What Bloody Man Is That?
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

What Bloody Man Is That?

Published in Theatre

I received a letter the other day from a friend of many years, that still active volcano of political cartooning, Bob Starrett. As always, his letter was neatly lettered in italicised block capitals, a throw-back to his time in the painting and decorating trade. Sign-writing was one of the craft skills that he had to learn, and even now, in his eighties, Bob does not want to let that skill fall into disuse.

Included in his letter was a cartoon of Boris Johnson (above), in the wake of his being levered from his position as leader of the Conservative Party, while still hanging on as this suffering nation's Prime Minister. Down but not out, yet! Bob's cartoon shows Johnson in his self-appointed role as a Shakespeare scholar, combined with being both hero, in his own eyes, and fool, in ours.

The cartoon prompted me to have a look at a selection of Shakespeare's playscripts, and perhaps readers of Culture Matters might like to do the same, to see if we can find bits of The Bard that might help Johnson's project along, for him to weave into the text of the book he has a mind to write.

I began my search with Shakespeare's Scottish play. At the time of its writing, with King James VI of Scotland having newly assumed the English crown too, the matter of Scotland was seen as troublesome, as it is again now, for good reason. So choosing to write a play set in Scotland's Dark Ages gave Shakespeare the opportunity to be topical, at a diplomatic and historic distance, while also giving him a context for exploring such favourite themes as political ambition, treachery, scheming, extreme behaviour of various kinds, and regime change.

Choosing to extract quotations from The Tragedy of Macbeth gives us a parallel opportunity to be topical, as we live through the latest shenanigans that characterise England's sad slipping back into its own second Dark Ages:

What bloody man is that?
(Act 1 Scene 1)

I am such a fool, should I stay longer
It would be my disgrace and your discomfort…
(Act 4, Scene 2)

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,
And falls on th'other. . . .
(Act1 Scene 7)

Those he commands move only in command,
Nothing in love. Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.
(Act 5 Scene 2)

Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill…
(Act 3 Scene 2)

There’s daggers in men’s smiles…
(Act 2 Scene 3)

Farewell to a Bullish Boris
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

Farewell to a Bullish Boris

Published in Poetry

Farewell to a Bullish Boris

a bilingual limerick by Limerick bilingualist Gabriel Rosenstock

We've had more than enough of your bull
Now we're all in need of a lull
So look for fresh pastures
Enough with disasters
You're full of it Johnson! Ff- full!

 

Níl ionatsa, Boris, ach tarbh
Magarlán mioscaiseach garbh
Mo thrua an bhó
A bheadh agat is ló
Nó istoíche – b'fhearr a bheith marbh!

To the Lukewarm
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

To the Lukewarm

Published in Poetry

To the Lukewarm

'So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth'.- Revelation 3:16

by Christopher Norris, with image by Martin Gollan

Let hate, like love, burn steady, fierce and clean.
No time for cooling passions – keep your flame
Turned up, spot on: oxyacetylene!

Try this: the man has lied, shifted the blame
To hapless functionaries, fled the scene
Of every crime before some reckoner came

To call him out, obstructed justice, been
Lead player in each tabloid-sponsored game
Of rabble-rousing, skulked behind a screen

Of bluff and bluster when a one-time tame
Investigator spilled the final bean
On some new crime-in office, staked his claim

To rank with Nero in the epicene
Dictator league, got press-hounds to defame
A judge or two, rejoiced to vent his spleen

On those reporters rash enough to name
A host of scattered offspring or umpteen
Past mistresses, let slip that his chief aim

Was scrapping any pesky law they’d frame
To oust him, have the Met latch on he’s keen
To hush their findings up, revealed that shame

Or honour have no place in the latrine
Of quick-flush conscience, and displayed the same
Old Eton-bred contempt that’s let them preen

Themselves, those would-be monarchs, on their fame
For all things bad, like this one and his queen
Whose sins, Macbeth-like, darken each je t’aime.

Stewart Lee is a Snowflake!
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

Stewart Lee is a Snowflake!

Published in Life Writing

Michael Jarvie reviews Stewart Lee's show, Snowflake Tornado 

Stewart Lee is the undisputed master of anti-comedy, or, if you like, meta-comedy. Drawing on Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical technique, which in German goes by the name of the “verfremdungseffekt” (alienation effect) he antagonises his audience in order to elicit a response, like the archetypal mad scientist engaged in some Pavlovian experiment, or better still, a guest conductor coaxing an orchestra to give of their best.

Condescending and narcissistic, exposing the artificiality of his stand-up routine by reading aloud from prompt cards extracted from his jacket pocket, he treats the majority of his audience as if they were an unnecessary irritant, unable to appreciate his lofty genius. But it’s all done tongue in cheek, accompanied with impromptu sound effects, especially when he grabs a metaphorical trombone from the brass section of the aforementioned orchestra and performs some fart-like raspberries down the microphone. And I loved it. At one point in Act Two, I was crying so much with laughter I thought I might keel over from a comedy-induced heart attack. I suspect Lee would have carried on, regardless.

A red neon Tornado sign and red curtains adorn the stage in Act One. Lee begins by telling us how the Netflix platform erroneously described his act in terms which clearly reference the film Sharknado: “Reports of sharks falling from the skies are on the rise again. And nobody on the eastern seaboard is safe.” He naturally speculates whether they described Sharknado as alternative comedy on the same site. We must bear all of this in mind, since the set will meander through various detours before returning triumphantly to the same subject matter, like the recapitulation section of a piece of music written in sonata form.

During the course of these mental peregrinations, he mentions a review of his work by Alan Bennett published in The London Review of Books. This allows Lee to mimic the famous Yorkshireman’s voice to good effect, and he explains that the pandemic has enabled him to perfect his mimicry. He now knows “All the impressions. Alan Bennett. [dramatic pause] All the impressions!” Bennett seems to think that the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman would have liked Stewart Lee, as would J. L. Austin, the British philosopher of language, most famous for his theory of speech acts. As for Goffman, “He’d have been flailing around in a tsunami of his own urine by now,” comments Lee, before turning on the venerable old man of British comedy: “This is the kiss of death, this Alan Bennett review. I hate Alan Bennett!” With that, Lee is swallowed by a fake shark at the rear of the stage and the curtain falls on Act One.

Act Two, by contrast, offers us a blue neon sign bearing the word Snowflake, and a similarly coloured backdrop incorporating a snowflake design. Having changed costume in the interval, Lee is now wearing a powder blue jacket, several sizes too big for his frame, together with a snowflake-themed T-shirt. After all, he admits, he’s let himself go during the pandemic. Now that he’s hit fifty, he’s a candidate for some chair-based activity in the local leisure centre.

A van in Nottingham bearing the legend “Robin Hood’s Jacket Potatoes” is the first in the firing line. Given that the legendary outlaw is thought to have lived in the latter half of the 14th century, this fact is not lost on Lee while he waits patiently in the queue. As he smugly explains, the potato wasn’t introduced to this country until the end of the 16th century, which means the whole naming convention behind the business is based on a chronological error. Ever the know-it-all, Lee succeeds in making the woman cry.

A quick detour to London follows, to the Comedy Club in Soho, where his career as a stand-up comedian began. In those far-off days, Lee recalls how the male strippers from the nearby Raymond Revue Bar would maintain their tumescence, though not full erections, by sitting together in chairs and masturbating. Lee helpfully provides the legal definition of an erection. It’s apparently 45 degrees of elevation. He wonders if, as a result of Brexit, we are no longer burdened by red tape when it comes to such matters.

Throughout the show, comedians get it in the neck, none more so than Dave Chappelle, who we are told, insisted that the hundreds of white light bulbs in his London dressing room must be replaced with red ones and that a rotisserie chicken should also be provided for snacking purposes. Lee, by contrast, claims that his needs are much more Spartan. All he asks for is a pork pie, some Bovril and an unpublished Franz Kafka manuscript.

Ricky Gervais, Alan Parsons, and Stew's nan

Ricky Gervais’s Afterbirth series (Afterlife) is then characterised as an orgy of wank crying. Lee goes on to demonstrate how a Gervais routine might unfold if he really was prevented by the agents of political correctness from uttering any forbidden phrases, which tend to be a staple of his one-man shows. We now understand why, in Act Two, there is a lectern on the stage complete with a bottle of beer! After several failed attempts, all that Lee can manage are a few grunts and howls. Dropping back into his own curmudgeonly character, he points out that a contributor to the internet forum Mumsnet claimed the present routine went on for far too long. But how can you quantify just how long such a routine should be, adds Lee? He’s got a point.

Alan Parsons, writing in GQ magazine, stated that Stewart Lee represented “the rancid tip of a cesspit” for his use of the c-word in connection with women. But as Lee pedantically and gleefully points out, cess doesn’t have a tip. It’s flat. Then, in an attempt to expose Parsons’ hypocrisy, he reads out another quotation from the same author about bananas. Parsons states that he likes the flesh of his bananas to be firm… just like he does his women. What’s more, he certainly doesn’t like them bruised or damaged. Oh, dear, the words pot, kettle and black come immediately to mind.

Next up is Lee’s nan, whose voice is rendered in her characteristic Brummie accent. At the chiropodist’s, she’s offered some broth by a member of staff. However, she’s told that the hot broth can’t be served at any of the workstations, only in the waiting area. In the words of his nan, “It’s political correctness gone mad, Stew!” Lee, however, demurs, and suggests it might have something to do with the Health and Safety at Work Act.

His nan, though, is unimpressed. She belongs to a demographic that would have used an electric fire in the bathroom had they so wished. In fact, they’d have put it in the bath to keep warm, suggests Lee. As a final contribution, his nan exclaims, “They’ve banned Christmas, Stew!” In Lee’s version of this triumph of the woke brigade, visitors to the Pallasades shopping centre in Birmingham are no longer regaled with Christmas carols playing over the tannoy, but instead are subjected to the phrase “Hail Satan!” repeated over and over and enjoined to “piss in the eyes of the infant Christ!”

At last, we reach the Sharknado reprise where Alan Bennett makes a welcome reappearance, for it seems that he has written a new play in which Sharknado is relocated to Dewsbury and Leeds! As he reaches the conclusion of his narration, Lee berates an unfortunate member of the audience for leaving moments before the climax.

The show then draws to a close with a story about Lee being bitten by a false widow spider, only to meet a man with a false leg at the doctor’s surgery who has also been bitten by a false widow. He’s about to introduce the wife of the man with the false leg when the anecdote peters out.

He then follows this up with three Boris Johnson jokes, which essentially use the same material, musing on the fact that Johnson happens to be the real mayor of London, not a clown mayor, which means that Ken Livingston is not the real mayor, locked away in a shipping container. Move forward a few years and he uses exactly the same language when Johnson is appointed Foreign Secretary and then later becomes Prime Minister. As a final flourish, fake snow falls while Lee plays acoustic guitar and sings a song about being a snowflake, in other words an individual with a sensitive nature.

All in all, the Darlington show was a thoroughly entertaining evening for those who like that sort of comedy. I understand you can catch a version of Snowflake Tornado, filmed in York, on the BBC sometime in the autumn of this year.

A Fish Rots From The Head
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

A Fish Rots From The Head

Published in Poetry

A Fish Rots From The Head: A Poetic and Political Wake is a flash anthology of poetry and artwork, by around 100 poets and artists from England, Scotland and Wales. It expresses the fury and betrayal felt by working people about the leadership of this country – the mendacity, selfishness, corruption, smears on opponents and disregard for the general public shown by leading figures in the Johnson government.

This collection of images, parodies, rants, squibs, and full-on poems, put together in less than three weeks, is just part of a tide of satire now sweeping across Britain. It challenges, satirizes, despairs, and even dares to laugh at the venal moral hypocrisy of our leaders, whose malignant mixture of callousness and ineptitude has never made life so hard, in so many ways, for so many working people in this country. Through its demonstration of compassion for the suffering of others, and its protest against wrongdoing by those in high office, this collection of poems and artworks provides a very necessary space and inspiration for solidarity and resistance. Let's hope the removal vans come soon!

A slightly amended second edition of the book is now available below, following over 800 downloads of the first edition. Feel free to download it and share with your friends and networks. You are also free to make a donation towards our costs, as much as you like, using this button or the button below:

We are also hosting an online launch event on the 20th March, see here.

A Fish Rots from the Head: A Poetic and Political Wake, is selected and edited by Rip Bulkeley, ISBN 978-1-912710-45-4

Near-Neebours
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

Near-Neebours

Published in Poetry

Near-Neebours

by Jim Mainland

See yun whit’s-is-name,
Jacob Rees Morgue?
Weel, him.
Wha does he pit dee a mind o?
Lang face, sleekit doon hair?
Stick a toothbrush tache on da upper lip…
See it noo?
A stretched oot version?

An his pal, Jobbo –
tak awaa da hair
an he’s da spittin image
o da idder fellow.
Kinda roond an bombastic,
aye makkin an erse o himsel?
An aye keen ta dismantle
wir ‘democratic structures’?

It’s no sae far-fetched, believe me.

Dey aa thowt ta begin wi da first twa
wis joost a pair o hermless fules.

Rule Britannia and the shameful arrogance of right-wing class politics
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

Rule Britannia and the shameful arrogance of right-wing class politics

Published in Music

Stuart Cartland criticises the jingoistic response to the BBC's decisions about Rule Britannia. Image above: Aboriginal prisoners, Australia

If as a nation we are to be serious about addressing racism and legacies of oppression then the recent furore about the possibility of dropping Rule Britannia from the BBC's Last Night of the Proms is a very serious indication of how little change has been made and how far we have to go.

Let’s be absolutely clear here, a song that glorifies empire and the systematic subjugation of millions of people should not just be viewed as outdated and distasteful but instead as shameful. Indeed, it should be viewed much as Deutschland Über Allës is viewed within Germany, the outrageous racial connotations it implies and the shameful nationalistic context it is from.

The problem here is that those on the right have always viewed Britain and its related traditionalism as being an exception. Empire and colonialism are part of the very qualities that many conservatives and nationalists are proud and boastful of however this jingoistic facade is untenable especially as these very qualities directly include the slave trade and the annihilation of millions of subjugated peoples around the world who were in the vast majority had brown skin.

Again, Rule Britannia is not just an outdated, ill-fitting song for the twenty-first century that jingoistic nationalists and traditiono-philes might point to when imagining a sense of a mythical past of British greatness, it is a song that actually refers to slavery, this is within the context of the pioneering world slave trading nation – Great Britain! This is ‘not just a song’ a ‘bit of pomp’ or harmless, this is a cultural and political barometer. 

Of course, this has been an absolute boon to the right-wing press and the political populism of political-correctness-gone-mad. However what this does is actually uncover how the mainstream right and Tory types like Boris Johnson really feel in terms of a cultural reckoning in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, beyond any superficial tokenistic slogans and PR induced platitudes.

Indeed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson publicly stated in response that:

it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, about our culture, and we we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.

Of course it is easy for him to make these crass claims when it is his sense of tradition, culture and history under the spotlight – but this is partly the point. This shameful arrogance of class and racially based identity politics, situated within a history or exploitation, subjugation and a misplaced sense of glory and pride, is woefully outdated and shameful – but also deeply offensive.

It shows how much of Britain is still unwilling to fully comes to terms with the reality of empire and move away from the tired and inadequate conservative right-wing narrative of pomp and glory.

If we are to be serious in confronting social and cultural oppression in its many forms, then what better way start than confronting a sense of self-inflated nationalistic sense of arrogance and entitlement. Of course, the problem being here is that these are exactly the qualities of those who are in power in this country and those that are controlling the narrative on this very issue. Until then songs that glorify empire, subjugation and oppression will have a place in twenty-first century Britain.

A lesser evil
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

A lesser evil

Published in Fiction

13th October 2040

Dear Richard,

I know it must be weird and more than slightly disturbing to receive a ‘letter from beyond the grave’, but I trust you won’t be seriously spooked by it, not after all those years as a hospital doctor like me and some of the strange, last-minute revelations we both got to hear from time to time. I’m writing because I have something to tell you which I’ve never spoken of to anyone else although it has been on my conscience for the past twenty years and I’ve been half-minded to tell you about it many times.

The whole thing will probably come as a bit of a shocker and I leave it to you whether or not to make the story more widely known. I still feel justified in what I did and hope that you’ll agree in thinking it was for the best, everything considered. You’ve been a great friend through various thicks and thins over the years and I hope – really hope – this won’t lead you to change your opinion of me or make you wish we’d never met.

I shall lay out the facts as ‘objectively’ as I can but will need to bring in some stuff about how my mind was working at the time in question and what sorts of moral consideration came into play. You took that ‘Medical Ethics’ course with me when we qualified back in the day so maybe the moral philosophy bits won’t seem quite so dry and unappealing. Some of it did strike us both that way at the time but the topics came back to me and really helped to clarify my thoughts during the short period – just a couple of days in 2020 – that I want to talk about here. Anyway my blessings on you, friend, and I sincerely hope that being singled out for receipt of this ghostly communication won’t prove too burdensome or curse-like a privilege.   

******

They brought him in around 3 a.m. with lots of security and a flurry of medics and senior admin people, all trying to look calm and commanding on their home terrain, but constantly jostled by the bodyguards if they got too close. None of the usual signing-in stuff, the standard formalities or pleasantries. Straight off to Intensive Care it was, with me following on since that was my ward and we’d had advance notice that a ‘special patient’ was about to come in, someone with advanced symptoms and a severe lung infection.

I’d not thought any more about it – too many other cases to cope with, quite a few of them just as bad – until he actually turned up and I realised who it was. No mistaking him then, even looking like that, clearly in a very bad way, what with constantly fighting to breathe and the wild, frightened eyes of someone who’s been in denial for days but now knows it’s for real. For the rest of that night-shift I just got on with it, looked in on him twice but had more to do with the other patients. Besides, they seemed to have drafted in a small team of unfamiliar medical staff, specially trained maybe, who were always in and out of his side-room. Just as well – us regulars had our hands more than full.

This was all twenty years ago and I don’t now have any detailed memory of what happened over the next two days, or exactly what stages my thinking went through before I reached my decision. There was one conversation I do recall having in the hospital canteen during the evening after the night of his admission. It was with two friends, both nurses, one male and one female, and they were talking about a bunch of related topics – the pandemic, the NHS as it then was, the government cutbacks, their likely effect on our ability to cope with the crisis, that sort of thing.

I started off just lending half an ear and thinking more about how tired I felt, having slept very patchily during the day and not made up for several days’ cumulative deficit. What drew me in was their brief but lively discussion of where the blame lay, how ‘he’ – the guy lying upstairs in our ward with all those tubes and pipes and monitors attached, all those doctors and nurses looking after him – was one of those Tories who had hugely worsened this crisis, who’d cut public spending to the bone, privatised whole chunks of the NHS, flogged them off to their fat-cat friends, and were even then planning to cut a huge deal with US Big Pharma. Their talk stopped there, with both of them expressing their anger but not drawing conclusions, not suggesting there was anything we could do. . . . I had to go back on my rounds then but the talk had set me thinking and I needed more time to sort my thoughts out.

I’d next be working on Intensive Care the following night and one of my assignments given the shortage of staff was to check his oxygen levels, make sure his respiration wasn’t too spasmodic or effortful, and run all the usual measurements – pulse, temperature, and so forth. It was routine stuff, if anything could really be called ‘routine’ in those crazy times, but of course we were all very aware of those jumpy-looking security people and there was no pretending, management pretences aside, that he was Joe Public and to be treated on a par with everyone else.

Maybe that’s what first really got to me, the sense of how unjust it was, how monstrous, that a man like that, a creature of wealth and privilege who’d done such harm to the country and would soon very likely go on to do a whole lot more, should now have this ultra-special treatment while thousands of others fought for their lives in hospitals, homes and social conditions severely impacted by policies like his. And then I thought, or the thought came to me: what had I learnt from those few classes in medical ethics that we went through as part of our training? Is the issue quite as clear as surely it ought to be if the Hippocratic Oath has the kind of straightforward, unambiguous force it’s meant to have, according to longstanding tradition and present-day orthodoxy?

I slept intermittently the next day, waking up each time with a sense that I’d been churning things over in my sleep, coming up against the barrier of something unthinkable, and jolting awake with the urgent desire to sort myself out. I remembered enough of the medical ethics stuff to know pretty much what the big questions were and what kinds of answer they’d received from people who appeared to have a good grasp of them. There was the debate around ‘causing death and letting die’, the difference (which most people think is a real one) between actively or deliberately killing somebody and omitting to save his or her life, whether through negligence or refusal to intervene. That’s ‘most people’ in a broad sense, by the way, not ‘most philosophers’ or ‘most people who’ve done a few classes in medical ethics’. They often got into a bit of trouble when asked to justify their view but the intuition ran deep and there were arguments to support it.

I thought: would letting this man die be morally unacceptable given how much harm he has done to so many lives, not to mention how many people have died during the pandemic as a result of his incompetence, indolence, arrogance, and downright wickedness? And given the prospect of his otherwise surviving, remaining in office and inflicting future harm on even greater scale? The more I thought about it the less monstrous it seemed, the idea of (as orthodoxy would have it) betraying my medical vocation, my professional duty, and indeed the basic principles of right conduct enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath.

But then: might there not be another, more specific reason for believing that Oath to have more than one interpretation and for thinking that it could – on a longer, larger, you might say more socially responsible view – suggest a very different view of things? Again, I kept running through the arguments and counter-arguments and kept coming up against the same obstacle. On the one hand I couldn’t overcome the feeling that failure of care toward any patient – for that matter, any human individual whose well-being or very survival depended on it – must be morally as well as, in my case, professionally and legally wrong. That means a strict, no-exception understanding of the Oath and a belief that acts of omission are morally as culpable as – or fully on a par with – acts of commission whenever those acts knowingly entail or might foreseeably cause harm to another person.

On the other hand the person in question here was one whose future life, if his record to date was anything to go by, would be spent doing harm to a great many people in a great many ways, among them people placed in his own desperately needful situation but enjoying nothing like his advantages of power, wealth, and unearned social privilege. On this view the Oath could be justifiably be taken to allow for the sort of case where a medical worker in my position reviewed his choices, consulted his conscience, and decided that an act of omission – involving, say, the patient’s breathing apparatus or some other vital arrangement – was morally in order. It took me many hours of concentrated, sometimes agonised conscience-searching to work myself around from the first to the second way of thinking.

Another thing I learned from that medical ethics class was the difference between deontic and consequentialist accounts of moral responsibility. The deontic view, simply stated, is that there exist certain absolute moral imperatives, that they have to do with unconditional rights and wrongs, that they are strictly universal (hold good across all situations, cultures, or belief-systems), and that departures from them admit of no exculpatory factors, such as pleas in mitigation or extenuating circumstances. This position tends to go along with an abstractly high-minded morality and a punitive attitude in matters of legal or judicial practice. This follows from the fact that deontic ethics makes the reasoning individual and his or her conscience, motives or deliberations the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong. It leaves them without any recourse beyond that universalist tribunal, no leeway to claim ‘I did it for the greater good, even though it involved an acknowledged lesser harm and even if that harm would count as grievous on a deontic account’.

The other main approach – flatly opposed in most ways – is the consequentialist view whereby motives will (indeed must) come into it although what really matter are the consequences of an action, its outcome in terms of overall benefits to those concerned, or those whose lives would be adversely affected by the agent’s choice not having gone that way. If anything, this puts greater strain on the agent’s conscience or their effort to think through a complex situation because they can’t fall back on the routine application of pre-existing rules. But it allows them scope to steer a conscientious way around the deontic call for actions or choices that might be so rule-bound, counter-intuitive, or repugnant as to leave them feeling utterly revolted by their own ‘principled’ conduct.

This is all very heavy and not what you’d expect from me, even in a letter written, as I hate to say (such a cliché, for one thing) ‘at death’s door’. But it’s stuff we both heard about and then promptly forgot, me at least, since on the whole – in the normal run of cases – we had few choices but got on and did our jobs the best we could do and left hard cases to the guys on the ethics committee, or (more often than most people realise) to medics and relatives in an urgent huddle over some poor suffering soul. But then it all came back, that ethics stuff, when I found myself faced with a real choice and one that left behind any rule-book, moral or professional, for dealing with hard cases. I’ve said how my thinking went in that terrible time and you’ll certainly have figured out by now which way I decided. Still I’d better be a bit more explicit about it in case the choice I made might appear too quick or straightforward.

I didn’t want to fall back on the idea that omissions are less blameworthy than commissions since I took full responsibility for not performing certain of my professionally and (on the narrow view) ethical responsibilities. To pretend otherwise would be to shuffle off any burden of guilt by effectively declaring myself not fully accountable for my action and hence unfit to exercise any kind of genuine moral agency. No: my omission was a full-fledged commission and subject to no such get-out clause. Where I did part company with what many people would no doubt think my plain moral obligation was with regard to both the interpretative scope of the Hippocratic Oath and – closely related to that – the deontic versus consequentialist debate.

They are related because the Oath is mostly read, in broadly deontic terms, as addressed to the individual doctor’s or medical worker’s conscience and as bearing primarily on their obligation to the patient, likewise conceived as an individual bearer of certain strictly inalienable rights. I agree with this view in so far as it applies to persons as persons, that is, as individuals conceived quite distinct from certain roles they may play in contexts – like that of politics – where their beliefs, policies, and actions can have consequences far beyond the private-personal-individual sphere. Shifting from one perspective to the other entails some large changes of moral reckoning, among them the shift from a strongly individualist or person-centred to a longer-range, more socially responsive and collectivist view.

Along with that goes a much greater emphasis on the weighing-up of bad against good consequences, a process that has the beneficial effect of bringing us rapidly down to earth from the abstract universals of deontic precept. In simpler terms: when times are bad or perilous, as they were twenty years ago when all this happened, then it may be commendable to act on the maxim ‘do whatever serves to create the best outcome or cause least suffering to the greatest number’. This might entail an action at odds with some more specific rule, such as ‘act always in the interests of the patient and, above all, for the preservation of his or her life’. Then the consequentialist is entitled to reply ‘but that precept may be suspended or overridden if the result of its strict application is to bring about the kinds of larger-scale social or collective harm that will, very likely, follow from its being applied without reference to context or consequences. And there is another point here about the agent’s motives and the conception of justice they involve. For it is in no sense a retributivist conception, one that conceives the act as a right and proper punishment, whether exacted by the agent as self-appointed minister or carried out in their (again self-appointed) role as instrument of justice in its social or communal form. Rather, the act is performed purely for the sake of averting bad – humanly undesirable – consequences, and not out of any hankering for retribution, for payback time, or any such punitive aim.

Of course my assessment of the situation took account of the man’s character, his many amply documented vices and weaknesses, as well as his proven record of incompetence in office and the effect of an Eton-Oxford education in bolstering his native arrogance and strongly marked sociopathic traits. After all those considerations had a lot to do with the case – the strictly consequentialist case – for what had by now become something very like a fixed intention to act according to my new-found ethical lights. But, equally important, they didn’t involve any idea of his having deserved such treatment at my hands, or his having behaved in such a way that punishment of this sort is justified. Consequentialism applies more than anywhere in the context of political judgement since here we are concerned with the consequences for better or worse in a great many lives when individual politicians with great power in their hands enact policies that impinge directly on those lives.

So you can’t exclude assessments of moral character from a consequentialist reckoning but you can – and must – be absolutely clear that any practical conclusions arrived at have nothing to do with just desert, retribution, or other such punitive concepts. I won’t pretend that all this reasoning went through my mind during those incredibly stressful and often, to be honest, horribly confusing times. I’m doing a sort of rational reconstruction, arranging my thoughts so far as I recall them into something like an ordered sequence. But of one thing I’m certain: that I somehow made the journey from thinking it monstrous, that idea of mine, to thinking it not just compatible with but actually required by my ethical and professional commitments.

I know it’s the biggest of asks to send you this letter now, when I’m safely beyond worrying, and leave you stuck with the decision whether or not to make the facts public. Believe me, you’re the only person I could possibly have trusted to take it on, both on account of our shared medical background and our friendship having held up so strongly over the years. Besides, there were times after the event when we talked about related matters – politics, ethics, social justice, and of course the NHS, still there now in more than name despite all those decades of chipping away by Tories, fat cats, Branson-style carpetbaggers, assorted rippers-off and US Big Pharma.

Once or twice I almost let slip what had happened, or perhaps did let it slip when the drinks had loosened my tongue and slightly befuddled your brain. Perhaps it won’t come as such a huge surprise or shock after all. Let me say, in case you’re wondering: I do feel regret that it fell to me, at that time and in that situation, to make the choice that has since weighed heavily upon me and occasioned many moments of painful, even guilty recollection. But let me also say that when I manage to focus and think things through once again, as I did during those extraordinary days, then the regret comes apart from the guilt and my conscience arrives at the same conclusion.

Goodbye, my old friend.

 

Covid-19 and the ownership and control of the media
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

Covid-19 and the ownership and control of the media

Natalie Fenton points to the need for less concentrated ownership and more democratic control of the media, in the wake of the Covid-ap pandemic. 

The media are vital purveyors of information and interrogators of power in a pandemic where a government’s decisions translate directly into lives lost or saved. In a global health crisis, the public need, more than ever, a media that will interrogate those decisions and hold power to account.

However, the sad fact is that the pandemic has exposed much of the mainstream media as being part of the system rather than its watchdog. There have been repeated examples across different media outlets of a systematic failure to interrogate government responses. Instead, media outlets merely amplify the official statements from endless, bland press briefings.

These daily briefings churn out what we used to call propaganda but now refer to as PR. The government has explicitly sought to restrict media challenge and scrutiny by refusing to put forward ministers or representatives to go on news programmes such as Radio 4’s Today Programme. It has also barred certain journalists from asking questions at their press briefings in order to discredit critical reporting – actively seeking to punish and freeze out watchdog journalism.

BBC journalists also have to worry about possible government funding cuts. Reporting accurately on your own paymaster has always been a problem for political journalism, but particularly so when the government is all too willing to be the playground bully. So when Dominic Cummings ignored the rules of lockdown and outraged the nation, Radio 4 gave his wife a spot to explain how kind he is.

Newspapers have also played the game to their advantage. With many of them facing economic meltdown due to the collapse in advertising revenue, the News Media Association (representing most of the largest and wealthiest media organisations) lobbied government for their own bailout. The result has been government underwriting of large corporate media to the tune of £35m through advertising and paid-for content under the rubric of ‘we are all in this together’. 

The advertising looks like public health campaign material. But the paid-for content that tells the reader that the government is doing a pretty good job looks like any other article, just tagged with an additional health warning that “this advertiser content was paid for by the UK government”.

In the UK, this is particularly ironic given that the press campaigned extensively against effective (independent) regulation on the basis that it would lead to unwarranted state ‘intrusion’ into the industry. Many of them are still paying out millions of pounds settling phone hacking cases – so this £35m subsidy of taxpayers’ money is in effect contributing to phone hacking settlements.

Meanwhile, virtually none of the paid-for content is going to small independent news organisations, even though they lobbied for their fair share.  As a result many of these will struggle to survive.

Alternative models of ownership and control

Coverage of the pandemic has revealed mainstream media to be an explicit channel for government PR spin, further propelling the revolving door between major news organisations and the government. Boris Johnson worked for the Telegraph and the Times. Michael Gove was a Times journalist. George Osborne became editor of the London Evening Standard. Allegra Stratton’s recent appointment as Rushi Sunak’s director of strategic communications is a friend of Dominic Cummings, and was national editor of ITV news and political editor of Newsnight. The list goes on.

What can we do about it? The deep entanglement of media power and political power is self-serving. Government favours large corporate media because they are dominant – and they retain their dominance because the government favours them. Concentration of media ownership keeps this relationship intact. So we must legislate for more plurality of media ownership, to create a sustainable communications environment that is innovative, diverse and fully independent of vested interests (whether these are commercial or political).

We need to encourage alternative models of media ownership such as cooperatives and employee buyouts, that promote equality and financial security of journalists over profit-making and shareholder returns, and serve a far wider range of needs and more diverse set of interests.

We also need more democratic, diverse and accountable public sector broadcasting. Over the last three decades the independence of the BBC has been steadily eroded and its programme making increasingly commercialised. In recent years, its funding has been severely cut and its programming has become increasingly conservative. Public service content needs to be delivered through modern, democratised public platforms and networks and to operate autonomously of government and the market.

Without these changes, our mainstream media will remain far too complicit with elite political power to do the job they are supposed to do. And in a global health crisis, a failure to scrutinise government mismanagement could literally mean life or death for thousands of people.

This is the latest in the series of articles on the effects of the pandemic on culture, published jointly with the Morning Star.

 The PM's Chief Adviser Addresses His Critics
Thursday, 18 August 2022 19:45

 The PM's Chief Adviser Addresses His Critics

Published in Poetry

The PM's Chief Adviser Addresses His Critics

by David Betteridge, with image by Martin Gollan

My eyes are dim, I cannot see.
Come wife, come child,
and drive with me!

To drive at speed on public roads
may remedy my sight.
If not, and we get mangled in a crash,
it proves my first assessment right.

I cannot see how anyone can think my judgement or my actions wrong;
but if you do, heigh ho! I do not care.
I carry on, and on, for you are weak,
and I - prepared to boldly, blindly drive,
unstoppably - am strong.

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