Saturday, 23 November 2013

An inconvenient truth about Syria diplomatic 'triumph': WMDs bad; WHDs tolerable

There are many inconvenient truths in this world. Like elephants in rooms or the new clothes of emperors, they pollute the neatness of the narratives we contrive, as individuals, as the media, politicians, nations or international organisations. The inconvenient truth of our age is that despite, or perhaps because of the alleged 'diplomatic triumph' in Syria, through which President Assad's Weapons of Mass Destruction are to be destroyed, civilians' rights and often lives continue to be snuffed out by his regime's Weapons of Human Destruction (WHDs).

An inconvenient truth cannot be suppressed, as we were reminded last week in a brilliant piece by The Times's Tom Coghlan chronicling the text messages of a brave rebel fighter ("Gassed, shelled and starved: my life on the Syrian front line"). His harrowing words describe the gradual starvation his community is suffering due to a regime-inspired siege in Damascus. 

Journalists, bloggers and most importantly, Syrians using social media, must be congratulated for shining a light on the inconvenient truth that our response (if it can be called that) to a regime that has used chemical weapons on civilians, does not address Assad's continuing use of Weapons of Human Destruction. The WHDs have not fallen silent, and it seems that the world's plan to put them out of action, the Geneva II talks, face many challenges. Meanwhile, the civilians of Syria continue to be shot, blown up, starved or simply allowed to perish for lack of humanitarian aid caused by sieges like the one so dramatically described.

We should remember that the uprising against Assad began with peaceful protests and demands for democratic rights and freedoms that we in the West take for granted, which were brutally suppressed. Nefarious regimes are learning that the world might splutter into belated diplomatic action over WMDs, but seems unwilling to do more than express outrage at the continuing use of WHDs. Inconvenient truths are immutable. What can be changed is our collective response to them. While we ponder this from the comfort of our homes, time is running for civilians inside Syria and those millions in refugee camps outside.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Letter in The Times: The creative importance of music in schools


Available online at The Times here.

The creative importance of music in schools

Sir, The decline of music in state schools is a national tragedy (report, Nov 15; letter, Nov 16). Despite music having the potential to be as beneficial to children as sport, the latter gains preference in schools due to the myth that music is more difficult and less relevant to young people’s lives.

I benefited hugely by learning music from the age of 7 because an inspirational teacher [Caroline Lumsden, of Beauchamp Music Group - The Times edited out her name] set up a private but affordable weekend music school near my home. This improved my life socially, academically and culturally. I was also fortunate that the comprehensive I attended had a wonderful head of music, Miss Wrenn, who ensured that music was given as much prominence in school life as sport.

Learning music broadens horizons and improves concentration, teamwork, intellectual stamina, emotional development, mathematical skills and creativity. Music should not be an elite pursuit, yet it is becoming another facet of British society dominated by privately educated people.

We must not allow this dumbing down by those who share Mr Gove’s ideological “3Rs” approach. Music can improve the lives of all our children, but to do so requires investment of money and long-term political support. The Department for Education has much to learn from people like my inspirational music teachers.

John Slinger

Thursday, 14 November 2013

HuffPost blog: Tweet to Highlight How Film Posters Can Glamorise Guns

Published online here.


Hamish McRae wrote in The Independent yesterday about a study by Ohio State University and the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania showing that there is more gun violence in films accessible to younger audiences than in those categorised as R-rated. This reminded me of a nagging thought I often have when commuting by Tube: the large number of guns depicted on posters advertising films. On some days I've counted as many as 12 guns in the short journey through one Underground station.

The images normally fall into one of three categories: violent; glamorous or solving a problem. The gun is fetishised as either a sleek fashion accessory in the hand of a beautiful actor; the ultimate arbiter of justice used by the righteous; or the ultimate conveyor of violence and chaos. Whichever it is, it struck me as inappropriate that children should be confronted by these images. Whilst we hear much debate about whether gun violence in films or computer games can propel young men or boys (for they are almost always male) to commit mass murder or violence, we rarely hear about the effect of images on film posters.

It would be interesting for research to be done into this. The UK Advertising Standards Authority has acted in the past, having banned the posters for the Angelina Jolie filmWanted in 2008 because "they could be seen to glamorise the use of guns and violence". Yet the mere presence of guns on posters does not receive much attention from the ASA, the public or the media. Perhaps this is the point - the more that guns are depicted in these posters, and elsewhere in society, so we are further anaesthetised to their true nature. The gun does not even have to be depicted in a glamorous or overtly violent fashion for it to be a corrosive influence on society, for it remains a mechanism for killing and maiming and should be abhorred not romanticised.

Over the years, I haven't had much luck with my twitter hashtags. "#HeadlinesToriesHate" and "#SoftOnCrimeTories" get the occasional retweet but don't go viral, perhaps as they're overtly political (I am after all a Labour Party activist in my spare time). I'm hoping that #TubePosterGunCount #GunsAreNotGlamorous, might have more success, because the issue is non-partisan and far more important than the scoring of political points.

Today I tweeted the following: 

"Wld be good if ppl could tweet the number of guns they see on film posters, using #TubePosterGunCount #GunsAreNotGlamorous &mention the film".

If enough people take up the challenge, we might collectively achieve some "crowd-research" which might be useful to those who research the influence of depictions of guns and gun violence. Either way, it might stimulate much-needed debate about the casual normalisation of violence in our society.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Independent Voices: Open letter to Russell Brand offering ideas on how he could make a positive impact to improve UK democracy

Published online here.

The Independent

Thursday 7 November 2013
An open letter to Russell Brand urging constructive action on democracy
Some well-meaning suggestions for the self-appointed new spokesman for Britian's underserved

Dear Russell,
I don’t wish to add to the vocal criticism you have received about the views you expressed in your interview with Jeremy Paxman. Instead I'd like to focus on the positive and so I respectfully offer some well-meaning suggestions on how you could use your position as someone with influence, particularly over younger people, to enhance our democratic system.
1) Form a political party / stand for Parliament or as a councillor.
You seem disillusioned with the current political parties, so utilise the long fought for freedom you enjoy to set up a political party and choose its core values (as long as they do not incite hatred or violence). Stand for election at any level either as a candidate of your new party or as an independent. If your ideas gain traction, you will then exert political influence. My party, the Labour Party, was established because the parties of the late 19th century failed to represent ordinary working people. It is now one of the major parties. As UKIP shows, new parties can rise up and change the political weather.
2) Suggest ways in which our democratic system could be improved.
Our system is deficient in many ways and it is incumbent on people who believe things can be better to suggest improvements. Some favour proportional representation; I have advocated that the House of Lords be comprised of 50% Citizen Senators selected by lot as per jury selection. For progress to occur, people of good conscience must move beyond criticising the status quo to setting out a credible alternative.

3) Donate money to charities which seek to engage people in the democratic process, such as Bite the Ballot and the Electoral Reform Society and volunteer your time to reach out to those who don’t vote, especially young people.
Sadly, many in our society, especially younger voters, do not engage with politics. Most are not apathetic about politics, but too many feel disengaged from a political process which they reject as irrelevant to their lives. You could do much to reverse this trend by supporting, both financially and practically, the important work organisations do to engage particularly young people in the political process and educate them about politics.
4) Shadow an MP for a week.
Little is more relevant to our lives than politics and the decisions politicians make. Far from being an out-of-touch elite, MPs sit at the apex of a system which impacts on all of us. You should find out what they do before writing them off. Having worked for several MPs, I know of fewer people who are better plugged in to the concerns of ordinary people, through holding regular surgeries, spending every weekend in their constituencies meeting community groups, responding to hundreds of letters, emails and phone calls each week and fighting hard for constituents locally and nationally. They don’t go into politics for the money and bar a tiny minority, are completely devoted to improving their constituents' lives and making Britain a better place. If you shadowed an MP and reported what you experienced, this would go some way to improving the public's understanding of MPs’ work.
5) Visit a country without universal suffrage, or where democracy is relatively new and report about the attitude of people there to democracy.
In many places in the world people do not enjoy the freedoms we do, being unable to organise themselves into parties, stand for election, or remove a government through peaceful means. They long for and sometimes die for the democratic rights and institutions that so many people in Britain are rejecting or ignoring. It would be illuminating for you to visit these places and report back on your views having considered just what it means to live in the absence of any semblance of democracy.
I respect you for what you do in your various roles as comedian (you are one of the funniest), campaigner (particularly on drugs issues), television presenter (particularly when you charmingly expose bigoted people) and commentator. You have energy, intelligence and a passion for improving society and the human condition. You could channel this to inspire people to take constructive action, not destructive criticism. If you were to do one, or more, of the suggestions above, not only would you silence your increasingly hostile critics, but more importantly, you would help this cause and show younger people in particular that one of the most important tenets of living in a democracy is taking responsibility for using the freedom and democratic structures we enjoy to change society for the better. Freedom that is taken for granted withers and dies.
I chair Pragmatic Radicalism, an organisation run by Labour members in our spare time which holds events using our innovative Top of the Policies format, encouraging ordinary people to pitch policy ideas in 60 seconds, usually chaired by shadow ministers, all in the informal, friendly environment of a pub. We'd be delighted if you'd chair an event on 'Improving British democracy'. Perhaps the Top Policies could be reported in The Independent?
With best wishes,
John Slinger
Chair, Pragmatic Radicalism