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Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

My mornings now involve a beautiful commute between Leeds and York. I choose the country back roads over the A64. I like the chance to listen to the best hour of Radio 4’s Today programme and reflect on the politics of the day. (And yes, I appreciate the irony of that first sentence in the context of what follows.)

For as long as I can remember now, it has been a depressing catalogue of various Brexit catastrophes that have shone a spotlight on the inability of our political processes to even organise to take decisions, let alone take them. This morning, though, there were two brief and truly inspirational interviews.

Schoolgirls Lilly Platt (10), from the Netherlands, and Jean Hinchliffe (15), from Australia, both of whom are active organisers of the school strike for climate, demonstrated a level of articulate argument and intelligence that should embarrass our politicians. Along with Greta Thunberg (16), who has inspired school strikes around the globe, and who just yesterday was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaigning on climate change, these are young people who have run out of patience with adult failure.

It is easy enough for patronising adults to respond by saying they are jeopardising their futures and should be in lessons. It is easy enough to fret about health and safety (a little ironic in a country where we are doing little to tackle an epidemic of knife crime and have a fondness for an era of British ‘greatness’ when we sent children up the chimneys that part-created this crisis). Their response contains a faultless logic: what future is there if we let inaction on climate destroy the planet?

Here in the UK, Anna Taylor (17) is one of the organisers. She and others, including Greta Thunberg, have restated their reasons for striking in the Guardian. Read it. It is a powerful, powerful piece.

This is not a campaign built around some well-worked theory of change, carefully disseminated and followed after development with well-paid PR companies and strategic consultants. These children speak plainly and bluntly, with passion, and without pulling their punches. It is becoming a global scream of desperation from young people around the world who give a shit and who are mostly not allowed to vote for change. They are seeing politicians of an older generation squander their future, who are either patronisingly patting them on the head, telling them it will be okay, or wringing their hands and agreeing earnestly whilst doing nothing.

And for those who are not paying attention, it is striking how the majority of the organisers are young women.

As Thunberg told the billionaires in Davos:

“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

Her video is worth watching.

Today will be the largest climate strike to date. Greta, Anna, Jean and Lilly you are quite inspirational. Keep going. Keep screaming at us until we actually do something.

You can follow some of these young campaigners here:

@GretaThunberg

@AnnaUKSCN

@jean_hinchcliffe

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After the dishonesty of the referendum campaign, the simplistic boasts of the negotiations about how easy securing Britain’s future would be, and the humiliating chaos of parliamentary proceedings on the Withdrawal Agreement, it is no wonder that the public and our businesses are in such despair at politicians.

Our politics has failed. There is a piece to be written about the way in which Brexit has highlighted and increased pressure on the failure of our democracy and its institutions, but this is not it.

At the time of writing there are just 400 hours until we are due to exit the European Union. If our politicians manage Thatcher levels of sleep – which are probably not the most useful preparation for what must be done over the next 16 days – that leaves just 333 hours in which to do the work. Those that see theological evils in the European Union can be reassured that we can’t even do the ‘Number of the Beast’ properly.

Politicians have dressed their failure with all sorts of unicorn promises about better deals (the ERG and Labour), blame for not getting behind the Prime Minister (Remainers, the ERG and the DUP), and consistent can-kicking (everyone). Each of these groups is flailing around and screaming louder and louder as the ratchet of the clock tightens and the scale of the political problems in taking a decision – any decision – becomes clear. Daniel Finkelstein’s article in the Times today demonstrates the political calculations for just the Conservative Party underlying decisions which should be about the national interest in this mess. Similar calculations apply to Labour and in different ways to all parties.

These challenges will form a fascinating and complicated Venn diagram for future students of political science to study. However, there is no time left for that pontification now. Having proved unsurprisingly so comprehensively incapable of translating a binary, advisory referendum into a complex and lasting solution that commands political support, and having destroyed public trust in our politics in the process, MPs have a very small window in which they can show leadership and re-establish any measure of trust.

Today’s Order Paper is depressing. The Prime Minister’s politically confusing motion states the legal reality of what happens if no deal occurs. The response of the senior, cross-party group of MPs, who cannot agree on a way forward, is to kick the can down the road yet again, tabling an amendment that simply takes no deal off the table and ignores that legal reality. And tomorrow the Commons will vote on a motion for an extension and almost certainly do so without agreeing on a way forward that offers clarity to the public or Brussels. Even now, MPs are pretending to the public that we can secure an extension to continue this torturous farce by simply passing a motion in the House of Commons.

It is time for MPs to be honest about the options – and there are only three that make any sense, the Prime Minister’s deal having been rejected by Parliament so completely on two occasions:

  1. A hard Brexit with no deal;
  2. A revocation of Article 50 and remaining;
  3. A further referendum on the terms of the Prime Minister’s deal or remaining.

It is no good Labour’s lamentable front bench wittering on about another deal. It is no good ERGers bombastically proclaiming there are better ways to negotiate Brexit.

Brussels has been clear: there is no room for further negotiation. None at all. The talking is done.

There is also no transition without a deal.

And there is no extension without a credible and decisive way forward.

Politicians have sold the public varying visions of Britain’s future on the basis of gross oversimplification, to protect their own political interests. They must now grasp the nettle of the consequences of their untruths, and show the public they understand the clear choices they face, however difficult they are to make.

Yes, it will be politically painful. Yes, it might have destructive consequences for our political institutions – our parliament, our electoral system, and our failing ‘broad church’ political parties – but that is the price politicians must pay for their comprehensive failure.

 And that might just be a good thing.

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Truth and lies in public life

If a week is a long time in politics, 27 years has left our political landscape unrecognisable.

 In October 1992, four men were put on trial for obtaining export licenses by deception. They were alleged to have pretended that components intended for military use were actually being exported for civilian purposes. Their trial collapsed just a few weeks later when Alan Clark, a minister in the Department of Trade and Industry at the time of the alleged offence, admitted the government had known the intended purpose all along. Clark’s infamous description of his behaviour during the Supergun affair reworked a phrase that was coined during the Spycatcher trial: ‘economical with the truth’ became ‘economical with the actualité’.

What was government’s reaction? It established the Scott Inquiry, under Lord Justice Scott, which resulted in the publication in 1996 of the Scott Report, one of the most exhaustive examinations of the functioning of government ever.

I remember its publication well.

15 February 1996 was a Thursday. The excitement in Westminster was feverish. I had been working in Westminster for just six weeks. Sittings then had not been reformed and Thursday was a day of full government business, commencing with departmental questions at 2.30 pm and statements at 3.30 pm, business continuing until 10 pm. Prime Minister’s Questions was still a twice-weekly affair, with 15 minutes allocated at 3 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

As a junior researcher, I was pressed into action by the Whips’ Office I would later head, running down the stairs to the Vote Office to collect one of the huge boxes that contained all 1806 pages of the multi-volume report. Whilst ministers had eight days to prepare themselves for publication, the Opposition were given just two hours, under intense scrutiny. Publication was accompanied by a press pack giving choice quotes and positive spin, mitigating the worst of its impact.

Days of intense speculation led up to the next moment of parliamentary ‘high noon’ on February 26. The debate saw one of the finest parliamentary performances ever, from Robin Cook. This is a line with particular contemporary resonance:

The Government are fond of lecturing the rest of the nation on its need to accept responsibility. Parents are held responsible for actions; teachers are held responsible for the performance of their pupils; local councillors are held legally and financially responsible; yet, when it comes to themselves, suddenly, not a single Minister can be found to accept responsibility for what went wrong.

HC Deb 26 February 1996, 272, col. 604

John Major made the vote on a motion for the adjournment a matter of confidence in his government. He won on a knife-edge vote, by 320 votes to 319, my first moment of parliamentary drama.

The Conservative Party declared the report a victory as it exonerated ministers of the most serious charge of a cover-up that could have seen innocent men go to jail. 

So why return to a report that was written, published and debated before the youngest member of the House of Commons was born and which many regard as a failure?

I was prompted by a tweet from Anne Applebaum about Esther McVey, who has repeated a notorious  tweet regarding the EU and the Lisbon Treaty, long since debunked. Applebaum stated: ‘There are just no consequences for lying anymore, for anyone.’

She is right. Lying has become the new normal at every level of our democracy.

The Scott Report highlighted three areas of immense concern, lost in the jubilant spinning of the government:

  • The use of secondary legislation not properly scrutinised;
  • Lack of ministerial accountability;
  • Government withholding information necessary for proper decisions.

This quote summarises it neatly:

The main objectives of governments are the implementation of their policies and the discomfiture of opposition; they do not submit with enthusiasm to the restraints of accountability … governments are little disposed to volunteer information that may expose them to criticism … The enforcement of accountability depends largely on the ability of Parliament to prise information from governments which are inclined to be defensively secretive where they are most vulnerable to challenge.

The experience of the Scott Inquiry reminds us how little – in some regards – the experience of government has changed:

  • Ministers misleading the public;
  • Ministers misleading Parliament;
  • Ministers selectively quoting from reports to shore up a deceitful narrative;
  • Ministers withholding information that would undermine their position on the grounds of national interest;
  • Parliamentarians unable to scrutinise the executive as information is withheld;
  • The national interest subordinated to the interests of the governing party;
  • Government refusing substantive votes in favour of the meaningless.

But there are differences between then and now, particularly in terms of the responsibility taken by ministers and the Prime Minister for their collective actions – a responsibility that even back then the Scott Report found wanting in the ordinary processes of government.

In the 1990s, the Prime Minister was so concerned by the allegations of deception levelled against his own government that he established a judicial inquiry. Such was its seriousness that the sitting Prime Minister and his predecessor Margaret Thatcher gave evidence. Following publication of the report, and despite the inadequacy of the parliamentary motion, the government of the day accepted that its future would be decided by the result of that single vote.

In summary, a single instance of the government misleading the country and Parliament on a discrete area of policy was regarded as so significant as to require a three-year process that led to a report and a single parliamentary moment that all sides accepted was pivotal to the government’s entire future.

Today, everything that was true of government conduct highlighted by the Scott Report is also true today – but so much worse:

  • Ministers obfuscate and lie to Parliament with abandon;
  • Former ministers circulate misinformation to the public without a second thought;
  • Information is brazenly withheld from Parliament without even the pretence of national interest, precisely when parliamentarians are debating decisions that will affect the national interest for decades to come;
  • Parliamentary votes are disregarded and given little weight unless they support the government narrative;
  • Secondary legislation is being used on an industrial scale, with little if any meaningful scrutiny;
  • Factional party interests playing out shamelessly, with warring factions of the government and opposition seeking positional advantage;
  • Any honourable sense of ministerial responsibility for decision-making is abandoned.

Satisfying the unparliamentary monster that is ‘the will of the people’ has led politicians to give themselves permission to lie to voters and Parliament in order to shore up a narrative that is demonstrably untrue on pretty much every conceivable metric. In doing so, they have wrecked the proprieties that ensure functional parliamentary democracy, removing any sense of the constitutional markers by which such momentous decisions can be navigated. Perhaps the most shocking sign of how desensitised we have become to this lack of constitutional propriety is that a quick Google could replace any of the links above with a multitude of alternatives.

When you realise this is how a government acts when it has no majority, it makes you wonder about the level of contempt it would show for Parliament if it could get its own way on everything. If Brexit risks a catastrophe for our economic future, what it has done to the architecture of our democracy is even worse.

I can only imagine the speech Robin Cook would have made.

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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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