Derren Brown – after the event

Earlier this month I explained the letter sent to Channel 4 following Derren Brown’s “prediction show“. With no reply from them the letter was forwarded to OFCOM, the UK Office of Communications and broadcasting watchdog.

Their reply has not upheld my concerns about the broadcast.

Derren Brown claimed he would broadcast a live lottery prediction show on 9 September, followed by an “explanation” show the following Friday. My concern focused on the misleading nature of the trails, and the lack of a disclaimer advising viewers that the programme would not, in reality, be an actual live prediction.

OFCOM have replied in the following terms…

…[A]fter reviewing the material we do not judge there has been a breach of our regulations.

Whatever solution viewers believed, or whether [his explanations] was all part of the ‘showmanship’ as he indicated at the start of the programme, is a matter for individual viewers to decide.

That he did not definitively clear up how he guessed the lottery numbers is not a problem for us as the regulator.

And there shall I leave it.

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Orgy in reverse

David Cameron, the next United Kingdom Prime Minister, will have a task on his hands to repair the country following the disruptive and damaging effects of a Labour administration whose attitude towards economic stability appears as haphazard as the attitude of drunk youths outside a backstreet bar on a Friday night. If history truly is cyclical rather than linear, Cameron’s post-election strategy will be almost identical to that of Margaret Thatcher in 1979: taking a country bankrupted by a Labour Government and doing as much as possible to improve things.

The circles of history are concentric; while Prime Minster Cameron starts his new career path, the Labour opposition will be following their early 80s comrades by electing a new leader….and potentially splitting up. If the post-ideological age we now live in truly has blurred the distinctions between “left” and “right”, “Labour” and “Conservative” voters, “working” and “middle” classes, what chance a revival of Labour’s 1980s leadership woes and “Gang of Four” declaration?

Political anoraks have often supposed and chin-stroked that the United Kingdom is overdue a massive shake-up of her political parties. Not since 1988 has there been the launch of a new mainstream party – the Liberal Democrats – and following this only a number of fringe groups have appeared on the extremes of each political wing. RESPECT on the left, the England First Party on the right, neither with any lasting credibility. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party, and Solidarity, had fleeting appearances in the Scottish Parliament. Both are now in serious decline.

One often repeated “what if” is the re-emergence of a Social Democratic Party (the name remains in British politics, if only in a tiny fashion, in the guise of a number of borough councillors in Bridlington). Take some Blairite Labour MPs, mix with disgruntled Tories and LibDems, and hey-ho, there’s the new face of 21st century British politics. Conservatives on one side, a SDP-type on the other, with far smaller “rump” socialist Labour, and “traditional” Liberal parties on the edge.

History suggested how this may have worked following the formation of the (initially loose) SDP/Liberal alliance in the 1983 and 1987 elections. Tantalisingly close to beating Labour at one point, the experiment ultimately failed. By 1988, the Alliance had grown into full merger, hence the LibDems, but notably the Tony Blair inspired modernisation of Labour introduced far more social-democratic policies than socialist.

The identity of the next Labour leader has been the subject of much “parlour games” too. Alan Johnson remains the most often repeated “clear favourite”. Whoever is chosen – a newly de-Baroned Peter Mandleson? – would do well not to repeat history entirely. Labour nearly died once following a Conservative victory, to come close to death again in a very different political age could be ultimately fatal. They begin their Conference nearly 20 points behind the Conservatives in the opinion polls, with Gordon Brown only celebrated abroad not at home, without any Cabinet member making the running in the media. The signs for a Labour recovery are very faint, it’s the parents looking at their very old family dog knowing there’s no time left but unsure how to break the sad news to the children. It’s the writing of the obituary while the subject is recovering from a nasty cough.

David Cameron, Prime Minister, is one certainty. What will follow for Labour is anybody’s guess. A bad Conference is the last thing they need right now. A little bit of history repeating would be their worst nightmare.

Nick Clegg – good speech, bad Conference

Closing the Liberal Democrat Conference this afternoon, Nick Clegg had the concept of change on his mind. Change can be good, but loose change can be often rather annoying. Clegg had to ensure the modernisation agenda he wishes to wash away the cosy consensus of two-party politics in this country is not the political equivalent of pocket shrapnel.

His speech was well received, inside and outside the hall at Bournemouth. Taking the lowest earners out of income tax, improving the voting system for Westminster, altering for the better our nation’s attitude to young people and education, devolving as much decision making as possible to local people – all highly important and impressive policies from a man clearly eager to push the Liberal Democrats into the status of official opposition. He may yet achieve the aim of 100 MPs in the space of two elections, a high point which requires a net return of 20 more MPs in each election starting next year.

But Clegg’s high-point speech came at the end of a difficult week beside the seaside. His deputy Vince “fibre-optic” Cable made a passionate speech against Gordon Brown’s role in the current economic collapse, making a strong case for Liberal Democrat policies to help turn around the nation for the better. His “mansion tax”, a small levy on those homes worth over £1m, was greeted with warmth until the finer details were made clear after the speech. Suddenly things did not look so rosy – if the Liberal Democrats are against Council Tax, which we are, why is this levy based on Council Tax bands? Why did the proposal seem to have arrived without any consultation with other shadow cabinet members? How exactly would local authorities collect the extra money, and where would it go?

Clegg himself had to battle against plans to have “severe cuts” in public spending, including the ‘sacred cow’ opposition to tuition fees. Lembit Opik failed in his attempt to have rail nationalisation in the next manifesto, a policy which would potentially alienate many of the soft-Tories the party needs to attract at the next General Election. Overall, the mood of the activists seemed uneasy, as though the party had turned up expecting a typical Conference only to have most certainties whisked away from under their feet.

The Liberal Democrats remain the only true progressive and radical party in British politics, and throughout the Conference the Party proved it has the ability to make changes to the country which are so clearly needed. However the task of taking members with the leaders has been shown to be far harder than anyone expected. Conference did not go that smoothly. Now all Nick Clegg can do is wait – if the Conservatives have a good week away then a lot of the good work set out in his closing speech may have been for nothing.

extra-time needed on tuition fees policy

Uni students were probably not spending this morning at the breakfast table pouring over blogs and Twitter feeds on the hunt for updates regarding the Liberal Democrats and alleged “u-turns” on tuition fees policy. One of the more instantly recognisable policies for the LibDems, opposition to tuition fees is the reason why so many votes came our way in recent elections. Speaking sense on this – and forcing Labour into altering the policy in Scotland – made far more people see the true benefits of voting Liberal Democrat.

Clearly £12bn – the cost of scrapping the charge according to Nick Clegg – is not a figure easily found elsewhere. Even with the very impressive list of cost cutting policies announced today, finding every last penny is going to be a difficult task. Such is Brown’s legacy. Blair’s own legacy – and what a charge sheet that is! – is to chain an education mortgage around the necks of so many thousands of students who wonder why they bothered going to university in the first place. Under Brown’s disastrous leadership there’s not even enough uni places to go round to meet the demand of those who assumed Labour were not lying when they set their “50%” Uni target.

Clegg’s apparent “honesty” on the spending cuts issue was not handled very well. “It’s a policy I support but know we can’t afford” is certainly a refreshing admission but hasn’t gone down very well. There can be no backtracking on tuition fees; it’s almost as though the next policy to go under is opposition to the Iraq war.

My vote at the next election is not going to change, I will always support a Party of genuine progressive politics and honesty. But Clegg needs to be careful. Some policies are worth keeping, for we are surely the party who care more about long-term opportunities than short-term headlines?

Right-wing America is bankrupt

Reforming healthcare is not a black-or-white issue, much as commentators in the US would have us believe. Indeed both sides of the debate in America have been making basic footfall errors, the liberal/left not quite as often as the conservative right.

“Racist” claims from both sides do not help, of course. The left-wing need to be careful of their own form of racism, not helped by appearing to project onto America’s black population what they should feel now their nation’s President looks and talks like they do. In her column for the Guardian, Bonnie Greer says;

We on the left need to change. Change our tired, ideologically driven responses to events. Change our moth-eaten rhetoric. Change our demands on what people of colour, women, disabled people, gays and lesbians ought to be when they attain positions of power

Left-wing commentators have to concede that Obama has yet to present a single Health Reform Bill. Additionally he did not persuade many doubters – if any – to his cause following his joint-house speech. However what Obama does have is time, and clear objectives, and the will among his many supporters to push over the stubborn wall of “for the sake of it” opposition. And there’s the clear, stark fact of so many millions without access to affordable healthcare in the “land of the free”.

Over amongst the conservatives, there is a shallow puddle of argument and a bankrupt account of alternative options. Painting a picture of Obama pushing a socialist square peg into a capitalist round hole is to create a work of scaremongering fiction. Sarah Palin, the failed Republican vice-presidential candidate, was roundly ridiculed for suggesting healthcare reform would mean “death panels” for the elderly. She remains one of the most often suggested lead candidates for President in 2012. When this list for the GOP includes Rick Santorum and Rudy Giuliani – discredited names from the past both – the sheer uphill struggle of the right is made all the more clear.

Obama needs to deliver on his promises, some things he has done already, but there’s a lot to do. Expectation is massive, not all of it fair. Some of it comes from the over-eager support from the left attempting to turn him into some symbol for “overnight success”. Those on the right trying to paint the White House as a life-threatening cult are not succeeding – how few people know of the Twitter craze of ending messages with “impeachobama” could be counted on one hand? – with only one thing seemingly going in their favour. As long as populist media networks speak with a unified cynicism against Obama doubts will remain.

Like the British Conservatives post-1997 the American right cannot quite understand why they are out of power or why the man at the top is getting an “easy ride”. It has taken the UK right years to get to grips with the changing country. Clearly the American right have a similar journey of their own before coming up with an opposition with clarity and credibility.

Derren Brown’s balls

“Please tell me you haven’t complained to Channel 4 about Derren Brown…”

Well…”complaint” is very strong, although that is the word I used in the letter. Ultimately my request has been for Channel 4 to explain a couple of points rather than a green-ink rant demanding cancellation of the series or such like. It wasn’t an angry letter at all, to be honest, more concerned. Both the so-called magician Brown and Channel 4 themselves should be able to handle themselves against a cynical northerner.

Throughout August Channel 4 broadcast a number of teaser-trailers and commercials for “The Event”, a Derren Brown fronted programme in which he claimed the Lotto numbers would be predicted…live. He even paused just like that, as they do when revealing the winners on Big Brother. With some further information on the months of preparation, Brown claimed in the days immediately preceding the broadcast on Wednesday, 9 September, that the prediction would go ahead live. The claim was followed up in national newspapers earlier in the week.

What followed of course was not a live prediction, the main point of query in my letter to Channel 4. Using a mix of “as live” recording techniques and split-screen recording, Brown did not predict – live or otherwise – the lottery numbers. He even went on to broadcast an “explanation show” the following Friday attempting to fog the issue further by inventing a concept of “Wisdom of the Crowd”, sounding more like something from a David Icke book.

On a number of Brown websites and forums, questions about the “live prediction” have surfaced from fans and cynics alike. Some fans have used the phrase “jumping the shark”, slightly angered that Brown’s live prediction claims were nothing more than a mild case of false advertising. His “stunt” has been “rubbished” by mathematicians who claim his “averaging” technique made no sense at all. I have known people use far more convincing reasons behind Grand National selections than his contrived “averaging” explanation.

Illusionist Brown’s pretend magic is as entertaining as any end of the pier “turn”, which effectively he has now become. Like a Uri Geller for the digital age his career is somewhat behind him, now having to “sex up” his claims, such as being able to literally do the impossible by predicting the workings of a lottery machine. Had Channel 4 broadcast a simple disclaimer advising viewers that the show was merely entertainment and not a prediction, no letter of complaint would have been sent by me.

So was my letter pedantry? Jealousies? Were any ordinary person to claim they could predict the future only to come up with an obviously faked stunt there would be understandable outrage and derision. Channel 4 may well have tricked many viewers into thinking the show was real. I have not made a habit of complaining about television programmes, nor do I see fans of Brown as being of questionable intelligence for liking him. My issue is with his attempt to call a staged and partly pre-recorded stunt a “live prediction”, something Channel 4, his producers, and of course himself, knew to be false.

No reply as yet, I’ll update if anything comes.

Celebration consideration…

Don’t tell James Murdoch, but if there’s one thing SKY does far better than the BBC – and indeed, one thing from which the BBC should be banned from broadcasting – is live football results services. We may have memories of the VidePrinter at the end of Grandstand, but if it ain’t Jeff Stelling it ain’t worth watching…

…Kind of. This Saturday just gone provided a rare slice of television gold when Mark Bright took on the wisdom of Garth Crooks. I wager “wisdom of Garth Crooks” has no results on Google.

The topic, but of course, was Emmanuel Adebayor and his passable impression of Usain Bolt which made up one component of the ex-Arsenal player’s contentious goal celebration. Traditionalists can put away their complaints that players these days should do nothing more than raise a hand before jogging back into position; those days probably never even existed. Over in Nottingham they’re waving corner flags in the faces of opposition supporters, why should we be surprised when Ade decides to slide Rooney-esque in front of four-score-and-plenty very vexed Gunners supporters with hand movements suggesting something to do with shaking coffee-beans. Or maybe javelin. Something needing a grip, anyway…

Over on the BBC, Garth Crooks – for whom everything is a matter of unshakable fact even when it clearly is not – decided that players were effectively being stopped from ever celebrating goals again by a shadowy panel of Health and Safety Suits, a kind of Sarah Palin style Death Panel for football. His eyes bulged, voice squeaked, hands gesticulated; “That’s it, that’s what you’re saying, players cannot celebrate any more…” It was like a radio phone-in with pictures, opinions to the wind even if facts were still being untethered. Brighty – for whom everything is a matter of principle – suggested Garth had better look at the screen, taking note of the shower of missiles and felled stewards. Garth did not. Principle is one thing, having an argument for the sake of it is quite another. Until placid Gabby Logan finally brought proceedings back round to something more important – her face hadn’t been on screen for a couple of minutes and that is against current BBC charter rules – the prospect of fists flying remained tantalisingly in the air. I suspect Mark Bright actually seethed through his teeth, it may still be there on iPlayer.

Adebayor was clearly going to score against his old club, for it is written in the great storybook of footballing stories that such narratives must occur for the sake of headline writers everywhere. His sprinting celebration was ill-considered. Some Arsenal fans throwing whatever they could into the head of a steward was downright idiotic. All things considered, mind you, one known slightly hyperactive player being a cocky so-and-so in front of his former fans should not equal punitive sentencing from the FA. His treating von Persie like a balloon at a party, now that’s something.

If there was one celebration worth sentencing it was at the Britannia stadium (http://img30.imageshack.us/img30/7880/fayefullercelebration.gif). Let the FA ban Ade for his attempt to bring eye-gauging to the football field. I don’t fully fall behind Crook’s libertarian attitude. If the goal deserves it let there be all the choreographed fervor one can muster. FIFA want them curtailed, after all, which surely is the best reason to ensure every match has them even when games end 0-0.

Except that Stoke celebration. That one kills football. And don’t tell James Murdoch anything about the BBC, he probably won’t believe you…

11 September, 2001

“Someone’s declared war on America. Turn on the news, any news, any channel, it’s everywhere. Car bombs, planes flying into buildings, do it, it’s crazy.”

We all have these memories and recollections. “Where were you when…” We time travellers, visitors from the future watching endless repeats of the initial attacks, the aftermath; foreknowledge being a terrible thing.

How does timetravel seem now, with all of history expanded out around us with its gore and death and apparent seamless planning? Would we tell office workers in New York to stay well clear of the World Trade Centres completely? How many parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan could be warned in time?

Timetravel seems a concept flawed enough without adding the realities of moral choices. How many dead Iraqis could have been saved for the want of the world turning in a different way on 10th September, eight years ago?

Of course, all the memories we have of that day are tainted by our very particular circumstances. The woman at my then place of work joking, “I hope my pilot has better eyesight than the one who has just crashed into the World Trade Centre”, had no idea what catastrophe would follow. Nobody did. Not entirely sure the other woman I worked with had any idea of reality at all when she declared with absolute sincerity that one effective way to beat Al-Qaeda would be to purposely mispronounce Osama Bid Laden’s name. I remember her saying it as clear as any memory could be, standing by the window, arms folded like a stereotype of the Northern Housewife. “Yeah, so I’m going to say Uzama,” sure and smug.

(Also, of course, from office colleagues and my dad the following weekend, “There’s a group of Asians [sic] celebrating outside Preston Sorting Office, they’ve all been sent home”)

The consequences of the attacks still crash upon the shore today. History recalls the (false) claims of WMDs in Iraq, the (false) claims of Cyprus being in the firing line of weapons “with only 45 minutes warning”. The hanging of Saddam, smuggled onto YouTube via mobile phone, a very modern, Western, way to die.

We have our DNA on databases, our movements watched by CCTV, our own versions of PATRIOT Acts banning the reading of certain library books. Freedom tainted by necessity, in this “strange new world”. I wish freedom tasted better. I wish faith in our leaders was stronger.

(“This is how it starts, Armageddon,” said my mum, at the time, watching the attacks on BBC News, endless loops, like a gruesome highlights package. ITN News, I recall, set the attacks to music. Enya. Got a slap around the wrists by the ITC or OFCOM.)

My mother had a point, I guess. No, not entirely. But how the “war on terror” will end nobody has decided. Withdrawal from Iraq leaves behind an altered version of the country but not one with flawless democracy or absolute peace. Any original aims seem somehow lost, distorted, if not entirely forgotten.

Afghanistan is a slow motion slaughter of innocents, its original aim (insofar as Bush had one) removed from the collective memories of man completely. History has been here before, Afghanistan does not suffer invasions lightly. The Presidential election is as tasteless a show as it is blunt an instrument.

(“The world will never be the same again,” said the man on the radio, during the attack. With no internet at all or television, the office in which I worked at the time had to listen to the unfolding event on the radio. The overall effect of which was very unsettling, as though the commentary was nothing more than a play, the voiceover an over-wrought script. When I first heard the claims of “world changing events”, I suppressed a giggle.)

Recent programmes on British television re-ran the news coverage and camcorder footage. Some scenes were too graphic to watch, which I found a sobering personal reaction. Suddenly the stunned faces, the voiceless gasps, the dust-covered streets empty of people but full of stories, filled my mind with the absolute reality of what remains an unbelievable day.

But today, what to think? Congratulate the “war on terror”? Feel sorry but stoic? How would timetravel work, knowing what we all do now, about the failure to stop terrorism from killing innocent people. “How would a timetraveller help” is not the question to ask; maybe “when” or “who” would be more accurate.

Today, eight years on from the attacks, history continues to be written. Lessons have not been learned at all.

Fishwick By-election, 2009

The candidates for the Fishwick by-election to Preston City Council, to be held on 1, October, are;

Luke BOSMAN (Liberal Democrat)
Jennifer MEIN (Labour)
Sharon RILEY (Conservative)

I have been made aware of a potential BNP candidate who failed to correctly fill in his nomination papers with about an hour or so to go on deadline day. Oh dear. But the BNP failing (once again) means that members of the party nobody wants to have sitting in Preston Town Hall are doing a very good job of beating themselves rather than being beat at the ballot-box. Which is something of an achievement.

Nick Griffin has the X factor

Funny thing, BBC Question Time. Like maintaining imperial measurements or scrapping salad cream, it is one of those subjects which causes all manner of reaction (often beyond all proportion) whenever it makes the newspages or headlines. By suggesting that British National Party members, such as leader and North West MEP Nick Griffin, may be invited to Question Time due to rules on “due impartiality”, both sides of the aged “freedom of speech” debate have gone into fits of panic.

Nick Griffin appearing on Question Time, like so many politicians and commentators do every week, is a no-brainer for me. Give him a platform and hopefully he will hang himself the moment the first question is posed.

It is a weird thing, this reaction people give to Griffin and the BNP in general, as though there exists some telepathic force, some magic trait, some unfathomable “X-factor” – to coin a phrase – which turns hitherto sane individuals into fits of race-hate and Holocaust denial whenever they hear members of the BNP speak. This gives the British National Party far too much credibility than they really deserve. I heard Grffin speak on BBC News only the other week, the man laughing and chortling with self-satisfied glee mixed with ignorant panic whenever faced with a direct question. He is neck-high in denial, denial which reaches from the true nature of his constitution to the extreme socialist economic policy in their manifesto.

“No platform” stances do not work. Ultimately it is the same as running around a playground going “la la la”. To give Griffin even a few minutes on a show like Question Time, where he cannot suddenly call the filming to stop when faced with questions he doesn’t like, will shine a very bright light on the reality of his shallow policies and ignorant rhetoric.

If Griffin really does have some magical force, some ingredient in his voice which brainwashes voters (as it was apparently thought of Gerry Adams when his voice was dubbed on television in the 1980s), then what better platform to reveal how over-diluted and watery it is than facing the “court of public opinion”. It would really be like the X-Factor then, Griffin having has much credibility as the off-tune nobodies who cannot believe the sound of their own voice is going down so badly.

Mark Reckons is a fellow LibDem who shares my view.