The war on culture

As creator of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin became a hate figure for the American right. He tells Step

Aaron Sorkin's bungalow office on the Warner Brothers lot feels more like a college library than a Hollywood writer's room. It is spacious, wood-panelled, comfortable and cluttered. There's a huge wooden table surrounded by sofas, and pictures of Tennessee Williams, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Miller hang from the walls, while at the centre of the table is that least Hollywood of accoutrements - an ashtray. Sorkin settles himself in a hard-backed chair and gets ready to spark up a small cheroot.

"Mind if I smoke?" He smiles expansively. "Feel free if you want to as well . . ."

The writer of A Few Good Men and The West Wing seems surprisingly relaxed for one of the US right's favourite hate figures. Sorkin has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democrats, has written an anti-Bush ad for MoveOn, and is about to deliver a movie based on the Texas congressman Charlie Wilson's funding of CIA activities in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Republican wags dubbed The West Wing "the Left Wing" for its perceived liberal bias, and any project to which he is attached faces a stream of abuse and bile from the word go.

"This is a country that has been very polarised, especially since 9/11," he agrees. "There's the left versus the right, and religious people versus less religious people, and popular entertainment has been in the cross-hairs for quite a while. Hollywood's patriotism is always being questioned - that we're too liberal.

"There's a man named Frank Luntz; he's a professional pollster and I know him because he did a lot of consulting on The West Wing. He went on Chris Matthews's show Hardball a couple of months after 9/11 and said: 'You know, I was just on the Warner Brothers lot and I was looking around the car park. I could not find one car with an American flag sticker and I could not find one lapel with an American flag. Isn't that just typical of liberal Hollywood?' We weren't patriotic enough for this guy because we didn't have a bumper sticker on our car."

His counter-attack is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - a witty drama in the classic Sorkin mould, with lots of snappy walk'n'talk dialogue, clever sub-plots and tense romance. It was the most widely anticipated launch on US television last autumn and Channel 4 has snapped it up as the centrepiece of its summer schedule. The script was good enough to tempt Matthew Perry back to television after the multimillionaire Friends star had resolved to do film work only. His character, Matt Albie, has to save the eponymous failing sketch show (loosely based on Saturday Night Live) and deal with his ex-girlfriend, a Christian who also happens to be Studio 60's main comedian. There are a few West Wing faces - Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman in The West Wing, pops up as Matt's producer/director buddy Danny Tripp - but it seems a curious leap from White House to TV sketch show.

"One of the reasons I wanted to set the show behind the scenes at a late-night sketch-comedy show was that it seemed like a good place for conflict in terms of the culture wars," Sorkin argues. "TV is important because we all watch it. It has the ability to do damage and it has the ability to lift us up. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] and the religious right have a comprehensive influence over broadcast television. They are the law, and they have the networks on a very tight leash."

As a result, Studio 60 deals with swearing during live news broadcasts from Afghanistan - which draws on last month's decision by PBS to show the documentary Operation Homecoming: writing the wartime experience, despite potentially hefty FCC fines for the obscenities that US soldiers who appear in the film use to describe their experiences in Iraq. It shows the pressure from Midwest network affiliates and Christian campaign groups, and even takes a swift look back to 1949 with a history lesson on the Hollywood Ten and blacklisting.

"I went to school in New York with the children of people who were blacklisted and the children of people who named names," Sorkin explains. "Any time there was an assembly or a school play when parents would come to the school, there would be fist fights out in the lobby and the kids didn't know why. So I decided to make a point about this polarisation that feels an awful lot like the early 1950s, with screenwriters being asked, 'Are you patriotic enough?'"

Indeed, Studio 60 constantly makes reference to Sorkin's life. The relationship between Matt and Danny echoes his own bond with the director Thomas Schlamme, and the Matt/Harriet Hayes romance is clearly based on his love affair with the West Wing actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth. Sorkin split with Chenoweth after she appeared on the controversial evangelical Christian show The 700 Club to promote an album. Matt gives the same reason for ending things with Harriet.

"This was quite a personal project for me," Sorkin admits. "The things I had written had been so removed from my actual life - the White House, a navy law office and a court martial - so I thought, 'I'm older now: I'm a father, I'm a recovering cocaine addict, I love the world of television. Why not be writing about some of these things?' I didn't want to write a memoir and I didn't want to make it autobiographical, but why not write just a little more personally?"

It was a risky move, and although the political wind appears to be changing direction in the United States, his heart-on-sleeve approach has not wooed the viewing public. Studio 60 kicked off with high ratings and critical plaudits, but the numbers fell rapidly, and it seems unlikely - even though NBC has yet to make an official decision - to win a second series.

"NBC has been as supportive as you could hope from a network," Sorkin says cautiously. "As far as ratings go, I have to pay attention to them, because it's life or death for the show, but I don't say: 'Well, gee, we're not doing well with women 18-34 so let me try to write something that will get women 18-34.'

"I don't write as if I'm fishing with bait. I just write what I think is good and I hope that word of mouth does the rest." He smiles. "If you want to ask how I measure my success, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the first time I saw a movie and wanted to write the screenplay. That was just fantastic. So basically, I just keep trying to write Butch and Sundance."

"Studio 60" starts on Channel 4 in June

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.