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Howard Anglin: Spring returns, a king is crowned, and Oxford endures

Commentary

The saintly editors here at The Hub have agreed to my request to produce one of my two monthly articles for the site as a monthly transatlantic diary. For those readers not familiar with the format, which is more common in British journalism, the diary is a grab bag of short items, sometimes on a common theme, but often not. In my case, what they have in common is that they are either too inconsequential to merit a full article or I can’t be bothered to come up with more than a knee-jerk reaction or a flip comment. This is May.

English poetry is tree-laden. From Housman’s “loveliest” cherry to Larkins “unresting castles” that “thresh / In fullgrown thickness every May,” to Shakespeare’s “yellow leaves” that cling to “boughs which shake against the cold” and Keats’s apple-heavy “moss’d cottage-trees,” it feels as though England’s poets are determined to replant the great forest that was first felled by Bronze Age farmers and kept clear by centuries of monarchs to build a navy that would rule the waves. Of all the literary trees, I reserve the softest spot for Hopkins’s Binsey Poplars, which he immortalised after they were cut down in May 1879. “All felled, felled, are all felled.” The anguish spills from his pen. Hopkins, who was a curate at my Oxford church of St Aloysius, was a singular genius of English letters. With Donne, he was the great poet of divine complexity, but here we hear him in pain at an earthly desecration. Walking the path beside the Isis from Binsey to Godstow several times this month, I hoped that Hopkins, looking down, is able to take some comfort in the new poplars lining the river, the second generation since his “aspens dear.” New trees now shade new men, as they always have, every May.

***

Maybe it’s just the arrival of the sun that has me in a good mood, but there is something reassuring about being in Oxford while the rest of the world seems to be disintegrating in real-time. This city has seen it all before. The Anarchy, multiple civil wars, Reformation and counter-Reformation, iconoclasm, riots, hangings, burnings, and (by my count) no fewer than 23 plagues and pandemics: Oxford has survived them all. When the first students arrived in the Middle Ages, the university was a small abbey in a third-tier country on the fringes of the civilised world. Much later it would churn out prime ministers, ministers, and governors of the largest empire the world has known. It’s hard to rattle Oxford. Sitting in the shade of the Exeter College Fellows’ Garden overlooking Radcliffe Square as the robed students crowd past to and from the Examination Schools, it is hard to imagine that any of this can change—I mean really change—no matter what roils the world outside.

***

One measure of Oxford’s endurance is that this month’s coronation marked the 29th monarch since the university’s founding (not counting two Lord Protectors). It was hard to gauge the level of enthusiasm, especially in a city with so many foreign students, but there was enough red, white, and blue bunting to confer a festive mood. In an ecumenical gesture, St Aloysius hosted a viewing party after the 10 am Saturday mass, to which I contributed a bottle of Chapel Down “Coronation Edition” sparkling wine. There were many highlights: Bryn Terfel’s Welsh Kyrie; the Byzantine Chant Ensemble’s Psalm 72; and of course, Zadok the Priest, reclaimed from the wastes of Champions League broadcasts and gloriously restored to its proper context. But the day’s real winner was Charles, who seemed mostly relieved but slightly overwhelmed by the occasion. I wonder if he could have imagined in the dark days of Diana, that he would someday be crowned next to his queen, Camilla. Theirs is a great love story for our time—an anti-fairy tale romance, as all the great love stories are, a story of pain, shame, persistence, and, in defiant rebuke to the silly fairy tales, a happily-ever-after ending. 

***

The month’s lowlight was an athletic contest. I’ve never been to a cock fight, but I imagine it is something like the convulsive mob thronged in Corpus Christi’s Main Quad around the lettuce-lined ring of the annual Tortoise Race, but with fewer Pimm’s. I split my bets on Foxe, Corpus Christi’s resident tortoise (no doubt familiar with the terrain), and last year’s winner, New College’s Tortilla. As the grass rang with the stampede of testudinal feet, we crowded close, rent money clutched tight. Never has such clamant frenzy been showered on such impervious ears. Foxe was immobile, which was positively frisky in comparison to Tortilla, who performed a convincing impression of a taxidermist’s trophy. Grudging congratulations to St. Peter’s College’s Aristurtle, and venomous imprecations to the World Wildlife Fund, beneficiary of my unwilling donation. 

***

In happier sporting news, cricket has finally returned to the University Parks. If there is a better way to spend the first properly hot weekend of the year than half-following the drowsy rhythms of cricket (or, perhaps, its American cousin baseball) then I’ve not discovered it. It’s not a coincidence that both cricket and baseball bring out the conservative instinct—an feeling of deep connection with past and place—in even the most militant radical. Cricket as played today may only be a few hundred years old, but if you told me new archaeological evidence shows that Caesar’s landing at Pegwell Bay had interrupted white-flannelled Britons at play, I’d believe it. Even an old Lefty like Harold Pinter couldn’t escape the nostalgic tug when he penned a short bit of doggerel that must count among the greatest conservative poems:

“I saw Len Hutton in his prime. 

Another time, another time.”

There are still batsmen capable of innings of grace and genius, lissome technicians like England’s Joe Root—another Yorkshireman who has also captained England—but as modern test cricket has become a game of quick and aggressive scoring (much as baseball has become a game of home runs and strikeouts), Pinter’s refrain echoes ever fainter and more poignant across the late spring grass.

Peter Menzies: Blocking news on Facebook is a rational response to irrational legislation

Commentary

Policies founded on fantasies collapse quickly.

That’s the most obvious takeaway from the news that U.S.-based Meta is beginning to block linkage to new organizations’ content on Facebook and Instagram in Canada.

The reason is a poorly conceived and then amateurishly-crafted piece of legislation known as the Online News Act. Based on a law passed, but never used, in Australia, C-18 is designed to force Big Tech companies such as Google and Meta-owned Facebook to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars annually to “compensate” news organizations through deals made under the oversight of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

It is, to all intents and purposes, a government-run extortion scheme based on the sort of economic and policy rationale used by street thugs and tin-pot kleptocrats to justify their muggings.

On Thursday, Meta announced that it will begin testing its long forecast plan to disallow linkage to news if C-18 passes as is. It says between one and 5 percent of Facebook users will be affected and the news organizations targeted will be selected at random.

Prominent news organizations campaigned relentlessly for Bill C-18, accusing the social media and search engine giants of “stealing” their content and profiting from it. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez damned them for refusing to fairly pay journalists for their news and of late has been, in a series of critiques ripe with rhetorical flourish, denouncing Meta for what he calls irresponsible intimidation tactics that are out of touch with Canadians.

The prime minister did the same earlier this year when Google also experimented with de-indexing news websites so that they would not appear in search results.

Given that his government has been in court defending its right to share news organizations’ subscription passwords with its employees rather than buy a bulk subscription, it was a remarkable thing to say but that’s a story for another day.

The truth of the matter is this:

  • Big Tech companies haven’t “stolen” anything. Yes, they own 80 percent of the digital advertising market but they won it the old-fashioned way: they earned it. They built better mousetraps while newspapers floundered under a tsunami of new technology. The Internet may very well have killed print newspapers, but it did so in the same way the automobile killed the horse-drawn carriage industry, Amazon dominated The Bay, Netflix put Blockbuster to the sword and email made Canada Post irrelevant.
  • Facebook estimates the annual value it offers to news organizations by allowing them to post their material for free is $230 million. The Department of Heritage, the author of Bill C-18, estimates the amount the bill can generate for the entire news industry from the tech companies each year is $215 million. It is the news organizations that are already getting the better of the deal.
  • While the government and Bill C-18 backers insist Meta is bluffing because, after a similar stance blocking news posts in Australia, it “backed down,” this isn’t true. It was the Australian government that, faced with Facebook’s boycott, amended its legislation, after which the parties signed deals that didn’t necessitate government involvement. (Meta has already indicated it is unhappy with those deals and is unlikely to renew).
  • Bill C-18 is so invasive even the publishers that relentlessly lobbied for it through organizations such as News Media Canada were this week asking the Senate committee reviewing the bill to amend it by dialing back the extent to which it allows the CRTC to snoop into their business affairs and, in particular, their newsrooms.
  • Almost all major news organizations already have commercial deals involving licensing and repurposing of content and, one assumes, data with major tech companies. The one area in which their appeals to government have merit is an imbalance in the two parties’ negotiation positions due to the Tech Giants’ dominant market positions.

There are many, many matters for which Meta, Google and others can and should be fairly criticized and regulated. But when it comes to the Online News Act, their response is the only rational act left to them when faced with irrational legislation.

Meta warned Rodriguez more than a year ago that while they were willing to make deals that supported journalism, the construct of Bill C-18 left them exposed to unlimited financial liability and set a precedent that, if replicated globally, would have unsustainable consequences. The price was way too high to pay for a content category — news — that made up 3% of their traffic.

Instead of listening, this government did what it always does: it sought to gain political advantage by demonizing the web giants and anyone else who dared question the wisdom of their legislative buffoonery.

And the consequences will be dire unless adult supervision is restored to the management of this file.

Globe and Mail publisher Philip Crawley told the Senate this week it would cost his company, which has adapted better than most, millions. Other legacy media spokesmen said the same.

Jen Gerson of The Line told senators that newer, smaller and independent media (which includes The Hub) are “disproportionately dependent on social media to build a brand and develop an audience.”

Jeff Elgie of Village Media, which has built a successful network of web-based local news platforms and national partnerships said Google and Facebook provide over half of his company’s web traffic, and “if that traffic was lost, the business would be over.”

The Online News Act is based on, at best, an economic fantasy. At worst, its foundational argument is a big, fat lie. The consequences (none of them good) are about to be felt by every news organization in the country.