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Terrace House

I was shocked to read about the death of Hana Kimura. She now joins an increasingly long list of reality tv talent driven to depression and suicide.

terrace house

It is awful that this has happened.It is personal. It is tragic. It has happened- again.

There are many reasons why this seems to happen -so often. On the one hand, there is the trolling and online abuse which is ear-marked by very fine campaigners like Bobby Norris, but on the other, there is an institutional abuse that seems to have ringfenced the reality tv world since the early days of America’s “Survivor”. However mild its form, it never seems to go away.

For the record, I think I was fortunate to have been selected to participate in the British show The Circle. I never applied to be on the show- I was headhunted by a producer and I had not watched that show nor much reality tv at all before I agreed to enter the apartment as a contestant. Put bluntly, I could as easily have been head-hunted by a programme like Traffic House. I could as easily -now- have been a victim of social media trolling as Hana was. My heart, therefore, goes out to Hana and to her family.

It is time to wake up to a double reality-

Firstly, that if this is the sort of tv we want to see, and I would suggest it is a very interesting and creative approach to tv, then we, the viewers, need to show responsibility to those people who are providing our entertainment. We can never send hurtful messages. A hurtful text is never just a joke- it is always hurtful. We must think before we send. The adage about “sticks and stones” which I remember repeatedly as a child is complete rubbish. Words always hurt. We need to be kinder.

Secondly, we need to ensure that those who produce reality tv operate under a more transparent code of practice. This means proper and effective aftercare, but it also means a level of honesty throughout the production that might compromise the way these programmes are currently made- maybe that needs to be an adjustment we should be ready to make.

Survivor

I am doing a weekly podcast for an American group devoted to the “Survivor” franchise. As far as I know, I am not to be paid but as the programme is now in it 20th year and 40th season, there are literally years’ of episodes to go before I even get half-way through the broadcasts. That may demonstrate naivite on my part but it also, I hope, gives me licence to speak out fairly boldly.

What is odd is that, unlike “the Batchelor” and “the Batchelorette” which were infamous for suicide, the “Survivor” series seems to have got by on what is frankly a diet of appalling abuse without much of an adverse affect on its contestants. Certainly, their early contracts were absurd in their attempt to silence and suppress the talent after the show, certainly the level of nasty tasks makes almost any other reality tv show seem tame, and, at the moment in season 1, though I am told not so in future seasons, the commentary is fairly modest in its irony and in the way it presents a storyline. Later series, I am told, will see a more nuanced recap at the beinning of episodes and a narrative bias from Jeff Probst -allegedly- that would make Emily Maitless’ line of reporting seem very lame indeed.

If you go to the podcast here-

you will hear a debate with the wonderful Mario Lanzo (not the singer but the writer, Survivor historian and psychiatrist) about an alleged manipulation of a vote- it is only an allegation though it is backed up with books and I understand with a court case, so the allegation might be well-founded. We are very trusting in the way we accept what we see on tv. It is not reality at all.

Lucky

For my part, as I say, I was very lucky indeed. The story that I was shown to be part of was actually, for the most part, the story that happened. Of course, there were scenes that never made the edit and I am sorry that the audience never got to see my conversations about tractors, ordure and farming with Sy: I think this omission explains why he visited me after he was blocked. No other narrative works in fact. I was also looked after terrifically well on the circle. Reality TV is a spectrum and I was fortunate enough to have found myself at the positive end of that spectrum.

I think Hana Kimura has been very unlucky but the industry itself, the whole spectrum, must take stock. Every time there is a death in the industry, people like me call for change. But change is dismissed and a few more sticking plasters are clumsily applied to the way this very profitable industry progresses. It cannot be just that people “have difficulty adjusting to fame”, or responding to “trolling”. By 2016, there were 21 deaths recorded in the States among reality tv contestants. That count is significantly higher if it is computed globally. It shows a serious problem in the making, or actually in reality and it does not take account of the innumerable counselling sessions that have dealt with depression brought on directly as a result of participation in one of these shows- counselling in other words that has stopped that appalling suicide rate being even higher than it already is.

It is not, to me, at all surprising that there should be problems: this is an industry that needs guidance- that has two or three different and contradictory images as Hollywood had in its own hay-day(sic). So, I have to ask, with all honesty, how can we have a business model marketed as entertainment that is predicated on such a high level of misery? In some shows, contestants have been wilfully humiliated, or manipulated to be party to the humiliation of others, they have been victimised by sleep deprivation, plied with alcohol and they find they have been selectively edited or they bitterly regret what they said in moments of weakness. They have been promised all maner of future success. Moreover, whatever screening process may have been conducted, everyone knows that emotional instability makes for good tv.

It is not enough to shrug and say “this was a Faustian pact.”

As I said, I was lucky.

Sadly, Hana Kimura was not.

 

 

Cummings again

Cummings got it wrong in the Rose garden.

mary cummings' birthday surprise1

He got it badly wrong and Boris will be damaged the more he tries to hold on to the man.

There may still be time to claw this one back but the route is very simple. The explanation as he gave it is arrogant and self-serving. What he should have said is this, “I am sorry. I have let down Boris and I have let down the country. I know I fouled up but there are important jobs to be done and I would like to get on with them if the PM will let me.” If he needed to justify himself further, he could have added his chronology with the following rider, “For the record, I felt, at the time, that what I did was within the letter of the law that I helped to draft. But I must be held to a higher standard and I failed.”

In this context, he would have been allowed, even encouraged to stay, to make amends.

The only reason to appear on TV was to make him likeable. So he failed.

More than that, he exposed much of the Government machinery to failure in their attempt to support him.

There were a number of attempts to bury the story, some more outrageous than others. All failed, but his cack-handed appearance in the rose garden was intolerable. It also flies in the face of the special advisor code which argues against people like Cummings making public statements in this way.

The only reason ever for a politician to appear on tv is to put a face to a story, to humanise an issue. TV supports emotion or action. Therefore, any “explanation”, in that context, comes across as deceptive and weaselly, no matter how true and valuable it may actually be. Nobody wants to listen for an hour to an explanation, and particularly not to a man of privilege offering an “explanation”. TV is not a courtroom. That is precisely what we were given. The only emotion we saw came from the reporters. the only action was to drink water. Tiresome.

It gets worse. The more useless Cummings becomes because of his lockdown run, the more Boris has to assume the mantle of earnestness. He is better being shambolic, and charming but he cannot play the shambles when all around him is crumbling. What an unqualified mess this special advisor has created.

More Cummings and Govings

We have now had Cummings’ defence, which was rambling and really very depressing to watch. If Cummings is such a master of presentation, he should take lessons, maybe from Alastair Campbell.

One thing that came up, though, was that he categorically denied that he or his wife had symptoms of COVID before they went up to Durham. This is a game-changer. the fact that he also said that they did not stop on the way is reassuring but less significant.

He also said that his son was tested for COVID and was negative. Neither he nor his wife were tested.

One issue that did not come up was something that had been circulating for a while, specifically that Cummings’ son had been diagnosed with autism. I understand that this rumour has no foundation in fact, but really I wonder if it would have changed much if it had? There are innumerable people who have made huge sacrifices during the lockdown and being in lockdown has been very difficult for many.

The reporters who asked questions simply looked angry. Cummings is not a man who commands affection yet the moment with the boom mike as he negotiated his way to the car this morning was poignant. Somehow, I think he does not do sentiment.

beth in no10

One of the reporters at Number 10, Beth, talked specifically about children with cancer who had been unable to visit hospitals and get vital treatment during the lockdown.

Others pointed out that people were unable to meet their families and that loved ones had died in isolation. This, I think, again slightly misses the point but it does so in a very interesting way. It confirms that if one person suffers, then we all suffer. That is quite true, we have a shared national and international crisis, but there is something else too:  that we must all suffer in the same way, that we must all queue for the same treatment and so on. The UK is rare in that even private medical insurance is generally linked to some aspects of the NHS. It is a single machine that drives our national healthcare and on which we all depend.

We all suffer, however, in different ways and our pain threshold is unique.

We can make a very strong case for exceptions to any national lockdown, but it does not change the fact that any exception mocks the enormous sacrifices everyone else has made, and compromises the effectiveness of the lockdown effort.

I think there have been a number of high-profile lockdown breakers- In this country, Stephen Kinnock, Neil Ferguson, Kyle Walker, Catherine Calderwood, Robert Jenrick, Piers Corbyn, possibly Nigel Farage and now Dominic Cummings so it is spread across the political spectrum. Of these, I think Corbyn must me among the most shameful for his scuffle with police officers and his complete disregard of social distancing. We look to our leaders to give an example and these people have manifestly given a poor example whatever their excuses may have been. I suppose in the end we must think of Caesar’s wife- those in, or connected to the public eye are held to a higher standard of behaviour.

Cummings to grips with reality

The problem is that in Politics, there will always be someone ready to blow a rasperry. That is partly what is happening to Cummings, and it is amazing that he has lasted so long. He is evasive, superior and rude. He is also, I understand, brilliant. None of those qualities would endear him to the Westminster crowd or to the media. Even the Conservative press has its knives out for Cummings – “No 10 svengali who flouted the PM’s own strict lockdown rules” is how the Daily Mail reports his actions.

There is another quality Cummings has- he is indispensable. He masterminded the Leave vote, he has a plan for the exit and a plan to whip the civil service into line. None of this can be done without him.

Boris has gone out of his way to support him.

cummings

That tactic worked in the past. It is astonishing, really, that Priti Patel survived at all a few months’ ago but Boris supported her in the face of the odds, and she is still pottering about, misreading the auto-cue and muddling up basic maths. Of course, her comic highlight almost redeems her and at any other time than in a national crisis would make her a figure of fun-  that during lockdown, with the closure of stops, “shoplifting has gone down”. But otherwise, her performance at briefings has been likened to “a motorway pileup”. I suppose though that being thought a fool is better than being thought a bully.

Priti Patel is useful for the moment: her gaffes take the attention away from the real media headline- the huge number of deaths from COVID 19 in the UK.

The more we complain about her, the less we focus on the real issues. She is a distraction even if she might perhaps be a dunce, or she might be a bully.

There seems to be one thing worse than bullying though and that is deceit. While Boris was busy defending Cummings, the anonymous civil service tweeter wrote, “imagine having to work with these truth twisters”, then that message got speedily deleted. But it did its job.

In this case, it is deceit that is directly linked to COVID 19 and the lockdown. It is relevant deceit.

Cummings is not a maths’ dunce, or a clown.

Because he is so important to the Government project, his activities are not going to be bruished aside lightly. It was foolish, therefore, with hindsight, to ask Grant Sapps to fumble about the details. This is what Grants said to a question put by Sally Ridge and that he had been given in advance,

“I don’t want to disappoint you, I am transport secretary and I am expert in building our infrastructure, but I don’t know all the times and dates for you. I understand that he will have travelled there around the end of March, stayed there for 14 days and didn’t leave the property in isolation as per the rules in the guidance.”

The Government has moral and legal authority. It is entirely undermined by Cummings and, more than that, he has directly put our safety is at risk. Three issues scream for attention: (1) His disdain for the law is one thing and (2) his example that others may follow is another, but (3) he knowingly went out on a lengthy journey with the virus. On that trip, a minimum of 4 hours’ driving, 360 miles from London to Durham, did he never once pause for petrol, for a snack, or for a loo break?

The problem is that neither Cummings nor Boris understand the issue. It is very simple to demonstrate this with the headline over the weekend which claimed Boris thought his advisor had the right “intention”, that it was not as if “he was off to see a lover”. This would put him, of course in the same bracket as Professor Neil Ferguson. Ferguson resigned (such a dramatic fall indeed that the police decided he did not need fining).

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in this case, the policy is not Kantian but utilitarian in its essence. We do not even need to weigh up different “imperatives”. It is monumentally simple: one person who is infected and breaks the quarantine puts everyone else at risk. It is not about intent but action. Boris has misunderstood the philosophical base for the coronavirus lockdown. He has also misread the mood of the people.

As does Cummings. When asked by the press camped outside his house if he was “considering his position”, he said, “obviously not.”

OBVIOUSLY

Why “obviously”? I am always entertained by anyone who uses this word. I think Cummings has never attended my lectures- if he had, he would know that I believe this is an adverb that should never be used. If something is obvious, it does not need to be stated, and if something is not obvious, the word is misused. It is very simple. It is a word that can only ever be used to establish superiority. It is an arrogant word. It is a put-down. In the interests of developing a kinder English, this is one word that I think should be erased for ever from vocabulary (obviously).

BREXIT

He went on, “you are as right about that as you were about Brexit. Do you remember how right you were about that?.”

BABY

Grant Sapps defended Cummings’ trip with an appeal to his 4 year old baby. This is what Sapps said,

“This is somebody who followed the guidelines by going to lockdown in order to be in the best place to ensure that provision was made for a four-year-old, who would have not been able to look after himself, and as the guidance makes clear, you must do in this situation the thing which would look after children for their welfare in the best possible way.”.

As if to reinforce this image, today, Cummings took the self-same baby out to meet the press. It was not even a “no comment” moment. Cummings had lots to say before making a point about a boom microphone (which was actually quite touching- the man has more heart than I had expected).

PIERS MORGAN

Piers Morgan, the moral heart of tv-land, has therefore banned all Cabinet ministers from his show, unless they “didn’t publicly support Cummings breaching a lockdown that the Govt forced on the rest of us ‘to save lives’”.

The problem is that this appears to be cut and dried. It appears to be very simple.

BUT

Like Priti Patel, Cummings projects a far from favourable image. The rumour-mill is rife. Their big critics are the civil service who are targeted in new reforms. Whoever wrote about “twisted truth” may well be out of a job in a few weeks’ time if Cummings has his way. And it is no secret that Priti Patel had been squabbling with her own civil servants. So, the civil servant who leaked has respect from peers- “this brave heretic has already become something of a civil service legend”.

So far, we have judged Cummings without hearing his side of the story.

So far, he has yet to speak.

 

The Buck stops here – Mrs May needs to explain

Today, it was revealed that the Government ignored specific warnings in June last year and specific requests for PPE stockpiling. When the timings are factored in, there are only two people who should be held directly responsible. These are the current health secretary,  and the then Prime Minister-  Mr Hancock and Mrs May. It is absurdly simple.

Now, I see this story in the light of a very strange question put to the Prime minister on 18th March: Theresa May stood directly behind him on the green benches and pushed Boris for what she called “a sensible exit strategy”. Mr Johnson replied that his objective was to suppress the peak of the pandemic. The current news, therefore, makes Mrs May’s questioning of the current PM about an “exit strategy” seem even more pernicious and haughty. I have come across this lady on a number of occasions and it is always the same- when backed into a corner, she turns on to the offensive. I had always wondered why she asked Boris this question. It was a tricky question and one that has quite rightly continued to be put forward by the Opposition.

It is a question that cannot be answered or certainly cannot be answered at the moment in public. It remains an important question that should still be asked, but it certainly looked disloyal when Mrs May vocalised it.

It is a convention in British politics that the current Government shoulders responsibility for criticism of previous incumbents, on the grounds that only the current government can take action to correct the damage. In this case, the damage is too great and the desultory contempt that Mrs May has consistently shown for anyone who got in her way marks her out for special treatment now.

She has badly misjudged the public mood if she thinks she can deflect attention by bickering from the backbenches and asking the sort of questions that should be left to the Opposition. This is a serious matter and she is wrong to play the Ted Heath card.

I would like to know whether Mr Hancock was prevented from acting and whether records of this will emerge in a few years. Certainly, at the time when PPE stockpiling was urged, he was already in post, having taken over from Dominic Raab on 9 July 2018. I await his explanation. It does not look good.

This is not about a failure in policy. It is about people who must take responsibility for the deaths of many hospital staff. The last Government was warned. It ignored the warnings repeatedly. This current administration has worked around the clock to fix the mess May created. But it can never be enough.

Hancock must go and Mrs May must take personal responsibility for what she did.

Here is what the BBC report on its panorama programme records today:

The expert committee that advises the government on pandemics, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), recommended the purchase of gowns last June.

Gowns are currently one of the items in shortest supply in the UK and they are now difficult to source because of the global shortage of PPE.

Doctors and nurses have complained that there are also shortages of the life-saving FFP3 respirator masks.

Panorama has discovered that millions of FFP3 respirator masks are unaccounted for.

There were 33 million on the original 2009 procurement list for the stockpile, but only 12 million have been handed out.

The government refuses to explain where the other masks have gone.

The Health department (DHSC) feared a “four to six-fold” rise in the cost of protective equipment, arguing there was “a very low likelihood of cost-benefit,” The Guardian has said.

However, it gets worse-  This is what the Guardian wrote on 27th March:

Documents show that officials working under former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told medical advisers three years ago to “reconsider” a formal recommendation that eye protection should be provided to all healthcare professionals who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients.

The expert advice was watered down after an “economic assessment” found a medical recommendation about providing visors or safety glasses to all hospital, ambulance and social care staff who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients would “substantially increase” the costs of stockpiling.

The documents may help explain a devastating shortage of protective gear in the NHS that is hampering efforts by medical staff to manage the Covid-19 virus pandemic….

In 2015, what is now the Department of Health and Social Care tasked one of its independent advisory committees, the new and emerging respiratory virus threat advisory group (Nervtag), to review the UK’s approach to stockpiling personal protective equipment (PPE) for use in an influenza pandemic “to help inform future stockpile and purchasing decisions”.

Nervtag had been created the previous year to advise the government on pandemic influenza and new virus threats to the UK. The advisory group made a series of “formal recommendations” to the department in March 2016, which had been compiled by a subgroup of senior NHS clinicians and scientists, and agreed by the wider committee.

Asked what items of PPE would be required in a pandemic, the government’s advisers recommended “providing eye protection for all hospital, community, ambulance and social care staff who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients.

This was the response to similar concerns about delays delivered on April 21st this year:

Prof Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health, University of Oxford, and Chair of NERVTAG said:

“The PHE/NERVTAG risk assessment judgment on 21 February has been misunderstood. The risk assessment tool was developed and used by PHE/NERVTAG for assessing the current, not future risk, of emerging viruses. It is dynamic, and the assessment on the 21st February was that the risk of COVID-19 was moderate “at this time”. The minutes of that meeting are clear that members thought this risk was likely to increase. Also, it is not intended for use as a trigger for actions during a pandemic. To the best of my knowledge it did not lead to any action/inaction on the part of Govt and the suggestion that it contributed to fatal delays is misleading.”

I suppose we must wait and see what prof Horby has to say about the latest news and if there is any way he can explain that. In the light of deaths, the lack of honesty and the total lack of humility here is staggering. We need to know why we were so unprepared for the pandemic and why recommendations were simply ignored. I am afraid the truth will emerge.

Changing our bureaucracy

Sometimes we forget that we are no longer an island. John Donne might be pleased by that. I am not.

donne

When we check the foreign press, we find stories emerging there that should make us very anxious indeed about what is going on here, because what we are told here is not, it seems, what is actually happening. We need to worry too, and perhaps more importantly about the way these mis-truths are affecting our international reputation.

We are getting into trouble. The bullying and lying that has crept into our bureaucracy  in Britain does not work in an international crisis and is going to leave us with egg on our faces.

Already, it is evident that what the Government proposes is rarely implemented in full by our bureaucrats- banks are unable to process loans, insurance companies are refusing to pay up and so on. This is going on while, at the same time, a wave of goodwill is sweeping the country. Odd how one particular group is unable to change.

This morning, evidence is appearing in Turkey that what is being peddled by the government is not quite correct. It is true we dispatched a military plane to collect goods from Turkey and it is true that the said A400M in now on the tarmac in Istanbul and has been there since monday afternoon. It is also true that there is an export ban on PPE goods leaving Turkey. Robert Jenrick (the Housing minister) said a shipment of PPE was due on Sunday. Gavin Williamson (the education minister) said that the shipment from Turkey would come, he hoped, on Monday. What was not said, however, was that the shipment was not formally ordered and paperwork submitted until Sunday. This is madness.

The RAF transport planes have been on standby at Brize Norton for days waiting for the go-ahead to pick up 84 tonnes of urgently needed medical clothing and equipment, including the 400,000 gowns made by Turkish suppliers.

With a series of deadlines set by UK ministers missed, the British government has blamed its Turkish counterpart for causing the delays.

But after one cabinet minister said the government had hoped the three planes would be able to take off on Monday afternoon, British sources admitted that the Turkish authorities had not confirmed the supplies were ready to be picked up.

It would be just about acceptable if that was as far as it went. But the potential for international offence goes further – It is shameless that we accepted a free gift of PPE from Turkey only a week ago on 12th April (with next to no news coverage of the shipment in the British media) and that now we are pouring blame on Turkey for what are, in fact, our own failings. The news yesterday was dominated by stories that suggested there was a fault “on the Turkish side”. Quite true, but it was of our own making. Indeed, the Guardian ran a story saying quite clearly that the RAF plane that is now on the tarmac in Istanbul was sent to put “pressure on Ankara”.

This is how the Guardian reported what another minister said:

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, told the BBC on Monday morning that the delays were down to “challenges at the Turkish end” but appeared to suggest the issue was about to be resolved. He said: “I don’t want to start making more and more promises, but I understand that flight will take off this afternoon and those [gowns] will be delivered.”

We have got into a habit of using tenses in a woolly way. “I have done something” often means “I will do it (eventually or maybe)”. This has become the standard of bureaucratic action. It has worked well enough for mobile phones and for banking. Indeed, when the customer complains, the whole thing can be turned round and the customer can be made to feel that it was their failing. This is, of course, what we have tried to do here. It is shameful.

It can only cause more delay and international resentment.

We have got into the habit of apportioning blame rather than taking action. Look, for instance at this paragraph from the Guardian:

Unite’s assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail… said the health secretary, Matt Hancock, may have to consider his position if he was not able to secure the necessary PPE. She said the situation could not continue, and that health professionals would be quite right to decline to put themselves in danger.

It seems to be in response to pressure on the Health secretary that the government announced the shipment from Turkey. Unite is right to be concerned about risk to its workers and right to raise the issue with the Heath secretary. But the answer is not to spin the story. The answer is to sort it out. We are locked into a spin cycle and we seem unable to get out of this.

We need to re-programme the way our country works.

And as for this PPE issue: we cannot pass the buck here- Our fault. Our failing and our bureaucrats.

Lock Down

Today there is an article in the NEW STATESMAN –

Much of it is about my friend and fellow contestant, James Doran, who played Sammie/ Charlie.

https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/tv-radio/2020/03/circle-finalists-how-to-get-through-isolation-lockdown-dan-sammie-james-paddy

After living through a month of isolation on a Channel 4 game show, finalists are heading back into lock-down for the second time

– written by Sarah Manavis

Isolation, heavy social media use, and being stuck inside with only a few sanctioned activities a day – this is a brand new reality most of us are experiencing for the very first time. But for a small group of reality TV stars who spent a month in isolation on The Circle, Channel 4’s latest breakout success, this is a past life they’re reliving after thinking they’d left it behind forever.

The Circle is a game show in which people compete to become the most popular person on a fake social media platform called “The Circle” – often catfishing or putting on fake personalities to make themselves more likeable. Contestants live in complete isolation in flats all in the same building and can only communicate via this interface, playing games, having private chats, and “blocking” (ie evicting) the least popular people several times a week. Although contestants are able to go to the roof of the building they live in, as well as the gym, they do not speak to any other people beyond a producer or showrunner, and don’t have access to television, the internet, or their phones. The finalists who make it to the end of the show experience this period of isolation for nearly four weeks, and in the first season this included a week in hiding preceding the show’s start. The prize for the winner is £100,000.

Well, nothing is always that straightforward the prize turned out to be split and, as the “viewers’ champion”, I shared this with Paddy. As with all contests of this sort, the show plays with the expectations and assumptions of the participants. It hungers for surprise and shock.

I have just reviewed the Brazilian version of the circle and I found it wanting. (I am told it redeems itself in the last two episodes and much of my gripe actually comes from the intensely boring episodes 7 and 8, possibly because Dumaresq was less prominent… ellipsis!) I must add that I found the scenes with the twins quite captivating, maybe because this was “real interaction”. And I loved their introduction as they both arrived in the apartment and only when they sat down together did we fully take on board the fact that we were watching identical twins.

The contestants were often gorgeous to look at and certainly bouncy, but they lacked any desire to bond together – which was odd: I thought Latin America was all about bonding (maybe it doesn’t quite work when there is no physical proximity?). It was the sense of intense reciprocity that I felt was lacking and seemed to me to be the very thing that made the UK Circle and set it apart from other reality tv shows of its ilk. I am also tempted to say that I am told it was particularly evident in the second series in which I was a participant. Even when James, Paddy and Georgina went over to “the dark side”, they were still bound together in a community, what James called “the circle of trust”. This sense of community is something that I feel is already developing across the UK at the moment as we all self-isolate; I am eager to see it continue and I want to nurture it. I think it is a good thing.

Now Dan was not only in the first season; he was also on the pilot so he is someone who should know about the circle. Incidentally, the lovely Jan who was in Season 2 with me was also in the original pilot. one day, I trust we will see that show too- now, would be a good time to drop it into the schedules!

Dan Mokasu was a finalist on the first ever season of The Circle in 2018 and was also a contestant since the first day, meaning he spent an entire month cut off from the outside world. “Even when we were in hiding, we weren’t allowed to watch live TV, we obviously weren’t allowed to read newspapers, we weren’t allowed to do anything really,” Dan tells me. “And then of course once you actually got on the show, you were even more limited. You can’t do anything, essentially. It’s really like primitive stuff to keep yourself entertained.”

During the show, viewers can catch glimpses of contestants playing puzzles, reading books, or doing yoga between bouts of messaging. For Dan, a month of this wasn’t necessarily cabin fever-inducing, but he did say he felt cut off and often bored. “I definitely felt disconnected,” he tells me. “We had even less [to do] than we do now.”

In contrast to Dan, I found I had plenty to do in the Circle but I am used to being on my own. I had an introduction to this as a monk and later as a goatherder on a greek mountainside. I sing, I talk to myself, I create stories and I draw. In fact, I actively enjoy my time alone. But, that time alone, I find, is actually time preparing to rejoin the community, and not knowing when that will be is now both unusual and potentially destabilising. I cannot assume, therefore, that any of this will be easy. We will all need help getting through this period.

James Doran was a finalist on Season 2 of the show who, like Dan, was in it from the beginning. However, he tells me that he suffered mental health problems both in The Circle and after he got out, and even had to be signed off for stress and anxiety when he returned to work. He says the loneliness combined with catfishing for an entire month (playing a single mother named Sammie) made him incredibly paranoid and the only human contact he had was “the kind of conversations you’d have in a lift” a couple of times a week with show producers.

“I don’t want to put a light mood on it, because it’s a really serious situation,” he says of now being in coronavirus lockdown, “but I think it’s a walk in the park comparing it to The Circle. I’m around my mum, my brother, I can speak to my girlfriend whenever I want to, I can go outside for a walk – you can’t do that stuff in there. We couldn’t use any technology, we had no sense of time… we couldn’t plan our days.”

I think the absence of time is a major issue and is something that comes with isolation. For this reason I have just reset the grandfather clock and I make sure I keep to a daily routine- up at 6, bed at 12, though I am afraid I often linger as lastnight falling asleep while watching episode 4 of “Belgravia”. (Not a criticism on Julian Fellowes by the way)

Although he felt at ease with this far more lax form of isolation, James does say that many parts of this are far more intense than his experience on The Circle. “When you’re self-isolating in The Circle there’s an end goal,” he says. “We knew how long we were going to be in there, whereas with this situation we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for. No one’s going to win 100 grand when it’s over. There was an angle, there was a target, there was something to try to get, to keep determined. It wasn’t like ‘this filming might be extended for a few months and I might still be here then’ – it’s that uncertainty that a lot of people are stressing out about.”

James has been using his Instagram account to help people struggling with isolation, creating videos on how to stay sane during lockdown and setting up an account to show people what exercises he did when he was stuck inside during filming.

We need to share our experiences and ideally each keep a blog or journal. We are now living through historical times in a way that we have not done for 70 years. In years’ to come, children will ask us what we did and we want to have these personal accounts to hand. It will also help us to order/ regulate our routines. We cannot just sit around waiting.

“I don’t want people to read this and think I’m just talking about my experience on The Circle,” James adds. “I genuinely want them to know that I care about other people, I’m not like ‘oh I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt.’”

It is very worrying to hear of Dan and James’ struggle, doubly so because the circle is actually just a bit of light entertainment. We do not want, or should not expect our entertainment ever to come at the cost of its participants’ health and I worry that the systems are not fully in place to cater to the aftercare of reality tv contestants or performers and to properly protect them. The memory of Caroline Flack remains fresh, but there is a very long list of men and women who have suffered from being in programmes like “Big Brother” where aftercare seems to be minimal and, even after all this time, contestants are unprepared for what they have signed up to. Often when it finds out about a problem, the media trot out a trite comment that these people had struggled to come to terms with their new popularity, but equally, they may have also struggled against a manipulative and very greedy management system operating in the shadows. It is not something any of us should be proud of. We cannot be entertained by reality tv and not take responsibility for the people who provide that entertainment- otherwise we are regressing to a Georgian voyeurism in Bedlam.

Manipulation and bullying turn up in many workplaces and are not at all the stuff of the school playground alone. I think, indeed, that we have become a society with a nasty underbelly of aggression.

We only get it right when we know nobody is hurting afterwards.

Trust

The circle was particularly unusual in that it was about seclusion. I can think of no other tv show or social experiment like it. And it threw up some interesting experiences that frankly even observers or the “professionals” were not aware of or prepared for. One of these is the experience of trust.  Isolation works on trust. I promise this is the case, and it makes sense when you think about it. More than that, I feel, to our credit, we are now, as a Nation, trusting one another already a lot more. That is sadly, though, something the bully is also waiting to take advantage of, so we must be wary. We must trust, but we must be sure we trust the right people.

There is nothing worse than a breakdown of trust.

It comes as no great surprise to me, sadly, to see an Art Gallery raided and a priceless Van Gogh stolen, as has just been reported. Criminals are lying in wait to take advantage of us. We need to be careful- we need to be prepared but that does not mean abandoning this healthy and new investment in trust. We just have to mind that we do not abuse it.

Community

For the isolation that we are in now, therefore, there are two points to note. The first is that we will only get through it in community, however isolated we may be. The second is that we will need to work very hard to adjust again to life on the outside after a few months in isolation. And again, we need to work together and to learn more about one another as we isolate: we need to become better neighbours and friends and build up stronger communities that go beyond the family.

We need to guard against the nastier elements in our society that will otherwise take advantage of us, indeed that are already doing so- the banks who have been trying to lever businesses into putting up collateral when the government has already offered the loan, the insurance agencies who were mealy-mouthed when theatres took the decision to close but had not actually been told to specifically shut down. I am afraid that list may grow, and it may well be “the usual suspects”.

Acceptance

This is what the winner, Paddy said. He

thinks that being cut off in The Circle is better than the lockdown we’re experiencing now.  “You can’t go outside because it’s bad for other people – if I went mad or if I needed air [in The Circle], I could do that,” he says.“If you take that out of it, I don’t really mind being in isolation now – what I do mind is that that’s a game show and this is affecting our livelihoods.”

Then Paddy adds an absolute gem of advice:

He also said to embrace isolation. “I find that, trying to fight something, you go into a state of panic… especially right now, you kind of have to go with the flow and take every day as it comes.”

Fighting against the Circle is a waste of time. We will make it work by harnessing it and taking advantage of what it offers. We are not “stuck” at home- we are “safe” at home. We are not waiting, we are actively engaged in creative activities and doing something with out time in isolation.

All three finalists I spoke to had advice about how to stay engaged during isolation. “There are a million things that you could do,” Dan says. “Learn a language, reorganise your wardrobe, talk to your pets, phone a family member… Do your mum a favour and just clean up the house!” Paddy and James conducted an Instagram Live earlier in March, giving their own tips about how to combat cabin fever. Both suggested puzzles and reading, and giving yourself something to do each day to look forward to, as well as looking after your physical health. “Take care of your body and your mind will follow,” James says.

But above all else, the one thing they valued right now that they didn’t have in The Circle was the ability to speak to the people they love. “The conversations you’d have [in The Circle], it wasn’t like deep questions,” James tells me. “ And it’s not the people you want to be speaking to, is it?”

“It wasn’t the conversations you would have with someone you’re connected with, which is really what’s important,” he adds. “Keep in touch with those people now.”

It is odd that, since isolation began, I have had more conversations with fellow Circle players than at any time since we left the show. We formed a friendship there and we all realise we have an expertise that maybe we can and should pass on to others now.

Priti please

It is a while since I wrote anything about Priti Patel, and I had thought I had drawn her once. I cannot find any record, so here goes.

priti patel home office 29 feb 2020.jpg

Hers is not currently an attractive story. Indeed, it has been brewing for a while with leaks about Ms Patel’s abrasive style coming out quite regularly since the new government took shape and certainly since the Boris’ re-shuffle. Of course, Boris likes her, but that may not be enough…

A week ago, the Metro lead with a story about “An atmosphere of fear”. Apparently, a senior Whitehall official collapsed in a meeting about the deportation of 25 people back to Jamaica (Whether we have got immigration right or wrong is quite another matter and I will return to this, I promise). the unnamed official was taken to hospital with a sodium deficiency. The metro article went a little further and quoted a source specifically saying,

 ‘The Home Office is dysfunctional and the current permanent secretary had presided over a sacking of a home secretary and accidental deportations. ‘If this were any other environment Philip Rutnam would not only be sacked he’d be denied a pension. The lack of accountability in the civil service is deeply troubling and the prime minister will not accept this in the long term.’

This is nasty. It may not even be Priti Patel’s doing, but her behaviour seems to have sparked off the spatt. Further problems were envisaged by the Metro about “the points-based system”

Leaders in agriculture, hospitality and the care system were among those who warned of serious staff shortages proposed by the new rules.

I have my own concerns about a “points’-based system” (my apostrophe). I do not believe, just to start the ball rolling, that there really are 8 million “economically inactive” people in the UK ready to take up the jobs currently being done by low-skilled immigrants, though I concede there may well be 8 million economically inactive individuals for one reason or another -um… students, the sick, unpaid carers.

Not only would we have to find and encourage these 8 million. We would also have to get them to move to the places where the jobs can be done. You cannot do most of the unskilled work from a laptop on a day away from the office at home. These people would need to be on-site, in the hospitals, police-stations, factories and so on. Logistics not mere head-count!

 

It is always a shame when people believe that the best way to look strong is to bully the help. Now, the actual consequences of Priti Patel’s actions seem to be emerging with the resignation on spectacularly nasty terms of her Permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, who resigns after 33 years as a civil servant, has gone public and writes,

sir phillip Rutnam resigination by TIM.jpg

“In the last 10 days I have been the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign. It has been alleged that I have briefed the media against the Home Secretary. This along with many other claims is completely false….The Home Secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office. I regret I do not believe her….The Home Secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office. I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the effort I would expect to dissociate herself from the comments.”

He pulls no punches and makes it quite clear that the buck stops with the Home Secretary herself. He will claim constructive dismissal.

But to put it into perspective: the Home Office has been a dodgy camp for a while now. I had a nasty run-in myself a few years’ ago about student visas, first with Andrea Leadsom and then with Mrs May, both abrasive encounters. The way the HO is led sets the tone for everyone else both in the Ministry and beyond. We should not be surprised, therefore, that telephone exchanges with almost any official, from the tax office to the bank, routinely field our calls by haughtily “explaining” their policies rather than answering a direct question. It is rude, condescending and it is officious (a tricolon and no oxford comma, Mr Pullman). It might even be called bullying, but this is a tone that has routinely been adopted by the Ministers running the HO. All bureaucrats look up to the mother of parliament to see how things are done and this, evidently, is the example they get. This is what they follow.  It is now in print for us all to monitor: but to her credit, and in her defence, Priti Patel seems no better and no worse than Mrs May.

On election night, I ran into Amber Rudd who also gave such a very charming and considered performance that I wrote her a brief note of congratulation. I cannot believe that she would have behaved as Priti Patel is alleged to behave, though she resigned because of the Windrush scandal. So, maybe the HO itself is not to blame.

The problem with Priti Patel’s alleged form of aggressive leadership is that no one is there to protect her back, as Mrs May also found out to her cost, and that cost may get bigger with publication of the investigation into Windrush. If all the staff are busy second-guessing what the Minister might say and how she might bark at them – as Priti is alleged to do at this Ministry, what abusive language she may have in store for them (as rumours have it), then nobody is going to be protecting her from error, nobody is watching out for her – in fact, her staff would probably celebrate her errors. Of course, there is a difference between being demanding and being a bully and Mr Patel has moments of humanity – she has observed, for instance, that under the new proposals her own “Ugandan Asian parents” would not have made it through UK immigration at all.

A good friend suggests one very interesting test- the most efficient leader chairs brief and effective meetings. I have a giggling recollection of the lengthy talks that went on in Chequers over some of Mrs May’s Brexit plans- the length of her meetings was reported as a mark of pride. Whoops! Monumental fail there!

The statements appearing in the press look damaging to Mr Patel, more so even than the allegations against Mr Bercow, though one whistle-blower like Rutnam could lead to a “Metoo” movement across Whitehall and beyond. After all, there is already a popular call to tear up NDAs.

I have seen bullying a few times, sadly. This sort of leader will always be exposed- but often long after the real damage is done, to other people as well as to herself. We need to work in a team to get the job done and for any system to work well; care of each other needs to be built into the work-place not tagged on to HR; we must find support wherever it should be. In the light of this story, I wonder whether Mr Cummins might be heading in the same direction – though his goal appears quite different even if his manner apparently also invites concern.