Monthly Archives: November 2010
A quick plug for a lovely bit of instrumental electronica from Liverpool band Minion TV.
Their self-titled album is available for purchase, and you can stream it here:
[EDIT: I've had to take out the link, as Bandcamp's code keeps screwing up the page in some browers]
Just £7, with a choice of formats from FLAC to MP3; the second track, Battleships, is a favourite of mine, as is I Hit, I Miss, I Fall.
You can also download their single, Yardsticks, for free.
[EDIT: Bandcamp code removed]
Reading articles about the government’s publication of departmental spending details, I find it interesting to watch commentators struggling to rationalise the price of purchases with their individual notions of the value of what was being purchased. Amidst the decrying of
Crapita Capita receiving several billion pounds, there was precious little discussion of the likely cost of government providing these services themselves. Meanwhile, the value many accord to purchases of IT equipment or services falls short of the price paid for them, leaving people with a view that these purchases were not “good value”.
The publication of these details is an incredibly canny political move: it is that much more difficult to oppose cuts in public services when the public can see line item spending. It doesn’t matter that the individual line items people find objectionable have little to do with the areas being cut; examples of wasteful, stupid, or simply unvalued spend by government departments act as a contagion, damaging the perceived value of other areas.
Those who want to defend a large state – whether ideologically or for vested interests – rightly fear the availability of this information. Unfortunately, most of those who have spoken out against it – notably those running government audit bodies – are themselves speaking in defence of vested interests. They may not be wrong, but their calls for the preservation of their own roles, and denigration of the ability of “civilians” to analyse the raw data, make suspect their legitimate comments about the “value” of professional audit. In a strange way, they find themselves fighting the same existential battle that various parts of the traditional, professional media face.
The media find themselves particularly conflicted over this issue. On a particular level, the Guardian’s long standing commitment to open government and disclosure of government data meets its equally strong commitment to the public services that are be undermined by releasing this information; hence, the initial focus on the size of the spend with private companies. More broadly, traditional media finds itself facing a now routine comparison with citizen journalism: if access to information is democratised, devaluing the traditional, insider’s privileged access to information enjoyed by journalists, this undermines the value of traditional news content.
It does something similar to politicians. Obtaining figures from government departments has been a traditional tool for MPs to seek to embarrass or pressure the government, but if the information is in the public domain as of right, this tool – in reality, this undemocratic, privileged access to information – all but disappears.
There are also parallels with the ongoing debate about the use of paywalls for online content, which make me wonder if there’s not a good argument for applying a similar disclosure of costs to the media.
The analogy may not be obvious, but knowing the price of everything, but the value of nothing, isn’t merely a pre-requisite for dressing in brand emblazoned clothing: it’s also the default state for most people consuming paid-for content, whether online or off. When someone buys a newspaper, they are paying for many bits they do not want, because it’s the only way to obtain the ones they do.
Saturday newspapers: forests died for this. The first bit I dump is the sports section. I have been known to leave this with the newsagent. Anything marked “Family”, “Money”, or “Travel” might possibly be scanned, before disappearing into a bin. The “Review” may survive long enough to be skimmed, then dumped on a coffee shop table. I place a negative value upon these sections – they occupy space in my bag for no purpose at all. If the glossy magazines were loose leaf, most of them would never leave the polywrap.
It’s no surprise that media corporations – whether News International or the BBC – approve of this business model. It makes life so much easier. For them.
No high street retailer could adopt the lazy approach to content provision most “channels” or “outlets” do. You can tailor your range to try and concentrate on certain customers, but if you don’t provide everything that those people want and need, they simply go elsewhere. It would be fundamentally wrong to equate this to channel hopping; to “hop” away from a BBC or Sky channel, you must already have paid for them. Walking out John Lewis and into Marks and Spencer involves no such financial loss.
This bundling of content begs the question: how do the producers themselves apportion value?
We know what the content costs in toto – whether £2 for a Saturday newspaper, or £140 for a TV licence – but we rarely want, let alone use, most it. One simple measure of editorial value is the cost of the content; if the BBC is spending £1,000,000 per hour on a drama series and £50,000 per hour on a factual programme, it’s reasonable to suggest that the Corporation places a significantly greater value upon the former. In broadcast media, there could be other factors to consider – potential resale value of an original production, perhaps – but for a newspaper the only consideration is the value the publishers believe a notional consumer will place upon having that content. The price that the publishers – or perhaps more accurately the editors – are willing to pay for a particular piece of content should then be a reasonable analogue of value.
Unlike in broadcast media, however, there’s rarely anyway for consumers to obtain this information, leaving them to form their own views.
Reading the “lifestyle” columns, all wasted white space and self-consciously-unusual photos of the writers, may foster a view that the editor assigns too high a value to two hundred appallingly indulgent words smeared across a mostly blank page. Those probably earned their author high hundreds of pounds, if not more, while the pithy, interesting hundred words taking up just part of a column on the following page was probably only worth fifty quid.
Then there’s the multi-page, photo spreads of “celebrity of the week”. These are probably free of charge,but only if you discount the tacit agreement with the relevant PR company that their wo/man would be given a broadly positive write up. And allowed to mention their new album/book/film/series/facelift the requisite number of times.
Let’s not even mention fashion columns, in which somebody with a job title suggesting editorial ability drones on about the time thirty years ago that someone who has been dead for a decade once used a particular garment in a poorly remembered show and how someone who merely looks as if they have been dead for a decade is now preparing to use the same garment again, while all the time a little voice inside is screaming that the photo of the columnist in said garment makes her look as if she has recently escaped from a secure unit and dashed through the nearest Sue Ryder shop in an attempt to find something anything that would hide the NHS issue hospital gown emblazoned with the name of the asylum in question…
But I digress.
Here, then, is the modest proposal: every byline to be accompanied by a statement of editorially assigned value, in the form of the cost to the newspaper of this piece of content.
The results would, I suggest, be enlightening.
- The embittered political hack writing a diatribe a week? £1,000 a time.
- The freelancer with the lyrical turn of phrase? £300 a piece.
- The award winning news reporter? £150 a day.
The same principle, of course, applies to general news content, and would be no less enlightening.
- Front page attacking the paper’s political bugbear? £75, including coffees consumed writing the headline.
- Two columns on a natural disaster in the third world? £15, plus the cost of the agency feed.
- The editor? £1,500 an issue.
After all, if it’s good enough for government…
At first glance, there’s not much in common between me getting a £20 parking ticket, and the Metropolitan Police having a site that monitored their Forward Intelligence Teams pulled from the internet, but both demonstrate the extent to which “law enforcement” often has more to do with convenience that enforcing any law.
Apparently, last Saturday night, I committed an offence under section 64(3) of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. This was news to me. Parking my car in Liverpool on Saturday night, I parked in an empty parking bay. It was definitely a parking bay. I park there often during the day. It has a blue and white parking sign on a post, a coin operated ticket machine, a set of local authority terms and conditions. I am particularly certain that it’s a parking bay because I have previously been stung for £35 after getting back to my car late. This time, as it was after 6pm, I was not expecting any nasty surprises.
But apparently, this was no ordinary parking bay: it was capable of undergoing a transformation into a taxi rank, leaving me with a “Notice to Driver of Vehicle Parked on Taxicab Stand”.
Now, I have options. I could ignore the notice, and see if they bother to summons me. I could dispute the notice, demand a hearing in front of the magistrates, and argue that it was local authority’s fault – their failure to make it clear that parking was not permitted after a certain time – that I was parked there. Or I could just pay £20.
There’s always a chance, if I do go before the magistrates, that they’ll side with me, tear a strip off the local authority, and send me out with my honour intact. There’s also a chance – which I’d rate as the greater chance – they’d shrug, fine me £100, and make me pay the Council’s prosecution costs. And then there’s the amount of time I’d waste even if I was exonerated – worth a lot more to me than £20.
So, on balance, despite the fact I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, I’m going to pay up and chalk it up to experience. I’m paying up, despite the fact I don’t think I broke the law, because it’s easier, cheaper, and more efficient.
Which brings us to FIT Watch.
FIT Watch is a blog which monitors the Metropolitan Police’s Forward Intelligence Teams, or FITs. FITs specialise in taking photographs and videos of protestors; FIT Watch returns the favour – posting photographs and details of these police surveillance officers. Last week, however, FIT Watch published a post offering advice to people involved in the Milbank riot which went much further. The tenor of the piece was clear – suggesting ways to avoid being linked to criminal offences committed on the day – and included the following:
DO get rid of your clothes. There is no chance of suggesting the bloke in the video is not you if the clothes he is wearing have been found in your wardrobe. Get rid of ALL clothes you were wearing at the demo, including YOUR SHOES, your bag, and any distinctive jewellery you were wearing at the time. Yes, this is difficult, especially if it is your only warm coat or decent pair of boots. But it will be harder still if finding these clothes in your flat gets you convicted of violent disorder.
Advising someone to dispose of evidence is a serious matter, but it might have been argued that this was simply directed at “innocent bystanders”…had the piece not gone on to be even more explicit:
DO be careful who you speak about this to. Admit your involvement in criminal damage / disorder ONLY to people you really trust.
After this post was published, FIT Watch’s ISP received an e-mailed letter from the Metropolitan Police, alleging that the FIT Watch site was engaged in perverting the course of justice, and promptly pulled the site down. The letter itself is notable for what it does not say – it does not assert any power to force the removal of the site, nor does it demand that the site be removed; it merely “requests” this. Gaijin-San has offered an excellent analysis of its text here.
My initial response was that the e-mail is like the domain renewal scam e-mails which all domain owners or administrators will have come across. I stand by that – the email is worded in a way which I believe could serve to give someone without legal experience or training the impression that the police had greater powers here than was in fact the case.
Whether that’s deliberate, I don’t know. With a domain renewal scam email it would be, but many enforcement officers (not just police) simply get into the habit of writing in this kind of a cod-”official” legalese
What the ISP thought here isn’t known, but – given they removed the site – they either believed that the Met had the power to order its removal, or they made the decision that it would be easier, cheaper, and more efficient to pull the site down, rather than force the Met to go and get a court order. From the ISP’s point of view, such a decision is entirely sensible. They could have stood their ground, refused to remove the site without a court order, and taken the matter to court, but I doubt this would have many upsides for the ISP. Leaving aside the legal costs of fighting and losing, there are intangible effects (such as PR) to consider. And I don’t doubt they’d lose: I’ve seen little debate about whether FIT Watch’s post was perverting the course of justice, and frankly, I don’t see how it can realistically be argued it wasn’t. If flashing your headlights to warn of speed traps is perverting the course of justice, how much more so is advocating that people involved in criminal damage dispose of their clothing?
As to the Met, I agree with Gaijin-San – it’s not desirable for the Met to be behave this way – but I also recognise that they succeeded in having the site removed immediately, at zero financial cost. That needs to be considered, and for many people, that would count as effective policing.
That it was also phenomenally stupid policing, which betrayed a basic lack of understanding about the Streisand Effect, is a problem.
By my rough count, there are now almost 200 sites mirroring FIT Watch’s original post, and dozens of mainstream media stories about the issue. FIT Watch’s Twitter account has been thanking the Met for the free publicity. Coming shortly after the #IAmSpartacus protest, such a response was entirely predictable, and the apparent failure to predict it calls the judgement of the officers involved – especially the purportedly expert IT computer crime division – into question.
I’m not sure if they could have predicted Yoda taking an interest, however:
Photographs, on Facebook put them you should not. Pictures lead to identification, identification leads to arrests, arrest leads to imprisonment.
If Provisions of CJPOA 1994 you have learned and Lord Bingham’s judgment in case of Argent you can recite, implications of adverse inference with lawyer you may discuss. If not big mouth you should shut before fat foot you put in it.
It’s open to the Met to try and repeat their approach with the dozens of ISPs involved in hosting the sites which are mirroring the original FIT Watch post – but the balance of convenience has now swung the other way. Trying to get 200 sites pulled down would be a nightmare, and what if someone decides to fight? The worst possible outcome for the Metropolitan Police is that they go to court, and the court finds against them. Best to chalk this one up to experience.
At least next time, Detective Inspector Hodg(e)son will understand the Streisand Effect.
Two posts in two days on arts funding…
News that Arts Council England is to require the organisations it funds to periodically reapply for their grants is most surprising for the fact that it should be news at all: the idea that such funding was simply rolled on, from one year to the other, without any formal process of re-application is bizarre.
ACE’s Chief Executive, interviewed on Today this morning, appeared to admit that there was previously no clear process for new organisations joining the funding roster. If this is accurate, then it is beyond bizarre, and raises serious questions about the manner in which his predecessors, and the board of ACE, have previously managed the public funds they disburse.
The introduction of a specified and transparent process for periodically reapplying for funding comes as Art Council England’s budget is cut. In this first year, reserves will be used to soft the blow, restricting the reduction to 0.5% for all but two of the funded organisations. Even this small reduction amounts to a larger real terms cut in funding (once inflation is factored in) and subsequent years will have no such cushion.
Against this backdrop, the distribution of grants given by Arts Council England is…interesting:
|Region||Budget before cut, £||% of total
|| E Midlands
|| North East
|| North West
|| South East
|| South West
|| West Midlands
|| Yorks & Humb
Frankly, “interesting” isn’t the right word. The specific adjective surely depends upon your political persuasion.
In the language of the
ConDemNation Coalition, this distribution is not “fair”.
In the language of the Labour Party and those of the left, it is not “progressive”.
In the language of anyone with half a modicum of economic sense, it is “moronic”.
Public sector funding is contracting, causing serious concern about the future prospects for those regions which are reliant upon public sector employment. At such a time, the idea that more than half of such funding should be directed to the capital is absurd.
Look beneath the headline numbers, and the situation actually gets worse.
The Royal Opera House currently receives £28,436,991 per year from Arts Council England. One single venue, delivering one art form, based in Central London receives 7.9% of all ACE funding:
- more than the sum of all the ACE grants to organisations in the North West.
- twice as much as ACE gives to the North East.
- significantly more than ACE gives to the East and East Midlands regions put together.
According to the Royal Opera House’s own figures, it issues slightly less than 800,000 tickets a year, about half of which cost in excess of £50 – and the tax payer is currently subsiding every ticket by about £36.
Just to really ram home the point, lets compare and contrast Arts Council England funding to the North West region (population c. 6.8 million; aggregate ACE grant £24,834,681.45).
The North West’s per capita grant is just £3.65.
I could make arguments about the demographics of the audience of the Royal Opera House, or about its outreach (or relative lack thereof) but when every ticket to the Royal Opera House receives a subsidy ten times the per capita grant to the North West region, I don’t think those arguments can add anything.
(Current Arts Council grant: £599,500; 2008 visitors: c.1,000,000; per visitor grant £0.60).
Arts funding will need to be fought for over the coming fiscal contraction. This will need cold, numerical facts, together with individual passion. It must be done in the full knowledge that the current distribution of Arts Council funding is not “fair”, or “progressive”, or even sensible. The kind of vague, politically naïve waffling against “the Cuts” which was offered on the Biennial’s blog earlier this week is the surest way to see funding for the arts cut further, and the current massive London-centric bias in distribution maintained.
Anyone worried about cuts to arts funding, or what they’ll mean for the future of the Liverpool Biennial, should read this post on The Biennial Blog, attributed to its Artistic Director, Lewis Biggs.
Rambling, confused, factually unsupported, lacking any connection to the Biennial itself, or even arts or culture in general, it is at best a badly constructed attack on “capitalism” in general, and at worst a poorly veiled attack on the current government in particular – that last only aggravated by a pretentious opening statement that
The charitable status of Liverpool Biennial does not allow lobbying for any political party, so I restrict my comments to non-party-political arguments.
This is apparently the first time that Lewis Biggs has contributed to the Biennial’s blog. It isn’t an auspicious start. It is my fervent hope that nobody at the Biennial office yesterday had the authority to prevent the Artistic Director commandeering the blog to publish this piece. If it reflects the way in which the rest of the Biennial’s management proposes to go about responding to the issue of public sector cuts, we may as well kiss the Biennal goodbye now.
It is too easy for those “on the right”, who favour cutting arts funding, to write off much of arts and culture as being “of the left”. Doing so allows them to treat cuts in arts funding as being a political act on par with removing the trade union modernisation fund. Handing those people a gift like Biggs’ piece is idiotic.
More broadly, with all public funding for the arts under threat, the last thing we need is this kind of counterproductive mess being published in the name of a major festival. The work being done by Save The Arts is how to build a coalition for arts funding, and the economic case is now being widely communicated – this piece from David Bye is a well put together jumping off point for exploring this side of the issue.
[And I don't discount impassioned personal pleas when they actually make a case - this personal piece from Alan Lane of Slung Low is an excellent example.]
I left a comment on The Biennial Blog shortly after it was posted yesterday, saying much of what’s above; at time of writing it is still “awaiting moderation” (which is odd – given the very low level of engagement with the Biennial blog – most articles attract no comments at all – you’d have thought they welcomed responses…).
If you care about the arts, and about the future of the Biennial, I’d encourage you to comment on Biggs’ piece. Use your comment to say what cuts in arts funding would mean to you. Talk about the benefits you think public funding of the arts has generated for you, or your local area. As a community, let’s try and turn one man’s own-goal around.