Friday, 27 May 2011

The Cost of Democracy

The other day I stumbled upon a web entry written in praise of the late Militant Tendency supporter and Bradford North MP, Pat Wall.

What struck me was the fact that he and other MT supporters in Parliament - Dave Nellist being among them - reportedly took from their MP's salary the average pay of a working man.

However risible you may think that as a gesture, compare and contrast that with the greed of Lord Hanningfield, former Tory transport spokesman; Tory peer Lord Taylor of Warwick; Elliot Morley, former labour environment minister; Labour MP David Chaytor; former Labour MP Jim Devine and former Labour MP Eric Illsley.

The infamous five were found guilty in courts of law of falsely claiming more than £77,000 in expenses and mortgage payments. There were others who left Parliament before last year's General Election; there will be others whose cases have yet to come to court, I dare say.

The point is, no one is surprised any more by the culpable cupidity of the people's representatives. And to think that I used to defend the Mother of Parliaments against attacks by Muslim fundamentalists who declaimed: "Democracy is hypocrisy!" I'll take a little bit of political corruption any time over a theocratic dictatorship, I used to say, thinking of the odd backhander, free lunch or fact-finding mission to the Seychelles. Systematic fraud by the well-paid and the privileged, however, is something else.

Henry VIII and his daughter, old Gloriana, had a short way with erring courtiers: they cut their heads off - in public. Rather than return to that Saudi Arabian-style solution, I think MPs should be made to pay their own travel expenses and mortgage payments, just like the people they supposedly represent.

There are 650 MPs in the Commons and 792 Peers in the Lords. There used to be far fewer Lords a-leaping, but David Cameron has reportedly ennobled 117 new ones so far this year. Parliament costs Joe Public nearly £500m a year to run. MPs' salaries and pensions cost £157.2m in 2009. That year they also claimed £90.7m in all types of expenses.

However, these figures look slight compared to the cost of the 751 MEPs, sashaying between luxury buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg. These foreign bodies reportedly cost the European Union's tax-paying fodder at least £1.61 billion, including in the region of £220m for expenses, £161m for assistants and £108m for 'other staff'.

These costs exclude the civils servants who service them - more than 524,000 in Britain's Home Civil Service alone. To that figure must be added the Carlton-Brownes' in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the johnnies in the Northern Ireland Office.

No matter that four or five members of the Eurozone are bankrupt or nearly bankrupt, the gravy train rattles on with ever-bigger budget claims. There may come a time when 'blood on the tracks' is more than the title of a Bob Dylan album.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


Richard North, who is forever banging on about the stupidity, laziness and gullibility of the Main Stream Media (MSM), will find vindication in the case of Germany's Tom Kummer - highlighted in one of North's pet hates, The Guardian.

For years this man successfully deluded publishing groups such as the Axel Springer organisation in Berlin, persuading them to buy interviews with celebrities that were in fact fictions of Kummer's vivid imagination - Mike Tyson talking about Nietzsche, Pamela Anderson discussing William Gibson's Necromancer, Bruce Willis on human development:-

I understood pretty early on that we do not advance through morality, but immorality, vices, cynicism.

Kummer, now the subject of a documentary called Bad Boy Kummer, says he got away with it for so long because everybody involved loved what he invented:-

I guess they were addicted to some kind of illusion that stars talk like I made them talk. They all loved it and wanted more: readers, movie distribution people, advertisers and editors.
I was convinced that editors knew everything - nobody asked for tapes, nobody asked for any kind of proof for more than six years - but they refused to admit it...

I can almost hear Richard North rolling about the floor in laughter. Kummer, of course, isn't the first bright bad boy to expose the media's greed and stupidity. In the spring of 1983 West Germany's Stern magazine announced the publishing coup of the century: the personal handwritten diaries of Adolf Hitler.

I remember going through pages of the stuff reproduced in The Sunday Times in spite of doubts cast on the authenticity of the diaries - dozens of them - by revisionist historian David Irving. The likes of mighty Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of several experts who examined the documents and announced them kosher.

The publishing coup of the century turned out to be the publishing hoax of the century. The diaries and their contents were created by a bent genius called Konrad Kujau. For years he had been making a nice living from selling forged Nazi artefacts, feeding the nostalgic wishful thinking of people such as Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann, who persuaded his editors that fantasy was reality.

But for Kajau's attempt to make his hero Hitler a more affable historical figure, more concerned with getting tickets for himself and Eva Braun to the 1936 Berlin Olympics than annihilating the Jews, he could be considered an exposer of enormity, like another German bad boy Gunter Wallraff.

I first came across Wallraff's daring brand of investigative journalism in the late 1970s. Unlike Woodwood and Bernstein on The Washington Post, trying to get to the bottom of the Nixon administration's culpability in Watergate by asking questions and double-checking, Wallraff went undercover to get at the truth.

In a recent project Wallraff disguised himself as a black man to explore racial discrimination in the new Germany. He described his exploits in a book, Black on White, and in a film, Out of the Beautiful New World, which came out a couple of years ago.

The late journalist William Donaldson was a gifted wastrel with a talent for exposing the conceit of celebrity. Pretending to be Henry Root, a bigoted London wet fish merchant, he wrote a series of letters on a range of matters to the great and the good, eliciting their sympathy and support.

The results may be read in The Letters of Henry Root. Sir James Goldsmith and James Anderton, then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, were among those who thought the correspondence was genuine. Ity only goes to show that you can fool some of the people all of the time.

My favourite faker Tom Keating proved that. A technically accomplished painter but unrated by critics and connoiseurs, he got his own back by painting some 2,000 'old masters', duping the experts with his "Sexton Blakes" - fakes.

Titians, Turners, Czezannes - it was all the same to Keating, a Captain Birdseye figure. After his exposure in The Guardian he redeemed himself by taking part in a series of television programmes showing how fakes were made but, more importantly, how great artists created their paintings.

American writer Clifford Irving showed that while money isn't the root of all evil, excessive love of it is. He conned publisher McGraw Hill out of $750,000 for a biography of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes using forged documents, including Hughes' forged signature.

As Hughes was without doubt one of the most extraordinary men of the Twentieth Century, the publisher's commercial interest was understandable. Whether by accident or design Irving's scam, driven by the desire for money, showed up the cupidity of the establishment.

Last Saturday I walked away from the Manet exhibition in the Musee d'Orsay, Paris, feeling that I had been conned by the art experts and art critics. Was this painter of sober men in ducktail coats and top hats really "the inventor of the modern"?

Great poet though Baudelaire was, he wrote about Manet in that fashion to suit his own purposes, I concluded. No one will convince me that he was a more original contributor to Western art than, say, Caravaggio, El Greco (the true father of Cubism) and Goya. One bent lamp post by Van Gogh says more to me than Manet's accomplished salon pictures.

Who decides what is real, what is authentic? Picasso, who knew more about this question than most, said that to get at the truth (in art) one had to lie.