Too many pictures ?

The sight of a pack of paparazzi in pursuit of some celebrity, victim of crime or even a suspected criminal is one of the less attractive aspects of having a ‘free press’. It’s easy to condemn but more difficult to draw a line between the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy.  However, there is some hypocrisy involved in the media’s defence of their practices, a failure to acknowledge that they are as much the result of practical and commercial considerations as of any pursuit of truth and justice.

Anyone who writes, for a living or for pleasure, knows that it takes a lot more effort to fill space with words than with pictures, especially in the age of the digital camera.  So, it’s unsurprising that newspaper editors welcome the efforts of paparazzi to provide them with glamorous or sensational photographs.  These may add no information to the ‘news’ they illustrate, but they do catch the eye and can be easily expanded.  How much easier than churning out an extra paragraph.  That’s why editors are prepared to pay significant sums for the right picture, and why photographers will behave so badly in order to take it.

While pictures are an optional extra in our newspapers they’re a necessity in television news, where editors feel obliged to provide us with constant visual stimulation, along with the factual information we actually need.  Too often the availability of dramatic pictures comes to dominate the news agenda and how items are covered.  For example, shaky cell phone pictures of something happening in Syria take precedence over a challenging interview with the Syrian ambassador or some contextual analysis by an academic expert.   The result is to bias reporting towards dramatic action, rather than thoughtful consideration of the issues.

No doubt, the Leveson Inquiry will struggle to find a fresh approach to regulation of the media which strikes the right balance between the right to know and the right to be private, and ensures that all sides of a dispute are fairly represented.  These are important matters for democracy but, aside from those considerations of principle, we ought to remember the practical concerns which must often motivate the people who operate our media, whether printed or broadcast.  Just imagine the awful daily responsibility of having to fill all those blank pages and screens !

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Massive hypocrisy over Iran

As Britain, France and the USA send their warships into the Straits of Hormuz, in order to impose their will on the people of Iran, we ought to recall the records of these three nuclear armed powers.  All have recent form for attacking sovereign states because they disapprove of their governments, and the USA is the only nation which has ever used nuclear weapons, devastating two cities in the process.  Yet these three demand constraints on Iran to ensure it is unable to manufacture the sort of weapons with which they’ve threatened the world for decades.

We should also recall that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, so often cited as holy writ in these matters, is not solely concerned with preventing states like Iran from acquiring the same destructive capacity possessed by Britain, France and the USA.  It also requires that these three, and other nuclear weapons states, should pursue disarmament, with a view to eliminating nuclear weapons entirely.  I see no evidence that any of those governments takes that objective at all seriously, yet they persist in imposing economic sanctions on the people of Iran, while refusing to rule out the possibility of military action if their demands are not met.

I don’t pretend to know the true intentions of the government of Iran regarding nuclear technology, but I can sympathise with its  determination to resist this intimidation.   Yet no doubt Iran will be condemned by our media, with no mention of the massive hypocrisy of which the so-called Western powers are obviously guilty.

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Beyond economic growth

Perhaps the optimists are right and our economy will soon be back to business as usual, with continuous growth delivering generous public services and desirable consumer goods.  But the evidence rather suggests that we’re going to have less to spend on those things in future.  We know that the young will  be re-paying the cost of their own higher education, that workers will need to be saving more for their retirement, and that when they do retire their pensions will be smaller.  At the same time the prices of essentials like food and energy are likely to rise.  Does anyone imagine that incomes will increase in order to compensate for all this ?  Apart from bankers’ bonuses, obviously.

At first sight a long pause in consumerism looks attractive, since Capitalism’s most obvious success has been in converting the Earth’s resources into pollution and landfill, and there’s scant evidence that money and what it can buy brings contentment.  One welcome change, for example, would be a decline in the use of increasingly expensive private motor transport.  That would cause serious inconvenience for a few people and oblige widespread changes of attitude, but the potential benefits are impressive.  Fewer vehicles on our roads will allow public transport to be more efficient, and let cyclists get around more safely.  Those who regain the habit of walking regular short distances will enjoy improved fitness and health.  There will be less noise and pollution in our environment.  We may even feel able to ease off from the hectic lifestyles which have only been made possible by motor cars.

There’s a long list of other products and services which we could manage without: minor treats, rewards and consolations on the one hand and, on the other, those more significant purchases motivated by the desire to be seen as fashionable, tasteful or prosperous.   Unfortunately, all that stuff which panders to our whims rather than meets our needs has become fundamental to our economy – producing and providing it  is currently how many of our citizens earn their living.  With unemployment rising and pressure on government budgets it’s no wonder that politicians are hoping that a return to economic growth will save them from the difficult decisions that a new sort of economy will require.

However, I’m hoping that phrases like ‘ we’re all in this together’ imply a genuine recognition that some significant re-distribution is going to be essential, in order to avoid both social injustice and social unrest.  First, we might make clear that a 50 pence tax rate does not mean taking half of someone’s income, but only half of what they get above a level which is already more than most people can ever aspire to.  Secondly, we might vigorously pursue international agreement that individuals and companies pay the full taxes due in the countries where they live or do business.  Perhaps we might stop worrying about those who prefer to leave rather than make a fair contribution, and simply close the door after them.

Thirdly, we might require that citizens who receive unearned income, whether as benefits or pensions, are still expected to do something in return for the essential goods and services they use.  There are already plenty of good examples of voluntary work, but we shall need to develop expectations that volunteering goes along with the benefits of being a citizen.  There’s much important work to be done in the fields of education and social care that we couldn’t afford to pay for even when we had economic growth,  but it could now provide the most satisfying ‘leisure’ activities that any of us will ever have.

As for paid employment, some redistribution will be necessary  there too, although it’s less obvious how that transition can be achieved.  The decline in consumer spending will be making much non-essential work redundant, so we shall need to begin sharing the jobs that still need doing, by reducing everyone’s working hours and enjoying some of that increased leisure we were once promised as a result of new technologies.  I’ve no easy answers as to how we might move in that direction, so I shall be watching our politicians for signs of recognition that radical change is not just desirable but inevitable.  If we are to cease relying on economic growth, and emerge into a new and more satisfactory phase of Capitalism, we shall need to remember that while owning and consuming are attractive, the things that matter most in life need cost very little at all.

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Fair access to Oxbridge

I doubt anyone would dispute that there are considerable advantages in getting your degree at Oxford or Cambridge – certainly Oxbridge graduates appear to dominate the professions and other high status roles in society.  Indeed, it sometimes seems that Britain has long been governed by graduates of those universities.  No harm in that, of course, if it means that our leaders’ natural abilities have been enhanced by the best higher education available.  And I suspect that the tutorial system Oxbridge can afford is likely to bring out the best in anyone.

However, there are long-standing and quite proper concerns that the Oxbridge phenomenon, combined with the public schools system, has created a self-perpetuating elite from which the many talented young people from less advantaged backgrounds are excluded.  No politician has yet dared to challenge the role of private education in our society, but there’s much huffing and puffing from time to time about the narrow intake at Oxford and Cambridge.  Sometimes the universities are accused of institutional bias against pupils from less affluent backgrounds, sometimes state schools are blamed for having low expectations of what their pupils could achieve. 

Despite some well-intentioned initiatives there’s been no evidence of radical change and some recent figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have shown just how unsatisfactory the present situation is.  These figures show the number of children admitted to Oxbridge in 2009-10 from each of England’s 150 local authorities.  All of the top ten councils for Oxbridge entrants were in the South East of England: Surrey with 280 fortunate school-leavers came top, a haul equal to the combined total from almost a third of England’s other local authorities.  By contrast 11 areas failed to send a single student to either Oxford or Cambridge.  And a similar pattern prevailed at the twenty leading Russell Group universities.

These rather shocking facts clearly suggest how we might radically improve access to Oxbridge, a national institution which appears to have been captured by one area of the nation.  If we wanted to do more than tinker at the margins we could choose to allocate a number of places at Oxford and Cambridge to each local authority, pro rata to their number of A-level students.  Each local authority could then draw up a shortlist of qualified candidates from which the universities could select their students.  The result would be a much fairer distribution, with every part of Britain represented, and more young people from less advantaged backgrounds encouraged to apply.  Nothing this radical will happen, of course, not because of practical difficulties, but because any radical change would be intensely unpopular with the affluent middle class of Southeast England, and don’t forget: those are the families who’ve been running the country for years.

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Our chauvinist media

There was some good news from Zimbabwe in December and, surprisingly, it came via the BBC which has broadcast mainly negative stories about that country for many years.  In Crossing Continents on Radio 4  Martin Plaut followed up a ten year project by Sussex University’s  Institute of Development Studies.  This is, apparently, one of several studies challenging the common view of land reforms which Zimbabwe began in 2000.

The British Government has routinely condemned those reforms as an unmitigated disaster, and the BBC has done nothing to moderate or contradict official assertions.   All the main news channels have focussed on attacks by ‘veterans’ against white farmers who were being driven from land they’d developed into a thriving agricultural sector for Zimbabwe.  To make matters worse, we’ve been told that once white farmers and their native workers were ousted the land was left  unproductive, more evidence of the country’s economic ruin under Robert Mugabe. 

Martin Plaut offered a more balanced view.  Critics of the land reform programme were interviewed and instances of fertile acres now unused were cited, but he also found evidence of large farms formerly owned by whites being developed as smallholdings, where native Zimbabweans are earning a living by traditional methods.  One witness was even allowed to dispute the oft-repeated claim that land taken from white farmers has been corruptly distributed among Mugabe’s political allies.  However, it would have taken another programme to inform the casual listener of the background to this story.

This would tell how Victorian Britain came to distribute African land among white colonisers in the first place, and recall the long struggle of indigenous Zimbabweans to recover territory on which their ancestors had lived for millennia.  It would describe how Britain did allocate some funds to buy out white farmers when it granted independence in 1980, but never completed the process of returning the land to its original owners.  That funding ceased in 1995 and the new Blair government refused to renew it, beginning a war of words which intensified when the Zimbabweans set about land reform by other means.   In general, we were allowed to hear only one side of that argument, as though our news media were part of the British Government’s PR machine.

A more recent, and possibly more serious example of this tendency was the ‘cross-Channel spat’ with France, amid the fallout from David Cameron’s use of our veto.  On successive BBC news bulletins we were told of derogatory comments about Britain’s economy made by representatives of the French government – these were presented as unprovoked attempts to undermine our credit rating.  Again, the casual viewer might never have known that those comments had been in response to remarks by our own Chancellor George Osborne, who had carelessly suggested that France might be as vulnerable as Greece and Italy to anxiety in the  money markets. 

Now, we might expect our mainly Europhobic newspapers to relish any conflict with France and eagerly point the finger of blame across the Channel.  But aren’t we entitled to a more balanced approach from the supposedly independent BBC ?  In domestic politics the Corporation is required to adopt an impartial stance, allowing time for competing views, but this principle has never been recognised in the reporting of foreign affairs.  Indeed, over Northern Ireland and our government’s conflict with Argentina, the Corporation was readily accused of something akin to treason.  But wouldn’t it be best for peace in the world if the people of every nation heard both sides of the story when politicians get entangled in international ‘spats’ ?  And wouldn’t it be excellent if our BBC were to give the world a lead in that respect ?

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Equal but different

It seems that the furore over an all male shortlist for this year’s Sports Personality has prompted the BBC to consider changing its procedures next year, when sports journalists are invited to nominate their candidates.  I hope this is not going to mean some sort of quota of women or other form of positive discrimination, when the solution is obvious and should have been implemented long ago.

We have mixed doubles in tennis and badminton, when men and women compete together, but we don’t have mixed football, rugby or cricket teams and no male versus female races in swimming or athletics.  So, who ever decided that men and women should compete with each other for the sports personality award ?  Rightly, the furore has encouraged sportswomen to point out that their sports receive less coverage in the media, except during the Olympics, when the women’s events invariably provide just as much interest and excitement as the men’s.   And anyone who’s recently watched  women playing soccer  will know that the same applies there. 

By having separate awards for the sportsman and sportswoman of the year  the BBC would immediately require sports journalists to look more widely for their nominations.  With two shortlists of ten presented to the public, sportswomen would be assured of equal treatment, while viewers and voters would be learning about sports personalities of both sexes that they might never have otherwise encountered.  In view of those advantages it seems remarkable that the present system has gone on as long as it has.  Was this a case of the BBC pandering to the idea that there is somehow no significant difference between men and women, in pursuit of some false notion of equality ?

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Standing together or alone ?

For me, the European Union is the most important experiment in human relations ever conducted, a principled effort to explore how diverse groups of people can best share a continent.  It tests whether we can compete economically on fair terms without exploitation, whether we can agree international rules and then abide by them, and whether we can resolve inevitable conflicts of interest through negotiation, without resort to threats and violence.  This experiment began after centuries of painful experience of what happens when we fail to follow those principles.  So I was concerned when it appeared that our Prime Minister had decided that Britain must stand on the sidelines, while the rest of Europe works and learns together.

Now, I don’t pretend to know the significance of that decision for Britain nor how much it matters in terms of the continuance of the European Union and its currency, but I do worry about David Cameron’s motivation.  This seems not to have been a matter of great principle or of serious practical importance, but rather a concession to those conservatives who’ve always been against our membership of the EU and make no effort to conceal their satisfaction that the experiment may be on the brink of failure.  Worse still, the MPs applauding Cameron appear to be supported by a clear majority of the British public and will no doubt continue to be encouraged by the people who run our most influential newspapers.  These are forces which ought not be appeased, but it would have needed a good deal of the ‘bulldog spirit’ to stand up to them.

I should like to see our Prime Minister promoting the principle that we’re all in this together, both at home and abroad, not giving in to vain hopes that we can protect our own interests at the expense of other people’s.  The crises we face were not brought about by sincere efforts at co-operation between governments but by a dominant ideology that favoured competition and argued that markets must rule.  Because that ideology has failed we’re entering a post-Capitalist phase without any clear sense of what sort of new economic and social order will emerge.  I’m still hoping it can emerge through negotiation and compromise.  Sadly, for the moment at least, Britain is choosing to stand aside from that essential process.

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