Saturday, September 30, 2006

Advice for the next PM

Many elements of Gordon Brown’s Labour Conference speech were received cautiously by all, not least his pledge to radically devolve power.

"Gordon the decentraliser" - try it for yourself. Say it out loud and see how it sounds.

Convinced? Me neither.

Here are a few things that - if he could be overheard talking about them – could change this perception. There are lots of decentralising platidudes that are the stock-in-trade of most politicians. But few of them address the balance of power-relations that are, in my view, the cause of the continued tendancy towards centralisation. I've knocked this list up in a few minutes and I'm not about to pretend that it's perfect, but it's a start.

However, as I’ve commented before, Gordon Brown takes inscrutability to new levels. With his track record, he’d need to speak to a crowded room and commit himself to any of this before it could be taken seriously. Here goes. He should announce his preferences for....
  1. A fully elected second chamber. A no-brainer really. If it were up to me, I’d hold an election two years after every general election. Make this chamber the one proposes and scrutinises legislation. Make the current House of Commons (with it’s strong local representation) the revising chamber. This would make MPs more locally accountable and less focussed on the duty that they think that they have to their political parties. It will create stronger local politicians who will become power-brokers. A cabinet full of these is better than the current situation where the PM has most of the patronage at his disposal.
  2. Proportional Representation – for the elected second chamber elections. Pick a form of PR that doesn’t involve party lists. One where you vote for individuals. This will further reduce the power of the Prime Minister.
  3. To Scrap party list systems in European Parliament elections and anywhere else, for that matter. Anything that can weaken the hold that political parties have over representatives is a good thing.
  4. To establish regional constituent assemblies. This would get regional government through the back door. No ‘constitutional’ rubbish. No demands for a referendum. Just give existing local Councillors more power. Give them a secret ballot to elect members to a constituent assembly. This assembly can scrutinise local quangos and RDAs and stuff. They can also be given some of Westminster's powers. And keep quiet about long-term plans to make these assemblies directly elected once they’ve proven themselves. This would make Councillors more powerful and presdigious. People might start to think about who they vote for (and vote) in local elections again. Currently, the public seem to use local elections to send a message to Westminster.
  5. To give local Councillors more power and resources. Commit to funding ‘member development’ projects. Train Councillors to communicate, consult, carry out local research and apply it to their policymaking. Ensure that political parties don’t have the monopoly on effective policymaking. Make the voluntary sector more responsible to Councillors if they run local services. If the public know who their Councillors are, and see it as an attractive role, local democracy will be enhanced.
  6. Commit to local neighbourhood governance – but say you won’t do it until you have completed a programme to increase the quality and capacity of local Councillors. Councillors should be the instrument of neighbourhood governance.
  7. Provide funding to political parties – but NOT for campaigning or organisation. Give them public money so that they can actually do real research – and not make it up as they go along. Fund them to train prospective candidates – ensuring that candidates reach a basic standard of competence in the skills needed for representation. Tell the parties that they will be expected to provide the top level of civil servants when they win an election. Then give out P45s to Permanent Secretaries and all of the other ballast that are always there - whoever wins the election.
  8. Encourage the social privatisation of local services. Do what Greenwich Council did with their leisure services – privatise them to a worker co-op of existing employees. This will ensure that people who care about local services are running them – and recycling surpluses as service improvements. Put Councillors on the boards of these companies.
  9. Put VAT on all ‘newspapers’ that are dominated by reportage rather than comment. Incentivise the bastards to report things rather than just make the facts up and then comment on them. (I know, this is my most sketchy proposal here – it needs a bit of fleshing out, but work with me on this, won’t you?)
  10. And, leaving the best till last, take all football teams into public ownership in some way or other (local rather than national government) and provide them with subsidies based upon their European ranking in, say, 1979 or 1980. This will foster local pride once more, as well as restoring the natural order of things.
By the way, that last point isn't as flippant as it seems - I thought it through a bit a while ago.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Fisking the DTI

I saw this a few months ago, but I keep checking back for updates. It’s worth a long look if you’ve got a moment.

Here’s the backstory. A few years ago now, the DTI issued an invitation to tender for their website. Fujitsu won the bid and – with a smaller agency partner - built what can only be described as a pile of crap that didn’t do a lot of the stuff that the tender demanded. And they charged at least twice as much as any decent agency would charge for the job. Whether the fault lies with the suppliers or the DTI, I don’t know. I’ve seen the way that the public sector manage projects so nothing would surprise me.

The good citizens at Blether.com have made a pretty convincing fist of caring about the quality of public websites. They started asking questions – using Freedom of Information legislation where they could. It was picked up by Private Eye and it’s caused no small amount of fuss. You can read all about it here – there’s a lot to the story as it has developed, so browse around the site to get it all.

In the industry that Mr Blether works in (and I declare an interest here, it’s my industry as well) it is kinda important to us that public websites should improve government’s ability to explain itself. Making Civil Servants present all of their work in a navigable and intuitive way can sharpen the blunt instrument that is Freedom of Information legislation.

We have the legislation that makes civil servants disclose stuff to us, but we also pay good taxpayers money to send them on courses where they learn how to remain as opaque as possible. To realise the potential of this legislation, information should be easy to find. It should be presented in an intuitive way. A well thought-out and properly implemented website can make this possible.

There is also the equality issue as well. Those websites should be easy and intuitive to use, and they shouldn’t exclude people because they have the kind of physical barriers that can be overcome quite simply using fairly standard technologies. For instance, if you have poor eyesight, it should be possible to alter text sizes or change font / background colours. The site should be laid out in a way that speech-browsers (e.g. readspeaker or JAWS) can read them out in a way that doesn’t make them incomprehensible.

And if you know anything about professional standards in website design, this issue is rendered to two words: Usability and accessibility.

Despite tortuous (and – again – expensive) guidance on how this should be done properly, the DTI website was launched showing only a nodding acquaintance with usability or accessibility standards and good practice, even though the original invitation to tender made the usual strenuous demands for the highest standards in this field.

It would probably take a large lorry-load of dynamite to thoroughly change this state of affairs, but in the meantime, fisking specific government projects would seem to be a powerful tool that the blogosphere has created. The Blether story - if it were duplicated (and there is plenty more ammo around for this) will help to galvanise a coalition of professionals to do something about it. There is definitely mileage in using Freedom of Information legislation to demand systematic changes that will result in real Freedom of Information.

It's Friday

Make your own Jackson Pollock. That one's mine, that is.

(hat tip Jah Jah Dub)

New look

'Ark a me. Nice eh?

I've updated the blogroll now as well. There may be a few new sites there that you haven't seen. Most of them are worth a look, otherwise they wouldn't be there - go on - try them if they're new to you.

I think I've put all of the sites that I regularly visit there, but I'm sure I've forgotten someone really important. If you're not there, or if you object to the classification that I've chosen for you, let me know and I'll fix it.

Probably.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Vote Slugger!

Mick Fealty's ground-breaking Slugger O'Toole blog is up for an award.

If you're so dumb that even a dog wouldn't look at you, and you don't understand why Slugger deserves this award, Mick has helpfully provided some good reasons of his own, but I doubt that anyone as astute as your good self needs this spelling out for you?

Good. What are you waiting for then? As they say in Norn Irn, vote early and ...
vote
vote
vote
....often.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Tide turning?

The other day, I went to a talk by someone called Michael Bayler. He outlined how the value chain within the media has just disintegrated over the last couple of years, and how - until recently - fast-moving-consumer-goods (FMCGs) could expect their sales to go up in some kind of direct correlation with their advertising or brand spend. Now, he said, it's not unusual for a 100% increase in spend to result in only a 1% increase in sales.

Someone else (Ross Sleight of Virgin Games I think?) quoted in-house BBC strategists who claim that - by 2011 - only two events could expect to attract over 10m viewers (a royal wedding or a World Cup Final involving England). Bearing in mind that 110 programmes cleared the 10m viewership mark in 1994, this illustrates the fragmentation of the mass media.

None of this is earth-shattering info of course. Both speakers were there to provide their audience with a primer rather than any deep insider info.

But there is one angle to this that I'd be interested in exploring. I've argued in an earlier post that the big structural problem that those of us with an interest in public policy should be addressing is centralisation. And that this centralisation is largely a direct result of the way that the mass media aggregate and simplify lots of small issues into a handful of fictional narratives, each with their own respective bunch of Aunt Sallies.

Where The Rovers Return and Annie's Bar become largely interchangeable.

But if the mass media is going to continue to change in this way, is it going to alter the centralising trajectory that government has been travelling on since the late 1950s? And does this provide Andrew with a suggestion about a constructive role for the blogosphere?

I'm not going to hazard an answer to this at the moment, but it's worth thinking about, isn't it?

Apropos of this, I've gone on a bit in the past about Digital Rights and how everything is changing. Here's a few posts from Bowblog that are worth a look:

Three from BowBlog:
1. iTunes and pricing power
2. Why Bowbrick hates DRM
3. The music industry - 'out of denial' shock?

Have a look, whydoncha?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Cultural protectionism?

In the mid-1990s, I did some research for a Labour MEP on European broadcasting regulations. This was a subject that I could never get anyone else remotely interested in, though it seemed very important to me.

Now, I have a blog and a handful of readers, so lets see if any of this surprises anyone.

I checked with Ofcom that nothing had changed since the last time I looked, and indeed it hasn't. Here is the summary that they sent me in an e-mail (finding anything worthwhile on their website was tellingly fruitless):

Article 4 of the EU Directive 89/552/EEC (usually known as the Television Without Frontiers Directive) requires that "where practicable" at least 50% of output (excluding news, sports events, games, advertising, teletext services and teleshopping) must be allocated to European works. "European works" are defined in Article 6 of the Directive. Basically they must be "mainly made" with authors and workers residing in one or more European state and made by producers established in those states. There are additional provisions for co-productions.

Section 278 of the Communications Act 2003 also requires that ITV1, Channel 4 and Five allocate appropriate proportions of their output, both in total and peak, to original productions. The actual amounts are set by Ofcom. The total amounts are as follows: ITV1 65%, Channel 4 60% and Five 55%. Equivalent requirements apply to the BBC television channels under the BBC's Agreement with the Secretary of State. The total amounts (which the BBC must agree with Ofcom) for BBC1 and BBC2 are 70%. "Original productions" are defined by statutory order and one of the requirements is that they must qualify as European works under the above Directive. Additional provisions are set out in the Order for co-productions.

Let me just translate that for you roughly. We, in the UK, apply European rules to ensure that the majority of all TV drama originates within the EU. And, in Britain, that effectively means... er... Britain.

Not only do we have this rule from the EU, it is one that we impose on ourselves more effectively, and with more gusto than any other EU country.

In terms of the real meat-and-spuds, we are easily Europe's most culturally protectionist country. Moreso than France.

And the only regret that I have in this front is that the rest of Europe aren't as zealous in this field as we are.

But my point is....

a) I bet you didn't know this?
b) I bet now that you do, you're a bit surprised?
c) I bet you realise just how significant this is in a world where audiovisual content is such a huge commodity?
d) I bet you also realise that the massive changes that are taking place in the way that such content is valued could have a significant effect on our economies and our lives? And that these changes - and technological developments - are going to make these rules very hard to defend?

So why, when I raise this - even here on Britain's brightest and most widely read blog - do I find it impossible to locate anyone else who thinks that this is either interesting or important?

Do let me know, won’t you?

A message to Banksy: Stop reading newspapers.

Have you seen Trevor Griffiths’ play ‘Comedians’? It’s very good. It’s all about a group of wannabe stand-up comics who start off by taking a lead from their teacher and concentrating on original, humane observational comedy.

The closer they get to their big chance, the more they abandon their original tack in favour of lower-risk approaches – appealing to the baser instincts of their audiences.

So you get lots of Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman jokes and a hint of Paki-bashing thrown in for good measure.

In ‘Comedians’ the comics become simple cheerleaders because they lack confidence in their own perceptions. Like Jeremy Hardy, they try and work out what their audiences want to hear, and give it to them in a form that they will recognise. Hardy does his reasearch, I suspect, by reading the letters page of The Guardian. (I admit, btw, that I've gone on about this before).

I mention this because I’ve just read Charlie Brooker writing about Banksy.

I’m not completely with Brooker on this in the same way as I wouldn’t dismiss Hardy out of hand because of his pilgerish world-view. I think Banksy is funny, audacious and talented. Some of his juxtapositions (such as Flowerchucker - above) are brilliant IMHO. The problem people like this is that they lose the confidence in their own messages. They believe that they have to explain where all of their messages are pointing to instead of trusting their audiences.

The moment that they start to soliloquise, they have to invoke narratives that they think people will recognise. And they think they can understand what people think by reading about it in newspapers.

The clowns.

By the way, apropos of nothing, I like Mel Brooks’ definition of comedy:

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

Friday, September 22, 2006

The dog that has never barked

A while ago, Shuggy went off on one of his cross-posted grumps. This time is was about Tony Blair and how pleasing his departure will be. Now I probably like Blair slightly less than Shuggy, yet I couldn’t summon up any energy to give a shit either way about his impending resignation.

Here’s the best I can offer to explain why (feel free to pick at this if you think I’m using too much shorthand).

Looking at Shuggy’s post, there were two outstanding features: Firstly, an annoyance with Blair’s illiberalism, his managerialism and so on. Secondly, frustration with Blair’s supporters. Those who tell us that There Is No Alternative (TINA). This latter point is, I think, the key to the others though.

Whether it refers to the inductive and bastardised Hayekianism (?) that was Thatcherism, or the more complex muddle that is The Third Way, TINA is a peculiarly British phenomenon. And – I would contend – it is entirely a product of our remarkable degree of political centralisation.

We have no bicamereralism to speak of here. No separation of powers. Our local government is terrifically weak and undignified and cabinets are picked by the Prime Minister – not the other way around. Even New Labour’s nod towards decentralisation – devolved administrations – are confined to policy areas that are, at best, administrative rather than visionary in character.

This is, to my mind, the dog that has never barked in this country. We are massively centralised in a way that no other liberal democracy that I can think of would tolerate.

I can only turn to textbooks to fully understand Thatcherism, but ‘Blairism’ is something I saw at close hand. I know, slightly, a lot of the people that buttressed the project. And I’m inclined to believe that it was the same as Thatcherism in one way; that is was a project that you couldn’t define easily to a visitor from outer space. It wasn’t intellectually coherent in the way that other ideologies are.

Yet, if you lived in Britain in the 1990s and you were interested in politics, you knew exactly what it was. All you had to do to understand it was to try and think yourself into TB’s shoes, see the world from his standpoint, and allow that to shape your position. It was so easy to communicate the values of The Third Way that Labour was not only able to do so, but to do it in a way that party discipline was maintained better than ever before.

That position had simple objectives: to remove the Tories from office and deprive them of it for the foreseeable. Do as much good as you can, by all means, but the real service that you do your country is to deny the Tories the chance to fuck things up any further. Brian Clough (pbuh) always used to tell his players that “as long as the other team haven’t got the ball, they can’t score”. And it’s a reasonable story to tell your activists as well. It still partly explains my own continued willingness support Labour. Impoverished ambition, I know.

The slavish shadowing of lower-middlebrow tabloid approaches to education or law and order can be understood in the context of a developed version of Kinnockite ‘realism’. We get ill-thought-out policies and political short-termism, precisely because there is an army of people who have a simple job: ensuring that the Prime Minister is offered only easy choices. Everything he does must be structured to ensure that he will not be blamed for the consequences.

He must not be ‘embarrassed’ to use the nauseating shorthand of this shower of tosspots. In politics, we are all Pawns, Bishops or Rooks to our King. In other countries, the game is more multi-dimensional. Managerialsim, in particular, must surely be seen as a direct consequence of this ecology at the top of government? The need to communicate acheivements and win arguments rather than actually doing anything that is subjectively worthwhile.

But in a state as centralised as this, all government must surely be thus? Oddly, it could also explain the occasionally pleasing clarity that we see in the UK’s approach to foreign policy. Unfortunately, it also explains the simplicity thereof.

This state of affairs places almost every other politician – particularly those that are not the leaders of the ruling party or the main opposition party – in a specially nasty position. They are obliged to participate in this fraud. The alternative is an impotence and obscurity that is even more complete.

For this reason, I'd always argue that politicians deserve more pity and less scorn. In their youth, many of them put all of their chips on the ‘I want to change the world’ square while their peers were off learning a profitable trade. By the time that they reach a good enough vantage point to see that they have signed a faustian pact, it is too late.

So, Shuggy, the real problem isn’t Blair. It isn’t even the messianic ‘TINA’ position adopted by his supporters. It is the bizarre level of political centralisation that we quietly tolerate in this country. None of the likely successors to Blair seem inclined to change this (indeed, Irn Broon is likely to be even worse than Mr Tony in this respect).

It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government will get in again next time. The remedy I’d propose here is a campaign to promote decentralisation and local democracy – a campaign that aims to reduce the malign power of the media, the civil service, business, political parties and pressure groups. The remedy is to offer more power to individual elected representatives at all levels (and to have an elected second chamber).

I won’t bother launching it now though - this post is already far too long.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

More Pilge

Pilge here.

Reason

Arentcha just tired of the way some words just never change their meaning?

Well, the term 'reason' has been redefined at long last.

About time too!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Disgusting shit: update

Have you seen the piece that Jonathan Steele had in the Guardian about Darfur the other day?

It repays a close reading. The overall tone is a fatherly lecture to the kind of idealists who just think that something ought to be done.

Steele’s contention is that it would be counterproductive. Yet, you don’t really find out why until near the end of the article. Indeed, he doesn’t even pretend that the humanitarian question should be his prime concern when writing about this issue. He starts by hinting that any intervention would simply provide cover for some imperialist regime change project.

He hints (but provides no rebuttal) that humanitarian pressure groups are exaggerating the scale of the problem or inventing new dimensions to it (he mentions slavery specifically). He suggests that things aren’t as simple as they appear and that all sides in the conflict share the blame.

And there’s plenty more pilgevision in there, bulking out the heart of his article. But only near the end of the article – the penultimate paragraph – do you get the claim that….

"No foreign peacekeepers, whether AU or UN, can monitor all the vast terrain of Darfur." and ...."the "something must be done" brigade will be upset, but sending foreign troops into Sudan without Khartoum's consent would be nothing short of disaster."

Now, this is, potentially, a powerful argument. Anyone who argues for ‘humanitarian intervention’ – as I often do - has to be aware to the huge elephant trap in their own position: That the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That you shouldn’t start something that you can’t finish.

And, for fans of counterintuitive arguments (I'm one) I'd be interested to hear of any substantial arguments on how an intervention in Sudan, at this moment in time, is a nice idea in principle, but one that won't work in practice. Personally, I've no idea on how much of the suffering in Darfur can be alleviated by any intervention. I’m just prepared to defend the principle that, if something can be done, it should be done.

But Steele presents no such argument, because he's quite prepared to offer his undergraduate understanding of national sovereignty (ask Norm if you want that nonsense shredding for you) as a reason why nothing practical can be done to stop civilian slaughter on a huge scale.

There are no facts of any substance presented to contradict the ..er... contention that armed peacekeepers, provided by countries that are capable of providing them, are likely to be useful in stopping armed groups that already have an impressive track record in murdering hundreds of thousands of people because of their ethnicity, or that any alternative strategy that might offer a better outcome. Only a contention in the penultimate para. An unsupported, unsubstantiated, contention.

For instance, we could ask…

  • Does Steele know the geography well enough to write with any authority on this?
  • Does he have any expertise in peacekeeping?
  • Does he have any idea of the numbers and ordinance required to do such a job properly (and can he contrast this figure with the numbers that the perfidious ‘international community’ are prepared to offer)

And so on. You know the kind of stuff you'd ask him about if you were an editor considering one of his articles for publication. If I were making the argument that it isn’t practical, then I’d bulk out my article with this kind of information rather than the yesbuttery that makes up the bulk of this 1200-word dungheap.

Such is his lack of confidence. This ‘impracticality’ contention of his should be seen for what it is: nothing more than an arse-covering exercise. Given that tens – maybe hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake on this issue, it would be impossible to write an article such as this without at least making such a contention. It is simply indecent not to actually substantiate what should be a central claim.

Given the lack of substantiation, we can only conclude that this waffle is supposed to be arguing that humanitarian intervention is wrong in principle – no matter what the circumstances or how many lives are at stake.

So we get lots of pseudo-granularity instead. The little details that show that what is happening in Darfur isn't quite as simple as a few running-dog-lackeys for imperialism would have you believe.

Barely any mention anywhere in Steele's article of the hundreds of thousands of murders unless he adds a bit of pilgeresque qualification. "But the rebels also committed atrocities, a fact that was rarely reported since it upset the black-and-white moral image that many editors preferred." Sound familiar? Well, if you'll remember, Serbian nationalism wouldn't have existed without the KLA?

Of course, it wouldn't occur to him that the need to stop it from happening might take priority over the apportioning of blame or the integrity of his unreconstructed Vietnam-demo worldview. You have to wait for the penultimate paragraph to get a passing reference (cloaked in the fog of war, of course) that...

"...many of Khartoum's critics suspect the government has not abandoned its indiscriminate bombing raids and excessive use of force against rebel villages."
The ambivalence is breathtaking. One simple unqualified reference to the central issue - that of civilian murder, ethnic cleansing on a monstrous scale, and the need to put an end to it - would quite simply blow Steele's entire argument out of the water. That's why the scumbag hasn't the decency to address it properly.

Simplification - such as this, and the clarity that we should have the right to expect from someone who is paid to write - are, it seems polar opposites in hands such as these. And, in years to come, articles like this one by Jonathan Steele (waived through by a shit-for-brains section editor, and put on the page without a dozen questionmarks in blue pencil from a sub-editor) will be held up as textbook examples of the applied idiocy that has infected left-liberal commentary at the start of the twenty first century.

For once, Comrade Will Rubbish is guilty of understatement. Off you go, Will, get that Profanisaurus of yours out. "Disgusting shit" doesn't even scratch the surface this time.

Update: Freemania picks up a few strands that I decided to leave out, for the sake of .... er.... brevity.

A massive omission....

.....from Dead Socialist Watch for the 20th September.

You could chip in to the statue fund if you like?

Brian Howard Clough (21 March 1935 – 20 September 2004).

Genius
Socialist
God

Monday, September 18, 2006

Child blackmail - continued

Remember this poor little boy? (one of my biggest referrers this year has been the BBC website, which mirrored this story)

Well, I've also saddled him with an allegiance to County Mayo. Yesterday, we watched them playing The Kingdom of Kerry in the All-Ireland (Gaelic) Football Final.

Mayo were drubbed. There were tears. Note the slumped shoulders.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Time for action

Time for the UN to live up to it's promises on collective action to stop genocide.

If there was ever a moment for clarity, this is it.

But you wouldn't believe it, looking at the comments here.







Splendid TV

Had the phone unplugged for the weekend so far, so as not to have the BBC 4 Stiff Records retrospective disturbed.

I'd forgotten just how good The Blockheads really were. I'd forgotten Lene Lovich altogether.

And I never realised that Any Trouble were actually quite good in the first place.

I wasn't videoing when a Dr Feelgood clip came on (doing Roxette with the Wilko lineup) - damn.

A message from Palookaville

I didn't make the top 100 Labour bloggers.

I coulda been a contender, but it wasn't my night.

But, Iain Dale was slightly rumbled in the comments
here - but I'm sure that the ommision has nothing to do with sour grapes or a thin skin Iain? ;-)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Friends and family notice

I know that the blogroll here needs weeding, and that I’ve not done the courtesy of linking to lots of good sites that link here. I'm not ignorant. Just lazy.

It’s in hand, I promise. And, like Tom, my site is a bit to close, designwise, to a certain toerag for comfort. So a new look is also in the offing.

Just don’t hold your breath (not that you would).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Anonymously

I'm off to Brighton for the TUC Annual Congress tomorrow.

I've got a few meetings with some of The Brothers. Maybe I'm psychic or something, but somehow, I forsee that some of them may take place in a bar.

Apparently this year, I may also run into some evangelists for AA.

On a serious note, I don't think I can name an institution that I value more highly that AA and it's sister organisation Al-Anon. If it weren't for the anonymous bit, there are thousands of AA sponsors who should have statues in their honour in every town square in the country.

On a less serious note, what do you think that Gamblers Anonymous' motto is?

Could it be "Bet you don't know who we are"?

Taking the piss

A few days ago, Matt at Fisking Central had a go at Steve Bell, The Groan’s long-standing chief cartoonist.

“People actually see these things, nod in agreement, then spout about how, 'George Bush really is as stupid as a monkey'. And cartoonists, sadly, are now aiming at this audience. Satire has become straight-forward piss-taking, and it rarely works on that level.

Satire is supposed to reveal something we don't know, make us think about public figures, and occasionally policy, in a new and different way.”

Well, as I said earlier, ‘The Thick of It’ does that I think

I suppose I should reply to this with a rant about the absurd way that sensible discussion is made almost impossible by the way that complex forces are routinely either ignored, or simplified and given celebrity avatars of one kind or another.

But, seeing as I’ve been doing a bit of that lately, I’ll leave it for now.

However, I would like to ask a question about how comedy and serious issues can work together. Comedians, like songwriters, are at their best when they allow their work to take on a life of its own. If you set out to write a song in order to make a point, you usually end up with a tortuous bit of sixth-form poetry set to a three-chord trick. You get Billy Bragg’s ‘It Says Here or Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp The Dirt Down” when you could be getting ‘St Swithins Day’ or ‘New Lace Sleeves’ instead.

The exception seems to be when a songwriter sets out to say something in a particular way. So, Gil Scott-Heron, for example, in ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is mucking around with a particular way of saying something. The song doesn’t have any particular objective – it doesn’t make concrete criticisms or suggestions like Bragg or Costello, instead he draws fruitful parallels. It’s a funny song as well as one that’s mad as hell about everything.

“You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver's seat.”

The same is true, I would suggest, with jokes. I went to see Jeremy Hardy a while ago with Mrs NTaH. When he’s not trying to say anything specific, Hardy is a fantastically talented and inventive comic. But when he sets out to make a point, he gets a touch of the Billy Braggs as well. When I saw him, the audience (mostly sympathetic to his Pilge-simpleton view of the world I suspect) tittered along nervously while he told us just how mad Bush was. But you could tell when he had dropped the breifing from pseudo-central and started freestyling.

His talent for observational humour came to the fore, and he's hilarious at it.

I’m not (just) saying this just because I think his politics stink. If Jeremy Hardy were to stop trying to say things, and just …er…. say things, I suspect he’d start getting more bookings again.

Similarly, Steve Bell is only really funny when he’s picking up on the random ticks that individuals in the public eye have. His ‘I’m norra fookin dog’ characterisation of Prescott is funny despite the point that he’s trying to make. Not because of it.

Matt is right. He’s good at piss-taking. But you can take the piss out of absolutely anybody, can’t you? What does that prove?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Humour and the absence of humour

Item one: Woman with no sense of humour
Motorist Laurie Ward was chuffed when she was let off a parking ticket after explaining her child being sick had delayed her.

But she wasn't so pleased when a council letter demanded: "Could you please make sure your daughter only vomits within your pay and display time in future?"
Ta Aidan

Item two: Woman with sense of humour

Mrs Ruby Kasawaya:
"You can wait nine hours for a police officer to come out after you've been burgled, but the minute that two of their officers say they've been taken hostage there are eight of them outside your door."
Ta Scribbles

Heavens knows they're miserable now

Arch-Blairites with a sense of humour.

Luke and Linda, that is.

At times like this, you need something to fall back on.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Exalted decade

The real reason … ahem …. some people have for blogging is nothing to do with adding to the sum of human knowledge. For instance, I couldn’t comment on the claim that weblogs are a place to have a second crack at arguments that you lost in the pub.

ANYWAY. I still think that everyone else is wrong and that the 1980s was the best decade for popular music. And to prove it, on my way home from the pub, I made a list of the bands that I was able to go and see in small / medium size venues during that exalted decade:

  • Madness
  • The Blades
  • Aswad
  • The Jam
  • Dexys Midnight Runners
  • The Pogues
  • Kid Creole and the Coconuts
  • Ian Dury and the Blockheads
  • The Damned
  • The Men they Couldn’t Hang
  • The Purple Hearts
  • The Beat
  • PiL
  • The Temptations
  • Tom Waits
  • The Pretenders
  • The Comsat Angels
  • Clint Eastwood and General Saint
  • The Undertones
  • Working Week
  • The Cramps
  • Martin Stephenson and the Daintees
  • Steve Earle
  • Hackney Five-O
  • The Mighty Lemon Drops
  • The Stranglers
  • The Housemartins
  • Stiff Little Fingers
  • U2
  • The Fall
  • Bauhaus
  • The Birthday Party (supporting Bauhaus)
  • The Stars of Heaven
  • The Smiths
  • The Screaming Blue Messiahs
  • Restless
  • The Jesus and Mary Chain
  • Teardrop Explodes
  • Robyn Hitchcock
  • REM
  • Vic Goddard and the Subway Sect
  • The Selecter
  • Elvis Costello and the Attractions
  • Dwight Yoaham
  • The Boomtown Rats
  • Riot of Colour
  • Courtney Pine
  • Wah Heat!
  • The Stone Roses
  • Black Uhuru
  • Echo and the Bunnymen
  • The Boothill Foot-tappers
  • Thin Lizzy
  • Nine Below Zero

And, of course, The Pioneers of the Sacred Heart, live, in small / medum sized venues, or on the student circuit.

I’d be happy to hop into a time machine and go to any of those gigs again, but I’d say that Teardrop Explodes, the Daintees, The Cramps, The Boomtown Rats (!), Black Uhuru, The Fall, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Bauhaus, The Birthday Party were the real outstanding ones. Them, The Pogues (obviously – and their 1986 Hammersmith Palais gigs were their best ones IMHO), and the best single live set I ever saw was from…. The Woodentops with their multimedia set at the ICA in London. Just for the lockjawed positivity of the whole thing.

There's not a great selection YouTube and this doesn’t do justice to them, but, here goes….





In addition, looking at the list, a lot of black music was fairly unrepresented on the cheapo gig circuit at the time, so I’m probably making the case that the 1980s was the best decade to see the bands that would play provincial shitholes. But I’d be happy to make the case for that decade being pretty fantastic for soul, hip hop, electro, soul-jazz and dancehall records as well.


(Missing counter-arguments please in the comments. Let me start with James.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Tough on Blair. Tough on the causes of Blairism

An old friend of mine is a fairly senior civil servant in one of the bigger government departments. He insists that Armando Iannucci's ‘The Thick of It’ is a credible documentary rather than a satire.

That the portrait of hapless ministers being buffeted between their own civil servants and the demands of the PM’s press officers, he argues, provides an accurate depiction of the circumstances that surround policy making these days.

There’s probably some truth in this observation. It’s certainly a more convincing explanation than the crude and self-righteous one that I’ve found on the letters page of my newspaper yesterday. A Mr Richard Bryant-Jefferies from Great Bookham in Surrey says:

“Do [politicians] turn on their leader because of questionable policies? No. They turn on them because their seats are at risk. Selfish to the end.”

A sensible, balanced explanation that takes account of all of the factors that are brought to bear on politicians? Or a fatuous piece of fuckwittery? You decide.

But why do politicians and civil servants routinely behave in this absurd way? There must be a reason.

I would suggest that – as with so many things – the quantity and quality of scrutiny that is placed upon them determines the quality of their work. So, for example, no England football manager is ever likely to succeed again until the quantity of ‘stakeholders’ that he has to report to is reduced, and their quality goes up some way above the current ‘simpleton’ standard of popular sports journalism.


Cont >>

*********

Service notice: before the next set of *********s you will find a standard NTaH rant about how wretched political journalists are, and how everything is All Their Fault. Chris links to lots more of this elsewhere. Skip past it if you've read it all a dozen times before. But bear in mind, I blog as therapy. Better out than in.....
Cont>>

Similarly politicians. Their job appears to be to appease a gaggle of shit-for-brains that makes up our paid commentariat. And the influence of those useless spiteful hacks can be seen by taking a random sample of the letters pages in any of our broadsheet newspapers.

Because I’d like to suggest to you that the letters pages of daily newspapers probably tell us more than weblogs do about the state of public debate, and the influence that journalist have upon it. We bloggers often don't bother reading newspapers much. Readers letters are usually written in response to newpaper articles and are subject to the same demands - keep it short and simple or go on the spike.

And, I would suggest that these letters are important because politicians tend to assume that the letters page is an accurate representation of the views of an influential section of the population. (I'd also suggest that this is an underestimation of the people who read those letters, but never mind that for now).

Where the letters are in response to the domestic political coverage in the previous days’ rag, they seem to exaggerate the excesses of punditvision.

Looking at yesterday’s Groan again, for example on Tony’s departure date, for example someone called Gus Pennington says…

“most voters have made their own position abundantly clear: the man must go and quickly.”

Now, while none of the clowns that are paid to comment on this kind of thing would make the same point quite as explicitly, the implication is there every time this question is covered er…. ‘professionally’. Yet there is no evidence offered that any more than a fraction of the people who DO give a Flying Fuck about the Prime Minister’s career have changed the trajectory of that FF since the election last year.

They also provide more transparent examples of the habit that journalists have of conflating a number of points to restate a cherished viewpoint.

In addition, a few weeks ago, I sent you off to read Pierre Bourdieu’s book on TV and journalism. You haven’t read it yet, have you?

If you had, you’d know that one of Bourdieu’s central planks is that what he calls the demagogic simplification of public affairs often takes the form of personalising complex issues in order to make them somehow more interesting or relevant.

So, again, on yesterday’s letters page Nigel Farage MEP (UKIP) sez…

“… for the UK to remain in the European Union means that our trade policy is dictated from Brussels by Peter Mandelson, and any trade negotiations will exclude the British government….”

Conflation, simplification and personalisation all wrapped up in less than one sentence. All of those devices are, of course, integral to almost every piece of political reporting these days. Journalists are just under an obligation to be a bit more circumspect than Mr Farage.

*********

So far, this has been a standard NTaH rant. If you've read anything here before, it was probably a similar post to this one. I know most of this is a bit obvious, and probably doesn’t need saying as often as I say it. But I’m restating it here as part of a rebuttal to Councillor Bob in the comments from the other day. I think (and I’m only guessing) that Bob is implying that my irritation with the coverage of Blair’s Impending Resignation springs from some kind of suspicion on his part that I may have to support the twerp.

Well, Bob, I don't. I’d suggest that, as long as our standard of public debate and the reporting thereof stays the same, we will forever have to put up with highly centralised government, obsessed by short-term targets designed to appease simplistic hacks, with some version of Mr Tony at it’s head.

Not only do I want to see Tony Blair’s departure, I also don’t want any more like him. But we're going to get more of the same for the forseeable because very few people are making the case that we need to be tough on the causes of Blairism at the moment.

Global Day for Darfur

Just got this e-mail from the Unite Against Terror list:

On September 17 2006, people around the world will take part in a Global Day for Darfur to show world-wide support for the Darfuri people and to put pressure on our Governments to protect the civilians. (Details can be found on the dayfordarfur website, from which this is drawn).

Despite the signing of a Darfur peace agreement on 5 May 2006, the violence in western Sudan has not stopped; in fact, in some parts of Darfur, the violence has grown worse.

People are still being killed and raped and displaced -- every single day.

Since 2003, between 200,000 and 400,000 people are believed to have been killed or seriously injured and more than two million people have been displaced. At this moment, over 3.5 million people risk starvation if the violence does not cease and adequate humanitarian aid is not provided.

Since the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement on May 5 of this year, conditions have actually deteriorated, and the possibility of a dramatic increase in death rates is increasingly real.

The Global Day for Darfur on September 17, 2006 will be an unprecedented effort to end this ongoing tragedy. International activists and organizations around the world are organizing a coordinated effort to urge the international community to:

  • Strengthen the understaffed and overwhelmed African Union peacekeeping force now. We must offer extra help to the African peacekeepers already on the ground.
  • Transition peacekeeping responsibilities to a stronger UN force as soon as possible. The UN must deploy peacekeepers with a strong mandate to protect civilians.
  • Increase aid levels and ensure access for aid delivery. Shortfalls in aid continue to mean that people are at risk of starvation. Humanitarian organizations must have unfettered access to all who need help.
  • Implement the Darfur Peace Agreement. For the violence to end, all parties to the agreement, in particular the Sudanese Government, must live up to their responsibilities.

Event planning is underway in New York, London, Paris, Abuja, Toronto, Cairo, Kigali, and Moscow -- among many other cities. We encourage you to attend one of these events or organize an event of your own. Join the Global Day for Darfur to build awareness about the crisis and mobilize support for this international campaign.

Noah. Every day for six years.

Noah Kalina
2356 days between 2000 and 2006





Ta Oliver.

Cuba

A good post from Dave Osler.

That's all.

Pilge

Welcome, newcomers. If you’re here, it’s probably because Pootergeek sent you. *Blush*

But, on the off chance that you took another route here, maybe you haven’t seen his guest’s post? Go on, have a look.

A question for you. Is Pilger THE worst journalist writing today, or could somebody else provide a name for the low-water mark?

I think that some kind of award may be in order, you see.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ya beauty

If you've got time on your hands (I haven't for now - thus the thin posting), then try this flash game.

Lovely. But impossible.

(hat tip: Anthony)

Oh you tedious twat

This is what your licence fee is paying for. An illuminating insight into the complex power-relations that underpin the modern state?

No. Instead you get Nick Robinson:
"... Downing Street loyalists.... undying allegiance to the PM .... private document has leaked into the public domain.... causing not just red faces but cries of anguish..... mounting anxiety....."




It's party conference time kids! I've been to a few in the past. I know where the press gallery drink. Anyone fancy joining me for a pie-fest?

I bagsy Robinson and Michael White.

Monday, September 04, 2006

His Nibs. Latest.

The Enigma

I finished reading David Peace’s ‘The Damned Utd’ about five hours after starting it.

I’d read it too if I were you. It tries to reconstruct a scenario that few people are willing to act as reliable witness to.

For example, all of the various biographies of The Almighty One have interviews with Leeds players who assure us that they didn’t really put the boot in. That Brian got them all wrong, and that “if he’d just been given a bit longer….. personally, I'd have given him my all .... mutual misunderstanding.... all directors fault …. you know what football directors are like….” Etc.

Of course, anyone who claims that Clough wasn’t good enough for Leeds Utd was comprehensively discredited within five years of his leaving.

But there is one illuminating quote (in Patrick Murphy’s ‘His Way’ biography) that hints at what other Leeds players were experiencing.

Speaking about working with Himself again at Forest, John O’Hare said:

“To the Forest lads, he was brash enough, but we knew him when he was really full of himself. He wasn’t breezing around so much, picking on anyone for the hell of it.”

Elsewhere, on the same page ….

“John McGovern …. Noticed that Clough’s energy wasn’t as demonic as before, he seemed to be channelling his efforts more constructively.”

The thing is, I can see what everyone's problem with Clough was. You don't need to read very far between the lines to draw the conclusion that he was quite capable of being a complete piss-taker.

The trick was knowing when he wasn't being one.

A semi-retraction

A while ago, I posted this moany post.

Well, the wrong has been righted, and I'm grateful for this.