Archive for the ‘Guest Blogs’ Category

No greater joy

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

Godfrey Hodgson takes a holiday from American politics to celebrate his local river.

‘Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.’

So said the ghost of Francesca in Dante’s Fifth Canto: that there is “no greater sorrow than to remember in misery the happy time”. With the greatest respect to Francesca and to the poet, I have learned that the reverse is true. There is no greater joy available in a time of misery than to remember a happy time.
About a year ago I committed myself to a project that would give purpose to my great love for the part of West Oxfordshire where I live. Three times and for some twenty years out of the last thirty-something, we have lived within a mile of the river Evenlode, and for most of the rest we lived within three miles of where that small but perfect stream loses its identity by joining the Thames.
One of my favourite books is Claudio Magris’s masterpiece, Danube. As a Triestino, Magris was bilingual in German and Italian, and with an acquaintance with Slav languages; villages where they speak Slovene are almost in the suburbs of Trieste, and there is even a Slovene Orthodox cathedral on the foreshore in that remarkable city. Magris took the Danube as his thread, and hung on it the whole bloody history of Mitteleuropa, with learned digressions on the fish, the navigation, the hydrology and the culture of the great river.
I formed a project of my own: to write as it were a mock-heroic version of Danube, exploring the course and honouring the history of our beloved little river. A neighbour who is a publisher has agreed to bring it out. We set out to walk the length of it in a series of circular walks. At that rate a two-mile stretch of the river was at least a four mile walk. The 42 miles (against the Danube’s 1,770!) would take ten or a dozen weekend walks.
We began with the little tributaries which come together west of Moreton-in-March. Only one has cultural dignity, the brook that runs down through the pleasure gardens of Sezincote, an Anglo-Mughal palace on the southern slope of the Cotswolds ridge that runs north-east from Stow-on-the-Wold to Moreton. It was built for a nabob, Sir Charles Cockerell, by his brother, the architect S.P.Cockerell, who later imitated the style for the Prince Regent’s Pavilion in Brighton.
Weekend by weekend we followed the little river, past Adlestrop, where Edward Thomas heard from the train “all the birds, Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire”, past Shipton, home of John Foxe, the author of the gruesome 16th century bestseller, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, past Ascott-under-Wychwood, where the martyrs were nineteenth century housewives, imprisoned for a week for supporting their menfolk in an agricultural strike, and compensated with scarlet petticoats by Queen Victoria, no less.
We followed the valley in a great curve round the northern rim of Wychwood, which locally we call simply The Forest. We skirted Chilson, where we used to live, past Shorthampton, tiny gem of a church with box pews and fourteenth century wall paintings, crossed the Coldron brook from a mushroom field on a footbridge, and marched up the mill field, between the mill race and the mill leet, into Charlbury. This is the largest of the “hundred little towns of stone” in Hilaire Belloc’s poem about the river. Charlbury has many claims to fame, including the proximity of Cornbury, where the village barber recognized Bonny Prince Charlie who was hiding there, and the patronage of the present archbishop of Canterbury, who had a weekend retreat here incognito. In our time, this was the home of W.D. Campbell, naturalist of prodigious learning who wrote the Country Diary in The Guardian for thirty years.
We duly admired the black Dexter cattle on Stonesfield Common, and revisited the Roman villa at East End. We paid homage to a private shrine, Rupert’s Beach. This is a sandy bend in the Evenlode near Combe mill, named after and beloved by my late Labrador collie cross. Once when I was filming an interview there about the rustic quality of my new life, two mute swans, cob and pen, sailed round the corner into shot, followed by their six cygnets; no assistant stage manager in history could have managed the timing more perfectly. We went as far as the ingenious works being carried out by the Environment Agency at the corner of Blenheim Palace, within sight of Bladon church, where Winston Churchill is buried. The Agency has deliberately slowed down the course of the river by heaping gravel on alternate banks to create an artificial meander, to the great benefit of fish and the whole food train, up to the otters who have come back from near extinction from dieldrin poisoning and are now recolonizing the Evenlode valley.
And that is as far as we got.
On January 12 we went for a walk, not along the river, but for a couple of miles. I remember congratulating myself, with a twinge of superstitious guilt, about how well I felt. Then I went to my office, sat down and signed off on one book, a biography I had been working on for five years, and literally finished a second, a history of the American feast of Thanksgiving. For good measure, I polished off a proposal for a third book to be sent to my agent in New York. I was so pleased with the afternoon’s work that I stood up, unwarily, planning to reward myself for my hard work with a celebratory martini, permitted only as a rare treat.
I tripped over a cable (still un-martinied, I need perhaps to specify). I fell heavily on both knees. I was carrying a parcel and could not save myself with my arms. The tendons connecting my kneecaps to my quadiceps were ruptured in both legs. I was taken to hospital, in great pain. My knees were brilliantly restitched. While I was in hospital, the doctors investigated my high nightly temperatures. They found I had a life-threatening abscess in my stomach and gut. Another operation, four hours long. Realistically, breaking my knees saved my life.
I was four months in hospital. Now, another four months further on, I am still learning, slowly, clumsily, and not without fear of falling, to walk, first with a frame, then with crutches, then with a cane and now, sometimes, cautiously and timidly on my own. (“How are you, grandpa?” asked my three year old grandson Angus. “I’m well”, I boasted. “I’m learning to walk”. “Oh, grandpa” — with a smile to show he had got the joke — “everyone knows how to walk!”
It will be a long time before I can walk the last four or five miles of the river bank, from Bladon to Cassington mill, for which the rent paid in Domesday Book was 175 eels. Realistically, I may never be able to manage it. But in a hospital bed, unable to move, and still today, hobbling round the house, to remember the tempo felice of our explorations along the Evenlode is anything but dolorous.

Investigative Journalism: Behind Enemy Lines

Saturday, September 23rd, 2006

Journalists and journalism are facing an unprecedented level of attack in terms of public cynicism, legal constraints and the political spin designed to bolster support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the media’s watchdog role is dying through lack of use.
This form of undercover journalism, which challenges the activities of the dominant institutions in our society, is on death row. Since the late 1970s there has been a decline in investigative journalism in the world’s media, particularly in America and now in Britain
The demand for instant news diverts journalists and news organizations from their role of detecting, investigating and exposing society’s ills, which requires long and patient work by a team of journalists, in favour of the more easily produced, audience-friendly task of light entertainment and live reporting. News has now become a business force, focused on profit and political spin, rather than keeping the powerful in check.
Investigative journalists used to be the feather in the cap of any well organized newsroom, with some of the most famous being Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposing the scandal at Watergate in America. Seymour Hersh on the My Lai massacre, Wilfred Burchett, the first Westerner to enter Hiroshima in September 1945; Israeli journalist Amira Hass, reporting from the Gaza Strip in the 1990s, to name but a few.
The most prolific purveyor of investigative scoops, in Britain in the last century was the Daily Mirror newspaper, whose innovations, which included the now widely imitated, ‘shock issue,’ in which page after page was devoted to a single subject, usually exposing some social evil. The then editor, the legendary Hugh Cudlipp, called it an “exercise in brutal mass education”.
The first shock issue in 1960 was a searing account of the suffering of horses shipped from Britain to the butchers of Belgium and France. This was followed by scandals of poorly equipped youth clubs, cruelty to children, pollution, the suicide club of teenagers on ton-up motorbikes and the neglect of old and lonely people.
“Forward with the people!” said one masthead, during this time, which encapsulated the democratic role that journalists played in representing the public against the pillars of power.
However, in today’s more modern society such journalism, particularly by the popular press, has been confined to digging up dirt and revealing secrets about the private lives of the rich and famous, the Royal family, politicians and rock stars. The resignation of Paul Foot in 1993 brought an end to the Daily Mirror’s tradition of hard-hitting political investigations and marked a rapid decline that beset all news outlets. With the quality press, technology, competition and new owners have acted to curtail investigative work.
Investigative journalism defines what it is to write in the public interest and to be part of a democratic society. Democracy is founded on a number of principles, one of which is the accountability of elected representatives and civil servants to the people. Investigative journalists are among those best placed to expose it and ensure that justice is done.
But the politicians have hit back, as they did at the turn of the last century in America. Then, the Republican President, Teddy Roosevelt, turned the tables on the investigative journalists who had exposed the underside of American capitalism. He labelled them muckrakers, who were only concerned with digging up dirt. Today governments are seeking new and improved ways of restricting journalists, in what they report and in their working practices. And they are building on public dislike of the intrusion into private lives and the hounding of individuals for relatively minor sexual misdemeanors to suggest that all journalists are underhand and dishonest.
News of the World reporter David McGee found himself in the dock after his investigation into the failings at Woodhill Prison, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. McGee had taken a job guarding prisoners. After months undercover he took photographs of Ian Huntley, who was serving a life sentence for murdering two young girls in Soham, in his cell. The pictures were published in June 2003, and prompted a Home Office review of prison security.
He got the job in his own name, providing passport ID showing his profession as a journalist. Yes, this was illegal but if one man with a camera can get in that position, what is stopping a crazed feminist protestor in a shell suit and a claymore, or an armed terrorist?
Moreover, due to his investigations he managed to reveal the problems with security and administrative procedures – he was working in the public interest. This did not stop, however, McGee being charged with taking a camera into prison, very minor offence. The government is punishing investigative journalists for pointing out that they are not doing their jobs properly.
Legal proceedings, in my view, should not be taken against investigative journalists, if they have acted in-line with what it means to write in the public interest and they have followed the guidelines set out by the NUJ, governing body
Another example is the BBC’s Real Story documentary, ‘Detention Undercover,’ took nine months of investigative research, including three months of secret filming to reveal asylum seekers and immigrants being racially and physically abused by security guards in a Cambridgeshire detention centre.
The programme’s findings were presented to the Home Office and also to the private security company who employed the guards whose deplorable behavior had been caught on camera. As a result, a number of employees were suspended. This is another classic example of investigative journalists providing a public service by using methods, which stretch the laws of the land. Investigations by undercover journalists have the potential to reduce crime, improve national institutions and the people who work in them.
Journalists must be free to identify problems and investigate them using whatever methods are necessary. They should be free to publish or broadcast their stories their stories when those stories are in the public interest, without fear of censorship, recrimination or penal sanction.
And journalists need to be supported by the public when governments and big business, try to use the law against them for doing their most essential job, uncovering the abuse of power.

Phil Simms is an undergraduate student in the Department of Journalism, City University.

Paul Anderson on Orwell in Tribune

Wednesday, September 20th, 2006

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that there are very few journalists whose day-to-day work is worth republishing after half-a-century or more. And it’s just as much of a commonplace that, of the tiny band of mid-20th-century hacks whose work lives on, none is of greater contemporary relevance than George Orwell.

Yet Orwell’s journalism, or at least his everyday journalism, is not read as widely as it deserves to be. Lots of people are familiar with his novels (particularly Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four), his three great books of reportage – Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia – and his most anthologised essays, most of them written for small-circulation literary journals.

But unless you have worked your way through the final ten volumes of Peter Davison’s magisterial 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, published in the late 1990s, the chances are that you haven’t come across more than a smattering of the extraordinary quantity of exemplary journalistic jobbing that Orwell did for most of his life as a writer.

Everything is in Davison, of course, but because it is spread through ten volumes, interspersed with letters and fascinating ephemera, it is just a little difficult to take in. There was a generous selection of Orwell’s journalism published in four volumes in the 1960s as Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow Sonia, but Sonia’s criteria for inclusion and exclusion were strange in the extreme. In the 1980s, the New Statesman produced a slim pamphlet of Orwell’s contributions to its pages and the writer W. J. West edited two volumes of Orwell’s broadcast scripts for the BBC in 1941-43. And a couple of years ago came a collection of his reviews and reportage in the Observer.

All this was marvellous – but there was a glaring gap. The routine journalism on which Orwell’s reputation is primarily based is not his work for the BBC or the Observer, let alone his half-dozen reviews for the New Statesman, whose editor, Kingsley Martin, he famously detested. Rather it is Orwell’s columns for Tribune, the Labour left weekly, 80 of which appeared under the rubric “As I Please” between 1943 and 1947.

The columns for Tribune are justly feted. The range of subjects he covered was extraordinary: it is difficult to think of anyone before or since who could write about so many different things. As his friend Julian Symons wrote: ‘He discussed a hundred subjects, ranging from the comparative amounts he spent on books and cigarettes or lamenting the decline of the English murder from the days of Crippen to a casual wartime killing to the spawning of toads in spring.’

But it isn’t just Orwell’s versatility that stands out. The columns are also remarkably original and written in a taut, demotic journalistic style. As another friend, George Woodcock, put it: ‘He could always find a subject on which there was something fresh to say in a prose that, for all its ease and apparent casualness, was penetrating and direct.’

What’s more, despite the diversity of subject matter, they form a single coherent body of work. In the words of the literary critic D. J. Taylor in his recent Orwell biography: ‘One of the most engaging features of the column, read sequentially, is the sense of dialogue, points taken up, conceded or refuted, continuity rather than a trail of pronouncements which the reader could take or leave as he or she chose.’

Tribune was, as it remains, a political paper, but Orwell rarely dealt directly in his columns with the subject matter of most political journalists: elections, debates in parliament, legislation, policy pronouncements, ministerial appointments and so on. Nor, for the most part, did he use his Tribune column to examine in detail the latest developments in world affairs.

Nevertheless, his columns were intensely political – even, paradoxically, when they appeared to have nothing to do with politics. Orwell was writing as a democratic socialist for democratic socialist readers, and his role as he saw it was to provoke them, to get them to think about what politics is and what it can and cannot achieve.

If there is a single theme that runs all the way through Orwell’s Tribune columns from 1943 to 1947, it is that the left needs a more nuanced conception of politics. Democratic socialism is not just a matter of the Labour Party adopting the right manifesto, winning a general election, nationalising the means of production and creating a comprehensive welfare state (although it is all these). It also involves telling inconvenient truths – about the nature of Soviet communism, about the economic consequences of decolonisation, about the extent of popular anti-Americanism in Britain. It means, among other things, reforming the press, defending the right of anarchists to sell seditious literature and countering racial prejudice. Moreover, a lot that is important in life cannot be reduced to politics. Great writers can be very right-wing; people will never tire of celebrating Christmas by eating and drinking too much; and the arrival of spring will always be a source of wonder.

Sixty-odd years on, Orwell’s emphases on the lacunae of left politics and principles, rather than the programmatic core of 1940s democratic socialism or the week-by-week flow of events, makes his Tribune columns more accessible than anything written by his contemporaries. Not everything he discussed is still current. The Soviet Union and British empire are long over, the Cold War has been and gone, and the best writers in Britain have not been right wing for some time. But totalitarianism and imperialism are still very much with us, and Orwell’s commitment to telling inconvenient truths, his warnings about the slipperiness of political language and the sensationalism of the popular press, his concerns with racism and religious intolerance and his conviction that there is more to life than politics as traditionally conceived are as relevant today as they were in the 1940s.

The idea of putting out a collection of all Orwell’s Tribune columns is hardly original. Bernard Crick, still Orwell’s best biographer, suggested it more than 20 years ago, and he was not alone. But Tribune, which holds copyright on the Orwell it published, was in no state to sort it all out then – and it was only a little more than a year ago, when Politico’s, an imprint of Methuen, jumped at the idea of putting all Orwell’s Tribune columns into a single volume, that the idea began to be made concrete. It has been a bit of a rush, but Orwell in Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings is coming out next month, and I can’t think of a better way of celebrating Tribune’s 70th birthday at the beginning of next year.

Orwell in Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings, edited and introduced by Paul Anderson with a foreword by Michael Foot, is published on 25 September.

Paul was deputy editor of the European Nuclear Disarmament Journal 1984-87, reviews editor of Tribune 1986-91, editor of Tribune 1991-93 and deputy editor of the New Statesman 1993-96. After leaving the New Statesman he wrote (with Nyta Mann) Safety First: The Making of New Labour, published by Granta Books, and worked as a sub-editor on the Times Educational Supplement and the Guardian (where he still does shifts during vacations). He joined City in 2000 and is currently working on a history of the British left and the Soviet Union.

Why Lieberman lost the plot

Sunday, August 13th, 2006

Godfrey Hodgson explains last week’s upset in the US Democratic Party in our first guest blog.

One of the most cherished myths of the conservancy persuasion, in Britain as in the United States has been the idea that liberals are all millionaires, and millionaires are all to be suspected of being liberals.
This is part of the belief system of the Murdoch tendency, and it is cherished by serried ranks of American conservatives. Tom Frank, author of What’s Wrong with Kansas? called this dogma “market populism”. The idea is that you, little man, are better looked after by the masters of the corporate universe than by your elected representatives and the government they control, let alone by civil servants employed to carry out the purposes of democratically elected government. .
It is, of course, self-interested nonsense. Most liberals are far from being millionaires, and most millionaires, in spite of a handful of exceptions, are even farther from being liberals.
Every now and again, though, a story comes along that seems to confirm the Big Lie of market populism. Such a story has just been enacted in Connecticut. Joe Lieberman, three times elected Democratic senator from the Constitution State, and the Democratic party’s standard-bearer for Vice President in 2000, has just been beaten, 52 per cent to 48 per cent, by a rank outsider.
Ned Lamont is an amateur, whose only previous political credit was to have been elected Selectman (roughly, councillor) from Greenwich, Connecticut, best-known as the opulent New York commuter suburb that is the home of many hedge funds and those who have profited mightily from them.
Not that Ned Lamont, the conqueror of Joe Lieberman, owes his fortune to hedge funds. He and his wife were both comfortably rich, thank you, before hedge funds were invented. Ned is the great-grandson of Thomas W. Lamont, partner of the great J. P. Morgan. It was Morgan in his pride who, accused of breaking the law, protested to President Teddy Roosevelt, ““If we have done anything wrong, send your man to my man and they can fix it up.”
Not that Ned has been sitting back and clipping the coupons on his stock. He is the successful founder and boss of a cable TV company. His income last year was $2.8 million. So how does it come about that, in the American equivalent of the People’s Party, honest Joe Lieberman, after labouring in the Democratic vineyard for decades, is cast aside in favour of a scion of hereditary wealth?
Lamont’s victory can be explained n a single word.
Or, to be more precise, in two words: Iraq and Lebanon.
Lieberman was the victim of an insurgency — a sort of silk stocking jacquerie — because he supported the Iraq war, did not apologize for supporting it, was even observed giving President Bush the equivalent of a Latin abrazo or bear-hug. It goes without saying that, like many Democrats of his generation, he has been an absolutely unquestioning supporter not only of Israel, but of whatever even the most Right-wing Israeli government might do.
Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew and a strict one. It is perhaps normal that he should display this loyalty. The trouble is that, in his attitude to the politics of the Middle East, and on many domestic issues as well, Lieberman had become indistinguishable from a Republican. He was chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, which might be called the Blairite tendency in the Democratic party. He consistently took strong positions on “moral” issues, campaigning against rude words on television and denouncing the wickedness of President Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. (It takes two to tango.)
He has been, according to the Washington Post’s sage commentator David Broder, an “apostle of a Democratic philosophy that incorporates market-oriented thinking of the Reagan revolution and a muscular defense and foreign policy.” He was not alone in a Democratic party where union power and working class politicians are both hard to find.
It may seem odd that it takes a Lamont, a fourth generation millionaire educated at private boarding school and at both Harvard and Yale, to spot that the Democratic party has taken leave of its roots in the people. But if the Democrats are to defeat a Republican party that is discredited on every front, from New Orleans to Iraq, someone has got to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
Say what you like about Hillary Clinton, but no one has ever said she was stupid. (Yale Law, again.) Last week she finally showed that she has understood what support for the disastrous Iraq venture is doing to the Democrats. She goaded the ineffable Donald Rumsfeld, who as Secretary of Defense has been formally as well as really responsible for the disasters of Iraq, into appearing before a Senate committee, and when he got there, gave him the sharp edge of a very sharp tongue. Then she called formally on President Bush to fire the former Greco-Roman wrestler.
Joe Lieberman has not knuckled under. He threatens to run against his fellow Democrat, Lamont, in the autumn. If he does, the odds seem to be that the voters of Connecticut, will add insult to injury. Connecticut, of course, is not America. It is so much part of the “blue” (we would say pink) political culture that its three seats in Congress may all go to the Democrats in November. But more than 60 per cent of all Americans now say they oppose the Iraq war.
MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN . Those words were written by a mysterious hand on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace. The meaning is obscure, but the usual interpretation is that the king was found wanting, his reign numbered, and his kingdom would be given to the Medes and Persians.
For all the successes of the Persians’ Hizbullah proxies, George Bush’s kingdom is in no danger from the Persians yet. It is rather a rich irony that a grandson of the great Republican House of Morgan has put the writing on the Republican wall. Perhaps Ned Lamont has numbered George Bush’s political reign and handed his kingdom over to the Democrats.

Godfrey Hodgson is an associate fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University. He was The Observer’s correspondent in the United States, and foreign editor of The Independent. Among his books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (1996), The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (2000), and More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the new century. His latest book is Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: a biography of Colonel Edward House.