THOSE of us who will take any excuse to extend the festive season as far into the future as possible can only be delighted with the way the calendar has fallen this year.
Twelfth Night, the last day of Christmas, was on Friday January 6, leaving the whole weekend to, ah, adjust to the post-Yuletide rigours due to take effect from January 9.
So the good cheer rolls on, for now at least.
Adding to the general jollity of the festive season has been a number of excellent radio and TV programmes. One such was Nothing But the Truth on Radio 4 on January 2 examining whether or not we live in a “post-truth culture”. Very fair minded, and with some interesting insights into the flat refusal of people on all sides to listen to evidence of which they disapprove – such as conservatives who continued to insist that Iraq either had or almost had weapons of mass destruction and liberals who ignore the fact that the evidence is mixed on whether gun control means less crime.
I would have liked, however, one or two interviewees putting a meaty case not so much for “post truth” but certainly for post-official “truth”. Looked at another way, I should have liked someone to paraphrase Michael Gove and state that people have had enough of research.
Really? Absolutely. Indeed, I have had enough not only of research but of evidence, as in “evidence-based policymaking”. Unless proved otherwise, I assume that what is really being discussed is policy-based evidence-making, as in the absurd and widely-ridiculed “drinking guidelines” published last year which mysteriously came in much lower than either previous “safe limits” or current guidance for people in other countries.
When it comes to “dodgy dossiers”, Britain leads the world, from duplicitous figures for train punctuality and “outstanding schools” to “irrefutable” claims that a vote to leave the European Union would plunge the UK into an immediate recession.
What really happened? Here’s The Times on Friday: “Britain ended last year as the strongest of the world's advanced economies with growth accelerating in the six months after the Brexit vote.”
1) Cut away
THIRTY years ago almost to the month I visited a pub in Shepherd’s Bush and walked straight into an old school-friend I hadn’t seen properly since the last day of the Michaelmas Term 1977. On that occasion he had told me (a) I could pinch his much-coveted book-case for my own study, (b) that as he was leaving anyway he had shouldered the blame for the Nothing Club, a short-lived, unauthorised punk venue we had set up on school premises and (c) he was now off to Oxford. Cheerio!
Fast forward more than nine years, and his great enthusiasm of the moment was a book published the previous year, Final Cut by Steven Bach (Faber and Faber; 1986). Bach, a former senior bod at United Artists, tells the story of how the studio was brought low by gross overspending on just one film, the notorious Heaven’s Gate.
I hit the Books etc branch then on Fleet Street the following day and grabbed a copy. I wasn’t disappointed, and read it with a sort of fascinated horror of (and secret admiration for) the excesses of what one French critic called the “air-conditioned Hollywood nightmare”.
All these years later, Bach, who lost his job over the debacle, is no longer with us (he died in March 2009) and neither is his nemesis, the picture’s director Michael Cimino (he died in July last year).
Neither, indeed, is much of the world described in Final Cut. The main events of the book take place between 1978 and the end of 1981. I was reading it in 1987.
Return to parts of it today, as I did, and marvel at how dated has become this once up-to-the-minute, contemporary portrait of the film-making world of yesteryear. Characters routinely smoke and drink – and go for proper lunches – even in California. Bach is mothered with ruthless efficiency by secretaries in both Los Angeles and New York (“Rita came in quietly and slid an airplane ticket into the breast pocket of the blazer I had left hanging on the doorknob. Clipped to the ticket envelope was an itinerary…Phone numbers I might need were neatly typed below that, followed by the late-afternoon return flight information.”)
Some of that breed of personal assistant survive, but not too many.
Perhaps strangest of all to modern eyes are the fora in which Hollywood’s artistic and commercial power struggles are fought out: newspapers, specialist publications, occasionally television. No Twitter, nor any other of our misnamed “social media”.
Happy days. Maybe.
2) The saboteur’s guide to the Leveson press-regulation regime
HERE’S a prediction, a couple actually, about the outcome of the “consultation” currently under way on State regulation of the press, as proposed by Lord Leveson.
One, the “Culture” Secretary Karen Bradley will declare that the operation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 (the part threatening newspapers and periodicals with bankruptcy if they don’t sign up to State regulation) will be substantially amended and modified before being activated.
But, two, it will be activated, as opposed to deep-sixed as almost all newspapers and every freedom-loving person have called for.
(Oh, a third prediction – the amendments and modifications will prove to be worthless. But then you guessed that).
It is time to plan ahead. How can we keep some kind of a free press alive post-Section 40?
I have been looking through the Act in question and it seems to me the key issue is to exploit the get-outs from the definition of a “relevant publisher”, i.e. relevant in terms of being subjected to State regulation.
Schedule 15 goes into detail as regards these exceptions.On the face of it, these are tightly drawn. Special-interest mags (Homes & Garden, What Car? etc) can escape regulation only if they contain “news-related material on an incidental basis that is relevant to the main content of the title”.
I suppose one could try to launch a magazine for people whose “hobby” is current affairs, or financial scandal, but that doesn’t look promising.
Much the same is true of the exception available to company news publications.
“Micro-businesses” (ten or fewer employees, annual turnover under £2 million) face similar restrictions unless they are publishing news-related material as part of a “multi-author blog”. Why they can’t also print the stuff on paper is not explained, but never mind – this has the potential to be a significant loophole, especially if a number of such news micro-businesses join in informal alliances.
There is scope elsewhere for the press guerrilla. Scientific and academic journals will technically labour under the same constraints as the special-interest magazines, but in practice are likely to enjoy far greater manoeuvring room – no-one in authority wants to be seen interfering in academic freedom. Time to set up that think-tank or research institute.
Equally promising is the exemption available to charities. They can publish news-related material “in connection with the carrying-out of its functions”. No mention there of “on an incidental basis”, and charities can be established for any number of reasons, including public education, research, policy debates and, indeed, reporting, as in the Centre for Investigative Journalism.
Finally, book publishers are, of course, exempt. To try to stop journalists masquerading as authors, the schedule states that “’book’ does not include any title published on a periodic basis with substantially different content”. Who fancies trying to get definitions of “periodic basis” and “substantially different”?
You know what? I think we’re going to be fine.
3) Miscellany on Saturday
I had assumed no-one could be more down than I am on the turgid, ideologically-correct bilge that is Sherlock (BBC1). James Delingpole has a go in this week’s edition of The Spectator. You may be able to read it through the website but I wouldn’t bet on it. Despite shelling out £6 or so for their Christmas double issue and £4.25 each for the subsequent two editions I am asked for yet more money when trying to click in.
The New Year’s Day episode lived down to the usual dire standards, but even more unintentionally hilarious was an interview on the same day in The Sunday Telegraph with Amanda Abbington, who plays Dr Watson’s wife, Mary.
For the uninitiated, the writers – presumably to fill up the State broadcaster’s quota of “strong female characters” – have scripted Mrs Watson as a contract killer (I am not making this up). The interview itself was a prime, rare, melt-in-the-mouth slice of lovey-dom just begging to be washed down with a glass of finest claret. Here are some of the riches: “…a psychopath will soon run America and we’re floundering from Brexit…They [her children] have a huge support network [what ordinary people call ‘family and friends’]… I really think the negative connotations around female attributes have to stop…[Sherlock] has been such fun for me, getting to do action scenes and playing such a strong woman.”
Oh, and she’s “trying veganism for January”.
Of course you are.
Incapable of running a railway, Southern/Network Rail/both seem to have stepped up their “security announcements”, perhaps re-imagining themselves as crack troops in the war on terrorism. Rather like a group of kids who, having failed utterly in a spelling test, charge out into the school yard for a game of cops and robbers.
To end where we began, with my aversion to “research” leading supposedly to “evidence”. A fine demolition job was produced in 2013 by Jamie Whyte and published by the Institute of Economic Affairs under the title Quack Policy: Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism.
Here’s just one of his insights:
“Professor Stanton Glantz[’s]…demand that University of California researchers never accept funding from tobacco companies displays a peculiar lack of confidence in the rigour of his own field of inquiry. If studies into the health effects of passive smoking can be conducted in a way that warrants belief in their conclusions, then extra funding of research can only advance our knowledge, regardless of where that funding comes from.”
Thanks again for reading and enjoy the weekend.
Europe Isn't Working by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson is published by Yale University Press