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The anti-Leveson backlash begins!

March 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Lord Justice LevesonWell, it was only a matter of time.

The tedious, long-running, press-bashing, minor-celeb tufty hunt that is the Leveson Inquiry has finally wrought a backlash.

And leading the charge are the lefty-libertarians at spiked, which has launched The Counter-Leveson Inquiry.

In his article announcing the launch, spiked editor (and Telegraph blogger) Brendan O’Neill notes that ones re-opening the inquiry on Monday, Lord Leveson mention he found ‘publicly expressed concerns’ about the inquiry ‘troubling’.

O’Neill comments:

The most remarkable thing about Leveson’s admission to feeling troubled by public criticisms is that, sadly, there has been very little public criticism of his showtrial of the tabloids. You could count on one hand, or at a stretch two hands, the number of journalists and politicians who have dared to question the right of one judge to marshal celebrities and coppers to the cause of redefining the ethics of the press.

Quite so. There has been the usual drooling over the attacks on the Murdoch tabloids by the more totalitarian-inclined of our “liberal” lickspittle media – The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC etc – but the rest of the mainstream media has generally cowered in the corner, with only the Mail‘s Paul Dacre putting up any semblance of a fight in what is really a kangaroo court.

And it is a kangaroo court. Witnesses line up and grab their allotted 15 minutes of fame – or, the case of faded celebrities and failed politicians, to grab another 15 minutes of celebrity – making whatever allegations fits their agenda of vengeance, outrage, paranoia and shamelessness. There is no forensic cross-examination of these allegations such as would occur in a court of law, either criminal, where the criteria is beyond reasonable count, or civil, where the criteria is the balance of probabilities.

Instead, they are met with gentle questions eliciting their feelings, impressions and thoughts more appropriate for a student counselling session than a formal, quasi-judicial inquiry. For many of the witnesses, this is true nirvana: not only do have a spotlight of a softer, more flattering hue cast upon them, they get a free ego-massage thrown in too.

One troubling aspect of the Levenson inquiry that O’Neill doesn’t comment on in his article – strangely, since it’s one of his hobby-horses – is that by almost solely attacking the tabloids, this is really just another extended prole-bash. The tabloids cater for a sizeable readership who loves celeb gossip; some of the tabs catered to this demand by nefarious means, by illicit phone-hacking or paying cops for tip-offs of celeb shenanigans etc. Of that there’s no doubt.

But hang on: during the Leveson recess, we had the unedifying sight of the usual suspects – the aforementioned Guardian, Independent, BBC etc – drooling over “hacked” documents “proving” that the right-wing US Heartland Institute, which takes a robust anti-man-made global warming line, along with many other activities, was plotting to use the untold millions it gets from Big Oil to foil pro-climate changee scientists by “dissuading teachers from teaching science”.

The fact the central “strategy” document was a crudely cobbled-together fake and that the genuine documents – which were blandly routine meeting reports that hardly showed Heartland wallowing around in Big Oil bucks like Scrooge McDuck – had been obtained by fraud by pro-climate change activist, Peter Gleick, who has since confessed to the phishing, though not to the faking.

That they had tacitly supported and thereby endorsed illegal activities because it suited their news agenda in this instance did not seem to faze then usual suspects. Indeed, the Guardian even ran an extraordinary piece by The Ethics of Climate Change author James Garvey in which he said:

Was Gleick right to lie to expose Heartland and maybe stop it from causing further delay to action on climate change? If his lie has good effects overall – if those who take Heartland’s money to push scepticism are dismissed as shills, if donors pull funding after being exposed in the press – then perhaps on balance he did the right thing. It could go the other way too – maybe he’s undermined confidence in climate scientists. It depends on how this plays out.

So: the ends justifies the means, eh? But only if it’s the Guardian’s ends, it would seem. It certainly doesn’t apply to those filthy red-tops’ ends. Some may call that moral relativism. I call it rank hypocrisy.

But don’t expect such high-minded shenanigans to get even a mention at Leveson. It’s the tabloids which are in the firing line, and while it’s them, the usual suspects will happily cheer the inquiry on.

But O’Neill is surely right to note that whether they are active cheerleaders or cowering curs, mainstream journalists are oblivious to the bonfire which is being built under their feet:

It is alarming that, in a country where the poet John Milton demanded freedom of the press more than 350 years ago, and where many other writers and activists subsequently fought tooth-and-catapult to expel state forces from the worlds of writing and publishing, so many should now acquiesce to an inquiry which gives a judge and his chums the power to tell the media what its morals should be.

O’Neill ends his call to arms with another fiery quote from Milton which I urge you to check out for yourself. Because whatever you might think of their views on other topics (which I myself have a love/hate relationship with), on this issue, the spiked gang is definitely on the side of the angels.

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Cabinet reshuffle – Hey, nonny, nonny!

October 16, 2011 Leave a comment
The Charlbury Morris Dancers

The Charlbury Morris Dancers: A major precedent

Today’s Sunday Telegraph reports:

[Mr Cameron’s reshuffle] was so rushed that [he] promoted ministers from a railway platform surrounded by morris dancers.”

This strikes me as the really important precedent that this Coalition government can offer to generations to come. Instead of bland statements of who’s-in,who’s-out, who’s-sideways written in wince-making politicese, why not rejoice in such announcements and use them to promote those ancient customs of the English, the Northern Irish and the noble Welsh* that the rising brain-numbing American scum-tide of movies, computer games and rap threatens to overwhelm?

The Charlbury Morris Dancers are a first step, and a good one. And I’m sure they deserve the extra income. But why stop there?

Cabinet changes involving LibDem members of the Coalition should be showcased with Dan Leno-style clog dancers accompanied by mass ranks of fiddlers.

Those involving MPs from shipping or fishing port constituencies such as Southhampton, Liverpool, or Portishead could be announced to rollicking sea shanties with jolly jack tars performing the hornpipe.

Similarly, if a little-known MP from the Ridings gets promoted to the heady ranks of Assistant Deputy Under-secretary to the Minister of Scary Monsters (aka the Department of Health), surely such an elevation deserves the “tele-bite” of a spookily emphemeral Kate Bush figure swirling around singing, “It’s meeeea!! Kath-eeaa! Come home!”?

And the resignation – or, better still, sacking – of a detested, incompetent Energy Minister could only be enhanced by a Colliery Brass Band’s triumphant rendition of Gracie Fields’ classic Sally.

I consider this a really important way in which Cameron can make his mark as a Prime Minister of substance in these desperate times. I shall email him immediately. Though I don’t hold out much hope. He never listens to a word I say. Matthew d’Ancona seems to be the only one he listens to these days.

* Eagle-eyed readers will notice the omission of the Scottish here. Purely a deliberate error.

No one died – apart from the NOTW

July 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been amazed by the response to the NOTW hacking scandal and the media’s reply to it.

Apparently there is nothing worse in this world than hacking into the mobile phone of a murdered schoolgirl. Well, maybe I’m not alone in thinking there could be worse things, such as those where people die not from madmen, but stupidity implemented by government and reinforced by an unthinking media, not just on people who live in faraway countries of which we know nothing. Nor the horrible means of death of young schoolgirls in counties which our own common sense (a sense not common, it seems, with our governing nor media classes) tells us is actually pretty uncommon.

But what I mean is the avoidable, commonplace and equally shocking deaths in places we know where our loved ones, our relatives, our neighbours are. And whose deaths are routinely ignored by a stupid, press-release government and a media whose ignorance borders on the mendacious.

Well, it’s time to be a bit callous here but it needs to be said: Milly Dowler was dead, and as much as you may complain about the NOTW’s actions thence, it didn’t make a lot of difference. She was still dead when the NOTW did what it did. And the police weren’t that much closer to finding her killer when the NOTW did what it did. The police hadn’t actually done a lot, though the NOTW had. Sherlock Holmes would understand, even if the editor of the Observer does not.

What I do think makes a lot of difference is the following story, covered by everyone. You may remember it. What I think is interesting is how quickly the usual suspect news outlets have dropped it. I’ve done a google to see where they might have followed it up:

The BBC. Nope.

The Guardian. Whaddyathink?

The Independent. Uh-uh.

Well, I guess in the wonderful Cameroonie world in which we now live, the hacking of a mobile phone of a tragic young murder victim is more important than the deaths of our grandmothers from lack of water – lack of water! – in our state-funded NHS hospitals. But of course you can’t fault our wonderful NHS.

Nor any drop to drink, indeed.

The typography of politics

June 4, 2011 1 comment

A reader alerts me to that rarity: an interesting article in the London Evening Standard.

Londoner’s Diary notes:

Simon Garfield, author of a book on fonts entitled Just My Type, notes that Barack Obama’s success was connected to his choice of letter style. Obama’s campaign used a new typeface called Gotham for the 2008 US election campaign. His challenger John McCain used Optima, often used in branded goods. “That was never going to work as it reminded people of the hygiene aisle in supermarkets.” Garfield noted that Obama’s choice of Gotham has caught on. “I can prove it was a success,” said Garfield. “Because Sarah Palin is using it.”

Well, I will put aside Garfield’s dubious claim that “Obama’s success was connected to his choice of letter style”, other than to note that many of the world’s present and most expensive ills and misunderstandings are due to commentators who wilfully, and often mendaciously, ignore that correlation does not equal causation (yes, I talking about you, George Monbiot. And you, Polly Toynbee. And you, Johann Hari. And you, the UN IPCC).

But as a saddo who loves typography and is a great collector of fonts, I was struck by Garfield’s analogy. Indeed, I can see it opening up an exciting new line of employment, with politicians hiring their own “Typography Special Advisors” to tell them when it is demographically advisable to use Comic Sans, or when a prevalence of ABs demands the use of serif fixed-width uppercase. In these times, anything which creates jobs is to be welcomed, no matter how mind-numbingly useless.

Londoner’s Diary didn’t supply samples of the two fonts used in the US elections. Here’s Gotham, a comparatively new font:

Gotham Bold typeface

Gotham Bold: The typeface of Hopey-Change

Obama poster

Obama: Going gotham

Optima is a font I’ve always had a liking for: it has a certain formality loosened slightly by jauntiness, like that black-sheep uncle who attends a wedding in full morning suit, but murmurs suggestive jokes about the bride, the groom, the vicar and most of the principal guests in your ear throughout the service.

Despite what Garfield maintains, a search of McCain’s campaign posters only turned up a couple of examples of the use of Optima, so I’m not convinced it was ever adopted as his “official” typeface in quite the same way Gotham was Obama’s:

McCain-Palin election poster

McCain and Palin go for the Optima

It’s a friendly, self-assured font, but not exactly one that exudes gravitas or authority. In the US, where they seem to elect everyone who claims a wage from the public purse, it would probably just the ticket for a candidate for the local dog-catcher, but not really the stuff for a presidential wannabe.

But I started thinking: what would be the typefaces best suited to our own political leaders?

Lib Dems: Everything they're Cracked up to be

Nick Clegg: Well, given he’s trying to hold together a party that splinters faster than a pinetree struck by lightning, what else could it be than Cracked?

Ed Miliband: The Labour leader’s perennial wide-eyed air of Year 7 ingenuousness immediately makes me think he could probably do with keeping within the straight and narrow, hence the choice of Schoolhouse Printed A.

Stay within the rules, Ed

David Cameron: I couldn’t find quite the right font for DC, so I had to fiddle around with an existing one (Apple Chancery) to come up with one that I call Red Rag To A Bullingdon. It’s posh, it’s expansive, it’s rosy-cheeked, but it does lean rather worryingly to the left:

Here you are, Dave, your very own font

What the AV vote says about the media

May 11, 2011 Leave a comment

OK, I know the AV referendum is soooo last week, but I beg indulgence, since it was the subject of a refreshingly honest comment by Robert Crampton in yesterday’s Times (behind ₱a¥wa₤₤).

He notes that his borough, Hackney, recorded the highest yes vote of any place in the UK. While throughout the country, about 70 per cent voted No, in Hackney more than 60 per cent voted Yes. Similarly, Islington (56.9 per cent), Haringey , Lambeth, Southwark and Camden all voted Yes.

As was noted by Professor Tony Travers, director of LSE London, in the Evening Standard, all these boroughs form the chaterati heartland of the capital. Indeed, if you wanted to draw a map of such a heartland, it would look pretty much like this (the green bits):

London borough AV referendum results

Just say Yes: Green indicates boroughs voting for AV, pink (50-65%) and red (above 65%) against

It would also stand as a map of London’s mediapolis, where dwell the vast majority of editorial staff encountered in the national media.

Crampton asks the thoughtful question: “What does this statistic [about the Yes vote in Hackney] tell me about my neighbours?” And he truthfully replies:

Quite simply, it tells me that politically, as well as socially, demographically, ethnically, economically, educationally and just about every word ending with -ally I can think of, where I (and an awful lot of other journalists, columnists and commentators) live is radically atypical of the rest of the country.

And the sucker punch:

What we write should be read with this in mind.

Indeed. The sort of thing you should keep in mind when on May 2, you read the BBC political editor Tim Donovan opine:

Clearly, in its size and influence, the London electorate could yet make all the difference.

Neutral, balanced news turns your brain to mush – New survey shock

March 14, 2011 2 comments

An intriguing new survey by an American university purports to show that neutral, “passive” reporting about hot political issues can leave readers bewildered about where the truth lies and more likely to doubt their own ability to ever determine it.

The study, by Ohio University communications assistant professor Raymond Pingree and published in the uni’s latest Journal of Communication, says newsroom cost-cutting, faster news cycles, and fear of ‘‘going out on a limb,’’ has led mainstream American journalism to become drastically more “passive” over the past few decades.

Raymond Pingree

Raymond Pingree

However, people are more likely to doubt their own ability to determine the truth in politics after reading an article that simply lists competing claims without offering any idea of which side is right, Pingree says.

“There are consequences to journalism that just reports what each side says with no fact checking.

“It makes readers feel like they can’t figure out what the truth is.  And I would speculate that this attitude may lead people to tune out politics entirely, or to be more accepting of dishonesty by politicians.”

While some disputes in politics involve subjective issues where there is no right or wrong answers, some involve factual issues that could be checked by reporters if they had the time and the desire, he says.

“Choosing among government policies is simply not like choosing among flavours of ice cream.  Policy questions quite frequently centre on facts, and political disputes can and often do hinge on these facts, not only on subjective matters.”

Read more…

Have metaphors reached a stalemate?

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Zawiyah: Not a metaphor for a stalemate

Over at guardian.co.uk, foreign affairs editor Peter Beaumont writes:

Zawiyah – 30 miles from the capital – is a metaphor for Libya’s current stalemate, which could itself end at any moment.

That ubiquitous, all-seeing gadfly Tim Worstall picks him (or rather, the Guardian’s subs) up on the use of “metaphor“:

Err, no. Zawiyah is not a metaphor for the current stalemate, it is an example of the current stalemate.

Well yes, Tim, and I’d go further: “Stalemate” is the wrong metaphor in the first place, since it signals the end of the game. No further move is possible, other than one which would put you in check. As in the old spiritual Rock-a My Soul, it’s so high, you can’t get over it, so low, you can’t get under it, so wide, you can’t get round it.

“Stand-off”, “deadlock” or “impasse” were really the words Mr Beaumont was groping for, since they each imply that some further action is possible, even if not probable. You can go round an impasse, as MacArthur did at Inchon, or smash a deadlock, or retreat and regroup from a stand-off. None of these are possible with a stalemate.

Which set me thinking about a thoughtful article in this week’s Spiked, The political use and abuse of metaphor, an interview with author James Geary by Patrick Hayes. Talking about the “explosion of metaphors” in the media about the economic crisis and, more currently, in events in Arab world, Hayes asks: Has metaphor replaced thought in modern political – and by extension, journalistic – discourse? In other words, have metaphors become so prevalent, so over-used, that we end up talking about the metaphor, rather than the actual underlying facts that gave rise to it?

Read more…