» Media ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Have_I_Got_News_For_You_titlescreenHave I Got News For You has been on the air for twenty-four years, and last night it managed to do something it’s never done before. For the first time ever last night, the majority of people on screen for an episode of the show were women – Victoria Coren Mitchell as the host, and Katherine Ryan and Janet Street-Porter as the guests, alongside regulars Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. As I’m here to write this today, it appears the sky didn’t crack asunder and the world did not come to an end as a result.

As some of you will know, I’ve got a spreadsheet of the gender breakdown of guests on the show since it started (created mostly with the help of this Wikipedia page) and it’s usually been pretty grim reading.

Across the history of the show, less than a quarter of the guests (24.27%) and hosts (24.65%) have been women. During that time, there have been 8 shows (including last night) where all the guests were women, but the first seven were all from the period when Angus Deayton was the show’s permanent host and thus men were still a majority on screen. The last of those seven was in 1997. For comparison, there have been 181 shows (44% of the total) where all the guests were male, and thus everyone on screen was a male. The BBC has announced that there will be no more all-male panel shows, so this percentage will drop, but the fact it happened at all is ridiculous. Consider that in the time since the last show with all-female guests, there were over 100 all-male episodes of Have I Got News For You, and think what message that sends out to anyone watching.

Hopefully, last night is a sign that attitudes are changing, though I also fear that for years to come they’ll bring up the ‘all-woman’ show as an excuse for not doing it again for several years. This series might be the one that has the highest percentage of female guests on the show, a record which currently stands at 37.5%. The trouble for anyone hoping for progress is that that record was set back in the very first series of the show, and it’s failed to reach that mark in the 46 series since.

The current series is actually at parity for the four episodes broadcast so far – and there have actually been a majority of female hosts in those episodes – so who knows, it might finally be possible for a high-profile BBC series to almost accurately reflect the nation. (If we assume that 40% of the country are Paul Merton and Ian Hislop, of course…)

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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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