Archive for April, 2011
Britain declined after Victoria’s death though its delusions of grandeur were more difficult to shake off. The laws of its land still ensure her descendants still have exclusive access to the throne and through it the Anglican Church. The Royals provide pomp and circumstance and remain an important projection of British soft power. Though crippled by inbreeding, they outsource glamour to commoners such as Diana Spencer and Kate Middleton. The elaborate fairytale production of “Will and Kate” is designed to reinvent the British brand for the 21st century.
Comfortable with my curmudgeonly view of Will’s grandmother Elizabeth II as a hand-shaking cipher for the throne who has seemingly lived for centuries, I did not have high hopes for Stephen Frears’ film The Queen. But I came away with an admiration for her as Helen Mirren transformed the queen into a competent and complex human. Watching it, John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance kicked in despite myself and I had much better understanding of the issues Elizabeth Windsor faced after the death of Diana.
The Veil is best exemplified by the metaphor “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. But sooner or later you put your own shoes on. I knew Frears’s film was ultimately not about the Queen or Diana but about the institution of the monarchy and its ambiguous position at the heart of Government. What power Elizabeth wielded was mostly a result of invented traditions which jar with much of modern life. The commoner Tony Blair knew quicker than they did the impact of not having the flag at half mast. The media mourned “the people’s princess” they helped kill in the streets of Paris.
The Royals want publicity just as much as they want privacy. Balmoral Castle, the Scottish seat of the crown is where the family saw out Diana’s death and also features in Tom Hooper’s The Kings Speech, about the Queen’s father George VI (Colin Firth). George (then Prince Albert but known to the family as Bertie) turns up to Balmoral for a party given by his brother, the new monarch Edward (Guy Pearce). The party is a clash of cultures represented by the kilt-wearing traditionalist Albert and the party boy Edward who was scandalising the court with his twice-divorced girlfriend Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
The media in those days ignored the peccadilloes of the Royals’ personal life. Edward and Bertie didn’t have to deal with paparazzi with long lenses and phone hacking techniques but they did have to deal with the technology that was changing the relationship of the rulers to the ruled: radio. Before radio, the Royals were seen but not heard. The first US radio station was set up in 1920 and the BBC started two years later. In 1932 Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon) used the BBC to reluctantly give the first Royal Christmas Message.
Like Bertie, his father had an elder brother who was expected to become king. George V was promoted when Prince Albert died of the flu in 1892. He could see something similar happening to his sons and his advice to Bertie was to master radio, because communication was the key to retaining “the firm’s” power. The problem was that Bertie had a serious stammer rendering him completely unable to project this power through the airwaves. His stuttering 1925 British Empire Exhibition speech was an embarrassment for the speaker and listener alike.
Bertie did have one big supporter, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). Elizabeth was a practical and intelligent woman who married into the firm with reluctance in 1923 (unlike the current wedding, the newly created BBC was not invited to Bertie and Elizabeth’s affair). Elizabeth saw a succession of doctors fail to find a cure for Bertie’s problem.
She sought out Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) a speech pathologist from Adelaide. Logue’s Irish roots and colonial lack of respect for traditions would help him deal with the prince on an equal footing, to the point where he was the only person outside the family to call him Bertie. As much psychologist as therapist, Logue delved deep into Bertie’s childhood psychoses to diagnose the archetypes that were causing his stammer: the cruel nanny, the missing mother, the harsh father and the taunting brother. Though not a doctor, Logue diagnosed poor co-ordination between the larynx and thoracic diaphragm and prescribed vocal exercises lasting an hour daily. The exercises gave the Duke the confidence to avoid tension-inducing muscle spasms that caused the stammer.
Logue more or less solved the Duke’s public speaking problem by 1927, well before the time the film would suggest. Nevertheless he was retained throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The death of George V and subsequent abdication crisis of Edward VIII in 1936 brought Bertie to the throne as George VI. Logue helped him rehearse his acceptance speech and was also instrumental in the monarch’s triumphal speech on the declaration of war in 1939 and his even more influential Christmas Message that year. George mastered the communication and became an effective figurehead of an embattled community that needed real morale-boosting as Hitler came threatening.
The film gets its point over with some brilliantly cinematic tricks and the interaction between Rush, Firth and Bonham Carter is compelling. Once again I was forced to care about the king’s speech because Bertie was a living breathing person with lots of human faults. Yet I don’t think either of these films are turning me into an Australian monarchist. The idea the British queen or king should be head of the Australian state is an embarrassing anomaly of an earlier age. I was happy to take out Australian citizenship in 1994 after Keating removed the oath of allegiance to the crown.
Leaving Australia out of it, the Royals biggest problem today is to make themselves relevant outside of the redtop circus they have made a Faustian pact with. Will’s great-grandfather was able to overcome this – and his own personal demons – by being the personification of leadership to a large imagined community in the time of great crisis. What, other than the supposedly mad one Charles, are the royals doing to contribute to solving today’s crises?
A few minutes later, there was a worried question from the floor asking what this meant for commercial operations in Roma. The speaker reiterated the earlier point: it becomes a question of when home ground advantage is conceded. As another voice from the floor put it, “I like shopping”. The Internet will never fully replace the visceral appeal of commerce in real life.
Nevertheless it is pointless to ignore the truth. Cheaper online overheads and the convenience of clicking will eat seriously into the profits of the shops. People are spending a lot more time online too. A Nielsen Australian Online Computer Report released yesterday showed average internet usage has increased in 12 months from 17 hours 36 minutes in 2009 to 21 hours and 42 minutes in 2010. Usage has tripled in the last decade and with the prospect of high-speed broadband ahead, it is likely this trend has not yet reached saturation point. Australians will sooner or later spend a full day a week online.
Much of this usage is spent watching TV programs or surfing, but shopping online is also on the increase, though not as sharply. In 2008-09, 64 per cent of Internet users (pdf) aged 15 and over made online purchases, up 3 percent on 2006-07. This behaviour is concentrated in the young, which suggests it will increase. Three-quarters of people aged 25-34 bought over the Internet while less than half aged 65 and over made online purchases.
Businesses are going to lose business to the Net whether they like it or not. Rather than resisting change by charging $50 for the right to try things on, the bricks and mortar operations need to engage with the competition. That doesn’t just mean having a website to sell their wares. They also need to maximise other home ground advantages. While issues of security and shopping in person were important factors the most commonly reported reason for not making online purchases in 2008-09 was “a lack of need”. People shop in the real world when they don’t need to do it online. Understanding how to tap into this lack of need should be a holy grail for 21st century business.Traders cannot rely on the GST loophole argument to equalise prices. There is a threshold below which it is too costly to collect taxes on goods privately imported. Keeping retail price below the cost of imports plus delivery is unlikely so shops should look to value added services to keep the tills ringing. Intangibles like goodwill, trust, a social media presence, an identification with their geography, and an honesty when dealing with customers may end up being decisive factors. If customers think there is a need to for online services – and they will – then they will find them. It’s up to business to find an ecological niche to avoid extinction.
Murdoch’s publications can’t take a hard reflexive pro-Tory line without alienating a substantial number of its readers. Far easier than talking about stealing biscuits is to give their audience an apolitical ration of tits, titillation and celebrity gossip. But the News of the World’s attempts to get inside access to the gossip that fuels their pages has ended up in the courts and a criminal investigation. There is likely to be great cost to Murdoch’s pockets in a case that has already had one high-profile casualty, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spinner-in-chief Andy Coulson.
Coulson was editor of the News of the World in 2006 when police finally exposed its phone hacking practices. No one can say how long it had been going on, but to this day Coulson denies he knew about the activity, a position that makes him out to be either a liar or a fool. The only employee who has admitted guilt is former royal reporter Clive Goodman. Goodman had a reputation for scoops and held the paper’s record for the highest number of consecutive front-page leads. But his thirst for inside information led him to hack private phone messages.
He hired a private investigator named Glenn Mulcaire to help him. Mulcaire managed to access message bank pin codes to listen to messages. Royal aides were confused when they found unread messages in their inbox appearing as already read. When Goodman reported unusual information about the Royals that only a handful was privy to, the royal household got the counter-terrorism branch of Scotland Yard involved. Goodman and Mulcaire were arrested on 8 August and police raided the offices of the newspaper for evidence. With Goodman more or less caught red-handed, he pleaded guilty to intercepting phone messages when he faced court in January 2007. He got sentenced to four months jail. As Justice Gross said in his sentencing the case was not about press freedom, “it was about a grave, inexcusable and illegal invasion of privacy.” Coulson, seeing the writing on the wall, resigned two weeks earlier. Goodman’s sentence was not the end of the affair. His departure wasn’t formally announced until the 25th when Mulcaire also pleaded guilty and got six months. Police found a hit list of other celebrities in his diary; celebrities not normally covered by Goodman in his royal round, but did little with this information.
The News of the World hid behind the ‘rotten apple’ and ‘rogue reporter’ defence. It would take another two years before the world would learn the hacking’s tentacles went a lot further than Goodman. Three phone companies told The Guardian at least 100 of their customers’ pin codes were compromised, which contradicted earlier police and News of the World claims only a “handful” was involved. The Guardian said those tapped including then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and PR guru Max Clifford. The Guardian also said Coulson was aware of the tapping. By then the Tories were in power and Coulson was Cameron’s right hand man. With Labour calling for his head, ConservativeHome.com blog editor Tim Montgomerie asked how many times did Andy Coulson have to resign for the affair. Twice was the answer, as he left the government job in January 2011.
Meanwhile, the net was widening back at NOTW. MPs on a culture, media and sport select committee accused News Limited executives of “collective amnesia”, ignorance, lack of recall and deliberate obfuscation” and said it was inconceivable no one else knew about the hacking. Several victims took the paper to court and won substantial out of court settlements that preventing discussion of the affair. Max Clifford won $1m but his settlement meant the list of journalists involved was not read out in the court.
In September 2010, the New York Times revealed why Police were reluctant to do much with the information about the crime. Parliamentary committee chair John Whittingdale said Scotland Yard had no enthusiasm for the investigation. “To start exposing widespread tawdry practices in that newsroom was a heavy stone that they didn’t want to try to lift,” Whittingdale said. A former reporter told NYT the News of the World had a “do whatever it takes” mentality under Coulson and said the then editor was present during discussions about the practice.
With Coulson denying the claim under oath it has been difficult to mount a criminal prosecution. The Metropolitan Police has re-opened the investigation following what they said was significant new information. However it has been mostly left to the aggrieved to take action in the civil courts. Sky Andrews, Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, Chris Tarrant and Andy Gray have all taken legal action against the paper.
Desperate to avoid the extent of the crime being revealed in open court, Rupert Murdoch was finally forced to take decisive action. On Thursday he apologised to eight victims and admitted the practice was rife at the News of the World. Murdoch said internal investigations into the matter were not “sufficiently robust” and has offered unreserved apologies to some of the victims (though it continues to fight allegations by Coogan and jockey Kieren Fallon). Murdoch is said to have offered up to a million pounds, some are expecting the bill to reach £40m. And with new evidence there might have been up to 3,000 people on Mulcaire’s lists, there may be a lot of people after Murdoch’s biscuits. The question becomes how high a price is Murdoch prepared to pay to avoid the court making public the reasons just why their internal investigation wasn’t sufficiently robust.