Archive for February, 2008

Mail vs Express – who is more xenophobic?

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The Mail and the Express appear to be in a head-to-head contest to see who can out-xenophobe the other.

Roy Greenslade today published an email sent by a Mail journalist (Diana Appleyard), appealling for lying, thieving Eastern Europeans:

“I am urgently looking for anonymous horror stories of people who have employed Eastern European staff, only for them to steal from them, disappear, or have lied about their resident status. We can pay you £100 for taking part, and I promise it will be anonymous, just a quick phone call. Could you email me asap?”.

Meanwhile, over in the Express we have Patrick O’Flynn raging – and I mean raging – against Britain’s Muslim minority. “The leaders of British Islam” he shouts, “still don’t appreciate the degree to which their behaviour is despised by the majority of the public. Unless they give up their obsession with grievance and victimhood and instead under­stand the need to integrate and contribute positively, Britain will slide towards segregation and civil strife”.

O’Flynn goes on to back up his anti-Islamic outrage by referencing some IPPR research (yes, that’s the favourite new Labour thinktank IPPR): “On an economic level, the impact of Britain’s Muslims is massively negative” O’Flynn claims. “Research shows Muslim communities are typified by heavy levels of welfare dependency and low levels of wealth creation. A report last year by the Left-wing Institute for Public Policy Research found that fewer than half of adults from four of the biggest Muslim groups here – Somalis, Bangla­deshis, Turks and Pakistanis – are in employment. And because of the high number of children in their families they also tend to be heavy users of expensive public services such as the NHS” (my italics).

So let’s have a look at this IPPR research. ‘Britain’s Immigrants: An Economic Profile’ was published last September to inform a Channel 4 Dispatches programme. It was, as its title suggests, about ‘immigrants’, not about Muslims. It measured economic status by nationality not by religion. On top of which, O’Flynn’s statistic is misleading since only 8% of the groups he cites are unemployed. The rest are economically inactive. In other words they’re either at home looking after children, studying, retired, or looking for work (and not collecting unemployment benefit). Oh, and that final sentence is all O’Flynn’s own (i.e. not based on any research).

As liberals go through a crisis of confidence about the limits of tolerance, the xenophobic vitriol of the mid-market black tops seems to know no bounds. And as their anger increases, so their aim becomes more scattergun. Immigrants, asylum seekers, Muslims, East Europeans – all become the targets of unfocused aggression. Where next? Shriller and shriller until…

Written by Martin Moore

February 19th, 2008 at 3:09 pm

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The finest contemporary political writing

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There’s something quite mesmeric about staring at a table full of the best contemporary political writing. Does it represent a snapshot of society’s angst or just the personal bugbears of the writers? Do the books help explain, and maybe even answer, some of our current concerns or just add to their complexity? And are there any clear themes or glaring omissions?

This is how I felt last week as I gazed at the submissions to this year’s Orwell Prize (full list here). 181 books entered – a record, more than the Samuel Johnson prize, more even than the Man Booker. Each one considered by publishers and editors to be the best in contemporary writing about political issues. Combined with the 54 journalism entries it makes quite a list (statement of interest – the Media Standards Trust is now an official partner of the Orwell Prize).

So what do the books tell us? (I’ll deal with the journalism in a separate post).

What’s immediately apparent is that identity is by far the most prominent theme. ‘Who cares about Britishness?’ asks the title of Vron Ware’s book entry – well, clearly both writers and publishers do. Julian Baggini goes in search of what it means to be English by living in the most average place in England (worked out using postcode data on income, education and ethnicity) in ‘Welcome to Everytown’. Arthur Aughey takes a step back and reflects on ‘The Politics of Englishness’. Mike Parker travels slightly further west and tries to work out why the English are so rude about the Welsh (in ‘Neighbours from Hell’). And in Scotland, Brian Monteith does his best to assess how Scotland can become self-sufficient (‘Paying the Piper’).

But tensions surrounding identity are by no means limited to the Nations. Many writers reflect on the compatability – or incompatibility – of Britishness and Islam. Philip Lewis does his best to support the compatibility argument by dispelling some of the cruder stereotypes of what it means to be ‘Young, British and Muslim’. Tariq Modood defends ‘Multiculturalism’ against a rising tide of discontent and Philippe Legrain argues that Britain needs ‘Immigrants’.

But a number of other books voice growing misgivings about multiculturalism and worry about the effects of too much tolerance. Andrew Anthony perhaps best represents this strain of thought in ‘The Fall-out’. Anthony experienced something of an epiphany after 9/11 that led him to slough off the easy-going liberalism of his youth in favour of a harder, less forgiving conservatism.

Nick Cohen extends Anthony’s liberal crisis to the whole political left in Britain. Arguing in ‘What’s Left?’ that Labour supporters seem to have reached a bizarre consensus with religious fundamentalists, leading to an excessive – and damaging – tolerance of Islamic extremism. An argument underscored by Ed Husain’s graphic description of his own alienation from mainstream British culture and embrace of radical Islam, in ‘The Islamist’. Anun Kundnani believes these conservative views increasingly characterise contemporary British society and represent ‘The End of Tolerance’ as we have known it for the past few decades.

Eschewing soul-searching and inter-party squabbling other writers have looked outside the UK to understand the roots of religious extremism. Zahid Hussein traces militant Islam to ‘Frontline Pakistan’, Zaki Chehab goes ‘Inside Hamas’, while John Phillips and Martin Evans show how violence and dispossession can alienate a people (in Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed). Frank Furedi focuses instead on our reaction to extremism and terrorism in ‘Invitation to Terror’, as does Bob Brecher, from a very different perspective, in ‘Torture and the Ticking Bomb’.

From explaining present extremism to explaining that of the past. A remarkable number of good books have been published in the last year about Ireland. From Roy Foster’s compelling assessment of Ireland’s political and economic transformation between 1970 and 2000 (‘Luck and the Irish’), to Paul Bew’s history of Irish Nationalism from the 1790s to the end of the twentieth century (‘Ireland: the Politics of Enmity’) and on to Malachi O’Doherty’s account of ‘The Telling Year: Belfast 1972′ and Richard English on ‘Irish Freedom’.

What’s not there?

Women. It is strange and unfortunate that so few of the books submitted have been written by women. Just over one in ten. Whether this is indicative of women’s rejection of politics today – or at least the way in which politics is conducted – is unclear, but we’re the poorer for it.

China: in the year China hosts the Olympics, takes over as America’s banker, and hugely extends its influence in Africa it seems astonishing that there is only one book, ‘China Road’ by Bob Gifford, about the country (given publishing lead times, perhaps the crop of China books will come this year and next).

The environment / global warming: outside Mark Lynas’ ‘Six Degrees’, there is virtually nothing on the environment – neither about the science of climate change (like Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘Field Notes from a Catastrophe’ in 2006) or its political implicaions. All we have, rather disturbingly, is a raft of dystopian novels.

Written by Martin Moore

February 15th, 2008 at 8:31 am

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Is Wales the canary in the mine of news?

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It would be difficult to find a quieter way to go.

Last Friday Rhodri Morgan, Wales’ First Minister, announced that he would step down in September 2009. It was reported in the South Wales Echo, the South Wales Evening Post, the Daily Post (Liverpool) and got a brief mention on Betsan Powys’ blog (BBC Wales).

Nothing in the national press or on their websites. Nothing on Sky. Nothing on the BBC News Online (excepting Powys’ blog and a short piece about the succession). Tumbleweed.

Now, you could try to explain this absence by arguing that September 2009 is a long way away, that the announcement was partly expected (though not its timing), and that Rhodri Morgan is not the most exciting figure. And, of course, it would be daft to expect anything approaching the fanfare attached to news about Tony Blair’s corresponding announcement.

But wouldn’t you have thought it was in the public interest at least to report it? Isn’t the fact that the leader of the Welsh Assembly Government is going and that a succession battle will now begin relevant not just to Wales but to UK politics and democracy?

Were Alex Salmond to announce he was stepping down it’s hard to imagine the Scottish press ignoring it, or indeed the BBC.

And this isn’t the only piece of Welsh political news that has gone AWOL. Last summer Morgan was hospitalized. Few outlets reported it. Immediately before that the successive attempts by different parties to form a coalition government were given scant coverage by the media.

Indeed there is increasing evidence to suggest that Wales is becoming a ‘news blackspot’. That it is experiencing the spiral of decline in news reporting that people keep saying is threatened elsewhere.

The process goes something like this. Commercial organisations gradually cut back on their editorial commitment. The less an area is reported the less people assume there is to report. More reporters are pulled out. Finally only the BBC and local papers cover the region – and the BBC ghetto-izes much of its reporting into online pockets and blogs. At this point there’s a good chance that, even if something happens that is important/newsworthy, it will go unreported or so under-reported that the vast majority of people will completely miss it.

Is Wales the first of many? Other areas now seem to be following the same path. Perhaps, if we think it’s important that political news continues to get reported, we should look at what’s happened in Wales and work out if we can do anything to reverse / stop it.

Written by Martin Moore

February 13th, 2008 at 3:17 pm

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Do the press' calls for people to resign have any effect?

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Along with much of the rest of the press, Melanie Phillips has today called for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to resign.

“[W]e are all profoundly shocked by him [Dr Williams]” Phillips writes, “He should stand down and Dr Nazir-Ali, who is trying to defend the religion and culture of this country, should take his place”.

But will her calls have any effect? Is the power of the media such that when they call for someone to go that person inevitably starts to pack their bags?

Using Melanie Phillips as a proxy for media power, I thought I’d do a little digging and find out. Phillips seems like a pretty decent proxy, given that the newspaper for which she is a columnist, The Daily Mail, is said to cast more fear into the heart of government than any other. On top of which she’s been an influential columnist for many years – writing for the the Sunday Times and the Guardian prior to the Mail. And, she has a pretty impressive track record when it comes to calling for resignations.

Based on a brief web search she has demanded the head not only of Dr Rowan Williams but of:

Sir Ian Blair, Patricia Hewitt (‘her every utterance seems to bear no relation whatever to reality’ 16-4-06), Des Browne, Tessa Jowell (‘The fact that she has not already resigned is therefore scandalous’, 6-3-06), Ruth Kelly (it is a ‘disgrace that she clings on’, 16-1-06), David Westwood (Chief Constable, Humberside Police during Soham), Margaret Hodge, and Sir Paul Condon.

These are in addition to those people for whom she says ‘calls to resign are growing’ such as – back in 2003 – Alastair Campbell, Geoff Hoon and Tony Blair.

How many resigned as a consequence of these calls? As far as I can tell, none. (Of course the jury is still out on the Archbishop). Sir Ian Blair is still in post. Des Browne remained, as did Tessa Jowell – though shifted by the new PM. Ruth Kelly continues to ‘cling on’. David Westwood was suspended for 10 weeks by David Blunkett after the Bichard Inquiry but then reinstated, Margaret Hodge held on despite the ‘Islington controversy’, and Sir Paul Condon, according to Peter Wilby, ‘survived the shooting of innocent people without much trouble’ [compared to Ian Blair]. Blair lasted another four years and Geoff Hoon stayed at Defence until 2005.

Alastair Campbell could be considered an exception although Phillips was not (in my press search) calling for his resignation but rather reflecting public calls for him to go.

So why does Phillips keep calling for people’s heads?

It is made even more puzzling since Phillips herself has, for a long time, believed that ‘no-one resigns’. In a piece for the Guardian in 1993 titled ‘What does it take for a public figure to resign?’ Phillips wrote that:

Public life has fallen into disrepute and the cynicism of the people knows no bounds. It’s the anything-goes-as-long-as-you-can-get-away-with-it culture, and it’s as prevalent in the corridors of Whitehall as the joyriders’ ghettos. Moral standards in the press – whose job it is to expose public misdemeanours – themselves lack a certain something“.

Presumably Phillips would argue she is doing her best to uphold moral standards in the press. But is calling for people to go the same as exposing public misdemeanours? Or do the constant, and ineffectual, shouts to “RESIGN” simply give people the impression that the Fourth Estate is doing its job but actually just lead to greater public cynicism?

Written by Martin Moore

February 11th, 2008 at 2:01 pm

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