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Life beyond Dover …

Posted on 20 March 2009 | 10:03am

The day started with an interview about TB and God for Nick Ferrari on LBC following Tony’s piece in the New Statesman. Perfectly good discussion, no problem at all, and I let pass the line in Nick’s intro about people’s faith in politicians collapsing ‘almost on a daily basis.’

But actually, given how politics and politicians are denigrated by the media not just on a daily basis but hour by hour, minute by minute, you could argue that they stand up fairly well. It was interesting, at a focus group I blogged about a few weeks back, how ‘politicians’ figured close to the bottom of people’s list of favoured ‘brands’, but Barack Obama came close to the top, just behind the NHS. When does a politician stop being a politician? When he is the most powerful politician in the world? I don’t think so.

I travel a fair bit still and I would reckon we have the most negative, anti-politics media in the world. We also have the most introspective. Even amid the recognition that the current economic crisis is global in cause, scale, and solution, coverage here tends to focus on Britain, and in particular Britain’s political leaders.

Imagine how the UK news would have been yesterday if roughly the same number of people who marched against the war in Iraq had marched through the streets of London to protest at GB’s handling of the economic situation. Yet delete London for Paris, GB for Sarkozy, and that is what happened in France yesterday. News to you?

There was the usual wild discrepancy between union estimates for the crowds (3 million) and those of the police (1.2million). A non-rounded number usually has more credibility, but accepting the truth is somewhere in between, that means well over a million took part. That is one big demonstration. It was in support of France’s second attempted general strike in two months.

I said at the time of Sarkozy’s election that he would eventually suffer from that peculiarly French phenomenon of a desire for reform in theory matched by a resistance to reform whenever it is pushed forward in practice. But even accepting that the French are slightly more prone to ‘manifestations,’ as they call them, than we are, I am surprised President Sarkozy’s troubles are not getting more airplay here in the UK, given the country’s importance to  Europe as a whole, and given we are coming up to the G20, where some difficult decisions are going to have to be addressed.

But of course it does not fit the UK media/Tory game, which is to help peddle the myths that the British economy is harder hit than others, the British Government more unpopular than others, Gordon Brown a hapless figure trying and failing miserably to make a difference to problems of his and his ministers’ making. Hence all the ‘Merkel snubs Brown’ headlines today.

Sarkozy is facing protests from doctors and teachers. University staff are into the seventh week of protests and sit-ins. Private sector workers were at the head of many of yesterday’s protests which led to a disruption of trains and planes, schools, government departments and some of the capital’s theatres – the kind of thing that would have nicely filled up at least eighteen of the 24 hours in the day in the life of our recession bad news TV channels.

Throw in the added element of a Japanese company’s French staff holding a chief  executive hostage in protest at job cuts, and you really do wonder whether our media has ceased to see that life exists beyond Dover. And there we were thinking the Eurotunnel would bring us closer together.

I will be able to take the temperature myself soon when I spend a few days in France promoting the launch of the translation of my novel ‘Tout est dans la Tete.’ Of the many superb articles in the New Statesman this week is one in French by Tony Cartano of publishers Albin-Michel, explaining why he thinks my novel will be a success there. I wrote the terrific headline myself. ‘Pretentieux? Moi?’

Second best laugh in the mag, after the Paul Dacre cartoon.

  • Polly Brannan

    I know what you mean about the French talking about change but then not wanting it. Sarko won because he promised change and as soon as he goes for it, they go wild. With the economic crisis as well, it is hard to see how he will get through it. Like you, we go on holiday to France a lot and of course part of what we love is that it does not change so quickly

  • Bruno Giresse

    Interesting what you say about how your news does not do much from France. Since Tony Blair left your government, it is also the case that maybe we see less of Britain in our medias. But it is true if there were big strikes in London, I think we would hear it

  • rantersparadise

    Well it’s a funny one but the bottom line is we should be ashamed.

    What are WE doing? Sitting here moaning and bicthing. It’s pathetic.

    But it’s a funny one because what were they thinking? That right wing Sarkozy would bring changes for the teachers etc etc?? Are they insane?

    This man blatantly married an ex supermodel/rock groupie under 5 months…

    This man is a free marketier who is proudly right-wing and gave an anti-immigration campaign..??

    Why can’t poeple just realise that the Right are for the rich???

    I think France is phenomenally politically and economically left but culturally and socially conservative.

    But they are too extreme in their idealogues to let the two marry together, like Obama is trying to do in America.

    Anyway, good for them.

    Again, what are WE doing?

  • Charlie

    The character trait that most voters dislike about Gordon is his perceived arrogance.

    This was particularly evident when Brown used to claim credit for the good times whilst actually orchestrating a Government culture of waste and ineficiency. Yes there have been improvements in some areas but not nearly in proportion to the amount of our money he has thrown at them. Brown’s failure to now offer any meaningful apology will in due course cost him his job along with those of many Labour MPs.

    Few would contend anything other than that we are in an “Unprecedentd Global Banking Crisis”.

    What is clear to most however is that Gordon’s unrestrained profligacy since 2001 has ensured that Britain’s financial position does not now leave much room for the increased spending that most would like to see.

    All this Socialism has to be paid for by someone.

    Wasnt it the French who invented the expression
    “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” ?

  • Ken Coker

    Alastair; you almost answer your own point about politicians. What happens when a huge number of people do March through London protesting against the war? The politicians ignore them and keep fighting the war – do you wonder why people loath politicians? Obama’s very success is as a symbol of all those things politicians appear not to be.
    I am a product of state education; all my learning from primary school to PhD has been free because of the 1945 Labour government; I sit in a hospital ward with a leukemic daughter cared for by the NHS set up by the 1945 Labour government – my sister also was nursed through leukemia by the NHS. I will never vote anything other than Labour because I believe in the social justice that I believe Labour represents. However, to come back to my point, there is a complete section of Labour voters who have nothing but contempt for our political leaders because we are being ignored; none of us want ID cards, fees for higher education, PFI schemes, the privatisation of the Post Office – the list goes on. Why does no one listen to us?

    My constituency is the High Peak. Look at the swing away from Labour since 1997. The Tory vote is unmoved, but people are moving away from Labour in search of a radicalism that Labour no longer wants to offer.

    While you’re at it, have you looked at the level of political debate in the UK recently? PMQs are a joke, the debates at Westminster are cheap point scoring events and even the new media is being infected with puerile, schoolboy invective – Guido v Dolly being the latest example. It’s not helped by reporters and editors joining in the schoolyard pranks in order to show how important they are; did you hear Milliband on Today this morning? The interview was a disgrace; I thought I might learn something about troop deployments of our “allies”, but no, Humphries – or whoever – just had to keep sticking his knob in trying to make DM trip up. Trying to get informed from radio and TV interviews is now almost impossible – it’s yet again cheap, point scoring nonsense and people are well capable of seeing that.

    Right; that’s enough. Off to try and buy the New Statesman again.

    Au revoir


  • Andrew Bell

    The Labour Government has recieved a battering from the Press for a good few years now, and this is partly down to the lack of talent in the PM’s Press Office.
    This Labour Government IS working hard to help those that need it and those people who dont realise that want to take their head out of their arse. Up here where I live in the North East, the hardest hit region for unemployment, there are people who owe keeping their houses and cars etc to the Governments support systems that are in place-and are being strenghtened. There can be an awful lot more that can be done, as there always will be but we have to give the Government the chance to get their ideas and plans into action. You must realise that it isnt always as easy as do this do that, people oppose thingsa and stop the process of getting the plans up and running-most of the time just to be tactical in a Party political way.
    Come and spend a day with me and I will take you to my local Job Centre which I would expect to be jam packed, but it isnt. It has to be a two way thing, Government can only do so much and after that we as good honest human beings must go and put the hours in looking for jobs-dont even bother telling me there arent the jobs because there are btu people cant be as picky and choosy as they used to be.
    Pack in bashing the Government, pack in bashing the Prime Minister-they are doing as much as they can and must be given the chance to do more.
    At least Labour are doing something, the Tories never come up with anything and when they do they are floored baecause they wont pay for it and the Lib Dems just seem to float by and dont say much.

    Come on, wake up and see past the 24 hour tv news that just constantly bash the Govt and the PM, actually look into what they are doing!.

  • Alina Palimaru

    Alastair, excellent point on media coverage of the economic situation. Economic trends evolve across time and space, so pinpointing politicians to blame is nonsense. Also, I might add that many (if not all) economic measures are based on assumptions and ability to predict, both of which are a matter of instinct, and not always intellect or precedent! As I noted earlier, economics is closer to human whims than to mathematical precision!

    I do not expect Joe Public to understand that immediately, but I am confident that once presented with the sound argument he would get it. As such, I do expect journalists to see these matters in perspective and convey them to their audiences accurately! Of course, such stories would not be as juicy, but at least they are not doing their readers and viewers a dis-service! Instead, the supine press caters to a crowd’s visceral reactions, calling for heads to fall left and right… without any qualms…without any problems. That’s how we know we have a problem.

    Of course all the other countries are hard hit by the crisis, and reports on the problems there would certainly situate Britain better, and deservedly so! As I have pointed it out in many of my other posts, Britain is doing so much better than the U.S. and in so many ways! Britain’s welfare system (inexistent in America) is prepared to cushion some of the blows of the recession. How many people in Britain have declared personal bankruptcy because of medical bills, for instance? Also, as a New York Times commentary illustrated last week, Gordon Brown’s leadership in the global effort to handle the crisis is considered exemplary here!

    So this media-induced panic, especially given the lack of viable alternatives from the Tories, is irresponsible and dangerous!

  • Emilianna

    If memory serves me right, correct me if I’m wrong, you once told John Humphrys that the press had been acting like an opposition party towards the Labour government. I remember the statement because as it puzzled me. A healthy democracy must have a media which, on the behalf of the people, acts as a fourth (and fifth estate). That a sceptical and sometimes adversarial press made your job only harder is comment on the health of the UK as a democracy.

    I’m not sure what truce was struck with Murdoch and the like, but Blair was granted the same worldwide honeymoon that Obama is enjoying right now. The focus group likes Obama because Obama isn’t a politician in the eyes of the world — yet.

    The media in North America has been reporting that the UK is harder hit by the downturn because its economy is more dependent on financial services than the rest of Europe and the US even. It’s the kind of line that’s plausible enough, readers are not likely to question it unless evidence to the contrary is brought forth. Reality could be an entirely different matter but Number 10 isn’t exactly without the staff and the resources to set the record straight. I wish the media were more accurate in their reporting but their ability to communicate is hindered by an audience which often only has time and sufficient attention span for sound bites.

    As far as the economic crisis goes and as far as it’s affecting me personally, this is what I think governments (pretty much everywhere in the world) and the media (ditto) should answer: why, oh why, did no media outlet explain derivatives to people? I’m not talking about throwaway lines like “default credit swaps are a form of insurance”, I mean provide a thorough explanation of instrument like swaps, C.D.O.s, synthetic C.D.O.s, to name a few. The doubling of world savings in a few years and Greenspan’s policy on interest rates which led to the creation of newfangled derivatives. Government: did GB even know CDOs exist(ed)? Maybe it’s a naive question but the answer rather important. I understand the Thatcher government reigned over deregulation of the financial sector but governments in the last few years probably knew, or at least ought to have known, they were walking us to a precipice and they did nothing.

    What derivatives are and how they would INEVITABLY destroy millions of lives was rather more important than the media taking cheap shots at GB or Number 10 commenting on the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross tempest in a teapot. Sometimes it seems both the media and governments are acting in concert to distract us with side shows.

    Finally, reporting “une manifestation” in Paris is rather like reporting a sunny day in Southern California although I must agree with you on one point (and I’ve disagreed with you on a number of occasions this week), you’re right, the extent of the turmoil in France is being under-reported.

    Prétentieux? Toi?

    N’importe quoi…


    what strikes me now about France’s “manifestations” is not that people keep on resisting change.
    there’s always been in France a division between one part of the population who tends to resist most reforms (civil servants, teachers, etc) and another part (mostly from the private sector) who very seldom marches the streets.
    what is new now and it explains the big figures you rightly mentioned is that people from both sides are afraid.
    not specifically of Sarkozy’s reforms.
    nobody knows what he is up to. the reform agenda is completely unclear. and the crisis has killed his campaign message which was basically : free the economy, allow each individual to make more money by working longer hours and everything will go fine in this country…
    what people are afraid of is to loose their jobs and France’s strong social welfare system. A lot of them do not believe anymore either in liberalism, or in socialism, the socialist party having made a fool of itself for too long.
    and this is a dangerous situation. where can it lead? some fear what they call a “radicalisation”, violence, people in the streets all the time, and a rejection of traditional political parties….
    Sarkozy may speak everyday on TV, it does not calm the fears nor cool the anger against the “fat cats”. It seems that this crisis is reducing most of the political speeches to dust…. this is happening in France. May be in Britain too?
    and by the way, i have a question for the spin doctor: how do you talk to your country when the most brutal crisis we have ever had is making most of the chiefs of state look completely powerless?