Wednesday, 30 March 2016

"Archers" domestic violence plot shows unique power of soaps to communicate social problems

The dramatic domestic abuse plotline in the weekly BBC Radio 4 soap the Archers has been recently hitting the headlines. The story, involving characters Helen Archer (Louiza Patikas) and her husband Rob Titchener (Timothy Watson), has been played out over a couple of years, only now reaching a crescendo with the first physical abuse, following on months of mental torment.

Only when the abuse turned physical did the programme start giving out the domestic abuse helpline. The number of people turning to organisations that help the victims of abuse has increased by 20% as a result of the storyline. More than £70,000 has also been given via Just Giving to the charity, Refuge. So once again, the soap formula has demonstrated its power to communicate important social issues.

Not all listeners though have been pleased with the story line, accusing the producers of turning the Archers into Eastenders. Some, it seems, view the programme as more of a comfort blanket for life, somewhere to escape to rather than as a reflector of what is going on in society.

The power of soaps to communicate important public service messages was first witnessed when Eastenders developed the aids plot line around the character Mark Fowler. Again, this was done over several years, giving the story real dramatic credibility.

It was found that the storyline had far more impact in getting over the warning messages of the dangers of the disease, than any number of government health warning adverts or campaigns. Ever since the aids storyline, it seems anyone with a social message has been queuing up to get it into a soap storyline.

The swing in favour of such stories has been such that, at times, it seems the scripts are just made up of a number of public service messages all pulled together into one. Some are no doubt done better than others: aids on Eastenders, assisted dying on Coronation Street and now domestic violence in the Archers are among the successes.

The power of the soap, seems to be in how so many people can link the characters to their own life experiences. The whole fictional soap scene though ofcourse is for the most part preposterous. I would defy anyone to find a community like that depicted in Eastenders in the east end of London, a Coronation Street scenario in Manchester or indeed farmers living an Ambridge style existence in the Midlands. The soap genre by its very nature packs so much drama into what are supposed to be “ordinary lives” – most “real people” live far less exciting lives. However, it is the unique combination of the wallpaper type quality of soaps combined with gripping drama that attracts the mass audiences.

The power to communicate important social issues has been seen in the present Archers script. The actors taking the parts have worked with writers and charitable groups to make the story work so well.

The strong independent character, Helen Archer, with her emotional weaknesses, evidenced in the past by anorexia and break down after the suicide of her previous husband. Rob Titchener, a socio-path, who manages to be all things to all people from the moment he comes into the village. He effectively focuses in on Helen’s perceived weaknesses; becoming  increasingly possessive, while working away at destroying her self-confidence. The way in which he is able to isolate Helen is testimony to his power of persuasion in the wider community – taking in most people, including Helen’s mother Pat.

Some have argued this is testing the dramatic content, given that Pat was Rob's implacable enemy, when he first came into the village, as the manager of the new dairy plant. Pat has been a strong organics advocate and was a strong campaigner against the plant. However, the Pat transformation as far as Rob is concerned is believable, as it demonstrates a certain chamellion type quality in her own sometimes shallow character. She quickly switches from being an implacable enemy of Rob to becoming his biggest fan.

The two intriguing characters who have the biggest doubts about Rob are Tom (Helen’s brother) and Kirsty (her friend and jilted fiancĂ©e of Tom). Kirsty has already helped, having seen through Rob from the start. Tom has more macho objections, doubting Rob’s judgement as manager of the shop – with a downer on his sausages.

Indeed, it is a weaker element in the the plot that the Rob character has been able to so seamlessly move from dairy to shop manager, with few questioning his qualifications for the latter role.

It will be interesting to see where the domestic abuse plotline goes now. The public service information, as opposed to dramatic purpose seems to have now taken the upper hand. Helen has quickly moved from telling Kirsty she has been hit to contacting the helpline (that Kirsty contacted for her) – admitting being hit but also rape.

Dramatically, it would have been interesting to see how far the story could go – whether Rob could line up Pat as well as his warder like mother, Ursula, to get Helen sectioned or some other restraint. What now seems more likely is a plot that sees just how the new coercive behaviour law, passed at the end of last year, can be used.

It is a dramatic weakness of the soaps and testimony to their power, that it is the safe, good for law and order type outcome that is practically guaranteed come the end of any story . So if there has been a murder, with the body put under the patio, viewers/listeners know that one day the truth will come out. Though, the soap canvass has widened in this area, to take in the likes of miscarriages of justice etc. Now a miscarriage of justice can be played out over months if not years, yet I remember in the 1990s being in campaigns that dreamt of getting the case mentioned by a soap character, let alone having the whole concept of innocent people being convicted and incarcerated form a plotline on its own.

The one area I can recall where the long hand of the law has not, so to speak, triumphed has been on the issue of assisted dying. So when the Coronation Street character Hayley Cropper killed herself, many must have expected husband Roy to be hauled before the courts for assisting. Strangely, though, this never happened, maybe reflecting changing societal ground on the subject or indeed the soap playing an active role in altering that terrain. But on the whole order and justice have to come out triumphant in most soap plots.

All will no doubt be revealed shortly in the present Archers plotline. The Rob/Helen story has provided gripping if uncomfortable listening for millions of people. It has been the ability to reach these millions that makes the Archers together with other soaps such powerful tools in communicating social problems. Whilst some among the millions who tune in every week will regret the demise of their comfort blanket, there will be many more who recognise much in the storyline that applies to their own lives – there will even be those who fall into both categories. What is for sure is the Archers and particularly its editor Sean O’Connor deserve much credit for producing this domestic abuse storyline. The editor though, sadly, won’t be overseeing Ambridge life for much longer .. he’s off to Eastenders. Cup of tea anyone?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Adoption of the living wage by a Conservative government should be viewed as a victory for the labour movement

The increase in the minimum wage to £7.20 an hour from the start of next month is a welcome move from the government. The increase of 50p per hour has been heralded as part of the rate escalation process that will help bring the minimum up to living wage level. The rate will be around £9 an hour by 2020.

Campaigners point out, though, that the present level recommended by the Living Wage Foundation is £8.25 an hour and £9.40 an hour in London, so the government levels are still someway short of the prescribed level to ensure people live above the poverty line.

The Conservative Government have rather captured the language of the living wage campaigners - made up of community organising groups, faith denominations, trade unions and progressive employers.

The intent on the part of Chancellor George Osborne is to get more money into the economy in order to keep the wheels of the market turning. He has realised that continually pushing riches toward the already rich, results in such individuals storing it away offshore or elsewhere. What they don’t do, necessarily, is spend it in the economy. People have to buy things to keep capitalism going. Individual debt levels cannot continually be pushed up to sustain demand amid a landscape of flat lining pay.

There is also ofcourse the other slight of hand which is whilst upping minimum wage levels, the Chancellor cuts away at welfare. The net gains to individuals coming from the “living wage” do not make up for the cuts being made in benefits.

All this said, it is important for living wage campaigners to celebrate just how far they have progressed. The position now is that of a Conservative Government telling employers they must pay employees a minimum living wage.

Think back to 1997, the beginning of the Labour government’s time in office, when the minimum wage was first proposed. The howls of opposition from the Conservative Party and employer organisations about the damage it would do to business, the loss of jobs etc. None of the claims proved true, with many of the doubters now converted to advocacy.

The story of the living wage campaign in the UK is remarkable. It began in 2001 with community organisers London Citizens. They took soundings amongst their community groups, many being faith organisations. What came back was the difficulties being caused for community and family life by poverty wages. Respondents told how they were having to do two or three low paid jobs in a week just to keep their heads above water. Sectors like cleaning, catering and security were particular offenders.

London Citizens together with the support of a number of trade unions began the living wage campaign. Research undertaken came up with a living wage level of £6.30 an hour on which it was considered people could live above the poverty line. Employers were then asked to sign up to pay the rate.

Many encounters then followed. The community organisers tried polite letters, requesting meetings to put points to business managers. Some of these requests succeeded, others failed. Failure resulted in direct actions, such as church parishioners and nuns turning up in Oxford Street to bank thousands of small coins that had been collected. There were demos outside.

The institutions did not like this bad publicity and usually came to the negotiating table. I remember one particular meeting in a drafty church hall in the east end, with then Chair of HSBC, Sir John Bond. Sir John was faced with a number of priests, a bishop, trade unionists and community leaders arguing that the bank should pay its cleaners a living wage. The meeting did not bring immediate success but further down the line HSBC became a living wage employer.

Then London Mayor Ken Livingstone took up the idea, establishing a living wage unit at City Hall. The unit set a living wage level each year. The living wage was implemented with those parts of London government that the Mayor controlled. The Mayorality also insisted that any contractors it dealt with pay their employees the living wage.

The living wage theme was  enthusiastically continued by Conservative Boris Johnson when he became mayor in 2008.

Trade unions came to take on a much more central role in pushing the living wage concept nationwide. There had been concerns about regional variations in pay being encouraged by the idea.

Initially, trade union branches had been members of London Citizens. The community organisation was able via its faith connections to make contact with workers in insecure environments in Canary Wharf, where previously the unions had struggled to get a foothold.

Then, as momentum built, the unions came to the forefront, many like the Communication Workers Union, Unite and Unison becoming living wage employers themselves.

The campaign has grown and grown, gaining public and mainstream political support. Employers recognised the value of paying a living wage, seeing it resulted in less turnover and better morale. There was also much corporate social responsibility PR value in being associated with the living wage.

A snapshot of the benefits resulting from the living wage, can be seen in London, where it was estimated that £182 million had been added to wages of 19,000 employees between 2005 and 2013. On the down side, it was estimated that 22% of workers (5.28 million) still earned under the living wage as of 2014 across UK.

Government has increasingly seen the value of the living wage for the reasons outlined earlier. It also increases the tax take as more people will be paying more tax.

So at a time when no doubt many of those campaigners who have fought for the living wage down the years may feel a little aggrieved to see the government seizing the concept for its own, this should be viewed as a victory. There are caveats such as the minimum wage level increases being implemented by the government, still do not bring wage levels up to the living level as stipulated by campaigners. Also, the cover being provided for benefit cuts. But overall the fact that a Conservative Government has accepted and now implements the living wage concept forcing all employers to pay a minimum living wage should not be underestimated. It is a major achievement for progressive politics and those across the labour movement and faith communities who have struggled for this basic right for so long.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The answer to funding welfare is not stirring intergenerational warfare but collecting more tax

The problem with Chair of Work and Pensions Select Committee Frank Field's analysis of welfare is that he sets it in the context of intergenerational conflict, namely that retired people must give up some part of their pensions and universal benefits in order that younger people can have in-work benefits. This is wholly misleading, poverty does not distinguish between young and old - there are pensioners as well as students living in poverty. Setting one generation against the other serves no one well.
The reality is that welfare can be afforded if people are prepared to pay for it. This will mean those who earn most paying more tax. It must also mean collecting a just level of tax from those corporations, which at present operate as parasites in this country, drawing on the services that the tax payer funds in order to support their enterprises, but to which they contribute little. If the tax take is increased, welfare for young, old and those inbetweeen is easily affordable

Friday, 18 March 2016

Boris wants to be more like Mao

London Mayor Boris Johnson admitted he wanted to be a bit more like Mao when it came to dealing with housing.

Delivering the John Harvard lecture at the Old Vic, Boris admitted that housing was one of his biggest disappointments in office. He explained the conflict between the developer - who wants to build to get the biggest profit - and the politician - who wants as many houses as possible built to provide homes and bring down the prices.

The outgoing mayor then admitted that the private sector was not working when it came to the housing provision and that “government needs to get back in the business of building houses.”

Boris it seems has become a fan of Essex man, declaring that merits of living in Ilford and Romford. Though neighbouring London Borough of Newham is the area that had the highest rises in property prices last year, according to the Mayor.

The Brexit champion attacked European environmental rules that slowed down house building projects. He declared that if there was a no vote then 24 June will become “independence day.”

Singing the praises of London he declared that more people came to the London museum each year than live in Brussels.

The mayor also summoned up the memory of David Bowie as an example of a typical London citizen, reinventing himself continuously.

Challenged about his Prime Ministerial ambitions, he suggested that David Cameron should rescind his decision to stand down before the next general election.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Spotlight film, BBC, Jimmy Savile much have the structures of the Catholic Church really changed since the first child abuse cases were revealed

The excellent film, Spotlight, exposes corruption and collusion at the heart of a number of institutions in Boston over recent decades. The main offender ofcourse is the Catholic Church, whose record in failing to deal with child abuse is the central theme of the film. The Boston Globe conducts a forensic investigation under its new editor Marty Baron (Lieve Schreiber).

The investigation is undertaken by the four person Spotlight team, whose personal stories provide an interesting sub-plot – especially that of the lead journalist Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton).

The theme of covering up child abuse, failing to hold priests and the institutional church to account is not new. The revelations unveiled by the Boston Globe back in 2003 did play a part in exposing the true scale of child abuse perpetrated by the Church in America. Further exposes revealed abuse to be a worldwide phenomena.

Child abuse in the Church is now a well-known, with perhaps some of the initial shock having been softened by revelations of abuse in other institutions such as the media and education. It is one of the stranger ironies in Britain that having played such an important journalistic role in revealing child abuse in the Church, the BBC then turned out to be less than virtuous itself, harbouring the likes of Jimmy Savile and others.

 Where Church and media have common fault is over the promotion of the cult of celebrity and deference. The media played a huge role in building Savile and others into these celebrity personalities to be almost worshipped, certainly not questioned. The Church played a similar role with its clergy, they were untouchable. Similarly, with both institutions, it was protecting the reputation of the institution itself, rather than the plight of the victims, that was regarded as paramount.

Another strange overlap comes with Catholics, in my view, possibly more susceptible to idoltry than other parts of the population. The Catholic press cannot wait to lionise any celebrity that it considers can be claimed as one of their own. Note the fawning approach to former  Prime Minister Tony Blair when he decided to convert to the “one true faith.” Similarly, the cloying tributes to Savile on his death and a perceived slowness at the time of the later revelations to acknowledge that he really hadn’t been a very nice man.

Perhaps the tendency to idolise comes from the need to celebrate a God in the first place, though ofcourse idoltry is one of the most serious of sins.

What is worrying on the subject of the Church and child abuse is just how little has changed. Yes there have been revelations of the Boston Globe variety across the world. In the UK, stringent child protection measures were brought in following an inquiry led by Lord Nolan in 2001. A whole child protection structure now rightly stretches across the Church in the UK.

There is now a Pope who has acknowledged the need to act and try to make amends to the victims. The tipping point was reached some time ago, beyond which reputation preservation regarding the institutional church in this area was impossible.

But at grass roots level what has changed in terms of the structures of the Church that allowed the abuse to happen? The terms of employment for priests remain the same, namely celibate males. The authoritarian hierarchy up from parish to bishop, cardinal and pope remains unaltered. The priest at parish level remains very powerful.

What of the attitude of the laity? It is always a strange phenonema to see people adopting young priests as if they were their own. Yes, everyone needs support, none more so than the priest, who struggles to fulfil an often lonely task. But when does that parental type approach turn into deference and once again putting the priest on a pedestal.

If the Church were serious about tackling child abuse and other issues it would be radically changing its structures. The role of the priest in the 21st century should have been examined and changed. The discrimination against women in the role should have ended years ago. The position should have been made more accountable – whether a man or woman being in situ.

The laity should have been encouraged to “grow up” a bit more in its attitude to the clergy. There has been perceivable change in the attitude of the laity, most were shocked by the abuse revelations and many felt betrayed.  But too much deference still exists, the Father knows best attitude is still prevalent in many areas today. The priest is still, all too often, put on a pedestal rather than being seen as a first among equals.

The priest’s role though needs redefining, including the provision of more support. It is an odd role to say the least, something between a social worker, shop steward, business manager and policeman. They need help from the parish and support in themselves.
Another injustice of the system is the lack of basic employment rights of individual priests. They are dependent to a large degree on the whim of the bishop, who can move a priest from his parish with very little consultation. There are no wages as such and pensions remain a matter for personal arrangement.

So there is much that needs doing, if the Church is ever to move on from its shady past. Spotlight offers a reminder of the scandal of child abuse, it is a film that all Catholics should see but it offers only a reminder of the enormity of the crime. There is still so much that needs to be done in changing the Church and its structures if it is ever to be stopped from happening again.      

Monday, 7 March 2016

Back to the future world reflected in the government's state pension review

The government has announced a review of state pensions premised on the belief that present levels cannot be afforded.

The move amounts to another piece being put into place - amid the landscape of austerity - to justify removing welfare support all together from those who cannot afford to pay. The idea of cutting pensions, whilst extending retirement age points to a time where the pension and retirement in reality won’t exist at all for many people.

The state pension was brought in during the early part of the 19th century by Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government. The opening age for retirement in 1911 was 70. Today, the level is 65, rising to 67 by 2026.  

The  theme underlying former CBI director, John Cridland’s pension review is that people could be working into their 70s and even 80s before they retire. The hardly coded message is that the government would really like people not to retire at all but die in work. This back to the future approach to the social economic landscape is being  framed in the language of austerity as in some way “progressive.”

The two main claims under pinning the proposition is that people are living longer and so pensions cannot be afforded. Both of these claims are highly contentious.

Yes it can be proved that the baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) are living longer but what of those who come after? The baby boomers are a group who had balanced diets, a fully funded NHS, the full welfare net of support and good work life balance for much of their lives.

The recent excellent BBC programme  “Back in time for the weekend” illustrated the point perfectly. A family were taken back in time to live in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. One decade the family really enjoyed returning to was the 1970s, when they found there was more time for family, community and leisure activity. There was also more disposable income.
The family’s experiences are reflected in statistics covering the period,  which show people at their happiest in the 70s, when the gap between rich and poor was narrowest and people were getting more leisure time. Not surprisingly, there were strong trade unions and governments that were forced to consider more than the welfare of the super-rich elite.

Enter the 1980s, the neo-liberal economic model took hold, with every element of life being subjected to the great god known as the market. The market will decide what is good or bad. The ruling mantra being that to quote the Wall Street film character Gordon Gekko “greed is good.” This mantra has held sway pretty much up to the present day.

So now, the distribution of wealth in society is polarised toward 19th century levels. Instead of distributing wealth evenly, it is increasingly shovelled toward the rich elite. The mass of people now work longer hours for less money. The membership and power of trade unions has reduced. The choice at general elections is not been between parties with different idealogies but between different managers of the neo-liberal system.

It is against this backdrop that the latest attack on pensions needs to be set. Reducing the pension and extending the retirement age makes no sense in anything but crude neo-liberal terms. The pension can be afforded and retired people do play a crucial role in society. The National Insurance Fund, which everyone pays into, via their NI contributions, for pensions and other welfare support was over £100 billion in credit last year.

The idea that everyone is living so long that the pension cannot be afforded is ludicrous. The balanced diets of the baby boomer generation have gone. Many people are on bad diets, with obesity burgeoning across society. The increasingly sedentary existence caused by more and more work being centred around computers is also contributing to the obesity epidemic. Health and welfare support is being run down, poverty on the increase - evidenced by more than 1 million going to foodbanks.

There are also huge discrepancies across the country between areas and classes regarding life expectancy. The person living in Kensington may on average be living longer but what about those in Solihull or Middlesbrough – not everywhere is life expectancy growing.

There is also the point that retired people are not a drain but a contributor to the economy. They pay taxes, spend money and use services. The level of free care provided by retired people for grand children and others runs into billions of pounds if costed. Who will do the caring if those who would retire are tied to the loom until they drop?

The unfortunate reality is that what the present government are doing is following the neo-liberal model through to its ultimate conclusion. They are removing all the cement that keeps society and community together.

The health and welfare supports are being run down, prior to being totally removed. The pension is but the latest target.

Trade unions, charities and other institutions of civil society, that  have fought for these rights, have been relentlessly attacked.

The only people valued by this law of the jungle type approach to society are those who can pay their way and remain healthy. It is no way to run a society and in the long term is not sustainable. One can only hope that when John Cridland begins his state pension review he takes a wider societal view, rather than one dictated by the market based bottom line and a seeming unerring desire to go back to the 19th century.

* Back to the future of pensions - published Tribune - 18/3/2016
Government readies to pick pensioners pockets - Morning Star - 24/3/2016

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Restore bridge into Wanstead Park from Ilford

When will the Coronation bridge - that represents the gateway for Ilford residents to enter Wanstead Park - be restored? There was talk sometime ago that it would cost £25,000 to restore the bridge but nothing has happened for years. Over recent weeks the cycle track alongside the River Roding has been taking shape, surely as part of this work the bridge should be being restored?
The recent Friends of Wanstead Park AGM (24/2) revealed just what a vibrant hub of activity in the local community the park represents. There are many ideas and groups bursting with energy, surely restoring the main route for Ilford and other residents coming from that side of the borough to enter the tranquility of Wanstead Park is not too much to ask.
see: Ilford Recorder and Wanstead & Woodford Guardian