28 September 2010

Let them eat dinosaurs

As the public sector cuts start to bite, David Cameron took a mouthful out of one of the juiciest pieces of political pork this week: the quangoes. Or at least according to the leaked memo that appeared in the Daily Telegraph. As pieces of political calculation go, it was a no-brainer: many of these bodies are completely unknown to the wider general public, and will be mourned by even fewer. After all, who will miss the Union Modernisation Advisory Board?

As the cuts go deeper, this issue of the perception of their importance, rather than actual importance, becomes more, well, important, in order to sell the idea of austerity to those footing the bill. The Advisory Committee of Organic Standards probably does a lot of important work that will now need to be done by someone else. But it doesn't seem as bad as putting a red line through, say, the Civil Aviation Authority, whose job it is to keep planes in the sky.

But not all quangoes are damned or saved in David's Dantesque underworld; 94 bodies still sit in limbo, neither safe from oblivion nor doomed to disbandment. The government must pick through this collection of committees and panels to decide which ones are still worthy of the public purse and which can go swing. One of those organisations still awaiting news of its fate is something called National Museums & Galleries. Not something that would rank highly in people's minds as of great importance, at least not at the expense of NHS funding. Yet I think it's bodies such as NMG that are the key to the whole acceptance of cuts by the electorate. Or, more specifically, the non tax-avoiding, law-abiding, always-voting middle class.

One of the things the NMG's funding does is pay for free entry into public museums, one of the few great socialist legacies of the Blair years. For the 'squeezed middle'. who will pay the most for the follies of bankers in terms of money (rather than in cut services), the free entry to museums is something to cling to. For a trip up to London with children, just existing seems to cost a lot of money, but free entry into museums makes the trip financially viable, stimulates the economy and reassures people that they still get something back for their taxes. It's proof, however small, that taxation is not a massive black hole that they throw an increasing percentage of their earnings into. It's one of the few times that people who will never trouble social services can actually see money moving in the opposite direction.

It also illustrates one of the differences between household budgeting and national budgeting. When I was unemployed, I took a look at those expenses I could do without and those areas where I could reduce expenditure, and made the adjustments accordingly. For governments the task is, instead, to reduce expenditure where it impacts the least upon those people most likely to vote for them, which doesn't always make for common sense. I'd suggest that for the present Prime Minister cutting the NMG might be the sort of tipping point that makes or breaks his government. I'm off to the British Museum on Friday, and I am pretty confident that I won't have to pay to get in. At least not directly.

12 September 2010

Man doesn't bite dog

I'm not sure of the exact dictionary definition of the word "news" but I reckon, if forced, I'd say it was something to do with things that happen. If you watch a news broadcast or read a newspaper, the common elements to all the stories is the fact that they are generally things that have happened - legislation passed, bombs dropped or footballers falling out of a nightclub. Clearly there are a lot things that happen in the world, and it's the news's job to figure out which ones to report.

If I can stretch to another reasonably obvious thing, I'd underline this point by stating that America is quite a big country where, it stands to reason, a lot of things happen, ergo a lot of news happens. And yet this week, the news agenda has been dominated by something that hasn't happened, which is unusual to say the least. The something in this case is two hundred copies of The Koran, and the thing that hasn't happened to them is being set on fire - at least not in Gainsville, Florida. The pastor of the most ironically named church in the world, the Dove Outreach Centre, Terry Jones (no, not that one) cancelled the event - which he later clarified as, actually, postponing it, lest his sordid little publicity machine be starved of the oxygen it is thriving on.

This non-event has seemed to spark some very real events - riots in Muslim countries, which, given the resulting destruction occurred in what are some of the poorest parts of the world, rather than Terry Jones's doorstep, was rather self-defeating. It certainly made me think that, if that was what happened when you didn't burn a Koran, what forces would erupt if you did? Jones claims he stayed his hand because of assurance given him by a New York Imam that the Ground Zero Mosque would be moved - an undertaking the Imam has denied giving. Given the fact it isn't a mosque and it isn't at Ground Zero, this somehow seems in keeping with the rest of the non-story.

In fact, the only thing that has actually happened in the whole of this saga, is the global news media has reported it as a story, even if its elements are no more substantial than smoke. The reportage makes it real, not the events that haven't happened. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that, in the cut-throat competition for news stories to fill the rolling news schedules and acres of print and pixelled pages, hacks will turn from the real to the imagined. After all, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, however many things happen in the world, there are vastly more things that don't happen.