Tag Archives: observer

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?

Why Clegg needs to kick the donor habit

Despite the Observer’s best efforts, it is hard to see what the Lib Dems have actually done wrong here. Indeed, given how high minded the “serious” press are being about smears at the moment, it is surprising to see an article so riddled with innuendo. So let’s clear a few points up.

Firstly, there is no issue here of a donor buying policy; quite the opposite. There is an argument that the party should not accept further donations from Sudhir Choudhrie unless he is cleared of any wrong doing, but that is another matter.

Secondly £95,000 is not, in party funding terms, that much money. Rajeev Syal and Oliver Laughland implicitly acknowledge this by trying to attract your attention with the much bigger £475,000 figure donated by “relatives’ companies” but we aren’t talking about his wife here but companies his son and nephew run. The former, Alpha Healthcare, has been donating to the party far longer (and is the subject of some other news reports). There is no suggestion that this money has in any way come from Sudhir Choudhrie himself. And if you’re going to bring nephews into it, where do you stop? Third cousins?

But there is a lesson here for Clegg that he would do well to heed. Politics and money are a toxic mix. Even when nobody can be said to have done anything wrong, too often it leads to the wrong sort of headlines. And one thing the Lib Dems can’t afford to be seen as, as they creep up the polls (and I have to admit I’m relatively optimistic about how we might do in the next general election), is just another part of the shameless political class.

Clegg has done himself a lot of good in coming out for stringent reform of MPs’ expenses (it happens that I disgree with him on some of the detail, but it is far reaching nonetheless). He has also made great play out of demanding a cap on donations of £25,000 (half the Tories half-hearted call for £50,000 which they failed to follow up with actual votes when the Political Parties and Elections Bill went through the Commons earlier this year). With the economic climate and public mood such as it is, I think now is the perfect time for him to go one step further. He should impose a cap on the party, regardless of what the law says, and call on the other parties to do the same.

At what point that cap should be should be considered. In an ideal world, he might consider self-imposing his own £25,000-per-year cap, but given the other parties are unlikely to play ball, at least in the short term, that might be going a little too far. But what about £25,000-per-quarter? It would be simpler to administer than an annual cap and would go some way to matching the rhetoric with action while not leaving the party at a massive competitive disadvantage.

And how would it affect the party in real terms? Well, for the most part, even our large donations are in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands (and even millions). In 2008, only two companies donated more than £100,000 – the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd. and Marcus Evans Ltd. (a non-cash donation). So in reality we would lose very little.

What we would gain is some degree of immunisation from this sort of story – and complete immunisation from things like the Michael Brown scandal. We would also be seen to be practicing what we preach – something we aren’t seen to be doing nearly often enough. In the longer term, I suspect that will be worth far more than a couple of hundred thousand pounds.

The people have spoken. The eejits.

Actually, contrary to what the above headline might imply (I couldn’t resist), I’m actually quite sanguine about the Irish “no” vote on Thursday. I’m not at all convinced that Europe has been “saved” by the Irish or that the Lisbon Treaty was anything other than a moderate and sensible reform, but this latest chapter in EU reform has been farcical from beginning to end and I pray dearly that it will soon be over.

The fundamental problem is that, since the mid-eighties we have had one EU reforming treaty after another. As soon as one is out of the way, and often before, work on another has begun. It has been a case of not so much salami slice politics as cheese slab politics. It has alienated large numbers of pro-EU people and switched the vast majority of the European public off completely.

The result is a paradox whereby a minority of hardcore Euro-sceptics have been able to hold sway. They have no popular support – look at iwantareferendum‘s futile attempt to get even 46,000 supporters after spending millions of pounds over the past year. Yet when referendums are held in the most pro-EU countries – France, the Netherlands, Ireland – the “nos” hold sway. This isn’t opposition; this is alienation.

The solution then is obvious: have a moratorium on further EU reform, at least on anything that would require a treaty change, for at least a decade. That isn’t to say that a lot of the good things in the constitution couldn’t still go ahead. We could still have Council meetings in public. We could still give the Parliament a more central role in selecting the President. We could still operate the “yellow card” system and ensure that national parliaments are sent legislation in a more timely manner. We could still operate the system of Citizen’s Initiative. I struggle to believe that even the most swivel-eyed of Eurosceptic would oppose any of that (go on, surprise me…), and it would a lot to calm tensions.

Is there really anything this treaty would have achieved that a bit of self-restraint wouldn’t replicate? One of the main reasons why I supported the Constitution was that it would end France’s veto on the CAP, but the truth of the matter is there is nothing to stop France from voluntarily giving this up. Except, of course, the French. Frankly, if they were willing to give up the veto, they should be prepared to consider the fact that agribusiness subsidies no longer have a place in a planet which is currently suffering from mass starvation. Either way, if reforms are necessary then which ones will become apparent from attempting to implement the status quo rather than insisting that at all times EU governance must be perfect both in practice and in theory.

What we must oppose, strongly, is the appalling idea of a multi-speed Europe in which “Perfidious Ireland” is shut out of Club Class. Oddly, I find that my villain of the week is not Declan Ganley (back in Westminster to answer to his paymasters before the dust has even begun to settle in Dublin), but Will Hutton. What a vile piece of steaming crap he belched forth in the Observer this Sunday. Rather than make a single argument as to why the Constitution/Reform Treaty is so necessary, he actually called for Ireland to be given one last chance to get the “right” answer before being kicked out of the EU! If that is how Club Europe is to treat its members in future, send me my 51st State application form in the post tomorrow.

Let’s not forget that Ireland has steered every other treaty through a referendum up until Nice with nary a problem. According to Hutton’s logic, that is only explainable if you work on the basis that Amsterdam, Maastricht and the Single European Act were the sort of treaties that “Hitler and Mussolini” would approve of. Shouldn’t we consider the fact that Ireland is having increasing problems getting such treaties past its public as a warning sign?

If a canary drops dead at the bottom of a mineshaft, you don’t insist the miners should keep digging on the basis that it is only very little compared to the strapping lads working on the coal seam. You get them out of there as quickly as possible. The reflexive reaction of too many pro-Europeans to want to shoot the messengers just demonstrates why a cooling off period is so necessary. Instead of continuing to bash their collective heads into a brick wall, it is time the leaders of the EU got on with the job of governing.

Reflections on the fall of Chairman Campbell

In light of yesterday’s events, I suppose people must think I look rather foolish for taking the Observer to task over its reporting of the plot against Ming.

Fair enough, but my point still holds. Both of those articles suggested that MPs were plotting a coup, yet neither of them included a direct quote from an MP saying as much or gave any details as to how the journalist came by that information. I still think that is pretty unacceptable.

We appear to have gone beyond the usual practice of anonymous briefings to the press now to a system whereby journalists and their sources communicate by a complicated system of winks, nods and facial tics. The rest of us are left out in the cold, not knowing to what extent the stories we read in our papers are actually true or simply the fevered imaginings of a hack with a deadline. Even the old conventions of “sources close to X” has now gone out of the window as journalists compete to make their claims sound more sensational. And this is in the broadsheets.

I don’t ask for the identity of the knife wielders, merely more evidence that such knife wielders do indeed exist. In the case of this particular story all speculation on this is now of course moot, but it won’t be the last time.

Anyway, so much for that. I see MPs are now lining up to say nice things about Ming on the record. My favourite quote is from Mike Hancock:

“I think he was shafted by a complete shower of shits.”

What a charming mental picture, just don’t try picturing it too hard.

The thing I will find the most depressing over the next few days is that we are now to be greeted with a hagiographic account of Ming’s abilities and achievements which will be as ridiculous and overblown as the accounts immediately before which portrayed him as a dithering old dunderhead. The meeja doesn’t do things by halves. And just as we were getting resignations over many of Ming’s less than stellar performances over the months, expect another wave of them now. It just seems as if for so many people politics has become nothing more or less than a circus; they’re just waiting to be entralled and appalled.

Actually, the most depressing thing over the next few days will be seeing, hearing and reading media interviews with Ben Ramm once again claiming to be the authentic voice of Lib Dem activism. He’s going to be unbearable, isn’t he? Just thinking about it makes me want to open a vein. I bet he’s been rubbing his hands with glee all evening.

So, in an effort to pre-empt the influx of these stories, I have only this to say:

BEN RAMM ISN’T A PARTY ACTIVIST, AND VIRTUALLY NO-ONE IN THE PARTY READS THE LIBERAL, WHICH IS A LITERARY MAGAZINE ANYWAY, NOT A PARTY PUBLICATION!

Got that? No? Oh well, it was worth a try.

Oh, and true story: the guy who served me in McDonalds yesterday was called Ming. He got my order wrong. Ho hum.

Another letter to the Observer’s Readers’ Editor

Dear Mr Pritchard,

Last week I wrote to you to complain about an unsubstantiated claim made by Jo Revill in an article that MPs were plotting to replace Sir Menzies as leader of the Liberal Democrats. I did not receive a reply (original message below).

This week I am writing to you about the same issue. In Jo Revill’s article this week (Bad polls raise heat on Menzies) she asserts that:

Now the prospect of a general election this autumn has disappeared, many grassroots supporters and MPs feel the time to replace him with one of the party’s younger generation is approaching.

This is substantiated with two quotes from Lib Dem peers. One does not appear to be calling for Sir Menzies resignation at all:

‘He’s a good man but very stubborn. I can’t see him falling on his sword. You have to ask why we are doing so very badly in the polls. We are simply not conveying to voters the simple messages about our policies.’

A very valid question but not a criticism. Even calling Sir Menzies “stubborn” is not neccesarily a criticism.

But fundamentally, neither of these quotes are from MPs. I do not question that some party members have openly called for Sir Menzies to go, but the claim that any MPs have been calling for his head is not substantiated.

I don’t call for anonymous sources to be outed; all I’m asking for is that significant claims such as that be qualified and quantified. I don’t understand why that is too much to ask for.

Perhaps you could do me the courtesy of replying this week?

Yours sincerely,

James Graham

A letter to the Observer’s Readers’ Editor

Dear Mr Pritchard,

In Jo Revill’s article (Labour critics blame Balls and Alexander), she makes the following statement:

But there are now also questions over the fate of the Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Ming Campbell, 66, who has failed to push up his party’s fortunes in the opinion polls in recent months. He was chosen in 2006 to provide a safe pair of hands after Charles Kennedy had to resign – but he also has younger MPs who are keen to take the job.

As Brown has now hinted that there will not be an election until 2009, it raises the question of whether the party will want to give itself a fresher look by bringing in a younger leader such as home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg or environment spokesman Chris Huhne.

One Lib Dem MP said last night: ‘This election decision is going to have big ramifications for us all. We will have to take a good hard look at our own party, now the prospect of an autumn poll has receded, to think about where we want to be in 18 months’ time.’

This is spurious on several grounds. If there are younger MPs who are “keen” to take the job, they should be named, surely? Or is that merely speculation? It is also not clear how Brown not calling an election until 2009 “raises the question of whether the party will want to give itself a fresher look by bringing in a younger leader”. How does it, any more than, for example, it raise the question of whether the Conservatives might not want a less posh leader, or that Labour might not want a less Scottish leader? Who is raising this question, apart from the journalist herself?

Finally, the quote – which is clearly being used to back up these statements – is a non-sequitor as it does not in fact call for Ming Campbell to be replaced.

I have no objection to commentators arguing for Ming Campbell to be replaced, but this article is presented as news. What it is, in fact, is opinion, and one in which the agenda is entirely unclear. If Ms Revill has anonymous briefers saying that the knives are out for Sir Menzies, she does not say so. It is one thing to protect the anonymity of briefers, quite another to present it as anything other than briefing.

Is it really too much to not expect journalists to editorialise in this way? I request a clarification over what exactly Ms Revill has been told and what the Observer’s policy is regarding reporting news dispassionately.

Yours sincerely,

James Graham