Thursday, February 26, 2015

Times Like These

Of the trends I've identified in recent posts - the seeming unjailability of wealthy and powerful types, the British relish for kissing up to winners and kicking down upon losers - I'm willing to put many of our bad political habits upon the apparently invincible reputation of the Times, our newspaper of record.

I don't mean that the Times is, like, brainwashing the nation or anything similarly mental.  I mean that the fact that this newspaper isn't a national running joke in the way that the Sun or the Mail or the Guardian are, shows you precisely what kind of nation this is.

If you asked a random punter which paper can be relied upon to toe the government's line on any given issue 99% of the time, I expect he or she would cite the Telegraph or the Mirror, depending upon which party is in power.  And that person would be wrong.

The Times editorial line so slavishly matches up with the views of the government of the day that the worst you can expect from it is broad agreement, accompanied by affectionate encouragement to keep at it, to either a greater or lesser extent.

Really, the only occasion I can recall the Times going after a government was at the death of the Brown administration, when it let fly with both barrels - "The toxin in new Labour squats in his Number 10 bunker", being my favourite headline

Small credit goes to the paper for having the courage to shoot Brown after he'd broken a leg and was lying prostrate in the middle of the racetrack, whinnying in terror before the enraged crowd.  Back when Brown and his predecessor were trotting gamely around the paddock tossing their hair in the wind though, the Timesmen were fulsome fans of New Labour.  The paper's bravery generally extends only as far as ridiculing the leader of the opposition, whoever is in opposition, and not a step further.

Economics?  The Times are fierce backers of austerity and will be until the precise second that a government - any government, so long as it's reasonably popular - decides it's against it.  I find that its view of e.g. markets and regulation is most commonly a robotic reiteration of whatever orthodoxy currently prevails.

What of its attitudes on foreign relations?  You might think the Express more belligerent, but the Times' editorial lines on justified violence would put students of the harshest Pakistani madrassa to shame.

The paper has spent the last fifteen years issuing relentless screeches for war against Russia, Syria and Iran and fiery fuck-yous to countless other groups and nations, while ferociously denouncing every move to withdraw from the conflicts that we were already involved in.

It's the Guardian that gets grief for being soft on the crazy terror outfits but as late as yesterday, the Times was still running rejigged press releases from groups like Mujaheddin e Khalq as serious news stories, a habit that it acquired shortly after MEK were removed from the UK list of proscribed terrorist organisations.

Which is the elitist paper?  You'd think it'd be the Guardian but the Times' culture pages are most often one long list of Mileses, Gileses and Jemimas.  Open the T2 supplement on any given day and it's a toss-up between a couple of articles.   One usually asks whatever happened to the scions of minor nobility in some Oxbridge class of 1989, while the other either blubs about the impertinence of folk who are rude about Benedict Cumberbatch's accent, or announces that it's now cool to be posh.  The paper's fellatial adoration for the Bullingdon crowd is actively embarrassing, reliably reading like a cross between an Old Etonian's Christmas round-robin and an episode of MTV Cribs filmed in Downton Abbey.

Today's paper includes yet another Caitlin Moran piece about her "chaotic" council estate upbringing, presented in breathless tones that suggest she might as well have been raised in a shit-splattered shack in a South American shanty town.  The Times can barely get enough of Caitlin's garrulous working-classness, treating her as if a pygmy with a bone through her nose had just stumbled out of the rainforest and handed them an excoriating denunciation of The Brothers Karamazov.  And people worry that the Guardian is condescending?

And which paper pumps out the most woo?  The Mail, right?  Wrong - the Times is your go-to for wails and screams about the awful persecution of climate-change skeptics.  The second article in one T2 edition last week was a long and gushing piece of advocacy for colonic irrigation as a must for physical and spiritual wellness, and didn't look even slightly out of place.

The most soulless, evil and insane?  The other year, the Times ran a column literally calling for a free market in human organs, arguing that the wealthy would get well and the poor would get paid.  Today's letters page features a retired GP responding to an immigration column by one of the head Ukip twats, by demanding genital inspection of all prospective migrants for venereal disease, for Christ's sake.

Even when it's doing the nation a favour, as it did with its reporting on the Rotherham sex abuse rings, the Times can't resist the temptation to fluff its own ego by trumpeting its triumph over the non-existent Commissars of Political Correctness who so spectacularly fail every single day to impede the paper's ability to do whatever it likes, whenever it likes.

And as for the Times' response to its owner's huge phone-hacking debacle, well, maybe the less is said about that, the better. 

As best I can tell, you'd have to go all the way to New York to find another paper as adept at unironically dressing up conventional wisdom as derring-do; as puppyishly desperate to agree with the government of the day on whatever issue is necessary, to whatever extent it must.  Only the New York Times takes as much pride in the repetition of dogma as a daring feat and in the praise of mere expediency as high principle. 

Were we a less bizarre nation, no publication this ridiculous would be able to last so much as a week in print without its reputation being repeatedly showered in the hot piss of public derision.

The fact that it isn't, I think, tells us a lot about the function that the Times fulfills in British public life.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Kiss Up, Kick Down

@Alex Massie
What impact has the collapsing oil price had on your personal finances? #AskGalloway
So the reaction to the hilarious pig-in-a-poke stings on Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind has been fun and rather revealing, I'd say.  To go over the same ground covered in the last post, let's note that e.g. a middling Ministry of Transport official caught selling, say, an opportunity to hobnob with the Minister, would probably see the inside of a jail cell sooner rather than later.  

Straw and Rifkind, able to extract far higher fees in positions of far greater responsibility, will face no such inconvenience and if anything, much of the press response has been eerily... sympathetic, I'd say.  

A strange state of affairs, we might think.  After all, council corruption scams don't usually end with opinion hacks calling for hikes in council pay-packets.  Folk who claim forty quid a week excess benefits to those they're entitled to are generally unburdened by the weight of public sympathy. 

And yet, there's plenty of understanding around, for grasping political figures.  I detect in it an unconcealed fear that if rich people can't make a bajillion quid in politics, rich people will stop going into politics, and then where will we be?  At the mercy of a bunch of folk who, unlike Mr Rifkind, can somehow overcome the massive disadvantage that is a £67,000 annual salary.  


Anyway, I introduced this here piece with an example from the #AskGalloway social media phenomenon, a running gag that I've partaken in myself.  It involves numerous political types, both the well-known and the obscure, pinging comedy Tweets at the infamous hairy bawsack of a Bradford MP, George Galloway. 

George's... well, idiosyncratic persona is doubtless familiar enough to you all, so let's not retread the Saddam-praising and feline-impersonation and Ahmadinejad=interviewing too exhaustively.  Nonetheless, I will make this point: 

You didn't see too many notable political hacks openly calling e.g. Jack Straw a twat on the internet this week, did you?  

This does strike me as odd.  Straw, for example, was all over TV giving it hee-haw about his ability to deliver influence for cold, hard cash, and the hacks somehow kept most of their hilarity in check.  

And you can say what you like about George but to my knowledge, he's never sent anyone to a Libyan dungeon for a fucking good thumb-screwing, nor aided and abetted in the execution of any massive, murderous wars*.

Unlike Rifkind he hasn't, as far as I can tell, been caught flashing a bit of political thigh at lobbying Johns from his parliamentary office, nor sold any spiked nutsack-shockers and tit-zappers to the Sauds for use on imprisoned dissidents. 

It strikes me, in fact, that all of the crimes George is mercilessly taunted for amount to talking some awful idiotic shit rather than, say, generally facilitating the cause of ultraviolence and mayhem through the direct application of expensive weaponry and force.

Now, there are probably arguments to be made here about the extremity and nastiness of George's politics, as compared to the entirely sensible centrist habit of flooding the planet with weapons of mayhem and destruction, but if you take these incidents in conjunction with this week's pants-down flagellation of Green Party chuckler Natalie Bennett, a trend starts to emerge.  

Much as bribed councillors or bent coppers can expect incarceration while MPs and other wealthy professionals caught with their fingers in the till can expect a really firm ticking off, the full weight of public derision seems ever to fall only upon relatively powerless dafties and nasty little no-marks.  Were this not the case, perhaps we'd have heard more calls to slap the cuffs on grandees of Westminster, and rather fewer in favour of further lining their pockets.

Given the disparity in power and influence in these contrasting cases, I now feel a little ashamed of joining in the last big Galloway pile-on.  Flatulent and nutty and stuffed to his bulging eyeballs with godawful politics he may be, but when you take the lad in context, it feels like walking into HSBC headquarters and verbally abusing the tea lady.  

And perhaps this is just one of the great imponderables of power, that everyone has the courage to shoot the wounded, but few have the gumption to take on those who are still capable of lashing out**. 

Which suggests that the old Kiss-Up, Kick-Down culture of yesteryear is as ingrained as it ever was, and that doesn't really say good things about us as a culture, I suspect***. 

*There's probably a reasonable argument here that goes - maybe he would, given the power to do so.  To which the obvious rejoinder is Well, maybe so, but he doesn't, so he hasn't. 

**It'd be remiss not to note that the Galloway Twitter stuff is largely inspired by George's habit of threatening to sue people who make grand, sweeping claims about his villainy in public forums.  George is highly litigious, and that's a character trait that I broadly dislike.

That said, it's worth noting that there's a measureable overlap between the three categories of "People who are very worried that libel laws are far too stringent" and "People who think they should be able to level very serious allegations at highly litigious public figures without ever facing any unpleasant consequences at all" and "People who Tweet insults at e.g. George Galloway".

Which should probably give us pause for reflection, before we accept that for some people, advocacy for lighter libel laws is primarily inspired by the desire to make us a fairer, better society.

(Non-coincidentally, I also note such persons also seem to have a fair bit of enthusiasm for the proposition "Journalists should be able to suborn public servants unimpeded by the constabulary and nobody should ever go to jail for that particular form of bribery", but I'm now indulging in the hated habit of discussing alleged comments made by unnamed people, so will leave it at that).

***And this is the umpteenth post I've written about, like, stuff that folk say on Twitter innit, which doesn't suggest that I'm exactly indulging in rigorous research here.  

On the other hand, pretty much every one of you will have arrived at this social media site from a link on other social media, so I'll just try to style it out.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Them Darned Pesky, Interfering Nazis

I've seen that Atlantic article about Islamic State passed hither and yon this week like samizdat, always accompanied by hushed, conspiratorial asides - yo, this Islamic State thing is, like, very religious and Islamic dawg, and how come David Cameron and Barry Obama don't just come out and be all, fuck a bunch of this Islamofascisticism?

Well, let's consider how a President or a Prime Minister thinks.  Is a person who's run for high office likely to be aware of concepts such as public relations?  I'd say so.  And are they likely to be aware of the nature and practice of propaganda?  You know, I think they just might be.

Theological debates are all well and good for folk with time to kick up their heels and bump their gums, but I suspect that Dave and Barry have other priorities.  So let's quit poking at the chicken entrails of Islamic jurisprudence in the Rashidun Caliphate for just a short while and ask - what is it that e.g. David Cameron wants to achieve, when he speaks publicly about this latest raucous and super-violent Sunni uprising?

Forget the squabble about what some gun-toting, glowering beard in a Toyota pickup thinks about this verse or that Hadith.  Cameron's twin aims, I imagine, are to kill all the head-chopping nutcases and to discourage others from taking their place.

Now, knowing what we know about the type of people who want to join IS, would we say that announcing that the Islamic State is really, really Islamic is a) a good idea or b) a bad idea?

Before you answer that, I'll clue you in on how this "propaganda" thing works.  There are a few basic dos and don'ts, but right at the head of the Don't list is the following piece of wisdom.  Ready?

Do not declare that the central plank of the enemy's justification for fighting is essentially correct.  

I'll say this for Cameron and Obama - they at least have the savvy to spot that a militia full of murderers that attracts members by claiming to represent real Islam would probably be delighted if the US and UK to declared that yes, IS is properly Islamic and shit. 

Some people, being people, are up on their hind legs yapping and yowling about e.g. how Dave saying IS ain't real Muslims is, like, intellectual cowardice and so on, and how we should call a spade a spade and blah blah blah.

You do have to chuckle at some folk's daftness, sometimes.  The PM standing up and roaring "IS is Muslim as fuck, man" is akin to Churchill taking to the Commons in 1940 to announce that yes, Britain is part of a Judeo-Bolshevik-Capitalist plot to persecute Germany and that we would've got away with our encirclement plan too, if it hadn't been for them darned, pesky interfering Nazis.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Federal PMITA Prison

As we all swoon in horror over the latest evidence of HSBC's malfeasance, it's probably worth observing that if you or I pled guilty to deliberately laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for Mexican drug-lords, as HSBC did in 2012, we'd be looking down the business end of a twenty-stretch before we could blink.

What type of prison would the US authorities put us in, Michael from Office Space? 
We get caught laundering money, we're not going to white-collar resort prison...  No, no, no.  We're going to federal pound me in the ass prison. 

Spot on.

And not only that - before you even saw the inside of your cell, forensic accountants would blast through your finances like a plague of locusts, stripping every penny you ever owned and couldn't account for. They'd take your house and your car and your kids' college fund and leave you without a pair of boxer shorts to cover your criminal nutsack, if they could, and if your wife had any expensive jewellery - a penchant for diamond rings, say - then she'd be lucky to keep her digits.

If the Americans caught you or I laundering cash for drug dealers, we'd be flattened like roadkill by the turbo-charged juggernaut of the US justice system and the best lawyers you could buy would be no help at all.

What happened to HSBC, after they admitted taking actual cases full of money from real-life, actual gangsters?  The company paid a fine

Note how that's the company paying that fine, not the men and women who actually laundered all the money for the drug lords.  Not one of those people got a day in prison, of either the white collar or ass-pounding variety.  

I raise this anecdote just so you can bear it in mind, the next time you read one of those Why must the Commies persecute the poor bank for doing its job pieces, and to illustrate exactly how the authorities would go about launching a real campaign of brutal persecution, if they so chose.