Tuesday, 19 July 2011

"Wanters, not needers. Hypocrites and cheaters…

…this is the News of the World." 

So the Wildhearts wrote in 1993. It still seems remarkably prescient, with lyrics such as "We changed, we didn’t even try. We opened up our mouths, telling all those lies to ourselves… And everybody else." This seemingly speaks down the years for this whole sorry saga.

In the intervening 18 years, not much seems to have changed. The tabloids went about their dirty business, and in the words of one News of the World employee, "Lives were ruined." The only surprise is that it's taken this long for the politicians to stand up to the Murdoch empire, and for the public to actually give a crap.

Lots has happened in the last week or so. The Murdochs are appearing before parliament today to answer questions about the phone hacking scandal, as will Rebekah Brooks, who was arrested last week, along with Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister's ex-director of Communications, and a number of other senior figures. It's difficult to see how David Cameron can come out unscathed, so sullied he is by association with Coulson and Brooks.

The Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan police have resigned over the furore, as it has been alleged that journalists have been paying police for information. This brings the story into a wider realm, and out of a pure media focus. This is corruption, plain and simple, at the heart of the metropolitan police, politicians, and journalists.

These are the three estates which are supposed to support, to fight for the public, and we are supposed to go to them to sort out our problems. The journalists relied on the police for their information, the police seemed happy to take the odd back-hander for information, and cast a blind eye over the more nefarious activities in the press. And the whole time the politicians, afraid of what revelations the tabloid could spin about them, cosied up to Rupert Murdoch, allowing his values and ideas to suffuse their politics, until we appear to have three identikit parties, each run by a waxwork clone of each other (apart from Ed Miliband, who's played by Mr Bean).

As allegations pile upon allegations, which pile upon wrongdoing, almost to the height of the world trade centre, those fated towers could be the most significant part of the whole story, as it was announced that the CIA are investigating whether victims of the 9/11 attacks had their phones hacked. One private investigator has already come forward to state that journalists tried to get phone numbers of the victims from him, which he declined. This could end in the downfall of the Murdoch empire globally, as surely no-one will want to associate with a company capable of such things.

The sorry state of affairs is that through the collusion of politicians, the press, and the police, the public have lost their outlet, and their ability to influence politics, and if one good thing comes out of this, it's that the press will report on, rather than shape the political arena, that is the job of the people, and they can rediscover their voice.

Let's hope we're not "too far gone to change the mess we’re in."

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Howling mad at Murdoch

I've been following the phone hacking scandal with interest since the Guardian broke the news back in 2009. Then there was the scandal with Andy Coulson, then PR director for the Conservative party. And still no-one cared. Of course, it was because they were targeting politicians and celebrities, and because they were in the public eye they kind of deserved it. I actually agreed with Hugh Grant (for the first and only time) that the right to privacy was a human right, and one that the papers were taking away by intercepting phone messages.

I kind of thought that they couldn't get much worse. But then came the revelations of the past few days, that the News of the World hacked into the mobile of a girl who had been abducted (and was most likely dead) in order to get a story. Now I studied Journalism at uni as part of my Media degree, and I knew that to be a tabloid journalist involved a set of rather flaky morals… It's why I chose not to pursue that career. But this is really beyond the pale…

At a time when the police were investigating a murder, the News of the World actively disrupted that investigation, and by deleting messages stored on the phone, gave the family false hope that their daughter was still alive.

And what's more, it gets worse. It appears that the News of the World hacked into the phones of the families of not only the girls murdered by Ian Huntley, but also the families of the victims of the 7th July bombings. All for a news story. I mean, other than intruding on the grief of people, what did they hope to achieve?

Rebakah Brooks, the Chief Exec of News Corporation, part of Rupert Murdoch's vast media empire says that it was 'inconceivable' that she knew anything about the allegations… I can only think of the scene from the Princess Bride where Vizzini repeatedly says "That's inconceivable!" and Inigo Montoya responds with "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means". Anyway, she was very clever with her words, neither confirming nor denying anything.

It was nice to see Jon Snow on Channel 4 news last night utterly skewer Simon Greenberg, the operating officer of News Int, who repeatedly assured him that Rebekah Brooks was the best person to take this forward and investigate it fully. Despite being in charge of the News of the World at the time.

The satirical website Newsthump sent this up far better than I could.

But why should we care? It's bad people doing bad things right? Well… Every government since Thatcher has had to gain the support of Rupert Murdoch (and his newspapers) to get into power. That's a fact. He aggressively promotes his own neo-liberal values, wanting a laissez faire approach to business, because that's what makes him the most money. And it has just been announced by David Cameron that he sees no problem whatsoever with Murdoch owning all of BSkyB.

As part of this deal, Murdoch promised make Sky News an 'independent' company.  But this is a farce: News Corp pays Sky News's bills, provide its satellite access, and is able to place loyalists on the board. Murdoch will therefore be able to cross-promote his services, have the Times (the biggest selling newspaper) promote Sky, having Sky cross-promote the Times, NOTW and the Sun, and so on. It's a massive blow for autonomy and media plurality.

But apart from anything else… The unethical and illegal behaviour of companies and organisations owned by Mr Murdoch show a massive failing in the senior management of News International, and an inability to control rogue staff. This has massive implications in a company that would potentially control a huge media and broadcasting empire, the likes of which the UK has never seen before.

It also has implications for the freedom of the press, and their ability to investigate a story. There's no doubt the government will come down hard on them for this, and restrict the ability of journalists to do their jobs. A free and inquiring press is what keeps governments and corporations honest. In this case, the greed of a corporation could lead to the downfall of the free press, and that's a very sad thing indeed. On a positive note, this could mean the end of politician having to play to the gallery of the tabloid press and actually get on with doing their job properly. Which would be nice.

But let's not forget, Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks created an atmosphere where journalists thought it fine to hack into the answerphone messages of a dead teenager, and of the grieving families of murder victims, let alone a plethora of politicians and celebrities. It makes me ashamed to be part of the media business, it really does…

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Enter Night

I've been up to a few things recently. Most of all, my little boy had chicken pox. Which is horrible, and I sympathise with all parents who have to see their littleuns go through it.

I've decided I need to get fit. After being told last year that my blood pressure is high (and hitting 13 and a half stone at one point) I've got back on the exercise bike and got my sweat on. So far so good (it's been a week or two only. I also tried running, but bugger me sideways if that's not the most ridiculously difficult way to keep fit… I'll keep at it though. As a teenager I was hellaciously fit, playing tennis, basketball, football, rugby and so on. Then I stopped and aside from the odd weights session, and a year going to the gym, I've not kept at it. I will though, and you should hold me to it right here if I don't…

I've been reading Enter Night, the Metallica biography by Mick Wall. It's no secret that I'm a huge Metallica fan. I've seen them play five times, own all the albums, numerous bootlegs, and have played in tribute bands, having at one point or another learnt how to play all their songs (apart from Blackened. The main riff is a complete fucker). It's a fascinating book and I've learnt tons more than I knew before about the band who shaped my teenage years. If you are in any way interested in the band, or the music business, I would highly, highly recommend this book.

And finally, being as it's disclosure time, I'm an enormous Lord of the Rings geek. Like big time. I know all the names of the characters, who they're related to, their lineage and so on. I've read the Silmarillion… Twice.  So of course I'm enormously excited about Peter Jackson's version of The Hobbit. Not released until December 2012, they've just released the first photos, and bugger me if I didn't have a complete nerdgasm over Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and the first glimpse of Thorin Oakenshield.

Until next time peeps, keep it frosty.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The kings of loving it

I’m a keen musician, and as long as I can remember I’ve loved music. I remember recording songs into my nan and grandad’s stereo. I’ve played guitar for the last 15 years, and I’ve got fairly good at it, I think…

I remember the pure joy of working out songs and playing along to them all night on a cheap guitar while I was at uni. The neighbours must have hated me!

I’ve not really done anything truly creative for a while though. Recently I recorded a couple of tunes that I played as an acoustic solo artist from around 2005-2007. They were pretty good and I want to do some more, but creatively there just didn’t seem to be the time to do it.

But I found another place to release my musical passion. A friend, Mr Simon Ball, arranges a regular tribute band night, the Allstars. Now, a few years back the very concept of tribute bands would have turned my stomach, but there’s something about this. It brings together some of the most talented musicians in Leicester to play songs that they love.

Over the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to play with some incredibly gifted musicians, and indulge some of my rockstar fantasies. I’ve covered Nirvana, Velvet Revolver, Feeder, Terrorvision, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. It’s made me realize how many sickeningly talented people there are out there, who can come together and put together a pretty damn good ‘tribute’ (gah! Hate the phrase) band in less than four practices.

I’ve also realized a couple of personal ‘do it before you dies’, in playing a full hours worth of Metallica, which plain rocked out. A friend coined us “the kings of loving it” due to the sheer joy we seemed to have being onstage. 

I also helped organize and played a full tribute to Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age, which though it was at the other end of the scale technically, for the sheer unadulterated blast of noise, it almost surpassed the Metallica one.

I think the reason these nights work so well, is that there’s no pretence, no bullshit. Other tribute bands might get paid. We don’t. We do it for the sheer love of music, and the enjoyment of performing to people who want to rock out. Think of it as a live jukebox. Oh… And it’s free.

I guess the thing is, that it’s the closest thing I’ve found to the childish fun of recording nursery rhymes on your nan and grandad’s stereo. And that’s what ‘loving it’ is all about.

All watched over by machines of loving grace

Well, this is my blog. So hello. I don't really do introductions, so let's just say, I enjoy writing, I enjoy sports (especially rugby), I'm a gamer, a musician, and a dad. I work in HE, and I'm probably not going to mention that any more unless I'm promoting myself. So, on to interestingness…

Last night I watched the final part of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, the three part documentary by Adam Curtis.

I'm trying to digest what it was that he was trying to do with the whole thing, each part seemed to have a distinct theme, the first  looking at how Ayn Rand's 'selfish' philosophy of objectivism was embraced by capitalists of the late 20th century, and how it led to the decimation of world money markets thanks to an over-reliance on technology, the humans believing it infallible.

The second programme looked at the ecosystem and the dangers of using technology and 'machine think' to tackle natural systems. The problem being that natural systems are too chaotic and have far too many parts to them to ever be able to effectively simulate.

The third went further by looking at how humans have applied these systems and technologies to their own behaviour. Through the prism of Africa, we saw how mining companies exploited the resources, and western governments stirred up tensions in order to exploit weak leadership. In the background was the idea of the 'selfish gene', that we are controlled by an in-built 'computer program' which cares for nothing expect self-replication, at the expense of us.

It was easy to see the conceit, that we have ceded our own responsibility to systems and machines. They are the 'genes' that drive us, and we are controlled by them, because we no longer think of something we can control. From the reliance on the computers controlling the money markets in the first programme, through the trust in computer systems modelling natural systems and behaviour, later shown to be wrong, through to our latest ideas about genes and control, with the open ended question, is this another system we're putting too much trust in?

The lack of responsibility is given greater resonance by showing the damage our reliance on technology causes. It's hard not to feel moved by the fact that wars in Africa, and the problems in Zaire/The Congo appear to be caused by the mineral deposits there, and the control of that land that our addiction to technology requires. With images of the Rwandan genocide and war in the Congo, it was chilling stuff… But nothing was as chilling as the company man at the start of the programme reassuring his shareholder that the genocide would not affect profits, stating "we don't care about it".

I can see why technologists hate this programme, criticism on Twitter has been vehement, it takes aim at many of their sacred cows, and gives them both barrels. I've not even gone into the criticism of commodification of the self that is inherent in online publishing (and see the irony of expounding on it here!) It's not necessarily always on target, but Curtis makes excellent links, and leaves pretty much everything open ended. It's the sort of documentary to make you think, and one that needs much more discussion.