The media we deserve? Scots have a right to better

Several media-related items have caught my eye over the last couple of days – and not always for the right reasons.

The media has changed dramatically since I got my first job as a junior reporter on a local newspaper back in 1984.

How news is delivered, how readers access it and the 24-hour all-consuming news cycle available at the flick of a thumb is a world away from this cub reporter nervously clutching her notepad and hoping her Teeline shorthand was literally up to speed for a job on a weekly paper.

The long decline of Britain’s print media over the last two decades has been well documented. The necessarily slower process of producing a print publication means it’s impossible to provide something as immediate as that breaking news bar on 24-hour news or instant flashing updates on a phone or tablet.

But I have always thought there is still a place for newspapers, particularly local newspapers that are often talismanic in their own communities.

Like this arresting page in Brighton’s Argus on Saturday, skewering the lack of government response to the shambles that is Southern Railway.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have to travel on this godforsaken service (including my missus who pays an eyewatering £3k annually for the “privilege”) will know full well the frustration and inconvenience caused by months of ongoing disputes between the company and its staff.

The Argus is attempting to do what all good local newspapers should do – get the views of all sides in an issue of crucial importance to local people and businesses (the unreliable rail service is playing havoc with Brighton’s economy during its boom summer months) and then asked the politicians in charge what they are going to do about it.

The failure of the new Transport Secretary Chris Grayling or any of his junior ministers even to bother replying to the newspaper was lampooned mercilessly with a blank page and an excoriating editorial. That’s good local journalism.

As is this “spiked” piece from the Leicester Mercury earlier this year. Written by one of its award-winning columnists, the article savagely criticises the paper’s own management for their attitude to online content and their reliance on “clickbait” and irritating mobile ads to drive traffic to the paper’s website.

The piece didn’t make it into print because, while it’s not often that editors spike a columnist’s offering, most editors have a healthy sense of self-preservation and are unlikely to indulge such an attack on their bosses.

But kudos to Lee Marlow – now let go by the Mercury, of course – for having the balls to say what most folks working in newspapers actually think about how their products are being managed.

Which brings me to the sad case of Glasgow’s Evening Times, which has been – along with its sister papers, the Herald and Sunday Herald – decimated by job losses in editorial over the last decade and a half.

The lack of the most senior and experienced journalists is the only explanation I can find for the appalling absence of editorial judgment in this article (one among many I could point to).

I am not going to get into the whole story of how Rangers FC imploded in 2012 and were – depending on your affiliation – liquidated, relegated, demoted, re-born, whatever.

Instead I want to focus on the insulting, disgraceful and blatantly untrue statement that, minus a Rangers in Scotland’s top flight of football, the game itself was “phoney” – that is, bogus and therefore any titles and cups won were without merit.

That sort of cheerleading and biased content (complete with missing apostrophe on “let’s”) can be found on a thousand fan blogs, messageboards and fanzines – where it belongs.

Not in a newspaper that purports to have a shred of credibility.

Sports pages have always been partisan, blowing the trumpets of individuals and teams within their circulation area. The old joke about the Scottish football writers following our beleagured national team when they actually won the odd game or two was that they were “fans with typewriters”, something that could fairly be levelled at England’s newspapers these days.

But the old school journos were never afraid to dish out criticism where it was warranted and still manage to maintain friendly and positive working relationships with players and managers.

No one would have been likely to stand accused of being no better than a fanzine writer.

Away from Scotland’s print media, the lack of credibility and complete absence of impartiality stretches to BBC Scotland’s sports department.

Why else would this nonsense have appeared on its website after Joey Barton – a footballer more famous for what he does off the pitch – made his Scottish league debut for Rangers on Saturday? No wonder there was no byline to reveal which writer had to humiliate him or herself creating such bilge.

And, of course, it was Sportsound, BBC Scotland’s flagship sports programme, that once hosted the most infamous verbal punch-up ever between two of its own journalists on which one was the biggest Rangers fan. Laughable as that clip is, it’s not even vaguely funny.

There has been much talk in Scotland of a “Scottish Six” – a BBC Scotland-produced and presented Six O’Clock News that will better reflect the “national” news as it relates to Scotland. 

The ability to hold those in power to account is the most essential part of journalism. Local newspapers should reflect every part of their community. The BBC has a duty to be impartial and to represent all licence-fee payers.

The Argus demonstrated its side of the bargain on Saturday. What price anyone at the Evening Times or BBC Scotland’s sports department doing the same any time soon?

PS I have huge sympathy for everyone still working in newspapers, particularly my old colleagues at several Scottish publications. It’s a bloody hard job and often thankless, too. But the sort of content I’ve highlighted here is insulting not only to readers but also to those who commission it and those who write it. Just as well my days in newspapers are done, though… #unemployable

Labour – a party still worth saving? The answer has to be yes

Yesterday I broke the habit of a lifetime and joined a political party.

I handed over £25 to become a registered supporter of the Labour Party so I can vote in the upcoming leadership election and try to restore some order to the party and provide genuine opposition to parliamentary politics in the UK.

I spent the first 27 years of my working life as a journalist. Call me old-fashioned, but I never thought it appropriate or savvy for anyone working in the media to be a member of a political party, any political party, because hostages to fortune and all that.

Times have changed – boy, have they ever.

Disclosure: In my voting lifetime, I have voted Labour, Green, independent, hell even SNP on one occasion that still brings me out in hives. However, I haven’t put my cross beside the Labour party since the 2001 general election. The war in Iraq and the blatant disregard for the overwhelming public opposition finished me with Labour.

Until now.

I was 14 when Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power. It took 18 long, long years to unseat the party that considers itself the natural rulers of Britain.

The Blair years have been dissected in enough detail everywhere else. Suffice to say, there are a whole lot of good things – a whole lot of poverty elimination, a whole lot of equality giving, a whole lot of equitable redistribution through tax credits etc – that put plenty in the plus side to try and balance the dreadful deficit that is Iraq.

I don’t want – nor do I have time – to wait out another generation of Tory rule while the Labour party destroys itself from top to bottom, left to right and every nook and cranny in between in a factional war.

The EU Leave vote still devastates me a month on. I want, need, demand a coherent, strong opposition in parliament to hold the government to account on every single decision, every step they take toward Brexit and toward whatever economic calamity they are going to visit upon ordinary people.

Endless protests in Parliament Square won’t achieve that.

So, having bitched and moaned and, yes, even cried, yesterday I swallowed hard, got out my bank card and joined the Labour Party. If you have £25 and you care about democracy and stopping the onset of one-party rule in the UK*, I hope you can do the same.

Right now I know next to nothing about Owen Smith, who is challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership, aside from the fact that he‘s against Brexit and pro a second EU referendum – which does endear him to this committed europhile.

Smith has about six weeks to convince me and thousands of others he has coherent and workable policies that appeal to a broad swathe of voters, that he has the backing of the parliamentary party, members and activists, and that he’s serious about both opposing the current government vehemently and actually winning power to put his own policies into action.

It’s a big ask. I hope he’s up to the job because the alternative under the frankly hapless Corbyn is a continuation of the all talk, not action that means nothing to those of us who want a credible opposition and those who desperately need that opposition.

Because otherwise we’re looking at the next decade of this…

 

*I realise many of my friends and families have zero interest in the future of the UK because their focus is on an independent Scotland. This is for those of us for whom that is not an option.

 

Caroline Aherne – the queen of comedy we’ll miss forever

2016 has been a truly awful year and today it just got a whole lot worse with the dreadfully sad news that Caroline Aherne has died at the age of 52.

There will rightly be acres of tributes to a woman who can genuinely be called a comedy genius.

The Fast Show and Mrs Merton made her name, but it was The Royle Family – written with the equally brilliant Craig Cash – that cemented her reputation for comedic inventiveness and innovation.

A family of legendary sloth sit on their grotty couch in a smoke-filled living-room, watching crap telly shows and nipping at each other.

You couldn’t even really call it a sitcom because not much ever happened. And so no one quite knew what to make of it when it first turned up on our screens in 1998.

Plenty of folks hated it for what they perceived to be crudity, for its glorification of laziness, for its lack of action.

To me, they missed the point.

The Royle Family was nothing more than a joyful and affectionate tribute to the minituae of British working-class family life, already long gone by the time it first aired in the late 90s.

We laughed because we recognised ourselves and our loved ones in the characters, in their interactions with each other, in the tiny, daft frictions and affections of family life, in all their flawed and faltering attempts at getting on with things when dealt a pretty shit hand in life.

Caroline and Craig’s writing was always near the knuckle but never malicious; bitingly funny but never cruel; acerbic but always affectionate. These were her people, she came from them and she loved them – and by extension, she loved us. And we loved her back.

In my opinion, the 2006 episode The Queen of Sheba, in which Nana – played by the marvellous Liz Smith – dies is quite simply one of the finest pieces of British television writing, beautifully acted by everyone involved and reducing me to helpless tears every single time I watch it.

It dealt with loss in a way that was decidedly unsentimental but still managed to break the hearts of everyone who watched.

I never met Caroline Aherne, but I felt that I knew her because her writing was so honest and so from her heart that she made you feel as if she were writing those lines just for you.

Rest in peace, Caroline. You filled our viewing lives with joy.

May you always wear scarlet ribbons.

We’re simply pawns in the politicians’ games

13566962_10153559337131447_5263248734790162696_n
Courtesy of @cartujakds

Six days ago, I was depressed beyond belief, not quite taking in how we had somehow contrived to vote to leave the European Union.

Today I am angry. Fucking furious, actually.

Two spoiled baby men, aided and abetted by people who should know better and many who never will know better, have allowed their schoolboy rivalry to make the UK the laughing stock of the world.

Racists, both closeted and up front, have decided the leave vote has given them carte blanche to express their bigoted, foul views on anyone who doesn’t quite look British enough.

And to put the tin lid on things, the Labour Party has picked this week of all weeks to start sniffing glue and embark on its greatest bout of in-fighting in three decades.

So businesses shudder with the realisation of what Brexit means for stability, for jobs, for investment; many Leave voters express bewilderment that we’re actually going to HAVE TO LEAVE and want to change their vote; the EU prepares to play hard ball over leave negotiations; the media, both social and mainstream, practically eats itself with the minute-by-minute implosion of the UK’s two major political parties; and MPs, political activists and commentators indulge in their very favourite pastime of backstabbing, gossip and intrigue.

In the meantime, no one appears to be at the helm of UK plc.

All of that is farcical enough to raise some gallows humour. I’ve spent the last week trying to look on any kind of bright side – usually helped by reading the acidic penmanship of the peerless Marina Hyde – and thinking that we’ll somehow muddle through this self-inflicted crisis.

But today I got one of those BBC News updates on my phone and it made me mad as hell.

It revealed that Boris Johnson would not, in fact, be standing for leader of the Conservative Party, despite spending the last four months ostensibly batting for leave but really simply auditioning to be the next prime minister.

The bumbling buffoon act turns out not to have been an act at all, BoJo outfoxed at the last by his fellow Outer Michael Gove.

Blue on blue action is usually entertaining, but right now I don’t fucking care that the Tories are effectively stabbing each other in the front. I don’t even care that yesterday I actually thought I’d prefer Theresa May as PM to any other candidate (actually I care a lot more about that than I’m going to discuss right now).

I care that the UK economy and the lives and livelihoods of millions of people have been put at risk because a bunch of overgrown schoolboys thought it would be fun to play political games.

I care that the wider Europe I loved being part of is soon to be denied me.

I care that people who think they have no voice have found theirs in bigotry.

I care that a man who campaigned on a tissue of lies used his ambition to gamble on this country’s future – and lost.

I care that voters on both sides of the EU argument have been betrayed.

Never mind the so-called new kinder politics – insert hollow laugh – the Corbyn-era Labour Party was supposed to usher in.  They’re no better than the rest.

Politics is only a game to those at its heart. For them, their strategies and manoevres and machinations have no bearing in the real world – until they tragically do.

Until politicians, their hangers-on and the media scrum that follows their every move look outside their enormous bubble, the only kind of politics that is thriving is the divisive kind.

Grow up, the bloody lot of you.

For Orlando, with love

Today the worst mass killing in US history took place in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

A lone gunman, armed with an automatic weapon and who knows what other firepower, walked into the Pulse club and opened fire. At the moment 50 people are confirmed dead and another 53 are being treated in hospital for their injuries.

It is a horrific crime, heartbreaking and incomprehensible in its scale.

We have watched today in tearful despair as the news got ever grimmer from the scene, the pain and terror of those caught up in the attack and of the friends and families waiting in dread for news palpable.

Speculation is naturally rife as to the “inspiration” behind this dreadful attack.

I’ll spare you the time – it’s hate.

Religion isn’t the only driver of homophobia and hatred towards LGBTQ people, but it sure as hell provides a neat cover for those who cannot abide the progress made on civil rights for a minority that has suffered – and in many places around the world continues to suffer – blatant discrimination and oppression.

Well, hate can never be allowed to win. Especially when all we want to do is love and be loved.

Share the love. And keep in your hearts everyone who went out for a night of fun and dancing with friends and lovers – and who will never go home because of one individual so filled with hate.

#lovewins

Our safe European home? Yes, yes it is

I saw that tweet the other day. It’s funny cos it’s true (apart from the errant who’s that should be whose, but this is no time to be a grammar pedant).

In just over a fortnight, Britain will vote in a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union or to leave.

The stakes are high. The rhetoric – on both sides – ridiculous. This week the Brexiteers are celebrating a lead in several polls, thanks probably to its decision to focus on the emotive topic of immigration. Bremain keeps focusing on the economy, stupid.

Actually the reality is that for the most fervent people on both sides of the argument, their belief in either in or out is such an article of faith that it wouldn’t matter if they were promised a glimpse into the future to confirm their choice was a disaster. They would still vote in or out, regardless.

Many people are likely not to bother either to vote or even to register (on that note, if you are not already a registered voter, you have until midnight tomorrow  June 7 to ensure you get to cast your vote on June 23).

Elements of this campaign are little more than a rerun of the Scottish independence referendum that still bitterly resonates almost two years on.

That referendum polarised Scotland – still does if you tiptoe around social media – and regardless of the outcome of the vote on June 23, EU in or out is going to poison public discourse in the UK for a generation.

Go us!

If you haven’t already made up your mind, here’s my entirely unscientific and emotional guide as to why you should vote remain on June 23. If you want an economic argument to sway to remain, try here and here and here. For Brexit, well, you should probably go elsewhere.

A UK committed to Europe would be welcomed with open arms – and can set the EU on a new course

Since joining the EEC back in 1973, Britain has never been more than a reluctant partner in the whole European Union project. Successive PMs, even ones as Europe-friendly as Blair, have always given the impression that Brussels is nothing more than a pain in the backside. A UK government fully committed to a reformed European Union (and by god, it needs reformed) could set the agenda and help forge a new path. Hey, I know I sound like Pollyanna but it could happen!

Britain might be an island, but in a globalised world, cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours and allies is an act of shortsighted folly

Too much of the language around Brexit has been about taking our country back and stopping immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs. There’s a pining there for a lost Britain, for the Britain of the empire where the sun never set. Theirs is a Britain that probably never actually existed but is highly visible in rose-tinted spectacles. And even if it did exist, we can no more go back to the future than we can close our doors on the world.

Globalisation cannot be halted. Mass immigration may never be halted. It can be shaped – but only if you’re willing to participate, willing to provide some solutions to a problem that transcends national borders and local politics.

The EU has made a total hash of the current refugee crisis, but it’s not too late to formulate policies that save lives and help restore order to the chaos in the Middle East. Better to be in shaping future policies than out dealing with the fallout.

A united Europe is a better Europe

The generation that survived the Second World War is gradually leaving us. We should give thanks every day we have never had to live through what they did. Making trading partners of former foes and knowing that onetime enemies can be relied upon to provide support on social policies has probably been the EU’s finest achievement.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of nationalism across the continent again. It’s rarely pretty when folks claim exceptionalism based purely on where they were born. That kind of thinking fetishises flags and singles out the other as the potential enemy. Not for me.

Spoiled for choice

I love French élan, Spanish wine, Italian cuisine and German football.

Danish crime dramas, Swedish flatpack furniture and pickled herring.

Belgian chocolate and Austrian wiener schnitzel.

Irish stout and Hungarian goulash.

Of course I can still have all of that if Britain is no longer a member of the EU, but somehow that feeling of being part of the continent would be diminished.

And would we even be able to play under the EU flag in the Ryder Cup? You might scoff, but that flag and that team have been a remarkable symbol of unity for 30 odd years.

And then there’s this…

I’m sure many Brexiteers are not small-minded individuals terrified of immigrants. Or right-wing politicians determined to destroy environmental regulations and make a bonfire of workers’ rights but who will still themselves be financially secure no matter the economic fallout of leave. But…

 

First the truth. Now justice for the 96

87496328_getty
©BBC

On Saturday, April 15, 1989, I was home alone nursing a monstrous hangover – the night before had been my sister’s 16th birthday and I’d hosted a mad teenage party to celebrate her big day.

My brothers went for a hair of the dog to the local pub and I went for an afternoon nap.

Just after 4pm, my brothers rushed back in and told me to get up because “there’s a disaster happening at the Liverpool game”.

What unfolded at Hillsborough that afternoon has been the defining injustice of my generation.

96 fans who went to watch Liverpool play a game of football never went home. And 96 families who have spent the last 27 years battling every intransigent, arrogant cog of the British Establishment today finally began to get the truth and justice for their loved ones.

I admit that Hillsborough has always pained me more, affected me more deeply because my first thought, from the instant I switched on to see the horror unfold live on Grandstand, was “this could have been us.”

That applies to anyone who went to football matches anywhere in the UK in the 1970s and 80s.

Dilapidated stadiums, metal barriers, heavy-handed policing, clubs who only cared about soaking fans for their cash and were prepared to cram in as many as possible for big matches with scant regard for safety.

How there weren’t more disasters on a similar scale is a minor miracle.

On Sunday, April 16, 1989, I had a ticket to see Celtic take on Hibs in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup at Hampden Park. My siblings and I gathered at my parents the day after Hillsborough to prepare to travel to the game together.

My mum, still red-eyed and reeling from the scale of the tragedy, grasped our hands as we sat at the kitchen table: “I could lose all of you. I could lose all of you.” She wasn’t just referring to me, my sister and brothers but to our extended family, cousins and all, who regularly met inside the ground at the same spot.

Today going to a football match is a much safer, infinitely more comfortable experience.

But there are still too many examples of how football fans are treated as second-class citizens and considered lesser by politicians, by the police and by the game’s rulers.

That attitude is what led to the horrific events at Hillsborough and the easily-accepted claims (in fact, downright lies), in the immediate aftermath that, of course, these were just drunken yobs whose own reckless behaviour caused the disaster in the first place.

Look at the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act brought in by the SNP government in Scotland, an Act that deliberately criminalises football fans.

Look at the cost of going to a game – fans in England have organised protests against spiralling ticket prices in the Premier League that price them out of supporting their team.

Look at how television dictates when games kick off, even when that means travelling fans can’t get home from the game.

The beautiful game is a lot more tarnished than it used to be.

Today’s verdict isn’t going to restore football’s lustre any time soon. But it should – it must – make the authorities pause and remember football fans deserve as much care and consideration as any other section of society.

And the game’s bigwigs should heed the words of the great Jock Stein: Football is nothing without fans.

#JFT96