New Political Landscape extends beyond TV debates

Plans for the pre-general Election 2015 leadership TV debates have just been made public and much has been made of the fact that Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, has been included in the proposals to take part in one of them. The traditional 3 main parties plus UKIP would be the only ones involved under the plans. With only 1 MP, and such a recent one that Douglas Carswell had not had time to be sworn in before the news broke, why was UKIP to be included ahead of the Green party who have had an MP since 2010? For that matter, it’s also worth wondering why they would be included in the debates ahead of any of the 9 parties with representation in the House of Commons who have been overlooked.

It’s fairly transparent why the broadcasters would want things the way they’ve suggested; a TV debate between 13 parties would be in danger of being unwatchable. Never let it be said that our broadcasters are looking for a fair and balanced series of debates which allow all parties to get their point across. Like all our news media they are already pursuing the particular narrative which they perceive will be the big story of the coming election, the rise of UKIP as a major political force. They’ve been doing it for some time now. They cover it because it interests them, it gives them something to talk about, to fill up the endless hours of coverage. But because they keep covering the story it becomes ever more likely to come true. Without the seemingly endless and up to now disproportionate coverage of UKIP and Nigel Farage, would they have made the inroads they have done already? The advantage they’ve gained is perhaps more clearly seen if we put it the other way round: it’s impossible for a party to have electoral success on a large scale without similarly widespread exposure on national TV. Such has the boost been to UKIP’s electoral prospects that they are being spoken of as a genuine 4th major party, and that they have broken the 3-party system which has been our political landscape since the birth of the Labour Party in the early years of the last century.

The shrinking popularity and disillusionment with Labour, Tories and Lib Dems mean that our 3-party system and in particular our First-Past-The-Post electoral voting system are appearing more and more outdated and unrepresentative and in that context representation in TV debates seems very small beer. I’d argue that rather than simply moving to a 4-party system we are now in an age of genuine multi-party politics, but that isn’t reflected by our electoral system. Again, it’s clear why traditional parties would wish to maintain the current system. It sustains them, and holds back possible competition. Because of FPTP, Labour have been able to move away from the concerns of their traditional support base without losing seats. Enough people will vote for them in their heartlands no matter what that for over a decade they’ve felt able to allow the centre of national political debate to shift to the right, to the chagrin of many who feel deserted by Labour’s refusal to oppose what has therefore become the political consensus. Despite the calls of “Red Ed” and Labour undoubtedly attempting to appeal more to their core recently, the number of Blairites still influencing the party mean it’s unlikely to go further. Most of the people left behind by this have no-one electable to the left of Labour who they can vote for as things stand; in 99% of constituencies a vote for a non-Labour party of the left will not result in them winning a seat, and that vote is effectively pointless. Indeed, for some time the Lib Dem electoral strategy has been that “Party A cannot win here; Only the Lib Dems can stop Party B in this constituency”, the identities of parties A & B of course being switchable according to the realities on the ground. The abhorrence of tactical voting seems to have been lost in all this. The idea that people feel forced to vote for someone they don’t support merely to prevent someone else winning who they think is even worse should be anathema to anyone who believes in popular representation. Why can’t my vote for a party in Newcastle be pooled with that of a fellow-supporter on the South coast, both of us safe in the knowledge that our votes will not be wasted?

The Lib Dems appear to be about to pass on their status as the national party of tactical voters to UKIP anyway. Despite their manifest failures in government, the Lib Dems at least attempt to position themselves between Labour and Conservatives and so by default are a lesser evil than the other of the 3 to supporters stranded in an unwinnable seat for their party of choice. UKIP by contrast set themselves to the right of the Tories. I just can’t see Labour supporters voting en masse for UKIP in marginals ( though some will of course), especially when they have already stated they’ll support a minority Tory government in return for concessions.

It’s a staple of political strategy that 35% or so of the vote would be sufficient for Labour to gain an overall majority, not much more than that for the Tories to do the same. Could it be that if tactical voting no longer took place, not only would the vote of the 3rd party be reduced, but that of Labour & Conservatives as well? People who were disillusioned with the traditional party of left or right would no longer feel the need to vote for them rather than risk the other winning. Minor parties could be expected to hold the major party of their side of the debate to account in  coalition government. Unlike the Lib Dems (who may be wiped from the political scene next time) they’d be sharing power with a dominant partner whose broad programme wasn’t too far from their own. It’s a vision of fragmentation, yes, but one of political engagement too, where people vote for parties they agree with and gain outcomes they approve of. It can only be achieved by ditching our electoral system. The self-interest inherent in the major parties wishing to maintain the status quo means they cannot be left to decide on what will happen. The only acceptable ongoing process would be for an independent body to decide on options for changes to the electoral system, and then put it to the nation. Maybe they can debate that on TV.

The Smokescreen of Legality

David Cameron has recalled Parliament, to meet on Friday on the question of whether to take part in the bombing of ISIS/ISIL forces in Iraq by a US-led gang of nations. Ed Miliband, leader of the Opposition, has indicated that the Labour party will support UK forces involvement in bombing raids on Iraq, though not yet in Syria where the terror group are also heavily involved.

Miliband has apparently stated that he requires a resolution to be tabled at the UN Security Council approving this, but by the most tortuous of logical tricks neither do Labour require that resolution to actually pass a vote. Chief in Miliband’s reasoning appears to be the legality of such a move therefore, or rather the appearance of it. Miliband deserves credit for his brave and principled stance a year ago on refusing to allow the bombing of Assad in Syria but this bears all the hallmarks of the worst of the buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A case is being constructed and so long as everything bears the superficial appearance of legality, the actual legality is neither here nor there. Just as then, when dodgy dossiers were tweaked and false claims made of impending threats to make an aggressive attack appear legal, we’re being fed the existence of a UN resolution as enough to satisfy the requirements of law, whether or not the UN actually vote for it or not.

Miliband’s derailing of last year’s rush to war in Syria presents him with a problem now. Hugh Robertson MP, a foreign office minister at the time of that vote in 2013, was vocal today in claiming that not attacking Assad then was a mistake. He claimed that we appeared weak in not attacking and that Assad took advantage of the reprieve to wipe out moderate opponents, which in turn left a space for ISIS/ISIL to fill. So by this reasoning Miliband was directly responsible for the rise of ISIS/ISIL in the region. Ignore for a moment that this is an alternate reality version of events. It’s clear that if Miliband doesn’t support this attack he is in danger of being painted as having the attribute considered most contemptible for any national leader: pacifism.

Part of the constructed justification is sought in the fact that the Iraqi government have requested military assistance from the UK and others, which supposedly means that no UN resolution is required anyway. It’s an interesting premise. It’ll be even more interesting to see if it still applies the next time Bahrain, for instance, invite intervention by the Saudi military to suppress internal protesters who the Bahrain government feel threaten their position.

Another justification is if there is a humanitarian emergency, and if that is so then no UN resolution is required. This is by no means tried and tested international law anyway, but it is an unfortunate fact that although there certainly are horrific activities going on in Iraq they are not restricted to one side or the other. This would seem to prevent intervention on this basis unless it is to halt the fighting altogether rather than to wipe out one of the combatant parties which seems to be the proposed purpose that MPs will be voting on soon.

The reason Miliband is shying away from approving an attack on Syria as well as Iraq is that Bashar-al-Assad has not asked for help from anyone as yet. It’s inconvenient to point out right now that it was Assad who would have been destroyed by a western attack last year. Now it seems his government must be preserved by military intervention if necessary. In Geoffrey Robertson QC’s piece in the Independent linked above, he justifies the air strikes already delivered there by the US by saying that the Syrian state

“…has not complained and its consent to the attack on its most dangerous enemy can be inferred”

So not only can we attack by invitation, if that isn’t forthcoming we can do it via our own inferral of the invitation by the state involved. Who knows, perhaps Assad is wary of inviting the West into his country knowing as he does that there is no guarantee those forces would also leave on his request, and would rather fight his own battles?

In none of this is morality considered, what is right. Our nation has no justification for military intervention in another nation unless the community of nations agree collectively that it has to happen. Syria’s status as a Russian client is frequently listed as reason why the West shouldn’t rely on a vote at the UN, but surely this is the whole point of the veto. It ensures that one bloc cannot override another and only when all sides agree are the ultimate sanctions applied. The US are not the world’s policeman, and nor are we. Nor are either a contracting air force available to human rights abusers to enable them to wipe out opposition. We would all do well to remember that.

Jump to the Next Roof

Look at me and you’ll see
my days summed until now;
Bumped and bruised and cut and burned
but not quite beaten down.

Blue Eyes said he’d few regrets;
he should have thought some more.
Anyone who says they’ve none’s
not lived or thought at all.

Could have done so much more
I could have changed the world
Instead I stand and watch and seethe
and still my flag is furled.

An immaculate machine is sorry to behold;
Built to serve a purpose and not just to be sold.
Don’t you do what I did and get swallowed by the herd
You can fly above them, be your own rebellious bird.

Never tried to reconcile
my thoughts and words and acts;
talk is cheap, it makes me weep
I let this come to pass.

My life isn’t over
I wasted lots of years
Let myself be lazy
I didn’t face my fears.

I just got distracted
it’s easier in truth;
if you never see the gap
you won’t jump to the next roof.

When you make your choices, remember who you are,
if you wander off your path make sure you don’t go far.
They will try to scare you, so your vision’s blurred,
but they can’t tell you what to do, you rebellious bird.

Tick Tock

“Until I’m told otherwise I’ll continue to prepare the team.” For someone who fancies himself as a student of motivational techniques, Alan Pardew’s post-match comment after the bleakly encouragement-free hammering by Southampton last weekend was noticeably lacking in Churchillian defiance. These aren’t the words of a man about to fight to the very last. They’re those of a condemned man ordering a final meal while staring at the gallows through the barred window of his cell. There’s resignation in it if not a formal one to his boss. Pardew knows he can’t recover this time and even if he won’t resign, he is on borrowed time in his job.

Despite the insistence of mainly national newspaper journalists that Pardew is still able to turn Newcastle around even at this stage of his time in charge, the puzzling thing for me is how he’s hung on so long. He could conceivably have been sacked 4 times already in just under 4 years in the job. After finishing 5th in 2011/2012, Newcastle only secured safety from relegation with a single game to play the following season. Then last year amid an unprecedented bad run of form Pardew headbutted an opposition player during a game. That bad form in which Newcastle gained the same number of points after Boxing Day as last-place Cardiff City continued to the end of the season and should have seen Pardew relieved of his post despite finishing in a mid-table position. Finally after a summer whose recruitment had pleased him, Newcastle find themselves bottom after 4 games and with the team playing in exactly the same way and with the same lack of effectiveness as at any time during those 9 months of continuous relegation form. Results would seem to hint at a need for change, if at the very least in the team’s approach but Pardew is demonstrably either unwilling or unable to achieve that change. The change must therefore be in the man in charge and the sooner the better.

None of this means a change in manager is certain any time soon of course. Nobody knows at the best of times what Mike Ashley is likely to do and these times are anything but that. Ashley has a track record of doing things guaranteed to upset the fanbase. I don’t know if that is deliberate from someone on record as being partial to a little conflict, but it does feel like it. Hanging onto Pardew as long as he possibly can would satisfy any vindictive urge as well as one to be loyal to his appointment, and also the falsest of all logical constructs at Newcastle, the wish to maintain managerial stability at a club in free fall with a manager patently unable to do the job. Suffice to say that Ashley’s relationship with the press is so bad that we won’t find out Pardew has gone until it’s already happened. For this and other reasons I also don’t believe the recent assertion that Ashley won’t sell up until at least the end of next season. If someone offered the right price the club would be for sale. Ashley was saddled himself with a newly-appointed manager he didn’t want when he bought Newcastle. For all we know he could be involved in the late stages of a sale and doesn’t want to appoint a new manager to avoid that scenario. Yes, not likely, but you never know.

When the inevitable happens, who might take over? Not a single one of Ashley’s appointments as manager could have been seen coming. Keegan, Kinnear, Hughton and Pardew were all what might be called left-field choices. So although there are plenty of capable managers who could do a job here and who would be delighted to do so, speculation is futile. It’s strange to note that the growing popularity of changing manager among fans isn’t in any way due to the visible availability of a popular choice as successor, but due to the increasing sense that fewer and fewer managers could do a worse job than the current incumbent. Maybe Pardew will survive until he’s officially the worst man possible for the job. Which brings me back to those opinion-formers of the national press who are working so hard to boost Pardew’s chances of remaining. I’m reminded of an argument used when discussing Scotland’s independence referendum, that if the Scots were already independent and were offered what they currently have, they would have to be mad to vote for that. Similarly, remembering all those dire statistics of the team’s performance under Pardew over the past 2 years (aside from last November and December), if Newcastle were looking to replace another manager right now they would not even consider employing Pardew bearing that recent record in mind. The question must therefore be asked, why should they retain his services in the current situation?

John Carver’s reported run-in with fans at St Mary’s before the match on Saturday could I suppose be construed as admirable in its demonstration of loyalty to his colleague. I don’t subscribe to that view myself. Whatever his views in private, and I have little doubt that many in football feel nothing but utter contempt towards the opinions of fans and their right to express them, he really should have kept his thoughts to himself. There is only one direction someone is travelling who gets involved in spats with fans and that is out of the club. As Pardew and Carver are about to find out, it is impossible to do your job coaching a football team on match day when the crowd are baying for your blood. For once the fans might not actually be blameless in a bad performance, but it’s not the paying customers who’ll be sacrificed to solve the problem. The coming weekend’s home match against Hull City is indeed set up to be an angry affair but whether it will be the end of manager and coaches, again, is anyone’s guess. How long will Mike Ashley put up with it if this happens every home game from now on? Pardew was saved by the bell when the home season ended with the final whistle against Cardiff last May. This time he is on the ropes early and there are the full 3 minutes of the round remaining to survive, or at least 17 home fixtures to the season’s end anyway. Again I’m not convinced by assertions that Ashley will be unmoved by fan protests, at the thickness of his skin. I remember previous efforts piercing that skin fairly quickly. A single home game’s protest against Hull following Keegan’s resignation almost exactly 6 years ago in 2008 was enough for Ashley to put the club up for sale, though that sale was never in the end achieved.

Either way, be it next week or Christmas, Pardew will go. The question then will be about whoever takes over. There are those among Newcastle’s fans who are proud to broadcast that they were against Pardew from the first minute, that they saw through him. I don’t see that as a badge of honour however. Wrapped up in their statement is security against debate. Time has proven them right, there can be no argument in his favour. Far be it from me to stand his corner, but that point of view ignores the sense I have for one that he has become a dead loss; he wasn’t always that. I remember him being an upgrade on Chris Hughton, a (don’t laugh) slightly more attacking outlook providing that advantage. The 5th-place finish, for all it’s now derided as a fluke, was a genuinely impressive achievement. He couldn’t follow it up though, and reverted to the type we’d seen before at West Ham: falling out with his most talented players, and overseeing a side which slowly and surely had its spark damped down. When the new manager is appointed, surely we have to acknowledge whatever small triumphs arise, even if we aren’t in favour of them being in charge. I’ve said this before but it bears saying again: if we don’t give credit where it’s due then we can’t be surprised by our opinion being ignored or ridiculed when we’re eventually critical of their failings.

Give a Little Bit

A Premier League manager gave a masterclass in man-management this week. He dealt with two problem players and came up with solutions that were in the best interests of everybody involved. One was a wayward talent, a creative force who has been criticised for a lack of application, of being lazy even, and who splits opinion amongst his club’s fans. The other was a player with a long-running grievance over non-selection which had meant the breakdown of the relationship between player and manager. Unfortunately for  fans of Newcastle United I’m not talking about Alan Pardew, Hatem Ben Arfa and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, but Neil Warnock, new manager of Crystal Palace, and his players Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon.

On taking up his post last week, one of the first things Warnock did was arrange a loan from Manchester United of former Palace player Zaha. Zaha had hardly set Manchester on fire in his time there so far and had an underwhelming time on loan at Cardiff last season culminating in the kind of uninterested display we witnessed at St James Park in our last home game of 13/14. Responding to the many criticisms of Zaha, Warnock stated that the impression of the player as lazy was a superficial one, in fact his attitude had been ‘fantastic’ and that his creativity could provide a much-needed spark to the side. The player came off the bench against Newcastle at the weekend, looked dangerous every time he got the ball and scored a late equaliser to salvage a deserved point for Palace.

Earlier this year, Puncheon had publicly accused Warnock of corruption while the manager of QPR, where at the time Puncheon had been on loan. The situation had deteriorated to the point of threats of legal action against Puncheon for his unsubstantiated claims. On Warnock’s appointment as Palace manager, the most likely outcome seemed to be Puncheon leaving with some haste. However, according to Puncheon the manager had immediately sought a private meeting with him and told him that he would be playing in the Newcastle game, that neither player or manager were bigger than their club, and that they should forget the past. Puncheon was Palace’s stand-out player last year in avoiding the drop under Tony Pulis and Warnock will be aware that he would struggle to recruit someone to replace him should he have left. Puncheon was excellent on Saturday,  skilful and energetic in attack, strong and committed in defence. Getting him on-side was vital to Palace’s prospects for having a good season and Warnock did what he had to do. I still don’t like him but he could hardly have had a better first week in his new job, and it is all down to skilful man-management.

Contrast that with the actions of Alan Pardew over the last few months. Certain elements of the situations at Palace and Newcastle are very similar. Ben Arfa, like Zaha, is perceived as lazy and unreliable. His relationship with Pardew had become poisonous after being frozen out of the first-team and a rumoured bust-up between the two, much like Puncheon. Newcastle look leaden, pedestrian in their play at the moment and someone with the talents of Ben Arfa motivated and pulling in the same direction as the rest of the team could have made a real difference. Someone needed to remember what Warnock had, that the club was bigger than personal differences, but instead of offering an olive branch Pardew chose to perpetuate their bust up. Moving Ben Arfa on to a probable rival makes little sense other than to strengthen Pardew’s own position at the club by removing a dissenting voice. Yanga-Mbiwa too hadn’t had a sniff of the first team for some time and wanted to cut his losses and get out, we are led to believe by newspaper reports. Again, Newcastle were desperate for experienced cover at centre-half but instead of trying to reintegrate him into the squad, to persuade him he had a future here, Pardew chose to cut him out and send him on loan. If it’s true that Newcastle are still paying 80% of his wages then this one makes even less sense than Ben Arfa’s loan. Newcastle gain virtually no benefit from the deal. Roma have an option to buy, so there’s obviously no intention of getting him back. Top-class match practice is not the reason he’s gone, nor is reducing the wage bill.

Pardew evidently didn’t rate either player enough to make it worthwhile to bend a little and bring either back into the fold. He’s the manager of course and is paid to make those kind of decisions. However I refuse to believe that he thinks either is worthless. He must know there are situations when both would be useful to have around. Though Ben Arfa obviously isn’t blameless for what has happened, he is also always capable of a good day on the pitch nevertheless. Pardew ‘s ego means he’s reluctant to look small by allowing Ben Arfa to criticise him and stay in the team, he doesn’t want to let him win. Conversely, just like Warnock did I think he’d appear a bigger man had he done so but that’s neither here nor there. Yanga-Mbiwa in particular is a French title-winning captain and international, who has moved to one of the top teams in Serie A to play in the Champions League, replacing a £20m player in Mehdi Benatia who has just moved to the European Champions Bayern Munich. Try and think of a time he played a couple of games on the trot in his favoured position of centre back while paired with Mike Williamson, as he seemed unable to form a partnership with Coloccini. Actually I can think of two games that happened last season: NUFC 2 Chelsea 0 followed by Spurs 0 NUFC 1, after which he was dropped for the returning club captain. He simply didn’t get a fair crack of the whip at Newcastle. From  the very off he was played everywhere but at centre-back and I get the impression Pardew never wanted him and never knew what to do with him. Rather than not rating him at all though, getting rid of him enables Pardew to make a point in a power game he may feel he is playing with Graham Carr. In Pardew’s mind, Carr recommended the signing and moving him on now enables him to say the player wasn’t a success here and wasn’t suited to the Premier League.  He is telling Mike Ashley Carr is not infallible and that Pardew is not merely a coach for  the players Carr buys. It suits Pardew to get both out and if that is to the detriment of the club when looking at the larger picture then so be it.

Papering Over the Cracks

This may sound a strange thing to say, but as a Newcastle United fan I can’t find it in myself to be too upset at the injury-time equaliser scored by Crystal Palace today which denied the Magpies their first win of the season. A win would’ve papered over the cracks. This was Newcastle’s worst performance of the season so far, but victory would’ve meant people forgot that. I’d rather they’d held out for the 3 points, but if they had it would’ve been unjustified. Palace were woeful but so were Newcastle. Two sides completely incapable of defending, and both also unable to take advantage of the other team’s weakness. Unable to defend, unable to attack effectively. That is a damning judgement as it’s a recipe for disaster for a football team, but it’s one I’m closer to making with each passing game.

We’re still only four games into the season now but I’ve seen nothing that makes me think things are improving. We provide no kind of service at all to an isolated target man, the identity of whom doesn’t matter as Pele at his peak wouldn’t have notched for us yet. We have players in the side who seem to be there as placeholders to provide some kind of structure. I’m all for having a good shape to the side but Sissoko and Gouffran offer precisely nothing when we have the ball. While Gouffran just seems to have given up on the concept of attacking, Sissoko isn’t technically good enough. He can’t pass, can’t control it, and if there’s anyone between him and the goal he can’t run with the ball either. I speak on this with some authority, I’ve seen both Wayne Fereday and Franz Carr play for Newcastle so I know a player who can run at a speed faster than he’s able to keep control of the ball when I see one. Gouffran of course is in the team because he helps his full back and it seems nothing else is required. The thought occurs to me, and many of you may curse me for uttering words that will sound like a 24-gun salute to the most perfect of visions in Pardew’s ears, but why not play two full backs on each flank in that case?  I had hoped that the introduction of Siem de Jong would provide a bit more of a link with Riviere. Incidentally, every time the ball goes somewhere near Riviere the Neil Young song “Oh Lonesome Me” plays in my head. There’s a plaintive harmonica line in the song which is a fitting soundtrack to his evident need of a friend. Disappointingly, de Jong looked just as isolated. He too struggled to get in the game. Maybe he was short of fitness but that is clutching at straws in terms of hope for the coming weeks. The two of them on the same pitch but unable to connect with the rest of the team or each other can perhaps be best summed up by this Matthew Arnold poem:

YES! in the sea of life enisl’d,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.

That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots. Janmaat was once again excellent, and Anita was impressive at right-back too when he replaced his fellow Dutchman there. Rolando Aarons made a huge difference to the team when he came on. I’m wary of relying on him too much over the coming months but it’d seem a no-brainer to pick him in a starting 11 soon.

As flat as we were today, we played in exactly the same way from first minute to 97th so far as I could make out. That’s the same way we’ve approached every game this season. I’d accepted we’d struggle to get a toehold in the game against Man City , and so it proved. You can also understand going into away games with a view to not throwing too much forward. Newcastle did that last weekend at Villa. But today, against a side who with all due respect will be aiming to survive the season, we looked to have no more cutting edge or ideas in the final third despite scoring the 3 goals.

So winning today would have been papering over the cracks alright. Maybe that third Palace goal will persuade Newcastle to sign a striker between now and Monday, not that another striker will solve all our problems. Up til now we’ve created chances without being able to put them away. Today there just weren’t the chances and that is a sign of a side going backwards, metaphorically and literally. But the cracks being papered over weren’t just with the team, they were with the manager. Alan Pardew decides how the team plays and whatever he’s telling them it isn’t working. He didn’t change formation or the strength of attacking outlook today despite that. He either thinks that the plan actually is working, that this is what he wants the team to be like, to scrape draws and the odd win and limp to his shining vision of 48 points, or he’s run out of ideas on how to change it. Either way, he is a busted flush as Newcastle manager. His West Ham career ended the same way, unable to score and refusing to play his most talented players seemingly to spite himself. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? He survived last season purely because we were safe from relegation very early on. The moment Mike Ashley gets a sniff that Newcastle are in danger of relegation Pardew will be gone and on this form that could be sooner than people think.

Here We Go Again

Yesterday’s game v Man City ended up as many had suspected; with the visitors proving just a touch too good for Alan Pardew’s new-look side. Newcastle competed well and had their fair share of good passages of play but the champions had a cutting edge when it mattered and Newcastle did not. That’s why they’re the champions and we’re nowhere near it. It was encouraging that Newcastle created at least as many chances as City did but their forwards were of a higher calibre than ours. That should be tempered also with a little realism. While Newcastle looked to have a fairly well-balanced look to their side and performed probably as well as could have been hoped, City looked to be playing well within themselves. They seemed very comfortable, especially after taking the lead, and gave the impression they could have stepped up a gear if Newcastle had managed to get a goal.

Newcastle seemed to spring to life with the introduction of Ayoze Perez for the last ten minutes, and Rolando Aarons a little prior to that. Both showed a lot of promise but it also coincided with Newcastle finally slipping off their leash of caution and getting more men forward generally. No doubt the comfortable nature of City’s afternoon was also heavily influenced by Newcastle always being worried about conceding a second and never really chasing the game until quite late on. When Newcastle did push on of course City did eventually wrap up the result with a late goal by Aguero, so you might say that caution was warranted. However an equaliser was never coming until that late flurry, which would have meant defeat anyway, so it could equally be said that Newcastle didn’t really have much to lose and may as well have risked a more attacking outlook a little earlier. Emmanuel Riviere in particular had a thankless task trying to hold the ball up while being hopelessly isolated and outnumbered for most of the afternoon. I’d like to see him again with a bit more support from his team-mates, or even (whisper it) a second striker alongside him.

On the subject of the new signings, I think it’s worth saying that Lee Charnley has proved a few people wrong over the summer, myself included. I still think he got the job on the basis of there being no-one else left standing at the club but if his job was to sign some players from a list provided by the football staff within the given budget then no-one can justifiably say he’s been a failure. This is especially true in comparison to those who’ve gone before him in his role, with United having failed to sign a first-teamer for some time before his appointment.

Of course, it still hasn’t been the perfect summer for all that. Not bad by the measure of most close seasons, but as already mentioned Newcastle will need more of a goal threat than they displayed at the weekend. It’ll be a while before Newcastle come up against such a solid, well-organised defence again though, so it’s hard to tell how desperate they should be at this stage. Facundo Ferreyra has yet to come in and I’ve read encouraging reports on him so maybe he’ll make a difference if that’s needed. Potential and promise are all very well however, but at some stage soon that has to translate into goals. Without an experienced reliable goalscorer Newcastle simply cannot afford to wait two years or however long it takes for flashes of potential to turn into end product. If after a few more games against what will be lesser opposition compared to Man City Newcastle are still failing to score, failing even to have shots on target, then fans will have real cause for concern. I’ve seen it written that a lack of desire on the club’s part to secure a headline striker will be the difference between pushing on for the top 6 or rattling around in mid-table, but I don’t agree with that assessment. An ongoing lack of goals will begin to heap pressure on not just inexperienced but very young strikers which is liable to make a tough situation worse as it affects their confidence and form. A team that doesn’t score doesn’t win and that is a recipe for a bottom-half struggle. It’s imperative that Newcastle get some goals quickly, whether from their young strikers or through the midfield chipping in their share, and some points on the board too, before any lingering doubts turn into a crisis.

WSC match preview NUFC v Man City 17/08/14

Only at kickoff on Sunday afternoon will we discover which Newcastle team turns up for their first game of the season. One is the side which was 6th and only 3 points behind eventual runners-up Liverpool following the Boxing Day fixtures last season. The other is the one which failed to score in 13 of the remaining 20 games and lost 14 of them. Alan Pardew seems unsure on what to expect too. Only two weeks ago he’d expressed hope Newcastle could challenge as closely as possible for the top 4. Then in the week leading up to the opening Premier League fixtures he stated achieving a final tally of 48 points, 1 less than last year’s, would be a good season. Hopefully if they reach that target early they won’t lock up the ground and head for the beach like they did last season after hitting 46 points in late March, after which their post-xmas form staggeringly dipped even further in suffering 7 defeats from the last 8 games….

Read more at the When Saturday Comes website

Access All Areas

In the minutes to February’s Fans Forum meeting a reference is made to the issue of media access packages being raised. The issue referred to is that of the club wanting media organizations to pay for different levels of access to club staff; the more you pay, the more extensive and more exclusive the access. The answer as listed in the minutes was an unequivocal denial:

“The Club stated that the newspaper story claiming it had written to media with a suite of packages was not true. Written media are still permitted access in line with PL rules; however the Club’s primary focus is on enhancing the mutually beneficial relationships it has with those who contribute to the Club commercially, including BBC Radio Newcastle and rights-holder broadcasters such as Sky Sports.”

That would seem to be the end of the story, wouldn’t it? The original newspaper story was not true. It’s there in black and white. But look at the denial again. The club have actually only denied the physical act of writing to media companies suggesting such a plan. I don’t of course suggest that denial is false, just that there are other possibilities not covered by it.

Let’s look at what has happened this season in the club’s relationship with the press. As stated in the Forum minutes already mentioned they are still allowed access in line with Premier League rules. This means they can go to the manager’s pre- and post-match press conferences and get an interview with a player after a game. The press used to get a lot more access, especially as regards player interviews. So access for the written media has been scaled back considerably, even if you’re not on the ever-lengthening list of those subject to bans from the stadium. ( On the subject of stadium bans it’s amusing to note that for 3 games in March a sizeable section of the press pack and Alan Pardew himself were all unable to enter the stadium, while Mike Ashley and some seriously disillusioned players felt the need to turn up. Pretty much everyone ended up somewhere they didn’t want to be. ) Also as stated in the quoted part of the Forum minutes, the club freely admit to concentrating on the needs of financial contributors to the club in the media. Local radio and Sky Sports fall in this category as they say but it’s certainly still possible that the club were seeking those in the written media to contribute, despite the incomplete denial in the Forum. It could still be that the bans and the general scaling back of access for the written press were part of a strategy to persuade someone in that sector to pay to be a media partner of the club, either official or unofficial, in order to gain enhanced interview access.

The Forum denial could be a genuine attempt to give out information. The club could be trying to make the fans aware that no attempt has been made to sell media access to players. But the evidence of the press bans and the scaling back of print media access in conjunction with the club’s own admission of wishing to concentrate on those paying for access points towards something else. The denial appears to have been another instance of the increasing levels of obfuscation employed by the club, in actual fact a cleverly phrased attempt to throw people off the scent. It’s a statement which at first seems to deny something outright but upon closer inspection only denies a very specific aspect of the issue, and a relatively unimportant one at that.

Making it more difficult for the press to gain information about the club is the main method of drawing a veil over what is going on internally. Mike Ashley is famously reluctant to relinquish his own personal privacy and perhaps the corporate attitude is an extension of that. Of course, for any company there’s a trade-off between limiting what they want the public to know about their operations and gaining positive publicity for themselves. The Fans Forum is the main response of Newcastle United to accusations that their communications haven’t been good enough, their attempt at achieving the trade-off they desire. Despite their desire to control the information supply though, they are so poor at it that every single Fans Forum meeting has provided either genuine revelation or confirmation of previously only suspected uncomfortable truths.

If Mike Ashley doesn’t see what the club gains from providing stories to the papers, that the dependency so far as he’s concerned is one way, then he may of course have a point. Their business model relies on football stories direct from Newcastle United, particularly the local papers, in a way that’s not true in reverse or not at the moment anyway. When you are close to selling out the stadium every game anyway then the benefits of drumming up interest in the team are hard to quantify. It’s a short-sighted attitude at best though. Some day the club may need the exposure and they won’t be able to buy it. Fans like to read about their team too. There’s a mutually beneficial relationship between club and press, but to value it you’ve got to accept that the needs of fans have some importance, and that’s not something Ashley will ever agree with.

Marches & Media

In case you’re unaware, the People’s Assembly held a March against Austerity through London at the weekend. An estimated 50000 people participated and high profile speakers such as Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas MP and Russell Brand addressed the crowd.

Soon after it had begun however, complaints arose from activists and supporters that the march was being ignored by news media, specifically the BBC. There were stories in newspapers and on websites about the march, but they were mostly explaining why the ‘news blackout’ was taking place rather than reporting the event itself. Two in nominally left-leaning titles particularly stood out.

The first, in the New Statesman, claimed marches just aren’t that interesting. People on the street, even in fairly large numbers, do not make for a newsworthy event. You can almost feel the ennui of the author as he states that marches like this happen

..three or four times a year in London alone, usually with the same people carrying the same banners.

Strangely, the reasoning becomes muddled when it’s claimed that actually, there was coverage on the BBC (on the radio mostly apparently). Surely either something’s not newsworthy, or it’s on the news, not both. The piece completely misses the point in other ways too. This wasn’t just another march. It was partially about the perceived lack of coverage of anti-austerity arguments. The march itself started at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House, as if to say “here we are! you have to notice us now…” Of course it might be said that by making the march about the BBC nothing could have been more certain than that the state broadcaster would fail to adequately report criticism of itself. Maybe that’s unwise for a campaign struggling for whatever publicity and recognition it can get. Then again, it’s not like the activities of the People’s Assembly against Austerity troubled the scorers at the BBC much before so why not, when they have nothing to lose? Enshrined in the very premise of the article is that BBC editors just didn’t find the protest interesting, as if there’s nothing wrong with that. Contained within that explanation is also the complaint. It’s not that there is some kind of conspiracy in the newsroom against this campaign. The fact is that most of the people employed by the BBC – and most other news media – tend not to find this sort of thing interesting. They don’t agree politically, they don’t know anyone who thinks the protesters have a point, and just like Willard Foxton who wrote the New Statesman’s piece they are tired of people moaning about an entirely understandable and justified government economic policy. You only get a job by demonstrating you think the right way. So journalists are free to print (or say) what they like, because the people in charge already like what they think. That’s where the bias comes from, where the blackout originates, in the colonisation of the news media by the middle and upper classes, and the concomitant narrow range of political views they are prepared to represent.

The other piece, on the political website Left Foot Forward at least openly states

Media bias is one factor … less because of a deliberate decision to exclude anti-austerity protests, and more because of the class backgrounds of many journalists. …having little invested in the services this government is cutting means that many journalists slip effortlessly into narratives of the cuts being “inevitable” and austerity coming as a consequence of “runaway government spending”

It goes on to explain the other supposed factors. “Protest marches rarely achieve anything”, which is true but that’s no reason not to report on it. England rarely win the World Cup but there’s no lack of column inches on that. There’s more:

This specific argument has been lost… There is no longer a mainstream anti-austerity narrative… The Tories and the Lib Dems are making cuts, Labour are going to make cuts and no one who isn’t is going to get anywhere near power anytime soon. As far as the media is concerned the debate is over.

Again, in a way all true. There isn’t a mainstream anti-austerity narrative if by that you mean none of the three traditional main parties are against it, and the media see those who are as discredited flat-earthers. Undoubtedly this is a factor in the behaviour of the news media, but once again that doesn’t mean this state of affairs is right. The piece mentions polls quoting 42% regarding cuts as good for the economy, with 37% disagreeing. That’s very close to an even split, 37% of people disagreeing with austerity without there being any coverage at all of the arguments against it in the news media, the nation’s main opinion formers. Imagine what those figures would be if there were actually balanced coverage of the arguments.

Where the Left Foot Forward piece discredits itself is in saying the protesters answer to austerity, of taxing the rich, would result in the rich leaving

…the country, taking their businesses, tax revenue and jobs with them. You may profess not to care about such things, but whether you like it or not you still need money to pay for services and the like.

The assumption here being of course that all economic activity is reliant on the rich.

Worse still, it then lets itself down by referencing the Laffer Curve. This theory states that increasing tax rates above a particular level results in lower tax revenue, and is most often used as a justification to reduce higher-rate taxes. Laffer was a member of Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s which cut higher rate income tax to a third of its previous level, ending in US budget deficit quadrupling and government debt tripling. His theory is counter-intuitive and discredited.

It’s indisputable that what our media find interesting doesn’t necessarily result in the coverage we’d wish for. Last week BBC News aired a lengthy segment including several minutes interviewing a political correspondent about a joke – possibly hacked – tweet from Labour HQ offering free owls for everyone. Yet I’m still waiting to see any coverage at all of Labour’s pledge to repeal the Health and Social Care Act for instance, surely of interest to the large numbers worried about the future of the NHS.

The failure of our political parties to provide a choice for voters on austerity and any number of other potentially divisive issues make it easy for the media to claim there is no dissension on these subjects. For the BBC, so desperate to safeguard the licence fee it rebuts criticism of the government rather than risk being accused of bias against it, this is probably something approaching a godsend. Even so, I think it is safe to say that a very large section of the country are opposed to austerity. We should hear their arguments.

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