Saturday, March 20, 2004

A busy October? Er, no

I thought it was strange that I only discovered this Mirror story about Blair's plans for an October election through the American site Pandagon, but then I worked it out.

With all due respect to Jesse, I think the reason he's mentioned the story and no British bloggers have is, aside from it being Saturday, that he's not aware of some of the traditions of the British media. Specifically, this article is a fine example of that great British journalistic tradition known as the 'arse' (as in 'bunch of' or 'talking out of') which, of course, helped create the American dramatic tradition of the 'ass pull'.

What happens here is that a political journalist hasn't got a story to file. Having chased up all her sources who hadn't fled to the country for the weekend, there's still nothing to report so the journalist goes to the number one source for tabloid articles and pulls a story out of her arse. It fills a few columns, generates a nice dramatic headline and, most importantly, isn't going to get anything even approaching a confirmation or denial from Downing Street so people can say 'see? it might be true!' no matter how unlikely it may be.

Journalists' arse stories are similar, but not identical to, stories pulled out of a spin doctor's arse. An example of the latter is this week's front page in the Mail On Sunday proclaiming that 'Blair almost sacked Brown four times' - a story purely intended to try to show who's the boss in the Blair/Brown relationship, with no necessary relationship to the truth.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong, and there might be an election in October, but I seriously doubt the possibility. Labour are likely to do badly in June's elections, and an October election plan relies a bit too much on the Government having a good summer with nothing going wrong and everyone realising at some point over the next few months just how good for them the latest budget was. An October 2005 election is possible - indeed, I've already heard rumours of that being Blair's favoured date, but they may come from the same source as these latest rumours - but going to the country in October 2004 could easily be spun by the Opposition as a show of weakness rather than strength. After all, Major managed to run the country for almost five years with a majority that started at 21 and kept shrinking so surely Blair can run the country for four years with a majority eight times larger?

Way beyond disturbing search requests

I've discovered (through someone coming here after searching for it) that I'm the number 3 result on Google for 'Blair/Brown slash fiction'. I think the only possible response to that is 'ewww'.

Number 1 is this page though, which proposes some rather unlikely fan fiction couplings.

Attribution

Looking through Google News for information on the Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor story, I found this interesting review of The Second Coming from the Wichita Eagle newspaper. It's not the sort of review you'd expect it to get from a Kansas newspaper, but I doubt ITV bosses are that pleased by it - even assuming they've seen it - as it refers to it as:
"one of the most provocative-- and acclaimed -- dramas in BBC history" (emphasis added)
Oops.

Breaking news!

I knew I'd get a scoop at some point of doing this blog. Two people have just climbed Big Ben (OK, the Westminster Clock Tower, for you pedants out there) - no idea yet whether they're up there for the STWC demo today, a return of the Fathers4Justice 'superheroes' or a couple of bored tourists who didn't want to pay the £11 to get the views from the London Eye.

Update: They're holding a Greenpeace banner saying 'Time for Truth' - but a search of the Greenpeace wesbite doesn't give any indication as to what campaign it's referring to.

And the Doctor is...

The BBC have announced that Christopher Eccleston (who's not, as the Guardian Diary once reported, the son of Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone) is to be the new Doctor Who.

All I can say is 'wow'. That's a casting completely out of left field - I can't even remember seeing his name amongst the speculation after the new series was announced - but I've thought Eccleston is a great actor ever since I saw him in Let Him Have It and his performance is one of the reasons I prefer Shallow Grave to Trainspotting. Of course, he's also worked with Russell T Davies before on The Second Coming - another excellent performance - and his casting gives, I think, an indication of which direction the new series might be heading in - probably darker than most people would have expected, and with higher production values than seen on Doctor Who before. Which wouldn't be too hard, of course.

The big question, of course, is whether the Doctor is going to raise or lower Eccleston's Oldman Index rating?

Update: Reading round the web, Gallifrey Online have a spoiler about the bad guys in the first new story. Don't click the link if you don't want to know.

Update 2: I have a feeling that at least one of my readers will be enlightened on the 'who is this guy?' question when I point out that he played Major West in 28 Days Later.

Schadenfreude

I can't help but smile at the news that Coke's Dasani bottled water which has already caused there marketing teams so much trouble when it was revealed to be merely filtered tap water has been withdrawn from sale because it's contaminated with bromate.

Friday, March 19, 2004

More fun than Atlantis

I love conspiracy theories. Not because they're likely to be true, but because they'rewonderful ways of linking seemingly disparate pieces of information together to create a story. Kids like to sit in circles while someone tells them a tale of an elephant who's lost its balloon, and adult paranoiacs sit hunched over their computers while someone tells them a story of how the entire world is secretly run by a committee that hides itself behind the innocent facade of the Ugandan Plumbers Association.

So, I have to present this latest theory about the origins of Belle de Jour - LinkMachineGo has discovered links between Sarah Champion and Andrew 'Me hates bloggers! They stole the precious Google!' Orlowski. (via Troubled Diva, who echoes my thoughts: 'The conspiracy theory that logically follows from Darren's findings is so delicious that I find myself longing for it to be true.'

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Why we need The Poor Man

Because who else could make a comparison between Rod Stewart and Noam Chomsky?
Noam Chomsky pretty much sucks. One hears stories about times, long ago, when he didn't suck so much, and was actually kind of good. These claims, much like the claims of contemporaneous Rod Stewart non-suckiness, may well be true, but do strike us, given the evidence of our lifetime, as staggeringly unlikely, and we aren't really interested in looking into them.
I'm reminded of Rod Stewart's appearance in the Guardian's Lost Consonants cartoon: Rod was busy making rap versions of old hits.

Lending my (limited) expertise

Via Crooked Timber, I discover the Times reporting that the author of Belle de Jour is alleged to be a woman called Sarah Champion. Belle denies this.

Reading that, I thought 'I know that name' and soon realised it's because I've got a book - Disco 2000 - edited by her. So, I dug it out and discovered that, as well as editing it, she had written the introduction for it. 'Ah-ha', I think 'this'll solve the mystery and make me famous over the internet.' Well, maybe it would if I had the forensic literary skills of Don Foster, the American academic who identified her as the author. As it is, I can only go by personal opinion and give it a definite maybe.

(As an aside, I can spot one potential flaw in Professor Foster's analysis, which is that it relies on the assumption that Belle is a fictional creation and there is the possibility - though slim, I assume - that Belle is real and he has merely identified two female writers with very similar styles of writing)

From re-reading all six pages of Sarah Champion's introduction to Disco 2000 and then reading through some of Belle's entries, there does appear to be a certain resemblance between the two, but I'm not confident enough to say that they're the same person. Firstly, there's not enough writing by Champion in Disco 2000 to make it possible to discern a distinct style and secondly, there's little autobiographical writing in the Introduction - the majority of it is an introduction to the various stories within the book. However, those snippets of autobiographical writing in there are close enough in style to Belle to make me think that Foster's conclusions aren't entirely without merit.

But, why not judge for yourself? Here's a bit from the introduction:
It's weird how dates stick in your mind. To use telephone banking you have to give a string of passwords including 'memorable time and place'. Mine is 11 May 1985, Moss Side, Manchester (though I'll have to change it now). That was the night I had my first experience of pre-millenial tension...
At the age of fourteen, my school friend invited me to a concert at her church. I found myself the only white person in a black Pentecostal church, witnessing five hours of apocalyptic passion - end-is-nigh gospel interspersed by hell 'n' brimstone sermons with hysterical, elderly Jamaican women running down the aisle in tears, giving ten pound notes to the Pastor.
Afterwards, already spooked, I had to wait for a lift on a dodgy street corner, watching shadowy figures disappearing up a staircase above a chippy, to buy 'draw'. Then there was a siren. A burglar alarm? It couldn't be as the sound was coming from all directions. It was the siren made famous in Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Two Tribes' - the four minute nuclear warning. It sounded for twenty minutes. The streets were empty: there was no panic. Where was it being broadcast from? The street lamps? The telephone junction boxes?
Except for a tiny report in a local paper, no one commented. Sometimes, I wonder if it ever happened at all. But that night in Moss Side something changed for me. Ever since, I've lived with the eerie feeling that these really were the 'last days' - strange times that had to be lived to the full.
Update: Other discussion of this at Troubled Diva (where Belle was 'outed' in the comments) and Harry's Place, where Spin laments that no one's going to such lengths to try and identify him.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Frivolity again

I've changed the 'Ten Best' list of the blogs I tend to visit the most frequently to a 'First Eleven' and now I'm trying to work out whether they'd make a better cricket or football team.

I was thinking football - Atrios, I think, would be great in the Beckenbauer sweeper role, and Crooked Timber's midfield wizardry would bring many comparisons with Socrates - the Brazilian, that is, rather than the Greek. However, I realised that it would be a pretty weak side down the right wing, with only Matthew Turner volunteering to play out there (though, like David Beckham, he'd prefer to play in the centre).

So, a cricket team it is then - which must make the Brooke brothers the blogging equivalent of the Waughs.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

How Spain voted

I've got a new post over at Fistful of Euros, looking at how Spain voted and whether the PSOE's victory can be attributed solely to a higher turnout.

And why not charge them with wasting police time as well?

One of the following explanations for this story (also reported here) is true. I have no idea which.

1) David Blunkett (and/or his senior Home Office advisers) have gone stark staring batshit crazy
2) Blunkett is now bored of being part of the Government and is trying to get himself sacked for proposing something incredibly stupid
3) There's a sweepstake amongst members of the Cabinet for who can propose the most ridiculous policy idea and then implement it. Blunkett was probably already winning this, but he wants to make sure and this is the way he's going to do it
4) A large quantity of crack from a recent drug bust has found its way into the water supply at the Home Office
5) Blunkett et al sincerely think that this is a good idea

I'm open to other suggestions, especially those involving replacement by shape-shifting aliens from the planet Draconia, but I really doubt any of them are going to make sense.

Monday, March 15, 2004

A question

Can any of readers enlighten me as to how the process of creating a government in Spain happens? I'm wondering about the period we're in now, where Zapatero is still being referred to in the media as 'Prime Minister-elect'. I assume the system is similar, but not identical, to that in the UK, where he has to show he'll have a majority in the parliament, but by what process does he become Prime Minister rather than Prime Minister-elect? Is it elected by the new parliament when it first convenes or is it, as in the UK, at the invitation of the King?

Update: Thanks to Matthew in the comments for the link to this page which gives most of the answers I was looking for. It seems quite similar to the role of the monarch in the UK:
The king sanctions and promulgates laws that have been worked out by the other branches of government. He formally convenes and dissolves the Cortes and calls for elections and for referenda. He appoints the prime minister after consultation with the Cortes and names the other ministers, upon the recommendation of the prime minister. He also signs decrees made in the Council of Ministers and ratifies civil and military appointments.
However, the Prime Minister is chosen by the parliament before being invested by the King:
When the prime minister is appointed following elections, he must present his program to the Congress of Deputies and receive a vote of investiture by absolute majority before he can be sworn in by the king. If he cannot obtain a vote of confidence for investiture, a new vote is taken forty-eight hours later, requiring only a simple majority.
There's some interesting notes in there about how Juan Carlos' personal actions since the death of Franco have defined the monarchy in its limited role - I can recall a couple of soc.history.what-if discussions about what might have happened in Spain post-Franco if he'd been a different character.

Damn him

Atrios makes the point I was trying to make below, and in a lot less space.

Democracy

Well, it seems that in the eyes of various people on the Right, the people of Spain have gone from being a brave people who were defiant in the face of terrorism on Friday night to a bunch of paella-eating surrender monkeys, and all in just 48 hours. That may well be a record time for a complete collective 180-degree change of opinion on so large a group of people.

Still, it's good to know that the people who set themselves up as the defenders of justice, liberty, freedom, democracy and all that sort of stuff are so eager to condemn people who dare to use their democratic rights to disagree with them. Of course, now we're being told that people should consider what 'message' their votes are sending out to Al-Qaeda and vote accordingl. Apparently Al-Qaeda - who, we're told, hate democracy and freedom - want to see a peaceful change of government, as part of the democratic process. Plus, of course, they wanted to see Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (and, just to digress into frivolity for a moment, that's a great name, isn't it?) become the new Spanish Prime Minister, because it's somehow in their interest to have a a Spanish PM who says 'My immediate priority will be to fight all forms of terrorism' after being elected. Oh sorry, I forgot, there's only one way to fight terrorism and that's to be in total agreement with the Bush Administration at all times, isn't it?

But, if we're meant to be determining our public policy on the grounds of whether or not Osama Bin Laden approves or not, can I make a suggestion? If you really want to piss off Osama, then support gay marriage. If you really want to annoy a Wahhabist then go out and encourage people to be sexually free and to spend their time drinking and partying. If you really want to do what 'Islamofascists' oppose, then encourage people to watch porn, listen to pop music and wear whatever clothes they want. If you want to show how much you oppose fundamentalism then encourage people to think for themselves, use their own rationality and debate issues openly in public before voting on what course of action they might prefer to take. If you really want to support freedom and democracy, and not just the freedom of people to agree with you, then applaud the fact that the people of Spain - many of whom have lived under fascism, so have a good idea of what it's like - were out there voting today and that one party will peacefully replace another in government.

Democracy is alive and well in Spain and throughout the world. If that's what you're so eager to defend, don't start getting angry when people use it.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

The real story

One other bit from Peter Preston that's a quite interesting illustration of newspaper priorities:
The Mail may print in four Spanish cities - including Madrid - but didn't have a correspondent there able to file a stick of copy when the bombs went off.

And the Express? No Spanish dateline on its front page and a whole page inside wherein its 'Consumer Editor' interviewed a '27-year-old printworker from Sandy, Bedfordshire', who had been going on a stag weekend to the Spanish capital, but was 'now probably going to Prague instead'.

Downsizing

I've been thinking for a while about writing a post on the Independent going tabloid and while Peter Preston's article in today's Observer covers many of the points I'd have made, it seems a good enough excuse.

He makes the point that the tabloid Independent is a better newspaper than the tabloid Times for the simple reason that the editors of the Indie are now thinking of the paper as a tabloid first, while the Times' tabloid is just the broadsheet version squeezed into a smaller format, as the Indie's originally was. However, it seems quite likely that the Indie will soon be solely available as a tabloid - Preston talks of a timetable of maybe weeks, rather than months for it occuring and from purely observational evidence, it seems to me that most newsagents I visit have more copies available of the tabloid than the broadsheet.

However, the structure of the British newspaper market has made it easier for the Independent to become permanently tabloid than it would be for the Times to follow that path. As things stood before the Independent went tabloid, there were nine major national daily newspapers in Britain that could be arranged into three groups - the red-tops (Sun, Mirror, Star), Mid-market tabloids (Express, Mail) and broadsheets (Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent). One thing that's long been obvious is that there's a gap in the market amongst the mid-market tabloids. While there's a spread of political opinion in the red-tops and the broadsheets, both mid-market tabloids lean to the right. Ever since Today folded, there's been no left-leaning tabloid to compete with the Mail and Express - aside from Rosie Boycott's brief attempt to take the Express to the left.

So, it made sense for the Independent - which was suffering in the broadsheet market - to take the risk and go tabloid as there was a gap in the tabloid market for it to fill, a position between the Mirror and Guardian, a paper with quality journalism that's easy to read on the train. It seems to have worked for them - sales are rising and the new paper is getting plaudits all round. However, the Times is probably not going to follow the Independent's lead and go permanently tabloid as that would put it in the midst of the conflict between the Mail and Express. Besides, as Preston points out, the 'compact' Times hasn't put on sales like the Independent has.

I think the Independent has one last change to make before it goes fully tabloid - the price, at least of the weekday edition. At 60p, it was already the most expensive of the broadsheets, and it starts to look very expensive compared to the Mail and Express. A cut in price to 45p would signal that the Indie wants to compete as a tabloid and, coupled with the publicity for the new 'all-tabloid all the time' format would boost sales, perhaps even taking it past the Guardian, with the resulting increase in advertising rates as an additional bonus. There's another good reason for making it 45p as well - it means that the combined price of the Guardian and Independent is just ?1, which could well persuade many Guardian readers to pick it up as a second paper.

Debunking

This looks like an interesting use of the blog format within mainstream politics - a new 'D-Bunker' section of John Kerry's official blog. It's a section of his official website dedicated to 'putting the record straight' and countering all the various distortions that are out there.

Also interesting is the press release that announced the launch of D-Bunker where he comments on other politicians who've been hit by the 'right-wing smear machine': He saw what they did to John McCain in South Carolina, and Max Cleland in Georgia. Mentioning Cleland, one of Kerry's close friends and a strong campaigning force for Kerry, isn't too surprising but it's interesting that they also choose to mention McCain who's a Republican. It's one of those things that just adds a little fuel to the fire of the 'Vice-President McCain' rumours and even if that doesn't come off, I wouldn't be surprised to see McCain endorse Kerry rather than Bush.

Discoveries

It's amazing the things you can discover on the web when you're not looking for anything in particular. Flicking through some information about Popes on Wikipedia, I discovered the interesting news that, far from remaining in the fifteenth century, there are a couple of modern Antipopes - 'Pope Pius XIII', an American who claims to have filled the 40-years-vacant Holy See in 1998 and 'Pope Gregory XVII', a Spaniard who claims that he's the Pope because the Virgin Mary told him he was.