Respect: Why ruin your day with a picture of Michael Gove when we can all enjoy a shot of Rowan Atkinson and Sir Tony Robinson as Blackadder and Baldrick in Blackadder Goes Forth?
It seems some prominent people are finding that the metaphorical chickens they had thought long laid to rest are now coming home to roost. The BBC inadvertently invited comparisons with a scene from V for Vendetta during the Million Mask March, after failing to cover a similar event in June, and now Michael Gove is facing embarrassment for things he said even further back in history.
For indeed and yea verily, it was January when Mr Gove in his role as Education Secretary tried to prove that his mission really was to set the UK back 90 years – by claiming that one of Britain’s most revered TV comedies, Blackadder Goes Forth, peddled left-wing “myths” about the First World War, “designed to belittle Britain and its leaders”.
He was quoted as follows: “Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”
One of the show’s stars, Sir Tony Robinson, weighed in with a quick response in contradiction, but now one of the show’s writers has added his two-pennyworth – and sure enough, it seems he’s going to have the last laugh.
Now, immaculately timed to take place right before Remembrance Day for the best impact, Blackadder co-writer Ben Elton told the BBC his latest novel was inspired by Gove’s jingoistic rant. Yes – he’s going to profit from words that Gove clearly intended as a rebuke.
Entitled Time and Time Again, the book tells the story of a man who travels back in time to stop World War I.
“I had been toying with the idea of writing a novel about the causes of the First World War but I certainly got some lead in my pencil when myself, Richard and Rowan Atkinson were all being blamed for a lack of respect for WW1 because of Blackadder,” he said.
“I think what Michael Gove said is clearly idiocy. Blackadder is well researched, it’s a comedy, it’s a satire, it satirises history which is a long and honourable British tradition.
“Blackadder was deeply respectful to the good things about WW1, which are, of course, that it showed the magnificent strength of the human spirit, the ability to love, loyalty and love of country.”
He was speaking to the BBC’s Front Row radio programme – and you can listen to the full interview by visiting the show’s mini-site and clicking the appropriate link.
Seen to be done: The tribunal took place at the Law Courts in Cardiff (pictured), in public – which allowed friends of Vox Political to hear the case.
The Information Commissioner’s Office and the Department for Work and Pensions have highlighted the weakness of their own case for hiding the number of people who have died while claiming sickness and disability benefits – by failing to turn up at a tribunal on the subject.
They had the opportunity to explain why mortality statistics for people claiming Employment and Support Allowance since November 2011 have been suppressed, at a tribunal in the Law Courts, Cardiff, yesterday (April 23).
But, rather than be grilled on the reasons for their decision by a judge, a specialist in this area of law, and a ‘lay’ person (representing the opinions of right-thinking members of the public), they chose to stay away.
The tribunal had been requested by Vox Political‘s Mike Sivier, after he made a Freedom of Information request for access to the information – and it was refused on the grounds that it was “vexatious”.
The Department for Work and Pensions said he had written an article about his request on the blog, containing the line, “I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers.” According to the DWP, this line constituted a co-ordinated, obsessive and protracted campaign of harassment against the department.
One line in a blog article, added as an afterthought – an obsessive campaign designed to “disrupt” the workings of the DWP. It’s ludicrous.
The DWP claimed it had received 23 requests that were similar or identical to Mike’s, in the days following his own, and inferred from this that they were from other members of this fictional campaign. Mike has only been able to track down evidence of seven such requests and, of them, only one mentions him by name. Without a tangible connection to Mike or Vox Political, the case is not made out – and one connected request does not constitute a campaign.
In fact, Mike’s own request was made after he read that a previous request had been refused – that of disability researcher and campaigner Samuel Miller. Mr Miller had published this fact in the social media and expressed that he was “furious” about it, and this inspired Mike to write his own request. Who knows how many other people did the same in response to Mr Miller? Yet he has (rightly) not been accused of starting any conspiracy.
Mr Miller’s original request has now received a reply, after the Information Commissioner’s office ruled that it had been mishandled by the DWP. This reply contained the wrong information and Mike urged Mr Miller to point this out. Clearly Mr Miller’s claim is not being treated as vexatious, even though it has inspired others to follow his example – as Mike’s article shows that he did. The contrast in treatment betrays a clear double-standard at the DWP (and the Information Commissioner’s office, after appeals were made to it in both cases).
Perhaps it is because of this fatal flaw in their logic that neither the ICO nor the DWP saw fit to send representatives to the tribunal. This left the floor free for Mike to make his own case, with nobody to speak against him or cross-examine him. Tribunal members asked questions, but these were entirely helpful in nature – allowing Mike to clarify or expand on his argument.
So the claim that the number of similar requests, received soon after the blog article appeared, indicated a campaign against the DWP was refuted with the simple observation that the subject was of topical interest at the time, because of what had happened to Mr Miller. Mike said an appropriate comparison would be with complaints to the BBC over the now-infamous radio show involving Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. The corporation received only a couple of complaints from people who listened to the show at the time, followed by thousands from people who heard about it later. Mike asked: “Were all those thousands of complaints vexatious in nature? Were they the result of organised campaigns against Messrs Ross and Brand? Or were they genuine expressions of horror at behaviour they considered to have gone beyond the pale? The BBC accepted the latter choice because logic mitigates in its favour.”
The claim that abusive or aggressive language exhibited by blog commenters indicated harassment that was likely to cause distress to members of the DWP was batted away with the argument that nobody from the department would have seen it if they had not gone looking for it (after reading the FOI request from a Vox Political reader who referenced the blog).
Mike said it would be “like a social landlord gatecrashing a residents’ association meeting, listening to the grievances of the tenants and then saying they are harassing him and he’s not going to service any of their requests for repairs. That is not reasonable”.
The DWP had claimed that actioning the 24 requests it insisted on connecting with Mike’s “could impose a burden in terms of time and resources, distracting the DWP from its main functions”, but Mike showed that this was not true, as an email to the ICO, dated October 21, 2013, makes clear: “We can confirm that the Department does hold, and could provide within the cost limit, some of the information requested.”
Nevertheless, the ICO had upheld the claim, saying on November 27, 2013: “For the DWP to respond to all of the requests, it is not simply a matter of sending an email to 24 people. There is a requirement to collate the information, consider exemptions under the Act which may apply, provide a formal response and then, if necessary refer the decision to an internal review…. The Commissioner considers that 24 requests on the same topic in a few days could represent… a disproportionate use of the FOIA.”
In his speech to the tribunal, Mike responded: “It is reminiscent of the line in the TV sitcom Blackadder The Third, when the title character, butler to the Prince Regent in Georgian times, demands a fortune in order to buy votes in a by-election for a ‘tupenny-ha’penny place’. Challenged on the amount, he responds: ‘There are many other factors to be considered: Stamp duty, window tax, swamp insurance, hen food, dog biscuits, cow ointment – the expenses are endless.’” He said the ICO’s claim “smacks of desperation”.
One aspect that worked in Mike’s favour from the start was the fact that both the DWP and the ICO have accepted that there is a serious purpose to his request – publication of figures showing how many people have died while claiming ESA. This is important because the assessment regime for this benefit has been heavily criticised as harmful to claimants and the government has claimed that it has made changes to decrease any such effect. The only way the public can judge whether this has worked, or whether more must be done to prevent unnecessary deaths, is by examining the mortality statistics, but these have been withheld. This is the matter at the heart of the request and the fact that the ICO and DWP acknowledge this is a major element in Mike’s favour.
Perhaps realising this, the ICO tried to claim that the intention was changed by the volume of requests submitted: “The purpose of the totality of the requests as a whole may have gone beyond the point of simply obtaining the information requested and may now be intended to disrupt the main functions of the DWP.”
It is not reasonable to suggest that the purpose of an action changes, just because other people carry out the same action within a similar time-frame. Mike put it this way: “Millions of people make a cup of tea in the advertising break after Coronation Street; would the Information Commissioner suggest that this was a campaign to overload the national grid?”
With nobody on hand to provide the ICO/DWP side of the case, the hearing ended at around midday, after Mike had been speaking for two hours. He was grateful to be supported by his McKenzie friend, Glynis Millward, who provided help and advice, and by a group of Vox Political readers who attended to hear the case.
Now the bad news: No decision was handed down on the day. The tribunal judge explained that the panel must now think about the issues raised and discuss their findings. He said they would aim to provide a full, written decision within 21 days.
It is interesting to note that Mr Miller has acted on Mike’s advice and has been advised that a revised response to his request should be with him soon.
If this response contains updated information under the same headings as the original ‘ad hoc’ statistical release provided by the DWP in July 2012 (and from which we derived the 73-deaths-per-week figure that shocked so many people at the time), then a decision by the tribunal to release the same information may seem redundant. In fact, it is possible that the DWP may provide the information to Mr Miller, simply to spite Mike.
But this would be yet another misunderstanding of what this case is about. Mike doesn’t care who gets the mortality statistics first; for him, it is not about who gets to say they were the one who forced the government into submission – this is about getting the information out to the public, so the people can decide whether ESA does more harm than good.
The tribunal’s decision will still be important as it will establish whether the DWP – and other government departments – will be able to manipulate the principles behind the Freedom of Information Act to avoid providing politically inconvenient information in the future.
In Mike’s opinion, a decision in the government’s favour would effectively turn the Act into a dead letter.
Swivel-eyed loon: This is the kind of man who listens to George Osborne’s comments about the economy. [Picture: Left Foot Forward]
It must be panto season because the Conservative Party’s very own Ugly Sisters have just wheeled themselves out to deliver another helping of hilarious family fun:
Even more cuts are needed, worth billions of pounds, and there are still huge underlying problems with the economy, said Sister George, even though he knows that cuts are not the answer.
The small upturn he managed to engineer last year came from a natural upswing in the economy and the artificial housing boom that he created by Keynesian means and was nothing to do with austerity cuts. As for the economy, he’s had three and a half years to fix it! It seems clear that if there is an underlying problem, its surname is Osborne.
We may also extract some bitter humour from his words. Only days ago, his cabinet colleague Michael Gove attacked TV comedy Blackadder Goes Forth for claiming that our leaders in World War One never learnt from their mistakes but merely repeated them, over and over again, at huge cost in the lives of the working-class people who had to suffer the consequences of their decisions.
So we will see another £25 billion cut out of the British economy after the next election if the Conservatives win, including £12 billion from social security, he told us, providing everybody with an income lower than £50,000 per year with a perfect reason not to vote Conservative in 2015.
Come to think of it, why do working-class people ever vote for clowns like him?
He’ll cut departmental budgets by £13 billion, starving already wafer-thin public services and paving the way for their takeover by the private sector – on the long-disproved premise that profit-making businesses can do a better job for less money.
He’ll cut housing benefit for young people (under-25) who are just trying to get started in work – but he won’t force under-paying firms to boost their wages in order to offer a decent standard of living!
He also said – no, wait, that’s all he had to offer.
George justified his plan by trotting out the now-classic justification line of this Parliament – that the deficit was down by a third since 2010. He has been saying this for the last two years, and in all that time, the deficit hasn’t dropped at all! Last year the difference was a fraction of one per cent.
This is because the drop was achieved by cutting capital projects and there aren’t any more to cut. Taking billions out of the economy with benefit cuts and investment cuts actually harms the economy – there is less money moving through the system and therefore less opportunity for the fiscal multiplier effect to take place, for profit to be made and for taxes to be taken.
George has always had a bit of a blind spot there.
Sister George said he supported universal benefits for the elderly as they will only save around £10 million – but Sister David has suggested cutting free TV licences, bus passes and winter fuel allowances. Pensions are also taking a battering – never mind what they’re saying about the triple-lock.
David also said he wanted to cut taxes for the poor before the wealthy – but planned to do so by raising the threshold at which they begin to pay tax. This means they will not pay National Insurance either, and will have to find a higher-paying job before they can expect to contribute to their own pension fund. This means some people may never qualify for the state pension.
So they’re starting 2014 by promising austerity cuts that will harm the economy, cuts in benefits for the elderly that will save a comparatively negligible amount but will cause misery, and cuts in government budgets that will open the way to further privatisation and corporatisation of the state.
Those are the real hard truths – but you won’t hear these two characters admitting them.
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Left-wing propaganda piece? Sir Tony Robinson (right) with Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder Goes Forth.
A new development has occurred in the story of Michael Gove’s attempt to rewrite the history of World War One as a glorious display of “patriotism, honour and courage”.
This blog took Gove to task after he attacked one of Britain’s best TV comedies, Blackadder Goes Forth, for perpetuating “myths” about the conflict.
Now Sir Tony Robinson, who played Baldrick in the much-loved series, has weighed in to warn Gove against attacking teachers.
He told Sky News: “It’s not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War.
“When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool; they probably take them over to Flanders to have a look at the sights out there, have them marching around the playground, read the poems of Wilfred Owen to them. And one of the things that they’ll do is show them Blackadder.
“And I think to make this mistake, to categorise teachers who would introduce something like Blackadder as left-wing and introducing left-wing propaganda is very, very unhelpful. And I think it’s particularly unhelpful and irresponsible for a minister in charge of education.”
Sir Tony added that it was “just another example of slagging off teachers.” He said, “I don’t think that’s professional or appropriate.”
Gove appears not to have the wit to answer on his own behalf. Instead a spokesman plunged him even further in the mire with the following: “Tony Robinson is wrong. Michael wasn’t attacking teachers, he was attacking the myths perpetuated in Blackadder and elsewhere.
“Michael thinks it is important not to denigrate the patriotism, honour and courage demonstrated by ordinary British soldiers in the First World War.”
Oh really? It’s fortunate Gove’s own words are available to be examined then, isn’t it?
In his Daily Mail article on Thursday, he wrote the following: “The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War!, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.
Here’s the juicy bit: “Even to this day there are left-wing academics” – in other words, teachers – “all too happy to feed those myths.”
Case proven. Gove is a liar, and he is trying to promote the teaching of lies to children.
Still, he has a vested interest in replacing history with propaganda. Imagine what his own entry in the history books will be. Something like: “In the wake of the financial crisis, the Conservative Party tried to win electoral victory by blaming the disaster on financial mismanagement by the then-ruling Labour Party. When this, and a pledge not to interfere with the National Health Service, failed to inspire the electorate, Tory leader David Cameron seized power in a backdoor deal with the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg – a man who was to become little more than a puppet in Cameron’s hands. Once installed in Number 10, the tyrant set his lieutenants to work: Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt turned the health service over to private hands. Iain Duncan Smith made benefit claims impossible to sustain, driving thousands of claimants to destitution and death. And Michael Gove reduced the education system to a means of indoctrinating the nation’s young with pre-approved disinformation designed to make them compliant fodder for the new corporatist state.”
… and that doesn’t even begin to describe the Betrayal of Britain that started in 2010!
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