What You Can Get Away With » Media

Nick Robinson of the BBC demonstrates the self-awareness that he’s famous for:


Yes, Westminster’s style of politics is entirely the fault of MPs. Absolutely none of the problems with the politics in our country come from the media’s insistence on treating it all as a game or a Punch and Judy show of mutual loathing and shouting. That political journalism frequently eliminates any nuance in order to drive forward the narrative it has determined the story must be about has no bearing on the way people regard politics. There is absolutely no symbiotic relationship between a media desperate to fill air time cheaply and a political class who are desperate to appear on air as much as possible.

I’m glad Nick Robinson has made that clear.

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Via Jonathan Calder, the words of a Telegraph ‘political commentator’:

For very good reasons, Britain’s political parties do not campaign on election day.

This will likely confuse all of you reading this who are involved in politics, though I’m sure we’ll all be glad to know that we get polling day off after those long campaigns. All that getting up at 5am to deliver the first leaflet of the day, followed by hours of knocking on doors and more delivery must just have been a recurring bad dream I had every May.

Or it may just be that we don’t understand what campaigning is. Iain Martin, the journalist who wrote those words, got into a conversation with Lib Dem activist Chris Lovell last night, appears to think campaigning consists of just rallies and speeches and anything else is just “people with clipboards driving voters to polling stations”.

But then, is that all most journalists see of political campaigns? Most journalists writing about politics have never had any direct experience of it or involvement with it, and their job consists of going where the parties tell them to go to and working out which spin doctor’s stories they’re going to pay the most attention to when they write their stories. For them, political campaigns are a mix of media stunts, rallies and Important Speeches by Important People where the only role of party members and activists is to make up a useful backdrop and make sure they hold the placards the right way up. As none of this happens on polling day and journalists don’t have any invites to anything until the counting starts, it’s easy to make the assumption that there’s no campaigning going on.

Whereas most activists will tell you that polling day is the most important and busiest of the campaigning. The reason everyone looks hollow-eyed at the count is because they’ve been up since the early hours of the morning (assuming they got any sleep at all) and subsisting on whatever food they can grab. The big campaign events may not be happening – because they won’t get any coverage in the media – but all the other parts of campaigning are going at full tilt.

For a journalist – and specifically one credited as a political commentator – to claim that there’s no campaigning on polling day reveals just how shallow most coverage of politics is. Campaigns are like icebergs – there’s a very visible part on the surface, but a whole lot more happening beneath that. Journalists used to know this, but now they’re so dazzled by the bit on the surface, they imagine there’s nothing going on underneath.

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Not being one of the privileged elite of Lib Dem bloggers, I didn’t get a review copy of Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, so I waited until it turned up in the University library before reviewing it. It was worth waiting for it, as if I’d laid out money on actually buying a copy, I’d have felt extremely ripped off. It was obviously meant to be a provocative book that would force a debate within the Liberal Democrats and make people realise the correctness of Browne’s ‘authentic liberal’ views, but instead it’s just the same boilerplate ‘classical liberal’ pabulum one can read on blogs and think tank websites for free.

It feels like a book that was written in a hurry, and that shows in the lack of citations or justification for many of the claims Browne makes. There are many sections full of assertions that need some sort of explanation or evidence to back them up, but none comes. This is evident in the two central assertions of the book: that it’s “an authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for ‘The Global Race'”.

Browne’s description of his ideas as ‘authentic liberalism’ isn’t based on any sort of discussion of liberal ideas or their relevance to the modern age but merely presented as self-evident truth. It assumes – like most who claim to be heralds of ‘classical liberalism’ – that there is some Platonic ideal form of liberalism and any versions that deviate from this are inauthentic or fake. It completely ignores the idea – as I discussed in my series of posts on Russell – that liberalism should be concerned with power, or that it can adapt to meet the times. It’s an assumption that liberalism was somehow perfected in the nineteenth century, and nothing needs to be added to it. Browne doesn’t have anything to say about power, except for expecting everyone to prostrate themselves in front of the power of the market and the ‘global race’.

The ‘global race’ is the second of Browne’s major assumptions, and again he doesn’t seek to justify this concept, just assumes it to be the case. For those of you who forgot, the ‘global race’ was the centrepiece of a David Cameron Tory Party conference speech and like many big political ideas before it, wasn’t one that became part of the national vocabulary. Browne, however, latches onto it with all the vigour of a Conservative Central Office intern looking to get in the leader’s good books, but doesn’t stop to explain why he thinks it’s a good idea, or even if in a globalised world the idea of a race between nation-states makes any sense. It feels like international relations by Sellar and Yeatman: Britain must be Top Nation again, then history can come to an end.

Browne’s inability to question his assumptions, and the generally rushed nature of the book mean his proposals aren’t original and rest on some very weak evidence. He talks about school vouchers as though they’re a thrilling new idea, not something that have been a feature of seemingly every right-wing screed on education since the 90s, and assumes they will work because competition. No, that’s pretty much the argument – school vouchers bring in competition and competition always makes things better, thus school vouchers will make things better. Mind you, this comes after an argument where he purports that the single biggest reason for the relative success of independent schools compared to state schools is parental choice. Not increased levels of funding and the ability to spend more on teachers and facilities, just choice.

Later, we’re told that London needs a new airport because ‘a global hub city needs a global hub airport’ without giving any meaningful definition of what either of those things are, making the whole argument a frustratingly circular one. Like much of the book, it feels like nothing more than Browne pushing his personal desires and assuming that they need no evidence to back them up. It betrays the idea that his ideas aren’t radical, but have been floating around on the right for years to such an extent that that the true believers don’t need proof or evidence to assert them as true.

In this vein, he asserts that the size of the state should be between 35 and 38% of GDP, based on a discussion of a handful of countries and Britain’s experience between 1997 and 2001 (though I think the figure he uses excludes all the off-the-books PFI spending, which would weaken his argument even more). It feels like a figure plucked from the air, and just when you would expect him to bring out some form of evidence to back it up, there’s absolutely nothing. It’s just put out there as something Browne believes to be true, and used to justify a whole load of lazy man-in-the-pub bloviating about supposed government waste. Browne seems to believe that running a government is just like running a supermarket, again parroting the prevailing view on the right that everything can be reduced to businesses and markets.

It amuses (but also slightly scares) me to see people thinking that this book makes Browne a deep thinker or a radical. The ideas in it aren’t original or radical, and the thinking behind them is wearyingly shallow. Browne’s style is akin to that of Thomas Friedman, firing multiple factoids and wows at the reader, hoping to hide the lack of a detailed argument. For instance, Browne often waxes lyrical (well, semi-lyrical, his writing rarely rises to any great heights) about Chinese skyscrapers and other infrastructure, comparing them to Britain’s Victorian engineering triumphs, but neglects to think about how these things there were built. The human cost of this building, and the vast armies of poorly paid labour without any rights that build them isn’t mentioned at all.

Likewise, as he urges us to work harder so we can be part of the ‘Asian Century’, he handwaves away any mention of climate change and its potential effects. This is something that’s going to dominate the century in a much more fundamental way than anything Browne focuses on, but the few mentions of any potential environmental problems assume they can be simply solved, and nothing will get in the way of the irresistible growth of the economy. Browne trumpets his experience as a Foreign Office minister, but the overview he gives of foreign affairs doesn’t reveal any particular depths and I worry if the Foreign Office’s work isn’t focusing on the potential global risks climate change creates.

I’ll be honest and say that from all the descriptions and reviews I’d read of it, I didn’t expect to agree with this book, and I generally didn’t. What I didn’t expect, though, was for the arguments in it to be so weak and resting on so little. It’s a testament to the paucity of debate and thinking within a lot of the party that something argued as weakly as this can be seen as being a bold challenge. What disappoints me most of all is that it has nothing to say about power, and how people can get that power back from globalisation. Instead, he merely envisages a capitulation and surrender to the prevailing mood in the name of competing in the ‘global race’, when what we need is a liberal challenge and a vision of how things could be done differently. A truly radical and liberal plan for the twenty-first century would challenge the orthodoxy, but Browne’s plan is just for more of the same, dressed up in supposedly liberal clothes.

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Doctor Who returns to BBC One tonight with the first full appearance of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. It’s been noted many times that Liberal Democrats tend to be bigger fans of Doctor Whoand SF in general – than members of other parties, though to the best of my knowledge Nick Clegg hasn’t yet talked in public about his own views on the show. With that in mind, I’ve come up with five things that I think the new Doctor and his career could teach Nick Clegg:

1) What it’s like to be a professional actor

Clegg used to act at school and appears to have enjoyed the experience, but didn’t carry on this interest when he got older. Capaldi has had a thirty year career as an actor, and he could probably explain to Clegg just what it’s like, perhaps sating Clegg’s curiosity if he’s ever wondered what things would be like for him if he’d carried on acting.

2) What it’s like to win an Oscar

As someone not involved in film-making, Clegg hasn’t even been to the Academy Awards, let alone won one. Capaldi has won one for his short film Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life, and if Clegg hasn’t already seen or read one of the interviews with Capaldi where he talks about the experience, Capaldi could tell him what it was like.

3) How to operate the TARDIS

There are no TARDIS console props in Whitehall or Liberal Democrat HQ in Great George Street. I’m also reliably informed that Clegg doesn’t have one in his home or his constituency office in Sheffield. Capaldi, of course, has been a long time fan of the show and now he’s playing the Doctor, he’s likely to be much more knowledgeable about its operation than Clegg.

4) The qualities needed for a successful event and travel organiser

Capaldi’s just come back from promoting his new series on the Doctor Who World Tour. Clegg’s currently recruiting for a Visits and Events Officer. Capaldi could no doubt inform him of some of the things he thinks are the qualities of a person organising a successful event and travel plans.

5) How an actor might approach playing the role of Clegg in a film

Channel 4 have announced that they’re making a film about Clegg and the formation of the coalition. In his career, Capaldi has played several real people on screen including Cardinal Richelieu, King Charles I and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. He could no doubt tell Clegg what it’s like to play a real person and how he prepares for the role, but with the caveat that the actor cast as Clegg may have an entirely different process.

That’s five things Clegg could learn from Capaldi, probably over a pleasant lunch somewhere.

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I wrote a few years ago about the BBC’s plans to adapt Philip K Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle
for TV. As with so many TV projects, it seems that fell through but news has now come out that while we’re not in the universe where it got made by the BBC, we may be in the one where it gets made for Amazon TV.

Sadly, it appears that while Ridley Scott’s production company is still involved, the script is no longer being written by Howard Brenton. As I wrote four years ago, one worry I have about any adaptation of The Man In The High Castle is that it’s very easy to see it as just a relatively simple what-if story about the Axis winning the Second World War and how the US would be if it was divided between a victorious Germany and Japan. While Dick does create an interesting story about that, as with many of his books, the more interesting part of The Man In The High Castle is its exploration of the nature of reality. It’s a tale of three different worlds: the world where (most of) the book is set, the world Abendsen writes about in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and our world, with the question as to which one is really real and how the I Ching links them all. Stepping back, there’s also Dick’s belief that we are living in a flase reality and ‘the Empire never ended’ – our reality is possibly a hallucination of a Roman-dominated world.

There’s been plenty of interesting new TV that’s willing to take risks in the last few years, and the online services are definitely willing to try something new, so perhaps Amazon will be willing to contemplate getting their viewers to question the nature of reality. One lesson from most previous Dick adaptations is that the complex philosophical discussions of the nature of reality are the first thing to be jettisoned in favour of the high concept, but maybe we’re in a reality where that sort of TV is possible now.

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russellliberalismAs those of you who follow me on Twitter will have already seen, I’ve recently re-read Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. It was originally published in 1999 as part of a series of ‘Intelligent Person’s Guide To…’, though they now seem to be out of print and are hard to find. I found it a fascinating read, and as it is so hard to find, I thought I’d try and provide a summary of it, which will hopefully prompt some other thoughts.

Read the rest of this entry

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I uploaded my spreadsheet of Have I Got News For You guests broken down by gender after the last series, then today realised I’d forgotten to upload the new version. So, that’s now uploaded – and here it is.

I guess if you’re looking for a key statistic from it, it’s the number 33.3 – one third of the guests and one third of the hosts were women in the last series, which was the first since the BBC introduced their ‘no all male panel shows’ policy. HIGNFY has stuck with that policy, but has done the bare minimum to meet it – every show had a woman on it, either hosting or presenting, but none of them had two or three. We still have to go back to the last century for a time when all the guests on a show were women, and last year for one when they were all men.

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Quick trivia question: What connects Richard Osman, Dan Snow and Mark Steel?

They’re the last all-male line-up of guests on Have I Got News For You, if Danny Cohen delivers on his promise:

“We’re not going to have panel shows on any more with no women on them. You can’t do that. It’s not acceptable.”

As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been collecting data on the gender bias on Have I Got News For You for a while and so this is welcome news. As I’ve got almost bored of pointing out, there have been only seven episodes of HIGNFY where all the guests have been female, with the last one of those being back in 1997 (Sue Perkins and Eve Pollard) and 181 where all the guests were male, with over a hundred of those happening since 1997 (Osman, Snow and Steel were in October last year).

So, if that number now freezes at 181 for good then there’s a cheer or two for Cohen, as it guarantees that female representation on HIGNFY will rise above the 23.72% of guests they currently make up, and a minimum of 33% female guests will make the next series one of the highest ever. It might even reach or surpass the record giddy heights of 37.5% female guests, which was achieved back in the very first series in 1990.

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for an episode where there’ll be all-female guests again (and hence more women than men on screen for the first time ever in the series history), but I will wager that when it does the time between it being announced and some moron complaining how awful it is that they can’t have all-male guests will be measured in nanoseconds.

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I was reminded about this by a Twitter conversation this morning, and realised that I hadn’t updated my spreadsheet about the gender of guests on Have I Got News For You since the last series ended. That the last series was pretty underwhelming may have had something to do with it, but if you’re the sort of person who wants to see a lot of statistics about how many men and women have been on the show in its 46(!) seasons, then you can find it by clicking here.

The main points (I hesitate to use ‘highlights’) are:

  • We still have to look back to 1997 for the last time all the guests on a show were women.
  • There have now been 181 times during the show’s history where all the guests (and hence, everyone on screen) was a man.
  • The last series managed to have 30% of women hosts and guests, which meant there was a very slight upturn in the overall percentages of both – 23.27% (guests) and 23.72% (hosts).
  • And it’s very depressing to compile these figures and see that there’s been basically no change since 1990.
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    It’s October 1977. I’m five years old, and on the TV screen a virus is growing into something much much bigger than a virus has any right to be, and a professor is introducing his robot dog. The Invisible Enemy is that month’s slice of Doctor Who, but the reason I mention it is because those scenes are my first proper memories of watching Doctor Who. It’s not the first of it I’ve ever watched, but the first that I can remember watching. I’m sure I watched plenty of Who since I was born in the gap between The Time Monster and The Three Doctors, but it didn’t lodge in my head in the same way.

    Today, that TV series I watched back then, which had already outlived all expectations by surviving for nearly fourteen years, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, and not just as ‘hey, some TV show was first made fifty years ago’ but as a national institution.

    It used to be hard to explain to people just what an institution Doctor Who was in the 70s. By the 90s, it was headed firmly into the ‘cult sci fi’ box, and yet the series I first encountered was nothing of the sort. It was a fixture of Saturday night TV, watched by millions with Tom Baker one of the most recognisable people in the country. Watching Doctor Who wasn’t something weird or cult, it was what great swathes of the country did in between Grandstand and the Generation Game. (Juke Box Jury had originally been the latter half of that scheduling sandwich, but Who had already outlasted it)

    I’ve got plenty of memories from that time after The Invisible Enemy – a bizarre chase through mismatched rooms that were all part of the TARDIS, an old man giving the Doctor a mission, a spaceship hidden in orbit above a stone circle, Tom Baker jumping in to stop a wedding, a man with six copies of the Mona Lisa bricked up in his cellar – all permeated through a blue box that was impossibly larger on the inside and a curly-haired fool with a grin like danger and a scarf that seemed to have a mind of its own.

    Then as I got older, I learnt that there was more of this, more that I hadn’t seen (and obviously never would, because who would make old TV programmes available to watch again?) but was available in a huge series of books, most of which were written by a man named Terrance Dicks. Like so many others of my age, Dicks may be the most responsible for my love of reading, and once I’d finished all the local library’s limited Doctor Who collection (and filled my Christmas and Birthday lists with wishes for more), I started picking up other books from the shelves around the Doctor Who.

    (In my head, a man with a name like Terrance was obviously posh, and I had an image of Dicks as a retired schoolmaster who enjoyed writing science fiction, so was shocked when I finally discovered he was an Eastender…)

    I found other friends who were into Doctor Who, and we pooled our books and our knowledge to know more about what had come before, poring over copies of Doctor Who Weekly magazine and my friend James’ much-treasured yet much-read copy of The Making Of Doctor Who. When one of us got a new book, or heard that the library was getting new stock in, we’d trade them around in between our games of Doctor Who Top Trumps.

    And then things changed. The time tunnel became a star field, the weird howling of the theme tune became electronica and suddenly the BBC were actually showing old episodes again – The Five Faces Of Doctor Who meant we could actually see Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee, preparing us for that time when the curly-haired (but greyer and limper than it used to be) grinning man would disappear and someone else would take his place. And as if that wasn’t enough change, the biggest of all was soon to follow – in shock, we learned that we wouldn’t be able to watch Peter Davison between Grandstand and Larry Grayson on a Saturday night, but that Doctor Who would now appear on Mondays and Tuesdays (and every other day except Sunday for the rest of that decade).

    Suddenly, the programme had slipped from being part of the national consciousness to just another midweek TV programme. They moved it back to Saturdays eventually, but then something had been lost, seemingly never to return. A couple of years before they’d effectively suspended Children In Need for a couple of hours to show The Five Doctors, but now they were cancelling – no, not cancelling, ‘delaying’ – the next series, and what had once been fixed now seemed unexpectedly vulnerable. I was still watching, but it was harder to find anyone else who was.

    And then I went away, off to America for a year, where I remember watching The Pirate Planet on late night PBS one night and remembering that this was by Douglas Adams. Would there have been a Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy without Doctor Who? Would his imagination have fired the same way if he’d not watched it in the 60s? I don’t know, but what mattered then was that when I came back to the UK, it was common knowledge that Doctor Who wouldn’t be back on the TV. There were more books then, ones with strange titles that didn’t match up to anything that had appeared on TV, but by then I was off to University, and didn’t have the time or the cash for them.

    By then, Doctor Who was diminished, reduced to speculation of David Hasslehoff and rapping TARDISes in the paper, something those people in the Cult TV Society watched. There was talk of movies and TV series, but all we got was Paul McGann reciting infodumps in a bad wig, and then nothing. That felt like a low progress towards an end, circling a plughole as it was gradually forgotten, the keepers of the flame wandering off to other things as it spluttered out, filed away with the Tomorrow People, Blake’s 7 and all the others that meant so much in the 70s, but nothing now.

    Then one day the news came that it was coming back. I was wary at first – sure, that bloke who wrote Queer As Folk and The Second Coming was writing it, but the press appeared to think the series would consist of Alan Davies running around corridors doing a weak Tom Baker impression. Nostalgia TV, looking back and not making anything new, but something that might amuse for a while. Not the sort of thing you’d expect serious actors like Christopher Eccleston to appear in.

    That was shocking news, and something that built up hope, but surely this would just be some dark and gritty reboot, targeting the cult TV fans at 9pm on BBC Two for a couple of series, then never to be heard of again. After all, who watched TV drama on Saturday nights any more? Surely that was the home of Celebrity Wrestling, not Doctor Who? But millions of people can’t be wrong, and what had seemed like a crazed gamble, a sure sign the BBC didn’t know anything about what people wanted to watch, turned into the TV event of the year.

    “There was a war, and we lost.” That’s the line that turned me from regular viewer back into fan. One small scene, ending with two people going for chips, but one that changed everything. It was still the same show, a wild adventure with a man in a blue box, but was ready to shock and confound your expectation, not just tell the same old stories in the same old way.

    I said last week that what distinguishes Doctor Who from other series is that it wasn’t created as a story, but as a way to tell stories. Like King Arthur, Robin Hood or Sherlock Holmes, it’s a way to tell stories that speak to us wherever and whenever we are, a character who can change but always remain the same, something that may have had a beginning back in November 1963 but resolutely refuses to have an origin and something which can end a story with a finale, but will never have an end.

    I don’t know what story they’re going to tell tonight, and I’m sure that all of them who created it fifty years ago (and like all good myths Doctor Who could never have one creator) never expected it to still be telling stories fifty years later. If I’m lucky I might be here in fifty years time to see it reach one hundred, but I’m sure now that won’t be the last anniversary to be celebrated. Doctor Who will outlive all of us because it’s bigger than all of us and yet belongs to all of us – from now to the universe, whenever people tell stories, and however they tell them, there’ll be someone telling a story that starts with a blue box appearing somewhere, and someone stepping out of it.

    Go tell your stories.

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