Arrogance

Well, the BBC and the government are in some huge fight, and they’ve decided they want to play it out on-air. Oh, lucky, lucky us. Andrew Marr has summarised the row on the BBC’s website if you’ve managed to miss it all.

The thing that strikes me, though, is the arrogance of both sides. The government is often criticised for its arrogance and Alistair Campbell can be seen as epitomising that arrogance. Pit that against the BBC, an organisation that exudes arrogance, and you’ve got a sticky situation. I believe that both sides honestly believe they are in the right, and honestly holds the other side in disdain. Neither side is used to losing, or ever really thinks they should apologise: the government because it has the interests of the country at heart; and the BBC because it has the highest editorial standards and believes in the integrity of its journalists.

As for an outcome, well it’s hard to tell. My instinct is to say the thing will fizzle out, but that’s not what the BBC or the government are saying. Talk there is of resignation and humiliating apology. If that happens and, to a certain extent, even if it doesn’t, the dynamic between government and the media could shift and that will be an interesting thing to watch.

“Woo, Africa. Wowee.”

Check out MediaGuardian.co.uk for a fanastic quote from Cameron of Big Brother. He’s going to Africa as part of his ‘challenge’ and on hearing the news said “Woo, Africa. Wowee. That’s phenomenal. I can’t believe it.” Not often you get Wowee on national tv, is it?

US Senate

On a travel programme on Radio 4 just now a guest said that only 12% of the US Senate actually own passorts.

Just felt the need to tell everyone, as I think this is rather shocking.

“Sex in the shower was three years ago, darling”

On Thursday, Radio 4 won the Sony Radio Station of the Year award. I’m a huge fan of the station and think it well deserves its prize. I laughed, though, on Friday morning when Helen Boaden, Controller of Radio 4, was interviewed by Sarah Montague on the Today programme. Boaden replied to an accusation about Radio 4 including more sex, with particular reference to a sex scene in the Archers a few years ago, by saying “sex in the shower was three years ago, darling”.

Politics: Alive or Dead?

On Saturday, Paula and I went to the Fabian Society‘s New Year Conference. The subject was Politics: Alive or Dead and was attended by about 700 people. The day was split into four main events: the keynote speech, morning ‘mini-conferences’, afternoon ‘workshops’ and a final ‘question time’ session. The keynote speech was from Robin Cook (Leader of the Commons) in which he made clear his views about reform of the Lords. (This speech was reported in some depth on Radio 4 the following day). I’ve heard Robin Cook speak before and have been generally impressed with his ability to convey his interest in, and passion about, politics. My real problem is that after listening to Dead Ringers it’s hard to hear him without sniggering.

My main interest was in the role of the media in the future life of politics. As such I went to the morning mini-conference about ‘The Media and the Democratic Process’. In reality, most of this event was spent discussing whether politicians or the media are to blame for the lack of democratic participation in our society today. It was good to see a lot of journalists there, but I was disappointed with the level of debate. I would have hoped for a more positive, solution-seeking debate, instead of quite a lot of defensiveness. It didn’t help that the chair didn’t appear very interested and that Jon Snow, who was due to take part, couldn’t make it. I’m glad I went, though.

In the afternoon, I didn’t go to the session about New Media that I had planned to, but instead attended a workshop about teaching Citizenship in the National Curriculum. This was alternately boring and terrifying. Boring for the long-winded speakers who failed to get to the point and argued with each other despite agreeing over most points. And terrifying for the same reason. These are people involved in educating our children and they displayed some of the fuzziest thinking and pettiest squabbling I’ve come across in a long time. In defense of the group, however, there were some teachers who obviously cared passionately about the subject, and who were thinking seriously about how best to instill a feeling of citizenship. One of the most interesting points raised was about the contradiction of teaching democracy in an environment where it isn’t practiced. To me, however, it seemed clear that once the emphasis on democracy was shifted to an emphasis on citizenship then the restrictions of the school environment would soon be seen to be similar to the restrictions of living in society today. Not everything is democratic and not everything is fair. Some children attended the session and one of them asked about the problem of practising democracy in a school, where a class representative may not carry out his or her duties as well as the class may like. I thought this sounded remarkably like the democracy that exists at higher levels and perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that kids get used to the good and bad points of democracy at an early age.

The final ‘question time’ was chaired by Polly Toynbee and included on the panel David Lammy, who’s the UK’s youngest MP, Richard Burge from the Countryside Alliance, Hilary Wainwright from Red Pepper and Peter Tatchell from Outrage. All these controversial people were good value for money and generally not quite as predictable as might be feared. My favourite bit was around a question about fox hunting and the Countryside Alliance. Polly Toynbee nicely put Peter Tatchell and Hilary Wainwright on the spot when they argued against fox hunting using many of the arguments (public opinion mostly) that are used against the things that they campaign for. ’twas fun.

New music
On a lighter note, I’ve just bought a new album by Robert Earl Keen called Gravitational Forces. It’s got a lovely version of ‘Snowin’ on Raton’ by Townes Van Zandt on it and only a couple of weak tracks. Recommended to country / americana fans.

Tuition fees, gay marriage and learning nasty languages

Paying for education

This week in the news we had the issue of tuition fees, and the proposal to let universities charge students extra fees if they’re really good universities and think they’ll get away with it. Not surprisingly, quite a few people pointed out that this would be likely to lead to the rich kids going to the good universities while the rest of us fight it out for the places we can afford. It seems to me that as a country we’ve completely failed to deal with the issue of higher education. There is no real appreciation in our culture of the value that a degree can add, not just to the person who works for it and has the qualification, but also for the people that the person comes into contact with, including employers, and by extension the economy as a whole. A well educated work force should be an attractive thing for everyone to appreciate. Jeremy Hardy on The News Quiz pointed out that his taxes pay for all sorts of things he doesn’t directly benefit from, but that’s the way the system works. Not the first time that point has been made, but he made it well none-the-less.

The compromise solution appears to be the graduate tax (currently used in Australia), which has always appealed to me. I like the idea that I can go to university and have my fees (and even my living expenses) paid, and then if I gain from that experience financially, I pay it back. If I choose not to work in a highly paying job, through working in the charity sector for example, then I don’t have to pay back the money. I’d also be happy to pay back several times the amount I was given to subsidize those who don’t earn the money, but that’s really because, at heart, I like the idea of more of this country’s higher education being paid for through direct taxation.

This whole issue is of interest to me because I was working at the University of Sussex Students’ Union just as the New Labour government were bringing in tuition fees in ’97. It was a shock to all us idealistic students who’d never experienced a Labour government to discover that New Labour were prepared to go even further than the Conservatives towards making university expensive for students. At Sussex, our policy was still in favour of grants, an idea that most unions have since given up in the fight against tuition fees. I think it’s a sad fact that now education is easily attainable for the rich and incredibly difficult to reach for the poor. Having said all this, I can’t claim to have made much of an impact on the campaign, as I was always frustrated with our complete inability to provide a viable alternative. That’s why, now, I’m pleased the debate is finally happening and the options are being discussed.

You won’t catch me in a white dress

In other news, the government, pretty much from nowhere, this week announced that it was going to look into establishing a partnership register for same sex couples. Hurrah! About bleedin’ time. OK, I know it’s complicated, not least because of the fear of ‘gay marriage’, but I think it’s a solvable problem and I’ve ranted before about why I care about this. I really don’t want to get married – I just want Sarah and I to have basic rights that come with sharing our lives together. I guess, if I had to, I’d stand up in front of some people and say I love her, but I’d rather just sign something and get it over with. The thing to remember is that this disinclination to marry is not because I’m incapable of committment, but because for so long I’ve been unable to make a public statement and after a while you really come up with ways to deal with that. Whether that be finding other ways to express committment, or just reaching the conclusion that you don’t want to join a club that doesn’t really want your membership, the result is roughly the same. This isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean we’re not committed, it just means the idea of ‘gay marriage’ is something that scares the right-wing Christians while it appeals to hardly any of the gay community (I think :-).

ASP is horrible

This weekend I sat down to learn ASP. I’m already comfortable with PHP and figured that ASP would be a similar experience, but little did I realise exactly how different the development environment would be. I’m used to devloping using Apache server on a Linux box, with a MySQL database and PHP for scripting. I tried IIS server on my (rebuilt) Windows 2000 machine, connecting to an Access database and ASP for scripting. The whole thing is like web sites for dummies, with all sorts of options hidden away and no real way to debug. I’m sure once I’m used to it I’ll look back on this as the rantings of a frustrated learner, but here’s an example of something that went wrong. I built a database using Access and linked it into the webserver. Then I connected to it using ASP script to list the contents of the database. Simple. And it worked, happily showing the contents of the field I requested. This was until I refreshed the page, when I got what I think was a permissions error. Once the error ‘times out’ I can get the page again. I’ve still not worked out if the database is refusing connections, the server is caching in some way, or the server is refusing connections, or what? And of course, it’s not documented anywhere. Give me open source any time.