#EnoughIsEnough – Joining this weekend’s social media boycott

The sleevenotes for The Special A.K.A.’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, detailing the injustices of the imprisonment of ‘Accused No. 1’ and the other Rivonia trialists in apartheid South Africa, motivated this student to join the Anti-Apartheid Movement – the first activist organisation I ever joined. I kept my membership and, later, happily, once South Africa had changed its policies, was a founding member of ACTSA, the successor organisation to AAM.

Image from blog.snappingturtle.net (blog no longer updated)

The search for racial justice was evidently not confined to South Africa – The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and the riots in various cities which formed its coincidental backdrop had been three years earlier – and neither was South Africa the only country in which apartheid was practised. South Africa left apartheid behind ten years after ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (it too played a role) but apartheid, as a set of principles of the division of people based on their heritage, is still practised in several countries.

Likewise, the search for racial justice is an enduring one. In the sporting world, the actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 (not without a backlash, extending also to Peter Norman, the white Australian who finished second and whose story is also interesting) were given fresh impetus by the American Footballer Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to ‘take the knee’ before games is now routinely the case with football players doing so before matches in Europe (though not everywhere, either in the UK or in Europe) in support of Black Lives Matter. There is a concern that this action has come to represent routine tokenism, with little actual achievement of, or advancement in, rights; that people in general – and perhaps even some of those directly involved – no longer understand the whats and whys, or that this is a protest action, and have become impatient with it; and that its commonplace nature has obscured the principles at stake.

Protest needs to continue as long as the injustices which spark it are still in place and, while token gestures are to be avoided, and more and better action certainly needs to result within football to improve the representation of black players, ‘taking the knee’ can still result in some powerful images.

This weekend sees a boycott of social media supported by Kick It Out in protest at the abuse of players on social media and which frequently has a racist angle. It’s fair to say that the action is not everywhere supported, partly for the reasons of tokenism suggested above. Some – including Paul Canoville, an ex-player for Reading FC whose career was ended by a typically brutish Dave Swindlehurst ‘challenge’ after fewer than twenty, dazzling, games (I saw him play) and who, as Chelsea’s first black player in 1982, after the riots and before The Special A.K.A., directly experienced the hatred of 1980s terraces racism – have urged players instead to use their platforms to speak out against systemic racism.

It is of course possible both to join a short-term social media blackout and to speak out directly. While football has, at least in this country, made significant strides since the 1980s both on and off the terraces it is not doing enough to address the lack of opportunities for black players after their playing careers are over; while the turn to the far-right in the public discourse is likely to be followed on the terraces too (and, perhaps, not only at Millwall whose fans booed their players taking their knee in the home game v Derby, to the club’s ‘sadness’ and ‘dismay’ although the players stopped doing so a few games later). After all people – at matches in the UK; eastern Europe having its own problems in this regard – no longer throwing bananas at black players, or making monkey noises, represents only a limited degree of progress; and, as we have learned, hard-won progress is easily lost when it is taken for granted. Once fans are back in the grounds, there is a role here for fan-led action and, after the demonstrations of fan power which led to the ending of talk of the ‘European Super League’, that clearly encompasses the potential for boycotts, too.

In such times, statements are required and I’ll be joining the social media boycott from 3pm this afternoon, logging out and closing Twitter (I’m not part of Zuck’s money-making machine), in direct solidarity with Liam Moore, captain of Reading FC and the subject of a terrible social media post which led to him closing his Twitter account earlier this month.

It is impossible for social media companies to moderate every post and poll in advance, but it is also clear that ‘the community’ can only police the actions of the idiots so far – and even then only retrospectively, i.e. once the damage is done. It is also clear that social media organisations can do much more to wipe out the abuse. Their algorithms can block posts – as we know – on the basis of certain keywords, when they choose to do so; and they can do more to ascertain the identities of account holders such that subsequent action against those who abuse the platforms isn’t subject to guesswork and sleuthing. This is not an argument for ending public anonymity where people want, or need, it – but the social media organisations need to be able immediately to identify precisely who is responsible for a particular post where criminality is involved. Ascertaining identities as part of the process of setting up an account would stop people whose accounts have been blocked from simply opening another under a different name – multiple accounts are also a problem in themselves – and they would also stop the troll farms (ditto); while ending the current ease with which social media accounts can be set up would also, to some extent, be self-policing as regards how people conduct themselves online.

All of this, of course, might be thought to reduce accounts and traffic, and thus revenues – which might well account in some way for the tardiness of the social media organisations to do what is already within their powers. But a line has to be drawn and the vileness of much of our public discourse needs to be positively addressed. If not, the toxicity of much online behaviour is likely to lead to more people simply closing their accounts and walking away and that, in turn, will leave the social media organisations more in the hands of the serial abusers and, therefore, somewhat less attractive to advertisers and other funders. It is, therefore, ultimately in the interests of such organisations to end the abuse.

My hope is that the anticipated decline in collective social media traffic over this holiday weekend will do its bit to persuade the social media organisations to play their part better. To co-opt a phrase – when the fun stops: stop.

#EnoughIsEnough #AnInjuryToOneIsAnInjurytoAll

[EDIT: before I logged off, I noticed that the Football Supporters Association, which is also joining the boycott, had published a six-point programme for change regarding how social media companies could do more to stop online abuse. It’s pretty much in line with the above, being based on:

  • applying filters and blocking measures
  • better accountability for safety, including effective verification
  • ensure real-life consequences for perpetrators
  • a warning message to be displayed when an account holder writes an abusive message
  • robust, reliable and quick measures where abuse is posted
  • transparent quarterly reports to be published on work done to eradicate abuse.

In general, this is a worthwhile plan for action which social media companies need to take seriously.]

TotW: The Bamboos – Ride on Time

Black Box’s ‘Ride On Time’ was a game-changer when it came out in 1989. Sampling was already being done – M|A|R|R|S’s ‘Pump Up The Volume’ was a massive hit two years earlier, illustrating the power of cutting and splicing tracks against a beat, and the same sample which Black Box had used had featured on Samantha Fox’s ‘I Wanna Have Some Fun’, a track which somehow, curiously, passed me by at the time, one year previously. What we now know as electronic dance music was experiencing its first flourishing as house music coming out of the Chicago scene, led by Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk’s beat tracks and the DJ International label; and the second summer of love had just gone by. Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ was as early as 1982 and Public Enemy’s ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ was released in 1987 and hip-hop was a familiar face by the end of the decade.

There was, to coin a phrase, nothing that was particularly new about Black Box’s ‘Ride On Time’; the ground – if not that well-trodden – had at least been well-prepared.

What was different about it was firstly the technology – Black Box (a team of three Italian DJs and producers) had bought a sampler which allowed them to remix live in clubs, although it wasn’t capable of storing more than three vocal snippets at once; and secondly that they took an identifiable sequence of notes, literally a few seconds of vocal and the song’s essential hook, from a single, existing song and, cutting and re-cutting it repeatedly into different combinations, made a whole new song out of it, threading everything together with an insistent piano rhythm which marked their genre. In the process, they raised arguments about ownership, royalties and copyright which were not unfamiliar ones either when artists were sued for copyright infringements – or when, conversely, they elected not to do so – but which had rarely, if ever, previously aired quite as intensely or as controversially as this.

Thirdly, of course, they made something which not only came later to symbolise the euphoria of the time but something which was also, through its visceral physicality, quite firmly grounded. ‘Ride On Time’ was a remarkable song whose ground-breaking nature lay not in that it was new, but that it was possessed of enormous strength, a life force capable of splitting atoms and an astonishing vibrancy which was perfectly in tune with its time. Listening to it now is not only to be reminded of those times but to be reminded of the song’s sheer presence although very little of its essential spirit actually came from Black Box themselves.

The song which they used was originally a 1980 track by Dan Hartman called ‘Love Sensation’, written for disco singer Loleatta Holloway. The full story – quite well-known now, of course – is well set out by Terry Matthew in an article for Chicago house specialist magazine 5mag.net, setting the song against the background of Hartman’s life and career, building in also aspects of Holloway’s own, while Black Box have also given lengthy, and similar, interviews to DJ Mag and to NME coinciding with a 30th anniversary remix they gave the song in 2019, essentially taking it back to its 70s disco roots.

Essentially, ‘Love Sensation’ was one-half of a swap deal which saw Holloway contribute a brief, but barnstorming, vocal contribution to Hartman’s own ‘Relight My Fire’ (if you know the Take That version, think (evidently) Lulu’s contribution but multiply by ten) while Hartman wrote and produced ‘Love Sensation’ for an album that Holloway was working on. She later reported that Hartman made her sing ‘Love Sensation’ 29 times before the final take, wanting deliberately to run her vocal chords ragged to get that note of on-the-edge desperation to the delivery of her lines which is both the song’s hallmark as well as the physical power base which Black Box took. Ultimately, Holloway was apparently aided by coffee sweetened with Vick’s VaporRub. However, the song immediately fell to obscurity – by the time it came out, disco was in its death throes in the US and the industry was experiencing an unprecedented, unheralded and unwanted backlash – being ignored on the crossover pop charts and spending no more than one week at No. 1 even on the specialist dance charts.

If you don’t know ‘Love Sensation’ – or especially if you know it only through ‘Ride on Time’ or one of the more than 30 other tracks which have sampled it amidst the more than 300 samples which have been built on Holloway’s work – do check it out: divorced from the chopped repetition of the samples on ‘Ride On Time’, and sustained over the course of a whole song which has a start, a middle and an end, it is noticeable that Holloway’s performance on the song is varied, being blisteringly raw and possessed of quite extraordinary physical power and emotional intensity at some points as well as moments of soaring sweetness at others. Despite whatever else was going on in the music industry at the time, this deserved to be a huge hit.

Note, if you will, the relative play counts: 84k for ‘Love Sensation’ (there are actually several versions of the original floating around but nothing more than this, I don’t think); while the official Black Box video for ‘Ride On Time’ has some 17m.

Not expecting much to come out of their own work in putting their track together other than for local kids, Black Box didn’t seek any sort of clearances, but the song became a huge hit in the UK and right across Europe following UK DJs Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling travelling to Italy in search of Italo house music, a niche but growing sub-genre, for their gigs and shows, and landing heavily on it, buying up all available copies. The UK label to which Black Box eventually released the song once the level of demand had been realised late that summer had also told them they would secure clearance although a legal dispute between record companies meant this had not been fully resolved. The rest is history. While Dan Hartman’s observation on hearing ‘Ride On Time’ was the laconic ‘I think I wrote it’, followed by legal action, Holloway was deeply dismayed, traumatised and bitter, regarding that her work had been taken without credit and later confessing that it had brought her close to a nervous breakdown. Scared by the furore, Black Box quickly re-cut the track, it seems with future M People singer Heather Small, also originally uncredited, albeit with somewhat mixed results. A video hastily shot for the song featured an Italian model, who didn’t speak English, lip-synching to Holloway’s words which, unfamiliar a process as it was at the time, poured oil on the flames already consuming her: not only had they stolen her voice, they had traded her image in for a younger, skinnier version physically incapable of generating Holloway’s power.

Hartman’s legal action ended with him making a friendly and generous gesture of a one-third share of the royalties, when he could have had the lot; Holloway, however, never received a penny since her label, Salsoul, owned the rights to her studio work although publishing has, since those times, credited her on the song as ‘feat. Loleatta Holloway’ in a style that is now familiar. Given that ‘Ride On Time’ is stamped right through with her – her presence, her aura and her labour – she ought to have been properly recognised for it at the time (as she had been through samples done earlier by DJ International) and certainly she ought to have had a better share of the proceeds than the fur coat she is said to have been furnished with while being prevented from speaking badly about it in public. Black Box bought out those rights in 2018; Holloway had died in 2011. Sad on so many levels.

Now, however, nine-piece Melbourne funksters The Bamboos have bravely taken on the impossible by covering ‘Ride On Time’, mondegreen and all, as the ‘B’-side of their new single, arising out of some studio session work for their forthcoming LP (due out early next month). The tune had cropped up on some 90s music which the band was listening to while relaxing between takes. A suggestion and a nervous laugh later, and the musicians accepted the challenge. Just to be clear: what we have here is a band covering a track that was itself little more than a few seconds of snatched sample, but as a fully-fledged song in its own right. I’m sure m’lords back at Rough Trade were all over this and it’s well worth checking out as a track of the week:

For those keeping a watch on these things it’s notable that this is already not far short of 20k plays. Without much of a current presence on Bandcamp – though The Bamboos do have something out for Record Store Day this year – this is one you’ll need to pick up from your local record shop (happily now open again) – it’s out as a 7″ on Rough Trade (PT009) or direct via The Bamboos’ website store.

At a time when live music needs all the help it can get, it’s great to see a working band cover a song originally made in the studio out of pre-recorded clips. It’s also great to see The Bamboos already out on the road in Australia; it’s a hopeful sign that these times might, one day, come our way again, too.

It’s not so much a cover as a necessary reinterpretation of Black Box’s original confection. Wisely, The Bamboos use the crisp brassiness of the horn section to do the heavy lifting on some of the more blistering elements of how Black Box’s sampling and sequencing made Holloway’s voice appear, while band vocalist Kylie Auldist, capable of mixing it with anyone among her contemporaries for vocal power (check out also her work on ‘Hard Up’, the A-side) but who also knows when to exercise restraint, sensibly chooses not to try and out-Loleatta Loleatta Holloway while nevertheless ensuring the song has the gritty kick it needs to retain its emotional punch. The production has a wonderful amount of space in it, allowing all the instruments room to breathe and in sharp contrast to the tightly claustrophobic atmosphere set down in the Black Box original. The drums, at the fore throughout, send you skittering for cover, the guitars lay down a funky bottom line to set your hips shaking and the brief organ break, which re-states Black Box’s own vital contribution (the piano hook) and gives the space from which Kylie leads the charge home, is a surprise and a delight. The horns win the right to finish the song and the few moments of quiet after the fade reminds the listener of the need to breathe again. Enormous fun. Grab your share!

Book Review: Black Moses

Black Moses is the sixth novel by Congolese man of letters and literary award winner Alain Mabanckou. Published in an English translation (from 2015’s original French Petit Piment) in 2017, this has sat on my to-read shelf for a while and the work is already no longer Mabanckou’s most recent novel, having been surpassed (in English translation) in 2020.

Black Moses was long-listed for the 2017 International Booker Prize and tells the story of Moses – nicknamed occasionally ‘Little Pepper’ (hence the French title) – and his life growing up in an orphanage in Loango, a small way north on Congo’s Côte Sauvage from the major coastal town of Pointe-Noire, and then afterwards on the streets of Pointe-Noire itself, during Congo’s Marxist-Leninist revolution from 1969. Life in the orphanage is brutish and marked by casual violence both between the residents (mostly boys; there are girls too although they feature little in the story) and as administered by the director and his warden acolytes. Corruption is rife and shortages are plenty and Moses learns quickly of the need for allies as well as friends if he is to survive; and, as he grows older, those lessons serve him well as he swaps life in the orphanage firstly for the streets of Pointe-Noire, followed by a degree of comfort among a group of immigrant sex workers and work on the docks before, in a situation of rapidly deteriorating mental health in which neither a French-trained psychiatrist nor a traditional healer can help him, he is confronted with an opportunity to try and make a difference.

Reading through this brief summary of the plot, this all looks rather bleak and, while the themes and the conclusions are so, Mabanckou’s skill is to tell his story in a characterful way and with the use of as much colour as is encapsulated by the book’s cover (which, we should note, symbolically embodies the colours of the flag of Congo). Whether it is in the orphanage or on the streets, the sights and the sounds and the colours are vividly real and this ensures that the tale leaps off the page in a vibrant way, despite the tough subject matter and the toughness of Moses’s own life in each of its different stages. Mabanckou is also able to deploy a mischievous humour in the same direction albeit that the use of humour in a novel with these sorts of dark themes requires fine judgment both in getting the reader to the point of realising the urgency of the scenes presented and to accept the reality of the toughness of street life and the choices being exercised. Picaresque it may be but these are also serious themes which humour risks under-playing.

The shift in the title from the French to the English is interesting since it shifts the focus of the book from a potential reminiscence – the book is dedicated to a ‘Little Pepper’ whose stories helped inspire it – and more towards allegory. Here, a little biblical knowledge might be required although, for those without, whether Moses grows up to fulfil his destiny is also covered off in the opening chapter. Regardless, this subtle shift in emphasis occasioned by the title change heightens attention on the novel’s key theme which is that of the impossibility of escaping the life situation into which we are born, particularly in the book’s context of the circumstances of the poverty and oppression in the Congo of the time but, as is likely, given our shared human experience, more widely in other contexts (and country locations) as well. Despite the biblical theme, this is not just a question of the inescapability of destiny, or more correctly the destiny that we feel is imposed upon us, but more particularly the endless circle into which our social situation traps us.

Given the ready availability of an English translation of the original title, changing it thus seems to have been an editorial decision. Mabanckou, a full professor at UCLA, where he teaches literature and creative writing in the Department of French & Francophone Studies and African Studies Center, was surely at least au fait with the decision.

There are clear difficulties in any situation of translating local context into a different language, not least given the colonial aspects. Mabanckou comments – in relation to a previous novel – that he writes in French ‘but with an African accent’; as well as that there are more difficult languages into which to translate than English where anything missing as regards the sense is likely to be no more than ten per cent although there are always cultural aspects which differ. My own instincts tell me here that the shared exploitation of the African continent by the major western European powers may in some respects lessen those cultural aspects while evidently heightening them in others. The translator of Black Moses – Helen Stevenson – has translated Mabanckou before (in respect of a more technically difficult piece of work than this) and comments that the key is giving people a voice, which is not the same as aiming for linguistic equivalence, something which Mabanckou also echoes in his interview linked above.

The second thematic aspect to the novel is the extent to which people growing up in institutions can become institutionalised. Moses – the name is given to him by a priest – is left at the orphanage as a baby and never manages to leave institutional settings for very long. Meanwhile his relationships, few of which are lasting, highlight the abandonment issues which people in such a position frequently experience, along with difficulties in forming attachments, while the few attachments he does manage to form are quite closely linked to the desire for a mother – and, very occasionally, a father – figure in his life. The difficulty with what is quite a short novel (of 200 pages) is that there is not a lot of room for detailed characterisation and, with Mabanckou choosing to focus on the street smarts which Moses learns in the orphanage in the novel’s lengthy opening section (and which were probably critical to his later survival, given his choices), this is under-explored and both Moses’s sensitive, vulnerable side and the later mental health issues come not only as something of a surprise to the reader but appear thus as the rather too visible hand of the author. Either way, they don’t really convince in a context which requires the reader to connect with the main character.

Nevertheless, we have here a well-rounded tale, complete and entire in itself and where all ends are wrapped up (and with substantial pathos at the end) and which has an interesting tale to tell of the difficulties that social and political revolutions face in and, as here, of themselves in making life better for people; as well as of the difficulties people face in escaping their status and, indeed, their destiny. If orphanages were indeed the ‘laboratories of the revolution’ in Congo, Mabanckou is specific that they failed. Regardless, societies of all types need to do more to ensure that people are not trapped by either status or destiny as well as to ensure that all who need it get the help they deserve.

Jumpers for goalposts…

Finishing seventh in the Championship, as seems likely, when the Premiership is in sudden urgent need of six new teams is, perhaps, the most Reading FC thing ever. Although, with Sheffield United already relegated, there is a clear argument to extend the requirement for new teams actually to seven…

I joke, of course: I’m fully in line with every other man, woman and dog in the country that thinks the ‘European Super League’ is the worst idea since, well, they came up with this thing called the Premiership. With only three countries (so far) represented, and without specifically the big German and French teams and with a surfeit of English ones, it is neither ‘European’; neither is it ‘Super’, given that several of those involved would struggle to make it on current form into even a top twenty of European sides; and neither is it a ‘League’, since there is no relegation from it or promotion to it (other than on the principle of who has enough finance to force a bid to join the club).

This is not, however, a post about how greed and financial engineering is ruining football, or about ‘the day football died’ – that happened nearly thirty years with the establishment of the Premier League based on clubs’ desire to maximise income from TV broadcasting rights. Essentially, therefore, the same justification as now except in that the broadcasters were then UK-based; and, now, they are global and with their global ‘fan’base in mind for those clubs which have self-elected themselves to the proposed league. With my own club declaring losses last week for 2019/20 of an eye-watering £42m, up from the previous year’s £30m loss, as well as a rise in gross debt from £68bn to £87bn (for those interested, there is a twitter thread from Swiss Ramble and also a podcast from The Tilehurst End looking at the numbers in more depth), it is quite clear that the scramble for a share in the money as clubs try and get to the table of riches is bankrupting clubs throughout the Championship (and below) while leaving those in League 1 and 2, barring the odd player sale which is also now more difficult than before as clubs hoover up talent and then farm it out to the lower leagues, ever further away from being able to mount a decent challenge.

Players have done very well out of this, of course, but careers are short and it is an entertainment business – although the biggest argument in favour of the good wages that can be had (bearing in mind the percentage of players who actually make it is tiny) is that it is the players (the workers) who are serving all this up (and who bear the opprobrium of social media when things go wrong). Agents’ fees and the player merry-go-round as agents maximise their own income, now extended to managers too – well that’s a very different matter; and the person who first came up with the correlation between wage bills and final league position has a lot to answer for.

The question is, of course, what is to be done about all this – and that’s a significant question, or set of questions, too sizable to be tackled in one blog post. A government enquiry, to be headed by Tracey Crouch MP (an ex-player and an FA-qualified coach), is a decent start, although it remains to be seen just how ‘fan-led’ this turns out to be, and it seems that the beady eye of the Competition and Markets Authority is also beginning to be opened up to the plans. At the very least, ensuring proper fan representation – the reason why the German clubs cannot get on board with the proposal – is a suggestion very worthwhile pursuing to ensure the rights of so-called ‘legacy’ fans. When clubs lose sight of the importance of their fans and the contribution their fans have made to their communities from which they spring, we need to remember that it is the available riches that make this possible. Money has indeed trumped sport – and wriggling out of that mess is tricky, although it is good to see FC United of Manchester, a fan-led operation set up when the Glazers took over, get some publicity this morning, while similar attention needs also to be turned to the success of the fans of Wimbledon FC who lost their club to a franchise operation. Their successes – based on hard work and a shared dream – of such phoenix operations need to be better publicised and understood. It is clear it isn’t ‘jumpers for goalposts’ – these are hard-edged, professional (as opposed to amateur) operations, no doubt – but they do offer a model for how football can be rebuilt away from chasing Premiership riches while still dreaming of earning the right to play them one day. Like a lot of other things, things can only be re-built from the bottom-up.

Abuse of players, particularly black players, on social media needs also to be tackled and we certainly need to ensure that homophobia, particularly in the men’s game, needs to be addressed.

More immediately, it’s clear to me that clubs joining the proposed league must, at the point that competition gets underway, forfeit their place in domestic competitions. With the rumoured additional £300m on offer for participation, they cannot simply swan back into the country at the weekends and demand the ball. That does, however, hurt the fans of such clubs as well as those who aim for their clubs to be playing them one day – and it also raises all sorts of contractual issues not least as regards the existing TV rights deal, which runs until 2022. I suspect that reality will prevail and that nothing will actually be done, should this new proposal survive the scorn now being heaped upon it, as regards sanctions until that runs out – and, while bidders will (rightly) want clarity before any new auction process starts, I can’t see them being happy to bid much for a competition from which the ‘greedy six’ are excluded. That will, of course, have a knock-on effect throughout the game and will, over a fairly short period of time, lead to a sizable shake-up in which more clubs (on top of Bury) are likely to go to the wall. That, plus the fanbase of the big clubs who recognise the issues at stake, highlights the need for a strong, and unified, fan voice about the issues now being raised. Should the proposal die the death it deserves, this doesn’t mean that nothing needs doing: football still needs rescuing from itself and, more especially, from the gamblers and financial engineers.

Players of the clubs in the new proposal should not be barred from representing their country: it is not them at fault – they have had no say in any of this and can control absolutely nothing of whatever schemes their clubs decide to engage in and, while contracted to their clubs, have little realistic chance of mounting any concerted opposition to them. (It does depend on how things work out but I can see the potential for a few restraint of trade arguments.) They are indeed workers with next to no say. With this in mind, I was a little disappointed in the PFA statement which looks somewhat anodyne although, as a trade union, there does need to be time for consultation with members and representatives before anything more definitive, in proper defence of the interests of all those interests who are members of the union, can be raised.

A country united on something, and sufficient to cause an immense distraction – well that’s a rare enough event these days so it is no wonder that this government is all over it. Whether that cause survives the short-termism, the ignorance and the political scheming inherent in anything this government gets its hands on is a different matter.

ToTW: I Wanna Be Vaccinated

Vaccines much in the news today again (no, not The Vaccines – Ed; though it seems they are having a bit of a re-launch, I suspect at the timely instigation of their record company) with a government consultation underway about whether workers in care homes in England (health otherwise being a devolved matter) need to have had a vaccine in order to keep their job; Denmark abandoning its roll-out programme of the AZ vaccine; while a certain publicity-shy London mayoral candidate was touting his fear of needles while nevertheless having visible tattoos (I’m not bothering to link).

The best vaccine news of the day – heard over the live! Marc Riley show on 6Music tonight (even the pre-recorded and well-used jingles sound fresher and more exuberant) – was that Jeffrey Lewis has finally got around to putting a video together for ‘I Wanna Be Vaccinated’. I blogged about the lyrics on this a while ago and it’s great to see him get around to it. Now featuring drums, bass and b-vox as well as electricity – all additions to the demo (radio) version which was just him and his guitar – as well as a somewhat slower pace of attack which lets him fit the words in even better (yes, I misheard one of the lyrics earlier), the video has little of real-life Jeffrey himself other than his hand-drawn cartoons illustrating the lyrics and delightfully capturing both the Ramones and Jeffrey himself in hand-drawn form. He’s an extremely talented man is Mr. Lewis and the cartoons – which pass inevitably quickly on first viewing – have lots of features which reveal themselves the more you view it and including, in this blogger’s view, a pretty faithful rendition of himself at the end in the style of Woody Guthrie’s own ‘Bound for Glory’ self-drawing.

Anyway, without further ado, here it is:

Still no sign of a paid-for version on Bandcamp, though if you’re quick you’ll definitely be in the first 500 viewers on YT – it was only released today! Track of the week this week, for sure.

I’m not so sure about care home workers but I reckon mayoral candidates definitely ought to have proof of vaccine before being able to stand (or going out campaigning and mixing it with the public) …

GET YOUR SHOTS!

Dear BBC…

… Well, this has all got a bit much now, hasn’t it?

Regular readers will know I’m not much* of a TV watcher so the loss of ‘Stenders or MasterChef – in respect of which the BBC set up, and then removed (it seems on the grounds of the record number received), a specific complaints page – didn’t make an awfully big dent in my life; but I am a regular, committed radio listener and the disruption to the 6Music schedules – which is still going on – does have quite a bit more of an impact on me personally. It seems to be the DJs whose presentation style is more exuberant (Craig Charles), or whose programmes are sonically different (= ‘gnarly’) (Iggy Pop, Marc Riley), who have lost their shows over the weekend and into this week, replaced by DJs whose presentational style is a little softer and, on Friday itself, by the music of modern composers (Philip Glass). While it is right to show respect – a death is always a sad occasion – I find this resort to dark, sombre tones too much. Like many others, it seems, I simply switched off.

6Music is, quite famously, ‘Radio John Peel’ with just about every programme championing some aspect of musical genres that Peel also supported. One wonders, had Peel still been alive and broadcasting (though at 81 this is perhaps a little unlikely), whether his own programme would have survived this sort of cull. Certainly in his later years the presenter of Home Front was something of a republican so the question is not entirely random. 6Music caters to a particular demographic (those less interested in mainstream music) and it’s not obvious that its regular listeners would have taken much more than a passing interest in the death of Prince Philip. Furthermore, had it wanted to do so, this demographic is also more than capable of finding appropriate sources, whether broadcast or online, from which to satisfy that interest and to pay private respect. We might wonder about the role of a rolling news channel if the scheduling of a large number of other channels is to be disrupted in the way that BBC has seen fit these last few days.

‘Damned because it did; and damned if it hadn’t’ is, I suspect, a phrase we might get to hear more often this week in relation to the BBC’s actions and certainly past next Saturday. In the midst of the culture war, and when ‘flag shagging’ has entered the popular vocabulary and sizable pictures of the Queen have started appearing on the walls of government ministers’ home broadcasts, the BBC was always going to be under a certain pressure when this sort of story occurs and it was always likely to succumb.

But there are issues here which it needs to look at. Partly, this reflects the role of TV and radio broadcasts in keeping people going in the middle of a pandemic – especially those who live alone – at a time when death has been an omnipresent concern amidst the trauma of lockdowns; and for whom this sort of disruption is an unwelcome loss of stability and important colour. It’s also, however, a question of the BBC’s obligations to its own staff. Presenters – with some historic exceptions – tend to be an uncomplaining bunch; but 6Music had, just one week before, shuffled its Saturday schedule to accommodate new young presenters who, one programme later, were experiencing either the loss of their programmes (the Blessed Madonna) or else a shifted (and extended) timeslot (Jamz Supernova). Gideon Coe, a seasoned presenter and whose programmes I enjoy, found himself in Craig Charles’s Saturday evening slot: the irony of this being his first live programme for a year (the rest – four, three-hour programmes a week – having been faithfully pre-recorded in his garden shed) could not have been lost on anyone. Tonight, he finds himself with a four-hour slot in partial replacement of Marc Riley (whose programmes are all currently pre-recorded one week in advance from his bedroom). The Covid-19 pandemic has, for radio presenters too, caused issues and difficulties amongst which the loss of live programming, when modern radio DJing is about in the moment interaction with the audience and with live acts, is clearly a painful one. Presenters – and the production teams behind them – deserve to be treated better than having their programmes junked at a moment’s notice in favour of music aimed at creating a mood. 6Music needs little encouragement to go the way of mindfulness as it is.

The other side of all this is of course the role of the public broadcaster which the BBC has in ‘bringing the nation together’. It is a mark both of the culture war in which have now been embroiled as well as the many, and very evident, fissures that the UK is now experiencing that a divided nation actually proves itself impossible to bring together over the death of a senior royal. BBC channels lost market share on Friday night while the news that Gogglebox – as I understand it, an already popular TV programme which watches people watching the telly; a sort of live action version of The Royle Family – was Friday night’s most-watched programme does not surprise: people are just not engaged by this wall-to-wall coverage. In the modern, connected world, they know where to find that content if they want it. They look to their broadcast content instead as giving them a release.

We are no longer (even if we once were) the people who can be brought together by the death of a member of the royal family and the BBC has simply got things wrong: in cancelling programmes and disrupting schedules, it seems that it is actually not so much reflecting the public mood as trying to lead it in a particular direction. Radio listeners tend to be a loyal bunch so ratings and (likely) market share losses are unlikely to last – but that’s not the point. A nation that has lost much of its deference – though we still have a long way to go with that – is no longer the nation of the forelock-tugging 1950s, however much this Brexiteer ‘Global Britain’ parliament wants it to be. I write as a parliamentary motion is just getting underway on the death of Prince Philip giving parliamentarians the opportunity to lead tributes on behalf of their mourning constituents. Despite everything else that is going on, in political as well as social life, it is the only business of the day. Looking around, I don’t actually see a nation in mourning – but I do see one whose major institutions want to portray it thus. In allowing the death of Prince Philip to dominate its scheduling, the BBC is allowing itself to be used to promote an image of a country that no longer exists and whose time is anyway long past. As someone once sang, there is no future in England’s dreaming: a long-lost (and increasingly contested) past cannot be recreated in service of a nation’s future.

All of this is, of course, likely to be being used as a dry run rehearsal for ‘the big one’. In which case, I can only wish Herself, aged 94, a (continuing) long life. Indeed, God save.

[Edited later on 12/4 to include the reference on line 3 to the story in The Guardian on the number of complaints made using the BBC form.]

Rights at work in the platform economy

Readers will know that I have been writing a regular column for Stage, Screen & Radio, the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the digital, media and entertainment arm of Prospect, for a couple of years – all the columns are linked via the specific page on this site which you can find over there on the left. I am paid for this work and the money to do that comes from the monthly subs provided by BECTU members, so I prefer to keep the columns privileged for members of the union for a while, posting them publicly up here only once the new issue of the magazine lands on members’ doormats.

That’s therefore a quarter behind and, editorial and production deadlines being quite understandably what they are, it’s usually a fair bit longer than that. That occasionally means that the column, when put up here, has been a bit caught up by events. This, dear reader, is the case with this particular one, which looks at whether platform workers are employees or contractors. This was originally written in early November last year (the US elections referenced at the outset were taking place at the time) but has now been caught up by events, firstly in the US by a lawsuit filed to overturn the Prop 22 ballot result mentioned in the article’s Intro; and secondly in the UK by the Supreme Court decision in the middle of February in the case of Uber, the driver hire business. You can read plenty more about the Supreme Court decision elsewhere, and not least in my post on the issue below; but I thought I’d post the original column in the usual way; and, for those who saw the original, this time slightly extended and with a few additional links.

What hasn’t changed is the reference to unions keeping a close eye on the situation as it continues to evolve. That remains as true this side of the Supreme Court decision as it did back then. Further, reading the text back again now, I’m also struck by the relevance of the article’s closing paragraph which hints at the importance of seeing, and using, law-provided rights as a starting point on which to build and not seeing them as in some way tradeable. Sweetheart deals – no thanks!

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Whether platform workers – those who sign up to deliver services digitally, or work for delivery companies – are employees or contractors is a distinction likely to become increasingly important, not least in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As voters cast their ballots in the US elections, in several states they were also put a series of other propositions applying to laws within their state. The US political system incorporates elements of direct democracy in which, in some states, legal initiatives can be put straight to voters.

California is one such state, with Proposition No. 22 asking whether voters wanted to support a minimal package of employment rights for those working for platform companies. The story here is complicated, but Proposition 22 essentially prevents such workers, who are not regarded as employees, from accessing a much larger range of employment rights they would otherwise have.

Regretfully, Proposition 22 – supported in a hugely expensive campaign by the big companies, like Uber – was passed by California voters.

Persuasion

Here in the UK, back in the summer before politicians started to talk once more about lockdowns, there was a concerted attempt to persuade people working from home to go back to the office. This had a number of facets. Perhaps the most interesting was the view that working from home drew attention to the notion that working in this way could subject the worker to competition from anywhere across the globe.

A large number of digital platforms offer the opportunity to work digitally – online platforms are not only for delivery, whether that be a person or a meal, but also facilitate a variety of services. Work on these platforms tends to be broken down into micro elements with workers asked to tender for each element. We are witnessing a new approach to Taylorism – the management system designed to increase efficiency by evaluating every step in a production process, breaking work down into simple microtasks – this time not on the production floor for the office. This is sometimes called ‘crowdwork’ or, more frequently, and in an unthinking corruption of the complex jobs done by BECTU members in the entertainment industry, the ‘gig economy’.

Most Prospect and BECTU members who are able to work from home are not in a situation in which their job can be – or will be – broken down into micro elements. That’s trade unionism in action, in no small part.

However, not least under Covid-19, with the gaps in government support programmes being particularly visible in our sector, the temptation clearly rises to look to such platforms as a means of ensuring continuing income during shutdowns where workers have been entirely inadequately supported.

What employment rights might you find when you get there? Well, the line in the sand for platforms seems to be that their workers are not employees, but contractors, where a lower set of rights prevails.

A question was recently put in parliament by Derek Twigg, Labour MP for Halton, whether the government would assess ‘the potential merits of providing greater protections for online platform workers using crowd work platforms.’

The answer came in a two-part way.

New protections

Firstly, a forthcoming (and long-awaited) Employment Bill (intended to set new employment rights in the post-Brexit era) would include a consideration of the options for ‘new protections’ for those in the ‘gig economy’; and, secondly, that the current strategy of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement had already recommended the government examine the threat to compliance posed by online and app-based businesses.

The Director of Labour Market Enforcement is substantially concerned with the informal economy. This actually says quite a bit about what the government thinks of people working for online platforms.

It is, however, actually quite encouraging that employment rights in the platform economy will soon be on the consultative agenda. However, we will need to watch that the big operators in the sector don’t try any California-style ‘sweetheart deals’ over here.