Tag Archives: The Times

Remember Japan

A visitor arrives from home and tells me that Japan is slipping off the front pages.  A brief flick through yesterday’s Times confirms it, full as it is of goings-on elsewhere and plenty of blather to do with a wedding you might have heard of.  I suppose that, given some of the excesses of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, we should be grateful that the media circus has unfurled its tents on someone else’s lawn.

Maybe the story has become too ‘unsexy’ for 24-hour rolling news bulletins but, speaking as someone who tried to avoid them at first, preferring instead to be able to sleep at night, pictures such as these compiled by The Tokyo Times give much pause for thought.  I am completely taken aback by how in less than 10 minutes the videos go from ‘can’t see anything happening’ to ‘bloody hell, where has the town gone?’

Technology being so accessible, images such as these were being shown around the world before the waters had even subsided.  It is my hope that now the initial shock has also begun to dissipate we can use them to ensure that more people survive the next terrible event of this kind.

Picture from National Geographic

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Some animals are more equal

Just when I thought all the residual anger I could muster had been squeezed from the MPs expenses scandal, along came some of our ever-so-unHonourable Members to remind me that I am still angry enough to head down to Westminster with some self-assembly stocks and a few tonnes of mouldy tomatoes.

First, we have the Member for Romsey, Sandra Gidley, quoted in a delicious little story about the joys of first class rail travel:

As a woman travelling alone late at night I feel safer in first, particularly on the later trains when there are often a number of people who have been drinking

This is too laughable.  I have only been lucky enough to grace a first class seat once, yet I am completely comfortable extrapolating this to all long-distance first-class carriages since they do carry a FREE BAR: the levels of drunkenness on display were Hurculean.  Maybe they do things differently in Romsey.  In any event, no-one is surely begrudging Ms Gidley the opportunity to breathe the rarified air of first class, we are just slightly approaching the end of our tethers in having to pay for it.  Especially when, as she may remember, our economy’s… [is ‘on its arse’ a polite enough term?  Must check.]

What headline writers must surely be tempted to call ‘The Westminster Four’ was on show at Horseferry Road magistrates yesterday, winning no favours with the beak by refusing to stand in the dock until ordered to.  You have to love the court drawing here, as it has really captured their criminal sides well.  It will be interesting to see where this argument that parliamentary privilege overrides the court’s jurisdiction goes in future hearings – on that reasoning I wonder if it is possible to kill another Member on the floor of the House and get away with it?  I can’t wait to see the fun the judiciary has with that one…
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Toffs v toughs

Here we go again, round 342 in the continuing national sport to see if England will ever be able to lose its hidebound sense of class and move on from 18th century notions of who’s in and who’s out.  Reading the story of the posh (or ‘rah’) takeover of Newcastle University from the weekend’s Sunday Times, you could sense that some of the exchanges quoted were as likely to fan the flames of class war as a clumsily thrown can of petrol:

‘Is that a can of cake?’ a boy asks his friend’s girlfriend. ‘No, vodka and cake, do you want some?’

Ha, ha, ha – or ‘haw, haw, haw’, as the ST has it – aren’t the posh kids hilarious?  Yet the paper solemnly records the darker side to this braying sense of entitlement:

It’s a club you can only belong to if you’ve been to a school with manicured lawns, toured exotic lands with a backpack, partied your way through university, and are going to get a job through an ever-extending network of people just like you

Now, given that the Sunday Times is pretty much the house journal for those who prefer their kids to be educated around manicured lawns, it seems a little unlikely that they would be up for this kind of rah-baiting.  Especially given that they are the main cheerleaders for another group of privileged university friends…

There was also an interview with Trevor Phillips in the same paper, in which he sets out a future where the Equality and Human Rights Commission introduces measures to combat this age-old problem:

The most blaring and substantial thing that best predicts disadvantage is class and place: who your parents were, what they did and where you grew up

He mentions some things that seem to make sense:

All internships should be competitive. You shouldn’t have people waltzing into development opportunities, chances to learn the ropes, courtesy of the fact that the parent knows somebody

And now, the Sunday Times methods become clear.  This is a rallying cry for the posh, which you would imagine probably sounds like a hunting horn, putting them on alert them to any potential reduction of privileges, no matter how unlikely to happen.  Even if Phillips did have in mind to tackle this situation head on and the Government were prepared to alienate the few middle class voters who don’t already hate them, clever, ambitious people will always find a way around any government-imposed obstacle.  It will take a more reasoned response than allowing a few working class kids to intern at Vogue to suddenly turn this country into an egalitarian paradise, more’s the pity.

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Justice League

I wrote earlier that Amir Choudhary was ‘wrong, plain wrong’ and was rightly called up on it by this bloke over here in the comments. Rightly because, in one important aspect, Mr Choudhary is right, for reminding us of the non-British war dead, albeit for some very wrong reasons: getting his name in the papers. We lost count as the Afghani and Iraqi body counts increased far in advance of our own, widely mourned, totals. Except that is too kind an analysis, because we didn’t lose count, we decided not to count. Partly out of embarrassment and partly because we found it more convenient to turn the dead into terrorists:

The problem is: in Afghanistan the peasants do suspicious things, too. Some then die because they are indeed Taliban, while others become Taliban for being dead

There is a road safety ad on TV at the moment which shows a man haunted by the mangled body of the dead child he hit with his car. Everywhere he looks he sees the broken, twisted limbs. You have to wonder if that’s what Tony Blair’s dreams are like. Except there’s not just one child, there are hundreds, all eyeballing him through the dark nights, silently demanding to know why they couldn’t be allowed to live.

Over Christmas I watched the film Frost/Nixon, the showbiz and glitz world of the interviewer warily treading onto the unfamiliar territory of dead Vietnamese and Laotians. We all want a Frost/Nixon moment, where the wrongdoer looks at the camera and it hits him, that there is so much blood on his hands he is looking at about 200 billion years in Purgatory. That he caused all this pain because he couldn’t admit to being wrong. It is probably too much to hope for that we get such a moment on Friday afternoon. As Blair realises that he, like Nixon, is now tainted unto death and probably in his obituary too, as a man who waged an illegal, doomed war when all sensible advice counselled against it. Then he looks straight to camera as a single, unwiped tear drifts down his cheek and finally, we have our absolution.

I don’t expect it to end so neatly. Real life has a tendency to be, of course, less dramatic than dramatists would hope. However, the Iraq Inquiry has gone about its work with a calm dedication that, although I almost hate to admit it, has done more good than throwing Blair, Campbell and Straw into the Coliseum and releasing the lions.

Banning dissent, ignoring international law, disregarding Parliament. For a bunch of lawyers, New Labour has shown a strange disrespect for all things legal. Speaking truth to power is never a comfortable job, but good counsel has rarely been at such a low premium, at stages ignored, disregarded and, a final humiliation, ‘encouraged’ to provide more favourable advice. The Guardian’s legal affairs correspondence, Afua Hirsch:

What also came across with fresh clarity was the government’s dismissiveness of the legal expertise in its own departments… In his evidence, Wood said Straw’s dismissal of his advice was ‘probably the first and only occasion’ that a minister rejected his legal advice in this way

So it is all the more heartening to see the forces of justice fight back, not like the superheroes Blair and Bush imagine themselves to be, but via calm reasoning and careful sifting of the facts, the Supreme Court and the Iraq Inquiry have, this week, given a small glimmer of hope that the rule of law still prevails.

Picture from the Hollywood News, with thanks!
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Say what you see

All looks a bit silly now, doesn't it chaps?

Despite earlier proof of arse-elbow location difficulties, Rod Liddle was caught in a rare act of sense-speaking this weekend in his Sunday Times column. He hasn’t always used his own freedom of speech in such a sensible manner, but his argument that banning groups for being obnoxious or unpleasant is a crass method for combating them, is sound.

You may also have heard Pat Robertson’s measured commentary on the Haiti disaster coming as a result of a ‘pact with the devil’. Is this callous? Yes. Stupid? Very much so. Worthy of banning? I would say, absolutely not.

I am lucky enough to have people in my circle of friends and family with whom I do not need to adhere to many niceties when speaking. Our debates and conversations often seem like arguments to the outside observer, because no holds need to be barred, no punches pulled, all is up for grabs. It is true freedom of speech – you are soon told if you are going wrong or being foolish, but you won’t be censured for it – so it allows for true freedom of thought as well.

We must have the courage to allow our national conversations to display the candour of a group of friends gathered around a table after a few too many. Words are not our enemies. There is no idea, which by being voiced, can take your life, rob you of your money or cause your hair to drop out. I am confident that the sky won’t fall in because a group of people walk through a town holding empty coffins, however repugnant the idea of that is.

I believe that allowing Islam4UK’s march to go ahead would have done more to condemn the group than banning them can ever achieve. Wootton Bassett is not sacred ground, nor has it been consecrated or designated as an official monument. It is a place in our country where people have chosen to make their own personal tribute to the dead. I support this completely. We should all remember the (often young) people who fight for our freedoms, some being left horribly scarred, in such a personal, reflective and dignified way.

What we shouldn’t do is give away so cheaply the freedom that we require our armed services to defend. What sets us apart from the Taliban and their ilk is our belief in freedom. This includes, but should not be limited to, freedom to protest, freedom to speak and, crucially, the complete and untrammelled freedom to make a right arse of ourselves on a national stage so that other people can point out our errors.

Also in Sunday’s Times, you see, was an interview with the, well, I hesitate to call him a ‘mastermind’ but for want of a better word, the ‘mastermind’ behind Islam4UK and, it should not surprise anyone to find out, he is an absolute, 24-carat, idiot of a man. Inconsistent, stupid and wrong, plain wrong. From watching the news, you might have suspected he was evil incarnate, read the interview and he comes across in a very different way. Make your own mind up here.

There was once a similar debate about banning marches by Fascists in the 1930s. Then, it was decided that to allow them to go ahead was to reveal the movement in all its goose-stepping, uniform-wearing stupidity. A ban was only imposed when it became too difficult to police the inevitable battles with anti-fascists that would ensue. So, while it is tempting to want to turn up to any future march and throw bricks at ‘the group formerly known as Islam4UK’, might I suggest that a better response would be to show them on heavy rotation across all channels instead. That was an effective strategy with Nick Griffin, as it was previously with Oswald Mosley, and no doubt will be again, so long as we manage to resist the urge to ban everything we don’t agree with.
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The Rewrite Squad

So today The Times struck a blow for openness and honesty in public life, with a blistering exposé of… an anonymous detective constable who had been writing an often amusing blog about the trials of modern policing.  Blogger ‘NightJack’ had taken the newspaper to court, seeking an injunction to prevent the publication of his identity, but was unsuccessful in his High Court action.  The full judgment can be read here.

The Judge was clear that the action failed because

blogging is essentially a public rather than a private identity

[at paragraph 11],

and, while I can sympathise with NightJack, it is difficult to see how the opposite could be true.  Whether you anticipate being read by your mum and a few mates, or aspire to a readership of the entire population of the British Isles, when you put your witterings up in a corner of the global interweb, you are ‘in publishing’ baby, maybe not on the scale of Condé Nast, but certainly according to the language of the libel laws.

And once those thoughts are out there in the wide world, you have no right to try to stuff the genie back in to the bottle, as the judgment also notes,

if the allegations and observations made by [Night Jack] were themselves contributing to a debate of general interest, as he undoubtedly thinks they are, I cannot see why the proposed publication in The Times would not be worthy of the same classification.

[at paragraph 23]

So having published, it is not up to you how far the dissemination goes.  Blogs are built on links and if a more popular site links to yours and the debate goes global, well, hey, isn’t that just the beauty of the internet?

Of course, it is also obvious that when writing about one’s day job, any organisation will be less than sympathetic to attention brought to bear on exactly where they are going wrong.  The witness statement from NightJack’s solicitors explicitly mentioned the fear that

identification as author of the Blog might have an adverse effect on his working relationships

No shit, Sherlock.  The Judge outright rejected this piece of deduction, stating at paragraph 28:

I do not accept that it is part of the court’s function to protect police officers who are, or think they may be, acting in breach of police discipline regulations from coming to the attention of their superiors.

An argument that the blog was being produced in the officer’s spare time was also rejected and again, it is difficult to see how any alternative conclusion could have been reached – especially given the subject matter, he may have been writing in his down time – but he was still writing about the job.  The Judge noted in the final paragraph that, in his view, there was,

a countervailing public interest in revealing that a particular police officer has been making these communications.

Following that idea through to its logical conclusion, perhaps the public should be horrified that a serving police officer has no proper arena to raise his concerns about the ‘service’ he is ‘delivering’ other than a blog page?  The tone of The Times piece was all mock-outrage about the confidentiality that Jack might have breached, with nay a mention of what happens to whistleblowers, who often find themselves drummed out of the profession they love.  Especially, it seems, in the cases of doctors, nurses and, er, police officers, we are increasingly leaving those at the sharp end of public service delivery without the budgets to do the job properly and without any means to communicate about failures and ways to improve, other than channels which may ultimately end up in them being shown the door.

It is important to note, too, that the Honourable bloke on the bench in this case was that friend to Private Eye, Mr Justice Eady, who despite his reluctance to extend the protection of English law to members of Her Majesty’s police force, has no qualms about using it to assist such worthy candidates as the son of the president of Congo-Brazzaville, chiropractic practitioners and Saudi bankers.

Of course, the NightJack exposé wasn’t the first time brave investigative journalists fearlessly exposed the crooked, black hearts beating behind the anonymous masks of some of the best known bloggers.  The writer of ‘Girl with a one track mind’ was also at the rough end of some sensationalist reporting by The Times and The Daily Mail, following her shocking crimes of being a woman who both enjoyed sex, and wrote about it.  Interviewed after the event, the writer said that she used a pseudonym to

ensure privacy for oneself and others, not because I had any shame

I imagine it is the second part of that sentence that convinced the Fourth Estate that they had a moral obligation to publish her name, birth certificate and mother’s profession in order to protect public decency from the wanton hussy.

Similarly, the identity of the writer of the Guido Fawkes political gossip site was exposed on Newsnight, following some rather bizarre attempts by that program to cloak his identity, a strange move when it could be argued that he already had quite a profile for racy goings-on and his real name was something of an open secret amongst journalists.

However, it is perhaps significant that each of the writers mentioned was enjoying a measure of success when exposed.  The Girl had seen extracts from her book serialised in The Sunday Times shortly before, which had helped to send it to the top of the Amazon pre-ordered paperbacks charts.  NightJack had recently won the Orwell Prize for political writing in the blogging category and Guido had been getting up the nose of more than one political grandee.  It is very easy to argue, especially in the case of The Girl, that The Times had danced the typical routine of building her up to tear her down, all in the noble interest of selling papers, of course.  Would the same paper have outed NightJack if he hadn’t been awarded the prize?  It is impossible to say.  However in recent months, it has become clear that there is a last-ditch battle being fought by the newspapers against the pesky on-line media, with articles mooting paid for content and other vanguard actions attempting to stem the flow of readers away from the hard copies to the computer screens.  Attacking the blogging stars as soon as they gain a profile is one easy way to reassert authority in the face of dwindling readership figures.

There are many reasons why a blog writer would choose to hide behind anonymity: to keep some mystique; to try to avoid any kind of cult of personality building up; in an attempt to let the work speak for itself.  I hope that you will not be too shocked to learn that I never sign cheques in the name ‘Julia Smith’.  Still, I believe that the creator of Winston Smith and Julia would not censure me for it, having chosen the name ‘George Orwell’ from a shortlist of four, as he worried that publication of ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ would affect his day job as a teacher, or that unfavourable reviews would cause damage to his literary ambitions.  By the time of the publication of ‘Animal Farm’, as noted by Hilary Spurling, he had,

switched identities so completely that even his old school friends had to learn to call him George

So while it is true that The Times was probably correct in law, and it is also the case that writers should stand behind their words whenever possible, isn’t it also the truth that with this ruling all the papers have done is to take some of the fun and freedom out of blogging by narrowing the boundaries of online writing to those kept to by the now morally and financially bankrupt broadsheets?  They would tell you that it was more honest to be an E.A. Blair than an Orwell but in my humble submission, they would be wrong.

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