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Arts in Peckham and the Murdoch inquisition give me a rare excuse for piety....

Back in the office late again. It seems eight to nine is my new blogging hour. But I don’t mind, I’ve just been an enjoyable Fellowship event. It was hosted by Emily Druiff FRSA, Director of Peckham Space which is a project and building ‘dedicated to commissioning artworks made in partnership with community groups’ and ‘increasing access to and participation in community art’.

The focus of tonight’s conversation with local people and Fellows was a commission by the artist David Cotterrell called Slipstream. Here’s what the press release said about the project:

‘Slipstream is partially filmed from the air using a specially-constructed miniature stunt helicopter ...  The camera swoops from ground-level to lofty heights tracking these parallel, remembered journeys from the air in a series of ‘fly-throughs’, exploring airspace previously occupied by buildings and relaying back lost views of Peckham and the wider area…It maps architectural changes and overlays memories of individuals, exploring what residents have expressed as a ‘missing identity’ for the area.”

Reflecting on his work and the pamphlet John Knell and I wrote about arts funding and the Big Society, I talked to David about the vexed question of the social purpose of art. He had some elegant ways of rebuffing my advocacy of an enlightened instrumentalism, talking about the indeterminate and long term nature of art’s impact.

What put me in mind of today’s remarkable events in the Commons was when I asked about the dangers of nostalgia as something which can be used in a reactionary way to lionise the past and spread pessimism about today and tomorrow. David responded that as he had spoken to local residents in preparing and describing his work he had found they often started with a particular view of the past as bad or good. But as they recalled incidents, people and places the picture became more nuanced. As I then suggested, this does make a subtle instrumental link to the competencies we need for the times ahead. For this ability to move beyond simple categories of good and bad, all better, all worse and to take a view which is both more grounded and more complex is vital not just to the appreciation of art but to social and political engagement.

Which brings me to News International. As someone who has always disliked the Sun and News of the World and thinks that Fox News is a disaster for American public discourse (fuelling the fundamentalism which could bring the world economy to another terrible crisis in the next few days), I ought to be taking great pleasure in the humbling of the Murdochs and their acolytes. But I find I can’t.

Partly it is ageism. An 80 year old man who seems slightly lost is hard to hate. But more than that I feel I recognise what has happened to these people. Sociopaths excluded, few people commit terrible acts knowing them to be terrible. We rationalise, we deny, we put off to another day the need to make things right.  Whatever the specific facts, the true story of phone hacking is of people and of an organisation which allowed itself to excuse something which was palpably wrong. As the apologies pile up, we don’t hear the real story because the guilty parties realise not only that they have been caught out, not just that people think what they did was terrible, but that if they were to utter the stories they told themselves at the time about why it was all OK it would only make their situation worse.

It’s just like the MPs who realised during the expenses scandal not only that they been exposed and were despised but that they would only make things worse if they admitted that they had felt free to play the system because deep down they felt sorry for themselves; modestly paid, unrecognised for their work, in an insecure and ultimately thankless profession.

Something you learn if you spend time with journalists is that they too tend to feel sorry for themselves. Their mission is to bring power and badness to book but they feel they get too little recognition and that their jobs are hard and insecure (in fact, the people journalists most sound like is politicians). My guess is that Rebekah Brooks – who we were encouraged to see as an evil wielder of immense power – tells her friends that she often felt crushed between the News International hierarchy and the deeply embedded macho culture of the newsroom.

Rebekah, James and even old Rupert have done bad things but it doesn’t really get us anywhere to think of them as bad people. This is the kind of simplistic, Manichean world view peddled by the Murdoch empire's media outlets. The best way now to show we haven’t been corrupted is not to feel not rage but a kind of pity.


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