Saturday, 30 January 2010

Blair's Last Great Performance

The Chilcott Enquiry has been bubbling along nicely for the past month or so. This week though it seems to have risen up the news bulletins as the appearance of the former Prime Minister Tony Blair has got closer and closer. Yesterday Blair was due to appear in front of the enquiry panel, and by all accounts gave a suitably solid performance.

I say by all accounts, because I didn’t see all of his submission to the Chilcott enquiry (only the edited “highlights” on the various news channels). Some of us have to work you know… However his answers did raise a couple of interesting points.

The first part of the evidence seemed to hone in on the mindset of foreign affairs in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Blair seemed to be influenced by the event, and from what we gather, he let it cloud his judgement of who was a threat and who wasn’t – “The calculus of risk changed” is how he put it. Of course the risk of leaving volatile countries should be seen through the light of the two intelligence failure’s the UK and US suffered in 2001/2. The US authorities failure to pick up the 20 odd Middle Eastern men learning how to fly planes in Florida in the spring of 2001, but not to land them. The other failure was in the reports that pinpointed WMD in Iraq.

As a result of the change in atmosphere in diplomatic circles, Iraq and Sadam Hussein emerged as a threat to the western world. Hussein had already been a bogeyman to the Americans, in 1991 the first Bush presidency had successfully evicted Iraqi troops from Kuwait only to be stopped from a full scale invasion of Iraq by their fellow allies. Little reported is the impact of the US/UK/Allied troops occupancy of Saudi Arabia on its society. The wealthy construction firm run by the Bin Laden family saw one of their sons leave the country in protest for example.

To the younger Bush and the people who he picked as his cabinet, The Neo Con Hawks and the followers of the “New American Century”, Iraq was a long term target. They were set on regime change and set out to get it. In the hours after the New York and Washington terrorist attacks, the likes of Richard Pearle, Paul Wolfavitz and Donald Rumsfield set out to spin the attacks as having the hand of Saddam Hussein behind it, appearing on American news networks to spell this out. When the Osama Bin Laden led group Al-Qeada admitted responsibility, the United States put Iraq on the back burner and made plans to, as Bush described it “smoke ‘em (Al-Qeada) out”.

The second part of Blair’s evidence was about the road to war, and Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, they did not have missiles – or as the late Robin Cook described it during his resignation speech a delivery mechanism. Cook did admit Iraq might have chemical’s and possibly the bacteria, but without that crucial “delivery mechanism” – they were effectively impotent. The New Labour government produced a dossier which all sides agreed meant that Iraq had to be dealt with. All sides, except the Lib Dem’s, despite their Foreign Affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell embracing the dodgy dossier and the nationalist parties. Considering Blair’s reputation as Bush’s biggest cheerleader at Westminster, it’s bizarre to think back and recall that Ian Duncan Smith was even more keen on acting against Iraq than Blair. It’s a stance that Howard and Cameron have done very well to …err gloss over. Today though Blair continued the mantra of WMD, and also the mantra that he did the right thing.

Blair did concede that mistakes were made. He had assumed that there would be a “civil service” – i.e. that there would be a system of making the country run. The UK and US governments did not anticipate the complete re-structuring of the country after Hussein was toppled, with Blair conceding “If we knew then what we know now we would, of course, do things very differently. But for what we thought we were going to have, we had planned for it and we met those eventualities." Yet this is the same mistake made with Afghanistan, where time was taken to set up (impose) a centralised (and unpopular) system of government, which has certainly helped turn people against the British/US military forces in Afghanistan.

Blair did throw a couple of curve balls at the watching masses. He threw up the Minority Report defence, ie what would the world be like if Hussein had not been removed, Blair’s description of this was “Sometimes what's important is not to ask the March 2003 question, but to ask the 2010 question”. Blair believes that Iraq and Iran would have been locked in an arms race not unlike the developing one between India and Pakistan. He also believes that, contrary to evidence, Hussein’s Iraq would have become a haven to Islamic fundamentalist groups and provided materials to enable other terrorist attacks on the scale of that seen on September 11 2001. After all Hussein had the means to raise capital to fund research. Blair believed the effectiveness of the sanctions was “eroding”, despite the evidence of the UN’s own weapons inspectors, who under Hans Blix could not locate any WMD.

Worryingly Blair also raised the prospect of action against Iran, who many people believed was next on Bush’s hit list anyway. Blair believes that collusion between Al-Qeada and Iran were behind the welter of terrorist attacks which hit Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of Hussein. Blair also sees the same situation with weapons of mass destruction arising with Iran. The difference between Iran and Iraq though is that Iraq lost a lot of their capacity to manufacture WMD in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Iran do have some sort of nuclear programme ongoing, whether its for military purposes or for more peaceful motives remains to be seen, and still has full military capacity whatever that is.

Blair’s evidence was a useful insight into the mind-set of the British Government at the time. The consensus at the time was that the motive for going to war changed with the weather, where Blair yesterday stuck to the weapons of mass destruction motive. Blair also introduced the Minority Report argument, where it was more important to think of what Iraq might do rather than what they were capable of at that moment. Blair also acknowledged that the USA went into this with different motives (regime change, oil…). Ultimately though this was not evidence to change anyone’s opinion of whether it was right to go to war in Iraq, and no I was not a supporter of the war. What Blair did change, I think anyway, was people’s perception of how the decision was made. Subtle dividing lines were drawn by Blair yesterday, where British and American motives and method’s were picked apart. The Americans were not keen on going to the UN, Blair had to convince them to get even the first resolution. What Blair ensured yesterday was that should there be any war crimes trial, that he is not alone in the dock.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Carrying on As If Nothing Has Happened...

It’s worrying for the workers of Cadbury that they have been bought over by Kraft, and is also worrying for consumers who enjoy their products. As another part of the shared “British” heritage is sold to overseas hands, who we doubt could ever understand our needs and desires, we really should be used to our businesses being bought by foreign companies, shouldn’t we? Well, no because the sound of silence from our elected leaders is deafening.

What is worrying though is that this take-over was facilitated by a huge loan, with the Cadbury’s business as the collateral. If memory serves, there are 3 main examples of these “leveraged take-overs”, and none of them have been stunning successes. In June 2006 Ferrovial bought BAA for, at the time, the highest leveraged takeover for £10 billion. Cadbury went for £11.5 billion. BAA hasn’t really endeared themselves to the public by capitalising on the captive customers they have by selling overpriced food & drinks airside of security.

The other main example of a leveraged take-over was Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of Manchester United in May 2005 for £790 million, which in the wake of the recession is now having an effect on Manchester United’s competiveness. Leveraged takeovers do seem to be rather like asking for some money from someone and then killing them.

The age of borrowing money against thin air is clearly not over yet.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Must I Paint You A Picture...

In the rush to play my cut is bigger than you or my tax plans are more secretive than yours, which is all very primary school playground, the anger of the voters towards the greedy grasping bankers has been largely ignored by our political leaders.

In an interview on Jeremy Vine’s programme in Radio 2, the musician and left wing activist Billy Bragg disclosed that he would be withholding his income tax as a protest against the excessive bonuses paid to what Bragg referred to as the highest rewarded public servants in the country. He claimed that the bonuses would be paid to the bankers the month after collection of Income Tax, and as a result he would be withholding his tax until bonuses were curbed at £25000.

Arguing against Bragg was Heather McGregor from the firm Taylor Bennett, who completely misunderstood the argument by trotting out the now worn out argument that these people deserve their bonuses, and that bonuses were needed to incentivise workers (bankers). Bollocks. Ms McGregor unsuccessfully defended the indefensible, that the people who crashed the economy should have the right to incentives, even if they do not deserve those incentives. In any case these people get bonuses whether they do a good job or not. That’s not creating an incentive, that sounds more like a tax dodge or something far worse.

The truth is that with no criminal proceedings in the offing (unless Inspector Knacker knows something else) for the four horsemen of the economic apocalypse, our politicians rolling over whenever these bankers threaten to take their economy destroying skills abroad and more worryingly the contenders in the forthcoming General Election wanting to sweep the bankers bonuses under the carpet, alongside their own examples of largesse, Bragg felt that he had no option. Unfortunatly the rest of us have to take it… at least until the General Election.

The interview can be heard here until the next Monday (25th January), and starts about an hour and 36 minutes in…

UPDATE: 19/1/2010, 19:53 - there is a link to the BBC story, which has now been posted, here...

Monday, 11 January 2010

Television Picks of The Decade - My Favourite Fansasy

In the last of my posts looking at the trends in television over the first decade of the 21st Century, this post looks at programmes that took their inspiration away from the hum drum of normal life.

The United States were the first to turn to escapist fiction, with the far fetched “24”. 24 also followed the trend set by “The West Wing” by being released in series box sets which were big sellers. The US networks followed 24 with other “high concept”/far fetched series (which were also big DVD sellers) like “Lost”, “Heroes”, and “Flash Forward”.

Rather bizarrely ITV had a key role in shaping the next 5 years in programming. Before entering a blue funk period where everything they made stank, they broadcast “The Second Coming”, written by Russell T Davies, famous at that point for creating Queer As Folk.  It was the imagining of what would happen if the second coming arrived in 21st Century Britain. Cast as the son of God was Christopher Eccleston. Looking back “The Second Coming” was perhaps a dry run for Davies next project. In early 2004 the BBC announced that they were going to bring back Doctor Who, with Davies as the main writer. They then cast Eccleston as the ninth incarnation of the Doctor. Before the show aired I was a bit ambivalent, glad it was coming back but what if it wasn’t as good…

Yes it became a ratings success, and yes it became a hit with critics, even more so when Eccleston gave way to David Tennant. The mark of how successful Doctor Who became is the dash by television companies to tap into that style of escapist drama. The BBC then went on to make 3 series of “Robin Hood” and has also made (to date) 2 series of “Merlin”. ITV made its own time travelling Saturday drama “Primeval” featuring time travelling scientists and dinosaurs. Then the BBC made a grown up time travelling cop show like no other.

Life On Mars” saw a Manchester police detective Sam Tyler (played with wide eyed bemusement by John Simm) involved in a hit and run, just as the song “Life on Mars” comes on to his I-Pod. He then wakes up in waste ground wearing different clothes. Gradually he finds out that he has woken up in 1973, which is the closest thing to another planet that he gets. He has to get to grips with the primitive (or lack of) technology, and the unreconstructed attitudes of his colleagues, in particular those of his boss Gene Hunt. Life On Mars ran for two series and ended as Tyler, having recovered from his hit and run, jumped off the top of the Police building to get back to 1973. There has also been 2 series (with one currently in production) of a follow up series – “Ashes to Ashes”. This series followed a criminal profiler Alex Drake as she is shot, and wakes up in 1981 (the second series is set in 1982), and also features Hunt and his colleagues seen in "Life on Mars".

It was at this point that the decade of the reality genre began to run out of steam, as reality TV became more and more unreal. “Big Brother’s own jump the shark moment arrived when during the Celebrity version at the start of 2008, some of the house-mates started to round on the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, with the queen of reality TV Jade Goody being the apparent ringleader. The bickering and the spite descended into racist comments aimed at Shetty. The media were outraged, talking head after talking head lined up to condemn this, and Channel 4, while the PM Brown was in, of all places, India on a trade visit.

As the decade comes to a close, we are probably in the death throes of the era of “reality TV”. Channel Four announced in July that the next full series of Big Brother would be the last, while ratings for I’m A Celebrity… and Strictly Come Dancing have both been less than previous years. The BBC’s Strictly… has had a troubled 12 months as well with allegations of vote rigging, the controversy surrounding the replacement of judge Arleen Phillips with previous winner Aleshia Dixon and the race row surrounding Wallace lookalike Anton Du Beke. There have even been the stirrings of a backlash against “The X Factor” with the internet campaign to install Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of” as Christmas number one.

In a decade where television companies have been at their most profitable, and yet have been increasingly reticent on investing in what coke headed executives call “content”, the future looks bleak considering the effects of the current recession have not hit the television industry with its full force yet. Already ITV and STV are locked in a legal dispute over fees and STV not showing ITV produced programming. It’s no coincidence that ITV stopped making consistently good programmes at the time of the last recession, at the time of the last licence renewals (when LWT and Thames lost their London franchises to Meridian and, Thatcher’s favourite television company, Carlton).

The BBC this week felt the pinch when it lost its favourite cheeky scamp Jonathan Ross, supposedly to a disparity in wage offers, though there may be a political angle to this considering the Conservatives pledge to be stricter on the activities of the BBC, as well as to scrap OFCOM. Any wonder the owner of BSkyB has thrown his weight behind the Tories for this election. Ignore the off the cuff crude comments and you will find that Ross is actually a talented presenter and producer, some of his interviews have been as good as anything made by Parkinson in his prime and his programmes on Japanese culture and cinema have been consistently excellent.

The next decade may well be marked already as a decade dominated by a lack of money and a decade where broadcasting standards were allowed to go through the bottom of the barrel. As the song say’s, there may be trouble ahead which is not good for quality programming.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Television Picks of the Decade - Reality Used to Be A Friend Of Mine

Up until last year, at this time of year, I had been doing posts where I had been choosing my 5 best television programmes of the year. Time and, more crucially the diminishing quality of terrestrial television, put paid to last year’s pieces. I had intended to pick my five television picks of the year, and spread them out. Instead, you’re getting this two-parter. I’ll try and get my albums of the decade out. Probably at some point this month.

At the turn of the decade, our television schedules were full of fly on the wall documentary series which had made stars of ordinary people. Who among you isn’t now thinking ah Jeremy or oh my god Maureen. In the summer of 2000, Channel 4 took this line of programming one stage further and put “ordinary” people into a confined area and recorded their every move, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. “Big Brother” ushered in the era of reality TV, a “genre” which divided opinion like no other. Some people lapped up “reality TV”, the Channel 4 commissioning editor Stuart Cosgrove recently described Big Brother as art, while the red tops and the recently launched “celebrity” bible “Heat” magazine began saturation coverage of Big Brother. With it being the topic of discussion on radio shows, there was no escape. The BBC and ITV soon cottoned on to this idea which had caught the imagination of the Red Tops (without garnering the ratings, with only eviction nights close to the final night and the finals night itself garnering viewing figures over 10 million). The BBC launched Castaway 2000 where people were sent to live on a Scottish island for 3 months. On the other hand ITV bought the rights to Survivor – where contestants were sent to live on a remote tropical island. Both formats were not ratings success. However ITV produced a celebrity version of “Survivor” called “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here” set in the jungles of Queensland, Australia, which became an inexplicable ratings juggernaught.

Another variant on the “Reality” show was the spin which this added to the old fashioned talent show. ITV had started this thread with “Popstars” where a boy/girl band would be started from scratch (the band which came from this – Heresay – had a career of about 3 singles together). “Pop Idol” democratised this process by introducing the phone vote element – democracy being another key part of the reality genre. Soon programmes incorporating some sort of phone vote were all over the television schedules. This reached saturation point before in 2008 a scandal erupted over false winners of phone in competitions. Since then the BBC has more or less banned phone in competitions and introduced a set of guidelines to govern their use. For ITV, phone votes and competitions have returned. That these provide a revenue stream to ITV is entirely coincidental to their re-introduction, especially when ITV’s current ratings juggernaught’s strictly come… Dancing on Ice (yes I know that it’s called Dancing on Ice), Im A Celebrity… and The X Factor relies heavily on audience phone-voting and has associated phone in competitions.

Considering that we live in troubled times, the start of the decade saw fuel protests, a close presidential election in the United States decide in the courts followed by a rise in religious fundamentalism, which reached boiling point on Tuesday September 11th 2001, and has stayed there ever since. Conventional wisdom would suggest that we would turn to fictional and escapist forms of entertainment. In this country the drama’s produced in the first part of the decade reflected life rather than escaped from it. Paul Abbott created the excellent “Clocking Off” a drama series which focused on an individual factory worker’s life each week. His next project was an old fashioned political thriller which focused on the relationships between Politicians, Lobbyists and Journalists, relationships which were at the centre of New Labour. “State Of Play” remains still the best drama of the decade as it charted the investigation of two murders from the viewpoint of investigative reporter Cal MacCafferty (played by John Simm), one of the murders is that of a researcher working for an old friend, Stephen Collins MP( played by David Morrisey). Collins is a high flying MP and chair of the Energy Select Committee. With a controversial report due, these murders happen, and lead MacCafferty & Co after several shadowy oil companies with vested interests. It is a drama so well written, that it appears to have survived a Hollywood re-make.

Abbot then made “Shameless” which celebrated/shone a light on/documented (delete to your own view-point) sink estate life through the eyes of the sprawling Gallagher family. 2003 also saw the start of another trend in broadcasting with “The Deal”, the first of many re-imagining’s of historic events. “The Deal” was a stab at telling the story of the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown up to their fabled meeting at the Granita restaurant where it was decided that it would be Blair would run for leader of the (then) Labour Party. Brown was played by David Morrissey, but was over shadowed by the chap playing Blair – Michael Sheen. Playing real life famous people would go on to become Sheen’s stock in trade. He would reprise his role as Blair in “The Queen” and in a film in production about Blair’s relationship with Clinton, be absolutely storming as Kenneth Williams in “Fantabulosa”, he played David Frost in the play and adapted film “Frost/Nixon” and lastly (for the moment) he played Brian Clough in the film adaptation of David Peace’s controversial book “The Damned United”

Even the most successful comedies of this period took inspiration from real life. “The Office” was based in paper merchants Wernham Hogg, who had let a fly on the wall documentary crew film their daily routines. It did not take long for the manager of the Slough office David Brent to hog the camera. While “The Office” was the breakthrough project for its creator Ricky Gervais, its contempory also saw its main writer/performer attain mainstream popularity. Peter Kay was already an established stand up. In 1999 Channel 4 broadcast “That Peter Kay Thing” which was essentially 5 pilots for potential sit-com’s, one of which featured a wheelchair-bound club owner called Brian Potter. Kay, and his co-writers Neil Fitzmaurice and Dave Spikey, then developed and starred in a sit-com about Potter and the club he owned – the Phoenix Club. “Phoenix Nights” as it became was a glorious satire on working peoples clubs and club-land in general. The Office and Phoenix Nights also were the early record breakers in the fledgling DVD market, alongside US Drama “The West Wing” and the BBC’s spies are civvies too drama “Spooks”. As we will see as the decade went on, real life began to be less appealing to the Television producers.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy new year to one and all out there in the blogosphere!  Or as my favourite new year text goes...

"May the fleas of a thousand camels infest the ass of anyone who f##ks up your new year and may their arms be too short to scratch it."


Blogging service will resume soon.