Better dead than Red Ed

June 30, 2011

John Lennon once infamously said of Ringo Starr that he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles. In a similar vein, you could probably say of Ed Miliband that he wasn’t even the best Labour leader in his own family. His decision not to support the strike that is happening today is a reflection of that.

750,000 public sector workers are striking today. Their rationale is rather simple. It is claimed repeatedly by David Cameron that public sector pensions must be reformed because the present system is “unaffordable”. In actual fact the amount we will be paying less for public sector pensions, as a percentage of GDP, will decrease even without any reforms.

These pensions are not gold-plated. The recent Hutton Report on pensions (the above graph is from p. 23 of that report) had this to say:

The Commission firmly rejected the claim that current public service pensions are ‘gold plated.’ The average pension paid to pensioner members is around £7,800 per year, while the median payment is around £5,600.

In the civil service pension scheme, for instance, most workers receive a pension of less than £6000 per year.

(from False Economy)

It’s hard to disagree with Dave Prentis when he describes these pension pots as “a cushion against poverty in retirement”.

What the pension reforms effectively mean is that employees will contribute more for their pension and receive less out. That, as False Economy argues in the blog I linked to above, is essentially a pay cut. Or, as another blogger puts it, as a tax to pay off the deficit.

It’s true that these pensions are better than those received by the vast majority of private sector workers. Apart from, obviously the very rich. As the TUC briefing makes clear (p. 3):

In 2007/8 tax relief cost £37.6 billion – almost ten times the net cost of unfunded public sector pensions. This tax relief is heavily skewed towards the well off. 60 per cent goes to higher rate tax payers and a quarter of tax relief — nearly £10 billion a year – goes to the one per cent of the population who earn more than £150,000.

None of this seems like an argument to further hit public sector workers, who are already facing a pay freeze for two years in times of high inflation and what could amount for some to a 10% cut in pay.

So it’s easy to see why some public sector workers have decided to take the most extreme action possible to try and protect their already-eroding living standards.

And what was Ed Miliband’s response?

The Labour Party I lead will always be the party of the parent trying to get their children to school, the mother and father who know the value of a day’s education.

On behalf of those people I urge unions and ministers to get back around the negotiating table and sort this out…

The public deserve better. All sides need to get round the table and back to negotiations.

And he tweeted today:

For a start, it’s only a one-day strike. It’s not like the teachers have padlocked the school gates, starting singing The Internationale and taken to the streets until the government falls. If closing schools for one day affects children’s education so adversely, why was the decision taken to close schools for the royal wedding? Or close scores of them so that they could be used as polling stations on May 5th? To criticize a one-day strike because it’s hugely detrimental to children’s education seems disingenuous, to say the least.

I know that’s what many of the small socialist groups giving out leaflets on the march today, as well as people like Laurie Penny, want them to do.
But this strike isn’t about a revolution. It’s ordinary working people who have taken a democratic decision to strike in order to defend their pension. It certainly isn’t the start of an insurrection.

You can extend it to a march of people who wish to reverse the government’s economic policy. In which case, what about the parents who work at courtrooms that may be closed, who rely on Sure Start centres that may be cut, the parents that work at businesses like Thorntons and Habitat who are now feeling the pinch of the current economic climate? How is Labour going to stand up for them?

Ed Miliband’s decision not to support the strike doesn’t even make sense from a political point of view. I can only assume he’s done it because he doesn’t want to be seen as “Red Ed”, in thrall to the unions, but this seems to be mistaken. A majority of people have consistently said they are in favour of workers striking to protect terms and conditions. So Ed has ignored polls, alienated the unions who fund Labour, disappointed a lot of members and Labour’s core supporters, all for what? To stop a few bad headlines in the Daily Mail. There’s only one response for that:

And don’t even get me started on this God-awful performance.

I do think that Ed Miliband’s words say something about the existential crisis that Labour is in at the moment.

It’s becoming very difficult to answer the question of who exactly Labour is for, and what its core values are. There are those that Owen Jones calls the Blairite ultras, and Con Home calls the thoughtful leftwingers, who are essentially Blairites and believe Labour should support the cuts in their entirety. On the other extreme, there are some members of the no-cuts brigade, with every shade in between. All have different opinions on why Labour lost 4 million votes between 1997 and 2010, and all have different opinions on how Labour best wins them back.

At the moment it feels like he’s trying to please all sections of the party whilst appeasing the right-wing tabloids, and ending up pleasing nobody.

This blog will have much more to say about the direction of Labour. At the moment though, I get the feeling that this incident will have done Ed Miliband more harm than good.


Paperback Rioter’s exclusive interview with just about everybody who has something to say about Johann Hari

June 29, 2011

Paperback Rioter has had a quiet few weeks. Today, I can finally reveal what has been happening in that time. I’ve been travelling the country interviewing journalists, bloggers and activists for this post on the Johann Hari plagiarism scandal.

First I met with the writer of Deterritorial Suppport Group, who were the first to expose Hari’s idiosyncratic interview technique a few weeks ago. They compared Hari’s interview with Italian communist Toni Negri with a book written by Anne Dufourmentelle called “Negri on Negri”.

DSG found that Hari had copied and pasted quotes from Dufourmentelle’s book and inserted them into his own interview with Negri, complete with atmospheric descriptions of the interview.

For instance, here’s Johann Hari on the subject of memory:

And here’s Dufourmentelle on the same subject, pp. 100-101:

Johann on crime:

Whilst here’s the Dufourmentelle book on crime, p. 25

I met with the writer of the piece in a Brighton pub. Over a pint of the local bitter, I asked what the significance of this was. After taking a sip of their beer, he replied:

It’s rather ironic that an article whose main premise is that Negri negates a “truthful memory”, essentially attempting to fabricate history to fit his own political agenda, seems to be based upon an encounter in the ICA which is almost entirely fabricated.

Is it really that serious? After all, Hari is quoting Negri accurately. He’s not being misquoted here, is he?

My interviewee sighs.

To take Negri’s answers to entirely different questions, and recontextualise them around Hari’s agenda, which involves the sustenance of the very systems of power that falsely accused and imprisoned Negri for decades of his life as a political prisoner in Italy, seems especially disingenuous.

DSG’s post was picked up upon by journalist Brian Whelan. He also found that Hari had been copying and pasting quotes, in an interview with Gideon Levy.

I met up with Brian to discuss his findings, which were the catalyst for the story gaining greater traction. I asked him what exactly Johann Hari seemed to be doing with his interview.

He appears to be passing off copy-pasted text from Levy’s writings in Haaretz and interviews with other hacks as an exclusive interview. Also, Hari seems to be freely creating mash-up quotes out of disparate statements levy has made over the years. This is definitely not the practice of an award winning hack.

After pausing to drink his coffee, Whelan fixes me with a stare. “If the Indy really did send him to Scotland for these quotes I think Hari’s editor needs to sit him down for a chat.”

I met with Johann in an Islington coffee shop to discuss these accusations. He was very honest about what he had been doing in his articles. Sipping a latte, Hari explains that

Occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that, say, Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview.

Surely this is dishonest? You can’t just copy and paste from another reporter’s interview, and pretend you got those quotes, can you?

Since my interviews are intellectual portraits that I hope explain how a person thinks, it seemed the most thorough way of doing it.

That’s not an interview, is it, because it’s not an accurate portrayal of what was said? Here Hari became quite animated.

After doing what must be over fifty interviews, none of my interviewees have ever said they had been misquoted, even when they feel I’ve been very harsh on them in other ways.

I’m a bit bemused to find one blogger considers this “plagiarism”. Who’s being plagiarized? Plagiarism is passing off somebody else’s intellectual work as your own – whereas I’m always making it clear that (say) Gideon Levy’s thought is Gideon Levy’s thought.

These are comments echoed by Guardian Science writer Ben Goldacre, who said to me in a telephone conversation that “it’s not plagiarism, but it was a bit unstylish”.

However, very few mainstream journalists seem to share the view that what Hari did was acceptable. I spoke to New Statesman journalist Guy Walters, who has also written about Hari’s lifting of quotations, at the magazine’s offices in Old Marylebone Road and asked for his views.

This is straightforward dishonest reporting. Hugo Chavez never said those words to Mr Hari. He said them to Mr Anderson. And Lally Weymouth.

Now that Johann Hari has apologised, does he think the story will end there? He shakes his head, ruefully. “This one, like phone hacking, is going to run and run.”

I put Hari’s remarks to Esther Addley, a senior news writer at the Guardian, at the paper’s offices in Kings Place. In an outraged tone, she said,

I’m astonished by that response. It’s dishonest, pure and simple. I know of no journalist I respect who considers this ‘normal practice’. I consider it indefensible.

Another blogger I spoke to, at Fleet Street Blues, said that the remarks said much about Hari’s interviewing technique.

The main art of being an interviewer is to be skilled at eliciting the right quotes from your subject. If Johann Hari wants to write ‘intellectual portraits’, he should go and write fiction. Do his editors really know that the copy they’re printing is essentially made up?

Hari also said to me that one of the main reasons he used quotes from another source was to tidy up what a writer was said.

If somebody interviewed me and asked my views of Martin Amis, instead of quoting me as saying “Um, I think, you know, he got the figures for, uh, how many Muslims there are in Europe upside down”, they could quote instead what I’d written more cogently about him a month before, as a more accurate representation of my thoughts.

This defence cut no ice with Jamie Smith, a journalism blogger and Wannabe Hack:

Other journos have said they tidy up quotes from interviews. Yep, that’s standard practice. But it’s totally different to what Hari has done in his columns. He’s falsified situations, painted a picture in the reader’s mind of an occurrence that never happened.

It seems that Hari’s editor, Simon Kelner, does not share these criticisms. Speaking to him at the newspaper’s office in London, he said that

Johann had suffered enough with the vilification he’s had on Twitter. He wouldn’t face any disciplinary action, apart from being spoken to at great length.

Paperback Rioter will have more on Hari-gate as the story unfolds.

CLARIFICATION

It has been alleged that the interviews I claim took place never actually happened. Some bloggers have suggested that I’ve completely made up meeting the people I claim to have interviewed in this piece. So just to clarify: what I have done is quoted their words as they expressed them in writing, rather than how they expressed it in my non-existent interview with them.

Below is a list of places that I have quoted from. If you think there’s a better way to interview people than simply copy and paste different bits of what they’ve said and pretend they said those things to you, please let me know in the comments.

https://deterritorialsupportgroup.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/hari-karihackery/

http://brianwhelan.net/post/6972324037/is-johann-hari-a-copy-pasting-churnalist

http://brianwhelan.net/post/7039951732/time-to-come-clean-johann-hari

http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/guy-walters/2011/06/chavez-hari-interview-goodbye

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/100094268/busted-johann-hari-is-guilty-of-shoddy-journalism/

http://fleetstreetblues.blogspot.com/2011/06/independent-columnist-johann-hari.html

http://johannhari.com/2011/06/29/my-response-to-yesterdays-allegations

http://johannhari.com/2011/06/27/interview-etiquette

http://wannabehacks.co.uk/freelancer/2011/06/29/jamie-smith-hari-plagiarising-row-misses-the-point

http://twitter.com/#!/bengoldacre/status/85696763125694464

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/jun/29/johann-hari-row-political-says-simon-kelner


AC Grayling is proof that you can be very clever and very stupid at the same time

June 8, 2011

At first, I wasn’t sure if there was any point to adding to the deluge of blog posts about AC Grayling’s plan for a new “elite” university. Enough pixels have been wasted on The New College of the Humanities than is surely merited. However, it cannot do any harm to give this nauseatingly awful idea as good a kicking as possible, just to make it never gets off the ground.

The NCHUM looks like a scheme destined to end in tears. It can’t award degrees, nor call itself a “university college”, which is how the NCHUM styled itself when it launched last week, nor even conduct any research. It’ll only take about 350 students. Two of its “star turns” are only going to give one lecture a year, which is far removed from the NCHUM’s claim that the 14 star turns “will contribute personally to your educational experience”. It’s also not clear how this scheme will break even. Apparently £10m has been raised, and the college hopes to break even by its third year of running. The NCHUM is financed by venture capitalists. They, surely, are going to want some return for their cash aren’t they?

I’m not really sure what AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson and the rest hope to achieve with this college. I suspect that it’s probably the ability to earn a bit of cash, though Grayling has, it seems, higher motives. This is what he wrote in an e-mail to the President of Birkbeck’s Student Union:

A civilized society ought to pay out of the communal purse for the highest quality education for everyone, from the earliest schooling to high education. I hold that view, as I take it you do. But our society has chosen to pay for things other than the humanities and social sciences in higher education; it has turned over to universities the task of funding those subjects, and yet has done it in an unsustainable way because the true cost of educating to a very high standard is much greater than the fees universities will now charge…

You can have two reactions to the fact that the Coalition government (in fact: any of the three main parties) will neither fund universities adequately out of general taxation, nor allow universities to charge the true economic cost: you can protest in the hope of getting them to reverse their policy, or you can accept the profound unlikelihood of the latter, and seek another way of keeping high quality humanities education going over the long term.

 

He seems to have decided that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. It’s a good job Grayling didn’t take this approach to civil liberties. Instead of defending our liberties, he’d be on Newsnight demanding that terror suspects be jailed for two years without charge, rather than writing article after article criticising Labour’s assault on liberties.

If we accept Grayling’s good intentions at his word, then he’s being incredibly foolhardy. I don’t recall him ever criticising any government for cutting university funding, or introducing tuition fees. The only article I can find on universities for the Guardian is this one, where he attacks Peter Mandelson for suggesting that universities should provide more contact hours. In that, he argues that students should be essentially left to their own devices: despite that, the NCHUM boasts of a staff-student ratio of 1:10 and that it would give “personal attention” to students.

Dominic Lawson has written one of the better articles on this scheme. In it, he says:

One academic blogger [has labelled] this as a place for “Tim nice but dims whose parents are prepared to spend a fortune having them fall asleep listening to lectures by AC Grayling”.

Yet what harm does this do? If parents wish to spend their money in this way, why shouldn’t they?

Sarah Churchwell wrote something similar, in response to Terry Eagleton’s wonderful polemic, in which she basically argued that we should give this a chance.

I disagree. We shouldn’t “give this a chance” or let rich parents buy university education for £18,000 a year just because they can. That’s because the NCHUM seems to be part of the commodification of higher education. As university fees keep going up and up, students will surely see a good degree as their “right” – something they have “bought” – as opposed to something to be earned.

This has certainly happened in the United States, and has been increasing in Britain since the tripling of university fees (albeit going by anecdotal evidence). I know of talented doctoral students who are going to drop out of academia because they are tired – already – of teaching students who see a good degree as something they have bought, like a pair of jeans or trendy new sportscar. Some lecturers are now reluctant to go to graduation ceremonies – usually the high point of the university calendar – lest they get accosted by parents who are unhappy that their child has not received their 2.1 that they “paid for”. The simple fact is that a university education should be gotten on the basis of academic ability, not the ability to pay £54,000, as would be the case for the vast majority of students at the NCHUM.

Although Grayling wishes the NCHUM to follow the American model, that’s not what it’s doing. It took – of all people – the head of a privately-run university in Britain to point it out. From the Dominic Lawson article:

Buckingham’s ferociously libertarian principal told me that Grayling’s new college “is just a bunch of opportunists trying to make some money. They are not giving up their day jobs in the academic state sector. These left-wing intellectuals will just be making easy extra money, funded by venture capitalists”. But weren’t Professor Grayling and his band of “left-wing intellectuals” just doing what Kealey had long urged – to emulate the American system? Not a bit of it, said Kealey: “The great US humanities colleges are entirely charitable foundations, not profit-making bodies. Grayling’s lot are just going to be working to make a return for the venture capitalists backing them — and taking a slice of the equity themselves.”

Grayling says that he wants to improve university standards. Yet this is not the way to go about it. This is as likely to raise standards in universities as Oz Clarke selling bottles of WKD to upper-class schoolboys at £18,000 each is likely to stop binge drinking.


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