What it means to teach, and why I support the NUT on their strike

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Fear, I am happy to report, is not an emotion I experience on a regular basis.

Fear, I have been led to believe my Doctor Who’s Listen, is a superpower that makes me stronger and faster; and the most dangerous man in the room.

At this moment in time, at the start of a school term, I am perspiring profusely, my voice has raised a semi-tone, and the evolutionary part of my brain flitting between fight or flight has mentally opted for booking a first class one way ticket to Barbados.

Because, standing before me, is a classroom full of 14-year-old boys vying for the kill.

Like my saintly namesake, I have been thrown into the lion’s den. However, since I am not a godly man, I am dressed as a wildebeest and I am wrapped in bacon.

For one year, I was fortunate enough to teach the extra curricular class at a school. I would arrive on a Wednesday afternoon for an hour-a-week, armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a vast amount of naivete.

This would be my first and last teaching job.

I remain grateful for the invaluable experience gained during my time there. This truly was a baptism of fire and one of the most challenging jobs I have faced.

The students were difficult. But so was I at their age. What I was failed to be told is that students can be quick-witted and hilarious; and unfortunately at your own expense.

The lessons became less reliant on PowerPoints. In fact, one of my most successful days there was giving in to their demands to watch the World Cup coverage – but only if they viewed it from a media perspective. Much like the cartoons of my youth, I could see the light bulbs flicking on above their heads.

Instead of shouting over their voices, I learnt to listen to what they had to say. Problems at home, bullying, loneliness, substance abuse: they were difficult kids because they led difficult lives.

Teaching was one of the most difficult yet rewarding jobs I have undertaken. Did I think I was any good at it? Probably not. But my respect for the profession rose to astronomical highs, and I began to ask: what makes a good teacher? And it would seem, like the difficult kids leading difficult lives, good teachers are faced with a difficult workplace.


On the same day my own union, the University and College Union (UCU) went on strike for higher pay, decreasing the gender pay gap and against the casualisation of contracts, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) took industrial action.

UCU Poster

Schools are facing the worst cuts in funding since the 1970s, resulting in class sizes increasing, resources being reduced, and subjects – predominantly in the arts – being removed from the curriculum. The NUT claims that 1 in 12 members of staff will be made redundant in the next few years; the remaining staff will have an increased workload on pay that does not align to the sheer amount of hours teachers put in.

Sadly, instead of supporting the pioneers in our children’s development, there has been criticism aimed towards the rightfully striking teachers. Education secretary Nicky Morgan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “teachers were putting children’s education at risk”, which actually seems to be her mantra by, according to forecasts from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, an 8% cut in funding in real terms over the next few years.

Focus was pinned on the “major disruption for parents”, but once again there has been too much on the micro (one single day of action), ignoring the macro (the ideological cuts).

The NUT’s acting general secretary Kevin Courtney “wholeheartedly apologised” for the disruption but noted that teachers do not take strike action lightly.

No-one takes strike action lightly: it means that you do not get paid and you usually freeze your balls off at the picket. Nicky Morgan, and indeed University hierarchy, almost make striking seem like the easy option. I like my wage. It pays for my rent and buys me cider. I will be going without, because something needs to be done. Instead of adopting Morgan’s aggressive approach, my University decided to go for the passive-aggressive “we’re not angry, just disappointed” method via e-mail.

Courtney added: “The problems facing education, however, are too great to be ignored and we know many parents share our concerns.

“Schools are facing the worst cuts in funding since the 1970s. The decisions which head teachers have to make are damaging to our children and young people’s education.”

Kevin Courtney, Acting General Secretary of the NUT

“No parent wants this for their children. No teacher wants this for their school or pupils.”

Nicky Morgan, in a letter to the NUT, asked teachers not “to play politics with children’s futures”, but with the thankfully defeated forced academisation (yet encroaching privatisation), the IFS’ predicted 8% funding cut and ill thought out reforms to the school curriculum, the Education secretary is playing a dangerous game where teachers and children lose.

After the tripling of the tuition fees, I gloomily called my age group a “potential lost generation”. With these ideological Tory cuts, my prediction was a bit on the low side.

I went to a Catholic school – they didn’t teach me optimism. I got top marks in self-loathing and guilt, though!


Dan’s top teachers

During my high school years, I was either known as Danny McLaughlin or Danny Mac. If I hear this vocative address now, my first instinct is to run; although running itself invokes traumatic memories of cross country, chronicled in my Year 9 music composition ‘PE Blues’. After stumbling across an old student planner, even though I do not remember Mount Carmel that fondly, I was blessed with a good smattering of friends and teachers without whom I would not be doing what I am today.

Mrs Phillips (Form Tutor, Years 8-11): 

The aforementioned student planner was saturated in doodles and cheesy jokes of the week, most likely as a result of my short attention span. This creativity was encouraged by Mrs Phillips. She marvelled in her role as form tutor, becoming the somewhat clichéd ‘second mother’. Aiding me through grief, rejection (a certain head boy selection introducing me to the murky world of politics) and what I would discover to be manic depression, we engaged in theological, philosophical and downright fascinating conversations. She was a great aid in my intellectual and worldly development.

Mr Seddon (English, Years 10 and 11):

Reading in itself is a pleasure. Talking about what you have read is a further joy. Unlike television and to an extent film, where interpretation is usually firmly fixed, you can view literature from different perspectives. When I lost the joy of reading, I decided to stop studying literature; rekindling my bibliophilia at University when on a journalism degree. Whilst we would discuss Othello or Pride and Prejudice in the classroom, my favourite moments were discussing Jack Higgins and Tom Clancy when the lesson had finished. Much of my library is there due to recommendations from Mr Seddon.

Mr Sweeney (Religious Education, Years 10 and 11):

After RE had ended, we would both give an analysis of performances from Blackburn Rovers – usually resulting in the lack of punctuality for the following lesson. Probably not helpful for my theological journey, but he was a bloody decent bloke who was always happy to have a chat.

Ms McNulty (Film Studies, Years 12 and 13):

Without a seemingly obvious question – “what do you want to study?” – I would not have studied and now by working at MediaCityUK. Ta very much.

Mr Lamb (Medieval History, Years 12 and 13):

To deliver tales on medieval feudalism and monasticism with such passion and character is a rare gift. An incredibly funny man who made the Norman Conquest and the Crusades accessible to bored college students from Blackburn. I still purchase books on the subject to this day. He would offer sound and impartial advice on professional development in the ‘Lair of the Lamb’ (his office). And the fact that he was a Whovian was always going to put him in my good books.

Honorary mention: Mrs Anderson (Music, Years 7-11)

I am not totally sure if she was aware, but I think she was, that I would skip certain classes when I was bored on the pretence of a music lesson and hide in the piano room, practising on the ivories. Thank you for not grassing up on me.


Main image: Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 1640

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Paris Attacks: The Smörgåsbord of Evil

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In a vain attempt to appear intellectual and justify my university education, I shall quote Ernest Hemingway on the process of writing. I know Hemingway said it for the Google told me so:

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

As a tribute to Hemingway, akin to drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, I shall bastardise this phrase for my own usage:

“Write angry; edit rational.”

In the wake of the horrific murders committed in Paris, where 129 people were killed and over 99 injured in a series of co-ordinated gun and bomb attacks purportedly by the so-called ‘Islamic State’, I took to social media to vent my unadulterated rage. And then I stopped. Write drunk; edit sober. Write angry; edit rational. Instead I posted this holding message: “I find it wiser not to write posts in anger. Considered words on the horrific events in Paris can wait another day. Deeply, deeply saddened.”

In hindsight, Jason Manford should have employed the less-haste approach to his social media policy, after Facebook banned him for calling the Abrahamic god a “c**t”. Whilst the depictions of this deity are, well, cuntish, I find it somewhat difficult to think of him – certainly not a her as we would not be in half the trouble we’re in with a woman in charge of life, the universe and everything – as female genitalia because I simply do not believe he exists. Having said that, I think that Stephen Fry gets it absolutely spot on with this:

Time has passed. The red mist has lifted and in its place, philosophical musings on “what next?” After the slaughter in the French capital, US comedian Bill Maher posed the question: “Why do they hate us?”

The ‘they’ being the alleged attackers, ISIS. First and foremost, I will not give the delusional murderers the respect they lust for by naming them the ‘Islamic State’. For a while now, I have tried to conjure up a collective noun for these individuals. I toyed with “The Flamboyant Homosexuals” but I did not want to degrade the wonderful – and I daresay, fabulous – LGBT community; but I knew nothing would piss ISIS off more than being referred to as a bunch of queens.  Instead, I have opted for the powerful and the universal “The Cunts”. So if I need to refer to the artist formerly known as ISIL, much to my mother’s distaste I’m sure, they shall simply be called “The Cunts”.

Much soul-searching has occurred quite publicly on social media and otherwise. Solidarité has graciously been shown with an outpouring of grief and temporary Facebook profile pictures. Sadly, there has been opportunistic racism from the same people who are posting “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. That, Alanis Morissette, is ironic. Perhaps they should take note from that great Anglais philosopher, Rowling:

Harry Potter

Courtesy of The Best of Tumblr/Facebook

Amongst the fluctuation of French lexis – which I always considered a beautiful language with my favourite Gallic phrase oddly being “comme ci comme ça” – there were statements along the lines of “this has nothing to with religion”; which I consider, pardon the phrase, naïf.

The rise of The Cunts – which I understand sounds like a punk band record or Germaine Greer’s next book – is not solely the fault of religion, of course. I hasten to add that their version of Islam is utterly twisted and barbaric, and quite unknown to the vast majority of kind and loving Muslims in the world. The Cunts were formed (we really are going for the punk theme) due to the Smörgåsbord of Evil: the foreign policies of Western countries, mental health issues, psychopathic and narcissistic tendencies of the sexually deprived and, I’m sorry to say, a warped vision of radical Islam.

Religion is just one of many, many contributing factors. However, we cannot deny that it is one of our – to be unkind, out-of-date – ingredients on the Smörgåsbord of Evil.

I repeat: The Cunts do not represent the vast majority of Muslims who genuinely aspire to do some good in this world. However, following the equally sacred creed of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is identifying the problem. When the feminism debate ensues, a few of my peers give the lame duck argument: “But Not All Men…” We are not accusing the entire gender of being sexist, harassing women and generally being dicks, but merely stating that some men are. Of course not all men are guilty of being misogynistic, but it is a cultural problem which encapsulates the gender that we must address. In the same way, I do not believe that all Christians are homophobes but due to the hateful nature of some, there is an ingrained homophobia that we must not be reluctant to deal with. We should not shy away from the theological and sociological debate about Islam (and indeed all Abrahamic religions).

Perhaps you are aware from my sceptical writings and my general smugness (mainly because I am not prohibited from the pleasurable things in life – I am, of course, talking about bacon) that I am an atheist.

Boo!

Hiss!

Down with this sort of thing!

Why do you want to ban religion?! (I don’t – although I fantasise about a world without it)

I would like to state on the record, Your Honour: I have absolutely no problem with faith – my problem is with religion. Faith can be a beautiful thing that inspires, unites and gives comfort to a great number of people. However, religion tends to accompany it like a drunken, bigoted uncle at a family function.

In January, I wrote a response to the freedom of speech debate surrounding the Charlie Hebdo murders for The SalfordianI almost asked for it to be deleted from the website as I made a rather crude and gross over-simplification as an argument: I said that I was Islamophobic – but certainly not Muslimophobic. I regret the clumsy execution of the argument, not the sentiment. Of course, I am not Islamophobic. I do not fear Islam – how utterly preposterous! The point I was attempting to make was I would engage in debates about religion. I would, however, not mock a person’s beliefs.

Faith plus religion can lead to a pick n mix of ideology. In reaction to the far right’s interpretation of Islam following the Paris attacks, where the poor little darlings seemingly confuse race and religion, a meme – an evolutionary term coined by Professor Richard Dawkins, ironically – showing Muhammad’s rules of warfare has done the rounds. Don’t kill prisoners: marvellous! Don’t kill children: fab! Don’t mutilate corpses: quite right, too! One does tend to think why there is an idiot’s guide to warfare in the first place – surely one should be promoting peace: just don’t kill anyone please, thank you very much.

I am not refuting there are some wonderful passages in the Qur’an, giving lovely advice on how to be a better human being. But for every lovely passage, there will be those that stick at the back of the throat. And this is true of all seemingly holy texts: the Bible, the Torah, Joseph Smith’s ‘Where’s the Wally?’ For every love thy neighbour, there’s Sodom and Gomorrah (ludicrous, ludicrous tales); for every do not kill innocents, there’s a step-by-step guide on how to crucify said innocents. To call oneself a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew is not to choose a pick n mix of ideology but to take responsibility of the entire sweet (and sickly) collection on offer.

For instance, if you were to attend the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones and live to tell the tale, you would not defend the wedding on the account of the pleasing music and hor d’oeuvres. To extend this further, when you choose to support a political party, you do so because you agree with their policies. As much as I was delighted with the legalisation of same sex marriage by the ConDem coalition, I certainly would not support their views on, well, basically everything else. Adolf Hitler as Chancellor did revive the German economy, but his foreign policy and human rights record left something to be desired.

For a god that is absolute, be it Abrahamic or otherwise, the Bible and the Qur’an cannot be a series of pros and cons. If a deity, and its institution, is infallible then, as the late and great Christopher Hitchens said, why can we not tell if these texts are a sign of god having a bad day?

Whilst we are discussing religion and politics, it seems the opportune moment to quote Douglas Adams:

“If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it.’”

Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar shared this drawing online:

Charlie Hebdo

Courtesy of Joann Sfar/Instagram

Upon sharing this image on my Facebook profile, there were some who liked the picture and some that did not. A friend of mine rightfully commented that if people didn’t kill for religion, they would kill for politics; zealousness is the problem, not faith. I find it hard to disagree with this. After President Hollande gave a speech after the attacks stating France would be “merciless”, I feared history would repeat itself. After 9/11, George Bush remarked unwisely that he would go on a “crusade”. That crusade is still feeling the effects. That crusade most likely resulting in the horrors seen on Friday. I knew, I just knew that France would retaliate and their airstrikes on the city of Raqqa in Syria sadly proved that if people didn’t kill for religion, they would kill for politics.

The Smörgåsbord of Evil has many, many ingredients and we must not be afraid of talking about each and every one of them. You may vehemently disagree with everything I have argued, and the marvellous thing is: you can. As I speak freely, you can also. In fact, I actively encourage it.

Let’s have a conversation. Freely, equally and together. Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Paris Peace Sign

FOI: Are journalists people, too?

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The Freedom of Information Act is celebrating its tenth year, but former Prime Minister Tony Blair will not be the one blowing out the candles on the birthday cake.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) was given royal assent and passed into law in 2000. It took a further five years for the Act to be implemented, and it came into force on 1 January 2005. The White Paper, produced by Dr David Clark, to which Mr Blair provided the preface, is called “Your Right To Know”. The title of the White Paper sums up the Freedom of Information Act: it gives the citizen a right to know about its government’s actions.

Over 100,000 public bodies are held accountable by the Freedom of Information Act. From local to central government, health to education, the public bodies have 20 working days to respond to requests from the public: either by supplying the information or explaining why it cannot be supplied. Around 120,000 requests are made to these public bodies each year.

Tony Blair gave a scathing critique of the Act in his memoir, My Journey:

“Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head ’til it drops off. You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.”

Whilst I find it difficult to dispute his self-assessment of calling himself a “nincompoop”, there are two claims Mr Blair makes on the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) that needs to be addressed:

  1. “We did it with care, but without foresight.”
  2. “The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists.
Courtesy of Chatham House, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Chatham House, via Wikimedia Commons

His first claim can be disproved within one sentence: freedom of information was a 23-year-old pledge from the Labour Party, appearing in six consecutive manifestos.

His second claim is a bit trickier. Journalists, if we are to follow the idealistic Fourth Estate watchdog status of the press, use FOI on behalf of the people, for the people. And surprisingly journalists are not the highest volume of requesters – they just have the biggest audience. The largest requester is actually the private individual (or “the people” as Mr Blair calls them). It is difficult to profile a requester, as the process ought to be anonymous, and figures change from study to study: James Morrison (the academic, not the singer) offers the figure of 60% whilst The Constitution Unit offers the figure of 39% for private individuals. But the common theme within these statistics provided is that the private individual sends out the highest volume of requests.

Since Mr Blair assesses journalists as ‘not-people’, the question arises: are journalists treated differently when using FOI? In 2005, Professor Alasdair Roberts warned the UK about the “amber-lighting procedure”, a bureaucratic maze used by Canadian authorities to thwart journalists.

The amber lighting procedure goes through five stages from its initial submission to its disclosure. The request is first sent to the relevant department. A ‘risk assessment officer’ then determines whether they should tread with caution. These ‘sensitive’ requests are then sent to the Minister’s Office for further scrutiny. The ‘amber-lighted’ request is answered by the relevant department who co-ordinate with the Office of Primary Interest, which helps develop a complete disclosure package: a combination of the documents requested and context in the form of press releases approved by the Minister’s Office.

To test whether this administrative Dante’s nine circles of Hell exists in the UK, two sets of ten FOI requests were sent out to the councils of Greater Manchester. The first set did not identify the purpose of the request, and the only description of the requester was a name and address (a gullible flatmate of mine to whom I owe a pint). The second set was quite candid in its intentions, clearly stating that it was from a journalist. This test was not necessarily to gain information, but to examine the quality of information from the councils.

One year after the introduction of FOI, the success rate of responding to requests from journalists was dire. Recording a 53.3% rejection rate, Manchester Evening News sent out 15 freedom of information requests to public authorities – eight were refused.

800px-Greater_Manchester_County_-_no_key_-_greyscale

Before this test, Tom Rodgers, news editor of SalfordOnline.com, anticipated a similar rejection rate:

“(On whether he uses FOI) I can give you a short answer: not really.

“Salford City Council rarely respond to stories on time – if at all.

“In fact they’re under monitoring from the Information Commissioner, as it is currently responding to less than 65% of all of its FOI requests within the legal timeframe.”

Surprisingly, Salford City Council did respond to the request from the journalist in full, but chose not to respond to the request from the private individual within the 20 working days timeframe.

In fact, the majority of the councils showed a considerable improvement and even favouritism towards the requests from the journalists. Over ten years, the FOI success rate for journalists in Greater Manchester has rose from 53.3% to 80%. Only 40% of requests from the private individual were answered on time.

Former deputy editor of the Manchester Evening News, Ian Wood argues that press offices have moved on from declining information to instead proactively disclosing it:

“Smart press officers now hide their secrets in plain sight.

“Instead of putting it in a vault and hiding it, savvy press officers put it somewhere deep in a 30,000 gigabyte document.

“We are experiencing a tsunami of information, and although anyone can use the Act to gain information, journalists are required as specialists to decipher it.”

This proactive disclosure was evident in two of the responses to the journalist requests: Rochdale Council provided information from a larger time scale than requested, highlighting that the council had improved significantly over more recent years, and Wigan Council provided an additional press release alongside the request on their FOI improvement thanks to new measures. This additional context was not provided in the requests from the private individual, where both councils disclosed in full.

Councillor Terry Halliwell, cabinet member for customer transformation at Wigan Council, said:

“In the last four years, the number of FOIs has more than doubled, costing the local authority £100,000 in 2013 alone.

“We are working hard to deal with requests effectively and efficiently and I’m pleased that these measures are working.”

The favouritism shown to journalists by the ten councils contrasts to the behaviour of the Metropolitan Police down South. In February 2015, the Met Police Force banned the Press Gazette from sending FOI requests about the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The Met Police accused the Press Gazette of being “disruptive” and having a “disproportionate impact on a public authority”.

Even more worrying is the South Cluster Met Police press office telling journalists that it will no longer deal with “reactive media enquiries” such as local crimes and road traffic collisions. In its place, the local communications team will deal with “proactive” good news enquiries. Reactive media enquiries are instead being directed towards the central Met Police press team. This ban on negative stories and FOI requests is a serious prevention of journalistic scrutiny of public authorities.

freedom-of-information

In a review of record keeping in local government, Elizabeth Shepherd argues that freedom of information legislation is only as good as the records kept. Poor record keeping undermines FOI. This was evident in the requests sent to the Greater Manchester councils: Salford, Stockport, Oldham, Bolton and Wigan did not disclose the requests in full since their records were not all electronic and they used Section 12 of the Act, exempting request exceeding an “appropriate limit” – currently £450 limit for local government and £600 for central government. Wigan Council even worked out the figure the request would cost: £1025. This also shows the subjective nature of exemptions as Bury Council said that the request cost £25 to complete. Responding two weeks after the deadline, Trafford Council rejected the request because they have only started to hold records relating to FOI from 2014, and the person who was in charge of this previously no longer works there.

Whilst not disclosing the journalist requests in full, Wigan and Rochdale councils in their disclosure packages explained that there are improving their record keeping for FOI. Trafford Council also stated that their record keeping improves from 2014 onwards. It could be speculated that FOI will become more relevant to journalists and other requesters as record keeping is improving therefore more information will be easily accessible.

Ian Wood calls FOI a “passport to information” but a more fitting analogy may be that FOI is an airport: you have to go through the rigmarole of checking-in, security and customs to finally reach your intended destination. If you are a journalist, you tend to get your bags checked twice along the way.

FOI has contributed to a culture change from “a need to know” to a “right to know”. However, the Act was oversold to journalists. Mirroring President Barack Obama’s admission that his campaign slogan should have been “Yes, we can – but…” after two years in office, FOI is arguably ‘Freedom of Information but…’ The name of the Act sounds all encompassing with its promise of freedom, but there are 36 exemptions to prohibit the requester from total freedom. Those amounts of let-outs are illustrated by the space they take up in the legislation: twenty-four lengthy sections plus an additional section outlining their general effect. Compare this to the measly few lines in one section outlining the general right of access to information.

Ian Wood, when discussing the relationship between journalists and press offices, observed that FOI is essentially “a thing used by people” – he argues that interpretation of the legislation is subjective. One man’s exemption may be another’s disclosure. In the eight councils out of ten that replied to the requests for this dissertation, 50% responded in full and 50% responded partially or not at all. FOI has no leverage over the behaviour of officials.

Although, just after the introduction of FOI in the UK, Wood does admit journalists used it rather sparingly.

He noted: “When we first started using FOI, we were like a child with a new toy.

“I remember there was talk of introducing an FOI Unit in the newsroom, whose sole purpose was to fish for stories.

“Instead, we have Data units now to analyse information that we already have – we are not fishing, we are reeling in.”

Since vexatious requests are open to interpretation by FOI officers and press offices, this begs the question: what is the difference between vexatious and investigative requests from journalists?

Section 14 of the lengthy exemptions listed in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 states that public authorities are not obliged to respond to requests if they are vexatious. However, it does not define what a vexatious request is. The Oxford Dictionary defines vexatious as: causing annoyance, frustration or worry. As well as defining what vexatious is, public authorities then have to interpret whether they personally find it annoying. This subjective decision is best highlighted by the responses to the FOIs for this dissertation: whilst Manchester, Bolton and Bury councils did not turn down any vexatious requests between 2011-2014, Rochdale turned down 7 whilst Salford simply said they turned down “a large number”.

And perhaps this is what Tony Blair was getting at in his evaluation of the Act. A request from a journalist may be considered annoying or a cause for worry, but whose fault is that? If the information reveals a wrongdoing, a wrongdoing was committed not by the journalist, but by the person in question. Relations between journalists and public authorities, in particular in Greater Manchester, are seemingly improving as both parties are getting used to FOI ten years on. It appears that the amber-lighting procedure, witnessed in Canada, has not travelled to these shores.

To end on a slogan used by Blair in his 1997 election campaign: things can only get better.

Don’t call me “love”, love!

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I tend to shout at the radio. If I am in a public place, and BBC News is on a television screen, all that is missing from my recent tirade is a placard with “Jesus is coming” and an empty bottle of whisky hiding in a paper bag. My newspapers are saturated in spit from my latest exclamation.

You can imagine the decibels I reached when I picked up a copy of The Telegraph, and spotted a story on Russell Brand’s appearance on Question Time. The comedian-cum-campaigner has come under fire for addressing communities minister Penny Mordaunt as “love”.

Is the Trews presenter being criticised for a dialect – a sociological language? Or is this detracting from a valid point raised about paying the pensions for the Fire service?

I am very Northern. I don’t own a whippet, nor do I smoke a pipe – but I occasionally wear a flatcap. I am in no control over my Lancastrian accent unless I put on my faux upper class elocution, which somehow transforms into an Australian twang. I miss the odd ‘h’ from a word; I sound harsher in my pronunciation of “mass-ta” over “mah-ster”; and I would be more at home on Coronation Street than Downton Abbey.

You can take the boy out of Blackburn – but can you take the Blackburn out of the boy? My ear has chosen the way I say words, but my brain chooses the words that leave my mouth.

Language evolves. If a word or a phrase has been deemed unacceptable, its use will dwindle and eventually expire. A Victorian term for the Devil was “Mr Spitfoot”, but is the mythological demon named with the title “mister” anymore? Satan, sure. Lucifer, maybe. Perhaps it shows the renowned Victorian respect and formality compared to the 21st Century colloquialisms.

Text speak developed as a result of advance of communication. “Soz” and “Lol” are bastardisations of longer phrases. I, in fact, pondered whether or not I could use the term “bastardisation”, which in itself contains the lexis of “bastard” – a synonym for an illegitimate son or a profanity; the same way that “bitch” is used to describe a female dog or an insult. An earlier form of text speak is “berk”, which is misinterpreted a tame way of calling someone an idiot. It is an abbreviation for the Cockney rhyming slang Berkley Hunt (I’ll let you figure that one out).

Courtesy of Mark Freeman, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Mark Freeman, via Wikimedia Commons

Did Russell Brand use the vocative address with unintended actions? If I were to call you “sweetheart”, irrespective of gender, I do not think that your heart would be a diabetics’ worst nightmare – I imagine it would taste quite bitter. If I were to call you “sunshine”, I do not think you are emitted light and heat radiation travelling to the planet from eight minutes ago. If I were to call you “pet”, I do not think you should be on a leash – although I am sure that tickles the fancy of others.

But words can have double meaning, and the delivery of the lexis can contribute to its interpretation. Pronouns were particularly powerful in Shakespearean plays – an address was essentially the same definition, but different etiquettes. If you were to address a superior in the Bard’s plays, it would always be “you”; if they were an equal or an inferior, it would be “thou”. Was Brand delivering “love” as a term of endearment or as a term of degradation? Indeed, he was cheesed off about the Conservative-Lib Dem government not paying the fire service’s pensions, but perhaps used it to disarm and demean.

I guffaw whenever the bank clerk calls me “sir” or “Mr McLaughlin” – and also when I check my account balance. But there would be something terribly amiss if this professional would start calling me “petal” or “honey”. Personal nicknames are just that: personal. In a professional environment, and one could argue that Question Time constitutes as this, formalities still count. Nick Robinson would never call the Prime Minister “Dave” (a relatively tame name), or David Dimbleby would call Nigel Farage “that purple faced casual racist who has far too much airtime on our channel”.

In February, the Speaker of the House wrote to the three main party leaders – David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – asking them to stop their MPs engaging in “public school twittishness”. The Lib Dem leader called for Prime Minister’s Questions to be reformed, and during a Q&A session on Mumsnet, he said:

“It’s just ridiculous. You can’t even call people by their name. You can’t even address people like human beings.

“And so the whole thing is in a language which wasn’t used since 1867 and in a kind of highly aggressive, sort of, macho, chest‑beating, testosterone‑driven idiom which is deeply off‑putting to – to any normal person.”

Courtesy of Innotata, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Innotata, via Wikimedia Commons

This is when the formality dehumanises a political conversation. When robotic terms such as the “Right Honourable gentleman of…” are used in lieu of actual names, people transform to titles and not humans. It works both ways. There can be overfamiliarity and dehumanisation.

Language is subjective. It continues to change, diminish and grow. In his wonderful rant on language pedants, Stephen Fry argues that there are more pedants around; it seems, than those who used the evolving language to write stories, poems and love letters. He calls them “dense and deaf” to language development. New words are “ugly” to the pedants as Picasso, Eliot and Stravinksy were once thought ugly; the same goes for Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire.

The vocative address “love” is a term from yesteryear, as are many Estuary colloquialisms that come from Russell Brand’s vocal chords. Dialect is a tale as old as time, and it is worth preserving from a historical, curatorial point of view – but their interpretation has changed over time and appears out-dated. Should we ever condemn someone for choosing language that has been readily available for him or her from birth? That depends on the situation. If it were used as a weapon to diminish the female speaker, then that should not be accepted. The critics can be compared to the pedants who seethe at language development. Russell Brand remarked as soon as the vocative address was uttered that he was “working on the sexist language”. And perhaps we are all working on it, and it will evolve – but perhaps we should excuse some of the old guard whose intention was not to offend, but to communicate.

You can watch the full episode of Russell Brand’s appearance on Question Time here.

The Soapbox Presents… A Christmas Carol

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“Twas the night before Christmas, and Dan was feeling meek –

Another year gone by without getting Pick of the Week…”

 The Soapbox Presents A Christmas Carol

On Saturday 13th December, Shock Radio broadcast the Christmas special of The Soapbox, where Dan McLaughlin channeled the spirit of Scrooge (see what I did there?) as he was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Taaliah Nazar), the Ghost of Christmas Present (played by Bradley Harris) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (played by…erm…Bradley Harris).

Also featured in The Soapbox Players production was Dan’s weekly visit to the station manager, this time appearing as the Grinch, a sketch entitled Meanwhile in Heaven where Jesus complains to his Father that no-one remembers his birthday at Christmas, and a festive sprinkling of Yuletide songs.

He had no further intercourse (behave – it’s a Dickens quote) with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

FOI: Is Information Really Free?

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In 1997, Britain elected a new government. Everything was ‘new’ about them: they called themselves New Labour – the clue was in the title. This New Labour government brought in a “package of constitutional reforms” : devolution, incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights, reform of the electoral system used for European Parliament elections, and Freedom of Information.

This 23-year-old manifesto pledge from the party was an attempt to distance itself from the previous government who – as the minister responsible for the Act, David Clark argued – was a “secretive” administration. Former editor of the Mirror, Kevin Maguire called it a “terrible culture of secrecy that worked against the public” . When David Clark delivered the White Paper Your Right To Know in 1997, it seemed that the culture of secrecy was now over.

It was certainly a long time coming. James Morrison argues that although “blinkered constitutional historians” try to convince us that Britain is the seat of democracy, it is worth noting that the earliest known ‘open record’ was passed in Sweden as far back as 1766 – due to the Freedom of Press Act. Freedom of Information acts had been introduced in the USA in 1967, France in 1978 and even in our own Commonwealth in Australia, in 1982. Britain was amongst those trailing in the race for open record – narrowly beating the notoriously secret China who introduced their Freedom of Information Act in 2008. It was no wonder that the Government in the UK is regarded as “one of the most secretive among all liberal democracies” .

Although called The Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Act did not come into force until 1st January 2005 – the delay being the result of government departments preparing for its consequences. A man who said that he was not prepared for its effect was Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister who included Freedom of Information (FOI) in his winning manifesto. He wrote in his autobiography A Journey: “We did it with care, but without foresight” . However, it could be argued that he had plenty of foresight: a 23-year-old pledge and a further four-year delay.

Furthermore, whilst his critics may agree with Mr Blair’s self-assessment as a “naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop”, it is perhaps fair to disagree with his argument that the Act “isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’” but by journalists. According to James Morrison, around 120,000 FOI requests are made each year – six out of ten by members of the public, one-fifth by businesses and just 10% by journalists . Supporting the argument of a public majority, and contradicting Mr Blair’s claims, is a study evaluating the Act, Freedom of Information: Three Years On, which states that around seven in ten (71%) of requests are made by members of the public.

WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM ANNUAL MEETING 2009 - Tony Blair.jpg

Tony Blair (courtesy of World Economic Forum, via Flickr)

Nearly a decade on from the Act coming into force, this could be the opportunity to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of Freedom of Information, and put forward suggestions to improve upon its turbulent ten years of enforcement.

It is interesting that Mr Blair criticises journalists for using the Act as a “weapon” . Indeed, the Act does not allow public bodies to distinguish between media requests and requests from members of the public. However, this has simply not been the case. The public authorities to whom the Act covers have been known to be “officious”, “self-serving” and “brusquely unhelpful” to thwart requests for information. This is evident in the case of the Home Office and Ministry of Justice vs. The Information Commissioner in 2009 when the Home Office admitted that a request from a journalist was treated differently to a similar request from someone else. The problem, it seems, is not the Act itself but the attitude towards the Act by the public authorities since under the Act, the motive of the requester should not play any part in the decision.

The textbook used by journalists when consulting media law advises its reader to consider whether to say you are a journalist, as the request made may be treated differently .

Court Gavel (courtesy of Jonathunder, via Wikimedia Commons)

Court Gavel (courtesy of Jonathunder, via Wikimedia Commons)

The attitude towards the Act and its requesters needs to change. Inspiration could be taken from our American cousins who encourage their journalists to use their act. Members of the American media are granted a fee waiver under its Freedom of Information act . Whilst this may not be feasible for the UK act, the attitude and encouragement of the US should be taken into consideration.

Defamation should be considered, as journalists are not granted any special protection under FOI against libel law; it does not confer to statutory qualified privilege. Nor is copyright covered, either. Images and maps may be subject to copyright laws. The Information Commissioner advises to consult with the appropriate public authority on the status of information; copyright may be waived or information could be licensed for re-use . This is a positive to come out of the Act: under section 16, authorities are told to provide “advice and assistance” to those seeking it.

Certainly, this does not happen all the time. It most definitely was not provided during a time what we now know as the MP’s expenses scandal in 2009. Investigative journalist and Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke led an investigation into what public money is used and how for MP’s expenses. When Brooke initially put in the FOI request for this relevant information, it should have been a shining example into the effectiveness and openness of this Freedom of Information Act. Tony Blair called FOI a “quite extraordinary offer by a government to open itself and Parliament to scrutiny” but it proved otherwise. The culture of secrecy was not dead – it had taken on a different name: exemption.

Palace of Westminster.jpg

Palace of Westminster (courtesy of Tony Moorey via Flickr)

Freedom of Information, sadly, does not live up to its title, as the information is not necessarily free. The White Paper should have been called: Your Right To Know…except 36 other things. There are 36 exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act, categorised as ‘absolute’ and ‘qualified’: absolute exemptions are, well, absolute – they must not be disclosed under any circumstances whilst qualified can be disclosed if the public interest argument defeats the argument of keeping it secret. England, once again, cannot purport to be this righteous seat of democracy when it has 36 exemptions to its open record policy, compared to Scotland’s 6 and Northern Ireland’s 4 .

Under Section 14 of the Act , public authorities are not obliged to comply with a request that they deem “vexatious”. What the act does not define is what it means by vexatious: it is quite a broad definition. During The One Show’s take on FOI, Giles Brandreth presents a segment on “wide access and wacky requests” by reading FOI requests such as:

• How much toilet roll does Downing Street use?

• The amount of Ferrero Rocher chocolates used by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

• The number of eligible bachelors in Hampshire Police.

These are indeed strange requests, but they are not solely what is deemed as ‘vexatious’. If one were to send multiple requests to the public authority, this obsessive nature would be deemed as vexatious. Heather Brooke questions the line between ‘obsessive’ and ‘investigative’. She argues that the exemption targets the media, and those trying to do serious investigation . It is worth noting that the silly requests are not as prominent as supposed. Brooke, in an appearance on Newsnight, revealed that she made a FOI request to the Ministry of Justice about the number of vexatious requests it had received. It was 2 . To improve upon the FOI act, it needs to make clear what is defined as ‘vexatious’.

Heather Brooke May 12.jpg

Heather Brooke (courtesy of Paul Clarke, via Wikimedia Commons)

Under the FOI Act, investigative journalism is a long and arduous process as Brooke found in her battle for MP’s expenses data. The problem faced with FOI is not the law itself, but the interpretation of law. This comes under debate with Section 40 of the FOI Act: personal information. FOI does not override data protection law, but the Information Commissioner (the successor to the Data Protection Commissioner) advises authorities that when considering the release of the data, there should be a distinction between ‘professional personal information’ and ‘private personal information’ . In this case, the expenses data was very much professional personal information. This is a strength of the FOI Act: the Information Commissioner is the interpreter of the law, when there is confusion.

Since Section 40 was not particularly helpful to the MPs, the qualified exemption of section 36 could have been – or at least, they tried to use it. It covers the prejudice of effective conduct of public affairs. Tony Blair argued that governments need to be able to debate, discuss and decide issues with a “reasonable amount of confidentiality” .

Members of the current government have attempted to debate with this amount of confidentiality, at risk of breaching transparency rules in the Act. In 2011, Education Minister Michael Gove used private e-mails to discuss government business with advisors. This incident, known as ‘Govegate’, is part of “the unexpected ramifications” of the Act, according to Ben Worthy. He highlights ‘the chilling effect’, in which members of the public authorities are attempting to undermine FOI through keeping fewer records from meetings and discussions. For FOI to work, this covert behaviour simply needs to stop.

FOI is manipulated by those with vested interests, and needs to strengthen. It could take influence from its European cousin: Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (or EIR). EIR is a stronger legislation than FOI by its influence. Brought in through EU law, EIR covers a wider remit than FOI including private organisations. Whilst EIR follows similar procedure to FOI with its 20-day maximum response and correspondence through post and e-mail, requests can also be lodged verbally. For FOI to improve its remit does need extending – even to public/private hybrids such as academies and utility services it does not cover currently.

However, EIR does charge the requester. This is something that FOI needs to avoid. FOI can charge if the request exceeds a limit of £600 for national government and £450 for other public authorities. Cost is estimated by the cost of staff time used to deal with the request. Staff time is deemed to cost £25 an hour.

Aclu-v-ashcroft-redacted

Redacted Statement (via Wikimedia Commons)

MPs attempted to use the costs as a means to delay the publishing of data, argues Heather Brooke. In the Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s Report, it stated:

“Take into account some or all of the time spent on considering and redacting when calculating whether the costs limit has been exceeded.”

This was the excuse, Brooke argues, that parliamentary officials used not to publish the data by the specified deadline of October 2008. She also calls redactments as a means of “censoring” information.

The full extent to the MPs expenses scandal would not have been known if these redactments had been complete. The full data – sans redactments – was leaked to The Telegraph. If only the official disclosures were available, it would not be in the public knowledge about MPs’ second homes.

The official disclosures might not have surfaced, if Jack Straw had anything to do with it. He had already used his authority to veto the release of the Iraqi war logs through FOI, and he attempted to use this veto against the MPs expenses data. If FOI is calling itself truly an open record, this right of veto needs to be removed as it is “potentially undermining the very purpose of the Act” . Countries such as the USA and Canada do not allow executive veto, and nor should the UK.

After ten years of enforcement, the Freedom of Information Act has had a bumpy ride. It has faced a bashing from the very people whom created it. Although it is bruised and battered, it needs to persevere and come back stronger. Journalists should be encouraged to use FOI, not dissuaded. One of its strongest supports Heather Brooke calls it “an effective chisel against government secrecy and corruption” , and it needs to keep chiselling – avoiding a blunting by its opponents.

School of News Press Conference (courtesy of Tom Williams)

School of News Press Conference (courtesy of Tom Williams)

Bibliography

Banks, D. and Hannah, M. 2009. McNae’s essential law for journalists. 20th ed. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Blair, T. 2011. A Journey. 2nd ed. Arrow Books: London.

Brooke, H. 2012. Government changes would kill FOI in Britain. Sunday Times.

Continental Research. 2007. Freedom of Information Act: Three Years On.

Daily Politics. 10 March 2011. BBC.

Morrison, J. 2009. Public affairs for journalists. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Newsnight. April 9 2012. BBC.

Simpson, M. 2006. Freedom of Information – Worth the Wait? Politics Review. (February 2006).

The One Show. 3 March 2009. BBC.

Worthy, B. 2011. Freedom of Information (podcast). Available at: https://historyspot.org.uk/podcasts/archives-and-society/freedom-information (Accessed 2 May 2014)

Tinder: The Britain’s Got Talent of Dating

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Involving a hypothesis about sex, a rant about horses and the worst song lyrics you have ever seen, Dan McLaughlin looks at the strange world of Tinder.

Travelling through Salford is a notoriously dreary journey. Mainly because you spend most of your time waiting for the bloody bus. The Number 50 should change its name to MH370. This particular journey involved a family that were so middle class, their conversation involved plans of taking a WiFi hotspot along to their canal barge summer outing. As Greater Manchester displayed its finest architecture of closed down pubs and boarded up housing, a passenger caught my eye. Not literally. I do not own a glass eye that decided to, without prompt, vacate its residence and travel to the grasp of the Freddie Flintoff of ocular protheses. No. That would be downright silly. My attention was summoned to the presence of a particular pleasant passenger. Where had I seen her before? Her face looks rather familiar. Who was she?

“Tinder,” I recalled, “I swiped to the right when viewing her profile on Tinder.”

***

Sex is terribly overrated. It’s a sweaty and pointless exercise that does not deserve my dignity, determination and dedication. Perhaps this is down to those whom I have engaged in kinky downtime with: they have either tried to bite it off, pull it off or decided that they enjoyed penis so much, they would gyrate aggressively on top of another one. Whilst I consider coitus time-consuming and merely mediocre, I understand its practicality. Sexual intercourse releases those charming fellas called endorphins. The unsung heroes of human biology can be accessed through chocolate (I’m on a diet), self-harming (I’m far too squeamish), and exercise (bahahahahahaha!). After a considerable time of celibacy, maybe I ought to give sex another chance. I have been lacking intimacy; indeed. after a session on the cider, I woke up cuddling a box of chicken and chips. And if this almost asexual attitude won’t get a girl, what will?

Courtesy of Marc Flore, via Flickr

Courtesy of Marc Flores, via Flickr

Most of my bad decisions come from drunken nights-out. Usually with other trainee journalists. We are not borderline alcoholics; we are bona fide, absolutely confirmed, seasoned drinkers. Towards the end of our lives, our livers will retire to a holiday home in the Isle of Man and our skin colour will make us resemble characters from The Simpsons. Thanks to one certain session, I decided to run for MP (I’ll explain later). Another resulted in this unintelligible song lyric scrolled on a scrap of paper:

This is a random song,
That is, with random thongs.
Not the sort you’d see in a farce:
But the lyrics that get up your arse.

After awakening with that joyous headache and the violent urge to call for Hughie, I checked my phone for the mandatory drunken texts to the crush, abusive statuses on Facebook and photos containing me giving the peace sign and sticking my tongue in a highly original manner. No. They weren’t there. Jolly good. I behaved myself last night. What’s this?! Tinder?!

Drunken Night Out

Ah yes. I remember this cropping up in conversation. Joining the ranks of Angry Birds and Flappy Bird (pet names for my ex-girlfriends), I had downloaded this app relatively late on compared to my contemporaries. This was a dating app that was not really used for dating, according to my cider companions. Talent shows had been extended to our mobile phones. However, their use of ‘talent’ differs from my interpretation; the same people whom tend to get ‘banter’ and ‘ritual humiliation’ mixed up on a regular basis.

Tinder does replicate certain ITV primetime programming. The ‘act’ gives you a very brief biography, giving you 20 seconds to judge them. You are also judging them purely on aesthetics, with a couple of photos available for your viewing pleasure. If you like them, you swipe to the right. If you determine that they are not going to make it to boot camp, you swipe to the left and a big red brand of [NOPE] is stamped on their face. Shamefully, I admit that I make the buzzer noise when swiping to the left, much to the bemusement of my flatmate next door.

I hasten to add at this point that I am not as shallow as these musings are presenting me. I am not judging purely on looks, as I believe that I have not come across a genuinely unattractive person on Tinder. Attraction, as you know, is subjective; but there has not been one case of a grotesque photo offending me. You see, I have a criteria. I conduct a 20-second psychological profile on each of the Tinderers through examining their four-or-so photos and brief biographies.

Tinder profile

I have my phone out now. I’ll just open Tinder and give you a few examples:

So, A is aged 20. Far too orange. As a lapsed Catholic, I won’t have anything to do with anyone associated with the colour orange. Especially with the 12th coming up.

Okay, S, aged 22. All your photos are the same. Put your duck face away! I do like ducks – shredded, on a pancake.

K, aged 20. I like you! Your biography simply reads: “Frodo is a wanker.” The sure-fire way of getting me to swipe right is to make me laugh. Well done. You are through to the judge’s houses.

Another A, aged 18. You’re not 18. I teach part-time. I’ve heard of the Child Protection Act. A big no-no. You are wearing your school uniform in one photo, for Christ’s sake!

P, aged 21. Your photos contains horses. I have a serious distrust of horses. I own a dog. I have to complete the unpleasant task of disposing of its faeces, you lot just leave it lying about. “It’s good for flowers!” you cry, “And you have poop-a-scoops.” You have the equivalent. It’s called a shovel. Horses are bastards.

L, aged 20. Oh. Your biography reads: “Need a sugar daddy to fund me through uni”. I admire your honesty. But I am not a daddy, and nor do I use sugar – I use Canderel. Soddin’ diet.

Courtesy of Jith JR via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Jith JR via Wikimedia Commons

Occasionally, another singleton will be looking at your profile and decide: “This is the chap for me! I have an unhealthy obsession with sideburns. For he is the one, I shall swipe left.” If this event occurs, you have a match. As in a dating match. Not a tool to start a fire. Although T, aged 24, looks like the sort who owns a lot of matches and plans to use them on her next Tinder match. Now if this happens, you can actually talk to them. With words an’ everything! This has its own humorous consequences.

A, aged 18.
2 June 18:27 “I love you”
2 June 19:00 “Marry me?”
3 June 10:13 “Please?”

B, aged 26.
27 May 20:41 Heyy fella
27 May 20:45 can i just say u look mint

Gone are the days of the Oscar Wilde school of seduction: “Would you be in any way offended if I said that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection?” And my personal favourite:

F, aged 20.
31 May 00:48 “Elo sailor”
31 May 00:49 “Eye eye sergeant sassy”
31 May 00:50 “U got me in knots boy”

***

I do not consider Tinder a dating app. When telling these tales to my friends, I describe Tinder as a game. It certainly does not resemble real life. As I saw my Tinder match in person on that bus in Salford, I did not consider saying hello or striking up a conversation, yet it is very easy to call me a sailor or propose a marriage under the dramatis personae of D, aged 19. I once sneezed whilst flicking through Tinder and accidentally swiped left on a friend of mine. This should induce social awkwardness and the termination of this particular friendship, but it is simply part of the game. And perhaps I would rather play Xbox and conduct a bit of DIY instead of seeking sex and playing Tinder.

Courtesy of Hochgeladen von Kjuto, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Hochgeladen von Kjuto, via Wikimedia Commons

Hypnosis, Houdini and Hurt: Caught in a Trance

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An odd but thought-provoking conversation with a Manchester taxi driver leads Dan McLaughlin to give a brief history of hypnotism, and to consider the ethics behind the act.

As a student journalist, I am taught the various forms of sources: social media, press releases, websites, phone conversations with the authorities. However, I have not been taught that the best form of finding a story or inspiration is by having a good old yarn* with taxi drivers in Manchester.

From his wife’s arthritis to why Guy Fawkes should have succeeded in blowing up Parliament, the conversation strayed to my interests and hobbies. I do not think the taxi driver particularly cared about my extra-curricular activities, but the drive to MediaCityUK was long and arduous. I casually mentioned I partake in the act of hypnosis from time to time.

I began to delve in mentalism when writing a play that was largely ignored upon its debut, called The Haunting of the Civic. In 2010, I began to research the rise of spiritualism, techniques used by clairvoyants and the history of magic. There are no definitive books and papers on mastering hypnosis, but one has to read between the lines to discover the art form. The research turned me into a sceptic, leaving my Roman Catholic faith to that of an atheist; I could call it my ‘Damascus moment’, but that could be interpreted as insulting.

By H.M. Dixon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By H.M. Dixon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The verb in which one describes the process of hypnosis is ‘practising hypnosis’, and it is indeed very apt. As a naive 16-year-old, I attempted to hypnosis my peers. This started with simple acts of suggesting they have forgotten their name, to being stuck in their seat. This later developed into inducing a state of drunkenness in a trance; which would lead to a cheap night out.

The act was improving. I thought that this was because I was getting better through practise, but then I discovered this was strictly not the case. I was developing a reputation, and that reputation guided the participants into a trance easier. Hypnosis is about authority. And since there were little to none hypnotists in a small East Lancashire town called Oswaldtwistle, I became the expert in hypnosis.

The best way I can describe the process of hypnosis is through this analogy:

If a GP approaches you in the street, wearing all the usual paraphernalia of the trade, and tells you that you are displaying the symptoms of a common cold you will start to display these symptoms although you may not have them, because you are conditioned to react to authority.

So equally, if a strange looking man who calls himself a hypnotist tells you that you are starting to feel sleepy, you start to believe it and respond as you are conditioned.

By the U.S. Printing Co., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By the U.S. Printing Co., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the 1960s, a sociologist and psychologist called Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment which monitored the willingness of subjects to perform acts ordered by an authoritative figure, even though it conflicted with their personal conscience. The subjects were told they were taking part in a memory exercise, and they were assigned the roles of a teacher and a learner. If the ‘learner’ got an answer incorrect, the ‘teacher’ had to administer an electrical shock. The voltage, they were told, would rise each time the ‘learner’ got an answer wrong. The ‘learner’ was, of course, an actor. The purpose of the experiment was shown how far the subjects would go under authority figures; some would have administered fatal shocks, if they were not hypothetical. The aim of the Milgram Experiment was to find a way to answer the question:

Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?

Derren Brown, in his wonderful Tricks of the Mind, describes the first real hypnotist: Franz Anton Mesmer of 18th Century Paris. Brown called Mesmer’s methods are “fantastically theatrical” and notes that Mesmer would greet his subjects wearing a purple cloak whilst carrying a giant magnetic staff. This leads us to another point: hypnotists have to be a bit strange.

By Lwp Kommunikáció, courtesy of Flickr

By Lwp Kommunikáció, courtesy of Flickr

I am known to be a bit of a misanthrope, and indulge in eccentricities like wearing tweed and reciting obscure literature. During my discovery of hypnosis, the idea that I can practise hypnosis was potentially acceptable because I was the intelligent, odd guy who kept himself to himself. If it was handsome Jim, his friends would have immediately dismissed him and his methods as poppycock. Handsome Jim may be an authoritative figure in the sports at school, but Dan is an authority in all things abnormal.

Back to the taxi in Manchester. We are now on Langworthy Road, and the driver is enthralled in my brief history of hypnotism.

“Go on then,” he remarks, “Hypnotise me now!”

“Not whilst you are driving!”

And then something remarkable happens.

“Can you hypnotise me? I mean, for real? I want to lose weight. Can you hypnotise me to stop eating all the wrong food and the wrong drink? I’ll pay you whatever you want!”

He is sincere in his questioning. But I feel hugely uncomfortable. As a sceptic, I believe that psychics, mediums and many hypnotherapists are vultures upon the vulnerable and the grieving. Their parasitical nature makes them prey on human beings in need for monetary gains. I would love to help this man, and I am sure through some sessions there will be a way to find a way to help, but hypnosis is an aide; not a bona fide solution. I turn down the invitation for a fee.

By the McManus-Young collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By the McManus-Young collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This reminds me of a tale about infamous illusionist, Harry Houdini. Before his prominence as a magician, he entered the trade of the newly founded Spiritualism (a trade created by the Fox Sisters whom would later be exposed as drunken frauds, but the phenomena had already been released by then). With his wife, he toured America as Professor and Mademoiselle Houdini, clairvoyants. He wrote:

The beautiful simplicity of their faith – it appealed to me as a religion – suddenly gripped me . . . from that day to this I have never posed as a genuine medium. I was brought to a realisation of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed . . . I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realised that it bordered on crime.

(The Secret Life of Houdini)

After quitting the trade, the magician struggled financially until his emergence as one of the greatest magicians. There was a profit to be made in spiritualism, as there is in hypnotherapy – which I deem as a very similar form.

There is responsibility to be maintained in hypnotism. When practising it, one must consider the ethics. Will this affect the subject emotionally? Are they mentally stable for this experiment? Unfortunately, ethical standards do not seem to be a priority with some hypnotists and I certainly would not be taking advantage of a lovely gentleman, in a vulnerable state of mind.

And all of this from a conversation with a Manchester taxi driver. I told you, student journalists can gain wonderful stories from the least likely of places.

By George Du Maurier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By George Du Maurier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

*Yarn (noun) is a long continuous length of interlocked fibres, suitable for use in the production of textiles, sewing, crocheting, knitting, weaving, embroidery, and rope-making.

Or just a lovely conversation (verb).

(Oxford English dictionary)

The Veil Debate: The Home Secretary is NOT Gok Wan

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There are just some things people should not wear: vests, speedos and crocs being just some of them. However, do we include the veil, or the niqab in this list?

Somehow the government have suddenly decided to designate their politicians as fashion police? The same people who believe the combover is stylish, and that beige is the new pink.

Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne has called for a national debate on the subject, but is banning the burqa the biggest issue we face in the UK? Surely, one would think that the times of austerity and poverty should be brought up. Or the dodgy goings-on in the Syria debate? But no, the minister is far too concerned what a woman should or should not wear!

Currently, Muslims make up 4.8% of the UK population, or as the EDL like to proclaim 99% but they failed their GCSE Maths…twice. And only a tiny proportion of that 4.8% actually decide to wear the veil. Whereas, 7.7% of the UK population are unemployed.

Woman in Desert near Sharm el Sheik

Who am I to say what fashion people choose is wrong? I believe that chinos are evil, and women who wear very little clothing have very little brain cells. But I am not in the position to ban them! I find a Burnley or a Rangers football jersey deplorable, but that doesn’t mean I would stop something wearing them…no matter how deluded they are.

Tory MP Sarah Wollaston has called the veil a symbol of repression and segregation. Naturally, this white middle-class Christian lady is in the position to comment, right? However, the Muslims whom I have talked to about the issue seem to find the veil rather liberating. Although I do not necessarily agree with it, I should not condemn it. I find wearing bow ties rather liberating, as it releases my eccentric side. Whereas the burqa serves as a way of maintaining dignity for some women. I don’t have dignity – and I haven’t for years – but I ain’t gonna stop someone trying to keep it.

Recently, after the sad case involving the hate murder of ‘goth’ Sophie Lancaster, attacks of those who dress alternatively is classed as a hate crime. Yet it seems, the new Face Coverings Prohibition Bill is in direct contradiction of this.

256px-Gok_Wan_at_Pride_London_2012

Yes, there needs to be compromise from BOTH sides on the issue of security or oppression. At the end of the day, a woman has the right to choose whatever the hell she wants to wear: be it a veil, an Iron Maiden t-shirt or very little. We are not France, and the last time I looked the Home Secretary is not Gok Wan. Thank God…or Allah…or Charles Darwin. I don’t care! Believe in whomever you want to and wear whatever tickles your fancy.

Photo Credits:

‘Woman in Desert near Sharm el Sheik’ courtesy of David Dennis via Flickr/Creative Commons

‘Gok Wan’ courtesy of Garry Knight via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

Christians offended? God, no! (But which one?)

Standard

I tried. I really did try. With all the best intentions in the world and with as much effort as I could muster, I attempted – and failed – to read the Daily Express.

I made it to page 13.

I almost didn’t make it past the cover, to be honest. I was almost on to the Advertising Standards Authority the second time today. The first being after I heard Sally Morgan had won her libel case over the Daily Mail resulting in winning damages of £125,000. This charlatan claims she can “see and hear dead people” – false advertising!

I digress. Yes, I almost rang the ASA when I saw boldly printed under its title:

Worlds greatest newspaper

The World’s Greatest Newspaper?! Actually, call the Press Complaints Commission! They are misleading their readers! Report the inaccuracy!

Oh wait.

Lord Leveson killed the PCC.

The Daily Express also claims it is 10x better than the Daily Mail. This is not exactly a hardship, is it? It’s like me saying that I am a far more superior Shakespearean actor than Wayne Rooney.

So what did Richard Desmond and his evil flying monkeys of deceit and doom do to make me give up after page 13? They printed this:

Daily Express headline

Basically, the Girl Guides have decided to replace the pledge “love my God” to “be true to myself”, and Ann Widdecombe is a bit pissed off with it all, really.

Ann Widdecombe is pissed off at everything: those ‘aggressive homosexuals’ want equal human rights, Roman torture instruments are no longer fashionable to wear around your neck, and she’s probably never had sex in her life. The poor darling.

Annewidde

She argues that the decision will be “confusing” for the Girl Guides. Not as confusing as the old pledge because it does not specify which god.

Does it mean to represent the Abrahamic god? But which one? The grumpy sod who enjoyed playing practical jokes like “kill your son…NOT” or eating teeth and eyes? Or the hippy god whose one night stand on Earth got a bit out of hand and told everyone to “love thy neighbour” whilst smoking a giant spliff (and thus clouds were created)?

It could be the Islamic god, Allah! The foundations of the Girl Guides in 1909 was an extreme Islamic sect and they first came to prominence with the sinking of the Titanic three years later.

Perhaps it was the Scientologist god, and the pledge was, in fact, the billion year binding contract.

Or it could have been Derren Brown! Well, that goes without saying.

#god #free #will #hate #damn #cursed #flood #quote #opinion #believe #religion

Widdecombe cited the “tiny minority” of atheists as the reason for change. We created the evolution of the pledge…oops, sorry! But it ain’t just us rationalised folk they have been excluding for the past century…but every other religion.

As you have probably guessed already, I am not an Express reader; therefore, not an idiot. This rare but fun rant spawned from a boring bus journey, a discarded newspaper and far too much time on my hands.

And if, like me, you have nothing better to do with your lives, you can follow me on Twitter via @D_J_McLaughlin

Why God doesn't have a PhD via John Pinto at Stanford University

Photo credits:

‘Daily Express banner’ and ‘Headline’ courtesy of Daniel J McLaughlin

‘Ann Widdecombe’ courtesy of Brian Minkoff via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

‘God Free Will’ courtesy of 2Top via Flickr/Creative Commons

‘Why God doesn’t have a Ph.D.’ courtesy of Duncan Hull via Flickr/Creative Commons