Thursday, 11 October 2012

Generation Forsaken - A new media opportunity

And so George Osborne told the Tory Party conference of his plans to cut housing benefit for the under 25s... just think of the happy families, the bonding experiences for graduate children unable to find jobs and parents worrying about theirs. Last week I started reading an article and made it through three lines before reaching the words ‘unpaid internship’. That was when I stopped reading the article, and I hope it’s not only me who’s fed up of reading about how severely I’ve been screwed as a young person in Britain.

Six months ago I was listening to the author Anna Minton speaking about the Olympics at a cafĂ© in Hackney. When the time for questions came around, a member of the crowd from the Occupy movement asked what she would actually be doing to protest the Olympics, and having just summarised the retrospectively added Olympics chapter from her book Ground Control, Minton sort of shrugged and said researching and writing was more “what she did.” I don’t want to criticise Anna Minton, she writes and researches brilliantly on the under reported subject of private control of public space. At the same time, for the broader issue of dissent… the Occupy protester had a point.

 For all the high human costs, the suffering, anxiety, frustration and sense of doom, the economic thrashing being dished out to Generation Rent has created one new industry out of the need for people to write about it. This isn’t surprising, it is after all infuriatingly unfair (and therefore good media) that people should have to do high quality work, without pay, before they have any chance of landing themselves a real job that will even then probably be low paid and not very secure. We don’t expect pensions, we didn’t get half the benefits of the post-World War II welfare state, we pay the buy-to-let mortgages of those who did but hope is not lost because the Comment is Free desk needs somebody to tell them about the torturous experience of having to live at home with their parents after university. Somebody a few years younger has the opportunity to write about how the education maintenance allowance helped them and how much harder life will be without it. Someone else gets to write about how £9,000 tuition fees will scupper their plans of going to university. The Higher Education Statistics Agency reckons that 2010-11 saw an intake of some 12,500 students of media studies or journalism, helping to create a body of approximately 50,000 students in the field of mass communication and documentation. The figures suggest the supply of young journalists and their hardship stories is likely to increase even as demand shrinks. A handful will get moments of success when their experience or opinions are called upon, and based on an ability to articulate our sorry state of affairs a smaller number will make it onto the bottom rung of the journalistic ladder. Most will be left high and dry when the media markets decide that people have developed unfairness fatigue and that we need a new social injustice juggernaut.

Conspicuous in all this is that we’re a generation raised on a fetish for documenting events rather than creating them. Whether our social lives on Facebook or microthoughts on Twitter, we’re obsessed with telling people how we’re feeling rather than actually doing much about it. Too proud for protest, too private for the streets, a generation of intellects beg the media to make something notable of their grievances rather than taking to politics to redress them. There’s something of an End of History hangover in it all, the ill effects of growing up in a neoliberal zenith so empty of alternatives that people have been left incapable of envisaging change. If post World War II gave us Baby Boomers then we must be Generation Forsaken, or the Timorous Twenty-Somethings… any piece of alliteration that summarises people lamenting their problems without the chutzpah to do much about them.

At the heart of the issue is a generation who sees itself without a stake in our politics, we live in our parents’ society and under their ground rules just as we might live in their houses and under their roof. Young people have no stake in our society because in reality we’re living someone else’s society, a generation that was born into something and has at no point had to partake in reordering it. We have no Tahrir or Syntagma Square moments of our own, the best mobilisation of dissent in our own Parliament Square was the Sri Lankan Tamil community making better use of our democracy than we trouble to ourselves. As far as progress is concerned, and it’s always good to include a little hope, the most positive developments are perhaps gains made by the campaign to lower the voting age to 16. The idea seems to have made inroads into the Labour party, would increase the power of young people in society, and would help instill politics in minds whilst they are still in their formative years. It’s a step in the right direction, but the solutions to the problem need to be framed, and even forced, from outside parliament rather than from within it. Osborne’s plan for housing benefits is evidence that it’s no good waiting around for a government to sort out the mess we’ve inherited, and nor should demands be limited to a housing benefit by which government helps us pay the landlords of a society we can't afford to live in.

Of course I sympathise with the victims of these unfairnesses. From high rents to non-existent jobs I’m part of the generation, but nobody gets anywhere feeling sorry for themselves. There’s an irony that I’ll submit these words into the same market place I’m condemning, I’ll pitch it as the unfairness of no more commissions to write about unfairness, but perhaps that can help draw a line under this little cottage industry. We’ve been had… screwed… it’s now more important to start doing something about these injustices than to only go on talking about them.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Mitt Romney and Big Bird

Having almost recovered from suggesting that 47% of American voters were scroungers, Mitt Romney didn’t waste time retaining the nasty mantle in America’s presidential election campaign. In a performance that most felt won him the first election debate with Barack Obama, Romney said that he would cut public funding to PBS, the broadcaster of Sesame Street. Romney made clear that Sesame Street was exactly what he had in mind by saying, “I love Big Bird… But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

America has rushed to Big Bird’s defence. Obama joked that it was time somebody got tough on Big Bird, a FiredBigBird Twitter account quickly attracted 30,000 followers, and parents and children have uploaded videos of support to YouTube. Romney’s plans to rein-in Big Bird go back almost a year, when he told an audience that “Big Bird is going to have advertisements”, and he taps into a general misconception amongst Americans that PBS claims huge quantities of government money. In 2011 an opinion poll found 40 per cent of Americans believed PBS accounted for between 1 and 5 per cent of government spending. The actual figure is 0.0001 per cent, between 1 and 5 per cent of US government spending would give public broadcasting about $300bn to play with.

The Sesame Street argument reveals three things about Romney’s Republicans. First of all, on the idea of advertising products to children, we see that nothing is sacred in the Republican understanding of free markets. Second of all is a disinterest in educational programming. Lastly is a failure to appreciate the positive spillovers from government investment.  Romney’s Republicans see a capitalist economy as one in which people start businesses and get rich, with the government ever trying to stand in their way. Sesame Street is a little closer to the reality. The programme started in 1968 with funding from the Carnegie foundation, the US government and the Ford Foundation among others. It helped develop Jim Henson’s Muppets into the commercially successful brand that sold for $680million in 2000, before being bought by Disney in 2004. Sesame Street is broadcast in more than a hundred countries to more than a hundred million viewers, including a 2011 debut in Afghanistan, where the show brings a softer version of US foreign policy. In going after Sesame Street we can see that Romney is not only failing to recognise an American institution when he sees one, he’s also attacking a successful business.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Ed Miliband, One Nation... and who's this Disraeli chap?

It's easier to think highly of people after they're dead. It's even easier to think highly of them if they died almost a century and a half ago and have a statue in Parliament Square. Early on in yesterday's conference speech, Ed Miliband name dropped Benjamin Disraeli and his 'One Nation' pitch to the Tory party of the 1870s. By the time he finished up an hour later the Labour leader had said "One Nation" another forty-five times. Of Disraeli, Miliband started out with "he was a Tory, but don't let that put you off", indeed there are plenty of reasons to dislike Disraeli aside from his party.

Given that Miliband's speech took aim at Britain's bankers it's ironic that Disraeli had both made and lost a fortune playing the markets with shares in mining companies. Given the high value Miliband afforded to tolerance it's ironic that Disraeli was such a reactionary figure when it came to the rights of Catholics, especially in Ireland. When Disraeli took the office of Prime Minister for the first of his two ministries, he famously announced that he had "climbed to the top of the greasy pole", and yet Disraeli was a politician who did more than most to grease the pole in the first place. He fell out with Sir Robert Peel when the Prime Minister overlooked him in forming a government in 1841, and in retribution Disraeli became an influential opponent of the Corn Law Repeal that Peel forced through the Tory government against the interests of the landed aristocracy and in favour of the working poor. What would today be known as an arch flip-flopper, Disraeli's great rival, William Gladstone, became consumed with an almost religious zeal to do away with the "Beaconsfieldism" (Disraeli was made Earl of Beaconsfield by Queen Victoria) by which Disraeli governed without any consistent principles. Away from home and Disraeli was something of a war monger, his close relationship with Queen Victoria was useful given his frequent unpopularity with politicians and public alike, and as such he was an imperialist by nature. He recommended that Victoria should make herself Empress of India, and took Britain into Afghanistan to expand her empire against the interests of Russia. Towards this same aim he was unmoved by Ottoman atrocities in the Balkans, and looked rather to the need for Ottoman allegiance against Tsar Alexander II.

During his time in office Disraeli did conduct reforms to the good of the working poor, permitting a degree of union action and legislating for improvements to public health and housing. In 1867 his Tory government beat the Liberals in the race to extend voting rights to almost a million workers and thereby harness the impetus of the Reform movement to Tory advantage. For the most part Disraeli was a very human politician, that is to say that he was self-preserving, opportunistic and frequently petty. He was not the pantomime villain that many of his contemporaries made of him, often with anti-semitic allusions to his Jewish background, but neither is there much reason beyond his notoriety to celebrate him a hundred and forty years on.

The nod that Disraeli got yesterday in Manchester makes me fear for the Labour Party conference of the year 2152, when delegates hear of the visionary David Cameron and his plan for a 'Big Society'. At lunch the conference delegates will unplug themselves from the conference and plug themselves into the restaurant table without having to leave their seats. Some of them will teleport home whilst others take the everyman option and climb into their hovercar. The politics won't have changed much, which is why the same lines will work just as well, and Cameron will bring with him nothing more than the approval of a stock character from history.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Miliband and Cameron - Don't follow leaders

If you haven't already heard that the country prefers Labour to Tories, but also feel safer with Cameron than Miliband, then you soon will. It's the latest thing to talk about, and people keep talking about it despite the fact that Britain tends to vote for parties rather than prime ministers. One Labour writer recently hypothesised that the media, and in particular the right wing press, would soon turn on Miliband. The idea runs that until now they've given him an easy time of things, and when Cameron rejects Leveson demands for newspaper regulation, the Mail and the Telegraph will ratchet up the rhetoric in gratitude. If this is true, and it doesn't seem like a ludicrous suggestion, then what we will need is a mass outbreak of common sense.

I doubt many of my readers are also regular readers of the Telegraph or the Mail, so I may just be preaching to the choir, but sometimes that's useful too. I'd also like to stress that I'm no Labour supporter... nothing annoys me more than the idea that without the current Tory government everything would be fine, and nothing could be worse than the idea that just voting Labour at the next election will allow everyone to sit back and watch everything get better. Whoever you vote for... the government gets in, and all politicians are the same. I sympathise with both statements, but some politicians are worse than others, and some governments are worse than others. I suppose I'm writing this because I know intelligent people who have spoken grudgingly well of Cameron the statesman, and it's this that gives him a lead in the perception of leadership. So let me clarify a few things.

Cameron is a disaster, a trusting fool, and an all round policy idiot. He kept faith with both Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks beyond the point at which they were obviously going to contaminate his own public standing, indicating that he has a chronic lack of judgment. His 'Calm down, dear' remark to Angela Eagle, and others like them, show a man not only out of touch with the majority of the country who aren't millionaires, but a man also out of touch with the half of the country who are not men, and the large majority of women who don't potter around country homes in aprons, wondering what to cook for dinner. The man's politics reveal a complete poverty of ideas, which leaves him relying on ideologies of neoliberalism fused with a Charles Dickens novel, this despite the fact that neoliberal policies created the country he calls 'broken', and despite the fact that Charles Dickens was writing two hundred years ago. Cameron can think no further than cutting taxes for the rich and cutting welfare for the poor because he was raised in a conservative family, in conservative academic institutions and has emerged from this life experience without an original thought in his head. But we all knew this.

What Cameron seems to have going for him, however, is also the very reason that he's disliked. He's posh. Really damn posh. Distant cousin of the queen, Etonian, Oxford, son of Panmure Gordon stockbroker, millionaire a handful of times over. His entire life schooling has placed him above the social and economic levels at which most people live, and as a result he knows exactly how to look down on commoners. He can appear unflappable because he doesn't care, he was elected Prime Minister and that's it. Cameron doesn't have to do anything other than look statesmanly because he's already made his parents proud and he's so far removed from the rest of the population that he will never really know if he's made their lives better or worse anyway. This is why Cameron looks like a good Prime Minister, and it's also why he's a terrible one. It doesn't matter if Ed Miliband looks boring, if he's got a square head or a dull manner, we shouldn't want anything more than good politics from our politicians, and when sensible people put emphasis on superficial characteristics we are contributing to the very thing that makes our politics so cheap, nasty and bad. If politicians think that all they have to do is seem assured to earn the electorate's favour then there's no reason to do anything but. In the case of Cameron this is an even more crucial point, because to approve of a politician of such little ability and substance, but only because of the way he carries himself, strengthens the poisonous idea that in Britain there is a class of people born to rule and a class of people who need to be ruled over.

If you want a hero, if you want someone with charisma and an other worldly allure then go and read a book or watch Braveheart or something, look to rock and roll or a novelist, maybe even go and do that heroic and charismatic thing you've always been meaning to do yourself. As far as politics is concerned, vote for someone who cares enough to fluff a sentence now and then, not a politician so far up his own arse, and so full of class-induced self-righteousness that he can reel off entire speeches of nothingness without a glitch. What I'm saying is that if you want a politician to make the country marginally better, in the real world... don't worry if he might seem like a bit of a dork... dorks tend to do less harm than sociopaths and their divine, narcissistic missions.

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