Statement from victims of Titus Trust and John Smyth QC

Standard

Statement from victims of the Titus Trust and John Smyth QC

4th April 2020

We call for the Titus Trust to cease its activities immediately, and to disband

Yesterday the Titus Trust issued a statement following the settlement of three civil claims in respect of abuse by John Smyth QC. The statement comes no less than eight years after a victim of Smyth bravely came forward to inform the trust of the appalling legacy of abuse upon which their organisation is built. It is an astonishing 38 years since the leaders of the Iwerne network were first made aware of the criminal nature of this horrific abuse.

When the abuse came to light, the trustees of the Titus Trust, who now run the Iwerne network, did everything they could to protect their own interests. They did not offer care and support to the victims. They refused to cooperate with an independent inquiry. If the Titus Trust had been open and transparent with what they knew years ago, John Smyth could have been brought to justice. Instead they repeatedly blanked the victims, refusing to speak with us and denying any responsibility. Perhaps we should not have expected them to act with care or candour, since some of most senior members of the network had been complicit in concealing the abuse for 38 years.

In the face of this intransigence we felt compelled to take action against the Titus Trust, so that they would be forced to confront their responsibilities. Even so, the trust has spent eye-watering sums of money fighting our claims – many times the amount they have offered us in settlement.  We are pleased that they have finally issued a limited apology for their recent behaviour, but we note that none of those responsible has resigned. They have not acknowledged the historic cover-up. There is no evidence that the culture of moral superiority, exclusivity and secrecy that has pervaded the network for decades has changed in any way.

Those of us who suffered as victims of John Smyth through our contacts with the Iwerne network simply want to uncover the truth. We want an accurate narrative of the abuse and its cover-up, not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of scores of victims of Smyth in Africa, and for the sake of those young people who even today come under the toxic influence of this network. John Smyth is only one of several abusers known to us who have been closely associated with the Iwerne camps network over many years. Events of recent years lead us to believe that there are still some within the Titus network who value their own reputations more than they care about the children they work with. Shockingly, some of those are ordained clergy in the Church of England. Such attitudes should have no place in any organisation working with children.
The Titus Trust has consistently said that they were not prepared to take part in the Church of England’s Makin Review into John Smyth whilst litigation was outstanding. Now that this settlement has been reached, that excuse is gone, and we urge the trustees and all those involved in the Iwerne network to cooperate fully with the Makin Review, and the other reviews being held into abuse by John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher.
A culture that has resisted reform in the face of overwhelming evidence of damage over many years is beyond reform. It is our wholehearted belief that in the light of these events the Titus Trust and its work should cease immediately.

To those within and beyond the Titus/Iwerne network who have come to understand that they too are victims of abuse, we urge you to take courage and seek help outside the network.

Issued on behalf of victims of the Titus Trust and John Smyth QC

For more information, contact
Andrew Graystone
07772 710090
andrew.graystone1btinternet.com

STATEMENT FROM VICTIMS OF THE LATE JOHN SMYTH QC AND THE TITUS TRUST

Standard

The following statement is hosted on behalf of four victims of the late John Smyth and the Titus Trust

We are amongst the scores of victims viciously beaten by the late John Smyth QC whilst he was Chair of The Iwerne Trust.

We are appalled by the statement issued on Monday 13th August by the Titus Trust, which now runs the Iwerne network.

The statement says that the Titus Trust has “done all that [it] can to ensure the matter is properly investigated by the relevant authorities.” This is untrue.

The statement further says that the board of the Titus Trust was only informed of the allegations against John Smyth in 2014. This is also untrue.

The Revd The Hon David Fletcher was employed as the senior officer of the Iwerne Trust from 1967 until 1986, when he became a trustee. He served in that capacity continuously until August 2016, only resigning his post when the Iwerne Trust was closed in a bid to distance it from its successor. Revd Fletcher was also a trustee of the Titus Trust from its foundation in 1997 until the same date.

It is a matter of record that Revd Fletcher and numerous leaders of his movement have been fully aware of Smyth’s abuse for 36 years. Revd Fletcher commissioned a comprehensive report of Smyth’s abuses in the UK in March 1982. From 1993 he was in possession of a further report of Smyth’s abuse in Zimbabwe. These reports, which were stored in the loft of the Chair of the Titus Trust Giles Rawlinson, were not made available to any secular authorities until 2017, when they were requisitioned by Hampshire Police under warrant.

An earlier statement from the Titus Trust website says that Smyth’s abuse took place between 1978 and 1981. They know this to be untrue. Smyth’s abuse in the UK started in 1975 and continued until 1982 and probably until 1984. Rev Fletcher and other Iwerne Trustees then facilitated Smyth’s move to Africa, where he abused at least 60 children between 1985 and 2017.

The Titus Trust, under the leadership of Fletcher and Rawlinson, took over the Iwerne network in its entirety in 1997. Titus has continued to run holidays under the Iwerne brand until as recently as last week. To suggest that the two are completely separate is simply deceitful.

Since Smyth’s horrific abuses were publicly exposed in February 2017, the Titus Trust has flatly refused to engage with his victims, or even to enquire after our well-being, let alone to offer any form of support or redress. Their protestation of sympathy is cynical and disingenuous.

Had the Titus Trust acted on the information that was available to it since its foundation, Smyth’s abuse could have been stopped long ago. Our hearts go out to the 60 or more children of Zimbabwe and South Africa who suffered at the hands of John Smyth as we did, but needlessly.

We have no interest in the “thoughts and prayers” of the Titus Trust. We do not believe they are fit to work with children.

 

/ENDS

Issued on Monday 13th August 2018 by Andrew Graystone on behalf of four victims of John Smyth QC and the Titus Trust.

For further information contact Andrew Graystone on 07772 710090 or andrew.graystone1@btinternet.com

After the Manchester bomb

Standard

This was my Thought for the Day for BBC Radio 4, broadcast just a few hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena.

 

Good morning. Thousands of excited young people gathered last night for a concert in the Manchester Arena, just a couple of miles from where I am now. For some, their tickets were a birthday or Christmas present. For others, perhaps a quick break in their revision schedule.   Many of those young people saw and heard things they will never forget. For them, and for countless friends and family members of those who were killed or injured, the course of their lives has changed forever.

An event like this tears through the ordered fabric of our lives. We can find ourselves overwhelmed by anger, fear or deep sadness at the fallenness of our world, and the sinfulness of human hearts. If, as police are currently assuming, it was some sort of terror attack, then that was the precise intention. Random violence can’t win any followers – but it has the power to destabilise us, even those of us who aren’t affected directly. It can stoke the flames of fear or alienation.

But that response is not inevitable. Through the night there have been a steady stream of reports of Mancunians and others finding practical ways to create a different current. In this multi-cultural city, Mancunians have used social media to offer rooms to strangers stranded in the city; taxi drivers have refused to take fares; hotels and coffee shops have offered safe spaces; people are donating blood. A powerful alternative message of solidarity and hope is challenging the message of hatred and fear.

Manchester has form in this. It’s a city with a long history of resilience and recovery, of strong, creative and open-hearted community. In Corporation Street, just a couple of hundred yards from where last night’s explosion occurred, there is a red pillar-box. It was at the epicentre of the devastating bomb blast in the city in June 1996. But the pillar-box remained undamaged, and it still stands as a defiant symbol of the city’s endurance.

As the dawn breaks over Manchester, we join our hearts with all those who are grieving; those who are injured; and those who are fearful or traumatised.

In Manchester this morning and across the country people of all faiths and none will choose how we respond. For the vast majority that will mean facing down the narrative of hatred with a stronger narrative of compassion and community. We don’t deny that the world is broken, and our hearts break for those who have lost children and friends, brothers and sisters. And yet in our hopes and our prayers and a thousand acts of defiant kindness we choose again, through gritted teeth, to live against the grain of terror, so that hatred will give way to understanding, fear be replaced by love, and despair be overwhelmed by hope.

STATEMENT FROM VICTIMS

Standard

0815   Saturday 30th September 2017

From six victims of abuse in a church context

Speaking from our own bitter experience we do not recognise Archbishop Welby’s description of the “integrity” with which the Church of England handles cases of abuse in a church context.   Far from the “rigorous response and self-examination” he claims, our experience of the church, and specifically the Archbishop, is of long years of silence, denial and evasion. The Church of England needs to confront its own darkness in relation to abuse before confronting the darkness of others.

For further information or to arrange interviews contact Revd Dr Mark Stibbe on stibbeauthor@gmail.com or 07891 540201.

Notes

This statement is a response to comments about the Church of England’s handling of abuse made by the Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury on Radio 4’s Today on Saturday 30th September 2017.  The signatories of this statement are victims of abuse by Bishop Peter Ball, Bishop Michael Fisher, John Smyth and Revd Garth Moore.

Victims of abuse within a church context will be gathering for a peaceful protest outside Canterbury Cathedral at 0900 on Friday 6th October 2017. The protest coincides with the gathering of Anglican Archbishops from around the world.

The Sound of Silence

Standard

The central heating boiler in our house pops on in the morning and makes a low, continuous hum as it warms the house. It’s always there, providing a layer of sound on which every other sense sits.

We live close to a main road, and on a rainy day there is a constant swoosh of tyres displacing water, adding another layer of sound.

We are radio lovers – and it’s a rare moment when you can’t hear the mutter of indistinct speech from some corner of the house – a third layer of ambient sound blending with the others.

But I can remember times, too warm for heating, dry enough to silence the traffic, when I was alone in the house with no radio on. Then there was nothing but nothing; an empty silence in which the mind can rest.

I can remember those times, but I can no longer visit them. Last year I was diagnosed with a tumour affecting the balance centre of my left ear. It gives me no symptoms at the moment, except that it presses on the nerves that control my hearing. As a result I have a constant noise in my head, akin to the boiler plus the traffic plus the distant radio. It’s not loud, but it’s always there. Bach’s piano sonatas are now accompanied by a low drone like a distant hoover. Every word I write, I write onto paper that already has a covering of random marks. Even my silent prayers are accompanied by a humming chorus.

It’s strange to think that the signals that create this noise don’t relate to anything in the real world outside my head. I’m not hearing anything except the interference on the line between ear and brain. This is a noise that has no value. It isn’t useful. It doesn’t offer information or remind me of danger or reassure me that someone is present. I can’t share it with you. It is the noise of my own soul.

There are only two ways this noise will stop. I could treat my tumour with surgery. The likelihood is that if and when I do this, the sounds will end, and so will my hearing. I have the choice of constant background noise or perpetual silence. For today I choose noise.

The other way it will end is with my death. One day my whole body will fall silent as I begin to explore new layers of sense that none of us can yet imagine. For today I choose life.

I no longer have the option to choose silence – to stand in a field of virgin snow listening to nothing, or lie very still and hold my breath and experiment with the absence of sound. So instead I choose to live in a world of noise. I notice the sound of the passing cars and their drivers, the raindrops falling on the window ledge, the reassuring radio and the hum of my computer. And I notice moment by moment the sounds of my own flawed internal circuitry, reminding me that I am alive again today – reminding me to choose life.

St Cuthbert writes to St Herbert

Standard

St Cuthbert writes to St Herbert
A poem for St Cuthbert’s Day 2015

The 7th Century Saint Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the bleak Farne Islands off the North Sea coast of Northumbria. Each year he walked a hundred miles to visit his friend and fellow-hermit Herbert, who lived on a tree-lined island in Derwent Water.

 I envy you your trees
and Skiddaw’s hills;
and the fresh waters of Derwent
from which we drew and drank together,
quaffing like a pair of drunken monks
and laughing at its intoxicating purity.

The water that surrounds me burns my soul.
It cracks the skin
and makes the taker thirsty.
It can never satisfy.

How easy it would be to slake my soul
in the company of the cloister;
with awed oblates eyeing the old Saint at his prayers;
prayers that work miracles, so they say.

But I will build around me walls
higher than the fells of Skiddaw
to shield me from the droning of the monks;
Nor will I feed upon the souls of men
or leech the life from those I teach and heal.

My roofless cell will be my window onto God.
Such blessings as He wills to rain on me
He must pour in through that small opening,
or leave me yet to parch upon the Farne.

KILLING THE MESSENGER

Stephane Charbonnier - Editor of Charlie Hebdo
Standard

We’re all poorer for the loss of Charlie Hebdo

Being a journalist is a dangerous job. Last year at least 61 journalists were killed in the course of their work. Almost half of those were murdered, and the rest died because they were working in situations that were intrinsically dangerous. Journalists also risk being locked up by their political enemies. Peter Greste and his four colleagues from Al-Jazeera have been imprisoned on spurious charges by the Egyptian government for more than 12 months.

Usually these things happen elsewhere. Most of the journalists who died last year were Arabs working in volatile countries like Palestine, Iraq and Ukraine. But the shocking murder of 10 journalists and cartoonists at the magazine Charlie Hebdo brings the risks of journalism into sharp focus for those who work in the relative security of newspaper offices in London and around the UK. Never was an attack on free speech so literal. France is currently the second most dangerous country in which to be a journalist, after Syria.

jesuischarlieIt’s not surprising that journalists make enemies. The job of a journalist is to find what’s going on and tell the rest of us, preferably in an entertaining way. Often that involves exposing hypocrisy, pricking pomposity or revealing what others want to leave concealed, so those journalists who don’t make enemies are probably not doing their job right. What is a journalist after all, but someone who tells us the truth that someone else doesn’t want us to hear? In that way journalists exercise a vital function on our behalf. Given that journalists write the news it’s ironic that they get such a bad press. In the annual MORI ranking of public trust in various professions, journalists consistently vie with politicians for last place. Of course there are corrupt journalists, just as there are corrupt teachers, clergy and lawyers. But at best, journalists are civil servants who undertake investigations on our behalf using the tools of curiosity, objectivity and scepticism.

Satire of the kind that is plied by Charlie Hebdo is a particular kind of journalism. If the role of journalists is to speak truth to powerful people, the job of the satirist is to tickle them under the armpits until they look silly. Satirists hold a mirror up to power, using the tools of ridicule and mockery to say “…or maybe not.” Satire has a serious purpose. The UK has a long tradition of satirical journalism in print and broadcast, though much of what we call satire today – the BBC programme Mock the Week, for instance – is really just cynicism. Cynicism is an expression of hopelessness, but satire comes from a refusal to accept the status quo. Cartoons have always been an effective weapon in the satirist’s armoury, because a picture, like a parable, can disturb, amuse and offend in equal measure. We laugh at a joke – and whilst our guard is down, we realise that the joke is on us. And that’s why satirists make enemies.

Of course the enemies in the case of the outrageous murder of Charlie Hebdo staff seem to have been motivated by their religion, and in particular by their anger at the magazine’s constantly irreverent mockery of the Prophet Mohammed. I’m not a Muslim, but I know how painful it feels when a cartoonist pours scorn on the symbols of my faith, or a journalist exposes corruption in the leadership of the church. There’s always a temptation to turn the attack on the messenger, but that’s a profoundly unwise thing to do.

A typical Charlie Hebdo cover shows a jew and a muslim shouting "You musn't make fun."

A typical Charlie Hebdo cover shows a jew and a muslim shouting “You musn’t make fun.”

Christians, like bananas, have a tendency to bruise easily. We need to toughen up. We need robust satire as much if not more than others do, because we are particularly prone to hypocrisy and pomposity, and we need help to recognise it. We share with the best secular journalists a commitment to investigating and living out the truth, whether or not we find it comfortable. We need to cherish the journalists (and preachers and pastors) who tell us what we don’t want to hear, and be very wary of those who tell us what we do want to here. If you haven’t been offended by something you’ve read recently, you’re probably reading the wrong stuff.

Some might ask whether religious belief should have a free pass from journalists purely on the grounds that it is so passionately held and so fundamental to human identity. Why, when they had been repeatedly threatened and asked to desist, did the publishers of Charlie Hebdo continue to publish cartoons that were so deliberately offensive to some Muslims? But to blame the victims in that way is a bit like suggesting that a victim of rape was “asking for it” because they wore provocative clothing or went to a place where they knew they were in danger. If we allow the possibility that there are some areas that are off-limits to journalists, some cartoons that should never be drawn, some jokes that should never be told or some movies that should never be released, then we will be the victims of our own fragility. Journalists and satirists like those who died in the offices of Charlie Hebdo are the flawed but courageous prophets of our age, and the loss of them diminishes us all.

 

This article first appeared in Christian Today and is reproduced with permission.

Your card has been refused

Standard

Iain Duncan SmithAt the Conservative Party Conference, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith announced that the government is to introduce pre-paid benefit cards. The idea is that those who currently have their benefits paid into a bank account should instead be issued with a plastic card pre-loaded with an amount of money to spend on essential items. The Minister said that the cards would help those “on the margins break the cycle of poverty” by stopping claimants spending their money on alcohol, drugs or gambling habits.

The system has already been piloted, so we can predict what effects it will have. The cards are known as Azure Cards. The government issues them to people who have been refused asylum in the UK, but for whatever reason can’t go back to their country of origin – like my friend Jamyang.

Jamyang was born in Tibet, and that’s where she would like to live. She would desperately like to see her husband and especially her young children, who she hasn’t seen for six years. But she can’t. She fled Tibet when her life was threatened, for reasons that I won’t go into here, but that would make you weep if I did. She’s currently living in Manchester. Jamyang is the only sanctuary-seeker I know who finds Manchester a bit warm for her taste!

Jamyang asked for asylum in the UK, but she was refused. The government believes that she ought to go home to Tibet. At the same time, it knows that she can’t do that, because she doesn’t have a passport and the Chinese government won’t issue one. So, until something changes, she is stuck in Manchester. She’s not breaking the law by being here, but nor does she have a right to remain here. There’s simply nothing else she can do. People who find themselves in this situation are sometimes called “ghosts.”

Fortunately, if you find yourself in this situation the Borders Agency provides you with a minimal level of support. Jamyang has the use of a room in a house with several other asylum seekers. Invariably the houses allocated to ghosts are those that couldn’t be let to paying tenants. Jamyang’s house is in a shocking condition, and it is located on a council estate several miles outside Manchester, where the other residents are less than welcoming to their international neighbours.

Azure CardThe Borders Agency also provides Jamyang with an Azure Card. This card is automatically topped-up with £35.39 every Monday. It only works in a very limited range of shops, and you can only use it to buy food, essential toiletries, clothes and credit for a mobile phone. But it’s a good test for Iain Duncan Smith’s new benefits card. We already know it is impractical, demeaning and draconian.

For a start, you can only use the card in a small (and decreasing) number of shops. They work in the bigger branches of Asda and Tesco, but not the local ones. If you live a long way from a shop that takes the card, tough. You will have to walk there and back with your shopping. If you have young children the journey may be next to impossible.

Of course you might want to get a bus. Transport is vital for benefit claimants, not just to get to the shops they are allowed to use, but also to get access to training or to job interviews. But you can’t buy a bus pass with an Azure Card.

When you turn up at a shop with an Azure Card the reception you get will vary. Some shop assistants are helpful, but many others don’t recognise the card and some are downright rude. Your card announces to the checkout queue that you are a failed asylum seeker. Cards also have a history of failing to register at the till, which is not just embarrassing but disastrous if you have no other means of buying food.

Asda It’s hard to shop with a card when you have a fixed amount to spend. Asylum seekers, many of whom are working in a second or third language, have to go round the store adding up the price of their shopping to try to get as close as possible to £35.39 without going over the limit. If your bill comes to more than you have left on the card it is simply rejected. It doesn’t tell you how much you have on the card, or by how much you have overspent. It just won’t work. The same happens if you have accidentally picked up an item that isn’t on the government’s approved list – a battery, say, or a birthday card, or a pack of Asprin – all banned. Again, there’s no indication of what you’ve got wrong. The card is just rejected. Imagine how it feels to resolve that with an unsympathetic checkout attendant, a hungry child and a long queue behind you.

It is true that benefits cards can’t be used for gambling, or to buy cigarettes or alcohol. But those aren’t the only things you can’t buy. For instance, you can’t get a haircut with an Azure Card. You can’t buy fresh fruit and veg from a market stall. You can’t use an Azure card in a launderette. You can’t buy a child an ice cream or pay for their school trip. You can’t use the card to pay for gas or electricity. You can’t use the card to buy second-hand clothes in most charity shops. You can’t use it in a pay-phone.  You can’t give to charity with a card, or help a friend or family member who is short of money – which is an essential feature of the economy of the poorest areas of Britain. The card is re-set every Monday, with a maximum of £5 held over from the previous week. If you haven’t spent the money for whatever reason you lose it. So there’s no possibility of saving for Christmas, or for a warm coat. There are lots of things you can’t buy with a benefit card, and they tend to be the things that offer a person dignity, a place in the community and a route out of poverty.

Perhaps the greatest indignity is that the government is able to limit what users can buy with their cards, and also to record what, when and where they buy it. Of course this is information that anyone with a loyalty card already gives to the supermarkets. But to make that information available to the government is a significant and worrying step. In future, someone in Whitehall will be able to determine that you bought sanitary products, or fresh bread or baked beans. At future Party Conferences I have no doubt that ministers will announce gleefully that they benefits claimants have had the temerity to buy this or that product at the public’s expense.

It comes as no surprise that the government has contracted out the management of the system. The Azure card is administered by the French company Sodexo, a highly successful company with worldwide interests and an annual revenue north of £1 billion. In the UK Sodexo provides a range of services to the government, from private prisons to catering at government offices. The scheme is run in conjunction with a small number of retailers, who take a percentage of the value of the cards in exchange for the guarantee of custom. So in effect, the government is getting a discount on its benefits bill, as it distributes its favours to those major retailers who agree to cooperate.

Whether it comes in cash or on a card, to some people, the government’s support for Jamyang might seem very generous. She certainly thinks so, and she is genuinely grateful for what she gets. After all, she doesn’t contribute much to the UK economy. She would like to earn money, but is not allowed to work and doesn’t want to sell sex. The idea that if she were given cash she would spend it on cigarettes, alcohol or gambling is simply ridiculous. She cheerfully volunteers all over the place, cooks and cleans for friends without charge and is studying to improve her English. Jamyang is irrepressibly smiley in the face of the greatest insecurity and indignity that I can imagine – the loss of her home, her family and her future. We know this because every week we drive her to the supermarket and do our weekly shop with her. Jamyang pays for it with her Azure card, and we give her the equivalent in cash to spend or save as she wishes. We owe her nothing less.

The extension of pre-paid cards to everyone who claims benefits is about far more than just stopping people from buying cigarettes or alcohol. It is a conscious move to control the behaviour of welfare claimants, to shame and degrade them, presumably in the hope that if receiving state support can be made sufficiently awful, people will prefer to work. In fact, the reverse is true. If you degrade and dehumanise people sufficiently, you don’t incentivise them to work. You’re more likely to undermine them so much that they are unable to function effectively at all.

A petition to oppose the introduction of benefit cards has been started at https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/re-think-pre-paid-benefit-cards?bucket=blast

The Right Thing To Do

Standard

cameron_3045440b-460x288With the party conference season now in full swing it won’t be long before politicians start telling us that some item of policy is “the right thing to do.” It’s become a mantra. Three days ago, in his post-referendum speech in Downing Street the Prime Minister used the phrase five times in six minutes. In recent months he has used it in relation to cutting taxes, culling badgers, opposing the new Head of the EU Commission, holding a yes/no referendum in Scotland, allowing gay men and lesbians to marry, and much else. All of them were “the right thing to do.” When the Culture Secretary Maria Miller resigned in disgrace David Cameron said she had “done the right thing.” It was almost as if she deserved applause for throwing in the towel when she’d been caught, rather than opprobrium for fiddling her expenses in the first place.

Let’s give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt, and assume that “the right thing” is not just a vocal tic but a deliberate choice of words. If so it’s a clever turn of phrase. Sheer repetition has an almost hypnotic effect. After all, we all want to do the right thing. We like a leader who can look confident whilst telling us that he’s doing the right thing. And of course it suggests that to do anything else (such as the thing your political opponents are proposing) would be the wrong thing to do.

The trouble is that by itself, the phrase “the right thing to do” is totally meaningless. It’s an ethical statement without any basis. It begs the question “why is that the right thing to do?” Unless you are claiming that moral authority stems from you personally, and that your saying something is right actually makes it so, (which would be arrogance of an extraordinary degree,) then you need to provide some kind of ethical reasoning that says why the course of action you are proposing is better than the one someone else has suggested. In other words, the only honest statement from a politician, or a Christian leader or for that matter, is “I believe this is the right thing to do, because…”

It’s the “because” that matters, and that creates the huge vacuum in our current political life. We desperately need to know what values and beliefs lie behind the decisions our leaders make and the policies they recommend. In order to decide whether to slash benefits or cut taxes we need to discuss whether we feel people are best motivated by hunger or ambition. We need to think about the changing significance of statehood if we are to think straight about immigration policy or our membership of the EU. To decide our stance on military action abroad, we need to debate whether conflict is best solved by warfare or by peace-making. These are questions of theology and ethics, and they may feel a bit abstract in the hurly-burly of a TV interview or a party conference speech. But without these fundamental values in place, decisions about what it’s right or wrong to do are completely arbitrary.

At best, the party conference season allows political thinkers to meet and reflect on their values. If you’ve been to a party conference you’ll know that the best work doesn’t happen in the televised and stage-managed debates in the conference hall. The really interesting stuff goes on in the conference fringe. From early morning until late at night, interest groups run seminars to discuss details of policy in areas where they have real expertise. These meetings take place in hotel rooms, church halls and bars in and around the conference venue. If you’re interested in animal welfare or asylum seekers, housing or drugs policy, the chances are you will be able to sit down with the minister responsible (or the shadow minister who wants to be responsible) and have a sensible discussion about how lived experience can be combined with religious or secular convictions to create effective policy. The quality of the conversation is often high, and there’s almost always a free bar.

If the Scottish referendum made anything clear, it’s that there is widespread disillusionment with the conduct of Westminster politics. Many of us seem to feel that politicians will do or say anything to gain and retain power. And the way they do that is largely to do with presentation rather than philosophy. Over the months between now and the General Election we are likely to see an unholy scramble as all the major parties vie to present themselves as the toughest. They way to look toughest, they all seem to believe, is to make life as difficult as possible for the most vulnerable people in society, such as those who depend on others for financial support, and those who have come to the UK seeking refuge. It’s a process of “othering.” First you identify a group of people who are not like you and me. Then you persuade the electorate that these people are to be feared. Then you reassure voters that you have a plan to control or destroy them. And of course that would be “the right thing to do.”

To reverse the popular cynicism about politics we don’t need louder, more confident politicians but quieter, more reflective ones. We need politicians who are closer to the people they serve, and who create opportunities to listen as well speak. We need to reassure our politicians that humility is not a sign of weakness. It’s worth noting that Christians don’t always model this kind of humble, values-driven decision-making. It’s no good just to bang on about what we believe, as if we know what’s right, and saying it loud enough and often enough will convince people. We also need to be open to discussion about why we believe what we believe. The preconditions for that are a willingness to listen to others, and an openness to entertain the possibility that I might be wrong.

 

VIDEO ON DEMAND

Standard

What does HOUSE OF CARDS tell us about the future of TV?

“You know what I like about people? They stack so well.” So says Democratic chief whip Francis Underwood, the anti-hero of political thriller House of Cards. You haven’t seen it? Oh, sorry, I thought everybody…

House of CardsIf House of Cards has passed you by, it may be because it hasn’t (yet) been broadcast on UK TV. The series centres on the ruthless Democratic majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his equally power-hungry wife Claire (Robin Wright). It is based on a 1990 BBC TV series, which in turn drew on the earlier novel by Michael Dobbs. It was the book that gave us the political weasel words “You might say that – I couldn’t possibly comment.” Like so many political thrillers it explores the degree to which the hunger for power corrupts. Villains don’t come much more venal than Spacey’s Underwood, whose lust for office determines his every menacing move, till the pair of them are in blood stepped in so far that we can’t resist watching just one more episode to see just what depths their well of evil can plumb. Although he explains his Machiavellian philosophy in slightly unnecessary asides to the viewer, there’s never any account of what Underwood wants to do with the power once he’s got it. Could this be a commentary on contemporary politics? You might say that…

At the start of every episode of my DVD box set of House of Cards there is a promotional message: “by purchasing this DVD you have helped to support the UK film and TV industry. Thank you!” It could hardly be further from the truth. House of Cards wasn’t made in the UK, and it wasn’t commissioned for broadcast or cinema release. Now into production on its third season, this latest iteration was the first major drama produced for the internet and available by subscription only. It was released (broadcast? transmitted? uploaded?) in February 2013 by the subscription-based streaming service Netflix and has become the first drama made for internet consumption to win major TV awards including a Golden Globe and an Emmy. So it has broken new ground, not in content perhaps, but in “platform

House of Cards represents a seismic shift in television production and consumption. For a start, the entire series was released on the same day to satisfy the 23% of UK consumers who say they commonly watch several episodes of a series back to back. (My name is Andrew and I am a binge-viewer. There…I’ve said it.) It marks the end of those water-cooler moments where colleagues discussed last night’s episode of a weekly TV drama. From now on TV’s role in social cohesion will be limited to the few events big enough to force their attention on all of us; Royal events, the Olympics, the final of The X Factor.

Even more significantly, House of Cards presages a Copernican revolution in the process of commissioning. Your TV set can’t tell a broadcaster what you like to watch – but your computer can. Netflix collects data on its viewers the way that Tesco collects information on its shoppers. In the past TV commissioners had only the broadest idea of who was watching their programmes – data collected from high street surveys and viewers’ letters. To this they added their own heightened intuition, and in the case of some broadcasters, their sense of public service. Netflix and their Video on Demand (VoD) rivals such as BT, Hulu and Amazon have changed all that. They will commission a series only after they have analysed the data and determined that their audience will like it. Collect enough information about your viewers and an algorithm will decide which actors to cast, how many episodes to make, and even how the story should end. For a commercial or subscription broadcaster this takes almost all of the risk out of the commissioning process. But perhaps it takes out the creativity too. From now on, no-one will commission a drama that might have only a limited appeal, or whose stars are not demonstrably bankable.

Dramatist Tony Jordan, who has written award-winning series including Life on Mars, Hustle and The Nativity, has warned of the impact of “data-led commissioning” on the creative sector. “My fear is that some networks will come to us as writers and say ‘we’ve done some research and would like a series about a man with six wives, 18 children’ and so forth. Before we know it we’re suddenly trying to fit that model.” Other writers, such as Peter Morgan (The Queen) and Stephen Daldry (Billy Eliot) are more sanguine, recognising that the online-only model can deliver high-end drama that traditional broadcasters can no longer afford. They rejected bids by BBC and ITV for Morgan’s next £100 million epic The Crown in favour of a bid from Netflix. And when BBC1 dropped its drama Ripper Street after two series, Amazon stepped in and commissioned a third season. Increasingly, broadcasters like ITV and Channel 4 are becoming co-producers with VoD providers. So C4’s Derek and BBC2’s The Fall were made with money from both sources.

netflix-logoIn a line worthy of Frank Underwood himself, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos says that “Netflix has pioneered audience choice in programming and has helped free customers from the limitations of linear television.” That’s another way of saying “we’ve saved viewers from the nuisance of deciding what they like to watch, by working it out for them in advance.” And note the word customers. Is that how you saw yourself as you sat down to watch TV last night? Of course we already make choices about whose news output we trust and what entertainment we prefer. But as the balance of power shifts towards the company that has the best data and the most sophisticated algorithms, it also shifts from TV as art to TV as consumer product.

The delivery of major work through internet-enabled televisions drives a coach and horses through the historic models by which we police the suitability of content. Programmes made for broadcast on licensed channels are regulated by Ofcom, but content made for the internet is not. The next TV set you buy will probably show broadcast and internet content side by side. As things stand some offerings will be subject to a regulatory process because they were made for broadcast by companies such as the BBC or Channel 4, but others won’t because they were commissioned for the internet by companies such as Netflix, Apple or Amazon. Regulators are quickly realising that their work no longer makes much sense.

Crowd-sourced commissioning represents a significant shift in power from the old creative institutions with their quaint notions of public service, to business as king. And what is happening in TV commissioning must surely read across to the other arts. The strange thing is that, like Frank Underwood, the corporations don’t really know what they want to do with all this power once they’ve got it. As yet they have no discernable social or artistic motive beyond profit. But you know what they like about audiences? They stack so well.

This article first appeared in Third Way magazine, and is reproduced with permission.