Archive for November, 2012

The fourth estate: Principles or Propaganda?

30 Nov

Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, once told a Royal Commission on the Press that he used   his newspapers “purely for the purpose of making propaganda”.

This kind of brutal honesty is unthinkable in the modern age. But note how the issues of control, content and ownership were AWOL from Lord Leveson’s report yesterday.

Yes, we heard a lot about ethics, statutory underpinning and press freedom.

But singer Charlotte Church hit the nail firmly on the head on BBC Question Time last night, reminding us that the so-called freedom of the press was, in reality, a freedom for powerful corporations to do more or less as they please.

Let’s have a quick recap of who owns what.

In the UK our old friend Rupert Murdoch owns The Sun, the best-selling
tabloid, as well as the broadsheet Times and Sunday Times. Murdoch
also controls the Sky satellite broadcasting network which in turn
owns a significant part of ITV plc.

(Remember that if the scandal over phone hacking hadn’t broken when it
did, Murdoch would have been given the nod by utterly discredited
ex-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt – that’s spelled with an H – to take
full control of BskyB.)

The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and the Metro are owned by the
Rothermere family, who also control a huge proportion of regional
media and hold a very large share of ITN. Influental, powerful yet
able to escape the public eye……

Porn baron Richard Desmond owns The Daily Express, Sunday Express, The Daily Star and OK! Magazine, as well as Channel 5.

The secretive Barclay brothers, David and Frederick, own the Daily
Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator.


Murdoch, Rothermere, Desmond and the Barclay twins all share the same
political credo. To a man they are viciously right-wing: anti-Europe,
pro-Tory, anti-Labour, anti-Liberal, anti-union, pro-employer,
anti-immigration, anti-regulation, anti-intervention, anti-Islamic,
pro-subsidy, anti-tax, pro-privatisation and pro-monarchy.

All of them.

So who does that leave on the margins?

It leaves Russian businessman and ex KGB agent Alexander Lebedev
owning the (centre-left) Independent and (centre-right) Evening

The lonely pro-Labour Daily Mirror is owned by Trinity Mirror PLC,
which leaves the Lib-Dem supporting Guardian and Sunday Observer run
by the Scott Trust.

That is the world in which we operate: the world where 5
unaccountable, super-rich right-wing white men set the nation’s
political agenda and cultural tone.

Five men who Prime Minister Cameron needs to have any chance of
winning the 2015 election.

Five men who would have smiled knowingly and nodded approvingly
yesterday, hearing their placeman in Downing Street rejecting the
conclusions of an Enquiry that he himself set up.

Five men for whom the’principle of press freedom is dear.

The problem for the rest of us is that this means freedom to bug,
steal, lie, smear and rake through rubbish bins.

Freedom to hack the phones of the grieving parents of the girls killed in Soham; to blackmail Charlotte Church’s mother, the freedom to hack Millie
Dowler’s phone and the phones of military personnel killed in Iraq and
Afghanistan, the freedom to lie about Madeleine McCann’s parents, Hugh
Grant, JK Rowling and hundreds of others.

Is that disgusting trail of shame a principle?

The actions of the press are born entirely of the environment created
by their owners.

It really is that simple.

The obsession with celebrity, the idea that fame makes you fair game
for any sort of intrusion or libel, the sexual objectification of
women, the demonisation of foreigners, the sexualisation of children,
relentless right wing poison drip-fed into our national consciousness
daily……in short, the propaganda Beaverbrook admitted to half a
century ago.

Leveson’s Report provides some useful insight, but until we address
the real problems of our print media – ownership, accountability and
transparency – we are doomed to recurring hand-wringing lectures
no-one listens to and pointless debates over reporting ethics.

As Marx noted, history repeats itself firstly as tragedy and secondly as farce.

Guess which phase applies now?

Stand and watch basic human rights disappear, thanks to that nice Richard Branson.

28 Nov

Civil liberties and freedoms are rarely taken away with grand gestures and loud decrees; instead, there is a quiet gradual erosion of apparently small things until one morning, George Orwell’s vision has become reality.

This happened last month to employees at Virgin Media when in the space of 14 days they lost the right to have an independent trade union represent them.

Two weeks between the company announcing the move and the end of their collective right to have a union bargain on their behalf.

Boom! Headshot.

And if you’ve heard about this, you’re in a minority. Every national newspaper except the Guardian and Morning Star ignored the story, and you’d have searched in vain for the BBC, ITV or Sky News coverage.

No, this robbery was carried out under cover of night for the shabbiest of reasons.

A multi-billion pound transnational company using the fear and insecurity resulting from the recession as a weapon against its own workers.

Lovely people.

On the afternoon of Friday 2nd November under the pretext of a “quick catch up call”, Virgin Media informed the Communication Workers Union they intended to de-recognise them.

They said that they had ‘inherited’ recognition agreements from Telewest and NTL when these companies merged with VM, agreements that didn’t fit with their ‘plans for the future’. Virgin Media’s “referendum” started the following Wednesday when they asked staff to vote to de-recognise unions.

Staff then received letters from the Company at their home addresses urging them to vote for de-recognition. Meetings were arranged for Virgin Media to sell this message and ensure they won their vote.

And how did Virgin Media portray this to the outside world?

‘We’ve built independent and well established forums where employees represent each other to ensure they all have an inclusive say in company decision making. Following strong feedback from our people, we now want to understand what the majority want.’


In that case, why weren’t ‘their people’ asked for their views?

Why did the company actively campaign and lobby for the CWU to be derecognised?

Virgin Media management left nothing to chance: the majority of those receiving a vote weren’t even covered by the CWU recognition agreement; a large percentage of those who voted weren’t covered by any recognition agreement.

In the end, engineers voted for derecognition of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) by the slimmest of majorities – 52 per cent for and 48 per cent against.

But that’s what happens when you’re not bound by all those pesky laws that trade unions have to follow, the most restrictive legal framework in the entire European Union.

VM staff said company directors piled massive pressure on them to abandon trade union recognition in compulsory meetings in the run-up to the vote.

Managers were ordered to call off-duty workers to bully them into voting Yes to derecognition.

Virgin Media’s campaign for derecognition was spearheaded by veteran union-bashing company director Ricky Hobden. Hobden is a regional director at VM but the CWU has evidence revealing his role in an attack on unions at Cable and Wireless.

The union alleges that Hobden forked out thousands of pounds to hire US “labour consultants” Burke Group to try to destroy trade unions at his former firm.

Burke Group boasts on its website: “We have participated in over 800 elections and employees in 96 per cent have either voted No, decertified or experienced petition withdrawal.”

Last year, a call centre in Liverpool where CWU applied to get recognition was promptly closed by Virgin, despite it being a centre of excellence.

That, ladies and gents, is the shape of things to come.

The right to organise, the right of freedom of association is one for which blood has, literally been split.

It is a basic human right under the UN Convention, yet it comes under constant pressure from the ruling class and employers across the globe. And has done for centuries.

This theft follows a pattern our American brothers and sisters are very familiar with – and the solution can be found in the memorable last words of American labour hero Joe Hill – ‘Don’t mourn: organise!’

And, of course, a boycott of Virgin products is the least we can do.

Gig review: Band of Horses, Birmingham HMV Institute, 15 November 2012

16 Nov

Watching Band of Horses on stage, it’s astonishing they’re four albums into their career.

At times, their show resembles a final practice for a tour with the South Carolina quintet exhibiting, shall we say, a relaxed attitude to on–stage behaviour and harmony vocals: it’s odder still given the far more polished show I saw only 2 years ago in Birmingham when they toured Infinite Arms.

But still, there were moments of wonder and joy and a feel-good vibe from the polite enthusiastic crowd amongst the art deco stylings of the HMV Institute, a venue drawing admiring ‘awesome’ comments from two of the band.

2012’s Mirage Rock was produced by Glyn Johns, who despite previously steering the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin throws a wet, beige coloured blanket over the Horses, knocking unnecessary corners off their eclectic blend of rock, country and indie roped together.

Band of Horses @ Birmingham HMV Institute

Thankfully these re-emerge when the new songs are played live – the quietly angry Dumpster World and introspective Slow Cruel Hands of Time in particular – but seven songs from Infinite Arms form the backbone of the set, with the big crowd-pleasers from their first two albums cleverly, or perhaps accidentally, strewn around the nearly two hour performance.

BoH rely heavily on Ben Bridwell as front man and singer to raise them above the herd. Bearded, tattooed and greyhound skinny, he exudes a casual solemnity punctuated by occasional manic bursts of rock guitar head-banging – but his vocals are the focal point.

Bridwell’s voice isn’t on top form tonight, a heavy touring schedule taking an obvious toll on his vocal precision. But on the wonderful Infinite Arms, No-One’s Gonna Love You and bone shaking pre-encore closer The Funeral, Bridwell swoops and soars with beautiful sweet tones and perfect pitch, an extraordinary vocalist.

At time Band of Horses have three guitars thrashing out heavy rock chords which shake the bones; at other times they’re pure Country with Beach Boys harmonies, or indie balladeers or producers of saccharine sweet pop.

They’re also impossible to categorise but still well worth catching live – and hopefully the lift music of Mirage Rock a blip rather than a right turn into a dead end.

Europe at the Crossroads: sink or swim?

14 Nov

Britain’s position on Europe is like a lover who has one foot out of bed – not really sure whether it wants to leave or stay and get involved, ending up doing neither.

This applies both to the Establishment and to the Labour movement, which has faced both ways on Europe since Jacques Delors charmed the TUC by offering some European social-democratic respite from the ravages of Thatcherism, in the form of Directives and the Social Chapter. 

I’m a European who recognises that what happens in Europe is our concern, affects everyone in the UK and have nothing but contempt for petty nationalists and xenophobes. But that doesn’t mean I like the European Union.

I do hold a particular antipathy for Daily Mail/Daily Express little Englanders, sneering at German, French, Spanish and Italian people for no reasons other than they don’t speak English, don’t abuse alcohol, don’t walk about in shell suits or live in a society where looking after your neighbour is the exception rather than the rule.

So, today we see people all across Europe – millions of them – demonstrating against austerity and in support of the people-centred facets of their societies.

They’re demonstrating against the neoliberal diktats of the faceless ‘troika’, a shadowy cabal of hard-line free marketers telling them they have to take lower wages, poorer pensions and higher taxes, work longer hours and telling their governments to stop spending so much on health, education, welfare and public transport.

The ‘troika’ is a convenient arrangement which dissipates both the blame and responsibility for ramming cuts and sell-offs down the unwilling throats of Europe.

Consisting of the European Union – by which we mean the right-wing Council of Ministers – the European Central Bank plus the structural adjustment specialists of the International Monetary Fund, the troika has been relentless and utterly ruthless in it’s aims of keeping the Eurozone alive, bringing recalcitrant left wing politicians into line and using this window of opportunity to push the neoliberal agenda of selling off state assets, reducing labour rights and bearing down on inflation.

Tax avoidance? That’s a matter for national governments.

Tax evasion? Ditto.

Isn’t it funny how some fiscal issues are ‘nothing to do with us, Guv’ while some others, like ensuring Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy cut pensions for working people, are legitimate matters of common concern?

The lessons for Labour and for progressives everywhere are clear:

  • rather than nebulous ‘quantatitive easing’ and fiddling at the margins we need public investment in housing, health services, education and infrastructure for growth, job creation and as deliberate acts of social policy;


  • we need to tackle tax avoidance and evasion across Europe, ending tax havens and the obscenity of corporate monoliths like Starbucks and Google dodging tax liabilities whilst making telephone-number profits;


  • we need to halt the sell-off of state assets to privateers and ensure transport and utilities, for example, are kept in public ownership and made both accountable and efficient.


We cannot and should not let the neo-liberal barbarians build their new world order on the backs of ordinary people. That would be 21st century slavery.

Today’s action across Europe is only one step in putting people back in the driving seat.

As the Spaniards, Cubans and Venezuelans have it: ‘otro mundo es posibile’

Obama vs Romney: a zero sum game

06 Nov

I’ve been a BBC Radio 4 listener for years but realised recently that the supposedly authoritative ‘Today’ programme encourages a Punch and Judy show rather than a serious rounded discussion of political topics.

In contrast, American political philosopher Michael Sandel, in Radio 4′s “Public Philosopher” programmes has brought both heat and light to some weighty issues.

As America concludes its Presidential election today, Professor Sandel finished a road trip around America challenging voters and laying bare some moral questions bound up in the Romney and Obama campaigns.

In last week’s programme, Sandel was at Harvard debating attitudes behind welfare, social security and healthcare policy.

He posited that these evidenced a moral and philosophical disagreement about the nature of the American dream itself and reminded us that Obama was attacked earlier this year for remarks about the role of government.

“Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have, that allowed you to thrive,” the President said at a rally: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen”.

He went on to refer to teachers, parents, infrastructure, roads, electricity, doctors, nurses, construction workers and others, to make the point that we are all bound together in our societies – effectively saying that libertarians and individualists, like it or not, are part of that society.

This was portrayed by Republicans, predictably, as an ‘attack on business’ and the aim of individual success at the very core of the American dream.

This is anathema to the Right because their world view centres on an ancient philosophical exercise, namely man’s search for the intellectual justification for selfishness, greed and indifference.

Against that outlook the universal health care policy which Obama enacted, flawed though it is, provides reason enough for progressives to favour his re-election.

The result of this election affects everyone on the planet. Think what might have happened had Al Gore’s numerical victory in 2000 not been judicially overturned and Bush Junior kept out of the Oval Office.

This matters.

A BBC World survey found that in every other country except Pakistan (?!) a majority of people wanted Barack Obama back in the White House.

But it is worth remembering that in the world’s most developed capitalist country at least 82 million American people are either not eligible or registered to vote.

This figure dwarfs the 70 million voters (less than 30 percent of the adult population) who’ll back either Obama or Romney in an election where each candidate spent over $1bn dollars. 

Despite this eye-watering spending and regardless of the result, the military-industrial complex, Fox News, intolerant religious zealots, the Tea Party, the NRA, the anti-choice lobby and the pro-Israel lobby will carry on, shaping and distorting civic life for ordinary Americans and continuing the worrying, decades-long disengagement from politics which sees the USA rank 139 out of 172 participative democracies.

Stephen Smith: writer

Rants, rambles and other assorted thoughts

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