The Worcester Libertarian

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Slow Death of Investigative Journalism

With the public outrage over phone hacking, the spectacle of Leveson, and the furore over The Sun’s printing nude pictures of Prince Harry, there has been some debate of the role of the press in the UK, and whether investigative journalism is now in terminal decline.

Traditionally it has been the job of reporters to question those who hold positions of power, and to hold them to account on behalf of society.  This role as a watchdog has been cherished by journalists since the origins of newspapers, and reporters were described as ‘the Fourth Estate of power and the most important of them all, by Edmund Burke in the Eighteenth Century.

Investigative journalism fulfils an important social function, providing the public with the factual information about the institutions of power that govern their lives.  Without journalists providing this otherwise unobtainable information, citizens would not be able to make rational economic or electoral decisions.  Investigative journalism can be best defined as acting in the public interest; detecting or exposing crime, or serious impropriety; protecting public health and safety; preventing the public from being misled; and protecting the freedom of expression itself.

Investigative journalism is in decline in the British media, especially on television, which was for many decades a world leader in this form of reporting, with programmes such as World in Action, Panorama and The Cook Report.  However the decline in ratings for current affairs generally has led to fewer resources and opportunities for investigative journalism, and led to replacement programmes which critics have dubbed ‘investigative journalism lite’.

Since the 1980s, there has been an increased emphasis placed on the profitability of news outlets.  This has had a profound effect on investigative journalism, as in the past reporters sought stories which were newsworthy in their own right and this dictated whether a story was thoroughly investigated.  Now journalism serves the market place, and it is market concerns that control the content and operations of reporters.  Investigative journalism is expensive, and many outlets have shunned this type of reporting in favour of less costly and populist news stories.  This shift has had a negative effect on reporting and stark consequences for democratic society, as journalists neglect the watchdog role of the news media, instead concentrating on the commercial concerns of their organisation.

Journalists are under immense time and financial constraints.  Time and efficiency are vital in modern investigative journalism; a reporter may have a brilliant investigation, but if all the information cannot be gathered and translated into copy for a financially viable cost, it is not likely to be approved by management.  The Guardian’s Nick Davies suggests that the economic constraints are now so severe that the modern reporter cannot possibly meet the journalistic standards of accuracy or the truth seeking imperative, and that most journalists today are reduced to simply regurgitating press releases or public relations ‘spin’.

The convergence of media in recent times has created a climate of confusion for news organisations.  They are struggling to understand how to adapt to the changing requirements of their consumers, and which strategies to adopt as new technologies offer a variety of different platforms for disseminating news.  This has led to different divisions of media conglomerates competing against each other in some instances, and when one platform becomes a profitable forum for content, it is adopted by traditionally different media types.  Therefore a news consumer is likely to find a newspaper, for example, will have a web-site which will not only carry text from their publication, but videos which were once the preserve of broadcasters.

The internet has become the ‘go to point’ to find information, for the public as well as reporters.  This has had a massive effect on journalism in general, and to a certain extent has removed the power as a gatekeeper that was once the preserve of news organisations.  It is now possible for those who wish to disseminate information to the public, to do so using web based distribution, thereby bypassing the filtering of the gatekeepers.  The internet has had some positive effects on investigative journalism, notably in providing information for, or to base investigations on.  The emergence of sites like Wiki-Leaks has meant that previously hidden information has become more readily accessible, and on the surface might appear to threaten traditional reporting.  However, the site’s creators have realised that the volume and crude nature of the data they hold is difficult to interpret, and they have formed partnerships with traditional media organisations, to utilise the skills of investigative journalism to process the information and create accessible stories for public consumption.

Investigative journalism has led to some of the most important news stories in modern times and has proved the fourth estate title claimed by journalists is still valid, even if such stories are less frequent.  Perhaps the most famous investigative story is that of the Watergate scandal, a story which has become so well known that the ‘gate’ suffix is often added to large exposes ever since.  Another more recent example of the value of investigative journalism is the MPs expenses scandal, which culminated in the publication of embarrassing and in some cases illegal claims made by British members of parliament in The Daily Telegraph during the summer of 2009.

Journalism is a job which has responsibilities; to provide the public with information, to verify the truth of that information, and to hold the powerful to account.  These responsibilities are essential to maintain a functioning democratic society.  As Watergate and the MPs expenses scandal highlight, there is a constant necessity for journalists to seek and expose those who abuse positions of power; however investigations on the scale of Watergate would be unlikely today, and the MPs expenses were pursued by an individual campaigner. 

Investigative journalism is expensive, but it is definitely not a luxury.  It is vital to safeguard our political and civic society, and is the only line of defence against the erosion of democratic institutions; its decline should cause great concern.  It may be that the internet may eventually compensates for this decline, but it will still need investigative journalists to make wider society aware of corruption, and to fulfil the watchdog obligations of the media.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Falklands Conflict: Jingoism, Censorship and the Media

Max Hastings described the Falklands War as “a freak of history, almost certainly the last colonial war that Britain will ever fight.”  The conflict was complicated by the fact that it took place at the height of the cold war.  The British government, preoccupied with the Soviet Union, had reduced the size of the Royal Navy, reconfiguring it as a mainly submarine force concentrated in the Northern Atlantic.

Although this was a territorial dispute, military conflict was far from inevitable.  The cause of the war had more to do with diplomatic misunderstanding and bureaucratic ineptitude than anything else.  Almost everyone in Britain was utterly unprepared for this war.  The media, the government, as well as the public were caught by surprise when the Argentineans invaded Port Stanley.

There has always been suspicion between soldiers and war reporters, and mistrust was very evident during this conflict.  These suspicions were intensified by the isolated nature of the battlefield, which meant that the British government was able to control access to the warzone and reports from it.  There was to be no foreign observer.  No journalist deemed by the MOD to be unsympathetic or independently minded.

Robert Harris claimed that the Falklands Conflict was the worst reported British war, since the Crimea in 1854.  It was characterised by poor communications as copy had to be sent by ‘ships radio’, which was only permitted when the navy was not using the system.  It took three weeks for television film to get back to the UK, and it was then vetted by a MOD censor.  This meant that no pictures of the land fighting phase or images of injured British soldiers were seen by the public until after the ceasefire.

The MOD’s control of information enabled the military to operate an effective propaganda regime during the fighting.  The journalists on the scene were unable to report objectively because of the censorship and denial of information.  This was compounded by an editorial policy in much of the UK press which was largely gung ho and non-dissenting.  Indeed, for the Sun, it was no longer acceptable to express any criticism for either the Conflict or the Government’s handling of it.  They lambasted Peter Snow and the Guardian, but their greatest venom was saved for the Mirror, who were accused of treason, and appeasing the Argentine dictators.

Perhaps one of the more significant consequences of the Falklands War was that it changed the style and manner that the British press would report their county’s wars in future.  This change was instigated by the Sun’s patriotic jingoism and sloganeering headlines, exemplified by the infamous ‘Gotcha’ headline to report the sinking of the Argentine ship Belgrano.  The Sun covered the war as if it was a video game or a comic strip, and as such, the jubilant and crass ‘Gotcha’ was their logical response.  The Sun’s reporting had come to represent a fantasy war, where plucky little Britain was fighting an Argentine super villain.

The ‘Gotcha’ headline appalled most media commentators, as well as many of the British troops, who believed the Argentine soldiers were fighting a fair war, and should therefore deserve respect.  They knew that it could be themselves who drowned tomorrow.  A message was sent from the Canberra troop carrier to the Sun’s offices, asking for a hundred copies of that day’s newspaper.  They added that they had run out of toilet paper.  Private Eye satirised the Sun’s jingoism with the mock headline “Kill an Argie: Win a Metro!” to which the Sun's editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, responded by saying: “Why didn’t we think of that?”

The viciousness of the Sun during the Falklands can be seen as part of wider social and political change in Britain, of a new Conservatism, based on a muscular economic model and distain of the liberal intelligentsia.  As the chief cheerleader for this ‘new order’, the Sun was eager to portray its opponents as unpatriotic or treacherous, consequently suffocating their expressive creativity in the public sphere.  The legacy of this attitude towards debate during a time of war has resulted in a media who tend to uncritically identify with ‘our boys’ and report military action in a sensationalist, populist and simplistic way.

It has been widely assumed that it was bureaucratic errors which led to the MOD failing to give the public truthful facts during the fighting.  However, the Falklands Conflict will be remembered as a classic example of how a government and military can control news during a war.  During the fighting the British government suppressed information and used the Official Secrets Act to ensure that editors complied with censorship.  The MOD gave its own daily briefing in an attempt to circumnavigate the free media to take control of the news agenda.

The Falklands Conflict was a pivotal event in war reporting.  In subsequent Western wars, if possible, correspondents would not be able to operate as independent and free witnesses to events.  The model that the MOD applied:  Controlling access to the battlefield; the exclusion of neutral or unfavourable observers; vetting of journalists and censorship of their copy; military manipulation of the news to generate patriotism; branding those who question the official version of events as traitors.  These are now the standard military conditions that journalists must submit to report from a war zone.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Paddy Ashdown: An Interesting Life

This is from Paddy Ashdown's talk at Malvern Theatres last October, which I forgot to post at the time.  Better late than never I suppose!

As a commando; a member of the Special Forces; a spy, a Member of Parliament; formerly the leader of his party; and the UN’s High Representative to Bosnia; Paddy Ashdown has certainly led an interesting life.  Lord Ashdown was at Malvern Theatres to promote his auto-biography, ‘A Fortunate Life’ and to raise money for the charity which he patrons, Hope and Homes for Children.

When asked why his book was called ‘A Fortunate Life’, Lord Ashdown quoted from the copy he was holding:  I was a soldier at the end of the golden age of soldiering; a spy at the end of the golden age of spying; a politician while politics was still a calling and an international peace-builder, backed by Western power, before Iraq and Afghanistan drained the West of both influence and morality.”

He recalled his family’s move from India to Northern Ireland and joked about the complications of having a Catholic Father and a Protestant Mother:  On my first day at school, the other children wanted to know whether I was Protestant or Catholic and I realised that I didn’t know.
I asked my Father when I got home and he told me to tell the other children that I was a Buddhist.  They then wanted to know whether I was a Protestant or a Catholic Buddhist”.

Lord Ashdown beams with obvious pride, when recalling his career in the Royal Marines and as a Commander in the elite Special Boat Service:  I loved my time in the forces, with the exception of parachuting; it just doesn’t seem rational to jump out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane."  

"In Malaya, I picked up the local language, so I managed to convince my superiors to send me to Hong Kong to learn Chinese."  It was in Honk Kong that Lord Ashdown was approached by a shadowy figure who claimed to be from the Foreign Office with an offer of a job.  I found myself working for an organisation, which I’m not allowed to name, but they have a large office by the Thames.  We were taught to be discreet when entering the office, in case Soviet agents were keeping watch, however the conductor of the bus used to shout, ‘Lambeth Bridge, can all spies alight here’, which rather ruined the secrecy."

He left a world of military service and espionage to enter politics in 1975 and became the Liberal MP for Yeovil eight years later.  Yeovil had been Conservative since 1910 and was considered such a safe seat that they weighed the vote.  I was selected as a candidate for the reason that I was the only person foolish enough to put my name forward, but I don’t believe in people being MP for another area, I wanted to represent my own town.  

"All my friends thought I was mad when I told them I was not only going into politics, but was going to be a Liberal as well.  The ninth of June, 1983 was the night of my life; I would like my tombstone to read, ‘Paddy Ashdown, MP for Yeovil."  

Leader of the Liberal Democrats for 11 years, Lord Ashdown believes he achieved success from an uncertain start:  I’m the only leader of a party whose support in the opinion polls was recorded as an asterisk, we had no discernible support whatsoever, but when I left Parliament in 1999, I had doubled the number of our MPs.  It was the right decision to leave then, at a time of my choosing."

Lord Ashdown became the UN’s High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina; a period he says changed his life.  The Balkan conflicts were terrible, some horrendous things happened there, it was the Spanish Civil War of modern times; it predicted what was to come.  I met Radovan Karadzic, I always thought you would be able to see evil in a man’s face but he was actually quite charming towards me.  It was in Bosnia that I met Colonel Mark Cook, he set up Hope and Homes for Children after coming across an orphanage there and they are doing tremendous things for children."

Lord Ashdown left with an anecdote about a visit to the grave of a famous ancestor, Daniel O’Connell, a prominent Irish nationalist.  The Irish government provided a car to take me to the grave and on the way the driver asked, ‘You’re O’Connell’s Great Grandson then? You know what they used to say about him?’  I knew they called him the Great Liberator, but I wanted to hear the driver say it, so I shook my head.  The driver told me, ‘It wasn’t that he had many kids, it’s just you couldn’t throw a stone over the orphanage wall without hitting one on the head.  They certainly didn’t call him the father of the nation for nothing.’”

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Beware the False Prophets

The world changed in 2011.  It was a year when people-power allied to new technologies overthrew elites, with Facebook revolutions heralding an Arab Spring and toppling aging or ailing dictatorships.  But it would be wrong for the Western Democracies to think they are detached from these events.  As Greece has so clearly shown, even relatively modern states are in peril, given enough economic instability, a furious electorate and weak political leadership.

The economists suggest that 2012 is going to be a tough year for Britain.  Financial ruin is probable, the collapse of the EU is possible, public sector strikes and the severest political discontent for a generation almost inevitable.  Shades of grey will no longer suffice in such a divisive age, so it seems likely that this year will see a return to the old politics of left versus right in the UK.

For the previous 30 years, governance has been dominated by bribing electorates with tax cuts, while the major parties have differed only in nuance.  New Labour under Blair and Brown abandoned the polarising rhetoric of class warfare and Old Labour values were deliberately forgotten.  When Cameron became leader, he dragged the Conservatives to the centre ground with his supposed modernisation of the ‘toxic’ Tory brand, and reassured voters he was the heir to Blair.  Nothing too contentious would be attempted, all policies would be tested in focus groups and a consensual blandness smothered Westminster.  This was the politics of boom and borrowing.

Well, there are no longer any presents to give to swing voters and the distribution of our dwindling resources demands radical and unpopular political choices.  The economic prospectus for the foreseeable future is one of falling incomes, with rising unemployment, and deep cuts, mainly falling on the poor and middle classes.  Rather than an age of austerity, it is more likely to be an age of resentment, with a future which looks far worse than the dire predictions of just a year ago.

There are no easy fixes for this government, an inherently fragile marriage of convenience between political opponents, and it now seems difficult to imagine that it can survive until the 2015 election.  They hoped the recovery would begin by 2014 and the public would reward the economic bravery of the Coalition.  This will clearly not now happen.

This raises some serious questions and challenges.  The Conservatives are being dragged by their unappealing rightwing and Labour is unable to develop a coherent answer to the economy.  The Lib-Dems once offered a useful safety valve to disaffected voters, being a centrist alternative to register protest.  With their perceived betrayal, disengagement has never been higher in Britain.

Economic crisis have historically been a catalyst for extreme right and leftwing parties. As politics becomes more polarised over the coming years, we need to remember that Britain is not uniquely immune to extremes and beware of political parties who offer simplistic solutions to our problems.  It is hard work and our liberal traditions which will deliver us to a better tomorrow.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

'Why Orwell Matters’ by Christopher Hitchens

(Basic Books, $15.95)

Why does George Orwell matter?  Frankly it depends who you listen to.  Was he hero or villain, socialist or conservative, patriot or traitor, modernist or misogynist?  It has become as fashionable for the Left, feminist, postmodernist and contrarian alike to denounce him, as it has been for those on the Right to claim him as their own.  It is into this confused and contradictory mess that Christopher Hitchens provocatively steps to recue Orwell in a brilliant and logical book.

For many journalists Orwell has become a revered figure, the patron saint of factual writing.  The sycophancy that surrounds his name would have appalled him.  He was a man who never shied from criticising his own heroes, and he was wary of any saint.  Indeed, Orwell once said of Mahatma Gandhi that “saints are always to be adjudged guilty until proven innocent.”

Orwell may have been equally amused with those who have attacked his works as with those who revere it.  Hitchens does not hesitate to destroy some of the fawning mythologies that have built-up around Orwell’s memory.  Instead he attempts to rebuild a more honest and rational legacy for perhaps the most influential of Twentieth Century writers.  One cannot help but feel that while Orwell might not have always agreed with Hitchens, he would have approved of both his techniques and the endeavour.

As a man of the Left who was denounced by his fellow travellers, Hitchens must have felt some empathy for the treatment Orwell received from his ideological brethren.  As an advocator of socialism whose roots lay in what he describes in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ as “an upper middle-class” upbringing, many of Orwell’s contemporaries viewed his politics with some scepticism.  Being an Eton Old Boy would only have added to the mistrust.  Such a background undoubtedly left Orwell with some intellectual baggage, however perhaps it was these contradictions as the perpetual outsider which gave his writing its concise, analytical, compassionate and balanced style.

Hitchens describes “The sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion that appears to ignite spontaneously when Orwell’s name is mentioned” by some from the Left.  Maybe it was the scathing attacks on fellow socialist thinkers, who he described as so awful that they were likely to put off the working man, which has made him an ‘enemy’ to some.  The most common mistake made in order to denounce Orwell, is to take the phrases spoken by characters in his fiction and then attribute them as if he was speaking himself, a literary error that schoolchildren should know not to make.  Hitchens takes these critiques and refutes them in a very compelling way.

Of the Right, Hitchens explains the numerous attempts made by conservative intellectuals to use or annex Orwell’s works.  As a writer who pioneered the opposition to Communism, championed individualism, disliked the instruments of government, believed in popular wisdom and who possessed a strong patriotic sense; it is easy to see how Orwell could be crudely painted as a Tory.  Hitchens dismisses these claims in what he refers to as the ‘body-snatching’ of Orwell.  While he may have had some conservative tendencies he fought intellectually against them all of his life.  You could by no stretch of imagination define his politics as being conservative.

A brief but interesting chapter outlines Orwell’s dysfunctional relationship with women.  Hitchens attributes this partially to an upbringing with a stern Mother and patriarchal Father, but generally concedes to the feminist arguments, except to show where they are overblown.  It is also fair to say that condemning authors of the past for failing the standards of today is a fruitful, but intellectually pointless pastime.

‘Why Orwell Matters’ is not only a well written, stimulating and informative book, it is also a necessary book, as his works needed to be rescued from his admirers and critics alike.  As Hitchens eloquently puts it, “Orwell requires extricating from under a pile of saccharine and moist hankies.”  With some of the ridiculous claims exposed as intellectually defunct or mere humbug, we can perhaps exhume Orwell’s truthful legacy.  It is one of insightful observations from the past which are so valuable to understanding the present.

This book also reminds us of Hitchens’ great strength as a literary essayist, something that is too easily overlooked because of his controversial polemics.  Gore Vidal once declared Hitchens to be his dauphin.  However there is a stronger case that when his work is viewed with perspective, Hitchens will be Orwell’s successor.

I cannot recommend this book enough.  

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Argentine sabre rattles again

Argentina is at it again!  One would have thought they would be remembering their dead as the 30 year anniversary of the Falkland Conflict approaches.  Instead they are engaged in their favoured nationalist pastime of sabre-rattling and intimidation of the Falkland population.

Lately the Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has been spending her time convincing the South American neighbours to join in the perpetual diplomatic bullying of the islanders.  In December, she managed to convince the Mercosur trade federation which includes Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil to ban ships bearing the Falkland’s flag from entering their ports.

It does raise the question of why the Mercosur have got involved in the nationalist obsession of Argentina.  Brazil should have more important problems to deal with, such as improving the living standards of their vast impoverished poor.  Uruguay’s acquiescence to their powerful neighbour is not particularly unsurprising.  Paraguay is a landlocked country, so one may reasonably wonder how many ships of any nation will use their ports.

At the Mercosur summit, the Falkland Islands were described as "a colonial British possession in South America”.  This fits with Argentina’s favoured tactic of portraying Britain as an imperial aggressor predating the coast of Latin America.  Despite this depiction being at least 100 years out of date, it fits into the rhetoric of many of South America’s despotic leaders, who are feeling confident at the moment and want to shed the controlling hand of the United States.  Lacking the bravery to challenge a superpower, they are using the Falklands to attack America’s closest, but vastly weaker ally instead.

The only inhabitants to ever live on the Falklands have been European; there was no indigenous population.  Contrastingly, in Argentina, the Amerindian populations have fallen to less than 2% being supplanted by Spanish invaders and subsequent European immigration.  That the Argentine claim to the Falklands is based on that of their former Spanish colonial masters, gives a powerful suggestion of just who the real imperialists are.

Argentina’s actual argument is that as the Falklands are small islands near a larger country they should by default be theirs.  Their desire for sovereignty based on nationalism and public diversion.  If we follow this imbecilic logic, then maps will have to be redrawn and millions forcibly removed across the globe.  Japan must belong to China and the Caribbean must be an annex of the United States.

For all of the bluster and bullying, the fate of the Falklands always returns to the right of self determination, enshrined in article 1 of the United Nations Charter.  Britain has historically seen the Falklands as a point of principle, it is for the islanders to decide their own fate, but following 1982 it would be a lie not to admit that the issue has now become a point of pride.

No British prime minister for the foreseeable future could ever contemplate betraying the Falkland Islanders’ wishes to remain British citizens under British protection, and that principle will be defended; whatever the cost maybe.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

2011: A review of the year's news

The Arab Spring; intervention in Libya; the Japanese tsunami; the death of Bin Laden; phone hacking; riots; and the Euro crisis, for news junkies like me, 2011 has been the year that kept on giving.

To band around terms like tumultuous or world-changing can be a foolhardy pastime.  It leaves a writer open to the charge of hyperbole, vulnerable to events.  Something could emerge tomorrow, making everything else look like the librarian of the year awards.  That said, it would take an extraordinary set of events to surpass this year’s news – maybe a Godzilla attack on Tokyo – but 2011 was, well, interesting.

It has been a year of protest.  Greece appears more like an apocalyptic film set with each passing day of rioting.  There have also been tamer anti-capitalism protests in North America and Europe, seemingly composed of middle-class people in tents.  In many ways it reminded me of camping holidays in Cornwall.  But the real cauldron of protest has been the Middle East and North Africa, the ‘Arab Spring.’  Dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but still cling to power in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.  How each of these uprisings will pan-out is unclear, and while optimism is always a virtue, history suggests virtually all revolutions ultimately lead to tyranny.

Intersecting the falls of Mubarak and Gaddafi, the Japanese tsunami reminded us of nature’s terrible power and man’s incredible penchant for short-sightedness.  Building nuclear power plants along one of the most geologically active coasts in the world seems foolhardy enough, but building inadequate sea defences to cut costs demands incredulity.  The explosions at Fukushima revitalised the anti-nuclear lobby, leading the earthquake and tsunami ravaged country of Germany to announce the closure of all atomic power plants.  Who cares about global warming anyway?
The Arab Spring emboldened the West, who dug up the corpse of interventionism that they had buried after Iraq, and they started bombing for peace in Libya.  Napoleon once said: “I have plenty of clever generals, but just give me a lucky one.”  Fortunately David Cameron has so far been lucky.  The country was delivered into the hands of the opposition and Colonel Gaddafi to a murderous lynch mob.
In any other year, Bin Laden’s death would have dominated the news for months.  Instead, the death of the man who helped define the previous decade has become something of a footnote, popping up occasionally in newspapers or television shows like a hazy half forgotten memory.
The phone hacking scandal had been slowly brewing since 2007, but in 2011 it delivered a different tyrant to the hands of his enemies.  News International’s claims that illegality was limited to a ‘rogue’ reporter was obvious hogwash, but it seemed that they were going to get away with it until the Guardian revealed Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked.  Coming shortly after the conviction of her murderer, public outrage ensued, giving Murdoch’s enemies, then belatedly his friends, the courage to attack both him and his publications.  Murdoch took the desperate decision to shut the News of the World, but not before he lost his political influence and was even hauled before the Media Select Committee.  The real shock for those who had built Murdoch into a bogey man was that he gave an admirable impression of a rather pathetic and tired old man.  Perhaps more significant were the revelations of widespread corruption at the Metropolitan Police, with officers being paid by journalists and close relationships existing between senior officers and Murdoch’s newspapers.

Just when it began to look like the rest of the year would be dominated by phone hacking, along came the English riots.  Much has been spoken without anything being said on this subject.  There has always been an element of society prepared to riot, for various reasons, and they have done sporadically during summers for at least thirty years.  After each of these disturbances the government announce some draconian knee-jerk responses, which are later quietly forgotten.  Perhaps the difference this time was the proliferation of smart phones used by rioters to organise and bystanders to document every action in minutiae to feed to an increasingly ravenous media.
Rumbling in the background throughout the year was the Euro debacle, highlighting the political inadequacies of the EU.  It seems that the UK’s economic future will either be very bleak, or non-existent, depending on which commentator’s vast unfathomable procession of depressing numbers you care to listen to.
If these prophesies of doom are correct, then maybe we should expect a tumultuous or world changing 2012.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Last Empire by Gore Vidal

I’ve recently read Gore Vidal's ‘Last Empire’, a very interesting book which has been constructed by collating a collection of essays published from 1992 to 2000.  The book covers a variety of subject matter; however it was the political content which most interested me.

Vidal predictably promotes his sceptical and disdainful social critique on American politics and government.  It is Vidal’s radical and strong opinions which make him such a compelling author, and whilst the work is now dated, his analysis in this book is often persuasive.

One of the more poignant essays covers the Republican Party’s outrageous and protracted smear campaign, to discredit and overthrow President Clinton during the 90s.  It is interesting to see them using the same oppositional tactics again, now to eliminate President Obama. History can often cause me to muse as to whether time is cyclical, rather than linear. It is certainly very evident that political elites seldom learn anything from the past.

To see how the Grand Old Party’s activists and politicians have behaved over the previous 20 years, it is a wonder to the non-American that they can ever get elected at all – but then nearly all of America’s political discourse, so far as I’m concerned, seems to defy any attempt at rationalisation.

In an age of hyper polarisation, and a slew of literature (for want of a better term) from the deranged Tea Party set, it is most refreshing to read from an American author who doesn’t write partisan bollocks.  It is fair to say that Vidal is most scornful of the political right, but the left comes a very close second.

Much of the emphasis of ‘Last Empire’ is on how American elites have been accumulating power for themselves by coercing the public through deceit and fear.  The creation of a mythical, or at least exaggerated Soviet threat in 1945 and the largely mythical Al Qaida threat today, have been used justify the corruption and degradation of liberty by the ruling powers and most importantly, their sponsors.

It is hard to read ‘Last Empire’, and not to share Gore Vidal’s scorn of the elites who dominate our lives.  Maybe one day, the people may recognise their true potential and we might be governed for the greater good; rather than being oppressed by sectional and self interested cliques.  Until then, at least there are authors like Gore Vidal to read.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hacking scandal reaches 'tipping point'

A dark brooding storm cloud is gathering over News International's imposing fortress at Wapping and senior officers at the Metropolitan Police are assumedly watching with some unease, as inappropriate relationships between the two organisations begin to be uncovered.

The revelations that Milly Dowler's phone was hacked by the News of the Screws, her messages deleted, false hope given to her distraught parents and the police enquiry hampered, have proven to be what media advisers call a 'tipping point.'  This is where a story goes from being of interest to a section of society, to universal public awareness and in this instance abhorrence.

The recent trial and conviction of the vile perverted oaf Levi Bellfield, Milly's murderer, had reopened the national consciousness of this case and the actions of the NOTW have rightly been described as grotesque and despicable.  This was then followed by the revelations that the NOTW hacked into the parents of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, and the victims of the 7/7 terrorist attacks.  There are certain to be many, many more instances of this behaviour.

The actions of News International's staff shows such contempt for the law, basic human decency and morality, that it beggars belief.  Rupert Murdoch has today described his staffs' behavior as "deplorable and unacceptable", however he may want to look at the relentless commercial pressure and business culture that he personally has imposed onto his his executives and reporting staff, rather than pretending he is somehow removed from the implications of this scandal.

Murdoch made a huge strategic mistake by not sacking Rebekah Brooks earlier this year when he had the chance.  How Ms Brooks can head an inquiry which will have to investigate her own alleged misconduct would be comical, were it not such an insult to the public intelligence.

This scandal has a great distance to run.  It will probably extend to other news groups, it seems highly probable that it will engulf a number of police forces as well as prominent individual officers, it will highlight questionable behaviour from people in public and elected office, and it surely is the end of the toothless Press Complaints Commission.

This saga also emphasises the vital need for plurality in the Fourth Estate.  The relentless efforts of the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC, Channel 4 and the New York Times should be congratulated.  It is at least an opportunity to redress what appears to the outside observer to be a rotten culture of corruption at the top of British society.  However, I wont hold be holding my breath.

Friday, 13 May 2011

In praise of the British Camp

There is something strangely majestic about the Malvern Hills, which belie their diminutive stature in purely geographical terms. These hills seem to possess more than the simple sum of their parts. Perhaps it is their sheer and unexpected rise from the Severn Valley on the eastern flank, or maybe it is the ridged linear straight-edge of peaks, which contrasts with one’s expectations of a rolling and gentle English countryside.

The rocks which make up the Malvern’s ‘bones’ are among the oldest known on Earth and it seems that you can almost smell the history as you walk along them, but as you wearily approach the summit of the Herefordshire Beacon, you are faced with one of the most arresting sights in Britain. We have all seen a mountain top, and Iron Age forts are not so uncommon that most people are unaware of them, but here the 2 combine in what is sadly one of the rarest of feats: mans' endeavour has managed to enhance natural splendour, rather than obliterating it.

In its natural state, the Herefordshire Beacon must have been an unusual sight, a steep sided pinnacle which brings to mind a malformed Egyptian pyramid, covered in bracken, verdant green grasses, and rare wildflowers being serviced by even rarer butterflies, birds of prey and even the odd snake. The Herefordshire Beacon achieves its mountain status by a measly 15 feet – 1000ft being the traditional measure of these things - and it is the second highest peak of the Malvern Hills.

Built around 2,200 years ago, the British Camp was sculpted from the hillside for what was originally believed to be a defensive refuge in times of peril, but archaeological excavations now suggest it was the permanent home to about 4000 inhabitants who lived there for some 500 years. What life must have been like for these distant ancestors is hard for a twenty first century sophisticate to imagine. It must certainly have been a hard and rugged existence, but with such a magnificent view, almost any hardship seems worth the enduring.

Local legend tells of Caractacus, the last chieftain of the British Camp who made his final stand at the fort against the conquering Roman Empire. The legend speaks of a savage battle in which the Ancient Britains fought ferociously, but were eventually defeated, albeit with their honour left intact. Caractacus was captured and sent to Rome as a trophy, but he impressed the Emperor Claudius so much, that he was made a Roman Citizen and comfortably ended his days there.

Sadly, as is so often the way with local legends, this tale contradicts virtually all the archaeological and historical evidence. It seems much more likely that Caractacus’s last stand happened elsewhere, and far from ending his days in Rome, it probably came at the blunt end of a Roman sword, in or shortly after the battle.

However legends die hard, especially such a good one, and it inspired Edward Elgar to compose a cantina entitled Caractacus to honour the ancient Chieftain. Elgar’s association with the Malvern Hills is well documented, he is buried near to the British Camp at St Wulstan churchyard in Little Malvern, but it is less known is that this inspirational scenery has inspired many of England’s great artists over the years.

This a landscape which is linked to works of such figures as the 14th century author William Langland, the 17th century diarist John Evelyn, the 19th century poet Lord Macaulay – who pays tribute to Malvern’s role during the Armada,  the poet and dramatist John Drinkwater and perhaps most famously the poet WH Auden.

There is one last surprise for visitors to the Herefordshire Beacon; there are signs in the rocks around the British Camp which can inform the initiated of an earlier history which makes the Ancient Britains seem almost modern. By the entrance to Giant’s Cave, once used as a medieval hermit’s retreat, there are distinctive rock formations known to geologists as pillow lavas, caused when molten lava is released under water. These rocks were formed in a time before the continents had formed and the Earth was a global ocean; it was these volcanic processes which are viewed today as being so destructive, which gradually coalesced into the land on which we rely.

So remarkably, when visiting the British Camp, we can see evidence of the birth of the continents and the death of an Ancient British culture in the same place. If that does not inspire the imagination, it would still be worthwhile making the climb to the summit to bathe in a view which takes in twelve counties, the Severn Valley, the Welsh Marches, the Black Mountains, the Brecon Beacons, the Cotswolds and, of course, the Malvern’s.

Failing all that, there is a wonderful pub next to the car park.