Category Archives: Media


Maracana Stadium

Q: A contagious disease, the threat of violence, insanitary conditions, a constitutional crisis,  and now … a doping crisis! All in a day’s work for the organizers of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, eh?

A: Yes: every summer Olympics has its share of problems in the lead-up to the tournament, but they’re usually about getting the stadiums built in time, or completing the transport links. For Rio, these are minor problems: they have much more serious crises to avert. Do you want me to go through them?

Q: Sure. Start with the public health cataclysm.

A: Cataclysm might be overstating it a bit, but the Zika virus certainly has the potential to develop into a global pandemic. Zika is the virus spread by mosquitoes — those pesky little long-legged flies with a taste for human blood. Aedes aegypti is the name of a species of mozzie that carries this Zika virus and if they bite a pregnant woman her baby could develop a devastating birth defect. This has already happened in Rio. The danger is that, if some of the expected 500,000 visitors to the Olympics get bitten, then return home, then the virus goes with them. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says the mosquito type has been recently reported in Madeira, the Netherlands and the north-eastern Black Sea coast. You can bet that, after the Olympics, it will be many, many other places too.

Q: So this is potentially a huge public health risk. Who in their right mind would go to a part of the world where this kind of mosquito thrives?

A: The Olympics has a great pulling power and not only for audiences. Athletes train for four years and, when they finally get the chance to compete in the most prestigious tournament in the world, they will run a cost-benefit calculation through their mind and decide it’s a risk worth taking.

Q: Professor Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa has recently written a warning in of the Harvard Public Health Review in which he calls for a complete postponement or even cancellation of the Olympics. He thinks it’s that serious.

A: And I find his arguments compelling. I was in a discussion with him recently and agree with his findings. But I don’t think the Olympic organizers will listen. As always, money overpowers everything, including public health considerations.

Q: How much money are we talking about?

A: Well let’s start with the sponsors’ money. The International Olympic Committee , or just IOC for short, has about 30 global corporations in its team of commercial “partners,” as it likes to call them. These include Samsung, Visa, Omega as well as the ever-present pair, Coca-Cola and McDonalds.They pay for the rights to use the Olympic rings logo, advertise themselves as Olympic sponsors and generally associate themselves with the Olympic brand. Because of the different levels and lengths of contracts, I can only estimate the value of sponsorships for this particular tournament, but I don’t think $1 billion would be wide of the mark. And I know we tend to use the word billion as we used million a decade ago. But remember: a billion is a thousand times more than a million.

Q: A thousand million American dollars? That’s £691,488,810. Serious money!

A: Actually, it gets more serious. The media deals are enormously complex because they’re often structured over several Olympic cycles and there are subcontractors who buy the broadcast rights to whole territories and then sell on to individual broadcasters. The IOC has one particularly lucrative contract with NBC television worth $7.5 billion and which stretches to 2032. But for this single Olympic games, the overall value of media contracts is, I’d say, slightly north of $4.1 billion.

Q: Why so much?

A: Advertising. The 2012 London Olympics was broadcast to 115 different countries, reaching an audience of 3.8 billion homes. That’s a formidable reach and very, very few televised events can claim such a fantastic demographic. Football’s World Cup is one of them, of course. So, if you’re an advertiser and you want to show your products to the biggest possible consumer market, then you advertise during the Olympics. And tv and radio companies charge you more. So they make money. The IOC charge a lot in the confident expectation that broadcasters will cough up, secure in the knowledge that they can charge advertisers a premium. The USA’s NBC charges about $100,000 per 30-seconds and has already taken $1 billion in advertising spots. The rate is dwarfed by those attached to some sporting events, like the Super Bowl, but, of course the Olympics lasts over two weeks. So a cancellation at this late stage would create pandemonium for both sponsors and broadcaster.

Q: But surely the huge corporations tied up with the Olympics are insured against a cancellation or some other kind of catastrophe.

A: Definitely. But imagine the brand damage: the Olympics is a popular portal for advertising and marketing because of its connotations: health, wholesomeness, purity, virtue — squeaky-cleanliness. Public health disasters are not part of the brand profile.

Q: Which brings me to the other potential problems. I was reading the Brazilian footballer Rivaldo had warned prospective travellers to stay away from Rio. He thinks they will be exposing themselves to violence.

A: I’m always skeptical about these kinds of warnings. Every big city in the world carries its own menace: cities are, almost by definition, places where rich and poor live side-by-side. Well, perhaps not side-by-side: there are affluent and impoverished areas of most cities. Rio is no different. Of course, there are dangerous parts and most clued-up travellers will give them a wide berth. All the same, when someone like Rivaldo reckons Brazil is getting “more ugly,” I guess we should take notice. You might expect Brazilian athletes to support the Games and encourage fans from everywhere to flock to Rio. He’s warning them off. Add to this the report that Rio’s Olympic waterways are rife with pathogens — bacteria that can cause disease — and that corruption is rife and you come up with the picture of a country that is not quite fit-for-purpose as an Olympic host. Matter of fact, Rio and the Olympics makes Quatar and football’s World Cup look like a match made in heaven!

Q: Almost inevitably there’s been an ominous doping scandal, the difference this time being that this one has arrived before rather than during or after the Games.

A: Let me recap: Russia is already suspended from the Olympics and it will petition to have its suspension lifted before the start. It’s case is now being considered. Kenya has also been mentioned, though nothing has materialized thus far. Russia is known to have had a state-sponsored doping programme. Kenya was recently declared “non-compliant” with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules. It would be a major blow if either or both nations were excluded from the Games for drugs violations. Russia was fourth in the 2012 medals table and Kenya is the preeminent force in middle and longdistance running. And it gets worse: dozens of athletes expecting to compete in Rio de Janeiro could be barred from the Games. The International Olympic Committee announced that it had retested urine samples taken at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and would retest more from the 2012 tournament. The intention is presumably to strip those who tested positive of their medals and, if they planned to compete in Brazil, ban them.

Q: Hang on, I’m not quite getting this. The athletes at Beijing and London were tested in 2008 and 2012 respectively and, we presume, came out clean and so kept their medals. How can they testers change their minds now and declare them “cheats”? It seems to go against the entire ethos of sports. I mean, there’s a contest, an outcome and winners are declared. OK, we know dopetesting can take a few days. But eight years? This means that every single medallist at Rio keeps the medal conditionally and, if at some future unspecified time, their sample shows up a banned substance, their medal could be annulled.

A: That’s it. Every result at Rio will be provisional. And it will remain provisional for ever. The testing equipment available now will detect some substances. But athletes are intelligent enough to realize that, if they intend to enhance their athletic performance, they don’t want to use substances that will be detected. That’s why they use designer drugs, these being drugs that are synthetically made to escape detection. It’s possible that at some point in the future, the testers will catch up — as they apparently have with some of the substances used in 2008 and 2012 — but, there’s also a better-than-even chance that they’ll never devise tests sophisticated enough to catch them.

Q: All the same, this has to be an unsatisfactory state of affairs. It means that the 78,838 fans at the Estádio do Maracanã (pictured above) plus the 3 billion+ tv audiences will be watching events in which the results will be inconclusive and always subject to change.

A: Correct. But try to think of the Olympic Games less as a sporting tournament and more of a spectacular exhibition — a showcase for the world’s seventh biggest economy. Between August 5-21, there will be plenty of competition, but there’ll also be the grand opening and closing ceremonies and two-and-a-half weeks of the most intensive marketing imaginable. The Chariots of Fire bolted long ago.



Q: Prince (pictured above) is the latest in an incredible series of celebrity deaths this year. The unexpected death of David Bowie was an ominous start to 2016. Since then we’ve lost Harry Potter star Alan Rickmam, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Harper Lee, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and renowned singer Natalie Cole, among others.

A: And don’t forget Lemmy, of Motörhead, who died last December. These are all people who have, in some way, helped shape all of our lives. The impact of some, particularly Bowie, has been substantial. It’s hard to imagine anyone between the ages of, say, 50 and 70 who hasn’t been affected by him. The response to his death was one of those great “outpourings,” as we now call them, following the aftermath of the death of Princess of Diana in 1998.

Q: Hang on. Surely we’ve always grieved when famous figures have died.

A: Not so publicly. Nowadays, there’s an exhibitionist quality about our grieving. We feel almost a sense of obligation, as if we’re participating in a ritual. There’s nothing wrong or artificial about it: it’s just part of a more generic cultural shift towards expressing everything, including our innermost feelings. It reminds us that even the personal is actually social.

Q: I’m not sure exactly what you mean by that, but I assume you’re hinting that the emotions we presume are instinctive states of mind and distinguishable from our outward expressions are not as private as we think.

A: That’s pretty much it, yes. Everything we are is made possible by our participation in society.

Q: OK, let me push you towards answering a more specific question about the meaning of celebrity deaths.

A: Here’s the thing: celebrities today are not like the Hollywood stars of the 1940s or 1950s or, earlier, the great political, military or even religious leaders, all of whom stood above us on pedestals. We put them there, of course; but we were comfortable looking up to them – as if they were godlike creatures; untouchable and inaccessible. Today, celebs are just like us: we communicate with them via twitter and Instagram, we learn their “secrets,” we invest part of our own lives in theirs. In sum, we treat them as ordinary human beings, except they are in the media. We might respect some of them; others we might just like; still others we might hate. As long as they somehow elicit a reaction from us, we follow them. To use a term of today, they engage us. That’s all a celebrity needs to do.

Q: And when they die, they remind us that they’re just flesh and blood like the rest of us, right?

A: You’re ahead of me. That’s exactly right: death is the ultimate reminder of mortality. We don’t wish our celebrities to be dead, of course; but we are macabrely reassured by their passing.

Q: I guess illness functions similarly.

A: Yes. As you know, my recent book Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption approaches the star as a harbinger — a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another era, in Taylor’s case celebrity culture. Throughout her life, she was bedeviled by serious illness. Everyone knew this because every bout of sickness was generously covered by the media. She became ill publicly. As the consummate celebrity, Taylor knew exactly how to use this to her advantage: she manipulated the media perfectly in a way designed to squeeze the maximum amount of sympathy from her public. She actually advised her friend Michael Jackson that he could exploit his own illnesses. My point is that, when we hear of the ill health of celebrities, it is, again, one of those reminders that they’re just as susceptible to sickness as anyone else. And we find that comforting. It sounds perverse, but that’s just one of a number of perversities in celebrity culture.


Q: Simon Cowell’s blood must be boiling: he gave Gary Barlow a job on The X Factor, while he was away between 2011 and 2013, and now Barlow is planning a rival talent show for BBC. We won’t be able to move for talent shows.   At the moment we’re reaching the business end of The Voice (below). Once that concludes, we’ll have Britain’s Got Talent, then Cowell’s mainstay The X Factor. Can we take this much talent?

The Voice

 A: I think the concept has plenty of mileage, but The X Factor is showing its age and could founder after another series, especially if the mooted Barlow series succeeds. We shouldn’t underestimate The X Factor, of course: the once-monumental show was, and perhaps still is, a television phenomenon. No programme has consistently pulled in audiences like Cowell’s show. At its peak, in 2010, it drew 19.4 million viewers — that’s over 30 percent of the UK’s total population. But it’s been sliding since and, last year, one of its programmes drew just 5.25m, the lowest since X Factor’s first ever show in September 2004. And remember, it straddles the whole demographic spectrum, bringing viewers of all ages and both genders to their screens for Saturday nights.
Q: I confess I find it simultaneously kind and cruel. It gives wannabes their chance but often uses them simply to mock. I know this was deliberate and, in a sense, this was part of the show’s attraction. But other talent shows are not so vicious. I mean, there are no lacerating put-downs on The Voice and criticism on BGT tends to be good-humoured.
A: And I wonder if that’s the problem. We enjoy critique. We even enjoy Cowell’s likening of some singers to karaoke performers or cabaret artists — as if these were the lowest of the low. And this has been part of the X Factor narrative. Yet familiarity is not always a good thing. Perhaps BBC is thinking along the same lines. Barlow is a constructive critic: he doesn’t pull his punches, but he’s nowhere near as acerbic as Cowell (below).

simon_cowell (1)

Q: Personally, I like Cowell’s disparagement: it’s blunt, honest and a rebuff for the narcissistic culture that encourages an anyone-can-make-it attitude among young people. Some of the contestants are chillingly reminded that, while everyone wants to be a celebrity, some of us are destined to remain anonymous.
A: I tend to agree; but tastes change. At least, the decline in ratings suggest so. Reality tv broadly continues to prosper, mainly because we find authenticity rewarding. The X Factor welded this authenticity to what we nowadays call fandom — that is, the collective of admirers or followers of the famous. Cowell took an old idea and gave fans the ability to decide who should win. The X Factor has more in common with sport than conventional entertainment: every week voting fans democratically decide who gets eliminated until, like a Darwinian struggle, whoever they think is the strongest survives.
Q: There’s something else: the voters are actually doing market research for Cowell. They tell him who they like and who they don’t like. So when he launched One Direction, Olly Murs and Leona Lewis, it was in the certain knowledge that they’d already created huge fan bases.
A: True. But the show has had its fair show of flops and The Voice seems to be an end-point for winners. Fans vote for them, but then turn away. Perhaps that’s really what the want. Leanne Mitchell had poor album sales  and  Jermain Jackman‘s first single limped only to 75 in the chart.
Q: Let me get this straight: you mean audiences like X Factor winners when they are on the show, but don’t like the prospect of them becoming world-conquering superstars independently?
A: Maybe. I think the failure of X Factor’s 2014 winner Ben Haenow could be a sign that fans like the feeling that they control the destiny of singers. Once the show is over, they just have to sit back and watch the likes of Harry Styles et al. becoming huge stars without their support. It’s like electing someone Prime Minister, then feeling helpless while they rule the country. I’ll be surprised if any future winners of The X Factor or any other talent show, duplicate the success of 1D, Leona Lewis (both from The X Factor) or Susan Boyle, who leapt to fame from BGT.
Q: The redtop newspapers love talent shows, don’t they?
A: It’s not only the redtop newspapers. The Sun and the Mirror certainly give most coverage to the shows, particularly any scandal, no matter how minor, surrounding the panel or the contestants; but all the newspapers grant them space. The relationship is symbiotic: the newspapers get a steady supply of stories, while the shows benefit from the exposure. And it’s not just traditional media.
Q: Social media wasn’t really around when The X Factor started, was it?
A: Not on any great scale. Today, twitter can help new artists and allow established stars to thrive. I think twitter, together with Vine and Instagram, can short circuit talent shows. This makes me think that, in future, talent shows — at least the ones that are going to flourish — will need to integrate television and social media. I don’t think this is just a case of hashtagging   and so on. I think the shows’ producers will have to exercise their minds creatively to come up with a closer interaction, cooperation or joint engagement. The alternative is to look old-fashioned and — dare I say it? — irrelevant. I don’t underestimate the ingenuity of the shows’ producers: I suspect they will innovate in a way that keeps us glued to our tvs on Saturday nights, though I think the days of 15m+ tv viewers has passed. Of course, tv itself may be passing too: all the signs are that we’re watching content via our tablets, smartphones or whatever portable devices will appear in the future. We’re also watching whenever we please: catchup tv means that we can choose the time to watch. I imagine all the shows are grappling with a form flexible enough to accommodate new viewing habits. The challenge is to retain the democratic character: the audience feels in control of talent shows at the moment. They can elevate someone to stardom or consign them to oblivion. I think this is important in separating talent shows from ordinary entertainment programmes.
Q: You sound ambivalent about the future of talent shows. Are you?
A: Well, I’m mindful that American Idol, which is the US equivalent of The X Factor, and features Cowell on its panel, is currently in its final run. It’s been going for 15-years. The show originated as a version of the UK’s Pop Idol, which played for two series between 2001-03, before The X Factor started up. An American version of The X Factor lasted only two years, 2011 to 2013, while American Idol thrived, at one point drawing 40 million viewers (for comparison, last January’s Super Bowl drew an average of 114.4 million viewers).
Q: And you think this presages problems for the talent shows?
A: Like any other television genre, there’s a point where you can have too much of a good thing. There are, at the last count, 147 versions of The X Factor around the world, for example. But we live at a time when people demand constant change and renewal; they want novelty, freshness and originality. Talent shows had all these. Now they’re looking a bit stale. Shows are going to have to mutate and adapt to new environments. Those that change in a way we find agreeable, will continue; but I think others will struggle. At the moment the landscape is very congested: we have talent shows almost every week of the year. I think The Voice, when revamped by ITV, will be interesting. I also think The X Factor will come back fighting after the worst year in its history. Whether BGT and the new Gary Barlow series will respond remains to be seen. The battle between the shows could be more interesting than the on-stage battles.




Pearl Izumi Tour Series - Kirkcaldy (4)

Q: Is cheating fair?

A: “The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.” This isn’t an answer: it’s a quote from John Lily’s Euphues (1578). A contemporary of Shakespeare, Lily could have had no clue how his phrase would become so widely used as a mitigation of cheating. Of the many modifications, one stands out: “All’s fair in war, I believe,” claims the central character John Pendleton Kennedy’s 1954 novel of the American Revolution, Horse-shoe Robinson. “But it don’t signify a man is good.” OK, this is hardly a definitive statement, but it does highlight how the rules of fair play might be acceptably broken in some circumstances, though without necessarily making the violation morally right, or exculpating the offender (i.e. signifying he or she “is good”).

Q: That’s actually a better answer than I’d expected. I was hinting at the recent case of “mechanical doping,” as they’re calling it. A motor concealed in a bike at the world cyclo-cross championships suggests competitors are prepared to try any means, fair or foul, to gain an advantage. It is banned in competitive cycling and the UCI, cycling’s governing body, has acknowledged it is a problem. Cycling is still trying to come to terms with performance enhancing drugs, of course. This is another form of cheating, isn’t it? After all, to cheat is to deceive, trick, swindle or flout the rules designed to maintain conditions of impartiality. So how can this be fair in any situation?

A: To answer this we need to establish the circumstances in which cheating takes place, and the conditions under which cheating is practiced – the context of cheating. Prior to professionalism, the aim of sporting competition was to perform at the highest level our bodies and minds permitted. Rules were designed as guiding principles, directions regarding appropriate behavior. Participants played on their honor: they trusted each other to be fair and honest. In a sense, the rules were superfluous. Later, when winning became the ultimate goal, rules became limits – boundaries of permissible behavior; they were supposed to govern conduct and specify what we could and couldn’t do. Rules not players governed acceptable conduct. It’s impossible to be precise about the time of the change in ethos. Sports such as association football and baseball were both professional in the nineteenth century, whereas rugby union didn’t go open until 1995. The Olympics were amateur for much of the IOC’s history; but, during 1986-92, it introduced amendments in its charter that effectively permitted professionals to compete. Even allowing for this unevenness, we can surmise that, while competitors in all sports were committed to doing their utmost to win, those who competed for money rather than glory alone had to deal with temptation.

Q: We’re always hearing phrases like, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” and “Football is a matter of life or death? … It’s more important than that.” Competitors are encouraged to adopt a professional win-at-all-costs attitude. So, it could be argued that the athlete who is prepared to risk disqualification and the defeat, shame and sometimes humiliation in order to win embodies the very qualities that define competitive sports in the 21st century, right?

A: I’d say so. Cheating is an undesirable but inevitable consequence of professionalism. You could say it’s an admirable characteristic of determined competitors who are prepared to do whatever it takes to win.

Q: So how does cheating manifest today?

A: I’d say in three main ways:

(1) An intentional infraction designed and executed to gain an unfair advantage. Perhaps the most notorious unpunished instance of disguised cheating was Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, when he palmed the ball into the goal of the England football team in a 1986 World Cup game. Video evidence showed that the Argentinean player used his hand illegally and probably intentionally. The referee didn’t see it and awarded a goal amid much protest. Maradona didn’t confess his sin to the referee. For that matter, he’s never openly acknowledged it. There are too many cases of this kind to chart here. But let me just give one more, this time from boxing. In 1983, the unbeaten Billy Collins, then 21, took a terrible pounding from the normally light-hitting Luis Resto, who was 20-7-2 at the time. Collins’ injuries were so bad that he didn’t fight again and was killed in a car accident nine months later. It was found that padding had been removed from Resto’s gloves. Resto was banned from boxing and, later, convicted of assault, conspiracy and criminal possession of a deadly weapon (his fists). His cornerman, Panama Al Lewis was convicted of assault, conspiracy, tampering with a sports contest and criminal possession of a deadly weapon. They both served 2 years in prison.

2) An unintentional infraction that goes unnoticed by game officials and which the offending player fails to report. It’s difficult to imagine an instance when a coach would not condone cheating if there was a guarantee that it would go undetected and an advantage to be gained. In a 1997 game of football, Liverpool player Robbie Fowler was awarded a penalty after the referee ruled that Arsenal’s goalkeeper David Seaman had fouled him. Fowler informed the referee that Seaman had not fouled him, but the referee was adamant that the penalty stood and Fowler duly took it. While Fowler’s spotkick was saved and driven home on the rebound, one wonders what might have happened had the player remained true to his original confession and deliberately sliced the ball wide of the goal. Even if the original intention of the athlete was not to cheat, the structure of the game actually inhibits him or her from doing much else.

(3) When rules are observed, but the spirit of competition is compromised. During her losing match against Steffi Graf in the French Open final of 1999, Martina Hingis (a) demanded that the umpire inspect a mark on the clay surface after her forehand landed adjacent to the baseline, (b) went for a 5-minute toilet break at the start of the third set and (c) served underarm when facing match point on two occasions. While the actions did contravene the rules, they prompted Graf to ask the umpire: “We play tennis, OK?” A dramatic fall by Arsenal player Eduardo in 2009 was the subject of intense, yet ultimately inconclusive scrutiny. Playing against Celtic in the European Champions League, the player tumbled after what appeared to be minimal contact with an opponent, and was awarded a penalty, from which his team scored. A retrospective charge of diving, or “simulation,” yielded a two-match ban from Uefa; this was subsequently overturned when governing organization failed to prove its case. Whether the player deliberately deceived the referee remains a talking point, though the absence of sanction suggests that the official view was that Eduardo was fouled and simply exaggerated his fall. Soccer players are so notorious for this that Fifa introduced rules that forced all injured (or pseudo-injured) players to be stretchered off the field of play before they could resume playing. Boxers employ a comparable strategem, exaggerating the effects of low blows to gain time to recover when under pressure.

Q: From what you’re saying, it seems instrumental qualities, such as prudence and calculation, are now parts of the character of professional sport. So were there no cheats before money became a factor?

A: There were, but perhaps not so many as today. Earlier this week, Lawrence Donegan, author of Four Iron in the Soul, who called me about a story he was writing on cheating in sport for the New York Times. I emphasized the importance of the filthy lucre, but added that we should guard against assuming amateurs were pure and virtuous. In 1976, for example, when the Olympics were amateur, Boris Onischenko, in a desperate bid for gold in his last Olympics, wired a switch under his leather grip, which triggered a hit when pressed during the fencing event of the modern pentathlon. He was disqualified after officials noticed that hits were registering even though his foil wasn’t even touching his opponent. Money is the primary variable in motivational mixture behind cheating, but prestige, distinction and the status winning brings to the victor are also ingredients.


Donald Trump Sr. at #FITN in Nashua, NH

Q: Trump: The Musical. Surely, it can’t be long, can it?

A: If I didn’t think I’d get sued, I’d start writing it myself. Although, in a sense, this is writing itself as we speak. Donald Trump’s political career is so entertaining that it’s hard to dramatize; in fact, were anybody to write the story ten years ago, it would be too preposterous. Today, we’re confronted by a stranger-than-fiction political reality: a billionaire entrepreneur and tv personality decides he wants to take a shot at the presidency of the United States and, against all odds, finds himself in pole position – at least in the Republican Party.

Q: He’s a demagogue, right?

A: Yes: he’s sought and generated support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational analysis and level-headed argument. Among his proposals are a ban on Muslims entering the USA and a wall built as a barrier between the US and Mexico. These are impractical and unreasonable, but somehow they’ve got traction among the American people and Trump is leading the Republican Party. If we froze the polls today, he’d be the man chosen to run for presidency.

Q: But surely there are other Republican candidates who will overhaul him when the primaries – i.e. the preliminary elections to select candidates for the presidential election – start later this month.

A: Possibly. But his nearest rival, Ted Cruz, has political views not too different from Trump’s. I watched the Republican tv debate before Christmas: the discourse was wholly reactionary. By European standards, America’s Republican Party would be seen as far right. Like the Front National in France or Golden Dawn in Greece. The Republican debates focus on migration and Syria; specifically, how to curb migration and how to attack Syria. Trump’s message has a simplicity and easy-on-the-intellect plausibility that, at the moment, sounds appealing to Republican voters: Trump has 35% support compared to 18% for his nearest rival Cruz.

Q: I suppose all this will play into the hands of the Democrats, who seem to have only the formality of selecting Hillary Clinton as their nominee.

A: It appears so. Hillary’s main rival is Bernie Sanders, who is the most leftwing American politician I can ever recall. Sanders is against the Syrian offensive, opposes the massively uneven distribution of income and wealth, and declares himself an enemy of largescale corporations who exploit consumers. Hillary, by contrast, is a moderate. While Americans see her as a liberal or even a lefty, she is some way to the right of our own Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. No Democrat besides Sanders would dream of the kind of public expenditure Cameron approves.

Q; Hang on. Cameron is being criticized for cutting public services, isn’t he?

A: Over here, yes. But American politicians realize that this requires higher taxes and this is political poison. Americans would rather see their schools close and their roads riddled with potholes than pay more tax. And, while Hillary supports her fellow Democrat and current President Barack Obama’s healthcare system, she wouldn’t contemplate anything resembling what Americans call socialized medicine, such as Canada’s and our own National Health Service. The USA’s party of the left is some way to the right of our own Conservative Party.

Q: If I hear you right, you’re saying that American politics generally is rightwing. Apart from Sanders, there doesn’t appear to be a legitimate voice on the left.

A: Which is why Trump is sailing serenely. Of course, you have to pinch yourself when you realize this is a man with no political experience at all: he’s never held political office in his life; he’s 69. He wouldn’t be the first President with no political experience, by the way: Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was elected in 1953, was the commanding general of allied forces in Europe during World War II, but had never held political office. In the nineteenth century Ulysses S. Grant was elected following the civil war. Zachary Taylor also had a military rather than political background. So there are precedents.

Q: I guess the question no one can answer is: why would Trump want the presidency anyway? He’s beyond rich and enjoys a certain celebrity status. He’s the guy that started the “You’re fired!” catchphrase, later adopted by Sir Alan Sugar. Trump featured in the original The Apprentice, didn’t he?

A: He did. And he certainly has the kind of celebrity status singers and other entertainers crave. What he doesn’t have is political power. Maybe this is what he thinks will complete his life.

Q: Will it?

A: I doubt it. In fact, it’s a question how far the largely self-funded Trump proceeds with his campaign once the going gets tough. We can expect him to do well initially, but not well enough once his rivals start picking up momentum. There are twelve candidates in the hunt and it will probably be the end of May before this is pared down to two or three. I doubt if Trump will be among them. By then, voters will have been given a reality check. Trump is an entertainer, not a politician. Republicans will know that Trump stands little chance against the politically savvy Hillary or any of her rivals for the Democrats’ nomination, and put their weight behind someone with credibility. Celebrity culture saturates every aspect of contemporary society, including politics, and Trump shows how far it can take someone even without political skill, training or grounding. But it’s not going to take him all the way to the White House. All the same, I’m looking forward to the musical.



Next month’s games will embarrass Russians … but may change them

Russia Figure Skating Cup Of Russia Ashley Wagner

Sochi. A few weeks ago, you’d have been forgiven for confusing it with a Japanese dish served with raw fish, or Nigella Lawson’s ex. Soon, Sochi will be one of the world’s news capitals. Sochi 2014 will be known in much the same way as Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972. The cities and the years denote the place and time of the Olympic games; but they are memorialized not for sport, but because they serve as emblems of social and political events. In Mexico, two African American athletes staged a silent protest against racism while on the victory rostrum. At the Munich Olympics the Palestinian splinter group Black September killed nine members of the Israeli Olympic team and killed two others to highlight how the political rights of displaced Palestinian Arabs were being disregarded. In both cases, the Olympics effectively served as a global showcase.

Sochi is the Russian port in the foothills of the Caucasus, where, on February 7, the 2014 Winter Olympics will open. At a cost of US$51 billion (£32 bn), it is the most expensive Olympics in history and offers an opportunity for Russia to publicize its status as a major, advanced, capitalist power, worthy of overseas investment. It will do more than that.

Last year, Russia introduced a law that criminalizes “homosexual propaganda,” making public displays that promote gay rights, including handholding, punishable by imprisonment. The law became an international cause célèbre. US president Barack Obama criticized the legislation on television hours before cancelling summit talks with Russia’s Premier Vladimir Putin. British actor Stephen Fry, who is openly gay, wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, urging a boycott of the games. Putin, according to Fry, “is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did to Jews.” The statement was criticised as ridiculous by several commentators. David Cameron acknowledged Fry’s concerns but insisted, “we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.”

The games will definitely go ahead, though many athletes, gay and straight, will wrestle with a dilemma: by going to Sochi they may appear to endorse a Russian leadership that, far from safeguarding the interests of minorities, has passed laws that legitimize prejudices entrenched in the former communist bloc. The law is actually consistent with the retrogressive assault on civil society and political opposition since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. The jailing of the dissident female rock duo Pussy Riot was a warning shot and the release of the singers two months before the end of their sentence has been seen as a transparent attempt to take out some of the sting of world opinion prior to the Olympics. “This selective amnesty was not an act of humanism,” said band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. “It happened because Putin is afraid that Olympic Games in Sochi will be boycotted.”

The antigay law has Putin’s fingerprints all over it: he has consistently sought to promote a conservative ideology, advocating Russian nationalism and close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. It was entirely within his power to veto the controversial law. Instead he pandered to the homophobic and xenophobic elements of Russian society. But the costs will be punishing.

Putin knows he can’t mute the protests. The establishment of “public protest zones” to contain protesters will be ignored, just as the designated areas Beijing sectioned off to absorb protests against China’s human rights record and its policy on Tibet, went unused during the 2008 Olympics. Protests near the competition were quelled and activists either detained or deported. Putin has a reputation as a hard man, but he wouldn’t countenance such draconian measures, especially as he is forewarned. He recently declared gay people “can feel relaxed and comfortable” at the games as long as they “leave the children in peace”.

Obama has delivered him a slap in face by sending three openly gay members in the official US delegation. Several athletes have publicly stated their intention to flout the law. One of them is Ashley Wagner (pictured above), a 22-year-old figure skater who has murmured: “This is the opportunity for the Olympics to be ground-breaking.” She will no doubt incite Russian officials by wearing rainbow earrings and nails on the ice and, with others, is still thinking about how best to make her views known. “Too many people are quiet,” she reckons. Wagner could emerge as an improbable symbol of protest.

Billie Jean King, the first internationally famous female athlete to come out as gay in 1981 after her partner filed a palimony lawsuit against her, is in the American delegation and has alluded to Mexico 1968: “Sometimes, I think we need a John Carlos moment.” Carlos (below, on right) was one of the two black Americans who raised a defiant gloved fist and bowed his head as the Stars and Stripes was played; he was subsequently banned from sport, but history has transformed him into a champion of civil rights. Sochi may well produce a comparable event. But will its effects be as far-reaching?

Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1986 Olympics
For as long as anyone can remember the only certainty about inequality, exploitation and persecution, from despotism to slavery to apartheid, is that sport can either support them or challenge them. For those who piously insist sport and politics should be kept separate, the paradox is a torment: sport can be a potent political instrument, as the Gleneagles Agreement of 1971 shows. Signatories affirmed their opposition to apartheid by agreeing to end sporting contacts with South Africa. It became an effective adjunct to other forms of pressure to isolate South Africa and render it a pariah.

Sochi will hyphenate the introduction of Russia’s antigay laws with the football World Cup, which the nation will host in 2018. If the nation trembles with dread and staggers in astonishment at the strength of opposition to its regressive legislation, then it will surely ponder the even fiercer pushback in four years time.  We’re not going to witness a Tahrir Square-like rally or another Tiananmen Square. But there will be an event that causes wide-ranging changes that will either transfigure Russian society or lay bare its primitive repudiation of fairness, justice and egalitarianism.


This has been published simultaneously by the LSE Politics and Policy blog

Why we should be grateful for Fabricant’s lack of caution

“OMG! Just said “twat” live on air …”

I wonder if Tory MP Michael Fabricant thinks the word “twat” refers only to a person who is stupid or obnoxious. He may not realize it is also vulgar slang for a woman’s genitals. Or perhaps he does and just doesn’t care. When he used it on BBC WM, he was dissing Russell Brand for his theatrical responses to Jeremy Paxman’s questions about his politics. Setting aside the interview itself, in which Paxman allowed Brand to pontificate critically about the ineffectiveness of democracy, Fabricant’s sideswipe at Brand has prompted outrage on a scale Brand himself would envy [skip to 1.36 minutes]. In condemning Brand’s lack of realism and his use of nouns such as paradigm, Fabricant must have forgotten his media training and lapsed into an everyday vernacular, which prompted listeners in the West Midlands to complain. He seemed to regret his lack of discretion, or he could have been be luxuriating in the fuss he caused when he later tweeted: OMG! Just said “twat” live on air with @adriangoldberg on BBC WM referring to Russell Brand and his pompous remarks on @BBCNewsnight.”

But perhaps we should be grateful for his heedlessness. Politicans today are meticulously cautious when they appear in public: every word is thought-out, every sentence is measured, every gesture is rehearsed. Since the Tony Blair period, politicians have become entertainers: they know the power of the media and adjust accordingly. Politicians create a persona and display this, much as Vincent Furnier displays Alice Cooper – as public figures rather than private individuals with a remit to engage, amuse and in many other ways, keep us interested. There has been a dramatic drop in confidence in politicians since the war: we no longer believe they prioritize the nation’s interests above their own personal interests; we don’t accept they have any moral authority to make pronouncements; and we have concrete evidence that they will resort to the most cringingly embarrassing rule-breaking, like fiddling their expenses. Politicians are more tolerated than respected. All the same, should we decry Fabricant for speaking his mind, even if he did it a way that offended a few puritans? We hear the offending word in soaps and other tv dramas all the time. I thought his evaluation was refreshing in its honesty. Think about it: this was an elected politician speaking his mind in a language that was coarse yet candid. It was a spontaneous expression rather than one of those endlessly tiresome interviews in which the responses seems almost independent of the questions (they actually are: politicians are taught to use media interviews to project views rather than answer questions). Politicians who let their guards down are often criticized for making gaffes. Think of Godfrey Bloom who recently put his foot in his mouth with his “bongo-bong0 land” remark. But we should be grateful: we get to glimpse how they think rather than how they are told to think. @elliscashmore

Sir Alex’s torment

“The big problem for me … he fell in love”

I remember getting a call in my hotel room in Manchester in February, 2003. It was from a radio station that wanted me to go on air to talk about David Beckham’s fraying relationship with the then manager of his club Manchester United, Alex Ferguson. “Why? What’s happened?” I asked. “Apparently Ferguson has cut Beckham’s eye.” It became known as the “flying boot incident.” Ferguson had vented his rage at Beckham after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal and, for some reason, kicked a stray boot, which flew through the air and collided with Beckham’s face. With his typical flair for dramatizing small incidents, Beckham wore his hair fastened back with an Alice band so that the wound – treated with steri-strips – was clearly visible. The professional relationship between the two men had probably been deteriorating for a while, but this was the first tangible evidence. I could only speculate on radio that this was probably the beginning of the end. Ferguson was irritated that the player had become a focus of more media attention than Manchester United. One can only imagine what torment Victoria caused him: it seems she was pulling her husband in many directions, all of them wrong from Ferguson’s perspective. If she wasn’t taking him to Lenny Kravitz’s birthday bash, she was displaying him on the front row of Giorgio Armani’s new launch or introducing him to her friends Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. For the hard-bitten Glaswegian, it must have been purgatory.

Ferguson’s new autobiography confirms what we all knew about his loss of patience with Beckham, though at the press conference to accompany the book’s publication, Ferguson let slip arguably an even more interesting insight: “The big problem for me [was] he fell in love with Victoria and that changed everything.” Read that again: the big problem for Ferguson was that Beckham fell in love with Victoria. This is exactly the kind of blunderingly insensitive remark that earns Ferguson respect from many people, who regard him as a kind of master of the dark arts of psychology. But is he?  He’s a good … no great football manager, perhaps the best there’s ever been, but he can also be boorish, crass and frequently shows no feeling or concern for others. How unfortunate for Ferguson that Beckham met a woman, fell in love, had children and became a celebrity athlete on par with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Beckham, writes Ferguson in the book, thought “he was bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson.” The very idea, eh? “The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts.” Football fans might argue that successful managers have to be authoritarian in the sense that they need obedience from players at the expense of personal freedoms. But this statement sounds like it comes from someone who can’t bear the prospect of one of his minions having the temerity to challenge him or even occupy other people’s attention. When Ferguson writes, “I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.” You wonder what irked him more: the fact that Beckham was distracted by the lure of celebritydom, or that global interest in Posh and Becks, as the couple was then known, eclipsed interest in either the club or Ferguson. There was clearly a clash of egos at the club and, with no prospect of limiting Beckham’s celebrity ambitions or prising him away from Victoria, Ferguson’s only option was to release him. Beckham transferred to Real Madrid within months of the flying boot incident. Ferguson regards this as a “shame because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends.” We’re all sure he could too. But instead he became just a common or garden global icon.


The X Factor — cool or cruel?

X-Factor at the O2 London

How the show offers a perverse empowerment

The X Factor has turned into torture porn – that’s the film genre that specializes in exposing audiences to the wilfully cruel and sadistic infliction of pain, suffering and humiliation to others.  I’m exaggerating a bit: torture porn, as exemplified in movies such as Hostel, Vile and the Saw series, is intentionally about hurting people. The films attract audiences who share a taste for watching others in pain. The X Factor, by contrast, is supposed to be a talent contest. But it now seems to appeal to the torture porn sensibility: its viewers might once have been drawn to the singers and allowed themselves the indulgence of laughing at the manner in which the judges expressed their disapproval. But the current series seems vicious: the entertainment value of others’ pain seems to have been foregrounded to the point where the singing is almost supplementary.

A few weeks ago, contestant Hannah Sheares and two friends auditioned as Daisy Chain, a band, only to be told that, Hannah herself was passable, but her friends were useless and would have to be dumped. Presumably forgetting that bands like the Supremes, the Three Degrees and Destiny’s Child all did pretty well with a strong lead and two backing singers, the judges offered Hannah the chance to progress as a solo performer. Amid much crying, she did so and lost her friends. “We don’t talk any more,” Hannah stated the obvious. She was eliminated from the show a couple of few weeks later. When the panel gave the same choice to another band, the trio refused, though a week later, the lead singer mysteriously re-appeared minus her two friends, meaning that she had been persuaded. It’s not the first time the show has made enemies out of friends and it could always be argued that the choice always remains with the contestants. Yet it seems a peculiarly vicious and unnecessary way of filtering out “talent” and, if we are honest, the way in which the camera dwells on the breakups suggests the producers think we enjoy becoming voyeurs. Maybe they are right.

The X Factor is not just a television show, it’s a cultural phenomenon. There has never been anything quite like it in the history of television. Starting in 2004, it has launched the careers of Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke and, of course, One Direction (about whom I blogged a few weeks ago). It has also given career boosts to panellists, particularly Cheryl Cole, Nicole Scherzinger and Tulisa Contostavlos. Its viewing audience is barely believable. Over the years it has regularly snagged 40% of the total audience share and, even in slumps, draws in 10 million viewers. At its historic high point in 2010, 17.2 million tuned in to watch Matt Cardle triumph – that’s over 27% of the total population of the UK. It’s perfectly in sync with today’s culture, inviting audiences to vote using their phones and to tweet, text and engage fully with social media. In a sense it offers a perfect cultural democracy. But, as the show morphs from a talent contest to an all-purpose entertainment platform, its benign character has changed. It is now a heartless, insensitive and callous psychodrama in which astringent is poured on open wounds.

Like the torture porn filmmakers, the X Factor producers would probably shrug and say, “That’s what the audience wants.” They have a point: no one points a gun to the heads of 10 million telly watchers and demands they stay glued to their screens every Saturday and Sunday anymore than filmgoers are scooped up from the streets, strapped into place and forced to watch people having limbs cut off without anaesthetic.  Viewers not only want to watch, they feel entitled to watch the slaughter and the human response that accompanies it. As the torture porn fan delights in witnessing the pleading, the whimpering and, best of all, the sobbing, the X Factor fan enjoys the privilege of observing human emotion at its most painful. We can identify with the rejected wannabes to whom winning would mean “everything” and this confers its own empathic rewards. Living in celebrity culture makes us realize how fragile hopes of instant fame are popular currency. But the real bonus is that we can also identify with the torturers … I mean, the judges: the power to grant someone’s wildest dreams or consign them to oblivion is something viewers have never had, and probably never will have. But by aligning themselves with Sharon or Louis as they traumatize young hopefuls and reduce them to incoherent losers, they get to identify with the powerful too. And the best bit is this: no one feels bad about this. There may be a brief moment of sorrow as the losing contestant blubs inconsolably and either promises to come back stronger or just go back to stacking shelves at the supermarket, but it passes as soon as the next TalkTalk commercial arrives. The perverse empowerment offered by the show is too good to risk undermining with sympathy.

Now the filmed sequences are over, we are into “live” shows and audiences will bear witness to exhibitions of inconsolable distress as their judges deliver their agonizingly prolonged verdicts (“I’m gonna say … ” followed by a 10-second wait). Years ago, we might have felt uncomfortable and switched channels. Who takes pleasure not just in other people’s distress, but in their shameless, often excruciating public display of that distress? I know the answer to this question. So do you.







Twitter is selling YOU


You have a Twitter account, right? Silly question: of course you have. You and about 200 million others, at very least. The microblogging phenomenon has only been around since 2006, but, in a sense, it seems to compare with television and the internet as media innovations that changed the way we spend our waking hours. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how conceptions of privacy had changed so drastically in recent years and how, in many ways, we no longer understand our private lives in the same way as previous generations. Twitter has played no small part in this: with Facebook, it has turned private lives inside out – encouraging us to reveal details of our lives that other people find either fascinating or slightly less than fascinating, but never, it seems, dull. We devour information about what other people are doing or thinking or intending to do. What people are doing at any given moment may not seem very important, but we value this kind of information. Twitter has enriched millions of lives. Can it enrich them even more – this time with hard cash?

Twitter has filed paperwork for what the world of finance calls an initial public offering (IPO), which means it will invite anybody with enough money to buy a chunk of the company. Appropriately, it announced the news in a tweet. This means that you or I or anyone else can become a part owner of a company that is already part of our lives and engages all of us for at least a portion of our day. Last year, Facebook floated on the stock exchange. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg had put this off, probably fearing that he would have to surrender his hoodie credentials and become a corporate head, answerable to his shareholders. Zuckerberg seemed concerned that people will stop thinking about Facebook as a cultural service provider and more as a profit-driven business. The initial price per Facebook share was $38 (£24); it is now about $44. A 15.7% increase in 18 months is not bad, despite a rocky start. Encouraged by this, Twitter is following its networking cousin into the market.

Twitter seems to be everywhere, all of the time: people are always tweeting, or reading tweets, or retweeting. But there are actually three times as many Facebook users as tweeters. Twitter’s revenue is also less than Facebook’s in 2011, its final year as a private company.  So there are bound to be suspicions when it arrives on the market. All the same, the sheer prominence of Twitter in contemporary culture will persuade investors that this is a company with a future. Won’t it?

Twitter has been revolutionary. But the question investors will ask themselves is: will it be revolutionary like television, or revolutionary like ITV, the first commercial company in Britain? Since the 1950s, tv has grown into arguably the most influential innovation of the twentieth century (I’ll accept a counterargument from advocates of the internal combustion engine). It’s adapted to changing environments and, in the process, changed us in myriad ways. ITV launched in 1955. BBC was the national public broadcaster and, as such, was funded by licence payers, not advertising. ITV’s remit was more populist and it operated as a commercial organization, charging for advertising spots between its programmes. It shared the market with BBC until 1964 when BBC2 came into being. ITV’s market share was shaved a little in 1982 when Channel 4 arrived, but in the late 1980s and 1990s, it was thrust into an open market with any number of digital and satellite channels all competing for advertisers. And it’s struggled ever since. So what is Twitter? A unique medium like television, or a service that has got the market to itself, but only for the moment?

Will we all be tweeting in five years? Probably. But in ten? And beyond? Twitter may be, like television, a medium that morphs with cultural changes, or it may be just one service provider that has caught the zeitgeist – and zeitgeists change. Twitter has no doubt already started planning for this possibility. For example, it has the video-sharing app Vine, and Twitter music, the music discovery service. It will probably launch new services. But the product Twitter will be putting up for sale is actually you. OK, you see yourselves as users, but, as far as advertisers are concerned you are potential customers. 200 million customers is an attractive market for advertisers. Unlike tv stations, Twitter has no portfolio of programmes, such as Corrie, The X Factor or Downton Abbey (all ITV, of course): it just has people who like tweeting and are liable to be influenced by ads.

At the moment, none of us minds the occasional pop-up; after all, it’s a free service. Twitter currently reckons it pulls in about 380 million quid a year from advertising. But, once on the stock market, Twitter will be under pressure from shareholders to pull in as much revenue from advertisers as it can and this could affect the experience that tweeters currently find so engaging. Would Twitter dare risk alienating users with too many ads? This is essentially the question potential investors will be asking themselves.