Monday, 19 December 2016

What is Christmas all about?

The sight of people on the street in the freezing cold, huddling up on park benches seems an increasingly regular occurrence  in 21st century Britain.

Still one of the riches countries in the world yet more and more people go to food banks, whilst a drumbeat resounds throughout the media for vilification of the poor.

Alongside this world of growing poverty another exists, which is that of the wealthy. They spend ludicrous amounts on food and presents to celebrate Christmas. The largesse is grotesque against a background of poverty and suffering.

Then there is everyone else, many of whom also seem to think to celebrate Christmas requires spending a huge amount on stuff.  People flock into the shops, many stony faced as they march down the shopping aisles filling baskets and trolleys with the good required (or not) for Christmas.

It is difficult at times not to think Christmas has morphed from a religious celebration - marking the birth of a child in a manger - into some sort of retail gorgefest, whereby everyone has to spend – many not really knowing why – supposedly to satisfy the need for retailers to make huge profits. It is a duty to spend because otherwise what will happen to the bottom lines of those companies.

Christmas is a religious Christian festival yet stretches beyond the world of faith.  When it is at its best is when the spirit of generosity comes forth from people across the world. People reach out to neighbours and help those less well off than themselves. Christmas is a time for giving, for charity but not a time for forgetting.

Helping the homeless is not just for Christmas. Christmas should also be a time to reflect as to why so many people are homeless in the fifth biggest economy in the world. Why do more than a million people go to food banks in a country of 150 billionaires? Why are there outpourings of concern about refugees, yet little concern as to the role of this country in fuelling such crises with arms sales around the world.  The compassion of a country like Britain has to be measured against its role as a major arms supplier.

So yes Christmas is an important time for celebration of all that is good but it is also important to remember the suffering across the world. Remember the role that we as citizens of the UK play in the maintenance of a massively unequal and unjust world. Then try to do something about it.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Relief as West Ham nick second home win in four days

West Ham 1- 0 Hull City
How West Ham emerged victorious from this game will remain one of the great mysteries of this Christmas season.
A perplexed Hull manager Mike Phelan admitted that this was his sides best performance of the season yet they came away with nothing.
And West Ham boss Slaven Bilic admitted that Hull deserved something from the encounter.
The first gilt edge chance came when a misplaced Aaron Cresswell back pass saw striker Dieumerci Mbokan clean through with only keeper Darren Randolph to beat. But Mbokani somehow managed to hit the post.
Mbokani then had two further chances that went just wide.
Bilic switched to a four, four two formation at half time bringing on Andre  Ayew and Edmilson Fernandes for Manuel Lanzini and Pedro Obiang. However, this did not stop the Hull onslaught, with home skipper Mark Noble diverting an early cross onto his own post.
The overlapping left back Andrew Robertson then saw his thumping 20 yard shot bounce back of the far upright. Fernandez then cleared another Hull effort off the line.
The half time changes, that freed up Michail Antonio from right back, finally bore fruit in the 76th minute. Picking the ball up from defence Antonio ran three quarters the length of the pitch before being hauled down on the edge of the Hull penalty area. The resulting free kick saw Antonio pulled down in the penalty area by Tom Huddlestone, resulting in a penalty being awarded by referee Lee Mason.
Skipper Noble duly dispatched the spot kick.
Payet then nearly doubled the lead with a dipping free kick that Hull Keeper David Marshall pushed out from under the bar.
The result ended a good week for West Ham following the victory over Burnley on Wednesday and a point gained at Liverpool last Sunday, however the team must have used up a large slice of their luck quota for the season.
Bilic admitted relief at getting the six points from the two home games. “Our position now is much better than a week ago,” said Bilic, who believes the confidence that has been so lacking over recent weeks can be seen coming back.
The West Ham manager had complimented Phelan on his side’s performance, assuring him that if they continue to play that way the results will come.
Phelan seemed less sure, highlighting how a number of teams have come up over the years, played attacking football and ended up getting relegated. “When chances come along you have to be ruthless, we had more than enough chances to win it,” said Phelan.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

West Ham ride luck to beat Burnley 1-0


West Ham rode their luck to emerge the narrow winners of this keenly fought contest at the London Stadium.

A relieved West Ham manager, Slaven Bilic praised the “great character” of his players in holding on for the win.

He identified how recently the lack of confidence in the team made holding on for victory difficult. “We now go into Saturday’s game (against Hull) with more confidence,” said Bilic, who hoped the victory will provide the platform for his team to climb the table.

West Ham controlled much of the first half, going close with Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble both hitting the post with strikes from 25 yards. The home team were also denied a penalty when Michael Keane handled in his area.

However, the luck turned in injury time, with an Andy Carroll header being punched out by Burnley keeper Tom Heaton. In the resulting scramble, Winston Reid was unfairly wrestled to the ground, according to referee Bobby Madley. Mark Noble’s spot kick was saved by Heaton but following up the West Ham skipper rammed home.

Burnley took charge in the second half but wasted their chances. Sam Vokes saw his overhead kick, following a free kick, go narrowly wide. Another attack,  led by the dangerous Scott Arfield, saw a deflection bounce up invitingly for the onrushing Vokes who headed over.

Another freek kick effort was pushed aside by home keeper Darren Randloph.

A disappointed Burnley manager Sean Dyche rued “the three big chances” his team missed in the second half. “I was disappointed with the outcome, not so much the performance,” said Dyche, who regretted the ease with which so many players go down in the Premier League.

He recalled how if his team does not do it they get called na├»ve or old fashioned. “I’m happy to be old fashioned. The Premier League should do something about it, I’m seeing it week in week out,” said Dyche.  

Monday, 12 December 2016

Jeremy Corbyn needs a proper media operation

There has certainly been a concerted media onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn since he first became leader of the Labour Party last year.

The objective observer looking in from outside could be forgiven for confusion; with the Labour leader seemingly at times portrayed as both Stalin and Mr Bean to paraphrase Vince Cable’s famous jibe at Gordon Brown.

Some lobby journalists undoubtedly make common cause with those members of the Parliamentary Labour Party membership who organised the coup against Corbyn just after the Brexit vote.

Corbyn critics certainly seem to have been given unlimited access to the press and broadcast media. However, all of that said, Corbyn’s media team really does need a shake-up.

The approach needs to become more professional and pro-active. A number of what could be called public relations gaffes like the failure to sing the national anthem, call for Article 50 to be enacted immediately and mishandling of the Trident nuclear issue at the Labour Party conference could easily have been avoided with a decent media operation.

Also, when the leadership comes under attack is no the time to go silent, as so often seems to happen. A more robust approach is needed.

A good example of such an approach came recently with shadow Foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who when quizzed by Sky’s Dermott Murnaghan turned the tables on her inquisitor, accusing him of adopting a pub quiz type approach.

There could be more of this pro-activity, questioning the inquisitors own background for instance when it comes to question like education and poverty.

On immigration why not turn the tables and challenge the frame of reference that immigration is a bad thing and success can only be judged in terms of how much numbers can be reduced.

Corbyn has the troops available to adopt such an approach, with Thornberry, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and shadow chancellor John McDonnell all well able to take a more assertive approach to setting the agenda

A major problem with the Labour Party communications team is the existence of a siege mentality.

This attitude results in the employment of people based on their loyalty to the leader, rather than an ability to do the job.

It is an attitude quite prevalent in the trade unions.  So it has been interesting to note some of the same communication strategies employed by unions being used by the Corbyn media team.  Maybe not surprising given some of the personnel in the team come direct from the unions.

There is a fixation with social media - something that is becoming increasingly prevalent among union communication operations.

This often amounts to a navel gazing exercise of talking to the converted, resulting in a failure to reach out beyond the core support.

Corbyn supporting writer and columnist Owen Jones urged that social media should only be seen as a complement to targeting the mainstream.

He made the point that most people do not spend their time discussing politics on social media. “Millions of people do get their information about what’s going on in politics from watching a bit of the 10 oclock news, or listening to news on radio,” said Jones, whose claims were backed up by an Ofcom report, News consumption in the UK, which found 78% of adults used television for news, whilst 10% chose Twitter.

Notably when Jones made these points during the last leadership campaign, he was immediately decried by many Corbyn supporters as being a Blairite and not a true believer.

A real sign of the siege mentality attitude of you are with us or against us on show for all to see.

The attitude born of the siege mentality is that the capitalist media are all hostile. This may not be far from the truth but it is no reason to stop trying to communicate.

Previous Labour leaders have all had similar problems with the media but notably in the case of Tony Blair, he recognised the nature of the challenge and brought in Alastair Campbell to build a team to counter the attacks and set the agenda.

Campbell is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially among the Corbynistas, but the point is the need for media professionals, who are equipped to deal with the onslaught.

Notably, the most proficient press operators for party leaders have rarely been outstanding journalists in their own right. They may, as in Campbell’s case, have jumped over the fence from journalism to PR but few have previously been great columnists or investigative reporters.

The mass media does offer an important channel to the voting public – not the only avenue but an important one.

If Labour is serious about winning power, they cannot just ignore the mass media. Not everyone in the mainstream is opposed to the Corbyn agenda.

There are the usual supportive suspects like left commentators Paul Mason and Jones but there is potential in areas like the business pages of many outlets where there is a growing disillusion with the neo-liberal way of doing things.

There is also a genuine belief in much of the media of the need for an effective opposition to the government of the day, representing a real alternative. This after all is supposed to be a democracy.

The problem for the Corbyn team is to shift that media belief into giving air to a radically alternative ways of doing government. To date, the mainstream has shown itself prepared to support democracy but this only means, in Labour Party terms, tolerating a neo-liberal lite version of the type represented by Tony Blair.

There is still some shifting of the agenda required before a Corbyn style agenda is seen as a real alternative. There are though plenty of subjects, where Labour can start to really make waves such as over the Brexit negotiation and Theresa May’s grammar school policy.

The hostility will continue but that is no reason to stop trying to get the message over. A strongly led media team would also insist on stronger discipline in the Parliamentary Party, even playing an active role in asserting that discipline. So yes it is an uphill task for Labour to communicate its message to the public via the media but it is not impossible. A more professional and pro-active media operation, properly led, is a vital part of getting that message over.

*published in British Journalism Review - Only Themselves to Blame - December 2016

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Warning to the world in John Pilger's film The Coming War on China


Journalist John Pilger has produced an excellent film chronicling the build up of tension between the US and China, which will have repercussions for us all.

The film looks at how over the years the US has built its military might, placing its bases across the world but particularly recently encircling China. There seems to be a push to fence in the biggest growing economic power via military means.

The Pacific Ocean it would seem is packed full of US warships, just off the China coast. In a telling interview with a US official, Pilger asks how the US would react were there a similar build up off the coast of California.

The veteran documentary maker looks at how the US has behaved in the post war period, using the Marshall Islands for its nuclear tests, with devastating consequences for the inhabitants – many of whom died from cancers.

At one point Pilger looks at a near miss during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when nuclear warheads based on Okinawa, off the Chinese coast, were about to be fired at China. One of the military personnel involved gives a powerful interview 53 years later, where he is still clearly shaken as to how the action could have effectively ended the world.

The focus on nuclear weapons brings home to any rational person the lunacy of proliferation. The number of times these weapons have almost been accidentally set off over the past 50 years should be enough alone to bring an immediate ban. The deterrent argument is a grotesque miscalculation that could have grave consequences for humanity.

Pilger unveils what appears to be the unstoppable growth of the US military industrial complex, with spending on nuclear weaponery and other forms of offence spiraling up under President Obama.

The hope from this rather frightening film comes from people resisting on the ground. There is the Catholic priest Father Mun Jeong-hyeon who has been protesting for a decade against the building of a US base on the Korean island of Jeju.

Father Jeong-hyeon together with other priests says mass every day on the site of the base. He has been arrested and manhandled many times for his protest. There are other similar protests in Okinawa.

These people give the hope needed to fight back against what seems to be a drift to a terrible conflict between the US and China. The most worrying element going forward is the election of President Donald Trump. The film carries footage of some of Trump’s most belicose attacks on China.

John Pilger has revealed a war that is virtually growing in the shadows. The sabre rattling of the US seems intended to provoke some sort of response from the Chinese. The hope must be that as more people become aware of what is happening that the world can be pulled back from what could be the last war.  

* see Independent Catholic News - 9/12/2016
*The Coming War on China can be viewed on playback, while the DVD can be bought from John Pilger’s website – johnpilger.com

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Michael Heseltine relives tarzan moment at performance of This House

Lord Michael Heseltine was taking a trip down memory lane on Monday night when he attended a performance of the political play This House. The play tells the story of the struggle of the whips in the Labour minority government of the 1970s to get Parliamentary business enacted. Sitting a couple of rows back from the stage, there must have been a sense of deja vue as one scene relived the night in 1976 when Tarzan (Heseltine) wielded the mace amid angry scenes in the Commons. There was also the EU referendum in 1975 that resulted in a vote to remain..oh those were the days.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Bilic apologises to the fans after humiliating defeat at the hands of Arsenal


West Ham 1- 5 Arsenal

West Ham dived further toward the relegation zone with this comprehensive defeat at the hands of Arsenal.

A  distraught West Ham manager  Slaven Bilic apologised to the fans and the club for the display.

The manager agreed with Arsenal counter part Arsene Wenger’s assertion that the Hammers lacked confidence. “Confidence is one of the reasons,” said Bilic. “We don’t have the intensity at the level required. The intensity is in the players but there is a lack of consistency. Intensity and dedication to the cause is mssing. It is my responsibility as the manager and we have to get it (intensity) back as soon as possible.”

The home side had the opportunity early on to take the lead when Dimitri Payet split the Arsenal rearguard, putting Manuel Lanzini clear but the little Argentinian saw his shot hit the side netting.

Arsenal capitalised on the miss when Francis Coquelin intercepted a pass from Angelo Ogbonna, putting Alexis Sanchez clear to square for Mesut Ozil to tap home.

It wasn’t though until the 71st minute that the game turned into the Alexis Sanchez show, with the Chilean forward plundering a quick fire hat trick to sink the home team.

First, Sanchez picked up the ball in mid half, then driving into the West Ham area he finished expertly slotting the ball past keeper Darren Randolph.

Nine minutes later Sanchez jinked on the edge of the penalty area, working a space that allowed him to slot home to the right of Randolph.

West Ham did belatedly hit back when a Payet free kick rebounded off the bar to returning striker Andy Carroll, who heade d home.

The Gunners though were not finished, with Alex Oxlade Chamberlain curling in an exquisite shot from outside the area to make it four, before Sanchez completed his hat trick expertly chipping over Randolph after being put clear by Oxlade Chamberlain.

Wenger was happy with the result, reflecting that  his team have scored more goals away than at home, where they play with “a bit more freedom.”

The Arsenal boss confirmed that Sanchez has all the qualities needed to be a top striker. “Sanchez  is quick, dribbles, has a short back lift and killer instinct, he has the quality to play there and is sharp,” said Wenger, who reflected that all the top strikers in Europe at the moment are South American.  

* published Morning Star - 5/12/2016