Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nil carborundum

I can hardly be alone in finding the automated voice response you get these days from just about any organisation you call as one of the major blood pressure provokers of modern living. When they remind me that the call will be recorded 'for your protection and ours' (who do they think they are kidding?) I just hope the recording starts during the sorry to keep you waiting phase and that they sometimes listen to it afterwards. It's the only chance you get to say what you really think.

Worse even than the 'press one for sales and two for service' type (always ask for sales then sweetly ask to be put through to the right department to save you calling again) are the ones that work on the assumption they can interpret your voice and ask for specific information. They have one of these in a car park in Worcester to rescue those who don't bring enough coins with them. This is on top of the tactic of charging £1.20 an hour, refusing to give change and making you declare your registration number so that you can't pass your remaining time to someone else if you leave early. For those with only paper money they offer the 'quick and easy' option to use your mobile and pay by credit card, with a 20p fine on top of the call charge and parking fee. 

The first few questions were easy: registration, make, colour (of vehicle) and number of hours required. Then the cedit card details, sixteen digits to key in with my phone in one hand, card in the other and glasses in my pocket. By this time a couple had turned up were trying their own luck with the coins. They were also listening in some wonder to my efforts to argue with the automatic voice for I have an obtuse objection to one-sided conversations.

'That number was not accepted. Please try again.'
'I'm paying for this call. How much more of my time are you going to waste?' 
I tried a different card. 'That number is not valid. It did not have enough digits.'
'Of course it didn't you stupid man. I haven't finished entering them yet'. Then I was cut off.

Thinking it was a good thing the voice really was a man's, or I would have been bundled off to the nick on some sex offence charge, I looked around for a Civil Enforcement Officer. This is what they call parking wardens in Worcester these days and of course they are only there when you get back to your car two minutes past the time your ticket expired. Such was the case. In desperation I asked (very politely) the woman who had involuntarily overheard my rant, and who seemed unoffended by it, if she could change a fiver for five ones. Unlike most women in my experience she had other than notes in her purse and equally politely obliged. She is probably dining out on it now.

Editing the editor

A fine row is brewing over Gerald Scarfe's cartoon in the latest Sunday Times

The offending drawing depicts the Israeli prime minister cementing what appear to be Palestinains into a wall with the caption 'will cementing peace continue?'. Arms, legs and heads protrude from between the bricks and Mr Netanyahu wields a blood-stained trowel. It's pretty typical Scarfe: a brutal caricature with a message that could easily be understood by a 12 year old, particularly one who knew that Israel had a general election just a few days earlier, which might have come up in his school current affairs lesson, and that Sunday was also Holocaust Memorial day, which might well have come up in his school current affairs lesson. 

A variety of Jewish bodies duly objected and the Sunday Times was reported to the Press Complaints Commission. That much was to be expected. The next step in the story was extraordinary. Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corporation, owner of the Times and Sunday Times, twittered that 'Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times . . we owe [a] major apology for [the] grotesque, offensive cartoon'. Later the paper's editor (a new appointment, this was the poor man's first edition in charge), who before Murdoch's intervention had put out a standard defence of the cartoon as fair journalism of the type we should expect from Scarfe and that it was aimed at Netanyahu and the Israeli government rather than the Jewish people, was obliged to apologise profusely to the Jewish lobby and even Scarfe himself apologised for the timing, saying he was unaware that last Sunday was Holocaust memorial day. I confess I had assumed the timing was deliberate. Maybe Israel should not hold its election just before such a meaningful event.

So where now stand the editors of the various organs of the Murdoch press? Murdoch told the Leveson enquiry that he does not interfere in the editorial content of his papers. If so his tweet was hardly a vote of confidence in their judgement. Which will now dare risk the wrath of a man who has a long history of strongly supporting Israel and who is much praised by the Jewish press for his fairness in dealing with its affairs? 

More importantly, where now stands British journalism? Scarfe is well known for his blunt, if rather repetitive, views on war and its consequences and has not varied his approach in years. A political cartoonist is surely employed to raise such concerns, to go against the grain of the paper and of public opinion where he feels it appropriate and absolutely not to kowtow to anyone's sensitivities. His work reflects his own opinion first and anyone else's by coincidence and I find it extraordinary that a newspaper proprietor should think it useful, necessary or pertinent to point this out, or to apologise for a cartoon that, crude and unoriginal though it might have been, was not, as a few have claimed, anti-semitic.

Happily there are two shafts of light in the debate. The Independent is running an online poll asking if its readers think Mr Murdoch should have apologised. When I contributed it was running at 83% No votes. Second, an Israeli journalist, Anshel Pfeffer, has said that the cartoon was 'not anti-semitic by any standard' and that 'Netanyahu's depiction is grossly offensive and unfair, but that is only par for the course for any politician when Scarfe is at his drawing-board'. At least someone understands the basics.