The Guardian teaches economics “through the medium of dance”

Posted on February 12, 2013

Apologies for the radio silence from CrashBangWallace for the last few days – an unfortunate karaoke accident (genuinely) left me laid up for a week, but I’m pleased to say I’m back up and about now.

To get back into the swing of things, how about a bit of classic Guardianista absurdity?

As part of Fairtrade Fortnight, the Guardian Teacher Network has produced a handy guide on “How to teach Fairtrade“. Naturally, they couldn’t just settle for boring old lessons – oh no:

Where in the world is food grown? explores where Traidcraft buys its Fairtrade commodities, including sugar, rice, raisins, honey, quinoa and blueberries. To work on the concepts through the medium of dance, see these helpful teachers’ notes for an activity where key-stage-2-aged children create a Fairtrade dance to tell the story of a sugar farming community which wants their sugar to be Fairtrade.

Yes, someone out there actually uses the phrase “through the medium of dance” with a straight face.

Do they really believe that getting 11-year-olds to sway like a field of sugar cane will fully communicate the upsides and downsides of the Fairtrade system?

Presumably the next step will be to teach kids through the medium of beatboxing about the starvation caused by subsidies, protectionist tariff barriers and the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Has Shami Chakrabarti actually read George Orwell?

Posted on January 29, 2013

“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing”, wrote George Orwell in his famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘.

Imagine his disappointment at learning that this statement still holds true 67 years later. He would have been frustrated to find that one of the worst examples of bad political writing was an article in praise of his own essay on the subject.

The offending piece appeared in the Guardian last Thursday, written by Shami Chakrabarti. It was so bad, that it leads me to suspect that she hasn’t actually read ‘Politics and the English Language’ – or that she hasn’t read it all the way through.

Had she done so, at the end of the essay she would have found Orwell’s six rules for writing good English:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They are an excellent guide, to which I try to stick – though not always successfully, as I’m sure at least one reader will point out in the comments.

Shami, however, utterly disregards them in her Guardian article. Let’s run through them one by one:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

“While [Orwell] illustrated this powerful theory with examples of ugly, unclear and ultimately misleading prose, today the Orwell prize, established in his name, positively celebrates work that speaks truth to power and shines a light on the darkest distortions of fact and argument.”

Oh dear. “Speaks truth to power” is perhaps the most tired phrase still loping around Westminster, like a much-hunted fox that refuses to die. As for “shines a light on the darkest [insert negative concept]”, to describe that as something we are “used to seeing in print” would be the understatement of the year. To combine the two in a sentence which claims the Orwell prize as the heir to his principles is embarrassing.

Nor are those the only breaches of Orwell’s first rule. Others include “spins in his grave”, “as old as the hills” and even an apparently straight-faced deployment of “Orwellian”, only two paragraphs after she described is as an “over-used adjective”.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

I am going to give you one quote: “securocrats”. The verbal equivalent of swallowing a Full English Breakfast made out of Lego.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

“positively celebrates”

Can you celebrate something negatively?

“creeping cancer”

A breach of rule (i), compounded by the author’s inexplicable decision to make cancer more creepy.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Hooray, a rule which survives unscathed!

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

“Is that proportionate justification for building legal and physical architecture requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?”

That sentence would work as well – or even better – without the words “building legal and physical architecture”. After all, what is “legal architecture” other than “laws”, and what is “physical architecture” other than “architecture”?

“Is that proportionate justification for requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?” is still far from the world’s prettiest sentence, but it’s more accessible and direct than the jargon-bloated original.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Whether the article would descend into barbarism without the quotes I’ve selected is for others to judge.

What is certain is that the man the article praises would have been infuriated by the English used to compose it. If Shami intended to write a tribute to him, shouldn’t she have read his work and understood what he believed in?

George Monbiot’s imaginary banker

Posted on October 16, 2012

It is easy, as they say, to start believing your own spin. Perhaps in time such a disease creeps over everyone in the public eye, as they increasingly come to live up (or down) to the shorthand summary of themselves which they once invented for marketing purposes.

Whether it comes for us all or not, it has certainly come for the Guardian’s George Monbiot. Two weeks ago, George tweeted this:

The immediate reaction was to point out that if you can’t remember who did it, it obviously wasn’t that “famous”.

However, weeks have now passed, and the name of this wicked “head of a bank” still hasn’t emerged. Not one of Monbiot’s 52,281 twitter followers could name him, and the article which he presumably intended to use the anecdote has yet to appear.

For that matter, fish-keeping friends tell me that the size of a tank you’d need in order to keep a pike would be umanageably huge.

Could it be that this “famous”, Bond-villain, “head of a bank” didn’t in fact exist? Could it be – whisper it – that George Monbiot’s memory has started matching up to his view of the world, even when it didn’t actually happen?

Perhaps I’m wrong – and if anyone can find me proof of the “head of a bank [who] famously kept a pike in a tank in his office and would feed it live goldfish” then I will donate £50 to Greenpeace. I get a feeling my £50 is quite safe.

“Filthy rich” Mandelson pulls up the ladder on aspiration

Posted on January 26, 2012

Famously, Peter Mandelson once said he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes” – the phrase summed up the embracing of aspiration which proved to be one of New Labour’s key steps to electoral success.

So it’s interesting that he has now apparently abandoned his state of intense relaxation and is instead jumping on the bandwagon of being twitchy about income inequality and critical of the aspiration which he once embraced.

It’s convenient for him that this change of heart has come about in 2012 – long after he himself became “filthy rich”.

No-one knows quite how much he earns, though high six figures or even seven figures a year are often touted. We do know that his latest house is worth £8 million – more than enough to count as filthy, one would have thought.

His spin today is that this is because economic and political circumstances have changed. But isn’t it really just the same old story, that he’s the kind of person who embraces aspiration when he himself is aspirant, but promptly does his damnedest to pull up the ladder once he’s at the top of the pile?

The master strategist was part of the group around Tony Blair who recognised that being tough on crime, welcoming towards aspiration and positive about enterprise is the foundation of electoral success in Britain. If even he is abandoning that thinking – largely because he is now rich enough to afford to – then the Opposition are in real trouble.

Some advice for Diane Abbott

Posted on January 05, 2012

 

Here’s some good advice for Diane Abbott, embroiled in another race row:

 

“The Labour Party should never get involved in the politics of racial division.”

Imagine if she’d only listened to that wise comment, and learned its lessons. Which insightful sage said it in the first place?

Err, Diane Abbott did, condemning Phil Woolas on the Guardian website in November 2010

Guardian runs adverts from tax avoidance experts

Posted on September 06, 2011

The Guardian’s view on tax avoidance by others is well known – they regularly and deliberately conflate tax evasion (a crime) and tax avoidance (not a crime), and take the position that everyone should go out of their way to pay as much tax as possible. Regardless of how whether you pay what the law demands, the Guardian will be the final and ultimate arbiters of whether you pay your “fair share”.

However, their own affairs are less than consistent with the high standards they demand of others – as Guido has documented in the case of Polly “you should pay more tax, but why should I?” Toynbee, and their own record of careful tax avoidance through offshoring and other mechanisms.

Not content with hectoring others whilst practicing tax avoidance themselves, the Guardian has now taken things a step further – profiting by running advertising for firms of specialists who offer advice to tax avoiders and even how to deal with an HMRC tax investigation. This is a screengrab of their “Reading the Riots” web page – take a look at the ad circled in red at the bottom right:


Appleton Richardson, the advertisers in question, describe their service as “tipping the scales of justice in your favour”, will help you learn “how to play the game” and offer help to “survive a tax investigation by HMRC”. They absolutely rightly say that tax avoidance is perfectly legal, but in Guardian land it is unacceptable – how do the champions of high taxes square taking advertising from a firm like this with their crusading morals? Or is it just yet another case of Guardian double standards?

PS you’ll note that with further delicious irony the other two adverts are for Personal Injury Lawyers and, yes, a Scientology magazine. The Guardian: where Comment Is Free, but principles can be bought.

Five lessons from the AV referendum

Posted on May 09, 2011

The dust has settled, the fog of war has dissipated, and every other introductory cliche in the book has been used. What have we really learned about British politics from the crushing victory of the No2AV campaign? There are five implications that I can see for the practice and principle of politics. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) Combat Campaigning is here to stay. For several years now there have been signs that the methods and style of political campaigning have been evolving in Britain.As the old party system has become weaker, there were two voices vying to be its heir: on one side there was combative, streetfighting campaigning built on the belief that a proper dust-up interests people and produces the best ideas; on the other side was a consensus model, founded on the idea that no-one liked a nasty argument and it was much better to build a cosy centrist consensus.

Not only did the two sides in the AV referendum employ these two competing models – with No going combative and Yes opting for cuddles and herbal tea – but their beliefs aligned with them as well. AV is a system founded on the idea that politicians should share body warmth smack in the centre, whilst First Past the Post is about the battle of ideas.

The fact that No won bears out both the model of campaigning they employed and the belief that they were fighting for – people are more interested in a boxing match than a singalong. While Yes tried to argue that real life is preferential and consensual, voters thought otherwise. The campaigning style espoused by No, and pioneered in the UK by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, is successful and on that basis it here to stay.

2) The “Progressive Majority” doesn’t exist…except in the minds of Islingtonians who can’t bear to imagine that anyone might disagree with them. Whether it’s LeftFootForward, Laurie Penny, Polly Toynbee or Liberal Conspiracy there’s an in-built smug sense of virtue to the new British Left – they think something, they know they’re the most compassionate and sensible people on the block, so therefore everyone must think the same, right? I mean, almost every TV comedian does, so obviously the rest of the population are on board too? Nope. It turns out that only Islington, Camden, Hackney, Cambridge, Oxford and part of Glasgow supported AV, the “Progressive Majority’s” new favourite child – and nationally on 6.1 million people even support AV, never mind the Progressives’ supposed vision of Britain. The referendum proved that those who shout loudest are not automatically the most numerous.

3) There is no such thing as Progressive. Not only is there no majority in favour of it, there is actually no such thing as Progressivism. In effect it could be defined accurately as: Progressive, noun, Someone nice, ie in agreement with me.

The really notable thing about this referendum is the way that it split the Left. The Lib Dems and the self-declared “Progressive Majority” – a broadly young rump of Labour, the NUS and the SWP’s twitterati and commentariat – divided from the mass base that they normally assume they can ignore and still gain funding from.

I’m only an outsider looking in on the Left, but if you viewed yourself as “Progressive” before the referendum, only to be told that if you voted No then you weren’t in the club any more, you’d now be reassessing whether you’re a “Progressive” any more.

4) No-one likes a whinger. Someone – I can’t remember who – once said that “It isn’t fair” is the most powerful message in British politics.

They were right, but the Yes camp ably demonstrated that this is only true when your situation genuinely isn’t fair. It’s not fair that if you join the Army you end up buying your own kit. It’s not fair that if you save all your life and provide for your kids you get hammered with extra taxes while others get a subsidy at your expense. It’s not fair that the Gurkhas risked their lives for this nation then told them to do a running jump.

When your opponents in a referendum campaign starting hitting you hard by digging up quotes that prove you’ve done an about-face or talking about Nick Clegg, that certainly is fair. You’re not going to gain any fans by trying to get judges to enforce Marquess of Queensberry Rules – in fact, you’re going to make people think you’re a bit of a wet blanket and don’t deserve their vote. So don’t moan, fight back.

5) People want more power. In the run-up to the referendum, everyone was saying that turnout would be apocalyptically low, threatening the idea that people wanted to be allowed to vote on important matters. It’s understandable why they thought people might not turnout – AV was a proposal hardly anyone had heard of previously and even fewer people actually liked (including most of the Yes campaign).

But that’s not how it turned out. Even on a boring proposal which had been brought forward as a result of political shenanigans in Whitehall back-offices, more than 40% turned out. That’s not bad given the topic. Imagine how many would turn out to vote in a referendum on, say, EU membership?

Guest Post: The Guardian seeks to be Rosa Luxemburg with a Twitter Feed

Posted on April 02, 2011

I’ve been on holiday this week, hence the lighter posting than usual. From Monday it’ll be back to business as usual.

For now, though, here’s a guest post from “Mr X”, a political journalist who has been considering the moral failures of the Guardian in it’s coverage of last weekend’s riots. For reasons that will become obvious in his piece, he’d rather remain anonymous.

Rosa Luxemburg with a Twitter feed
By Mr X
 
ONE turns to the Guardian’s comment pages with a mounting sense of dread, disbelief and some queasiness. There were high hopes a few years ago that when Seamus Milne (Winchester and Balliol, father BBC DG, big fan of the Iraqi “resistance”) left his perch as the Guardian’s comment editor that his particular brand of lunacy would disappear from a title that still has an important place in our political life.
The Guardian’s quest to replace The Times as the paper of record would be helped by not having a Stalinist wing-nut overseeing those pages, it was thought. Alas – those hopes were misplaced.

I can just about put up with George Monbiot’s articulate-but mad-as-cheese diatribes against capitalism. One sighs and moves on when a Hamasnik or scion of the dynasty that runs Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood franchise is given space to spout off. If The Guardian would rather not take sides in the secularist/obscurantist debate building in the Middle East then that’s an offence against the paper’s great liberal heritage but predictable.

The reality, though, is that just like how the collapse of communism in Milne’s dear old USSR led to the KGB taking over, so Milne’s ideological munchkins have retained control after his own theoretical departure.

Libby Brooks is now the Guardian’s deputy comment editor. Her recent piece on violence and non-violence is not extra-ordinary in its nuttiness. Most of her stuff is like this. But those who do not read the paper every day will be astounded by the sheer loony-leftiness and sloppiness of this particular crock of manure.

Where to start? Well, historical illiteracy is as good a place as any. If one is making the case that “direct action” works, the Chartists are a pretty poor example – given that the 1867 Reform Act contained few of their demands and occurred almost 20 years after their heyday. 

Let’s move on to economic illiteracy and the claim that the anarchists engaged in 1990s “Stop The City” riots predicted the global financial crisis. Yes they did. But so did every tinpot Trot and the fact is that the UK is still vastly more wealthy that it was in, say, 2002.

Then there’s her description of the farce at Fortnum’s as “civil disobedience”. That implies disobedience directed at the civil power. But that particular episode of juvenile situationism was targeted at a private enterprise. It represented seizing another person’s property. Libby needs to go back to Locke and see what he says about the fundamental essences of liberty. But Libby doesn’t think too highly of property.

She writes: ‘It’s important to interrogate the description “violent protest”. Certainly, firecrackers, smoke bombs and raucous teenagers with faces obscured make for dramatic footage against the night sky. And they are undeniably threatening. But the vast majority of damage on Saturday was sustained by property, not persons; nor was this vandalism mindless, but targeted at banks and other emblematic high street institutions.’

Well, that’s okay then. I’m sure – using that reasoning – Libby wouldn’t mind me popping round to her flat (I’m guessing it’s in Stoke Newington) and smashing it up as a protest against writing rubbish in The Guardian. It surely wouldn’t be “violence”.

Libby seems to have a bit of thing about violence. She quotes – with implicit approval – Clive Bloom who writes that “violence can be successful, but you need an argument too.”
Maybe it’s the likes of Libby who see themselves as providing those arguments. She will be the theoretician and propagandist of a great revolt. Rosa Luxemburg with a Twitter feed, perhaps. But the very fact that such thinking is going on in the heart of the British left and in the mind of a great newspaper is deeply depressing. For those of who fear that Libby’s readers will start to see themselves as Baby-Meinhofs, it should also be rather worrying.

Charity Commission exposes the Guardian’s TPA lies

Posted on February 22, 2011

The Guardian is always in the vanguard when it comes to alleging that the TaxPayers’ Alliance or anyone else criticising Government waste are guilty of inaccurate claims. It seems only fair, then, to draw attention to an official finding – not an allegation, mark you – that the Guardian itself has been making up stories about the TPA.

In December 2009 the Guardian ran a front page story by Robert Booth alleging that the TPA was in breach of charity law for accepting donations from a registered charity, the Politics and Economics Research Trust. John Prescott promptly got in on the act, filing a formal complaint.

Nine days later the same paper gleefully reported (again in a story by Robert Booth) that the relationship was being “investigated by regulators”, namely the Charity Commission. The smear implication was clear – and the headline may as well have been “hooray, we don’t like them and an investigation confirms their guilt”.

Strangely, there’s no report in the Guardian today about the findings of the Charity Commission’s investigation, which was published yesterday. Nor, despite his promise that “I’ll let you know when I get a reply”, has Prezza published it or even made reference to the report’s existence.

It’s not really so strange, actually, because the Charity Commission’s findings don’t make happy reading for either the Guardian, Robert Booth or John Prescott. In short, the PERT and the TPA were cleared entirely of the allegations.

But there’s even more to it than that – it turns out that at best the story was written on the back of a fag packet, and at worst it was deliberately misleading the public in order to discredit the TPA.

When the Commission investigated the claims, they found that the PERT was in fact obeying the law – as it said at the time. More remarkable than that, they found a number of massive holes in Booth’s original article:

Booth claimed that the Midlands Industrial Council had donated to the TPA through PERT. The Charity Commission found that in fact the MIC had not done so.

Booth claimed that the MIC was able to claim gift aid on donations to a charity. The Charity Commission found that the MIC is an unincorporated association, does not pay tax on its income from donations by members and thus neither it or its members would have been able to claim gift aid.

Booth quoted David Wall, secretary of the MIC. The Charity Commission spoke to him and reports him as saying that “the comments attributed to him in the newspaper article were misleading”.

Most damning of all, when the Charity Commission asked Booth for “any additional information” on his story or the issue, he “had no further information to provide” – i.e., when he was given a free run to prove his story, produce his evidence and stack up his claims, he literally had nothing to offer.

So in short, the outfit Booth that claimed had donated hadn’t, the tax relief he claimed they would have got if they had donated wouldn’t have been claimable and he was unable to produce any evidence to back up his false claims. How’s that for accuracy?

At the moment, the original Guardian stories are still online, and they have published no retraction or apology. The smear is still common currency among the TPA’s detractors, despite the fact that it has been comprehensively proven to be untrue.

When will we see the Guardian run a front page story headlined “Guardian allegations against TPA ‘totally unfounded’, says official report”?

Crime mapping – power to the people

Posted on February 03, 2011

Finally – after years of arguments, promises and u-turns on the part of both Labour and the Conservatives – the Government has introduced crime mapping right across the country at www.police.uk.

Anyone who doubted that there was an interest among the public in finding out what crimes are committed in their neighbourhoods was immediately given a firm slap round the chops by the fact that the site received so much traffic it has at times struggled to deal with it all. At its peak it was getting 18 million hits an hour – a remarkable number.

Obviously, the Guardian chose to lead on the fact it crashed without reflecting on the fact that this proved what huge demand there is out there for this kind of transparency.

I’m personally delighted about crime mapping coming to the UK because it has been a massive hobby horse of mine in recent years. I first wrote about it for the TPA almost 3 years ago and since then I’ve met ministers, spoken at the Police Federation conference, addressed the Association of Chief Police Officers and generally banged the drum for this idea endlessly – not always making myself popular, it must be said.

This is a genuinely exciting reform. For the first time, everyone has the right to know what the real picture is of reported crime in a given area. That helps people moving house, scrutinising police performance and communicating with their MP.

It’s still just the start of the transparency and accountability revolution, though.

Giving people this information is a great start, but there’s plenty more to give. Other police forces are apparently experimenting with ways to provide even more data in greater accuracy and more informative formats. Yvette Cooper has called for full transparency on police numbers, which I can’t see a problem with. Ideally in my view each crime on the map would also be updated when it is either solved and prosecuted or shelved into a cold file. The possibilities are myriad.

Once you’ve given people information, you should also give them the power to do something with it, too. Now people are being given some data about how effective or ineffective their local police are, it is high time they were given the right to elect, scrutinise and – if necessary – sack the people in charge of the force.

The internet makes it possible for us to be given access to all that state data which our public employees compile about all of us in our name and at our expense. The digital revolution, if properly applied, can be a real revolution – handing power from hidden officials in back offices to the people. Crime mapping is an early and crucial step on that road to empowerment.