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Inverted Snobbery

The resignation of Emily Thornberry as Shadow Attorney General in response to the storm of outrage following her tweeting a picture of a house, some flags, and a van while on the campaign trail in Rochester and Strood has been widely held up as a sign of Labour being in chaos. Labour may be split on whether she should have lost her job, but the papers are universal in their condemnation of her – and Labour’s – contempt for the working classes. Or should I say the papers and the Tories are universal in their condemnation. Thornberry is the MP for Islington which as we all know is the epicentre of metropolitan

thornberrysnobbery and the consensus of all those right-wing papers and politicians in their concern for the working class is that she was “sneering”. I reproduce an image of the offending tweet here.

 

In contrast to the reported sneering, her only caption is “Image from #Rochester”. Which it unquestionably is. In fact, there is so little information in her words it is effectively a blank canvas, which the whole nation has been able to project their own prejudices onto. The sneering hasn’t come from Thornberry but from everyone else. To accuse her of sneering is to believe there’s something there to sneer at. The flags, the van; the common subtext is that this is someone beneath contempt. Maybe the owner of that van is contemptible but it’s hard to tell just by looking at the picture and she didn’t say so.

 

 

So now Labour is in chaos apparently. This only 1 day after the Tories lost a safe seat and the Lib Dems lost their deposit. But our media know which is the story they wish to concentrate on. In today’s Telegraph David Cameron put the boot in unchallenged:

“Emily Thornberry is one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and aides.

“Effectively what this means is that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party sneers at people who work hard, who are patriotic and love their country. I think that’s completely appalling.”

Let’s just look at the logic behind this and extrapolate it to Mr Cameron’s own party. Forget for a moment that Miliband got Thornberry to resign. It would be reasonable knowing that to think sneering at people who work hard is the last thing Labour approve of. Anyway, by this logic, we could say the entirety of Mr Cameron’s Tory Party is fully behind any of their crackpot utterances which are later disowned. For instance, we could say the Tories all sneer at disabled people and don’t think they are worth paying minimum wage. Though actually, seeing as Lord Freud didn’t get sacked for his faux pas they probably do all think that.

 

Why then did Ed Miliband demand Ms Thornberry’s resignation? I can’t help thinking it’s for putting her head above the parapet. Miliband and Labour know they will be lambasted at every opportunity and the last thing they needed during a by-election was someone giving the papers some material they could use to criticise.

 

Following on from this was a sub-furore when Ed Miliband was asked what he thought when he saw something like Ms Thornberry’s tweet depicted. As part of a longer conversation in which he bemoaned that Ms Thornberry had been disrespectful, he answered in contrast that he felt respect. Pass The Sickbag! How bizarre, they cheeped. He really could not win. What did they expect him to say, “why do those vans all have Ferrari engines in them”? If you are going to trash someone no matter whether they say either of two opposing statements then you aren’t reporting or commenting any more, you’re doing the work of their opponents and by the way subverting the political process while you’re on. No one can make an informed decision if their information is skewed.

 

As if to prove my point the BBC’s Nick Robinson piped up, saying Labour had:

“given the Tory press an alternative narrative…the most extraordinary self-inflicted wound I have seen an opposition party inflict on themselves in many, many years.”

before merrily hammering away on that alternative narrative himself, and in due course inflict some extraordinarily unfair wounding.

 

It becomes clearer every day that our system, our media are rigged. How could anyone look at political events since Thursday morning and conclude that tweet is the main story? They have made it so against all logic and will continue to do Labour down at every opportunity and indeed even when there isn’t one. The political media have become an apparatus of right-wing propaganda. Or is it just that I have only now noticed?

Tweet Nothings

A story for When Saturday Comes magazine from way back in October 2011 on Joey Barton’s underhanded social media-driven PR campaign

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.

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.

My Homebrew Nightmare

My Homebrew Nightmare at Sabotage Times

Chronicle Capitulation to Wonga

A few weeks ago it came to light that the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle’s main local evening paper, had entered into a joint scheme with payday lenders Wonga to provide a £30,000 fund for local sports clubs to apply to for funding. Wonga are Newcastle United’s main sponsors and there’s been some discussion about the rights and wrongs of whether a company with their business model should be sponsoring the club. Even so, the Chronicle seemed to see no conflict of interest in entering such an arrangement with an organisation which was at the centre of controversy about sponsoring an institution so central to the city. That’s a controversy, not to put too fine a point on it, which the Chronicle should be informing and reporting upon to the citizens of Newcastle in a fair, balanced way. That involves examining the issues and providing their readers with the information necessary to understand what’s going on.

The suspicion quickly arose that the Chronicle’s editorial independence may have been compromised, and so it proved. The language used to describe Wonga in the Chronicle’s pages had subtly changed. No more ‘payday lender’, replaced by ‘digital finance company’ in all cases from a few days after the deal, certainly a less harsh description.

Further examination of recent stories provides evidence of the presence of a positive editorial line when printing stories about Wonga. View these two stories covering the same event, a meeting between Wonga PR chiefs, Newcastle United employees and fan representatives on Aug 19th. One is from the Chronicle, one from the Journal.

The Chronicle’s, despite having a picture showing a Citizens Advice Bureau representative and Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah, doesn’t mention them or their contribution to the debate in any way. In 3 main sections, we are told firstly that fans are grateful to Wonga for turning up and secondly that the club are very happy to have Wonga as a sponsor. Finally, there are a series of quotes from the Wonga representatives explaining away their controversial image and concerns about their role as sponsor without ever mentioning what that controversy is about, or what the concerns are.

The Journal story is quite a contrast. From the off it has a completely different tone, while also covering the positive angle on the deal which is the only focus of the Chronicle story. We learn about a strongly-worded attack on the company by Chi Onwurah. There are quotes from Newcastle CAB’s Chief Executive expressing worry about the company’s presence in the city. There’s mention of a question from the floor about fan hostility. The reasons for misgivings about the sponsorship deal are explained clearly and at length, and a long list of prominent organisations who share those misgivings is provided, from the Church of England, MPs, Unite the union, Newcastle City Council, and the Citizens Advice Bureau.

The two stories provide a completely different spin on the same event. What is shocking is that the two papers they appear in are sisters, both owned by Trinity Mirror, the Journal being the morning counterpart to the Chronicle in the evening. Not only are the two papers in the same stable, the two stories were written by the same person, reporter Kate Proctor. The only explanation for the differing slant in the two stories is editorial instruction. Why would the Journal be immune from this? Who knows. It appears to be the case however.

In a piece printed in the Chronicle tonight as a reaction to the recent transfer window, the question is asked of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley how much do you pay the North East Press pack to write nice things about you?” The answer, in Wonga’s case, appears to be £30,000, the amount they provided for the Chronicle’s Wish Sport fund.

Neil Young, Metro Arena Newcastle upon Tyne, 10/06/13

First published in True Faith magazine, Summer 2013.

Do ‘La Bamba’!” Such is life when you are tonight’s support act, Los Lobos. Twenty-five years after the novelty cover hit which broke you into the big time, and all your multi-Grammy award winning success, it’s not the fusion of styles that won all those plaudits which the audience calls for; it’s the novelty hit. Give them credit, they played it eventually, but only briefly before segueing into Northern Soul classic ‘Good Lovin’. I’d be bored after 25 years too.

 

Main event Neil Young, with band Crazy Horse in tow for this tour, evidently has the same problems. His career spans nearly 50 years and interest in playing a greatest hits package clearly faded long ago if it ever existed. With such a long career, it’s inevitable that some fans be disappointed that their particular favourites were omitted, but even so the setlist was a strange one. There are extended jam sessions, and then there are 20-minute versions of “Fuckin’ Up” for instance. Fifteen songs in two and a half hours points to the overblown nature of that being the norm rather than the exception. Only three of those fifteen came from most recent album “Psychedelic Pill” along with another new song, and the earliest played was a Buffalo Springfield number so the entire breadth of his career was covered. However the choices meant that the night came across like an alternate history of Young’s output. If you’d been to every tour he’d ever done no doubt this would be a godsend, with the flipside being that if this was the first time you’d seen him you might be disappointed. The bottom line is you can’t please everyone.

 

Despite Crazy Horse looking like they’re ready for the knacker’s yard, Frank Sampedro for one reminding me of David Puttnam, they’re still an admirably tight and dynamic band. Young’s guitar work is enthralling as ever, pulling off the difficult feat of being musical in tone and excitingly cutting all at the same time. All together, they make an impressive noise. even if as stated earlier some of the songs were dwelled upon rather too much. This is where punk came in nearly forty years ago isn’t it? But as “Hey Hey My My”, puts it, written in response to the possibility of punk making him obsolete, “once you’re gone you can’t come back” and Young just keeps on finding an audience.

The Complete and Utter Ridiculousness of Die Hard 4

Escapism: Yes. Stupid: also Yes.

 

For Sabotage Times

Newcastle United: the Day the Promises Had to Stop

Book Review for When Saturday Comes magazine of Newcastle United: the Day the Promises Had to Stop by Denis Cassidy

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