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Monday
Dec032012

The Leveson thing

So, the Leveson report has finally arrived. As far as I can make out, the noble Lord is proposing that newspapers sign up voluntarily to some sort of regulatory system that is technically overseen, albeit at arm's length, by the government. Doesn't sound madly frightening to me (and seems very similar to what has been going on for decades without issue in my home country, Ireland, via the Press Council of Ireland) but cue cries of outrage from the press barons and their lacky Trevor Kavanagh - it's the end of free speech as we know it, yada yada.

I'm not sure however that the lack of an effective regulator of media content is really why the British press is so awful. I think said awfulness has more to do with the issue of media ownership - too much of it is concentrated in too few hands (mainly those belonging to a certain Mr Murdoch), meaning that certain media groups have become so large and influential that they are in a position where they are, in real terms, above the law. As Jeremy Hunt's dalliances with News Corp's Frederic 'Papa' Michel highlighted rather too well, such groups can effectively dictate government policy (or certainly dissuade governments from taking actions or policy positions that are not to their liking); and when a media group like News Corp feels confident enough to interfere so extensively in government, it's no wonder it isn't that bothered about interfering in the lives - or with the voicemails - of ordinary people too (even dead schoolgirls).

My tuppenceworth - not that Lord Leveson is likely to ask for it - is that if politicians are serious about tackling abuse of power by the media (questionable), they should look at how and in whose hands that power is concentrated, rather than trying to tame a media beast with a state regulator (not that I have massive qualms about the latter, providing it's set up correctly). My feeling is that if there was greater plurality of ownership in the UK media, there would be less abuse of power, and potentially more free speech going on, due to editors of multiple newspapers, magazines and TV shows not all having to toe one proprietor's line. A few right-wing tycoons owning most of the media is as much of (if not more of) a threat to free speech as light-touch government regulation designed to protect individuals from inappropriate press intrusion.

But maybe this whole discussion about the press behaving badly is a distraction from what's really going on: printed newspapers, however naughty or nice they've been, are currently in their death throes. They are going online, and as we all know, a national government trying to regulate what goes on online is going to face one hell of a headache. Even if newspaper sites could be regulated to some extent, it would be incredibly difficult to lay down the law to the blogosphere and social media.

One thing is fairly certain however: in this new digital age, owners of heavily-visited sites will be in serious positions of power, and - just like their offline counterpart, ye olde newspaper proprietors - many will be happy to abuse it; again I feel that rather than all this being a question of regulation of content, it boils down to a question of regulation of ownership: how much of the internet's big news / entertainment sites should a government allow one individual or company to own? You'd need an even longer inquiry to begin to get to the bottom of that one...

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Monday
Nov052012

2012 US presidential race: nobody will get elected

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama - they could be singing.
In my head they are doing that 'You sing potato, I like potahto' duet.

I always enjoy following a US presidential election. It's fascinating to watch the world's greatest advocate of democracy (and exporter of it to countries in the Middle East) go to the polls. The debates; the razzmatazz; the rallies; the minute-by-minute polling; the relentless TV adverts. US democracy in action is engrossing, if gaudy, stuff.

The only problem is the democracy bit. Despite politicians' soaring rhetoric about the importance of democracy in US society, there's so little of it available in a US presidential election that it might well be time to send the UN observers in.

Here's why.

Firstly, most votes don't count in a US presidential election. Thanks to a combination of an electoral college and an antiquated first-past-the-post voting system, the only votes that count are those belonging to people living in a few 'swing states'. It's hard to explain this system in a couple of sentences (for an in-depth guide may I refer you to Wikipedia) but it means that: 

  • a presidential election really only takes place in around 5 to 10 of America's 50 states 
  • most of the population is effectively disenfranchised and as a result completely ignored by the candidates
  • you can get elected on a minority of the votes cast (by winning the electoral college but not the popular vote, as George Bush did when he, ahem, won the 2000 election with half a million fewer votes than Al Gore).

Madness.  

Secondly, there's the money. There has always been too much of it in US presidential elections, but thanks to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, it's now easier than ever for rich individuals or organisations to open their chequebooks in support of a preferred candidate. This has led to an astonishing $6 billion dollars being spent on the 2012 presidential race. As Bob Dylan once said, money doesn't talk, it swears - and that sort of cash raises huge questions about elections being bought, vested interests being rewarded politically for donations and so on. Besides that, it's an alarmingly large amount of money to spend on TV adverts made of cheese.

Finally, there's the actual mechanics of the election: nobody really trusts how votes are cast or counted. A lot of this mistrust stems from how things panned out in Florida in 2000, when black people who happened to share surnames with convicts were denied the vote; malfunctioning voting machines were used in poorer areas, rendering many votes (for Al Gore) invalid; and officials overseeing the election (and its aftermath) turned out to be running the Bush campaign in Florida. (Oh, and a bunch of right-wing judges in the Supreme Court, not the electorate, had the final say on who got to be president.)

Many of the Florida problems have not gone away (as the 2012 early voting mess would seem to testify) and there is reason to believe that they are not confined to that state either - for a full overview of some troubling issues elsewhere in the US, Mark Crispin Miller's essay on the 2004 Ohio results is well worth a read, as is this Forbes article about a voting machine company and a certain Mr Romney that invested in it. According to current press reports, there are 'thousands of lawyers' on the ground in several swing states ready to contest the 2012 results. This is not a sign of a country that has confidence in the fairness of its electoral process, and given all the above, it's a country that is right to be suspicious.

These issues make a mockery of US democracy. They mean that, whatever the result of the 2012 election, it can't be trusted. It will be a result that only takes into account the political views of a small minority of US citizens; a result that was bought by vested interests; or a result that ultimately has more to do with lawyers and judges than voters (or all three). Like the rest of the world, I'll be cheering Barack Obama on tomorrow night (if only so that Americans take a step closer to enjoying the sort of healthcare that is commonplace in every other developed country under the sun) - but whichever candidate wins, I'll have big doubts as to whether or not he got elected.

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Friday
Oct122012

Introducing Lettie

In addition to promoting myself shamelessly across the web and other communications channels, I also do a bit of music promo work for some lovely people called Prescription PR.

Whilst doing so, one particular Prescription client caught my ear, the very talented Lettie. Her music didn't just appeal to me though - The Irish Times, Bloomberg, MSN, the Press Association and a truckload of other publications were blown away, and Cafe Nero liked her song 'Mister Lighter' so much that they playlisted it in all their UK stores. Absolute Radio and Radio 2 have been spinning her tracks too.

Anyway I got chatting to Lettie and she has kindly agreed to do a little set to open my forthcoming London gig on 17 October at The Wilmington Arms - another reason to come along :)

To find out a little bit more about Lettie, I'd suggest:

Enjoy.

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Sunday
Sep232012

Upcoming gigs in London and Poland

A quick note about a couple of upcoming gigs - I'm playing a shows in London, UK and in Rzeszów, Poland soon. As ever it would be wonderful to have your support - gig details below (I'll be following this post up with a note about who the special guests are too).

17 October 2012 - London, The Wilmington Arms

A full-band show at London's Wilmington Arms venue on Rosebery Avenue. Tickets are limited so please buy in advance here. Tickets are £9 when bought in advance online or £10 on the door.

  • The show starts at 8pm.
  • The venue address is 69 Rosebery Avenue  Clerkenwell, City of London EC1R 4RL.
  • The nearest tube is Angel (a ten minute walk away) or alternatively catch a 19, 38 or 341 bus. 

BUY TICKET NOW

20 October 2012, Rzeszów, University of Rzeszów

A full-band show in Poland at the University of Rzeszów - Sala Koncertowa Instytutu Muzyki Uniwersytetu Rzeszowskiego, ul. Dąbrowskiego 83.

Doors at 6pm. For ticket reservations, please call +48 17 8721214 (9am - 12pm)

You can purchase tickets in advance at the booking office located at Uniwersytet Rzeszowski, Instytut Filologii Angielskiej, al. Rejtana 16b (building A3), room 112 (9am-12pm)

Tickets are 30zl each.

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Sunday
Sep092012

Americans don't get healthcare

Britain's "socialised healthcare" system, the NHS, as celebrated recently during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games

I guess all US elections are life-and-death elections - as there is usually a trigger-happy candidate on the ticket quite ready to bomb an oil-rich middle-eastern country - but, this time, whatever about the luckless citizens of Iran, the lives and deaths of millions of Americans depend on the outcome of the forthcoming US vote. This is simply because one guy (Obama), if he wins the election, has promised to try to extend access to healthcare to the 50 million Americans without it, and the other guy (Romney) has promised to restrict it. 

For most people in most developed countries healthcare works like this: you pay your taxes, the state provides quality healthcare. Methods of delivery vary, but if you get sick you will get treatment, usually for free and if not, for a fee that will not bankrupt you. (Even conservative administrations that oversee such healthcare systems are generally comfortable with this). In America, in most cases you only get access to healthcare if you can afford insurance (which means having a job) and even then, your insurance policy may not cover a plethora of illnesses or 'pre-existing conditions'; this means you can bet your bottom dollar that, should you have the misfortune of actually having to make a claim, a department at your insurance company will comprehensively scour your policy for even the slightest loophole that will get them out of having to cough up any cash for your treatment.

Needless to say, this has led to a crazy situation in the US, where a few people make an awful lot of money selling insurance, while an awful lot of people can't afford its cost and remain needlessly ill or, worse, die. (All the personal bankruptcies caused by medical debt, not to mention the problem of under-insurance add to this craziness too). As countless in-depth studies by the likes of the OECD, WHO or Commonwealth Fund regularly point out, the good folk of the USA spend more per capita on on healthcare than any other nation, whilst having less access to care than any other first world country. The facts are unambigious: America spends billions on healthcare in a way that guarantees that millions of Americans just won't get any.

But there is another sense in which many Americans don't 'get' healthcare: they are convinced that there is something profoundly weird with the government having any involvement with the delivery of it. There's almost a feeling, when you talk to a lot of Americans, that there is something 'unclean' about state provision of care; they invariably trot out a warning about the perils of a 'socialised medicine' that they have never actually experienced. Many of these same Americans are perfectly comfortable with their 'socialised' military, schools, postal service, judicial system, police service and firemen, yet find the notion of a state-funded healthcare system deeply perverted. (Oddly, some Americans seem more content with the state putting people to death than it helping to save lives, something I find perverse, but let's leave that thorny issue for another day).

No doubt a well-funded and sustained campaign by health insurance companies, designed to instill fear of government delivery of healthcare, is probably to blame for state provision of healthcare becoming a dirty phrase in the US - but for whatever reason, this mindset is a massive roadblock to the creation of a healthcare system that delivers care to all Americans. It needs to be confronted vigorously if the US is ever going to arrive at a situation where, as is the case with the vast majority of all the other industrialised nations, healthcare is guaranteed to all, regardless of citizens' ability to pay.

At this point my American cousins are no doubt thinking that I'm just a patronising cheese-eating-surrender-monkey telling them how to run their healthcare show (although really chums, I'm just a singer pointing out what a lot of respected global health research organisations have been saying for years anyway). But, unlike many Americans, I know first-hand what quality, state-provided healthcare has done for me and my family: my son is alive because of it (as are other relatives, including some cancer-sufferers) and my hearing has been saved by it. I know that I do not have to spend thousands of pounds a year on an insurance policy which may not even cover me if I need to make a claim, and I know that if I am sick in future I will receive free treatment from a healthcare organisation which is routinely described by international studies not just as being one of the absolute best in the world, but one of the best value in the world. That being, of course, the evil purveyor of 'socialised medicine' that is Britain's National Health Service (loved so much by the British that it even ended up getting a huge shout-out in the opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games; in the bar I was watching the ceremony in, the biggest cheer of the night was reserved not for Team GB but for an aerial shot of three letters that momentarily dominated the stadium: NHS).

I'm quite convinced that if American citizens actually get to experience the kind of healthcare that we Europeans receive, they will very much like it - and will in future vote against its removal, rather, than may currently be the case, its introduction. Obama's controversial 'Affordable Care Act', whilst by no means perfect, will widen the health safety net considerably for Americans, is a step in the direction of universal coverage, and crucially, is something that can be built upon or improved should he get re-elected. If Romney gets in, any hope of a decent healthcare system being introduced any time soon will die - and, as a consequence, so will many Americans. That's why, arguably more than other recent US elections, this one is a life or death affair for Americans themselves, and, for the sake of my Yankee cousins and friends across the water, I sincerely hope they take my patronising posts about healthcare on the chin and, er, choose life.

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