modern parlance we might describe these unwritten, normative rules as “crowd-sourced”. I may choose to disregard the contract, or even refuse to recognise it, but that does not change the fact of its existence. (In understanding that, it beggars belief that we have not yet recognised how some words and behaviour can make a much larger segment of the population feel threatened for simply existing. That is an argument for another day but, thankfully, at least making threats of rape carries a criminal sanction.)

Beyond grand ideas of a social contract there is a much more banal and immediate reality (evil may be banal, but so is reality). Twitter might appear to be an anarchic public space, but it is actually a privately provided platform, run by a company that must operate in the real world of rules and corporate responsibility. Users of Twitter sign up to Terms of Service. These include the following provisions:

“We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services, to suspend or terminate users, and to reclaim usernames without liability to you. We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to (i) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request, (ii) enforce the Terms, including investigation of potential violations hereof, (iii) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, (iv) respond to user support requests, or (v) protect the rights, property or safety of Twitter, its users and the public.”

Granted, users are at liberty to not read them or to read them and disregard them. However, Twitter is also perfectly entitled to remove users’ access if they are breached. Similarly, as users with equal access to this private platform, those who feel the terms of service have been breached, for instance if an “applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request” has not been complied with, are perfectly entitled to report their concerns. Whether Twitter then discharges its own contractual responsibilities appropriately is another matter entirely and a part of the focus of the current debate: the way it has been slow to act until public pressure has mounted suggests a depressing subordination of substantive concern to image.

This is not an unusual phenomena. It characterises much of the debate about the Internet and the way, particularly, that private companies who provide virtual platforms appear keen to protect profit margins by perpetuating iconic imagery, such as that of the Internet outlaw, in order to sustain associations with traditional user groups. Perhaps, ironically, it is the very fact that the Internet and social media is becoming more widely accessible to non-theists, and thus potentially more profitable, that is causing these companies pause for thought.

Whether driven by economics, a recognition of what is right and what is wrong, or simply common-sense, at least there are some signs of responsiveness. On the same day that the Evening Standard carried that headline, Twitter was reported as saying that it would install a report abuse button on every tweet, despite previously arguing that it was not necessary.

First the Bank of England and now Twitter. Caroline Criado-Perez is emerging as a very serious and inspirational force to be reckoned with. (If you still want to add your name to Kim Graham’s petition in support of Criado-Perez, calling for a Twitter abuse button, you can find it here.)

I am a liberal to my core.

I believe that the rule of law is fundamental to a prosperous and peaceful society. I believe that governments should err on the side of extreme caution in matters of intervention where it could be construed as an assault on freedom of speech. I also believe that we should put the “trolls” back in context as real individuals with abusive behaviours that demand consequences. Those who seek to hide criminality in the form of threats of rape behind something as valuable as freedom of speech place themselves at liberty of sanction. Freedom of speech matters too much for it to become the preserve of rapists and those who believe they have an unfettered right to engage in society’s private and public spaces without regard for the freedom of all of that society’s citizens.

[Updated 31.7.13]

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