Mid Staffs: Whither 38 Degrees?

Nik Darlington 3.16pm

In September 2011, I cavilled about the “rise of the clickocracy”, that multi-headed hydra of modern political ‘engagement’. The internet has spawned several campaigning movements, 38 Degrees being pre-eminent, who exist to put the democratic process within reach of a mere click. Click, click, clickety click - and the job is done. Your voice is heard.

The well-funded 38 Degrees made its name by opposing the Coalition’s healthcare reforms. There were just “24 hours to save the NHS”, we were told. Millions of emails made their way to MPs’ inboxes. All, of course, to no avail, but the point was made, not least by that moronic Mirror headstone.

The Health & Social Care Act has of course not killed the NHS. Yet the revelations within the Francis Report threaten to kill public trust in an institution that Nigel Lawson called “the closest thing the English have to a religion”.

Paul Abbott, sometimes of this parish, has a good little piece over at ConHome today, asking what campaigners such as 38 Degrees think about the grotesque conditions at Mid Staffordshire and allegedly sundry other hospitals around the country.

"Now that the Mid Staffs report has been published and debated in Parliament, it makes difficult and upsetting reading - wherever you fall on the political spectrum. Thousands died. The truth was covered up. Problems were endemic and not just because of a few rogue individuals. But, where is the 38 Degrees campaign for NHS reform? Where is the e-petition on their website, saying, “24 hours to save the NHS”? In the past, they have moved quickly to jump on a topical news agenda. So why not now, on their central issue of defending the National Health Service?

38 Degrees will have no credibility on NHS reform in the future, if they don’t step up to the plate now. I’ve met the CEO of 38 Degrees - David Babbs - a few times, and like him. He’s a nice guy, and seems sincere in his intentions. He has told me more than once that he’s not a front for the Labour Party, and I believe him.

But why the silence on Mid Staffs, David? What’s going on?”

Now we shouldn’t expect the likes of 38 Degrees to take a stance on everything (heaven help us all if they did). Though it would be interesting to know what an organisation so vehemently against structural tinkering thinks about endemic cultural and managerial misanthropy.

As Paul suggests, where is the deluge of emails under the subject of “adopt the Francis Report recommendations in full”, or similar?

Typically, big and successful public campaigns rely on catchy, straightforward messages. The nuanced and complex truth cannot compete. Under such conditions do governments often flounder; and organisations like 38 Degrees, conversely, thrive.

Except the entire debate about Andrew Lansley’s NHS Bill was mired in nuance and complexity. 38 Degrees took on the Government with a simple (sometimes just absurd) message, but it still required people to grasp with elaborate change.

The Mid Staffs scandal is, in comparison, really rather straightforward (if frightfully hard to fix overnight). It is simply made for someone like 38 Degrees to take advantage of and put to the people and their clicking mice. Isn’t it?

From our own correspondent… with William Hague at the Foreign Office

Aaron Ellis 10.30am

I felt a bit ashamed when I joined Twitter a couple of years ago. It felt like I was Winston Smith at the end of George Orwell’s 1984, finally giving in to oppressive forces. Yet the social networking site has furnished me with opportunities I would not otherwise have had - such as meeting William Hague.

Last month, the Foreign Secretary asked his Twitter followers to say what they think should be the United Kingdom’s top foreign policy priority. The best five would then meet him to discuss their suggestions.

Last week, the winners of this competition – Katie Jamieson (@kejamieson), Antonia King (@antoniaking), Jack McCann (@Jack_Mc_Cann), James Willby (@JamesWillby), and I – met Mr Hague and enjoyed a long, interesting talk on a wide range of issues, including trade promotion and the war in Afghanistan.

A chunk of the discussion was about British foreign policy and the ‘Pacific Century’, which had been the topic of my winning suggestion. I argued that the United Kingdom had to define its role (or non-role) in a world where power was concentrated in Asia-Pacific, as it would impact on all our other defence and foreign policies. The Foreign Secretary emphasised to me that we had to be in the region, but he didn’t show that he appreciated how big an effort would be needed by the British to become real players there. ‘It would represent the most judicious, and audacious, use of the hard/soft power combination yet seen in contemporary politics,’ one expert has warned.

Mr Hague agreed with me that a potential role for the United Kingdom would be to “fill in” for the Americans as they retrench to the Pacific, which was what I argued in these pages in the summer. He used the Libyan intervention as an example of this “filling in”, ironic perhaps given my opposition to the campaign. I was too polite (as well as awed) to point out that the United States enabled 90 per cent of the military operations there, which implies we don’t yet have the capacity to take up Washington’s mantle in many areas of the world.

The other issue that I raised was British policy in Central and South Asia; as I argued in May, the United Kingdom is pursuing policies in the region that are incompatible with one another. We want a stable Afghanistan, a special relationship with India, and a strategic partnership with Pakistan – the problem is that the latter two countries believe stability in Afghanistan comes at the expense of either one or the other.

Mr Hague recognises the dilemma – in contrast to the Defence Secretary, Phillip Hammond, who denied it exists when I put it to him in December – but he thinks that the British are best placed to mediate a solution. As an example, he pointed to the recent meeting in New York between David Cameron and the Afghan and Pakistani leaders.

Though I am often critical of this Government’s foreign policies, I have always believed that Britain needs William Hague as its Foreign Secretary – a belief reinforced after meeting him. His policies are good for the country, even if I think some of them are strategically discontinuous. Mr Hague is also likeable, charismatic, and he has built up good connections with leaders around the world, which aren’t bad things when it comes to diplomacy.

The meeting also showed his enthusiasm for engaging younger people via new technologies, on the issue of the many challenges facing this country in the early twenty-first century.

Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronHEllis

Twitter is a wonderful thing, but it shouldn’t be journalists’ sole source of a news story

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Here on Egremont, we try to tackle profound issues in an unprofound fashion. But today I’d like to flag up something of relevance from Telegraph Blogs, whose author does the opposite: tackle an unprofound issue in a profound (and timely) fashion.

Mic Wright wrote yesterday about “lazy hacks” mistaking Twitter for news. It is worth quoting some of Mr Wright’s blog at length:

The growing reliance on social media, particularly Twitter, is damaging to journalism. While social networks can quickly flag up potential sources and highlight stories faster, they also have a tendency to get things wrong and obscure just who is behind a message…

People often play characters online and profess to hold more exaggerated view points than they might be comfortable acting upon in the physical world. It’s also arguable that answers from Twitter and Facebook users will be subject to social desirability bias, the tendency to answer questions in a way that will be viewed favourably by their friends and followers.

Twitter is an enjoyable communication channel and one whose value lies in its restrictions. But when journalism and academia turn to it for answers, they’re almost always asking the wrong questions. Consider it a source and a start by all means, but those social media refuseniks  have pretty valuable things to say if you make the effort to hear them.

Too often, supposedly serious newspapers and news broadcasters will scramble to fill column inches with ‘stories’ sourced, constructed and flimsily corroborated entirely via Twitter. A matter concerning the TRG’s Summer Party earlier this week, with which many of our readers, followers and supporters will now be familiar, was so highlighted by ‘no less’ than the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Times (£), the International Business Times and the BBC. It even made the Daily Telegraph's front page.

All on the basis of a patchwork Twitter digest by a journalist of scant pedigree or repute.

The fact that news distributors have in recent times been emasculated from the inside out, to the point that their journalists are too busy and too few and far between to collect, check and double-check the news they distribute, should not go unacknowledged. The “lazy” accusation is too easy and too lazy in itself.

However, there’s an important clue in that last sentence as to the extent of the problem. Our ‘quality national dailies’, even our national broadcaster, have indeed become little more than news distributors, rather than primarily news collectors, sifters and interpreters. And as Mr Wright puts it quite eloquently, Twitter has become a part of that problem.

Irony acknowledged, do follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Do the Left have a better claim to the tenets of Western culture than the Right?

Alexander Pannett 8.40am 

For the modern Western human we often appear to hurtle through our combustious, modern lives, inoculated from niggling doubts of banality through the adulation of mass entertainment.

In such a precociously unsettling realm do concepts of higher culture still find meaning.

Can we still be cultivated to appreciate so-called higher values when post-modernism appears to ground down all sensibilities to an osmosis of the lowest common denominator.

What role does art, music, literature and comedy play these days to develop enlightenment notions of civilisation. Is culture merely a mutable plaything of socio-economic matrices or an educational vehicle of tradition and accumulated wisdom.

These were the queries that were bandied around at a debate I attended yesterday between respective darlings of the Left and Right; Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton.

Despite coming from opposing political opinions, both thinkers appeared to agree that the maintenance of critique was vital for a defined sense of culture.

For Eagleton, critique, that was un-molested and un-hindered by the vagaries of late capitalism, was both progressive and historical in its development of a shared sense of society.

For Scruton, critique allowed individuals to understand and affirm their interaction with their community and derive values from their surroundings.

For these academic luminaries, the importance of questioning was deemed to be the bedrock of Western culture. Its perceived entropy in modern society was lamented as a disastrous set-back for both the progressive ambitions of the Left and the traditional values of the Right.

However, both thinkers had missed the fundamental shift in the ownership of culture that has arisen from the revolution of the digital age.

The internet has allowed all sections of society to have instant access to multiple truths. Questioning is no longer a laborious exercise reserved for the upper echelons of an academic or social elite but a freedom available to all at the click of a button.

Critique is therefore no longer framed by socialist or privileged hierarchy but by a liberalisation that has both cheapened and expanded its horizons. For many today, the subtle complexities of Big Brother say more about the human condition than any reading of Montaigne.

Facebook, World of Warcraft or Wikipedia have done more to develop a sense of community and values amongst today’s youth than any previous forms of high culture, such as Mozart or Pinter. As for an establishment of abstract critique, it is well documented that social media, powered by the internet, lay behind the emancipatory success of the Arab Spring.

The access to instant information has ensured that a plurality of critique is now a fecund product of the masses rather than a dictate from above. Once intractable value-systems have been split open and new depths of the human imagination probed as humans have re-framed their social imperatives. Culture has become both proletarian and metaphorically polyglot in its usurpation of the elite’s previous monopoly of critique.

Where once Right and Left polemically held sway along socio-economic lines, now all culture is both ontologically possible and impossible. Humans become Elf heroes in mystical virtual lands, whilst others gain cult followings due to ironic self-publicity on Youtube.

In such a world, previous concepts of culture are redundant. Fears that critique has been lost due to perceived postmodern nihilism are deeply unfounded.

As humans have retreated from the material certainties that once shackled them, they have found new virtual domains to explore and question both themselves and the prevailing social truths they left behind.

Far from a retreat from culture, the isle is full of noises.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

Egremont’s review of 2011

Nik Darlington and Alexander Pannett 10.30am

This time last year there was no such thing as Egremont, yet in September, thanks to you, our readers, we were voted the 5th best Conservative blog in Britain in the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011.

We have been pleasantly and quietly stunned at this ascent, proof that there is room in the blogosphere, amid the shouting and name-calling, for pragmatic, centre-right commentary.

Herein a review of our year: an account of where we have come from, how we have done it and what we have covered.

Twitter. A few words on that. All our posts are automatically tweeted via the Tory Reform Group and those of us on Twitter post and share articles and comments. These are in turn shared by followers (thank you). Since February, direct referrals from Twitter have comprised 13 per cent of our page hits, slightly behind the highest, Facebook, which gives 19 per cent of our referral traffic.

These figures have fluctuated (Twitter has on occasions provided up to one-third of referral traffic) but Facebook is usually ahead. This comes as something of a surprise because it feels that Facebook’s reign as the pre-eminent social media sharing platform is over and Twitter is in the ascendancy. But there you have it. We have a Facebook page too, on which all our articles are linked, and it seems to be working by sending nearly one-fifth of readers our way. Particular thanks go to Aaron Ellis for his assistance with its running.

The power of referral traffic is very clear. Guido Fawkes provided one-tenth of that traffic - or 1,538 hits - but most of it came from one article and in a single day. Saying that, fully one-third of traffic was from search engines, a vindication of our SEO strategy and a comforting sign that readers are actively looking for us (or stumbling across us!) rather than just being told to look at us. Eighteen per cent came direct.

Paul Abbott has achieved a lot this year in his full-time guise as Robert Halfon’s more-than-capable parliamentary confrere, not least setting up the brilliant Parliamentary Academy and being a driving force behind the FairFuelUK campaign that prompted the Chancellor to cancel a planned rise in fuel duty.

But we are sure that Paul would agree with us that his most noteworthy achievement of 2011 was to cause a one-thousand-strong stampede to Egremont on 23rd November. 'Why the Left should love Margaret Thatcher' has had more than 2,000 unique page views and been syndicated elsewhere thanks in part to Paul’s incisive prose and winning analysis but also the mighty sway of Mr Fawkes, who kindly referred to us as ‘the Wets’ blog’ (thank you, Harry).

Generally, readership has been consistent throughout the year, with the occasional noticeable peak. The ‘big bang’ arrived shortly before the Barnsley by-election, 3rd March, as Craig Barrett's article 'Liberal Democrats are looking down the barrel in Barnsley' won positive reviews (one half of the editorial team is gracious enough to concede that his learned-if-not-sensationalist commentary on Oxbridge dons was not the principal cause of attention that day).

Then on 3rd May, Stuart Baldock wrote an insightful piece about the Libyan rebels and there was poignant coverage of UN World Press Freedom Day; but the draw was Cllr Rene Kinzett’s presentation of 'the Conservative argument in favour of the Alternative Vote'. It was a brave and well-argued article deserving of publication. Perhaps not our most ‘popular’ feature of the year if the outcome of the AV referendum was anything to judge by, but it received plenty of attention.

August is usually the sleepy month of politics but this year we had riots. On 9th August, Nik Darlington's in-the-moment reflection ('We know nothing, except we are all to blame for this') attracted Egremont's highest traffic thus far. It was syndicated on the front page of the Huffington Post and received interest from TV station Al-Jazeera.

Media website Journalisted listed the biggest three news stories of 2011 as the Arab Spring, phone hacking and the Eurozone debt crisis. All three topics received plenty of comment on these pages, humble though we would say it was. We would not pretend to be major actors in these debates, let alone lead them. We try to focus on our columnists’ areas of expertise and on less well covered issues. But we always try to ensure our coverage matches the import of events.

Our columnists this year have come from far and wide. We have been honoured to feature blogs from the former foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, from John Lamont MSP, and from current Conservative MPs, Robin Walker, Robert Buckland and Rory Stewart.

And to name just a few of our more regular commentators: we have had economic and political analysis from David Cowan, who also won a Spectator economics blogging prize in October. Former TRG chairman, Giles Marshall, always offers a thought-provoking take on the shape of the modern Tory party. Aaron Ellis brings hard work and dedication to the foreign affairs brief. Sara Benwell gives us an edge in the finer details of finance. Meanwhile Craig Barrett’s pithy and profound musings about everything from electoral politics to taxation have been consistently among our highest read articles.

For some months, Jack Blackburn, as well as being our resident expert on film, culture and theology, has been turning his hand to weekly reviews of PMQs. Jack’s 'letter to Mrs Miliband' in November was utterly inspired and as good a PMQs review as you will read on any national broadsheet.

Naturally, most of our readers come from the English-speaking world and as much as 80 per cent from Britain (79 per cent) and the United States (11 per cent). Canada, France, Australia, India and Germany also have sizeable followings and our readers are spread as far and wide as Sierra Leone, the Seychelles, Haiti, the Palestinian Territories, Iran, Mongolia, Peru, Latvia, Israel, Vietnam, Japan, South Africa, Sweden and even, dare I say it, Uzbekistan.

And that, as they say, is that. The end.

Merry Christmas and see you in 2012.

Egremont voted 5th best Conservative blog in Britain

Nik Darlington 8.21am

More results from the Total Politics blog awards 2011 were announced over the weekend.

Following on from our eleventh place finish in the ‘right-wing’ category (second highest new entry), Egremont is thrilled to have been voted the 5th best Conservative blog and the highest new entry in that category (as of this morning the link was down but I expect TP will have it working again soon).

Both placings are welcomed as a testament to the impact that Egremont has had in its short existence so far, and we thank all our readers and those who voted for us.

But the Conservative placing is especially satisfying. Demarcations of right and left wing are more arbitrary today than they have ever been and I for one would hesitate to catalogue all the excellent writing that appears on these pages as ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’ or anything else.

Egremont endeavours to give an objective, thoughtful view on current affairs but from a One Nation Conservative point of view.

It is also hugely pleasing to see individual efforts recognised. Egremont had seven columnists (and one guest, Rory Stewart MP) appear in the Top 100 Conservative bloggers rankings (again, link down but hopefully fixed soon).

Co-editor Alex Pannett received uncanvassed and deserved recognition, coming in 30th place. Former TRG chairman, Giles Marshall, was 36th; Aaron Ellis, who has been helpful in getting our Facebook page looking ship-shape, was 43rd; David Cowan, a regular contributor to these pages and the Huffington Post, was 46th; Katy Turner came in 54th and Sahar Rezazadeh in 75th position.

We know nothing, except that we are all to blame for this

Nik Darlington 8.45amPhotograph: Kerim Okten/EPA (Guardian)

Barking, Birmingham, Bristol and Bromley. Camberwell, Chelsea, Clapham Junction and Croydon. Fulham Broadway. The King’s Road. Sloane Square. Notting Hill. Peckham High Street and the Isle of Dogs.

The rioting and looting was indiscriminate, random and terrifying. Shops, cars, police stations, even fire engines and private homes - old women asleep in their beds - came under attack.

It was into the early hours before I could feel confident that the rioting raging as nearby as Ealing and Wandsworth would not reach Richmond. With police cars speeding past at regular intervals, away from us and towards London, there would not have been much left to stop them if they had happened. But then the closest Richmond has got to a riot was when Waitrose nearly ran out of pappardelle.

What do we know? Well, we know more about what we don’t know, than what we do know.

The attacks have departed any rhyme or reason. What began as an apparently peaceful protest (how much of an oxymoron is that becoming?) in Tottenham after an alleged criminal was shot by police, has since developed into a melee of motivations. We can begin to speculate why people are taking part in variegated mayhem, but you would be foolhardy to assert.

Police cuts? True, police morale is at rock bottom, but the gutting of police forces that certain people are blaming for the riots spreading out of control is not a plausible explanation. It hasn’t happened. [11.07 update: Prime Minister confirms 16,000 troops on street tonight and all police leave cancelled.]

Lack of force dealt out to the rioters? No water cannons? No rubber bullets? No armed forces? A bizarre irony of last night was listening to the sort of people who spend their lives berating the EU saying our law enforcement should be more like Europe. I’m not convinced. Cars, businesses and property would have been vandalised even if the entire cavalry had charged in, and possibly inflamed tempers further. The pictures in your newspapers and on your TV screens this morning would have been worse.

Social media’s role? Allegedly, much of the co-ordination (however inappropriate that word is in this context) of the riots was conducted via BlackBerry Messenger service, which is popular with young teenagers. The people tweeting last night were shocked onlookers and intrepid, tireless hacks. We don’t know (or at least I don’t know) whether Twitter was used to spread the destruction because I don’t follow any rioters. As Hugo Rifkind wrote in the Times last week, Twitter is not as open as we think and we mostly speak to ourselves.

However much the riots displayed Twitter at its best - a rapid gatherer of information, faster and more effectively than any traditional news source - the cold light of this morning is displaying Twitter at its worst - a rapid disseminator of vapid tommyrot by people with little useful to add.

This is not about a clash between ‘right’ and ‘left’, ‘authoritarian’ and ‘liberal’, or any nomenclature you care to mention. Some Conservative MPs are blaming this on “13 years of Labour”. As tempting as that seems judging by the age of some of the rioters, it is wrong, ignorant and unhelpful. Equally, for Ken Livingstone and other Labour party politicians to blame this on “Tory cuts” is pitifully opportunist. Indeed, it is times like this that party politics can be most damaging and counter-productive. It is the lazy outlet for those who would rather not search for honest answers.

Variously, so it is said, the Government, the police, the Tories, the Labour party, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London the BBC, the public, are ‘out of touch’.

If you believe this, I have news for you. The only conclusion we can safely draw is that we are all out of touch. I am out of touch. You are out of touch. We are out of touch with ourselves and with each other; with our neighbours, with our authorities and, by the sight of so many children taking part in the riots and looting, within our own families.

So point your fingers. Whoever you choose to impute, you will, sadly, be right. Because we are all to blame.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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Don’t swap the Ivory Tower for a cyber one

Anthony Ridge-Newman 6.00am

The traditional image of the academic is one that is easily caricatured with the art of visualisation. Picture a tweeded professor sat in an ivory tower surrounded by nothing but books and plumes of thought. This will ring true for some readers and for others it will be somewhat of a stereotypical pastiche. Either way, I am sure many readers will have some experience of the ”Ivory Tower”.

The very nature of the academic tradition means that many independent researchers lead solitary working lives. This is especially true for the social sciences and humanities.  Although humans are often the subject of interest, the process of academic abstraction can leave many researchers detached from life outside the insular world of academia. The ivory tower is itself an abstract concept that illustrates how the academic mind can, more often than not, exist in a very different sphere to that of the wider public.

Public engagement that uses interactive internet technologies is becoming increasingly viewed as the answer to the problem of disconnect between academia and the public. Often, blogging, in particular, is seen as a solution. Academic perceptions are beginning to change as public engagement through social media becomes a more familiar part of everyday life.

The once fiercely guarded academic traditions and conventions are loosening to embrace new ways of disseminating ideas to all. The democratising nature of the internet has presented opportunities for academics to communicate with individuals without an Athens login. This is indeed a positive development.

However, the inherent academic disposition can be easily tempted to use blogging as an excuse to merely engage with the public from the comfort of their armchair – thus maintaining some interpersonal disconnect.

Blogging may well facilitate the opening of communication channels that would not otherwise be possible, but it should be no substitute for face-to-face interaction.  Transitioning from the ivory tower to an armchair in a cyber tower does present opportunity for virtual engagement – but the virtual is no substitute for the real thing. The only way to truly engage with people is in person. If academics are to genuinely commit to the call for engagement with the public then they should use social media in order to open communication channels; develop an audience; and disseminate their work to wider audiences; but, ultimately, harness opportunities for public engagement in the offline world.

The History Blogging Project (HBP) is an example of a blog that was developed to facilitate face-to-face engagement, and is a response to the numerous private sector training courses in blogging. The HBP aims to provide training resources for postgraduate historians that promote blogging as a method for public engagement.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project and brainchild of Yolana Pringle, DPhil History Student, University of Oxford is designed to encourage active participation in offline workshops, but also online by enabling historians to create, maintain and publicise a research based blog.

HBP workshops involve educational presentations, open discussions and debates. Social media and email is used to bring together the participants in an academic setting. The eclectic postgraduate historian community is also encouraged submit posts for the HBP’s collaborative blog.  An example of this would be the blog post that I submitted when I attended an HBP workshop earlier this year.

The HBP is a good model for using the internet to facilitate on- and offline public engagement and, with a degree of creativity, the format could be adapted for any audience.

This article was published originally on the LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog on 29th July 2011.

Follow Anthony on Twitter @RidgeNewman

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