Posts Tagged ‘Government’

In Defence of the BBC

In Opinion on April 12, 2015 at 4:15 PM

I sometimes cast my mind forward to a not-too-distant future in which the BBC is no more, or at least drastically cut, following criticisms of the cost, ‘bias’ and it ‘not being a suitable broadcaster for our multimedia age’. I reckon there would be national mourning; paroxysms of nostalgia similar to the reactions of Ceefax ending and HMV closing (though the music retailer, to my pleasant surprise, continues to stay open). Call it misty-eyed sentimentalism if you will, but I think there’s something in this.

The reaction itself proves there’s still an affection for such things, even if there are more straightforwardly rational alternatives – the internet to Ceefax, Amazon and iTunes to HMV and arguably Neflix and Youtube et al to the BBC. But humans are not robots. In an age with so many different things competing for our attention on screens, there’s a good case for television that brings people together. People still remember where they were and who they were with for landmark televisual events like when England won the World Cup, Live Aid and Who Shot Jr/Phil Mitchell.

Of course, this would not be totally destroyed if the BBC went. But I think there’s a risk, in creating better choice for people, of losing that shared cultural conversation, even creating a more ‘atomised’ society, which many – on the left and right – complain about. Ask yourself, does your nan share your love of Breaking Bad? Probably not. But would you be able to bond over your love for it if it was on BBC? Maybe. (Game of Thrones is probably a bit unlikely, but who knows…) And I bet there’d be a lot more arguments between couples if there wasn’t the default option of ‘whatever shit’s on TV’. If you choose to watch some obscure documentary on Netflix or a documentary on quantum physics on BBC4, you stick your neck out that your partner/friends/flatmates watching will enjoy it. Put on BBC and it’s a no lose – if it’s good, you’ve got good taste; if not, it’s just that it was on anyway and you can talk over it or change channel. Anyway, as Barry Schwartz has shown, too much choice can actually lead to less happiness over the choice, as people fixate over the other possibilities and consider if the grass would be greener – like how you can forever browse Netflix looking for something better. I’m not arguing for a cultural North Korea, but surely there’s a happy medium between this and each member of the family in the living room watching different screens.

…All of which is why I get annoyed at the constant barrage at criticism constantly directed at the BBC. The most recent example was the reaction to Culture, Media and Sport select committee findings, which found the broadcaster should be “braver”, stop trying to do something for everyone and that the licence fee should be scrapped and replaced with a ‘broadcasting levy’ on all homes. This produced a frothing reaction from the right wing press, claiming any mandatory fees should be scrapped. It’s a strangely paradoxical reaction from papers that take such pride in instilling the shared customs of a ‘traditional British’ way of life. I suppose they would counter that the BBC no longer promotes ‘British’ values, but then surely it would make sense to call for specific reforms, not a complete overhaul, and make criticism more measured and constructive than this, from the Mail: “Chaotic… buck-passing… empire-building… monstrously bureaucratic… anti-competitive… recklessly wasteful of public money… refusing to admit mistakes as it lurches from crisis to crisis…” (Because, of course, The Mail is not ’empire-building’…)

But it’s not just attacked from the right. ‘BBC too right wing’ gets 2.68 million Google hits. ‘BBC too left wing’ gets 2.05 million. It’s far from an exact science – for starters, maybe this acid test is inherently skewed towards the young because it’s on the internet, and this might mean the study is skewed towards left denouncing right. Regardless, I merely wish to prove how much controversy it causes on both sides (in addition to people who obviously have nothing better to do in their lives than complain to Ofcom because someone said ‘bastard’ once before the watershed or showed a bit too much cleavage).

But ‘neutrality’ is such a hard, if not impossible, thing to achieve, as the debate itself over the BBC’s bias proves. People often complain about papers’ bias even though, as private entities not paid for by the taxpayer, there’s no particular need for papers to be impartial. (That’s even if they are determined by mere political considerations, rather than more sinister commercial ones, as Peter Oborne revealed about his former employer The Daily Telegraph in his resignation letter, in regard to the paper’s limited coverage of the tax scandal at HSBC, one of its biggest advertising clients.)

If the main criticism of the BBC were the whole principle of it – that it’s not (really) chosen, not ‘free media’ – then I’d understand, if not agree. No one wants to live in a cultural North Korea and, ridiculous as the comparison is in extent, the BBC is a state broadcaster. And I concede that the BBC does run at a distinct commercial advantage to other media outlets because of its funding means it has a far better knowledge of its short and long-term budget than many of its rivals, in turn meaning it can plan better than rivals.

However, I think this has its advantages. It’s a common criticism of journalism, and one made brilliantly by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, that cost-cutting and naked profit-chasing, which is the BBC is somewhat protected against, is corrupting the once reputable practice. And it allows the BBC to make ambitious, groundbreaking, but very expensive work like Planet Earth and Life; having cameramen, for example, wait in the middle of fucking Arctic nowhere for four weeks waiting for a mother polar bear and its cubs.

And it’s not just that by any means. Us Brits have probably become inured to the BBC, but it’s worth pointing out how much the world fucking loves it (or conversely, how shit TV can be abroad). As revealed by The Guardian in February, the international sales arm of the BBC now claims the corporation is the largest producer of television outside Hollywood, and this year it has 2,800 hours of shows to sell. Also, it’s estimated that British TV exports for 2013-14 were valued at £1.28bn.

Thing is, the structure of the BBC doesn’t seem to be the common complaint – based on the special pleading and bleating from all corners, it seems a lot people want a universal service, but one tailored just for them and their common sense views. People of all political persuasions naturally locate the elusive ‘centre-ground’ closer to them than it probably is, hence the shitstorm of the ‘BBC is too [insert chosen bete noire here – right/left/imperial/multicultural/’warmist’/climate denier etc etc].

The reason this annoys me so much is that this atmosphere can serve as a straitjacket to good journalism and broadcasting. Naturally some news and topics are more likely to lead to a particular political stance, but news, or more pretentiously truth, should be sought wherever it is, not on what people happen to think. As such I’m not claiming the Beeb is perfectly impartial (though pretty good), but how could it be?! It’s surprising to me as it is how the Beeb still produces hard-hitting news, like the HSBC tax avoidance exposé.

And it seems it was ever thus. I recently stumbled across an archive piece in the New Statesman from E.L.Forster defending the BBC in 1931 against similar complaints of bias on various sides. He wrote: “Perhaps we grumbled too often. If we did, Nemesis has descended, bringing all the powers of darkness in her train. For the easy days are over, brightness falls from the air, and the conflict has begun. The BBC, because of its success and growing importance, is being constantly attacked, in the pulpit, in Parliament, in the Press, and the attack is on new and dangerous lines. The aim is suppression. When suppression has been achieved, control may be attempted, but suppression is the immediate objective. The cry is not for fuller programmes but for feebler.”

It’s always hard to argue for the status quo in the face of various angry complaints, and easier to think the grass is greener. But I think those enjoy the BBC need to stick up for it amid the loud noises from all sides, attempting to strangle this great British institution, with politicking and death by a thousand cuts, into boring, timid submission.

What I Should Have Said to the Bitch on the Train

In Opinion, Satire on August 12, 2011 at 6:11 PM

It started as inauspiciously as any old train ticket inspection. Then the ticket inspector turned to the teenage girl on the table adjacent to mine expecting her to produce her ticket as any upstanding citizen would do (I refuse to call this person a ‘woman’ for reasons that will become apparent). She gave some tall story about ticket machines being down at Preston Park (a small, often unmanned station in North Brighton) and then not being able to get money out at Brighton station, where she had connected to this London and Bedford, because a new card was in the post or some such spiel. I was focusing more on my beloved Sudoku at this point, having heard people try on this kind of trick countless times. Hell, I even have myself twice. The first did happen to be a (mostly) an honest confusion, however seemingly contrived, and the second, I just plain lost my ticket on the train (the guy genuinely seemed to believe me, but alas had to fine me anyway). Essentially, hers was a story that, even if somehow true/honest, was far more likely to be judged dishonest by the unknowing ears of a train conductor. It certainly was to these ears.

So, nothing remarkable at this point; chancers/scumbags try and catch a (literal) free ride on trains all the time. Most though, at least have some sense of perspective/moral compass to face up to the penalty (often £20) when they roll the dice and lose, so to speak. Or, they have some cunning in their mischief, for example, the classic remarkably convenient trip to the toilet.

How this progressed was remarkable, though. Not believing the tall tale of the girl who was quickly descending in my estimation to the titular ‘Bitch’, the ticket inspector calmly, comprehensibly and professionally explained the flaws in Bitch’s story. Thus, she reasonably (even if wrongly) deemed Bitch’s actions criminal, and outlined the subsequent choices she had for the penalty. The preferable option was that Bitch pay some of the penalty there and then, but, of course, this was not possible because of the card situation – a situation the inspector, quite understandably, had a little trouble understanding and offering a solution to. This hesitation was, however, interpreted as severe linguistic and/or comprehension-based failings by Bitch, who attacked them mercilessly. At this point, my eyes and ears had pricked up a little as Bitch claimed; “if (the inspector) can’t speak English, then (she) shouldn’t be working on this train” (at a guess, the inspector was of Italian or Eastern European descent). The judgement was frankly ridiculous given that they had understood each other perfectly until now.

But oh no, it didn’t stop there. Bitch somehow thought that it was that a polite request to pay for a service which openly advertises the fact that it charges (and prosecutes those who don’t pay) was ‘disrespectful’ to her, and that, thus, the inspector should “GET OUT OF MY FACE”…”GET OUT OF MY FACE”. Bitch also inferred from the inspector’s supposedly poor command of the English language that she should “get out of the country” and “go home”, despite knowing absolutely none of this woman’s cultural/racial heritage. She also plucked a straw man from thin air to aggressively argue against, claiming; “I was born here. I was born in Southampton and have lived here all my life!”. (Bitch was – well is – of mixed race). Below is how a better artist than myself might depict her.

Artist's likely representation of Bitch

Artist's likely representation of Bitch

For a good five minutes, I quietly seethed (as I assumed others were), hoping that Bitch would relent . Alas, she didn’t. So, ashamed to share oxygen, let alone a country with Bitch, especially in light of the bitches and dickheads of the recent riots, I thought the proper thing to do was to stand up to her in support of the inspector. I said something like “look, this woman is just doing her job and, to be fair, your story does seem far-fetched”. When she asked “what it had to do with” me (“not wanting to disrespect” me, surprisingly), I offered a vague, unconsidered suggestion that I did so because I was angered that it was people with a similar mindset who have caused ‘all this mess’ . She countered that she was “going through a hard time” and is “normally nice”. Needing to get off, I simply argued “well, that may be, but you shouldn’t be taking it out on this woman who has nothing to do with it and is just doing her job”.

I then pondered it and came to the conclusion I was largely right and, in doing so, rued all the clever lines and arguments I wish I’d had the balls, eloquence, quick-thinking and time to advance (I’m a little petty like that, you see). So, here is what I’d have said given the memory of Hawking, derring-do of Balotelli, eloquence of Fry and Click remote of…errm, Sandler….  *If you happen to know a girl fitting Bitch’s description who was travelling on the 14:04 First Capital Connect service from Brighton to Bedford, by all means forward this.*

“Hi there,

Yeah I was sitting over there, minding my own business, enjoying my Sudoku, but couldn’t help but overhear you being a self-righteous, racist (or at least xenophobic), disrespectful, small-minded, short-sighted bitch.

From the beginning…  Your tale of public transport and personal woe could be genuine, but how is this ticket inspector to know this. (*to ticket inspector*, sorry I didn’t catch your name in the midst of all her abuse *we’ll say it’s ‘Sofia’*).  Sofia wasn’t with you so doesn’t know and thus has to base it on her judgement. I can tell you from a fellow outsider’s view, I think you are being deceitful. At best, you have been negligent and short-sighted, for which you probably still deserve the fine. Yet, you stubbornly refuse to look at your tall tale from any perspective but your own.

This leads me on to my next point; as far as I know, Sofia is neutral. She is just doing her job, and in a professional and competent manner from what I’ve seen. Furthermore, it is a job which is necessary to ensure the continuation of a service which facilitates tourism, business, entertainment, sport and much, much more, and in an arguably ‘green’ way, too. Specifically, Sofia’s role involves ensuring people don’t catch a free ride, lest the industry miss out on a lot of the money necessary for its continuation. The alternative to inspectors is that the government dramatically raise taxes. Judging by your angry reaction to being asked for money now, this would not best please you. This is, of course, presuming you pay taxes in the first place.

As I’ve heard, nowhere has Sofia even implied a xenophobic comment, let alone a racist one. As such, your assertions that of your right to live “here” are merely a straw man, only serving to highlight the hypocrisy of your xenophobic/racist comments (I’ll come on to these). Even if Sofia privately harbours controversial thoughts on race relations (she certainly doesn’t seem to), it would be utterly retarded of her to bring these into her workplace given the aforementioned need for finance to sustain the industry and, by extension, her livelihood. What do you think; that inspectors really give a fuck what colour face they see in the backgrounds of their vision when inspecting tickets?!

Claiming that you have been racially targeted when there is, personally, no hint of evidence of this is just fucking arrogant and imbecilic. You are just dressing up in supposed racism the real reason Sofia is targeting you – you haven’t paid for a bloody ticket! This victim culture can be corrosive to society, even if warranted (which it isn’t here). Look at all these dickheads looting and rioting in the country at the moment. Regardless of how much they actually have been (which is too complex an argument for me to detail here), many people are rioting because they feel they are victims (of economic injustice, police malpractice, being ‘ignored’ by politicians and many other things). This victim culture can create a very dangerous cycle of blame begetting blame, and punishment begetting punishment (or just arseholery begetting arseholery). Instead we need to look at the bigger picture. The rioters are short-sighted enough not to fully comprehend the immense complexity of the web of cause and effect which has led to the socio-economic environment in which the riots occurred, instead typically blaming a vague ‘government’ or ‘rich’. You are too short-sighted to even see the straightforward need for the inspector to want you to pay your face (I shouldn’t need to explain these again). As such she will not ‘get out of your face’. You have not only failed to pay for an openly consumer service, but are now steadfastly refusing to comply with the stated punishment for not doing so. You should consider yourself lucky that the exact opposite is not true – namely, you are not being asked to get out of her face at the next station, which the train company is fully entitled to do.

I am also abhorred by the msiguided self-entitlement displayed by many rioters in believing to be somehow personally above the law. ‘Having a tough time’ and ‘normally being a nice person’ simply does not legally entitle you to hitch a free ride, much less be aggressively racist in my opinion. Excuse me if I’m wrong, but we are enjoying the service of a train, not a fucking therapist. The train is neutral to people’s emotions; you think the chairs are there to give you a supportive hug or the table is there to counsel you?! No. They’re there to be fucking sat on, rest papers on, and such like. You realise how fucking retarded your reasoning is if taken to its logical conclusion? People would be hitching free rides and spouting racist bile left, right and centre, consequently ruining the public transport system and inciting racial hatred, yet the individuals in question would be let off if they merely said I’m ‘having a tough time’, as authorities couldn’t verify this inherently subjective assertion. Do you happen to have some kind of device which instantly and accurately assesses the recent emotional situations of train passengers and the veracity of their convoluted excuses for not having valid tickets….. *pause, while, I imagine, Bitch exasperatingly scrabbles for an argument to follow “BUT…. BUT….”.*

As I suspected, no, you don’t. So, zip it, and pay your fucking penalty, which by the way has no doubt been exacerbated for your stubborn refusal to pay it in the first place.

*Getting up to get off* I’ve got to go back to sleepy, but ‘peaceful’, Devon.

*Turning back, remembering one last point* Oh yeah, and if you think I’m being mean and unsympathetic, you can find some solace (misguided , personally) in the fact that I’m considered ‘normally an o.k. person’….  ”

Joel Durston.

Freedom of Emission

In Opinion on April 12, 2011 at 4:09 PM

Browsing through my Facebook newsfeed the other day, as you do, I chanced upon a hilarious link sent by a friend to another titled: ‘Malawians outraged at the new farting bill’. I couldn’t not investigate….

It transpired that the article and news clip were about a new Local Courts Bill in the Malawi’s financial capital Blantyre, which legislated that: “Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public, to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighbourhood or passing along a public way, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.” The bill will also attempt to deal with citizens who hinder the burial of dead bodies, as well as people who pretend to be fortune tellers.

The locals were rightly outraged at the new bill. They cited both the political reasons, such as the corrupt government wrongly focusing on trivial matters like public flatulence, rather than more pressing matters, such as child immortality, violence and illiteracy. And the practical reasons, such as the difficulty in tracing the culprit. College student Matthews Phiri claimed: “We all fart in public and it will be difficult to tell who has done it. Some do it silently. In some cases it is like teargas which goes like shhhh! Our legislators need to concentrate on discussing development projects. They should not waste our time and money on childish issues. It would make sense if they talked about defecating and urinating anyhow but not farting. This will not work. We will keep on farting.” Good for you, Matthews; keep up the gassy resistance, I say! It’s enough to make one think that ‘freedom of emission’ should join ‘freedom of expression’ in that hallmark of Western moral liberalism; the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

As funny as this new motion undoubtedly is, it highlights a more serious, age-old political trend…and a rather worrying one it is too. Namely, the penchant for governments to, if you will, sweep all their problems under the carpet, masked by various perfidious ploys; in this case, perverse legislation totally unrelated to other efforts. It happens all the time at the Olympics and other such sporting tournament. The spectacular ‘Bird’s nest’ arena that admittedly played such a wonderful host to the 2008 Beijing Olympics was the product of what was in aspects a very tough construction effort, with very poor working conditions and pay, forcible reinforcement and even related deaths (The Times reported ten, whilst Reuters, in a rather suspicious-sounding  ‘association’ with the Chinese government, claimed two).

But the prime example, of course, has to be the, quite frankly, madhouse that is North Korea. To quell concerns about (especially rural) poverty and political violence, to name but a few, Junior and Senior Kim Jong-Il have created the myths that North Korea is the best country in the world, fighting off the dominant evil forces of the rest of the world; that they are fittingly godly leaders with powers similar to that of the Judaeo-Christian God. My personal favourite myth is that Junior Kim was conceived and delivered immaculately by his mother from whose ‘birthing passage he strode out magnificently, already aware of his own brilliance.

During the last World Cup there was a hilarious blogger’s mock report of North Korea’s 50-0 victory over Brazil, just google ‘North Korea beat brazil 50-0’. It describes Kim Jong-Il’s incredible performance as he scored 49 goals almost single-handedly in the first half then, just to make matters fair, subbed everyone else off, put himself in goal and invited Brazil’s all time greats to come on. Needless to say, the great Kim kept a clean sheet for 45 minutes before scoring a heaven sent 50th goal. The game had to be stopped because no-one could stop the tears of admiration stemming from everyone in the stadium. On first reading of this, I laughed…a lot. Then, after a little research, I got the impression that this article was in fact probably pretty similar to the kind of shit that North Koreans are mercilessly fed on a daily basis and thus felt rather bad for using my freedom of expression to laugh at those who are tragically without this Western world luxury. Indeed, it is suspected that the North Korean government edited the footage of their team’s efforts in the World Cup such that they were presented as the winners of the thing!

This is far from the only time football has been used as a propaganda tool. During the 1978 World Cup, dictator of Argentina Jorge Rafael Videla is believed to have threatened violence, even death, to ‘his’ players had they not won the coveted Jules Rimet trophy in their own back yard. Thankfully for the players’ sakes, they did, but only after allegations of intimidation of opposition and suspicious results and decisions, including a very doubtful 6-0 win against Peru in their final group game which edged Argentina through by virtue of goal difference (Peru were decidedly under-par and several decisions went Argentina’s way which probably shouldn’t have).

And at the previous World Cup in ‘74, the dictator of Zaire (as it was then), worried of national embarrassment and consequent unrest and upheaval, threatened the national team with execution should they concede more than ten goals.  This is the team infamous for the hilarious scenes of players continually running out of the wall prematurely to disrupt the Brazilians taking of a free-kick (do yourself a favour and Youtube it). These are scenes that caused me to mock and look down at the Zaire players as disobedient, even stupid, until I learnt of their horrific plight (this was the 70-somethingth minute and they had conceded 9 goals in the tournament), thereafter seeing them as heroic members of the political resistance, running out of that wall to hoof the ball up the pitch as if, well, because, their lives depended upon it. You will be pleased to know they survived. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a film adaptation including Denzel as the inspirational talisman, Cuba Gooding Junior as the willing debutante and Morgan Freeman; the wise, world-weary manager. The Oscars would practically be in the bag.

Anyway, back to my original point; in whatever combination of sheer ignorance, or blatant indifference, of ‘their’ citizens’ conditions, governments have done and continue to do shocking things to cover domestic problems. That’s hardly a revelatory piece of political analysis I realise, but hear me out if you will. What worries me about this is that it means that all the respective Western government’s admirable statements of intent, be they genuine or not, to increase aid to developing countries could prove ultimately pretty futile. Comic Relief and other such charities present a ‘Disney-fied’ account of the developing world, whereby it is nigh-on guaranteed that x amount of pence will pay for Mary’s education for a month and x amount of pounds will pay for Lulu to drink clean water for at least a year. Now don’t get me wrong, I have a huge amount of admiration for such charities, I try to give and think they are right to portray charity and the developing world in such a way; I’m just not entirely sure it’s a particularly accurate representation.

Obviously it is in neither the respective LEDCs governments’ nor the charities’ interests to say so, but it is always alleged (quietly) that developing countries’ governments cream off so much of the aid money in spurious taxes that that charities (or MEDCs’ governments’) efforts are rendered unproductive. The same could be said of the money for or from sporting events. Such financial aid is arguably counter-productive if the money is used to prop up corrupt officials and businessmen, whilst maintaining the image of the poor country, that just needs to be ‘helped to help itself’.

While I don’t deny this is a noble mantra for helping countless specific communities, I do wonder how easy it is to get into such communities due to government interference. For example, I remember watching a show maybe a year ago where the presenter, as far as possible, travelled across the world along the titular line. He very bravely ventured into Burma, whereupon just over the border he encountered a tiny destitute community, many of whom were in very poor health. Not only were the government and the militia doing nothing to help this community, they were actively preventing a small group of Christian health workers from getting to this community, and no doubt countless similar ones too, when the only possible agenda they had was to gently preach the message of a 2,000-year-old Jew. The presenter and cameramen soon got the hell outta there!

In many countries, I get the impression that senior politicians who want to keep hold of their leadership are in cahoots with the police or militia, who want a subordinate populace, who in turn are in league with heads of business who want to retain a huge sub-strata of society, willing to work for next to nothing. And these businessmen conspire with the politicians in the whole murky network where ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

So, in addition to rueing the injustices of imperialism (especially throughout history) and Western apathy, I feel a lot of the blame for wealth differences lies with those at the top of the hierarchy, too self-interested to see or do anything about the strife on their doorstep.  In his new book The Chosen One, Sam Bourne writes: ‘politics would always rise up and strangle hope, like a weed choking a flower’….

So as I draw to a close, and seek to unite my many digressions, for which I am sorry, I start to hope that the above is the misguided ramblings of a cynic; that the world isn’t rife with unremitting corruption and pain. Or that this state of affairs doesn’t harness its power to entrench and self-perpetuate itself. Otherwise it may well be an accurate and depressing reflection of the world’s geo-political state; as we fail to disinfect the stagnant injustice that continues well into the 21st century.

Joel Durston