An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Archive for July 2011

“A reluctance to confront a really difficult situation”

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As Norman Geras may have been hinting at in this post from a few weeks ago, the web is currently blessed with or cursed by (depending on your point of view) a glut of opinion. Just as all the best jokes are taken within minutes of a story breaking, so is it difficult to write anything particularly original about the major issues if you have spent any longer than five minutes reading about it online, unless you rush for the extremities or stir controversy for controversy’s sake.

That’s why Anthony Lane’s artful piece for the New Yorker is deservedly one of the most linked to articles about Wapping-gate. It doesn’t try to remodel the world around the present scandal, nor over-dramatise what is already a dramatic tale. It simply and lucidly explains to an international audience what has happened, and what it means for our body politic (that is, as far as Cameron is concerned, not all that much).

Of all the charges being levelled, the social one—that the Prime Minister was fraternizing with the wrong sort—is at once the most splenetic and the weakest, especially to anyone familiar with the dance that politicians and newspapers have led one another in the past hundred years. No waltz could have been merrier than the weekend gathering in November, 1923, at Cherkley Court, a resplendent country house, in Surrey. The guests included David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Austen Chamberlain (a former Chancellor of the Exchequer), and Lord Birkenhead, until recently Lord Chancellor. Their plan was to discomfit the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and form a new coalition—a scheme abetted by their host, Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express, then a newspaper of great potency and reach. “I think Baldwin will be defeated,” Beaverbrook wired to another press baron, Lord Rothermere, who owned not just the Daily Mail but also the Daily Mirror. Later, in the Second World War, Beaverbrook became, at Churchill’s invitation, Minister of Aircraft Production. His colleague Ernest Bevin, the wartime Minister of Labour, said that, when it came to Beaverbrook, Churchill “was like a man who’s married a whore; he knows she’s a whore but he loves her just the same.” Churchill himself, incidentally, once wrote for the News of the World.

The joke is that the anti-Baldwin plotting petered out; when it comes to moguls and ministers, not all convenings are conspiracies, and few conspiracies succeed. It is natural, in the present frenzy, that Carl Bernstein, writing in Newsweek, should claim that comparisons with the Watergate affair are “inevitable.” But is that so? On the Presidential watch, men were hired to commit criminal acts; Cameron, by comparison, took on a man, Coulson, who had been tarnished by association with criminality, and gave him a respectable (if serpentine) job, which by all accounts Coulson performed with aplomb. The Prime Minister erred, but was he guilty of anything darker than lousy judgment? Ian Katz, the deputy editor of the Guardian, may well be right when he says, “The conspiracy reading is that Cameron wasn’t prepared to risk the ire of News International by dumping Coulson overboard, because once he dumped Coulson, the whole thing would chase back up the ladder towards Murdoch. I don’t really buy that. I think it was more a combination of arrogance and a reluctance to confront a really difficult situation.”

Read more here.

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Written by samelliot

July 29, 2011 at 11:16 am

Posted in Media

How Twitter has turned everyone into journalists, and not in a good way

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I love Twitter. It’s a one stop shop for the latest news, silly jokes and links to interesting stuff, a curated list of friends, experts and contacts. In the best modern local government tradition it lets you do more with less, compressing what would previously have been half a morning’s aimless web browsing into a quick check of your feed.

That said,what drew me to Twitter was the organic way the latest news and interesting content percolated through your feed, and the way you were drawn into an overheard conversation about the world and events, rather than being slapped round the face with the LATEST NEWS, forced to read in a linear fashion the pre-mediated news priorities of the mainstream. Now even non-journalists appear increasingly to use Twitter to ‘break news’, highlight their ‘in the know’ status and ‘drive the news agenda’.

This increasingly ‘mediarised’ part of Twitter includes not only print and broadcast journalists (who are at least only doing their job), but also the new breed of commentators and bloggers (although Andrew Sullivan would contest whether writing 1,500 words a week on whether Ed Miliband is right/wrong makes you a blogger), and the even newer breed of general Twitter users playing along.

It even has its own language. A faintly interesting article about an issue of the day is not merely something that you ‘must read’, but it is also a ‘must-read’ piece, or simply a ‘must-read’ alone.  There is the ubiquitous “BREAKING” (or worse “BREAK”) to denote something that the rest of Twitter hasn’t yet thought up an obvious joke about. And before something is BREAKING you must be ‘hearing’ it (as in “I’m hearing a big story is going to break overnight about the Cabinet” when you mean Liam Fox has leaked another letter).

And that’s how Twitter has turned people into journalists. It’s turned them into smug, insider journalists of the worst kind. Not citizens freed by social media to reveal their own truth through research, evidence and reportage, but people captured by or actively buying into a echo-chamber that lacks perspective, has an insatiable need for drama, and seeks out the latest news trend before dumping it and moving on to something else.

As I type the Twittersphere is ablaze with the completely untrue news that Piers Morgan has been suspended by CNN, after Jon Snow was conned by a fake account purporting to be a real journalist into posting news that isn’t real. Which just about sums this post up.

NB: The likelihood that I am guilty of some or all of the sins outlined in this post is very strong. Such rank hypocrisy means I am no better than the rest of us.  I should resign.

Written by samelliot

July 28, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Posted in Cynicism, Twitter

Things I learnt when moving house

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Local authorities can be much easier organisations to deal with:

Want to change your address, get a new council tax bill, suspend a couple of parking bays? Sure, no problem, in fact, we’ll sort all this out at our end and then we’ll call you back and let you know it’s taken care of.

Than private businesses:

Need to close your electricity account? Sorry, can’t do that on the website, you’ll have call the helpline, we’ll put you on hold for twenty minutes, oh, and by the way, your furniture can’t be delivered for two weeks and your removal van is going to be three hours late, but we’re not going to tell you that until you’ve been stood waiting on your doorstep for half an hour.

Putting all your stuff in boxes, moving it half a mile and then unpacking it all, is not conducive to doing a blog:

I do have a couple of rules which is that if it isn’t updated at least twice a day it’s not a blog, it’s a website.  So don’t fool yourself that you’re blogging when you’re really just putting stuff up online.  And twice a day is sort of, I think, the minimum.  I think a blog to live really has to be probably four or five times a day.

And Justin Lee Collins and Shayne Ward will soon be starring in a power ballad music called Rock of Ages:

ROCK OF AGES takes you back to the times of big bands with big egos playing big guitar solos and sporting even bigger hair! This five-time Tony Award nominated musical, now being made into a movie starring Tom Cruise, opens here at the the Shaftesbury Theatre in September.

Somehow I will now use this information to resume blogging. As you were.

Written by samelliot

July 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Localism, London, Music

Broken news, and Gordon Brown’s inadvertent localism

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Last Wednesday’s Newsnight might have been the moment this scandal jumped the shark (a cliche that conjures an image of Paul McMullan leaping over said creature on waterskis, pursued by Hugh Grant in a hovercraft). As a despairing Jeremy Paxman attempted to rouse a hand-picked audience of mutes into expressing an opinion, any opinion, about the whole phone-hacking farrago, Tessa Jowell decided to take the opportunity to shoehorn a bit of authentic faith, flag and family into proceedings:

I’m very struck by just how sombre everyone feels about this. It very much reflects discussions I have had with people I represent in my constituency, that it’s a whole lot of things coming together: a collapse of confidence in the media, people feeling pretty shocked about what appears to have been the behaviour of the police, the banking crisis and so forth. Increasingly what people feel is that they just have to look after themselves, and their families are the people they rely on rather than these institutions.

As I lay glued to my settee, stunned by the gratuitous Blue Labour sucker punch, I began to reassess my own view of what we are apparently supposed to call ‘Hackgate’. I will admit, for a little bit of time back there I thought this was all Very Important Indeed, rather than a preoccupation of newsmen and Brownite heavies with a grudge (is there any other kind?). However, the rush to to sanctimony and the insider nature of much of the commentary have made me question that initial assumption. Certainly the contribution of the public to Newsnight suggests this is not an issue that is resonating with the voters. And Tessa’s analysis suggests someone trying to use current events to confirm their own view of the problems the country and its politics face.

So why leave this sort of thing to Tessa. Brace yourself, but amidst his mostly blundering intervention in the crisis, Gordon Brown said something I agree with:

“The people of this country have always been at risk from huge concentrations of power.”

One of the numerous lessons that we can learn from Newsmageddon, and one most pertinent for us in local government, is that overly centralised power, in whatever sphere, is a bad thing. It breeds complacency, magnifies incompetence and generally results in worse decision-making than dispersed, localised power. It will take me some time to recover from the crippling irony of Gordon Brown making this point, but I welcome him to the cause of localism.

Written by samelliot

July 18, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Localism, Media

London’s emerging housing crisis

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While you were watching the other channel, you’ll almost certainly have missed this story behind the dead-girl-bothering Murdoch paywall about London’s emerging housing crisis.

London is on the brink of a significant housing crisis with a £32 billion funding gap for new homes, while homelessness is rising for the first time in more than six years and the average first-time-buyer’s deposit now costs £56,000.

That is the grim analysis of the leaders of the capital’s 33 councils, who argue that welfare reforms could be about to make the situation worse.

The report is based on this report from London Councils, which is a summary of the sheer scale of the task facing London’s boroughs as they seek to ensure everyone has a decent home to call their own. Worth remembering as we gasp at the latest developments from Wapping.

Written by samelliot

July 18, 2011 at 8:00 am

Posted in Housing, London

If I was Johann Hari…

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I would take every post Paul Corrigan makes, top and tail it with some reference to Bruce Springsteen. He is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the ongoing health reforms and public service change in general.

This post last week shows how the Government’s reforms, far from being localist or decentralising, will in fact result in a centralisation of healthcare commissioning. It is a cutting critique of the centralising tendency:

There is a common sense belief that you need a national centralised system of grip to save sums of money of this size. However like a lot of common sense beliefs, the idea that the only way to save money is through central power is just not true. In fact the illusion of command and control in the NHS is just that – an illusion. Running a national programme that tells people which budgets to cut in Wigan and Wolverhampton gives the appearance of something happening, but it’s just that  – an appearance.

And continues with one of the best interpretations of the central-local divide I’ve read – as one of accountancy versus economics, of the centre attempting to berate local structures into saving money and delivering quality services against a self-sustaining, empowered and incentivised set of local decision-makers driving out cost.

There are two very different world views about how economics works here. The first, from the top, is that public money can be controlled by a set of accounting officers who shout at the people underneath them to do certain things in line with a plan. This is called public sector accounting.

The second is a set of economic incentives that depend upon organisations and individuals operating within those incentives to develop better value for money. This is called economics.

The Government set out in those halcyon days last July believing in economics, but have increasingly lost their nerve and now believe that a strong centre shouting at people will save them the money.

Crucially for the NHS they are wrong. As a method of improving value economics trumps accountancy every time.

As a way of looking at localism, it’s easy to view this as hopelessly managerial, preoccupied as it is by questions of service cost, value and quality, but one of its main selling points is that local decisions are more often than not better decisions. And if you want to deliver a political programme, the quality of decision making is at least as important as the values that underpin them.

Written by samelliot

July 14, 2011 at 8:30 am

Posted in Finance, Health, Labour

If newspaper redundancies are a tragedy, why are public sector redundancies simply efficiency savings?

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One of the unexpected heroes of the News Of The World shenanigans is radio genius Danny Baker. The greatest phrase-turner working in the British media today, he usually steers clear of politics (aside from occasional grumpiness about the manifold mysteries of Greenwich council). But this week’s revelations, and the media’s reaction to it, has got his dander up (apologies for post-watershed language):

On a similar theme, undercover Labour hack Political Animal:

I will not rejoice at a single person losing their job, but I do not see why an arbitrary decision by News International to make people redundant  is worthy of any more chest beating than the thousands and thousands of public sector workers who have lost their jobs as a consequence of equally arbitrary financial decisions from the Government.

I’d suggest, as Danny does, that some of the News of the World staff, and people like them,  have directly contributed to cultivating a callous attitude to public sector workers that means that  their job losses are written off as statistics, as savings in pursuit of deficit reduction. I don’t necessarily disagree with the need for reductions in public spending, but the scenes from Wapping yesterday have been replayed in Town Halls across the country this year. Maybe the media will be a little more understanding after this, but I doubt it.

Written by samelliot

July 10, 2011 at 9:40 am

Posted in Employment, Media