Monday, November 27, 2006

What If... Diana Died Today?

Stephen Tall and Iain Dale have both posted their musings on the death of Princess Diana, and the mass hysteria that followed. Stephen takes the hard-headed approach, and talks of his feeling of alienation at the time; Iain is more in touch with his emotions (perhaps), and openly admits to "howling" while watching the funeral. I must say that I sympathise with Stephen's approach.

From the news breaking, the whole world seemed to be turned upside down. Not that the news of someone dying in a car crash - tragic as it is - was of earth-shattering importance. Especially when the person dying did not hold elected office. No, the madness came through the public seeming to lose their senses.

Or, at least, that was what the media told us. Later in the year, a group of my friends sat around waiting for our language examinations. We tried to think of a single person that we knew who had signed the fabled books of condolence that had sprung up across the country. Between 10 of us, we couldn't name a single one. And my family were travelling at the time of Diana's funeral. No matter what the viewing figures tell you, the roads were unquestionably busier than they normally are on a Saturday morning.

If Iain Dale were to travel back in time to the first week of September 1997, I'm sure he'd feel like he'd been transported to a parallel universe. Why? Because the blanket media coverage was so unquestioning, and so relentless, that it squeezed out all other news. Including the deaths of Mother Theresa (unquestionably a more deserving figure of such plaudits) and President Mobutu of Zaire (which was emerging from a bloody civil war), and the awarding of the 2004 Olympics to Athens. Why was Premiership football on the Sunday afternoon cancelled? For the death of an ex-Royal? It was crazy.

Of course, one thing for sure would have been different. Tony Blair was responsible for much of the mass hysteria that developed. His "off-the-cuff", "People's Princess" speech was a masterstroke of spin. It pre-empted the development of the round-the-clock media coverage of "the nation's grief". And the Prime Minister speaking so eloquently on behalf of the nation allowed the media to take that as their theme for the rest of the week. That would never happen nowadays. We would doubt, rightly, Blair's sincerity. And the absence of a prominent figure speaking like that would somewhat have diminished the media's ability to major so strongly on the story.

But, ultimately, even if Stephen's blog had been operating in 1997, I doubt the blogosphere would have had any impact whatsoever on media coverage. It would have provided an outlet for people like myself to grumble, moan, or rant about the mass hysteria of the media, but it wouldn't have changed the coverage significantly. Why? Because in these situations, the media is scared. Scared of losing its customers. It is the same reason why the Holly and Jessica story dominated headlines for so long.

Once a paper thinks it is selling more copies, or a TV station thinks that it is picking up more viewers, it will continue to plug the story. The BBC will have been flooded with telephone calls about Diana, at the total expense of everything else. Now, this is, of course, a vicious circle, because so much of it is driven by the blanket coverage itself. But in refusing to cover the story, the media organisation runs a serious risk not only of losing market share, but in getting permanent damage from being criticised vociferously. If this is on a political matter, it can be justified. It's a different matter where widespread public grief is concerned.

That, of course, is the downside of the 24-hour news cycle. If nothing else is happening, then non-stories that tug at the heart-strings can dominate the news - and the feedback loop it starts off sees the story rise and rise up the cycle. And, regrettably, there's no reason to think it would be any different today.

True Tales of Oxonian Life

Oxford's city centre is a mix of ambiguities. Tonight was a rather wonderful case in point.

Waiting for a friend outside the town hall, my earholes were regularly assailed by the Town Crier. Dressed in beautifully bright and ridiculous garb, he was vocally and heartily welcoming visiting dignitaries.

"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Members of the European Business Academy! Welcome to Oxford Town Hall, you are all most welcome!"

This delighted the visitors. Invariably, each arriving group would produce a digital camera and pose en masse. What a quintessentially English setting! Guests in black tie, posing outside the Victorian Town Hall with the Town Crier in his bright red jacket and all the frills. And driving into place right behind them, McCoys kebab van.

Digestable Blogging?

Last Friday, a mysterious package found its way into my pigeon-hole. A welcome surprise, however, when I opened it up and found that it was my free copy of the Blog Digest 2007. Until that point, it had slipped my mind entirely that I'd cheerfully given rights for this post to be included, and possibly the labour of my first born son, too.

Quite apart from the fact that Justin McKeating had the good sense to include an effort from yours truly, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. And a significant upgrade from Tim Worstall's "2005: Blogged" effort last year, too. Firstly, there are few presentation issues, especially in comparison to Blogged. Sometimes pages contain a little too much blank space, but the quality of the writing more than makes up for it. McKeating clearly has an excellent eye not just for pithy polemicists, but for genuinely high-quality writing, too.

The anthology is all the stronger for being divided by theme, rather than chronology. The danger of the latter approach is that the collection reads more like a journal of the year, where articles are selected for being the best comment on a given issue, rather than being the one of the best articles around. The Blog Digest, therefore, creates room for efforts from the Curious Hamster and Jarndyce, to name just two, that aren't related to any specific events, but provide a better overview (on Iran and reasons for invading Iraq, respectively) on their chosen subjects than no end of broadsheet column inches wasted on the same subject.

And, like all good anthologies, the Digest reads just as well whether you take it from start to finish, or you dip in and out randomly. If it would have any difficulty passing the "Page 69" test, then it comes in the fact that page 69 is the back end of a post, and no commentary at all on the quality of any given article.

McKeating does an excellent job of why the blogosphere has been doing so well in terms of media coverage. It's not because it's new and shiny, it's because it has the quality necessary to be worth reading. And ultimately, that is why the nay-sayers who think that the media has built blogs up only to knock them down later will be proved wrong. What it's done is unleash the beast. No-one can read Dr Crippen without being able to trust him more than Dr Thomas Stuttaford. And once people are aware of the quality that is out there, they will stick with it. And the Blog Digest 2007 is as good a start as any.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Spy Ring

Those who may be tempted to write off the poisoning of a former spy as a one-off incident might want to look across the Atlantic, to Canada.

When Hampel was arrested, he was carrying what the Toronto Star has described as "the signature tools of a 21st century secret agent." Among the items seized: $7,800 in five different currencies, several bank and credit cards, three cellular phones, password-encrypted SIM cards, two digital cameras, a short wave radio and a fake Ontario birth certificate. And he was traveling under the third Canadian passport he had been issued since 1995.

Russia is doing its best to flex its muscles again. Or so it would seem.

The most interesting angle on this, however, seems to be the implications for the criminal justice system. The suspect is being denied access to some of the evidence against him on national security grounds. And the article linked to above suggests that the Canadian government may seize on this as justifying further legislation. I'll look into this further, and if there's anything in it, I'll write a bit more about it.

For now, though, the most amusing story I've heard concerning this is that Hampel was allegedly caught with a lot of Canadian cheat sheets. A primer in the basic facts of Canadian history. I suspect this guy might be, in the words of Andrew Mackinlay, a piece of fluff. Thrown up by the Russians to hide something a lot more sinister.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stuart Barnes wants to kill the game of rugby

Writing in the Sunday Times today, Stuart Barnes, perhaps the most pig-headed and ignorant of rugby commentators, has published his prescription for the death of rugby. The IRB has recently issued strong guidelines to crack down on stamping, and rightly so. One of the blights of the game is that when players are on the wrong side of a ruck, too many players consider it their right to jump in with their feet and give the offending player a good kicking. Not try and get him out of the way, you understanding, but to cause him maximum pain. Such an act, of course, is against the rules of rugby, constituting violent conduct, and as such is punishable by a yellow or red card.

Barnes considers this a "charter for cheats"; that if players aren't allowed to kick their opponents, then people will come in on the opponent's side of a ruck and 'kill the ball' with impunity. What he is essentially saying, however, is that he does not trust the referees of rugby to do their job.

The fact remains that killing the ball is against the rules; it should be blown up for a penalty every time the referee spots it. Moreover, referees are also instructed to look for repeated infringements by the same team, so that if a team, let alone a player, kills the ball three times during a match, the referee is entitled to send an offender to the sin-bin for ten minutes - and do the same for every repeat offence. A team that finds itself playing with men short for significant periods of time will struggle to win matches on a consistent basis. And, ultimately, that is far preferable than turning a blind eye to what amounts to thuggery.

For what Barnes forgets is that with TV cameras probing every angle of an international match, and increasing numbers of club matches too, such acts of thuggery will be broadcast to large numbers of parents who will consequently be highly reluctant to let their children play in such a violent environment. "The stud-torn shirt across the back, the pain of the iodine, was all part of the sport’s badge of honour," writes Barnes. A wonderful advertisement for a sport struggling to maintain numbers, with clubs going under on a regular basis, and with a desperate need for an infusion of youth outside of public schools. (To put this problem in perspective, consider that only 6 schools in the entireity of County Durham now play rugby at under-18 level. Four of these are private schools.) Rugby is a tough game, for sure. But it's a tough enough game without allowing out-and-out violence on top.

Barnes continues, "There were and still are a few thugs who stamp on heads, ankles, knees; areas that were deliberately targeted and a real risk to the health of the illegally located forward. Nobody has ever endorsed vigilante style justice." Unfortunately for him, vigilante style justice is exactly what he is endorsing. For there are more areas than heads, ankles and knees that suffer from a kick. How long before someone damages a kidney through what Barnes might term 'imaginative use of the feet'? And the thugs who will target those areas will feel emboldened by any acceptance of stamping - it will be increasingly difficult to draw a line between the stamp that is legitimate, and the one that 'just happens' to have caught someone's knee. The only way to secure player safety on the field is to clamp down heavily on any instances of thuggery.

While rugby is a sport that is associated with off-the-ball violence, it will struggle to attract the new players who are the lifeblood of the game. The solution to cheats lying on the wrong side of the ruck is to give penalties against them and sin-bin the offenders. Regulating the existing laws effectively is the best means of ensuring quick ball. Sanctioning one form of cheating to stop another form of cheating merely encourages lawlessness and violence.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Graham Poll, Jose Mourinho, and Making Tough Decisions

Graham Poll has recently been at the centre of media attention regarding his refereeing. Not content with booking a player three times before sending him off at the World Cup, he's provoked the ire of Chelsea, disallowing a clear goal by Didier Drogba, and becoming very card-happy, allegedly saying they "needed to be taught a lesson".

Not prepared to retreat to the quiet life, Poll then sent Everton's James McFadden off on Wednesday for foul and abusive language. McFadden denies calling Poll a "f---ing cheat", although the fact that Everton haven't appealed his suspension does give grist to Poll's mill.

This has become a far more major controversy because Poll is rated as England's best referee; he has represented us at the last two World Cups, and he would normally be in line to referee the Manchester United vs. Chelsea match later this month. What has to be questioned now, though, is whether Poll is in a position to make the tough decisions that he will be called upon to make in such a match.

He was unquestionably right to send McFadden off if he used the phrase of which he was accused. Yet such is the media storm that surrounds him (one, I might add, that may not be of his own making), that he may feel unable to make a similar decision in such a high-profile match - one, indeed, that the Premiership season may depend upon. And that is reason enough for him to be reassigned for the weekend. A referee should never be the centre of attention; he is there as an impartial arbiter rather than as a focal point of the entertainment. Yet if there is a borderline tackle in the penalty area, will he really be seen as unbiased, whichever way he gives the decision?

The answer, quite clearly, is no. If he gives the decision one way, he is biased against Chelsea. If he gives the decision the other way, he is overcompensating because of media attention. There cannot be sufficient confidence in his decisions to give him the match.

Pinkerton for President!

One of the more amusing aspects of the Sky News coverage of the midterm elections was the square-offs between their Republican and Democrat pundits. If ever you needed proof that the Daily Show's "Even Stephen" sketches were bang on the mark, this was it. The two pundits were so stereotypical as to be scarcely credible.

Particularly impressive was the sheer irrepressibility of Jim Pinkerton, the Republican. Every time there was a nanosecond's silence, Pinkerton would fill the void with an impressive, unhaltable rant, normally about the "tax raising Democrats". This had the amusing consequence of both pundits speaking faster and faster as the evening progressed. It's a good job for him that he was safely ensconsed in Washington, otherwise there may well have been a deputation from Oxford travelling to Heathrow to punch him in the face as a leaving present.

Particularly memorable was his comment on the Montana Senate race (I will paraphrase his argument slightly). "Well, our candidate may be known to have taken bungs and hang around with a known crook, liar, and cheat, but the Democrat wants to raise taxes!"

Anyway, I think it's now time to start a Jim Pinkerton Watch (with apologies to the Virtual Stoa's Tim Collins Watch). Any known sightings of your favourite Republican pundit, please let me know!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Evening After...

Well, last night proved thoroughly enjoyable and pleasingly successful. Election nights are always fun; there's nothing quite like diving around the Internet or other reference sources for latest results, past voting information and such like. It's even more pleasing when odious cowboy wannabes like George Allen appear to have been thrown out on their ass.

I can't say I'm a huge fan of the fringes of either party in the States, but I'm delighted to see the Democrats in control of both Houses. Why? Primarily because it will help rein in spending. Neither the President nor Congress wants to rein in spending approved by their own party; yet the US has the fastest-increasing deficit in living memory as a result of the fiscal mismanagement of the Bush administration. That needs to be controlled, fast, and can only be achieved with this administration by a situation that may well lead to legislative gridlock.

I'll post a series of other reflections on the election results over the next few days as the mood takes me.

Midterm Predictions

I'm currently sitting in what has become my customary election night bunker watching the Sky News coverage of the US mid-term elections. I particularly like election nights because they allow me to indulge my fascination with political trivia without being made to feel like a social outcast.

Anyway, before I tuck in to my array of American-themed snacks, I thought I'd break my blogging hiatus (not by design, more due to the fact that there hasn't been anything I've particularly felt inspired to write about) to make some preliminary predictions for the evening.

To some extent, it's regurgitating conventional wisdom, but I expect the Senate to stay Republican and the House to go to the Democrats. Including the 2 independents likely to caucus with the Democrats, I predict the Senate going 51-49; and the House to have about a 15 seat majority for the Democrats. I will check in tomorrow for more detailed reactions.