When I worked as a professional linguist for the British government in the first half of the 1980s the colours on the map looked deep and fixed. The mighty Soviet Empire joined in proxy wars with the American Giant and the Berlin Wall looked pretty impregnable. The West was best and the East was a beast… according to the simplistic world view of most of us. China was bonkers – but that was OK because China was closed off from most of the world anyway. India was a bit of a post-colonial basket case.

It’s not very subtle really. We just tend to assume that the ‘now’ is the ultimate and, from the comfort of our relative affluence, we find it hard to imagine our towers cracking. You have to suffer to imagine radical change; it’s hope that imagines difference.

The world changes very quickly. What looks solid and permanent cracks and collapses in a seeming instant. The Soviet monolith dissolved, it’s tanks and guns neutered by popular refusal to be controlled by the taxidermic hypocrites of the incompetent Kremlin pantheon. The Berlin Wall was breached. Just as the British Empire waxed and waned within a period that is a blip of history, so the empires came and went. It is hard to believe today that the Cold War was ever that cold really.

And yet we find it hard to learn from history – even recent history. The USA proclaims itself the ‘land of the free’, but is skating on the surface of unsustainable debt and diminishing power – apparently divided between a polarised populace who can’t see that the world is changing, whether they like it or not.

Empires come and go. That’s what history teaches us. And when they begin to go, we begin to fantasise that if only we could go back to how it once was (but probably wasn’t), all would be well again. Which is why, in religious terms, some would like to take us all back to the seventeenth century rather than create a new world from where we are. Fantasy is the food of the fearful.

Yet, this is not true only of nations. The news is dominated by the on-going hacking scandal in the UK and the latest fear-driven financial crisis. The British tabloid press demonstrated an invincible hubris for decades, setting themselves above the law, seated on the thrones of moral judgement over everyone else. Today they look pretty sordidly feeble – built on criminality and greed. And the smell is spreading across the media and across the Atlantic. This probably isn’t a good time to set up a private detective agency…

Europe itself, like the USA, is walking on the thin ice of economic and financial hubris: massively in debt, manufacturing too little, too used to living off the fat. And we are finding it hard to choose change. We want it all – even when we know we can’t afford it. Amy Winehouse wasn’t the only one to find addiction too hard to reject.

We like to think that we would be the little boy who declares the emperor to be naked – when, actually, we would be colluding in the imperial fantasy. We like to think that we would defend Jesus from the demands to crucify him – when, actually, we would be joining in. After all, it’s not that hard to argue the case either way, is it?

The prophets of the Old Testament basically had a single simple message: if you claim to love God, then live in such a way as to incarnate his character. As Micah put it: “Love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with God.” No hubris, no fantasy, no tyranny of any kind. Refusal to heed this led to exile and the loss of everything that spoke of God’s favour.

Empires are falling – some faster than others. It will be challenging to see what colour the world and it’s money will be by the end of the next decade… which is a mere blip of a slightly bigger blip of a history from which we rarely learn anything other than how to repeat it.

Today I’ll be celebrating an icon of hope: the wedding of my godson in London. More anon…

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


So, the News of the Screws is closing. I doubt if there will be a great deal of sadness around. But, two questions arise:

First, despite the language of contrition used by James Murdoch, is this anything more than a brutal business decision to protect a brand (News International)? This is the man who stated without embarrassment at the 2009 Edinburgh Television Festival that the only value that matters is profit. I have critiqued that value system elsewhere. The language of contrition appears to hide what is a simple brand/business decision and we will need to wait and see what sort of beast replaces the NOTW in the News International stable.

Second, I cannot remember a time when the tabloids did not call instantly for the head of a government minister who presided – wittingly or unwittingly – over some misdemeanour in his or her department. The buck stops at the top. Why is it different at News International? Is this not a matter of principle rather than personality? James Murdoch’s defence of Rebekkah Brookes is breathtaking in its arrogance. Were she simply the current Chief Executive at a time of criminal revelation, that would be serious enough. Were she top dog of an organisation in which people misled her (and her bosses) over the extent of criminal and corrupt activity in her business, she would at least be guilty of rank incompetence – not having an appropriate grip over her employees. On both counts she could expect to go. But, having been in charge of the NOTW when all this stuff was going on, it is inconceivable that she can remain. She admits ignorance (and, therefore, incompetence) and the price to be paid is that 200 other people lose their job.

While writing this David Cameron has cut Andy Coulson loose and announced two inquiries: one into the hacking  business and one into how to clean up the press. Why has it taken until now for the impotence of the Press Complaints Commission to be recognised? Why until now for the scandalous behaviour of unaccountable tabloids to be stopped?

This is obviously a tough moment for Cameron himself and one that raises questions about his personal judgement in respect of what has influenced his decisions regarding Rupert Murdoch, Rebekkah Brookes and Andy Coulson. Loyalty is noble, but the Prime Minister’s primary loyalty is to the people and the rule of law – not to friends. If you have to ask someone if they are criminal, it is probably not very wise to employ them anyway.

If there is one lesson to be learned from all of this it is probably a simple one: expediency will always be called to account eventually.

I only hope that this mucky business sets good journalists free to do their work in a more clearly defined ethical environment and with the renewed confidence of a public that has confidence in their remit.

Closure of the News of the World might be sad for the good people who now work for it, but it isn’t a sad day for British culture or the media in general.

One of the tragedies of the current News of the World scandal (which, for once, seems too mild a word) is the law of unintended consequences.

I have argued many times on this blog for outside regulation of the media – particularly the printed press. Repeated intrusion, misrepresentation and other infringements seemed to stem from a sense of unaccountability and invincibility on the part of some journalists and editors. I have questioned the professional self-respect of some journalists in relation to what they refer to as their ‘craft’. I have failed to understand why the press can demand external regulation for (for example) MPs – who surely cannot be trusted to behave ethically in respect of their expenses – while demanding that they be privileged with internal regulation. So, now we have Rebekkah Brookes & Co. maintaining without a hint of irony that they should be treated differently and be allowed to investigate themselves for ethical failures. Let’s have a minute’s silence to think about that withour either laughing or weeping.

In discussion of these themes I have always listened to the argument of certain journalists who have argued for (a) the need for a free press and (b) the importance for a mature democracy of an independent scrutinising press. I fully agree with both counts.

But, the arguments for self-regulation have been rubbished by journalists themselves. The need for external regulation, an enforcable ethical code and proper redress for ‘victims’ of infringement hardly needs to be argued in the light of this week’s revelations. Maybe, just maybe, the tide has turned and popular tolerance of newspaper scandal has been dimmed.

And the law of unintended consequences? First, we need a free press which takes seriously the vocation to hold power to account and identify (and pursue) the questions most of us don’t think about). Second, all journalists get tarred with the same brush – even if most would rather drink poison than sacrifice their self-respect by working for a paper like the News of the World – and that damages the reputation, standing and professionalism of those who deserve better. (And, before anyone whinges that such tarring is unfair, just look what happens when one dodgy vicar gets the rest of us slagged off as pervy, too.)

Somehow in all this mess we have to protect (or define and promote) the independence and freedom of the press – and affirm their responsibility to play their part in shaping our society. This means journalists dropping the fantasy that they only report or observe; they are players in the game. Maybe the best start to this would be for journalists themselves to take responsibility for establishing the best in journalism and telling the rest of us what standard they are working to.

Because, when all is said and done, journalism is discovering this week what the rest of us have experienced for ever: that those who hold others to account must, themselves, be held to account not only for what they write, but how they write it.

I’m not sure how, but we now need a campaign for good journalism and the promotion of good journalists.

Just a quick break between meetings (of which there are currently shed loads). A quick look at the BBC website:

  • The News of the World story grows seedier by the minute. Not only was Milly Dowler’s phone allegedly hacked, but the parents of the murdered Soham girls have also been visited by police in this respect. And the editor at the time, Rebekkah Brookes, expresses a displeasure lacking the venom with which her paper usually reserves for its targets in public life. Still no resignation – or, as we usually think of it, ‘taking responsibility’?
  • Footballer Rio Ferdinand is in court against an allegedly unfounded story of an extramarital affair in the Sunday Mirror.
  • Two national newspapers are deemed in contempt of court for their reporting on a man who turned out to be completely innocent of the murder of Joanna Yeates. Because he looks a bit odd, he was damned as guilty before being allowed to be proved innocent.
  • Johann Hari recently gave new meaning to the word ‘Independent‘ (of the actualite) when he was alleged to have ‘plagiarised’ on an industrial scale.

Is there a common thread here? Something around the need for accountability? Something about sifting good journalism from the bad by refusing to allow these travesties to continue?

Just one day in July.