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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Of motes and beams

Jim Devine, the former Labour M.P., has just been released from jail after serving 4 months of a 16 month sentence for expenses fraud to a feeding frenzy of righteous indignation. Incumbent members are on holiday and generally unavailable for comment. Brazen editorialising has paraded as straight news, spraying cold-filtered opprobrium with gay abandon and no inferable sense of irony.

Now, some might think it reasonable to say, on the basis of what they have learned, seen and heard of the man, that he would not be one’s first choice to be stuck in a lift with for any length of time. That monotone Lanarkshire brogue, despite being perfectly intelligible to anybody who can see their way to leaving a few prejudices at home for a minute is, nevertheless, for dialect connoisseurs and collectors only.

By way of a motif, it might be worth considering something obvious, something that can usefully withstand repetition now and again; Jim Devine was voted into office. In a democracy, this in itself has to carry weight, even if it is dead weight. Chip away at this and you effectively over-rule a plebiscite and a rapidly widening wedge will sense an opportunity.

Regardless of political persuasion – and I am no admirer of the Central Scotland Labour tribe – I can’t believe that Jim Devine is as evil to the core as the present media scrum would have us believe. Leaving aside the relatively small size of the sum and the punishment he received, it was all returned and more was spent banging him up. The sheer ineptitude he displayed was criminal in itself and, shackled fast to an indelibly stained reputation, should pretty well rule out him getting away with jay walking, let alone repeat offending.

As criminal prosecutions go, this one could be said to have delivered on all counts; detection, apprehension, full remuneration, punishment, l'encourager des autres, satisfaction of public bloodlust and as cast-iron a guarantee of non-recidivism as is ever likely to arise. Given the degree of dissatisfaction so often expressed concerning our criminal justice system, I'd call this a result.

And given that few will actually know the man, it might be said in mitigation that few come across optimally when surrounded by a baying mob of coke-addled alcoholics from the British press accompanied by hoards of palpably hostile photographers who seem to have taken staged reportage to new extremes by tormenting the subject into a spontaneously newsworthy pose, rendering him wild-eyed through a stroke-inducing barrage of modern electronic flash guns with a hundred times the capacity of what existed only ten years ago. (Funny. They warn you when you’re watching the news in complete safety but when a good-sized pub-full of Nikon-wielding thugs are each firing bursts of 10 flashes a second, 2 feet from your face, nobody cares.)

By way of contrast, by some margin, many consider George Osbourbe to be perhaps the most punchable politician around, this set against some perfectly stellar opposition. If a facility to induce apoplexy in complete strangers is a career liability, I'd say George has been quite lucky. He doesn't need to fiddle his expenses, but he's showing himself up to be one of the dodgiest accountants in modern British history. I'd prefer a chancellor with more tightly-focused self-interest at stake. Having something to lose concentrates minds and he's got lots. 

Somewhere in amongst this, issues of proportionality inevitably surface. Though it may not seem like it sometimes, there are only so many journalists and paparazzi, only so many stories to cover at any one time and, importantly, only so much space to publish it all in. Editorial decisions need made and these generally distil down to crude arithmetic. Decisions are made concerning what sells. Fair enough, but by allowing corporate acquisitiveness alone to be the ultimate arbiter in such decisions, one’s moral compass can sometimes decalibrate. News Corps might be a case in point.

The sheer mass of information echoing around, through, over and under us is now so overwhelming that we need to put up barriers to keep the aneurisms at bay. The quality of some of it is so awful, sometimes poisonous and, perhaps infuriatingly, often the diametric converse, that our senses are left punch drunk. And while much of what occupies our collective imagination can assume exaggerated urgency simply because of saturation coverage rather than any inherently greater significance, now and again there are surges of biggies that everybody notices. 2011 has been an eventful year and shows no sign of settling down. The fact that we all seem to recognise when something really significant happens is important. It indicates the existence of that supposedly threatened species, the common thread.

But without some kind of reliable filtering mechanism it is more than only the most sainted altruists can practicably cope with and we find ourselves feeling no choice but to switch off if we want to retain a semblance of sanity and self-worth and by doing so we know that we miss stuff that might just be useful to us. Those looking to explain the decline of political activity amongst the British electorate in the last 30 years could do worse than start here.

One thing is clear and that is that increased volumes of information and instant global broadcasting of everything from heartbreaking natural disasters to the very minutiae of minor celebrities’ tedious lives, not to mention the rapidly self-replicating algal bloom emanating from Facebook and Twitter, does not seem to have left us much the wiser. Some may aver that quite the contrary has occurred and in some style, too. The forces of mass-stupification are stalking the land, they say, and many certainly seem hell bent on proving them right. 

With Rupert Murdoch, the very archetypal evil media baron and a prime candidate for a role as a baddie in any Batman movie presently being subjected to what is looking increasingly like an autopsy, it is probably a better time than ever to re-establish a set of simple benchmarks of evil and definitions of freedoms of the press, the better to cope with new problems, not just for our media, but for everybody. Responsibility is a two way street and if people get caught out by the stupidity or worse of the press they have fewer excuses nowadays; they’ve been warned.

A Medusa’s raft of old assumptions and certainties have been swept over the side. One of these was no more or less than a well established belief in their own invincibility amongst press and police, this following hot on the heels of disgraced parliamentarians and yet to be properly disgraced bankers. The public’s gander is about as up as it can be and they know that this time they’d better watch spots.

Before any Daily Mailers and Sun readers think they’ve stumbled upon yet another intellectual equivalent of a Big Mac, bugger off. Blazered buffoon and white van man are in no position to pontificate. They thrive off the pickings of the most diseased, feral elements of the press and, frankly, present the only good argument for curtailing its freedom far too convincingly. Liberty is also a two-way street and they take too many with peoples' sensibilities.

But if our media ever did develop a sense of proportion, some kind of moral imperatives will need to guide them. I think it’s a safe bet that just leaving them to get on with it without any input from the world in which they ply their trades is not a safe option. Nobody should feel uncomfortable with such high-mindedness; we make unambiguous moral decisions all the time.

It might be better, then, to instigate a healthy debate now than wait for the next outrage and for some opportunistic bright spark to seek to capitalise every time the press oversteps the mark and use it to bring in draconian knee-jerk legislation of the type so favoured by both New Labour and elements of the supposedly freedom-loving, neo-liberal right-wing.

So, where does this leave Jim Devine? Well, seeing as how everything is up for grabs, let’s look at some of the events and individuals that have caused so much anguish for the guardians of our collective morality in just the last few years.

Somehow, supported by an unprecedented groundswell of public support after 2 decades of a hated Tory administration, with a three figure majority and effective carte blanche to bring about any amount of progressive political, social and economic change and on the back of what was still an intrinsically socialist manifesto, Tony Blair fell in love with George Bush, lied his way into endorsing one of the ugliest wars of modern times and is now a multi-millionaire and seemingly untouchable. Door-stepping this creep sounds good to me.

The world’s economic structures are seemingly teetering on the brink of collapse, we are told, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that the people shaking the building are the same ones bringing us these tidings. Their warnings sound more like threats to me. What they mean is that if they don’t get exactly what they want all the time, we will be punished. At the risk of labouring a point, despite it all, the bankers are still helping themselves and our impotent rage means nothing to them. British banks announced a bonus pot of £14 billion pounds, down – apparently – from the £19 billion they gave themselves in 2007. This was announced with perfect timing just as Rupert Murdoch was being savaged by a paper plate of shaving foam and saved by his dashing wife, Wendi, 34-24-34, to the delight of everybody as it was all becoming a bit too dry for viewers. Maybe get this back on the front page for a while.

As for M.Ps and scales of relative perfidy, Jim Devine’s and others' biggest mistake lay in being unfortunate enough to have been far from arbitrarily singled out and not having the best lawyers and most imaginative accountants. The devil lurked in the detail. Just as our media likes to project an impression of balance in its pronouncements - which within imperfectly defined criteria it does to an extent (q.v. Fox News and then complain about our lot); the issues largely lie in the moral vacuum that appeared in the vastness of modern communication while we were all bamboozled and hypnotised by shiny toys which weren’t even imaginable a decade ago – the  Westminster parliament likes to think of itself as the natural resting point of considered debate. So an elected parliament damned well should be in any civilised country. This is not a perfect arrangement I know, but all things considered, which they must be, like it or not, the alternatives to representative democracy are invariably much worse.

This being the case, Jim Devine and a few others can reasonably claim to have been singled out for exemplary and, frankly, outrageously disproportionate treatment, the only consistent theme to these men being so harshly punished being that they clearly didn’t have the right kind of friends in either the permanent civil service or the metropolitan village.

It seems too ridiculous to be treated as anything more than a quirky anecdote, but some elected M.Ps couldn’t for the life of themselves see anything untoward in claiming for duck houses and moat cleaning. The media let them off the hook and so did we. Jim Devine has suffered the modern equivalent of a public flogging, even the slightest cry for mercy shouted down, no quarter given, but if contempt of parliament and its institutions is the charge, I'd say taking the rise like this is probably worse than petty theft. Mr Devine was at least trying to avoid being seen, which in the logic of the criminal is the nearest thing they know to respect; these clowns were high-fiving and yahooing. 

At the risk of causing arousal to those in certain special needs groups, in terms of media intrusion and coverage, paedophiles get an easier time. And he isn’t sitting on the board of a company selling arms to Middle-eastern and African psychopaths and he most certainly won’t have been the first businessman to have played fast and loose with the accounts. He started with little and he’s certainly not got a full diary now and nor is he likely to. Some have been luckier.

Jim Devine will disappear into a life of obscurity, probably scared to go out lest the pack descends. Some may try to argue that he probably wasn't great parliamentary material in the first place, but even vaguely consistent scrutiny could make this a busy ship. And in any case, decisions on suitability here are made by secret ballot, not by ritualised, public, reputational lynching. He's learned his lesson and everybody is happy. Some should consider the nature of the grace of God and whither they may have ended up had a few comparitively petty first offenders not taken the heat.

Now that we have established these fairly uncontroversial points, I wonder how Fred Goodwin is these days?