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- 02/07/14--08:16: _Labour must not ret...
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- 02/07/14--09:17: _Flappy Bird: what i...
- 02/07/14--09:42: _Teachers are itchin...
- 02/07/14--09:47: _Watch where you put...
- 02/07/14--10:15: _The amazing world o...
- 02/08/14--08:05: _Mark Harper resigns...
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- 02/10/14--00:36: _Miliband offers a r...
- 02/10/14--01:09: _As the US turns aga...
- 02/10/14--02:48: _It's great to have ...
- 02/10/14--02:54: _What lies behind th...
- 02/10/14--03:29: _The way we talk abo...
- 02/10/14--03:46: _Spike Jonze’s Her a...
- 02/10/14--04:36: _Six questions answe...
- 02/10/14--04:41: _The problem with Cl...
- 02/10/14--06:42: _Eimear McBride shor...
- 02/10/14--07:00: _Wild at heart: Lite...
- 02/10/14--07:35: _Cameron hints that ...
- 02/10/14--08:46: _Applauding the retu...
- 02/07/14--08:16: Labour must not retreat from further devolution to Scotland
- 02/07/14--08:38: The Gate of Ivory: why Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece
- 02/07/14--09:17: Flappy Bird: what is its secret, and why should we care?
- 02/07/14--09:47: Watch where you put that emoticon AND KEEP YOUR VOICE DOWN
- 02/07/14--10:15: The amazing world of “Breaking Bad” en Español
- 02/09/14--23:26: Morning Call: pick of the papers
- 02/10/14--00:36: Miliband offers a radical third way on public service reform
- 02/10/14--02:54: What lies behind the spectacular collapse of the British far-right?
- 02/10/14--03:29: The way we talk about rape and abuse is changing
- 02/10/14--06:42: Eimear McBride shortlisted for the £40,000 Folio Prize
The weaker the party's offer of more powers becomes, the greater the risk that voters will opt for independence.
Those concerned about the survival of the Union would do well to turn their attention away from David Cameron’s "seven months to save the UK" speech and look instead at developments taking place in the Scottish Labour Party. Worryingly, just at the moment when the Yes camp appear to be gaining some momentum in the polls, Scottish Labour appears to be retreating from providing Scottish voters with a clear alternative to independence in the form of additional powers for the Scottish Parliament.
Specifically, there are signs that Scottish Labour are preparing to dilute the centrepiece of their package of new powers: the devolution of income tax. This was the recommendation of the interim report of their devolution commission published last April (a recommendation which builds on the partial devolution of income tax set out in the Scotland Act 2012). Since then, the proposal has been met with fierce opposition within some sections of the party. Initially this was managed in private but it has now spilt out into the open with Ken Macintosh MSP coming out strongly against (remarks echoed by Ian Davidson MP, and Owen Smith MP in a Welsh context). So strong is the opposition, that a number of Scottish Labour MPs have threatened to boycott the party’s spring conference, where the commission’s final report will be unveiled.
The prospect of a retreat is worrying precisely because surveys have consistently shown that there is a real appetite for more powers in Scotland, including tax powers– indeed, stronger devolution is more popular among voters than either the status quo or independence. Thus, the weaker Labour’s offer of more powers becomes, the greater the risk that significant numbers of the large pool of undecided voters will opt for independence. Equally, pollsters are finding that while the No vote has a healthy lead over those saying they will vote Yes, it may be softer than people realise. "Give us something to feel good about voting No" is a complaint heard in the focus groups.
Why Labour might be prepared to take such a gamble over income tax devolution is puzzling. It is widely accepted that there is a case for enhancing the revenue raising powers of the Scottish Parliament. In policy terms, income tax is the most sensible tax to devolve; people are more mobile than land, but less mobile than other things you might tax. It is also a highly visible tax, and accounts for a significant amount of tax revenue, so if any tax is to be devolved, it is the one to go for. If devolved, the Scottish Parliament would become responsible for raising about 40 per cent of its spending.
But the claims that income tax devolution would undermine the capacity of the UK state to redistribute across the nations of the UK or that it would lead to "independence by default" are highly disingenuous. Devolution of income tax is emphatically not "full fiscal autonomy": it only accounts for 23 per cent of total UK tax revenues. VAT, corporation tax, vehicle, fuel, alcohol and tobacco duties, and National Insurance contributions (NICs), as well as a host of smaller taxes like capital gains tax, would still flow to the UK Exchequer. And the UK government would continue practising fiscal redistribution across the whole UK through the benefit system and through the grant that goes to Scotland (and no-one is planning any changes to that in the foreseeable future).
And don’t forget that the UK government will continue to set a tax paid by every Scottish wage or salary-earner – National Insurance - which is about 10 per cent of total tax revenues from Scotland. NICs pay for key UK welfare benefits like Jobseeker's Allowance and the old age pension, which will remain in UK hands. Perhaps NICs are not wholly suitable to be a UK-wide income tax, but that is an argument for a long-overdue review of how NICs work, not for keeping both income taxes in UK hands.
Holyrood is already responsible for roughly 70 per cent of public spending in Scotland, and such key public services as schools and the NHS. Isn’t it right that the Scottish Parliament should also set some visible taxes to help pay for such vital everyday services? That is undoubtedly the view of the English. Addressing concerns emanating from south of the border will only help strengthen the Union.
Income tax devolution is central to any form of further devolution for Scotland, as it is to Labour’s reputation for fiscal responsibility: it should support a Scottish Parliament that is able to take tax and spending decisions - not just the latter. Rejecting it means Labour would be opting out of any meaningful extension of devolution, though that is clearly what Scottish voters want and what both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are considering. Is Labour really determined to nail its colours to the mast of "devolution less" rather than "devolution more"?
Guy Lodge is Associate Director of IPPR. Alan Trench is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster. Both are working on IPPR’s ‘Devo More’ programme.
Friends who hate Inside Llewyn Davis complain about the tonal monotony, from the plot down to the colour palette, but it’s about the seeming impossibility of change. It looks how depression feels.
I don’t usually write about movies here but since I saw Inside Llewyn Davis for the second time, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I think it’s nigh-on perfect: it’s not just one of the Coens’ best movies, it’s the best I’ve seen in the past year or so. And I feel compelled to argue its case to all the music journalists I know who, dismayingly, hate it. And it’s fun to write about so bear with me. Obviously this contains spoilers up the wazoo so don’t read if you haven’t seen the movie yet.
Firstly, what’s up with the guy in the alley?
The first time I saw the movie, I thought it might be a long flashback that begins the morning after the assault and brings us back to the present. But the first time, Llewyn closes his set with “Hang Me Oh Hang Me” and the second time it’s “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”. They’re different shows with exactly the same violent coda.
It’s the most important scene because this almost Lynchian loop reveals at the last minute that the apparent naturalism of most of the movie (which only breaks down during the surreal and haunting road trip) is a hoax. This is a fable, a nightmare, a week in purgatory, a very dark Groundhog Day. And Llewyn realises that too in the very last scene, when he says a sardonic “au revoir” to his assailant. He knows it’s going to happen again. The details may change but he’s still going to end up in that alley with a bloody lip because that’s his fate. I’m just relieved the Coens are too subtle to stoop to showing a turntable needle stuck in a groove.
In the coffee shop, Carey Mulligan’s furious Jean scolds Llewyn for making the same mistakes over and over again. But there are hints that his stasis is not just because of his personal failings but because the universe is toying with him. During the road trip, John Goodman’s hideous, tormenting jazzman threatens to inflict a curse that will make Llewyn wonder why is life has turned into “a big bowl of shit”. Llewyn takes it in his stride because he realises that the curse has already been cast. His life is already a big bowl of shit.
So is Llewyn a loser?
Oscar Isaac’s musical performances are perfectly judged. If he were any less talented we wouldn’t want him to succeed. If he were any better we wouldn’t understand why he was failing. He’s just as good as dozens of other hopefuls on the Greenwich Village scene, which means he’s not quite good enough. He’s duo material: Art Garfunkel rather than Paul Simon and, to be honest, not even that. Brusque though he is, Bud Grossman is right when he says that Llewyn’s best hope of success is as the junior member of a Peter, Paul & Mary-style trio. (No disrespect to Noel “Paul” Stookey.) Musical abilities aside, Llewyn lacks the ruthlessness and calculated charm with which Bob Dylan smoothed his path through Greenwich Village. But he’s neither passive nor a fool.
Well is he an asshole?
I’m inclined to apply the Holden Caulfield defence: he’s bereaved and lashing out. Bereavement can feel like Groundhog Day, hence the language of “needing to move on”, and I tend to give grieving people, whether in life or in movies, a lot of slack. To make matters worse, it seems as if every time people see Llewyn they’re reminded of Mike, his beloved ex-partner who jumped off the George Washington Bridge. When Bud Grossman tells Llewyn he doesn’t “connect with people”, maybe that’s always been the case or maybe he’s formed a protective shell that prevents powerful emotions from getting out as well as in.
So he’s clearly profoundly depressed. He’s also homeless and poor during a famously cruel winter, sleeping on floors and train station benches and, as he tells Jean, “so tired”. As soon as he gets any money (sacrificing future royalties in the process, natch), it slips out of his hands for no reward, as if it were a mirage all along. Without money, a home or even a winter coat, Llewyn is far more spiritually attuned to folk music’s sorrowful tales than the cosy, sweater-wearing Jim and Jean. He’s not demanding to be a star; he just wants to eat and sleep.
On second viewing I shivered at the scene where he sits at a lunch counter for as long as possible while his socks drip melted snow onto the floor, and at the exhausted lyrics of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”: “Hang me, oh hang me/I’ll be dead and gone/I wouldn’t mind the hanging/But the layin’ in a grave so long, poor boy/I been all around this world.”
I wonder if Llewyn’s most self-destructive behaviour stems from his subconscious realisation that burning his bridges is his best way out. Towards the end of the movie he’s forgiven by the Gorfeins and the Gaslight manager, and even Jean mellows, securing him another gig, but these acts of kindness bring him back where he started. Returning to the Gaslight isn’t a redemptive second chance, it’s a trap.
The whole movie is a corrective to the ubiquitous follow-your-dream school of philosophy. It’s for all the actors who realise they’ve been waiting tables in LA long enough, all the singers who accept that they don’t quite have what it takes. If the movie strikes some viewers as cruel, well, it’s a cruel situation. Knowing when to give up on a dream and try something else isn’t a subject that our culture feels comfortable with. Why the Coens, who have had a blessed career, are so enthralled by failure is anyone’s guess.
Why doesn’t he just quit?
Well, he tries to rejoin the merchant marines but he doesn’t have his licence and can’t afford a new one. In one of the ironies studded through the film like cats’ eyes, his sister only threw out the licence because he told her he didn’t want a box of old stuff lying around. The one time he symbolically rejects the past, it backfires and punishes him.
And he at least considers looking up his ex-girlfriend Diane, who has his child. First time around, I thought Llewyn was wrong not to take the turning to Akron and try and build a new life with Diane. But this is a woman who cancelled her abortion without telling him and immediately left town, so I don’t imagine she’d be up for playing happy families two years later. Akron is less a viable future than a reminder of past mistakes.
Friends who hate Inside Llewyn Davis complain about the tonal monotony, from the plot down to the colour palette, but it’s about the seeming impossibility of change. It looks how depression feels. Unlike previous entries in the Coens’ informal Failure Trilogy, Barton Fink and A Serious Man, there’s no cataclysmic, transformative event at the end: no hotel fire or tornado to change the central character’s life. There’s no catharsis. The only developments come in Llewyn’s awareness of his plight and his decision to play Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song) for the first time since Mike’s death. I understand why the sense of inertia annoys some people but it’s kind of the whole point.
Do the Coens actually like folk music?
Yes and no.If they didn’t appreciate the beauty of the music they wouldn’t devote so much screen time to the songs, but they’re keenly aware of its limitations. When Llewyn says after Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, “It was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song” it’s both praise of the music and indictment of the scene. (John Goodman’s “We play all the notes — twelve notes in a scale, dipshit, not three chords on a ukelele” is my favourite line but I don’t think we’re meant to take his jazz-militant criticisms seriously.)
A better question might be: does Llewyn Davis like folk music? He does when he’s singing it but he explodes at the Arkansas autoharp player in the Gaslight because she represents folk at its most reverential and hidebound. His cry of “I hate fucking folk music” is one of the funniest, harshest lines in the movie. It’s the eruption of a creeping fear that the music he’s dedicated his twenties to might be as irrelevant as the “early music” studied by the ludicrous academic he meets at the Gorfeins’. (Neatly, the autoharp player’s avenging husband is a reminder that there is nothing prissy or sanitised about the roots of American folk music. It was forged in hard times among people who would punch you in the gut if you got out of line.)
One way I see the movie is a retort to traditional rock biopics, in which performances have the power to move listeners to tears or guys at mixing desks to nods and grins. But here the music is powerless, at least as far as Llewyn is concerned. In the only scene which I think justifies criticisms of the movie as cruel, Llewyn performs the old seafaring ballad Shoals of Herring, in the hope of breaking through the wall of his father’s dementia. It certainly provokes a release, but not the kind he was hoping for. If the promise of folk music is that it can reconnect you to the past, then it fails here. It can’t bring back what was lost.
It can’t take him forward, either. Please Mr Kennedy (a neurotic riff on the space race which expresses fear of the future) will be a hit but it won’t do him any good. The song he plays for Bud Grossman, a Child ballad allegedly about the death of Jane Seymour, is comically archaic even by folk scene standards. He could have searched high and low without finding a song less likely to get him a record deal in 1961. (In an insightful essay, Sam Adams explores how the lyrics might relate to Llewyn’s situation.)
The shadowy appearance of Bob Dylan in the final scenes isn’t just some cute historical joke: he’s the coming storm. Even if, somehow, we didn’t know what happened next, his voice represents the future. His material may be old but his voice is new, demanding and audaciously ugly. Of course we do know what happened next: he became the folk scene’s darling only to break its heart.
On the subject of real people, how much of the move is true?
A surprising amount. It’s testament to the Coens’ careful research and masterful screenwriting that many of the incidents in the film that seem too perfectly symbolic or ironic not to be fictional turn out to have actually happened. This excellent Slate blogpost covers most of the real-life inspirations. Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street (which I recommend to anyone who enjoys funny, opinionated memoirs) contains anecdotes which made their way straight into the movie, including his label boss’s disingenuous offer of a winter coat, and other details that appear in different forms, like his career as a seaman, his couch-hopping and a strange road trip. The cover of Inside Llewyn Davis (the album) is almost identical to that of 1964’s Inside Dave Van Ronk. But Van Ronk was a far more rambunctious personality and a more successful performer. He never made it big but he was beloved and influential in Greenwich Village in a way that Llewyn can only dream of.
All well and good but what about the Gorfeins’ cat?
With the Coens, it’s always a fool’s errand trying to demonstrate that x symbolizes y but the revelation of the cat’s name, Ulysses, is offered to us like a ball of string to chase and unravel. It’s ironic that Llewyn worries so much about the cat’s welfare because the cat, unlike him, is fine. It runs off, has some adventures, and returns home to the warm bosom of the Gorfeins’ apartment. If the cat were as unlucky as Llewyn it would be called Sisyphus.
The theme of contrasting odysseys might have been inspired by the name of real-life club The Gate of Horn. According to Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, “For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them.” Llewyn is turned back from the Gate of Horn and stuck with the fruitless illusions of the Gate of Ivory.
Another line from that passage in Homer makes for a nice comment on this fabulous, complex, divisive movie: “Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning, and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men.”
So should I go and see it again?
This post first appeared on Dorian Lynskey's blog, 33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com,and is crossposted here with his permission.
The latest “viral” game is a decent take on a tried and tested formula. But is it really that good, or has it just piggy-backed on our love for Super Mario?
So Flappy Bird is a thing. It is a thing that has gone viral. Like anything that achieves mass popularity there should probably be some sort of examination of just why this happened. How does an obscure Vietnamese games designer suddenly strike it big with a game that is both extremely simple and extremely hard? What is the great secret, and why should we care?
The actual game Flappy Bird is notable for a couple of qualities. First of all it’s really hard and second of all it has really nice, friendly, welcoming graphics. There are simple explanations for both these.
The reason it is difficult is because this is the sort of game it is. Side scrolling games based around avoiding crashing into things are not new, indeed the fundamentals of Flappy Bird, the idea of trying to use bursts of lift to counteract the effect of gravity on your avatar, date back to LunarLander, which first appeared in 1979*. Such games are always extremely hard whether you’re trying to land on the moon or guide a little helicopter through a cave. While they are difficult by normal standards it is worth remembering that these are games designed to be played in the space of a few seconds. You play, you fail and so you play again, hoping to push the high score a little higher each time. There have been dozens of games like this over the years.
You cannot actually make a game like Flappy Bird easy, because to do so would, weirdly enough, just make it harder. Imagine if the game were half as difficult as it is now, for example if the gaps were twice as big between the pipes so you could fly through more easily. What happens? Your high score would be much higher and it would take much longer to reach that high score in order to break it. Has that actually made the game easier, or more time consuming?
Meanwhile the reason the graphics are so friendly and welcoming is because the developers set out, and succeeded, in making a game that looks a great deal like Super Mario. If Nintendo had made a game like this then it is a safe bet that it would have looked and sounded almost exactly the same as Flappy Bird. Does that make Flappy Bird a lazy rip off of the hard work of others? Probably, welcome to mobile gaming. It’s not like Nintendo actually did make a game like that for mobile phones though, and if you snooze, you lose.
But what makes Flappy Bird in particular so successful? This is a trickier question, but it could be seen as a combination of factors. Firstly and most importantly, it is fun. Given the fact the visuals are pure vintage Nintendo and the game mechanics are tried and tested over thirty years it is not a surprise that this is the case. In the same way that we know opiates make people happy we know that guiding a little character or vehicle along a sideways world dodging stuff is fun, and that Super Mario looked great. Nobody is blazing a trail here. Because the game is fun very few people are going to hate it, some will love it, and thus it will do okay in the app store ratings systems.
Secondly it is a very easy game to go viral with. It’s free, it’s on iPhone and Android, it’s small and it has an easy name to remember and to search for. Being small and free means the game isn’t asking much from the audience to be given a try, people will hear of it and give it a go, the download stats for the game will be boosted so more people will hear of it, and so on.
It could be argued that another reason that the game has gone viral in the way that it has is that finding good games on mobile platforms is extremely difficult. Games are churned out at a prodigious rate, many looking extremely similar to each other, some are free, some look free but are limited based on what you spend, some cost money up front, some apparently snitch on you to the NSA. It is a minefield. When a game gets mentioned in the media or people just generally seem to be playing it, that sort of endorsement counts and a game can be raised out of the festering mass.
So in the case of Flappy Bird the mystery is sort of solved. It's a decent take on a tried and tested formula with a pleasant visual style which owes very little to the talents of the game developer and a lot to word of mouth. It took off in much the same way that Angry Birds did and it probably won’t be the last game to do that. Mostly I’m just glad to see the words “bird”, “Vietnam” and “viral” in an article that isn’t about a SARS outbreak.
*The game appeared years before that, but the specific mechanic was from the 1979 arcade version.
There is a thriving social media community of teachers interested in the exchange of ideas about classroom effectiveness.
You would be unimpressed if your doctor relied on intuition and "common sense", rather than the best lessons from up-to-date research, as the basis for deciding your course of treatment. Equally, you would be dismayed if national guidance on suitable medical techniques was significantly influenced by the opinions of Daily Mail leader writers. Change the context and think about education rather than medicine and that is pretty much the situation we have today.
In contrast with medicine, school teaching is not typically considered an evidence-based profession. Too often it becomes a political football subject to media moral panics. If medical interventions are to be determined by research into practices that work, why should the education of our children be different?
This is increasingly the view of teachers themselves. Calls for research-based teaching are part of a wider, and largely unacknowledged long-term transformation in the professionalism of school teaching. In Britain teaching has traditionally been seen as the poor relation to other graduate professions. This has been a characteristically British (and American) phenomenon. In much of the rest of northern Europe and the high performing countries of Asia, teaching has long had a standing on a par with the other leading professions.
But things are changing here. We are more successful than ever at attracting able graduates into teaching. Over 10 per cent of all Oxbridge final year undergraduates apply to become teachers via the Teach First programme. Many in this talented new generation of teachers are calling for a more evidence-based professionalism comparable to other major graduate professions. The appetite for change was clear in September 2013 when a London teacher called Tom Bennett organised a conference, which he called Research-Ed, for teachers interested in the application of research in their classrooms. The event was a sell-out. Hundreds of teachers turned up to debate the application of research at school level, and hundreds more were unable to get tickets. Many of the Research-Ed teachers are part of a thriving social media community of teachers interested in the exchange of ideas about classroom effectiveness.
Several education charities are taking practical steps to support more evidence-based teaching: the Sutton Trust/EEF, the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Institute for Effective Education at York. My own organisation, the charity CfBT, is working with the National College for Teaching and Leadership to help schools participate in robust field trials of promising teaching methods. While these are encouraging developments, there remain many barriers to making the research-engaged or research-informed school a reality. For a start, compared to medicine, the body of education research is simply not good enough and not comprehensive enough to provide authoritative guidance to practice.
Publicly-funded research needs to be better aligned to the challenges that practitioners face. We also need systems to mediate and communicate research findings to busy teachers and headteachers. Successive governments have created a highly autonomous school system, particularly in England where there are over 20,000 state schools, including many academies that are effectively independent schools. The support system for these autonomous schools is in flux. Local authorities no longer have a primary support role and while new "middle tier" organisations, such as Teaching Schools and academy chains are beginning to fill the gap, many schools feel professionally isolated. There is a degree of political consensus about the need for a new national College of Teaching, and such a body could potentially form the hub of the knowledge exchange. Meanwhile much of the best evidence, including large amounts of publicly funded education research, is locked up in electronic journals that ordinary teachers cannot access.
George Monbiot highlighted the problem of extremely limited public access to publicly funded research in 2011. Last week the academic publishers announced a new pilot scheme permitting members of the public to use education research and other scientific journals in public libraries for a two year period. David Willetts praised the initiative for connecting people to “a wealth of global knowledge - maximising its impact and value”. While this scheme is to be welcomed, this seems to me to be an extremely modest step. Can you imagine how the BMA would respond if doctors were told that they could access medical research by going in person to public libraries, in their off-duty time, and joining a public queue of people wanting to read electronic journals? The savvy teacher-bloggers behind the Research-Ed events need "anytime anywhere" access to information. Much is to be done, but the prize is remains great: better learning for our children and a discourse about schools that is de-politicised and rooted in evidence.
When it comes to writing online, we’re all still working it out as we go along.
Emoticons, punctuation and creative spelling have been debated, condemned, and regulated since the very beginning of online text-based communication.
We’ve all seen “netiquettes” on how not to use ALL CAPS BECAUSE IT IS SHOUTING, or not to use smileys, because it is unprofessional. Recently, an article about the angry full stop caused great uproar, and issues about what, how and when to write show that we are still unsure about the conventions of online writing.
We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves though. Online communication may have become absolutely essential to our private and professional lives but it’s still very new.
When we email, instant message or write on forums, the production of the text and the reception of it take place in two completely different contexts. Often we don’t even know where the person reading our missive is, let alone how they are feeling when they read it. When people communicate online, they don’t share the same physical environment, so they can’t rely on signals that would normally help them to understand the intended messages, like the tone of voice, gestures or facial expressions that accompany it.
In face-to-face interactions, non-verbal signals have an extremely important role in conveying how exactly messages should be understood. They can clarify, emphasise, complement, repeat, but also contradict the words we say, signal if something is to be taken lightheartedly or if something is meant to be a serious message. Audio signals, prosody, such as the tone of voice, pitch, rhythm, pause or loudness play a crucial part in this, but facial expressions or body language are also often used.
In digital writing, we have none of these cues available so people have taken great effort to come up with creative and playful ways to somehow replicate or replace these signals. Emoticons are one obvious example but everyone has their own way of making themselves understood, be it by using exaggerated or unconventional spelling, punctuations or capital letters.
Both research and mass media have tended to over-generalise and stereotype these techniques, describing them as merely “stand-ins” for non-verbal cues. In an attempt to understand the new rules of communicating, they seek to assign a well-defined meaning to each cue. A smiley is thought to denote a joke or a smile and a full stop or caps lock is seen as a sign of anger.
But the picture is much more complex than this. Consider an email written by your boss, reminding you of a looming deadline:
“Everyone else has already submitted their report. You are the LAST!:)”
Even if you are on very good terms with your boss, the emoticon here clearly doesn’t function as a representation of a smile or signal a joke, and capitals are not meant to be read as shouting. They have a more complex function in communication, and the best way to demonstrate it perhaps is to read the same message without them.
“Everyone else has already submitted their report. You are the last!”
Capitals clearly gave some added emphasis to the message, but the emoticon in particular makes a world of a difference. The first example could be read as a friendly nudge or teasing, while the second, without the emoticon, is a highly authoritative, commanding message. The emoticon isn’t relaying a full-on smile but it is tempering the tone of the message.
In a recent study on e-mails a very high number of emoticons were found not to represent a facial expression in business correspondence at all. Instead they are used as a hedge – a device used to give flavour to certain types of message. And they work in both directions. They can soften requests, rejections or complaints but also strengthen other types of messages such as wishes, appraisals and promises.
The creative ways we use our keyboard to somehow inscribe signals into our writing cannot be simplified to neat lists with assigned meanings. Written non-verbal cues are like capsules of meaning which only get activated in specific contexts. To understand them we usually need to know who is sending the message, to whom and why. The full stop might be angry for someone in one situation or another, but when my husband texts:
I like to think that it means something else for us.
If we write online, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the way we do it has not yet been conventionalised, and we need to consider the wide scale of meanings and possible interpretations of our words and symbols. We’re all working it out as we go along.
Erika Darics works for the University of Portsmouth.
Behind the scenes of Metástasis, the Spanish-language remake of Breaking Bad, which is going to considerable lengths to be a different kind of show.
Diego Trujillo as “Walter Blanco”
This article first appeared on newrepublic.com
First there are the airborne khaki pants, floating across a clear sky. Then a giant vehicle comes careening into view, a man in tighty-whities and a gas mask at the wheel. He stumbles out into the open air and sticks a pistol in the waistband of his briefs. For viewers of Breaking Bad, it’s uncannily familiar. But the few differences are hard to ignore. Instead of an RV, there’s a rickety school bus. And instead of the severe orange mesas of the New Mexican desert, there are the green dips and swells of the Andes mountains. The man picks up a handheld camera as the screen closes in on his panicked face. “Mi nombre,” he says, “es Walter Blanco”.
This is the opening scene of Metástasis, the Spanish-language remake of Breaking Bad that will premiere later this year on networks across Latin America and on the Univision offshoot UniMás in the United States. Hank has become “Henry,” now a member of the national police force rather than a DEA agent. Jesse is Jose Miguel Rosas, strapping and square-jawed, looking less like an addict than a Hollister ad. Skyler is Cielo, “Sky” in Spanish. And then there’s Colombian telenovela star Diego Trujillo, the series’s intrepid Walter Blanco. On the surface, Metástasis is microscopically faithful to the original, down to the costumes and the camera angles. In the words of Univision president of programming and content Alberto Ciurana, it’s Breaking Bad with a “Latin flavour”.
But adapting an American TV show is far trickier than doling out culturally appropriate character names. Trujillo has seen firsthand how fraught the process can be. As soon as Metástasis was announced, he found himself bombarded with tweets from fellow Latin Americans outraged that a Breaking Bad remake was even being attempted. “Damn Colombian television for daring to do this. It’s an insult to the work of art that is Breaking Bad, ” wrote @aaronjose97. “There’s a lot of cultural shame,” Trujillo said, “about the fact that most adaptations we have done of American series are just not the same quality.” These, historically, have been the hallmarks of many such efforts: low production value, cheesy dialogue, ham-fisted translation that doesn’t quite manage to bridge the gap between its source material and its audience.
Metástasis is going to considerable lengths to be a different kind of show. According to Angelica Guerra, managing director of production for Latin America at Sony Pictures Television, the series, which has a “huge budget and the greatest actors of the region,” is an attempt to merge the very different sensibilities of prestige cable drama and Latin American television. Vince Gilligan himself consulted, offering input on casting and plot tweaks along the way.
There was, for one, the problem of the RV. Motor homes are very rare in Colombia, hence the old school bus that serves as Walter and Jose’s roving meth lab. And Colombian lawyers don’t market their services with over-the-top TV ads. So, rather than trolling for clients with the tagline “BETTER CALL SAUL,” Saúl Bueno hosts a late-night talk show – “Cuéntele a Saúl” – on which he dishes out legal advice. The neo-Nazis became a far-right Colombian paramilitary group. Also unfamiliar to Colombians are exterminators who cover entire residences in elaborate tarps in order to fumigate them. But Bogotá, with one of the highest urbanisation rates of any Latin American city, does have many vacant houses waiting to be torn down in order to make way for new high-rises. So Metástasis scraps the pest-control ruse of the final season of Breaking Bad and has Walter and Jose cook in soon-to-be demolished homes.
The hardest part of the show to translate, though, may be the defining trait of Breaking Bad: its moral complexity, the way it leaves your sympathies constantly seesawing between Walt and his victims. In this, it could hardly be more different from that staple of Latin American programming, the telenovela, with its frothy mix of dashing heroes and dashing rogues. Even the popular Colombian series “El Capo,” whose protagonist happens to be a family man who moonlights as a drug kingpin, features steamy romances and a reliably suave star. (Trujillo played a defense minister bent on capturing the crime lord.) Most previous Spanish-language remakes have been of American shows that were already telenovelas in spirit: take “A Corazón Abierto,” a version of “Grey’s Anatomy,” or the “Desperate Housewives” redo “Amas de Casa Desesperadas,” in which Trujillo – the man keeps busy – starred as a caddish husband. It’s easy to see why these shows seemed like easy adaptations. Their stories more or less take place in a vacuum, within the confines of a hospital or a household or a single upper-class neighbourhood, with little broader context. And yet those remakes still missed the mark. When a wealthy female character on “Amas de Casa Desesperadas” bedded her gardener, many viewers were more confused than titillated: In a society with such rigid class demarcations, that scenario, Trujillo explained, is simply hard to believe.
The features of Breaking Bad that gave the show its particular power – the subtlety of the performances; the slow, expansive landscape shots; the long stretches of silence – can be tough sells for a Latin American audience. So Metástasis makes some concessions to tradition. Perhaps the biggest is a swooning soundtrack that erupts at unexpected moments: when Walter is diagnosed with cancer or when he sits by the pool at night pondering his fate. “Because of our telenovela background, we put music in everything,” said Guerra. “It’s a rule you don’t break.”
The acting, too, has been slightly amped up. Trujillo had never seen Breaking Bad when he was called in to audition for Metástasis. So he sat down and watched the whole series on Netflix, marveling at the way Bryan Cranston slowly morphs from meek schoolteacher into homicidal monster. “I was used to working on soap operas, where the characters are so two-dimensional – black or white, good or bad. And they stay the same from beginning to end of a series,” Trujillo said. “But Walter White transforms.” “For the first time,” he added, “I had no idea how to play the part.”
Spanish-speaking audiences expect more vocal expressiveness, he explained, more hand gestures. And so as Walter records the video message for his family in the opening scene, Trujillo breaks down for a moment in wrenching sobs. “I’d never want to be looked at as someone who was just copying Cranston,” he said. Roberto Urbina, who plays Jose (Jesse) had only done a few acting gigs before Metástasis and was a Breaking Bad fan long before his audition; Jesse was his favourite character. But he was determined to push Aaron Paul out of his mind. To prepare for the role, he imagined a whole new backstory for his Jose: for instance, that he’d been adopted, instead of simply estranged from his parents. On-screen, the differences are plain. Where Jesse sulks, Jose broods. His vibe is more lapsed prom king than scrappy drug-dealing punk. The catchphrase “Yeah, bitch” doesn’t translate into Spanish, after all.
To its credit, Metástasis is fully aware of the trickiness of adaptation, of just how much cultural baggage is involved. In the pilot episode, there is a scene in which Walter is at home celebrating his birthday with family and friends. A mariachi band serenades them cheerfully. The guests gather around the television, watching a news interview that Henry recorded after a meth bust. Meth isn’t a particularly well-known drug in Colombia; the industry there is still fledgling because cocaine is so much easier to procure. So the script has to weave in a few lines of explanatory dialogue.
“What’s methamphetamine?” Cielo asks.
It’s a new drug, Henry tells her, that originated in the States.
“So why is it here?” she wonders.
Her sister, Maria, chimes in. “Here,” she says with the faintest eye-roll, “we love to copy what the gringos do.”
Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.
This article first appeared on newrepublic.com
"Although I complied with the law... I should hold myself to a higher standard than expected of others," Harper told David Cameron.
Mark Harper has resigned as immigration minister after discovering that he was employing an illegal immigrant as a cleaner.
In an exchange of letters with the Prime Minister last night, Harper wrote:
In April 2007 I took on a cleaner for my London flat. In doing so, I was very mindful of my legal and financial obligations and undertook a number of checks beforehand. This included consideration of the HMRC tests as to whether the cleaner was performing her work under a contract for services on a self-employed basis which I concluded she was. However, even though there was no legal requirement for me to check her right to work in the UK, I felt that it was appropriate to do so. I therefore took a copy of her passport to verify her identity and also a copy of a Home Office letter, dated 26 January 2006, which stated that she had leave to remain indefinitely in the United Kingdom, including the right to work and engage in a business.
... in the week commencing 20 January 2014 I asked my cleaner for further copies of these documents which she provided on 4 February. On 5 February, I asked my private office to check the details with immigration officials to confirm that all was in order. I was informed on the morning of 6 February that my cleaner did not in fact have indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom. I immediately notified the Home Secretary and my Permanent Secretary. This is now a matter for Immigration Enforcement.
The 43-year-old Tory MP for the Forest of Dean added that "although I complied with the law at all times, I consider that as Immigration Minister, who is taking legislation through Parliament which will toughen up our immigration laws, I should hold myself to a higher standard than expected of others."
Laura Pitel of the Times had this to say:
Mark Harper's tale makes a mockery of the Immigration Bill, which asks landlords to vet tenants' migration status. He says he did check.— Laura Pitel (@laurapitel) February 8, 2014
Harper was previously the minister in charge of launching the controversial "Go Home" vans.
David Cameron accepted Harper's "honourable" resignation, praising him as an effective member of the government. He added: "You will be greatly missed, and I hope very much that you will be able to return to service on the front bench before too long."
The possibility of such incidents has led to talk of a "curse of the Home Office", which the coalition government seems to have been less affected by than Labour. And although it's likely that Harper will return to government after a suitable period on the backbenches - as David Laws did before him - for now, the vacancy gives David Cameron a chance to bring another woman into the upper ranks of his party. That will be welcome after Ed Miliband's PMQs ambush on the Conservatives' "woman problem".
Update: Isabel Hardman at the Spectator has the details of the resulting promotions:
James Brokenshire to become minister of state at home office, Karen Bradley promoted to PUS at Home Office.— Isabel Hardman (@IsabelHardman) February 8, 2014
In addition, Harriet Baldwin has been promoted from the backbenches to assistant whip, and John Penrose becomes a whip.
The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.
1. I want to challenge power that is unaccountable (Guardian)
The unresponsive state can be as damaging as the untamed market, says Ed Miliband. We want people to be able to control their own lives.
Diversity of late has been about gender parity, not about race or class, writes Yasmin Alibhai Brown.
Cameron’s plea for a strong and united nation rings hollow after so much loss of sovereignty, says Melanie Phillips.
4. Abe’s nationalism takes a worrying turn (Financial Times)
The attempt to stifle Japan’s national broadcaster is deplorable, says an FT editorial.
The sins of empire are still etched in the minds of many of the UK's global partners, writes Chris Huhne. Our soft power is the best antidote.
6. Banning smoking in cars is bizarre, intrusive – and right (Daily Telegraph)
Unusually for a libertarian free spirit, this time I’m with the bossyboots brigade, says Boris Johnson.
Young women who have been killed in their thousands across the Middle Eastern region should be listed, at least in the afterworld, on some roll of martyrdom, writes Robert Fisk.
8. Why aren't middle-aged women the face of angry protest? (Guardian)
Women over 50 face deep injustices, yet tend to stay silent in public, writes Melissa Benn. Let's hijack the news cycle with an act of wit and daring.
9. Some big ideas Labour might like to consider (Daily Telegraph)
The party has a few more sacred cows to slay – and apologies to make – before it can become a credible alternative voice, says a Telegraph editorial.
10. The Fed’s waning magic in Yellen’s era (Financial Times)
With a forecast year of take-off in danger of faltering, the central bank has run out of ammunition, says Edward Luce.
Rather than an approach defined by the centralised state or the untamed market, Miliband is committing to a progressive agenda defined by localism, transparency and accountability.
After addressing market reform in his speech on banking last month and party reform last week, Ed Miliband's energetic start to the year will continue when he shifts his focus to public service reform in the Hugo Young memorial lecture tonight (previewed by Rafael on Friday). His decision to do so is in part an acknowledgment that Labour has done too little to outline its own distinctive vision for schools, hospitals and local government, rather than merely criticising the coalition's approach. The aim of the speech will be to answer that charge and to present his proposed reforms as part of a consistent drive to increase transparency and accountability in all areas of public life. As he will say:
I get as many people coming to me frustrated by the unresponsive state as the untamed market. And the causes of the frustrations are often the same in the private and public sector: unaccountable power with the individual feeling left powerless to act. So just as it is One Nation Labours cause to tackle unaccountable power in the private sector, so too in the public sector.
Rather than an approach defined by the top-down state or by the unbound market, Miliband will offer what you could call a third way on public services.
The time demands a new culture in our public services. Not old-style, top-down central control, with users as passive recipients of services. Nor a market-based individualism which says the answer is to transplant the principles of the private sector lock, stock and barrel into the public sector. Instead, we need a new culture of people-powered public services. We should always be seeking to put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services. Giving them voice as well as choice.
As representative of this new approach, Labour is this morning emphasising its plans for education, which will see parents acquire the right to "call in" specialist teams to improve school standards when an institution is failing. Miliband will say:
Every user of a public service has something to contribute and the presumption should be that decisions should be made by users and public servants together. Having promised to share power, this government has actually centralised power in Whitehall and is attempting to run 1,000s of schools from there. That doesnt work. And as a result some schools have been left to fail without intervention. Just last week we saw the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby close, because its failings were spotted far too late. We need greater local accountability for our schools. And in the coming months, David Blunkett will be making recommendations to us about how to do this.
As part of that plan, we must also empower parents. They should not have to wait for somebody in Whitehall to intervene if they have serious concerns about how their school is doing, whether it is a free school, academy or local authority school. But too often they do. In all schools, there should be a parental right to 'call in' intervention. This would happen when a significant number of parents come together and call for immediate action on standards.
More broadly, he will outline four principles for change: "information is power", "connecting people", "shared decision making" and "decisions closer to people". The policies that flow from these include a dramatic expansion of open data, with new powers for users of public services to track their case, and the opportunity for parents to access real-time information on their child's progress at school and for patients to access their health records; the introduction of a basic principle that that users of public services – such as a patient suffering a chronic condition or a parent of a special needs child - be put in touch with other people who share that service and are in a similar situation; and radical devolution to local authorities and city and country regions.
It is the latter that is by far the most striking. All governments in recent history have been rhetorically committed to localism but none have delivered it in practice, with the result that the UK remains one of the most centralised states in Europe. Miliband, though, seems to really mean it when he promises a "radical reshaping" of services that breaks Whitehall's monopoly. When I asked one shadow cabinet member whether Labour would genuinely deliver on its localist promise, I was told: "follow the money". The party's local innovation taskforce is expected to to conclude that local authorities should be given the power to control three to five year budgets in areas including crime and justice, social services, the Work Programme, and social care - a huge change.
The age of austerity, with Labour set to inherit a deficit that will still stand at £96bn, has made such reform not just desirable but essential. As Jon Cruddas, the party’s policy review co-ordinator, noted in his speech on "one nation statecraft" in June, "Labour will inherit a state that in many areas has reached the limit of its capacity to cut without transformational change to the system." This means devolving power downwards from Whitehall and reorienting services such as the NHS around prevention rather than just cure. Andy Burnham’s proposal to integrate physical, mental and social care into a single budget and single service ("whole person care") is perhaps the best example of the kind of reform required. By allowing more patients to be treated outside wards and freeing up to 40 per cent of beds, an integrated service could save the NHS around £3.4bn a year. In speeches on Wednesday, Cruddas (speaking at the New Local Government Network conference) and shadow care minister Liz Kendall (speaking at IPPR) will both flesh out the theme of devolution.
Miliband will say tonight:
Wherever possible, it is right to devolve power down. Because the centralized state cannot from Whitehall diagnose and solve every local problem. By hoarding power and decision-making at the centre, we end up with duplication and waste in public services - and fail to serve the people.
That is why the next Labour manifesto will commit to a radical reshaping of services so that local services can come together and make the decisions that matter to their own communities.
Driving innovation by rethinking services on the basis of the places they serve not the silos people work in. Social care, crime and justice, and the how we engage with the small number of families that receive literally hundreds of interventions from public services but too often don’t get to the heart of the problems they face.
The other notable theme of the lecture will be a reaffirmation of Miliband's promise to lead a government committed to reducing inequality ("I deeply regret that inequality wasn't reduced under the last Labour government," he has said). In an echo of Barack Obama's recent speeches on the subject, he will say:
Walt Whitman wrote that democracy was about people looking"carelessly in the faces of Presidents and Governors, as to say, Who are you?". In other words, whoever you are, wherever you come from, you are of equal worth to the most powerful. This is the foundation of my commitment to equality too.
For decades, inequality was off the political agenda. But there is growing recognition across every walk of life in Britain that large inequalities of income and wealth scar our society.
But in a important shift, Miliband will commit not just to reducing inequalities of income and opportunity but also to tackling those of "power". As he will say: "Everyone – not just a few at the top – should have the chance to shape their own lives." It is that progressive insight that lies behind a public service agenda that, for once, truly merits the epithet "radical".
The Aipac lobby group is famed for its ability to move bills, spike nominations and keep legislators in line – but is its influence waning?
In House of Cards, the award-winning US television show adapted from a BBC miniseries, the Machiavellian congressman Frank Underwood leaks a story (falsely) suggesting that Michael Kern, the president’s pick for secretary of state, wrote an anti-Israel article during his student days. Kern, promptly denounced as an anti-Semite by pro-Israel campaigners, is forced to stand aside.
The pro-Israel lobby matters, OK? That’s the message not just from Hollywood but also from the leading member of that lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac. In a land of lobbies – from Big Oil and Big Pharma to the NRA (guns) and the AARP (pensions) – Aipac isn’t afraid to brag about its power, influence and network of contacts. It boasts 100,000 members, a $67m budget and an annual policy conference attended by two-thirds of Congress, as well as serving and former presidents. It’s said that the former Aipac official Steven Rosen once slipped a napkin to a journalist over dinner and deadpanned, “You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.”
But has Aipac lost its mojo? Is a lobby group famed for its ability to move bills, spike nominations and keep legislators in line now in danger of looking weak and ineffectual? Consider the evidence of the past year. Exhibit A: Chuck Hagel. In January 2013, the independent-minded Republican senator from Nebraska was tapped by Obama to become his second-term defence secretary. Pro-Israel activists quickly uncovered a long list of anti-Israel remarks made by Hagel, including his warning in a 2010 speech to a university audience that Israel risked “becoming an apartheid state”.
In previous years, Aipac would have led the charge against Hagel, but this time it stayed silent. “Aipac does not take positions on presidential nominations,” its spokesman Marshall Wittman insisted. Hagel was (narrowly) confirmed by the Senate the following month.
Exhibit B: Syria. In September 2013, Aipac despatched 250 officials and activists to Capitol Hill to persuade members of Congress to pass resolutions authorising US air strikes on Syria. “Aipac to go all out on Syria” was the Politico headline; the Huffington Post went with “Inside Aipac’s Syria blitz”. And yet, although it held 300-plus meetings with politicians, the resolutions didn’t pass; the air strikes didn’t happen.
Exhibit C: Iran. Despite President Obama pushing for a diplomatic solution to the row over Tehran’s nuclear programme, Aipac is keener on a more confrontational approach. Between December 2013 and last month, a bipartisan bill proposing tough new sanctions on Iran, and calling on the US to back any future Israeli air strikes on the Islamic Republic, went from having 27 co-sponsors in the Senate to 59 – and threatened to derail Obama’s negotiations with Tehran.
The role of Aipac here isn’t disputed. Speaking to CNN in 2013, Jane Harman, an ex-congresswoman and strong advocate for Israel, conceded that her former colleagues on Capitol Hill found it difficult to support Obama’s nuclear diplomacy due to “big parts of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States being against it, the country of Israel being against it. That’s a stiff hill to climb.”
Yet the summit is in sight. “Support for Iran sanctions bill fades”, MSNBC reported on 30 January. The bill is “on ice”, a senior Senate Democratic aide told the Huffington Post. At least five Democratic co-sponsors of the bill have said they don’t want to vote on the legislation while negotiations with Iran are ongoing.
Not only has the bill lost momentum but legislators haven’t been afraid to speak out against it. Listen to the long-time Israel supporter Dianne Feinstein of California let rip on the floor of the Senate: “While I recognise and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the US goes to war.” Ouch.
Obama has repeatedly vowed to veto the sanctions bill, while his National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan suggested that supporters of new sanctions want war with Iran and “should be upfront with the American public and say so”. Such is the anti-Aipac feeling in the White House that there is even talk of the Obama administration boycotting the organisation’s annual jamboree in March.
On Iran, as on Syria, Aipac bluffed. And its bluff was called. As even Rosen, the former Aipac official, has had to admit: “I don’t believe this is sustainable, the confrontational posture [with the White House].” For now, the sanctions bill is dead. Democrats, if not Republicans, are giving peace a chance. “Much of Aipac’s strength has been rooted in the false illusion of their invincibility,” Trita Parsi, a DC-based analyst, tells me. “Because people thought they were invincible, most of the time they didn’t think they could go up against them.”
Let’s be clear: this isn’t about a “Jewish lobby” or illicit Jewish influence. Pro-Israeli groups such as Aipac don’t represent American Jews; rather, they articulate the hawkish world-view of the Israeli right. Recent polls suggest a clear majority of American Jews support the president’s approach to Iran’s nuclear programme; and 70 per cent of them voted for Barack Obama, not Mitt Romney, in 2012.
As Peter Beinart, the Jewish-American journalist and former editor of the New Republic, put it in a recent column in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “The only ‘leader’ who speaks for American Jews on Iran is Barack Obama.” Aipac might want to get a new napkin.
The head of BBC TV output has promised that there will be no more all-male panels on TV comedy shows. Ed Morrish, radio comedy producer, explains why he always tries to book more than one woman – it makes his show better.
If there are any TV producers reading (there aren’t). here’s some recommendations for funny women you could have on your panel shows: Rebecca Front, Danielle Ward, Susan Calman, Shappi Khorsandi, Zoe Lyons, Bridget Christie, Margaret Cabourn-Smith, Josie Long, Jenny Eclair, Roisin Conaty, Sara Pascoe, Sarah Kendall, Kerry Godliman, Isy Suttie, Lucy Beaumont and Angela Barnes. I can recommend them all from personal experience, because they’ve all been guests on a panel show I produce called Dilemma. In addition to those women we’ve had female journalists (Grace Dent, Ann Leslie, Anita Anand, Samira Ahmed, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Anne McElvoy), musicians (Louise Wener, Cerys Mathews), presenters (Fi Glover, Janet Ellis, Cerrie Burnell), actors (Clare Grogan, Cush Jumbo), DJs (Annie Nightingale, Gemma Cairney), and a cricketer (Isa Guha), all of whom were funny and clever and interesting.
Now, before you elect me King of Feminists*, I should point out that we’ve had more male guests than female – 40/36 is the split over three series and an Edinburgh special, although if you add the presenter Sue Perkins into that, it shifts to 40/55.
Personally, I always thought the point of panel shows is to generate spontaneous discussion. I produced The News Quizfor two years (where, it’s fair to say, I achieved nothing like the figures above) and it struck me then that in terms of “jokes about the news”, there were only so many actual gags to be done – the value of the show was when Andy said something, Sandi queried it, Jeremy came back with something else, Sue took it further and Fred topped it. That’s what you can’t do at home – it’s four different minds working together in ways that can’t be predicted.
So when we started making Dilemma, a show where moral and/or ethical dilemmas are played for laughs – the idea of a diverse panel was central to the show working. If all four guests are the same age/ethnicity/gender/occupation, their moral choices are more likely to be similar, surely? Because morality and ethics are informed by our background and experiences. If you put a moral dilemma in front of four male comics in their 30s, you’re more likely to get an agreement than if you put in front of (say), one male English comic in his 30s, a female Australian comic in her 30s, a DJ in her 70s and a cricketer in her 20s**. And it’s that disagreement that make the show worth listening to.
We’re lucky of course to have a comedy format that bears non-comics. If the question is right The panel for TV's “Mock the Week”: Chris Addison, Dara Ó Briain, Hugh Dennis and Andy Parsons as, for example, in last week's show– then almost any answer can be funny; the comedy comes from thinking it through, and ending up somewhere unexpected. Some formats however seem to be more designed as a one-liner delivery system. That’s not a value judgement, these shows can be very popular and very funny, but if you’re just going for punchlines then you’ve limited yourself to a particular sort of comedian. And let’s not forget that broadcast comedy is not representative of the population of a whole, it’s representative of comedians, the people who chose to go into comedy. There are more men doing comedy than women so you’d expect there to be more good men than good women (although proportionally they’d be the same I imagine). There are also way more white people doing stand-up than non-white. As more women/ethnic minorities start doing comedy, the broadcast numbers will even up; but Chris Rock says it takes ten years to get good as a stand-up, and there wasn’t an even split ten years ago. (You could argue that more women would go into comedy if they saw women doing good comedy, and I think you’d be right.) And then there’s the fame issue – people are more likely to tune into a show where they’ve heard of the guests then where they’ve not, so producers book people you’ve heard of. You’ve heard of more male comedians than female comedians, so that’s who they book. It’s not particularly fair, but I can understand the impulse on the part of the producer.
The last thing to bear in mind on this point is that one woman on a panel show can be quite isolated; she can be seen as “the woman”, a representative of ALL women. So we try to have two on each show as that immediately puts an adjective in front of each one. The young woman and the middle-aged woman; the Southern woman and the Northern woman. It’s harder to generalise when youve got two different people on. (We have on three occasions only had one woman as a guest, but a) we have a woman presenting the show so they’d never be the only female voice on the episode and b) we had one episode where there were three women guests, so that cancels one of those out.) Basically, I book two comics (one male, one female) and two non-comics (one male and one female) and try to get a variety of backgrounds from within that formation. And all for the selfish reason that it makes my show better.
The dilemmas for Dilemma are devised, by the way, through a series of brainstorms, which the show’s devisor Danielle Ward then takes away and writes up. We try to get a mix of people involved in these, because if white, black, gay, straight, male and female people in a room can agree that something really is a dilemma, then it will work on the show no matter who we book. A room full of only people like me might create dilemmas that only people like me think are dilemmas, and that’s not just a problem for anyone on the panel who’s not like me, but also for anyone in the audience who’s not like me. Our audience is about a million people. As sexy a thought a million versions of me might be, we have to accept it’s not likely, and some of the audience might be different. So rather than have 999,999 people shout “HOW IS THAT A PROBLEM?” while I nod sagely, I invite a few women to the brainstorm. I say a few; we had more women than men involved in this series. The guinea pig question I linked to above? Sue Elliot-Nicholls came up with that.
Anyway, to any TV producers reading (none of you), get in touch if you want the contact details of any of those women. They’re all really good.
*Also, you don’t elect Kings.
**Series two, episode six
In the form of UKIP, the toxic extreme right has been sidelined by a more competent radical right force.
Less than four months from now, voters across Europe will head to the polls to choose their representatives in the European Parliament. Amidst the financial crisis and falling public trust in political institutions, there is an expectation in Brussels, Paris and Berlin that the elections will deliver record success for parties that subscribe to right-wing extremist or Eurosceptic beliefs, and which are often crudely lumped together under the far-right umbrella. Much of this concern has been driven by the latest polls, which suggest that the "usual suspects" will continue their march from the margins to the mainstream.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National looks on course to treble its level of support in 2009, possibly finishing first with over 20 per cent of the vote. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ radical right Party for Freedom may also finish in the top spot, while in Austria the Freedom Party will also take over 20 per cent. Yet Greece and Hungary elicit most concern. In the latter, support for the anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik is holding steady at around 14 per cent, while Golden Dawn is likely to attract at least 9 per cent, introducing the real prospect of neo-Nazi MEPs sitting in Brussels. Even if the neo-Nazi party is forcibly disbanded, they have pledged to form a new party in time for the elections (the imaginatively titled "National Dawn").
If the polls are correct, the results will inevitably dominate headlines and fuel anxiety among progressives over the enduring appeal of exclusionary campaigns in Europe. But it is not quite as worrying as the media would have us believe. Behind the pictures of Le Pen and Wilders are countries in southern Europe, which, since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, have grappled with the conditions that many predicted would usher in political armageddon: rampant deprivation; a generation of unemployed youth; harsh austerity; striking inequality; and only recently entrenched democratic traditions. Yet few journalists bother to ponder why, since the crisis, the far-right has retreated or simply failed to arrive in countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain, or why it has flourished in Austria and the Netherlands, which have "enjoyed" some of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. In this sense, the puzzle is not why some far-right populists have prospered amidst the crisis, but why Europe has not turned en masse to the political extremes.
This is especially true in Britain, where, despite the crisis, recession and austerity, the far-right has completely collapsed. Cast your mind back five years to February 2009. Nick Griffin and the BNP were still in the afterglow of winning a seat on the Greater London Assembly. They had dozens of councillors and a grassroots membership on its way to over 14,000. And with a parliamentary expenses scandal about to explode, they would go on to poll over 6 per cent at the European elections and capture two seats. Shortly afterwards, a small protest in Luton would spiral into the English Defence League (EDL), which for a brief moment looked set to mobilise a street army of young, disillusioned and angry working class Britons.
But since then the far-right has haemorrhaged support. The EDL spectacularly collapsed after their leader resigned and was then imprisoned. Meanwhile, the long-awaited crisis that Griffin promised would bring his followers victory, has brought them misery. Such is the disarray that their MEP Andrew Brons has resigned the BNP whip and launched a new, anti-Griffin party. Thousands of members have walked away, leaving Griffin not only bankrupt but appearing as a lonely and increasingly comical figure whose only route into the headlines today is to express solidarity with neo-Nazis in Greece. The BNP which has dominated Britain’s far-right for some thirty years is polling just 1 per cent, and so the prospect of saving its seats is nothing more than a distant dream. For the first time since 2001, Britain may well find its elected office "BNP free".
So why – despite the crisis - has the far-right collapsed? There are three schools of thought, which each point to a different ingredient. The first is that since 2009, British public demand for ideas associated with the far-right has withered. But even a cursory glance at the data undermines this view. If anything, British voters are now even more concerned about immigration, less trusting of the political class, and more receptive to populist appeals. Even as the crisis subsides, public concerns over immigration today are stronger than at any point since 2007. In fact, immigration now shares the top spot with the economy as the most important issue in the minds of voters, and by the time we get to May it may well occupy the top spot in its own right.
A second argument is that the British far-right simply failed to capitalise on the crisis, offering a toxic brand that was "beyond the pale' for most Britons. One of my favourite opinion polls of all time (run by YouGov) asked Britons to rank the most important markers of Britishness. The most popular answer was freedom of speech. But a close second was the country’s victory over Nazi ideology, which goes some way to explaining the power of the anti-fascist norm in Britain. Unlike, say, Marine Le Pen who grasps the necessity of detoxification, the extremist amateurism of the fascist BNP and the street thuggery of the EDL alienated voters who might otherwise be receptive to the radical right agenda. There was a window of opportunity where both groups could have connected with a disillusioned, working class and left behind generation of Britons, but instead they remained dominated by figures who the historian Richard Thurlow once described as "tinpot fuhrers and sawdust caesars".
While much of this rings true, it also complements a third argument; that since 2010 the toxic extreme right in British politics has been easily outflanked by a more competent radical right force, which not only targets the same cluster of concerns over immigration, Europe, the responsiveness of elites and perceived threats to national identity, but does so in the shadow of legitimacy. The rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has presented the BNP with an insurmountable challenge. As Griffin's party has sought to frame Ukippers as "plastic nationalists" and "posh boys" who like the bankers, the reality (as we show in a new book) is that the more legitimate and sophisticated UKIP brand is connecting far more successfully with the same social groups who only offered the extreme right some localised and ephemeral success. UKIP is not a right-wing extremist party. Neither Farage nor his party advocate an ethnic conception of nationalism, the overthrow of liberal democracy or conspiratorial anti-Semitism (the three features that are commonly thought to define right-wing extremism). To put UKIP in the same camp as the BNP misunderstands its revolt.
But that is not to say that this revolt is not drawing support from the same sections of British society who have been left behind by the country’s economic transformation over recent decades, were then hit hardest by the financial crisis, and today feel completely adrift from an established political class that is increasingly focused on more secure, educated and professional middle-class voters who not only share a markedly different outlook but also determine the outcome of elections. This is one (but by no means the only) reason why the rise of UKIP carries as many important questions for the left as it does the right. Under any other circumstances, these disadvantaged, left behind voters should be expected to be rallying behind Labour. So while this May we should welcome the demise of the traditional extreme right in Britain, we will again be given good reason to ask why a growing number of Britons are turning their backs on mainstream political life.
Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Nottingham and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He is co-author, with Robert Ford, of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, which is published in March. Readers of the New Statesman can receive 20% off pre-orders here, using the code RTR14. He tweets @GoodwinMJ
To preserve rape culture, society at large has to believe that women systematically lie about rape.
How should we watch Annie Hall now? After filmmaker Woody Allen was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, his former foster-daughter, Dylan Farrow, now 28, told the New York Times the story of how he sexually abused her as a child. The charges against Allen are 20 years old, and were never brought to trial. But he takes his place in a grim roll-call of famous men whose work and achievements are being called into question because of the way they are said to have treated women and children.
It seems like the whole world is a mess of rape allegations. In Britain, Operation Yewtree has marched a grim procession of beloved household names – some of them deceased, some of them merely half-deceased – through the spotlight of public approbation, on charges of child abuse. And there are others: politicians such as the late Liberal MP Cyril Smith; respected activists such as Julian Assange. It is extremely uncomfortable to watch. It might challenge us to rethink art and ideas that we hold extremely dear. I like highbrow cinema and digital rights as much as the next lefty hipster, but the allegations against Rolf Harris were even more upsetting - I’m never going to be able to watch Animal Hospital the same way again.
This week, the fightback seemed to be on. In America, Woody Allen publicly responded to Dylan Farrow's accusations by accusing Dylan's mother, Mia Farrow, of maliciously making up the whole thing. In Britain, the acquittal of Coronation Street actor Bill Roache on rape charges made the Daily Mail holler: “How Did It Ever Get To Court?”
There are people out there, not all of them men, who believe that a conspiracy is going on. When I speak to them as a reporter, they tell me that that women lie about rape, now more than ever. They lie to damage men and to “destroy their lives”. This is despite the fact that the fraud rate for rape remains as low as ever, and despite the fact that popular culture is groaning with powerful men who have been accused or even convicted of sexual abuse and whose lives remain distinctly understroyed. Men like boxer like Mike Tyson, or singer R Kelly. Men like Woody Allen.
Women and children who bring those accusations, however, risk their relationships, their reputation, their safety. Anonymity in the press is no protection against the rejection of family, friends and workmates. Dylan Farrow is living somewhere out of the public eye, under a new name. We have created a culture and a legal system which punishes those who seek justice so badly that those who do come forward are assumed to have some ulterior motive.
Rape and abuse are the only crimes where, in the words of legal scholar Lord Hale, “It is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial.” They are crimes that are hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law, because it’s a case of “he said, she said”. Nobody can really know, and so naturally we must assume that he is innocent and she is lying – because that’s what women do. The trouble is that in this society, “he said” is almost always more credible than “she said”, unless she is white and he is not.
There is a growing understanding that 'wait for the ruling' is an insufficient answer when the latest celebrity is hauled up on rape charges. The rule of law cannot be relied upon when it routinely fails victims of abuse. Rape and abuse cases have come to be tried in the court of public opinion, for better or worse, precisely because the official courts are understood to be so hopelessly unfair.
As the Allen case demonstrates, the law courts aren’t the only place where the nature of sexual power, of what men may and may not do to women, children and to other men with impunity, is played out. No judge can legislate for the ethics of the Golden Globe Committee. And no magistrate can ensure that a young girl like Missouri teenager Daisy Coleman, who came forward last year to describe how she was raped by classmates at a party, is not hounded out of town, along with her family, until she makes attempts on her own life.
Rape culture means more than a culture in which rape is routine. Rape culture involves the systematic silencing of victims even as women and children are instructed to behave like potential victims at all times. In order to preserve rape culture, society at large has to believe two different things at once. Firsty, that women and children lie about rape, but that they should also act as if rape will be the result if they get into a strange car, walk down a strange street or wear a sexy outfit. Secondly, if it happens, it’s their own fool fault for not respecting the unwritten rules.
This paradox involves significant mental gymnastics. But as more and more people come forward with accusations, as the pattern of historical and ongoing abuse of power becomes harder to ignore, the paradox gets harder to maintain. We are faced with two alternatives: either women and children are lying about rape on an industrial, organised scale, or rape and sexual abuse are endemic in this society, and have been for centuries. Facing up to the reality of the latter is a painful prospect.
Many of the allegations that are surfacing, like those against Woody Allen, Bill Roache and the Yewtree defendants, are not new. What is new is the attitude. We are beginning, on a cultural level, to challenge the delusion that only evil men rape, that it is impossible for a man to be a rapist or an abuser of children and also an epoch-defining filmmaker. Or a skilled politician. Or a beloved pop icon. Or a respected family man. Or a treasured friend. We are beginning to reassess the idea that if a man is any of these things, the people he hurts must stay silent, because that’s how power works.
An enormous change in consciousness is taking place around consent, and it threatens to change everything. At some point between 2008 and 2014, the collective understanding of what rape and abuse are, and what they ought to be, changed forever. At some point we began to talk, not just privately, cowedly, but in numbers too big too ignore, about the reality of sexual violence and child abuse, about how victims are silenced. Survivors of rape and abuse and their loved ones had always known this toxic truth, but we were forced to hold it close to ourselves where it could fester and eat us from within. In case you’re wondering, yes, I do have intimate experience of this, and so do a lot of people you know. We just didn’t talk about it in quite this way before.
Something has changed. When the allegations that Woody Allen sexually abused Dylan Farrow first surfaced in the early 1990s, his defenders swamped the mainstream press and that was more or less the end of it. Now the people who have always been on Team Dylan get a say, too. Without wanting to sound like a headbanging techno-utopian, this is happening because of the internet. It is happening because a change in the way we communicate and interact has allowed people who have traditionally been isolated – say, victims of rape and child abuse – to speak out, to share their stories without mediation, to make the structures of power and violence we have always known were there suddenly visible, a thing that can be challenged. And that changes everything.
If we were to truly accept the enormity of rape culture, if we were to understand what it actually means that one in five girl children and one in ten boys are sexually abused, it will not just be painful. It will force our culture to reimagine itself in a way that is uncomfortable even to contemplate. As Jessica Valenti writes at The Nation, “It will mean rethinking institutions and families and power dynamics and the way we interact with each other every day.” It will mean looking with new eyes at our most revered icons, our social groups, our friends and relatives. It will involve hard, difficult work. It will change everything. And it is already starting to happen.
Every time an inspiring activist or esteemed artist is charged with rape, abuse or assault, I feel that awful, weary rage: not him too. But behind the rage is hope. Because rape culture hasn’t changed, but the way we talk about it has. Silencing victims does not stop rape and abuse. It just stops us having to deal with the implications of a culture where rape and abuse are routine. And today I see men and boys as well as women and girls speaking up in protest, and I see a future where all of those people will understand power and violence in a new way. Today, everywhere, survivors and their allies are finding the collective courage to look rape culture in the face, call it by its name, and not back down. And that is cause for hope.
Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman
They may seem like an odd pairing, but Spike Jonze's film about a man who falls in love with his operating system and Alain Guiradie's tale of a murder at a secluded cruising spot show the lengths people will travel to forge a connection.
Spike Jonze’s love story Her and Alain Guiradie’s thriller Stranger by the Lake do not immediately suggest themselves as an obvious double-bill. But both effectively address the same subject: intimacy issues. Her is steeped in technology and set at some unspecified point in the future not so distant that we cannot see where it overlaps with our own world. The sight of an entire population walking around talking not to one another but to computer operating systems accessible via near-invisible earpieces is certainly approaching the realms of documentary realism. If you are still startled whenever you see lone figures ranting and gesticulating, and if you have to forcibly remind yourself that they are in all likelihood speaking into a hands-free mobile device, then Her will seem very much as though it is taking place in the streets where you live. Probably the most alien aspect of the film’s futuristic vision is to be found in the area of costume. The bad news is this: unflattering high-waisted slacks are in for men. It almost makes you pine for a dystopia.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix at his least guarded as the professional letter-writer Theodore Twombly, who composes personal correspondence on behalf of others. At beautiful-handwritten-letters.com, he ventriloquises his clients’ private emotions, serving often for years on end as a romantic or familial go-between at one remove to people he has never met. Intimacy has become relative, long-distance and marketable. A stranger can articulate feelings that are beyond your grasp, while friends can be the virtual imps who populate your favourite interactive game. (Hardly an absurd idea in an age where a Facebook “friend” need not be anyone you have ever clapped eyes on.) It’s perfectly natural in this context that Theodore would fall in love with his computer operating system, a self-evolving entity (“voice” doesn’t really cover it) named Samantha, who is played, unseen, by Scarlett Johansson in one of the richest voice performances of recent years. No—one of the richest performances per se.
A concept like Her can be expressed satirically or sincerely but it can’t easily be both. Jonze, who also wrote the screenplay, plumps wisely for the second option. It’s the right move. Sincerity is his stock-in-trade. He directed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, which both examined existential isolation through the prism of screwball, from scripts by Charlie Kaufman which would have felt outlandish and warped in any hands. But the joke, and the kick, was enhanced by Jonze’s straight-laced, poker-faced approach. No matter how demented the situations became (and remember that the first of those films climaxed with a breakneck chase through the compartments of John Malkovich’s subconscious), Jonze kept the temperature cool. The same approach works wonders for Her. Theodore and Samantha having sex together amounts to one of the more peculiar scenes here, but by the time they are going on picnics with friends any resistance on our part has been steadily broken down by the film’s ingenuous tone. What is left is an incisive, even uplifting account of how human beings forge and pursue emotional connections in the most unpromising climates. It’s a love story told predominantly through close-ups of one person. It’s very us and very now, isn’t it? Very 21st century.
The visual landscape in Stranger by the Lake couldn’t be any more different. The action of the film is confined entirely to a secluded lake hidden from a rural road by a small, dense forest. It’s beautiful and serene but also charged with a tension that is not exclusively sexual. Over the course of a summer, men come here to sunbathe, swim and have sex with one another. The film insinuates that something else is afoot. There is talk of a silurus in the lake but perhaps the real hazards lie on dry land.
There is no score but we don’t need music to alert us to danger. Besides, a sudden jump in the sound design—a cut, say, to a shot of trees being roughly tousled by the wind—can be as startling to our ears as any Herrmann-esque jabbing strings, and Guiradie is not slow to realise that. The erotic suspense of cruising lends itself to the thriller genre; the desperation of the eager, boyish Franck (Pierre de Landonchamps) to find someone, to not be the one left alone on the sand, as well as the ease with which he slips from lust to love, makes him more than usually vulnerable to danger. With the arrival of Michel (Christophe Paou) and his unsettling 1970s facial hair, things begin to get stranger and stranger by the lake.
The parity between Her and Stranger by the Lake arises from their frankness about the lengths to which we will go for intimacy. Oddly for such a suspenseful film, Stranger by the Lake is rather encouraging in its insistence on the different shapes that human connection can take. Franck’s desires are tested in a moral and political framework—when a detective shows up at the lake to make enquiries about a suspected murder, he rather presumptuously collars Franck on the matter of community, asking whether it bothers him that “one of your own” may have been killed. And the movie mounts a provocative analysis of that idea of tribes, extending to a plangent, recently divorced straight man who longs for a species of male companionship not catered for at the lake, or anywhere else (“Why do you have to have sex to sleep together?”). He seems incredulous that Franck self-identifies as gay and scoffs at the idea that anyone is. But he aches for a connection as much as anyone else at the lake; he’s just the only one who puts into words, rather than action.
Many of the column inches attracted so far by Stranger by the Lake have been devoted to inches of a different sort. But while the movie is explicit in portraying its characters’ desires, that only raises the stakes. Without the rest of the film’s corresponding emotional intensity, the “money” shots might seem gratuitous. Instead, they’re all of a piece with a picture that investigates the highs and the hazards of our ceaseless search for intimacy. Paired with Jonze’s film, it makes quite the his-and-hers matching set.
Her is released 14 February. Stranger by the Lake is released 21 February.
Why is Ed Davey investigating British Gas’s profit margins?
British Gas owner, Centrica, suffered a fall in share price today after the UK energy secretary investigated its profit margins and suggested the company may have to be broken up. We answer five questions on the potential break-up of British Gas.
By how much has Centrica’s share price fallen?
The share price fell by 3 per cent today after energy minister Ed Davey questioned the company’s dominance in the market. British Gas currently has 41 per cent of the domestic gas supply market in the UK, the largest share of any of the so-called "big six".
Why is Ed Davey investigating British Gas’s profit margins?
Davey said in a letter that profit margins made by the "big six" energy suppliers when supplying gas were actually higher than previously thought. In particular, he highlighted the high profit margin of British Gas and its large market share. He added that British Gas had charged one of the highest prices to domestic customers in the last three years.
He estimated that if gas margins were similar to electricity households would save on average up to £40 a year. Davey also provided information that showed Centrica saw profit margins of 11.2 per cent for its gas business in 2012. He suggested a market investigation.
Why has Davey said British Gas may have to be broken-up?
If an investigation found evidence of a monopoly this could result in the company being broken-up. As well as asking the competition authorities to investigate the profit margins as part of an ongoing review, he has written to energy regulator Ofgem and the Competition and Markets Authority asking them to consider all possible avenues "including a break-up of any companies found to have monopoly power to the detriment of the consumer".
What else has Davey said?
Mr Davey told the BBC: "This is a significant issue for consumers out there who are struggling with their energy bills."
In his letter he says: "Analysis of the profit margins of the energy companies shows that the average profit margin for gas is around three times that of electricity.
"There is also evidence that British Gas, the company with the largest share of the gas domestic supply market, has tended to charge one of the highest prices over the past three years, and has been on average the most profitable."
What has British Gas said about Davey’s comments?
In its statement, British Gas said: "We welcome this and have complied with all the requests for data which we have received.
"The data referred to in the Secretary of State's letter has already been fully disclosed and in the public domain for a number of weeks."
What have the independent experts said?
Some have queried why this publicly available information hasn’t been investigated by Ofgem already.
However, Richard Lloyd, the executive director of the consumer rights group Which?, told the BBC the intervention was hugely significant and suggested Davey agreed with Which? that the structure of the biggest energy companies is partly to blame for the price hikes.
"It will now put huge pressure on the regulators, in a matter of weeks, to announce that they're taking the first steps towards potentially breaking up the very biggest of the big energy companies," he added.
With the personal allowance already at £10,000, the lowest-paid five million workers will not benefit from further increases.
There's little more than a month to go until the Budget (on 19 March), so it's time for Nick Clegg's annual appeal to George Osborne to increase the personal tax allowance. In a speech tonight at 6:10pm at Mansion House, he will say that he wants the threshold to be lifted from £10,000 (the level for 2014-15) to at least £10,500 by April 2015. Here's the key extract:
We want to keep cutting income tax for ordinary taxpayers. That will be the main item Danny and I push for in the Budget - again.
In the next parliament we would raise the personal allowance so that no one pays any income tax on the first £12,500 they earn.
It’s our flagship policy because it’s how we make work pay, and it’s our way of making sure the British people know that this recovery is theirs.
In a smart piece of framing, Clegg is calling the policy a "workers' bonus", although workers who have seen their pay fall for years might reasonably grumble that a small tax cut hardly bears comparison with the pay packets enjoyed in the City of London. But while the move is undoubtedly good politics, and the best example of an area where the Lib Dems have genuinely set the agenda (in the first leaders' debate in 2010, David Cameron told Clegg: "I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick...We cannot afford it"), it is bad policy.
At a time of falling living standards, raising the personal allowance will do nothing to help the five million lowest-paid workers who earn less than £10,000. It is those in the second-richest decile who gain the most in cash terms from the policy (mainly due to the greater number of dual-earning households), followed by the richest tenth, who gain marginally less due to the gradual removal of the personal allowance after £100,000 (a brilliant piece of stealth redistribution by Alistair Darling). As a percentage of income, it is middle-earners who gain the most, with those at the bottom gaining the least.
Progressive alternatives to raising the income tax threshold include increasing the National Insurance (NI) threshold, which currently stands at £7,748, cutting VAT, which stands at a record 20 per cent and hits the poorest hardest, or raising in-work benefits such as tax credits. As the IFS noted last week, aligning the NI threshold with the personal allowance would "cut taxes for 1.2 million workers with earnings too low to benefit from an increase in the personal allowance, would benefit only workers, and would simplify the direct tax system." Alternatively, raising the level at which in-work benefits are withdrawn by 20 per cent would be "a bigger giveaway in entitlements to working families in the bottom three income deciles than the gains to that group of raising the personal allowance to £12,500, despite costing £10 billion per year less".
But all of these measures lack the headline-grabbing potential of another cut in income tax. For similar reasons, rather than calling for an increase in the NI threshold, Labour is promising to reintroduce the 10p tax rate, a measure that would do even less to benefit the poorest but that offers a useful means of distancing the party from one of Gordon Brown's greatest blunders. All of which is a reminder that when it comes to tax, there are few areas where the triumph of politics over policy is greater.
McBride is joined by US lawyer Segio De La Pava and 85-year-old OBE Jane Gardam on the Prize's inaugural shortlist.
Goldsmiths Prize-winning novelist Eimear McBride has made the shortlist for the Folio Prize, a new £40,000 award for English-language fiction from across the globe.
McBride, whose debut novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was published by Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press in February 2013 (9 years after it was rejected by almost every publisher in the UK), is one of only three non-American writers to have made the cut. The list is as follows:
Red Doc by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
Schroder by Amity Gaige (Faber & Faber)
Last Friends by Jane Gardam (Little, Brown)
Benediction by Kent Haruf (Picador)
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (Harvill Secker)
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (Maclehose Editions)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury)
“From its inception, the emphasis of the Folio Prize has been on the relationship between good writing and good reading,” said Lavinia Greenlaw, who chaired the panel of judges this year. “The Prize makes an unapologetic assertion about the value of experience and expertise, and the high expectations that come from spending much of your life investigating and testing language and form.”
The Folio Prize is judged by a panel of five, drawn by ballot – redrawn again and again until the panel contains no more than three members of the same gender, three from the UK and two from abroad – from a 187-strong academy of critics, writers and professors. Each member of the academy is asked to nominate three titles, of which the top sixty books are forwarded to the judging panel. The panel this year included the American novelist Michael Chabon, British short story writer Sarah Hall, Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, Vietnamese-Australian short story writer Nam Le, and was chaired by poet Lavinia Greenlaw.
Andrew Kidd, MD at literary agency Aitken Alexander (and the Prize’s founder), said that the academy had produced “the most rigorous, careful and generous sounding any author could wish for ... a list that ticks no boxes, balances the interests of no constituencies and will no doubt stir all kinds of debate.”
The Prize’s sponsor, The Folio Society, also announced the launch of a new two-day literary festival to take place on the weekend 8-9 March with a series of events structured around the fundamentals of fiction: form, voice, structure, place and context. The winner of the Folio Prize – in some respects a litmus test for the internationalist swerve of other major prizes – will be announced on 10 March during a ceremony at London’s St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.
Like so many books about tigers, The Night Guest, by Australian first-time novelist Fiona McFarlane, is a battle to preserve the order and civility of the household from the madness and barbarity outside.
The Night Guest
Sceptre, 288pp, £14.99
From William Blake to Judith Kerr, writers have deployed tigers in literature to represent wildness, energy and disruption. Blake’s sublime, forest-dwelling feline was the antithesis of his meek and gentle lamb – “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” – while in Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the big cat threatens to consume every means of sustenance, displacing the family who had initially welcomed it in (mirroring Kerr’s experiences of Nazi Germany).
Ever since Disney gave him a voice, A A Milne’s ebullient Tigger has become a figure of childish amusement, when really he’s an incorrigible pest. He wakes Pooh Bear in the small hours of the morning, gets himself stuck in a tree and nearly drowns poor Eeyore. Like Kipling’s Shere Khan, he expects those around him to bend to his will.
The first-time novelist Fiona McFarlane has pitted a tiger against a lamb in the form of her two central characters, Frida Young and Ruth Field. Ruth is a widowed pensioner, living out her dotage on the south Australian coast. One night she hears a tiger romping through her kitchen. The following morning Frida appears, “as if blown in from the sea”, a “government carer” sent free of charge to be “[her] right arm”.
The significance of the tiger is never fully explained or fixed in place: does it symbolise the threat posed by Frida, or is it Ruth’s senility, her independence or lost youth? As in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, much of the novel is taken up with power struggles and territorial disputes.
Frida moves in. She brings chemicals to get rid of the smell of the sea, puts up banisters and urges Ruth to sell her car, making her dependent and weakening her resolve. But Ruth is never straightforwardly meek. She questions, debates, resists and loves the roughness of swearing (despite having given elocution lessons before she retired). She remembers fondly her childhood in the Fijian jungle, where her parents were missionaries and she fell in love with a young, passionate doctor – the opposite of the steady man she eventually married.
Like so many books about tigers, The Night Guest is a battle to preserve internal order and civility from the madness and barbarity lurking outside. It is a domestic drama, but given that Ruth’s mind leads her to internalise events – “If I see one car in the next ten seconds, she thought, I’ll tell her to go away” – it is an inward struggle too. McFarlane beautifully captures the protracted loss of Ruth’s faculties, one day at a time, like the tide eroding the shore.
In T S Eliot’s “Gerontion”, written in 1920, the tiger takes on a new mantle. “In the juvenescence of the year/Came Christ the tiger”, says the aged narrator, “Us he devours … Tenants of the house”. The Night Guest takes place in the Pacific springtime, November, when casuarina trees, humpback whales and golden wattle blossoms appear along the coast. The book builds to a breathtaking final scene, in which the dry desert of Ruth’s bewildered mind bursts forth into animal majesty and the full extent of Frida’s machinations become clear.
“Long live the tiger!” Ruth cries.
Image: Henri Rousseau's Dream (1997) by Frances Broomfield
The PM says "there will be time later on to talk about these things" when asked if he supports Smith.
As the political blame game over the floods continues, David Cameron has put Environment Agency chair Chris Smith on notice. Asked during a visit to the luckless south west whether he backed Smith, he said: "This is not the time to change personnel. Everyone's got to focus on the job in hand. I'm only interested in one thing: everything the government can do is being done to help people, help businesses, help farmers." But he notably added: "There will be time later on to talk about these things [resignations]".
The former Labour cabinet minister is due to stand down when his term ends in July (with no chance of reppointment) but Cameron's words suggest he could be collecting his P45 rather earlier (he has said he has "no intention" of resigning).
Smith has not handled the affair well, waiting two months before finally visiting the Somerset Levels. But it's worth reading his riposte to ministers in today's Guardian in which he rightly points out how spending cuts have weakened Britain's flood defences. He writes:
It's important, though, to realise a fundamental constraint on us. It's not only the overall allocation for flood defence work that limits what we can do. There is also a limit on the amount we can contribute to any individual scheme, determined by a benefit-to-cost rule imposed on us by the Treasury.Take, for example, the highly visible issue of the dredging of the rivers on the Somerset Levels.Last year, after the 2012 floods, we recognised the local view that taking silt out of the two main rivers would help to carry water away faster after a flood.The Environment Agency put £400,000 on the table to help with that work – the maximum amount the Treasury rules allowed us to do. The additional funds from other sources that would be needed didn't come in.So when politicians start saying it's Environment Agency advice or decisions that are to blame, they need to realise that it's in fact government rules – laid down by successive governments, Labour and Tory – that are at the heart of the problem.
Nobody doubted a return to growth under austerity was possible - but all the evidence suggests it has been hampered by George Osborne's radically anti-stimulus position.
The IMF’s growth forecast for the UK, which was revised upwards on 21 January, was met with relief, rather than joy: we have finally started to climb out of the worst slump in over 100 years. The Chancellor responded, saying that "Our long-term plan is delivering a brighter economic future."
Really? Below is the UK's real output per person since the crisis, compared with America. Whereas USGDP reached its pre-crisis peak in 2012, we don’t even show signs of reaching ours this decade.
However, let’s assume that the growth figures forecast by the IMF result in real growth of 2.4 per cent and 2.8 per cent for the UK and US, respectively, in 2014. The picture would certainly be brighter, as shown below.
Source: Same as above and IMF growth figures used to project for 2014. (Population growth not taken into account)
Assuming growth continues at this rate (the IMF predict it to fall next year), we would be back to 2007 levels of GDP by 2016-17. The US economy would, by that stage, be 11 per cent larger than it was in 2007. This is as much a cause for celebration as the release of a prisoner who has spent a wasted decade behind bars.
But the reaction in the mainstream press is that this “success” vindicates the chancellor’s economics and, by proxy, ridicules the shadow chancellor’s. The Economist, this week, said that Labour had been “blasted on the economy” and mocked Ed Balls's views, calling him a “Good Keynesian”. Clearly The Economist thinks that using fiscal stimulus in the aftermath of the Great Recession would have been folly.
Firstly, they are wrong. Nobody suggested that growth would never return with austerity - but we would surely have seen growth years sooner if the government had stimulated demand. (For comparison, America’s stimulus package was almost a trillion dollars).
Secondly, the upturn in growth we are seeing now may actually be the product of an unexpected bout of fiscal stimulus in 2012 by none other than George Osborne. (Don’t believe me? I didn’t at first either...)
I’ll deal with these two points in turn. First, the case for fiscal stimulus. Faced with the task of driving a car up a steep hill, few people would focus on saving fuel. Or as John Maynard Keynes put it: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity...” Now, to be fair, the forces that govern economies are not as well understood as the force of gravity on a car and, yes, economists are divided in many areas of macroeconomics - but the idea that you can create growth by imposing fiscal austerity on a recessionary economy is not one of those areas.
The graph below shows that those European countries who engaged in the most fiscal austerity over 2008-2012 had the biggest slumps.
Source: Krugman, P. “Night of the living Alesina”, NY Times Online; March 12th, 2013. European countries: GDP growth 2008-12 vs the size of their austerity programmes.
The idea that government belt-tightening during a recession causes a further contraction of GDP is as basic as it gets, but in post-2007 recessionary economies there was even more cause than usual to increase government spending. Firstly, normal monetary policy became impotent after we reached 0 per cent interest rates - and while quantitative easing has helped, its possible repercussions are not yet fully understood.
Secondly, multipliers have been shown (by the IMF, among others) to be higher when economies are depressed - so each pound spent by government generates more than just one pound of output - by some estimates, more than £2.50. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, countercyclical spending helps to maintain normal levels of output and therefore jobs: this not only decreases human misery, but it prevents the de-skilling of the labour force. In the long run this means higher employment and tax revenues, lower welfare and deficits, and a higher potential GDP.
As an aside, this is one of the biggest conundrums in right-wing economics: free-marketeers believe that growth is determined primarily by the supply side: so they want, for example, to cut red tape and taxes so that companies can more easily create jobs. But they are happy to watch unemployment rise and a substantial proportion of the labour market become deskilled and devalued - making those companies less able to find talent at home. And when those companies turn instead to foreign labour markets? “No! Send the immigrants home!”
But back to Mr Osborne. The government’s two main theories for shirking Economics 101 - that austerity could actually be expansionary and that debt over 90 per cent would cause investors to think of Britain as equivalent to Zimbabwe - have been proven beyond all reasonable doubt to be based on poppycock. Yet the coalition has remained firmly, publicly committed to austerity. As recently as November 2013, David Cameron told the CBI: “We have to continue with Plan A. We have to continue to reduce the deficit.”
Indeed, over the past three and a half years, every soundbite we have heard from the government would lead us to believe that Plan A has been motoring on ruthlessly through schools, councils and government departments, oblivious to any potential harm it might cause, like a sort of necessary Evil Kinevil. Not so.
Last summer, I wrote that fiscal austerity had so far been self-defeating as proven by the latest projections, which showed a budget deficit refusing to budge:
Public sector net borrowing excluding the Royal Mail and Asset Purchase Facility transfers. Source: OBR Economic and Fiscal Outlook, December 2013. Light blue=forecast.
My reasoning at the time was that austerity was self-defeating via the automatic stabilisers route: cutting public services in a recession worsens unemployment, which means more people on benefits and lower total tax revenues - so the deficit balloons. This mechanism is even more pronounced when the private sector is engaging in massive hoarding and is unwilling to hire, as we have seen in the past few years
But by breaking down the deficit figures further, it is clear that something else has been going on.
The top red and blue lines are the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP (normal and cyclically adjusted). It is clear that the pace of reduction stalled in 2012, slightly increased last year and is forecast to continue increasing slowly towards 0 per cent - but it is impossible to tell what is causing the reductions.
The green line at the bottom, however, is a measure of total government consumption of goods and services as a percentage of GDP. This measure strips out the “automatic stabilisers” - tax and transfers - and is, therefore, a better measure of discretionary government spending - it is, essentially, George Osborne’s signature.
For a chancellor committed to plan A this is a fairly sizeable deviation, but it is a deviation of his own making. And yet while this anomaly has been well documented in the economics blogosphere (see here, here or here), it simply hasn’t made it into the mainstream press.
If a football team won the Premier League on a small budget, they would be well praised. If it was then discovered that they had actually spent a fortune on the sly, it would be front page news.
Instead, we have the FT writing articles with titles such as “Osborne wins the battle on austerity” - and worse, polls showing that more people now think cuts are good, rather than bad for the economy.
To be fair, it is impossible to say for certain that the return of growth was due to a year of increased stimulus (though any basic economics text will tell you that fiscal stimulus takes about 12-18 months to kick in), but that doesn’t explain the strange fact that there was a year of stimulus under an outwardly parsimonious Chancellor. And it begs the question: does George Osborne believe in austerity or not?
If the plan was to create growth two years before an election, while outwardly claiming that this was the result of ongoing austerity under a wise economic custodian, then the political rationale is clear. But if that is the case, then George Osborne has tacitly acknowledged the effectiveness of fiscal stimulus to create growth.