Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The joys of Parliamentary privilege

The freedom to say pretty much what you want (while staying within the arcane Parliamentary restrictions, of course) at Westminster can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it allows people to speak freely, bring to light goings-on which may otherwise remain hidden from public scrutiny, and can be quite entertaining. But the politicians must be careful what they say, even when they're in a position to speak freely. Tory Health Minister Simon Burns provided a splendid example today of why politicians, in the main, obfuscate, duck direct questions, waffle – all without saying anything of any great substance or answering whatever question they've actually been asked.

This startling piece of frankness, a completely fatuous comment made about members of 38 Degrees (a group of people from all walks of life who have come together online with the intention of letting the voices of the electorate be heard, thereby applying pressure on politicians to listen to them or at least be accountable for not doing so), betrays what some politicians evidently feel about the people they're supposed to represent. The other side of that blade I mentioned, the one which betrays an MP's real thoughts when (s)he temporarily forgets that the cameras are never off, can really cut quite nastily.

I'm a member of 38 Degrees, a group which has had some success in applying, for example, pressure on the government over the proposed National Forest sell-off, mainly through huge numbers of people signing petitions or writing to MPs. Far from being zombies, members are consulted on which issues they'd like the group to focus, and how we feel about the layers within those issues. What's important to us, what isn't, where we think government is right or wrong, or has no choice. Only when there's a clear mandate from such consultations is any specific campaign launched. It's another example of the force for democracy that the internet is rapidly becoming – giving people the means to voice their opinion, and the strength to make that opinion count for something.

Evidently the Minister thinks us plebs are not capable of deciding if government policy is wrong, even if they're broadly backed up, as in this example, by the medical profession which the proposed changes will affect. The people who pay for and use the NHS having a say in how the representatives they elected to manage it do so? That just won't do. Clearly we're just a mindless mob, doing what we're told by pesky, annoying, big mouthed, interfering busy-bodies who just won't let the government get on with it unquestioningly. Tut tut.

Well, Mr Burns (how appropriate – "Smithers, release the hounds..."), get used to it. You're there to represent us, not merely to resent us, and as previous administrations have found out to their cost, if you don't like the electorate having their voices heard, and are happy to dismiss us so casually, you'll find the bill for your arrogance waiting for you at the next general election.

Coogan et al are holding a mirror up to all of us

Steve Coogan's evidence, given at the Leveson Inquiry yesterday, was compelling and damning in equal measure. Compelling because it was, to be fair to him (after he presented himself as a man merely doing his job, saying that fame is a side-effect of what he does, that he'd never promoted himself as a personality per se), an unusual experience to hear him speak as himself. His argument does indeed hold water – how little we hear him speak with the voice of anyone other than Alan Partridge or one of his other characters. It's not Steve Coogan he's selling. So we got a short glimpse into how he sees both himself and the industry he's in.

And damning because, though most people who find themselves well-known through working in 'showbiz' must understand that there will be unwanted attention, he revealed some of the very worst excesses of tabloid journalists in their hunt for 'news' on celebrities. Now it could of course be argued that, at the time the invasions of privacy he spoke of were happening, he'd brought it on himself by having an affair. Personally I reject that view because he's never set himself up as some guardian of, or commentator on, moral standards or behavioural mores, so certainly cannot be accused of hypocrisy. I also personally believe that what happens within (and outside of) a couple's own marriage is a private matter for them, unless they're actively opening it to public scrutiny, as many 'celebs' do, or telling everybody else how to conduct theirs.

That's why it's so important that this whole tawdry mess be unravelled and the perpetrators of what are, frankly, crimes, are brought to justice. Regardless of whether you think he deserved to have his bins rifled through, his phone tapped and to be duped by tabloid reporters into confirming what they already thought, there can be no argument that his then wife was an entirely innocent victim of the whole thing. Bad enough that her husband had cheated on her, she then had to find out, as Coogan put it, 'all the lurid details'.

I wrote on these pages that the News of the World's activities and closure would doubtless not be the full story, but exactly how commonplace it seems to have been, how entrenched in the tabloid press as an accepted means of getting dirt on famous people, is truly astonishing, to me at least. It now seems that the figure quoted early on in this whole affair by Milly Dowler's parents' lawyer of around 7,000 people having had their phones hacked, for example, was startlingly accurate, with the police's own figure coming out at around 6,700. Coogan called the day the NotW closed 'a great day for the press', and railed against the people who came after him, naming some of them publicly in his evidence.

So it is, to those of us who don't like that kind of 'journalism' and don't consume it, extremely gratifying to see the harshest possible spotlight turned on those responsible for producing it. But I can't help thinking about something else I've said on here too. Given how many millions of people do read the celeb gossip mags, do watch TV on the same stuff, did read the News of the World, should we really be surprised that this goes on to feed that appetite? I was shocked at the scale and depth of it, but not that it happens in the first place.

And how ironic that the inquiry into those activities is itself now being lapped up by the public, with the focus of the media of course on the famous people lining up to give evidence. Like opposing mirrors in a corridor, this whole thing reflects itself back to infinity, with us standing right in the middle, watching ourselves get smaller and smaller and smaller. With any luck, Leveson will shatter one of them, and our society will end up with a much clearer view of itself.

Monday, 14 November 2011

I'm an ordinary TV viewer... get me out of here

I can just about see it with X Factor for example, providing you put to one side the preposterous notion that it's a talent show and accept it merely as 'entertainment'. Strictly Come Dancing too, OK, I can see why people like that. But this is both depressingly inevitable and at the same time utterly incomprehensible to me. What the bloody hell do people get out of watching this bilge?

I had the misfortune, for the first time, to catch most of an episode this week. It will be the last time I do. I simply cannot see what's entertaining about watching Z-list celebs, predictably a mélange of on-the-career-down-slopers, people who were famous 30 years ago and people I've never heard of in the first place, subjecting themselves to the ignoble tasks demanded of them by this show. What is anybody, anybody getting out of watching some poor, desperate, overweight, too-many-facelifts luvvie sod dunk their face into a writhing box of cockroaches? I simply can't understand it.

And there's always one person on it who disappoints you by going on there. What the hell does Willie Carson need to demean himself on this for, given the career he had and the esteem in which he's still held by the horseracing community? He can do himself no good on there - he's betting his dignity and it's not a bet he can win on this vehicle.

I also thought that the days of using live animals to create entertainment were largely behind us, so why is it acceptable to watch them eaten alive, crushed, smacked aside, whatever, simply because they're invertebrates? Are the same people who watch this also campaigning against fox hunting? Or telling the Spaniards they can't fight bulls? Morally, what's the difference? Do the producers of TV programmes now get to decide which animals can be disposed of for sport and which cannot?

Throw in those insufferable, smug gits Ant and Dec, and you've got a show which pretty much ticks all the boxes that dictate which TV I avoid. It need only feature contestants sporting Palace shirts as some kind of unspeakable, ersatz uniform, and be sponsored by the latest off-shoot of a mobile phone company (probably some ghastly all-mushroom ready-meal outfit), and you'd have the full bloody set.

But over 11 million people can't be wrong. Can they?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Warsi - what is she good for?

An interesting piece in the Telegraph from Tory chairman Baroness Warsi recently which has prompted some fairly vociferous comment from the British Humanist Association. It's here if you particularly care. What bothers me most about this is not her florid and I'm sure quite admirable sentiments on inter-faith communication. No worries there. Remembering though that she is a Cabinet minister, and while in opposition held the post of Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, she should really know better than to exclude people without faith quite so completely. A cohesive society should surely, after all, include everybody.

Thing is, she does know better, but she's got form in this area. She's not forgetting us, she's basically leaving us out deliberately because we're apparently not worthy of consideration. Consider her comments at the Conservative conference in 2009 when she called secular people 'intolerant and illiberal', or her speech to Church of England bishops in Oxford in 2010, in which she claimed that “vocabulary of secularist intolerance” exists. She also said that, “those who are religiously observant are more likely to volunteer and give than their non-believing or non-practicing counterparts.” This is, of course, bunkum, by why let an irritating thing like the facts get in the way of telling your audience what they want to hear?

A person in such a position of authority, and part of an elected government, albeit one elected by a minority, should not be so quick to not only alienate but actively dismiss a significant percentage of the electorate. She would certainly do well to remember that the Big Society her party's PM is so keen on looks quite a lot smaller if you strip people out of it who have no religion. She's evidently only worrying about what religious people of one stripe are saying to those of another. Though she may perhaps wish it were otherwise, we atheists are still at least allowed to vote. I hope she thinks about that before she demeans us again so readily in future.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Jim fixed it for him

My friend Mike, a better writer in his sleep, I suspect, than I ever will be even in my better efforts, has placed what I assume will be a one-off entry prompted by the recent passing of Sir Jimmy Saville.

It can be found here, and I strongly urge anybody who enjoys good writing and a bit of nostalgia to give it a read.