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Saturday, 7 June 2008

Trailer of the week - Burn After Reading

It's about time we, the public, got another Coen Brothers film. And here it is. Dream line-up: Frances McDormand, Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich.

Burn After Reading is headlining the Venice Film Festival in August and will open in the UK on September 5th.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Spy Games

Following up from my rant last week about flying, there's a fascinating article in today's Guardian, about a spy seemingly planted by nobody-knows-quite-who in an effort to undermine the anti-aviation group Plane Stupid.
Oxford alumnus Toby Kendall - pictured here in a fetching combination of pseudo-activist scarf and baseball cap - hardly looks like a force to be reckoned with, and he obviously didn't cover his tracks very well. What's more worrying is the company he works for: C2i International whose Orwellian logo is "Command+Control+Intelligence=Security".

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Trailer of the Week

Ok here we go with a new feature: once a week I'll post a trailer that I think is worth watching, either because it heralds a great film to come, or because the trailer is worth a watch for its own sake.

This week's treat is Tropic Thunder, a somewhat provocative-looking comedy with a dream cast of Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jnr, Jack Black and... wait is that Steve Coogan?

Thursday, 3 April 2008

So last week Heathrow's Terminal 5 opened, but not to the adulatory fanfare airport execs had hoped for. Instead, the launch descended into farce.

At least one group of people wanted that outcome. On Thursday morning, hundreds of citizens with no intention of travelling anywhere had converged at the airport. Come 11am, they donned red T-shirts printed with 'Stop Airport Expansion', wandered around, chatted, smiled at the press and drank tea. Some lay on the floor spelling out the words of their rallying cry.

It was a deliberately understated demo. An organizer explained their method: "Almost everything is against the Heathrow byelaws, but wearing a t-shirt is not a crime. So as long as you’re not demonstrating, you’re not breaking the law!"

The T-shirt brigade was hoping to hijack headlines and compromise the glossy launch of the new terminal. Ironically their outcry was eclipsed by BA and/or BAA's own blundering mismanagement, with the result that most news outlets only spared the demonstrators a sentence or two. In the protestors' facebook group, one member joked at intrigue: "I bet BAA organised their complete failure to overshadow the protest... seemed to work on the news!"

Conspiracy theories aside, aviation is entering an era of increasing public scrutiny. Not because baggage handling is such a big deal (the FT's news editor Robert Shrimsley has a very funny piece of faux-reportage here: scroll past the Zimbabwe bit for the legendary intro: “The BBC is banned from Heathrow but our correspondent Orla Guerin got past security disguised as a Samsonite Aeris upright”) but because airports are such an obvious locale for climate anxieties to converge. Planes just about write their carbon emissions in the sky. Green science can get complicated, but almost everyone gets the more-flying-more-climate-change argument. Don't we?

Actually no. Most of us still fly short-haul without a second thought. At Monday's Evening Standard/YouGovStone mayoral debate, one city slicker got up to ask Boris, Ken and Brian why they weren't doing more to protect Heathrow's right to expand. He clearly didn't read the Economist last week. And just because he works in finance, doesn't mean he gets that climate carelessness wreaks unsustainable externalities. As Nicholas Stern pointed out, in his monumental report 18 months ago, climate change is the worst market failure the world has ever seen.

I've heard people say the climate change frontline is in the Arctic, where the polar bears paw at melting ice, or in the drought-stricken, cracked-earth farmland of Northern Kenya. Unfortunately those places stand for battles we've already lost. The true frontlines are the intellectual and geographical spaces where carbon emissions can be counted and cut. And maybe airports are where the stand-off begins: between short-term, profit-chasing expansion and the far-sighted view that is informed by the warnings of the world's leading scientists.

The unpalatable truth is that if we're serious about meeting the government's target for cutting emissions 60% by 2050, we need to rethink our travel habits. That won't happen while flying is so cheap. I picked a random date, 1st of May, and thought about visiting my friend Jeni in Glasgow. I can fly from London to Prestwick for just £28.27 with Ryanair, while the cheapest train ticket - a saver return - is £102.90. And that's booking almost a month in advance. It's all wrong. Easyjet was fun but the cheap fare revolution it kickstarted continues on borrowed time. Time borrowed from future generations.


Thanks to Greenpeace, Amin Allen Tabrizi and Chris Seufert on Flickr for photos.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Who's afraid of the big bad cyber-wolf?

The Washington Post reported yesterday that China-based hackers may have broken into web accounts belonging to the Save Darfur Coalition. Save Darfur are an American lobby group advocating Western intervention to end the genocide in the Sudan, with members including Amnesty, the American Islamic Congress, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. According to the Post, "The allegation fits a near decade-old pattern of cyber-espionage and cyber-intimidation by the Chinese government against critics of its human rights practices".

The idea that the Chinese government would go so far as to hack into a human rights group's web server suggests a level of conscious evil that is almost ridiculous. It's like something you'd see Kim Jong-il plotting while humming happily to himself in Team America.

The world first became truly aware of the massacres in Darfur in 2004: a full four years ago. It was the same year Britney Spears reached no.1 with Toxic, the third Lord of the Rings film won just about all the Oscars, abuse in Abu Ghraib was exposed and Athens hosted the Olympics. Just think how much has changed since then. Now let's think about what we've managed to achieve in Darfur.

Look back to this 2004 BBC report, which quoted the International Crisis Group: "Urgent international action is required on several fronts if 'Darfur 2004' is not to join 'Rwanda 1994' as shorthand for international shame". In the intervening years, urgent international action has continued to be talked about, but no major power has sent in forces as we did in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. In December last year, the UN finally deployed some troops, but the promised force of 26,000 peacekeepers is yet to arrive; currently there are only 9,000 on the ground.

Our failure to do anything more than witness is not for want of trying. As the picture here testifies - it's Mia Farrow and an 8-year-old Darfurian refugee, walking into a sandstorm near the Sudan-Chad border to mark the start of a Dream for Darfur torch relay - the cause is a big deal, with celebrities, marketing campaigns, numerous charitable trusts, books, films and rallies all attempting to get someone, somewhere to make it stop.

Why to such little avail? Did we learn nothing from Rwanda? In an interview with The Observer late last year, Britain's minister for Africa, Mark Malloch Brown, made a comment that seems to pass the buck rather: "Bush and Blair both had a great deal of personal passion about Darfur. But there's a limit to what leaders can do if there isn't a heavy level of concern from the public".

Really? Isn't it more pertinent to note the regrettable limit that any level of public concern can achieve when political resolve is missing? We only have to consider the failure of the anti-Iraq war demonstrations to know that however many petitions we sign, the workings of international politicians bear precious little comparison to true democratic process.

In 2007, a UN report found that the Sudanese government had "manifestly failed to protect the population of Darfur... and has itself orchestrated and participated in these crimes". But U.S. and UK sanctions of Sudanese products can have little impact while China continues to buy 70% of the country's exports, and supply it with weapons. Nicholas D. Krystof in The New York Times makes a good case for renaming this year's sports celebrations in China "The Genocide Olympics".
Which brings us back to the China-based hackers who've cyber-attacked the Save Darfur Coalition. Such dirty tricks do nothing to help China's laughable attempts at positive PR, and certainly undermine the stated motto of this year's Olympics in Beijing:

"One World, One Dream" is simple in expressions, but profound in meaning. It is of China, and also of the world. It conveys the lofty ideal of the people in Beijing as well as in China to share the global community and civilization and to create a bright future hand in hand with the people from the rest of the world. It expresses the firm belief of a great nation, with a long history of 5,000 years and on its way towards modernization, that is committed to peaceful development, harmonious society and people's happiness. It voices the aspirations of 1.3 billion Chinese people to contribute to the establishment of a peaceful and bright world."

If only this were true. The crackdown on pro-Tibet protestors last week and China's general policy of cyber-bullying seems to point more seriously than ever to a boycott of the Olympics outright.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Laura Marling & friends at the Union Chapel



"There's a point in the gig every night where Laura has to change guitars," says the drummer apologetically, "And I have to talk."

The audience laughs. We don't mind waiting for Laura Marling, the 18-year-old whose voice is jaw-droppingly elastic, like treacle, to change from one acoustic guitar to another. Neither do we mind sharing the good-natured camaraderie that her band Mumford and Sons, gently surround her with, like protective big brothers.



The Union Chapel on Upper Street is full yet quiet on Thursday night; quiet with expectation and appropriately enough, a kind of reverence. Almost everyone is here because they bought Marling's Songbox, with the unusual consequence that almost everyone has come alone. The Songbox was the only way to get a ticket - no sales on the door - and as some fans complained, that meant unless you bought twice, chances were you wouldn't be able to take along your friend/lover/gig-buddy.

But at least the enforced solitary attendance has the effect of making everyone far chattier than they might normally be in a London venue; standing in the queue I discuss Marling's album with no less than four people whom I've never met before; as we file into the Union Chapel's wooden pews, hesitant introductions are made: "Hi, would you mind if I sit here?... Have you come far?... What do you do?" For a moment it feels more like speed-dating than a concert.

The venue itself is warm and welcoming like churches should be, dark except for a couple of panels of coloured spotlights that prettify the stage, and the streetlights outside that illuminate the rose window. At the back of the church they're selling cups of tea for £1 and my new friend Orlando buys a hot chicken pie from the bar between acts.

The cosy feel is nurtured by Marling's support acts, including the charming band that later accompany her, Mumford and Sons, and Vertigo-signed Johnny Flynn (watch the yummy faux-antique video for his single Leftovers). Both acts are what people call 'alt-folk', though how this differs from traditional folk I'm not exactly sure, except that maybe it sounds a bit more cool and it looks a lot younger.

Mumford and Sons, four floppy-haired boys in tweed waistcoats and open-necked white shirts that make them look like minstrels or agricultural-workers, are very talented and ridiculously endearing. At one point their lead singer prefaces a song bashfully (and entirely needlessly): "This is a new song, and it's a bit rough so please bear with us". His singing voice is rasping yet somehow still melodic; the other band-members offer harmony lustily.

Johnny Flynn and The Sussex Wit wear their folk-ancestry more fully, and so they should, with Vaughan Williams noted as one of their influences. Flynn himself, tousle-haired and dressed-down in his signature lumberjack shirt, has an unshowy but compelling stage presence, apparently at least partly thanks to Stanislavski. I can't stop humming his "Brown Trout Blues", which you should be able to listen to here, seeqpod permitting (listen out for a reworking of a classic tammy wynette lyric):





It's rare that the support acts are so good that you almost forget they're meant to be filler before the main event. When Laura comes on in a white shapeless smock, skin so pale it's almost see-through, her head is bowed and her voice is a bit shaky. "It's very nice to see you all here..." she murmurs, visibly nervous, "Thanks very much for buying the songbox."

A few lines into her first verse and she starts to relax, and meanwhile everyone else is almost holding their breath because her voice is so incredibly liquid and artless and both fragile and strong at once. Even Orlando, who said he was disappointed with the album when it first arrived, is won over.

She looks like a pale, cropped-haired elf, or a small child. Yet her lyrics are far from childish. In "My Manic & I" she treats mental illness with a personal insight that belies her youth: "He greets me with kisses when good days deceive him and sometimes with scorn, and sometimes I believe him". She's also got a dark sense of humour: "Cross your fingers, hold your toes, we're all going to die when the building blows," she croons merrily. The melancholic "Night Terrors", sits well in the shadowy church, with Marling using her voice like a finely tuned instrument, varying emphasis and volume seemingly effortlessly to intone subtle shifts of register.

All too soon it is the end. No-one wants her to stop, and there are two encores after extended applause. We step out into the chill March air and I feel buoyed up by the power of live music when it's this good. Folk is back and it's very young. Long live folk.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

British TV drama is languishing in mediocrity, dominated by cheaply-shot, cliche-ridden fare that looks, sounds and feels like a barely-elevated soap opera (The Bill, first broadcast in 1984, still shows twice a week and yet seems stuck somewhere in the mid-90s in terms of script and style).

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, TV just gets better and better. I'm thinking specifically of Damages, which is surely the darkest, cleverest serial since Twin Peaks interrogated American suburbia in the 90s. My only problem with Damages being shown on UK terrestrial (BBC1 on Monday nights) is that it spoils every other half-baked programme around.

In the States, it's just one of a super-league of serialized dramas, so good they're like 10 hour feature films that have been chopped into chewable, consistently compelling segments. HBO have led the field since they created the gold standard in television drama, The Sopranos in 1999; since then they've continued to trailblaze with Six Feet Under and most recently, The Wire (named best TV show ever by Time, The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly etc; so good that Slate magazine are publishing a weekly analysis of the final series).

HBO's success proved audiences would lap up drama that is original and provocative, and forged a path for some serious competition. Damages comes courtesy of FX Networks, a channel owned by News Corp's Fox Entertainment, while TV's newest darling, Mad Men, is the first TV drama produced by cable channel AMC; a good start for them, as it's already won 2 Golden Globes.

Even those American series that fit neatly into genre boxes - hospital-based series like ER, Grey's Anatomy, House; police procedurals like the CSI franchise and Without A Trace; political wranglings in Spin City and The West Wing - are still top quality stuff, with real attention (i.e. money) paid to cinematography, lighting and characterisation, the like of which is all too rare in the UK.

The only thing we can do reliably well is period-drama, as the recent Sense & Sensibility and Cranford testified. But surely there must be some TV-friendly British writers more contemporary than Austen and Gaskell? The best we've had recently is Spooks; Life on Mars was good, but not as good as its hype. I tried watching Holby City the other week until the appalling script (somewhere between a Hallmark card and a first aid manual) forced me to switch in exasperation to the far more entertaining BBC Parliament.

In 1879, Matthew Arnold lamented: "In England, we have no modern drama at all." He was talking about theatre but sadly I'd say the same about our TV programming today. In the 19th century we led the way in serialized drama but then the medium was novelistic: Dickens' Bleak House and The Mystery of Edwin Drood were devoured by readers in chapters every month. I'd argue that the best TV dramas coming out of the States right now can be compared to those Victorian novels in terms of inventiveness and sheer emotional power. Writers, to your pens. Programming directors, to your cheque books. We need a serious injection of original, imaginative, risk-taking writing here.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

I'm getting very fond of Dalston, despite the unexpected opening of a shop called 'Hot Nuts' just a few moments from our front door (I can't really blame them for calling it that as it sells nothing but hot nuts, but it does sound a bit odd).
The most recent local charm to win my affections is a small underground music venue. Underground as in a cellar, aswell as vaguely hidden. Yes, last week, after reading this Songkick.com blog post, I finally got round to visiting Bardens Boudoir. About time too, as it's only a stone's throw from our flat, nestling between grubby late-night grocery stores and a pub on Stoke Newington Road. When I told my friend Ben where I was going, he raised his eyebrows, and it may be worth noting that if the use of the word boudoir had correlated to any burlesque-style activity - as it sometimes does at the venue - then I would be staying away (I'm with Ariel Levy when it comes to raunch culture).
But on Tuesday we were there to see the gentle folky singer/songwriter Andy Jackson a.k.a House of Brothers and apart from the fact that his songs were "slightly samey" (in the words of M-A) his was an enjoyable performance and all-in-all, one that added to my general feeling of happy-to-be-alive-ness, especially alive in Dalston, and so near such a cosy venue with such inspired decor. Bardens' highlight in my eyes is its little booths, all of which are wallpapered differently. Music Week recently reviewed the place and Time Out say they list it "begrudgingly" since they don't want everyone to know about it. I'm glad we've found it anyway and await future nights (and the happy knowledge that I can walk home easy as pie) with bated breath.

Friday, 22 February 2008

I'd like to recommend an album: 'Alas I Cannot Swim', by Laura Marling, a 19-year old songwriter from Reading. This is her debut and it's a record to cherish. Beautiful, original tunes with folksy harmonies and rhythms.

I first got into her stuff after watching the video above, 'Ghosts', on youtube. When the CD arrived it came in the handsome A4 sized cardboard box you can see here, complete with a game/postcard/random cardboard trinket for each song.

Cute huh? PLUS, a free ticket to an exclusive gig in March at Islington's Union Chapel for songbox owners.

Ms Marling's explanation for the songbox concept is, in an interview with the Guardian, "I wanted to show, in a physical way, how much work goes into an album."

I never really doubted that album-making takes a lot of work, and to be brutally honest the cardboard things are slightly useless and I can't really think what to do with them. But that said, they look very pretty, and it was incredibly exciting when the parcel originally arrived, leading me to wonder, could this be the beginning of a record industry fight-back against the inevitably intangible itunes? Also I do quite like the artsy crossover effect of the songbox; the way some of the songs have been represented by woodcuts, which are then printed on postcards you can send. There's no doubt Virgin have got some clever marketing people on this case. But if it helps Marling on her way, I for one don't mind.

And the complimentary gig ticket is GREAT.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Diving Bell & The Butterfly opens with a series of blurred images in white and grey. On the soundtrack, Charles Trenet is singing the irresistibly jaunty 'La Mer' with gusto. It's a dark jest, for we are not used to seeing the shapes on the screen accompanied by music of any kind. They are X-rays of bones - vertebrae, femur, patella, spine. The American director Julian Schnabel has made a piece of cinema that looks death in the eye while singing above it, and the opening credits set the tone for the entire film – profound tragedy spiked with a defiant, life-affirming humour.

Schnabel is up for an Oscar for Best Director, but the film's real star is it's source material: the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose glamorous life as editor of French Elle magazine was interrupted by a stroke, leaving him with a rare condition called 'locked-in syndrome'. Aged just 43, Bauby was fully conscious but completely paralyzed. We know this only because in the ensuing months, Bauby began to dictate his entire autobiography by moving his left eyelid, using a painstaking system in which an assistant read out the alphabet and he blinked at the right letter. Each word took around two minutes.

The story of how Bauby achieved this could have been slow, repetitive and saccharine, but the film's triumph is to make his ordeal not only watchable but deeply absorbing. Played with great sensitivity by the French actor Mathieu Amalric, our hero is always sympathetic despite his flaws; through flashbacks we gain a window into a previous life that was sensuous and hectic, with a wife, children, mistress and sports car vying for his time. Such memories offer a welcome counterpoint to the vacuum of life in a hospital bed, and force Bauby – and us – to consider the legacy of our relationships once we no longer have the power to make amends.

But perhaps the film's greatest achievement derives from Schnabel's seeming determination that the audience experience something of the diving-bell-like isolation Bauby described in his book. As he first awakens from his coma, we see a doctor leaning in close and asking him to speak. "What? Can't you hear me?" says Bauby, baffled. Only we, the audience, share that anguish. Indeed, for the first twenty minutes of the film, we see almost exclusively from his fixed perspective; the small hospital room, the nurses who loom in and out of focus, the vase of roses of which he asks, unheard, "Who brought those?"

He never gets an answer, and the donor-less flowers might as well stand for the many incomprehensible things in life, for it is with these that the film is most deeply concerned: loss, betrayal, the obstinacy of love in the face of catastrophe. I cried three separate times in this film, nudged by the shamelessly emotive piano score (try listening to the 'Theme for the Diving Bell & the Butterfly' by Paul Cantelon below). I don't think Schnabel quite deserves the Oscar (that's surely PT Andersons) but the Diving Bell team have framed the huge themes of this film with real wit and vision. In the end though, Jean-Dominique Bauby is the true 'auteur' in this film, and his courage its most compelling device.





Saturday, 26 January 2008

Investigating Politics

When a reporter went to prison in 2005 for refusing to give up the name of her source, it could have been a triumph for journalistic integrity. It's a given that reporters – especially investigative ones – often need to protect vulnerable sources from potential recrimination by keeping their anonymity safe. But Judith Miller's source was a senior U.S. government official, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, while the information he was accused of leaking to her (and a number of other journalists) happened to have done significant damage to a government detractor, the former American ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson. Just who was vulnerable here, and who needed protection?

Certainly not Libby, nor the Bush administration in general, although it had shown itself to be remarkably thin-skinned. In 2003, Joseph Wilson had written a series of open editorials in The New York Times, challenging the Bush administration's justification for war (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/06/opinion/06WILS.html?ex=1372824000&en=6c6aeb1ce960dec0&ei=5007). In what looked a lot like retribution, the White House subsequently leaked Wilson's wife Valerie Plame's identity as an undercover CIA agent to a selection of political commentators, including Miller. The first outing came in a July 2003 column by Robert Novak in the Washington Post, which included the seemingly throwaway phrase: "
Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/20/AR2005102000874.html). Plame had been undercover; her career was now over. Thus Bush's lackeys harnessed the supposedly independent media to punish one of their critics and his family.
Valerie Plame and her husband Joseph Wilson

The journalist Judith Miller had met with Libby on the 23rd of June, to discuss Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger. She met with Libby again on July 8, two days after Wilson's op-ed in the NY Times. Her notebook from that day included the mispelled scribble 'Valerie Flame'. But she afterwards claimed that name came from "another source, whom I could not recall." Miller didn't write an article naming Ms. Plame, but a week later, Novak's column came out. In the ensuing controversy, when the CIA asked for a criminal investigation into the leak of Plame's identity, Miller received a subpoena to testify about the nature of her conversations with Libby. She refused on the basis of protecting her sources, and was sent to prison. Her bosses at the NYT outwardly supported her decision to go to prison, although Executive Editor Bill Keller later said: "I wish it had been a clear-cut whistle-blower case." [1] The problem was, Miller was already under fire for swallowing and regurgitating Bush's justification for the Iraq war in a series of articles, a fact she would retrospectively admit: "W.M.D. – I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them – we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong." [2] The last sentence underlines the frankly terrifying question raised by the Plame affair: how vulnerable had Miller and the other reporters allowed themselves to be, and for that matter, how vulnerable are any political reporters to the machinations of government officials with an axe to grind?


On one level, the answer is simple: journalists are intensely vulnerable. Quality reporting requires backing-up a source's every claim, but when you're investigating government, and the only information available is owned and disseminated by the government, how can you double-source? While Valerie Plame's outing showed the readiness with which wily officials would quash criticism through timely 'leaks', the general reporting of the run-up to war with Iraq painted a damning portrait of the entire media's gullibility. In May 2004, a New York Times Editor's Note reviewed the paper's reporting: "We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been." The editorial did share out some of the blame: "Complicating matters for journalists, accounts… were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq." [3] In other words, spin; an increasingly professional operation amongst government departments. Journalists are no less vulnerable in the UK. At a conference in November, Guardian journalist Nick Davies remarked: "Journalists used to make news judgements, but now these decisions are made by the world of PR, government, NGOs and so on. Military and intelligence organisations manipulate journalists into running stories that are fiction." It would seem that politicians, now they have a handle on the media, have wrested back all the power that a free press is there to protect. For modern government, effective media relations seem to aim to "take the risk out of democracy" (to poach social scientist Alex Carey's definition of corporate PR) [4].


What is additionally worrying is that spin is continually becoming more covert. Only in its early days would it fail to disguise itself adequately, as exemplified by the Labour aide who rashly sent the infamous memo on September 11, 2001: "It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?" Such brazen Machiavellian plotting is unlikely to be caught on email again, and the length of Libby's eventual trial reflected the way the White House and Downing Street spin machines cover their tracks more effectively these days. Of course the phenomenon of spin is completely at odds with the principal of an accountable democracy, thus seeming to justify the most cynical media attacks on government. Yet it results from a dilemma that has yet to be definitively solved: how should a government best communicate with its electorate?


This is where journalists could retain some power. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued: "As Force is always on the side of the governed, the governers have nothing to support them but opinion. 'Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded" [5]. Public opinion is still the preoccupation of politicians worldwide. The power of journalism lies in its function as conduit and meaning-maker. Labour MP Graham Allen says: "It is now the media not the party who are crucial to securing electoral victory, they must therefore be kept onside and serviced at all times." [6] Today's British politician cannot simply stand and shout his policies from a rooftop; he requires Sky News, BBC 24, Guardian Unlimited and the rest of the media to grant him air-time, print-space, web pages.
Tony Blair courted this early in his career, but by 2007 felt it had gone too far, complaining: "a vast aspect of our jobs today… as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms."[7]
Blair's speech, mauled by many media commentators as utterly hypocritical, nevertheless made an important point, and one that John Lloyd had developed in his 2002 polemic, "What The Media Are Doing To Our Politics". Lloyd argues that the ability of the media to make or break a politician and his party desperately requires a renewed sense of responsibility in journalists. He claims that the vitriolic destructiveness of Britain's press not only makes a politician's life hell, but turns public interest in politics to zero. In investigative journalism, it is perhaps especially true that the reporter's aim is almost always to undermine and criticize. Kovach and Rosenstiel point out: "an expose is in effect a prosecutor's brief and the case it sets forth must be unambiguous… that is why investigative journalism has been called advocacy reporting." [8] Indeed, very few journalists would bother following up an investigation that showed the government was actually doing their job; it just wouldn't be enough of a story. Media critics say this is why spin came into being. As Blair memorably put it: " Not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear".


The balance of power between the politician and the journalist has inevitably shifted since Prime Minister Gladstone stepped on a train in 1880 to conduct Britain's first ever national pre-election tour, stopping at Grantham, Newcastle and Edinburgh to talk politics to bemused but appreciative crowds. Until then, as historian Martin Pugh says, "Leaders had usually avoided speaking in other men's constituencies… lest they be seen to interfere in a community's private affairs." [9] Gladstone realized that mass emancipation meant the party needed to start communicating with the general public, not just Parliament. He changed the job description of the politician forever. As Lord Salisbury complained to Queen Victoria in 1887, "This duty of making political speeches is an aggravation of the labours of your Majesty's servants which we owe entirely to Mr. Gladstone."
A hundred and twenty years on, we have mass media, satellite communication, press officers and 24-hour news; with Downing Street on youtube (www.youtube.com/downingst), the symbiotic relationship between the media and government has never seemed more firmly rooted. And never has the need for objective, considered and above all, double or even triple-checked reporting been more necessary. On the 19 th of July 2007, Joseph and Valerie Wilson's civil suit against Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and other White House officials was dismissed. Judge John D. Bates said: "The alleged means by which defendants chose to rebut Mr. Wilson's comments and attack his credibility may have been highly unsavoury. But there can be no serious dispute that the act of rebutting public criticism… by speaking with members of the press is within the scope of defendants' duties as high-level Executive Branch officials. Thus the alleged tortuous conduct, namely the disclosure of Mrs. Wilson's status… was incidental to the kind of conduct that defendants were employed to perform." [10] That judgement is deeply disquieting, as it effectively sanctions stealth manipulation of the press as a government weapon, not only against military enemies, (in the form of wartime propaganda) but also against its own citizens when they simply exercise their right to freedom of speech. Perhaps it is only with Judge Bates' words ringing in their ears that investigative reporters should listen to government sources.


[1] Bill Keller, quoted in "The Miller Case: A Notebook, a Cause, a Jail Cell and a Deal", by Don van Natta Jr., Adam Liptak and Clifford J. Levy, The New York Times, October 16, 2005.

[2] Judith Miller, ibid.

[3] Editor's Note, The New York Times, May 26, 2004.

[4] Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom, University of Illinois Press, 1995 .

[5] David Hume, from Essays Moral, Political, Literary (1741-2; 1748), Essay 2: Of the Liberty of the Press, http://www.econlib.org/library/LFBooks/Hume/hmMPL.html

[6] Graham Allen, "The Last Prime Minister: Being Honest about the UK Presidency", 2002, http://www.grahamallen.labour.co.uk/ViewPage.cfm?Page=21129

[7] Tony Blair, Our Nation's Future: Public Life, http://www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page11923.asp, June 12 2007.

[8] Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism, Atlantic Books 2003 (2001).

[9] 'The Making of Modern British Politics 1867 – 1945', Martin Pugh, Blackwell, 2002.

[10] John D. Bates, "Memorandum Order", United States District Court for the District of Columbia, July 19, 2007.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

What is the What

Dave Eggers. If you haven't heard of him, go out and buy his first book, "A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius" right now. The title may seem somewhat immodest, but it's also fairly accurate. It's one of the best books I have ever read and completely changed the way I think about fiction, aswell as kickstarting an ongoing obsession with a certain type of contemporary American literature.

I was given it by a boyfriend from Philadelphia who wrote beautiful things in the cover; I then rashly lent it to so many people that it came back with half its pages unbound and its corners frayed, though this seemed a worthy price for the unabashed joy I was sure the book was spreading throughout my dearly beloved. That said, I don't think everyone loved it as much as I did; like anything really powerful, it's a marmite-kind of book.

Anyhow I waited impatiently for Mr. Eggers' next work, and when his second novel, 'You Shall Know Our Velocity' finally came out (it is a given that D.E.'s work be always thus; quixotically, beautifully, ridiculously titled) I devoured it in great expectation. As with most things that one pre-emptively enjoys, it was just a tiny bit disappointing. That's not to say it wasn't enjoyable in parts, because I would argue it is impossible not to find moments of brilliance in anything over 2,000 words that Mr Eggers takes it upon himself to write; but it wasn't the masterpiece I was hoping for.

Accordingly, I wasn't so desperate to buy 'What is the What', his third book published here in May, and convinced myself I could wait for it to come out in paperback. But I couldn't wait that long. It's still only available in the UK in hardback, but imagine my glee on finding a U.S. paperback edition in the American bookshop in the Hague while home for Christmas. I have now, today, just this morning, finished it.

'What is the What' is a strange thing to define or grasp, like a kind of shapeshifting animal, and in this respect is echoes the cross-genre style that Eggers made his own in 'A Heartbreaking Work' (you can read an excerpt here:
http://books.guardian.co.uk/firstchapters/story/0,6761,384966,00.html)

The thing about AHWOSG was that Eggers played very deliberately and with great humour on our perceptions of what it means to read: firstly, to read a novel - a fictional account that we can step back from, walk away from and dip into as escapism, and then conversely, to read non-fiction, specifically autobiography, where we imagine we are gaining a true insight into the real things that happened to someone.

'A Heartbreaking Work' is heartbreaking because it is concerned with telling the true story of the death of both Eggers' parents from cancer within 5 weeks of each other; their children are left to bring each other up, and Dave becomes the primary carer for his 8-year old brother Toph. What's staggering is the gut-wrenching honesty of the narration, but also the comic pathos, the ironic self-awareness that Eggers brings to the recounting of such bewildering personal tragedy. And all packaged in a post-post-modern double-bluffing box of tricks full of hand-drawn illustrations, blank pages, doodles, postscripts and endnotes.

'What is the What' initially seemed to follow a similar line in post-modern playfulness. It's full title is "What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel By Dave Eggers". The preface reads:

"This book was born out of the desire on the part of myself and the author to reach out to others to help them understand the atrocities many successive governments of Sudan committed before and during the civil war. To that end, over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation. Because many of the passages are fictional, the result is called a novel...
- Valentino Achak Deng, Atlanta, 2006"

At first I assumed Valentino was a construct; his voice and indeed the preface itself, a clever conceit from Eggers to immerse us more fully into the novel's world. It's a tradition going back to Tristram Shandy. But then I noticed that on the back cover, a small note stated:

"All of the author's proceeds from this book will go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which distributes funds to Sudanese refugees in America; to rebuilding southern Sudan, beginning with Marial Bai; to organizations working for peace and humanitarian relief in Darfur; and to the college education of Valentino Achak Deng.
http://www.valentinoachakdeng.org/"

If Valentino Achak Deng was a construct, this was taking it a bit far, surely?

The answer, of course, is that this time, the preface is absolutely truthful. There is no post-modern trickery going on after all. There is simply an American writer and a former child refugee from Sudan trying to tell an urgent story in the most accessible and compelling way
possible.

Here's a picture of Dave Eggers with Valentino. The book itself is really worth reading and I would strongly recommend it. Dammit I'll even lend it to you, as long as you promise to return it without too many pages missing. Not so much because it is an incredible piece of 'literature' in the all-consuming, unputdownable way that the best novels are - it isn't. Sometimes it fails to flow; it's narrative techniques feel occasionally clunky; at times the plot moves slowly. But that's because it's based on truth, and unpalatable truths at that. The plot sometimes moves slowly but then for the refugees like Valentino who made it out of Southern Sudan alive, daily life was all too-often a slow-moving, repetitive list of tasks as they queued in overcrowded camps for clean water, watched each other die of avoidable diseases like dysentery and waited for schooling that took years to come. There is also a small amount of - actually for me very helpful - background on the problems in the Sudan, leading up to the genocide in Darfur and the infuriating inaction of our own governments. For some people the insertion of odd paragraphs explaining such things might seem patronizing, though they definitely helped me understand the context.

With 'What Is The What' I would say Eggers has done himself proud, and performed a great service to truth and to all of us who would otherwise stay disgracefully ignorant of some of the problems in Sudan. The New York Times called the book "an extraordinary work of witness", and in a way, I think it's our duty to read it. Terrible suffering deserves a terrible number of witnesses. And I think it's the author's hope that the book will also help us to become more present and active witnesses to Darfur's tragedy.

P.S. If you're interested, Eggers wrote an in-depth piece about the origins of the book for the Guardian here: http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2088375,00.html