In which there are still three whole months until the general election

I generally consider myself to be a person who is quite interested in politics. I can usually generate a blog post about an issue of the day if pressured to do so. I have opinions on all sorts of things: page 3 – no; fox hunting – definitely not; same sex marriage – sure, if you want to. But I’m finding that three whole months away from the General Election I already have election fatigue.

I’m feeling, already, as though the bulk of the political news that I read or hear is washing over me like white noise, and, I think, the reason for that is simple – the news, as it is reported, is nebulous. There are precious few actual facts in there to get hold of. Take this story from the BBC as an example. The headline, technically speaking, offers factual information – David Cameron has been challenged about his claim that a new Tory government wouldn’t cut per pupil education funding, but the fact is simply that some people have said some things, and some other people have said other things.

The story itself jumps between announcements about per pupil education funding and announcements about numbers of schools becoming academies – yes those are both to do with education policy, but they are quite distinct issues.  That’s not my problem though. My problem is that essentially the entire article is made of up X said, ‘…’ but Y said, ‘…’.

To be fair, there’s a handy video clip from the Prime Minister’s speech at the top of the article so you can see for yourself a little bit of what he actually announced. That’s good, but watching the clip just makes the article itself look worse. For example, take this paragraph: ‘Mr Cameron, speaking at Kingsmead school in north London, said that every secondary school in this “requires improvement” category would be expected to become an academy.’ Well maybe he did say that at another point in the speech, but in the clip attached to the article he talks about schools that can’t ‘demonstrate the capacity to improve themselves’ – that might not be the same as ‘every school’ at all, or it might just be waffle to obscure the ‘every school’ element. There’s no way of knowing from this article.

This isn’t BBC bashing. I just happen to have picked a BBC article. I could have gone for pretty much any newspaper, tv station or website, because what we have here is a very normal example of current journalism. It’s journalism without the skills, or time, or inclination, or incentive, or possibly backbone, to do very much actual journalistic work. It’s a process that goes something like this:

1) A politician makes a speech. A journalist picks out a few choice quotes, or possibly just accepts the few choice quotes picked out by the party in the accompanying press release.

2) The journalist knows that’s not enough. Their story needs balance, so they add a few quotes from opposition politicians disputing the thing the first politician said.

3) If they’re feeling really dedicated they probably have some notion that they should be looking into the politicians’ claims, so they add another quote from a relevant trade union or academic or random passer by who’s prepared to reckon something.

4) They publish their story.

There’s nothing actually wrong about it, but the process of filtering all those quotes through a professional news reporting organisation hasn’t added anything. There’s nothing that goes above or beyond what the people giving the quotes wanted to say. None of those claims or quotes get checked or probed, because the story is simply the reporting what each of the people quoted said, and it’s definitely true that they said it, so that’s all fine. The problem is that nobody reading these articles actually knows anymore about what is true than before they started reading. If anything, they know less because of all the additional white noise they’re now carrying around in their heads.

Of course we need reporting on what politicians say they’re going to do, and what rival politicians see as the problems with those plans, but the reality is that not everything that is reckoned, even when it’s reckoned by a front bench politician, has equal value. Lots of things fall into the grey area of opinion or projection, but lots of other things don’t. Some things are simply true or not, and without a mainstream media prepared to call anything at all as ‘true’ or ‘false’ it’s left to each of us to filter out the white noise. The danger with that is that the vastness of the range of information and opinion that washes over us leaves us overwhelmed and in a position where, when faced with a ballot paper, it’s very easy to wrinkle our brows and just give up on the whole idea of being able to make any sort of informed choice at all.

So maybe that’s a thing I could do to try to break through my election apathy – my own little mini fact checks right here in Alison Blogville. It’s an idea, anyway.

In which I wonder whether it’s worth going over this same ground again

I was going to blog about the Mail on Sunday’s piece* about Trussell Trust foodbanks that ran this weekend. I was going to point out that their account of a reporter being given food ‘no questions asked’ actually details the range of questions they were asked. I was going to rant a bit about the faux outrage that someone had had more than the usual 3 food parcels per year, as though it’s neither possible nor plausibly justifiable that individual circumstances might fall outside normal expectations. I was going to point out that as an exposé the whole piece is entirely misplaced. The Trussell Trust is a charity – so long as it’s acting legally and within its own constitution it isn’t governed by the need to avoid snivelling outbreaks of faux public offence. I would probably have finished by bemoaning the overall tone of the article – the view of humanity that says ‘these people who are different from me are out to get something, and they much be stopped.’

And at that point I decided to stop myself. Rather than expending anymore mental energy decrying the inhumanity of the Mail on Sunday, I’m going to take another path. I’m going to focus on offering some suggestions for how we might best deal with the Mail’s (and any other papers treading a similar path) spluttering fury in future. Essentially, the Mail (both Daily and on Sunday) is best viewed as an elderly and increasingly confused relative. The modern world scares them, and they’re becoming more and more convinced that the nurses are trying to take their jewelery. From time to time that confusion and disorientation comes out as anger, xenophobia, sexism and racism. The best response to this, given that we are dealing with a confused elderly person probably showing early signs of dementia, is to pat them politely on the hand and continue our conversation as if they’d never said anything at all. We could try to argue, but they won’t understand, and it would probably only add to their increasing paranoia and sense that there is some great rainbow-coloured evil out there that’s out to get them.

So that’s my new resolution, from now on I will view faux outrage clickbait articles in the media with a sort of weary patience. I refuse to get angry, because anger, like agreement, is a response, and it’s a market where any response at all translates into profit. Page hit figures don’t record whether readers were nodding in agreement or rolling their eyes. So instead of doing anger and outrage I shall do happiness and positivity. I shall remember that most people are perfectly pleasant and far too preoccupied with their own lives and families to be interested in hurting anybody elses. I shall remember that most people who use food banks do so because they’re in a really desperate situation and are thankful for whatever help they can access. I shall remember that most people who migrate to this country do so because they want the sort of stability and security that most people who already live here view as fundamental rights, and the accident of being born somewhere on a different side of some ocean shouldn’t remove those rights. And finally I shall remember that the nurses have no interest in stealing my jewelery.

But then, at some point, I’ll trip over some other article in some other rag that presents bile and venom as if they were actual news, and all my good intentions will fall by the wayside and I’ll be ranting on twitter with everyone else. And even though I’ve just established that that is Wrong, it will, in its own way, also be Right, because occasionally you do have to get angry and not turn a blind eye. Sometimes you do have to point out loudly and clearly how completely out of order a particular point of view is. It’s deciding when it’s worth the energy that’s the tricky bit.

 

*The article is here (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2608606/No-ID-no-checks-vouchers-sob-stories-The-truth-shock-food-bank-claims.html). I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to click the link. It’s a click bait article, so if you’re clicking in order to be outraged remember that that’s what the paper’s publisher wants you to do.

In which I am slightly confused by the BBC’s employment practices

So the BBC is having something of a kerfuffle. I think kerfuffle is the right term. Some media outlets would have it that the BBC is in irredeemable crisis, but those are media outlets with short memories (fallout from the Hutton Enquiry anyone?) and lazy typing brains, so their opinions are best stepped over like the slightly muddy puddle that they are. Anyone would think there was some sort of big report on print media ethics coming out soon, that they maybe wanted to distract attention from.

I should probably make plain right now that I’m a big ol’ fan of the BBC. I think public interest broadcasting is massively important. I’m with Mitch Benn on this one (even given the slightly unfortunate reference to Newsnight in line one).

I think that Doctor Who, Only Connect, most of Radio 4 (but not The Archers, never, ever, ever The Archers) and everything ever made involving Brian Cox, Alice Roberts or David Attenborough justify the licence fee in full, making things like decent news coverage an (albeit essential to making democracy work) add-on benefit.

It is unfortunate for the BBC that it finds itself unable to defend itself without being accused of bias, and that the rest of the media sees it as a competitor so is very happy to stoke the flames of any perceived problem or mismanagement. It also seems clear that there were major weaknesses in child protection during the Jimmy Savile years – although it’s not yet clear that those weaknesses were any worse than those exhibited at schools, by the police, within the CPS, and indeed in certain hospitals, during the same period. There have also been, more recent, problems of editorial control on Newsnight, but to generalise from that to a wider damning of the beeb feels a bit baby/bathwater-ish. You know the saying: “Be careful when you throw out babies, that you don’t get rid of the bathwater. Water’s a precious resource, you know. You could use that bathwater on the garden.” Or something along those lines. So, anyway, if you’re looking for some BBC bashing, please move along or scurry down to the bottom and entertain yourselves in the comments.

One thing has particularly caught my attention during the recent kerfuffle though, and that is the BBC’s slightly odd employment practices. I’m not talking about the major odd practices that led to this whole thingummy doo-dah. I’m talking about something else – in fact two something elses.

Firstly, George Entwistle has resigned as Director General of the BBC but is still going to receive a year’s salary. Secondly, Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon, BBC Head of News, Helen Boaden, and Deputy Head of News, Steve Mitchell, have all “stepped aside” during this crisis. What irritates me here, and I do see that it’s really not the biggest issue but it irritates me nonetheless, is the wanton use of euphemism.

In employment law there are basically 4 options:

1. You still work there, which involves regularly turning up, and at least presenting the facade of doing work.

2. You’re suspended on full pay. This is what employers do when they’re investigating a possible disciplinary issue and deciding whether to take further action. They don’t need to start a disciplinary procedure to suspend an employee on full pay, because they’re still meeting their employer’s obligation to hand over money.

3. You resign. That means that you don’t work there anymore because you don’t want to, and, fairly obviously, you don’t get paid anymore.

4. You get sacked. That means that you don’t work there anymore because your employer doesn’t want you to, and you don’t get paid anymore (after whatever notice period you’re entitled to).

So for George Entwistle, if he genuinely resigned, why on earth is he still getting a year’s salary? That hardly sounds like a resignation. That sounds like an offer that any one of us would be insane to refuse. “So you’re saying I don’t have to come in anymore? I don’t have to do any work? But you’re still going to pay me in full for the next 12 months? Er…. sure, OK.”

If he wasn’t pressured into resigning, why give him the cash? It’s not normal to pay someone not to work for you. If he was pressured into resigning, why do it in such an expensive way? Why not just sack the man? If the BBC Trust felt he wasn’t up to the role and had lost the trust of the public and the corporation staff, then that would be a perfectly legal thing to do.

And what’s all this “stepping aside” malarkey? Call a spade a shovel for goodness sake. I’m guessing – and it is just a guess – that those people referred to as having “stepped aside” are suspended pending further investigation, which would be the employer’s decision. Generally, in employment, there isn’t an option where you go to your boss and say, “I’m finding work a tad tricky at the moment. I think I’ll just step aside for a while…” You either quit or you keep working there, unless your employer decides different.

I hope the BBC gets through this kerfuffle, and I’m confident that it will, and I hope that they appoint a new Director General who’s prepared to stand up for the organisation, both externally and internally. That might, on occasion, involve doing decisive things like firing an incompetent, not inviting them to step aside, or paying them excessively to go away without fuss.

Last, but by no means least, let me just squeeze in a tiny little point about David Cameron. David Cameron thinks that the year’s salary paid to George Entwistle is “hard to justify.” I happen to agree with him. However, the man who told Rebekah Brooks to “keep her head up” during the phone-hacking scandal might want to check the solidity of his moral high ground before wading into dhe debate about any other media exec’s pay arrangements. Brooks is now facing criminal charges over phone hacking and, apparently, left News International with a something in the region of £7 million.

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