Trump’s America – the land of the not-so-free press

Ivor Gaber, University of Sussex

The Trump offensive – in both senses of the word – against the media continues unabated. The already fraught relationship now appears to have taken a more sinister turn with the news that six journalists who were arrested while covering anti-Trump protests in Washington during the inauguration have been charged with felony rioting and could face lengthy jail terms.

Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that the arrests – ironically including two reporters from the Trump-supporting Russian media – were, in any sense, a result of direct orders from the White House. But in a country where the First Amendment (which guarantees freedom of speech) has an almost religious status, the arrests are indicative of a change of public mood towards journalists – a change arguably inspired by Trump’s constant attacks on the media, throughout the campaign and now into his presidency. Continue reading Trump’s America – the land of the not-so-free press

Why journalistic ‘balance’ is failing the public

Bruce Mutsvairo, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Renowned reporter Christiane Amanpour recently told a conference of the Committee to Protect Journalists that they should aim for truth over neutrality. Watching the recent US presidential campaign unfold, she said she was “shocked by the exceptionally high bar put before one candidate and the exceptionally low bar put before the other candidate”. She went on:

It appeared much of the media got itself into knots trying to differentiate between balance, objectivity, neutrality, and crucially, truth.

We cannot continue the old paradigm – let’s say like over global warming, where 99.9% of the empirical scientific evidence is given equal play with the tiny minority of deniers.

But surely truth is a matter of perspective – and shouldn’t a journalist aim instead to report impartially and in a balanced manner? Eight years ago, Carl Bernstein – of Watergate fame – told a packed audience attending the annual Perugia International Journalism Festival that good journalism revolved around “trying to obtain the best attainable version of the truth”. But in an era where news can be shipped to your phone in a matter of seconds, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish truth from lies. Continue reading Why journalistic ‘balance’ is failing the public

The UK has not left the EU

Flag of Europe
If I was glum as a child, my Mum would say, “Cheer up, it might never happen.” And you know, it might not.
So our Prime Minister – and he still is – Mr Cameron, said this morning he wouldn’t invoke Article 50. He’s off. No, he’s leaving it to his successor to sort that out. By the way, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty says, “A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention”. So the government has to formally notify the European Council that the UK intends to leave. At that point, we are still in the EU: we are not out until we have negotiated “the arrangements for [our] withdrawal, taking account of the framework for [our] future relationship with the Union”. That agreement needs to be ratified by member states and the European Parliament. Now that could take a while, so Article 50 specifies a two-year cut-off. Unless the Council decide to extend it.
Interestingly, Mr Boris Johnson, the man the bookmakers say is most likely to succeed Mr Cameron, has said Britain should not immediately trigger article 50. He said there was “no need for haste” and “nothing will change in the short term”. It could take until the Autumn before he, or some other prominent Conservative, takes over as PM. Whoever it is, they will appoint a new Cabinet and discuss with them what to do about Article 50.
By this time a lot of other things may have occurred. The UK economy may suffer (further) from crashing share prices, a weakened pound and the withdrawal of foreign investment. The mood among the electorate, as reported by opinion polls and so on, may have significantly altered. People will worry about their pensions and their job security. They may start to believe statements by some previously trusted Leave campaigners that immigration won’t be significantly or quickly reduced by exiting the EU.
Meanwhile, the EU won’t be unaffected by all this. They too could be taking an economic hit. They might find themselves ready to be more accommodating.
So the referendum decision might start to lose its moral legitimacy, making harder for the new PM to push for an early exit. But what about its actual legitimacy? Isn’t it binding on the government? No, it isn’t. Because parliament is sovereign and referendums are generally not binding in the UK. So the PM could put it to parliament, where our MPs are overwhelmingly in support of remaining in the EU. Could the PM get away with it? Well, that depends on whether the mood of the electorate is modified by events.
So the longer the UK delays invoking Article 50, the less likely it is to be invoked at all. My Mum was right, it might never happen.

Humble Boy

Monday 13th June – Saturday 18th June 2016
Humble Boy at Progress Theatre

This week I am appearing in Humble Boy, by Charlotte Jones,  at Progress Theatre, Reading.

You should Buy Tickets.

In this comedy about love, lies and bees, astrophysicist Felix Humble returns home for the funeral of father James to find that his mother has not only discarded all of his father’s belongings along with his beloved bees – but has gotten a little too friendly with his ex-girlfriend’s father…

If you are not familiar with the play, it won the 2001 Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best New Play. It deals with bees, botany, string theory, Glen Miller, love and grief in a style reminiscent of Tom Stoppard. Some elements of the plot are inspired by  Hamlet, but unlike that play, it is largely comedic and in some places farcical.

In a recent TV documentary, Philomena Clunk talks of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and its “famous speech about bees”. This may have been what Charlotte Jones was thinking of when she took the Bard’s play as her inspiration for Humble Boy. In both plays, a young(ish) man returns home for the funeral of his father, only to find that his mother has found solace in the arms of another man – coarser and less noble – with what seems to be unseemly haste. Suicide is contemplated. Prince Hamlet is unsure whether to be, or not to be. Felix Humble cannot even say “be” without stuttering.

There are other parallels. A character speaks of flowers and their meanings. There is a girlfriend, spurned – but their reactions are very different. Ophelia is told to “get thee to a nunnery”.  Rosie wonders if Felix expected her to “hie herself to a nunnery”.

And so on. A vacillating son challenges an overbearing mother. In one play a skull appears, in the other, skulls are spoken of. There is a duel of sorts. We won’t go on: if you know your Hamlet, you will enjoy spotting the parallels and references for yourself, including at least one biggie not mentioned here. If Shakespeare’s famous tragedy has passed you by, fear not: you will still be able to enjoy Charlotte Jones’ comedy just for itself.


Stones In His Pockets

Stones posterSo, I am directing this little play at Progress Theatre. The movies come to film a historical epic in a little town in County Kerry, Ireland. The story is told from the point of view of two locals employed as extras and two actors play all the parts, from the glamorous Hollywood star, to old Mickey, possibly the last surviving extra from The Quiet Man. 

It’s exhausting directing a play but I probably have it easy compared to the two actors who have to remember all the lines and cues, switch between Irish, American, Scottish and English accents and recall where they last left their props.

ABC: Anyone But Corbyn. Really?

NewLabourDear Alistair Campbell,
I do hope that your holiday has not been ruined by worry over the Labour leadership. You seem to be a nice man and I enjoy seeing you when you appear on my television. Thank you for thoughts on the matter, you have made your points calmly and without rancour and I truly hope you are not vilified for it.

But you are wrong. I believe you know a little bit about the creation of New Labour. With your help, Tony Blair created a new narrative for the Labour party, won 3 elections and, as you and Alan Johnson point out, delivered a lot of positive changes for working people. 1997 was a watershed, but that was then and this is now. What Labour needs is a new story, a new perspective, and it is not coming from the ABC candidates. If all the things that failed Labour candidates heard on the doorstep are true then that’s because the Conservatives and UKIP were allowed to set the agenda. Modifying policy to address those concerns won’t make Labour more electable. It will just make Labour look like ersatz Tories. Why vote Labour when you can have the “real thing”?

It won’t be enough to win back old Labour supporters in 2020 – it will be 15 years since Labour last won a general election. That’s 15 years worth of younger voters added to the electorate. And 15 years of older voters joining the great electorate in the sky. To win in 2020 Labour will need the support of many voters who have never voted for them before. Time to create another New Labour that is not the old New Labour rehashed. I know it’s tempting to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn is just summoning up the spirits of Foot and Benn, or that Militant Tendency and their successors will get their foot in the back door, but if you pay attention to what Mr Corbyn is saying it is a lot more nuanced than that. He draws a distinction between state ownership and public ownership. He has many messages that strike a chord with people who Labour failed to engage with their austerity lite, mea culpa maybe, platitudes. The really terrible mistake with the much maligned Ed Stone was that, of the six pledges carved into it, five and half could have been, and perhaps were, said by Cameron and Osborne. JC is offering something that looks very different. If he wins – or even comes close – because thousands of new supporters choose him, then the Labour party will be a very changed beast. And that would be a Good Thing.

One Nation, eh?

Two Nations

The Conservatives are banging on about “One Nation” again. This is hardly a new idea: Benjamin Disraeli coined the term in his novel, Sybil, Or The Two Nations.

Disraeli knew that after working class men were given the vote in 1867, the Tories must appeal to them if they were to remain electable. He also believed that the rich upper classes had obligations to the poor. It was patronising but his government passed a number of social reforms that improved the lot of working people, including legalising the right to strike.

So is Cameron’s government returning to these paternalistic ideals? Hardly. More erosion of trade union powers, nibbling away at social housing, freezing benefit levels and the vague promise of £12 billion cuts to welfare. This is “One Nation” in name only,  a meaningless catchphrase. David Cameron should go back to his history books.

One Nation Conservatism

The deficit is not the problem

Conservatives: you tell us not to worry about inequality and welfare cuts because economic growth will fix everything. But you are not very good at running the economy are you?

Yes, the UK economy was not great when you took office in 2010 but neither was anyone else’s. There was a world crisis, caused by the banks, that you would have regulated even less than Labour.

As Professor Wren-Lewis of Oxford University says here, “Once we recognise that the (2008) financial crisis was a global event, then the three remaining major departures from trend growth happened under Conservative led administrations. In all three cases they can be associated with poor policy decisions taken by those administrations: money supply targets under Thatcher, ERM entry under Major, and austerity under Osborne.”

Returning to the Moon

The recent media attention given to Mars One puzzles me. The project has insufficient funding and is unlikely to get it. It has dependencies on technologies that don’t seem to exist and in the unlikely event that it ever gets any humans to Mars, those individuals seem doomed to a short and miserable life there.

Much more reasoned is ESA’s explanation of humanity’s plans for a return to our Moon. And because it’s based on real science with real funding it’s much more exciting.


Is there life beyond the Solar System?

Are there planets beyond the Solar System where life might have got going? Yes, I think so. What we know about life on Earth is that it can spring up, and hold on, in the most unlikely and seemingly inhospitable environments. For example, the 8-foot tube worms that thrive on the hydrogen sulfide pouring from hydrothermal vents up to 8000 feet below sea level, at temperatures over 300 degrees celsius, under enormous pressures. See for more detail. With dozens, hundreds, thousands of exoplanets already located in the habitable zone of their star, despite the extreme difficulties of tracking them down, I think it’s safe to assume that there is some environment out there that can replicate conditions similar to the most unfriendly life-supporting habitats on earth. If there’s one thing you can conclude from studying life on this planet, it’s that it is very, very tenacious.

Similarly, there may be environments even in our own solar system that could support some basic form of life. If so, you can bet it will be very hard to find. It took until the end of the twentieth century to discover the giant tubeworms of the deep sea hydrothermal vents here on Earth. Imagine how much harder it is going to be to explore the deepest nooks and crannies of other moons and planets. Once you start to consider bodies beyond our own solar system, how much harder still. So just because we have not found it, does not mean it can’t be there. The universe could be teeming with life beyond our world and we would not know.

But of course, what really grabs us is the idea that there might be intelligent, organised, perhaps civilised, life out there in the stars. Life capable of reasoning, developing technology and maybe curious about us. We have learned how long it takes for visible light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation to reach us from distant stars and galaxies. The nearest such civilisation – if it exists – could be thousands or more likely millions, or more likely still, billions of light years away from us. We have been making enough commotion to be be noticed for only a hundred years or so with our radio waves and human engineered electromagnetic communication. Nobody is going to know we are here yet. If we find signs of civilised, communicating life around distant stars then it could only be from signals that were older than we have existed as a species. I am not a professional but I imagine that these ghostly hopes and hints are what impelled many career astronomers to to take up their calling.

It seems to me arrogant to think that we are the only intelligent, communicating, technology-developing species in this vast universe. If we are alone, then we had better start taking a lot more responsibility than we have displayed so far. We are the caretakers, not just of this demonstrably fragile planet, but of the universe itself. If we are not alone, then we had better grow up if we are to be accepted into any mature galactic or intergalactic society.