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Maria Miller had to go. How will her replacement handle the big decisions?

Corrupt? Perhaps. Foolish? Certainly. Maria Miller did herself no favours in handling the row over her expenses with such contempt for an already soured public. I do not wish to add to the Himalayan mountain of comment about her ministerial conduct, however I believe it is worth following her widely demanded resignation through to its logical conclusion. There is, after all, a government department with a £1.1bn budget which has lost its chief. With Maria Miller gone as Secretary of State, who might replace her? More importantly, what will this mean for future Culture, Media and Sport policy?

With the European and local elections mere weeks away and a general election blazing over the horizon, the Prime Minister was unlikely to appoint a new minister with a radical agenda in their back pocket. Sajid Javid MP, a noted accolyte of the Chancellor, is now perched in the empty Cabinet chair, meaning DCMS policy may now be easily influenced by George Osbourne’s deficit obsessesion. Some may dismiss media and cultural policy by saying they are not vote winners; in this case a new appointment has been made to quickly bury a bothersome story, not breathe new life into the department. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t significant decisions the new minister will have to take, with serious implications for the future of media and culture in this country.

The Royal Charter on press self-regulation

Many will argue that it was Miller’s alleged threats regarding the Leveson Inquiry that contributed to her downfall. If Miller did try to use press regulation to deter journalists from pursuing the truth, this only emphasises how necessary it is to keep politicians away from control of a new regulator. However, we also need a system of regulation which ensures that the press maintains its duty to the public above all else. The proposed IPSO regulator, championed by the same papers who so violently opposed Lord Leveson’s recommendations, offers no protection from either state interference or media manipulation. Maria Miller didn’t fall victim to a vengeful press lobby so much as to her own arrogance and greed, but we still need robust independent self-regulation of a kind that IPSO will never provide. We now need a Culture Secretary who is willing to stand up to the press bullies and defend the public interest over the interests of governments and media corporations.

The fate of the BBC

The most powerful decision facing the Culture Secretary will concern the BBC Charter Review. Conservative MPs have made clear their dislike and distrust of the BBC, and have latched on to any evidence they can to try and tear down public service broadcasting. Under the guise of the Jimmy Savile scandal the party’s chairman Grant Shapps wants to slash the BBC’s funding; backbencher Andrew Bridgen sheds crocodile tears for poorer viewers as he calls for licence fee evasion to be decriminalised; and across the Tory media cries of “left-wing bias” erupt whenever the BBC clashes with their agenda. Add to these politicized demands the accelerating trend of “streamlined” programming (best exemplified with the recent announcement of BBC3’s closure) and it becomes clear that the upcoming Charter Review has the potential to irrevocably damage the BBC. With the current Charter expiring in 2016, a new Secretary of State may be tempted to placate the anti-BBC idealogues and rush through a new settlement before the next general election. If the dominant tendency of Conservative proposals is to be believed, this would leave us with a BBC starved of funding, forced onto the back foot against increasingly expansionary commercial media, and ultimately failing the public it exists to serve.

Ownership concentration and the Channel 5 bid

Although Ofcom and the Competition Commission both oversee potential media mergers, it is government ministers who hold leading responsibility for approving significant shifts in UK media ownership. When the Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of his control over the planned acquisition by News Corporation of BSkyB, the final say on this deal (which would have given Rupert Murdoch controlling share of the broadcaster) was transferred to the then Culture Sectretary Jeremy Hunt. The Leveson Inquiry revealed, however, that Hunt was far from objective in his deliberations. Hunt rejected concerns about the deal’s impact on the plurality of providers in UK media, and instead applied his ministerial power to ensuring Rupert Murdoch got what he wanted. The BSkyB deal was eventually scuppered when the phone hacking scandal revealed the systemic criminality within News International’s UK operations. Nonetheless the government’s intentions were clear: in its zeal to retain favourable coverage from Murdoch’s suffocatingly large media machine, it abandoned any pretense of impartiality or public interest. Now, with competitors dropping from a £700m deal for Channel 5, it will fall on the Culture Secretary to decide who picks up a not inconsiderable 6% of the UK television market. Following the recent House of Lords report on Media plurality, politial courage is needed to introduce meaningful measures that restrict concentration of ownership. If the government decides once more to ignore its duty, and instead chase the political support of Murdoch’s print and TV outlets, it will be the viewing public that loses the most.

Cultural industries and the Arts Council

As if the 30% cut to Arts Council funding wasn’t enough, the continued shrinking of funding for local government has put Britain’s cultural industries in a vice grip from which there are no close signs of release. This government’s arts funding policy is a hangover from its failed Big Society project, where it expected communities to keep local arts cultures funded from their own pockets. This has resulted in two related crises for arts in the UK; first it has seen arts services and projects in the poorer regions closed from lack of support, depriving thousands of people of the artistic expression which enriches our society. Second, as argued in the recent Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital report, the funds which do remain for the cultural industries are concentrated in London, where the more internationally renowned arts endeavours (such as the Royal Opera House) return much greater revenues for the investment made. This in turn leads to the more prestigious art forms flourishing while others struggle to stay afloat.  When the Conservative Chair of the CMS Select Committee asked Dame Liz Forgan, former Chair of Arts Council (England), if economic gain was a good guide for managing the cultural industries, she replied:

“If you plan your cultural decisions with economic considerations driving them, you will make the wrong decisions. It is a consequence of good cultural decisions that you get economic growth, I believe. If you do it the other way around, you’re in trouble.”

The arts and cultural industries need someone in government who is going to fight their corner and maintain the support needed to keep Britain’s museums, theatres, libraries and galleries thriving. However, when a Culture Secretary is all too willing to play the government’s zero-sum deficit game (“It’s either theatres or fire stations”), they risk destroying the cultural fabric that binds communities together. Funding for the arts must be widely sourced and fairly distributed,

And many more

Of course these are not the only issues that lie in the Culture, Media and Sport remit. The department shares responsbility with many others for a range of economic and social policies, including:

  • Rural high-speed internet – with BT given a monopoly over the roll-out by DCMS, the project has fallen behind schedule and left thousands without adequate connections.
  • Connected Continent – the EU’s legislative package for advancing common internet policy has passed, but will the UK’s ISPs agree to implement its proposals for net neutrality?
  • “Olympic Legacy” – after paying in nearly £9bn during a recession to fund the 2010 Olympic Games, when can the British public expect to see the heralded long-term benefits?
  • Minister for Women and Equalities – Maria Miller helds another ministerial role which, given this government’s record for gender equality, may fall into further obscurity now she’s resigned. Is it time for a dedicated Department for Women and Equalities?
  • Closure of DCMS – In 2012 a rumour spread which suggested the government was considering axing the department altogether. As more of its responsbilities are ceded to other departments, DCMS may become yet another target for the government’s austerity programme.

These are the decisions we should expect the Culture Secretary to make in the near future. Above all, we should remember that there is more at stake here than one politician’s career and a few vindictive newspaper headlines; the future of how we as a society discuss our politics, our culture and ourselves will rest in the hands of Maria Miller’s successor. What matters is that we never allow these issues to slip by unnoticed, lest they become playthings for governments to shape in their own political image.

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The stage is set. Labour should now commit to media ownership reform

Originally published on LabourList 15/10/13

With a Royal Charter on Press Regulation hurtling ever closer, it is wise to note the caveats from Ed Miliband’s conflict with The Daily Mail. We mustn’t abuse events like these to cut back on press freedom. In one of the first interviews he gave on the issue, Miliband declared that, “this is not about regulation, it’s about right and wrong”. We should applaud him for not falling into Paul Dacre’s cynical trap, which he clumsily tried to spring as he blustered about the “chilling effects” of Miliband’s right to reply.

However, letting yet another case of press malpractice slide as a one-off would be a foolish mistake. There is an underlying rot to the British press, not caused by malign editors or rogue journalists, but by hugely unbalanced media ownership. With 70% of all British media outlets owned by just seven companies, it is easy to see how a culture of smears, accusations and delusions of invincibility has grown in a climate of such impunity.

We should all stand robustly for a free press, and papers should always resist any pressure that tries to tell them what to say. Yet, conflating these principles with the ruthless nature of corporate competition has allowed a horridly unequal system to ossify. Instead of holding truth to power or reporting in the public interest, Britain’s media is dominated by backroom deals, commercial influence, and twisted ideology.

In the past, Labour has made promising steps towards shifting the focus from dreaded regulation of the press to ownership reform. Harriet Harman has always made clear her intentions to make ownership reform Labour’s next big media policy, and our Shadow DCMS team, along with numerous campaign groups, have argued for caps on market share. No company would be allowed to control more than, let’s say, 30% of newspapers or commercial broadcasters. Such measures would give greater opportunities for locally owned and independent media to provide for wider audiences where the tycoons have failed.

Sadly, this issue is often shoved away from the policy spotlight and left to gather dust, when it can and should be seen as a major component of Labour’s One Nation message. Our commitment to breaking apart the big energy firms will bring fair competition back into how people heat and light their homes. Similarly, splitting casino banking from its retail counterpart will protect the savings of millions from high-risk investment operations. Reining in the media empires and fostering a more plural press is vital if Labour is going to deliver a democracy that works for everyone.

We’re used to hearing from press barons and their loyal editors that they alone (professional journalists are rarely credited) are the champions of press freedom. But there cannot be a free press while so much of our media is held in so few hands.

Whether the curtains close on a Royal Charter or not, Labour shouldn’t let the audience leave so soon. Give ownership reform an act of its own, and tackle the problems in our press without sacrificing hard won liberties.

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Twitter, full stops, and co-ordinated bullying

Recently Twitter has found one item of punctuation in greater use than any post length would suggest necessary. It has annoyed me to no end, and I’m sure other Twitterers are wondering why people are breaking one of the most basic rules of written language. You may have seen lots of users’ updates starting with a full-stop and this is done for two reasons:

1)      The user is misguided

Given Twitter’s built-in obsession with trends, you can forgive those who have used the false full stop because they’ve seen others do it. There is a technical basis why these posts appear; consider the number of posts on Twitter at any time, and how many of them are between the same group of users. To stop every timeline from being flooded with thousands of minor conversations, Twitter assigns [TECHNOBABBLE REDACTED FOR BREVITY].

Most replies are hidden from your followers, but sticking a full stop at the start treats them as a unique post. Some have used the full stop in any old post believing it pushes them straight on to people’s timelines. These people can be forgiven (as long as they stop, please?) but not everyone is so naïve.

2)      The user is a cynical exhibitionist

For the Twitterati whose followers are an equal mix of the obsequiously adoring and the rabidly despising, broadcasting an otherwise hidden reply can prove useful. Ignoring abusive comments doesn’t lend much to the open and interactive nature of Twitter, but pulling someone out from under the conversational rug can save the user a lot of effort. Slap a full stop on the front of your cynical reply to a nagging critic, and let the flood of fans do the rest.

This isn’t to say that popular Tweeters should face every critic, and I’m certainly not suggesting that racist, sexist or openly threatening tweets should be suffered alone. However, when a single character has the potential to turn an already fragmented medium into a mob-ruled hub for lambasting those with unpopular opinions, something is very wrong. This Comedy Chat post is a great analysis of such co-ordinated bullying.

EDIT: I was reminded by a friend that Charlie Brooker has the perfect method of bringing offensive or stupid comments to light without directing a hoard of followers to the accused, which others should really take note of.

brookertweet

Here’s hoping that this nasty little trend can be thrown in the bin of outdated social media tools, along with #HASH tagging #EVERY other #WORD and frce cntrctn of wrds 4 chrctr’s ske.

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Net neutrality: why it’s important and we should campaign on it

Originally published on Liberal Conspiracy – 3/12/2012

At 10:26 GMT on 30th November, the Google traffic monitoring service recorded a total halt in all internet services in Syria. The research firm Rensys has noted that “all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the internet.”

While this on its own is troubling, as it no doubt signals another attempt by the Syrian government to undermine the organisational abilities of the opposition forces in the country, this literal plug-pulling is sadly just one more example of a government abusing its control of network provision.

The Google Transparency report details a terrifyingly long list, compiled from only the last few years, of each instance where some or all of a country’s access to the internet has ceased. Some of the culprits won’t surprise you – Iran, China, Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt all have a dire record of providing stable network services.

However, some of the smaller examples listed hint at a greater problem beyond malign, repressive states. In March 2009, Bangladeshis were totally unable to access YouTube for 4 days after the government claimed that a video threatened to escalate a military crisis.

In August the same year, Morrocans were blocked from using Google Earth for over a year as arguments over the Western Sahara enflamed. In January 2010 the Kazakh government blocked its citizens from viewing a number of different news and blogging websites associated with the opposition movement.

We need only look to our own shores to see how net neutrality, the idea that all information online is equal and free from interference, is under threat. During the London riots many public figures demanded that the Blackberry Messaging service (BBM) be shut down, and only recently the Home Secretary Theresa May’s flagship Data Communications Bill, which would allow for blanket surveillance of all internet usage, was revived for a second consideration in parliament.

Meanwhile, internet service providers are flirting with two-tier access systems; by allowing content providers to pay for better service, the net would essentially be segregated into premium and ‘economy’ services.

These examples are indicative of a festering global crisis which threatens free and open access to internet services, but while these infractions have met widespread public opposition, they are only ever criticised individually. The wider problems facing open data and equal access are overlooked in these sporadic bursts of outrage and at present only a few campaign bodies, such as the Open Rights Group, have stood up for the integrity of the net as a whole.

These groups have commendable proposals for protecting online equality; repealing the Digital Economy Act, for example, would loosen up the copyright laws which have given huge entertainment companies a financial dominance over artists and creators.

Statutory measures are also an effective means for underpinning users’ rights, but what is needed most of all is a continual campaign of awareness and reporting. If Britain is truly supposed to be a standard-bearer for democracy, free citizenry, and government accountability, it’s time that we start expecting those same qualities online, for internet users both in the UK and worldwide.

Unless we alert the wider public to this slow death of the free internet, the true value of open access will never be treasured.

And if we stay silent when other nations (mis)use the net to oppress their peoples, it won’t be long until the internet goes the way of all other technologies which were once capable of such feats; grossly over-regulated, unnecessarily commercialised, and incapable of serving the needs of those it was created for.

 

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The ‘S’ Word – Retaking Labour’s lexicon

François Hollande’s election to French president was epitomized on Twitter by various activists in one phrase from his victory speech – “Je suis un Socialiste.” This succinct declaration has split the Twittosphere into two distinct camps; those who fear The Fifth International and those trumpeting the beginning of the end for European austerity.

Whilst there was a clue to Hollande’s political leanings in the name of the party he leads, we on the left can surely be forgiven our glee for hearing the word used to cement his victory to the French people. Our jubilation comes not just from Hollande’s victory in the face of a seemingly unified slash-and-burn European Right, but also from how this victory came hand-in-hand with his openness about the Keynesian economy and liberal social reforms he has planned for France.

No sooner had Twitter rejoiced at the word’s inaugural use than the network was abuzz with people arguing over it’s practicality. ‘Is Hollande really a socialist?’ and ‘Does the word even have meaning anymore?’ are important considerations, especially as, in the Labour Party, the word has become a mere filter for acceptance.

However, for Hollande, it was not the politics behind the word that won him support, but the movement that word came to embody through his own campaigning. Hollande campaigned as a ‘socialist’, was elected as a ‘socialist’ and (hopefully) will govern with these ‘socialist’ principles in mind. The word moved beyond being a simple tag for a political party and came to embody the popular opposition to the stagnating economy caused by Merkozy-driven cuts.

This is ground that we in the Labour Party can easily take advantage of. We have been polling ahead of the Tories for months, and the recent elections can only strengthen our lead. A failing economy is making even the strictest Tories impatient, and the Prime Minister is visibly cracking under pressure as he abandons promising reforms such as Equal Marriage to protect his party interests. But the Party and its leadership has yet to find a message that can really light the flame of indignation in the British public.

I believe that this message is ‘socialism’. When the shadow of ‘same old Labour’ looms over the horizon as we fail to shake off the perceived failures of 13 years in government, and the ‘5 Point Plan’ isn’t sticking as Labour’s alternative, Hollande’s triumph serves as the perfect opportunity to adopt this reinvigorated mantra for ourselves. If we can cast aside our shame at the political wilderness of the 80s, and use the ‘S’ word as the vehicle rather than the driver of our political message, we will be able to capture the mood of the public as it shifts further and further away from Coalition catastrophe.

Don’t think however that I am advocating an overnight transformation of all Labour Party literature in some horrifying volte-face akin to 1984. All it takes is a steady introduction of a new lexicon to the Labour Party, where all our current anti-austerity sound-bites such as ‘Out of touch’ and ‘Too far, too fast’ are paired with pro-Labour phrases that don’t sound as though they’ve been dragged out of a policy document. Link these linguistic counters together in a verbal mind-map, with Labour’s reformed ‘socialism’ at the center, and all the public favour for our Party that has laid dormant for years will gather behind our clearer and more dynamic message of equality and fairness.

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Don’t play the blame game with actual games

As an avid gamer, I’m always disappointed when the media turns on computer games and blames them as inspiration for violent acts. As the trial for Anders Breivik goes on, the prosecution has started to use images of Breivik’s characters in World of Warcraft and accounts of Breivik’s time playing Call of Duty as evidence.

For those of us who follow games in the news, this is hardly surprising. Call of Duty and World of Warcraft are probably the most recognisable games for those outside of the gaming world, and thus make them easy targets for reactionary finger pointing.

However there is one major difference in the Breivik case that may suggest why video games have come to take center-stage in the prosecution. Behind the narcissistic rantings in his manifesto, Breivik’s ideologies have a lot in common with the Islamophobic fear-mongering of the Daily Mail et al. Columnists of the right-wing press have been churning out endless diatribes over immigration, Islam and Europe and are now faced with the harsh reality of what such opinions can bring. Terrorism is no longer the exclusive property of Muslim extremists or left-wing crazies.

So the conservative press is faced with a dilemma; either they condemn the attacks but show sympathy for the motives, opening themselves for attack, or they find a new root cause which they can use to disassociate themselves from any similarities with Breivik. The trials handed them this straw man in the form of Anders’ gaming addiction.

As such, this article from the Daily Mail turns Breivik’s admission of a virtual mentor into a full-blown attack on video games. Making no mention of his Islamophobic motives, the right-wing press is trying desperately to turn attention away from their own ‘crusades’ they have conducted for years, and instead focus our opinions of Breivik on something that neither the press nor their audience understand.

It’s a shameless trick that the press has used in most cases involving video games. Particularly in cases in the UK, often involving boys apparently re-enacting scenes from games, broken homes, child abuse, social isolation and poverty are ignored. Ignored too are the violent films and television programmes, because the British public enjoys these things too much. Instead the emergent, publically neglected and unknown medium of video gaming is used as the punching bag, and this sly turn of focus is allowing the right-wing press to absolve itself of any of the hypocrisies it exhibits.

Referred on Liberal Conpiracy April 23 2012

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Gallownalysis

I know everyone’s throwing their own opinion in about George Galloway’s win in Bradford West, to the point where it’s just become pointless to even care anymore*.

In all honesty I’m glad Galloway won. It means that another section of the country will finally come to see how much of a useless politician the man is. Neglecting every constituency duty to promote his own campaigns across the world will no doubt become a highlight of George’s new time in office.

The man is a Jihadist-sympathizing cretin who fawns over any dictator who gives the finger to the West, and has openly called for the killing of British soldiers in defense of a murderous tyrant he was so keen to lick the boots of (see video). It’s just sad that it takes a childishly-fought election for more people to know this.

*If I was forced to opine regarding the election, I’d say it was Galloway’s populist positioning as a born-again Muslim and typical ‘not like those other politicians’ activist, coupled with a Labour party complacency that there would be no competition.