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Great Britain – Review – Theatre Royal – Haymarket – London

An unusual post for my blog, but one that I think is appropriate. Every time I go to London on external examiner duty for the University of Westminster, I make sure that I get the chance to see something at the theatre. Usually I’ll try to see something that is either political / legal in nature if there is anything in that genre. Luckily when I was in London on work during this past week, I was able to get a ticket to see the opening night of ‘Great Britain’ at the Theatre Royal on Haymarket on Tuesday 9th September.

 

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The production, written by Richard Bean, had previously held a successful run at the smaller Lyttelton Theatre during the summer months, and I was interested to see what all the fuss was about. Essentially the production is a satire on the ‘News of the World’ scandal and Leveson inquiry, however it has strong elements beyond this that focus on both political and police corruption and incompetence. As such, whilst the humour is excetionally strong, equally for those that choose to see beyond the comedy, there are real moments that give you pause for thought regarding both individual morality and modern human nature in general.

The way the production is structured is that the majority takes place in the newsroom of fictional tabloid newspaper ‘The Free Press’, with characters including the Murdoch-esque Proprietor played by Dermot Crowley, the vulgar editor played by Robert Glenister, and arguably the main character – Paige Britain (played by Lucy Punch), who is a ruthless up and coming news editor, who has frighteningly high ambitions to go as far as running the country from the murky shadows of the press by manipulating the leader of the Conservative party (Rupert Vansittart). Paige will stop at absolutely nothing to further her career and personal aspirations. Her journey takes us through initially minor areas such as employing people to go through the bins of celebrities, to more serious areas such as blackmailing members of the ‘Leveson’ committee who were investigating her conduct. The out of control spiral leads to the corruption of the previously clean Assistant Commissioner of the Police (Ben Mansfield), and eventually being caught after hacking the phones of fictionally abducted and killed twin children, and the suicide of their father after he was mistakenly arrested for their murder based on news reports stemming from Paige and her publication.

 

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All of the cast without exception were perfectly cast in their roles – there was nobody who was utterly dislikable or without some sort of redeeming quality, even if it was simply admiration for having such courage of their convictions that they were if nothing else entirely honest with themselves. Undoubtedly though there were two stars of the show – Lucy Punch as Paige Britain, and Aaron Neil as the Police Commissioner. Whilst I have said a fair amount about Paige, as yet I have not discussed the Commissioner, who is characterised as little more than a puppet, but one who is unaware that this is the role he plays. He genuinely tries his best, but is simply clueless and in over his head. By far and away the best one-liners come from the Commissioner, and Neil’s delivery is absolutely first class. Little bits of detail such as the playing on the screen of modern phenomena such as ‘youtube’ videos that people have edited of his press conference announcements in the form of a mocking ‘music video’ genuinely add something to the performance, and had the audience in hysterics.

As mentioned earlier however, it is not all about the comedy. There were undertones of morality and reflections of real life corruption present, undoubtedly deliberately, throughout the show. Most of these were genuine areas that would make you think, such as; were the police really that terrified of the media prior to Leveson that they would have evidence but cover it up for fear of being portrayed in a bad light? Is whistleblowing, when made to the press and not the authorities truly ‘corruption’? (This I think I could write a blog on its own right in, so I’ll not answer the question) What really are the limits of freedom of expression and the ‘public interest’? In particular we have to reflect on the lengths some people go to just to achieve fame, and where does it really lead when we are faced with the character of Stella (Kellie Shirley), a young aspiring glamour model, who starts off agreeing to drop a dress size and have cosmetic surgery before being given a contract as a ‘page 7’ model, and eventually is accepting a large fee for the newspaper to have exclusive rights to her death inevitably coming as a result of an eating disorder.

One area that I do think was misguided, and for me did not really work was late on the performance when Paige took centre stage to ‘tell’ the audience that we didn’t really care about phone hacking when it was all about the celebrity gossip, and we only cared when there was a moral outrage over the eventual hacking of the dead children’s phones. Paige laments that had the hacking resulted in the children being found alive then she would have been a hero, but as in reality it only led to headlines and the arrest / suicide of the father she was painted as a villain. This monologue is an attempt to make the audience feel uncomfortable about their morality as it forcefully asserts unequivocally that we ‘all’ were guilty of this. I for one have never thought celebrity gossip of the nature put across by the tabloids is okay, nor have I ever thought that phone hacking etc. were ever acceptable as I believe that people have a right to a private and family life. Perhaps however this is due to my roots as a lawyer, and the fact that I have taken an active interest in issues relating to press activities and regulation since I taught media law for three years, and still act as an external examiner in the subject.

 

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Of course, eventually it all comes crashing down around Paige, the Commissioner, and most of the other characters who had been corrupted, though the twist at the end is shown as Paige, following her inappropriately lenient punishment, manages to find huge celebrity herself as the host of a US talk show purely as a result of her former infamy, making the audience wonder, is there ever truly a way out of the sleaze, or will the cycle forever be perpetuated.

Overall, this was a superb production that should appeal to a wide demographic (though definitely NOT appropriate for children due to both the subject matter and the coarse language throughout), with a number of levels of comedy, satire, political commentary, and self-reflection. If you are in a position to see this, take the chance while you can.

I would definitely rate it as five out of five.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Government manipulation of European Union report

For those of you reading this that might not know too much about my background, I have taught various combinations of Constitutional Law, EU Law and Advanced EU Law at UWS since 2007. In addition to this, I am also currently an external examiner for Constitutional Law, EU Law and Advanced EU Law at another University in Scotland. In other words, I have been heavily involved in the area of EU law in both a research and teaching sense for a number of years as part of my day to day job.

The EU is a complex organisation that is not simple to explain in all of its intricacies to a lay person who doesn’t have hours upon hours, days upon days, or even weeks upon weeks to devote to learning all about it to gain a balanced and fair understanding and opinion. Sadly, the general lack of specific knowledge on matters EU naturally leads a lot of people to be sceptical and negative about the organisation. This is understandable – I mean, who wouldn’t be negative with often (incorrectly) cited terms such as ‘federalist’, ‘lack of democracy’, ‘sticking its nose in’, ‘benefit tourism’ etc. etc. Sadly though, this is a problem created by a combination of various individuals in Government and the media, who do not responsibly report on the European Union.

I have long tried very, very hard when teaching EU Law to inform, without giving my own opinion; to create a balanced perspective on matters such as the creation of EU Laws, Immigration, security and defence, and the rights and responsibilities associated with EU Citizenship. I ask students to leave their preconceptions at the door when entering my EU Law classes and keep an open mind, then at the end of the course to make an informed personal opinion as to if they truly do believe that the EU is a good or bad thing for the UK.

This is why when stories such as this one come out, they really annoy me:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-28368567

In case the article is removed, I would like to share a couple of quotes from it to remain here for posterity:

A report on UK immigration has caused a row within government because Tory ministers believed it was too pro-European, sources have told Newsnight.

The leaked Home Office report draws together evidence from 67 businesses, think tanks, unions and experts.

It concludes the influx of EU migrants has had a largely positive effect, and cites evidence suggesting they are less likely to use benefits than Britons.

The report was re-written twice….

…..Whitehall sources have told Newsnight that the Home Office balked at the initial draft.

Home Secretary Theresa May sent it to the Home Office implementation unit, which rewrote it with more sceptical and negative comments.

The new text could not be agreed on within government and the report was eventually given to a Cabinet Office “star chamber” of civil servants to rule what stayed in and what was left out.

I have a hard enough job as it is trying to foster into large numbers of impressionable students the balanced perspective that I do, without this sort of trash going on. I personally consider it disgraceful that a report is commissioned, with the evidence that follows coming from a large number of relevant sources, which doesn’t ‘fit’ with the Government’s agenda, and so they simply refuse to publish it. Instead they want to deliberately manipulate the content of the report to put in negative rhetoric and spin.

Sadly this is not the first time this sort of nonsense has gone on, and it likely won’t be the last. What is even sadder is that few people will have noticed the news report, and even fewer will care or remember anything about it in months or years to come, yet a large proportion who may eventually see the headlines from the final ‘report’ in all of its manipulated glory, may take from it the negative ‘evidence’ and continue to hold their overwhelmingly negative viewpoints.

A very sad state of affairs, given how important (in my opinion) the UK retaining membership of the EU is in reality.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Follow up to Scottish Alcohol Bill

I’ve been asked the question relating to the Alcohol Bill, something I posted about yesterday, ‘how can Scotland introduce minimum pricing, isn’t that a breach of EU law?’. So I thought this is something I would address in brief.

The issue is discussed in the British Medical Journal this month by Bryan Christie (Scotland will set minimum price for a unit of alcohol, BMJ 2011; 343:d5869) where he mentions;

            “Although the measure will be approved in Scotland, it may still be blocked under European Union competition laws. Rules on free trade generally do not allow price fixing, which is seen as anticompetitive. In 1978 the European Court of Justice rejected minimum pricing of spirits, and the European Commission has also opposed minimum pricing on tobacco.”

However in creating the legislation, the Scottish Executive has obviously taken advice from various sources and in the Q&A section on the Scottish ‘Government’ the following is stated;

           “Isn’t imposing a minimum price illegal? The Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament has issued a certificate of legislative competence for the Alcohol Bill which includes minimum pricing. This means that he considers the Bill to be within the powers of the Scottish Parliament.” (Minimum Pricing – Questions Answered, Scottish Government, http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Health/health/Alcohol/minimum-pricing/Q-A)

So the Scottish Executive clearly believe that the legislation and implications of it are legal. Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) have addressed this issue and were involved in the consultation process. Their official policy is that;

           “In the UK and at an EU level, rules on free trade generally do not allow price fixing on the grounds that it is deemed ‘anti-competitive’ and, it is argued, leads to inefficiency in the market. However, it is important to note that the law allows exceptions to these rules. Intervention in the operation of a market can legally be justified in certain circumstances on the grounds of the protection of public health.” (Legal framework for minimum pricing for alcohol, SHAAP, http://www.shaap.org.uk/pages/117,Legal_framework.html)

Now is the problem. What SHAAP are saying is indeed correct. EU law does indeed allow a margin of appreciation for Member States to derogate from certain legal principles on grounds of public health. The real question is whether it can actually justify the derogation if challenged in the European Courts. The problem here is that they are trying to invoke the right to derogate from EU law on grounds of public health for what is in reality a completely legal activity – consuming alcohol.

In my opinion we won’t actually find out the true legal position until / if such a legal challenge is mounted.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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