Archive | May, 2015

FIFA Corruption: The logical outcome of professional sport

31 May

Everybody seems to be surprised AGAIN that FIFA is mired in a corruption scandal. The claims are that brown envelope payments and other bribes were made to FIFA officials so that they would support bids to host World Cups. What is surprising to me is that anyone is surprised. This is simply the logic of professionalised sport.

What most commentators seem to have forgotten is that FIFA actually OWNS international football. It is the central business, and national franchisees have signed up to FIFA’s business model in the same way that your local McDonalds is most likely run on a franchise basis by a local business person who has bought into the McDonalds business. And ‘bought into’ is the operative phrase here. National football authorities have given fealty to FIFA and are content to sit back and take the money from TV rights and sponsorship from major companies.

Certainly businesses can (and should) be well regulated. They can be socially responsible too. But if a business is in a monopoly position, there are few incentives for it to care about scrutiny and probity. There is not a rival international football federation out there and the costs of setting one up (for example, of European teams breaking away and setting up their own international federation) would be prohibitive. Whatever the very many deficiencies of FIFA it has near universal membership – something that a new rival organisation would struggle to achieve.

All of this goes back to the logic of professional sport (that is, sport played for monetary purposes). The fundamental issue is not that FIFA is corrupt (or not), it is that it is designed to raise large amounts of revenue. Some of these revenues are raised legitimately, for example, through commercial sponsorship. But a lot of revenue seems to go to individual FIFA delegates. They are merely maximising their personal gain from a system that is about maximising gain. Since FIFA owns international football outright it is able to do what it wants and regulate itself as it wishes. The notion of sport somehow being a privileged zone that can be untainted by commerce and greed is absurd once that sport is monetised and professionalised. The problem began when FIFA got into the business of selling television and sponsorship rights for enormous profits. The delegates who filled their own bank accounts were merely following the lead of the Swiss-based organisation.

This is not to justify corrupt practices. It is merely to point out the logic of professionalised sports that are privately owned. Regulation can help (not all international sports seem as corrupt as football) but the issue of who actually owns the sport seems to be the crucial one.

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Who evaluates the student evaluation system?

20 May

It is the end of semester and with it comes student evaluations of the courses they have undertaken. These are a chance for module convenors to hear what we did right and wrong so that we can change modules for next time around. It is a chance for students to give their feedback on the whole module, to vent frustration or even to say thanks.

But there is a major problem: participation levels. In the last evaluations for my MA module there was less than fifty per cent participation – and this is good compared with other modules apparently! Many students are simply too busy or disinterested to fill in the online form. So we are left with feedback from a minority of the class and no way of knowing if the feedback we get is representative or not. Quite simply, the evaluation system in my own institution is not fit for purpose because of the appallingly low participation rate.

Why are student evaluation participation rates so low? The answer, in my experience, comes from the shift towards computer-mediated formats. ‘In the old days’ – a mere five years ago – I had near 100 per cent student evaluation participation rates. This was a paper method that was incredibly low-tech but it worked. On the last class of the semester, I would come into a seminar class (usually groups of 10-12 students) armed with the evaluation sheets. I would explain the purpose, distribute the sheets and leave the room for 10 minutes or so. One student would be tasked with collecting the sheets, placing them in an envelope and delivering them to the secretary. I did not touch the sheets or see them being filled in.

The method takes advantage of a captive audience but does not seem coercive. Students were free not to fill in the sheet or to cover it with doodles and drawings of daisies – but few took this option. Since attendance at seminars was usually very high, and because students usually wanted to be at the last seminar of the semester in the case they could glean exam tips, the participation rate was usually 95 per cent and above.

The current system in my own institution uses BlackBoard – the online teaching platform. It is marketed as a one-stop-shop for student interaction with module material. But there is no incentive or disincentive for students to engage with the evaluation process. Email reminders are just one of a large number of automatically generated emails that students receive. Many of these emails invite deletion before they are read.

The institutional rationale for persevering with a system that clearly does not work (in the sense that student participation is woefully low) is that BlackBoard allows the central management of evaluation data. This might be useful for the institution in terms of its audit trail but if it is not actually fulfilling its purpose in terms of informing teaching then it is worth asking serious questions about institutional priorities: technocratic box ticking or teaching quality.

So what is to be done? I will revert back to my tried and trusted paper method and ignore the electronic method. BlackBoard will continue emailing the students. Over fifty per cent of them will ignore it. The institutional box tickers will remain happy with mediocrity. BlackBoard will continue to be paid for a service that does not work.

Three new publications

17 May
Routledge Companion on Humanitarian Action

IMG_8237 Routledge Companion on Humanitarian Action

IMG_8236

Seymour Hersh, Osama bin Laden, and a tsunami of disinformation

13 May

Seymour Hersh’s London Review of Books article on the assassination of Osama bin Laden has been making waves. It makes a series of startling revelations that contradict the official narrative: that bin Laden had been sheltered by Pakistan for year; that the Pakistanis were aware that the raid was happening; that bin Laden offered no resistance; that he was pinpointed as a result of an informant from within ISI who wanted a part of the $25m reward. All of it is explosive stuff, and some of it is more believable than the official version.

What is really interesting is the speed and ferocity of the denials from other media sources: Hersh is depicted as a journalist whose best days are behind him and now works only on conspiracy theories; his sources are scant; many other publications rejected this story before LRB took it. One cannot help but wonder if the CIA and other interested wings of the US National Security State are involved in some of this rebuttal. After all, disinformation is their thing. The internet and news publications are now full of articles debunking Hersh, his version of events, and – crucially – putting out multiple other theories.

We have seen this pattern before. A controversial incident involving a state takes place. Version and counter-version appear in the media. And then the waters are muddied so many versions and theories that it is impossible to differentiate ‘truth’ from fiction. A classic case is the shooting of 12 year old Palestinian boy Muhammad al-Durrah by the Israeli Defence Forces in September 2000. The television footage and still images are famous. The little boy was cowering in a street with his father when he was shot. The IDF at first admitted responsibility for shooting the child but then retracted it. The media, and especially the internet, was flooded with version and counter-version. The Wikipedia page on the incident is instructive (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_al-Durrah_incident). It is voluminous, containing theory after theory, side detail after side detail. There is so much information that it is difficult to get back to the stripped back version of a little boy shot by the IDF. Again, it is more than likely that Israel – a state that aggressively defends its reputation – and its more ardent supporters have been engaged in a deliberate muddying of the waters and the manufacture of claim after claim.

I suspect that this is what is happening in the Hersh case. We are seeing the manufacture of so much ‘product’ that the market is flooded. As readers, we have too much choice (too many theories and claims swirling around) that it is difficult to strip it back to bare essentials and work out what is the most plausible version. Is the national security apparatus of the United States paying retained ‘journalists’, bloggers, conspiracy theorists to flood the market, to play the man and not the ball, to muddy the waters? Given the size of the national security budget (the combined US intelligence budget exceeds $50bn per year as against a worldwide humanitarian aid budget of $18bn) it would be very small money for big impact.

What are people’s predictions for the UK general election?

5 May

I think the Tories have had a very good campaign: they have bossed the agenda and left Labour looking like Tories-lite rather than a viable alternative. The fear of the SNP in government, the need for austerity and ‘finishing the job’ of deficit reduction, the need for stability – all of these themes came from Conservative Party Headquarters. Labour, stupidly, swallowed the bait and debated issues on which they were always going to look weak.

The UKIP ‘menace’ has not come to pass. They are unlikely to win many seats, but they will have a significant impact on the result in a number of seats. A few years ago they were seen as a party that would take votes from the Tories. Now they are seen as likely to damage Labour as well. With the Tories committed to holding an EU exit referendum in the next Parliament, I suspect that UKIP are more likely to harm Labour candidates than Conservative ones.

In Scotland the story has been about the Labour-SNP battle, with the latter threatening to take most of Labour’s seats. In a way, this doesn’t really matter. Both parties are anti-Tory, so this is merely an anti-Tory segment of the population trading votes. It does not make a net difference to the number of anti-Tory MPs.

The Liberal Democrats have been irrelevant in the election campaign and are set to pay a heavy price for their time in coalition. But they will retain a respectable number of seats – enough to be useful in a coalition.

So where does that leave us? I think the ‘project fear’ of the Tory campaign (warning people of the perils of the SNP in government, of the sky falling on our heads etc.) will sway many voters at the last moment. That was certainly the case during the Scottish referendum and will have encouraged Tory strategists that the politics of fear actually works.

My bet? The Tories will do better than many expect. They will not be able to form a majority, but with the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionists they will form a government. The result? The most right-wing government Britain has ever seen. But possibly the last one, as it will hasten Scottish independence.