Category: Editorials

#Axanar & Alec Peters killed #StarTrek fan films. Not CBS Paramount

It’s an overly simplistic and clickbaity headline, I know. Show me one that isn’t. Of course CBS Paramount’s new ‘guidelines’ for Star Trek fan films are their own responsibility and so, at the least, they must shoulder a weighty proportion of the blame. But by ignoring what caused their release, you’re ignoring the meat of the story.

Before we get to that though, what are the guidelines? Well, google them. I’m not your dad. Here’s the highlights though.

Your fan film can be no longer than fifteen minutes in length. You can extend this by making it a two parter, but that’s it. Two fifteen minute ‘episodes’. No sequels, no remakes, no continuations, nada. One stand alone story in two pieces lasting no longer than thirty minutes in total.

No props unless you bought them from official sources. Made a captain’s uniform at home with a sewing machine? Can’t use it. Got a friend who makes plywood phaser rifles? Nope. Turned your tablet into an LCARS padd? That might be okay, if only because I’m not aware of an official toy of the sort, but if CBS have a licensed product out there already, you’re not using an alternative.

There are also narrative constraints, and their scope is wider than a Galaxy class’s saucer section. You can’t depict drugs or alcohol, so bang goes Sickbay or Quarks. You can’t show any “offensive” behaviour which could quite literally cover anything CBS wish it to, you can’t show anything “disparaging” so your O’Brien/Bashir-esque banter has to go, no “hateful” or “threatening” content either so say goodbye to your antagonists.

In truth these narrative constraints sound very familiar to those set out by Gene Roddenberry when laying the groundwork for The Next Generation, but it’s easy to forget this far removed that the first two seasons of TNG, like The Motion Picture which Roddenberry was in charge for were… well, let’s just say they’re not the parts we get nostalgic about.

It’s fair also to note that CBS’s restricitons are more about overall themes than individual characters motives. You’d likely get away with a Klingon who hates Romulans, but the moral of your story can’t be that hatred of others is a perfectly fine thing to feel. So far, so Star Trek.

The most limiting of these rules are those concerning length, and production. Anyone who’s ever seen the excellent Star Wars short, Troops knows that you can make a great little fan film in ten or so minutes, but the majority of Trek fan films are based on an episodic structure; indeed the most celebrated are fully fledged series of 43 minute films. Many, if not most, have costume designers who work, with varying degrees of success, to mimic the costumes and uniforms seen on screen while constrained by a tight budget. CBS have nuked that idea, and purchasing the uniform, combadge, and pips from official supplier Anovos to dress up as Captain Janeway or her equivelant will set you back six hundred dollars. Picture a halfway populated bridge and your fifteen minute film has now cost you anywhere from $3000 to $6000 before you’ve shot a single scene.

The quickest skim of these rules then, reveals that fan films have basically been Red Wedded by CBS. They will allow you to crowdfund up to $50,000, which isn’t nothing, but who really wants to spend $50,000 on a half hour concept that they can’t use in any way in  future? Star Trek fan films, never the most populous beasts to roam the Internet plains, are to become ever rarer.

But why? CBS have been fine with fan films for decades. There have been ongoing Star Trek fan series for as long as I’ve been using the Internet. They’re almost all dreadful, and the few that aren’t tend to be TOS-based which isn’t my thing, but because they were small, inoffensive, and crucially, didn’t make any money, CBS didn’t care. Why would they? A fan film is effectively free advertising for a franchise. LucasArts worked this out long ago, and though CBS have never embraced them to the same degree as their competitor, they knew that too.

Enter Alec Peters. Alec Peters is a fifty-five year old former volleyball coach who collects children’s toys and led his last company into bankruptcy owing creditors hundreds of thousands of dollars, and who describes his hair colour as “salt/pepper”. Which is fine.

Peters and some chums made Prelude to Axanar, an excellent documentary type short film set in the Star Trek universe. It met with near universal acclaim thanks to excellent visual effects, a tight script, and blessed lack of wannabe actors who would struggle to show more facial emotion than a Gerry Anderson character.

The goal was to intrigue people enough that they would contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to finance a full Axanar feature. This blog isn’t here to drown you with legalese, but in short, presuming the money is accounted for and all goes on the feature, this is generally fine. Strictly speaking every fan film you’ve ever seen is a copyright infringement, but as long as you pay your dues and don’t profit, most studios don’t give a damn. They’re not Konami, after all.

The trouble with Axanar is that all the money raised wasn’t going on the Axanar feature. Portions of it were going to Peters and Co. Effectively they were paying themselves out of the fund. Weasel wording aside, this is a textbook definition of “profiting” and they were doing it based on the Star Trek IP. Furthermore, funds were also being used to set up Peters own studio, which, it was planned, would go on to make for profit features. Effectively, the lure of a Star Trek fan film was being used to generate money to build something else, and line the pockets of those involved.

CBS, understandably, had something of an issue with this. Try to imagine this parable. You write and record a piece of music. You allow people to download it from the Internet for free, in exchange for the usual agreement that they won’t use it for public broadcast or to generate profit. If someone’s making money off it after all, it should really be you. Imagine then than James Cameron picks it up, and uses it as the main theme for the next Avatar movie trailer. The trailer has millions of views, Cameron gets the ad money from YouTube for this, and thereafter, Avatar 2 makes a billion dollars in large part because the trailer convinced people to go and see it. You get nothing. Wouldn’t you be pissed?

This is pretty much the same thing that Peters did to CBS. CBS are legally recognised as the creators and owners of Star Trek. What happens with Star Trek is up to them and you can’t do anything with it that they don’t want you to. This includes, but is not limited to, using their brand to crowdfund tens of thousands of dollars for yourself. Surprising, I know.

So CBS sued Peters, and rather than, “hey bud. Sorry about that. My bad,” Peters countersued CBS trying to alledge that among other things, they didn’t own the copyright to Vulcan ears. This lawsuit by the way, was also paid for using funds from the original crowdsourcing. Fans who had paid for a new Star Trek film, were instead paying for a new studio, Peters wages (some $30-40k per annum if I recall, but don’t quote me), and the frivilous lawsuit he winged at CBS to divert attention from the fact that he’d broken the law.*

  • – Allegedly, of course, each man being innocent till proven guilty, and this apparent evidence of Peters breaking the law isn’t proof that he broke the law or that he is a lawbreaker until of course a court of law decides that he broke the law and is a lawbreaker. I’m just saying it looks like he broke the law and is a lawbreaker.

Cue an effective media campaign launched by Peters & Co. CBS was “picking on” the fans. They “were jealous” that Axanar was looking better than Justin Lin’s Fast Stars & Furious Treks (which in fairness, looks to have all the charm of a hypocritical Simon Pegg moaning about comic book films and sequels propping up Hollywood). CBS were only suing Axanar because the fundraising had been so successful. They wanted the million dollars that had been raised. The CBS network is worth about $30 billion, but sure, they wanted the $1m Peters had raised.

You can pick whichever side of this you choose. You can criticise CBS for not supporting fan films. You can call Peters a dishonest money-grubbing git. You can pledge never to watch another Star Trek feature again (no one will ever believe you because you’re lying, but you can pledge nonetheless), you can ignore the whole thing because Star Trek will go on as it always has, and you’ve never really felt like you were in need of extra hammy acting, ropey special effects, or surprisingly impractical clothing beyond that you already get onscreen.

But it remains a fact that CBS never felt the need to lay down the law until Alec Peters and his friends decided to profiteer off fans desire to see ever more of a beloved franchise. So fine. I retract the headline. CBS is the one killing fan films.

But it was Alec Peters that inspired them to do it.

 

Nb – 29/06/2016 14:00 – This article originally stated that monies from the crowdsourced fund were being used to fund Axanar‘s legal case. Thanks to readers who pointed out this error below. Axanar’s legal team agreed to work on a pro bono basis, and I’m happy to acknowledge that here.

#Banshee – The Lame Goodbye, and Season 4 Syndrome

No intelligent discussion of stylish television, action scenes, sex on screen, or sheer pulpy pleasure can be complete now without mention of Cinemax’s first ever original drama, Banshee. That alone is a hell of an achievement. Thanks to an excellent ensemble cast, visual direction every bit the equal of Hannibal, Breaking Bad, or anything you’ll see on the silver screen, and characters more layered and intriguing than they ever needed be for a guilty TV pleasure, the show will rightly be remembered as a cult classic and one which will hopefully serve as a career springboard for the many talented people who worked on it.* And yet, you can’t talk about Banshee; a show which screamed from the mountaintop in primal exaltation, without discussing its abysmal, whimpering, limp-wristed, hobble-off-into-the-night, final season.

* – My shout, for what it’s worth is that Anthony Starr would be superb as the morally assaulted Commander Shepard should the Mass Effect movie ever get going, but don’t hold your breath.

Banshee season four, for a variety of reasons, was barely the same show as the one that proceeded it for three years. A change of filming location didn’t help – Banshee went from being a town you could imagine driving through in five minutes to a urban sprawl and so the, “small town; big trouble” cells that ran through the show’s blood were immediately weakened. Gone was the charm of a cop shop in an old Cadillac showroom, replaced by… well, a police station. How dull is that?

A needless two-year time jump didn’t help matters either. This has always been a lazy writers’ technique for character development and only rarely, as in the case of Battlestar Galactica’s season two finale does it ever really justify itself with a payoff that simply couldn’t have been achieved another way.

Then there was sidelining beloved characters for new ones which added nothing to proceedings. Bringing in the talented Eliza Dushku as a junkie FBI agent was largely pointless. There was never any threat (as there had been with Zeljko Ivanek’s Fed), of Hood’s past being discovered. Having established Brock as Sheriff, a new investigator wasn’t required. Hood’s ‘new’ love interest of the year was Rebecca, who, for no narrative payoff whatsoever, was pregnant with his baby before she was murdered off screen so Banshee could swap action drama for a police procedural format.

New officer I’m-sure-she-had-a-name-but-who-honestly-remembers as Proctor’s spy in the Banshee Police Department was never given enough development for anyone to care as to her motivations or fate, and so when her end came, no one cared. Speaking of Proctor, that whole becoming mayor thing never really went anywhere, did it?

Job had been kidnapped at the end of season three and his absence for the first half of season four left a chasm in the show’s landscape. Hoon Lee as a crossdressing, gun-toting, whisky-swigging, foul-mouthed, hacker has been one of TV’s most charming characters in years, and his exasperated, “it’s about fucking time,” upon his return was surely echoed in every living room as it happened.

Then there was Sugar; the first friend our hero made in Banshee. Wise ex-con bartender may not be a new role, but Frankie Faison brought good humour with an undercurrent of darkness to it, and his reward was being reduced to a bit part for most of the final season. Deva and her brother are non-entities too – the latter doesn’t appear at all.

Banshee has always matched its heroes against TV’s best comic-book villains, who remain in the mind long after their runs (often single episodes) are done. Nola Longshadow who tomahawked her way into one of TV’s finest ever fistfights. The Jason Statham-like cockney assassin who feeds the birds Scotch-soaked bread while calmly discussing his own mortality. Olek who loved Ana dearly, but whose loyalty to her father meant he would kill her if need be. The enormous bookkeeper who was too fat to fit in a car and so was transported everywhere in a pimped-out lorry. The terrifying albino who seemed physically invincible. Chayton Littlestone whose dreams of a native American violent revolution at times seemed entirely plausible. Mr Rabbit, whose wrath would hunt Hood to the ends of the earth for vengeance. Kai Proctor, who openly defied God to strike him down for his crimes, but privately wished only for redemption in his mother’s eyes.

And a bespectacled, bow-tie wearing, silent aide. Yes. Banshee did bad guy very well indeed.

And as part of this, it had built up its local Nazi population as future villains-in-chief from early on in its first season. When they executed a black police officer – one of the show’s few entirely good and honest guys – his wife, and their unborn child, it was easy to hate them and wish for their destruction. When they blowtorched the skin off a young officer who had left the Brotherhood and tried to start a better life for himself, we knew they would be the primary threat to our heroes in the last ever season.

Except they weren’t. There was a new Satanist serial killer and his death cult. On paper, a man believing he acts on the word of the Devil is absolutely ridiculous enough for this show. But to stretch it over seven episodes in a not-particularly-interesting serial killer plot? That’s never been what Banshee’s about. You’d be forgiven for thinking this season had been given over to trialling a new show as the final season of The Practice did for Boston Legal. Eliza Dushku in a noir detective thriller, anyone? Oh wait, Netflix kind of did that already.

And why did anyone bother bringing in the Colombian Cartel for a cameo? The Nazi Senator? (always nice to see Frasier’s Bulldog, mind you.)

Then there were the fights. Oh dear Lord, the fights. Daredevil is understandably lauded for its choreography but next to Banshee’s Lucas Hood, Matt Murdock is a ballerina. Remember the corridor scene in Daredevil’s second episode? Banshee did it first. Nola’s one-shot battle with Burton in, around, and through a classic Rolls Royce was stunning. Ana’s episode-long fight to the death with Olek was tear-inducing. Hood fighting for his life at the side of a road while eighteen wheelers scream past, his desperate struggle to survive in prison, his arresting of a rapist cagefighter. All were a visual feast of brutality TV hasn’t seen since Spartacus and Crixus fought the Romans.

Throughout it all has been the unspoken promise that we would eventually see Hood face off against Burton and while the show’s final episode did deliver this, it paled in insignificance given what had come before. Like the rest of season four, this fight just didn’t come close to the energy of what preceded it.

Showrunner Jonathan Tropper made a point of often saying not everyone would make it out the series finale in one piece, and yet, they pretty much did. Ana got her children back. Hood got to ride off into the sunset. Job returned to metropolitan civilisation, Brock got to be Sheriff of the sleepy town he loved, Bunker settled down with his love and her child, and Sugar retired a millionaire. No one likely has a complaint about this; there’s nothing inherently wrong with a happy ending, but it’s not what we were promised.

Banshee had a good final episode to a miserly final season to a superlative television show. As one friend suggested, you could always imagine it was cancelled after its third season and leave it there. Rocky V, as we all know, never really happened. Maybe Banshee season four didn’t either.

And maybe that would have been for the best. Something seems to happen to shows in their fourth seasons. The West Wing, which for its opening two seasons was as fine as television has ever been, struggled so much in its fourth year to get traction that Aaron Sorkin quit the show. Of the many hilarious episodes in Steven Moffat’s Coupling, no one’s favourite is in season four. Sherlock’s fourth ‘season’ (the Victorian Christmas special) was universally panned. Luther, which is arguably the best police drama the BBC has ever produced, had a two episode by-the-numbers fourth run. Channel 4’s chavtastic Misfits never really recovered from the loss of so many of the original stars and the fourth season was the beginning of the end. Battlestar Galactica which tore the label of best ever sci-fi series from Star Trek and never gave it back, nevertheless had a confusing, disappointing, and muddled fourth and final year.

Banshee. Sweet, beautiful Banshee went from a blazing hot sun of stylish and emotive action drama to… well, nothing of any note whatsoever and the scenes we wanted to see were largely absent. Brock finding out the truth about Hood was good, but it was one standalone scene sidelined by a lame serial killer plot, rather than built up to and savoured over time. Proctor always knew there was something off about Hood; how would he react to finding out the truth? What exactly was the familial connection between him and Sugar? Who wouldn’t have preferred to spend more time with Rebecca scheming to take over her uncle’s crime empire and risking likely death at his hands than see her serve as a plot point for a story no one wanted told? What, exactly did Hood becoming a hairy hermit accomplish? His finally leaving as Sheriff wasn’t worthy of a scene? Why wasn’t every episode just Sugar and Job flinging lovable barbs at each other before retiring to Tahiti together to set up a cocktail bar & hairdressers?

Banshee remains in my top ten list. It is a wonderful show, and one I’ll enjoy revisiting for many years to come. But if it teaches us anything about making television, it’s that maybe, just maybe, you should plan to end things by the end of your third year, and if you want to make a different show, go make one. But don’t change a winning formula as Jonathan Tropper said they explicitly set out to do after the action-laden season three. Don’t keep the brand and change the format. We deserve better as viewers.

And Banshee deserved better as a show.

We can no longer afford to ignore religion’s role in promoting evil

In the eighteenth century, the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire wrote that, “if you can make people believe absurdities, you can make them commit atrocities.” It is, sadly, every bit as much a truism today as it was before the tulmultous events of the Revolution which followed his death at the close of the century.

It is important to note that at the time of writing, it is unknown who committed the latest atrocities which struck at the heart of France though of course that hasn’t stopped unscrupulous ‘journalists’ and by extension the twitterati from baseless speculation. Inevitably, the phrase on everyone’s lips is, “Muslims.”

It’s become an unfortunate cliché to begin such a discussion with, “of course most Muslims are peaceful, but…” Non-Muslims can only imagine what it must be like to have to defend their faith in times such as these. We do not require Christians to answer for Anders Breivik or the bombers of family planning clinics any more than we demand contrition from the Saudis for Osama bin Laden. Neighbourly ribbing aside, no one judges millennial Germans for the actions of their great grandparents, Iraqis are not held to account for the crimes of Saddam Hussein, and yet following every attack on civilisation by Islamic extremists we cast a suspicious eye on our Muslim citizens, waiting with baited breath to chastise them if they voice anything but the most vocal and heartfelt condemnations.

Religious terrorism is the great evil of our age. There is no explanation, excuse, or circumstance which justifies the actions of those who would strike at our friends and family in their homes. And yet there is no doubt that these fractions of men, these cowards and curs, feel entirely justified in their murder. They are as indignant in their slaughter as we are in our outrage. They go to hell covered in the blood of innocents with pride and joy because old men taught them to hate, as those old men were taught before and though it flies in the face of accepted tolerance in the West, to ignore religion as the direct cause of the rage that beats at our door is an abandonment of reason.

Debating the difference between mainstream religion and fundamentalist or extremist religion is to sidestep the obvious. There would be no religious extremism without religion. From human sacrifice in Mesoamerican civilisations, through Egyptian slavery and the Crusades, right up to the Ku Klux Klan’s so called ‘white pride’, the Vatican’s protection of child molesters and ISIS waging war on Humanity itself, religion has been the primary fuel that burns in the fire of human barbarism.

Still we patronise them. A man preaching the ridiculous is mad; a civilisation chanting along is religion. “Faith-based” is a lazy stereotype thrown around by unionist commentators to describe Scottish politics. It is derisory. An unashamed criticism. “People only vote for the SNP on faith; it’s nothing to do with facts.” The merits of such an argument aside, why is the same naked scorn not there when it comes to the origin of that very criticism? It seems preposterous to have to note the following, but there is no evidence – none whatsoever – for the existence of a singular or pantheon of beings or entities that bear any relation to the fictions our ancestors invented to enslave people. There is a compendium of evidence that points to the truth. Religion is about control, and the easiest way to control is to instil fear. From there it is only the shortest hop to anger and hatred. This is why religion was created.

Whether Islam is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than other religions is an interesting, but irrelevant discussion when it comes to countering the threat of terrorism. It is not atheists strapping explosives to their chests. Agnostics do not vow death to the West. Humanists do not cry “God is great” as they deprive men, women and children of their lives. No evidence-based judgment of the Human condition can conclude anything but that that ours would be a world more peaceful and loving absent the bigotry that we indoctrinate our children with.

There is no denying that we are at war, and horrific though it is, there are times when the use of violence to defend ourselves is inescapable. Firearms and munitions alone however will not save us from the loveless abyss these men of God would drag us into. As with so many ills in the world, education is the silver bullet. No one is born religious. There is no such thing as a ‘half-Christian’ child. We tell lies to the young, and they are the most odious untruths our species has ever conceived. We tell them to abandon personal responsibility, because God has a plan for us. We discourage critical thinking because faith is the shibboleth by which virtue is judged. We encourage them to scorn their neighbours because there is only one true religion and non-believers, whatever their other qualities, will be judged accordingly. Perhaps worst of all we instil a casual disregard for life itself because our very existence is but a test for the next, and everlasting rapture lies in wait for true devotees.

It is no coincidence that so much of the world’s horror comes from the Middle East not because the region favours Islam over Judeo-Christian mythology, but because education is seen not as an inalienable right, but a pernicious evil that must be shied away from. Dissent is not merely rude or irritating; it is a sin against God and punishable by the most extreme measures.

If we wish to triumph over terrorism, we must first acknowledge the mire in which it breeds. We must bring about an end to such insidious claptrap as ‘respect for religion.’ Everyone should of course be able to believe what they will. If religion brings someone strength in the privacy of their own home then we should respectfully disagree and wish them well. The moment it impedes on our lives however, there should be an abandonment of tolerance. We should teach our children the difference between respecting someone’s right to believe, and respect for the belief itself. Religion should be no more shielded from scorn and ridicule than Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight.

This war is not about land or resources; it is about hatred. That hatred is taught, and religion is the maestro. If we are to combat hatred, we must combat its source, and the peace must be won at home before we can hope to spread it elsewhere.

#Politics Can we ditch the Left/Right spectrum and get complicated, please?

It’s hard to argue in anything but support of the proposition that political debate would be a lot better in this country if we ditched the concept of left-wing and right-wing. Jeremy ‘may or may not be an IRA plant – not sure yet’ Corbyn is either left wing or far left depending on how you see it. To some he’s centre-left but these are the same people who don’t find the SNP worryingly authoritarian so we won’t bother with their delusions today.

I find David Cameron right wing personally. Some go further, and yet just last week he and his ilk were talking about not only claiming the centre ground, but the centre-left. Couple this with a Labour party that secretly really liked those racist mugs and we are through the looking glass already.

Of course we’re not. It’s all politicking. It’s bullshit. George Osborne is no more a centrist today than he was a year ago. Theresa May, having moved on from her anti Nasty Party phase years ago is now so right wing she thinks immigrants swapped alphabetti spaghetti with hoops to try and scare her at dinner time. Jeremy Corbyn is far left if you accept the middle ground as Blairism, but no one bar Blairites does that.

The “centre-ground” is a meaningless phrase in modern politics. Once upon a time it was solely about economic policies. The left wanted to tax and spend and the Right wanted to cut taxes and have poor people string themselves up by their bootstraps. Or something.

It’s not now though. Now Left is interchangeable with liberal just as Right is interchangeable with conservative. And since none of us can agree where the centre ground is, aiming for it is an exercise in futility.

Most of my friends are liberal. This is hardly surprising. I’m liberal, one year shy of Churchill’s switching age and most of my friends are younger than me. By and large, the young are more socially compassionate than the old.

Most of my older friends however, to say nothing of the majority of people in my life I have real intellectual respect for, are conservative, at least with a small c. They have more financial interests than the young and are, reasonably enough, more concerned with such things than people currently enjoying a student grant.

But we’re not America, at least not yet. We’re a more interesting people than red or blue. My best friend has voted Conservative all his life and yet found it hard to disagree with what Jeremy Corbyn had to say on social matters. He earns more than the average and has no problem paying more for things like education, foreign aid and the NHS. In the US they’d call him a RINO – Republican in name only – save for the fact that in America, he’d likely be a conservative Democrat because their notion of the centre ground is to the right of ours.

I have liberal friends who hate the idea of foreign aid when British children are suffering in (relative) poverty. I know one young, liberal bar manager who wants to run his own place one day and sees no problem in the basic conservative theory of cutting tax credits so long as the minimum wage catches the difference.

I don’t have a moral objection to private citizens owning firearms, but the results of the US’s catastrophic fuck ups on this front cannot be ignored. Nor am I morally opposed to Trident in the UK. I can see a coherent argument for a nuclear deterrant without balking. My opposition has always been financial – we’re an island nation and I’d rather the funding went to naval defence forces. Or schools and hospitals, but that’s just my inner hippy blethering on.

People are too fond of labelling themselves; particularly in an age and country where we’re all supposed to be individuals, and more than that, we’ve a desperate need to be part of a gang. The SNP speaks for a huge part of liberal and centrist Scotland, but rather than be satisfied with this, there are acolytes who lap up everything Nicola Sturgeon lays out for them as if it were delivered by the Angel Gabriel and actively hound those who dare criticise even a single SNP policy. Despite what most papers would have you believe, they’re not alone. Scottish Labour and many of their supporters are hamstrung by a visceral hatred of the SNP, unable to acknowledge even the slightest good deed, and desperate to criticise things their opponents aren’t remotely responsible for. Gang mentaliy.

But where do these two parties lie on the spectrum? Both claim to be centre-left. There are many pundits who say they are dangerously far-left while on the street (and by street I do of course mean twitter), supporters of each denigrate the others by referring to them as Tories. Red Tories, Yellow Tories, and even some Blue Tories, goes the cynical joke.

If we can’t agree on the centre however, we can’t begin to get into the comparative intricacies of far-left, centre-left, and so on. So let’s just stick with liberal and conservative. Let’s acknowledge that life is too complicated to spend saying, “I agree with X on Y so I agree with X on every-fucking-thing.”

Or we could do what Political Compass do and recognise the need for at least two axes. Left/Right and Authoritarian/Libertarian. Sounds a mite complicated for the average political pundit though, doesn’t it?

Jeremy Corbyn calls himself a socialist. Alex Salmond calls himself a social democrat. I don’t know what the fuck that is. I call myself a left-wing, libertarian, pragmatic, liberal. Or at least I do when someone asks for specifics which is almost never from someone who matters, because those who are worth talking to recognise that your position on one thing need not dictate it on another. We are shades of grey, we are multi-coloured, we are fucking complicated.

And left or right, I don’t like anyone who wants to be part of a gang.

#IndyRef: It’s time to step out of the cave

scotland

There’s a scene in The West Wing I’m particularly fond of. In discussing a mission to Mars, one character asks another, “why? Why go to Mars?”

“Because it’s next,” responds the other. “Because we came out of the cave, and discovered fire. We crossed the plains, traversed the oceans and climbed mountains. We went to the Moon and Mars is next.”

Since ‘neath my grim, sweary, pessimistic exterior there’s still a wee boy who loves to look at the stars and imagine strange, new worlds, I loved that moment and it came back to me this morning as I watched the BBC’s latest referendum debate from Fife. Once again we heard that an independent Scotland would face risks. There are unknowns if we discontinue this Union. Here there be monsters. Danger, Will Robinson. There are unknown and dangers, it’s true. That being said…

Go back to that first moment. When our ancient ancestors looked to the light at the end of the tunnel and saw light. They could have given into their fear. They could have stayed in the dark, not being harmed by what was outside, but never knowing either. Never benefitting from a free experience devoid of the shackles of tired tradition and the naysayers of old. Is it inconceivable that years later when they looked back over their lives, those who didn’t leave experienced regret? Isn’t it better to venture outside and experience, than not and forever wonder?

There’s no going back, we’re regularly told. But our ancestors didn’t want to go back. They built villages and towns, then great cities where the peoples of the world came together to bask in awe at the magnificence of what a small group of people could achieve.

In September the people of Scotland face a remarkably similar choice. Scots can choose to stay in the cave and restrict themselves to a cold, dark, monotonous slumber all the way to an ignoble death.

Or they can step out into the light, grasp the noble prospects they’ve won for themselves, stand tall as equals among new friends, face the world’s dangers with those friends, and rejoice in the beauty of opportunity that surrounds us. They can proudly show how a small nation on the tip of civilisation can beam out as a northern light across the globe. They can change the world.

Nothing in life is certain, but those ancestors who stayed in the cave were forgotten. Those who left danced among the stars. Scotland faces the same choices, and immortality awaits.

What’s next?

#indyref: The positive case for Scottish Independence

scotland

I’ve never been more enthused about a political campaign than I am concerning Yes Scotland. I can’t help but picture what a Yes result could result in over the coming decades and those images are always positive.

I’m no starry-eyed dreamer. Indeed generally in life I’m surrounded by a dreich cloud of sarcasm, cynicism and cold hearted, miserable realities. ‘Life sucks, and then it ends’ goes the phrase. I’ve always been a realist rather than an optimist (except, perhaps where Scottish rugby is concerned).

The oddest thing about this debate though, is that realism and optimism go hand in hand for once. My steely-faced analysis of the cold, hard facts allows me to smile about what my country could achieve. No one pretends there won’t be difficulties, no one suggests mistakes won’t be made. The numbers however; they add up. Scotland could be a success, even the leaders of Better Together concede that point. So why not go for it?

It won’t be alone either. Does anyone really think that Scotland would cease trade with the rest of the UK? Would our ancient familial ties to the Irish disappear? Would we stop playing club rugby with Welsh teams? Would the international community shun us as upstarts and non-nuclear troublemakers? The UN wouldn’t have us, NATO wouldn’t protect us, the EU would dismiss us. What’s next, the WHO excluding us from medical research? The WTO issuing sanctions against us? Scotland will take its place with a fanfare at home and very little noise elsewhere, except in London.

It’s not about hating the English or an insular view of nationalism. I’ve spent most of my adult life in one of the most multicultural parts of England; my friends, co-workers and drinking buddies hail from as far afield as India, New Zealand and Canada, across the European continent and even the dreaded Southern South of the country to the South of mine. Nor is it about hating London. As a lover of bustling cities packed to the brim with every splice of human life and culture imaginable, I think London’s a fantastic place. I’m awed when I wander the halls at the Royal Courts of Justice, fascinated when I peruse the National Library, grinning when I shop at Campden Lock and giddy as a schoolkid just thinking about the wonders inside the Natural History Museum. It’s true that I’ve never met anyone who lived there who felt nearly as positive as I did, but as a visiting tourist I think it’s magical.

Indeed having lived and worked from as far North as Glasgow to as far South as London, having holidayed in the Highlands, in Wales and across the Channel Islands, I’ve always counted myself as Scottish first, but proudly British as well. There is a positive case to be made for the Union, but ironically enough given the criticism of the Yes campaign by some, it’s romantic rather than clinical. William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Katherine Jenkins and Gary Barlow are great icons of this Union, for a huge variety of reasons. I don’t want to lose that, do I?

Of course, I wouldn’t. A Yes vote for Scotland won’t wipe out the shared history we’ve all enjoyed together. I wouldn’t suddenly stop listening to Katherine, children in Scotland won’t stop learning about Romeo & Juliet, WWII will not become a forgotten event and I will genuinely treasure my experience of the Olympics as a Brit till the day I die. None of those memories or actions will be lost to me. None of my friends will stop talking to me if I become a foreign national. The British Isles will still exist; Scotland isn’t ‘going’ anywhere. It’s simply choosing to care for its own people.

There are debates about all manner of things including international body membership, nuclear weaponry, oil, division of assets, healthcare, the arts budget, debt and so on. These are valid and interesting. I engage in many of them myself but they are all secondary to the biggest issue of the campaign and one that should be brought up at every opportunity. Scotland will be able to look after its own. Its leaders shall be chosen by the people from among the people. Its policies driven by the wants and the needs of its people, written about in publications owned by its people and all of it, every single bit, done for its own people.

When you consider that simple fact, it’d be tempting to support a Yes voter even if you knew the country was going to be worse off financially. After all, money is important but so is social justice. So is the type of culture we wish to be part of. Eschewing xenophobia for a concept of Scottish nationality that says if you come from elsewhere and embrace us as we do you, you’re one of us. Putting less effort into demonising thousands of public sector workers and celebrating our doctors, nurses, teachers and other civil servants. Acknowledging that a state is only corrupt if you allow it to be so and in a small country where sometimes it can feel as if we’re all distantly related, no such betrayal will be tolerated, and we’ll be able to do something about it.

Of course the numbers do add up. The question isn’t whether Scotland would be rich but what cause it would use those riches in pursuit of. The childcare pledge is a party political one rather than an argument for independence in and of itself, but it’s an option we can’t consider at the moment without losing something else. It’s not the only one. We’re fighting to be a nation with both hands tied behind our back, a ball and chain strapped to our ankle and a blindfold covering our eyes.

There are unknowns. I specialise in international law and I don’t know exactly how the EU situation will play out. I don’t know exactly how much oil is left. I don’t know exactly what will happen if Sweden invades on bobsleighs through tubes on the Internet. There will of course be some difficulties at first; has there ever been a declaration of independence that wasn’t followed by them? Don’t limit yourself to a five year forecast however. Imagine what Scotland will be like in ten years, then twenty, then fifty. As fossil fuels dry up our renewables will be an example to the world. The more liberal, open-minded, creative and welcoming society we’ve already developed as part of the UK could blossom into a flower which is admired around the world. We won’t close our borders to friends of old and we won’t wage wars on ones we’ve yet to make.

If the romance of our Union pulls you more than that of an equal standing tall among friends, then vote No. Don’t do it out of fear though. Don’t give into those who don’t need your vote and don’t understand your needs. Don’t let control of your country pass to those who see it as a resource to be exploited. Don’t vote No because you don’t like a government no one will remember in fifty years. Don’t vote No because you feel we’re not strong enough. Don’t do it because you think we need Westminster’s help, don’t vote No because you worry we’ll be alone.

And don’t whatever you do, vote No because of one man. Your grandchildren may never forgive you.

Choose for them. Choose a happier future. Choose Scotland. Choose Yes.

Why the Scottish independence debate can be a fiery place, even for sympathetic unionists

Scotsman cartoon on Cameron Speech

Scotsman cartoon on Prime Minister’s ‘love-bomb’

Yesterday, comedian Marcus Brigstocke caused something of a stir on Twitter by involving himself in the Scottish Independence debate. As a Yes supporter it would be the easiest thing for yours truly to condemn this intervention as ignorant, which I did, but also unwanted, which I didn’t. Pro-independence supporters like myself are more than happy to quote the American Wall Street Journal, the Australian Canberra Times and the German Speigal when they support our views. On the rarest of occasions there is even an article from the London press which we consider to be fair. So why not him?

‘Fair’ is of course a matter of opinion. Something’s equitable value is not objectively judged on whether or not it agrees with us and this may well be part of the backlash to Mr Brigstocke’s comments yesterday. The Yes Campaign has been winning the twitter ‘war’ since its inception, a reflection of its comparatively young, modern membership. As a result, practically any comment tagged #indyref will be seen by more Yes supporters than No. The responses will reflect this, particularly if the original comment comes from a celebrity unionist like Mr Brigstocke. If I were a Better Together spokesman I’d speak of ‘Cybernats’ but since this deliberately offensive term is every bit as unhelpful to the debate as the very few immature, ignorant and bigoted commentators deserving of the derision it’s delivered with, I won’t.

The problem with Mr Brigstocke’s intervention isn’t that he’s unable to vote in the referendum. As a Scot living in Derby for over half his life, neither can I and yet my frequent comments on the matter aren’t nearly so badly received. Nor is it his nationality; the mere misfortune of being born English* shouldn’t discount him from involving himself in the discussion and anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t someone I wish to be associated with. Lest we forget there are plenty of self-defining English people living north of the border who can vote and the idea that their voices count less than someone of Scottish descent is risible.

The only problem with yesterday’s intervention was the lack of education on the subject, but here I’m happy to say I have some sympathy with the uninformed. Barely a day goes by when I don’t read up on and debate independence and so at the risk of sounding arrogant I know considerably more than most who don’t. Mr Brigstocke lives in London though; at a guess I’d say he reads The Guardian but even if he reads all the major City papers, all the time, it will be rare that he actually sees an article on Scotland, let alone one that it isn’t immediately easy to find fault with. Let me explain.

Getting into this debate myself last year, I did my best to become as informed as I could but as a part of this quest, I did my best to avoid publications from groups like @WingsScotland, @WeAreNational, @NewsnetScotland & @BizforScotland because they had a clear (and unashamed) bias. Bias I was prepared to go along with, but any first year law student realises you don’t prepare for court only by reading case judgments that agree with your premise. So I looked to the regular players. BBC News, all the broadsheets and most often in Scotland because I like the rugby pages, The Scotsman. I did so with the understanding that whilst every journalist in the world has some form of bias, a wide range of the media would give me a balanced view.

To my surprise, it did not. Even the BBC which when we think of bias, is usually accused of being anti-Tory doesn’t live up to expectations. A recent study found it actually favoured the current government more than the last. Another said both BBC Scotland and STV (the North Britain version of ITV) News favoured the No campaign more than the Yes. No one is shocked at the suggestion the Daily Mail has a right-wing bias which includes hating skirt-wearing, gingers who’ve never seen a blue sky, but to begin to see the same articles in The Guardian? I had to question the concept.

Moaning about the mainstream media is an idea I loathe as much as the argument that all politicians are corrupt. Re the latter it’s not true and it doesn’t help anyone, and with the former? Well it makes you sound like you watch Fox News and think Anderson Cooper and President Obama have secret meetings on how to deceive the American public. You’re one step away from claiming you were abducted by aliens as a child. Or at least that’s how it seems.

But then there’s the evidence cited above. There’s the response to the Governor of the Bank of England’s speech three weeks ago. The BBC, which showed it live on 24hr news, trailed it all morning as a ‘warning.’ In actual fact, Mark Carney went to Scotland, met with the First Minister and spoke about how the BoE would implement a currency union. The phrase I most often saw quoted was that a currency union would require ‘some ceding of national sovereignty.’ First of all, I don’t know anyone who seriously disagrees with this. The question is (or rather was, before the Chancellor came to play) how much sovereignty would be ceded. Scotland would have a say at the misleadingly-named Bank of England (it of course, being the Bank of the United Kingdom & Northern Ireland in practice), whereas currently it has none. Is this true independence? Is it enough? Step in the right direction? There’s a real debate there. Overwhelmingly though, the English press (and by that, I mean the TV news I watch in the Midlands and the papers I can have delivered to my door) focused on the narrative Alistair Darling wanted them to push, which is that Mark Carney had shot the idea of a currency union to shreds. The Scotsman and I think the Herald did the same.

All of this of course ignored the fact that the entire point of Mr Carney’s speech was to say HOW such a union would work, not that it couldn’t. That simple fact appeared to be lost on London. Even Channel 4 News which some of us like to think of as a bit different from the norm, eager to push past the headline to the meat, completely missed it.

Nor is this the first or only time such a widespread misrepresentation has occurred. I’d forgive anyone who hasn’t paid a lot of attention to the matter outside of Scotland for believing first that the entire referendum is the result of one man’s grasp for power, and that the only people who support voting Yes are Scottish National Party members. This is, as anyone involved will tell you, so far removed from truth as to be offensive to those others who work tirelessly for the cause. The Scottish Greens are pro-independence, and they could hardly be called Alex Salmond’s lackeys. So are socialists, communists, some Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, independents. The polls have all shown (anomalous results discounted) that two things are true. No is consistently the most favoured option of those eligible to vote, but both options are favoured by people from all walks of life, rather than two previously distinct voting blocs. How many times have you seen ‘Yes Scotland’ characterised as ‘Alex Salmond’ or ‘the SNP’ before, though? It’s a deliberate ploy to play upon one politician’s polarising effect. The analogy isn’t perfect, but Mr Salmond is similar to Boris Johnson in that even the most politically unengaged know exactly who he is, and know roughly what he stands for. Such is the nature of celebrity politics, some hate him and others love him. Wee ‘Eck is both a callous insult and a heartfelt nickname. John Swinney, by contrast? Well most people don’t even know who he is. So despite the fact that as Scottish Finance Minister he may author a paper on the economy, it will not be his, but Mr Salmond’s because that way the immediate guttural reaction is there from some.

I mention these examples of misreporting to evidence to those who may not be aware that an accusation of bias in the media is not a crazed concoction of paranoid Scottish nationalists, but something that quite clearly exists; also to provide an excuse for people such as Marcus Brigstocke. I don’t know Mr Brigstocke personally but my impression is that he likes to think himself as reasonably well informed on the issues that interest him, which indeed is the impression his comedy over the years has given me. The trouble is if you read every ‘main’ newssource and they all tell you the same thing, the likelihood is, given that you’ll probably have the same assumption I did last year, you’ll believe that thing is true. If a debate is characterised as heart against head enough, the message will sink in. This is between Mel Gibson fans and economists. Flag-wavers and realists. Cybernats and adults.

It behoves one then to look beyond on this issue, to sites such as the ones I listed above, but also bearing in mind the caveats I discussed. If anything, I’d advise reading them with more scorn than say, an article in The Independent, because I’m confident they can stand up to it. Put another way, last I checked the BBC had a two-source rule for investigative journalists. In short, if you don’t have two independent sources confirming the story, you don’t run it. I can’t say if this is still policy, but I sincerely hope so. The result is, despite recent examples, we generally consider BBC news to be truthful, if not always editorially sound. When you read an article on the website, it won’t often have links heading elsewhere, because you don’t need to look at them to know you’re not being bamboozled.

Pro-independence sites are all too aware that they don’t have this same level of trust and so do share their sources. Don’t believe them when they say it’s obvious Scotland could flourish? Look at just one of a number of independent reports. Unsure about their claims on NATO welcoming Scotland? Well check the credentials of the man they asked. Not ready to take their word for it that Scotland has no legal duty to pay a penny of UK debt? Here’s an economist.

I don’t speak just for myself or a small group of Yes supporters when I say the more the merrier in the debate. I’m a lawyer who specialises in international law and I don’t know what the situation with the EU will result in. I can take an educated guess, but no one knows. It’s an unprecendeted situation. The discussion can only be helped by more experts weighing in and having a civilised discussion about it. It’s the same with NATO. It’s the same with how much oil is left (though NOT, I hasten to embolden, who it belongs to. The law is clear on that). If you’re really into the details, read the The Continental Shelf Act 1964, the Continental Shelf (Jurisdiction) Order 1968, The Scotland Act 1998 and Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundary Order 1999. That’s before you even get into the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea. In the meantime look at this picture, evidentially shipped out to the lowest bidder by the Government. There are small disputes, but the lowest possible legal interpretation gives Scotland 90%+ of UK’s North Sea oil reserves.

Scottish Waters

Scottish waters as interpreted via the Scottish Adjacent Waters Boundary Order 1999

Marcus Brigstocke acted in ignorance yesterday by making on or two comments that were unhelpful at best, but it must also be acknowledged that the reactions of some were wholly inappropriate. As I said, I don’t know him and so it may very well be the case that he is a cunt, as one poster suggested.** He’s not a cunt however, because he has an opinion on Scottish Independence and every Yes supporter I’ve ever engaged with would condemn such an allegation and behaviour. I won’t defend it.

The overall reaction being one that seemed to be bitter and angry however, I can understand. Those on the Yes side have fought a David and Goliath-like fight over the nature of the discussion for the future of their country. Not just the future itself, but the discussion. We were told Scotland couldn’t afford it and slowly they convinced enough people so that even David Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Miliband and… that guy from the yellow party, have conceded that’s not true so they moved on. We were told in the 70s that the oil would only last five more minutes and through nationalist action we now know that wasn’t just untrue, but a lie. We’re told Alex Salmond is Robert Mugabe (and less savoury others) we’re cybernats, Australia won’t be allies with us anymore, it’s England’s pound, independence will cost jobs (with no explanation of why), the Americans won’t protect us when the Russians invade, we’ll be pariahs at the UN, we couldn’t bail out RBS, RBS would move to England (despite RBS having said no such thing), the Spanish will block us joining Europe (despite Spain saying no such thing), People in the rest of the UK have never been asked about a currency union (despite a Better Together comissioned poll showing two-thirds support), and most recently, that the UK government may ignore the UN charter and deny us independence even if we vote for it. The Daily Mash parodied all of this nicely by suggesting Scotland may not be able to use English oxygen.

We’re told unfortunate mistruths and deliberate lies. We’ve been belittled and insulted. With the best will in the world we try and counter this with information and reasoned, friendly debate knowing full well there are people all around the world and particularly in England who may not agree with us, but wish us well if we go. Those on the outside looking in however, must remember that for some this discussion started decades ago, and sometimes when someone jumps in who seems not to have heard a word we’ve said, it can grate. Rudeness is rarely excusable, but sometimes it is understandable.

 

* – Yes, that was a joke.

** – I considered linking to the poster for evidence, but decided since attention was clearly what they were after, best not to.