Any Questions?

I hate it when someone lectures me and finishes by asking if I understand.there is a relationship implied in that question and I do not like it.

So, it was a very depressing experience listening to Radio 4 this evening. There was a tone of righteous condescension which I felt was misplaced. The main culprit was the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan. I find it disappointing that people who lack the honour to offer their resignation should be so quick to tell us that students are cheats, that exam predictions are inflated and so on. This is a form of politics that has no respect at all for the voter.

It is also worth noting that Dominic Cummings, yes he of the trip to Barnard castle, was working in the education department with Michael Gove and therefore partly responsible for the foul approach. It is worth listening to the general tone of condesension that pervades the rose garden defence.

I am shocked that Boris should trust this man so much. I wonder if he talks down to Boris as much as he clearly talks down to everyone else?

I think this approach of talking down, doing down, condescending- is something that is running across society.

I was defrauded recently. I was cut off and still am cut off from accessing my bank, and no emails save to the CEO seem to get through at all. It took me a week to get the bank to pick up the phone and answer me and it was another week before anyone from the fraud department contacted me.

I have asked to interview the leader of the HSBC bank in the UK. I fear this is an institution in turmoil that has not prepared well for a crisis like COVID, and I would like to help. The length of time it takes to answer the telephone speaks volumes- I have routinely waited over 2 hours and then had the call disconnected. This is not customer service- it is chaos. The man in overall charge is called Noel Quinn and the UK head is Iain Stuart. I will report back here when and if this happens.

Meanwhile, when I was telephoned yesterday by an agent from the fraud department, his manner was unbelieveably unhelpful (I have his name: always get the name and write it down).  When I asked specific questions about the changes in legislation regarding fraud, he retreated into a sort of bluster and ended up quitting the call in a huff (and I thought I was the theatrical one).

So, let me explain about fraud in UK banks: I am not much the wiser, of course, but I think there is an organisation called the “APP Scams steering Group” and they, in turn, have come up with something called “CRM”. Essentially, this is there to investigate fraud. I am not sure how it differs from what existed before but it came into effect on 28th May 2019 and came under the admin of the LSB a couple of months’ later. In contrast to what I was told by the agent, some banks certainly interpret it as offering a full refund to victims and others do not. HSBC seems to be among hose who do not. The relevant line from the legislation seems to be here:

“Importantly, any customer of a Payment Service Provider which is signed up to the Code can expect to be reimbursed where they were not to blame for the success of a scam. A customer can be either a consumer, micro-enterprise or charity, as defined in the Code.”

It is very confusing- deliberately so?

The LSB appointed an advisory board which is chaired by Ruth Evans and consists of what are called industry officials and consumers- I am not sure whether the “consumers” are therefore bank customers or bank officials. Again, the information is deliberately vague but it all sounds grand and well-meaning. In the right hands, it probably is.

What this means in practice, though, is that the banks can sound very grand about what they are doing and, as in my case, when pressed for an answer, can fudge to the point of confusion because nobody really knows what was intended.

It is the same approach by the Government and Ofqual. Referring to Acronyms is a way to avoid explaining what you are talking about just as the double negative or the passive voice distances a rogue from any any direct access to the truth.

It is time to call out for some transparency – or should that be opacity? Surely we want something we can see: Solid facts anyway, something we can understand and something we can evaluate without an agent taking a grand-standing position above us and effectively saying, as Roger Taylor did the other day to the millions of students who felt aggrieved by the OFQUAL algorithm, that they “did not understand it”. Their problem, in other words (or rather in what his words must have meant- there is no other way to interpret them) was not the students were victims of an injustice, or a miscalculation but that they were stupid.

This seems to be the routine tone of people in authority at the end of the phone who have to take responsibility for a mess they have either created or inherited. Be it Virginmedia, HSBC, Sky, OfQUAL, or the Government – the line seems to be the same, that we are incapable of understanding them. That we are too stupid. We are after all, just the customer or just the public- in the case of the Government, we are just the voters.

Here is my point to Anita on the BBC 4 edition of ANY ANSWERS today:

So many important stories

There is so much to write about at the moment and yet the newspapers are focused on the most astonishing rubbish while the real issues are cast aside barely touched.

This morning, there was a debate about Boris on holiday and almost every channel in the UK managed to present the piece with a bias that was quite astonishing. While I am equally disappointed in Boris, he is not the story today and this nonsensical quipping takes the pressure off the real issue which must still be Gavin Williamson and his weasel determination to cling on.

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Outside the UK, Alexei Navalny appears to have been poisoned. That would be news enough and scary for everyone else but it gets much worse: a medical plane to take him for superior and probably life-saving treatment in Germany is unable to do its job as police and armed guards keep Navalny away from his family and effectively imprisoned in an under-equipped hospital in Omsk in Siberia. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Meanwhile, I had a chat with Steve Brookstein who was the first to win X factor last night and later I checked him out on youtube. I was flabberghasted at the nastiness of Sharon Osbourne and will certainly look at her differently from now on. Steve’s story is painful as was Rich Hatch’s (Rich was the first winner of the American Reality show “Survivor” and I have spent the last 12 weeks watching that show episoed by episode and then podcasting about it.). I begin to fear that the whole Reality tv phenomenon, which is certainly likely to continue because it is cheap to make, is shot through with a sort of nastiness that I cannot ever and will not condone.

I think the sniping about Boris on holiday belongs to the same genre. We should really remember the advice in the Disney film, BAMBI- “If you’ve not got something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

 

roger

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Open letter to university heads

Dame Nemat Shafik

The director

London School of Economics

Houghton street

London

WC2A 2AE

 

14th August 2020

 

Dear Director,

 

I am writing with some urgency in the wake of the disastrous A level results and the horrendous bias against students who come from non-selective schools that may have had a blip in recent academic performance and have, therefore, had their grades knocked back.

I hope, this year, that you will follow the example of Worcester College and take on those students who were predicted grades that would meet your requirements and whose teachers were confident they could be expected, in ordinary circumstances, to achieve them.

I look forward to hearing from you personally, in due course, and to celebrating the fact that the LSE, another great academic body with a bold history is ready to challenge a mighty injustice.

Now is not the time to wait and see what the Government will do. You will be judged by your actions and the lead you give in the next few days.

I would like to think that you are on the right side of history.

I am available to help in any way I can.

With best wishes and great respect,

 

Sincerely,

 

Professor TIM WILSON

 

What is Reality? Just a few thoughts

I have recently been looking at very early examples of what is today called “Reality TV”. Every Tuesday, I am the guest on a podcast called Survivor FSFW Rewind. It is mind-blowing, frankly. On the one hand, Survivor anticipates today- the sort of communication it demands is exactly a formula for today’s social media in its aggressive simplicity and apparent immediacy.  Today we take this immediacy for granted as a normal means of communication. On the other hand, it is unashamedly manipulative and cruel, also something we have got used to in the way our 21st Century society operates.

There are ethical issues sparked by a string of news stories about depression and suicide. Often the media trots out the same line about participants having “problems dealing with fame”, but this seems far from the truth; many reality “stars” have staggered into the tv world under a smokescreen of misinformation and manipulation.  I also read another trotted-out trope that has forced me to write a brief piece today. Specifically, that contestants “brought it on themselves” or they were “a little bit daft to apply”.

Let me make this clear. Many of the contestants I have spoken to, like me, did not apply to be on reality tv at all. They were head-hunted by very industrious and wiley producers who know what and who would make good tv. Frankly, my producer found me and I had every confidence in him. In my case, this was a process that was completed with astonishing speed in the run-up to filming, so speedily, in fact, that my contract arrived only days before I was due to begin the shoot. I have no doubt that mine is not an exceptional case, therefore and that very few contestants would have time to take any serious advice.

Here, I part company with many of the sob stories that I have read or heard recently, because for the duration of the show, I was treated magnificently on set and had a wonderful time. I had a very close relationship with the production team and forged strong friendships.

Many issues in Reality tv are about the level of competition, public humiliation, deceit and mis-editing that often goes into getting a good story. I was exceptionally lucky. The circle, for all its obsession with lying or catfishing did not nurture a “nasty nick” and certainly I felt there was an overall warmth in the way the show was put together. I hope this is retained in future series, though a more strategic form of the game has certainly emerged in the Brazilian, French and US versions all bizarrely filmed on the same set and at about the same time.

There are two or three ethical considerations in the format that cannot be overlooked and should not be overlooked by a professor of Theology! The first is about the professional standards of the production team, and its responsibility to the audience and to the participants, the latter’s rights and the team’s responsibilities, both ethical and legal. Essentially, this amounts to doing no harm to either, but I would argue that it may be doing good to both, especially when it stresses the element of social experiment. This was certainly the tag-line of Big Brother, which, to judge from the clips recently put out on channel 4, was actually one of the most repulsive, distateful and exploitative pieces of television ever recorded. It was also, I can well-believe, absolutely bewitching to watch first-time round. It is Brillaint television. This is why it has lasted for 20 years.

And the levelling effect of such reality TV: I was astonished to finally see the George Galloway scene. What a plonker he is. In those few minutes where he pretends to be a female cat, he threw away any hope he may have had of resuming a political career.

But bear-baiting and gladiatorial combats went on for far longer that the 20 odd years that have made reality tv successful. That something is entertaining, compelling viewing and popular does not make it right. That some fool gets his come-uppance does not actually justify putting him in a position where he destroys his own career.

When it comes to Galloway, I dither. But there it is, lapping imaginary milk, the defining moment of his political careeer.george galloway

It seems that reality tv shows fall into a range of fairly easily-classified types.

1) The castaway survival, improvisation

2) re-enactment

3) docu-fiction – like the Victorian kitchen

4) game show

5) makeover- from theatre auditions to house-cleaning

6) detective- this could be in the form of identifying a mole or catfish

There may be other forms, but they seem to all share the feature of an edited portrayal of real-lived experience often focusing on non-professional or supposedly non-professional participants in managed or controlled situations that are filmed.

The mix of fact and fiction and the simple ruse of filming whatever happens is a formula that invites ethical problems. Throwing a known camera into a community automatically creates problems because the participants are dealing with an audience through the camera lens that goes well beyond the people they know, and those who are filming or producing them. the camera is there to catch the moral lapse as entertainment, and to promote the actions of participants as some sort of guideline by which the unseen audience watching their tvs can use to check their own moral compass. That wider TV audience can be deeply unkind, as was seen in their response to Jade Goody. The participants are largely unprepared for the impact they will have had on this wider audience. With modern social media, that can be conveyed to the participants very quickly. In my show, James who played Sammie, was sent death threats. This is astonishing and disturbing. It is detestable.

It is also misguided. What the public saw was the development of a thing called the “circle of Trust”, itself a by-product or what I thought of as a circle of reciprocity. It was designed to “take down” one of the three central characters, Ella, Woody and myself. I tried in vain to block myself but I was told this was against the rules and so I blocked Ella. I had no idea that this was all a result of some form of alliance or strategy and I was quite shocked when I learnt about it. However, the relationship I had with Sammie went far beyond that circle of trust. It was predicated on a number of very warm conversations we had about our early childhood and there was a bond between Sammie/James and myself which exists even today. This was not part of the producers’ narrative and perhaps got in the way of the story they were telling. sadly, some very nasty people took that two-dimensional narrative and sent these hateful emails and memes. As I say, misguided.

There is always editing, and arguably that means it is never truly “real life”.

The ethical consideration here is about what goes on beyond the screen, and after the performance. But it is tied, of course, to the organisation and selection of what is shown on the programme. As was demonstrated recently by Eamon Holmes, a mis-timed edit can have very serious consequences, but what seems right in the cutting room may actually have an impact well beyond what was intended. The programme makers cannot anticipate and arguably cannot be held responsible for the way the audience respond even when it comes to the specific way edits have been selected.

There are, moreover, commercial and theatrical as well as ethical considerations. The producers have a duty to tell a good story and to retain their viewers. They have a duty to share-holders and to advertising revenue.

Reality TV, however, needs to look at 4 ways in which participants are presented.

1) their privacy is invaded and intimacy compromised. This is already an area of debate and things that our parents would have considered particularly private are bandied about in public. Privacy is in flux.

2) their self esteem is manipulated. This is about mockery, humiliation and deception. Degrading treatment or the sense of being degraded by others and in the interests of popular entertainment. being devalued or demeaned. This could simply be a sense of disempowerment and it may go beyond the period of broadcast. This is an area that is of particular interest because this is what is often cited- how participants feel cheated, used or cast aside.

3) they are engaged in deceit. This is difficult because most reality tv shows involve deception. There is the basic deception that what is seen is real while it is viewed, sometimes filmed by camera crews and edited. This is digested reality. In the case of the first series of SURVIVAL, many scenes are not caught on cemera and are replaced with “confessional moments” or re-creations of conflict. Better to show, not tell. But we cannot un-say or un-do something that now determines a particular course of behaviour and so the confessional reports are necessary to explaining the unfolding drama. This is certainly not reality nor truth.

Other forms of deceit would be misinformation or even worse disinformation.

Better than thinking of deceit, maybe one should think more broadly of Reputation. This is about the managed presentation of performers both on the show and afterwards. It is a staged presentation and recognised as such.

4) they are the property of the show. The participants are the product and cannot be disentangled from that. It leads to some very odd clauses in contracts or some vague cover-alls that would probably not survive serious legal scrutiny. Memes, images, expressions and personalities somehow shift into the realm of production and because there is little distinction between the peformance and the real-life persona, there is room for ethical confusion. At what point, if ever, can they be disentangled from the show?

I worry that some of these shows are exploitative and that we have bought into what is, frankly, cheap and questionable entertainment. Contestants on Love Island have told me amusingly that there are whole swathes of the day’s activity that are never filmed- (the “off-time”) and interesting conversations about philosophy, books, even rugby are of no consequence at all. However, if but a single word is spoken about romance, the meal is interrupted and the conversation rehashed without food in front of the cameras. Love island is dull because its inhabitants appear to have only one thing on their minds (and never eat). That is nonsense. All the participants I have met are interesting, interested, well-informed and dynamic people. But I have told them quite honestly that this is why I switched off after episode 4 and will not watch the trash again. They all seem lovely and far superior to the way they are presented. I think the show cheapens them! There! I have said it. (I will get into such trouble… I must stop writing here)

 

 

Windrush

In 2018, there was a Labour motion about righting the wrongs of Windrush. Priti Patel, the present home secretary, was among 306 Conservative MPs voting against the bill and effectively silencing much of the information in the Windrush story.

Of course, it is true that the motion was linked to other issues that were party-sensitive and, therefore, unlikely to be endorsed by any Government ministers. However, an alternative bill was not put forward by the Government. One would have thought that Mrs May would have wanted to correct her own mistakes but I think that is not really a priority. It is fairly shameful.

So, alot of wriggling today, therefore, from Priti Patel who cannot really hide her own voting record, nor indeed hthe fact that she was once sacked for dishonesty: this is the lady who is running our police force and leading “by example”.

She has invited a good deal of criticism, not least from a swathe of Labour MPs who sent her a letter earlier this month in the wake of the george Floyd riots. To her credit, Ms Patel published the letter on twitter.

naz shah

The problem here is that this is not a party-political problem and no one in power today is quite blameless, so no one side can take a “holier-than-thou” position. The “Hostile environment” was actually set up, I think, in defiance of the Equal Opportunities act, by the Blair/Brown government but made all the more aggressive by Theresa May’s championing of the concept in 2012 and with two nasty immigration bills in 2014 and 2016. Her statment “The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants” actually reinforced a series of policies put in place by Jack Straw. If you need to check the details, note the opening of Yarl’s Wood in 2001 and the belief in the “deterrance of detainment”, something that never worked here nor elsewhere in Europe. But also look for terms like “deterrent dogma” and “deportation targets”. This latter is a term that continues to be used and in 2000, under Blair, was set at the deportation of “30,000 people over the next year”.

Oddly, Amber Rudd, who was in charge when the Windrush scandal broke and who took the fall for what her predecessor and now her boss, PM May had set up, was one of the more reasonable Home Secretaries to have held the job in the last 20 years. It does not say alot of course. It fell to Sajid Javid, perhaps even better, to criticise the policy more directly, “I don’t like the phrase hostile. So the terminology I think is incorrect and I think it is a phrase that is unhelpful and it doesn’t represent our values as a country.” But he did not hold the job long enough to change the way things were done and the problem anyway was not about nomenclature.

I am aware of much of the horrible atmosphere in the Home office because I have found myself for nearly 20 years dealing with failed or botched student visas and I have been innumerable times to the detestable visa centres to try to sort out problems. In some cases, I saw promising students deported half-way through A levels and certainly more than one Oxbridge hopeful having their chances completely ripped away by these policies. This is a form of savagery, but it is also deeply scurrious. We have taken money from these students and then, at the crucial moment, deported them on a technicality. Even when it has worked effectively, we have often given students an education and thrown them out the moment they graduate.

It seemed to me that targetting students, which of course continues, is a cheap trick to suggest that the Home Office is keeping its eye on immigration. Students are very well documented so they are always going to be an easy target.

I went to see a number of ministers as well as my own MP at the time, Andrea Leadsom. ms Leadsom saw me at her constituency surgery, hectored me for about 10 minutes and then let me go, almost without giving me a chance to say anything to her myself. She was surrounded by advisors and gatekeepers. It was one of those rare occasions when I was frankly speechless. In response, I sent her a letter explaining that, had I been given the oppportunity to say something, these would have been the things I would have said. This led to further correspondence with the Home Office, then under Mrs May and to further meetings with other departmental ministers and MPs. I am afraid, though, that nothing much changed.

Part of the problem was a sense that this had public approval. Part of the problem is that Theresa May loves bureaucracy.

mrs May looking like a postage stamp

The Windrush scandal broke both the assumption about public approval and its trust in paperwork: the home office threw the paperwork away. We cannot ride roughshod over people who have worked so hard to integrate with and build up our society and then blame them for our own stupidity.

Our hospitality to countless waves of immigrants has benefitted us greatly.

 

Edward Colston

Last night a statue in Bristol was pulled down in protest, and today the Cenotaph has been defaced. There have been protests in the past about statues, most notably about the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, but I think this is the first time we have had a Stalinesque or Sadaam Hussein moment where we have toppled imagery.

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Like those dealing with 7th century Byzantine and Roundhead iconoclasm, the authorities of the day have not gone to the hub of the problem and it is essentially philosophical. Should we respect history- that is, record what is good and what is bad? Use the imagery as a source and draw a conclusion? The evidence is all around us and only by preserving it, can it ever make any sense. Pulling down statues, erasing pictures does not actually erase the history, though it might make it harder to access even if the statement itself may be of value. At its worst, therefore, we are in danger of obliterating, or hiding our past.

What is odd is that the iconic images of statues crashing down elsewhere is applauded while here Priti Patel wags her finger at the people who have defaced public property. Priti Patel has long been a figure of fun. This is not a cause that will win her much support or change her reputation particularly as she fails to identify the problem. As ever, with this makeshift secretary of state, she is out of touch and hides behind bluster and bullying. She actually expects to be taken seriously. She is the wrong person to deal with this problem.

The statue mess has not been a sudden decision. The BBC did a programme about Colston in February 2018

In Russia, the old communist statues have been gathered together and erected in parks. In ancient Rome, the heads of figures out of favour were generally lopped off and replaced, most famously with the colossal statue of nero. We instinctively know that public statues have a meaning. They are not simply decorations to our streets; they proclaim history in a three-dimensional way, both the good and the bad. In the case of Colston, his statue was put up to commemorate his huge effort to eradicate his 11-year association with slavery and the abominable trade of the RAC (its victims were branded with the acronym before they were transported and sold. This trading company had links up the highest chain of command in the country as its nominal boss eventually became king). He put money into charities, sat in parliament and endowed schools (particularly Colston’s girls’ school) in the area. And he was not the only one in 17th/18th century society who was clearly ashamed of his past and wanted to make good. Many people through these centuries had links with slavery- George Washington is a good example (cf Lucy Worsley’s “American History’s biggest fibs” – I will find a screen shot from one of the scenes I drew for that programme and post it here later! *TW).

WE have lots of questions to answer but pulling down a statue will not give us these answers. I think the biggest question must be about when the statue was erected. A man with a known history of association with slavery has a statue put up at the end of the 19th Century when only a few years’ earlier there had been a big effort to abolish slavery for good. What message were the businesspeople of Bristol sending? If there was an attempt to erase history, was it done then at the end of the 19th Century?

The problem is that nothing is ever quite so simple. Coulston was associated with the governing board of the RAC but there is no evidence that he was actually involved in slavery. Certainly, he might be said to have endorsed it. I think the arguments for pulling done the statue of Colston are less sound than the arguments about removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the facade of Oriel college in Oxford. Rhodes clearly had blood on his hands.

But images matter.

Otherwise, we would not be erecting statues in the first place.

This is what the museum in Bristol has to say about Coulston:

In March1680, he bought a share in the London-based Royal African Company. Only RAC members could trade with Africa, for gold, ivory and enslaved Africans. His father William also owned shares in the RAC, and supplied trade goods to its ships.

Edward Colston never, as far as we know, traded in enslaved Africans on his own account. We do not know how much profit he took from the RAC’s trade in enslaved Africans – he was paid dividends such as 50 guineas in July 1780, and 160 guineas in November 1685. He sold William, Prince of Orange, some of his RAC shares worth £1,000 in 1689, then bought more for himself. We do not know how much of his fortune was built up from his trade in wine and oil, or from investments or loans, or from money and property inherited from his father. What we do know is that he was an active member of the governing body of the RAC, which traded in enslaved Africans, for 11 years.

 

M4068, Braikenridge
Since writing this, I have had a very interesting exchange on line about the points I have raised here. I think I need to clarify a few things, therefore, and apologise if my writing might sometimes be a bit muddier than I intend.
My main gripe is with The Home Secretary whose response is quite out of step with the issue- this is not about defacing property or about meaningless actions. This is purposeful action.
I was making 3 points: 1) It was wrong to erect the state in the first place 2) Priti Patel’s finger wagging about damaging property gets it wrong and 3) such a literally iconoclastic approach cannot be a receipe for the future- there are many other statues and paintings that commemorate historical figures with detestable associations.
We cannot go round the country throwing all this vile statuary into the harbour. Some of it, indeed, forms part of great works of art. We need to fully contexturalise these pieces and the men and women (mostly men) depicted, so children and visitors know when they approach these monuments that this is not a celebration or a glorification of someone who was powerful at the expense of others. Or if these were, that we do not think that is right.
We need to change the balance of power and glorify the down-trodden.
Contexturalising something is not about adding a plaque or placing something in a museum. (A plaque is little more than a plaster on a serious wound). We need to have burst of cultural activity where many new pieces are commissioned to stand up to those monsters of history who litter our streets – statues that celebrate the human rights’ movements, and the people who have been overlooked in our history. We have to find a way to deal with this issue because it cuts across so many of our celebrated pieces of art history. In this case, the statue of Edward Colston is fairly awful as a piece of sculpture but the works of Eric Gill, on the other hand, are rightly celebrated as great art. Gill was a detestable man, yet we cannot destroy his art because of his personal life, however depraved and wrong.
Statues and paintings are not really about wording. They are a potent visual image and we must respond in kind. It is not about plaques that explain away the ghastliness in small-print. We need to do this more creatively and boldly. I would love to see, for example, a work commissioned now that celebrates in bronze the dumping of this statue in the harbour. That is iconic and should be commemorated.
But done once, we cannot do it again.
But we could certainly do it once, couldn’t we?
And make it count?