Monthly Archives: March 2015


Q: Last week was one for Jeremys. First we heard that Jeremy Clarkson (pictured below) got dropped by BBC, then Jeremy Paxman dominated his interviews with the two main political candidates in the General Election. Let me start with JC: I heard you on radio recently talking about how we licence celebrities to break rules the rest of us stick to. I disagree. It’s nothing to do with us if the likes of Clarkson goes about trampling on people’s feelings and assaulting his colleagues. So your argument is pretty much like everything else you pontificate on: BS. No disrespect.

Jeremy Clarkson

A: Think of all the wellknown figures we follow devoutly but have crossed the boundaries at some point. It doesn’t make them any less fascinating; quite the opposite in fact. Take Tiger Woods’ transgression, as he called it: we actually found him more interesting as a result of his philandering. We thought David Beckham was wholesome family man who would never dare look at another woman before the Rebecca Loos affair. But the episode gave him a bit of devilry as far as we were concerned and that sort of humanized his public image.

Q: So you don’t think because we see a high profile celeb violating acceptable codes of behaviour, we tend to emulate them? After all they are role models, aren’t they?

A: No. Just because Clarkson hits his producer doesn’t mean his millions of devoted fans will ape his aggression. In any case, just think: people who break rules at one point in history are often seen retrospectively as pioneers. It wasn’t so long ago that being gay was a serious violation of social norms, and domestic abuse was seen as a private matter. At the same time, bullying at work was not seen as such a big deal. Now the first is not an issue at all, the second is a matter of social concern and the third is met with, in Clarkson’s case, a dismissal. History doesn’t stand still and nor do social rules.

Q: Which leads me to Paxman (pictured below): he was the star of the show when interviewing David Cameron and Ed Miliband. He dominated the exchanges and pressured Miliband so strongly that he asked, “Are you alright, Ed?” at the end of the interview. Is he a bully?

The Paxman stare

A: Not at all. He’s a self-important figure and he always makes sure no politician is going to steal his thunder. But you have to remember, he’s grilling the men who are aspiring to be the leader of the UK. So I think Paxman is our proxy.

Q: What’s that mean?

A: He’s acting on our behalf. So he’s asking difficult questions and expects the likes of Cameron and Miliband to be able to answer them. OK, he’s got a research team behind him to design his questions. But we want to see how politicians handle them. Asking Cameron if he knew how many food banks there were was a mischievous one because it’s doubtful if any other politician, or anybody else for that matter, would have the answer at the ready. His insistence on repeating one of the audience’s questions about Miliband’s brother was also below the belt. I mean, Ed is there to answer questions about himself, not whether his brother would make a more credible candidate. But this is Paxman’s stagecraft: he manages to entertain rather than educate us. It was an enjoyable programme, though I can’t say we learnt much more about the two candidates than we already knew.

Q: Is that what you think these televised political debates are for then? Entertainment?

A: You’ll recall I wrote a blog a week or so ago about how politics has been hijacked by tv. Bill Clinton was the first politician to master the transition to pure showman. I don’t think our main candidates are in Clinton’s class. Not yet anyway. Both take their cues from him mind.  Take a look at this from 1992: Clinton is brilliant. I think we learn a bit, though not much, about the politicians’ skills. But the main effect is to entertain us, yes. Television is a wonderful medium for this. I know some think it is an instrument of enlightenment and, on occasion, it can be; but its primary effect on politics is to make them more entertaining. That’s no bad thing, mind: if it gets people engaged, then it’s done its job.

Q: Before you go, what about Zayn Malik? I’ve never heard such a fuss about a guy leaving a boyband. What on earth is all that about?

A: I haven’t got time to explain here, but I’ll refer you to something I wrote the day after the split. See what you think. You’ll probably think it’s more BS! Click here.


Q: Nowadays, do-gooders are everywhere; they line up to get our attention. But I wonder if Trevor Phillips (pictured below) is trying to do any good at all. Apart from give his own reputation a boost, of course. I mean, he’s been on tv urging for more openness on the issue of race. He’s discovered a lavish opportunity for showcasing his gamekeeper-turned-poacher turnabout. The Labour Party made him a member of its London Assembly in 2000, and three years later he became head of the Commission for Racial Equality. So he used to promote the policy of multiculturalism he is now criticizing.

A: Well, hang on a minute: that’s not quite true. His support for multiculturalism hasn’t suddenly disintegrated. He had reservations of Tony Blair’s approach to the policy, which he thought would lead to a kind of ethnic isolationism.

Trevor Phillips OBE

Q: Unlike the American policy that’s encouraged the acceptance of core values and the cultivation of sort of hybrid identities, like African-Americans or Asian-Americans, for example?

 A: Let’s remind ourselves that the USA’s policy has not exactly been a runaway success. We only have to glance across the Atlantic to remind ourselves that, despite ending segregation 50 years ago, introducing affirmative action, or positive discrimination, and even electing an African-American to President, America has more than its fair share of racially-charged episodes. In the 1980s, Britain feared Britain was going to follow the US: the riots in London, Birmingham and other cities (see picture below) seemed to reflect the riots in America twenty years before.  So the British pursued its own policy: ethnic difference was welcomed and those who wished to preserve their distinct identities through their language, faith, customs and overall lifestyle, were put under no pressure to assimilate, that is become absorbed into the wider society. Phillips argues now — as he did then — that this was a mistake and has led to the cultivation of distinct ethnic groups with little in common. Of course, the American approach has been fraught with problems and, in recent years, we’ve seen evidence of this.

brixton-1981-riot-spark-april 11

 Q: But, as I understand it, Phillips has been saying we’ve deliberately ignored the race issue, abiding by a kind of code of silence.

A: He exaggerates: I don’t think we have been unduly silent about race in the UK. Think about the Stephen Lawrence Report’s publication in 1999. It prompted a heated debate for years. And, when Phillips argues, we were silent about the sex exploitation cases in Rochdale and Rotherham, I think he forgets that, while there were Asian gangs behind many of these cases, we all knew about this. We also know that several whites, sometimes prominent whites, have been involved in similar activities. I get the impression that we talk about these issues. Occasionally, we hear about cases of the police protecting the identities of Asian sex grooming outfits secret; there was a case in Birmingham last year, but the truth eventually reached the headlines with “High number of Asian child sex abusers in Birmingham” I doubt if this is likely to persuade anyone that all British Asians are involved anymore than hearing that Victoria Climbie’s parents were African was going to convince anyone that all Africans are child-killing black magic worshippers. So I don’t think we are as silent as Phillips supposes. In any case, I doubt if there is any benefit in making our thoughts and feelings too well-known. Sometimes, free speech can hurt. That’s the reason the Wigan Football Club owner Dave Whelan got into hot water when he made a reference that had an antisemitic implication and then compounded this with an racial epithet about Chinese.

Q: But I was reading recently that the US Army  is investigating a platoon of soldiers, who were given a free pass to use racial slurs against each other during what was known as “Racial Thursdays.” And, in any case, we have laws against “inciting racial hatred.”

A: And this is why I think a code of silence is sometimes preferable to, as you say, a free pass to express your opinion. When Phillips says we have to be ready to offend each other, he should think of the consequences. I’m in favour of freedom of speech, but you have to stay mindful that it’s a potent power. The balance is a fine one: you have to limit the kind of speech and expression of thought that will impact negatively on the life of others. Clearly, there are people around who harbour racist ideas and we have to accept that they will cling to these. In practice, we can’t do much about that, at least not without some form of thought control. What we can do is impose limits on their behaviour: to prevent them harming innocent people.

Q: So you’re actually managing racism rather than addressing it?

A: It sounds defeatist when you put it like that. But that’s about right. I think we should spend our energy on protecting groups. In time, changes in attitudes will follow. But it’s a glacially slow process. The first significant manifestations of racism were in 1958 at Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill and the fact that we’re still discussing it suggests the rate of progress is not impressive. I think managing race is the primary task.




Q: Just over seven weeks to go before the General Election. Already there are a couple of media controversies, with Prime Minister David Cameron (pictured below) refusing to participate in a tv debate unless there is a seven-way format with other party leaders involved, and the Conservatives launching a poster featuring Labour leader Ed Miliband in Scottish Nationalist Party’s Alex Salmond’s top pocket (pictured further below). It’s almost as if the presentation of leaders in the media has become more important than the policies they promise to implement. Is it?

A: There is a kind of parallel Election in which the parties are fighting for supremacy in the media. This is the Election most of us will engage with, if only by watching tv, checking twitter and other social media, browsing around the internet and just looking around us at posters and hoardings. Politicians realize that nowadays, policies will be influential, but the impressions they make on voters through their public presentations are probably going to be more decisive.

David Cameron at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham

Q: Wait a minute. That’s an awful indictment of democracy; are you saying there is a kind of political celebrity culture in which politicians try to attract our attention, entertain us, persuade us that they’re worth voting for and well … engage us just like pop stars, rock musicians and reality tv stars? Surely we voters are not so gullible to be misled by images. Are we?

A: “The camera never lies.” It’s a well-known saying, though not a very reliable one. Since the famous televised John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon US presidential debates of 1960, there has been little doubt that the camera can overwhelm truth. Nixon held his own in the discussions and the majority of those who listened to the debates on radio believed he came out on top. But on tv, his ghostly pallor and jowly cheeks made him appear a less attractive candidate than his handsome, fresh-faced opponent who emerged triumphant in the election. At the time of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the printed medium was the most credible source of news. Despite its domestic growth over the previous decade, television was still something of a novelty and lacked the punch of newspapers and journals. Since then, we have since grown evermore reliant on television for our political information, as we have for all kinds of information. Kennedy was the first modern politician to realize the potential of television in politics.

Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket would mean chaos for Britain

Q: OK, but that was the 1960s, before we’d even heard the term “celebrity culture.” Surely something else has happened.

A: You’re right: after JKF, the politicians who made most impact were the ones who made most effective use of the media. But it wasn’t until 1992 that Bill Clinton (pictured below, recently) arrived and decided that this wasn’t enough to emulate, imitate, or reproduce the style and manner of popular entertainers: politicians had to become entertainers in their own right. He was the first genuine celebrity politician. Clinton is a transitional figure, occupying a position on both sides of the celebrity divide: he had a successful political career as governor of Arkansas before becoming president. He cut quite a figure en route to the presidency: telegenic and good-looking, he also had the sheen of authenticity, appearing natural and relaxed on television. He studied the way in which tv performers established a rapport with audiences and replicated this quite brilliantly. Self-presentation became all-important.

Bill Clinton signs autographs

Q: Of course, Clinton became more like a showbiz celebrity than he ever guessed he would be.

A: You’re referring to his scandal. I doubt if Clinton anticipated his own career would follow that of some other entertainers, but his relationship with one of his aides, Monica Lewinsky, became an international scandal in 1998, and almost ruined his political aspirations. Interestingly though, it’s added to his legacy. Clinton is not known for any single achievement, nor for one great defining moment that would linger in everyone’s memory. But he remains an exceptionally popular media figure and, of course, a very well-paid speaker (his  haul in speaking fees since leaving the White House to $106 million, about £72m, according to CNN)

Q: Like Tony Blair.

A: Blair was, in a sense, Clinton’s most studious pupil. He mimicked Clinton in almost every detail. It’s possible that, in the process, Blair lost that touch of humanity that was so integral to Clinton’s persona, that is those aspects of his character that were visible to others. But his political record (three General Election wins) and his lucrative career after politics (the company he set up turns over £14m per year) suggests the project worked.

Q: Which I suppose convinced the politicians that followed Clinton and Blair that they needed to follow their example.

A: Barack Obama obviously thought so. Both his Presidential wins were preceded by stunningly effective media campaigns. Obama took the novel step of employing social media to engage with his potential supporters. This made him approachable and, in a way, genuine: voters felt they had an authentic line of communication with him. I think British politicians have realized how effective twitter in particular can be, though I’m still not sure they have grasped how best to use it to their own advantage.

Q: And celebrity endorsements?

A: Obama enjoyed arguably the most persuasive celebrity endorsement in history when Oprah Winfrey backed him. She is an immensely popular figure, but also one with a certain gravitas, by which I mean a weighty authority. I’m not sure if there is a celebrity over here who has that kind of influence. I mean, David Beckham is incredibly popular and can influence the way people dress and do their hair, but would his political views have any authority? Joanna Lumley (pictured below, campaigning for the charity Prospect Burma) has been very effective in campaigning for human rights and she is a popular figure but without influence across the whole spectrum. One thing is for sure: over the next few weeks, we’ll see parties recruiting all manner of celebrities to endorse them.

Joanna Lumley Namaste

Q: So now showbiz values have penetrated politics and, politics is, by definition, a public sphere. Perhaps more public than ever … and more personal than ever, wouldn’t you say?

A: I agree: as well as being able to relay news instantly from every part of the world to every part of the world, the media enables viewers to scrutinize their political leaders to an extent unheard of as recently as the 1990s. The surveillance carried out by new media is more invasive and perhaps more meddling than ever. Celebrity culture itself is, in some senses, an accommodation of this, celebrities surrendering any trace of a private life in exchange for publicity. Politicians too have had to strike the bargain. They play by the same rules as all other celebrities. All of which makes the next few weeks very interesting. People may hate the way in which politics has been sucked into celebrity culture, but the effects are intriguing. Campaigns are personal, mudslinging is inevitable and bickering is bound to become nasty. But imagine how much we knew about our politicians in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s. Very little. Some might argue that all we need to know is how they intend to govern the country. Fair enough, but today’s voters have different appetites and sensibilities: we demand to know our politicians up close-and-personal. In seven weeks time, we’ll know a lot more about Cameron and the others than we do now. 




Q: I see the BBC has been in the news recently. Something about changing the way the licence fee is collected. What’s it all about?

A: BBC has been under pressure for as long as I can remember, particularly over the licence fee, which is currently £145.50, or just under 40p per day and is used to pay for the Beeb’s tv, radio and online output. The Corporation’s charter is good until 2017, but discussions have started to explore an alternative to the fee, partly because it doesn’t apply to tablets and smartphones. So theoretically you could watch tv without having a traditional set and be exempt. But the more pressing reason is simply that the licence fee is showing its age.

Q: Why do we pay at all? We don’t have to pay for ITV and, if we don’t want Sky and the other digitals, we can just choose to stick with Freeview.

A: BBC launched in 1922, but, of course, it was strictly radio back then. It started television broadcasts after the end of Word War II in 1945, but hardly anyone had tv sets. The first BBC studio in Shepherd’s Bush, London, starting making programmes in 1950. That was the start of the takeoff period for television. It’s important to remember that, when BBC tv started, it wasn’t intended to convey entertainment only: the other parts of its original remit were to educate and inform. In those days, it was by no means clear that television would grow into the dominant medium it became. Remember: cinema was in pole position and, a small screen showing black and white images in the corner of the room seemed to offer no challenge. BBC was in public ownership, of course. There was no pressure to operate as a profit-making company: it was, as we are still told today, a public service provider.

Q: So what changed?

A: Commercial television launched in 1955. ITV, as we know it today, was a network of regional broadcasters without public funding. So the organization took its cue from American television: in the US, the first tv companies were radio owners and were used to what we would call today a business model.  Radio was, after all, just another way of advertising products at a time in the early twentieth century when people were beginning to surround themselves with the kind of products we now take for granted. Advertising, in the 1920s, was quite primitive and radio offered a channel that was novel. The programmes were effectively just fillers for the ads. But important fillers: if nobody listened, the ads were reaching nobody. Television in the US was based on the same commercial approach and relied only on advertising revenue.

Q: So BBC found itself in a market in the 1950s?

A: Sort of. But not in the sense that they were a competitor of ITV. BBC was guaranteed funding through licence fees. ITV and, for that matter, all the channels that followed, depended on advertising for their money. BBC isn’t unique in this respect, but it is unusual in one respect: most other public service television channels are not dominant. Australia’s ABC is an exception. BBC has remained the UK’s powerhouse broadcaster for many years. So ITV and then Channel 4 (in 1982) and, later, in 1995, Channel 5, while important players have never managed to challenge BBC. Everything changed in 1989 when the first satellites started transmitting and subscription tv arrived.

Q: You mean television that we paid for?

A: Yes, Sky and others charged a monthly fee to receive its programmes. Sky was one of Rupert Murdoch’s companies and looked as if it would fold quickly: it haemorrhaged money before Sky secured the rights to screen then then fledgling Premier League. Then it went from strength to strength until it had over 10 million subscribers.

Q: I begin to see BBC’s predicament: all the other tv companies — and there are hundreds now — rely on advertising money or subscription fees, but BBC occupies a privileged position because it gets the licence fee money no matter what. So what’s the problem?

A: This: with so many other broadcasters, consumers are asking why, if there is a television market, they’re not given the choice not to pay their licence fee. OK, it’s relatively expensive and presents pretty good value compared, for example, to Sky …

Q: … but not compared to ITV or the others on Freeview.

A: True. But think of all the BBC radio channels too.

Q: I take your point, but the solution to the whole problem is obvious, surely: let BBC show commercials.

A: This is an extremely sensitive subject because, the second the BBC allowed ads, it would lose the independence it’s held so sacred: it surrenders itself to market forces and, as such, would be bound to popularize its content.

Q: And the problem with that is … ?

A: BBC would become just like any other tv channel and lose the unique quality that has made it arguably the most admired broadcaster in the world. It could mean an end to adventurous programming and a reliance on proven commodities. Challenging dramas such as last year’s The Missing ( and the recent Wolf Hall (trailer below) and  might never have been made. I’m not saying ITV, Sky and the others don’t make quality programmes. Both broadcasters are successful. ITV, after a rocky period, can boast the best watched programme Coronation Street, and Britain’s most popular programme internationally Downton Abbey. And Sky has its Fortitude (trailer above). So I don’t think we can complain about quality.

Q: You missed The X Factor and Broadchurch. Both ITV.

A: Yes. ITV has proved it can survive and prosper in a congested market where it has to compete against, not just the BBC, but hundreds of other channels in the digital age. If you’ve noticed, it allows not just outright advertising, but product placement. This means that its programmes sometimes feature branded products that are in full view. It alerts viewers to this by showing a capital “P” on the screen at the outset.

Q: So why don’t BBC do something similar? After all, advertisers would clamour to get on BBC shows. It could also invite sponsors. You know. “A certain product presents EastEnders” or “So-and-so brings you Strictly Come Dancing.”

A: I imagine BBC have been contemplating this for years. It’s resisted any form of advertising, no matter how, subtle or unobtrusive and my guess it will propose some sort of tax, or levy, as an alternative to the licence, before it allows ads. But you’re right: this possibility is sure to be aired. After all, we are surrounding by ads whenever we go online, or to the movies or even just walking about — count how many people you see who have brands emblazoned across their shirts, or bags, or trainers (see the picture at the start of this blog). We’ve become walking advertisement without seeming to mind. So I suspect BBC will be asked to consider some sort of advertising. I don’t especially welcome the development, but I think it will be hotly debated before 2017.


Politicians target effects because they can’t see causes

Q: It looks like the net is closing in on Muhammad Emwazi aka “Jihad John” (pictured below) the suspected executioner who appears to have grown up in London before making his way to Syria. And the three runaway teenagers who were caught on CCTV in Turkey, according to reports, are now in Syria. How do we make sense of young British Muslims, educated in British schools and colleges, who decide they want to commit themselves to the Muslim struggle against unbelievers and who are, in all probability, prepared to die?

A: The first thing we should understand is that how the global conflict involving Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Al-Qaeda and other affiliates of the movement that is fighting for the establishment of the caliphate provides a schema, plan or model. Believing you are the victim of oppressive, prejudicial policing or harsh treatment from society makes sense if you accept that you are part of an unjust exercise of force that forms a wider pattern. The renewal of Muslim identity is the effect rather than the cause of conflict in Britain. Forms of allegiance focused on place, nationality, class or ethnicity have been serviceable to an extent, but lack an encompassing worldview. Islam, by contrast, offers a strong, reaffirming identity.

Cameron defends security services after media unmask 'Jihadi John'

Q: Hang on right there. First, what is the caliphate?

A: The word “caliph” comes from the Arabic khalifa, meaning “successor”. Caliphate  means “the government under a caliph.”  ISIS has declared its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the spiritual leader of all Islam.

Q: OK, but why should young people who have no obvious connection to ISIS become attracted to the Jihad, which is effectively a Holy War, right?

A: The popular explanations are that they have been influenced, groomed, or even “brainwashed” by influential Muslim leaders. Politicians are trying to figure out how to stop charities and mosques they think preach the jihad and finance fighting abroad. They are also considering clamping down at universities where they think “radicalization” takes place. They are focusing on symptoms, of course. The real challenge is to discover why Muslim clerics who preach violence against unbelievers (that is, those who do not accept Islam) are considered plausible. Leaders are effective only when they have receptive followers.

Q: Receptive?

A: Yes. Leaders reflect the times and social circumstances in which they emerged. Take some of the greatest leaders in history — Jesus, Gandhi, Bismarck, Hitler, for example — and relocate them to different places at different times, and their ideas might not find such a reception, by which I mean potential followers could have reacted differently and opted not to follow them. The kind of preachings that encourage young Brits to join the jihad would have been disregarded twenty years ago when young people would have been less suggestible. Trying to control or eliminate the preachers or criminalizing those who choose to join the jihad is a limited and ultimately self-defeating exercise. Young Muslims can take it as evidence that the West is doing everything it can to destroy Islam.

Q: Eh? Are you serious?

A: The situation in Palestine, the invasions of Iraq, the Egyptian spring and the latest conflict in Syria are all parts of a pattern in the minds of many. For those who want to interpret their own experiences in terms of a global complex, ISIS and those who share its worldview supply a framework. This is a way of making personal experiences intelligible in terms of an overarching conflict. Young people who, for all manner of reason, believe they are disrespected, disregarded, treated unfairly, or pushed to the margins of society are, it seems, finding this worldview appealing. So much so, they are prepared to act on it.

Q: But young people all over Britain have similar kinds of complaints: they all, to some degree, think they are marginalized or just picked on.

A: Perhaps, but some Muslims, particularly those who have converted to Islam, discover in the jihad a way of linking their own marginality with those of Muslims around the world and this can, indeed, is proving a potent association. I can’t see any practical way of breaking that association either. Clearly, there is a form of racism we call Islamophobia that’s been around for many years and any young Muslim who believes they have been on the receiving end has a ready-made model that can assist them when they ask: Why? For reasons we clearly don’t want to face, a lot of young Muslims don’t identify with British society and feel disengaged enough to want to commit their lives to what appears to others a mystifying war.