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March 25 2012

Artists, performers and politicians on the Guardian Open Weekend

Some of the speakers at the festival of ideas and open journalism share their highlights and reflections

India Knight, novelist

"The atmosphere here is very friendly: the crowd at my event, on gender equality, were really nice, really engaged. There was a great mix of angry older women and younger ones who I was convinced were going to ask me about vajazzling. I was a little disappointed when they didn't. But I'm going to stay for the rest of the day – just mill about and see as many other sessions as I can. I'm just about to dash in and see John Lanchester in the Question time: what is the future of capitalism? session. I'm a great admirer of his."

Grayson Perry, artist

"I'm wondering if I'm playing to the paper or the audience when I do the live G2 Interview with Decca Aitkenhead. It's different when you are on your on your own with an interviewer – you just have to worry about them. I just saw Jim Al-Khalili because I love him on the telly. I have to keep up with my daughter, who is a scientist. This is the nearest to a festival I'll get. I hate camping, mud, fancy dress, and circus skills bring me out in a rash. All of that spiritual-fucking-ality at Glastonbury. You'd have to get me in and out in a helicopter."

Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and author

"I think print newspapers are going to die and if they want to succeed they need to feel more like a family. We're in the age of interactivity: people want to feel a part of it; the audience is not content to be passive any more. So this is the way forward. As a reader I'm thrilled to be here for the day, at the cutting edge of the media. I was particularly impressed by Gary Younge, who I have never seen speak before and was erudite, charming and funny. Admirably he was wearing a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin [the black teenager shot last month in Florida]."

Robert Harris, author

"The Guardian has always had the air of being more than just a paper. I started reading it when I was 15, which was the early 1970s when Heath was prime minister. I was living in the midlands and remember feeling at the time that there weren't many people who saw things the same way as me. So the Guardian was like a family. I went to visit the printers when I was at school and developed an affinity with it from then on. I have been forced to re-read Fatherland for my talk today. I never revisit my books but since this one is 20 years old it seemed the right time to do it. I felt quite a stranger to it – so much has changed since then. And it was a lose/lose situation: either it would be good and you can't do better, or bad and you feel like a failure. It was like looking at an old photograph and thinking, 'Was I really like that?'"

Steve McQueen, artist and filmmaker

"I'm happy to be here."

Jeffrey Sachs, economist

"I'm thrilled to be at such a grand event. I was in Chile and en route to Mozambique but didn't want to pass the opportunity to come to London for this. It's a wonderful idea for newspapers to do this kind of thing, but it's also important for society in a time when we absolutely need engagement. People feel alienated from the political system and this is a way to make them feel a part of the debates that are going on."

Jo Shapcott, poet

"I very much enjoyed my talk and hope that the audience did too. The questions were very sharp, particularly one from a gentleman who asked whether you could tell if a poem was by a man or a woman; that is something I have thought about a lot myself. It's buzzing here. I keep bumping into people who are saying how much they are loving it. One person even said it was intellectual heaven."

Tom Watson, Labour MP and member of the Commons culture committee

"The Open Weekend is a fantastic idea. It's giving the newspaper back to its readers. It's really enjoyable to see so many of them in the building and waiting around outside. It's a real explosion of colour and excitement. I've only just got here, though, as I've had surgeries this morning in my constituency, and I've been going door to door. There's a real fury about the budget, which is encouraging politically, but not so encouraging for my constituents who are bearing the brunt of it. I'm going to be talking about phone hacking on a panel chaired by Jon Snow, with Amelia Hill, Nick Davies - oh and Alan Rusbridger, so I'd better be on my best behaviour. It's only now that the people involved in uncovering the scandal can begin to come up for air and try to make sense of it all. I think the three issues I want to talk about today are ownership, regulation and ethics."

Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter

"I don't want to talk about phone hacking. I'm sure others on the panel will want to, but I'm sick of talking about phone hacking. What I really want to talk about is what it tells us about Britain. What is it about this country that makes us vulnerable to those kind of practices, ones that don't seem to have affected other countries? Is it the same thing that renders us a playground for the Russian mafia, if you think about the Russian man who was shot here the other day? And what is it about Britain that means we have such an appetite for this sort of tabloid journalism – ever since Jack the Ripper? I suspect that we live quite dull lives in this country, and we have an appetite for the kind of gossip that spices up our dull lives."

Linton Kwesi Johnson, poet

"I've been a Guardian reader for years – my favourite section is Obituaries. I've come along today with no expectations of what it's going to be like. Unfortunately I can't stick around after my session, I've got other places to be."

Ed Balls, shadow chancellor

"The atmosphere in the session was fine – it was a little dark and difficult to see the audience, but we had some interesting questions. I spoke about my love for Dolly Parton, and revealed the fact that I'm going to be the first cabinet minister ever to run the marathon."

Fiona Shaw, actor

"This is democracy in action: playful and unexpected, with no filters between us, the readers, and the media. It's a public conversation, which is really what the media today should be."


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May 05 2010

Don't underestimate Ed Balls | Mehdi Hasan

The children's secretary is not much loved by the commentariat. But that doesn't mean he won't be the next Labour leader

Is Ed Balls the devil incarnate? That seems to be the considered view of much of our commentariat, on both left and right.

OK, I exaggerate. But how else to explain Matthew Norman's vitriolic outburst in the Independent? "Cocky, fake, slimy, inelegant, ineloquent, charmless, witless, weird, sinister, glacially cold and luminescently remote, he may be the most chillingly repulsive politician of even this golden generation," wrote Norman. Have you not met George Osborne, Matthew? Then there's the Guardian's Polly Toynbee, who dismissed him as a "dinosaur"; the Telegraph's Cristina Odone, who called him "ghastly"; and the army of bloggers and tweeters collectively praying for Balls to be unseated by his Tory challenger on Thursday night, in a reverse "Portillo moment".

Balls, however, has done what he and his mentor, Gordon Brown, do best: he has come out fighting. "I'm caricatured as a tribalist. That's garbage," the children's secretary told me at the weekend, in the midst of intense campaigning in his redrawn seat of Morley and Outwood. "It's not that I'm tribal," he said. "It's just that I'm not a Tory. I'm Labour. I believe in Labour values."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a "Ballsite". My own political leanings are to the left of Balls, who is – it is often forgotten – one of the architects of New Labour and its Faustian pact with the City. He and I also, for example, disagree on proportional representation – which the children's secretary continues to stubbornly oppose. Nor do I quite believe him when he says he has never briefed against his opponents inside Labour: "It's a politics I've never been involved in before… If you asked lobby journalists if my reputation is for anonymous briefings, they would say absolutely not." Hmm. I have – and they disagree with him. (Having said that, I couldn't help but agree when he said that "there is an irony in me being criticised anonymously for being involved in anonymous briefings".)

Above all else, however, ahead of what could be a protracted Labour leadership contest as close and as bitter as this general election itself, I was intrigued to see Balls use his interview with me in the New Statesman for a bit of old-fashioned political positioning and, even, personal rebranding. Would he sit in a coalition with Lib Dems, if he had to? "Of course. You deal with the election result as it comes." That's pretty black and white, isn't it?

Would he back anti-Tory, tactical voting in Tory/Lib Dem marginals? "I always want the Labour candidate to win, but I recognise there's an issue in places like North Norfolk, where my family live, where Norman Lamb [the Lib Dem candidate and sitting MP] is fighting the Tories, who are in second place. And I want to keep the Tories out." That's a "yes", then.

Perhaps Balls isn't the dyed-in-the-wool Labour tribalist he is so often assumed to be by the great and good in the Westminster village. As even Martin Kettle, one of his leading critics, acknowledged on Cif: "If Balls were to be the next Labour leader, he would not, I think, be quite as bone-headedly labourist as many assume. This is a man who has crossed from the centre-right to the centre-left of the Labour party in double-quick time, after all." But Kettle adds: "The main charge that those in the know make about Balls is not that he is dogmatic but that he is purely tactical – opportunist is the word one hears most often."

Is the Balls shift to the left an act of opportunism? Perhaps – although he has long been a proponent of "dividing lines" between left and right. Will it be enough to secure the votes of the Labour left? If Jon Cruddas fails to throw his hat in the ring and his opponent is David Miliband, I suspect it will. The children's secretary is making all the right (or should that be left?) noises.

On financial regulation, he acknowledged that the "legitimate criticism is that there was too little state regulation of the financial services industry and I hold my hands up for my role in that when I was financial services minister". And he heaped praise on his one-time critic Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London: "Ken rightly criticised us for not being tough enough on financial regulation." (Yesterday, Livingstone returned the compliment, telling the BBC that he planned to back Balls in any future Labour leadership contest.)

On Iraq, still a hot-button issue for countless Labour members and voters, he said: "In retrospect, it is now clear on the basis of what we know is that we should have given the inspectors more time and the rush to a second resolution was not necessary." He condemned the "anti-French" stance adopted by Downing Street at the time.

And does he hope to be the next Labour leader? "If I said I didn't want it, you wouldn't believe me."

I don't. He wants it, and it would be a mistake to write him off.

More election comment from Cif at the polls


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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