Richard Hall

Richard Hall

RichardHall

Once a teacher, now retired. Involved with Lincoln Film Society for more than 30 years and a committed cinephile: first, last, always.


From Magna Carta, through the Civil War that established that Parliament should govern the country (rather than the absolute power of an individual) to the Suffragettes’ campaign for universal suffrage, the right to vote has been hard fought and hard won.

This is why we’re urged regularly to use this cornerstone of our democracy, to ensure we ordinary citizens have a voice in how we’re governed, through our elected representatives whom we trust to speak and make wise, informed decisions on our behalf. 

Until last week it was reasonable to assume that those representatives respected this and genuinely did their best to serve in the interests of all their constituents. None of us wants to think we, and the country, are being treated unfairly or unjustly, or being manipulated by cheats who prosper at our expense.

But the publication of the Russia Report has cast a doubt on the integrity and strength of our democracy and that will have an effect on the people of Lincolnshire and elsewhere in ways we may find hard to imagine.

I’m sure most are now aware what the report reveals: that the UK has been a top intelligence and political target for Russia for some time; that influential people, including government ministers in the current cabinet, have been befriended by, and benefitted from, the wealth of Russian oligarchs; and senior politicians, including the current and previous Prime Minister were made aware of possible Russian interference in a range of national elections from 2014 onwards, but “actively avoided looking for evidence”.

The question why these politicians chose to look the other way is not being answered. This leaves the very nasty but unavoidable suspicion — reinforced by Boris Johnson’s behaviour over delaying publication of the report, attempts to manipulate the committee, his sidelining of Parliament and threats  to the courts — that there is something to hide, something bad enough for them to do anything to avoid accountability. One might imagine they fear they will never be forgiven if we find they have been lying to us, the country is being weakened and cheats and liars are prospering at our expense.

Plenty will say at this point that they make up their own minds on how to vote. I don’t doubt their sincerity. But 49% of people polled the weekend after the report came out believe the Russians did interfere in elections, twice as many as those who did not.

And when no less a figure than Dominic Grieve, who was chair of the independent, non-partisan and objective Intelligence and Security Committee that heard the evidence and produced the report, points out that “part of the ISC’s role is to inform the public of risks to our security and democracy… we were unable to do that… this is a serious challenge to our values of democracy and rule of law.” we should listen.

We should also listen to the Institute for Government which monitors the work of Westminster. They have raised particular concerns at the way the government is concentrating legislative power, without any real reference to or scrutiny from our elected representatives. They say “there is real concern about the way in which the government is holding Parliament, the devolved administrations and other key stakeholders in contempt.”

This reliance on ‘Henry 8th powers’ during the COVID-19 crisis, to enable emergency action to be taken without reference to our elected representatives in Parliament, may be thought acceptable in the circumstances, but credible evidence is emerging to suggest that these same powers are being used inappropriately to make and change the law without scrutiny, for example introducing new criminal offences and creating ‘skeleton legislation’ which is absent any detail, allowing ministers to provide it after the event. An optimist would hope this is just temporary… but what if it isn’t?

Does this matter? Of course it does. It appears our much vaunted democracy is being undermined by dishonest behaviour. Our first past the post electoral system may provide ‘strong government’ for some, and a substantial majority of seats undoubtedly gives the winning party the chance to push through their policies without too much difficulty. But it is open to abuse. By definition it always leaves the majority of the electorate without any sort of voice at all. If they have conscientious MPs who speak up and vote on their behalf, all well and good — but if they don’t, you have what the late Lord Hailsham called an ‘elected dictatorship’.

That’s where we seem to be now. Remember, those applying to be Conservative candidates in last December’s general election had to prove their ‘loyalty’ to the Johnson cause. Conservative MPs who  spoke truth to power in the last Parliament were bullied out of their constituencies. With checks and balances like that reduced or removed to suppress dissent, you can be sure more and more people will feel unrepresented; and when they are affected, problems will ensue — as Margaret Thatcher found to her cost with the Poll Tax riots. 

It matters outside Parliament too. What is to stop those in elected office, in Lincolnshire and elsewhere, looking at the example set by the current government and emulating such behaviour? We’ve been here before, remember. It is only 16 years ago that the then leader of Lincolnshire County Council was prosecuted for misuse of public office and disgraced, using bullying and intimidation to try and change the route of a road so that he could benefit financially, behaviour which fellow councillors ignored. 

At the time, the chief executive, who had stood up to these actions, warned that the problems he had exposed were unlikely to go away. While this is emphatically not to say that we are now seeing a repeat of that behaviour locally, it is undoubtedly re-emerging in Westminster. 

The strength of the UK’s famously unwritten constitution, its ability to flex and adapt to all circumstances, has been founded on the assumption of Parliament’s ability through our elected representatives, to hold every government to account in all circumstances.

However, it seems that the Russia Report has exposed the weaknesses in this constitution and our electoral laws, and the protections that we have taken for granted for so long are gradually being removed. So far from Parliament ‘taking back control’ (to coin a phrase), it would appear that control has been seized by a small cabal that hates being criticised, surrounds itself with acolytes and refuses to be held accountable by anyone, let alone Parliament and the people we vote for. 

Unless this is resisted, Lord Acton’s famous observation that “all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” will prove to be correct and all but a few of us will be the losers. 

Once a teacher, now retired. Involved with Lincoln Film Society for more than 30 years and a committed cinephile: first, last, always.

Like other parts of the economy, cinemas are reopening. This will be welcomed by many, not least the industry which, according to some reports, has lost up to an estimated £900m in revenue during lockdown, the worst figures for a quarter of a century. The UK Cinema Association has issued a set of recommendations for a safe return, developed with the BFI, unions and Health and Safety Executive among others, which cinemas will be expected to follow. But is opening the right thing to do and what are the implications for cinemas, audiences and the Lincoln Film Society?

Significant changes are proposed. Responsibility for safety lies squarely with the cinemas and their staff. Risk assessments must be completed. To ensure maximum cleanliness and hygiene, staff will be encouraged to use PPE. There will be new procedures to avoid queuing outside and inside theatres. To allow for frequent cleaning, showings may be reduced in number, start times staggered and one-way traffic flows introduced for entering and leaving. Protective screens are recommended at concessions and pick and mix snacks are banned (popcorn only will be available). Seating will be reduced and allocated (probably via pre-booking) to create safe spaces between individuals and groups. Astonishingly, wearing masks is not obligatory for staff or customers.

Let’s unpack this a bit. From the outset, the advice was that the virus could be spread easily among groups of people via airborne droplets in the breath and touching contaminated surfaces, hence the need to keep 2m from one another and wash hands frequently with soap and water. And during April and May, many people did. However, because government messaging has been confusing, contradictory, and misleading — epitomised by a certain trip to Barnard Castle —  many have decided the pandemic is to all intents and purposes over and life can go back to ‘normal.’ 

Frankly, the government’s decision is irresponsible nonsense. Parents are refusing to send their children back to school because they don’t think it’s safe; theatres and concert halls aren’t allowed to reopen; football matches have to be played behind closed doors. Where is the logic that says cinemas are different? Things may not be as bad as they were, but watching a film with over 100 other people for 2 to 3 hours at a time, breathing one another’s air and doing so without masks before mixing with others outside looks dangerous; and, as we see with Boris Johnson’s recent assertion that some care homes bore responsibility for the death toll by ‘not following procedures’, cinema chains are recognising they will likely be blamed if people fall ill and staging their reopening gradually.

Why are government doing it? Medical experts on SAGE say the threat of a 2nd wave of the virus is serious. The World Health Organisation is also warning the ‘worst is yet to come’. Covid is obviously still circulating so surely every measure should be taken to stop it spreading. I get that the film industry is in crisis. I understand the government wants to get the economy moving. I know people are fed up with restrictions on their lives, but a bit of realism is surely needed. A cynic might just conclude the government’s political and economic calculation is that 44,500 dead, well over a thousand still in hospital, a fatality rate of 14%  and hundreds of new infections a day can’t damage them.

If the health risks don’t discourage people, operational changes might. Those who assume they can just walk in as they used to won’t like the inconvenience. Don’t be surprised either to find tickets costing more — a big problem to those on furlough or who have lost jobs — to cover the loss of revenue from installing safety precautions and reduced seating capacity and ticket sales. This all points to cinema audiences being slow to return, confirmed by an IPSOS Mori poll last week revealing that 59% people are very reluctant to do so, 

Our Lincoln Film Society members are very wary. They tend to be in the most vulnerable age groups and I am aware from comments they’ve made that – though keen to resume their film-going — they are nervous of the risks. We are taking it steady. 

As we are based at The Venue, who have to work out their own response, we cannot see ourselves starting  in September, as we usually do; we are thinking about returning in January, as most of our community cinema and film society colleagues are considering (though we won’t if the level of risk is too high); we may well abandon next season completely. 

Shouty slogans might make good soundbites, but to me — and to many others, it seems —  it’s nowhere near safe enough yet to be going to the cinema.

— Richard Hall is the chair of the Lincoln Film Society.

Once a teacher, now retired. Involved with Lincoln Film Society for more than 30 years and a committed cinephile: first, last, always.

Recently The Lincolnite has carried columns written by local politicians about the pros and cons of the decision to leave the European Union. They were full of generalities, platitudes and wishful thinking, shedding absolutely no light on what will actually happen.

I suspect most people don’t give a damn about whether we have a Hard Brexit, a Soft Brexit or even a Marmite-free Brexit. But they will want to know how they will be affected, individually.

The government has said it will not give a running commentary which may be appropriate, though that’s hardly compatible with people’s reasonable anxieties about how their lives will change, and it actually looks like they still have no idea.

What we need are some specifics. We’re already starting to hear threatening noises from industry and see the consequences of the decision on prices, But there are other areas where the impact of leaving will be felt and I’m going to try and provide some details in an area I know something about – film.

I’m not a film professional. I’m involved in the voluntary sector, in the film society movement, so my main level of interest, knowledge and experience is in film exhibition. And it’s here where we can see indications of which way the post-Brexit wind will blow and who will suffer (and by the way, I want to make it clear that these are personal views and not representative of any organisation I am involved with.)

Going to the cinema is a social activity we can all identify with. For anyone who doesn’t know about them – that’s most people – film societies and community cinemas (there are more than 1,000 all over the country) play a really important social role. In rural places like Lincolnshire, they can be a godsend.

Here, a trip to the cinema for anyone outside the city can be ruinously expensive; where they exist, community cinemas are very popular, providing a social setting for people who value the opportunity to meet friends and enjoy an inexpensive evening out. Last season Lincoln Film Society, which has nearly 400 members many of whom are quite elderly, averaged audiences of 150 per showing over a 26-film season.

We (and other societies) work in different ways but we all serve the same purpose, namely to provide access to the widest possible range of films. We specialise in screening films not on the mainstream circuit and provide the only opportunities anywhere local for our members – who are passionate about these films – the chance to see them.

Around 70% of our films come from around the world, but particularly Europe and once we leave the EU, this flow will slow to a trickle, if not dry up altogether; and here’s why. Once we’re out, funding from Creative Europe (the Union’s programme for the audiovisual industry, worth over €100m to film in Britain since 2008) will stop. This cash currently enables joint ventures across the continent, providing money to get films made and guaranteeing much wider distribution.

Currently UK-made films are treated as European and are therefore shown in all 28 member countries and reaching a huge potential audience. One such – The King’s Speech – was a beneficiary of this scheme, enabling it to be released right across the EU rather than just to English-speaking world. It cost $15m to make: the gross from Germany alone – $23.6m.

Equally, European films such as A Prophet, The Great Beauty, Amour and Potiche (all very popular and successful recent titles for film societies) were placed here. In future, availability and distribution of such films in the UK will be threatened, damaging film programming options and leading to cuts (with obvious consequences) in the number of films available. Metrodome – one of the major distributors of such films – has already gone into receivership within the last few weeks.

The bigger picture looks no better. Creative Europe’s funding also supports independent cinemas like The Broadway in Nottingham and The Showroom in Sheffield. This will go, threatening their status and the choice and diversity they provide. David Sin, head of cinema at the Independent Cinema Office told me, “Independent and community cinemas have received some capital support from European funds – especially in economically deprived regions. This source of capital funding will no longer exist.”

I’d expect the wider economic impact on the industry to be dire. 2013 figures – the most recent I’ve seen – show that film, TV, video-gaming and animation combined earned a huge amount for the UK. Film exports alone to the rest of the world were worth nearly £1.4bn, double the achievements of any other service sector. Film employs 40,000 people – more than 8,000 in film tourism alone – and that’s before any contributions from TV and video games. It’s a massive success; Brexit threatens that.

It gets worse. At an industry forum I attended in the last week, we heard how the EU is currently working to develop a Single Digital market, which aims to create “ better on-line access to goods and services, helping to make the EU’s digital world a seamless and level marketplace to buy and sell”.

Everyone knows the importance of digital technology to the future prosperity of this country (especially in Lincoln, where the University is providing a steady stream of graduates with skills and expertise to help local businesses or found their own.) Yet, as Parliament itself said “The decision to leave the European Union risks undermining the United Kingdom’s dominance in this policy area. We could have led on the Digital Single Market, but instead we will be having to follow. The Government must address this situation, to stop investor confidence further draining away, with firms relocating into other countries in Europe to take advantage of the Digital Single Market.”

Moreover, if freedom of movement stops, analysts suggest industry professionals would be unable to apply their skills on the continent: and if work dries up here, the chances of graduates from the University of Lincoln School of Film and Media pursuing their dreams could be at risk. When I asked for their views, a source said the University wouldn’t comment, though I was told ‘creative people have a way of finding creative solutions to problems’.

However, graduate David Brook (from Blueprint Film, a Lincoln film-making business) revealed he’s worried about funding implications. It’s also worth pointing out that a Swiss delegate told last week’s forum that Switzerland (which is outside the EU) spent a long time negotiating access to Creative Europe, until the Swiss held a referendum on the issue of immigration and freedom of movement which rejected the principle, whereupon they were thrown out.

There may be some benefits. Making films here (we have talent second to none) could be cheaper if the £ keeps falling in value. This will help producers (especially US ones who spent £7.7bn here between 2006-15). Film Tax Relief (which generates £12 for every £1 granted and produces a healthy return for the Treasury) could be rewritten more specifically in favour of the UK film industry.

But I’d argue strongly that if true cinema goers are forced to rely on Hollywood – with its repetitive themes and unoriginal storylines – for their evenings out, then choice, diversity and opportunity will all be harmed. And no amount of ‘taking back control’ will compensate. With other priorities already demanding support, & Government attitudes towards the arts lukewarm at best, the return of ‘our money’ won’t plug the gaps.

I know this is but one example – and I’m the first to acknowledge, a minor one too – and most people will shrug and say ‘so what.’ But that’s to demonstrate ignorance and indifference. This is no ‘bump in the road’: when the funding dries up, the knock-on effects – the rising cost of cinema tickets, the closure of some independents and film societies, the loss of social opportunities – will be felt right round the country, in many cases, by people who have the most to lose.

In the audio-visual and creative technology industries therefore, the Brexit barbarians are at the gates. If nothing changes, soon they’ll be kicking them down.

Once a teacher, now retired. Involved with Lincoln Film Society for more than 30 years and a committed cinephile: first, last, always.