All entries for Wednesday 03 January 2007

January 03, 2007

I'm Desperate

I blog, or I watch Desperate Housewives. It’s a tough choice.

Just as this time of year is a sparse one for TV, it’s not great for political gossip either.

But with the Baftas and Oscars only a few months away, I can indulge another passion: films…

  1. Smokin’ Aces is out on January 12th and looks pretty cool from the trailer. Yes it’s got Ben Affleck in, but he’s made some good films hasn’t he? True, Good Will Hunting is the only one that springs to mind, but I reckon it’ll be OK. Not an Oscar hopeful though, but mindless fun.
  2. The Pursuit of Happyness and Blood Diamond are both out soon. Very different films, both very likely to win Oscars.
  3. Chris Cooper. Ryan Phillipe. Dennis Haysbert. Laura Linney. I smell a hit. Breach sees “aspiring FBI agent Eric O’Neill (Phillippe) handpicked by a senior agent (Cooper) to work alongside him, only to discover his mentor might be the country’s greatest security risk.” Ohhhhhhh yes.
  4. Sunshine sounds awful. “A team of eight astronauts is sent to re-ignite a part of the dying sun. Seven years ago, another crew was dispatched on the same mission, but they were never heard from again.” But… it’s directed by Danny “28 Days Later” Boyle and stars Cillian “28 Days Later” Murphy. Oh, and it’s written by Alex “28 Days Later” Garland. I’m not gonna promise it’ll be brilliant, but it might be.
  5. The Kingdom should be interesting. Out in April, it stars Jamie Foxx as an FBI agent sent to deal with the aftermath of a terror attack on US interest in the Middle East.
  6. Matthew Macfadyen (he of Spooks fame) gets a proper movie role in Death at a Funeral. There’s plenty of British talent in what appears to be a Hollywood film.
  7. 28 Weeks Later is the sequel to 28 Days Later, yet retains practically none of the cast, writers or director. They’re all doing Sunshine. Guess what? There’s a second outbreak about six months after the first one. Brilliant? I suspect not.
  8. Shrek The Third will keep the kids and adults happy in the Summer. Surely it’ll be brilliant? Ah. What’s that? They’ve cast Justin Timberlake in a lead role? I take that back.
  9. Watch out. The third Pirates of the Caribbean film is out in May. It will surely be as appalling as the second, which was the biggest waste of time I’ve experienced in a cinema.
  10. Oh. My. God. Die Hard 4 is out in the Summer. I have now wet myself.

Fixing politics, and journalism at the same time

In the leafy autumn of 2004, Boris Johnson found himself at the eye of a storm. The Conservative Vice-Chairman was sacked for lying about his personal life. Now in recent years it has not been an unusual story for politicians to be caught with their trousers down. But Johnson had a safety net in the form of the profession that had brought him down. As Editor of the Spectator magazine, he was both victim and potential attacker.

Boris JohnsonMr Johnson is, thankfully, a special case in British politics. But the relationship between predator and prey is a timelessly complex one, often involving a little subterfuge, deception, and a politics all of its own. The press spit scorn at those who are supposed to run the country, and the politicians fight back with a flurry of spin and bluster. And while sometimes fun for those involved, many argue it has turned off people who aren’t in on the joke.

The 2004 Phillis Report was supposed to provide cures to politics’ ills. It recommended the end of the closed lobby system and drew a line under the years of ‘spin’. But three years after its publication, the report seems to have had little effect. Its critics say it underestimated the usefulness of the system’s faults.

The former Political Editor of the Evening Standard, Charles Reiss, contributed to the report. But he believes the existing system served the purposes of both politicians and journalists, and so was unlikely to change.

“Off-the-record information is a part of journalism in every country you care to name. It’s certainly true in America. Although [American journalism] is praised in some respects, you will often find sensitive stories attributed to a ‘senior Administration official’.”

Reiss agrees with the report’s findings: that ‘nasty’ politics has brought about atrocious levels of public trust in both politics and the media. Research for the report suggests that Members of Parliament are trusted by just 19% of the public, while Journalists are trusted by 13%.

But he disagrees with its recommendations. While Phillis proposed changes to systems – such as the closed lobby – Reiss thinks a change in culture is the only way to improve things. The Andrew Neil school of “why is this bastard lying to me” journalism isn’t sufficient for painting a true picture of government, he says.

When it was released, others rounded on the report’s proposals. David Miller of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom said it “sounded the death knell for government information as a public service”. He said the report was full of praise for “PR-speak”, ripped page-for-page from the corporate world.

The former BBC correspondent Nicholas Jones said it “presented a lifeline” to the beleaguered Prime Minister and put upon him no real pressure to treat the media fairly.

Nicholas JonesThere have been changes. Even the online political rebel, Guido Fawkes, can now attend the briefings given by the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman. And Tony Blair himself gives a televised briefing once a month, laying himself open to Westminster’s finest.

And yet the levels of trust in the process have remained low. According to MORI, who monitor trust in public institutions on an annual basis, politicians are trusted by the same number of people now as during the darkest days of Tony Blair’s government. Journalists’ ratings have also stayed the same.

The amount of trust in British politics is almost identical to that in every other major country. But the 2005 Harris Interactive poll showed journalists were much less respected here than they are elsewhere. In Spain and France, three in five people trust reporters. In Germany, the figure is two in five. In Britain however, it is just one in five. So perhaps the breakdown of trust is the result of bad journalism?

The Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, thinks so.

“Journalists are driven by deadline dynamics, by getting things out on time. If you’re turning out a fast-paced, attractive newspaper, there’s going to be hyperbole and exaggeration, and I’m afraid people are quite properly going to say ‘this is very amusing, but I don’t believe a word of it’.”

Charles Reiss admits that journalists work on a “razor’s edge”. Stories have to be taken as far as they can legitimately go without crossing the line and entering into speculation and guesswork. Clearly it doesn’t always work and mistakes are made. But it seems the razor isn’t sharp enough to tempt journalists back from the edge.

So while Phillis has – with limited success – addressed how politicians can earn the public’s trust again, a similar investigation may be required in order to foster better reporting by political journalists.

Perhaps the uniquely-qualified Boris Johnson should chair it.

Chris's Crystal Ball: Politics

2007 is the year that Tony Blair calls it a day. Well, that’s the plan, anyway. Only Cherie Blair seems to think she’ll be there any longer, but she has a history of bluster and nonsense.

2007 is an election year. In Wales, with fewer seats up for grabs, the Westminster wranglings are being held in microcosm, albeit with added nationalist spice. It’s a similar situation in Scotland and – if they behave themselves – Northern Ireland. Meanwhile local elections will yet again be seen as a referendum on the Government, although with Tony Blair expected to leave straight after the polls, there may be more room for local issues to get a hearing.

Policies that’ll dominate the news in 2007 will be nuclear power, nuclear weapons and nuclear families. David Cameron is leading the way on the ‘politics of happiness’, but the other parties aren’t far behind. But I’m cynical about how much people care for these sort of ‘woolly policies’. For a start, little legislation is likely to come out of talking about families. It’s a safe battleground for politicians. They can express an opinion. The media will listen eagerly. But the electorate will raise an eyebrow and move on. It’s all very midterm, and won’t be a big issue when the general election comes around.

And when will that be? In theory, 2009 is the most likely date. But a new Prime Minister might start to feel the heat of having a weak mandate from the people. His manifesto (for there don’t seem to be any female candidates) won’t be exactly the same one as 20-25% of the public voted for in 2005. As a result, an Autumn 2007 or May 2008 election isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

But if – as seems likely – Gordon Brown becomes Britain’s second 21st Century Prime Minister, expect to see some big changes in his first few months. He’s fishing for something to replicate 1997, when he gave independence to the Bank of England. Splitting the Treasury in half is one possibility. Doing the same with the Home Office is another possibility. I still like the sound of scrapping ID Cards, but I’m not sure it’s likely.

Yet beyond that, how different will Brown as Number One be different to Brown as Number Two? No-one can be sure. But as a critical architect of New Labour and the last three Labour manifestos, it has to be assumed any major changes in policy are more likely to come from the Opposition parties than from the Government.

The only major uncertainties are likely to come from quasi-political events. Will anyone be charged over the Cash for Honours affair? Will Charles Kennedy return to frontline politics? Who will Cherie Blair offend most this year?

The only certainty is that the crazy worlds of Westminster, Cardiff, Edinburgh and even Brussels will continue to entertain and baffle for another year.

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