Author Archive

Inverted Drama

Posted: July 18, 2011 in Media

I fear I’m about to enter the realm of the man with a Ferrari cap on, covering his balding pate; the man who carries a handy flask of tea wherever he goes and has a penchant for cucumber sandwiches. I fear I’m about to enter the territory of the man who talks to you for hours on end, while you try desperately to excuse yourself, about classic cars of the 1950s at your cousin’s wedding.

You see – I’ve noticed, of late, an increasing amount of residual ire whenever I hear someone say “should of…” or see (burgeoning with the internet) inappropriate semicolons and incorrect spellings in ‘serious’ reports1. And there is a part of me that wants to talk to people about grammar.

It’s not like I’m perfect and want to regale people with stories of my glorious mastery of the hyphen – it’s much more worrying than that. I care. I may as well put on my badly fitting Ferrari cap now. Like the uncommonly skinny man with bad breath ignoring the bride and groom and elaborating to you details of the 1952 166S carburettor, I actually give a shit.

Has anyone got some spare chinos?

And I don’t even maintain my not-a-Ferrari-but-it-is-rather-red-isn’t-it? affordable modern sports saloon in quite the same impeccable manner. You see, like the cocky fool I am, I think it’s quite all right to play about with form and standard if you know what it is to start with. Thus, my droning is reserved only for those I deem too foolish to know what they are doing.

Which is exactly where I’m going wrong.

I should be paying a lot more attention to those who do know what they’re doing.

Because they are the ones with the power – a word I don’t believe I am using lightly here – to genuinely shape opinion. I know my generation’s faults and am aware widespread lack of grammatical proficiency is one of them. However, I also know that most people I know who are not armed to use it well themselves still realise when they’re reading something grammatically poor; and I know that the same people are much less likely to analyse correctly used grammar.

In mass news media, the headline is designed to make us buy the product, to read the news. It tells us not just what an article is about but how to think about the subject matter therein. And because of its function, writing a headline is a key part of the process of publishing news, whatever the media. It is usually done in a competent manner, using the bare minimum amount of language to get a point across. It is absolutely essential that, in this microcosm of the news process, grammar is used as effectively as possible.

Which is why, when casually browsing the news the other day, I decided to burn my Porsche, or Ferrari, or whatever-it-is hat and pour the tea out of my flask. Donning the clothes of a grammar bore had caused me to take my eye off the road.

A group of Kenyans brought a legal case against the British Government. Without going into too much detail, they claimed to have been tortured and abused in detention camps during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. That there were abuses and cases of torture in said camps is not being disputed – and it would be difficult to prove the plaintiffs were not victims of such attempted. The prosecution relies on linking officials of the British Government with abuses that took place. The defence of the case focusses on questions of liability and technical issues.

I was interested in the case, and its treatment at the hands of two sets of those engineers of the inverted comma, the headline mechanics, is what delivered my epiphany.

Metro advised me: Kenyans to sue for uprising ‘abuse’. Their use of inverted commas conveys a sense that the abuse may not have happened, which is unlikely but could conceivably be true. However, my problem here is that they have pointed the reader to an issue that is not key to the subject. Whether or not abuses occurred is not as important here as the British Government’s involvement in them. As a result, the reader is led to question the motives of the plaintiffs, which guides the audience gently to the side of the defence.

And more damagingly – much more damagingly – I felt it telling me that my interest was misplaced. This was not a story likely to sell more newspapers, and the inverted commas were telling me the subject matter, the ‘abuse’, was trivial. This, coupled with the story’s relatively low billing in the publication, was guiding my conscious choices as a reader, and consumer of the news product.

As a major national publication, such gentle nudging is very influential indeed.

The second, rather more nefarious headline I saw was on the BBC: Mau Mau case: UK government cannot be held liable. Before the case was even heard! A verdict on the internet! Of course, this was a quote from the defence – but this time the lack of inverted commas made the headline appear as if it is a simple fact. The result was the same, but more subtly put: this case is a waste of yours and the state’s time; interest in it is not worthwhile; news consumables here are abundant and we wish to push your attention away from this and on to the concerns of mass interest in which we invest better resources.

And the sad thing, the reason for my epiphany, is that it worked. The subtly rationed grammar of the headline was an effective advertisement for my attention, and I lost interest in the case.

As a result of such small tinkerings with the carburettor of meaning, how many people have gone home with preconceptions about innocence and guilt in a case regarding a far more important product of 1952? And how many people have ignored it in favour of knowledge about Cheryl Cole’s current employment?

1In an entirely unrelated incident, I recently saw in a major daily news publication a map showing the various economic stragglers in the ‘Eurozone’, which incorrectly labelled Turkey as Greece. Nice.

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Meltdown

Posted: April 8, 2011 in Media

NB – It’s taken me a while to post this, so apologies for the out-of-date figures.

As I write this, close to half a million people have been left homeless by the tsunami that hit Japan a few weeks ago. For many, their possessions – indeed the towns they lived in – have been utterly destroyed and they are left with nothing. 250,000 are still sleeping in shelters, where the food supply is hampered by damage to infrastructure and they are struggling to get the nutrition and warmth they need. As I write this, the Japanese authorities have confirmed 10,094 bodies have been recovered from the disaster scene and more than 17,000 people are still missing.

From the dawn of civilization, mankind has had many things to fear. Fear of the dark and unknown spaces around us has caused us to light them up – with candles, with electric lamps, with telescopes and microscopes and reams of mathematical, philosphic and scientific theory.

But fear is still with us. Mankind cannot see everything and is not yet master of all he surveys. And fear is a physiological function of survival. We are supposed to fear things that may kill us when survival is difficult, so we can take action to reduce the chance of them killing us; when survival is not so difficult, fear shifts to the things that affect our livelihood or our social standing.

And fear is exploitable.

Politicians use it to sell us ideas. Religious leaders use it to sell us devotion. Firms use it to sell us products. The media uses it to sell us newspapers and TV shows. Indeed part of the reason many people read or watch the news is so they know precisely what to fear next.

As I write this, close to half a million people have been left homeless by the tsunami that hit Japan a few weeks ago. For many, their possessions – indeed the towns they lived in – have been utterly destroyed and they are left with nothing. 250,000 are still sleeping in shelters, where the food supply is hampered by damage to infrastructure and they are struggling to get the nutrition and warmth they need. As I write this, the Japanese authorities have confirmed 10,109 bodies have been recovered from the disaster scene and more than 17,000 people are still missing.

In the theatre of war, mankind has sharpened his scientific edge. In the struggle to kill rather than be killed, having more or better weapons always helps.

Whether a Zulu iklwa, a British rifle or a German Panzer, the next technological advance gives you the tools you need to defeat your rivals.

And thus it remained from the dawn of civilization until 1945.

In the air above Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the culmination of human advances in warfare finally reached its logical conclusion. A nuclear chain reaction unleashed the ferocious energy required to kill thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, and destroy entire city blocks.

A civilization finally had as much power to destroy as nature herself.

As I write this, close to half a million people have been left homeless by the tsunami that hit Japan a few weeks ago. For many, their possessions – indeed the towns they lived in – have been utterly destroyed and they are left with nothing. 250,000 are still sleeping in shelters, where the food supply is hampered by damage to infrastructure and they are struggling to get the nutrition and warmth they need. As I write this, the Japanese authorities have confirmed 10,109 bodies have been recovered from the disaster scene and more than 17,000 people are still missing.

And as I write, the terrible mark of Hiroshima’s death heats millions of homes.

The ghost of fallout; of nuclear winter; of M.A.D. floats behind your laptop screen as you read this. Fiction has warned us. The Cold War taught us. This technology is evil. It lurks in the dark, with the eyes of the wolf and howls at the moon the call to destroy mankind. And Chernobyl proved it to us.

Is it therefore any surprise we are ignoring the scientists? Is it therefore any surprise we don’t trust the Japanese government’s (one of the world’s most technologically capable and informed) expertise?

Following the tsunami in Japan, a nuclear power plant was badly damaged and the authorities there have been working hard to contain the situation and protect the populace. It is likely some of the workers trying to bring the plant under control will have ongoing health problems and may even die due to their exposure to radiation.

But there is nothing to indicate, given the view of experts and the action taken by the Japanese government that Fukushima Daiichi will descend with the rest of her pack to wreak the same havoc as at Nagasaki.

Despite this, headline after headline outside of Japan has flashed the warning of a meltdown into our living rooms.

The problem is that the fear attached to the invisible danger of radiation – the fear attached to both the bomb and the reactor – sells newspapers.  It sells bulletins.

In this instance, it has meant the devastation wrought by nature has taken a back seat for audiences around the world. In this instance, the real meltdown has occurred on the news channels that sell us fear, as they focus on what comparatively is a  limited and minor incident.

As I write this, close to half a million people have been left homeless by the tsunami that hit Japan a few weeks ago. For many, their possessions – indeed the towns they lived in – have been utterly destroyed and they are left with nothing. 250,000 are still sleeping in shelters, where the food supply is hampered by damage to infrastructure and they are struggling to get the nutrition and warmth they need. As I write this, the Japanese authorities have confirmed 10,151 bodies have been recovered from the disaster scene and more than 17,000 people are still missing.

Generation X-Factor

Posted: March 27, 2011 in Politics

Power comes when the gun is pressed into your hands. Strength comes when the gun is pressed against your face.

By and by I notice the nonchalant character of a nation bequeathed with power as I walk the streets of London. By and by I notice the decadent self-referral of artists lost in wonder at the structures of their own intelligence. By and by I wonder what happened to the greater themes mankind whispered to the wind in the ashes of 1945, promising to change a warring continent into a bastion of human strength.

As I pass retail cathedrals, poets chew on headlines, not rhymes; the pun, a simple amuse-bouche, is their main course. Musicians are turned on by cash or kudos. Politicians swagger to the gleaming paparazzi limelight with grins fixed where bayonets should be, to fight the war against embarrassment and losing office, rather than slashing at injustice.

And just across the Mediterranean, men and women who want simply to earn a wage and voice their opinion are shoved brutally against a wall, the grease of sweat sliding around an oiled barrel of death (another funds his enemy).

But alas! this kind of hyperbole is a simple art requiring modest skill.

It is all around us. Applied to everything from shaving creams to TV shows, from sofas to the latest ketamine-inhibited band of trendy dropouts from Dalston, hyperbole ceases to mean anything.

A generation sits and watches The X-Factor. It is washed with the warm images of the ordinary girl or boy ‘making it’ against the odds. As it waits, bated breath, for the weekend (perhaps I’m displaying some schedulig ignorance here) to arrive, a generation is gripped by the hyperbolic struggle between the candy-laden dream of stardom and the palsied grey days of ‘regular life’.

Sorry – I’m slipping into it again. Hyperbole. Did I say it ceases to mean anything? Because what I meant is, it means everything.

When applied to all things, it becomes meaningless by and by. It starts to lack the absolute meaning that created it. But equally, it becomes the absolute frame of relative meaning. The superabundance of hyperbole in a marketplace where everyone can clamour for our pound/dollar/euro leads us to derive meaning from it only in application to subjects that interest us – and ignore it everywhere else.

And because each cultural mote is presented to us as equal in hyperbolic outline, our choice of cause to follow naturally veers toward the mundane.

Who wants to hear about the dire struggle of a family from Chad to get food when, in the same hyperbolic terms (in fact, when production values, scheduling and budget are accounted for, far superior hyperbolic terms) one can hear the struggle of an Essex girl to get a singing contract?

The Essex girl is more digestible because the struggle is not actually life and death but can be portrayed in the same visual language. Her life experience has greater natural scope for British sympathy because it is closer to our own. Identifiable and understandable, the story of her ascent or defeat provides ready and unstressful ground for social intercourse.

And we can sleep at night, safe in the knowledge her narrative continues for a set period and is delivered in packages that fit our lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the family in Chad deals with all the complexities of human existence for the rest of their lives. The issues of power, food security, domestic and international politics are more difficult to effectively edit into a ten week run of prime time shows. They cannot be easily understood or explained and the hyperbole required to provide that relative framework of meaning, by comparison to the sofa store sale, cheapens their plight because their plight has absolute meaning.

It’s easy to say the X-Factor generation doesn’t care.

Given that the particular show in question routinely encourages its viewers to put another nail in the coffin of musical creativity using the power of the vote, it’s even easier not to trust the X-Factor generation with the big red buttons of choice and decision attached to their ballot papers.

It’s easy to start a blog entry with a diatribe on the decadence of Western society, and end it by laying into the taste, morals and culture of an entire generation.

As it happens, I know a lot of people who watch the X-Factor and don’t take the least bit of interest in politics – much less in how the subtle interplay of a number of factors keeps people thousands of miles away entrenched in poverty. If I show the least sign of talking about an economic issue, they buy me off with rum. It would be to attack their attitude, their shallowness and decadance.

But take them to Chad to meet the struggling family and everything changes. Not one of these people would fail to be motivated to help.

This is my generation. I should not condemn it for living in the grooves of the civilization that nurtured it.

It’s no surprise we succumb to shallow entertainment while a corrupt world politic does little to prevent millions of needless deaths. It doesn’t happen because a whole generation is worthless – it happens because those with either the power or the ideas to effect change are failing to make the struggles of the human race a higher priority than sitting in with a bottle of wine, a pizza and your favourite TV show.

Surely if I think a change is required, I should challenge things.

Surely if I really care, I should think about how to do this; I should think about the mechanics that make the decadance; I should examine the hyperbole and try to understand how to evolve my language to make the big themes sell better than The X-Factor. I should be working hard, practicing methods, to make a change, not looking down on the masses of which I am part.

Perhaps those of us who feel the gun of decadence in the mouth of our nation should begin to show a little more strength. Perhaps when we hear the safety catch click, we should not be caught pointing a cowardly finger at men and women we haughtily perceive to be more worthy of being pushed against the wall.

The Statue of Lip-service

Posted: February 1, 2011 in Politics, World

Will the unrest in Egypt have the effect it ought to on Western electorates?

For the past week, the people of Cairo and other major cities in Egypt have taken to the streets to show their dissatisfaction at the way the regime of Hosni Mubarak is running the country. The events follow similar unrest in Tunisia that unseated an unpopular and undemocratic regime, and many see them as a precursor for possible further instability in the north of Sudan.

However, I fear the impact in the West, specifically of the events in Egypt, may be no more than passing. I think it should be giving us serious pause for thought.

Understandably, the scene resonates with Western audiences. The ordinary man in the streets demanding more involvement in the process of government; the struggle for improvement in living standards and the desire for gainful employment; these are the building blocks we in the West have painfully put together over the course of centuries in our nations and which we have used as the imprint for the world order we attempted to pin together after the disastrous wars of the twentieth century.

Journalists understand this resonance sells. They also understand the clear difference, on a global scale, between Tunisia, a country of 11m with a fringe economy and limited strategic importance and Egypt, the most populous Arab majority nation (over 80m), which has great economic potential, and is a key Western strategic partner.

Consequently, the coverage has been ubiquitous and most people realise they are witnessing a major event in world politics.

Western leaders have been dutifully plain in their support of democracy. With tanks on the streets, they have discouraged any violence from either side (and although over 100 have reportedly died, this seems to be the desire of all parties in Egypt too). With measured words, they have encouraged democratic reform and concessions – and to be frank following any other course in their rhetoric would be difficult to imagine.

So far, so good, then. We have a popular uprising demanding the same rights we in the West have been championing; we have a level of restraint on both sides in what could otherwise be a very tense and bloody situation; we have politicians with carefully stage-managed responses that urge correctness and respect.

But what if the protests weren’t happening? What if the ordinary man in the streets of Egypt had not risked the possibility of death and violence to demand change?

Hosni Mubarak has been in charge of Egypt for 30 years. He has, on the whole, run a stable nation with conciliatory views (by comparison with other nations in the region) toward Israel. The Suez Canal, running through Egypt and connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas is one of the world’s most important trade routes. Publicly, he supports political moderation and his engagement in such organisations as the Arab League back this up. He has had success in combating terrorism (that great, nebulous demon lurking constantly in the depths of Western nightmares) internally.

As a result, his leadership has been attractive to the West. A secure Suez Canal is of huge economic benefit to many of our economies. Military and political stability in the region allays our fears of terrorist organisations gaining arms and support, or even worse being dragged into yet another unpopular war in the Middle East; Egypt under Mubarak has worked hard to try and achieve this stability. And an Arab power combating terrorism and radicalisation at home appeases Western audiences.

Therefore support for his regime has equated to a kind of defence of Western interests. I would suggest this is a sort of ‘better the devil you know’ attitude – we have acknowledged the regime’s poor attitude to the rights of its citizens but funded its security all the same, because it is better for us than the uncertainty involved should it fail.

And this poses a huge dilemma. Should the price of our security be another man’s liberty?

I believe Benjamin Franklin once said, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security would deserve neither and lose both.”

In this instance, our foreign aid (most substantially, ironically, from the US) has gone a step further – essentially giving up a lot of another nation’s liberty to gain a little security for our Western economies.

And although our politicians are making the right noises now that an opportunity has arisen for that liberty to be restored, let us not forget that an opportunity also now exists to address the hypocrisy that preceded it.

And yes, I appreciate international relations and diplomacy are complicated and murky at best but that does not preclude an approach based on integrity, openness and engagement – it simply makes it more difficult.

So while there will be excuses aplenty – while there are ready-made explanations referring to our (the electorates’) common crimes, such as ‘lack of understanding’ – I would remind Western electorates of their responsibility to hold the elected responsible for their actions. One should expect consequences for publicly stating support for the principles of free democracy while at the same time funding its repression – and we have the freedom to act.

So, as the journalists take time to reflect on the events they have witnessed and reported, I would ask them to shine a light, as they are free to do, on the foreign policies of the West.

And as the situation unfolds, I ask electorates around the world to stand beside their Egyptian brothers and sisters and demand their politicians align their foreign policy with the principles they were elected to advance.

A Necessary Evil?

Posted: January 27, 2011 in Britain

I should point out before starting that I am undecided on the specific issue of the VAT increase but the way it has been presented is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Don’t even get me started on the word ‘progressive’.

‘Necessary’ is strong language. You might say that if one wishes to successfully land a passenger airliner, it is ‘necessary’ for one to have knowledge of its controls. However, if one is sitting on the beach, minding one’s own business, it is in no way necessary to know the controls of a jumbo jet. Whether something is ‘necessary’ or not depends on the context. Admittedly, in some instances the context is implicit. For example, it is necessary for a human to breathe. The context here can be described as ‘a human staying alive’, but that is implicit in the sense of the statement. What I am concerned about is in no way as fundamental as this.

George Osborne has described the VAT rise as a ‘tough but necessary step towards Britain’s economic recovery.’ Strong rhetoric, given the absolute nature of the key adjective in the phrase.

In this statement, he has given us context: Britain’s economic recovery. Forgive me for speaking in lay terms – I am not an economist – but my understanding is that Britain’s economic recovery is dependent on a wide range of factors, some of which can be influenced to a varying degree (with often unpredictable outcomes) by government policy on things like, for example, taxation. For any one of these factors to be described as ‘necessary’ implies there is clear evidence Britain’s entire economic recovery depends on it.

Far from it, in this instance. It is not even certain this increase will actually help. Sure, people and business will continue to purchase, but I would guess that despite the best efforts of retailers and the like, there will be price increases and a likely accompanying drop in sales in some areas. There will probably be a net increase in government revenue but the amount is hugely debatable and certainly not likely to be the lynch-pin of an ‘economic recovery’. Also, depending on how you look at it, said recovery was to some extent happening before the introduction of the VAT increase.

Therefore, the increase does not sound even remotely ‘necessary’ to me. In fact, I would suggest a better way to describe it is ‘a calculated minor risk aimed at bolstering government revenue to assist with deficit reduction, which in turn is intended to have a stabilising effect on Britain’s economy’.

Therefore, why would the government describe it as ‘necessary’?

On coming into power, the current government insisted on taking a number of steps immediately to address the deficit issue. Since then, a number of cuts to public finding and cancellations of various publicly funded schemes have been introduced. With the introduction of most of these cuts, we have been told they are necessary.

I absolutely refuse to believe this is the case, and the VAT increase is, I think a good example of why I should refuse.

As I mentioned, ‘necessary’ is a strong word. Its proliferation is likely to have an effect.

Repeatedly stated by senior politicians with mass media exposure, it instils in the masses a sense of politicians’ blamelessness. It distances the government from its actions and decisions – if they are necessary, then surely there is a limit to how critical we can be. And even if the government is taken to task on the linguistic point, proliferation does another thing – it desensitises.

Therefore, I think it not unreasonable to see this word as one of the key foundations of careful propaganda. There is a distinct campaign by this government to gain acceptance for policy under this ‘necessary’ banner. I see an opportunistic coalition that has come to power in a cloud of gloom, seeking to implement policy without question or blame by creating the illusion of helplessness in one of the world’s most powerful economies. This is not the only piece of language employed in this manner, nor indeed the most onerous, but it is certainly the one that has pushed me to say something.

I do not believe any government policy at present in this country to be a matter of necessity. I believe there are some good ideas being put forward and some bad, as there are at any time. But I resent being patronised. I resent being told from the top that something is necessary when it is not. I resent the implication that goes with it that therefore my voice is not only irrelevant but also without value. I resent the inherent discouragement it entails from my participating in political debate. I resent being bombarded with language that actively does all these things. As a member of a well educated electorate with the ability to understand both my native tongue and, at a basic level, political and economic issues, being directly treated like an errant child by men and women who are meant to represent me as equals is not something I intend to keep quiet about or put up with.