Friday, 30 November 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 November 2012

Management and unions at the Guardian and the Observer are set for an almighty confrontation after management this month announced the start of compulsory redundancy proceedings in order to get rid of 100 journalists out of 600-odd on staff.

Guardian News and Media management claims that it needs 100 to go to save £7 million a year – and that only 30 have offered themselves for voluntary severance. After four years of job cuts that have seen some 250 editorial staff leave voluntarily, management says that GNM is losing £44 million a year.

GNM journalists say that the losses have nothing to do with editorial over-staffing and everything to do with a misguided commercial strategy. Rather than getting rid of journalists, they say that GNM needs to rethink its commitment to offering all content for free online and to reduce spending on exorbitant management salaries and expensive marketing gimmicks.

The Guardian is no stranger to financial crisis. Until the 1980s, it relied on a subsidy from its sister paper, the Manchester Evening News, to cover its losses – and in the 1960s its management got so jittery that they seriously considered a merger with the Times. Nothing came of it, the MEN continued to pay the bills, and the Guardian put on circulation and cornered the market in advertising for media and public-sector jobs. By the late 1980s, after production costs (and printers’ jobs) were slashed by the introduction of new technology, the Guardian was making money. For a good 15 years it enjoyed a commercial golden age. The Guardian Media Group bought the Observer in 1993 and took over Auto Trader, the profitable used car listing magazine, then in the mid-noughties paired up with a venture capitalist firm for a leveraged buy-out of the magazine company EMAP.

So what has gone wrong? The easy answer is the internet and recession. The internet allows us all to access what news we want online for free, so we don’t buy newspapers as much. It is also how we find out about jobs (and houses and cars) and increasingly how we buy consumer goods. All this means there’s less advertising for print publications. And in a recession advertisers cut back on spending and readers buy fewer newspapers.

This is a challenging environment for all newspapers. With print advertising and sales on the slide, they need to find new revenue streams. And that is what the Guardian has failed to do.

It embraced the internet early, and by 2000 its online audience was bigger than that of any newspaper in Britain – with the website attracting increasing traffic from the US. While other newspapers tried paywalls or limited access to their print versions, the Guardian made everything free to all. The hope was that before long the site would attract sufficient online ad revenues to make up for any fall in sales and print advertising.

But the online advertising has not materialised – or at least not in sufficient quantity. At which point, you might think, the old adage “If you’re in a hole, stop digging” might come into play. Not a bit of it. The Guardian management has stuck to plan A – pour money into online in the hope that web advertising comes to the rescue – with messianic zeal, declaring its strategy to be “digital first”, pouring cash into a new US office in an attempt to establish the Guardian as a genuinely global brand and embracing what editor Alan Rusbridger calls “open journalism”, roughly speaking the idea that the barrier between journalists and reader-contributors will be broken down by digital interactivity.

Its commitment was epitomised by its vastly expensive TV advertising campaign earlier this year, an animation showing a zippy online Guardian awash with user-generated content retelling the fairy story of the three little pigs. Much praised by the ad industry, it had no effect on print sales, but that didn’t stop the man behind it, David Pemsel, being taken on as GNM’s commercial supremo this autumn. Meanwhile, the message from the Guardian to advertisers remains that its online reach is stupendous – but advertisers just won’t pay very much for digital ads.

Of course, GNM needs to stop haemorrhaging money. But getting rid of journalists really isn’t the best way to do it. The work they produce is the main reason people buy the Guardian and Observer and visit the website – not the user-generated content or the dating agency or the coolness of the brand or the interactivity of the mobile apps. I’m not surprised that they’re up in arms and demanding a plan B.

Thursday, 1 November 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 November 2012 

 It is, I admit, difficult to feel sympathy for the Russell Group of elite universities. Its 24 members – Oxford, Cambridge, most of the University of London and 17 other institutions, which between them scoop up more than 80 per cent of higher-education research funding – have a deserved reputation for special pleading. The Russell Group universities enthusiastically embraced Labour’s introduction of student loans and the current coalition government’s move to make higher education entirely student-debt-funded by hiking fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year for undergraduates. We’ll be all right, they said, and sod the rest.

 But now, it seems, they’re starting to have second thoughts. Last week, the director of the Russell Group, Wendy Piatt, told a BBC Radio Four documentary that its members have taken a hit of £80 million in lost income because of the shortfall in student recruitment caused by the increase in student fees.

And if they’re hurting, just think of the non-elite universities. The Russell Group have been the main beneficiaries of the government’s decision to relax recruitment controls and allow higher education institutions to recruit as many students as they want with top A-level grades.

The recruitment figures for “post-1992” universities – the former polytechnics – are not yet available. But all the anecdotal evidence suggests a slump in numbers that threatens the viability of many courses and departments.

Universities are in crisis as a consequence of a half-arsed government policy, even the posh ones. And last week, a projection by the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, suggested that there is a £1 billion “black hole” in the government’s calculations of its likely income from the repayment of student loans because of ludicrous optimism about graduates’ pay in the future. They didn’t think this one through.

I’ve been teaching journalism at various higher education outfits for more than 20 years, and so far there is no sign of any collapse in demand for journalism courses – which is a relief for me but also a concern, because there aren’t many jobs in journalism right now.

Yes, there are opportunities for young journos with the right skills. I’m as committed as ever to getting talented working-class and ethnic-minority kids into the business. My students today are as good as any I’ve had. But I’m worried that the pell-mell expansion of HE journalism training over the past two decades – driven by an extraordinary boom in journalism employment from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s – has gone too far. I had a particularly brilliant group that finished a university course I ran two years ago that I thought would take over Fleet Street: they’ve done well, but they’re mostly not working in journalism. I wouldn’t go as far as a former colleague, who described the journalism training business as “a giant Ponzi scheme”, but we’re training too many journalists today, and that’s not responsible (even if it pays my mortgage).

It’s not quite as ridiculous as pathology, which, as a result of the popularity of TV crime dramas featuring forensic scientists, has seen an increase in the number qualifying as pathologists rising from five 10 years ago to more than 400 – prompting the vice-president of the Royal College of Patholgists, Suzy Lishman, to tell the Times the other week: “If all these young people want a job when they qualify, at least half will have to retrain as mass murderers.”

But the brutal fact is that it is senseless to organise higher education on front-end market demand: particularly with vocational courses, what seems sexy now won’t be so hot in three years. It’s essential to plan ahead with an eye on the employment market.

OK, there will always be a lag and some guesswork, but there is a role for the person in Whitehall who knows better than 18-year-olds who want to be Julian Assange or the star in a TV cop show.

That isn’t, however, the only problem. Just as idiotic as allowing the passing fancies of 18-year-olds to determine the shape of higher education, the way the worth of university teachers and courses is now assessed is a tick-box questionnaire that all undergraduates get before they do their finals, the National Student Survey. A bad NSS is higher-education death – even though it is usually the result of cock-ups and foibles: one lecturer is parachuted in and pitches the lectures too high or low for the students, another is a particularly tough marker, another has a cohort of students he or she fails to enthuse after a badly judged first lecture.

I’ve been all those, and I regret nothing apart from the stupidity of university managements who accept the tick-box questionnaire as the last word. I’ve never handed out over-generous marks to keep students quiet in the NSS, but I know plenty of lecturers that do. The NSS means grade inflation and falling standards. And it doesn’t empower students a jot.

I know it’s old-fashioned, but what Britain’s universities need now is national planning, professional independence for lecturers and funding from general taxation. Marketisation has been a disaster. It privileges the stupid wannabe and the whinger above all others. Time for a change: politics back in command.

Friday, 19 October 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune, 19 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, who has died at the age of 95, was the last survivor of an extraordinary generation of British Marxist historians who first developed their ideas in the late 1940s and early 1950s as members of the Communist Party Historians Group – among them Christopher Hill, Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Raphael Samuel. John Saville and George Rudé. The group broke up after its majority left the Communist Party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 – but Hobsbawm stuck to the CP to the very bitter end in 1991, and never apologised for his decision to do so.

Perhaps it had something to do with his experience as an adolescent. Born into a central-European Jewish family in Egypt in 1917, he spent his early childhood in Vienna before his parents died and he moved to Berlin with an uncle – where he witnessed at first hand the violence of the Nazi party as it rose to power, escaping to Britain in 1933. The story is told well in his 2002 memoir, Interesting Times.

For Hobsbawm, until his death, the hopes of 1917 and the role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of fascism always trumped the crimes of the Soviet regime, and there was little in 20th-century history (1917-56 at least) on which he did not take a line that in the end was sympathetic to the official Soviet position at the time. He remained hostile to the anarchists in the Spanish civil war and the 1956 revolutionaries in Hungary and was evasive about the Moscow show trials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939-41 even in his most recent writing.

But he was much more than an apologist for Stalinism. In the CP after 1956, though hardly an active member, he took a reform-communist position, criticising the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and then in the 1970s becoming the leading Anglophone advocate of the Eurocommunism of the Italian Communist Party. He and Stuart Hall played a crucial role in developing a left critique of the militant workerism of the traditional left in the Labour Party, the CP and the trade unions in the dying days of the 1974-79 Labour government, which in turn inspired both the Labour soft left and the Eurocommunist magazine Marxism Today in the 1980s – though the idea that he was somehow responsible for New Labour is quite ridiculous (and something he rejected).

What he will be remembered for above all are his books on world history, epic works of synthesis covering giant swaths of time and geography but never lacking in telling anecdotes. Whatever their lacunae, they are brilliant accounts of the growth and crises of global capitalism.

But just as thrilling are Hobsbawm’s more focused works, essays on small aspects of social history that are an utter delight to read even when they’re wrong.

Hobsbawm’s students remember him as kind and generous as a teacher, and he was indeed a lovely man. He will always be a subject of controversy because he never said sorry for being a communist. But he will be missed.

Friday, 5 October 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 October 2012

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was all in favour of co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. From the early 1990s until 2007, I couldn’t see fundamental ideological differences between the two parties – and thought that the Lib Dems’ enthusiasm for Europe, proportional representation and civil liberties, and their caution on foreign military adventures, might be good influences on Labour. I annoyed Tribune readers during the 2001 and 2005 general election campaigns by arguing for tactical voting against the Tories – which was, I admit, my intention.

Two things changed my mind: the refusal of the then leader of the Lib Dems, Menzies Campbell, to consider the offer of cabinet seats soon after Gordon Brown became prime minister in summer 2007; and the election of Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader after Campbell resigned later that year.

Clegg was the real decider for me. He was an ambitious young politician – elected to parliament for the first time in 2005 – who had been one of the moving spirits behind the Orange Book, a collection of essays published in 2004 that marked a concerted attempt to shift the Lib Dems from the social-democratic ground they’d occupied since their creation into small-state free-market liberalism.

I twigged that Clegg would go with the Tories pretty much from the start, though I was surprised at the alacrity with which he concluded the coalition deal in 2010 and initially almost as surprised at the concessions he appeared to have got from David Cameron.

Today, it’s clear that the deal has gone horribly wrong for the Lib Dems. As Polly Toynbee and David Walker make clear in their scathing new book on the coalition, Dogma and Disarray, the one thing they got from the Tories that has actually come to pass, the raising of income-tax thresholds, isn’t particularly progressive, and every one of the Lib Dems’ much-vaunted political reforms – electoral reform for the House of Commons, a largely elected second chamber, reform of political funding – is dead.

Orange Book liberalism has turned the Lib Dems into foot-soldiers for the most right-wing government since 1945, a national coalition like that of the 1930s, making similar policy mistakes.

And now, well, the reckoning. Left-leaning voters have long-since abandoned the Lib Dems: the party has been on 10 per cent or thereabouts in the opinion polls for nearly two years and shows no sign of recovery. Last week’s Lib Dem conference in Brighton was a sorry spectacle, Clegg’s leader’s speech the worst at any conference since Iain Duncan Smith’s “quiet man” performance 10 years ago. There’s still talk about Clegg being usurped by Vince Cable, but Cable’s time has run out: he’ll be 73 by the time of the next election if it happens as planned in 2015. And otherwise the Lib Dems have the lovely Christopher Huhne – who is still embroiled in a ludicrous legal action with his ex-wife – and, er, that’s just about it. Paddy Ashdown might just give them some credibility, but he’s the same age as Cable. And as for Simon Hughes …

The desperation of the Lib Dems’ plight has given rise to merriment in Labour ranks, which I share to some extent. They got themselves into this mess, and it’s down to them to get themselves out of it.

But a few words of caution. First, a collapse of the Lib Dem vote will benefit the Tories more than Labour, even without boundary changes or a Tory-Lib Dem electoral pact. Except in a handful of seats they hold, Lib Dem MPs face Tories as their main challengers. If Ukip supporters vote Tory at a general election and the Lib Dems plunge, the Tories get a lot more seats.

Second, it’s still not impossible that the Tories and Lib Dems will agree a pact before the next general election. All the talk in the past couple of weeks has been about how the Lib Dems are differentiating themselves from the Tories and possibly preparing for life in a centre-left coalition – but that isn’t their only option by any means. The Tories and Lib Dems could still arrange a non-aggression agreement on sitting MPs, for example, and the temptation to do so will increase every month that the opinion polls show the Tories well below what they need to win an outright victory and the Lib Dems heading for a parliamentary party that can fit in the back of a London cab.

Labour has to keep open the option of co-operation with the Lib Dems after the next general election – and it would be sensible to have a plan for a possible coalition ready to roll if needs be in 2015. But it would be idiotic to cosy up to Clegg or Cable right now. Let them stew, and see how it goes.

Saturday, 22 September 2012


Red Pepper, October-November 2012

Fifty years ago this October the world watched, seemingly powerless to do anything as a US-Soviet stand-off brought us close to nuclear Armageddon. PAUL ANDERSON looks at what has happened to nuclear disarmament in the half-century since

On 14 October 1962, a US Air Force U-2 reconnaissance plane flew over Cuba taking photographs of the ground below. The next day, Central Intelligence Agency analysts examined the pictures – and concluded that they showed the construction of a launch site for Soviet missiles, confirming their suspicions that Moscow was creating a nuclear forward base in the Caribbean.

Thus began the Cuban missile crisis – a 13-day stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union that brought the world closer to all-out nuclear war than at any time before or since.

US president John F Kennedy spent the best part of a week working out how to respond. He was still smarting from the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, the unsuccessful US-backed Cuban-exile invasion of the island in 1961 to overthrow Fidel Castro’s by then pro-Soviet revolutionary regime, and he resisted pressure from hawks to launch an immediate invasion. But the strategy he eventually adopted was high-risk. The US imposed a naval blockade on Cuba and promised not to invade if Moscow withdrew its missiles – but backed up the offer with a secret ultimatum threatening immediate invasion if it did not comply, with the only sweetener a secret promise to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Italy and Turkey.

Both superpowers put their military forces on full alert, and for a week it seemed to the whole world that nuclear Armageddon was imminent. Nikita Khrushchev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denounced the naval blockade in fiery language; the United Nations security council met in emergency session and resolved nothing; a Soviet surface-to-air missile shot down an American U-2 over Cuba …

But then Khrushchev blinked. Out of the blue, he agreed to Kennedy’s deal: no Soviet missiles in Cuba, no American missiles in Turkey or Italy. At the time, because the US withdrawal of missiles from Turkey and Italy was not made public, it looked like a straightforward Soviet climbdown – and Khrushchev’s authority in domestic Soviet politics took a blow from which it never recovered: he was ousted two years later. Kennedy won, but he did not live long to savour his victory – he was assassinated in November 1963 – and the hubris that the successful resolution of the crisis instilled in the American establishment played a disastrous role in escalating US intervention in Vietnam.

Britain and CND

Britain was not an actor in the missile crisis. Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government was kept in the dark by the Kennedy administration in its early stages. Macmillan privately expressed polite concern to Kennedy that the US might be going too far in ratcheting up the confrontation with the Soviets – he was worried most of all by the implications for West Berlin, which he feared could be subjected to another Soviet blockade or even invasion – but in public he gave robust support to the Americans.

For the British people, the problem was not the future of Berlin but what appeared to be the strong possibility of nuclear war. Newspaper circulations soared as, day by day, tension mounted.

But the crisis didn’t benefit the movement for nuclear disarmament. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, founded in early 1958 with the support of the Labour left and its weekly papers, the New Statesman and Tribune, had enjoyed a spectacular political success in 1960, when its lobbying of trade unions and constituency Labour parties led to the Labour conference adopting a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, against the histrionic opposition of the party leader, Hugh Gaitskell. But Gaitskell and his allies had overturned unilateralism at the next year’s conference – and the CND leadership subsequently found itself without a viable political strategy and facing a barrage of criticism from activists for putting all its energies into Labour. By 1962, its influence was on the wane.

There was still life in the peace movement. CND’s Easter 1962 annual march from the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment to London attracted 150,000 to its closing rally, its biggest ever crowd. But the impact of the Cuban crisis was demobilising.

On one hand, it showed the futility of demonstrating – and on the other it showed that the leaders of the superpowers were not in the end prepared to launch a nuclear war. Activists drifted away from the movement; the nuclear powers agreed a Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 that seemed to indicate there was hope of multilateral nuclear disarmament by negotiation; and by 1964, when Labour won a general election under Harold Wilson, the movement for British unilateral nuclear disarmament was part of the past. Its activists moved on, to housing campaigns, workplace militancy and opposition to the US war in Vietnam.

The second wave

CND kept going as a small pressure group with a few thousand members through the 1960s and 1970s, a forlorn survivor that few thought would again play a significant role. Meanwhile, international nuclear diplomacy ground on. The Partial Test-Ban Treaty was followed by the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, which committed non-nuclear states to remaining non-nuclear and nuclear states to keeping nuclear know-how to themselves (though its impact was limited because India, Pakistan and Israel refused to sign and subsequently developed their own nuclear weapons). The two superpowers negotiated interminably, reaching significant agreements on limiting strategic nuclear forces and anti-ballistic missile systems in 1972 (SALT-1 and the ABM treaty) and a further agreement on strategic arms in 1979 (SALT-2), though it was not ratified by the US Congress.

But then everything changed. What had seemed to be an inexorable process of winding down the cold war – the 1970s saw not only nuclear arms agreements but also the Helsinki accords guaranteeing borders in Europe and respect for human rights – suddenly went into reverse.

In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Days later, Nato announced that it would be deploying new American intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe – cruise and Pershing 2– if Moscow did not withdraw its own new-generation intermediate-range missiles from Europe. The Nato announcement thrust nuclear arms into the political limelight for the first time since the Cuba crisis.

One man in particular made the running in Britain, the historian E P Thompson. He wrote a furious polemical piece for the New Statesman; followed it with a pamphlet for CND, Protest and Survive, excoriating the government’s asinine advice on how to cope with a nuclear war; then, with Ken Coates, Mary Kaldor and others, launched the European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal, a manifesto for a ‘nuclear-free Europe from Poland to Portugal’.

By summer 1980 – when the Thatcher government announced that it would be replacing Britain’s ageing Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles with American Trident SLBMs – anti-nuclear protest groups had sprung up throughout Britain and CND was a mass movement again. Labour adopted a non-nuclear defence policy at its autumn 1980 conference; the next month Michael Foot, a founder member of CND, became Labour leader. In 1981, feminist pacifists established a peace camp outside the US base at Greenham Common in Berkshire, where the first batch of cruise missiles would be based.

For the next six years, the movement against nuclear arms was central to politics in Britain. It was huge: at its height in 1983-84, CND estimated that it had 100,000 national members and perhaps 250,000 in affiliated local groups, and its demonstrations were massive, with 300,000 turning out in London in 1983. The movement was also much more sophisticated than in its first wave: there was no serious argument between advocates of working through the Labour Party and proponents of direct action; and END provided it with leadership that could not easily be dismissed as pro-Soviet or hard-left (though the Tory government did its very best to persuade voters otherwise).

But Labour lost the 1983 election; cruise arrived in Britain in 1984; and work started on the Trident submarines. Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader and soon made it clear that he wanted an end to the new cold war.

Under Neil Kinnock, who succeeded Foot as Labour leader in 1983, Labour stuck to a non-nuclear defence policy through the mid-1980s – but after Labour lost again in 1987, with a new détente apparently in the air and the peace movement much less vocal, he wavered. Gorbachev and US president Ronald Reagan agreed a deal to remove all intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe, codified in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in December 1987.

Kinnock declared that the agreement changed everything and announced the abandonment of the non-nuclear defence policy. It took two attempts to get it through Labour conference, but by the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 Labour was fully signed up to retaining British nuclear arms to resist a threat that had ceased to exist. The dwindling band of peaceniks pointed at the emperor’s new clothes, but no one took any notice.

Disarmament stalls

The INF treaty was signed nearly 25 years ago, and it should have inaugurated an era of nuclear disarmament – particularly after the implosion of the Soviet bloc and Soviet communism between 1989 and 1991. At first it seemed to have done so. In 1991, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1), and the result, combined with the effect of the INF treaty, was a significant reduction of US and Soviet (after 1991, Soviet successor states’) stockpiles of nuclear warheads: the global total halved by 2000 from 70,000 in 1987.

But the disarmament momentum soon ran out. Russia balked at further reductions of its nuclear weaponry; the US cooled on the whole disarmament process; and the smaller nuclear powers – Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel – either refused to engage or made minimal gestures towards denuclearisation. START-1’s successor, START-2, was signed but not implemented and replaced by an interim Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

Meanwhile, it became clear that nuclear weapons were not central to the international crises of the time – Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the break-up of Yugoslavia, the bloody conflicts in Africa, the rise of al-Qaida, 9/11 and its aftermath – and that insofar as nuclear weapons were an issue the key problem was that the anti-proliferation regime was not working. Iran and North Korea were close to joining India, Pakistan and Israel as nuclear powers – and neither they nor the Indians, Pakistanis or Israelis were prepared to disarm.

US-Russian nuclear arms negotiations have continued: the START process was revived and concluded with a new treaty in 2010, when US president Barack Obama and Russian president Dimitry Medvedev agreed to deep cuts in strategic arsenals. Both Russia and the US have since reduced the number of actively deployed nuclear warheads to 2,000 apiece. But the stockpiles remain frighteningly large. According to the Stockholm Independent Peace Research Institute, the US retains in reserve nearly 6,000 and Russia more than 8,000. The total global warhead count in 2011 was around 20,000, not quite as many as at the time of the Cuba crisis, but not far off.

The nuclear threat now

British anti-nuclear-arms campaigners didn’t give up after 1987. Some went off to create think-tanks, others put their efforts into making CND an alternative foreign policy pressure group. During the 1991 Gulf war, the campaign formed the core of the anti-war movement.

Almost simultaneously, however, came a calamitous collapse of membership and an austerity drive that closed down Sanity, its monthly magazine. The organisation never quite went under, but it returned to the margins. Whereas in 1991 it had set the agenda for opposition to the military intervention against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, a decade later it was reduced to a minor supporting role in the organised opposition to the US and UK military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nuclear arms are still there, but the politics of nuclear arms has changed. The future of Britain’s own bomb is more at risk from government budget cuts than it ever was from CND-inspired Labour oppositions; and the threat of nuclear war no longer appears to come from a suicide pact between Washington and Moscow. For the past decade or more, the most likely sources of Armageddon have been India and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, and North and South Korea – all stand-offs that no one in Britain can realistically hope to influence. That Cuba feeling, that we’re powerless to effect change, is back again, and it’s difficult to see how we can get rid of it.

Thursday, 6 September 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 September 2012

The crisis at London Metropolitan University, which has had its right to educate non-EU foreign students withdrawn by the UK Border Authority, is by far the biggest faced by any UK higher education institution in living memory. According to its vice-chancellor, Malcolm Gillies, if the university’s legal appeal does not overturn the UKBA’s decision, it stands to lose nearly one-fifth of its income, more than £25 million. That's enough to make it go bust.

If the UKBA decision is upheld by the courts, some 2,600 students and prospective students will be directly affected, of whom nearly 500 will be deported – with the rest given four weeks to find another course. Several courses with large numbers of non-EU foreign students will cease to be viable, with knock-on effects for UK and EU students and for staff.

It is difficult to imagine a more heavy-handed and ill-timed response to what the UKBA says is London Met’s problem – that it has admitted large numbers of students who are inadequately qualified or have the wrong visas, and has given places to people who aren’t students at all but are using student visas as a means of getting into the UK to work.

 I’ve no idea whether London Met is guilty of any of these things – though if it has never recruited sub-standard overseas students in order to pocket their fees it is unique among British universities. But it has the means to weed out students who shouldn’t be there because they aren’t up to it or aren’t there because they registered at the start of the academic year and didn’t turn up again.

At the very latest, the useless and the bogus are caught when they fail or do not show either for their first-year exams or for the resits, at which point they are unceremoniously chucked out. Of course, it might be that London Met’s assessment system is or has been slack and needs to be tighter. But that is not what it is being pulled up for. The UKBA’s complaint is that it has not been checking students’ visas with sufficient rigour and has failed to keep detailed records of student attendance – essentially, that it has failed in its duty of immigration control.

The implication is clearly that nothing short of regular inspections of students’ visas and registers in every lecture would suffice to persuade the UKBA that London Met deserves to be allowed to educate non-EU students. This in itself represents a drastic curtailment of the university’s autonomy – and the idea that non-EU foreign students should be subjected to special status checks and attendance controls is insulting to them because it rests on the assumption that they are up to no good unless they prove otherwise.

But the UKBA didn’t just insist on the university adopting more intrusive surveillance of non-EU foreign students. It is demanding that it throws out all of its non-EU foreign students a few weeks before the start of the academic year. Even if all 500 of those slated by the UKBA for deportation had registered for a course at London Met purely as a scam for getting into the country and had never done a day’s study – and of course that isn’t the true picture – that still leaves more than 2,100 students and prospective students who have been expelled from a university where they were studying or hoping to study in good faith and at considerable expense.

The UKBA’s action has sent a message loud and clear to anyone outside the EU who might be thinking of coming to Britain to study: if you don’t want to risk being arbitrarily thrown off a course you’ve paid thousands of pounds to take, go elsewhere.


The question of whether there should be a statue of George Orwell placed outside the BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House briefly engaged the upmarket papers last month after Joan Bakewell said that outgoing BBC director-general Mark Thompson had dismissed the idea because Orwell was far too left-wing. I was annoyed that nearly everyone who expressed an opinion said either that Orwell wasn’t left-wing, which is simply untrue, or that he was but his politics are irrelevant to his enduring appeal, which I think is quite wrong.

What really got me, however, was that no one said that Broadcasting House is completely inappropriate as the site for an Orwell statue. True, he worked for the BBC broadcasting to India in 1942-43 – but he hated it, describing it as “two wasted years”, and left to join Tribune (which was then, as now, left-wing) and for the next four years contributed to it some of his best journalistic work. The best place for a central London statue would be close to Tribune’s then offices at 222 The Strand. There’s plenty of space opposite, on the pavement outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

Friday, 13 July 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 13 July 2012

 If the crisis in the eurozone weren’t so serious, the way that David Cameron and George Osborne have tied themselves in knots over Europe would be funny.

They are both instinctive Eurosceptics who would like to disengage from Europe: as the 2010 Tory manifesto had it, “We will work to bring back key powers over legal rights, criminal justice and social and employment legislation to the UK.” They certainly don’t want Britain ever to join the euro; and they want no British part in the deeper fiscal and political union that is increasingly on the European Union agenda as the solution to the euro’s design flaws.

But they know that the eurozone is a crucial market for British goods and services and that its collapse, or indeed anything that impeded access to the European market, would be a disaster for Britain’s already stuttering economy. So they have been arguing for closer integration for the eurozone – from which Britain should be excluded, although it should remain in the EU. An increasingly federal Europe, it seems, is good for everyone else but not for us.

This position horrifies much of the right of their own party, who view the crisis in the eurozone with Schadenfreude, are sworn enemies of a federal Europe even without Britain and would simply like to get out of the EU. It is also unacceptable to most of Britain’s EU partners, who see it as Britain demanding free access to eurozone markets while escaping eurozone fiscal rules and retaining the right to devalue at will.

To make matters even more complex, the Tory leadership remains committed to its manifesto pledge of a referendum on any treaty “that transferred areas of power or competences” to the EU – but it doesn’t want one on measures designed to rescue the euro, which might well require a treaty that transferred vast powers to the EU. Moreover, the idea of an “in or out” referendum on Europe sooner rather than later, as advocated by a large part of the Tory right, is anathema to Cameron and Osborne, but they can’t be too critical because they are fearful of defections of Tory voters (and, who knows, Tory MPs) to the ultra-Eurosceptic UK Independence Party. They also have to keep on board their pro-European Liberal Democrat coalition partners (whose last manifesto included a promise of an “in or out” referendum because they thought “in” would win, though how keen they are on it now is a moot point).

Europe looks as if it could well not only cause the Tories to implode, as it did in the 1990s, but also tear the coalition apart.

With events moving quickly – and with a myriad plausible scenarios of how the eurozone crisis comes to be resolved (or not) – the temptation for Labour is to play a game of wait-and-see, saying little but reaping the benefits of the confusion and feuding in British government ranks. And that, by and large, is what it has done under Ed Miliband.

It won’t be long, however, before it has to declare its own Europe policy: the next nationwide elections, those to the European Parliament, are now less than two years away. Obviously, much of its detailed position will be determined by what happens next, which cannot be predicted, let alone influenced by Labour.

But the big question Labour has to answer is clear even now. It is how far Labour – for the past 25 years a pro-European party, if one that in power infuriated much of the EU with its stubborn resistance to further integration and with its advocacy of free-market deregulationist policies – should adopt a more critical stance on Europe, and how it should do it.

That it should take a more critical stance is hardly controversial. It is now clear that the euro as implemented without a fiscal union is fundamentally flawed – and it has always been clear that the EU’s political structures need reform to make them much more democratically accountable. But that is simply to state the problem. Should Labour rule out future membership of a reformed eurozone forever? Should it demand British opt-outs from EU policies, either present or future, that remove powers from the UK? Most importantly in terms of domestic politics, should it promise a referendum or referendums on Europe, and if so when and on what should they happen?

On all this, the superficial attractions of anti-Europe populism are evident: public opinion is viscerally anti-European. But Labour should be careful not to offer hostages to fortune. A “never” on eurozone membership might look very foolish by 2020, and hasty offers of referendums often prove disastrous in the long run. Labour’s best bet is to ignore the allure of populist promises and offer a European policy of constructive engagement and radical democratic reform of the EU’s institutions.

Friday, 15 June 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 June 2012

I’m giving up university lecturing after 12 years and going properly freelance again – possibly a stupid act in the middle of a recession, but I’ve had enough of the mind-numbing tedium that has come to pervade academic life, of which more anon – so I’ve spent the past couple of weeks putting together an online archive of what I’ve written over the past 30 years in the hope that it might help get me a few commissions. (You're now reading it.)

Most of the articles have been stored away in a filing cabinet for years – and I’ve just re-read them for the first time in ages while correcting the scans before posting them. They are from a variety of left-wing periodicals but particularly Tribune (where I was reviews editor 1986-91 and editor 1991-93, and have written this column since 1998) and the New Statesman (where I was deputy editor 1993-96).

Anyway, it’s odd being confronted afresh with what you wrote a long time ago. There are, of course, the embarrassingly wrong predictions – but, as I’ve written before, they are so seared in the memory that they don’t exactly come as a shock when you unearth them from the pile of yellowing cuttings, however much they still make you squirm. You get much more of a surprise from the articles you’d forgotten or half-forgotten, both good and bad.

Many of these are of course about issues that were once burning but have long ceased even to smoulder: the big row over US nuclear arms in Europe after the INF treaty of 1987, the expulsion of Trotskyists from the Labour Party in 1990-91, the export of live animals from UK ports in 1995 (and so I could go on). I wonder what we worry about today that will look irredeemably quaint in 20 years’ time?


One thing I’m not tempted by after this exercise is political nostalgia for the 1980s, which my old pieces remind me were a mean, dispiriting decade for anyone on the democratic left in Britain. Not so the eight authors who reminisce about their experience of life in the Communist Party of Great Britain in its era of terminal decline in a new book, After the Party: Reflections on life since the CPGB, edited by Andy Croft and published by Lawrence and Wishart.

I was never in the Communist Party but knew a lot of people who were (Including a couple of the book’s contributors) and remember it well from the late 1970s for its poisonous internal feuding and its impotence. By then, it was torn between pro-Soviet “Tankies” based around the Morning Star and modernising “Eurocommunists” around Marxism Today, and its influence – never great even at its height in the 1940s – had been reduced to holding positions in a few unions and pressure groups. The acrimonious internal battle ended with the Euros routing the Tankies, who kept the Star and created the Communist Party of Britain. The whole farce came to an ignominious end when, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Euros turned the CPGB into a new organisation, Democratic Left, that hardly anyone joined (though much later I got very involved in its organ New Times.)

All in all, a pretty grim time, you’d think – but for the most part Croft and his contributors, all from the last cohort of CPGB members who joined during its death throes, now in their fifties and sixties, look back with some fondness and sense of loss. Well, I suppose there were some decent people in the CPGB, and Marxism Today had its moments, but reading this book gave me a rather sad picture of people desperately asserting that they hadn’t wasted a large part of their lives.


A much more upbeat read is the investigative journalist Greg Palast’s latest book, Vultures’ Picnic (Constable), a rip-roaring account of the crimes and misdemeanours of big oil corporations and their friends in high finance and government. It’s written in a first-person style that owes something to cheap crime thrillers and something to Hunter S Thompson, and is a breath of fresh air: I read it in a single sitting. Palast is doing a launch event in London next Thursday (26 June, 7pm at The Venue, ULU, Malet Street) that promises to be a great deal of fun.

Friday, 18 May 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 May 2012

There can be no doubt that over the past few weeks Labour has enjoyed its best run for a long time – certainly since the surge of popularity that came with Gordon Brown taking over the premiership in 2007 (remember that?).

The opinion polls give Labour a massive lead over the Conservatives that would yield a comfortable parliamentary majority if translated into votes in a general election, even with the proposed reduction of the size of the Commons and redrawing of constituency boundaries.

A fortnight ago, Labour did much better than anyone expected in the local elections, gaining more than 800 council seats across Great Britain. It took control of councils in the south-east and east of England where its parliamentary representation had been reduced to a handful by the 2010 general election. It emphatically reversed the drift away from Labour in local government in south Wales. And it at least stood up to the nationalist challenge in Scotland. Ken Livingstone losing in London was a disappointment, but Labour did better in the London Assembly election than ever before.

The coalition government, meanwhile, is facing troubles that it shows no sign of containing. George Osborne’s budget, giving money to the rich and taking it from the poor, was a public relations disaster that he will not easily live down. The economy is in the doldrums and shows no sign of recovery. And the Tories’ intimacy with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is slowly but surely being exposed to public view, text message by text message, email by email, at the Leveson inquiry.

The Tory right’s dissatisfaction with the compromises of coalition in general and with David Cameron in particular is palpable. So too is the Liberal Democrats’ fear that they face electoral disaster if they stay on their current course.

To top it all, Ed Miliband has been doing rather better than before as Labour leader. He still appears awkward a lot of the time, but he is now matching Cameron in parliament and seems to have seen off the sniping of Blairite nostalgics in his own party. Why, this week Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson even co-authored a piece for the Guardian’s comment pages declaring that they agreed on Europe (except on the small matter of whether Britain should join the euro).

It is, however, too early for Labour supporters to break open the champagne. We are three years from the next general election, and a lot could happen in that time. Mid-term local election successes on low voter turnouts are not reliable guides to subsequent general election results. As for the polls, it is only four months since the Tories and Labour were neck-and-neck, and a Tory recovery cannot be ruled out.

Everything depends on what now happens to the economy – or rather what is perceived by voters to be happening. So far, the coalition’s story that austerity is necessary to pay back the debt left by Labour’s irresponsible spending spree before 2010 has chimed remarkably well with the electorate: the big question over the next six months is whether Labour can get a hearing outside the political class for its moderately Keynesian alternative.

Here, Labour could do worse than emulate the thrust of Francois Hollande’s successful French presidential campaign – maybe not a 75 per cent tax on very high earners but something similarly symbolic of making the rich pay their fair share, along with a package to boost demand in the economy (through building council houses, say). That’s pretty much in line with what the shadow chancellor would like to make his message: Labour now needs Balls to do it with some élan.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 April 2012

There has been something about French politics that I’ve liked for as long as I can remember. As a kid in the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle – giant nose, strange military hat – was the only foreign leader I could recognise apart from Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro. As a teenager in the early 1970s I devoured the novels of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. A little bit later I came to marvel at France’s extraordinary left-wing intellectual culture.

I was never a fan of Louis Althusser, the main intellectual of the French Communist Party; and Sartre as communist fellow-traveller left me cold. But I gobbled up everything I could find by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, Henri Lefebvre, André Gorz, Guy Debord, Edgar Morin, Jacques Camatte, Pierre Bourdieu. Les evenements of 1968 were an obsession, the dissident left and leftish journals of the 50s, 60s and 70s – Socialisme ou Barbarie, Arguments, Esprit – an inspiration despite my useless French. By 1980, I’d decided that I wanted to live in Paris.

I never did, but I did get to meet some of the people whose books and articles I’d taken so seriously. Castoriadis was a lovely man, Lefort rather formal, Camatte more interested in getting off with my then girlfriend than in anything else. My bookshelves are still populated by obscure pamphlets bought from secondhand stalls along the banks of the Seine. I have a near-mint first Editions Spartacus printing of that great French intellectual Denis Healey’s Les Socialistes derrière le rideau de fer. And I once slept in a bed once slept in by Amadeo Bordiga, the first leader of the Italian Communist Party and in later life a noted left communist, at the Paris flat of some former militants of Programme Communiste

I was not the first Brit to be seduced by the French intellectual left – and some people went the whole hog, most notably the late Tony Judt, whose magnum opus Postwar I read (belatedly) over the Easter holiday weekend.

But the magic wore off for me. By the mid-1980s, the golden era of the French intellectuals was over. The big figures of the 1950s were getting old and dying, and the generation of 1968 had either joined the political mainstream or drifted into marginality.

Many of the 68ers' enthusiasms – particularly workers’ self-management and a reduction of working time – had been adopted by the French Socialist Party in the run-up to its sensational election victory in 1981, but Francois Mitterrand’s administration soon dropped even the pretence of being other than technocratic.

The past 30 years have not been kind to the French left. The Mitterrand era faded away into recrimination after the left lost the 1986 national assembly election – though Mitterrand himself won the 1988 presidential race – and the once-mighty Communist Party dwindled to a rump.

There was a brief moment of hope in 1997, when the left unexpectedly won a national assembly majority under Lionel Jospin, but in the 2002 presidential election Jospin failed to make it into the second round, which was contested between the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen and the incumbent Jacques Chirac. The less said about the state of the left for the rest of the noughties – split over Europe and just about everything else – the better.

But could the tide be about to turn at last? It might just be. The Socialist candidate for the imminent presidential election, Francois Hollande, looks likely to make it into the second round, in which he would be hot favourite to beat Nicolas Sarkozy. There’s even something of a left movement on the march: the campaign of the communist-dominated Front de Gauche, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has had a vigour few expected, with big rallies all over the country exhibiting wild enthusiasm for his populist anti-capitalist rhetoric.

It could yet end in disaster – my worst-case scenario is Mélenchon making it into the second round instead of Hollande and then losing to Sarkozy – but there’s a good chance that we’ll wake up on 7 May to find that France has a centre-left president for the first time in 17 years. That wouldn’t return us to the era of Editions Spartacus and Socalisme ou Barbarie … but it would certainly cheer me up.

Friday, 23 March 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 March 2012

Sometimes, anniversaries come as a shock to the system. Yep, it’s 35 years this week that the Clash released their first single:
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
It wasn’t the first Brit punk 45 – that was the Damned’s “New Rose” in October 1976, which was followed by the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” and several others – but it was the decisive one, for me at least. I’d been ready for punk for some time: my record collection had expanded since 1975 from the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zep and the Who to include the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Dr Feelgood, Patti Smith and the Ramones. But it was “White Riot” that made me cut my hair and ditch the flares.

And it was a long, long time ago. Since then, I’ve been to university, worked, done sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, worked, done more sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, worked – and now I’m in my fifties. But I don’t think I’ve really grown up, at least in the way that my parents grew up.

Sure, I’m wiser than I was, or at least I hope I am. I’ve been married and divorced. I don’t live in a junkie squat or a squalid bedsit any more. I own a slowly increasing percentage of a bijou two-up, two-down in fashionable Ipswich with gas central heating. I’ve got lots of books and DVDs and CDs, and state-of-the-art computer kit on which I can produce a magazine or a website or a feature film in my own home. I’ve no kids. So far, the current wave of austerity hasn’t hit me, though I worry about the next six months.

A smug, middle-aged, middle-class git, you might justifiably think. In my own mind, however, I’m still pretty much where I was 35 years ago when I cut my hair and ditched the flares. The music will never die, for starters. I still despise going straight. And the politics of the era still resound, much more than you’d think.

Back then, I was a revolutionary leftist – an anarchist by 1977, though in the previous two years I’d been through Trotskyism and Maoism, as teenagers did back then. Today I’m not a revolutionary, and haven’t been for nearly 30 years. That, though, is more about facing reality than any big change of heart. Sometime after the 1983 general election I twigged that the British working class wasn’t going to start a revolution and that you couldn’t be taken seriously playing Citizen Smith for real.

But when I joined the Labour Party in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t as an entryist but because I'd come to believe that boring old social democracy was the only credible alternative to the privatising class-war lunacy of the Thatcher government. As Richard Neville almost put it, it might have been only a potential inch of difference, but it was an inch in which we might be able to live.

The thing is, I haven’t really moved on politically since then, and nor has most of my generation. I grudgingly accepted Neil Kinnock’s policy review after the 1987 general election, and even more grudgingly swallowed Labour’s rightward shift under John Smith and Tony Blair after 1992.

Since then, Labour has left me colder and colder. New Labour was a success as a marketing strategy but the 1997-2010 government did little that has lasted apart from devolution. I’m still a party member, mainly because Labour makes a difference in local government, but I don’t believe the bollocks that comes from the party leadership. I want a return to Kinnockism circa 1988. So do most other party members and a large number of supporters.

Now, however, the kids have taken over. Last week’s New Statesman carried a long essay by Alwyn W Turner – a byline I didn’t recognise, but that’s my fault – looking at the failure of my generation to make any impact on mainstream politics in Britain. The New Labour crew were all born 1945-55, the new Tory and Lib Dem boys in 1965-79 … and it’s New Labour’s sidekicks, the researchers and spin-doctors for Blair and Brown, all born 1965-79, who now lead Labour.

They’re too young for the Clash. They look to focus groups and nothing else. Their problem, and ours.

Friday, 24 February 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 24 February 2012

My dad was not a demonstrative man. A working-class Edinburgh boy, he became part of the white-collar middle class thanks to night school and second-world-war military service.

He kept the story of his war experiences in a notebook that no one saw until after he died – 20 years ago next week – and was shifty about having voted Liberal in elections in the 1970s. That was partly because my mum was Labour, but mainly because he was a Scottish nationalist. There was never an SNP candidate in Ipswich, and the Liberal was a miserable next-best option.

On one thing, though, he was vocal: porridge. He’d been eating it for breakfast all his life. He knew it was good for you. And when we were kids he made it made it every day, at least in winter.

But it wasn’t shop porridge, as he called it. He insisted that the porridge oats available at every supermarket and corner store weren’t the real thing. They were rolled oatmeal, and what you needed to make proper Scottish porridge was pinhead oats. They’re the oats in an early, pre-rolling, stage of processing, cut into bits by a mill – and they make porridge a lot crunchier and tastier than rolled oatmeal.

In Scotland in the 1970s, getting the proper oats might have been a matter of nipping down the corner store: I don’t know. In Suffolk, where we lived, it meant a 30-minute cycle ride down to Barnard’s, an old-fashioned miller’s retail shop, which I did once a fortnight. They specialised in birdseed -- but also supplied the yeast with which we made bread when the power went off during Ted Heath’s three-day week.

These days in Suffolk, you need to do your homework to get pinhead oats. The old independent retailers have gone – and the big supermarkets don’t carry pinhead oats, just as they don’t carry once-cheap cuts of meat (offal particularly) or any white fish apart from haddock and cod. As far as I know, the only shop that sells pinhead oats is a pricey semi-deli chi-chi greengrocer in the centre of town that is also the only obvious place to get herbs in volume or sweet potatoes.

My old man’s other injunction, of course, was that porridge should be eaten salted, possibly with milk or cream, but never contaminated with sugar or jam. The idea of adding fruit or yoghurt was in the future, but would have appalled him, I know. And as for deep-fried Mars Bars ...

Whatever, I shudder to think of what he would have made of the visit to Scotland last week by David Cameron to persuade the Scots that they should not vote for independence in the forthcoming referendum.

Cameron started his trip with a photo-opportunity at the PepsiCo factory in Cupar, Fife, where the giant American multinational produces variants of what my dad called shop porridge, most of it branded as Quaker or Scott’s, the latter recognisable to consumers all over the world for the strapping shot-putter in vest and kilt that adorns its packaging. PepsiCo has just announced a big expansion plan – and, declared the PM in front of a poster of the shot-putter, it wouldn’t have happened had Scotland been independent.

He developed the theme in a big speech later the same day – “the union makes us strong”, as one Scots wag put it to me – after an unfriendly and inconclusive meeting with Alex Salmond, the SNP first minister.

Cameron's performance was fake, big-time, and every Scot who watched it knew it, whatever their views on porridge. What the Scots haven't twigged yet, at least most of them, is that Salmond is as big a fraud as Cameron, if not a bigger one.

Yes, it's true that Scotland had an independent existence before the union.

Yes, it has a legal system of its own and a political culture that's different from England's, its own poets and novelists and all the rest.

Yes, the Scots want a more egalitarian society than they will ever get from a Tory-dominated England.

But the defining difference between England and Scotland is trivial: it's football. The Scots don't care about independence: they want the home championship back, and the chance for Law, Baxter and Dalglish to knock in a few goals against the old enemy. Salmond has nothing under his kilt but the flimsiest of tartan panties.

It has been a long time since we last saw a game. Instead, we've got months of arguments about Scottish independence before the big vote – competing with fractious debate about whether Harry Redknapp can make anything of the overpaid thickos in the England football team.

I'm not afraid of an independent Scotland. It could be great – social democracy, Rab C Nesbit, Billy Connolly, Neil Oliver – but it could be dire – Braveheart nationalism, Burns Night haggis suppers (White Heather Club style), tartan trinkets ad nauseam. But actually I don't think it matters that much whether Scotland is independent or not. As Rosa Luxemburg said, the class struggle transcends national boundaries. And Rosa knew a bit about porridge.

Friday, 27 January 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 January 2012

So,farewell, then, Press TV, as Private Eye’s spoof poet E. J. Thribb would say. The Iranian state television station last week had its licence to broadcast in Britain revoked by the regulator, Ofcom, after repeatedly breaching the Ofcom code. The final straw was its refusal to guarantee that it was editorially controlled from London and not from Tehran. Last Friday it was removed from the BSkyB satellite.

An outrageous assault on freedom of expression? George Galloway, the former MP who has presented a regular show on Press TV, certainly thinks so. “Champions of liberty the British govt have now taken Press TV off Sky,” the gorgeous former admirer of Saddam Hussein tweeted in response to the decision.

But then he continued: “Follow us at and other platforms” – which rather undermines his point. Press TV hasn’t actually been suppressed, and it isn’t really farewell. Anyone who wants to can watch it online.

Not that I’m going to, I might add, or at least not very often. Press TV is an organ of Iranian government propaganda, a purveyor of anti-semitic conspiracy theory and anti-democratic bile, no more trustworthy than the Soviet Novosti Press Agency and its lackeys were in the bad old days. You only watch it to see what the Iranian government and its useful idiots in the west are saying.

Nevertheless, the case of Press TV is an important one because of what it says about the difficulties of regulating broadcasting in the digital age.

From the 1920s until very recently, Britain had a very tough regulatory regime for broadcasting. For more than 30 years, the BBC – a state-owned corporation from 1927 – had a monopoly of broadcasting, with strict rules prohibiting political partisanship and bias, and the same rules were applied to commercial broadcasters after the BBC monopoly was broken in 1955 with the creation of ITV.

In the years after the end of the BBC monopoly, commercial broadcasting grew massively in scope – commercial radio from the early 1970s, Channel Four from 1982, Sky and other channels on satellite from the late 1980s – but the tough rules on partisanship and bias remained in place.

They weren’t perfect: a self-satisfied establishment consensus ruled, views outside the mainstream were largely excluded from the airwaves, and governments of every political persuasion did their best, with varying degrees of success, to suppress awkward programmes and keep out awkward programme-makers.

But the regulatory regime spared – and what remains of it still spares – British broadcasting the propagandist partisanship that has poisoned the political culture of other countries. Italy has Berlusconi TV in all its forms, the United States has Fox and dozens of radio stations that pour out populist right-wing propaganda for their corporate masters. We don’t.

The very fact that Press TV was given a licence in the first place shows, however, that the long-standing British regulatory regime has started to disintegrate – and the fact that its licence being revoked makes little difference to its accessibility is a harbinger of things to come. In the multi-channel, multi-platform, global-broadcaster digital age, content regulation is more difficult to justify – who nixes “We’re just an honest-to-goodness news channel run by an office in London with lots of ethnic-minority people (and George Galloway)”? – and almost impossible to enforce completely.

Some would say that this is a good thing, but I don’t agree. A free-for-all of the airwaves could well be in the offing. But it would advantage no one but the already advantaged – super-rich individuals, corporations and states – towards whom the rules are already heavily stacked. The British regulatory regime for broadcasting needs to be reinforced to limit propagandist channels' access, not relaxed. It might be a fighting retreat, but it's worth it.

Which is where Nick Cohen’s fiery new polemic about freedom of expression, You Can’t Read This Book, comes in. He recognises that we need regulation to preserve media freedom. The book’s big theme is that formal legal guarantees of freedom of expression are not enough to sustain its practice.

Fear – fear of being fired for stepping out of line by a corporation or government organisation that employs you, fear of the libel action that might come from a super-rich crook with a holiday home in London, fear of being assassinated for offending the religious sensibilities of some imam in Iran (who might well broadcast on Press TV) – is as potent a constraint on free expression as the censor of a totalitarian state, and a much larger and more present danger in western democracies than necessary tolerant democratic media regulation.

Cohen’s book is brilliant – add that to the cover blurb – but it doesn’t go far enough in exploring the informal system of controlling what is sayable and what is not in the contemporary media. He’s quite blasé about political and cultural exclusion by newspaper and broadcast editors (his line is that you can always find another outlet for your opinions, which might be true for him but isn’t for most of the rest of us) and he has nothing to say about the collusion between journalists and their sources that keeps so much that should be public private.

Ah, what the hell. I’m writing what I think for a democratic socialist newspaper. It will be published (I hope) more or less unchanged. We might be as marginal as it’s possible to be, but we’re still here, out and proud. That’s good, and long may it continue. The survival of Tribune is much more important than that of Press TV.