Wednesday, October 29, 2008


My thousands of regular readers will know only too well that I do not hold with pranks, hoaxes, practical jokes, impersonations, nuisance phone calls or any other variety of supposed jape. Accordingly, it will not bring the edifice crashing to the ground if I do not rush to defend the BBC in its handling of what will perhaps become known as the Answergate Scandal.

For those lucky enough to have had this particular – and particularly unattractive – episode pass them by (my many readers overseas, for instance), let me swiftly recap. Russell Brand, who is of course the son of comedienne Jo Brand, is a farouche and hirsute comic who has had fairly mystifying success in Britain during the last couple of years but has yet to convince audiences across the Atlantic of his appeal. Before we rush to congratulate them on their good taste, let us remind ourselves that Americans do laugh at Jerry Lewis, Rodney Dangerfield and Martin Lawrence.

Among his other duties in Britain, Brand hosts a Saturday peak-time programme on Radio 2, once the cosiest of the BBC’s wireless channels but latterly aimed at younger audiences. I have never felt it incumbent upon me to listen to this programme and severe readers may think this a laxity on my part. How may I presume to draw inferences upon a broadcast that I have never experienced? Such a shortcoming has not inhibited thousands of others from expressing forthright views, of course, on this or any other work of art or entertainment. In this case, however, rough video footage of the edition in question – perhaps taken on a mobile phone – has now been broadcast on dozens of television news bulletins so that even those not predisposed to make a judgment will at least have formed a strong impression.

Brand’s in-studio guest was the highly-paid BBC presenter Jonathan Ross. Telephone conversations are evidently part of the programme’s style and Brand attempted to contact the actor Andrew Sachs who, as every news bulletin has been at pains to point out, is 78. Whether this contact was pre-agreed or not has been disputed. At any rate, Sachs’ answerphone machine kicked in. Brand reckons to have a connection with Sachs in that he had enjoyed a relationship with the actor’s dancer granddaughter, Georgina Baillie. Brand and Ross talked into and across the mouthpiece of the phone, so that their remarks would be picked up by Sachs’ answering machine. At one point, Ross shouted “He fucked your granddaughter”. The pair then speculated as to whether this intelligence would drive Sachs to commit suicide.

A week later, The Mail on Sunday ran a story about the broadcast and Sachs let it be known that, not surprisingly, he had found the recording he discovered on his machine very offensive. Ms Baillie later gave it as her opinion that both Brand and Ross should be sacked by the BBC. By this time, the story was the lead in newspapers and broadcast bulletins. Much was made of the fact that, contrary to what is widely expected of most talk radio, The Russell Brand Show is not broadcast live. Consequently, producers and editors had two days to consider whether anything recorded was not suitable for broadcasting. It seems that the remark I quoted from Ross above was actually broadcast (a language warning is carried at the top of the show) and it would of course have been preserved on Sachs’ answerphone. The listening millions merely heard an expletive; the butt of the prank heard an expletive that attached to the person of his granddaughter.

It is not news that Brand’s programme is pre-recorded. Two and a half years ago, when the programme was carried by Radio 6, there was a fuss when it was discovered that a supposed competition based on text messaging had been faked and the prize awarded to a BBC staff member. The competition could only have been executed in a live programme and it was the revelation that it was not live that exposed the fake. So many broadcast scams were being exposed at that time, however, that the Brand version was doubtless considered small beer.

By lunchtime today, the BBC had by its own admission received some 18,000 complaints against Brand and Ross, an astonishing number. People clearly feel very empathetic towards somebody whose domestic space has been invaded and whose relative, not a public figure, traduced. Brand and Ross have been suspended pending an internal inquiry. As one who was dismissed from the BBC thirty years ago for “talking to the press without prior written consent” (a technicality which you might think – and you would be right – is breached daily with impunity), I cannot but feel that dismissal is justified here. Ross in particular looks culpable. The pair have been supported by a predominantly young listenership who reckon to think this is all a fuss about nothing but Ross is no youngster. At rising 48 he is of his apologists’ parents' generation. He is plenty old enough to understand what the parameters are and to recognize when adolescent behaviour looks merely pathetic in a middle-aged man.

But a lot of blame attaches to the BBC too. Who was sleeping on their watch when the recording was passed for broadcast? Why did it take so long for the Corporation to get to grips with this matter? It inevitably looks as though they were waiting to see how far they had “got away with it”, rather than confronting their expensive stars immediately and as a matter of course. And the supposed artistic defence about “cutting edge” humorists who “push the boundaries” looks pathetic when raised to support mere po-willy-bum juvenilia. Brand told journalists he thought the whole matter was “funny”. He is a person who has been given a free ride in a complaisant climate and it really is time that he got a wake-up call.

As for questions in the house and first Cameron, then Brown feeling that they need to deliver themselves of an opinion, I am simply aghast. As Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells might cry: “Has the celebrity culture gone mad?”

P.S: Seconds after I posted this, it was announced that Russell Brand had resigned from presenting his Radio 2 programme.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

BANKS on the RUN

It’s very hard for an unreconstructed old Socialist like me to watch the current “financial crisis” without roaring with laughter. The triumph of capitalism – the worst historical development of my lifetime and the one that ensures the relatively imminent end of all life on the planet, because capitalism has no interest (and I do mean interest) in the long term measures necessary to reverse climate change or disarm the fanatics – is not, I think, about to meet its nemesis, but the shine has certainly come off it. Nearly 40 years ago, the centrist Tory leader Edward Heath coined the phrase “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. Now everyone has seen that face.

Of course you will say that I cannot be a proper Socialist because I don’t wear sackcloth and live off nuts and berries. Far from it, I aver. I may well be one of those Champagne Socialists they speak of. For that I make no apology. “When in Rome” and other wise old sayings will cover the case. When capitalism has triumphed and no political movement with a realistic prospect of power subscribes to Socialism any longer – Labour having torn up Clause IV and embraced not only the free market but privatisation, franchising, non-state education and private pension and health schemes – there’s not much point in holding out for Utopia. But I don’t have to foreswear what I still think is a better philosophy. I can have a portfolio of shares (inherited from my father, save for some small holdings I took when my financial advisor insisted that I was wasting my capital, along with a modest investment I made in the building society that once gave us a mortgage) and yet feel just as strongly against the principle of unearned income as I did when I was 20. Divesting myself of my shares won’t bring the revolution a day closer. The implosion of capitalism is much more likely to achieve that.

What stops me cackling at the “panic” (so called) that daily grips the money markets is the possibility that people I know and care about may be embarrassed and even hurt. However fastidious or timid or incendiary we might be, we have all made our accommodations with triumphalist capitalism, whether it’s accepting a queue-jump from BUPA because it’s a loved one’s health or taking out an ISA or buying to let. We deal with the world as we find it. Believe me, I’d change it if I had the power to do so.

There is some consolation in that the current climate is proving deleterious to right-wing parties. The easy money culture that Reagan and Thatcher promoted in the 1980s has tarred their heirs with all of the feathers that fly when – to change the image – the shit hits the fan. Good.

Of course it doesn’t ensure that Obama will win the US presidency, any more than it necessarily prolongs Brown’s tenure at Downing Street. But it puts conservative forces on the back foot, at least for now. The rallying cry for deregulation, silencing every other voice for a quarter of a century, falls now on unsympathetic ears. It cannot be a coincidence that the most regulated banking systems – that in Sydney, for instance – have taken the smallest hits. Fragile and opportunist new money markets, such as that in Russia, are in free fall. And the Icelandic banks, which tried to steal a march on their rivals by waving giveaway deals at all and sundry, have proved the least robust of all. Had we all known that our local councils and police services and charities had put so much trust in the Icelandic snake-oil salesmen, we might have raised our voices. We were no doubt naïve to imagine that the Council Tax that they took off us was being invested in actual services. After all, that’s not how venture capitalism works and we are all venture capitalists now, even individual care homes and hospices.

As for the Serious Money types in the city, we can only hope that they start throwing themselves from high buildings in significant numbers. The quarter-century gravy train won’t actually come off the rails, even if the high street banks do start to fold, because all those sharks are hedging their own funds as hard as they can and praying that no new rules will in reality begin to deleverage them. None will, of course. There are too many loopholes to plug and there is too much street-smart for the authorities to outwit. When RBS finally accepts that it will have to part company with the indefensible Sir Fred Goodwin, you can be sure that he will walk away with a sum nearer eight figures than seven.

People are paid top dollar to protect the ill-gotten gains of the asset-strippers and speculators and arbitrageurs. There are people in the city called reward advisors, even as specific as employee-benefits-and-incentive advisors. These people’s function is to maximize bounty and to minimize exactions. They are clearly not serving the general good. The whole financial district is designed to produce one result, the enriching of itself. For a very long time, it has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.

What has been most astonishing is the every-man-for-himself stance that kicks in as soon as the going gets tough. “Panic” only reigns if individuals are panicking. Each of them knows full well that the effect of “panic” is to exacerbate the climate because the panic spreads. The city seems to be chronically and pathetically short of individuals wise, experienced and authoritative enough to bang heads together and tell them to get a grip. Some money markets have been temporarily closed by their governments. Perhaps all the world’s stock exchanges should be shut down for a cooling off period. Liquidity will have to wait. Debts will go unpaid until the market settles again. There is no deal of any kind anywhere in the world, save for a medical emergency or natural disaster, that cannot be put on hold for a few days. The CEOs and market managers could use the time to gather their people together and tell them, upon pain of instant dismissal, that they are to behave like grown-ups instead of stampeding cattle.

For the rest of us, we marvel at how central government can put its hand in its pocket and pull out a wad of millions, at no notice. If they can do that to stop HBOS and co going into receivership, why can’t they do it to pay for the schools, hospitals, railways and arts organisations we need in order to remain a decent country? Come to think of it, they do that to fund foreign invasions and occupations too. They only ever “find the money” or run up the debt for exercises that the ordinary voters don’t care about. You could hardly ask for a more vivid demonstration of how political leaders, as a matter of course, lose touch with the needs of the people they serve. Now that they are faced with financial meltdown, they had better get back in touch with the people damn quick.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


While not accounted by any disinterested party ‘the winner’ of the Vice Presidential debate, Governor Palin was widely held to have drawn a little blood from Senator Biden with her disdainful dismissal of Senator Obama’s proposal to bring home the troops from Iraq in sixteen months: “Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq and that is not what our troops need to hear today, that’s for sure”. It’s the kind of jut-jawed fundamentalism that gets plain folks whoopin’ and hollerin’ in the small towns where many of the votes are still up for grabs. Joe Biden didn’t squash it flat; Barack Obama needs to do so before the polls open. Because it’s rubbish.

“We’ll know we’re finished in Iraq”, Mrs Palin went on, “when the Iraqi government can govern its people and when the Iraqi security forces can secure its people”. This was less incendiary. Indeed, it was a tacit admission that Senator McCain’s commitment to the famous “surge” and its continued implementation is open-ended. Under successive Presidents McCain and Palin, American troops could still be in Iraq in 2024 at a cost at today’s prices (let alone tomorrow’s) of $10 billion per month. The home economy will be in more tatters than it is now.

The Obama team needs to nail the McCain camp on what they mean when they proclaim that the surge is working and that the troops are winning and that they won’t withdraw until they secure victory. What do they mean by victory? Is Sarah Palin’s answer the official one and how widely will such a resolution be recognized? To Joe Six-Pack and his Hockey-Mom wife sitting at home, it looks easy: American tanks rolling through a town cheered by civilians. That’s what Bush’s proclaimed victory looked like in 2003 in Baghdad. Joe and Honey now know that it wasn’t a victory, that it was just, in Churchill’s phrase, “the end of the beginning”.

What would constitute a situation that John McCain could genuinely call a victory? Any spin-doctor can dress up a picture and make it look better than it is but, in these days of embedded reporters and troops who are used to talking to the media, it’s harder to bamboozle the public than, for example, our leaders found at the time of World War I. What’s more, the media’s interests are global, like everyone else’s, and knee-jerk patriotism is no longer on offer as coverage.

A supporter of the surge, like McCain, is bound to stick with it because he cannot admit that he might be wrong. Unfortunately, most politicians have the same problem. Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, an elegant diplomat and a wily observer of the international scene, is fond of the saying: “The gentle art of saving face may yet destroy the human race”. If we get a President McCain, I hope the Prince emails it to him on his first morning.

Over the weekend, the Commander of the British Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, told The Sunday Times: “We’re not going to win this war. It’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.

“We may well leave with there still being a low but steady level of insurgency … If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this. That shouldn’t make people uncomfortable”.

The Brigadier’s observations would not be welcomed by McCain who said in his debate with Obama – and Palin repeated the jibe – that to sit down with the enemy “without preconditions” is naïve and self-defeating. But to be unconcerned with saving face is not the same as being irresolute and, quoting Churchill again, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”. Preconditions are too easily an excuse for refusing to talk at all. A truly strong and perceptive and fearless leader is prepared to go anywhere to talk to anyone about anything if it might preserve or hasten peace.

The US is not going to have a victory in Iraq in any form that its homeland will understand. Modern war is not like Wellington winning Waterloo. And you have to wonder whether a remotely recognizable victory is actually worth the cost, in lives and damaged minds and the destruction of communities as well in material ways. When the last American troops do finally leave Iraq, whether in the first term of a President Obama or at the behest of some as yet unknown future incumbent, what will we be able to point to and say “that has been achieved”? The danger for the US is that, by the time its troops leave, the reign of Saddam Hussein will be so far in the past that it will no longer seem to have been any part of the exercise.

And the conundrum that a President McCain or a President Palin would have to face is that as long as there are US troops in Iraq, they will be acting as a spur to insurgency. Whether an American politician thinks it justified or not, the fact is that many if not most Iraqis view the Americans as an invading army and will not rest until they are gone. It is the presence of foreign troops that keeps insurgency alive. just as it would do in any self-respecting country. Was it not the Americans who threw out the British more than 230 years ago? Had the British decided that they would stay until they had ‘victory’, they might still be there.

There is something a new president can do. Reject the Bush administration’s disdain for the rest of the world, go to the UN and ask the security council to agree to replace all national troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan with a non-partisan UN force of peace-keepers. That way, the western allies do not leave the respective regimes in those countries at the mercy of revolutionaries, fundamentalists and terrorists but they do pass the absurd costs of playing global policemen to the organisation whose function is to do just that. I don’t know why Bush and Blair didn’t think of this in the first place. (Well, I do know why but it does neither of them any credit).