SHOOT AN’ CRY: Stars Earn Stripes earns a place in television hell

Remember the Nineties? When “cutting edge” producers wrestled with the idea of a dystopian future made up of a glutted techno-consumption culture that couldn’t stop itself from eating, hacking and shitting, and TV shows fronted by army generals who bet on the life on some young buck who gets his dudey vengeance at the end and the sexy girl to boot. Technology was scary in the Nineties. “Watch out,” they said. “In the future, entertainment kills, man.”

After a good decade of being repeatedly thrown a metal plate of shit off through the hatch which audiences are expected to dine on – ANOTHER series of Big Brother and endless US shows like Storage Wars (one of the few times you’ll see American working-class people on the telly, and you’re supposed to laugh) – our appetite for current reality pretended right in front of us has taken in one of our worse flavours of the 21st-century: war.

Last night NBC debuted Stars Earn Stripes.

The cast includes Jessica Simpsons’ ex, Nick Lachey, Todd (husband of Sarah) Palin and Terry Crews, filling the role of hard-talkin’ ghetto jive from every Vietnam film ever made. Shit gon get fragged.

In a brilliant moment Lachey asks: “Why did I let me agent talk me into this?” His answer, like everyone else’s on the show, should be that none of them have a career. Which is the only funny thing about this.

There’ll be tears, some laughter and plenty of talk over strings about good ole American Joe fighting the good fight in the Middle East. Humbling, they’ll say.

We should all be humbled. NBC have made all those Starship Troopers mock-adverts from way back when almost come true. Just don’t mention anything about men with guns walking into temples.

Would you like to know more?

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Are you unemployed? Skint? Considering New Age solutions to your problems? You might just have the 2008 Financial Crash Blues: and you’re not alone. Fearghus Roulston finds the new spiritual side of the recession in Manchester.

Photo credit: qthomasbower

Buddhism isn’t something readily associated with the north-west of England. Football, yes. Music, contemporary art, flat caps, the labour movement – but not Buddhism. It’s something I would expect in the trendier corners of the south-east, alongside classes teaching people to cope with the spiritual emptiness that comes from immense wealth and knit-your-own-hummus lessons.

But it’s a rapidly growing scene in many of the north’s major cities, with thriving Buddhist centres in Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere. Why are people turning to meditation and alternative spirituality now? I’m attending a six-week class to find out.

What had always put me off attending Buddhist meditation classes was, frankly, the clientèle. At the posh-ish university I went to, the people who went were typical gap-yah-in-Indiah stereotypes who I’d usually cross the road to avoid.

So I was a little nervous about the group I’d meet on my introduction to meditation. My classist prejudices turned out to be misguided, though – what struck me about the first class was that everyone seemed so normal.

No ageing hippies or posh squatters – everyone I talked to seemed to have a normal job in admin, retail and hospitality.

I asked why people had become interested in meditation. Was it the spiritual element? An alternative to the consumerist mentality fostered by successive UK governments as an alternative to political choice? (I didn’t use those exact words. I’m not Noam Chomsky, alright.)

What came through initially was a general dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the UK. People have done everything they were told to do – get a degree, get a job, get a house – and still they are stressed, unhappy, struggling for cash, not feeling fulfilled or satisfied.

Apart from a handful of people who were there because of advice from their therapist (including one gimlet-eyed man with anger management issues who I kept half an eye on throughout), almost everyone expressed the same problem: they had too much to worry about and they hoped meditation would help them calm down. Nearly all of them were worried about money.

The government has just released its first happiness index, the Orwellian-sounding Measuring National Wellbeing Programme. Responses by 165,000 people in the annual population survey reveal the average rating of “life satisfaction” in Britain is 7.4 out of 10, whatever that means.

But the anxiety amongst people I met on the first week of my Manchunian meditation course suggests this may be a bit of an optimistic estimate. I’m hoping to find out why in the next few weeks.

Fearghus Roulston will be back next week with more Meditating on the Recession.

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AMY, ONE YEAR ON: Has the gutter press gone into remission?

It’s been a month of anniversaries. American Independence Day passed by unnoticed, then Bastille came in the same year as a French president looking to honour some of its history. The Stones turned 50. But today is less of a celebration – it’s one year since Amy Winehouse died in her flat in Camden.

But the paparazzi/tabloid machine that undeniably played a role in her sad end is harder to find this July.

Last week Pete Doherty ran away from his 1,345th rehab clinic in Thailand. And nobody gave a drug-addled toss. Are we sick of hearing about rockstars on hard drugs, or just Pete Doherty because we’ve bloody well grown up, gone to uni and come back again with him as the music industry’s most consistently inconsistent smackhead. He’s become the decrepit bloke that pisses himself in the corner of your local pub – but much less likeable.

Photo credit: Gruenemann

But Amy Winehouse was likeable – loveable even – and that made her death the worst casualty of tabloid fame. One year on and things have gone quiet. It might be that a lot of Fleet Street finally feel guilty (might be). Maybe it’s one of the positive “chilling effects” from the Leveson Inquiry. Or it could just be because the press don’t have a star like Amy to play with at the moment. You try and get something interesting out of One Direction that doesn’t involve waterboarding and you get journalists’ problem.

So really today is a celebration. So here’s one for Amy and here’s another one for the gutter press in remission.

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Right-wingers love to bash the Beeb. Because it’s a public company it’s guilty of tax evasion, because it aims to be impartial it’s a missive for liberal/left-wing bias. For these reasons combined, the BBC has earned itself the reputation of being a hotbed of anti-Semitic, radical and taxpayer-funded dobbers located a short walk away from the Central line.

Last week Substance featured a little Twitter debate between us and The Commentator – the free market, pro-Israel website which broke last week’s story about the BBC omitting Israel’s capital city in its Olympic profiles page.

The BBC has since responded by altering the page: Jerusalem is now Israel’s “seat of government” although – it adds – “most foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv.” The page for Palestine has also been changed. Benjamin Netanyahu and Mark Regev have both spoke out against Israel being “discriminated against” by the BBC, arguments have been had, articles written. Some corners of the Right seems to be in agreement: rather than an honest mistake or a cowardly attempt to circumnavigate controversy, the BBC acted in an anti-Semitic way.

And yet not one of these reports referred to More Bad News from Israel by Greg Philo and Mike Berry. The landmark study uses an impartial source – fact – to demonstrate bias against Palestine in the Western media. By analysing 4,000 lines of text from evening TV news bulletins between Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 and the 2011 flotilla attack, Philo and Berry (like the noir detective team their name sounds like) assessed the frequency of words and phrases that implied a bias, skewed history of events, as well as the disproportionate weight given to Israeli over Palestinian sources. One of the two sources for the book was the “anti-Semitic” BBC.

The view most journalists enjoyed of Operation Cast Lead, due to Israel's press blockade. Photo credit: Prince Roy

The book even claims that two-thirds of the British population were unsure whether Israel occupied Palestine or vice versa. As former BBC journalists have already claimed, Israel has been known to keep in regular contact with those reporting on it, and not in a nice way.

If you thought getting a phone call off Kelvin MacKenzie bollocking you for an off-message story sounded bad, imagine getting it off a nation state. Some journalists have told of “waiting in fear for the phone call from the Israelis” (i.e. embassy-level or higher). The country also employs its National Information Directorate to higher the stakes in the Middle Eastern information war, helping to create a misinformed and pliant international community less able to accurately challenge Israel’s actions in the region. This means two-thirds of Britain are unable to place illegal settlements, attacks on civilians, occupation, administrative detention and a humanitarian crisis in their proper context.

But does this get a look in? Words and phrases like “bollocking” and “complained” reveal an anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian basis, don’t they?

Instead The Commentator used its own measure of “proof.” Two pictures side-by-side – one of Palestinian youths throwing rocks with the caption: “Palestinians have strenuously resisted Israeli control”; the other of an IDF soldier shouting at a man with the caption: “Israelis and Palestinians have been at loggerheads for decades.”

"Israelis = bad. Palestinians = good." Photo credit: PSP Photos

What does this mean? “Israelis = bad. Palestinians = good,” according to The Commentator. “It’s just that black and white to them [the BBC].” By reversing the website’s own order of preference, The Commentator is simply encouraging an either/or media narrative of an honourable Israel under attack from a radical, bloodthirsty Islamist Palestine. Their conjecture – not fact – is just as unhelpful and wrong as anti-Semitism itself.

The BBC should be a source of national pride. That doesn’t mean it should be free from thoughtful and well-intentioned criticism: quite the opposite. But using small incidents for political capital and selective outrage are not the way to go about it.


Tom Rollins



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With the Olympics only one week away, you can’t blame people for getting cagey. Like headmasters on sports day, David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, the Met and the security services are doing their best to hide the day-to-day from visitors’ eyes. Instead we’re a nice sceptred isle of lots of different colours; we love our music, deference to authority and especially our sport, and we’re all dead made up about it.

Yesterday a small protest outside Scotland Yard against the acquittal of PC Simon Hardwood – the man charged with manslaughter for the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 London protests in 2009 – wasn’t going to turn too many heads.

Despite an inquest from May 2011 finding Harwood guilty of “unlawful killing” and the infamous video clearly showing his attack on Tomlinson (who died shortly after), a jury found him not guilty.

What’s more interesting is that Harwood has an alleged history of knocking innocent people about. He left the Met in 2001 after accusations he’d tried out an illegal off-duty arrest on a man in a road rage incident, later tinkering with his notes of the event. While at another force in Surrey, Harwood faced allegations of a martial arts how-to-guide length list of violent offences while in uniform.

The jury result seems odd after the public outcry against Tomlinson’s death. A 2010 YouGov/Sunday Times poll found 51% of people thought it was wrong that nobody would faces charges for Ian Tomlinson’s death (compared to 31%) who agreed with the initial decision.

British juries don’t tend to convict on-duty police crimes. There hasn’t been a successful manslaughter charge against any police officer in 25 years, despite a string of allegations, the deaths of 1,433 people while in police custody (or recent contact with the police) since 1990, and video after video of swinging batons, stop-and-searches, horseback charges at 18-year-olds, day-long kettling and even pulling a protestor from his wheelchair.

But what could be more an affront on our nice sceptr’d isle with its multi-coloured democratic traditions than legally reprimanding a police force acting above the law?

Just this week “pre-crime” arrests were enshrined in legal precedent after the Charing Cross 10 lost their appeal having been arrested on their way to a republican demonstration on the royal wedding day.

Likewise, protest has been stifled in the run-up to the Olympics. BoJo’s bye-laws banned carrying placards, associating in large groups and chanting in Parliament and Trafalgar Squares. How are we supposed to cheer on Jessica Ennis now?

But this isn’t about just the Olympics. After the tourists go away we’ll still have the same police force. This is about precedents being set by our police that threaten our ability to demonstrate against them, our safety, and our access to free and fair justice.

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THE DARK KNIGHT RISES: Christopher Nolan’s Batman remembers 9/11 better than most

When a prep school boy sings the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ on an American football field, he could be singing it for Iraq veterans and 9/11 families at the Super Bowl. But we know the stadium’s about to get blown away by a masked terrorist. This is Batman, not real-life.

But Christopher Nolan’s trilogy has blurred our world present with the comic book. So has the news that last night a masked gunman shot dead 14 people in Aurora, Colorado outside a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.

Frank Miller originally birthed the Dark Knight in 1986 with the Batman: The Dark Knight Returns comic. His world of crime, corruption and underworld super-criminals introduced a more relevant society racked by class divisions, the effects of which – in the comic – bring Batman out of retirement. Miller introduced a gang called “The Mutants”, a gang of youths who have a thing for petty theft, robberies and murder. It was a twisted tale for the Reaganite Eighties, and saved the franchise from another early retirement: a million miles away from Adam West’s high camp Sixties “superhero”, fighting crime armed with awful one-liners and the Boy Wonder, Robin.

Back in the present and the franchise, bigger than ever, sees a global audience dashing to the cinemas to see the third and final film of Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of the Caped Crusader, making it the most anticipated film of the year.

But how much of the popularity is Nolan’s reflection of our own post-9/11 world?

Photo credit: marvelousRoland

The comics and previous films had included the “super villains” that we all loved to hate and hated to love. But Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy films are all post 9/11, and it shows. In 2005’s Batman Begins it was Ra’s Al Ghul and his League Of Shadows terrorist cell cleansing Gotham of its corruption and scum. In 2008 The Dark Knight included an astounding performance by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, Batman’s ultimate foe, wreck havoc on Gotham City as nothing but a game. The murders of government officials and the destruction of a hospital was urban terrorism, but the explicit targeting of civilians instead of the banks and policeman of the past would not have existed without 9/11, 7/7 and the War on Terror.

Christopher Nolan has redeemed the Batman franchise making it one of the most successful film trilogies of all time. That popularity is down to Nolan’s audience being able to relate to his films. Batman is the only “super hero” without super powers – and he’s fighting global terrorist threats, international crime and anarchy. These stories – while exaggerated – are the things that we have all experienced, internalised and remembered: and Nolan has made a fantasy film about them.


Joey Harland 

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“TAKE OFF YOUR LOONY GOGGLES…”: Substance versus The Commentator on anti-Semitism at the BBC

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SOUL TIME: After Amy Winehouse… Michael Kiwanuka, New Vintage & Valerie June

When Amy Winehouse’s music cut through the addictions and the headlines, she pioneered modern British soul music. Frank blended jazz and UK beats, before Back to Black allowed her to explore demons, dicky men and drink like a buzzy Shangri-La from Southgate.

After her death, Michael Kiwanuka was the first post-Winehouse British soul-singer to make waves with both the critics and the charts in the same way again.

Despite Adele’s global domination with big voice, retro-tinged pop, Kiwanuka took up where Amy’s posthumous album – Lioness – left off. Home Again was a proper soul record: smooth Philly Sound production, Terry Callier guitar jazz and British vocals; capturing British mainstream audiences so much he took No. 4 in the album chart and the BBC’s Sound of 2012 to boot. His latest tune – a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Waterfall’, currently drifting around online – shows his lush skill for stripping a song down to its purest distilled form.

Away from album chart recognition and Sunday Times must-sees, are a string of American artists reviving the soul underground.

Gregory Porter has been forging his own kind of 21st-century Technicolor jazz cool, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Tones have been rocking the horns’n’riffs Stax sound for ages.

A new comp, Snowboy Presents: New Vintage, (on Barely Breaking Even Records) shows there’s even a real appetite for properly “period-influenced” vintage – whether it’s Latin, rare groove, mod or northern. After the only real new stuff to come out of the northern scene (not the most progressive scene it’s fair to say) was tacky Ian Levine-produced cover versions of the classics, this is something special.

Pushing things in another direction there’s Valerie June. The Tennessee-born singer-songwriter has been busy mixing up her own strange brew, what she calls “moonshine roots music”: Buffy Saint-Marie vocals, Erykah Badu blues, jazz and Americana. The horn section on new song ‘Workin’ Woman Blues’ tells us she’s on to something good.

These artists are too far apart to build a scene. But their growing success does tell us that audiences in the charts, as well as the soul-jazz-folk’n'roots undergrounds, are looking for something a bit more honest. Something with a bit more soul.

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THE CYBER-CRIMINAL FROM BOLSOVER: Richard O’Dwyer, cyber-crime and everybody else who’s doing it

Photo credit: ToGa Wanderings

When Sheffield Hallam student Richard O’Dwyer set up I don’t imagine he ever thought about getting caught. Nobody does on the Internet.

Back in the post-Napster days of WinMX and Limewire – when I was about 14 – my mate sent me an email wind-up that made it look like the “American Bureau of Creative Industries” had found out I was downloading music illegally, and was going to sue me out of a life. I was looking to pay $10,000 for downloading a David Bowie song here and a Billy Bragg one there.

The relief when the dollar signs turned into an enormous “GOTCHA!” was a luxury O’Dwyer can only dream of now. Facing extradition to the US on copyright infringement charges (a transfer with the full support of Home Secretary Theresa May), the Hallam student could face 10 years in a foreign jail.

However, according to a YouGov poll, only 9% of people think O’Dwyer should face his charges in the US. 46% think he shouldn’t face charges at all.

It’s easy to forget a crime when it’s committed in the virtual world. O’Dwyer made some $230,000 (£147,000) in advertising revenue off his website, a profit made indirectly off linking users to copyrighted material for free. The website’s servers were located in the UK and – although not at first (when it was a .net site) – TVShack was not subject to US law because of its .cc domain. At the same time, a lot of the stuff on the website was copyrighted in the States.

A petition led by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has urged Theresa May to revoke O’Dwyer’s extradition. At the time of writing it’s on 220,643 signatures.

This is a textbook case of the problems of intellectual property in the web age – what Slavoj Žižek calls one of the great crises of late capitalism. He says capitalism can’t cope, and you can see why. If I wanted to watch the second series of Game of Thrones then I could go online and find a site to stream it from straightaway. TVShack might have gone, and Megaupload – apparently at the personal request of Veep Joe Biden – but there’s always Gorillavid, Novamov or DivX to help me out. Five minutes and I’m right where I want to be – in the midst of sexing dwarves, tats and north-south stereotypes. Ta, Internet. Ta ra, HBO.

Everybody does it, everybody knows how to do it and I can’t think of anyone I know who really takes a moral objection to watching TV/films or downloading music for free on the Internet. The benefits are too great and we all have a sense of entitlement to free stuff on the Internet. That’s why 46% of people don’t think O’Dwyer should be charged, and why some 200,000 people actively oppose the nature of his charges.

This desire for freedom on the Internet, as opposed to our dwindling freedom in the real world, has created a strain of anti-establishment behaviour in even the most innocuous downloader of pop tunes. By questioning the nature of intellectual property and free access to it, Internet users are now questioning the powers that be. And groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks have added a moral dimension to the whole argument. This isn’t just free stuff, it’s free information.

And this is the other, welcome, sea change: that people are finally taking issue with the long arm of the world’s policeman. As the US selects more citizens of the Western world for extradition – Richard O’Dwyer (23), Gary McKinnon (46) and Chris Tappin (65) – facing the US justice system is no longer a privilege primarily afforded to men with beards from the Middle East. More people know that now, and they know what that entails.

To sign the petition to stop the extradition of Richard O’Dwyer, click here.

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Photo credit: Wipeout Dave

Sedgefield has always had a special place in the history of the Labour movement.

The constituency cuts into County Durham, the mining – and by extension – Labour heartland of the north east. Ex-mining village Trimdon isn’t far away, the village that hosted Tony Blair as he came back from representing Isr– creating peace – in the Middle East to endorse Labour’s election campaign in 2010. It was also central to the formation of the Durham Miners’ Association in 1869.

Just down the road is Beamish, a reconstructed Victorian colliery village/walk-in museum where we’d dress up as primary school-age mining urchins in dirty Grandad shirts, waistcoats and flat caps, get shouted at by some Victorian schoolmaster and gobble the best cinder toffee in the country.

My mate’s Dad even remembers Tony and Cherie Blair attending weekly church coffee mornings in Sedgefield in his mysterious, faintly bearded period between becoming MP and then prime minister. Come 1997 and he was no longer to be seen. Just another whispered myth of modern-day Labour up north.

Current Sedgefield MP, Phil Wilson (who took Blair’s seat in a bye-election after the PM’s resignation) has now made his putsch to restore the heart of the Labour Party – a parliamentarian, trade unionist and north-easterner from a constituency that’s become a symbol of New Labour’s uncomfortable reconciling of its past with its future. His pamphlet, All the pits have closed, demands reconciliation at last.

“Tony Blair was Sedgefield’s MP for twenty-four years,” Wilson begins. “Some will say this pamphlet has been influenced by him. Probably. Others will say he was influenced by Sedgefield. That’s probably true too.

“All I know is: I was there before he arrived in Sedgefield and I am still there after he has left. I’ve lived it – all of it.”

It’s a moving read through a childhood and adolescence horizoned by pits and smoke, railways and Davy lamps. Throughout Wilson is making the distinction between “My Labour” (his Labour life experiences) and “New Labour”. Still, for a lot of the electorate the gap between these two grows with every election.

This is exactly what Ed Miliband needs to address as leader to save Labour’s spirit, but ultimately – and more importantly – to save it at the polls. Wilson is careful not to discard New Labour, with the argument it won elections, suggesting the party needs to listen and respond to the electorate and deliver on aspiration.

Like Wilson says in All the pits have closed, unless you were around in County Durham before the Seventies and Eighties (the time when manufacturing went from a third of our GDP to around just 12% today), now you’d be none the wiser as to where the old collieries, pits and shafts were, and the extent to which they covered the region.

This is something silent documentary The Miners’ Hymns, screened at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, shows. A helicopter’s view of one patch of today’s County Durham shows an old pit site now covered by an industrial-sized Asda: the modern non-unionised services sector of the “post-industrial” working-class. It’s like an invisible scar on the north east that less and less people know about, covered up with a quick-fix scar-tissue that less and less people know is only temporary.

The pits might have gone, but their disappearance has opened up new problems. The exploitation of the workforce, a hire-and-fire job culture, unemployment, terrible youth prospects across society, non-unionised job sectors: these are real Labour issues and they’re happening now. Never mind what we’re told about living in a “post-industrial” or “post-class” society, it is not true. Labour needs to give up its hang-ups and awkward silences about its recent past (enter John Prescott: “We’re all middle-class now!”) and present itself to the electorate as a broad, progressive and modern labour movement that can tackle the Tories. Because it can.


Tom Rollins

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