Question Time: The BBC’s Obsession with Nigel Farage

I’ve begun down that slippery path of complaining to the BBC.  Don’t worry, it won’t become a habit, but yesterday’s Question Time was rather irritating.  The three topics discussed were state surveillance, Scottish independence and intervention in Syria.  However the Scottish independence issue was clearly at the forefront, the debate being held in Edinburgh with an audience of 16 and 17 year olds (due to the voting age for the referendum being reduced to 16).  If we accept this, can we agree that a panel consisting of four unionists, one advocate and one middle-ground is pretty uneven?  Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson pointed this out but was dismissed by David Dimbleby, who argued that the audience was split 50-50 on the issue.  But if that’s the case then surely it should apply to the panel as well?

Yesterday, Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie tweeted his irritation at the composition of the panel, which included no representatives from the Green Party nor the Liberal Democrats.  Despite the Greens being among the loudest voices in favour of independence, this wouldn’t need to be an issue if the other panelists represented a range of views relevant to the debate.  Instead, we get Nigel Farage and George Galloway.  I don’t wish to add my voice to the chorus of cries at “BBC Bias”, as I don’t think there’s anything malicious in their decisions of panelists.  What I do think is a problem is that entertainment seems to have become a greater priority than providing a good debate.  Farage was clearly chosen because of his recent misadventures in Scotland and Galloway because, well, he’s loud.  No doubt it was hoped that Galloway and Farage, sitting on opposing ends of the political spectrum, would go head-to-head in a ‘highly amusing’ shouting match.  What actually happened was something of an unholy alliance where they agreed on most issues.

This isn’t the first time Farage has been on Question Time.  In fact, according to this article  he has appeared more frequently than any other individual since the last general election -closely tailed by George Galloway.  Why is this?  Both UKIP and Respect do have representation (well, in England) so I don’t object to their inclusion from time to time, but I don’t think either figure is popular or relevant enough to warrant this sort of exposure.  I’m convinced that they only get invited on because they’re controversial enough to be entertaining but not so extreme as to draw immediate criticism and complaint.  But if they’re giving minor parties this level of exposure then it’s only fair it be divided equally to other parties with similar popularity – to the Greens also and, indeed, the BNP.

I guess the ultimate question is: What do we want from the BBC’s main show for political debate?  Entertaining pantomime or reasoned arguments?  It scares me that the answer isn’t clear.

(As an aside, I’m astonished at the level of condescension and scorn towards young people I saw on Twitter last night.  With a couple of exceptions, I thought the audience had very good points and expressed them well.  Should we not be allowed opinions?)

Advertisements

The Problem with English Lessons

I’ve been reading a brief of UK Education Secretary Michael Gove’s planned changes to the GCSE system in England.  This doesn’t affect Scotland (which is introducing its own controversial changes to education) but it is still fascinating for me to read.  Some aspects I’ve always been opposed to, such as the emphasis on external examinations as a means of assessment.  I’ve always been in favour of coursework for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, I do not believe that one bad experience during the exam should invalidate a whole year of work; and secondly, it’s totally unrepresentative of the kind of work people will face in adulthood (when will someone ever have to write a detailed essay in 45 minutes with no reference material?).

But I’m digressing.  What shocked me was that, for the subjects I have a claim to – English and History – the proposals to the actual course sound almost decent.  In English, the BBC put emphasis on how pupils will have to read ‘whole books’ or ‘whole Shakespeare plays’, rather than the ‘chunks’ they can get away with now.  This would be a very good change.  No wonder pupils resent English and reading so much when they’re forced to learn plots, characters, arcs, themes etc. without having had the opportunity to enjoy the piece.  I still remember my absolute horror of my Higher English teacher skimming through Macbeth, murmuring “No, you don’t need this bit, um… A major character dies here but that’s not very important…”  Sure, pupils can opt to read the whole text themselves – as I did – but realistically, with the stresses of exams, not many books are going to be read that year.

Another problem with English lessons is the uniform way in which we are taught to do it.  Formulas are driven into us (STAR = Statement, Text, Analysis, Relate) which becomes the basic way in which we construct essays; creative writing is seemingly judged not on innovation but on the number of metaphors used and the ability to follow a standard narrative.  Then, once we reached Advanced Higher level, our teachers were surprised at how rigid our approaches initially were.  I think in my case this was a particular problem because our school made Higher English mandatory for all students, so teachers were faced* with classes of pupils who loathe the subject.  Which is why they understandably react with simplification and the abhorrent STAR system.

As for history, there will supposedly be a greater focus on essays for GCSE level, which I also think is a good thing.  Answering questions is alright as an introduction to the subject, but teaching pupils to construct reasoned, developed arguments as early as you can is not a bad thing in my opinion.  That said, it’s incredibly difficult to do just that during exam conditions and, although a good idea on its own, will most likely exacerbate the problem of focusing entirely on exams.  I’m also not too keen on a move away from ‘World History’; the Scotland-centric curriculum I’ve had to put up with, as much as I enjoyed them, became rather repetitive.

Make no mistake, I think Michael Gove is making a terrible Education Secretary – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard a news headline: “Teachers vote of no confidence in Gove” – and I’m extremely glad he has no power over education here in Scotland.  Yet, some elements of education do need reform.

*Using past tense still feels incredibly weird.

2013 UK Local Elections Analysis

A day or so late with this, but here are the results of Thursday’s local elections:
[PNS = Predicted National Share]

2013 local elections

The news has been reporting these elections as the final breakthrough of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) into British politics; BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson described it as “The day UKIP emerged as a real political force in the land.”  And when you look at the results, there is no denying how well the party has performed.  If every party had stood candidates in every council ward and the votes spread across the country evenly, UKIP is projected to have won 23% of the total vote.  That’s about the same the Liberal Democrats won in the 2010 General Election.  There is no denying Nigel Farage’s claims that UKIP “is here to stay.”  However, lets get these results into perspective.

There is always a party which wins a spectacularly large amount of votes during midterm elections for a government – often referred to as the “protest vote”.  This would normally be the Liberal Democrats, who in 2009 [the last time these seats were up for election] won 28% of the vote.  This went down by 5 percentage points for the following year’s general election, indicating that voting for council seats and voting for the next government are two very different things.  With the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Conservatives, and Labour still generally quite unpopular, UKIP have begun to vacuum up these disillusioned votes.

Secondly, there seats are generally recognised to be in very right-wing areas.  This is generally to the benefit of the Conservatives, but now have begun aiding UKIP.  Labour traditionally perform poorly in these seats, so the fact they are leading in the votes, even with only 29%, should not be played down.  These UKIP results, considering this and the protest factor, should be seen as the party’s maximum potential under its current level of popularity.  It’s looking very likely that UKIP will elect its first MPs in 2015, but how many?  Even if it does manage to attain a respectable percentage of the vote, it’s going to suffer from the same problem which has blighted the Liberals for decades: our First Past the Post electoral system.  Even for the local elections, despite UKIP achieving 9 percentage points more of the vote than the Liberal Democrats, they won 200 fewer seats.

Reactions to this result within the Conservative Party have ranged from Cameron’s calm resolve of winning back voters to blind panic and demands to hold an EU referendum before the next election.  My fear is that politicians of all parties will begin tripping over themselves to declare harsher and harsher immigration policies i an attempt to stem to flow of voters to UKIP – not something I would like to see.  However Labour, at least, has little to fear from UKIP.  I read a statistic earlier suggesting that Labour didn’t lose a single seat to UKIP, whereas the Conservatives must have lost at least a few good dozen.  Indeed, with Labour retaining David Miliband’s South Shields seat in the by-election and replacing the incumbent mayors in Doncaster and North Tyneside with Labour candidates, this has been a good week for Ed Miliband.  At first glance UKIP would appear to be the true winners of these elections, but upon further inspection I would argue that this title goes to Labour.

(I am a little bit sad the Greens didn’t perform very well, but at least they managed to win a few more seats).

Thoughts on ‘Shetland’

Contains spoilers.  Maybe.

These are strange times for Shetlanders.  Accustomed to obscurity, used to explaining with an illustrated map precisely where we live, it is not common for Shetland to be at the forefront of media attention.  We are typically left off weather maps and nobody really seems to care about us unless discussing North sea oil.  So it’s with some surprise that I’ve witnessed our islands become almost famous in recent weeks: first with a certain dancing pony advert and now with the BBC adaptation of Ann Cleaves’ book, Red Bones, creatively called ‘Shetland’.

I’m completely unable to look at this programme objectively – in fact, my sole reason of watching it was just because it’s set in Shetland.  I don’t tend to watch much TV, otherwise.  And, of course, I spent most of the first episode jeering at inaccuracies, like virtually every other of our 22,000 residents.  They’d get a ferry from Lerwick (wrongly pronounced ‘Lerrik’) to Bressay (wrongly pronounced ‘Bres-say’) and end up on a completely different island!  I had no idea there were so many Glaswegian accents here – a Shetland or an English accent was nowhere to be heard.  What I expected to be the worst offender, when watching the trailer, was the line, “on a good day you can see Norway from here” [Norway is 200 miles away], but this sort of turned out to be in jest.  I think.  Not quite sure.  And, of course, the fact that not just one but two murders would happen here is incredibly unlikely – as mentioned in the show, a lot of people don’t lock their doors here, and I can’t really remember any murders in my lifetime.  …They got the bit about the terrible phone signal right, however.

Poking at inaccuracies aside, I really wasn’t that impressed in general.  As I said I can’t take an objective view, but the ‘gritty’ style of direction just didn’t appeal to me.  The acting, the dialogue, it all felt so falsely forced.  People are just not that stand-offish with one another, they don’t speak so perfectly… Seeing a TV drama set where I live has exacerbated how forced the genre can be, out of place in the setting, though Shetland felt particularly bad.  And the tinting!  Gosh, is distorting the colours really supposed to make it more engaging?  There really are more colours than grey and green here!

But I did enjoy Part 2 more.  The plot actually began to move, rather than the characters aimlessly travelling around and chatting to faces I’d forget once they left the screen.  The plot gained some momentum and, while never really reaching an effective climax, did begin to engage me.  I enjoyed the Up Helly-Aa scenes.  But, again, I can’t distinguish between the show and the place its set.  How weird it was to see the street I regularly walk down filmed on polished, BBC cameras!  And even weirder to see friends as extras during the crowd scenes.

Overall, it was a very interesting experience watching Shetland, but I’m not convinced I ever actually enjoyed it.  It doesn’t help I have a very low interest in crime dramas at the best of times, I suppose.

Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror (Review)

Contains spoilers.

The Reign of Terror (1964) is one of those stories which holds a position of high respect within the Doctor Who fans’ collective psyche, as often happens to those unfortunate stories which  could not escape the jaws of misguided BBC decisions in the 1970s intact.  Two of its six episodes no longer exist after being wiped in order to create more filming space.  Fortunately, audio recordings exist for every Doctor Who episode filmed in the 60s, and though these can be poor quality they do give an insight into how the episodes were directed.  The announcement that this story would be animated was greeted with wide excitement.  I particularly looked forward to seeing it, considering my utter fascination with the historical period of revolutionary and post-revolutionary France between 1789 and 1871, previously satisfied by Les Misérables.  So I had high expectations for this story.

Unfortunately, myth is destined to always trump fact, and I ended up being slightly let down by the story.  The first disappointment was the plot, which begins slow and uninspiring and struggles to develop into something more meaningful.  The TARDIS lands The Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian in France, 1794, during the final days of the violent period dubbed ‘The Reign of Terror’ where radical republicans and revolutionaries, within less than a year, executed tens of thousands of ‘enemies of the revolution’ with the dreaded guillotine.  The characters find themselves caught up in these bloody events, first during the siege of a house used as a base by counter-revolutionaries which ends in bloodshed and flames, and then forced by circumstance into joining a group of monarchists and counter-revolutionaries.  These events signify the tone of the historical period they’re in, although the story frequently seems to forget this.

This all sounds promising, but unfortunately very much of the story is spent getting in and out of prison, which serves as the main setting for the story, or collaborating with the opposition whilst not achieving very much.  There’s just too much padding.  The plot does develop half way into the story, as the treacherous nature of the period is encapsulated by Léon’s betrayal of Ian and various attempts to reunite and escape during the final rebellion against Citizen Maximilien Robespierre’s tyrannical rule.

I did enjoy the historical characters very much.  Despite my interest in the period I have never really studied it, so knew little of Robespierre before watching, though it inspired me to do research afterwards.  I did, however, have a bit of a history-nerd moment when Napoleon Bonaparte walked into that backroom of the pub in episode 6.  Napoleon!!  Way before he became Emperor of France, back when he was simply a popular general.  That was very exciting.

As ever, I must look at this episode through the lens of a historian, and I’m afraid I don’t think the episode quite managed to develop the historical debate to a great enough extent. Doctor Who‘s a family show, so I guess that’s to be expected.  It’s just, the narrative does seem to suggest that ‘Republicans are bad’ ‘Monarchists/counter-revolutionaries are good’.  Well, in this context the ruling, extreme republicans were undoubtedly wrong to create such a dictatorial, oppressive regime, though they believed themselves to be in the right.  But essentially, the French Revolution marked the rise of Liberalism in Europe and an end to the absolute monarchy that could treat its citizens in any way it wished.  The Reign of Terror was a blip which inevitably occurs during the forced transition to democracy (see also: The Soviet Union, Hitler, current violence in Egypt, etc).  I just don’t believe this is an issue which can be cleanly divided between noble ‘heroes’ and villains’.  If you think about the monarchists, they want to impose a system upon the French people in which one person, typically a male, is born into supreme power.  How is that fair?  I suppose they could be constitutional monarchists, preferring a semi-democratic system like we have here in the UK rather than a full blown republic.  It’s never made clear.  This is somewhat rectified towards the end of the story, particularly during Barbara’s rant about the republicans not being ‘all bad’, which eases some of my issues.

Another historical problem was the fact that the characters seemed to be actively fighting against the Reign of Terror and actively willing to work with the counter-revolutionaries.  This jars, considering the issue of changing history was explored in much depth merely two episodes ago in The Aztecs, where the moral was quite clearly to not be involved.  Again, just as I’m finding this inaccuracy really distracting, it’s brought up by the characters themselves, although they still don’t really resolve the issue.

The characters and acting were all wonderful, as usual.  I particularly enjoyed William Hartnell’s acting as the Doctor, dressing up in that ridiculous ‘provincial official’ costume.  Some minor characters were rather two-dimensional, including the prison officer and some of the counter-revolutionaries, but generally they were well written.

I can’t finish this review without a comment on the animation.  Necessary for episodes 4 and 5, I should say first that I am incredibly grateful the animation exists at all.  I long thought that The Invasion would remain the only ‘lost’ story ever to receive animation, the the fact that The Reign of Terror and, soon, The Tenth Planet have also been animated is wonderful.  Despite this, I have to say that I think there were some very, um, interesting creative decisions taken by the animating team.  They do successfully create 3D likenesses of the characters who interact within living, breathing settings.  The characters’ movements are as fluid as could be expected.  In fact, I might say that they’re too fluid.  To prevent the characters from coming across as too rigid and ‘cartoony’, the animators seem to have gone over the top in animating every facial muscle possible whenever a character speaks, or is even on screen.  The facial muscles work well – just far too often!  You’d be forgiven for thinking someone had let off a batch of nerve gas.  And some of the editing is rather strange.  It’s been described as edited to a modern standard, which supposedly clashes with the 1960s style of editing the rest of the story has, but the constant cutting between shots every second or so, close ups of mouths and eyes, etc. is more bizarre and dizzying than even the fast-paced shows we have today.  I appreciate that to gaze upon an image of the animation for too long would betray their stillness (twitching aside), but again the jumping from shot to shot goes too far.  I hope Thetamation, the animation company, can learn from this and work out the issues to make a really good recreation for The Tenth Planet.

Overall, The Reign of Terror is a good story but not quite on the level I had hoped.

Final Rating: 6.5/10

‘An historic’

Just.  No.  Never has a more hideous phrase been uttered so frequently and with such certainty.

‘An’ exists to allow a better flow to words beginning with a vowel, or a vowel sound.  So where you’d say ‘a banana’, ‘an banana’ wouldn’t be appropriate, and likewise you’d say ‘an orange’ rather than ‘a orange’.

I’m being patronising.  Everyone knows this rule, right?  So why the insistent, smug, intolerable use of the phrase ‘an historic’?!  I know the type who use it; the political journalist attempting to sound clever and in control of the British language (well, okay, the person I’m trying to be – but with worse knowledge of language!), and failing drastically.  Its use is everywhere.  I’ve even seen it on the BBC!  But it’s wrong, oh so wrong.

Do I really need to go into why?  I think I will have to.  Okay: many words beginning with ‘h’ are pronounced with a silent ‘h’, meaning the word is spoken as if the ‘h’ is not present.  Example: “an hour.”  This is appropriate because the ‘h’ is ignored, and the word is pronounced similarly to ‘our’.  In French most, if not all, words beginning with ‘h’ miss out the ‘h’, which has carried on in part to English but on the whole we pronounce our ‘h’s.  Words like ‘hospital’, ‘horrific’ and, of course, ‘historic’ have begun to be pronounced with the ‘h’.  So for this reason ‘historic’ is not pronounced beginning with a vowel sound and so ‘an’ is unecessary.  It would be like saying: “We’re going to find an hospital,” or: “There’s been an horrific crash!”  Sounds hideous.

I deeply apologise for the condescending nature of this post, but I see this grotesque mutilation of the English Language so often that there isn’t much left my wits can take.  I can imagine one day I’ll snap and begin a mass information campaign, dropping leaflets from planes across the English-speaking world and petitioning parliament to bring back the capital punishment for offenders.  So please, next time you need to say this phrase which is overused anyway, just think.  For my sanity.

Thank you.