Resting on the Laurels of the Doctor

Note: there are no actual spoilers in this post, but there is some speculation about this month’s Christmas Special of Doctor Who in the last paragraph.

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I have a confession to make: I don’t entirely get Doctor Who.

It’s not that I don’t like it; I’ve watched pretty much every episode that has been aired since, as a young child in the late 70s, I was aware of its existence (and quite a few others besides). I wept buckets at the end of both “The Day of the Doctor” and An Adventure in Space and Time last week, and laughed like a loon during The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. What I don’t understand is quite why it seems to inspire as much passion as it does.

What I find with Doctor Who is this: a lot of the older stuff which is frequently cited as “classic” and the best that Who has to offer often leaves me non-plussed. At the same time, while I often feel that New Who gets a far worse rap from its Old Who critics than it deserves, as often as not it underwhelms me as well.

Take a specific example: “The Caves of Androzani”. This is cited by multiple sources as the greatest Doctor Who story of all time. Yet when I watched it a couple of years ago, it left me cold. The acting was weak, the sets poor (I know, cheap shot), the pacing all over the place (despite having a fondness for Old Who-style cliffhangers, a lot of the time the episodic format seemed to lead to a lot of padding out), the drama was nowhere. At around the same time, I also saw “The Awakening” – a Peter Davison story which is variably treated as awful or indifferent – and really enjoyed it. I genuinely don’t understand why Caves is considered a classic while Awakening is a flop.

Lest you think I’m just having a go at Old Who, I have a different problem with New Who. The new version solves a lot of the issues that the old one had, namely acting, special effects, pacing and theme, but has created some new ones of its own. To a lesser extent with the Russell T. Davies era and a much greater extent with the Stephen Moffat era, a formula has become established whereby the Doctor faces a problem, the stakes are raised to a ridiculously high level, there are lots of emotions, and then the Doctor solves everything with a lot of hand waving and Murray Gold’s score doing all the heavy lifting. After seven seasons of this formula, I feel like I’m done with it. There are episodes which follow this formula and yet transcend it, and I do feel that “Day of the Doctor” achieved that (partly I think because of the odd pacing which rather broke it up), but it has certainly been the case that for the last couple of years it has felt as if it has been stuck in a timeloop and being edited by an 8 year old with ADHD. I often feel like the subsequent animated gifs that emerge online after each episode of Doctor Who are more worthwhile than the episodes themselves.

(I’m sounding very anti-Moffat hear so let me say this: his worst episodes and best episodes are better than Davies’s worst and best; it’s just his average episodes that let him down. I also think that while he deserves a lot of criticism for his portrayal of women, I also think it is true that he is probably the most feminist of Who’s showrunners thus far and that it is odd that Davies didn’t get more stick than he did.)

There is plenty about Doctor Who that I love. The TARDIS is a beautiful concept, wonderfully realised (and for me at least evokes childhood memories of excitedly spotting the last few genuine police boxes before they were removed from British streets). The enigmatic nature of the central character, together with its endless potential for renewal, has proven itself. I’m frequently taken in by the series’ charm, especially in the case of the Hartnell, Troughton and Tom Baker eras (Pertwee has never really done it for me). At its heart, the programme is about hope and believing in alternatives. Perhaps more so than any other science fiction or fantasy franchise, it is fundamentally, unashamedly liberal, with an emphasis on social justice and the dignity of the individual, and a deep distrust of authority and dogma.

I suppose that ultimately my problem with Doctor Who boils down to this: somehow it appears to have ended up with a status that places it above a lot of other fandom for no other reason that there is so much of it. As a kid, Doctor Who pretty much lost me in the 80s and yet as an adult I feel that I’m often told it was my fault for not giving Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred et al more of a chance. I think you need to squint a little too hard to see the genius of this era; it’s not that I can’t comprehend what people are talking about on an intellectual level, it’s just that it still isn’t that enjoyable – and this is meant to be entertainment after all. With New Who I almost have the opposite problem: I appreciate that the reason the series comes across like a hyperactive toddler is that it is a kid’s show, but at the same time I feel I’m supposed to also appreciate that it has depths at the same time, even when those depths seem to have been done by the numbers. Both incarnations seem to get let off the hook because of Doctor Who’s privileged status as the Grand Old Man of British genre television rather than appreciated on their own merits. To a certain extent this is echoed by Colin Baker’s intemperate “for the fans” remarks, complaining about the fact he and the other 80s Doctors weren’t invited to be involved in the 50th anniversary programme directly; what ought to matter is what makes good television, not nostalgic fanwank.

Fundamentally, right now I think the series is in a rut. I can almost guess how “The Time of the Doctor” is going to go: the Doctor is given the choice between dying a final death (because he’s on his twelfth regeneration of course) and saving the universe, or letting something awful happen, it all gets terribly emotional and then he waves his hands around and cuts the Gordian knot, only to realise that he has to die anyway but – cue more handwaving – gets to regenerate after all. Oh, and there’ll be snow and sleigh bells at some point because Christmas. Hopefully it will transcend the formula again, but I think it will be hoping too much for it to actually subvert it. I pray that the Peter Capaldi incarnation will lead to a greater variation of tones and plotlines than we’ve seen in recent years; if it doesn’t then I might just be forced to give up on it.

Scapegoating Nick Clegg is the lowest form of populism

Owen JonesMy ire was particularly roused yesterday by Owen Jones’s latest attack on Nick Clegg. Now, regular readers of this blog may be aware that Nick Clegg is not exactly my favourite person, I actually agree that Clegg is populist with little in the way of actual principles, and that this latest capitulation to crack down on virtually non-existent use of the UK welfare system by EU migrants is an apt if depressing example of this. But Jones’s analysis has one fatal flaw: he’s a member of the Labour Party.

You don’t have to agree with Martin Shapland’s equally flawed analysis that the fact that Labour have equally let down EU migrants and indeed the UK electorate that that somehow makes the Lib Dems’ own actions more acceptable to agree that Owen Jones and his cohorts are in no position to criticise.

If Clegg’s “scapegoating” of EU migrants (which is to ignore the fact that the Lib Dem position is far less coherent than simple scapegoating) is “unforgiveable”, then what does that make Yvette Cooper’s claim that the coalition are playing catch up behind Labour on this issue? Indeed, so behind the coalition were Labour on Tuesday that they set one of their lead attack dogs to smear Laszlo Andor, an EU commissioner who had the unmitigated gall to criticise the UK for adopting such a policy, wrongly claiming he was a fascist.

This isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last, that Clegg’s team has concluded that with Labour and the Tories united on an issue they might as well go along with it for fear of being singled out. It was the same reasoning that made Clegg so keen to not come out against the snooper’s charter. Clegg isn’t a liberal, although he wore that mask for a while, and his mission is to be seen to be in the centre of politics between Labour and the Tories, no matter where that centre happens to be (he’s only sticking with the party’s pro-EU stance because he knows that dropping it would lead to a split the party would not survive from). He’s pretty despicable. But does anyone really believe that is more despicable than the party leaders he is slavishly following? Miliband could have caused a split within the coalition by adopting a pro-migrant, and fact-based stance on immigration. Leaving aside his ethical and moral responsibilities, he had a responsibility to do so as the leader of the official opposition. Cringing in fear of how Lynton Crosby would respond, he chose not to.

I’m not suggesting the Lib Dems should be let off the hook, merely that they are irrelevant. Even if every single Lib Dem voted against these measures, the combined Labour-Conservative hegemony would get it through parliament. If Owen Jones truly had the principles he has pinned his professional career to, he would have chosen to lay into who is possibly the next prime minister for his cowardly stance, rather than the leader of a declining third party. Does anyone else see the irony in choosing to pull his punches on Miliband and ramp up the rhetoric on Clegg in an article denouncing the political practice of scapegoating? This is black propaganda indeed.

If you’re a small community campaign, the #gagginglaw will affect you.

Save Totley LibraryI’m annoyed that I’m starting to sound like a stuck record on this blog, but I feel the need to go back to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill again because of a potentially explosive confusion that has arisen.

Earlier today Joe Otten, a Lib Dem Sheffield Councillor, made the following claim on this blog:

No James, the Totley library campaign is not partisan, and the rules in the transparency of lobbying bill (and equally PPERA) do not apply to it. It is blatant scaremongering to suggest otherwise.

Now, I don’t claim any special knowledge of the Totley library campaign. No doubt the Labour council are claiming they have to shut it down due to central government cuts and the Lib Dems are claiming that it is solely closing because of Labour irresponsibility and opportunism. Whatever. But the argument that the bill won’t apply to such campaigns is dangerously misleading. I make no claim as to whether Otten is spinning here or has been spun to by his constituency MP Nick Clegg’s office, but either way it’s utterly fallacious.

The clue is somewhat in the name of the bill: “non-party campaigning”. “Partisan” campaigning is covered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The reason this bill has been introduced in the first place is that the coalition feels, in its wisdom, that non-party campaigns have been poorly regulated, and are seeking to change that.

Here are the various ways in which the bill will directly impact any small local campaign:

  • The minimum threshold that a local campaign can spend before coming under the auspices of the legislation is being cut from £10,000 to £5,000. That will include any in kind or pro bono work (such as legal advice) donated to it.
  • A new per-constituency limit of £9,480 (or, more precisely, 2% of the party spending limit, divided up on a per-constituency basis) is being introduced.
  • If your campaign is in a coalition with another organisation (for example, you are supported by a trade union), the spending limit will apply to all the organisations in the coalition in aggregate. In other words, if your coalition partner(s) spends any money at all in the constituency, your own spending limit will be reduced accordingly.
  • The regulated period will apply for 12 months before an election takes place. So, for the 2015 general election, it will commence in May 2014.
  • Once parliament has dissolved and the “short” election campaign itself has commenced, your group will have to submit weekly spending and donation reports to the Electoral Commission.

All of which is all very well, but will it apply to a non-political grassroots campaign that explicitly doesn’t support any candidate?

Well, it all depends on whether it is deemed that your campaign has a significant effect on the election or not. Fundamentally, that will all depend on how successful your campaign is. Campaigns that are deemed to not put politicians under any pressure will have, of course, little to worry about. Most campaigns however, at least aim to make an impact. And if you do, while the distinction in your mind between publicly criticising a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue and calling for people to not vote for a councillor or MP for failing to support your issue might be clear in your mind, it won’t necessarily be quite so clear in the mind of the solicitor the candidate your are criticising has paid to write you a stern and threatening legal letter. The Electoral Commission, who will be the ultimate arbiters of this legislation, have themselves repeatedly warned that it is too vague to be enforced.

There’s a bit more to it than that – especially if you are based in Scotland or Wales – but in a nutshell that’s why all small grasssroots community organisations ought to be concerned about this bill and the fact that it is being forced through parliament with so little scrutiny (the brief “pause” the government have reluctantly been forced to now observe is little more than a bit of breathing space really). If you want to know more, don’t trust me but go to the website of the National Campaign for Voluntary Organisations, who have a useful list of resources.

Of course, take everything you hear from people with a grain of salt. The nature of campaigning is that the rhetoric is often quite shrill. But if your Lib Dem or Conservative councillor tells you that it doesn’t effect you at all, they are either lying or have themselves been deeply mislead.

Remind me how the gagging law will prevent a UK “Koch Brothers” again?

UKIP Billboard from 2004One of the common arguments by the supporters of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is that it will prevent the UK equivalent of the Koch Brothers from being able to buy the political process for their own nefarious ends.

So it is with good timing that Paul Sykes has re-emerged, promising to do “whatever it takes” to get UKIP to become the largest UK political party in the European Parliament after the elections next year.

Paul Sykes, for those with short memories, was a Conservative donor who switched sides in the early noughties. The billboard campaign he funded in 2004 had a direct effect on the result, in which UKIP leapt from 3 MEPs to 12. Even without his intervention, it was looking distinctly possible that UKIP could become the largest party in 2014, with the Tories’ popularity being dented due to being in government, and the BNP collapsing. Now it is looking like a very real prospect indeed.

This sort of intervention by a Eurosceptic millionaire is hardly a new thing in British politics; it’s been an ongoing saga since the Maastricht debate shot Europe up the political agenda 20 years ago. And while it’s true that they have occasionally dipped their toes into non-party campaigning with causes such as the disastrous (in terms of its impact compared to the amount of money that was reportedly spent on it) IWantAReferendum.com, they have predominantly sought to exert their influence via political parties rather than pressure groups.

All of which makes shroud-waving about what might happen when “Koch UK land here” seem rather odd; their tanks are already on our lawn. The policy solution is of course to limit what individual’s can donate to political parties, an issue which the coalition paid lip service to but have now walked away from even after we saw progress made on alternative, revenue-neutral funding mechanisms and the Labour Party shifted ground significantly in terms of their own trade union-led opposition to the idea.

Gratifyingly the government have now – for a short period at least – agreed to pause the legislative process, to allow more time for ministers to listen to the concerns of civic society organisations. We can thank organisations such as 38 Degrees for helping to win that respite. Hopefully it will lead to meaningful engagement and at least some of the scrutiny that the bill should have got before being read in parliament. Optimistically, it might even lead to a more robust legislative framework to regulate the role third parties can play in elections. But be under no illusion whatsoever that it will do a thing to remove the dominance millionaires have over the UK political system.

Russell Brand and the Emperor’s new thong

Russell Brand holds aloft the cover to his issue of the New StatesmanSo, Russell Brand’s interview on Newsnight and New Statesman editorial has caused an awful lot of brouhaha, and I’d kind of like to join in. I find a lot of what he has to say on the subject of voting not only wrong but actually quite offensive. His assertion that my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation were “conned” in fighting for the vote is simply factually not true, unless you consider the welfare state, universal education and a national health service to be a “con” (as far as I’m aware, Russell Brand is not an Ayn Rand aficionado).

The fact that we’ve just lived through the deepest recession since the Great Depression and not seen the level of starvation and grinding poverty that destroyed people’s lives in the 1930s suggests that, for the most part, democracy has actually worked out quite well for most people in a lot of ways. Combine that with Brand’s obvious hypocrisy (opting out of the political system he despises while very much opting into the capitalist system which he claims to equally hate – yet very much profits from) and casual misogyny, and you have a pretty loathsome end product. Instead of miscrediting Billy Connelly with the quote “don’t vote, it encourages them,” just once I would have liked to see him engqge with Gandhi’s equally miscredited “be the change you want to see in the world” – it is all very well calling for a revolution of the mind, but if that’s where it stays, what is the point?

Here’s the thing though. Siding against Russell Brand means siding with an awful lot of rather distasteful people. I might not agree with his prescription, but I agree with a lot of the sentiment and many of the people whose pious critiques of Brand’s position I’ve read over the last few days have been the very people who I think are part of the problem.

Piously telling Russell Brand that he’s wrong is one thing, but if you’re one of the people who subscribes to the view that the current voting system is fine and dandy, and that your political party should be slavishly attempting to fix itself in the centre ground, or jump on whichever populist bandwagon which might get you the next short term voting fix, then you actually have less credibility than he has. Voting and political engagement can make a difference, but in spite of such people not because of them. Most people in the political establishment are not democrats, but rather technocrats who spend their time actively seeking ways to shut down public debate, not open it up.

And voting, especially for young people, is a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma. For individuals, voting is a cost in time and effort. It’s only if a critical mass of a certain demographic start voting that they are likely to make an impact, and no-one knows in advance how many people it will take (especially with our broken and random single member plurality voting system). If like me you voted in 2010 in the hope that we were on the verge of seeing a fundamental shift in voting patterns, you can understand why it is hard for people get their hopes up that they are a part of something bigger.

The benefits of democracy are indirect, long term and fundamentally collective. It is ironic that a self-proclaimed lefty such as Russell Brand can’t get beyond the very individualist and consumerist mindset that he claims to want a cultural revolution to overthrow, but he is by no means alone. And the political establishment has done nothing but encourage precisely this mindset over the past 35 years. The fact that Brand and so many other wannabe revolutionaries are creatures of this atomisation of society may suggest that their ideas are not so radical after all, but it ought to give the establishment pause for thought because it has the potential to cause them a lot of problems.

Young people aren’t voting. More than that, it seems to me that an entire swathe of young people are effectively opting out. It’s no surprise as they are being systematically shut out of the economic system. Mainstream politicians are obsessed with forcing them to run in ever decreasing circles trying to find jobs which don’t exist, only to find that even if they succeed in that they will have none of the economic security that their parent’s generation take for granted. When I was turning 30, I was in a minority in my peer group of people who didn’t own their own house (admittedly, most of whom were dependent on their parents’ for support); now I don’t personally know anyone under 30 who owns property. I can however tell you tales of people forced to move out of their over-crowded HMO because the landlord insisted on putting the rent up by an exponential amount and the stress that substandard housing and long term unemployment is causing people.

All of this amounts to a massive deal for our society, yet if you take a gander on Twitter, you won’t find many mainstream politicians talking about it at all. Instead they are determinedly issuing blandishments with hashtags such as #ForHardWorkingPeople, #StrongerEconomy or #FairerSociety and, urgh, #coalicious.

In Paul Mason’s response to Russell Brand’s intervention, he predicts that we will see increasing social unrest over the next decade. It isn’t a new prediction; the BBC produced a documentary 10 years ago saying broadly the same thing. Such dire forecasts don’t have to be 100% correct to be a cause for concern and it certainly looks to me as if we are starting to see signs that it could be happening.

So, ultimately, it isn’t enough to dismiss Russell Brand’s views. If an idiot child starts proclaiming that the emperor has no clothes, expending so much energy to point out that, in fact, he is wearing an extremely snug bright pink thong is to badly miss the point.

Jeremy Browne: off his trolley

Jeremy BrowneThe Times’s interview with Jeremy Browne today (link to the Guardian because it doesn’t have a paywall and there’s nothing in the Times original that you’re missing) highlights for me the inherent contradiction of the Lib Dem right wing.

They’ve always veered between two modes. One is that the wicked left of the party have tainted the party with social democracy and the purity of liberalism. This was the general approach of the Orange Bookers and the narrative that Nick Clegg presented during his rise to prominence. The other is to denounce the left for wanting to be a party of protest in permanent opposition. Notoriously, this was the subject of a Nick Clegg speech earlier this year, but it was also the main tactic 15 years ago when the right (the majority of whom were the same people), were arguing that the Lib Dems ought to be repositioning for a permanent alliance with the Blairite New Labour.

In Jeremy Browne’s flounce in the Times, he manages the double: the wicked left both want to be in permanent opposition and are not proper liberals. What’s interesting though is that it appears to be an open secret that the main reason he was sacked from the home office was because he was so comfortable with the Tories’ anti-immigration and increasingly authoritarian policies.

In theory, the one thing that unites Lib Dems across the spectrum is that they are liberal on social issues. The Orange Book narrative was always that the left, with its suspicious closeness to the Labour Party and love of the state and positive freedoms were the most susceptible to drifting into a “nanny state knows best” mindset. In practice however, it has consistently been the right which has ended up professing a love for Big Brother. Back when Mark Oaten was the right’s golden boy, he came up with the term “tough liberalism,” the only substantial application of which was support for ID cards.

Jeremy Browne can’t be entirely blamed for the Lib Dems’ tacit support for authoritarianism in government, even if it does appear to have accelerated since his promotion to the Home Office last year. It does appear however that the right in the party has a problem with definition. 10 years ago, the Orange Book launched on the premise that the right was economically liberal but still share the socially progressive goals the 20th century Liberal Party championed. Over the course of that decade, they have gone further back, increasingly ditching economic liberalism in favour of the classical liberalism of Gladstone where the only thing that mattered was unfettered markets. With the right’s poster child having now revealed his true disdain for basic liberal values such as civil liberties and the freedom of movement of people, you’ve got to ask yourself: what, aside from conservativism, do they have left?

Channel 4 News’s problem with women

Channel 4 News(Disclosure: I am friends with both a number of the women who have made allegations against Lord Rennard and Jo Swinson.

Channel 4 News’s interview with Sarah Teather summed up the misgivings I have had with its coverage of the whole Chris Rennard scandal.

Ostensibly about the coalition’s increasingly harsh line against immigration and welfare, on which Sarah Teather is outspoken, interviewer Matt Frei midway switched topic entirely to instead focus on the Lib Dems’ “women problem”, attempting to link her experience within the party with those women who have made allegations about Chris Rennard of sexual harassment. Two weeks ago it emerged that the Metropolitan Police had dropped its investigation into Rennard’s conduct.

Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman of course broke this story earlier in the year, and so I suppose it is understandable that they feel a sense of ownership of it, but it is hard to see how ambushing Sarah Teather in this way is justifiable. She had agreed to appear to discuss immigration policy, something which has implications for far more people (including women of course) than the Lib Dems’ internal culture. Teather’s sacking last September served to highlight Nick Clegg’s failure to include enough women in his own frontbench team, but there is nothing to suggest that Teather was sacked in any way because of her gender. It is equally hard to see how, had Teather been a man, Matt Frei would have spent half the interview wanting to discuss this issue at all.

That double standard has, sadly, undermined Channel 4 News’s coverage throughout. Going right back to Cathy Newman’s initial piece, it was clear that Channel 4 News had identified Jo Swinson and Ros Scott as their main targets, despite the fact that the allegations focused around two complaints made to Bridget Harris’s manager and the Chief Whip Paul Burstow. Newman continued to focus on Swinson in her subsequent reports and Telegraph columns.

Now, it is true that Swinson was the equalities spokesperson at the time the allegations were put to her. However, this is largely irrelevant because the role of a spokesperson is to focus on policy matters, not on personnel matters. We are also talking about someone who, in 2007, had been an MP for a grand total of two years and had just been sacked by the then leader Menzies Campbell as the shadow Scottish secretary. I have no doubt that neither Jo or the women making these allegations made no mistakes in their conduct but regardless of how she did respond, one thing that is not in doubt is that when the allegations were first made, she lacked the authority to do anything about them. The people who did have that authority at the time – Paul Burstow, (then president) Simon Hughes and (then leader) Menzies Campbell – entirely escaped media scrutiny.

Channel 4 News, and especially Cathy Newman, have consistently applied a double standard in this story, whereby the implication has been that in issues concerning sexual harassment, women should be expected to behave to a higher standard than men. That theme came up repeatedly in Newman’s coverage, and Matt Frei returned to it yet again this week. It is a repellent world view that ultimately undermines both men and women; if scandals such as this are to avoid getting dragged into a blame game then the focus needs to be on the people with authority at the time and what they did; not, as the media likes to play it all to often, on whoever knew anything regardless of what position they were in to do anything about it.

In terms of the allegations themselves, I declined to blog about it at the time, but following the Metropolitan Police decision I feel the need to state for the record that I don’t personally doubt the integrity of any of the women who made allegations against Chris Rennard; nor can I understand what possible ulterior motive they might have for making them. I’ve known about these allegations for years and offered to give a formal statement to the police, but they declined my offer (not entirely surprisingly as all I could really do is corroborate dates and facts; I’m not a primary witness). I didn’t decide to leave the Lib Dems for any specific reason, but it is fair to say that this debacle was one of the various ones which lead to my disenchantment of it, inexplicably linked as it is to the narrow campaigning focus which Rennard represents.

In fairness to the party however, since these allegations were made public and Nick Clegg’s initial appalling mishandling of it, the party has done much to pull itself out of the quagmire it had got itself into; much credit for that must go to Tim Farron. And even after the Met decision, it has been made quite clear that the party is continuing to take those decisions seriously.

Complete Zenith: A Review

cover to Complete ZenithWARNING: Some minor spoilers in the images, but nothing to get too excited about.

Zenith is a comic strip from “my era” of 2000ad. I first started getting 2000ad from Prog 497 (after already purchasing several Titan reprint albums) and Zenith himself arrived in Prog 520.

In some ways it’s a surprise Zenith was a hit in the comic’s pages. Grant Morrison is one of the few British creators in the 80s who didn’t cut his teeth in 2000ad – his break was in DC Thompson’s Starblazer – and it is fair to say he never really “got” the 2000ad house style as was all too apparent in his work on Judge Dredd and the infamous “summer offensive”. What’s more, 2000ad doesn’t do superheroes. Zenith represented 2000ad’s first non-parodic toe dip into those deep waters.

In many respects, Zenith feels more like a Warrior strip than a 2000ad one and has a lot in common with Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Captain Britain in that it is a very British treatment of a quintessentially American genre. I wouldn’t over emphasise the similarities however, and feed into Alan Moore’s lazy narrative that Morrison is a plagiarist. Indeed, many of the ideas that Morrison plays with in Zenith are ones which he has revisited in his own work many times since, particularly in Final Crisis, Animal Man and his Vertigo trilogy of The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

Despite Morrison moving rapidly onto bigger things, the story arc of Zenith is complete. The full colour Phase IV came out a few years after Phase III, and Morrison even returned for a one-off in 2000. It has however been increasingly hard to get hold of. Titan Books only reprinted the first three phases and ceased their 2000ad line in the early 90s. There was talk of reprinting it in the early noughties, but it quickly emerged that there were legal disputes preventing this from happening.

What are these legal disputes? Essentially, pretty much everything which 2000ad has ever published has been on the basis of work-for-hire: the company owns the rights in perpetuity (there are actually exceptions to this, but for the most part this is where the comic published work which had been initially commissioned by another publisher, notably Toxic!). However, Grant Morrison maintains that he never signed away his rights to Zenith and it would appear that 2000ad cannot prove him wrong in this respect. They could offer him a new contract or just accept he has the rights, but that would open up a legal minefield which could force 2000ad to revisit its ownership of pretty much everything it published in the 80s. As such it would appear they are at an impasse, the big loser being artist Steve Yeowell for whom this probably represents his most critically acclaimed and commercial work.

2000ad Books’ decision to print the entire run in a single volume earlier this year came out of nowhere. It has been limited to a (quickly sold out) print run of 1,000 and it is entirely possible this is the only time it will ever be reprinted. By all accounts, Morrison was not consulted on this and Rebellion have essentially stonewalled him. The theory goes that this is an experiment to see how he reacts. Either he’ll throw his lawyers at them or he’ll let it pass, in which case their case that he waived his rights and they are free to reprint will be that much stronger. It is far too soon to tell who will eventually win this, but in the meantime those of us willing to fork out £100 get a copy of something they have been dreaming of having in their hands for years.

What can I say about the book? I haven’t read the strip for many years and haven’t had a chance to pore through this edition yet, but I can say that it is very, very lovely indeed.

My shelves have been filling up with 2000ad’s “telephone directory” reprints for quite some time now (yes, I know that telephone directories these days are thinner than a weekly Prog; you get my meaning). I adore them, but they’re a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the reproduction and restoration, especially in the earlier days, is a bit iffy – especially when they are working from degraded copies of the comic rather than from negatives. And some of their choices can be a little odd, such as their decision to not include The Dead Man and America from their Complete Judge Dredd volumes (WHY????? Sigh, it still makes me furious). So I’ll be honest when I say that despite being willing to fork out for this volume I was a little trepidatious.

some of the reprint covers which appear in the Complete ZenithBut it has exceeded my expectations in several respects. This may seem obvious, but when they say “complete”, they mean it. It doesn’t just have all the strips, but it includes all the covers. Not just the 2000ad covers but the covers of the Titan reprints (which themselves were Ryan Hughes design classics) and the Quality and Egmont-Fleetway US reprints. I didn’t even know that Simon Bisley drew covers for the latter, although I have to admit that I’m not entirely blown away by them. It even includes a text story that Mark Millar wrote for an old annual, which if I recall correctly was only tangentially related to Zenith and (like many Mark Millar superhero and 2000ad stories) best forgotten about.

And then there’s the colour. Reprinting 2000ad strips from the late 80s and early 90s can be a bit of a challenge because the comic went from mainly monochrome to full colour in 1990. To keep costs down, book publishers tend to get creative when confronted with things like this by printing half the book in black and white and half in colour, but this can often look awful. On top of this, Phase I of Zenith was during a brief period when 2000ad adopted an odd habit of printing the last page of some of its strips on the back page of the comic itself – often in full colour. Most of the time, the solution to that is to print the page in black and white – and most of the time that means a page which looked gorgeous in the original comic looking muddy and illegible. This has particularly plagued the Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog reprints.

Colour transitions in the Complete ZenithNot so with Zenith. That £100 asking price means that, to their credit, they have spared no expense. So on the two chapters in Phase I where this applies you get a wonderful burst of colour. There is a slight issue which I’ve noticed whereby one of the annual stories, an Interlude, appears to have been printed slightly out of sequence so that it appears between Phases III and IV (when, if I recall correctly, it should be between II and III), but this is not disastrous as the story is out of sequence in any case.

Overall, I’m very happy with this and am content with paying the money. I very much expect an unlimited edition to appear in the next few years, but I don’t think those reprints will be either as comprehensive or include the nice touches that this one does.

And what of the ethics of reprinting this despite the legal uncertainty? Well, as readers of this blog will know, I’m fairly radical when it comes to my views on intellectual property. I think there is a good case for making all publications public domain 20 years after their initial publication – and I suspect that such an approach would have concentrated minds in both the Morrison and 2000ad camps. The existence of 2000ad slightly challenges my opposition to corporations being able to jealously guard their intellectual property because it has to be said that if their archives were worth less to them, it is entirely possible it would have ceased to be a viable publication some time ago (that said, I’m not wedded to 20 years and a somewhat longer period than that would probably fix that). I also have a lot of sympathy for Steve Yeowell and can’t believe that Morrison didn’t know he was working on a work for hire basis at the time. So yeah, I think they are right to test the waters here.

#Leveson and the #gagginglaw: a tale of two processes

Same-sex marriages StatementI’ve been watching the live feed of the House of Commons for the past hour, waiting for the report stage of the “transparency” bill to start. As such, I’ve watched Maria Miller’s statement on the regulation of the press and her time and again defend the long drawn out Leveson process on the basis that it leads to stronger regulation.

Is holding these two debates consecutively the government’s idea of a joke? Let’s look at the two processes: the Leveson process kicked off in May 2011 following a massive public outcry. Leveson himself reported just under 12 months ago. The plans to overhaul the system for non-party campaigning at elections were announced the day before the summer recess this year, following no outcry whatsoever, either from the public or anyone else.

The government has bent over backwards to attempt to establish cross-party and stakeholder agreement on how best to implement the Leveson proposals. When it comes to the gagging law, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny, no white paper and the old statutory requirement of a 12 week consultation period has already been relegated to the dustbin.

Both processes have profound implications for our civic society and the public’s ability to hold their government’s to account. The only difference appears to be (in stark contrast to the ludicrous claims of the gagging law’s advocates) that newspapers are owned by millionaire businessmen. Voluntary organisations are not. If Rupert Murdoch ran 38 Degrees, you can bet this law would be getting more scrutiny than it is now.

To hear Maria Miller discuss the evils of rushing through legislation really is difficult. I hope the irony will not escape MPs when debating the bill this evening and tomorrow.

Shroud waving over the #gagginglaw

cookiemonsterNotwithstanding Chloe Smith walking away, the government have attempted to pacify the opponents to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning, Trade Union Administration and Whatever It Takes To Stop You Talking About The Real Issues Bill with a string of amendments to be debated at this afternoon’s report stage of the bill in the House of Commons. By all accounts, it hasn’t worked. I’m actually surprised by this as I would have thought they’d be able to mollify the larger charities.

The government still isn’t admitting defeat however, and the Lib Dem wing are continuing to issue dire threats about what might happen if this bill does not become law as quickly as possible. John Thurso wrote last week:

But there is nothing liberal in permitting vast fortunes to be spent in the pursuit of electoral success. If there were, we would be arguing for the repeal of the 1883 Prevention of Corruption and Illegal Practices Act which has limited candidates’ expenditure at elections for 130 years. No one is making that case: not 38 Degrees, not Friends of the Earth, not the Countryside Alliance, not Hope Not Hate.

The Bill will ensure that no millionaire’s cheque book can outgun the voices of small organisations or of election candidates with a good case to make. We cannot allow that simple principle to be blown away in a gust of hot air about “gagging”.

That is simply nonsense. For starters, Unlock Democracy – who I worked for until September – have been making precisely that case for many years, and have more recently been joined by the Electoral Reform Society. Simply omitting the organisations which campaigning on this issue because they are inconvenient does not make a case true.

And it is simply not true that a single millionaire will be prevented from buying the political process if that is what they wish to do so. The government has repeatedly refused to legislate for a cap on donations, and however draconian this bill is on campaigning, it doesn’t include a cap on donations to non party campaigns. There is nothing whatsoever to prevent a donor from making donations of £400,000 to a dozen different organisations, all of whom would be free to campaign up to the spending limit as long as they did not work in concert.

Sound fanciful? Possibly, but then far too much of this debate has focused on hypothetical scenarios, so why not raise this one. David Boyle goes further than John Thurso, by bringing up the US Koch Brothers and their campaigning techniques:

So you might reasonably ask why the UK should have legislation about electoral activity by non-candidates at all. The answer is summed up in one word: Koch.

The reason why this is so important is because of the Koch Brothers and their activities funding ultra-conservative election support in the USA, and those like them.

They set up lobby groups and non-profits to intervene, most of them well below the radar – but tax returns show that they spent $230 million in local interventions in the USA in the year before the last presidential election, and that was just through one of their organisations.

Look at the government shut-down, the blinkered oppositionism that has degraded American politics at federal level. That isn’t just about the Koch brothers, but we don’t want it here – we don’t want an open door to every oligarch who thinks they can intervene in our elections.

The tl;dr version of that quote is: “if you don’t support this bill then you support oligarchs shutting down the government!” It’s a nice bit of propaganda, but once again it omits certain inconvenient truths. Specifically, we already have our UK Koch Brothers. The difference is that, because they are free to fund parties directly, they opt for that instead.

The Stuart Wheelers, Michael Ashcrofts and, yes, James Palumbos of this world know that you are far better off putting your money into parties either directly or influencing governments by establishing think tanks and setting the political agenda that way. In terms of getting bang out of their buck, they would be insane to do otherwise.

So the real question is, why are the Liberal Democrats shroud waving about this non-issue while doing nothing whatsoever to make the case for taking the big money out of the UK political system where it is actually being spent?

Image credit: Unlock Democracy.