An Unnecessary Role

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“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

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

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