Monthly Archives: July 2008

The Alan Moore on a Train Meme

I’ve been watching Jonathan Ross’ In Search of Steve Ditko this evening and as I do sometimes it got me thinking. If Alan Moore sat down on a train opposite me, what would I say? Simply not talking to him wouldn’t be an option – this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive wisdom directly from the Great Man after all. But by the same token, asking for his autograph or asking obvious, overtly fannish questions would be out of the question as well.

So my question to you dear reader, is what three questions would you ask Alan Moore if you met him on a train? My three would be:

1. What do you make of AARGH!? Was it a success? Do you think it helped challenge prejudice? For those who don’t know, AARGH! – or Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia – was a protest book edited by Moore in 1988 to protest against Section 28. While it contains some strong content, it also includes two pieces which have always bothered me. The piece by Frank Miller is a clear case of the hardnut of comics having his cake and eating it by getting to “protest” against homophobia by producing several pages of what appears to be blatantly homophobic itself. This remember is the man you regards Socrates-murdering Athenians to be gay while the Spartans are the height of hetero-manliness. The piece by Brian Bolland, while less obviously exploitative, is by a man clearly uncomfortable with homosexuality.

It’s fascinating because here are a bunch of broadly liberal artists struggling with a topic like homosexuality in a way that my generation really takes for granted. Given that, and the fact that AARGH! fairly obviously failed to get the law stopped, I’d be fascinated by Alan Moore’s take on it 20 years later.

2. How would your ideal system of intellectual property rights work? In particular, what do you think of ideas like Creative Commons. Alan Moore has always struggled with publishers over creators’ rights and much of his best work has been work-for-hire, something which clearly grates with him. But ideas like Creative Commons conflict to some extent with the creators’ rights movement that had such an influence on the comics industry in the early 90s.

3. Did you ever really intend to continue Halo Jones beyond book 3? Halo Jones Book 4 is often hailed as one of the greatest comic books never written. It is rumoured even that Alan Moore originally intended there to be nine Halo Jones books. Yet I’ve always had my doubts over this. I always assumed that the “history” sections in books two and three were merely meta-narrative which served to give the character a certain mystique which Moore never really intended to fully explore. Book three ends perfectly to me and I’m not convinced I’d want the story to continue afterwards. And finally, with the possible exception of Big Numbers, Alan Moore does not appear to have ever let a project of his dangle if he still had a story to tell. His fallings out with comic companies tend to happen after the work is complete, not during (unlike, for example, Rick Veitch’s falling out with DC over his Jesus / Swamp Thing storyline).

Those are my three questions; what would yours be? To kick this off, I tag Alex Wilcock, Millennium Elephant, Nick Barlow, Justin McKeating, Mat Bowles and Jennie Rigg. If you want to do this meme and I haven’t tagged you, feel free to do so any spread the word!

Completely Nuts

I’m confused about this latest ad ban. Which character is meant to be gay? The one who is walking peculiarly, or the one wearing lots of gold jewelry, referring to pride in the “man race” and chomping down hard on phallic shaped object demanding that we “get some nuts”?

If this ad is meant to represent the ultimate hetero bashing a homo, I’m Mad Murdoch.

The Stag Weekend Phenomenon

I’ve just survived my second stag weekend in as many months. When I say ‘survived’ it remains to be seen whether my Sunday-surliness has blotted my copybook amongst that particular group of friends.

The fact is, I am not naturally predisposed to the sort of mindset expected on these kinds of expeditions. At an extremely early age I tended to make individual friends and be shy of groups. As a result I ended up flitting between different groupings on the playground. Later, this ‘oddness’ made me a target for bullies: while large, I sadly lacked strength in numbers in and of myself. But it also made me a social butterfly as I entered my adolescence and meant I could bring disparate groups together who otherwise would have never mingled socially. It was something I really valued and gave me a lot of self-worth at a time that was otherwise trying. Like the main character in Rusholme Rushmore, I had to be prised kicking and screaming from the school which had formed my identity so much when the time came to leave. Even then I ended up working around the corner for a year.

That tension between desiring to be part of a wider group while being leery of ‘gangs’ has continued with me. It makes me incredibly suspicious of identity politics while being a fierce supporter of universalism. It is that universalism that attracted me to the Liberal Democrats. Of course that in itself is slightly contradictory as political parties have gang-like tendencies. I have always hated things like Glee Club (I quite like sing songs – it’s the enforced camaraderie I’m suspicious of) and lead to me often wandering party conference feeling somewhat lost. Conferences make me want to withdraw into myself – a crazy instinct as they are golden opportunies for me to hook up with so many of my dearest friends on an individual level.

I can be a good little footsoldier on occasion, but I do always end up paying a heavy price for selling my soul. And ironically my individualism probably also informs my occasional sergeant major tendencies – mutinous feelings within the ranks during a campaign is not something I take lightly. If I have to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good then everyone else had better do the same.

The problem I have with stag weekends then is that for 48 hours I am required to give up all that individualism and form an impromptu gang with people, some of whom I had never met until that particular weekend. There is some kind of unwritten code about how you are expected to behave at these events and that can be summed up as laddishness and casual misogyny. Even the most sedate – and polysexual – weekend I have been on involved quaffing large quantities of cheap lager and going clubbing. At some point the topic of lapdancing inevitably crops up. Some stags and best men resist this temptation, others don’t. And what is this fixation with shots, the more disgusting the better?

I am fortunate that I have not yet been informed that I must wear a tshirt with a wacky nickname ending in ‘y’ on one of these expeditions thus far. Nor have I been expected to dress like a superhero or an overgrown baby. To be honest though, if you’re going to go through all this why not go the whole hog? At least it would allow for some ironic detachment.

But where will this all end? In the mid-nineties the Stag Night was still the norm/cliche, as epitomised by the film Staggered starring Martin Clunes and the bloke wot used to be Robin Hood before Jason Connery Michael Praed. The danger with that business model was of course that it was vulnerable to an ethically dubious best man and/or entourage getting the stag ill/arrested/sold to white slave traders just a few hours before the wedding. The Stag Weekend then is the result of a compromise: the groom agrees to stay sober the night before and in exchange gets to have an even bigger blowout.

But this has formed a cottage industry. The first stag weekend I went on was a package affair in Nottingham. It involved the worst hotel you could imagine (actually just a couple of filthy rooms on top of a pub) and going to the one club in the city that accepted stag groups. I managed about 30 mins before having to walk out after three different people decided to pick a fight with me. Someone made a lot of money out of us that weekend. At least Newquay, from where I am currently returning, had a nicer ambience.

Is the future stag weeks, fortnights, round the world trips? Isn’t all this getting away from the basic premise, which is that the stag gets one last night of freedom before tying the knot? This isn’t freedom, it’s the very definition of conformity. Nor do we live in an era where marriage need be a form of enslavement; quite the opposite.

The real problem I have with these weekends is that I can only take so much of them and end up running away from the herd in order to take a breath. It doesn’t do my friendships any good as it makes me look like a grumpy arse. But at the same time it means a lot to me when I’m asked to go on them. Any ideas for how I can preserve me sanity and my friendships at the same time?

UPDATE: Er, yes indeed I meant Rushmore not Rusholme!

OfCom, the Global Warming “Swindle” and Revolutionary Communism

The controversy surrounding last year’s Great Global Warming Swindle highlights a number of things for me.

First of all, the OfCom ruling today appears to have caused more heat than light. The report states that:

…In dealing with these complaints therefore Ofcom had to ascertain – not whether the programme was accurate – but whether it materially misled the audience with the result that harm and/or offence was likely to be caused.

There it is – in black and white. Why then does Brendan O’Neill at Spiked insist that “Ofcom rejected complaints that Durkin’s film was factually inaccurate on the basis that it did not ‘materially mislead the audience so as to cause harm or offence.’” The Commissioning Editor at C4 Hamish Mykura was even more explicit in a BBC interview, stating at least twice that OfCom ruled they had not mislead the audience.

Yet that was not the test. By OfCom’s admission, the bar was set incredibly high, not to say almost impossibly so:

The accompanying Ofcom guidance to the Code explains that “Ofcom is required to guard against harmful or offensive material, and it is possible that actual or potential harm and/or offence may be the result of misleading material in relation to the representation of factual issues. This rule is therefore designed to deal with content which materially misleads the audience so as to cause harm or offence.” (Emphasis in original). Ofcom therefore only regulates misleading material where that material is likely to cause harm or offence. As a consequence, the requirement that content must not materially mislead the audience is necessarily a high test.

In other words, the Great Global Warming Swindle could have been full of the most blatant lies ever devised by man as far as OfCom was concerned, as long as they were white ones. It isn’t entirely surprising therefore that it found in Channel 4’s favour.

And to an extent, that is how it should be. The key test is whether the programme was presented as a documentary or an essay. Adam Curtice’s occasional forays on BBC2 are by turns brilliant and incredibly stoopid, but they are always presented as personal essays. It’s a good format. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is undeniably in the first person. What I’ve seen of Martin Durkin’s programme (I admit to not having watched the programme as I missed it when it was first broadcast and don’t see why I should enrich him by buying a copy), it looks very much like a documentary. This is a key point, and one which George Monbiot is right to quibble over:

This became a personal issue when the man who commissioned The Great Global Warming Swindle, Hamish Mykura, appeared on the Today programme to defend the film. It was, he said, part of “a season of opinionated polemical films about global warming”, and was balanced by a film I had made, broadcast in the same week, for Dispatches. I was flabbergasted. Neither I, nor the audience, nor anyone on the production team had been told that my programme was part of “a season of opinionated polemical films about global warming”, or that it would be linked to The Great Global Warming Swindle. Had I known this, I would have pulled out. When I asked Mykura for evidence — some memos or publicity material about this “season”, for example — he was unable to provide any.

My film was subjected to such a rigorous process of fact-checking that it was, in effect, edited by Channel 4’s lawyers. While this made it rather dull, it also meant that it was robust and unchallengeable: any claim which would not stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny was excluded. Despite this, it was billed as a controversial polemic and my own personal view (I was the onscreen presenter). Durkin’s film, by contrast, appears to have been exempted from such rigorous fact-checking and was not presented as his opinion. Why did such radically different standards apply? And in what sense did my film “balance” Durkin’s? Mine was about policies seeking to address climate change: I was not asked to demonstrate that man-made global warming was taking place. Even if that had been my aim, Channel 4 misunderstands its public service obligations if it believes it has to strike a balance between truth and falsehood. I was glad to see that Ofcom found that the other programmes in the channel’s schedule “were not sufficiently timely or linked” to the Swindle to balance it..

It strikes me that it is odd for OfCom to insist that this film was opinion when it has certainly never sought to present itself in that way. Indeed, the film’s power is in documentary’s ability to appear authoritative. It is one of those quirks of the modern age: write a book on climate change and it is taken for granted that it is opinion. Make a film and people wave it around as if it was the gospel truth. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard and seen climate change sceptics bang on about this film as if it demolishes the entire case for anthropocentric climate change.

Returning to Spiked and Brendan O’Neill, you could be forgiven that this partial upholding of a complaint was tantamount to being hanged, drawn and quartered:

Speak ill of a climate expert and you’re likely to be stuck in the stocks of the public media and branded as a fact-denying, truth-distorting threat to public morals.

Increasingly in the climate change debate, no dissent can be brooked. I mean none (my emphasis). That is why, from the thousands and thousands of hours of TV programming devoted to climate change issues last year – from news reports on the threat of global warming to the lifestyle makeover shows imploring us to Go Green – only one has been singled out for censure. The one that questioned whether climate change is occurring. The Great Global Warming Swindle by maverick filmmaker Martin Durkin.

But this is self-evident nonsense. Apart from the fact that climate change deniers took the unusual step of taking Al Gore’s film to court, a fact which that great defender of free speech Brendan O’Neill applauded at the time, there is absolutely nothing – zero – squat – to stop someone from making an official complaint to OfCom about a pro-green television programme if they feel it is factually wrong. But what is more, outside of O’Neill’s fevered nether world, OfCom haven’t actually demanded any action over this film other than insist that C4 summarise its report’s findings. Is it not therefore just a smidgen of an exaggeration to say that “say anything reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous about a climate change scientist and you will be punished. You won’t receive a literal lashing, but you will get a metaphorical one.”? Apparently a tongue lashing is too much to bear for LM, the poor dears.

Ah yes, LM. I’ve taken a mild interest in the goings on of the group formally known as the Revolutionary Communist Party ever since university when along with most other Manchester University students I was regularly accosted by people in the street demanding that I take out direct debits to their magazine in order to “prove” that I support freedom of speech. The freedom of speech they were seeking to defend was their right to claim that ITN had faked footage about a Bosnian concentration camp. Is there an LM network, as has been suggested by certain environmentalists? What is undeniable is that there is a hardcore who tend to club together. After 20 years, you would expect the members of most political organisations to be quite disperse. Yet, here they all are, regularly swapping between Spiked and the Institute of Ideas.

There is nothing wrong with old comrades sticking together. What I have more of a problem with is their tendency to establish a “party” line on pretty much everything. For a think tank and magazine advocating freedom of speech, they never seem to encourage people to argue back with them. You won’t ever find an article on Spiked about climate change, or criticising China, for example. For all their claims as supporters of freedom of expression, debate appears to be the last thing they want (no comments on their website for you or I); merely the right to push their own agenda. And again, that’s fair enough – I often even find myself agreeing with them – but it would be nice if they were honest about it once in a while.

I just wish the polemic wasn’t quite so out there. There isn’t a single cordial disagreement which Brendan O’Neill can’t exacerbate into a climactic clash of civilisations. The tone on Spiked is unremittingly apocalyptic. A friend of mine attended their Battle of Ideas conference last year. He isn’t a Lib Dem but as part of his professional life he has got to know Steve Webb and took exception to it when a Spiked representative started denouncing Webb’s efforts with Facebook from the platform. My friend queried this, only to find himself being denounced as well. At the end of the debate, he sought to engage with his assaillant only to watch the man literally run out of the room.

A grand conspiracy on behalf of the surviving remnants of the Revolutionary Communist Party? Almost certainly not. But does it betray some rather distasteful cultish tendencies? Absolutely. Perhaps if they turned the polemic a notch down from 11 every once in a while they might actually influence people rather than piss them off. But I’m sure that would be a lot less satisfying.

Why didn’t Clegg visit H&H?

Please disregard the football-related metaphor in the heading (not my choice of words), but here is my CiF piece on the Haltemprice and Howden by-election.

It would appear that my analysis is pretty much the same as Stephen Tall’s – i.e. Clegg was right to back Davis but failed to press his advantage home:

However unjustified, the sad fact of the matter is that by not ensuring a platform alongside Davis’s other supporters, including Tony Benn and Bob Marshall-Andrews, Clegg has left the party vulnerable to this line of attack. He put principle before party, but we should be mindful of the fact that giving the Conservatives an open goal to reposition themselves as the party of civil liberties will ultimately be wholly counter-productive.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across this self-destructive impulse within the Lib Dems to be leery of sharing a platform on the basis that it might dillute our (non-existent) brand as the One True Voice on a given issue. It goes back to the very heart of “community politics“, i.e. we need to be building a movement rather than concentrating on the party. Clegg needs to do what his predeccessors have consistently failed to do and get into the movement business. And fast.

Two Ds, Two faces?

I spotted this quote from David Davis this morning but LDV beat me to it:

“I’m sorry that Labour and the Liberal Democrats funked it, but we’re still having a good argument and getting the issue raised.”

Both personally and professionally I’ve spent quite a lot of time defending Davis’ actions, at least up to a point. I’m still not convinced this was necessarily the best strategy but on the basis that the real problem is locking the Tory party into opposing the extension of pre-charge detention and that I can see how this by-election might have achieved that, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Many of the objections to Nick Clegg’s decision not to contest the by-election – including David Mortons’ here – are very valid, but only from the party’s POV. From the POV of national interest, I’m prepared to accept that the party had to take one for the team.

But the quid pro quo to all that is that Davis himself doesn’t then act in bad faith and seek to present our decision not to contest this by-election as anything other than what it was – a show of unity in exceptional circumstances. It is frankly outrageous for him to stab us in the back in this way. If he had been misquoted, then surely a correction would already have been issued on his website?

Any Tories out there willing to join us in condemning him for this blatant act of treachery? If he can’t be trusted on this, what can he be trusted on?

UPDATE (11 July): As Iain Dale mentions below, Davis has got the Guardian to issue a correction on this. That is much appreciated, but it seems the damage has been done. As Justin notes below, other Tories have been adopting this line and now Rosemary Bechler on Our Kingdom is having a pop. Clearly we can’t win either way in this debate.

Will another Tory suffer the curse of Quaequam Blog!?

I have to admit that, while I am tempted to offer Conservatives platitudes about reaping what they sow, I really am a bit uncomfortable about the allegations being made against Ray Lewis.

The fact that they are being made by an Anglican Bishop sets alarm bells going off instantly. But the fact that the woman he is alleged to have ripped off remains a personal friend and in his employ makes it even harder to swallow. There are dark mutterings about sexual misconduct, but significantly no actual allegations being made. He has answered all the questions put to him robustly and straightforwardly. It does all look rather like a bit of a smear, compounded by the standard of the Church’s own record keeping.

When you consider the number of paedophiles it lets operate under its radar, it’s amazing how they seem to think they have chapter and verse on Ray Lewis.

A caveat though: a few weeks ago I sprang to the defence of Caroline Spelman. In light of more recent developments however, I rather wish I hadn’t. So, innocent until proven guilty and all that, but I will suspend my judgement.

Clegg and localism: early thoughts

I’ve just trawled through Nick Clegg’s speech on localism to the LGA today. A few thoughts:

1. He lets the Tories off too easily (unintentionally I’m sure). He is of course perfectly right to give them a hard time for refusing to even contemplate devolving spending, but the truth is it’s far, far worse than that. To quote Gideon Osborne’s interview in Prospect this month:

But surely this devolution process just means the health and education services are captured once more by the professionals? Not at all, says Osborne. “Accountability will come through payment by results.” This, he says, is a superior approach to the Labour model of targets. “Targets mean you have a big monolithic service and the secretary of state decides how you achieve something—how much time you spend on a task and how many times you do it. This is a different approach, where you say to a private company that is, say, running a prison: we will pay you according to reoffending rates. So we will choose the objective, but they will decide how to achieve it.”

Replacing targets with “payment by results” is an oxymoron. What he means is that he wants to replace the government’s present system of targets by a new system of targets. The fundamental problem with targets – that it creates an incentive to game the system – will remain. Contrast this with Clegg’s definition of the role of central government:

The central state has a vital role – of course.

It must intervene to allocate money on a fair basis, to guarantee equality of access in our schools and hospitals, and to oversee core standards and entitlements.

But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off.

This is genuine localism. Osborne’s prescription is for more, but different, centralisation. If he and his colleagues are going to insist on uttering such drivel, we have a duty to point and laugh.

2. There is still an LVT-shaped hole in Lib Dem policy. Clegg’s redefinition of local income tax in this speech is actually quite encouraging, in that it is clear that his real enthusiasm is not for replacing council tax with LIT but replacing national income tax with local income tax. I share his enthusiasm.

His problem is that he is extremely unclear about how inverse the current 3:1 national:local tax raising ratio without creating a system that would reward rich areas while penalising poor ones. Indeed he only mentions this dilemma once:

The government needs some leeway to make up the differences between needier and wealthier councils with a grant that varies between areas.

… and doesn’t even allude to the fact that localising business rates will actually make this even more pronounced.

The question is how do you create a clear, transparent way of squaring this circle. The solution, in principle at least, is obvious: create a national tax on wealth and redistribute it on a per capita basis. That means a national system of Land Value Taxation. The alternative is lots of complex formulas which can be manipulated by the government of the day. You couldn’t redistribute a national income tax in this way equitably because, as we all know, a lot of the richest in society don’t actually pay a penny.

You couldn’t introduce a fully fledged LVT system in a single term of office, but we could at least talk about it. As I said before, it is curious that we are so shy about doing this while at the same time so enthusiastic about rolling out a system of national road pricing over a 10 year period.