Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

On Victoria Pendleton

Posted 12 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category General

The Olympics, I’m afraid, completely passed me by, as did the Paralympics – I realise that saying this marks me out as a bad tempered refusenik, (which I partly am), but the real reason I didn’t watch more than 10 minutes of the whole thing is not because I found the whole thing particularly troubling or distasteful, nor because of the overwhelming level of patriotism sweeping the country, but simply because I find most sport (with the exception of football) utterly boring. Plus I was actually out of the country for half of the last month anyway.

That’s not to say that I’m not aware of the benefits that came with the Olympics, nor occasionally diverted by the human stories which exist beneath the main narrative – this interview with Victoria Pendleton is fascinating and rather moving. Like my favourite footballer, Benoît Assou-Ekotto, she isn’t obsessed with sport, which I find very endearing. But it’s not that that is interesting, but rather the difficult, painful backstory which accompanies her story. The interview’s worth a read – first paragraph:

According to Victoria Pendleton, British Cycling has already sold off her bike. Some staff members will probably never speak to her again. She suspects they will be relieved not to have to deal with her any more. She tells me all this with a twinkly, tinkling laugh, the kind people adopt when they are trying especially hard not to sound bitter. The words ring in my head as I hang up the phone after our second conversation. I feel unexpectedly gutted.

Here’s the whole thing.

Ed’s confidence problem

Posted 24 Sep 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Quick round up of stuff I’ve been reading; and given that the Labour conference is just around the corner it’s hardly surprising that domestic politics has been high on the reading list. Over on Twitter I mention often that my favourite political journalist is Allegra Stratton; her Guardian articles are presented in the new pages rather than in comment, and as you would expect her writing is grounded in real reporting, usually insights gleaned from attentive sleuthing from political sources. Nevertheless, she never fails to draw together the threads and provide some conclusion, which she does meticulously and with great care. As usual this week’s column was a cracker, segueing from illustrative gossip about coffee wars in the Shadow Cabinet to insights into Ed Miliband’s likely positioning during conference week, to some very clever analyses of his strengths and weaknesses. Excerpt follows: It’s a great read.

Miliband has two endearing character traits that are sadly not serving him in good stead here: he is a very nice man, and he is really quite self-assured. He thinks his nice man-ness exudes, and it does compel those with whom he has personal contact. But since it is not connecting with the broader public, it ends up being an anti-asset – encouraging complacency. Similarly, the deep well of confidence that comes from the tips of his toes desensitises him to those moments when something really should be done.

It’s this latter point that Ian Leslie picks up on in a post over on his Marbury blog. Ian has been consistently skeptical about Ed’s electability, and Stratton’s article gets him thinking.

A deep pool of self-confidence is a great and indispensable asset for successful politicians, and Miliband, whatever his other weaknesses, has one. It’s what enables him, the week after a disastrous PMQs, to get up and appear confident under Tory fire. It’s what makes it possible for him to face the public while hearing, day after day, that they find him ‘weird’. When things are going badly for an opposition leader, as they have for most of this year for Miliband, there can be no more punishing job in politics. You could see the confidence drain out of Neil Kinnock or Iain Duncan-Smith. I haven’t seen that with Miliband and I don’t expect to. He has the blithe self-assurance of an adored younger sibling, endlessly confident of his own place in the world.

He goes on to cast doubt over whether such self-confidence is such a great thing without a counter balancing anxiety about failure. I think he – and Stratton – are onto something. I hope the people around Ed are pressing him and reminding him how important this week is. Anyway, Ian’s post is definitely worth a read.

Like many on the Labour left, I continue to like Ed M and think he is capable of improving. That’s not to say that I don’t wish we had his brother back on the frontline and fighting for Labour principles – utterly disheartened to hear that he won’t be attending the Labour conference. Others continue to deride him as a Blairite, but (a) I don’t think he is, and (b) I thought his appearance on Question Time the other week confirmed his intellectual authority and personal appeal. Meanwhile, this is what Blair’s up to.

Let’s not get started on that.

All the real running, politics wise, is happening in the US, of course. I’m completely engrossed with the GOP race (where I think Romney is building reassuring momentum), so more on that later.

One day we’ll mourn its passing

Posted 22 Jul 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Daft, Music

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the lions share of the week obsessing over #hackgate and reading endless articles about it in the press. And if so, you were probably as surprised as I was to discover that The News Of The World – far from being a detestable, lowest-common-demoninator rag – was a Great newspaper whose proud history will be remembered longer than the ignominy of its final passing. Interesting to learn.

Who knows, then, perhaps one day we’ll be witnessing the death of the Daily Express and saying the same thing. Pretty sure that no-one however, no matter how misguided, will mourn its culture section.

Earlier this year, the paper saw fit to dedicating a bit of space to a review of PJ Harvey’s latest LP, ‘Let England Shake’. Here’s the review in its entirety:

YOU might not be able to pick her out of a police line-up but there’s no lack of respect for English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey.

This album moves away from her usual sound but let’s just say it’s not our bag.

Verdict: 2/5

Hmm. Incidentally – Polly Harvey is in the running, but my pick for the Mercury Prize this year is the wonderful Ghostpoet, whose Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam is one of my favourite LPs of the year so far. Really hope he wins it.

On hackgate #1

Posted 18 Jul 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

The real question about #hackgate is, I think, just how irresistible the momentum is on this thing. It looks increasingly like it won’t stop until all the dominoes have fallen, and the undeniable fact is that the run ends not with James Murdoch – who, if John Yates resigns today must surely be the next to go – but with David Cameron. It still looks utterly fanciful that this will kill him, but the question is, if it doesn’t, how does this end?

The answer is that it doesn’t – if Cameron isn’t forced to resign this week, then the deep reservations which the public now hold about the company he keeps will continue for years. Blair escaped from the Ecclestone drama, but arguably he never completely recovered his reputation. For Cameron, things are far, far worse. There’s a domino poised just behind him, and he’ll be glancing over his shoulder for the rest of his tenancy at number 10, wondering if it’ll fall.

It doesn’t help him that the two men most likely to profit from his demise – David Davis and Nick Clegg – are, unlike most of the rest of the coalition – squeaky clean on this stuff. If I were David Davis right now, I’d be taking to Lib Dems constantly. He needs to be reassuring them that although he’s a creature of the right, his civil liberties credentials are right up their street. Could he hold a coalition together, if it came to it?

And one more thought – how has George Osborne kept out of this??

Curtis off the boil

Posted 05 May 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

Well, it’s impossible to let the week go by without a mention of Osama bin Laden. And I find, to my surprise, that I’m not feeling too liberal-wet on this one. Of course a summary execution, in almost any other circumstances, would be appalling, but in this case – when you spent ten years looking for someone, and don’t yet know what’s around the corner, you do what you have to do. The thought of the world’s media nourishing itself on the extended trial and eventual execution of Osama is too awful to imagine. Anyway – predictably enough, lots of stuff has been written on Osama, Obama and the West’s involvement in the Middle and Near East – much of it very good and lots of it pretty useless. Honourable mentions in this latter category to Andrew Murray and – sadly – Adam Curtis.

The former has always been pretty idiotic, but the latter is someone I very much admire. His take on Osama, however, is out-dated, non-specific and lacking insight. He is adept at identifying narratives in contemporary history – a great skill – but his own rhetoric leads him into daft conclusions. In this instance he ends up implying Al-Qaeda was a relatively passive enemy, hoodwinked into enhanced status by devious politicians. Well; they killed tens of thousands. Curtis is occasionally as daft a consipiracy theorist as, say, Glenn Beck. That’s not to say he isn’t right about many important things. But this hasty bit of journalism, cobbled together out of a desire to make a single event illustrative of a grand thesis, sinks.

He has a new documentary in the works. Hope it’s better.

Evading the circus

Posted 26 Apr 2011 — by Jonathan
Category General, Observations

I don’t suppose that anyone will be in the least bit surprised to read that I have absolutely no interest in the impending Royal Wedding, or anything at all to do with the Royal family unless it involves their ploughing some of their obscene wealth back into the country and/or abdicating, but it’s really quite distressing to note the feverish interest from other quarters. The Guardian – a newspaper which could once be counted on to either ignore or critique the monarchy – claimed earlier this month to have renounced its republicanism. That was, happily, an April Fool’s joke, but it might as well not have been. Today the paper boasts an article which does two things; first points out that Prince William has been cautious to keep himself private, remaining a ‘great unknown’, and second add to the endless tiresome speculation about his supposed ‘normality’.

There was a bit of mild intrigue in the press this week about the fact that William had invited a bunch of Tories – including John Major – to his wedding at the expense of Labour politicians; not even Tony Blair is on the guestlist. But today’s article includes one really irritating sentence, which suggests that William is a child of Blair rather than Major, inheriting the tendency towards the same infuriating – and largely patronising – fetishisation of football which blighted New Labour. According to the article, Wills still plays!

Only last week a team turning up for a kickabout in Battersea Park were surprised to see him on the other side.

Oh for god’s sake! Are we really supposed to believe this inane PR? What, Prince William just spontaneously decided to go and play football down the park the other day, lining up against a bunch of local lads? That The Guardian believes this is symptomatic of the fact that it’s stopped looking critically at the Royal Circus.

My television, needless to say, will be turned off on Friday.

Fuck it let’s print it

Posted 19 Apr 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Daft

Amazing URL on this otherwise snoozeworthy Royal Family puff piece from the Independent website:

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/utter-PR-fiction-but-people-love-this-shit-so-fuck-it-lets-just-print-it-2269573.html

First look at The i Paper

Posted 26 Oct 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General, Reviews

Today saw the launch of the Independent’s new spin-off, the promising but hard to refer to in casual conversation i, which I’m going to call The i Paper here, just for readability’s sake.

The i Paper is a bold move in a newspaper industry which isn’t exactly in the rudest of health, something particularly true of the Indy itself. At a first glance one would expect a paper to launch a radical new product in a position of strength, rather than weakness, but the boldness of the launch is all the more admirable for that. Whether this is a long-term project, a trial for a new direction for the main paper or a first step towards establishing a freesheet, The i Paper has targeted a nice niche; it’s a concise, cheap (20p) paper targeted at ‘the time-poor’. If The Metro (a diabolically bad freesheet) is the paper for people who don’t like newspapers, then this is the paper for people who like them, but don’t buy them. And there’s a lot of those people and, at 20p a copy, this might just work.

Let’s start with the positives I took from today’s launch issue. First, the presence of long form articles – the Johann Hari piece about Obama and James Lawton’s take on Rooney – are very welcome in a paper of this kind. It’s the kind of thing that neither the freesheets nor the middle market papers do. This is real value; intelligent, ambitious stuff, a world away from the AP stuff in The Metro.

And the design is generally nice: bright, colourful, and attractive, with a good mixture of the frivolous and the serious. There are probably a few too many call out boxes, but some of the shorter features are really nice. I particularly liked the ‘Five Clue Cryptic Crossword’ (a nice, concise spin on a feature that normally demands high time investment) and the ‘Postcard From…’ box. I felt like a couple of other gimmicks (the ‘Opinion Matrix’ and the ‘Panorama’ feature) were potentially nice but they do need expanding. Aiming for concise coverage is a lovely idea, but having article lengths so short that imparting serious information properly is impossible simply defeats the object. When this kind of brevity is employed, it’s hard not to wonder whether we really need a full page of weather forecasts? I honestly don’t think I’ve used newspapers to source weather forecasts in my life. Perhaps others do, though.

These aren’t one off problems. The Johann Hari article is demonstrably the most valuable piece, so it’s a bit of a blow when I later discover that it’s actually an edited down version of his real Independent column – meaning I have to look up the latter online to read the real thing. This is just daft; if The i Paper is going to plump for long articles, it shouldn’t water them down. It just seems like a counter-intuitive decision. And actually, I’d like to see a bold move in the other direction. The long-form article is a woefully underused tool in modern journalism. I think it would be revolutionary if every issue of The i Paper contained a really unique two or three page article – something really serious and meaty. I’d buy it every day in addition to my usual paper, for that feature alone.

Another thing I noticed is that there’s no Leader. That’s really odd, and one respect in which this paper is much more like the Metro than, say, The Evening Standard. I’m not wedded to a leader article, but the absence of one is strange. And some of the editorial focus is, to be honest, way off. A tiny two column feature on cholera in Haiti on page 24, and a big half page feature on the death of the walkman on page 27? Nothing wrong with glib pieces like the latter, but not if the balance is wrong. (Don’t get me started on ‘Is Bert Gay?’…)

‘The News Matrix’, which takes up the whole of pages 2 and 3, is, alas, a complete waste of space. Two pages right up front that add nothing at all to the package; it’s simply a set of over-edited summaries of the paper’s content – information expressed better elsewhere. They could, by editing more carefully, improve this feature over time, but frankly it would be far better to simply use this space for extra content.

So I think there’s work to be done. But, overall, I have to say that I’m really impressed. I think, crucially, that they’ve got their pitch right – a serious paper for busy people and for those who want to consume information quickly. But I feel like there’s much they can do to improve. For my part, the dealbreaker is this: I really can’t imagine buying a newspaper with so little news analysis and opinion in. Similarly, the paper is front-loaded – important news squeezed in too tight at the front, and too much superfluous crap at the back end. A slightly heavier bias towards news, and just a touch more detail, would make a massive impact.

Lastly – and this is something that isn’t a failing on their part – I’m a commuter. Unfortunately for the Independent Group, I’m not one of those 15 min tube users, but someone who travels further and really needs a paper that takes 50 minutes to read. I was finished with the paper a lot earlier than I normally am. That probably means that I’ll keep buying The Guardian most days.

But this is really promising stuff. I’ll certainly pick up another copy tomorrow.

Packing for Mars

Posted 25 Aug 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Links

This article, in Seed Magazine, is really amazing; an examination of “irrational antagonism”, the many tensions which interfere in the personal relationships between astronauts when isolated, out in space, together for anything more than about six weeks. It’s a terrifically well written piece, and gets at some unavoidable truths about humanity, isolation, and rootlessness.

“The bottom line is that space is a frustrating, unforgiving environment and you are trapped in it. If you’re trapped long enough, frustration metastasizes to anger. Anger wants an outlet and a victim. An astronaut has three from which to choose: a crewmate, mission control, and himself.”

The article is an extract from Mary Roach’s terrific looking book, Packing For Mars, a study of space exploration which is really an exploration of “what it means to be human”. Her writing is beautiful and her conclusions – if this extract is anything to go by – could well be profound. Even for those not looking for recondite insights, there is much to enjoy in her description of the Russian cosmonauts she spends time with.

Laveikin looks little changed from his official portrait, where he conveys an impression of guileless good cheer. He kisses our hands as though we’re royalty. It’s neither affectation nor flirtation, just something that Russian men of his era were taught to do. He wears beige linen pants, an exuberant splash of cologne, and the cream-colored summer footwear I’ve been seeing all week on the feet of the men across from me in the Metro.

Laveikin waves hello to a narrow-girdled, suntanned man in jeans, with sunglasses hooked in the vee of his shirt collar. It’s Romanenko. He is cordial, but not a hand kisser. Cigarette smoke has roughed up his vocal cords. The two embrace. I count the seconds. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three. Whatever happened between them, it’s forgotten or forgiven.

Someone needs to buy the movie rights to this book – as the likes of Solaris and Moon have demonstrated, there is much that can be said about humanity through the fiction of space. In Packing For Mars, Mary Loach seems to be composing a journalistic response no less elegant or thought-provoking. I’m pre-ordering a copy.

Keanu

Posted 20 Jun 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General

Eighteen months or so ago, staying at Sam and Laura’s place in Paris over the New Year period, I threw a minor tantrum because everyone, hungover and tired, voted in favour of watching Wall-E – an animated film from the Pixar stable – instead of going out to explore the city. Feeling superior, I opted to sit in silence, facing away from the screen, and read passive-aggressively. Everyone else was charmed by the film, and I quickly felt stupid for ignoring it.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson. When I was about thirteen my friends asked me to the cinema. For one reason or other, I wasn’t in the habit of going to watch films, so this was quite exciting for me. When I got to Barnet Odeon, I was appalled to discover that the film we were watching was Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Now, I hadn’t seen Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (I’ve seen it many times since) so I didn’t know that it was a minor classic, and assumed instead it was the worst kind of childish, goofy rubbish. Annoyed, we went in and I resolved not to laugh – and demonstrate in so doing my innate sophistication and maturity.

Within about four minutes, my face was hurting and I could barely breathe. I would not – no matter how much I wanted to – crack. So I sat in painful silence, fighting every instinct to laugh or smile. Clearly, it was brilliant and I was a tosser. Eventually I collapsed into relieved hysterics, and presumably my friends forgave me, or else never held my idiocy against me. From that point on, I not only enjoyed every moment of the film, but began to feel a reflex affection for Keanu Reeves which has never left me – although I’ve never seen The Matrix.

Clearly I’m not the only one. Here’s Kira Cochrane writing in the Guardian.

The public feel many emotions towards enormously successful, fabulously wealthy, extraordinarily good-looking Hollywood stars. Protective isn’t usually one of them. But Keanu Reeves is different. When a photo surfaced last week of him perching on a park bench, eating a sandwich, looking just a tiny bit morose, the internet went wild. Bloggers typed out a torrent of warmth, the Twitterers tweeted their larksong of love. It was as though the world had suddenly awoken to the ideal espoused in Reeves’s Bill and Ted movies: “Be excellent to each other.”

A thread started on Reddit, running to thousands of comments, including anecdotes of Reeves’s incredible generosity. There were stories of him taking out stage hands for free lunches, giving a poor crew member a $20,000 (£16,500) bonus, stopping to help a woman jumpstart her car.

How lovely. Occasionally you encounter a celebrity who, instinctively, you feel is a sympathetic, kind, down-to-earth person, and it’s a funny, disappointing feeling if and when you’re proved wrong. (I still maintain that Winona was innocent of those shoplifting charges).

Here’s Thank You Keanu Reeves, a site dedicated to just that – a rare opportunity of the internet just giving a big, happy, thumbs up.

A source who knew Reeves in the early 90s confirms the many stories of his kindness – he taught her bass guitar, brought chicken soup when she was ill, let all and sundry stay at his house, and sent flowers to his sister each week. Perhaps the simple truth is this. We want to protect Keanu because we can tell he’s good. Most excellent, even.

Ace.

A doorstep romance

Posted 12 May 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

There’s a marvelous analysis of the nauseating Cameron-Clegg doorstep handshake episode up on the New Statesman blog; so good I’m just going to quote it verbatim. Apologies for the laziness. Here’s the original, by Sophie Elmhirst.

Have you ever seen so much hand action in your life? To start with, there’s the classic handshake plus arm-grab from Nick Clegg. Solid, friendly, keen. Then the handshake hardens, becomes immobile, as though they’re both playing chicken – neither willing to let go first. I bet someone had a finger crushed at this point (although neither really seem the finger-crushing type). There follows the genial back-tap by David Cameron, a classicly patronising movement. But just when we’ve got used to the formation, up go their arms! It’s like a Siamese wave! Or synchronised swimmers! They must have practised – that kind of perfect execution doesn’t come for free – so symmetrical, balanced, rhythmic. And both, if you look closely, wearing that same clenched smile – the one that says “Yup. Here we are. Pretty big day. And I’m responsible and serious, and ready to run this goddamn country, in case you were wondering.”

Quickly, and tellingly, we’re back into competition – neither wants to bring their arm down first, like two kids in a breath-holding contest, suffering agony in order to claim victory. And then the wonderful, clinching double-back-clap-and-wave manoeuvre, so often attempted, so rarely achieved. They really excel themselves here. And yet still that element of competition – if you clap my back, I’ll clap yours just that much harder; I am the greater statesman, and this back-clap proves it once and for all!

Who wins? Well, it’s clear isn’t it. Cameron swings back in with that final back-tap which develops, outrageously, into a back-clasp, hardly ever attempted on these shores. He hasn’t let go by the time the film ends – I imagine they’re still locked in that position as they embark on their first meeting, Cameron awkwardly refusing to surrender his puppet-holding clutch on Clegg’s jacket.

Who would have thought 20 seconds of film could essentially tell you all you need to know about our new government?

University Challenge

Posted 06 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General

There’s a very nice little article up on the Guardian website about the source of reliable joy that is University Challenge, the current series of which has culminated, predictably, with an emphatic win for Emmanuel College, who are led by their fearless and fearsomely intelligent young captain Alex Guttenplan. The article, by James Waterson – whose team were defeated by Emmanuel in an earlier round – provides a nice little insight into the show.

The plot for our show went as follows: Paxman would start a question with an oblique reference to naming elements in the English language, before connecting it to religious institutions of the seventh century. I would try to get my brain in gear, connecting the words I was hearing with odd pages read on Wikipedia, while trying not to imagine half of Twitter making derogatory comments about my haircut. Snap back to reality, with Paxman still wittering on. Out of nowhere an answer would pop into my head, I’d reach for the buzzer and . . . “Emmanuel Guttenplan”.

“It’s Ethel.”

Damn. He got there first.

And so it continued. The new series of University Challenge starts – happily – soon.

nick winterton

Posted 22 Feb 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

Over at Skuds’ blog, he’s made a couple of very good points about Nick Winterton MP, the Tory who blundered into a political crisis this week when he revealed that he objects to being made to travel in standard class, because they’re occupied by “a totally different type of people”.

Your constituents, perhaps? Anyway, this was all predictable stuff, and my immediate reaction was that it’s ironic that these crass, condescending comments attracted so much ire, rather than the blunt fact that Winterton (and his awful wife, who is also a Tory MP) has been spouting objectionable, backward, bigoted crap for years. As Marina Hyde commented:

“I think quite seriously that the couple should be scientifically preserved in some way to remind people what it was like until, well, about eight months ago. A husband and wife team of such luminous repugnance, the most reasonable assumption is that the Wintertons were hatched in an al-Qaida-underwritten research facility, created with the sole aim of destroying all ­British trust in authority from within”.

People, however, are preoccupied with a personal – rather than a political – vendetta against politicians. In the eyes of the Daily Mail reading public, for example, a fine public servant is considered a corrupt charlatan if he or she has an inaccurate expenses claim. A self-serving, arrogant and morally bankrupt MP like George Galloway, meanwhile, can boast of moral superiority by virtue of his having not submitted any expenses at all – regardless of his other (more important) transgressions.

Anyway. Winterton is clearly a vile throwback; he’s voted against equalising the age of consent, in favour of Section 28 (which prohibited teachers from discussing homosexuality in their classrooms), for the reintroduction of capital punishment. All this I noted, but Skuds noticed something else, which I think is extremely insightful when considering how the average Conservative thinks.

Winterton complains:

“The people who increasingly dominate this House are people who are intelligent, but they go from school to university, university to researcher, researcher to adviser, then to candidate. They have no experience of life outside. Have they ever paid wages at the end of the week? Have they ever been through negotiations over a business deal? Have they been in the law? No.”

Skuds notes:

“Very telling. Note that real-life experience is not being paid wages at the end of the week but paying somebody else. How many people do actually pay somebody else and negotiate business deals? A very small proportion I am guessing. It is another way of saying that you need to be from management to be in parliament – forget about being an ex-teacher or something like that.”

A very very good point – this kind of patrician thinking has less and less to do with how modern Britain works. If you’ve even the slightest interest in a meritocratic society, a Tory government would be a disaster.

darren hayman on spanish tv

Posted 20 Jan 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music

This is charming, although at times really hard to watch – Darren Hayman is asked a set of challenging questions live on Spanish television. It’s funny to watch how a Spanish critic struggles with Darren’s very English self-deprecation. There’s clearly an expectation that music should be a flamboyant, romantic art, and an supposition that Darren will be able to talk fluently about it in that light. He does his best, but his face is a treat when he is asked “would you say that you had been unfaithful to music, or has music made a cuckold of you?”.

Great stuff.

Tory education proposals

Posted 19 Jan 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Politics

David Cameron’s comments on education, made yesterday, offer refreshing hope that there remains a slim chance that the slick, electable Tory party he manages will still slip up ahead of the next general election. It’s a cliche to say it, but they remains absolutely hopeless at policy, even if they have done a creditable job in opposition (hardly difficult, given Labour’s ongoing implosion). Cameron’s absolutely ludicrous comments, which argued for what he himself called “brazenly elitist” changes to the education system, were perhaps the least thought-out or helpful ideas he’s yet floated. That hope is, however, counterbalanced by a heavy sense of dread. This is what the Tories will be like if they win the next election.

The plan, in case you missed it, is to make teaching “the noble profession” (I thought it already was) by restricting government funding to graduates with a 2:2 or higher, and only paying off the debts of graduates from a narrow pool of “good universities”. We can expect this pool to exclude all the perfectly good ex-Polytechnics in this country, many of which are – incidentally – at the forefront of scientific and technical education; a completely unnecessary measure.

There are so many things wrong with this.

Firstly, and most obviously, we have a teacher shortage in this country – it has been so for many years and to miss this point is crazy. I’m fully behind any politician, even a Tory, who places education at the centre of policy-making, but to ignore the realities of the market when launching new initiatives smacks of ignorance, high-handedness or laziness. We need more, not less, teachers – and which University they studied at is almost entirely irrelevant.

Even if you buy the premise that having attended Brighton University, or possessing a third class degree, is an impediment to becoming a decent teacher, Cameron’s comments are profoundly misleading. Only a tiny proportion of graduates entering the teacher training system have a third class degree in any case; only 3.7% in 2007-8. But Cameron’s comments imply otherwise, and the effect will surely have a demoralising effect on existing teachers, who must suffer yet another politician implying they are no good at their jobs. From the way Cameron launched this pathetic scheme, one might conclude that there are rafts of poor teachers with bad degrees out there. But it’s rubbish – this scheme aims to redress an imbalance which doesn’t exist.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the Nasuwt teaching union, has commented:

“Teaching will never generally be recognised as the high-status profession it is while politicians keep making announcements which implicitly or explicitly denigrate and cast doubt on the quality of teachers currently in service.“Nothing is more demoralising and demotivating than constant announcements of strategies to attract the ‘best’ teachers. They imply that those in post are somehow sub-standard, and the bar for entry has been set too low.”

As the above implies, Cameron’s comments are not supported by evidence. We already have a vigorous evaluation system within both Secondary and Tertiary Education (indeed, the Labour government deserve very little credit for their relentless promotion of QAAs and the ubiquitous Offsted), but the Tories have not made use of the statistics these bodies collect. Where is the data that supports their argument? Instead, they make misleading references to other, very different, education systems which we should want to emulate. Cameron said:

“Finland, Singapore and South Korea have the most highly qualified teachers, and also some of the best education systems in the world, because they have deliberately made teaching a high prestige profession.

They are brazenly elitist – making sure only the top graduates can apply. They have turned it into the career path if you’ve got a good degree”

These comments mean nothing at all. Finland is an exceptionally strange, and self-serving, comparison to make, for Cameron is using an example of an education system which thrives for a completely different set of reasons, and reasons that Cameron’s party would never endorse. He’s being very selective indeed. I’ll quote Unity, from the Liberal Conspiracy blog, verbatim here, if I may.

1. Finland has a wholly comprehensive education system. There are no grammar schools or other selective institutions, to speak of. Finland’s comprehensive schools are expected to take in pupils, irrespective of their personal background and the skills, abilities and aptitudes they possess on entry, and adapt to each individual pupils’ needs.

2. Teacher training courses are massively oversubscribed and, typically, accept only 10% of applicants. Studies looking at the positive outcomes generated by of the Finnish system invariably pay little or no attention to the quality of applicants for teacher training courses. What they focus on is the quality of Finnish teachers on leaving university to enter the education system.

3. All Finnish teachers are required to complete a Master’s degree in either education or a teaching-related subject and all are treated as pedagogical experts.

4. On taking up a teaching post, Finnish teachers are afforded a significantly greater degree of latitude and pedagogical autonomy than their counterparts in the UK.

5. Finnish teachers are expected to teach and, for the most part, are left alone to get on with the job of teaching with little or no outside interference from the state, politicians or even parents.

6. Finland does have a national curriculum, but unlike the UK, their curriculum covers only the general subject matter to be taught, not how it should be taught or how long should be spent on each topic, and teachers have a considerable say over the content of the curriculum.

7. The Finnish system does not make use of national tests or examinations – teachers are trusted to assess pupils’ performance throughout the system based on the individual student’s classwork, projects, portfolios and teacher-generated examinations.

8. Finland does not make use of school league tables, nor could it given the lack of national tests and examinations. School outcomes are measured, but only using data drawn from sample-based surveys and this is only published at system level

9. School exclusions are also unheard of in Finland because they’re not permitted by law – once a pupil enters a school, it’s the school’s responsibility to educate that child whether they (the school) likes it or not.

10. As you might imagine, in a system of that kind, non-teachers (i.e. school governors and local education authorities) have far less authority over schools than is the case in any other OECD country.

I don’t mean in highlighting all this to imply that the Finnish system is perfect, but the above self-evidently is illustrative of an education system which resembles ours in name only. For Cameron to suggest that the high standards of Finnish education could be replicated in the UK purely by virtue of restricting the pool from which we draw teachers is downright ludicrous.

If we’re agreed that right now, less than 5% of new teachers have third class degrees, are we prepared to conclude that this sub-5%-category are the worst teachers? Only Offsted – or the teachers’ own pupils and colleagues – can tell us that, but I’d be surprised if anyone was happy with that assumption. The Guardian, here, gives one example of a highly-rated teacher who would be excluded under the Tory proposals – I’m sure there are plenty more.

Academic rigour is plainly not the key characteristic required of an educator. Perhaps it is at Eton, where class sizes are small and disruptive elements long since factored out of the equation, but at a normal secondary school, with a wide range of students, enthusiasm, patience, clarity and empathy are the most important things. I couldn’t tell you, in retrospect, whether the teachers at my school were intellectual powerhouses, but I can tell you this: the majority of them were good, motivated, lively educators who understood children.

Francis Gilbert is excellent on this in today’s Guardian:

“If you don’t have the right personality, you’ll suffer in the bearpit of today’s classrooms. In my experience, there are four types of teacher who are effective: the despot, the carer, the charmer, and the rebel. And none of them, in my experience, requires an upper-class degree.

[...] But the crucial point here is that none of these teachers learned their skills by getting a good degree: they learned them on the job. All could ­improve by watching other good ­teachers in the classroom and learning from their techniques.”

Do we only want educators who breezed through the academic system, often propped up in some respect by pro-active parents, financial security and/or private education? Or do we want teachers who understand the difficulties that many children face, from struggling with complicated concepts to lacking motivation.

A teacher who has, in his or her life, sometimes struggled with academic success is someone that can be a considerable asset – a role model and a friend to students who need guidance. Indeed, we must also consider that the academic heights reached by a 21 year old are of comparatively little significance when the average age of students training as teachers “is mid twenties to early thirties”, and so much life experience can be brought to bear in such a role.

There are, in fact, already two people who are excellently equipped to decide whether people will be suitable teachers – the PGCE course supervisor who recruits would-be teachers, and the headmaster who ultimately (if they qualify) will employ them. Let’s leave these experts to make their informed decisions, and concentrate on more pressing issues, such as funding, class-sizes and (loosening the Government’s stranglehold on) curriculum.

The idea that Cameron’s comments – and education strategy – will encourage the growth of teaching as a ‘noble profession’ is plainly absurd. But it’s more disturbing than that, because it suggests that the Conservative Party has not learned any of the lessons one might hope they had from watching Labour’s management of education over the last 13 years. There are a great many things that might be improved upon by a new government, but the evidence suggests that the same old prejudices preoccupy the Tories. How long before the conversation moves away from “elite teachers” to “elite pupils”, and we see the return of grammar schools?

At the end of Gilbert’s excellent article – which is worth reading in its entirety – he concludes thus:

“Instead of demoralising teachers with his ill-informed comments about what makes a good teacher, Cameron should commit himself to putting proper money and time into training the existing teachers in the system. Instead of paying for the training of a “brazen elite” of graduates, he should improve the wages of all teachers so that we are all treated like an “elite”. His current policy, if implemented, won’t improve the standards of teaching, and will instead further dishearten an already deflated profession”.

I can’t improve on that.

money makes the world go round

Posted 14 Jan 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General

Strange going ons in the world of football. For those of you who have no interest; you’re missing out – this is a peculiar and interesting season for a number of reasons – the big clubs are struggling, the smaller clubs are contracting and expanding, playing rich, rewarding football on the one hand and spitting out managers on the other. Adapting to face new commercial realities, and creaking under the weight of the grim hold that capitalism exerts on the game.

And old certainties are no longer quite so certain – I can no longer find it in myself to hate Sol Campbell for leaving Spurs all those years ago, for example, and I find myself inwardly applauding the dreadful Joey Barton for claiming that footballers ‘are knobs’ on Radio 4, of all places. Grand old clubs like Man City, Portsmouth and Notts County, meanwhile, have futures which are suddenly, truly, completely unknowable. Glory or bankruptcy.

This isn’t the prelude to a review of the year in football or anything; just a few notes before I sling off a couple of interesting links I’ve encountered in the last few weeks. The first concerns the afore-mentioned Portsmouth, for whom every moment seems a drawn-out agony, for all that (actually) they have an OK team, who play nice football. Their problem is not that they look dead-certs for relegation (actually, that’s the least of their problems) but rather that they tried to compete with the big teams financially and messed it up, before taking the hand of the first person who promised to clear up the mess without checking him out properly first.

If anyone wants to formulate an argument about capitalism ruining football, they should board the train to Fratton. Jamie Jackson, writing for the Guardian, delivers a damning indictment of Portsmouth’s profligacy.

John Utaka was Portsmouth‘s record signing when he joined from Rennes in July 2007 for £7m. In two and a half years, he has become their record waste of money.Utaka has started 31 Premier League games and scored seven times in all competitions. Since claiming five of those goals in his opening season the Nigerian’s form has declined disappointingly. This season his highlight was scoring against Hereford United in the Carling Cup five months ago. Despite Portsmouth’s well-documented problems – Avram Grant has only 17 outfield players, and is operating under a transfer embargo – Utaka has started only twice in the league, back in August. Not only was Utaka rejected by Nigeria for the Africa Cup of Nations that starts tonight, he did not even get into the 32-man preliminary squad.

Portsmouth are debt-ridden and threatened with administration. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs served a winding-up petition on the club just before Christmas, and Portsmouth cannot find the £10m required to lift the transfer embargo. Utaka, meanwhile, continues to enjoy the rewards of his four-year contract on a barely credible £80,000 a week. If he stays to the end of his term, the total cost to Portsmouth will be about £23m. That would be enough to secure their immediate future.

If that tale of excess isn’t enough to momentarily divert you from the small pyre of wicker bankers which you are absent mindedly building at your desk, a slightly more jolly tale from Manchester, where at Man City, meanwhile, things could not be more rosy since they shacked up with their own – somewhat more credible – Saudi sugar-daddy, and made the decision to sack Mark Hughes.

Football being football, they elected to do so in an entirely dishonourable fashion, and earned the condemnation of many in the game for their methods, but, football being football, they’ve won every game since (under the stewardship of the handsome Roberto Mancini), so everyone has forgiven them. Except for Mark Hughes, presumably.

Even I’ve fallen under the spell of Mancini. He’s just so sophisticated. Look, here he is bemoaning the food culture at his new club. He wants the players to eat better before they run out onto the pitch.

“I will calmly make corrections to what they eat before matches,” City’s manager told the Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport. “You need more chicken, pizza, carbohydrates. As well as a glass of wine, which isn’t being served.”

Brilliant! He wants his players to eat pizza and drink alcohol before they play!!! I love this man. When his time comes, I hope his petty, fickle, nouveau-riche employers treat him better than he did his predecessor.

And, more importantly, last night’s game between Liverpool and Reading was just fantastic, fantastic stuff – a genuinely deserving smaller team, a huge team in a state of crisis, and a great finale. Here’s Dan, rather pleased with Reading’s performance.

jonathan ross and mark kermode

Posted 08 Jan 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General

Do I care that Jonathan Ross is leaving the BBC? Well, of course not, given that I hardly ever watched or listened to his programmes, but I mind a little in the sense that the baying, myopic tabloids which made such a prolonged and nauseous protest against him have been handed their victory.

I actually think that Ross is a very talented and likable presenter – although by no means flawless – and he has been treated very shabbily by the BBC over the last couple of years. He should have walked when they made him pre-record his radio show.

Either way, his parting does create one point of interest – and that is whether the BBC will appoint the one obvious, deeply intelligent, stand-out candidate to replace him on Film 2010 or, well, or someone that isn’t Mark Kermode. He would be a fabulous appointment – he’s already responsible for one of the best podcasts, if not the the best, that the BBC make, and would, I suspect, immediately transform BBC1′s flagship film programme from something I never watch, to one of the best programmes on TV. I hope they do it.

changing opinions

Posted 30 Dec 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Daft

Julie Bindel is easy to admire – a courageous, dogged fighter for women’s rights and relentless campaigner against men who abuse women – but rather hard to like. The Guardian has been running a series of columns recently which describe the things its respective authors have changed their mind over during the 2000s. Bindel’s contribution reveals that she, over the last decade, has learned that it’s possible to be friends with men. It’s really rather shocking that this realisation has come so late, and while I’m glad for her, it’s hard not to wonder if the problem is not that, as she suggests, men are intimidated by her sexual politics, but rather that she’s not a very friendly person. Towards the end of the article she reveals that she’s even had a male friend over for dinner, as if this represents incredible progress. It’s a world-view I don’t recognise.

As often happens, she gets a bit of a kicking in the comments, which probably just confirms her distrustful attitude towards men. Nevertheless, the following comment made me laugh out loud.

meat after moral certainty

Posted 28 Dec 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

Sitting having breakfast in Billie’s Cafe in Brighton this morning, Alba, Lyndsey, Dan, and I discussed foods that we can’t – or rather, won’t, eat. I was a horribly fussy eater as a child, forcing my poor mother to serve me up all sorts of deeply indulgent dinners as a way of encouraging me to eat. Like a lot of kids, the number of foodstuffs I rolled my eyes at was embarrassingly great – eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes etc. The one constant component of my diet was always meat, although I’m proud to say that I have eliminated practically all of my food-phobias in adulthood. There’s pretty much nothing I won’t eat now, with the exception of grapefruit (I know, weird). I like just about everything, including things I would have had a cheerful tantrum over when I was a kid – brussel sprouts, frog’s legs, olives, avocados. I still eat an awful lot of meat though – too much to make ever becoming a vegetarian absolutely unthinkable.

Still – this article, by Neel Mukherjee, is pretty much beyond reproach. He’s absolutely right to say that the intellectual and moral argument over the eating of meat is settled, and that vegetarians are on the right side of the debate. That I can admit this and at the same time admit that I’m still not tempted to abandon meat is evidence, I guess, of a certain moral cowardice. But it’s tempered by the suspicion that attempting to live one’s life by virtue of rational, intellectual moral arguments alone is ultimately fruitless; a never-ending quest. There will be many painful decisions still to be made once animal welfare issues are resolved.

And anyway, I’m much too thin as it is, so I need the sustenance. So there.

Back to the article – it’s hardly an in-depth study of the subject, but I like Neel’s candour, and his own admission of inadequacy at the end. Worth reading.

“To understand intellectually is one thing, to put it into practice quite another, a whole untraversable territory away. I still haven’t been able to stop eating meat. In any restaurant, my eyes alight first, as if by an atavistic pull, on the meat dishes on the menu. In any dinner party I throw, I think of the non-vegetarian dish as central. I view this as a combination of weakness, greed and moral failure. Someone please help.”

No need to help me – but I’m roasting a chicken tomorrow, so let me know if you fancy lunch.

filesharing misfire

Posted 26 Nov 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Music

This article, published on the Guardian site today and written by Anne Wollenberg, is one of the worst discussions of filesharing I’ve ever come accross. That said, it’s worth a read simply to discover the the extent to which it is unutterable, unreadable, gibberish. Hopefully when the day comes when publishers are forced to defend their copyright in the face of mass downloading, we’ll be more eloquent – and less fatheaded – than this.

Sample:

“Hey, how about I help myself to your car while you’re on holiday. It’s OK, I’m not going to deprive you of it – I’ll leave it where I found it, with the same amount of petrol and everything, so that’s fine, right?”

Christ. That analogy doesn’t even work. Someone offers a swift correction in the comments section, thankfully, replying:

“No, but if you want to buy the raw equipment and materials to make an exact copy of my car, knock yourself out”.