Friday, 13 October 2017

Try a little kindness

The image of a man who had been badly beaten up appeared recently on Facebook. The man had suffered an horrific attack near to where he lived. One minute walking down the street, the next battered by a group of thugs.

It will take some time for him to recover. He now drinks through a straw.  The attack was horrendous but the reactions on social media were also alarming.
Revenge was the order of the day, string them up, beat them up – all sorts. It got me thinking what does this do for the victim of this terrible crime.  Individuals working out their own sense of frustration, in some sort of perverse solidarity with the violence suffered by the victim. A sense of helplessness but also an out  pouring of more hate and anger into an already poisonous situation.
As an individual who suffered an attack, nothing like as severe, some years ago, I would question how much such utterances of revenge help anyone – certainly not the victim. A little more sympathy about the mental and physical scars, from my own perspective the former were far more difficult to deal with in the long term than the latter, would help.
The revenge sentiments also feed into the mentality that once someone is caught, convicted and incarcerated, they are out of sight and out of mind. No longer a problem, that is until they come out of prison, likely to cause more damage.
This case was but one example. Whenever something horrendous happens, it is on social media and revenge is the most common sentiment expressed. Social media seems to be a forum where people feel totally uninhibited to share exactly what they think without what shall we say thinking.
The effect of all this hate circulating is having a damaging effect on our society. There seems to be a vengeance theme invading many elements of life, the need to punish at all costs.
On TV, we increasingly see programmes about benefits cheats or whoever being hunted down for their misdemeanours. There seem to be a disproportionate number of TV personalities, often masquerading as journalists, who really just seem to be frustrated cops. They want to hunt down bad guys and bring them to justice.
The violence theme is rammed home in the world of drama as well. The soaps are the scene of some truly bizarre and violent scenes. Recent examples include in Coronation Street, an individual called Pat, keeping another prisoner in a cellar for months, whilst he continues life as normal elsewhere. Then in Eastenders, the character Max emerging from prison to seemingly reek revenge on the whole community.
On the international stage, the President of the United States trades violent rhetoric with the leader of North Korea. The subject of the insults is usually violence, the ability of one or the other to wipe out a country and all the millions of people who live there.
Surely the time has come for a more kind and peaceful world. A society not premised on violence or the threat of violence – a less hate fuelled world.
We could look to a world where the many daily kind acts are recognised and publicised. The recognition of goodwill and kindness that resides in most people. The realisation that walking down the street, not everyone represents a threat. Maybe we just need to put a bit of love out there or in the words of a song from the late Glenn Campbell “try a little kindness to overlook the blindness of narrow minded people on the narrow minded street.”

*Published in the Universe - 13/10/2017


Thursday, 5 October 2017

James Graham's Labour of Love romps through 27 years of history with hilarity and insight

This latest play from political playwright of the moment James Graham plots the career of Labour MP David Lyons, played by Martin Freeman.

The play focuses around the history of the Labour party since 1990, when the Lyons character was first elected. He comes in accompanied by corporate lawyer wife Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling).

The whole play is set in the Nottingham constituency office of the Mp, opening as he is about to lose the previously safe seat, in the June election.  
A ruminating Lyons, pictures himself becoming the Michael Portillo or Ed Balls of the election night, declaring that he’d better polish up his passa doble.
Lyons is a Blairite, whilst his agent/constituency manager Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig) is old labour. Typical of the discourse is a scene involving Lyons, Whittaker and political wannabe Margot Midler. Lyons declares himself a social democrat, Whittaker a democratic socialist, with a reference to the SNP. This draws the comment from Midler that she would like to be a National Socialist.

The personal and political relationship between Lyons and Whittaker ebbs and flows throughout the play, representing in a way the constant tension between old and new labour. The need to win versus the need to be true to socialistic principles is a constant tension.

Lyons defeat in the last election marks the end of new Labour and the beginning of the Corbyn ascendancy. This though is only nodded at in terms of the Lyons character conceding that the future is Whittaker. Had Corbyn lost the election badly I would wager the conclusion of the play may have been a little different.

This is a most enjoyable play, brilliantly acted by Freeman and Greig. However, it is probably overlong at three hours and maybe plays too much for laughs.

The use of a screen behind the stage to provide a commentary of the  political events over the years  is a good way to bring a background context to the narrative.

The play could have been more satirically cutting, maybe a more serious piece, less of a sitcom in style. A bit of the political gravitas contained in Steve Water's play Limehouse may have made for a more satisfying outcome.

That said, Labour of Love offers an entertaining romp through Labour’s recent history, highlighting party difficulties through the lens of one constituency office. Another excellent offering from Graham who is becoming the political dramatist of the decade.

*Runs at the Noel Coward theatre until 2 December

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Sad passing of Rodney Bickerstaffe, a man who always had a ready quip, no more so than when he confirmed that Thatcher and Blair were right about his being a bastard

A sad day that sees the passing of former Unisons and NUPE general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe at the age of 72, A great trade union leader, who led NUPE through the dire years of Thatcherism, he later became President of the National Pensioners Convention, taking over from Jack Jones.
I met Rodney at Bruce Kent's 85th birthday party a few years ago. We spent practically the whole afternoon talking about the Labour Party, trade unions, journalism and Catholics.
Then a couple of years ago Rodney came down to speak at Labour Party fundraiser at the Star of India for Leyton and Wanstead MP John Cryer.
It was then that he confirmed that the assertions of Thatcher and later Tony Blair that he was a bastard were actually factually correct, with the conceiving process having taken part in the local hospital, Whipps Cross, back in 1945- see full story below. It was a great night with Rodney on sparkling form. A great man, who will be much missed. RIP

Friday, 10 April 2015

Rodney Bickerstaffe confirms "bastard" jibe was correct

Former Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaff was out on the stump, speaking at an east London fundraiser for Leyton and Wanstead Labour Mp John Cryer. Among the gems revealed was that Rodney had been conceived (not born) at the local Whipps Cross hospital back in 1945. Things though have gone downhill since then for Whipps, which was recently placed under special measures, following a Care Quality Commission report, highlighting bullying of staff. Clearly, there was a more relaxed attitude to matters of life and death back in 1945. Then dwelling on his birthright Rodney confirmed that both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had been right in their definition of him as being a bastard.

* see Independent - 10/4/2015

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Harry Kane lauded as "one of the best strikers in the world" as Spurs take all three points at the London Stadium

West Ham 2-3 Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino heaped praise on two goal striker Harry Kane, declaring him to be “one of the best strikers in the world.”

“I find it hard to find the words to describe him. I am in love,  like the fans are in love, like his team mates are in love,” said Pochettino. “ He is so humble, He keeps all the values that managers like me appreciate a lot.”

Even West Ham manager Slaven Bilic briefly joined the Kane love in, admitting that his three centre backs Jose Fonte, Angelo Ogbonna and Winston Reid “had really good games and still Kane got two goals. That’s how good he is.”

The West Ham manager though was disappointed at the result. Up until Spurs scored in the 34th minute, he felt his team “took a lot of balls from them” and “had good situations.”

Then after the first goal West Ham lost shape. Bilic praised the fighting spirit of his team, suggesting if they had a bit more time then they might have turned the result totally around.

West Ham did well in the early exchanges with Marko Arnautovic proving a thorn in Tottenham defence, almost getting through at one point, only to be thwarted by a last ditch tackle from Serge Aurier.

It was Kane though who broke the deadlock after half an hour, heading home a cross from Deli Ali after Christian Eriksen had set him free down the right.

Four minutes later the same combination saw Eriksen’s flick release Ali whose low shot was blocked by Joe Hart, with Kane on hand to ram the lose ball into an empty net.

After the break, Eriksen scored from the edge of the area, shortly after Kane’s shot had rebounded off the post.

The home side though fought back with Jose Font nodding a corner onto Chicarito, who headed home.

Aurier was then sent off for a second bookable offence, having hauled down Andy Carroll.  Reduced to 10 men Spurs were then forced to hang on, with Hugo Lloris saving at point blank range from Chicarito.

The game reached boiling point in the 86th minute when substitute Arthur Masuaku’s excellent cross from the left was headed in by an onrushing Cheikhou Kouyate. But it turned out to be too little too late.

*"Kane able to be "one of the world's best strikers" - Morning Star - 25/9/2017

Friday, 22 September 2017

Chigwell sisters play direct role in winning justice for Archbishop Oscar Romero and the people of El Salvador

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Archbishop Oscar Romero will be celebrated across the world this weekend, no more so than at Chigwell Convent in leafy Essex.
The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, whose base is the Chigwell convent, have strong links with El Salvador and particularly the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Sisters Anne Griffin spent many years working amongst the poor in El Salvador, carrying on the legacy of Archbishop Romero to be the voice of the voiceless.

The sisters also have a strong link to the ongoing judicial process that will bring justice relating to the murder of Archbishop Romero.

Sister Anne  returned from El Salvador two years ago, after working in the war torn country since 2002. She will return to the country in the next few weeks for one of three visits she makes annually to see the ongoing work.

The sisters run the El Mozote Human Rights Project in the north of the country, which accompanies hundreds of victims in their pursuit of justice. In the capital San Salvador the nuns participate in  health and social projects that help the poor and marginalised.

Sister Anne tells how despite having died in 1980, Archbishop Romero is still ever present in life. “Every single day you hear his voice still, “ said Sister Anne, who told of the huge power of the Archbishop’s radio broadcasts that people tuned into every week across El Salvador.

Sister Anne tells how the people’s hopes were in Archbishop Romero. “That is why his beautification is so important, he speaks for the poor and oppressed,” said Sister Anne.

The murder of the Archbishop is widely known but  there is still an accounting to take place in El Salvador. The war between the US backed government and liberation forces ended in the early 1990s. The peace accords saw a truth commission process set up which unveiled some of the atrocities that had gone on. However, there was also an amnesty law passed, which ensured those giving testimony would never be prosecuted.

Sister Anne was based in the village of El Mozote in the north east of the country, where in 1981 an appalling massacre of 1,000 men, women and children took place.   “It was the biggest massacre in Latin America but because of the amnesty law could not be investigated,” said Sister Anne, who recalled two lawyers coming to her and asking whether she would help identify the victims and bring people together. This was 25 years after the massacre, when the memories were still raw and people did not want to talk about what had happened. “I said I would speak to people. It was a divisive thing, with half on the government side and half with the rebels,” she recalled. “I went from house to house, people were saying it was all lies., eventually people began to talk. We arranged meetings between the victims and the lawyers so that statements could be taken. Young students were helping out.”

The El Mozote Association for the Promotion of Human Rights was formed. It was claimed that the people who had died were caught up in cross fire but this was clearly false. “The men were put in one place, the women in another and the children in the church,” said Sister Anne. “The women the soldiers fancied were taken, raped and tortured, before being shot. Other women were machine gunned.”

The children were killed in the church, then grenades were thrown in the windows to destroy the evidence. However, the grenades brought down the walls, which then covered the bodies, effectively preserving the evidence. “The bodies of 148 children were found, 140 under 12. Most of the children were bayoneted and shot through the head,” said Sister Anne, who recalled the way the investigators built up the evidence, often having to go to church records to try to identify the victims. This all took years but in 2012 the case was brought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in Ecuador. 

Sister Anne helped three victim survivors who had witnessed what happened to be party to the proceedings. “One woman said they ran, when the soldiers came. They were away two weeks and when they came back, she said they could only find the skulls of the babies.”

The Chigwell sister recalled the impact of the testimony. “The massacre happened 30 years before, yet they spoke as though it only happened yesterday,” said Sister Anne.

The IACHR ruled in 2012 that the case must be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. The ruling meant that the amnesty law had to be repealed, which happened in 2015. As a result the El  Mozote case and others, including that of the murder of Archbishop Romero, are proceeding in El Salvador. “The door was opened to look at war crimes and crimes against humanity , including that of Romero,” said Sister Anne. Now ex-ministers and generals are being brought before the courts, with the hope of some sort of justice for the victims hopefully around the corner.

A number of those who committed the crimes have died over the years, but others remain. El Salvador though remains governed effectively by 14 families, who were directly implicated back at the time of the war but whose younger generation now hold great influence in the country. “There is a lot of corruption in the justice system, with the same families in power today,” said Sister Anne.

“Romero is an important figure for the whole of El Salvador. He’s become a focus of hope for the poor and marginalised – all those groups who have suffered injustice in any way,” said Sister Anne, who recalled on the day of the beatification, how even the gangs called a truce, so people could walk in peace through the streets of San Salvador. “There were half a million at the service, that’s in a country of 5 million,” said Sister Anne, There are between 12 and 15 murders a day in El Salvador.
When Sister Anne goes back this time, she will be visiting the Sister’s project in San Salvador, run by Sister Daisy. “There is still lots to do. There are special needs in education and little is being done for the elderly,” said Sister Anne. 
Sister Daisy works in a clinic, which treats members of local rival gangs.
So still  much to be done in a country racked with poverty but beginning to get back on its feet.

*published - Universe and Catholic Times 22/9/2017 


Wednesday, 20 September 2017

West Ham win over Bolton continues Slaven Bilic's metamorphosis from zero to hero

West Ham 3-0 Bolton Wanderers

West Ham easily won this third round Carabao Cup tie without ever really getting out of second gear.

A poor Bolton side were quickly behind in the fourth minute as a corner driven in from the right by Marko Arnautovic was met by the head of Angelo Ogbonna coming in at the back post.

The Hammers then dominated proceedings, with Andre Ayew missing two good chances and Arnautovic lazily lobbing over when away on his own.

The second goal did not come until the 30th minute, when Arnautovic got off down the left to square the ball for the incoming Diafra Sacko to place his shot in the right hand corner of the net.

The second half was a poor affair, with the home side failing to force home the advantage with the avalanche of goals that should have resulted. The one bright moment being a sweet 25 yard strike from left back Arthur Masuaku. which swerved into the top right hand corner in injury time.

Hammers manager Slaven Bilic was satisfied with the result, which continues his own rehabilitation from zero to hero – a process that could be complete with a victory over Spurs on Saturday.

The manager noted that this win plus the four points gained in the past two games of the Premier League has seen the club getting “back where we want to be.”

Bilic gave qualified praise to the performance of Arnautovic, whilst insisting he wants to see more.

The manager was far more fulsome in his praise of 18 year old defender Declan Rice who put in an assured performance at centre back. “Declan Rice has everything to be a really really good player. I’m very very pleased with him,” said Bilic, who believes he can make it as a centre back or holding midfield player.

*published in Morning Star - 21/9/2017 - Hammers "back where we want to be"


Thursday, 14 September 2017

Failure to pay is killing journalism

I have been earning a living as a journalist for more than 25 years, working in many areas of media. My experience has spanned national, local trade and religious press. I have also done some broadcast work. There have been some big stories like the foreign company caught illegally selling landmines at a government supported arms fair, the detention of individuals without trial and the living wage. It’s been fun but can it really be considered a living anymore? The answer to that one is a resounding no.

The thought occurred when attending a lecture, given by former BBC chief correspondent Kate Adie at the British Journalism Review awards. Adie made the very valid point that journalism is a skilled job and people need to be paid to do it. “Flapping about on the internet doesn’t put bread on the table. It’s a job a profession, not a hobby,” said Adie, who went onto highlight how journalism had been hollowed out particularly at local level. Courts, councils – none now receive the scrutiny they used to do, when the papers had fully staffed teams of reporters, instead now there are usually just a few  over worked individuals doing everything.

The historic memory that used to be present in local newspaper newsrooms, among those who made a career out of working on one paper, has long since gone. There is a huge and growing democratic deficit caused by this hollowing out of journalism.

No one though can blame young journalists for not hanging around on these outlets. They are badly paid, totally unable to survive unless supported by a well remunerated partner or rich parent. As a result once an individual has the skills they move on, often to PR.

I was struck a few years ago, when doing a story for the NUJ about what was happening at a council press office. When we met to discuss what had been happening, there were familiar faces all around – people who I’d known from the local papers now working in the local authorities press office. They had exchanged insecure poorly paid work as reporters for reasonable pay in a secure work environment at the local authority. This was further evidenced with the arrival of council run papers. Better resourced, they often picked up reporters from the local papers, ofcourse there would be no scrutiny of council activities from such organs.

Adie’s point about pay hit home particularly with myself, having seen outlets decline over recent years, pay has also reduced.  Recently, an online magazine asked me to write a piece about football – 2,300 words worth. The problem was they could not pay. Would you ask a plummer to come and fix your toilet, adding, I can't pay?
Another even more galling example came recently with the New Internationalist (NI) magazine. I have done a number of pieces for the NI over the years. I support their ethics and political standpoint in most areas; however on paying journalists there is still some way to go.

I have done a number of blogs for NI over recent years; they began offering a token £30 for a 500 word plus piece. Then they could not afford to pay at all – ok times were hard. However, the last piece I did for NI came out just after the magazine had raised £600,000 through crowd funding, giving readers a direct hand in the enterprise. Ethics were talked of a lot then, yet amazingly they still didn’t think to pay the journalist for blogs. Some gap in ethics me thinks.

NI ofcourse are not alone, a number of left wing titles rarely pay for anything. Indeed I think some pride themselves on this practice – somehow failing to understand the exploitative relationship between writer and owner of the means of production.

The internet was heralded as a great opportunity for journalists – more copy would be needed for more outlets. However, it has generally meant more work for journalists but less pay. I always find it incredible how so many publications think online means that the journalist does not have to be paid.

I was staggered a few years ago to do a piece for the Independent about the rail industry – up it went online, ads all around but ofcourse they couldn’t pay – not even a token amount. The internet has in many cases been used as an excuse to pay less and in many cases nothing at all to journalists.

Even in areas where publishers do still pay, a glance at the NUJ ’s rates for the job, reveals many paying the same or less than they did 10 years ago. There are very few that have actually increased rates.

This approach across the industry effectively cuts journalism out for all except those who have financial support outside of the job.

From a personal angle, it has been sad to see the various openings close. However, my own experience has been very much of seeing journalism go from my main job, earning a reasonable living, to as Adie would say, hobby status.

Frankly, there needs to be a long hard look taken at journalism in this country. The failure to pay journalists is killing the industry. It has played a role in leading to the growth of fake news. Everyone thinks they can be a journalist but, as Adie pointed out, journalism is a skilled job, requiring fact checking, objectivity and discipline. It is vital to our democracy, which will be the lesser for those outlets that do not now properly scrutinise politicians and courts at local up to national level. Society will be the loser, as well as many excellent would be and been journalists.

published in the British Journalism Review - September 2017 - "We can't live on air"