Some media jottings

The Financial Times reports that:

The US has earmarked about 80 detainees for release but has faced difficulty sending them back to their home countries. In some cases countries have been unwilling to accept men who have been accused of terrorism. In other instances, the US has not been satisfied that the detainees would be treated humanely or that adequate security measures would be put in place. [My emphasis — BLB]

We obviously shouldn't hesitate to salute this American solicitude, however belated, for the humane treatment of Guantanamo graduates.

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A front page article in today's Observer provides chilling examples of linguistic blunders committed by illiterate undergraduates of Imperial College and collected by an admirable IC tutor, Dr Bernard Lamb.  Unfortunately the article itself includes the following (not, of course, written by Dr Lamb):

Some used herd instead of heard, fourth instead of forth, been instead of bean, and many of the writers were 'hopeless at punctuation'.

It's always dangerous to point the pedantic finger at others' language mistakes (which is why this pot is always — well, usually — chary of pointing its pedantic finger at black kettles), but you'd have thought, wouldn't you?, that the Observer's sub-editors and even its august Editor might have scrutinised this article with special care.

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Having myself suffered more than once at the hands of newspaper Letters Editors — especially at the Guardian — who think they can express my thoughts better than I can, re-writing my prose so adventurously as sometimes to remove its meaning altogether, I'm in two minds about minor mistakes in readers' letters:  should a compassionate letters editor correct them before launching the letter into the public prints, or should he or she let the writer's mistake speak for itself, leaving the rest of us to draw our own conclusions?  The thought is prompted by the following in a letter in today's Observer:

I traced my birth mother. She was a lovely lady whom I am sure would have made an excellent mother.

That intrusive 'm' yet again!  Long ago I gave up trying to persuade the then Readers' Editor of the Observer's sister paper, the Guardian, to persuade its writers to recognise the difference between the nominative and other cases of "who".  Today's example, though, is made even more enjoyable by the sub-heading provided for the erring letter: Who are you calling 'mum'? Perhaps they are meant to cancel each other out.

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Nine cheers (three each), though, for at least three other, good, things in today's Observer.

(1) It must have taken some courage to print Mary Warnock's article last week questioning the justice of sending to prison people who have downloaded images of child abuse (mis-named 'child pornography') onto their computers but against whom there is not a shred of evidence of having themselves ever abused a child. Paying to download these horrible pictures and videos certainly encourages and colludes indirectly in the abuse of the children shown in them, and is rightly regarded as an offence.  But to equate it with physically abusing a child is grotesque, and there seems no case in equity or common sense for sending anyone to prison for it.  

(2)  Andrew Anthony rightly lambasts the West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service for their extraordinary joint statement denouncing a serious television programme, Undercover Mosque, for allegedly quoting Muslim preachers "out of context":  they have even gone so far as to refer the matter to the regulator, Ofcom.  The programme, made by reputable producers and editors, broadcast extracts from inflammatory sermons which the programme makers vehemently deny were in any way "out of context".  No-one suggests that any breach of any law has been committed by the programme — or even necessarily by the preachers — and this apparent foray into television criticism by the West Midlands Police and the CPS seems both unwarranted and potentially sinister.  Anthony's article's dissection of this incident is exemplary. 

(3) The Observer's editorial about the EU "Reform Treaty" and whether there should be a referendum on it (as demanded by the Tories and the noisier tabloids) performs a useful service by pointing out that the government's real, as distinct from its "public", reason for refusing to hold a referendum on the treaty is that it would lose it, suspicion of the EU and all its works being so widespread in Britain. The institutional and procedural changes proposed by the treaty are made patently necessary by recent EU enlargement, and their defeat in a referendum would be extremely harmful.  It's anyway questionable whether any large number of British voters would have read the document upon which they were required to pronounce, or whether, even if they had read them, many would understand their implications or the nature of the changes from existing practice that would be entailed — and I am certainly among those who would neither read nor understand the document, having much better things to do with my time.  We can't seriously expect ministers to admit that the reason for not having a referendum is that its result would be to reject the treaty, which both the EU and Britain clearly need, but it's useful for the serious media to point this out as the Observer has done. 

The blame for this inconvenient argument rests on (a) the Blair government for having recklessly promised a referendum on the now defunct proposal for a new EU 'Constitution', some of whose provisions are reproduced in the new draft treaty; and on (b) the Tories and their attendant tabloids for their mischievous and cynical opposition to the draft treaty and their demand for a referendum on it — a reversion to the bad old days of the pre-Cameron Conservatives' unprincipled, opportunistic Europhobia.   

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Some things I would prefer never again to hear or read in trendy political commentaries and interviews:

What is the Daily Beast's take on this?

The Daily Beast goes with the terrorism story as its lead. 

The Brown bounce

That's all we have time for [followed by commercials aimed at four-year-olds, or sport, or a segment on doing up houses] 

I'm sorry to interrupt [introduction to an interruption that prevents the speaker from making his or her main point] 

Son of the manse [referring to the prime minister, or indeed anyone else] 

At the end of the day  [used first thing in the morning or mid-afternoon]

The next general election need not be held before 2009 [the last one was in May 2005 and we still have statutory provision for five-year parliaments in this country, not four]

I'm now joined by …  [introducing someone speaking from a television studio several hundred miles away]

There are many more such irrritants, but you get the general idea. 


3 Responses

  1. John Miles says:

    I'm one of those who would, in a referendum, probably vote in favour of this treaty. Not because I've read the relevant bumf, but because I rather like the idea of us being Europeans. But I'm almost certain that mine is a minority view.. I can live with that, and I'm happy to accept the verdict of the majority of my fellow citizens. Isn't it just a wee bit patronising for Gordon and Co to say, "These things are too difficult for the polloi to understand. Trust us, we know what's best for you." Perhaps particularly after they've promised us a referendum.

    Two questions: You say, " We can't seriously expect ministers to admit that the reason for not having a referendum is that its result would be to reject the treaty." If it really is the reason, why on earth not? You say, "This is a treatment which both the EU and Britain clearly need." It's not clear to me that Britain actually needs it. Nor, I suspect, to many other people. If it really were that clear, surely they'd all vote in favour of the treaty? Or do you think most people are too thick to see the obvious?

    One more: What's wrong with "Son of the manse?" This expression gives you clear warning that you may be dealing with some kind of a nut. Not always of course, but quite often.

    Brian writes: Thanks once again, John.  As far as I know, Gordon Brown and Co. have never said that these matters (those raised by the proposed treaty) are too difficult for hoi polloi to understand.   I merely observe that they are too complicated (and perhaps more to the point, too boring) for an ordinarily well informed person like myself to follow or research in any detail:  and given the barrage of ignorant and prejudicial propaganda from the Europhobe tabloids plus the Daily Telegraph plus most of the Tories, all denouncing the treaty and bellowing for a No vote, it seems to me almost inconceivable that either any significant number of voters would have a sufficiently detailed understanding of the numerous issues at stake to be able to cast an informed vote, or that the treaty would have the slightest chance of being approved in a referendum.  The government can't say this openly without being accused of pushing through a controversial measure in the teeth of opposition from the majority of the electorate, which can fatally easily (although wrongly) be represented as undemocratic;  so it's forced back on the perfectly valid (but to many people unconvincing) argument that the treaty does no more than previous treaties have done and that none of the previous ones was put to a referendum.  FWIW, I am myself satisfied that most of the measures in the treaty, to the limited extent that I understand them, need to be approved in Britain's and the EU's interests because the existing machinery for running an international body of six or ten or 12 members is inadequate for one of 27 and that the treaty's proposals will help to adapt the EU's machinery for its current needs.  That's clear to me (and to many others), but it would be difficult or impossible to persuade the majority of the electorate, I think, that (e.g.) it's in Britain's interests to give up a raft of our existing vetoes, even though it is (because a requirement of complete unanimity among 27 member states across a wide range of subjects is almost certain to make it impossible to get approval for a host of measures which successive British governments will want to see adopted).  It's not a question of the British electorate being 'thick', but of many of our populist or reactionary media being violently Europhobic and highly influential, especially when acting in alliance with the official opposition.  As I said earlier, the mistake was to promise a referendum on the proposed "constitution", much of which is reproduced in the new treaty.  We should not slip imperceptibly into the assumption that any government measure of importance must be submitted to a referendum:  governments should be free to take unpopular measures if they believe they are right and necessary, and let the people judge at periodic elections whether they got it right.  Only matters of the highest constitutional importance require a referendum, such as whether to leave the EU altogether, whether to adopt a federal system for the UK, or whether to introduce devolution for England.

    "Son of the manse" is a terrible cliché (few of us use the word "manse" in ordinary parlance) which disguises rather than clarifies what's really meant: if the intended implication is that Brown, being the son of a Church of Scotland minister, must be a person of great integrity, or that (in your own words) you must be "dealing with some kind of a nut", or that he must be a religious bigot, or that he probably behaves very correctly in his private life, or that he's highly socially aware, or any of the other likely consequences of this particular upbringing as enumerated in a Guardian article of last June by Ian Bradley, then it's better to specify which of the possible implications is intended than to fall back on a lazy cliché as cliché-prone journalists are apt to do.

  2. John Miles says:

    Yes, but all your eloquence doesn't alter the brute facts that we were promised a referendum, and that consequently many people think we ought to have one.

    If, as you don't seem to dispute, it's true that that Mr Brown doesn't want one because he's frightened of losing it, why doesn't he say something like this?

    "With hindsight it's now clear the previous government was wrong to promise you this referendum.

    "Most sensible people agree that referendums (referenda?) are a Bad Thing.

    "They seem to be democratic, but this is a fallacy. All they do is transfer power from the Lords and Commons, where it properly belongs, to ordinary people.

    "In theory this might be a good idea, but in practice ordinary people are so politically amateurish they are easily seduced by the lies and false promises of unscrupulous, self-seeking journalists and politicians.

    "But we are the professionals, we know what's in your best interests.

    "So trust us to look after you in our good old tried-and-tested, traditional ways."

    He might have added, "Just imagine what might have happened if we'd given you a referendum the invasion of Iraq … you might so easily have got it all wrong."

    Remember George Orwell's Squealer?

    Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then were should we be?

    Brian writes:  Good satirical stuff, John.  But a little bit naughty.  You know as well as I do that our system is based on parliamentary  democracy, not government by referendum.  Some issues that have to be decided by governments and confirmed or otherwise by parliament are obviously incapable of being encapsulated in a referendum question or even in a string of referendum questions, except by reference to an external text (such as a draft EU Treaty) which it's quite unrealistic to expect any significant number of voters to have read.  Moreover in a referendum it's impossible to answer, as parliament can, "I agree with Sections 3, 8 to 107, and 359, but not with the rest" — or any variant of that.  In any case, as Burke famously laid down, we send our members of parliament to Westminster to exercise their best judgement on our behalf, not to attempt to reflect our passing whims and opinions on every issue that arises, even if it were to be possible to ascertain what they are, and how many of the electorate hold them.  If our ministers and elected representatives get it wrong, they get their comeuppance at the next election.  Of course they would be foolish totally to ignore public opinion as expressed in their postbags, in the media, and in public opinion polls of varying degrees of reliability, but this has to be only one of many factors that they need to take into account in making their decisions, the principal such factor being their own best judgement of what is right for the country.  A referendum has the effect of making public opinion supersede that judgement, which is contrary to the essential principles of the system and would infallibly end in tears.

    You may ask why, if this is the case, Gordon Brown doesn't set it out publicly in precisely the way I have just done.  The answer is that if he did, the shameless tabloids and the rest of the Murdoch and yellow press would misrepresent his position, probably in exactly the amusing and satirical terms that you use in your own comment.  He would be lampooned for asserting that the politicians know best and that they can't trust the public to make the right decisions.  Such is the fate of any sophisticated argument that is not to the liking of a handful of foreign newspaper proprietors and their unprincipled editors.    

  3. John Miles says:

    One or two points and questions arising from your comments:

    Some of us think the expression "parliamentary democracy" is as oxymoronic as "French Cricket." Aristotle, for example, would almost certainly, have called our system oligarchic, if not aristocratic; and of course he would have thought this was a point in its favour. Don't forget it's almost certain that the word "democracy" – like, I believe, "meritocracy" – was originally coined as a sneer.

    What Burke said might, for all I know, have made sense in the eighteenth century. But does it make sense today? How do you rate the judgment of your own MP? Career politicians – party hacks – tend, all but a few, to "leave their brains outside and vote just as their leaders tell 'em to." You can't blame them too much for this; they're much more dependent than were Burke's contemporaries on their parliamentary salaries to feed their families and pay off their mortgages.

    Foriegn newspaper proprietors and their unprincipled editors.                                          
    I don't altogether follow you here. Why should Johnny Foreigner care one way or the other what we do about Europe? Isn't he just interested in making money from his newspapers? Does he care how his editors do this? A good way to increase your circulation is to pander to your reader's opinions and prejudices, to make them feel warm and clever. My feeling is that most people's opinions and prejudices make them want to have as little as possible to do with Europe; and that Johnny Foreigner's editor is bright enough to cotton to this.

    Brian writes:  As Churchill famously remarked, parliamentary democracy is a terrible system: it's just that any alternative is infinitely worse (a rough paraphrase, of course).  There are many things that could be done to improve the system we have got, but our society is deeply suspicious of change and quite neurotically risk-averse, so reform takes an age.  On balance, though, it works as it is much more satisfactorily than one might expect from an examination of its many defects.

    On foreign media moguls, almost all our foreign media proprietors from Beaverbrook down to Murdoch have had clear private and commercial agenda and have used their newspapers, television channels and influence on craven politicians to promote them with extraordinary ruthlessness.  All Murdoch's titles, for example, and his Sky and Fox news and other channels, single-mindedly pursue policies and attitudes which are calculated to further the commercial interests of the Murdoch empire and which reflect Murdoch's own right-wing political views.  If any one of the editors whom he appoints tries to stand up to him and to pursue an independent line, he is summarily fired.  Because political leaders of all political persuasions are terrified of offending Murdoch and thus becoming targets of the lethally destructive malice of The Sun newspaper, they cravenly kow-tow to him and cultivate him to the exclusion of almost any other considerations.  Those who can't recognise the enormous power that he wields in consequence of this are missing a major ingredient in the current political and social brew.  Conrad Black wielded broadly similar power on a lesser scale until his downfall.  These men shape and manipulate public opinion on such issues as Europe and the royal family, taxation and regulation, globalisation and climate change:  they don't just identify already existing popular views and exploit them.  It's a sad irony that just at the time when the executive has achieved almost complete control of parliament, effectively neutralising it as a body able to hold government to account, sections of the media, especially the tabloids, have achieved a wide measure of control over the executive.