Robin Brown

Journo. Editor. Tutor. Dour northerner.

Archive for October, 2009

The power of tweets: The future of Twitter

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Some of my words ended up in a Guardian article by Jon Henley today on the ‘power of tweets’ – a balanced piece that sums up a lot of the debate over the nature and power of Twitter that have been batted about the internet recently, not least on this blog, concerning Trafigura, Jan Moir and now AA Gill.

Since talking to Henley I’ve been pondering some of our conversation in greater depth, so wanted to detail some thoughts on the matter.

For my money Trafigura was a high watermark in the site’s power, as an expression of its extent and force for change. The Moir thing was also worthy of praise, but displayed the potential herd mentality of Twitter, especially when driven by celebs.

As for the Gill thing, it gave me the first indication of the potential ‘outrage of the week effect’.

In many ways this shouldn’t come as a surprise. All new social media sites go through a period of exponential growth and, essentially, ‘growing up’.

Twitter, as a community, is just coming to terms with itself and what it is all about. We’ve already seen this happen to Friends Reunited, Myspace, Facebook and – to an extent – Digg, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Reddit and Fark.

At first there was little to choose between the last five, but they’ve all branched out into different directions.

The Grauniad’s own Comment Is Free community is another example. Right now I’d say it’s in a particularly troubled adolescence, so unpleasant a place it’s become.

I’d say Twitter could go either way at the moment. Its growth could level off, in which case it remains a forum of like minds. I’ve outlined the drawbacks to this, with the Gill phenomenon, but I also think this could be a positive.

And let’s not forget that in and of itself there’s not much to Twitter – it’s still the traditional media lavishing such attention on it that is driving Twitter into the mainstream. Twitter propelled Trafigura into the mainstream, but it was cleverly nudged into doing so by The Guardian and Alan Rusbridger.

I’m unimpressed by the quote in the article from the guys from Spiked, one of whom ‘really hates Twitter’. Fair enough, but to deny its value as a tool or its ability to focus attention on an issue like Trafigura seems counter-intuitive, or even snobbish.

Twitter is a very simple tool, used in many different ways. Recent events have shown the good and bad of the community, but to write it off as something that ‘doesn’t work’ on an organisational level is patently untrue.

One of the questions Henley put to me was what the future holds for the social networking site. I had to admit I don’t have a clue, and I don’t see how anyone can.

Henley quotes a Twitter ‘leaked internal document’ that sees it in a few year’s time as ‘the pulse of the planet’ with 1bn users.

I found myself wondering if that’s likely to happen, and I don’t think it is. Most social networks have their time in the sun before something else springs up.

And if Twitter were to reach that landmark, would it be Twitter as we know it? The community seems to be chiefly populated, at the moment, by UK and US early adopters: left-leaning; likely to work in media or PR; socially and environmentally aware.

But the other obvious demographic seems to be urban US teens, who seem to be mainly responsible for trending topics involving US celebrities or daft internet memes – gossip essentially.

I think that if Twitter makes it to one billion users it’s this latter aspect of the community that’s likely to be in the ascendancy, which would rather scotch the ‘Twitter as fifth estate’ notion put forward by Stephen Fry.

As for Fry, the poster boy of the ‘offencerati’, he seems to have found the attention all too much, announcing his retirement from Twitter only today. I doubt Henley’s article has anything to do with it, but it highlights what a focal point Fry has become on the site.

He also alludes to the growing ‘aggression and rudeness’ – the Comment Is Free effect. Maybe we’re already into the next stage of Twitter’s growth.

All told I think this comes back to the duality of Twitter as a platform and as a community – two very different things. The former initially informed the latter, but as it becomes more mainstream those early adopters will be joined by more and more people, and more diverse people at that.

The most telling quote in Henley’s article is Stephen Levy’s:

Twitter left a ball and a stick in a field and lurked around as its users invented baseball.

Where Twitter goes from here, and whether we have our apoplexy of the week, rather depends on what Twitter’s new users do with that ball and stick next.

• Click here for my other stuff on Twitter

Written by Robin Brown

October 31st, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Twitter blows its own lungs out over AA Gill

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I’m feeling a bit ambivalent about AA Gill’s revelation that he shot a monkey on holiday for the sheer hell of it.

Included in Gill’s restaurant review for the Sunday Times was a sizeable chunk of the text given over to how he ‘blew its lungs out’ in an effort to see what it would be like to kill something, or kill ‘a close relative’.

I’m uncertain as to what Gill thought he would learn from this experience, though to wind back a bit I do think his first principle is an interesting one.

A charitable reading of his column might suggest that Gill is dubious about how we’re inured to violence both real and fictionalised these days, through the news and shoot-em-up films.

The way that modern life shields us from the reality of death is a common theme in newspaper columns these days too – and I think it’s an issue worth exploring.

But to go from this to shooting a baboon is like worrying what we can do about sexual crimes and then raping someone in an attempt to acquire a greater understanding of the issue.

Anyway, I suspect all the predictable attention on Twitter will only serve to provide Gill a satisfied feeling of validation. Rather like Clarkson he’s a superbly entertaining writer who frames his various chunterings on the world in a column ostensibly concerning cars in Jezza’s case and food in AA’s case.

But both marry their talent to a tiresome iconoclasm that rails against civil society and accepted mores, serving to provide a thrill of the taboo for conservative readers and an object of anger for others.

Media and public alike lap up this kind of mould-breaking, which often skirts taste, decency and – for want of a better word – political correctness. It’s a well-established routine, and well-practicsed by the likes of Clarkson, Gill and Julie Burchill.

Some might say that Gill has misjudged his act this time. I don’t think he’ll see it that way, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if he went and shot a primate in the knowledge that he would attract exactly this sort of response.

I’ve indicated before that I believe newspapers, with an online audience in mind, are deliberately courting this sort of controversy and I don’t expect this will be the last outrage of its kind.

Twitter AA Gill

Twitter has duly gone into attack mode, but I think to raise Gill’s idiocy to the ranks of Jan Moir’s nasty Gately column is a mistake.

This latest episode also raises the prospect of a semi-regular apoplexy of the week on Twitter, where the right-on fraternity go bonkers over any perceived slight, act of stupidity or ideological movement that captures the imagination of Twitter’s lefty groupmind.

It’s not an attractive prospect because I’m not sure the Twitter fraternity, acting as one, can really discern between what’s worth mobilising over and what’s worth writing off as an attention-seeking publicity stunt.

I was with the Twitterati over the NHS, Trafigura, the Mail’s gypsy poll and Jan Moir. But Twitter’s wrong over Gill, and I don’t think it will be the last time.

• UPDATE: Jon Henley has written an article over at The Grauniad that follows on from some of the stuff in this post and uses some quotes from me. See The power of tweets

Written by Robin Brown

October 27th, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Erasure – The Innocents: 21 years on

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Amazingly it’s the 21st anniversary of the release of Erasure’s The Innocents, with Phantom Bride re-released as an EP and a remastered album to celebrate.

It’s one of my favourite albums and a high watermark in synth pop – though its release was pretty much the last hurrah for the scene – and its anniversary coincides with a mini series on BBC4 on electronic music.

The Innocents is probably one of the first albums I ever bought and, in that way that early albums do, it really has the ability to take me back to where I was at the time. Like any new album bought in those days, it was listened to again and again.

It’s a class of music that’s always been easy to sneer at, but as is mentioned in the BBC4 documentary Synth Britannia, it’s basically soul music on electronic instruments.

It’s an album stripped of a lot of the outrageous campery, posturing and pretension in similar material in the early half of the decade.

Still, it takes some of the social aspects of Depeche Mode, the pop sensibilities of the Pet Shop Boys and the hot-cold duality of Clarke versus a romantic chanteuse – and in doing so creates something greater than the sum of those parts.

Vince Clarke’s driving beats, clever chord changes and impeccable pop hooks contrast with Andy Bell’s soaring, slightly gospel voice – itself juxtaposed with the bleakness of the lyrics.

It’s all bedsits, heartbreak and unrequited love, but there’s a funny symbiosis between the grim and uplifting in most of the songs.

Hallowed Ground, Ship of Fools and Phantom Bride are as downbeat as pop music ever gets; Witch in the Ditch is a strange off-beat carnivale effort’ but overlooked tunes like Yahoo and Weight of the World are well-crafted sweet little songs that match soulful melodies with synth production.

Chains of Love and A Little Respect mine rich gospel seams to stunning effect, but it’s hard to imagine such songs in the charts these days.

Later Erasure albums failed to recapture the same delicate mix between hope and despair, joy and melancholy, Clarke and Bell – and seemed unbalanced as a result.

Inevitably The Innocents was a product of its time, the album is coated in a grimy late 80s melancholy, but it’s aged extremely well and puts the recent synth revival firmly in its place.

That it’s still relevant and fresh is testament to the quality of a duo so often overlooked in British music. The Innocents isn’t just Erasure’s best, it’s one of the best in the entire genre.

Written by Robin Brown

October 24th, 2009 at 12:13 am

Bonnie Greer kills Nick Griffin with kindness on Question Time

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I was of the opinion all along that Nick Griffin should be allowed to be shown on the Question Time panel because, much as I like the BBC, I don’t want them deciding what is and what isn’t fit for broadcast on the basis of taste.

As it was, those worried about Griffin’s appearance on the panel need not have worried. The BNP leader looked nervous, ill-at-ease, under-prepared and rather stupid.

What I assume was a rather nervous laugh in reference to quotes that showed him to have some rather unpleasant, decidedly racist view made him look out of his depth, frivolous or insensitive. And when he did hit his stride he came close to some of the nastiness that we know forms the basis of the BNP’s politics.

Jack Straw seemed emotional, David Dimbleby seemed barely able to look at him. But it was Bonnie Greer who punctured Griffin most effectively.

She was courteous, concise, slightly condescending and appeared slightly disappointed in Griffin, who she pointedly called ‘Nick’.

It was clever stuff and Greer scored several direct hits. Griffin didn’t seem to realise he was being set up. But I don’t think anyone really addressed the reasons behind the BNP rise to prominence.

The fact is that UK works through economic migration. If we didn’t have blacks, asians, Jews and now east Europeans coming to the country to sweep our roads, clean our toilets and fix our plumbing the country would be on its knees.

That’s how it works, it’s how it;s worked for decades and there’s very little that can be done about it, as all the political parties would admit if they weren’t busy electioneering.

Griffin got in a dig at the ‘political elites’ he believes oppress the white working classes at the end of the show, in which he lambasted the BBC for being ‘ultra-leftist’.

It showed how absurd a man he is, believing in his own fantasy world of indigenous persecuted whites. He showed himself up for what he was, and no amount of grandstanding could change it. Dimbelby asked if Question Time had been an early Christmas Present for the BNP.

Question Time audience

I watched the show in my local cricket club. Question Time would rarely be on the television in the club under different circumstances, yet everyone was rapt.

I think everyone realised the gravity of the situation – a racist political party was threatening to break through into the mainstream. But as the night wore on and Griffin proved inept and vaguely comical, people drifted away.

Dragged into the light, Griffin had wilted. He was not the bogeyman everyone expected, but a small-minded racist man utterly out of his depth and skewered not by the politicians on the panel but by the gentle but pointed mocking of Bonnie Greer.

At the end of the show the audience was noticeably mocking Griffin. He had become a joke. Griffin’s appearance on Question Time had not been a present for the BNP, it had been a poisoned chalice.

Written by Robin Brown

October 22nd, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Twitter delivers instant karma to Jan Moir

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At a guess Jan Moir has had about 10,000 tweets devoted to slating her intelligence, appearance and humanity today, following a nasty little article in the Daily Mail about Stephen Gately’s death.

Moir managed to get to the top of Twitter’s top trends, normally reserved as a kind of telegraph system for broadcasting death notices of celebrities, for a good couple of hours today – probably giving her the kind of widespread publicity most journalists would pay for.

Moir Twitter

In the article Moir states that there was ‘nothing natural’ about Gately’s death; writes a couple of hundred words of innuendo and speculation about the supposedly sordid final hours of the Bozone singer; and ends her article with the implication that all same-sex civil partnerships are doomed to end in an early death.

Another real sadness about Gately’s death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.

For once again, under the carapace of glittering, hedonistic celebrity, the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see.

Moir, whether deliberately or not, conflates homosexuality with ‘dangerous’ lifestyles and ‘dark’ appetites, also dragging the death of Matt Lucas’ former partner into the argument.

It’s the kind of thing that the Mail, its columnists and readers revel in so it comes as no surprise to me. However the Twittersphere has seen things differently and sent tens of thousand of volleys of personal abuse the way of Moir.

Moir is the kind of self-righteous female columnist lampooned by Private Eye who make a habit of furiously attacking other women for their appearance, tread the tiresome ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ line and exist in a world where every crapulous observation is accompanied by an equally terrible pun.

They’re mean, spiteful and full of themselves, and newspapers lap them up. Here are some previous greatest hits:

• ‘Eating a ham sarnie causes cancer? These ham-fisted food fascists are just pig ignorant’ – Moir knows more about cancer than the World Cancer Research Fund

• ‘Oh, dear! That was a total dog’s breakfast’ – Moir slates Alastair Darling and his wife for their appearance

• ‘Jade was a unique and very brave girl. But let’s not pretend she was a saint’ – Moir criticises the freshly-dead Jade Goody

The Gately article is nasty, insidious stuff but it’s kind-of par for the course for these kind of columnists.

Where this case differs is that vast amounts of people can now access their work via websites, which were previously accessible only to newspaper buyers.

So, Moir becomes the most-insulted person on Earth for a day. But I strongly doubt the Mail will take the article down, with all the traffic and link juice such attention-seeking articles garner.

It’s the same reason The Grauniad’s Comment Is Free section keeps printing articles designed to specifically bait its own readership.

Inbound links, hits, ad clicks, user-generated content, publicity. They’re all likely to outweigh any negative publicity. And the Mail’s readership are hardly likely to see anything wrong with the article.

I suspect Moir herself will lap it up – she’s the kind of columnist that thrives on hatred.

Then again, it’s not every day one gets to see someone on the receiving end of such comprehensive come-uppance, so my gratitude to Twitter for its amusing and heartfelt outpouring of hatred.

• There’s already a Facebook group demanding a retraction and a suggestion that the article breaks several PCC rules. You can view the form here.

UPDATE: Well, I didn’t see this coming

UPDATE 2: Moir has apologised, though it’s a decidedly mealy-mouthed half apology:

“The point of my column – which I wonder how many of the people complaining have fully read – was to suggest that, in my honest opinion, his death raises many unanswered questions. That was all. Yes, anyone can die at anytime of anything. However, it seems unlikely to me that what took place in the hours immediately preceding Gately’s death – out all evening at a nightclub, taking illegal substances, bringing a stranger back to the flat, getting intimate with that stranger – did not have a bearing on his death. At the very least, it could have exacerbated an underlying medical condition.

“In writing that ‘it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships’ I was suggesting that civil partnerships – the introduction of which I am on the record in supporting – have proved just to be as problematic as marriages. In what is clearly a heavily orchestrated internet campaign I think it is mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones.”

This was exactly the kind of ‘what a lot of fuss over nothing’ response I’d expected, but it seems that if you hit papers where it hurts – in the wallet – even the likes of the Mail are forced to backtrack.

Written by Robin Brown

October 16th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Twitter panics over Trafigura

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I’m not going to go into what the Trafigura meme on Twitter refers to, needless to say it can be found pretty easily on the interweb.

Britain’s frightening libel laws are currently being used to issue pre-emptive super-injunctions that not only prevent the media from reporting on cases, but prevent them from from reporting anything about them – even that they’ve been prevented from reporting them.

Traditionally, MPs could use parliamentary privilege to raise or discuss issues otherwise banned from public debate, but the recent emergence of these super-injunctions prevents the press from reporting parliamentary questions, or even referring to them specifically.

In the age of the internet this is quite absurd, like the long-gestating rumour about Andrew Marr that the Labour Party is planning to raise in parliament in revenge over Marr throwing stupid internet rumours at Gordon Brown.

Anyone with the merest hint of internet nous can find out what this refers to.

So, as is the way of things, Trafigura went viral following a written parliamentary question on Monday 12 October.

The Guardian reported that it had been banned from reporting a parliamentary question and Twitter took over.

Only, understandably, Trafigura was deleted from trending topics, despite the fact it was obviously the top-trending topic. One minute it was top, the next it had vanished. Twitter’s trend explanations were also absent from any topics relating to Trafigura.

Twitter Trafigura

I don’t blame them, British libel laws are notorious for being swingeing, and Carter-Ruck’s efficacy in the area is well-know.

However, the Private Eye reports that the legal grounding for these super-injunctions is dubious, and the Lib Dems and The Grauniad have promised action on the case.

It’s another case of how futile traditional libel laws are when it comes to social media, and it’s a score for the Twitterverse. Digg users got in on the act too.

Social media may the medium that brings down the use of super-injunctions, having brought the issue out into the light, where the traditional media could not. Fascinating stuff.

UPDATE

All the relevant keywords are back on Twitter, though Twitter is not explaining the reason for them trending, as it does with other trends.

The Torygraph is now reporting the Twitter/Trafigura phenomenon in a carefully-worded article, though its report features no mention of The Guardian.

While people have been sued for their tweets before, it’s not clear how the tens of thousands of people who have now tweeted about the injunction could be sued, or whether there’d be much point.

The press will continue to tread a cautious line until such an order is lifted though, with their legal situation less opaque than that of social media sites and individuals.

The Guardian is currently attempting to challenge the injunction in court and the Liberal Democrat are seeking a debate in Parliament.

And here’s the Minton Report, which kicked off all of today’s shenanigans.

So, to sum up, this is currently being reported all over social media, the world’s foreign media and can be easily found on the Parliament website.

The greatest irony of all is that no-one had heard of Trafigura until today.

• Here’s a Tweetmap image showing trending topics in Europe this morning. The fact that Twitter feeds are among the most automatically aggregated on the planet also indicates just how impossible it is to police social media.

Tweetmap Trafigura

UPDATE 2

Carter-Ruck gives up. Social media win.

What happens next?

It’s unlikely to get any better for Trafigura and Carter-Ruck according to Techchrunch

Written by Robin Brown

October 13th, 2009 at 9:26 am

Learning to love Peter: Mandelson and me

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I’m fascinated by a lot of things that are, on the face of it, not especially pleasant things to be fascinated with. Nuclear power stations, Victorian industry, tinkering with oily car parts, horror films, archaeology in its many varied, dirty and predominantly boring shades and Peter Mandelson.

Most of these interests can probably be laid at the door of a creeping fustiness related to an early mid-life crisis, or a hangover from adolescence, but my thing for Mandelson goes back to when I first became interested in politics at the age of 15 or so.

Like most 15-year-olds I was a left-wing firebrand, but I mixed it with living in the post-industrial depressed Teesside town of Hartlepool and a heritage of steel-workers and coal miners to look back on. Heady stuff.

The juxtaposition of Hartlepool – a working-class town still strong aligned with the Labour Party, Daily Mirror and teenage pregnancies – with the slippery embodiment of the New Right of the Labour Party in Mandelson fascinated and appalled me.

So much so that I voted Liberal Democrat in 1997, despite being a card-carrying member of Labour. I wanted Labour to win, I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for Mandelson. This is the sort of thing, presumably, that Tony Blair was referring to when he enigmatically stated some time before the election that Labour would only ‘come of age’ when it ‘learned to love Peter’.

I’ve followed Mandelson’s career since I became politically aware, but especially so since I interviewed him in 1999 for the now-defunct Liverpool Student newspaper.

The interview went badly. I was callow, blunt and probably a little combative. I suspect Mandelson was expecting a fairly friendly ride but, having been bombarded with hostile questions relating to his sacking, failed bid to get on the NEC and had some rather silly quotes dug up by me and thrown in his face, he soon bristled at the line of questioning.

A studied boredom descended over Mandy, and he appeared to take great delight in batting back my questions with deliberately facile straight-bat responses and at least one flat-out lie, though he was visibly irritated on a few occasions.

Towards the end of the interview he went out of his way to be unpleasant and unhelpful. I was a rather confused. The line of questioning was harsh, but I was cordial and even attempted a parting joke.

Looking back it’s easy to see why Peter had been irritated by my attempt at an interview. We now know that Mandelson was shattered by his sacking from the DTI, a brief he’d coveted for some time, and was licking some not-inconsiderable wounds received from Gordon Brown, Geoffrey Robinson and Tony Blair.

Blair told Mandelson following the fall-out from the home loans affair to ‘go away and make some friends in the Labour Party’. Clearly he wasn’t heeding that advice on the day I spoke to him but he does seem to have made it up, eventually, with Brown.

Peter Mandelson

Mandelson’s efficacy in his early ministerial career was tough to judge, having been too short on both occasions to make much of an impact, though I never doubted his skills as a political operator.

His most recent resurrection as Business Secretary at the BIS and de facto Deputy PM has been notable because of its soaraway success.

His record in attracting business to the British car industry, which looked in danger of collapsing completely at the start of 2009, has been a vindication of his appointment and, to my eyes, the government’s policy of ploughing serious cash into the economy.

It’s tough to judge how much government money or loan guarantees have gone to car manufacturers including Toyota, Nissan, Honda, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover, but all have made significant long-term commitments to remaining in the country and producing more models in the UK, despite the fact that the UK is not necessarily the best place in Europe to build and export cars.

LDV went by the wayside, Ford is moving Transit production abroad in the future and Vauxhall’s future is still in the balance – but the automotive industry clearly sees the UK as a place to do business, and without the billions of Euros the German government has been merrily throwing around.

The UK’s scrappage scheme, for all its faults, has got the UK car industry going again and is likely to actually return a profit due to VAT receipts. Mandelson demanded the manufacturers taking part equalled the government’s investment of £1,000 per purchase, and OEMs, the supply chain, the economy and Treasury have benefited as a result.

On the Labour Party front, Mandelson has become something of a darling to a party reeling from poor polling and a hysterically hostile press.

He’s the only one who appears to be fighting for the party, he’s gained a sense of humour and people within the party are talking him as a potential next leader (though the fact he is no longer an MP could make it tricky).

It’s a fairly remarkable turnaround, and I’ve found myself begrudgingly reassessing my opinion of him. His rallying cry to the party – “If I can come back so can we” – is symptomatic of a man who appears to be the only one in the PLP who hasn’t given up the ghost. I particularly enjoyed the story that he marched up to a clique of News International types at a party and lambasted them as a ‘bunch of cunts’ following the Sun’s switch of loyalties.

Anyway here’s Mandelson, now Lord of course, revelling in his new-found popularity within the Labour Party in conversation with Andrew Rawnsley at a fringe meeting at the recent conference – showing his combative and humourous qualities.

It seems the Labour Party has come to love Peter, albeit after 15 years. And while I wouldn’t go that far, I do respect the guy and feel slightly guilty about giving him such a hard time all those years ago. Sorry Peter.

As for me, I learned a lot from our meeting. Most obviously to flatter, charm and bribe interviewees, but also that there is a game to be played in such meetings that can be more rewarding and much more enjoyable. Just watch Rawnsley.

The writing of the article, and some ruthless self-inflicted subbing that followed, also taught me a lot. The material I had to work with was barely useable but I built something useful out of it.

A journo on a national praised it as ‘masterful’, I received several hearty slaps on the back and a photostat adorned the wall of the downstairs toilet of the family home in Hartlepool for several years.

Paired with a superb cartoon by the brilliant Nick Watson it also looked the part. Arguably the interview and subsequent article were the catalysts that convinced me that I could make a career as a journalist.

I didn’t pursue politics in the end, but I kept an eye on Mandy’s progress. The irony of being employed to write about Mandelson in the car industry years later is not lost on me. Nor is the fact that if weren’t for that meeting ten years ago, it seems unlikely I’d be where I am now.

• My original interview with Mandelson is reprinted below

Learning to love Peter

There’s a story about Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool that everyone knows. It goes like this: The young moustachioed Peter is on one of his first strolls around the constituency with the media in tow. Spotting a fish and chip shop he ventures in and orders a large cod and chips. Spotting a bowl of green gunky stuff he then orders some guacamole. It is, of course, mushy peas.

Regardless of whether this happened, the story will follow Mandelson to his grave, along with the stories about that loan from Geoffrey. Word was that Peter had to go because it gave the excuse that John and Gordon needed to scupper him. Apparently Tony sees Peter as the next leader.

So what has Peter been doing these last six or seven months? “Is this the interview?” It is. A ‘well in that case’ look plays across his face. He’s been serving his constituents, and in many ways it’s as rewarding as being a cabinet minister (lucky for him).

So did he expect to be promoted in the reshuffle? No. Was he disappointed that he wasn’t? No. Another couple of questions in the same vein are met with the response: “That is not a matter for me but for the Prime Minister.” I half expect his to start inspecting his fingernails in studied boredom.

I had been keeping my next question for a more opportune moment, but anything which injects something into the proceedings as this point is welcome. I go for the jugular.

“Given that you ran for the NEC but you didn’t make it …”

“I was runner-up, though”

“While people like Ken Livingstone and Mark Seddon – left-wingers with a media profile not as high as yourself – did get elected. What do you think that says about Labour party membership?”

“What it says about Labour party membership is that you have to run for the NEC a few times before you get elected and they had and the voting membership in London is about the size of the rest of the country put together. If you’re a Londoner, which Ken Livingstone is and Mark Seddon is to all intents and purpose, then you begin with a head start.

Now, something about this strikes me as a little, well, false. For a start, what is Mandelson if not a Londoner to all intent and purpose? He was born there and has lived there for most of his life. Additionally, it is plainly not just Londoners who get elected to the NEC

It should be remembered that while he has undoubtedly achieved a lot over the years Mandelson has also had several noted failures. As Director of Communications he took Labour to two General Election defeats.

In 1997 Labour gained one per cent per cent more of the vote than the Tories did in 1992 – Mandelson did not win Labour the election, as is commonly said, the Tories did. On top of the NEC failure there’s the Millennium Dome fiasco and then the loan story.

“The fact is that I was the runner-up”, he repeats, perhaps a little plaintively. Runner-up eh?

To someone who didn’t know better it might suggest that Labour party membership does not favour the type of policies espoused by Mandelson, or indeed the man himself. The rebuke they delivered to Mandelson may have hurt the man as much as it delighted bearded lefties up and down the country.

I go for my star question.

“I’ve got a quote here which is attributed to you: ‘Labour is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.’ Given that unemployment in Hartlepool is 13%…”

I don’t get any further.

“Where did you find that quote?”

Oh dear. “I read it in Red Pepper.”

Red Pepper is a left-wing magazine that is a little off-message. People like Noam Chomsky, Mike Mansfield QC and John Pilger write for it.

“Next Question.” I don’t say anything.

“I’m not going to comment on a quote just flung out by a hard-left magazine with a mighty great axe to grind like Red Pepper.”

“You didn’t say that then?”

“No. Next question.”

Now, I’m not going to let this slip as easily as I did at the time – he only denied it when I pushed him. Red Pepper would be liable for litigation if they couldn’t back that quote up – not something a small, independent magazine would risk. In fact, the writer assures me the quote came from a piece in The Guardian (24 December 1998).

Assuming that Mandelson did say that, it would be highly insensitive of an MP to come out with that when he represents a depressed post-industrial town. However it is a phrase that seems to say a lot about his political philosophy. His White Paper, while at the DTI, was ‘the most business-friendly document any Labour government has ever produced,’ he said in the Daily Telegraph. ‘Labour has dumped its interventionist past.’ Perhaps they are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich too.

“What do you think Labour has achieved in office?” This was meant to lead into another question, but he’s off.

Investment in schools, healthy, child benefit, minimum wage and so on. It seems a little rude to interrupt him when he’s eulogising so beautifully. But I do anyway.

“But some would say that waiting lists aren’t dropping as quickly as they are supposed to have by now …”

“No..but then that’s hardly surprising following 18 years of mismanagement of the NHS.”

Exasperated I change tack, I ask about the Mandelson/media relationship. They seem to me to have a very pronounced fascination with each other to me: I’ve read articles about Mandelson’s homosexuality, anti-semitism concerning his Jewish heritage, his aesthetic sensibilities (or lack of), his naivety over the whole ‘home-loan’ saga, his bedazzlement with the rich and famous, his friendship with several noted media whores. The media are completely entranced by him. And Mandelson’s downfall was met with the sound of a thousand copy-fillers cracking their fingers in delighted anticipation.

“Did you feel that you were hounded out of office by the media?”

“No”. Another blank look.

“I stand up for what I believe in, and that’s what politicians should do. I stand up for the party, against our detractors and those who would do us harm. Of course that’s brought me on to a collision course with some in the media, but they’ve got one political aim in mind and that’s to stop the Labour government being elected.”

“Why do you think the media are so fascinated with you?”

“I have no idea. I’m not interested. What I’m interested in is what I can do to help the Labour government.”

One last attempt …

“Where do you see yourself in a year’s time?”

“I see myself as MP for Hartlepool.”

“Not as a Cabinet Minister?”

“No. I don’t see myself in that sense at all. That is a matter for the Prime Minister.”

Foiled again. Time for one last question.

“There’s a rather entertaining story in Hartlepool about you. Apparently when you were out canvassing you went into a fish and chip shop…”

“It’s a myth.” He cuts in. It’s meant to end the interview on a light and amiable note. It fails, spectacularly badly.

“Can I take some photos?”

“No.”

“Well, thanks for talking to me. Good luck for the future.”

Mandelson fixes me with a peculiar look.

“Yep. See ya.” It was the way he said it, maybe you had to be there.

I’d put money on Mandelson being a Minister again by the end of the year. He’s too important to Blair and The Project to be cast aside to live out the rest of his political career in Hartlepool – something he hasn’t considered for a second, I’m sure.

The man inspires such polarity of emotions because he embodies so perfectly the rebirth of the Labour party. About the same time as Labour abandoned the Red Flag he shaved his ‘tache off – how symbolic can you get? Blair is the figurehead of new Labour but it would never have got off the ground without the man Mandy.

That testament to the gloss of New Labour – the Millenium Dome – is his brainchild, his tenure at the DTI represents everything New Labour thinks about business – it must be appeased. He is New Labour.

His downfall was a result of his desire to live like so many of his friends do – he hobnobs with the rich and famous, but he is only one half of the equation himself – too famous and not rich enough by half to mix it with the Big Boys, maybe that’s an apt analogy for New Labour too.

A lot of people hate Peter Mandelson. A lot of people like him a lot – luckily the Prime Minister is one of them.

“Labour will only come of age when it learns to love Peters” says Tony Blair. I’ve no idea what that means and I’m not sure that Tony Blair does. I’d ask the man himself but even if he knew I’m sure he wouldn’t tell me. After all, that would be a matter for the Prime Minister …

• Mandelson image by World Economic Forum via Creative Commons

Written by Robin Brown

October 12th, 2009 at 6:52 pm