Saturday, 31 December 2011

Nineteen Eighty-four and 2012

The stuff of politics is power.

A political process is the means by which conflicting attempts to obtain power can be reconciled; it seems a truth of human nature (as well as of other animals) that there is always someone who wants the individual currently with any power not to have it.

Subject to this, there are then different types of power.

The brute force of physical coercion is subject to who has control of military and civil police forces.

The power of formal language, backed ultimately by coercion, is the stuff of law and the justice system.

The ability to make allocations of scarce resources is the essence of economics and social policy making.

And perhaps until recently there was the control of information.

The state and the media determined who knew what, and when.

Even now there are politicians and media folk who believe that a "command and control" approach to communications is still unproblematic: the internet and the ability to move and publish huge amounts of data are mere details to be addressed by more regulation.

In Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell extrapolates certain themes of the mid 1940s and posits them in the mid 1980s. Some of these he gets right, even now on the eve of 2012.

Big Brother is watching us more than ever.

However, Nineteen Eighty-four accepts that there would still be a "command and control" approach to communications. Winston Smith amends and censors the news record, and Times editorials are exemplars of Newspeak.

One wonders what Orwell would have made of a future where communication was not the monopoly of the elite.

Would Orwell have seen that as just another problem to be managed by the totalitarian?

Or would he not have been able to imagine a totalitarian regime without complete control of the means of communication?

But what is clear is that the government and media elite cannot casually control information flows is something relatively novel in modern politics.

(It is tempting at this point to make a comparison with the Reformation where - some historians tell us - there was a movement against the established churches because people could read the scriptures for themselves, in the vernacular. However, against this lazy caricature is the fact that many still relied on their religious leaders for interpreting scripture: there were just new interpretations and new leaders.)

Will there need to be a new politics in response to the inability of the state and the media elite to now keep complete control over information flows?

Will there be a utopia of informed citizen politics?

Is it going to go all participatory?

The answer probably lies in the other probable truth of human nature (as well as of other animals) that there are always many individuals who don't want power themselves, whoever else gets it.

Those seeking power will usually be a small minority; and the better power-hunters will adapt more successfully to new circumstances.

For example, it was political geniuses such as Disraeli and Salisbury that realised that the new mass electorate in late Victorian Britain could actually be exploited by a popular and well-organized conservative party.

What will happen will be that those seeking power - either in politics or in the media - will now just become more adept at sailing their ships with no full control over the buffeting of the waves.

The best politicians and media leaders will now harness the energy of those willing to spend time synthesizing and interpreting data; there will be a general realisation that the key political skill in respect of information flows will be opportunism, and not management.

Those wanting power - over coercive force, and over law-making and allocation decisions - will still be there. They will still be watching us and intruding on our autonomy.

But - to invoke Orwell again - they will no longer be be able to insist easily that two plus two is five.

They will instead leave it for us to work out whether that is correct for ourselves.

And, sadly, one suspects few of us will.


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Monday, 26 December 2011

Erecting a statue of George Orwell

Someone is suggesting that a a statue of George Orwell be erected just outside the new BBC building.

On the face of it, this seems a splendid idea.

Orwell and the BBC - civility and decency, the qualities that any thinking and sensible person would endorse - together in one place.

What could be wrong with that?

It is true that for a writer of such a considerable reputation there is little in any formal and tangible recognition of George Orwell - there is, for example, no plaque at Westminster Abbey.

Yes, there is a prize in his name and a fine scholarly collected edition; yes, his books are on the shelves of homes and schools; and, yes, phrases and ideas from "Room 101" and "Big Brother" to "Newspeak" and "more equal than others" float freely in our elite and popular culture.

But there is nothing to go and actually see.

One suspects Orwell himself would have loathed the idea of a statue.

For although Orwell was serious about promoting his writing and his ideas, and was assertive in protecting his interests about payment and publication, he rarely promoted himself in any direct manner.

He was a modest and gentle man, and the notion of any personal ostentation would have riled him, as it would have done for many of his time and social background.

It was not the done thing.

Even his grave shows this lack of fuss.

Stuck in an Oxfordshire village, which he himself did not visit - the funeral was arranged by a friend - the gravestone's epitaph is simple as could be.

No mention of his famous pseudonym and no mention of "writer" - and certainly no crude tribute or awkward versifying - it just has his birth name and dates.

If you want to go and see something about Orwell, go and see his grave.

A statue would undoubtedly have smacked to Orwell - and it really should smack to us - of a cult of personality - the wrongful detachment of the person from their substance.

Indeed, a more appropriate physical monument to Orwell would be based on one of his essays, where he sought to depict the significance of things - a cup of tea, say, or a common toad.

The last thing the legacy of Orwell requires is a statue.

The intellectual and cultural significance of Orwell should not be some fixed monument, promoted by do-gooders to the approval of those in power.

What would be far better would be for people not only to read Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm and the brilliant essays like Politics and the English Language - but to re-read and think about them so as to see if there is anything in there still of general application.

And if we are to have this statue of Orwell, why not have more?

"...the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shinning and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything except the statues that were erected everywhere. The black-mustachio'd face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one by the house front immediately opposite.

"GEORGE ORWELL IS WATCHING YOU, the inscription said..."


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Thursday, 22 December 2011

Why are lawyers hated?

Sitting there, as you scrape the bottom of any barrel, are the lawyers.

They sit alongside the estate agents and the tabloid journalists as those with the jobs that people claim to hate.

Most good and sensible people seem to be agreed that it is perfectly fine to dislike the legal profession.

It is an utterly acceptable social prejudice.

Why is this so?

In some ways, it is a strange hostility.

Few lawyers work on their own account; the usual situation is that a lawyer is acting for someone else.

The classic model is that the lawyer merely offers expertise in the law and advocacy which lay people do not have themselves.

However, it is the lawyer who is deplored, and not their client. To be annoyed that a person or company has engaged “bloody lawyers” or that a situation “has gone legal” is perhaps to implicitly absolve those instructing the lawyers from any real blame.

This disdain goes beyond the lawyers of other people.

Many people dislike their own lawyers and – quite genuinely – cannot see the point or the value in what they do. A letter costing £300, or a conveyance taking three weeks too many to complete, seems to be counter-intuitive.

What is actually being paid for?

And why are clients placed into situations where they feel compelled to pay significant amounts of money for what appears to be little concrete output?

What makes this antipathy particularly odd is that it is often accompanied by sentimentality about the heroic and defiant lawyer. Whether it be Atticus Finch or Perry Mason there is a general sense that whilst lawyers in general in bad, particular lawyers “on the right side” can be very good.

This positive sense is adopted even in personal life: when there is a certain type of crisis, the first thought of many people is to get the best lawyer they can (even if for various reasons such a lawyer is not available, or even in existence).

And any practicing lawyer will tell you of the friends who diss the legal profession one moment and seek free legal advice the next.

So what can explain why lawyers are hated?

One answer perhaps lies in the very nature of law.

The stuff of law consists of words and coercion. Lawyers, like wizards and witches with spells, believe that certain words when set out in formal and learned ways can have particular consequences.

For lawyers these words are contained in contracts, statutes, writs, wills, questions and speeches in court, and so on.

But unlike magical folk, the lawyers’ words can and do lead to real-world effects: for example, the bailiff at your door, or the guard taking you to the cell.

The job of the lawyer is deal with special forms of words, and the worldly implications that those words can have in any given situation.

This, of course, is generally lost on the client.

The business person cannot see why there has to be a forty-page agreement. The defendant cannot see why their advocate cannot simply lie to the jury. The parent is being denied access to their child. All the client can see – or imagine – is a person saying unhelpful and unwelcome things, and then expecting to be paid for it.

That said, it is actually difficult to imagine someone becoming a lawyer just because of greed.

For the same qualifications, there are more lucrative careers in business and finance.

Those lawyers who do earn vast amounts – QCs and City lawyers – are exceptional and their “success” usually down to random good fortune: there are many better lawyers who never become “fat cats”.

Any rapacity is not a feature of lawyers as a whole, though it may be a quality of certain lawyers.

The reason why lawyers are generally disliked may not be down to their actual conduct or their personal qualities.

It is instead because law is both powerful and – in the main – invisible.

Law leaves traces in certain documents and speech acts, and it can manifest itself in the coercive actions of hard-faced individuals; but generally law is equally threatening and elusive.

It is perhaps not so much that lawyers are hated, but that law itself is feared and mysterious.

That this is the case is unfortunate, and it is an entirely fair criticism that many lawyers do not do more to promote the public understanding of law.

Of course, barriers to lay understanding can suit the interests of lawyers. Lawyers have no general interest in enabling potential clients to work out their own legal problems.

And, so to that extent, lawyers really only have themselves to blame.


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Sunday, 18 December 2011

Maurice of the Phoenix, RIP

Maurice of the Phoenix has died.

I never knew his surname - it turns out to have been Huggett.

And I only once saw him outside of the Soho club he managed, having a coffee in some street cafe on Dean Street.

But I will miss him, though I hardly knew him.

The Phoenix Artist Club - it goes by other similar names - is one of the few places left around Charing Cross Road with any genuine character.

Snug under the Phoenix theatre, it is friendly, rather than exclusive; any person at the reception desk welcomes you, rather than thinking of an excuse to turn you away.

It is packed with odd paraphernalia and theatre lore, but none of it contrived or self-congratulatory.

And it is relaxed and without tiresome pretension; if there are ever famous faces, nobody really cares.

It is one of the nicest places to be in London.

And Maurice was usually there.

If he was, he then put every effort to be make you at ease.

His campness was not that of the person insisting that you take them on their terms; instead, his whole concern was always to make you feel special.

It mattered not a dam who you were.

Many will tell of his kindnesses; but my special happy memory is him agreeing that Phoenix could host my 40th birthday party in the club's backroom.

And here he is - presenting the gift of pink-labelled club champagne to the birthday boy.

Rest in peace, Maurice.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Bell Pottinger - Priceless

There is an interesting report in today's Independent about lobbyists Bell Pottinger.

My favourite part is a quote towards the end, from Lord Bell:

"The conduct of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism does not remotely constitute responsible journalism. It is an attempt by unethical deception to manufacture a story where none exists."



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Sunday, 4 December 2011

When I am 64

When something nice happens to you, you are not supposed to talk about it.

At least that is the British way, and the way of social media.

But something nice happened to me last week, and I would like to say something about it.

I was included in a list of "100 Influential Men" by GQ, a magazine which I had never bought before.

They put me at number 64.

This, of course, is ludicrous.

I can think of 64 "Davids" of far more influence than I could ever muster.

Indeed, there are probably 64,000 more important "Davids" in London alone.

But it was still nice.

And this is why.

Four years ago I lost my job during the Credit Crunch.

No one wanted to pay me to do lawyering.

And certainly no one would have thought to pay me as a journalist.

Then in my late 30s - for the first time in my life - I found something I really enjoyed.

It was writing on the internet about legal and other matters.

Because of this, I managed to return to the profession - specialising in social media and internet law. It also meant I was able to share ideas and insights with similar-minded people wherever they were.

I got carried away with this, without thinking what it would lead to.

There was no grand plan, no "social media strategy" (dear god).

And so after a decade and a half of frustrations and obstructions, I began to enjoy myself, which I never really had done since before university.

It certainly helped my depression, which had dogged me for years, and still does.

(Depression is something else one is not supposed to talk about.)

So that is why it is nice to be on a list like that.

However, what me being on that list is supposed to mean is that Twitter and social media are influential.

GQ could have chosen from hundreds of other bloggers and Twitter users, and made a similar point.

But all the same, I now have a copy of my GQ in my bag and for a week or so, and I will think of ever-more ingenious pretexts to bring it into conversation.

I will put up with the well-meaning teasing and the mean-headed sneering.

Then I will get back to doing what I enjoy most: writing for the internet about law and policy from a liberal and critical perspective.


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