Ice Bucket Challenge and the never ending rag week

Prepare for some bah humbug!

Back in 1984/85 – height of the Miners Strike and all that – I was a lefty student union sabbatical officer at Liverpool University. The Deputy President to be precise. One of my onerous duties was to oversee the college rag week, which I absolutely hated. It just seemed like the most toe curling and naff part of the year. Students being wheeled along in baths full of baked beans. All that kind of thing. Plus a rag week brochure full of questionable “jokes” – often about minorities. So I made a personal pledge not to be friends with anybody who was an enthusiastic rag week supporter.

Not because I was a cold-hearted type. I supported more causes than there were stars in the firmament – from Chile Solidarity to CND and Community Action. I campaigned to keep Croxteth Comprehensive open and to open the university facilities to local people. But in doing this, I never stuck a red clown’s nose on my face or donned a giant Bugs Bunny outfit. This very visual and self-congratulatory approach to good deeds seemed to bubble up in the late 80s during the least charitable of times – social guilt maybe? 

It seems these days, charity and good causes have become an ostentatious and tiresome exercise in self-promotion and ‘having a laugh’. If you don’t play along, then the self-appointed charity police on social media descend to scream that you’re a totally uncaring git. In our era of enforced heart warming, god forbid you should demur from the over-emotionalism of people who share endless pix of puppies on Facebook. 

A good buddy of mine who is a deputy head in a very challenging south London school posted on his Facebook site that he wasn’t going to be told how to show his charitable side. He’d give on his own terms but thanks for asking. I’m basically with him – if you want life to be one long rag week, well get on with it.  I’ll leave you to sit in your bath of baked beans. But I’ll donate when I want to and to the causes I support.

BTW – Justin Bieber appears to have done the ice bucket challenge twice.  Enough said.


Jaded teens find their heroes on YouTube not in Hollywood

I’m weirdly gratified to find that teens and millennials surveyed by Variety say they have more time for cool YouTube commentators than the spangly but ultimately quite dull stars of Hollywood. It’s a sign of the times for sure. Social media is creating a parallel universe that media and movie moguls can’t control. 

The teens gave high marks to such YouTube hits as Smosh, The Fine Bros and PewDiePie. And Hollywood A-listers got a big thumbs down. The reason – claims the survey’s organisers – is that young people want their role models to be open and transparent. They’re also more concerned about ‘realness’ than older generations. I suppose we baby boomers and Gen X’s never expected our celebrities to be anything other than fake – but it seems today’s teens crave authenticity. They hate fakeness. Where we bought into the fantasy – they want reality. No idols on pedestals – but human beings who are pretty much like themselves.


Smosh – more popular than Hollywood A-listers

What also seems to impress today’s youth is the raw courage of those who put themselves out there on YouTube and tell it like it is. As opposed to Hollywood actors whose movie interviews are so PR orchestrated and fawning as to be almost unwatchable. Even on sex appeal – YouTube personalities scored about equal with Hollywood – with a lot less botox. 

None of this has gone unnoticed by tinsel town though and we’re already seeing YouTube stars being turned into Hollywood stars. The big question now is whether the entertainment industry machine can crush the vitality of YouTube or whether it will learn from what has proved successful. My money, this cynic opines, is on the former.

Walgreens – Boots deal not a tax ruse

Boots the chemist has been snapped up by US retailer Walgreens. There had been some comment that the objective was for Walgreens to relocate out of the US on tax grounds – but the way this deal is structured, that’s not apparently possible. The non-US company being acquired, in this case Boots, would need to own at least 20% of the merged company – which it doesn’t in this instance.

As it is, President Obama has been signalling a crackdown on so-called “tax inversion” so this could be construed as something of a victory for him. It’s also worth mentioning that 200,000 people in the US signed an online petition claiming they would boycott Walgreens if it relocated out of its home country. 

Had Walgreens been able to move HQ – it could have chosen between Nottingham, UK or Switzerland, where Alliance Boots is headquartered. Instead it looks set to remain in Deerfield, Illinois.  

Banking is still a poker game

Metro do Porto

Metro do Porto train (my copyright 2014)

After the horror of collateralized debt obligations and other wheezes that crashed the global financial system six years back, one was led to believe that banking would henceforth be based on values and ethics. No longer would hideously complex products be sold to clients that were nothing more than ticking time bombs. So how is it that the subway system of Portugal’s second city – Metro do Porto – has found itself saddled with such a time bomb. And the reaction of some in the financial community towards that company can fairly be summarised as – suckers!

Indeed the word “sucker” has been unfairly associated with the management of Metro do Porto who were looking to restructure the debt they’d accumulated building this much needed bit of infrastructure. It’s key to revitalising a historic downtown area that is UNESCO protected but nearly 20% unoccupied. Anybody who knows the city will appreciate I’m not exaggerating when I say that buildings from the 16th to 19th centuries are literally collapsing.

I need to declare a special interest here – I’m half Portuguese and my mother is from Porto. My family there have businesses that have been slowly crushed through no individual fault but by the destruction of the internal market as the nation has struggled to pay off a debt mountain. This is the background to Metro do Porto ending up as the “sucker” at the poker table, ripe to be sold a product that would eventually explode in its face.

Casa das Maias

Sixteenth century building in central Porto bricked up and allowed to collapse

The Independent has detailed how the public sector officials running MdP, desperate to pay off its debt, bought what one expert dubbed “possibly the most stupidly complicated financial transaction ever sold”. The Indie has detailed the transactions in forensic depth and I recommend you read. An article on Bloomberg shows how the deals were probably sold to MdP. It characterises the company’s executives as gullible but the question I’m posing here is – what happened to banks cleaning up their act? Yes what they did was legal. Yes, I’m sure it’s compliant and breaches not a single regulation. So then – are we back to caveat emptor?  The morals of the poker table?

The people who will pick up the bill for this fiasco are a hard pressed populace in Porto who have, grim-faced and out of national pride, cut back to the bone. One Portuguese newspaper article this week evidenced how meat, milk and fruit consumption have declined considerably since 2008. There are people living out of soup kitchens in this city. Where is the morals or ethics in this situation – where are the values?

Five ways social media is changing the world – dramatically

Social media is radically altering the way global audiences look at any number of issues in the political, economic or entertainment spheres. Here’s five examples:

  • Number One: US audiences – meet the Palestinians

The only face Palestinians had in previous conflicts or uprisings was half hidden by a scarf and a rock about to be hurled  at Israeli forces. For US audiences, the intifadas of the 80s and 90s were characterised as mad, young Arab guys hurling rocks in a nihilistic confrontation against the Jewish state of Israel. Then along came Twitter and smartphone ownership – which has increased tenfold since the last Gaza uprising. And learning from the war in Syria and protests in Egypt – Palestinians are posting almost live videos of the action on the ground and the human stories of suffering. As the New York magazine reported, this has brought Palestinian narratives into American homes and forced TV networks like NBC and ABC to report two sides to this story.

  • Number Two: Hashtags can be hijacked

There was a time in social media – about a year ago – when PR companies would have advised their client to come up with a great hashtag that would spark debate and positive vibes around their brand. Trouble is, tweeters don’t always play ball. Pity the New York Police Department which came up with #myNYPD hoping it would generate lots of cuddly images of cops and the public. Did it ever. This video shows you what it did generate:

  • Number Three: Pop charts go digital

BBC Four has been repeating editions of Top of the Pops from 1979 this year – 35 years later. It was all so simple back then. You liked Elvis Costello so you went to your local record shop and bought the latest single. That was then added to all the other singles bought that week to determine if Mr Costello would be number one. Life ain’t that simple anymore. From this year, as The Guardian reported – streaming downloads from sites like Spotify will be included. I honestly can’t remember the last time I touched or looked at a CD so it all makes perfect sense to yours truly. And to encourage tracks up the chart or to share new sounds, teens are using Twitter – and bands are promoting the hell out of themselves on YouTube. It’s a far cry from Tony Blackburn.

  • Number Four: UKIP lost the youth on Twitter

He may be the toast of every golf club and Essex ranch house – but Nigel Farage wasn’t getting it all his own way on Twitter this year. Young, urban, metropolitan, smart, cosmopolitans took the pee out of UKIP and exposed their lunatic fringe. Any candidate who’d once said something flaky about gays or ethnic minorities had their past words aired on the medium. And when the party hoped that #WhyImVotingUKIP would generate some positive coverage, they got this:

UKIP hashtag

UKIP hashtag goes badly wrong

  • Number Five: Authoritarians struggle to control the beast

Vladimir Putin signed a bill this month ordering internet companies to store personal data on Russian users in data centres based in Russia. My, my – whatever could the former KGB boss have in mind? Well, that data would then be subject to Russian laws allowing…government access. The Kremlin assured any nervous tweeters that they just wanted to improve the management of this data.

Just like the new requirement for bloggers with over 3,000 followers to register as “media” and the jail terms for tweeters who retweet “offensive” information are just kindly old Vladimir looking after his people. He’s probably not best enamoured right now with social media after the loud online campaign to release the dissident pop band Pussy Riot. As Russia Today reported this month, Russian diplomat Vitaly Churkin attempted to chide the US envoy to the UN Samantha Power for meeting two members of Pussy Riot. He quipped if she was going to organise their next tour. Power took to Twitter to slap Churkin down saying she’d be delighted to join them provided their first gig was in support of Russian political prisoners.

Putin will probably have as little luck as Saudi Arabia and Turkey have done in caging the social media beast. However, his actions will cause some grief in the short term. And I suppose that’s mission accomplished for Putin.


Cameron calls for an end to FGM

Parents of children who undergo female genital mutilation will face prosecution as David Cameron pledged today to end FGM in a generation. And it’s not before time as thousands of women in this country have undergone the procedure either within the UK (yes, it does happen here) or very often whisked off abroad. 

The commonest age for girls to be circumcised is between 8 and 13. The results, according to the World Health Organisation, are a grim range of medical disorders that you can check out on their fact sheet. Contrary to what some conservative Muslim sources say online, it has zero medical benefits. It would shock you to know – I hope – that some allegedly learned preachers falsely claim that FGM improves genital hygiene. It most certainly does not.

I’ve been working with a Muslim women’s network in recent months that campaigns hard to eradicate FGM. But it’s one of several issues that Muslim women still face like forced marriage, imprisonment in the home and rape in marriage. There are many non-Muslims who find it uncomfortable to admit these things are happening – and they don’t raise it for fear of being dubbed “islamophobic”.  It’s a crazy situation where western liberals ignore the suffering of Muslim women in order to be PC.  But there you go. 

Pussy Riot – freed by social media?

One has to be in awe of Pussy Riot – brave, tenacious and attacking their jailer Putin the moment they set foot out of the gulag.  Already the pertinent point is being made that without the spotlight shone by social media, they might still be dining on gruel in sub-zero temperatures this Christmas.  Their supporters and fans have kept up a relentless barrage on the web – a digital noise that Putin doesn’t want to continue ahead of the Olympics.

Much is made of the celebrity support they received – Paul McCartney penning letters to Moscow.  Madonna making a public statement on her website and echoing it to her 14 million followers on Facebook.  But there was also thousands of bloggers, journalists and politicians keeping up a relentless tide of pressure on the Russians.

Pussy Riot are out of jail and the Twitterati can give themselves a well-deserved pat on the back for playing a central role.