29 January 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 January 2012

So,farewell, then, Press TV, as Private Eye’s spoof poet E. J. Thribb would say. The Iranian state television station last week had its licence to broadcast in Britain revoked by the regulator, Ofcom, after repeatedly breaching the Ofcom code. The final straw was its refusal to guarantee that it was editorially controlled from London and not from Tehran. Last Friday it was removed from the BSkyB satellite.

An outrageous assault on freedom of expression? George Galloway, the former MP who has presented a regular show on Press TV, certainly thinks so. “Champions of liberty the British govt have now taken Press TV off Sky,” the gorgeous former admirer of Saddam Hussein tweeted in response to the decision.

But then he continued: “Follow us at www.presstv.ir and other platforms” – which rather undermines his point. Press TV hasn’t actually been suppressed, and it isn’t really farewell. Anyone who wants to can watch it online.

Not that I’m going to, I might add, or at least not very often. Press TV is an organ of Iranian government propaganda, a purveyor of anti-semitic conspiracy theory and anti-democratic bile, no more trustworthy than the Soviet Novosti Press Agency and its lackeys were in the bad old days. You only watch it to see what the Iranian government and its useful idiots in the west are saying.

Nevertheless, the case of Press TV is an important one because of what it says about the difficulties of regulating broadcasting in the digital age.

From the 1920s until very recently, Britain had a very tough regulatory regime for broadcasting. For more than 30 years, the BBC – a state-owned corporation from 1927 – had a monopoly of broadcasting, with strict rules prohibiting political partisanship and bias, and the same rules were applied to commercial broadcasters after the BBC monopoly was broken in 1955 with the creation of ITV.

In the years after the end of the BBC monopoly, commercial broadcasting grew massively in scope – commercial radio from the early 1970s, Channel Four from 1982, Sky and other channels on satellite from the late 1980s – but the tough rules on partisanship and bias remained in place.

They weren’t perfect: a self-satisfied establishment consensus ruled, views outside the mainstream were largely excluded from the airwaves, and governments of every political persuasion did their best, with varying degrees of success, to suppress awkward programmes and keep out awkward programme-makers.

But the regulatory regime spared and still spares British broadcasting the propagandist partisanship that has poisoned the political culture of other countries. Italy has Berlusconi TV in all its forms, the United States has Fox and dozens of radio stations that pour out populist right-wing propaganda for their corporate masters. We don’t.

The very fact that Press TV was given a licence in the first place shows, however, that the long-standing British regulatory regime has started to disintegrate – and the fact that its licence being revoked makes little difference to its accessibility is a harbinger of things to come. In the multi-channel, multi-platform, global-broadcaster digital age, content regulation is more difficult to justify – who nixes “We’re just an honest-to-goodness news channel run by an office in London with lots of ethnic-minority people (and George Galloway)”? – and almost impossible to enforce completely.

Some would say that this is a good thing, but I don’t agree. A free-for-all of the airwaves could well be in the offing. But it would advantage no one but the already advantaged – super-rich individuals, corporations and states – towards whom the rules are already heavily stacked. The British regulatory regime for broadcasting needs to be reinforced to limit propagandist channels' access, not relaxed. It might be a fighting retreat, but it's worth it.

Which is where Nick Cohen’s fiery new polemic about freedom of expression, You Can’t Read This Book, comes in. He recognises that we need regulation to preserve media freedom. The book’s big theme is that formal legal guarantees of freedom of expression are not enough to sustain its practice.

Fear – fear of being fired for stepping out of line by a corporation or government organisation that employs you, fear of the libel action that might come from a super-rich crook with a holiday home in London, fear of being assassinated for offending the religious sensibilities of some imam in Iran (who might well broadcast on Press TV) – is as potent a constraint on free expression as the censor of a totalitarian state, and a much larger and more present danger in western democracies than necessary tolerant democratic media regulation.

Cohen’s book is brilliant – add that to the cover blurb – but it doesn’t go far enough in exploring the informal system of controlling what is sayable and what is not in the contemporary media. He’s quite blasé about political and cultural exclusion by newspaper and broadcast editors (his line is that you can always find another outlet for your opinions, which might be true for him but isn’t for most of the rest of us) and he has nothing to say about the collusion between journalists and their sources that keeps so much that should be public private.

Ah, what the hell. I’m writing what I think for a democratic socialist newspaper. It will be published (I hope) more or less unchanged. We might be as marginal as it’s possible to be, but we’re still here, out and proud. That’s good, and long may it continue. The survival of Tribune is much more important than that of Press TV.

22 January 2012


I’ve just received the very bad news that my old comrade in arms David Henderson has died in Turin after contracting pneumonia. I’m gutted.

Dave and I became friends as libertarian leftists at Oxford University in the late 1970s – he was in the Labour Party and I was an anarchist, but our points of view were pretty much in sympathy – and we kept up with each other after he moved to Turin in 1980, where he threw himself into the then-collapsing Italian extra-parliamentary left that had inspired us both in the previous five years.

I visited him in Italy for the first time in spring 1981, with Jo, a girl we both loved, just as the Italian state was suppressing the last remnants of the armed-struggle leftist groups that proliferated in the 1970s – which Dave never supported – and I’ll never forget it.

The first day, Jo made it clear that it was Dave and not me in whom she was interested. The second day, I witnessed for the first and last time in my life an armed demonstration – the stewards in certain sections had automatic pistols (“Comrade P38”) stuffed in their jackets. And the next day we turned up to an anarchist centre next to a fly-blown Turin housing project that turned out to have been smashed up by the cops in an anti-terrorist operation the previous night.

Their target had been Prima Linea, the armed-struggle group whose founders had been the far left of Lotta Continua, the quasi-Maoist, quasi-libertarian coalition that until 1976 had been the most important 1968-generation leftist organisation. Dave was a member of another ex-Lotta Continua faction, one that abjured terrorism but was militantly direct-actionist and had some support at Fiat, the giant motor company that was then, as now, the dominant employer in Turin. I had no idea then and have no idea now whether the Centro Eliseo Reclus was a terrorist base: for me they were the Turin contacts for the libertarian left group of which I was a member in the UK. Whatever, we turned up, saw the damage and thought: "Shit!" We then went to the bar across the road for a beer. The bar refused to serve us. But that night we drank the first Guinness poured in the first Irish pub in Turin.

Dave knew Italian politics backwards, and I used his expertise throughout the 1980s and 1990s: he covered Italy for END Journal, Tribune, the New Statesman, Red Pepper and New Times for me. He did so brilliantly, reporting before anyone else in Britain the dangers of Berlsuconi and the fragility of the official (communist and then disintegrating former-communist) centre-left.

But it was always as a side project to working on other serious editorial and translation work, which he continued until he was taken ill after Xmas. I was planning to visit him last autumn, but got waylaid and thought I’d make it in spring. Now it’s too late. A fantastically generous, intelligent and sociable man, he leaves his partner of many years, Paola, and a lot of devastated friends.

19 January 2012


I’m sad to hear of the death of Janey Buchan, the Scottish left-wing activist and former MEP, at the age of 85. She was an extraordinary woman, a crazy world-class hater – she told everyone that her memoirs on which she was working were going to be titled Shits I Have Known – yet one of the most generous people I have met in politics.

No one was ruder about anyone than Janey, but she was a softie at heart. She and her husband Norman, the late Labour MP, put me up every time I went to Glasgow as a young, broke Tribune journalist, and she was a doughty supporter of dozens of other friends in small and big ways. A ferocious devourer of the media – and an accomplished writer -- she never lost her youthful Communist Party enthusiasm for campaigning (she left the party over Hungary in 1956), and she was very good at it until well into her seventies. But boy, was she batty as hell.

Her sense of humour was wicked. She placed a small ad in Tribune many moons ago that suggested that George Galloway, a Janey hate-figure, was not very good at his job. Galloway sued and settled out-of-court for £2,000 to be given to a charity. Janey coughed up and put the money in a Galloway libel account, where I think it’s sitting to this day.

I disagreed with her a lot and on occasion found her impossible, but we could do with a few more like her today.

  • Michael White has a good obituary in the Guardian here.

2 January 2012


According to Labour front-bencher Liam Byrne, apropos of benefits policy:
"something for something" means reward for those who are desperately trying to do the right thing, saving for the future and trying to build a stable, secure home. Right now, these families are offered too little reward and incentive – in social housing and long-term savings – for the kind of behaviour that is the bedrock of a decent society.
Well, I demur.

The “kind of behaviour that is the bedrock of a decent society” is a euphemism for conformist respectability. As is the implicit injunction to “do the right thing”. Who says what “the right thing” is or defines the "decent society"? Prissy focus-group Daily Mail readers? Labour politicians? The Church of England? The imam of the local mosque? It's none of his business. This is soundbite politics at its most cretinous, and the worst sort of communitarian populism.