Friday, 12 April 2013

BBC caves in with a decision that will please nobody

I do love a story so blown out of proportion that it leaves everyone looking a bit daft. Who would have thought less than a week after the death of Baroness Thatcher, that discussions of her legacy and funeral arrangements would have equal billing with a story about whether a song bought by her haters should be played on the radio?

Only a few weeks ago The Mail and Daily Telegraph were (rightly) railing against state-backed press regulation. Today’s headlines revealed their attempts to interfere with BBC impartiality. The “Ding Dong” song shooting its way up the charts should be pulled on grounds of taste and decency, so the spurious argument went. New Beeb DG, Lord Hall, merely days into his post, probably doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of all this. Not that he’s come out and said such a thing. This is being taken extremely seriously so the official line goes. So seriously in fact that one of his first public acts as DG was taken this afternoon with him deciding that just a few seconds of the song should be aired on Sunday’s chart show. Welcome to the hyper-sensitive BBC.
Today’s Telegraph leads with quotes from former grandees of the Thatcher era and current Tory MPs. The BBC would be guilty of a “serious dereliction of duty” if the song was aired, friends of Thatcher warned. Sir Gerald Howarth MP, one of her former ministers, with a straight face stated that:

“This is a serious test for Tony Hall. This is the State broadcaster and it has a duty to show good taste and decency, it is still a tradition in our country that we respect the dead.
“People are entitled to consider and debate her record in office, but for the state broadcaster to play this song in these circumstances would be a dereliction of duty and potentially a violation of its charter.

“Playing it would be a very serious dereliction of duty by Tony Hall. This is not just about her family or her friends. The people of this country will be absolutely disgusted if this is what they do.”
Lord McAlpine, on the receiving end of the BBC at its negligent worst, weighed in with this contribution:

“The BBC has got to be balanced in its coverage, it is a matter of taste. In the past, the corporation has always been careful about matters of taste on important occasions.
"They are letting the charts be hijacked for political purposes. I’m absolutely astounded that they are even considering playing it. It’s another example of how out of control the BBC is.”

And John Whittingdale, chair of the Commons Culture Select Committee, told The Daily Mail
"This is an attempt to manipulate the charts by people trying to make a political point. Most people will find that offensive and deeply insensitive, and for that reason it would be better if the BBC did not play it. It's a political act.”

There’s something quite wonderful in accusing a group of people of hijacking the charts for political means, when their own aims were to see the song pulled...for political means. Tragically, I doubt they’ve been able to see their hopeless hypocrisy.
I was hoping to see the BBC have the guts to go ahead and play the wretched song in its entirety, but they’ve caved in to the bullies. These days the BBC is scared of its own shadow and jumps even at the mildest of criticism. There have of course been cases when its judgment has been found badly wanting, sometimes with awful consequences.

Earlier this afternoon, my money was on a messy cop-out, with a compromise that will satisfy nobody. In opting to play five seconds of the song this Sunday - and a brief commentary explaining to its teenage audience who Thatcher actually was! The censoring, then the educating - the BBC has done just that. Pity the BBC. They do their best, even when made to look ridiculous.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Friday 12th April 2013 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Labour’s response to Philpott is dangerously out of sync with public opinion

For the past 18 months or so I’ve spent quite a bit of time defending Ed Miliband: a decent man with a broad vision about how our political system needs to be changed to work for the many instead of a privileged, sheltered few. I’ve applauded the leadership’s disassociation from the worst excesses of New Labour – its authoritarianism, ruthless attacks on civil liberties, reckless liberal interventionism. He has taken on powerful elites in a way few have dared to.

But over the last few months an immaturity and amateurish streak has taken hold. Beginning with his breathtaking naivety in fully endorsing the Leveson Report in its entirety with barely any time to take in the executive summary, let alone digest all 1,987 pages. Wanting to be on the side of the victims of hacking and new best mate to UK Celebs Are Us, clouded his judgement and put Labour on the wrong side of press freedom. But at least he had public opinion on his side. Even though Leveson and press regulation will barely feature come polling day.
Not so welfare.  As Dan Hodges pointed out this week:

“The “debate” over welfare playing out over the last few days has reminded me of where we were with the debate on immigration a decade ago.
We are in the embryonic stages, meaning hyperbole, misinformation, accusations and counter-accusations shout down the moderate and measured. Mick Philpott, doting father of 17, misogynist, benefit-scrounger extraordinaire, and now guilty of the manslaughter of six of his children puts us firmly in hysteria territory. Vile product of Welfare UK? Of course not. But a man entitled to handouts not far off £50,000 a year according to some reports is evidence of a benefits system intent on self-harm.

There was nothing remotely controversial about George Osborne musing that:
“There is a question for government and for society about the welfare state - and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state - subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had."

Every right-thinking person would have been nodding in approval. I certainly was. Then in blunders Ed Balls with the equivalent of a studs-first two-footed tackle:
“George Osborne's calculated decision to use the shocking and vile crimes of Mick Philpott to advance a political argument is the cynical act of a desperate chancellor.”

No, Ed. Osborne’s comments will have struck a chord, even with Labour voters. Especially with Labour voters. Sarah Teather’s contribution bordered on the idiotic when she said that Osborne was seeking to:
“demonise anybody who receives any kind of welfare support."

Again, wrong. The extremity of a case like Philpott milking the system for all it’s worth is exactly the sort of thing that has the public foaming with rage. Its rarity is irrelevant to public anger. Opinion already formed only hardens.
When left wingers (rightly) point out that such abuses are isolated, they are merely preaching to other like-minded souls. Just because something is rare, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of public attention. Policy is often changed or loopholes closed in the face of extreme examples: the Dunblane school shootings and the subsequent law on handguns; the Soham murders and the never-ending growth of the CRB industry. One could reasonably argue that certain anti-terror laws are passed and are wholly disproportionate, all the result of the murderous acts and/or thoughts of a very small number.

Ed Miliband has yet to comment on Philpott, but don’t expect a deviation from his Shadow Chancellor’s script. Welfare, immigration and economic credibility: not so much Labour’s Achilles’ heel as an entire Achilles’ limb. Labour trails the Tories on all three. All three will dominate the election campaign.
Labour has made the right noises on immigration. Miliband shrewdly acknowledges economic impact versus its social and cultural effect. On welfare, all there is is a lot of hot air. See Peter Watt’s piece on these pages earlier in the week.

This is not to say I don’t support the party’s opposition to some of the government’s welfare reforms, such as the bedroom tax. I’m fairly confident that the sight of families or people with disabilities being forced to relocate under the gaze of the media will drive the government into a humiliating retreat.  It’s one thing freezing or cutting benefits.  Not something that can be really captured with the naked eye.  Yet, it’ll be a lot easier to film a man or woman in a wheelchair being led out of their home with all their earthly possessions in tow.  The pictures will look dreadful.
Labour’s job is to provide a solid and serious alternative to bringing down the welfare bill.  Opposing every government effort isn’t the way to do it, even if they are often right in doing so.  Opposition without an alternative is wasted energy.

Wanting to be heard at all costs has led Labour to play politics in accusing Osborne of playing politics this week.  It beggars belief that the party lack the maturity to simply echo Osborne’s sensible comments. Their intervention this week has shown that they offer next to nothing on the welfare debate, even when faced with a grotesque man having a laugh at the nation’s over-generous expense.  Sometimes it’s good to learn that opposition for opposition’s sake just looks desperate.

The best contribution to this week’s event was found in The Times from Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Philip Collins (£):
“By opposing the welfare consequences of austerity with no viable alternative, Labour is asking to be placed on the side of those who want the welfare bill to rise rather than those who want it to fall.

“The absence of a constructive Labour voice from the welfare debate means that the left is associated only with the shrill shriek of opposition”.
This article was first published by Labour Uncut on Monday 8th April 2013