Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Supply and Demand Argument: A Response

The scandal that has engulfed the News of the World, and more broadly the journalistic culture of Britain’s tabloid media, has given credence to widespread questioning of the implications, legitimacy, and function of journalism in modern society. This ‘imbroglio’ (ask Will Self) has, to a limited degree, resulted in greater reservations being held concerning the necessity of the gossip-obsessed culture of ‘red-top media’ and, accordingly, the populist voyeurism which has, in many ways, come to define today’s most common socio-cultural inclinations.

The reputation of British tabloids for ruinously intrusive reporting, facilitated it appears, in some cases, through illegal practices such as phone-hacking, has always been somewhat controversial. Those directly affected by hounding cabals of journalists and photographers, and those who have been exposed for issues as diverse as corruption and cellulite, have understandably held some disdain, even moralistic judgement, for their hack oppressors. However, the sympathy that these, often multi-millionaire, celebrities have mustered has always been somewhat scant; seen by many as par-for-the-course, a sort of jealously imagined trade-off for having such successful lives. In fact, as has been repeatedly aired in recent days, these stories were immensely successful for a newspaper market increasingly challenged by the threat of rolling television news, social media, and the ubiquitous and infinitely varied resources of the internet. While the vigour of all forms of print-media has deteriorated in recent times the tabloid press have managed to retain a profitable print-run, whereas in contrast most broadsheets have become economic liabilities on the whole. It is argued that this success has been a by-product, to some degree, of the titillating and intrusive/‘investigative’ tales of scandal and woe which have become commonplace.

This voyeuristic tabloid journalism, which has developed since the 1980s, has, as such, had two paralleled and opposing affects; a creation of ire amongst those affected and those who feel, on some moral ground, that this form of public salivation is degrading for all involved, yet simultaneously a positive popular reception which has given print-media forms purveying this kind of reporting added longevity. In the market-based world we live in this has simply become a paradigm of ‘supply and demand’; this kind of journalism wouldn’t be done if it wasn’t popular and, accordingly, the ‘moral concerns’ of ‘lefties and oversensitive celebrities’ are at odds with the majority: they are just uptight.

Recent events have certainly aroused these discussions to the point of crescendo, concentrating the complaints of these groups and hardening them with the reality of actual wrong-doing and illegality. In fact, the recognition of the impropriety of the tabloid press, and a severe questioning of their methods and content, has almost undoubtedly grown more widespread. However, the response of journalists and commentators, in particular, has been to defend their style of reporting; concentrating on the revelations of disturbing practices which have already claimed the life of the News of the World. They have triumphantly returned to the ‘supply and demand argument’; some even seem to think they have gallantly defended world, through their ‘free reporting’, from the next Hitler, rejecting claims for greater regulation of print journalism. The argument essentially runs that by calling for an end to this style of reporting you are a snob, you are ignoring its popularity, and by this time next week some sort of tyrannical dictator will have taken power under the guise of being another lifeless politician who listens to the Arctic Monkeys because of you, and your idiotic meddling. You will be crying when he actually listens to Richard Wagner, WHILE KILLING YOUR CHILDREN AND THEIR MORALS SIMULTANEOUSLY!!

But this argument, while seemingly powerful in many debates and discussions, is fundamentally flawed, something of a straw man, and indicative of the hazy post-dictatorship democratic moralism which dominates modern society in times of difficulty.

Firstly, the separation of means and results is naive to the realisation that only through the competition for the next story, the even greater piece of intrigue, came the development of illegal, and disturbingly intrusive, methods such as phone-hacking.

This argument also overplays the usefulness and respectability of this genre of journalism; an expose into the sex-life of a premiership footballer is not conducive to a freer and fairer society, it is not inherently in the ‘public interest’ (whatever this over-used and under-elaborated-upon phrase actually means). There are some elements of this journalistic intrusion which can, to a degree, be defended as examining and exposing corruption and duplicity which is potentially damaging for society and those within it. Investigative journalism into areas, such as the recent discovery of match-fixing rings including Pakistan cricket players, undoubtedly plays an important role within a free society; however, there are many articles under this moniker which in reality are purely to embrace the oft-quoted public appetite for dirt.
The central element of this argument, of a public baying for blood in a coliseum of sexualised gossip, relies on the fact that the popular clamour for intricate gossip and sordid tales comes from a group of entirely well-informed, independent, and self-assured individuals who just happen to have chosen this form of media because it fits their world-view. This is ignorant of the fact that, as is widely appreciated, the media has an unprecedented influence upon the public. As such, it is hardly surprising that, fed an ever more intrusive brand of media gossiping, an appetite for this has developed. Creating a clamour for something amongst people and then claiming it is an unbridled right of any democratic society for the people to be able to choose it, even if on most levels it is a deplorable and distasteful thing, is a dangerous development, it is by many definitions the kind of tactic used in dictatorial societies. The idea that the public need gossip and the cheap, sexualised miniscule details of minor celebrities’ ostensibly dull lives out of some inner humanity is a ridiculous suggestion; we like a bit of intrigue and excitement, but our genealogy doesn’t include a ‘who is Katie Price sleeping with?’ gene.

The idea that regulation would be dangerous, and that a completely free press able to report on anything and everything without respect for social and cultural conventions and the lives of others, is erroneous. The defence of ‘supply and demand’ is an overly-democratic attempt to hoodwink people into letting the media have a free-run, at a time when escalating extremity is seen by some as the only solution to diminishing readerships. The print media, like any other area of society, needs to have some regulation and set conventions. Perhaps with a greater grasp upon the extremities of a disorderly tabloid press the development of a society obsessively interested with the miniscule and sordid details of public figures will cease, perhaps a new age for the media can also help dictate (and the press, like nothing else, does help dictate the nature of a society) a more well-rounded and ambitious society.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

QT Live Blog 07/04/10

Election 2010

Parliament has been dissolved, babies across the country are readying themselves for their roles as articles of party propaganda, Europe (the band responsible for this: can expect to receive unexpected royalties from endless television montages, and people en masse will actually participate in British democracy...yes actual active participation in our democracy, at least in pretence, through discussion, political thought, and of course finally voting. I must admit i personally felt more than a tinge of excitement today; elections are, potentially at least, the pinnacle of politics and a time for anoraks like me to rejoice in the saturating coverage of it all. I, of course, cannot understand clearly whether this excitement was widespread, but i would feel confident to assert that more people than normal have probably thought seriously about British politics today than would normally be the case, and that many people, from many different backgrounds, are seriously interested in the outcome of the forthcoming election.

However, one can question whether this interest and excitement is generally a good reflection of our democracy, and the principles it stands for. Democracy is defined as government by the people and, for the people to govern, which is in essence what the process of election of representatives is, the people need to have real understanding and discretion of their politics. In addition the political representatives available for the people to choose need to have clear and defined policies, have clear checks upon their progress and enactment of promises when in power, and be a distinguishable choice and representative of a certain political ideology. The interaction between these two elements in many ways demarcates how active a democracy really is, the foundation of democratic governance in ancient Greece, which was participatory, depended upon an impressive and wide-ranging enjoyment, involvement, and understanding of politics on behalf of its people. In a modern political system, it can be assumed, not necessarily but practically, that less faith is given to the political insight of the majority of its participants. This system relies more on the defined and responsible outline of political representatives, who can more simply each outline various political methods and create a more simplistic choice for a population less inclined to understand the minutiae of political ideology. I must emphasise there is no snobbery involved here, in many ways the latter is a better system which enables people with real expertise and understanding of politics to have a greater input into the political system, it is also the only practically possible system of democracy in the modern world.

As such we must look to our political representatives to provide an obvious and informed path, for different ideologies to be reflected by different parties, and for politics to be a broad platform of discussion and debate, possible to follow for those interested enough but also easily defined to those who are more likely to become involved only in these final thirty days. And this, in my opinion, is a worrying conclusion for anyone who has assessed British parliamentary democracy, with its vague party definitions, its unclear or non-existent policies, and its increasingly obvious 'style-over-substance' approach. I would take myself as someone who is interested in politics, who to the best of my ability understands some of the importance distinctions involved, if by no means all, yet i must also admit that my voting in this election will, as it stands, be more based upon history and tradition than current policies or distinctions. Historically, the Conservatives have protected the rich, have been intentionally eponymous in their policies, and have offered, in my opinion, much of the negativity and regression of British political history. In contrast, the Labour party have offered progression, equal opportunity, and have been defined as a party of the lower classes rather than one of the rich. These definitions are of course obtuse and broadly exaggerated, but they do seem to have a foundation in fact and are to some degree helpful. But these two parties are today in an unthinkably mundane battle for the centre ground, have a lack of clear policies, and, in many ways, seem to be two parties with similar plans, battling over differences of personality, and, as i am trying to show, chosen more due to traditional and symbolism than practical nuances. Popular involvement in politics is at face value a brilliant thing, but it must be understood in clarity that without adequate knowledge, or alternatively adequately mature party politics, it can be a potentially dangerous development.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Private Education

"The educated differ from the uneducated, as the living from the dead." - Aristotle

Aristotle was making a simple point about education, those who receive its benefits prosper whereas those who do not suffer. His point is still obvious in today's society, those who advance to higher education are those who dominate all the important and powerful positions of business, state, and media, whereas the underclass of school-leavers, those who have nothing but a handful of substandard GCSE's to their name, are those who inhabit the doll queues and crassly judgemental daytime television programmes where Britain's self-prescribed purveyors of morality dish out their 'learned' prescriptions of what it means to be virtuous. Obviously this is not an ideal situation, and one which governments have repeatedly tried to challenge through programmes aimed at encouraging further education and the improvement of state schooling. However, Aristotle's proclamation is outdated and undeveloped in the context of modern Britain, and perhaps in the context of a modern world. Not only now are the uneducated clearly divided from the uneducated, but the privately educated are demarcated from those who have had a state education. This difference not only comes from a cultural gulf, but a gulf of opportunity in admission to the highest-ranked universities and the highest-paid jobs. 

This is not an original statement, nor is it something which has significantly worsened in recent times, if anything opportunities for those from state-run schools have increased in quality and frequency. It is also not to say that these increased opportunities are not often well-deserved, for they are not being chosen for university places and jobs because they speak in a posh accent and are the son of such-and-such who the admission officer used to go hunting with - this happened in the last century undoubtedly, but it does seem, thankfully, to have disappeared almost entirely. They are given these opportunities because of a vastly superior education, one which has brought out their full-potential and fully developed their abilities, making them the most suitable candidates. This is a consequence of private schools holding a monopoly of the best teaching talent, the best facilities, the best academic and cultural links, and importantly a separation of students from the most disruptive elements of the education system.

In comparison to this state schools, especially those in urban areas, have suffered from a lack of all the qualities attributed to private schools. While undoubtedly many students can prosper in state comprehensives, and as such do find the opportunities mentioned, this is clearly a less common phenomenon. It is most damaging for the middle-group of students, a majority of the student population, who are caught in-between the high achievers and the troublemakers. While such people are often caught-up in the distractions and behaviour problems associated with some students of state schools, it is exactly these students, the majority who are not born as straight-A students and, if exposed to such instances, are liable to imitate the apathy and misbehaviour of the troublemakers present in state schools, who are protected from such distractions, and are given the extra-facilities and higher-standards of teaching in private institutions that they require to prosper.

I would argue that this situation is not only unfair, but also damaging to society at large, and breaches the basic rights of many. It is a fundamental right to be educated in the modern world, something which is a necessary component of every functioning society, with justification of its virtues unnecessary to expound here. Surely this entails, in a society ever-more obsessed with equal opportunities and accessibility, that all children should receive the best standard of education possible, and be given equal chances to prosper from their childhood, something which would enable truly the most talented and deserving to be the highest achievers. But this is not a situation possible with a private education system, something which divides people immediately from their entrance to education not by talent or enthusiasm, but by financial position. Those with the most money can afford to allow their children to attend expensive and exclusive private schools, enabling them to succeed as a result of these financial benefits. This is not fair, and condemns masses of people to under-achievement and unfulfillment of potential purely due to the financial situation of their parents. It may be an extremely unpopular position amongst those who feel they have earned the right to finance their children to a better future, but when has the prosperity of one's parents been a fair justification of having better opportunities - this is just one example of how the justification for private education is completely undermined by any acceptance of social justice. 

An end to the private education system would help to enable the majority of middling students to avoid the damaging distractions of state education, distractions which would through better standards of teaching and greater opportunities surely be significantly lessened, or at least be spread more evenly amongst all schools. It is the concentration of trouble students which, in addition to damaging their own prospects and the prospects of others, allows gangs to form and anti-social behaviour to dominate newspapers and divide communities. This clearly would not end in one swoop to destroy the privatised education system, but surely it would be an important development, and one more profound than anything as yet suggested to tackle this disturbing socio-cultural problem. It may be a socialistic stance, and its actual employment may be very difficult to organise, but the abolition of private education would be of much benefit to the whole of society, a reversion to the basic values of education, and a true move towards equal opportunism in Britain, rather than a continued retention of the financially based hierarchy of education which damages the majority by benefiting the few - Marx would have a heart attack, but then again so should anyone who believes in equal opportunism.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Russian relations remain a conundrum

Britain's relationship with Russia, and previously the Soviet Union, has historically been an extremely tenuous one, but one seen especially in business circles as having much magnitude. Beginning in after the communist revolution, Britain amongst other western nations sent troops to fight against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War. This was followed by a thaw in relations slowly through the 30's, at least economically, but remaining suspicion and prejudice. This was of course followed by the Second World War, a period of official camaraderie between the two nations, but with behind the scenes arguments and divisions, united at times only by a common enemy in fascism. And then of course these tensions led to the cold war, when hostility was in its ascendancy. The end of the cold war in 1989, and the collapse of the USSR, has had consequences too numerous to discuss here. Since this point relations of the new Russian Federation and the United Kingdom have been at times tortuous and convoluted. Russian oligarchs have found Britain a nice second home, a place for first-class schooling, shopping and enjoyment, something shown notably by the acquisition of British football clubs. British industry has also wanted to try and get involved in the massively developing Russian energy industry, and British government for that matter has found a requirement to import Russian gas. However in contrast to these growing ties there have been the unforgettable murder of Alexander Litvinenko, murdered by a radioactive element placed in his food at a London sushi bar, with a trail of radioactivity being found on a Russian carrier from Moscow to London and back. The leading suspect of this crime, an ex-FSB agent Andrei Lugovoi, has been kept from extradition safely by the Russians and no outcome is expected. Also many seemingly undemocratic actions have taken place in Russia, again too numerous and complicated to outline here but it is safe to say that democracy is not at its most glorious in the Russian Federation if many accounts are to be believed, something somewhat underlined in Vladimir Putin's domination of the political system. Finally has come the Russian war in South Ossetia, an unjustified and seemingly totalitarian action condemned widely.

So does Britain need to seek better terms with Russia, when such events have taken place and ties have become to fractured to require much tighter visa controls on the Russian oligarchs, and for an end to cooperation with the FSB. I think with Russia's place in the world, as a leading energy giant, even with British attempts to escape dependence due to the Nordic gas pipeline, and with Russian ties to 'rogue states' such as Iran and even North Korea negotiations and settlements have to expected. David Miliband has begun this week to try and begin such settlements, yet it seems little concrete will come out of this Russian visit, the first by a British foreign secretary since in five years. What is important for British relations are that they do not ignore their basic principles of government. Issues of Russian human rights infringements, or the already mentioned lack of democracy in the Russian system, must not be completely overlooked in the search for better international or economic ties with a major power, and one which seems to be increasingly gaining power. Britain can not forget its integrity as a stable democracy and honest power in its dealings with international partners, especially not those in Europe with such power.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Postal strike has dire consequences for Royal Mail

The recently enacted industrial action from postal workers has been an unacceptable and regressive step taken by those trying to force better conditions in sorting offices and on daily postal rounds. Whether or not their demands are justified, and by the evidence given they may well be overworked as compared to years gone by, their decision to strike is one which takes no consideration for its true consequence in terms of their future employment.

Strike action, when taken in a service which actually affects a large number of people, is often met with harsher criticism than strikes in less integral industries. People feel aggrieved that they, the consumer, are forced to be dragged into industrial disputes. This is something particularly relevant to business owners, especially those who in this case may not be able to afford to outsource their postal requirements. So strike action in these important areas must be taken with the most stringent and careful considerations, realising that whether their demands are justified is not the only article of relevance to those effected. This postal strike has been underlined firmly by negativity in most circles, and a lack of interest in its actual objectives. Most newspaper headlines have been more obsessed with the replacement of the striking workers with temporary staff, or even scouts, and with the problems that the action has caused, rather than any reflection on the aims of those involved.

In my opinion this action is ill-judged, at a time of economic recession when people are less likely to immediately feel sympathy for those who have employment, and especially if such workers effect others economically through their actions, something which many small business owners will claim to be the case. The general public consensus does not seem to be in favour, whether because of increasing lack of interest in trade unionism amongst today's public, or because of short-term circumstances, but either way it seems that this decision to strike is not productive. However more damning than a lack of public sympathy is the future business ramifications for the post office. This is an industry seriously suffering from the rise of email, internet social networking and a number of reputable and well-known competitors. The numbers of items sent via Royal Mail has been declining year on year for a while, and strike action is bound to increase this only further. People who may have still been sending letters, or sending parcels via Royal mail, will be tempted to turn to email, or use the another company. This is particularly important in business where in addition to an increasing need to be more respectable in environmental terms an increasingly unreliable post office leads to calls for more internet based transactions and communications. Companies who rely on sending packages, such as mail order catalogue businesses, are also going to be further inclined to move away from Royal Mail. All in all this action will surely lead to a downturn in business for an already somewhat stricken and ailing post office. Its record and reputation was increasingly in decline, and its business was slowly being taken away by other forms of communication or by rivals before this industrial action, i worry for its future after these actions have come to a close and people have to reconsider whether they can really trust Royal Mail, or whether they really need the services being provided.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

EU presidency slips away from Blair

The much talked about position of the European Union presidency will come into being if, but increasingly when, the Czech Republic ratifies the Lisbon treaty. The EU as an institution has a chequered history in many respects, especially in terms of its public representation, and i feel that the decision to have a figurehead is a progressive one, yet one which also holds inherent risks. Many in this country hold the organisation to count for its bureaucratic nature and reputation as a paper-pushing body rather than one which formulates policy or that makes important decisions. I think that this interpretation is overly critical, and that has led to ignorance in British politics, most obviously in the form of the BNP who have abused such stereotypes to gain support for wholly unacceptable means. I do however agree that the EU has much to do to be recognised as a political success, in addition to its obvious progress economically. This leads to the Lisbon treaty and the creation of a European figurehead, someone not only to give the union notoriety and respectability, but also to pressurise constituent countries to come to decisions and be actively involved in 'European politics'. This position, and the political results in inspires, may in many ways be a make or break development for the EU.

Tony Blair has recently been proclaimed as a leading candidate for the position of President, eventually gaining public support from former colleagues, such as Gordon Brown and David Milliband. However with Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel both being regarded as 'unenthusiastic', his chances of success seem to be significantly reduced, with the scant conciliation that Silvio Berlusconi, hardly the most respectable and admired of politicians, is happy to back him in the role. However i feel that Blair failing to land this illustrious and ground-breaking role may well be a major setback for Europe.

While i agree that Blair's Iraq war legacy and the generally held, and probably misplaced, belief that he created a world of politics orbiting around spin and deception are flaws to Blair's claim for the presidency, he holds what no other candidate does: prestige. He has been described as an EU president who could 'stop traffic', he is familiar, i would argue generally well respected in politics, and has undoubted charisma and enthusiasm. Tony Blair has been one of the highest paid speakers in the world since retiring from British politics, and people do not usually pay huge sums of money to hear someone they actively despise talk to them. The idea that Blair has no credibility in politics, or evokes negative sentiment from most people when they reflect on his tenure as Prime Minister is simply untrue. Someone of Blair's standing is exactly what the EU needs, someone who can give the mass of people, who at this moment in time see the organisation as bureaucrats being overly paid for setting the correct curvature of a banana, the impression that it is a worthy and respectable organisation which may, if given time and resources, actually create a more cohesive and effective partnership in Europe. This could lead to the entity as a whole being regarded as a major world force, in a way that since the growth of America from 1945 no European country has managed.

Is Tony Blair the perfect candidate for European president? Quite clearly not, however is Tony Blair the most practical solution to the EU's biggest problem of lacking a sheen of respectability amongst the populace of Europe, in my opinion yes. Other candidates, such as Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch Prime minister, lack real notoriety in world politics, and the European Union presidency has the potential to be one of the most important positions internationally. Tony Blair gives this role its only current chance of allowing the EU to succeed politically, providing the partnership with charisma and respectability in its leadership and encouraging more support from across its member states, and across the world.