Monday, October 22, 2012

What can they mean?

I see the Scottish Daily Record has a story about the drastic fall-off in support for Scottish independence since the start of the year. What is interesting is the rather convoluted mention in the piece of "the same bar that Salmond plucked his independence poem from" and "bar room doggerel".

OK Daily Record, out with it: shouldn't you actually publish a story about the gathering rumours about Alex Salmond's drinking instead of merely leaving sly hints?

I have no love for the portly first Minister, but if he is an alcoholic then he needs help and not a conspiracy of silence.

The impunity of the BBC

In a way the bombshell that has hit the BBC in the past 24 hours over the raft of allegations about the sexual conduct of Jimmy Savile- and the apparent long-term cover-up- is entirely appropriate. Yet to my mind the storm that has broken is also slightly mis-aimed. It is rather like Al Capone being convicted of tax evasion, rather than the much grosser crimes that he undoubtedly also committed. The fact is that the BBC has an ever longer charge sheet of misconduct, and the cover up of what seems, to say the least, the creepy, probably criminal, antics of one of its stars is actually a bit beside the point.

Although I believe Rupert Murdoch to be a criminal who should himself now be in gaol, his constant criticism of the Corporation was not entirely self-serving. The fact is that from the gold plated hypocrisy of its expense accounts culture to the naked bias of its news programmes, the BBC has moved a long way from the trusted, Reithian ethos that prevailed even up to a couple of decades ago. The image of the impartial reporter, epitomised by Mark Tully, Charles Wheeler or Alistair Cooke may have been a bit glamorised, but there is no doubt that to be a BBC correspondent once implied a depth of knowledge and experience that was much more than merely superficial. Yet the BBC has for some time now been trading on the respect that this previous generation of journalists had earned without, however, matching it today. In the days of Sir John Reith, the idea that the BBC would routinely allow errors of fact in its output to go unchallenged was literally unthinkable. Now barely a day goes by without my hearing basic errors of fact- often in news bulletins. Then there is the increasing and obvious editorial bias. statements are taken out of context and edited down to a point where the editorial slant becomes highly misleading. As a matter of reportage, the BBC has stooped to the simplification of the tabloids, rather than the nuanced judgements that its charter demands. The original mission: "To inform, to educate and to entertain" now focuses entirely on entertainment, and the first two aspects are widely derided as elitism. No one has remade David Attenborough's seminal Life of Earth series, despite the startling advances in knowledge we have made through understanding the genome, because the very idea of a natural history is deemed to be too didactic (and anyway US networks are more circumspect than they were about co-financing anything that deals with the theory of evolution). The other documentary series of the 1960s and 1970s- Civilisation, the Ascent of Man or America would likewise not be made today- partly for reasons of cost, but also because the BBC itself prefers to buy-in cheap entertainment like Strictly Come Dancing. For the fact is that- as Rupert Murdoch charges- the BBC now measures success solely in terms of winning the ratings battle.

The result of this constant battle for ratings has been the elimination or demotion of much that was valuable about public service broadcasting- notably children's programmes- and the creation of a cadre of frankly overpaid "star talent". 

The defenders of the BBC like to point out the hostility of Murdoch as a positive- that if the obvious villain of the British media industry disapproves, then the Corporation must be doing something right. Yet in fact the enmity of Murdoch has given the BBC immunity to even the vaguest criticism. However- as the Savile scandal shows us- such impunity has created an intolerant culture of arrogance. The British media, including the BBC, has developed its own agenda which has little to do with impartial reporting and everything to do with promoting its own vested interests. It is generally accepted that the BBC has a broadly left-wing bias, and from comedy to news, it now does not even make a pretence of denying it. The constant derision of the Liberal Democrats, for example, is not reflecting a national mood- it is shaping it. The failure to report European affairs in any mainstream way has resulted in a general ignorance of the most basic issues facing Britain and the EU. Of course the issues are complicated, but the state funded national broadcaster has a duty to inform and educate- which it consistently fails to do. The fact is that sending hundreds of staff to cover the US elections is a pure boondoggle- and precisely the kind of gold plating that an organisation that believes itself untouchable can get away with. Meanwhile more pressing domestic issues go largely unreported.

So the Savile scandal is simply the tip of the iceberg. Yet it does open up an opportunity to scrutinise an organisation that has become bloated with money and untrammelled power. As the inevitable call for inquiries gathers pace and politicians rush to join the band wagon, they should note that the license payer has, for some time now, been getting a very bad bargain out of the BBC.

In the same way that the Milly Dowler hacking scandal revealed the corruption at the heart of the Murdoch Empire, so the Savile scandal should reveal the corruption at the heart of the BBC. As Murdoch, in my view, should be held accountable for his crimes so the BBC must also lose much of the power that it has so casually and wrongly exercised over the past few years. 

The media market is changing radically as new technology increases but also fragments the content available for distribution. The time has come to break up the BBC and to drastically remake its remit. The national debate as to how best to do this is merely another strand of the wider debate about the whole nature and future of our democracy that I think is long overdue in the United Kingdom.

Monday, October 15, 2012

On a street corner in Minsk

I am not sure where I finally lost it with Minsk. It  could have been on the corner of Lenin and Karl Marx streets or maybe walking down Kirov or Sverdlov street or any one of a dozen or so streets named after the brutal thugs who followed the gangster Lenin and his depraved Soviet creed. The Soviet demonology was of course missing its chief demon and near anagram of Satan- Stalin- but still the streets of Minsk proclaimed Soviet power unvarnished with hyphens or humanity. The Soviet era flag, the Militia, and the KGB all survive in "Europe's last dictatorship". 

Yet the visit to Belarus had begun with good humour. Black humour admittedly: "Welcome to Belarus where the local time is 1983". 

We were here to meet friends and celebrate the wedding of an attractive young couple, and whatever my misgivings about the reputation or the Belarusian state and its eccentric leader, Alexander Lukashenka, they were assuaged by the knowledge that I would be there for only four days and that I would be among friends.

Speeding through the slab-like  airport terminal building, the arrival process was remarkably painless- it was only later, on departure, that the dingy hideousness of the Airport was revealed, but initial impressions were good. We met our friends easily and were soon speeding on smooth, clean highways toward the city centre. As for the initial impressions of the city itself, these too were a positive surprise. Although Soviet era apartment blocks are not particularly attractive anywhere, here in Minsk they were clean and painted and surrounded by neatly trimmed grass. Soon we were amongst the Socialist realist buildings of the city centre, and these too were a major surprise. Yes they were blocky and bombastic, but, especially considering the tragic circumstances of their construction- Minsk was all but destroyed in the second world war- they were no more "totalitarian" that the boulevards of Paris constructed by Housman for Napoleon III. In fact they reminded me both of Paris and of Budapest, another city of wide vistas and which I also rather like. 

So, we went on an evening walk to explore, and the bright, well-lit streets allowed us to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet and work out what we were looking at, "The Belarusian State Circus", "The National Bank of Belarus", the "Committee for State Security", Ha! Of course here it is still called the "KGB". It seemed simply odd, funny even. That, we said smiling, was why the city felt so safe. And if buildings were still decorated with the Soviet hammer and sickle, well that was simply another eccentricity. Of course there was very little advertising and, we said marveling, no graffiti. Yet there were also very few restaurants, and these were all full, but we kept looking to find a place to eat. Minsk is a city of 1.8 million people, the largest city between Moscow and Stockholm and the largest for at least three hundred miles in every direction, yet there were so few restaurants... Eventually we found a cellar. I deciphered "My English Grandmother" and a faintly Miss Marple Logo. Inside all was lace doilies and chintz- an odd parody of what someone might think was English- if you had never been there. We had Beef and Yorkshire pudding presumably served as a kind of homage to the fictional English Granny, but it was a homage based on something heard about but never seen. All the menu was in Russian. We noticed that even the young people did not speak much English- or any other foreign language.

The next morning we walked further. Underneath Lenin square- "decorated" with a 30 foot statue of the old Tatar gangster- there was a shopping mall. At least it looked like a shopping mall, but where were the bland international brands? Nothing but cheap tat mostly from the cheapest oriental producers- quality was very low but prices, when translating back from the thousands of Belarusian Roubles it takes to buy anything at all, were high. It was a Potemkin shopping mall, full of slippery marble but nothing that anyone would really want to buy... if they had a choice. Above ground the square was a vast concrete bowl surrounded by huge and hideous government buildings and one red brick Catholic church- St Simeon and St Helen- which had spent most of the Soviet period under threat of demolition and being used as a cinema.

The wedding the next day was a registry affair. The couple, both in their mid twenties, were beautiful and well matched. Though there was much talk from the friendly and handsome registrar lady I could decipher little save repeated reference to the laws of the Republic of Belarus. Yet there was plenty of room for the traditions of Slavic culture- candles and woven cloth much in evidence as symbols of the beginning of married life. Then the fully traditional party- bread and salt to welcome the couple, much speech and song to celebrate. A happy party.

Of course there were the odd asides. Stupid and absurd things were done in the country "because the president said so". Rings with forbidden -non Soviet- national symbols. The knowledge that many of the friends of the couple could not join the party, "because they can not return home safely". The awareness that the best brains were leaving the country if they could- including many of the young folk in the room. I thought to myself that I was not expecting Belarus to be a Jeffersonian democracy or a beacon of prosperity- the country was clearly nothing like either of those things. But what was it? There were little touches of capitalism- the odd- rather small- adverts, and a large number of western-made cars on the road. Yet after a few hours walking I felt dizzy and sick. Something is polluting the air with particulates- but nobody seems to know with what and official figures are hard to validate. But surely, I thought, Lukashenka can not be truly serious about promoting Communism as an article of faith? It must be- I surmised- simply that perhaps he is a deeply conservative leader of a pretty conservative country- after all the party, if not its symbols, is indeed dead and gone.

Yet standing on the corner of Marx and Lenin streets I realized that this weird parody of the USSR- Brezhnev on Ice- is deadly serious. The incredible, unforgiving bureaucracy which- I learned- insisted that if a container was not on an import list, it could not be brought in- necessitating days of work at the border packing and unpacking. The requirement for official paperwork for the slightest interaction with the state, where even a five minute delay at the registrar, for example, would have cancelled the wedding. This is a Vogon level of bureaucracy. And then there was the KGB.

I encountered two of them them in a smoky bar- yes Belarus remains immune to smoking bans as it is to any other foreign influence except Russian. There they were, two middle aged, paunchy, shaven headed types- unmistakable as they sat next to the rock band which was entertaining the boisterous crowd of dancers by playing western and Russian rock songs of twenty and thirty years ago. The two were blankly indifferent to the enjoyment of the crowd, simply smoking and making sure the band did not play anything remotely off message. They were bored, drinking coffee and smoking and blank as they blankly occupied the best seats- close enough to reach out blankly and turn off the amplifier if needed. A pointless job, you might think, yet one the regime clearly deems to be worth paying for.

Another pointless job is that they dub all foreign TV channels, so it becomes difficult to learn English or any other foreign language- in any event they only allow one non-Russian foreign news channel to be broadcast: Euronews, and that- as I say- is dubbed. It was when we found that Google is blocked in Belarus that it became clear that information is still severely rationed in this twisted theme park of post Communism. So are languages. Russian is favoured for everything.  Belarusian, officially a co-equal language with Russian, and the one, confusingly enough, that all of the metro and street names are written in- although maps are written in Russian- is not necessarily now even understood by every one on the street, although it is so similar to Russian. Lukashenka seems to promote Russian over Belarusian whenever he can.

Of course the Belarusian economy is a mess. The army of arbitrary and pointless officials have  created a Kafka-esque nightmare of regulation. The currency is imminently expected to devalue again and foreign currency is hard to come by. Next to some partly restored area of the old town- the Trinity suburb- a vast ziggurat of vulgar and expensive apartments has taken five years to put its blight over the last surviving historical area of Minsk. It was a poor mans idea of what wealth might look like, just as Lukashenka's decrees are simply a vulgar barbarian's idea of what culture or freedom might look like. There is order but it is a dead and sterile order. I kept finding in my head the image of a field ploughed under with weed-killer- orderly, but dead. I yearned for graffiti, if only to show that there was some spirit- I yearned for adverts if only to show that there was some aspiration. 

Finally walking into the church of St Simeon and Helen, there was a Catholic service being conducted in Belarusian. Lukashenka prefers Orthodoxy and Russian, but still this community, around for a thousand years and more still survives. We paused and stood next to the doorway and listened to the mass. 

"Oh Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us
Oh Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace"

Then it really hit me. I understood, emotionally, what I had been seeing. "Oh Saviour of the World", I prayed, "Will you not save Belarus?". I wanted to weep and howl and gnash my teeth at the pointless futility, the utter despair of this stupid, wicked government. 

All the thwarted hopes, the simple, godawfulness of the regime, it was all too much. The contrast between the sweetly charming people, their uncomplaining, shy friendliness and the thuggish brutality of the government: the militia with their absurd, huge Soviet era hats, the indifferent slug necks of the KGB stooges, and all the other symbolism of the monstrous evil of the Stalinist past. It seemed to me that Lukashenka is not merely the dictator of the Belarusians, he is their captor. 

So on  a street corner in Minsk, I could not decide if I was looking at Himmler Strasse or Lenin Prospekt, or Goebbels road or Karl Marx street, and it did not seem to matter very much, even though the National Socialists had only inflicted perhaps half the deaths that the Soviet Socialists managed. 

Round the corner from the church is the prison. The conditions are said to be terrible. Few come out. Some never.

Belarus is not a comedy. It is the blackest tragedy.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Radical Liberals

The slight bounce in the polls for the Liberal Democrats after the Brighton conference, now up to 15% support, may well be part of the froth of the conference season. On the other hand, support at that level has often been the norm for the party at this stage in many previous Parliaments. So those pundits gleefully hoping for the demise of the party seem set to be disappointed. Certainly the atmosphere in Brighton was more of a party on the way back than one on the way down.

In fact I see a renewed commitment to Liberal ideas and a more genuine debate as to what the priorities amongst Liberal values should be. For myself, as this blog makes pretty clear, I am mistrustful of both big government and big business. In that sense I harken back to the classical Liberal tradition which respects entrepreneurship and which believes in the older Liberal virtues that, in short, we exist "to build a Liberal Society in which every citizen shall possess liberty, property and security and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity", a statement that is so powerful to Liberals that it has become a cliche. In the older Liberal constitution, however, the next sentence is equally striking "[the party's] chief care is for the rights and opportunities of the individual and in all spheres it sets freedom first".

In my view the economic crisis has underlined the natural suspicion towards the cartels that big business intentionally creates- to the detriment of the interests and rights of the individual. My concern is that the Socialist solution of greater government control through regulation, oversight or taxation is a cure that is worse than the disease. There are such statists in the Liberal Democrats too, but the root tradition remains a radical one, and it is that radical tradition that I seek to promote against socialist statism and right-wing business cartels.

I spoke at the Liberal Democrat conference on the subject of regional pay in the public sector. In the private sector, of course pay rates for the same job vary- often substantially- across the country. The conference put forward a motion arguing that regional pay- de facto- would mean that poorer areas would see wage cuts, and that it was nothing more than a cost cutting exercise. I was a bit disappointed by this, and the implication that the state sector should have uniform pay rates across the country as a kind of subsidy for poorer areas. The fact is that in many areas there are staff shortages and the uniform pay rates prevent local councils from paying more in order to attract staff. Of course the motion had some rather weaselly words allowing greater "flexibility", but the reality was that the conference motion was a sop to the TUC campaign against regional pay, since national collective bargaining allows more militant union leaders greater power. For me, the Liberal commitment to local control and indeed more individual control over working conditions is undermined by national collective bargaining, and that is why I spoke against the motion. I am not an instinctive right-winger, despite being a chairman of a chamber of commerce. I am an instinctive Radical.

The obvious failure of the bank cartels which lie at the root of the economic crisis has been matched only by the subsequent failure of the state intervention. The radical, the Liberal, solution is to promote far greater competition and diversity in the financial markets, and indeed throughout society. The "John Lewis" solution of mutual ownership is attractive to Liberals because by making employees into owners it creates more power for the individual over their own circumstances and therefore offers greater freedom and greater incentives. Mutual ownership is not a panacea, but it is one option amongst many that can provide an antidote to the uniformity of joint stock enterprises on the one hand and state provision and control over services on the other. 

I think a Radical agenda- suspicious of big government and willing to use market mechanisms to control big business- is part of the intellectual DNA of Liberalism. I, like many others, will be trying hard to make sure that is the intellectual touchstone for the whole of the Liberal Democrats too. For, in that robust exchange of ideas, we can acquire the energy to overcome the headwinds of the past two years and make a new breakthrough- even as early as the next election.