Out and about in East Sussex

Though I lived in Tunbridge Wells in nearby Kent for about six months in 1988 I never got around to seeing East Sussex. Most of things I was interested in at the time were in London and there was not much time left for exploring the south coast. The closest I got to Sussex was the signpost to East Grinstead and the name of that town did not suggest anything worth finding out more about. However more recently a good friend moved to Eastbourne from Australia and I’m slowly getting to know that part of the world better. I was back there again after a visit to Ireland for Christmas.


The only thing I used to know about Eastbourne was its annual women’s tennis tournament warm-up for Wimbledon and the fact it was full of old people. Eastbourne still has the tennis but is slowly shedding the “God’s Waiting Room” image. The 2011 census shows a population of 100,000 that has grown 10% in 10 years with the average age decreasing as it attracts more students, commuters to London and Brighton and families (like that of my friend). It’s a relatively new town but it has some old buildings such as St Mary’s The Virgin Church which dates in part to the 12th century. The church is on the slope of the Bourne stream, that gave the town its name. Next door is The Lamb,  parts of which also date to the 12th century.  The Lamb is one of the oldest pubs in England originally built as a clergy house to house monks who gave alms to the poor of Eastbourne.


The night I arrived a gale was blowing in from the Channel bringing heavy rain but the weather had improved enough the following day for an outing. I admitted to my friend that I’d never actually been to Brighton so we hopped on the bus that would take us there along the coast. We caught glimpses through the window of the still choppy sea and parts of Beachy Head, the white cliffs that look so much like Dover’s, it occasionally stands in for them in movies. Beachy Head is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 162 metres above sea level. The cliffs were formed 100 million years ago. The name has nothing to do with a beach but a corruption of the original French words “beau chef” meaning beautiful headland.


Another sight from the bus were the oxbow laves of Cuckmere Haven.  Oxbow lakes are U shaped bodies of water that form when a wide meander from the main stem of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water, resembling the bow pin of the bow that wraps around oxen. The floodplains at the mouth of the Cuckmere leads to the chalky cliffs and its many walks are popular with tourists.


After an hour or so our bus delivered us to Brighton. The city is renowned for its beaches, packed in summer but mostly deserted here at the height of winter with big breakers coming in off La Manche (“the sleeve” as the French call the English Channel linking the Atlantic with the North Sea).  Brighton has 13 km of beach within the city limits with hotels lining the promenade. The beach is renowned for its pebbly surface but east of the Pier, a flat sandy foreshore is exposed at low tide. The city council owns all the beaches, which are divided into named sections by groynes—the first of which were completed in 1724.


From previous visits I had been to Eastbourne pier but never to Brighton Pier, or to give it its proper name Brighton Palace Pier. Brighton Pier featured in the films Brighton Rock and Quadrophenia so is familiar in the mind. In the mid 19th century railways permitted mass tourism to seaside resorts. but large tidal ranges at many resorts meant that often the sea was not visible from dry land. The pleasure pier was the answer,  allowing visitors to promenade over and alongside the sea at all times. The Brighton Chain Pier was built in 1823 it was decrepit by the end of the century and was planned to be demolished to make way for the new Palace Pier. A storm blew it away in 1896 and the Palace Pier was opened in 1899. The attractions on the pier were tawdry – at least to this observer in January – but the pier remains incredibly popular and the most visited tourist attraction outside London, with over 4.5 million visitors in 2016.


We took a stroll away from the sea towards the town centre. To get there we detoured via The Lanes. Before Brighton there was the ancient fishing village of Brighthelmstone.At the heart of Brighthelmstone were The Lanes,  with a maze of twisting alleyways. These days they host antiques and jewellery shops nestling alongside specialist contemporary and designer boutique fashion. Its name derives from the Anglo-Saxon “Laine” meaning “fields”


Brighton has been an important centre for commerce and employment since the 18th century. It is home to several major companies, some of which employ thousands of people locally with many creative, digital and new media businesses. Despite job losses across Britain due to automisation and globalisation, in Brighton, however, the share of jobs likely to grow is higher – around 11% of existing jobs are in occupations predicted to increase – the third highest share of any British city, according to Cities Outlook 2018.


Our destination was the remarkable Royal Pavilion. Beginning in 1787, it was built in three stages as a seaside retreat for George, Prince of Wales, who became the Prince Regent in 1811. George loved Asian architecture and it is built in the Indo-Saracenic style. Architect John Nash extended the building from 1815 and he added the domes and minarets. Frederick Crace’s amazing interior design is also jaw-dropping and the tour is recommended but photos inside are not allowed. It was used as a royal palace until the time of Victoria, who hated the building and the city had housed it. “The people here are very indiscreet and troublesome,” she said. Brighton City Council bought it off her in 1850 and immediately opened it as a tourist attraction. It had a poignant re-use during the First World War when it became a hospital for recovering Indian soldiers who must have felt some sense of ironic nostalgia for being placed there.


My friend then whisked me off by bus to Lewes, the ancient market town and country town of East Sussex. It was too late to check out the castle so he took me to the nearby Lewes Arms, whose website claims it is the home to ” pea throwing, poetry and pantomime – not forgetting the famous dwyle flunking match”. The English game of dwyle flunking, as everyone knows, involves two teams of 12 players each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team. Ah those mad English!sussex9

Apart from Lewes Castle, the town’s other claim to fame is the home of Harvey’s Real Ale brewery on the banks of the river Ouse. The brewery is an eight-generation family business, with John Harvey first supplying wine and port to customers in Lewes in 1794.
By 1811, his wine and brandy shipping business is well established “at the foot of Cliffe Bridge” in Lewes. He began brewing as a seasonal sideline activity in 1820 and he acquired the current Bridge Wharf Site in 1838 where he added coal to his business activities and built an eight-quarter brewhouse. John Harvey’s Best Bitter remains extremely popular around the region and when the aforementioned Lewes Arms was bought out by a rival brewery and stopped selling it in 2006, regulars staged a boycott leading to a humiliating backdown by pub owners. It’s not a bad drop but I preferred it mixed half and half with Harvey’s Old, what locals call “mother-in-law”. Any apprehension I had of asking for two pints of mother-in-law had disappeared by the third pint in the cosy Harvey’s pub next to the brewery. The only hard part was heading back out in the cold air and grabbing a late night train back to Eastbourne to end the adventure.


Brian Leveson – media personality 2012

The 2012 Woolly Days media person of the year is Brian Leveson. Leveson is a jurist not a journalist but his impact on journalism and the world of media this year has been profound.

The year 2012 will not go down as a great year for the world’s media. While business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption sees the planet heading towards a 4 degree increase in temperature by 2100, the focus of most media attention is increasingly superficial.
Commercial media have always fulfilled two purposes: to make money and to inform but the profit imperative is winning clearly at the moment. The large multi-national conglomerates that own media stock look no further than the bottom line when it comes to meeting deadlines. Issues like news values and ethics are a poor second. Shareholder disquiet of falling ratings or circulations can be managed quarter to quarter by cost cutting and doing more with less.  There is says Michael Mandel, a “shift in journalistic employment to non-traditional industries, an increased in the self-employed, a delayering of journalism, and perhaps lower pay.”
Brian Leveson admitted as much on his recent visit to Melbourne. The closure of many newspapers has reduced the extent to which local government, health, education and the courts can be held to account. “Society will be less well served as a result”, he said. Yet Leveson was aware the media remain powerful players as editorialists, chroniclers, sensemakers, muckrakers and watchdogs.
Their contract with the public to perform these roles is based on trust. The one to many broadcast model of television and the major papers ensured they always had the microphone to drown dissent. The internet and web2.0 changed that and disapproval can amplify virally if compelling enough. The web further undermines the media by allowing a multiplicity of blog voices harvesting free online content often with more sagacity and insight than the journalists. Social media has forced big media to become more humble in their dealings with the public they profess to “serve”.
There remains pockets of strong resistance, with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp leading the counter-assault. This old fashioned News and Entertainment empire (one of the few not owned by a non-news company) remains convinced it does not need to answer its critics. China is a rare failure but in the US, Fox News is highly successful while his 2011 plan to buy 60.9 percent of British cable company BSkyB was just a whisker away from being successful.
Revelations by Guardian journalist Nick Davies and his editor Alan Rusbridger brought the sordid hacking affair to light. The shadowy practices not only showed the need for profit greatly exceeded all other motives but described the contempt News had for its own audience. Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Justice Leveson in June 2011 to investigate the culture, practices and ethics of the British press as well as the dealings between the press, politicians and the police.
Testimony showed much was rotten in Murdoch’s hamlet. It wasn’t just the attitude “privacy was for paedos” that former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan espoused, it was the scene of serious crime. By November 2012, there were 90 arrests on charges of interception of mobile phone messages, payment to public officials and data intrusion. The Inquiry would expose corrupt dealings between senior members of the media, political parties and the police.
In nearly nine months of oral hearings, almost all available to transcript or watch online, involving 337 witnesses and 300 statements, the Inquiry became “the most public and most concentrated look at the press” Britain had ever seen. It had enormous resonance in Britain and wherever British legal, ethical and press traditions operate, including Australia. The celebrities who portrayed themselves as “fair game” to an uncaring media, added to the notoriety of the charges. Australian media distanced themselves from the phone hacking but they too would go any lengths for a story.
With a wide ranging brief, Leveson’s Inquiry had important things to say about plurality of ownership, privacy laws, and regulation of the press, which had media companies quivering in their boots. Leveson stressed his inquiry was not an attack on press freedom. However, he said, with rights come responsibilities and all too often the press has simply ignored them. Neither the press or the press council ever launched investigations into allegations of serious misdoings such as breaches of data protection or trade in private and confidential information. When the phone hacking issue was raised, police executing a warrant were driven off the News of the World premises while the Press Complaints Commission criticised the Guardian for publishing the results of their investigations into the cover-up.
In November 2012 Leveson released his findings in a 2000 page report and 48-page executive summary. Leveson proposed an independent replacement for the Press Complaints Commission which had no regulatory powers. It would have a dual role of promoting high standards of journalism while protecting the role of the individual. The new body would not include serving editors or politicians and could impose fines and direct the appearance of corrections.
Leveson said participation needed to be universal for the body to be properly funded and succeed in its purpose. Those that declined to be involved would forfeit the right to its arbitration process and could not claim costs of any civil action even if they won because they had refused a cheaper route to justice. Leveson said such a body would not regulate the press. He did not advocate prior restraint (a point of honour with the British press since Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644). He acknowledged the important role media plays in society “as a critical witness of events” and accepted media and journalists have necessary privileges under the law as “one of the true safeguards of our democracy”. Leveson said his legislation would enshrine “for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press”.
However, the media did not see it that way. Every newspaper in Britain except the Guardian denounced Leveson’s key recommendation. The Sun said it was “deeply alarmed” by the prospect of “state control” of newspapers. “Such a law could allow State officials to walk into papers like The Sun and censor stories,” it said. The Express also worried about political aprons: “To put politicians in ultimate regulatory control of newspapers and then expect them never to seek to use that power to constrain criticism or scrutiny is to place in them a degree of trust they frankly do not deserve.”
Prime Minister David Cameron – himself implicated by the over-close relationship between press and politics – plumped for the press over Leveson. He expressed reservations over the independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body. “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land,” Cameron said. “We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”
High profile hacking victims such as JK Rowling expressed dismay. “Having taken David Cameron’s assurances in good faith at the outset of the inquiry he set up, I am merely one among many who feel duped and angry in its wake,” she said. The Hacked Off coalition gained 100,000 signatures calling on the government to comply with Leveson’s findings. Cameron’s coalition partners the Lib Dems are among them, so the matter awaits further political arbitration in the new year.
Cameron didn’t reckon for the public outcry, but Leveson did. He predicted the victims and the public would not accept the outcome “if the industry did not grasp the opportunity”. Following seven inquiries into the British press in 70 years, it “did not make sense to contemplate an eighth.” Whether short-term interest will prevail is moot as is the longevity of the media’s powers of influence. But Brian Leveson has done the public a favour by pointing a strong light on media problems. Maybe then, the media can return to the problems that affect the rest of us.
Previous Woolly Days media personalities of the year

Australia’s own Oranges and Sunshine victims remain forgotten

I saw the Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine last week. The film tells the moving story of the forced migration of children from the UK, a paternalistic government program from the 1940s to the 1960s that saw 130,000 children removed to Commonwealth countries, mostly to Australia. The British Government kept the program hidden for years as did the Australian Government. The Forgotten Generation was almost half a million children from the UK and Australia taken from their families and brought up in religious institutional environments where they were abused and treated as slave labour.

The film was poignant because I had met a member of that generation and told his story in our newspaper. The man’s name is John Walsh born in Perth, WA on 27 March 1931. John was the eldest of seven children born in the 1930s all forcibly taken away from their parents.
When war broke out in 1939, John’s father joined the WA 2/11th battalion and embarked for service overseas in 1940, arriving in the Middle East on May 18. The 2/11th trained in Palestine and Egypt. They were mostly captured by the Germans in Crete and sent to Germany as prisoners of war from April 1941 to November 1945. While John’s father and others were serving their country, the WA government destroyed their families and sent the mothers into a life of hell and an early grave. John said the politicians in power from 1939 accused working class and Aboriginal mothers of neglecting their children.

The all-powerful Child Welfare department took control of the children and told mothers they could not see them until they turned 21. In March 1940 the Walsh family was split up. Four brothers John, Billy, Terry and George were sent to Castledare while sisters Theresa, Anne and baby brother Barry were sent to St Josephs Subiaco. After four days, a Mr Young from Child Welfare came to Castledare and asked John to collect his young sister and brother who were in a bad way.“I had to look after my young sister and brother for about six months. It wasn’t easy with me being about eight and a half years old,” John said. Both had to sleep with John on a veranda and the mattress was soaked every day so John had to put it out in the sun every morning. After six months Mr Young returned to take the two youngest back to St Josephs Subiaco. Life was tough in Castledare. John said they never got much to eat. “People would see the bruises on us but you never did say anything for there were a lot of abuses going on and no one would believe you anyway,” he said. “This Christian Brother Murphy whose nickname was Spud was bad. Of course the people wouldn’t believe you, Catholics could do no wrong. You just had to shut your mouth and hope the truth would someday come out.”

In December 1941 eldest boys John and Billy were sent to Clontarf orphanage. They had to move again in February 1942 when the Air Force took over Clontarf and 238 children (200 Australian and 38 English) were sent by train to Tardun St Mary’s College in three groups. Tardun was in the northern wheatbelt of WA, one and a half hours east of Geraldton. As John remembers, “we were sent into a life of hell from 1942 to 1945.”

There was nowhere to sleep so farm machinery was pulled from the shed to make living quarters. They washed in horse troughs and worked from daylight to dark to build a new wing on the old building. “The food they gave you was full of maggots and no way could we eat it,” John said. “We would steal the molasses and boil it up with wheat. We also caught a lot of galahs and other wildlife. We picked up a lot of quondongs off the trees in the bush and also ate a lot of bush fruit. I found out later they were like antibiotics and probably saved us from getting sick.”

Tardun children were out of sight and out of mind. An English boy Charles Brunard, 13, was killed by a truck running over him. John was one of those boys on that truck and said Brother Thomas was the driver. “The radiator was boiling over and Brunard was copping all the boiling water as he sat on the left-hand guard”. But a normal death certificate was issued. A boy called Kevin Glasheen also died of a fractured skull. Other boys were told to shut their mouths or they would get the same treatment.

The boys had no warm clothes for the winter. John remembers Brother Beedon, a short baldy red-faced bespectacled man who was never happy unless he was belting someone with a strap. “It was a long strap always on the bare bum,” John said. “He was always sexually abusing someone”.

In 1945 the Air Force gave Clontarf back to the Christian Brothers and John returned. “Those Christian Brothers were paedophiles so we found out; the life of hell was starting out all over again,” he said. No one dared speak out about what was going on. Sexual abuse, floggings, red siphon hose wrapped around the waist, a special strap made for cutting down on leg muscles. The life of hell went on until the children turned 14 and were sent to work on farms.

On 1 August 1947, John was put on a train at Perth to get off at the Serpentine railway station. He waited at Serpentine for the farmer to pick him up but he was four hours late. When the farmer turned up in a horse and buggy, he went into town to go to a dance. The horse took them home as the boss was drunk. John got five shillings a week with Child Welfare claiming the other two pounds a week. He worked seven days a week between 12 and 15 hours a day and stayed there for six months.

The milk truck helped get him away. John found one of his mother’s friends and her son got him a job at Plaistowes sweet factory in West Perth. “I was there for three weeks before the Child Welfare found me,” John said. “But the Plaistowes brothers and three foremen would not let them touch me. I was 17 years old at the time and still a ward of state until I turned 21.”

John never saw his father again. When the men returned home from war in 1946 they could not find their families and got no help from the WA Government. John spent most of the rest of his life seeking his family as well as justice. On 1 January 1975 the WA Government destroyed the files of the forgotten children. In the 1980s, as Oranges and Sunshine testifies, the UK children came under the spotlight and there were several Senate investigations. But Australian-born victims were ignored. After years of contacting politicians without success, the WA Government finally offered John $45,000 last year, a figure he reluctantly accepted as the best deal he would ever get. He remains bitter about the treatment the Government meted out to the families.

“If the politicians and Child Welfare had paid assistance money these abuses would never have happened,” he said.“They abandoned us and turned a blind eye. It was their responsibility to what went on in these orphanages.” John said the politicians at the time thought the religious institutions could do no wrong, so they never went looking for it. “The politicians who were in the Senate calling us the forgotten Australians were wrong – we were the hidden Australians,” John said.

Arms dealer BAE pleads guilty to hiding bribes

A British Magistrates Court heard on Tuesday how Europe’s largest defence company wilfully failed to keep proper accounting records of payments. BAE Systems is the largest arms manufacturer in Europe and the fourth biggest in the world with annual military sales of $15 billion. In a Magistrates Court hearing in London BAE lawyer David Perry said the company would enter a guilty plea at a higher court next month in a plea deal with the Serious Fraud Office.
(Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)
BAE is charged with knowingly not keeping proper records that explain payments on two contracts. The statement of offence against BAE reads “between 01 Jan 1999 and 31 Dec 2005 BAE knowingly…failed to keep accounting records which were sufficient to show and explain payments made pursuant to (a) a contract between Red Diamond Trading Limited and Envers Trading Corporation, (b) a further contract between British Aerospace (Operations) Limited and Merlin International Limited.” After the guilty plea, District Judge Caroline Tubbs said sentencing should be approved by a higher court and sent the case to Southwark Crown Court. The next hearing will take place on December 20. At this unprecedented hearing a judge will be asked to confirm the final settlement. Many believe the timing of the Crown Court hearing is deliberately close to Christmas to bury the bad news.The legalese around the trial charge did not state the dodgy accounting was hiding bribes to procure the sale of a military radar system to Tanzania. BAE covertly channelled bribes through the Panama-registered Envers from its company, Red Diamond, to secure a contract in 1999 to supply Tanzania with a military radar system costing $40 million. BAE avoided more serious charges after it struck an agreement with the SFO in February.

The deal splits jurisdiction with the US Department of Justice over the company’s misdeeds. The SFO got Tanzania and the DoJ got the rest. BAE pleaded guilty in the Crown Court to an offence under section 221 of the Companies Act 1985 of failing to keep reasonably accurate accounting records for its activities in Tanzania. The company had to pay $50 million comprising a financial order to be determined by a Crown Court judge with the balance as an ex gratia payment for the benefit of the people of Tanzania.

In return the SFO will drop all investigations into BAE deals in South Africa, the Czech Republic and Romania as well as Tanzania. An NGO called The Corner House have expressed concern the plea bargain means SFO has agreed to fetter its future prosecutorial discretion. “If further evidence came to light that was sufficient to mount a prosecution against individuals that necessitated making allegations concerning BAE’s conduct, the SFO would not be able to bring such a prosecution as it has undertaken not to do so,” said The Corner House.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade have joined The Corner House to bring to the Court’s attention over the plea bargain’s undertaking never to prosecute any individual in future if doing so involves alleging BAE Systems was guilty of corruption. CAAT’s Kaye Stearman said the new hearing date is so close to Christmas that “in the hackneyed phrase, this will be a good day to bury bad news.” “Yet there is still much about this whole sorry saga that the public deserves to know,” she said.

CAAT are responsible for much of what we know about BAE’s arms dealings. They scored a major victory over BAE in 2007 after the High Court ordered the weapons dealer to produce a sworn affidavit divulging how it obtained a confidential and legally privileged document from CAAT. In 2003 the Sunday Times revealed BAE paid a company to carry out an elaborate spying operation on its critics and infiltrate CAAT.

The 2007 affidavit followed the failed police investigation of BAE’s illegal activities in Saudi Arabia. BAE chair Dick Evans had easy access to PM Tony Blair and the government pressurised the SFO to drop the investigation into BAE’s Saudi arms in December 2006. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the relationship between BAE and the government was too close. “In my time I came to learn that the Chairman of British Aerospace appeared to have the key to the garden door to Number 10,” he wrote. “Certainly I never once knew Number 10 to come up with any decision that would be incommoding to British Aerospace”.

British banks complicit in Nigerian corruption

A new report from a British non-government corporate watchdog has exposed British banks accepting millions of dollars in bribes from corrupt Nigerian politicians. The report called “International Thief Thief: How British Banks are complicit in Nigerian corruption”(PDF) has exposed the rotten practices. Global Witness named five major banks Barclays, NatWest, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Switzerland’s UBS as having failed to adequately investigate the source of millions of dollars taken from two Nigerian governors accused of corruption.

Robert Palmer, a campaigner at Global Witness said banks were quick to penalise ordinary customers for minor infractions but were less concerned about dirty money passing through their accounts. “Large scale corruption is simply not possible without a bank willing to process payments from dodgy sources, or hold accounts for corrupt politicians,” he said. Global Witness admitted the five banks might not have broken the law but British banking regulator the Financial Services Authority must close loopholes to prevent money laundering through British banks. “The FSA needs to do much more to prevent banks from facilitating corruption,” the report said. “As yet, no British bank has been publicly fined or even named by the regulators for taking corrupt funds, whether willingly or through negligence… in stark contrast to the United States, where banks have been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for handling dirty money.” While HSBC claimed it had “rigorous and robust” measures to stop abuses, a spokesman refused to talk about individual customers citing the bank’s confidentiality policies.Global Witness’s findings were based on court documents from successful cases the Nigerian government brought in London against two former state governors Diepreye Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa state and Joshua Dariye of Plateau state. Alamieyeseigha was jailed in Nigeria after pleading guilty to embezzlement and money laundering when caught with $1.6m in cash at his London home. Dariye was arrested in 2004 in London after buying properties worth millions of dollars though he was on $63,500 a year salary.

Global Witness found Barclays, HSBC, RBS, NatWest and UBS held accounts for both men. They said they “funnelled dirty money into the UK, spending their ill-gotten gains on sustaining a luxury lifestyle, in stark contrast to the poverty of ordinary Nigerians.” Global Witness said banks propped up by taxpayer’s money were getting away with practices that undermine aid programs. “This is not just illogical, it is immoral,” they said. “Our financial system is morally complicit in Nigerian corruption.” The banks have form: nearly all had fallen foul of the FSA in 2001 helping former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha funnel nearly a billion pounds through the UK.

Nigeria ranks 130 out of 180 nations in Transparency International’s list of countries perceived as most transparent in 2009. It has a population of 150 million people many surviving on $2 a day yet the country is one of the world’s top champagne importers and its wealthiest residents are among the continent’s richest. Al Jazeera quoted Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency who estimated corruption and mismanagement swallows up 40 per cent of the country’s annual oil income. “Without access to the international financial system, it would be much harder for corrupt politicians from the developing world to loot their treasuries or accept bribes,” Global Witness said.

A Journey into Tony Blair’s Brutopia

In his new autobiography Tony Blair tells the story of a passenger jet that breached closed British airspace in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A senior RAF commander was following the plane which was out of contact and heading towards London. The commander was awaiting instruction from Downing St to shoot it down. As recounted in “A Journey” (published yesterday) Blair said he talked with his advisors for several minutes “trying desperately to get an instinct as to whether this was threat or mishap”. When the deadline came, Blair decided to wait. “Moments later the plane regained contact. It had been a technical error,” Blair wrote. “I needed to sit down and thank God for that one.”

Blair’s desperation for a sign of “instinct” is as telling a factor about his make-up as is his gratitude to “God” for the way it eventually passed without incident. Blair is proof of John Gray’s suggestion in Black Mass modern politics is merely a chapter in the history of religion. While Blair recoiled with desperate horror against the possibility of making a preemptive strike against someone who may or may not be a threat, such decisions grew a lot easier for him in the years that followed. 9/11 was a watershed moment for Blair, as much as it was for the Bush administration as it marked a time when Gray said foreign policy was shaped by Utopian thinking.

Blair always had a strong dash of neo-liberalism to go with his strong powers of faith. He came to the Labour leadership in 1994 when the party had been out of office for 15 years. He inherited Margaret Thatcher’s belief in the power of the markets. John Gray said Thatcher’s aim of destroying socialism in Britain assisted Blair in his political rise. By dismantling the Labour settlement that had served Britain since the end of World War II, she removed the chief reason for the existence of the Conservative Party. Without an enemy, it lacked identity. Blair’s “New Labour” easily stepped into its shoes and deprived them of relevance for a decade.

As the 1997 British election proved, strategy and organisation were more important than policy. Blair carried on Thatcher’s privatisation agenda moving it into the justice system and prison service while also making the NHS and schools subject to market forces. In his early international dealings he advocated a “doctrine of international community” which reflected the “end of history” thesis that infected much 1990s intellectual thought. It was destroyed with the towers on 11 September 2001 and exposed Blair’s naked belief in the power of good intentions to triumph regardless of flaw in the execution.

Like Bush, Blair saw his destiny as the unfolding of providential design. The neocons in the White House made it abundantly clear to him on a Camp David visit in April 2002 the Afghan War would be a sideshow and Iraq was the real target. The Foreign Office knew the case for war was a thin one; Saddam was little threat and had no weapons to speak of. Yet by the time of the 23 July Downing Street Memo, he accepted the advice of MI6 war was inevitable and “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”.

He cautioned Bush to seek UN support but in January 2003 Bush told him plainly the US was invading with or without a resolution. Bush offered Blair the opportunity to pull out given the strong anti-war rhetoric in the UK but Blair pledged his support. Blair actively covered up intelligence that contradicted the official line on Iraq. The March 2002 Iraq Options paper produced by the Cabinet Office and the February 2003 Defence Intelligence Staff document both said there was no justification for invasion. Blair shifted the case to arguments about WMD where as Grey said “intelligence could be more easily manipulated”.

Blair wasn’t interested in the facts. Armed with his dogged Utopian belief in the ineluctable nature of progress, he screened out inconvenient data. Blair was only interested in faith-based intelligence that supported his moral imperative. As the disasters unfolded in the aftermath of invasion such as Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, Blair kept silent. Again Gray is relevant: “deception is justified if it advances human progress…Blair’s untruths are not true lies. They are prophetic glimpses of the future course of history and they carry the hazards of all such revelations.”

Blair’s militant faith in human progress brought him eventually to the political abyss. His was a enlightenment view of unending human progress. In ten years as Prime Minister his overriding concern was the shaping of public opinion to support his beliefs and his lies became an integral feature of government function. Despite winning three elections, he was remembered only as a lackey of the Bush administration. Both practiced missionary politics and saw their goal as the salvation of humankind.

Bush could do faith better than Blair in a country with a lot more millenarian tendencies than the UK. An American Lt Col in Fallujah could get away with saying the war was “battle against Satan”; a British General in Basrah could not. But both Britain and the US have now left the country. Iraq turned out not to be a Utopian project after all.

BBC strategic review is useful template for the ABC

The BBC Strategy Review of March 2010 (pdf) is an important read for those interested in the future of Britain’s premier broadcaster and its antipodean cousin the ABC. With a tagline “getting the best out of the BBC for licence fee payers” the 79-page document is the BBC Trust’s attempt to steer a course for the public-funded organisation in the likely event of a Conservative win in the forthcoming election and a reduction in government expenditure.

(photo: The Guardian)

The Trust said its reference points were the audience and the market. Its says its audience is proud of the BBC and willing to pay for a strong and independent voice delivering original and high quality content. The market is more ambiguous. It wants the BBC to fulfil its public service charter but questions where the boundaries lie with private enterprise and also its genuineness in its proposals for partnerships.

The Trust said it was time to look at possibilities of expansion. It asked four key questions: Is its portfolio of services still appropriate in the digital age? Has its near 7 x 24 expansion caused a dilution in quality and distinctiveness? What is the best distribution model for content? And finally how should it react to the problems of commercial media? These raised five questions the Trust put to BBC management: How can the BBC best maintain quality and distinctiveness? Where could it narrow focus and scale? What will a fully digital BBC look like? Can the BBC better define the public space it provides? And finally how can the BBC create the most value from its scale?

The response from BBC management called “Putting Quality First” is in the same document. The Director-General’s vision was to create “a BBC focused on quality content and enduring values, keeping open a public space for all”. This would be achieved by five central principles: putting quality first, doing fewer things better, guaranteeing access, getting better value from the licence fee, and setting new boundaries.

The BBC mission has relevance in the Australian context. It says, “[the mission] is constant and enduring: to inform, educate and entertain audiences with programmes and services of high quality, originality and value. It strives to fulfill this mission not to further any political or commercial interest, but because the British public believes that universal access to ideas and cultural experiences of merit and ambition is a good in itself. The BBC is a part of public space because the public themselves have put it there.”

The BBC is part of a public space that include other media, public institutions, libraries, museums, parks, universities, monuments and voluntary bodies.  While the digital age should be a “golden age” for public space, fragmentation of audiences is destroying business models causing public space to diminish. The BBC says its role is to be a guarantor of public space and its technological underpinning and should also be a catalyst and connector within that space.

Its mantra, says management, should be putting quality first. It will have five content priorities: world-class journalism, inspiring knowledge, music and culture, ambitious local drama and comedy, outstanding children’s content, and events that bring communities and the nation together. That means changing £600m of priorities a year (a fifth of the BBC’s costs) over four years and committing to 90 percent of licence fees on high quality content (though it will be interesting to see how ‘high quality’ will be defined and measured).

Spending on the BBC’s website will decrease by a quarter each year to 2013 and its number of sections will be halved. There will also be more external links to double monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites. Other services closed will be Radio 6 Music, Asian Network and teen offerings BBC Switch and Blast! BBC management want to make internet-connected television a reality, continue free access to news and also open its archives and program library and work with its partners like the British Library and BFI to bring public archives to a wider audience.

The BBC is proposing to reduce costs, slash senior management numbers, freeze pay and suspend bonuses. They will also reduce spend on overseas content, cap sports rights spending, defer to commercial radio and other broadcasters in popular music and serving teenagers and not go more hyperlocal than they already are.

Opponents of public broadcasting in Australia like Mark Day have seized on this report as a rationale for trimming down, if not totally removing the ABC from the media landscape. While this goes too far, the BBC Trust document asks good questions and opens up a debate on public broadcasting and its platforms and contents we need in Australia. With no licence fee, we should question the direction the ABC is headed (and ask where SBS fits into the picture). All too often media policy is reactive. As the analogue age ends we need to examine the BBC document. It is a template for honest and mature discussion into what we might want from “our ABC” in the coming years.