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.