All posts by Robert

David Cameron’s punt on the BBC Leaders’ Debate was a mistake

Thursday evening saw another party leaders debate.  This time it was a BBC production, hosted by David Dimbleby.

David Cameron, the Prime Minister, chose not to take part. One assumes that he and his strategists had good reasons for his decision.  He has presided over many unpopular policies and would have been exposed to continual criticism.  Perhaps he and his advisers felt that he could only lose.

But his absence felt odd.  All the other participants were able to hammer the Coalition Government policies with impunity (Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, was not there either).  Ed Miliband was able to take up the Prime Ministerial mantle unopposed.

Of the five parties that did show up for the debate, four are clearly to the left of David Cameron’s Conservatives and one, UKIP, are very much to the right.  Their closing statements were different and appealed to different demographics, but throughout all I could hear was the sound of the Comservatives hemorrhaging votes.

My hunch is that the nationalist parties will do very well on 7 May, and that UKIP will pick up votes that should otherwise have gone to the Tories.  I think this will allow Labour to prevail in a few seats that they may not otherwise have won, and that Miliband’s offer will persuade enough other voters.  Taken together, all these results will put Labour in a position to form their own minority or coalition government.  Of course, the campaign still has a few weeks left to run… but right now, I think Ed Miliband will become Prime Minister in May.

https://twitter.com/montie/status/589070663245307904

#Periscope needs a ‘handover’ function

I’m really enjoying Periscope, the new app from Twitter that allows live broadcasts direct from your phone.  It was launched very soon after its rival Meerkat and has, I think, better sharing and comment functionality.

Both apps, however, offer something utterly compelling — a live window into someone else’s world.  In 5 minutes on Periscope, you can jump accross continents, watching forest fires in the Rockies, a sunset over the Pont Neuf in Paris, dinner with a family in Pakistan, or a toddler in Canberra learning to walk.  Its magic, in the Arthur C Clarke sense.

With other forms of communication, the most fascinating developments come when the users push the platform in ways the developers had not anticipated.  For example, the @ and # functionality in Twitter was something developed by the users and not by Twitter. Continue reading #Periscope needs a ‘handover’ function

CA9DFsMU8AA6QNG

Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR

Last month I was pleased to be invited by Trans World Radio, the Christian broadcaster, to take part in their TWR Today programme. I spoke to presenter Lauren Herd about free speech in the context of blasphemy, offence and freedom of religion.

During the discussion I tried to articulate something that has been bothering me about the debate we have been having about free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

… So when even free speech campaigners are making the case for offence, I find those arguments frustrating because I feel that argument has been settled, in favour of free speech.

To be clear: I’m not knocking those campaigners who write think-pieces that defend the right to offend.  I’ve published such pieces myself in the past few weeks, as have my colleagues at English PEN.  Rather, my frustration is over how much of the debate is still focussed on whether there is any legitimacy in censoring for reasons of religious offence.  There is none.

Moreover, it is unfettered free speech that enables the freedom of religion.  Lauren Herd gave a pithy and poetic summing up that I predict will become a staple of my rhetoric on this issue:

We may not like hearing attacks on what we believe, but it is that same freedom for one person to express, that allows us to profess what we believe.

You can listen to the show on the TWR website, on SoundCloud, or via the player below.

Continue reading Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR

Hurrah for NHS bureaucrats

“I want doctors with stethoscopes not bureaucrats with clipboards”
—David Cameron, 2 April 2015, #LeadersDebate

In tolerant and inclusive twenty-first century Britain, there is still one group of people that the politicians are happy to demonise: NHS managers.  During last night’s Leaders’ Debate both David Cameron and Ed Miliband were happy to trumpet policies that would see a reduction in NHS managers and an increase in doctors.
This is obviously a vote winning policy.  It’s a simple zero sum equation that ordinary people think they understand.  When we experience the NHS, we see a front-line health professional, not a back-room manager.  So more doctors and nurses, with less bureaucrats, appeals to the natural biases we have due to the way we experience the health service.
But I was sat next to a doctor during the debates and she ridiculed the policy.  If there are less managers in the NHS, then the task of managing will fall to the doctors… Who will have less time to see patients and run clinics!  The admin load placed on doctors and nurses is already a chronic complaint.
The NHS is a vast, multi-dimensional organisation. Running it is a huge logistical challenge.  The doctors, nurses, and technicians all need to be paid, co-ordinated, and to have precisely the right equipment at their disposal when the patient turns up for their appointment.  This requires managers.  The patients themselves need to be piloted through a Byzantine network of ‘healthcare pathways’ as well as the literal corridors of the hospital.  This requires managers.
Moreover, the government and professional bodies set rigorous standards and targets for the service, which are meaningless if they are not monitored.  This requires managers.  And the facilities that power the health service are some of the biggest and most complex institutions in our society.  They need hands on the tiller to set a strategic direction.  This requires managers.
There’s no point in employing more doctors and nurses if you don’t also employ management staff as well.  Otherwise the medical staff will end up doing all the admin and that will be frustrating for everyone.
Hurrah for NHS bureaucrats!

“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”
—General Robert H. Barrow, USMC (Commandant of the Marine Corps)

doge-debate

Why not do an extra leaders’ debate via #Meerkat?

There’s a new app in town, called Meerkat.  It allows you to stream live video direct from your mobile phone or tablet, with the link appearing in your Twitter stream.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to Barack Obama, writes:

If 2004 was about Meetup, 2008 was about Facebook, and 2012 was about Twitter, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it).

(He is of course talking about US politics).  I wonder whether that’s true though: I fancy there may be a premium on asynchronicity—sending messages to people to read when they have time, rather than in the moment.  How much value is there in This Is Happening Literally Right Now over the Twitter news model of This Just Happened? Meerkat does not seem to have any catch-up functionality—if you click on a  link to a stream that has ended, there’s no way to view it back.  Other services like Ustream and Google Hangouts do offer that functionality and I bet the Meerkat devs are beavering away (or whatever it is a meerkat does) to get this feature into the app. Continue reading Why not do an extra leaders’ debate via #Meerkat?

Saudi clichés on Raif Badawi

Last week the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hit back at those who have been voicing their dismay at the hideous and inhuman sentence handed down to liberal blogger Raif Badawi.

The Kingdom cannot believe and strongly disapproves what has been addressed in some media outlets about the case of Citizen Rai’ef Mohammed Badowi and the judicial sentence he has received.

While we regret the aggressive attacks these media have leveled against the Kingdom and its Judiciary system, the Kingdom assures at the same time that it rejects in shape and form any interference in its internal affairs.

Blaming the ‘media’ is a well worn cliché that oppressive regimes like to deploy when seeking to play down their human rights abuses. In this case, however, it’s just flat out wrong.  Yes, the media have reported on the Raif Badawi case and published scathing op-eds from the likes of yrstrly.  But the bulk of the outcry has been on social media, where hundreds of thousands of people are voicing their distaste for Wahhabi justice.

There is also this:

… the Kingdom unequivocally rejects any aggression under the pretext of Human Rights; after all, the constitution of the Kingdom originates from the Islamic Sharia which enshrines one’s sacred rights to life, property, honor, and dignity.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been one of the first States to promote and support human rights and has on this regard respected all international conventions congruent with the Islamic Sharia. 

This is just delusional.  By no stretch of the imagination can flogging someone for peaceful political speech be considered a protection of “honour and dignity” or human rights.

Lest we forget, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights States:

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

existential-comics-featured

On memory, mind, death and teleportation

Together in my timeline last week, two tweets on memory:

Ben Philips had all his creative work deleted by hackers. Continue reading On memory, mind, death and teleportation

black-watch-group

A couple more points, if you please, about the swearing in Black Watch

In my essay for the Sunday Herald I made the case for the necessity of the swearing and offensive chatter that makes up much of the dialogue in Black Watch:

They are working class, inarticulate and insecure boys with no prospects other than the army. And when these men speak, they swear. It is integral to their vernacular. To sanitize their words would be to silence them.

Unfortunately the constraints of the page forbade me from elaborating on this point…. but luckily, I have a blog.

The swearing of the enlisted men is also important because of the contrast it presents with the officer class, and the politicians who have sent Scottish soldiers into harm’s way for centuries.  The show has a marvellous musical number where Lord Elgin, in full highland dress and regalia, prances around the stage, beckoning the young men to sign-up: “hurrah, hurrah!”  He speaks the Queen’s English, and he is as mendacious as they come (“did I mention it would be all over by Christmas” he says as he sends the soldiers off to Flanders in 1914).  In this context, the Fifer accents of the soldiers are a necessity. Homogenising the language would be an act of class warfare.

To my mind, the final genius of Black Watch lies in the juxtaposition between the coarse language and the stunning physical theatre.  One reason why Steven Hoggett’s choreography is so powerful is because the precise and often tender movements emerge from characters who have been f-ing and c-ing just moments before.  The combination jars the audience and is compelling, and it is the rude words that tee-up this possibility.

black-watchi-604x270

Defending ‘Black Watch’ and free speech in the classroom

A headteacher in Kirriemuir has caused controversy by banner her pupils from studying Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland production that I worked on in 2006.  What with this history, couple with the free speech work I do for English PEN, this is perhaps the perfect issue for me to write on.  Over the weekend, The Sunday Herald published my essay setting the issue in its context.

Free speech controversies are like solar flares. They burn hot and bright. Right now, it is Angus that is feeling the heat. Last week, the Sunday Herald reported that one headteacher in Kirriemuir had pulled Black Watch off the Highers syllabus because it is “offensive”. Parents are angry at the decision, and have demanded an explanation. Continue reading Defending ‘Black Watch’ and free speech in the classroom

emwazi

Building the Mythology of Jihadi John

Ever since the ISIS murderer and propagandist ‘Jihadi John’ was revealed to be a British engineering graduate called Mohammed Emwazi, our news media has been saturated with reports about his school days, his personality, and the possible causes of his radicalisation: he ran into a goalpost as a kid; he went to school with Tulisa

The coverage grates.  Its full of cod-psychological comments from former pupils at his school, noting the fact that he was a ‘loner’.  Reading these quotes, I’m reminded of one of the insights from Serial, the podcast phenomenon about the murder of a Baltimore schoolgirl Hae Min Lee in 1999.  That series makes the point that people are susceptible to a confirmation bias in their memories.  When told that someone is a murderer, people naturally recall those incidents where the person acted weird or like a ‘loner’.  But alternatively, those who are convinced that the convicted person is innocent remember him as friendly and outgoing. Continue reading Building the Mythology of Jihadi John