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Vice-chancellor salaries in the UK – cause for concern or targets of opportunity?


Ian Richardson and David Jason in Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue

I have some sympathy with Britain’s university vice-chancellors. They have been told by Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister (who has never run a business), that in future they will have to justify why their salaries should be higher than that of the Prime Minister (who has also never run a business).

You see, over the past thirty years, universities have been encouraged to think of themselves as businesses. The business of churning out graduates is only a part of their purpose. Academics like my brother, who was a professor of statistics at a major London university, have been under increasing pressure to justify their existence by bringing in large sums of money for research. Many these days seem to see teaching students as an encumbrance. They regard research as their primary function.

The top universities form partnerships with private sector companies. Faculty go off and form companies. Some become very rich, beyond the dreams of Jo Johnson and Theresa May. Mike Lynch, for example, who left Cambridge to found Autonomy, and is now a serial entrepreneur. Other companies – such as Cambridge Analytica, the people who weaponised Facebook for Donald Trump – avail of university research by poaching the researchers.

Hackers from China and Russia are busy attacking our universities in an attempt to suck away their intellectual property. There must be some useful work going on to attract their attention.

The government expects these institutions to be powerhouses, not the cloistered collections of other-worldly scholars and eccentric misfits you would find on the pages of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue. And yes, many of them do look more like businesses these days.

So why do our politicians (most of whom have never run businesses) think that the CEOs of universities, which is what vice-chancellors are, should have their salaries capped, when they are encouraged to think of themselves as businesses, and when their products – in the form of graduates and knowledge – are arguably many times more valuable than the output of WPP, the advertising agency whose CEO was paid £63 million for his efforts in 2015?

Oxford and Cambridge came first and second in a recent world university ranking. Does our government think that the people who run them might not be in demand by universities in the States who could hire ten prime ministers with the salaries they pay their top academics?

I fear that benchmarking the salaries of senior academics against those of government ministers is a serious case of apples and oranges. I have no idea whether the vice-chancellor of Oxford is worth three times as much as the prime minister, though in the case of the current incumbent of Downing Street there should be no point of comparison, because I wouldn’t pay Theresa May at all for the damage she’s inflicting on the country.

There are plenty of other executives in the public sector who are paid considerably more than Mrs May – local council chiefs, senior civil servants, head teachers, heads of quangos. Why are the government picking on vice-chancellors?

If you’re of a paranoid disposition, you might think that the Russians are busy trying to destabilise our universities with their fake stories, thus making it easier for their hackers to steal our intellectual property.

I think the answer is simpler than that. It’s politics. Senior academics are targets of opportunity for a government that is desperate to latch on to any means of gaining a quick popularity fix. You could actually say they are practicing the politics of envy. An irony, really, given that that phrase was one of the favourite sticks with which Margaret Thatcher and her cronies delighted in beating the nasty socialists over the head.

Despite my sympathy, I have no brief for university vice-chancellors. I’m sure some are worth their salaries, and others not. But I’m even less enthused by second-rate politicians, especially by those who lead our rudderless, one-eyed government. Perhaps it would help if we paid them what vice-chancellors get.

As Britain puts up the barriers, will the snowflakes turn into steel?

Wednesday’s leak of a policy paper detailing the UK’s post-Brexit immigration proposals have provided a field day for newspapers of every political persuasion. As an opponent of Brexit, I’m always willing to think the worst of the incompetents who run our country, but on this occasion I think it fair to point out we’re not looking at a done deal. It’s a paper, and it’s far from set in concrete. It seems to have been written, however, by people who do not see that immigration is only part of the national ecosystem. That would be the Home Office then.

As for the content, some bits would appear to have been plucked from Saudi Arabia, others from Singapore. Neither countries are particularly analogous with Britain. At some stage I may well write a critique, but probably not until the paper is actually published. Simon Preston’s comments on the proposals in the Guardian, though, pretty well reflect my view thus far. Whatever mangled version is finally imposed on us, my thoughts keep coming back to those who will have to live with the consequences – especially the young.

A couple of days ago I wrote In Defence of Snowflakes, about the millennial generation in the UK and the United States being unfairly accused – among other things – of lacking resilience. My basic argument was test them, and they’ll step up.

There are many similarities between the culture and societies in which the young of both nations are growing up. A common language is one of them. But there are so many differences that one can only go so far in making observations – as I did yesterday – that apply to each. The biggest divergence is that the US has the most powerful economy in the world, the most powerful military and the most enemies. We, on the other hand, have an economy owned primarily by foreign interests, a vanishing military still clinging on to a few nukes, and we’re making new enemies close to home by the day without the power to deal with them.

As things stand, with the nation tumbling into political chaos on the brink of Brexit, we in Britain are a busted flush, you might think. The Americans have a reasonable chance of flushing away their busted Trump. We, unfortunately, would appear to have no trumps left.

For different reasons, in both nations the millennials and the generation following them are going to need some resilience. In spades.

But for the moment, I’m going to leave the youth of America to their own devices and focus on the outlook for my own country’s young people.

Here’s a positive scenario. We get through the temporary economic blip of Brexit. We do loads of trade deals. There’s more demand for British goods and services. Our university system is tweaked to make it easier for kids to study the subjects that the government thinks will be useful to the country – IT, science, medicine, engineering, and harder for them to choose subjects that have no obvious purpose other than arts for art’s sake – English, Classics, philosophy, theology, history.

A thousand small businesses spring up, inventing things, disrupting, employing fresh young graduates. Apprentice schemes offer a decent alternative to those who have practical skills. Wages rise, tax receipts rise, and there’s more money to invest in the National Health Service, housing, education and the military. Where skills shortages exist, such as in the fruit orchards and the beet fields, the government allows us to import cheap foreign labour from the EU. Zero-hours contracts slowly peter out, because employer have the confidence to hire full-time staff.

Slowly but surely, living standards rise again, and we ask ourselves why we didn’t we leave the EU years ago.

Now for the negative. Recognising the reality of its weak negotiating position, the government caves into most of the EU’s demands. We have a hard Brexit – no membership of the single market or customs union. There are no quick trade deals, and those that are concluded are not in our favour, because those with whom we negotiate realise that we need them more than they need us. The huge financial settlement we are obliged to pay the EU negates any benefit from leaving for at least five years. Many foreign-owned businesses close their offices and factories, and move to Paris, Frankfurt and Dublin.

Scientific cooperation with EU academic institutions declines dramatically. Foreign academics have no desire to come to Britain, because our major universities are no longer recognised as primary centres for international research.

The economy tanks. New measures to restrict the flow of immigration are irrelevant, because unemployment rises steeply. Who wants to live in a country with no jobs?

There’s no new money for the NHS. Demand for health services declines as the flight of EU citizens lessens the load. As wages stagnate, the number of British nurses actually increases, since a poorly-paid job is better than no job. But no funds are available for upgrading facilities, treatment and infrastructure. You want decent cancer treatment? Get private health, if you can afford it.

There’s no new money for schools. Apprentice schemes wither on the vine. Universities, deprived of their lifeblood of foreign students, begin to go out of business, starting with the former polytechnics. Companies cut their training budgets, as they always do when times are hard.

The housing market tanks, which means that the wealthier baby boomers can no longer rely on the value of their homes to pay for their care, and have less to leave to their children and grandchildren, who sorely need a helping hand to buy their own homes and escape the grind of “just enough, but no more”.

The divide widens between those with “proper jobs”, who have graduated from “proper universities”, and those who drift into employment because they have to rather than want to. As does the consequent gap between rich and poor.

A sense of impoverishment, disappointment and bitterness is pervasive. Social unrest grows, as does political extremism at both ends of the spectrum. Need a scapegoat? Pick on the minorities.

Which of these scenarios we believe will comes to pass depends on where we stand on the Brexit divide. The actual outcome may not be as rosy as the first scenario, or as grim as the second. It may be even worse, especially if Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un decide to redefine the most common meaning of the word boom. Should that be the case, the resulting catastrophe might be enough to allow our more sensible politicians to pull out of Brexit without losing face. A global disaster is no time to be sailing merrily out of port on an unknown journey.

But come what may, we are going to be relying on those currently in their second and third decades to run with the opportunities or to pick up the pieces. Either way, resilience will be at a premium.

One final thought. As I write this, I’m reading an extraordinary book that provides a context from recent history. In The Unwomanly Face of War, Nobel prize-winner Svetlana Alexeivich tells stories collated from interviews with hundreds of women who served in the Soviet military during World War 2. She talks to pilots, machine gunners, snipers, medics and partisans. The tales of courage, suffering and deprivation related by women  – many of them teenagers – who fought at the front alongside the men – are awe-inspiring. They were snowflakes turned into steel. Sometimes we underestimate the young.

In defence of snowflakes

In a smug tweet yesterday, Piers Morgan compared his fortitude in returning to work with three broken ribs with the frailties of the so-called snowflake generation. A cheap shot, in my opinion.

In my last post I wrote about how racism arises out of our tendency to generalise. We make sweeping statements about cultures, ethnic groups, nations, social classes and economic groups. The use of the definite article is the key. We talk about the Arabs, the Jews, the Indians and the immigrants. We ascribe behaviour of a few to the many.

We do much the same with generations. Baby boomers are selfish wealth-hoarders. Generation X are greedy materialists. And millennials are snowflakes – precious souls who can’t take the heat, who go to pieces at the slightest sign of pressure, who throw tantrums when confronted with views different from their own.

Such definitions tell me that ninety percent of these disparaging words are written by one percent of the people about one percent of the people. If we’re talking about Western society – or more specifically those of the United States and the UK, one wine-quaffing baby boomer with a nice house and two cars in the drive does not represent a generation. There are plenty of sixty- and seventy-somethings who exist in a state of anxiety and loneliness, divorced from their spouses and ignored by their children. And there are plenty more who spend their declining years ranting at immigrants, pumping fists at Trump and UKIP rallies. Yet more look forward to lives in care homes paid for by selling their homes.

Generation X are just as diverse. A few of them basically own us – Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, for example. Another bunch rule us – the feckless demagogues and the two-brained fools who foisted Brexit on us, of which in the UK Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg are prime exhibits. The rest are just trudging through life like everyone else, with varying degrees of success.

As for the snowflakes, you would think that the small minority of student activists who run abound trying to tear down statues of nasty colonialists (such as Cecil Rhodes, above) and no-platforming speakers with objectionable views are at the centre of the universe, such is the media coverage they gain through their efforts. The rest of their fellow-students quietly get on with their studies, or carouse away without the slightest thought of politics.

Nothing new there. The Xers might have been relatively inactive on the political front, but we baby boomers, boy, did we have causes. Vietnam, Nazis, Margaret Thatcher, apartheid, nuclear weapons – all came into our sights. I remember a massive protest against the racial theories of Hans Eysenck, whom the activists of the time managed to prevent from speaking at my university. No-platforming? Been there, done that.

The President of the National Union of Students in my era was Jack Straw, who subsequently morphed into a Labour politician and ended up as a leading Blairite minister. Another leading light was Peter Hain, who followed the same path. He was an anti-apartheid campaigner, and he got to be Secretary of State for Wales. Not much apartheid in Llangollen, unless you count the Welsh nationalists who used to burn the second homes of the English interlopers. Our NUS leader, a chap called Gerald Hitman, eventually went off to become a property developer. So much for youthful radicalism.

I see no reason to believe that most of the current crop of student activists will in the course of time end up being anything other than members of the entrenched elite, just as their predecessors did. Even Dave Spart grew up. Now he has a good chance of becoming our next prime minister.

As for the accusation that the snowflakes lack resilience, I doubt that our soldiers who endured Afghanistan would agree. Nor would the recent crop of Olympians who have reaped a bigger crop of medals than any of our athletes before them.

As the proud parents of two millennials, we can certify that they’re far from snowflakes. They work hard, they’re determined, and while they’re pissed off at effects of the 2008 financial crisis on their financial well-being, they’re still getting on with their lives.

There’s also the point that in order to develop resilience, people need to be tested. It’s been seventy years since we had a war that engulfed the whole population, and the last thing we would wish for is a similar experience to harden our twenty-somethings. Yes, folding under the pressure of A-levels and job interviews is very different from enduring battle, bombs and the threat of invasion. But for most of the millennials, protected by parents and raised in the bosom of the welfare state, there have been few existential obstacles that they have had to deal with, other than their mobile phones falling down the loo.

I have every confidence that my kids’ generation will rise to any challenges that come their way. And I doubt if the old people of Houston muttered about snowflakes when young people braved the floods to rescue them.

So let’s stop dissing our poor, sensitive millennials. Let’s stop paying worried attention to the op-ed journalists who grumble about them, and the younger writers who use their own neuroses to diagnose a generational phenomenon. And let’s remember that in other parts of the world there are youngsters too busy staying alive to worry about the generational shortcomings that exercise us privileged Westerners.

As a member of an age-group that once believed in causes other than our own comfort and prosperity, I celebrate the idealism of the millennials, even if I disagree with some of their views. The art of the possible – the collision between reality and zeal – can wait.

The kids are alright. At least I bloody well hope so, because soon enough, I’m going to need them to wheel me to the geriatric day care centre.

Racism in the UK – let he who is without sin cast the first stone? Sorry, not good enough

So let’s talk about racism, particularly in the light of the row Sarah Champion, Member of Parliament for Rotherham, ignited when she published an article about the recent criminal prosecutions of gangs of Asian origin for grooming and sexually abusing young white girls.

She was accused by many in the Labour Party of making a racist comment, and fired from her position in the Shadow Cabinet. In yesterday’s London Times she defends herself, making the point that provincial towns and cities in Britain are very different from London, which she claims is Labour’s centre of gravity. In towns like Rotherham, which she represents, there are cultural and ethnic enclaves far more pronounced than any in London, and it’s in those enclaves that such criminality has sprung up. There have been no prosecutions of gangs of abusers in the capital.

We’ll stop there for a moment. Either now or later please visit Margo Catts’ blog, in which she writes about racist attitudes in the United States. Timely really, in the light of the comment by a policeman in Georgia who was attempting to reassure a white whose companion he was arresting for drink driving: “don’t worry, we only shoot black people”.

Margo, like me, spent time in Saudi Arabia, a country where a multitude of nationalities earn their living side by side. You want to see racism in action? Go to Saudi Arabia, where just about every ethnic group looks down on another.

If you’re British, you might remember a sketch from the sixties lampooning the class system, in which there are three guys lined up, one tall, one medium height and one short. The tall one says “I’m upper class. I look down on him because….” And so on.

In Saudi Arabia, you’d need a three-dimensional version. Whites call the Arabs ragheads. Arabs call whites kuffurs. Egyptians think Saudis are stupid. Pakistanis think Arabs are stupid. Arabs think Bangladeshis are dishonest. And people from just about every ethnic group dump their prejudices on those at the bottom of the pay scale: Yemenis, Somalis, Filipinos, Baluchis – the folks who build their tower blocks, clean the streets, change the children’s nappies and kill the cockroaches.

Note that I’m not saying “the whites” and “the Arabs”. That would be a gross generalisation, and unfair to a lot of people who respect their neighbours regardless of their ethnicity and occupation. But racism is there, in attitude and behaviour. And it’s so prevalent that if you’ve lived there for a while you don’t notice it until you stop and think.

Which brings us back to Margo’s article. She makes the point that we are not born racist. Racism is learned behaviour. She goes on to say:

Accepting racism is racist. Refusing to talk about racism is racist. Pushing racism off as a problem that happens in some other segment of society or geography is racist. It’s way past time for white people to stop telling people of other races that we’re not racist, and start talking honestly with each other about how we actually are. Start making it clear that we won’t accept it from each other. In exactly the same way we ask Muslim communities to police themselves for potential radicals, it’s time for polite, don’t-be-political white people to start making it clear that we won’t tolerate racist thinking or expression in our own ranks.

Absolutely right, in my opinion. But she’s not just talking about whites. She tells the story of her bus in Riyadh, full of white women, being stoned by a bunch of Saudi kids just out of school. Racism isn’t a one-way street. It’s not just about the most socially and economically powerful discriminating against the less powerful. It happens between peer groups. It happens up and down whatever scale you chose to use.

Is Britain any different? We all, to a greater or lesser extent, have learned prejudices, gained from childhood or from our experiences – or other people’s experiences – later in life.

I don’t consider myself to be racist, yet in Margo’s terms, I probably am. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in nursery class at the age of five. A black guy came into the classroom, and the teacher told us not to be afraid. It was the first time I had ever seen a black person. I was fascinated, not afraid. But looking back, being told not to be afraid might have made me afraid. Might the teacher’s concern have instilled the first germs of racism in me?

Maybe, but twenty-five years later, the experience of Saudi Arabia actually did the opposite. Far from shutting myself away from contact with other ethnic groups, and calling my hosts ragheads, I went the other way. I took an interest in those around me who didn’t share my culture, religion and skin colour. I talked to Saudis, Pakistanis, Indians, Sudanese and Filipinos about themselves, their lives in their home countries, their likes and dislikes. And the more I talked and listened, the more I found I had in common with them.

My workmates in 1985 – 12 nationalities!

When I came home to the British workplace, I felt I was far better equipped than some of my colleagues to function effectively in a multinational workplace. Yet I’d be lying if I said that I’d never, perhaps in a moment of irritation, generalised about a race or a nationality. It’s when we start thinking or talking in a disparaging way about “the Germans”, “the Pakistanis” and “the Japanese”, that we stray into racist territory. It’s a short step from there to “the Jews” and “the Muslims”, except that those who hold a grudge against them are accused of being anti-Semitic or Islamophobic. But for me, it’s the same currency.

So was Sarah Champion being racist when she was referring to gangs of sex abusers of Pakistani origin? If she was failing to highlight gangs of white people – Latvians, Brits and  Albanians perhaps – who have also been prosecuted for similar organised crimes, then possibly yes, by singling out a specific ethnic group and ignoring others. But to my knowledge, no other gangs predominantly from a different ethnic group have been prosecuted in recent years.

Were her remarks a slander against the entire British-Pakistani community? No more, I believe, than singling out white football hooligans who chant racist slogans at football matches is a slander against the entire white English population, from the Archbishop of Canterbury through to the fishermen of Cornwall.

Likewise, is it a slander on our Egyptian, Sudanese and Somali communities to allege that female genital mutilation is still widespread within those groups?

As for the gangs of abusers in Rotherham, Oxford and other British cities, would we not describe them as racist if their excuse for their behaviour – behaviour, by the way, that might be considered by some of their peers as an honour crime if they tried to practise it on women within their own ethnic group – was that white girls were “easy meat”, “fair game” or “have loose morals”?

My point is that we live in a racist, phobic society, just as do the Saudis. None of us is entirely immune. Not Guardian readers in the home counties, not taxi drivers in Rotherham, not little old ladies in Cheltenham, not fruit-pickers in Norfolk. Racism is not just vertical. It’s horizontal. It’s diagonal. And it’s pervasive.

It’s easy to say “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. But that won’t do, I’m afraid. Recognising our own prejudices, be they mild or extreme, should not stop us from calling out gross criminal behaviour such as grooming, drugging and gang-raping young teenage girls, and – if it helps us better understand and deal with the problem – from identifying the ethnic origin of the perpetrators.

When Sarah Champion said “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls”, she was referring to a specific phenomenon that occurred in her city and several others. If she had said, “Britain has a problem with men sexually exploiting women”, she would have been immune to criticism by her own party, but open to ridicule for stating the obvious.

Yes, she may have strayed close to the line of generalisation that she could have avoided if she’d said “gangs of British Pakistani men…”. But was she wrong in identifying the phenomenon, even if her concern was awkwardly expressed? That’s for you to judge.

I for one believe that, as a woman who spent four years as the chief executive of a children’s hospice in Rotherham, and as the leading light behind a website ( dedicated to fighting child abuse in all of its forms, Sarah Champion deserves the benefit of the doubt.

As for the rest of us, we need to recognise the awful truth about the world in front of us, including the world we see when we look in the mirror.

Perhaps when we stop saying “I’m not a racist, but…” we will be making progress.

Peter Kosminsky’s The State – four characters in search of jihad

Ep2. Stars Sam Otto as Jalal and Ryan McKen as Ziyaad.

Peter Kosminsky’s four-part ISIS drama, The State, caused a predictable stir when it was screened on the UK’s Channel 4 last week. It’s the story of four young Brits, two men and two women, who join the calpihate in Syria. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

One Times reader said that it should be shown in every secondary school in the country. If the aim is to prevent radicalisation, I’m not sure that such an approach would succeed, any more than Schindler’s List and Downfall would be likely to turn youngsters away from neo-Nazism. A TV series and a couple of movies are hardly an effective antidote to the torrent of stuff flooding the internet extolling the virtues of jihadism and alt-right politics.

Nonetheless, Kosminsky succeeded in his aim to provide a more nuanced view of the people who started heading east three years ago. By casting them as human beings rather than one-dimensional ogres, he reminded us that these are sons and daughters, and that a good few of those who crossed the jihadi Rubicon found themselves caught up in a world they neither expected nor found easy to handle.

I use the past tense because so many of the foreign fighters and jihadi brides are now dead – pulverised by bombs and mouldering in the rubble of Mosul, Raqqa and other former ISIS strongholds. Those who have survived are either hiding out in the desert, have slipped back to their countries of origin or are somewhere in the river of migrants making their way across Europe. The state, as a coherent territorial entity, no longer exists.

The fictional state is set in the early days, conflict-ridden but initially triumphant. The four, newly arrived and full of idealistic zeal, enter a world that has been extensively documented both in the world’s media and by the organisation’s own propaganda resources.

Kosminsky captures all the elements with which those who have closely followed the real-life drama are familiar: the end-of-days ideology, the spirit of martyrdom, the savagery, the plight of the Yazidis, the short-lived jihadi marriages and the origins of the insurgency in post-Saddam Iraq.

What we in the West have not witnessed first-hand is the emotions of the participants – courage bolstered by common belief; fear, bewilderment, shock at the reality of their predicament. We only have the stories of those who survived to draw on, but based on what we know, The State has achieved the nuanced portrayal that Kosminsky hoped for.

I was not shocked by the narrative, perhaps because I’m familiar with nearby states where much of the ISIS ideology prevails, albeit without the jihadist fervour. Saudi Arabia, for example, in which a significant proportion of the population shares the Salafist beliefs of the ISIS cadres, where women are kept apart from men, though not to the same level of extreme impracticability.

But apart from the obvious scenes of extreme cruelty, there were  other vignettes that I found repellent.

The woman’s house where the female arrivals were first taken, for example. It was like a nunnery in a Salafist Glastonbury, ran by a couple of Margaret Atwood’s Aunts from The Handmaid’s Tale – smiling but steely. Then, once the women were married off to jihadi fighters, the knock on the door from the same Aunts announcing the “good news” of their husbands’ martyrdom – a disturbing and dissonant scene.

Some while ago I wrote a piece in which I described the British jihadis as backpackers with attitude. I think I was right in identifying the sense of adventure with which the youngsters took off for Syria, but backpacker analogy breaks down to the extent that for most of them there was no coming back, either through intention or in reality. Some have. Are they the lucky ones? Only time will tell.

One of the four characters in The State does make it back. She makes her decision after watching her young son gradually turning into one of the “young lions of the Caliphate”. On her return, she has a choice: either cooperate with the security services as an informer, or see her son taken into care for ever.

She’s perhaps the most interesting of the four. As a junior doctor, she fights numerous obstacles to be able to work in the local hospital. Early in her stay, she takes part in a promotional video in which she extols the IS ethos in much the same way as any earnest young ideologue might when preaching world revolution – passionate and seemingly rational.

Why, you wonder, would someone who has dedicated her career to saving lives and healing, be so enamoured with a culture of cruelty and endless slaughter? As it turns out, she has moral limits which impel her to escape.

Of the two male characters, the stronger is the one who seeks to emulate his martyred brother, but who finds out that the circumstances of his death were not as he imagined. Like the doctor, he swam against the tide – in his case by purchasing a Yazidi mother and her young daughter in the slave market with the intention of protecting rather than exploiting them. His story, unlike that of the doctor, ends badly.

As a drama, it was intense and compelling. So much so that I couldn’t watch it on consecutive nights as screened. What made it perhaps worse was that at the time I was ploughing through The Holocaust, Laurence Rees’s masterly new history of the Nazi genocides. The parallels between the sadism of the camp guards at Auschwitz and Treblinka and that of the executioners of ISIS are obvious, even if perpetrators desired a very different ideological outcome.

If I have a criticism of the series, it’s that we were not given a context for the journey on which the four leading characters embarked. What were the factors that motivated them? Perhaps it would have taken Kosminsky more than a single episode to explore that aspect. But since he set out to portray them as human beings rather than cartoon monsters, the picture felt incomplete. Each of the characters would have had their own reasons for embracing jihad. It would have been interesting to have understood their choice before we joined them on their fateful voyage. For more on this aspect, see Stuart Jeffries’ review in the Guardian.

The series ends with one of the characters dead, and with the remainder facing an uncertain future. The future of the entity they joined is equally uncertain, but it’s hard to imagine that the franchises it created will fade away any time soon. As one analyst recently noted, ISIS, in its various forms, is now an international terrorist organisation.

It will be part of our social and political furniture for some time to come.

The commemoration industry, and why the Dianafest makes me queasy

By Maxwell Hamilton from Greater London, England United Kingdom - Flowers for Princess Diana's Funeral, CC BY 2.0,

I’m not a great fan of anniversaries. Yes, I get caught up in them like everybody else. Significant birthdays. Opportunities to commemorate great events such as world wars, especially those that are within living memory.

But the current fuss around the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death gives me a queasy feeling. TV documentaries, books, newspaper articles, “untold stories”, new perspectives, endless picking over the emotions of the bereaved sons, earnest analyses of the unprecedented emotional incontinence shown by the British public at her funeral. Will we be regaled with this stuff every five years? Isn’t it enough for William and Harry to remember their mother in their own way without being sucked into a media binge not of their making?

In times gone by, we would mark significant intervals – every twenty-five years maximum. Now, it seems, every decade is an opportunity for ritual remembrance. And mostly what we remember are bad things. Commemorating happy events tends to be in the private domain. We celebrate the longevity of marriage, the arrival of offspring. The main exception in our quirky little country is that we go bananas whenever the monarch staggers over the finishing line to another first – longest reign, longest marriage, most prime ministers who have bent the knee and so forth.

The constant orgy of remembrance makes sense when we think of it as an industry. Newspapers need copy. Broadcast media need programmes. Greetings cards card designers need new ideas to sell to their retailers. Historians ride on the coattails of commemoration. It’s an economic activity, and an awful lot of jobs depend on it.

All of which is fine by me. God knows, as artificial intelligence eliminates more jobs every year, we need industries that employ people. The business of human experience is one that will be hard for a computer to emulate. And anything that serves to educate people about history is surely a good thing.

Yet there’s something about the Dianafest that leaves me feeling manipulated. Yes, her death was a major event at the time. And yes, she was a media magnet like no other member of our royal family. But she was also the prototype for every troubled celebrity since who has maintained their public profile by feeding the media monster with their tales of woe. She manipulated the media, and they returned the favour. They are still doing so.

If remembrance is an industry, she has become an industry on her own, like Rudolf Valentino, James Dean, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix before her. And I get the sense that the current froth is being orchestrated by a bunch of people who don’t give a rat’s arse about the person, only about the commercial opportunities.

Twas ever thus, I suppose. In terms of industries, Diana has a limited shelf life. In a hundred years’ time, she will be a historical curiosity, much as Valentino is today. Passchendaele, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Indian Partition, 9/11, Mosul and – before long, who knows, perhaps Pyongyang – will continue to resonate. Those are the events we should be commemorating, because they remind us of humanity’s catastrophic mistakes. And as long as we remember them, we have a chance of learning from them.

It’s not for me to tell others who and what else to remember. When we look back to Diana, I suspect that many of us are as much mourning the passing of twenty years. That “where was I when…” recollection brings us back to an earlier life that for better or worse will never return.

An entirely different feeling than for those who knew her, loved her and think of her every day.

Is Big Data turning me into Mr Angry?

“Steve”, a friend said to me the other day, “I’ve noticed a change in your writing over the past year”. “Same style, same quality” – he knows how to soften me up before delivering the punchline – “but angrier”.

Not surprising, I replied. I am angry. Angrier than at any time in my adult life, actually. I’m angry that so many people in the US got suckered by Trump. I’m angry at the millions in my country who fell for the Brexit con. And angry at the abject incompetence of the governments on either side of the pond.

But why so cross, I wonder? After all, I’m in my sixties, and it won’t be too long before I join the dribbling millions festering in care homes, indifferent as to whether we are governed by Theresa May or Coco the Clown so long as we get our regular wipe-downs and scrambled egg for tea.

I’m not there yet, but I am at an age when many people, after a lifetime of being disappointed by successive governments (or indeed by life itself), shrug their shoulders and accuse them all of being a bunch of lying bastards.

But my anger burns bright. It’s kindled by every idiocy from Trump, and by every bumbling attempt from our Brexit negotiators to pretend that things are going along fine, thank you very much.

Every day I scan the newspapers and the social media, in the vain hope that someone has come up with a definitive piece of evidence that will bring Trump’s presidency to an end, or that a majority of MPs will surprise us all by putting the interests of the country before party and career and bringing down Brexit.

I like to think of myself as a rational human being, despite the anger. The things I’m concerned about – injustice, cruelty, institutional greed, political deceit, intolerance – spring from rational judgements, or so I believe. In other words – if you’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow – Type 2 thinking rather than Type 1, which is all about fast reaction and gut feeling. The difference between righteous anger and petulance, perhaps, if you could define what righteousness actually means.

No doubt the good Professor Kahneman would be able to rip my self-image into shreds by exposing my biases and assumptions. If you’re interested in how people tend to ascribe bias to others rather than themselves, Margo Catts, an author and blogger of my acquaintance, has written an excellent piece, I am a Racist, about the cultural sub-texts that inform attitudes and behaviour.

But I don’t believe I’m easily manipulated, except possibly by members of my family. Am I being complacent about not being susceptible to the arts of persuasion? Perhaps.

It’s odd really. I don’t go to rallies where speakers whip up mass emotion. I don’t go to the pub and get into booze-fuelled arguments about politics. The only people I talk to about such matters are close family and friends, not all of whom agree with me. Mine is a relatively solitary anger. And yes, it’s probably reinforced by people I’ve never met. So where’s this amplification coming from?

In the second part of Secrets of Silicon Valley, a documentary recently on the BBC, writer Jamie Bartlett delves into the power of Big Data, the ability of tech firms to use our digital footprints to know us better than we know ourselves, and the role of the digital media in electing Donald Trump. I’ve written a couple of posts about this stuff here and here. But Bartlett’s interview with a Stanford University professor who also worked for Facebook caused me to stop and think.

The professor described how Facebook ran an experiment with their users to see how easily they could be emotionally manipulated. In a nutshell, they found that by pushing more negative stuff in their direction, they generated more negative emotions, and vice versa for positive stuff. In other words, they were capable of amplifying the emotions of their users. The point being that such a technique is an ideal tool for demagogues like Trump.

So, I began to wonder, does this explain why I can’t look at a copy of the Daily Mail without going into a seething rage at its rampant attempts to manipulate? Am I myself being manipulated by some tech god who knows exactly what presses my nuclear button? Just as Amazon knows what kind of books I like?

And if I happen to be a Daily Mail reader, will the same all-seeing tech god soon be able to send me a personalised version of the Daily Mail, with all my nuclear triggers lined up on one page?

Yes, I’m pretty sure we’re heading that way. The ability to pull – to select the content we want – has been around for a while. Hence the much-vaunted social media echo chamber effect, in which we surround ourselves with the like-minded. But as Trump showed, we’ve given so much of ourselves away in our busy internet lives that companies like Cambridge Analytics can seek us out like targets for precision-guided missiles – one individual at a time.

So who’s manipulating me? Certainly not the likes of Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm whose role in the Leave and Trump campaigns was highlighted in Bartlett’s documentary. I don’t look at ads on the social media. Fake news spread by Russian bots? I like to think I can spot a fake story from a mile off, so unlikely.

Then we come to the mainstream print and online media. Well I have to admit they’re a prime suspect. But they’ve been around for a long time – or at least the print media has – so what’s new? There have always been Rupert Murdochs telling us what to think.

But what’s different is that the social media gives us access to a far wider choice of media than we ever had before. When I was a kid, my parents had two newspapers delivered to their doorstep every day – the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. The enlightened school I attended in my teens made most of the other high-circulation British papers available for us to read – the Times, the Guardian and even the Daily Mirror. I was lucky – that was a privilege not available to most of my contemporaries.

Fifty years on, I can access (to a greater or lesser extent depending on paywall arrangements) – newspapers in the US – the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post for example, in the UK, in the Middle East and virtually any other place in the world.

In addition, I can subscribe to on-line sites that are more than one man and a dog outfits: Huffington Post, Politico, Slate and a host of others that I deem not to be a waste of time. And should I be so inclined, I could gorge myself on Breitbart and InfoWars.

And then there are bloggers, many of them who write as a sideline, but whose reputations come from their professional achievements. Lawyers like Laurence Tribe and David Allen Green. Academics like Mary Beard and her current Darth Vader, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Most of what I read is measured and well argued. I may disagree with some of the stuff, but at least the authors are writers, not ranters. Are they manipulating me? Possibly, yes, but theirs is a typical Type 2 manipulation, by argument rather than through a punch in the gut.

And finally we have the 140-character merchants, of which the master is Donald Trump. On the anti-Trump side, the supreme exponent is Simon Schama, whose hatred of Trump and all he stands for knows no bounds. Schama is a prince of the Age of Reason – an eminent historian and creator of many fine documentaries. I admire his work enormously. The interesting thing about him is that he seems to have invented an alternative personality dedicated to trashing a man whom he sees as the worst president in history. After a couple of his tweets I’m ready to man the barricades.

There are others like him, and I confess that I’ve not been averse to posting the occasional acerbic tweet about people of whom I disapprove.

So back to the original question. Am I angrier because all the loud voices and persuasive arguments are firing me up? I don’t think so. I’m angry because there’s much to be angry about. No more, no less.

But I can understand that if you are angry about one thing, you can easily be persuaded to be angry about another. And I reckon that that’s what Cambridge Analytica and their ilk are good at. And as people transfer their anger from one issue to another, their anger deepens and they find it harder to think of positives to balance the negatives. Which probably explains why when I get het up about Brexit, my thoughts turn to Trump. And then I think about how my shiny new IPad only charges up to 83%, and why our elderly dog seems determined to trip me up by constantly lurching into my path, and how members of my family constantly interrupt me when I’m in full flow.

Yet when I look further into myself, I realise that Trump and Brexit are only marginally responsible for my anger. They’re merely targets of opportunity. And the psychoanalysts of Big Data are simply discovering the obvious: that as you approach old age, you go in one of three directions – you get angrier with the world you think you see more clearly, you get happier by blotting out what’s staring you in the face, or you subside into a resigned indifference.

But here’s the thing Big Data will struggle to understand. I’m never happier than when I’ve got something to moan about.

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