Monday 30 March 2009

The Wire has arrived!

The critically acclaimed US drama The Wire finally makes its UK terrestrial debut tonight airing on BBC 2. The channel is showing all 5 series running on consecutive weekday nights over the spring. Having recently discovered the series I can hardly wait.

I remember last summer I was out with some former work colleagues, and some people were talking about this US drama The Wire and really raving about it.

At first, after feeling slightly excluded from the conversation, I started to think to myself ‘how come I’ve never heard of this programme’, particularly if it’s so good. My one friend went on to tell me it’s as good as The Sopranos, if not better!

Now as I consider The Sopranos to be one of the greatest TV dramas I’ve ever seen, this opinion made me sit up and take note, here was a programme I needed to find out more about.

Over the next few months, I kept hearing a little bit more about the show; it was on the HBO subscription channel just like The Sopranos, another plus point. I constantly came across comments like, ‘critically acclaimed’ ‘ground breaking’

After 4 or 5 months of this I couldn’t take anymore, so I took the plunge and bought Series 3 DVD box set, purely based on word of mouth, something I’ve never done before. Since then I’ve felt like a member of some secret underground society, and become a huge fan, and slightly obsessive about the whole thing.

For those of you not privileged to have discovered this amazing series, it chronicles the police force of Baltimore and their ongoing war against the local drug trade.

On the surface it appears to be another cop drama, but after a few episodes you soon begin to realise that it’s so much more than that and focuses on the workings of an entire city, paying particular attention over 5 series to the city’s police department, the docks, the mayor and local government. Then moving onto the city’s education system and finally its local newspaper;

I think it has to be one of the most ambitious television dramas that I’ve ever come across. At times the series paints a pretty bleak and pessimistic picture of urban decay in a modern post industrial city, but what I’ve loved about the show is that it’s not just great drama and entertainment, but it’s made me think about how modern cities function, what type of policing we want, how we tackle drug crime, how we’re governed by our locally elected politicians, the role of our education system.

The creator of the show David Simon sees the show as providing the opportunity of reporting and revealing what ‘s really going on in America. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper he claimed:

"It's fiction, I'm clear about that. But at its heart it's journalistic."

From this quote you perhaps get the impression that the show is taking on a role that many sections of the US press and media have failed to do, a point emphasised even further in Series 5 which has the sub-plot of looking at the city’s newspaper ‘The Baltimore Sun’ and the challenges facing the print media with the decline in readership, advertising revenue, and resources, and the subsequent problems this creates in terms of journalism’s ability to accurately report what’s going on in our societies.

The show doesn’t really come up with answers or solutions to any of the social problems raised, but seeing as what goes on in America seems to eventually translate to what goes on in the UK, you can’t help but think about how we deal with things in this country.

Although you can focus on the problems facing modern cities that the show raises, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the show has great characters, and great stories to tell about these characters. They are never portrayed as stereotypes, there are no real good or bad guys, characters are often morally ambiguous but you still feel incredibly passionate about them all.

There’s so much more I could say about this programme, and I’m sure I’ll come back to talk about it in more detail another time, but for now I’ll leave you to watch the show which I’m sure you’ll love.

*Click on the title heading to read a full interview with the show’s creator David Simon conducted with the Guardian.

Monday 23 March 2009

The Death of Jade Goody

I arrived home yesterday afternoon to find out that Jade Goody had finally lost her battle against cancer. For the past few weeks, months and even years, the Jade Goody phenomenon has intrigued, fascinated and baffled me in equal measures.

Only a few week ends ago, walking into the newsagents on a Sunday, to buy some of the Sunday papers, you couldn’t avoid the fact that her story dominated the front pages of all the ‘Red Tops’ I immediately thought to myself that she has now become the new Diana. I suppose that like Diana she lived so much of her life in public that people really felt that they genuinely knew her and that she was somehow part of their everyday lives.

This must surely explain why the Jade story has dominated celebrity magazines for so many years and why she has been on the front pages of so many papers over the last few weeks.

The cynical view is that she wouldn’t have featured so prominently if she didn’t sell copies, but clearly there has always been a huge amount of interest in Jade Goody from certain sections of the public which celebrity magazines and tabloids have clearly tapped into.

Since she discovered that she was terminally ill she claimed that by arranging the various media deals about her illness, and filming her fly on the wall documentary she was ensuring the financial security of her two sons. Nobody could begrudge a parent acting in such a way, and all of this was very admirable and certainly something to be respected.

Along with this, the fact that her illness has helped to publicize and raise awareness of cervical cancer and show how women can go about seeking advice on how to prevent the illness can only be a good thing.

But today having read many of the tributes from politicians, former Big Brother contestants, and from the world of showbiz, so of the comments amaze me and actually make me feel quite uncomfortable.

Max Clifford has turned Goody into some sort of martyr by saying that:

"I think she's going to be remembered as a young girl who has, and who will, save an awful lot of lives. She was a very, very brave girl."

Reading in the Guardian, Reverend Jonathan Blake, is quoted as saying:

“Jade has become for us, so many different things, a saint from Upshire and a princess from Bermondsey, an exemplar of biblical proportions. She spoke what she thought sometimes to the shock and outrage of others”

Having read this, my first thought was ‘Is this for real?’

The BBC quote the racing commentator John McCririck as saying:

"She brought out one of the most serious problems in this country, the inherent racism... that people try and keep quiet….."It's about people who don't know they are racist but when they're losing an argument with somebody whose Asian or a black person they go back to the old stereotypes, and she did that."

Having on a few occasions in my life been on the receiving end of racist comments and opinions, at no point did I think that the person making those comments was raising important social questions on how we deal with race in our society!

Some of these quotes I actually find embarrassing, and a certain level of honesty wouldn’t go amiss at this point. In many respects Goody was someone who got lucky by appearing on Big Brother. Now at this point I have a confession to make. I’ve watched every series of Big Brother since it was first broadcast in 2000. I’m not ashamed to admit this and I clearly remember Goody from series 3.

During the show she displayed at various times, ignorance, stupidity, humour, naivety, kindness, and bullying, sometimes all rolled into one. Such ignorance as not knowing that East Anglia was in the UK or thinking that Rio de Janeiro was a person were celebrated by sections of the media and she was elevated into a real life celebrity with real staying power, something that no other contestant on Big Brother has ever come close to emulating.

At the beginning of 2007, I then watched Celebrity Big Brother of which I hadn’t always been a huge fan of. What was interesting was that she acted in exactly the same way in Celebrity Big Brother as she had done in series 3. But this time the ignorance, stupidity and bullying she had displayed the first time round which had previously been celebrated, was now seen as being unattractive, offensive, and with her treatment of the Bollywood star Shipa Shetty, racist.

Personally I never viewed her treatment of Shetty as being truly racist, it was just pure ignorance and bullying. I found it bizarre that all these commentators were talking about how awful she was behaving, but then thinking to myself, that it was this exact same behaviour and attitude that made her famous in the first place! Why were people so surprised?

I don’t think there can ever be another Jade Goody again. She was a complete one off, and maybe we’re seeing the logical ending of the reality TV experience. In the sense that we the public were there at the beginning to witness the birth of a star, plucked from obscurity, and we were all there at the end to witness her death, even if it was premature and untimely.

As I said earlier, Jade Goody was someone who got lucky, almost like winning the lottery, she was the everyday person, that many people could identify with and relate to, but there’s no escaping the fact that she represented the whole notion of being famous for being famous, being famous but having no discernible talent.

For many young people this has become something to emulate and aspire to, but the likelihood of it happening for most people is remote. Also her life demonstrates that even with fame and fortune it didn’t prevent her suffering from an illness which resulted in her death before she was even 30.

Part of me hopes that there won’t or can’t be another Jade Goody and perhaps her death will mean the beginning of the end the Reality TV form of fame.

Friday 20 March 2009

Who needs a university education?

This week a number of university vice chancellors made proposals for a significant increase in university tuition fees. According to reports more than half of university heads would like to see students pay at least £5,000 a year, with no upper limit, which critics argue would result in many of the country’s elite universities charging some of the highest fees.

For me there are two main points that have been raised. The first one being the debate on who and where university funding should come from. There is now a general consensus, which believes that the idea of university education being free at the point of delivery is now over.

With more people going to university, it now appears totally unrealistic to think that students should not contribute something towards their studying. I was fortunate enough to go to university before tuition fees were introduced, but I would now fully expect to contribute to my education.

In addition to this many of the elite ‘Russell Group’ universities claim that an increase in funding is essential if the UK’s top universities are able to compete with some of the world’s best higher learning institutions. Again this is a perfectly valid argument, and as a nation we should want to see our universities compete with the worlds best.

The second point which has occurred to me, and which I think is equally if not more important is this: How many young people do we want to go to university? And how many young people really need to go to university? For a number of years now the Labour government have stated that it would like to see at least 50% of all young people go on to study at university. Again this figure is unrealistic and if anything adds to the problem of university funding.

Time and time again I’ve heard the government say that people who go to university will on average earn a higher salary in their life time then those who don’t. Now I’m quite positive this was the case 20, 30 years ago, but I’m certainly not convinced by this now.

There seems to be what I can only describe as the ‘graduate-tisation’ of the job market where some people are now doing jobs that require a degree, that a generation ago a good set of O-Levels or A-levels would have been perfectly adequate for. We’re in danger of encouraging too many young people to get degrees which will not earn them fantastic salaries or jobs, but will leave them in huge amounts of debt and perhaps a certain amount of disappointment and bitterness that their degrees aren’t worth what they were promised they would be.

Those who disagree with this will argue that having more people going to university helps people from lower income backgrounds get degrees, and improves social mobility. If anything all that has happened is that more middle class kids now go to university, with social mobility slowly grinding to a halt in this country.

Of course we should encourage people from all backgrounds and walks of life to go onto Higher Education, but we need to think long and hard on the actual numbers we need, and the overall purpose of a degree education. I don’t think we can have this debate of tuition fees without considering these other points.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

New 'Urbanites' and the Rise of the Metro Paper

I read an interesting article on the BBC website yesterday concerning the Metro newspaper , which celebrates its 10 year anniversary this week. Copies of the metro can now be found in most of Britain’s urban centres, 30 cities and towns across the UK and Ireland.

The article looked at the rise and success of the free newspaper and pointed out that the Metro is now seen as creating an entirely new readership of newspapers. This new demographic have been called ‘Urbanite’. The managing director of Associated newspapers who run the paper explained that the term is used to describe their readers who are aged between 18 and 44 in the ABC bracket, white-collar workers.

Now being aged 33, living in London, and in a white-collar job, I would have to say that I to am part of this demographic, and I do read the Metro on a reasonably regular basis on the way to work. But there were some points about this ‘urbanite’ group that made me think that firstly I’m not a true urbanite according to their description, and secondly I’m not sure I want to be part of this new demographic.

According to the Metro’s own research ‘Urbanites’ are ‘young and cool’ …well I think I can still pull that off occasionally. ‘cash rich’ that’ definitely not me, not in this economic climate! And ‘time poor’ yeah I can relate to that. They then go on to say that this group pick up the Metro for convenience and that they enjoy the Metro, as it just provides the facts without telling them how to think.

I enjoy reading the Metro on my way to work as its an easy read where nothing is too taxing which is what you sometimes want at 8:30 in the morning, but half the time I end up reading stories that I either read the day before or saw on TV, its all yesterday’s news. Where I differ from the demographic is that amazingly I still like to actually go out and spend money on newspapers despite the rise in the free press. I don’t necessary believe that by reading national newspapers they are telling me how to think, but I do like to read things that not only inform me, but sometimes challenge me, make me agree wholeheartedly with things or make me disagree totally.

Last week meeting up with a friend after work, she asked me why I still insist on buying the London Evening Standard when there are other free evening London papers. I thought it’s because I’ve always bought the Standard and I have some weird sense of loyalty, but also because there are columnists and journalists who I like to read, who have interesting things to say, or who have a point of view.

This is something you don’t really get with the Metro, as there is no real opinion or analysis, and as a social commentator, Peter York said in the article; by reading the Metro its readers don’t have any political convictions. For me this all sounds very bland and middle of the road. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m a bit concerned if you have this growing demographic of people who are quite happy with this. Peter York went on to say that Metro readers just want a good life, enjoy city living and drink in All Bar One! All Bar One says it all. Safe, nice, and all very middle of the road!

At the end of the article, I had to agree with Peter York again when he went onto say that he thinks the increase in availability of free stuff is damaging, in the same way that getting music for nothing has devalued the experience of hearing music, free newspapers mean that more people do not think about the quality of the information that they are receiving.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Can Europe Hold Off the Premier League Juggernaut?

Last week's Champions League results show there is no sign of the Premier League weakening its grip on the latter stages of the competition. The four English clubs all progressed to the next round to ensure that for a second year running, half the clubs remaining at the quarter-final stage are from the Premier League.

Unsurprisingly this has resulted in a high level of national pride being expressed in the strength and quality of English football and the Premier League, but just what are we celebrating? There's no doubt that the Premier League is the strongest and most glamorous of all the major leagues in Europe, where clubs pay the highest wages which attract the biggest and best names in world football. Having watched the Man Utd/Liverpool game over the weekend the game represented everything that's great about the Premier League.

As a product nothing can touch the Premier League, but does the success of our clubs in Europe really suggest that English football is in the ascendancy? Critics around Europe, particularly in Italy claim the Premier League's current dominance is purely a result of money. I don't think you can really argue against this point. We can now import the best players and coaches but in terms of the number of English players actually playing week in week out for the so called 'Big Four' the success can't be said to be based that greatly on English home grown talent, although Steven Gerrard tries his best to defy this argument in his role at Liverpool.

What's interesting looking at the games from last week, particularly Liverpool's win against Madrid was that the Spanish couldn't live with the pace, power and high tempo that Liverpool played with. These have always been attributes of English football that seem to have been successfully adopted by the foreign players in the English game. In contrast to this we still struggle to produce English players with the same level of technical ability, or who go on to improve their technique playing alongside foreign players.

In addition to this, the tactical side of the game that European sides are sometimes better at (I'm thinking particularly the Italians) has not necessarily transferred as successfully to English footballers as we might have hoped. This may explain our failure to seriously challenge at World Cups and European Championships in recent years.

A few years ago I came up with my own theory that the English Premier League has become the 'Wimbledon tennis' of the football world. Like Wimbledon, the Premier League is a great product, a brilliant competition for players and spectators. Big crowds with history, and tradition, but like Wimbledon the strength and popularity of the Premier League is beginning to have little or no relevance in the ability of this country to produce world class home grown talent.

Admittedly I'm perhaps being a little harsh on English football as we can still produce a hell of a lot more better footballers than tennis players, but there are some parallels. Despite the success of English clubs in the Champions League, the fact that so few English players are involved in this success, means that for the time being I will struggle to see this as the beginning of a golden period of English football.

Another black mark against the ‘War on Terror’

This week Binyam Mohamed a UK resident, revealed in a number of interviews the physical and mental torture he received whilst being held captive by US authorities, 4 of those year spent at Guantanamo Bay.

His account of his imprisonment suggests that the British government was aware of and may have even colluded in his torture. If that idea wasn’t bad enough it took seven years of imprisonment and torture before charges were eventually dropped and for Mohamed to be released.

After his arrest in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002, Mohamed was later that year taken to Morocco where he claims a Moroccan interrogator said to him “Do you know who sent you here? The British sent you here”

Mohamed has also said that his Moroccan interrogator brought him files and binders, which held photos of people living in London and photos of a number of Mosques around the city. From Mohamed’s account it suggests that British intelligence must have been responsible for supplying this information to their American counterparts.

There is no evidence to suggest that British Intelligence services were directly involved or responsible for Mohamed’s torture, but it does imply that British Intelligence would have known that torture methods were being used in the interrogation of Mohamed. Torture made Mohamed confess to a number of far fetched terrorist plots and conspiracies, which he later admitted to making up just to give his captors information that they wanted to hear.

There have already been a number of calls for a judicial review from opposition MPs, and the Attorney General; chief legal advisor to the government has been considering whether to open an investigation into any criminal wrongdoing by British Intelligence. Personally I believe this needs to happen otherwise it gives the impression that the government has something to hide.

Since Binyam Mohamed’s evidence emerged I can’t help but feel disappointment that the government and British Intelligence could potentially be involved indirectly, in the torture of terrorist suspects.

Not only does it raise moral questions on how we capture, detain, and put together cases against terrorist suspects, it also made me think further on just how effective the tactics and strategy on ‘The War on Terror’ has truly been since the attacks on 9/11. Despite the election of President Obama and the subsequent optimism and good will that he has, I’m still pretty pessimistic that there will be any sort of positive outcome in Afghanistan in the first term of his presidency.

As for Iraq, the situation has improved in the last year particularly in Baghdad, but in Basra in the South, despite the withdrawal of British troops, there are many senior US military and Intelligence figures who view this British withdrawal as nothing more then a military defeat. When I think about this situation, along with the account from Binyam Mohamed, I does make me wonder again just where we are going, and what we’re actually achieving in this so called ‘War on Terror’.