Tag Archives: journalism

Norman Baker performing Piccadilly Circus

Norman Baker, political journalism and hinterlands

It’s an odd evening to defend the MP for Lewes, given that his constituents are currently behaving like a bunch of spoiled children blacking up and attempting to set fire to “politically incorrect” effigies. Nonetheless, I share a lot of the views expressed elsewhere that he performed an excellent service in his role as Home Office minister and can well understand his reasons for resigning.

This blog post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of his resignation though. Rather, it’s a simple observation. Most of the media coverage was transfixed by the idea that Norman Baker was in a band, that it isn’t a wildly good one, and that these facts alone are wildly hilarious. Every TV and newspaper report I came across seemed to fit in a quip about it somewhere

I suspect that it doesn’t especially matter that his interests are in music. In fact, the Reform Club’s middle of the road style from what I can make out is pretty inoffensive to anyone. What seemed to provoke the lobby was that he was doing something – anything – that was slightly out of the ordinary.

When that slightly out of the ordinary thing is practicing music skills on a regular basis, you’ve got to wonder how they’d treat any MP who has personal interests that are really unusual.

Several years ago, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at a games club playing a game of Puerto Rico with a Labour MP, at the time a Parliamentary Private Secretary. After the game, we looked over our shoulders to see another group having a raucous game of Cash’n’Guns. He observed “I have to be really cautious about what games I can play in public” at which point I pointed out, to his horror, that he’d just spent the last couple of hours playing a game about the slave trade.

I mention this because he’s right: playing a game in which you wave foam guns in each other’s faces would potentially be career suicide for an aspiring politician, no matter how silly a game it is (which is certainly the case of Cash’n’Guns). But the reason isn’t because doing so would be wrong or wicked in any way, but because it would be seen as weird. And being weird, as Ed Miliband has learned to his cost, is an almost unforgivable crime in modern politics.

The result is, paradoxically, that all our politicians are deeply weird. It’s been almost 40 years since Denis Healey scathingly noted that Margaret Thatcher lacked a hinterland. These days almost none of them have one. William Hague is allowed to write books, albeit on political history. Beer and football are permitted interests, as is primetime television (in moderation). But anything else is treated as shameful and hidden from view, a bit like being gay in the 1950s.

But the weirdest thing about all this is that at the same time, being “wacky” is increasingly the norm for how political journalism is conducted. The model established by Andrew Neil on This Week and the Daily Politics, has now become ubiquitous. Politics is now typically presented on television by people who can’t wait to dress up in silly costumes or wear outrageous hats to make some leaden point or other. Newspaper journalists all seem to consider themselves to be side-splittingly hilarious comedians if my twitter feed is anything to go by. Norman Baker’s crime seems to have been to be sincere in his interests. If he’d done an appallingly awful duet with the chief correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then it would have been considered perfectly acceptable and not even worthy of mention.

We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.

Would the “cop in my pocket” accept a bribe from News International?

Morgan Freeman in The Dark KnightThis week’s New Scientist features an article entitled Smartphone surveillance: The cop in your pocket (kerching). In it, a rather breathless Nic Fleming waxes lyrically about how, thanks to our smartphones, “we are all set to gain unprecedented crime-fighting abilities.”

Sadly, however, it is not through being able to download mad martial arts skillz via our phones Matrix-style but by using the sensors on our phones to create a near-universal level of surveillance. The residents of Boston, for example, will soon be using their phones to record potholes in the road (thus rendering the Liberal Democrats entirely obsolete). Soon we’ll be able to use our phones to spot GPS jamming and the cameras in the front of our cars to track down stolen cars. If only manufacturers would include gas detectors in our phones, soon we’ll be able to get early warning of sarin gas attacks without having to do a thing.

The civil liberty implications of all this are waved away. We are reassured that software will be developed to guarantee privacy of the individual, with a particular system called “AnonySense” being cited, although it is not at all clear how all the examples illustrated in the article could be used anonymously, nor are the rights of the spied upon (as opposed to the spy) even considered.

But it is not Big Brother that ought to concern us here. What I don’t understand is how this article can be published, weeks after the hacking scandal erupted, without even considering the scope for massive abuse.

Imagine making such universal surveillance just a bung away from use by the tabloid newspapers. How could you even go into hiding from them if every single camera mounted on every single car in the country was just a mouse-click away from a corrupt police officer? This isn’t even theoretical now; we now know that police officers are perfectly willing to offer these services to journalists, safe in the knowledge that both their superiors and the journalists’ will be quite happy to look the other way and claim they didn’t know it was going on. We can delude ourselves that it won’t happen again, but you can bet that it will just as soon as the dust settles sufficiently enough for people to start thinking they can get away with it.

So while it is terribly exciting to think of our phones working like the ones at the end of the film The Dark Knight, the real question is what we can do to stop it from happening, not how it might save us from future attacks by Aum Shinrikyo.

Ignorance should not be bliss for the commentariat

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill: as happy as a pig in the proverbial
Thus far, I’ve been a little disappointed by the lack of open debate about how we might want to reform British journalism post “Hackgate”. By that, I don’t mean the discussion over what should replace the PCC (although I’ve seen precious little of that either, aside from journalists shrieking about the horrors of government regulation). What I mean is, a debate about whether we ought to revisit the ethics and standards which are taken for granted.

That opening paragraph was a rather hamfisted way of extrapolating my annoyance of Rachel Cooke’s article in the Observer today on the government measuring happiness into something somehow grander. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I am concerned at how comment pieces in newspapers increasingly tend to make bloggers look good in terms of research and considered opinion.

The issue is not whether or not you think that the government ought to be doing this. What irritated me is the way the author paraded her ignorance around as though it were something to be proud of. What we get is not a refutation of the policy, but personal incredulity. And rather than use that scepticism as the launchpad for a discursive article looking at the pros and cons, we get a Google search. Not even a Google search in fact, because having just done one myself, I’m not terribly convinced that she got passed the first result, the wikipedia page on happiness.

Why do I say that? Because rather than bothering to look into the arguments of, say, Richard Layard or even David Cameron’s latest speech on the subject, the two authorities she quotes are J. S. Mill and Carole Graham. Mill can be found referenced under the subtitle of “philosophical views”. Carole Graham is footnoted in the first sentence of “economic views”. In the case of Mill, rather than actually engage with his argument (and he did write Utilitarianism), she merely offers a couple of quotes and a biographical titbit. This doesn’t suggest someone who has looked at the argument particularly deeply.

Twice in the article, she asks what “the people with clipboards” (clipboards? Pah!) mean by “happiness” and whether it means to be “content”. If she’d cared to done just one more Google search, she’d have had her answer: the first question the ONS will be asking is “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” – so, essentially, yes. But of course, if she’d done that, the overarching argument of her article, that “policy wonks” are busy wasting their time asking about happiness when they should be asking about contentedness, would have been rendered entirely redundant.

This is sloppy. Worse than that, it is indicative of a growing trend within newspapers to let their columnists get away with appalling hack work. In light of the revelations about Johann Hari, it is time the broadsheets started questioning whether merely reflecting the worst aspects of the blogosphere on paper is really something they should be wasting their time over.

How about, as a matter of policy, if a columnist files a piece in which he or she boasts that “I really couldn’t tell you” about what the article they are ostensibly writing about actually thinks, they don’t get paid? After all, isn’t the self-declared purpose of journalism to shine a light on the world? If it isn’t doing that, then what’s the point?