So much beauty out there

July 25, 2010

Should Elected Representatives Say What They Think?

A Cardiff Councillor, John Dixon, has recently been the subject of a mini scandal about a comment he made on twitter about the Church of Scientology, when walking past their office in London that he hoped “the stupid wouldn’t rub off”. Some time later, the Scientologists complained to the ombudsman in charge of standards in public office in Wales, who ruled that Dixon had broken the relevant code of conduct. For a full overview of the idiocy of the ombudsman’s ruling and the dangerous and pernicious nature of Scientology, I recommend the thorough analysis by Jack of Kent. The issues in this case seem pretty straightforward, Scientology deserves (at the very least) ridicule and no-one should face censure for doing so. (more…)

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May 5, 2010

David Cameron’s Face

Ultimately it seems like this election will be significantly determined by how many people react to David Cameron, his personality and, basically, his face. The Conservative campaign has been heavily presidential, personalised, pushing Cameron vs Brown, rather than Conservative vs Labour. This is an understandable tactic, Cameron consistently polls better than his party, and it’s sensible that they should want to hide the likes of Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard etc from the electorate as much as possible given their track record as electoral poison. For them, Cameron clearly appears an asset, a smooth, modern, plausible leader – albeit helped by a bit of photoshop.

The interesting thing is that the Labour party are also highlighting Cameron in their campaigning too. If they shared the Tory theory that Cameron was a strength you’d imagine they’d seek to ignore him, and focus on the party as a whole. While that approach is sometimes followed, there seems also to be a Labour belief that Cameron is not an electoral asset, that images of him will persuade people not to vote Conservative. Sometimes in following this approach they get it horribly wrong, as in the Cameron = Gene Hunt poster, but they’ve kept it up, with Douglas Alexander launching a poster featuring a laughing Cameron in the last couple of days.

Update: this has been repeated on Election day itself, with the Sun (urging people to vote for him) and the Mirror (urging people not to) going with photos of Cameron on their front page.

So, what is it that makes the parties differ so much in how they think Cameron’s image will play with the electorate? Part of it is that they are targeting different parts of the electorate. The Tories are trying to woo centrist voters who disliked the brutalities of Thatcherism and the strident europhobia of the Hague/Duncan Smith/Howard years. Cameron is supposed to appeal to them. For Labour, Cameron is an ideal poster boy for depicting the Tories as the party of establishment and privilege, to get out their core vote, perhaps feeling  disenfranchised by New Labour, but retaining a visceral hatred of the Tories – best summed up by Gary Younge. While Gordon Brown may be an unsatisfactory candidate in all sorts of ways he is undoubtedly 4 Real, whereas Cameron as a former PR man who has been involved in Conservative politics throughout the years whose policies he claims to repudiate cannot replicate that. Does he believe what he says, or is he just selling a product? In the words of Cameron’s friend (and Tory MP) Ed Vaizey “[Cameron] is, I believe, much more conservative by nature than he acts, or than he is forced to be by political exigency.” A similar critique seems to underpin Charlie Brooker’s reaction to the leaders personas.

Two of the YouTube videos that are being whizzed around leftist circles on twitter and facebook, one is Gordon Brown’s speech to Citizens UK, in which he makes a very effective speech about his values and about the history of progressive protest, against slavery, for votes for women, for civil rights and so on. It’s almost entirely absent of mentions of contemporary policy, bar the introduction of the minimum wage, partly because Labour’s record in office hardly matches the strength of the rhetoric, but it is clearly heartfelt. The other one is a, very funny,  version of Pulp’s Common People modified to reflect Cameron’s views. The theme of this video, and one that clearly resonates judging by the 370,000 views in little over a week that its had, is that as a toff and a tory Cameron is bound to be contemptuous of the common people. It’s an unabashed act of class anger, with the public school, elitist background of Cameron (Eton, Brasenose, Bullingdon) and Osbourne hurled at them. Osbourne says “Yah” not “Yes”, he’s referred to as “Gideon” – his original name which he changed to George when in his teens. For conservatives this sort of criticism is simply “class envy” and both pitiful and hopelessly old-fashioned. But there is a genuine and justifiable anger at those who have risen to influence and seek to rise to power on the back of inherited privilege and who seek to entrench the power and money of their class. For anyone who wonders to what extent the Tories have changed, their policy on inheritance tax is the obvious giveaway, more so than the residual homophobia of Chris Grayling, Philippa Stroud and Julian Lewis, or the selection of candidates like Jacob Rees-Mogg, or their votes in parliament, or their shameless scaremongering on crime and immigration.

At a time when every party agrees that public spending will have to be cut, and taxes to rise in order to deal with a financial crisis created from the sort of unregulated free market that the Tory party cheerleads for, the one solid tax policy that Cameron’s party is sticking with is its commitment to end inheritance tax, a tax only paid by the wealthy in society. While the rest of society will have to endure an “Age of Austerity”, no such problems for those who have inherited hard all their lives and want to pass on their inheritance to their kids. If anything indicates the true face of Cameron, it’s that.

April 11, 2010

The BBC Licence Fee

Filed under: All,When I rule the world — Josh @ 9:20 pm
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When the BBC recently announced significant cutbacks, including scaling back its website and scrapping 6Music and the Asian Network (whether these were good decisions or not I’m not getting into here) one of the things that came up in the debate was a breakdown of the BBC’s spending.

While most commentary I saw highlighted the spending on “talent”, noting that Jonathan Ross and Anne Robinson together are paid the same as the whole cost of 6Music, the figure that really jumped out at me was the £123m dedicated to collecting the licence fee. Obviously I realised that there would be administration costs, plus all the threatening adverts, and those ominous vans that roam the streets hunting out rogue signals, but I hadn’t realised they were that high. I was already leaning towards abolishing the licence fee, but realising that some 100m could be saved if the BBC was paid for out of general taxation certainly shoved me over the edge.

Arguing for abolition usually comes from the right of the political spectrum, from those who are ideologically opposed to state funding of anything, those who think the BBC has a left-wing bias (in my view it is, broadly, socially liberal and economically conservative) and those who work for companies that are direct competitors with the Beeb – in particular the Murdoch press. These criticisms are usually wrong-headed, but that doesn’t mean that we should avoid coming to the same conclusion.

The strongest argument against the licence fee, though, is that it is horribly regressive. It doesn’t matter what your income is (bar a couple of exceptional categories) – you pay the same amount. While the general taxation system isn’t as progressive as I’d like, it’d be a far more legitimate source of revenue. Moreover, having to pay the fee every year (accompanied with threats against those who don’t comply) means that people are constantly reminded of the outlay. This can’t be good for maintaining the organisations popularity, even if it does remain pretty good value.

The argument in favour of the fee is that it guarantees the BBC is free of political interference and cutbacks at budget time. I think its independence is more threatened by the fact that it is constantly on the defensive and seeking to appease people who use the licence fee as a stick to beat it with, often as a proxy for other agendas, while I see no reason why its budget couldn’t be ringfenced within general taxation.

November 20, 2009

Ashes to Ashes

Filed under: All,Sport,When I rule the world — Josh @ 2:11 pm
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An independent panel recently recommended adding or returning several major sporting events to the so-called “crown jewels”, events of such national resonance that they should be shown on free to air television, accessible to all. One of the most controversial suggestions was that for cricket, that home Ashes Test series between England and Australia should be included. One of the reasons that prompted it was a comparison of viewing figures from the 2005 series shown on Channel 4 that had up to 8 million viewers and the 2009 series shown on Sky which got about 2 million at its highest point. There is currently no live international cricket being shown on terrestrial TV, and critics of the Sky deal claim that it will be impossible to interest a new generation in the game if they have no TV exposure to it. (more…)

November 19, 2009

La Perfide France

The subject of cheating is rarely far from the agenda in the hyperbole-ridden world of professional sport and its media. Thierry Henry’s handball that allowed France to score the winning goal against the Republic of Ireland in their World Cup eliminator has arrived only just in time to shift the dive by his compatriot David Ngog that won Liverpool a penalty and a point against Birmingham.

The obvious lesson here is that the French as a nation cannot be trusted and probably should be banned from sport altogether, perhaps restricted to playing petanque in town squares in order to look picturesque for the tourists. (more…)

November 16, 2009

Down With Commentators

As the newspaper industry, particularly the “quality” papers, continues its meltdown with Murdoch talking about charging for online content from News Corp in an attempt to protect the circulation of the Times and the Observer shedding half its supplements. While the material being lost is unlikely to be greatly missed, the most worrying observation in that article is that: “The soul of any paper is found in its Comment pages.” Admittedly, in itself, the comment is uncontroversial but it has tended to mean an increasing number of super-columnists who opine each week on the issue of the day, whether or not they know the first thing about the subject.

It would not be particuarly difficult to produce myriad examples of this, but to take the most recent one I’ve read, Catherine Bennett in yesterday’s Observer on England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup. Bennett herself is often an intelligent and insightful journalist, which just makes it more dispiriting when she puts her name to a piece like this. After a bit of laboured irony at the start, she writes off the World Cup itself as just an orgy of drunken loutishness it’d be “perverse” to want to host. The positive side of it, for example the possibility of arousing the sort of emotions displayed in Egypt after their 95th minute goal against Algeria  on Saturday kept their qualifying hopes alive, is ignored. Presumably the joy of the Egyptian fans is all about the prospect of a 3 week bender in Cape Town.

Bennett then goes on to make some perfectly reasonable points about corruption within FIFA. But it’s clear that she’s just done a quick bit of research on the subject rather than it being something she actually knows about. If the Observer wanted a piece that would genuinely enlighten their readers on the dodgy dealings of Jack Warner and FIFA then they would surely have done better to commission someone like Andrew Jennings who actually has a genuine grasp of the topic. But sadly, the Observer seems to be under the thrall of the cult of the celebrity commentator.

Incidentally, I’m aware of the irony of criticising someone for opining on a variety of topics with laboured irony. But hypocrisy is the grease that makes the world go round.

November 14, 2009

What we need are more MPs

Filed under: All,When I rule the world — Josh @ 6:05 pm
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At a quick count there are 127 problems with the current British political system. But a couple of key problems are the significant disconnect between popular assessment of the worth of MPs and their own assessment, and an electoral system that renders a huge proportion of votes worthless and grossly over-represents the votes given to Labour and the Conservatives in the number of MPs they get.

I think both of these can be addressed fairly straightforwardly by splitting up the duties of MPs. Currently they have a dual role, both as those who draft and pass legislation and also as representatives of their constituencies. These roles don’t really mesh particularly well, either in terms of skills required or in terms of overlap of duties. MPs who may be very responsive to the complaints and issues of their constituents may not have the understanding and insight to be good at helping to create good legislation or at holding the executive to account. It also requires MPs to have a home in London (for practical reasons) and one in their constituencies (for political reasons) – one of the factors that have strongly contributed to recent expenses “scandals”. (more…)

October 25, 2009

Free Tapas Solves All Social Problems

Although my memories of traveling round Europe are beginning to fade into a vague mixture of pleasant snapshots, some bits do remain very clear, notably how lovely Granada was. While I’d love to transform British cities to resemble it more closely by  reducing the size of the roads, recreating the Alhambra, transferring the climate and so son, I realise that might present some practical difficulties. However, I think that copying their tradition of offering free tapas in bars is one that can be achieved and that would genuinely help deal with some of the problems people have with excessive drinking leading to anti-social behaviour in the UK. (more…)

October 23, 2009

The BNP on Question Time

Filed under: All,When I rule the world — Josh @ 11:05 am
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Last night saw one of the most horrible sights ever to appear on British TV, one that made me recoil each time it appeared on screen. I am, of course, talking about David Dimbleby’s tie.

There was also the equally horrible sight of an unreformed racist and general throwback to the 1930s appearing on the BBC’s flagship political programme. Overall, I thought that the BBC had no choice but to give the BNP an opportunity to appear on the show and it can only be right for any party that achieves electoral representation to get a chance to put their case, however abhorrent or stupid their views. But I feared that after 10 minutes ritual denunciation Griffin might be able to spend the rest of the show spouting “man on the street” Daily Express style “common sense”. That said, while I think it was great that there were protests against the BNP at Television Centre if they had prevented him from appearing that would have been (to borrow Peter Hain’s phrase) a real Christmas present to the BNP, pandering to their conspiracy theories and paranoia and enhancing their appeal to those who want to register disgust at the political spectrum. It might have been better for him not to have been invited, once he was the only hope was that he appeared and made a fool of himself. (more…)

October 19, 2009

Less is Moir

Filed under: All,When I rule the world — Josh @ 1:01 pm
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I’m going to ease back into this blog with the current internet issue de jour, the vile article written by Jan Moir in the Daily Mail about the circumstances of the death of Stephen Gately. The mean-minded idiocy of the article has already been illustrated by a plethora of other people – you can see it demolished by Charlie Brooker or satirised by the Quietus amongst many others. There was also a twitter campaign sparked by Derren Brown and Stephen Fry, asking people to complain to the Press Complaints Commission about the article, which had such a response that the PCC website crashed for a few hours. In response, Moir and the Mail responded with a fairly weak “clarification” that basically said everyone had horribly misunderstood the article. You can see that clarification neatly dissected by The Third Estate.

Naturally, whenever there is an explosion of indignation at anything that appears in the media then other voices come in and mutter about freedom of expression and censorship. For instance, from the Daily Telegraph (which neatly avoids mentioning that Moir has been a columnist for them). And, of course, there is a real point here – that something expresses a view offensive to some people should not, in itself, prohibit its publication. However, I do think there was one part of the Moir diatribe that was so stupid, so wrong that it should not have been published. And as that part was the basis for the rest of the tawdry innuendo and insinuation that filled the rest of the piece, perhaps that would have fallen by the wayside. I’m sure Western civilisation would have struggled on somehow.

The hook to Moir’s article was that Gately could not have died a “natural” death, because “Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again.” The point is correctly rubbished by Brooker, but surely the vast majority of the population don’t need to have it pointed out to them, it’s hardly arcane knowledge that its far from unknown for seemingly healthy young people to die for no apparent reason. As someone who has an interest in football, I could quote the tragic deaths of Daniel Jarque, Marc-Vivien Foe and Antonio Puerta in the last 5 or so years.

Now this sort of idiocy kind I of comes with the territory of the opinion pages of modern newspapers, where regular columnists offer their ill-informed opinion on a different issue each week, while people who actually know something about the subject are sidelined. But surely, even in a newspaper as egregiously ignorant of science as the Mail must have someone in place to edit or sub the piece who could point out the howler. That they don’t, I believe, renders the piece not fit for publication.

If Gately’s death was “natural”, and Moir has no grounds for challenging the coroner’s version that it was not, then all the speculation about his lifestyle evidences nothing beyond Moir’s prejudices. Ultimately, she is (as pointed out by the Daily Quail) simply alleging that he died of a fatal case of the gay.

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