Friday, January 13, 2006

Not much to say about Tone's latest crusade, except that I couldn't let my housemate's appearance in the Western Mail slip by unnoticed.

But it reminds me of a hilarious Bill Deedes article that I mentioned more than a year ago, in which the nonogenarian conservative argues youths are much the same as they've always been:
"On the night of my 21st birthday in London, I can remember half a dozen of us playing rugger in Jermyn Street. Luckily, the police were elsewhere, for we were in helmet-nicking mood..."

Monday, January 09, 2006

A Sectarian Welfare Function?
Derry City Council want to donate some wasteland to a local GAA club so they can build a second pitch, thus transforming a dead loss into something positive for the local community. The land is worth an estimated £240,000, though I presume this is rather notional since it is still wasteland. It is undoubtedly a Pareto improvement, and, since it's wasteland, there's presumably very little opportunity cost.

Whatever social welfare function you use, I don't think you could raise an objection to this. That is until you get to Northern Ireland and people like Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry DUP MP).

When will the small-minded pricks who blight the Northern Ireland polity leave this imagined zero-sum universe? It's time they rubbed out their sectarian welfare functions and pencilled in a social welfare function.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The demise of the Bulldozer
The coverage of
Sharon’s demise (I know he’s not dead yet, but he is for political purposes) has been fascinating.

When the Gaza pullout was being talked of, and even once it was underway, the left wing press struggled to come to terms with how Sharon - the butcher of Lebanon, the catalyst of the second intifada - could engage in such dovish unilateralism. The image of the fat general trundling his way onto the Temple Mount and trampling over Palestinian sensitivities was an easier one to convey.

This circumnavigated the fractious and complex subtleties of Israeli party-politics. The narrative of a hardline Israeli PM diametrically opposed to the Palestinians is easier to fit into an inverted pyramid than the Knesset’s beehive of small parties and unstable coalitions.

The press are now finding themselves having to recast Sharon. Israel has lost its De Gaulle and its best chance of finding a peace with the Palestinians. The parallels run deep. The French Fifth Republic was modelled around De Gaulle, and once he had gone there was nobody who could – or who can ever – fill the vacuum. The failures of the Fifth Republic – most notably the ambiguous role of the president – can be traced to the drafting of the constitution by De Gaulle and Michelle Debré. (As Mitterand put it before he became President: “One can not be referee and captain one of the teams”). Only he could transcend French party-politics, and the French political system was fashioned in his image.

De Gaulle’s war-time heroism and reputation as a hard man enabled him to cede Algeria. Only he could have. It’s not hard to see the parallels. Similarly, Kadima will struggle without Sharon’s authority and gravity. Does Olmert have the necessary charisma and credibility for the Israeli centre to countenance further concessions? Rabin and Sharon, afterall, were both war heroes.

Israel, as Jonathan Freedland writes in today’s Guardian, is missing its grandfather. In his excellent piece from Jerusalem he quotes a Tel Aviv University analyst: “It’s as if we’re living in a Greek tragedy, every time there’s a leader who has what it takes to save us from ourselves, he gets taken from us”.

What could be more befitting of a Greek tragedy than redemption in death?

Back again
I've just returned to Cardiff, several pounds heavier, after spending the festive period in the OC (occupied counties) with a quick jaunt to the free state for the New Year.

It was great being back in the six counties. The big stories were the OTR legislation, the Stormont spyring and Dennis Donaldson, and the Costello reforms to the education system. Brilliant stuff, but no-one seemed to care much. All part of the post-ceasefire ennui. As Henry McDonald wrote in Sunday's Observer (can't find a link to it), people don't really care what the politicians get up to as long as there aren't bombs going off and they've got jobs.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Joined-up politics...though perhaps not when it comes to Ulster
David Burnside has called for the
Ulster Unionists to rejoin the Conservative party structure. This will be an attractive proposition for many marginalised Ulster Unionists.

Unionists of a conservative bent will doubtless look towards the Cameron effect and reckon that the rejuvenated Tory bandwagon is one on which they’d do well to hitch a ride. With only one MP the UUP have never been in a worse position.

It’s intriguing news, but I’m profoundly ambivalent towards it. The essential logic is something I’ve long advocated: the normalisation of Northern Irish politics entails parties developing non-traditional (ie non-sectarian) politics. Or put less charitably, in engaging in politics (how we should govern) as opposed to primal power-play (who should govern).

But what of the poor weirdos like me who want to see Northern Ireland remain in the UK but want to see it as part of a more equal, more equitable Britain? Many people react to my politics as if I suffered from a split personality, and on occasions I begin to believe them. In fact, I only know one other unionist republican (small ‘u’, small ‘r’).

I occasionally find myself rapaciously agreeing with Conservatives when discussing Northern Ireland but wanting to strangle them when we turn to virtually any other issue. Neither the Tories or Labour have a shining record on Northern Ireland. It was the Iron Lady who gave us the perversely undemocratic Anglo-Irish agreement, and in 2003 New Labour had to be taken to the European Court of Human Rights to allow Northern Irish people to join it. Not one Northern Irish person cast a vote for the incumbent government at the last election. They weren’t allowed to. Labour’s refusal to run against its ‘sister party’ the SDLP makes them a de facto nationalist party. Socialist unionists can run and jump. Weird, isn’t it?

So there’s a conceptual gap for a social democratic party that takes the consent principle as given. (I say conceptual because I recognise that me and my weirdo unionist-republican mate doesn’t constitute a demographic niche).

Some would argues that "while the union is under threat" (yawn) we can not indulge in such 'soft' unionism. Conversely, I think this type of unionism, where the unionist element is a small and relatively unimportant part of a left-liberal philosophy, is better placed to protect the union than it’s traditional cousins. By facilitating a positive agenda it will allow unionists to construct an argument for the union. It will give them the vocabulary to talk about the values that Britain should have. The alternative offered by traditional unionism is a simple reiteration that the majority of NI favour remaining in the UK, without constructive arguments beyond an assertion of a vague, unexamined ‘British’ identity. (This is a point I’ve made before.)

The question of why this conceptual niche has not and will not be filled is the most interesting. Have a look at Ian Paisley’s Westminster voting record. Take Northern Irish issues and so-called ‘moral’ issues out of the equation and how does he vote? Exactly like a left-wing Labour rebel. (Against foundation hospitals, ID cards, and top-up fees, for example). The DUP are the working-class unionist’s party of choice. Generally, they’re rubbish parliamentarians (they tend not to be active on committees, or speak that often) but they’re tireless constituency MPs with reputations in their areas. (See this entry from the last election). The poisonous influence of the Troubles prevented working class unionists from being represented by a proactive and egalitarian left wing party with working class origins (instead they got either the ‘fir coat brigade’ or the reactionary DUP). A broad parallel exists with the UDA’s origins in Housing Associations in the early troubles. Henry McDonald and Jim Cusack’s book is an excellent account of how an organisation which had its roots in housing problems – similar to the civil rights movement – mutated into a nakedly sectarian killing machine.

That is one of the greatest shames of the Troubles. And Labour’s failure to adapt to post-GFA Northern Ireland by admitting there’s no contradiction in being left-wing and being unionist is one of the most sickening blotches on its record. It amounts to the wilful abandonment of its own citizens – some of whom are among the most deprived in the UK. Not very egalitarian. In fact in its combination of gutlessness and dogma epitomizes what is wrong with the culture of the British left.

Ultimately, as much as the restoration of the official link between the Unionists and the Tories would sicken me, I’m glad someone is seeing the bigger picture. For too long unionists have ignored the bigger picture – the very same bigger picture that they supposedly wanted to be a part of.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The public interest vs the public's interests
The last post reminded me of something I’ve meant to post for a while. Pete Clifton, the head of BBC interactive, spoke in an online lecture a couple of weeks ago.

He outlined the BBC’s interactive agenda in some detail, but what he was prepared to rule out was most heartening for me.

When asked whether the personalisation of news (both online and in digital TV) undermined the BBC’s public service ethos, he said: “I am very uncomfortable with the idea that somebody could effectively create their own website using feeds.”

One of the motifs in the lecture series has been how keenly the BBC has felt the tension between empowering users through user generated content, personalisation and interactive platforms, and providing a public service that tells people what’s important in the world.

It’s a dilemma which the BBC aren’t taking lightly.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The grim mathematics of newspaper ethics
When training to be a journalist you’re constantly reminded that as news travels it sheds weight. We’re always after local pegs. Today’s Western Mail front page headline reads: “Do Brown’s sums add up for Wales?”. (Indeed the front page splashes on the 3 Western Mails which happen to be on my floor at the moment: “Jamie Oliver cash pledged for Welsh school dinners”; “Work until we’re 69? Pensions crisis worse in Wales”; and “Thirty years on, Welsh women still paying price of inequality”).

There’s even a quasi-scientific name for it: the Hardcastle formula. The gist of it is 5000 dead in Chinese earthquake = 15 dead in Italian ski lift tragedy = 2 dead in local road accident = next door neighbour breaks wrist.

This partly reflects a very human trait. But only partly. The key is not to think merely in terms of physical distance. Cultural distance is the most telling predictive factor for relating events to column inches.

In column inches per death, a murdered Briton achieves a fame that 10,000 dead Africans could not touch. Why? It’s not just to do with Africa being far away – the US is just as remote, but Hurricane Katerina was covered to saturation. It’s to do with their way of life, language, colour of skin, and countless other differences that test our empathy to its limits. We can imagine being stabbed to death in a bungled robbery. We can not as easily imagine slowly dying for want of an antibiotic. You can argue it’s a morally suspect reaction (and I would) and that the best journalism will bring home the human element regardless (which it does). But this doesn't change the fact that we care less about people with whom we can not empathise, and a cursory glance at any newspaper will serve as a stark reminder.

I don’t think this is anything controversial, though it’s not often mentioned explicitly because of its ethical grubbiness. But it leads me to think that a bit more honesty and a bit more rigour could help newspapers in the dirty business of prioritising news.

We need a Hardcastle Projection Map. It would workslightly like a Peters Projection Map, and would give countries the size they deserve according to their column inches/death ratio. It wouldsoon become a vital analytical tool for editors, academics and readers. It would help a well-meaning editor decide which countries to shower attention upon; which atrocities should be page-leads, which should be NIBs. It would help the hard-nosed editor decide which countries can be safely ignored.

This is of vital importance in the internet age now news is increasingly consumer-driven (“Too often, the question we ask is “Do we have the story? rather than “Does anyone want the story?”. Mr R Murdoch, April 2005). Striking the balance between telling people about the world and telling them what they want to hear would be much easier with it.

Step forward, cartographers. If we are to weather these tumultuous times we must first chart the waters!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

A Portrait of the Artist as an Ulsterman
I’ve just spent half an hour throwing out the week’s newspapers from my room, and one familiar visage stares out , ghost-like, from every paper.

Like every other football-following Ulsterman I’ve found myself having quite a few conversations about George Best since he died on Friday.

We take immeasurable pride in the fact that he hails from the same small corner of the world. But Best belonged, in fact belongs, to everyone. That’s the point.

He was the first popstar player, the first player to make an impact on a nascent popular culture. Football is fiercely territorial and tribal by its very nature. Fans understand it in the language of warfare: attack, defence, penetration, walls, midfield generals. Their tribalistic mentality has provided rich pickings for anthropologists. It’s often not the most gifted players who win the supporter's approval, it’s the most devoted. The ones who play for the shirt, who wear their heart on their sleeve.

Best belonged to an increasingly globalised youth culture, not just to those who cheered him on from the Stretford End or Windsor Park’s Kop.

From a small rain forest’s worth of articles, a couple of quotes stood out for me as being particularly apposite. First, the eloquent Danny Blanchflower – another Ulsterman who played the game in the right way, and had a famously quick wit. The difference, of course, was that Blanchflower was the archetypal footballing gentleman. He said of Best:

“Best makes a greater appeal to the senses than Finney and Matthews. His movements are quicker, lighter, more balletic. He offers the greater surprise to the mind and eye, he has the more refined, unexpected range. And with it all there is his utter disregard of physical danger. He has ice in his veins, warmth in his heart and timing and balance in his feet.” [From the Guardian]

The other (I’ll link to the article when I find it) concerns George’s father Dick, on the night when Best destroyed Eusebio’s Benfica in 1966 (Best scored the first two in a 5-1 win). Dick listened on the radio during a nightshift at Harland and Wolff. George arrived back at London airport wearing a giant sombrero and was duly christened ‘El Beatle’ by the papers. If you’re looking for an epoch or an image to define how football rose from working-class culture to become a global phenomenon, look no further than Belfast and its most famous son.

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