Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Britain: 'This isn't the country I grew up in. No one speaks a word of English these days,' says Dame Shirley Bassey

Few would recognise this rather slight figure as the vertiginously high-heeled, big-bosomed diva of Big Spender or Diamonds Are Forever, but this may be no bad thing. She is safe enough here within the portrait-lined walls of Cliveden House in Berkshire, the sort of hotel where the staff remember she is a Dame Commander of the British Empire. But a recent brush with the criminal classes has left her shaken. "It was all rather nerve-racking," she says. "I was Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge with my daughter Sharon. We'd been into Harvey Nichols to find some presents. "Somebody must have seen all the money and cards when I opened my bag to pay and followed me. I felt a bump but nothing more than that. And when I opened my bag at the next shop, there was no purse."

It seems unremarkable, perhaps. Pickpockets are a fact of life in most big European cities, and ever more so in London. But to someone used to the security of life in Monte Carlo - the ritzy, casino-laden side of Monaco - it was a genuine shock. "The worst of it is the worry," she says. "My cards can be cancelled but I worry who has my details or a picture of me. They took my residence card for Monaco."

She spends most of her time in the principality these days and, as she explains in her first interview for two years, the comparison with the life she sees back here is far from flattering. "This isn't England any more - at least it is not the country I remember growing up in," she says. "You don't hear English spoken here. You read about terrible things - not just drugs but all the killings. "When you live in a safe place like Monte Carlo, you can walk home at any time of the night and you don't have to worry. I don't feel at risk there. If I drive myself, I can leave the car doors unlocked. I wouldn't do that in London."

But at Christmas, not even the balmy warmth of the Mediterranean will keep her from flying over to be with her daughter Sharon and partner Des, and the rest of the family. Her business interests, too, are based in London and Shirley is at pains to say that she has not rejected Britain. However, the rising sense of physical danger here is not the only change to worry her. When the conversation comes to the unstoppable spread of reality television, she becomes animated, sitting forward on a silk chair in the Cliveden library for a heartfelt denunciation of what now passes for showbusiness.

"It seems there's no place for people with talent any more," she expostulates. "You have only to look at television to see that. And if people do have any talent, they get voted out of the shows. It's disgusting. It's an abuse. It seems that people want to be famous for doing nothing - or drinking. "It was totally different when I was breaking into the business. I learned by standing in the wings and watching established acts on stage. Today, no one seems to have any training. "I'm always being asked if I watch The X Factor and I do from time to time. I know it makes for great TV and that Simon Cowell has a real gift. "But it is a crying shame that kids who ought to have a great future are being ignored. "Another difference is that I was well looked after. Who advised Rhydian to have that hair? I don't call that looking after him."

Shirley had to scrap for her breaks. Raised by a lone mother in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff, she was repeatedly dismissed until that extraordinary voice finally won over the record labels. By the early Sixties she had a string of hits and an EMI recording contract. Then, in 1964, she found international fame with the title song of Goldfinger, the Bond film. "If hard work and talent can't get you anywhere, what hope is there?" she asks, warming to the theme. "Someone like Tallulah Rendell, a young singer at my 70th party last Sunday, she's got a wonderful voice. "What can she do to get a chance? Why should you have to wear a dress slashed to your backside to get recognised alongside all these no-talent-nothings out there? "I'm for old-fashioned glamour. There's not enough of it. Glamour has gone out of our lives. It's very sad."


Official censorship breeds mistrust of officialdom

In 2003, the local council in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire refused to show an A4 poster for a Christmas carol service in the local library, because it might constitute a political or religious message. The same year, the Red Cross banned nativity decorations from its British shops because it stated that an alignment to a particular religion could `compromise our ability to work in conflict situations around the world'. In 2006, a survey of 428 firms in Manchester found that 77 per cent of employers said they were banning decorations because they were worried about offending other faiths (2). In all these cases, the ban was about preventing possible harm, rather than responding to actual complaints.

It is stories like these that create suspicion that things are being heavily regulated. Of course, in reality, people in authority today rarely have the luxury to monitor everything they encounter. Most decisions are made defensively and in a knee-jerk fashion, rather than according to some sinister conspiracy plan. But the end result is a surge in urban myths which feed upon existing reality.

While the stories I have mentioned so far (and there are many more) were all reported in reputable papers, there are also plenty of emails circulating from `unofficial sources'. These are less reliable, but they feed our suspicion that this is `what you don't hear from those in charge'. The other day I received an email about how Royal Mail staff have been told only to offer their Christmas stamps (showing religious images of angels and the Madonna and Child) to those who asked explicitly for them over the counter. While a quick scan of the Royal Mail website shows that these stamps do indeed exist, there is probably no other way to test this story than to walk into a post office and see what happens.

The point about rumours is that they feed off a broader suspicion and distrust of `official sources'. We don't have to experience things firsthand to believe them. When I was conducting interviews with residents in the town of Oldham in the north-west of England last year, I kept hearing a claim that the council had banned the St George's flag (the flag of England). I casually asked various council staff about it but none of them could tell me for certain whether it had actually happened or not. One of them suggested that it might have been for `health-and-safety reasons'. Another guessed it might have been out of sensitivity to local ethnic groups and concerns about the presence in the area of the far-right British National Party (BNP). When I asked local people about it - Asian and white - many felt that this sort of decision was `typical' of the council. Crucially, it was not important whether the flag was actually banned or not, but that it was seen as entirely believable.

Official anti-racism has made cultural symbols and language so politicised that the public is bound to think that festivals, flags and images are being `managed' on their behalf. In March 2002, Oldham council publicised its decision to fly the Union Jack flag from the Civic Centre, as a way to reclaim it as a symbol from the extreme right. It also stated it would fly the Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi flags for the duration of official visits from those countries. The authorities were paying attention to cultural images and using them to engineer attitudes.

The corollary to that, of course, is that language and images are not only promoted but also banned if they are seen to be a threat to community relations. We believe that official sources aren't telling us the truth because, ultimately, we feel that they don't trust us to make our own minds up about what see and hear.

In the 2001 local elections in Oldham, when the BNP gained its strongest electoral result in the UK in over a decade, the council censored all political parties from speaking on election night in order to prevent the BNP from talking to the electorate. In September 2001, the home secretary banned all public marches in Oldham for two months on grounds of `safety'. Likewise, Ted Cantle, in his report into the 2001 riots in the north-west, pointed out that there were complaints from the public about the police's over-zealous restrictions on political marches in the town against racism, and festivals to celebrate cultural diversity. Returning to the town in 2006, Cantle noted that despite all the diversity training and race equality guidelines, people in Oldham `wanted to ask questions around faith and culture, but were afraid to do so because it might be thought "politically incorrect"' (3).

In such a climate, where people are not expressing their views openly, rumours surge. In a 2001 US-based study, Fine and Turner argue that race rumours emerge as an expression of angst and suspicion when more public channels are censored or closed to certain opinions: `What happens when we dare not speak these beliefs? What happens when we deny - to ourselves and to others - that we hold them because we have come to accept that they are morally illegitimate? We believe that two responses are common. First, we become ashamed; we withdraw from dialogue. Second, following from this, we become too willing to accept claims of "actual happenings" that support these hidden beliefs.' (4)

The most recent high-profile example of a race rumour in Britain was in Lozells, Birmingham in 2006, when local Asian and black youths clashed on the streets. The riot was triggered by a story of a black girl having been gangraped by a group of Asian men. While the allegation lacked substance, and no witnesses or victim ever officially came forward, the story gained a life of its own on the airwaves of local community radio stations, like Hot FM and Sting FM, whose djs called for large-scale protests.

These unofficial channels picked up on local suspicions that the authorities always treated one group better than another and some people always got their way - a feeling probably compounded by the competitive dynamic of local community politics and the stress on difference in official local policies. Likewise, in his study of south-east London, the sociologist Roger Hewitt described how the media demonisation of white residents in the area following the murder of the young black youth Stephen Lawrence led to a `white backlash'. He describes how racism was `tucked away' amongst the politically powerless white working classes, who could not publicly object to the way in which they were being depicted. Suspicion grew through neighbourhood talk, rumour, narrative and counter-narrative. The authorities' tactics to silence these views by `scary and oblique references' to the BNP ended up reinforcing the sense of shame people felt, and further driving these views underground without proper scrutiny.

All of this suggests that the backlash against `political correctness gone mad' is not simply about a surge in racism or bigotry amongst the public against other groups (although it certainly doesn't help community relations in places like Lozells). There is also another factor at work here: a large number of people quite rightly resent the feeling that they are being `managed'. We indulge in the collective rolling of the eyeballs at political correctness gone mad because it allows us to momentarily express our irritation with officious policies. Perhaps next year, when junior officials think about how not to cause offence, they would be wise to think a bit more carefully about not insulting the public first.


NHS "Target" insanity

Targets intended to cut long waits in hospital Accident and Emergency units have cost the NHS in England 2 billion pounds over the past five years, an assessment of healthcare information has concluded.

The extra costs come from patients who are in danger of having to wait more than four hours in A&E – the target limit – and are admitted to hospital “just in case”. Many are later discharged the same day, suggesting they had no real need to be admitted, with today – Christmas Eve – having the highest proportion of patients sent out on the day of admission.

Primary care trusts have to pay as much as 1,000 pounds per admission, compared with about £100 for a patient treated in A&E. So the costs of admitting a patient – even for less than a day – are large. Data collected by the CHKS Group, an independent provider of healthcare information, suggest that over the past five years, about two million extra patients were admitted to hospital through A&E units in England. But in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which do not have the four-hour target, there has been no increase in admissions. In Wales, which implemented the target later, the rise was delayed, but began to appear in 2005.

Dr Paul Robinson, Head of Market Intelligence at CHKS, said: “There is no obvious clinical reason why growth in emergency admissions should differ between countries in the UK. However, the A&E target in England has clearly had an impact and potentially cost the taxpayer more than 2 billion. “It is only England that showed this increase, and it is difficult to see why other places did not, unless the A&E targets were the cause. “There are some other possible explanations, including changes to out-of-hours care, and NHS Direct. But a large proportion of the increase must be due to the target. It’s another example of how targets that are good in principle can have unexpected effects”.

The A&E target was introduced in the NHS Plan of 2000 and came fully into force in England at the end of 2004. It charges hospitals with ensuring that patients attending A&E departments should be admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours. A hospital is deemed to have met the target if 98 per cent of patients are dealt with within four hours. Studies have shown that the target causes a huge flurry of activity as the four-hour wait nears its end, with a substantial proportion of patients being dealt with in the last 20 minutes.

Between 2002 and 2006 emergency admissions to English hopsitals rose by 20 per cent, a total increase of 720,000 a year. Admissions through A&E accounted for 37 per cent of this increase. CHKS analysis of NHS data shows that more than a quarter of emergency admissions are discharged the same day. The majority of these are patients admitted through A&E. CHKS data shows that “same day” discharges after admission through A&E rose by 65 per cent between 2001 and 2005, when the target was being introduced in England.

Each week, Friday is the peak day for patients to be discharged on the same day they are admitted. But Christmas Eve is a Friday writ large. People prefer not to be admitted for Christmas and doctors prefer to keep them out of hospital, Dr Robinson said. But to discharge so many more on Christmas Eve – 8 to 10 per cent more than on an average day – implies a change in discharge criteria. One reason, he suggests, could be “poor medicine and rushing through the workload on the day” but there is no evidence for this in increased readmission rates. The numbers readmitted within 14 to 28 days are very similar to those discharged on any other day.

The increase in admission through A&E could have another explanation, apart from the four-hour target. To admit more patients is greatly in the financial interests of hospitals because under payment by results they get paid much more. Using the system in this way is called “gaming” within the NHS and is frowned upon. But trusts have been under such pressure to balance their books that some degree of gaming cannot be ruled out. Dr Robinson said: “There is the potential for that, but I wouldn’t see it as the main motivator.”

In a study published earlier this year by Cass Business School, City University, London, Les Mayhew and David Smith said that payment by results could have encouraged some trusts to “push patients through A&E even more quickly so benefiting from the higher inpatient tariff as compared to A&E tariffs. “The possibility of perverse incentives such as these was not the original aim behind the introduction of A&E targets, which were primarily a response to patients’ concerns, and may have encouraged the manipulation of data,” they said.


No comments: