Things that make me go Grrrrr… No. 1 David Starkey

As promised yesterday (https://alisonmay.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/what-i-read-on-my-holidays/) here is my blog post in which I attempt to make a coherent intelligent link between David Starkey acting like a stupid person and Carol Vorderman reporting on the teaching of maths in school. Here we go.

David Starkey, like pretty much anyone else in the UK who is prepared to generate an opinion on short notice, has been pontificating about the causes of the recent riots and looting across English cities. For reasons, which we will come to, I don’t really want to generate him more noteriety by encouraging you to watch his appearance on Newsnight, but for other reasons, which are also coming, I don’t feel I can rant about his comments without letting you view my primary source material for yourselves, so here’s the iplayer link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b013h14z/Newsnight_12_08_2011/ The bit I’m talking about starts about 13 minutes in.

In his comments on the riots, Starkey opens by referencing Enoch Powell’s famous Rivers of Blood speech, and then comments that “the whites have become black”, before continuing to note that some black people (Starkey cites MP David Lammy) sound white.  After announcing that “the whites have become black”, Starkey goes onto claim that “a particular sort of violent nihilistic gangser culture has become the fashion.” This equating of “black” with “violent” and “nihilistic”, and whiteness with well-spoken respectability, has, not surprisingly, caused some controversy to ensue.

Starkey has form in this area. He has previously described himself as an “all-purpose media tart”, and courted press attention by, amongst other things, describing Scotland, Ireland and Wales as “feeble little” countries on BBC Question Time, and complaining vociferously (and to coincide with his own book being published) about the “feminising” of history. Controversy makes column inches and increases viewing figures, and David Starkey is frequently happy to oblige.

And that’s a problem, particularly with David Starkey, because he doesn’t appear on Newsnight or Question Time captioned as an “all-purpose media tart”, but rather as an “Historian.” That means that Starkey is playing the role of the academic to put across viewpoints which are deeply unacademic. Good academic historians are led by evidence. To draw conclusions evidence should be reliable, read in context and verifyable against other data or documents from the period in question. When pushed by other contributors to cite the evidence for his views in the Newsnight debate, Starkey falls back on a single text message. Really? One text? That’s all you’ve got?

One text message isn’t enough for a conclusion. Without a transcript of other texts sent by the same person in the same time period it’s not really enough to draw academic conclusions about that one person’s attitudes, style of language etc. It doesn’t get you close to the causes of a disparate event, involving hundreds of people across multiple cities. The galling thing is that Starkey knows that. He has a Phd in History. He has had a proper academic training in the handling of evidence. He is not, looking at his qualifications, a stupid man, but he appears to be a man prepared to say stupid things for attention.

A proper academic response to the riots, at this point in time, would probably start, “Well, it’s complicated..” and finish with something about “proper analysis of data from police, courts etc.” And that wouldn’t make particularly interesting television. It also wouldn’t make particularly pithy or headline grabbing public policy. It might, in the longer term, get us to a point where we understood a little bit about what actually happened last week, and what steps might be taken to minimise the risk, and effects, of a recurrence.

And that’s how I get to Carol Vordeman. (Stay with me here people – it will make sense.) The Conservative Party’s Carol Vordeman-led Maths Task Force, reported it’s conclusions earlier this month. The conclusions included suggestions such as making the study of Maths compulsory until age 18, and scrapping the Maths SAT test.

Now, I don’t want to be rude about Ms Vordeman. I have no reason to doubt her personal commitment to the improvement of standards of numeracy across the country. However, I do doubt the motivations of the Tory leadership in appointing her to lead their Maths Task Force. It seems to suggest that there was no-one available in the UK who has more relevant knowledge for this role than the lady who used to do the sums on Countdown. There are, we must logically conclude, no mathmaticians with a specialism in maths-education, no current or former teachers with ideas for reform and improvement in their specialist subject. It sounds unlikely, but why else would Vordeman have been appointed, other than that she was objectively the most qualified person for the job? It can’t possibly be because she is a media friendly face, recognisable to middle-England, and guaranteed a friendly spot on the Daybreak sofa to explain her Task Force’s reforms.

Together these two, not obviously related, news events worry me. Controversy is preferred to consideration; celebrity preferred to expertise. There isn’t a place in the news media or in political debate for those of us whose natural instinct is to think for a while before drawing conclusions. Media moves too quickly. Policies are required to be pithy, headline grabbing and immediate. Thoughtfulness is discouraged, and without thoughtfulness, I think, it’s impossible to achieve understanding. Without understanding a situation how can you draw conclusions, make decisions and plan for the future? Personally, I just don’t think you can.

Finally, just so you can check my sources, in a properly transparent “academic” way, here are some sites that relate to what I’ve written above:

Profile of David Starkey: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article4837679.ece

David Starkey on Question Time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXd5KiKWtVA

David Starkey on feminising history: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/5077505/History-has-been-feminised-says-David-Starkey-as-he-launches-Henry-VIII-series.html

Carol Vordeman on maths in schools: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14437665

And also worth a read is Starkey’s fellow Newsnight guest, Dreda Say Mitchell’s take on the whole affair: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/david-starkey-ethnic-year-zero

And even more finally, I haven’t written a blog explicitly about the recent riots. Mainly that was because there seemed to be an awful lot of opinion already out there, and also because all I really had to say was, “Well, it’s complicated…” but here are a couple of the more considered views I’ve read on the matter:

Peter Oborne in the Telegraph: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peteroborne/100100708/the-moral-decay-of-our-society-is-as-bad-at-the-top-as-the-bottom/

Kevin Sampson in the Guardian (the only writer I’ve seen acknowledge that rioting can be kinda fun for the participants): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/10/liverpool-riots-mob-mayhem?INTCMP=SRCH

Everybody’s talking about… tabloid phone hacking

So, it turns out that some people who work for the News of the World have questionable moral standards. This should not be surprising to anyone by this point in time. Allegations of phone hacking first surfaced in 2005. The paper’s royal editor was jailed for this crime in 2007. In February 2010 the Culture Commitee found that it was “inconceivable” that senior executives at the paper weren’t aware that phone hacking was going on.

Questions still remain about how widespread these practices were, or are, across other newspapers and media. The somewhat muted early response to the story from other print tabloids might suggest that there are skeletons in closets well beyond the News of the World. The Information Commissioner’s report into journalists paying for “private” information cited the Mirror and the Mail as the leading offenders in that area. Confirmation from the Press Association in June 2011 that one of its journalists had been arrested in relation to phone hacking also gives a possible indication of a wider problem in the industry.

But the specific actions of specific papers, morally bankrupt though the increasingly appear to be, actually concern me less than the wider culpability of those who ought to be in a position do something about the mess.

Let’s start with the Press Complaints Commission. In 2009 the PCC looked at new allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, arising from a Guardian article about the problem. They found that there was no evidence of hacking. It was only today, nearly two years later, that the Commission finally acknowledged that they could no longer stand by that conclusion. Today’s statement also noted that the recent admission that Milly Dowler’s voicemail was hacked “undermined the assurances” given to the Commission by News International. Well, yes. But it also raises questions about the PCC’s investigation. Did it simply take the form of asking News International whether they did phone hacking, and nodding politely when the answer was slightly shifty “No sir. Course not sir. Didn’t do it. You can’t prove anything”?

That’s ok though. The PCC is a self-regulatory body for the print media, and there are always limitations to self-regulation in any industry. In this one the limitations of self-regulation have to be balanced against the value of a free press. And in the case of phone-hacking a criminal act has occured, so the primary investigatory responsibility, and power, lie not the with PCC, but with the police.  And here’s where it gets really shady. Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World and now Chief Executive of News International, admitted in evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the Press & Privacy in 2003, that the News of the World had, on occasion, paid police officers for information. She later qualified this statement in a letter to the Inquiry.

The Met’s initial 2005 investigation into phone hacking led to the convictions of a private investigator and one News of the World journalist. No further action was deemed necessary by the police or the CPS. No evidence of hacking beyond the specific offences in the trial was presented by the CPS to any court. The matter was simply not treated as a priority. At best, that smacks of an attitude that perceives criminal acts by well-paid powerful organisations and individuals as of limited importance. Alternatively, it suggests a police force which is unwilling or incapable of thoroughly investigating powerful, and potentially unco-operative, companies. Even now new revelations about the depth of the wrongdoing at News International seem to come out in terms of “News International have revealed that…”, rather than “the police have discovered that…” It rather makes you wonder who is really in charge of the current investigation.

The police are still not the final line of defence. Ultimately, political pressure could have lit a fire under the police investigation or sanctioned a specific inquiry into phone hacking in the media. Until yesterday that didn’t look likely. Why not? It’s very easy to lay the blame squarely at David Cameron’s door. He employed one former News of the World editor, and still seems unable to accept that that may have been unwise. He is also close friends with Rebekah Brooks. The image of cronyism at the highest level in British politics remains strong, and Cameron should be held accountable for his judgements in who he hires and who he chooses to call a friend.

The problem goes deeper than that though. At present the Murdoch owned News International already control approximately 1/3 of the UK newspaper market. Murdoch also owns 39% of BSkyB and is in the process of attempting to purchase the remaining 61% to make the company wholly owned by News Corp. The political influence of the Murdoch papers is hard to quantify. Successive editors have claimed that they don’t decide election results, they simply follow the public mood very closely. My suspicion is that those editors don’t really believe that version, and, more importantly, politicians don’t believe it either. Since the 1980s Rupert Murdoch and his organisation have become untouchable by leading politicians. Courting those papers has come to be seen as a prerequisite for political success. Unfortunately, it now appears that those papers have been harbouring a contagion at their heart, and politicians are discovering that if you’re prepared to sleep with the enemy, you’re likely to get contaminated by their germs.

How the current controversy over phone hacking, and now paying police for information, pans out may well tell us something about the current state of News Corp’s influence in the UK. If they come out of the other side retaining their market share, luring back those advertisers who are currently distancing themselves from News of the World, and, most importantly, owning BSkyB outright, we will know, that for now at least, traditional bonds of power, influence and cronyism are still strong forces. If they don’t, if the takeover of BSkyB is ultimately blocked, if the News of the World suffers a long-term dip in readership and advertising revenue, then we will know that the sands have shifted, slightly but significantly, around us.

Perhaps, at that point, we might conclude that new media, online news, and social networks really are starting to undermine the accepted order. Misleading stories and misdirections in the mainstream press are becoming easier to challenge, when any Tom, Dick or Alison can write their own version and send it out into the world. With 140 characters as our weapon of choice, we might just all be headline writers now.

Everyone’s talking about superinjunctions…

.. and so I thought I’d make a rare attempt at topicality and join in. Today, Ryan Giggs, the Twitterati’s posterboy for court ordered privacy, was named in the House of Commons (by veteran fan of fidelity and monogamy John Hemmings MP), and so the worst kept secret since Adrian Mole’s diary is officially out. Ryan Giggs (out of Manchester United and some early noughties trainer adverts) took out an injunction to prevent the press reporting allegations that he had an affair with Imogen Thomas (out of Big Brother and going-out-with-famous-people). The world can now discuss this at length, unrestrained by overly draconian and archaic laws which might interfere with our hard earned personal freedom to talk of many things. Hurrah!

Or maybe not. Let’s unpick this a bit. Firstly the legal principles aren’t archaic at all. Essentially they’re rooted in the Human Rights Act which was enacted in the UK in 1998 and provides “the right to respect for privacy and family life.” So lets deal with any politicians who might be trying to spin a “The judges are out of order. They shouldn’t be making laws..” sort of line. They didn’t. You did. If you failed to think through the implications, then that’s Parliament’s problem to resolve. The role of the judiciary is to interpret and implement the law. Parliamentarians don’t like they way the law is implemented? Fine. Change it.

But don’t pretend that designing a revised law is going to be straightforward. Both the principles and practicalities involved are tricky animals. Privacy, first of all, is a squirmy little beast. Is it an invasion of privacy for papers to print photos of celebs in unflattering beachwear if they’re dressed that way on a public beach? What if the photos are of somone in their own garden and a bit of light treeclimbing is required to get the shot? Are comments made directly to a personal friend, in a public place, private or public? What about comments directed @ a particular user on Twitter? What about comments on facebook which should only be visible to invited friends? What if one of those friends chooses to repeat a comment?

The right to privacy is already balanced in law against the media’s freedom to tell stories that are in “the public interest”, but what information is ultimately in the public interest? The exposure of an affair where the philanderer is a politician trading on his family man image? Probably. The exposure of an affair where the philanderer is a journalist not averse to pressing others about their private lives? Possibly. The exposure of an affair where the philanderer is quite good at kicking a ball whilst running? Sounds like a bit of a stretch to me.

And that’s before we’ve even got to the practicalities of implementing legal parameters around privacy and free speech. The issue of money is a big one in any legal scenario. Taking complex civil court action is expensive. Legal Aid (while it still exists at all  – don’t even get me started on that one) seldoms covers civil litigations, so how do you ensure that the same rights are afforded to the poor and middle income as to the super-rich. One big criticism levelled, perhaps fairly, at many super-injuncters is that their wealth allows them to quash stories that would otherwise have been told freely. At the moment we risk having one level of protection of privacy for the rich, and another for everyone else.

What about the modern interweb? Is chatting to someone on Twitter about a juicy bit of gossip different to chatting to someone in the pub? Can news blackouts in the UK really be sustained over time, if websites based overseas take the view that prosecutions are unlikely to be successful? In that world we end up with two-tier access to news, where internet users have access to a layer of information barred by law to those limited, by finance or circumstance, to mainstream UK media.

Twitter has already demonstrated itself unable (or unwilling) to keep its mouths shut by its response to the Giggs-Thomas affair. Giggs’ name was already available online if you cared to look, but the explosion of online exposure came after his legal team attempted legal action to force Twitter owners to release the details of users who had already named Giggs. At this point Twitter users behaved the way they do when Twitter, as a community, feels its back is against the wall. They ganged up and stuck a collective two fingers up at the legal pressure, by retweeting Giggs’ name with abandon. With even a passing knowledge of Twitter’s short but chatty history, the legal team should have been able to predict this response. Head over to Twitter and search for #Iamspartacus or #twitterjoketrial if you don’t believe me.

So what’s the solution? How do you balance the right to freedom of speech and the importance of a free media against an individual’s right to privacy and family life? Honestly, I’m not sure. My gut feeling is that I don’t have a right to know who Ryan Giggs is sleeping with. I’m not sure that anyone, other than his wife, does. But I think information is in the public interest when major companies are involved in court action alleging they have illegally dumped chemicals on the African coast. Not heard about that one? Surprisingly, it’s not made the same number of column inches as Mr Giggs’ infidelities. You can read more about it here though: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/jan/29/superinjunction-john-terry-trafigura

And I think I’ll draw to a close with a quote from that very Guardian article, which compares the injunction taken out by another premiership footballer (John Terry) with that taken out to prevent the chemical dumping story making the news: “We, and I hope you, believe that superinjunctions are a threat to freedom of speech and serious reporting. But please use the space below to discuss that and not John Terry’s private life. The latter increases the risk of the former.”

And that’s my final point. Hurrah to Twitter for standing shoulder to shoulder with Paul Chambers over the, now infamous, Twitter Joke Trial. Hurrah to social networks for their part in keeping stories like the Trafigura chemical dump in the news. But by tweeting names of individuals involved in affairs or other private indiscretions, I think that we lessen our collective worth. It’s good to be troublesome from time to time, but troublesome with a point, not just troublesome cos it’s fun.