Ignorance ain’t bliss. Why I learned to turn off the TV news and go and do something less self-harming instead

war_is_peace___1984_by_abhijitdara-d53sienMuch as I have tried to impose my own personal news blackout on Article 50, Brexit, everything to do with the ignorant moronic fool in the White House and Scotland’s never-feckin-endum – well, it’s not just hard, it’s impossible.

The reasons I prefer to watch Storage Wars: Texas rather than tune into TV or radio news programmes are too numerous to note.

But one strand features strongly across all of the things I mentioned in the opening par – the rise and acceptance of wilful ignorance, not simply from ordinary folks who don’t want to engage with reality but by politicians who now know adopting this tactic is their easiest route to success.

Psychologists say we human beings can experience three types of ignorance: ordinary, wilful and higher.

Ordinary ignorance is when you move from unknowing to knowing through learning; higher is when you accept that there mysterious things, the truth of which may never be known to you.

Wilful is, to my jaundiced eye, the bastard brother of those other types. Because this is a deliberate choice to ignore the facts of what you know to be true and pretend that something else altogether is actually correct, either for peace of mind or for personal gain.

Alt-facts, if you will. Fake news, perhaps.

And I’ve had my bloody fill of it.

Once upon a time (like, a decade or so ago), politicians, policy-makers, academics, experts would be reasonably patient in the face of the wilful ignorance often demonstrated by the public.

The media (I’m not counting the redtops here) would help by presenting the actual facts of a situation or problem – not without their own inherent bias, of course, but not usually, as too often happens now, with their own “twist” on the truth.

I’ve made my feelings plain on Brexit before. For all the faults of the European Union, I believe leaving the EU for an extraordinarily uncertain future is a matter of supreme economic and social self-harm, which will likely lead to the break-up of the UK. And it is based not only on a tissue of lies but also on wilful ignorance promoted enthusiastically by the Leave campaign and elements of a media that has long promoted Brussels as the seat of all evil.

That sort of behaviour is infectious. It happened in the first Scottish referendum in 2014. An element of it swayed the 2015 general election. It swept Trump into power where even his growing number of policy disasters and blatant untruths unveiled since haven’t dented the “belief” of his followers.

It’s the entire modus operandi of UKIP who consistently say one thing – Europe is terrible, we need to be free, immigrants are ruining the country – and do another (fill their pockets with EU money, insist that Welsh farmers should still get European finance after Brexit, marry German women, shag French women…). Black really is white with these chancers.

The last decade and a half has been, in my opinion, horrendous for UK politics. The next looks a million times worse.

And until we, the electorate, stop accepting the bullshit that suits us when it suits us, we will continue to get the politics and politicians we deserve.

Switching off the news might be the start.

The thought that counts

Another birthday has just rolled around with depressing inevitability. Hey, I ain’t knocking it, I’m just glad to have survived my 50th year with only (relatively) minor cuts, bruises, a shonky knee and a permanent limp.

With my track record as a complete klutz, it could have been so much worse…

I began my 50th year with the bright idea of having a list of 50 things to do that I’d never done before. Not only did I only manage to come up with around half that number, I never even got halfway to completing the list I did come up with (I did mention in a previous blog that I have an issue with starting stuff, then never finishing the job…)

Even the one thing that was No. 1 on my list, I never quite managed to achieve – that was to go to Iceland and see the Northern Lights.P1000019

I went to Iceland and it was fantastic, but the weather refused to play ball, so I saw lots of amazing lunar-like, snow-covered scenery, bathed in incredible hot springs and ate delicious fish but of extraordinary lights in the sky there were none.

However, my 50th year was not a waste of time. Oh no. I walked a lot of dogs. I fell over even more than I had done in the previous year. I did some thinking. I did some more thinking. Here’s some of what I’ve been thinking recently.

  1. My internal thermostat is clearly on the blink because – a bit like Iceland – I am producing a lot more heat than I can possibly use right now. The only upside is that I might never need to buy another jumper at this rate.
  2. Social media is both the greatest and the worst invention of the internet age. I love its immediacy, breaking news on my phone, the instant connection with folks around the world, dog memes, daft Facebook quizzes, seeing my nieces grow up from afar.  I hate its baying nature, its public shaming, its bullying, its misogyny, its racism, its idiocy. To paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson — people, bloody hell.
  3. There’s no such thing as the new, kinder, gentler politics. Politicians and those who hang around with politicians are a genuine breed apart. Left, right, centre and everywhere in between – they are all the same. And that’s actually ok. Because politics is about getting things done. And there are many ways to get things done but mostly it’s about cutting deals and compromising on issues that the voting public might not be so keen on. That’s not the same as corruption or introducing policies that you kept quiet about in an election manifesto or imposing ideologically-driven but ineffective and in the end costly changes on public services. So feel free to still get excised about the latter and keep holding elected representatives to account but do remember that the former is how the wheels of the state keep turning.
  4. But wouldn’t it be nice occasionally to be like Iceland – can you tell it’s my new favourite place? – where the public mood, freely and peacefully expressed, is enough to make an elected official accept they have betrayed the electorate’s trust and resign immediately?
  5. The Donald Trump presidential campaign is clearly an enormous joke being played on the world. I hope.
  6. Not everyone who is annoyed about tax avoidance and evasion and the current furore about the Panama Papers feels that way because they hate the rich or because they are envious. It’s possible to feel ok about folks who have made a lot of money or were born into wealth but to feel also that those folks should pay their fair share of tax without hiding vast sums offshore or indulge in monetary gymnastics to outwit the taxman. Taxation is the price a civilised society pays for, well, its civilisation. Like education and roads and police and doctors, from which we all benefit.
  7. For all its corruption, for all its bloated salaries and pampered prima donnas in flashy boots, football is still the greatest sport for producing genuine fairytale finishes. Step forward, Leicester City, who are only a couple of games away from becoming the most unlikely of English Premier League champions. Rainforests will no doubt be felled in chronicling the story of how Claudio Ranieri and last season’s relegation escapees humbled the big names of English football. For everyone who loves the game, Leicester City, champions, is the stuff of dreams.

More questions than answers

So, did you see my big moment? My 15 seconds of fame? Getting to ask the first question on Question Time – it’s not something they just hand out to anyone after all.

I’ve been watching QT for the best part of 30 years, from Robin Day in his pomp skewering politicians and audience alike with his wit to Peter Sissons and David Dimbleby keeping order and occasional disorder.

But hasn’t QT become so dull and contrived and devoid of any real debate? The identikit Stepford politicians of all hues are indistinguishable in their dullness and conformity to the party line. Then there’s the BBC’s peculiar obsession with UKIP, a party with zero MPs and a 2010 manifesto that borders on the insane, but whose leading figures (Nigel Farage in particular) appear to have a season ticket to appear on the QT panel while the Green party, with an actual proper elected MP are uniformly ignored.

Having said all that, of course, my ears pricked up when I heard that the programme was coming from Brighton this week – I really fancied being in the audience and being given my chance to grill the panel. I’m a chippy moo like that.

So without thinking about it (or even mentioning it to Debbie), I applied via their website, a surprisingly easy and quick process, and promptly forgot all about it. until I got a call on Monday from the audience producer.

I was in, she told me.

Oh and would Debbie Browett, on whose behalf I had also blithely applied, also be happy to take part?

Er, yeah, about that – maybe not seeing as how my better half is a civil servant. I’d be riding solo on this one.

The drill is that audience participants are invited to submit a question by email a couple of days before the show is filmed. I thought long and hard about what topic I’d like to address and finally drafted my question:

Is the Conservative plan to raise the inheritance tax threshold further evidence that we are, as David Cameron said, a wealthy country and so austerity is ideological, not essential?

I reckon the audience is about 100 strong. But I had no absolutely no doubts that I would be picked to ask a question. Don’t ask me how, it was like an unexplained, Mystic Meg moment when the producer called me on Monday.

So it was on to Brighton University’s Falmer campus on Thursday night, having alerted my entire social circle via Twitter and Facebook that this was my big moment.

I’d been pondering what my second question would be, but the decision was an easy one when I woke up on Thursday morning to the news that Ofgem was to launch a competition inquiry into the business practices of the so-called Big Six energy companies.

Once through fairly rigorous security in the uni gym, I handed over my ID and took a postcard on to which I wrote my second question:

Is the Ofgem inquiry into the Big Six a sign that energy is too important to be left to the market?

I’ll be honest – I thought my first question was better, but hey-ho.

Helping myself to a cup of stewed tea (and ignoring a limp-looking buffet of sarnies, fruit and biscuits), I took a seat and scoped out my fellow audience members, seated in semi-circles with two TVs tuned to the teatime news at one end.

In the queue for security, I’d been jostled about four times without a single apology by a woman behind me with a Scots accent. I hate that.

She was just too close to me and had no patience in waiting for the queue to move at its own pace. She and her pals were sitting close to me in the waiting area. They were annoyingly loud and more so when David Dimbleby himself appeared.

IMG_1272
David Dimbleby chats to the audience pre-show – annoying personal space invader woman is in the foreground

He gave us some nice chat about what to expect, told some anecdotes about previous shows – none vaguely memorable, I’m afraid, except for something about a ham sandwich and Tony Blair – and generally put us at ease over the filming.

He explained the format: we’d go into the studio (gym hall) and sit where we liked. Five of us would be asked to join a mock panel, chaired by one of the producers, that would allow us a wee warm-up and let the technicians check the mikes and cameras were working.

Then the names of seven or eight people whose questions had been chosen would be called out, the technicians would mark the seat position for filming and they’d be taken aside for a few minutes to go through their question and what to do when Dimbers said their name.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that annoying personal space invader and her pals were first with their hands up when volunteers were called for. I sniggered when she didn’t get chosen but her pal – who’d spent at least 10 minutes doing her lippy beforehand – got the nod. All I remember of her contribution is her name – Brogan – and that red red lippy.

The mock panel is actually a great way of relaxing the audience, thanks to the producer bloke (whose name escapes me) who chivvied everyone along nicely, prompting good responses from the audience and encouraging the panel to speak up.

Then in came audience producer Alison with the all-important list of questions. My heart was bumping a wee bit at this point. My certainty that I’d been chosen was unshaken but I was – to be blunt – kacking myself a wee bit at the prospect.

Here’s the other thing: The very first question chosen doesn’t get filmed. It’s used by Dimbers to help the panel warm up and give them time to iron out any technical hitches. I’d have been gutted if I’d been picked but then not filmed.

Luckily for me, that honour went to the bloke across the aisle from me. He was still made up at getting chosen and his un-broadcast question, on whether teachers have any right to complain about wages and pensions when their holidays are so good, certainly got things off to a rousing start.

Alison explained what was about to happen and then started to read out the names of those whose questions had been chosen. First up is bloke across the aisle. He was asked to stand while the techie folk went to work. And then Allison said “And the the person who will start the show with their question is Frances Traynor.”

Well, I bounced out of my seat like Tigger after a night on vodka and Red Bull!

Eight names in total were read out and we were taken to one side by Alison while she ran us through exactly what was needed. One woman was literally shaking with nerves at this point and I did wonder why on earth she had actually applied to be on if she was that nervous; also she could simply have declined when asked.

When I heard her question later – on equal marriage and how she, as a Christian, was against it – I rather wish she had. I had even shaken her hand to wish her luck beforehand like the all-round good gay gal I am. Sheesh.

Dimbers came on and introduced the panel one by one. It will surprise no-one that the announcement of UKIP MEP Roger Helmer was greeted with a mixture of groans and jeers with fairly muted applause. Even the parliamentary automaton that is Justine Greening got a better response than that.

We got underway with the the pre-filming question. I paid little attention to it, all my focus on the little slip of paper in my rapidly sweating palm that contained my question. But before I could get myself any more worked up and conscious that my face was getting warmer and warmer and redder and redder by the second, it was lights, camera, action.

I’d like to say I enunciated perfectly, my modulated Caledonian tones sending a hush across the audience. Truth is I sounded, as always, like Mary Doll Nesbitt.

Awright, chinas.

Anyway, my part in the whole show was over in about 15 seconds, apart from fleeting glimpses of me courtesy of a friendly cameraman, the best of which was my total face palm at another piece of drivel from old Roger.

IMG_1279I had my hand up a lot of the time, trying to stick my tuppence worth into the debate, but sadly Dimbers ignored me and the keen-as-mustard students around me who were also desperate to be involved.

And in what seemed like only minutes, it was over. There was some seriously heated debate, particularly on affordable housing and equal marriage. The Brighton audience got a bit feisty on the latter topic – it was fab.

So there it was – Question Time over in no time. And if you think you get het up watching from your sofa, next time try being bang in the middle of: you’ll love it.

Talkin’ ’bout a revolution

There’s more than a whiff of insurrection and rebellion in the air around Europe right now.

The French party like it’s 1981

The French – may I say upfront that j’adore la belle France and her people – elected a man unashamedly calling himself a Socialist (their first Socialist president since Miterrand).

Mon dieu! Can you imagine the furore if a mainstream politician of the (lower-case) left in the UK was happy to be known as a Socialist?

Labour Party spads would be twitching uncontrollably and spinning like tops to stop that adjective ever being applied to their man or woman.

The Greeks, infuriated at the extraordinary fiscal restrictions imposed by the EU and IMF, stuck two fingers up to austerity and voted for left-wing parties who are openly talking about leaving the Eurozone.

The Left and protest parties made gains in local elections in Italy and in Germany, too.

Here in Blighty we had local elections in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland that gave the Coalition parties a kicking, provided Labour and the beleaguered Ed Miliband with a tiny shot in the arm and was both a boost and a boot to SNP confidence (they did a Devon Loch in Glasgow but had some excellent gains elsewhere).

For proper analysis of what all this might mean, go here and here and here.

My thoughts on it are altogether more prosaic.

For a start, didn’t the French and the Greeks put us to shame with the turnout? Around 80% of voters in France went to the polls, while around 65% of Greek voters took the time to go put their X in a box.

Here? A miserable 31% of us bothered to get to the polling station. Fair enough, these were local elections with the great British voting public still showing their disillusionment with politics and politicians in particular.

But come on! Voting is an essential part of democracy. Not only that but it’s only within living memory that universal suffrage – the rights of everyone over the age of 18 to vote – was introduced into this country.

And yet we treat this precious right with such disdain, with such casual apathy and even idiocy that it infuriates me.

If we get the politicians we deserve, maybe the politicians get the listless, ignorant electorate they deserve.

Mandatory voting isn’t the solution but I’m tempted by the idea that if you don’t use your vote, you lose the right to vote in the next election – that would certainly concentrate minds during local elections.

Of course, it’s all very well me demanding that you get out there and place your X in the box or your 1, 2, 3 of preferred candidates but what happens when there’s literally no one on the ballot box you’d be willing to elect?

My own personal coalition of the unwanted.

For the first time ever, that happened to me last Thursday. We were voting in two local elections – one for the local council, one for the parish council. As an exiled Scot, the parish council is not within my ken as ours went the way of the dinosaurs almost a century ago. I’m still not certain exactly what powers ours has except for running a summer-only car park by the beach.

And there it was – my worst nightmare writ large. 6 parish councils candidates to choose from – 4 Tories and 2 LibDems. My own personal coalition of the unwanted.

I stared in horror for a minute or so while I tried to process exactly what to do next. This was a Hobson’s Choice of the most unpalatable kind.

I’ve never spoiled a ballot paper before and I wasn’t quite sure how I should spoil this one. In the end I didn’t go for a dramatic message or a giant Get It Right Up Ye in caps but simply crossed a line through all the names.

My overriding emotion afterwards was one of anger, seriously pissed off at the paucity of choice. My esteemed other half suggested I stand myself next time and, all joking aside, why the hell not? An alternative voice that challenges the cosy status quo should always be welcome.

I’m a self-confessed news and politics junkie so it’s only natural I don’t get it when people say politics doesn’t matter to them or doesn’t affect them; when they dismiss all politicians as “just the same”; when they can’t be bothered taking five minutes out of their day once every couple of years to participate in something they’re lucky enough to be able to take for granted.

But the French and the Greeks showed us this week what collective power we have in our hands when we enter the ballot box. No wonder our Coalition partners have been frantically trying to reassure us they’ve got it all under control this week.

Rant over (for the moment). But the seeds of an idea have most certainly been planted in my napper … watch this space.