Edinburgh Book Festival: Robert Peston | Ian Cobain | Gavin Esler | Ian Goldin
After Edinburgh Book Festival discussions on banks, torture and the current state of the media, David Robinson emerged still scratching his head
Walking into Charlotte Square on Saturday, I felt good, the way things do when you’ve narrowed down an impossible choice into something remotely feasible. This time, I decided, I wouldn’t go to hear any writers I’ve already read, or to hear a talk on anything I knew the slightest bit about.
That still left an embarrassingly wide choice of questions to ponder. How should the world be governed, for example. Or how we can make sure that the credit crunch never happens again? Does Britain still torture people? On whom did F Scott Fitzgerald base Jay Gatsby? Just what was it about John Taylor that drove girls wild in the 1980s?
In my Victorian-like avidity for knowledge, I picked a few more biggies even where I’d got a tiny ragbag of opinions. Can we still trust the media? Can we still trust each other? And how about this stonking chin-stroker: what kind of future has fiction – not just in Britain but (gulp) on the entire planet?
Ten hours later, I had some answers. But I had even more questions. And the best ones are the ones the experts haven’t got an answer to either.
Take Robert Peston. There’s nothing much he doesn’t understand about the economy, and he’s got the PowerPoint graphs to prove it. He first noticed something was wrong with the British economy in 2008, when he spotted that two normally intertwined lines – one showing bank lending, the other showing economic activity – were splitting wide apart. The banks were uselessly lending so much because they, and we, had lost touch with reality, and had done almost since 1982, the last year we sold more to the world than we borrowed. Thirty years of living beyond our means, of having our living standards subsidised by foreigners, until it all became unsustainable and we came – in 2008 – within £20 billion of national bankruptcy, with each of our big banks having loans bigger than our GDP.
You’d have thought that somebody would have made a fuss about all that and started to break up our banks. At least, you would have tightened up the Basel Accords on how much the banks could borrow against their capital assets. Turns out we haven’t, and that the only changes we’ve made have made the situation more complicated, not less. And here’s the first simple, unanswered question: why?
He’s an engaging pessimist, Mr Peston. He says he’s not, but he is. Our children aren’t being educated in subjects that will make them useful to the economy, we’re exporting to the wrong countries (60 per cent to Europe, only 2.5 per cent to China), and any slide in bond rates will play havoc with our pensions. Oh, and China’s economy might be turning Japanese (he’s making a documentary on that in the autumn). Apart from that, all’s well with the world.
Oh no it’s not. Because here’s another unanswered question, this time from the event with Ian Cobain, the investigative journalist who has uncovered compelling evidence of Britain’s complicity in torture. “Why hasn’t this caused shock and anger?” asked an incredulous Ruth Wishart. He said he didn’t know, but really he does. “It’s probably that people think the security services are only trying to stop our children getting their legs blown off in the Tube.”
Again, a subject about which I know nothing. Again, fascinating. And again, a forest of hands, here asking about the historical evidence from Kenya to Afghanistan and Iraq. I’d have liked to have heard Cobain on the mistreatment of fascists in the Second World War, but was impressed by his analysis of British torture in Northern Ireland. Between 1974 and 1975, he said, there was a very real belief that aggressive interrogation techniques were helping to win the war against the IRA. Around 1978-9, the realisation kicked in that it was counter-productive. If, back then, hunger strikers such as Tommy McKearney admitted they joined the Provos because of abuse meted out to family members, Cobain implied, torture through rendition (using, incidentally, what he claimed were “no-questions-asked” airports such as Prestwick) might be equally appallingly counter-productive today.
My final unexamined question was posed from the floor in the Can We Trust the Media? event. This was the first in a strand of discussions over the weekend curated by Gavin Esler about the decline of trust across all levels of our society, from churches to banks, politicians to failing hospitals. And yes, the media has its own faults too, even though as The Scotsman editor Ian Stewart pointed out, it is far more transparent about investigating them than doctors and lawyers, whose professional bodies don’t release figures for complaints.
So why, asked philosopher and polymath Raymond Tallis, had the media in England conspicuously failed to point out the conflicts of interest of the politicians and expert advisers involved in pushing through last year’s Health and Social Care Act? He blamed “churnalism” (turning press releases into news stories) and a BBC cowed into silence. Or was it the sheer complexities of explaining the plethora of amendments? From his days as the BBC’s North America correspondent, Esler recalled asking then Republican leader Bob Dole why he had opposed Hillary Clinton’s 1,300-page health reform proposals. “‘Did you read it before you voted against it?’ I asked. ‘Read it? Son, I didn’t even lift it!’ ”
Elsewhere, I have a notebook full of quotes from Ian Goldin, a fascinating South African economist, former special adviser to Nelson Mandela and No 2 in the World Bank, and the man who runs Britain’s biggest centre for researching the future, who talked accessibly and eloquently and without notes about the threats to global governance. I think I understood all of his arguments and wish I could say the same for the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference event – a fascinating and culturally important year-long project begun a year ago in Charlotte Square which took place in 14 countries and which deserved better than this rather fissiparous coda.
As for the secrets of F Scott Fitzgerald’s real-life inspiration or John Taylor’s sex appeal, I can’t help you, because they’d already sold out. (As, incidentally, have all the expert-tutored reading workshop events – a new and promising strand that doubtless other book festivals will soon start copying).
One final note from Peston on that one great unanswered question that will be hovering over Scotland for at least a year to come. Asked – as all visiting experts invariably are – about his take on the referendum, he havered for a while before the famed BBC impartiality descended. “A lot of the debate so far has been about economics,” he said, “but it’s going to be about bigger issues – the sort of country you want to live in. Economics won’t make or break this debate.”
Originally published in The Scotsman