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Is the BBC licence fee still up for grabs?

John Whittingdale says the July agreement did not settle the BBC licence fee: is this a Government U-turn?

A radical proposal to preserve the BBC’s independence

To safeguard the BBC’s independence decisions over the Licence Fee should be taken away from politicians and handed over to a new independent statutory body.

Co-operatives: redefining local journalism?

Local media is marked by monopolised ownership and a consistent decline in availability and quality. With over 400 members, the Bristol Cable is a local media co-operative bucking the trend through common ownership, challenging investigations and multimedia.

Scrutinising the Scrutineers: part 1

The European Scrutiny Committee has locked horns with the BBC, repeatedly accusing it of a pro-EU bias. Is the corporation’s editorial independence under threat? 

Will Prince Charles' "heartfelt interventions" extend to arms sales?

The Prince of Wales and his family have a shameful record of collusion with the British arms industry.

Diagnosing the daily poison

We must see the tabloid right as a target in the battle for a better society.

Can the Staggers return?

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I have had the strange experience of publishing an article in the New Statesman, once a familiar home. It's a reply to Conor Gearty's absurd attack on the Convention on Modern Liberty. Does the Statesman have a future? If the question continues to be asked for as long as it HAS been asked, since the 60s in fact, that gives it another 50 years. I've not met the new editor Jason Cowley. His magazine faces three problems: socialism, the Labour Party and the Guardian. Historically, ie before the 1960s, the NS appealed to a broad liberal as well as left readership as well as enlightened Conservatives. It did so because it was the thinking magazine that opposed colonialism. It thus engaged in a radical argument about the British state while remaining committed to high culture and way of life. When I bid for the editorship in 1986 my argument was that the issue of a democratic British state was the way to rebuild that alliance of readers. Neil Kinnock intervened to ensure that John Lloyd got the job. But this returned the magazine to the position of being a loyal (however critical) part of the Labour movement. Not good for readership. Meanwhile, the Guardian skillfully positioned itself across the territory that NS had occupied, as the UK's educated readership grew. This cast the NS into a more niche position. Then there is socialism which has become increasingly ideal for niches. Unlike capitalism and its showy culture of exhibitionism, socialism tends to be statist and this tends to stifle open debate and surprising changes of perspective, especially when associated either a) with the Labour Party or, b) against it and its never ending betrayals. This also is not good for readership. Now there is a brand new problem, if you will excuse the pun. 'New Labour'. Suzanne Moore's furious denunciation of a casual Alastair (thanks Iain) Campbell guest editoriship which filled the issues with pictures of himself and gave Tony Blair the platform to launch his 'Abrahamic' venture (which with the typical piety of a tart he declares will be open to people of all faiths and none) draws a line. Suzanne's point that it is intolerable to pretend that the Iraq war was 'yesterday' is spot on, deserved by Campbell and welcome to people like me. There needs to be a break from the Blair legacy and its collaboration with Bush both militarily and neoliberally if the magazine is to gain a readership that can enjoy the company of others. The sooner the better if it is to prepare its Labour readership for opposition and give liberals and intelligent Tories a reason to read it. Cleverness and its associated publicity is no substitute for enlightment.


Anthony Barnett (London, OK):  Apologies for hardly writing in OK, I have been, er, rather busy with the Convention. But a generous spread about "The New Freedom Fighters" that I have just seen in the Observer this morning has at least three errors one of which is really important and should be corrected asap even though it is an error of ommission. the story consists of a group photo put togther in photoshop and a historical perspective by Robert McCrumb. I am described as the Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy, which post I handed over to Tony Curzon Price two years ago. He's doing a great job and I am doing all I can a)to support him and b)to tell everyone, so it is very irritating. Second, there is an error I'm responsible for as I said in passing how Henry Porter came up to me at Anthony Sampson's funeral and said "we must talk". In fact it was at his memorial service in St Martin's in the Fields and not at Sampson's "graveside". Never mind, Sampson was a stickler for facts but would have enjoyed that mistake. The most important thing, however, is that it turns out that nine of us were called in to be pictured and this did not include Phil Booth of NO2ID without whom.... the picture is completely incorrect.

Bloggers expose Sun's anti-Muslim propaganda

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Wednesday's story in the Sun about a 'hit list' of prominent British Jews on an Islamist web forum, has received a pretty thorough fisking from the British blogosphere over the past couple of days.

Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads believes that some of the content highlighted by the Sun was actually posted by Glen Jenvey,  the 'anti-terror expert' quoted by the paper. The excellent Richard Bartholemew has more on Jenvey's backgound and notes that he has a track record of putting fake Islamist content on the web.

One aspect of Jenvey's career which hasn't featured much in this week's debate is his role in Obsession, an ant-Muslim film which has received a great deal of scrutiny in the US. Reporters Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton have documented the involvement of a number of hardline neoconservative groups in the film's creation.

Capra for the credit crunch

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Frank Capra’s classic Hollywood movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is going the art-house cinema rounds.  It is a gloriously schmaltzy movie in which George Bailey (James Stewart), a thoroughly decent man is brought so low by a malevolent small town capitalist that he contemplates a Christmas-time suicide.  However a portly guardian angel intervenes and shows him how badly Bedford Falls would have turned out without his good deeds. 

The cinemas are trumpeting James Stewart’s performance in what they describe as a “sentimental testament to homely small-town moral values”.  Sentimental it is, but I think its values are rather more universal.  The film belongs to 1946 and is in a sense a reflection on America’s experience of recession in the 1930s and the public values that imbued the New Deal era. Out of duty George Bailey has taken over a mutual building society that builds decent homes for local people who would otherwise have to rent the capitalist’s unfit housing.  So here are values of mutuality and social concern.  The portrait of the town bereft of Bailey’s good works is a garish neo-liberal nightmare in which everyday goodwill is extinguished in a society driven by greed and suspicion.  I don’t want to over-egg the movie’s commitment to anything more than entertainment, and public policy in the US has certainly turned decisively away from the film’s values, homely or universal.  But there are themes here for the UK as well as the US as we both enter a recession that is going severely to challenge our societies and what remains of our postwar values.

Branding, bullying and the BBC

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Over at openDemocracy's 50/50 blog, Rosemary Bechler offers an extended meditation on the Russell Brand controversy and its implications for contemporary Britain.

Some would see the episode mainly in terms of the tribulations of a universal broadcaster in an age of fragmented audience expectations. Bechler concludes that explanation is not good enough:

No - the elephant in the room I would like to suggest, remains the sheer number of programmes, whole programming genres, and comedic, cookery and broadcasting careers which now have humiliation, harassment and bullying as their sole, or at least underlying objective. From Weakest Link to The Apprentice to Big Brother to all those X factors - the list is far longer than this - what other promise lurks in the bowels of British ‘entertainment’ so tantalisingly as our collective celebration of our ability to hurt each other? If OFCOM and the BBC Trust were genuinely to ask who is responsible for this, they would have to widen their brief to include the whole of ‘reality tv’ for starters – that marvellous phrase which seals itself with the hegemonic imprimatur. And would the true villain of the piece really turn out to be - the younger generation?

There may be some truth to the accusation that the brutalisation of doing business in everyday life in Britain in the last thirty years has filtered down to infect our children. (If so, it is the only area where trickledown has worked.)

The body as a terrain of struggle - Hunger reviewed

Michael Calderbank (London) reviews Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen.

On April 9th 1981 Bobby Sands, a 27 year-old prisoner on hunger strike in “H-blocks” of HMS Maze prison (known to republicans as Long Kesh), was elected Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, having polled over 30,000 votes. This was a momentous episode not only in British (or “British”) electoral history, but in the course of the republican struggle and possibly in the future of politics in the six counties. Yet Steve McQueen’s harrowing dramatisation of Sands’ tragic story sees fit only to mention this remarkable political episode in the closing credits. This has the effective of casting the wider social context of the hunger strikes into the background, as the spotlight focuses forensically on the horror of Sands’ imprisonment and the tragedy of his self-sacrifice.

The leak and censor approach to media management

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre comes up with a fairly full list of threats to the freedom of the press in a Guardian article today, but not an exhaustive one as it turns out. The Independent has another item to add to the tally:

The Intelligence and Security Committee, the parliamentary watchdog of the intelligence and security agencies which has a cross-party membership from both Houses, wants to press ministers to introduce legislation that would prevent news outlets from reporting stories deemed by the Government to be against the interests of national security. 

The Committee's concerns centre on one incident in particular:

an Islamist plot to kidnap and murder a British serviceman in 2007, during which reporters were tipped off about the imminent arrest of suspects in Birmingham, a security operation known as "Gamble". The staff in the office of the then home secretary, John Reid, and the local police were among those accused of being responsible – charges they denied. An investigation by Scotland Yard failed to find the source of the leak.

It will be far simpler apparently, for the state to censor the press than to enforce some discipline amongst its own functionaries.

Update: David Davis takes up the cudges at Index on Censorship:

Calls for unprecedented and legally binding powers to ban the media from reporting matters of national security, reported on the front page of the Independent, would be incredible had they come from a government minister in this heavy-handed anti-liberal government. Being cited as coming from the Intelligence and Security Committee, a committee that consists entirely of members of the Houses of Parliament, they are virtually unbelievable.


Missing the point: from Panorama to Prescott

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): The V in TV now stands for vacuum not vision. I watched this evening's Panorama followed by the much trailed part I of John Prescott on class. There was a time when the BBC's "flagship" programme was an hour. Now it is 30 minutes and much of this is dedicated to atmospheric cutaways - all drama and little thought.

Tonight's was a first on the database state but jumped from data losses, to the ECAF monitoring of children, to the ANPR tracking of all car movements, with fragmented discussion of a single, central database. There was no discussion of a national information register, nothing on ID cards. It was designed to alarm not explain. There was no analysis. It was out to lunch when it came to reporting on why total surveillance was happening and what the consequences might be if it works. Sometimes I have the feeling that a report has been carried, a story 'run', with the main purpose of being able to say that the issue was "covered" and not censored or ignored. However, it is a form of death by kindness, a form of quasi-cover-up - tucking up the duvet rather than uncovering the body below it. 

The Video Republic

Celia Hannon (London, Demos): In April 2007 charlieissocoollike, a 16 year-old vlogger from Bath joined YouTube. So did the British Prime Minister. Since then Charlie has amassed 70,000 subscribers. The Prime Minister has 5,000. These figures betray a very naked truth - young people are not flocking to listen to their presidents and Prime Ministers when they talk to them via internet videos. Instead, they are seizing power for themselves; taking on roles as reporters, distributors, commentators and artists. It seems that while their parents and grandparents won their freedoms by challenging governments, this generation of young people would rather find their ‘route-around’ existing institutions and forms of media.

Welsh democracy without ITV

Geraint Talfan Davies (Institute of Welsh Affairs, Wales Watch): The more you look at Ofcom’s proposals for reducing ITV’s programming for the nations and the regions of the UK, the more you sense that the endgame for ITV is approaching. And it’s happening just when the clouds are gathering over our newspapers, too. These are unprecedented crisis years for the media in Wales.

Braced for some months past for a reduction in general programming from four hours a week to three hours in January 2009, shocked ITV Wales staff at Ofcom’s press conference in Cardiff last week were desperate to know when the decision was taken to reduce the requirement still further to one and a half hours. According to the Ofcom team it was ‘within the last six weeks’.

Broadcasting Britishness: A multi-channel debate

Tom Griffin (London, OK): The Said Business School has the week released a report based on the Broadcasting Britishness conference, which looked at the role of television and radio in shaping national identity back in June

As historian Linda Colley noted in her keynote speech at the time, "the reasons why Britishness has come to seem more problematic are in fact many and various." The report's recommendations mainly focus on the need to help ethnic minorities 'strengthen their emotional bond with Britain.' One reason for this is a concern with social cohesion in a post 7/7 environment that was reflected in the contrasting experiences of two Muslim broadcasters at the conference:

Death of a journalist

Martin O'HaganPatrick Corrigan, (Amnesty Blogs: Belfast and Beyond): The arrest on Tuesday of five people by police investigating the murder of Sunday World journalist Martin O'Hagan in Lurgan seven years ago reminds us that no-one has yet been brought to justice for this crime (sadly, just like so many others in Northern Ireland's recent history).

As Kevin Cooper of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) noted at the time of his murder, Martin O'Hagan was the only "journalist to be killed in Northern Ireland because he was a journalist and because of his work as a journalist".

A Scottish Broadcasting Corporation?

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Only days after the Scottish Government announced its plans for a local income tax, it seems another confontation with Westminster is looming. The Sunday Herald brings us news that the report of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, due to be released on Monday, will call for a new terrestrial TV service:

The stand-alone Scottish digital television channel envisaged by the commission would be based in Scotland and could resemble the new publicly funded Gaelic broadcasting channel.

The commission's near year-long inquiry also involved bosses from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 explaining how they could better cater for Scottish needs. The switchover to digital television is expected to be completed by 2012, so the new channel could be implemented within four years.

England's libel laws - a global menace?

In today's Guardian, George Monbiot takes up the case of former diplomat Craig Murray, who is facing the threat of a libel action by private military contractor Tim Spicer.

Monbiot argues that Spicer's lawyers are threatening an injunction "against a book they haven't read and that won't be published until September," although Murray himself suggests elsewhere that they may have been tipped off by the Foreign Office.

Politics and the City

Beth Forrester (Unlock Democracy): “Smart, successful, single young woman seeks intelligent, attractive and culturally relevant website to combine her interests in fashion, music, celebrity and most of all politics and current affairs. “

In the UK this has been a familiar plea for far too long. While our counterparts in the USA have long been actively reading, browsing and debating on Women on the Web, female focused British portals have remained rare. This is not to dispute their quality or popularity, with The F-Word, Feminist Fightback and Female First all very popular but relatively narrow in appeal.

Some tales of the Total

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): I went to the launch of Iain Dale's new mag Total Politics at the top of the Milbank tower. The best encounter went to Nick Herbert. He was approached by an attractive young woman in a red frock. When she learnt he was a Conservative MP she asked if he was “A nice Tory or a nasty one”.

Broadcasting Britishness

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): The role of the BBC and other public service broadcasters in promoting national identity has been much discussed in recent weeks, with reports on the issue coming from the BBC Trust and the IPPR.

In a keynote speech to the Broadcasting Britishness? conference in Oxford on Tuesday, distinguished historian Linda Colley suggested that this emphasis on the media may be letting politicians off the hook:

"Whatever role you determine the national broadcast media can and should play in fostering national and social cohesion, I suspect that at base these are political issues that require political solutions," she argued.

It's very easy for the Government to lead culture bodies which require Government funding. It's very much harder for a British government to take its own inititiatives to devise say a new written constitution that might give people in these islands a much stronger sense of common citizenship, or to legislate say a common curriculum in British history and citizenship in all four parts of the UK.

Arguably such expedients are necessary, but it is only the politicians who are going to be able to do this.

BBC 'falling short' on nations coverage

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon):
The BBC Trust has today published an impartiality report on the corporation's coverage of the component nations of the UK. It includes an interesting study by Cardiff University, whose conclusions largely chime with those of IPPR North's recent report on the post-devolution media.

When Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland did make the news, coverage was more likely to involve topics such as sport and crime, rather than those policy areas that are now devolved responsibilities. So, for example, of the 161 news items about health and education in our general sample, no fewer than 160 were about England. On BBC outlets, all 136 stories about health and education were about England.
It is not simply that more stories were told about England, but storytelling often assumed an English perspective, or else an assumption that England can safely stand in for Britain or the UK.

Nation speaking unto nation?

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): A new report by IPPR North asks whether the media is creating cultural distance between England and Scotland. Author Douglas Fraser, the Scottish political editor of The Herald, answers with an emphatic yes, documenting how the London press has ignored even those Scottish stories, like the Calman Commission's review of Scottish finance, which have major implications for England. Broadcasting may yet prove central to the developing relationship between England and Scotland, Fraser believes.

The debate here is symbolised by the question of the 'Scottish Six, long proposed as an alternative to the main BBC News programme from London. Fraser is suspicious of the Scottish Government's calls for more broadcasting powers, suggesting that they could lead to increased political interference. At the same time, he acknowledges that John Birt's alliance with Tony Blair to block the Scottish Six was itself a highly political episode.

Sugar leaves bad taste in the mouth

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Could the election of Boris Johnson (a man most famous for appearing on HIGNFY) provide the cue for other TV personalities and celebs to enter into politics? The reason I ask is that I have just watched a ten minute interview with Alan Sugar on BBC News 24. It featured under the headline "Sir Alan's Broken Britain". There seemed very little point to the interview other than the fact Sugar - "off the telly" - has recently aired his views on the issues of violent crime and feral youth. So, what is the problem according to Sugar's analysis? "Human rights legislation", which comes from Europe and "places like that". And what is to be done? "Billions more" on the police, he said. Why these pronouncements were thought worthy of serious news coverage I do not know. It was perhaps too much to have expected the BBC interviewers to ask Sugar precisely which "European" human rights law he thinks explains recent stabbings and gun crime (they were happy enough doing the PR for BBC series "The Apprentice"). I remember feeling slightly smug when Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected Governor of California since I foolishly imagined the same thing could not happen here. Not any more.

Watching the media swirl

Jon Bright (London, OK): If you're watching the news as obsessively as I am today, you might have noticed two interesting media subplots developing, as we wait for the mayoral race to declare a winner. The first is bookmaker Paddy Power's decision to pay out on a Boris win, to the tune of roughly £100,000. They have clearly gambled that the payoff in terms of positive publicity is more than the risk of that money being lost by a surprise Ken resurgence. I first noticed them in Political Betting, and have since watched their name trickle into the Evening Standard and the Telegraph. I'm sure it will percolate through elsewhere soon.

White season for racism

Vron Ware (London, author): On the Monday following the end of BBC2's White season it was announced that Rupert Murdoch's new printing plant in Hertfordshire was to be opened with great ceremony. Much was made of the fact that it was now the biggest newspaper production site in the world, and it was only mentioned as a footnote that it made Wapping redundant, cutting the workforce from 600 to 200. The real news was that the print media was still alive and well.

You can't trust the papers

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Recently I made a joke about a boring headline on Tom Nairn's speech on how globalisation now favours countries like Scotland. This time, the killingly dull headline was at the top of the page, in London's Evening Standard.

Juliet Stevenson strikes again

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): This time she was only acting but she plays the role of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Foreign Office legal adviser who resigned because the invasion of Iraq was not legal. It is in the first, I thought brilliant and clarifying, of eight Newsnight short films 10 Days to War. You can see it here. The discussion that followed was rubbish with Paxman at his disinterested worst. But you can't have everything and the films will last.

Personality driven media will never cover real politics

CoSERG (Cornwall): In January a CoSERG member was approached by a television company making a programme for ITV on the change to unitary local government in Cornwall. The programme researcher explained that the programme would be about the costs of the transition; was it costing more than the County Council had predicted, as forecast by the opponents of unitary local government? A fair question; but we asked whether they also intended to include the issues of the loss of democratic accountability, devolution to Cornwall or local community empowerment. They weren't - these issues had "already been covered." Moreover, it became clear that our TV person had not even heard of the soon to be unlamented South West Regional Assembly.

Dealing with John Humphries

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): Successful government depends on direction more than policies. Policies only make sense to voters as part of a larger direction for the country and its citizens in the wider world. The Brown government has got its direction horribly wrong. Its defensive, centralising, ID approach to Britishness for a start and, well, I could go on and doubtless will. Just as big a problem is the opposition. That too is for other posts. This one is about why, when the government does act in a positive democratic way it still gets a bad press. Ed Balls is committed to keeping young people in education until they are at least 18, providing a framework for good education and ensuring as many of them as possible have qualifications that are respected. Finally! To achieve this he proposes a diploma that includes vocational aspects without dropping essential English language, maths and IT basics. A genuine qualification that breaks from a two-tier educational system that inscribes fatalism on those educated by the state. This ambition, it seems to me, is radical and serious in the best sense. But all the Minister could get from John Humphries on the Today program this morning was scorn that he couldn't describe what he was introducing in 30 seconds.

Tony Parsons' cod quotation

David Hayes (London, openDemocracy):  I sent this letter to the Spectator on 16 February concerning a review it published of Tony Parsons's book, My Favourite Wife. It was not published. The "Chinese proverb" canard has since been repeated elsewhere, without correction; eg in the Independent, 27 February.

Almost everything about Tony Parsons's work is cod (as indeed the critic Philip Hensher once demonstrated in an extended and devastating review in your pages). Including, it seems, his epigraphs. Olivia Cole writes in your magazine ("All at sea in Shanghai", 15 February 2008 ): "A Chinese proverb - A man with two houses loses his mind; a man with two women loses his soul - gives My Favourite Wife its epigraph."

The epigraph in fact belongs to the fourth in Eric Rohmer's series of six films, Comédies et Proverbes, and introduces his subtle anatomy of a young woman's search for simultaneous urban freedom and suburban stability, Les nuits de la pleine lune (1984; released in Britain as Full Moon in Paris). Rohmer presented the phrase as a French proverb, but later acknowledged he had written it himself.

Perhaps its true origin can be acknowledged in the paperback edition?

Britain's Strange Fruit

Jane Powell (London, Director CALM): In the midst of the extraordinary spectacle of 17 young suicides - mainly male - in Bridgend, there's a report out showing that the suicide rate in young men in England and Wales is at all time low. Can both be true?

The analysis published in the British Medical Journal of the decline in the suicide rate is an important detailed study. The fact that the rate has been declining isn't new, but the details within the study are. The headline though - that the rate suicide in young men is at an all time low - seems the only angle journalists have taken any note of. Their message, that all is fine: there was a problem once, now it is disappearing, nothing to worry about any more.

Should we have more politics on TV?

Jon Bright (London, OK): Mark Bell of CentreForum has an interesting piece in CiF today asking the above question. I had a rather ingrained resistance to the idea, but he might have turned me round. The case against, which he deconstructs, runs as follows:

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