Thursday, 26 March 2009

Demagoguery 2.0.

Charlie Brooker's Newswipe - a Daily Show-esque look at both news and its programming - was predictably good last night. If you missed it, you can catch it here: particularly good is his comparison of the coverage of a) 20 violent Islamist protesters disrupting a soldiers' welcome in Luton and b) 1000s of marchers coming out for peace in N. Ireland.

As always, it's easier to go with the simple and the shocking if you want people's attention. The Northern Ireland march might have got more coverage on a slow news day, but somewhere in Germany an idiot teenager shot up his school, and that obviously demanded hours of coverage. (The clip from Newswipe of a psychologist explaining to an interviewer the media's role in these recurring shootings is pure gold.)

Not every story is violent or catastrophic, but it's better if you can make it so. Hence, we all know now that a government gilt auction FAILED yesterday morning for the first time in SEVEN years. This is a BLOW FOR GORDON BROWN and clear evidence that the MARKETS FEAR GB DEBT. Given that the media's narrative on Brown is now "What a loser", this story fits quite well with a) what they want to tell us and more importantly b) what we want to hear.

Niggling little details about the term of the debt, it's relationship to QE policy, the amount actually sold or the current state of the gilt markets, which by adding context and information detract from the simplicity of the story, are downplayed or ignored entirely. The point, after all, is not to keep the viewer/reader informed about the state of the economy. It's to let us know who's winning.

Mr Eugenides quotes an instructive comment from the blog of Daniel Hannan MEP, regarding a much-viewed clip of him excoriating the PM:

The days when a minister gave briefings to a dozen lobby correspondents, and thereby dictated the next day's headlines, are over. Now, a thousand bloggers decide for themselves what is interesting. If enough of them are tickled then, bingo, you're news. Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

It's all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it's good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible

Yes, yes. No doubt, people who already don't like Brown are tickled to watch someone have a go at him. It's good old-fashioned entertainment. It's not really political news though - Hannan was after all, merely rehashing the Tory line on Brown, somthing that is getting pretty regular coverage as is. A press release from a Minister might well be pointless fluff - or it could detail actual policy. Which might be quite boring and technical, and not use any nautical metaphors at all . But just giving people the fun bits isn't news. People with an interest in politics (by which I mean, voters in a democracy) need to get the boring nitty-gritty as well as the theatricals. The news machine and it's audience are collaborating to avoid that, in much the same way that a stressed-out mother might ask the kids if they want to just get take-away tonight. But pretending that news-as-entertainment is a vital step forward to freedom and prosperity is like claiming KFC is diet food.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


I've just found the Ambrose Bierce piece I wanted to use two posts below. Which is a little aggravating, but happily there is a new story which marries nicely with a different fable.

The story is here: having failed to follow up on Azhar Khan's complaints of "appalling treatment" in Egypt, the FCO is now withholding full information on how they dealt with his case on the grounds that they wish to safeguard his rights.

A SPORTSMAN who had wounded a Squirrel, which was making desperate efforts to drag itself away, ran after it with a stick, exclaiming: "Poor thing! I will put it out of its misery."

At that moment the Squirrels stopped from exhaustion, and looking up at its enemy, said:"I don't venture to doubt the sincerity of your compassion, though it comes rather late, but you seem to lack the faculty of observation. Do you not perceive by my actions that the dearest wish of my heart is to continue in my misery?"

At this exposure of his hypocrisy, the Sportsman was so overcome with shame and remorse that he would not strike the Squirrel, but pointing it out to his dog, walked thoughtfully away.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Good booze/bad booze

Andrew Lansley clarifies the Tory position on using price to control alcohol consumption :

He added: "There is clearly a need for action. But it is very important to recognise that to deal with this problem we need to deal with people's attitudes and not just the supply and price of alcohol.

See? Principled. No interference with market pricing from our boys in blue.

"Our proposals, which include measures to tackle loss-leader promotions and higher taxes on high-alcohol drinks aimed at young people, would address this without penalising the majority of moderate drinkers. This would seem to be a much better route to go down than distorting the whole drinks market."

Well, maybe a bit of price interference. But only on the chavvy drinks. We all know you can't be alcoholic if you're drinking Gewurtztramminer.

Friday, 13 March 2009


UPATE: Just found the Ambrose Bierce piece I was thinking of when I wrote this:

THE Warden of a Penitentiary was one day putting locks on the doors of all the cells when a mechanic said to him:
"Those locks can all be opened from the inside - you are very imprudent."
The Warden did not look up from his work, but said:
"If that is called imprudence, I wonder what would be called a thoughtful provision against the vicissitudes of fortune."

The Conservatives (I learn via Mr E) are proposing to make goverment spending more transparent: specifically, voters will be able to access itemised accounts of all government spending over some limit - let's say £50,000. As Steve Richards suggests, and Mr Eugenides proves, Labour are opposed to this, ostensibly on matters of cost, but (no fools us) clearly because it would be a pain in their arse.

So far, so party-political. Demanding greater governmental transparency is an easy Opposition win; heel-dragging is a predictable governmental response. And in some ways, fair enough. No praise will ever come to the government for, say, £51,250 well spent on a worthwhile and vital project; conversely, Ministers will rapidly tire of being forced in "hard-hitting" interviews to justify the latest "outrageous" expenditure on diversity training/health and safety/butterfly migration research or whatever other headline fodder doubtless lurks in the accounts. "Gotcha'd" live, they won't be able to respond on the spot; when they come back a day later to show that understanding the lifespan of lepidoptera actually helps farmers fight pests more cheaply (let's say), no-one will care. So from an already harassed government's point of view, signing up to this proposal is the equivalent of a weedy cowpoke handing the salloon bully two loaded six-shooters and asking for dancing lessons.

But what's weird about this is that no-one seems to be thinking very far ahead. It is common political wisdom that in 15 months time, Labour will be in carefree opposition and the Conservatives will be fitting new carpets in the corridors of power. If they were thinking ahead, Labour would be only too delighted to help the Conservatives fit themselves up. Similarly, the Conservatives presumably don't actually want to spend their time in government answering idiotic accusations of waste, but this is what they're setting themselves up for.

There are various explanations for this:
a) both parties are acting out of pure principle
b) both parties are playing a very long game, and expect Labour to be in government more often than not over, say, the next 30 years.
c) both parties actually expect Labour to win the next election
d) both parties are in full grip of the availability heuristic, and letting themselves be far more influenced by where they are now than by where they expect to be in the future.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A weasel in the rabbit-hutch of thought

If nothing else, Leila Deen's rationalisation of her consciousness-raising blow against the establishment childish temper tantrum does gift the English language the phrase "cuckoo in the nest of British democracy", albeit in all apparent sincerity. Other than that, there's not a lot to commend it. It's just yet another Plane Stupid acolyte explaining why their attention-seeking muppetry is a) a vital blow for democracy and b) the only option left to them now they're being ignored by the man:

I have done nothing BUT debate for the last three years. In that time everyone who counts came out in condemnation of the runway plans: 86% of people who responded to the Heathrow consultation replied that they did not want it. The London mayoral election was run on who could be most against it. Respected research institutions pointed out that it will make it impossible to meet our national commitments to helping prevent catastrophic climate change. The Labour party rebelled in parliament. Even many in the cabinet were opposed... The debate is over. We won.

"Everyone who counts" in this case not including the people who want the runway built, and "won" being a synonym for "lost". Other debates that have been "won", we learn, include the invasion of Iraq, and ID cards. By this standard ("we marched, we debated") the Countryside Alliance "won" the debate on foxhunting, the miners "won" the debate on closing pits and the BUF "won" the debate on Britain's glorious black-shirted future. If you only deign to consider people who already agree with you, winning debates is trivially easy.

Politics is, at root, the way we make decisions about living together. I am happy to stipulate that it is far from perfect as a process. But even if it were, we would all, from time to time, find ourselves not getting our way. It's a feature, not a bug. Responding by throwing gunk at people, while no doubt giving tremendous expression to one's feelings, does tend to suggest.that you don't understand some very basic ideas such as a) how to make your cause look good and b) democracy.

UPDATE: In other news, she looks good too.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Circular arguments prove their own premises because they're circular

I meant to comment on some of the substance of Harman's interview below. Specifically, I yelled at the TV when I heard the following, loosely paraphrased, argument:

Q. Why don't you allow fathers to take more time off with a shared parental leave allowance instead of maternity/paternity leave being split.

A. We could do that, but most men would still end up working because they earn more than their partners.


In other news, the government has announced it won't be repairing the lifts in the Palace of Westminster, saying "the only people we see on the top floors are fit enough to use the stairs."

*I know it's not the only reason men tend to earn more than their partners, but it's a big factor behind a) preferential hiring and b) having more time invested in a career.

If you want something doing, do it yourself

My allotted two weeks up, I still don't understand how someone that spends 18 hours a day sleeping can so effectively stop you doing anything other than look after him. But he does, so I've not kept quite as ruthlessly up-to-date with the news as I used to like.

It's been great. Major news items break through - terrorists attacks, quantitative easing, Jade Goody's wedding - but I lose the comment, analysis, rebuttal, insight, viewer's comments, punditry and other crud that usually clings to these nuggets. And somehow, I don't feel I'm missing out. Hopi, for example, is left to write not one but two posts bemoaning the vapidity and predictability of the media coverage of the Brown/Obama summit, but remains none the wiser regarding what might actually come out of it. I am equally ignorant, but haven't had to wade through regurgitated dribble either.

But I did, quite by chance, catch a brief segment of the Politics Show yesterday that happened to be both informative, interesting and relevant to my current circumstances. You can see it here, at least for the next 7 days. At 18:32, a panel of three women get to interview Harriet Harman. They grill her on the governments achievements in improving equality on the workplace, bring up specific policy proposals they would like to see enacted and hold her to account on her performance. Clearly, they know the subject matter inside out. In turn, Harman responds substantively, with a minimum of "yeah but the other lot suck".

At times, however, the professional journalist jumps in to perform the vital media role of holding the government to account:. "Shouldn't you be ashamed?", "Isn't this embarrassing?" "Couldn't you have phrased that better?". These are the sort of hard-hitting questions that make journalists look good. They don't, astonishingly enough, elucidate any useful information. . The end of the interviewis a masterclass in turning the viewer off politics and politicians: "We've got very little time and I must ask you about Fred Goodwin." Why, in the name of Christ? Why not shut up and let the interesting conversation continue? "Do you stand by what you said? Will you retract it? Will you admit you were wrong to suggest that? Will you give me a headline? Will you? I don't want your opinion, woman, I want to make you look bad. Give me a retraction, an apology, a regret, anything I can use to spin this non-event out further." (My transcription may not be entirely accurate.)

If you take the ten minutes to watch it, I'm prepared to bet that the bits you find interesting co-incide almost exactly with the periods that the professional interviewer is a mere spectator.