Every human institution, from marriage to the army to the government to the courts to corporations and banks, religions, every system of civilisation is now in jeopardy because of this new transparency.  So spake Professor Daniel Dennett over Lunch With the FT in an article that appeared in the 4/5 March 2017 edition.  He was criticising the blinding light of transparency from digital technologies that’s permeating institutions, producing a world where it’s near-impossible to keep secrets.

I’ve also been reading John Nickson’s latest book Our Common Good, which looks in detail at the erosion of trust in institutions and what’s often referred to as the establishment:  the media; the police; our MPs; car manufacturers, banks and other businesses; sporting bodies; the Catholic Church; care and other social services … the list goes on.  But one of the points made in Our Common Good is that the level of trust in institutions is unequal and there’s a correlation with inequality of income.  Put bluntly, the so-called elite (or more informed) public is more likely to trust government, business, the media and other organisations to do what’s right than the majority of the population.

Where problems have been concealed, a blinding light of transparency – and truth – can help to put the record straight.  But it’s hardly surprising that a stream of disclosures breeds suspicion, cynicism and distrust and feeds alternatives to the establishment.

But Professor Dennett’s concerns appear to be wider.  He argues for institutions to have “membranes” that allow them to retain some privacy and control over their information.  I think he’s saying that the transparency pendulum has swung too far, too quickly, and we need both time to adjust and the opportunity to dial back to a moderated position.

My concern is that the genie has been let out of the bottle and, even if it could be put back, it might not be wise for that to be done.  If it’s accepted that levels of trust are generally low, establishing a wall of privacy around institutions that are perceived as bearing some of the responsibility for that lack of trust doesn’t seem to be the best approach.

I’ll post next week on other points from Our Common Good that suggest ways forward, but our approach needs to pull society together, not drive us further apart, no matter how much we might want to turn back the clock.


Hockney at the Tate


There are a very few people who are regarded as National Treasures in the UK:  the Queen (it goes without saying) and David Attenborough are obvious examples; David Beckham’s potential ebbs and flows; David Hockney’s on the list.  Before I visited the Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain, I’m not sure that I’d have described him as the UK’s greatest living artist, but I am now.

Hockney’s work feels as though it’s become more familiar over the last decade following works in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, two solo-artist exhibitions at the RA (one of block-buster proportions) and another at the National Portrait Gallery.  What I found so fabulous about the Tate exhibition is that it shows how Hockney has innovated throughout his career but with immense coherence.

He’s been fortunate to live at a time when photography has become accessible, along with video and most recently, iPhone and iPad drawing tools.  But the exhibition shows that these new media have been used in a way that’s consistent with Hockney’s pencil and charcoal drawings and his paintings.  He’s looking and seeing the same types of scenes and objects, people and places, capturing them using new tools.

Because he’s so highly-regarded and so famous, the temptation is to think that he’s painting (or drawing or capturing) significant events or important things.  But the curators make the point that he’s content to draw what he sees through the bedroom window when he’s sitting in bed, his garden, his friends – a pair of slippers, cast aside.  His skill as a draughtsman makes them special, but they are ordinary objects.

His skill as a colourist sprinkles them with fairy-dust too.  Near-neon splashes, bold swathes of magenta, orange, yellow and blue, poles of red and snaking purple roads appear in the later paintings, a warmer palette than the cooler blues and flesh tones of works from the 1970s and 80s.  Your head tells you that the vibrant colours shouldn’t work, but your eyes tell you that they do.

The final room has iPad drawings that at least one review dismissed pretty much out of hand.  But spend time there watching the drawings come to life, from blank screen to finished object, passing through that point where you think it’s wonderful and complete but Hockney knows better and shows you just what more is needed.

And don’t miss the room with the four video installations, particularly the part where the car comes down the road.  An artist approaching 80 decided to put a 3×3 rig of cameras on a car and drive down a country lane; the result is very special.  As I was saying, this is an innovator who records everyday things.

A final word on logistics:  this is a big exhibition and I’ve been twice, once for the first half and once for the second.  It’s also popular.  If you can, find a friend who’s a member (I did and thank you!) and go at 8am on Saturday or Sunday when members have the place to themselves.  Otherwise, book an early slot and head straight to the end of the exhibition so you have the video room to yourself, then linger in the room of drawings – and only then head to room one.

Counter-factual history and fake news


Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of SS-GB, the BBC’s new Sunday evening series.  For anyone who missed it or hasn’t seen the trailers, it’s an alternative reality drama, set in Britain occupied by Germany after losing the Second World War.  It’s a story built on what I know as counter-factual history.

Counter-factual history scenarios are littered with What ifs?  What if Elizabeth I had married and had children (with all the who and when that goes with that)?  What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated?  What if there’d been no Adolf Hitler?  What if the Germans had invaded Britain?  What if President Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated?  These are games that Historians like to play and there’s a book of essays edited by Professor Niall Ferguson on exactly this topic – Virtual History:  Alternatives and Counterfactuals.

But let’s look at more recent scenarios.  What if Al Gore had won the US presidential election in 2000 or if the UK had stayed out of the second Gulf War in 2003?  Or if Hilary Clinton had won the US presidential election in 2016?  This is when history, current affairs and politics meet – and where counter-factual history and fake news bump against each other.

After watching SS-GB yesterday evening, I caught the first part of the BBC News and I realised that it’s rare to see or hear a news programme now that isn’t commenting on or doesn’t have some reference to fake news.  Even a few months ago, I hadn’t heard the phrase.  Now it feels ubiquitous and there’s a perception it’s playing an important part in creating what appears, to many, to be an alternative reality.

It’s not so far removed from counter-factual history, but there’s more at stake.  It isn’t a game and it isn’t Sunday evening entertainment.  It’s about fundamental issues of what constitutes the truth, but it’s also about freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  As those topics play out to allow anyone to say what they think, I wonder how truth can be presented in a way that frees it to sing out and convince those who may be disinclined to believe it.  What are the essential truths that people can agree on and what are matters of perception?  How can the meaning of “truth” be preserved and protected when it’s under threat?  And how do we start to pull together, rather than continuing to pull apart?

WHEN YOU WANT A QUICK REPLY, SEND A LETTER (and other quirks of communication in 2017)


I had a delightfully retro experience last week.  I needed to contact someone to arrange to meet for lunch.  I didn’t have their email address and, for various reasons, it was possible that they didn’t have one in active use.  For completely different reasons, it was also inappropriate to phone.  I therefore wrote a letter.

Apart from thank-you letters, I haven’t put pen to paper and hand-written a letter for years and I realised it used muscles that hadn’t been exercised in recent memory.  The style was slightly different from the one I’d use in an email – not necessarily more formal, but less clichéd.  I thought about the words more carefully and I knew I had to fill a certain amount of space.  But I enjoyed it – the phrasing; the sign-off; wondering whether my first name alone would be recognised (and adding my surname, in brackets); the addressing of the envelope and applying a stamp; posting the letter and imagining it landing on the recipient’s doormat.

The shock came when I received a reply two days later, so much sooner than the replies I usually receive to emails and texts.  Before going any further, I do appreciate that my friends might be dropping hints in not always responding by return, but I sense that people generally don’t reply to emails and texts quite as rapidly as we might imagine.  We’re told that email makes us accessible and communications clamour for our attention 24/7, but that doesn’t always translate to dealing with them instantly.

And that got me thinking about a discussion a few weeks ago on phone etiquette and how that’s altering.  Occasionally, I call friends out of the blue, but I generally text or email to ask if they’ll be around or fix a time to speak.  Similarly, friends usually (but not invariably) do that before calling me.  Where the phone was once the means of contacting someone immediately, a phone call is now seen by many as an intrusive demand for immediate attention.  There’s a risk that it will be as inappropriate as someone appearing on your doorstep unannounced and uninvited.  It seems to be a generational point, with older people looking blankly when this was explained and youngsters looking equally bewildered at why anyone would make a phone call in the first place.

And if you do call, don’t leave a voicemail message.  I know a lot of people who don’t listen to them and more who regard them as time-thieves.  For work these days, I send an email if I can’t reach someone by phone because that’s the convention now.  Emails can be picked up more easily than voicemail messages and are quicker to deal with.

I’ll keep sending emails, texts and the like (as a precursor to phone calls, as well as communications in their own right), but I did enjoy writing that letter by hand.  Judging from the speed of the response, there might be a few other people who do too.

Caesars and Judges


Last week began with the International Crisis Group presenting its top ten crises for 2017 at Chatham House.  Those crises barely got a look-in:  most of the discussion was about the US under its new President.

Most of the commentary and answers to the questions came from Mark Malloch Brown, former UN Deputy-Secretary General.  His insights were excellent and there was one that struck me in particular.

Rather than seeing the election of President Trump as being linked to – and in a line with – Brexit, it would be more appropriate to see him as the latest of the “Caesars” – authoritarians with a populist appeal.  A number of examples were given and more occurred to people during the session; I’m sure you’ll be able to work them out.

Caesars do things that liberals regard as breaking political and/or social norms.  Some voters see them as an aberration, but others consider them an admirable breath of fresh air.  One thing Caesars generally have in common is that they seem very comfortable exercising power without an array of checks and balances.

It’s a while since I studied the development of the US constitution, but my recollection is that it was designed and drafted to avoid excessive power vesting in the executive, whether called a president, a king or a Caesar.  Congress (as the legislature) and the judiciary are given their roles to produce a balanced constitution with inherent checks and balances on power.

The judiciary is important as one of these branches of government, as we’ve seen in the UK on the Brexit appeals.  The role of judges is to interpret and rule on the law.  It isn’t to make decisions about implementing the will of the people or (picking up on the court decisions in the US over the last few days) to determine what makes a country or people safe.

The rule of law is a pillar of a properly functioning polity and the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government is the foundation on which the rule of law is built.

‘Jackie’ – and finding the truth


It’s my favourite time of year for going to the cinema.  We all need cheering up in January and – in the UK, at least – we have the award-contenders on release.

In the last week, I’ve seen La La Land, which is cheerful without being saccharine and has songs with tunes that stick in the head in a good way.  The people I saw it with were in tears at the end, but that seemed to add to their enjoyment.

I’ve also seen Jackie, which is far more intense.  The performances are superb and I particularly loved the score; it feels more like a score than mere music.  But there’s a but on the way.

Most of the people seeing it won’t remember the assassination of President Kennedy and the events that followed his death, although I expect more or less everyone will have heard of him and his widow.  There is, though, a need to introduce the characters and their lives.

On the whole, I thought that was well done, but there were a few occasions where it felt as though the script ground to a halt while we were given a fact.  For instance:  Mrs Kennedy saying that she could have been hunting in Virginia, when there seemed no reason to mention that; some of the references to the son and daughter who died.

The film purports to look at the days after President Kennedy’s death and how the label Camelot became attached to the Kennedy White House.  As I watched, I was trying to distinguish fact from artistic licence and I wasn’t at all clear whether scenes that gave the film its depth and allowed the character of Jackie Kennedy to be portrayed were, in fact, accurate.  Did she walk around the White House at night, after her husband’s death, wearing various dresses from her days as First Lady?  Did she throw her children’s toys in boxes when packing to leave the White House?  Did she use the words in the film when she told her children that their father was dead?  Did John Kennedy Jr cry and have an understandable tantrum where that appears in the film?

They’re small points, but I believe that these things matter if you’re purporting to tell a story about real people and real events – even if those real events were about the creation of Camelot, conjuring an image that we’ve come to accept as defining the Kennedy era.  Particularly at a time when post-truth and fake news have become part of our lives.

Sunhat or Scarf?


I have very fair skin. The only prospect of a tan is if my freckles meet. Sun, for me, means SPF50, long sleeves, shade – and either a sunhat or a scarf.

For those of you who don’t have to undertake sun protection on this scale, there are two problems with sunhats: carrying them around and keeping them on your head. The first sunhat I remember losing to a gust of wind was in Tennessee at the age of nine; it landed in the middle of a cotton field, leaving the elastic strap under my chin. I’ve chased hats across beaches, down streets and along country lanes. And those are the ones I didn’t leave in a café or in a friend’s car after carrying it around, waiting for the brief blast of sunshine when it would be needed.

Which is why I favour a scarf. It can be tucked in a bag, slung round the neck and brought into service without fuss and kerfuffle. But recently, I’ve noticed that the scarf is attracting too much attention.

The thing about a scarf is that it, too, has to stay put, while avoiding the Queen-out-riding look of a scarf knotted under the chin. I suppose I’m aiming for chic-in-the-south-of-France, with the scarf wrapped round my head and very large sunglasses. (The less said about the success of these intentions the better, but you get the idea.)

But a woman with a scarf wrapped round her head – even a crinkly-cotton blue-and-white-striped job – now has overtones of a hijab. The long sleeves, to cover up fry-able skin, probably contribute to the impression.

In Washington, DC last year, I went into a smart restaurant on a sunny day to book a table for lunch. I had my trusty blue-and-white scarf wrapped round my head and was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. There was a sharp intake of breath from the woman at the desk when I walked in and a bit of dithering before the table was booked for an hour or so later. I didn’t think too much of it until I went back, having changed – and abandoned the scarf. The woman on the desk welcomed me into the restaurant, chatted away and then stopped when I said that I’d been in an hour earlier and had booked a table. “The scarf,” she said. “It’s you?” I nodded and clipped the English accent to a point where it would cut glass. The service was fabulous, but I wonder what it would have been like – and which table I would have been given – if I’d gone back with the scarf wrapped round my head.

It’s not the only time this has happened, in the UK and in other countries. It’s made me realise the attention and prejudice that women wearing the hijab attract. And how easy it can be to judge by appearances.